Sitting on his grandmother’s lap, the Kid in the Spiderman Shirt stares. His dark pupils fill his eyes, leaving only white corners to contrast with his tanned skin. He looks away, but his grandmother encourages him to watch my screen from across the aisle. I am a zoo animal.
His grandmother doesn’t look old, but too old to be Spiderman Shirt’s mother. Her back hunches slightly, caused in my imagination by years of hard labor during and after the Cultural Revolution (maybe she isn’t old enough to have been ‘sent down’ in the 60s). They got on the train over an hour outside of Qingdao — the country. “Real China”. Maybe they have only in the last ten years felt the benefits of Opening and Reform. Maybe Grandma’s kid never had to work in a field, or eat in a common kitchen. Maybe Grandma didn’t, either.
I glance over. Spiderman Shirt remains unchanged, unafraid to make eye contact. Is he curious? In awe? Unbothered? I can’t read into the depths of his black eyes. Grandma smiles, and nudges Spiderman Shirt, who raises his arms, smiling, as if to celebrate that I’ve noticed them. Now that I’ve started to feel the zoo analogy, I can’t shake it. I did the same as a kid at the zoo, nose pressed up on the glass, keenly watching the animals go about their lives, aching for their acknowledgement.
Just as families tire of the seals, penguins, and even lions and elephants, Spidey Shirt has moved on to better things as we cruise along at 300 km/hr: his father’s smart phone.
This weekend, I spent a lovely couple of days in Beijing seeing some friends. The weather was gorgeous: blue skies and not unbearably hot. As I sat on the bus sputtering through traffic, it came to me that I had until that moment been taking the blue sky for granted. Qingdao’s pollution is just nowhere near that of Beijing, and I had grown to expect blue skies. Having said that, I’ve had to cancel today’s afternoon run due to pollution. This Thursday, it is mid-Autumn festival, and I will be doing my best to avoid eating mooncakes.