The Endless Chinese Maze: A Night in Tianjin
It’s said that Tianjin shields Beijing from the wind that comes off the Bohai Sea. This was readily apparent when I emerged from the subway on the evening of February 15th. I was immediately dominated by heavy waves of air, pounding at my body, slipping through my jacket, under my hat, into my long underwear. Windy. That was my first impression of Tianjin, the sixth largest city in China.
From the subway, I walked to my friend’s apartment. The streets were quiet, empty almost. A man was setting up a barbecue stall. A woman, a few meters away, was frying noodles. Taxis slowly drifted by, green electric lights illuminated. A gritty, weathered residential area, very Chinese. Gritty. Another impression.
We duck into a corner store and grab a bottle of 10 RMB Baijiu.
My friend’s residential complex—a faceless mass of 6 story walkups, old buildings probably built in the 80s, during the early, less glossy but equally utilitarian, days of mass urbanization. Rusty old bikes jammed into doorways. A security guard, bundled, looking at his phone, smoking a cigarette. Quiet emptiness. Hostile bursts of air. Dingy streetlights. Faint scents of oil. Sino-dystopia. We walk up to his apartment. Dimly lit, cold hallways with red and gold scrolls plastered on each doorway, welcoming the recent arrival of Chinese New Year. Mass produced fadey-shiny paper with high ambitions for the Year of the Pig. Vague, confident aspirations for wealth, happiness, extreme success.
We share the bottle—it’s terrible. Baijiu, in my shamefully robust experience, is always terrible. Not bad. Not hard to drink. Sickening. An affront to the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. And later, the brain. We catch up about his job, the city, China for a while and soon get a Didi to a bar—an Irish pub called O’Mahony’s 20 minutes down the road. The bar is located in an old concession neighborhood with beautiful, heavy European architecture. It is cold. The streets are deserted.
We end up in a steakhouse, spending far more money than either of us intended. We drink Spanish wine and eat South Dakotan sirloin—one of the best I’ve ever consumed. The owner/chef sits down with us—the restaurant is empty except for a table of affluent and European looking Europeans, the kind of people that only seem to exist with a wine glass in their hand and a white cloth napkin in the vicinity.
“Where did you learn to cook steak like this?”
“You mean, like Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn.”
“Nah. I’ve never been to the US. Peter Luger’s on Youtube.”
We crack up.
It’s funny. Speaking Chinese while eating perfectly cooked steak and drinking alcohol that tastes good and using a fork. We scan the owner’s QR code and leave thoroughly content and whimsically high from the experience, a portal into another space and time. The Europeans are still there, winding down the evening, having a long European meal. We walk next door to O’Mahony’s. An actual real live Irish person is serving whiskey. Ireland is a small country, but you will find one real live Irish person serving whiskey in every Irish pub in China. There are about 10 people in the bar, watching a rebroadcast of Ireland playing France in the rugby Six Nations Championship. I begin chatting with a Serbian couple, archetypes of the Eastern European intellectual. PHds in economics and philosophy, teaching English to Chinese children. The money is good. I had recently read a feature about Aleksandar Vucic, the authoritarian President of Serbia. Timely. They tell me about the eggheaded foreign minister, who cannot speak English and gives his English press releases by reading from a translation written in Cyrillic letters.
We take many shots. Vucic is cursed. Putin is cursed. Trump is cursed. Xi Jinping is not mentioned. Ireland is praised. The only people who ever say bad things about Ireland are the Irish. The Serb, myself, my friend, and a middle-aged South African guy pile into a taxi and head to 33, a bar on the 34th floor of a nondescript office building.
One will find few places more suitable for understanding the future of Chinese international relations than the loud, tacky-fancy, sloppy bars across China’s 2nd and 3rd tier cities. You will rarely find “Westerners” in these bars. Americans, Western Europeans, Australians are all exceedingly rare outside your Beijings, Shanghais, and Shenzhens. Here you will find seemingly endless Kazakh, Tanzanian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Thai 20-somethings overflowing themselves with (usually) fake liquor and pumping their fists to housey blare. English teachers, language students, gymnasts. They are all here. And China is their land of opportunity. The old school Chinese communists used to talk about a global, unified Marxist Revolution of the developing world. The unified revolution has come and is growing, albeit, without the Marxism. This is the new world order.
We drink more. I answer and ask everyone’s favorite judgement: “Where are you from?” dozens of times. We dance with Russians—English teachers who sort of speak English but are white—still the sufficient condition for an English teaching job in many parts of China.
At 2:30 my friend tells me he is leaving and gives me the name of a hotel that accepts foreigners—most in China do not. The Serb and the South African are long gone. I get another whiskey soda. I’m feeling young again. I dance and hug people from various small countries that I will never see again. A Moroccan guy tells me multiple times that my hat says “Morocco” in Chinese. I don’t tell him that it does not.
I arrive at the Vienna International Hotel around 3:45 AM. It has the lovely communist-banquet feel of hotels found throughout the country. The kind of hotel where conversations were once robustly listened in on. The Vienna hotel does, in fact, accept foreigners. It does not, however, have any rooms available.
I call my friend. He is about to go to sleep and texts me the name of his residential complex in Chinese and a code to the front door of his building. I walk up and down the deserted, frigid streets outside the Vienna looking for a taxi, or a car, or a hotel that takes foreigners.
Finally, a taxi stops. I show the driver the address. He takes me there amidst a barrage of drunken Chinese gibberish. I stumble out of the cab around 4:15. I am there. In front of the faceless mass of apartment blocs armed with simply the name of the residential complex—which I have already used to get me here and the 6-digit code to the front door. But I don’t remember where it is. There are dozens of front doors. Dozens of buildings, hundreds and hundreds of residences. Thousands of gold and red scrolls. The codes on the doors only go up to 4 digits.
I call my friend.
He doesn’t answer. I call again. And again. And I call him thirty times.
He doesn’t answer.
I begin entering apartment buildings. All the doors have codes and locks but all of them are wide open. My only actionable intelligence is that my friend’s place is on the sixth floor and that it appeared to be the singular apartment without Happy New Year’s scrolls on the door. Uncultured bastard. I walk up to the sixth floor. I walk up to thousands of sixth floors. I accomplish my ten thousand steps before dawn. I call my friend. I climb. Scrolls. They all have scrolls.
I call. I vow to kill my friend. If I can find him. There is no heat in any of the concrete hallways. It is freezing. I sit on one section of nameless concrete steps. I watch my breath. The phones rings and rings and rings.
I go outside and survey the socialist domicile mass. There is no hint, no clue. It is all the exact same. The only items that provide a touch of character—the scrolls—are on every single door. Except one.
I look at the hazy moon. I pledge revenge. I call. I consider napping on the stairs, but my friend is drunk. He won’t be awake for at least 6 hours. I retreat to the street. Not a soul. 5:30 AM. I scour the boulevard for cabs, for signs of life. The apartment blocs extend into the horizon. I am the last man on earth. The last laowai on earth. I am hopeless.
I bang on the window of an idling cab. The driver wakes up, startled. Double startled to see a desperate foreign face staring at him.
“Take me to a hotel. One that takes foreigners. Please.”
I get in before he keys the ignition. Out of confusion, he drives around the block to a dark little building with a light on. It’s not a brothel per se, but it is a place that prostitutes have been in, are currently in, and will be in. He asks for 10 Yuan. I give him 20, for taking me to this human garbage dump. The old woman at the front desks asks no questions. I take it she rarely does. She checks my passport. She gives me a key. The room is freezing. There is no toilet but there is a shower. Which is stupid. Over the course of the next few hours, I will pee in the shower no less than 5 times. The water boiler is broken. I drink the water straight from the sink—which is like saying I’ll die tomorrow so I don’t have to die today. I fall on the bed. My teeth chatter. The faucet drips. The wind pangs the windows. 6 AM.
When I come to at 1130, I notice that my friend called me back at 6:15.
I have lived this night before.
Yantai. Qingdao. Nanchang. Yingtan. Changzhou. Xiaguan. Xiamen. Chengdu. Kaiping. Wuxi. Xining. Xuzhou. Nanning. Shijiazhuang. Guilin. Zunyi. Tianjin. These massive, sprawling blocs of humanity. The tacky post-Soviet style nightclubs. The fuzzy communist banquet hotels. The endless, impossible, apartment buildings with fading happiness scrolls. The taxi drivers. The Irish pub. The Irish guy serving whiskey in the Irish pub. The people. The people. The people.
As I blanked into the deep, starless Tianjin sky, my eyes tearing from wind fatigue, my mind went there. I’ve lived this night before. So many times. In the heart of China. Sometimes there are fewer forks and more chopsticks. Sometimes more baijiu and less wine. Sometimes there’s karaoke. But, everything about last night, the night that I have lived times over and will live again, everything about it—from the Serbian English teacher to the nondescript throng of scrolls to the Mandarin illiterate Moroccan—everything about it was so uniquely, so quintessentially China. Modern China.
And when I thought about that, I think I may have even smiled.