By Henry Hughes
Beijing, China, 1996
Reed wasn't great with people, but he didn't mind the public showers. The water was strong and hot, even if he had to wait in line for a few minutes. He looked at the brick smoke stacks and piles of coal, marvelling over workers still using shovels and wheelbarrows. Walking back along the campus alley behind two women with shining wet hair, he sneezed. One of the women turned, and he met the smiling face of someone surprisingly older.
At a small canteen he ordered pijiu, beer, and gong bao chicken — things he could say — then pointed to a bright bottle of spirits. "Baijiu?" the waitress asked. "Yes, please," his hands waved it in. Reed had never lived abroad, but he was 25 and "adaptable," his supervisor at Compuworld said, so they sent him to Beijing for a university systems set-up. He drank his beer and sipped from a small glass of baijiu, which was clear and strong like vodka, but with a raw, grainy vapour that reminded him of hand sanitiser.
Reed liked to drink and think. He was thinking about those girls taking their showers, their shining hair. The older woman with the sweet smile. How old was she?
The temperature had dropped a few degrees and there wasn't much going on. He strolled down the campus lanes feeling buzzed, watching two young men play ping-pong in a gray dining hall. There were open classrooms where students sipped tea, rifled through dictionaries, and scribbled notes on yellow paper.
Back at his apartment, which was also his office – a second floor studio with a desk, book shelf, and a red plastic couch – he turned on his boom box, popped in a U2 cassette, drank another beer, and fell asleep on the couch.
"Working here is easy," he wrote in one of his first e-mails to a friend in Ohio. "Nobody gives a shit." He slunk downstairs at 10 o'clock, said "Good morning," and looked at the work orders for the day. People in the office sat around drinking tea and chatting. The department head, a sixty-something with a slick pompadour, looked up from The People's Daily.
"Ni Hao. Have you eaten?" He greeted Reed the same way every morning.
"Soon," Reed said.
"Up late working?" he studied the young man's creased face.
"You bet. And hey, I need to get some printer cables. I'll be gone for a couple hours."
"Okay," the department head returned to his newspaper. "Enjoy your lunch."
By 11 the traffic was heavy, and a yellow haze hung over Beijing. Reed ate two jian bings, hot crepes stuffed with eggs, scallions, coriander and hot sauce, and tipped the dirty-aproned vender a couple extra kuai – about 30 cents. He walked through three electronic shops in the Haidian district. One shop was packed with computers and printers, but not the parts to link them. He looked-up words in his dictionary and made snake-like gestures with his arms. The two thin clerks laughed and said meiyou, meiyou, like "mayo" in mayonnaise. He learned that meiyou meant "don't have, no, nothing, doesn't exist."
On the street, an old, one-eyed man was carving stone seals. He spoke a little English and said he could carve Reed's name in Chinese, showing him a character that reminded the young American of an old TV roof antenna. Reed stood for a moment, considering the symbol as a reflection of himself, and finally said, "Maybe next time," slipping back into the crowd.
Most things in Haidian looked new and flimsy. It wasn't the China he imagined back in Ohio. He walked through one of the six sets of blue glass doors into an enormous department store. Women puzzled over the translated labels of imported shampoos and perfumes, men pointed through glass cases at electric razors. A twentysomething in a gray suit held his Motorola flip phone to his smooth ear. Reed watched his eager expression, thinking he might be listening for that big deal that would make him rich. An old couple in bulky blue worker suits opened the chrome door on a washing machine. The woman put her head inside the machine and started laughing. The whole country seemed drunk on money, and people moved in dizzy circles not knowing how to spend or save themselves.
He found his cables, took a bus back to campus, and saw a woman – it was that older woman from the alley behind the showers – walking her bicycle alongside a flower bed. She smiled at him and, with one foot on the pedal, pushed off, saddled, and zipped away.
For a couple hours in the afternoon, Reed set up a computer in the Adult Education Department. The staff brought him tea and cookies, praising him loudly when the machine whirred to life. By five, the day was done and he was ready to get a shower and a drink.
He found a bar outside the campus called The Dragon Tail where foreigners and some hip Chinese hung out. He wasn't a great talker, but he did his best to join a friendly group of German and Japanese men who always seemed to have a few Chinese women hanging around them. One night after several drinks, he invited the group up to his place. The seven of them noisily filled Reed's sitting room. One of the Chinese women, Shu Jun, admired his desktop computer and said she was taking a programming class. Reed looked at her hands and thought those long, burgundy fingernails would knife right through a keyboard.
"Computers will make China No. 1," Shu Jun said.
The German men laughed.
"You had your time," she became more serious. "You will see China be the boss nation."
The group stayed up drinking until three. The next thing Reed heard was the department head banging on his door at eight o'clock, telling him a computer was down.
Reed went to the showers as soon as they were turned on at five that evening. While waiting for an opening, he heard women's voices splashing in from the other side and thought of their hair like black waterfalls, their breasts and backs glistening. Then another, older voice mingled in, and he recognised the woman. The students were talking to her and laughing. They're enjoying her, he thought.
Reed didn't know if anyone enjoyed him. His computer knowledge was valued, but he didn't have someone he could call a friend. Small kindnesses meant a lot to him, and he was pleased when the department head asked if he would come along on a university trip.
The bus was scheduled to leave at seven on Saturday morning. Reed drank the night before at The Dragon Tail where another American told him about a student from Baltimore who was sleeping with a Chinese girl. "The police barged into their bedroom and busted them," the man said. "They threw the girl out of school. Scary shit."
Shu Jun joined the conversation. "But times are changing," she said.
"Do you think so?" Reed asked.
"Yes," Shu Jun smiled at Reed. "It is okay for Chinese girls to date laowai."
They drank late into the night. Shu Jun was yacking with a girlfriend in the smoky red light and Reed wanted her to come home with him. That's the last thing he remembered. Then banging at his door. He jumped up – "Shit, shit, shit. Sorry. Coming," he yelled out. When he finally got on the bus, his boss swung him a breakfast bag. Reed looked inside – pickles, cookies and a sausage called "Happy Ham" – and felt sick.
The first stop was Yong He Gong. Reed heard something about Tibetan Lamas in Beijing and fell back asleep. People trickled back on the bus, frowning and laughing at him. A woman asked, "Are you feeling better?"
"What? Yeah," he said, looking up at the woman of kind smiles. "Hey, I know you."
"Here is an orange," she said.
He held the orange for a moment, trying to figure out what to do with it. She took it back and started peeling.
"You are repairing machines?" she asked.
Reed laughed softly. "Computers," he said.
She nodded. "I have seen you."
"I'm Reed," he said, tongue scrubbing his sticky teeth.
"My name is Bai Bing," she smiled, drawing the characters on her hand as if he'd recognise them. "In the Department of Comparative Literature. Your sister department for the day."
When the department head announced they were going across the street to the Confucius Temple, Reed nodded and got up to join them. There was a garden with huge cypresses and lines of what Reed thought were gray tombstones. Madam Bai walked up to him and said, "Steles."
"Like the metal?" he asked.
"These are stone," she said, explaining that they held the names of people who passed civil service tests during the Qing dynasty. They walked together down a row of towering steles – some ten feet high – and she pointed at a name. "That's my family name – Bai – my grandfather was an official in the Qing court."
"Cool," Reed said.
The troop paraded into the main courtyard and Reed was pulled into a group photo. He stiffly took his tall place in the back, and he was surprised to see Madame Bai walking away. No one called her over. After the photo, the group entered the Imperial College and a large aluminum field house protecting more steles. Reed first thought it looked like an indoor graveyard. Then he remembered what Madam Bai had said. Here were hundreds of ancient tablets inscribed with the information of the age. A data centre, he thought.
Madame Bai called him over to a cracked gray slab.
"This is key," she said, pointing. "A Confucian discourse." She murmured words to herself, tilting her head a little. "Yes. It explains virtues of patience and endurance. You must consider endlessness."
On Monday, the department head sent Reed to the library for "an emergency." The librarian, a sallow, grey-haired woman in a red sweater told him a student had destroyed one of the Great Walls and its printer.
"Shit," Reed said. "Not my 486." The Chinese-made Great Wall computers weren't great, but they were standard university issue, and it was rare to have anything more powerful than a 386.
As the librarian unlocked the room, students sitting at a cracked table perked-up, hoping to be let inside.
The computer, monitor, and printer were all down.
"Where the hell's the surge protector?" Reed asked.
"Why didn't you plug these into a surge protector?" He pointed to the others. "You know we have black outs and restarts all the time. You blew the power supply."
"I don't set up the computers."
"Well, it wasn't any student's fault."
The papery skin around her mouth wrinkled in a deep frown. "Can you fix it?" she asked.
"If we replace the power supply the computer might be alright. The printer's dead."
She locked the door behind them. Students looked up in another hopeful moment and she scolded them. Reed interrupted.
"The other machines have surge protectors," he gestured to the room. "They can use them. There's no danger."
"No," she said.
What a library, Reed thought, exiting through a reading room featuring a World War II exhibit with posters of burning Japanese ships and Chinese troops cresting a red hill. One picture showed a Japanese soldier holding a sword in one hand and the head of a woman in the other. Reed stared at the image, then walked away, asking a couple students where he could find an English book about Confucius. "Meiyou," they shrugged.
A few days later, Reed received a handwritten note from Madame Bai, inviting him for tea. Pleased and a little nervous, he dressed neatly and purchased a box of German chocolates.
"I love chocolate and never partake," she said when he presented her the fancy box. "And I hear you're seeking a book on Confucius."
"How'd you know?" Reed smiled.
"Ah, the library," he sighed and recounted his experience.
She laughed. "Well, this is China." He thought it a funny thing for a Chinese to say.
"So many books disappear or are never shelved," she went on. "I received donations from the British Council. But they would not approve them. I needed the college president's red seal. He is an old friend, but a party loyalist who considers these things too controversial. Now the government loves computers, but they are also afraid of what people will do with them."
Professor Bai's apartment was the basic socialist concrete cell, but Reed noticed that she had spruced it up with yellow curtains, fresh cut flowers in a vase, and a wooden dresser covered in a silk brocade. An old manual typewriter sat on an imitation cherry desk, and next to it a stack of neatly typed pages. She had hundreds of books and gave Reed one called Confucius in a Nutshell.
"Okay!" He smiled. "This is perfect for me."
"I wrote it."
Reed found Madame Bai's English a little antique, but very serviceable. When Reed asked if she had any children, she said that her son died seven years ago. Reed looked around and saw that the home was divided. The east side was cluttered with newspapers, green baijiu bottles, and a couple ceramic ashtrays. Her husband's space? She never mentioned a husband. There was a green couch spread with a brown quilt; a phone list taped to the wall.
On Wednesday the department head called a meeting. He put on his black rim glasses, cleared his throat, and announced in English the allocation of $5,000 which would go toward two new 486s. He repeated it in Chinese and everyone clapped. He smiled a little, his heavy, dark lids blinking slowly behind his dusty glasses.
"And you won't need to work alone, Reed. Mr Dong will accompany you on your repair and supply duties. He will help you."
It was well known that Dong knew virtually nothing about computers. His main job was replacing batteries in the fire alarms around campus.
"I work alone," Reed said.
"Yes, you work very hard," the department chair said. "Now let's move on."
Reed sat through another hour of the meeting in Chinese, understanding only a few words. When Mr Dong asked about lunch, Reed got up and said he had an appointment. His boss looked up at him, blinking. "Are there any supplies you would like to request?"
"Meiyou," Reed said, and walked out.
The more Reed got involved in the university computer system, the more aggravated he became. Shu Jun invited him to her class one Tuesday where he discovered someone had deleted DOS. "Where's the teacher?" he asked. "He's down the hall," she said. Reed found him playing checkers with a janitor. The teacher looked at Reed, slowly screwed the top back on his tea jar and examined his watch. "Class is nearly over. Mei Wenti. Don't worry about it."
After his showers, Reed started working nights instead of drinking. For a week he itemised the hardware, analysed the programs, and evaluated the capability of the university systems. He called his boss, Lisa Kuai, at Compuworld, and explained that this might be a good chance to capture the public education sector. She was interested.
Reed took the bus downtown to Compuworld. A brushed steel elevator whooshed him up to the fourth floor, opening to a sconce-lit mahogany reception area appointed with a huge vase by Dubois.
Lisa Kuai was Singaporean-American making a fortune in a runaway economy. She had read Reed's e-mailed report and offered to make available a computer expert fluent in Mandarin and English. Reed explained the chaperone the university had assigned him.
"Probably a party hack. We'll get you someone with big credentials. They'll intimidate the hell out of your prison guard."
"If you think so. Okay."
"There's probably a spy in your department. Maybe that guy. The government is watching foreign computer people. We're always sweeping for bugs."
"Maybe even a student. In your case, probably a pretty girl with long nails."
"Just be careful." Ms. Kuai turned to look at her screen. "The university will have to buy some of our printers and software. All discounted. Practically a gift. I'll spell it out in an e-mail. God, don't you just love e-mail?"
Within a week Reed wrote and printed the proposal. No one in his department used e-mail. Reed had to cut the tractor strips off his printed document with a razor blade. There was no perforated paper available at the university. The Chinese invented paper, he laughed to himself. The department head held the stapled pages, listened carefully, and promised to read the proposal that night. His English was competent. Reed trusted things would be clear.
In the days that followed, Reed was down in the main office early, pulling files on floor plans and lab designs. Up so early one foggy morning, he went for a jog, the first in months. Passing a small park, he heard what sounded like a bamboo flute, and he saw a dozen older women wielding swords in slow motion. Through the cool shroud emerged Madame Bai. She held the straight silver blade over her head, drawing it down and across her body, weaving a bright ribbon through the grey light. Behind the women, long branches of purple blossoms quivered with sparrows, gone suddenly as the swords cut upward in ghostly supplication.
Reed's department head didn't say anything about the Compuworld proposal. When Reed finally asked, he croaked, "Soon."
Reed asked again the next day.
"I haven't looked at it yet," he said, putting down his newspaper.
"Compuworld is offering an excellent deal," Reed's voice went up. "A special deal because we're a school. They want to help us."
"Yes, yes. We appreciate that."
"A technical expert – an overseas Chinese – can train people."
"You have Dong," he said.
"Dong doesn't know shit. I'm sorry, but it's true."
The department head's face stiffened. "It's very difficult to bring in outside people. Very difficult. I must study it. Things have been busy. Very busy."
While Dong took his afternoon nap, Reed marched to the library and found the computer lab dark and locked. Earlier in the week, he had replaced the 486's power box and plugged it into a surge protector. But all the machines were sleeping under their dust covers. What the fuck? his anger rose. The same dull-eyed librarian was dozing behind the desk.
"Why isn't that room open? There's nothing wrong with those computers. Open the damn door!" Reed shouted.
"The head librarian must approve that."
"I approve it."
She laughed and said something in Chinese. Reed reached for her keys. "Xiaotou! Xiaotou!" Thief, Thief, the woman yelled. A crowd of students gathered around and he turned to them. "There's nothing wrong with those computers. Don't take this crap." Reed grabbed a steel ruler off the desk and slid it between the door and jam, working to free the lock. A few pounds of hip pressure and the door popped open. The air was stale and dry. He pulled the dust cover off the first machine and fired-it-up, then another and another until the whole room was bathed in blue light.
Once they knew the whole story, he thought they'd understand. The next day, Reed was summoned to the Foreign Affairs Office. Waiting, he watched the secretary word-process Chinese. With hundreds of thousands of characters, she used the pinyin system of typing in the Romanised phonetic form of the word, then selecting the correct character from those possible for that sound. Amazing, Reed thought.
The dean spoke through a nervous female translator.
"You broke a door and must pay for it."
"I'm sorry, but the price of a door is small compared to the benefit of having 10 computers working again," Reed said.
When the dean spoke again, Reed studied the spots on his bald scalp and what remained of a badly scarred ear.
"My work can make everybody's work easier," Reed said, explaining the offer from Compuworld. But it was no use. Reed had no idea what the translator did with his pleas. Her English was all butterflies. The wall was up and he was outside.
Back at his room, Reed gathered his belongings. Yanking a bag off a high shelf, he knocked out a ceiling tile that dumped dust over his head. "Shit," he said, then sneezed, rinsing his hair in the sink. He shuffled disks into a box. Someone knocked. He opened the door to Madame Bai cradling her old typewriter.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," she said. "But I was wondering if you might be able to make a repair."
"I don't know anything about typewriters."
"I wrote five books on this typewriter."
"Five books," he said. "Jesus!"
"Some discourses on Jesus, yes. But mostly Buddha, Confucius and Laozi."
He smiled and lifted the machine from her arms. "Well, we can try."
She fed a piece of paper through the rollers and worked the carriage return. It didn't advance. Reed popped the top plate and looked at the inky guts. "Maybe this," he said. He got a small tool kit from his bag, setting the gears in place and tightening the loose screws. He put his fingers on the cool steel keys, typing: China Times. When he returned, it looked okay. He typed again, Dear Editor, as if there were someone he could write to about all this. Write a letter on this old machine. Set it down with steel keys. Maybe this is all we need, he thought for a second.
"You're all set," he said, snapping on the top plate.
"Thank you." She looked around the room. "You lost your temper, I hear."
"That damn library." He went to the sink to wash his hands.
"I have to say, you're very young. Like my son. He knew so much about this technology. 'It will change everything,' he said. 'We won't have to work so hard.' And I laughed. He was happy. But China is a bigger machine than yours."
"I'm sorry, Mrs Bai."
"For what? Sorry for the way you behave? You can leave. You owe nothing to us."
"I was trying to help."
She seemed like a friend's mother turned red on wine, and when she took Reed's hand, he felt the waves of her body, smelled the faint blossom of her hair.
"You have to fix yourself. Maybe it's something you know little about. You need to live in this place, not on it." She raised her other hand and touched Reed's shoulder.
They sat on the plastic red couch and talked.
"I saw you dancing with those swords." Reed recalled the misty morning.
"Yes. Tai chi. Working with your mind and body, not against it. We'll be out there tomorrow. You should join us."
Somewhere in the middle of her next sentence, Reed leaned in and kissed her mouth. She returned the kiss and their tongues pressed together. He touched her soft cheek and neck, and pushed his fingers up through her hair. When he opened the top button of her blouse, she gently clasped it with her hand. "If you stay in Beijing," she said, "we must have tea again."
He slid back a few inches. "I'll stay," he said.
Bai Bing got up from the couch and walked to the door, her arms flexing under the weight of the typewriter.
"You can do some real good," she said. "And you must learn Chinese."
After she left, Reed sat at his desk, wiped the dust off his keyboard and pulled a blue disk from a case. He turned on the computer and started writing apologies and fresh proposals, saving frequently. He wrote until 11, slept deeply, and woke at dawn, jogging out toward what sounded like a bamboo flute, probably just a recording played on boom box.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023