The negotiator's letter from Beijing
by Stephen Chan
[ places - november 07 ]
It's always the same. As soon as I reach airside I feel safe. I enter a place where no one can ask me to be of service to them. It is a place of asylum and immunities rain upon me. Once on the aircraft, the immunities are vouchsafe. They become invulnerabilities. They become reasons for my constant travel. They become rationales. The hours in the air become those brief days between incarnations promised the Tibetan believer, when the gods come to reiterate the meaning of life, or lives, and promise futilities in the aeons to come. But, for now, the futilities recede and stretch into distances that are no longer part of the self. The undistracted self sees the Ural Mountains below, sees the naked lower back of the curled woman reclining in the next seat - turned to the window and the sunset with the Russian rivers untold metres below.
One day I shall plunge from an aircraft such as this towards those rivers, feel the cold burn my body, feel the wind tear back my face, feel my eyes water and cloud and my hair blown back like a concrete helmet flying upwards as I fly down. Feel death as a cascading upwards towards me, and fight to retain consciousness to face it, to greet it, to enter that brief time between one life and another - or between one life and its one death.
Now the sunset is gone. A steel grey is all I see. I also shall soon sleep an hour to awake over China - and, you know, I also am Chinese and I am flying to a land of immensities that my parents once fled, and I am flying to the northern capital that they never saw, and I am telling my hosts on arrival that I am the son of a great yearning to be rid of China while being drawn to it. And I am the child of the morning star who would damn Beijing if I could, bomb its concrete boulevards, and wave a wand of wonder across its sleepy faces.
But that will not do as I line up in the meticulous passport queue, hand over my three forms, search on the carousel for my luggage - indescribable except black like any other - and feel demand and service call me back as the black car comes ever closer to the hotel where, already, far too many people know I will stay. And I will put on a black suit and sit at a very long meeting - the man who didn't fall from the aircraft, the man who didn't meet the Tibetan gods, the man who had a brief asylum but who was only a passenger. The man who missed seven hours of yesterday but who has put in eye drops so that no one knows he has skipped across time zones and his body is asleep while his face and eyes act out the livelihood they have rehearsed so often.
The man gets away with it. And, in getting away with it, I re-enter that world of apartness. I didn't need the rest you needed. I didn't need to recover. I came at you and it was you who stepped back.
Beijing is flat. Traffic thunders through it. Policemen with white gloves direct the cars, look at my jay-walking habits with disapproval, but I am clearly lost and being crushed by a truck at one intersection will be the same as being crushed at any other. If I don't die from their exhaust fumes first. But my hosts don't know where I am either. The thought heartens me until I rediscover my landmark. I re-set my jaw. I shall be only five minutes late.
Will there be time to see the Temple of Heaven again? There was a Hong Kong comic which, every week for years, was centred on that temple. Heaven and Earth was the comic's name - meaning the Universe, meaning Heaven and everything under Heaven. Long-haired heroes would duel in the skies to claim ownership of magic swords. Flying meant they never tripped over their long robes and hems and, from week to week, their world was not dishevelled, and a sword lost one week could be reclaimed amidst much clamour and ardour the next. The artist captured the Temple as if he were an architect. But when I last saw it the sky was blue and there were no vapour trails overhead. Old men played Tai Chi and choirs practised in the surrounding park. There were picnics and tourists and recitals on old instruments. Souvenir shops. You could buy a tiny emperor's costume for a three-year old nephew, a flag of China, a miniature dragon.
I change into a dark blue suit for the next meeting. I surmount my name badge with a tiny sticker of the Temple. Inside the conference chamber there is a flower bed between my delegation and the Chinese. They think I look Japanese anyway, so there is no incongruity that I sit with the foreigners. But I exude foreignness. The hair, the way I walk, the way I hold my body - but I think they are amazed I seem to love the Africans I advise more than I love them. There is, after all, an ancestry which should let them claim me, foreignness and all, before and beyond anyone else. But there is to be a balancing in the world: the Chinese certainly against the Americans; but the Africans on equal footing to them both. Not as a continent that auctions itself and its minerals to bidders from East and West. Pay attention to us, is the African claim. Take us seriously. Does not everybody have a right to fly in the heavens with a magic sword? Does not everybody have the right to even the briefest immunities? To find a place at the intersection of historical epochs in which to rest from being plundered and to feel safe from being enslaved.
When you fly into Beijing, the final hour is over mountains. This is where the Beijing wind comes from, where it swirls and gathers before spiralling down to the flat city. This is where you recheck the spelling and visa numbers on your three forms. This is where you begin to be bureaucratised back into existence. You are about to land. But no one in this incarnation knows anything about your last. You do not carry the harassment that drove you into Heathrow. You emerge in Beijing and they see you new. They greet you as a stranger. Among them they remark upon your strangeness. You drive into the city, breathing deeply, brows furrowed. With exhilaration, swear at the suburbs sprawling past.