On other cruise ships, people play shuffleboard; they gamble in a casino; teens drink coffee and read Salinger - or these days Eggers, or journals edited by Eggers – in cruise ship coffee shops; they swim and play volleyball in cruise ship pools. I was led to believe Cruise ships are floating malls – pool tables and pickup bars. Our cruise ship does not offer this. We have the front or back deck on which to stand or sit and the karaoke room which is a lounge during the day to watch Chinese television and the dining room. I take my Moby Dick and I go into the lounge.
A boy, who looks like he may be an old thirteen or a young fifteen, runs in with his brother or cousin. They are having that childhood vacation. The younger one is mesmerized by the older one and this vacation will forever live in an attic somewhere in his mind. For the older one, this is perhaps the last vacation he will have with his family before he becomes an official teenager, a teenager who does not go on vacation with his family or may go begrudgingly. He looks as if he is an Aztec. He is tall and lean and has that beautiful unblemished Chinese skin. He says hello as he sashays past. I am drinking water and trying to read but the mighty whale is not holding my attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I am watching him and his cousin or brother. I hope I do not look like a pervert.
The day slides into the evening; the evening slides into the night. I read for awhile in the lounge and karaoke room. I get up and go back to the cabin to have a snack. I have more noodles. I get stir crazy. I go up to the back deck and sit by myself and watch the river. I can see how someone would become a riverman. The water carries you along. The time passes and it does not matter. You have nothing pressing. You have no one to meet. You are inside your own head. You are in China floating down the river. You are looking over the side of the boat at all of the rubbish which has been swept off of other ships. Beer bottles, noodle buckets, snack packages, random Styrofoam all become bound for the sea on the Yangtze.
The night is beautiful and clear with stars everywhere. No words can describe the feeling I feel as I lazily float down a river in China under a cavalcade of stars.
After floating and dreaming, I decide to go to sleep officially. Back at the cabin, I stare out the picture window as I fall asleep.
Morning comes crashing down with knocking at our door and voices outside. The cabin girl has come to empty and refill our cabin thermos with hot water. We also have a speaker in our ceiling that plays Chinese pop music. The Chinese pop music comes on early in the morning and we cannot figure out how to turn it off. It is always slightly distorted. For awhile, I am determined to sleep in. I drift in and out of consciousness.
Finally, I get up. On the river, I do not have a routine. No routine is my routine. I start the day by making myself a cup of jasmine tea. Here, (as in, in China) I have become accustomed to non-strained tea. At this point, I somewhat enjoy chewing on the leaves and bark. This makes me feel like a native in a Levis and Ralph Lauren sort of way.
I take my tea and go to the lounge and karaoke room. I find a chair by an open window. Again, I try to settle into reading Moby Dick. A family sits beside me – husband, wife, young son. I say ‘Ni Hao’ and ‘Hello’. The father tries to get the son to say something to me. The son is incredibly bashful. He will barely look at me. The father wants to show him off or welcome me, the outsider; I am not sure which. I go back to reading. Occasionally, I look up to see the son staring my way. He looks down dramatically when I look over. His father and mother smile. They leave. I go back to my reading. The Aztec boy and his cousin run in and sit for five minutes. The Aztec boy says hello. Again, I try not to stare. He is very unusual looking. He could be that break out star in a foreign film. He could be the Chinese Marco Hofschneider or Diego Luna. After mulling this over, i decide to go up to the top back deck to look at the scenery for awhile.
I grab a chair and sit starboard left. Large houses are perched on cliffs. I imagine tending sheep and being a guest in a house on a cliff overlooking the Yangtze. As I am daydreaming, a fellow daydreamer leans against the rails not too close but within talking distance. We are the only ones on deck. He is wearing glasses and has feathered hair.
I tell him the view is amazing. He beams. He is a proud citizen of China. I ask him what he thinks of the dam project. He is angry that the water level is being raised; that many artifacts are too big to move and will be gone forever. He tells me he wishes that China was more like Europe and less like the United States. He likes that in Europe old things are preserved. He did not seem fond of the United States. He does not like that old neighborhoods in China are being destroyed to build high rises. I tell him that is sad.
I ask him about the houses perched on the hill. My assumption is the houses are very expensive. He tells me poor people who live off the land live in these houses. These people may take a boat once a week into town to buy supplies but for the most part they live off the land. I tell him in the United States houses on cliffs overlooking the Mississippi - which would be equal in stature to the Yangtze - would be very expensive. In the United States, people pay for views and seclusion. He tells me I could pay $100 to a family and live in one of these houses for six month. I asked him if I would have to work. He told me I might have to help with the crops or haul water up from the river. I told him I would rather pay a little more and not have to work. He told me I might not have a choice.
He asks me why I am on a Chinese cruise. These cruises are not meant for foreigners. I tell him I want the Chinese experience. He tells me the foreign cruise ship would be much cleaner. I would not mind a cleaner ship. No one seems to know how to throw trash in a receptacle. Peanut shells and noodle tubs litter the deck. When the staff hoses the deck down, they hose whatever debris is left by the travelers off into the river.
My new acquaintance introduces himself. His English name is Bruce. I ask him if he studied English at University. He tells me he did not; he studied German. When he graduated from college, he tried to get a job at a German company in China but by that time German companies had been here so long that they no longer needed Chinese workers who spoke German. He then started a company exporting textiles. At this point, he started learning English.
Our conversation finally hit a lull. We both stare out at the hillside. Occasionally, we would spot a fishing boat or a strange water craft of some sort. After standing against the railing not saying anything for ten minutes or so, Bruce tells me he is going to his cabin to have a rest. I am now alone on the deck.