It’s not the calla lilies that are in bloom again (Katharine Hepburn, “Stage Door”), but the cherry trees. Our campus has one on the finest displays in Hunan, I was told early on, and when the time came, I could expect major traffic jams on the normally wide-open streets. It would be much like hana-mi in Japan, when life takes a caesura and everyone rushes to walk among the trees, admire the ephemeral blossoms of pink and white and even green, and take pictures of every last one. This spring, there’s an added tourist attraction: me.
“Ex-cuse me! Can I have pho-to with you?” I’ve heard it not once but a hundred times in the last few days. The first time I was puzzled, and already feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the number of students who want to trade cellphone numbers on first meeting, visit my apartment on no notice, help me through the little difficulties of life far from home, and generally be my friend. But all became clear with the second request: “You’re my first foreigner.” Aha! They don’t know who I am, where I’m from or what on earth I’m doing in the middle of Hunan. But none of that matters to them.
I’ve often wondered how many millions of photographs I appear in all over the world – “scrapbooks full of me in the background,” as Stephen Sondheim put it in “Gypsy.” If you could multiply the number of trips I’ve taken over the years by the number of other camera-wielding travelers whose paths I’ve crossed, the figure would have to be staggering. Now I’ve moved to the foreground, smiling sometimes gamely but often from the heart, as I put my arms around total strangers and stick up two fingers in the ubiquitous V that means “happy” here. Sometimes the strangers speak enough English to have a short conversation –“Where are you from?” “Do you speak Chinese?” “Do you like Chinese food?”– and sometimes not. Today a young man told me his grandparents live in New York. “Have you been to visit them?” I asked. “No,” he said, “it is not so easy,” meaning practically beyond his wildest dreams. When we parted, “ I said, “See you in New York someday!” and he smiled. You never know.
When I went to Changsha, the provincial capital, over the weekend, I thought things might be different in the big city (6 million and counting), but no. In the Martyrs’ Park I was almost immediately approached by two cheerful young women who said “Hello!” and pointed to their cameras. I posed with one (we both happened to be wearing sweaters of cherry-blossom pink) and then the other before they said “Thank you!” and moved on. Next I settled on a bench to read and rest up for my time slot at the adjacent Hunan Provincial Museum. A three-generation family came next, and the matriarch – please tell me she wasn’t my age! – sat beside me and started talking. I smiled and tried to explain that I didn’t understand, but no matter: like Oma Else in Germany, she just kept talking. I went back to my reading, still smiling. A few minutes later, I felt her move closer on the bench and put her arm around me; I looked up to find a man, presumably her husband, pointing a camera at us. “Oh, now I get it!” I thought, and smiled. Later in the museum, I noticed a girl in pink posing by a replica of a mammoth 2,000-year-old coffin – the same one who had posed with me in the park. “Hi!” we greeted each other like old friends. “Nice to see you,” I added, but I had gone beyond the limits of her English. She and her friend giggled, and we waved goodbye.
The campus blossoms were just coming out on Friday, so I made a return trip today. (Actually two, since I went back after class for photos with my student Mimi, who wants to be my friend. She may not realize I’m just about old enough to be her grandmother, though as always I prefer to think of myself as Auntie Mame.) A pleasant surprise was waiting at a pavilion among the trees: a group of elders who had taken up watercolors in their retirement were turning out paintings and calligraphy, which they hung on the pavilion and the cherry trees to dry. “Could I buy one?” I asked a student reporter I had previously met there. “They will give you one!” she said, and positioned me on the pavilion steps overlooking the work table. While a man painted a mischievous cat in black and white that looked suspiciously like Leksi, a woman went to work on a large vertical sheet of paper, shaping the outlines of chrysanthemums in black, then filling them in with yellow and pink. As she worked, the reporter took me to the painters’ nearby studio. There a Miss Li, who is planning an exhibition for her 70th birthday next year, asked me what flowers I liked so she could paint some for me. “I like the cherry blossoms, because I’m here now,” I answered, but Miss Li demurred – very hard to paint, the reporter explained. How about a lotus instead? Fine. I’m to pick it up next week. (I think Miss Li wants me to take lessons.) Back at the pavilion, I found my chrysanthemums almost complete; all the artist needed was my name, which she painted by carefully imitating the letters in a notebook. She presented the painting to me, we posed for pictures and I went off to class, trailing the still-damp paper like a sail. It may not have been the painting I’d have chosen, but it has my name on it — in English.
When I was maybe 12 years old, on a field trip to the United Nations in New York, I was awed to find that our guide was from Japan. Too shy to ask for a photo, I deliberately brushed against her, convinced I would never again be so close to anyone so exotic. I seem to have come full circle.
Update: It seems the calla lilies are in bloom again after all. On a weekend trip to Sichuan province, I spotted a window box filled with them on the top floor of a farmhouse as my bus whizzed past.