Saturday, July 29, 2006

Looking Back: Beijing Melodies

He told me, much to my surprise: "I think you are very beautiful. I do", in a so-called English corner of a nearby university, in English, when we were 19.

English corner is the place where Chinese students who love to practice English can expect to meet with foreigners or other students to speak English.

It is, for many of us, a good place to meet guys or girls too--a more legitimate one than the dancing hall which smelled cabbage soup since at day time it was used as dining hall for students.

Plus you can use English speaking as a pre-screening criteria, while in dancing parties, you could run into scum who do not even belong to the university.

I knew him already. We were English partners in the same class of our college in the freshman year. That means we were expected to meet after class and walk around the playground practicing English like this:

"Where are you from"
"Jinan, a city 500 km from Beijing".
"How about you"
"How do you like living this city"
"Do you have brother and sisters"?

It is like we were dating, only in English. He is tall, strong, but a bit grim and quiet. His English was among the worst in the class of 20. So we practiced a lot.

We were English Partners for a year when we were freshman. Entering the second year, we stopped being partners but remain classmates. We didn't hang out. He went home all the time since he lived in Beijing, I was going dancing with students from other cities like myself when not studying in library.

One time, we run into each other in the English corner. He smiled at me while I was busy talking to other people with my then still pretty strong British-accented English.

He waited and then pulled me aside when he got a chance. He said:" Good to see you here" and we chatted.

Then he said what he said. It was so sudden and hidden in English, I could not take it seriously and do not know how to react. And I was way too innocent then to read its message.

I smiled and said: "Heh Heh, that is good to know. Thanks".

Truth is, I did not know I was beautiful. I still don't know today. I was and is that little girl who could be shy and unsure of herself on many occasions, when all other people see is confidence, style, and vivacity on the surface.

Then we just stared each other for a while, not knowing how to continue. His eyes were glistering under the sky, warm. I remembered looking up into his eyes and was thinking: What is this?

Then someone began to join us.

We never talked about this again. He was silent around me. Except in a dancing party organized by my class, he was there for a change. We danced for one song. Then I had to leave early. I was going to meet a guy I was seeing and I was crazy about him. He followed me outside while I was leaving and said: "Please stay for a little longer. Please" in a half joking way. I was again confused about this request. But my heart was not there. I didn't have time to interpret what he wanted, a bit surprised by his request.

I said: sorry. I need to go see this guy. I am late already."

Something painful and dark appeared in his eyes for a split second, then he smiled graciously: "Oh. I did not know. Sorry to keep you. Run."

I ran. I did not think it more. Soon after, he began dating a very cute girl, cuter than me in my opinion, from another class and we never talked about this anymore. We remained pretty close whenever we saw each other, we didn't see each other that much.

I was broke soon after I graduated from school since I worked for government agency and my then boy friend was not working, with too big a dream. Yet we still went out all the time.

Debt piled up and I had to borrow some money at one point to keep the cash flow. I turned to him. Somehow I feel I would not feel as humiliated to go to him since he knew me well. I know he was doing well as well. He worked very hard.

He lent me the money with out asking a question. Only when I returned the money to him, he said: I did not mean to judge anything, but why is he not taking care of you?

I said: "He is. I am happy". I felt a little hurt from his question.

I never admit that he might be liking me. I would rather believe it is purely friendship from the English partnership.

We kind of lost touch since I went to the US for school and stayed, except exchanging couple of letters at the beginning. I seldom think of him. My other classmate in DC one day told me over a drink: "He is married to a girl 2 classes behind us."

"Good for him. Have you met his wife?" "No."

"A girl with big eyes. I heard...You know, he always liked you."

"I did not know. " Maybe I did.

I went back to Beijing 2 or 3 times over the years, I always met him with many other classmates and we talked in the way that no real information was exchanged.

I know he had a son and he was very busy with work and he did very well.

In my most recent visit to Beijing, I called him up and we made a dinner appointment. On the phone, he said: How many people are going to dinner, one of your typical coming-home reunion?
"No. I had 4 nights in Beijing and one night is for business dinner, one for my friends from NYC, one for my family friends, and the last one is for old friend--that is just you and me. I did not even call the rest of the classmates. "

Truth is I have been tired for those crowded dinner gatherings with semi-strangers like distant relatives. I hate networking and if they are you friends, you don't net work, you talk to them.
And I feel like talking to an old friend one on one.

I always felt that I owed him this. He chuckled from my explaination.

But there is a catch, I was meeting the head of the Beijing office of my company for a late drink afterwards. I told him that. He offered taking me to dinner in the hotel restaurant where I was meeting her for drink so that we had more time to talk.

He picked me up from a coffee place when I was meeting another good friend from NYC who now works in Beijing. We went to have dinner at the Sichuan Restaurant at the downstairs of the Grand Hyatt Beijing. The restaruant is called Southern Beauty.

He gained some weight compared to school time but in fairly good shape. He still had that grim look. But he smiled when we sat across each other, I know that smile, like that night at English corner, like when we were both 19.

"How is life? Wife? Son? Happy?" My question came after the appetizer.

He did not answer at the beginning as if trying to decide what he wanted to say. Then it came like outpour.

He fell in love with this girl years after we graduated. He loved her maybe because he did not understand her. He said he tried his best to understand and 2 years later, he knew her, he knew she had no heart, she had a core that was and is cold. But they were too deep in a relationship and he was too tired. So he got married.

"I decided that I do not have time to spend on pursuing love anymore. I need to focus on making my career success, making money, making a good future. I don't have time for love. "

I was stunned. I was not ready for this.

"I never got a call from her when I was on business trip. She would not wait upon me when I come home from a trip with dinner or food. She is not a bad person, that is just who she is. She does not care for anyone in a warm way. She does not care how much money I make either. She is independently wealthy. I am glad she gave me a son."

"That is why I worked non stop, and I never took her to our reunion.".

"Why don't you divorce her? You deserve better than that." I mumbled, feeling a little wired in this position.

"I would not ask for it if she does not. Is she ask for it, I will say yes in a heartbeat. But I won't initiate it. I don't have time for love. It is too much work. I am doing really well financially and I have been to all over the world for business".

That is different from enjoying life. "I respect your thought of creating stability for your future and your family, but money is not everything."

I looked at him feeling sad and shocked, I felt wanting that little boy back who spoke bad English but with warm eyes. Yet he is tired and settled with life, although well off.

"How about you?" He threw the question back at me.

"I am still working like a dog in NYC."

"Why don't you come back?"

"I am still getting my Greencard, I like New York, and, I am in love with someone I met there, a guy from New England. " That answer covers the typical follow up question of :"Is he an American or Chinese?"And I miss you tremendously when I said that.

"I don't plan to come back for some time, so that is why I am here in Asia for 5 weeks. Take care personal business and business business". Sweet and bitterness filled my voice and my heart.

I am not ashamed of being that dreamy person, madly in love. But again I saw that something painful in his eyes for a split second. I have been telling him I am in love with someone else every time he checked.

"But you must have loved someone all these years? How can you live like that?" I would not give up, although I know people do live like that. I did for sometime.

He paused for some time.

"Yes, there is this woman I met at work. She cared for me. We were both married. So it is not going anywhere. She said she would take care of me when were both old, when we could be together."

"That is sweet." I patted his hand from excitement.

We smiled at each other. So love still have a chance, even a small and fragile one, even a one that does not manifest in a daily life. I felt warm toward him knowing that he did still have that side.

But behind that smile there was the heaviness of hard and cold reality of all the changes and compromises and untold stories, rejections and unsatisfied longings.

Among all the years from when we were 19, when we asked questions and answered them in English, those were simples ones with quick answers, facts, description of dreams, ideals.

We took our different journeys and at this table the questions and answers are not something we can probe, answer in a heart beat, or can easily come up with a straight version.

Is that what growing up has done to us?

He said when we got up to leave: "I did not mean to invite you for dinner just to tell you how unhappy I have been. It is not right. I just feel like talking to you about this. I have never told anyone else. I am happy that we had tonight".

"Me too. "

He walked me to the lobby of the hotel where I need to find my way to this bar called Red Moon, and he will pick me up to send me off in the airport the next day.

My fiery Thai woman who is the head of the Beijing office was already standing there looking around--I smiled that professional smile toward my English partner for the reminder of the night.

I was sitting in that sinful looking business lounge full of ambitious business men from the west, the best hotel bar in Beijing, the place to be as far as money making goes. That was why I was there too, talking to the office head of Beijing. My once home city has changed beyond belief as well. We all did. My thought of you made me feel warm. I knew I did not want to be there, no matter how much money is there to be made, I want to be with you then, in a building facing the Hudson.

Next day at noon, he picked me up and we were on the highway toward the airport, I felt something different in him. He felt uncomfortable.

"Can you do me a favor, please don't tell others about me. I am fine. I don't want them to know about my wife or my financial situation. I want to be that low key person as ever. I don't want gossip or spot light or revealing and I don't need it. " And he could trust me better than that.

I felt something I liked on him the previous night was suddenly gone or lost. I can not feel them anymore. He was that distant business man again, withdrawn and grim.

I patted him on his hand holding the wheel: "Don't worry. That is between you and me."

Something I did not say is that I feel sometime a little courage will help, it will help for you to repeat what you say, say it loud, say it with consequence, say it and do not worry that the whole world can hear it, say it so that you are at risk of being hurt, say what you are and be happy about it.

No wonder I did not hear you last time you told me something you wanted to tell me, you withdraw too fast for it to hold, to mold into anything meaningful.

But it is hard. I am not as truthful and straightforward as I want myself to be neither. We all had our weak and uncomfortable time. I am no better that whom I have just silently judged.

When we hugged goodbye in front of the departure hall, I said: "Be happy and money will never be enough, so take it easy".

"You too. Good to see you." For a brief moment, we looked at each other and I saw that boy again. I regretted my annoyance and judgment.

"Next time, we may have more time to talk and more good news to share! "

"About love or Money?" He loosed up finally, and he was teasing me for my contempt of money making the previous night, I was already on my way to the ticket counter. I waved good bye and said with my lips: Love. That meant to be the answer to his question.

He waved. It will be a better story if he said " You are still beautiful" with lip language. Of course, that only happen in a movie directed by a vain girl and suckers of romantic crap like me.

Fact is I feel warm toward him, but I don't feel romantically charged, I never did toward him. Something never changes. Still there is something sweet about it, maybe for the memories of walking around the playground at night, asking questions that we may really want to know the answer to.

Although, my heart, at that time, when I was walking toward my counter for checking in, was pounding for the fact that I am getting closer to come back to New York, to you.

Beijing was the past, New York is the now and ever. Where future is, I don't know.


Blogger Thomas said...

Happy Sunday morning.

12:59 PM  
Blogger New York Red said...

Welcome back Thomas.

12:42 AM  
Blogger chris miller said...

I think this one should go in the list of "favorite post".

But when old classmates get together -- and they talk about the dream of wealth -- and the dream of love -- what about the dream of a better world ?

7:26 AM  
Blogger New York Red said...

That is what is inherently wrong and hopeless with this blog, no article about war in Mid east, hunger in Africa, moral abyss in China, globle warming and pollution...I will try to do better moving forward. ;-)

His obesseion of wealth saddens me actally, not that I don't enjoy some financial stability or independecne...But I think he seeks identity through that, since he gave up on other things too easily. Am I judging again...

Thanks for the comment!

11:35 AM  
Blogger Gawain said...

"I think this one should go in the list of "favorite post"."

I agree with Chris on that.

Unlike Chris, I don't find anything lacking. It's perfect.

11:29 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

No -- the NYR blog is fine ! -- I was just wondering what I would talk about if I ever got together with an old classmate -- and unless this person happened to have once read "Dream of Red Chamber" - since we'd both be sixties people -- maybe I'd most like to talk about our dreams for a better world. But who knows ? Every person is different -- and we might just end up talking baseball.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Neil said...

That was such a touching tale about the past and the present and how they keep interacting.

3:25 AM  
Blogger New York Red said...

Thanks for the comment! I like it: past and present do interact, don't they? I have been a silent reader of your site for some time and it makes me laugh and think. I am glad you like this piece...

10:56 AM  

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