I was born in China in 1980; I arrived in America a few years later. The more than twenty years between then and now have been spent looking at both countries as a foreigner, an outsider, speaking the language (more or less; when it comes to Chinese, it's oftentimes less) but at the same time not entirely belonging. I have therefore long been fascinated by two books which have followed me for many years, one reminding me of a life I - escaped is the wrong word; perhaps I will merely say the life I was not meant to live - and the other showing me the country I call home from the viewpoint of someone newly arrived to the life I was given.
The writer Mark Salzman arrived in China in 1982 and taught English at a medical college in Changsha for two years. He arrived just as I was leaving; the country he saw is the one I might have grown up in had fate not intervened. The book Iron and Silk is about those two years he spent in China and all the experiences he had and the people he met. There is a sort of innocence to his stories, something almost surreal about these adventures of a tall, handsome, blond-and-blue-eyed American in China, like an alien feeling his way through a completely different culture and its ways, a life a million miles away from his life in the United States. I feel the faintest whisper of loss when I read this book, a reminder that when I am in China I am just as much a foreigner as Salzman was. An alien on another planet.
The year I was born, 1980, was the year Vassily Aksyonov emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union. Actually, I believe he was booted out by the government, and stripped of his citizenship, for rebelling against the Writer's Union and the censorship of the time. In high school, I came across his book In Search of Melancholy Baby (this was during the height of my fascination with Soviet literature, the first wave of it, anyway). It is a madcap dash across the world, into a new country, the writer's wide-eyed introduction to a foreign land as he simultaneously looks forward into the new life while looking back at the old one left behind. The America he writes about is the America I found when I arrived in the early 80's. Not that I remember the early 80's at all; my first clear memory of the world around me (that is, outside of my house, the neighbour's dog who brought us a live, baby rabbit, and my preschool) doesn't come until the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. Yet I feel as though the America Aksyonov describes is something familiar, a landscape I remember. There is something comforting about his stories of the road trips he takes with his wife, Maya, criss-crossing the great expanses of this vast country, the tales of adapting to this new, strange, American life, the simultaneous terror and elation of the émigré experience, how even in a foreign country you still manage to surround yourself with the people from that previous, other life, so the old and new collide. And how different it was to be a citizen instead of merely a visitor.
The books are like time-capsules that capture a moment, a long bygone era, so clearly and vividly that I can see the life I did not live. The life I was about to live. I read them again and again, always together, and I feel as though I am falling backwards into the past.