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.


Dr. Will said...

You're marvelous at Character and Story. But I think this blog now needs a subtitle. Something like "The Language of City Love."

Ebriel said...

Yes, language as passport.

Wonderful essay, Janet. It's a pleasure to see my new home through your eyes. I was nodding the whole time, saying "Yes!!"

janet brown said...

High praise, E--thank you!