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.

1 comment:

Katia said...

Excellent and very well observed, as usual, Jane. I totally relate to your vision of Beijing. I was only there for a few days, doing the touristy things, and yet, I (and my husband, in fact) had that very same feeling of navigating diverse worlds (and times) within the confines of one city. Something else I felt was the energy. Hard to describe, but something I'd only felt in New York City, before. As an aside, you went to a reading by Amitav Gosh in Beijing? Lucky, lucky. Would love to hear him talk about the way he uses language in Sea of Poppies. I love that aspect of the books (was thrilled, in fact, when he began doing it with Creole, in River of Smoke, but then stopped, as he took the story another way.)