This weekend, someone very close to me lost her brother to suicide. I found out just before I left for our excursion to Yangzhou, a city about an hour and a half from Nanjing. The day was gray, rainy. We brought umbrellas. I climbed aboard our bus, still reeling from the text I had gotten before leaving.
We drove in the rain, passing fields where people were planting rice, passing huge power plants belching smoke into the gray skies. The roads were slick. I listened to music on my phone and watched the rain streak down the windows.
At Yangzhou, we walked in the rain around Slender West Lake. Our tour guide, Mr. Li, pointed out what he felt we needed to know. Bridge 24, most famous bridge in all of China. Oh, but this one is not the original bridge. The original bridge burned 1300 years ago. This one was built about twenty years ago. But, all the poets have written about Bridge 24. And here, here is the rare black cedar wood. We could see the paint chipping at the corners, but we said nothing. We smiled and nodded and followed along, under our umbrellas, our hair frizzing and our shoes and socks soaked through.
The day continued, gray and hard, as we walked through beautiful gardens, as we negotiated stone steps slick with rainwater. That afternoon, we drove home through more rain, and I sat facing the window, hoping no one noticed the tears on my face.
I looked at everyone we passed. The farmers dropping the rice plants into the wet fields. Drivers of other cars. People on their balconies. I thought of all the people I couldn’t see, the workers at the power plant, the people living in the houses we passed, the children in their car seats. One person who was on the planet the day before was no longer here. One person was gone. No one in China knew about it but me, no one knew about the pain of his family, no one knew. I cried. How many people in these houses had suffered the same loss? How many parents have buried their children?
That evening, we all went to dinner near our university. We had meant to go to a Chinese noodle shop, but it was packed, and our group too large, so we wandered until we happened upon a Japanese restaurant with empty tables big enough for all of us. We took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on blue and white cushions. Paper-lined doors were slid shut, and our group was closed off from the world. The walls were neutral, beige, the table dark brown, little blue and white porcelain bottles of soy sauce in the middle of the table, an air conditioner above us purring cold air onto our heads.
I ate omuraisu, or omu-rice, an omelet wrapped around fried rice, a dish I had had in Tokyo a little over a decade ago with Marianne and her mother, and for a moment I was back there, I was young and abroad for the first time, with my brand-new passport, with its first stamp. That evening in Tokyo, we three had ducked into a tiny restaurant, down a flight of stairs, that had only two tables and served only two dishes: omuraisu with red sauce and omuraisu with white sauce.
Back in Nanjing, in 2014, I ate and thought. This omelet was tender, the rice filled with vegetables and meat, the ketchup streaked on top sweet and tangy. The day felt distant. The rain, far away, the gray skies gone, everything was light and soft paper lanterns. One of the student’s fathers is going in for surgery this week. Tumors in his lungs. I thought of Tom. And of my friend, her grief, the shock, the questions—how was he gone? How could he be gone? How can someone, alive, now be dead?
That night, I called her and we wept together. I cannot be with her, I can only hear her voice and cry, and say, it shouldn’t have happened, it’s not supposed to be like this. There is not supposed to be this pain, but there is. Here it is. Here it always is.
The next day, the group returned to the Japanese restaurant. I had already eaten earlier, so I just drank a juice. I don’t know what it was, because I could read neither the Chinese nor the Japanese description, but it was sweet and white. And we went around the table and talked about our favorite parts of the day. A family dinner. Sitting at the low table, on our cushions, our shoes outside the door.
There is something about travel that is healing. An escape, a chance to be alone with one’s thoughts. And my thoughts return, always, to people. There are eight million people in this city, medium by Chinese standards. And every single one of them has a life I know nothing about. They have lost brothers. They have loved their aging parents. They have prayed for children. And I live apart from them, from their pain and joy, and when I am at home, I am not wondering what Chinese man has not woken up again for the first time.
This weekend was Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese holiday to mark the death of a Chinese poet who drowned himself in 221 B.C. He died on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, a month considered “poisonous” because it’s the time when pests are active, when diseases spread. The poet’s body was never found, but legend goes, people threw zongzi, or rice dumplings, into the river to feed the fish, so they wouldn’t eat his body. And I eat the zongzi now, the rice wrapped in banana leaves, I eat as I walk through gray days, as I, a world away from my friend, cry for her, for her parents, in a country where no one knows them, where no one knows what has happened.
Every day, I pass people on the street who are mourning people I never knew, just as I mourn for my friend’s loss. I can say only a few things to the people who bring me noodles, who make my coffee. I can ask simple questions, I can point to things. I cannot ask them why people die, I cannot ask them why cancer, why suicide, why why why, I cannot ask them this, and they cannot answer. And so, they bring my order, and I eat, and I pay for my food, and I say, xie xie, thank you, and walk back into the night.