Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Memory exercise. (part three).

Another one of my earliest memories is from when I was perhaps three years old and my parents took me to Xi'an. I remember walking up a long, dusty hill that sloped gently up towards a tomb of some empress or emperor; I remember dragging my feet in the dirt and looking up at the ancient stone statues of horses and camels and soldiers that guarded the wide path. Sometimes in my dreams I would remember those statues, that dusty path. Nearly twenty years later I found myself there again, only that wide path had been neatly paved with stone and borders of greenery and flowers ran alongside those same ancient guardians. Tourists gathered from all over the world; more tombs had been unearthed, and new museums were built over the newer excavations. The main tomb is the one I remember, my three-year-old self hanging over the iron railing, looking down at the rows and rows of terra-cotta soldiers that had been uncovered after centuries of darkness. Centuries had changed them, worn the paint from their immortal faces, but twenty years had not dimmed my memory of them, although now I lean my elbows on the top of the railings and not the bottom rung.

A few years later we were back, in some seaside university town (the name of which I can't remember), of which I remember only that I was allowed to drink Coca-cola for the first time in the university dining hall, that the beds were shrouded in misty white veils of mosquito netting, which I thought was the coolest thing ever, and that I collected rocks on the beach, and slender, conical shells shaped like icicles, or unicorn horns. I wonder if we still have those rocks, or if they were discarded during the recent purge and subsequent sale of our family home. But then the rocks themselves are not important, only the memory of collecting them is.

On that same trip - or perhaps it was a year or so later - we made a trip to Shanghai to visit my mother's grandmother; I wouldn't know that it would be the last time I saw my great-grandmother, or that I would not return to Shanghai for another sixteen years. By then she already spent all her time in bed, or so it seemed to me, and all the family were crowded in the room to visit. She must have been close to ninety, but when I was a baby I had been in her care, with the help of my great-aunts, my mother's aunts. There are photographs of that visit, of me in my white t-shirt with its bright appliqué of an ice-cream cone, playing with my cousins (the children of my mother's cousins, I suppose) and with the pigeon that was soon to be killed and made into soup for our meal. Which gives new meaning to the term "playing with your food." I don't think I have eaten pigeon since that time, although I have eaten many a pan-roasted squab (baby pigeon) in Chinese restaurants here and there (halved and lacquered with some salty-sweet glaze). The meat was sweet and tender, falling off the bone into the hot broth.

When my father asks me what I remember of my childhood, this is what I tell him.

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