Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures

Left: Dom (photo: SCMP). Right: Matt jamming at home.

The support network enjoyed by fieldworkers rarely intrudes into scholarly accounts, except as dry lists in the acknowledgements to musty tomes. So to follow my posts on recent encounters with Chinese scholars (Notes from Beijing, 1, 2, 3), here are some vignettes on expat life in Beijing—perhaps reminiscent of Nigel Barley’s remarks on the missionary veranda.

The laidback hospitality of Matt Forney has long been a delight whenever I return grubbily to Beijing from the countryside. This time, after my fruitful stay with the great Li Manshan (see a whole flurry of posts from March–April 2018, some linked here), amidst the unprecedented experience of an almost daily lecture schedule, I find expat life a jovial counterpoint to meeting inspiring Chinese teachers and students.

* * *

After a fond farewell with Master Li, I arrive at Beijing station at midnight to join a long taxi queue—rogue drivers touting for business all along the line. Maybe not so much has changed…

I miss Li Manshan and Yanggao already, and am tempted to get straight back on the train. But over the next few days I gradually acclimatize, coming on as “civilized”. I soon stop finding it weird when people say ni hao, xiexie, and zaijian (hello, thankyou, goodbye)—words never heard in rural China. And after acclimatizing to the lunar calendar, I’m back with “normal” dates, even days of the week and the concept of the “weekend”!

Settling in at Matt’s place, next morning I take a welcome shower and put my filthy clothes in the washing-machine. Matt’s wonderful lodger is film-maker Dominique Othenin-Girard, who, finding inspiration in China, has lived in Beijing since 2013. Their door is always open, and they also have the lovely Italians Gabriella and Nelly staying. It’s good to get back to the style and topics of conversations in English (bear in mind that in London I rarely have any company…), and I enjoy cranking up my crap Italian (hallucinante)—though since much of my energy still needs to be invested in Chinese, trying to switch between three languages is perhaps a challenge too far.

The donne italiane are much given to home cooking. Much as I relish meals with Li Manshan and his wife (noodles and baozi dumplings and steamed bread), breakfast of espresso with home-made crostaccia is a treat.

After my first film screening at Beishida, Ju Xi and her students take me to the campus bar round the corner. Already pleasantly pissed (“I drank a little beer”; cf. Some Portuguese epigrams), I take the subway home (so much more civilized these days) to a sumptuous Italian supper over copious wine and a political discussion: why is Italy so totally fucked, in a different way from the US and UK? At least we have been lately stimulated to resist: Italians seem somehow resigned to their fate.

I still find no evidence of a cowed population, either in Beijing or in the countryside. Xi Jinping seems an irrelevance, for both locals and expats. If there is little evidence of him on the street, I do pass an intriguing sign on my walk to the subway:

Pu'an Pharm lowres

The Song-dynasty Buddhist monk Pu’an is remembered throughout Hebei villages (and further afield) in the long pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou 普庵咒 sung with shengguan accompaniment for exorcistic healing over the New Year’s rituals; so (allowing for typical folk variation of the second character) it seems suitable that a pharmacy should be named in his honour.

After my second Beishida show, on the walk home I pass a group of deaf-mutes signing in heated debate.

What should await me back home but a vision of pan-European elegance, the force of nature that is the multi-talented Miranda Vukasovic, having supper with the Italians and Dom—or rather holding court. Alongside his day-job, Matt is a brilliant old-time banjo player, and he used to play guitar in Miranda’s band. Miranda (like Dom, a roving soul) is a born performer—I can’t wait to see her on stage. She regales us with the long story of the impressive collection of gaily-coloured cazzotti—phallic bottle-openers—that she found in Bali.

I can’t resist trying out my chat-up line “You’re almost as beautiful as Li Manshan!” Yeah I know, I’m such a smooth talker.

(For Li Manshan and Andy Capp, see here).

Preparing with casual expert rapidity, Miranda floats off to go clubbing, leaving me shell-shocked. Aargh, young people. But I can’t possibly expect her to share a stage, so I’ve written a separate homage to her.

Of course, there are cultural bazaars everywhere, but this gives me a glimpse of why people find Beijing such a lively scene these days—like Xi’an in the Tang dynasty?! Sure, there are always challenges—sponsors who are all mouth and no trousers, the arcane ways of bureaucracy, and so on. But beneath all the political flapdoodle there’s an energy here that I’m not sure is so easy to find in a depressed declining Europe (like I’d know). My ailing friend the cult novelist and musician Liu Sola—who should know—says there are a lot of funky people here too.

Another evening, Hannibal and Hannah come over for an aperitivo. Browsing the shelves at April Gourmet I’ve snapped up a bargain bottle of Bombay Sapphire (which features in my fantasy address at the foot of my homepage, with its Chinese name), served complete with Schweppes, ice and slice—”if a job’s worth doing…”.

Then we meet up with the splendid Andrea Cavazzuti at the Ganges; I have the opportunity to introduce him to Dom, a fellow film-maker. Andrea is a long-term resident of Beijing, and an old friend of the Li family Daoists; with Hannibal and Hannah we reflect on change in the Shanxi countryside. Back home we have a little party—my tipple this evening is a beer sandwich, with gin standing in for the bread.

Italian group

With Andrea, Gabriella, and Nelly. Photo: Domenique Othenin-Girard.

Never mind the tribulations of my fellow-students in Beijing in the 1970s—even in the 90s, when my Chinese friends were still terribly poor, such a lifestyle felt like an unwarranted luxury, a failure to Become at One with the Masses. But now that most of us have become poor foreign cousins to the locals (cf. fieldwork too)—and even Li Bin’s circle in Yanggao county-town have become conspicuous consumers—“long gone are the days when” [Molvania] one might feel ashamed at indulging in such expat decadence.

At the same time I’m always aware that I’m only passing through, and I respect the experience of long-term Beijing dwellers like Matt, Andrea, or the redoubtable Ian Johnson (another groupie of the Li family Daoists!).

At one film screening I’m received by a seriously cool Uyghur student, considerate and lovely. After setting up, we sit outside in the courtyard and we check out cool tracks on his tablet. He loves Billie, Amy, and punk—and he takes to heart Nowhere man:

I tell him how I used to play ghijak in London (we are eliptical with words), and we listen to intense muqaddime on satar.

After the film, and astute questions from the students, a bunch of us take cabs to a great upper-storey bar, mates of my new friend. Yet again I get pleasantly pissed, loving their chat—such a great scene here. Adept with their fancy phones, they insist on prepaying for a cab for me back to the hotel. Thankyou all for the inspiration, teachers and students!

Despite my culture-shock on returning from Yanggao, Beijing seems great—overlooking the “architecture”, obviously. But I still miss Li Manshan. He was getting a cold as I was leaving, so I call him up to see if he’s on the mend. I tell him his name is on everyone’s lips here; and I’m happy to report that I met a “Chinese bloke—big cheese” (see here, under 2nd moon 28th).

Next evening I take Matt for a curry, then more laughs with Dom and the Italians. The warmth of their interaction is precious.

Friday is Good Friday—better for us than for Jesus (I suppose that’s the whole point). After our round table at Beishida, we all go for an informal and boisterous meal. The splendid Cao Xinyu wonderfully insists on making a detour to take me home in a cab. My Beijing friends find my commitment to public transport an affectation; I get used to my erstwhile poor Chinese colleagues ferrying me round in cabs and their own gleaming posh cars, the like of which I never see among my friends in the UK.

Back home there’s yet another party going on (a juerga, if you like), to which I contribute Prosecco. I tell the Mantua joke for our Italian maestre della cucina. Matt gets in the groove with some blues, and Stones numbers; after a rendition of I’m a pheasant plucker, he sings an amazing I’ve been everywhere, along the lines of Johnny Cash (“tight but so loose”, as Matt observes)—Country, like flamenco, making another instance of “license to depart from behavioural norms”:

—itself based on the Hank Snow version. So it’s a “catalogue aria” (here I go again)—as in Don Giovanni (immortalized by Michael Nyman!), or Chinese folk-songs—including ritual items like the Song of the Skeleton and the Twenty-four Pious Ones. So there.

Matt shares the true guitar aficionados’ love of open tuning, and we sing the praises of Keef.

Chez Matt cropped

Gabriella, Dom, Nelly, Matt.

International cultural exchange, eh. On my last day in Beijing my lighter runs out at the same time as my notebook—most satisfying. Then back to London for another dose of culture-shock.

One thought on “Notes from Beijing, 4: between cultures

  1. Pingback: Roaming the clouds: Miranda Vukasovic | Stephen Jones: a blog

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