Poem from China: Watching Tai Chi by the Pearl River by Lynda Myers

Watching Tai Chi by the Pearl River

I’ve inked today’s quota of departmental forms,
Checked out my classroom, sent students their assignment–
Now I’m walking alone along the Pearl River,
On a tree-shaded path, under a leaden sky,
Watching old men and old women practice tai chi.
The young are not here on this cold winter Tuesday-
Guangzhou children are busy in school, their parents,
Jaded offspring of the Cultural Revolution,
Determined to make them wealthy entrepreneurs.
Only these elderly pensioners, practicing
An art from another era, have come to bend
And sway by the side of the river under trees
Whose names I, newly arrived, clearly out of place,
Do not yet know. They weave their ancient movements
In groups of three, of eight, to music only they
Now hear. Two women heckle a friend they deem clumsy.
He tries again; their hands shoot up in mock despair.
Housewives in regrettable tights and gay blouses
Giggle as they blunder through the ritual gestures.
A man with chiseled face and intense hollow eyes
Looks inward, dipping with the grace and precision
Of a bird of prey. I envy them, these dancers,
Clearly at home, miming the landscape’s deep rhythms,
Under this sodden grey sky, beside the Pearl River.

***

Lynda Myers retired last summer after teaching for 38 years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. She is currently a Senior Resident Scholar at Boya College, the experimental liberal arts branch of Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China. This semester she is teaching a class on Euclid’s Elements and Lobachevsky’s Theory of Parallels (in English). She has loved and studied poetry from her youth but has never before attempted to write a poem.

Kathleen Lee’s new novel is out!

I’m very pleased to say that Kathleen Lee’s novel, All Things Tending Towards The Eternal, is out at last!
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I’ve interviewed Kath and the book, and will be posting responses over the next few weeks. Check out the novel on Facebook!

1. The novel is set in a very specific time and place, China in the late 1980s. Can you say a bit about your own experiences as a traveler during that time that underpin the book? Share an anecdote or two?

Yes, the novel is set in 1989, some months after the events in Tiananmen Square. I was not in China in 1989 – my first trip to China was in 1987. I wanted to go to India but it was cheaper to fly to Hong Kong than to Delhi, and I thought I could travel to India overland: Hong Kong, China, Tibet, Nepal, India. It didn’t quite work out that way (there were riots in Lhasa and China closed Tibet to individual travelers so I went to India via Pakistan), but in any case, China was a surprise to me: unfamiliar and uncomfortable and unlike anyplace I’d ever been. I’m something of a fan of discomfort – it’s like salt in food, it makes a dish more itself. In the China of the late 80s it was not easy to be comfortable as an individual traveler and the varied discomforts made my experiences more intense, more particular.
On that first trip, one of the (many) buses I took broke down in the mountains of Sichuan Province. The driver took off for help (this ‘taking off’ involved a slight altercation with some of the passengers, but that’s another story) and we waited, at first patiently, but as hour after hour passed, as the day came to a close, some of the passengers grew restive. It seemed they thought there was a chance the driver had abandoned us and they were whipping up a froth of resentment. I didn’t know enough to be resentful and passed the day reading, writing and walking up and down the road. There were no other vehicles, the dirt road was surrounded by a dense wall of greenery, the only sounds were of insects, it was humid. The afternoon was long and time passed slowly; an extravagance of waiting. Eventually, at dusk, a second bus arrived, with our driver as the sole passenger. The two drivers hitched the injured bus to the healthy bus and we hurtled off through the unlit, black night (no headlights) towards the nearest town. It was wonderful to be passing through villages in the dark, seeing small clusters of people sitting under a bare bulb, listening to a radio and knitting, or watching a small black and white television set up outdoors. The town we arrived in was, I found out later, Li Bai’s home town. There was some sort of communist party convention going on there, some provincial affair and every guesthouse bed was taken. I walked from one guesthouse to another with a few of the other passengers. We were all tired and nobody had eaten much, so our search for lodging felt like hard work. After much wrangling, we each found beds in one of the guesthouses; I was to sleep in the night clerk’s bed while she was on duty. I protested, to no avail, that I could be given a bench because I had a sleeping bag. At last, near midnight, I crawled beneath the mosquito netting, into the sheets of a stranger’s bed – a young Chinese woman who lived in this town that, I would discover the next day, had not seen a foreigner in many many years, whose life I could not sufficiently imagine. I fell asleep in that stuffy airless room the size of a closet. At dawn, I was awakened by the clerk shaking me and, theoretically as enticement to get up, presenting a bowl of rice soup, featuring, in its watery whiteness, a large brown dollop of pickles.

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Thinking About: Kathleen Lee

I’ve had the pleasure recently of reading Kathleen Lee’s novel in manuscript “Taxi to Elsewhere.” Set mostly in China when travelers were still rare it is chock full of experience and observation.

“A woman traveling alone is beguiling. Everyone wants to touch her or stand in the shadow of her courage. What suffering, they wonder, what passion propelled her from the safety of home, companionship, the familiar?….Perhaps she’s a harbinger of an unfathomable future in which women go into the world unaccompanied, in which individuals are not padded and baggaged with siblings, cousins, or aunts….She has dropped into their midst from some unseen altitude, some far-off, unimaginable point of origin; what, what has she come for?”

And my favorite line, from the middle of the novel: “What a strange kind of luck it was, to be alone in the world.”