“Wo shi yi ge ren.”
Chinese for I am alone. Party of one. In English the phrase sounds celebratory: you’re alone, but hey, it’s still a party. Chinese lacks that aura of metaphorical festivity. You just count. One. I contemplate counting as I report my solitary number to the hostess at a restaurant in Suzhou, China’s city of canals.
I’m used to being a party of one. At home in Minnesota, my husband, Will, often sends me on my own to the opera or ballet, offering himself up as a chauffeur if it means I’ll excuse him from actually having to sit through the performance. I’ve traveled alone before, to New York and LA and Europe. I’ve hiked alone in the forests along Lake Superior.
But this trip is different. I’m 56. It’s my first time in China. I studied Chinese almost 40 years ago, before it was easy for Americans to travel and study here. Now I’m speaking more Chinese than I’d anticipated, surprising myself and the occasional Chinese service worker, like this hostess in Suzhou.
I picture what she sees as she looks at me. A middle aged white lady, walking around China alone during the off-season. The light rain has fogged my glasses and frizzed my hair. I am short. I am stout. I am sporting a travel-safe purse, strapped across my chest like a beauty queen’s sash. My sturdy walking shoes and water-resistant winter jacket proclaim neither the crisp sophistication of an international businesswoman nor the one-world panache of a globe-trotting bohemian.
If it proclaims anything, my appearance is screaming, “Help me, I’ve lost my tour bus.”
But when I open my mouth, I speak calmly in Mandarin. The hostess shakes her head, blinks and stares. It’s what most Chinese people do when they hear me. My accent isn’t great, but at least half the time they understand what I’ve said.
* * *
Friends were impressed that I decided to travel to China on my own. Being a party of one isn’t usually impressive. More often than not, it’s just embarrassing. I felt embarrassed when I went alone to a Garth Brooks concert about a month before my trip to China. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, and I was nervous about being there alone. What if the audience started singing? Or worse, dancing? Who would help me if someone spilled beer on my head? These perils didn’t typically arise when one went solo to a movie or the opera, but this concert would be different. It was being held in a big arena. Did people even go alone to shows like that? Would the other concert-goers feel sorry for me? Would they think I was a strange, pathetic creature in late-middle age, lacking the social wherewithal to find even one person to accompany her to a major, 11 sold-out performances, entertainment extravaganza?
[blockquote align=right]Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.
But I really wanted to see Garth Brooks. The country megastar had been the soundtrack I’d used to raise my children. It started when my son, Anthony, was about two. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t know too many other at-home moms. It was before any of my friends had children, before I’d figured out whether and when I’d resurrect my professional life. But Anthony had a cowboy hat and boots, and he loved dancing to the Garth Brooks CDs I’d play on our living room stereo. And in that long stretch of empty between end-of-nap and dinner, I would wait for Will to get home and I would watch my son dance and I would listen to Garth’s fast licks and riffs, the bright major chords, the lyrics that celebrated wild red-haired girls and rodeo riders and all those friends in low places. The thumping tempo was a heartbeat pulsing through my lonely afternoons.
Years later, when the papers announced the concert, I knew I had to go. None of my friends wanted to come with me, and I knew better than to ask Will. A reasonably devoted husband in most ways, Will hates country music almost as much as he hates downtown traffic. He didn’t even offer to give me a ride.
Will did give me a ride to the airport the morning I left for Asia. I was nervous before the trip, like I’d been before the concert. What if I didn’t have the right visas? What if my luggage got lost? What if I was so overwhelmed with loneliness that I became too dispirited to sightsee, and wasted days and nights in my hotel room, a hermit hiding from adventure who’d traveled across the world just to order room service, watch TV, and mark time for nearly four weeks? What if there was no TV?
“You’ll be fine,” Will assured me. Easy for him to say. He couldn’t guess how sad I might feel when I finally stood under the image of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, but was standing there alone.
Still I knew I had to go. Our daughter, Lydia, was on a yearlong study program in Asia. The college had invited the parents to a banquet in Vietnam. It was too expensive for Will to come with me, but I wanted to see Lydia during her long year away. And Vietnam was just a stone’s throw from China. I’d waited decades. I had the vacation time. I was used to going places on my own. And I knew enough Chinese to be able to request a table for one.
* * *
My meager language ability wards off total isolation as I travel through China, but I’m not delusional about my skills. When I ask the Suzhou hostess for a table, I reflexively extend my right index finger upward, pantomiming my solitude in case my pronunciation isn’t clear. When it comes time to order I’m relieved that the menu translates the word for eel, a local specialty that I’m eager to try.
In the end it’s just as well that I’m on my own, because I’m making a mess with my chopsticks. The thin slices of eel keep slipping back to the plate, even when I try to secure them with a strand of fresh ginger from the miniature condiment bowl. A waitress rushes over, holding out a fork, but I smile and wave her away.
“Kuaizi hen hao,” I declare, the chopsticks are fine.
I’m hoping she’ll understand from my smile—and the fact that I know the word for “chopsticks”—that I am not the type of traveler who requires culturally inappropriate tableware. Still, the eel is coated in thick, sweet sauce. When the waitress returns with extra napkins, I’m happy to accept them.
* * *
And there are times when I’m happy being alone.
Art museums, for example, I like to read the signs and learn the history. Sometimes I just want to sit in front of a painting for a long time without worrying if a companion is getting bored. I’ll stare at the brushwork, marveling at the texture of Van Gogh’s strokes or at how the flecks of gold leaf still adhere after centuries to the surface of a Gothic altarpiece. As much as a book may transport the reader, the author’s pen hasn’t physically touched the pages; the same is not true for paintings. I think of the artist’s hands, the brush on the canvas, the decades or centuries that separate me from the corporeal reality of the work’s creation. Sometimes my heart races. I am a private time traveler, a party of one to my own imaginings.
* * *
I become a real time traveler when I cross the International Date Line, a party of one en route to Ho Chi Minh City. It’s almost midnight when I arrive. The streets are mobbed with cars and motorbikes. Lights in every color canopy the way to my hotel. Decorations for Christmas, just a few days away, the hotel driver tells me, and for the Vietnamese New Year, which will follow two months later. I am dazed from almost a full day of flying, and the lights are like a dream.
I have a few days for sightseeing before Lydia’s group arrives. My first morning I walk to the Reunification Palace, the Ben Thanh Market, the Central Post Office. Crossing the streets takes practice. The daytime roads are even more jammed than they’d been the night before, and few of the intersections have signal lights. Traffic never stops.
At first I’m terrified, so I slyly attach myself to groups of other pedestrians when I need to cross a street. Eventually, however, I’m stranded at a big intersection. Individual walkers here and there are getting across, but there’s no one else standing on my side of the curb. I wait. The engine din and stream of motion seem endless, but finally I get a sense of when the traffic will break. I find a focal point across the street. I keep my eyes forward, inhale the diesel-choked air, step off the curb and walk. My steps are even in time and equal in length; I trust the cars and motorbikes to weave around me.
When I reach the other side I look around, wondering if anyone has noticed. I wish I could tell someone how Zen it felt to become one with the chaos of traffic, to let go of my fear and adapt to this wild rhythm. None of the strangers walking past me in Ho Chi Minh care. No one gives me a thumbs up or offers a high five. I have stepped into the maelstrom of Ho Chi Minh traffic and will do so dozens of times over the next few days, but I will never share my triumph. I will coalesce into the swarm, become part of the city’s rumbling, ceaseless energy; but each time I step into the street, I will join the crowd alone.
* * *
Going to Garth Brooks was a lot like crossing the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. You just have to step off the curb. Once I’d bought my ticket and gotten myself downtown, there was no choice but to keep going.
It was a long walk in from the parking lot to the arena. I stepped sprightly in my close-toed shoes and “secret-stretch” jeans, keeping my eyes forward until I found my seat. No one around me especially cared that I’d arrived, but I felt ready to celebrate. I hailed a vendor and bought myself an over-sweet, over-priced strawberry daiquiri that was served up in a souvenir plastic container shaped like a long-neck guitar. No one stared. No one spilled beer on my head. And the music was fantastic. When Garth played “Friends in Low Places” I sang like gangbusters, one off-key voice merging with the crowd’s.
* * *
Sometimes being alone works out better than expected; sometimes you don’t expect to be alone at all.
After Vietnam, Lydia and I travel together to Shanghai. She’s been here before, but back when we were making our plans she said it would be fun to go to Shanghai together. I’d imagined her showing me the sights, showing off her Chinese, the two of us strolling through Shanghai’s museums and along the Bund. Turns out Lydia is tired after a semester of studying. She has papers to write and friends to see. I am a party of one for most of my sightseeing in Shanghai, and when Lydia goes out with her friends one evening, I decide to stroll the Bund alone.
The Bund is Shanghai’s most famous street, lined with Art Deco and Beaux Arts banks and hotels that were built in the 1920s and ’30s, monuments to commerce and European imperialism and Shanghai’s age of glamour. On the other side of the Bund a raised pedestrian boulevard overlooks the Huangpu River. I cross to the promenade, aided by traffic lights; in China’s big cities, being a pedestrian requires no special skill.
From the promenade I look across the river to Pudong, a new part of Shanghai. It’s a city of tomorrow with skyscrapers created from orbs and angles and open spaces that soar like a fantasy amalgam of outer space, Disneyland, and dystopian cinema. At night the skyscrapers dazzle with bursts and patterns and rhythms of moving light and color, fireworks wrought in architecture. Behind me, along the Bund, the grander, more dignified facades are also illuminated, with stately lights that shine motionless and white. I walk the promenade, as if suspended between the river and the century that separate these two places: the stasis of history on one side, confronting the chimera of an inchoate future on the other.
I’m not nervous, alone at night. There are plenty of people out, but the promenade is not unpleasantly crowded. In just two nights, I will be in Hong Kong and will hear on my hotel television that 35 people were trampled to death on New Year’s Eve at the exact spot where I’m walking now. Someone will throw some money into the air and the far larger crowd gathered for the holiday will go out of control. But tonight I can easily find a space against the wall to stop and look out at Pudong, and I feel comfortable taking my time.
* * *
Time has changed how we experience being alone. There are some types of modern solitude that I love, like shopping online. It’s efficient and convenient; it protects my anonymity while eliminating any need to worry about being a party of one at the mall. And internet commerce doesn’t make me feel especially alone. Like most people, I shop online for lots of reasons, not just to protect myself from the embarrassment of public fitting rooms. Moreover, nothing about the items I purchase reveals the solitary process through which I acquired them. I can wear these new goods without being marked a loner.
There are, however, other technologies whose sole function is to promote and celebrate solitude. Those innovations make me uncomfortable.
It’s the difference between selfies and the selfie stick. Selfies, the smartphone’s unintended gift to autobiography, are innocent enough. A cell phone, after all, has many functions; it’s not just a tool for promoting narcissism and isolation. So a traditional selfie can result simply because you happened to find yourself alone at a marvelous place and were so overcome by the moment that you impetuously decided to use your phone to take a picture. There’s no shame in that.
Selfie sticks, on the other hand, destroy any possibility that one’s narcissism was unintended or one’s solitude unanticipated. Indeed, these collapsible rods, designed for the sole purpose of improving the photos one takes of oneself, require considerable forethought. You have to know you’re going somewhere interesting, anticipate the desire to take a picture and acknowledge the fact that you will inevitably want to be featured in the picture. You must also at some point have recognized the difficulty of achieving a flattering composition and angle, and spent the time and money necessary to acquire the photo-enhancing stick. Then you have to remember to pack the stick and carry it along. But the final mortification is that you use the stick in public, revealing to anyone who cares to notice the level of effort you’ve put into ensuring that your party of one photo will be the best picture possible.
I knew I’d be alone for some of the highlights of my trip to China, and I suppose I knew I’d end up taking pictures of myself at places like the Great Wall. Still, in all my planning and shopping, I didn’t think about getting a selfie-stick. I’m not immune from the seemingly insatiable modern desire to consecrate one’s image. But I prefer the illusion of spontaneity. I prefer not to broadcast the fact that I’ve anticipated my vanity photos, or that when those photo-worthy moments occurred, I knew I would be alone.
* * *
The Bund is Shanghai’s classic photo op, and I have enough archival drive to want to memorialize my presence here. People all around me are taking selfies. Young men who seem to be here alone photograph themselves with Pudong in the background; clusters of young women photograph themselves individually first, then take group selfies with their friends. I am virtually the only non-Asian around, and it is hard for me to tell if my fellow promenaders are locals or tourists, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone is taking pictures; no one is asking anyone else for help.
I am similarly self-reliant. Phone in hand, I stand with my back to Pudong, extend my arm, and smile brightly. It takes several shots for me to capture a picture in which the lights of Pudong are in focus and I—frizzy hair, blotchy skin, eyes open way too wide—don’t look totally crazed. Finally, I’m satisfied. In part. Truth is, I would have loved a picture of Lydia and me on the Bund.
* * *
Before my trip I hadn’t worried about being alone on the Bund, because I thought I’d be with Lydia; but I worried a lot about being alone in Tiananmen Square. Not because of safety or the possibility of getting lost or the legacy of the 1989 government crackdown on the student democracy movement. When most Americans think of Tiananmen I know they picture that grainy news photo of a tank barreling toward a lone student who’s raising his fist in protest.
Not me. My picture of Tiananmen goes back at least a decade earlier, to the beginning of my obsession with China. I was 15. I had been focused on French and German and getting to college where, my parents used to assure me, my “time would come.” Then I met my summer Park and Rec boss, Roy: handsome, blond, seven years my senior. Roy was also studying Chinese. I was interested in foreign languages and cultures and travel. I didn’t have to fake my interest in China, the way I had to fake just happening to run into Roy outside the YMCA on days I knew he’d be driving by on his way to work.
Maybe Roy wished he’d had a little sister. Over the next couple of years he took me on several platonic “dates,” during which we ate dim sum, went to screenings of Chinese revolutionary cinema, or shopped for propaganda posters. One day he bought me a poster of Tiananmen Square. It showed a long view of the square, facing the side with the iconic picture of Mao flanked by revolutionary slogans written in Chinese characters on horizontal banners. The Forbidden City, Roy explained, lay just beyond.
None of it was political—Roy had no agenda with Mao or with me. But I fell crazy in teenage love, not just with Roy, but also with this world of melodrama and rosy-cheeked peasant soldiers, and with this language that was written in tiny pictures and pronounced with tones. It all whirled together in my mind: China, Mao, the fact that a super-cute older guy was routinely spending time with me alone. At the end of our outings Roy would drop me off at home and say goodbye with a wave and a frustratingly appropriate kiss on my cheek. It sparked a fervor that was not purely revolutionary.
* * *
When I drop Lydia off at the airport, my heart clutches as I wave and watch her head off to rejoin her classmates. I’m on my own again, traveling in a seemingly magic bubble of sunshine. Beijing is the last city I visit. It is notorious for pollution but when I arrive the sky is blue, the air is crisp. I don’t want to waste the light, so I leave my hotel moments after I check in. I walk to the nearby park and climb the hill to a pagoda that offers a panorama of the Forbidden City, former palace of the emperors. The north gate is just across the street, but the buildings and courtyards that comprise the emperors’ palace stretch south for almost a mile.
I am standing in the hilltop pagoda, looking out at the Forbidden City in the fading winter sun. It’s getting late but I know just where I need to go. I hold my hand up between the sun and the horizon line. I’ve got at least one hand’s width, at least an hour. It will be about a 40 minute walk around to the south gate. I have four nights in Beijing, and it’s already been a long day with a train trip and hectic transfer to my hotel, but Tiananmen, the south gate of the Forbidden City, is the place I’ve most dreamed of seeing. I start walking, fast.
* * *
My poster of Tiananmen Square had hung on my dorm room wall all through college. I carried it with me long after I’d let go of my feelings for Roy. That image was the backdrop to my young adult years, like Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to the years I spent at home when my children were small. But truth be told Tiananmen, and China, was more than a backdrop. I studied Chinese in college and in graduate school, which is where I met Will, who was studying chemistry at the same university. A few years later I was married and distracted from thoughts of working or traveling in China. Eventually I rolled up my Chinese posters and stored them away.
But I didn’t forget. I held on to some of the Chinese I’d learned, to my fascination with anything having to do with China, to that image of Tiananmen Square. Over the years I’d drag Will to whatever Chinese movies or dance performances came to town. I took a few Chinese classes. I ate dim sum whenever I could. Meanwhile, by the time Lydia reached junior high, Chinese language study was commonplace. With just a bit of motherly prodding, she chose it as her elective.
By then my Chinese was pretty rusty, and I had learned from Maoist era textbooks. My knowledge wasn’t always useful. I could say “diligently serve the people” but could not ask for a cup of tea. I’d learned the word for “comrade” right away but did not learn the words for “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until my third year. Still, I helped Lydia with her homework, and a lot came back. Not just vocabulary. When Lydia went on a 6-week study trip after her junior year in high school I scrolled each week through the photos her program posted on a blog. When I saw a picture of Lydia with the group, grinning and standing proud in front of Mao and the revolutionary banners in Tiananmen Square, I cried. Happiness for Lydia, pangs of yearning for me.
When my chance came, I knew I had to go. I’d had a picture of Tiananmen Square in my mind since I hung that poster on my wall in college. In the months before the trip, getting to Tiananmen was the moment I’d most anticipated. It would be the most important moment, the moment I thought would be the hardest to experience alone.
* * *
When I get to Tiananmen the sun is skimming the tops of the buildings. I am almost but not quite breathless from my walk and from excitement. Although the square itself is a huge open area, the police have somehow funneled access through a security gate and metal detector. I pass through quickly and find there are also stanchions keeping people off the road that runs in front of Mao’s picture.
I’m jammed in with a crowd and can only look from an angle, but after almost 40 years, I’m here. I stare up at the enormous image of Mao, and the banners with their Chinese characters whose shape and meaning I’ve had memorized for decades. I am surprised to see that the “banners,” as I’ve always thought of them, and Mao’s picture, seem to be made of metal. My poster was printed from a black-and-white photograph that had been hand-painted to add color; in it all the edges of Tiananmen seemed soft. But the image I’m staring up at is crisp and hard, like the cold blue sky where the sun is quickly fading.
The crowd at first is more focused on the road in front of the gate than on the gate itself. They seem to be waiting, as if for a parade.
“Nimen deng shei?” I ask a stranger. Who is everyone waiting for?
My Chinese is not good enough to understand her reply. It doesn’t matter. After about 15 minutes the police move the stanchions away. I’m able to move to the center, directly in front of the image of Mao.
I stay at Tiananmen long enough for the sky to darken and the picture of Mao and those revolutionary slogans to become illuminated. My poster had an old-fashioned look; I hadn’t imagined that Mao’s picture and the slogans were electrified. I read the familiar characters, mentally pronouncing the Chinese while translating into English: “Long Live the People’s Republic of China,” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s People.” Behind Mao, the entrance, the actual Tiananmen or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” is also illuminated. Tiny rows of lights outline its Qing dynasty architecture. The atmosphere around me is festive. People are here for the view and to take pictures, as they were that night on the Bund.
I am the lone westerner in a crowd of Chinese people. I am thousands of miles from home. I don’t really speak the language. It is cold and night is falling and I will have to walk two miles back to my hotel. But I feel like I belong here. In so many ways, I’m like everyone else in the crowd. I’m excited. I’m doing what everyone else is doing: walking around, taking pictures, trying to get a better view. I can even read all the Chinese characters; it’s just those two big banners, and I’ve been reading those for decades. I’ve imagined myself at this exact spot for almost 30 years. The place is bigger and sharper and brighter than I’d ever imagined, but it’s also more familiar than I ever dreamed it would be.
This is the moment. I wait for a gap in the crowd and step up to the waist-high metal barrier. I turn my back to the gate, pull out my phone and hold it in front of me. I position Mao in the background centered between the slogans, and I take my picture.