the family housing block always fell silent for a few hours after lunch; during the hot beijing summer, afternoon naps helped pass the roughest time of day, leaving more energy for activities after sunset.

but i wasn't accustomed to daily naptime, and neither was the other us-raised kid visiting her grandparents on the ground floor of our apartment stack. so when everyone fell asleep, we met in the courtyard, tiptoeing and whispering once we learned how much sound carried.

the empty lot next to our building held a stack of coal two stories high; all through the year, a few cartloads at a time would be added for the winter stash. we were strictly banned from playing in it, so of course we did, carefully walking up the sides without stirring up black dust onto our clothes. later, we'd rinse our legs and hands and wipe smudges off our faces.

what i didn't notice, though, was that the coal dust worked its way into my sandals, coating the bottoms of my feet so i'd carelessly leave black footprints in the entryway between changing my sandals for house slippers. of course i'd get scolded, of course they'd call my mother back in new jersey and tell her what i got up to when everyone was asleep.

there were some things they didn't report home, though; the times i'd ride on the back of my aunt's bicycle when she'd drop me off at my wushu lessons on the other side of campus, or the time she let me take her motorcycle around the block for laughs, or the times the other american kid and i confessed to missing lunch because we had snuck into the undergraduate dorms to hang out with college kids.

i can't imagine what i would have done in college if a couple of fifth graders caught a door wedged open for the smokers and casually walked into the first room occupied by people having a good time.

17 March 2018 15:31

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