We are what the people called Bei Piao – a term coined to describe the twenty-somethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing. We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll, and who fed ourselves milk, McDonalds, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.
We come with uncertain dreams, but our goal is to burn whitehot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money, but we are very good at being young. We are modern-day May Fourth-era superstars only now we have Macbooks. We’ve read Kerouac in translation. We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial piety payments, but we are cool. Who was going to tell us otherwise?
I found the plot to be in the way of the story here. Once I got the plot out of the way, I loved this.
The plot concerns a jumble of roommates, some of whom make a marginal living shooting videos for rock bands whose main purpose seems to be to find fame by being banned. I started making my little charts, as I do when I get bogged down in too many details about too many complexly interacting people – but eventually, I decided it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure it mattered a great deal to Wang, I’m sure she constructed the plot with precision and finesse, and that every action has a reaction and it all fits together beautifully, but I get impatient with music-industry bluster (as I did with Goon Squad) and I’ve lived through too many generations of “we’ve just discovered what makes the world work and no one gets it but we’re still bored and aimless” to keep track – corporate culture, Beats, hippies, yippies, GenX, entrepreneurials, millenials, hipsters. Because of my weak grasp of Asian history even in my own lifetime, I’m not sure precisely how that maps on to China – May Fourth, Cultural Revolution, May 35, Bei Piao? But it seems any system, once it’s popular enough to become a system, is burdensome.
I found some references online which allude to a variety of contexts for this phrase Bei Piao. An American basketball player, relocated to Beijing after retirement from the NBA, refers to himself as such a floating migrant. The founder of the Miss Meusli cereal company refers to herself that way as well, having come to Beijing temporarily and somehow finding her dreams there. A Macleans article imparts aimlessness to the word rather than dream and drive. The University of Michigan’s International Institute applies the term to rural farmers who come to the city as construction workers, a late shift in population centers. So maybe, like hipsters and hippies and all the rest, Bei Piao are whatever you make of them. For Wang, I see a distinct Brooklyn view.
While the plot deals with doomed romances and the lengths some will go to for fame and fortune, the story running underneath concerns the first-person narrator. If he’s given a name, I missed it in the jumble of people coming and going and worrying and art-ing, but he doesn’t need one. I know who he is. He’s young, he’s having a great time, he’s lost, he’s trying to find his way, and Dad wants to send him to Louisiana to manage the family oil wells. He isn’t sure that’s the way he wants to find.
We also learned English. We realized how different it really was to speak Chinese. We didn’t used to have to say what we meant, because our old language allows for a certain amount of room to wiggle.
In Chinese we can ask, “What’s it like?” because it can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple-sounding as the one-syllable “men” which means, you’re feeling stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?
But we did learn useful acronyms like DTF (Down To Fuck) and Holy Shit, and we also became really good at ordering coffee. We learned how to throw the word love around, say “LOL” and laugh without laughing.
That’s the story.
I tried to find this word “men” with a symbol of a heart trapped in a doorway. I didn’t do so well – while Indo-European words are relatively easy to research, Chinese offers special challenges, especially a word like “men” which in its English meaning is so ubiquitous as to mask what might be germane, and that’s without getting into delicate shades of meaning and context. But I did find a few Chinese dictionaries on googlebooks that might give a clue: one specifically lists one cites “stifling, lacking good ventilation; (of a person) full of ideas but not inclined to talk.” Another discusses a compound, meaning “sad, melancholy, a heart… before a shut up door”. I think I see the connection with what the narrator is saying, yes?
In the 60s, at the height of the nonconformist craze, there was a little quip going around that ended up incorporated into a couple of songs over the decades: “I want to be different, just like everybody else.” Nonconformism becomes its own prison, and hipsters return now to the styles of yesteryear to underline their nonconformity. So too are the lyrics of the song the band is working on in this story: “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where’s our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.” A life of freedom can turn you into a grain of sand as well.
We learn that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, like that the world appreciated their individuality. That they were raised thinking they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy. It was endlessly amazing.
I wonder how many Americans would tell them, it isn’t quite that easy. In fact, I suppose that’s the point of the whole story, that what’s happening to this ragtag group in Beijing and what the narrator is feeling is the same thing experienced by thousands of disaffected twentysomethings crowding into unzoned Brooklyn lofts, and that’s the same thing that drew thousands to Haight-Ashbury in 1967. How many of those died young? How many made a difference? And how many ended up twenty years later in a suburban home with a picket fence, worrying about taxes and insurance and the best schools for their kids?
And I know this story works, because at the end, I wondered how American individualism would work out for our narrator – whose name I never knew.