Wednesday, June 27, 2007


We leave Beijing for Taiyuan in a torrential downpour. Air traffic controllers delay the flight for one hour; we sit in the plane. I sit not only in the plane, but between Kina and Caitlin, both of whom are bored and restless. It is a very long short flight.

Taiyuan has only recently become an economic development zone. As a coal and steel town, it has some aspects that remind me of Cleveland. It looks industrial. Gritty, really. There is very little ornament. And yet there is some; here sits a double pagoda Buddhist temple of some interest. We shall see it on this trip; Dave and Andrea did not know of it in 2001.

We are in Taiyuan for two reasons: Victor was born here, and Charles “Zhuangzhuang” is here. The latter trumps the former for the moment, but we shall see Victor’s little village soon. We shall also meet Zhuangzhuang.

Some notes at this juncture: I have already met Zhuangzhuang. I shall call him Ma Ding, for reasons you may never learn. Though our meeting is interesting, though his story is fascinating, it is not mine to tell. I shall write it, but you may never read it.

Instead, let me tell you a little about Ma Ding, whom we met yesterday. He is a six-year-old firecracker. Andrea calls him “the little emperor,” as it is fairly clear he has never had to bow to anyone’s rule. Well, kid, that’s about to change. Everybody talks to him, but I believe I am the only one who can really understand anything he says. He has, I believe, picked up on this. He told me today in the car that we are now friends. I’m not sure what I did, but I’ll take it.

“Parenting,” as my friend Liana once wrote, “is hard!” Doubly so, I believe, when the kid was someone else’s, is now yours (or your friend’s), and you speak less of the language than he does. I am so tired by the end of every day with him, and there have only been two. He challenges his parents’ authority; he certainly does not bow to me unless I use both Chinese and force. You’re a little Chinese boy, Ma Ding. Have you read the works of Xiang Yu? I am tempted, but have so far refrained from anything beyond grabbing him.

This is not to say that I do not like him. I do. He is bright and clever and cute; he will make a fine addition to Andrea and Dave’s household. At one point we have a shouting match, and in Mandarin, he calls me “Mr. Fart.” The name sticks; I now refer to myself as Mr. Fart when I really need his attention. I think it’s funny. So does everyone else. Especially Ma Ding.

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