Sunday, August 14, 2005
The film co-production I’m working on assigned a van to each department. Mr. Hong is our department’s driver. The middle-aged Mr. Hong is loud and vivacious, guffawing easily whenever my Australian boss attempts to speak Chinese. Yet unlike the other drivers on the team, he never lifts up his T shirt to cool his protruding belly, no matter how hot the weather gets.
“Housing in that area is very expensive. How much rent do you pay?” He asked point-blank while out on an errand with me. I had just told him I live in the Central Business District area.
“Oh, I have a roommate.” I hesitated, not sure how much to divulge on my living situation. “We pay 3000 kuai (less than US $400) each for a two bedroom.” The truth is we live in a small one bedroom apartment, but I don’t want him to feel that we have little financial sense.
“That expensive!” He banged on the steering wheel while the van squeezed its way onto the highway. “Ah, Wu, that’s not very smart of you. You shouldn’t pay more than RMB 1000 for an apartment.” Apparently he didn’t hear the “each” right after the “RMB 3000”.
“That’s ok.” Strangers in China constantly pry into your personal finances, so I tried to preempt any further inquiries about my current salary by stating; “I had some savings from the years living in America.”
“America.” He said with a dramatic sigh, shaking his head. “Wu, if I were you, I wouldn’t come back.”
“That’s not very patriotic of you.” I teased him because he is employed by one branch of the military. He is using the van owned by the military to make some side cash while he’s not needed at work.
“I don’t love the country (Ai Guo – be patriotic). I love the world (Ai Shi Jie).” He laughed heartily. “One of my friends just paid 120,000 renbinmi (US $15,000) to go to San Francisco. I wish I could go.”
The van stalled in traffic on the highway linking the Third Ring Road to the Fourth Ring Road. The smog was so bad that the air literally blended in with the gray concrete high-rises all along the highway. “What do you like about America? Most of my Chinese friends who studied and worked in America want to come back to China.” I asked.
Mr. Hong lit a cigarette, which I took as a sign that we would be stalled in traffic for quite a while. “Look at this.” He pointed at the traffic with his right hand, cigarette smoke coming up from between his fingers. “Too many people in this place. Too dirty. In America, I figure things would be nicer. At least people’s manners would be a little better. “ He laughed again, self-deprecatingly, as if trying to discount what he had just said.
“Maybe.” I thought for a second, about the clean suburb shopping malls and shoppers who rush between Wal-Mart, BestBuy and Gap. “But the changes here are so rapid. It’s fascinating…” I pondered briefly if I should say “to watch” or “to experience”.
“Yeah, fascinating all right. But in many aspects it’s not changing. Like democracy, I just don’t think we’ll be able to see it in China in our lifetime. The communist party is very good at feeding people. But…” He laughed again, and dragged a smoke.
I was a bit dazed by this unexpected talk about communism and democracy. Or maybe it’s because of the humid weather.
“You work for the military and they allow this kind of thought?” I probed tentatively.
“I’m a long-time communist party member too!” He chuckled. “But I don’t like some of things the party does here. Like its tight control over the media. Every news outlet rehashes the same propaganda. No wonder America criticizes us all the time.”
“Why don’t you go to America then, like your friend?” I wondered what the RMB 120,000 was paid for – a fake marriage with an American, or a spot on a smuggler’s boat? “You could drive taxi’s in New York.”
“I wish I could.” He gave a last drag on the cigarette and put it out. “My friend speaks English. I don’t.”
I thought about the impatient New Yorkers and how they would treat an immigrant taxi driver, and nodded.
“My dream, “ He sighed, and immediately followed with a laughter, “is to drive across America, to drive through all that open space, to Alaska. I want to see the grizzly bears and the snow peaks there.”
I stared at the traffic and muggy weather ahead of us on the highway, and got lost in the dream of Alaska– there we wouldn’t have to hide in air conditioned vans and get stuck in traffic; the air would be pure between us and the grizzly bears and snow peaks. I was lost in my dream of Alaska while Mr. Hong turned the air conditioning up a notch, and started whistling a Chinese folk tune.
Grudgingly, the traffic began to move.