Read Living by the Word Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Living by the Word (12 page)

So why am I going to China?

Whenever I fly, I fear I will not return to Earth except in shreds. As the plane lifts off I look at the Earth with longing and send waves of love to cover it as I rise.

How could anyone be foolish enough to leave the ground?

But you, I write to both of them, will also understand this contradiction in me: that I must fly to see even more of the Earth I love.


In this one Susan and I are on the plane somewhere over the Pacific reading identical copies of
The True Story of Ah Q
by the immortal Lu Hsun and drinking innumerable cups of Japanese green tea. In this story (1921), by the “father” of modern Chinese literature, a penniless peasant blunders his way into revolutionary pretense among local villagers, who hang him for his troubles. Lu Hsun depicts Ah Q as a foolish, childish person with no understanding of his emotions or his fate. We finish reading it about the same time and look at each other in quizzical disbelief. We feel Lu Hsun has condescended to his character, in precisely the way white Southern writers have condescended to their characters who are black. And as male writers condescend to characters who are women. That he, in fact, cannot believe a peasant capable of understanding his own oppression, his own life. Since the story is also exceedingly dull, we wonder what the Chinese value in it, beyond the fact that it is perhaps the first attempt to portray a Chinese peasant in fiction.


This one shows our arrival in Beijing. Not the actual landing and meeting with our interpreters and Chinese writer hosts, but the long drive from airport into town. Our first awareness is that though China’s people population is phenomenal, its
population is more so: and they are a kind of planned magic. From the air they’re hardly visible because of the dust that sweeps down from the northern desert steppes and turns the landscape dun and yellow. And even when they first appear they seem modest and young, and one thinks of them in future tense. How grand they will look at eighty, and so on. But by the time one arrives on the streets of Beijing and notices veritable layers of trees five and six rows deep lining the broad boulevards a wonderful relief comes over the mind.

For one feels irresistibly drawn to people who would plant and care for so many millions of trees—and a part of this traveler relaxed. Because, for one thing, the planting of trees demonstrates a clear intention to have a future and a definite disinterest in war.


In this one, five members of our group are standing around the limited but adequate bar (orange crush, mineral water, beer, Coca-Cola) at the end of our floor in a hotel in Beijing. It is the day of our first long outing through the dusty streets of the city. Everyone is hot and thirsty. They are trying to decide whether to have orange crush, mineral water, or beer, like Americans who know what is going on. The look of dismay on their faces is because I have just walked up to the counter and said to the barkeep: I’ll have a Coke.

I take the Coke into the room I share with Susan, drink some, and pour some out the window in libation. I save the bottle cap with “Coca-Cola” written in Chinese. Wherever I go in the world I buy one Coca-Cola in memory of the anonymous black woman who is said to have created it (probably on the theory that if you dope your masters—I have heard that Coke used to have coke in it—they’re more pleasant).

I never heard of that, says Susan.

And I tell her it is the one thing I remember from my high-school graduation day. Our commencement speaker, Mr. Bullock, a horticulturist of stature from Atlanta, tried for thirty minutes to inspire pride of heritage in us by listing name upon illustrious name of heroic and creative black folk. People nodded. But when he said: Even Coca-Cola was invented by a black woman, everybody snapped awake. For didn’t most of us drink this part of the heritage every day?

I tell Susan that in Collonwalde, the Coca-Cola mansion outside Atlanta, there is a statue of a black woman in the foyer, but nobody I asked about her seemed to know who she was or why she’s there.

I laugh. It doesn’t matter, really (though what a story there must be behind this story, I think). There’s too much sugar in Coke. I’m sure the original was much better. It may even have been created as a medicine. We run that down a little, start talking about the two most insidious poisons loose in the world today: sugar and cocaine; and soon drift off to sleep.


In this one I am wearing a large mulberry-colored coat several sizes too big, a long grape-colored scarf, a Chinese peasant hat the size of an umbrella, and am carrying a cane with a dragon carved on it. We have just stopped twenty miles upriver from the town of Guilin (after a stunning boat ride through mountains that look like stone trees), and the peasant merchants from the surrounding countryside have ambushed us on the shore. Their one American word is “hello,” which they say with the same off-key intonation that I’m sure we say “nee-how” (phonetic Chinese for “hello”). In their mouths it becomes a totally different word. It is like meeting a long line of people and each one solemnly greets you with “Elbow.” I fantasize that my “nee-how” probably sounds like, say, the Chinese word for “foot” to them. So all during this trip I’ve been smiling and saying “hello” and they’ve been hearing “foot, foot, foot.”

Looking closely at this picture I see that I am also wearing very baggy pants. In fact, everything I’m wearing is several sizes too large. I realize we were asked by our tour leader not to wear tight, uncomfortable, or revealing clothes, but the overall looseness of my attire appears extreme.

I suspect, looking at this picture, in which I look ridiculous, but regal, that this outsize dressing is typical of people—especially women—who grow up in families whose every other member is larger than they are. Which is true in my family. We can’t believe we’re as small as we are. And so, we dress ourselves as if we were they.


This is a picture of a university dormitory in Guilin. It is early evening as Susan and I walk across the campus on our way to visit families of Susan’s Chinese acquaintances in Portland. As is true everywhere in China, there is no wasted electricity (lighting is mellow rather than bright; forty watts rather than a hundred) and no unused space. In rooms smaller than those two U.S. college students would share, five and six students bunk. Freshly washed clothes hang everywhere inside the rooms, and outside the windows on long bamboo poles. The students we meet on the path are returning to the classrooms, which double as places of study at night. We watch rows and rows of them bent silently, intently, over their books.

Of course I think of Hampton Institute, Tuskegee, the early days of Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Spelman, black colleges started just after the Civil War in barracks and basements: poor, overcrowded, but determined to educate former peasants and slaves; schools that have also, like the Chinese schools, managed against great odds to do just that.


You would never believe, from this photograph, that I am sitting on the Great Wall of China. I look bored. I look unhappy. There is that tense line around my mouth that means I’ll never come thousands of miles to see more of man’s folly again. What I hate about the Great Wall is the thought of all the workers’ bodies buried in it. I hate the vastness and barrenness of its location. I hate the suffering the women and children attached to the builders endured. I hate its—let’s face it, I hate walls.

Susan dashes ahead of me looking for the best view. But the wall tires me, instantly. It is the concrete manifestation of so much that is wrong (a kind of primitive MX). What a stupid waste, I am thinking, in the photograph. A lot of flowers never sniffed. A lot of dancing never done.

The brochure about the wall says that the invaders, finding the Great Wall indeed impenetrable, simply got over it by bribing the guards.

The Great Wall is redeemed by only one thing: over each battlement portal (through which hand-propelled missiles must have whistled) there is a tiny decoration, serving no purpose whatsoever except to refresh the eye. And here is where the writer could benefit from having had a camera other than herself, because I feel deeply about this decoration, this modest attempt at art. I send mental salutations to the artist(s). But now I cannot remember what precisely the decoration is: is it a curled line, horizontal and short, like those on the windows of brown-stones? Is it the missing flower? Or is it two straight lines from a hexagram symbolizing war, which I have mistaken for peace?


This one is of me and Susan walking across T’ien An Men Square looking at the many fathers out for a stroll with their female children. They all look interested, relaxed, happy. Susan stops one little girl and her father and asks if she may take a picture. At first he looks suspicious, or, more accurately, puzzled. We begin to ooh and aah over his child, a serene three-year-old with an enormous red ribbon in her hair. He understands. And beams with pride. Then we notice that street signs at crossings between the Forbidden City and the square depict just such a pair as we photographed: pearl gray against a blue background without letters of any kind, the outline of a father and daughter holding hands, crossing the street.

We are made incomparably happy by this: I think of my daughter and her father. Susan, I know, thinks of her husband, John, at home with their girls. We look at each other with enormous grins. Thinking of fathers and daughters all over the world and wishing them luck.


This one shows us sitting down in the middle of the square looking dissatisfied. We look this way because we both really like Beijing. Miraculously feel at peace here. It is true that the dust gives us coughing fits and my eyes feel gritty from the smog, but overall we are pleased with the wide, clean boulevards, the rows of linden trees that sparkle like jewels in every breeze, the calm, meditative motion of thousands of bikers who pedal as if they’re contemplating eternity rather than traffic. At night we, like the Chinese, are drawn to the streets. There is no sense of danger. No fear. People look at us, mildly curious. We look back. Occasionally there is a spoken greeting. A smile.

What is it about Beijing that is so seductive? Susan muses. We consider the dimness of the lights at night. The way the few cars and trucks do not use their headlights, only their parking lights. The way homes seem to be lit by candles. How there is very little neon. Nothing that blinks, flashes, or winks. The softness this gives the evening. The night. How strolling through this softness and hearing, through an open window, someone practicing cello or flute is a satisfying experience. And how the mind begins to think religious thoughts but in a new way.

When we first arrived, we thought Beijing a drab and ugly city because of the gray buildings and perpetual dust. Now, after six days, we find it beautiful enough not to want to leave, though neither of us speaks more than three words of Chinese.

In the West, Susan says, the cities are built to impress you with
They are all-important. Here, the people are most important, and the buildings are backdrop.


Something else occurs to me from this next picture—the one of me wearing both the Chinese ring and the cloisonné bracelet I bought at the Friendship Store. People are more important than what they wear. Everyone wears essentially the same thing: trousers and shirt. And everyone is neat, clean, and adequately dressed. No one wears make-up or jewelry. At first, faces look dull, as a natural tree would look if Christmas trees were the norm. But soon one becomes conscious of the wonderful honesty natural faces convey. An honesty more interesting than any ornament. And a vulnerability that make-up and jewelry would mask.

Except in Shanghai, which resembles a large port city of the West, the Chinese do not have the faces of killers we’ve become used to in America (where the killer look is encouraged and actually desired); and even the soldiers, very young and wearing straw sandals or black cloth slippers, look gentle and relatively content.


In all of China there is nothing and no one more beautiful than the writer Ding Ling. She is short and brown and round. She is also “old.” But these attributes alone, which connect her to great masses of women throughout the world, do not make her beautiful. It is a puzzle, at first, what does. In this photograph she is listening to Madame Kang Ke Qing tell our group about the Long March and is swinging her foot slightly, as if to keep it awake. Madame has talked for three hours and told us most of the information about the Women’s Federation (which she heads) we’d already read (that the Women’s Federation “reeducates” those who would practice female infanticide, for instance).

I have drunk so much tea I am afraid to stand up. But Ding Ling? It is not tea she has drunk. She has drunk patience. Imprisoned by reactionaries and radicals, Kuomintang and Communists, presumed dead at least twice, to national mourning, her young common-law husband executed by firing squad two months after the birth of their child, herself locked in solitary confinement for ten months by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, imprisoned and separated from her present husband, Chen Ming, for six years, under the Gang of Four, this small brown round “old” woman—who claps her hands like a child when Susan asks if she will be photographed with me—has, through everything (banishment to Manchuria to raise chickens among the peasants, whom she taught, as they taught her), simply continued to write. Powerful story after story, novel after novel, over a period of fifty years. And though beaten bloody by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (for having been, among other things, famous) and forced to parade through the streets wearing a blackened face and a dunce’s cap, she holds no bitterness, only saying, of all her travails—illnesses, children lost, books and notes destroyed—mainly, I lost time.

At nearly eighty she says things like: Oh, to be sixty-seven again!

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