On my first visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I noticed several things right away: I felt minuscule relative to the vast stretch of confined space around me, I was surrounded by hundreds of curious Chinese, and I was impressed that the sky above was filled with kites.
This was my first experience with a historic and fundamental aspect underlying Chinese philosophy: the harmonious balance between earth, man, and heaven.
In a matter of days, I grew accustomed to traveling around the city on my own and felt it was time to blend in with the locals, to whatever extent possible. I saw such an opportunity in kite flying.
"I sell you kite 40 kuai [about $5]."
"Tai gui le [too expensive]. Twenty," I coolly replied.
"No good. Thirty," replied the practiced Tiananmen businesswoman who peddled an assortment of kite-flying paraphernalia in the square.
I had purchased my first authentic Chinese kite for about $2.50: a crimson-and-indigo dragonfly with a long tail, made of a synthetic shiny fabric and fragile wooden popsicle-stick frames.
My kite-flying skills were limited - or nonexistent, but how hard could it be?
The plan was to relax and float the peaceful kite way up above - just like the other kite flyers in the square - as I soaked in my new environment and enjoyed the April afternoon.
I promptly sat on the ground and began piecing the delicate wooden frames of the kite together with the attached metal clasps.
I became rather self-conscious because my work was not a private endeavor. Every Chinese who walked by felt compelled to stare. The rule was clear: Stop at the beacon with the blond hair and blue sweat pants (me), hover, perhaps comment critically, chuckle, and provide suggestions that I should heed, but couldn't understand.
"Hey, I know what I'm doing," I thought. Remembering that the communication game was one of both offense and defense, I decided to make a demand of my own.
"I've got it under control, thanks for the concern. You can stop staring at me." Unintelligible sounds from a funny-looking foreigner.
The constant scrutiny was making me somewhat annoyed. With wooden spool in one hand and kite in the other, I felt the pressure of my debut performance. This was serious.
I dashed several paces and let go of my craft into the gentle current. It caught a light breeze, soared upward - briefly - then dizzily dove to the earth in a crumpled heap. Dismayed, I furtively glanced around to see who had witnessed this sorry spectacle.
Everyone had. The crowd had grown.
At least, I thought, I'd illustrate a little American-style perseverance. This ritual was repeated three or four more times with little improvement.
I was an unwilling one-ring circus.
I snatched up my things, sent some sarcastic smiles and a "thumbs up" sign to my unremitting fans, and departed for a more secluded section of the square.
The southern end of Tiananmen, adjacent to Mao's mausoleum, seemed like a less populous place to try again. A new entourage observed me from a distance. They did not come any closer; perhaps I was committing a form of sacrilege too close to Mao's eternal residence. The guards dressed in green looked on and made no move to jettison me from the grounds - an auspicious sign I was most grateful for.
The new location seemed to make all the difference. My dragonfly kite soared upward with a confidence that originated from somewhere other than its pilot. I boldly let out more and more string. With the spool in my left hand and the line of string in my right, I allowed the kite to drop a little. With a soft tug of my right hand, the kite was sent swirling into the updraft.
I watched my dragonfly soar and dive, taking on a frolicsome life of its own.
I took a moment to remember where I was and appreciate what I was doing.
The moment passed, and I declared my victory. This was my first big game as a rookie entering the kite-flying big leagues. I turned around and gave a champion's grin and a head nod to the spectators.
"You, see? I can do it," I said out loud to everyone and absolutely no one.
I looked back up to admire, only to feel a slight pull on the string and witness the liberation of my dragonfly. The line had been frayed.
It began to ascend far above both earth and man below.
The dancing kite floated, dove-floated, then dove, perhaps experimenting with its newfound freedom. But in a desperate attempt to remain an entity high above Tiananmen Square, the kite's dangling string caught hold of a convenient tree on the fenced-in mausoleum compound.
Though my kite was near, it was far enough away that I didn't know whether to be happy or disappointed.
I sat on the ground and looked up, pondering various methods of retrieval, but I had no ladder and the Chinese police patrolling the area probably would not join the rescue.
I departed the square in defeat. I wondered how long before the string would be freed and the kite would sail on, or fall to the earth and be tossed away by a dutiful guard or groundsman.
The McDonald's nearby would console me.
On the way home, I passed the square to check on the status of my kite. It was still there.
A small crowd had gathered around an older man who sat casually on a motor scooter. He maneuvered a hawk-like kite through the air, up toward my dragonfly. The confident hawk exhibited his mighty wingspan and surveyed the situation.
The hawk encircled the dangling string, intertwining it with his own, then shot upward for an instant, and returned home to his master - with dragonfly aboard.
The rescue was complete as several smiling onlookers handed me my wayward kite. I shook hands, gave thanks, and grinned for pictures. The master of the hawk proudly looked on. I had been humbled. Harmony had returned, and this square of heavenly peace was balanced once again.