Creative non-fiction / February 2008 (Issue 2)

Broken in Beijing

by Kay Sexton

On my third day in China, I sat out on the steps of a Beijing gallery and smoked a cigarette — China had broken me.

The cigarette was a measure of my collapse. I hadn't smoked for six years, but two days in Beijing left me inhaling nicotine like an addict. It seemed pointless not to smoke, everybody else did. Air pollution was so high that the city appeared through a Monet-like haze, not mist, but the opalescent glow of concrete dust. I'd coughed all night since I arrived, so why not smoke?

A young Chinese man left the gallery and sat beside me. I held out the cigarettes wordlessly. In only a few hours I had relearned the ritual of the smoking Westerner. It doesn't matter where you travel in Asia or Africa, if you smoke. You are instantly part of a social circle, a somewhat-despised, somewhat-protected minority — the foreign smoker. You dispense cigarettes like Victorian merchants dispensed patronage. It's your duty.

"He is not a real Chinese of course," said the youth, tipping his chin back towards the gallery door. I inventoried his Nike knockoff trainers and mullet haircut — a typical young Beijinger.

"No?" I replied, waiting for the comments, maybe even complaints, about the avant garde artist whose work I had failed to understand.

The youth lit his Marlboro with matches. Beijing men didn't mind bumming cigarettes but they were squeamish about taking my lighter, perhaps because it meant touching something I'd touched. "No. He's from Hubei Province."

I nodded, having no idea what this meant. 

"In Hubei they have many foreigners who have travelled up the Yangzi — who knows what strange blood he has?" He looked at me speculatively, as though assessing my own corpuscles. "Not Chinese, not really," he reiterated, and strode off.

I went to the Pearl Market and was immediately advised not to buy from the first stall I came to. "He's only a Beijinger," said my guide contemptuously. "Look at his long thin neck and fat hands. No good — he won't know anything. Find a man with a short wide neck, and long fingers — he will be from Guangdong Province, where the pearls are grown, so he will have good stock." I began to feel as if Chinese spent their time covertly feeling the bumps on their neighbour's heads, or making psychological judgements from handwriting samples. 

Although I'd guessed China must be a complicated place, it was a revelation to find that it's not a place at all. It's a construct. Hammered together over centuries of Imperial rule, followed by Party education, its multiple cultures survive, not in spite of cultural confinement, but because of it. They ignored central issues of poverty, exclusion and gender by forming cultural battalions that edged them a few inches closer to prosperity, inclusion, and equality. 

But this behaviour wasn't prejudiced — even if the Ethnic Cultures Park was once labelled the "Racist Park" on all the roads from the international airport, rather, the Ethnic Park showed the fracture lines in China's homogeneity, because it was a microcosm for China as a whole.  Fifty-six cultures "live" there, including Russians, Koreans, and Mongolians, each with an acre of ground bearing traditional buildings and crops. They are supposed to make money from the visiting tourists. But the Russians were never there, because they worked as street acrobats; the Koreans left midway through the day to work as cooks; and the Hui had taken over gardening for several of the other cultures who preferred to sit and play cards. My artist colleagues exclaimed at the Tibetan monastery parked alongside the Mongolian yurt, the Buddhist stupa jostling the Khazak village, and I handed out cigarettes to the ethnic minority inhabitants and smoked with them in contemplative silence.

Slowly it began to come into focus. This huge park had everything: every talent and vice, every power or weakness, each innate characteristic, of the fifty-six cultures. And it was only a park. Outside the park was real China, not so small, nor nearly so easy to get around, and in it, too, all these similarities and divisions existed. To cope, you needed a handle and they were easy to come by. The Hui were good gardeners, while the Loba made the best mountaineers. Mongolians were terrible drivers but good with animals, and if you wanted to buy on the black market, you'd best find a Manchu to bargain on your behalf.

Wandering through the space — one culture to each acre — high on a combination of jetlag and nicotine, I felt I'd fallen into a kaleidoscope. Each time I thought I understood something, China revolved and the picture changed. Sparkling, fascinating, gaudy...but transient. I'd assumed I was visiting a huge coherent population of uniformly-clad Chinese and instead found myself in a fragmented continent with more cultures in one place than I'd seen even at the United Nations. Despite having a focus, I had no base, no security. Around me, the painters and photographers with whom I was to collaborate, were secure in the permanent ideology of Chinese architecture; praising the philosophy of the moon bridge and the rule of nine that determined arches, and yet I was drifting without moorings.

Writers are supposed to interpret reality — it's our job description; but Beijing was like reading the future in chicken entrails, it was probably all there, but I couldn't see it. Although I learned to fit in: to eat street food; to sing along with whatever pop tune was on the taxi radio so the driver could "learn" the Western words by ear; and to smoke like a native — I never found a sense of balance. I experienced the city with one foot on the pavement and the other in the gutter, always stumbling over my own preconceptions and fighting for clarity through the pall of cigarette smoke and pollution. It was the first city to defeat me, defy encapsulation, destroy all attempts to create a "sense" of itself.

Over a year later, I'm still trying to put a frame around "my" Beijing. Trying and failing. The only lesson it's taught me is to distrust everything except direct experience, but that direct experience can be as unhelpful as everything else when making the imaginative leap. But that failure contains something coherent too — a reminder that some experiences defy categorisation and require something else; expression without form, or maybe impression without editorial guidance. Beijing, for me, can only be described in fragments that don't join up and perhaps that's a more honest view of the city, and of a writer's role, than I would have dared to express a year ago.

(First published in the second issue of Per Contra.)

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