A Dream in China

This essay about the inspiration for Dream of the Blue Room originally appeared on MJ Rose’s wonderful blog, backstory.

Dream of the Blue Room began with a classified ad in the employment section of the New York Times. I was living on the Upper West Side, and I’d just quit my fatally boring cubicle job at Ogilvy New York City. Desperate for a paycheck, I answered an ad for an English tutor, and a couple of days later I was being interviewed by Tony, the president of a Chinese trading company in a posh apartment in midtown. We sealed the deal on the spot. For a bit more than I’d been making at the PR firm, I would accompany Tony to restaurants, farmers’ markets, art galleries, design stores—anywhere that he could learn new vocabulary.

My first day on the job, I assembled a vacuum cleaner in Tony’s apartment. My task: to decode the instructions. I tried to explain to Tony that instruction booklets for home appliances do not represent the best of American English, but that did not compute. Three hours after we began, we stood admiring the partially-functioning vacuum cleaner. That’s when Tony hit me with the news: “I go to China next Monday. You go Wednesday.”

“China?” I said, trying to hide my shock. “How long?”

“Maybe two months. Maybe three months,” he said.

I’d been under the impression that I would be working in the city. Whatever Tony might have said about China during the interview had apparently been lost in translation.

That weekend I bought a travel guide, a phrase book, a refurbished laptop, and a comfortable pair of sandals. Two weeks after answering the ad, I was on the plane to Beijing, the computer stashed under the seat in front of me. If I was going to spend three months in China, I figured I might as well make a book out of it. I decided my book would be a memoir—something about an Alabama girl who goes to China by way of New York and discovers—what? What was I going to discover? I hadn’t planned that far ahead.

When I arrived in Beijing, Tony’s driver picked me up at the airport in a black Mercedes with tinted windows. Tony and I sat in the backseat. He didn’t say a word to me during the hour-long drive to the apartment. Following a harrowing, no-holds-barred ride through crowded streets teeming with bicycles, he deposited me at a penthouse apartment across the street from a shopping mall. He showed me how to work the TV, the stereo, and the karaoke machine, and promised to return the next day. When Tony left, I checked out the kitchen. The only thing in the refrigerator was a spoiled carton of soy milk. I didn’t have a single yuan to my name. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I was hungry and had already eaten all my granola bars on the plane.

A couple of hours later, there was a knock at my door. It was a teenaged boy, very shy, bearing a few bottles of water and a small wad of colorful paper money. I tried to ask him when Tony was coming back and where I could go to buy food, but he just nodded, said “Thank you,” and left. I took out my laptop, thinking that if I couldn’t call my boyfriend or feed my growling stomach, at least I could write. But the battery was dead, and my charger didn’t fit into the electrical outlets. So I did what people used to do, long ago and far away, in the dark ages of letters: I took out a pen and a sheet of paper. Thus began my adventures in China.

As it turned out, Tony had very little time to be tutored. He’d frequently call on a Tuesday to tell me that he’d be traveling until Friday, and I could use the time as I pleased. Aware that time was limited and I wasn’t likely to find an opportunity like this one again, I spent my days walking around the city, eating at roadside stalls, shopping in the flea market behind Tiannenmen Square, wandering down ancient streets crowded with centuries-old hutongs. When I needed a break from the constant noise and crowds of the capital, I’d take a taxi to the Forbidden City and find an empty corner within the majestic walls to read. One of the books I read in China was Dream of the Red Chamber, the classic 17th century novel by Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Years later, I turned to Hsueh-Chin as the inspiration for the title of my own novel—Dream of the Blue Room.

Tony’s absence gave me the opportunity to take a number of trips outside of the city. One of the most interesting was to Xian, where I saw the legendary Terra Cotta Warriors. On the bus ride into the city from the airport, I met a Chinese geologist who was surprisingly candid about the Three Gorges Dam, the construction of which was currently underway. I had been doing some reading about the dam, so I knew the basic facts. Millions of Chinese people who lived along the Yangtze would be forced to evacuate their homes to make way for the dam’s reservoir, which would be the largest manmade lake in the world.

Hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts would be destroyed. Thousands of towns and cities would be inundated. And according to the geologist, the dam was a disaster waiting to happen; he was certain it would eventually result in catastrophic flooding. Although there was a great deal of anti-dam sentiment, it wasn’t a subject many folks were willing to talk about; in China in 1998, speaking out against a major government project was a very dangerous move.

I found myself writing a lot about the dam during those months in China, as well as about the people I met during my travels. Upon returning home, however, I realized that my heart wasn’t in the memoir. There was another story I wanted to tell, and it wasn’t about myself. The story I wanted to tell was about Amanda Ruth, an 18-year-old Chinese-American girl who is mysteriously murdered in a small town in Alabama. And it was also about her best friend, an American woman who journeys up the Yangtze River 15 years later to scatter Amanda Ruth’s ashes near her ancestral village.

Dream of the Blue Room uses a lot of the material I gathered in China. Several characters are influenced by people I met there—especially Elvis Paris, the activities director on the Chinese cruise ship where most of the novel’s action takes place. One of the staff members at my apartment building had business cards bearing that very name. He had chosen the name for himself because Elvis was his favorite singer, and his lifelong dream was to go to Paris. An Australian gentleman I met in Guilin was the model for Graham, an ailing businessman whom the narrator, Jenny, becomes involved with on her cruise up the Yangtze.

But the most vivid character, in my mind, is probably the landscape itself, which made such an unforgettable impression on me. To me, this ancient nation in flux seemed like the ideal backdrop for the story of a woman who is traveling back into her own past.