THE GATES OF BEIJING (2)
In which Jim returns to Houhai after a long absence and seeks to mix, mingle and make up for lost time. Futilely trying to avoid the company of foreigners, he ends up befriending a fellow American.
*SILVER INGOT BRIDGE
Everywhere in the cool, cobbled alleyway, a patina of dust. As I emerge from the recesses of a dark, winding hutong, my eyes are stunned by the glistening diamonds of light reflecting off the wind-rippled waters of Houhai. Blinded, I get caught up in the chaotic traffic converging on the bridge, a jumble of bell-jingling bikes, creaking rickshaws, honking horns and the shouts of street merchants. Suddenly overwhelmed, I step back to isolate myself from the heat and ruckus of the syncopated flow. Leaning hard against the marble railing that leads to the marble-arched bridge, I pause to take a breather and get my bearings.
I’m watching a tableau vivant of the human condition glide by when I get hit by a two-pronged attack of atonal voices:
Been so long, it’s almost like music to my ears.
It’s not that I liked being singled out just because my face was different, not by touts or anyone else, but I knew deep down inside it wasn’t about me. Street talk is nothing if not informal, and the quips and jibes of overly friendly locals expressing audible surprise at the sight of a foreigner was just one of the many little things you got used to in crowded places.
Their catcalls were my wake-up call, their gentle jeers a reminder that my five years of elective exile were over. No more book Chinese. I was back, back in the hood, kicking up dust in back alley Beijing and already it was as irritating and invigorating as ever.
Being tagged a laowai is not necessarily an insult, just a not-so-friendly wake-up call that Chinese and foreigners are, well, different.
I suppose I look like a mark, in a manner of speaking, and touts tend to be relentless. The thin man perched on the rickety rickshaw is sun-bronzed and wrinkled. He was so wiry, tight and slight in build it would have made more sense for me to pull him than let him pull me, if the novelty of the rickshaw experience was something I was looking for, but I wasn’t looking for that, and neither was he. He wants me to let him take me for a ride, a wallet-emptying one
“Hel-low?” intones his hefty sidekick. A stout man with rounded shoulders and a compact paunch, he flashes me a crooked grin. Unshaven and gruff, he fiddles with the stub of his cigarette.
His interrogatory greeting is not entirely insincere, the warmth in his eyes was enough to make me wonder if I possibly knew him, or long shot though it was, actually remembered me from the last time I was here. Who knows, he could even have been one of those local toughs I met on the square, during that rare moment in time when street crime disappeared and everyone was marching or supporting the marchers. But when he grabbed my hand to force a rough handshake, I didn’t want to validate his aggression.
Refusing to engage, I shook my head no.
“You go? Lay-dee ba?”
If the tout’s looking to make an easy tourist buck, he picked the wrong man. The last thing a China expert wants to be mistaken for is a tourist, though I’m hit with the sinking feeling that whatever expertise I possessed was invisible or immaterial to him.
“Where you go!?” Chimes in his counterpart, as if on cue. He starts slapping the seat of the rusted rickshaw, gesturing for me to hop on, as if all it took was a little smack of encouragement.
Confederates or competitors, hard to say, but between the two of them, they have me cornered. One offering a thrill on wheels, the other a different kind of thrill.
Resorting to my academically stilted command of their language, I state loud and clear that there is “nothing under the heavens” that I could possibly want from them. Not fish, not fowl, not feast, not famine. Nothing at all. They back off, more dumbstruck than awestruck by my dubious command of their language. Their short silence is followed by predictable sniggers and cackles.
Okay, so maybe my Chinese was off the mark, but it did give pause, shaking the two of them off in one shot. A muted exchange of words follows in which any meaningful cross talk gets lost in the crossfire. The circle of curious lookers-on who coalesced around us, perhaps itching for a fight, began to disperse.
The touts quickly abandon me for more promising prey.
Impasse alleviated, I look for an opening in the tangle of legs and wheels, working my way through the bustle to cross the busy bridge. The heat, sweat and odor of the tightly-packed throng triggers a flurry of memories, not all of them good. The important thing is, the thing I remind myself to remember, is that I’m back in the game. Fancying myself a player, no longer content to watch from the sidelines, I plunge into the mass of moving bodies. It’s important to navigate things just right, to get back in stride, to get my China legs again, to hold my own on the street.
But five years is a long time to be out of the game, especially in China where the rules are always changing. When I finally reach the crest of Yinding Bridge, I grab onto the railing to secure myself a space.
When I look out over the lake, it’s like entering a picture, a picture I knew well. The long, elongated, hemmed-in body of water is neatly lined with willows and poplars. Its rippled surface shimmers placidly in the late summer heat. Photos taken from this spot are postcard perfect and highly picturesque, but when you’re actually in the midst of it, getting bumped, nudged and shoved by the indifferent pedestrian flow, all the while soaking up the off-key odors of the homely effluvium, it’s a different picture.
Off to the north, the massive Drum Tower, with its soaring tile rooftop, green eaves and ruddy walls, lords over the low-rise neighborhood like a stoic sentinel. The Bell Tower, its ancient partner in timekeeping, also situated on the same heavenly north-south axis, is set a step back. Its stony walls and upturned eaves protrude over a jumble of tiled rooftops.
This is the heart of old Beijing where Huamei and I once rambled in romantic anonymity. It was devoid of touts and tourists in those days, but the lakes had always had a public aspect. Then as now, row boats, paddle boats and party boats stir the calm waters, setting off intersecting waves in their wake.
Houhai. Huamei. Houhai. Huamei.
The two were almost inseparable in my mind because it’s where we finally broke up, and if we were ever to connect again, I couldn’t think of a better place to reconnect, except perhaps for Tiananmen Square.
Houhai was one of the several man-made lakes carved out of the hard earth by the dint of hard labor designed to bring a whiff of the sea to the mighty landlocked emperors of centuries past. The Forbidden City was a short stroll away, and the water that passed under this bridge also lapped at the shores of Zhongnanhai. That’s where Huamei was now holed up, living a cosseted life, playing princess wife to a powerful princeling.
I had yet to see her, and wasn’t sure what I would find when I did, despite the regular correspondence we maintained during my long years away. But I owed her a debt of gratitude for getting me out of trouble when the going got rough, and welcoming me to come back when the going got better. It was through her offices I landed the job that got me the visa that brought me back to town. I’m not sure it was a smart career move--I essentially traded being an unemployed China expert in the States for being a card-carrying English teacher in China--but hey, a job’s a job. And it’s in one of the great cities of the world.
Drunken shouts and loud music break my dreamy reverie. A gaudy party barge, its engine bleating and sputtering full thrust, churns recklessly towards the bridge where I stand aloof from the crowd. A collision looks imminent, but a last-minute adjustment makes for a clean passage, though just barely so.
The boat grazes the stone bridge as it threads the needle of the narrow arched passageway. The blare of party music, momentarily muted as the boat disappears under the bridge, resumes as soon as the bow emerges on the other side, full speed ahead.
Time to move on. I follow the marble balustrade along the paved shoreline, looking for a bench or a place to kick back in relative quiet. A nondescript but well-situated cafe presents itself near the junction between the two lakes. At least it looks like it could be a cafe. Whatever it was, it piqued my curiosity enough to walk right in. Sure enough, it’s a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, the kind of hole-in-the-wall I liked, and I like it right away. The wooden structure is dark, cramped and earth-toned, lit only by natural light. A long shelf behind the counter holds a colorful assortment of liquor bottles, and there’s graffiti scribbled on the walls, some of it loud, some of it lewd.
Seating is limited to a few old wooden benches and a pair of beat-up easy chairs. What appears to be a picture window offering a view of startling clarity isn’t really a window at all but rather an open-aired gap between two shutters. It’s almost Buddhist in its raw simplicity; there is no window pane upon which dust could light.
The bearded man behind the bar took immediate note of my entry but pretended not to notice. Already several of the patrons are looking up from their drinks, giving me the looks, an array of goggle-eyed glances that range from look-who-just-walked-in-the-door to who-dat? and who-cares?
The bartender doesn’t look like a bartender, but then again, the bar didn’t look like a bar. What with that scraggly beard, the bare-boned physique and world weary demeanor, he could pass for a starving artist, a Taoist sage or an emaciated hunger striker for that matter. He could be a refugee from Tiananmen, Huamei told me a lot of them worked off the books in places like this, for after the crackdown, even the most spirited strikers on the Square had to reinvent themselves for changing times. Maybe one day I’d breach the topic, but for now I had no desire to bring it up. Not just because it might put him on the spot, but because I was trying to forget all that in order to move on.
The good chairs, such as they were, are already taken so I settle for a wobbly stool next to the long counter.
Despite the initial round of scrutiny, I am now for the most part ignored, which is just the way I liked it. It was a holy grail of mine from the old days, to hang out in a Chinese place where I was the only foreigner on the premises and everyone pretended not to notice I was a foreigner.
But wait! Who’s that over there? Who’s the white guy sitting by the window, book in hand, monopolizing the good chairs? Who does he think he is, sitting on one chair, putting his feet up on the other?
Our eyes hesitantly meet, and then, in keeping with some unspoken code, we both look away. The guy was about my age, about my build, same hair color, too. What’s his story? There’s something slack, casual and familiar in the way he carries himself, even as he flips the pages, pretending to be engrossed in his book.
So what? So what if he was American. Big deal!
I turn back to the counter to study the hand-scribbled menu. It’s bilingual, and if the English was full of errors, it was more than compensated for by the fact that nothing was expensive. I order a “jintonic” and a plate of “pea-nots” to go with it. I do so in Chinese, not just to show off, but also for the sake of clarity.
“Your Chinese is good…” quips the bartender. Good guy. I liked him already.
“But not as good as his…” he adds ominously, nodding to the other foreigner.
What? Somehow the compliment, or what I naively took to be a compliment, has been converted into an irritating observation, if not an insult. Good? But his was better? Oh, really?
You must be new here. He comes here often. He can read Chinese. Can you read Chinese?
The bartender no doubt meant well, but why did he have to speak of us two laowai in the same breath? I didn’t know the other guy from Adam and he didn’t know me. Here we were, just trying to mind our own business, create a little psychic space. Was this little bar not big enough to accommodate two Mandarin-speaking Americans, assuming he was American?
Was I ruining it for him, or was he ruining it for me?
My doppelganger has a lofty, distracted air. He alternates between looking at his book and looking out the window, as if alternately thinking, and getting lost in thought. I liked seeing people read in cafes. Reading in a bar? A bit more unusual, to be sure, but good for him. Still, there was something about another foreigner sharing the same space that made it hard for me to sit back and relax.
Okay, so the guy spoke Chinese good, maybe better. Maybe. So what? Woo-hoo. Did I have to kowtow to that? Did his fluency give him more right to be here? Did it make him more China-qualified?
The desire to have China to oneself was delusional, no doubt about that. But in my case, since I’d been resident in China before, and what’s more, had just returned after a long absence, I wasn’t looking to meet foreigners on my first weekend back in town. I was more interested in; well what exactly, I can’t say.
To fancy oneself a sojourner who really knew China, knew the real China in a way that other foreigners didn’t, was an aspiration as old as Marco Polo, an ego trip for the ages, a beginner’s folly, but here I was, gripped with precisely such a feeling, even while aware of the absurdity of it. Finding an authentically Chinese environment, which basically meant no other foreigners, was easy enough once you got off campus and out of the foreign dorm bubble, but it wasn’t always easy to fit in or find a place free of foreigners where they didn’t mind having you on the premises.
So who’s the other guy? In a way, he’s given me a glimpse of myself, not a mirror image, to be sure, after all, his Chinese was better, ha-ha, though for all I knew the bartender was mistaken about that.
“Laowai…so strange!” mumbles a big-bellied local man holding court with himself at the far end of the bar, talking to no one in particular.
“Let them be,” counsels the bartender, though it was he who had raised the topic in the first place. “Maybe they have nothing to say to one another.”
The bartender has a point. What were we supposed to talk about? Why did we have to talk at all? Then again, why are we trying so hard to ignore one another?
I’m cleaning off my plate of peanuts when the other guy gets up from his comfy reading chair. Was he leaving? No. He ambles over to refresh his beer at the counter. As before, we continue to avert our eyes, but in the end it takes so much effort to pretend not to notice him that I finally break the silence.
“Yeah,” he raises his chin, giving me a slightly bemused, quizzical look. “You too?”
After taking a moment to size one another up, we reflexively shake hands.
“So, like. Ya’ come here often?” I didn’t know what else to ask.
“What’s the name of this joint, anyway?”
“Oh, come on.”
“Really. It has no name.” His stern demeanor gives way to a grin. “Not as far as I can tell. I’m not even sure it’s legal. I call it Nameless.”
The absurdity of the situation dawns on both of us and we decide to make the best of it. He invites me to join him by the open-air window. Pretty soon we’re exchanging quips to the tune of “two laowai enter a bar with no name and…”
We talk and joke and laugh and talk some more, mixing it up in English and Chinese. His Chinese is actually pretty good. He was weird, if not funny, and apparently, he thought I was, too.
And so I befriended Kirk, who I soon learned was one of the few laowai tough enough to tough it out in town during the post-Tiananmen depression. I could admire him for that, and even more when I learned he lived in native housing nearby. He actually lived in the hutong! Well-read, he knew things about Chinese history that I didn’t, even though I studied China in grad school and he was an English lit major. He knew Beijing, at least the area around Houhai, like the back of his hand, and though it was hard for me to admit at first, he spoke excellent Chinese. Better than me. It was almost like he wasn’t a foreigner.
“Same time next week?”
“I think I can do that.”
“How about brew with a view?”
“The Gate of Moral Triumph.”
“You know it, don’t you?”
“Of course. Of course. You mean the tower, the old city gate, the one by Second Ring road, by the rotary, right?”
“You got it.”
“But isn’t that like, um, like a national monument?”
I’m left sufficiently in awe of the way he exchanged cracks with the bartender in dialect on his way out the door to overlook the fact that he left without paying, leaving me to pick up a large tab. But, hey, I too could be forgetful at times, and who doesn’t have a cash flow problem now and then?