My parents gave me a music box for Christmas when I was seven or eight. It was made of copper and shaped like a farmhouse with a water-wheel; when you turned the wheel, it played. The music box sits on top of a bookshelf in my room, and although I usually forgot that it was even there, every now and then I’d notice it, and turn the water-wheel, and listen to the tune.
My school had a party for all the teachers on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. There were streamers, and balloons, and food, and everybody was in a pretty good mood, considering that we were all obligated to perform something or other as part of the party.
I’d done a bad Chinese translation of an Irish poem about winter* for the occasion, but my boss took one look at it and suggested that I read something else instead – how about Shuidiao Getou by Su Dongpo? That would be appropriate, she said, since I was far from home – especially the last two lines: “If only we might live forever / A thousand miles apart, sharing the beauty of the moon.”
It’s a famous poem, and when I recited it in front of all the other teachers at my school, I got a huge round of applause,* and the school’s literature teacher and Communist Party secretary both came up and drank toasts to me.
And then I heard, in the break between performances, a tune come over the sound system, catchy and then familiar and then completely unmistakable: my music box.
And I thought that if there were any justice I’d be able to jump into the speakers, swim down the wires, and somehow emerge next to my bookshelf at home, curled up in my own bed, listening to the water-wheel.
Before the school year began, before I figured out how to impersonate a teacher, I tended to search desperately for topics to talk about in my morning primary-school class. One day, I settled upon “travel,” and so I got the kids to talk about where they’d gone or wanted to go, and how they had or would get there. I gave them a basic sentence pattern — “I’m going to __________ by _________,” and despite some problems with word-order, they picked up on it and ran with it:
“I’m by car go to Beijing,” said Mike.
“I’m going to Shanghai by…Brendan, ‘feiji’ za shuo?” “‘Plane.'” “I’m by plane go to Shanghai.”
“OK, good. Remember, I’m going to…um, Dalian, by, um, train. Place, and then how you’re going. It can even be something silly, like ‘I’m going to Mars by submarine.’
They had fun with that: Shawn by bee went to the Australia. Judy by bike go Africa. Charlotte stood up:
“I by dream to America.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.” Then I corrected her.
Of course it goes without saying that everything happened at the last possible minute: the ticket-buying, the visa-extending, the present-buying, the packing – even the decision whether or not to go; I’d been dithering for a while about whether I should go home during the New Year’s vacation, which went from the middle of January to the end of February, or just travel around China. I wasn’t particularly homesick, and I’d even gotten more or less used to the cold, and besides, in China I was rich, and in the States I’d be a penniless student again. But somehow, the decision got made: I was going home.
And home I went. Home I went, carrying two calligraphy scrolls wrapped in newspaper that shredded if you even looked at it funny. Home I went, carrying a few pieces of clothing and a bunch of pirated DVDs. Home I went, flying from Beijing to Chicago next to an exceedingly cute baby girl who vomited on me twice.
And I got home, and saw my parents and little brother, and slept in my old room, and hung out with my old friends and ate all the foods I’d been missing in Harbin and breathed air free of coalsmoke. I walked around the streets of Philadelphia gawking at how clean they were, how law-abiding the drivers were, how many different kinds of people I could see. I saw buildings I used to bike past on my way to and from school every day, and was slightly surprised and greatly comforted and perhaps a little disapointed to see that they were still there and that things had in fact not fallen apart in my absence.
And maybe it’s the jetlag speaking, but all of it still seems less real than the dreams that took me back here when I was in Harbin.