The Goodness of People

Just a few hours before she died my mother said with her characteristic fierceness, “keep traveling.” She had grown up in a time with few opportunities for women. She married the wrong men, had a child, me, too early and raised me in essence as a single mother. She shelved her goals for higher education, financial independence and love over and over again. I do remember her traveling as often as she could though. From the time I could be sent off to camp, she got on a plane and headed for Europe, Africa and China. She did all that as a single American woman during the times it was not so easy to do.

She also taught herself how to travel. By trial and error she learned how to meet and engage with people from all over the world even when she didn’t know their language or customs. She was kind and generous to them and in turn, they to her. By the time she died, she had enduring friendships with people from all over the globe. She threw me into the world as quickly as she could and with little economic means or family support to do it. She knew she wanted a freer life for me, an easier one than she had to fight to give herself. She knew travel was a key. And so I have lived and traveled in the world too. 

I think about my mother every time I travel. We had a habit of making an “airport call” each time we caught a plane, even if it was only from Seattle to Denver to visit one another. Now I make sure I call her beloved to keep up the tradition. I thought about her a lot this trip because traveling in China is especially stressful and this time I leapt out of my comfort zone more than I have for a few years. Every time I would feel an edge of anxiety or irritation well up, I would say, “what would my mother do”? And I would calm down, find a way through. Make a new friend.

On the airplane from Kunming to Shanghai I sat next to a mother and her 7 year old daughter. The daughter jabbered away in English with a fluency that stunned me. I learned in her own words, not only her name, and that she had 2 of them, but how old she was, where her home was and also that she was here in Shanghai for a piano competition. She had been playing since she was 2 and her mother gets angry when she doesn’t practice. Her syntax and cadence were perfect as was her accent and confidence. She asked me about myself, my name, my home and if I liked coffee. When the flight attendance came by, she asked me if I wanted coffee and told the flight attendant I didn’t want any, I wanted plum juice instead. 

Her mother, about 33 or so, was also quite fluent albeit a bit haltingly. We spoke of the tremendous changes China has been through since the days of her mother and grandmother. How her daughter has all the opportunities in the world. I said to the daughter, don’t get angry at your mother, she loves you (I said in Chinese) and someday you will have all the freedom to live your life any way you want to.  Both mother and daughter understood what I was saying. I thought about my own mother and how all mothers only want this for their daughters. To grow up free and with unlimited opportunities, more than they themselves could envision. 

I’m thinking about this exchange, my mother, my time in the Village and in Kunming while tucked into my hotel room in Shanghai. Lightening cracks over the Bund, thunder rolls. Colored Neon pops. It looks just as I imagined it would since I was a young woman and knew I wanted to see this famous site. And here I am.  It’s a privilege to be able to say, “I want to do that, see that,” and then go do it. But there is a price to pay. One must travel well. One must reach out from one’s heart over and over again, even in the face of fatigue and the uncomfortable and unfamiliar. One must smile and be present when eyes stare. One must say Hello and dissolve barriers one didn’t even know were inside. One must be an ambassador of humanity. My mother left that legacy. I trust I am following her lead as best I can.

A long finger of lightening cracks and pierces the grey sky. I see it and think about Grandmaster’s lesson, “Sudden Realization.” I think about our eyes connecting on the training floor, reaching across time and history, ours and the world’s, to awaken each other. I think about the people I met over these past few weeks, on the training floor, the cable car, the tea house, the demonstration, the eating table. How our lives will forever be changed and enriched for our time together. How in the midst of this insane world our efforts to reach into one another’s hearts does really mean something. I think about people I have know for a long time and how we could say “I love you, thank you,” when we parted for our homes. I think about China and how many lessons I learn here in this generous place, from these generous people. I think the most important one, not just in China, but in everyday life, is to simply surrender to the goodness of people.