In Chongqing, the first time, there was rain. It poured in Ciqikou where I waited on line for one bag of 麻花, those crisp braided wafer-type snacks after the girl in front of me had bought about 20, of all different flavors, her tones so different in the chongqing dialect, so flat but yet recognizable. At the end of one path there, you could look out onto a wharf and see fishermen fishing with huge nets, a field of corn beside you. It poured on the campus of the arts university (all undulating pathways and swathes of untamed greenery) and you could see frogs, smaller than the length of your pinky, hopping across the sidewalk. They are building a lightrail out there and you could see the pillars rising up, unconnected to one another. The sidewalks look new but there are cracks and depressions everywhere so that when it rains, it pools in them and creates small, deep ponds at the entrances to side streets. There was a student art exhibition going on, an end of the semester event, where you could just wander into the rooms and look at what they’d been spending all year preparing for. At the BiShan hot springs it also rained but there were pools and pools of hot water to distract you although none that were as hot as the ones in Taiwan. But they had a fish spa where small fish nibbled on the dead skin of your feet and it felt like tiny electric shocks and when a larger fish got close, you’d wave your feet around because you could feel it and what it felt like was strange. To let an animal eat at you.
It did not rain on the day I rode a bicycle up steep mountain paths, the first one a mistake that led to red mud-splattered tires but also fishermen and an art building’s construction site. The second path led to a view of Mao from above, motorcycles passing me by as I rode up and up, a stone rattling in the front wheel. It did not rain the night we took a cruise boat on the Yangtze, drinking warm cans of beer and eating the 麻花then dinner at Tiki Bar up in Hongyedong, out in the open air, across from an unfinished bridge that would connect to the cave opening next door.
In CQ, we saw a man hit a woman whom we thought might be his wife, on the subway, several times, after pushing her so that the back of her head bounced off the glass. He was much bigger than her and she did not fight back. When I told this to my roommates in Hangzhou, they were not surprised, they didn’t seem to take it seriously. “That’s not uncommon.” M said. But what I wanted to convey was the magnitude of it, that it had to be uncommon to see a man hit a woman so hard that her face began to swell, that the friend that was on the subway with the man and his wife and his casual behavior (smiling, looking away) was not normal but strange. I have not, despite taking martial arts in college, ever seen someone hit someone else with that much force behind it. He was stopped, by the friend and by P. and turned away to another subway car, but it is hard to stop thinking about it. When is it appropriate to step in. What is the right sort of action to take that would diffuse such a situation. How often this happens. The woman had put her face in her hands; a girl handed her a tissue. Words were barely spoken. And she left at the same stop we did, the last stop, but she did not seem to want to go home and the man was nowhere in sight. We left her then; as observers, there was nothing we could do.
Back in Hangzhou, M complained to me about his new supervisor. A woman. He said, “I don’t like working under a woman.” “What if she were more qualified?” I asked. He thought and said, “I still don’t like it.” I hadn’t expected this; I’d thought he was more open-minded than that. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me.
At an art happening at China Academy of Arts, we watched a painter paint ink onto a stretch of gossamer-like white fabric, influenced by the sounds of the guqin, of the cars honking on the street, of the Jew’s harp. Later, I did a reading of a story about Hangzhou, about belonging, about national pride, and about White Snake and Green Snake from the classic Hangzhou folktale. We ate early season lychee and drank chai and talked about art and I thought, why doesn’t this happen more often?
In my ancestral hometown, ~45 minute cab ride from the city of Fuzhou, there’s a view of the Min River that leads to the ocean and palm trees and mountains. It is so unreal to think of the place where your family comes from to be so different from the place where you have always pictured your family. Where I grew up, only the ocean is nearby and it is still a drive away, not just across the street, and there are neither palm trees or mountains and I think, how could you leave all this? But they were explorers and travelers and people who thought about bettering their station in life. So that now, 15 years after I last saw the town, no longer is there farmland spread along the side of the road, but all 2+ storey residences. Many of them are empty, including my grandmother’s house, hemmed in by other houses, and rented out to a Sichuan family who weren’t there when I visited. The smell of the wood is unmistakeable; I don’t know what type it is but it places me directly in the past, just like it did when I smelled it in Suzhou and immediately thought of long empty quiet days in my grandmother’s house. It used to be that 4000 people lived in the village but now, only about ~500. My “uncle” says that the area isn’t as safe as it used to be because so few live there, a lot of old folks with houses elsewhere, like him in the city (and overseas when he visits his sons 6 months of the year.) This is the ghost town my family comes from and I cannot go to the graves of my grandfathers because the grass has grown too fast since grave-sweeping day and there is no path up the mountain.
But Fuzhou is a place that I cannot recognize from my summer so many years ago. It is, all at once, so much smaller (although we mostly stuck to the train station area) yet so much more interesting. I bought Tieguanyin Oolong tea while a typhoon was raging outside after we’d tried hiking a mountain in it and we haggled for clothes while getting lost on the way to the historic area of 3 lanes, 7 alleys. I bought a cow horn comb for my grandmother. We ate small Fujian-style wontons and roast duck and stir-fried noodles in the alleyway by our hotel. Everywhere I heard the dialect I grew up speaking and it was so amazingly comforting in a way that Mandarin is not, that even English is not, because this is the language I associate with home, with family chatting late into the night after I had gone to bed as a child, along with the sound of mahjong tiles being “washed” during family gatherings. I speak it less fluently than I used to because my Mandarin has superseded it but this is my native tongue, this is the language that feels most melodic to my ear. Funny how language can make familiar a place you cannot recognize.