Grandpa bought the place for cheap back in the sixties, a Communist blessing. Grandpa did good for high-ranking Reds. Black-and-white photographs of him with the Chairman hang where house guests will look. Curio cabinet after cabinet display his shiny, complicated, a bit garish, Cultural Revolutionary Chinese interpretations of bourgeois gifts and décor, fit for a man who did good for high-ranking Reds. Irony is not hypocrisy. Two beasts of distinct blood and dental records.
Slick blooming mold that remind me of dissected reptile organs live in the bathroom and frighten me. Mom forces me to wash anyway. I tell her I am clean. She takes hold of me and scratches down my back with her fingernails, then shows me what I did not see, sooty, crumbling cakes of dirt. Here, no one is clean, not without a steaming shower every night. I still hesitate to go in there. I would feel like an intruder, I contend. Mom’s patience is waning. She shakes me. They are not the dissected reptile organs you speak of, she says, it’s just a little mold. I skitter in there to appease her, splash water on my face, rinse my feet, and skitter out. I lack the temerity of Dad, who takes hour-long baths in the tub, where the mold has formed civilizations.
I look out the window afterward, and see that it is night. Day here is gray from the smog stretched over the city, thick and foaming like the fats Mom ladles off her meat stews, only no one skims the smog for Beijing. Night, then, is a darker gray than day, never black, never the surrendering calm of obsidian like the nights in Central Valley, California, never midnight blue, never the color of shut eyelids, of REM sleep, never the color of silence.
The neighbors next door argue. I hear them through the walls. Traffic sounds in the distance, an even atonal progression of chords and syncopated rhythms, call to mind Stravinsky.
* * *
In the National Geographic, I saw a Beijing with bicycles, and rawboned boys in green caps riding the bicycles. But my Beijing flaunts a fleet of luxury cars, honking and speeding, weaving from left lane to right to left again; and the cab driver who took me from the airport to Grandpa’s front doorstep, a jittering, irascible man, demanded to know why I could not speak Chinese if I look Chinese. He dodged buses and motorbikes with a dexterity that made me wonder if he the person could dodge bullets.
Fifteen minutes into the ride, he seemed less jittering, less irascible, and so we talked. We talked politics, and he had more opinions and criticisms about China than my mother had about me. I thought heck to all the charges of repression. That one driver made the left-wing progressives of my country look apathetic.
But when we arrived at my destination, he turned to face me and said without a trace of humor, You might not want to talk too openly about Tibet independence, Taiwan independence, or Falun Gong while you’re here. Leave that for your American papers. Then he wished me an enjoyable trip and took off. Irony is not hypocrisy. Two beasts of distinct blood and dental records.
Mom waited by the front entrance, arms open, a big smile on her face. Come here! Let me look at you!
* * *
Mom peers in through the door to check on me. She has softened in the last hour. How are you doing? she asks. My bed is hard as a plank of wood, I tell her. She tells me it is not wood. It is bamboo. I whine that I need a mattress. And a goose down comforter. And then A/C on max because after all, it is summer. Mom kisses me on my forehead, and then slips out.
A portrait of Grandpa sits on the nightstand. His eyes look straight at me, full of vibrancy, an unsmiling vibrant dead man here on the nightstand and, grandfather or not, the portrait, too, frightens me like the civilizations of mold.
Photo by K_iwi