I thought I would share this recent exchange I had with a good friend from High School ten years removed from graduation. We were competitive tennis players and teamed up for doubles in tournaments. We partied, laughed and vacationed together during those halcyon days. At the time of this story in 1993, Scott was a Reuters correspondent in China, and moi, a young traveling sales engineer based in Singapore. We shared a snapshot of our lives at this time in an interchange on Facebook:
“Beijing, China, August 2000
I turn my beat-up red Toyota Corolla into the parking lot of the Liangmahe Bright Horse River Office Tower. My friend Christl Perkins—Pan Keyin in Mandarin—works for Reuters News Service here. The security guard at the front desk calls her office and she says she’ll be right down. Christl is half-Okinawan, half African-American and all-L.A. She teaches English at the Beijing Police Academy and grows marijuana on her balcony. Talk about 與龍共舞 yulonggongwu—dancing with the dragon.
“Lao Sang (Old Sang, my Chinese name because it sounds like my English surname), Ganma (what’s up)?” she says as she strolls into the lobby. She’s wearing a tight blue denim dress, silver hoop earrings, and her big afro’s pulled back in a red bandana. Not a typical sight in Beijing.
“Hao re! Really hot!” I say, fanning my face, teasing Christl about whether I mean the weather, her looks or both.
We walk out the revolving glass front door and around the back of the building to the garbage-strewn Bright Horse River, a concrete drainage canal.
Christl pulls out a spliff and lights it up. She takes a big toke and passes it to me. I suck on the joint and hold the smoke deep in my lungs. Being high is the only way I can tolerate living in Beijing. I love my work, producing the first foreign-run newspaper in the PRC. But after living here for 17 years, everything about Beijing depresses me.
I chronicled the Tienanmen Massacre at the age of 25 as a United Press International cub reporter. The only response I could think of to the horror I witnessed was to found an independent newspaper. It was the loudest “Fuck You!” I could deliver to the Butchers of Beijing. I expected to get detained and deported immediately. Instead here I am seven years later still slaving away every day so our publishing partner—the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily—can reap all the profits. I’m a minimum wage worker in the company I founded almost a decade ago. My life is so hard only lungfuls of weed can give me solace.
The only other thing that cheers me up is my Tibetan temple dog Nao Nao (鬧鬧).
Nao Nao is sniffing in the weeds and garbage piles along the canal bank. Christl and I smoke in silence and listen to the industrial metal soundtrack of gridlocked traffic and skyscraper construction all around us.
“Beijing is such a shithole, why the hell do we live here?!” I ask.
“Wei renmin fuwu, To serve the people,” Christl responds with a stoned grin.
We finish the joint and I tell her that I have to get back to the office to continue serving the people.”
“@Scott, I recall taking a few days off while in Beijing on business around 1994 to visit with you and gain some local knowledge. You picked me up at the swank Shangri-La hotel in your Willy’s, army style jeep looking like a typical exchange student, not a foreign correspondent for UPI (whatever the hell that means). You showed me around the city and we wound up near Tienanmen square where you parallel parked the Willy much to the chagrin of the Maoist old man sporting a straw broom in his gnarled hands. He emphatically informed you – I can read body language – that you’re not supposed to park there. As we walked away with the air of an ignorant American tourist and a scruffy exchange student partner-in-crime, Comrade parking attendant/street sweeper said the magic word. You reeled around and delivered a full-on Mandarin verbal assault on the unsuspecting old man’s ears who, with jaw agape, did a 180 and shuffled away. Beat the shit out of parking in a proper spot as we were right next to our destination.
Later that day, you and a local friend of yours took me to an outlying neighborhood so I could see how most Beijingites live. I learned it was common for domiciles to have courtyards as their focal point symbolizing the presense of unity in the home. While we were getting ready to crawl back into the Willy to return to my hotel, I heard a raspy/screechy human voice approaching slowly from down the street. For the most part, the sound went unheard by the neighborhood residents. As the shape of the figure came into view, I saw an old man pedaling towards us on a rickety tricycle periodically looking up only to bellow: “PEEEEE-DJOOOO” for all to hear. As he neared, I noticed plastic crates in the two side baskets of the trike containing bottles of some sort. It was then you translated one of the few Mandarin words I used repeatedly during my travels around China. I motioned the local “piju” (beer) delivery guy to stop. Upon some of your helpful translation, I successfully procured a pair of one liter bottles of the local brew. At about 25 cents apiece, it was a slam-dunk bargain as compared to the $5 Heineken’s in the Shangri-La mini bar. “GETCHYA BEEYEA HEEYEA” would never sound the same to me at Yankee stadium ever again.
So, I now had some local knowledge and felt that, aside from the persistent presence of black soot in the ears and nose, that coal-fired Beijing was pretty cool and normal for the most part. What could possibly be wrong with a place where you park wherever the hell you want, get away with telling the parking guy to go fuck himself in Mandarin and buy 25 cent quarts of beer on the street in front of your house?
Then, you showed me the photos you had from the massacre at Tienanmen a few years back and you told me if the government knew you had them, you would be deported or just disappear.I then took a large bite of the reality sandwich, China style. How amazing did your life turn out? I can’t wait to read the book, so please write one.”
Interesting times we had.