By LISA CHEN
In Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China,” the unnamed narrator is invited on a junket by the Chinese government. The project unfolds as a loose association of daydreams, epigrams, facts, and memories triggered by the promise of this future trip.
She wants to walk across the Luhu Bridge. She expects to board a train for Canton. The specter in the story is the narrator’s father, who, like Sontag’s, died in China when she was a girl. The mystery of the father is as vast as China.
I have always been partial to this story. Like the narrator, I have always imagined I would go to China one day.
Doesn’t every Chinese person not from China have a project for a trip to China? My mother, even as a little girl in Hong Kong, yearned to see the Three Gorges. Before he got sick, my stepfather used to fantasize about traveling the Silk Road.
What I’d seen of China, on paper, on screens, before I finally went there: rows of young women on the assembly line, their black hair tucked in shower caps, faces hidden by surgical masks. Farmers squatting by pyramids of rubble, cigarettes burning down to their fingers. Concrete buildings erupting out of the rice fields. Figures blurred by a bad air day.
My first project for a trip to China involved my partner’s family. A.’s father, nearing eighty, wanted to return one last time to his birthplace. He wanted to settle his accounts. To visit the graves of his ancestors. To eat Peking duck and beef hot pot. We were asked what we wanted to see: The Summer Palace? The narrow hutongs of Beijing? The Great Wall, of course. A family friend sent a PowerPoint of photographs he took of the splendors of the Forbidden City. I started clicking through the slides but stopped midway through: No, I wanted my eyes to be surprised.
My second project involved my father, whom I had not seen in more than twenty years. He was born in Shanghai, and died there. That second trip was meant to see him off into the afterlife.
In real life, Sontag did accept an invitation to travel to China as part of a delegation. In her journal she describes her intention to write a book about China. The book most emphatically would not be an account of her travels there. (The tour, as she predicted, was a stultifying parade of speeches and stage-managed visits to factories, schools, government buildings.) No, the book would be something much more than that. It would, she hoped, be the“everything book I’ve been trying to write.”
Sontag the critic, Sontag the novelist, Sontag the playwright. But it is Sontag the journal keeper—those torrential lists of books and films and exhibitions she means to devour, the conceptual enjambments whose jotted swiftness even typeface manages to convey—this is the essential Sontag, the reason why young women will always read Sontag. (Terry Castle: “She was our very own Great Man.”) Reading the journals is like being inside a metabolizing intellect so extreme the threat of death could not have registered as anything but a shock. But there isn’t any time to die, Sontag must have thought, dying.
It turns out not everything can be turned into a book. But just about everything can be the meat of a project. Everything? Sontag’s journal offers the thrill of standing on the scaffolding she’s built of her project to China. She makes notes to herself to read Wittfogel’s book on China, Barthes on Japan, Pound on Chinese calligraphy, the sinologists Granet and Needham. Maybe the book will be titled Notes Toward a Definition of Cultural Revolution. An examination of China as an alternative to consumer society? Perhaps the book could be collaged, like John Cage’s A Year from Monday.
“I can put my whole life into this book,” Sontag wrote. “It’s about everything, and yet it’s about the moon—the most exotic place—about nothing at all.”
Sontag’s narrator, this would-be traveler to China, takes uncommon pride in her fondness for thousand-year-old eggs, ordering them over the protests of Chinese waiters and the horror of her friends. “Everyone I know finds the sight of them disgusting.”
I shouldn’t scoff. Some years ago, I bought a jade bracelet on Grant Street—the row of tchotchkestores in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I wanted to feel more—what? Well, Chinese. I chose a bracelet that was not too green, swirled with white smoke. I couldn’t remove it unless I slicked my wrist with a gob of lotion. The bracelet clanged against dishes, stairwell railings, car windows. My mother took one glance and proclaimed it a fake. The natural skepticism of the Chinese, wary of imposters, of being cheated, overcharged, taken for fools. What’s worse, being an authentic fool or a fake chasing authenticity?
A friend asks his little boy what he imagines Disneyland will be like. The boy thinks on this.
“It’s a world—a pretend world where everything you can’t see, are.”
Once we visit a place, our imaginary of it breaks apart as easily as a melting strip of film reel. We are shocked to discover that, right across the street from the centuries-old fountain, squats a Burger King. The ground filthy with cheese-crusted hamburger wrappers, Wet Ones, the sundials of plastic cup lids pierced with straws. As with the tourists who came before us, we wait patiently for people in their brightly colored leisure wear to bumble out of the frame so we can reproduce with our cameras the same illusion of an authentic past that brought us here in the first place.
“Nothing is more beautiful than Peking unless it is the memory of Peking,” says the narrator in Dimanche à Pekin, a short, whimsical film about China by Chris Marker, writer, documentarian, maker of wounded time machines.
Marker’s roving camera is diverted by quotidian scenes of trams, rickshaws, vegetable carts. A street acrobat prancing with swords. Shadow puppets. An old woman, a baby strapped to her back, teetering on bound feet. A bear at a zoo. Like the 1930 silent film People on Sunday, made in the twilight of the Weimar Republic, Dimanche à Pekin—released in 1956, a few short years before the Great Leap Forward—is haunted by a prophecy of cataclysmic events that hadn’t yet happened.
A few years ago, China’s state censors issued new guidelines meant to crack down on depictions of time travel in TV dramas and movies. Government officials denounced these “frivolous” resurrections of feudalism, superstitions, and other retrograde fantasias as lacking in “positive thoughts and meaning.”
Silly Chinese bureaucrats, we laugh, shaking our heads. And yet our own country has elected a president whose platform was built on time travel—“Make America great again!”—wishful for a future that resuscitates the bad old world order of the past.
Sontag’s father died in China of tuberculosis. He was a furrier, an occupation from another century. One pictures a man in a bearish overcoat draped to his ankles, trudging along in snowshoes to honor his transactions. In “Project,” the narrator imagines if she goes to the land where her father died, she will be finally be able to bury him. (“By visiting my father’s death, I make him heavier.”)
A few years after my first trip to China, I woke one morning to three voicemail messages from my mother. It had been an unseasonably warm winter in New York City; I remember hardly any snow on the ground that year. My father—my biological father—had died.
How? In his sleep. A good death.
Where? In China.
We had not even known he had been living in China, having long fallen out of each other’s lives. Like Sontag’s furrier father, my father had become vapor. Which is why most people I know, sensing his absence, never ask about him. But if someone had asked, I might have replied that he was not a good person—code, in polite company, for abusive.
The Shanghainese are known for their preoccupation with mian zi, my mother once told me. They have a weakness for superficial displays and keeping face. My father was proud, quick to anger, and easily slighted. Every woman knows a man like this. He was such a terror that my mother, with my sister and me in tow, fled all the way across the ocean from Taipei to California to escape him.
We learned about his death from a Mr. Sung, an emissary from my father’s past and the executor of his wishes. The two men had befriended each other in Los Angeles, where Mr. Sung still lived, and where my father had once mentored the younger man on business matters. In his seventies, my father’s eyesight had begun to fail, we learned from Mr. Sung. Soon after, he moved back to China and married for a third time.
Now there was to be a funeral. Would my sister and I be going? An old-school Chinese man like him would have wanted a formal send-off into the afterlife. Paying our respects seemed like the least we could do, so we said yes. Make him heavier. Mr. Sung wrote, “I am very glad to hearthat both of you cango to Shanghaitoattendfather’s funeraltoaccompany himtothelastsection of the road. Ibelievethatyourfatherin heavenwillbevery happy.”
What I’ve read of Chinese funerals: People dressed in white, trailing the body through the streets, beating their chests and wailing. The spicy, medicinal smell of joss sticks, burning hell bank notes so the dead can spend lavishly in the afterlife. Kneeling, bowing, and more bowing. Pyramids of tangerines, platters of food.
My sister and mother cried about my dead father, but not because they loved or missed him. My mother cried for the decades he had spent exiled from his family and her own role in it. My sister cried because she was now a mother herself, and the rupture of separating from a child was a pain she could feel. I didn’t cry, because even in death he was doing what he always did: making the women in my family cry.
The last time we had seen him was decades ago, when we were teenagers in high school. It was a reunification effort of sorts. We flew out from California to Hartford, Connecticut, where he and his second wife, a pretty, much younger woman with a stylish bob, ran a modest deli in town. Later, in private, he would insist the marriage was one of convenience, good for business. At the airport when he first spotted us, he was so engulfed by emotion that his hands shook.
He took us to Bloomingdale’s. He took us to a matinee of Catson Broadway. One night he drove us through the shimmering boulevards of Queens to a Chinese restaurant owned by a friend. We performed the rituals of divorced fathers and their children, a carousel ride of entertainment, dining, and window-shopping designed to canter over our estrangement. By the end of the trip, he had started to crack. Long, ugly tirades about how he had been wronged, how none of it was his fault. Afterward, there were phone calls, and then there weren’t. That was the last time we’d see him.
In her journal, Sontag considered dedicating her “everything” book to her father. Later she changed her mind and decided to dedicate it to her son.
The book was never written. What Sontag wrote instead is an ecstatic ode to projects, to the harnessing of the intellect and soul in preparation for not the next, but this unfettered life.
I was not a believer in the afterlife, but I found myself thinking of it frequently in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death. In the case of my father, it possessed a certain logic. Why wouldn’t he continue to exist, as he had when he was alive, in a world utterly foreign and unknown to mine?
What I know about the Chinese conception of hell: a bureaucracy of judicial control under a totalitarian regime. As in eighteen levels, ten courts, and sixteen wards, a byzantine system that metes out punishment in exquisite correspondence to the sins committed in life. (Some speculate Dante’s nine concentric rings of torment may have been inspired by his seeing a Buddhist rendering of the Underworld.)
From what I could tell, there appeared to be a place in this hell for everyone in my family: My mother belonged with the other wives who are a worry to their husbands, suspended upside down, their hearts and livers plucked out, faces scraped by iron instruments, knees crushed, fingers, toes, and feet sawed off. After being forced to drink their own blood, they are devoured by maggots and vermin.
As for my sister and me, children who neglect to feed, serve, and bury their parents, we would be dispatched to the Eighth Court of Hell, where our bodies would be crushed beneath carriage wheels, suffocated in ovens, sliced to pieces, our tongues cut out, nails driven into our skulls. In the coup de grâce, our dismembered torsos, like slabs of meat, would be hung for display on steel forks.
There were punishments for wasters of food, tax evaders, sellers of shitty silk, drunkards, busybodies, destroyers of books. There were tortures for corrupt officials, cheating accountants, bail runners, the overly litigious, rich people who never give alms, people who spread weird rumors to terrify others, arsonists, pornographers, cannibals, lazy and neglectful teachers who ruin the future of their pupils, medical quacks and charlatans, matchmakers who lie about the shortcomings of their prospects. But there didn’t seem to be a court to oversee men who beat and terrorize their wives.
Instead of researching Chinese hell, I should have been researching Chinese funeral rites: guidelines for estranged daughters. Not to worry, Mr. Sung assured us. There will be someone there to show you what to do. What was harder to imagine was interacting with Third Wife’s family. My Mandarin is terrible, nearly nonexistent. I would have to stand there like a stupid child, a vacant look on my face while people talked over me. Some poor, young relative, singled out for her relative command of English, would, no doubt, be enlisted to be our minder.
Through Mr. Sung, we learned that the Shanghai family insisted we not stay at a hotel but at an apartment of a niece of theirs. She would even pick us up from the airport. Mr. Sung forwarded the address. My sister, who had not been sleeping well, entered the address into a search engine. The satellite image was grainy, but there was no mistaking what she was looking at: an empty field. She tried zeroing in on it, striking + + + on the keyboard. The field was not a field. It was a raw, open pit, a massive burial abyss. She freaked. Who were these people anyway, this new family? In fact, my father had told Mr. Sung that he didn’t trust his third wife. But wasn’t that also his way, untrusting, always suspecting the worst in people? But it was true, we didn’t know a single thing about them.
In fact, Google street views can be outdated by as much as five years before new images are captured and loaded to stand in for the present. For most places, this extension in time would be negligible. Not so in China, where entire city blocks and mountain villages are plowed under faster than the pace of history. In the end, the answer to the mystery of the open field ended up being more prosaic than even China’s vertiginous building boom: in her sleepless fugue, my sister believed, she must have typed in the wrong address.
Airline tickets were purchased, a cat-sitter arranged, passports expedited. Then my sister backed out. She said she didn’t have the stomach to go through with it. And I didn’t have the heart, or guts, to go without her.
Another crime punishable in Chinese hell: holding up funerals.
I couldn’t blame my sister; she would have had to bear the burden of being the Elder Daughter. Her Mandarin was much better than mine, too, which would have meant more talking, more pressure. And she didn’t have what I have, what I have always had when confronted with an ordeal: the possibility that the experience would prove useful for a project. I could endure anything as long as it could be bent in recollection to my design, the mercenary impulse as coping mechanism.
The project for that trip to China devolved into a project for the procurement of a tasteful condolence card for Third Wife and her family. I started at Paper Source on Smith Street in Brooklyn. By then the days had gotten colder; I remember having to remove my gloves to handle the cards. Cards with written-out sentiments (“Sorry for your loss.” “Our thoughts are with you.”)had to be eliminated outright: No English. Then there was the matter of cultural translation: Does a bird or a winter scene or a pumpkin have the same meaning for mainland Chinese as it does for Americans? Also dismissed out of hand were cards made of inferior paper stock. Recycled materials were unacceptable. The paper had to be thick, substantive. Mian zi and all.
At the third gift shop I visited, I settled on a card with a silk-screen design of a koi rippling through a pond. It looked like the cover of a collection of terribly dull lyric poems by an Asian American poet. This will do. I wrote a short, respectful message and asked A.’s mother to translate it into Mandarin. I got the Third Wife’s family’s address from Mr. Sung. And then I never sent it.
Did Marco Polo invent his trip to China? Some claim he sailed no farther than the Black Sea and that his account was cribbed whole-cloth from a Persian seaman’s travelogue. Skeptics point to Polo’s failure to make any note of chopsticks, tea-drinking, or Chinese characters. Worst of all, he completely fails to mention the Great Wall of China. But Polo does report on coal and porcelain. He takes great pains to detail the look, weight, feel, and value of Chinese currency; he does the same with the minutiae of salt production. In other words, he saw China through the mercenary eyes of a Venetian merchant. If Marco Polo did invent China, he wouldn’t be the first. China is always being invented. It has existed for too long and is too fucking big for this not to be so.
Did Sontag learn Chinese, or climb the Matterhorn like she wanted, before she died? All our lives, we imagine the places we’ll go. For most of my childhood we were too anxious about money to travel abroad. By the time we had it, we’d lost our nerve to spend it. Will I ever float down the Yangtze River with my mother? I used to think that would happen in good time, not imagining that time spoils. Already I am mourning the trip that will never happen. Let Peking be Peking a bit longer. Try not to mourn the future too quickly. It’s too dangerous a form of time travel.
Lisa Chen is the author of Mouth. She received a 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and has been a resident and fellow at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace program and the Center for Fiction. She has work forthcoming in Brick, AGNI, and Guernica. She was born in Taipei and now lives in New York City.