Once more in China.
He stepped through the doorway into the siheyuan, the famous four-sided dynastic courtyards of old Chinese houses. This one is rare in its authenticity, not reconstructed as an imitation of the old or – for the Chinese even have a specific phrase for this phenomenon – fang jiu. This actual siheyuan had originally been the residence of a famous city official, and today is still used as a dilapidated family home for some level of the official’s descendents. The adult son sneaks in a few tourist visits a day to supplement the family income. He and H had bribed their rickshaw driver for this contact. And now, inside, they gazed around them, taking in the crumbling walls and roof; the austere darkness of the interiors; the dusty door thresholds; the overgrown gardens; the algae in the cracked fishpond. In the Beijing summer heat, his arms were already swelling with the itchy blisters of multiple mosquito bites.
He thought back to the morning they had spent in the capital, wandering through the vast air-conditioned shopping malls of Qianmen and Wangfujing, replete with Starbucks cafés, Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, Sketchers sneakers and Levi shops, where Beijing youths thronged in tight shorts and baggy hoodies.
Two scenes of China. He easily understood their difference: one of the future, one of the past. The future of glass and steel – shiny, air-conditioned, clean, comfortable. The past which bears scars, pain, history and, most of all, the crushing strain of being at the brink of annihilation. As it is with all life that moves inexorably from past to future, from difference to difference – from birth to death and eventually beyond memory. As it is with his own too, soon to pass.
As this thought crossed his mind, he glanced over and saw – or imagined? – a flicker across H’s face. And suddenly it occurred to him: that difference, too, might be the same difference between H and him. Soon, H, too, will be at the brink of his own annihilation. And who will remember him?