It is seven months since I arrived here, at this airport perpetually seething with people. I’m squatted on the floor, reaching the end of Bel’s Christmas book. God – I’d find it impossible, having one Chinese and one British parent like Ben Chu does. How the hell do you behave, when you come from two – well, almost like, two species?
The final page. I’m skimming it while shuffling slowly forwards in the queue for boarding. The man in front – British, suit-and-tie, middle-aged, big-bellied, wheezing – scowls in an obvious way at my book’s title Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China is Wrong, then turns away, handing his young Chinese wife his emptied MacDonalds paper-cup-with-straw for her to dispose of.
Despair of humanity comes over me too easily.
Meanwhile Ben Chu is telling off his readers. ‘Start thinking of the Chinese not as some homogenous and intimidating mass of humanity, but as individuals…’ The peasanty-looking Chinese guy behind me starts pushing – like, we’re all going to get on the plane faster if you do that.
‘…There are good and bad people among them, just as anywhere else’, writes Chu.
‘Some are corrupt, some upright. Some are brutal, some compassionate. Some are greedy, some frugal. Some are mean, some generous. Some are racist, some are tolerant. Some are narrowly nationalist, some are voraciously cosmopolitan.’
It’s high time, says Ben Chu, that we all moved beyond Somerset Maugham’s inability to empathise.
I admit, I’m crap at empathy. Too quick to write people off as hopelessly alien when they don’t behave like me. Useless at fathoming another person’s mind.
Once buckled into my seat by the window, I return to the final page that I’ve only skimmed, because I am keen to learn.
‘There is no unfathomable Chinese mind … There really is no Chinese mystery waiting to be revealed…’
I have to pause from reading to do my usual thing of manically gripping the arm-rests for the few moments of take-off – those seconds when the wheels leave the ground and you get tilted back as the plane soars steeply upwards…
The wheels tuck in and clunk somewhere. I dare to peer down at the receding city lights, feeling the plane judder as though bumping into the curb, but no – there is no curb; it’s just air. Then back to the book in my lap. The final sentence.
‘To understand the Chinese, we need only listen to our own hearts.’
A flare in the corner of my eye. Below the plane a beautiful orange peony is blooming. No – a tangerine cloud, billowing towards us; no – a red flag unfurling until it entirely covers the sky and now gets spangled with a white-hot firework display.
Exclamations fill the quiet of the plane – on my side only, the side from which the windows of the sideways-tilted and slowly-arcing jumbo jet have been offering a glittering cityscape until this fireball. Now hubbub; now urgent calling across the rows to other belted-in passengers who cannot see outside, until the fantastically-evolving light-show has a soundtrack – a clamour of excited exchanges, calls to the stewards, wails. Seconds become a half-minute, the multilingual cacophony of agitation building, unintelligible, now harmonizing into a collective keen. The jet distances itself from the city, then from the haze of electric lights defining the outer metropolis. Above the racket, an urgent-sounding announcement in Chinese begins. Distant human settlements are coming into view, speckling the darkness like far-away galaxies, while the receding tremendous ball of flame above central Shanghai has gained dark edges of nothingness; no lights from the city’s heart, all the glitter gone.
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