Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright (or, The Half-True Story of a Tiger in Beijing, or, How One Man Stopped Traffic With a Mighty Right Hand and Ate Jiaozi With the Other, or, Mao Shan and The Wudaokou Kid)

"Don't be a tiger." — Han Bing

In the dusty twilight hours of a mid-fireworks smognight in Beijing, on a crowded street (almost goes without saying here), at an angry-red-man crosswalk telling you no, don't cross here, you can't cross here yet, fool, when the sun is barely visible through a brown haze and glows apocalyptic red and the beautiful mountains in the distance can't be seen by the eye, naked or otherwise, and all are hustling to their allotted appointments, dates, rendezvous, places of work, evening big-desk meetings, trysts or gin-soaked beginnings of a cloudy midnight — in these hours, when the cars rush by all do-as-they-may, one must hold an unshaking palm to the rush and say, wrist stiff, "Duibuqi — I am walking here." At least, you have to if you want to make it across the street and to your appointment, date, etc. on time, punctual, professional you. 
I did such a thing — sorry, do such things whenever I hit a crosswalk in Wudaokou, not because I feel entitled to cross or privileged to do so or "above the law," but because crossing at your own leisure is the norm, and, as they say, 随俗 (ru xiang sui su — our best English equivalent: When in Rome, do as those wacky Romans do, baby). To cross or not to cross does not depend on little green and red men blinking at you and beckoning but on the mettle of the crosser, the gaps in the indubitable hammer of car after car across the sticky pavement, and your own Frogger-like abilities to dodge vehicles, bicycles, rolling barrels/logs, and, believe it or not, Rip, other pedestrians. Forearm shivers are probably both rude and unnecessary but may be deemed appropriate when another tiger dares cross your path on the walk, a new-wave animalistic dominance-dance that comes down to awkward sidesteps and well-placed shoulder-juts — a Bighornian cliffside headbuttle for the modern citydweller.
The past few years in the Beijing-metropolis have given rise to the electric bicycle, a contraption meant to remove the necessity of bipedal travel and the difficulty of traditional bi-wheeled travel, as well as (removing) the pollution-coughing gasoline'd models of old. These electro-bikes emit such faint nothings that, walking down a sidewalk or alleyway, you may find yourself no longer alone, you may feel the hot breath of a national sliding up all formidable behind you, and before you know it WHAM — you are in their way, and they will honk, or ring bells, and you will, ashamed, sidle.
And then there are cars themselves whose numbers in the city now are so great (Chinese leaders ask, If America can have two cars for every person, why not China?) that they are spilling over from the roads to the walks, the edges of wrought-iron fences, spilling like Tribbles from the USS Enterprise, self-reproducing, slick, chrome, furballs. It is these you'll eye most strangely as they creep a solid 5 km/hr through crowds of people, honking, as if to say I own this sidewalk — but these you'll find most rare.
"What's good, Boss?" Mao Shan asked me, that Princetonian/Southern gent whose adopted Chinese name won't account for that all-too-white demeanor, that wavy politician's hair, "What's the 'noon saying?"
I drop my hand, the stopper, and cars pass me by in the middle of an intersection, and I take my throwaway chopsticks and pop a jiaozi in my mouth, whole, and turn to Mao Shan, hands in his pockets, and I say to him, "We gotta be tigers, man." And we step across those parallel lines, long stride Abbey Road steps, and the onslaught of vehicles tears at the air, blaring their cutthroat horns, asking us, "Do you feel like a tiger today, punk? Well?" And we keep walking with broad shoulders and pride in our eyes. "Well? Huh? Do ya?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Down and Dirty Days in Beijing (a Post-Script to Jean B.)

"I'll give you television; I'll give you eyes of blue. I'll give you men [a man] who want[s] to rule the world." — David Bowie, "China Girl" from Let's Dance, 1983 (see also: Iggy Pop)

P.F. Chang's China Bistro boasts a current restaurant count of over 200 in at least five countries altogether, is owned and operated by Arizonians Paul Fleming and Philip Chiang, and has its own "authentic" frozen Chinese food product line under license to multinational corporation powerhouse Unilever (see also: Dove, Lipton, Axe body spray). Their market share in imitation Chinese culture/East Asian lookalike/exotic "vibe" dining establishments is upwards of 52%, a majority stranglehold eclipsing those of Panda Express, Magic Chopstick, and unaffiliated yet similarly-named restaurants all called Hunan Buffet (source needed). Last year, their gross income and net profit overshadowed the posted profits of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, conglomerates such as NewsCorp and Viacom, and the GDP of several small European nations (source not found). P.F. Chang's China Bistro is at the forefront of major business ventures in the agriculture, food production, and service industries—a Zenith of Restaurateurs.

But P.F. Chang's isn't actually Chinese food, Chinese culture, or Chinese people. You'd be hard-pressed to find an authentic Chinese dish in any of the 200 P.F. Chang's found worldwide, yet it's perceived as a Chinese restaurant, in the same way Taco Bell is a Mexican restaurant, or Sbarro is an Italian restaurant, or McDonald's is an American restaurant (though, to be fair, a McDonald's-as-American-emissary argument can certainly be made). The ethnic food restaurants peppered across the US are simulacra of actual ethnic food, which is sometimes itself just a facsimile of an older style of preparing food or an "original recipe." One representative, prototypical ethnic food doesn't really jump out at the gourmand or eater in reality—there are simply too many variations. If you want to eat jiaozi or gongbao jiding in China, for instance, you'll find such variety in the dishes served to you that (while some seem indistinguishable from others) they may seem to be different foods altogether. The same could be said of any foodstuff that isn't mass produced, I'm certain (by that I mean a hot pocket is a hot pocket is a hot pocket).

We probably don't think too much about the simulations-of-reality that are these ethnic food chains, assuming that some inkling of the original culture is represented within, until we come across something that is a simulacrum of our own culture—and we taste that old medicine.

Yesterday I went to a small eatery called Helen's Cafe in the Wudaokou neighborhood in Beijing. The facade was log-cabin-esque, Abe Lincoln-style, with an at-home porch and shrubbery clinging to the steps. Inside, the walls were marked with the slang of various countries, mostly in English, but covering the bases from America to Ireland to England to Australia to gibberish and nonce words. "Chillax" was definitely featured on the front page of the menu. Something about Shrek was written above the doorway nearest our table. They served hamburgers and beer and pasta and all that jazz, and the nightly specials were all about free beer, free cigarettes, or cheap food—not too un-American at all. They also served breakfast for most of the day—a staple of American cafés, no doubt—so I ordered an "American breakfast" (eggs, toast, bacon, hashbrowns) with a gin and tonic (why not), and ended up ordering a vegetarian omelette on top of that after finishing the first plate (my appetite seems to be growing here).

The simulation wasn't perfect, though. We were still speaking Chinese with the waitress, and we still had to pay in RMB, but the American-ness—the Americana?—certainly filled the place, whether perfectly (yards of beer) or otherwise (Top of the Morning to Ya). The whole thing—the idea of a faked other culture— is pretty pomo, as someone'd probably say it. I don't know what it means to find a simulation of my own culture in what is probably best termed a foreign city; I don't know if it is especially meaningful in any way whatsoever, but I do understand that culture is something able to be simulated, that it can be faked in part, and that those little things that separate us don't really make us that fucking different from one another, even if we think they do. P.F. Chang's China Bistro is a simulacrum, and Helen's Cafe, too. But what isn't, these days?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Wudaokou

"Let's sway; you could look into my eyes. Let's sway under the moonlight—the serious moonlight."
—David Bowie, "Let's Dance"

In a club in Beijing, in Haidian District, in the Wudaokou neighborhood, there's a dance hall covered in my sweat, a dingy basement with spilt-beer floors and low-hanging ceiling lights, a local DJ spinning American tracks on Chinese turntables, two bartenders serving Tsingtao in green bottles and brand-name liquor that is all actually white wine mixed with different flavoring. There are Chinese women who ask me my name in Mandarin, women to whom I have to respond: Bu dong, bu dong, I don't understand. Beautiful women I can't hear over the pounding music. In a club in Wudaokou I danced like a belligerent, slipping in time-space, waiguoren, spilling.

I took a flight from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Minneapolis. Easygoing. From there I was supposed to connect to Seattle, but mechanical troubles kept the plane on the ground, and I missed my connection in Seattle (to Beijing). So Delta gave me a hotel voucher and I booked at the Days Inn. The next day, I was on the tarmac for an hour, waiting for my flight from MPLS to Tokyo (after the change) to take off, when the captain finally revealed the reason for our delay: security problems: a weapon found on board. Flight delayed, all passengers sent through security again, arrive in Tokyo late, miss connection to Beijing, Delta provides hotel voucher, go through Japanese customs, sleep overnight in Tokyo, eat strange breakfast, fly to Beijing. I never found out what the weapon was.
So I made it to Beijing. Disembark. Went down to the luggage carousel, only one of two bags circling. A new Zhongguo pengyou from the MPLS flight helps me at the lost luggage office. My other bag is in Osaka.
Cabby drives up. Give him fast, loose directions to campus. We are en route, unsure of actual destination, Program Director not picking up phone. Finally he calls back, talks to cabby, talks to me, and we arrive, safe. Broken Chinese conversation goes well.
Three days later, baggage arrives. Chinese dictionary finally in hand, new shoes on feet, fresh underwear, pleasure reading.

And so I ended up in Beijing. I could write about eating scorpion in Wangfujing (silkworm and snake), walking the same walk Mao walked on the Forbidden City gate, running through Tiananmen, bartering at the Silk Market, taking placement tests, or watching Chinese acrobats, or I could just say that I left it all on that dancefloor, that I spent my last few days before the semester's commencement he-ing some pijiu, burning those empty calories, meeting my new friends (from Iowa, New York, Georgia, or Bah-ston). That I tore up a rug in Wudaokuo. And that would work, for now. Suffice.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Late Night Post (Departure in T-Minus 9.5 Earth hours)

"Someone told me there's a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair [...] Throw me a line; if I reach it in time I'll meet you up there where the path runs straight and high. " — Led Zeppelin, "Going to California" (1971)

It should be noted that this is my first travel overseas. I have been to Canada—that is the extent of my international ventures. I have been all over the continental US, but when it comes to crossing oceans, that just hasn't been my thing.

The last few days have felt like the last few days of my life, by which I mean all the going away events, the tearful goodbyes, the packing, the giving-away, etc. remind me of those suicide warning pamphlets they give out in high school to Health classes full of pubescent teens. Like I'm giving away all my belongings or something. I feel like I'm going away for good, which I certainly am not, and four-and-a-half months really isn't that long of a time, yet all this has me thinking of what will happen when I do go away for good. Not when I die, no, I mean when I graduate and go to graduate school in another state or travel back to China for more language-learning. This isn't really a Long Goodbye, it's more of a Temporary Adios, but emotions run high in the Brorby household/friendship-circle, so it feels like something more. Don't worry; it ain't.

And congratulations to my old neighbors of 15 years from my childhood home; faithful Packers fans, they are. I may hate your team, but you're great folks, and you deserve such happiness.

Be safe.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In Preparing for Travel (a Preface, an Introduction, a How-Do-You-Do) - written in haste

"I could pretend that nothing really meant too much." — David Bowie, "China Girl" from Let's Dance, 1983 (see also: Iggy Pop)

The flight I'm taking to Beijing departs in t-minus five days, and I have yet to pack, I have yet to have one last meeting with my advisors, I have yet to move stuff from my apartment to my parents' place, and I have yet to say my goodbyes. Some folks like building up to a trip, packing and planning for months in advance, and while I have been planning this whole studying abroad thing for quite some time, I can't say I've been packing and preparing like crazy (I will, though, soon, I swear). Instead I have been reading, going to a lot of movies, running, singing karaoke... Procrastinating. If anyone asks, I'll just say I'm avoiding the build-up — waiting until the last minute so that the change from North Dakota to Beijing is drastic and uncomfortably sharp — real culture shock. That's not true, though. I'm just a terrible procrastinator.

Lest I get all Sedaris-y on you and continue writing about my personal habits, let me just throw a few pieces of information your way, dear reader: I'm a Senior at the University of North Dakota; I study English and Chinese; in five days I'll be in Beijing, and I'll be blogging here for the University, for my friends, and for anyone who really wants to read this.

I've always believed that writing about oneself requires a certain level of egotism, of self-interest, of (maybe even) self-righteousness — after all, a lot of people claim that they have all the answers or that their way of living is the right one (selling snake oil to readers), and they'll gladly write all about it — yet that's what I'll be doing here for the next four months, in some form or another. I'll try to mask it, though, I promise. I won't write about my knee-jerk reactions — no reality vs. expectations stuff — and I'll avoid going into detail about how I'm feeling. I don't want to essentialize, pigeonhole, reduce, sell-short, exoticize, lie about, or otherwise do injustice to anything I'm writing about; rather, I hope to present and explain, to analyze, sure, and to comment (without imposing my opinion) on what I see, hear, feel, and experience (as I'm sure Study Abroad directors around the world would have me say it) in Beijing. I can't promise no tangential writing, though; by my very nature, I will ramble about some piece of entertainment or popular culture or literature as I see appropriate, so be prepared, friend. I don't exactly know what this blog will contain or to whom it will pertain, but I can assure you that, at least once a week, I will write something on it, and that thing I write, whatever it may be, will be, I hope, both interesting and insightful. 

If insight is missing, please, feel free to add your own.

Be safe, 


A bad photo of a portion of my messy pied-à-terre