something I wrote

I was recently looking through the writings on my computer and found a piece of a memoir that I wrote for a class my last semester in school. I really liked some pieces of it, so I decided to brush it up. For now it’s going here, but I would really appreciate comments, editing, etc, because I think I am going to try and submit it to Sun Magazine. Why not, right?? I know it’s long… but I hope you like it.

It’s rush hour and I’m riding the loop of the Beijing subway during my spring break in 2002, two months before I will graduate from the University of Wisconsin, nine months since I left this pulsating organism of a city last. The recorded announcement tells me first in Chinese, then in English, what the next stop is. I remember the first time I rode the subway recognizing just a few words of the woman’s destination description. Now, with 14 months as a resident alien and two years of language classes in Madison trailing me, I have it nearly memorized. It doesn’t even sound like a foreign language anymore.

Heading south, between Chaoyangmen and Jianguomen, the subway car is especially crowded. Loads of people have piled on at the last few stops, heading to the interchange station at the next stop. I am the only non-Asian, and almost certainly the only non-Chinese in this car, probably on the whole train. I do my best, as always, to appear as comfortable and nonchalant as every other person in the car. Occasionally I catch the eye of a curious person interested in checking out a real, live foreigner. A map on the space above the door shows the route of the subway. I reread the names of the stops in Chinese characters and their romanized pronunciation for probably the hundredth time.

Based on tanned, leathery skin and a faded blue worker suit, I observe that a nearby man is probably from a rural area, one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Beijing looking for gainful employment. He sees me and manages to maneuver into a space about three feet away, directly in front of me. He proceeds to stare, unabashedly, mouth gaping, at me, the white girl. I try desperately not to laugh, then realizing that he might have a mental disability. I gaze casually at the advertisements and then look out the window as the walls of the underside of this sprawling Asian metropolis pass by. At Jianguomen, most of us get off the car. I lose my fascinated staring man in the crowd.

On this my third trip here, I affectionately call Beijing—with all its crowds and dust and air pollution—my third home. I really feel like I’ve come home. It’s inexplicable how a place so strange and dirty and at times unfriendly to foreigners could be my self-proclaimed third home. I’m a neat freak from the scarcely diverse Milwaukee suburbs and had never been out of the country before my first trip to China in 1999. Although I study journalism and worked for a year as the opinion editor at a campus newspaper, I wouldn’t have qualified in anyone’s book as “worldly.” Like most of my peers, I apathetically studied Spanish in high school, never really taking the time to learn to speak it well. Traveling always sounded like fun to me, but I didn’t have the money or desire to really pursue it. I remember studying Asian history and culture in 7th grade—and hating it passionately.

I’ve changed trains. I now head east, away from the center of the city. I always stand on the train, rarely taking a seat. Being surrounded by the people, conversations and culture of Beijing invigorates me. I can’t be sitting down for these moments, however mundane for everyone surrounding me. The train speeds up, rocks a bit, and the subway woman’s voice breaks through my focus on remaining upright. Yonganli, dao le. Eternal Peace Road stop—The site of Beijing’s foreign embassies, and a popular shopping district catering to foreigners.

In July 1999, during my first trip to Beijing and my first bargaining experience at the famed “Silk Alley” market, a shirt that read: “Never Forget May 8, 1999,” caught my attention. I thoughtlessly stared at the shirt, deciding this was the perfect time to try out my four-week-old Chinese. With false confidence, I tried to ask the vendor, a young man, what it meant. I was surprised that my harmless inquiry sparked agitation and the question “Ni shi na guo ren?”—What country are you from? Still clueless, I answered back, “Meiguo”—America, “beautiful land,” literally translated. My pride at understanding one sentence turned to complete confusion as he spouted off, now angrily, in rapid-fire Chinese. Realizing my inability to actually communicate, he switched to the universal language—hand signals. He made bomb gestures and noises and pointed back to the shirt. I remembered two months before in early May, when my mom had told me she didn’t want me to go to China this summer, because of the U.S.’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the protests at the embassy in Beijing. I suddenly wanted to disappear, apologize, proclaim my stupidity and ignorance. Unfortunately my baby Chinese now completely failed me. I mumbled “Excuse me, sorry” in both languages and left quickly. I had lost face, embarrassed myself, committed a large cultural error and angered a common person by my insensitivity. I had become the dense, ignorant American foreigner I never wanted to be.

Three years later, I meander the path of Silk Alley, observing and remembering. I quickly remember my distaste for the ignorant tourists – waving cash around, speaking far too loudly, and treating the shopkeepers like servants. From the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2001, when I studied in Beijing, this was generally a place I felt welcome to experiment with my budding Chinese skills. A foreigner who speaks Chinese here can get goods priced almost at what a Chinese would pay, brand-name parkas for $20, Gap sweaters for $5, Abercrombie khakis for $8. After my embarrassing incident in 1999, I never wanted to be that ignorant tourist again. I wanted to fit in as much as possible in my white skin, although my light hair and large nose would always give me away. I buy almost nothing on this trip. I’ve bought all the souvenirs I can manage in China. There’s nothing else I want, other than more time here, to exist, to understand why this place has me so bewitched.

Back on the train, this time headed back west, to the center of the city, in order to complete a full-circle around Beijing in my 10-day trip here. Tiananmen, dao le. I’ve arrived at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Square to the rest of the world. It had been 12 years since the democracy protests, when hope, pain, crackdown and death had filled one of the world’s largest public squares. On any given day, police vans wait near the perimeter of the world’s largest urban square, waiting for the Falun Gong demonstrators to take their places, first in Tai chi-like positions, meditating and practicing special breathing, then, in the paddy wagon, arrested for their faith, taken away to who knows where.

Strolling Tiananmen Square the memories and experiences submerge my psyche like flood waters. My first time here, as a student-tourist, taking far too many pictures of my friends and I, Mao portrait in the background, the smoggy Beijing sky so pale a blue it was almost gray. As a student, biking past Tiananmen become a regular occurrence, but despite the frequency of passing, I never stopped feeling an emotional tug, imagining what had happened on these streets, years ago. One late night in 2001, as the end of the school year neared, my fellow ex-pat friends and I decided to bike to Tiananmen. It had to be at least midnight, extremely late in Beijing time. The streets were eerily empty, all the taxis and Volkswagen Santanas hidden away for the night. It was probably the least-populated version of Beijing any of us had experienced. We abandoned the bike lane for the middle of the road, some of the girls sidesaddle on the rack over the back wheel behind one of the guys, just like millions of Chinese girls rode every day. My roommate and close friend was mourning her father, whose death had brought her suddenly back to the States a few weeks before. She had returned to Beijing for a few days to pack her things and say goodbye to life in Beijing. Arriving at Tiananmen, we realized the square was literally closed for the evening. The 2760-meter perimeter was literally roped off and guarded by security. But we had gone to Tiananmen that night for the journey, to feel the breeze as we rode through the calm streets, enjoying one another’s company, not to see the landmarks for the umpteenth time.

Jishuitan, dao le. The stop for the university where I had studied, socialized, lived and experienced China. The campus hasn’t changed much since I left, except for the construction. Some buildings have been finished and opened, other ones are being torn down and rebuilt. Cheap laborers from the countryside climb all over the scaffolding, working behind the translucent green mesh put up to hide the progress. This mossy green fabric is ubiquitous in a Beijing that barely stays the same for five minutes. Construction goes on day and night in China. The sounds of hammers and cranes pierce the eerie quiet after the students’ strict 11:00 p.m. curfew. Floodlights, used to illuminate the emerging structure for the workers, shine into my hotel window several hundred yards away.

On foot now, I take the long walk from the subway stop to the alley that leads from campus to my old apartment. I come to an open lot just behind my building and am thankful to find things much the same. The couple that use this spot to sell fruits and vegetables out of a pick-up truck greet me, somewhat surprised by my return. Next to the truck, a dozen or so retired men have gathered, as usual, to play cards and talk. The vendor and his wife explain who I am, saying I studied at the university the year before, and then some of the card players recognize me too. I am touched. I head to buy my favorite iced tea from another neighborhood vendor who I had been friendly with. The woman greets me, excited, and offers me the usual without asking if it’s what I want. I smile, feeling very much at home.


12 Responses to something I wrote

  1. Laura says:

    Please tell me if anyway finds any errors of any sort. When you write something and then read it more than 10 times, it starts to all blend together and get harder and harder to edit out the little errors.

  2. Jack says:

    Laura: I think this is a very well written reminiscence. I noticed a couple of things that maybe you could change. In the seventh paragraph you used the words remember and remembering or something like that in 2 consecutive sentences. It didn’t sound quite right to me. Likewise in the 3rd last paragraph you used literally twice in close proximity, and that didn’t sound right. Those are minor nitpicks, but again, I thought it was very well written and you should submit it.

  3. Laura says:

    thanks dad, that’s exactly the sort of nitpicking I am looking for, after I get some comments I will do some final editiing and send it out. Thanks!

  4. Adam Bruss says:

    It’s well written, enojyable and intriguing, but I think you should have better transitions between the paragraphs. This would make it more cohesive and easier to follow. I thought you were in China for 6 weeks of a summer and then for a year, but you said you were there in 2002. I believe we visited you in 2000 so did you go back again after that? If you’re going to submit this then I think you need a significant background part so people are more familiar with your history. It should precede the memoirs with dates of when you were in China, why you were there and some personal information about you.

  5. Jack says:

    Yeah, I think Adam brings up a good point. When I read it the first time, I had to go back to the beginning to figure out the chronology, because when I got to the end, I wasn’t sure if you were writing about your first trip there or if you had returned for a visit. A little more clarity on that early on would probably be beneficial.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I read this when you first wrote it all those years ago and reading it again makes me remember those days. I loved it then and I love it now.

  7. Laura says:

    Yeah, I know the timing is a little confusing, I will have to work more on that. However, I wonder if someone who didn’t know me and didn’t know my background there would have the same questions… perhaps yes.. I would appreciate comments from my less close readers on if this is confusing in the same way my dad and brother expressed. I do want to avoid a whole introduction that explains who I am and why I was there… I think that’s going to break up the feeling of this being one person’s experiences and interaction with the city. I do realize that the fact that I am constantly jumping back to different times is confusing… please keep the comments coming people. Thanks!

  8. adam bruss says:

    Another issue I have is how unrelated the paragraphs are. They are only related by the theme of China which is too broad. There should be one or two central themes because otherwise it sounds like you’re rambling which I think you are by choice.

    Moreover I read this a few days ago and I hardly remember anything because it was like 11 different mini stories all with different themes. Since I read them all at once they are one big blur in my memory. I would pick one or two at a time for each piece and expand on them. This way if the submittee likes it you can have more ready and the pieces will be more memorable and in depth.

  9. Mary says:

    laura, i do like it. and i hear what adam is saying about the maybe unrelated paragraphs, but i like what you do with the names of the stops along the train. if you could italicize those as they’re being called that might serve as a guide along the way … dunno. just a suggestion …

    in your 5th paragraph, i think you could cut the second sentence. and explain what your 2nd home is since you only mention milwaukee as first.

    and one other nit-picky thing which i’m not even sure about, but in your 3rd to last paragraph, you write “My first time here, as a student-tourist, taking far too many pictures of my friends and I” and i’m wondering if it shouldn’t be “my friends and me” because you would take pictures of me, but not pictures of i. is that right or wrong? is there a rule?

    but my favorite part of this whole thing is your july 1999 story about the may ’99 bombings. i thought that was so vivid and your humility really makes me connect with you.

    definitely submit it, laura. and i hope you get to go to china again soon.

  10. Jack says:

    I just read this again Laura, and enjoyed it much a second time. I agree with Marys comments about the sentence about too many pictures of friends and I – in fact, I don’t think it’s really a complete sentence the way it’s written now.

    I don’t agree with Adams second post regarding themes and possibly breaking it up into several articles. I think what you wrote flows nicely the way it is – not that you couldn’t expand on it if you wanted to.

    Good luck!

  11. Laura says:

    First of all – Adam, I appreciate the critique, but I think you are looking at this too analytically. It’s not so much supposed to be a story as a series of snapshots, you’re not necessarily meant to remember specific details, but to enjoy the moment as you read it. Try not to think so analytically as you read.

    Dad and Mary – thanks for the comments – these are exactly the things I am not seeing anymore the more times I read it. I waiting for a few more comments from some of my blog friends like Jon, Jennie and perhaps Matt or Sara before I post again. This has been a good exercise for me, thanks everyone for the help!

  12. Edit Foldi says:

    Dear Laura,

    I’m a Hungarian woman looking for the radio FM Milwaukee 94WKTI. I typed the letters into google; this is how I got access to your writing about China. I think it is a nicely written piece of literature. I hope you decided to submit it. I know five years has passed by, still it would be good to know if you succeeded in make it public or not.

    I would be glad if you’d drop me a line,
    Bye, Edit Foldi, Hungary

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