Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gossamer Threads

I have written before about the nearly invisible threads that bind loved ones. They were plainly evident at Sam’s house and equally tangible at Ken’s house. In both of those instances, and at other times when visiting the home of a friend in China, it feels to me that one end of that thread is loosened and draped ever so tenderly around my shoulders. I know that, forever more, I will be welcomed at Ken’s house and at Sam’s house. Not as a guest but as a family member. Maybe that is why I feel such inclusion.

There have been many times when I was invited to a holiday gathering or other celebration in the States. There too the gossamer threads, woven of love, history and family tradition bind the participants. I’ve seen it. As much as people have reached out to me while living in America and as many gatherings as I’ve attended, I’ve not felt the weight of that ephemeral binding on me. Probably, it is my fault. Heaven knows people have been generous and loving toward me. The rare exception to that is at Marjorie’s house. She and I share a long history – most of our lives, in fact. The other exception is when our crew at work had our various celebrations. In these two cases, I did feel a part of things.

I’m just trying to figure out why I feel so included here, and always felt like I was looking through a window at other people’s togetherness in the States. But enough pondering; we have a celebration to talk about!

CCTV, China’s television conglomerate broadcasts a gala event that starts at 7:00PM and lasts till just after midnight. Music, skits and dancing are typical fare. All done according to culture, except for one dismaying factor: the participants are wearing Western-style clothing instead of the lush, rich Chinese tailoring. One woman’s hair was impossibly styled into a bird’s nest, and her head became Ken’s and my running joke.

Ken’s parents grew up during the great Leap Forward, when there was scarcely enough food to go around. They married during the time that capitalism was just making inroads and produced their son five years after they became shop owners. They know nothing but working hard for a living and enjoying simple pleasures, such as a rich meal and a nice television program. They have never traveled out of Shaanxi province, which Xi’an is the capital of, and they don’t want to. They are each other’s best friend, possibly each other’s only friend. They are equal halves to their partnership: sharing responsibilites of their shop – he opens and she closes; their home – he cooks and she cleans; and their son’s upbringing – they each blame each other for how he is.

Ken is so wildly different from them. They love him deeply and that love is clear and strong, but they do not understand him. He in turn respects his parents, admires their achievements and helps them in any way he can… but he doesn’t understand them either. So, for each side, it was a rarity that a friend came to visit. Through that friend, the parents can attempt to understand the son and with that friend the son can find validation with his parents. I am honored to have been chosen for that role. I think maybe that’s why their ‘thread’ wrapped so tangibly around me.

The CCTV program became a backdrop for our interplay. Ken’s father made sure my glass was never empty and I made sure to toast them often and well. Ken and I acted out little skits for his parents and they laughed raucously. Ken’s mother asked if my hair was really blond and that’s when we discovered we’re all dyeing our hair to cover up gray (except for Ken: he doesn’t care that his hair is going gray).

And then, out comes the camera and we are posing for pictures. Me with the parents. Ken with the parents. Me and Ken with Mom. We all took turns as shutterbug fever struck. All of us nestled close on the couch, done eating for the moment. Ken sat next to his mother and she swatted him away, telling him to sit on the other side of me so that she and I could sit together. Now I’m bookended by my friend and his mother. I feel the warmth of them on either side of me. I smiled till my face hurt from the joy of it all.

But wait! There’s more!

I can’t say any of us were aware of the passage of time, but before you know it, midnight exploded. And I do mean exploded!

My friends, there is nothing like the skies above a Chinese city at midnight on New Year. It sounded like World War III and looked bright as day! Everyone was shooting off fireworks! I was entranced, enthralled enthusiastically looking out from one window to the other. Ken’s father encouraged me to go to the kitchen and see the fireworks going off there. I dashed to the kitchen and ran right into the sliding glass door. That rascal did not tell me he had closed the door when he was done cooking! And there, Ladies and Gentlemen: another good round of laughter, even as I rubbed my crushed nose!

Like a small child I ran from window to window, trying to take it all in. At one point I rushed back to the mantle where the camera lie and snatched it up to shoot some video of the sky, painted in its blues and reds and greens and silvers. Ken came over and opened the window for me so that I could get better sound, and then he stood with me, amused at my awe and excitement. His parents, on the couch, exclaimed they had never seen someone so excited about fireworks. I’m glad I could oblige them and I am overjoyed that they gave me such a stage to exhibit on.

They are Chinese; they are used to such displays. They don’t know that, in America, fireworks are banned within the city limits and only pyrotechnic experts like the fire department get to put on such a show. And it is meager, compared to the display in China.

The fireworks went off for over one hour. Naturally I could not keep my enthusiasm up for that long; after a few minutes I returned to the couch, subdued but smiling nonetheless. And, as all good things must, this evening came to an end with Ken’s father retiring for the night. It seems he has not been feeling well for a while and he needed to lie down. Shortly afterward, Ken’s mother followed.

Ken and I talked for a while longer, and then he showed me my room… well, his room. He slept on the couch, even though I would have been happy to bunk down there.

All through this post I’ve talked about how we talked: ‘conversation flowed’, ‘we talked and talked’. But, except for a few nuggets of conversation, I couldn’t tell you what we spent seven hours talking about. What I can tell you about is how I felt, if only I could find the words for it.

It felt like I was home.

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