It was just the right and wrong moment to leave, to go to China, to live in a country where the weight of blackness might not hinder your breathing. And yet, there were things you were afraid of losing.
January 28, 2016
This is a story of how you lost your breath.
More than one year ago, when many Americans began to face what they had always chosen to ignore—the racist undertow that caught their bodies in a hold, when the names of little black boys and little black girls were scattered across television screens—you were preparing to go abroad. It was just the right and wrong moment to leave, to go to China, to study Mandarin, to live in a country where the weight of blackness might not hinder your breathing. And yet, there were things you were afraid of losing: relationships at home, conditioner to detangle your curly hair, dark chocolate, and moreover, the comfort and sturdiness of America which you didn’t know you had until you left.
When you are black and queer and Jewish and no one believes you, yet everyone stares anyway, you become an excellent hoarder. You coast along borders with paranoia and obsession. You research every interaction and reread every word thrown your way. You bury your notes, for at the end of each day they seem useless. The sadness or anger or confusion or joy with which you take down your observations falls flat once the sun goes down and you are back in your bed where you are safe for now, alive and still, happy.
You, a child of buried history, of broken Yiddish and bruised backs, of villages and townships that are not yours but are your homes.
You, a college student falling in love in China with no one in particular, except maybe yourself.
You, sometimes a girl, and sometimes not, depending on who you ask.
You present and sometimes, elsewhere.
Still breathing and more and more—gasping.
You repeat this every day.
When you stepped off the plane last August, you found that you were somewhere else, among tall buildings, an overcast sky, and a language that tickled your teeth. You were finally in Beijing where there is no precedent for your kind. Because you are neither Chinese nor white. You must justify your arrival, your love. If any reason found its way to you, you would say it is this: you are a child whose ancestors have a history of upping and leaving when the going wants the Blacks or Jews out. Like them who came to America by force and dire circumstance, you knew that although you were stepping on to different ground, your feet were not destined to stick. They may glide gracefully, nonetheless.
You were to be thrown, surely, like the words thrown at you, with each breath of new air, propelled between China and home, past lives and present tense.
The last time you lost your breath, you were at a march at Columbus Circle demanding justice for Eric Garner, who one year earlier was caught in a chokehold by arms sporting NYPD badges. That same week you attended a march for Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her jail cell after being arrested for a traffic violation only a few weeks earlier. The official autopsy report claimed suicide but no matter the cause, her breath and Eric’s too was stolen straight from their lungs. Now you marched, as you never had before, because you, your lungs, and others lives depended on it. With a friend and your partner on either side of you, you zig-zagged across the city, nearly sixty blocks down to Union Square, and watched out of the corner of your eye as a long line of police officers followed. They grew in numbers and accessories the later the hour and the angrier you all became.
Once or twice, while crossing streets, clutching your white partner’s hand, and unwilling to be arrested for civil disobedience, your shoulders brushed against the chest of a cop. Stunned momentarily as you looked him in the eye, you crouched your body down and rushed to the sidewalk. Still you kept on marching. When the chants fell to a lull, you picked up where others had left off. You had never before yelled like this. Your voice cracked and burned in your throat as a cry rose up in you, “What’s her name?” The voices around you—ready, without skipping a beat followed “Sandra Bland!”
You screamed and screamed and screamed for three hours straight, half afraid you would burst into tears on the spot and sad when you didn’t. It became hard to continue, you kept yawning but air would not return itself to your lungs. You chugged a bottle of water and slowed your pace. You did not want to quit just because it was past dark and you were weary but a startling mixture of dizziness and panic told you otherwise. Thankfully you were close to Union Square where the march took a pause, as some continued on to the jail to support those who had been arrested during the march and others, like you, retired their activist shoes, and with blistered feet headed to the nearest diner.
“You look like Michael Jordan,” he said pointing at your face, grasping for your hair. “Very beautiful.”
He, a cashier in a jewelry shop. You, not Michael Jordan. This was the first time someone compared you to him. You had been compared to black colored horses, mythical creatures, primates, the President of the United States even, but never to an athletic star, certainly not MJ himself. You didn’t know whether to wince, to question him or to be flattered. You didn’t—you just smiled, and tried to muster a thank you in Tibetan.
The two of you were in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, walking along Barcour Street which circles Jokhang Temple, a sacred house of worship for Tibetans and home to many ancient metal scriptures dating back to the 6th century. You were buying souvenirs for your family and friends back home in California and New York—a pair of earrings and a few bracelets. He was trying to figure out where you were from, and as your friend added later as you walked onwards to the next shop, after he had listed off a number of countries in South Asia and East Africa, he had tried and failed to woo you.
He didn’t know it, you were quick to think, but you were engaged in a mutual research of one another. Already, it had become part of daily life for you, a reluctant veteran researcher. Hesitant eyes brush other hesitant eyes. Quick glances away to the floor or the wall.
You circled through central Lhasa, sweating under an oppressive sun. By now, on your third trip to China, you were familiar with the questions, the foreign hands in your nervous curls, the anonymity that comes with you never being placed. On earlier trips you had been to the cosmopolitan cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong with family and later to Qingdao as a summer student. But this time, leaving the comforts of cities on the Eastern border, you would stay for four months: just enough time to see the leaves change color, to become a friend, to venture out alone to Chengdu with nothing but a backpack and a bag of dried fruits.
And yet, the mutual research was and still is tiresome. It is not always met with the curling of your lips into a smile. On days when the stares on the subway felt more like disgust than curiosity or when someone pointed a camera in your face without first saying hello, you withdrew to the library where you scribbled down notes to yourself.
What was it like for the old woman at People’s Park in Chengdu who told you to pull down your hat, fearing that your ears would catch cold, when you told her that your hat was in fact your hair? You wanted to imagine what she felt seeing someone like you for the first time, someone completely unintroduced to her imagination.
At Thanksgiving when you sat in a back alley restaurant in Nanjing, facing a hot bowl of chicken and noodles and CCTV (China Central Television) played footage of the protests in Ferguson, the other patrons had their heads down in their food. CCTV translated Michael Brown’s name into Chinese, and you heard it in conversation almost as frequently as you heard it in English. What did the other customers think? Why had CCTV chosen to feature Ferguson? To feature chaos? Because it was happening in America and not China? Because it was easier to critique America’s racial politics than China’s?
Every week when you had a bit of free time, you would check Facebook and find yourself back in America. You would read post after post from students at your liberal arts college. Their frustration and anger and poetry in the face of police violence, and fear and white supremacy. Some theorized revolution. They called on the masses, the working class, and the oppressed. In their words you could not help but hear Mao and one of his most famous quotes:
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Would your classmates ever know how similar their calls to justice were to those speeches of Mao Zedong? Would they ever know what a mess these two worlds were, conflicting and complicated, how sudden and unlikely and beautiful that they should ever intersect?
You wondered how you could live a life caught in the middle.
It is not easy to go to Tibet, hard for foreigners and much harder for Chinese citizens. Harder even is it for Tibetans to leave Tibet. How you were able to go travel Tibet for a week with your study abroad group, you could not say except that it was because of your American passport and your American dollars.
You were traveling with your anthropology class with the intention to study ethnicity in China although you soon learned, with your American teacher and classmates, you only ended up objectifying and mystifying Tibet even further. Your program chose the forty-eight hour train route, the humbling pilgrimage most Tibetans living in Beijing took when returning home. You filled those hours wandering up and down sleeper cars, snacking and sleeping, joining a sing-a-long with the Lanzhou Opera troupe, prepping for your on-the-road classes and staring out at the vast countryside. But the more you read, the less you learned. You could not help but see the gaps in your syllabus. Absent were the works by actual Tibetans. All of your materials came from the point of view of the Han or the white American male scholar, both far removed from the lives you were witnessing. What were the words whispered in hymns as old Tibetan women, grasping prayer beads with their gloves, prostrated themselves onto the floor by Jokhang Temple? How did those who left Tibet maintain Buddhist life on the outside? You had the insatiable hunger of a curious foreigner. In the end, you had an urge to stay silent—and you did—as an act of gratitude, a rebellion and removal from the noisy, incessant debates on the future of Tibet’s autonomy and an attuning of your ears to something else.
After leaving Lhasa and your friend with the beads, your group rode far out of the city, where police stops dotted the green expanse. You had fallen asleep on the bus and when you woke up, you were in the countryside—hills, tall billboards advertising development projects, but mostly the open, blue sky. Your bus pulled up to a mud brick home at the base of a mountain. Surrounding your homestay for the night were other similar mud brick houses, stretches of green grass and rolling haystacks. You were told you had the afternoon free as dinner would be ready in a few hours’ time. While some friends walked down a dirt path to a lake that was farther away than it appeared and others lay atop the rooftop to take in the sun, you decided to go up to the mountain to get a better view.
Up until that point there was a disturbing ease with which foreigners, especially you American students, moved within Tibet. But now as you climbed this mountain, you felt the weight of the altitude bear down upon your lungs. Slowly and alone you walked, taking breaks every five minutes to catch your breath. There was a wire fence which guarded an old white speckled Stupa—a Buddhist shrine—from the innocuous but pervasive herd of yak. You found a break in the wire, crawled under and quickly became a trespasser. But out here, no one would hold you accountable. The only eyes as your witness were the mountains, supporting long waves of prayer flags blowing in the wind. Selfishly perhaps, you wanted to see a Stupa alone, one whose audience was mostly non-human, and which did not bear the heat of one thousand twinkling cameras—like the debating monks at the Sera Monastery or the parents of slain children before a group of voracious journalists.
After standing in silence against the Stupa, you climbed over to a rock and pulled out the two books you held nestled under your arm: Vertical Motion, a perplexing novel by Can Xue and a smuggled in copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. You started reading the latter on the train, whispering the lines out loud to yourself in the darkness of the car.
You opened its dog eared cover and read a few short lines.
O, Alas! Alas! Fortunate Child of Buddha Nature,
Do not be oppressed by the forces of ignorance and delusion!
But rise up now with resolve and courage!
Entranced by ignorance, from beginningless time until now,
You have had [more than] enough time to sleep. (8)
So now is [certainly] not the time to sit idly,
But, starting with [the reflection on] death, you should bring
your practice to completion! (9)
All phenomena are [ultimately] selfless, empty, and free from conceptual elaboration. (9)
You pause. Until then, the self, yourself, had always been defined as something with distinct borders, something to hold on to, to preserve, to defend. You thought of all the ways you strive to be a distinguished self—in your annunciation of I, in your possessions, in the way you identified yourself, in what you were unwilling to do for others because they were not you. In America, you thought the worst thing that could happen to a self would be its demise—by violence or by choice, for it would force you to think anew.
The book tells you otherwise: you listen. You imagine beginning with the death of things, of the self, of worries, of impatience and the quiet in which everything slips away; the seemingly idle practice wherein death brings forth something else, a freedom from yourself.
You read on.
How needing of compassion are those beings who endlessly
revolve [in the cycle of existence] (10)
Last year, this year, the waxing and waning moons,
The days, nights, and indivisible time moments are all
If we reflect carefully, we too are face to face with death. (11)
You sit alone on the mountaintop now, face to face with this other kind of death. Many things flash into your mind in that moment but your mind drifts to one haunting line: “moments are all impermanent.” This moment, however beautiful and provocative, would also soon pass. Once it did, you would once again have to face death. And you do, no matter how far away from home you tried to go.
You come back from Tibet to watch America erupt in anger and sadness, watch America lose its words but still try to speak as an officer whose name will pass through too many lips was not indicted for shooting and killing Michael Brown. Here it was—death, blaring at you through a computer screen, reminding you that every 28 hours, death will tap on the shoulders of a black man, or on the door of a black woman. As tears fall from your face and you suppress your cries back in your dorm room in Beijing, you think only of the names, the long unending list of names, how destined it was to continue filling in the blank space. You fear for a moment that you, your sister, your mother or your cousins could end up there too—that your self, something which you held so dear, could disappear in one second of chaos. You begin to see death everywhere, violence in every place you have ever loved, every concrete road, every spoonful of food, and even in your words.
As the semester comes to end and you learn of the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case, you stumble upon something unlike other articles, posts, or videos. It was a drawing, wherein a tiny sprout, green and no larger than a finger pushed up through the soil of a noisy urban street. The artist dedicated the work to Eric Garner. You smile, as you think of the sprout, its impermanence yes, but also its departure from the land of cameras, of journalism, of protests and names—its ascent toward the sun.
Over the last year or so, as the Tibetan mountaintop refused to leave your memory, you tried to let in Tibetan Buddhism, let in this other death, and most of all be able to catch the present in these times of impermanence. In this other death, where selves, all Is, mes, mys, and mines, leave you behind, you see a new ability to slip out of familiarity, out of your skin and into the world’s, however inconceivable that may be.
All along you tried to make your America and your Tibet meet at points where you saw them come together—in silences, in death, in violence from the state and from language, and in beauty. You struggled with China and the US, with the outlandish ways in which foreign white men would parade around Beijing’s streets, with always being 黑人 before being 老外. You struggled with the stares and the words and the questions.
At the end of your stay, December came, bringing with it a bout of nasty, cold wind and a new problem altogether: you do not know how to return home. In fact, having traveled for as long as you did, you do not know what home was anymore, where it was or what it meant.
But—it hit you, as it always had in the past. As long as you had your breath, you had a home no matter where you happened to be. You lost your breath in times of losing, not just as oxygen refused to be recirculated throughout your lungs but when your feet, in both China and America, and elsewhere, had slipped and were unwilling to return to steady ground . A loss of breath only caused you to catch the moment, to exist in your breathless suspense. Like waiting for a train in Harbin when you listen to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and the bounces of a little girl at the station match up perfectly, unexpectedly with the thump thump of the bass. Like sunset on a warm winter day at Jingshan Park overlooking the Forbidden City. A good pollution day permitting you to see a blue sky for the first time in months. You stand atop the highest point in Beijing with new friends. You are struck by the magnitude and grace of the city. You are reminded of the mountain, the sprout, and the book.
The last Beijing sun you will see departs from the sky, past the skyscrapers and over the distant mountains. And you go home. Where that is, you do not care because, for now, you have learned to live in this city, this country alongside discomfort, joy and absolute awe, and you are prepared at long last to breathe.