Sunday, November 8, 2015

Operation China

At the risk of offending several billion human beings: I have never had much interest in China, or (except for a few pockets of relatives) the Eastern Hemisphere.

My idea is of a nice vacation is eating chocolate in a lace-curtained chalet, followed by a cheese plate, followed by a walk down cobbled streets to an immaculate 18th-century church, followed by probably a nap at that point. I would like to visit India -- to be overwhelmed by the scale of human suffering and attempt to reach my dad's hometown via a hideous train trip -- but am fine giving every other country in that neck of the woods a pass.

In an unforeseen twist, however, my son is obsessed with China. And Japan. And "Korea." Drawn by the martial arts and a high-minded, vaguely Asiatic approach to life (comprised of honor, ritual, and every maxim ever uttered by The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi), he often announces his plan to "move to China" as soon as he reaches legal age.

In near-total ignorance of what I am talking about, I either (1) tepidly support this idea, or (2) try to suggest, gently, that living in China isn't "that great."

"Is it like here?" he'll ask.

"No. It is not like here. The government is very different. You don't have the same kind of freedom you do here. But I'm sure the culture and people are very nice!"

"Okay, then. I'll move to Japan. Is that like here?"

"No. I don't think so. It's a small island, and it's crowded."

"What about if I move to Korea?"

"Well, you should know there's a Good Korea and a Bad Korea. The Bad Korea is very bad. Just . . . incredibly bad. The Good Korea is okay, I guess."

"Is it like here?"

"No. No place is like here."

"But in Korea they have a special 'birth ceremony' -- "

"Okay, but why do you have to move to Korea and all these places? Can't you just visit them?"

"It's my life, Mom!"

Looking back, there is some family precedent for this sort of thing.  My dad wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Sino-Indian relations (executive summary: not good), and my son's dad researched Chinese history when co-writing a book about a suspected Chinese-American spy who was eventually set free.

As someone who has practically worn a "China: Who Cares?" t-shirt all my life, I am beginning to think I should acquaint myself with this vast, ancient land and its people, or by the time he's ten years old, my son will realize I have nothing of value to say about, oh, half the world.

(And no, recounting the plot of The Painted Veil, in which a British socialite is hauled off to China by her husband as punishment for adultery and comes to like it there, in a way, after taking up with a coterie of French nuns, probably won't cut it. Was my B.A. in English literature good for anything?)

When I lived in Oakland, a Chinese-American writer just up the way in the Oakland Hills won a MacArthur genius grant for her novel, The Vagrants, which "depicts life in a provincial Chinese town during the turbulent years following Mao’s death in the late 1970s. The novel opens on the day a young woman is to be executed as a counter-revolutionary and proceeds to trace the intersecting fates of a wide-ranging cast of townspeople. In these and other works, Li crafts deeply moving fiction that offers Western readers a window into unfamiliar worlds as well as insights into human nature that transcend ethnicity and place."

Even back in Oakland -- with two kids under three, a demanding job, and an all-consuming preoccupation with my own problems -- that sounded like a terrific book, not that I'd ever have time to read it.

Now, since my son's thinking about moving to China, I think that time has come.

(Image: Chinese sugar painting by Anna Frodesiak (own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)