The Lost Passport: An Angler’s Story
(China, Part IV)
It’s 3:08 a.m. China time or mid-afternoon Eastern Standard Time. I’m lying in a spectacular suite in a hotel within the Yellow Sea National Forest from which I leave in a few hours. I have brewed myself a hot cup of tea with sugar, soaked in a giant bathtub with water from the hot springs, placed soft slippers upon my toes and begun a draft of a poem for the local poets who requested it upon my late entry into the welcoming banquet here at the national park where it seems the entire world knows that this morning I lost my passport and early this evening found it.
Upon entering that evening banquet late and producing the recovered document I received applause, multiple toasts and hugs from a room crowded with fellow poets and guests.
But none of that is the story of this post. This recovery has become a story which, like salmon on New Brunswick’s Mirimachi River, grows larger with each telling.
It was a Wednesday morning, and the Poetry Bridging Continents Symposium portion of the trip had ended with lunch. As I got onto the bus with my bags, Granddad Zhang Ziqing (who on this long journey, has taken over for my daughter to make certain I haven’t accidently fumbled away my visa (once before), my tickets, (once before), my wallet (a number of times) or my family income (close). Ziqing insisted I make sure I had my passport.
When I felt my pockets where it should have been, it was not there. The feeling might best be compared to a 180-pound cornerback suddenly realizing a 350-pound lineman has somehow picked up a fumble and at lumbering full speed has decided I am the only person left to keep him from end zone glory. Even if one is an American football player, that is not a place one wishes to be.
We unpacked all my luggage twice to search–no passport. I returned to my room, no passport. At this point I’m delaying a dozen other’s departure for the Yellow Sea National (replanted) Forest and they and I knowing I could not continue without a passport. Since there was nothing they could do, the bus with my fellow poets slowly drove off, much like the lumbering lineman and left me staring forlornly in the driveway of the college’s hotel.
With me stayed a tall, young and handsome Chinese professor of English and International Exchanges nick-named Phoenix. We searched my room again, saw nothing and then went through all the possibilities from the night before when I did have it. Did I lose it in the taxi when we decided to go out for a beer at the Tai Haole (Alright) Club? There the beer was small bottles of Bud served in a tub with too-loud music set against a giant LED screen of patron texts and photos. After witnessing a bar fight among the patrons, we decided the Alright Club not the best place for to hang out, but was it a repository for my passport? Or was it lost in the low-seated taxi ride back? All seemed plausible.
Phoenix, my China life-saver, and his driver, Friday, decided they would drive me to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai for a replacement, but first there needed to be other steps taken. The U.S. Consulate let Phoenix know it now required a lost passport be reported missing at the local police station. Quickly, Phoenix and I hopped into the car with his driver Friday who expertly trundled through the city traffic and arrived at a precinct police station in a less than renovated, Casablanca-like section of town. On the alleys about the station, all the first floor apartments had metal doors and steel grates over their windows.
Friday dropped us off and we walked into the drab, one-storied station room with two desks and a metal bench. At one desk facing us sat a character straight out of a Mickey Spillane novel. This jaded, middle-aged detective stared at his folded hands as if contemplating all the rough-justice they had been forced to mete out over the quarter century of his life patrolling the streets. He did not speak, eyed both of us, and then went back to staring at his folding and unfolding fingers. Facing him sat an equally jaded sergeant behind an old computer. I took a seat alone on the metal bench which seemed remarkably familiar. Was it the Group W Bench of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”?
Phoenix explained to the sergeant what the problem was and what I needed–probably in triplicate. Enough body language is universal that despite my limited understanding of Mandarin, I recognized the last thing this sergeant wanted or needed in this world within a world was to type out a lost passport form for a gray-haired, Trump-loving American simpleton of a tourist who couldn’t keep his passport in his pants. Therefore, I sat quietly while Phoenix kept up the banter with the sergeant and an unseen supervisor in the next room. The sergeant slowly gathered the forms, and with the one-fingered style reminiscent of my own early military typing coupled with the speed of a sloth, he typed each letter and took phone calls at every opportunity.
Phoenix, in his brilliant methodology of letting them know this action was more about helping him than the sub-human foreigner on the bench, kept up his steady conversation with the sergeant and a supervisor inside that other room. When the sergeant chuckled at one comment in Mandarin and the detective cracked just a hint of humor. I began to relax and observe the comings and goings of the precinct. Across the room was the station locker room. It was shift change, and each time a uniformed police officer or an undercover agent entered, the officer would retrieve a set of keys from the sergeant, unlock the door to the changing room and, before entering eye me with the Chinese equivalent of “What the beJesus did he do?” They then carefully relocked the door and returned the key to the desk.
Next entered the tea lady, an older woman who looked like a reformed Black Market street merchant with whom the department had bonded to keep her above the troubles of the precinct. She carried an aluminum kettle of hot water and poured hot water into every one of the officer’s tea cups or flasks. A hot mug of tea would have felt like salvation and I looked earnestly thirsty, but she scanned me over, decided I must be some middle level degenerate, sniffed, pulled the kettle in, and walked onto the street.
After the tea woman, came a young couple who seemed to have had some domestic dispute. She had a good chest cold and coughed everywhere. I wondered if this was the time of years for SARS? They presented their case to the desk sergeant who seemed perfectly happy to be distracted from his typing. The fellow, shy a few teeth, then went back to sit in his car and when the girl followed, he had locked her out. She decided rather than stand in the fading November light and cooling temperatures, she would sit on the metal bench next to me and cough from there.
Just as I thought maybe it might be better to have airport security take me away, Phoenix got his police report and persuaded the supervisor to place his official seal and signature upon it. But of course, the triplicates. So we waited while the sergeant carried the papers upstairs to a printer and eventually returned.
Quickly, we hopped into Friday’s car, Friday who knew every back alley in the city, weaved through the rush hour traffic and took us to the BIG station: Chinese State Security because, as Phoenix explained, it is not enough to have a replaced U.S. Passport. One must also have a replaced Chinese visa—which according to regulations, must take four days—the day we are scheduled to fly out of PuDong International Airport. I began to see that 350-pound lineman again..
Here Phoenix showed his true affinity for his moniker as he began to raise my troubled psyche from the ashes it had descended into. We walked into this multi-storied, polished tile bureaucracy of a building with endless glass-fronted teller stations lining the atrium of the interior. There young girl after young girl stopped her work behind her glassed-in clerical station and yelled a greeting or waved hello to Phoenix. We turned a corner, and a smartly uniformed cadet smiled at Phoenix, said hello in good English and chatted. They were all his former students from the university.
A young officer ushered us-into the lost passport offices and a second set of reports were more quickly and more attentively typed. I was even offered tea–ah tea, the universal settler of nerves. Then ex-student after ex-student made an excuse to stop by and peek in at “The Poet” who lost his passport at the Alright Bar (and was HE involved in the fight? And was it over Trump?).
Shortly, paperwork was produced that also provided for a China Visa in one day which could then be inserted into the replacement passport. But that visa also required an official letter of invitation from the university. Friday roared us back to the university for that letter, but just as we approached the gate, Phoenix realized, we will also need a new photo for the new passport and the visa. No gate, with squealing tires, Friday u-turned and smoked it out to a shopping street nearby where a one-roomed street-front portly photographer operated his photography business. Inside sat the over-exposed photographer. On the walls were posted washed out photos of graduation groups. To one side, a traditionally-built wife sewed peacefully. An unwashed crock pot, with six or seven pairs of well-used chopsticks inserted, steamed in the corner.
Phoenix was about to cash in another favor. After a brief exchange, the man motioned me to follow him out behind the shop, down a set of bare concrete stairs into the rear of the tenement style row of shops. The field behind the shops was overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. Underneath his shop a one-bay gray concrete garage with the door opened and two light stands which served as his studio. He brought out a plastic bench, sat me on it, arranged the light standards, snapped a few photos and took us both back up the concrete steps to the shop. Once in the shop, the photographer printed out three sets of photos to make sure one of the sizes would match correct sizing for both Chinese and American consulates. It was then I noticed an old man on crutches had stomped into the shop and wanted to know if I spoke Chinese? I quickly exhausted my four phrases of Chinese: Nihao, Xie, Bu, and something like Tai-hoa-le (Excellent Time) Bar. He was satisfied and stumped off. Had everyone in this city heard about the poet who lost his passport? Was he a spy?
Phoenix and I jumped back into Friday’s car and she wove us through the back streets toward the campus again and this time through the gates. Here where Pheonix would create another Letter of Invitation from his office. As I walked through the English Language Department, I met some of the faculty I had met earlier. They sadly offered me more tea more as if it were my last supper than to calm my nerves. It was clear we would not make it to Shanghai, 250 miles away, today. Another day ticked off the visa clock.
At that point, another faculty member we had passed on our way in, knocked on the door, excitedly opened it and showed everyone his iPhone on which was an image of both me and my passport!
He said he recognized me by my out-of-control gray hair as I walked by. But more importantly, I was not a spy! The passport had been found! Not in the Excellent Goodtime Alright Bar, not in the low seated cab to the bar, not in the lower seated taxi from the bar, but in my own hotel room where it had slipped between the bureau and an end table and where a conscientious staff member moved heaven and earth to be sure it wasn’t there and lo, it was.
And so this episode of the Lost Passport has ended, thanks to the intrepid work of Phoenix, his intrepid driver, Friday, and the strong will of the hotel cleaning staff. It was a happy evening drive as Friday brought Phoenix and I to the Yellow Sea National Forest hotel where I could belatedly rejoin the pilgrims on their way to the Yellow Sea.
Food for Thought
(or China, Part III)
I often wonder if Yeats in his “Second Coming” theory of the falcon no longer hearing the falconer in its “widening gyres” or Eliot, as he contemplated “Time present and Time Past” with “The Still point” in his Four Quartets, or perhaps even the prophets who scribed Elijah’s “great wheel,” had ever sat down at the great circle of a gorgeous, Chinese banquet table with dishes upon another concentric circle revolving slowly, and eighteen poets and scholars singing that circular French round, Frѐre Jacques in French, English, and Mandarin. Circles within circles, harmonies in three languages.during a sumptuous Chinese meal.
Time takes on a different flavor at this end of the globe, or perhaps for clarity, time feels more timeless—or as Eliot puts it in the opening to “Burnt Norton”:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps contained in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”
How much different is that from Einstein’s Relativity when at the speed of light time slows to a stop? Maybe physically we can never reach that still point, but there are no speed limitations to the imagination so let us run time in a circle here at Taicang, this port near Shanghai at the edge of the Yangtze’s entrance into the Yellow Sea. The port of departure for Admiral Zheng He, one of the great early fourteenth century maritime explorers, whose fleets set out to circle the known world and certainly reached Africa while others have posited those mariners even reached the Americas almost a century before Columbus.
And so, by stint of at least ten of those circular banquets in the space of seven days, where each banquet celebrated and toasted thousands of years of poetry from East and West, a conundrum has arisen:
What do banquets, physics, and metaphysics have to do with poetry?
All I can say is these circles within circles these, rounds of verse again and again became an intellectual wormhole that leapt both oceans, and time even reaching back to a small college one summer at Oxford where Eliot’s abstractions laid the foundation that four decades later make more sense than ever:
“In the beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon, . . .”
T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
In an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, . . .”
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
“I do not know much about gods,; but I think that the river
Is a strong, brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable …”
T.S. Eliot, “Dry Salvages”
“… Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond on ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror . . .”
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
“… Tea leaves in my cup are hesitating
Sometimes they are iambic
Sometimes they are trochaic
Only two leaves refuse to sink
One is called Li Po
The other is called Li Ho . . .”
Chen Yihai, “At Dusk, I Am Sitting down in Tang Poetry”
Above: Another luncheon banquet, tbd, photo credit: Claire Mowbry Golding
Below: Early Dinner, 11-15-18 International Writers Center between Yangzhou and Taicang. l-r: Maura MacNeil, Celia Rabinowtiz, poet and calligrapher Zhang Huangbo, poet and journalist Zhai Ming
“A flower falls from the branch
Drawing a curve in the dark
While it is mid-air, I hear
A teenage in the dark
His shadow elongated by starlight
The words he puts forward
More mysterious than the whites of his eyes.”
Jiang Hua, ”What Is Disappearing Quietly”
“…I thumbed the history of the Lixiahe:
Its countless rivers, its nameless waters.
And though my ears were tuned
to the hustle, screech and bump of city
I heard the faintest sounds of this country.
They keep my sleepless.”
Zi Chuan,“Winter Night in the Region of Rivers and Lakes”
Above: Final banquet, hotel in Taicang 11-16-18 l-r: Claire Mowbry Golding, Maura MacNeil, Celia Rabinowitz, Zhang Ziqing, Zi Chuan, Zhang Huangbo, Rodger Martin, photo credit: Rodney Obien
Tea Ceremony at Hongqiao Academy, Slender West Lake
(For Bu Lan-Chen, Yangzhou, 2018)
Within the Academy of Rainbows, its courtyard
bounded by the Taihu water sculpted stone,
a girl, silk soft, sits behind a silent table
set with five stenciled, porcelain cups.
Incense rises from an alembic at one side,
fine tea fills a small, carved wooden scoop
on the other. A second girl plucks her gugin;
its music meanders through a mountain meadow
and returns to the girl in silk who sifts leaves from teak
into a bowl, then pours steaming water over them.
Like the vapor rising from the tea, time disappears.
Forearm formal as a crane, she pours
from the lip of the bowl into a porcelain teapot,
then from the spout of the pot into five cups.
Five patrons each tap two fingers twice.
Ten fingers meditate around each cup.
Five times she does this,
five times they tap,
five times they sip.
If heaven watches from above
and the earth stretches below,
the crane who both walks the earth
and flies with heaven
has gifted this center, this middle
to man, water, and tea.
Rodger Martin (updated 11-30-18, 2-27-19)
Observations from the background,
Jiangsu Province, China, Nov. 10-17, 2018
In Shanghai, whose Twenty-first Century night skyline makes Manhatten look seedy and past its prime, time feels like a twisting, turning, double helix, where skyscrapers become LED light shows and co-exist side-by-side with Buddhist, Confucian and Tao temples. This is a place where one city and its metropolitan suburbs have more people in it than the entire Northeast United States or almost all of California if one prefers The West, or Texas and Florida, if one prefers The South. That’s a lot of representatives in Congress.
When the air over Shanghai (likely not over Beijing) is still as clear as the air over Philadelphia, when even a so-called slowdown to 5 percent growth results in astonishing progress to infrastructure, when talking to both young and old, it is clear this is a nation looking forward and outward, while the United States as a nation is governed looking inward and backward.
FDR said of the 1930s, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” What kind of American fear is loose in a government that denied last year visas to three of five invited poets from China? Visas which would have provided three poets the opportunity to visit New Hampshire during foliage season and participate in a poetry conference.
According to the three poets who were denied visas by the United States, two were journalists. I suppose that could be expected given the general politician’s fear of journalists. But the third wished to bring his spouse who was denied because she looked young and might secretly try to smuggle an unborn baby into the country for birth. It’s possible with a small boost from the gods, that one could conceive and give birth within the two week window of that visit, but it feels highly unlikely. Then again, if I were a current State Department policy maker and my agenda was something other than the well-being of the nation and the planet, I too might fear poets, journalists and babies.
Not that all is well on the other side of the world either. Remarks on Tiananmen Square are nowhere to be found or heard. There are re-education camps for the Uighurs, and both Google and Facebook are blocked along with the New York Times (but not The Washington Post–respect for Amazon maybe?). But in something different from 2015, less than flattering remarks about the Cultural Revolution are spoken publicly, and we watched a subtitled film in a local community Cineplex based on a novel by one of the U.S. visa denied journalist poets, Zhai Ming, which dealt directly with that period in stark terms (That is if the subtitles accurately reflect the dialogue which they appeared to do).
Speaking of Poetry
In the United States, a rule of thumb I use is that if ten people show-up for a poetry reading not part of a college campus, that reading is a success. If 15-25 attend, the night was wonderful, if over 25 attend, the night was spectacular. On campus one knows a large audience of young people may be assigned or given extra credit to attend and a good speaker can generally easily judge the level of engagement from such an audience. Poetry events in China take on more of the atmosphere and size of music concerts in the United States. The opening event for the Poetry Bridging Continents Symposium at Yancheng Teachers University brought a standing-room only crowd of four hundred or more, including reporters, television cameras, and Photographers.
The second evening event on November 13, brought another four hundred:
And the sessions generally filled with fifty or more, including students who were beyond filling up space for class credit but fully engaged Unlike most American poetry events, poetry in China combines art forms as these photographs indicate. Below, a YCTU Student above creates her own calligraphy.
Four students dance another poem.
Another student does a traditional recitation of a poem with the poem in two languages on screen behind him.
Or they combine it all with music, costume and drama as they re-enact the classic poem “Muhlan.” Some American performance poets are beginning to use these concepts, but more of it combined with superb poetry makes for an unforgettable experience.
But in the end, students in China are no different than any other student anywhere else on this globe.