Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sandy and Peter

I felt sorry for Sandy, my boss’s wife, on our ride from Shanghai to the small Zhejiang town for shooting on location. Sandy, who’s riding with me and my boss’s personal assistant Peter, was told that the town we were heading towards had great scenery. Instead, all we found outside the car windows were highways, construction sites that turned the earth upside and down, drab concrete housings that dot the brownish farm land and a dirty haze hovering over them.

When our van passed by Jia Xing, a historic city famed for its soyed duck and scenery, we saw huge conference center and hotel/apartment complexes being built out of nowhere. Sandy finally broke the silence, “They are building some interesting buildings out here.”

I thought I heard reluctance in her voice but I wasn’t sure.

The first day she was in China, we took her and some crew members to the Xiangyang market, an outdoor market in Shanghai known for knockoff goods. She didn’t shop much.

The second day she wanted something more “cultural”. The hotel recommended Pudong, the new development area with many many skyscrapers, Xintiandi, a redeveloped bar area, Nanjing Road, a jam-packed heart-attack inducing shopping street, and the Yu Garden.

We took her to the Yu Garden, a very nice ancient garden, but less enticing because we had been there for scouting everyday and would shoot a chase scene around there later. Other than that, we seemed out of options for genuine “Chinese” culture in Shanghai.

So I was really looking forward to introducing her to the small town. Like all foreign tourists who come to China for the first time, She was looking forward to meeting the “real” China that’s the opposite of what Shanghai offers. In general I object to this type of stereotype-oriented tourism. But she was visibly disappointed.

Once we arrived on the set, however, the scenery did not disappoint. The area where we had set up camera equipments was an old town sitting on tiny river canals. The local government specifically preserved the area for tourism purposes. But instead of being a tacky tourist trap, it shined with genuine charm.

Maybe because the town is not yet famous in China, its way of life doesn’t seem having been perturbed much by tourists. Quaint two-storey houses with upturned eaves stared at each other across narrow cobble-stone streets along the river banks. The roof tiles were dark grey, the windows and doors of aged wood, and the walls shelling off paint that showed their history. Shop owners didn’t hustle for business in the streets, or jack up the prices to a foreign customer. Women sat on wooden bench in front of their shops knitting cotton sandals. Old grandmas stirred soy beans with spices and packed them in small plastic bags for sale. Locals drank tea in restaurants on the river. To cross to the other side of the canal, one had to walk along the bank to find one of the small stone bridges. It’s exactly the kind of beautiful southern town I had imagined.

“It’s really charming, isn’t it?” Sandy exclaimed while standing on a stone bridge. Both Peter and I heaved a sigh of relief.

Compared to Sandy, Peter’s positivism needed no pampering. At first I kept a distance from his overt friendliness, suspecting it being a professional handicap or cover from having been a personal assistant in Hollywood for too long – he smiled big, high-fived with everyone, and was always ready to get coffee for every crew member on the team.

My suspicion turned out only half true. The next day the sky cleared up magnificently for the first day of shoot. I spent most of my time with my boss and Peter on the set. While admiring the agility of the star jumping off the roof tops repeatedly, we chatted a lot.

“I don’t get these Americans.” He shook his head, “Did you heard that woman there? She refused to walk across the bridge because there were too many Chinese on it. What a jerk! And the river. What’s wrong with the river? The Americans are like whining babies. ‘Oh people must have dumped all kinds of chemical waste in it. Let’s stand as far back as possible.’ The water looks fine!”

After half a week in China, he sounded more defensive about the country than I am. I didn’t tell him then that China does pump a lot of chemicals in its rivers. Just a few days ago the city of Harbin had to shut down water supply for its 4 million residents after a chemical plant exploded upstream of the Songhua River nearby.

He slowly showed me more of the grumpy European side of his personality as the day went by. I’d been relatively quiet because I’d been tired from waking up at 5am every morning, which he perhaps took as being attentive and wise in an oriental way. He would greet a crew member with a bear hug and a “Hi bro, how are you doing?” a la Joey in Friends, and then a minute later would continue his complaining with me, “The people in Hollywood, they don’t care about filmmaking. They only care about paychecks, their stupid cars, and golfing.”

“You know, your country is on the verge of becoming something great.” He said to me, patting me on the shoulder as we walked out of the set to get a bottle of red wine for our boss. It’s only 4pm in the afternoon but the residents were already returning home. Our steps on the cobble stones left a moist echo down the narrow darkening street.

“Look at us, man, we in America are so jaded. We are getting things fed to us way too easily. All we cling to now are materialistic stuff. There’s no more real challenge or ideals.” He grunted and I nodded. He stopped to play with a kitten who timidly straddled over a wooden doorway. When we resumed walking he continued, “But look at your country – there are so many great changes happening. Everything is beautiful. Including this town.”

I was more cynical than he was but I nodded. It’s the weather Peter; I wanted to tell him. You are disillusioned by America but I don’t think China could substitute for this illusion. But I kept quiet. It’s cruel to tell the person who just complimented you on that nonsensical remark for its unintended witticism.

We stepped out of the old-town area and into present-day China. The town center consisted of a motorcycle mall and small store fronts selling low-end household goods. The buildings in this relative poor town were still boring square leftovers from the 70s. Bicycle bells competed with car horns. Dusk chased after each vehicle driving by.

See Peter, I wanted to tell him, this is what China is really like – dirty, chaotic and a bit sad.

“Hi hellow, how are you doing?” He greeted a mother holding a baby boy on the street. The mother turned away and giggled with her friends.

“I liked your country, man. Everything here is beautiful.” He sighed.

I was amused – how could he call it beautiful when all the history we had was a tiny area preserved for tourism only? Yet slowly, his optimism infected me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of my own country, I thought. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective may be more insightful.

Then I got this sms message on my mobile from a Taiwanese friend with whom I’d been playing phone tags with:

“Pathetic China. Even people at the airport don’t know how to wait in lines!”

I replied – “But you are Chinese as well.”

His answer – “I’m a Taiwanese in China. I’m fed up with the lack of culture here!”

Maybe we mainland Chinese are not jaded yet because we’ve destroyed so much of our own culture and yet not fully immersed in the Western commercialism. It’s this in-between state, looking forward to an unknown future, that provides hope and a sense of wonder, and beauty.

I know I know, it’s the weather – the sun was setting; a thin fog was moving over the town; and the people, still innocent from too much tourism, were greeting and smiling to each other. It’s a nice environment to be positive.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tough Week Rap

It’s been a tough week.

Last Sunday I went to a farewell party, a regular scene in Beijing for the transient expat crowd. I had an argument with a Singaporean about the riot in the Paris suburb. The Singaporean, living in the fancy expat compound and making good expat salary, was genuinely confused by the fact that the rioters would still riot when their per capita income is so much higher than in the poverty-stricken Africa. I wanted to bang my head against the wall – why is it so difficult for people to understand that human misery is never absolute but relative?

On Monday I spent half a day (ok I’m exaggerating here) questioning my own knee-jerk liberal reaction to that argument. If I had never needed to please an ultra-liberal ex-boyfriend, if I had never listened to so much NPR, would I still reacted that way? How much of my reaction is genuine care for the less fortunate, since I live so comfortably in my expat compound and, although without a steady job, still manage to make in half a day as an interpreter what an average Beijinger would labor a month for? How much do I care for the people of Beijing besides framing them in my camcorder?

On Monday night, I labored late to finish a proposal for a TV documentary series on common Beijingers as their lives are being impacted by the city’s preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Spent a long time on the budget until at 2am, when all I could think of was how to get the production money. I cursed the fate of an independent filmmaker.

On Tuesday and Wednesday I interpreted for an America reporter. The organization he works for is doing an all-out live reporting series on the “new” China. The reporter interviewed the CEO of Dangdang, the largest B2C ecommerce company in China. The office of Dangdang was as shabby as the government building of a poor Hebei county, with the walls cracking and the heating so high that people’s lips also cracking, which led me to suspect that Dangdang, for all the hype of the Internet’s huge potential in China, is struggling financially. Of course the CEO still danced around the same tune of China’s great Internet future. When the reporter requested to interview a few employees, the CEO dialed a few numbers and assigned several to be interviewed, who, not surprisingly, sang great praise for Dangdang.

On Wednesday we visited Dangdang’s warehouse in southwest Beijing, tucked in a neighborhood which carried no trace of the hustle bustle of the metropolis but rather resembled the poor Hebei county in my imagination. The warehouse itself looked like the Fox studios a bit from the outside. There’s no conveying belt or computerized system shuttling goods in the warehouse. Young workers from poor countryside pushed carts around to collect goods from the shelves and relayed them to the shippers. The shippers manually put the goods into plastic bags, sealed the bags and dropped them in a pile which then got relayed to the boxers. The boxers put the bags in shipping boxes which the postal service shipped all over China.

“The employees get paid by the items they ship out. If they make a mistake their pay would be deducted. On average they would make 1200 yuan (US$150) to 1500 yuan a month, which to these kids from the countryside is a huge sum.” The Vice President of operations explained to us matter-of-factly when I asked about how the employees get paid. “They are not officially Dangdang’s employees. But we do pay for medical insurance.”

“Where do they live?” I translated her answer to the reporter and asked another question.

“They all live around here.” The VP paused as the reporter recorded some sound near the assembly line which sped up since we walked near. She then added, “The rent here is cheap. For 100 yuan (US$12) a month you can rent a room in a bungalow, which they share.”

“Ah.” The reporter and I both marveled at the cheap price. The area we live in commands rent of US $600 to $3000. “Is there heating here in the winter?” The reporter asked.

“No.” The VP replied plainly. “It’s not pleasant to work here in the winter.”

We observed the busy fingers over the books, the plastic bags and the shipping boxes silently for a beat, then started off towards the office. The reporter asked his last question, “how come you guys don’t have a barcode computer system to lower the chances for mistakes?”

“Oh we are getting one,” the VP opened the door for us, and then told us quietly before we entered, “Unfortunately some of them will lose their jobs.”

In font of us in the office were girls and boys, seemingly in their 20s, many carrying a rouge in their cheeks perhaps from having worked too long in the fields, working away in a semi-disorganized way around the printers and the computers.

Later the reporter commented in the cab, “Even in a low-labor-cost country like China, Dangdang is still thinking about further lowering the labor cost by using computer technology. Quite ahead of the curve.”

That night I went to On/Off, one of the few gay bars in Beijing. I interviewed a transvestite who does a regular drag show there. She’s married to a Shanghai man whom she called very stingy. Now they hadn’t met for 6 months she’s ready to marry a Dalian man. The Dalian man is older. They’d only met online via video chat but she’s ready to marry him.

Her parents warned her against the Dalian man. Too many assholes out there, of which she had her share.

Actually I’m not sure what to call her/him. He’d like a sex-change operation if he had the money but he doesn’t, which would make him/her a transverstite/transgendered/transsexual?

While waiting for her performance, I approached a young boy because he looked like a money boy. I needed to talk to money boys for my sex and Beijing project. He swore he’s not a money boy. When I asked what type of guys he liked, he replied guys like me. We exchanged phone numbers.

Two days later he called me. “I have your number in my phone. Who are you?” He asked.

I told him my name.

“Did I get your number on the Internet?” He still didn’t remember me.

I told him about the drag show on Wednesday. He finally remembered. “Do you miss me?” He flirted.

I asked the same question back. He said he did.

Yeah right.

On Thursday I called the gay guy I had interviewed before. He is going to marry a lesbian so they can both make their parents happy. I had had a great dinner with him. At the dinner, after two beers, he let loose and told me a lot about his life, his desire to have a kid, his confusion at America’s gay rights movement – why would they want to have gay marriage? That’s so abnormal! Among the three greatest unfilial sins, bearing no children is the gravest.

I called to ask if I could tape an interview with him. He said no no no no, which was my fourth rejection from a Beijing gay man in or about to get in marriage. I was really pissed.

But on second thought, why would they let me tape them to blow their covers when they are so desperately trying to cover it with a marriage?

In late afternoon I went to check out the apartment building where one of my close friends is buying an apartment. He’s too busy to come for a checkup himself. I went through the construction site with the saleswoman. She explained the many benefits of owning a property in that expat compound. “There’s an international school nearby. The school only admits international students, mostly from diplomats and multi-national businessmen.”

My friend Tom, who works at that particular international school, had told me that the school charges US$20k a year, a sum the embassy or corporation would pay as part of the expat package. Tom is getting a nice-enough salary himself that he’s thinking of retiring in Spain.

In the evening I met up with an old friend who’s helping a famous Silicon Valley venture capital firm set up a big venture fund in China. He introduced me to several VC and entrepreneur friends of his during dinner. We talked about Internet business and then content business. My friend made sure that I sit next to a manager from a Japanese venture fund investing in content production in China. “You two should get to know each other more. I think there’s definitely something you two can work together on.” He said to us while ordering yet another spicy oily Sichuan dish.

The table talked a long time about the Shanghai entrepreneur’s venture to replicate in China, then a Beijing entrepreneur’s venture to target Internet security risk, then the Japanese VC fund’s difficulty working with Chinese TV stations. I put on my MBA hat and found the conversation about money so pleasantly straightforward.

On Friday night I went to the first screening of my documentary in Beijing. About 40 people came. They clapped at the end of the screening. They congratulated me and asked what my next project would be.

On Saturday afternoon I got the reply email that my Olympics documentary series proposal was shot down.

On Sat night I went to the second screening of my documentary in Beijing. About 100 people came. They clapped at the end of the screening. I had had a great beginning with my first attempt at filmmaking; many said. They also asked what my next project would be.

I told them about my Olympics project, my gay marriage project, my sex-and-Beijing project. I wanted to do something different, more film-like, more beautiful with the image, more edgy.

They wished me good luck.

But I had deep doubt about how to proceed next. Beijing was all of a sudden too distracting, too chaotic, too… overwhelming. Plus, what’s the point of filmmaking anyway when real life evades and makes fun of my limited creative faculty?

So I escaped to Shanghai, a warmer and more orderly metropolis. For the next three weeks I’ll be working as a bilingual assistant on a Hollywood blockbuster to be released in summer 2006. I’ll be mingling with top talent from Hollywood and ogling one of the most beautiful and bizarre man in show biz. And hopefully I can peacefully escape into the fantasy land of Hollywood, built with dollar bills and our desperate needs to be entertained.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Same old story

Let’s say Mr. And Ms. Lee had been friends of your family for a long time, maybe since when you were born. Maybe you had been their only son’s best friend since high school, the two of you having gone to college, then to the US together. Let’s say that Mr. Lee’s son hated to visit China, because he hated the rotten Chinese family he had. So every time you went back to Beijing, you would visit Mr. and Mrs. Lee out of sympathy. And every time, they would tell you the same old stories like to their own son,to which you would try in vain to find a response…

Mr. Lee was born in the 1940s when the Japanese armies were still galloping over China. His hometown in the deep southwest escaped the bombing, and he grew up in the relatively peaceful countryside with three sisters and two older brothers. His mother passed away when he was little but his step-mother was kind. His family was poor but not starving like many of their neighbors. They had a small parcel of land on which the family worked hard. Most families in Mr. Lee’s village shared the same last name as they all descended from a big family that the Qing government force-migrated from Hubei province in the early 1700s.

After the liberation in 1949, the farming village rode through numerous political movements. The peasants were classified on the scale of poor, mid-level and rich peasants and, the most despised, landlords (in the cities, the classifications were workers, intellectuals, and cadres). The local communist-party officials branded Mr. Lee’s family as mid-level peasants, but in the late-fifties changed it to rich peasants. Mr. Lee’s family, once considered class-neutral, became slightly anti-revolutionary. However, at least they were not labeled landlords. There’s one family in the village that had some extra land and hired other peasants to work on it. They worked hard themselves and paid their hired hands fair. But during land reform the head of the family was executed and the wife and the kids lived on with nothing to their names.

Mr. Lee grew up well protected by the family. The youngest and the only one smart enough to go to high school, the whole family pinned their hope on him. He would be the one bringing honor to the ancestors and the family. He had the least amount of household chores. Sometimes after school he had to feed the chickens or walk the water buffalo. He would read textbooks on the back of the water buffalo as the animal swaggered its way along rice fields.

When Mr. Lee passed the college entrance examination in 1958, it was great joy to the entire village. Finally a college student from the village. Finally the Lee family had a good son that made them proud. Mr. Lee packed the small bag of his and went to Beijing to attend a tech university. His third brother, the one closest to him, gave him a fountain pen, a luxury item he had never had and cost a fortune in those days, especially to a peasant. His whole family told him – we cannot support you financially that much since you’ll be living in the big city; but no matter how hard, remember the family is behind you, supporting you; no matter how hard, finish college and make the family proud.

So Mr. Lee worked hard. He didn’t have to pay tuition, but he had to scramble to pay for his living expenses. His brother-in-law, the husband of his oldest sister, sent him 5 kuai a month, a handsome amount in those days. Books were luxuries. Food was luxury. In 1959 during the great leap forward they were starved as the rest of the country. For a long time they had only a meal a day. The memory of hunger stayed with Mr. Lee. Even nowadays he would save every leftover from every meal.

After graduation he was assigned to work as an engineer at a migrating construction company. He had a few happy years. He made a small salary out of which he would send home some. He loved sports, especially basketball. Then it came the time for him to get married. A country boy like him wanted very much to marry a pretty city girl.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution started. In 1967 he met the future Mrs. Lee.

Mrs. Lee was also born in a village in the 1940s. But her father went to Beijing and got a job as an accountant. He established himself there. When Mrs. Lee was 12, he moved the entire family to Beijing.

Mrs. Lee’s mother had two more girls after moving to the city. But Mrs. Lee remained her dad’s favorite. He would go to school to pick her up and carry her home on his back, even when she’s already a teenager. Even though financially her family only got by, she grew up a proud city girl.

After high school Mrs. Lee got a job working as a low-level clerk at the construction company. When Mr. Lee courted her, she hesitated – she’s beautiful and had many suitors; he’s handsome and had a rare college degree, but he’s from the countryside. A peasant. A laborer. Probably with a big extended poor family that’s siphoning all his money away.

Many counseled against their relationship. Their family backgrounds were different – her from a worker’s family, him a rich peasant, borderline class enemy. But there’s chemistry between the two, and he was nice to Mrs. Lee’s family. He appeared to be a dependable man, Mrs. Lee thought. So She married him.

Alas, that was the end of the happy stories. Let’s say Mr. Lee would tell you, sighing.

After the marriage, Mr. Lee slowly found out that Mrs. Lee had a strange and explosive temper. It’s in the family, he suspected, witnessing how Mrs. Lee’s mother treated her father. Mrs. Lee, like her mother, was diligent and hard-working at making the tiny nest clean. But she’s also turning into her mother, controlling, exacting and wanting her way or no way.

No no no. Let’s say Mrs. Lee once told you when you were with her alone. That’s not true, she said. Alas, how I wish I could talk to my own son who lived so far away now, she would sigh. Let’s say Mr. And Mrs. Lee treated you as their son because they needed someone to tell their stories to, in their fading days. You suddenly remembered that their son once told you - he ran away from all the stories to keep his sanity.

Mrs. Lee told you that it had been all because of Mr. Lee. He’s the only one that had hurt her in her life. It all happened the day she went to get a abortion. That was before your best friend, their son, was born. Mrs. Lee left your friend’s sister, their one-year –old daughter, to the care of Mr. Lee.

She went to have the abortion, alone.

When she got back home, she found her daughter had pooped and now crying in bed. Mr. Lee had left their daughter to the care of an inexperienced teenager who then went out to play.

Like all young men in those days, Mr. Lee liked to play, especially basketball. That day, he went to play basketball.

Mrs. Lee was furious. She went to the basketball court and screamed at her husband. How could you let me go have an abortion alone and leave the daughter crying in bed with a wet diaper? She screamed hysterically at her husband.

Then he hit her. Let’s say when Mrs. Lee told you that, she was still seething with anger. That’s when I said to myself, she said, that I would make life miserable for him for the rest of his life.

Let’s say you took a look at Mr. Lee, the timid and skinny and quiet Mr. Lee. You could not believe he could have hit anyone. But let’s say he’s quiet. He didn’t protest.

Let’s say on the most recent trip, you visited them again and took a walk with Mr. Lee along the river. It would be summer and the weather would be humid and the willows would sway with much difficulty. Let’s say Mr. Lee walked slowly by you, and he would sigh, again and again.

They were retired now. They spent most of their time inside their apartment, cleaning. Mrs. Lee wanted her apartment sparkling clean. She covered everything with plastic. The furniture needed to be wiped everyday. The floors needed to be mopped everyday. And the clothes needed to be changed and hand-washed everyday. Mr. Lee was directed by Mrs. Lee everyday to do these household chores. And cooking. He only had a little free time at night, to watch a little basketball.

Their son was in America, far away, having his freedom. I hope he finds a nice girl, Mr. Lee said to you by the river.

Mr. Lee fought a lot with Mrs. Lee in the first few years of their marriage. I didn’t expect her temper to be like that; if I had know known, maybe… he hesitated. He said he stopped fighting with her after their son was born. He said he had thought about divorce. But he wanted his family to be together. Moreover, in those days, the party rarely approved divorces; those who succeeded usually had to gone through lengthy re-education process and carry a bad name for the rest of their lives.

So Mr. Lee gave up fighting. He wanted to save face. He didn’t want the neighbors to hear, the neighbors who always stuck their ears to any crevice on the walls (and there were many) to hear, and to gossip the next day.

But Mrs. Lee got only worse. She was a kind and hardworking woman. But she would scream whenever she couldn’t do things her way. She would comment loudly on others when it’s not her place to comment. Her high-pitched voice could be heard in the whole apartment building commanding everyone in the family.

That affected Mr. Lee at their work unit. He saw his peers, those with college degrees, got promoted one by one. He thought it was because of his family background, the slight-anti-revolutionary rich peasant label. He wrote repeatedly to the work unit’s party secretary to express his loyalty to the party. He wanted badly to be admitted into the party. He thought that’s the only way to get promoted.

Let’s say you remember your best friend once telling you about reading those letters which he had discovered by accident. Let’s say you remember him telling you that those letters were pathetic. That generation, that inexplicable red generation.

After the cultural revolution, Mr. Lee finally got accepted into the party. The work unit gave him a few chances to manage projects. He got promoted, but still at a much slower pace than their peers.

One day, he finally garnered enough courage and approached his manager. After much hesitation, the manager told him – it’s your wife; if you could not manage your home well, how could the work unit trust you with demanding work?

He was angry, angry at his wife. But the years of bottling up sealed the outlet of his anger.

The most heart-breaking, let’s say he would tell you, was actually not about the job. It’s about his family in the village. Mrs. Lee had forbidden Mr. Lee to be in contact with his own family.

How come? Let’s say you would be shocked.

One day, Mrs. Lee told you her version of the story – that when she was pregnant with the first child, Mr. Lee’s stepmother came to the city to help. But Mrs. Lee had to take care of her, with her belly huge, and go around buy cigarettes for her, because the traditions of the countryside demanded respect of the daughter-in-law to the mother-in-law.

Let’s say Mr. Lee would tell you the contrary - that when his step-mother arrived in the city, she carried eggs and fruits and gifts from family, in a huge basket on her own back. She tried to help out in her awkward countryside way which Mrs. Lee detested. Then Mrs. Lee got furious when Mr. Lee paid much attention to his step-mother, out of filial tradition, than to her.

From then on, whenever Mr. Lee contacted his family, Mrs. Lee would throw a fit.

From then on, whenever there’s relative visiting Mr. Lee from the village, Mrs. Lee would throw a fit. The relatives slowly stopped coming. Mr. Lee’s third brother would write him, repeatedly, asking why Mr. Lee was forgetting the family in the village.

When Mr. Lee’s father died, Mrs. Lee didn’t let Mr. Lee go back for the funeral. Granted, they were poor and there were too babies to feed. But it was my father! Let’s say you would see tears in Mr. Lee’s eyes. You let him continue.

When Mr. Lee’s step-mother had a stroke, Mr. Lee did get to visit her. The kids were grown and the family was more comfortable, financially. Three months after he returned to the city, she passed away. He didn’t get to attend the funeral because it would be a waste of money. Let’s say tears were now running down his face.

Now Mr. Lee was cut off from his family in the village. His daughter was a banker in Shanghai, his son an engineer in San Francisco. His third-brother sent him a family genealogy book. Neither his daughter or son cared for it. And now he couldn’t find it.

Mrs. Lee could have destroyed it.

Let’s say Mr. Lee told you that he felt so cut off. You couldn’t help asking – why? Why not…?

You hesitated. Your best friend had told you before that in college he had suggested divorce to Mr. Lee. The kids were grown then.

Let’s say Mr. Lee told you, after sighing, that Mrs. Lee had many physical problems. Who would take care of her if he leaves? She fainted easily. What if one day when she’s alone, she could faint and never wake up? But he longed so much to have some time to himself, to do what he wanted instead of cleaning and cooking everyday, and mostly of all, to visit his family before they would go away, forever.

Let’s say you looked at his teary eyes, you wanted to cry. Let’s say you would like to tell him about personal freedom, happiness and the courage to seek them all, the notions that the young generations grew up with. But you look around at all the marriages, all the personal struggles you know. You are old enough now to feel the weight of human stories and tell the complex of rotten situations, old enough to know that the same story is being replayed over and over all over China. What could you say?

Let’s say you desperately try to say or do something, to make their lives better, if only a tiny bit better, what would you do? What could you say?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

No Ask, No Tell

When we moved into our new three-bedroom apartment, our friend Clayton reminded us every chance he got, “oh oh, you’ve got to hire Xiao Luo as your Ayi (maid). He’s so good at cleaning, doing laundry, and everything else in the household. He even pays the phone bills for you. And he needs the money right now cause his wife is pregnant with their second baby.”

Clayton is the kind of friend who’d drag you to his newly-discovered restaurant of the month and keep organizing dinner gatherings there until you agree it’s one of the best in Beijing. He’d talked most of our expat friends into hiring Xiao Luo. So bowing to peer pressure, we hired him as well.

We liked Xiao Luo immediately after we all met. He’s short with a dark complexion, and always ready to put up a smile when addressed to. His politeness was so extreme that it made me uncomfortable. For it seemed to remind me how big a gap exists between us.

Our dry cleaner wasn’t impressed though. “Why do you hire a man maid?” She asked when I made one of my last trips to drop off dry cleaning now we have Xiao Luo. She had just met him earlier that day when Xiao Luo picked up some clothes. “Cleaning is a woman’s job,” she said.

I smiled and didn’t bother to protest her OMG sexist comment. Unlike the hourly maids who are mostly inexperienced country girls, Xiao Luo cleaned the rooms like how my mother would, leaving no trace of dust behind. He agreed to come twice a week and we pay him US$75/month. Twice as much as the hourly maids, it’s well worth it.

The second time he came was a Sunday. He did laundry for us for the first time. As he was folding all the underwear neatly on our bed in the master bedroom, I asked him about his background (he came to Beijing 6 years ago from Anhui province), how he followed his wife into the ayi service (the restaurant business he was first involved in was too competitive), and how they are managing a second baby with the family planning policy (“we are allowed to have two babies in the countryside”).

Then he turned to me, “Mr., how should I separate out the underwear for your two?”

The question stunned me for a beat. I thought Xiao Luo should have a decent gaydar running since he’d worked for over two years for Clayton and his partner. Clayton only has a sofa bed in his guest bedroom which is only pulled out when guests come. Surely Xiao Luo couldn’t have thought that Clayton and his partner slept in the same bed to save on the heating bills during summer.

“Mr., what should I do with the underwear?” Xiao Luo asked for the second time.

“Oh,” I snapped out of my wondering, “just leave them there. We will sort it out ourselves.”

After Xiao Luo left the bedroom, my boyfriend, who had been watching nearby, turned to me, “What happened to you? Are you not the outest person I know?” I had often lectured him on the merits of coming out to his straight friends, and ultimately, to his family.

“I…I just don’t want to confuse him.” I picked up the underwear and stuff it into a dresser drawer as my boyfriend laughed.

The issue kept on coming back. On several subsequent occasions Xiao Luo asked similar questions on whether he should separate dry cleanings, socks and shirts. Every time I gave him the same answer, “Don’t worry. We will sort it out.” And my boyfriend kept on making fun of my closetedness.

I still don’t understand why I feel embarrassed to come out to him, especially after coming out to my family and now anybody who bothers to ask me any trivial question about my relationship status. Is he really that clueless? He never had to make the bed in the guest bedroom!

But for Chinese who often grow up in cramped living space where several would share the same bed, this may not appear that strange. Same-gender bonding can be really close without raising eyebrows. Many in the educated class in Beijing have heard of homosexuality which they regard with curiosity and/or disgust. Nevertheless in the Sanlitun embassy district, one can often spot off-duty security guards, mostly from the countryside, holding hands while strolling in their uniforms.

Xiao Luo looks just like that, innocent and simple. I didn’t want to disturb that innocence.

A couple of weeks later, Xiao Luo helped us organize summer clothes and put them away in storage. My boyfriend pulled out several long Ts, “these I’d like to keep for the winter.” Xiao Luo grabbed them and stood up, “I’ll go put them in the guest bedroom’s wardrobe for you then.”

As soon as Xiao Luo went into the guest bedroom, my boyfriend gave me an evil stare and stamped his foot, “This is my apartment!” Xiao Luo had apparently assumed I was the owner and my boyfriend, who bought the apartment, was the one subletting. I laughed as my boyfriend continued to seethe with anger. “You’ll have to do something,” he said.

A week after that one of my friend was coming to visit for a week. I took this opportunity to instruct Xiao Luo that we needed to empty out the wardrobe in the guest bedroom and put all the clothes of us two in the master bedroom.

“Everything?” He asked.

“Everything.” I affirmed.

For the next hour, I felt he avoided looking at me when he passed by me in the apartment. Or was it me?

Regardless, he never asked again whether he should separate out anything for us from then on. Now we can admire the neatness of our underwear, carefully folded and organized in the drawers in the master bedroom, without feeling the slightest embarrassment to explain anything.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Chinese are not racist (Part II)

I’d been trying to get into Maggie’s for the past one year and a half since I moved to Beijing. It’s not that I desperately needed to hookup with Beijing girls (Heaven forbid!). But Maggie’s reputation as the ultimate pickup joint in Beijing intrigued me. I imagined a place draped in aged velvet and lit by red lanterns, a cross between Moulin rouge and an opium den.

In the summer of 2004 I made the first attempt. A male Chinese friend of mine was visiting from the US. He was tired of meeting country girls at KTVs so I took him to Maggie’s.

We were stopped at the door. The two security guards there informed us that the place was membership only. I asked how we could get a membership. They looked again at my baggy jeans and my friend’s blue dress shirt and khaki pants, then shook their heads – they no longer issued new memberships.

Later my Beijing friends told me that I should have spoke English with them. That place was Lao Wai (foreigner) only.

Last night I made a second attempt. My friend Michael was in town with his Caucasian colleague Steve for some financing deal involving astronomical numbers. At dinner I told them the story of my luck at Maggie’s and asked if I could borrow Steve to get me in there. Steve enthusiastically consented.

Just to be sure my first experience wasn’t atypical, I walked ahead of them and approached the door by myself. Maggie’s had moved to a new location but there were still two security guards. They stopped me with their extended arms.

“Mister, it’s membership only.”

“How can I get a membership?” I acted all innocent.

Their hands retreated to their pockets and brought out a pack of cigarettes. “We are not giving out any more membership.”

“Are you telling me,” I raised my voice a notch, “that my American friend visiting all the way from America CANNOT get into your bar?” I pointed at Michael and Steve who had arrived at the door by now.

They stared at Steve’s big frame and warm American smile for a beat. Then they waved towards the inside. “You can go in this time.”

The inside of Maggie’s was not too far from what I had imagined. Half lit by red table lights, the couch covers did appear velvety. Along the extended bar, more than ten young Chinese girls, all wearing heavy makeup and short skirts, drifted about lethargically.

It was still early, only 9pm. There were two Caucasian guys sitting at the bar. Inside by the dance floor, two mid-aged Asian men were talking to four more girls. The disco ball rotated light spots on the floor sleepishly.

We sat down at the bar so all the girls could easily spot us, and ordered RMB 50 (US$6) drinks which were not too bad. Within five minutes three girls came to talk to us. Mind you, they were not hanging out after work; they worked for the bar. We ordered drinks for them that cost RMB 100 (US$12) a piece.

Steve later told me that the girl talking to me, Sophia, had the best body, which I didn’t notice. I liked her personality though. At the tender age of 20, she had the flightiness of a young kid, bouncing around me constantly.

“Later on this place will be more fun. There will be a lot more people after 11.” Sophia sipped her drink. Two new Caucasian customers walked in. She glanced at them and mentioned casually, “I actually like Chinese guys a lot more than the white devils.” I liked her immediately.

“Is it true that Chinese are not allowed here?” I poked at her. She winced dramatically and whined, “that hurt!.” Then she yelled across Steve at the girl in Steve’s arm, “Cindy, how many Chinese are allowed in with each white guy?”

Cindy stuck out two fingers.

Sophia then turned back at me, “you and that Chinese guy are allowed in since you are with him,” She pointed at Steve.

“How about them?” I gestured towards two Asian men walking in.

“Don’t you see they have the membership cards?” She went back to her drink. I saw one of them putting a card back in his wallet.

I wanted to ask her how a Chinese could get a membership card but immediately felt pointless. What else? – The Asian men there were all business looking with well-coifed hair, slightly protruding bellies and mechanical smile. Money speaks as loud as race.

“What if I needed company back home? Would you go with me?” I finished my drink and decided that’d be my last question.

Sophia giggled, “you are such an impatient monkey!” Yeah right, I said to myself.

“No we don’t go out until we finish working here at 3:30 in the morning.” She looked into my eyes as if daring me to stay until she’d become available.

“But suppose I really needed company now.” I pressed on, fully realizing that it’d be among the worst pickup lines in your average straight bars.

Sophia laughed out loud. She shared my seeming lustfulness with her girlfriends. Everyone laughed.

“The Mongolian women here would go with you.” Then she pointed at the far corner of the bar. “See there?”

In the dark corner sat a woman with sharp and dark eyebrows and a mature face that looked too serious for the easy merriment of the place.

More people came in. Sophia moved closer to me, her soft body constantly pressing against my thigh and my arm. I told her I needed to leave for home where someone was waiting for me. I asked for her number and promised to make her a star in my next documentary film.

We each tipped the girl RMB 200 for keeping us company. They walked us to the door.

On our way out, I passed by the Mongolian woman who continued to sit expressionlessly. I wondered how she felt trying to squeeze a living between the Chinese girls and the Caucasian men everyday.

At the door, the girls all kissed Steve good night. I just couldn’t help asking one more question, “Is the owner of the bar Chinese or Lao Wai (foreigner)?”

“Chinese. And call me the next time if the guards don’t let you in.” Sophia smiled at me with a wink, then flew back in with quick steps.

We walked into the street where the fog, with all the pollution and dirt trapped in it, embraced us. I dug for the positives of my evening experience and found this one –

At least we have passed the stage where foreign colonists forbade Chinese into fancy establishments. Time has indeed moved on.