Friday, January 19, 2007

I Hate You Very Much and I Can't See You Forever

I can't remember when it was exactly that I met Cindy, but Id been forewarned about her by my friend Mike. “I think she's kind of psycho" he'd said. After meeting her myself, I'd protest, saying how enthusiastic she was about learning English, how sweet she seemed; but Mike would be proven right in no short time. I guess when you move to a city, and someone's friendly to you, you tend to see what you want to see. Especially when that city is the cold alienation of a 15-million-resident monster like Beijing.

Mike, his wife Dune and I were living in a modern building in an ancient neighborhood of Beijing. The neighborhood was mostly hutong, the narrow alley lanes that linked together old four-walled courtyard houses of China’s past. Some were as old as the early Qing dynasty, 300 or so years old. But the things that made the neighborhood really old were the Drum and Bell Towers, built in the 13th century, and a few-minute walk down the main street.

In other areas of Beijing, four-walled homes and the narrow hutongs had been destroyed for modern apartment complexes. But, in our neighborhood, along Old Drum Tower Road, they were mostly intact. When you looked out the sixth-floor window of the apartment where we were living, the curving low roofs of the hutong stretched out in the distance, glowing in the permanent dust of Beijing.

The jiaozi guan, the Chinese dumpling restaurant, where Cindy worked was a four-minute walk down our hutong street to Old Drum Tower Road. The restaurant was on this main road, not far from the base of the Second Ring Road, a major highway that completely encircled downtown Beijing. What was now this city highway had been the old city wall of Beijing, torn down after the Communist takeover. The highway replaced it. It seemed fitting that a former wall had become a major highway. China in 2006 was not about keeping the Mongols and other barbarians out, but being on the move. The dumpling restaurant was close to the subway station, convenient for getting a taxi to jump on the ring road, and the dumplings were fantastic.

Coming from the south of China where I'd lived for several years, I'd been informed disparagingly by southerners how bad the food was in the north. I'd found the opposite to be true. All along Old Drum Tower Road and in the hutongs, there were cart vendors of diminutive and delicious fare. There was an old guy on the corner who made something that was in between an omlette and a pancake, filled with green onions, and lightly covered with chili. There was the sour-faced woman down the road who sold kao bing, thick biscuit-type things filled with meat and cabbage, the ultimate hangover cure. And there were the dumplings.

They came out steaming, dough glistening. Inside was any combo of meat and vegetable you could imagine. Pork with Chinese cabbage, mutton with square green bean, chicken with ground carrot, on and on. Each one was somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a baseball. Ten would stuff you, and cost less than a dollar. Picking them up deftly with your chopsticks, you’d swirl a concoction of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and chili, dip it in and bite as much as you could stand the hot. It was a simple, heavenly meal.

And it was a home away from home. The jiaozi guan was run by people from a regional city in nearby Hebei province; it seemed they were fulfilling the increasingly worldwide and particularly Chinese dream of moving to the city and making a better life. The boss was a tall, 40-something guy with a square jaw, who wouldn't have looked out of place in a Chinese film playing a mafia lord or an emperor. His younger sister ran the cash register and was an earnest, friendly young woman in her late 20s who once asked me to explain the entirety of American Christianity to her. We quickly got to know the wait staff and the dumpling cooks that worked there.

Mike and Dune met Cindy long before I did. Cindy was one of the waitresses in the restaurant, intrigued by Chinese-speaking foreigners such as Mike's wife Dune, and desperate to study English. She had latched on to Mike when she'd heard that he was a teacher. She could understand simple English questions and respond in a simple fashion. She could write more than she could say, and often when in a jam would stop speaking, grab a pen and paper, and write a note in English. I met her several weeks after I'd heard about her from Mike and Dune. I was sitting outside one day in the middle of fall at a time when the restaurant wasn't busy.

Gradually, the entire staff of the restaurant had gathered around when they'd realized I could speak some Chinese. Where was I from? Where did I live? What was my job? The questions followed an established pattern, and were easy to answer, up to a point. At some juncture in conversations like this in China, there would be a weird tangent. The normal-conversation-with-weird-tangent would go something like this:

Chinese person: Where are you from?
Me: America
Chinese person: Are you a teacher here?
Me: Yes.
Chinese: Oh. Can you sing, “Hotel California?”
Me: Excuse me…what?
Chinese: You know, “Hotel California”
Me: Oh, uhm…like right now?

And so on. People latched on to holders of white skin with certain passports as representatives of everything they thought or thought they knew about a country. It reminded me of the old Onion headline: “President Bush Disappointed that Chinese Leader Doesn't Know Karate." Things like this added up and took their toll; I'd come back from a summer visit to the States with a serious case of China fatigue. I wanted to be in a place where I wasn’t different, where people looked like me, and where I could understand what people were thinking and why they thought it.

I also didn't want to become what I feared I was becoming: a complaining foreigner. China was filled with these. It was a habit among certain expatriates, a conversation point and all-encompassing viewpoint that I thought bordered on racism sometimes. In the U.S., if you ran into a problem with a rental car, a shady mechanic, a dubious landlord, or anything else, you wouldn't say: “F&cking mechanic. I hate the United States!” In China, however, the two thoughts often became inextricably linked; the mechanic, landlord, or fruit vendor was jacking you because you were foreign; he was Chinese and therefore a representative of the country as a whole; you conflated the two and blamed the nation for the individual's sin.

The day I met the jiaozi guan staff, however, was the opposite kind of experience. No bizarre questions, no shady business. Just friendly interaction, and eventually the dumpling cooks, all teenage boys around 16 and 17, sat down and I gave them all English names. I'd stare at them in mock serious consideration until they’d burst out laughing, then with great fanfare, I'd write a name down on a napkin. They ended up becoming the Irish mafia of Old Drum Tower Road: Doug was the heavyset roustabout, the kid with the perpetual grin became Frankie, Sean was the handsome, sensitive one. Eventually the boys got called back to work, and Cindy came over to talk. She was much more serious than the boys, but often her face would light up if she understood something in English that I'd said, or if I said something funny. Cindy was probably 19, short and dumpy, with thick glasses. She’d only been in Beijing a few months. She was ambitious.

“It seems you're always studying English. Why are you so interested in it?" I'd asked her.

“If I can speak English, I can find a better job. I don't like it here. I want to leave here. I'm sure if my English is good, I can find a better job," she answered. She was staring off toward the ring road when she said it, as if she already imagined herself in a better place.

The weather quickly got colder, and we started eating inside. The staff was less comfortable chatting with us inside. Cindy took to waiting by the bathrooms which were down the road toward my apartment to chat with me. (Since hutong neighborhoods didn't have indoor plumbing, public restrooms were abundant.) It was the smallest of small talk; I'd ask her how the job search was going, how things were at the restaurant. She'd ask me similar questions every time; whether I liked China, what I was doing at work.

I'd quickly smile and say in Chinese the sentence for leaving someone's company, which I still don't really understand to this day: “Okay, I'll go first.” I'd do the short walk back to the apartment.

Meanwhile, my life was disintegrating. The job I'd loved so much, teaching journalism to Chinese university students, had turned into a nightmare in Beijing. I was used to living on an idyllic college campus, wrapped up in the bosom of a small community. Now I was in the monster of Beijing. Everyday, I went to a cubicle, “the gray cage” as my sister calls it, and wrote emails that people didn't respond to. I'd left a beautiful girl behind in my sleepy southern city, only to realize that I didn't want to be with anyone else, and that the one thing a city like Beijing could offer me, a dating scene, was of no interest to me.

I'd also moved several times in a month or so. Apartment hunting in Beijing was a film of absurdity and horror, something in between Brazil and The Exorcist. For the pitiful housing stipend I'd been given, the apartments available were of the crack-den variety. I'd seen places where the sink pipes were broken off, and the runoff just hit a hole in the ground. One place looked as though someone had taken a headless torso and whipped it against the wall, until a Jackson-Pollock-spatter of dried blood had formed a grim mosaic. One place's bathroom was out the door and down the hall. I'd moved in with Mike and Dune, thinking – perhaps wishfully – that the space would be big enough for all of us to share. But it was clear after a month or so that it wouldn't work. Every day after leaving the cubicle's gray cage, I'd trek across the city looking at these horrible places, and then return, exhausted and dispirited, to the lively and warm Old Drum Tower Road neighborhood. Before collapsing in exhaustion, I'd often have dumplings for dinner, and chat with Cindy and the other staff of the restaurant. It was a small pick-me-up, a candle in the darkness.

One evening Mike, Dune and I all went to the dumpling restaurant together. We joked as we walked through the hutong at how excited the staff would be – we rarely had time to go there all together, and it seemed seeing us all together there would be good entertainment for them. It was true. The dumpling restaurant was renao, hot and noisy, as they say in Chinese, or bumpin’, we might say in colloquial English. Frank, Doug and Sean all poked their heads out of the kitchen to say hello. Everyone was friendly. Everyone except for Cindy. She stood in a corner looking out blankly. Eventually, toward the end of the meal, I caught her eye and waved her over.

“Cindy, Ni hao. How are you?” I asked.

Cindy didn't respond and stood at our table looking down at it. I asked again, and we all looked up at her as an awkward silence passed. I'd thought it was a big act, until I saw tears welling up in her eyes. She began to cry silently. Dune and I switched to Chinese and tried to ask her what was wrong.

“I want to leave here. I don't like it here,” she said. She meant the dumpling restaurant. She said the people there didn't treat her well; I was immediately worried, thinking that the whole thing was a front for prostitution or some kind of forced labor. Still, if it was, it was a convincing front; the people all seemed friendly, and clearly they were really cooking and selling food.
We kept talking with Cindy until she calmed down. We eventually got her smiling again. Then as we were about to leave, she asked Dune for her phone number. “So I can get in contact with you," she said. It was an awkward moment. We liked Cindy, but the idea of getting a frantic phone call from her in tears was disturbing; none of us felt like we'd achieved that level of closeness with her. Dune hesitated with the paper and the pen. “Give her the home number,” Mike said. We all mainly used cell phones, so a home phone number seemed like a compromise. How do you tell someone who you have a friendly relationship with that you just haven't reached the point where you exchange phone numbers yet?

I was nervous the next time I went to the dumpling restaurant, by myself, several days later. What kind of state would Cindy be in? But Cindy seemed ebullient, laughing and joking with her co-workers. As I was leaving, we got to chatting. I asked her how her English studies were going. She said she didn't have a good way to study. We got on to the topic of books and stories, and Cindy began telling me an old Chinese legend; I couldn't follow all the details, but it was your basic fairy tale: a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, an evil king. But unlike ones that we were familiar with, it ended in tragedy, more Greek than Grimm's. Still, she was laughing as she told it, and it got me thinking.

"I think your English textbook isn't very good. But sometimes there are these kinds of books, these kinds of stories in English – they'll be easier for you to read. I'll try to find one for you,” I said. Her face lit up. Thank you, thank you, thank you, she said.

The next time I was in the restaurant, I barely had time to say hello to Cindy. Friends from out of town were supposed to meet me and Shelly, an attractive Chinese graduate student who was a friend of mine, there and couldn't find the place. I was running back and forth between the restaurant and the nearby subway station to find them. We ate quickly and hustled off to the next social engagement. I waved and said bye to Cindy as I left.

A week passed before I was back in the dumpling house. My search for an apartment had taken on a frantic quality, and every day I'd be trekking to some corner of Beijing to look at depressing apartments. On that particular Tuesday night, I'd met up with a comical and sly agent by the name of Coco, a barely-5-foot tall, spitfire-speaking Henan native who worked for a local real estate company. She'd told me that she had apartments for me to see in the central business district area where I worked; in fact, they were at the end of a subway line and then a twenty minute walk from there. All for moderately awful housing. I worked my way across the subway lines back to Old Drum Tower road, exhausted and depressed, and headed straight for the dumpling restaurant.

It was a subdued night. I sat in a corner and just rubbed my eyes and drank kai shui, hot boiled water, the Chinese cure-all for cold and ill-feeling. Cindy and the other staff were there, but stood off in the corner talking. I ate my dumplings, delicious as usual, and asked for the bill. I spotted Cindy in the corner and waved and said hello. In response, she marched over, put a piece of paper in front of me, and walked away. Hmm, I thought. Cindy's notes were always entertaining; they usually expressed some very simple but deliberate idea, and what they lacked in grammar and naturalness they made up for in strength of sentiment. This one was no exception. I looked down at the yellow-green notepad paper, written in script that looked like a six-year old, and read:

I hate you,
Why do you come
here on that day,
You have eat your
word the second time
I can’t see you forever.
I hate you ver

I was stunned. I burst out laughing. “Cindy, what is this?” I looked up and asked. She was standing in front of the cash register, arms folded. All the waitresses were staring at me expectantly, clearly with knowledge of what was in the note. I switched to Chinese. “What does it mean?” I asked Cindy, waving her over to my table. She came over, and proceeded to write a Chinese translation of her note. “No, no, no,” I said. “I know what it means, but why do you hate me? Can you explain?” In response, Cindy began to crumple up the note, but I took it back from her and uncrumpled it. For several hours, it remained extremely funny to me. But then it began to sink in; even the waitress at the restaurant hated me. It seemed the icing on the cake, the blood-spatter on the wall of my Beijing experience thus far. I woke up the next morning to a gray-brown day, and the awful feeling of waking up into a reality that was increasingly nightmarish. I would do the same thing day after day; the gray cage, the depressing housing search, the lifeless subway. But now there would be no friendly respite at my little dumpling house.

We saw Cindy just a couple of more times after that. I went there with Mike, who was only half-joking when he imagined Cindy appearing with a giant butcher's knife in the apartment, there to murder us all. She studiously avoided me, as she pressed Mike for answers to questions in her English book. She put everything on the table directly in front of him, pretending I wasn't there. But eventually, toward the end of all this, she had a rather complicated problem, and she listened to my answer in Chinese, and managed a thank you as we left. There was hope, we joked, I wasn't shut out forever.

A week or so after that I finally found a place to live, several subway stops from Old Drum Tower Road. I don't frequent the dumpling house so much. Things in Beijing are looking up: I'm getting used to urban life, I've got a place of my own. But there is a kind of overall weariness to life, perhaps a natural one when you are a foreigner and live in a place like China for four years.
I don't know how or when I will leave China, but on the bad days I fear it will be like this: I'll simply pack a bag, write an email resignation to the boss, and buy an expensive plane ticket to get out quick. I'll break a beautiful young girl's heart, and mine too, and feel like the ultimate cad. But I'll be happy, because I'll be going home. I'll get a job mowing the lawn on my suburban Florida golf course, marry a waitress from Hooter's, and go bowling on the weekends.

But before I do, perhaps in the airport, against the window where the planes come and go in real-time movie fashion, or up against the tiny window of the plane, looking down on the smog-ridden brown of the city, I'll paste a note in broken Chinese. It will be filled with all the Cindy-ish vitriol I can muster. It'll read like this:

Dear China,

I hate you. Why I spend
years of life living in you?
Never know
the language, never understand
the culture? Why I waste my time?.
I can’t see you forever
I hate you
I hate you ver


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