Where new writing finds its voice

Beijing Tales

Susan Barker


Writer Susan Barker recalls some of the obstacles she encountered whilst studying Mandarin and doing homestays with two Chinese families in Beijing in the summer of 2009

Beijing Capital International Airport during the H1N1 pandemic is a surreal place to be. All the staff are wearing surgical masks and the effect is like walking through a vast, glass-domed operating theatre. Jet-lagged and dazed, I have just arrived in Beijing to do a homestay with a Chinese family and to study Mandarin for a month. I have been living on and off in Beijing since 2007, and after a few months in the States have returned to relearn some forgotten Chinese.

I will be attending a private language immersion school run by a Chinese woman called Maria. The school is called Maria Mandarin and I found it on the internet. I ride a taxi from the airport to a suburb in the far south west of the city, and Maria and her four-year-old son, Hao Hao, come and meet me. Hao Hao throws his arms around my legs and screams I love you! Maria smiles and flutters her fingers at me as she chatters into her mobile phone. Maria is thirty-four and immensely pretty, her face framed by a wilderness of curls. She is also very garrulous, and talks at speeds that would asphyxiate an ordinary person. 

Though only three years older than me, Maria tells me that while I am in Beijing I am to think of her as my mother. There are three other pupils at the Maria Mandarin school: an Indonesian woman, a German boy and a French-Canadian man called Alain (though Maria speaks of Alain often, I never once meet him, and a Sasquatch-like aura springs up around his name). Back at Maria’s flat I meet the German student, who speaks to me in near-fluent Teutonic-accented Mandarin. ‘He could barely say hello when he first came here,’ Maria beams.


Homestay I

Maria has arranged a homestay in a high-rise apartment block with a housewife in her mid-forties called Zeng Ping. I am put in the bedroom of her eleven-year-old son (who lives with her first husband in Guangzhou), decorated with NBA League wallpaper. Zeng Ping is wary at first, keeping her distance and asking if I have any symptoms of swine flu, but she soon warms to me. Though under strict instructions from Maria not to speak any English with me, Zeng Ping is excited by the prospect of learning English again and has dug out her old high school textbooks. ‘Please don’t speak English to me,’ I plead in Chinese, ‘I am supposed to be in Chinese language immersion.’ ‘Okay,’ says Zeng Ping (in English), ‘from now on I’ll speak only Chinese!’ (English again). 

Zeng Ping is a very friendly and attentive host. She cleans my room with the unnerving regularity of a hotel chambermaid and launders my clothes most days, leaving them in ironed, neatly folded piles at the end of my bed. She brings me fruit (sliced and attractively arranged on a plate) and green tea. I sit and chat with her most evenings, when she is wearing her skin-whitening, anti--wrinkle face mask and flicking through celebrity magazines. However, it is immediately apparent that we have a conflict of language learning interests. From day one I am fighting a battle of broken Chinese (mine) verses broken English (hers). Though we are evenly matched in language ability (ie – both poor), Zeng Ping somehow has the edge in the struggle for language dominancy. Every morning while I am at my Mandarin lessons Zeng Ping diligently studies English. And when I return from my lessons she pounces on me with a dozen grammar-related questions. She asks me how to pronounce words such as ‘superstitious’, ‘banana’ and ‘Estée Lauder’. She corrals me into playing the part of the post office or bank clerk in English role plays. 

I feel bad about asking Zeng Ping to speak Chinese with me because she seems invigorated by her new language-learning hobby (her other hobbies are crosswords, napping and watching TV), and her personal life does not seem especially happy. She is brutally honest about how much she regrets divorcing her first husband and marrying her second one (‘He is fat,’ she says, ‘He is lazy. He has a small number of hairs on his head.’) with whom her relations are not good. I don’t see much of her second husband. He manages an internet cafe and usually arrives home very late and stays up chain-smoking and playing computer games in the living room. Most nights I am woken at 3am by Zeng Ping nagging her husband to go to bed (there is definitely a mother and teenage son dynamic to the relationship that must be frustrating for Zeng Ping), or her husband’s friends and their computer-game related cheering or screams of angst (they are addicted to this game that involves flying fighter-jets at high speeds through rocky crevices – I sat and watched once and found the 3D graphics both powerfully hypnotic and adrenalising). My Mandarin tutoring starts at 8am every morning and I am mainlining coffee to stay awake. 

Sleep-deprivation is an effective strategy in language warfare, and soon the English/Chinese ratio shifts from 50/50 to 70/30. In our language duels, Zeng Ping is quick on the draw with her Chinese-English dictionary, translating words into English before I can wrack my brains for the Chinese. She lies in ambush when I come home each day, asking questions I don’t know the answers to about pronouns and adverbs, whilst spraying a can of air-freshener like nerve gas. Breaking point comes when I overhear Zeng Ping telling her friend on the phone that I am her ‘live-in English tutor’. I haven’t flown 6000 miles and paid her 3000 rmb for the privilege of tutoring her in English. I speak to Maria about the problems I am having. Maria is indignant, ‘That Zeng Ping! I told her not to speak English to you! Okay – enough! I will knock on doors and find another family that will take you in!’ She tells me to go home and pack.

As I am packing I hear Zeng Ping talking to Maria in the other room. There is a knot in my stomach and I am feeling awful about the decision to move. Zeng Ping has been a very courteous host, and now I’ve most likely hurt her feelings. The knot tightens when their voices get louder – it sounds as though they are arguing. 

Zeng Ping knocks on the bedroom door and asks me for the front door key back. She is smiling a serene and forgiving smile. I return the key. I apologise about wanting to move. She tells me it is not a problem and I am falling over with relief that she is not upset or angry. Maria helps me carry my luggage to another homestay apartment (upstairs in the same building – where Maria has knocked on some doors). Going up in the lift Maria tells me that Zeng Ping is keeping the rent I paid for the month (I stayed there for a week) and there is nothing we can do to get it back. We only had a verbal contract. And as Zeng Ping pointed out, what evidence is there that she was only speaking English to me? There is no evidence whatsoever.


Homestay II

Li Jie (Elder Sister Li) and Wang Ge (Elder Brother Wang) are a married couple in their fifties who live five floors above Zeng Ping. They have a beautiful home, decorated with Song Dynasty scroll paintings, Goddess of Mercy statues and a portrait of Chairman Mao. The flat is immaculate, and the reason for this becomes apparent as Li Jie follows me and my overstuffed backpacks into my new bedroom and oversees my unpacking. Hands on hips she tells me what to put where, shaking her head and moving my things to better locations. 

At dinner (only Li Jie and I – her husband is out playing chess) there are no attempts to get me to speak English. There is a lot of force-feeding though, and a rigorous round of questions: Why do I travel so much? Why have I come to China when the standard of living is better in the west? How much was the plane ticket? What is my annual salary? Why am I always drinking mineral water? Li Jie wants to know if I am married. I tell her no, but I have a boyfriend in the States and this reassures her somewhat. Then her face darkens. She advises me to go back to the States and marry my boyfriend, otherwise I’ll miss my chance and then I’ll be too old for anyone to want to marry me. You are thirty-one, she says solemnly, as though this settles the matter.

Since retiring a year ago Li Jie has taken up Taijijian (a style of t’ai chi done with a sword), which she practises for four or five hours a day. After dinner Li Jie unsheathes her heavy metal sword (very fearsome-looking, despite the blunted blade) and shows me some moves in the living room. I ask if I can accompany Li Jie to her evening Taijijian sessions and she consents. 

The group of about forty or so Taijijian practitioners meet around 8pm at the gates of the nearby kindergarten. Most of them are retired women in their fifties, sixties and seventies. When they see me – a foreigner in a suburb of Beijing where foreigners are rarely seen – they crowd around, asking the usual questions about nationality, age and marital status. Looking over the Taijijian gang and their flamboyant leisurewear, it is evident these women have got it going on. They wear bold primary coloured tracksuits. They wear leopard-print lycra and neon spandex. One woman wears an I heart China T-shirt (with the Chinese flag squashed endearingly into the shape of a heart) and another woman is going for a grunge-era look with a nylon nightie. I note that, unlike the younger generation of Chinese women, none of the Taijijian gang are wearing bras, and despite their preoccupation with marriage, this makes me feel like I have crashed some guerrilla women’s lib meeting (an impression enhanced by the gleaming swords and the martial poses they strike as they are warming up). 

Dusk is falling and the surrounding residential skyscrapers are lighting up. Many people are out on this summer evening; outdoor diners at a nearby hotpot restaurant, kids on skateboards, dog walkers, lovestruck couples. I am urged to join in with the Taijijian and hastily given an umbrella as a stand-in for a sword. The teacher at the front of the group presses play on the CD player, the music starts and the Taijijian sequence begins. Swords glide gracefully through the air as the practitioners move from pose to pose, careful to keep the flow of qi balanced with equal measures of resistance and yielding. Approximately twenty seconds is the time it takes for me to realise that Taijijian, though deceptively simple-looking, is actually very difficult and I am totally out of my depth. I flail about, stabbing my umbrella in the wrong directions, struggling to keep up. After fifteen minutes the music stops, bringing my ordeal to an end. 

The teacher then begins to break down some of the more complicated moves, and as I imitate her the Taijijian practitioners nearest to me point at my feet and shout, ‘Bu Dui! Bu Dui! Bu Dui!’ (Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!). They gather round me and make adjustments to my limbs and umbrella, like over-zealous window-dressers attacking a mannequin. I am feeling conspicuous – especially when I overhear some onlookers chuckling and saying, ‘Look at that foreigner! She hasn’t a clue what she is doing!’ I am also feeling a touch of sword envy. Everyone has these very excellent swords with glinting blades and red tassels dangling from the handles. My umbrella (which is one of those folding umbrellas designed to fit in a handbag) is quite inadequate. When the music and sequence start up again I stand aside and watch. 

Watching is much more fun. There is something very calming and mesmerising, in this manic, high-octane city, about watching a group of people quietly perfecting a hobby that they love. As I stand about I notice that, after two hours outdoors, my throat is sore from the pollution. Many of the Taijijian gang have hacking coughs, and during the breaks between sequences spend a fair amount of time hoicking up and expectorating phlegm.


Mandarin Lessons

It’s very easy to get on TV in China if you are a westerner. A fairly average Caucasian face can be enough to launch a modelling or acting career. Westerners appear on variety shows. They sing or dance or tell jokes. They appear in Chinese-speaking contests where they make flattering speeches about Chinese culture. They are always well-behaved and well-groomed. The girls are pretty and wear spangly dresses, and the boys are clean-shaven. The host of the TV show always asks them what they think of China, and the laowai guests gush about the amazing food, the Terracotta Warriors, the warmth of the people. They just love China. Can’t get enough of it. They are tame and sycophantic and complete panda-huggers. And despite the irritation in my stomach lining when watching these performing laowai, I know that when asked about China it is sometimes hard to avoid sounding like them.

When asked about China I find it easy to talk about the things I love. I am writing a novel set in Beijing and have spent the last two years immersed in the language, history and culture. It’s much harder, however, to discuss the things that that trouble me about China without causing offence. Discovering what viewpoints I can express to whom is often a process of trial and error; a testing out of the perimeters of each new acquaintance and friendship. 

A taxi journey with a beloved friend of mine was plunged into an icy silence when the subject turned to the government clampdown on Falun Gong practitioners and we found we disagreed. A mild-mannered language exchange partner lost her temper with me in a coffee shop when the conversation turned to Japan. These fall outs happened during my first months in Beijing. They would not happen now, as I practise a great deal of self-censorship when I speak. With my new flatmates I watch a benefit concert on TV for the victims of the recent typhoons in Taiwan, and as a legion of Chinese pop stars and celebrities join hands and weep and sing a song about One China, I hold my tongue.

Natalie is a good friend of Maria’s and teaches part-time at the Maria Mandarin school. Natalie is a cheerful and enthusiastic teacher. There are no stifled yawns in her lessons, and she genuinely seems to enjoy helping me stumble through each chapter of Intermediate Spoken Chinese volume II. But politics sneaks into our Mandarin lessons on a regular basis. When teaching me the words in Chinese for nationality and ethnicity for example, Natalie says, ‘The Uighur’s ethnicity is Uighur, but their nationality is Chinese. The Uighurs are Chinese!’ When I arrive at morning lessons, feeling oppressed by the toxic swath of pollution blotting out the sky, and remark to Natalie, ‘It’s very polluted today’, Natalie will smile politely and say, ‘Today is very cloudy. The sky is very cloudy today. Look at those clouds!’ And my textbook is not without a political agenda either, as one American exchange student character, showing off his general knowledge about China, exclaims: ‘The total population of China, including Tibet and Taiwan, is 1.3 billion people!’

Natalie and I begin each lesson with a few minutes of small talk in Chinese about whatever comes to mind. One morning I mention a headline I saw in the New York Times. ‘Did you hear about the ex-US president Clinton going to North Korea to free those two American journalists?’ (‘Ah – Clinton!’ says Natalie, and titters knowingly). The subject then turns to North Korea. Natalie says that North Korea is pretty much how China was thirty years ago, before Reform and Opening. Isolated from the rest of the world, and controlled by a deified ruler. ‘Life in North Korea is very hard,’ I say. ‘Well,’ says Natalie, switching to English, ‘that is what everyone in the west believes.’ ‘It’s the truth,’ I say, surprised. ‘There was a famine that killed three million people in the mid-nineties. The refugees that escape are always starving. There are millions of North Koreans imprisoned in labour camps because of their political views...’ 

Natalie is wearing her ‘patient’ expression. The expression she wears when correcting my mispronunciation of the same word for the hundredth time. ‘The media in the west distort things about North Korea,’ she says, ‘They tell a lot of lies. If you ask a North Korean they won’t say that life is hard. They’ll say that they are very happy.’ She pauses – she wants to go on, but is daunted by the task of persuading me. Of reversing the years of brainwashing I’ve suffered at the hands of the western media. Better to let me go on believing what I’ve been taught to believe. There is a lot of smiling and averted gazes. We return to the Intermediate Spoken Chinese volume II.

Making friends in China hasn’t meant developing a political blind spot, but a cultural sensitivity – an understanding of what it is like to walk in the other person’s shoes (what would my mindset be like if I’d been born and raised in Beijing? How would I feel about issues such as Tibet?). Living in Beijing I often worry that I am acting out the part of the politically naive Sinophile. And on the occasions that I speak my mind, I worry that I am being the arrogant westerner, alienating people as I propound the superiority of western ideals. I am constantly treading carefully, seeking out a middle ground, because I cannot limit the circle of people I spend time with to those who think the same way as me. Friendship should be able to accommodate different ways of seeing the world. 

Somedays I wake up and wonder what on earth I am doing here in Beijing, so far removed from my comfort zone. Where for every moment of exhilaration and spiritual connection, there are bewildering and wearying incidents reminding me that I don’t belong here and never will. Right now I am debating whether to stay here for another long-term stretch of Hong Kong visa runs, long-distance phone calls to people I love, and the obstacles of everyday life. Whatever I choose, I know that I will be coming back again and again to experience another way of living and thinking in the country where one-fifth of humanity live; that my life will be entwined with China for a long time yet.