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China: A Love Story

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expect tons of China press with the Olympics coming...


China: A Love Story

By Simon Winchester

Published: July 20, 2008

More than 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly said that China is like a sleeping dog: Do not wake her; for when she wakes, the world will tremble.

These days there can be no mistake: China is at long last waking from centuries of slumber. And what is our response? We tremble at what we see, or we condemn it. The shoddily built schools. The riots in Tibet. The recalled toys. The fog of pollution. The reports of human-rights abuses.

China is getting terrible press these days, and understandably so. Yet I have been an admirer of China and the Chinese since I started going there in the cold, gray days of the late 1970s, when Mao was still in power. I have in particular admired the ability of the people to persevere in the face of adversity. Fifteen or so years ago, I met a young woman deep in China’s western desert, and her story distills for me all that is good about the land they still call the Middle Kingdom.

It began with a train. I lived in Hong Kong, and my friend George and I were going to Siberia. We thought it would be fun to travel by train. Its route crossed one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world—a hot, vast place whose name, Taklamakan, means “You go in and you can’t get out.”

A few miles into our journey, the sand began, then all we could see were dunes. Two hours in, the train abruptly stopped. There was nothing: no city, no buildings, very few people. We were to wait here for half an hour, said the guard, so I went to chat with the engineer. Shortly into our talk, from somewhere close behind me, came a female voice.

“Good afternoon,” she said, with the faintest of accents. “Do you by any chance speak English?”

I whirled around to see a young Chinese woman—tall, pretty, smartly dressed, smiling. Yes, I said.

She glanced at her watch. “Good,” she said. “This train will be here for 23 more minutes. Do you know anything about Anthony Trollope?”

It was hardly the question I was expecting, in a Chinese desert, and voiced by this delightful-looking woman. But I did know Trollope: His novels about Victorian life and politics had once been a favorite.

Yes, I said, I think I do.

“Excellent,” she said. “In that case”—and she consulted her wrist again—“for 22 minutes, can we please discuss his work?”

However stunned I might have been, there was something about her manner that compelled me to do as she asked. So, struggling with my memories of his books, I told her what I knew, she nodding and smiling all the while. Until, suddenly, a whistle blew. “Quick,” she said, pushing me back on board, “your train is going. You must get on.”

But no, I spluttered, as if waking from a reverie. Who are you? I asked. And then I said some pretty foolish things. You are wonderful. I must see you again. Don’t leave. Just tell me who you are.

“Don’t be so silly,” she said. “I’m no one.” The train was moving now, and I tossed a business card out of the window. I saw her scrabbling in the sand for it. Then the train lurched around a bend—and she was gone. The desert took over. It was as if she never existed. She was a chimera, a ghost.

“Amazing people, the Chinese,” grunted George as I told him the story. I dreamed of her for the rest of the day and night. But then we crossed into Kazakhstan and spent the next two months in Siberia, and she became just a half-remembered amazement. Until, that is, I returned to my apartment in Hong Kong. There, in an impeccable hand, was a letter from her.

Dear Mr. Winchester, it began. My name is Xing Yong Zhen. I am 34 years old, and I am the girl you met in Kuytun. Maybe you remember me?

How could I forget?

I used to be a teacher. I am married to a Party official, and we have a son. Two years ago we were sent to live in this town in the desert. It is a horrible place —dirty, drab, and worst of all, no one speaks English. English is my first love. I felt my mind was going to die.

A year ago they built the railway line. Even though it is miles away, every Tuesday and Thursday I ride my bicycle across the desert and wait for the train to arrive. I knock on every window and ask: Do you speak English? Sometimes people say hello or a few words.

Today I saw a tall man. I asked him if he spoke English and you said yes. Did you know about Trollope, I asked, and you did. For half an hour—I just can’t tell you what I feel. It was as though I was flying. And then she asked: Could we write to one another?

We became distant friends, though entirely platonically, it seems proper to say. I gave her an English name, Laura. We even met once, when she came to Xi’an.

Then, after five years, one of my letters came back to me: Address Unknown. I telephoned and got a terse recording: The number you called does not exist. She had become a chimera all over again.

It was only when I sat down to write this memory of Laura that I realized why, beyond the sentimental, she had come to seem so important. For me, she sums up what China has lately become. Laura reminds us that her country is no longer the closed, myopic place it was—arrogant in its superiority and separateness. She and millions like her are of a generation that wants to know about us.

Over the years, I have made friends with other men and women I can only call “the new Chinese.” There’s Gordon Cui, a brilliant engineer from Shanghai whom 20 years ago I helped come to America to earn a Ph.D. and whom I rediscovered entirely by chance when he turned up delivering Chinese food to my apartment. I was astonished. But he had a good reason. He had gotten his degree and found a fine daytime job, but he now wanted to earn every dollar he could so that he could return to China. “My dream has changed,” he said. “I think the torch has been passed to China, and I want to go back there, to be part of this new future.”

And Freda Yu, an interpreter who came with me in 1995 when I was traveling the Yangtze River: She is in Beijing, rising rapidly as a marketer. She recently said, “We Chinese look outward all the time, and the difference is amazing.” She hopes that Westerners will learn her customs and language and will come to admire her people, too. With hundreds of thousands of visitors coming for the Olympics, her wishes may start to come true.

As for Laura herself—is she happy? Is she free? I don’t know. Yet somehow, I feel from what I know of her remarkable personality, she will be okay. Just like China, her country. Yes, I reassure myself: She got through the bad times, and now, I feel more certain as the years go on, she will be just fine.

Simon Winchester is the author of 21 books, including the best-selling “The Professor and the Madman.” His latest book is “The Man Who Loved China.”

moving right along

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Me too!

January 16, 2008 - sent I-129F (Vermont)

January 21, 2008 - NOA1

March 16, 2008 - NOA2

August 7&9,2008 - Medical K1&K2

August 21, 2008 - Paid document verification fee (P1,300)

August 27, 2008 - Interview

September 08,2008 - Document Verification request sent to NSO

Spetember 19,2008 - Document Verification done -sent back to US Embassy Manila

November 03, 2008 - Case under review

November 26, 2008 - VISA printed

November 28, 2008 - VISA in transit

December 02, 2008- VISA IN HAND

January 12, 2009 - Arrived USA, POE Los Angeles

January 21, 2009 - Got married

January 22, 2009 - Applied for SSN



February 10, 2009 - Went to Dr. Janet Pettyjohn for form I-693

February 11, 2009 - Sent our AOS packet to Chicago

February 12, 2009 - Packet received signed for by L BOX

February 22, 2009 - Received NOA1 for AOS, EAD & AP

March 17, 2009 - Biometrics Appointment

March 21, 2009 - SSN card arrived in the mail

April 6, 2009 - took driver's license exam and passed! (written and road test)

April 10, 2009 - Repeat Biometrics Appointment

April 14,2009 - Received AP documents in the mail

April 16, 2009 - Received EAD in the mail

SEptember 4, 2009 - GREENCARD received

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