Browsing Tag



Letter from Beijing


Sculpture from 798 Art District in Beijing

This is not really a letter from Beijing.  I would have liked to have written it there, but Blogger is blocked in China.  Facebook is also blocked there, which was less distressful than I imagined.  I can now attest to the fact that nobody ever died because they couldn’t check in somewhere cool.

Of course China has come up with its own version of Facebook, just like it has its own version of Google (Baidu) and Yahoo (Sina) and PayPal (Alibaba), to name a few.  It’s really a cross between Twitter and Facebook, and it’s called Weibo.  Last Tuesday my colleagues and I braved the Beijing smog (shocking even by the standards of a former Angeleno) to sit down with a few folks from their team and talk shop.  I was there with the Western European, aged, behemoth of a technology company I work for, along with some partners from an American, aged, behemoth of a technology company.  Together we easily averaged twice the age of the our Weibo colleagues.  We sat listening attentively while Gaofei, Jerry, Terry, and Ianli regaled us with tales of their three-hundred million and growing user base.  I half expected them to dab the dribble from our chins and tuck blankets over our laps before they wheeled us out to contemplate how we might capture just a few drops from their overflowing cup.  Instead they gave us each a red scarf — Weibo apparently sounds a lot like the word for scarf in Chinese — which was promptly stolen from my hotel room by the maid.

There were other memorable if more predictable experiences over the course of the five-day trip.  There was the restaurant lit up from the outside like a Vegas casino with hostesses dressed in matching fur-collared camel coats and rhinestone tiaras who ushered us up escalators in a corridor with AstroTurf-lined walls to eat fried fish with a spiked ridge like a dog collar.  Then there was the dinner at a restaurant laid out like the villa of a rich Qing dynasty family, where women in elaborate costumes — embroidered peony pink dresses, fan-shaped head pieces crowned with a single oversize flower, white socked-sandals resting on a squat stilt under the center of the foot — served us individual carafes of hot, clear liquor alongside a taunting plate of deer tongues.  The tongues were redeemed with a duck hamburger, a crisp patty sandwiched between a spongy oyster shell-shaped bun, scalloped like a madeleine.

Culinary miscellany aside, the meeting at Weibo made the deepest impression on me.  I feel like I have seen the future, and it coincidentally looks a lot like the above picture I snapped in the trendy Beijing 798 art district.  Because of course Beijing has trendy art districts now, just like they have Zara and iPhones and social networks that are on course to dwarf Facebook before the year is out.


Return to Beijing

I leave shortly for a work trip to Beijing.  The last time I was in Beijing was about eighteen years ago.  I was a graduate student in Singapore on my way to visit an old college boyfriend—let’s call him OCB, which sounds pleasingly similar to ODB—who was working outside of Tsingtao.  OCB was too busy to meet me in Beijing, but it seemed crazy to visit China without first stopping in the capital city to take in some of the sights.  So OCB arranged to have another one of his ex-girlfriends, a petite French woman named Agnès who was living in Beijing, take me around the city.  I was pretty naive at twenty-two, but even I could smell the potential awkwardness in this arrangement.  (It was awkward enough that I was flying to China to meet up with an old flame, but somehow that had failed to register.)

Agnès picked me up at my hotel on my first night in town and pedalled me, a large American woman, on the handlebars of her bike to a Muslim part of town where we bought flat breads and beer from street vendors, then sat around consuming them at street-side plastic tables.  To this day I don’t know if Agnès was trying to give me an off the beaten path experience or if taking me to this dingy street was some kind of joke.  Either way, the next day I decided I would take in the Forbidden City and Mao’s tomb on my own.

After four or five days in Beijing I flew on to Tsingtao where a private but rickety cab took me out to the tobacco factory where OCB was working.  It was a harrowing drive that included having a bucket of worms as a co-passenger (dinner for the driver according to OCB) and witnessing what I am pretty sure was a road fatality but was too afraid to look back to confirm.  When I arrived I was introduced to a couple of other ex-pats working with OCB.  One was having a full blown breakdown over the fact that his case of Mars bars—apparently this man’s sole daily pleasure—had been stolen.  The other’s daily pleasure was hardcore porn; from him I learned that Germans were the filthiest porn makers in the world.  Thankfully we left for Hong Kong the next day.

And so it is that my abiding memories of my first visit to China are not of golden pagodas but of golden showers (explained that is) and French girlfriends of old boyfriends.  I have no idea what this visit holds for me, but odds are the memories will be improved.