Good lord, it's been a drought these past few months for the one-and-a-half Melon readers out there. Apologies, adoring public. It hasn't been for lack of things happening: Gatherings of war reporters, film festivals, and, most recently, a visit from Mom. The last was the most terrifying. Try as I could after she told me she was coming, I just could not imagine my mother in China. After her visit, however, I wondered how she'd ever avoided a life like mine -- a traveling one. She's a natural.
I went to meet her in Beijing. It was a dodgy plan from the get-go. She was flying in from D.C., I was flying in from Shantou. We'd meet in the Beijing airport. Of course, my plane was an hour late. My mom, having never been to Asia, never been to China, was alone, dealing with international arrivals at the Beijing airport all by herself when she landed. I was in filial hell as I ran from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 in the airport.
Just before I switched on my phone, however, I had an epiphany: She'd probably have about ten friends by now. This was the woman who could coerce complete strangers into doing her bidding. Sure enough, as I gasped for air and glanced at my phone, calling up one message, two messages, three messages from the cyber-abyss, I knew she was fine. In almost perfect English, the first message read, "Hello, your Mom is in Starbuck's looking for you. She is the very anxious." Then the phone began to ring -- "Hi are you John? Your mother is in Starbucks..."
We saw the sights of Beijing over a couple of days. The Forbidden City and the Wall. After four years in China, I've become jaded, so seeing everything with fresh eyes was a godsend. We stayed in a place that I'd recommend to anyone, especially those bringing parents to China: Mao'er Hutong Bed and Breakfast. Delightful. For about 60 U.S. dollars a night, I set Mom up in Room A (only four rooms in the B&B, as it really is an old siheyuan, a four-walled courtyard home), which looked like it was a set straight out of "The Last Emperor" -- canopy bed, a Qing era divan, an entire living room, bed room and bath. Mao'er Hutong is also in a great location. A minute or so to the right is Nanluoguxiang, the Beijing hutong street that has become full of trendy bars and restaurants. A minute or so the other way, Houhai, a well-known Beijing lake and nightlife spot.
Probably the best thing about having Mom here was how it brought out the absolute best in Chinese culture: extreme devotion to and respect for parents and elders. Everywhere we went, when people realized I was with my mom, that this was her first trip to China, all the stops were pulled out. I'm friends with a Beijing taxi driver named Pi Hong Jie. Pi Shifu, Master Pi, is an all-around solid guy, one of the best guys I've met here, and somewhat bizarrely, has a perfect command of about 50 English words he learned in a class called "English for Taxi Drivers." It was incredibly fun to ride in the back of the taxi and pretend to be asleep and listen to his conversations with Mom. Every time we got in or out of the car, he was opening the door for her, holding her arm to make sure she was alright.
Pi Shifu undercharged us by at least 100 kuai and took us to the Wall at Mutianyu. It was a perfect day. The sky looked like fresh blue watercolor paint on the page. The brown dragon spine of the wall drifted over the mountains. There were patches of snow amidst the brown. It was a little scary to have my mom up there -- in her heart she's 35, not 66, but her balance shows her real age. Truth be told, I told her for years not to come to China; what if something happened to her here? I would never forgive myself.
Then, at a certain point earlier this year, we'd been talking about it on the phone.
"John, let me tell you something. I'm 66, I don't have so many adventures left in me. The time we have with the people we love is limited, " she'd said. I'd finally gotten it, and several months later there we were, from the suburbs of Tampa Florida, standing together on the Great Wall.
We came down from the wall and I could see Mom was awfully tired. Pi Shifu helped her into the car. There was an old lady hanging about, and I was hovering, protective, thinking she was planning on harassing Mom like many of the touts and sellers. When I looked closer, though, I realized she was just a local villager and very, very curious. The old woman was pure peasant -- tiny, carrying some kind of sack, face like a prune. She looked 85 but could have been my Mom's age. I sat in the back seat as the car warmed up. The old lady was standing in the parking lot a few feet from the taxi, just staring intently at Mom in the front seat. Mom was equally fascinated with her. The old lady broke into a huge grin as my Mom smiled at her and waved. The lady waved back. My Mom waved back. My Mom smiled. The old lady smiled. The lady waved back again. The car wasn't going anywhere -- it had to warm up. My Mom and the old peasant lady from Mutianyu just sat there for what seemed like ages smiling and waving at each other, until finally we drove away.