Photo by Reuters
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.