ONE STEP AT A TIME IS GOOD WALKING
The dust from the demolition hangs in the air like smoke, the noise of the wrecking ball as steady as the artillery that once pounded the city walls. Half-destroyed buildings, piles of rubble, and the remnants of a foundation crowd into my viewfinder, masquerading as the ruins of sixty years ago. It’s as if the past were trying to rematerialize in front of me, to fill my eyes and ears with what I have failed to imagine.
Not so much a déja vu as a jamais vu since I was already in a refugee camp in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded Nanjing. Since I was no longer living on Taiping Lu when soldiers destroyed every shop on the street, including my father’s ink store and the two rooms at the back that were our home.
I scan the construction site, avoiding the crane and the excavator, and focus on the three buildings that are still intact, the sunlight trapped in their dirty windows. I press the shutter release, wind the film forward and take another shot, the last one on the roll. The film is black and white, as if I can’t trust the old Leica to handle colour.
Nothing is left of the street but the name.
Even the dimensions of it have changed: the street is wider, the blocks are longer and the maze of back alleys has disappeared. I can’t pinpoint where The Four Treasures once stood but I have narrowed it down to this block which is being demolished to make way for a hotel and shopping complex.
There is a sudden lull in the construction noise as the workers stop for lunch. Other sounds rush in, car horns, bicycle bells, the clang of bamboo scaffolding being dismantled. Sounds that seem
soft, almost musical, after all that pounding.
I lean against a concrete drain pipe at the edge of the site and wipe the sweat off my face and neck with a handkerchief. There is dust on my hair and skin and clothes.
The past has retreated. The chunks of concrete, the bricks, the splintered wood have morphed back into demolition debris.
I feel nothing.
All the emotion I expected to feel, I dreaded to feel, once I arrived in China, has still not manifested itself.
When I return to the hotel, I stop by the fitness centre where Helen is swimming laps to relieve her jet lag. I watch her for a while, the blue of her bathing suit indistinguishable from the water, her limbs small and white. I love her energy, her stamina, the way she moves through the water. Through Life.
Back in our room, I sit on the unmade bed, too tired to change out of my dusty clothes. Next to me, on the night table, is the red notebook Jing Mei thrust into my hands at the airport. Write down your story, Yeye, she said. Write down your story.
Yeye. Jing Mei is the only one of my grandchildren who calls me that. The only one who answers to a Chinese name, a name she crafted for herself, to replace the Jennifer Marie her parents had
The notebook she gave me is garish, the faux-silk cover strewn with thick Chinese characters. The calligraphy, if you can call it that, would have upset Wu Jiao; the cheap paper would have made my father shudder. Is it garish on purpose, another rebuke from Jing Mei, for not being Chinese enough?
I stretch out on the bed although Helen has warned me not to take a nap, that it will only make the jet lag worse.
Write down your story. A simple enough request, like send me a postcard or take lots of pictures. I was returning to the country of my birth after all. What could be more natural?
I drift off before Helen slips her keycard into the lock.