Manuscript Excerpt: Chapter One
HEART OF AN EMPIRE
The way of the superior man is threefold,
But I am not equal to it.
Virtuous, he is free from anxiety;
Wise, he is free from hesitation;
Courageous, he is free from fear.
– Confucius, Analects 14:28
The first promise of dawn paints a watercolor on Tiananmen Square. An old man dressed in navy blue flows quietly through the circular movements of tai chi; a woman on a bicycle tows a young girl in a red wagon. The canvas of this painting is the broad square stones beneath my feet, stones that murmur nothing about parades or riots, joy or mania, blood, the toes of leaping feet, tears. The moment holds only peace. Long stone buildings form the painting’s frame: The Great Hall of the People stands to the west, the People’s Museum of the Revolution is on the east, the granite-gray Frontgate towers to the south, and Tiananmen Gate stands at the north, guarding the countless golden roofs of the Forbidden City. On every stone cornice, eave, and column, the air hangs silent and still, as if waiting between earthquake beats of time.
Out of place amid all the stone is an electronic billboard in front of the Museum of the Revolution. “147,988 seconds,” announce its red digits, precisely measuring the earthquake beats of time that remain before the huígui, the handover of Hong Kong, in a bit less than two days. The four dark squares to the left of the decrementing digits suggest that the billboard has been counting down for years, perhaps even for all thirteen years since Margaret Thatcher first pledged to return the colony to China. In any event, it’s June 29, 1997, and there’s little time left for the British to change their minds. Decorative flags hang everywhere, drooping patiently in the quiet air: Half are the familiar, scarlet Chinese banner; Half are the future flag of Hong Kong, which is also red but with a single white Bauhinia orchid succinctly replacing the British crown.
Three young women clutch miniatures of the two flags in their fingers, and they skip the scoreboard and stroll up to me. “Be in a picture?” one asks boldly.
I nod, and two of them stand beside me, tentatively touching me just at the moment the third snaps a camera. Then they’re gone, as always.
My steps carry me further across the paved plane, past Mao Tse-tung’s enormous mausoleum, to a towering granite obelisk called the Monument to the People’s Heroes. As Hong Kong’s seconds tick away, I sit on the monument’s steps, my royal blue backpack beside me, and I feel the liquor of freedom and the terror of utter isolation mingle in my body. The sun’s early rays throw inky shadows from the monument and cast the rest of the world in a glistening stark light, as if this painting is but moments old and its painter has only just set down his brush.
Hundreds of pigeons swoop and alight nearby. A small boy dashes at the pigeons, gleefully hurling handfuls of yellow bread. Green-uniformed schoolchildren rush over in a horde, bouncing their own fistfuls of dough among the heads of the hungry birds. Hungry myself, I reach into my backpack for a breakfast of leftovers: a red apple and some crumbling crackers. Sleep didn’t come well or easily during the thirty-four hour train ride up from Guangzhou, and my eyelids struggled to stay open as we rolled into China’s capital city at 5:15 am. The bus driver announced Tiananmen Square, and the place seemed to call to me, so I got off.
Now I’m here and eager – despite inadequate sleep and food – to do what’s next: call Colt. He handed me a phone number months ago, before leaving Guangzhou, telling me he’d be staying with the family of his mother’s San Francisco acupuncturist. But it is hardly proper to call a Chinese family I’ve never met at the crack of dawn.
Thirty minutes pass, and the need to move unseats me. Energy pours through my veins from every direction, gathering in my chest, running to my limbs, tapering at my fingers. I enjoy the feeling as I move, letting it kick out the kinks in my knees and ankles from the two-day ride. I walk all the way to the south end of the square, Frontgate, the oldest edifice here; Frontgate was once the one and only portal among thick walls that immured royal palaces, back when entrance was forbidden to the public. Now, abandoned and denuded of its walls, vestigial Frontgate quietly gapes outward, southward, across a boulevard of speeding cars, to its motley young neighbors: McDonald’s and KFC.
The patio outside McDonald’s is already crowded with locals at 7:45 am. To the overjoyed children, hip teens, and businesswomen in skirts, this restaurant, this endlessly replicated plastic diner is a symbol of modernity, a hot spot for social climbers, a place to see and be seen. To me, when I open the doors, the picture flips into its opposite, like a photographic negative, and a world that was strange turns suddenly familiar: the subzero air conditioning, the synthetic yellow and red décor, the plastic imitation wood tables, the particular stench of special sauce. Here I know the mores, I know the words, I can be the one who laughs. I order in English, and lickety-split, orange juice, eggs, and a hash brown puck land on a brown tray. I sit on a red-orange bench and consume morsels of a syrupy grease I haven’t tasted in these ten months. I look around me, return the stares for a moment, and smile comfortably to myself. The audible words, phrases, and conversations, however, still fly at me from this peculiar Mandarin universe that has callously lost and found me so many times through these many moons that I often feel deaf, dumb, and stupid. On the table, beside my plate of eggs, I thumb open my scarlet pocket Mandarin dictionary and build vocabulary the hard way, word by word. I learn that I mispronounced the term gètihù – individual street vendors. Gètihù, called China’s newest capitalists, typically xiuli shoubiio (fix watches), mài bàozhi (peddle newspapers), or sell hot roù chuan (meat kebabs).
Leaving Màidangláo (McDonald’s) and returning to Zhongguó (China), I spot a few gètihù right here in the heart of the communist shoodu (capital city). A barrel-chested man fries sweet-smelling wheat bread on a black griddle; an old woman knits socks behind the counter of a magazine stand. The woman eyes me as I approach and reach for her red telephone. 8:45 a.m. seems sufficiently polite. “Local call?” she demands, in Mandarin. I nod and extract a purple half-yuan note from my belt pouch, and fling it coldly onto the counter, as the Cantonese do. The receiver emits clicks as I press the buttons, and then it rings and rings. No answer. I check the digits, the date, the time, the city. I dial again, but again it only rings and rings without response. Retrieving my money, I walk over to a concrete bench, needles suddenly shooting through me. He forgot? He lied? He changed his plans? He met an untimely death in the Mongolian hinterlands? I stare at my backpack, its soft blue nylon skin shining in the sun. I packed lightly: four T-shirts, four pairs of socks, two pairs of shorts, one pair of pants, and one long-sleeve shirt. I brought a camera, a journal, a pocket dictionary, and the securely rigged belt pouch Lu Lan helped me buy in Guangzhou, which is stuffed now with cash, traveler’s checks, permits, and two forms of ID. The day before I left Guangzhou (the people are Cantonese, but no one calls the city Canton anymore), a package from my father arrived containing Herman Hesse’s Narcissus & Goldmund, and I tossed the novel into my pack. And that’s it, that’s all I have here – that bag and my solitary self. My guitar and all my other worldly possessions will hopefully, peacefully, remain safe and sound in my teacher’s dormitory at Peizheng Middle School until I return.
The crowd thickens before my eyes. Chinese tourists, cameras in hand, arrive in busloads. I am about to call out to Lu Lan, but of course it’s not her. A girl in a group of college students smiles at me, waving those same two miniature huígui flags. Witnessing the flags in happy hands again and again, I feel as if I’ve crashed an enormous wedding, as if the flags are party favors, symbols of a bride and groom, and the crowd represents a million guests converging on a church. Who will sing the wedding song, the song I sang in Guangzhou, the canticle of the tortured lovers, Aobao Xianghui?
I return to the phone stand and dial the same numbers. Fruitless again. I hoist my backpack onto my shoulder and cross back into the square. Face after face stops to watch the seconds tick away on Britain’s freewheeling colony. They also watch me, even point at me, or ask me to give their photos a cosmopolitan touch. Meanwhile the sun blazes hotter and hotter as I try Colt’s number every half hour. At 11:00, I confront reality: I’m alone, solo, yigerén.
I continue walking, gazing skyward at the kites brought by wedding guests. Is it too late to go back to the train station, to go back to Guangzhou, to just go home, as everyone else – Byron and Lauren and Paige – did? The kites overhead are eagles and diamonds and rainbows, and they soar to and fro against swaths of ivory cloud in baby blue.
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by Tony Brasunas on January 4, 2014