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?

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