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Be content with what you have. Desire nothing and nothing will be lacking. By the time I entered high school, I could tell which of my classmates had been brought up, like me, on Tao Te Ching, the wisdom worn as an eggshell of pride. Privately, we desired all the things our other classmates, who had not been raised on defeatism, owned: Adidas sweatshirts, Sony Walkmen, cassette tapes of Karen Carpenter and Hong Kong pop singers, VCRs that played pirated movies from abroad. This was Beijing in 1988. Kentucky Fried Chicken had opened its first store in China, near Tiananmen Square, the previous year; a new classmate bragged about having tasted the famous Colonel’s recipe.

That fall, a group of well-connected girls got hold of a popular American miniseries, “The Thorn Birds.” They would regularly gather at one girl’s home and watch the saga, which was set in the Australian outback. Between classes, they discussed the lifelong love between Meggie and Father Ralph, the renegade priest she met when she was young, who later gave her a child but left her to pursue his ambition in the Vatican. The girls recited to one another the passage about the mythical bird that spends its life searching for the perfect thorn and then impales itself while singing the world’s most beautiful song.
Around that time, my father bought me the least expensive tape recorder he could find, and “Modern American English,” a textbook with four accompanying cassettes, designed for Chinese people planning to go to America. Every day, he woke me up at six and turned on the recorder. The taped conversations, between a man and a woman, became the soundtracks of my morning. From them, I learned that in a new place I should remember prominent landmarks (a McDonald’s or a Burger King, for instance, or a church spire); not to ask a woman’s age or a man’s income; to arrive half an hour late when invited to dinner and to always bring chocolates for the hostess.

The bits and pieces I picked up from the girls about “The Thorn Birds” fascinated and pained me: Father Ralph’s blue eyes and chiselled face; Meggie’s innocence, the seductive kind, which made a man lose his head; the elderly aunt, beautiful despite her wickedness. I was a good eavesdropper and decoder, but neither skill gave me claim to “The Thorn Birds.” What I’d pieced together felt as if it were something stolen from others. It would be inappropriate if I said Meggie’s name even to myself.


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