After six years in Shanghai, Lee J Mavin is back in Sydney (brand new home). There he will teach and focus on his writing! He is also enrolled in aPhd in Arts at the University of Sydney. His field is classical Chinese poetry and Creative Writing.
He has already polished off a children’s novel, a collection of poetry and is about to publish a series of stories titled “The Students Sold Us Secrets Volume One”. He has also started The Infestation trilogy with the novel The Intergalactic Custody Battle and the new novel Li Bai’s Shadow! All titles published with ASJ Publishers.
A change of scenery
On August 23rd, following a long day at school, I find Dad red-faced, tossing clothes into his suitcase.
‘Caitlin, we’re going to China tonight. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, its just waipo and waigong bought us tickets.’
Dad has bags packed in an ugly disorder. I reorder them correctly; largest bags first, line up the zippers. I can feel China pulling me, calling me in my sleep. China wants me back and I can’t let her down. Li Bai feels it too, I find him reading one of his poems into the air:
‘Upon my return to the slopes and valleys,
My brothers and sisters will all have married
Mother land and home familiar
Soil of soul embracing ancestor’
Airports make me feel at ease. The announcements are for the most part sequenced to perfection. The schedule of arrivals and departures ticking over on flashing monitors always brought me a strange feeling of satisfaction. I read out our flight number MU563 departs at 2:45:43 seconds. That gives us time to line up. Priority is given to responsible customers who are orderly and punctual and despite my father slowing us down and Li Bai behaving like a child; we make it to the gate at 2:31:32 seconds.
I remember to count each step as I board the plane. Li Bai is singing:
Mother land and home familiar
Soil of soul embracing ancestor
I concentrate on the emergency details. Life jackets are beneath our seats, emergencies exits two rows ahead to the left. Three stewardesses named Cindy, Connie and Sammie are my immediate first choices. The three of them are friendlier and more sincere, the others are either men, or too far away to make an assumption at this point. Dad is already snoring so he obviously isn’t even hearing all the important information. I’m taking notes for him; I know all the normal life jacket details, but the exits andtoilets.
As we soar high above the clouds, Li Bai peers down at the floating clouds. They part, opening up the blaring blades of sunlight and the ocean stretching onto infinity. He studies the tiny ripples, waves blurring into the bright blue sky.
On his first plane trip
What is this strange roaring dragon, spiralling into the heavens? What gods and goddess would be greeting me outside this window? Shaping its grace in the clouds so discreetly? What fruit and wine do you enjoy among the halls of the gods?
We have by luck of the gods wound up in this dragon’s belly. My Caitlin has taken me here, with her father, right by the jaws, over the curling tongue and down its fiery throat. This dragon has gobbled up so many, but they all don’t seem to mind. Could it be the wine? Has this dragon lured them all in with trickery and illusions? The brew certainly smells real, it bubbles and has the similar taste to the fine brings me back to my travels in the capital Chang’an!
Alas, the dragon finally tiring, and has found land below. I do hope it is Tang and the middle kingdom; it has been so long since I see my wives and drank their wine. I do wish this dragon would let us all out soon, I do believe he is actually a friendly a dragon, Caitlin seems to think so too. His strange white wings flutter as he slows and dark circular claws appear from beneath.
Now the dragon has kindly opened up his belly for us, his feathers are parting to open large doorways. The people don’t seem in a hurry to get out and are more concerned with their treasures. Foolish greedy outsiders, when will you learn that all you need is good wine and good company, travel light and go where the road takes you, there is no need for so much gold!
I follow Caitlin and her father down the tunnel. This must be one of the dragon’s legs. Then we come to a dwelling filled with more foolish outsiders hoarding their treasures in sacks. We stand in line and slowly move closer to some fiery torches flashing misspelt characters in the colour of the dead.
Caitlin takes my hand and says everything is fine. I’mstarting to think both she and her father are wizards, possibly mystics of some sort. They take me into an enormous palace. I can’t believe how high the ceiling is. There are so many people here, I think almost the entire world is here, there must be some sort worldly event, and perhaps the surrounding regions of our great kingdom are forming an army. I certainly hope that is not the case, no good things come from war.
There are more dragons outside, some taking off, some resting. This must be a dragon related event, yes; there are far too many white dragons here for it to be a coincidence.
Caitlin is showing a man in a glass box her red book. I know that little red book is important to her, but I don’t know why. An almost perfect miniature painting of her is in it, I do intend to ask her about that painting, the detail is extraordinary.
Caitlin and I are waiting for her father. For some reason he has left us. Caitlin smiles at me.
She says, ‘We’re in China Li Bai! We’re back!’
China? I think to myself. Oh yes, that what’s they call my country these days. But this land has been stripped of every monument from long ago. Every stone from every temple has been crushed and has been replaced with mirror like cubes, towers with ghastly shadows that loom over the people below. There is a dark magic at work here and it is spreading like a fire.
It is such a tragedy.
On the plane
She has her mother’s eyes. Even this deep blue nothingness around me is her. God, I miss her. Going to her hometown is definitely not going to make me miss her any less. Her mum had her voice. I wake up and think she is back from the dead over there, but it is just her mother shouting over a stupid mah-jong game. I can see her in her eyes. I act like nothing is wrong but I feel like crying sometimes, staring at photos of her from when she was a kid.
These air stewards have absolutely no idea about service. I’ve put on my light, waved my hands around but they have seemed to mysteriously miss it every time. It could be just bad luck, yes. Or it could just be that they would prefer to gossip in behind that stupid curtain as much as possible. I bet they are talking about us too. Sure, there are two that are pretty attractive, great angle on the nose, very even nostrils and the space between her bottom lip and chin is unusual. The one that served me last has a great posture too. I can’t deny her of that but their looks are lost in their attitude. Even their sweet smelly perfume won’t redeem their pathetic service.
Caitlin seems excited to go back. She is sitting there, trying not to let me notice her talking to her imaginary Li Bai friend. Sometimes she covers her mouth and whispers. I don’t make a fuss about it, though it has gone for quite some time. She’s fourteen already, when will it stop? A change of scenery has to help but I’m not sure another crazy Chinese New year is going to be any good for her. I’m dreading the fireworks and the cold. These people let toddlers handle explosives in freezing cold temperatures. I try to keep Caitlin safe as much as I can by her grandparents seem to think its fine to set off massive explosive fireworks in their garden. I’m not looking forward to this but we have to because they paid for our house in Manly so they can basically ask me to do anything, quit my job, work for the Chinese embassy or something really nationalistic like that and I would have no choice whatsoever. They bought us a house so they can do anything.
I’m not sure if I’m relieved when I hear them announce that we’re descending into Shanghai. I kind of want to stay up here in this plane, despite the horrible service. Up here, the world stands still and waits for us. It is holding its breath patiently as we hang here in limbo. Here in this stillness, we’re free from all the crap below. All the millions of Shanghainese, desperate to become rich, all the self-righteous, know-it-all generation x Aussie kids that think they know it all. I don’t want to be a part of that. I just want sit here, with my seatbelt on. I can live on crackers and sparkling wine no problem.
At Shanghai Airport
Waigong is still smoking. He gives me a hug, squinting his tiny eyes. He is getting older. I can count thirty four grey hairs sprouting from his head. The wrinkles on his forehead are longer than before. In the photo of him in our hallway, taken two years ago, he seems much younger. Maybe he has eight and half years left of life. Minus a year due to smoking so it is probably seven and half.
I smile at him and he grabs my cheek, saying how beautiful and white I’m. He takes my suitcase and chats with Dad. Dad has forgotten a lot of Chinese so he’sreally struggling. He leads us through the airport, shoving by people with my suitcase rolling behind him. I count seventy-five people with grey coats. Only seventeen have brightly coloured coats, mostly pink or purple. It is very dull in winter.
I’m holding Li Bai’s hand. He is nervous in crowds and I don’t want him getting lost. He smiles at me and his eyebrows twitch. It must be very strange for him, here. Waigong takes is into the car park. The temperature is at least four point three degrees from in the airport.
He has a new car, another Mercedes Benz. There is more in the back than his previous Benz, about ten centimetres added foot and leg-room and a wider seat for elbow space. Dad is looking around with wide eyes smiling at me.
He whispers, ‘This must have cost him a fortune.’
He is right so I assume the factory is doing well as Waigong is careful with money.
Li Bai is relieved when we leave Shanghai. These enormous buildings and winding streets must be scaring him. The sight of rice farms and clusters of small villages seem to calm him down. I’m not particularly interested in the view from the Benz. I have seen the same highway plenty of times, the overpasses and intersections all lookthe same. It is just, village, farm, village, farm, village to me.
I chant ‘Rice paddy, village, house, lights. Village, rice paddy,’
Waigong puts some old music on. He sings along and looks back at me sometimes, smiling. I wish he would concentrate on the road. There is a chance he could drift into the barriers on the side of the road and judging from his current speed of one hundred and ten kilometres per hour, we would all die.
If we make it to Shengzhou, in forty five minutes and twenty three seconds, I will be relieved.
On the road to the in-laws
Oh we’re nearing Hangzhou, what a splendid place. I do hope we stop. This chariot is awfully fast, quite frightening indeed. It appears that Caitlin’s grandfather has an excellent chariot that has no need for a horse. It is almost has the white mysterious dragon who kindly let us out of his stomach earlier. Perhaps men have learned to tame them? It must have required lengthy training sessions to tame such a large beast, hardworking men they must have been.
I do hope we stop at Hangzhou as the west lake is magnificent when the snow is falling. Oh and the wine is wonderful. It seems I haven’t had a good drink in an eternity, wherever we’re headed, there must be sufficient supplies of wine. I do need to write a poem or two, also. Give me a bottle of Hangzhou wine, some scrolls to write poetry on, by the west lake and I will write something brilliant in no time.
Caitlin is sleeping now. This long adventure appears to be tiring her out. The sun is setting over friendly mountains, we’re changing paths and it appears we’reheading into a village. I’m not familiar with the name of this village. What is this Changle? No, I have never heard of it and I have been all over the middle country.
We come to a halt and are greeted by a crowd of relatives and in-laws, cheers and handshakes, cups of tea and cigarettes for Caitlin’s father. He tries to refuse but they insist. Some even press the cigarette to his lips and light.
‘C’mon have a smoke,’ they say, ‘long time no see.’
Nobody is offering me a thing. They are being quite impolite actually. Am I not the guest of honour? I am Li Bai and surely they have heard of me for I am known throughout all of the middle country for my enchanting and versatile verse.
Back in Changle, I know what to expect. Masses of food, freezing cold, being forced to drink ridiculous amounts of light beer: all perfectly normal here. Dim grey cement walls, not a carpet or rug in sight, every single window and door left wide open to keep the frosty cold in: all perfectly normal here, too.
The evening chill gets wafted away with the steaming rice and sizzling fried fish. Mountains of dishes lay ready to devour on huge circular table; the smiling faces, horse laughs and monkey chuckles, all the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Most eyes are on Caitlin, eyes of envy and awe.
Several aunts say, ‘So beautiful, she is even more beautiful, so white, so beautiful and white.’
Caitlin knows to expect this. The compliments meannothing to her. She is just different, something rare to them to study and stare at. Caitlin probably knows what they really think about her. I mean, I used to try and protect her from all that, but she is getting older now and I’m sure she can understand enough of the dialect to pick-up on the whispering and bickering behind her back.
Half way through the meal, we’re blessed to have more visitors. Two aunties appear in the doorway with their fat children. They both have recently had their hair done, dyed blood red, an awful perm and twist. Their make-up is not thick, just like last time we visited. One of them has completely shaved her real eyebrows and replaced them with thin brown lines. Yep, that’s real classy.
There are three cousins that Caitlin had known since she was little. They are all boys and they have steadily grown into plump, chubby snobs. She is forced to sit in-between them. They peer over their i-pads and i-phones, frown and then resume their addictions.
Doing a great job aunties, raising three young obese boyswho are already obsessed with World of Warcraft. I pour the fake eyebrows auntie a glass of white wine. She loves the stuff, the other one is shovelling rice and tofu into her mouth, glasses fogging up from the steam. Such wonderful mothers, I wonder where their husbands are? Could be off around the corner, seeing their favourite prostitutes? Or maybe they are simply gambling illegally with the local mafia? The possibilities are endless.