Traveler finds meaning of love in Beijing letters

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

I found love in underground Beijing. In my cynicism, I even doubted its existence, thinking that electronic affection killed love. On the downtown street I explored hundreds of small tourist shops lining the cobblestoned road. The air was thick because of the heat, the smell of spicy Chinese food seared my eyes. I allotted just one day for the classic scramble of buying gifts for friends to prove I had even been to Beijing.
About halfway down the path, I started to enter a shop, but, after glimpsing a shining row of ceramic penises, decided to run over to its neighbor. This store was dull and full of muted colors, one I never would have entered if it weren’t for my scare. Inside, it was cool and dark, with high wooden ceilings and thousands of touristy chopsticks, Tweety bird mugs and the unfortunate initials of the “I <3 BJ” t-shirts. I walked around a bit, enjoying the relief from the heat, when I saw a small set of stairs at the back of the shop. Of course, I went down them.
The hallway-like room I entered stretched itself out — long and thin. It was low-ceilinged and lit by a yellow glow emitted from bare, dangling bulbs. There hung a feeling in the air; one of trepidation and closeted importance. Against the wall stood a wooden table where two Chinese girls sat writing diligently. They only looked up to nod at me when I entered, as if I was being admitted into a secret club deep in the heart of underground Beijing. Postcards filled one wall –– not the tourist ones I saw so often with smiling, white faces posed on the Great Wall. These were love letters. Some were homemade with lace and thick paper; others had sweet messages written in beautiful Mandarin script.
One of the girls, after noticing my clearly non-Asian status, began to read some aloud. “Always waiting for you,” one said. “I’ll kiss you when you wake,” said another. And then one, a small red card, simply stated the three words people often fear to say: “I am sorry.” The girls explained how the shop worked: you picked your card and its destination; you wrote your letter by filling the blank spaces and then brought the letter to the other wall. On this wall was a series of small boxes with the numbers one through 31 engraved on their fronts. The set of 31 repeated four times. Many of the boxes were full. They showed me how each of the cards would enter one of the boxes, and how the owner, a little, stout, graying woman, would send them so they’d be delivered on the day of the month that corresponded with the box’s number.
The young Chinese girl wrote one with just a few Chinese characters and put it in for July 14.  She didn’t offer an explanation, and I didn’t ask. Here, in the bottom of a crowded tourist shop with people above them flashing cameras and sending digital messages, a few Chinese girls reverted to the past. A past when “i luv u” wasn’t just text messaged. We found truth again in an ancient age where women and men wooed and courted, when you could get a letter that could change your life. You could receive letters from a person loving you from afar, from a friend who wanted to remind you why they care or from a stranger telling you that you affected their life without knowing it.
Call me a hopeless romantic. Call me old fashioned. Call me whatever you want. I know I am not alone. An hour went by in that wobbly, wooden chair, and more than 30 people passed through the shop. Each one’s steps crushed my disbelief. Each one’s pen marks scratched out my cynical heart. These followers left me with their belief in love, and left their words with an elderly widow, who promised to send them devotedly to all destinations.
By Maria Kalaitzandonakes