Part Three: Foreign Devils in Lotus Land
Lately, weekend parties were a regular event at the Youyi. Beijing theaters showed few decent movies and the town had almost no nightlife, especially in the northwest Haidian district where the Youyi was situated. The construction to Building No. 1 had closed its popular rooftop bar. The parties were usually thrown for of a lack of anything else to do.
Amelia heard about the gatherings from the other foreign experts who worked at Radio Beijing and would ride the work mini-bus to the Youyi after her shift on Fridays or Saturdays. She would eat at a Youyi restaurant, avoiding the one in No. 8, reserved for foreign experts. The horrible food and service at the No. 8 "shitang" (often purposely mispronounced by foreign experts) dissuaded her from eating there, despite the compensation of a 50 percent discount given to foreign experts. After a party, she slept in her little-used Youyi apartment and took a bus home the next day.
These informal affairs (anyone who showed up was often allowed in) were usually thrown and attended by native English speakers: Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders. Amelia found these people less interesting, on the whole, than the other foreigners, but they gave more parties, and it was a vast relief to converse in her own language after exclusively speaking either Chinese or the strange, simplified English patois she needed to use with non-native English speakers. She often found herself lapsing unnecessarily into Pidgin English and worried about becoming inarticulate if she didn’t speak her true native tongue on occasion.
The foreign experts who attended these parties were a hard-drinking, cynical bunch. They considered themselves intellectuals and their conversation often lapsed into inconclusive political argument. They led a cushy life in China — working easy jobs, plenty of cheap beer, and their housing provided for free — and they complained about it — constantly. But they knew what went on in the rest of the world, and Amelia reveled in the nostalgia and homesickness brought on by a few drinks and conversation.
Most of the talk at the party on Saturday, May 13th involved other subjects, but when people spoke of the student demonstrations, the consensus decreed the movement moribund.
"These student movements are a cyclic occurrence in China," asserted The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi. "Every few years the students demonstrate. They start to get in trouble, some people are arrested and a few get beat up. The government leaders blame their political rivals and the loser in the ensuing power struggle gets tossed out. Then things calm down. A few years later the cycle repeats when the students get worked up enough to complain about not having much of a future after graduation. The 1986 student protests are a perfect example. The current movement will follow this pattern exactly." Considering the matter a foregone conclusion, he dismissed it by taking an appreciative sip of the expensive French Bordeaux he had brought to the party.
Amelia was hoping this movement would turn out to be more than just token complaint. It seemed the students had touched a nerve with many people; their widespread support demonstrated an intense longing for political reform. She sympathized with her Radio Beijing reporters, who sometimes participated in the demonstrations. What a shame to end it all after generating so much positive enthusiasm!
Most of the foreign experts approved of the students’ actions, but viewed the demonstrations as diversionary entertainment. They liked to point at student demands while airing their own complaints about China. The demonstrations were a show, rather than a real grass roots movement for freedom and democracy, which they all agreed, could never work here.
One "China expert" revealed that the absence of the traditional Marx, Engels and Lenin pictures at the recent May Day celebration, leaving only Mao and Sun Yat Sen to witness the huge student demonstration at Tian’anmen, was a government comment on foreign involvement with the current student demonstrations. He interpreted the absence of any portraits of waiguoren as a clear signal to the students to stay away from the foreign press.
The pundits at the party liked to see people bashing the Chinese government, but felt most of the students were too tentative with their criticism. They thought these students demonstrated because they wouldn’t make enough money after graduation, so they didn’t generate much sympathy. The journalists in the bunch relished the demonstrations because they were good press and provided work. Probably many secretly hoped for a little bloodshed to these all too peaceful protests.
Amelia chatted with her girl friends and wandered in and out of various groups and their conversations.
"Jack," said one foreign expert, "I keep meaning to tell you this, but I haven’t run into you lately. I was in the Youyi post office the other day and saw three packages waiting for you. One was postmarked in April."
"Really?" asked Jack, "the bastards never sent me a notice."
"Oh, you can’t trust them to notify you," said another ex-pat. "You just have to check in that back room every so often. Before I knew this, someone let me know about a package that sat back there for ten months. When I went to collect it, the post office workers wouldn’t let me have it without paying a storage fee! I told them until I was blue in the face that I was never notified of the package’s arrival, but it didn’t matter. Finally they reduced the price of their ‘storage fee’ so I could tell it was all a racket. I demanded they let me open the package first, and they agreed. Inside was a lot of spoilt food—moldy cheeses and such. I gave them the rotten bits and told them to take that for my storage fee."
Amelia went over to the snack table and discovered Aldous was there, as he usually was at parties, eating everything in sight and nodding pleasantly to anyone who ventured into conversation with him.
Aldous displayed no indication of his long absence and greeted her as if he’d seen her yesterday. He told her of the more militant students he’d seen at the Square. He also told her the students were about to begin a hunger strike. This perked Amelia’s interest; this hint of determination and daring by the students was in contrast to what everyone else was saying about them. She wanted to question him more but the Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi came up to Aldous and pulled him into an almost entirely one-sided conversation.
Amelia walked into the kitchen for more beer. She definitely drank more since coming to China. Her friend Karen was telling a story.
"So then I went over to the Minorities Museum, just because I’d never been, and you’ll never guess what I found there."
"A minority," said Amelia.
"No," laughed Karen, "of course not—a furniture exhibition!"
"Oh, they have those all the time now," said a woman. "Why just last week I was at one at the Agricultural Exhibition Hall.... "
"Well this was my first," interrupted Karen, who was Irish and didn’t like to see conversation slip away when she was telling a story. "They had an enormous room filled with bizarre, ugly furniture for sale. You know—they had those huge multi-purpose pieces—sofas that could be converted into beds or tables, or a combination display case, TV stand, and dresser. Anyway, I’m walking around looking at all these strange things, when I overhear two Chinese men talking about me. ‘Why is the foreigner looking at the furniture?’ asks one. ‘That’s because they don’t have furniture in America,’ says the other. Not only do they assume I don’t understand Chinese but they mistook me for an American! But then they tend to think all non-Japanese foreigners are Americans. Anyway, the second guy explains: ‘they change jobs and move around so often in America that they can’t have real furniture. I saw it on a TV show. All they have to sit on is bags filled with beans.’"
Amelia laughed and poured a glass of "Five Star" beer. Her friends chatted merrily away; everyone had an amazing story demonstrating the absurdity of life in China. These stories sometimes bored Amelia, even though she often told them herself. She tried to catch herself as much as possible whenever she seemed to be dwelling on the negative aspects of ex-pat life here. She’d worked so hard to get here and she was certain she’d appreciate her experiences here someday.
She steadily sipped her flat-tasting beer. When the protest movement had first started she’d asked Aldous to let her know if he saw anything interesting. As evidenced by their conversation at the snack table, Aldous had kept this in mind. At least he thought about her to some extent. Amelia made a mental note to let him know she was still interested and appreciated any first hand account of student activities.
The real name of The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi was Russ Livingston. When foreign experts ran into him at a party, the No. 8 dining hall, or at one of the Youyi shops, they called him Russ. When they were talking about him among themselves they always added the epithet: The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi.
His sobriquet wasn’t completely accurate. Russ did leave the Friendship Hotel compound to teach English three times a week in a nearby university; he occasionally went to the Friendship Store; and even went out to dinner at one of the joint-venture hotels once in a blue moon.
Russ gained his nickname because he saw China as an anathema and did absolutely everything in his power to avoid the place, despite his living there. He hated the food, the weather, the filth, the crowding, the government, the bureaucracy, the pollution, and most of all, the Chinese. He stuck to a simple routine that allowed him as little contact with these things as possible.
The only two things Russ liked about China were the stamps and the propaganda and these he enjoyed passionately. His two loves were intertwined as the People’s Republic of China often used its postage stamps for propaganda purposes, especially so during the period of the Cultural Revolution, which was of special interest to Russ.
When he first came to China Russ’s passion for collecting Chinese stamps, propaganda posters, and other government paraphernalia led him to venture into the Beijing streets on attempts to acquire them. These almost always fruitless excursions quickly proved to be too much for him. The few times he found something he wanted he was blatantly cheated while negotiating a price.
Now he was the older and wiser Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi. He let other foreigners, most particularly Aldous, hazard out into the jungle and return with his treasures. Russ received frequent care packages from home—stuffed full of items difficult or impossible to acquire in Beijing. He was a gourmet chef who fixed sumptuous Western dinners for his friends. Russ’s dinner parties brimmed with little luxuries to tide people over between trips to Hong Kong. He was a popular ex-pat around the Youyi.
Russ had been in Beijing for about five years. Aside from his teaching job, he did some surprisingly good free-lance writing—mostly about the Chinese political scene or the Cultural Revolution. He knew no Chinese and did all his rather extensive background research with materials mailed to him from abroad. His magazine by-lines described him as a "China expert."
He was a corpulent, unhealthy man who smoked and drank too much. He tended to be sardonic, especially at the cost of anything Chinese, and was frequently a tad morose. Yet he was something of a fixture at every Youyi party.
Russ spent most of Saturday night’s party drinking, discussing telltale signals which filtered down from the Central Committee regarding the government’s reaction to the student demonstrations, expounding on the appalling levels of sulfur dioxide found in the air of Chinese cities, and telling Aldous about a particular Cultural Revolution stamp he was most anxious to obtain.
Aldous pretended to listen to him while he grazed at the snack table and zoned out to the music, which alternated between Beethoven and soft-core punk rock. He knew exactly which stamp Russ was talking about and didn’t need to listen to the lengthy description. It pictured some enthusiastic revolutionaries in front of a map of China with the words "China is Red All Over." The stamp was extremely rare because the map neglected to include Taiwan in the red paint depicted as splashing over the mainland. Consequently, the "China is Red All Over" stamp had been pulled out of circulation not long after issue because it was considered bad propaganda.
This stamp was much rarer than the Lin Biao stamps he’d recently purchased for Russ. Aldous had actually seen two of the "Red All Over" stamps, but their conditions were far below Russ’s discriminating standard. He knew it would be fruitless for him to try to hunt down a good one in Beijing, so he didn’t intend to try.
Russ had been overjoyed with the Mao and Lin Biao stamps Aldous had acquired for him. These stamps were printed during the turbulent beginning of the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960’s, when a group led by Mao and Lin Biao withstood a faction in the communist party led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao picked Defense Minister Lin Biao to spearhead his campaign against the "bourgeois obstructionists". This gave birth to the notorious Red Guards, molded with People’s Liberation Army training methods in order to create a new generation of revolutionaries.
During the 9th National Party Congress in April 1969, Lin Biao was promoted to Vice Chairman and named as Mao’s successor. However, by the early 1970’s, the devastating social and economic consequences of the Cultural Revolution gave momentum to the more moderate factions pitted against Lin Biao. Mao’s health was in increasing decline and the political turmoil mirrored the social chaos. In 1971, Lin Biao was supposedly involved in an abortive coup attempt. He died in a mysterious plane crash while fleeing the country in September 1971. Lin Biao’s supporters were systematically purged and Lin Biao became a non-entity.
Lin Biao’s picture was torn from the front of thousands of Mao’s "Little Red Books". His name was erased from official histories and disappeared from the press. Most interestingly to Russ, his picture was sliced from many of the stamps picturing him next to Mao, making them more valuable.
Lin Biao was a central figure in Russ’s Chinese propaganda mania. He had an entire cabinet in his front room adorned with Lin Biao paraphernalia. On numerous occasions he had written that Lin Biao’s death was the crucial defining point in the history of the Cultural Revolution. He was also working on a long article sympathetic to Lin Biao, suggesting he was unfairly portrayed as a ruthless politician who lived and died by the Communist Party sword. Aldous suspected The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi had dreams at night where he was Lin Biao, standing with Mao at the podium in front of Tian’anmen, majestically lording over the masses.
The people in the kitchen with Amelia began to make jokes about Russ—The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi. They each told their favorite Russ story—all displaying incredible attempts to avoid contact with anything Chinese. One person described a dinner at Russ’s where absolutely everything, from the bottled water and the butter, down to the salt and the napkins, was imported. Another told of a story Russ had written for a prominent magazine describing the student demonstrations around the beginning of May. Russ had stayed in the Youyi the entire time and had not seen a single banner.
Amelia laughed at these stories, even though she was thinking there was a little bit of The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi in each of the foreign experts she knew.
The conversation in the kitchen moved from The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi to Aldous—a subject guaranteed to make Amelia uncomfortable. Fortunately, most of the talk revolved around Aldous’s extraordinary ability to travel throughout China without spending money.
The foreign experts knew from experience that travel in China was an increasingly arduous and expensive task. The railway and air transportation systems were horribly over-burdened and a ubiquitous black market had sprung up, making good tickets difficult and expensive to obtain. Inflation had hit the tourism industries hard and prices for accommodations, food, and admissions to attractions had skyrocketed.
Aldous’s travelling exploits were famous throughout the Youyi. He’d go off for weeks, or even months, travelling thousands of miles, and he might spend about 15 US dollars. The key to Aldous’s success lay in his refusal to pay anything for transportation or accommodations.
Accommodation was easy to for him to obtain. Aldous discovered that hotel staff rarely kicked foreigners out of their lobbies, even when they slept there all night. If they got pesky, Aldous would tell them he was waiting for someone or was stranded in town until the next day and could not afford a room. If a hotel wasn’t available he slept in the countryside, out in the open or under a bridge when it rained. People would ask him questions but they never gave him any trouble. They often invited him into their sparse homes to spend the night.
Aldous rarely paid for his meals. He made friends with Chinese everywhere he went and his newfound pals enjoyed forcing food into their ravenous foreign guest. If he traveled in a tourist area he inevitably ran into some foreigners who were more than happy to buy him a meal in exchange for his services as a guide or even for a few pieces of useful information.
Transportation was Aldous’s forte. While other people queued up for hours trying to buy tickets, Aldous walked onto the trains without one. Ironically, it was because most train stations had so much security that it was easy to get by without a ticket. Six to ten workers at every station, set up in different areas along the path to the train and on board, had the job of checking passengers’ tickets. Aldous would simply walk past them and pretend he didn’t understand their calls to stop. The ticket checkers were lazy, and reluctant to argue with a foreigner, so each would assume one of the other checkers would mark and inspect his ticket.
If a security person persisted in demanding a ticket, Aldous would present a grubby stub that looked something like a boarding pass. He would claim an urgent need to give an important message to another foreigner before he left. It never failed.
Once on board Aldous headed straight for the first class soft sleepers. Practically impossible for ordinary Chinese to obtain, the soft sleepers were frequented by foreigners and rich, important Chinese who either had connections or could afford to pay the black market price. On almost every train the local CITS (China International Travel Service) branch and other travel organizations, together with guanxi-rich Chinese work units, bought up blocks of just about all the soft sleeper spots. Then they distributed them to foreigners, who paid extra, and to people with connections.
Rarely would all these guanxi tickets be dispensed. Consequently, trains almost always left the station with a few empty soft sleeper spots, even though dozens of people had been clamoring in lines for hours trying to get tickets only to be frustrated by the infamous "meiyou."
Aldous would find these empty berths and avoid the train ticket collectors, as he knew they came promptly at the beginning and end of a trip. He often made important connections with the people who shared his compartment, and his trip was comfortable, secure, and free.
Occasionally the soft sleepers genuinely would be full. Aldous then looked for some sympathetic foreigners to let him sleep in their luggage area or on the floor of their compartment. If he couldn’t find any, he spent the night sitting alone in the first class hallway, which he found quite pleasant.
The people in the kitchen tended to romanticize Aldous’s hobo-like excursions. Amelia had once labored under the same delusion, but she now knew Aldous better and had taken enough trips with him to know what they were like. He did meet some interesting people, and overall he probably had a much better trip than the foreign experts, who spent most of their time standing in lines, worrying about their next ticket or hotel, or rushing off to overcrowded and overrated attractions. However, Amelia knew that Aldous’s trips weren’t particularly romantic.
She knew Aldous’ wanderings were simply a habit. He wasn’t interested in seeing new places or new people. He just found travelling an existence he was good at and where he could be left in peace to dream his life away.
The Friendship Hotel contained a travel service offering various package tours to locales around Beijing and to other cities. Normally, Amelia avoided these tours. They cost about two to three times more than what she would pay alone for the same trip, and the tour guides often herded people around on a tight schedule. Amelia also found it embarrassing to be stared at as she followed a tour guide who waved a little yellow flag marked "Foreign Experts" and sounded a megaphone that played a ridiculous electronic tune.
The Youyi day trips usually included transportation, entrance fees, and a lunch long on quantity and short on quality. For this they charged around 150 yuan, more than Amelia thought they were worth, and you came home tired from the herding and bloated from the large, ugly meal.
However, the travel service offered a day trip to the Great Wall at Badaling and the Ming Tombs on Sunday that sounded like a good deal. The tour included transportation only—entrance tickets and lunch not provided. Not having to worry about transportation was a big plus, and the price was close to, or maybe even less than, what Amelia figured she would have to pay on her own. Amelia had already visited two other sections of the Great Wall, and had avoided Badaling because it was the most popular. However, she couldn’t get over the feeling that she would be missing something if she didn’t take this opportunity.
She had learned to avoid doing anything touristy on a Sunday. Everything was four times as crowded. She was long past getting over the discomfort of constantly feeling she didn’t have enough elbow room, but Sunday outings were often packed solid. She still hated having to carefully shuffle behind the person in front of her, with people so close to her on all sides that she sometimes couldn’t even raise her arm to her head. However, she figured the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs were big enough places that she wouldn’t feel too claustrophobic.
She’d made this assumption before and discovered how wrong it could be. Once she went to the famous Tai Shan Mountain in Shandong province. Saturday climbing up the hill wasn’t too bad, but Sunday at the top and trying to get down was a horror.
Before coming to China, Amelia would never have believed there could be a huge mountain so jammed with people that she would almost be crushed like the people in the recent Hillsborough soccer disaster. She was trudging down the mountain on the wide, stone stairway stretching from the base of the mountain to the overpopulated summit. Suddenly, she reached a turn in the stairway and everything came to a standstill. The people behind her started pushing, and pushing, and the people in front of her weren’t moving.
When her feet left the ground from the press of the crowd she started to worry. People weren’t taking this dangerous predicament at all seriously; some even laughed and joked. Others, who were squashed up against the rocks, started showing signs of alarm. One woman looked faint. A boy slipped on a stair and cried out as people stepped on him. People climbed up to rock ledges and tried to pull others to safety. When the ledges filled they watched the swirling action below.
Amelia understood that even when most people in a crowd don’t panic, things could still get dangerous. She’d known of a foreign woman on a Beijing bus who, unused to Chinese crowds, got knocked down and trampled during a normal change of passengers. She’d escaped with only a broken leg, but Amelia didn’t think she’d be so lucky on a stairway leading down a mountainside.
She pushed her way over to the edge of the stairway. After several hazardous attempts, she managed to climb over the stone siding. Here she clung uneasily to the mountain, which was fairly sheer at this point. She carefully followed the others who had abandoned the stairway, sliding down the mountain on her behind, trying to move as slowly as she could. All the way she worried she’d lose control and tumble off, or someone behind would come crashing down on her.
She reached a point where the stairway beside her was not so crushingly congested. She climbed back onto it and tried to figure out how this tremendous traffic jam developed. Maybe a boulder blocked off the path or a fight broke out.
It turned out to be simply a matter of too many people trying to go up at the same time as too many coming down. Everyone charged up or down the stairs with no consideration for anyone else. After climbing down a short way, Amelia saw a policeman standing with a bunch of other people, watching the action above them.
Amelia couldn’t pass by without saying something. Everyone was just watching this impending disaster!
"Why don’t you go up there and get people to stop pushing?" she asked the policeman. "The situation is very bad, very dangerous."
The policeman gave her a blank look; the one Chinese reserve for foreigners who say something to them that seems totally incomprehensible. But he did start moving slowly up the stairway.
Moments later she heard a yell and a body came bouncing down the mountain, pushed off from the traffic jam. The person fell and rolled for a good 30 meters. Amelia couldn’t see the end of the fall, but the injury must have been severe. She left Tai Shan with a new fear of overly crowded places.
Another Sunday she’d tried to ride her bicycle out to Fragrant Hills Park, northwest of Beijing, to view the famous autumnal beauty of the leaves. Over 300,000 other people had the same idea. As she approached Fragrant Hills the road became drastically chaotic. Tour buses, taxis, trucks, and many thousands of bicyclists shared a country road almost too narrow for two cars to pass. It became so bad Amelia was forced to leave her bike because she kept getting entangled with other bikes.
She was walking up the road, doing her best to avoid being run over, when she realized the insanity of her intention. She imagined how much she would enjoy the beauty of nature with 300,000 people tramping along beside her. She endured this ordeal just to see some colored leaves when she’d seen as good, if not better, a hundred times before in the US. The whole thing was pathetic.
The Chinese tourists enjoyed the feverish crowding! They couldn’t imagine any place worth seeing that wasn’t packed with people, and would have felt uncomfortable in lonely, secluded surroundings. They laughed at the hectic bottleneck near the park.
During the nadir of her Fragrant Hills trip, one young Chinese man noticed Amelia’s discomfort and had a flash of insight over its cause. He came up to her and said: "My country has too many people." Then he continually nodded his head and smiled as they trudged along behind a truck that spat out ghastly blue plumes of exhaust. Amelia smiled back at his attempt to console her, but didn’t feel any better.
She turned around about two kilometers from the park and dug up her bicycle, which was buried in a huge pile on the side of the road. She made the hazardous ride back to Beijing, and never saw the famous colored leaves in Fragrant Hills Park.
The population problem was a wall the individual tourist in China constantly beat his head upon. The ridiculously overloaded transportation system provided endless hassle. In between the arduous traveling, Amelia found virtually all the scenic spots so swamped with people that any beauty or attraction they might possess was overshadowed.
Amelia saw Chinese cities as tourist nightmares: dirty, overpopulated, and full of people waiting to prey on the tourist. She often felt that the locals viewed her as a walking money machine to be taken advantage of at every opportunity. As an individual traveler, she bristled when she saw expensive tour groups receive special priorities that allowed them to partially escape the problems she dealt with. On the other hand, the people in these groups may always get their tickets and shuffle past plenty of sights, but they never saw anything. Amelia had long prided herself on being a real traveler, who did things the hard way and saw things as they really were. Unfortunately she now believed that almost nothing in China was worth the effort it took to go see it.
During Amelia’s visits to the other sections of the Great Wall: Mutianyu, Shanhaiguan (the First Pass Under Heaven), and where it met the sea in the East (the Old Dragon’s Head). She discovered the Great Wall didn’t live up to its billing when a vast multitude of travelers tramped along beside her. At Shanhaiguan, she’d gotten a taste of the Wall’s peaceful, mysterious endlessness after hiking for several kilometers past the crowds. She hoped, perhaps against hope, to repeat the experience at Badaling.
The guidebooks bragged of the impressive mountains around Badaling, so Amelia couldn’t pass on such a relatively easy and inexpensive day trip. Everyone who visited Beijing saw the Tombs and this part of the Wall. Even if they were disappointing, Amelia felt obligated to go, just to have the experience.
She took the trip and was disappointed. The line of tourist stalls near Badaling seemed to stretch as far as the Great Wall itself. A traffic jam in one of the guard houses gave her a bad flashback of Tai Shan. The Ming Tombs were a joke—their big attraction, the "great underground palace of Ting Ling" closely resembled a very crowded bomb shelter and was devoid of any interest. The sparse museum displays contained either replicas, or inferior pieces. Gray clouds drizzled on her, and tourists and hawkers annoyed her everywhere.
Amelia believed both of these places contained some potential. Unfortunately the tour guide kept her on a schedule that didn’t allow time to explore. She felt if she could have carried out her plan and walked three or four kilometers from the entrance at Badaling, the crowds would have dwindled away. At the Ming Tombs she discovered, too late, the quiet and peaceful minor tombs off in the mountains. The tour schedule was so tight they didn’t even have a chance to stop and look at the famous animal statues lining the road entering the Ming Tombs. Instead, the bus driver drove slowly past so people could take pictures through grimy, rain splattered windows.
She vowed to return to both places on her own, despite the transportation difficulties. She would take the time to get out from the crowds and give both places another chance. She needed to stop thinking so negatively. So what if it took some effort to see things on her own. She would do it and make the best of it.
Unfortunately, like so many other places she’d hoped to see in China, she would not get the opportunity to visit again.
On Monday, May 15, 1989 it was evident, even to the foreign experts, that big events were about to take place in China. The student hunger strike was into its second day, and the dwindling crowds of demonstrators swelled back to formidable numbers. The student leaders were assured of worldwide attention for their movement because the media was in town to cover the historic summit meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Chinese leaders. Aldous thought about continuing his investigation of the demonstrations for Amelia’s sake.
Instead, he decided to spend the afternoon watching Chinese TV.
He’d never owned a television in the States and could remember watching it only as a child. After that, TVs were bluish gray ghosts glowing from the insides of other people’s houses or extra noise in bus station waiting rooms.
He never paid much attention to TV before coming to China but now he was hooked. Amelia jokingly called him the Television Man (after the Talking Heads’ song) because he was the only foreigner she knew who regularly watched Chinese TV. Aldous noticed the Chinese watched a great deal of television and he recollected Americans watched a lot. Now that he had access to one he wanted to discover the attraction.
He liked it. He liked the "Accordion Show" where a jolly teacher staged a mock class with ever so willing pupils. He watched the short propaganda pieces that followed the news: segments showing people why they shouldn’t drop things from their tall apartment buildings and admonishing them to be courteous on the bus.
He enjoyed the educational programs that taught English by following a British travel agent on business in the Orient—teaching phrases for corporate sabotage and picking up women; or the animal husbandry show where they chopped up a cow in front of the camera while a man pointed a stick at each part, including the asshole.
He even liked the many foreign shows which could be seen: the weirdly frantic, Japanese comedy/melodrama, "Stewardesses"; the insane Hong Kong kung fu movies; and the popular American 70’s throwback (guns, cars, and boobs) called "Hunter." He liked the cartoon show "Transformers," which had survived an unsuccessful attempt to ban it, ostensibly because it was violent (which it wasn’t when compared with most Chinese TV) but really because parents couldn’t say "no" to their spoiled kids’ demands for expensive Transformer toys.
The first thing he got when he turned on the set was Jimmy Swaggart. He recognized Jimmy Swaggart (unlike Hunter whom he had never seen before coming to China) because he was sometimes on the TVs in the homeless shelters where he occasionally slept in the States. Jimmy played upbeat religious boogie with his band: "Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the waters . . ." "Gimme that old time religion." His preaching was completely edited out of the show. After Jimmy finished, a black church choir was shown in front of the Lincoln Memorial performing gospel music. The name of the show was "Foreign Arts."
A show called "People’s Army" followed—usually rather dull propaganda showing the wonderful benefits of life in the PLA. But this week focused on an army female disco-aerobic team. It showed them training with their army coaches for international competitions in disco-aerobic dance. They were picked young and trained hard. They lifted weights and hopped up bleachers with hands tied behind their backs. They wore sexy, revealing aerobic outfits and performed before gawking soldiers. But don’t let the sexy exteriors fool you, these were hard-boiled military women. The cameras showed them ardently shooting rifles and opening bottles of orange drink with their teeth.
Several commercials came on. A couple finds a refrigerator on a beach, opens it up, and reveal a fish so fresh it jumps in the air and leaps into the water. Another refrigerator commercial showed two cartoon kids, one Western and one Chinese, flying around and displaying the machine’s features. A commercial for Orient soda jingled a tune in blatant rip-off of an old Pepsi-Cola commercial. A hand reached out in a commercial for thousand-year-old eggs and broke open a dozen of the hideous things, slopping their gooey, purplish insides into a huge bowl. "Disgusting!" said Aldous aloud. A wristwatch commercial showed sophisticated Western men lounging about an expensive suite, watching beautiful women stage a wristwatch fashion show.
Aldous found it interesting how commercials for the same items tended to copy from each other. At least four different commercials showed live fish inside refrigerators. Aldous knew that the homophone for the Chinese word for fish means "more than enough," so it is a symbol for prosperity, but he couldn’t figure out why a refrigerator that wasn’t cold enough to kill a fish would be appealing. Two other commercials had cartoon children (one Western and one Chinese) flying around a refrigerator, and three depicted western men watching sexy western women and their watches. Aldous had never owned a watch or a refrigerator, but he guessed they must be considered western items. Clearly, most Chinese commercials resembled some other Chinese commercial, just as, to Aldous, most Chinese paintings or other art resembled each other.
One exception to the lack of originality in ads showed a woman walking through a busy office, passing out papers. Heads turn as the pretty woman walks by. She collides with another woman holding papers and all the papers fly into the air. A wind springs up out of nowhere and blows all the papers into the face of a man who is presumably the boss. There are no spoken words to the commercial, no product is shown, and only some Chinese characters at the end, which Aldous couldn’t read, provided any clue about what the commercial tried to sell. Aldous couldn’t read the characters and interpreted the piece as a protest against bureaucracy.
Many Chinese commercials advertised products well beyond the reach of the average Chinese consumer. Almost no one could afford to buy the computers, jeeps, refrigerators, stereo systems, and expensive watches that were constantly plugged. The advertisers evidently attempted to build name recognition for their product in expectation of a potential future market.
The Chinese consumers didn’t want to wait. Not only were they bombarded with commercials for these things, they saw that everybody on the foreign TV shows had them. They wanted these products now, even if they had to settle for cheaper brand names than the ones advertised, and it seemed as if they were in a consuming frenzy in order to get them. Aldous regularly saw people depleting their life savings as they rushed out to buy VCRs, washing machines, refrigerators, and TVs. Many items were purchased for status only and often not even used. People desperately wanted to keep up with the Wangs next door and mortification struck the family that was unable to. Aldous knew many Chinese who were forever close to mortification, and he felt their television sets were partly to blame.
His next hour of watching was devoted to excerpts from an immensely popular (and interminably long) New Year’s variety show. Along with any Olympic sporting events in which Chinese athletes had performed well, clips from the New Year’s special aired every few weeks. A female singer performed a few numbers as she cavorted about the stage, scattering about 25 fan dancers who seemed to be trying to wave her away as they tittered back from her advances. Aldous couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, but he liked the serious expression on the singer’s face.
Next were three young women and two little girls who whirled hula-hoops in time to disco music. Hoops rotated about every body part. They wore tight one-piece suits and the Chinese cadres in the audience took particular interest in noting the obvious anatomical differences between the young women and the little girls.
An army marching band stormed the stage led by a male singer who no doubt described great deeds of heroism. The singer radiated patriotism and drew great applause from the bigwigs in the audience.
Some specially trained army men in white judo suits demonstrated various ways of running at a person, screaming, and knocking him over with a kick. Unexpectedly, a young woman in a black leather jacket skipped on stage and began singing a pop song. The kung fu army guys didn’t seem to notice her and continued knocking each other over, although they did reduce the volume of their screams so her singing could be heard. Aldous knew this song from the radio and once heard someone explain the lyrics. The singer bragged about her kung fu expertise, and described how she went out at night to beat up hooligans and thieves. It was peculiar to hear the petite young woman boasting about her fighting ability in the midst of the army ninjas.
The next act was the animated Chinese comics who talk and sing in a loud funny voice. The Chinese loved these guys, but Aldous found them tedious. People tried to explain the humor to him, which was something like a bad pun, but that only made it worse. He went into the kitchen for a persimmon sandwich and some spiced melon seeds.
After he ate he began to nod off in front of the television. He had a half-dream, half-memory of riding with Amelia on borrowed bicycles through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He had just met Amelia the day before in the apartment of a mutual friend, where they had both crashed for the night.
Amelia rode up ahead and pulled off to the side of the road to wait for Aldous to catch up. As he approached, he saw her confronted by a demented knife-wielding vagrant.
Aldous reacted automatically, running his bike into the vagrant, knocking him down, jerking his arm up behind him until a sharp crack announced it was broken, and striking him sharply on the back of the head with a heavy bike chain. He left the man, not at all certain of his condition. The man’s body started to disintegrate.
A Chinese man in a Mao suit came out of the bushes and said: "I saw that. I have it all down here on videotape." He pointed to a video camera hanging from a tree. It reminded Aldous of the ones he’d seen hanging in Tian’anmen Square, near the Monument For the People’s Heroes.
He awoke to see the end of a dance number where flashing balls swirled colored light beams about the stage while a group of young men and women in army camouflage fatigues, red caps, and large glittering sequins pranced about the stage. The women wore red bow ties and the men sported four-in-hand neckties. The men wore more make-up than the women did.
Disco music blared as the dancers did a curious cross between breakdancing and the Charleston. After several steps, their movements shifted into something like a synthesis of ballet and disco dancing.
Aldous noticed the lyrics to the song were in English, and the vocalist was a black female, but he could only make out the words to the chorus:
No more lovin’;
You only break my heart.
Aldous couldn’t remember disco dancing in the States. He recollected spray painted "Disco Sucks" messages on walls, but little else about it. Here in China, the TV and the hotel lobbies where Aldous slept during excursions outside Beijing abounded with disco music. On weekends, in the smaller tourist towns, the locals flocked to hotels built for foreigners to disco dance. Few foreigners showed up for the dances, and then only to watch. The large crowds of locals would come to gawk at the half dozen or so Chinese partners, usually both males, who weren’t shy about displaying their often considerable disco dancing talent.
The army disco dancers ended their long set with a flourish and marched off the stage. Aldous wondered why the PLA seemed to have so many special troops involved with different forms of disco dancing. Maybe they hid hypnotic suggestions inside the pulsing beat?
A qigong master took the stage. Aldous remembered this segment from the first time he saw the show and came to full attention.
First the qigong master did some breathing and meditation exercises. Then he smashed bricks with his hands and his head. The announcer told tales of how this master cured people of various horrible diseases.
Aldous had seen qigong masters heal people by having them meditate while the master moved around them, gesturing with motions that resembled tai chi. It was a form of faith healing.
Amelia once told him of a Radio Beijing story that included an interview with a hospitalized qigong master. The man had been admitted because of headaches, probably from smashing too many bricks with his head. The reporter asked the man why he didn’t heal himself with qigong or have another qigong master cure him. He replied that he was too sick to heal himself and wouldn’t go to another master because he didn’t like to give business to his competitors.
After smashing a few dozen bricks, an assistant to the qigong master brought out two large bullfrogs. He placed these on the floor and the qigong master carefully stepped on them. The assistant brought out a vase and a teapot. He filled the vase with water and balanced it atop the master’s head. He poured water from the teapot into the master’s mouth.
Half the fun of a qigong performance for Aldous was in trying to guess the trick. It’s usually a good bet a brick will somehow be smashed but it wasn’t always easy to guess how. The first time Aldous saw this act he thought the master would smash the brick with either the frogs or the vase filled with water, or both.
Instead, the master spit water out of his mouth and smashed the brick by the force of the stream. He then stepped off the bullfrogs, which demonstrated their fitness by hopping about the stage.
When he’d first seen this act, Aldous had been most impressed with the strength of the frogs’ backs. Now he held greater esteem for the master’s talents. He imagined it would be a useful weapon to be able to spit water, or even saliva, from your mouth into the face of an assailant, taking out an eye or two.
The rest of the afternoon drifted past Aldous without leaving an impression. The next thing he knew the evening news came on. There was absolutely no mention of the hunger strike, so Aldous knew it must be effectively gaining momentum for the student movement. For the first time Aldous had the feeling the demonstrations might lead to something.
The trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs exhausted Amelia and the drizzling weather gave her another cold. Feeling too poorly to return home, she spent Sunday night at the Youyi and pulled herself out of bed to go to work the next morning, even though she wasn’t feeling 100 percent.
As she dressed for work Amelia wondered why she bothered. The Chinese workers constantly called in sick, taking three of four days off to get over a sniffle. Certainly no one would complain if she didn’t come in.
Amelia had already missed more work than any other time in her life because of illness. Even though this didn’t matter over here and she felt under-appreciated at work, Amelia found she was too accustomed to industry to slack off. She also feared she would become soft. She didn’t want to go back to the States with bad habits and ruin her chance at a good career.
The weather did not look cold, but Amelia bundled up in a warm sweater. She remembered last winter’s bronchitis and the shots in her behind twice a day for a week. People at work had pinched her shoulder every day during the winter, checking if she wore enough layers of clothing. Their nagging and her many illnesses made her cautious about her health. "I’ll be a hypochondriac before I leave here," she thought.
The newspaper and a thermos of boiled water delivered to her door provided one of the choice advantages to Youyi life. She had some imported coffee beans in her freezer and could have a cup ready in minutes. She could even drink it at a table large enough to stretch her legs under. Sometimes Amelia understood the attraction of the Youyi residents’ dolce far niente existence.
After finishing a frugal breakfast, she left to meet the Radio Beijing mini-bus. As she sat inside, waiting for departure time, the loquacious Rumanian woman gave her habitual greeting to everyone as they entered the bus. She identified people not by name, but by nationality: "Hello Laos, Kampuchea, Syria, Nigeria, Tanzania, Spain, Amelia . . .." For some reason Amelia was the exception to the rule. She couldn’t tell if this was because the Rumanian woman especially liked her or because she didn’t ride the bus very often and wasn’t considered a regular. Perhaps she was the only one the Rumanian woman thought had a pronounceable name.
The bus was the same as always. Everyone sat in their same seats. The eccentric Japanese man arrived last, precisely at departure time, with nary a second to spare. He sat in his usual seat at the front and went through the ritualistic insertion of his Sony Walkman earphones. He never said a word.
The Chinese driver never failed to look around for him as departure time neared, hoping against hope the Japanese man would be late so he could leave without him. Once, when the Japanese man had first started work, the driver had left without him and the Japanese man complained to the Foreign Experts Office at Radio Beijing. Now the driver set his watch by the official time on the television every day. Apparently the Japanese man did too, or else his Japanese watch kept perfect time, because he always arrived within five seconds of departure.
"Japan," concluded the Rumanian woman. He gave her a microscopic nod of his head as he concluded the lengthy process of perfectly adjusting his earphones. The Rumanian woman must not have deemed this adequate, for she said loudly: "Japan, can you hear me? Heelllooo!" The Japanese man turned around in his seat and gave her a pronounced nod. She accepted this as sufficient.
The sparse general conversation floating about the mini-bus was usually conducted in English. Small pockets of other languages could often be heard, but for the most part everyone spoke English. Amelia wondered why they didn’t use Chinese. She guessed most of them didn’t speak it, even though some had been working for Radio Beijing for many years.
The ostentatious and comical Rumanian woman began giving Amelia a lengthy description of her attempts to get an extra table for her room. First she had gone to the reception desk of her own building, No. 4, and they had sent her to Building No. 2. The people at Building No. 2 said she needed to get permission from the people in Building No. 8 because their tables were about to be transferred to No. 8. At Building No. 8 she was told she would have to wait a month or two because they weren’t sure how many tables they’d need.
At each building, the Rumanian woman presented a long letter in Chinese that she’d gotten a higher-up at Radio Beijing to write. She showed Amelia the letter, which described, in incredible detail, what a valuable foreign expert this Rumanian woman was and how well known she was in Rumania. It listed the various programs she had worked on and told of how useful she was to both China and Radio Beijing. The letter went on to say that she was taking a great cut in pay to work in China and had forgone a higher standard of living to contribute to the development of, and mutual friendship between, China and Rumania. At the end of two and a half pages it asked if she could have an extra table.
At each building the lengthy letter was earnestly read two or three times over by the hotel staff. Then they sent the Rumanian woman off to another building.
Amelia finally found out why the Rumanian woman was telling her all this. It turned out that after getting the runaround she went back to Building No. 4 and got into an argument with the people at the desk. Aldous had happened by and asked what the problem was. Within an hour there was an extra table in the Rumanian woman’s room. She was immensely grateful to Aldous and had loaded him down with lots of little Rumanian delicacies, but she still felt much in his debt and wanted to thank Amelia for what he’d done for her.
It seemed as if Amelia was always hearing about favors done by Aldous for people at the Youyi. She knew that he constantly bribed the workers at the Youyi to get things. She thought the way Aldous had become Mr. Guanxi man around the complex was a bit revolting.