It’s Friday night. The sky has turned into a pinkish orange, and cars pass by with their never-ending honking. It’s one of those Beijing summer nights when the sunset doesn’t free the city of the heat, but instead only makes it more suffocating. I know I should take the subway more often, but I love Beijing most when dusk is falling and I can see the city pass me by in semi-darkness from the open taxi window. It takes me less than an hour to reach the city centre, and somewhere halfway is my favourite spot. The taxi passes the Lama Temple, Beijing’s most famous monastery. Even now, with the setting of the sun, the rich scent of incense spreads over the entire highway. I always take a deep breath when we pass, and every time I feel like that’s my little China moment, over and over again, right there on one of Beijing’s ring roads.

The summer has taken over Beijing completely, and with the sticky heat, my neighbourhood seems more alive than ever. Red and pink roses are blooming outside my window and the ivy seems to pick up the growing-pace where he left it last autumn. More than anything else, it’s the sounds that make my neighbourhood alive. I’ve grown fond of the new birds in the park behind my house, that seem to giggle like little girls every time I come home. In the early morning and drowsy late afternoons, I hear the howls of the severely disabled old man on the playgrounds. Every day, his brother takes him out to rehabilitate. Somehow, his howls do not sound sad- they actually sound hopeful. When I pass the brothers, strongly holding on to each other, they smile at me as if they were just dancing. I also often hear the sounds of the kids playing around. They are not stuck at home behind their Nintendo’s or Playstations, but run around with little wooden guns. When I listen to them play I sometimes cannot believe what I am hearing. “Shoot her! She’s a Nationalist!” Mostly, they like to play their little game of Nationalists versus Communists, although most of them are only about eight years old.

And then there is my favourite sound of all – which I just discovered a few weeks ago. One night I was sitting in my study, all windows open to let the flowery breeze fill my room, when I suddenly heard a young man sing Italian opera underneath my window. Intrigued, I stuck my head out of the window and asked the Chinese boy if he knew how to speak Italian. “Not really, but I love Italian opera and know all the words,” he said. I complemented him on his voice, and since then, he’s been coming to sing by my window every other day. Serenades on hot Beijing summer nights-
it doesn’t get a lot better than that.

The more time I spend in China, the less I seem to be able to tell about the Chinese culture. You cross a certain point where you just start accepting things as they come, and stop noticing the particular things. Nowadays I just find myself sitting outside having some street-food and hanging out with the Chinese over there, who seem to be hanging and chilling out continually. It’s especially the men and the little children who are good at chilling on the streets. The men wrap their shirts all the way up and let their naked bellies freely hang over their belt. They caress their bellies all the time, as if they were happy pregnant women. As for the children, they run around freely, without their parents warning them for the cars that speed by. The little ones have a big hole in their pants so they can shit or pee whenever they want, but even the bigger kids don’t hesitate to pull down their pants and pee in the middle of the street and then continue their play as if it was the most normal thing on earth.

The little campus where I live has really become my home. My neighbour taps on my window every now and then: “Manya! Did you eat?! How are your fish doing?” He’s a nosy little bastard, but kindhearted nevertheless. I often have friends coming around to my place, and it just happens to be so that a lot of my friends are male. I have no problems offering them my couch, but the awkward moment comes in the morning, when I have to let them out. My neighbour always just seems to step out of his house the moment I say goodbye to them. He always has something to say, but I know exactly what he thinks. It’s my friend Simon who likes to emphasize my embarrassment at this point by offering me some money and loudly thanking me for the mag-ni-fi-cent night. I am afraid my reputation in the neighbourhood is quite damaged by now. Luckily, the son of the bike-repair-man doesn’t care at all. He’s probably 40 by now but he’s our own little Forrest Gump, with the mind of a small child. When I greet him whilst walking the street, he just gives me a blank stare. After a minute or so he suddenly turns around, laughs loudly, and calls after me: “Ni hao! Hello!” He takes life with a quiet pace, just as it’s supposed to be.

When I arrive at Sanlitun, the racy bar street of Beijing, the darkness has really set in. I step out into the back streets, where little beggar children and men come up to me. A big group of them is brought to the bar street every day, end of the afternoon, by a big black van. At the end of the night someone picks them up again. No one knows where they go or where they come from.
A group of young men pass me by. “You’re Dutch,” one of them says. “How do you know?” I say, surprised. The guy points at my big black boots. “Only a Dutch girl would wear boots like that on a hot summer’s night,” he says.

After the final exams of Beijing University, I needed to get out of town for a few days. I took the train and met up with my friend S. in the beer capital of China, Qingdao. Instead of the warm and sunny coastal city it was supposed to be, it turned out to be foggy and wet the weekend we arrived. We decided to do the best we could in this weather: drink beer and eat seafood. When we finally settled down somewhere in a lively alley, and the table was filled with food and drinks, we felt the two men on the table next to us staring. The little ugly one starting complaining to his friend: “Those foreigners, all they do is waste food. Waste it! Useless!” S. glanced at me, while I was already getting myself worked up. All of a sudden the Little Ugly one turned his lament directly towards us: “You hear me,” he slurred: “You are wasteful people!” I straightened my back and looked over at their table, full of untouched plates. “What about you, then? Are you gonna eat all that, huh? We haven’t even started eating! Mind your own business!” S. kicked my feet under the table while we started yelling back and forth. The Chinese people at the other tables turned their heads to see what the fuss was about. The friend of Little Ugly, Nicer One, tried to shush the fight: “Don’t mind him, don’t mind him,” he said, apologetically smiling: “He’s had a little bit much to drink, you see. Welcome to China! Welcome to China!” After some bickering, Nicer One and Little Ugly decided to join our table. “Sorry. We didn’t know you could speak Chinese. Let’s toast and forget about it. Welcome to China!”

The little deaf prostitute is at bar street, where she always is. I met her last summer, during the Olympics. She is supposedly Korean. She’s a mute. She cannot read Chinese, or English, for that matter. All she seems to do is draw flags of countries and scribble strange numbers on an old sheet of paper. She intrigued me right from the start, and I always stop to say hello. We sit down on little stools on the street, and scribble mysterious things back and forth. Even now, after a year, I am still waiting for her to blow her cover by accidentally muttering a word in any language. I have kind of given up hope though, and accepted she’s just a deaf mute prostitute, or an excellent actress. How she gets her customers is still a mystery, but I enjoy having a beer with her anyway. We toast with our cheap beer, and she gives me a full smile before she eagerly puts the bottle to her mouth.

The waiter brought us yet another pitcher of Qingdao beer. The boss of the restaurant came up to our table and offered us a free plate of seafood. As Little Ugly and Nicer One seemed to get more intoxicated by the minute, I started to feel more uncomfortable. S., on the contrary, really started enjoying herself at this point, baffling the old Chinese guys with her streetwise Shanghai slang. “Manya!” she whispered: “This is the China experience, man! Those guys are government people. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.” After three more pitchers, the governmental Little Ugly and Nicer One invited us for karaoke. S. did not seem to hesitate, and shrugged her shoulders: “Sure.” After they paid for the entire bill, we got into a taxi. When we arrived at a karaoke place, suddenly an intense fight broke out between Nicer One and Little Ugly over who would pay the taxi. They starting pushing and shoving, grabbing each other’s wallet and running around the vehicle: “Let me pay!” “No! Let me!” S. and me just stood there, watching them like we watched the penguins at Sea World that same day. “That’s how it’s done,” she said, carelessly lighting her cigarette.

I light a cigarette, little deaf prostitute still by my side, and check my phone to see who else is hanging around at Bar Street. From the corner of my eye, I see a young Chinese man coming up to me. When he stands right in front of me, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he courageously speaks English: “Hello! Can I please borrow your turkey?” Little deaf prostitute acts oblivious. “Excuse me?” I say. The guy gives me his most charming smile: “Your turkey, can I borrow it?” He stares at the lighter in my hand. Turkey, in Chinese, is ‘huoji’, which has almost the same pronunciation as another ‘huoji’, which means ‘lighter’. I get what he means, and offer him my ‘turkey’: “You can borrow my turkey anytime, honey.”

When we got into the karaoke room, Little Ugly and Nicer One insisted on giving us any drink we wanted. In the end they decided on twenty bottles of the more expensive Corona beer, dragging on all the while on how welcome we were in China. S. and me started singing any Chinese song we knew and danced on the couches of the little karaoke room. Nicer One smiled all along, but Little Ugly started groping us whenever he thought he could. The big challenge of the evening turned out to be turning Little Ugly down, without us making him lose face. While I was passionately singing ‘Tian Mimi’ in Chinese, Little Ugly all of a sudden decided to sit on top of me. Nicer One and S. tried to get him back to his own feet, and while he was finally off to the toilet, Nicer One, in the most diplomatic way possible, explained to us that he really couldn’t do much about someone who was higher in rank than him, and that we should maybe try to flee the room before he got back and trouble would get worse. “But very welcome to China!” he added. It was S. who got the message loud and clear. She took another sip of her Corona, got her bag, and then whispered in my ear: “Run! Manya! Now!” As Little Ugly was walking back to the karaoke room, we fled the bar as fast as we could, almost tripping over the little stairs on the way out while Little Ugly was calling after us. S. grabbed my hand: “Run! Run!” We jumped into the first taxi we found. With our hearts pounding like crazy, and the taxi going further into the darkness, S., all smiles, said: “You see! I told you, this is the real China experience!”

I’ve had so many ‘China experiences’ that I would not know what you could call ‘real’ China or not anymore. Maybe it’s different for everybody. For me, it’s the odd situations that give me a real sense of China. Like the other day, when my landlord got into a big fight with the police. Because I decided on staying another two months in my apartment, my landlord had to report me to the police again, like we did when I just arrived in Beijing. We had a contract at the time, and for the last two months, we just decided on scribbling some sentences at the back of our contract, that I, Manya, would stay in the apartment until end of August for the price of X, and we both signed.
I like going to the local police station. It’s like stepping into a movie from decades ago. Two wooden desks in a dilapidated room, and two mellow fat men behind an old-fashioned phone and a huge ashtray. No computers, no digital archives, no mobile phones. Just a lot of papers and an old fluffy couch. On the wall a huge picture of the ‘policeman of the month’, which, according to my memory, was the same guy as a year ago.
As we step into the little office, a middle-aged woman is just complaining to the police about some problems with her neighbour. The two mellow fat men listen to her while sucking on their bright yellow cigarettes. When she sees us, she tells us to go first. It seems like she’d like some distraction from her own story. My landlord shows them my passport and our contract, and asks for a stamp. The two policemen attentively stare at the papers, looking back and forth from me, to the landlord, to the papers. As the big one stubs out his cigarette, he says, with flair: “Nope. No good.” My landlords stares at the papers: “How do you mean, ‘no good’? I took care of everything, this should be right.” The policeman shakes his head: “No. We need two contracts. It’s no good. You scribbled this on the back, but we have to have a new contract on a separate paper.” My landlord starts to argue with the man, that this is the way he’s always done it, that there were never problems. Before I know it the man starts to shout, my landlord starts banging the table, and the woman tries to get in between. “You’re a hooligan!” The policeman says. “No! You’re the hooligan over here! You see how we lose face in front of a foreigner, look how afraid she’s become over our fighting!” All of a sudden all faces turn to me. I am quite amused, and checking the picture of the ‘policeman of the month’ while humming a song that has been stuck in my head all morning. Immediately the fighting continues. I almost think my landlord will attack the policeman, and he screams like he’s almost on the verge of tears. The policeman will not change his standpoint. Stamping his feet, the landlord rips the contract out of the hands of the officer, takes the last page (where the scribbling is on the back), folds it, and aggressively tears it into two pieces. The scruffy little paper with our scribbling on it looks quite pathetic now. He bangs it on the table, and puts the old contract, torn apart, next to it. “There you go!” he says: “Two pieces of paper! Two contracts! Satisfied?!” I feel like hell could break loose any moment now. Instead, the policemen both look at the little piece of paper. They look at each other, shrug, and say: “Okay.”
We get our stamp, and without uttering another word, step out of the office.

“So annoying! Is it like this in Holland too?” my landlord asks when we’re outside.
I bite my lip for a second. “Yeah. Same in Holland. So annoying.”

I think I always misunderstood the concept of ‘losing face’. I always thought it was all about avoiding arguments at any costs, and never raising your voice. But actually it is the opposite. It’s quite simple; it’s just the pure fact that you don’t want to embarrass yourself in any way. Like the taxi driver, who drove me home some time ago. She took the wrong turn at every possible road, ended up on a curb, on dead-ending streets and took one-way roads from the wrong sides. When I said something about it, she did not once apologize (which would be ‘losing face’) but instead started scolding me for not knowing the road to my own house. With this magnificent method, it is actually me who looks bad, instead of her, one of the worst taxi-drivers I ever had in Beijing.

Besides this, it’s also about compromising. Last weekend, I was heading home on a Saturday at 4 AM. About ten minutes from my house, I felt the taxi swaying, and when I looked at the driver I saw he was hanging over the steering wheel, eyes drooping, drifting off to sleep. “Hey! Hey!” I shouted, while the car was going back and forth over the freeway: “Are you tired?” The driver tried to straighten his back. “Yeah,” he mumbled: “Terribly tired. So tired…”, and before he could finish his sentence he almost drifted off again. I put my hand on his shoulder and talked him through it: “Come on, stay awake, go straight here, we’re almost there.” When we finally arrived at my place, I saw the taxi fair was far above the usual price, and I started to get angry. “Give me the receipt,” I said: “I am going to file a complaint against you.” The driver suddenly seemed to wake up: “What! No! Why?!” he screamed. I explained to him that he not only fell asleep whilst driving, but was also over-charging me. After yelling back and forth, and arguing over which one of us was the biggest idiot, we got to an agreement. I would get my discount and he promised to sleep and not pick up any more customers. In return, I would not get the receipt to complaint. When I stepped out he rolled down his window, and honked at me: “Bye! Thanks! Take it easy!” I waved goodbye. That’s how it goes. And it’s good.

My Chinese/Korean friend M. runs across the street to greet me. He’s a fashion designer. I met him a few months ago and it was the odd case of love at first sight. I was wearing a polkadot dress, he had an Elvis hairdo. We decided we would be good together. I leave the prostitute and head to one of the dirty bars with him to sit outside. We meet the same people there every week, some tragic, some fabulous, some famous, some plain stupid. Over a ten RMB beer M. tells me how to handle my love life as I tell him how to take care of his hair. We decide to take a last beer at one of the bars where the beer is awfully cheap. The majority of the customers are foreign kids around fifteen or sixteen years old. They are the children of ambassadors or expats, and Beijing must be the most fantastic playground for them. The bars, drinks nor cigarettes have an age limit. On my way out I catch some of them making out in the bushes. It’s past two already and I wonder whether their parents, up in their fancy apartments, are concerned about where they are.

I have been living in China for over a year now. I’ve been all the way up to the north and all the way down to the south. I’ve been at parties of the rich and had beers with the poor. I’ve spend my days cycling back and forth to university and walking the streets of the rapidly changing Beijing. I’ve spend afternoons sitting around little cafe’s in Shanghai. But still, I wonder, what is the ‘real’ China experience? Is it being harassed by governmental people, having beers with prostitutes, witnessing fights, or just seeing my neighbourhood change season by seaon?

I kiss M. goodbye and get into a taxi. A sudden summer rain blurs the neon lights that reflect in the window. The taxi driver softly whistles along with the radio.
Somewhere, halfway to my house, I roll down my window. There it is again, the faint scent of sandalwood incense from the temple. I close my eyes and take a deep, deep breath. The scent fills me with melancholy; already missing China while still being here.

And there you have it. That’s it. My China experience is right there, on the middle of an empty Beijing highway.


21 juli 2009

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