Ten days before Chinese New Year–seven months ago–I was traveling alone in Melaka, Malaysia. I decided to visit Melaka en route to Indonesia because I’d heard of its fascinating colonial history pertaining to the spice trade. Melaka was first dominated by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, then the Dutch in the seventeenth, and finally the English in the nineteenth. In addition, over thirty percent of its population is ethnic Chinese today.
I was halfway through eating a bag of durian cream puffs along Jonker Street, Chinatown, when I encountered a scene from a Chinese New Year card customized for my life. A group of teenage boys were rehearsing lion dance in a studio next to a Chinese restaurant.
I used to play percussion for the lion dance troupe at Oberlin College. We played numerous shows, but our one consistent annual performance was the Oberlin Chinese Student Association’s New Year extravaganza. Because of Oberlin’s academic calendar, we never could hold the event near the actual holiday. Two weeks after the motherland celebrated the New Year, a small group of liberal arts students in bumfuck northern Ohio would decorate the giant room above Oberlin College’s admissions office with Chinese couplets, cardboard cutouts of Guanyu, crepe paper, and giant paper lanterns. A lineup of students and community members would perform various dances, songs, and other tidbits that could be linked ultimately to the behemoth of a country, China. The audience enjoyed the show, but most of them were college students who attended because the event was catered by a Cantonese restaurant from Cleveland.
Life in the lion dance troupe went something like this: a month and a half before the performance, we would all acknowledge that we needed to rehearse. But we would disagree on how often these rehearsals should happen. Because we lacked group organization, we would not rehearse until a week and a half prior to the event, which gave us just enough time to deliver an acceptable performance and to really hate each other. The morning after the performance, we would get brunch at one of the three edible restaurants in Oberlin and half-forgive each other over pancakes, bacon, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Then the cycle would repeat.
I had never celebrated Chinese New Year in China, and the weeks leading up to it made me nervous. I had never even celebrated Chinese New Year with a community larger than several hundred people. Prior to Oberlin, when I lived with my parents, we would bring in the new year with a quiet night of dumpling making with my dad’s graduate students, and we would go to bed by 11 p.m. Oberlin and my family life did not prepare me for the shwasty state-sponsored billion-person frat party that is Chinese New Year.
It was comforting to watch ethnic Chinese outside of China preparing for Chinese New Year. While everything about Melaka, from its tropical location to its colonial history, has nothing to do with Ohio, I felt at home among the crowd gathered around the studio. Melaka’s Old Town feels like a village, and its New Year decorations—red paper lanterns and pictures of snakes strung down the street—were manageable for me.
I watched the short chubby boy play the cymbals. These Melakan Chinese boys probably had a proper coach and had rehearsed for months. They didn’t look like they hated each other.
“Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later.” -Evan Osnos
I’m leaving China in 8 days. The Evan Osnos quote is a cop-out way of me saying, I could have posted so much more on this blog these past ten months. In fact, I’ve actually filled an entire journal with stories, ramblings, and feelings that I haven’t had time to fully process. In other words, even though I won’t physically be in China after July 19, I will still be updating this blog because I think I covered about five percent of what I learned and experienced.
I went back and looked over some of the posts I’d written. It was a considerably less embarrassing experience than looking over my middle school Xanga. I came across a gem of a post (well, really, weren’t they all gems?) where I set myself some extracurricular goals. Let’s see how I did:
1) Brew beer using a hot plate.
I did this many times with several different Taigu cohorts to varying degrees of success (failure?). For beer snobs: we made an extremely dry Christmas beer (we argued over the name but I stand by my choice, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”), and three unnamed beers: an IPA with a nice hop profile but no carbonation, and two porters. None of them were carbonated enough and everything was vaguely medicinal. But they all got you drunk!
I didn’t go to Huangshan, but I did visit Tiger Leaping Gorge–with some family friends, Amelea, and V over Chinese New Year. We were in the throes of an awful Chinese tour. We only got to go to the tourist-ified part of the gorge, but it was still absolutely beautiful.
3) Convert a Chinese man into a feminist.
This is a very long story that I have failed to document properly for seven months, but here’s a teaser: I met a 22-year-old round-faced Shanxi village boy on the train, and even though he’s a huge chauvinist by Oberlin standards, he listens, and now he has a gay friend.
4) Hit up a Chinese gay bar.
I didn’t go to a Chinese gay bar. But I did go to a Chinese bar and act gay. Maybe that counts.
5) Do a wedding photoshoot.
5a) Convince a dude to be in my wedding photoshoot.
Yeah, this didn’t happen. The closest I got to this was my friend’s entire extended family mistaking me for his betrothed. Cultural hilarity ensued, including an episode where his mother tried to dress me in one of her turtlenecks because she thought I was cold. But too many weird gender issues surfaced. To be continued.
6) Revisit Hooters in Sanlitun in Beijing.
I did not revisit Hooters. I am not sure that it is still open in Beijing. I suppose I still have time to meet this goal because I’m flying out of Beijing and will be there a few days before my flight, but at this point in my life, Hooters no longer seems important.
7) Become less terrible at basketball.
I think I touched a basketball once. I think that’s more contact with a basketball than I had in all of 2011. Goal met!
4.5/7. That’s almost 65%!
A few weekends ago, like I do many weekends here, I took the train down to Taigu to visit the Shansi fellows. As usual, we were hollering at each other at dinner over Tsingtaos and noodles, when someone brought up once again how they couldn’t imagine how I could stand living in Taiyuan.
“What do you mean?” I shouted, banging my beer on the table. “I’m going to have my honeymoon there!”
I shouted that for dramatic effect. Taiyuan is not for lovers. A Taiyuan honeymoon is even more absurd than an Ohio honeymoon. At least in Ohio, you’re guaranteed clean air with your game of cornhole and your footlong hot dog. A Taiyuan honeymoon would probably consist of a visit to the provincial museum to be reminded of Shanxi’s glorious mercantile past, a dinner full of at least three different types of noodles, and a smoggy walk down Liu Xiang, Taiyuan’s brightly lit shopping district. The area is crammed with young couples—girls, faking their melancholy in fluffy skirts, leaning on wide-eyed skinny boys who carry their purses. A Starbucks opened there a few months ago. I think it’s right next to the 李先生 (MISTER LEE) beef noodle chain restaurant, although I’ve stopped keeping track of the various chain restaurants. Their signs all look like they use the same font, and they often have mascots with men who look like ethnic Colonel Sanders.
On bad days, I would tell you that the only bright side to a Taiyuan honeymoon would be the reassurance that your marriage can probably sink no further. The city gives a dull first impression. Facing the train station is Yingze Boulevard, lined with mid-range skyscrapers, honking cars, and big-bellied men advertising rides to surrounding cities. Someone told me that part of the street had collapsed in March, perhaps related to land subsidence due to nearby mining. Supposedly the Shanxi millionaire coal barons live in Taiyuan. Sometimes while waiting for the bus, I try to peer into the tinted windows of the luxury cars zipping by for glimpse of the slick-haired men inside. Taiyuan can feel sprawling: when I want to buy cheese, I have to commute by bus for almost an hour. But it can also feel like an overgrown village, with its slow daily pace; almost everybody takes an afternoon nap. Even though I am surrounded by foreigners because I live in the foreign student dorm at my university, the city has few of them and even fewer establishments that cater to them. This makes for better cultural immersion but inevitably becomes stifling. Sometimes I just need to throw back a (western) beer and pretend I’m not in China.
When I first arrived in Taiyuan, I was determined to forge a fulfilling social life. Chris, one of the Jamaican exchange students downstairs, took me to the guitar school across the street. We formed a hodge-podge band with Li, the guitar teacher, and a few of his guitarist friends. I played on a decrepit keyboard while Chris played the bass in Li’s office, which was a giant studio with an electric drum set and many guitars hanging on the walls. The guitarists would take turns playing with us while the rest of them chain-smoked and drank tea on the sofas in the corner of the studio. Usually Chris led, but sometimes he’d make me pick the chord progression because he would get bored with himself, I think. I would get nervous trying to remember the jazz standards I’d learned at Oberlin and resort to playing blues derivatives or “Autumn Leaves.”
One time after rehearsal, we went to karaoke, which meant that everyone except Chris and I sang Chinese-language pop songs and chain-smoked on the sofa in our private room. I tried to get Chris to sing Beyonce with me, but we didn’t know any of the same songs. Instead, I sang Christina Aguilera’s new single because Jing, one of the younger guitarists with a haircut resembling jets of water from a fountain, had told me that he thought she was “sexy.” At dinner, he once took out his iPad to show me photos he’d saved of her. I was not sure whether to be offended. He and Chris would often make pidgin sex jokes by incorporating hand gestures and snippets of Chinese and English phrases, so I thought that maybe we could bond over some crude humor. But the music video turned out to be too sexual for him, or maybe he thought I was too much of a girl to laugh at my dirty jokes. Most of the video consisted of Christina, in false eyelashes and leopard print tights, grinding on various male hipsters before she killed them in an explosion of glitter and neon paint. I sang awkwardly while Jing smoked his cigarette, his eyes averted.
We stayed out until 3 a.m., which confused me because several of the guitar teachers were middle-aged men with families. Li dropped Chris and me off at the school gate. Because it was so late, the gate was locked, so we had to climb over it to get to our respective dorms. As I put on my pajamas, I pondered whether I had found my community in Taiyuan. I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.
After about a month and a half, it became evident that the members of our band did not have the same taste in music. The guitarists liked Chinese pop and occasional cerebral crap; Chris liked R&B, and I realized the impossibility of learning bluegrass tunes with a keyboard, electric guitars, and an electric drum set. I also could never hear myself playing over the loud guitars and would instinctively lean my right ear over the keyboard before realizing that all the sound was being emitted by an amplifier across the room. Soon after that, I left for a conference in Beijing, and on my return to Taiyuan, I never played with them again.
This spring, my adviser introduced me to one of his students, a girl named Xiao, who helped me collect heating data for my research. Xiao was from a county near Linfen, and she was a very composed and wise 21-year old. We would meet in the school cafeteria and have two-hour-long conversations over bowls of rice congee and fried dumplings. I am not a huge fan of rice congee, but I became a huge fan of Xiao. She was the most articulate student I’d met in Taiyuan, and we would talk at length about politics, feminism, and literature. I also noticed that she somehow made fluffy lace skirts work for her.
The first time we met, she had just taken a Mandarin exam. Because China has so many dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible, students are required to pass a Mandarin exam.
“How did you do?” I asked her jokingly. She was so eloquent with her literary references and fancy conjunctions that it was making my head spin.
“I did okay,” she replied, smiling.
We would talk intensely about history or politics for a while, but then I’d make a stupid joke about her love of congee or my lack of cultural sensitivity, and she’d laugh and say “嗯, 明白”—which was her equivalent of rolling her eyes and saying “…Right.” After each of our congee-fueled evenings, I would have to restrain myself from texting her because I wanted to ask her to hang out all the time. Her texts were full of disgusting emoticons along the lines of ~^^o.O, but along with her fluffy skirts, I forgave her for them. She was my spring beacon, shining through the Taiyuan smog.
However, after about two weeks, I realized that I did not illuminate Xiao’s life like she did mine. She had exams all the time, and we stopped hanging out, which I tried but failed not to take personally. One night, after we had rescheduled coffee for the third time, my neighbor, Bastian, invited me to go out with some Taiyuan friends and his friend visiting from Germany. Bastian was determined to show his German friend a good time. He had procured three giant bottles of liquor for the night. While pouring shots of Smirnoff for the six of us, Bastian, who is half-German, half-Taiyuanese, explained that his uncle, who works for a construction company in Taiyuan, has a giant cabinet full of western liquor for entertaining possible business partners. Thus, he supplies Bastian with large quantities of alcohol. This is convenient because liquor is an essential part of the expat diet. I took several shots and decided to abandon common sense for the night.
The night would be my first and only clubbing experience in Taiyuan. We took a cab to Bonbon—“the only club in Taiyuan that plays good music,” James from Jamaica described it. He later expounded that that meant it was the only club in Taiyuan that played English-language music. Everyone purchased the all-you-can-drink Budweiser special and started chain-smoking. I had never seen any of them smoke before, but being in a club makes all vices seem like a good idea. For the third time that night, Bastian offered me one of his very slim, womanly cigarettes, and this time I didn’t refuse it.
I spotted a Chinese girl smiling at me from a nearby table. In retrospect, it might have been because I was with a large group of foreigners. She was wearing a black-and-white-striped top and had a bob haircut. She had very pretty eyes, which was enough for me. I approached her table to pretend to have a conversation. The dance music was so loud that she could scarcely hear me even when I was shouting in her ear.
“Where are you from,” she yelled into my ear.
“I’m an exchange student at TYUT,” I shouted back.
“TYUT, huh,” she said.
“Yeah,” I yelled back. She raised her Budweiser to me. We drank to each other.
I pretended that she was another beacon, shining through the beery mist in my brain. I allowed myself to forget my doubt about her sexual orientation and asked her to dance. She refused me but offered me a cigarette. The Budweiser was clouding my judgment, so I allowed her to light it for me. While I was trying to not choke on the cigarette, I turned to her guy friend, who I’d determined was gay because he’d asked me for Bastian’s number.
“I like your friend!” I yelled at him. “What’s up with her?”
“Just talk to her!” he yelled back.
With her friend’s blessing and Budweiser coursing through my body, I decided that the best way to see if she liked me was to try to sit on her lap. She immediately jumped out of her seat. I still had enough sense to be mortified, so I ran off and started dancing behind Bastian.
After I recovered slightly from the sting of rejection, I skulked back toward her table to find that she and her friends had left. Trying not to feel dejected, I decided to take a cab home alone. I figured that I had used up all my luck for the night, and I’d definitely drunk my money’s worth in Budweiser. I emerged from my cab, managed to climb over the locked school gate, and stumbled into bed. I fell asleep smelling like an ash tray.
The next day, I think I had lunch with Kate, a fifty-something-year-old English teacher who lived two doors down from me. This past year, Kate has jolted me out of my downward spirals and has served as a voice of reason.
Coincidentally, Kate was an Oberlin graduate. Back in the U.S., she’d been a tax and estates lawyer in Chicago, but she had been teaching English in Taiyuan for the past two years. She’d come here because as a Baha’i, she wanted to help create and support the budding Baha’i communities in Shanxi. She was the chillest person I had ever met. After graduating from college, she had been a Watson Fellow in the Caribbean, and I think she had rid herself of expat anxiety then. She tried to learn Chinese when she first arrived, but by the time I’d met her, two years into teaching in Taiyuan, she’d resigned herself to only knowing basic phrases and communicating mostly through amiable body language. She was comfortable with comprehending 10% of most conversations she had and managed to be present without having to open her mouth. She laughed off insensitive or racist comments and completely overlooked common Chinese habits often repulsive to expats, such as public spitting, strangers shouting nonsensical English at her, and nonexistent traffic etiquette. While I am leaving Taiyuan for Tucson after less than a year here, Kate recently committed to teaching a fourth year in Taiyuan next year.
During our conversations, she spoke barely above a whisper—I always leaned in to listen.
She told me, way back in the beginning when we first met, the secret to living here: “You can be pissed, or you can be amused. I choose to be amused.”
I made a note of her words in my journal but could have done better to keep them in my head.
I spent April 4, Qingming Festival, in Beijing with family. Qingming is one of many holidays when the Chinese government pretends to give you time off—you get three days of rest so that you can travel, but then you have to make up two of them by working for seven days in a row.
Qingming is a multi-purpose holiday. First of all, it is the first day of the fifth solar term on one of China’s many calendars. This particular calendar year is divided into 24 solar terms, which farmers have used for centuries as a rough timeline for when to plant and harvest crops. In addition, Qingming has become a memorial for this guy named Jie from the 600s BC. Jie was so loyal that during a famine, he cut off a piece of his own leg to make soup for the Duke of Jin. The story goes on, but I don’t know it because I got distracted after the leg-meat eating.
I know Qingming best as Tomb-Sweeping Holiday—a day to honor your ancestors. Traditionally, everybody cleans the ancestral tomb and offers food, incense, and paper, which symbolizes money, to the dead. But these days, because the holiday is so short, many people skip tomb-sweeping to go on vacation.
“You should go tomb-sweeping with your aunt,” my dad told me over Skype, when I talked to him about my Qingming plans. “She does this very traditional ritual; you’d find it interesting.”
My dad gets along well with his sister, although both of them think the other is crazy. My dad is hyper-rational, and my aunt is hyper-religious. She believes in demons and warns me regularly about the apocalypse. Every time I see her, she tries to convert me to her neo-Buddhist religion. Before my fellowship, I’d cumulatively spent probably little more than a week of my life hanging out with her, but since September, I’ve seen her every time I go to Beijing. We often have intense conversations. Sometimes we discuss my family’s history during the Cultural Revolution, and sometimes she goes on long diatribes about the moral degradation of my generation while I try to defend the existence of short shorts.
Despite Qingming’s long history, my aunt told me that its life as a state holiday is quite short. A Wikipedia search later told me that the government has only recognized Qingming since 2008.
“I think the government did it because Taiwan does it,” my aunt said. “We can’t let ourselves be outdone by Taiwan!”
As usual I couldn’t tell if she was being tongue-in-cheek, but I wasn’t about to get into an intense discussion over this one. I can talk short shorts, but I’m no authority on Taiwan-mainland relations.
We went to the cemetery on the morning of April 6, a Saturday. My cousin—her son—packed the trunk of the family sedan with a broom, a dustpan, and a bag of rags. We also loaded the car with two huge plastic bags of food: dumplings, braised duck legs, sweets, steamed buns, bottles of tea, and cans of almond milk. These would be offerings to our relatives. The five of us—my cousin’s wife at the wheel and him as co-pilot; my aunt, my twelve-year-old niece, and me crammed in the back seat—set off toward Huairou, one of the villages adjacent to Beijing, where my grandparents and uncle are buried in the foothills of the surrounding mountains.
Despite that my dad was born and raised in Beijing, his family is from Fujian Province in the south. His parents and uncle were born in Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian, and moved to Beijing before my dad was born. I’d met all of them, but barely—when I’d seen my grandmother, she was bedridden after a stroke before her death in 2000; my grandfather died in 2009, but since I could remember, he’d had varying degrees of dementia; my uncle died in 2010 from stomach cancer, but I’d never had a real conversation with him.
Traditionally, they should have been buried back in Fujian in the ancestral tomb. But as my aunt keeps telling me, the tomb was destroyed. This, according to my aunt, does not bode well for the Chens.
“That’s why your father’s generation had no sons,” she told me. “The Chen name ends with you.”
I didn’t have a reply for that one either.
The traffic to the cemetery was awful. My cousin had brainstormed a convoluted route to avoid cars, but he failed, but we were stuck on the fifth ring road for an hour.
“It’s because the weather is finally nice today,” my cousin said defensively. “It rained on Qingming. I bet everyone is rushing to the tombs today because it’s sunny.”
My cousin’s wife was also a terrible driver. But she was the only one in the car who had a Chinese driver’s license. My excitement of this milestone in heritage discovery morphed in and out of terror as she almost merged onto a car in the next lane.
We finally arrived at the cemetery at noon after a three-hour drive full of hiccups. Without all the traffic, it should have taken an hour and a half. My cousin led the way toward the thousands of white stone tombs, arranged in neat rows on the side of a hill.
After about a five-minute climb, we arrived at my family’s plot. All the tombs in this particular cemetery looked about the same—gold font carved on bright white stone, erected an altar. Each couple shared a stone, with their names written vertically, preceded by some synonym of the word “benevolent.” The name of the person who had paid for the stone was inscribed in smaller characters on the side of the stone. In some instances where only one member of the couple had died, the living spouse’s name was already etched into the stone, but the characters hadn’t been painted yet. My grandparents shared a tombstone, while my uncle’s, a smaller one, sat to the right of it. His wife’s name hadn’t been carved into it yet. I don’t know what happens to people who don’t have a family. The cemetery gave the impression that all the people there came from full, intact families.
“There’s a place for your dad there,” my aunt said helpfully, pointing to the empty space to the left of my uncle’s tombstone.
We started cleaning the tombstones. The altar was covered sparsely in several months’ worth of leaves and twigs. My aunt swept while my niece and I wiped the stones off with a rag. When the tomb was clean, my cousin lit incense in handfuls of three and handed some to each of us. We took turns placing the incense in the clay pot in front of each of the tombstones.
“All right, say something to your great-granddad,” my aunt said to my niece. She looked pretty lost. We all stared at the freshly swept tomb in silence as the smoke from the incense floated above us. My aunt had explained to me that the incense is transmitted to another space that the dead inhabit.
“You can just bow,” my aunt said finally to my niece, who was still standing in front of the tombstone in confusion. My niece bowed and got out of the way.
Next, my aunt laid out the food in take-out containers around the tomb. She had specifically bought all their favorite foods—dumplings for my uncle, sweets for my grandparents, and then all the fixins for a full meal. She opened the containers—“so it’s more accessible to them,” she explained.
“Let’s go burn the paper now,” my aunt said. We left the food on the tombstones—for the dead to consume while we burned paper—and scrambled back down the mountain toward the entrance. Near the entrance of every Chinese cemetery I’ve ever visited is a large furnace for burning paper. The furnace has twelve different slots on each side, and each one represents a different zodiac sign. My aunt had prepared three post-it nametags with my relatives’ names on them, and we stuck one each above the dragon, snake, and dog slots—my grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s zodiac signs, respectively. She then divided out the giant stack of paper we’d brought among the five of us. We had fake ingots, folded out of shiny gold paper, and giant fake bills that were unfortunately labeled “HELL MONEY” in English. My cousin took out his lighter, and we started burning the paper in the furnace.
The hell money came in giant denominations, on the order of hundred thousands of RMB. “It’s because you have to bribe the demons in the afterworld to actually give the money to your relatives,” my aunt explained. “Only a little bit of the money actually goes to your grandparents. Most of it gets confiscated by the demons for their own use.”
The cemetery provided several giant pokers. I kept poking the fire while my cousin threw in gold ingots. The sky wasn’t smoggy for once. I tried to ignore my own guilt as giant plumes of smoke choked out of the furnace chimney.
After we finished burning several million RMB’s worth of hell money, we started climbing back toward the tombs to collect the food offerings we’d left. On the way back up, I noticed a giant red banner that said “FIREWORKS, FIRECRACKERS, AND INCENSE STRICTLY FORBIDDEN IN CEMETERY.” I pointed it out to my cousin.
“Oh, yeah,” my cousin said. “They’re afraid of the mountain catching fire. It’s really dry out here. But everybody does it.”
He also pointed out that vendors were selling fireworks, firecrackers, and incense just outside the cemetery gate. By now, it made sense to me. I had been in China too long to be surprised at banners with sound advice that no one follows. Beijing is full of banners that say “INCLUSIVITY,” and yet every time I go to the city I always encounter someone whom I want to punch in the face.
When we returned to the tombs, someone had eaten most of the food we’d brought. We collectively stared at the empty take-out containers.
“We brought really nice food this time,” my aunt said.
“They ate all the meat,” my cousin said.
“Someone must have followed us on the way in,” my aunt said. “Someone was watching us and waiting for us to leave!”
She was right. My grandparents’ tomb was tucked away in a grid of other completely identical tombs on a hill. It was not easy to find. We had even gotten lost on the way in. But she didn’t seem upset that someone had just eaten the only meal my dead grandparents and uncle would probably get this year.
“Is this weird?” I asked.
“No, people do this all the time,” she said. “It’s probably the cemetery keepers. It used to be worse because people were so poor; they wouldn’t leave anything. Now they’re picky and only eat the fancy food.”
Whoever had plundered my family tomb had generously left us a can of sweetened coconut milk and the box of steamed buns. My niece drank the coconut milk. Children are supposed to consume the offerings because the ancestors will protect whoever eats them. But maybe my ancestors are accidentally watching over some douche bag grave robbers.
We packed everything up, got back in the car, and my cousin’s wife drove us back to Beijing in terrible traffic again. Maybe the ancestors were protecting me, or maybe I was a bit delirious from the hell money fumes, but I felt peaceful on the ride back. Amidst the jerking of the car, the honking horns, and my cousin periodically shouting at his wife for narrowly hitting several cars, I fell asleep.
Skylar, Johnny, and I traveled to Gansu Province in western China for the May 1 holiday, international labor day. Gansu is west of Shanxi, two provinces over, and the places where we’d traveled in Gansu almost felt like a separate country from eastern China. Most eastern China cities have become steel and concrete jungles, with plenty of western restaurants, foreigners, and import stores. Gansu is one of the more neglected children of China, and consequently, it has preserved much more of its virgin landscapes and historical relics from its prosperous Silk Road-era past. I once asked a tour guide in Pingyao, Shanxi Province, why some parts of China have so much traditional culture still standing, while most of Beijing resembles a pre-apocalyptic scene from The Matrix. (Pingyao is touted as the best-preserved Qing-era city in China, complete with city walls, old streets, and old (but retrofitted) architecture.)
“Because we are poor,” she responded. No one had moved in to develop the area because they just didn’t have money. “Sometimes it is good to be poor.”
Good for us that Gansu is poor. The cynic in me imagines a near future where legions of workers blow up the side of a mountain for rare earth metals because some gross man needs to buy a Louis Vuitton bag for his mistress. But for now, snow-capped mountains remain in central Gansu, the vast and encroaching Gobi desert sits to the north, high grasslands are in the southwest, and verdant forests flourish in the east.
The three of us were ecstatic to leave the daily grind of Shanxi. We rallied around the cry, “Gansu, baby,” which maybe was an Austin Powers reference. I don’t know where it came from. We’d eat a bowl of beef noodles, or we’d look at some amazing historical artifact, or we’d just make eye contact and croon, “Gansu, baby,” at each other.
The trip commenced with a 12+hour sleeper train ride from Taiyuan to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, a day-long layover in Lanzhou and a visit to the provincial museum, and then another overnight 12+ hour train ride to Dunhuang. Gansu is a long arm-shaped province, and the journey from Lanzhou to Dunhuang stretches from the elbow to the shoulder. From Lanzhou to Dunhuang, sleepers were sold out, so Johnny, Skylar, and I sat in a crammed yingzuo (hard seat) compartment for over 14 hours starting from around 8 p.m. Hard seats, with their lack of head support and personal space, are pretty intolerable for long trips. We kept our spirits up by playing cards and saying “Gansu, baby,” nonsensically to each other. When bedtime came, we took turns flopping on each others’ backs, and I discovered in the middle of the night that the little kid across from us was actually sleeping on the floor of the train. I had stretched out a leg and kicked something rather meaty. In the end I think we all got about 2 hours of sleep.
One of our main goals in Dunhuang was to see the Mogao Grottoes. The Mogao Grottoes are a sprawling set of hundreds of cave grottoes filled with frescoes and Buddhist sculptures dating from as early as the fourth century–a relic of Dunhuang’s importance along the Silk Road and the diaspora of Buddhism into China from India. Unfortunately for this blog, but fortunately for tourists and the preservation of culture, photography was prohibited in the grottoes. Even though only a few of the grottoes were open to tourists, what we saw was beyond words–not only was the sheer quantity and size of the sculptures and wall paintings impressive, this was art that had seen the influence of the earliest western cultural exchange, the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty, and the greed and insensitivity of 19th and 20th century imperialism. Many of the older sculptures of Buddha looked different like the Han-ified Buddhas I was used to from eastern China; these more resembled Indian Buddhas, our tour guide explained. A lot of the cave art had been stripped away and was on display somewhere in the West. “This wall chunk that is missing right here,” our tour guide said on numerous occasions, “is on display in the Harvard University such-and-such library,” or “Priceless Buddhist scriptures were found in this cave, but during political unrest at the beginning of the 20th century an uncultured citizen sold it to a British guy.” Gansu, baby.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook had told us that it was a bikeable 25 km to the grottoes. When we first arrived in Dunhuang, we’d rented bikes and found a hostel. We first passed out for several hours to recover from the train ride and then started making plans to bike instead of bus to the Mogao Grottoes the next day.
“Maybe if we’re fast we can make it there in less than an hour,” I said. “The road seems really flat.”
“I think we can make it there in an hour and a half,” Johnny said.
“I don’t know,” Skylar said. “These are mountain bikes. I think you’re thinking about the road bikes we usually ride in Taigu. Those bikes can go a lot faster than these.”
She was right–it took us two and a half hours to bike 25 kilometers there. (English unit conversion: we averaged little more than 6 mph.) The first half of the ride took us down a highway that was lined with trees, but you could feel the sand blowing in the air. We stopped at a gas station to buy water, and I took the opportunity to buy a towel, which I tied around my face to protect me from the sand. The second half of the ride was along picturesque, barren desert, a giant rolling sandbox with sporadic tufts of tumbleweed. But we’d left around 8 in the morning, so it was still early when we arrived at the grottoes. We walked around eating fistfuls of local raisins on the provided tour.
“It’s a little bit downhill on the way back,” I said hopefully to Johnny after our tour, as we walked back to our bikes. “I think we can definitely make it faster.”
Sometimes I am wrong about things.
The moment we left the Mogao parking lot, we were back to biking in the barren desert, and the wind began to pick up speed. I had never felt wind like that in my life. It was like the dementors were descending on Gansu. The air was yellow with swirling sand. It was only mid-afternoon, but it was dim enough to be twilight. I could barely see, but I had to squint to prevent sand from hitting me in the eyes. It wasn’t long until I completely lost sight of Johnny in front, with his sarong wrapped around his face and my backpack strapped to his back, and pretty soon I couldn’t see Skylar in her red hoodie, either. The wind whipped my hair about my face and kept trying to push my bike off the road, so I spent a lot of energy just trying to keep my bike straight. I wanted to stop, but I would have probably lost all faith and been blown away into a tree 20 kilometers away.
The sand kept shocking me as it struck my hands and face. It felt like I was constantly being pricked by needles. Silicon dioxide, I thought numbly to myself. It’s like glass. It made me remember suddenly my first-year undergraduate electricity & magnetism lab. Dan Stinebring, our professor, told us to rub a glass rod with a piece of rabbit fur to demonstrate electrostatic force. “All right, let’s rub this rod,” I’d said to my lab partner, Josh. Thus commenced a flood of penis jokes. We also had to dangle foil balls in that lab, and the rabbit fur looked like a carpet sample. I would have enjoyed writing the manual for that lab.
But I wasn’t laughing now. My body was being stripped of electrons by vengeful bits of glass rod, and I had too much sand in my mouth.
Cars and taxis would zip by, whipping even more sand at me. They would honk to alert me as they passed, headlights beaming, but I was terrified that the wind would blow me toward them, or that one of them wouldn’t see me. I could barely see them, and the wind was so loud that I could barely hear them as they sped by. I had no reflectors, no headlamp, just my stupid body on a goddamn mountain bike.
“This would be a really stupid way to die,” I thought to myself. “I bet my mom would think I was really fucking dumb for doing this.”
I kept pedaling and switching gears uselessly in hopes that the ride would get easier. I kept telling myself it would end soon. The sand granules in my eyes, the rhythmic electrostatic shocks against my bike, the terror of pedaling toward my sandy yellow death–it would be over soon, and maybe we could guzzle a couple ice-cold beers and China’s answer to a pulled pork sandwich, roujiamo?
“You’re a champion,” I said out loud and caught a mouthful of sand. “You’re a motherfucking champion!”
I kept repeating that meditatively to myself. I was a motherfucking champion, goddammit. I was fucking awesome. Hell yeah fuck yeah hell yeah. Nothing but me conquering this motherfucking sand. Shit, there’s a car.
After more than an hour in the sandstorm, we finally rounded the corner where the desert made way to trees. The wind slowed, so we all stopped to drink some water, and more importantly, to marvel collectively at our own stupidity. I took the towel off my face and felt present for the first time since leaving Mogao Grottoes. My entire body had been violated by sand. I had sand in my eyes, sand up my nose, sand in my mouth, sand in my ears, sand down my pants, sand in every cranny of my being. My hair even felt different; the sand granules in it made it feel crispier, like a giant potato chip crowning my head. Skylar and Johnny started laughing at me immediately.
“You look like a gongren,” Johnny said to me–I looked like an industrial worker. Happy International Labor Day. I couldn’t see myself, but I could feel the grit everywhere. I must have been sandier than both of them because they were only laughing at me. They had been wearing hoods in addition to covering their faces. I just had my fucking towel.
“Maybe this was stupid,” Skylar said as we fruitlessly shook sand off ourselves. “But I really feel like we experienced the desert.”
Thanks to Skylar, who took all of these photos. I broke my camera after getting too much sand in it.
This winter, when I was in Beijing, I went on several dates with Ksenia, a girl I met off OKCupid. When she messaged me, I clicked on her profile and noted that she had filled out absolutely nothing and had posted zero photos of herself. I had wondered if she was a cyberbot. But at the time my evening activity, if any, consisted of pumping myself full of terrible Chinese beer. A date, even with a cyberbot, seemed like a possible ticket out of my terrified expat noob rut.
Luckily, she was made of flesh and had feelings. She had light brown curly hair and very striking blue eyes, and she was manufactured and developed in St. Petersburg, which immediately piqued my interest. I am a casual Russophile, which means I know the Russian alphabet, a few words of random useless vocabulary, and I have read too many Constance Garnett translations of 19th century Russian novels. From reading history books, I have been intrigued about the strange mix of east and west that is Russia—Peter the Great made everyone in his court shave their beards to be more like Western Europe; the Japanese defeated the Russians over a port that now belongs to China; China’s Communist Party has often looked to the Soviet Union as a model for policy and culture. But I’ve never been to Russia; I’ve never even touched War and Peace. I really know quite little about the country, except that I think they make a bomb potato salad and share my love of pickled cucumbers.
We went to my favorite beer bar in Beijing, The Vine Leaf. They brew their own beer. To drink it is a sensual explosion, instead of a tasteless, desperate plea for emotional connection that it is to drink Snow or Tsingtao. When I’m in Beijing, I usually go to The Vine Leaf with Joseph. The bartender, Mumu, had thought for a while that we were dating. Joseph told me that Mumu confronted him about it when he showed up there with other women. I appreciated that. It is one of the many reasons why I am a loyal customer.
Ksenia had been teaching English in Beijing for three years. Her English was flawless, save for a slight Russian accent and some unique word choices that I assumed were Russglish. I found out she also spoke German and Mandarin and was learning Arabic. She even knew some Finnish—Finland is only a short ferry ride away from St. Petersburg, she informed me. She used to work as an interpreter in a German beer factory in St. Petersburg (awesome). She read a lot of books (good), but didn’t like food (uh oh). Her father is from St. Petersburg, but her mother is from Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East only 30 kilometers away from the Chinese border.
It struck me suddenly and quite stupidly that Russia is very large. Did you know that Russia is large?
“Are there a lot of Russians in Beijing?” I asked Ksenia.
“Yes,” she said. “But they’re mostly from eastern Russia, and they are traders. Most of them live near Yabaolu.”
She explained to me that many eastern Russians come to China to buy cheap clothes and other goods to re-sell for profit in Russia.
“I went to Yabaolu a few times with my ex-girlfriend several years ago,” she said. “She was from—how do you say Belarus in English?”
“Belarus,” I said.
“Yes, she was from Belarus. She didn’t fit into Chinese clothes, so we went shopping there. She was—” She gestured. Ahhh. Girl was busty.
“Really,” I said.
“Really,” Ksenia said. “Two hands were not enough.”
I quite enjoyed how she quantified breasts in terms of number of hands. It reminded me of physics class.
We decided that she would take me to Yabaolu. We went on a Friday. Yabaolu is a street in eastern Beijing, by Ritan, the Temple of the Sun, near many foreign embassies. Ksenia works in that area.
Lined with skyscrapers and shopping centers and glittering restaurants, it resembled every other business district of Beijing, except all the street signs and business signs were in both Russian and Chinese. With my minimal Russian alphabet skills, I managed to decipher “Ябао”—“Yabao.” Despite all the lights and the tall buildings, the streets were almost empty, save for some strolling couples and a few Chinese rickshaw drivers shouting mangled Russian (according to Ksenia) at us. I read later that the business in Yabaolu was in decline due to the global economic crisis and stricter Russian import policies.
Ksenia was leading me to a resto-club called Mango. She didn’t have a very good sense of direction. We stopped so that she could ask a Russian couple where to go. The woman was dressed in elaborate furs.
“Ugh,” Ksenia said, after we continued on our way.
“What?” I said.
“Eastern Russians,” she said. “Their accent. Terrible.”
“Come on,” I said. “You’re a language snob?”
“There’s…a way…to speak Russian…correctly,” she said. She looked pained. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t, but I studied language in school, so of course I’m a language snob.”
“What do they think of the way you talk?”
“They probably don’t care,” she said. “To them, I’m just some young lost girl from St. Petersburg.”
“They can tell you’re from St. Petersburg?”
“They can tell I’m from the west for sure,” she said.
She tried to justify her language snobbery to me. Language snobbery, to the extent that I understood what she was saying, is different in Russia than in the US—there’s much more pride in speaking and knowing proper Russian, whatever that is. For example, Russian spelling is exceedingly difficult, even more so than English. Many words are spelled differently from how they sound. This is because pronunciation has evolved, and also because many letters have been eliminated from the Russian alphabet over the centuries, which has led to complications in spelling. Laypeople misspell words all the time. Ksenia was quite proud of her spelling ability, as university language students spent several years studying it.
But she otherwise had very little nationalistic streak in her. She told me she had no desire to return to Russia. The homophobia is rampant—she later told me that she once punched a skinhead in the face for harassing her. Her own mother didn’t speak to her for two years after she came out.
We found Mango. It had the air of a moderately fancy restaurant, except it was playing loud dance music. We went to the second floor, which was quieter, but also overlooked the dance floor on the level below through a piece of glass. I ogled everyone around me. The waiters were Chinese, but the clientele were almost completely Russian. I tried to eavesdrop. I know how to say pancake and airplane in Russian. No one was talking about pancakes or airplanes. I peered beyond the glass at several women—Russian, I assumed—pole dancing on the floor below.
The food that we ordered was delicious. Ksenia doesn’t get worked up about food, but she enjoyed the opportunity to eat familiar flavors. I particularly liked solyanka, a beef-based soup rich with spices and balanced with the aromatic tartness of lemon and the mildness of dill. It was topped with a dollop of sour cream. I ate it too quickly.
“I might be talking out of my ass, but this is the best soup I’ve ever eaten,” I said to Ksenia.
“You’re just hungry,” she said.
We talked about children’s books. I told her my favorite was The Twits by Roald Dahl. She hadn’t heard of it, so I described Mr. Twit’s sardine-encrusted beard to her with gusto. We started people watching.
“Do you think those people are from the Far East?” I asked her, without really knowing what I was asking. I subtly gestured to the table next to us.
“Probably,” she said. “It sounds like it.”
In Shanxi, the local Chinese rarely—if ever—see foreigners. Amelea and V told me that at Shanxi Agricultural University, where they teach, random students knock on their door and ask if they can tour their house just to see what foreigners own. In my dorm in Taiyuan, where the foreign students live, a Chinese student walked in and knocked on all of the foreigners’ doors asking to be friends. They installed new doors with key-card locks on the entrance to every floor after that to keep Chinese students out.
The kid had knocked on my door. He looked surprised when he saw me.
“I was looking for a foreigner,” he said in Chinese.
I had been recovering from a bout of mild food poisoning. My hair was disheveled, and I was wearing yellow boxers with hot air balloons on them. Still not foreign enough.
“I am a foreigner,” I replied. “I’m from America.”
“But—you know—a foreigner,” he said.
“I’m sick,” I said. I shut the door before he could say anything else.
He pissed me off, but I don’t blame him anymore. Maybe he watches NBA; maybe he’s seen American Pie, and maybe he sneaks a peek of the foreigner’s dorm. That’s the only window he has.
In Mango, I wondered what window I was peering through. No creepy stories about Rasputin, no Raskolnikov in his overcoat, no existential effusions, no dying serfs, no dancing bears. No fur peddlers or even skinheads, thank God. I was sitting in a plush seat across from a Russian expat with very little national pride in a dying neighborhood in Beijing.
I drank my Baltika. It was a Russian beer, but it tasted like Sierra Nevada.
The first thing any socially skilled Chinese person does upon entering a room is to appraise all the people in it. You have to dish out respect in a certain order, and power, wealth, and age are the determining factors. Usually the greasy-haired man with the giant belly chain-smoking in the middle of the room is the laoban, or boss. He gets his ego stroked first. But a decrepit old lady can sometimes trump the laoban, depending on how sassy or how decrepit she is. On the other hand, everyone under thirty is an urchin, unless they are married and have children.
I went to dinner at a nice restaurant with a work unit this winter. One of the urchins was preparing tea for the rest of us throughout the meal. He had to boil water every fifteen minutes. I felt bad for him, so I took over for him for a little bit. I too am an urchin, after all.
I knew that under normal circumstances, I should pour the laoban’s tea before everyone else’s. But what the hell, I decided to serve the urchin first. He deserved it; he’d been pouring tea all night.
“Don’t pour mine first!” he hissed at me.
Too late. I filled his cup before anyone else’s. But my gesture of gratitude was lost on him, and he was embarrassed that he’d gotten his share before the bigshots did. Luckily, no one at that dinner was a dick, and the dude in charge didn’t really care who got tea first.
But when I went to lunch at a Taiyuan mine with my adviser and labmates, people did care. The higher-ups at the mine insisted on buying a handle of fenjiu, a famous and disgusting Shanxi liquor, and getting us all drunk. This is also an important part of showing respect. You get a bottle of vile liquor and toast each other until the liquor is gone and you can’t find your own bellybutton. Never mind that it was noon and that we’d driven there. “We’ll get you a driver,” the laoban assured us.
Everyone started toasting each other and taking shots. The shot glasses are smaller than in the US—maybe a half of a US shot glass. Might as well have fun with this, I thought. So I went around the table and toasted every single person. First I toasted the laoban, who had been boasting about his son, who is rich or something. “Thank you for inviting me to your mine,” I said. “To your son!” One shot.
I turned to the guy next to him, whose name I never learned and was not sure why he was there. But he was important because he was sitting next to the laoban. “So wonderful to meet you!” Second shot.
I didn’t really know whom to toast next, so the order broke down. I decided to toast some lady who may have been a secretary. She poured me water earlier, when we were all sitting in the laoban’s office. “Thank you for your warm welcome!” Third shot.
“She’s foreign, but she knows how to do it,” someone said appreciatively.
That was my ticket to more shots. Even though fenjiu is terrible, it is an excuse to stuff yourself with food. Pork belly makes an excellent chaser.
The table was surrounded with people I’d never seen before.
“Nice to meet you!” Shot!
“To a prosperous year!” Shot!
“Your health!” Shot!
My liver! Shot!
Time to toast my labmates, Deng and Leili. They had also been taking shots concurrently. Everyone was taking shots to everyone else. It was like a combinatorics problem.
“You don’t have to drink to us,” Leili said to me.
I took the shots anyway. The mine was terribly polluted and I was a little depressed because of it. They did get us a driver, and I fell asleep on the car ride home.