Back to China
October 14, 2008
Beijing is a big city, not unlike big cities everywhere. The structures of these places are the buildings we build, and they are also the structures of our attempts to stay connected with each other, to know and to be with one another, to understand. On Monday, I landed in Mainland China for the third time. It is Tuesday evening here in Beijing’s Jinhua Hotel as… I write.
I was invited to the World Literature Conference at Beijing Normal University and the Fulbright 31st Anniversary Conference at Days Inn in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. Once my friends in the literary community here heard that I was coming, my itinerary filled so that I will be quite busy on this trip and happily so.
My friend Bei Ta made temporary arrangements for me through his friend Nan Feng, a businessman. At the airport I was met by Nan Feng’s secretary and a driver. They took my bags and walked with me to the car. The airport has been redesigned since I was here three years ago, and this new terminal is a massive construction that seems to dwarf all of us a thousand times and then a thousand more. We waited for the elevator in an area that is the size of the Houston astrodome and that has that kind of geodesic canopy. However, the whole place was far less busy than O’Hare, which has always disturbed me because the planes sometimes approach the airport on runway sections that go over the highways.
The image of O’Hare’s runways over Chicago’s highways just seems a bit too much of an urban mess, a plane going by you as you are driving your car along the road.
Nan Feng’s employees helped me settle into my room where I would stay for the first two days, and we made arrangements for dinner. Nan Feng and a few other poet friends and his secretaries treated me to dinner here in the Jinghua Hotel where I am spending two nights before moving onto Beijing Normal University. We had a wonderful arrangement of dishes, complete with red wine. Nan Feng gave me several of his books, all of which have photographs that accompany the poems, something he feels helps draw the reading audience. One of his books is all about the Wen Chuan earthquake, and another is about the SARS epidemic that struck a few years ago.
Nan Feng is committed to social awareness and citizenship that way. We talked and everyone was impressed with my level of Chinese, which is intermediate. I get to a certain level of comprehension in a conversation and then need assistance sometimes. I said that a year in China would bump my Chinese up to another level.
Nan Feng and his friends responded, “It would be good if you could stay in China.”
When we enter each other’s spaces, we have to try to translate the experience of being new to and with each other. I have enough Chinese to hold a decent conversation and read some intermediate texts, but then there is also the cultural way. Beijing is the sprawling capital of the city in a way that New York would be if the White House and all the rest of our central government were there on the Hudson. We dwarf each other when we gather in such huge numbers. The sound of us to ourselves is the sound of a song that accumulates and makes its personal sense a thing we sometimes do not understand. Even in our own native language, we struggle for our personal connections in the complexities of urban life.
As such, life is a dream that always changes, and that is, I think, our hope.
On Tuesday morning I went to visit Marilyn Chin’s class at the Foreign Studies University here, and I was so moved. Marilyn is here for the semester as a Visiting Professor and is teaching a translation class, and two other classes. She had her students translate five of my poems. I read them in English, and some of them read their translations. We spoke in English, but I let them know I have some Chinese. We met in this most fascinating place called translation, where languages and cultures look over each other, where they try to understand each other.
One of the poems they translated is “A Black Man’s Sonata,” a piece I wrote for Maria Gillan’s anthology Unsettling America. I imagine that poem. as well as the others of mine in that collection, unsettled some people. I had the triadic structure of sonatas in mind when I wrote the poem but could not recall it while there with Marilyn’s class. As I was thinking about sonatas, the questions came, and I found myself trying to explain how black people’s lives are part of the struggles of people of color and of women to make America realize its own democratic ideals for people who were excluded from those ideals when they were written by white men who owned property and held power.
Marilyn asked them to read some of their poems. One student by the name of June read a poem she wrote in English about feeling estranged from Chinese culture by spending so much time studying foreign cultures. Rachel, another student, read her translations and gave me a packet of her original poems in Chinese. August, who is Marilyn’s teaching assistant, read a few of his translations of my poems. They sounded and felt very much like the sense I had of my own work. Translation is fascinating, and when it carries the emotional content from one language to another, it has accomplished a difficult and important thing in our lives.
We were people. It sounds funny to me as I write, perhaps because it is a sentence I never use. We were people. We saw each other and spoke in each other’s language. We formed connections as intricate as geodesic structures, but we did it in much more quickly. No one can build an airport in ninety minutes. But we can build in relations in that time.
Afterwards I went to lunch with Marilyn, her teaching assistant and another young professor. We had an elaborate meal there in the faculty section of the dining hall and later walked out to where I could catch a taxi. In the Chinese way, Marilyn’s teaching assistant August carried my bag, and I was wearing a deep navy sport jacket with black pants and a navy knit shirt. Along the way we passed construction workers who were so mesmerized with the sight of us that they seemed suddenly frozen, as if they had become a still photograph that the four of us were walking through. This way of staring at foreigners is something I have gotten used to in Chinese culture, and in my own inner way I am staring, too.
For the moment I was caught in my own worker life, suddenly back in that space of machines and truck loading docks in Procter & Gamble’s Baltimore warehouse, a time in my life that coincided with that of many people in China who were sent to the worker life among commoners in order to have a touchstone. There are several Chinese poets I know who share my work history, a sense of community that does not exist for me at home in the U.S. where self-examination in the form of class consciousness is not a vital part of our lives. Hopefully, one day it will be.
Meanwhile, there is Joe Weil over at Binghamton University. He and I share that work history, and when I went there to read this past winter he and I met for the first time after knowing each other through correspondence. We met in words and letters. Tom Daly, a Cambridge poet, spent many years as a machinist, labor organizer, and anti-racism worker.
The weekend before coming here to Beijing, I convened the international festival of Chinese poetry back in Boston, at Simmons College, and we spent a good deal of time working with and discussing translation. The poet Tino Villaneuva, who is Chicano by way of Texas and who won the American Book Award for his book Giant, took part in the workshop. One of his poems was translated in a team that included the poet Zhou Zan, a woman who lives and teaches in Beijing. She read her translation to all of us from her laptop, and the connection happened. The emotion of the poem, its breath and spirit, made the journey from one language to another.
Communication such as that is what we so urgently need in our lives now, as we amass in ever greater numbers in the spaces of each other’s lives, in the cities of actual spaces, and in the cities that are the spaces of our relationships with one another.
The mind works that way, and so does the heart. Marilyn’s students gave me the gift of a poem by the great ancient poet Du Fu that one of them did in her own calligraphy. I am going to frame it when I get back to Boston.
I am in China again. This is my third time.