In addition to the uptick in phone calls, her emails, too, grew more expansive and personal. She had told me once that we couldn't put a Chinese flag on the cover (I still don't understand why), and so I wrote her to ask if we could run a cover image that suggested a flag more abstractly, with yellow stars against a wash of red. She wrote back in Chinese:
Dear Little One,
Stars are definitely not okay either, please please do not take the risk.
I once published, in a newspaper, a picture of a book put out by the German embassy, introducing China and Germany's investment cooperation. The book's cover had a big stream on it, half of it the colors of the German flag, half of it red with yellow stars. I decided since it wasn't a flag it was okay, and sent it to print. Our newspaper office was slapped with a fine of 180,000 yuan [today, around $28,000] and I had to write a self-criticism and take a big salary cut.
Quite a lesson, yes? Sigh -- we must remember it well.
Another time, in the fall of 2008, my phone rang and I picked up to find Snow in an excitable mood.
"Hi Snow," I said, trying to sound distant and professional.
"Are you busy?" she asked.
"Well, actually, I am a little..."
"Oh good. I was thinking: December will be the 30th anniversary of ‘Reform and Opening.' It will be a big deal and there will be many celebrations in the media. Are you planning any articles about this topic? Because, I think, maybe you can interview people about their experiences from 30 years ago. Like me, for example -- when I was young, we did not have meat to eat. And we lived in a building with many other families, and we had only had one phone for the whole building. If it rang, someone would answer it and shout your name. In those days, it was always for me. The man who answered the phone would yell, ‘Snow, the phone is for you again!'" She laughed delightedly.
On a few occasions, Snow asked me to lunch, and I always said no. Keeping my distance became easier as the year progressed and my disillusionment increased. Media restrictions began to tighten severely in the wake of pro-Tibet protests that were following the Olympic torch around the globe. China had naïvely been caught off guard by the expressions of anti-Chinese-government sentiment, and had reacted strongly. Visa regulations tightened, and many younger expats who did not meet the new work experience requirements had to leave the country. The June issue of the English-language version of Time Out Beijing was, due to a licensing technicality (it did not have its own separate publishing license but was piggybacked onto the license of their Chinese-language edition), abruptly pulled from the presses, though their license structure had never been an issue before. And the changes at our magazine, which had always seemed generally comprehensible and rooted in logic even when I disagreed with them, veered into the realm of absurdity.
I was told that we could not title a coal piece "Power Failure" because the word "failure" in bold print so close to the Olympics would make people think of the Olympics being a failure. The title "The Agony and the Ecstasy" for a soccer piece was axed because agony was a negative word and we couldn't have negative words be associated with sports. We couldn't use the cover image I had picked out for a feature on the rise of chain restaurants, because it was of an empty bowl, and, Snow told me, it would make people think of being hungry and remind them of the Great Famine (a period from 1958 to 1961 when tens of millions of Chinese starved to death, discussion of which is still suppressed). Even our Chinese designers began to roll their eyes when I related this change to them, and set them to work looking for images of bowls overflowing with meat.
Finally, in July 2008, one month before the Olympics, I gave my notice and, knowing I might never see her again, accepted one of Snow's invitations. She picked me up from my apartment, and drove us across town to her favorite restaurant, Haidilao, a Sichuan hotpot chain. She complained about Beijing's terrible traffic, which I had somehow thought a censor wouldn't do, because it constituted criticism of the government.
A car cut her off, and she shook her head angrily, and exclaimed, "Look at this! They won't let me pass even though they can see I was in front. See, this is how Chinese people are." She asked me if this would happen in the United States. I said yes. "Really?" she replied. "I imagine in the United States everyone obeys the traffic rules. People are not so backwards there. That's what I hear."
Over lunch, she asked me about my plans. How would I support myself? I said I wanted to try freelance writing. If it didn't work out, I'd start looking for a new full-time job. I might move back to the United States, or maybe to a new country.
"Ah, you young people," she said. "So much freedom to do what you want. To tell you the truth, I would love to change my job too. But I can't -- I have a family, I've been there too long, it's not the same for us old people."
She leaned forward, and looked intently into my eyes. "Have you ever considered opening your own research firm for foreign companies that want to invest in China? You would be very good at this, because you are Chinese, too. Even though you are born in America, you understand our Chinese thinking. You can be a big important consultant. And then you can hire me so I don't have to work at my job anymore. I'm serious -- think of me if you ever do this someday. You should. And then you can hire me."
She was speaking lightly, and laughing, but she also seemed to mean it, and I suddenly wondered if this was the purpose of our lunch. I found this idea utterly depressing. I was a lost, aimless kid, drifting around China, and yet this older woman could look at me and see the possibility, however tenuous, of a lifeline.
I understood then the mundane nature of all that kept her in place. A job she didn't like, but worked hard to keep. A system that would never reward her for good work, only punish her for mistakes. And in exchange: Tutors. Traffic. Expensive drumming lessons. They were the same things that kept anyone, anywhere, in place -- and it was the very ordinariness of these things that made them intractable.
After lunch, Snow asked me if I'd seen the Olympic stadium yet, and I said I hadn't, so she turned north to drive by it. A road was blocked off, and a traffic cop in a neon yellow vest waved us towards an alternate route. Snow remarked that with the Olympics imminent, the streets of Beijing resembled the United States, with cops everywhere. "In U.S. movies," she said, "whenever a crime happens, the cops always show up immediately. Is that true? Are they really so fast?" I said that I wasn't sure whether American cops arrived at crime scenes more quickly than Chinese cops, but that they definitely weren't as fast as they seemed in movies.
When the Bird's Nest stadium loomed into view, I murmured "Wow." I had been editing blurbs about the thing for so long, it had never occurred to me that I would be impressed by it in person, but I was.
Snow asked if she could drop me off at the nearest subway stop. I said it was no problem, and as we turned I asked how many siblings her husband had. She had been complaining towards the end of lunch that she and her husband had to support them.
"Twelve, but half of them died. So there are six of them, total."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"Oh don't be. It was like that for everyone back then. Because you know, Mao had probably gone crazy, and encouraged everyone to be a ‘hero mother' by having five kids. They say that's what caused the famine. But Mao was crazy and..."
She broke off and laughed.
"You see," she said, "we can say this here, just you and me; we just can't say it in print." Then, suddenly, switching to English, she exclaimed, "That's China!"
We had reached the subway stop. I got out, and said goodbye, and then she went to get her son.