My son once had a wooden puzzle of the United States—one small colored piece of wood per state—and for a year or so he insisted upon doing the puzzle with Florida and Texas pointing up, and Maine pointing down. In Spanish, “to have lost north” means roughly to have lost one’s ethical, logical, or logistical bearings, but my son’s issue was purely aesthetic: he simply thought the country looked better that way. I worried nonetheless, and shouldn’t have—he does not have to take the SAT for another 12 years, and it is kind of nice that he is not yet subject to the random despotism of history and the cardinal points.
If anyone in our family has lost their logistical north, it is me. In a week, my family leaves Beijing. Our apartment is a madness of boxes and loose papers and suitcases and peanut shells and action figures. The coming month will be a chaotic tag team through New York and Lima and Frankfurt and St. Petersburg and Syracuse, and the only way for me to deal with any of this is not to think about it at all for the moment.
So we come to Ritan Park for lunch. Once there were four such parks, four elemental altars, the corners of an imaginary diamond; now there are three, all of them quite large, wooded, and birded, and largely peaceful, even when, as here and now, one runs into a group of old women with swords. Instead of pulling out our own swords and fighting the old women, we nod and smile and walk past them to a beer garden, because we are hungry, and because we do not actually have swords of our own, and because the old women are only here for the exercise.
There are already many people in the beer garden, and somehow I know all of them: a surprise birthday party, it turns out, for me. Forty years now done. The friends gathered are the best of friends, and I will not be seeing most of them again for years. The beer is good and the food is good. We take our time. It is a right goodbye.
Then my wife and children and one friend and his daughter walk deeper into the park, to the Amusement Area. There are paddleboats and trampolines, an inflatable castle, a place to shoot balloons. We avail ourselves of all these facilities.
A few hours later, the friend and his daughter leave, but my family has one further station. Now: the administrators of our apartment complex often arrange children’s activities in the Clubhouse. These arrangements are always made good-heartedly, but the specific activities chosen sometimes make me suspect that the administrators themselves have no children, and perhaps have never seen a child up close. That said, the activity for this year’s International Children’s Day was both well chosen and well administered: 60 children, 60 white kites, 60 easels, 60 brushes, 60 sets of paints.
There was also, of course, as ever, a man shouting into a megaphone so as to make the kite-painting more intensely competitive, but no matter: today, instead of swords, we have brought my son’s new kite, and we all walk now to the Sun Altar, raised at the center of the park. Around the altar is a wide-open circular space enclosed by a high wall. This is one of many places in Beijing where those who take kites seriously come to fly them.
There are half a dozen people already on the job: a teenager, three middle-aged men, and two older men. There are also a dozen or so people who have come to watch and opine, and none of them are quite ready for my level of incompetence. Among other errors, I have brought a cheap plastic spool of string that I thought would be sufficient to the task. It is not. My son’s kite never makes it more than a few feet above his head, and the opiners and kite fliers are profoundly dismissive. What sort of man are you, their smirks imply, that you could think such a spool might suffice?
Those smirks make me angry and embarrassed, but I have learned that here this particular expression can be outwaited, and sure enough: at last, the dismissive phase concludes, and the generous phase begins. One of the men’s faces has been badly deformed by fire, and my children look at him, and he looks back at them, and, just as I am about to pinch them to get them to stop looking, the man shakes his head and sighs (a tricky moment, this, as he surely does not misunderstand the subject of their stares, but pretends to, for their sake, and mine); he then removes the harness that holds his reel to his chest, and hands the whole contraption to my daughter, as if her stare had been based only in envy and desire.
And this reel, it is the 90-foot yacht of the kite world—in fact, it very much looks like something one might find on the deck of an actual yacht, some complex instrument of teak and stainless steel. And now the burned man’s friend hands his reel to my son, so that both my children might simultaneously forget what a doof their father is and enjoy themselves after all.
Which is exactly what happens. The sky is clear and deep and blue. The kites rest at the far edge of sight. My wife and I sit and watch, and lean against one another.
Then it is time. The men take back their reels, accept our thanks, berate me again for bringing crap equipment, make sure I know how to get to the market where proper equipment can be found. This, too, is a right goodbye, or at least appropriate to the relationship I have developed to this country: less than easeful and not unfraught, but valuable to me, worthy. Out through the gate, and immediately the city’s noise is made new. A taxi, north and east, north and east, and our children sleep in our laps; it has been a good five years here in Beijing, and I am glad to have spent them in your company.