October 1, 2014

Essay: American-Chinese Relations On a Personal Level

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF JANE MARLA ROBBINS

Essay: American-Chinese Relations On a Personal Level

Jane Marla Robbins, (center first row) with a “thousand” warriors in China. The Terra CottaWarriors and Horses are the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century. Work is ongoing at this site, which is around 1.5 kilometers east of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum in Lintong, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.

Beijing, China, December 10, 2013. I have an hour’s wait before my flight for Xi’an. I’m at the Beijing airport and I’m the only Caucasian I see. I’m an oddity— actually, I realize, a curiosity, because it’s also off season, I’m a woman traveling alone, and not only do I not look like anybody else, I don’t even speak Chinese.

I’m here as a sudden tourist, because a best friend who lives in Oklahoma, whom I rarely see and who practically never answers her phone, picks it up one day when I call and mentions in passing she’ll be alone in Beijing for a week. I blurt out, “I’ll join you.” And I do. We spend a perfect week, and after she goes home, I’m off for my own tour of China. First stop: Xi’an, to see the terra cotta warriors.

The airline, China West, insists I arrive at the airport two hours before my flight. I rush to get there on time, miss lunch, and now there, I look around for something to eat. The airport convenience store has shelves and shelves of unfamiliar packages: stationary-sized sheets of sugar-sweetened seaweed wrapped in plastic; candy bars with Chinese writing; sodas I don’t recognize; boxes of cookies. Nothing I’m supposed to eat. Then I see a large cardboard container—maybe quart-sized.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JANE MARLA ROBBINS

Essay: American-Chinese Relations On a Personal Level

Jane Marla Robbins hugs a tree in the middle of Beijing, China during her trip in December of 2013.

The writing on the bucket is in Chinese, but there’s also a photo of a bowl of soup with curly noodles inside. It’s at least marginally on my diet. So I buy it.

Clearly, however, it needs water. I mime my concern to a kind looking man who points me to a spigot past the restrooms, and I am actually able to pour boiling water into my new-found treasure. And the noodles begin to come to life.

I move to the area in front of my departure gate and sit down in one of the grey metal chairs with red plastic seats and red matching backs.

I tear open the two plastic packets from my container, one of oil, and another of what I assume is a spicy sauce, and pour them into the mix.

I start to eat when I notice a young woman has sat down across from me -- with the same container of soup and noodles. I suddenly imagine that she and I are racing to see who’ll finish first. It’s five years since the Beijing Olympics; but the competition seems rife.

The Opening of the 2008 Olympics was a theatrical spectacle unmatched by anything I’d ever seen in the United States. On the other hand, our Starbucks and McDonalds are everywhere in China. Maybe it’s a tie. The soup is tasty, whatever it is, oily and spicy and red, red the traditional Chinese color for courage, luck and good fortune, though I suspect that ancient Chinese custom cooked this meal with more care than what may have been given to the soup in my container.

No matter. The young woman and I are slurping and shoveling in those noodles, and though our eyes seem to meet, hers don’t light up in recognition. I’m careful to respect what I am told is age honored Chinese reserve, so I don’t push even a warm acknowledgment with my eyes, no less a smile. The race is on.

I am breathless in this Olympic competition; I finish my noodles first. ­Then I drink the soup left in the container as my opponent pushes a huge forkful of noodles into her mouth, the uneaten Rabelaisian strands quickly suctioned in.

I finish first, but am I the victor?

Surely, I’m in her debt for these ancient, curling Chinese noodles, legacy of her ancestors of thousands and thousands of years. Plus America is in China’s debt for a trillion dollars, a sum that increases by over a billion every day. Maybe it’s a tie.

On the other hand, China went into such high gear for those Olympics that her factories burned too much coal for healthy air, and yesterday Shanghai’s airplanes were grounded because the pollution was so bad that pilots couldn’t see outside their windows.

The government announced the air was “hazardous for your health,” closed schools and insisted children stay home. Not only were businesses shut down, but the city’s 7-Elevens ran out of the masks that are supposed to help people breathe.

The woman across from me finishes and throws her carton away before I throw out mine. Then she takes out a compact, puts on some lipstick. I think it’s a compact or is it a smart phone?

She’s clearly smart and even very smartly dressed, black leather boots up to the tops of her knees, black tights at her thighs, with a tiny fringe of a skirt at the top. She’s wearing a black sweater with two kinds of white stars all perfectly spread out like a midnight sky, some solid white, some simply the white outlines of stars, all different sizes.

I remember we are all of us descended from stardust.

Me, I’m wearing my father’s old wristwatch and new woolen underwear under my red turtleneck. I was told it would be freezing in Beijing and I’m wearing the purple, puffy, goose-down coat I bought specially for the trip. I’ve got on my black maryjanes, their straps too tight so my arches hurt from when I ran this morning from the Lamas Temple in Beijing to the Confucius Institute across the street, not wanting to miss anything before leaving.

I notice that the beige woolen slacks I’m wearing, which my sister gave me, are not only too big but also have a spot where a drop of the oil from my soup must have spilled.

The woman across from me, half my age, looks modern, hip.

It’s the New China, even without the Olympics. Its Red Army is the largest organization in the world. Its population is the biggest in the world. Seven years will pass before India’s is bigger. It’s not just show, it’s the New China, perhaps the way America was The New World when she was founded 300 years ago. China, of course, goes back at least five thousand. She could be winning.

The young woman has marriage and motherhood still ahead of her and all of China’s history behind her. And me? I am old enough to be her mother, maybe even her grandmother. Still, I’m a sudden tourist today in China and, like my forefathers, I am discovering a New World. The woman sits still now, like a statue or a Buddha. Or is it just me projecting my own wishes for myself—that I could sit still with Buddhist calm?

And, now, there is no winning, no Olympics, not now. Suddenly she stands and, as she starts to move past me, I smile at her. Tentatively. Finally. After all, we shared the slurping, shoveling and devouring. And she smiles back.