the bottom of the rollercoaster

–And I’m out of here. Beijing University doesn’t accept transfer credits, and so rather than start all over again, I’m going back to Philadelphia to finish up university. My plane leaves for London on the morning of August 1, and I’ll spend a few days there, go to Ireland for a week and a half with my family, and then hop a plane home. Finished, done, over, khattam-shud. The bottom of the rollercoaster.

“Khattam-shud” is a Hindustani word – also Farsi, if I’m not mistaken – which means “it is over.” It’s also the name of the bad guy in Salman Rushdie’s children’s novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories: Khattam-Shud, the evil monster who is oppressive in his dull grey banality, who is fixated, in the name of reality and practicality, on one thing: the end of all stories.

“The Party’s Over,” says the cover of City Weekend magazine. After years of threats and rumors, South Bar Street is finally getting torn down for real. The remains of Jam House and Take Five, down towards the south end of the street, stand – or, rather, don’t stand – as incontrovertible evidence that the party is really and truly over. The bars to the north of them are still open: some have just finished new renovations, and some are mixing their drinks stronger, figuring apparently that if one’s gotta go, one may as well go out with a bang. There’s no word on when they’re going to come down, other than “soon.”

I still don’t know what I came to China for.

My friend Ben came down from Harbin to visit in early September. We met at the west gate of Beijing University, which opens onto a stretch of lawns, ponds, traditional-style Chinese gardens, and classroom buildings with red lacquer trim and tile roofs. I gave him the keys to my bike and my apartment, and arranged to meet up with him and Kun after class that afternoon.
I met them at Houhai, which I’ve written about before: a big artificial lake created in the Ming dynasty, surrounded by willow trees and old-style 胡同 living alleys, crossed by the 银锭桥 Silver Ingot Bridge. There were a few bars and cafes near the bridge, and so we sat outside, sipping our drinks and eating braised tofu that Ben and Kun had bought across the bridge. The sun was setting through the willows, and even though we were no more than 3 minutes’ walk from a busy street, the city sounds were barely audible.
“This is great,” Ben said. “This is what I came to China for.” And I agreed.

Something I always notice right before I leave a place is how even when you know you should treasure the familiar sights and sounds you’re about to leave behind, you can’t make yourself elevate the everyday to the level of importance it deserves. The harder you try to burn things into your memory, the more they resist.
And so, unable to work up any excitement about the tumbledown hole-in-the-wall restaurants at Liudaokou or Shuangqing Road, near where I live, I headed to Houhai with Kun the other night, in the hopes that if I couldn’t hang onto the things I saw when I came to China – the noodleshops, the bike stands, the moments of quiet perfection that you can never quite explain – I would at least be able to hang onto what I came to China to see.

It had been several months since we last had gone specifically to Houhai – we’d passed by on bike rides and a trip to Prince Gong’s Residence – and things had changed.
Neon lights blazed on the water. Bars surrounded the entire area around the Silver Ingot Bridge. Bar-shills stood out in the narrow path around the lake, dodging cars whose owners should have known better than to try driving there and bicycle rickshaws whose proprietors blasted airhorns at everyone who stood in their way and halloooed at every white face they saw. On the other side of the bridge, the pathway was so crowded that movement was impossible. The music from all the bars collided: someone karaokeing Teresa Teng’s “甜蜜蜜” (‘Sweetie-pie’) at “Jack Bar,” Xu Wei’s “一天” (‘One Day’) at “Yinding Yuan,” and the ubiquitous Carpenters, singing “Yesterday Once More” at the nameless bar behind us.

My flight from London to Derry requires printed confirmation, and since I have no printer, I ask Jeremy to print the emailed confirmation code for me.
I go over to his office to pick it up the next day, walking south from the 雍和宫 Yonghegong subway station, past the ersatz Lamaist temple of the same name, past rows of incense shops with names like 吉祥 “Auspice”* and 雍满福 “Harmony Loads o’Luck,” the incense-sellers’ calls drowned out by the music blaring from my headphones.

Jeremy gives me the printed confirmation and lunch. At almost the exact instant that I walk out of his office building, it starts to rain — to pour, though perhaps “batter” would be a better verb: this is heavy summer rain, rain that means business, with the kind of big fat raindrops that must hit ants’ nests like mortar shells. Instantly, all the office ladies on the street squal and run for cover.
I stand in the doorway with them for a couple minutes, and then realize that unlike Chinese people, I don’t believe that wet clothing will lead to mortal illness. So I shrug and walk out into the rain, which is cold and every bit as heavy as it looks.

The trees shake in the rain. The gutters turn into fast-running streams. And as I pass the temple on my way to the subway station, I see that the incense-sellers are already yelling that they have umbrellas for sale.

Comments (10)

  1. Yoshio wrote::

    bittersweet… but i’m sure you’ll be back there one day sooner rather than later. maybe i’ll join you the next time around.

    Friday, July 30, 2004 at 3:39 am #
  2. Brendan wrote::

    Michael – yeah, definitely. I mean, even if I didn’t want to come back here, it’s not like I have much choice, what with being a Chinese major.

    Friday, July 30, 2004 at 4:47 am #
  3. Michael wrote::

    So is this it? The end? Sorry, I really haven’t been following your blog for that long of a time. Do you plan on going back to China after you finish your studies in Philly?

    Friday, July 30, 2004 at 6:02 am #
  4. Joe Clark wrote::

    Yeah, I know that story. I’ve gotten pretty used to it now, but actually it makes me feel good instead of sad. It makes me feel like a jet-setting man of mystery; that I can adopt the casual air of a local whether I’m in the French Quarter, on Venice Beach, in the forests of Maine or the villages of Hong Kong. You know, Taiwan, Beijing, LA, whatever, been there done that. That is a cool feeling.

    Friday, July 30, 2004 at 9:56 am #
  5. Rose wrote::

    That post made my chest hurt… I think I almost kinda know what you’re going through. You struck a nerve there with the elevating the ordinary thing… I go through the same thing every time I have to go back to Scranton.

    Friday, July 30, 2004 at 11:07 am #
  6. Anonymous wrote::

    looking forward to philidelphia becoming a

    Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 1:42 am #
  7. perigrini wrote::

    I certainally can’t answer why you went, or spent so much time in China, but I can address a value related to your time in China. I suspect the responses you receive is just the tip of the iceberg of those who read and even follow your experiences.
    Your lyrical expression of your experiences provide a glimpse into a life that many do not pursue, either through fear of chasing their dreams or honest obstacles that preclude those thoughts or dreams.
    I don’t know you well enough to speculate if you’ll be back to China, or if you’ll miss it or any other view or emotion. I can simply thank you for sharing your thoughts and views in an entertaining and enlighting fashion.

    May life provide you with all the best.
    Until we reach the far shore.

    Thursday, August 12, 2004 at 2:07 am #
  8. ben wrote::

    hello i am chinese .
    i knew there through Alaric’blog.
    my english is poor and i wanna make friends with you .if my requisition is obtrusive?
    hoping of your relapse!

    Sunday, August 15, 2004 at 2:02 am #
  9. benjamine wrote::

    i am not the “ben” you mentioned in your bok
    It happened that my name is parity with his.
    by the way, i like the Ireland very much!

    Sunday, August 15, 2004 at 2:11 am #
  10. Tim wrote::

    Well I don’t know what you came to China for, but you sure as hell learned how to write well.

    I’ll never forget reading your story of you SARS checkup in Harbin.

    Good luck and fair winds, and keep writing.


    Monday, August 16, 2004 at 4:04 am #

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