Walking in China

By Carlo Rotella


by Carlo Rotella, 89.7 WGBH
My wife and I took our adopted daughters to China for a visit, to see the country they come from, including their hometowns and the orphanages in which they spent the first year of their lives. They’re nine and seven now, old enough to remember what they see. We thought of it as a trip to put some tools in the tool box for later in life, to turn China from a half-mythological place into something more real to them.

One of the small daily pleasures the girls enjoyed during the trip was walking ahead of us, having people react to them--or not react to them--as if they were local. There was a distance at which the relationship between the two Chinese-looking girls walking in front and the two foreign adults walking behind them became ambiguous, then temporarily invisible. At two or three feet ahead, the girls were clearly our daughters, and everybody stared. At four or five feet they were advance scouts; at six feet, maybe related to us and maybe not; and beyond six feet they began to become just two girls going somewhere on their own, like the many parentless adventurers in the fairy tales and chapter books they love so much. People spoke to them in Chinese, which they didn’t understand, or took no notice of them because there were Westerners to stare at coming down the sidewalk in their wake. The pleasure of it for the girls was layered, but at its core was the pleasure of sampling an alternative existence without giving up the one you know best.

Sometimes we had to keep them close, so as not to lose them. One brutally hot day we were in a train station in Wuhan, in a surging crowd of travelers. I had Ling-li, our older daughter, by the hand, dragging a rolling suitcase with the other. I was looking up ahead, where my wife was trudging with Yuan, our younger daughter, and the other suitcase. Some change in the pressure of Ling-li’s grip caused me to look down at her: a woman had appeared out of the crowd and taken her other hand. I had noticed this woman before, on the train, because she stood out. She was tall, broad-shouldered, all in black: black tights, black high heels, snug black top, very short black skirt figured in a gold pattern. She wore a lot of makeup and had spiky long hair and walked with a little extra swing in the hips. She kept her eyes on the way ahead, her hand around Ling-li’s, and the three of us walked like that through the station, an alternative family group. When we got to the exit the woman smiled down at Ling-li and disengaged her hand, opened a little yellow parasol, and went off down the street.

I exchanged a look with my daughter. She shrugged and said, “That was strange, and I felt a little sad, but it was good.”

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