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February 2007


There’s a man eating at the table next to mine who, in his early thirties, has lost nearly all his hair. Still, he’s not a bad-looking fellow. He’s obviously fit and has a deep-strung voice that is pleasant to listen to. But he’s in no way worthy of the shocking beauty seated across the table from him.

Yet this woman is trying hard for him, hanging on every word he says. A few minutes after they are seated, he tries what is likely a successful line for him: “Tell me something interesting.”

Only he must repeat himself three times before she understands what he said. And then her only response is to shrug her shoulders and giggle. Giggling is something she does a lot of as they eat their way through three courses. The man doesn’t seem to mind; the smile on his face doesn’t even quiver once. And why should it? Despite the near-total language barrier between the two, even his modest western income makes him a powerhouse over here in China, practically guaranteeing him a near-effortless score from a woman who back home wouldn’t even smile if he held the door for her.

And this is just one of the endless examples of the Sino-western couples I’m seeing all around Beijing. There was pimply British kid at the Summer Palace ineptly sharing his ice cream with the girl he was there with; it was as if he couldn’t get used to the idea that women weren’t innately disgusted by him. Then the was the tall photographer, dragging along a tasty little woman who barely came up to his waist. I don’t know if they actually could speak to each other, but in the half-hour I was in the vicinity, they never did. Still, they both smiled a lot. And the great whale of a kid I saw in the Temple of Heaven, skin white enough to blind an bat? Of course he had a dark-skinned Cindy Crawford look-alike under his arm. You’d think he was a Rockefeller, a Kennedy, or the front man to the new hit boy band on the block.

But he’s not. None of them are. Anglo-Saxon men and boys alike are universally enjoying a status here that in their own world is reserved for the elite. Part of it seems to be the perception of wealth. Or maybe the reality of it: every week I’m drawing petty cash in an amount higher than the average family in this city is earning in a month. So why wouldn’t someone’s pretty young daughter want the patronage of a western gentleman? If nothing else, she gets to spend a few days out of the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her entire family.

Whatever’s behind it all, this city feels like one of those sailor’s lies, the one about an island of primitives where all the attractive women are loose in both morals and limbs, and fascinated with the color of the white man’s skin.

And stumbling home late on Chinese New Year’s Eve, a woman as pretty as any picture dashes up to me. She tucks her arm under mine, walks beside me and gushes a thousand rapid-fire words of Mandarin. I don’t understand her words, but her warm hand is caressing my arm, and her soft chest is pressing into my ribs. Then, finished with whatever it was she wanted to tell me, she kisses me on the cheek and skips off down an alleyway, leaving nothing behind but a giggle.

As I watch her disappear, I can’t help but think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Ground-shaking blasts cut through the night air. Sometimes they’re so distant you can count the time from when they flash in the sky to when you hear the report. Other times, they’re so close they set off every car alarm on the long avenue. These blasts come every two to three minutes. In between, there are strings of rapid-fire teeth-rattlers, some lasting as long as a minute.

This isn’t the Chinese New Year. This is only the night before. This is just the eighteen million people of central Beijing clearing their throat for what I suspect will be the loudest holiday on the planet. The occational smell of burnt gunpower that permeated the early evening has become, by no later than nine, a thick blanket over the entire city.

Fireworks stands on every block are open late, and they all have lines. Children barely able to walk clutch paperback-sized packets of fireworks. Grown men smugly haul eighteen-inch discs of double stands that could just as easily be the spare tire of a mid-sized car wrapped in red paper. Others have enormous single-shots, the size of the waste basket in my office, that require a cart to lug them home.

There’s not much imagination to the Chinese fireworks, they flash and make noise and that’s about it. But they’re good at what they do, and anyway, I always find myself disappointed by fireworks that claim to do more.

And should one ever be called upon to rework the star-spangled banner, they need to no more research than spend a sleepless night on the eve of the Chinese New Year.