This is at least the fifth time I have tried to write this post. Each time previously, I ended up deleting it in a mini-rage, upset that I kept getting bogged down in the quicksand of sentimentality. I’m not sure whether there is a way to describe my emotion-filled final days in Beijing without getting….emotional. Let me try once again.
Right now, Poulenc’s haunting and utterly incredible Gloria is playing on my cheap stereo. I sang in a chorus in Beijing, one of the few sublime memories I have of this period, and the Gloria captured me with its opening notes. We performed it at the very peak of the SARS hysteria. (It made news for being the only live concert in Beijing, and shortly afterwards all theaters were closed.)
This experience, singing in this chorus and writing the program notes for the music, provided some much needed light at a time when everything was becoming increasingly black. Forever and ever, as I hear the Gloria, I will be transported to that night when we sang this gorgeous music in the Forbidden City concert hall. My boss and her husband came to the concert, and so too did my one true friend in Beijing, a young fellow named Ben.
If I were to describe to you the welling of emotion I feel simply by typing this name, none of you would believe me, there is no way you could possibly believe me.
In order to keep my sanity in Beijing, I knew early on that I would need a friend. I would need someone to share my thoughts with, to eat dinner with, to talk to on a regular basis. I really don’t think I could have survived my stay in Beijing without Ben’s friendship.
Ben is 24 years old, the son of an impoverished family from Yunnan, the rural agricultural province of China I wanted so badly to visit in April but was kept away by SARS. Ben was poor but lucky; his grades were always high, and a charity payed for him to go to college. He had made his way to Beijing where he was the pride of his family, working for a marketing company for about $280 a month. In spite of the low salary, he sent money back to his parents with each paycheck. Back in Yunnan, his parents could not afford to buy him shoes until he was about six years old.
When we first met, Ben told me about his passions, especially traditional Chinese calligraphy, and he would later come over with his box of beautiful brushes and a bottle of ink and show me how exquisite an art this can be. If there were a dictionary definition of the phrase “doesn’t have a bad bone in his body,” Ben’s photograph would be right there alongside it.
That day, when we first met, he was describing his family to me when something just touched my heart, I’m still not sure exactly why and I suspect I won’t be able to explain it clearly. I asked him if his parents worked, and he told me his father was retired. Then he said, with a beautiful pride, “My mother is a salesman. She sells vegetables in the market in our village.” I can’t say why this touched me so. I think it was because it told me how much he loved his mother, how proud he was of her, and also that his family was very poor.
From that day on, Ben was my best friend, my anchor in an increasingly chaotic Beijing. I suspect he had no idea just how important he was to me. I know he wanted our friendship to be something more, but I told him up-front that it would never happen, that I would be leaving Beijing in a matter of months, and I told him about my friend JC in Arizona. He said he understood and that it didn’t matter, as long as we were friends and could spend time together.
As I prepared to leave Beijing, it became more and more important for me to help Ben. I know it sounds mawkish, but I felt if I could do something to better the life of this wonderful Chinese man, I would be doing something for all of China.
Dealing with the poverty I saw in Beijing was always a struggle for me. There was construction going on next to my apartment complex, and each morning I would walk by as the group of itinerant workers gathered to start work. They lived in a shoddy little shack on the construction site with some ripped old mattresses on the ground; the “walls” were old blankets. It was freezing cold, and I wondered how they coped at night. I would walk by them on my way to work wearing my dress coat and suit and they would stare at me as though I were from another planet, and I wanted to just stop and give something to them, do something for them. I had such a guilty conscience, feeling such strong emotions and being unable to do anything at all. (Do you see why I had trouble keeping this post from suffocating in its own sentimentality?)
Ben’s situation always went right to my heart — poor and marginalized in an intolerant country. (No, he was not poor compared with the migrant laborers, but he had so little, and he had to help his family with what money he had.) Being poor is bad enough in China, but to also carry that burden of loneliness….I couldn’t just let it be, I couldn’t just leave and not try to do something for Ben. But what could I do? I had so little money myself, and I was about to embark on a four-week vacation with JC and had saved as much as I could to cover the costs.
I had given my resignation, and in my final weeks there I decided to try to have my firm hire Ben. It was his dream to work for one of the big multinational communications companies and we had an opening. I set up the interview, but I was careful to keep myself out of the process. I simply got him in the door and arranged for him to meet the people who would be managing after I left.
I was totally crushed when they came back and said he wasn’t right for the company. I wanted to protest, to fight, but I had promised myself to handle it as “strictly business,” with as little emotional involvement as possible. When I asked why he wasn’t right, they said it boiled down to one thing — his Yunnan accent, which they said made it difficult to understand his Chinese. And speaking is a big part of the job.
Why can’t things be simple? All I wanted was to give Ben a special chance to prove himself, and I was thwarted and there was nothing I could do. There were only a few days before JC would be visiting me, and then we would leave Beijing, perhaps forever. I still had to do something, I needed to “make a difference” if only in the smallest way. As I packed my things, preparing for the shipping company to take them to Singapore, I gave as much as I could to Ben, books and clothes and kitchen utensils, anything I felt I could do without.
JC was scheduled to arrive the next day, and I took Ben to dinner and begged him to come to terms with the fact that he would most likely never see me again, and that he had to meet other people. This was a sensitive topic and a lot of tears were shed. For the past several months, for the only time in his life, Ben had enjoyed security, knowing I would be there for him and give him advice and be his real friend. And now I was going away forever, and in just a few hours he would return to his old world and once again be a cipher in the vast Chinese population. (At least that is how he saw it.)
My only way at the time to deal with this was to push it down, keep it out of my mind. The reality was simply too devastating: I was leaving one of the dearest people of my entire life to fend for himself in a cruel and difficult land, leaving him totally in the lurch after he had become so dependent on me. But I couldn’t keep it down; it has been pushing its way up for two months now, and in recent days it’s been grabbing me by the throat, and I know it will haunt me forever.
At that dinner, I told Ben there was not much I could do for him. I explained that I didn’t have a lot of money to part with, but that nothing in the world, nothing, was more important to me than seeing him grow and succeed in life. And then I pulled out a white envelope in which I had placed about 1800 yuan, the equivalent of about $240, but nearly a month’s salary to Ben. I told Ben that this was not a gift, it was not for him to buy a watch or a sweater, but rather it was tuition money; he was to use it only for working with a tutor to improve his Mandarin pronunciation and, if the money went far enough, also his English pronunciation.
I knew what would happen next, and I had prepared for it. Ben refused to take the money, just as he always resisted when I would pay for dinner. If only he understood that it was my greatest joy to give to him whatever I could. He pushed it away. I took the envelope and pushed it into his hand and told him I would be insulted if he did not allow me to show my deep thanks and appreciation for all he had done for me. He finally relented and took the envelope. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life, as he looked up at me with an expression of such pain, such helplessness, his eyes welling with tears.
The next day before JC arrived, I filled two boxes with clothes that I was going to throw out– winter jackets, gloves, sweaters — and that Ben said he didn’t need. I carried them down to where the itinerant workers were, and I tried to explain to them in my broken Mandarin that it was my gift to them. They looked amazed, and I don’t think they understood a word I said. I couldn’t understand them either, their dialect sounding like a whole other language. I tried to tell them to enjoy these things, and they thanked me so joyfully, like children, as they pored through the boxes.
I knew it was meaningless. I knew I could solve nothing. But I can’t tell you how my heart ached then and aches now for China and its poor people. I know it’s a cruel world and there are lots of poor people, and I know that in China they are doing better, I know more are joining a middle class, but still the poverty and harshness were all around me and my weak liberal conscience had to come to terms with it, even if the most I could do was one of those worthless gestures that results in no real change. I had to do something, and I didn’t know what more I could do.
So today, two months since I left Beijing, I carry China in my heart all the time. I cannot push it down, I cannot forget about it. It is in my dreams, my nightmares, my waking and sleeping. Ghosts. They are everywhere, and nearly everything reminds me of Ben, the gentle, saintly young man whom I left on his own to fend for himself, even though I know that the system, by its very nature, will make his life a cruel struggle, if it doesn’t destroy him altogether. And I am haunted by this nearly all the time.
Well, I think I should stop there. I know how sentimental and bleeding-heart I sound, but that doesn’t diminish, I hope, the sincerity behind the sentimentality. Let me just end it all with a promise, that if I do nothing else, I will help Ben to rise above his situation and even bring him to America so he can learn perfect English (which can mean the difference between success and failure if he wants to work in my field). That will be my project.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this endless post.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.