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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Re: beijing














It's hard to say where I've been over the past couple of weeks. Stepping off the plane and crossing the third ring in the northeast, I said goodbye to capital 'B' Beijing— the headline-grabbing political complication and economic elephant— and embraced lower case 'b' beijing— the lulling hot fuss missing some white keys. A snapped-back umbrella. A place patterned as concentric rings like a game of celestial skeeball. A sprawling, unsubtle, placental Los Tokyo.

I left the wheel to my wife, a maze champ with an inner beijing compass and fluent in the city's logic. All I knew was that at some point I was taking a Great Wall selfie (Badaling offers the best view), meandering the network of hutongs (slender back alleyways and neighborhoods), getting hammered with my uncle-in-law on Sunday afternoon in a private Kill Bill room, eating at a Brooklyn-ey/Berlin-ey place called something I can't remember off of "Ghost Street", eating breakfast buns and tofu soup at Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop, soaking in the soul-expanding Yonghegong (Lama Temple) with its hidden 5-storey standing Buddha shock-and-awe, and touring the "798" military factory-turned-art gallery/café labyrinth. After overeating homemade dumplings in a cramped 14th floor third ring apartment, my wife's relatives officially became my relatives. After devouring so much meat, I just wanted to be locked in a room with carbs and baby spinach for a month. Beyond that, I couldn't tell you much. Oh yeah, the after-dinner night stroll on Tiananmen. That's it. Oh yeah, hotels don't have floors 4, 14, 24— tetraphobia from the fact that the Mandarin word for 4 sounds like the word for death.

The jostling legs, car horns, corpse-colored bricks, futuristic flyovers cutting across lit Central Business District high-rises, tree-lined boulevards threw me off my scent, the scent of bubbly Yunnan hot pot, crispy Peking duck, noxious fumes, Sichuan peppercorns and cilantro, street lamb sheesh, and the one, no wait, two times I crossed the line— duck feet and duck blood. There was a hint of whirling dervish. Squinting my eyes, I saw a sequined, impossibly majestic, self-contained galaxy. And no telescope would do, only Frank Bascombe's "low-wattage wonder."

I left wanting to take up the accordion. But, this wasn't Paris. It's easy to be forgiven for believing that beijing's parents are half-charming Midwestern bounty hunters. Or that you were in some offstage Milky Way. Or that you were with some master of the universe. Or that you were, in fact, a red blood cell.

There was a different kind of entropy, both clipped and eternal. There was the Temple of Heaven in the south, Temple of Sun in the east, Temple of Earth in the north, and Temple of Moon in the west. These ancient silhouettes guided the eyes of everyone I saw and churned around ringing all the bells until I became more than what I was before.