Broken in Beijing
On my third day in China, I sat out on the steps of a Beijing gallery and smoked a cigarette. China had broken me.
The cigarette was a measure of my collapse. I hadn’t smoked for six years, but two days in Beijing left me inhaling nicotine. It seemed pointless not to smoke; everybody else did. Air pollution was so high that the city appeared through a Monet-like haze, not mist, but the opalescent glow of concrete dust. I’d coughed all night since I arrived, so why not smoke?
A young Chinese man left the gallery and sat beside me. I held out the cigarettes wordlessly. In only a few hours I had relearned the ritual of the smoking Westerner. It doesn’t matter where one travels in Asia or Africa, if one smokes, she or he is instantly part of a social circle, a somewhat-despised, somewhat-protected minority—the foreign smoker.
We dispense cigarettes like Victorian
merchants dispensed patronage. It’s
“He is not a real Chinese of course,” said the youth, tipping his chin back towards the gallery door. With his Nike knockoff trainers and mullet haircut, he was a typical young Beijinger.
“No?” I replied, waiting for the comments, maybe even complaints, about the avant garde artist whose work I had failed to understand.
The young man lit his Marlboro with matches. Beijing men didn’t mind bumming cigarettes but they were squeamish about taking my lighter, perhaps because it meant touching something I’d touched. “No. He’s from Hubei Province.”
I nodded, though I had no idea what this meant.
‘In Hubei they have many foreigners who have travelled up the Yangzi—who knows what strange blood he has?’ He looked at me speculatively. “Not Chinese, not really,” he reiterated, and strode off.
I went to the Pearl Market and was immediately advised not to buy from the first stall I came to. “He’s only a Beijinger,” said my guide contemptuously. “Look at his long thin neck and fat hands. No good—he won’t know anything. Find a man with a short wide neck, and long fingers. He will be from Guangdong Province, where the pearls are grown, so he will have good stock.”
I began to feel as if Chinese spent their time covertly feeling the bumps on their neighbour’s heads, or making psychological judgements from handwriting samples.
Although I’d guessed China must be a complicated place, it was a revelation to find that it’s not a place at all. It’s a construct. Hammered together over centuries of Imperial rule, followed by Party education, its multiple cultures survive, not in spite of cultural confinement, but because of it. They apparently ignored central issues of poverty, exclusion and gender by forming cultural battalions that edged them a few inches closer to prosperity, inclusion and equality.
But this behaviour wasn’t prejudiced—even if the Ethnic Cultures Park was once labelled the ‘Racist Park’ on all the roads from the international airport. Rather, the Ethnic Park showed the fracture lines in China’s homogeneity, because it was a microcosm for China as a whole. Fifty-six cultures “live” there, including Russians, Koreans and Mongolians, each with an acre of ground bearing traditional buildings and crops. They are supposed to make money from the visiting tourists. But the Russians were never there, because they worked as street acrobats; the Koreans left midway through the day to work as cooks; and the Hui had taken over gardening for several of the other cultures who preferred to sit and play cards.
Per Contra Spring 2007