Art Salon at Crossroads Centre Beijing: He Hongbei

He Hongbei is a Chinese artist who paints hyper-realistic portraits of beautiful, but pitiful, women who are struggling under societal pressures. While not defining herself as a ‘feminist artist’, her art does involve a lot of commentary about the media portrayal of women, the practice of being a female painter in a heavily patriarchy-saturated art form, and what I feel is this unspoken understanding between many women who feel they simply cannot speak out against any unjustness upon them because it is simply bu neng shuo (not able to be spoken about).

Her first series developed due to seeing a friend go through an intensely emotional break-up. These paintings revolved around the idea of ‘painting out the inner feelings’ that her friend was experiencing, a traumatic, but visually effective construction which used a lot of liquid-like environments (realistic water smudgings and explosive bodies in muted pastel tones) to give a viewer this sense of despair and loss. While the faces of the models were simple, soft, and serene, the mid and backgrounds felt rougher, more textural.

The second series we saw was titled ‘Dumped Garbage-Relax’, showing more hyper-realistic, hyper-beautified women gazing out to corners of the canvas. Most women wore little to no clothing, and all had their hairlines culminate into crumpled paper with various objects (pills, apples, tools, etc) spilling out of the space where their brains should be. The last and most recent painting had a lot of Jeff Coons inspirations and motifs that helped explore the interweaving lines of traditional Eastern upbringing with western thought imports.

While technically I think Hongbei has excellent control over the medium of painting, I find her dialogues to be disheartening. Sure, I won’t deny that many women in China and abroad face huge pressures to be obedient and submissive, which is shown by Hongbei through many of her models faces and body language, but the fact that she finds these aesthetics to be more interesting to paint, rather than searching for stronger women, was a bit of a letdown. It felt like she merely wanted to say ‘look, another woman being subjugated’ rather than taking a pro-active stance of ‘look, here is a woman not giving a fuck and doing her own thing’. For one woman to say that there is beauty in being second feels, quite frankly, like the ultimate betrayal.

E

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Migrant workers in Beijing.

What you see above is a migrant worker hut. A frame of bamboo or off-cut metal tubing pieces surrounded by sheets of weathered plastic all held together in the hopes it will stay intact till the next morning. There’s basic electricity running to it through thin lines that enable a couple of string lights to illuminate, and a hot plate or two to heat food with. Bedding takes the form of free-stand cots and people are sleeping two or three heads high. Insulation is whatever blanket you can find. Tonight will be about three degrees Celsius, and temperatures are dropping daily.

I was told about two hundred million citizens fill the lower-class title in China. Many were born in the countryside and traded toiling land for turning concrete in hopes of becoming a part of the high-rise economy China is heavily invested in cultivating. In all honesty, I think most of them become a part of the high-rise economy when their overworked bodies are thrown into the churning mixer and poured back into a new building – an oversized tombstone if you will.

It’s mind blowing seeing the vicious treatment of class here, and how it’s controlled. A co-worker and I walked past the building site you see above and wondered why there isn’t any consideration for unions, for outcry, for riots against this unjustness. With over a hundred million people being worked to the bone, the efforts to change their circumstances appeared to us as nonexistent.

We came to this conclusion – if you price basic rights like education and healthcare outside the financial realm of the lower-class, then what little of a bone they’re thrown is enough to drive production forward. More than that, the tiniest increment in finances is enough to give many of these people something more valuable that an extra .20c in the bank account – it gives them hope by providing security for their child. More money means their kid might have a chance at education, at aiming for a better life. Whether that actually works I cannot comment. But by shifting hope to the future, you certainly guarantee the complete obedience of the present day sufferers.

E.

Watermelon eating competition.

watermelon

In the furthest corner of the Feige vintage fair a table filled with cut watermelon slices lay in the sun while a crowd of about a dozen gathered closer to it. One gentleman, a pot-bellied Chinese lad in a white t-shirt, black trackies and dark RayBan-esque sunglasses, approached and lifted from the table one of the larger slices, a crescent that arced the entire length of the now dissected fruit.

He stood back and off to one side of the table, holding his piece close to his chest, and surveyed the crowd. He was looking for a challenger.

I and a small group of friends had also gathered around the other side of the table when seeing such a spread of abandoned fruit, and, sensing this was about to turn into an eating competition, Chris, my software developing British friend, stepped away from us and selected a similar watermelon slice; a nonverbal agreement that he was to be the other competitor.

A judge appeared, stepped between the two men, and counted down.

3…

2…

1…

EAT!

Gnashing growls filled the air and the juices of eviscerated watermelon sloshed down from the mouths of both men. As the battle quickly drew to a slippery conclusion the steely-faced determination of the Chinese national proved to be too much for Chris, and he slowed down to accept his defeat graciously (and possibly burp up one or two watermelon seeds). The Chinese national accepted his DVD reward, and walked away a champion.

While Chris cleaned himself off with a wet wipe, two new challengers stepped forward. Younger girls, one about 14 years, the other maybe 11 years, chose two smaller pyramidal shaped pieces to duel with. The older girl giggled and held her piece in one loosely gripping hand, smiling and waving at her friends. The younger girl stood in silence, before sliding her legs out to the side in a semi battle stance. Her piece was held with both hands just under her lower lip, and her eyes narrowed.

The judge appeared again and began the countdown.

3…

2…

1…

EAT!

I have a question to ask now: Have you ever been so excited to win a watermelon eating competition that your eyes rolled to the back of your head and your facials became so intense that you would make a prime candidate for a remake of ‘The Exorcist’?

If I had known the fate that would befall that small, innocent, watermelon slice, I might have asked for a moment of silence. The juices exploding from the ravaging this young competitor was giving to her watermelon was hypnotic to watch, a pink waterfall of carnage falling down. I don’t think she was chewing, merely mashing her face into it with the force of how a woodpecker turns a tree stump into sawdust.

As victory approached for the young girl her final bite into the fruit turned into a victory fist, the skin of the now defeated watermelon held tightly in her right hand as a show of triumph. I imagine she took it home to add to her trophy pelt collection that is stacked up against her DVD winnings.

On a side-note I also rode a penny-farthing at the fair! This was undoubtedly the oddest balancing act I have ever performed. What should have resulted in a dapper moment turned into me being stuck in a left-only rotation to which the bike did not want to relent.

E.

Tianjin, coffee, and next year.

Things I have been up to/thinking in no particular order, as I do not have faith in my memory allowing me to construct such a narrative.

 

Without further ado…

 

–       Kede whisked myself, and my two co-workers, away to Tianjin for a nice summery Saturday outing. Tianjin is the largest Northern China coastal city located about 2.5 hours away from Beijing, and is the fourth biggest urban sprawled city in China overall. As we approached Tianjin, we skirted along the edges of its borders, sticking to the desolate wasteland views of grey stone gravel and grass that gave a bleak imitation of natural five o’clock shadow. With no warning (there is never any warning in China) the gravel turned into fluorescently hued plastic trees, and the tip of a sickly sweet pink spire emerged from behind a mound of dirt. We had arrived at the day’s entertainment: Binhai Aircraft Park. Our waiban Kevin procured tickets for us that showed, of all things, a Russian Kiev aircraft carrier printed on it. China is well known for slapping pictures of completely unrelated things onto any merchandisable real estate, and I saw the picture of this large ship as just another gimmicky ploy to guide you into ultimate disappointment.

Nope.

There was legitimately a de-commissioned Russian aircraft carrier floating near the back of the park. We were allowed to shimmy through the tight internal spaces and go up onto the main deck where some old Hawks, and one helicopter, were parked up, as well as missile launchers and other maritime warfare paraphernalia (the phone booths tacked onto the starboard side I feel were a somewhat more modern addition).

The only problem we encountered on that day was, after arriving to the gates at about 10.30am, Sarah and I wanted to combat the relentless heat with some hydration. Finding the only open supermarket on the main strip, we entered through its doors to be met with enough beer to satisfy Homer Simpson, but not a drop of H2O in sight. Being in an amusement park and only finding beer on the shelves was one of the most traumatically ridiculous world problems I have had to experience. We eventually bought some overpriced water at one of the park shows – an adrenaline pumping faux movie set with racy red RX8’s and stunt bikes galore.

Tianjin also has this black market where you can buy everything, and I mean everything, with almost no questions asked (the only questions you will be hounded with are in due part to the haggling nature of Chinese markets, not the legalities of purchasing said items).

 

–             I FINALLY TRIED VIETNAMESE COFFEE. And I know what you’re thinking, ‘it’s not Vietnamese coffee if you’re in China,’ oh but it certainly was Vietnamese coffee my friends, for everything the light touched had been imported from the original source. The Pho Laboratory has only been open for two weeks, but I dare say they better prepare for an onslaught of hyped up Beijing residents needing their caffeine fix. I ordered my coffee prepared as a hot drink, even though just a mere sliver of window separated me from a blazing 34 degree day, because hot is the traditional method. The black ambrosia dripped slowly into my cup, swirling the creamy condensed milk layer into a luscious Rorschach test I couldn’t wait to consume. Once the last drop had escaped its brewed confines, I sipped on this heavenly brownie-noted liquid for almost an hour (I was in denial over finishing it with every half sip I took). The owner of the Vietnamese place warned me that it was quite a strong drink, and for most of my time I laughed internally at his preposterous sentence. It wasn’t until I finished the last two tiny sips that I became fully aware of my heart racing at a relentless pace. And to think I was going to order another one …

 

–       the Beijinger have said that they will take me back next year which I am hugely excited for. The managing editor has said he will encourage me to expand out of the dining realm and into feature suggestions, which is an amazing step up in regards to learning about the foreign media processes in Beijing. I was asked to attend a Sino-French celebration of diplomatic relations at Yishu8, an art gallery, you can read about that here. Other works I have finished recently are listed here. Oh and the Beijinger held their annual Reader Bar & Club Awards with all-you-can-eat-and-drink on offer for four hours. I acquired a bright blue feather boa over the course of the afternoon, so you can figure out how my night went.

 

–       Oh yeah … I’m back in China another year.

 

–       I’m going to try something different and post photos now.

 

 

 

E.

 

Entrance to the Disney-on-heroin park

They see me rollin’

“and I’d kick her, Sir”

Swiss made CK lolololol

Because buying fake Viagra is totally fine

THE COFFEE

Judging fox is judging

Boats and planes and missiles OH MY

Gaymazing Poker Race.

I never got involved in the LGBT centre back home. For a long time I was working weeknights, which was when they generally had meetings. And if I’m honest I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be immersed in such an environment. Even now I’m not 100% comfortable with my orientation, but I’m more comfortable than uncomfortable at least.

 

Anyway, in Beijing I have been attending a few events that are sponsored or organised by the LGBT centre here. First was a comic book event that showcased the works of two very unique artists who showed heavy sexualised and gender focussed narratives. Unfortunately I went to this event with a girl who wasn’t exactly open to the nature of the event. We haven’t spoken since. Next I went to a literary festival event where Benjamin Law spoke about his newest book, Gaysia.

 

I’m still yet to set foot inside the centre though. Partially because I don’t know where it is, or their opening times, and partially because I still feel hesitant in crossing that boundary as it’s something I didn’t do at home.

 

The weekend just passed contained the most recent event I have attended in support of the Beijing LGBT centre. I happened to learn about it from speaking with the centre manager, James, at the literary Gaysia talk. I asked for my email to be added to the centre’s list, and he said it was good timing of me to ask as their next event was going to be a bar crawl around the centre of Beijing. The date coincided with my birthday, and with Lisa’s farewell from China, so the timing of the event could not have been more perfect.

 

The following week I received an email with ‘3rd Annual Gaymayzing Poker Race’ in the headlines. It detailed below the nature of the event, a race between six bars in three hours, all on foot, with teams answering gay inspired trivia or completing dares for tokens to enter into the final poker game at the finish line while drinking a beer provided by Great Leap Brewery.

 

I rallied up the troops (sent a message out to some friends I thought would be interested). A resounding YES echoed back from Kristy, Lisa, Helen, and Sarah (we bent the rules slightly and had a team of five, but James was completely fine with this). We entered our team name as ‘Gay, Woah!’ a linguistic play on the Chinese words gei wo (it means ‘give me’). At 2pm the race commenced, our plan was to run to the furthest bar and make our way back. We legitimately ran most of the way there (causing a lot of mayhem between the severely congested main hutong street) and made it to Mas bar in about 18 minutes, surprising the two volunteers there who were busy making a Skype call on their supposed free time. We egged on the other teams coming up behind us, and in doing so made really good fren-emies with a gay couple (one is a Jack Jones store designer, the other designs women’s shoes for H&M).  Over the day our main race was against this team, who proved to be gold value for laughs and conversations.

 

Poor Helen had to knock back a bottle of Yanjing beer (river water in both flavour and percentage) for us to receive our first token, already a fine start for us, before we made quick pace to the next bar. This is where my memory is a bit fuzzy. I remember we correctly answered three trivia questions, and performed one more dare (ice down our pants, refreshingly weird feeling indeed), before high-tailing it back to the original location. We came back in the top ten, and just under five minutes from the first team back, not a bad effort for five foreign girls who ended up a wee bit more inebriated than they imagined.

 

We all concurred it was the best afternoon we’d ever had in China. We got to explore the older part of Beijing, and discover new hot-spot bars we can go back to. We also made a bunch of new friends, some I hope to see at an upcoming block party (which I hope to write about as I’ve never been to one before). It’s a weekend like this that reminds me what I enjoy about Beijing, and why I want to stay here a lot longer.

 

 

E.

 

 

 

Misinter-trip: How to (sort of) visit Nanjing.

The second half of the semester, actually the second half of living one year in China, is always a much better deal. The first half has too many relaxing entrapments in the form of ridiculously long holidays of which, if you are not financially prepared, can lead to weeks on end with very little structure. I prefer structure. I like knowing I have things to do Monday – Friday, and weekends are my own time to do with as I please.

 

However a short and sweet holiday is not something to poke fun at, and April 5-7th was indeed a short holiday in China – Tomb Sweeping Festival. Alas, no tombs are actually swept. What I saw happening instead was large cemeteries all ‘dressed up’ with bright red decorations, and people gathering near the burial mounds of their loved ones to let off flash-bang fireworks (the need for fireworks for every single celebration that ever occurs in China is just mind boggling).

 

As I had Monday off I decided a short trip to somewhere that isn’t Beijing would be a nice adventure. Thoughts of Xian immediately came to my head, but after conversing with another friend who also wanted some holiday plans it changed to a different city: Nanjing. This friend lives in Shanghai, so it was a very easy day trip for her, and for reasons that are still slightly unclear to me the plan ended up like this: I was to go to Shanghai for one night, take the fast train to Nanjing the following morning to spend one night there, and then go back to Beijing the final day of Tomb Sweeping. This was the first mistake I made. I wish I had spent two days in Nanjing to properly see the sights (that I didn’t really research, mistake number two), but nevertheless it was a holiday and it was outside of my city, so it sufficed my needs. However I did eat camel in Shanghai, so that’s something.

 

Before all this occurred it was left to me to find a place to stay. Hindsight has revealed that when one plans a trip with another person financial aspects should be discussed with. I didn’t want to cause any trouble over money as I find that to be one of, if not the, pettiest of arguments, so my findings were tailored to cheap instead of other vital things like accessibility. I found one for 94 kuai total, and didn’t think much more of it.

 

Arriving in Nanjing mid-morning I jumped into a taxi and proceeded to tell him the address saved to my email. He said after a brief look at it he definitely knew where it was, and so we drove off.

And drove.

And drove.

 

And drove.

 

After asking the fourth random person via yelling out his driver window where ‘such-and-such’ address was, I was feeling very disheartened by the driver’s quite obvious lie. What wasn’t helping my situation was the fact that we had driven right through the city centre, over the Yangtze River, and into a desolate wasteland of broken houses and unrecognisable signs of semi-functioning life. The entire one-way trip had also cost me half an hour, due to the fact that any distance between two points in Nanjing is unbelievably stretched out. Such a sprawl this city is it’s no wonder there haven’t been any massive issues due to their newfound desire to construct a subway system under an already well established city centre. I’d hate to see the traffic made in Nanjing when work finishes for the day.

 

Arriving at the hotel I had pre-booked, with my friend waiting for me, I was so enraged at my driver (who also tried to steal 50 kuai from me in a half-assed plea of ‘I had to call friends to find this place, you owe me phone money’ (not my problem asshole)) that I immediately dumped my clothes out of my backpack and walked out of the cesspit that was our un-cleaned hotel room (footprints on bed sheets and mysterious piles of crumbs lining the windowsill were our welcome gifts) and set off down the deserted street to find any transportation that would take me away. A black cab took us into the city centre for a sweet price, and to avoid the toll routes he gave us an impromptu back-alley tour of coal stations, suburbia, and other sites we would have missed had I booked a more expensive room in the city centre. For this I am a little happy, I got to see the effects of a city that isn’t the capital and is now playing catch-up to more successful, and bigger cities. Nanjing to me is like an unfinished Wasgij puzzle (those puzzles where upon completion you have a new image that links to the image on the box and tells a story) where parts are close to being a full reveal (the sweet city centre with it’s massive roads, abundance of nature, and great walk-ability) and other parts are still missing a lot of pieces (the lego-like construction/de-construction around every corner).

 

My research into Nanjing prior to visiting was almost non-existent, bar the few friends I spoke with who had already been. All three of them concurred with one idea: the museum. Now this is where another big mistake happened. Nanjing is home to many museums, and some of these showcase the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking, but alas, either the keyword ‘massacre’ was muted from these discussions or my brain simple didn’t register it in passing, I was confident that my friends meant the normal museum of Nanjing.

 

No, no they did not.

 

I am yet to see any of the locations in Nanjing that were scarred from bloodshed and violence, and will indeed make a solo day trip back there at some point, but for all intents and purposes the normal national museum served well in satiating my need for good architecture and good story-telling environments, even if it was at the slight disappointment of seeing countless more pots and jade objects. The museum really was one of the best I’ve seen in Asia, for the fact that they understood how to correctly light exhibits. Museum etiquette on the other hand is not something you find in most Chinese museums, the amount of smudge marks and rambunctious children disturbing the space was enough to make me squirm in disgust.

 

Even though I missed the infamous parts of the city it made me semi-reflective as to why people enjoy saying they’ve been to places where absolutely vicious acts have happened. What is it about the nature of genocide and torture that is appealing to everyday folk? Is it the illusion that it could never happen to them, that the types of people who caused it are only found alive in the pages of history? That we always learn from our mistakes?

 

After the museum our stomachs told us that touring any more on empty tanks would lead to bickering, and an unmemorable evening, so we used what parts of the subway station we had access to to move closer into the city centre, and towards Blue Frog (a restaurant that makes reasonably cheap burgers, found in most major cities). As we dined at Blue Frog we came to the unanimous agreement that the hostel I had booked sucked, and that we should change it. Using the Wi-Fi we found on booking.com another room going at a reasonable rate and promptly put my name to it. We then high-tailed it out of Blue Frog and back to the first hostel to cancel our stay.

 

The taxi driver we had was a younger guy, and absolutely wonderful for conversing in small chatter, asking all the usual questions a foreigner is asked in China. However my Chinese skills have not really progressed much this year (lack of having a regular teacher) and the majority of the car ride was spent in a pseudo-silence, punctuated by the driver singing a few bars of a song before silencing himself, and after a few minutes of silence starting the process again with a different song. We asked him to stay while we collected our belongings, and then reversed our route to arrive precisely where we started, on the main road near the entrance to our new hotel.

 

A mere thirty seconds after that we were homeless.

 

Turns out the new hostel we booked online had absolutely no space for us. We should have rung them to confirm, but both of our phones were dying and we didn’t think it was necessary.

 

 

Walking around Nanjing with nowhere to stay felt slightly invigorating. I’d never been somewhere without plans or a place to stay before, so I can tick that feeling off my list. As we walked the main city street we concluded that the worst option would be sleeping in McDonald’s. But a mere five minutes after being kicked out we ended up paying for a room in a luxurious space called Yishiyuan, I intend to stay there again if I ever return. There was a bath in our room, which I almost fell asleep in. I awoke early, but refreshed, and made my way back to Beijing on one of the first fast trains out of the city. Nanjing, you can expect me again.

 

 

 

E.

Tragedy plus time equals comedy: Benjamin Law and ‘Gaysia’.

Sunday afternoon I went to Capital M’s Literary Festival (where on multiple posters had been corrected to LiteraCy festival, and I’m still unsure if someone royally F’d up or if it’s just a big marketing ploy) and listened to a discussion from Australian writer Benjamin Law, a well known writer for popular magazine Frankie, among countless other publications, and author of two books one of which was the hot topic for the afternoon and was titled Gaysia (of course, more info below).

 

Starting a wee bit late into the regular scheduling Benjamin opened with a brief family history timeline for us to understand his angles of approach in regards to writing and subject matter, and to also receive a wonderfully insightful look into the world of an immigrant family (Hong Kong to Sydney) who then became a family with a solo parent (his Mum sounds like a champion). His first book is about these family affairs (The Family Law) and was said as being his first big project in personal reflection.

 

His second book to be published was the focus for the rest of the discussion, and was surmised as being a humorous travel book with a heavily aligned infusion of essays involving unique perspectives into the gay culture in various Asian countries. Focussing a lot towards countries in the South East Asian quadrant, with trips to northern China and Japan also noted, various tales of lady-boys in Thailand, yoga in India designed for ‘curing’ homosexuality, and the rampant AIDS virus causing destruction in Myanmar were brought to light in his book.

 

What I enjoyed most from this discussion was this phrase Benjamin said: tragedy plus time equals comedy. Benjamin Law often writes and projects himself with a comedic tone, a way of making anything and everything less harmful to the point where it can be considered funny. This is a delicate process to apply to writing (or indeed anything) when discussing such topics like homosexuality, which are still seeking a crucial global shift in serious understanding and acceptance. I asked him in a badly worded question (I should have written it down) to explain how he approaches the balance between using his comedic voice to allow such topics a broader platform, without misrepresenting the people already at the platform. He told me that during his research in (I believe) Burma, a place that was devastated by a natural cyclone/tsunami-esque disaster, that even though they were surrounded by such catastrophic destruction, they still found the time to joke about it. And that he felt he had to put these conversations in his book to reaffirm to people that comedy is not evil, it just takes some time to permit yourself to laugh at circumstances. I like how his answer aligned with the ideas of previous comedy writers I had listened too, and I hope to produce more works that are in this style of writing. I enjoy comedy a lot, and converse and joke about things that perhaps border the line of acceptability, but I feel that without people doing this we would lose all sense of hope and humour. He also acknowledged that writing is a very modest legacy to leave this world with, the mere act of spreading awareness will never be enough without the result of action being the follow-up. It was heartbreaking to hear of an interviewee asking at the end what he can do to help get antiretroviral medicine delivered, and Benjamin being too stunned and saddened by the negative answer he left them with.

 

Something else I noticed from the discussion was the constant technicality the effects of labels within the LGBTQIA (even the acronym supports my ensuing comment). Frequently there would be a re-affirmation of each subset of labels when discussing broadly applied issues, as if to think that the absence of a label would warrant the people to become somewhat lesser in value in the community. I fear that this constant focus towards the encyclopaedic volume of subset labels, and the fear of forgetting every single detail of every single person is going to be damaging if people don’t accept that sometimes labels are wrong simply because there are too many nuances and personalities inside a single person.

 

Anyway I have derailed my train of thought. Onward with comedy!

 

 

 

 

E.

The intern who snuck into the hottest dining event in Beijing.

Disclaimer: Okay, you caught me, I was invited (but I totally would have tried to sneak in.)

Monday afternoon I attended the Eleventh Readers Restaurant Awards, hosted by the Beijinger aka the place where I have been interning for the past two-three months on a weekly basis.

They were held at the Conrad Beijing hotel, owned by Hilton, in one of the third floor meeting rooms. According to the well printed invitations (seriously there were probably three trees used per invite what with the amount they weighed) it was a formal function, so I donned a dress shirt and black pants (not jeans, Mum) and made my way into the city for it after my morning classes.

Arriving to a largely empty room I sat and waited for my boss. In recent news I am sad to say that she has handed her resignation in and will be leaving at the end of April. She has stated that my internship shouldn’t be affected, however we are yet to discuss in person this forthcoming issue. I wish I could say that this is a prime career opportunity for me (not to cash in on her resignation so quickly), but China law states that foreigners who wish to work at a foreign-owned company based in China must be at least 25 years of age.

Well, stink.

Attendees suddenly flooded the area, which ironically also meant the floodgates to the array of beverage products provided by sponsors opened as well. The great thing about big cities is the big names are guaranteed to want in on sponsoring major events, especially those of the beverage or dining nature. Since the Beijinger is widely known for its dining coverage, we were treated to some very odd Christmas bauble styled cocktails from Grand Marnier, and hor d’oeuvres that can only be described as a combination of latex covered radishes and grass jelly. However it was free and fanciful so I carried on my merry way and chatted to a few co-workers, including one who had his friend from Chicago in attendance for most of the night.

The event itself was pleasant enough. There were a few technical difficulties in syncing the iPad to the projector, and the crowd were a little rambunctious (well you would be as well with only a liquid diet on hand (where was the pizza?!?)), but I am definitely glad for this internship perk. If you want to see what people are eating in Beijing (or at least the fancy restaurant names) you can click here.

Now to patiently wait for the Bar Awards coming later. Apparently that’s where you can really shake things up. Yeah I said that.

E.

Ta meiyou piao.

First, a game –

 

You are packing your suitcase. Tell me, which of these things that you pack is not like the other ones?

 

Socks

T-shirt

Pants

Toaster oven

Shoes

Make-up

 

Becoming an expat has opened my eyes to the simple life. If, like me, you are uncertain about your long-term living solutions, you learn how to distinguish what you need from what you want very quickly. While having nice things is great, when it comes time to relocating it becomes hard to justify why you simply had to have a wooden owl carving, or fifteen different types of socks, or three Tupperware containers come with you.

 

Learning how to have less is a big advantage, and what you cannot take with you is then offered up to the remaining expat community for them to scavenge.

 

My dear friend Lisa is departing China soon after a successful two (I think) years of successfully making the Chinese language her bitch a valuable skill to have in her asset collection.  As she is leaving, the past few weeks have been a sort of garage sale, where bits and pieces of Lisa’s China life are becoming a part of someone else’s life. Because she is someone who has always enjoyed cooking at home (her homemade pizza will make grown men weep with joy) she invested in a reasonable sized toaster oven of which (obviously) she cannot take with her on her next journey.

 

Another friend and co-worker, Sarah, pounced at this opportunity to become the next owner of the toaster oven. Because we were going to see Lisa for her birthday this weekend, it was decided that the toaster oven would have to make the trip back with us. The ‘how’ in ‘how are we getting a toaster oven from Shijiazhuang to Beijing?’ remained a thing I like to call the ‘later problem’ and was left unresolved.

 

The weekend then quickly rolled around and Sarah and I make our individual ways down to Shijiazhuang. I arrived at Lisa’s to a large black suitcase at the door that Sarah had brought with her. Instead of using the gargantuan box the toaster oven came in when it was new, Sarah had eye-balled the size of the oven on a previous visit and decided that sticking it in her suitcase would make for easier transportation.

 

It then comes time to leave Lisa’s place this morning, and Sarah sat on the ground to pack her suitcase. First in went her clothes, then makeup and toiletries, a pair of shoes, and then a large 60cmx40cmx40cm (ish) toaster oven.

 

Well I’ll hand it to her, it fitted…kinda.

 

After zipping the suitcase lid to the point where it could zip no more we tied a thick band around the unzipped part of the suitcase lid and prayed that a slow and steady journey would halt the zip from falling down, or breaking.

 

At this point I am rolling on the ground laughing the hardest I have laughed in a long time. I’m talking on the verge of tears laughing, and for a brief moment I forgot all about the horrific hangover I was suffering. I can honestly say I never thought I’d be helping to pack a toaster oven in a suitcase to trek cross-country with via train, subway, and bus. Only in China.

 

We make our way to the train station and through security. I do wonder if they questioned the fact that we had a massive toaster oven inside a suitcase, or whether that just plain isn’t weird enough for China’s standards. After settling down I recharged (napped) the hour and ten minutes it takes to get to the Beijing station, and subway connection.

 

We eventually get to the bus stop needed to complete our journey in an all right fashion, though the subway did stop at random for a few minutes in the middle of the tunnel. I want to know, one: how do you muck up a subway schedule, and two: how do you fix it? But that’s for another post. We made it from Shijiazhuang to our bus stop in a timely three-hour span, and waited for the final movement of our journey to come.

 

The first bus for our destination was pretty sardine-esque, and with a massive toaster oven to take care of we decided to wait out for the next one. Luckily we needn’t wait long as the second bus rounded the corner after a brief five minute extended wait.

 

Sarah lifted the toaster oven into the back of the bus, scanned her metro card, and sat down. I followed her with the rest of our bags, scanned my own card, and sat down.

 

Now on every Beijing bus there is always one attendant to check who pays their bus fee (or doesn’t) and to yell out the name of every upcoming stop. The attendant on our bus turns to face us, points and says –

 

‘Ta meiyou piao’.

 

Now I’m not fluent in Mandarin, but I have learnt enough to recognise these words.

Ta – common pronoun for he/she

Meiyou – have not/do not possess

Piao – ticket

 

We flicked our metro cards out to her to show that yes, we scanned our cards and have rightly paid for our ride home. This seems to annoy her some more and she gesticulates wildly in our direction all the while repeating ‘ta meiyou piao’. Her pointing becomes more focussed as we pay closer attention, and while previously we thought she was pointing at us, it becomes clearer that she is pointing at the suitcase with the toaster oven.

 

And that’s when we remember; the word ‘ta’ can also mean the third person pronoun ‘it’.

 

The toaster oven did not have a bus ticket.

 

The fear of being kicked off the bus and having to wait for another was more than enough for us to hand over (albeit a little begrudgingly) the six kuai fee needed to keep our seats, and our oven, on board.

 

 

 

What did I learn from all of this? If I ever hold the idea of a toaster oven, I’m buying online.

 

 

 

E.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Countless first times.

I don’t often pay attention to the outside world when I’m on the subway. I still love the convenience of it, and I don’t think the novelty of such a cheap yet efficient method of transport is going to wear itself thin on me quickly, but for the most part my modus operandi is headphones in and the rest of the world out when I’m on my weekly commute to my internship.

 

Today however I’ve been rocking my head cold, which makes for the general level of discomfort to be rather…discomforting. Discarding the idea of music I tried to read my borrowed ’50 Great Short Stories’ book my co-worker loaned me, but after re-reading the same page four times and still not understanding ‘Brooksmith’ I gave up on that and resigned myself to listening and noticing the other commuters – a non-contact sport that can be quite entertaining. After a few minutes of playing that I zoned out and stared at the cream white plastic interior while above the green dots turned to red dots after each subway stop.

 

But then you stepped on board my carriage.

 

I didn’t notice you enter exactly. It took a few seconds after the subway began to pull ahead to its next stop that I noticed you there. Well, the two of you. You were crouched down in a darkened navy blue coat jacket and pants, while who I can only presume is your son sat down on the floor next to you. He wore a red jacket, black pants, one glove, and a bucket with a bent-up note attached to the front.

 

You were counting notes you’d pulled from the bucket. Most of them were green which meant they were a one yuan note. Occasionally you’d tuck a purple note, a fiver, at the back of the pile. You finished counting pretty quickly and tucked the money away inside your jacket. Your son (I’m going to refer to him as son) sat and watched for a little while, then upon noticing the bucket strung around him with a wide black piece of fabric, he picked up the black fabric and let it go, watching the bucket swing back to his chest every time.

 

I imagine he’s done this act countless times, but his eyes shone like it was the first time.

 

You both leaned back against the seat behind you, taking a break from the unremitting begging that is your livelihood. I sat there for a bit, just watching. Your son never lingered his attention on anything for a length of time, I’m uncertain if he could, really.

 

You were just regaining some reserves of strength to start moving again when it happened.

 

The stench of human excrement is something with the uncanny ability to permeate the air very quickly.

 

Of course your son didn’t notice. Is it a blessing in disguise he didn’t show embarrassment? I don’t know. But everyone else noticed, including you. You checked to see if he was dressed okay to leave the carriage, pulling down his left sleeve so that it connected with his one glove and sealed in his body heat. You pulled both he and yourself to your feet, most of his bodyweight slung across your shoulders. All this time I just sat there, and watched. As you waited for the subway to stop at its next destination I dug through my bag to find my wallet. I pulled out a fiver.

 

And then I sat there, frozen by my absurd privileged thoughts about what these subway strangers would think of me abandoning my bag all of four feet, and giving up a perfectly decent seat, to hand money over to a beggar and his son.

 

My fear of giving you money, of what others would think of me, has haunted me all day.

 

At the very last second I did stand up to give you that money. Our fingertips connected as I palmed it to you. Our eyes met as you said something indecipherable. Then you turned all attention back onto your son and hauled both you and he towards the public toilet, as my subway pulled away from you.

 

What scares me is that this isn’t the first time I’ve had these thoughts, or experienced this moment. The level of poverty here is countless, and yet each time I see it it’s like the first time.

 

But I guess humans are good at forgetting the bad things. We have two world wars in our history to prove we don’t really learn from our mistakes. I know that even as I write this, I’m going to forget you, just as I have forgotten countless others.

 

But I will see you again, for the first time.

 

I just hope I act less like a human, and more like a person.

 

 

E.