Playing in every knock-off Korean cafe in the Central Plains
Playing in the heart of every middle-class Chinese girl under 24-years-old
“The last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again. The winter of the avalanches was like a happy and innocent winter in childhood compared to that winter and the murderous summer that was to follow. Hadley and I had become too confident in each other and careless in our confidence and pride. In the mechanics of how this penetrated I have never tried to apportion the blame, except my own part, and that was clearer all my life. The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book. I wrote it and left it out. It is a complicated, valuable and instructive story. How it all ended, finally, has nothing to do with this either. Any blame in that was mine to take and possess and understand. The only one, Hadley, who had no possible blame, ever, came well out of it finally and married a much finer man than I ever was or could hope to be and is happy and deserves it and that was one good and lasting thing that came of that year.”
The technology of silence
The rituals, etiquette
the blurring of terms
silence not absence
of words or music or even
Silence can be a plan
the blueprint of a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence
—From “Cartographies of Silence” by Adrienne Rich
The photo is of Tiananmen Square on May 29, 2014, empty
Here, local idioms surrounding what Americans would call forms of “flaking”—not showing up when you said you would show up, not calling when you say you will call, not doing what you say you will do, etc.—all take the form of animal abandonment. For example, to make an appointment and then not attend it without alerting the other party in the hopes that they also will not want to go is called “releasing the pigeon” 放鸽子. When you fail to show up for an appointment with someone, you have released their pigeon. (Google translate hilarious renders this perhaps too idiomatically as “bouncing.”) Once, I was with a friend when her colleague who she was supposed to eat lunch with earlier in the game cryptically asked her if she’d been raising a lot of pigeons lately. When she called him to clarify what he could possibly mean, he laughed and enjoyed his moment of eliciting a dual sense of shame in her, the first for flaking—okay, bouncing—on their lunch date and the second for not getting his animal-related pun. “If you’ve released this many of my pigeons then surely you must be busy raising all of them,” he quipped.
When I play mahjong with my neighbors downstairs, I am guaranteed to have my goat released (which is only a little better than the inverted American idiom in which it is gotten). To release the goat or 放羊 can also mean to flake on an appointment, but among the villagers who live in my complex it’s more likely to mean to renege on the debts one’s incurred while gambling. The problem is, I am a mahjong shark. Even when I am not having a day like today where I win ten games in a row, I can usually stay at least five rounds ahead. For a while, people find this fun. “Yiiii,” the toothless old man in the wheelchair surveilling my tiles might say, "The Old American can really hit ‘em!" But as the game progresses this invariably devolves into an uncomfortable silence as I reveal a winning hand again and again. “Yii? Can the foreigner play mahjong?” clueless passersby ask. Their ill-timed curiosity is rewarded with grunts, and my gains in the game are rewarded not with money but with the routine release of the goat. The woman in charge of the table will count her chips, find them lacking and—before I can finish counting my visibly larger pile—will declare that there’s no need to calculate: today we play for free! Like everyone else, I know better than to try to make eye contact and instead distract myself by saying an elaborate goodbye to one of the babies who has been watching from his grandmother’s lap or by stating too loudly that it’s time for me to go upstairs and cook dinner. “Cook dinner?” someone might say, “But it’s so early!” I don’t ever correct them as I make my way to the elevator. Instead, I think about my goat: sure-footed, free, and roaming happily through the city without me.
If they’d asked us sooner, the American people could have told the Chinese that the original so-called “American Dream” was never capable of being realized. Instead, they’ve made a movie called “My Old Classmate” (同桌的你), which is one of the most accurate and subversive looks at today’s “Chinese Dream” that I’ve seen yet. As a rule, I don’t like writing about films I haven’t seen more than three times, but I am so struck by this movie that I can barely contain myself—at the very least, I want people to know that it’s worth seeing and worth talking about. In the trailers and at the end of the accompanying music video, the makers claim their movie will make you “laugh together, cry together, and be youthful together.” Mostly, though, my friend and I sighed together. “What did you think,” she asked, as one does after watching a movie, and I didn’t even have to pause before saying that—in spite of its wild tone shifts, bizarre use of every cinematic language in history, and blatant sentimentality—it was the most realistic movie I’d seen in a long time. “That has to do with our age,” she said. Both of us were content to leave it at that, but for the whole subway ride home I couldn’t stop picturing the grim way she pursed her lips before changing the subject.