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The Fashion Issue 2008

Raw China

She works off a muddy street in the far northeastern outskirts of Beijing in the scrappy, dirty slums that aren't on any tourist maps.

Photo: AP

She works off a muddy street in the far northeastern outskirts of Beijing in the scrappy, dirty slums that aren’t on any tourist maps. Along the road are one-story linoleum-floored buildings where people live in rooms that are bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens all rolled into one. In front of many of them are bicycle tire fixing shops or tables where the inhabitants sell liquor and cigarettes. The street is more of a track where dirty rainwater and human and other waste collects in the troughs between the buildings, wide enough for one car. Since there are no sidewalks jumping from front step to front step is advisable. Down a ways there’s a putrid public restroom surrounded by a murky pond of effluvia and urban detritus, and between the cigarette stands and tire shops are storefronts with faded red awnings. At these shops the doors are open and two or three women in their 30s can be seen listlessly staring out the window, talking on their cell phones, or watching TV. Even though the environs are distinctly third world, everyone has a television set. A few doors down under another faded red awning a woman is sitting on a couch, eating noodles with a young girl who at a word promptly gets up and skips down the street. The room is about 12 feet wide by 18 long, with a plastic green curtain separating the front three-quarters from what is in the back. On the wall there is a calendar adorned with pictures of kittens and a poster showing an old man with a Fu Manchu beard. There are plastic food containers, some green, blue, and pink plastic tubs, a sink, and a tired old chair next to a tattered red felt-covered desk that looks like it’s about to fall apart. Hair products are lined up in front of a mirror, three hangers dangle on a string, one cooking pot is on the floor, a little can with a toothbrush in it is under the table, and a head of lettuce sits on the desk. Surprisingly, there is no TV in this particular room. A fake leather purse hangs from a nail near the mirror and the pale green paint is flaking off the walls and ceiling. The room’s floor is weathered, though a straw broom and grey mop against the wall are evidence the yellowed linoleum has been swept and mopped many times. Now alone, the woman sits on a dingy foldout bed that doubles as a sofa beneath a photograph of her in the mountains north of Beijing. There is a smile on her round face and a gleam of happiness in her eyes, and she appears to be on the verge of laughing. For all intents and purposes just another typical Chinese tourist on a typical day trip, getting her picture taken with the mountains as a scenic backdrop. The photo was taken by one of her customers, a computer technician who later became a friend. The woman on the couch is about 35 years old, with a kindly, pretty but not beautiful face, and she wears an athletic sweat suit with “Cidhlia” written in white lettering across the front. Her jet-black hair is tied in a ponytail and she possesses a slightly mischievous, coquettish manner. The room is a supposed hair salon, though no haircuts have been given here in quite some time because this is the woman’s place of business where customers who might turn into friends come to pay for her favors. She is a prostitute, and behind the green curtain there is a single bed, or more accurately a cot, and a knee-high stool next to it. The stool is where she sits to perform oral sex on men lying on the cot. The service costs 50 yuan, about seven dollars, and she says she always uses a condom. The woman is from the southeastern province of Zhejiang and came to Beijing about a year ago. Back home she mended clothes, but there wasn’t any money in that. She worked as a clerk in a grocery store for a while but could still barely make enough to survive, and then a friend suggested washing hair and that segued into turning tricks. She gets one or two customers a day and her usual busy time is from seven to nine in the evening. As she talks she stretches, luxuriates, puts her feet on a customer’s legs, and stretches some more. “Some are good, some are bad,” she says about her clients, very matter of fact. If they come in stinking of liquor she send sends them away, and 30 percent of her earnings go to her pimp who comes by once a day to collect. She lives in the room with her nine-year-old niece who is in Beijing for her summer vacation—the girl who was sent outside. She is curious to know if “they have people like her” in America and seems mystified and slightly suspicious that anyone would be interested in what she does. But then she shrugs off her doubts and says, “It’s OK to talk about life.” Part of her motivation for getting into this line of work is that she needs to make money to help a sick relative back in Zhejiang who has some sort of kidney problem that requires a 30,000-yuan operation. She says the word “kidney” but can’t write it down because she is illiterate. When asked she won’t reveal her name because “They’ll catch her.” The Police, that is, who haven’t demanded any bribes lately. Once someone robbed her with a knife and took her phone. The whole time she holds the phone in her hand as if it was some kind of talisman and while she’s talking the little stuffed teddy bear attached to it by a small chain bounces and jumps. She mentions that she misses her six-year-old daughter who lives with the woman’s husband in their home province, and that he doesn’t know what she does for money but that she still loves him. Does she like some of the customers? “Some.” What’s her big dream? “To sell clothes,” she says with a shy smile. She doesn’t like doing this and isn’t happy, but there is no other choice. She says she’s only going to do it for a few more months, and then she wants to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan to sell clothes. There’s a cafeteria on the second floor of the building open to civilians who don’t have ID cards that also includes another cafeteria strictly for students who have ID cards, a bar, a bootlegged DVD shop, a “Western”-style café, a Japanese restaurant, a Korean restaurant, and a bookstore. It’s a cavernous hall with high ceilings, from which dingy fluorescent lights emit a feeble glow that gives everyone there an unhealthy pallor. There’s also a little store that sells beer, soda, cigarettes, and ice cream, and in the hallway through the plastic room divider strips are two sinks where you can wash your hands in the unlikely event that the faucets are working. About 80 long, scratched tables and at least 400 flimsy chairs take up the main space, and arrayed around three sides of the room are five distinct serving zones. One is for noodles, one is for food and rice separately, one is for food and rice together, one is for dumplings, and the last is for soup. It’s broken up into five different fiefdoms in competition with the others, each with its own set of pink, green, and yellow plastic-covered menus printed in Chinese and imaginative English. The fanciful translations and syntactical mangling provide a lot of amusement, especially since the cafeteria is at Beijing’s largest language university. Evidently the students who were consulted were not at the top of their class. At each window a foreman takes orders and barks them out at a veritable army of kitchen workers in stained white uniforms chopping, cutting, cooking and throwing food around while grease fires erupt out of the pans and shoot up toward the ceiling. It’s incredibly busy and loud, and that’s just where the food comes from. With its terrible acoustics the cafeteria proper is even louder as the rattle of chopsticks being thrown into metal containers, the scraping of chairs, garbage cans being pushed and pulled, and the voices of hundreds of students escalate into cacophony. At the tables are gangs of students in groups of two or five or eight, or sad, lonely diners studying and eating by themselves. A literal Tower of Babel of languages rises above the din. Mostly Chinese, but you also hear Spanish, Russian, French, German, Arabic, and numerous languages from Africa. The Caucasian foreigners tend to stick together, speaking English or whatever their language is, and the Africans always seem a bit apart and angry while the Arabs’ furtive gestures and guttural language create the impression they’re plotting something. Taken altogether the dizzying variety of speech emanating from all the specimens of humanity combined with all the bashing metal sounds creates a singular racket. One night I was there eating my 90-cent “Black Cow beef on the rice” with that “I’m by myself but I’m OK” look you put on when you’re eating by yourself surrounded by hundreds of people who are not alone, keenly aware of the other solitaries uncomfortably mirroring your own isolation. The food is good and very cheap, and I was fairly content pushing the rice around, tuning out the racket, and reading an old issue of the New York Observer a friend had smuggled into the country. Back home I’d give the Observer a look every once in a while for a dose of good old-fashioned New York insider sarcasm but in China it took on a whole new value and I found myself absorbed in an account of how Lenny Kravitz’ downstairs neighbor was suing Lenny for water damage to his apartment on Crosby Street. That kind of fluff has a way of taking on a letter in a bottle aspect because no matter how inane, it’s a reminder of “home” that can be comforting when you’re surrounded by hundreds of strangers in a strange cafeteria in a strange land. You see a paper called the China Daily being read all the time because it’s one of the most readily available officially-sanctioned English newspapers. Without stating the obvious, there’s nothing remotely sensitive or critical in its pages and it sometimes seems like reading any other English-language paper or magazine immediately arouses suspicion. China Daily has some international news, albeit of a peculiar slant, and a lot of boring stories about how wonderful the economy is doing or the preparations for the Olympic games with a few humorous crime and human-interest stories thrown in for good measure. During a break from trying to pick up single pieces of rice with my chopsticks I looked up and noticed a Chinese girl at the next table sitting alone reading the China Daily by holding it up inches from her face like she really needed glasses. Right off the bat there was something unusual about her that made her stand out. Not that the place is full of fashion plates or anything, but she was so disheveled and dressed so unfashionably she looked more like a bag lady than a college student. She had what might be described as a peasant face with a sort of salt-of-the-earth plainness that isn’t pretty or ugly, just homely and unsophisticated. Wearing a knit hat with a backpack strapped to the front of her body—that was the strange thing, why didn’t she take it off while she was eating?—she was studying that China Daily as if it contained answers to the questions plaguing mankind since the dawn of time. A few minutes went by and the next time I raised my eyes she was standing right next to the table. This wasn’t unexpected as, after all, it is a language university and Chinese students are always looking to work on their English or find a “language partner.” Whenever they see a whitey or hear English the braver ones and even some of the timid ones (who end up being the most tenacious) will hone in and haltingly say “Hello” followed by “Are you studying here?” and “Where are you from?” There’s a regularity to these approaches and invariably they will bring up the language partner idea or ask questions about what certain words mean. Basically they will make an admirable effort to engage you in conversation and get a free English lesson. Which is totally fine, and as stated it is a language university so it makes perfect sense. But sometimes you don’t feel like it and you get into a situation where you’re annoyed and don’t want to speak halting English with a stranger or answer questions for the umpteenth time about where you’re from or say your name and then ask theirs, which you will woefully mispronounce. If you’re busy or in a rush and try to politely disengage, a hurt how-could-you-not-want-to-help-me reaction ensues. Total guilt trip. If you say “I’m sorry, I have to go” some take it personally and start to get a pushy, implying that your reasons for not wanting to shoot the breeze are completely invalid. It happens a lot and can turn into quite a complicated and frustrating interaction. When she came over it confirmed an earlier presentiment. I’m sitting alone, she’s sitting alone, and she wants to practice English. It’s fate. At first glance she’d looked a little disturbed but her street urchin mien had a certain appeal. She didn’t have the ubiquitous Hello Kitty fashion sense that is so disturbingly popular in Beijing and took the dour student-studying-alone demeanor to such an extreme she was transformed into an anomaly. That’s hard to do in a country of 1.4 billion. No matter how you dress the odds are stacked against standing out. The first three words she pointed to in the China Daily were “spire, “cone” and “revealed.” It was an article about a building with a conical spire on top, and something had been revealed. Cracks, maybe. I made some upward sweeping to a point gestures to simulate a spire, and said that “reveal” means “to show, or to find something out.” Under those conditions you realize how amazingly hard it is to explain words you take for granted, trying to think of the appropriate synonyms or comparisons that work for someone trying to learn the language. As this breaking the ice period unfolded it became apparent she was low talker with a voice that bordered on the inaudible, making the exchange somewhat awkward. Along with that the whole time she leaned over the table and didn’t sit down. Now that her face was less than a foot away I noticed she had three Band-Aids on her left temple, the red winter ski pants she had on were a bit ragged, her yellow down jacket was torn in a few places, and bits of paper and other odds and ends were sticking out of her pockets. After five minutes of this back and forth she asked if I wanted to be language partners. Even though I wasn’t particularly inclined in that direction one thought ran through my mind: this could either work out wonderfully or be a complete disaster. I told her I didn’t live around there or attend the university, which momentarily threw her off, but in her fully concentrated soft quiet voice she countered that she lived near my neighborhood and we could meet at the lobby of a nearby hotel to be language partners. After so many of these run-ins I was determined to put my foot down and not be bullied so I said, “Let me sleep on it.” Then without much success I tried to explain the phrase “let me sleep on it”. She shuffled back to her table and opened up the China Daily again while I went back to the Observer. Though I tried not to look up it was difficult with her wounded and slightly bedraggled presence smoldering just a few feet away. When I got up to leave she rose from her seat to join me and by the time we got to the stairs I’d agreed, despite myself, to ride the bus with her back to “our” neighborhood. By this point I’d asked her name and she said it was Zsa Zsa. “Zsa Zsa?” I asked, incredulously. “Zsa Zsa.” Chinese people who want to learn English often pick (or are given by their English teachers) idiosyncratic names like Rainbow, Sunshine, Vena, or Tulip, but this was the first Zsa Zsa I’d met and it was possibly the most unfitting name choice of all time. Then she told me how she’d tried to get into the language university but there hadn’t been room for her in the dormitories, and though that was really sad it brought up more questions than answers. For instance, why was she hanging out in the cafeteria if she hadn’t gotten into the school? Perplexing, but we were having a fine time and once we got on the bus she explained Beijing’s transportation card system which lets you ride the bus for 10 cents instead of the 25 cents you have to pay in cash. I asked her about what the bus ladies were saying. Because along with the drivers there are blue-uniformed women who take tickets and yell at the passengers to get off faster or slower and at car drivers to get out of the way. She told me they were saying “This is such-and-such a stop.” That was revelatory. As we got off I asked another question she seemed to find dumbfounding, or possibly just stupid. “Why do you wear your backpack in front?” “Because it’s convenient.” Good answer. Out on the street we started walking through narrow alleys and around a frozen lake where everything was quiet enough that I could hear and mostly understand what Zsa Zsa was saying. That was nice for a while, though what I thought I’d understood back on the bus about getting on another bus going cross-town seemed forgotten and I realized she planned to walk all the way back to our neighborhood four miles away. Wasn’t really in the mood for a long march right then, but she had me under her spell with a gently-spoken story about living at a “Youth Hotel” with ten people to a room that wasn’t “too bad.” She wanted to know how much I paid for rent so I lied and took a third off the figure since compared to her I was spending an enormous sum to live in the lap of luxury. Still, even with the subtraction I’m sure it was a profligate amount in her eyes. Maybe that’s what did it, because from then on the rapport we’d had in the cafeteria and on the bus started to break down. We’d been in a zone where we could communicate and talk about things with a fairly decent level of comprehension, but as we kept walking through the night it started slipping away. She asked me about the internet. Did I use it? Yes, I did, though I wasn’t sure if she meant did I have a computer, did I know about the internet, or did I regularly use the internet. Maybe she wanted to use the internet at my apartment? The number of possible interpretations of what she was saying was overwhelming. For some ridiculous reason I started talking about the Chinese government’s firewall (the “Golden Shield”) which makes it hard – not impossible, but it takes some doing – to look at blogs and a lot of websites and how it’s kind of a hassle, and I either lost her on that or she was scared to discuss a sensitive issue and then things really began to unravel. Coming out of the alleys we ended up on a huge eight-lane-wide avenue called Di’anmen Xidajie where the wind hit us full force. It was about 20 degrees, frigid and really uncomfortable, though Zsa Zsa didn’t seem too bothered while I shivered and dug my chin down into my jacket. At the same time the traffic noise made her endearing low-talking a real problem and I was just getting snatches of mixed and scrambled messages.. “My grandfather owned this street,” she said. Or, at least I think that’s what she said. “He did?” Then she muttered “My parents lost their home, the government took it away” and “My grandfather owned all the restaurants on this street,” while facing straight ahead, talking more to herself than to me. When I tried to get details she would veer off, saying how little money her parents had, how she couldn’t afford to go to college and wanted to study French, and that there were prostitutes at her hotel. “Prostitutes?” “They robbed me. They’re bad people, they took all my money.” I tried to get her to slow down. “Zsa Zsa, wait, I can’t hear what you’re saying.” It was like when you see a couple fighting on the street. I practically had my hand on her arm, imploring her to face me. She just kept on going, murmuring, “The prostitutes stole everything, you have to be careful here. What is your apartment like? Maybe you let people stay there and they help you.” I wasn’t even sure the word she used was “prostitutes.” Maybe I’d heard wrong, but by bringing up the apartment I couldn’t help but think she was hinting at something. Moving in and “helping out” in exchange for whatever I had that she needed. Some money. Warmth. The internet. It’s totally possible she was getting at that, and then again I might have completely misunderstood. It was all maddening and depressing. Her tales seemed genuine but unverifiable, and with the prostitutes thrown into the mix the utter verbal confusion became a quagmire. She kept going, walking in front of me now as her voice got quieter and more incomprehensible. “Maybe we should take a taxi, it’s still very far away.” “No, it’s about 400 meters, we’re close.” It was actually at least a mile and a half away. Stopping short, I said, “Zsa Zsa, I have to go, I’ll give you a ride in a taxi.” She looked crestfallen. We walked across the avenue and got a cab, and sitting in the back I tried to explain I had work to do and it was too cold to walk and I’d drop her off. “So will we meet at the Swissotel tomorrow?” When I told her I’d think about it she turned her head away in silence and we stopped talking as the nocturnal ugliness of Di’anmen Xidajie passed by outside. It was all so heartbreaking. I knew we weren’t going to be language partners. When we pulled up near the Swissotel she got out, with that backpack in front, and then came around to my side of the car. Regarding me with a look that mixed equal parts desperation and accusation she laid her hand on the window for one long moment, and then the cab lurched away.