The train pulled into the station. Dimly lit lamps dotted a long platform that disappeared into obscurity. The light flickered yellow against a dark sky. In and out of shadows people burdened with big plastic bags stuffed full with everything and then some trudged toward the station door while a grating voice crackled on a loudspeaker. I nestled myself into the thick comfortable cushions in the carriage. Their deep-blue hue enveloped me – dark, cocoon-like, safe. I was in no hurry to move; it was slowly sinking in where my tangents had led me: China.
Why in the world China?
I remembered standing as a young girl under the tall pine tree that towered over our colonial brick house and staring down at the dark, rich soil, imagining a hole tunneling right through to the other side of the world, all the way to China. The pictured passage was tangible to me, as the darkness suggested nothing and everything at once. I remembered putting my hand on the rough bark, letting the pine essence engulf me with the scent of adventure. I felt ready to step into the unknown, to fall like Alice into another world.
Little did I know that moment was a harbinger of this journey I had begun.
What did I know about this land of legend?
I knew China was the land that inspired the venerated old master Lao Tzu to write the meditative canons of the Tao Te Ching, exalting the life-force found in nature, the balance of the yin and yang. I knew China was the birthplace of the scholar Confucius who preached virtuous behavior as the means for social harmony. I knew about the Great Wall, and that there was once a Last Emperor. I grew up wandering the halls of a grand museum with Chinese ink paintings on silk hanging on walls. I saw images of wise sages with long white beards walking with canes down dirt paths on mystical mountainsides. I envisioned porcelain vases with blue dragons, intricate shadow puppets, and scrolls of paper covered in black calligraphy. But this was all a distant observer’s impression of China’s ancient past.
The only information I had of China’s present was the little bit I knew about communism. This was told to me by a beady-eyed retired Marine who wore straight-legged Wrangler jeans and chain-smoked filterless cigarettes. He was an artist now working out of a drafty old warehouse in downtown Detroit, but back before I was born he had been among the first to land in Vietnam, before the public even knew the U.S. had sent troops. His depiction of communism was bleak and insidious. It was scary.
The eerie quiet of the empty carriage told me it was time to leave this safe haven, my last vestige of a connection with the Western world, this train out of Hong Kong. I invoked the calming image of water flowing around a rock, smoothing rough edges while the current took it wherever it was going. The serene picture reminded me to surrender to what was before me, to find the path of least resistance around whatever obstacle might be in my way.
And what was in my way right now was that I had no idea where I was going to stay the night.
Confucius says… Good people plan ahead. And here I was in a country whose language I couldn’t read, write, or speak, without any sort of guidebook to show me the way. I was totally clueless what traveling through China would entail. But my travels were always a caprice that landed me… somewhere. I’ve done this before, I reassured myself, and stepped out of the train.
Pollution hung thick in the humid air. I made my way across the now deserted cement platform. My hand gripped the cold metal knob on the glass door leading into the station; I paused and looked at my reflection. The girl staring back at me shook her head: Now what have you gotten yourself into? I shrugged and pulled the heavy door open.
Cigarette smoke enveloped me, stale body odor blasted me, a deafening racket disoriented me.
My mind went blank.
The clamor of the Chinese language bounced off dirty cement surfaces; the discordant notes reverberated inside my skull, rattling my nerves. It was quick and sharp, a high-octave frequency, rising and falling in short syllables, beyond my ability to process. It was a thousand screeching voices vying to be heard. The rush of it all made me dizzy.
An incomprehensible shout over the loudspeaker was followed by a human stampede. Another train was pulling into the station. A surge of people came at me. Hundreds, maybe thousands, swirled around me. I felt I would be swooped up, hurled down a current, out of control, landing at some unknown port. I fought the urge to shut my eyes, wanting to make it all disappear. Nothing in my travels had prepared me for anything like this. A wave of apprehension came over me. I reprimanded myself, What was there to fear? Not knowing the future was the predicament of life. I took a deep breath and let it go, very slowly. I was on the brink of something big, that much I knew.
I stood still and took in my surroundings.
Everyone looked about the same height, neither short, nor tall, with straight black hair that shone blue under the white lights, and dark brown eyes. Their faces appeared stoic, yet set with determination. Gradually I realized something: there was an underlying calm in the midst of the madness. It was palpable.
I was perplexed. Maybe this was the necessary state of mind to maneuver through all these people and their cacophony? A natural juxtaposition to the chaos? Maybe this is why the Taoist philosophy of finding the path of least resistance came into being here?
Another jarring crackle on the loudspeaker snapped my attention back to the moment, to the task at hand, the one I didn’t particularly want to think about, let alone deal with. I had to find some direction, some
information, some sense of what to do; I had to find somewhere to spend the night.
There was no information booth, no reception desk. I looked around at all the signs. Straight lines crossed up and down, side to side, this way and that, their message indecipherable to me. I sent out a prayer for help, wondering if I should just hit the streets.
A man caught my eye. He seemed to be making his way toward me. His stature was distinct from the
multitudes streaming through the station. He stood a head taller than the rest of us and looked bohemian, aristocratic, with poise and ease, not at all like the masses around me. His style of hair was long, below his shoulders, hanging loose and free, swaying with his long strides. When he finally came into full view, he became more singular yet: he was wearing a white linen suit, freshly pressed, and white sneakers. I couldn’t help but see him as an angel, the influence of my mother’s Catholicism rising reflexively in me.
“Do you need help?” he asked, though I had a feeling the answer was obvious. “I am Yang Ling,” he offered his hand in greeting. It was that of an artist: long,tapered. “Please call me Ling.” I wondered if Ling was his first name or his last. I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. I was wary of strangers, being that I was a girl, but Good Samaritans were part of my journey through life, most especially here in the Far East. I first landed in Asia on a bitter-cold March night in Seoul, Korea. I became lost in a maze of alleyways thick with the smoke of charcoal. A young boy was sent out into the frigid air by his two sisters to escort me to the hotel I couldn’t find. In Bangkok, a woman went well out of her way to make sure I found the American Embassy. Neither she, nor the siblings, asked anything of me; they just wanted to be of help. Unsung heroes, my mother would say, and tell me how her parents would feed hobos passing through town in search of work.
I looked into the eyes of the man who stood before me – they exuded kindness. I prayed to my Guardian Angel for protection and took the chance.
I put my hand in his, and smiled, “I need a hotel for the night. I am a student. My name is Elizabeth.” I had learned this was the easiest way to convey I was on a tight budget.
“Please, follow me.” He kept hold of my hand, gentle, yet firm, and turned toward the front entrance. The sea of people parted before us, opening a route straight out of the station and onto the crowded streets of the city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, China.
The night air felt balmy, but smelled slightly noxious. Ling had me almost running to keep up with his long strides. A little wide-eyed, I held his hand tight, still feeling dazed from the psychic assault of the station.
We crossed a wide street, dashing between bicycles, rickshaws, buses, trucks, and pedestrians. Ling kept us moving at a quick pace. A few blocks later he stopped in front of a three-story brick building. It looked shabby – a good indication I might be able to afford it. Ling held the door open for me. Operatic singing was blaring in the background. The mournful cry of the singer sounded like a dreadful shriek to my ears. I did my best to tune it out.
The man at the front desk was wearing a short-sleeved orange polyester shirt, snug to his body. It was unbuttoned at the top revealing a dingy white tank top. His chest gleamed smooth and hairless. He held a
filterless cigarette between nicotine-stained fingers, and was missing a few of his brownish-yellow teeth. While Ling conversed with the proprietor, I checked out the scene.
The lobby made no pretenses, simply furnished with a well-worn couch and a banged up old coffee table, a couple of floor lamps and the radio. The walls were a sickly hue of pale green. The stench from mounds of crushed cigarettes in several ashtrays filled the room. Even as I stood in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, I decided the hotel looked clean enough.
“There are no rooms,” Ling informed me. I was puzzled; this didn’t seem like the kind of establishment many people would stay at. “We will go to another, there are many nearby,” he assured me. But then the next hotel was full, and the next. After what felt like hours of going place to place, through alleyways, around dark corners, and across poorly lit streets, my building frustration began to fall into resignation. I didn’t understand what was happening. Wanting to scream, I turned to Ling and asked, as calmly as I could, “Why is everything booked?”
“It is May. The annual Guangzhou Fair is now,” he told me as we came upon a well-lit, busy street. “It is very big. People from all over the world come here to shop goods made in China.” Goods made in China?
I was intrigued; everything in America seemed to be stamped: Hecho en Mexico or Imported from Japan.
Ling led me across a broad boulevard to a hotel with a doorman. My heart sank with futility. It was obviously way beyond my means. But I felt too tired to stop him and allowed myself to be escorted inside as the likelihood of returning to the train station to bed down on a cold, hard bench began to weigh heavy over my psyche.
The lobby was serene, beautiful. Classical music played softly in the background. The crystal chandelier lighting the room sparkled. Under it was a round table topped with polished white marble that had red, black, and gray lines running through it. A large bouquet of fresh flowers created an ambiance of lavish welcome. Everywhere I looked there was opulence and elegance accented in marble, dark wood, brocade drapes, and more fresh flowers.
Ling conferred with the clerk, who looked me up and down with disdain. I felt embarrassed. I was wearing my favorite purple sweatshirt, threadbare and full of holes. My long brown hair was in its usual tangle, pulled back into a ponytail. I wore a pair of dirty blue jeans and dirty white sneakers. Hanging off my shoulder was a school-sized purple and pink backpack bursting at the seams, and quite grungy from the months of traveling afar. I had four hundred dollars to my name, and no means of getting any more. It probably cost half that much to stay one night in this dazzling fantasy before my weary eyes.
The good news was the clerk knew where I belonged – a youth hostel for Westerners; the bad news was it was located on the other side of the city.
“Excuse me, please,” a cultured voice came from behind me. I turned around. A middle-aged man wearing a sharp, navy three-piece suit, possibly silk given its sheen, smiled at me. He had a round, sweet face and carried himself like a real gentlemen: refined and graceful. “My name is Vijay. I am here from Fiji for the trade show. I have an extra bed in my room if you are in need for the night.”
Caught off guard, and rather susceptible to poor judgment, I took a step back, gathered the biggest, baddest city girl vibe I could, given that I wasn’t big or bad, and, hand on hip, looked straight into Vijay’s kind eyes, “What do you want in exchange?”
“Nothing,” he promised, with such sincerity I could only trust him. “It is no problem. I am happy to help.”
I went to give Ling a hug of gratitude, but he was gone, my vision in white vanished into the night. He had delivered me to safety; his job was done.
Vijay led the way through the elegant hallway. His quiet demeanor was respectful and polite; I was his honored guest and he, my regal host. He held the door open for me to cross the threshold into his room. Inside, heavy brocade drapes in a rich maroon and deep brown hung to the floor, hushing the sounds from the world outside. A plush beige carpet gave the space a sense of light, while still more fresh flowers continued to extend a welcoming invitation and sweeten the air with fragrance. True to his word there was an extra single bed. And a marble bathroom! Immediately I took a shower, relishing the strong pressure of the hot water, and the rose-scented soap, such a change from what I had become used to. It was blissful. As I lathered off the grime from the gritty city air, I questioned why I was wandering aimlessly through Asia rather than focusing on a life purpose – Why was I pinching pennies rather than amassing wealth so I could live this sort of life?
Too tired to answer myself, I snuggled in under the comfortable blankets, glorying in the fresh scent that enveloped me. My heart was full of gratitude as the cool, crisp linen sheets caressed my clean skin. It was luxurious. I fell into a deep sleep.
A Blue Moon in China is the true story of the two months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old. I went alone with $400 in my pocket. There are 18 black and white photographs in the book; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
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