There they’ll stay

Legality is fuzzily defined in China. It’s how I imagine things were here in the States in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, when instead of having clear divisive cans and cannots, whether or not something could be done depended on how much money one was willing to spend. I never complained. I took advantage of the system when I was there, working semi-legally, paying taxi drivers to take me places I wasn’t supposed to be, handing off sums for after-hours head CTs. Conveniences.

Most of the time, nothing happens, not even when the police are in vicinity watching with amused eyes. They themselves are likely on the beneficiary end of this long chain of conveniences. Yet, once in a while, probably due to Party pressure, or some local leader acting to show his power, the authorities like to make a demonstration, an example, out of some unlucky fool who had pushed the boundaries too many times to escape a bad draw.

Street food vending is for the large part, unregulated. I mean, who in their right mind complains about the availability of delicious food at all hours of the day, and night, around every neighborhood and street corner? Although I’ve never seen an on-duty officer eating at one of these spots, I’m sure every last one has slurped and sweated away long nights under those same steamy canopies. Since there’s no discussion on whether these stands are beneficial, the question becomes whether they are legal. Probably not, at least not the meals-on-wheels or fully-lined-bed-sheet-ready-to-swing-over-the-shoulders-as-soon-as-the-smell-of-law-enforcement-hits variety. Once in a while though, a quick getaway is impossible, and the entire herd watches as a dozen or so officers (where do they all appear from?) sloppily break down the whole affair. It’s a medium-paced destruction of salvaged construction material, plywood, aluminum siding, maybe a glossy signage or two, and the purveyor(s), usually a sad-looking middle-aged couple with ruddy cheeks and rough hands. They are never confrontational; the risk comes with the territory, and there’s an unspoken knowledge that they will be back to it again in no time.

Bystanders pass by with a lingering gaze or two. This is commonplace. When I was in Beijing last month, I witnessed such an event, yet another familiar sight to add to my brimming case of nostalgia. But it was when I pulled out my phone (blasted smart phones with camera capabilities) to take a picture when I realized that maybe this wasn’t just some ordinary event, deemed perfectly acceptable for the masses to see. The advent of pocket-sized film and photo technology in recent years has led to unpopular and potentially damaging social critique headlines the likes of “Two-year old Girl Ran Over By Van and Ignored By 18 Bystanders,” “Chinese Politician’s Son Dies in Ferrari Sex Orgy Crash,” and so forth. No official wants to become the next Li Gang, or whoever has taken the place of that meme in recent years (I haven’t kept up). Maybe it was reactionary then, as I whipped out my phone and snapped a few fuzzy stills, that the officer in charge who had been standing to the side would notice, trudge up to me, and ask me what I thought I was doing. There was an honest burst of fear as I quickly lowered and dropped my phone back in my pocket. Anxieties followed in waves. Would he take my phone? Would he require that I remove all evidence or smash it if I refused or even hesitated? Would he take my name, ask for my identification only to learn that I was not a Chinese citizen? Would I be black-listed from the country? A bit extreme, that last one, but as he stood there and told me not to forget who I am, who my heart belongs to (China.), I could feel myself getting cold. “Don’t forget,” he said before turning away from me.

Indeterminant

Sometimes we give it a day, sometimes a week, sometimes more. I’m speaking of mourning, departure, goodbyes.

This is it, Beijing; our illustrious love affair, it is coming to its close. It’s hard to know how much emphasis one should place on the whole idea of departure. Too much, and it would seem that one couldn’t let go; too little, and the entire foray becomes insignificant. But really, this is the portion I both love and dread. This begins the process during which all the negatives are forgotten and only blurry, romantic images of wonderful past times remain. I envision myself regaling with the occasional anecdote when people ask: ah yes, worldly people, hidden hutongs, immense personal growth, it was all provided to me by this city. Was it? Was it the city, or was it the times?

What was it that I got here which I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere? The whole experience, why, of course. But in reality, the weight of the ordeal lies in the fact that these were my personal experiences. They affect me so because I lived through them. Still, as a firm believer in chance, I like attempting to puzzle meaning into what could be simply interpreted as a slapdash of random encounters. As humans, we need to give meaning to our happenings.

So, wonderful, really, is what I want to say about it. Thanks for a great time.

Location: Beijing, China

What’s to become of all this?

I’ve made it thus far, and I’m making plans for all the craziness which is to come. There are things to focus on, things to enjoy, things to get better at. Beijing has suddenly transformed into a muggy, imposing blanket of dust and dirty water, and my ideas are floating up on the bog like bodies locked in during the lengthy months of winter. One expected and unexpected text message, and a night out, unplanned, a mug of frosty beer, covered in condensate, squeezed between a host of dear people, and one business idea is born and dealt. A night’s sleep and a day’s planning indicated that it was definitely too good to pass up. But still, this is insane, what am I thinking? I’m already way into the future with this thing, with all the possibilities of what it could be.

I feel like this is the way ideas always go: the crazy ones are all over the field and the good ones are rare. But when I stumble upon the one rare poppy in the middle of a poisonous field, how do I know? How do I realize what is calling out to me? How do I decide what to pursue or how to pursue it?

I remember when I first came back to China, I learned an important piece of advice. When you’re young, you can afford to fail, but when you’re forty, or fifty, or so, it’s no longer an option. It’s true; it’s only now: family-less, commitment-less, when I can do these things. And well, all this timing seems too perfect for some great cosmic joke, so I guess I’ll just ride the wave and see when it breaks.

Location: Beijing, China

Cross-cut or die

So I think I officially found my new obsession, that thing that’ll be a little part of me for the rest of my life, which I will list under hobbies whenever the occasion arises. I’ve started learning Go, or weiqi, a complex and completely addicting little game: ancient, difficult, fascinating. My friend Daniel introduced it to me at first, and started me off with little tactical lessons on a small 9×9. I suppose by now, I’ve also officially enlisted myself in the Beijing Go Club, started by a bunch of expat Go fanatics, meeting once or twice a week in alleyway cafes and whiling away the hours between evening and morning. It’s rather intoxicating, and I described the initial feeling of playing Go as rather visceral, hot, the same sort of sensation produced by an influx of epinephrine: teeth grinding, eyes shaking, blood pressure rising.

It might be a game, but it is as much a game as it is a sort of tactical challenge. I’ve never been all that great at spatial visualization, so this serves as a major form of practice. Sometimes even during the middle of the day, while I’m busy with other tasks, the imprint of a Go problem is visible in the back of my mind. A white wall, a crosscut, a problem of survival, one by one coalesce, solved and disappeared.

Location: Beijing, China

A few degrees of freedom

I am befuddled by the size of the world sometimes. I gaze outside at the rows and columns of people and cars and buildings, and I imagine the enormity of the number of people these boxes hold, the number that I do not know, would not recognize, and would perhaps never meet. And then, I think about the rows and columns of these same structures that exist outside of my plane of vision, in this district, in this city, and in the thousands of other cities which exist throughout this country and the rest of the world. That number is such an exaggeration; my eyes can barely tell what one thousand people look like, much less ten thousand, one million, one billion. Yet, even within this structure, this world that seems so big and boundless and unknowable, I find that it’s easier to bring people together rather than push them apart. In Beijing, in a city with more than 22 million people, I find that coincidences happen. I run into people I know at every corner, on every subway ride, every time I visit the places I call my own. In some ways, my life here in Beijing is fast becoming my life in Boston, no longer anonymous, instead filled with familiar and unavoidable meetings with familiar and unavoidable beings. It’s good, I suppose, living in this global community, a web of travelers, traipsing, never stopping, blanketing the surface of this planet with our inability to settle down.

The multiple occasions during which my friends have traveled to a different city and encountered another friend of mine are now more than fluke coincidences. The messages of, guess who I met in , they say they’re a friend of yours, interrupt my daily rhythm with a wry smile and a sincere appreciation for chance. The world is at once huge and unbridgeable and tiny and familiar. Sometimes, I fear that it’s no bigger than the address book in my blackberry, but then I throw open the shades for some perspective.

Location: Beijing, China

Disappear

Lush, sequential frames, one by one. Billowing breeze, lakeside, old man scooping algae gunk from the surface of a pond using a fishnet. Sun cascades on torn granite, sheared surfaces, roughened by rain and wind and fire, a gentle reminder of a once humiliation. Camera lowered, hat, bag, shades, solo journey between the rocks, thinking of all the scandalous and historic things that have happened on this very same path. Legs dangling over water, borrowed rod, the smallest and strongest struggling fish in hand, and the gapping toothless mouth of an old lady smiling over her cigarette.

The sun burned and the clouds, forming and splitting and deforming, flew by overhead in the style of a time lapse film. Willow fuzzes rained down, filling gaps in vision, catching onto eyelashes, carrying with them a warm gust or two. The impermanence of that day has yet to leave me, and in particular moments of silence, I still think of the motivation of my solitude and the specific thoughts I may have quenched. There hasn’t been a day like that since, and under the lackluster sun and shade, my perfect vision of blue skies and visceral clouds seems distant.

It’s reached that point in Beijing’s spring-summer, a time when there’s not enough heat and humidity to warrant the shedding of clothes and not enough of a breeze to stir up feelings of refreshment. The world is in stasis, and so am I. Should I or should I not? What and what if? Too many questions and too little peace of mind to answer them. On the one hand, I claim their unimportance, and on the other, they seem too important to be answered.

Location: Beijing, China

Older than Beijing

I suppose if I actually delved into the history, I would find that Beijing first came to prominence as a city in the 900ADs, serving as the Southern capital of the Liao dynasty, and subsequently the main capital of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, as well as modern day China. But as the saying goes, 先有潭柘,后有幽州 (first came Tanzhe, then came Youzhou). Youzhou was the former name of Beijing, and Tanzhe temple, which rests on the hills 45 km outside of central Beijing, built in the Yuan Dynasty during the 4th and 5th century BC, does in fact, predate Beijing. It’s hard to imagine, that thousands of years ago, Beijing was a flatland of unknown potential, settled only by the nomadic people of Northern China. What it is now: an imperial, sprawling, ever-growing, ever-consuming mass, spilling over with modern architecture and businesses and Western influences, seems to only hint at the representative Chinese landmark it once was. At Tanzhe temple, things appeared as ancient and revered as they have been for the past 1600 years, but as I walked further into these sunny catacombs, I began to see the deterioration caused by tourism.

What was once a stark ravine meant to instill faith and peace to a handful of monks was now crawling with people, who bring with them trash, laughter, and noise. Stalls selling incense and candles stand next to others selling junk food at inflated prices. Other, more clever and sadistic businessmen, attract devout customers with their tanks of fish and mountain squirrels and baby rabbits. For a fee, they will let you release one into the wild (in the sense of doing a good deed, saving an animal from its human captors), but of course, it takes only days till the untrained animal is snared back into the seller’s traps. Monks sit casually outside of temple doors, yelling and joking and gossiping wildly. Rows of people line up inside the temple doors, blatantly ignoring *no photography* signs. Buddhist temples usually make me feel at peace, but this one did not. What was that itching, irreverent feeling bubbling up inside me? I don’t want to say it because it would be too offensive.

More photos

Location: Beijing, China

Something about lanterns and love

Once in a while, it’s nice to be in a crowd of people, and drown out the difficulties of day-to-day life amongst the noises of friendship. I don’t usually do so well in big crowds, but this day wound up being pretty fun, or pretty full. After a rather steamy and fairly delicious hotpot dinner, we went to Gui Jie (簋街) near Dongzhimen (东直门), a cute little street filled with restaurants, shops, and street food. The organization of this evening was a bit weird, the whole not-eating-at-Gui-Jie even though it’s essentially a food street and that’s the only thing to do there. I suppose the lanterns were pretty though, and offered up not only something to look at, but a nice backdrop for the atmosphere that was developing.

I would have to name this as the start of the weirdness that has been pervading my life for the past few days. I’ve been having equal parts epiphany, equal parts existential crises, and somewhere in there, an overwhelming sense that I’m not in control of my own life. Not to say that the night wasn’t fun, but I’m starting to doubt whether fun really equates to happiness for me.

We wound up at Sanlitun again, since it was so close, Smuggler’s, my usual hangout, one of the divy-est bars in Beijing. A few beers and a few laughs brought about the end of my week. On my way to Michael’s afterwards, I wound up in a covered bike, one of those little three-wheel deals they have for weaving through traffic. No cabbie was in the mood to pick me up and I figured I could do with some air on the one and a half block long journey. The wind was rough though, awakening, and refreshing, not what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed.

Photos

Location: Beijing, China

Just a ride

Since I’ve moved into my new apartment, which is only a 15 minute walk from my office, I’ve had the pleasure of avoiding both morning and evening commutes. If they were bad in the States, they are nothing compared to what goes on here. Most of my coworkers do it every day, one and a half hours in and one and a half hours out, and this is by subway. The subway is not slow, that’s not really the problem; the cause of the delay is the sheer volume of people dependent upon the underground rails for transportation?

I was out at dinner yesterday with coworkers, when the following was said, offering a crisp, new, and ironic description of the situation: When you’re riding the subway, you have to stop thinking of yourself as a human, in need of personal space and having the right to not be manhandled. You have to start thinking of yourself like a piece of luggage, just trying your darndest to get from point A to point B within a reasonable amount of time. Especially women, one ride on the subway can turn even the purest virgin into a seasoned lady. I’m not trying to say that there’s gropage (although I have encountered this unpleasantly in the past), but when you’re plastered cheek to cheek, there’s hardly any difference.

In these moments, it’s probably best to find your way into a grove by someone’s posterior, so you can breathe the stale air emanating from their backside in peace. One unfortunate woman carrying her young daughter wound up face to face with a wrinkled gentleman rider. With their faces just centimeters away, the woman whispered to her daughter, close your eyes, don’t look.

Location: Beijing, China

Wrecker

So, since moving to China, my handy dandy Macbook Pro charger has malfunctioned twice. The first was the one that came in my original Apple manufacturer’s packaging, which ultimately, probably shouldn’t have failed after the two and a half years I spent with it. But as luck has it, or doesn’t, in this case, it stopped working, lost the function to charge my battery (which, might I add, after all this time and over 300 charge cycles, was still doing splendidly).

I figured maybe it had something to do with the extensive traveling I had been doing with it. So I wandered down to Haidian Huanzhuang (海淀黄庄) and found me an “authorized” Apple reseller and bought a new one. I figured I was set forever, or at least until I purchased a new computer somewhere down the road. But I hit a dud again, after three months, the new AC adaptor failed in the same way, only days after my re-arrival in Beijing. Obviously, I did the only logical thing and went to seek recompense from the guy who sold me the thing.

So a little background on this guy: he looks barely 18, tall, skinny, cute but hosting a far too girly haircut (it’s a bit of a thing here), very susceptible to flirtation and guilt. The first time around, my sob story about having to get on a plane the next day (true, btw) had him scrambling to sell me a new adapter at 30% below their warehouse price, a mistake that he eventually took the hit for. I felt a bit bad; I only wanted him to give me the lowest price he could offer, but the extra kindness/mistake was welcome. That being said, I basically snagged him a rather shitty deal the last time I was there.

When I came back with the broken part, he felt pretty bad about it, or at least, seemed to. He offered me a new one at minimum charge and threw in a usb charger adapter into the mix as well. I wasn’t about to give him a super hard time so I agreed. Then he took my broken adapter, the one he had sold me those few months before, to see whether he could figure out exactly what went wrong. In the midst of this maniacal testing, he somehow wandered over to one of the other Apple reseller stations and managed to crash one of their 27 iMacs, and I don’t mean crash in the tech sense, but crash like: drop on the floor and smash screen. So, that’s probably worth some three or four months of his salary. He’s either the unluckiest dude I know, or I’m just bringing him curses.

Location: Beijing, China