&: Diary (10)
(August 21st, 2019) I have six currencies in my wallet. I can never figure out what tense I'm supposed to be writing these in. I had six currencies in my wallet, eating that hayashi rice at Narita. I have five currencies in my wallet now, writing this in a hotel room in Beijing, looking mostly at my own reflection in the window. This is the life I always wanted to lead. I was telling this to a friend a few days ago. Now, I'm even more unsure about what tense to write in because this is me adding to the entry a week or two later, editorializing, trying to drag some meaning, some point out of the observation that I had six currencies and then five in my wallet, because I know that somebody might read this. Sometimes I am writing these on the day they happen and sometimes I am writing them the next day or the next week. The tense is all over the place. I notice that.
Because I'm not sure what the point of these are. Stepping outside of the format for a moment. But I guess to be like a blog post as a blog post looked in 2005 or 2006. Meandering, pointless, maybe something in there to be carved out and turned into a piece of writing that I might get paid for, but mostly just a chance to talk about things that happened, maybe something to look back on in a decade, so I can say to myself, "That is what I was doing in August of 2019." I can be more honest if I have no point to make. I can say whatever I want, if I'm not saying it for any clear reason. I can censor sections (you're missing out on a lot, and that's just me putting it in to jog my memory later, and I should probably still be able to remember the names I'm covering up or my own private thoughts). Self-censorship, I can't stop. Even those asterisked out sections, there are things that I feel must be kept even more private.
Because what a strange experience to have a strange come up to you and say—not that they've read some published writing, a translation, something serious but—that they've read a "blog" you have written. It's even worse if it was something I wrote five, ten years ago. What's the point of writing these, then? It's half narcissism, half some other impulse to record shit I've done or said (so, I'm saying it's completely narcissism, I guess).
But so here it is, whatever it is.
I keep making this trip, or a trip a lot like it. This time it's from Narita to Incheon to Beijing, but sometimes it's Haneda to Hong Kong to Xi'an or Beijing. What I meant there was, my ideal life as I saw it when I was eighteen or nineteen or even twenty-five was flying places, for things, staying in nice hotels. I've accomplished that. Transpacific or a Korean Airlines flight between Narita and Incheon, Guangzhou to Changsha, Tokyo to Osaka, whatever the flight is, it feels like I've arrived—and now, look at me, I'm fucking sick of flying, dread it, fly enough that I've seen every film I want to see on the inflight entertainment system, fly enough that I've started to recognize flight attendants, fly enough that I have a favorite spot to stop at at Narita. I remember flying into Narita for the first time and remarking on its shittiness, the '70s vibe, all the exposed wiring, missing ceiling panels, but some of the new terminals are nice, even if they don't compare with HKG or ICN or SIN, and it feels like home now. Mitsumoto Tei, where I ate the hayashi rice is where I would eat, if there was one in the neighborhood. The lights are up too bright. The menu is dull, all yoshoku meat-on-rice dishes, steaks, maybe a pasta, if I'm remembering correctly, then beer and highballs, chain kissaten-grade coffee. This is the way it should be, though: definitely cheap imported beef, canned mushrooms, onions cooked barely translucent, then a desultory sprinkle of dried parsley. This is nostalgia food that I could never be nostalgic for. Comfort food, though, and that's universal. It's just sauce and meat on rice.
I bet this place was full of smoke up until a couple years ago, but I know I'll have to hike down to the smoking lounge right after. There's a place like this in Haneda, too. I can't remember or figure out the name. It feels like a neighborhood place, too. I mean that in the sense of it looks like a neighborhood restaurant, rather than it evoking some sense of the community of a neighborhood restaurant. I mean it looks like all the generic indie shops in East Tokyo, the kind of place, if you were in Hashiba or Senzoku, that you'd go in to wait out the rain or get a late lunch. Draft beer and curry rice. My Haneda spot is good for curry. It also has a smoking section. A third of the dining room is given over to this, like, shoddily-enclosed area with high tables and ashtrays.
They were playing "Boots of Spanish Leather," barely audible over the clatter of cutlery and the noise of the terminal filtering in. What a sad song to hear in an airport. "Is there something I can send you from across the sea / From the place that I’ll be landing?" It was playing so quietly that I might have just imagined it.
I watched the man across from me working at picking up every kernel of corn from his plate with a pair of chopsticks, before he gave up and took a spoon from the basket.
I went for a cigarette and I thought about a story I could write or that I have written before. I had been watching the floppy-haired kid working at Mitsumoto Tei. Big hair, frosted grey-platinum, boots with buckles, like he must've just rode his VJ21 in from Kozunomori. VWAAAAAAAMMMMM all the way down the highway, pulling into the lot too fast, waving to the girl that works at the currency exchange place. Airport people. It only works with a place like Narita, way out in the middle of nowhere, since they've got to live out there, too. I thought about flying into Beijing from Datong that time, going to the Real Kungfu in the terminal, while the Public Security Bureau men drowsed, watching the girls at work there, red shirts, all without bras underneath. I had just gotten out of a couple months in a detention center. Country girls with shiny black bangs, baggy red shirts with their nipples poking out.
I've tried to write about that a dozen times and it just amounts to: I saw women with shiny bangs and they were all not wearing bras and they reminded me of a hundred girls I'd known before. I've tried to write that down in some serious way many times before. But there is nothing to the thought but that. There is nothing deeper. That's what this is for.
Struggling with tense, again. But I can return to the notebook written that night: I am back in Beijing. It hasn't been long. Maybe a couple months since I passed through, and I was here earlier in the year, maybe February, March? It's a city I'm slowly learning to love.
(August 22nd, 2019) Awake at dawn to walk downstairs for a cigarette and a Diet Coke, then a taxi to Shunyi. I think you can picture what it looks like inside. This is the Beijing International Book Fair. So, booths, banners, publishers selling books into the Chinese market, and a small corner devoted to Chinese publishers trying to sell their books in the opposite direction, aided by grant money. I suppose it's good to meet people, but I didn't have much business there. I sat beside Jack Hargreaves and listened to a conversation on stage between two authors whose books I was unfamiliar with and their Spanish-language translator. I saw Giray Fidan. Just saw him in Xi'an less than a month earlier. Met Joy Zhou, a sweet and enthusiastic young woman that I have known for a while without meeting in person. I get the feeling that there is no future in this. As hard as it is to get an academic press to put out a book in translation, a Chinese publisher could just find a Turkish or Mexican or Egyptian press to put out a book they'd prefer they put out, smooth things out with grant money. If you want prestige, you get it translated into Swedish or French or Dutch. Americans won't read the books, fuck 'em. I can understand that approach. All the translators that the Confucius Institute flew in were mostly from outside of UK and America, too.
I don't understand how this business works. I can tell you that.
I left early. I had wanted to meet Han Song but he couldn't get out of work. He was going to do an event with Eric Abrahamsen and Chen Qiufan. I decided to skip it. I took Line 15 to Wangjing West, Line 13 to Shaoyaoju, Line 10 to Tuanjiehu, then wandered around Sanlitun for a while. I remember seeing the place when it was still a shithole. Can't say I give a fuck about the renewal project. That's how I feel about everything in Beijing that has disappeared. I'm sorry.
I met Tianyu Fang for dinner. What a handsome, good-hearted young man. I love his laugh. We agreed on everything but he could usually find a way to express it better than I could. My thinking on Chinese politics or culture or whatever is very undeveloped or it's very private. It's mostly restricted to private conversations. After dinner, we walked around Sanlitun and went to a bar, some obscene recreation of an Italian piazza, with an imitation izakaya at one end. I drank an Aperol Spritz. We talked for a while longer, mostly talking shit about Twitter people.
As we walked in front of Tai Koo, a woman walking with a child, about a year old, suddenly collapsed. She didn't stumble, just fell, broke her fall with her arms. She was maybe five, seven steps away from us. The child—a girl—started crying. I went and crouched beside her and pulled the girl close to me. I put my hand on the woman's throat to feel for a pulse. She was breathing. It looked like she was moving her lips. The girl was still crying, so I picked her up and stood, telling her everything was okay and making shushing sounds in her ear. She stopped crying. The police came out of the paichusuo and a crowd formed. A woman behind me said, in English, "You are such a good person." I wished she hadn't. I stood for a long time, holding the girl. Some people bent beside the woman but they had no idea how to help her. I had no idea how to help, either. People started to ask frantically if an ambulance was on the way. The police assured them that it was. Finally, one of the policemen asked for the girl and I passed her to him. I walked a few steps away, outside the ring of people, and stood for a while with Tianyu. I lit a cigarette. We walked to the intersection and said goodbye. I started walking toward Dongsishitiao Station. In the dark, under the stairs up to a pedestrian overpass, I started crying—I didn't cry, but started crying, the coughing start of a sob. Just a couple times. I said a prayer out of habit and superstition. * ******** **** ** ***** ** ** **** ***** *** *** ***** **** ******** *** **** **** ** *****. * ***** ** ** **** *** *** ** ****** *** * ***** **** **** *** ** ****** ** ** ****. ***** *** *** **** **********. * **** ****. ** *** * ****** **** **** ** **** *****. Beyond that, it's a strange feeling to live in a city, surrounded by people and never talk to them or touch them. But to hold a stranger, a little girl, while her mother was laying on the hot sidewalk, crowd around us, it was overwhelming. I think those human moments get rarer and rarer as I get older. They've gotten rarer lately, at least. I mean, like, touching a stranger, in some intimate way...? I guess. Or seeing something horrible or magnificent happen to someone, just out of nowhere. And even if they were more common in my life before, they were marked by shame and regret or a broken nose. It's not that I did anything, but the moment was overwhelming, just being there to experience it, holding the girl... I can't really explain it.
I walked all the way to Dongsishitiao Station then kept going, up to Dongzhimen, down Gui Jie to Beixinqiao, drank a Diet Coke out of the minibar, fell asleep with the TV loud.
(August 25th, 2019) Missing days. Ran into Eric Abrahamsen outside Beixinqiao that Friday, got a few drinks at Waiting for Godot, then walked over to El Nido. First instance of someone angry at me without having ever met me. Drank too much. Ended up vomiting on the floor in front of ***** *** *** and she was gone when I looked up. I'm sorry. Kept going, kept drinking, and did my thing of purposely antagonizing people, blacked out very briefly. ******* ****** **** ** *** ** * * *****. ******** ****** **** *** *** ***** ***** ** * ****** ********* *****. There's a reason I try not to drink to excess. I wrote drafts of apology emails and never sent them. I had meetings with publishers that Saturday, but I don't remember anything I said; I missed a few meetings with publishers, but I'm sure I didn't miss much. I wish I could figure out how to profit off this business in the short-term. But I spent most of Saturday and Sunday with ******. She brought me out of the post-drunk regret and the hangover blurriness.
She had gone to the Book Fair looking for a translator and I met her that way, when my email address was passed to her. I was sick of meeting with people, so I told her to come to my hotel room. We sat at the desk beside the bed. She looked younger than I guessed she was. She was thin, with a round face, and an underbite. She seemed to sometimes be on the verge of tears, as if the things she was telling me were things she had never told anyone before.
This is the story of ******. ****** is from *****. She has a round face and an underbite. She had a career at some low-level media operation. Her father was a medium-level bureaucrat that made the jump to the business world in the 1980s. He divorced his first wife and married a woman fifteen years younger than him. He ran into some unspecified political or financial trouble that I didn't ask too many questions about. He consolidated his holdings and decided that he would like to spend his late middle age as a writer. He wrote a handful of short stories about rural life but what people really liked were his stories about his later life, in politics and business. He was very honest about his dealings. Much of what he wrote couldn't be published. He became something of a minor celebrity in his small town in ***** and joined the local Writers Association on the strength of the few stories that were published (this is my own editorializing, since I have no idea what is required to join a provincial Writers Association). So, ****** never really knew her father. He was busy making money, and there was tension between ******'s mother and her father's second wife. She ended up going to ******* for school and never looked back. She remembers him going broke a few times, though. People would come around asking for money. One of the only memories of her father from when she was young was him dodging creditors, including his own sister, who showed up one day to confront him. That was about all she remembered. When ******'s father decided to become a writer, he wanted her to get his stories published. I'm not sure when he got the idea of having her help him. He showed her the stories that he had written, including the ones that could not be officially published and only circulated among his cronies, former associates, and local writers. She learned everything there was to know about her father. There relationship improved, a bit, but she also understood for the first time what he had done, how he had made his living. Some of the stories were about women her father had been in love with or unethical business practices and the ways that men who do business bond with each other. She read stories that he had written about her mother and there were stories that he had written about her, too. She realized that he didn't understand her and probably never would. She suddenly had an entirely new perspective on her father and her family. She wanted to help him because she felt a sense of devotion. He had looked after her, financially, even if she had missed other things from him.
Her goal seemed to be to translate her father's stories into English, have a bilingual edition published by a foreign press, then import them back into China. She didn't need many copies of the book, since it would only circulate among friends. I tried to explain self-publishing, which I know very little about.
I took her out to a dinner that night, which ******** had scheduled with Eric and a few other people at Xiao Yunnan, down some pretty, grim hutong northeast of Beixinqiao. I was uncomfortable because ****** was uncomfortable. I whispered in her ear to come outside when I went to smoke a cigarette. She told me she had to go and I said that I'd go with her, but she insisted that I stay. As we were talking, a girl and her mother stopped beside us. The mother of the girl wanted her to talk to me in English. We overheard them talking and ****** called the girl over. The mother said the girl had to recite an English article for her class. She wanted me to read it. I read it and her mother recorded it on her phone. The article was about Bill Gates.
The theme here is some cliché fucking thing that I get into a lot, China warms my heart and makes me feel human. I grew up in China, really, spent my twenties there, at least, and I miss the warmth. You'll get pushed around, but you never feel absolutely alone, even when you want to feel alone. I am at danger of being lazy and essentialist again, as usual, trying to praise something about the "Chinese character." I apologize. I understand it's not a "Chinese character" and it comes down partly to being a white man in a country where being a white man is still worth something, and I can speak Chinese, too... But I do see it among Chinese friends, among strangers, too. I don't want to get into some explanation of Chinese society, how it's organized, some kind of historical explanation... It's not unique to China, either. But I just think it's a real thing and it's nice, and I want to say it, that China warms my heart and makes me feel human. But, at least, you'd never see it in Tokyo, the little girl running around, shouting the English sentences she'd practiced, "Is this a motorbike? No, it's not!"— and she could introduce herself, "My name is Sophia. I am six years old. I live in Beijing, China. My favorite color is red." She had a handful of crabapples (or just tiny apples?) and gave me one. Some perfect little piece of city life that I never experience, living outside a city in China. I miss that, living in Tokyo. If we've had a conversation inside China in the last four years I've mentioned that. But I'm impressed by shit like scanning the Wechat of someone I've met by chance, end up talking to them later, maybe get dinner the next time you're in town, help them out with whatever, shit like that. I once got a job off a random Wechat swipe (or more likely random QQ number jotted down on a piece of paper). That communal spirit or communal lack of indifference and suspicion (yes, this is lazy and essentialist)—I've seen it so many times, trapped on an overnight train with no seats or with neighbors in a building or lost in the city or in a detention center... Just getting sentimental over a tiny apple.
I let ****** go and she told me she'd come see when she got up the next morning. I went back inside.