Chekhov wrote: "A writer should be destitute. He should know he'll die of hunger if he doesn't write, if he gives into his laziness. Writers should be put on chain-gangs and forced to write … Oh how I thank Fate that I was so poor in my youth!" Elsewhere he wrote, to the contrary, that writers need financial security. The dialectic is the point.
I'm always slightly baffled when anybody likes my writing, and equally baffled when anybody does not. I'm grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for giving me money and confidence. There is more for me to write about China.
Excerpt from The Beijing of Possibilities
She can't imagine ever leaving Hainan. The sand, the sky, the coconut palms, the sea yes, the sea above all. The sea is always there. It's alien, unknowable, and doesn't necessarily love her, but it's there. The sea is her mother.
Then again, what does she want? How should she know? The man is right: thousands of people are eager to migrate to Beijing. Who's to say she isn't that kind of person?
The whole village pulls together to give her this big chance. Someone finds her a place to live, in the home of a Hainanese family in a western suburb. Someone else arranges a job for her there, at a company. Nobody's quite sure what the company does, and the salary won't be much, but it's a job! And the party secretary himself loans her the one-way fare, for bus and ferry and train.
She stands at the stop, her father at her side. He made landfall yesterday, and in a few days he'll set out again. Neither is the talkative sort; they don't look each other in the eye. Thoughts pass between them, ebbing and flowing, of parenthood and love and loss. The daughter's suitcase holds the warmest clothing she has, and one knitted bootie. The father smells as always of the ocean.
Another year, and there's a routine to her life. She sleeps on a mat on the floor of the living room of a husband and wife who are seldom at home. Her job is an hour's commute to the northeast; she works in the basement of an office building. She's on her own there, sorting the incoming mail, delivering it to offices throughout the stories above. Sometimes she's called on to make tea. Sometimes she operates the shredder machine, converting documents to illegible, off-white matter. (She's not considered reliable enough yet to be entrusted with the photocopier.) Her companions are the shredder (nicknamed by her, Gao Gao), the machine for weighing letters and the machine for franking them (twins, Bao and Zhao), and the trash can (oddly enough the only female, Xiao Bing).
The company is in the telemarketing field. The other employees, all women, wear uniforms of tan skirts and blue blouses and look down on her the hick. They cold-call clients all across China. Nobody would want to listen to her accent. The boss is male. According to the gossip, he's in the habit of picking on telemarketers, making their lives a misery a different target every few weeks. The victims are all pretty; this is not her fate.
The sights of Beijing? It's a gray and lonely city. Its anonymity is its consolation: you'll never again encounter the person who slips past you on the street or who sits opposite on the subway not if you live ten thousand lives. Its vastness: so much is here that nothing is here. The stores sell things she cannot afford. If she were asked to describe in visual detail a bus or a subway car, a particular shop, a crossroads, let alone a person, she'd be unable to.
The sounds of Beijing? The couple with whom she's lodging gave her a pair of earplugs flesh-color, waxen things, two halves of a caterpillar. 'Put these in at night.' She guesses the intention is to stop her from overhearing them make love, on the far side of the thin wall. She wouldn't hear them anyway. Her sleep is profound, without dreams. She wears the earplugs on her commute also. And at work too, often. Her coworkers seldom address her, and when they do it's a curt instruction or complaint. The office is located near the Fourth Ring Road. It abuts a demolition/construction site, where old buildings are being wrecked and the foundations of new ones laid. Every few days: a siren, followed a minute later by an explosion. The mail room quakes. More constantly she hears and feels the dull determination of a pile driver, the scrape and thud of backhoe and bulldozer, the tinnitus of traffic. She's within these noises, and they are within her like a dentist setting up shop inside her mouth.
One morning in winter she feels sad, and it takes her most of the day to work out why: the date is January 12. She thinks of contacting the parents, but what would she say? I'm sorry about the death of your ... of our ... Remember me? I'm fostering the little girl who doesn't exist.
About the only excitement in her life is when the municipal security stop her. They lie in wait at the foot of the pedestrian bridge she crosses between bus and subway. In her first year and a half, it happens to her twice. She shows them her residence permit. They scrutinize it. Fake? They're disappointed to discover she's entitled to be here, and so, in a way, is she.
Who can believe in Beijing? Only those who've never been and those who've left; it comes to life in imagination and memory. The smell of Beijing? Smog. Dust. Her sinuses are affected; she has lost that sense. The taste of Beijing? She eats rice three times a day, drinks tea, not much else. The touch of Beijing? Outside boutiques, there are women (immigrants like herself, she assumes) hired to clap, to attract customers. Day and night, sun and rain and snow, the clapping goes on. Whenever she passes a professional clapper, she rams her earplugs deeper into her skull. Silent applause now: the sore palms coming together and moving apart.
Jonathan Tel received his MS in theoretical physics and PhD in philosophy of science from Stanford University. His published books include a story collection about Israelis and Palestinians, Arafat's Elephant (Counterpoint, 2002), which was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award; a novel, Freud's Alphabet (Counterpoint, 2003), dream-variations on Sigmund Freud's last year in 1939 London; and The Beijing of Possibilities (Other Press, 2009), a story sequence that unfolds in contemporary China, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and Yale Review. Tel has received residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio. He has lived in San Francisco, Tokyo, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Beijing, and New York.
Photo by Jonathan Tel