Truths and Tragedy of Tiananmen. Chimerica: A Review

For a reason unbeknownst to me, last night I suddenly decided that I HAD to go to the theatre soon. As a sophisticated Londoner (hem hem) I would like to be able to say that spontaneous theatre (pronounced thee-ah-ter, dahling) trips are a twice-monthly occurrence, but sadly my budget does not normally allow it. Nevertheless, it was with feverish enthusiasm that I found myself scouring the West End listings at random, when I came across a bizarrely named play, Chimerica. I found out later that this was a portmanteau of “China” and “America”, though I was saying “chimera” in my head at first (typical).

Only the rave reviews made me stop and investigate, and that was when I felt it must have been the theatre gods who imbued me with the sudden urge to visit the theatre, because the timing seemed all but numinous. In my last week (yes, one week now!) before China, I randomly decide to go to the theatre and stumble across a play about, well, China! Not a common phenomenon in the West End, at least not in my consciousness (though to be fair, it is a play just as much about America).

Chimerica Top Price Ticket and 2 Course Meal at Le Caprice - only £75 Tickets at The Harold Pinter Theatre, London,

Chimerica, written by Lucy Kirkwood, covers too many things to fit into a post, but in the most elementary, simplistic terms, the story tells of an American photojournalist, who was one of the photographers to capture the picture of the “tank man” during the Tiananmen Massacre on 4 June 1989. Two decades later, a mysterious coded message in a newspaper renews his fascination for the anonymous, heroic figure and he begins an obsessive search for him, throwing the lives of friends, colleagues and strangers, both in China and the US, into disarray. On the way we get some insight into American and Chinese politics, the world of journalism, and lots more besides.

You can read the various reviews out there online to get the expert critics’ opinion (all effulgent) on the razor-sharp dialogue, slick production (great use of a round, rotating stage) and complex, multi-layered structure. You can trust that all these things captivated me, too. Yet what really struck me was the awful, heart-rending truthfulness and relevance of the portrayal of the Chinese characters’ lives: Zhang, the middle-aged English teacher living alone in his apartment in Beijing, widowed at the age of 20 at Tiananmen, and haunted by the spectre of his late wife and their former political idealism. His neighbour, a 59-year-old lady who looks ten years older, a former poster girl for the Party, dying from “Beijing lung”. The illegal immigrant couple in New York, who know something about the photo but just want to live in peace and get by. The young Chinese journalist who unwittingly allowed the secret message to be published in the paper, who is black-marked forever, and has to work as a stripper to make money.

All these tragic personages are testament to one, sole, solid, ringing, tragic fact: they are victims of a government that does not care about its people. That does not even pretend to. I found myself mutely applauding with the rest of the audience at the play’s abrupt and shocking end, trying to control my lacrimation. I left the matinée performance in a daze, my head filled with what I had just seen, only coming to when I came within inches of being run over by a rickshaw (his fault, not mine!)

Hours later, in the evening, when other things had taken over my mind, I found myself sobbing under the shower at the sudden memory of Zhang’s (played to perfection by Benedict Wong) almost childlike breaking down after both being tortured and reliving the events of the massacre. I knew then I had to write about it. This is a play that manages to be hugely funny (the audience were laughing out loud throughout), yet equally serious and moving; informative (you’ll learn a lot about modern China), sophisticated but accessible, political yet personal. It is a tour de force of sensitive, skilled and imaginative writing and performing. Plus it was nice to see some Chinese people on stage for once!

If it is at all possible for you, I urge you to go see this play. If not, as one journalist said, it will probably be studied in schools in years to come, so you might come into contact with the text anyway. Productions like this need to be seen by many; more than the limited crowd that has the means to go to the theatre in London. Writing like this deserves all the praise Kirkwood is getting. Stories like this might shake you up out of your ensconced, comfortable little world to count your western blessings.

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2 weeks to go and I’m girding my loins

Yes, it’s happening. In a mere 18 days I will be returning to that most rambunctious Chinese city, Beijing, to pick up where I left off last summer in my studies of the Chinese language. This time I return to be a proper 留学生 (foreign student) for a full academic year.

The question does beg, however, of just how much I qualify as a “foreign student”. This is the least of my concerns, anyway. I am currently trying to mentally prepare myself for certain… things that I know await me, and to which I must rapidly adjust if I am to last more than a week out there. For a start, I’ll be sharing a room. This is one of the conditions of my scholarship; accommodation is free, but it is to be in a twin room in the oldest dormitory building designated for foreign students. For the entire year. I haven’t shared a room for more than two weeks since I was about 9 years old. I just hope I can handle it, and won’t end up shutting myself up in the wardrobe for some privacy, or gnawing my roommate’s foot off in the middle of the night. I’m someone who needs my own space.

Casting an eye over my articles from last summer might give you an idea of some of the other cultural discrepancies that I’ll need to get used to. For example (something very personal for a British person) I must remember to readjust my perception of what constitutes “manners”. These will need to be left behind if I am to tolerate people loudly hocking spit in every direction, bumping into me, staring, taking photos of my white friends, etc.

I won’t deny having a panicky, should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-go moment when I stupidly googled the words “Beijing pollution”. This was a mistake. Try it, if you dare. I have no especial desire to enter into the particulars regarding food safety (there is none) and bottled water (unregulated and probably not drinkable). I would much rather focus on the fact that I’m going to Beijing for a year. Hopefully I’ll be making new friends, sampling some deeeelicious local cuisine (don’t mention the food safety thing), travelling and having a great time. Oh, and learning Chinese of course.

Beijing is truly my kind of place. There are those who will scoff, and say Shanghai is the superior city, and I did hesitate between the two. Ultimately, SH is China’s financial centre, but BJ is the heart of China’s culture; the seat of government, home to the country’s best universities and lots and lots of old stuff. Heaven to a Classics graduate like I. Less skyscraper and more Forbidden City, if you get my drift. In addition, the Beijing accent is the closest to “pure Chinese” as any regional accent elsewhere in this vast country can get, making it the best place to learn standard Chinese. The people are friendlier and more open than any other place I have experienced in China, and did I mention the food is DIVINE?

I don’t know if I’ll last a whole year out there. Hell, I’d consider one semester an achievement. I truly feel like I am entering the jungle for a good long stay; let’s just hope I’ll toughen up enough to keep my head above the water (or, in this case, the smog). First step: acquiring a VPN so I can get around the Great Firewall of China and keep this blog updated. Wish me luck, my friends. And if you happen to have any spare gas masks lying around, do send them my way.

That’s how it’s done in China, baby

How to describe daily life here? Things are done so differently to back home, even now I still never fail to be amazed and/or amused. For example, on my first day here I went to open a bank account, accompanied by a German friend who has lived here a while. However, I did not know my room number yet, and a bank employee explained that without a room number she wouldn’t be able to open me an account. After a moment’s dithering she said, “Oh, I’ll just make up a number then”, and wrote in a random number. My mouth was hanging open, but my local friend was busy cursing herself for not having had the presence of mind to think of doing that first.

Customer service is not really a known concept here. Don’t expect shopkeepers and waiting staff to be nice to you in China; usually they are stony-faced and abrupt. It’s nothing personal, and they do not expect courtesy in response. Last night at a restaurant, our friend who was in charge of ordering for the group was calling to and speaking to waiting staff in what I thought was quite a kind manner (especially as they kept walking off partway through his orders), but our foreign friends seemed taken aback by his tone of voice. The meaner you are, the better people treat you. If you want to get your way, just kick up a fuss and make a lot of noise and you’ll intimidate everyone into doing what you want. No-one will get offended and sometimes, it’s the only way to get things done. An elderly friend of the family once got so rowdy at the bank (Chinese banks are notorious for the ridiculously long waiting times) that they gave her a VIP card so she’d never have to queue again. Result.

Health and safety apparently hasn’t been invented here yet. The university campus alone is basically an open building site (supposedly they choose the summer holidays to do their construction, when most students are away). Just innocently walking home the other day I very nearly got a faceful of rubble as I passed by a pick-up truck into which a builder was throwing spadefuls of I don’t even know what. Another time, someone was using a pneumatic drill on a rooftop a couple of metres away as we walked by, bits of jagged rock flying everywhere. Each day when I step out the front door I wonder what new chemical emanation will greet my nostrils as I hold my breath on the way to class.

Don’t let the diminutive frames of the local population fool you; you need to be tough to live here!

Chinese Chivalry

One of the most remarkable differences in youth culture I have noticed between Chinese university students and English is the attitude toward romance. The Chinese are certainly more traditional (see convent-like rules for my residence) and generally more conservative and old-fashioned. Plus I’m sure a contributing factor is the fact that karaoke is the preferred leisure activity as opposed to clubbing i.e. getting drunk and accidentally-on-purpose getting off with strangers/your friends, etc.

In any case, I have been (pleasantly?) surprised by some of the practices I have witnessed amongst Chinese couples. Here, boys are much more attentive to their girlfriends; perhaps a little too much so, from a western perspective. They treat their girlfriends like princesses – literally. When walking together in the street, boys carry their girlfriends’ handbags for them. Men always pay. Not accompanying your lady home? Unspeakable.

Things I have personally witnessed have made me rather wish I had an attentive Chinese boyfriend of my own. Last weekend, while sweating under the sweltering sunlight during a tour of the Forbidden City, I saw an elegant Chinese girl looking lovely and fresh under her umbrella while her boyfriend stood by her side and fanned her. Later that day, exhausted and feet aching from walking all day, I saw a couple lounging in the shade on a bench; he was massaging her feet.

Chinese men are on the whole very respectful and gentle toward women (at least in my experience). I’d be more surprised than anything if a male companion didn’t open doors for me, etc; it’s just standard behaviour. As someone who hugely values chivalry, and often is made to feel traitorous to the cause of feminism or unrealistically old-fashioned for it, it’s refreshing.

Of course, on the flipside girls here are expected to be demure, submissive and obedient. Bubble burst.

A giant in a yellow land

I am above average height for a girl but I think most people who have seen me would not describe me as “big”. However, here in Asia, where your average woman has the bone structure of a 12-year-old girl in the West, BIG is indeed what I am. Trawling the clothes markets can sometimes make one feel rather obese, or at least like one is shopping in the children’s section.

I’ll never forget that time at Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, with an English friend of tiny proportions. We were hesitating over whether the clothes would fit us, when the girl at the stall, no doubt in some misguided attempt to make us buy her wares, stretched out her largest pair of shorts to its maximum elastic capability and said matter-of-factly, “Look, so huge”. Ouch.

Also I don’t know how shoe sizes work here, because they seem to follow the European system, yet I am a size bigger here than my usual size in Europe. At least I can still (just) find shoes that fit me; not so for the girls with feet upward of a size 6 (39). Women with feet that size don’t exist in China, apparently. Buying tops is not generally a problem, though trousers are a shady area, with waistbands that look more like wrist bands and jeans that look like they’re for holding chopsticks, not human legs. My very skinny Spanish friend today was struggling with a very tight pair of shorts she bought at the market, the biggest size in stock. WOW this is just great for a girl’s self-esteem…

Why I love clubbing in China

Clubbing is a universal truth these days, but there nevertheless remain some significant differences in the clubbing experience between England and China. I’m not a huge one for intense clubbing all-nighters, but I pop out now and then with my buddies for some Chinese party times. Here are the reasons for which clubbing in China is that bit more special…

  1. No-one gives a crap what you are wearing – Last week a decision to go out was so spontaneous I was wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt and spectacles and had sweated off my makeup in the summer heat hours before. In short, I looked a state. No-one batted an eyelid. Likewise, you can dress up as much as you want, and that’s fine too.
  2. Crazy Promos – Here, in the university district’s party area, on Wednesday nights it is open bar night. Yes, open bar, where guys pay something like 50 yuan and girls 20 (so, £5 and £2) to drink as much as they want. Open bars are not even legal in England. Similarly, Thursday is Ladies’ night, so girls get free drinks. If you’re Asian (i.e. lightweight), that is ample to not need to spend a penny all evening, and even offer a drink or two to your guy mates.
  3. The atmosphere – is chilled. I never feel intimidated or harassed. It’s true that Asian men are somewhat more reserved, so you’re less likely to get someone grabbing you and grinding unceremoniously on your unsuspecting behind.
  4. The Chinese guys – are always good value. You get the odd abnormally brave one who will approach a group of foreign girls and work his geeky Chinese charm. Most of them are shy, though the odd one might wave at you. If you do get talking to one it’s likely he’ll be thrilled to buy all your drinks all evening, as is the custom here.
  5. The free cloakroom – speaks for itself really. Bonus.
  6. The ever-present staff – There is always personnel waiting on standby to swoop in and collect glasses as soon as they are empty – sometimes even before. Toilets are constantly attended, so very clean, normally with a lady there to point you to the nearest free cubicle if you are too blurry-eyed to spot it yourself. There is always some staff member or other in sight, and standards of hygiene and order just seem generally higher.
  7. The favouritism – toward women, I mean. Being a girl is pretty jammy in Beijing. Aside from above mentioned ladies’ nights, entry to places is often free for girls, while guys have to pay; or at least girls pay less. And of course wherever the girls go, the guys follow.

The one major disadvantage (and it’s quite a big one) is the music. You’ll hear the same Justin Bieber song five times in one evening, and there is not much variety in genre. Thankfully the alcohol’s relatively cheap and/or free, so the chances of that bothering you are smaller. Beijing is supposed to have a really good live music scene in any case, which sounds much more interesting. I’ll keep you posted…

I think I’m turning Chinese…

Banana I may be, but growing up with Chinese parents and going back and forth to China over the years has nevertheless made its mark. I still feel very foreign here, but it is only when I am with my European friends who have had little to no exposure to Chinese culture do I realise that I am more Chinese than I give myself credit for. They are little things like being more skilled with chopsticks and using an umbrella when it’s sunny, and not flinching when I hear someone hocking spit, but it all adds up. The more time I spend here the more I adjust, and things of which I was aware and found difficult to accept before, such as a rather different concept of manners (see hocking spit above), I now barely blink an eye at.

The question of manners is a big one, as I am from England where manners count for everything. My behaviour is rapidly shifting into Chinese mode, in which when people push in front of or shove by me, I am no longer ruffled or affronted, as it is normal behaviour here; I just push and shove right back. My road-crossing behaviour has taken a dramatic turn, and I have less regard for my fellow human beings in general. With such a vast population, there are just not enough hours in the day to be courteous to everyone, especially as no-one is bothering to do the same for you.

On the contrary, Chinese culture is big on respect and courtesy, it just depends on the context; don’t expect to find loads of it on the street. Last week my friends booked a table at what turned out to be a very fancy (not to mention pricey) restaurant to eat some famous Peking Duck. So I might not frequent this kind of joint everyday of the week, but I saw nothing strange in the four ladies dressed up in qi paos lined up on the steps outside the restaurant who bowed us in and chanted a greeting, and did the same when we left. I found it vaguely amusing, but my friends (French, Spanish, New Zealander) were bewildered and found the entire thing absurd.

Food is a big one. There are loads of things I see in our impressive multi-storey university dining hall which I don’t necessarily know the names for in Chinese nor in English, but which I have either tasted or seen already, and which appear bizarre to my foreign buddies. I know what will be spicy (a rookie mistake my friends are making everyday and, being white folk who can’t take spicy food, suffering for), and nothing amongst the various colours and shapes and textures looks weird to me.

I don’t hesitate to shout across restaurants to get the attention of serving staff these days. During my first few days I tried to speak kindly and quietly to waiting staff, and they would literally look straight at me then walk on by. It’s like the opposite of England here; as a general rule, the nicer you are, the less people are inclined to treat you well; the more rude and abrupt you are, the more people treat you with respect. Though it’s not always like that. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been pleasantly surprised: shop staff sometimes even smile.

Of course there are some things I will never quite become accustomed to. It is never pleasant seeing people, particularly children, lying on cardboard sheets on the street, right outside the club where you’ve been spending a frivolous evening drinking and partying with your friends. Health and safety is not really a known concept here, and I am a little disquieted every time I pass close by an open building site where they are chucking around poles and planks and whatnot, not to mention trying to hold my breath to avoid breathing in whatever toxic chemicals they are using.

On the whole I, though not particularly precious before, am becoming rather a lot more thick-skinned and brazen in my day-to-day life. I’d blend right in if it wasn’t for my gargantuan height and red hair. And the fact that I can’t speak Chinese.

Traffic

I have always been an extremely careful road-crosser. When it is painted on the road to “look right” I also look left anyway. The lesson of “stop, look and listen” which was drilled into us in primary school actually still circulates in my head every time I step off the pavement. Well, that was until I came here. I won’t deny that the first time I went out walking alone in the streets I was slightly traumatised at the madness that was the immense width of the roads, the illimitable number of cars and bicycles (Beijingers are big on bikes) whizzing by in every direction and the seeming disregard for traffic lights and any kind of highway code.

But I noticed that while I was dithering and scampering back and forth from the pavement, my fellow pedestrians were dauntlessly weaving their way through the traffic. I realised very fast that I was never getting anywhere until I abandoned my sensible British road-crossing personality for some brazen Chinese nonchalance, pronto. Chinese traffic is sheer chaos; throw in a huge population on foot, and rather a lot of pollution and you have to learn to get used to it very quickly or never leave the house.

Cars and bikes passing a hair’s breadth next to my bare flesh? Meh, I became desensitized by my second day. You just learn to take a very blasé attitude to dangerous road-crossing behaviour. Nowadays I take it easy crossing the road; if I see a car or bike coming toward me, I don’t even bother picking up my pace like I would back home. I constantly see people ambling casually along the length of a large main road without a backward glance while a car trails slowly along, inches behind them. Now, if a car is speeding toward me, beeping loudly, I’m more likely to give the driver some attitude than hurry myself. I’m actually becoming quite rude, but that’s survival in China, and I’ll save my deteriorating manners for another post…

I ♥ BJ

Photo on 25-07-2012 at 15.56

I think this T-shirt pretty much speaks for itself, and I hesitated for a long time before buying one out of sheer prudery.

The thing is, I don’t think most people here get the joke. How do I know this? Because I have seen several people (mostly guys) wearing it. Now, I know I shouldn’t judge by appearances, but they didn’t seem like they knew what they were sporting. Indeed, the other day when I saw a Chinese guy wearing one and asked a Spanish friend if he thought the guy knew the T-shirt’s meaning, the reply was a scoffed, “Pfft, of course not, look at him!” Not my words…

I suppose it’s not an English-speaking country, so the joke goes over most people’s heads. I bought mine at a stall by the Great Wall accompanied by above Spaniard who didn’t understand my hesitation, until I explained the double entendre. The French girl who sits with me in class had “I ♥ BJ” as the wallpaper of her iPhone. Needless to say, she didn’t know the hidden meaning either, until I translated.

So it’s not only the Chinese who don’t get it. I wonder just how many people around the world have bought one of these T-shirts home from a tourist site in China, and are wearing it in all innocence, thinking it simply means that they had a really (really) good time in Beijing?

I’m living in a nunnery

I live in a little dorm on campus, where we are under the constant surveillance of several small but severe Chinese ladies. We also, as I mentioned earlier, have a midnight curfew… this is something incomprehensible to me. I have never in my life had a curfew of any form, and now, at the age of 22, I am being told that I have to come home before midnight, or wait till 6am before I can enter my building. Apparently we are allowed to knock on the door after midnight a maximum of three times to wake the concierge and be let in before being mercilessly evicted.

It doesn’t end there. We have a reception which we have to walk past every time we enter and leave the building, and the ladies know everyone who lives here so any non-habitants are instantly recognisable. Today when I brought a boy over, the concierge actually asked for his PASSPORT, and said that they would return it to him when he left! When, after I had recovered from laughing, I asked why, she pointed to a sign on the wall outlining the stringent restrictions on visitors, including how they have to leave a form of ID at reception and be gone by 10pm. I couldn’t be bothered to explain (above all in Chinese) that he wouldn’t be staying for 10 minutes, let alone till 10pm, as we were simply undergoing the very unromantic exchange of toilet paper… Yet they said nothing at reception the other day when I had a female friend over for a few hours. Nunnery much?

Yet this is not strange for a Chinese university, where usually girls and boys are completely separated into different buildings. There are definitely boys living in this block, so I guess they’re easing the rules for the foreign summer school students. We are racking our brains to find ways around these constraints. We can crash at friends’ places where there are no curfews, but it’s hardly ideal. Maybe we should scout out some weak spots in the building, perhaps some large cracks in the wall or unlocked doorways through which we can sneak…