This is how you talk about a city you love. You talk about it as if it's the only place in the world where this story can happen.
A friend of mine fell in love with someone when she went for a bite at a malatang one winter night. There was no snow; there is very little snowfall during Beijing winters. The film below the skies turns from yellow to gray, then the winds from Mongolia come and we would say, it's so cold already there might as well be snow. Some days there are, and those are the days when photographers go out to make postcards of fresh powder collecting over the shoulders of the stone lion finials perched on the gables of the Forbidden City.
But those are postcards. There are times you feel cheated when you glance at them and wonder at your inability to recall a greater feeling of grandeur when you had bought them in front of the pagoda. The event, like infinity, had been too big to be grasped and had only given way to frustration, a voice insisting with the strongest conviction and the vaguest meaning that there should have been something more.
I had flown to China with a postcard in my hand. My grandmother didn't want me to. Why should I go back to the place she had taken so many pains to run away from sixty years ago to get to Manila? The Philippines was glamorous then, before it melted in its own torpor. Europe and America creolized in Asia, Què hora es? A las ocho y media, sir, good morning, how d'ye do, how d'ye do? because the sun never sets in the Western empire. Before I left for the airport, my grandmother told me to be careful in the mud alleys.
The postcard I had was a picture of a language university in Beijing that specialized in teaching Mandarin to foreigners. Once in the Philippines, when I was eleven, I had to recite the week's lesson from memory to the teacher in Mandarin class. This was the way we learned the language carved on steles in a tiny family shrine somewhere across the ocean. I had spent the night before reading out loud from my little exercise book and hoping school would be canceled the next morning. It was monsoon season and the floods rose from the gutters blocked with garbage and the beggars' children played naked in the waters. But the storm left at dawn, and memory is unreliable, selective, compressed. The next day I finally received on my palm the two red stripes that I had been avoiding during the entirety of my young life in school.
Eight years later I was sent to Beijing with my parents' blessings, and a friend of mine fell in love one winter night when she went to the malatang.
Now malatang kept you warm. That's why my friend had gone to one. I'm not going to tell you what each syllable means; I'm not here to teach you Chinese. I'm here to tell you what Beijing was like beyond the language classes. Malatang was a street-vendor's boiler filled with skewers of meats, innards, seaweed, tofu, and mushrooms that floated in a dark oily soup of chili and cayenne pepper. Malatang was choosing pig intestines and whisking the oil off towards the pavement before burning your tongue. Malatang was huddling together with strangers who looked like you and reading advertisements pasted on electric poles. Malatang was sucking the bitter north wind to cool the spice in your mouth and keeping your eyes from tearing, while the vendor counted the wooden skewers that you had speared into your broken half of a Styrofoam rice box.
Malatang kept you warm and kept off hunger till you reached home.
My friend looked like me and studied in the same building as I did, but she was from Canada and never got stripes for not being able to speak Mandarin. She met a Korean student at a malatang. Love at first skewer just outside the campus gates, where the red-cheeked lady selling small bottles of fermented milk on her bike would look enviously at the little fish-cake stall across from her. Chocolate fish-cakes were pastries shaped like fish with hot chocolate inside, sold for one yuan each. No one bought fermented milk. The man who sold fish-cakes was called 'Uncle;' business was doing so well that for one week Uncle's stall disappeared because he was hiding from the police for making too much money without a license. He reappeared just in time for the winter frost.
The Koreans are invading the Beijing suburbs, but the city is still the stronghold of the Europeans. I have a map of what old Beijing was like in 1936, drawn just before World War Two. The Legation Quarter used to be on Chang An Road; now Chang An Road is lined with malls enclosing the Forbidden City. The foreign embassies have been moved to Jianguomen, in the Chaoyang district, European Union flags flapping over the wire fences. Europe is extraordinarily chic in Beijing nowadays; the city is making up for lost time. I have seen the diplomats' children in Chaoyang, with their white skin, brown hair, big blue eyes; pudgy eleven-year-olds speaking Mandarin over the counter at the coffeehouse. They never got stripes either, I would suppose. The cafè where I saw them had French movie posters on the walls and it was next to a little stationery shop that sold notebooks with old paint advertisements from Copenhagen printed on the cover.
I went to the Philippine embassy once, for fun. The building looked tiny and abandoned and there was no flag on the pole. The Chinese guard saw me looking behind the gate and chased me away from where I had stood. I hadn't brought my passport with me. If I had he would have opened the gate for me and I would have danced past him.
NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKER WANTED. My friend had found a company searching for someone to teach English to their representatives, but they turned her down, saying she looked too much like a local. This is a story in Beijing. It is not likely that it would have turned out another way. It is likely that an Italian with a working facility in English would have been hired, but my friend did not look Italian.
He spoke little English and she spoke no Korean, so they used the language they were only beginning to grasp. In the brokenness of the Mandarin they spoke, they found the distance that they would need for their own defense later. All of us who knew transience understood that what happened in Beijing stayed there.
I met my language partners every Friday in the school library, two local girls who wanted to practice their English with me, but they frequently slipped back to Mandarin because there were too many interesting questions to be asked. How can you be Chinese? How can you be Filipino? How can you speak English? You speak Filipino too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
I taught them to say kumusta, simplest thing in the world, contraction of como esta, consonants crunchy and hard, vowels wide and open. Back in the Philippines, some people would be so surprised with my speaking Filipino that they would forget to stop speaking English with me. Would you have to marry a Chinese too? You speak a little Chinese too, right? How do you say, 'How do you do?'
A French friend in Beijing, whom my language partners had first accosted, had referred Miao Ban and Xin Feng to me. Xin Feng spoke English with the recklessness and confidence of someone who wanted to learn. Miao Ban was made of inquisitiveness and less eloquence, looking for Xin Feng for the frequent translation.
What do foreigners think of us? Why does the government forbid Chinese people from entering your churches?
I did not quite look at their eyes. Perhaps if I had greater proficiency in their language, I would not have sounded so simplistic.
We foreigners look at the Chinese with the awareness that we come from a different world, I said.
We think there are certain problems in the kind of government that cause a great deal of difference.
But certainly other countries, your countries, have your own problems as well!
This was Miao Ban. She knew where this would lead to if we pursued it.
It's different, I said vaguely, my vocabulary failing me. We shouldn't be talking about it here.
Oh, it's fine! Xin Feng. We know about those things that shouldn't be talked about.
I raised my head to see if anyone else was listening. There was a local Chinese boy two chairs down, buried in his book.
How is it different?
I found myself talking about the 'free world' as if months before I would not have laughed at myself for using those two words with such idealism in the Philippines. But when a language fails you, you use wide blanket statements and say to yourself, This conversation isn't so important anyway. Every minute I looked up to see if the middle-aged lady who had come and was standing nearby could hear us.
Xin Feng and Miao Ban brought me out for dinner. Across the restaurant was a frozen lake, fenceless, unwatched. I had never stood on iced water before. It was too dark to see how the ice was, but it seemed thick enough, and I stamped on it, the cold escaping into the soles of my shoes. Figures of twos or threes whispered and laughed softly around me, but the lake was quiet and the world was calm.
My friend's story does not have a happy ending. Very few of the international romances begun in Beijing by foreigners extend beyond the airport. This is a fact. There is a clear, identifiable glance that passes between lovers when a friend asks one of them for any plans to stay longer. It is silent, urgent. It is a source of anxiety because it is a perfunctory question frequently asked. BEIJINGERS ARE FRIENDS TO ALL THE WORLD / Beijing shi shijie de peng you says the blue billboard on the way to Sanlitun. The translation into English is slightly inaccurate. Beijing is the world's friend. Good for Beijing. For the last few years, the world had suddenly been just as eager to become Beijing's friend.
Sanlitun is in Chaoyang. Listen to Sanlitun crackling with neon life, Chaoyang laughing across its new skyscrapers and the cranes building more - a vibrant young man who has discovered that life is only beginning and that foreign women find him handsome in a suit. Ten years ago Chaoyang had been the poor man's district, waterlogged in its farmlands.
Sanlitun Bar Street is luminous after dusk, the sounds of entertainment eviscerating. My friend goes there with him every Saturday. The waiters stand outside the street, chanting the English they knew. Hello! Hello! Beer! When they see a white face they thrust themselves in front of it and go for the arm.
Both of them stumbled out of a bar into the fresh air, their steps uncertain from the alcohol.
'I am thinking of moving apartments soon,' he said as they slipped into a little alley that led to the labyrinth of old Beijing, the hutong. The brick of the dusty courtyard homes filtered the thunder from the bars. There are very few lights in a hutong at night.
'You have found one that you like more?' she asked.
'The Uncle in the fish-cake stall says he knows the landlord of an apartment that is cheaper and closer to the school.'
In the dimness of the light my friend bumped into a row of bicycles. The metal rang and the bicycles began to crash one after the other. A little yellow light went on in one of the scratched windows and someone began to curse. Laughing, both of them ran out of the alley and back to Bar Street.
'Would you like to share my new apartment with me?' he shouted as they returned to the blinding light of the traffic.
'Yes, I would like that very much!'
It would have been romantic if they had looked at the stars. But stars are rarely seen in the haze of Beijing.
I've gone walking in a hutong during lunch hour in spring. Pots of rice and cabbage boiled outside sheds made of iron sheets. The aroma of garlic and meat coming from the makeshift vents smelled of a home. Many of the crumbling brick walls washed in dirty white were marked with the word chai. Chai means to demolish.
Once I had stood before the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, hat in my hands, waiting for the realization to engulf me. It had only been in Beijing that I learned to say 'ancestors' without feeling too self-aware. But the tourists jostled around me, stepped on my foot, faces glowering in irritation at the sight of the crowd shoving each other to see the Imperial Throne, and the realization never came. The tourists in Beijing are the Chinese from Hong Kong or Taiwan or the other provinces in the mainland. They call my province Overseas.
I went to parks often to escape the crowds. One of them had a small pavilion midway the hill, the small inlaid paintings of willows and lakes on the ceiling restored. When I reached the pavilion, a few lights were turned on softly and old fifties music was being played and people were dancing. They were middle-aged, people who could have afforded to take dancing lessons. The music crackled through a radio somewhere. Some wore cocktail dresses; others office clothes. Swing, tango, waltz. They shook their arms and legs to help their blood circulate after every set as people walked around to change partners, their faces drenched in perspiration. Then the music would start and they would laugh and take each other's arms and twirl over the floor, these old people, lost in the sepia-colored music I was hearing. Spring was turning to summer. I sat on a nearby bench, feeling the air turn humid, and a dragonfly landed on my shoulder.
My friend and her boyfriend went traveling to Tianjin the weekend after they moved to their new apartment. Tianjin is Beijing's neighboring harbor city, two hours away by bus.
There my friend saw the saddest opera singer in the world. Up on a pavilion the middle-aged lady was dressed in her gaudy finery, a green lace tunic over a white gown with sleeves to the floor. Her face was powdered with the rouge of Beijing opera and she wore a headpiece of braids. The pavilion was in the middle of the souvenir bazaar that had been built for the tourists. People were looking at maps, calling lost friends on mobile phones, and had crowded there, drawn by the human tendency towards collectivity. She sang to the tourists in Tianjin, her eyes far away, one hand on her heart, the other arm up in supplication. She looked exhausted. The people below the stage came and went. The boyfriend took a Polaroid of the opera singer and the heads of the tourists, and my friend had written on the back in English: The meaning of indifference.
The indifference is almost symbolic. In Beijing, a pregnant woman dressed in raggedy overalls kneels on the sidewalk, her stomach bulging, her eyes caught in an empty stare at the asphalt. A rusty pan sits between her spread knees and she seems to be on the verge of giving birth.
Now you want to know how many people stop to put change into her pan to see if it matches with what my friend had written on the back of the Polaroid.
I had stood there on the sidewalk, all senses stirred by the lovely sorrow of it all. If only I could have taken a photograph. But I had driven past worse scenes of poverty in the Philippines where I had learned I didn't want my money spent on drugs or drunk husbands. When I walked past her, I looked at the pan. A few cents.
I once read in a magazine in Beijing about a man aboard a train who had been accosted by an old woman when the train stopped at a station. Through his window she tried to sell him cold bottles of mineral water, but he didn't want to buy any because he knew she would slink away without giving back his change. As she coaxed him noisily through the window, he grew more and more revolted by her presence until he resigned himself and pulled a note out to buy himself some silence. As she handed him a bottle, the train began to roll. The old woman had his change in one hand and she tried to run after his open window, her arm outstretched. Your change, your change! He was entranced by the sight. In her haste the old woman tripped and fell, and when she raised her head he saw a trickle of blood on her forehead.
I saw more pregnant women kneeling on the streets on different days. To redeem myself I finally gave a few notes to a bent old lady who cried her thanks to me while I turned and walked away.
Once, an old man in tatters and his sick wife stopped me on the way back to the university. His accent was missing the Beijing growl. He said they had come to the city because his wife needed to go through a surgical operation for her stomach. The wife was moaning to herself and her husband was close to tears. They were hungry and needed some money for a subway ticket to the hospital.
I told them to wait. I went to a small restaurant nearby and bought them two meals and bottled tea. Both of them were crying. I gave them some money for the trip, and as the old man took the coins he whispered to his wife in a dialect before thanking me and turning away.
A week later I heard someone saying that he had just given an old couple from the provinces some money for a subway trip to the hospital because the wife needed surgery.
It's very hard to talk about indifference without a photograph.
The months passed quickly. We overcame our brokenness in the language. We couldn't rely on blanket statements anymore to cover us with indifference.
'Have you decided which computer to buy?'
'Sort of. One of my Korean friend's classmates has a desktop she wants to sell before leaving Beijing. I'm going to take a look at it sometime this week at her house.'
'You can relax, she knows I have a girlfriend.'
'I'm not even going to dignify that with a response.'
'By the way, I've been thinking, I'm probably going to transfer schools next month.'
'Oh? Why's that?'
'Too expensive here. And there's a cheaper one nearby, the one across the bakery. You know that?'
'Oh, that. Yeah, I do. It's pretty small.'
'Yeah, but it's not bad. You're going to be looking for work when you get back to Vancouver, right?'
'Yeah. When you finish your bachelor's then go bum around in China for a while, you know it's time to get a job.'
'If I'm lucky, I can get a good job next semester and earn enough to visit you before I go back to Seoul with the proficiency certificate.'
'That's too tempting. Don't get my hopes up.'
'It can happen.'
'Well, what about after Seoul?'
'I don't know. Everyone's just been asking.'
'Well, what if I ask you what happens after Vancouver?'
'Were you thinking of asking me that?'
'We still have two months left. I wasn't planning to ask you today.'
'We have to decide on something. I'm going to have to buy the plane ticket soon.'
'Do you think you can, maybe, just stay for another semester?'
'You know I can't do that. At some point, you're going back to Seoul.'
'I don't know when I'm going back to Seoul. I can keep on studying. I can tell my parents I still need to study more. Even if I pass the Chinese test and get a certificate, I can still keep on studying, get a job here -'
'That's stupid. You can't do that.'
'If you just tell me you can stay here -'
'You know my parents want me back home. You're Korean! You'd have a good idea what Chinese parents are like. They're not that different.'
'Hey, I know you better. It wouldn't be just family pressure. You'd at least try to fight for it if you really cared. '
'Okay. Okay. You know what? It's like this. I don't even know if it's going to be worth the effort.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean...I mean, I can't just drop everything and stay here forever. I had a life somewhere else too.'
'But you're always saying how Vancouver is too slow and how nothing happens, that there's not enough there for you and Beijing is -'
'I know, I know, but I was already in the middle of something there. If I decide to stay here, I'll have to start new for real, and...and this was...I was only supposed to be here for a year. Everything has been great, everything good and bad, but I've just never thought that...that...do you see?'
'Look, I'm just...I don't know.'
'You know you're not going to stay in Beijing forever either, and...and I just don't see the point.'
'So what do we do? We just visit each other?'
'I don't know, all right? I don't know.'
'All right, there's still two months anyway.'
'Are you done with your plate?'
'Yeah. Thanks. Hey...come here. I'm sorry. You know we'd have to go home sooner or later.'
Beijing was a little detour to keep off the hunger till we reached home. That is why we write stories of it so we won't forget. That is why my friend's story cannot have a happy ending.
If I had found a home in Beijing, where I am disguised by my skin, where I am a nameless unit in a sea of faces, where I am finally part of the majority until I speak and the accent reveals everything, I would have forgotten all my wonder.
Only a foreigner writes a Beijing story like this.
The city is covered with sand. The Gobi Desert is next to Beijing and it inches closer towards the capital every year, threatening to choke it in a matter of years. When spring fades into the summer, clouds of sand move in and the sky turns into the color of unwashed fur. Waves of grit collect, and driven by the wind, they move languidly across the cityscape like gigantic phantoms, slamming into the first building that comes into their way and enveloping the horizon in an explosion of gray. The winds are tempests, and umbrellas are blown inside out across the streets. The sand is blinding and fills every orifice of your face to be spat out afterwards.
My friend had been watching the sandstorm from her apartment when I arrived. As I shook the sand from my hair and tried to mend the bent spokes in my umbrella, she said, 'He went out to buy some milk.'
I went to the toilet and washed my face. When I came out she gave me a Polaroid with the picture of a Beijing opera singer. 'A photo we took when we went to Tianjin. I know you like that sort of thing.'
'Thanks.' I read what she had written on the back. 'So how are you guys doing?'
'We're fine. You want anything to drink?'
'Thanks, but I have to go back to the dormitory soon, I still have a few things to do.' I unzipped my bag and brought out the DVDs and the books I had borrowed from her. 'These really kept me company during the nights, by the way.'
'You're welcome. So what's waiting for you after Beijing?'
'Looking for work in the Philippines, I suppose. Or maybe I'll go to Hong Kong and teach English there. Something.' I finished stacking the boxes on top of the television. She was looking at the sandstorm again. 'Are you sure you're all right?'
She shrugged. 'I think he's going to call it quits before I leave.'
I leaned against the wall and looked out the window with her. The storm was growing more ferocious. 'I've always thought that he always seemed to be the martyr type. Maybe he just doesn't want to lead you on with false hopes.'
'We could always call each other everyday.'
'Yeah, but for how long?'
She didn't answer immediately. She sat down on the couch and looked at the ceiling. 'He won't be leading me on. I understand how difficult this all is. I mean, if it all just falls apart in the future, it won't be completely unexpected.'
'When do you think he'll tell you?'
'I don't know. Hopefully not on the day I leave because then I'll be bawling my way to the airport.' She had crossed her arms and was staring at the floor. 'What do you think I should do?'
I slung my bag on my shoulders and moved towards the couch. 'I don't know. If you think he wants to break up, there's nothing much you can do. You still have a few days left. Just make the most of it.'
'You'll have to go back to the storm, won't you?'
'Yeah, I have to start packing now. You're done with yours, right?'
'I'm halfway through. Anyway, in case I don't see you again before I leave.' She rose and hugged me. 'Write me when you get home.'
'Of course.' I hugged her back. 'And thanks for the Polaroid. That was pretty random.'
She laughed, a little more quietly than she used to. 'Just get out of here.'
'Tell me what happens afterwards, all right?' I said as I opened the door.
I went down the stairs and twisted the knob. The gate gave a metal clang and I left the building. Then I opened my umbrella and started walking into the sand.
My friend left Beijing three days before I did. I heard from a few friends that they did break up, but I haven't heard from her since we parted. I think a great deal of Beijing winter and the malatang. I wonder how he could stay there seeing everything that would remind him of her.
This is how you talk about something you love. You tell why. And in the end it's really all about remembering. How the sun rose above the granite and concrete. How the pigeon flew above you, the whistle around its tail feathers trilling. Sometimes I remember it so well that I can still feel the sand being crunched between my teeth.