spring thoughts in beijing

This is a writing sample I started in the spring of 2002 after a trip back to Beijing and edited further for submission to Sun Magazine in early 2006. It was not published in the magazine, but I am very fond of it nonetheless.

It’s rush hour and I’m riding the loop of the Beijing subway during my spring break in 2002, two months before I will graduate from the University of Wisconsin, nine months since I left this pulsating organism of a city last. The recorded announcement tells me first in Chinese, then in English, what the next stop is. I remember the first time I rode the subway recognizing just a few words of the woman’s destination description. Now, with 14 months as a resident alien and two years of language classes in Madison trailing me, I have it nearly memorized. It doesn’t even sound like a foreign language anymore.

Heading south, between Chaoyangmen and Jianguomen, the subway car is especially crowded. Loads of people have piled on at the last few stops, heading to the interchange station at the next stop. I am the only non-Asian, and almost certainly the only non-Chinese in this car, probably on the whole train. I do my best, as always, to appear as comfortable and nonchalant as every other person in the car. Occasionally I catch the eye of a curious person interested in checking out a real, live foreigner. A map on the space above the door shows the route of the subway. I reread the names of the stops in Chinese characters and their romanized pronunciation for probably the hundredth time.

Based on tanned, leathery skin and a faded blue worker suit, I observe that a nearby man is probably from a rural area, one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Beijing looking for gainful employment. He sees me and manages to maneuver into a space about three feet away, directly in front of me. He proceeds to stare, unabashedly, mouth gaping, at me, the white girl. I try desperately not to laugh, then realizing that he might have a mental disability. I gaze casually at the advertisements and then look out the window as the walls of the underside of this sprawling Asian metropolis pass by. At Jianguomen, most of us get off the car. I lose my fascinated staring man in the crowd.

On this my third trip here, I affectionately call Beijing—with all its crowds and dust and air pollution—my third home. I really feel like I’ve come home. It’s inexplicable how a place so strange and dirty and at times unfriendly to foreigners could be my self-proclaimed third home. I’m a neat freak from the scarcely diverse Milwaukee suburbs and had never been out of the country before my first trip to China in 1999. Although I study journalism and worked for a year as the opinion editor at a campus newspaper, I wouldn’t have qualified in anyone’s book as “worldly.” Like most of my peers, I apathetically studied Spanish in high school, never really taking the time to learn to speak it well. Traveling always sounded like fun to me, but I didn’t have the money or desire to really pursue it. I remember studying Asian history and culture in 7th grade—and hating it passionately.

I’ve changed trains. I now head east, away from the center of the city. I always stand on the train, rarely taking a seat. Being surrounded by the people, conversations and culture of Beijing invigorates me. I can’t be sitting down for these moments, however mundane for everyone surrounding me. The train speeds up, rocks a bit, and the subway woman’s voice breaks through my focus on remaining upright. Yonganli, dao le. Eternal Peace Road stop—The site of Beijing’s foreign embassies, and a popular shopping district catering to foreigners.

In July 1999, during my first trip to Beijing and my first bargaining experience at the famed “Silk Alley” market, a shirt that read: “Never Forget May 8, 1999,” caught my attention. I thoughtlessly stared at the shirt, deciding this was the perfect time to try out my four-week-old Chinese. With false confidence, I tried to ask the vendor, a young man, what it meant. I was surprised that my harmless inquiry sparked agitation and the question “Ni shi na guo ren?”—What country are you from? Still clueless, I answered back, “Meiguo”—America, “beautiful land,” literally translated. My pride at understanding one sentence turned to complete confusion as he spouted off, now angrily, in rapid-fire Chinese. Realizing my inability to actually communicate, he switched to the universal language—hand signals. He made bomb gestures and noises and pointed back to the shirt. I remembered two months before in early May, when my mom had told me she didn’t want me to go to China this summer, because of the U.S.’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the protests at the embassy in Beijing. I suddenly wanted to disappear, apologize, proclaim my stupidity and ignorance. Unfortunately my baby Chinese now completely failed me. I mumbled “Excuse me, sorry” in both languages and left quickly. I had lost face, embarrassed myself, committed a large cultural error and angered a common person by my insensitivity. I had become the dense, ignorant American foreigner I never wanted to be.

Three years later, I meander the path of Silk Alley, observing and remembering. I quickly remember my distaste for the ignorant tourists – waving cash around, speaking far too loudly, and treating the shopkeepers like servants. From the fall of 2000 to the summer of 2001, when I studied in Beijing, this was generally a place I felt welcome to experiment with my budding Chinese skills. A foreigner who speaks Chinese here can get goods priced almost at what a Chinese would pay, brand-name parkas for $20, Gap sweaters for $5, Abercrombie khakis for $8. After my embarrassing incident in 1999, I never wanted to be that ignorant tourist again. I wanted to fit in as much as possible in my white skin, although my light hair and large nose would always give me away. I buy almost nothing on this trip. I’ve bought all the souvenirs I can manage in China. There’s nothing else I want, other than more time here, to exist, to understand why this place has me so bewitched.

Back on the train, this time headed back west, to the center of the city, in order to complete a full-circle around Beijing in my 10-day trip here. Tiananmen, dao le. I’ve arrived at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Square to the rest of the world. It had been 12 years since the democracy protests, when hope, pain, crackdown and death had filled one of the world’s largest public squares. On any given day, police vans wait near the perimeter of the world’s largest urban square, waiting for the Falun Gong demonstrators to take their places, first in Tai chi-like positions, meditating and practicing special breathing, then, in the paddy wagon, arrested for their faith, taken away to who knows where.

Strolling Tiananmen Square the memories and experiences submerge my psyche like flood waters. My first time here, as a student-tourist, taking far too many pictures of my friends and I, Mao portrait in the background, the smoggy Beijing sky so pale a blue it was almost gray. As a student, biking past Tiananmen become a regular occurrence, but despite the frequency of passing, I never stopped feeling an emotional tug, imagining what had happened on these streets, years ago. One late night in 2001, as the end of the school year neared, my fellow ex-pat friends and I decided to bike to Tiananmen. It had to be at least midnight, extremely late in Beijing time. The streets were eerily empty, all the taxis and Volkswagen Santanas hidden away for the night. It was probably the least-populated version of Beijing any of us had experienced. We abandoned the bike lane for the middle of the road, some of the girls sidesaddle on the rack over the back wheel behind one of the guys, just like millions of Chinese girls rode every day. My roommate and close friend was mourning her father, whose death had brought her suddenly back to the States a few weeks before. She had returned to Beijing for a few days to pack her things and say goodbye to life in Beijing. Arriving at Tiananmen, we realized the square was literally closed for the evening. The 2760-meter perimeter was literally roped off and guarded by security. But we had gone to Tiananmen that night for the journey, to feel the breeze as we rode through the calm streets, enjoying one another’s company, not to see the landmarks for the umpteenth time.

Jishuitan, dao le. The stop for the university where I had studied, socialized, lived and experienced China. The campus hasn’t changed much since I left, except for the construction. Some buildings have been finished and opened, other ones are being torn down and rebuilt. Cheap laborers from the countryside climb all over the scaffolding, working behind the translucent green mesh put up to hide the progress. This mossy green fabric is ubiquitous in a Beijing that barely stays the same for five minutes. Construction goes on day and night in China. The sounds of hammers and cranes pierce the eerie quiet after the students’ strict 11:00 p.m. curfew. Floodlights, used to illuminate the emerging structure for the workers, shine into my hotel window several hundred yards away.

On foot now, I take the long walk from the subway stop to the alley that leads from campus to my old apartment. I come to an open lot just behind my building and am thankful to find things much the same. The couple that use this spot to sell fruits and vegetables out of a pick-up truck greet me, somewhat surprised by my return. Next to the truck, a dozen or so retired men have gathered, as usual, to play cards and talk. The vendor and his wife explain who I am, saying I studied at the university the year before, and then some of the card players recognize me too. I am touched. I head to buy my favorite iced tea from another neighborhood vendor who I had been friendly with. The woman greets me, excited, and offers me the usual without asking if it’s what I want. I smile, feeling very much at home.

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