I have loads of Chinese restaurant stories. They are definitely worth a book, as the Chinese restaurant is the surest window into Chinese culture you will ever find, with different social classes thrown together in a confined space and forced to deal with one another and get along. My latest only-in-China saga took place at the Library, a spacious establishment in the fashionable Jianwai Soho neighborhood in Beijing’s CBD. A trendy place, all three floors stocked with bookshelves and traditional hardwood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas as well for those who don’t like hard furniture. I have to say for a Chinese-run café the coffee is pretty good, along with the generous servings; even the medium-size mug is too large and heavy for comfort.
There is an unforgettable scene in the harrowing autobiography of a man living through the worst of modern Chinese history. In an Anti-Rightist Campaign struggle session in 1957, the crowd grows hysterical in its denunciations of Peter Liu and forbids him from smoking. Fearing they are about to become violent and might beat him to death, Liu asks the commander if he may go relieve himself in the WC outside the hall. Permitted to do so, he exits the building, gets on his bicycle, and rides home. The stunned interrogators are none too pleased by his brazen exit, but that’s not why he is soon sent off to over ten years of hard labor in the Chinese gulag, followed by another ten years of confined “employment.” In fact, his fate was already sealed long before when a PLA soldier discovered a firearm in the back of his family’s property that had been discarded in a junk pile by the retreating Japanese army.
“Wow, your skin is so white.”
“Only my butt is. My arms are darker than yours.”
“Your Chinese is really good.”
“Where are you from?”
“How long have you been in China?”
“You here alone or with your family?”
“Alone. My wife is back home.”
“Why did you come to China?”
“I like the contrast of cultures.”
“You don’t miss your family?”
“Not too much. I like living abroad.”
“What does she do?”
“Why didn’t you bring her with?”
“Is that so. Does she know you frequent these places?”
To track down Cookie, an elusive woman fleetingly glimpsed around his Beijing neighborhood, expat Isham Cook employs tips from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Simone Martini’s painting of the Annunciation and Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy. […]
China, Beijing, Haidian District. Beijing Foreign Studies University lay along the northern bend of the West Third Ring Road before the expressway veered eastward to become the North Third Ring Road. You could not find a more nondescript neighborhood in an already blank metropolis. You were not even in Asia; you were in something called a city. No lush greens in this austere university district, with tenement housing for campuses behind walled compounds manned by teenage guards in ill-fitting uniforms.
BFSU was split into two facing campuses across the elevated expressway. I lived on the west campus. A pedestrian underpass crossed over to the east campus where I taught my classes. Except for intersections and u-turn bays, the space under the expressway was requisitioned for public parking, turning the structure into an endless monolith. A university bisected by an expressway, where one would expect a commons: I had once sought some dour symbolism in this, until attributing it to the haphazard urban inventiveness that the Chinese excel in.
Flanking both sides of the expressway was the lower Third Ring Road for local traffic, a generous sidewalk on each side. I frequently walked north along the west sidewalk on the way to the Suzhou Street subway station, the Haidian bookstore district, and the computer district of Zhongguancun, with its megastores and restaurants. We need only be concerned with the first ten minutes of this walk, the roughly 700-meter stretch from the west campus to the busy intersection at Suzhou Bridge (an expressway overpass, not a water bridge).
The route offered a cross-section of urban society coming and going from a hodgepodge of shops and businesses. Let’s start at the campus gate and work our way along the length of the austere stretch.
“Can we go to Rexall’s today, Mom, can we?”
’Cause the drugstore on Chicago Avenue and Main Street has tons of plastic model battleships. I’m collecting them. I want to get them all. I found a secret way of paying for them after spending my allowance. When mom goes to the bathroom I take a dollar bill from her purse. As we walk to the drugstore, I run way ahead of her and place the dollar on the ground sort of hidden. Then I run back to her, hopping and skipping. Once more I run ahead of her to the spot, because now she can see me. I grab the dollar and rush back.
“Hey mom, look what I found!”
“I can buy a new model ship with it!”
I just turned nine years old. Being eight was fun. Last summer I went to Pioneer Day Camp. We made crafts. One day, I was waiting on the camp bus to go back home, and a girl sat down next to me.
Several months went by. It was near the end of the semester and summer was in full bloom. Students rushed past me as I emerged from the west campus one morning on my way to class. We are entangled in thought and never more blind to what is around us than when we head to work. The more focused you are within, the more fragmented the reality without. A big set of female hips glided toward me, disembodied in their heft, narrow waist, black slacks. I looked up. It was Cookie. Again with a friend, perhaps the same. We locked eyes as we passed. She turned around and smiled, recognizing me. She spoke to her friend and both looked back laughing, followed by a third lingering smile over her shoulder. We were far apart now. I should have been running over to talk to her, but the certainty I would be seeing her excused me from the chase, now that it was clear she was on campus. She seemed a little older today, in the morning glare, mid thirties perhaps, grittier, with pencil-accented eyebrows. Much too old to be a student, unless enrolled in the BFSU language-training center for adults, where they just might have been heading. Or a campus employee.
The encounter dramatically altered things. That was no ordinary smile; it was a full-blown flirtation. Now the entire stretch was aflame with expectation, along with the west campus, since the language-training center where Cookie might be studying was on the way to my apartment in the foreign experts building. The funneling effect of our daily physical proximity would inexorably tumble us together again. Day One had begun.