Monday, January 04, 2010

The Capital of the World

China is the center of the world. China is the edge of the earth. China is a superpower. China is an undeveloped backwater. China is the America of the 21st Century. China is the China of the 20th Century. China welcomes the world. China eludes the world and the Chinese alike. The contradictions of modern China recall the paradoxes of ancient Taoism: perfect straightness looks bent, extreme skill looks clumsy, a brilliant speech sounds like stammering. Whether or not China is the center of the world, the world now believes that China is at its center. The West believes it and the Chinese believe it. "Our China is developing rapidly," the Chinese will tell you with a mystifying mixture of pride and meekness.

If China is the center of the world, Chongqing is the center of the center of the world. Shanghai and Beijing have always been cities of commerce, trade, and European imperialism. The east coast was developed centuries ago. But the real action is taking place out west, out in the Chinese hintergrund, in roaring metropolises that Westerners have never heard of: Chengdu, Lanzhou, Chongqing, Kunming. In the east of China, the pace of change is merely whiplash-inducing. In the west, it is truly breakneck.

Native Chongqingers will tell you that Chongqing is the biggest city in the world, and after you have been there, you will find that you are no longer inclined to doubt that claim. Chongqing was immense to begin with, and it is expanding at such a pace that it is no longer possible to measure how big the city is or how rapidly it is growing. Nowhere on earth is urban migration so frantic as it is in Chongqing Province. While modern western folk find refuge in the suburbs, the Chinese are elbowing and shoving their way towards the center of the world.

On New Years Eve, I, too, wanted to be at the center of the world, and several of my friends were already there, waiting for me, in various enhanced states of consciousness. But I missed the last bus to Chongqing. I stood around in the rain for half an hour before I was shanghaied by an unmarked taxi. I didn't ask how much the ride was going to cost. I didn't want to know. The important thing was that the cabby got me to the center of the world before this catastrophic decade drew to a close. We were slow getting out of Nanchong. "I gotta take a crap," announced the co-pilot, so we drove around for a good long while looking for a public squatter. Then the cabby decided we needed a few additional passengers, and stopped to consult one of Nanchong's many taxi pimps. The backseat was heated from below and upholstered in panda pelt, so despite the foul-smelling and overcrowded cabin, I quickly fell asleep. The cab ride only cost eighty kuai, twenty less than a bus. Two hours later, I was just another back-alley vagabond searching for the center of the world.

I had no idea where my friends were, so I meandered towards the center of the center of the center of the world, only to find it blocked off by a row of expressionless but collectively fierce-looking army men. A gaggle of girls in fluorescent pink devil horns tried to get around the wall by sneaking through the lobby of the Harbor Plaza Hotel, but their efforts were crushed by the soldiers at the back door. I didn't know where to go, so I remained in one place. Three old women wearing matching strobelight mouse ears asked me to take their picture with my camera. They flashed peace signs. "Eggplant!" they shouted in unison. A six-year-old introduced himself as Jack and asked me, in English, which nationality I belonged to. "American," I said. "How 'bout you, Jack?" "I am Chinese," he said, and walked away. A few minutes later, my friends called and told me to meet them at the Harbor Plaza Hotel, which was precisely where I was.

We sat under a nylon tent and ordered vegetable dishes from a dive restaurant. The new decade snuck up on us so stealthily that we weren't even drunk for its inception. We hugged each other one by one and sat back down to sink into our own individual decade-in-review reflections. One year ago, I was in Omaha, working at a library, lusting after ... Five years ago, I was in college, working at the Kiewit Hall front desk, lusting after ... Ten years ago, I was sixteen, working at the zoo, lusting after ... And now I am 26, teaching in China, lusting after ... A handful of fireworks splattered against Chongqing's heavy metal atmosphere. Some hoots here and there. And that was it. At the center of the world, the arrival of a new calendar year is not such a big deal. If you want fireworks, you have to wait for the Lunar New Year.

I stayed in Chongqing a few days too long. On the third day, I set off with my friend and wandering companion Erin for a Saturday evening stroll. By bidding farewell to our hosts and missing the last bus out of town, we had committed ourselves to another night in Chongqing. But it was unclear where the night would end, whether we would find ourselves sleeping in the gutter, or in a swan-shaped bed on the 97th floor of the Chongqing Hilton.

I have visited Chongqing twice. The city doesn't feel like a city. It feels like a very large village. In the West, the city-village aesthetic might call to mind places like Madison, Wisconsin: cities full of mom 'n pop diners and plenty of green space. But that's not what I mean. What I mean is this: Chongqing is a city full of country folk. You'll pass the most opulent nightclub in all of China: strobe lights, crystal chandeliers, a god-awful Fatboy Slim remix thumping on the PA, some dude in a bear costume breakdancing on the stoop, a salaryman in a seersucker suit vomiting over the balcony. Fifteen feet later: a mud-streaked peasant lugging a cartload of pig heads up the hill, a teenaged beggar squatted in the lotus position with an eleven-digit phone number scrawled at his feet, a circle of toothless hags playing mahjongg. The juxtaposition is not exactly cozy, nor is it loaded with socioeconomic tension as it would be in The States. It is simply surreal. You wonder whether the peasants are aware of the glittering, ephemeral riches around them, and whether the young hipster kids are aware of the peasants. As a Westerner, you are aware of both. At the same time, you are aware of nothing.

Erin and I wandered. She asked me how China compared to Korea.
"Korea is brighter than China," I said, indicating the neon haze around us, "if you can imagine anything brighter than this."
But I can't really compare China to Korea. I lived in Korea for a long enough time, but that was three years ago. I was different then. Korea was different then. We change, and our surroundings keep changing at a rate that makes knowing anything impossible. Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know, etc.

We wandered for eight hours. I exaggerate not. We wandered. We passed a shoe vendor who was selling boots with facial hair, big orange boots with eyebrows, mutton chops and little moustaches. "Fu Man-Shoe," I quipped. Nightclubs and eel vendors. Limousines and trishaws. We passed a man belting karaoke through a portable amplifier: he closed his set with a falsetto flourish, then he hawked a legendary loogey at 120 decibels. The locals laughed, we laughed. Starbuckses and whorehouses. Skyscrapers and hovels. Movie theaters and plastic-wrapped bootleg pornos spread out on dirty quilts.

We arrived at a trio of pagodas. In China, you can never be sure whether the scenery that surrounds you was built 4,000 years ago, or yesterday. These pagodas were built yesterday, and were infested with karaoke rooms and massage parlors and internet cafes. We climbed the stairs and walked to the end of a courtyard that looked over the Yangtze. The earth lay hundreds of feet below, obscured by the eternal fog that pillows the Chongqing skyline. I trembled with a sudden fear of heights: I'd no idea we were so high up. A boyfriend came waddling towards us with his girlfriend on his back and jokingly threatened to hump her over the ledge.
"If any man ever does that to me," Erin said, "I'll throw him over the ledge."

The ledge was covered in keychain graffiti, half of it in Chinese, half in bad English. "I love GJ for ever!" "You are gay fuck." "Thank you very much, World." "Your welcome!"
We walked back to the dimly lit joint that we'd passed in the courtyard. Chongqing, a city of countless millions, is home to perhaps ten bars worth going to. We pressed our foreheads against the window and peered inside. Black people! Heineken! Conversation! Couches!
"My god," I said, choking up a bit. "It looks like - a bar."
We went inside. A bar, indeed, it was. The bartender recommended "the black beer," and I was stunned to find that, after only two bottles, I was tipsy.
"I feel slightly drunk," Erin said to me, "and not formaldehyde drunk. Drunk drunk."
I was zoned out, watching the fractal display on the projection screen. I've been abroad so long that I'm no longer sure what is modern and what is obsolete. But, I said to Erin, slobbering into the collar of my suitcoat, if I'd had access to this sort of psychedelic stimulation as an undergrad, I would never have graduated. And yet there were peasants on the other side of the wall, smoking pipes, skinning radishes, hauling meat uphill. If you brought them inside to see this, even for a moment, if you dragged them inside to observe Afro-Caribbean men digging a reggae redub of Dark Side of the Moon while the universe unfurled itself across a projector screen, would the peasants understand? When we'd paid our tab and stumbled back outside, would we understand? Does anyone understand what is happening?

But existential dilemmas quickly gave way to more practical concerns: where were we going to sleep? We stopped by a love motel. The clerk assured us that a room would be available in 25 minutes, and we waited until a sweaty old man and his escort went scampering out the front door, but in the end, the clerk wouldn't let us stay because I'd forgotten my passport. We hid out in a nearby McDonald's until 4 AM while a schizophrenic girl in the corner pulled her hair out over a Big Mac. We ventured to the four-star hotel across the street. The clerk didn't give a shit. We checked into a room on the 17th floor. The room service menu advertised "vib condoms" and "the magic pants." On the bed was a plastic-wrapped pill that I did not ingest because it cost fifty kuai. In the morning, I parted the curtains and squinted through the Chongqing haze and wondered just how I'd arrived at the center of the world.

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