Sunday, April 17, 2016
Away on a jetliner from Beijing
The wheels had just shot up, and they were aloft. He was on the aisle row, and so he did not look out on to the surface of the airway. Instead, he was focused inwards on the round face, of the girl he had left behind. A thought of the many moods of her complexity, now that her face would not be coming in to view for a time, though for how long a time was yet to be determined. He thought this would be a short visit, a short visit to a dreamland known as China – but instead it seemed as if China were the real substance, and all else was an illusion, made real by little slips of paper. Where as here in China, it was meet real by the teaming sweat and toil, made real by turning mud and sweat in too roads and bridges, and then to apartments and skyscrapers in the blink of an eye. Is outer eye saw people looking at the ground, which was being swallowed up in a blanket of fog, of fog that was rolling in from the north west being chased by the dry wind, that was even labeled an aerosol by NASA. But that only made him bury his mind inwards, thinking of the many buildings and structures which he had seen.
He thought of museums, which were nothing like the museums of the West – which were monuments to a particular time and place, where as the museums on the ground behind him were a tourist attraction meant to sell objects. Everything beneath him was a chance to sell objects of one fashion or another, which meant that all the world was, in one sense, a museum of now. Each strand of hair, each flowing bit of clothing, each Capitoline shape of a building, was a museum in its own way. It was as if each moment in gesture was captured, in its place and time for all to see.
But it was her face that he thought of, each time he meant to think of something else. He thought of the main question which had entertained him from the beginning – was it her that he was attached to, or not? It might seem like a ridiculous question, he was more than handsome enough to find another girlfriend, on his side of the water. But there was something about the East which allured him from time immemorial, since he was small and there were almost none of the women of the Orient. It was the shape of the face, long before he knew that it was genetic. Long before he knew that it was a blurring. It was an imperative which he did not know the name of. Like a dragon in his gut, it ated on him, like a Tolkien-ish red Dragon from “There and back again”, in a prelude to a wonder world of the imagination of a thin Don.
Where did he go? Why did he stop at trivial sites? Remember he had been to Beijing – but for a job, and while buildings in Beijing were different then either America or Europe, the general plan was the same. And once inside a building, especially of a professional nature, there was a consistent quality – and the rooms in a hotel had the same kind of monotonous drabness – which came from the professional eyes which were examining from the offices of hotelity. And these offices were the same in that they trained people with the same eye. The difference from bottom to top, was more important than the location. But when you went outside, and stopped in a room which was for a traveler from the locale, that was designed by local people – who knew what other local people liked. Thus, he wanted to know two things: whether there was a place for him – in terms of places to eat, whether they were from out of town to entice foreigners, or the attractions, such as the tea shops, which would be the highlight of some segment of people; the other thing that he wanted to know, was the scope and layer of the land which she inhabited. He wanted to know about the strange buildings – such as the CCTV building, and the contemporary high-rises, as well as the underbrush which supported it. Small shops doing various things, which would undergird the buildings with all of the things necessary, such as water and food. It was different and the same in the West – dirty little secrets that were brushed aside.
In other words, he wanted to know not just the beauty, but the ugly secrets which she hid. What was her brother in law like? How did she honor her dead parents? The kinds of secrets that could not be hidden once you are with somebody. Because after all, family was an integral part of who each person was, especially if they were truly foreign. The day was polluted by the wind, and grimy in its nature – it was the capital of the most populous city on the planet. But the night was completely different, because all of the grimy and spattered mess of the day was hidden, especially when the sky was ablaze with fireworks which went on through the night. And still in all, he thought of her face, and what thoughts she had when looking at the people and commenting on some hidden feature that they had. It was the foreign twist of her mind that he wanted.
It was the foreign part of her that he wanted, the tang that he craved for. Not just in the countryside, but in her. When he was in Shanghai, the first thing that he realized, was that she was in a foreign land – it was more the same for her then for him, but even the local language was different for her, though she spoke it well. Even the fireworks on this Chinese new year - gaudy to the eye, and running deep into the night – were a clue. Much as the Starbucks was a haven for the Western sensibility. Each of these things was a doorway, because the inside was clean, whereas the outside was a kind of Chinese dirty. Which was to say, it was a cluttered dirty, as opposed to the squalid Indian kind of dirty. But that was another tale.
A tale of far away, in another land, where they did things differently – as they would say about music from long ago
Foreign Books in Beijing
“Amassed all of the late 20th century buildings, some that are designed to flouted all since of style, and assault the heavens with a sense of purpose, there are those people who will not look twice at the Chinese television building – called CCTV Headquarters, designed by Ren Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. Your are they interested in doing business with the Chinese government per se. they have settled in to Beijing because it is newer and ever been New York City will be in a long time. Some of are here for books. Many of them are found in places on the book tour, because everything has tour in China. After all it is Beijing - though one quickly learns that 北京 is the Mandarin, it is on all of the license plates. But then there are those who come added from a different angle, and do not want to be distracted by such things.”
“If you take the tour of Beijing in English they will probably stop by 'The Bookworm' - a lovely place with neat standing shelves, and a décor which cannot be matched anywhere. The Bookworm is the place where people see other people, and by one or two things that they will show off in their loft in New York City, or San Francisco. And maybe they will talk about Peter Hessler - who wrote Oracle Bones - or John Pornfret - who penned China Lessons - as if they knew them in a personal kind of way. Maybe there daughter will talk about meeting a idol of hers, Rachel Dewoskin – whose squib Foreign Babes in Beijing was passed along from one side of the school to the other, all in female hands. If all of this sounds jeux jeune, it shows the disconnect between what parents want for their children, and what the almost adult see for themselves. Because high school is the age – especially for daughters – that young people think they adult enough. We who know better will not be listened to until much, much – and sometimes much – later.”
“The one thing that you will not notice, because if you did you would not be here, is everyone speaks English. People who will – go once, recognize, and then never to set foot in it again. They could hear English back in the UK or the US – what they want is Mandarin. Only they will pronounce it: Putong-hua - which is the Mainland version of the official tongue, and, mainly, it is the Beijing dialect - with a few exceptions.”
“The literate will find a girlfriend or boyfriend at 'All Sages' which is near the southern gate of Tsinghua University, which is also in the northern part of the city. Of course the artistic will be near Sanlian Taofen, which from time to time has a good selection of speakers. While not as well known as The Bookworm, it is the place for all of the detail oriented sort of books that a bilingual needs. And the hip with interior decorating will be at Designer Books, also in the northern part, but in the second Circle. You will learn that that is important, the business of government is in the First Circle; and therefore all of important people are there. The Second Circle is where education is; all on the bright people who only occasionally work for the government are in this circle. So one of these for bookstores will be the hub of a certain kind of visitor - and after the third visit, or about a month of just knowing that the are going to be a Beijing – they will hang their hats in this place permanently – because for each of them 'where else is there?' Where else?”
This is not a place which is on any map that tourists draw from. No, this is not like that at all, not near an English language friendly group of restaurants in the North Road, or anything like it. Not for tourists at all. The name is 'Le Petit Gourmand', and it is the place where people who like to borrow in to the wee hours of the morning go. It is a true library, and for 200 renminbi you can borrow three books at a time. It is where the mixed couples go, especially if there not formally connected. Or at least not to each other.”
“Unlike other places you will surreptitiously engage someone in flirtatious conversation, which must look formal if it is to work at all. It is a language which covers the rustle of magazine, and that casual way of standing which is too casual, for Beijing. There is not the long line of books that you might expect, but there are old books that have had too many hands on them and been circulated back in to the general run of books.”
“That is the thing: in China everything is past from one end to another, like the books between almost adult high school students. Because, as of right now, people either have money or do not. And of those who do not have money, but have voracious reading habits, the coin is passed from hand to hand, each one reading and then passing along a book that will be read many times. As opposed to being read and left on some old bookshelf in the back. Waiting for the arms of another, to bless them with knowledge from the time when their grandparents talked about the opening of China. Much as Sinclair Lewis propped up each chapter of Arrowsmith with some reference to Grey's Anatomy.”
“Mostly there will be two cliques of people: the people who sent them selves down in Shanghai, and the people who do business with the government - which means Beijing. Because remember, in 50 years, it will have been open for some time and the young will listen intently to what it was like in the beginning. Because they will know that something happened before their lifetime started and they want to hear about it.”