You and Me, Girlie

Travel Stories: In an excerpt from her book "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven," Susan Jane Gilman recalls 1986 China -- and a swaggering, lascivious man named Trevor

Yet now, standing alone by the railing on the outer deck of the ferry, I knew better. It had been a sweet, ephemeral moment, nothing more. Already it seemed very far away. Around me, families huddled on straw matting they’d brought, their belongings piled against the bulwarks like barricades. Crates of live poultry. Bags of clicking crabs. Bundles of bok choy, newspaper, and clothing. As the ship chugged through darkness, I could hear the swishing against the hull, the leviathan throb of the engines. In the moonlight, the silhouette of the mountains on the shore looked like ripped black paper against the sky. I had no idea where we were heading. None of the maps had Dinghai on them. I felt a shiver of ecstatic terror. Except for Trevor, not a single person in the entire world knew that I was on board a night ferry right now, plowing through the darkness in the East China Sea. Since our arrival in Shanghai, Claire and I hadn’t been able to contact our families. I stared at the black water forlornly. In the end, I realized, this was all there ever really was: dark mountains, a turbulent sea. A boat hurtling through a vacuum toward an unknown port. The true condition of anyone once you stripped them of their loved ones, their culture, and their passions was just this: Loneliness. An incurable longing. Insecurity. And grief.

Suddenly I started to cry. I felt foolish, but then, who would hear me?

Who would even care? I leaned against the railing, feeling pitiful and forsaken.

I pulled out a Kleenex and blew my nose unglamorously.

In the distance, a man began singing. It took a moment for it to register. At first I was certain I was imagining it. But from across the deck came the thin, fragile, unmistakable words:

Country roads, take me home,
To the place, I belong
West Virginia, Mountain Mama

John Denver? Who the hell was singing John Denver? A few yards to my left, a slim young Chinese man in a white button-down shirt and Mao pants was pressed against the railing. His head was thrown back, his eyes closed, his small, tapered hands pressed to his heart.

Take me home, country roads

“Country Roads” had been one of the preeminent songs of my childhood. My whole family sang it in the car when we drove up to Silver Lake—a bungalow colony north of Manhattan where we went to flee the heat every summer. It was a song of gilded late-afternoon light shimmering on the lake, of walking barefoot on dirt roads after a rainstorm, delighting in the mud and the thrum of crickets from the marshes near the handball court. It was the song of uncomplicated happiness, of a time when my family was at its best—before my parents’ marriage began shredding, before my father began disappearing and my mother began storming through our apartment slamming drawers and screaming with frustration. It was the song from when I was six years old and felt loved and serene, when I never felt a yearning to be anywhere else. Now, halfway around the world, a young Chinese man just happened to be singing it beside me in the darkness aboard a ferry bound for a hidden recess of the People’s Republic of China.

I hear her voice,
in the morning hour she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away

He seemed strangely unfazed when I drew up beside him and began singing along. We sang as if it were the most natural duet in the world, as if it had been preordained, the two of us harmonizing without once glancing at each other, just gazing straight ahead at the sea in tandem. When we finished the last verse, however, we turned and shook each other’s hand. “Nee how,” I gushed. “Oh my God. Do you know what that song means to me? I spent my whole childhood singing it.”

The young man smiled at me glassily. I realized he had no idea what I was saying. He didn’t speak a word of English.

How the hell had he learned an American folk song? This was 1986. People were still listening to record albums on turntables. The Internet and MP3 files were more than a decade away. MTV was an American novelty. There was no independent television in China, no pop radio, no Western movies, and in some places, no electricity. And yet—John Denver? Gesturing, I managed to persuade the young man to come with me to find Gunter.

“Gunter, this man was singing a song from my childhood. Please,” I begged when we’d found him. “Ask him how he learned it.”

Gunter translated. The young man’s name was Wen. “Wen is saying that he has learned this song a long time ago from his English instructor. But he is saying that his instructor only teaches him the song phonetically. He says he does not know the meaning of the words. He is asking to you to explain them, please.”

I had Gunter tell Wen that “Country Roads” is about a man who is far from his mountain home in West Virginia. Everywhere he goes, he misses it and hears its beauty calling to him. He yearns for the country roads to carry him back there.

When Gunter finished, Wen looked at both of us sadly. He spoke at length to Gunter.

“He is saying he is understanding the song very well,” Gunter relayed. “He is saying in China, many people are being made to work very far away from their homes. He is saying that many people in the world are missing this West Virginia.”

The three of us were quiet for a moment. Some things needed no translation at all.

Reprinted by arrangement with the Hachette Book Group, from the new paperback edition of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman.

Susan Jane Gilman is the author of "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress" and "Kiss My Tiara." She has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Ms. magazine, among others, and her fiction and essays have received several literary awards. She currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland, yet she remains, eternally, a child of New York City.

6 Comments for You and Me, Girlie

olaf 03.12.10 | 3:53 PM ET

Just Wonderful.. I’m buying the book right now.

rm 03.12.10 | 5:14 PM ET

Great book!

chillc 03.14.10 | 7:58 AM ET

cont meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Ella 03.20.10 | 2:33 AM ET

It is a great read and I totally recommend it.

Fleabell 03.25.10 | 7:16 PM ET

Great to see her again; “Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress” was flat-out hilarious.

Cecille Soriano 04.08.10 | 9:12 AM ET


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