Where am I and how did I get here?
“This one is your wife and this one is your lover,” the bartender explained, pointing first to the glass of ice cold water and then to the flute of complementary champagne. It was approaching midnight, and here I was at the Agnes B Fashion Showcase, surrounded by models and Chinese cultural icons. But let me rewind the tape a bit and explain how I ended up here…
The day started professionally enough, with the first read-through of my nearly complete manuscript draft. The day before yesterday, I nailed down a workable introduction, one that left me thinking, “This is definitely not crap.” As a highly critical person, this is about the highest praise I can expect from my own brain. To honor the occasion, I updated my USB key, loaded the paper tray, and printed the chapter out on crisp, clean, A4 paper. No 2-Up printing on the flip-side of an old draft this time. No sir. This was the real deal.
I relocated to the campus cafe, and began working through the book. With a few minor edits here and there, the pace felt good, the argument clear, and the narrative fluid. I downed two 美式咖啡 and completed as much of the draft as I could before my afternoon meeting at People’s University.
At People’s University, I met with a twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. student who emailed me at the beginning of the week. Assuming that I would be in California, she was slightly shocked by my response. “Thank you for your email,” I wrote. “I’m in Beijing right now, at Beida. Would you like to get coffee on Friday to discuss things?” We met for about one-and-a-half hours, during which time she explained her reasons for wanting to study in the U.S., and I tried to convey some useful advice in return. As I’m prone to do, I sketched her a few diagrams, one Venn, one freeform, explaining my theory of the ideal graduate student application. Before heading back, I invited her to contact me if she had any follow-up inquiries.
Upon returning to campus, I tried my best to jump back into the manuscript draft, but with little success. I was pretty spent from the meeting (as my advisees can attest, I tend to get fairly animated – hypertensively perhaps – during one-on-one sessions). Plus, the only seat in the main lobby was directly beside (a) the coldest A/C unit in all of China and (b) a first-year Chinese language student who insisted on pronouncing everything using the fourth tone. The scene went a little bit something like this:
Me: Founded upon the evolutionary theories of Lewis Henry Morgan and Friedrich Engels…
Me: …and formalized by Stalin early in the twentieth century…
老外: Qing4 gei4 wo4 yi4 bei4 shui4
Me: …this model contained two key elements. First…
These were not the conditions under which I should be assessing the quality of my work, I decided, and dropped it back off in my room.
Fortunately, I had something fun and relaxing to look forward to: the celebration of my dorm-mate Max’s twenty-fifth birthday. Max (on the left) is one cool fella, and a long-time student of Chinese with upwards of two years of experience living in the country. A few days ago, he mentioned his birthday to me and invited me to come along.
The birthday possee included eleven people overall, including Pär Cassel (right), the newly appointed Assistant Professor at University of Michigan. On the way to the Korean BBQ restaurant, Pär and I had a chance to share job search war stories, and to compare theories on the question of “first book audacity” (i.e., whether or not first time authors should pick historiographic fights).
During the first half of dinner, I had the pleasure of chatting with Emily Yu (middle), a future professor who is now at USC finishing her double-major in East Asian Languages and Cultures and Fine Arts. Before coming to Beijing, she spent what sounded like a far more gustatorily luxurious time in Italy, where she studied painting.
Somewhere in the course of dinner, someone made the executive decision that Yanjing Beer just wasn’t doing the trick. And with that, the soju began to flow. We began by toasting our two birthday celebrants (Faye, on the far left beside Pär, was also turning twenty-five), moved on to toasting each other’s health, and ended by toasting each other’s toasts. We engaged in one of my favorite Chinese mini-traditions, known as 过电 (guodian). Guodian translates literally as “sending” or “transmitting electrical current,” and takes place when everyone begins to rattle the bottom of their glass on the table, creating a cacophonous wave effect. [For my housemates back home, this is the thing I taught you all at our faux-Thanksgiving dinner – now I know the name of it!]
At the close of dinner, Max and his crew were preparing to hit Alfa (阿尔法), a club in Sanlitun where they hold a weekly 80s Night. I gathered a few cell phone numbers, just in case the rest of my evening proved dull, and prepared to set out in the opposite direction. Right then, I made two unsettling discoveries. First, and least dramatically, my cell phone was nearly out of juice. Second, and far more dramatically, I had forgotten to bring my keys with me. Thoughts of Beijing homelessness swept through my mind, but there was little I could do. Max was already gone and my cell was about to go dark – threatening to bring with it all of the eleven-digit-long Beijing numbers I had just recorded.
It was just about then that my night started to get very, very strange.
See you next time for Part Two.
Thomas S. Mullaney
Modern Chinese History