Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dinner with Jiuma and Mingyu, my very talented little cousin

Note: If nothing else, just scroll down and watch the video.

Jiujiu and Jiuma (Zhang Yanggang and Zhen Yi) were married seven years when they decided to split, a decision probably met with applause from members of the Zhang family. To them, Zhen Yi was, to put it nicely, bratty, stubborn and overbearing, an uncompromising woman whose personality was much too big and pompous. It's possible that Laolao -- the matriarch of the Zhang family who never did like her*, not on day one and not the day she passed away -- may have colored others' perceptions, but I prefer to think that the marriage was doomed from the start. The two were too strong-headed -- that's the real basis of the antipathy between Zhen Yi and the Zhangs, the powerful personalities on both sides -- and neither could settle into their roles as spouse and parent.

*I remember Laolao as a key ally in my rivalry with Mingyu when we were little, she always calling him "little fat duck"; "Look, there goes the little fat duck!"

It's true, of course, that Jiuma can be bratty, stubborn and overbearing. One of her foremost skills in life -- which she'll happily announce -- is her ability to haggle. She would, to put it plainly, not give an inch to Scott Boars, and she would win. I got a glimpse of this last week (when the above-picture was taken) at a furniture mart outside of Beijing, an account of which is here. She's the type who demands to have things a certain way, and at her disposal is a personality that can alternately charm and poison. One moment you're being cooed by this sweet, personable lady, and the next she's insisting you do this and that. It can be jarring, to say the least.

But Jiuma also has a deep reservoir of affection that she dips into unreservedly. To me she has been generous beyond words, beyond obligation. She often speaks boastfully of her three years carrying me around when I was little, between the time my parents left for the States and my joining them, and to this day will occasionally call me Son. Yesterday she pulled out this whopper while on a bus to Panjiayuan Market, in front of Mingyu: "Originally I didn't want to have any kids. Then I took care of you and decided it'd be fun after all." When she repeated this at dinner to all the guests, she added, "So, Mingyu, if not for him, I wouldn't have had you." She said this playfully, not intending any other meanings, but I couldn't help but blanch.

Of course, Jiuma has never been discriminatory with words or hesitant about sharing her thoughts. Everything she does is writ large: her stories always toe the line of hyperbole, her promises always delivered with an earnestness that'll have you forking over every hope. She has no acquaintances, only friends -- and few plain friends at that, more of them of the "good friends" variety. For those close to her, her uncompromising impulse to have more and want better can be seen as unsavory; as humans, we may have programmed in us a wariness of the overly ambitious. But she knows no bounds, and I'm not certain how she came to be this way... how her family raised her, what experiences led her to believe the city could come to her fingertips. She counts, among her friends, the first professional Chinese basketball player to play in the U.S. (it's a woman, and I'll give you five bucks if you can name her off hand), an Olympic weightlifter, a big-time movie director/producer and a menagerie of government officials, big and small. She surrounds herself with talented people who would seem better than she, and this includes her personal life; she would never be called "good looking," but Jiujiu certainly would be, and her current boyfriend as well, a Shanghai businessman she has wrapped around her finger. If this were America, I'd say she does it with sex. But this is China, where a forceful personality, sizable Rolodex and willingness to buy lunch/dinner can get you far, and she has all those.

She is the ideal "Connector," a term popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. In other words, she is a woman of today's China, bridging Old China, which values plain old work habits, with New China, which emphasizes networking. Basically, Jiuma is as valuable to a journalist/writer like me as anyone in Beijing, and I should be grateful she's on my side.

If you've read up to this point, however, you may have deduced from my tone that I'm not 100% sold. I'm suspicious, more than anything, of exactly how much Jiuma actually knows, how much power she actually has relative to power she's claimed. It's a terrible thing to say, but asking too many favors from Jiuma would make our bond seem conditional, thus lesser. I wouldn't want that. And there's also this: there's no one I'd less rather do business with than Jiuma. The way she operates strikes me as a bit underhanded, like when she asked my dad to give her money to pay one of the officials he wanted to meet with ("That's how it's done here," she had told him). Every one of her friends I've met so far have seemed a little manipulative, as Jiuma kind of is. They've all been fiercely opinionated and even dogmatic in their opinions, two-faced and with ulterior motives.

I haven't met all her friends, but the ones I met at dinner last night were definitely this kind. There's no need to introduce them -- I didn't catch half their names, and the ones I did catch I've forgotten -- but I engaged a few of them in conversation on a variety of topics, from Jack Caffrey (they asked) to covert racism in America. I'll touch on a couple of these points.

QUICK INTERLUDE: One of Jiuma's friends came in late because he was getting a foot massage downstairs, which reminded me of the two times I've gotten foot massages in Beijing, most recently on the first night back with Zhang Peng and two of his friends. I have to say, the foot massage feels like it should be sexual, but it's completely not. In fact, the gal who worked on me that first night, when all of us were drunk, had the gall to make fun of my Chinese. "What are you trying to say?" she demanded. To which one of Zhang Peng's friends blurted, "He wants to sleep with you," which was untrue but, now that he'd mentioned it...

(There's this thing they do at the end where rub your thighs, and I don't need to tell you one's thoughts during this process.)

Maybe there's something about foot massage parlors that I don't know yet. A secret gesture, perhaps. I want to find out, if there's anything to be found, because I know for a fact that massage parlors here, like in U.S. Chinatowns, can double as houses of ill repute.

One of the guests -- a Chinese man who has worked nearly 20 years in the U.S. and who I learned lived just a few blocks away from me in New York on 103rd and Riverside -- tried to tell me that because of my face, my opportunities in the States were inherently fewer. He actually used that word: "face." "But because of your face," he said. I immediately told him this didn't matter, as I've never been interested in climbing corporate ladders or gaining social credibility. Then I thought about this, and several minutes later I said, in pleasanter terms, that I thought his idea that Asians were held down because of their appearance -- that "blacks have it easier in the corporate world than Asians" -- was bullshit.

"It's about personality," I said. "It matters more in the States. If you can joke around with the boss, not be so deferential, possess one set of characteristics instead of another, you can get that promotion." I should have used Lou Pai, one of Enron's top executives, as an example. He had a very Chinese face, yet he succeeded (so to speak). (NPR's summary of him: "Lou Pai is the real mystery man in the Enron scandal. A former executive of the energy trading firm, he cashed in an estimated $270 million in stock and left the company before it collapsed, divorced his wife, married an exotic dancer, bought an enormous piece of Colorado, sold it and then disappeared into obscurity.") My New York neighbor seemed dismissive of this idea.

We also touched on the subject of parental treatment of children, and all the adults at the table agreed that my generation doesn't really get it. "You don't know what it's like to suffer," they told me, almost scolding. When the face guy said it's sometimes hard for him to understand his daughter's conversations, I told him it's because Americans like to communicate in ironies. He didn't seem to know what this meant, but instead of asking he just looked blankly at me. "You know, saying one thing but meaning another," I added.

"Oh," he said. "The Chinese do that too."

This was, in effect, how my conversation with these adults went: me saying one thing, them deciding I didn't know what I was talking about and moving on with their own ideas. It's funny, I thought, here we are in a discussion about the problems in the generation gap -- them saying generation gaps are inevitable yet mourning this fact, pity their poor, inflexible ways, woe to the incomprehensible, know-nothing youngsters -- yet here, right here in front of my eyes, was the manifestation the problem. These old bastards.

They related this to China (the subject of the press was also involved, somehow). "There will be a transition period," one of them said.

"Yes," another agreed, shaking his head. "There is no doubt about that."

And all I could think was: if by transition you mean you stepping off the stage, then by all means, transition away.

There was also this: the lady pictured. I've always been impressed with women who have the confidence to wear an empire waist top, and so it is with this woman here, whose facial features and bodily proportions are almost perfect for this style of dress. In addition, she had the good sense to wear a black skin-tight shirt with black leggings, and while you can't see it here, she has the most delicate feet, in these simple, unadorned one-inch platform shoes that look like they might easily slip on and off. She caught my eye from the get-go, then started looking better and better with each glass of Yanjing (it's official: the best cheap beer I've ever had). You want to take a gander at her age? Go ahead, I'll wait.

While I'm waiting, I'd like to say for the record that I am not a proponent of affairs. While I think very little of marriage -- the institution is no more sacred than a handshake, in my opinion -- I feel very strongly about the things that bind us together, individual to individual, and I think it goes beyond saying that those who would knowingly and maliciously try to break these bonds might deservedly be called scum.

Yet there is also that other possibility: marriage where trust is undefined, thus without. What exceptions can be made in those situations, and would they be called exceptions?

One more thing, because I do,
despite the occasional slip-up, understand these postings are public, and that one can never quite be sure who's reading what, or not reading this, and taking what meaning from what: I'd also like to state for the record that I didn't actually seriously think seriously about making a move on this woman, no matter what sort of things were running through my mind... not that I would've had success, anyway, despite some dark grumbling from within telling me she wanted it. To the police guy who looked kinda tough sitting two seats away from me: if you get a hold of this, please don't kill me, even if the restaurant owner offers you more money than you'll ever make in your lifetime.

Here's a better picture:

I'm guessing on her age, but I'd say 40, since her son is already 13 and her husband, a bald, rather [adjective deleted] man, looked about 55. You would never be able to tell, right?

She was reserved, unassuming and alluring, possessing the sort of amor that comes to those wholly comfortable in their beauty. She knew -- as those who are beautiful know -- that glances come her way as compliments, not out of distaste or indecency but because they can't be helped, those eyes, poor eyes. I wondered once more how her husband came to have her, and what innocence he may have spared. They were shameful thoughts, but they were guarded, I think. Were they? Did she espy a little too much in my lean-to? Did I suggest too much? Or not enough? Did she just lean when she said, "I have a question to ask you"? Could she have known I was secretly sneaking her into pictures? What desires might she have, and would I know them without asking?

I will never have these answers, such is the harbinger of impossible. It would do us well to move on to something wholesome.

As the title of this post states, Mingyu is a very talented young man (not at pool though -- I beat him three out of four... or was it four out of five? But he did beat me two out of three in Chinese chess). He's testing for the Beijing Music College, which is sort of like China's version of Julliard though not quite so good because all the best musicians study abroad. Anyway, Mingyu's goal is to eventually go abroad, to either Italy or -- this is his mom's dream -- Julliard. The following video is of him singing karaoke, without warming up and having gone weeks without singing (on account of his surgery). He would, it is fair to say, win $50 off his tab at any local Karaoke Night competition.

(Apologies for the background voices in the video... if you click on the video, you'll find a video response that's a longer clip of Mingyu singing. I'll get him to perform just for the camera sometime, and then you'll get a better idea of his vocal range.)

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