Some capitals are revered for their lights, others their granite-chinned splendor – the old for their deference to time, the new their pious attempts to undermine it. Calcutta is a shrine to the dead and dying, Berlin a glimpse at the bittersweet beyond – notes of a survivor, tipsy in bed but coffee on the burner. While Paris strokes itself, Athens goes asunder. The agonies of lust and impotence abound.
Somewhere to the north, on the sweeping plains of dust and longing, lies Beijing. I needn’t introduce the People’s Capital, draped in media frenzy as it’s recently been: a smog-induced Cyclops, the object of Lucifer’s envy – an imperial ashtray of truly sinister proportions. But cooler, calmer days almost once prevailed.
I went to Beijing in late September to visit an old friend from college, a roommate from my intemperate days. He had been holed up in the Middle Kingdom since graduation, mastering the Golden Tongue and moonlighting for an American insurance company to pay the bills. I had been looking forward to seeing him for many years.
I stumbled out of customs in the usual muddle: catatonically tired and homelessly hungry. Since I hadn’t the gall to go to KFC, I smoked a Camel and pondered my next move. The waiting room was fool of angry, leather-faced migrants – albeit the kind who take planes. I wasn’t much of an exception.
I went to the airport shop to negotiate the terms of a Chinese SIM card. Whilst magnanimously waiting for the good sir to finish his text message, I took a biscuit from the tray. Seriously reprimanded, I bowed and put it back, thanked him for his patience and made for the taxi line. The air was gray and thankless, wet with the moisture of labor and confusion.
As soon as we merged onto the 8-lane highway it began to drizzle. I tried to muster the energies of observation, but four-hours’ slumber was taking its toll. We plunged further into an expanse of endless urbanity, albeit one of surprising symmetry. For ceaseless mile were surprisingly well ordered 6-8 story residential blocks, modern in scope if subtly stale – a welcome reprieve from the vertiginous towers that blight the urban landscapes of the south. There were far more trees than in Hong Kong.
My cigarette and waltz with the SIM-card salesman had delayed my arrival so my good host had already returned to work after his lunch break back home. Rather than drop my bags I went two subway stops north to wander the campus of Beijing University, one of the country’s three flagship research universities and the locus of China’s (domestically educated) technocratic elite.
I exited the subway at the East University Entrance and was met with a bewildering boulevard to one-side, a rustic noodle-and-snack stand to the other. Unless I was truly turned around, the not-so-famous East Entrance was naught but a dusty gravel path that snaked through a construction site on the outskirts of campus. I forewent the noodles in hope of better fare, ambling through the backdoor toward the bleachers of higher learning.
Forgive my condescension, but campus and its pedestrian element were as delightfully innocent as I’d imagined. Having perused the provincial flagship universities of Sichuan and Guangdong provinces, I had an inkling of what to expect. As soon as you pass the half-slumbering security guard, you emerge into a kingdom of studious disciples, the adorably dainty and brilliant worker-bees of National Glories to Come. Amidst a backdrop of soft willows and half-finished, Qing-era replicas, they waft in academic rhythm. Sweet, quiet and confidential, they stroll about hand in hand, perched atop crumbling bicycles with bursting satchels, an ineffable look of understated contentedness in their coolly unremitting gait.
Paint I a tiresome, Orientalizing portrait of deferential automatons? To an extent. However – to stress a point – that which constantly strikes one is that China’s students are the polar opposite of everything one sees and hears in the international press regarding the country’s current state of affairs. Contrary to the molten corruption and festooning inefficiency of an exploding world around them, mainland students seem a paragon of moderation and tact, deference and learning – a buoy against the barrage of mercenary greed that is said to rot the country’s institutions to its core. Against the bumptious tyrants despoiling rich-world quads is an army of unassuming scholar-dons, pencil in hand and pad in pocket, ready to out-calculate and compute an amusingly complacent world. Or so the argument goes. We shall better see for ourselves come autumn.
I had trouble finding that righteous little don-plotting café of my dreams so I settled upon Subway. A ham sandwich later, I was nestled against an aging oak in one of the campus’ many quiet leafy quads. To my right was a pair of bespectacled jokers tossing Frisbee; to my left a row of ivy-covered female dorms resembling Boxer-era military barracks. Every several minutes a pair of loud-speakers would remind students to go to mass, act in accordance with the Motherland or make for congee and broth-drink in the cafeteria: one understands the injunction, if not the words. The end of what had become a surprisingly warm and sunny afternoon was nigh and a sad, northern cold set in. I draped myself in every cheap button-down I’d brought and began to doze off.
I emerged from leafy slumber and made for the metro; daylight was heaving a final, remorseful sigh. My friend’s apartment was nestled in a complex of interlocking, tree-lined alleyways so I waited for him along the boulevard before a stretch of undistinguished restaurants. Several pages later, a rustled, unassuming blond came cycling down the road, collared-shirt, sweater and Red Sox hat in tow. Though I despise the team – its ethos and fans and all they stand for – I relished the image: a reassuring sight, like spotting your attractive, suited Mormon friend amongst a mob of angry Mongolians. It had been many years, though Will wasn’t a day older. Perhaps we should all give up smoking and settle down with a Manchurian.
The apartment was tucked into an interspersed complex of Crayola red flats; shoddy bicycles and broken electric boxes adorned the barred entrance to the building. Entering the courtyard through an alley perpendicular to the street, we tiptoed past the workers’ caravan, a collapsible compound of flashlights dancing about a series of green tarmacs, the air rich with melancholy and moonshine. Laying brick and window frames in a neighboring building by day, the workers settled into their makeshift tents by night to toast their lack of earthly fortune. It didn’t seem a terrible existence.
Inside we drank tea and spoke of the past. Will was the same roommate I’d left in 2005 after getting chucked from university: funny, smart and bemusingly self-conscious. Always the scrutinous fellow, he had grown weary of the Northern Capital and its on-edge inhabitants. According to his every inkling, violence was in the air. Locals resented the arrival of provincial upstarts, whilst the latter loathed the local government that deprived them of schooling, jobs and all legal avenues toward relatively prosperity – or anything vaguely resembling it. The elite (purportedly) aside, the only thing bringing every Han together – local and provincial alike – was its uniform hatred of the Honkey, or so I was told. To be caught unawares of this was the essence of carelessness – and one that we southern-spoiled Gui-lao would fall prey to if not vigilant.
The second thing I learned of the Chinese in Beijing is that face is everything. Rather, I should have said losing face – or better yet – not losing face is the supreme and utter order of the day. Therein lies the essence of that which drives man and men alike in their everyday goings-on: not to be slighted in the slightest sense of the word. Contrary to what Pac once said (that revenge is the sweetest joy next to getting you-know-what), Beijingers have it completely the other way around. One can go years without peaches, pies and pasties, Parma hammed, Honky-land pork-buns, pinot noir and pistachios, pussy, soda pop and 4th of July parties – provided you don’t insult them – or give the unintended impression of having done so. Once slighted, lost faces' ‘victims’ suffer an unbearable load equivalent to the weight of centuries’ oppression or an overwhelmingly dark secret – a dagger of moral depravity to the heart. To avenge lost face becomes honor’s most pressing prerogative – a vindication of one’s manliness and vigor. We would see for ourselves all-too-soon.