« From: PushkinI Spy »

Black Letter Days

In my college days I remember a few close encounters with the Nouveau Roman, a postwar French literary genre created by French authors who wanted to score with as many chicks as film directors did. My memory now glazes over a lot of the texts, but I do remember the books dispensed with plot and linear time in favor of the repetition of small details - a set of blinds, a centipede on the wall - whose recurrence would gradually reveal a deeper psychological pattern.

The last three months in China have felt like a second-rate Orientalist ripoff of this kind of thing, minus the psychology and certainly minus the chicks. There is a familiar, unchanging rhythm - wake up, go to office, eat, come back from office, drink, sleep - juxtaposed against a completely alien environment that I feel ill-equipped to describe. So here are some of the centipedes on my wall.


My colleague paces. Like the panther, his pacing instincts are irrepressible and primal. His feet yearn to pace all over the office, pace every inch of the floor and possibly pace out into the hallway and from there out into the street and back and forth all over the greater Haidian District. With strategically timed sessions at the dartboard I have constrained him to a sad, abbreviated diagonal track on the edge of the office furthest from where I sit, but this makes me feel guilty. Now he resembles the caged panther, listless, circling in his pen. On weekdays our Chinese colleagues occupy the office and it is hard to pace freely, but on weekends it is just him and me at the office and he paces all day long, back and forth, thinking, pacing, staring longingly past the dartboard, pacing.


Late in the afternoon my colleague will start to yawn, deep and loud, air penetrating to parts of his lungs that haven't seen oxygen since the day he was born. My ears pop as the pressure in the room drops. The yawning and pacing go on until late evening.


They come and they go, blowing their international whistles.


If you sit quietly, you can hear it settling on everything. Two girls come in to clean every weekday morning. They are quiet and deferential but ruthless in their campaign against the dust. They wipe everything - chairs, computers, papers - with a wet rag and when I am not at my desk they arrange my flash cards into neat rectilinear columns. They mop around my feet if I am not quick enough to leap out of their way. I feel that if I were just to sit motionless, they would wipe me down with their warm rags and move on. The thought of this is strangely soothing.

My colleague keeps voluminous notes in an intricate heap on his desk, one of those heaps that masquerade as clutter but serve as a very complex and fragile filing system in which every paper is minutely positioned at just the right height and angle, many weeks of design and planning arranged by tactile memory. As soon as he leaves his desk the cleaning girls arrange this into neat rectilinear columns and he rages for the rest of the morning, pacing, pacing. The thought of this is strangely soothing, too.

The Cell Phone

It plays Auld Lang Syne in a penetrating square-wave howl. It doesn't belong to me, but to a Chinese colleague, who sits and listens to romantic piano on his headphones as he struggles with ActionScript in the corner opposite mine. My colleague is not afraid to click his mouse, and I can sometimes hear him enter one of his signature clicking frenzies from across the room, over the clatter of the other keyboards and right through the music I play on my own headphones to insulate myself from this kind of thing. When his cell phone rings he takes it out into the hallway to speak, but does not hit the green button until he is completely out of the room, dosing us with a full measure of melancholy Scots nostalgia as interpreted by a three-penny microchip. My colleague often leaves this phone on his desk at lunch, and no one but me will make the long walk over to red-button it into silence. I worry I am committing a great faux pas.

The Other Cell Phone

This one just receives text messages. When a text message arrives it emits a very, very loud BEEP, like an industrial beeping machine. When this happens its owner takes it and scurries off into the next room, staring intently at its little screen.

My Cell Phone

My cell phone is a loaner from the company (which develops mobile apps) and I do not know its provenance. There are many stored numbers and messages and a long call history, all in Chinese. It is set to vibrate. It receives phone calls that I am too scared to answer, because they will be in Chinese and my useful phone Chinese ends at the word 'Hello', inexplicably covered in Chapter 21 of my introductory Chinese book, which teaches students how to answer calls and take messages they will be unable to write down.

The mystery calls come from many different numbers. Chinese people do not believe in leaving voice mail. My phone vibrates angrily on my desk when these calls come.


These are great fun. They roll in late at night and take turns zapping pedestrians with lightning while trying to hose the city free of dust. They are the most spectacular storms I have seen in years, they take me right back to camp counselor days in the Midwest, land of the summer storm.

The Elevator Girls

There are two elevators in my building. In the coveted left-hand elevator you can ride alone, but it is rarely on. The identical right-hand elevator is operated by one of three elevator girls, who alternate twelve-hour shifts. The elevator girl's job is to sit on a low stool under the single flickering microwatt fluorescent bulb and press buttons for the various floors. There is no reason for this job to exist; the elevator is modern and identical in every respect to its autonomous twin. But some higher authority has decided that there needs to be a young woman to push the buttons. The elevator girl says hello when you walk in, presses the button for your floor, and when you arrive at the first floor whispers "yì céng" in a faint Hans Christian Andersen voice, so you know you are on the first floor and not, say, back in your New York apartment, realizing this was all some creepy dream.

To make it all even more wrenching, the elevator girls hang out a meager selection of newspapers and magazines along the elevator's inside railing, which they sell for a tiny profit. They read the unsold copies during their twelve hour shifts, squinting under the flickering ghost light. I wish more than anything that I could buy one (all) of these papers from them, but I don't even know enough to make the request, let alone a plausible excuse for why I would buy something entirely in Chinese. And so each day begins with fifteen floors of intense mortification.

Very rarely I will step in to find the elevator girl chatting on the sparkly plastic phone (?!) that hangs on the elevator wall, and this lights up my day.


On sunny days the spa downstairs sets them out while the spa girls in lab coats play hacky-sack. There is a bowl and a bucket, and there are two kinds of turtles - regular and mini. Usually two mini turtles are in the bowl and a half dozen assorted turtles will be in the bucket. Sometimes the bowl holds two turtles, sometimes more, but always fewer than the bucket.

Why are some of the turtles in the bowl? Why are the other turtles in the bucket? Is being in the bowl a punishment or a reward? How do you judge the turtles to decide who gets to go (must go) in the bowl, and who must stay (gets to stay) in the bucket? Is there a third, utterly reprobate set of turtles that stays in the spa and does not get to go in the sun at all? And how do you communicate to the turtles why they have wound up where they are, and what they might do to change it? The questions grow uncomfortably eschatological.

At WalMart they sometimes have little lessons in turtle carving. A turtle carver in an apron will pull a live turtle out of the turtle tank in the seafood section (the turtles already have little bar code tags twist-tied through a hole in the edge of their shells) and a bunch of shoppers watch, leaning silently on their carts, while the carver fillets the turtle into small pieces that are then (this seems particularly unfair) neatly arranged inside the top half of his shell. I was worried that the spa turtles might face a similar fate, puréed in the preparation of some turtle skin cream or other minor atrocity, but so far it seems the are strictly pets. I am afraid to count them.

Stick Trees

At the beginning these things were just unutterably depressing - long thin logs with the bark still on stuck vertically into the ground - but through some miracle they have been producing leaves all summer and now look like ratty green paintbrushes, with a spritz of foliage jutting vertically out the very top. All except for one tree, which is either dead or very, very late to the party. I take it the stick trees are being planted in some attempt to green up Beijing in time for the Olympics. They stand in new rows all over the city, like little telegraph poles, trying to come back to life.

The Taxi Guys

When I walk home it is usually almost midnight, but still very hot. Taxi cabs park in a row along the unlit street, and passing each one I can hear the phlegmy snoring of its driver. Some cabs leave their doors open, with a pair of feet protruding out the sidewalk side. Others have their doors closed, with a fully-reclined passenger seat and perhaps an arm dangling from the rear window. This is very soothing, too. And it's good to know that the taxis nest near my apartment; it feels lucky, like when a stork nests on your chimney in Eastern Europe. It's also a comfort to know that when I finally do snap I can get a cab out of here, day or night, in the wink of an eye.

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