I never expected to stay in Beijing for long; it would be the place where Nick and Flowers left me, and perhaps some time with my Dad. When I first got to Saga International Hostel with the boys mid-January, I remember being annoyed at the people working the front desk for slipping into Chinese and make inside jokes. Despite it’s top rating on Hostelworld (all the reviews commenting on the great staff), I figured I would move on to another city or another hostel as soon as the boys left. But on the day they went to the airport I hadn’t gotten around to booking another place so I asked at the front desk and the girls put me into a dorm room on the third floor. And then the days starting passing me by. I slowly started to develop a routine, every morning I would wake up and buy two bananas and two yogurts from the corner market, walk back in and ask if I could stay there the next night. And each morning they said yes. I stayed on my own for six days after Nick left, one day in between Shenyang and Cambodia, another few days post Cambodia and then for a few hours in between Stan time and Dad time. Dad came with me to pick up my bags at Saga on his first night and we stayed and drank a few beers there. He was so impressed that he said we should stay there on his final night in Beijing, which we did. And I’ve been staying there ever since.
There is Candice, a 26 year old Chinese girl who manages Saga and all of it’s employees. She walks through the café talking to the travelers, mostly men, and I’ve begun to soberly watch as they become infatuated with her, each one hoping to score the ultimate prize of having a short affair with the gorgeous boss. My first night there I came back from dinner and walked in to see Tara, a girl who works at the front desk, pleading with a group of young English guys to get in their cab to the airport so that it would stop blocking traffic, but the blonde guy wouldn’t leave until he found Candice and gave her a hug, expressing how much their talk the other night meant to him. She halfheartedly padded his shoulder and said, yes, yes, I will never forget you, and then went back in the cafe to talk to another group of travelers. A few weeks later I was up late, writing in the cafe, Candice was across the table in a bad mood. I had tried get her to tell me what was wrong, but getting past the snipers sitting on her shoulders who pick off anyone trying to break through the walls surrounding her heart was difficult, and she only admitted she was bummed about a guy she had fallen in love with a long time ago. An awkward American from Michigan who had been sitting at a table in the corner came over to say goodnight to us. He had been looking over for the better part of an hour. Candice lifted up her head and gave a passive goodbye and put her head back down. During the next five seconds of silence he looked at both of us, mostly me, his eyes pleading for me to leave so he could either get on his knees and express his love to her or at the very least have her smile at him. I was tempted to hold up my hands and say, “look dude, I’m just trying to write”.
Tara and Rebecca also work the front desk with Truman, all Chinese. Tara wears her hair in a side ponytail, has glasses, usually bright red lipstick and smiles more than anyone I’ve ever met. Every time I walk down the stairs she stands up straight behind the desk and loudly says, “Hello James!” like she was a soldier saluting her superior. Rebecca started training while I was staying there and they asked me what her English name should be. I said “Rebecca” because she reminded me of a Chinese Joan Fontaine from Hitchcock’s movie Rebecca, and then the next day I walked down to see her wearing a name tag with the same name.
All of the employees there seem to have two joys in life, the first is telling me how much better I look with short hair, and the second is making the travelers believe that there’s no room for them. Every few days Candice or Tara will text me and say they made a mistake and I actually don’t have a bed that night but it’s ok because they found me another hostel. The first few times I packed up all my stuff and came downstairs to see them laughing and then for five minutes they go back and forth about whether or not there is an available bed. Finally they say they were just kidding and try and buy me a drink.
Last week I walked back from dinner, Tara and Candice came over and grabbed me by the arm and said we were going out. I said ok and hopped into a cab with the two of them and Tara’s younger brother. We walked around a beautiful street lit up with lights , and then they bought me dinner. We walked back in the hostel after they refused to let me pay for the cab and then said “Bye James” without even looking at me and went into the cafe to talk to the travelers.
After my Dad left with his magic credit card I moved back into a four bed dorm. There was a girl in the bed beside mine and the table next to her was covered in tissues. We exchanged pleasantries and she introduced herself as Chloe, from Manchester, who stayed healthy during her few months in India but got sick as soon as she arrived in China. I started watching Friends on Netflix and she glanced over and named the exact episode and the following line even though I had my headphones on – she is a true fan. I set up my laptop on the table so we could both watch it, and halfway through there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see Candice looking upset. She sat down on my bed and said that she had made a mistake and they were overbooked and is there any way I could move to another room? I started digging in about how they better not be bullshitting me and we got into a heated argument with Chloe laughing the whole time. Finally Candice smiled and said she was just kidding, but that Tara was waiting for us outside because they were taking me to the movies that night, so I better hurry up. I said no, I didn’t feel like going to the movies that night. She shrugged and said ok and walked downstairs. Chloe asked why I didn’t want to go and I sighed deeply and talked about how broke I was, then my phone started blowing up with messages from Candice and Tara wondering where the hell I was and that I was going to make them miss the movie. I said I already told Candice I wasn’t going to the movies which prompted a barrage of messages about how that never happened and stop messing with them, just get down there so we could make it in time. With pure frustration I grabbed my coat and went downstairs to tell them off, each girl grabbed my arm and walked me 20 minutes to the movie theater where they bought my ticket and took me to a movie. We walked home afterwards, got inside, and without even looking at me, “Bye James” they went inside the cafe.
I was sitting downstairs in the cafe and a young Chinese guy walked past me from the other room to look at the tv above my head for a second, we made eye contact and he offered me a mint. I said thanks and asked the standard questions of where he was from and what he was doing here, to which he replied he was here writing a paper for college, but it was in German and he had to take a quick break. His English was almost impeccable, only hints of an Asian accent which meant he wasn’t a native speaker. He seemed like such a nice guy I asked him to sit down and after a few minutes he asked what I did back in New York. “I’m an actor and writer who makes money on the side by working at a winery.” His face was completely blank as he said that sounded like a cool life. He then told me he was in his final year at Yale, but studying abroad in Germany, and now doing an internship for a Goldman Sachs in China. Then we really got to talking, mostly about economics and China. At one point he made a joke about working on the 48th floor of a large building and how the terrorists probably wouldn’t fly a plane into that floor. I told him he probably wants to pump the breaks on the 9/11 jokes. He continued looking forward and said he was very sorry, his face never changing. At this point it still seemed like a normal conversation, but every time I asked a question he would go into long sermons about government policies and the workings of the financial sector, seemingly memorized from books he read, and I started to get bored, so I decided to dig emotionally. I asked him what he wanted to do in a fantasy life where there was no outside pressure. He paused, uncomfortable, and then said he wanted to be a human rights lawyer in China. The political ramifications of a Chinese national working as a human rights lawyer are severe, and families can be torn apart because of it. But it’s courageous work. I told him he obviously wanted to do good things, and, like an asshole, I asked him how he feels about working for Goldman Sachs, which in my opinion caused so much destruction to so many people. I have to express how every sentence he said was like he was reading from a textbook. He continued talking for the next five minutes and somehow he landed on how companies should be able to take advantage of every loophole in the law, something like that, it doesn’t matter, and I got frustrated, really frustrated, I was ready to end it right there and walk away but I stayed. Something was weird. He was weird. It’s like everything he said was memorized or planned for. I dug deeper and his father wanted him to be an architect and was disappointed that he didn’t excel there. He’s first clarinet in the Yale Orchestra, he’s a member of the Ballroom dancing team, and a member of the cycling team, all at Yale. His grades are perfect. He has a Chinese girlfriend in Shenzhen. He’s a good swimmer but hates to swim.
“I was a swimmer” I said. “Were you ever on a swimming team?”
“My father made me swim every day.”
“With a team?”
“Your father made you swim with him 3,000 meters every day? For years? That’s insane, and not good for your body.”
“No, I swam alone and he watched. One day he couldn’t be there and he had my grandmother sit on the side of the pool and watch me swim all 3,000 meters.”
At this point I became very confused. It sounded fake, but he clearly wasn’t making anything up. I wondered if it was someplace on the autism spectrum, but it wasn’t. It’s like he never learned how to talk to people.
“PiYuan, you don’t have to answer this, but when you were growing up, did you have a large group of friends, or just a small intimate group.”
“I didn’t have any friends.”
“What about now?”
“Now I hang out with people from the different teams I’m on at Yale. I don’t drink alcohol but we play chess and talk.”
Everything was planned. Everything was thought out. It’s like he learned how to talk to people from a book. I invited him to come eat dinner with me and on the way out I saw some Latin American travelers I had met outside my dorm. They joined us and the whole dinner I watched him weave perfectly in and out of conversation. Never saying too much, but always there with an opinion.
A few days later I woke up and Chloe, my constantly ill friend, was gone. She left a note saying how nice it had been to watch Friends together and for putting up with her runny nose all the time. The bed above was taken up by a Chilean girl named Catalina, and the other two beds had a rotating door of western Europeans. Catalina (Cata) saw me walk through the bar downstairs and told me to sit down. Across were a Peruvian girl (Pamela) and a Spaniard (Andrea). I told her I lived in Spain for a bit, she asked where, and I said Valladolid which made her laugh. Valladolid is to Spain what Shenyang is to China, the most random possible place to live. The language was Spanish, including one who used Chilean slang, and I was game. Despite promising myself no alcohol and early bedtimes I was easily convinced to go out, and as we left the bar a New Zealander named Jessie caught up with us. Jessie is one of those fireballs of energy who, if you closed your eyes, would convince you he was coked up every moment of his life. He was in his early 20s, with good style, very handsome, and every sentence out of his mouth was a joke. The man was a black hole of attention.
Going out to bars and staying sober is such a novelty to me. Instead of slowing fading away into drunkenness and the surroundings, I feel like I’m reading a novel. Working at the bar is different, I have to stay alert and don’t afford myself the luxury of being an observer. The first bar we went to had a Chinese girl in her underwear swinging on a large hoop dangling from the ceiling. There were only two other people there and after the stripper (?) a man and a woman came onstage and sang karaoke for the next hour. Everyone else had been drunk before we left, Jessie and I got to talking about what it’s like to live in China.
“You’re the man, right? Haha, I mean I know you’re the man, because I’m the man too. That’s what it’s like for us here. At home on tinder I swipe every girl right, but like, no one ever responds because we’re just like everyone else. But here, it’s like, you’re the man, you know? ” My sanity begged me to order alcohol.
We wandered through some bars, Jessie and Andrea ordered tequila at each one, and we ended at a Chinese club filled with smoke and techno. Going out on the town sober is one thing, dancing on the bar in a Chinese club while sober is another. Jessie grabbed my shoulder, his eyes glazed over, and drove his head into mine, a sort of painful, friendly, headbutt. I watched as every time Andrea danced with a guy, they would immediately put their hands on her ass and she would kindly direct it to her mid back. I saw Pamela, 20 years old, get sadder and quieter with every drink as she watched Andrea dance with each guy. I noticed how Cata was directing the whole night. And I took in how every single guy in the club made their way over to try and dance with Andrea.
The next few days rolled on as they always did, with lots of walking and meeting people. Every day a new person or two would enter the room and we’d talk.
Later that week I came back and found Cata and Andrea sitting in the cafe with four other girls. Andrea introduced them as her friends, they were all visiting from Bilbao. Oh my. Oh my dear god. I said hello to all and wondered how badly my international affairs erection was showing. In Jim’s world of European international affairs, the Basque conflict reigns supreme, and Bilbao is the capital of the Basque region. They invited me to sit down and we all laughed about how random it was that I lived in Valladolid, all the while I was scheming about a way to get them to open up about a subject that ripped apart their nation for decades. Each girl was lovely, blonde and brunettes, perfect style even with travel clothes, a thick northern Spanish accent, and, with the exception of Andrea, Basque names that separated them from the rest of Spain. They all spoke Spanish, Basque, and Catalán, and I was reminded once again of how each country, no matter how small or touristy, contains enough nationalism and divisiveness to rival a world war. The next day they were hungry from walking the great wall and I took them all (four Spaniards and a Chilean) to a small dumpling shop I had found on the side street. We had a lovely time, I told them about the meditation and Andrea and I compared stories about China travel. During quiet moments I tested the waters with questions about their language, and they responded politely. Andrea, with whom I had spent the afternoon walking around the city, knew what I was up to but had also warned me during our walk that most of her friends have a more patriotic feel than her, and favor independence from Spain. I pushed and prodded here and there but was only met with short answers, usually with no eye contact between the girls, and resolved to never try and manipulate the conversation again.
As I stood in the shower wondering how it was that I had a free hour to do nothing before I had lunch with one of the heads of Universal Studios, I realized that the nice shirt and pants I had bought for Soyoung’s wedding were both stuffed at the bottom of my bag, and who wants wrinkles while having lunch with a multimillionaire. I raced out and downstairs asking the girls at the front desk what to do. Candice, Rebecca, and Tara all were working, and laughed at me and each other because of the situation I was in. They argued about the proper pronunciation of “wrinkle” and then tried to convince me that there was no room for me the following night. While arguing they wrote down some Chinese on a piece of paper and told me to find a clothes shop down the street. I walked down and saw a tiny man in a tiny shop at a sowing machine. I handed him the paper and he nodded and told me to come back in a half hour. Then I came back into the hostel and realized that I didn’t have a belt, so Rebecca again told me to walk to a different store down the street. Now I came down the stairs dressed in a nice shirt and pants, clean shaven with my hair pulled back. They had pulled up a photo from facebook of me with short hair and showed me how much better I looked, but then all three came out from behind the front desk and jumped on me telling me how handsome I looked. An hour late I arrived in the lobby of the most expensive hotel in Beijing where my phone connected with wifi and I had messages from Candice and Tara wishing me luck.