shu and joe

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liulichang

January 31, 2006

I think all of Beijing could be found strolling through the Liulichang New Year’s fair this afternoon. More accurately, they pushed, bumped and negotiated, albeit a bit akwardly, their way down the thronged, smoke-plumed street. There must have been thousands of fair-goers hidden beneath layers of hats and scarves and those ubiquitous government-issue coats usually seen on security guards and city employees. I’ve begun to suspect that people here are imbued with a quiet determination — a way of being that lacks outright aggression but belies a willpower of steel. Silent but persuasive hands on your shoulder, imploring you to move faster. Strolling interrupted by brusque elbows to the ribcage, a child’s surprisingly strong forehead pressed to your lower back, a toe grazing your heel. Guiding you forward, always.

The ferocity of competition hides beneath an exterior of stoic eyes and chapped lips. Foreheads creased, the geriatric couple to your left surges past you with a silent, terrifically strong purposefulness. No need for “excuse me” or “sorry” or even an absentminded grunt of apology, because they know you know it’s not personal and that the last thing one should be offended by is someone cutting you in line.

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under construction

January 30, 2006

Everywhere in Beijing, the solid outlines of construction machinery carve out a space against the flat, gray sky. A sky so low it touches the heads of pillowy children, bundled within layers of hollofil and down. It hovers closer at dusk, pushing icy winter air down your coat and towards the nape of your neck, through leather gloves and in the dear space above your socks. People still ride their bicycles in this weather, ploughing through six-lanes of traffic, rosy-cheeked and glazed with determination. Explosions of fireworks break the heavy air, often setting off car alarms and causing an unsuspecting tourist mild aural anguish. I am convinced that all the ghosts who were supposed to be scared away by the gunpowder are long gone by now.

Since it’s New Year’s week, little work is being done and the normal clang of mechanical cranes has been replaced with the sound of real birds flying in phalanxes above the Forbidden City. Their sound, deafening at first, alarmed us with its odd tinniness. Like something from an old sci-fi movie, it bounced off the pavement and reverberated through the courtyard house we wandered into.

“Chinese birds,” my mom offered matter-of-factly. “That’s the sound they make here.” Unlike ordinary Western birds, floating silently aloft, these Asian cousins had magical sound-producing skills. Things, animals, people, life itself behave differently here, her look implied. Normal occurrences to my mom are often new and strange and occasionally beautiful to me. Robotic bird sounds, frozen lakes dotted with bicyclists, hand-pulled noodles, meat on a stick offered up by Chinese Muslims. All completely quotidienne to the average Chinese person but completely baffling and lovely to me.

I looked back up towards the birds, now flying westward. For a few fleeting days, it seems they’ll have the sky all to themselves.

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new year’s eve

January 29, 2006


The 12 year ban on fireworks within Beijing’s 5th Ring Road was officially lifted this year, and the city responded with countless amature displays. I can’t begin to guess how many cracker-related injuries occurred. We spent the evening watching the 4-hour-long CCTV New Year’s extravaganza at Shu’s great uncle’s house and were treated to post-fireworks dumpliings at around 1 am. No better way to end the day than with a belly full of jiaozi.

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beijing fog keeps the winter warmer

January 23, 2006

I noticed the cab driver had a hand-crocheted pale blue cozy for his thermos. All the cab drivers have little portable cups and thermoses sitting in the ridge between the passenger’s seat. Filled with tea or hot water, they are tattered and discolored from years of continuous use. I imagined the cabbie’s wife, sitting at home by the radio, fastidiously looping and threading until she’d made the perfect holster. Based on its fit, she’d probably painstakingly measured the thermos and cast a quick glance at her collection of yarn for the right color.

Today was our first full day as Beijing residents. My eyes feel bleary and my head congested. Not certain if I’ll be able to last here for two whole years.

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Reverse Migration

I noticed the cab driver had a hand-crocheted pale blue cozy for his thermos. All the cabbies have little portable cups and thermoses sitting in the ridge between the passenger’s seat and the driver’s seat. Filled with tea or hot water, they are tattered and discolored from years of continuous use. I imagined the cabbie’s wife, sitting at home by the radio, fastidiously looping and threading until she’d made the perfect holster. Based on its snug fit, she’d probably painstakingly measured the thermos and tested several strands of yarn against its silvery cover to find the right match.

The cabbies seem pretty gruff so far. Hunched over and looking older than they seem, they have no time for stuttering foreigners giving them directions from pocket maps. They snort when they realize my Chinese barely rivals that of a 4 year-old and gingerly reach for their glasses to have a closer look at Joe and me. Where are we from? What are we doing in Beijing? Am I Chinese or some strange Korean/Japanese castoff? Are we part of the hordes of foreigners crowding into their city in search of fortune and power? My only response to the silent interrogation is a sideways look out the window. Must get used to this.

The streets are choked with cars, trucks, pedestrians and the occasional farmer pedaling an overburdened tricycle. Traffic presents a problem for newly-minted immigrants like ourselves and the combination of noise and congestion brings ones shoulders up closer to ones ears. By the end of the day I’d grown accustomed to my hunchback, eyes squinting in the foggy evening haze, unsure which multi-lane highway was a ring road versus a regular road. I’m sure I’ll learn the difference after living here for two years.

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Landslide

It’s a good thing he brought the Navigator. When the Delancy Car Service driver pulled up to our building Saturday morning and saw the stack of luggage we had waiting in the lobby, he had one question: “Did you ask for a truck?” I hadn’t, but I was certainly glad that he showed up in one. Watching the bags fill the cavity of the SUV, it was clear that a car would not have done.

As we settled into our leather bucket seats, the driver flicked the dial of the in-dash satellite radio system to 106.7 Lite FM. The voice of Stevie Nicks cut into the warm winter air: “I’ve been afraid of changing ’cause I’ve built my life around you. Time makes you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older too.”

Appropriate I suppose. For the next five minutes I was lost in thoughts of my past few years in New York, and the thought of, today, leaving it behind. I’ll admit it – I got a bit teary-eyed.

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