By VAL WANG
By lunchtime, Beijing had reached 102 degrees and our four-year old twins were hungry. We’d spent the morning exploring the shadeless Yonghegong Lama temple and now sought out the refuge of the simple vegetarian buffet nearby where my vegetarian husband and I had had a transcendent meal on our last trip six years before. To our dismay, it had been, according to a nearby security guard, demolished. One of our twins emitted hangry squeals, the other went boneless. The air was dense with humidity and pollution. On our way to the temple from the subway stop at the top of Yonghegong Street, we’d passed another, fancier-looking, vegetarian restaurant and so we elbowed our way all the way back up the narrow corridor of manic Buddhist commercialism thick with incense and the calls of hawkers selling religious tchotchkes and crowds of midday worshippers and tourists; we drowned in sweat.
The restaurant was housed in a large, beautifully restored courtyard house, with not a soul outside. The front door was open so we stepped inside and walked hesitantly down a spare grey walkway bordered by white pebbles, behind three young women who seemed to know where they were going. Suddenly all three dropped to a crouch and aimed their phones at what appeared to be nothing; it took me a moment to see they were trying to capture the soft white mist being wafted into our path. A normal tourist would likely have been delighted to find this charming gem in the middle of the teeming, steamy city: an oasis. But for me, that mist set off alarm bells in my head and, looking back now, should have been my proverbial cue to leave. Actually, we should have turned back when we saw the Hummers and the BMW SUV’s in the parking lot.
I had called Beijing home for five years starting in the late 1990’s, a time when picturesque mist would have been the last thing wafting into our paths in the hutongs. I had fallen in love with the city’s grit and its gruff heart and its chaos and its food. The city had allowed me to make my life as a writer far from the expectations of my parents, and my years there had cemented my connection to the city, independent of my family. But it had also allowed me to touch the tragedy of my family’s exile: both of my parents had fled China as children when the Communists took power in 1949, and neither they nor my grandparents had returned in almost 50 years. I had been the first one back. My Nainai had grown up in Beijing with a stupefyingly complex family, and during those five years, I got to know and love these relatives I’d never met before. My first month in the city, I had even lived in the courtyard house of my Bobo, who, in the absence of older family who lived in the States, had become the family’s de facto patriarch. The house had neither a flush toilet nor a shower. His son Xiao Peng, several years older than me, took me on bike rides around the old city, thus beginning my romance with Beijing. During that stint, I persuaded my parents to return for the first time. They reconnected with relatives my Dad had not seen since he was eight. It was like gluing a broken body back together. To this day, Bobo and his family continue to live in that same ramshackle courtyard house, which has somehow escaped the wrecking ball progressively demolishing so much of the rest of the old city.
Developers in cahoots with the government have systematically seized huge swathes of land in the heart of the city and displaced its residents to the outskirts. Ordinary people’s courtyard houses teeter perpetually on the brink of doom, while restaurants like this one repurpose the old houses to package up a romanticized Chinese past, complete with endless mist, and sell it at an exorbitant price. This fetishized version of a courtyard house was the antithesis of the Beijing I was hoping to show 平平and毛毛 on their first time in the country. Needing to do research for a novel and having some university funding, I’d seized the chance to introduce them to China. They attend a Mandarin preschool in Boston’s Chinatown, and I wanted them to see there was a whole country of people who spoke the language and a whole other wing of our family who loved them.
I try hard not to be nostalgic or bitter about the endless cycles of destruction and creation that roil the city, but every few years when I visit, I do so with trepidation, fearing that Beijing will have turned into a Bladerunner version of itself, neon and empty. And this time I hadn’t been back for six years, a millennium in Chinese time. Xiao Peng’s son Sanbao, who was barely walking when I left for the first time, was also growing in fast-forward: five, seven, then ten on my last visit. My husband and I had taken him out to play in the old city, just as his father had taken me.
Even though this time around I could have afforded to rent an apartment in an antiseptic high-rise with an elevator and robust plumbing, I had deliberately rented for us an apartment in a regular Chinese apartment building like I had lived in years ago, the kind whose bathroom always reeks gently of sewage and whose yard is crowded with green plants and little dogs of all shapes and rows of bicycles and motorized tricycles that are carefully rolled out in the mornings by grandpas driving their little grandchildren to school. 平平and毛毛 loved the lucky orange tree and one small brown poodle in particular. In the concrete stairwell, they stomped hard to turn on the light sensors and they yelled in terror as the mournful call of the knife sharpener came echoing up.
There were neighbors in the yard at all hours, happily, since most of all I wanted to give the twins a sense of Chinese community life, wanted them to feel the warmth tinged with extreme nosiness that used to irritate me when I moved to Beijing 20 years ago but that I miss now living back in the States, specifically in New England, where the chilliness of the people matches the weather. The highest praise for a Chinese social gathering is to say that it’s 热闹, the characters for “heat” and “noise” together signifying that you’re having a good time. It hurts to live so far away, and after having children (twins, no less), we had not been able to visit at all until now. If I’m honest, I’ll admit I was fetishizing some romanticized past of my own.
In the yard, the neighbors’ questions began right away. “是男孩或女孩？” they asked, looking at the twin who has a pageboy but wears pink, and of the other, whose curly hair is like his dad’s, “头发是自来转的？” Eyes moving between the two, “谁是哥哥？”
The kids jumped right in. Leaving the compound one morning, 毛毛 tapped the poodle owner on the arm and said, “我喜欢你的狗.” 平平chimed in, “很可爱.” She turned around with a look of delight, cupped毛毛’s face in her hands and said, “啊呀，宝宝，你真好！”
I say those five years cemented my relationship to Beijing, but to live so far away from a city that changes so much so quickly means that my connection is always crumbling and in need of renewal. On every trip back, some angles of the city will feel utterly foreign in their newness or orderliness. Beijing is continually undergoing “beautification” campaigns, one of which swept through a few months before our visit, kicking out many small mom-and-pop shops run by migrants. Bobo and Bomu complained of having nowhere left to buy meat near their courtyard house, though they’ve grown used to such shifts, and I’m sure in a few months they will have adjusted and forgotten all about it. Coming back, I often feel like an emissary of the past, harboring outdated knowledge about the city (see above: vegetarian buffet) or not yet caught up with the latest technology (see below: WeChat Wallet). The city feels like it’s racing ahead of time itself. While I try to practice equanimity, I can’t fully partake in the country’s collective amnesia. I am always tallying what is gone and what is new, weighing in the balance the soul of the city.
But back to the soft white mist and the China I had no plans to show my twins. As we followed the three women ‘gramming (or more likely ‘Chatting) the mist, my husband and I shrugged. Really delicious vegetarian restaurants were hard to find in Beijing and ones located near the Buddhist temple were a good bet, so we agreed to think of this sure-to-be expensive meal as “treating ourselves.”
A waitress clad in the long pastel linen gown and soft bun of a Buddhist mendicant, and wearing the earpiece of a Secret Service agent, greeted us and led us on silent shoes into a black-floored courtyard filled with tables and enclosed under a glass dome. The temperature dropped to a bearable level. Something about this dome made the whitest, un-earthliest light I have ever seen and also did something weird to the sound: the whole place was on mute save for a woman on a pedestal playing a cello very slowly; a harp sat next to her. In fact, everyone in the restaurant seemed to be moving at three-quarters speed. As the four of us bumbled sweatily after the waitress, I felt like we were humans who’d stumbled into a particularly gaudy rendition of the afterlife; everyone here but us was dead.
There were many empty tables on the darkened periphery of the restaurant but the waitress led us to a center table right behind the cellist. The table’s décor was impeccable: white tablecloth, orchid plant and petite rock stupa, breakable glassware in extraordinary quantities. Our kids yelped, we two put down our dirty backpacks, and then all four of us scraped back our chairs over the hard black tile, each action ringing crisp and loud as in a movie soundtrack. Everyone in the restaurant turned to look at us with eyes that were at once vacant and malevolent.
Most of the other diners were Chinese; Buddhism was trendy among the well-to-do of the city. I imagined the tower block in the suburbs now housing the displaced granny this courtyard house had been seized from. I thought of my own Vipassana meditation practice and wondered if dining here was a violation of Right Action, the precept that admonishes us to abstain from immoral actions such as dishonest dealings. This place had been somebody’s home. I hated myself.
The waitress handed my husband an enormous electronic tablet with a bilingual picture menu so extensive and labyrinthine, with such eye-popping prices, that he immediately closed it.
“We can still leave,” I said to him, but the momentum of the moment was too powerful. Our childless life, when we might have taken the time to find a more suitable restaurant, was gone, as were many of the restaurants we might have found. So we stayed. The cellist stopped and stepped down.
I perused the equally large analog menu, settled on a few of the least expensive dishes, called the waitress over and ordered in Mandarin. By the blank look on her face I wondered if I had actually spoken. I repeated my order, pointing at the pictures. Nothing. I was in one of those nightmares where your mouth is moving but no sound is coming out. I glanced up and saw a pigeon swooping by above but the flap of its wings, the whistle on its feet, were totally silent. I wondered briefly if in fact I were the one who was dead. I understood suddenly that our fellow diners were paying good money expressly to experience the opposite of 热闹. Without acknowledgement, the waitress disappeared.
A harpist ascended and began playing something familiar. It took us a moment: “Home on the Range.” My husband fished out pens, little composition books, and Chinese word cards for the twins, who began writing characters.
A bespectacled, be-earpieced man in a black polo shirt appeared with one of the enormous electronic tablets in his hands.
“Hello, may I help you?” he said in English.
“I just want to order,” I said back in English, though I abhor speaking English in Beijing.
He handed me the tablet.
“I must use this?” He nodded sadly. China felt technologically light years ahead of the States. If your cellphone is hooked up with WeChat Wallet, you can get food delivered, unlock a shared dockless bicycle, call a clean cab with seatbelts, and pay for it all, and if your phone isn’t hooked up (like mine wasn’t), I feel sorry for you (me). The man in the polo shirt expertly navigated through the menu on my behalf, stabbing out our order in no time: two dishes plus two bowls of rice topped with seaweed, at quadruple of what I considered a reasonable price. Our being here seemed the epitome of all that was wrong with not just China but the world, and I thought of all the dark forces that had conspired to bring us to this place: global warming, government corruption, crony capitalism, foodie culture, our own privilege. How much had our plane tickets alone cost? And how much pollution had our plane belched out? For just a bit of novel research and a quick perusal of tourist sites? This was the opposite of a treat.
And as much as I disdained this place and these one-percenters who paid a premium to experience the cessation of heat and noise and the nothingness of manmade mist, was I any better than them? Hadn’t decades of living in overcrowded cities—Beijing, then New York, now Boston—also driven me to seek the peace and stillness that Buddhism promised? My only defense, if I can call it that, was that when I was a poor writer in New York, I had sought these things out in the only place I could afford at the time: within my own mind. Though, didn’t I too, meditating in urban meditation centers led by white teachers, experience Buddhism in a strange and adulterated form? And despite my nostalgia for the gritty Beijing—my regret for all that was lost with each sweeping phase of urban renewal—didn’t I, as a parent, appreciate some of the city’s new amenities, like air-conditioned malls with indoor playgrounds, good iced coffee, and cat cafes?
The bowls of rice came and our children devoured them instantly.
Long minutes passed with no more food emerging. This in China, where normally, milliseconds after you finish ordering, a waitress will slam the finished dish onto your table. I asked the waiter to check on the food and he nodded and gestured towards a shaved-headed woman in the standard linen robe surrounded by supplicants, murmuring that she was the boss.
My husband and I watched the twins contentedly writing in their composition books: 鸟年回前木东方十六. It seemed a miracle. I had never loved writing Chinese characters growing up in the States; I had attended a weekend Chinese school in the 1980’s with little hope of ever actually visiting the motherland. China was a mythic land that existed only in memory. Where we’d come from, not where we were going. With each stroke the twins wrote, the tragedy of my family’s past seemed to rotate, and with it my orientation. Perhaps instead of the afterlife, this restaurant had projected us instead into the future, right here on earth.
After we returned home, when I asked them what they had most liked about China, 毛毛 would say, “The people who look so nice that I want to say hello to them” and 平平would say the dumplings. Twenty years ago, during my very first month in Beijing, I’d had a moment walking in the hutongs when I’d felt my body crisscross through the ghost of my Nainai’s body like one water drop passing through another. Her city, my city. Goosebumps had stippled my arms. Here was the next link of the chain. The pivot from the past to the future. My city, their city. This connection was the reason we’d made the trip. Immigrant life is fracture and maintaining a cohesive body requires an immense amount of energy and will and time and money that we are fortunate to be able to afford. On this trip back, Sanbao was now a teenager and he roughhoused with the twins like I had with him as a child; they in turn worshipped him. We’ve promised the twins we’ll go back next summer when they are six, even though the thought of it exhausts me and part of me wishes I could just be home writing that novel while they’re off at summer camp. Though 毛毛 told me he plans to move back when he’s older, so wasn’t it all worth it? And what city will he find?
One repeated, disorienting occurrence on this trip was me nudging one of my kids out of the way of an electric food delivery moped, barreling at us from behind as it wove its silent, murderous way up the middle of the crowded sidewalk, the deliveryman frantic to fulfill his order. These moments in particular truly deranged my sense of time. Was I in the future, where a hungry person lying on a couch picks up a small handheld device and orders food delivered straight to his or her mouth? Or was I in Beijing’s un-beautified past where people rode roughshod over laws and sidewalks? Both, it seemed, existing simultaneously. A vision of the future doing the bidding of the past, amplifying what came before: a culture that loves to eat, and fast.
But, this high-end restaurant with Buddhist characteristics felt like the opposite: an idealized past doing the bidding of an imagined future. This future, instead of being neon and empty, was misty and empty: a clean, cool, quiet bubble where, if you have enough money, you can opt out of living in the present at all. From within that bubble, who knows or cares what the teeming masses are doing beyond the courtyard house walls?
In this mindful future, your first dish will take an unheard of fifteen minutes to come, and your children will take one look at the mushrooms in it and refuse to eat it, though instead of commencing to run laps around the table they will somehow (is that “Swannee River” on the harp?) continue writing their characters diligently, and after many more minutes they will begin to ask loudly where the food is and to bang at the glassware with their utensils. You will feed them candy from your backpack, to no avail. Your husband will take them outside as you stay to cancel the last dish. The young couple next to you will not look up from their phones or exchange a single word the entire time you are there, and you will hope they are sexting each other. The tale of how you finally get and pay the check will be able to sit alongside the Dream of the Red Chamber in the complexity of its plot twists and the baroque-ness of its interpersonal dramas, but you will not bore your readers with it.
When you go outside you will find your children in the mist posing with little heart-shaped signs reading in English, “Eat vegetarian once a week for the planet” as two waitresses in long linen dresses coo over them and snap promotional photos for their website.
Your husband will be photographing them being photographed.
If you are quick enough (you won’t be) you can photograph him photographing them. What a WeChat Moment that will be.
Val Wang is an author and filmmaker interested in the intersection between the personal and the global. She is the author of the memoir Beijing Bastard, as well as the director of the documentary short The Flip Side and the interactive, multiplatform documentary Planet Takeout. An Assistant Professor in the English and Media Studies Department of Bentley University, she lives in Cambridge, but her heart is still partly in Beijing.
Image courtesy of the author.