When I came to China, my parents promised they would come visit me. I didn't doubt them—they went to see all my siblings abroad—but China is no easy trip. Once they had bought the plane tickets though, things were pretty much cemented. No one in my immediate family has been to Asia before, so they were nervous. "Do we need shots? Diarrhea pills?" The emails I received became more intense as the departure drew closer. " What if someone gets hurt? How do we call you in the Beijing airport?" It wasn't easy for me either; I was just as anxious. More of my mother's hysteria is inside me than I care to explain, so I was a nervous wreck the week/ day/ hour before they touched down in Kunming.
Their flight was scheduled to arrive here at 12:30 a.m. on Valentine's Day morning. I spent the day preparing the spare room at my apartment for their arrival. I laid freshly washed sheets on the bed, put flowers in a wine bottle on the table. I bought Gordon's Gin for Dad and a Chilean white for Mom. Once my list of domestic tasks ran out, I didn't know what to do with myself. I took a bath to calm my nerves. What if they had a miserable flight from JFK, what if they had to land the plane in Russia? What if an engine… well you know.
When I could no longer keep my legs from shaking, I hailed a cab to the airport. I was an hour early. The exit of the domestic terminal was chaos. They wouldn't let anyone inside, so I jumped into the crowd of people carrying big "Welcome Home" signs. Shady women cut through us discreetly sparking lighters:
"Need a lighter? 3 quay." I pushed on in. I couldn't see anything over the signs. I pushed on out. I sat on the curb and ate a snickers bar. I never eat candy bars.
For what seemed an eternity I squinted through the glass to see if I could spot either of them. "Short white people, c'mon short white people!" I kept saying to myself. Eventually, I caught sight of my father and then my mother. I jumped out and pushed through the crowd like a horse stung by a bee. They didn't see me; they were headed in another direction—the bathroom. I ran past the main exit and pushed up against the glass wall, doing jumping jacks in the air. Dad saw me! He waved back and nudged my mom. I found another door to run through. I sprinted up and hugged them harder than they were ready for. They had large bags under their eyes. They said they liked my sorry excuse for a beard. They were smaller than I remembered. They were grandparents now; they had been for years actually, but my how fast things seem to change when you're not around.
Before long, we were at home in my apartment. I opened the wine and gin, cut up some cheese (precious as gold in China) and we sat on the big couches and eyed one another. A few times my father scratched his head. I would have too, but I had just bit all my fingernails off. I made my fist like a ball to visualize where they had come from. I pointed at my folded-in fingers and traced all the way over my thumb, down to a freckle on the back of my hand—the other side of the planet. Soon enough, it was like we were all back in Chicopee—Dad was complaining about how slow the internet was, showing me the new lightweight computer he bought for the trip and the 5 pound battery that he had to carry around with it. The next day, Mom was doing the dishes—I swear I didn't ask, but I wasn't going to complain, either.
We first spent a few days familiarizing ourselves with Kunming. I had just gotten back from 3 weeks in Thailand, so I too was acclimating. I felt in some sense like an awkward tour guide—half trying to justify why things are the way they are, and half explaining why I felt things were stupid and needed to change. "Can you believe they do that?" I said as a man in a shabby business suit spit a tremendous loogey on the pavement by our feet. I was more judgmental than I had ever been in my life. The modest hero in me that had ventured into unknown Asian territory half a year before had all melted away. I was no longer proud of what I had done, but I felt, for maybe the first time since I have been in China, I was ready to go home. Stumbling through conversations and experiences as clumsily as I would on an out of place cobblestone. I didn't understand anymore.
With everything being so new for my parents, it was wonderful to see them stirred by things that were by now common for me. We found a garden of clay pots. Some were stacked and others were shattered into millions of broken pieces. I kept trying to recreate things that meant something to me when I first arrived: people walking down railroad tracks, dogs in sweaters, old folks doing Tai Chi in the mornings etc. I felt a special connection with their observations, especially because they picked up on small things that affected me, things none of my peers could have known. For instance, both my mother and I were blown away by how brick red the dirt is in Yunnan. Dad and I had to stop her from filling up her pockets while we were at the botanical gardens.
Of course, the most memorable event in Kunming was my father's fascination with the rotary (traffic circle) that is down the street from my house. It's the best spot to pick up taxis in the area so we often passed by. My father has hours of video staring at the three story concrete monster that looks like a multi-tiered wedding cake but operates like an MC Escher staircase. Four roads split off into ramps and dark tunnels. There are two complete rotaries on the top tiers and then the ground floor is like a pitch-black roller skate disco. Whole families packed onto mopeds come zooming out of every direction like meteors from behind concrete pillars. Farmers pulling rickshaws filled with bananas or cardboard slug along through. Remember, this is China, there are no rules—cyclists, motorcycles, mopeds, carts, kids on ripsticks, pedestrians with dogs (in sweaters)—all go clockwise, counterclockwise, fast, slow, or stop dead whenever they want. And underneath a Coca-Cola deck umbrella, a uniformed policeman naps with his back against a concrete pillar and his feet up on a wooden office desk.
On the final day of the trip, my father was recreating this scene for the third time to a far-too-polite Philippine couple on our way to see the acrobats. "They don't put on their lights because it saves electricity… and you can't even see them coming, it's ab-solute-ly-craz-y!" His palms were open to the air as if he was telling the whole truth and nothing but. My mother leaned over to me and whispered, "Well he's got his story. I'm going to be hearing this at every dinner for the next year." We both giggled together, and then I got quiet. After a long moment, I leaned back over to her ear and whispered "Ya, I can't wait to hear it again in July."
Monday, March 28, 2011 at 09:55AM