We spend the day touring the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, where a McDonald’s crouches within sight of Mao’s mausoleum. Back at the hotel my husband and I float in the hot tub but it’s tepid at best. Giggling like teenagers, we run up to our floor. My mother appears, ashen-faced, and pulls us into her room. CNN is on. It’s almost 9:00 pm Beijing time, Sept. 11, 2001, just after the first plane has hit. My sister and father return from the bar. We watch the horror of the morning unfurl in America as night falls in China.
We are in Beijing for several extra days during the suspension of air travel. We bike through the hutongs, the city’s ancient residential neighborhoods. We can’t see far, because the narrow, crowded roads are not straight. It feels intrusive to peek into the courtyards, into the lives of people who live here, but we do it anyway. Residents glance at us with sympathy. We are tired. Maybe instead we should have returned to the Forbidden City, which has a clearer way out.
We are finally at the Beijing airport, swept up in a seething swirl of people desperate to leave. We push our stack of five passports across the counter toward the airport officials. Tension thickens as the officials talk and point. They unpack our suitcases and inspect every souvenir, every speck of laundry. Something is wrong. Their voices get louder, the gestures get bigger. My husband and I lock eyes as the officials exclaim over stamps in his passport. They might not let the two of us leave. My mother is close to hysteria. Finally all five of us are permitted to board.
At the flight attendant’s direction, the passengers lean forward as one to retrieve the airplane safety leaflet. “We have entered a new era of safety here at American,” she says, her voice tight with emotion. We hang on every word of her routine presentation. She concludes and collapses weeping into a colleague’s embrace.
Two years later my husband and I move to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 30 miles from where Flight 93 crashed. We bear witness as the crash site slowly evolves from sorrowful mementoes suspended on a chain fence to a soaring, searing architectural tribute. The new visitor center is dedicated on Sept. 11, 2015. Inside the center CNN anchors deliver the news of 9/11 over and over on a continuous loop.
In March 2020 the center must close because of the coronavirus pandemic. In time it reopens but with changes. Visitors and staff wear masks and practice social distancing. No one knows how long this will last.
We are months into the pandemic before I realize our 2001 trip included a brief stop in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus first appeared. In Wuhan we boarded a ship for a multi-day cruise down the Yangtze River. I remember rolling our suitcases down a steep narrow gangplank as we boarded, sweaty and disheveled. A bad brass band began to oom-pah. We looked around for dignitaries and realized the out-of-tune music was for us. “Oh, God,” my mother, sister, and I said in unison, as the men started to laugh.
I think about the scores of smiling young Chinese who staffed the cruise ship from Wuhan, eager to share their country with us. As the ship floated down the gorgeous Yangtze gorge, our guides pointed out ancient hanging coffins suspended in the cliffs. New villages were being built high on the hillsides. The buildings shone white in the sun, standing triumphantly above their sepia-toned forebears. I asked a guide what he thought about the soon-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam. “My parents received a modern apartment that is much bigger,” he replied.
The old villages were swallowed by swirling silty water many years before the coronavirus sweeps through Wuhan. I wonder how the ship’s staff has fared.
The pandemic has suspended normal life. We float through the days. On the desk where I work from home sits a smooth oval stone. I bought it from a lanky boy we encountered somewhere along a Yangtze tributary, deep in the Chinese countryside. He had used a chemical to etch the silhouette of a crouching animal – a mouse, or maybe a cat – into the stone’s face. He beamed as he pressed it into my palm, a memory etched solidly in my mind. The stone is heavy and cool and unchanged when I pick it up, even now.
Shelley Johansson is a native of Nashville who lives, writes, and sews in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She can be found on Twitter at @shelley_johansso.
image: Brian M. Law