I realize I never finished the story of Harbin, which I visited nearly a year ago.
It began with my need to research this icy Russian-Jewish-Chinese enclave in Manchuria, home of the international ice festival, seat of the frigid Songhua River, intending to flesh out the frigid landscape for the novel I’m working on (interminably) about the end of my world 100 years from now.
But really, the story begins in Beijing. Last January I went there to see a few former students, among them Yinan Ma, who was trying to help me get a few client “fish” on the line for the company I work for intermittently, The Writers for Hire. We’d try to entice all these Chinese companies writing and publishing “Chinglish” at various fossil fuel exhibitions in Houston to get real and hire native Western writers. No luck.
I was lectured at a dinner by Yinan and finger-clicking Nora Qi who had let her hair run wild that Chinese companies would never hire us unless we established an office at huge expense in Beijing. I realized that wouldn’t happen on my watch. In the space of an hour my entire business purpose for going to Beijing evaporated.
But then I realized that something more personal was driving me, and that was seeing my old friend Wang Qian, whom I had written about in my entry about Shanghai back in 2012.
To me, Qian is the very expression of everything I have loved about China: She is open, inquisitive, and always in flux. She’s ambitious, tough on me, especially about my relationship with my daughter…all of it. I remember spending one evening with her in Beijing during my teaching episode. I think she took me to the Cultural Yard, one of her favorite hang-outs (she seems to love Western-Chinese encounters on low squishy sofas, with good looking gay men flirting with her without any serious intent). After the evening, I had to take a train back to the dormitory at China Agricultural University in the Haidian district, and Qian was headed in the other direction, southeast, where she lived, on the opposite platform. We waved to each other several times, and I realized, as I watched her disappear as the subway doors opened and took her away, that I was utterly happy. I’d realized whatever it was that I desired out of being in China was right there, on that platform.
Her charm, intelligence, broken English, ability to understand and argue the Western case; that long lithe body, easy laugh and elegant carriage, had moved me in a way that I hadn’t been moved since falling in love decades earlier. Yes, it was love. It’s funny how just a couple of hours together can stick with you for a lifetime. She took me entirely by surprise. I realized that I would cherish Wang Qian from then on; and that feeling has never left me. But everything changed once again when I went to Beijing nearly a year ago en route to Harbin.
Qian, whom I had seen briefly in Hong Kong in 2013, after a really bad student concert that I mistook for a professional opera in the billing, seemed saddened and somewhat distant in Beijing. Her journalism career, thanks to Xi Jin Ping and his campaigns of media censorship and repression, had evaporated. She decided instead to study movie making and was planning on a six month course in England.
We were supposed to meet that first evening in Beijing but I had arrived 8 hours late thanks to a United flight snafu, so I didn’t get to my freezing room in a courtyard hotel near her home until 3 AM. Yinan Ma, bless his heart, had waited for me all those hours at the airport and managed to find this little Jing Shan Garden hotel, a traditional Chinese hostel with no central heating in a tiny hutong near Jing Shan Park. Qian and I were supposed to me that evening for dinner…and so, at about 9:30 in the morning, she showed up, hugged me hard, and we sat down and had breakfast. A walk in Jing Shan Park, a lunch of dianxin (little desserts) in a tony restaurant in Beijing, and a movie, Lao P’er, about a gangster guy who ends up reforming and fighting a group of young punks, ultimately reporting some of them to the Committee for Discipline Inspection.
It was an interesting flick, but Wang Qian hated it for its political message (and maybe the artistic one). Then we had dinner with Yinan Ma, his girlfriend, and Nora Qi. As the conversation blathered on, Nora kept clicking her fingers, as though she were onto something. I could feel Wang Qian disappearing through the other end of a telescope. She was tired; I was exhausted, and I had the strangest feeling that my attempts at some kind of intimacy were backfiring.
We talked about the loss of her boyfriend a few years back, and also the fact that she was alone and was working for a foreign Mandarin-speaking journalist, Hannah (a Swede) as a researcher. She seemed to idolize Hannah and her juggling of a house husband and children. But she seemed irrevocably alone, somewhat tentative — I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I understand the loss of confidence. In mid-to-late 30s, every Chinese woman deals with the term “sheng nu” (left over woman) if she hasn’t properly mated and married. Wang Qian had had a six year relationship with a journalist that had gone sour a few years back. She was so attractive, though, I was sure she’d meet someone else. But somehow that didn’t happen, and it was clear to me that she didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t much, but whatever I said seemed to stoke caution, distance — and suddenly, the next day, she was gone.
I went alone to the Temple of Heaven, hadn’t slept a wink that night thinking I had tired or offended her. I even apologized in a WeChat message…but she told me she was fine (not offended). Whatever, I saw her briefly the night — she cooked me dinner — I saw her lovely apartment…simple, but serviceable. She had a roommate who was coming back. She relayed an episode about her father that caused tears – suffice it to say that he had suffered uncontrollable bursts of anger and had lashed out when she had tried to protect her mother. There was no catharsis, though, in the retelling. The story hung over us like a pall. I hugged her quickly goodbye, but we were literally, physically, off balance; we nearly toppled in the embrace. That was the last time I saw her…she went to England, completed her course, sent me a tiny scrap of script to read, and now is back in Shanghai working for a film company. I tried to meet her on my furlough in Shanghai last week en route from Delhi back to Los Angeles. But she was shooting and couldn’t make it. I have no idea what’s happened to her, not really, and I’m sure she will never let me know.
These days, Wang Qian sends quick tweets and polite upbeat messages. She seems happier. It’s my Philistine nature, I suppose, barging into people’s lives who don’t want to be barged into, that keeps her at a distance. I remember I wrote her a heartfelt letter (unfortunately with a certain amount of bullshit advice about her career and romantic life) that I actually penned in my notebook the night before I departed by train for Harbin. Then I expurgated it as I left for Harbin. (I realize now the original letter was much more genuine than the redacted version; in any event, in these sleepless jet-lagged nights, I chalk it up to another failure, an open admission of my inability to very gently “be” with someone of my own gender. ) I feel no shame anymore at having feelings beyond the standard admissions; these are real and true. I do feel shame at my frequent displays of insensitivity or inability to let her just be what she is. The more I love, the more intense my gaze, the more I seem to frighten people who just want to feel safe and loose and happy with someone in small and acceptable doses.
Wang Qian is China for me. She’s my moon for the misbegotten; the faerie spirit just out of reach. Someone who absolutely delighted and intrigued me. A woman I no longer have the privilege to really know.
More on Harbin, Indonesia, and India in my next posts.