Tuesday, July 05, 2005
You are glad you've left when you...
For all the changes that have happened in Chengdu, one thing has stayed the same - the locals' love for an easy life. Most visitors notice the slower pace of life very soon after they arrive. Locals spend hours drinking tea at teahouses and playing mahjong by the streetside. And they love their food.
"Beijing I've been there." My friend Wang Hai said to me at the dinner table in a noisy Sichuanese restaurant. We were waiting for 10 more high school friends to arrive. He continued, "It's just a big village to me. Look at what they eat there. They don't even have decent Sichuan restaurants!"
I didn't want to tell him that there are far more cuisines in Beijing than in Chengdu. In Chengdu, it's spicey Sichuan food or nothing; I hardly noticed here any Hunan or Yunan restaurants that are popular in Beijing, let alone Italian or Indian. I let him talk, enjoying the local dialect that's smoother and more sing-song-like than the Beijing Mandarin.
Our friends arrived slowly. There was Bin who used to hang out with the "hooligans" on the street and once, if I remember correctly, stabbed someone and stayed in the police station overnight; now he's the security chief of a big municipal bureau. Li quit her job with a state-owned enterprise and went into reselling insurance policies; now she owns a car and travels frequently and comfortably. Ming is still satisfied with his police job supervising small vendors, his fat belly serving as the evidence. Yongheng has been with a bank for over 13 years now. His weight has breached over the danger point and he asked me for fitness tips. Song was a mediocre and quiet student in high school; today he's the most successful of the pack.
I asked Song what exactly he did. Yongheng laughed, "wine and dine, relationship building, I know what he does on a daily basis." Yongheng had helped Song on several deals in the past.
Song smiled wryly, "that's how you do business in China." He traded land rights which he had acquired through guanxi (connections); that was low-risk high-return business. Now with the government crackdown, he had changed to real constructions and some merchandise wholesaling. He had just won, yet again through guanxi, a big contract to service the local People's Liberation Army on something.
I couldn't control my naivety, "I have many friends in the hi-tech business in Beijing. Their business practices seem more professional, less this type of under-the-table dealing."
Everyone laughed. Wang Hai tugged at my shirt, "Mouse (my high-school nickname), you've been away for too long. Things have changed. I know the hi-tech businesses in Chengdu. It's all about kickbacks."
Or have they changed? The 1989 student movement started as an anti-corruption rally. I remember that clearly.
Some more friends arrived and the dinner was served. Every dish was soaked in hot chili oil. Beer flew freely. I had to ganbei (drain the glass) with everyone since not ganbei-ing would make the other lose face.
By the time we reached the teahouse by the river, I was half-drunk. We had some tea, and talked about the sweet memories of our high-school years. Those were the best years of my life. I stared at my friends and in my drunken state, saw all still as the young and cheerful friends I used to dream about the future with.
We moved to a KTV at midnight. Ming's girlfriend (Ming was divorced) told me that usually Ming would go "talk business" late at night; but tonight to give me face, he's staying with the crowd.
I asked what "talk business" meant. Everyone laughed again. Wang Hai pointed at Bin, "That's why his wife divorced him. Too much business with pretty girls late at night." Bin ignored him, and picked up the mic and sang a sappy Chinese pop song. He still had a great voice; but he's noticeably balding.
Wang Hai sat down next to me, holding a beer. I had always thought Wang Hai was gay, but he turned out to have been married for 6 years. We avoided talking about our respective relationship status as much as possible.
Everyone picked some Chinese pop song and stood up with the mic. They sang about how they would die for the love of their life, how they would shed tears over the misunderstanding, etc., etc. It's funny to see the overweight macho men emoting in front of the karaoke video on the giant TV screen. After a few more bottles of beer, I got misty-eyed - alas, these were still the friends I knew.
Wang Hai clinked his glass with mine, "Ganbei (drain the glass)." I could barely hold any more beer in my stomach but I did. "Do you know what happened to Jun?" He asked me.
"What happened to him?" I wasn't very close to Jun. I only remember him as a bookish nerd.
"He went insane." Wang Hai replied casually. Hearing the first few beats of the next song, he jumped up. "It's my song." He grabbed the mic from Yongheng.
Yongheng sat down to my right. "I saw it." He shouted to the room. He's quite drunk and shifted agitatedly in the couch.
"We worked in the same bank, you know. Sometimes when I visited his branch, I asked his boss about him. He didn't get anywhere after going there after college. Everyone thought he's too stubborn."
"So they made life very difficult for him." Wang Hai chimed in between his lines of teenage love.
"One day, I went to his branch and noticed the entire first floor had been burned down. The branch manager told me there had been a fire two days before. When I went up to the third floor," he did a ganbei with me before continuing, "I saw Jun hiding behind the door of a storage room. So I went in." He burped loudly.
Bin pushed him, "What was going on with him?" Everyone was getting impatient.
"So I went in." Yongheng picked up some spicy beef jerky and put in his mouth. "Jun giggled. He closed the door behind me, and said to me, in a hushed voice,
'I'll let you in on a secret. It's been two days since the fire and they still haven't caught the guy. Do you know who set the fire?'
I said I don't. He giggled again. He said, 'It's me.'"
Everyone went quiet, except for Wang Hai who continued with some lines like "tears in my eyes burning my heart".
Li finally asked, "Did they find out it was him?"
"Of course." Yongheng answered, quite excitedly. "I didn't tell the police." He added.
"Where is he now?" I asked.
"Who knows? Maybe in some psycho ward. Maybe in a prison." Yongheng's answer coincided with the end of Wang Hai's song. Everyone was quiet until the next song started. It was Bin's turn again.
"I always tell him that he's too inflexible, that he needed to change." Yongheng was visibly saddened now by his own story.
Li shook her head, "in China, if you don't do what your bosses want you to do, if you don't know how to adapt to the way, you get frayed."
For a moment, I could see Jun, wearing a white coat and sitting still on a white bed in a sterile hospital room. And I was very glad that I no longer live in Chengdu.