I moved to Beijing because my father had just died, and because I had become, in the months before his death, obsessed with the author Ernestine Graye, who in the 1930s had sailed to Shanghai and worked as a society reporter. There she became addicted to opium, married a wealthy official, and witnessed his public beheading in 1949. She left China for Canada, where she penned China Lady, a book I had read over and over in those months in the hospital, and even before that had felt myself becoming obsessed with.
I lived in an apartment above the garage of my father’s second wife, whose name really was Zelda, and would come down to the kitchen and try to talk to the awful woman. She would make me sandwiches with mayonnaise that I hated to eat, and in conversation I would hear myself saying things like, “Ernestine Graye had a section about something like that…” even if Zelda was only talking about how it was so awful that girls here got that green paint on their toes, for their pedicures, and the subject at hand had almost nothing to do with foot-binding.
China Lady was translated from the French – Graye had settled in Montreal. There was only one English translation, which I had chanced upon in a local bookshop in those dreary months, and it had no other edition — as far as I had found on Amazon.com and on a search through the library system at which my father taught. The edition was a failure. Bound in gaudy pink leather that Graye would never have approved of, in life, it contained typos on pages 108, 154, 173, 181 and on the final page, 191, where one has to imagine that she did not intend write, “It was a wild country, open as a bowl, and if I long for it now from this airy, it is because…” And yet I saw her up in that “airy,” a ghost watching me in the room over the garage, where I began to wear Chinese robes I found in a box of Zelda’s, which she said she inherited from her own mother who had lived out her last days in Maui.
The typos seemed to speed up as the narrative sped, and I imagined the translator and I in silent accordance: the translation had to be finished as quickly as possible to complete a draft for me, and I should be thankful for that and not fussy as usual, not critical and judgmental, the dark little girl watching from the corner that my father had so often accused me of being.
If I noticed the surface-level problems of translation in the text, it was because this was in my nature – I was prone to noticing the problems in everything, my father would say, rather than embracing life in all its complexities. But it was also because the entire text was about the problem of translation. Ms. Graye had desired to embed herself into the world of a country that had taken her will (opium) beheaded her husband (communism) and ultimately deported her. On a meta level, this was a problem of enmeshing, of cultural clashes. That was what I would have said in a seminar at Bates, where I had lasted two semesters.
Really, though, anyone could see all the suffering was plainly Graye’s fault. Her narrative was light and splashy and vulgar and effortless. She had gone to China for an adventure – pure and simple – and if terrible things had happened to her, it was because she had set them into play. Adventure was just another word for self-destruction.
It was like that for me, but the opposite. If I were interested in self-destruction, it was the self-destruction of never acting: of watching my father die from the corner of the room, while Zelda held his hand. I didn’t have the courage to say anything to him of how and why I loved him, and it was only after his death when I was living in Zelda’s house, and she was downstairs crying as she packed away my father’s collection of souvenir spoons from island nations (he was an Oceanography professor, before he retired), that I saw that what I had become obsessed with in Graye’s book was how it depicted the woman that my father wished that I was.
I needed to transform from being the woman who noticed the typos to embrace life, to take a wild step, to learn to be faultless with myself. When I went downstairs that night I told Zelda her green beans were delicious. I held her hand across the dinner table. She gave me a perplexed look — her eyes bugging over her double-chin, the fabric of her muumuu swaying in the air of the window fan. It was August. We were together.
"I’m going away," I said. "I might be gone for a long time."
"You’re quoting a movie," she said, and moved her hand out of my grasp so she could get back to the shepherd’s pie. "You’re always living in books and movies, like your father."
I took this comment in stride; it was clear that she had never understood my father on the level that I understood him, for my father hated for me to live through books and movies rather than embrace life, and what I was trying to tell her was… “What I’m trying to tell her is I’m done with all that.”
"Oh?" she said, as though asking the question of the window fan.
"Yes," I said. "I’m buying a ticket to China."
She laughed. “I’d like to see that.”
When I moved to Hong Kong it was Monsoon season. I hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella and had to steal one out of the back of a cab. I didn’t have any cash to pay the driver, and so once he dropped me at the apartment I’d found on Craigslist a week before, I dug through my bag and gave him a ring that Zelda had given me. It was a ring from the same woman who had owned the Chinese robes, and had a little Chinese symbol on it. I had brought it for good luck, and it seemed the appropriate little trinket to give away into the night, into the wilds of the rain to a cab driver who was cursing me in a language I couldn’t understand — for I could not also understand the wild lettering on the ring, any better than I could understand his moanings from the front seat.
"Cunt," he said. "This says cunt."
Maybe it was my actions that were cuntish, but I liked to think, as I rode up the elevator to the seventeenth floor, where I’d live out the next three months, that the little old woman who had died in Hawaii had died wearing a ring that said “Cunt.” It gave me a new found pity for Zelda, who had lived with a mother like that, and had fronted the cash to get me over here — happy, I’m sure, to have me out of the house of her mourning, where she could long for a man she had never actually known.