On a muggy day last year, I biked through Beijing’s gray-brick hutong, backstreet alleyways, beneath a smoggy sky. My front basket ferried a batch of fresh bagels bought from an entrepreneurial expatriate New Yorker. A nosh is the usual price of entry for a chat with Sidney Shapiro, one of Chinese literature’s pre-eminent translators into English.
Last Christmas, a group of very lapsed Jews gathered around a table of very treyf *Chinese food — in China, for good measure. Eventually, someone remembered that it was the fifth night of Hanukkah, too. Soon, a low-rent menorah punched out of sheet metal was produced from a battered Chabad box, and candles were lit. Most of the assembled stumbled through the first prayer — “…shel Hanukkah” — and an awkward pause ensued as brains were racked for the second incantation. Eli Marshall stepped forward, scanning the battered box’s Hebrew print, and rendered melodically, to the amazement of all: “… she’asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh.”* Amen, and pass the spare ribs.
Presiding over a table stuffed with every imaginable Chinese delicacy, Stewart Wallace appeared very much the Jew at ease: cracking jokes, expertly wielding chopsticks and savoring every bite, his curly hair bobbing about. But this was a Saturday night ritual with a difference: Wallace’s dining companions were mostly Chinese musicians, the main language was Mandarin and the table sat in Beijing. Wallace was on his final trip to China before the premiere of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” his opera based on Amy Tan’s novel of the same name. Arrayed around the dinner table were representatives of the multiple cultures and disciplines — art, drama, music, letters — that made the opera into a reality.
As even the most tenuous speaker of Chinese can tell you, travels in that country mean having the same Inevitable Conversation over and over. And over.