The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

FLASHBACK: Beijing—Two Zero Zero Eight

I’ve written two negative entries about my time Beijing which gives the wrong impression. Sure, I was scammed and exposed to carcinogens, but I want to make it clear that Beijing was fantastic place to ring in the New Year.

On New Year’s Eve, four of us meandered the hutongs of Beijing. Early in the day, we ran across a choir with nearly a hundred kids practicing their song as the bleachers were being constructed around them. Even with my extremely limited Chinese, I could understand the lyrics. The words consisted entirely of singing “two, zero, zero, eight” over and over again. “Er, ling, ling, ba” became the slogan of the day.

We also saw a polar bear swimming club, where Chinese men would jump into the water, try and touch the ice in the middle of the lake, and then front crawl or butterfly back. We thought they were crazy, but they laughed at us when we played on the exercise structure. When Paul spilled his drink in front of them while using the exercise equipment, he explained to them only “er ling ling ba.” The swimmers seemed to understand.

At one point, Alex brought out a bottle of champagne he’d won in an online competition. It was a Columbia Valley champagne; it had come as far as Alex and I. We were right next to the Confucius Temple where for centuries people took a three day examination to become part of the Imperial Bureaucracy. Seeing as Alex and I took examinations together all throughout high school, it seemed appropriate that Alex popped the cork into the Confucius Temple. We were not just celebrating 2008 but the first full year away from examinations.

After our wanderings, Alex took us to a smoky, Uighur restaurant with one of his friends who actually spoke Uighur. We ate our fill of chicken hearts, and at one point, we had the poor judgment of toasting to an independent Uighurstan. The Chinese government doesn’t think that sort of thing is very funny, but after hearing first hand stories of Han oppression and racism in Xinjiang, we were tickled by the idea. I hope the restaurant still exists.

After dinner, we went to a punk concert. That week, I’d already seen a gypsy jazz show and an indie rock concert.My week in Beijing made it clear to me that the Beijing art scene rivals the best in the world in both variety and quality. In contrast, the Hong Kong arts scene rivals the likes of Charlotte and Cincinnati—on a good day. We rang in the new year moshing to a skinny Chinese singer and a guitarist playing power chords. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to celebrate er ling ling ba.

Beijing Flashback: “Every Breath You Take”

In Looney Tunes to establish that something was really hot, they’d show the mercury in a glass thermometer rise, reach the top, and then burst. The viewer would have no idea what the exact temperature was but would know that it was really, effin’ hot. One of the days I was in Beijing was like that but with pollution.

In Beijing, the official Air Pollution Index (API) for December 28th was 500. Of course, the scale stops at 500 so the pollution could have been much worse. If Beijing were set in a Looney Tunes cartoon the pollution gauge would have exploded—appropriately spilling pollutants everywhere. Granted, you should always take the official Chinese API numbers with a degree of skepticism. Even a quick glance at the numbers shows that the data has been distorted, but of course, it’s skewed to make Beijing seem safer. For instance, there are many, many more days ranked in the high 90s than in the low 100s. This is an incredible statistical anomaly as one would expect the days above and below 100 to be evenly distributed. But while I was in Beijing, not even the Chinese government could downplay the pollution, scoring my first full day in Beijing a 421 and my second day a whopping 500. To put this in perspective, an API above 100 is considered a bad day and above 300 is considered “hazardous” and constitutes “emergency conditions” in the U.S.

A common response in China when one’s asked why one smokes is “because it’s the only time during the day I get to breathe through a filter.” As I meandered through the hutongs of Beijing, I began to seriously wonder if starting a temporary smoking habit might be good for my health. During my first three days in Beijing I could barely see across the street, and when I got back to where I was staying after walking around outside, I could smell the pollution on my clothes as if I’d just gotten back from a smoky bar. If the wind didn’t kick in to blow the pollution across the Pacific on the 29th, I’d probably have cancer.

I kind of wanted to have a few global warming skeptics with me so I could point to the thick, grey clouds all around me and yell angrily with exaggerated gesticulations, “How could this not be screwing up the environment?” Part of me secretly hopes, there’s a day like this during the Olympics. They’d have to cancel all the events, and there’d be an international outrage that might push China towards adopting some longer term pollution controls. However, I don’t think it’s likely as China has learned how to control the weather, has halted all construction in Beijing, and has the power to shut down all the factories in the region if necessary. These are clever—if Draconian—short-term solutions that could work during the Olympics. But if they don’t adopt long-term solutions, instead of being reminiscent of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Beijing will begin to resemble the city in The Lorax.

Beijing: Dec. 27th

I’m a bit behind, so please pretend I posted this in early January.

I’d been had. I was so pissed off at myself that I was feeling a little nauseous. I mean was just trying to be friendly. How could I be so gullible? It was the early evening, and I walked around Beijing angrily, unable to focus on anything. I just kept walking—as I tend to do when I’m upset. I was getting close to where I was staying, and I was just starting to feel a bit better when I stepped in dog shit. I wiped my shoes clean, went inside, and started to grade papers. Right away, I discovered that a talented and friendly student had plagiarized.

I peered through the smog at the Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square. I was thinking about how good Mao’s complexion looks in the painting when a couple from Wuhan interrupted my thoughts.
“Oh, hello,” I replied.
“Where are you from?”
“The states, from Portland, Oregon. How ‘bout you?”
“Wuhan,” the twenty-something year old man answered.
By sheer coincidence, I had recently read the Wuhan wikipedia entry, and I showed off my wikiknowledge. They seemed impressed. Hell, I was impressed at how much I remembered.
“We’d like to practice our English. We study it in school, but we have so few chances to speak to a native speaker. Can we come with you?”
I was on vacation, but I legitimately enjoy teaching people English. Plus, I was happy to have some company. We walked back across the square, and they recommended we go this “culture street” that has over seven hundred years of history, but is about to be torn down. I’ll surely be back in Beijing, and the really touristy sites will still be there, but it could be my last opportunity to see the “culture street.” After a couple of blocks, they said they were tired and wondered if I wanted to stop have tea with them. Without any real Winter clothing, I was visibly shivering; a cup of oolong to warm me up sounded wonderful. We went to a tea place and sat down. The waitress wanted to know if we wanted to do a full tea ceremony. “Rad,” I thought to myself. I really wanted to learn about different teas and the proper ways to drink them. After asking the couple, we enthusiastically agreed. The three of us had lovely conversation. I learned about Chinese history, their favorite English movies, and their family histories. They even complimented my Chinese pronunciation (I never told them I was taking lessons).

Then we got the bill.

I’m not going to tell you how much it was, because it’s too embarrassing. In U.S. dollars, it isn’t too shocking, but in Beijing I could’ve hired a full-time assistant to hit a gong every time I said something profound for the rest of my trip. The couple looked furious. They yelled at the waitress in Mandarin. They didn’t have a lot of money either; they were students after all. But after a heated exchange, the bill didn’t change. I didn’t have enough money on me. I gave the tea place all the cash I had. The student from Wuhan put the money on his dad’s credit card and said I could pay him back after we found an ATM. They were so trusting. After multiple ATMs didn’t work, I really wanted to give up. But looking at the nice couple, I just felt so guilty. I really didn’t want them to pay the burden. It really wasn’t THAT much money. After multiple ATMs, my card finally worked, and I was able to pay back my new friends from Wuhan. We exchanged email addressed and lamented our bad luck. I shook hands with both of them and walked away.

Then, it hit me. I’d been had.