Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey. I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.
About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China. Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here. It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.
In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:
I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau. However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing.
Beijing. Beijing. What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country? You’re no longer protected from the peasants. Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you. You have it all, don’t you? All but clean air. I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new. The results of ‘development’. You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok. You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two. You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon. Or had you bothered to consider this?
And, look at your populace. Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters. They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation. And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers. They’ll be real businessmen someday. But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you? Your perms are a little too dry, yet. And your shoes a little too dirty. But you’re almost there.
You will arrive soon. But where is it that you think you’re going? You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination. But what are your goals? What is your raison d’être? Your 9th five-year plan. What does that say? What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future? I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit. I’m just an observer here. But I am thinking deeply as I observe. I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers. And I sympathize with their confusion.
They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised. You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something. You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell. What kind of ownership is that anyway? You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays. And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike. You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”. Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.” You fear another Tiananmen. Or at least you want your children to fear that. It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.
Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it? That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself. So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all. But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians. They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it. Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman. “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man. The icon of Mao. The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia. “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.” Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth. Mao, you will fade, though. You will not live in human memory 10,000 years. You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?
So, Beijing, where did you say you were going? Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you? We are all interested. And we’re almost as confused as you are.
Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years.