"A Billion Stories" and Many Yet Untold

Friday, July 5, 2013

After more than a decade of poking around the globe, a few lessons have crystallized in my mind. One of the most enduring is that everyone has a story.

Some people have many stories, and can tell them for hours on end. But with enough vocabulary, enough hand gestures, enough smiles—and yes, sometimes, enough alcohol—there really isn't anyone on this planet who can't be coaxed into telling a unique and fantastic and one-of-a-kind story—the kind that you can't stop thinking about long after you've heard it, and perhaps long after you and the storyteller have forever parted ways.

In the wonderful world in which we live, a simple chance encounter can leave you with a story so moving, so funny, so downright bizarre that no one could ever have imagined it. Some of these stories last hours, some are only a sentence, but everyone has them.

In his characteristically precise yet plain-spoken way, Evan Osnos—for the last five years the New Yorker's Beijing correspondent—recently illustrated this lesson in a piece titled "A Billion Stories". In it, he recounts how he met Qi Xiangfu, a humble street sweeper who moonlights as a self-taught poet and prominent online literary enthusiast. Qi's story, Osnos writes, exemplifies the true transformation that he has witnessed in China: "In my years here, the number of airline passengers nationwide doubled; sales of personal computers and cell phones tripled. The length of the Beijing subway quadrupled. But the longer I stayed, the less those impressed me than the dramas that I could never quantify at all." He adds, "The national narrative, once an ensemble performance, is splintering into a billion stories."

Sadly, Osnos's post is also a farewell; this week he is leaving Beijing. As someone who appreciates the stories every human carries, Osnos has helped to bring China to life for me as a reader in a way that no other author has in recent years. (He is the author of perhaps the greatest "travel lit" piece I can recall ever reading, "The Grand Tour", in which he, an American, diligently notes his observations while shadowing Chinese tourists on a package tour of Europe.)

Let us all keep looking for—and telling—the stories that make us human, and that make our world such a fascinating place to inhabit.

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