“Lady and gentle man, Xiao xin! Be careful! Watch your step and duck your head! Do not let swaying red lanterns poke your eye! Bu yao chou yan. No smoking, please. Hurry up and find seat so we can start our tour of the Suzhou canal, China’s Venice. Xie xie, thank you.” The tour guide waved her patrons on to the boat and pointed out places to sit, her hands moving gracefully through the air. She paused and straightened her jacket, and then smiled at everyone around her, obviously pleased with the sudden business.
Moving through the crowds of pedestrians and onlookers, the last couple from the tourist group ducked under the elaborate carved archway and squeezed onto the deck of the creaking vessel. They quickly found an empty bench to settle on. As the boat backed away from the concrete stairs at the bank, the wife reached into her deep bag and pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Danny, use this. You’ve managed to touch every surface on this side of Suzhou. I swear, don’t you ever learn? We’re only here for a week, and I don’t want you picking up some bug.”
“Mary, pay attention. We’re here to learn about our daughter’s heritage. I didn’t travel all the way from Seattle to worry about a few germs. Look at those carved dragon heads on the edges of the rooftops over there—the artistic detail is fascinating!” He pointed across the way at the busy walking street lined with shops. Like a child, he couldn’t look fast enough. He turned again. “Or look at that bridge we’re coming up on—notice how the bridge is equipped with shooting holes and lookout towers? You’d better believe they were ready to do battle here!”
The tour guide turned on the microphone and gestured behind her at the elaborate bridge they were floating to. ”Good afternoon. Today we begin our tour of the Suzhou canal here at the Panmen Gate. With a history of 2,500 years, this city gate is the most completely preserved part of the ruins of the ancient city of Suzhou. The murky water surrounding it was the watery grave of many Japanese who tried to infiltrate the city and failed. If you stand atop this bridge you can also see the Wumen Gate Bridge….”
For Mary, it was hard to concentrate on the history of the structures and bridges—for her mind was on the people. This was her second trip to China, but this time she was determined to learn about their culture and customs. Her own daughter, now a beautiful young woman, was born here and then sent through the notorious orphanage system before they found their way to each other. It amazed Mary to see so many faces with the familiar structure and contours of Mia’s, and to know that with just a few twists or turns of fate, they could have missed being a part of each other’s lives.
Beside them an elderly Chinese couple worked to peel pieces of unfamiliar fruit. They had boarded the boat in front of Mary and she had been moved at the gentle way the old man helped his wife onto the vessel and guided her to the bench, as if he were handling a delicate piece of art. Though it was early spring and the weather was warm, they were bundled in the dark clothes. Mary studied their ancient faces and wondered what secrets the deep crevices and wrinkles held. She knew the elderly of China had seen many major changes in history and survived resulting tragedies. Their infamous tenacity to survive was nothing short of remarkable and Mary wished she could hear their stories.
Suddenly the old woman pointed to the street that ran alongside the canal. Whatever was happening, it was attracting a lot of attention. Mary struggled to understand the outburst, but her basic knowledge of Mandarin proved inefficient. As they moved closer to the activity, the crowd parted a bit and Mary glimpsed a policeman holding the collar of a little girl. He appeared to be giving her quite the lecture and the child of no more than six or seven years old looked terrified. It was evident from her scraggly hair, disheveled clothing and dirty face that she didn’t belong to anyone. Still, she frantically searched the crowd around her as if she were looking for anyone to step up and help her.
The flustered guide explained. “Aiyo, that girl is street child. She is taught to beg and steal from people and was caught with hand in pocket. Let’s get back to tour, please.”
Mary pursed her lips and looked at Danny. After their daughter’s journey to find the truth of her birth family details last year had resulted in some shocking revelations, their sympathy for the plight of children like the girl had increased even more. Most likely it wasn’t the child’s fault she was forced to be a little criminal. Most of the children like her were either kidnapped from their families, or sold into the industry by destitute parents. Some found their way to orphanages and futures decided by the Chinese government.
“Stop the boat!” Mary called out to the tour guide. She gathered her things and stood up, struggling to maintain her balance unsettled from the sudden sway of a passing gondola.
The tour guide shook her head side to side. “Bu keyi. Cannot. Tour not over, Miss.”
“Mary, what’re you doing? Sit down,” Danny tugged on her arm from his place on the bench.
“No, I will not sit down. I’m getting off and we’re going to find out what’s going to happen to that child. Look at her, Danny, she’s scared to death. That could’ve been our little Mia. Let’s see what we can do for her.” Mary began moving to the front of the boat.
Danny sighed and waved at the tour guide to let them off. “I might as well help you get your way. When your face takes on that expression, I know you won’t back down. It looks like our day of sight-seeing has taken a turn towards a more dramatic ending.”
Read Kay Bratt’s latest novel,Chasing China; A Daughter’s Quest for Truth. Join Mary’s daughter, Mia, on her journey to uncover the truth about her early years in China. After spending years working through the hurt and anger of being abandoned in a busy Chinese train station, Mia will travel to her homeland to uncover facts that will change her life forever. Along the way she will learn the true plight of abandoned children and their indomitable resolve to succeed, despite unfavorable circumstances. [Available at Amazon in Kindle and Print]
*Photo of Panmen Gate by Laura Griffin
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