Letter from Beijing
I had to get a visa to spend a few days on business in the PRC, Beijing in particular, and it really pissed me off. I’m an American working for a very large and global computer company. Why do I need to apply for a visa? My assistant had to fill out a very long form and it took weeks to get approval. Even when I received my passport with the visa pasted in, I was still fuming. So, as I deplaned in Beijing, I was not in a good mood. Fortunately, immigration was a breeze; otherwise I might have created a diplomatic incident with me in a squalid Chinese jail and American embassy officials apologizing profusely for my conduct. But the main reason for my discontent was the poorly planned agenda; lots of ill defined meetings, suspect customer meet-and-greets, and a brown-nose session with our country manager. I have always wanted to know more about China but this trip was not going to inspire me to greater research. After I arrived, I took a deep breath and got into a cab outside the airport.
It was late afternoon and the skies were an overcast grey that made the city look even more drab and lifeless than it normally did. I looked at the building as I drove by and the term “government mandated” came to mind. Even the normally open and lively small shop areas that are a part of any Asian city looked constrained as if some heavy hand was pushing down on its humanity. Beijing in those pre-Olympic days was a grim reminder that China was a communist run, corrupt society. I resigned myself to working here the next few days with the knowledge I would reward myself with a few days in Bangkok when this was over.
We finally arrived at my hotel north of the main business area; a newly built, bland modern structure barely distinguishable from the surrounding bland office buildings. Once inside, though, were Chinese artifacts and furniture, along with efficient staff and smiling faces. My room was clean and comfortable. I settled in quickly and opened my laptop to work. For the next 3 days it was a routine of visiting customers in their bland office buildings and dinners at elaborate Chinese restaurants. Everyone was very friendly but as everyone spoke Chinese and only sparingly spoke English to me, by the time dinner was over, my outsider feelings became too strong and I was ready for the sanctuary of my hotel room and American DVDs. At the end of last day, Friday, I feigned fatigue and an early flight the next day to escape my usual dining duties. In fact, I had planned activities for that night and my return flight was not until Sunday morning. As I waved good-bye to my patrons from the back of the cab, I had my first real smile on my face.
When I got to my room, I took a short nap. After I awoke, I ordered some sort of rice dinner and beer and then showered again before the food arrived. I was now dressed in stylist casual clothes I had bought in Singapore the month before. After I ate, I headed out of the hotel and tipped the doorman. The previous day, while waiting for my pickup, he clued me in to a disco 2 blocks away where he said I could meet “pretty girls”. His leering smile was the giveaway that what he really meant to say was “pretty working girls”. I decided to walk as it was nearby and the air was just a little bit cold. I soon regretted this decision as about halfway to my destination I was accosted by a group of women shouting “You want massage” or “I go with you”. None were over 5 feet tall but I recognized their faces from the pages of National Geographic; they were Mongols. A friend had warned me that there were plenty of Mongol working girls roaming the streets of Beijing these days. No work in their homeland and officially discriminated against in China, this was the last profession they could make any money from. With some difficulty I extricated myself from this hoard (pun intended) and arrived at a brightly lit first floor façade that I took to be the disco.
As bright as it was on the outside of the disco, it was just as dark on the inside. The first person I encountered was the cashier who extracted close to a king’s ransom to get inside the main room. The bad lighting continued as I entered and I found most of the tables and cubicles were empty. Well, it was still early so I settled into a table in the middle of the room but close to the dance floor. The DJ was across the room and he was busy setting up but in a few minutes, some silly Chinese pop-dance music was playing. The waitress brought me a draft beer so I relaxed and waited for fate to overtake me. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could now see that the cubicles along the edge of the room were not empty, but were filled with huddled Chinese girls and most seemed to be looking at me. They weren’t just looking at me as much eyeing me, much as a cougar watches the movements of a fat rabbit. Feeling as if I were in a dream in which I was naked in a crowd of clothed beautiful people, I summoned all my nerve and tried to look the cool sophisticate while I waited for the first strike.
It didn’t take more than 15 minutes before a short girl, mid-twenties maybe, walked up to my table. She stood close beside me and in broken English she asked where I was from. “America” I answered.
“That what I think. I am girl for you”, she stated confidently. Why is that I asked? She patiently explained that the rest of the girls didn’t speak English so she was my girl. This seemed a bit backward but I did just notice that the dance floor was filling up with all Chinese couples. I seemed to have wandered into an all-Chinese pickup bar and I was the only westerner in it, so I had to play by their rules. Still, she seemed kind of cute and being with a non-nonsense bar girl would make for a nice change. I played along, bought her drinks, and we laughed at each other’s stories. One thing was odd; she insisted on bringing the drinks to our table, vodka for her and draft beer for me. After 3 rounds she announced it was time to go to my hotel room. Talk about faithfully following a script. Oh well, I was getting tired so it seemed like a good idea.
She insisted on getting a cab for the 2 block journey, much like Thai bar girls, so this wasn’t new, either. But by the time I opened my door I was definitely not feeling well. I sprawled out on the bed and she sat on top of me and massaged my shoulders. An alarm went off in my head and I stood up and asked her how much. She gave me an open mouth, blank stare. I asked again how much, and she gave me some number. I gave it to her, pushed her out the door and locked it. The next thing I remember was waking up 12 hours later with a hell of a headache. I guess they got their dosage wrong because after a good breakfast and 6 cups of coffee I was feeling myself again. I thanked my lucky stars or whatever deity put that defensive alarm in head, that I had not been robbed of everything of value I had brought on this trip. But I had wasted half of my day off; what should I do now?
As I knew the Forbidden City was nearby, I decided to try to see as much of this Beijing landmark as I could in the afternoon left to me. I rushed downstairs and arranged for a taxi. In 20 minutes I was standing in front of The Gate of Divine Might along with several hundred other people milling about on the square. I walked towards the gate and as I did, I was accosted by several people demanding to be my guide. I shooed them off but a few meters later I noticed a tall Chinese girl looking impassively at me. I stopped and looked back. She approached and also asked to be my guide in British accented English. I said I didn’t need a guide. She asked how could I ever appreciate something I did not know about? I asked her if she knew about the Ming Imperial Palace and she said yes. We agreed to a price, I gave her money for the entrance tickets, and then we walked through the gate.
She certainly did know a lot about the old palace but the longer we walked, the more she asked about me and where I came from. I did the same. She said she was from a small town outside the city but was now living with her aunt and uncle here in Beijing while she went to some local university. She was now an orphan, as her parents had recently died, and living with her relatives was not very comfortable. She said there was an old American man teaching poetry at her university and it was he who encouraged her to concentrate on her English language studies. Now, she longed to see the west but graduation from her particular university meant a teaching job in some backwater city would be her only future. I asked if she had a boyfriend. She said she did until recently but he wanted to get married immediately and move to southwestern China after they graduated. She delayed giving him an answer and now he didn’t call her. I said I understood why she delayed and she lifted her eyes and looked at me with a surprised expression.
At the end of the tour, she gently guided me to a souvenir shop. Knowing the routine, I looked at a lot of items but only bought a few gifts for friends back home. During this time, she stood at the shop entrance with her head down, as though embarrassed by this exercise. When we left, she apologized profusely. I said not to worry as I understood this was how she made money. She said she really didn’t need the money, her parents left her enough to get through university, so now she was only a guide to meet and talk to western tourists so they would tell her stories of their homes. With these tales she could feed her dreams of living in the west.
We were now at the end of the tour and we stood awkwardly facing each other. With the sun starting to set in the fall sky, I asked if she would like to get some coffee. She said she preferred tea and knew a place nearby. We walked a few blocks as she continued to ask about my life in west, until we came to a dimly lit café. It was clean and moderately decorated with lots of young Chinese couples and few westerners coming and going. She found us a table in the back that was probably the most dimly lit area of the café. I understood why she chose this place; frequented by young, non-judgmental Chinese students with a smattering of foreigners, so we could sit quietly without causing a fuss. We continued to talk about each other, now intimate details, until we finished our second cup and a few assorted pastries. It was dark outside now and we again had an awkward, silent moment.
I asked her if she would like to come to my room. She said yes but we had to be discreet as it was frowned upon for Chinese women to be seen with foreign men in a hotel. She asked what hotel and room number I was staying in. She said I should leave now and she would be along in 30 minutes. I left her enough money for the bill and taxi fare and then left. I was in my hotel room a short time when I heard a knock at the door. I thought it might be the maid but when I opened the door, there she was. Only this time she had a big smile on her face and after she closed the door, she gave me a big hug and a wonderful kiss.
I was not long before we were both undressed and in bed together. At first, she was letting me take the lead but soon it was apparent she had a more aggressive agenda in mind. That was fine by me. At the end, she was a woman possessed and no force on earth could have kept her from achieving her objective. Afterwards, she was a new person; relaxed, confident, openly talking of her goals in life. I was now her anointed agent that would make her dream of a life in the west come true. I did nothing to dispel this notion; being an enabler of a beautiful, confident woman had a certain appeal to me. When it was all explained to me what my new mission in life was to be, she was ready to go again. Only this time, she was much more relaxed; waiting for me to introduce new sensations to her body, Afterwards, we both immediately fell asleep in what can only be described as mutual contentedness; in a dream world where everyone is free to explore their life’s passion.
Thankfully I had set the alarm for 4 AM or I would be sleeping there to this day. I had an early morning flight to Bangkok and I didn’t want to miss it due to some unforeseen red tap at the airport. I showered and shaved and when I emerged from the bathroom, Maria was still asleep. She looked so lovely in bed that I almost called my airline to cancel. Instead, I kissed her lips one last time and told her I would see her again. She slowly awoke and asked me to leave her my hand phone number, and then drifted back to sleep. I pulled out a business card and wrote my phone number and personal email address on the back of the card. I placed it and around $200 US in Chinese yuan on the desk by her purse. I knew she didn’t need it but I wanted her to have it anyway. I dressed and packed quietly, and soon I was on my way to the airport. Twelve hours later, I was in some bar in a Nana Plaza bar looking up at a tiny but beautiful pole dancer when my hand phone started to ring. I went outside the bar to talk. It was Maria; her voice dreamy, almost solemn, asking if I was OK. I said yes, darling, and I meant it, as she said how much she missed me. I repeated her words back to her. I went back into the bar to find my tiny dancer waiting at my table. I barfined her and had a wonderful night at my hotel. Yet, the next morning when I paid her and said good-bye, it was Maria I was thinking of. What was she doing now, was she taking a shower, fixing her hair, and did she resent the money I left her?
For months after that, Maria and I exchanged emails and photographs. Sometimes, she sent me packages with Chinese post cards, letters, documents; anything that was personal to her. With each package, I imagined what her life was really like and how I could fit into it. She even sent me a package of Chinese poetry from the middle ages, including Wang Wei, which opened my mind to the early Buddhist poets. I started to open my eyes each morning thinking what new revelation she would send to bring us closer together. Then one day it all stopped. No email, no letters, no phone calls, just a death-like silence that continues to this day. Knowing her dream, she probably found her western man that could take her to the land of her dreams. At least, with all the turmoil in China, that is what I always imagine and hope for. But, just in case, every few months I still email her with the same message, “Maria, I am still here for you”.
Like a certain high profile writer's subs, you're not sure whether it is real or not…