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Starting Point

Sharing an evening in Beijing


The restaurant was on the top floor of a new hotel in Beijing. In fact, the restaurant was the top floor. Huge windows overlooked the city. The hotel was brand new. It was a magnificent glass high rise, modern in every way. The Chinese spared no expense in creating a building that would make Westerners feel at home.

It was about a decade ago that I shared a few drinks and a meal with a friend in that restaurant. There were not many other foreigners in China at that time. The memory of the tragedy of Tiananmen Square was still fresh and painful. While in the square that very day, I noticed that there were still tank track marks on the broad stone steps that form part of the square. The peasants we met were cautious. The officials were most gracious.

In the restaurant that night, the waiters and waitresses could not have been more friendly as they tried their best to accommodate American tastes. Many of our expressions and customs were strange to them -- and yet with a few stretches of language we were able to communicate things like martinis, salad dressing, pepper and some other things. When we wanted to order a few Chinese items, the waiter was at first surprised and then delighted. He was so helpful in pointing out to us what was what on the menu. And we were able to help him when it came to describing some American delicacies -- like “eggs over light” -- the next morning.

There was a small orchestra that night. As the city lights of Beijing twinkled far beyond and below, the five or six men in the orchestra tuned up and soon, without a word of introduction, began the overture to “My Fair Lady.” It wasn’t too good. It was certainly familiar, but sounded like the instruments were melting as they were being played. The notes sagged. The timing was off. “On the Street Where You Live” would have been enough to make Eliza Doolittle sell her house and move far, far away. The leader of the orchestra turned to us every now and then and smiled, proud that he was able to offer something American. We nodded and smiled back.

And so the evening went. Before we had finished, we had listened to Chinese versions of an Elvis medley, songs from “West Side Story” and “Hello Dolly” and a string of hits by the Carpenters. But, by the end of the evening, everyone was happy that we did our best to “reach” each other with our limited, but sincere, attempts at sharing an evening of life.

Looking back on that night, I realize that there were several backdrops beyond the windows of that magnificent skyscraper. There was the city itself, undergoing then, as I am sure it still is, a massive rebuilding program. And then there was the tragedy of Tiananmen, where innocent people were killed as the world watched. But I also realize how small was the setting where we were that night, and how hard everyone tried to “find” each other and give each other the best they had.

That happened over and over again on that trip.

That night was sad and beautiful at once -- sad, because even though we share a common humanity there is still bloodshed when men and women struggle to become more human. Yet there was beauty that night as people tried to share what was good. That is the stronger song that will be played in harmony by the different peoples of this world. We were made to be one cosmic hymn, and there will come a day when the voices of those who died in the square will rise from the earth as a symphony of being and sing with joy and freedom.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001