During our layover at the Tokyo airport, Mother’s nose was running. She worried about blowing it in a country where she’d read that touching one’s nose is considered rude. She fished in her big purse for glasses, Kleenex, breath mints, her passport.
“Lisa? Where’s your passport? You know where it is, don’t you?”
I did. She stared at me as if she wasn’t convinced. I had to actually pull it out and show it to her. She seemed to doubt its authenticity. Was that actually my passport?
“Did you bring extra passport photos? Sometimes you need extras.”
I had extras.
“And how many times do I have to ask you to put on your China Experience sticker? We’re supposed to meet our group. How are they going to find us if you don’t wear your sticker?”
I hate stickers. It’s that label thing.
“I think I see our group over there. Lisa? Can you see if their stickers are the same color as ours?”
I couldn’t tell.
“I think they are.”
But there was no time to find our group. Mother swung her carry-on and rushed down the ramp toward our flight. “Hurry up, Lisa!”
When we arrived at the Canton airport, Mother introduced herself to three women who not only had the same stickers as ours, but the same fluffy-poofed haircuts as hers. Our sponsor, a plump Chinese man wearing a tight pair of Wranglers and a T-shirt from Disney World, stood in the middle of our circle and called out names. People answered dutifully, as if in grade school. Our names were not on the list. He told us to go ahead and “hang” with him, maybe he could help us “hook-up” with our guide. Everyone formed a line in order to have passports stamped before moving on to claim luggage. Two old bags surrounded us as if to mark their territory and make sure we weren’t going to get in front of them. No way, José. With their gold lamé handbags, their painted-to-filth faces, their hand-made sweatshirts over-decorated in a motley of country crap—hearts, flowers, ducks—they squeezed us out. We got through at the end of the line, only to have to fight for luggage carts scattered in the baggage claim area. Before one of the old clowns tried to snatch it from us, our hands were on a cart. This was no time for politeness, for the age-before-beauty principle.
Mother barked, “We were here first,” pushing the wheels into the woman’s feet.
Outside baggage claim, our real guide was waiting, holding a sign with our names written neatly on it. His name was Yuchao and he smiled at us shyly. The driver, an old man as bent and twisted as the roots of a banyan tree, raised his eyebrows at our bags and sighed with each heave into the trunk.
I tried to sneak a photo of Mother but she shooed me and ducked behind the car. “Where’s our group?” she asked. “The travel agent said we needed to find our group in Canton?”
Yuchao indicated his itinerary with a red Bic pen. “You are only Americans on schedule.”
“Isn’t that unusual?” Mother’s eyebrows rose. For tourists visiting China, it is generally mandated that you travel in a group, led by an official guide.
Yuchao smiled. “Is it?”
“Everyone else on our flight was with a group.”
“Perhaps you are lucky, yes?”
“How wonderful! Think of that, Lisa! We’re getting a private tour! Lisa! I thought I told you to put on some lipstick. Why don’t you show me any respect!”
I was thirty years old for Buddha-sakes and didn’t care for lipstick.
Exiting the Canton airport, our taxi wove through the car and bicycle traffic exiting the Beijing airport. Mother fiddled with her tape recorder. It was almost two in the morning and Yuchao explained the drive to our cruise-ship would take an hour. My hands were sweating. I stared out the window, a where-am-I feeling creeping into my bones as I tried to discern the hazy shapes of sloping hills I imagined concealed dragon-guarded temples.
As if she fancied herself Barbara Walters, Mother turned on her tape-recorder and, lunging forward, shoved it at Yuchao. “Can you tell us what the Cultural Revolution was like for you?”
Yuchao blinked into the backseat. “It did not affect me, as I had not been born.”
Mother switched off her tape recorder and puckered her lips, stumped. Then pressing the record button again, she asked, “Could you ask the driver if he would tell us what the Cultural Revolution was like for him?”
Yuchao translated the question and the driver pounded the steering wheel, shouting something incomprehensible at him.
“He does not think it wise to discuss the Cultural Revolution.”
In Wuhan, boarding the Yangtze cruise ship, Flaming Mountain, bats flapped their caped-wings and hovered around our necks.
Mother swatted the thick nocturnal air.
In our mildewy room twin beds smothered in loud maroon and navy blue chintz bedspreads lay too close together, and at the foot of the beds a long wooden bench made a cozy nook beneath a large picture window looking out on the murky water. In the teeny-tiny bathroom a dingy-white plastic curtain was all that divided the toilet from the shower.
“If you have any clothes to hang up you should get them out and do it now,” Mother said.
I pulled back the matching chintz drapes, opened the window, and sat on the bench to watch the bats fishing above the river. The smoggy sunset cast a coppery glow on the water ripples snaking after us. As if hiding something sacred, fog lay in thick bands above the banks. The air smelled of the black coal smoke puffing from the ship’s corrosive dragon mouth.
“Close that window this instant,” Mother said. “The air isn’t fit to breathe.”
I closed the window.
“I guess you don’t have anything to hang up so I can use all these hangers?” Mother didn’t wait for me to answer.
The cruise director introduced himself through a speaker in the window-bench, saying there would be a reception in the lounge at four pm for cruisers to get to know each other.
“Oh goodness,” she said. “What am I going to wear?” Then she made a mess of her luggage looking to find something just right.
After Mother had changed into a shimmery purple velour sweat suit she jazzed up with a Hermès scarf, she told me under no circumstances would she be seen with me “wearing that.”
I was wearing a new pair of black jeans with a black linen shirt from The Gap.
“Velour, Mother? Really.”
“You’re not wearing that. Put on something dressier. You’re on a Cruise Ship.” Mother said “Cruise Ship” as if it were a pearl necklace.
There was nothing pearl-necklacy about it. The carpet was stained and skanky, the bedspreads worn thin, the faux flower arrangement in the lobby faded and tacky. The only ones living glamorously on this ship were the spiders spinning webs between the dangling dusty yellowed crystals of the chandeliers that sounded like breaking icicles when the ship tilted in one direction or another.
“I’m not changing,” I said as if I was a defiant toddler.
“You’re not changing? Why don’t you ever show me the slightest bit of respect? The least you could do is to put on some lipstick and pull your hair back.”
I wore lipstick, pulled my hair back, and growled at Mother on the way out the door and into the lounge crowd of cocktail-drinking-senior-citizens.
“Quit fidgeting, Lisa. Put your hands at your sides.”
“Mind your own business,” I snarled.
Eddie and Alice, a couple from Long Island, introduced themselves. “Let me tell you something,” said Alice, “China is not the same. I was a teacher here fifteen years ago and I never saw children begging. Never!” Her hair was the color of eggplant and her shiny clothes enveloped her like a tent.
Eddie rolled his eyes and ordered a martini. He looked exactly like Liberachi without all the jewelry.
“And where are you from?” he asked me. “And what do you do?”
“Let me guess,” Alice insisted, pointing a bejeweled finger at me. “You’re a college student somewhere?”
I told her I was studying for my masters in art history at the University of Colorado.
“Oh. A little art historian.” Alice labeled me. “And what is your specialty?” she asked, as if to a chef. “I don’t care for that German Abstract Expressionism. It’s so depressing.”
My specialty was German Abstract Expressionism.
The tallest man suddenly towered over our table like one of New York City’s twin towers and introduced himself. “My name’s Donohue like the talk show host.” He wore a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of yellow slacks. Shaking hands, he gave each of us a package of dried figs.
“Why figs?” we asked.
“Figs are my business. I grow acres and acres of them in California.”
Mr. Donohue worked his way around the bar, ordering everyone to sample his latest fig product. People slipped them into their pockets, scooted them across the bar, and looked worried when he said, “I’ll be back around for the taste-test verdict!”
Alice was having a conversation with herself about the ignorance and immorality of America’s youth. Young Chinese women in long black skirts slit way up the thigh served glasses of complimentary champagne, gracefully balancing trays and slipping between groups of guests like thread through a needle. Now and then when the boat rocked, the champagne threatened to slosh over the lips of the glasses, but magically, the Chinese servers tilted their wrists just so and the amber liquid became even with the horizon again.
“Lisa. LEE-SA! Pay attention when people are talking to you. Alice just asked you a question.”
“I think the world’s gone to pot because of kids who lack manner and morals,” Alice said. “In my day we didn’t go around vandalizing property and shooting people?”
Was she really asking me a question?
I said I thought “the problem” was more complicated than kids.
Alice scrunched up her face like a prune.
I popped a chewy fig in my mouth.
Waking up early the next morning, my clock all thrown off, the room was as damp and dark as a cave. Mother was snoring. Outside an eerie fog bank draped over the Yangtze. I climbed the winding stairs to the observation deck, feeling sneaky and secretly hoping no one would be around to catch me.
A rose-swallowtail butterfly fluttered around me, flitting up and away before returning to light on my hand.
“It is a sign of good luck.” A Chinese woman rowed a raft, lashed together from logs, out of the fog and near the ship. She sold flowers she grew in the village we were passing and her feet were as small as a doll’s.
I watched the butterfly zigzag after the woman, who vanished into the clouds. Then, as if someone were cutting a perfect circle out of the sky, the cottony haze thinned and the silver sun shone over the river.
Above the clouds I could just make out a village built into the mountainside. The skeleton of their former village, like a ghost town, visible lower on the mountain, where flood waters would soon consume its remains.
Along the cliffs of the Yangtze red paint indicated where the water would rise after the dam was built.
I imagined the bamboo shacks of the old villages, the red and green pagodas with their golden Buddha’s submerged beneath the sea.
That afternoon, Mother said we were going to learn how to make pot-stickers. “Put on some lipstick,” she demanded. “You’re coming with me.”
Ushered into the cruise ship’s enormous sterling kitchen, the chef demonstrated how to fold the dough over meatballs and pinch it around the loose edge. He moved so quickly I couldn’t follow all the steps and was distracted by the knives spinning around him like daggers. Pouring sesame oil from a high arc into a wok, he tossed the doughy half moons around with chopsticks until they were golden brown, splashed vinegar over them, and tossed them onto a platter like cooking was a sport.
Mother took notes in her journal. “Eew. Aren’t these scrumptious?” she said trying to scoop up another sample on the end of her chopsticks.
At the end of the cooking lesson we each received a set of complimentary Ginsu knives.
“Let me carry those for you.” Mother reached for my knives.
“I’ll carry them. Thank you,” I said.
We were going to check out the observation deck but Mother wanted us to change first. “Why can’t you wear a skirt? Those jeans are too big for you. You look sloppy. Where do you think we are? On a hippie commune?”
“Charles Manson, where are you when I need you?” I mumbled, rolling my eyes and pretending to look through my luggage for something called a skirt.
Rubbing the fabric of a purple rayon blouse between her fingers, Mother said, “It sure is taking this shirt a long time to dry,” she said. “Must be the humidity.”
She’d washed it the night before and hung it in the shower to dry. She didn’t know I’d accidentally knocked it off the hanger and into the toilet earlier that morning.
Daning River Rocks
In the morning fog we disembarked the Flaming Dragon like expensive cattle herded down the gangplank and squeezed into a speedboat for a tour of The Three Gorges. Around us, in the clean, glittering green river, naked children splashed while mothers spread laundry to dry over rocks warmed by the sun. Entering Qutang Gorge, our guide explained the square holes cut into the cliff-face were ancient burial sites used as bellows by Lu ban, the god of carpenters. On the south bank of Qutang, he told us, were the remains of a sixth century city. Wuxia, or Witches Gorge, was twenty-eight miles long, bordered by twelve peaks, pointed like witches hats, towering around the foggy river as if around a caldron. Our guides let us off the boat at an inlet and Mother and I filled our pockets with smooth, unusual rocks, like they were things expensive and rare. Just as we were called to return, some Chinese tourists ran to Mother, attracted like butterflies to her light-colored hair, they asked her where she was from and wanted to have their picture taken with her, like she was a movie star. A girl gave Mother a rock shaped like a flying bird and her boyfriend gave her another one shaped like a heart.
At the Temple of Heaven in Tiantan Park our guide Natty explained the emperor would come to the Qiniachian, or the Hall of Prayer, during the first lunar month of each year to pray for an abundant harvest. Describing the architecture, she told us the large pillars represented constellations while the smaller ones symbolized the seasons and months of the lunar year.
Mother nudged me in the ribs. “I hope you’re listening and learning,” she said, as if we were in elementary school.
A round wall on the northern end, representing heaven, and square wall on the southern end, representing earth, surrounded the temple. The whispered words of a person who stands at one end of Echo Wall will travel across the blue ceramic tiles of the wall amplifying as they reach the ears of a listener, or eavesdropper standing at the opposite end.
“Lisa!” My name came rushing at me. “Stand up straight! Take pride in yourself!” But Mother was gone before the words finished, suddenly standing beside me, thrusting her tote bag at me. “Would you mind carrying this for me?”
Before I had a chance to reply, she veered towards the Imperial Vault, where a brass plaque explained if you stood in the middle of this altar, your voice would echo back several times becoming louder each time. On the circular stone platform in the center of the Imperial Vault.
Mother shouted, “Do mo ar ri go to!”
“Do mo ar ri go to!
“Do mo ar ri go to!”
I said, “That’s Japanese, Mother,” I said.
Then she held her tape recorder close to the faces of a group of Chinese tourists. “What was the Cultural Revolution like for you?”
Back in our hotel room Mother read aloud from Fodor’s Exploring China guidebook. “It says here that bi jade, which is jade cut into a disc with a hole in the center, represents Heaven. And listen to this. We mustn’t rattle our chopsticks against our bowls. If we do we will be poor. Lisa? Did you know that lions in Chinese architecture were believed to keep watch over the palaces?”
I switched off the lamp on my nightstand.
“Oh, Lisa? Mother said. “I wanted to tell you about this book I just read. It’s called Sex for One. You should read it. It will make you realize you don’t need all these co-dependent relationships you get yourself into.”
I pulled the sheet over my head.
“Nightie night,” she said. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!”
The Great Wall
On the drive from Beijing to The Great Wall, traffic was congested with smoky buses, honking cars, rickety rickshaws carrying families with barking dogs and chirping birds perched precariously inside bamboo cages. The windows of many buildings were tinted blue and reflected warped visions of the city under colossal construction. Just outside the city, we the taxi came to an abrupt stop as a herd of water buffalo crossed the road. A billboard in English declared: “At Home You Are Your Own Boss In China.”
Mother turned on the tape recorder and pestered our guide. “Why are the windows blue? What are they working on over there? How long have you been a guide? What’s your religion?
I imagined I was alone. Alone in Asia; my own boss.
“Lisa! Pull your hair back. Did you see that monkey?” she asked. “Imagine that. A monkey on a man’s shoulder.”
“Imagine that,” I repeated.
“Look at those brass plaques on the doors, Lisa. Aren’t they nice.”
On Chaoyangmen Boulevard, the street was packed with bicycles. Thousands of people. Thousands of bikes. Old ones. New ones. Sturdy ones. Wobbly ones. Bikes with horns. Bikes with umbrellas. Bikes with wooden platforms. Right in front of us a man peddled one stacked with small television sets and just missed a boy crossing the street, hauling a mattress strapped to a wooden platform above the back tire. On other bicycles women balanced vegetables, watermelons, bushels of bananas, and lumps of coal. A husband carried a child in a basket attached to the front handlebars, and on the back wheel’s rim, his wife bounced along neatly and gracefully in her cream-colored silk dress and white heels.
Mother gawked out the window. “How do they carry such big loads?”
We rode past rice farms where workers wearing loose black linen pants and shirts, and straw triangular hats, were bent, cradling bowls in the crooks of their arms.
The driver shouted something at Natty.
Mother turned on her tape recorder. “What did he say?”
Natty translated. “He said he was a young boy during the Cultural Revolution. The soldiers laughed at him because he could not carry a fifty-pound bag of rice on his back. He said they sometimes beat him.”
Mother shook her head back and forth. “That’s just terrible. The pollution here is so bad. Are they doing anything to control it?” Mother pinched her nostrils together.
Outside we passed orchards rowed with blossoming orange trees. Brick shelters the size of out-houses squatted beside the road, waiting to hold fruit when the season was ripe for harvesting. Then we were driving through the densely wooded countryside, where I caught a sudden glimpse of Chinese Army soldiers, standing in straight stoic formation, their faces disciplined into one rigid expression as rough and inexorable as the surrounding tree bark. In perfect unison, the soldiers took one step and vanished behind the tree trunks like an illusion.
On the side of road, men and women sold fruit, fish, chickens, electronics, hardware, and bicycle parts.
“Look at those cute little wooden stools the vendors are sitting on.” Mother snapped a photo out the window. “Lisa! Aren’t those the most adorable stools?”
Girls and boys played with sticks and bugs, took naps in the stretches of tree-shade.
“Look at those funny-looking trees, Lisa! They’re like those smoke bushes that were everywhere when we lived in South Carolina. Remember that?”
I pictured a bush smoking a cigarette.
“Lisa! What did I just say about touching your face with your hands?”
When the road began to curve upwards, into the mountains, Natty told us about the generations of laborers enslaved in molding and laying the bricks of the Great Wall.
Mother flipped through the guidebook. “It says here that the Chinese are scared of spirits and believe haunted dead bodies. In order to prevent these spirits from entering the body, they stopped themselves up by putting pieces of jade . . . you know . . .” Mother pointed to her butt. “Down there.”
The wind lifted garbage off the streets and spun it around. Clouds gathered into thick bumpy balls. At The Great Wall, from rows of booths, vendors called out for us to buy scarves, postcards, solar-powered chirping birds in boxes, and plastic miniatures of The Great Wall. Natty ushered us inside a door in the side of mountain beneath the wall and after passing through a gift shop, we entered a dining room where groups of American and European tourists sat aristocratically around large tables with lazy Susans, spinning food around and around and around. As much as we protested, the guides were forbidden to eat with the tourists. Natty left us with a hostess who led us down a hallway away from the other tourists, and into a private room near the kitchen.
Mother and I sat next to each other at a round table big enough for the von Trapp family. The room was painted jade and except for a few splotchy gray stains, the tablecloth and floor matched the walls. I wasn’t feeling well. The monochromatic scheme made me dizzy, as if I were melting into the wallstablefloor. Holding a steaming washcloth to my forehead, I waited for the spell to pass.
Mother wiped her hands gingerly with her washcloth and said, “Don’t put that on your face. You don’t know if it’s clean. Where it’s been.”
In the wall across from us a strange hole peered at us like an eye. What if they’re spying on us?
Mother scooted a piece of greasy bok choy around on her plate, trying to retrieve it with her chopsticks. She’d sent me hundreds of wooden chopsticks before the trip, and, as if it were piano lessons, would call to find out if I’d been practicing.
My stomach felt funky. Were we slowly being poisoned? Mother seemed to be okay. Was Mother poisoning me?
Climbing the crumbling stone steps of the Great Wall, a mist fell from the mountain clouds and cooled my skin. I shivered. Mother’s knee began to ache and she said she’d wait for us next to a huge camel tied to a boulder on the other side of the Wall. Draped over its two humps was a red velvet cloth edged with yellow tassels. For ten yuan a man would hoist you onto the camel’s back and take your picture.
Continuing up, Natty asked me about American movies, music, fashion and freedom. The steps growing steeper and steeper, we stopped to catch our breath.
At the highest point we were allowed to reach, we leaned out the arched windows of a stone fortress and gazed at the misty mountain ranges, like waves tumbling into the foggy clouds. The wind whipped our faces. Beyond us, the winding stairs zigzagged into infinity. I studied the bricks for imprints of the families who made them, imagining the sounds they made echoing through the mountain valleys, and wondering what stories were embedded in the silent cracks and mortar.
“The Emperor of Qin/Shi Huang Di/Built a wall/From the hills to the sea/He built it wide/He built it stout/To keep his subjects in/And the Tartars out/ The Emperor of Qin,” Natty recited a Chinese nursery rhyme then gave a young man five yuan so we could look through his telescope. I peered through the telescope at a crumbling section of The Wall in the distance. The jagged fulvous pieces like an ancestor’s snaggle-toothed grin.
“While working on the Great Wall,” Natty gazed into the hazy horizon, “hundreds of thousands of workers died of fatigue and malnutrition.”
It was drizzling and the steps were slick. A large crowd of people in colored ponchos gathered by the camel. They leaned over the railing, pointing, snickering, snapping photos. Waving wooden batons, soldiers tried to break up the mob.
“Natty? Do you see Mother anywhere?” It would be just like her to get into trouble. You can’t take her anywhere.
Natty hurried her step. We searched the crowd for Mother’s strawberry-whip hair-do. A soldier waved a baton in my face, almost grazing my nose.
“I can’t find my mother,” I choked.
Pushing people away with his baton and peering over the wall, he beckoned me to come closer, where he pointed over the edge to a woman sprawled on the ground. “Is that your mother?”
Then the soldier snatched me by the back of my collar and escorted me through an entrance inside the Great Wall. Down steep, narrow clay steps we entered a room painted Chinese red. Hundreds of painted paper lanterns dangled from the ceiling and on the walls were gold reliefs depicting scenes form the wars unifying China.
The Emperor Shihuangdi fed spring rolls to Suzie Wong, who lounged on a silk-upholstered chaise, cotton balls between her toes, and her hair pinned and sculpted into three snake-like coils at the back. The Emperor, dolled-up in Chinese Opera-drag, wiped Suzie’s chin with a steamed towel, his long fingernails curling like horns from his hands.
“Welcome to The Great Wall Lounge,” Suzy said. “Listen, before we let you have Mother, there are several formalities we must complete. First, we would like to show you many exquisite items from The Great Wall private collection.”
Everywhere we went they wanted us to buy things. Tea, china, cloisonné, rugs, scroll ink paintings of misty landscapes, jade figurines. The Emperor’s servants then emerged from behind a red flocked-velvet curtain, carrying rugs, kimonos, cloisonné jewelry, jade boxes, vases, and figurines. Modeling a silk robe embroidered with green Chinese characters, gold dragons, and twisted turquoise trees with lavender lipstick blooms, the Emperor said, “This robe belonged to the Dowager Empress Cixi, who ruled the Manchu Qing Dynasty for forty-seven years.”
Suzie smiled at me. “A lovely and valuable robe. For you, only 5,000,000 yuan.”
When the fashion show ended, the Emperor winked and terra-cotta servants emerged through a doorway, carrying pots of teas.
“Your mother asks many questions,” Suzie poured a spinach-colored tea into a china cup and set it before me. Try Green Tea. Good for cancer.” Suzie waited for me to take a sip.
I took the teacup and bowed.
“Before your arrival, her calls to embassy asking for interviews became nuisance. Is she here to cause trouble?”
“Mother?” I said. “Oh no. She just likes to ask a lot of questions.”
“To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish,” she said. “Your mother has been seen picking flowers, writing notes, blowing her nose, tape recording and taking pictures of people without permission.” Suzie pointed her long index finger at me, the nail painted black with the jewel of a red dragon pierced through. “And you, Missy? Where were you going late at night with unladylike cigarette outside Beijing Hotel? It is forbidden to go out unescorted.”
The more tea I drank—green, oolong, opium, black, jasmine—the more intoxicated I became. The room kaleidescoping. The strange sounds of Chinese musical instruments—erhu, yueqin and xianzi. The warriors appeared as if they were bisected by sharp geometric angles; their spears spinning in fast circles.
The Emperor held my wrist as I signed some papers and then strapped me into a chair.
“To prevent evil spirit from entering your body we will now insert jade suppository into your anus,” Suzie Wong explained, holding a sphere of jade in her porcelain hand.
A needle went in and out of my skin but I couldn’t feel anything. Women with eyes and lips painted white and outlined in heavy black lines, swirled fancy fans, the colors and patterns whirling in hypnotic circles.
Everyone suddenly vanished behind a screen at the back of the room and just as quickly reappeared riding stick-ponies and wearing western costumes. Jeans, silk scarves, cowboy shirts, vests, hats, and boots. While an orchestra played Ennio Morricone’s musical scores from Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, the servants leapt up the walls and over furniture brandishing swords as Emperor Shihuangdi acted out various dramas from Chinese battles.
After the performance, the servants served hot noodles in broth with bean curd and seaweed. While they had spoken to me earlier in English, they now spoke Chinese while their voices were dubbed with the voices of American actors.
“Mother sees with eyes in back of head,” Suzie Wong said to me in the voice of Raquel Welch, her lips out- of-synch with the words. “Put on lipstick. Pull back hair. You must do as she says.”
“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source,” the Emperor said in the mismatched voice of Clint Eastwood. “A tree without a root.”
When I regained focus they offered me a complementary warm glass of beer or soda.
Then they ran my credit card and heaping rugs, kimonos, and boxes of cloisonné jewelry and jade figurines into my arms, they ushered me back out the secret door in the Wall.
“Thank you for shopping at The Great Wall,” Suzie said. “Please come again.”
“Aren’t you just a fictional character from a Richard Mason novel?” I asked her.
“You really should wear some lipstick,” she said, slipping a vile of red lipstick in a fancy cloisonné case into my pocket, her lips as shiny and red as the inside of a pomegranate.
While showing me out, Suzie said in the voice of Brigette Bardot, “The robe looks lovelyon you.”
I didn’t know I’d bought it.
“One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade,” she said before sliding the door closed.
White-uniformed men and women held Mother up, pressed on her legs, gave her water, held her hand.
I walked towards her in a daze. “Mom?”
“I’m all right,” she said. “Just got the wind knocked out of me is all. Good thing I had all this fat to cushion the fall.” Mother took a drink of water. “Where have you been? What’s all that? And how are you going to pay for it?”
“What happened?” I said not knowing how to answer her question.
“Honey, I was just minding my own business. Looking at the lovely landscape, when this man came barreling down the railing and knocked me right off. I landed at that camel’s feet, and when I came to, the big ugly thing was licking me all over.
“Can you walk? What are we going to do?”
“Oh they have it all worked out. They’re taking such good care of me! Shake their hands. Thank them. Stand up straight. Hold your shoulders back.” Mother pointed down the mountain. “See the little ambulance down the mountain that looks like one of your brother’s Match Box cars he used to race all over the walls? Honey? Why won’t you pull your hair back?”
A Chinese woman who looked similar to Suzie Wong smiled as she massaged Mother’s temples.
“Anyhoo,” Mother said, “they’re going to drive me down the mountain. They’ve got a stretcher. I just can’t believe a stretcher would even fit in the back of that little thing? Can you believe that, Lisa?”
Back in our hotel room, we drank Chinese beer and ate club sandwiches. Mother chanted, “Humpty Dumpty sat on The Great Wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Get it? Humpty Dumpty had a Great Fall?” Mother laughed.
“You must think I’m off The Wall,” Mother giggled and wiped the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “We are so lucky to be here, Lisa. You better be thankful.”
I was thankful.
Mother painted her fingernails the iridescent color of dragonfly wings. “Lisa? Did you wash your hands? You should wash your hands before eating.”
I’d washed my hands.
I ran a bath, the loud rush of water flooding out her voice. In the fogging bathroom mirror I glimpsed the reflection a tattoo on my forearm of a lion shackled around his ankle to a jade disc clutched in his mouth. Beneath the lion’s claws MOTHER was written in red Chinese characters.
Mother startled me, knocking on the bathroom door. “Honey? Do you want a candle? Some music? A gin and tonic?” Her purse was full of little green bottles of Tanqueray.
On the way to see the Terracotta Warriors, Mother kept pestering Liu, our new guide.
“What kind of tree is that?”
“Pomegranate,” he answered dutifully.
“What are those brick buildings?”
“The homes of peasants.”
“What was the Cultural Revolution like for you?”
Liu rested his head against the window and didn’t answer.
“Guess he’s asleep,” Mother said loudly, rolling her disapproving eyes. Then she played seeing-eye-mom.
“Lisa. The flowers are such a pretty shade of purple, aren’t they?
“Lisa! Look out your window at that cute red mailbox.
“Oooh! I just love those ferns growing out of the rocks with the moss on top.
“What a funny little dog-shaped planter.
“You know I’ve noticed that many middle-aged Chinese women have a small bald spot on the back of their heads.”
To better see?
At the site of The Terracotta Warriors, Liu left us inside a circular theater to watch a movie about the history of the warriors and the recent excavation. When the movie started, images connected on screens that flashed around the room, each semicircle of the room showing the same scenes so standing facing forward or backward you saw the same scenes. The bloody reenactment depicted decades of the prosperous Qin dynasty. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, was shown defeating the Zhou dynasty. Soldiers wearing embroidered silk kimonos, and hairdos sculpted into strange topiary shapes, shot arrows at enemies who were endlessly falling off horses, endlessly bleeding and endlessly dying. The movie then recounted a victorious Shihuangdi, unifying six divisions of China only to enslave his people in the tedious labor of his opulent tomb. The movie concluded by describing the wars that followed the Emperor’s death. Enemy soldiers were depicted smashing the clay warriors and setting fire to the tomb. The Emperor’s unexcavated mausoleum is said to be located beneath a nearby hillside, decorated like a miniature China complete with palaces and a Yellow River flowing with mercury.
After the movie, Mother said, “That was awful. I’m sure I’ll have nightmares tonight.”
At the eastern pits of the tomb were hundreds of life-size warriors standing in battle formation.
“Look at their hairdos,” said Mother. “See that one with the ponytail sticking straight up? And that one over there’s got one growing out the side of his head. Lisa. Don’t put your fingers on your face. Germs.”
While attentive guards paced above, archaeologists in white lab coats worked by the light of expensive-looking photography lamps, meticulously dusting the earth with fine tools and brushes.
At The Terracotta Warrior Coffee Shop an old man with a Fu Man Chu mustache, arched eyebrows, and a hint of makeup ordered us a special drink. At the top of his head his long black hair was pulled into a high loop with a braid that wound around the bottom of the loop like a snake. Held in place by a decorative arrow, the braid fell to his waist. Framing the man’s face were two more long braids woven with ribbons of tiny bells.
“How are you enjoying your visit to China?” he asked.
“Well everything has been just splendid until we arrived in Xi’ An. So far, our guides have been very friendly. Except for Liu. He’s unfriendly. Outright rude. And such a drip,” Mother said.
The old man stroked his mustache thoughtfully and winked, and as he did the clay warriors turned and faced him dutifully.
Mother didn’t seem to notice, switching on her tape-recorder, and asking the man, “What was the Cultural Revolution like for you?”
“It isn’t wise to discuss the Cultural Revolution,” he said, recoiling at the sight of her tape-recorder.
“Oh,” Mother said. “Well pardon me.”
When we finished our coffee, he offered his hand and I recognized Emperor Shihuangdi’s long bony fingers and curling fingernails, and from the corner of my eye, vibrant reds, golds and blues washed over the Warriors then disappeared.
“Lisa! Don’t frown. Let’s go the gift shop!” Mother yanked me by my elbow.
In 1974 seven local farmers discovered the Terracotta Warriors when they were digging a well on their communal property. Subsequently, they were moved off their land, their homes were destroyed, and they were offered work in the museum gift shops. One of the discoverers, Yang Zhifa, is paid three dollars a say to sign books for tourists. For a few yuan you could also have your picture taken with him.
Mother got her camera out and asked him, “What was the Cultural Revolution like for you?”
“Wouldn’t you like a book?” he asked, his hands shaking.
Mother shook her head No and took his picture without paying. “Lisa! Why did you take your hair down? Why don’t you put on some lipstick?” Mother handed me a tube of lipstick. “And I thought I told you I never wanted to see you wearing that awful shirt again.”
Villagers of Yang Village, where Xi-an and the site of the Terracotta Warriors has developed, were forced to move to new homes a mile away and had to pay approximately eight-hundred dollars per person for the construction. Several of the discoverers committed suicide and many believe there is a Terracotta Warrior curse, and that it would have been better if the warriors remained entombed beneath the village.
“During the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Zhifa said, “Wǒ xuéhuìle chīle kǔtóu. I learned to eat bitterness.”
Staring hopelessly into the wells of the old man’s eyes, I felt as if I were falling into jade pools of iris, and like a thread through the eye of a needle, passing through the center of a Chinese coin, the opening in a disc of bi-jade, life like an echo travelling along the corridor of Echo Wall in the Imperial Circle of the Temple of Heaven.