Part Two: A Fly Caught In Amber
A howl from the depths of hell woke Amelia the next morning, as it did every morning, at 6:00 a.m. She kept meaning to find out where such a soulful yell emanated, but never managed to get out early enough to hunt down the man with the massive lungs. She supposed it came from someone practicing qigong in a nearby park. It surely traveled at least three blocks and probably served as an alarm clock for 100,000 people.
The howler burst forth with four sets of five yells, each lasting 15 seconds and separated by breaths of 12 seconds. On sleepy mornings like this one, Amelia waited for the last set of five before getting out of bed.
Amelia was the only foreign expert she knew of in Beijing who lived in a Chinese apartment complex. She had managed this through the help of her local cousins. Cousin Bernard and his wife lived in an apartment provided by Bernard’s work unit. His wife’s work unit also supplied them with an apartment that used to be occupied by the wife’s mother. The elderly mother now lived at her grandson’s apartment, where she both gave orders to and was looked after by a country girl hired to care for the grandson’s young boy.
Country maids were making a comeback in Beijing. They came, either voluntarily or by necessity, from farming families in poor areas like Anhui province to the southeast of Beijing. They congregated under the Jianguomen underpass, waiting for people to hire them as maids or baby-sitters. Prostitutes had also taken to peddling their wares in the same area. Some of the country girls were so naive they competed with the prostitutes without meaning to. At her Radio Beijing workplace, Amelia had edited a report about a maid who was raped after she repeatedly tried to sleep with her employer. She was simply accustomed to households with only one bed.
Amelia’s cousins had a friend in the local Public Security Bureau who made sure the PSB looked the other way when Amelia moved into the empty apartment. She still retained the apartment given to her by Radio Beijing at the Youyi Friendship Hotel, but stayed there only after late night Youyi parties or when she felt the need of a shower with proper water pressure.
When Amelia lived at the Youyi she felt like she wasn’t really living in China. The Youyi was a kind of netherworld, inhabited by flotsam and jetsam from all over the planet. The ignorant tourists there thought Beijing was the Palace Museum, a trip to the Great Wall and some Beijing Roast Duck. They panned their video cameras around the ersatz Chinese garden at the Youyi compound and overpaid for everything.
Amelia didn’t think much of many of the Youyi’s pompous foreign experts either. The foreign experts derided the tourists but most of them remained in China because they weren’t qualified to get decent jobs back home. They always seemed to be complaining about something. Amelia needed occasional Western contact and frequented the Youyi Friendship Hotel complex for ex-pat parties and to visit friends, but she had no regrets about leaving her more luxurious Youyi apartment for her tiny Chinese one.
She got dressed and then washed some socks and underwear in the sink with the same White Cat detergent she used to do the dishes and clean the vegetables. She dexterously hung the wet laundry out the window on a long bamboo pole where the dusty Beijing air-dried and dirtied them again. Every window in her complex had its own brightly colored flag of drying laundry. Amelia paused at the window to admire the tapestry of clothing. The foreign experts in the Youyi either owned washing machines or sent their clothes to the hotel laundry. Amelia did the same back in the States but enjoyed emulating her Chinese neighbors.
Breakfast was rice porridge, homemade yogurt and fruit. Amelia had never even thought about making her own yogurt before coming to China, but her cousin Bernard had shown her how easy it was. She ate at a table that barely fit on her tiny enclosed balcony and looked out of a 12th floor window at four other apartment blocks identical to her own. She stuck out her tongue as she remembered the awful No. 8 dining hall at the Youyi where she used to choke down two greasy meals a day. Yes, things were much better since she’d moved out.
She washed her breakfast dishes and was proud of the neat order in her kitchen. She’d spent the previous Sunday thoroughly cleaning her apartment, scrubbing every inch of the place. The Youyi had daily maid service that often did as much to mess a room as tidy it.
"I’m really seeing Chinese life here," she thought. She saw the neighbor kids playing with each other and growing up. She saw what the Chinese brought home for dinner, and smelled their meals as she walked through the hallway. She noted how people dressed, what they spent their money on, and what they did on their days off. She observed everyday Chinese life; something the people at the Youyi got glimpses of at best.
This was one reason Amelia had come to China, and as much as she’d been disappointed with so many things—her job, travelling, the pollution, the apathy, the food, and her erstwhile boyfriend Aldous—she was determined to at least come away with a legitimate viewpoint of Chinese life. Although she may not enjoy every aspect of local life here, she was determined to have a real experience, and not the make-believe existence the Chinese concocted for the tourists and the foreign experts.
Amelia grabbed her work pass and left for work. As she was locking up, one of her neighbors passed by and answered Amelia’s "good morning." Increasingly, her neighbors were accepting her! Their children no longer stared at her when she entered the building. Conversation no longer stopped when she went down a hallway. Now she was even getting responses from her greetings to people.
The elevator was broken again; one reason why lower level apartments are more prized in China than a room with a view. Amelia didn’t mind taking the stairs. She was getting used to it.
Amelia’s apartment was only a five-minute walk to Radio Beijing, as opposed to the half-hour bus ride from the Youyi. Radio Beijing was housed in a monstrous, Soviet style structure on the west end of Chang’an Avenue. Actually, its street was named Fuxingmen here but it was the same as Chang’an Avenue, which went through about half a dozen name changes as it ran straight through the center of Beijing. Most of the big Beijing streets played chameleon with their names, so almost all the foreigners, and many of the Chinese, simply picked out the most popular stretch as the name for the entire street: Xidan, Chang’an, Wangfujing, Qianmen, etc.
The Radio Beijing building stood out because of the huge transmitting antennas protruding from the center of its roof. It reminded Amelia of the beginning of an old RKO movie. She kept expecting a lightning bolt to shoot out from the top. Radio Beijing broadcast around the world in 39 different languages. The English Department was its largest and most popular and only six foreign experts worked there. Amelia was the only one who spoke Chinese and the best worker. At one time she had been very proud of her job at Radio Beijing, a job she’d gone to great lengths to acquire, but that was a long time ago.
After making her way into the guarded complex by showing her work card, Amelia wound through the vast labyrinthine interior to the second floor offices of the English department. When she’d first started work here, she’d gotten lost a few times in dark, cavernous hallways twisting past randomly numbered rooms. Guards blocked several large sections of the building, restricting access to those with additional identification. Amelia had absolutely no idea of what went on in many parts of the gigantic building and she doubted anybody did.
Amelia remembered the first time she’d tried to make her way to a recording studio to do tapes for English textbooks—a side job for which she was paid extra. Somehow she’d taken a wrong turn and happened across a large room filled with the strangest machine she’d ever seen. It looked as if several archaic telephone switchboards were connected in series to the plumbing system. A nearby room contained a titanic wall map of the world, labeled with different colored blinking lights and Cyrillic lettering. After finally finding the studio and completing the recording of sample English sentences for a textbook emphasizing proper etiquette ("Is it polite to spit on the floor?") and a book describing a trip to Canada ("This is the home of Comrade Norman Bethune."), she’d somehow found her way back to her office.
She’d asked dozens of people about these two strange rooms but no one knew anything at all about them. Even now, after a year and a half on the job, she still sometimes felt that entering the Radio Beijing building was like entering the Twilight Zone.
As usual, Amelia was the first person to arrive in Current Affairs; she wasn’t early, everyone else was late. She dropped by the Newsroom to get the key to the Current Affairs office. She also picked up the latest Xinhua (the official government news agency) copy from the Teletype machine. After opening the door and returning the key to the Newsroom, Amelia entered the silent office, plopped down at her desk and started another day of work.
The Xinhua copy held more than its usual share of quirky tidbits amid the ordinary drab reports on grain output, general corruption, and inflated joint-venture success statistics. One report included the startling statistic that one in 100 Chinese children was retarded. This figure seemed high enough to Amelia and she knew the real figure must be higher. Xinhua never explained the source for any number.
One blurb told of a young farmer who found a pterodactyl fossil in 1986. He brought the fossil to the local authorities, who rewarded him with a color TV and 500 yuan. Upset that they didn’t share in the reward the farmer’s fellow villagers mistreated him. The village elders declared the farmer’s removal of the fossil upset the village’s harmony with the "dragons of the earth." Xinhua cited a China Youth News story reporting that the young farmer recently committed suicide "because of the jealousy and calumny." Amelia wondered about the plausibility of suicide for a young man with such newfound riches. She had heard reports of villagers beating and robbing neighbors who got too wealthy. Amelia thought the young farmer was probably murdered.
Another story reported a daring train robbery on the Shanghai-Hangzhou line. Six armed men held up several cars, wounded some people, and jumped off the train. Authorities were setting up an "iron dragnet" to hunt them down.
"Nestle deal is ‘offally’ good," headlined the next blurb. A Beijing foodstuffs company traded rabbit offal for coffee, coffee creamer, and milk powder with the Nestle Company. Since 1986, the company had exported 130 tons of offal to Nestle, who used it to make dog and cat food.
One of the corruption stories told of a peddler arrested for tax evasion. The peddler complained that for the past three years tax collectors came to his stand and took clothing in lieu of tax money. Following in a Xinhua tradition of tossing in unrelated statistics at the end of a story, this copy concluded with figures on forged receipts.
"Chinese children are better at math than their American cousins," read the beginning of the next report. The primary explanation was that the American children "spent half of their class time without leadership." Also, the American mothers’ evaluation of their child’s performance was higher than that of Chinese mothers, even though the American children scored lower in tests. A Chinese psychologist said, "This indicates that Chinese and American cultures have differing beliefs in the importance of education." The thesis derived from a study involving 20 Chicago schools and 11 schools in Beijing. Amelia wondered which of the worst Chicago schools they’d picked for their study.
The best story of the day involved a couple who purchased a black market baby. The couple already had a daughter and wanted a boy. Because of the "One Child Policy," they could not have another child without facing a stiff fine and other penalties, so they illegally bought an infant boy. Several days after the purchase, the baby’s "little sparrow" (Xinhua’s euphemism for "penis") fell off. The child was actually a girl with a fake penis glued on.
Nothing caught Amelia’s eye for the reporters. She needed to assign something simple or else most of them wouldn’t complete it. Even an easy, one source story needed to be coaxed or nagged out of them. Sometimes Amelia felt like a baby-sitter.
She looked over the "Troop Movement Sheet" left by Dan, a Canadian foreign expert, from yesterday’s afternoon shift:
Silk Worm Wars -- Jun Hao (being written)
Joint Venture Hotels—Tong Zhijuan (expected soon)
Women Body Builders -- Ru Jie (ready for polishing)
Chinese Medicine -- Lu Yaping (being written)
Fashion Shows -- Du Meili (??? sick?)
--- Li Zhenqiang and Wang Shugan ready for topics.
--- Liu Guozheng is still sick.
Amelia knew she would be pressed to come up with topics for Li Zhenqiang and Wang Shugan. They certainly wouldn’t find one on their own. She leafed through the newspapers for a possible story.
Paul, a foreign expert from Australia, walked into the room. He was a large man with a great bushy red beard. He wore shorts, sandals without socks, and an old T-shirt picturing Foster’s beer.
"Paul," said Amelia with surprise, "I thought you were working the early morning shift this week. Don’t tell me the car didn’t show up again." Amelia had heard that the car assigned to pick up Paul had failed to arrive for the past three days.
"Then I won’t tell you, but I’ve bloody well told every one else in the department. Fortunately, it’s not the mucking middle of winter like the last time this happened. I’ve talked to the director and he told me to come in on the regular morning shift until further notice." Paul seemed happily resigned to his fate; the car was scheduled to depart mornings at 4:30 a.m.
This had happened once before, last December, and it had taken weeks to resolve the problem. As far as Amelia could tell, the director simply waited until a driver could be persuaded to work the shift.
"It’s just crazy they can’t force the drivers to do their job," said Amelia.
"What can they do?" asked Paul. "Last December I naively asked the director why he simply didn’t fire the driver. He laughed at me and said ‘things in China are much more complicated than that.’"
"So what are you going to do during this shift? I can give you one script to polish, but there’s hardly enough to keep you busy all day," said Amelia.
"I’ll play video games in the Newsroom for a while, then I’ll read the papers, and maybe chat a bit. I’ll take a long lunch break, come back and polish a script or two. If anyone shows up for the 1:30 speech improvement class I’ll teach that for you, then I’ll take off for home. A regular Chinese worker’s day."
"No," laughed Amelia, "you’ve scheduled in too much work. When do you switch over to the afternoon shift?"
"In three days," said Bruce. "You’d best warn the person who has the early morning shift after me. Who is it—Dan?"
"No," said Amelia, "its Katherine. I’ll see her this afternoon. I’ll let her know."
Bruce left for the Newsroom to play "Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards" on the computer as Jun Hao came in with a wave and a smile. Jun Hao went to his desk, put on his tape recorder headphones, and slowly pecked away at an ancient typewriter. Ru Jie and Tong Zhijuan came in together chatting. They sat down at their desks and continued their conversation.
Amelia wondered what Aldous was up to. She hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Perhaps he’d taken off again on a random wandering through China. Recently, she seemed to think of him only when depression settled in. She was long past the foolish notion that she loved him. The few weeks during which she could only feel hatred and revulsion towards him had faded into memory. She had even quit worrying about Aldous getting her into trouble.
Out of curiosity she decided to give Paul a note for him. Aldous did not have a telephone in his Youyi apartment, but he had built up an elaborate series of connections among the "fus" (short for fuyuan, meaning housekeepers) who worked there. A note left at the front desk of any building would quickly make its way to the fu in Building No. 8, doorway 16. Most of the Youyi fus acted as if Aldous was their employer, thanks to his endless hours spent doling out bribes and favors. She scribbled out a few lines to him, just to check if he was still in town. The last time she’d seen him he’d told her some interesting things about the student demonstrations, so she asked if he’d seen anything interesting with regard to this
One of the writers of the regular Radio Beijing feature "Idioms and Their Stories" dropped off a script for Amelia to polish. She usually enjoyed working on these scripts. They were far more entertaining than the other regular features." In the Third World" was filled with dry statistics about grain production in Mozambique. More drab statistics riddled "Travel Talk"—precise dimensions of temples and population breakdowns of provinces. The "Cooking Show" taught 1,001 ways to cook with monosodium glutamate, while the "Music Album" seemed to be forever searching for more superlatives to use for descriptions of "cha-cha" tunes.
The worst feature was probably "Listener’s Letterbox." Over half of the incoming letters for this show came from the same American madman in Pennsylvania. He forever wanted to know the population and capital of every province, the exact dimensions of the largest Chinese lake (river, mountain, tree, bridge, dam, etc) and if all Chinese ate rice. Radio Beijing dutifully answered all of his asinine questions. A person from Sri Lanka wrote to ask how China controls its rat population. (Amelia wondered if they needed some quick advice.) Radio Beijing replied that exact rat statistics are taken by sprinkling talcum powder around holes and later counting up the footprints. A Zambian woman wanted to know about Chinese minorities. "Listener’s Letterbox" responded with horrid stereotyped descriptions: "the brightly clothed Miao people had strong backs and were good with their hands;" "the hairy Hui people shunned pork but were excellent farmers."
Lu Yaping came in and browsed through the Chinese newspapers. Li Zhenqiang appeared, told everyone about a rock concert he saw the night before, and called friends on the telephone. After noticing that Jun Hao’s tortoise-like typewriting had stopped completely for several minutes, Amelia went over and helped him get past a few sentences.
A body appeared at her elbow and Amelia looked up at familiar thick glasses and a toothy smile. All Amelia knew about this guy was that she always saw him with ear phones, listening to Madonna or Whitney Houston, and that he had a side job writing the subtitles for English songs played on CCTV.
He accomplished the side job despite his rudimentary English skills. He utilized his winning smile to persuade foreign experts to listen to songs and jot down the lyrics. Then he pulled out an English-Chinese dictionary and did a condensed, word-by-word translation. Amelia had once seen him interpret the following line from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, he is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored." A retranslation of his Chinese was "I watched God trample the angry grapes."
Amelia sighed and put in the earphones. At first she could make no sense of the voices, which were all distorted, high-pitched, or speeded up. Then she realized these songs were the themes from cartoons: "The Littles," "Transformers," "She-ra" (or was it "She-ba?"), among others. She did her best to write out the silly lyrics.
The gnome with the headphones thanked her profusely and then sat at a nearby desk to write up his translation. He asked her a question every other line.
"What is the difference between an autobot and a flying robot?" He pointed to a line from "Transformers" that Amelia heard as: "autobots use their panels to defeat the evil forces of the deceptive ones."
"Good question," thought Amelia. "They’re just fancy robots," she said. "Call them ‘big robots.’"
Later, she looked over and read one of his Chinese lines: "See the little people travel on the hair of an African."
"What is this line from?" she asked.
"It’s from ‘The Littles,’" he replied. "The show is about the lives of tiny people."
"Yes, but I don’t remember anything about Africans in that song," said Amelia. "Show me what I wrote down."
Amelia’s line read: "See them travel to and fro." The guy had looked up "fro" in his dictionary and come out with the Chinese for "African hair." No wonder the Chinese had so many misconceptions.
She went back to "Idioms and Their Stories." This week’s idioms had to do with perseverance and fortitude: "Zhi Yao Gong Fu Shen, Tie Zhang Mo Si Zhen," meaning "steady work grinds an iron rod into a tiny needle"; and "Yi Bu Zuo, Er Bu Xiu," meaning "abandon a task, or keep at it until completion." After dutifully listing the pronunciation tones for each idiom (third, fourth, first, first, first, second, third, second, fourth, first for the former; and fourth, second, fourth, fourth, fourth, first for the latter) the script delved into their stories, usually derived from ancient myth and generously embellished by the Radio Beijing writers.
Both tales had to do with men who wanted to quit their studies but were inspired to go on and become famous scholars. In the first, a man sees an old woman grinding an iron rod into a needle and is moved by her unwavering diligence. In the second, a man tells his mother he is quitting his studies and she cuts in half a long cloth she had been weaving to help finance him. Filled with shame, he completes his studies and becomes a famous scholar (Mencius).
Amelia found neither of these stories very inspiring and suspected most Chinese felt the same way.
At least Amelia was back in the Current Affairs section. She’d spent the previous two weeks in the Newsroom, counting the days before she’d be back in Current Affairs. The boredom of Current Affairs was infinitely preferable to the major annoyances she faced in the Newsroom.
First off, the Newsroom cigarette smoke nearly killed her! China is the leading producer and consumer of cigarettes. About three fourths of the post-adolescent male population smokes. The Newsroom population of a few dozen was almost entirely male and all of them were chain-smokers. In contrast, Current Affairs was smaller, more than half female and its room was never fully populated because the reporters were frequently out covering (or pretending to cover) stories.
She’d tried complaining, nagging, and extensive coughing but could do nothing to improve the quality of the air in the Newsroom. She was finally reduced to sitting next to a window and blowing a fan past her face. Even with this she would come home with clothing that reeked of pungent Chinese tobacco fumes.
More importantly, the Newsroom was also the home of one of the symbols of the greatest failure in her Radio Beijing career, a symbol of incompetence and growing disillusionment, a symbol of frustration and deceit—it was the home of the VAX computer. In and of itself, it was a good machine, expensively purchased from the US. After her first glimpse of the computer, Amelia, still fresh-faced and optimistic after two months on the job, was impressed and excited about using it.
She remained hopeful even after discovering that the machine did not suit their purposes; they used the computer for word processing and it was better suited for number crunching. When she learned of the bug-ridden and downright unusable nature of the English Department’s software package, she saw her first big chance to prove herself to her employers.
For a time back in the States, Amelia worked as a computer clerk for the U.S. Geological Survey. With the help of the programmers there, she’d learned how to program, and quickly became so adept that she moved up to a programming position. She had a real knack for computer programming and was rather proud of her ability.
On her own, Amelia had set to work on the problem. First she compiled a list of the major flaws of the Radio Beijing VAX software package. Basically, the program passed news copy along to a series of ever ascending levels of editors. Each editor would change the copy for censorship reasons. However, the security system could be gotten around without even trying and many users accidentally found themselves in restricted menus reserved for high level editors. The unwieldy program sent the user through a multitude of unnecessary prompts before the simplest task could be completed. Plus, the prompts were all in Chinese, rendering it nearly impossible for the foreign experts to use. Worst of all, the damn thing somehow managed to lose some stories immediately after they were typed in. (Much later, a jaded Amelia thought this was the best feature of the program.)
Next, she’d spent an afternoon talking with the new director of the English Department. He’d nodded sympathetically as Amelia listed her grievances against the computer and her plans to rectify the situation. Agreeing that the computer provided monumental headaches for the department, he recommended that she talk to one of the dozen or so computer people who maintained the machine.
She’d needed to ask directions to the small computer room tucked away in a corner of the building and was surprised at the number of workers packed inside. Over time, she’d learned that more than half of them had doctorate degrees in computer science from Chinese universities. They spent their days sleeping, playing computer games, writing resumes to foreign universities and occasionally making a stab at correcting the bug-ridden software package code. They’d hacked away at the code for half a year without noticeable improvement. She learned that the VAX was originally purchased for a networking project that had never materialized. Searching for a use for the machine, the managers purchased editing software from a Chinese university whose writers evidently had little concept of the program’s necessary functions.
Amelia saw that people in the Newsroom lined up to wait to use an old PC while ten terminals to the VAX stayed vacant. She scheduled a meeting with the director and the assistant director of the English department and presented a simple and direct solution. Since most people found the VAX unusable, why not simply sell the machine to an engineering school (for which it was perfectly suited) and buy five or six more PCs connected in a local area network? Amelia could rewrite the code for the editing program, porting it over to the PC in a few weeks.
The director and assistant director were understanding but claimed their hands were tied. The assistant director eventually revealed that a man at a position higher than the director made the decision to buy the VAX machine. The director felt he couldn’t sell the VAX because the higher-up might lose too much face.
Amelia wondered why they simply hadn’t told her this the first time she came to them. Then she remembered it was Chinese bureaucratic tradition to pass people on to someone else instead of leveling with them the first time around.
Instead of giving up at this point Amelia persisted in trying to persuade the director to let her fix the software problems with the code. Even though she was far from a crack programmer, she knew she could produce something infinitely better than what they used. After some initial stall tactics, the director gave her the go-ahead for this project. However, she would have to work with the Radio Beijing programmers in order to make any changes.
Giddy with excitement, Amelia had jumped into this project with great enthusiasm, often working beyond her regular hours to be able to both write code and continue her normal duties of polishing scripts and working with reporters on news stories.
The project progressed well—for the first week. Amelia didn’t mind that she did about ten times as much programming as the rest of the computer department combined. She had long gotten used to the sad reality that most Chinese don’t work very hard at their jobs. She felt more sorry for them than upset.
Then Amelia started to notice peculiar things happening when she ran her program. At first she put this down to her inexperience, but it became evident that someone was messing with her code. She questioned the programmers, at first politely and then in a more accusatory tone, but they all denied any sabotage. She took to hiding her code in other directories and renaming sections to disguise them from prying eyes.
It took her two and a half months to finish the coding and debugging. It wasn’t perfect, but it was easy to use, did everything they needed, and had English prompts as well as Chinese. The programmers milked two more weeks out of the project by claiming some frivolous features were necessary. It became clear to Amelia that they would do anything to stall the project. She finally had to avoid them and work entirely on her own.
When Amelia proudly announced the project’s completion to the director and assistant director she found them strangely subdued and even a bit cagey about the whole thing. They said some of the programmers had complained to them about Amelia’s use of sections of the program purchased from the Chinese University in her code, and this would put them in violation of copyright laws.
It was true—Amelia used parts of the old program to save time. She was furious at the programmers for not saying anything to her. They were supposed to have been helping her and it would have been easy enough for her to rewrite the parts she borrowed—if she’d been told it was necessary.
But of course it wasn’t really necessary. The programmers and the director didn’t give a damn about copyright laws; all the software on the PC, including the often-used WordStar, was pirated. The director simply didn’t want to face the wrath of his useless computer staff, who were losing face by having a foreigner (a female foreigner too) finish a project they had been working on for so long. The director wouldn’t dream of trying to fire his entire computer staff and risk having to explain to his superiors. He hinted she should drop the software project and go back to her normal routine.
It took about a week, and half a dozen other excuses, before Amelia fully realized the futility of trying to improve the computer situation. The entire incident both infuriated and humiliated her; one of several that dulled Amelia’s natural ambitious enthusiasm around Radio Beijing.
Now she cringed every time she entered the Newsroom and saw the VAX.
There was one more reason why Amelia found the Newsroom disturbing and forever longed to work in Current Affairs. While this reason was a far less emotionally draining than her computer ordeal, Amelia found it insidiously chilling.
The Radio Beijing news stories all came from Xinhua, the official government news agency and the Chinese equivalent of the Soviets’ Tass. Xinhua sent stories over the wire directly to the Newsroom as soon as they churned them out. These stories arrived already translated into English and polished by Xinhua foreign experts.
The two dozen or so people in the Newsroom spent the vast majority of their time goofing off. Whenever they were short of stories for an upcoming report, a few of them would look over what had come through the Xinhua wire and select a story at random for broadcast.
The story was first OK’d by the executive Newsroom editor. This man actually did some work, as he had to balance topics, check the lengths, and do a final edit of everything about to be broadcast.
After a story’s approval, the Newsroom workers rewrote it, usually just by changing a word or two in the original Xinhua story, flipping a sentence around, and cutting out some information. This took roughly three to four minutes.
Then the story was passed on to the foreign expert. Her job consisted primarily of undoing the errors introduced during the rewriting of the story and adding in the usually crucial, cut out information. Amelia often found herself abandoning the confusing, reworded story and rewriting the story directly from the Xinhua copy.
Amelia wasn’t allowed to use the computer when she made her corrections. She wrote them over in pencil; the idea being that the writer could improve his English writing ability by studying the corrections. In reality, it was just another masterful way to waste time. The Newsroom workers mechanically made the corrections, their only concern being to get the story out quickly so they could get back to eating, talking, and playing computer games. Their jobs were unnecessary and three times too many people worked at them. No one cared in the Newsroom.
The whole thing became more absurd when the story was then handed back to the executive editor for a final check. The executive editor always made some changes to the story, even though mistakes were infrequent after leaving the foreign expert. Often political reasons spurred a change, even though the story was derived from the official news agency. The executive editor changed adjectives and verbs, toning them down or up, to reflect his perception of the current political viewpoint. Friendly governments were always shown in a favorable light, while those out of favor were always disparaged. The executive editor invariably introduced some errors during these final changes but that’s how the Newsroom stories went out. Amelia believed the news broadcasts might be improved if the Xinhua copy was handed directly to the announcers, by-passing the Newsroom altogether.
The thing that bothered Amelia was that after a while she caught herself changing stories to get them into the "correct" political perspective. She started using insinuating adjectives for anything the Vietnamese did in Kampuchea. She began to write in the government sponsored Five Principles For Peaceful Co-Existence whenever she could. Most important, she always took care to describe anything done by the Chinese government in the most positive, laudable manner possible. It was as if the convoluted censorship process in the Newsroom created such a bureaucratic morass that it created a subconscious desire in her to see stories sail through as efficiently as possible. It didn’t matter if people in Tibet were shot or electric cattle prods were used on African students’ testicles, a good Radio Beijing worker had to convince the world that the Chinese government, and its soldiers and police, could do no wrong.
That evening, Amelia walked a few short blocks to a large hotel on Chang’an to catch a cab. She hated taking cabs, but she was in a hurry. Beijing cab drivers were among the highest paid people in the city. They were very choosy about whom they picked up or where they would go, and could usually only be found at the airport or around the large hotels. Many young Beijingers aspired to be wealthy cab drivers.
"Waihui?" questioned the driver the instant Amelia entered the cab. He wanted to make sure she would pay in FECs. Despite her half-Chinese heritage and near fluency in Mandarin, Amelia was never mistaken for a local.
Amelia knew he would refuse to take her if she told him she had a government white card. Foreign workers who got paid in renminbi received white cards that supposedly gave them the right to use renminbi for payment. Technically, it was illegal to refuse to accept renminbi from a legitimate white-card holder. Unfortunately for Amelia, more and more people rejected the white card and the government did nothing to uphold its validity.
Although the white card was, in practice, almost useless, Amelia refused to give up her right to pay in renminbi. She ignored the driver, pretending to be a tourist who didn’t understand the language, and demanded, in English, that he take her to the Shangri La Hotel. She was headed there to see her good friend Chris, a Canadian woman who lived at the Youyi, who was leaving the country tomorrow and had arranged a farewell dinner party.
When they arrived at the hotel, the driver saw Amelia take out her white card and start counting out renminbi.
"No! No!" he shouted, "waihui, waihui." He pointed to a sign on his dashboard giving him permission to accept FEC.
"Sorry but I have a white card. You’ll have to take renminbi." Amelia switched to Chinese and held out her fare along with her card.
The driver ignored the renminbi and took the white card. He examined it carefully, methodically opening the flaps and nosily reading through the list of Amelia’s purchases. The regulation was for each vendor to jot down a record of the purchase whenever a white card was used. In practice this was rarely done and Amelia had only about a dozen entries marked down.
"This isn’t white," he pronounced, "it’s yellow."
Amelia groaned inside. "They used to be white. They changed them last fall. You know that as well as I do."
The driver continued to examine the white card, even though there was clearly nothing left to examine. He gave out a dramatic, multi-pitched growl that Amelia took for an energetic "Ah ha!" "This card is a fake," he declared.
"It’s not a fake!" Amelia cried. "You’re lying again. You have to take the renminbi."
The driver electronically locked all the car doors and put the cab in gear. He made a left turn down a long, dark street and drove through an empty lot behind the hotel.
Furious, distraught, and afraid all at once, Amelia started screaming for him to stop the cab. The driver made an unexpected left turn onto a road leading past a lonely screwdriver factory. A right turn would have led him back to the main thoroughfare. A note of panic jumped into Amelia’s yells; this guy might try to hurt her.
Finally, the driver stopped. He grabbed her weakly by the arm and shook her while yelling: "You’re the one who’s cheating me—pretending to be a tourist. Pay me in FEC!" Amelia quickly realized his antics were only designed to scare her. She wanted to punch him in the nose, but could not stop herself from crying. She sensed a smirk on the face of the driver as he watched her. Her fear lessened and her indignation rose. Why did they have to be such greedy bastards! She hated this!
Her crying must have unnerved the driver somewhat because he started scanning the surrounding area to see if anyone was watching. Amelia dropped the renminbi on the driver’s lap. He looked at it as if it were a piece of dog shit. Then he warily held a note up to the light with two fingers, scrutinizing, as if it wasn’t real money.
Amelia sat anxiously for two minutes waiting for her change. While tipping was becoming more widespread, it is officially not allowed in China. In any case, she certainly wasn’t going to give this asshole any more than the fare. The driver simply sat there examining the renminbi with loathing. Finally, he ordered her to go.
Amelia went into a harangue: "I work for Radio Beijing and will do a story about bad taxi drivers like you. I’m here to help your government! It’s not my fault you don’t like your own money. I’m not a rich person. I’m paid in renminbi. You give me my change or I’ll copy down your taxi number and report you to the police."
"Meiyou," he replied coolly, which every foreigner in China quickly learns means both "don’t have" and "we might have it but I don’t feel like giving it to you."
Amelia knew he was lying because as she entered the cab she’d noticed him counting a large stack of money, both renminbi and FEC. She’d seen him put it inside the hump separating the two front seats. She quickly opened the hump, and pointed to the money.
"What’s this then?" she bawled. "You have lots of money and you’re still a cheat. You’re a bad man." Amelia wished for a more expressive Chinese vocabulary and better control of her quivering voice.
The driver slammed down the hump and told her to leave, but then he had second thoughts; her change was only about four yuan. He gave her all her change except for a measly three mao. Just like these creeps to rip you off some, thought Amelia, no matter how little, just for spite. Further argument was beyond her; it was already silly to let this jerk get her so worked up. She left the cab with a slam of the door and tried to compose herself as she walked back to the hotel’s front entrance.
From the outside, the joint venture Shangri La Hotel resembled the tall, ugly apartment blocks that surrounded it. Inside was a charmless modernity that rendered the place indistinguishable. It was clean and spacious though and definitely not Chinese. It had long been a retreat for Amelia from the dusty filth and crowding of everyday life in Beijing.
The first thing Amelia did after entering the Shangri La was to walk by the coffee shop—just to smell the freshly ground imported coffee.
After enervating shopping excursions with Chris and other friends, they would all collapse with exhaustion at this coffee shop. Here they would drink real coffee and happily pay FEC for it. One sip would melt away the dry taste of hot, dirty, corrugated metal covered antique shops. Just being able to sit down without having a horde of people around them was a treasure. Reanimated, they would proudly review their haul—expertly acquired after ferreting out the few remaining bargain areas and adeptly negotiating prices people back home wouldn’t believe—while they savored the tranquility of the quiet Shangri La coffee shop.
Amelia hadn’t been here for a long time though. Lately she’d been spending her spare time reading long Russian novels she’d always wanted to finish but had never gotten around to, or practicing calligraphy, which she studied with one of her Radio Beijing colleagues. She also kept getting sick. Since coming to China she seemed to catch something every few weeks, usually a nasty cold or an intestinal disorder.
Shopping in Beijing had lost the attraction it once held for her and this was the main activity that drove her to the sanctuary of the Shangri La coffee shop. She now found shopping too irritating—fighting with lethargic salespeople, never finding her size, or laborious travels to shops where two days before she’d seen stacks of something she wanted, only to find none left. She was sick of hearing "meiyou" and tired of lame excuses given by indifferent (at best) salespeople. During her last shopping expedition she’d visited three different stores and at each one was told she couldn’t have the item she pointed to in the display case because the salesgirl with the only key left early for the day. Must have been the excuse of the day.
Increasingly, everything for sale in Beijing seemed like junk to her, and the costs of many items had risen to three or four times last year’s prices. Even her favorite shopping hideout, the dilapidated sheds to the northeast of Tiantan (the Temple of Heaven) were picked clean of any genuine buys and now mostly sold cheap imitations at outrageous prices.
The smell of the coffee shop had the effect of calming Amelia. "I feel like Pavlov’s Dog," she thought. She tried to restore her enthusiasm for the dinner. For a week she’d eagerly anticipated a big blowout at the new Italian restaurant in the Shangri La. The word was this place accepted white cards until the end of the month. Foreign businesses did not have to officially honor the white card but apparently the Shangri La management desperately wanted to get their Italian restaurant off the ground.
Amelia straightened out her clothing and made her way downstairs to the Italian restaurant. It was much smaller than she’d expected and badly decorated with tacky chairs and incongruous pictures of butterflies and racing cars. A huge display table covered with showy foreign wines and cheeses amid garlic strands and wilting flowers took up most of the restaurant’s floor space.
She spotted her party seated in a corner and was surprised to see several strangers. Besides Chris, her husband John and her girl friend Karen and her husband Herve, there were four of John’s colleagues from CCTV’s English Service. Amelia didn’t know John’s colleagues, but during introductions she recognized some of their names from the credits following CCTV’s short television broadcast of the news in English.
Amelia took a seat near Chris and Karen but her attention sometimes drifted away from her friends’ chatter. Three of the CCTV bunch at the opposite end of the long, narrow table were young males, smartly dressed and lively. Two spoke with British accents. Despite past experience, she found herself secretly watching them for signs of "Mr. Right."
"Don’t tell me you haven’t packed yet!" Karen’s energetic exclamation to Chris deflected Amelia’s furtive glance off of one of the CCTV men.
"Oh, I have most things put aside," said Chris. "I’ll just pack them up tonight and tomorrow morning."
"Chris," scolded Karen, "your plane leaves at 10:15 in the morning."
"Oh, I know, I’ll be up late tonight. We’ll manage," said Chris, smiling wearily. Amelia agreed with Karen in thinking Chris imprudent. At this moment she could hear John discussing plans with his work mates to meet at a bar after dinner. John was good-natured and always jovial but he would invariably drink too much tonight. Chris had said he’d spent most of the week finishing off his prodigious supply of foreign liquor. But Chris was the sort of person who blithely drifted past insurmountable obstacles. Amelia had no doubt she would somehow manage to get their belongings, a hung-over husband, and two cranky kids out the door in time to catch their plane. She didn’t envy her though.
The party had already polished off a bottle of imported wine and the CCTV crew called for another bottle. Two of them seemed to be wine connoisseurs, studying the wine list intently and discussing the relative merits of each vintage. Amelia started to find the one in the gray sweater very attractive. Was his name Jeffrey? His impeccably neat appearance and the confident smile on his face impressed her. Although she couldn’t hear most of his conversation, the people near him thought his witticisms humorous. She heard him praise the current bottle of wine.
Amelia took an appraising sip. She knew almost nothing about wines, but could tell this was far superior to the Chinese wines she was accustomed to—wines with screwtop caps and labeled with ominous English such as "Dried White" and "Storage for Years."
A horde of serious young Chinese waiters stood near their table and watched their every move. Three of them spent a full 15 minutes arranging the silverware. Each one had a different idea of where the various utensils should be placed and all three of them returned at different times to redo the job after having a change of mind about the matter. During the meal they did their best to snatch up any dish neglected for longer than a minute. Karen got upset with one girl who tried to take away her salad three times before she finished. The young girl started to cry and Karen felt obliged to apologize.
Amelia ordered frugally from a menu with names she couldn’t pronounce and whose prices were, by Chinese standards, astronomical. The restaurant probably doubled their prices in preparation for accepting white cards. Still, she looked forward to the exotically named desserts.
Almost everyone else ordered as if preparing for a last meal. The CCTV cluster called for appetizers, soup, salad, entrees, and continued to order wine at a furious pace. Amelia wondered how much money they made at CCTV.
Amelia judged her dish, which turned out to be something resembling spinach lasagna, disappointing both in quantity and quality. She detected Karen and Herve felt the same about their meals. The group at the other end of the table seemed too high spirited to even notice the food. The bottles of wine they now ordered rarely made their way to Amelia’s end of the table. Her side spent more and more time listening to the obscure conversation of the other half, full of in-jokes and bizarre incomprehensible references.
"The hole in that one is looser than the one in Janice," said Jeffrey and the CCTV group howled in laughter.
"Janice’s hole has been permanently slanted by all the Chinese dicks in her, " said one. "She can’t even cram an English sailor in there any more."
"I know Janice," whispered Karen in Amelia’s ear. "She’s a nice woman. It’s beastly what they’re saying about her!"
Amelia looked over at her neatly dressed Jeffrey and saw his confident smile turn into an arrogant smirk. His was far less appealing now that he was half-potted. His group continued with their mean spirited gossip. She started to get a bit melancholy about the evening. Her happiness entirely depended on a delicious Tiramisu. Alas, her dessert arrived in a pathetically small portion and left with a chemical aftertaste. The flush-faced CCTV bunch barked at the hapless Chinese waiters and waitresses and then laughed at their incompetence.
"Disgraceful!" pronounced Karen in her ear. "A bunch of louts." Amelia squirmed in her seat, embarrassed to be seen sitting with them. Relief arrived when finally (finally!) someone called for the check.
Unfortunately, a waiter placed it on the other side of the table and the inebriated CCTV pack poured over it endlessly. After several minutes one of them suggested they split the bill up nine ways. John and the rest of the CCTVers quickly agreed. Amelia looked around with amazement. Was no one going to say something? Everyone on the opposite side of the table had easily ordered three times the food she had and drunk who knows how much more wine. She thought to even suggest splitting the bill up evenly was absurd.
She looked over at Karen hopefully but she was busy talking with Herve. Incredibly, it seemed no one was going to voice any protest, so Amelia spoke up. "I’m very sorry," she said, trying not to let her full indignation show through, "but I’m on a budget. I purposely ordered lightly because I haven’t brought very much money with me. It shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what everybody owes." Amelia’s side of the table nodded their assent, and the other side looked at her as if she was a tightwad spoilsport.
The determination of the bill continued to involve immense complication. Amelia called for a menu and a wine list. She was dumfounded when she looked at the latter. The cheapest bottle cost over 100 yuan! They must have ordered at least nine bottles! She asked to see the bill and was flabbergasted at the whopping total of 1,780 yuan. This was more than her month’s salary at Radio Beijing and considerably more than most Chinese made in a year.
Suddenly it seemed as if the CCTV bunch was in a great hurry to leave. Amelia chipped in 110 yuan for the bill, more than she thought she owed, but probably less than some of them might have expected from her. To spend so much for a crummy meal was just foolishness. Amelia rationalized that if she were back in the States and spent the equivalent amount in US dollars for the same meal she would only have come away mildly disappointed. White cards were collected, and the bill was paid. The restaurant people even followed the rules and marked down in each white card: "5/10 food 197.78."
As they left the restaurant the CCTV clique started shouting raucously with delight. As Amelia prepared to slip quietly away from them she heard a CCTVer gleefully explain to Chris that the confused waiters and waitresses forgot to charge for two of the more expensive bottles of wine. The bill had been at least 470 yuan short! Amelia found this even more repugnant and had half a mind to tell them to go back and settle the bill squarely.
Amelia got into a taxi with Karen, Herve, and Chris. She told them truthfully she wasn’t feeling well and asked the driver to drop her off at home on the way to the bar. When they arrived, she kissed Chris good-bye and apologized for leaving early. She wished her the best and promised to write.
Other friends made in China departed and Amelia never got more than a postcard or two from them. She suspected Chris, despite being a good friend, was going to go the same way. Chris seemed to sense this as well, but embarrassment over what had clearly been a disastrous evening for Amelia prevented her from locating the right words to smooth out the departure.
In the midst of their good-byes, Amelia started blaming her own moodiness for Chris’s discomfort. She had expected too much from the CCTVers and the food. After all, she thought, it wasn’t unusual for foreign experts to drink too much and act a bit asinine. She’d been scrutinizing the CCTV men too closely for signs of romance. She was too harsh a judge and it was monstrously unfair of her to be such a stick in the mud during the last time she would ever see her good friend.
Their parting was both rushed and drawn out by a wordless pause, endless in front of the ticking taxi meter. A quick hug and then Chris was gone. Amelia felt a lingering sadness for a long time afterwards.
The bicycle wheels rotated with agonizing slowness. Every circuit of the pedals resulted in a jolt of the rickety frame, torturing Amelia’s spine and buttock. No bike lanes divided dangerous South Xinhua Street, and a car nicked her left elbow near Liulichang Street. The ride to her Cousin Bernard’s home in the far south of town was always a bit of a pain.
Anyone wanting to film a post-holocaust movie or scenes of a ruined civilization would find the southern outskirts of Beijing a perfect backdrop. Huge cranes dangled over great, crumbling, new building blocks under perpetual construction. Monstrous factories vomited vapors of every color imaginable. A fetid canal clumped under bridges forever strewn with broken glass. Amelia once saw a photo of southern Beijing on the cover of Time magazine—a dusty red sun peered through a polluted haze across a vast, lifeless plane of stark, decaying buildings. The caption under the picture read: "Our Endangered Planet."
Cousin Bernard’s apartment was ugly on the outside but cozy on the inside. Bernard owned all the appliances every Beijinger desired: color TV, VCR, washing machine, microwave oven, and two large refrigerators. His bathroom contained a Western flush toilet and his living room was comfortably furnished with table, sofa, and spare bed.
Dinners at Bernard’s had dwindled to once every six weeks. He realized the difficulty of Amelia’s ride and Amelia understood how much Bernard put himself out to produce special meals whenever she was invited. The entire family always showed up: Bernard’s two sons, the elder son’s wife and young boy, the grandmother, and the elder son’s country maid.
After greeting her at the door, Bernard plopped Amelia on the living room sofa and returned to the kitchen, where his wife chopped food under his able command and tantalizing smells wafted from a sizzling wok. Bernard was originally from Guangdong province, where the more delicate cuisine surpassed the oily and salty Beijing fare. Cousin Bernard could masterfully prepare everything from imperial dishes to potato salad.
The younger son, who was 22 but seemed like 17 to Amelia, proudly showed off his collection of pirated Hong Kong video cassettes whenever Amelia visited. He always played an English language movie for her—usually saccharin love stories or horribly violent action movies. Tonight’s feature was of the latter category; whenever Amelia looked up she saw Chuck Norris mowing people down with a machine gun while kicking other bad guys in the face.
The two sons and the elder son’s wife took turns helping in the kitchen and watching the film. Bernard never let Amelia help out until she’d rested for at least 30 minutes with a glass of tea. The grandmother knitted in a corner while the country maid watched the baby boy toddle unsteadily about the room.
The child gave a grunt and bent at the waist. Amelia knew what was going to happen before she saw the urine dribble down his pants legs, followed quickly by an astoundingly large defecation. The family laughed at the boy, who squealed with glee, and his mother ordered the country maid to clean up the mess.
The maid picked up the fecal matter with newspaper and flushed it down the toilet. She grabbed a dry mop from the corner and spread the pee around the floor. Then she hung the boy’s pants on the radiator to dry. The unwashed garment would later be put back on the child. The sharp tang of urine competed with the cooking smells. This happened nearly every time Amelia visited her cousin Bernard’s apartment and she couldn’t get used to it. She carefully avoided contact with anything touching his floor.
Dinner was as delicious as usual: prawns in white sauce, morning glory and spinach leaves, garlic and ginger chicken, lightly steamed squid, beef with onion, and garlic greens with pork slivers. The garlic greens were a favorite of Amelia’s. On her first dinner at Bernard’s, she praised them so highly that the ever generous Bernard made a point to prepare them often, even though they were costly and sometimes difficult to obtain.
Amelia missed rice to eat with the flavorful sauces, but she knew rice was rarely served at special dinners, and then only at the end of the meal—when she was too stuffed to eat any more. She couldn’t insult Bernard by asking for rice because that would imply the dinner wasn’t fancy enough. She cleared her palate with frequent swallows of Beijing brand beer, labeled "Drink in the State Banquet."
Bernard spent more time dishing out tasty morsels to Amelia than tending to his own food. He ate little when he cooked. Amelia knew he must make up for it at other meals because he was a huge man who towered over Amelia, and his formidable stomach had a presence of its own. She surmised that a perfect Chinese host was modest about eating his own cooking.
The rest of the family showed no such restraint. The two sons were as tall as their father and intent on growing tummies of their own. The elder son’s wife ate like an Amazonian and Bernard’s wife dropped a plateful of food down her voracious grandson’s throat. Even the grandmother consumed as much as Amelia. The country maid took her meal alone in the kitchen.
The eating frenzy slowed to a snail’s pace and Amelia’s stomach sent a warning signal to her hyperactive taste buds. The elder son loudly burped his satisfaction. The younger son and the grandmother contentedly picked their teeth with their fingernails.
"You’re truly a wonderful cook, Bernard," Amelia said. "I think you can prepare any type of Chinese cuisine."
Bernard smiled and nodded modestly. "All except Tibetan food."
Amelia looked at him with interest. Bernard had been fortunate enough to visit her parents’ home in America about seven years earlier. She remembered Bernard tearfully telling her father a story in Cantonese. Later, her father related to her that Bernard and his wife had been forced into "volunteer" work as physicians in a commune in a remote Tibetan village during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese euphemism used during that time is xia xiang—to go down to the countryside. They lived there for three miserable years.
"You don’t like Tibetan food, do you Cousin Bernard?" she asked.
Bernard gave a sad chuckle. "It was all smelly yak meat and rancid yak butter. Nothing else! I nearly starved and became very ill. I lost 25 kilos."
Amelia converted in her head: 25 kilos was over 55 pounds. She knew from pictures that the youthful Bernard was far from the plump man he was today. He must have been a skeleton when he returned from Tibet.
After dinner, the younger son asked Amelia if she would help him pick out an English name. Amelia felt honored. She knew that her father had given Bernard his English name and liked to think of the kinship she had with her Chinese relatives. The son was thinking about the names "Eugene," "Arthur," and "Rambo" (after his favorite film star).
"How about ‘Little Soldier?’" Amelia jokingly suggested. This was a direct translation of his Chinese name Xiao Jun.
The younger son laughed; he was hip enough to know that "Little Soldier" would sound funny in English. Amelia promised to think of a good name for him.
Amelia casually asked him what he thought about the student demonstrations and the young man’s face froze into a mask. "I’m not very interested in the demonstrations," he said stonily.
Bernard had overheard Amelia’s question and stood in the doorway to the kitchen with a wet pot in one hand. His voice was grave and deadly serious. "You stay away from the demonstrations, Amelia," he said. "When you first came here your father wrote to me to look after you. Nothing but trouble will come from these demonstrations. Things might get very dangerous. You just keep away from them." Bernard’s face turned red and started to sweat.
The rest of the evening was uncomfortably silent and Amelia left earlier than usual. She thought about how all her relatives had fled China except for Bernard. He was only a doctor (not a highly paid profession) but he’d built up an impressive amount of guanxi and now had political ambitions. He was the only one in the family who could adapt to his native country. He was happy to live in Beijing now that he’d learned from mistakes made in his youth and corrected in Tibet.