Discombobulated, Illiterate, Deaf and Mute
Back in New York, I would find the air sweet by comparison. But it was Beijing, foul fumes and all, that would draw me back. Residing there seemed unimaginable—the way New York had seemed unimaginable the first time I climbed the steps out of Penn Station into the roaring whirl of Seventh Avenue. Except in Beijing, the discombobulation did not subside for hours or even days. Hardly anything anywhere even resembled English, written or spoken. I was cut off from text and information—illiterate, deaf, and mute; I felt as if someone had clapped blurry goggles over my eyes and muffling headphones over my ears.
The city was too low-slung and wide to have those tight urban canyons of commercial signage that make a Chinatown look like a Chinatown; still, there was no mistaking it for anything but the Far East. There were tile roofs and winding alleys and carved stone lions and ceremonial archways. There were red-canopied bicycle rickshaws with gold fringe. There were Pekingese dogs, lots of them, and Peking ducks hanging in restaurants. The equipment of modern life was different, too: spiral ramps to pedestrian overpasses, tiny unfamiliar hatchbacks, funny bulging orange domes over the pay phones. Barbershop poles were clear motorized cylinders, as tall and wide as a person, with lurid-colored stripes or radial designs; many of the hair salons were in fact brothels. Red-and-white banners bearing patriotic or inspirational slogans hung across roadways and on guardrails.
It was too much to absorb. We wandered through blocks with bare earth and the open steel forms of unfinished buildings, their rolling and curving profiles all around us. Was this imminent Utopia, or dystopia? We dined in a Sichuanese restaurant down some puzzling sequence of turnings through backstreets, in the feeble monochromatic lighting I remembered from a trip to Havana. Waiters poured hot water from bronze teakettles with skinny spouts as long as rifle barrels, standing off at a distance, the water arriving on target in our little teacups in a ballistic—or, frankly, urinary—stream. There were smallish fish split and skewered and so fire-blasted that their bones were as brown and crunchy as the rest of them. There was a dish of fried bits of chicken gristle sifted in a mound of chopped dried red peppers. The dining room was spacious and shabby and nearly empty. In the middle of the meal, a lightbulb overhead exploded, and glass rained down nearby. This would turn out to be an ordinary experience, the explosion. It was how the ceiling fixture in my study would announce that a bulb had burned out: PWAM! Crunch, tinkle. I never did get used to that.
There was one semi-familiar note: the summer of 2004 was an Olympic summer, and Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the state-run broadcasting giant, was showing the Athens Games on multiple channels at once, day after day: weightlifting, judo, trapshooting, ping-pong. The Chinese athletes were winning.
Only twenty years before, in Los Angeles, the People’s Republic had taken a single gold medal, its first ever. In Athens, China captured thirty-two, behind only the United States’ thirty-six. In men’s track-and-field, where China had previously won nothing and expected less, a twenty-one- year-old hurdler from Shanghai named Liu Xiang stunned the nation with a victory in the 110 meters, in world-record-tying time.
The next games were going to be in Beijing, and over the next four years, Liu would become a national cult figure, like an old Party hero reborn in the era of Coca-Cola sponsorships—the incarnation of possibility. The national sports administration would aim for China to finish atop the Beijing gold-medal count, to demonstrate on its home soil that it was a true athletic superpower. A program called “Project 119” was under way, targeting specific medal-rich sports, 119 medals’ worth, in which China had previously underperformed.
Yet there was much more to be won than games. In 1971, a few ping-pong matches had marked the reopening of Chinese relations with the United States and China’s reengagement with the West. The Games of 2008 were being designed as a showcase for all the power and development and wealth that had followed. The 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair in St. Louis had served to inaugurate the American Century; the spectacle of Berlin in 1936 had been meant to introduce the glories of a Thousand Year Reich.
Now, for the new Chinese Century, Beijing was planning a defining moment of its own—the display of a city and a nation transformed. Throughout China, cities were booming, throwing up new skylines, moving millions of people into urban centers that had been farmland five years before. In the capital, the rush of progress was being funneled toward a single point in time: the opening of the Olympics, on August 8, 2008.
The date, 8/8/08, was a cascade of lucky numbers in China. And over time, the phrase “by 2008” began to seem like a mirror image of “since 9/11” in America—or a photo negative of it, light for dark, an inescapable refrain of hope rather than resignation and dread. While New York argued about what to do with the still-empty hole at Ground Zero, Beijing was spending $40 billion to develop and prepare for the Games. By 2008, everything in Beijing was going to have changed.
By 2008, there would be 2,000 extra police on duty and 1,500 new monitors keeping order on the buses. By 2008, there would be a new $1 billion airport terminal, three new subway lines, an express train to the airport, one high-speed railway crossing the Taihang Mountains to Taiyuan and another connecting Beijing to the port of Tianjin. By 2008, rats, mosquitoes, black beetles, and lice would be exterminated in the area around the Olympic sites. Beijing residents would quit their ingrained habit of spitting in the streets. Thirty-five percent of Beijingers would speak basic English. All rivers inside the city’s Sixth Ring Road would be free of pollution, and 50 percent of municipal water usage would employ recycled water. More than a hundred historic sites would be renovated; more than three hundred zones classed as slums would be redeveloped.
Other changes were not in the official goals. The Olympic budget would grow from $1.6 billion to $2 billion. The city’s population, listed as just under 14 million in 2004, would swell to nearly 17 million by the end of the Olympic year. Three or four million of those people, by government count, were migrants from the rest of China, without permanent residence rights. They were the ones—living in tents and barracks, burnt brown and red by the elements, clothed in odds and ends—whose hands and backs would build the city of tomorrow.
When the work was done—if the work got done—a once backward and closed-off capital would open up into a national and international showpiece, a city of ample green space and avant-garde architecture, with smooth-flowing transit and traffic, a place that would be civilized and tidy and multilingual. The soot and dust I was breathing were the entropy from which a new creation would arise.
New York? New York would be there in 2009 or 2010, mostly the same. I would have only one chance to see Beijing before it became something else. My two-week visits grew to three and four weeks, the spaces between them shorter. I got a Chinese cell phone and bank card, and I enrolled in a Chinese-language school between the Third and Fourth Ring Roads. If a new Beijing was on its way, I was going to be living there when it arrived.