Beijing, October 4, 2008, Saturday
Trip Start Sep 26, 2008
31Trip End Oct 18, 2008
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Where I stayed
"Red Lantern House 2"
Saturday dawned gloomy and significantly cooler than the day before, or any other day in Bĕijīng so far, for that matter. Almost everybody sported longs sleeves and even I was tempted to do so. Also, one couldn't be sure it wouldn't rain, so on my way out I picked my raincoat and bundled it into my small backpack, in case I would be too cold and the leaden sky would deliver on its threat
I met PingPing there, on exit A, just as usual, and then we hopped back onto another train and headed further south to the Jinsong station. Then she took us for a walk to the market. The area we were going through was pretty unappealing, rather drab in any conceivable way. Or was it just the effect that this day inevitably had on me and no matter where I was it would affect me the same? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.
For as soon as we stepped onto the market premises, in spite of the smoky grey all around us, I was treated to one of the best surprises in Bĕijīng as of yet. Just as usual, I had no intention to buy anything, but it didn't diminish the appeal the place held a single bit. It was as if we had stepped into a miniature China or some kind of a showcase for Chinese nationalities. Han, Hui, Manchu, Miao, Dong, Uygurs, Mongolians, Tibetans... well, I suppose I could rattle off at least as many more as those few I just have. Or maybe twice as many. If only I knew them, that is. But much as I may have done an injustice to some of them by not mentioning them, in a way it didn't matter at all. Certainly not to me. As a foreigner, I simply found it fascinating to see them all in one place, each of them colourful in their own way.
They say it's the best place in town to hunt for arts, crafts and antiques and is cracked up to entice in excess of fifty thousand visitors on good days, both collectors and the curious
But then again, if you're looking for cowboy hats in Bĕijīng, one of the very few places where you stand a chance of finding them is here at Pānjiāyuán Gŭwán Shìchăng. And as I had promised Naprisca I'd bring her cowboy hats if I should find them, one black and one white, I realised that I wouldn't get away empty-handed from here after all. So when I saw those hats, which were basically Tibetan ones, but resembling cowboy hats closely enough to pass off as such, I bought the black one for twenty yuan. Of course, PingPing first knocked the price down from fifty. Then we were treated to a heartbreaking story by the lady vendor of how the price of twenty yuan for a hat didn't even begin to cover her expenses in Beijing and train fare to and from wherever she was. I guess if I had been left to fend off her cardiologic rhetoric all by myself, I would've been shaken
We spent a lot of time there. Particularly considering the fact that apart from that hat we were not going to buy anything else. But the market is a fascinating place, no doubt about that. Even the likes of Hilary Clinton and Prime Ministers of Greece and Romania popped up there at one time. I can only say, no wonder.
After good three hours there, we decided we were hungry. I suggested we have a pizza.
"On me," I said. So even if we were in China, PingPing agreed.
The area where Pānjiāyuán Folk Culture Market is situated is near the Dongsanhuan Nanlu or East Third Ring Road. In other words, it's a huge thoroughfare and no matter what the city map claims, most of the things that seem to be near are not quite that near. We located one "Pizza Hut" outlet on the map "in the vicinity" and headed for it. But it was obvious it would take us a solid walk to get there.
Also, one shouldn't overlook the fact that on our way there I noticed a huge sign on one of the buildings along the Dongsanhuan Nanlu informing us - and everyone else - that it was some kind of Piano Centre. It was an obvious reason for a detour so we inevitably took even longer.. I said to PingPing I'd like to go in and have a look. She didn't mind. So we crossed the street, which isn't so easy as one might think, and entered the building.
I expected a music shop with pianos.
PingPing was unfazed, though. She was ready to lead me to the nearest - or the best piano if I chose so - so I could play. I tried to slow her down and kind of expressed an interest in seeing what else this building had to offer. My tactics worked for a while so we did sniff around a bit.
It consisted of three storeys. The first floor was an interesting outfit. A few big rooms with pianofortes and many more small ones, almost like cells, with just enough space for an upright piano, a piano chair and another regular chair, probably for a teacher. And most of the instruments were the brands I'd never heard of. Chinese, I'd guess. Some cubicles were occupied. And some were empty. PingPing encouraged me to go in and sit at one of the pianos in those empty ones, but I didn't feel comfortable at a thought of starting to honky tonk there and then being kicked out in short order by a bunch of angry teachers. So I just had a look around and led the way back to the ground floor where we had first come to
But there was an underground floor, as well. Like a cellar of a sort. There too was a row upon row of pianos, some even with price tags on and no people in sight. And that was where I finally felt comfortable enough with a notion of hitting a few keys. I kind of expected - or hoped - that no one would be disturbed by my noise there. So at last I flapped open one cover and started playing. But I didn't take long. Five minutes. Ten at most. All along self-conscious for understandable reasons, I just couldn't relax so much that I would abandon myself to music fully. Hence I stopped after a few solos.
"Do you want to play more?" PingPing asked.
"No," I lied. "This is enough."
She took my word for it. And then we emerged back onto the Dongsanhuan Nanlu and the ever colder Saturday in Bĕijīng. Both the weather was such and the hunger growing that we walked quite briskly towards where the city map indicated we would find that "Pizza Hut". To the credit of reliability of that particular map, we located it exactly where it was supposed to be and got inside, soaking up the warmth of the indoors. I could have put my raincoat on in the worst case while in the street and it was just the matter of my own choosing that I hadn't done it. But PingPing was outright shivering
And with this prolonged stay in "Pizza Hut" we effectively ended our time together for today. We set up new appointment for tomorrow and then I returned to the hotel.
Once there, I called Mei and she said she was available and could meet me in the evening. Then I called Juan and she told me she would be in Bĕijīng on Monday, probably rather late, as that was how the train timetable would probably dictate. I promised to check up on her on Monday and then we would see what next.
And then I had two or three hours to take it easy until Mei was going to be there.
Mei and I met at Jishuitan station, same as the last time around. None of us was particularly keen on any sightseeing any more and it was dark anyway when she came. So we just walked over to the Houhai park, sat there and talked
She was from Nánníng, in fact. Her entire family was still there, parents and two sisters. Many years ago, when she was twenty and something, and when times were good, after she had graduated from the university, she had a modest life, but life that was promising and carrying a reasonable hope that it would bring about good future one day. She found a boyfriend, one of her neighbours, not exactly a rich guy, but a man full of dogged determination. Well, of a nasty temper, too.
"My father didn't like him at all."
"He was disrespectful of him and rude."
But she claimed he had been mostly nice to her, aside from his occasional outbursts and incontrollable explosions of temper. But those were relatively rare, so she didn't have such a hard time tolerating them. She opened a small business and bought herself a small motorbike. It was something like a courier business, even if in her English she couldn't explain to me precisely what she had exactly been doing back then
She moved out on her parents to live by herself.
"I felt more comfortable spending time with my boyfriend away from my family. Particularly away from my father."
In order to cut back on living expenses, she took in another girl as a roommate. There was even friendship growing between them. Life seemed quite kind to her.
Until one day, nine years after Mei and he had met, her boyfriend and her roommate announced they would get married. And so they did.
And her world collapsed. She was thirty. And feeling she had lost everything. Sense of living, direction in life, orientation. The money she had, and for a relatively poor family she was coming from it was nice money, she burned it all on horse and football bets, hardly caring whether she was winning and losing. Which was, ironically, good. Because she was losing most of the time. Her hard work and diligent effort of several years to build an honest life went down in a tailspin within weeks. What her boyfriend and roommate had done to her detonated an explosion in her life on such a scale that it blew off virtually every single thing she had deemed worth living for.
"My father was so mad at me," she said. "Seeing all that money go, he refused to speak to me any more. But I just wasn't thinking
Her mother and two sisters were gentler with her. Maybe they understood, even if in traditional China there was not always a place for the respect for and empathy with a broken heart.
Two years passed.
"After two years it was like some fog cleared from my eyes. I decided to do something with my life. At least a little, since most of it was already gone anyway."
So she bought textbooks and started teaching herself English. From zero. Also, it gave her something to focus on.
"When my father saw that I was serious about it, he started showing respect. He started talking to me again."
And that's why she and I talked today.
I felt so bad hearing this story. And I felt so sad. It brought back into memory certain things which people who went through them are only happy to forget. Some people recover. Some don't. Some just to an extent. Mei seemed to belong to those who recovered to an extent. However, the extent to which she recovered was barely enough for her to catch a lifeline. Not much more. She never recovered the rest. Neither love nor money.
And her life ever since just seemed to go through a succession of wrong turns and a long spell of bad luck, never really fully getting back on track. Eventually, she left Nánníng and headed for Bĕijīng, realising upon her arrival in Chinese capital that in that whirl of events she had misplaced her diploma.
Bĕijīng was not that kind to her, either. Never being rich, she was probably even poorer than ever now. The best she could do was cling tight to that job as a waitress in a French-style restaurant.
"Why don't you return home?" I asked her.
"I don't want to go home," she answered flatly. I suppose there were still too many bad memories back there, even seven years after her boyfriend and roommate friend had betrayed her, so she just couldn't bring herself to going back home yet. She didn't even visit her parents often.
"I've not been there for two years now," she said. "It's too expensive for me to travel."
Yes, I believed that she could hardly afford the ticket. But I also believed that she didn't mind. At least didn't mind not going home, even if she could use more money for other things. And then I thought of Maggie and her bags. And of a "Jeep" she had just purchased for four hundred thousand yuan. It struck me again that even if we all stood under the same sun, some of us never really felt warm. If I didn't firmly believe that every single thing in this world happens for a good reason, Mei's story would have made me sick.
And even like this, it depressed me like hell.