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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Happiness at the Next Intersection

After a small breakfast of meat buns in early October, the seven members of our cohort parted ways and began our missions to reach different landmarks around the city. The blueprint for my day’s itinerary was an index card, and on it was inscribed the name of a place whose four characters now mean more to me than I could have ever imagined: Guandu Guzhen – “Guandu Ancient Town.”

Prior to my arrival in Kunming, I had heard mention of the city’s Guandu District many times. Unfortunately, I didn’t know Guandu by its grand Vajra Pagoda built centuries ago by Buddhist monks, the exquisite, detailed jewelry made by generations of its local silversmiths, or the numerous culinary delights sold through the bustling alleys of the district’s “Ancient Town.”  I knew Guandu by its streets, for it was on these streets that my little sister – then an infant named Guan Xiaoli – was found abandoned but five years ago. Determined to locate the very place where she was found, I boarded the 161 bus and began the hour-long ride towards Guandu District, waiting in unquenchable anticipation for the unknown to come.

Upon my arrival in Guandu, I was welcomed by a sea of roaring tourists, both local and foreign, pouring in chaotic masses through the gates of the district’s Ancient Town. While exploring the tourist hotspot, I often found myself staring in awe at astonishing blends of antiquity and modernity; as I stepped into each of the town’s buildings, though visibly lined with traditional architecture and decades of aging, I was surprised to find only the newest products in fashion, cosmetics, and electronics for sale. Every few meters, salespeople would howl the price and quality of their products, and within a few minutes, I quickly became familiar with the local specialties: fried snails, silver bracelets, yak skulls, chicken feet, and stone basins. As I began to turn back towards the main gate, I noticed a calligrapher practicing his art in a small shop. I decided to step inside and observe.

I approached the calligrapher and asked him if he was using cao shu, a type of cursive style in calligraphy. Noting the surname “Xia” on his business card in front of him, I addressed him as “Master Xia,” and he accepted the title with great humility. We began conversing about a variety of topics, and I discovered that Xia was actually a distinguished calligrapher whose work is celebrated throughout much of northern China. After he asked my name, Xiang (to soar), he graciously offered to write a piece for me that said wo xin fei xiang, or “My Heart Soars On.” As more crowds gathered around Xia’s table to get a glimpse of his new masterpiece, a man next to me asked him if he was aware of the potential economic challenges when he chose his vocation. Xia turned to both of us and said: “What can I say? I do what makes me happy.” He then turned to me, handing me the calligraphy piece, and added: “Live your life in search of happiness, whether you’re in China, America, or any part of the world.”

After leaving Ancient Town, I continued in the direction of the Guandu Flower Bird Market: the complex where my sister had been found. I met a security guard, Mr. Zhou, who pointed his finger in the right direction and said:

“It’s at the next intersection. Keep walking straight and you’ll find it.”

When I reached the crossing, there stood a massive gate labeled Huaniao Shichang – I had reached the market. Armed with a picture of the street where Guan Xiaoli was found and a marked spot on a map of Guandu, I entered the market. During the walk through its labyrinth of alleys and crossroads, I came to realize that the market was not a market at all, but a crowded complex of small houses, offering particular plants in the gardens for sale. Except for a few elderly people sitting in front of their homes, the area was empty. I searched through every nook and cranny, but no street matched my picture; instead, I found empty children’s backpacks and small pink shoes, girls’ dresses left on hangers to dry, and an absolute absence of sound: signs reminding me that my sister was half a world away.

My sister, now five years old and called Raelyn Maria Li Sung, is a contagious spring of roaring laughter, an exceptionally intelligent bundle of joy, and is one of the greatest sources of happiness to have ever entered my life. Of the countless places in the world, I was here, in Guandu; so close to the place where Guan Xiaoli was discovered, and yet unable to find it. Growing discouraged, I began to ask myself: Had the structures in the picture been demolished? Had the area undergone such rapid development throughout the last five years that it was virtually unrecognizable? Was I even in the right place? As the day grew late, I reluctantly decided to return to the hotel, giving up the mission that I was previously certain I could accomplish.

Despite returning with feelings of disappointment, I reflected upon my day, and the many experiences that came with exploring Guandu District. After much thought on the words spoken by Master Xia during our discussion, I came to recognize that the happiness my sister brings me does not stem from the place where she was found, but from the moments that we spend together as she discovers her own identity. Though Kunming will forever be linked with my sister’s past, I now realize that I was searching for Guan Xiaoli, not Raelyn. Happiness did not come from that corner of the street on Guandu District; it had come wrapped in a pink jacket and carried in my parent’s arms, smiling on the first time coming home to America four years ago.

I thought back to my last conversation with Raelyn and smiled, remembering her advertising her newest cake-making invention and describing in detail the many friends she had made during the first months of kindergarten. Raelyn is now in El Paso, climbing the monkey bars of the same playgrounds that I had as a child, and I am here in Kunming, walking through the very streets of the city that she would have tread had she not been abandoned those many years ago. Is this irony, masked in the coincidence of location and time? Or, was it a puzzle piece of destiny, which fit perfectly into the greater picture of interconnection among the world’s people who would have otherwise been unconnected?

Life in China, it seems, has been a remarkable mix of both.