I came back to Beijing in search of a refuge, a familiarity, a release, an instead finished up my first night in the world’s largest city perhaps more confused and depressed than ever before in my life. I fear for the human race, the future of Beijing’s youth, the depredation of this culture to make a few bucks off of liquored up twenty-somethings.
I made plans to meet a girl with a mutual friend of mine in the states, but didn’t know how to get to the bar, so I hooked up with a bunch of Russians, who warned me that in five years, maybe ten, Russia will obliterate the US, and two girls from Jersey who said they didn’t like China because the people were so rude. I tried to explain the cultural differences, why spitting on the street is ok, why little kids are free to piss and shit and wherever they please, why people won’t help you when you’re clearly upset about something, but my words rang on deaf, drunken, spoiled ears. I’m used to this cultural misunderstanding by now, but I guess now that I’ve been in China for a month, it hits closer to home. I asked them to point me in the right direction and left them stumbling and cackling in the street.
I met a friend of a friend at a bar in Sanlitun, Beijing’s roue de soif, and spent our time together talking bullshit about our mutual acquaintance. In the confusion of an over-packed bar we lost eachother and I was left to wander the street by myself. Tens, hundreds, of different nationalities wandered the busy alleyway, all in search of a common goal, to get fucked up, all the while Chinese beggars of all shapes and sizes shook tin cups at the faces of visitors who knew nothing of true poverty, but believed that the world was in their palms. A tall girl caked in makeup that could have been with girlfriend of a nemesis in a James Bond film barked at a street vendor, “Hurry up, I’m hungry.” The vendor immediately took her kebabs off the grill, and I prayed that they were undercooked. I was finally rescued from the fray by a phonecall from another friend who lived nearby, and agreed to meet her at her apartment.
As I walked down the street the pulsing beat of American pop music blasted from night clubs, while young girls hocked bunches of fried chicken at prices no sane person would agree to. I got lost on the way to my friend’s apartment, and was approached by a man who shouted, “Hello, do you want lady massage? Lady sex? Very beautiful,” perhaps the only English he spoke.
I awoke the next morning in a lingering state of bewilderment, wondering why of all people I was given the life of white, middle class, college bound male, why the little boy asking for money on the street was given his life, why an American passport gives people the right to defile a culture, to soak it in booze and semen and to demand better service, a wider smile, a word of English, and a cup of coffee. Why we’ve been conditioned to believe that comfort is the sole purpose of life, and that we’re so scared to step out of our comfort zone, to dig in and find the deeper meaning in things.
I experienced what psychologists call reverse culture shock in Sanlitun, and came out alive but battered, with a deeper sense of shame in my American identity. It frightens me to think that legions of young Westerners come all the way to China and only go as far as the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Terra Cotta Warriors, and spend their evenings bar hopping and guzzling cheap booze, as if they were still in Chicago, in London, in Asheville. They might as well have just watched the travel channel and ordered Chinese takeout.