Sometime in May, I received an email from dad asking if I wanted to go to the Philippines or China. I thought that was a little far-fetched, but said China would be better. He was probably not serious. Then, in an email dated the 26th of May, nested in a link to one of the new blog posts, he replied this:
Get yourself a China tourist visa. I will fly you here August 9,10 (the sooner the better - as there is little overlap with our holidays) for a weeks tour of Gansu. You will need to also give me your details form your passport, please.
Some organisational headaches ensued. The time I spent in Tokyo, which was meant for the purpose of climbing Mount Fuji with Marcus and an American girl Mikaela (which we unexpectedly achieved), also included running around sorting out a visa for China. I live in Kyoto. They can’t send it by mail. Getting the passport back to me with a day to spare involved no inconsiderable effort and a pinch of Shakespearian witchcraft. I’m saying it was toil and trouble. Kapisch?
And then, that was that. It was off to spend ten days in Gānsù province, China. Ten days with my father. Who I hadn’t seen for years, and didn’t get on the best with. I’d like to tell you hilarity ensued. That like a postcard Jodi Picoult novel, father and son were bound by the rekindling of a bond that melted the polar ice caps in their hearts, and a montage of bonding scenes running down like watercolour splashed across the page. That would be a nice story to be able to tell.
DAY 1: TRAVEL
Japan’s rail system was familiar to me now. Where it wasn’t, there was Google Maps, Line chat to a friend, or asking a passer-by. In the morning, I packed and ate breakfast at a leisurely pace before I had checked how long it would take to get to the airport. Don’t do that. Ah, the follies of youth, I thought, as I ran hell for leather toward the platform and missed the express train regardless. No, I didn’t, I thought some other words, but autobiographical blogging is for whitewashing one’s own actions, and possibly gaslighting anyone who was present at the time.
I went to check on people I wouldn’t be seeing for about twelve days or more. Marcus was a good visit. He even offered at the end to take my suitcase down the stairwell. The last goodbye with Luke was as emotional as one can be without expressing outwardly any emotion whatsoever. Which is to say, not at all. Whether it’s the bird’s nest teased ‘80s hair he has when I wake him up, or something else, I never can bring myself to say what I want to say to Luke. “I’ll… be back in about eleven days or so.”
“Okay,” he replied.
“I’m going out into the country, so I might not be able to message for a while sometimes.”
We stood at the door to his apartment for a small while, silent, either side of the door frame. What we were waiting for, I wasn’t sure. Maybe some resolution that would never come. After a time we closed his door together, separated either side, and that was that.
I watched out the window as Kyōto melded through sunlit countryside into the beginnings of Ōsaka. Rice paddies threaded by steel pylons were replaced by glass towers and skyways. High-speed transit gliding across the breadth of the city, I found myself irrationally smiling. I didn’t even like this country. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, it had become home. With a warm blue-morning sun through the window pane and the promise of things to come, this was undeniably my seishun: the springtime of youth.
Kansai airport was easier the second time. No more culture shock. I was past that, had grown strong. Kia kaha or whatever. I don’t know, I didn’t study Te Reo Māori. Culture would never shock me again, I thought. Point of fact, I had lived in China before, and therefore doubly so would I never succumb to such weakness over the next few days, and most definitely not the moment I arrived in Shanghai airport. There are things in life about which we are wrong. I am never merely wrong. I am always drowningly wrong.
The arrival was painless. All else following was torture, the likes of which I should not like to repeat in three reincarnations. Or maybe reincarnation is itself the punishment. Whatever, I don’t know, I never studied Buddhism. Point being, customs, immigration – none of these had hold up or delay. The torture was not in a neat category of discrete travel problems in the physical realm bemoaned by every English family holidaying in Ibica. Those have a finite set of solutions.
Drowning in a miasma of unfamiliar speech, people, norms, a pall of cultural dissociation peeled itself off my shadow on the airport linoleum and slithered upward to settle like a constricting mantle around my neck. It twisted and tightened, arching its dripping teeth to whisper in my ear. Announcements came, and I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t understand them. Neither Gmail nor Line work in China. Even if they did, the free WiFi mocked me by requiring a Chinese phone number. Hope deferred makes the heart sick. As the disconnection settled in as reality, the inability to contact anyone in my life I cared about wetly coiled itself into another suffocating constriction. If not a distress signal, I wished only to let someone I loved know that I was okay. That will never happen, the dripping mouth told me. Here, no one can hear you.
My personal torture personified itself again, into that which never left me alone yet promised I was isolated, from Shanghai to Lanzhou. A man next to me fussed over whether I was eating the entire plane meal. Small gestures like his staved off the pall. Tactics to defer it included looking ahead to a less bleak future: dad would be meeting me at the airport. We had agreed to that weeks ago. It was set in email. He would be there to help me navigate this alien place. To be a familiar face. He wouldn’t let me down, I reasoned. But I am never wrong. I am always drowningly wrong.
Dad was not at Lánzhōu airport when I arrived. Not thirty minutes later, nor forty-five minutes.
An hour passed by.
I felt my shadow slither, breathing wetly. Its fangs dripped. He won’t be coming.
I found new and innovative ways for humans to interact with luggage. Sat on it. Squatted slightly above it when sitting crushed it. Walked clockwise around it. Walked counter-clockwise around it. Attempted to ride it like a toboggan. You remember how he didn’t come last time, don’t you? This is different. Is it? Its jagged mouth was stringed with viscous dark saliva. Two hours passed by. He has abandoned you. I had been abandoned – he was good at that, wasn’t he? A pattern from the past, repeated endlessly. If this were a broken record, it was the single worst album to be stuck listening to for eternity. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” would be preferable. Alright, maybe that’s hyperbole.
Then, as plainly as the man himself, my father apparated around the corner. “I was at the other terminal,” he said, “The board told me it was delayed, but they looked at the wrong flight.”
“I’m about to kill you with my bare hands,” I was translating my slithering shadow into anger only to keep from collapsing into a sobbing mess, overwrought and underthinking.
“Yes, well, the people told me…” dad continued in his long tradition of never taking responsibility for lack of preparation. I listened on, content to have a single someone I knew and cared about beside me.
DAY 2: LÁNZHŌU
I awoke in dad’s apartment to the delightful novelty of a parched throat. Gānsù includes the edges of the Gobi Desert. Compared to Japan, the humidity percentage may as well be zero. Dad informed me we would be visiting those edges of the Gobi Desert later in the trip.
“How long is the trip there?”
“To Dunhuang? Seven hours from Zhangye.”
“And from here to Zhāngyē?”
The old man had roped one of his student-friends, a university student named Jade who is blind in one eye, to be dragged along for the entirety of our trip. Dad has, in his eight years living in China, achieved the remarkable feat of learning only twenty or so words in Mandarin Chinese. That kind of commitment to removing oneself from the kind of language proficiency achieved even by passive osmosis for almost everyone human on the planet was truly impressive.
Jade’s commitment to the same off-brand Catholicism as dad had newly found in his anti-Damascus Road Experience™ was undeniable. The problem wasn’t her piety, it was lack of proficiency in English. I felt sorry for the girl, having to misunderstand dad constantly and bearing his usual outbursts when, for example, we missed buying tickets to Zhāngyē and had to take the train direct to Dūnhuáng. I did the maths.
“Wait, so are we on the train for fourteen straight hours?”
“Yes,” dad replied simply.
“I mean, but at least it’s a sleeper.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Those get sold out a week in advance.”
“So we’re…” I left it hanging.
“Taking a stand-up train, yes. But we have sitting tickets.”
Short clarification and theatrical aside: I had no Chinese money in China. Only Japanese yen. Lánzhōu airport was so small they didn’t have an exchange. Keep that in mind for the restriction I was feeling in being unable to buy even a bottle of water without petitioning my father for one. Between that and an inability to speak to anyone in the country, I felt often like screaming.
China may have geo-blocked near every form of communication, but I had Tor browser, which works through anything. Scratch that. It should, but the Great Firewall is so effective that 80% of the time, even that didn’t. Eventually, I got through. The internet was too slow for Gmail. I resorted to Steam chat. The only contact I had was Luke.
Due to dial-up speeds, the chat registered each key-stroke five seconds after pressing, and often in sudden clumping bursts. For the first time since being a child, I was watching my own hands for the key-strokes one by one. Heaven forbid you should make a mistake, or it’s thirty-seconds of careful backspacing to begin again. If there is a reason never to go to nuclear war, it is that inevitably we’ll all have to repeat the ‘90s in computer technology.
Pray you never have to, as I did. Beg any and all powers you know or would like to know more if you weren’t such an impious heathen. Send Trump an appeal on a 9x10 card scrawled in your own blood begging the US aggression against North Korea to stop, for the sake of preventing the worst of all possible timelines, the curse of the ancients: dial-up internet recapitulated.
On Steam Chat, again I found myself unable to express what I wanted to, submerging it unconsciously in subtext. “How’s the hand?” I asked.
“I tried hard not to sleep on it.”
“Make sure you go out when no one else is at the dorm, just to get out and not be inside all the time.” I paused. “Because it can be hard when no one else is there.” Another line break, another thought. “You haven’t been inside this whole time gaming, have you?”
“Have you gone outside at all?”
…Luke is typing…
“To buy food from the supermarket doesn’t count.” I added.
Luke has stopped typing.
“I’m going to an orphanage at some point in the seven or so days of travel, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to talk next.”
“Are you hoping to get adopted out?”
I leaned back and peered through the doorway to the parlour, where dad was currently doing radio calisthenics stretching exercises he once claimed were standard in the Canadian military and most definitely weren’t.
“I’m filling out the paperwork now.”
DAYS THREE THROUGH NINE
Truth be told, we did do fun tourist things. Gānsù province may not have Xī-ān’s terracotta army, or any portion of the Great Wall, but it has its own, more Central Asian-feeling charm. 1950s infrastructure and pre-modern toilets aside, the people acted freer than in Japan, despite all government efforts, a phenomenon I picked up on later in Zhāngyē.
We floated down the Yellow River on a traditional pig-skin raft in Lánzhōu; rode camels in the desert, and visited the Mògāo Caves with ancient Buddhist sculptures, in Dūnhuáng; and I went with Jade to the coloured mountain formations near Zhāngyē.
The authoritarian nature of China soon began to make itself apparent. Elements of the state creeped tentacles everywhere. The first train trip, fourteen straight hours overnight without a place to sleep, was made all the worse for those unexpected intrusions. An insecure official, seeking to lord what little power they had, would occasionally goose-step through the train car demanding to check full and proper documentation, including our passports. As we took the bus from Zhāngyē station to our hostel, a convoy of thirty army trucks rumbled by, soldiers slinging from the sides with rifles in hand.
“According to one of my friends who has contacts in the party, the government has started concentrating troops into three main centres in the country,” dad explained. “It’s for easier mobilisation in case of war.”
Joint South Korea-US wargames off the coast of the DPRK must have been making the politburo nervous.
But it was in Zhāngyē that I encountered the dichotomous nature of China, something I’d never noticed when I lived in Shenyang as a twelve-year-old. News agencies reported a couple of years ago that the party had failed to prevent old women dancing in public. That, it turned out, was severe understatement. In the central square of Zhāngyē, the most conservative and tightly-controlled city in Gānsù, people from every strata of the community were together, dancing, milling around, having a great time. A few skilled instructors led the choreography in one part of the square, and hundreds followed along to the infectious beats of Aqua-like bubblegum pop.
This was the distinction to be made between my old home and my new, temporarily adopted one. In Japan, the institutions are ostensibly democratic. There exists the ballot box, however little influence it has on public policy. The culture of Japan, conversely, is totalitarian. From top to bottom, rigid and destructive in its suffocation of creativity. China has an authoritarian single party controlling the polity. And yet, as Zhāngyē showed – one city among many other across the mainland – the culture has real, tangible examples of democratising forces. The communist party won’t stop people dancing in the streets, mixing old and new, professional and working class, in a celebration of their collective human spirit. Because it couldn’t if it tried. In Japan, elites don’t have to try. There is no dancing to stop.
I pulled out my phone to take photos, maybe a video, I thought. A man next to me caught my eye and, with little more than a slight gesture, made me realise my entire intention to do so was profane from the outset. This wasn’t something to be captured in digital code, alienated by the mediation of a plastic screen. It was a moment in the present, and one that would continue long after I had taken a flight back to Kansai International. The profane exists only in concert with the sacred. And that’s exactly what this was. Xí Jìnpíng didn’t inspire the China Dream. He has nothing to do with it. But it was there, in that public square in Zhāngyē, danced and celebrated and shouted out for joy by the people who won’t let their spirit die, come British occupation or Maoists or capitalist authoritarians.
On the train from Dūnhuáng to Zhāngyē I’d argued to dad that China’s authoritarian structures must crush the humanity of its people simply by existing.
“You should ask Jade if she feels oppressed,” he replied.
I was wrong. The state barely has a hold on its people. It is in free societies like New Zealand where apathy and social control are most prevalent. David Hume once pointed out the eternal paradox of government by the few. In free societies, the masses have the power, so why do they let themselves be ruled? Hume’s paradox isn’t meant to work for authoritarian societies, because they don’t care what the people think when the state controls by bludgeon. Yet it was clear that in China, the party was barely holding on in many respects. It rules now, true. But only for as long as the dancing remains in the square.
If there was something that grated on me about going to the orphanage, it was the cynical knowledge that it had nothing to do with altruism on dad’s part. We were imposing on people who barely fed the special needs children they cared for, with not even a bag of rice to gift them. In dad’s mind, I’m almost certain it was a victory for playing the part of philanthropist, being a donor to this orphanage. The reality was obvious to anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together. He felt the constant need to point out if he’d donated something, like a mini-fridge in the corner. This was little more than lavish self-advertisement for the performance of altruism. We were, by staying the night and having dinner plus breakfast, turning the phrase ‘stealing food from orphans’ into a literal manifestation. The entire experience made me deeply uncomfortable.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
– Ephesians 2:9-10, NIV
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. … So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do … when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”
– Matthew 6:1-4, Ibid.
If only the old man had a Bible to hand, to see what his faith is supposed to look like, but alas, he only has a university degree in the subject. Can’t expect too much.
Having spent two days in Běijīng, I was glad to be on the flight back. Dad had roped yet another poor student, this time a university-aged altar boy named Daniel, to help me around in Běijīng. My protestations that I didn’t need a babysitter fell on deaf ears. Again, I felt sorry for the young man who had probably been convinced by dad’s elderly supremacy that he was earning imaginary Catholic heaven points by doing good works.
In truth, I shouldn’t complain. Daniel was beyond kind. He helped me find spicy tofu jerky, a snack I’d wanted to eat since moving back to New Zealand in 2010. And that, in my apocryphal book, is worth a hundred Catholic heaven points.
Sitting on the flight, I’d become used to stereotyping everyone in the physical ballpark of broadly East Asian as Chinese over the past twelve days. I was mulling over whether it had been wrong to invent an ‘airport girl’ for the first blog post, when the girl sitting next to me asked about the manga I was reading. As we talked, I wondered why she was interested in a text she couldn’t read, being Chinese. Actually, it was unusual that I could communicate this easily – was her English unexpectedly good?
“So what’s Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun about?” She asked, gesturing at the cover.
It was then, I realised, two minutes into the conversation, that she had read the cover perfectly. And that we were speaking Japanese. Having a sudden case of centipede’s dilemma on realising I was utilising a skill, I faltered and became as bad at Japanese as usual.
“Oh it’s, um, about, ah… it’s a – what’s the word for comedy? – …entertaining thing genre.” Ouch.
“Uh huh,” she replied, losing interest in direct correlation with my language proficiency nosediving.
“Well anyway, sorry to bother you,” I said in broken Kansai dialect.
She perked up, “Do you live around here?”
“Yeah, I’m in Kyōto,” I replied.
“I live in Ōsaka! Are you a student?”
“That’s famous,” she nodded, intoning the correct line in the social script that everyone, and I’m not joking when I say everyone, replies when I say I go to Dōshisha. “Good school,” she added.
Somehow the conversation fizzled out. The real airport girl, not the fiction I’d concocted for the first blog post, was going the same way as her literary counterpart.
Then, as if by the magic of modern transport, which indeed it was, I was home. Suitcase splayed open on the floor, there remained one thing to do. I went down to the third floor and knocked on Luke’s door.
“I’m back, and it was only about twelve days or so,” I said to the small crack opened to the dark cave of Luke’s room.
“Okay,” he replied, peering through the scarcely-opened door.
“So… do you want roll-on anti-perspirant or spray?” I held up the options I’d paid an ungodly amount for in Běijīng. There was no anti-perspirant in Kyōto, as he’d complained about many times. For some unknown reason that meant I thought he'd be happy to get some.
“Spray,” he murmured.
His indifferent attitude in the circumstances caught me off guard. “Um, I have snacks too, spicy tofu jerky, and it’s my favourite Chinese snack so if you don’t want it I’ll have it,” I tried joking.
“You can keep it in your room.”
“I bought some Whittaker’s. Samoan coconut. It’s 70%, though I know you prefer milk so I… I went for the name over anything else. It seemed appropriate.”
I had run out of souvenirs to give, reasons to be at the door. “Did you go out at all? Weren’t Mickey and Connie here in Kyōto – didn’t you hang out with them before they left?”
He looked at me. Eyes bloodshot.
“Luke…” I started.
“I went to the supermarket,” he half-laughed. “That’s enough.”
We stood at the door to his apartment for a small while, silent, either side of the door frame. What we were waiting for, I wasn’t sure. For some reason, I never can bring myself to say what I want to say to Luke. “Alright,” I ended, walking away from the door.
“Hey,” he called out after me.
“…I’ll be up in your room in a few minutes.”