The China of My Mind: Or, Where Stories Come From

When people hear that River of Dust is set in China the first question they ask is if I’ve ever been there. The simple answer is no. The not so simple answer is yes, in a way. I have never visited mainland China. I did, however, live in Hong Kong when I was three and it was still under British control. My father was a visiting scholar and our family lived in one of the early high-rise apartment buildings overlooking Deep Water Bay. I was sent to a British preschool that terrified me. I remember very little about it, except that naughty children were sent into the corner with a dunce cap on—a tall conical hat made out of paper that later came to mind when I saw pictures of the KKK.

What I more clearly remember about Hong Kong was Ahko (forgive my phonetic spelling). A tall, elderly Chinese gentleman, he served as our butler and house “boy.” I cringe at that term, but it was the word people used back then. He must have been in his sixties. I am told that when I returned home from my half day of school, he served me sandwiches made of difficult-to-procure peanut butter and jelly.

Some days when my mother was busy elsewhere, Ahko walked me to and from school. Although my father stood six foot four inches tall and I should have been used to giants, I remember looking all the way up to Ahko as he looked all the way down to me and took my hand. My favorite method of transport, though, was when he lifted me high and perched me atop his shoulders. From that vantage point, I saw over the exotic spiked plants and down the cliff side all the way to the bay. On the way home in the afternoons, he placed me high again as we cut through crowded streets where people passed quickly by.

I have never been to China, but I remember how Hong Kong smelled and looked from that choice and trusted perspective. The character of Ahcho in my novel is based on the kind man on whose shoulders I sat. And in a similar way, the China in River of Dust is based on the early childhood memories I still carry in my mind. As it turns out, remembered impressions and sensations can be enough to conjure a person or place—if not accurately then perhaps at least in some way that is true.

Still, I look forward to visiting China someday soon.