My first trip to China

This July, I visited Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. This was my first time in mainland China. The first week, I traveled with my grandmother, dad, first uncle and aunt, third uncle, and fourth aunt.

We explored the island city of Xiamen where my grandmother went to boarding school beginning at age 13. Throughout our time there, my 97-year-old grandmother asked, "What are we doing in Hong Kong today?"
[photo of grandmother in Xiamen]

Xiamen had changed since she was young. It was now full of high rises and she was surprised. I was also surprised by China's modernization.

[photo of Wal*Mart]


Here are impressions from Xiamen...
At the seafood restaurant
the rollerskating waitress falls
porcelin shatters surprising the cicadas.
[photo of Xiamen U]
Xiamen University has
music practice rooms
that face the ocean.

A tenor sings Puccini
to the container ships.
[photo of Xiamen]
Luxury accomodations
23 stories high
with an elevator that traps
my screaming grandmother.
Here are photos from Gulangyu, an island that used to bear the sign "no Chinese, no dogs." it was inhabited by foreigners from 13 different countries and had mansions and pianos to rival Europe.

[photo from Gulangyu]
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After Xiamen, my dad returned to Seattle, my other relatives went to Manila. I went on my own to Shanghai. I stayed with two teachers, age 70 and 64.

In this metropolis of 20 million, I'm surprised to see old men wear pajamas on the main tourist drag Nanjing Lu. Children run around naked enjoying the People's Square fountain in the summer heat. Storeowners say "man zou" or walk slowly as the good-bye phrase, so I feel relaxed, even though my feet hurt from walking all day.
Sitting in the history museum
I watch a silent film
projected onto the side of a model T
driven by a wax Englishman.
a Shanghai orphan from the 1920s
looks for work pushing rickshaws.

I watch quietly
until a startled girl jumps
realizing I'm not wax.
[photo of Shanghai]
Isetan near the Ritz
Karen Carpenter sings
every sha na na na
while a violin plays
the Tonight melody
from West Side Story.
This is what the white marble floors echo
footsteps of Shanghai shoppers buying
clothes the price of an airline ticket to Beijing.

[photo of Forbidden City]
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After Shanghai, I went to Beijing. I visited all the main attractions: Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, Tian Tan, and the Great Wall.

I was very lucky to have Suli, Jessie, and Chen as hosts. They brought me to a retro Mao military bar, a tea house, the conservatory of music, and other places. Still, I was saddened by Beijing, especially the pollution.
Haze of smog
over the capital
the cicadas muffled
from lack of oxygen
accompanied by hand phone gulps
brown water
blurry sky
blossoms taunt pink
as I search for the buddha.

[photo of Starbucks]
Speaking in shapes
the poet uses his hands
clearing the air
flattening a plane
curling upwards
falling diagonally
circles upon circles
tightening the heart.

[photo of boy on the Great Wall]
Smoking a cigarette
past the "no smoking, no scratching" sign,
an old man with heaving breaths
passes me up the Great Wall.

A boy in a red hat
picks through the garbage
searching for plastic bottles.

He finds a battery
and studies the shape
as if it were a snuff bottle
from the Qin dynasty.

He has no pockets
for his treasure
only bags
of flattened bottles.

What is it like
to face a wall
day after day
mortar from the blood
of our ancestors lost
crushed from stones
now carved with the scratches
of signatures from those who pay
the $45 RMB entrance fee?

The boy's half-nylon sock
tan and see-through
covers a bony ankle above
orange-black tennis shoes.

He studies his scraped knee
the mountains shaped by the wall
a dragon sloping up and down
the angle of his elbow
as it rests against handrail.

I imagine him accusing me
10 years from now
"you are lucky to travel"
not realizing that I just want
to lay my head on my own pillow.

Aunt with the flowery shirt
faded from the sun
wears a straw hat
that matches her straw broom.

She sweeps in the crevices
of past laborers
their ashes from no incense
passing the red hat boy with blue veins
"get back to work," she says.

On the Great Wall
I catch his smile
and offer him a peach
thinking that maybe
like Monkey
he can escape, but knowing
as the wall is long
and broken at parts
that the juice of fruit
is only temporary.
I have many more thoughts about China that I will continue to write. The exciting news is that I will be going back to China in August as a delegate for the Dragon 100.

Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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