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Lili


Lili









































































































































































































































































































  

On the way home Roy tells me he never could have imagined that a Chinese woman would feel so uncomfortable being wined and dined in a fancy restaurant. Most young Chinese women would have given anything to be in my place.
As we pass by Tiananmen Square, Roy points his forefinger at Mao's portrait.

"I can't understand how one person can so dominate this vast nation." Ever the journalist! He is digging for news even on a date. Is he interested in me as a woman or as a source of information?

"Does his appearing in one picture necessarily mean that he dominates the nation?" I play around with his question.

"Well, it's certainly true that he's thought of as a god, and that isn't right."

"What about the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial? You treat your leaders like gods, too. You even put their portraits on your money. We Chinese have pictures of workers, peasants, students, and simple soldiers on our money."

"The difference is that we dare to question our leaders. We don't get in trouble if we criticize our president. How about here? Mao's policies have harmed so many innocent Chinese citizens, yet you still sing eulogies to him. Cabdrivers dangle his picture on their rearview mirrors, as if it were some sort of good-luck charm!"

I grow suspicious. I have heard that Western journalists often interview Chinese by treating them to lavish dinners and shows and then prying information out of them. Such Chinese "sources" usually get into big trouble afterward and are punished for "breaching national security."

I don't want to get into trouble for talking about politics with a Western journalist. Only crazy Yuan would do a dumb thing like that. I don't want to meet any more prison guards.

Getting no response from me, Roy continues, "Yes, Lili, you're right. I admit that we Americans still idolize our leaders—John F. Kennedy, for example. But God is God, and Satan is Satan." "So . . .' I try to figure out what he's going to say next.

"The Chinese don't to worship bad emperors anymore."

"What else do you think the Chinese need or don't need?"

"Well, you need a political system similar to ours so the people can rule. You need to have the courage to face the lessons history has taught you. You need to have freedom of the press like we have in the United States so the citizens can be told about it if their leaders are abusing their power. You need—"

"Roy, maybe you are smarter than the Chinese, and maybe it's true that yours is the greatest country in the world, but we Chinese don't like the Westerners' giving us orders." I am quoting clichés from the People's Daily.

"What you say is true, but I think that should change. The Chinese can't always think of China as the best; they should let their nationalism and national pride cool down a bit. I think nationalism can be a dangerous thing. It isn't necessarily a bad thing to listen to what others have to say. Think of the Chinese idiom 'Xu hui ruo gu' — 'A modest heart, as accommodating as a valley'."

National pride is nowadays a favorite topic in classrooms and newspaper headlines, though certainly not in my circle. But I am not going to let Roy enjoy his own life of privilege on the one hand and tell us Chinese we are stupid and should listen to him on the other.

"Chinese people can think independently," I insist.

"Whatever you say." Roy shrugs.

I argue not because I want to defend China; I am not a government lackey. I argue because Roy already has everything: money, education, respect from others, freedom to travel. And now he also wants to be right all the time. This is called deli bu raogren—meaning that once you have truth and justice on your side, you always want to have the upper hand. He would make a good Party member. I talk because it is the only way I know to save face.

When we get back to my parents' apartment, Roy says good-bye to me as if we had never argued at all. If the argument had been between two Chinese, we probably would have gotten very personal and stopped speaking to each other. But for Roy, political views seem to be one thing, and the relationship between us something else entirely.

Three days later I get a terrible sudden pain in my side. I am diagnosed with appendicitis and must stay in the hospital for several days. In the bare-walled ward, wearing only a flimsy gown, I can't move or even get out of bed by myself. I have to depend on my parents. I hate to be so weak, sick, and dependent on them. I have three female wardmates. Their husbands visit them every day. They bring food they have cooked for their wives, carry them gently out to the hospital's open courtyard, and carefully wash their faces. So there isn't much left for the women's nurses to do.

The nurses flatter my wardmates, telling them how great their men are. My wardmates love to compete and show off their husbands, hinting that a husband's quality is the measure of a wife's attractiveness.

I am the only one here being taken care of by her parents. Papa comes to visit me every day with his freshly cooked food.

"Lili, here I am," he always greets me in his soft-spoken way.

"You can go back to work now. I can take care of myself." I don't want him coming to see me. I would prefer to stare at the ceiling all day. His presence reminds me of what I want to run away from. Years ago, in Monkey Village, when the Party secretary gagged me with a piece of towel, how much I wished then that Papa would appear and protect me! How much I wished he would say, "Are you sure you'll be OK by yourself?" Papa asks.

"Yes, I'm sure."

"I'll leave, then. I'll be back at the same time tomorrow."

" 'Bye."

"By the way, what do you want to eat tomorrow? Pork? Chicken? Tofu?"

"You don't have to come. I can eat here in the hospital's cafeteria."

"How about chicken soup? I'll come back tomorrow. You take care. Your mother can't come, but I want you to know she's thinking of you, OK?"

"Yes," I answer impatiently.

Papa leaves. Within two minutes Roy shows up on my ward. He and Papa may have passed in the hall, but they don't know each other. I haven't told Roy or any of my other friends that I'm here. He doesn't explain how he found me.

Roy brings some sandwiches he has made and Chinese books he has bought for me. He helps me move about. He tells jokes as I lie in bed. My wardmates grow fond of him. When he's not around, they ask me, "Is your friend with the big nose coming today?"

They want to know how I met this handsome American.

"Through a mutual friend"—that's all I tell them. A friendship with a Westerner can draw too much attention. People envy you because Westerners are rich. People look down on you because they think that Westerners are sex animals and that only sluts befriend them. I don't care what my wardmates think of me, but I don't want to be the center of attention.

I don't know whether my wardmates have told Papa about Roy. But in any case I tell Papa not to pick me up the day I'm to leave the hospital, explaining, "A friend of mine is coming."

"A new friend?"

"A new friend."

The day I'm released, Roy brings me a bunch of sweet-smelling red roses. He hugs me, and this time I don't resist I embrace him in the sunlight. Wrapped in his big arms, I can't see his face, but I sense his body temperature and his heartbeat.

Roy works, eats, shops, and lives in an area called Jianguomenwai, Beijing's "global village." Multinational companies, foreign embassies, expensive stores, and elite hotels are all located here. It is cleaner and has many more trees and flowers than other neighborhoods. Here the living standard is Western: air conditioning, nightclubs, twenty-four-hour hot water. It even has more janitors and security guards.

Teenagers love hanging around here, where they can practice their English on native-speaking passersby or watch the Cadillacs and Lincolns cruise past. Those who dream of getting out of the country come to this neighborhood because the American embassy is here. Every day at East Xiu Water Street, near the embassy, crowds share rumors about how to get visas. Some people wait outside the embassy compound for days; they are addicted to the prospect of going abroad.

"The consul at window number two is a bald man with a big belly. He's nice and not very difficult," someone says.

"The consul at window number five doesn't like to give visas to young women," according to another.

"The consul at window number one likes to ask what your plans are after you graduate from an American college. Just be sure to say you want to come back and serve - the Chinese people," advises a third.

Roy and his foreign colleagues and friends can get imported products like Scotch tape and New York bagels in local stores, and conversely can enjoy exotic things unavailable to them at home—the renli che, or rickshaw, for example. Although Chinese still call it a rickshaw, today's version is no longer pulled by a barefoot Chinese man. After 1949, some Communist leader said, "We can't let American devils see men pulling other men in the new China." So rickshaws turned into pedicabs. Drivers now equip their pedicabs with copper bells; with each pedal, the bell rings. A rider can thus judge the speed of the pedaling by listening to the rhythm of the bell.

In Jianguomenwai, herds of pedicabs wait outside hotels and stores for customers with FEC, or foreign-exchange currency. One day Roy hails a pedicab to take me to the movies. It's my first time in a rickshaw. The driver is an old man, toothless, with a worn and sagging brown face and salt-and-pepper hair. He looks to be at least sixty years old, but he greets us warmly with a young man's voice.

It is a hot, drowsy afternoon, yet this old man pedals quickly. He wears a straw hat and constantly swings a towel from one of his shoulders to wipe the sweat from his face. His sweaty T-shirt sticks to his back. Drops of sweat roll off him, leaving a trail of salty drops on the ground. I feel like a member of the exploiting class.

Despite the physical effort he's expending pedaling the rickshaw, this old man still has the energy to talk with us as we travel down the road. He tells us that he is a retired factory worker and that his current income as a driver is triple what his salary was at the state-run factory where he worked for forty years. He is content with his life.

"Our leader, Deng Xiaoping, says that regardless of whether it's a black or a white cat, so long as it catches rats, it is a good cat. So whether I work in the public or the private sector, as long as I make money and serve the people, I'm OK. Deng Xiaoping also says it is OK for some people to get rich first. So I don't feel too guilty for making so much more money than my retired friends."

After learning that Roy is an American journalist, the man can't stop expressing his admiration for Deng Xiaoping.

"Tell your fellow Americans that Deng's great. In my opinion, though he's shorter than Mao and not as handsome, he's the greater leader." The old man makes a thumbs-up gesture as he pedals.

"I think you're a great guy, too," Roy says, complimenting the driver sincerely. "You work hard and make money in an honest way."

The old man laughs. "No kidding. I'm just one of the toiling masses, an ordinary citizen. I'm only a drop in the ocean. I'm uneducated, so I contribute to the people with my sweat."

"Do you like the current leader, Hu Yaobang? Roy asks.

"Deng chose him as his successor. Hu is a liberal man. He likes things Western and wants to conduct political reforms. But I was told that the conservatives hate him. People say his family members don't have expensive overseas bank accounts. It is good to hear that. He has done some great thing for the intellectuals. It's wonderful because educated people can do more for the country than useless people like me who can't read or write." The man informs us that his grandson has been admitted to Beijing University, making him the first person in his family ever to attend college.

"But I don't like Hu Yaobang for inviting three thousand Japanese students to China," he continues. "Why should we pay for the Japs to come and have fun? They killed so many Chinese in the rape of Nanking and still refuse to apologize. I think Hu is a good man, but too honest and hot-blooded as a leader. Look at Deng Xiaoping—he's stern and crafty, always behind the curtain. He's smarter. People who are as hot-blooded and direct as Hu can get themselves into trouble sometimes."

"You sound like a political analyst!"

"Every Beijinger is into politics. Guangdong people love food; Shanghai people love clothes; and Beijing people love politics."

Roy offers him a generous tip. The old man doesn't accept it, saying, "I get what I deserve."

Jianguomenwai also attracts beggars, many of whom are not really poor at all; they're swindlers who make a fortune off foreign visitors.
One afternoon Roy and I are walking together in Jianguomenwai. A dirty, middle-aged woman with three little children, all wearing torn clothes, approaches us and asks for spare change.

"We haven't eaten for three days. For the past three nights we've slept in front of the train station. I'm from the countryside and have no relatives or friends here. Please, soften your hearts and take pity on me," the woman mumbles woefully in a southern dialect.

Roy immediately pulls out ten yuan from his pocket.

"Oh, thank you, thank you so much. You two are our reborn parents, and Avalokitesvara will bless kindhearted people like you. May you have many sons." The lady bows low before us. Before wandering off again, she gives me a special slick look. Her glance suddenly revives an old memory. Wait a minute: I know her!

I met this woman and her boyfriend at a wild party several years ago. I remember that she looked like a fashionable movie star that night, wearing a chic short black dress. After we were introduced to each other, she offered me some pot. I explained to her that I was already high enough. She told me that she was thinking of purchasing citizenship in a South American country for herself and her boyfriend.

Then she said, "It's no fun being Chinese. You know that, don't you? This place is doomed. It's dirty, poor, corrupted, and crammed with uneducated people. Nowadays everything is for sale, and everyone has green eyes out to get everyone else and is jealous of everyone else's wealth. Did you see on the news the other day where thugs from Henan killed seventeen people driving fancy cars in Shenzhen, using knives to cut their throats and genitals? It's crazy! To tell you the truth, I've had enough of this fucking place."

"But you can't speak any foreign languages. How are you going to get by in another country?" I asked her.

"No language skills, so what? Chinese are all over the world. What kind of life can't we Mainland Chinese survive?"

"Uh, maybe you're right."

"You're damn straight, I'm right. My boyfriend always praises me for being visionary. After we get our citizenship in Panama or Colombia or wherever, I plan to open a Chinese restaurant there. After saving up enough money, we'll travel to the U.S. as tourists and try to have a baby. If the baby is born in the territory of the U.S., it'll be an American citizen. Then we can immigrate as the parents of an American baby. Once we arrive in the U.S., we won't have to worry about life anymore. See, I've got it all planned out. You need a master plan, too."

I didn't reply.

She asked slyly, "Do you want to go abroad? Tell me, and maybe I can help you."

"You're asking the wrong person. I'm a loyal Beijing citizen." I didn't tell her the truth. I didn't like my life in Beijing and had no sense of loyalty to this place whatsoever, but I was used to it. I couldn't function elsewhere.

She grinned and said, "Don't shit me, girl. We're undesirable scum, with no diplomas, no high-ranking fathers, no good reputations or good jobs. The only chance we have is to get out. I bet you don't have enough money to do that, do you?"

"What do you guys do?"

"You'd never guess—I'm a beggar!" she told me proudly.

"Why are you so proud of being a panhandler? Being the real proletariat may have been a source of pride during the Cultural Revolution, but not anymore!" I teased her.

"I'm not a real beggar," she objected. She told me how she paid country kids and retarded people to beg with her in different areas of Beijing. "My boyfriend is the head of our crew. Every bum in his area has to pay him one third of what he or she makes. He has many connections in the city police."

I asked her if they made much money; I thought most people didn't have anything to spare for charity. I remembered that Papa had once contributed five yuan for street kids when Grandma Liu was raising funds to help them. Even that was considered a large donation.

The phony beggar laughed at me, then winked and lowered her voice to say, "Silly girl, don't you understand what the government's open-door policy is?"

"No."

"You should go to political studies more often! It means to open the door for foreign investors to come in. Our business complies with the new policy; we do business with old foreigners! They are our targets."

"That's why you've chosen Jianguomenwai as your main place of business?"

"Exactly! You can't imagine how much money we make. We don't even have any overhead."

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Excerpted from Lili by Annie Wang. Copyright © 2002 by Annie Wang. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.