There is a park in Beijing, east of the vanished city wall, called the Park of the Temple of the Sun, otherwise known as Ritan Park. The Temple of the Moon is at the opposite end of the city, far to the west. The Temples of Heaven and Earth lie north and south. They remain despite the burgeoning city that grows around them. The whining and the pounding of the construction that seems never to cease – a sound like the heartbeat of the changing city – are muted in these temples. The noises there are those that have existed for centuries: Chinese people talking, laughing, spitting, and arguing; Children shrieking at their games. To those raised in the west, the Chinese are not and have never been a quiet people.
From a Beijing taxi I try to see more than the vanished splendors. My granddaughter, Ruth, laughs and calls me a romantic as I point out to her the vigor, the eagerness, the Chinese-ness of today’s China. I tell her all this was better than in my day, when only a few had enough to eat and the foreigners were encroaching from every direction.
Ruth asks, “Grandma, aren’t there still a whole lot of foreigners around here? Are you sure this is so Chinese?”
I chuckle and say, “It’s not the same.”
Ruth shrugs. She looks like a typical twenty-five year old American in designer jeans wearing a T-shirt that proclaims she RACED FOR THE CURE to aid breast cancer research. “Well…” she says. “I suppose they’ve done what they have to do.”
“Not very attractive, is it?” I say.
Ruth looks pensive as she stares out the taxi window. “I wish I could see the old city walls.”
Peking’s city walls stood for over five hundred years, and then Mao came along. “Out with the old,” I say with a tinge of sarcasm. I shake my head and straighten my shoulders. “In any case, I have come full circle.”
“Not quite,” Ruth says sternly. “Not until we see Li Han.”
My cheeks feel flushed. I dart glances from one window to the other, looking out at the city that I barley recognize. We move slowly through the congested city center. I point out Beijing’s famous sites. Tiananmen Square on the one side, the Forbidden City on the other, Mao’s huge features staring down at us from the famous portrait on Tiananmen Gate. Tian An Men, the gate of heavenly peace.
“Behind those walls,” I say to Ruth. “That’s where the emperor used to live.”
“I know. I saw the movie The Last Emperor.”
“And your house?”
‘You go up that street…not that one. It’s all so changed.” The taxi moves forward again, the driver jerking the wheel suddenly and moving us into another lane.
“That street,” I say pointing. “It’s up north of there. We’ll go there soon. I want you to see everything.” It suddenly dawns on me that my courtyard house may no longer be there. New neighborhoods and tall buildings are popping up throughout the capital at lightening speed. The lines of the perfectly centered geometric grid, that was determined dynasties ago, are barley visible.
The taxi driver glances at us from his rearview mirror. He’s middle-aged with white whiskers on his chin and missing teeth. When our eyes meet he gives me an open mouthed smile. “You American?” he asks.
I answer him in Mandarin.
“You speak Chinese?” He seems genuinely impressed. He then leans on the horn and makes a gesture at the car in front of us. He turns his attention back to me.
“I lived here as a girl. My parents were American missionaries,” I say.
The driver nods then rattles off his life story as I eye his laminated picture of Mao hanging from his rearview mirror. The driver tells me that during the Cultural Revolution he was sent into the Sichuan countryside for two years then joined the army. Now he works in a State factory during the week and drives the taxi on the weekends. He brags that the people in China work very hard. He says in halting English, “Before, people suffer. Now, they like work. They choose work. They have money.”
I think: China and the Chinese are irrepressible and indestructible; despite all the horrors of the past, they survived.
After my husband Chester died I announced to my son and his wife that I was going back to China. I explained that I hadn’t seen my birthplace since 1941. All I had from my childhood was my memories and a shard from a Ming Dynasty bowl. “And,” I said, “I have unfinished business to attend to there. I need to see Li Han, an old friend.”
After I retired to my room for the night I heard loud whispering. I listened as I sat on the edge of my bed, a bed I shared with Chester for forty-two years.
“Why does she want to go back to China where, you know… that happened?” my daughter-in-law said. “Besides, she’s too old to travel. It won’t be good for her health.”
I stared at my bookshelf where I kept my large collection of books of ancient Chinese poetry. My eyes glided over the names of the poets who have warmed my heart and made love to me in my dreams – names of men like Du Fu, Li Po, and Wang Wei. I grabbed the book resting on my bedside table The Selected Poems of Li Po, a book I am able to recite by memory. I held the book to my chest, hugging it as if it had a beating heart and could tell me things about the world and love. My poetry books make me feel connected in a world where I feel so disconnected.
“So they see each other. Then what?” my son wanted to know. His words echoed in my head and tormented me.
In the taxi I feel shaky. I pull out a hand-held mirror from my purse and gaze at my reflection trying to see something of my young self. My white, slightly curly hair frames my wrinkled face. I zero in on the age spots under my eyes and audibly sigh. Ruth smiles at me. “You look great, grandma,” she says.
I throw my mirror back into my purse. “I look old and tired.”
“You have jet-lag.”
“Perhaps I should have rested first.” But the truth is I do not want to rest. I have come too far to rest. I wish I could transform myself back to the days of Peking, before my parents were murdered, when I was young, when the Ming bowl was still intact.