A Love Song Called the Great Wall of China

       It was a drab February day in 2009. I sat in my college dorm room four floors above York Street, drinking instant coffee and languorously gazing out the window at pedestrians below — miniature fortresses of warmth set against knuckle-tightening air. That’s when I saw the email.

At first, I thought it was from Yan herself. It wasn’t until I’d read through the whole thing that I knew it couldn’t have been from her, and glanced back up at the sender line to find the name Yang Jing. Yang and Yan had both been my laoshimen – my teachers – at a language institute in Beijing the previous summer, though I’d been much closer to Yan than to Yang.

Wo you yixie bu hao de xiaoxi xuyao gaosu ni, Yang began. I struggled to summon my lapsed Chinese. “I have some bad news for you,” is what that meant. “Yan Lichuan, our Yan laoshi, is dead. I know that you two were very close.” And finally, in English: “I’m so sorry.”

The email was followed by a couple of links to Chinese news websites. I immediately clicked on one, and ended up spending a frenzied half hour piecing together the following:

Police have confirmed a body found on Stockton Beach (Australia) is that of a woman who went missing in waters off Port Stephens, on the New South Wales central coast, last week. Chinese national Yan Lichuan, 31, was last seen in an inflatable boat about one kilometer off Jimmy’s Beach near Hawks Nest last Friday.

And that was it. I turned away from my computer. Had there been more text, I don’t know that I would have been able to read it.

What had happened? Images rushed to my mind: a yellow dinghy bucking forward and back in white-lipped waves; the oars flapping once and twice and then ripped from their sockets; the water cold, salty, alien, surging up as if to drag her under; the gray sky dipping down to meet it; Yan alone, terrified, hugging the boat until the waves grabbed that too. Had she tried to fight it, the encroaching sea? The strength would have drained from her arms like water from an upturned cup. She had the body of a child: maybe five feet, maybe an inch or two shorter, ninety-five pounds tops. And the image of that childlike body, briny and pallid, washed up on the shore.

Did she scream? Did she try to turn back? Or did she surrender to the storm? Or there had been no storm. Or she had planned for the storm all along.

On February 1, five days before her death, I’d received a Facebook message from her. “Dear Tianqi,” she wrote, using my Chinese name. “Just wanted to say hi from NZ (New Zealand). I am in a fantastic café under Fox Glacier mountain, sorry sorry, time’s out, no coins.”

***

This was Beijing in June 2008, the summer of the Olympic games:

The streets buzzed with frenzied construction, the staccato of drills, the stutter of car horns, each corner a convention of bulldozers and traffic cones. Red banners with white lettering stretched across buildings and tollbooths and pedestrian walkways, exhorting the masses to Build a Harmonious Society! Run a Successful Olympics! Everywhere one turned, the sheer mass of people: busloads of foreign tourists, throngs of bicycle commuters, lines of street vendors, the local and the international, the rich and the poor, the purposeful and the aimless, all fusing together as one giant, gridlocked glob of humanity. From my dormitory at Beijing Language and Culture University, I watched the world descend upon China: Africans shooting hoops on the basketball court, Spaniards and Poles playing soccer, the tones of French, Russian, German rising and falling in the steamy air.

This was Beijing in June 2008: The very definition of temporality, a city throbbing with the pulse of now. To my own surprise, I felt a tinge of excitement.

It was an excitement I would have considered unimaginable only a few days earlier, as I stood in the Newark airport, gazing past the terminal glass towards a neon Budweiser sign glowing tepidly in the charcoal morning. What business did I have going to China, I wondered? I’d begun studying Mandarin on a whim a year earlier, during the aimlessness of sophomore fall. One September afternoon I’d walked past the open door of a Chinese classroom. I had nothing better to do: I sat; I stayed.

If I’d enjoyed my Chinese language studies that year, it was an appreciation that stemmed largely from their consistency. The strokes of the characters, the order of the sentences, the music of the tones – all these remained constant in a year of emotional flux. By December of sophomore year, I’d reached the low point (though, of course, I did not know it at the time) of a two-year depression. I’d graduated high school as president of my class, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, captain of the tennis team, and fundamentally convinced that the life ahead of me was merely a formality, a multiple-choice test whose only function was to determine precisely what kind of success I desired. More than anything, I was sick of wanting things.  My classmates at Yale, I found, were just getting started. A week into school, one of my roommates furtively logged onto my computer and scrawled a giant “sticky” note on my desktop:

“Don’t be a pussy. Life without risk is death. The best sex is anonymous.”

Bit by bit, I began to despair. One week, in a class on modern Jewish philosophy, I learned of the Milgram obedience experiment, the famous psychological study that aimed to test the human capacity for evil. For days afterward, I’d return to my dormitory to watch YouTube videos of the experiment, white-coated “doctors” instructing study participants to administer ever-higher levels of shock to a “test subject” strapped down in another room, and the participants complying, even as the shocks are met with shrill bursts of pain – “Stop it!” “Let me out!” “I have a weak heart you know!” – and then with a terrible silence. Sometime in October of my sophomore year, I stopped going to class. Instead, I’d lie in bed and think of Ecclesiastes. Futility of futilities! All is futility. I decided that I must become a mystic and seek the Absolute.

I thought of a Hassidic saying I’d learned as a child at Jewish sleepaway camp. A person should carry a slip of paper in each side pocket. On one, it should be written: “The world was created for me alone,” on the other, “I am but the dust of the earth.” Despair, I began to understand, was the darkness between those two slips of paper. It was a type of longing, but a longing stripped of belief, a longing with no destination. To be on the heights of despair is to want one thing – the mastery of one’s own fate – and that is impossible.

Things grew darker. I swore off newspapers and alcohol and political science classes. Every once in a while I’d show up to the college’s dining hall not to eat, but just to sit at a table and mutter at the benighted masses. Pathetic fools, I thought, as I watched them die, bit by bit. In November, my roommate grew worried and called my parents. On the weekend of the annual Yale-Harvard football game they drove up to New Haven to see me. I had no interest in the football game; instead, we drove aimlessly through the city, me alone and silent in the backseat, my parents up front, whispering to each other. “What did we do wrong?” my father asked. I breathed in deeply, taking in the smell of new-car leather, thinking of luxury, of our second home in the country, of smiling family portraits, of the banner in our living room, white letters on blue felt reading For God, For Country, and For Yale. “I can’t be here,” I said. “Where do you want to be?” my father asked. I began to cry. I had no answer. A few months later, I was in China.

***

In China, I found an unexpected treatment for premature weltschmerz: Devotion, full and unquestioning, to a task that is both arbitrary and monotonous. After dwelling for so long in the midst of despair, I no longer wanted to think, and in learning Chinese, I found that I didn’t have to. I spent five hours each day in class, four hours each night memorizing characters, and the rest of my time playing basketball, running laps on the 400-meter track behind the dormitory building, and eating meals of yuxiang qiezi – “fish-flavored” eggplant – at a small cafeteria outside the university’s west gate. On the second day of the program, each student was compelled to sign a “Language Pledge” forbidding the use of English for the duration of the summer. Liberation! Discussing Ecclesiastes was out of the question. Instead, I would walk around campus muttering meaningless Chinese sentences under my breath: Lao da ye, nin zuo de shi wo de weizi! Qing lai yi hu ju hua cha. Shi na zhen feng ba ni gei chuilai le?! Or, Sir, I believe you’re sitting in my seat! Please bring a pot of chrysanthemum tea. What gust of wind brought you to town?!

Yan laoshi was one of the ten or so instructors for the second-year Chinese course. For the first half of the program, I barely saw her outside of class, my knowledge of Yan limited to what I could glean from her weekly grammar drill sections. I’d heard that she was older than the other teachers, and as far as I could tell, she didn’t seem to interact with them much. She wore Marc Jacobs sunglasses to class and carried her notebooks in a walnut-brown Louis Vuitton handbag. Most of my teachers enforced the language pledge with a fervor bordering on religious zeal. Yan, on the other hand, seemed to take great delight in filling her drill sections with English interjections – Like, come on! Really? No way! – all pronounced, enchantingly, with the drawn-out vowels of a Southern California valley girl.

In July, after “mid-term” exams, classes paused to allow for a “social study” week, a chance for students to leave Beijing in order to experience the “real” China.  For no particular reason, I’d signed up for the trip to Shanxi Province, China’s coal-mining capital, an eight-hour train ride southwest of Beijing. Yan laoshi, I learned, would be one of the two trip leaders.

That Saturday, the seven students and two teachers comprising our “social study” group set out from the dormitory building, arriving at the train station as the sun began to set. We picked our way through the crowded station – book bags shouldered, rolling suitcases extending behind us – until we found our train compartment, a cheerless “hard sleeper” with rows of plastic bunk “beds” and ovular windows that looked better fit for a fishing boat. Somehow, I ended up sitting next to Yan.

The train rocked and groaned and at last began to move. Our neighbor across the aisle, a stubby man with glasses, was busy cracking peanuts open and sipping on a beer. We caught eyes and he reached out to offer me one. I looked to Yan, who frowned with feigned dismay, and then reached out to accept the can. She opened it up and we both took a watery sip.

“Me,” our neighbor said, pointing at himself. “Me. Wang. Shushu.”

“Wang shushu,” Yan replied in Chinese, “Uncle Wang.” She pointed at me. “Ta bu neng shuo yingwen.” “He doesn’t speak English.”

We all laughed. I’d grown to love this kind of humor, the majesty of miscommunication. In a few minutes, the train lights would go out for the night. I breathed in deep; the smell of peanuts lingered in the air. I looked at Yan. I couldn’t help it: I smiled without really meaning to.

***

The days passed; I spent more and more time with Yan. More than anything, I found myself intrigued by how little she resembled the other teachers, in fact, how little she resembled most people I’d met in China. Our language instructors were, on the whole, graduate students in their mid-twenties completing summer practicum requirements. They were young and, despite fluent English, seemed to know the West mainly through clothing brands and the movies. Yan was ten years their senior. Married to a Chinese diplomat, she’d lived with him for six years in South Africa. During her years abroad, she had traveled alone to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Italy, and Istanbul. One year, she spent a semester away from her husband, studying French in Paris.

After so much time spent abroad, Yan found it difficult to return to China. She disliked the way China seemed to relate to the West, an attitude at turns proud and overeager, stubborn and sycophantic. Once, Yan told me, she went out to dinner with a few American friends, and as the waitress served each of her companions his or her meal, Yan’s place setting remained empty. Yan asked about her food; the waitress shrugged: “I didn’t hear your order,” she said. That sort of thing happened all the time, Yan told me. But what most troubled her about being in China, Yan said, had less to do with the country and more to do with her. She was a patriot, she told me. But however many great things the “Chinese miracle” was doing for her country, it wasn’t doing anything to help her dissipate a growing spiritual black hole.

One night, somewhere near the midpoint of the trip, Yan and I walked together through the streets of Pingyao, a provincial tourist hub known for its well-preserved city walls and its history as a Qing-dynasty banking center. During the day, we’d toured Pingyao with a local guide. In the afternoon, the streets were clamorous, filled with Chinese tour groups wearing matching hats and t-shirts.  I’d been curious why the whole city seemed empty of cars, and why all the shopkeepers seemed clad in nearly identical antiquated-looking garb. It was a government regulation, our tour guide explained, designed to preserve the ancient feel of the site. Cars were forbidden from entering the city, and all Pingyao residents were required to wear Qing-dynasty robes during working hours.

“How ridiculous,” Yan had whispered to me, a deviant smile crossing her face. “In China, living a Western lifestyle means buying a Starbucks’ cappuccino, and living like a Chinese person means dressing up like you’re still in the Middle Ages.”

Now, we walked aimlessly along windy, cobblestone lanes bathed in the glare of red streetlamps. The city had grown hushed. It was almost midnight when we turned into the courtyard of our hotel. Everyone else must have been sleeping.

I’d been asking Yan whether she wanted to continue teaching Chinese, and now she shook her head.

“I’m only doing this because I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “Who knows. Maybe I’ll go study in the States.”

I nodded. Yan was over thirty years old, and yet the way she talked about her future betrayed the ambivalence and expectancy of a teenager. We reached the door to my hotel room and, for a minute or two, stood without speaking on the threshold. All was silent save the thwat thwat thwat of a moth futilely charging the courtyard’s lone lamppost. I thought back to the beginning of the semester, to those inane Mandarin incantations I’d muttered to myself on the way to and from class. Lao da ye, nin zuo de shi wo de weizi! My Chinese had come a long way since then. I thought of another sentence I could now say: Yao jinlai ma? Do you want to come in? I looked at Yan. She was wearing a thin gray shirt and black jeans. It took me a moment or so before I realized she was looking at me too. A gaze of sadness, yearning. We stood there for a minute or so longer, and then I said goodnight and headed into my room.

***

The week ended. We returned from Shanxi and classes resumed.  Yan and I continued to spend time together. During lunch breaks, we’d eat together at Subway (Saibaiwei) or drink coffee at Starbucks (Xingbake). I knew she was married, and yet our conversations always seemed to approach the boundaries of flirtation. We’d hover there for a few moments, and then Yan would dissolve the atmosphere of coquetry with a laugh and a sentence or two.

“You’re going to make somebody very happy someday, Tianqi,” she would say teasingly. “But not me. You’re dangerous to me.”

In August, the city swelled again for the start of the Olympics. And yet, when the games officially opened on the eighth of the month, much of Beijing already seemed burned out from the years of hype. The sporting matches were enjoyable – I made it to a few handball bouts and a round of the weightlifting competition – but they were games, not World History. When the closing ceremony arrived three weeks later, the entire city seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief.

My time in China was also coming to a close. On the final night of the program, I went with a number of classmates and teachers to Houhai, a bar district surrounding a small lake in central Beijing. For a while, we all walked the path surrounding the lake. Time passed, the crowd of revelers grew. The neon lights of dance clubs and expat bars cast dimpled reflections onto the dark water. Later that night, I sat with Yan on the roof terrace of a nearly empty bar. The language pledge was over; we spoke in an arbitrary blend of Chinese and English.

“What a pity,” I said. “To leave this place.” “Tai yihan.”

Yihan,” Yan replied.  “Ni zhidao zhei ge danci?” You know that word?

“Yes,” I answered. “It means regret.”

Yan shook her head. “It means more than regret,” she said, this time in English. “It means that you want something, you want it very bad, but you know that it will never be as you hoped.”

A hint of jazz music floated over from the club next door. I sighed.

“Yes,” I said. “Tai yihan.”

“Tai yihan,” Yan replied.

***

Yan and I maintained an intermittent correspondence after I returned home from Beijing. In November, she sent me a Facebook message congratulating “us” (Americans, I suppose) on Obama’s victory in the presidential election.

“I am still teaching in the university,” she wrote, “enjoying the biggest advantage the job brings: free time – a lot of it. I don’t know why a life without ambition suits me so well but upsets me so frequently.”

A week later, she wrote again:

“I am fine. Except once in a while I feel very bored. But since I hear that boredom is, after all, life’s normal condition, I should learn to coexist peacefully with it.”

A few Facebook messages more, and then, she was dead.

Once, during that summer in Beijing, I shared with Yan a copy of one of my favorite Kafka stories, “Building the Great Wall of China.” The story’s narrator is a master craftsman who has spent his lifetime overseeing the construction of a small section of the Great Wall. The entire empire, the narrator relates, has single-mindedly devoted itself to building a barrier against the northern barbarians. And yet, who has ordered the building of the Great Wall, this he cannot say. The craftsman does not even know which emperor sits on the throne, nor can he confirm the existence of the alleged barbarians in the North. But such details are, to him, trifling:

“On the contrary, I imagine that the leadership has existed since time immemorial, along with the decision to construct the wall. Innocent northern people believed they were the cause; the admirable and innocent emperor believed he had given orders for it. We who were builders of the wall know otherwise and are silent.”

A few days after I passed along my copy to Yan, she emailed me a reply.

“I just finished reading the story,” she wrote. “My soul felt stirred. Let’s talk about it soon.”

The program was almost over. We never did talk about the story.

But when Yan died I thought about the Kafka piece once more. Kafka’s narrator, I thought to myself, was right. The name of the emperor, the identity of the people to the north, the logic of the building – these details are trifling. The real blueprint – if such a thing exists – was drawn long ago, in secret, and immediately concealed. To emerge from despair, one must first be content to work alone in silence.

It has been over a year now since Yan died, and still the images of her death remain with me: the stormy water, the capsized vessel, the tiny body – pale, sodden, alone. But I think less of these images, and more of a feeling, a sense of longing. It is a longing for Yan, and also a longing for something else, for everything that is broken to somehow be made right. It is the sort of longing that I think Yan felt too.

Of course, I’ll never know what happened to Yan that day off the New South Wales coast. Did she grab the oars and fight the pull of the water? Even if she did not, she’d fought the pull of other waves long ago. Either way, I can’t help but imagine that when she fell into the sea– or when she jumped – she did so not with a shriek but with a shrug.

We strive; we fail. Tai yihan.

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6 thoughts on “A Love Song Called the Great Wall of China

  1. I’ve been listening to Dire Straits as I read this – Ride Across The River – and thinking that maybe this was the reason you went quiet when we got onto the subject of suicide at dinner. Can’t figure out why I didn’t think to read your writings sooner, I haven’t been so moved by a story since reading ‘After the quake’ by Murakami – his stories have a similar feeling to them. Poetic, thoughtful, kinda distant and cold but oddly relatable.

    You really captured her soul in this, and your relationship, and managed to not give in to nostalgia. Btw, that Murakami book – definitely read it if you haven’t, I can lend you my copy next time you’re in HK.

  2. Stumbled upon this from your Bio on tealeafnation and…oh baby. I hate the way it sometimes takes so much pain to write something beautiful. The way that we, only through blood, can we create without pretense. All that aside though, this is a thoughtfully, delicately, beautifully woven story. Thankyou.

  3. I was one of her classmates during her college years, and we knew each other well at that time. Tai Yihan, I got her news of death a few days ago in party with other classmates and teachers. Although having not got her news for more than ten years, it is still a shock. I tried to find out what had happened to her during these years, and I found your essay, I found she had been like she was all these years, a princess got lost whthin the commons. It is a regret the waters brought her body back to the shore, the world she decided to leave for ever.
    Thanks!

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