In the New York Times, I see an article dated October 10, 2021. The headline says, “China Flexes Power over Taiwan”. This island has moved to the heart of tensions between our two countries. Could it really come to war?
It’s been 12 years since I traveled to China with my company, Concert Dance. We went to China for a cultural exchange between dancers. We went to see if we could learn something about each other. Now looking back after all this time, my memories of the trip are bound in a mental scrapbook of moments imprinted with sounds, colors and tastes.
I remember lunch in the old part of Nanjing, sixteen of us seated at a long narrow table, eating “stinky tofu” (that’s really what it is called by the Chinese) along with other mysterious morsels. We listened to the Olympic Anthem sung by a young woman, sequins sparkling off her pink dress as she squeaks out every note captured by a microphone giving off some minor distortion.
Our host, the Dean of the Nanjing Normal University College of Arts, looked straight at me and asked, ”You like stinky tofu?” I lie, and node yes (it’s stinky like old socks stinky). He smiled and said, ”Good, have mine,” and he displayed the tiniest bit of a laugh. I smiled back at his gentle humor. One of the few moments of levity we shared with our hosts. It was a tiny crack in the protocol, and I liked him instantly. Then he excused himself, stood next to the table, and gave a little bow with a bit of a smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth. He walked out of the restaurant, and we didn’t see him again.
I turn the pages of my mental scrapbook; its color has faded, and its pages dried. We are standing on the great wall of China. The wall went on into the distance and we were about to enter a courtyard with no grass or trees. Suddenly, there was a break in the crowd. Two dancers, one white, one black, and a member of the technical crew so tattooed he could be called blue, were surrounded by a group of young Chinese asking to take their picture.
The white dancer was a tall green-eyed woman, her red hair like a stroke of calligraphy against the ancient wall, stood five foot ten. Walking next to her the black dancer is a handsome, muscular African American man of equal height. The blue tattooed man was similarly muscular, but bald and pierced with gold rings through his nose, ears and lips. The three walking together on one of the seven wonders of the world must have seemed an exotically irresistible image. The three of them smile and pose for the cameras. The young Chinese photographers packed together with heads almost touching compare their photos of these three. The crowd pushes through and we move on.
The next page is blank. That’s because it was June 4, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square which was a rare display of protest by Chinese students and residents of Beijing. It was violently put down by the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. We tried to post one of our daily reports to our followers in the US but couldn’t log into our blog site. We thought it might be our technology or the computers. But soon we learned; the Chinese internet was down. Or perhaps it was turned off? Silent and reflective, we all milled around and waited. It came back up the next day.
I can feel my thumb flip through more pages. I see them filled with smaller pictures. There is a duck being fed in the park, (it was probably going to be someone’s dinner soon). And there was the bad coffee from a local Chinese Starbucks café, and tea-soaked eggs, and insistent peddlers selling everything from books to wrist watches. In another picture I see an old woman dressed in peasant clothing with her hands forming a rough- hewn cup begging for us to fill it. My Chinese hosts shoo her away. They seemed embarrassed by her. I’m reminded of what I heard so often from the people I met. They always said, “We are not political. All we want is a good life.” This remains a strong memory because I am from the US where everything is political, and politicized, all day long, all the time.
There probably won’t be another trip to China for us anytime soon. I think to myself, I stood on the Great Wall, felt the heat of a culture unbroken for thousands of years. And I have my memory-book, bits of information captured in my mind. I will value it and save it. And from time to time, I’ll take a peek at it in the hope that both our countries can remember they each have way too much too loose.
As I close my scrapbook, these pictures I carry of the people we met in China are still vibrant. Do they carry pictures of me? Did our shared experience resonate, do they tell stories to their friends about us? Do they remember the tall red haired girl? Or our dancing? When they see the headlines, do they think of us? Could it really come to war?