Siam I Am

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Siam Chronicles 26 - Beijing in the Spring, an End to the Thing

In Xiahe on the Tibetan Plateau ...
... it was one AM, and a group of Tibetan nomads were camped outside our window drinking and singing. The man's voice was shoddy and raw, the woman's full and cascading, a waterfall. Both were wild and ululating like birdsong. I was trying to sleep. At two AM a man whom I pictured to be old though I didn't bother to look was practicing his whistling on the doorstep of our hostel. He imitated birds, but mainly he tried for a certain high note again and again, a series of shrills. I was still trying to sleep. At two thirty AM a couple crashed through the dark, freezing hostel and had a blowout in Tibetan. They adjourned for a quickie then resumed the fight, cawing for hours. I gave up trying to sleep. At five AM I was up preparing to take a taxi to the bus to the train. The bathroom was covered in blood and cigarette butts smeared into the grout overtaking a blue tile floor. There was a black bird on the window ledge, hiding in the dark before dawn, but the naked lightbulb cast a glint across his beak, a pallid streak over the long, thin instrument, orange with a cruel curve. I was washing my hands in water like ice, fingers numb, thinking about the sky burial grounds ringing the town and this bird, its beak, and the purpose it had evolved to fulfill.

The Train through the Gobi to Beijing...
... was long and our car was host to a refluence of businessmen in sheer gray socks jawing at their cells in loud tones. We were assured it would be an interval of between 21 to 27 hours, it evened out at a middling 24. We got into Beijing groggy, unfocused, and flowed along to an unknown locus, automatically keeping my elbows on point and my teeth bared to gnaw through flesh. It turned out to be a taxi stand. Huzzah. We got in, showed our printout of unintelligible filigree to the driver, who grunted and made a gesture with his head, half nod yes, half shake no. We were headed for Paul, a friend from college whom we'd lived with in SF. After many attempts at dialing him with a Zimbabwe country code on our cell, I corrected my error and handed it to the cab driver, heard some tinny slants of directions being delivered, and settled back into the pleather seat to watch people in red sashes sidelined by rush hour waving flags with smiles like lunettes in their sooty faces. I thought that they were some sort of Communism pep squad, but it turned out they were the new bus courtesy bashaws, teaching passengers to wait in line, let people off, and keep a cool head while stepping onto the vehicle instead of trampling each other in a mad squash like crazed rhinos which is the usual procedure. I applauded both their effort and their optimism with a golf clap from my removal. We were eventually let off at a gate in an apartment complex. NYC has 8 million people, Beijing has 15 million at a conservative estimate. So when I say apartment complex what I mean in this context is a city the size of Luang Prabang, filled with its own markets and zip codes. We called Paul and handed the phone to the baffled but bemused security guard, between the two of them they ascertained where in this plentitude of population we were and Paul shuttled out to collect us. Seeing one of your best friends after three years is a moving experience. Seeing them loping down a street in a loud Polynesian shirt to rescue you from Beijing is even more so.

Paul's 29th Birthday ...
... was the very next day. We had stayed up the night before with his good friend whose finacee had dumped him, drinking until the unhappy fellow puked under the table. I felt this was a solid step in his recovery process. Paul and I retired to his dusty apartment and continued drinking excellent scotch. When I say dusty, I mean it here. I don't know if you've been keeping up on China and its peripatetic grime, but if you haven't let me tell you that there are toxic yellow dust storms blowing in from the Gobi that leave four inches on a car an hour. This is reality for Beijing.
Enough of dust for us, let's move on to the next day. It is Paul's birthday, we've not enough sleep but adequate. We go to the Forbidden City, Tienammen Square with its hundred paper kites streaming in lines, then out for sushi with a big group of expats, who are lively and interesting. The restaurant is covered islands in slick honey wood built over a koi pond, linked by arcing bridges. Afterward, we walk to a bar to sit under umbrellas in the rain and drink bourbon. We again stay up until dawn talking.

The Summer Palace ...
... is a sprawling complex with a marble boat, a lake made by many men with many shovels, and an endless parade of buildings, each with a grandiose name. The "Temple of the Purple Dragon Cloud with the Seven Heavenly Attributes" looks exactly the same as the "Chamber of Harmonious Aroma Perfection" which is suspiciously similar to the "Palace of Eastern Dawn Rising over Serpent Mountain." In fact, when we reached the "Bronze Pagoda" we were almost disappointed to see it was in fact a pagoda built out of bronze.

At the Foriegner's Hospital ...
... the doctor was saying that in all his years of practice he had never heard of anything like the symptoms I was relaying. He said with a thoughtful moue that he had no answer, and that when I went back to the states I'd be pounced upon by some eager thing who would try to make their name by identifying an affliction wrought by living in the jungles of Laos PDR. He tented his fingers under eyebrows that fanned out like palm trees and said his advice was to just pretend nothing was wrong and to tell no one, especially not a doctor - just hope for the best. This is always comforting to hear from someone in a lab coat.

The Great Wall, Mu Tian Yu, ...
... is our last stop on our last full day in Asia. We are at a secluded section of the Great Wall that plashes through mountains pouring into the sky, the fat bumblebees hum and bump lazily into my head, the flowers are blaring roulades of white with a sweet clean smell. Alex is contemplative, ready to mull over the magnitude of our stay and its implications. The pinfold of hawkers lining the path up to this solitude has obliterated my ardor. I am not festive, the uneven steps slicked into the ground look like nothing more than traps for my ankles, I kvetch until Alex whips around, perched on the wall at the top of the world, and says he wants to reflect on his last year and this is a great place to do it - the Great Wall after all.
I remit but can still think of nothing but going home, not home to Paul's dusty flat, but home to America, to a home I don't have. I entertain visions of a kitchen with an oven. In this fantasy I have a paper delivered to my very doorstep that is in a language I recognize with alacrity. I can turn to anyone and say "Those jeans look awesome with your butt," or "Do you happen to know where I can find a 24-hour woodworking hotline?" and get a response I can decipher, if not understand. In this fantasy there are burritos and chihuahuas. I am at a wonder of the world and all I can think about is leaving it. Small steps - get down the mountain, get past the people who grab you and throw you into tables, get past them. Get to the parking lot. Find that lady who insisted on driving you. Find that lady, get in her car, wait as six people are piled into the car with you. Smile politely at the 40 kilo man on your lap. Make it to the bus stop. Extricate yourself from the car. Pry yourself from the claws of the woman who is suddenly charging more money for no reason and jump onto the bus as it lurches off. Breathe in through the nose as the rest of the passengers laugh and laugh and laugh at you for over an hour. I just never get old. I'm like Peter Pan.
I pack when I get back, I do it calmly and with great care. I don't betray myself. My desire to return to the oblivion of custom and courtesy is checked like a greyhound at the starting gate.

The Flight Back ...
... was unthinkably tedious, taking a full day and a half. There were three layovers, I got no sleep. When we got into JFK I felt I was stumbling through Eden - everyone I passed had a different ethnicity, it was a spectrum of shades and sizes. And they were so damn nice. Yes, go to China for awhile and then NY seems like Jollyland by comparison. Even when our flight was delayed and we were rerouted through LaGuardia, everybody was so kind about it I could've kissed each of their many hued toes. I almost cried. Really.

An End to Things ...
... I guess happens now. We're in Cleveland OH, after a stint in Charlotte NC, Washington DC, Philadelphia PA, Boothbay ME, NYC, Boston MA, then onward through the midwest, and then the west coast. I don't have the culture shock I thought I would, I only have three boils bubbling up on my consciousness.
First, the people here are more amicable than I had remembered, and this is absolutely true when put into the cultural centrifuge. We may be a bunch of dolts as a whole, but at least we're a friendly bunch of bumblers.
Second, this is a super rich country and everything is way more expensive than I had considered possible. Even the squirrels are fat and complacent; I picture them twining together SUVs out of sticks and running up their credit card debt on pointless appliances and extravagant coffee drinks.
Third and finally, the grass IS greener but on both sides of the paddock, and after listening to a hundred drifted conversations that I can actually interpret, I realize that I'd much rather not know and make it up as I go along.

13 Comments:

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At 2:26 PM, Blogger ~Elise~ said...

Hurray!! You're back in our country!! So excited! As they say on teh interwebs, "ZOMGZ!"

If you're coming back to San Francisco, don't forget to wear chihuahuas in your hair. (Isn't that how the remix goes?)

When will you arrive? Please let me or Chesney know!

love,
House

 
At 12:58 AM, Blogger xz said...

brava!
you're a much better writer than i am. hate to say it.

although i can compete in the weird illness category. mine's a fungus. it has eaten my melatonin.

for good.

 
At 3:17 PM, Blogger Omar Cruz said...

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