Wearing the White Carnation

Been thinking a lot about China lately. The earthquake, most particularly.

But, my friendship with my Shanghaiese neighbor and cardio-walking partner—heightened now that she’s on the brink of moving to the South Bay—has also pulled China into a unique kind of focus. At the end of our morning walk, Fei-Fei and I stop in a eucalyptus grove in Golden Gate Park where, laughing, she teaches me to count in Mandarin while we see-saw our arms and rotate our necks and fight dizziness and talk and talk about Chinese culture, mores, norms.

Been also going to the Chinese Consulate and waiting on block-long lines (about 20 percent of San Francisco’s population is Chinese), because of our impending trip to Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai.

So, you know. Took three visits.

One visit to take a number and wait, only to discover from an lcd monitor that new requirements in this Year of the Olympics oblige every visitor to present firm documentation of all hotel bookings and plane tickets.

Second visit to turn in said documentation with the applications. And also to be questioned nicely but firmly about the “Writer” designation I’d filled in under “Occupation.” Uh-oh. (At least I hadn’t checked the “Journalist” box, buddy. Bugs in my green tea?)

Third visit to wait again in a ragged line, monitored as usual by two tall, firm-faced Russian private security guys. I turned over the $300. And, Je-sus, finally had the two visa-stamped passports hot in my hands.

Less than a week later, I found myself back at the Consulate. This time waiting on a solemn line to pay respects to the more than 60,000 people dead in Sichuan province. The Chinese Consulate-General bowed as attendants handed me a white paper carnation to signify death and mourning. I am the only non-Chinese person. My first reaction is to balk, wait outside. But my friend gently pulled me in.

As we shuffled on line, she whispered to me that I am going to be on the Chinese news channels. Indeed I can already see the photographers eyeing me. I could not feel any more Black. The attendants broke out a fresh condolence book because, I suspect, I’d be writing in English. They bowed and handed me a votive candle, the little light like a gem. My friend and I clasped it in our prayerful hands, bowed three times to the altar. Emotions rush me so hard I am only vaguely aware of the camera flashes, the video recorders. I set the candle down to join the hundreds of votives already set out. I bow, bow, bow again, my legs tea.

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2 thoughts on “Wearing the White Carnation

  1. I found this very touching… In fact, my eyes are watering now. I don’t know if it is because of the line “I could not feel any more Black.” For me this is a statement of how the world looks at the surface of things… Suffering, the Black man’s lot is shared here by the Chinese people and what that underscores for me, yet again, is that we are ALL the same… God respects none of us and empathy transcends race… It would be a much better world if more of us could learn that…


  2. I wanted to call that comment back… For me the people looking at the surface are the photographers and videographers… They see a black woman… not someone who empathises with the suffering of the Chinese families who’ve been devastated by this natural disaster…


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