Raised in a strict Chinese American household in the suburbs, Val Wang dutifully got good grades, took piano lessons, and performed in a Chinese dance troupe—until she shaved her head and became a leftist, the stuff of many teenage rebellions. But Val’s true mutiny was when she moved to China, the land her parents had fled before the Communist takeover in 1949.
Val arrives in Beijing in 1998 expecting to find freedom but instead lives in the old city with her traditional relatives, who wake her at dawn with the sound of a state-run television program playing next to her cot, make a running joke of how much she eats, and monitor her every move. But outside, she soon discovers a city rebelling against its roots just as she is, struggling too to find a new, modern identity. Rickshaws make way for taxicabs, skyscrapers replace hutong courtyard houses, and Beijing prepares to make its debut on the world stage with the 2008 Olympics. And in the gritty outskirts of the city where she moves, a thriving avant-garde subculture is making art out of the chaos. Val plunges into the city’s dizzying culture and nightlife and begins shooting a documentary about a Peking Opera family who is witnessing the death of their traditional art.
Brilliantly observed and winningly told, Beijing Bastard is a compelling story of a young woman finding her place in the world, and of China, as its ancient past gives way to a dazzling but uncertain future.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I H_T_ CH_N_S_ SCH_ _ L
On the very first page of a book about Christopher Columbus that my dad is reading to me, there is a word I don’t know. I am squeezed next to him in the creaky maroon recliner where he does all his reading. Every new word opens up new worlds to me. This one has a long, slow sound to it and looks so different than it sounds.
“What is a journey?” I ask. He looks surprised and pauses before answering.
“A journey is a long trip,” he says.
“A long trip!” What a disappointment. But as we read further into the book, I see what he means. A trip is what happens when I go with my mom to the store, or when we visit my grandparents in Virginia, five hours away. But a journey is when you sail into uncharted waters searching for something you’ve seen with only your innermost eye. You cross perilous seas, lose half your crew to scurvy, and discover a place that will later be called America.
I’m not sure why this memory etched itself so deeply into my mind. Maybe I was starting to realize that my parents had made a journey like that years before. Maybe my dad had even told me that he too had come to America on a boat.
My parents had both been born in China in the early 1940s and just before the Communist takeover in 1949 had both fled with their families to Southeast Asia. Before the age of eighteen, they had immigrated separately to New York, where they met and married. They moved to Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, and then months before my older brother was born in 1973, they moved to a beige colonial with brown shutters on a cul-de-sac in the D.C. suburbs, where I grew up and where they still live today. Throughout my childhood in the 1980s, as China opened up to the world, my parents promised we would visit the motherland when I turned thirteen.
They bought the suburban house and quarter-acre lot when it was no more than an empty field; the area had been farmland just years before. Our house had no past, only a future, and perhaps that’s how they wished to see their lives too. You can be anything you want to be in life, my mom always told us.
When asked in second grade to draw a picture of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I drew myself sitting by a sunny window, my fingers on the keys of a typewriter.
Shortly after moving into their new house, my parents planted twenty-nine white pine trees around the perimeter of the bare yard to separate the house from the identical houses around it, the saplings so tiny that my then-tiny brother accidentally trampled one to death, so the story goes. For years my parents had lived in small homes filled with too many people, and planting the pine trees was a grandiose gesture marking out the kingdom where they hoped to live happily ever after. Over the next twenty or so years, the pine trees grew taller than the house, shielding our yard from the sun and the neighbors. “Good fences make good neighbors,” declared my dad once. We were each proud in our own way of the dark line of trees. I liked the feeling they gave me that I was growing up in a forest.
The suburbs allowed my parents to create for the first time an orderly world that they had total control over. The rhythms of our yard ran like clockwork. The forsythias were the first to bloom in the spring, then the three dogwood trees in the front and the petite red maple tree in the back. Summer brought perfect, perfumed roses, and sugar snap peas and tomatoes from the vegetable garden, and many empty hours for me to spend alone under the sheltering cave of the forsythia bushes, a space too small for adults. A big chive patch grew all year round. Cardinals and blue jays came regularly to the pine trees. While other families around us hired gardeners and landscapers, my parents tended the yard by themselves. My dad trimmed the hedges and aerated the lawn with a machine that made the rounds among the Chinese families in our area. My mom mowed and watered the lawn and put herself in charge of patrolling its borders. When rabbits began ravaging her vegetable garden, she chased down a marauding baby bunny and trapped it under a pail, oblivious to its mother’s screams, and let it go by a nearby creek. (“Who should be eating the crunchy snow peas—the rabbit’s baby or my baby?” she asked.) Hornets stung my allergic dad, and so she swaddled herself head to toe in protective outerwear, ripped their nest from its moorings, and threw it out with the evening’s trash. Once when mowing the lawn, she spotted a snake in the grass. My brother and I ran over to see, and he, with a vast storehouse of knowledge gleaned from the World Book, declared it to be a common, harmless garter snake. “Oh, a garden snake,” she said, and ran it over with the lawnmower. It was not wise to cross my mother.
My mom peppered my childhood with stories of her own childhood so fantastical and vivid I felt as if I’d experienced them firsthand. She remembered only snapshots from her early childhood in China: the frightening smell from her grandfather’s long opium pipe, the grand car that chauffeured her to kindergarten, the huge house built with money from the jade and timber trades. When she was four, in 1949, a cargo truck smuggled her and her family out of China in the middle of the night; she remembers struggling to keep her younger siblings quiet in the back. They carried nothing of value but the jade jewelry sewn into her mother’s belt. Her parents, having never worked a day in their lives, ran a teahouse called Airplane in Shwebo, Burma, as they raised seven children in a two-room house. Burma seemed even wilder than China: Poisonous snakes slithered free in the streets, green mangoes grew in her family’s backyard and were eaten sour and sprinkled with salt, an annual water-splashing festival took over the streets of the city.
For high school, my mom went to a Chinese boarding school an overnight train ride away in Rangoon. When she was a senior, a mysterious man called her, saying he was a friend of her uncle’s in America and asking her to meet him at a hotel, a nice hotel. Her uncle had left to study in America in the 1930s before she was born and when war broke out in China, his father had told him not to return. He had lost contact with his family in China and had heard only that they had fled to Burma, so when he found out his friend was going to Rangoon on business, he asked him to track them down. The man gave my mom her uncle’s address in New York as well as a gift from him, a small Gruen watch. She wrote him a letter, and several months later she flew to New York alone to live with his family. On cold winter mornings, while waiting for the city bus to take her to Queens College, she would buy a single bagel from the shop by the bus stop and hold it in her hands to warm them. Her parents and six younger siblings didn’t immigrate to the States until a decade later.
Her stories opened up amazing, faraway worlds that seemed a part of mine, even if they couldn’t have been more distant.
Many other Chinese immigrants had also moved to the D.C. area, and it allowed my parents to administer to my brother and me a nearly lethal dose of “Chinese” culture. As regular as church, we attended Chinese School every Sunday, from the first week of kindergarten to the last of high school, learning Mandarin Chinese. Potomac Chinese School was held in the rented classrooms of Herbert Hoover Junior High School, with my mom and other parents working as teachers doling out homework, tests, and report cards and ranking us as they had been ranked growing up.
On one test, I wrote I H_T_ CH_N_S_ SCH_ _L, Wheel of Fortune–style, and the teacher filled in the missing vowels.
I also performed in a Chinese dancing troupe whose signature piece, performed at the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre as well as at a random crab house off the interstate, was a lyrical evocation of tea harvesting, in which we plucked invisible tea leaves off of imaginary vines and delicately placed them into real straw baskets, in between sequences of trotting in a line, pausing, snapping open and closed sequined pink silk fans, and then trotting again. When our bookings fell in direct proportion to the waning of our cuteness, I immediately switched to karate, which my brother was already learning, and eight years and eleven broken boards later, I was a black belt. Of course I took piano lessons too, de rigueur for a proper suburban Chinese-American upbringing, and took tennis lessons because my parents had heard that the tennis court was where all the real deals got made in America.
Growing up, we spent a lot of time with my dad’s extended family, a rigidly hierarchical Confucian family headed by Yeye, my grandfather. He was a classic patriarch—arrogant, overbearing, awe-inspiring, never attired in less than a three-piece suit and hat. When I saw Ayatollah Khomeini on TV thundering angrily at masses of people, I mistook him for Yeye, just doing his day job as a history professor. Yeye made no secret of the fact that he liked my brother more because he would carry on the family name. (My mom, on the other hand, made a point of treating us equally.) My brother, as the Number One Son of the Number One Son, bore a heavy burden to live up to the values exemplified by Yeye: hard work, integrity, filial obligation. I, as the youngest of the clan, felt pulled in two directions: Of course I wanted to measure up but I also wanted to poke fun at their pious values and disrupt their precious order. Youngest siblings are natural contrarians; subverting the rules of the family is one of the few ways we can wield power.
Yeye would always demand I answer the same question: “Are you Chinese or American?” I thought it a silly choice, but because I knew he wanted me to say Chinese, I always said American.
China seemed impossibly distant. Yeye had been born in Hunan, like Chairman Mao, but instead of becoming a Communist became an ardent Nationalist. He had studied his way out of the provinces, first to a top university in Beijing, then abroad in the 1920s, earning a doctorate in comparative government from Columbia University. He returned to China in the 1930s to help build the new nation. Once when visiting Shanghai, he was invited to dinner by a friend and his wife, who brought along her younger sister to accompany him. Smitten, he invited the three of them out for dinner again the next night. After the young woman returned home to Beijing, he followed a few days later to ask her father for her hand in marriage. They married, bore three children, and, after moving around the country with the Nationalists, returned to Beijing and bought a courtyard house in 1946. Then just before the Communists took over in 1949, the family fled, first to Hong Kong briefly, then Jakarta, Indonesia, for almost a decade, where Yeye edited The Free Press, a Chinese newspaper. In the late 1950s, he moved the family to the States, leaving them on the Upper West Side of New York while he taught at universities around the country. Nainai took the English name Lily. Her older sister, who went by Mabel, made it to the States via Macau and also ended up on the Upper West Side, several blocks away. She too had left behind a courtyard house in Beijing.
Yeye eventually found a position in the history department of Hampton University. Every Easter and summer vacation, we went to visit them in their little green bungalow in Hampton. Nainai always had a box of fresh brownies ready, crisp on the top, tender inside. For Christmas, they came to our house, and as Nainai lay on the guestroom bed reading the Chinese newspaper, I would climb in with her and point out all the familiar characters that jumped out at me from the gray blur of stories. She would sing me Chinese songs in an exaggerated, old-timey voice that made me laugh. But she also had a sternness that intimidated me. When I was six and out with her alone, I was too scared to ask to go to the bathroom and ended up soaking the faux sheepskin lining of my boots.
Yeye had constant conflicts with my parents about what language to speak to us at home. He lectured us about using “ear training” to learn Chinese, while my parents spoke English to us out of fear that otherwise we would fall behind in school. They spoke mostly Chinese with each other. I am embarrassed to say I mocked Yeye’s accent, parroting his “eaah training.”
Though my family had succeeded in making a life in the States, I always wondered about China. Poems and myths I read in Chinese School implanted in a secret compartment of my mind hazy images: a boat on a lake at dusk . . . a festival . . . I was there, lighting paper lanterns and setting them afloat on the lake . . . ghosts of drowned women rising from the water . . . My family also watched National Geographic specials about China together; I was haunted by an image of a live monkey’s head held in a vise, cracked open like a coconut and its brains scooped out and eaten fresh as a roadside snack. The romantic and the ghoulish mixed into a potent brew in my mind and I was eager to see this place in person. I imagined that it would be like visiting a large museum of ancient civilization that would cleanly elucidate some deep truths about my family. I was thirteen in the summer of 1989; after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, my parents never spoke again about visiting China.
It was during my teenage years that my relationship with my parents fell apart. I found the hermetically sealed environment of our suburban home suffocating, my go-go Chinese-American lifestyle of nonstop studying unbearable, my parents ceaselessly dictatorial. The community I’d grown up in was stifling—everyone knew whose children went to Harvard and whose got pregnant, whose families were getting ahead in America and whose were falling behind. My successes or failures were theirs as well, and nothing was ever enough for them. It turned out that we could be anything we wanted to be in life—as long as it was a doctor or a lawyer. My older brother followed all the rules; he got into an Ivy League college and would go on to be a lawyer, support Republican tax cuts, and never date. For a while I copied him exactly. I earned my black belt, attended a math and science magnet school, became the editor of my high school newspaper. Though I mimed the right actions, my heart wasn’t in it. All I knew was the simple urge to do the opposite of what I was supposed to do: date white boys, talk nonstop on the phone, agitate for a driver’s license. I idolized Georgia O’Keeffe and had a crush on Andre Agassi and imagined myself their lovechild: an ascetic, passionate being trying to break free from the repression of the East Coast and a world where deals were made on the tennis court.
At around this time, Yeye and Nainai left Virginia and moved into an apartment in a retirement community not far from us and they added to the chorus of disapproval; in fact, Yeye must have been its original source, as my parents’ successes and failures ultimately reflected back on him. When I was present in the room, they criticized me in the third person. It was their job to talk and mine to listen. Nainai stayed in Yeye’s shadow for the most part and bore the brunt of his increasing irascibility. I remember being confused when he called her a fantong, or a rice bucket, until my mom told me it also meant “imbecile.” But Nainai never became meek. She had been born into a wealthy, educated family in Beijing and to show for it carried herself with a haughtiness I later associated with native New Yorkers. The gentle and humorous Nainai of my childhood faded away and in her place was an imperious matriarch full of dissatisfactions she could communicate with a single look.
When I dated a boy who resembled in my mom’s eyes a Hispanic drug dealer and whose radical leftist parents were getting a divorce because their open marriage was falling apart, my mom routinely hung up on him when he called our house, riffled through my journals seeking dirt, and once delivered a succinct four-word safe-sex talk to me: Don’t ruin your life. My parents sensed me going my own way and instead of loosening their grasp, they tightened it. The “drug dealer” had actually been a straight-A student who eventually went to Harvard, though my mom had accurately sniffed out his beliefs in wanton drug use, free love, and Marxism. After my parents caught me alone at his house, something snapped in our relationship. Being Chinese was obviously the root of my problems, and so I began to hate all things Chinese, or what I imagined to be Chinese.
I went off to a liberal arts college, where I became a leftist, a feminist, and a vegetarian; shaved my head; and veered off the doctor/lawyer trajectory into English and Women’s Studies. My parents insisted I go to the number-one-ranked liberal arts college, instead of to my first choice, Oberlin (ranked twenty, down from fourteen), which my dad likened to “marrying an alcoholic and going on a honeymoon on a sinking ship.” While I was away at college, he frequently sent me photocopies of Ann Landers columns that he found relevant to my life. One letter I particularly remember came from a dad who wrote in wondering how to deal with his daughter whom he characterized as “very smart but with no common sense.” “No common sense” my dad had highlighted in yellow and underlined twice in red. I too was an avid Ann Landers reader and my personal favorite column came from a young Asian-American woman who wrote in wondering how to deal with her parents who kept her under virtual house arrest. The letter had been signed, “Oppressed, Repressed and Depressed.” I clipped it out and taped it into my journal. I don’t remember what advice Ann Landers gave either of them, probably to seek counseling. But that wasn’t our way, to say our problems out loud to a total stranger.
In short, the peace my parents had found in the suburbs was not mine to inherit. I didn’t feel as though I belonged there, or anywhere yet, and I itched to travel to exotic places far away to look for what was missing in my life.
So I went to Sweden. I went in my junior year of college, taking a break from the manicured New Englandness of Williams College, but to my dismay found it was even cleaner, colder, darker, and more orderly than the places I’d come from. The alienation I felt from my family seemed to extend to the rest of humanity and I spent most of my time watching films alone. One night I went to see a film purely because I had deciphered in its description the words kinesisk rockstjärna—Chinese rock star. There wasn’t much to Beijing Bastards. You could take a character from column A, put him or her in a setting from column B, and make him or her do something from column C, and you’d pretty much have it.
But the film opened an escape hatch into a world mirror opposite of the version of China I had grown up with, where we were all nerdy, overachieving droids with no errant desires of our own who lived out the script as it had been handed to us, marching through the Ivy Leagues into respectable professional careers.
I had rarely put any thought into what contemporary China was like, and when I did, it took a huge mental leap to imagine the farmers and petty bureaucrats of my supposed motherland—even my own relatives seemed impossibly foreign. But to my surprise, I recognized myself in those characters on-screen and, through them, the filmmaker who had created them. I was young and alienated too, also drifting without narrative, and like the filmmaker, I just wanted to find a way to get the moment down on paper—by writing, by filming, by any means necessary.
Back in the States, I stumbled across an article about the “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers in China who shot gritty underground films in Beijing, including the director of Beijing Bastards, Zhang Yuan. The filmmakers had even written a manifesto that declared their aim: “To present a more truthful and more expansive document on the life of the Chinese people.” After making Beijing Bastards, Zhang Yuan was labeled a disseminator of “spiritual pollution” and the government banned him from making feature films. To avoid censorship, the Sixth Generation directors all made films without official permission, funded mostly by Europeans and screened only outside of China, mostly in Europe.
These filmmakers became my heroes. I wanted to meet them. I wanted to make films like them. I liked the way that having a camera in my hand gave me an excuse to poke into people’s lives and go where I wasn’t sure I was welcome. Everyone I knew in New York was starting to shoot their own documentaries with these affordable new digital video cameras.
When Nainai’s older sister offered up her apartment in New York to her relatives the summer before my senior year, I eagerly took her offer. It was a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side where Great-Aunt Mabel had raised her family after they immigrated to the States more than forty years before. The lease was in the name of a Chinese man long dead; the rent was two hundred and seventy-three dollars a month plus the cost of an anonymous cashier’s check. She was moving to Seattle to be near her son Johnny. I planned to live there that summer while interning at a publishing house and then move back after graduating, but without notice she “sold” the apartment to a perfect stranger for a thousand dollars. Having robbed me of my ancestral rent-controlled birthright, Great-Aunt Mabel then had me live with this person, her false heir—a horsy Chinese-American woman with an ugly boyfriend and a bad temper—for the entire summer and instructed us to tell anyone who asked that we were her granddaughters.
After graduating, moving back to New York was the logical next step, but I balked. Without my rent-controlled apartment, the future seemed like a terrifying void of boring office jobs and unfulfilled dreams. Even finding overpriced housing was deathly cutthroat. I’d heard a story of a friend of a friend who’d had to resort to desperate measures: She had an inside person working at The Village Voice who would call her before the paper went to press and whisper to her the details of apartments for rent, and I didn’t know anyone at The Village Voice. Plus, I’d lived in New York long enough to know that the city was just like a guy I was dating there: shiny and mesmeric as mercury and just as elusive. Slipping away right as I reached for it. I longed to be somewhere I could touch and be touched by.
Around this time I read Things, a novel by Georges Perec about a young couple that decamps from their blissful life in Paris and moves to Sfax, an obscure seaside city in Tunisia because—as I carefully copied into my journal—because Paris had become “a shrunken universe, a world running out of steam, opening onto nothing.” It was exactly how I saw life in New York unfolding if I moved there. Perec went on: “Puns, boozing, walks in the woods, dinner parties, endless discussions about films, plans, gossip had long stood in for adventure, history and truth.”
Adventure, history, and truth. I liked the sound of that.
Suddenly, I knew beyond a doubt what I was meant to do: Go to Beijing, find the filmmakers, and make a documentary about them. I wanted to kick my nerdy upbringing to the curb and chase that vision of myself that had flitted across the screen in Beijing Bastards. Imagine the street cred I’d have if it worked out! This wasn’t a plan that anyone with any common sense would have hatched. Luckily, I had none.
When my parents heard the news that I was moving to the country they’d fled almost fifty years before, they were less than happy. Things may be different today, but in the late 1990s no one in their right mind was moving to China.
“How about graduate school in English, Val?” asked my mom. “A job in publishing in New York? You had that summer internship.”
“It was great because it helped me figure out that I didn’t want to work in publishing in New York.”
“What is your Five-Year Plan?” my dad demanded, as if I ran my life like a socialist dictatorship.
“Five years?” I said. “I can barely think about the next five minutes!”
“Why go to China? Do you know how dirty the bathrooms are there?”
“I thought you would be happy. You made me learn Chinese growing up and whatnot.”
“You were pampered growing up,” said my mom. “You’ll see when you get there.”
“You’ll hate it there,” my dad assured me.
Before I left, each took me aside for a private talk.
“Val, I want you to watch out for men who will want to marry you for a green card.”
“Oh, Mom,” I said after I’d stopped laughing. “I don’t even like Chinese guys.”
Her expression shifted. “Val, don’t be so close-minded. If you find a nice one who you think can make it in America, don’t say no just because he’s Chinese. Keep an open mind.”
My dad warned me about corruption. “China is a place governed by relationships, not by the law. People will do favors for you and expect you to do favors in return,” he said. “Your Yeye had hated that about China and you have no experience dealing with it.”
“Plus, the customer service there is terrible,” he said. “Terrible.”
To them, me moving to China was a step backward that would unravel all the work they’d put into my life. They had achieved the Chinese-American dream: steady job, house in the suburbs, children through good colleges. I was supposed to repeat the pattern. I didn’t tell my parents that my dream was to make a documentary, to be an artist.
My dad also told me that Nainai still owned a courtyard house in Beijing. He had lived in it for two years of his childhood and all he remembered was that it was located on a wedge of land between two roads. He didn’t know much more than that.
As for Yeye, he found out on his deathbed that I was going to China; I never knew what he thought about it. I know only that he believed he could never go back to China because as soon as he stepped off the plane he would be captured and executed, even though we told him that anyone who might kill him was probably already dead.
The only member of my family who wholeheartedly approved of my decision was Nainai. “Life is slower in China. People don’t rush around like they do in America,” she said in a tender voice I wasn’t accustomed to hearing. “You’ll love it there.”
Fresh Tensions in U.S.–China Relations
I awoke with a start.
“Zao,” said Bobo. Good morning. I was lying in bed, earplugs in my ears, airline eyeshade over my eyes, but they were no match for the big color TV two feet behind my head, which Bobo had just turned on, loud. Bobo is Nainai’s eldest brother’s eldest son and was the relative in Beijing with whom she kept in closest contact. When I had moved to Beijing the week before, Bobo had graciously allowed me to stay with his family until I found my own apartment. He, his wife, their son Xiao Peng, and their daughter-in-law Xiao Lu lived in half of a small courtyard house in the old city. I slept on a folding cot in the living room.
“Zao,” I croaked out. I pulled off my eyeshade and looked at my watch. Six o’clock. Zao means both “good morning” and “early.” Early. Way too early for the TV to be on that loud. I lay still. My cot was wedged between the TV and a long couch that was covered in a sheet as if its owners were away on a long trip. The room had high ceilings, and across from the couch were a wide window and a tall door trimmed in lime green, which opened onto a walkway that opened onto a courtyard. Morning light straggled in and the air was heavy with coal soot. Bobo and Bomu were dressed and ready to go, except that they didn’t ever go anywhere. They were both retired teachers in their sixties and seemed to spend most of their time inside this dim, cluttered room watching TV, as if making up for a whole lifetime lived without it. Bobo is my dad’s cousin, and his turning on the TV briefly reminded me of my dad’s long-ago habit of waking me on Saturday mornings by flashing my bedroom light and clapping crisply, but Bobo seemed even sterner and more unyielding than my dad, with no apparent soft spot in his heart for me. Bomu was equally formidable. Slim and beautiful, she had big, sad, quietly judgmental eyes and she rarely smiled.
On the surface, we were excruciatingly polite to one another. Though I had always been the rebellious one in the family, with a flick of the switch into Chinese I had been instantly transformed into an obedient daughter who said whatever she sensed the other person wanted to hear. I could tell that my relatives were thinking much more than they were saying too, and the air was close with unspoken feelings.
“Not going to work today?” Bobo asked. I should have sprung lightly out of bed, but this morning I had had enough of the role-playing. I had come to China to get farther away from my family, not closer, and had somehow ended up living with these humorless old people who were proving to be a concentrated version of all the irksome traits of my parents. Plus, the house’s indoor plumbing was limited to a cold tap, so I hadn’t showered in days and the itch of my uncleanliness made me cranky. Let them see the real me, I thought.
I paused dramatically and said in my most acidic tone, “Of course I’m going,” before burying my face in the pillow. I willed the darkness to take me away—preferably to a soot-free apartment with a flush toilet, a hot shower, and no relatives. We had exchanged only a few choice words, but they were enough to uncork the bottle of gripes that we had all been filling for the days I’d been living with them. And who knew what tiffs had been simmering between them and my relatives in America for years? In the ringing silence, I could hear Bobo’s thoughts loud and clear: Disrespectful, ungrateful, spoiled American. I shot back with my own: Domineering Confucian overlords.
I was tired of sleeping on other people’s couches. I’d been doing it for two months already as I waited in New York for the sacred Z Visa that would allow me to work in Beijing. First on the couch (and in the bed) of my ex(ish)-boyfriend in Park Slope, who was two years older than I and whom I was madly in love with and who I was slowly realizing did not love me in return (was congenitally incapable of love, he claimed, wires got crossed somewhere).
When he kicked me out, I moved to the raw Williamsburg loft of three of my male college friends, one of whom was another ex. He was training to be a French chef, another was a sushi chef, and the third was broke and living off his parents while he procrastinated about making any decisions about his life. I too ran out of money but, refusing to ask my parents for any, went to a temp agency and ended up as a temp at the temp agency. My friends rented a sunny corner of the loft to a male painter who produced larger-than-life-size canvases of pinkish nudes with huge cocks. I slept on a soggy mattress positioned between the huge, looming cocks and a gigantic fan with exposed blades. It was summer and the loft had been full of clusters of coeds who inexplicably found my friends sophisticated and worth sleeping with. I wondered if they did it just so they could hang around the loft, which had great views of Manhattan. It was hard to tell. Everyone began sleeping with everyone else’s ex-girlfriend (except for me), and as the loft had no walls, only translucent partitions, the situation quickly deteriorated. I couldn’t wait to leave and have a room of my own far, far away.
Now I was here. After a few minutes of silent standoff with Bobo, I swung my legs over the cot and sat up. I put on my jacket and my shoes and discreetly unrolled a few squares of the plump roll of white toilet paper I had secreted in my bag. I refused to use their toilet paper, which had roughly the look and feel of tree bark and was constantly migrating around the house, first under a pair of glasses on the bookshelf, then on the dining table.
I passed through the walkway, lined with eight or nine cages each filled with a small, twittering bird, and went outside into the courtyard. Soft morning sunlight lit up the crooked gray paving stones and green plants of the small space, which was surrounded on four sides by the weathered wood of the house, painted a faded maroon. The yard was crowded with handmade brick planters and potted plants, cylindrical coal briquettes stacked underneath the windows, sturdy bikes covered by worn plastic tarps, and laundry lines hung with giant bloomers billowing gently in the morning breeze. Black soot dusted everything. I drew a deep breath of crisp fall air and my bad mood dissipated. I couldn’t wait to move out, but I would miss this charming, ramshackle oasis in the middle of the city.
Then the wind shifted and I caught a whiff of the slight, sweet miasma from the outhouse at the center of the courtyard. I held my breath and plunged into the small brick hut that contained only a porcelain squatter, a spigot, and a dirty little red bucket. When I had first gotten to Beijing, Bomu had been worried that the soft American cousin wouldn’t be able to handle the outhouse and had apologized profusely for the inconvenience. Ha! I was tough. I could handle anything. But my soft American backside was another matter, hence the secret roll of TP.
As I walked back inside, I thought back to my first jet-lagged night in Beijing, when I had fumbled my way out to the courtyard in the middle of the night to escape the stuffy, sleepless house. The cool air on my cheeks had come as a relief. I had sat on the edge of a brick planter filled with bamboo, put on my headphones, and pressed play on my Walkman; single guitar notes dropped like cooling lozenges into my ears as Elliott Smith’s mournful voice spun my insides into taffy.
There’s nothing here that you’ll miss
I can guarantee you this is a cloud of smoke
I had looked up, above the tiled roofline, above the skeletons of trees, up to the single tall apartment building looming in the darkness, its lights all extinguished. I had felt like the only one awake on this side of the world. I had looked up to the expanse of dark, starless sky opening above my head and breathed in the entirety of the heavens.
Trying to occupy space
What a fucking joke
What a fucking joke
After my early-morning blowout with Bobo, I took the subway to work. I worked as an editor for City Edition, a new English-language magazine. At the end of college, I had written a grant to make the documentary about the filmmakers, and when it didn’t come through, I’d decided to move to China anyhow. I’d found a job teaching English for a year in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing, and this year had made the leap to the big city.
The City Edition office was located down a maze of unnamed streets that seemed to have been tossed down to earth as haphazardly as pick-up sticks. I walked past a hotpot restaurant, past an enormous billowing smokestack, and through a black metal gate bedizened with five or six bronze plaques proclaiming the very long names of the various state agencies housed within, the largest of which was the enigmatic “Office of Defense Conversion.” Inside the gate was our six-story building, covered entirely in white tile like the inside of a bathroom. There was no elevator, and so of course we were on the top floor. In the hallway on the way to the office was the public squatter toilet.
The routine of putting out a magazine was relentless. Every two weeks we produced a magazine of twenty-eight pages. Twenty thousand copies of it were distributed for free at bars and hotels around town. I was the only editorial staff aside from my American boss Sue, who was often preoccupied with writing reports on obscure topics like soybean futures to finance the magazine. My job was to compile and design the twelve-page Entertainment Guide, write restaurant and art reviews, compile shopping guides, handle freelancers, copyedit stories, and if all that got done, write my own articles. Every issue, I went down a list and called every art gallery, aquarium, bar, cinema, club, shooting range, teahouse, and theater in town to see if they had events. The graphic designers laid out the magazine on computers that kept crashing because of the pirated software. After we checked the proofs of the magazine, it was sent to the printers, and the deliverymen distributed the magazine around town via tricycle. Once the paper was out, we did it all over again.
Like many start-ups, the magazine lacked basic organization. While I was in the States waiting for my visa, Sue had hired Leo to fill in for me. Leo was a recent engineering grad from Africa, and even though I’d arrived to take over, he still hung around the office every day, his awkwardness quickly turning to desperation. Sue told me that there’d been a coup in his home country, and because his father had been high up in the government, he couldn’t go home. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that his job was over and that she couldn’t sponsor his visa.
Most of the staff was women, from the Americans heading the departments down to the squadron of petite and bilingual Chinese staff, mostly saleswomen in pencil skirts and tiny pumps. The women had all chosen English names—Amy, Jean, June, Shannon, Shirley, Susan. There was also our intern Jade, a Chinese-American woman around my age who had come to Beijing to study Chinese at Capital Normal University. Now her course was ending and she needed to find a job, preferably in photography. Though I was the one on staff, Jade was the more confident and put-together one. Her hair was long and straight, her perfectly ovoid face as milky smooth as a porcelain doll’s, and her figure voluptuous. She made me see myself clearly: how sensible my shoes and clothes were, how short and nest-like my hair, how un-made-up my face. We gravitated toward each other, despite (or perhaps because of) our differences.
Sue had started the magazine with a buff Chinese man in his midthirties who had chosen for himself the English name Max. I wasn’t sure what he did at the magazine save for storm in and out of the office looking terribly busy, issuing the odd edict, and cutting a swath of testosterone through our nest of estrogen. He was also the one who dealt with the censors. Since City Edition was registered as a Chinese newspaper, we were subject to strict but amorphous regulations; one misstep could shut down the paper. The only other men in the office were a rotating squadron of petite and monosyllabic deliverymen and the American web designer Scott, chunky with the goatee, ponytail, and labyrinthine imagination of a role-player. He spent most of his time out on the balcony smoking and once casually asked me if I wanted to write about human smuggling, as he knew someone at the Canadian embassy who was smuggling people through Canada. At night a local gym teacher, Lao Li, Frankensteinian in build, slept on a little couch in our advertising room. It wasn’t clear why we needed a night watchman, who exactly was going to be breaking into our offices or why.
Sue was bilingual, frighteningly smart, and alarmingly tactless. She had moved to Beijing in her twenties like me, gotten married to a Chinese man almost twenty years her senior, moved back to D.C., and then back to Beijing in her thirties to run the US-China Business Council, which she had recently quit to start the magazine. She was turning forty soon. Today she wore a gray skirt suit and her stern Presbyterian face was adorned by a rare slash of lipstick, which served to make her more intimidating, not less. But when I told her about the living conditions at my relatives’ house, she softened.
“I have no idea where, or even if, they shower,” I said. “The other day my uncle put a pan full of water on the dining room table and washed his hair right there. I need to move out soon.”
“Max might be able to help you. He’s one of those Chinese people who doesn’t have a cent to his name but has access to apartments all over the city.”
I had no idea that such people existed. But I had noticed strange things about money here. In a supposedly Communist country where many were paid about ten dollars a month, the roads were filled with Mercedes-Benzes and the restaurants were bursting with fat men. Was this what my dad was talking about when he referred to corruption?
After work, I was supposed to go straight home because Bobo and Bomu didn’t think it was safe for a young woman to be out alone in the city at night. I got on the subway at the northeast corner of the city and took a seat on an empty stretch of bench. The subway was eerily out of character for Beijing—the high ceilings and heavy stone of the stations made it as hushed as a mausoleum, and the cars were clean, efficient, and unpeopled, like a monorail at a theme park. The subway had only two lines, one that followed the old city wall and another just a straight line, so most people biked, cabbed, or took buses around the city.
At the next stop, an old woman got on, and instead of choosing the seat that was mathematically calculated to be the exact farthest away from me and everyone else as possible, as someone in New York would do, she sat right next to me, her leg touching mine. I recoiled as if her fist had punched through a glass wall separating us. Between the subway snugglers, chatty cabdrivers, and nosy relatives, the lack of privacy in China was both a lot to adjust to and all too familiar. I scooted over. After riding the loop line halfway around, I exited the subway and headed up a street lined with beeper shops for the short walk home.
The street was alive at this hour. Rush hour traffic in cheerful primary colors jammed the four-lane street: yellow breadbox vans, tiny red cabs, and navy-blue Volkswagens were all weaving madly, straddling two lanes, tailgating, lollygagging, rattling, and honking noisily. Hulking red-and-cream city buses wheezed slowly down the street and in their shadows darted lithe little turquoise-and-white minibuses that illegally plied the same routes, a ticket taker always hanging halfway out the door yelling the bus number and hustling people on and off the bus. In the bike lane filled with leisurely cyclists, a horde of androgynous teenagers in matching school tracksuits swooped through. As saccharine love songs blared from shop speakers, I jostled with grannies hocking loogies onto the sidewalk and paunchy men in thin pants clutching pleather man-purses and talking on big cellphones. I was instantly part of the mad flow without having to exchange a word or even a glance with anyone.
Today the city had opened itself to me, but with each step closer to home, I felt my family closing back in. After our altercation this morning, I knew the food on the dinner table would be laced with corrosive, gut-twisting guilt.
Just before turning the corner to the house, I saw a noodle shop and suddenly veered in. I took a table at the back, away from the big picture windows, and ordered a bowl of beef noodles. The beef was thinly sliced, the noodles jagged and yellow, and the broth salty and hot and swimming with scallions. I ate happily, savoring my privacy and the fact that no one in the world knew where I was right then. My only company were the two glassy-eyed waitresses next to me, listlessly watching a TV that hung in a corner; on it the two unsmiling anchors of the national news sat stiffly in their bouffant hairdos against a blue background. I watched people pass by the window in the distance. It was the first time I’d felt relaxed in days.
I thought back to the first time I’d met Bobo and Bomu, a year earlier, and how much had happened since then. Shortly after I’d moved to Tianjin, six of my relatives rented a van to come visit me and we went out for a big banquet lunch. I then proceeded to, as family legend has it, eat them all under the table while they looked on in shock that such a tiny woman could fit so much food in her stomach. A Chinese banquet host is required to load food onto a guest’s plate, and while most know to leave a little bit on the plate, I thought the polite thing to do was finish everything, especially when it was so delicious, so they kept piling on more food, and I kept eating it all. My gluttony at this meal has passed into lore. I had already started falling in love with China before the lunch, but meeting them made me feel as though I truly had an anchor here. I began plotting my move to Beijing the next year.
The month after their visit, I took the three-hour train to Beijing and stayed with Bobo and Bomu in a large courtyard house, not the one they lived in now but a much bigger one down the street on Qianbaihu Hutong that they said was about to be demolished. Both houses were in Xidan, a quiet neighborhood of small hutongs, or alleyways, in the southwest corner of the old city a short walk from the Forbidden City.
Relatives came from all over the city to meet me. Some of them had evidently met me when they visited the States years ago. Bobo’s sister I remembered, mostly because she had brought me a pair of dangly earrings. She told me she had lived in Great-Aunt Mabel’s old apartment in New York for a year, the same apartment I lived in years later. Though she was a doctor in China, she had made a living in New York by wrapping dumplings for restaurants in Chinatown. She spoke no English, and when the phone in the apartment rang, she would pick it up and say her one English phrase, “You speak-a Chinese?” If the answer was no, she would hang up. My balding great-uncle with chipmunk cheeks I didn’t remember. He pulled out a photo of us sitting together on a park bench somewhere in America. I examined it. That was him (same chipmunk cheeks, more hair, fewer liver spots) and that was me (cute, oddly self-possessed, legs too short to reach the ground), but the photo brought back no memories. I felt shocked, as if I had been leading a secret life with these strangers all these years and only now was my past coming to light.
In the center of the courtyard of the house stood an apple tree, taller than the house itself and loaded with fruit. From a bough of the tree hung a cage with two small yellow birds. Bobo brought out a rough-hewn wooden ladder and we all took turns climbing up and throwing the apples down to a bedsheet held below like a trapeze net. Standing in the spacious courtyard, I felt connected to the basic elements of life: Above was an open canopy of sky, below were solid gray stones, and on all four sides was the wooden house, dark and warped with age. Just being there gave me a thrill, like I was stepping right into one of Nainai’s epic family dramas, the ones on videotape that she kept on constant rerun at home with the families fighting and scheming in their huge, pristine courtyard houses. This house was less than pristine, but to me it was beautiful, and when I told Bobo so, he looked pleased.
“My own small piece of heaven and earth,” he said.
A traditional courtyard house, it had four wings: They lived in the tallest northern wing, cooked in the eastern, and let me stay in the entire western wing, Xiao Peng’s old room. The southern wing was vacant and it was there that I took sponge baths with boiled water, just letting the bathwater soak into the concrete floor. I had to tie the door shut with a rag.
Xiao Peng and his wife, Xiao Lu, lived in a quarter of a small courtyard house ten minutes down the road, which they had to share with three other families.
After that first trip, I went back many times during the year I lived in Tianjin. Sometimes I would tell them I was coming to visit and cancel at the last minute, and they would call me a xiao pianzi, a little cheat.
Each successive time I visited them that year, more and more of their neighborhood had been demolished. They said the government was reclaiming the land to build an office building. People moved out of their houses and earthmovers came, their claws ripping through the quiet, old houses as if their walls were made of tissue paper. When I visited, Bobo and Bomu wouldn’t let me stay out past ten o’clock at night because, they said, you never knew who could be lurking in the rubble of razed houses that surrounded their own.
But as the year went on, they still didn’t move out and for some reason they wouldn’t tell me why. Neither would they tell me where they would go when they did, only that they were debating between a courtyard house in the old city and an apartment in the suburbs. “No, we don’t want to move,” they said. “Because we’re old people and old people like living in old houses.” They had gone to see an apartment in a tower block on the outskirts of the city and Bomu had pronounced it “asymmetrical, lopsided, terrible, like a pigeon’s cage.” Bobo had said, “Too many stairs. Too few friends.” They didn’t seem to mind that the courtyard house didn’t have a toilet or even an outhouse and that they had to use the public toilet out in the hutong.
I minded. The public toilet was a brick building surrounded by a moat of fecal odor so pungent it stopped me in my tracks at the door. I held my breath and forced myself into the dark chamber, where the smell kicked in the doors of my senses with a strong boot. The space was open and slats had been cut into a concrete floor. I squatted and added my contribution to the lot in the trench below. Once in the toilet I saw an old woman with sagging breasts wearing a T-shirt that read, I’M JUST HERE FOR THE BEER. The toilet was something of a party scene in the mornings, full of neighborhood grannies squatting and reading their newspapers at a leisurely pace, seemingly oblivious to being marinated in a foul miasma. As for me, I did my business as quickly as possible and fled before gagging or passing out. I always left with the sense that my delicate brain chemistry had been irrevocably altered.
Bomu apologized profusely for the inconvenience and dropped her voice to confide, “This house used to have a bathroom years ago.”
“Why doesn’t it now?”
I waited for her to tell it, but she didn’t.
I visited one last time in the summer to look for a job, contacting Western newspapers as well as the two English-language magazines in town, Beijing Scene and City Edition. I gave the editors a story I’d written about a man in Tianjin who’d started a league for American-style football.
On that visit, Bobo and Bomu’s house had been an island in a sea of deserted, half-demolished shells and piles of rubble. Bobo told me that they woke up one morning and found that someone had crawled over their wall at night and slept in the courtyard. It was during that last visit that I pried the truth out of them: The house didn’t belong to them but to Great-Aunt Mabel, who now lived in Seattle. They had been living in and taking care of her house for almost fifty years and were stalling to give her lawyer son Johnny time to negotiate with the government for a new courtyard house. He could do so because Great-Aunt Mabel held an American passport.
When I moved to Beijing in the fall, I had expected to find Bobo and his family ensconced in Great-Aunt Mabel’s new courtyard house with an entire wing set aside for me. Instead, they had moved to Xiao Peng’s small courtyard house, somehow acquiring another quarter of it from one of the three families. No one had uttered a single word about what had happened to the old house.
Back in the restaurant, I finished the last of my noodles, paid, and left.
“Manzou,” the waitress said automatically, as they all did when you left a restaurant. Take it easy.
Coming home, I wove around dark objects in the small courtyard. From the outside, the scene in the lit living room looked so peaceful: Bomu and Xiao Lu were clearing the dishes as Bobo sat in his easy chair watching the same news broadcast that had been on in the restaurant. Chillingly, it was the only show on TV. He looked older and more tired than my dad, as if life had been harder on him. After standing outside for a few minutes, I tiptoed in. My cousin Xiao Peng was nowhere to be seen. The room buzzed with tension.
“Where have you been?” Bobo demanded. His daughter-in-law Xiao Lu averted her eyes in embarrassment for me. A teacher of deaf children, she was quietly empathetic.
“I ate with people from work.”
“You should have called.”