On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.

Chi Ku

When I was in China, I often noted that people seemed to put particular value on ‘working hard’ – working hard is the ethical equivalent of ‘being busy’ in the West. Working hard, long hours, with pain, is seen as positive – the result is not interrogated so much.

I also noted the long hours that people worked. When I was teaching at Alliance Francaise in Tianjin, my Chinese colleagues all had a full-time job, and taught on week-ends and evenings, adding twelve hours to their week. The same was true of students: almost all of them were professionals, and spent seventeen extra hours a week at Alliance Francaise to prepare their migration to Quebec.

Later, during my stay in Nanjing, I started questioning this ethics with Chinese friends. They said working a lot is seen as a form of virtue, no matter what the result is. Is there not a risk that this will develop a form of stupidity – the stupidity of oxen and donkeys carrying their load ahead without thinking about the goal, or how to lighten the burden.

As China rises, let’s not be carried over into the worship of long hours. Let’s be careful about our ‘busy’ culture.

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!

Purple is for education, no culture

1.

In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.

I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.

On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.

I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.

2.

The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.

The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?

The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.

I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.

3.

In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.

I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.

4.

There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

Just for a short visit

Yangzhou pavillion

“I’m really glad you took us here, thank you.”

“Yes, it’s really pleasant, isn’t it.”

It was my parents’ first visit to China, and after a few days running around the busy streets of Nanjing, I thought a day-trip to Yangzhou would make them happy.

“Is this the same tea we tried yesterday? It tastes a bit different.”

“Yay, yesterday was Osmanthus tea, this one is just green tea, I’m not sure what kind.”

They were enjoying themselves, at least reasonably, but I was exhausted. They didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I had to organize everything.

“Get the last cake, mum.”

“No, you have it – I’m finding them a bit heavy, and I need to leave room for tonight.”

The culmination of their journey was coming soon: a big introduction dinner to my future in-laws. Below the gleeful surface, that’s all we were thinking about.

“Should we go?” I suggested, biting into the last gingko-nut cake.

We stood up from the wooden table, and resumed our stroll across the canals of the Slender West Lake area, crossing over arched bridges, wandering through bamboo groves, or gazing through circular moon-gates at the distant pavilions. Then, exhausted from so much beauty, we got a cab to the station, and arrived just on time for the 5h05 train back to Nanjing.

We sat opposite a loud group of country people who kept staring at us for most of the trip, repeating the word ‘laowai, laowai’, and laughing. They reeked of cold tobacco, and spat sunflower shells all over the floor. My mother did a regal job of ignoring them, but I could see my father passive aggressively looking out the window. His goal was probably to shame them into silence, but his behaviour had absolutely no success.

Chen Jie came to pick us up at the station, and escorted us back to Gulou. My parents had 15 minutes to refresh. ‘That should be enough’, said my mother, ‘I’ve already chosen my dress and shoes for tonight’, but I could see that my father was annoyed at having to rush. ‘We’ll be waiting in the lobby’, I said, hoping that would encouarge them to do their business quickly.

‘So will you go to Yangzhou again?’ asked Chen Jie. She was wearing a slim black top with thin straps, revealing her slender round shoulders. Her hair was attached in a ponytail, and her eyes shone their black magic back at me. ‘You know I love it there. Maybe we should go for our honeymoon.’

She gave me a mock-smack on the arm: ‘You said Paris.’

I laughed, and held her in my arms, while she mock-pouted – meanwhile pressing her body close to me mine.

‘Do you think your parents will arrive early?’ I asked.

‘That’s OK, you don’t need to worry.’ She replied. But I knew she didn’t mean it: 7h30 was late for a Chinese dinner, and I didn’t want my family to seem impolite.

The trip to Yangzhou would play in our favour though. Chen Jie’s father was working for the local government there through the nineties, before he got transferred to the regional capital. According to the family mythology, he played a crucial role in protecting historical parts of the city from destruction – which made him a retrospective hero when authentic Ming dynasty temples started to push up the price of nearby commercial real estate.

By 7h10, my parents still hadn’t made their way back to the lobby, and I started feeling murderous instincts. I could picture the Chens alone at a large table, and their impassive smile.

‘Maybe your parents are tired, and they needed some rest’ said Chen Jie.

‘They’re fine,’ I replied, ‘they just don’t have a very good sense of time’.

I started dreading the coming dinner. Would my father sit brooding all night, or make obnoxious remarks about China? How should I react if he did? Play filial son, and shut up, or politely contradict him, at the risk of us all losing face? Chen Jie was generally my guide through these arcanes of cross-cultural politeness codes, but when it came to my family, I couldn’t dream of asking her directly.

They finally came down at 7h15. ‘It’s my fault’, said my mother, ‘sorry: I had my dress on, and then I made a big stain with my lipstick.’ Chen Jie smiled ‘It’s OK, you can be late in China.’ My father though it was the perfect moment to press his point: ‘See – you’ve been rushing us for nothing.’ I cringed.

We finally made it only ten minutes late. The Chens had insisted on taking my parents to ‘Grandma Xiang’, a new traditional Jiangsu restaurant on the top floor of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. ‘Are we going to some sort of food court then?’ asked my mother, slightly perplexed, when we stepped onto the escalator past a Starbucks, and emerged into aisles of menswear. I explained, again, that the best places in China were often located inside shopping malls: ‘I guess it’s just the way they do it then,’ she said, and on we went along stalls of jade jewellery.

For better or worse, the place was remarkably noisy – hot and loud, as the Chinese say. The waiter escorted us to a window table where the Chens were waiting for us. There were two small cups of green tea on the table, and a small plate of sunflower seeds, untouched. Everyone shook hands, unsure how much physical contact was appropriate on a first meeting. Then we all sat down, foreign parents facing Chinese parents, while Chen Jie and I took both ends of the table, so that we could informally translate through the dinner.

The dinner was painful, but catastrophe was avoided. Conversation rolled over first impressions of China to the canals of Yangzhou, then to modest insights into the Chen family mythology. High-speed and low-speed trains featured – the pace of urbanisation – and heritage conservation. Then the food arrived: salted duck in thin slices, sweet lotus root, stinky tofu. Mrs Chen remarked, impressed, how agile my mother was with her chopsticks, and Mr Chen, cheerful, called for a bottle of Baijiu.

My father fought over the bill, as I instructed him to, but the Chens had already made a deal with the restaurant. We duly thanked them, promised a similar feast when they came visit, and shook hands – this time with slightly less embarrassment – outside the doors of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. Chen Jie walked her parents back home, while I escorted mine in a taxi.

‘Chen Jie’s really lovely’ my mother said when we got back into their room. ‘How long have you known each other now?’

‘It’s been almost a year, but we’ve only been seriously dating for five months.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long’, she commented.

My father walked up to the window, and looked outside.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s many Westerners dating Chinese girls, but I’m lucky with Chen Jie. It means a lot that we’ve just had this dinner. Generally, Chinese families are not too keen on their daughters marrying a Westerner.’

My mother was looking at me, smiling.

‘But I think it went well today.’

‘Did we make you proud at least?’ asked my father, turning around. My mother laughed – ‘oh, don’t tease him.’

‘You did a good job, dad,’ I replied, and he went over to sit in an armchair opposite me.

My mother was boiling water now, and shuffling around the kitchen:

‘So, do you have a date for the wedding?’ she asked?

‘Not yet – but we’re thinking next year in Spring.’

‘Are you doing it here, or coming back home?’

‘Probably here – and then Paris for our honeymoon.’

She nodded: ‘We’re just getting used to it now, but soon we’ll be experts.’

Then my father said: ‘I never thought, when you were little, that you would take us to China.’

I wasn’t an early sinophile: I studied French in high school, and had no particular interest in Asia beside kung-fu movies and pork dumplings. Then I got this scholarship to spend a year in Taiwan, and that’s when it really started.

‘It’s a fascinating country,’ my father was putting on his serious news-analysis face, ’I mean, it came out of nowhere – Japan, yes – but China? And then suddenly, it’s all everyone’s interested in. But you’ve already studied the language, and now you’re introducing us to local aristocracy.’

My mother made a little loving noise, and I smiled back at him.

‘Seriously, I’m wondering – are Chen Jie’s parents actually powerful? I don’t really know what anything means here.’

My mother laughed: ‘Richard, It doesn’t matter. I think they were really nice people.’

But I still thought I should reply something: ‘I think they are – but I’m not too sure. I’m just figuring things out as I go.’

‘You’ve always been adventurous,’ he said. ‘Remember that time we were camping in the mountains, and there was a river nearby: it was so cold, you were the only one mad enough to go swim there – and you kept mocking us for not following you; then one day you got caught in a whirlpool, and I had to jump in and rescue you?’

We gave each other a warm smile of affection, then started exchanging memories of past holidays together.

‘Water’s ready,’ said my mother, ‘What would you like? Lipton teabags from the hotel, or that nice green tea we bought today?’

‘Don’t open the pack mum,’ I replied – ‘I’m happy with just a teabag.’

Then I beckoned my father to the window: ‘Come, I think we can see my apartment from here. I’ll show you.’

NOTE: This story is the fifth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

The Sentinel

Wuhan river

There’s a special beauty to the Chinese smog. It’s not only the shades of pink and grey, but the way it affects our perception of these old cities – from a distance, it blurs away the wrinkles.

I chose to live not far from the river. I try to walk there every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at sunset. Surprisingly, not many people seem to do that. The few friends I’ve taken along all found it peaceful and relaxing, yet they would never come on their own. Most of the riverside people are regulars, elderly couples, women with dogs, probably locals.

One of them I call ‘the sentinel’: a short man with a square face, in his late fifties or early sixties. He sits on a bench opposite the TV tower, wears tinted glasses, and looks out across the Yangtze to the towers of Hankou. I’ve seen him before sunrise, and I’ve seen him after sunset, but I’ve never seen him in the broad daylight. Sometimes, he plays traditional music from a small radio, and once he was practicing Tai Chi, but most of the time, he’s just sitting there, watching.

Is this man a corrupt official who made his fortune selling construction permits, and looks across the river at a real estate empire that his pen authorized? Is he the local mafia boss dispatching orders across the gambling underworld from this inconspicuous riverside bench? Or is he living a peaceful retirement funded by a rich son, cosmetic surgeon in Phoenix, who returns home once a year with a suitcase full of dollars? Every time I see the sentinel, I make up a different story for him, and let my shapeless fantasies of China cristallise on his static figure. Today, I’ve decided he was a retired public servant enjoying the contemplative pleasures of an early State pension after a lifetime pushing papers at the marriage registry.

The reason I think about this man so much is sheer loneliness. I build imaginary worlds around him, because if they were true, then I would be part of the local story, even as its anonymous narrator. And this illusion keeps me sane.

It’s a sad story, but it’s not an original one. I came to Wuhan two years ago. I teach maths in international schools, and after years in Latin America, I wanted to try something different. Central China wasn’t my first choice, but the conditions were good: high salary, reasonable working hours, and a three-year contract. Shanghai and Singapore both rejected my application, Wuhan was the best offer, and I moved here.

I didn’t have any friends in this part of China, but I’m sociable, and thought I would quickly meet people through the school and on the local expat scene. I was thirty-two when I landed, single, and looking for no more than casual company. I didn’t expect I would fall in love, especially with an expat. It was months of extreme happiness. We met after class, and walked along the river holding hands, kissing in the soft pink light. We took the metro to Hankou for late-night snacks, went boating on the lake, and visited nearby cities on the week-end: Jingmen, Ezhou, Huangshi. But her studies ended, she couldn’t get her visa renewed, and she flew back to Bologna.

That’s when my depression started.

I’ve been an expat teacher for the last eight years. It’s a good life: good money, good work, and a sense of adventure. When you’re tired of a place, you move on: and it’s a new culture, a new language, a new landscape. New bars, new friends. But after Giulia left, I suddenly felt old and empty.

I thought of doing the romantic thing, leave my job in Wuhan and follow her to Bologna. But there was nothing for me there. ‘Italy’s hard’, she repeated, ‘I’ve got friends with two, three Masters’ degrees, and they can’t find a teaching job.’ We calculated, cost of living, rent, average salary: the figures didn’t add up, and I didn’t have the courage to risk all my savings on this relationship. So she left, and I stayed. New bars, new friends – but nobody like her.

Slowly, I retreated from the expat scene. I stayed home after class, reading everything I could find about China: travel books, history books, novels; blogs and wikipedia pages. I spent all my week ends inside museums, trying to memorize every sign, remember the details of every piece on display. Giulia was gone, but if I could absorb China, then staying in the country would make sense.

After six months of this routine, on a Monday morning, I woke up from a Chinese dream: for a moment in my sleep, I had become a Chinese person. I was an old scholar sitting at the top of a mountain, under a pine tree, listening to the songs of birds. Then I was inside a pavilion, with painted red pillars and a phoenix on the roof. A slender cage hung from a rafter, and inside, there was a mechanical bird of shining gold, who spoke words I didn’t understand, but sounded like human language.

I started noticing new things around me that day – the crispy sound of cooking crepes on the street, the smell of chilli, the shrill mix of women’s voices. There were still clouds in the sky, but the worst of darkness had passed. That evening, for the first time since Giulia left, I walked along the river. That’s when I first saw the sentinel.

I remember him very precisely: the brown fabric of his jacket, the square shape of his face, the tinted glasses, and the closed wide lips. He sat on a bench, facing the TV tower, perfectly still. I stood behind him, and started telling myself stories about his life. That first time, fragments of my dream merged in with his figure: I imagined him as a bird-seller from the nearby pet-market, training jays and magpies to greet their future owners with a clear ‘ni hao’.

I slept well that night, and woke up with an appetite for life. I came to the river again before class, and he was there. This time, I thought of him as a former air-traffic controller for the Chinese army, projecting complex ballets of landings and take-offs on the pink empty sky – then, anxiously picturing enemy planes invading the landscape from the North, dropping bombs on the new constructions, erasing in a day the physical traces of Wuhan’s modernity.

I’m standing behind him now, very close. He’s mumbling something in the local dialect, which I don’t understand. He doesn’t seem to notice my presence. It’s the first time I’ve been so close to him, and I can feel a strange sort of cold coming from his body.

Then I hear a woman call me ‘foreigner’. I turn around: she’s one of the regulars, a middle-aged woman with short wavy hair and a round face. Her dog is pulling the leash, growling. ‘Come here’, she says, ‘It’s dangerous’. Then again, more insistent, as I hesitate ‘Come’. I walk over to her, and she grabs my arm, very strong: ‘Don’t get close to him, he’s dangerous.’

Then to my question ‘why’, reluctantly, she replies with a single word: ‘ghost’, and walks away. The sentinel hasn’t moved. Now I expect him to dissolve into the mist, or turn into something terrifying and run towards me with a gaping mouth, but he doesn’t. I wait a while, then I smile at him, and mumble: ‘See you tomorrow, buddy’.

NOTE: This story is the fourth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.