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天下无不散之筵席

天下无不散之筵席

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I have about two and a half weeks left here. I'm filled with a deep, heavy longing, thick with nostalgia. My body is breaking down, knee has taken on a life of its own and shudders at night, keeping me awake at night, and keeping me distracted through the day; the pain in my feet from the scare in Japan is coming back. My body, beaten hard in the past, is now unfamiliar with this new prolonged state of inactivity and is crumbling into a soft mesh. I've aged tremendously during my time in BJ, and yet, if I could, i'd do it a hundred times over in a heartbeat.

I shocked myself by crying today, full throttle, in front of esteemed external colleagues.

I caught up with S, his wife couldn't make it. It's been 6 months since we last met, since they cooked me dinner at their hutong in nanchizi. After a strong cocktail and tasmanian oysters at Apothecary, we head down to the malatang stands outside, the first customers to dig into the skewers of mushrooms, seaweed and tofu soaked in ma la broth, sitting in the middle of the road on stools under makeshift tents, as the wind bellows outside. We are the first customers at 945pm. We are informed that we can't really eat till 10pm, because the stalls aren't supposed to operate while the policemen are still on duty. This despite the fact that the stalls are all set up and ready for business, right under the eyes of the gong an. But no matter. As long as they aren't selling anything yet, the gong an can rest easy that there were no illegal operations under their watch, and can congratulate themselves on a job well done. At one kuai per skewer, we go at them. I make conversation with the bunch of middle-aged fellow customers to my left, asking them what dialect they are animatedly conversing in. They say Guangdong hua. I say bullshit. I'm from the south as well, and this is not cantonese. I'm from Fuzhou, Fujian. So you speak minnangyu. No, i speak fuzhouhua. The pretty girl "cooking" the skewers finds a loose piece of black fungus floating free in the broth and plops it on my plastic covered tin plate, and i am touched by her generosity. Only in China. Maybe she'll pose for you S says. I can only secretly hope.

Next to us is the "English Bookstore" its fancy cheap green and yellow wording. With books from the Obama's The Audacity of Hope to Murakami's Kafka on the Shore to Gladwell's Blink, the stall's owner who cannot speak English has his pulse on the books moving the english-speaking world. I go crazy and narrow down my choices to four. 120. 110 pls? How can i make money like that? Pls? Ok. Only in China. I feel bad at the knowledge of hypocrisy i so easily smother, but i know that i've just spent hundreds of dollars over the past couple of weeks sourcing for originals across the world, just in time for the literary festivals (both the Bookworm and Capital M), and how i paid three times the price of a book anywhere else, because the books just aren't easily had here. I remember how starstruck i was speaking to Leslie Chang and Peter Hassler, and how the tears fell while listening to Priya Basil and Aneesha Capur. Alienation, and the sense of isolation, arise from being misunderstood by the people you care about she says. I understand it cerebrally, only to comprehend it to the core when Mother comes to visit. The alienation, the betrayal, from your own mother not knowing who you are is sharply painful. How our families can trap us even as they give us the foundation on which we can become ourselves. Basil talks about arguing with her prejudices, Capur about her sheer love of writing. A series of words prompting thought. What are the compensations of faith that make the greater sacrifices worthwhile, Basil asks? Dostoyevsky wrote that literary fiction should be about human beings striving; Faulkner that the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself alone makes good literature. I hate that i read so slowly.

I line up for a taxi in the stinging wind. people behind me line up patiently and orderly. I am so impressed. i wait. taxi after taxi is stole by people dashing out onto the road in front of you. The neat line behind me realises the penalty they pay for adhering to order and courtesy. the line disintegrates. I cave in and hop onto a makeshift tuktuk, a tin box basically balanced on a motorised bike. We go against traffic. Only in China.

China has spoken to me like no other place has. I love every bad-weathered day, because the good days are so much more brilliant. I love the contradictions, the constant internal negotiation between old and new, self and foreign. the iterations of how they want to present themselves to the rest of the world, as the country struggles to find its sense of self under the watchful eye of everyone else. It strikes me that my 10 kuai malatang dinner is so much more satisfying than my 1369 kuai lunch this afternoon at Nadaman.

How will i leave this place?

天下无不散之筵席. I will be back my dear.
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