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Prairie Schooner 77.3 (2003) 5-10

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In Another Tongue

Nancy McCabe

The baby is screaming again. My baby. I hoist her off the narrow hotel bed - again - and try to cradle her as I rock my torso back and forth in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair.

This baby does not cradle. She doesn't know how to cuddle, to be soothed in anyone's arms. She howls and arches away, squirms and flops, a sixteen-pound fish out of water. I'm not used to holding babies, and she's not used to being held, but when I try to put her down, she wails. My arms feel chafed, raw, and my wrists ache from the hours of straining to hang onto her.

Huge tears pool in her eyes. These tears could break my heart. These screams could break my eardrums.

God, I'm weary. Sometimes it startles me how beautiful this baby is despite the rash that inflames her face, the nick in the corner of her eye where her fingernail caught the skin, sores and scars up and down her arms from her incessant scratching. The beauty of her bright eyes and even features surprises me again and again, as does the sheer power of her small lungs. She has barely rested them in the two days since she was placed in my arms.

Outside the window, many floors below, China is an abstraction. I am too lost in the foreign country of parenthood to focus on the birthplace of this baby. Despite Chinese language classes, when I go outside, indistinct words swirl around me, a womb-like roar. In contrast to the stifling heat out there, the hotel is cool and quiet, guards stationed at the doors of the lobby, marble-floored and thick-carpeted.

My friend Sara used to write to me about squat toilets without stalls, Chinese women gaping openly at tampons and pale pubic hair. She told me about rats falling into her bathwater and people blowing their noses on bus floors. She described visiting a zoo containing nothing but a snake, some goldfish, and a housecat. [End Page 5]

The letters from Sara and my Lonely Planet tour book may prove to have more depth and flavor than my own experience of China. Sometimes, when I drag my attention away from the baby long enough to look out the window of this immaculate room with plenty of hot water and a western toilet, I'm surprised by the incongruity of the buildings below, with broken and boarded windows yet still the ubiquitous sign of habitation, laundry strung on lines outside them.

For days my ears have been buzzing, my bones heavy with exhaustion. Even before the baby, my group rushed from one tourist attraction to the next, our bus plowing along honking through the May Day crowds that swarmed subways and flooded by on bicycles, towing platforms loaded with produce or carrying children balanced on handlebars. We outstripped a wedding procession led by a red car streaming with ribbons and bearing bride and groom hood ornaments, passed a bus with three Chinese to a window, faces pressed close to stare at us.

This isn't what I expected of my trip, all this rushing to outrace other vehicles, these occasional distracted glances down from a high-rise hotel. I imagined finding the kind of peace in China I've felt reading Chinese-American literature and Chinese philosophy. I would be calmed by the lovely, serene names of buildings at the Forbidden City: the Halls of Supreme Harmony and Earthly Peace, the Palace of Concentrated Beauty and of Peaceful Old Age. I would wander the Temple of Heaven where emperors used to go to pray for a good harvest, anticipating my baby, praying for my own good harvest.

Instead, russet buildings, stone bridges, bamboo-lined roofs, long tiled walkways and marble terraces barely made an impression on me. I was watching children, thinking, Could I love that one? That one?

When I met my child, I expected that her presence would shrink my worries about things like my parents and...


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