A Season of High Skies
“Traveling traveling and still traveling traveling,
You’re separated from me for life,
Ten thousand miles apart,
Gone to the other end of the sky.
With your road so long and difficult,
How can we know if we’ll meet again?…” Anonymous
October is called the Season of High Skies in China because temperatures hover around 70 degrees and the sun shines in a sky cleared of clouds by a gentle breeze blowing from the Gobi Desert. When I travelled there one October, the elements pointed toward an incredible adventure, which began on the 12 hour flight with my boys trying out chopsticks while their dad prepared his lectures and I read the guide books, devouring words. My life had felt empty for a while…and I attributed it to a miscarriage the previous October.
The guide books only hint at China’s beauty with their words: The Temple of Heaven, Temple of Longevity, Temple of Azure Clouds and then the Forbidden City, the Gate of Obedience and Purity, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and in the Summer Place the Hall of Jade Ripples… names that bled together in my reading like the colors in a Monet painting, leaving me with a warm but vague appreciation and anticipation of the place.
After the long but uneventful flight, we landed in Beijing and were picked up by our host to enter the flow of traffic. At the time there were 1.3 million private cars in Beijing), a city surrounded by ring roads. Ten years before our visit there were three, when we visited, seven.
In the lobby of the Rui Chen Hotel, I had my first on the ground encounter with Chinese beauty. I watched through a fog of travel exhaustion the clerk checking us in and other young women behind the counters filing papers and answering phones. They wore identical blue business suits but they were as unique and stylish as the green, honey colored and variegated bamboo growing in ceramic pots in the foyer. Because writing about the Chinese sense of feminine beauty risks calling to mind bound feet and powdered faces, I worried that I might be romanticizing notions of beauty, but these are notions every culture shares, whether they be bound feet or whale-boned corsets or anorexic teenagers with belly rings. Their beauty mesmerized me. I felt shabby in comparison.
That night, in a wood paneled room laden with delicious, exotic foods–baked lotus, steamed dumplings, bamboo salad, sweet sesame cakes and a translucent soup–I watched the waitresses carry dishes to the table, their traditional Chinese silk flowing with a gracefulness of presence and tried to see what beyond the surface made them so beautiful. Their bodies made no sound as they moved. They practically floated around the table and the focused attention they brought to their actions was part of their beauty, something that was internal. The colors of the dishes accented their silk dresses: emerald mustard greens, pearl white chicken, orange sweet potatoes glistening in steam. This beauty begged for one to stop and see and having seen to celebrate.
I watched the boys swinging their legs under the table mimicking the motion of the toys they had acquired before entering the banquet room. Outside the door, an artist stood behind a table filled with bowls of soft clay. Ben, small, bespectacled but definitely the more adventurous of the boys, approached the artist, who pinched some of the colorful clay, rolled it deftly between his fingers and within seconds presented a tiny bird swinging on a wire perch and fastened by string to a bamboo stick. Alexander, blonde, green-eyed with the delicate features of watchfulness, hung back, less sure and when the artist gestured to him he looked shyly away. Not to be deterred, the man repeated his magic and handed Alex a beautiful blue bird to complement Ben’s red one. The boys held the swings watching their birds as I watched them. Much later, back at the hotel I hung the birds on a freestanding rack in the boys’ room to watch over them as they slept.
The next morning, we ate our breakfast in the hotel: steamed noodles and dumplings and soups and greens and hard boiled eggs. The conference host, a Chinese law professor, brought over a young woman, whom he introduced as one of his graduate students and announced that she was to be guide for myself and the boys. I wanted to see Tiannemen Square, but Cathy X had a list of places that the law professor had suggested she take us and that was not on the list. Outside the hotel, we grabbed a cab to Beihai Park. The park, associated with Kublai Khan’s palace, was the center of Beijing before the Forbidden City. We entered the park through one of the four gates, straight into the midst of people dancing, about twenty couples waltzing, turning like leaves in a spiral of wind. A boom box sat in the middle of the circle and Benny Goodman’s “Blue Skies” filled the air. The people glided—together-apart; no effort, no pain creased their faces. Indeed, joy radiated from them a golden sheen in the full light of the sun.
“Chinese people never feel lonely when they retire,” Cathy explained, “because they keep themselves busy.” How could it be there was so much happiness there?
I watched the old women. They were beautiful with the sun shining down on them. Was it joy that made them beautiful? We walked on, into a continuing river of movement—this time tai chi. Ribbons fluttered like wings, seemingly suspended, but controlled by arm gestures of the practitioners. The physical exertion was clear, but energy flowed from their focus and that energy was beautiful. A few steps further, a lake dotted with pavilions sparkled in the center of the park and from one of the pavilions, a man’s rich baritone voice filled the air. Opera unraveled with perfect pitch. As we approached, the man finished his aria and we joined in clapping.
Cathy asked him a question in Chinese and in Chinese he answered. Turning to me, she said, “He is sixty nine years old.”
The man nodded proudly, his eyes crinkling as he smiled. I thought how in our youth oriented American culture, no one would ask a person their age, and if, in fact someone revealed their age, it would more likely be with embarrassment not pride. Here in Beihai Park, the names of gates, temples, and halls of longevity and supreme happiness and purity distilled the essence of life, saw age as a factor of the beauty in people. The poetic names took shape, gained focus and I saw that the beauty I observed in the hotel clerks and restaurant waitresses was not exclusive to women. This senior opera fan exuded beauty as did the male artist who made the clay birds for the boys the night before.
That afternoon, I took a walk on the streets of Beijing. A crush of cars and bicycles flowed by on the street. Construction workers sprawled on the sidewalk beside a deep trench and exposed pipes. The workers slept under the October sky. It was about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but some of the workers wore tattered brown coats, without buttons, others twined through their belt loops to hold up their pants. A few of them were barefoot. There were at least a dozen men; all appeared younger than thirty. A man in a large dump truck watched me watch them. I had been told that the influx of population from the country into the city brought these construction workers from the farms to find better pay and opportunities, specifically education, for their children.
Further down the street, I confronted the Old Beijing Hotel, a remnant of colonial imperialism in the city. The imposing, elegant hotel with spiral staircase, marble floors and steps, plush chairs and fancy shops on the first floor, an entire city block. Once I passed it, I found myself behind the building with the common Chinese people. Men worked in dusty ditches, digging, or running stone cutters. A few squatted, eating oranges or thin gruel. Bikes perched precariously. I thought about the young men sleeping on the sidewalk, and the beauty Cathy had shown us in Beihei Park.
A contradiction. Having seen it, I couldn’t un-see it. I spoke of it later that evening with one of our Chinese friends, who said “The more you are in harmony with Tao, the more clear seeing you will be,” and while that was the end of the conversation, it was only the beginning of my seeing.
On our second morning in Beijing, Ben wandered off to take a picture of a temple. Before I could blink, a crowd surrounded him. Cathy, Alex and I went running over and Cathy gently parted the crowd to reveal Ben smiling at his new friends.
A few of those gathered spoke excitedly to Cathy, who then turned to me. “They think he looks like Harry Potter,” she said. “They want a picture.”
Seeing Alex and his blonde hair, a rare sight in China, the crowd gathered him into the picture, too.
“They think he’s Harry Potter’s brother,” Cathy said.
Each day, the same scene unfolded—with women, mostly, stopping to pat and admire the boys and then pulling out cameras and proclaiming,
“Harry Potter!” Click. Click.
On our last day in Beijing, as we rode the subway on our way to the Forbidden City, this maternal interaction presented itself with a twist as a curious woman stared at me and did not return my smile, but addressed herself to Cathy.
Cathy leaned in to me and said, “She is worried at the size of the backpack you make the boys carry. She asks why a mother would let her child carry such a big bag.”
I looked at Ben. The backpack was almost half his size, but held only sweatshirts, map and water bottle. I said so to Cathy and she passed that on to the woman.
The woman spoke again and again Cathy translated. “She says in that case you have the right idea. She did everything for her son and now he is thirty and he still depends on her.”
The woman and I regarded each other. She still did not return my smile. I tried to practice my clear seeing. She was older than me but her skin was smooth and unwrinkled.
“Mama?” She asked me in English.
She held up two fingers and pointed to the boys.
Again, I nodded.
“You lucky,” she said.
I felt an internal shift occur. I had grieved the missed opportunity of another baby, but here in China where women’s opportunities for family were limited, pressured, even dictated, I saw that I was indeed lucky.
The next day we left Beijing for Shanghai where the boys and I walked the streets without a guide, without Cathy to steer us to sights of beauty. There, we stumbled onto street life unedited, where maimed children begged for coins and broken men built the concrete foundations of a poetic skyline breaking for a thin bowl of gruel or a moment’s sleep on the sidewalk. We saw the people who suffer in China, those who lack basic needs; the grace and beauty so prevalent in historic places and names did not sustain them.
“Mom, what can we do?” asked Ben when we had used up all the coins.
“Go to the ATM,” Alex demanded. “We need more money.” Their active engagement showed early and develops still as they move along in their lives.
Me, lucky? Absolutely.
We came home and contributed a little more money, but it certainly hasn’t solved any problems. The Chinese culture is a complex culture with centuries of history, not all of it easy to reconcile with what I observed in the moments of seeing beauty. Our country faces troubling contradictions too—poverty? Racism? I tried to practice more clear seeing at home. I returned, grateful to the woman on the train, whose name I don’t even know, who spoke those few words of English, such important words: You are lucky. During that exchange, my focus intensified. Grace descended.
Back home, the foliage was just beginning to peak. The fiery red at the base of the hills shot flames into the sky, the same sky that stretches over Beijing and up to Heaven, where years before a child of mine made its way to the land of the immortals. I began to see in the season of foliage the ebb and flow of the natural world as the same cycle of ebb and flow within me. And with an ease I can’t properly explain, I surrendered– for even with its contradictions, this world is a world of infinite delight.
Susanne Davis holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been published in numerous magazines including Notre Dame Review, Feminist Studies, American Short Fiction, descant and others, and her work has won awards and recognition.