My column over the last two months was given over to special, timely columns, and this one returns us to my third day in Beijing. I have grown close to Xi—our 26-year-old traditional landscape painter and Buddhist tour guide from Chengdu—on our walks after dinner.
This chapter is the first one that abandons the strictly chronological format of my journals up until this point. When I returned to Boulder and was typing up my notebook from this trip, I typed these first few skirmishes with full knowledge of everything that would happen until I left China, and I found myself remembering scenes from the trip that I hadn’t written about in my journal, so I began adding those scenes as they came to mind.
Will the Ox Lie Down with a Snake?
In the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the Year of the Horse—1954—but because the Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar and my birthday is on January 17th, I was actually born in the last days of the Year of the Snake.
“I’m scared of Snakes,” Xi says, looking at me suspiciously. “I’d much rather you were a Sheep.”
“A Sheep?” I say, alarmed. “I’d rather be a Snake than a Sheep.”
“You are more of a Sheep than a Snake, I believe. I thought for certain you were a Sheep.” She recites the qualities of a Sheep: warm-hearted, independent, creative, vulnerable, refuses to be bullied, disorganized.
“Disorganized? I don’t think so.” I ask her for the qualities of a Snake.
“Idealistic, uncommonly attractive, inclined toward abstract thought, gifted in the occult sciences.”
“You don’t find me uncommonly attractive?”
“I didn’t make it up,” she says. “Look it up when you get home.”
“Well, what man wouldn’t rather be a Snake than a Sheep?”
“But a Sheep is good. When it is cold you have the—what do you call it?—the fur of the Sheep to keep you warm.” She shivers. “You should be thankful, though,” she says. “Some people are Rats. I would rather you were a Snake than a Rat.” She makes a rat face and licks her rat paws.
Xi is an Ox and she says an Ox and a Sheep can share a pasture, but not a Snake and an Ox. The Snake will frighten the Ox, who will attempt to kill the Snake.
“What are the qualities of an Ox?” I ask her.
“Strong-willed, natural-born leader, reliable, enjoys being in control, mentally sharp, patient.”
“Well, that sounds like you right up until the patient part. Are you patient?”
She frowns. “I am known for my patience. You will see.”
“But how does patience fit with a strong will and a need to be in control? Those seem at odds with each other. I’ve seen the strong will and the need to be in control but I haven’t seen the patience.” No response. “I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve seen you being impatient, I’m just asking you a question. I’m asking—and I’ll take your word on this, I promise—if you’re patient. I would like to know.”
She remains silent, squinting straight ahead. She doesn’t look at me when she says, “I will answer your question if you will answer one of mine.”
“Sure. Anything. I promise.”
“Am I not exhibiting patience right now?” There is a long silence and more squinting. Then she begins to laugh.
Xi insists on being called Emma—after the heroine of her favorite Austen novel—“because she could always fix everyone’s problems but not her own,” and she treats everyone as family, no matter how badly they treat her.
In the weeks that follow, I watch her smooth over several difficult situations without any thanks at all, and then she hears nothing but insults about something that she has no control over, like the fact that our itinerary includes a night on a four-berth sleeper train from Beijing to Chengdu, or that we have to spend a night alone in a rural Chinese family’s home, with only a sheet of paper with about two dozen common Mandarin phrases spelled out phonetically to help us get through twenty-four hours and three meals, and an after-dinner dance party on the neighborhood basketball court, which draws the entire village. The government encourages the community to exercise together, and so after dinner most the town drifts over to the basketball courts. Someone brings a boombox and at first we dance to traditional Chinese dances, which I’m terrible at but I was out there trying, and then they dance the Macarena and the Hokey Pokey if there are Westerners visiting.
Whenever I travel with other Americans, they often don’t seem conscious that the person they’re talking to is doing them a favor by agreeing to converse in their second language. In return, Americans talk too fast, too loud, they don’t look at who they’re talking to, they slur their words, they use slang and idioms when a more precise word would be better, and they talk over each other. But Xi stops whatever she’s doing and leans closer and focuses and listens patiently and asks questions until she understands what they really want, which is often not what they are asking for. If one of our group feels their room doesn’t meet their expectations—even in Lhasa where we intentionally stayed in a century-old rooming house in the center of the Tibetan part of town—she will somehow uncover and satisfy what they really want.
We stopped for lunch early one afternoon in Lhasa and were sitting at our tables talking when Xi noticed that the buffet line was opening, and she announced this to our very hungry and restless group. Everyone got up and rushed to get in line except for Marie and myself. Since Marie was the most confused and slowest of the group, everyone else was already in line by the time she turned around. Today she had been one of those who were complaining the most about being hungry, and when she saw that she would be among the last to eat, she swore loud enough for everyone in the dining room to hear, and called Xi the worst tour leader she’d ever had. “What kind of an idiot announces to the entire group that the buffet lines are open all at once?”
“What should I have done instead?” Xi asks, genuinely curious.
“Then everyone rushes up and there’s a long line.”
After a long pause, Xi asks again, “What would you prefer I do in the future?”
“Don’t tell everyone at once. That’s obvious.”
“But what would you suggest do instead?” Marie is looking at the line and ignoring her. “Whisper in your ear first? Then tell the others after you are already in line?”
“Oh, you’re worse than useless!”
When she’s gone, Xi and I look at each other in disbelief and shake our heads.
“Why did you say nothing? Why did you not defend me? Why did you not explain to her?”
“You know, to tell you the truth, I was speechless.” She sighs, exasperated. “Hey, you won. You didn’t need any help from me.”
The next day, the same Marie was about to buy a piece of jewelry at a gift shop in the Lhasa airport when Xi intervened and told her that if she was willing to wait until they arrived in Hong Kong, she could find her the exact same piece of jewelry for much less. “Can I trust you?” Marie asks, skeptically. This is almost too much, especially in front of the clerk, who is looking at her feet and blushing.
“You are trusting me every moment on this trip. You have no idea what I have shielded from you already, how I have suffered for you, how much you have to feel grateful for. If you could not trust me, you would not still be on this trip. I can send you home at any time. If I cannot find you that exact piece of jewelry in Hong Kong for half of that price”—she examines the piece—“for 125 dollars, I will pay the difference myself.”
Two weeks later, Xi took the woman by the hand as if they were oldest friends and went off to the Hong Kong jewelry market where she found the exact same piece of jewelry for $100.
“Did she at least thank you?”
“She bought me an ice cream.”
“I hate Americans sometimes.”
“But it was good for me too. I was able to do what I promised and I earned back some of her respect. That makes things easier for me. It is worth giving up an hour of my time for a better future.”
Xi and someone I know only as “Sam”—our driver—don’t have an assistant as most groups do, so at the airport Xi is always the first one out. She pops open the side of the bus and I head to the terminal to get three luggage carts. By the time I get back, Sam and Xi already have all the bags off the bus, and we form a sort of bucket brigade to get them on the carts—the driver doing all of the heavy lifting. Then the two guys head to the terminal as Xi gets on the bus—no one moves when there’s work to be done—and gets them to follow her as she pushes her cart into the terminal. She gets them settled in the lobby and then comes over where we’ve been holding a place in line.
Each time we fly, the bags get heavier, and several of them were borderline to begin with. Everyone who travels knows there’s a 50-pound limit, and Xi says our group is no exception. One of our bags weighed nearly 65 pounds by the time we were leaving Hong Kong. That is why Xi always insists on sending everyone to the lobby and checking the group in herself. If there was a line of twelve rude and confused Americans, they would probably have been charged. Xi also does everything she can to expedite the process, including enlisting me to help the driver with getting the bags in the right order, and having all the paperwork and the passports in the right order with the tickets. And she knows to keep them talking and laughing so they have an excuse not to look at the scales as they tag our bags. Plus, the clerks are happy to see Xi because she always brings enough chocolates or almonds for everyone working that day, and later, on our way back to the Mainland, her bag is filled with make-up samples from Hong Kong.
One evening in Lhasa, Xi had thirty minutes to kill before we were to meet the others for dinner, so she called my room and asked if she could come over and hang out.
She was knocking at my door almost immediately, and she pushed past me, her pale brown leather jacket framed with white animal fur. It was unseasonably cold in Lhasa, and for outsiders like us even the usual temperatures for this time of year would be unpleasantly cold, especially with the air being so thin and less able to maintain heat at this altitude. Add the constant winds rushing down from the Himalayas or coming up the valley with the trains and the news, which always led with the weather. You didn’t need to speak Chinese (no Tibetan on TV) to know they were talking about the cold.
The power in our hotel was intermittent, and the only form of heat in the drafty rooms was space heaters, which would shut off whenever there was a power failure. They would not turn themselves back on when the power came on again, so—even if you happened to know that the power had gone off and got up and turned it back on when the power had returned, which was difficult to tell in the middle of the night—the power would go off several more times each night. It also meant that several times you’d get out of bed and the power was on but the heater had turned itself off. Or the power would still be down, and you had to decide whether to wait for the power to return or go back to sleep. And there were the nights when you woke in the middle of the night and the room was so cold that you didn’t want to get out of bed, even to turn on the heater, even though the longer you waited the worse it would be when you finally got out of bed, which you knew you would have to do, eventually. Invariably I woke up in the morning in a room where I could see my breath.
Not surprisingly, some of the older women were having a difficult time not only with the cold but also the altitude and the amount of walking and climbing we were asked to do each day, no matter the weather, which was snow on several of the mornings. This excited Xi, who tried to get us excited as well. “This is very rare,” she says, “Snow makes the world magical and everything is more beautiful, even the garbage.” She laughs. “It is a gift that such a thing as snow falls from the sky for free.”
Xi examined my room and pronounced it a good one (it was) and sat in one of the yak leather chairs—the one in the sun—opening the bottom buttons of her jacket and turning the space heater away from the bed and toward her knees so she could wave the heat up under her jacket. “Phew,” she said through her chewing gum. “The ice melting.”
It turns out it’s not gum she’s chewing but a candy made from dried crabapples. This is her favorite candy, she tells me, filling the ashtray between us. “Have some.” She lifts the ashtray and stiff-arms it to me as a model might, showing her profile and smiling with her eyes the way she must have seen in advertisements.
The candies are very sour. I make a face. “They are sweet and sour, like me” she tells me, “I am a Sichuan girl. I am a woman of contrasts.”
She chews in silence, as we both watch her black leather boot bounce up and down between us. She makes a comment about her weight (in America she would be considered “healthy”—in China she is tall and broad with curly hair) and I stop her and tell her that she should appreciate and admire her body, which is perfectly fine and a great gift. She is young, she is healthy, she is bright. Many people would do almost anything for a body like hers. And if she wouldn’t stop talking this way about herself for her own sake, then please at least stop saying things like that in front of me. “It hurts me when you criticize yourself. If anyone else talked about you the way you talk about yourself, I’d punch them in the nose!”
Xi explains that it is something she’s learned in her high school psychology classes. She is “not ugly” and the men flirt with her and their wives notice and punish her for being younger than they are. To diffuse that, she immediately points out her flaws and their superiority to her in every important way other than youth, and how there is very few positives and very many negatives in being young after all. They have a husband who takes them on vacations to China. She is not skinny and has no boyfriend and there are no prospects and at twenty-six she is already past the age when women have to use matchmakers to find a mate. And she has even failed at that! More than once! Along with every love relationship she has ever been in. She no longer believes in love but she cannot marry without it.
Every time someone she isn’t in love with has proposed to her—and she’s had at least three proposals that I know of—she has found some fault in them, and walks away. She is giving her grandmother all of her gray hairs, but her mother understands and wants her to marry someone like her father. A very small percentage of those responding to her family’s newspaper listings or the older and older men brought to their house by the matchmaker ever get a chance to see more than a photo of Xi.
I was standing in line behind XI after the incident with Marie at the airport giftshop, and I asked her how she can tolerate having her integrity questioned like that in front of a shopclerk, or continually being accused of being wrong when clearly she is right, and no one ever apologizing when it turns out she was right all along, or of being called stupid when they’re the ones who are ignorant and insensitive. I don’t have half the problems she has and don’t handle them half as well as she does.
“If I do not remain on their good sides, things can get out of control very quickly and negatively affect the rest of the trip for everyone. It is easier not to let something become a problem than it is to try to get things back under control. Tour guides have a saying: “To say the wrong thing is a second’s pleasure but a lifetime’s regret.” So in my own best interests, I do whatever I can to get them back into my pocket.”
“So, do you do things to get me in your pocket?”
Xi laughs without turning around. “No. You climbed in on your own!”
And with that, instantly, without a sound, the Snake slid out of her pocket.
We are boarding with Lhasa Airlines and it is a slow boarding. Our break-of-dawn flight was canceled between the time we left the hotel and when we arrived at the airport. It had taken two hours to find seats on another flight that would get us to our bus in time to get to our boat before it sailed, with or without us.
At one point before things were settled, Xi confided how worried she was that the company wouldn’t authorize the expensive tickets they would need to buy, and that she would be stuck explaining this to the disappointment of a group that had been complaining about being in Tibet for the last five days. Neither they nor she could last another day in Tibet.
Xi and I were standing with the luggage while everyone else in our group sat in the cafes or shopped. There was a great sense of intimacy in our conversation and when Xi’s eyes teared up and I instinctively reached out to hug her. She stiffened and did not respond but didn’t try to stop me. I ended up merely surrounding her with my arms, and backing off immediately, more embarrassed than she was, probably.
After the company did what they had to do and she held our tickets in her hand, we were in line to board the plane, and Xi had absolutely no idea what was going through my mind, nor did she know that things were going to be very different from now on.
After an uncomfortably long silence, Xi took off her sunglasses and turned around, so close that we were almost touching, closer than we were when I was trying to hug her. At first she stared up at me without speaking. I could smell cinnamon on her breath and something soft and floral—soap, I think—on her skin. Then it was as if I her eyes switched off and I was staring into something deep and empty.
“If we went to the fortune teller he would warn us against getting together. An Ox can step on a Snake without meaning to. And if an Ox steps on a Snake, even by accident, it can die. That is bad karma for the Ox even though she did not mean it and it is worse for the Snake, who is dead.
“I cannot be happy, always afraid of saying the wrong thing. What would you do then, Mr. Snake? Would you believe me when I said I did not mean what you thought I meant, or would you decide you knew better than I do what I meant and stop believing me? What would that be like?
“Or the Ox can spend her whole life looking after the Snake who cannot see where he is going so they both get lost. And if the Ox loses its temper and roars, as everyone does, will the Snake get angry and bite her, or run and hide, so the Ox must go and find him and apologize? A Snake never thinks they need to apologize.
“It is only wasted time when an Ox is tethered to a Snake. I would much rather you were a Sheep. Then we could walk together. I could see farther than you and lead us in the months when the wheat is high, and in the winter when there is nothing to shield me from the wind you would keep me warm. We would be balanced and different enough to be of use to each other. Our lives would be better together than apart. A Snake and an Ox would always be worse together than apart. They can never be happy for more than a week or two. Believe me, I have seen it. At the beginning it is fun and exciting, because they are very different. But soon it becomes angry.”
“But I’ve treated you as a friend. I really don’t know what I have to apologize for, except for hugging you and embarrassing you. I wasn’t thinking. It’s a cultural difference. In the United States if a friend is about to cry, you hug them. It was thoughtless but it wasn’t malicious. I wasn’t trying to do you harm. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
“I have accused you of never apologizing even when you are wrong and you choose to defend not apologizing? Do you really feel no need to defend yourself against my accusation? Should I believe myself? Now more than ever I am doubting you.”
“I really don’t know what you’re trying to say. I think we treated each other well. I think we were honest and we listened to each other and respected each other and were open and accepting of each other. I like having a friend like you very much. That’s the story I’ll remember—that we were friends and we treated each other like friends.”
“Were?” The tense of the verb confuses her. “Were? Are. Are friends.”
And then, just like that, she tacks into open water. “In your Bible it says that peace will come when the sheep lies down with the lion. In China we have a saying that peace will come when the Ox lies down with the Snake. It happens. It is not unknown. It is just more difficult. If the Ox and the Snake listen to each other, they have a lot to teach each other, I am sure. Right now I am learning about Snakes, and you are learning about Oxes.
“We are okay, Mr. Snake. I will walk more carefully around you because I enjoy talking to you. You are the one I have chosen on this trip. There is no one else I would rather have than you as my friend for the next ten days. It seems like a long time now but our time together is very short.
“And if I step on you once or twice you must believe me when I say I did not mean it. I will be thankful if you let me know when I am hurting you so I can stop and apologize. We are still young as friends and we do not have much time. It is not fair if I must know that I have hurt you if you do not cry out. But you must know me by now a little or there is little hope for us. When I am angry I am angry like an ox. You will know it. This is not me angry now. This is the opposite of angry.”
Written by Randy Roark
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.