To pick up where we left off. I nearly forgot to mention the most important aspect of losing face in China. It’s that later – in the immediate, mid-term or even distant future – you can always recoup your losses by making someone else lose theirs (think hot potato or duck-duck-goose with scythes and hammers). If a random pedestrian trips you on Tuesday, you trip someone else on Wednesday, ad infinitum. Like acquiring a fake 100-peso note from a Porteño cabbie: to compensate for getting got, you simply spend it somewhere else – ideally in another cab, but anywhere will do: the shop, the bar, the hotel or the horse-tracks. I pawned mine off on an old German grouch somewhere in the Jesuit ruins of Misiones.
The only difference between getting rid of lost face and fake currency is that one needn’t accept the latter; if presented with a fake note at the store, they can simply refuse your purchase (and call the authorities depending on the country) – making the fake note a trickier bargain. To get rid of lost face, all you have to do is throw it out there and hope your victim takes it in stride. After all, a dirty look, a subway-jab or an unbecoming remark about your mother’s chastity is to be expected in an über-urbanized world of carbon and envy.
Hence the likelihood of an unpleasant interaction at some point in time: the higher the aggregate lost face of a given population in a certain place and time, the higher the odds of you being cheated, insulted, spat upon, passed over, made fun of or simply honked at. Oh yes, the possibilities are endless. Like an alcoholic spy in a Graham Greene novel, your lost-faced debtor is around every corner, waiting to avenge that cheeky text his suitor sent him or the wages his foreman’s yet to pay. Such, at least, was my dear friend’s understanding of things: a universe of anyone bound to everyone in a vicious cycle of chagrin, a psychological rat race in which none but the most shameless survive.
When a society’s going through the particularly spicy birth pangs of economic development and political decay, some will always be left behind. But you needn’t go to China to meet angry jokers. Your local middle school or post office will suffice. Beijing, however, seemed particularly on edge – a metropolis of brash young bitter ruffians out to get you, this and the next fool, slated on blood or the next best thing. Any different than being white in Harlem or black in Southie? In a sense. The latter reflect internal cultural animosities in which everyone plays their role, though they can also be avoided with ease. On the other hand, the bridge that separates American, European or Japanese from Peking’s finest – not to mention Vietnamese, Korean, Mongolian or any of China’s ethnic minorities – is linguistic, historical and civilizational. That is, a hell of a lot harder to gloss over.
My buddy’s nerves had also been on edge as of late. He’d spent the past five years of his life devoting himself to learning the People’s Tongue yet was still taken for a naïve foreigner to be routinely ripped off by the average passer-by. If money talks loudly in China, blond hair screams at you from miles away. (Stay in Bali if you want the benefit of the doubt). To make matters worse, he’d been dating a splendid, if sartorially suggestive, Manchurian local – a seeming accomplishment to the naked eye in many parts of the world. That said, consider the 100m+ army of single Chinese men, doomed by self-selecting population control to lives of romantic and sexual penury: when they see one of their ‘own’ strutting the city’s sidewalks with a big, hulking (and dare I say rather dashing) blond boy, they’re not apt to tip their hat.
Hence our predicament as we pranced about the capital, gamboling, giggling and tossing grapes in one another’s mouth. Though I’d arrived in Beijing on a Saturday night, by mid-week we’d nearly lost a limb to a rabid cabbie. After an afternoon strutting about the city’s hutongs, we hailed a cab to head back to my buddy’s neighborhood in the city’s northwest corridor. Ten minutes into our journey, he noticed that the fare was at least two times that which he was accustomed to (after all these years) - though I suppose he broached the topic with less charm than could have been the case.
(An aside: remember that we are all wont to take offence to personal slights, be they a remark or regard, commission and omission alike – though misunderstandings are invariably exacerbated by expectations. I am perfectly happy to play the meek little helpless lamb in Bed-Stuy; if someone in Williamsburg tries to step we've stumbled upon a very different situation).
In this particular case I cannot say who was more at fault - my companion or the cabbie - only that after two minutes’ harangue the car was swerving back and forth on the highway, seemingly ready to plunge into a barrier or traffic from another lane. Before I could say 'hootenanny we're in a spicy Chinese pickle', the cabbie was screaming and trying to get a better hold of my friend’s collar; mind you we were both sitting in the back seat. Meanwhile, my friend was exercising his vocal and gestural prerogative to somewhat similar effect. It was not at all clear who would win - or what effect that may have on the trajectory of the speeding vehicle. It was the most terrified I had been in years.
A rough post hoc transliteration might read as follows:
“Sir, why the hell is does the meter already read 90 renminbi? I take this route twice a week and have never paid more than 40 for the whole thing.”
“Because I’ve driven you from _____ to _____ and that’s what the meter has computed. (It is a machine). We’ve got _____ many more miles to go, so shut up and get ready to buy my dinner for the next few nights. After all, you're but a dirty gweilo, whether you speak the language or not.”
“Oh really? You wouldn’t happen to be that pug-faced, pig-intestine-eating peasant I read about in the People’s Daily, would you? The one who lost his plot in _____ province to rapacious government-backed land developers who’s now forced to illegally squat with his morbidly obese and alcoholic uncle in _____ tenements out by the airport? No, of course not.”
“Fucking mother-raping foreigner! Japanese son of a horse-fucking bastard! Monkey-faced-Japanese-feces-eating-foreigner! Japanese fuck your mother! I will kill you and your friend! Every last one of you! On my mother’s grave – desecrated by the Japanese though it may have been!”
Or something along those lines. Indeed, the only upside to the entire experience was learning there’s always someone the Chinese inevitably hate more than gweilos, regardless of the circumstances. That being said, an agreement was eventually reached. Rather than a) crash that instant and deal with injury, death or, at the very least, an interesting debate about car damages or b) be taken on a fun-filled detour to meet the driver’s more sadistic friends, we somehow arrived at c) agree to pay a moderately reduced fare in exchange for getting dropped off at the nearest Metro station. Oddly enough, by the time we reached it my friend and the cabbie had not only resolved their differences but had positively apologized to one another – going so far as to discuss the impact of their psychological states that evening, comment upon the influence of pollution on one's mood and, by jolly, reveal the initial stages of remorse. Provided you forget how close you came to dying an unbecoming death, it was almost touching.
Oh yes, we’d survived our first scrap with angry young men in Beijing and lived to tell the tale. We were scarcely prepared for the next.