When I was back in the US recently I was often asked a deceptively simple question: “What is it like living Beijing?”
This is a trap. It’s a trap because no-one living in the United States wants to hear in any great detail what your experience of living in another country is like. Most Americans don’t actually believe in other countries, except for France, and then only because they don’t like it. I am sure that most of my friends think I am assimilated bodily into the Internet for eighteen months at a time, beaming in for the odd-week to attend barbecues and weddings.
I went through this indifference for years when I was living in Singapore and, despite China’s slightly higher marquee value, the situation is not much different now. It could just be that I am a crappy raconteur. But I think people really just want some short, pithy exclamation or mini-anecdote that encapsulates everything that is exotic and frightening about where you live, provides them with reassurance about their own lives, and doesn’t challenge them with too much history, culture, political analysis or other complexity. Something like, “Well, did you know that, in China, it’s acceptable to walk around without any pants on and that people rub noses to say hello?” (Although, ideally, something true.) Speak for longer than about three sentences on the topic of living abroad at your standard cocktail party and people’s eyes glaze over and their hands start fumbling for a liquor refill. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this rule from people with a particular interest, but I feel this accurately describes most such situations.
So I’ve been confronted with the challenge finding a way to accurately sum up the experience of living in Beijing –to transmit the raw, visceral feel of it– without dwelling too deeply upon the nitty-gritty and nuance that washes right over people who’s conception of China is built entirely on takeaway moo goo gai pan and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And I think I’ve hit on a solution.
Beijing is really about a mix of pleasure and pain accompanied by chronic, mild disorientation. I was reminded of this as I stepped out of my lovely, heated lobby this morning (pleasure) and the cold grabbed me by the collar and slapped me hard on both cheeks (pain). This was followed by my morning walk to the subway, amidst the smells of early-opening snack stalls (pleasure) and the open, neighborhood garbage tip (pain). A lovely Hunan meal (pleasure) is followed by the inevitable morning on the can working through an entire copy of The Economist (pain, but with a distraction). An autumn evening on the banks of Houhai (pleasure) is followed by the nasty taste of soot and pollution in one’s mouth the next morning (pain). The triumph of a successful conversation in Chinese (pleasure) is followed by the humiliation of failing utterly at some bit of communication that should be simple (pain). The pirate DVD you bought has a great picture (pleasure) but stops twenty minutes before the end of the movie (pain). You spy a lovely girl (pleasure); and she picks her nose (pain). And so on.
So I’ve come up with an interactive method that I feel will enable my friends and family in the US to better understand the world in which I live, without bogging them down in too much didacticism. It works like this:
If you want to know what it’s like to live in Beijing, get yourself four shots of vodka (technically it should be baijiu, but that’s hard to get in the US), a packet of cheap cigarettes, a ball-peen hammer and a slightly dirty but beautiful, exotic-looking girl dressed in unfashionable clothes. Now,
- Drink all four shots of vodka.
- Take a drag on one of the cigarettes.
- Kiss the girl.
- Hit yourself on the hand with ball-peen hammer, really hard.
I think that about sums it up.
Of course, being a completely masochistic Asiaphile, I love Beijing’s pleasure/pain duality. In a way, I guess that makes Beijing my nasty, whip-cracking mama, and me her decadent man-bitch. If you are low enough to want to think of it in such vulgar terms. Even now, a year-and-a-half later, my general complacency is often interrupted by moments of utter surprise that say, with knife-point keenness, “hey, asshole, you live in China”. I love that feeling. It was because I had long-since outgrown that feeling in Singapore that I came to China in the first place. I suppose when I no longer get that feeling here, it will be time to leave. But I think it will be a while. My cheeks still sting from the last slap.