Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Falling in Love Again

Long ago I began to understand how climate affects the personalities of people who submit to it. Alaska’s short summers and unending winters breed a sense of urgency and the need for patience; Seattle’s grey gloom with bursts of glorious sunshine results in a city of mild depressives with brief manic episodes; Thailand’s perpetual light and heat breeds a joyful languor. And Beijing? Beijing is like New York, with four vivid seasons, ranging from extreme beauty to extreme cold to extreme heat and then back to beauty again. And like New York, it’s a city of crackling energy, vibrant emotions, and borderline anarchy.

Bilingual signs in Mandarin and English were everywhere, telling people what they couldn’t do—and usually within eyeshot were a group of people happily doing whatever was prohibited. Cutting into line wasn’t just accepted behavior, it was encouraged, and pedestrians seemed to regard red lights as challenges, not commands. People smoked where they wished, ate and drank where they wished, and on the lane where I stayed, it was common to see a small child walking past with a large bottle of beer, being useful.

Perhaps because living spaces are often crowded, public spaces were scenes of intimacy. Girls gave their boyfriends fierce hell, couples made out with abandon, loud cursing seemed to be a favorite outdoor sport, and little children urinated in place, wherever they happened to be. Once on a boat trip from the zoo to the Summer Palace, a puddle appeared at the feet of a small boy, becoming a pool, then a river.

“This would never happen in London!” a young woman exclaimed, looking at her own feet with dismay. “This,” her blonde, blue-eyed companion said in the calm tones of an experienced expat, “isn’t London.”

Beijing seemed to be a city with self-assurance, which delighted me because Bangkok was one of the most self-conscious places I had ever lived in. I had grown up learning about China’s oppression but what I saw in the country’s capital was a deep-rooted form of libertarianism laced with a generous amount of humor and friendliness.

Perhaps people are kind to me because I’m an old foreign woman traveling alone, I thought after Nana had moved on. But then I met Odette, a young woman from Mexico who had come to live in Beijing with her husband, a British journalist. She was a serious student of Mandarin, had given birth to her beautiful little girl in one of the city’s hospitals, and delighted people by introducing the child as a Beijing girl. She lived next to the walls of my guesthouse, in a traditional courtyard home where each room was its own little house with a yard in the middle, enclosed by a high wall. Her kitchen was modern, there was a washing machine next to the Western-style toilet in her bathroom, she shopped in the street market outside her gate and asked William’s wife in Mandarin how to cook the things she had purchased. Odette was firmly part of the world she lived in, but then she worked at it. Beijing seemed to expect no less.

In Bangkok, years slip past and expats who have been there for decades say things like, “No I don’t speak Thai—just never got around to it.” In Beijing I commented on a middle-aged woman’s Mandarin as she spoke to a bookstore clerk, envying her facility. “Why, don’t you have a tutor?” she demanded in shocked tones. The Bookworm’s author events were often bilingual and the predominately Western audience often laughed at Mandarin sentences that were obviously jokes. As a traveler, I could get by with saying hello and thank you and pointing at my bilingual city map and smiling frequently. If I lived here, I’d need a lot more than that, I realized as I struggled to remember how to say “This food is delicious.”

Old men would frequently test my linguistic prowess by addressing me in languages other than Mandarin or English. One elderly gentleman and I had a chat in French; his was much better than mine. Another asked me if I spoke Spanish. Not wanting to place my hillbilly Puerto Rican vocabulary against his undoubtedly pure Castilian, I in a cowardly fashion said no.

William’s mother-in-law gave me stern scoldings on how to dress for winter without one word of English, pulling at the leg of my slacks to see how many layers I wore beneath them and showing me what lay beneath her own pant leg. The most I ever counted was seven and the best I ever managed was four.

I began to realize that the extraordinary kindness I found in my neighborhood was pervasive. Beijing is supposed to be the size of Connecticut and has a subway system that links its farflung corners; I used it often, especially when I searched futilely for the Botanical Gardens that nestled against the hills that bordered the city.

There was a particular bus I needed once I got to the subway’s end, and I was damned if I could figure out which one it was. I found a farm community that was a lot like the outskirts of Bangkok—ramshackle street stalls, no sidewalks, sleepy dogs—and a number of impressive parks, but not the one I wanted.

On my third morning, I was almost ready to say the hell with it. I had shown off my map to a large number of people in a neighborhood beside a freeway, with no luck at all. Trudging down an empty sidewalk, I passed a teenage boy who carried a school bag and felt a flare of optimism. Perhaps, I thought, he’s learning English; I pulled out my rumpled map.

He was very young, with the troubled skin of early adolescence. He looked a trifle alarmed by being accosted by an old foreigner, but he looked at my map for a long time and silently pointed straight ahead. I thanked him and walked off, more than ready to abandon my search.

Then I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and there was the boy. He led me to the nearest bus stop, pointed out the number of the bus I needed, waited with me until it arrived, and told the conductress where I wanted to go.

The gardens were beautiful but what has stayed with me is the kindness of a young man with acne and a big heart.

On one of my last nights in Beijing, Odette took me to one of the lakes, along a back street route I would never have found on my own. We walked down a narrow, quiet alley way; low, curving walls protected small windows of light that emerged from many little houses. For one absurd moment, I was sure we had traveled through time and were back in the middle ages. Then we were at the shore of the lake, where the darkness was filled with the low voices of old men, fishing.

It would have been a postcard moment, except Odette had Mandarin. As I watched her in conversation, laughing and bantering and briefly entering another world, I wanted nothing more than to live in this city and learn to speak its language.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Gift of Bookstores

It's the holiday madness time but I'm enjoying my shopping adventures--every week I go off to my neighborhood bookstore and choose a few more books for people I love. It's a big, bright, light-filled space filled with things I want to read and not filled with Christmas cultch--no fat men booming hohoho or plastic trees laden with gaudy baubles, emitting a vaguely toxic scent.

I buy a cup of good coffee from a cafe that isn't a chain inches away from bookshelves and talk to friends and wander through a building devoted to the printed word. I leave feeling relaxed and happy and knowing that soon I'll do it again. This is what gift-giving ought to be.

I'm old-fashioned, I admit. Many people have found more high-tech and speedy ways to dispatch their shopping efficiently. An hour or two on a computer and packages go out to their recipients, all gift-wrapped and pretty; I can't do that. It lacks the element of surprise, not for the people I'm buying gifts for, but for me.

Serendipity is a word that has almost disappeared--it's the art of finding something you want when looking for something else, and bookstores (and record stores and video stores) are centers of serendipity. I may enter with a list and leave with something I didn't know existed until a minute or two before. For me, if shopping doesn't contain the potential for discovery, it's no fun at all.

And not just during the season of gifts--I feel that way all the time. I realized last night that I need to know more about maintaining a healthy heart. Yes, I know all the information known to mankind is on the internet but I don't have the time or patience to wallow through it all, separating nonsense from useful knowledge. For me, this is time better spent in a good bookstore, looking at titles, reading a page or two, asking the person who takes care of the health section for their recommendations--and today that's exactly where I'll be. It's the difference between a living, breathing community and pixels coming together on a piece of plastic, between the world of the senses and a flat-line life that strains the eyes and the wrists.

My city is a literate one that embraces all forms of literacy, and that's a good thing. People reading on an e-reader are still reading. And I know there will always be books in a physical, tangible form for people like me--I only hope there will also always be stores where I can choose them, surrounded by a community of readers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Beijing Fever

Watching HBO, eating a cheeseburger and drinking a beer while the lights of a metropolis gleamed through the window of my nineteenth floor hotel room, this was a normal scene in any business hotel, but I was in Beijing, feeling as though I were an extra in Lost in Translation.

I was a victim of the latest form of Orientalism. For several years before I’d been a judge for a literary prize given to nonfiction books about Asia; I’d read countless memoirs of Chinese who’d suffered during the Cultural Revolution and academic tomes about the rural migrants who left home to work in factories where conditions were Dickensian at best. I’d expected Spartan conditions in a dark and gloomy city, a hard pallet in a cold room and a squat toilet in the bathroom with a city-wide blackout after dark. I had seen photos of soaring and imaginative buildings in Vanity Fair but somehow felt they were an isolated phenomenon, a Potemkin village segment of a grim and shabby city where everyone looked dour, wore subdued clothing and rode about earnestly on bicycles.

Instead here I was, in semi-palatial comfort, in a hotel room where the bathroom alone was almost the size of my Bangkok apartment, the kitchen held a refrigerator that was taller than I, a sparkling white cotton bathrobe waited for me in the closet, and the sofa was so elegant that I yearned to take it home with me. There was a bar downstairs that served seventy different beers and the room service menu was in English. It was out of sheer curiosity that I’d ordered my cheeseburger; it was great.

A list of hotel amenities included a few prohibitions that included "lecherous acts" and the plaintive request "We kindly ask you not to walk out of the room with bare feet."

The next morning, slipped under my door, was a business card with Chinese characters, a phone number, and a picture of a young, willowy, and scantily clad woman, poised on a bed with a come-hither gaze. Her feet were bare.

A year later I stood with Nana in a narrow street lined with small shops and cottage-like houses and food stalls, listening to two women shriek at each other. We weren’t the only spectators. People came out of their stores and restaurants and homes to watch; it was better than reality TV. Nana turned to me in complete delight. “I can understand them!”

“What are they saying?”

“The bigger woman just told the other one to go fuck her mother’s cunt.”

I looked nervously at the other members of the audience; certainly one of them would call the Beijing version of 911 before there was blood in the street. But there, listening intently to every shout of obscenity, were old ladies holding the hands of tiny, uniformed school children, matronly women with shopping bags, trendy boys with hair like foxpelts dyed in brilliant shades of green, purple, or orange standing in the open doors of small beauty shops. None of them seemed ready to put a stop to the afternoon’s entertainment, Nana and I walked on, and a couple of blocks later made way for a bicycle bell behind us. It was a good thing too, because as it passed by, we saw a familiar and still belligerent face of a very angry woman.

I never knew what to expect when I went out to explore Beijing; its capacity to surprise me was inexhaustible. One minute I was in a neighborhood where old men sat outside together, drinking beer at ten in the morning, and then I was having an espresso in the audience at the Beijing Bookworm, listening to a Bengali novelist from Manhattan explain about the special, globalized vocabulary used on 19th century clipper ships. On my first visit to the city, March was sunny and balmy; at the same time next year I plowed my way through several heavy snowfalls. One night on my way to the subway I heard music and soon found a whole parking lot full of people, ballroom dancing. In a park of ancient imperial splendor, people came with bags of table scraps to feed a community of cats that had taken up residence in a wooded corner of the landscape.

Living in Bangkok had accustomed me to contrasts, but Beijing was beyond any easy pigeonholing of ancient traditions/modern luxury. It was a place that took everything that had happened within its walls for three thousand years and jammed it all together to make a hybrid city, huge and impossible to duplicate anywhere else.

After my first visit, I babbled to my employer about it for close to an hour over the phone. When I finally stopped to take a breath, he laughed. “You have China Fever. It usually only happens to guys.”

I still have no idea if he was right. Other people have assured me that Beijing is not China and I’ve read strong arguments that the city is actually part of Mongolia. For me, it exists alone, within its own context, and from the moment that it first surprised me, I loved Beijing.