There is something, something very bright, horribly bright, horrible, it is shining in my eyes and I can’t, the pain, the vicious light, I can’t see anything at all. I appear to have been kidnapped and now the kidnappers are torturing me with light, or, if this is not torture, then it is punishment for something I once did that I no longer remember, but nonetheless, this torture, this pain, it is exactly what I deserve, for I have so often been less than good, less than generous, less than kind, less than patient, less than, yes, and this pain, it grows, and the light, it is so bright, and I …
Oh, hold on.
It’s just the sun, just sunlight coming in through the window of my hotel room, and—
Wow. I’d forgotten how nice it is, this sun of ours. Very, very nice, once the shades are mostly drawn.
And so: Jingdezhen, last stop on this trip I have been permitted, and I am here in the name of porcelain. Not that I know a great deal about porcelain, or have ever paid it much attention, but I have been told that here is where the world’s finest, whitest, purest clay is found, that this is the location that puts the china in China.
I have a contact in one of the markets—my friend’s wife’s aunt’s sister is how she was described to me, which should make her simply another of my friend’s wife’s aunts but for some reason involving Mandarin familial nomenclature does not. A taxi to not quite the right place and then a longish walk, and her shop turns out to be one of maybe 200 in a very large three-floor all-ceramics-all-the-time shopping center, which is not even the only such shopping center on this block. My friend’s wife’s aunt’s sister turns out to be lovely. In her shop she sells her own work, and that of her husband, and the pieces, too, are lovely, but I want to look around before committing, and thus I show only vague interest.
So the husband walks me up and down the aisles, and points out the work of other shops, and labels them for me: Expensive and Bad, Expensive and Good, Famous Ceramicist Who’s Lost His Touch, Cheap and Good, Unknown but Brilliant Ceramicist, Cheap and Bad, etc. Suddenly I begin to like ceramics very much. And he does the talking for me, gets me prices about half of what I’d have sweatily paid here otherwise and about 10 percent of what I’d have paid in Beijing. Vases and teacups and teapots and bowls and unlikely-shaped objects in gorgeous colors. Shipping and such is arranged and payments are made. Then we head back to his store, and it turns out that here vague interest is itself a form of commitment: the wife is smiling, and the two vases I eyed previously are already wrapped for shipping, and the receipt has already been filled out, and all is well, as I’d decided to take them anyway.
The friend’s wife’s aunt’s sister then proposes that she and her husband take me to lunch, and I am very much looking forward to exploring the cuisine of this area—one of my many constant delights in this country is that the food is so unthinkably varied both locally and region to region—and they take me to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It is fine.
Plans for dinner this evening are made—something in the old part of town this time. They write down the name of the restaurant for me in Mandarin, and now we’re cooking with gas, as my grandfather sometimes said to indicate that things were moving forward at speed. (“It’s all jazz to me” is another thing he sometimes said, meaning that he did not understand, and I miss him very much.) Goodbyes are said, and onward, into that very same old part of town for me and back to work for them.
There are many narrow alleys leading off of the well-restored main old avenue, and the buildings are very high to either side, and today at least the alleys are dark and damp and rather sad. For several hours I take narrow dark damp sad pictures of them.
When the time comes, I go, and the restaurant on the main avenue where we’ve agreed to meet turns out to be a café from the same chain as the one in Nanchang where I had a Famous Allusion Quotation Company Sandwich. The menus here are not as colorfully descriptive, and I am disappointed not to be somewhere more thoroughly local, but these people who have invited me, they so clearly want only for me to be happy, and so, yes, all right.
It takes us four tries to get the waitress to admit that this time we’ve ordered something that is actually available, but most of what comes is quite nice: a profoundly spicy fish soup, the usual cashews-and-celery, and duck smothered in pepper sauce. At the end there is a fight over the bill and I win and they invite me back to their new apartment to watch their favorite movie.
So we go. Inside, there are blue lights in hidden recesses, and spidery overhead fixtures, and bright-yellow furniture, and a wonderful view from the balcony. After the tour, we sit down to watch the movie on their very nice and large television. Except it is not a movie. Instead, it is three separate hourlong episodes of—and I say this with a voice full of love—the very worst television program ever produced anywhere at any time in history. It is called Black Scorpion, and it focuses on the heaving ups and downs in the life of a woman who by day is a cop with unfeasibly large breasts, and who by night is a superpower-less superhero with those same breasts considerably more exposed and black leather thong underwear that is also outerwear, apparently. Every so often her white Corvette transforms itself into a black, yes, Scorpionmobile. The bumbling fellow cops, the buffoonish mayor, the wisecracking black ex-con mechanic, and a new supervillain each episode: I would like to say that it is high camp, but in fact it is low, low, low camp, and these two well-educated, highly intelligent Chinese ceramicists beside me are, as far as I can tell, watching and enjoying it with a lack of irony that is as breathtakingly difficult to understand as the exact mechanism by which the Corvette-to-Scorpionmobile transformation is effected.
As we watch, we have snacks and dessert: splendid tangerines, and chili-flavored potato chips, and a nice sort of caramel something caked in sweet bean powder that reminds me of Vietnam though I have never been there. There are also frozen balls of dough, which the couple promises me I will like very much once they have been cooked. The wife boils the balls up and dusts them with what turns out to be not nearly enough sugar to help: these balls, they are exactly the same size and shape and color and texture as human eyeballs, with a filling of flavorless gluey paste. I am served a bowl of 10 or so, and the husband and wife watch me excitedly as I try the first one. I smile, sort of, as I chew. The second one I swallow whole, but they are too big for this to be a practical solution. The third one takes me about 10 minutes. The wife’s and husband’s bowls are already empty. I fight up to and halfway through the sixth ball before I surrender: my tongue has started to cramp up from my attempts to get the glue off my teeth.
By this point, Black Scorpion is fighting similarly huge-titted Hurricane and her two deformed henchmen, both of whom are named Squid, and Black Scorpion’s daytime cop partner, who has no idea that et cetera et cetera, is falling in love with her but thinks that the black-masked alter-ego superhero is herself in league with et cetera et cetera. And has vowed to et cetera. And when all that is happily done, it is time for me to go. The wife has gone to bed by now, but the husband accompanies me to the entrance. He wishes me well, and I wish him well, too. I spend the taxi ride to my hotel chiseling at the hardened muck on my molars with a ballpoint pen.
The next morning is the last morning. Packing and reading, a last few porcelain purchases, and then out to look at a factory. It is a very nice day. A taxi to the outskirts, a search for the door, a showroom of vases and cups and plates: all copies but still gorgeous—the pale, pale green of the Song; the familiar tranquil blue and white of the Yuan; more blue and white from the Ming, and the appearance of their white dragon on blue rather than vice versa; plus bits of new colors, reds and yellows; then finally the rococo shouting of the Qing, colors everywhere, lavender and rose and green and orange, birds and babies and butterflies.
In a small room to the side, I find what I need from here: glowing bits for Tom and Chloe, plus a quietly erotic Qing perfume bottle for my wife. Then a tour of the workshop, silent as it’s Sunday—the stacks of wood outside, a kiln the size of my apartment, the short, round cylinders of raw clay. Wheels and shapers, shelves filled with rough pots. The tables where the painting action happens.
Lunch, and then back into the old-town alleys. Again little light reaches down this far, but there is some nice illumination here and there. Mostly, though, the alleys are simply cold and poor. And there is something that has changed. It is as if the alleys have gotten narrower. I’m suddenly too close in to these people and their damp lives, too close for my eyes, let alone my camera. It all makes me feel too rich and too soft and too noisy and too ignorant.
As of course I am.
So: the moldy walls and dirty crowded low-ceilinged kitchens, the stripped power lines bunched together in wads of 20 at the corners, the clogged drains and strewn trash and rotting bits of food. But also the kids playing badminton and shouting hello at me in English, all of them, every single one. And a sliver of sky at times.
Then there’s a group of four very young children playing with these little clackety wooden butterflies you pull along the ground. One of them, a girl of maybe 5, stays standing in front of me as I approach, crosses her arms pensively, and asks in Chinese where I’m from.
(Hold on. Boy. How to get her punch line into English?)
So I say, I am an American.
And she says, No, you’re not.
And I say, Yes, I am.
And she says, No, you’re a Foreignican.
(See? It didn’t work. The sense of it is there, but her word, waiguoren, is actually a real word, see, whereas …)
Later, there are men carrying old mattresses in all directions. I follow one of them down an alley to the riverbank, and here there are already thousands of old mattresses strung on makeshift cables, a swath of stained padding that stretches for maybe a mile along the riverbank. Mattress Day, then, in Jingdezhen. Coats are hung as well, and blankets and wool pants. A full airing out.
Back into the alleys. At times, I am followed by largish groups of post-adolescent boys who do not shout hello and stay very close behind me. They mean no harm—they are just bored and I am just entertainment—but together with how dark it is, and with the looks I’m getting, justifiably so, from adults wondering why the fuck I’m wandering through the poorest parts of town pointing my camera at their underwear on clotheslines and then not taking the pictures, they are telling me it is time to find somewhere else to wander.
And so I push outward. Then the alley dead-ends. I try a couple of side alleys, and they do the same, and, each time, I have to squeeze back past all the same people again, and they have no more use for me now than before. At last, I find an alley that goes all the way through, past a huge dirt hill on which more mattresses are being aired to an avenue where there is a museum concerned mostly with porcelain. Unfortunately, it is poorly lit, and holds pieces that are more hole than not and sparely labeled. But the view from the top of the pavilion is very nice.
Down other alleys in another direction, not quite intentionally. A boiling teapot, untended. Big cuts of meat hung high to catch a bit of sun and thaw. An old woman and a little kid, holding hands, and they sprint away when they see me. A few houses of old brick, and some of older wood, but most are made of cement. It is time.
Taxi, hotel, airport. Then four hours of waiting because of fog in Beijing that doesn’t exist—I call my wife to ask—which means some kind of mechanical problem instead. Eleven o’clock at night by now. I finally convince a policeman to sell me a bag of salted almonds from the long-gone kiosk woman’s kiosk. The almonds are OK. Then I give up and stand and pick up my bag and start to walk outside to look for a taxi, though there probably won’t be any. Then the call comes. We board, and take off eight minutes later.
And go home.
And Now We Can Stop.
But We Will Start Again Soon.