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Suzhou 2: Trapping, Snapping, and Talking With the Dead

This is the second part of an account of a day in the “Venice of the East”, Suzhou. (Read the first here.) I left off at the point where we were getting off the tourist boat, with me thinking we were nearly done but with the worst to come. Toward the end (spoiler alert!), we take a slight detour between my ears. I hope it’s a pleasant place to visit, though you wouldn’t want to live there.

“There’s a silk museum? We’re going there now? I thought –“

It's scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

It’s scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

We disembarked and climbed up the banks, and there again were the street vendors, and buses lined up to enter through the same narrow gates that we were. (Did I mention that the aggressively employed air horns on Chinese trucks and buses make me vaguely homicidal? I don’t think I mentioned this.) The ultra-amplified guide brought up the rear, and now even I understand his message: kuai yi dianr. (“Hurry up!”) Even if my Chinese hadn’t been up to that minimal speed, I’d have understood. Move along, folks. There’s stuff to buy, commissions to be earned. That’s where bemusement began to turn to anger. The museum was chintzy, but could’ve been diverting, at least briefly; I don’t know much about how we get from tree worms to gorgeous outfits and bedding. However, the museum was a false front, and once the guide had hurried us into the duvets-to-go area, I’d had enough. I signalled my son toward the exit. He didn’t resist.

“Dad, why are we taking an escalator up to the exit? We came in on the main floor.” Right. I have a bad feeling about this. We got to the top. Oh, no.

Oh, yes. Silk shirts. Silk bedding. Silk pyjamas. Silk ties. Silk showrooms, one after the other after the one after the first. I was tired, I was irritable, yes, and I was disappointed in how little I continued to know about G’s life, this potential future wife, and how utterly incurious the Z sisters appeared to be about who in the world we were or what we might be interested in. All that is true, but I also found this gross, a materialistic assault, though nobody else seemed to mind much – but then, everybody else had knowingly signed on for this binge. My son and I speed-walked. We waited outside among the diesel fumes, the whistles, the hawkers and the air horns. There didn’t seem to be anywhere we could go. Buses came in, turned, parked, left. Large groups of tourists – I don’t remember a single other foreign face – came in, following a mic’d guide leading them to the museum entrance.

Turn back, you fools! Escape while you can! Why are you following so passively? Don’t you know where you’re going? RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!

This was mostly for my son’s (ultra-mild) entertainment, so yes, I was saying these things out loud, but not at high volume. I wasn’t waving my arms. I’m sure nobody noticed, and while it didn’t actually make me feel much better, it was a minor release. G had a sheepish grin on his face when he finally came out and saw what I guess was slightly lower wattage in my smile. (It might have been a grimace, honesty compels me to report. Not much of a poker player, not that day.) He hadn’t known either. This clearly – or maybe this is what I wanted to believe – hadn’t been his idea at all, and the sisters lasted lots longer in this “museum”. Okay, well, maybe not so surprising. Back on the bus, and nothing looked familiar, and the ride was longer than I’d have thought to get back to the district where we’d parked, and then AmpliDude started up again. Earplugs were re-inserted, and irritation rose. There’s something else coming?

There was something else coming. A garden. It wasn’t a bad garden. There were tranquil pools with lotus flowers and coloured carp. Statues. (A toilet.) As usual – especially noticeable when fatigue and cynicism set in – there were cool backdrops for stylish young Chinese to be photographed against. (What other purpose could there be?) I found a place that wasn’t terribly photogenic, but which afforded me a peaceful sit-down. It was a pleasant afternoon, I knew, for nearly everyone there, or so it seemed. It was my mother’s birthday, I remembered. (Thank goodness: I remembered something other than my own irritation.) Talking to her felt like a useful thing to do. And it was.

Hello, mother dear. I may need some help with this one. Got your hearing aid on? Ha. No need for that sucker anymore, but then that also means you can’t turn it down when you don’t feel like listening. Your corns are gone, too. No more aching feet. No more bridge ladies to impress. No more brood to fuss over, no more brooding husband to love and protect and forgive. No more worries. Right? But then, who are you with nobody to worry about, no family to hold together? Maybe I’ve got this all wrong.

The reason I’m calling: the frustration bunnies are breeding. Maybe I’m just exhausted, yeah, you’re right, I can’t deny that. But instead of walking freely through the streets of this city, I’ve been kidnapped by a Chinese tour bus. My young buddy thought to show off his new girlfriend and help us to see a new city, so they drove over here. Spent hours on the road, more money than they should have on us, but we’ve hardly talked at all and now I don’t even want to, much. You know how I never took too well to being told what to do.

Friendship, today, has meant biting my lip – yes, and you don’t have to do that anymore, I trust, ‘cause you chewed that thing too much in this busy life – and trying not to give voice to the dark mutterings in my head. Mainly, I think I’ve succeeded, and you’d be proud of your fifth grandson. He’s just turned 14, guess you knew that already, but he had some wise advice for his cranky father. Hmm. Was that your doing? Who knows what powers you have in whichever of the many mansions you’re benevolently haunting these days? Ennyhoo, as you’d say, thinking of you is redeeming on an annoying day. Thanks. Maybe that was your idea, too? Happy 93rd, wherever you are. I’m in Suzhou.

It was a good moment by the pool. Fourth had come by, while I sat.

Suzhou from the other side: a lake, wide streets, high-rise finance, and the Gate to the Orient. Many Chinese debate about it: thermal underwear? jeans?

Suzhou from the other side: a lake, wide streets, high-rise finance, and the Gate to the Orient. Many Chinese debate about it: thermal underwear? jeans?

“It’s not G’s fault, Dad. He feels bad enough about this as it is – don’t make him feel any worse. This might be the last time we see him, you know. So. Try and end it the right way, right?”

I was touched. This had been a disastrous day for him, the perfect storm of things a 14-year-old might feel he’d resent forever, and this garden wasn’t helping him a bit. Rose above it, though, he did, he did, and what a gift to me! G wandered by, and smiles were exchanged, and I do believe I’ll see the man again, and I’m sure that at least I will welcome it, and hope for the best on his side of the equation. I went a little deeper into the garden, where the tour bus-ters mainly don’t go, and though it wasn’t that far away, there was a touch more wildness and a teaspoon of splendid isolation back there by the Buddhist shrine.

When I came back out, I was ready for the bus, ready for the return. I’d given up on the Suzhou run I’d planned for late afternoon, and the shared supper so our our hosts could meet Mr. G. Giving up is good, I repeatedly learn. We couldn’t find the car, but by then it was fine with me: we were walking together again, and for goodness’ sake: if we didn’t bump into Ms. X, another old (young) friend! Reversing our tracks in search of parking lots brought this unexpected and unlikely reunion, among all those crowds. We had shared many friendly hours together in Dalian, learning together how those crazy Baha’i teachings work, and she and G were as startled and pleased as we were to be together again, briefly, on a cobbled and crowded Suzhou street. (And I noticed, I couldn’t help it, though I accepted it with more bemusement than irritation: the sisters Z just kept walking, showing no interest in those old friend of G’s, a fellow student from his Dalian days. I still wonder at their reasons, and as with many things Chinese, I’ll never really know for sure.)

Pictures do no justice: this "Humble Administrator's Garden" is a treasure.

Pictures do no justice: this “Humble Administrator’s Garden” is a treasure.

It’s days later now. I’m in Beijing. This post began with powerful feelings, and as I recollect them in a tiny hotel room, in something resembling tranquillity, they seem a little cranky, but no less true for all that. I quite liked Suzhou, and the following afternoon unfolded the way I’d hoped the previous one would have. We walked through narrower, slightly more out-of-the-way streets of old Suzhou. They were touristy, yes, but on a more intimate scale. There was a cappuccino for Travel Bride and an oddly sweet ginger-milk-tea thing for me. We decided to spend the 70 yuan for the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” we’d passed by the day before, and it was a major WOW on a weekday afternoon. We shared it with hundreds, not thousands. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and though I’m rather ignorant about botany, I know what I like. I know my mother would have adored it, and I’m rampantly idealistic enough to think that, given another chance, we might’ve found more fragrant blooms of friendship there with G and the sisters who brought him to us. It’s pretty to think so.

Comment (1)

  1. Maury Miloff

    Some of the reasons why you would want to read James Howden…

    “heavily smeared with the lipstick of consumer tourism, there was history and charm behind the makeup, and some tasty confections here and there.”

    “G had a sheepish grin on his face when he finally came out and saw what I guess was slightly lower wattage in my smile. (It might have been a grimace, honesty compels me to report. Not much of a poker player, not that day.)”

    ““It’s not G’s fault, Dad. He feels bad enough about this as it is – don’t make him feel any worse. This might be the last time we see him, you know. So. Try and end it the right way, right?” I was touched. This had been a disastrous day for him, the perfect storm of things a 14-year-old might feel he’d resent forever, and this garden wasn’t helping him a bit. Rose above it, though, he did, he did, and what a gift to me! G wandered by, and smiles were exchanged, and I do believe I’ll see the man again, and I’m sure that at least I will welcome it, and hope for the best on his side of the equation. I went a little deeper into the garden, where the tour bus-ters mainly don’t go, and though it wasn’t that far away, there was a touch more wildness and a teaspoon of splendid isolation back there by the Buddhist shrine.”

    A teaspoon of splendid isolation back there by the Buddhist shrine“?

    Oh yeah! By the way, in November of 2013 we were in Suzhou. My FB profile picture provides perfect evidence: me in the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Had a wonderful time but walked that long car-free plaza beside the hotel too many times — so full of all the shopping you could possibly want and more. I did love the many bubble tea places for which the Chinese were lined up, but was amazed at the Canadian-like prices!

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