It's about that time. My two year clock is running down and I'll need to travel again. It's always been like this... I lived in twelve houses in nine different places before I even started high school. Once I did start high school, I bolted off for a year to begin excursions on my own. Back to finish high school, immediately off to college, more excursions for internships over the summers and during a year break halfway through college.
Excursions these days take more paperwork, though. I spent six hours yesterday filling in security clearance forms for this summer; yes, I'm registered with the selective service, no, I don't want to overthrow the United States government. Assuming clearance is granted, I'll be stationed in the Political Affairs Office of the US embassy in Beijing, PRC. Why exactly they want a tech geek I can't say, although there are plenty of plausible reasons. Housing on-site is provided, everything else is out of my pocket. Hence, I am writing this in an attempt to get me from here (Boston) to there (Beijing).
My first encounter with Beijing about two and half years ago opened my eyes to events, trends, and processes so colossal in scope, they are usually only discussed in history books many tens or hundreds of years after the fact, after the dust has settled. Although the Cultural Revolution is long over, I nonetheless spent hours and hours listening to people my parents' age talk about what it was like and how different everything is now. Hip, educated, cell phone slinging Chinese friends my own age hurled insults freely in response to me asking what they thought about Taiwan -- did the ridiculous propaganda billboards actually succeed in convincing my friends that I, as an American, was an imperialist pig simply for asking what they thought about their country's "rogue state", a place in which I had lived for three months and which they only knew through regurgitations of the party line? Beijing is where decisions are made for over a billion people, but it is nothing like the rest of China, as evidenced by the fact every fourth person in Beijing hails from China's poor rural areas, most of them having illegally relocated to the capital in search of something better, such as prostitution, digging through garbage to collect swine feed, or begging.
One day in particular during my first stay in Beijing concisely sums up the convergence of many different aspects of living in the northern capital. For the past couple of months I had been staying in an apartment of a friend of mine while she was away. It was located on the top floor of an eighteen floor building, accessible by both a long, dark stairwell and a pair of frightening old elevators. The stairwell had light fixtures on every landing, but only about three of the eighteen fixtures had light bulbs that worked. Since no one really used the stairwell and winter was coming on, it only made sense for people, especially the immigrants from the countryside living in the basement, to store hundreds of heads of cabbage there. As the elevators were locked during the night, this made for many an amusing late night blind stumble/crawl up the stairs on my way back from various night spots. During the day, the one working elevator was staffed in two eight hour shifts by one of two rosy cheeked 16 year-old girls who made up part of the veritable immigrant village that set up camp in the building's basement. We got along quite well -- they were always interested in how I was doing and what I was up to and I'd often help them with English exercises from well-worn workbooks.
On the day in question, one of my friends pulled me aside with some urgency saying I should leave my apartment as soon as possible, making some mention of strange people asking questions about me. Figuring it was best to avoid any trouble, I headed to my apartment, packed all my belongings into my one backpack, did a cabbage slide down the stairs, and crashed at a friend's place for the night. It didn't take me long to figure out that the elevator girls, the only people who knew every detail of my comings and goings from the apartment, had told someone about the dinner party I threw a couple nights previous, a dinner party thrown by a male foreigner and attended by several Chinese females. By the time this information made it to the local police station, it was claimed that I was working illegally (I was not) and it smelled like someone in that ill-begotten chain of communication wanted a bribe to smooth things over.
Luckily, I had some friends in the neighborhood who smoothed things over for me without the need for bribery. A couple of nights later I panted back up the stairwell under cover of darkness and settled back in. The next morning I continued my habit of elevator avoidance as I left the building for a bite to eat. A gruff, pot-bellied man dressed in a stained white tank top and dirty slacks was waiting for me. Without any introduction he started belching out questions while sucking on a cancer stick. I turned down my Mandarin language proficiency nob considerably and dumbly parried his pointed questions regarding my name, profession, reason for being in China, interest in Chinese women, visa status, and tax record. I eventually got hungry enough to walk away in search of food. After following me for another block with questions, the man lost interest in me as well. Aside from the averted or embarrassed eyes of several of the other tenants in the building, including the elevator girls, I never had any more trouble.
With this experience came an understanding of why China does not have an established equivalent of what was the KGB in the former USSR; there is no need for institutionalized internal espionage when your neighbors are willing to do it for free. Upon consultation with many of my Chinese friends, they confirmed this was indeed a long-standing relic of the Cultural Revolution and other societal forces I probably wouldn't understand.
In retrospect I wish I'd better documented these conversations, sites, and events -- occasional e-mails to friends and an ill-kept journal did not suffice to capture the richness of what I heard and saw. I was left with a sense that I had only begun to wipe away the frosting of modernity and development that thinly covers (but is quickly transforming) the wreckage left behind from the last century. What I would have given to have ventured to China 15 years earlier; before Tiananmen, as China's isolationism flood gates were just cracking opening.
At least, those were my thoughts at the time. Recently, though, I've become convinced that right now is the time to go back, before everything changes yet again. This time around, bloody revolution and famine are being replaced with China's entry into the WTO and the coming of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games as fomenters. Beijing is ground zero as China finally steps up to bat on the international political and economic stage. If my experience watching Beijing transform itself over the course of a week in preparation for the PRC's 50th anniversary in 1999 is any indication of what is to come, my guess is that I won't even recognize Beijing by the 2008 Olympics. So, for this particular excursion, unlike many of the previous, I have in mind a specific, small goal -- I'd like to document Beijing as it stands now and as it changes over my time there. I've never been too keen on public immolation of my day to day life, but I would like to construct a somewhat personal record (text/images) of the shit as it careens toward the fan. Seeing the Middle Kingdom through the eyes of a foreigner is sometimes surreal, sometimes Orwellian, and always instructive. Doing so as a foreigner with access inside the embassy gates that almost got trampled down by riot in the wake of the NATO bombing of China's Belgrade embassy should be that much more so.
The sum of my present existence on the web can be found at: