Dispatches, Translation

A Foreigner in Beijing16 min read

Reflections of a returnee – Liuyu Ivy Chen

Editor’s note: This feature about the urban village of Feijiacun by an expatriate returning after seven years to find the city changed, was written in Chinese and translated by the author, after she was told it could not be published in China.

When I arrived in Beijing in January, I paused on the sidewalk and looked up: the sky was blue, cloudless, immense. I went to college in this city, and often visited after graduation. Back then, Beijing’s sky was typically a murky palette, a mix of smog, dust and sand from carbon emissions, courtyard demolitions, subway construction and northwestern storms. I soon learned that the government had shut down the city’s coal-burning heating systems during a recent eviction campaign which targeted low-skilled migrants. This controversial operation was vaguely documented in the Chinese media, but its result was clearly reflected on the sky.

I was in the capital for a one-month international artist residency. My studio was in Feijiacun, a vibrant community of migrants, artists and foreigners outside the northeastern Fifth Ring Road. In my living compound, art studios, dance companies, new-media start-up bases, and other creative functions filled rows of former red-brick warehouses. About a month earlier, local authorities had demanded that all Feijiacun renters pack up and leave within three weeks – part of the city-wide eviction campaign under the banner of “safety hazards elimination,” launched after a fire in Daxing killed at least 19 people last November. When the deadline approached, a raging protest broke out in Feijiacun, but was subdued by police and ignored by the Chinese media.

Unaware of this protest until after I returned to the United States, it nonetheless felt surreal when I walked on Feijiacun’s eerily quiet, zigzagging streets. A few open restaurants and shops clung on, often with For Lease notices on the doors, in reaction to the rising rent or to trick the fire-inspection authorities.

Our residency program coordinator, a former Chinese punk rock star who was forced to move out of Feijiacun during the eviction campaign, gave us a stern warning not to take photos in Feijiacun. Local Chinese residents were suspicious of any camera-holders, especially foreigners, and would report them to the authorities, who would interrogate our host program and demand a tighter control on the “free-range” artists.  

Because coal-burning heating systems were abruptly banned from use, natural gas infrastructure was largely unavailable, and electric heating was expensive, many former Feijiacun residents were effectively driven out of Beijing. My host residency program had installed an electric unit in each of our studios to ensure 24-hour heating. Our driver and administrative aide, Mr. Li, told me that each studio’s electricity bill would cost the residency program about 3,000 yuan (nearly $500) per month.

“Make sure you turn off the heating unit whenever you go out,” Mr. Li said tersely after checking the breaker box in my studio. I grew up in southeast China, where most locals never had access to indoor heating, even though the temperature in the damp, mountainous valley could drop below freezing. It made the winter months in the south unbearable compared to the north, where indoor heating systems are normally in place. Mr. Li’s suggestion reminded me of my childhood coping with the numbing cold, so I agreed to comply, only to find out later that he had advised my Austrian neighbor to keep the heating unit on all the time without a worry. I found this double standard offensive, and reassured myself that I was now an “international artist” entitled to the bare-minimum living standard of a developed world. I kept the heating unit running nonstop for the entire month.

Mr. Li, born in 1981, came from a village in Hebei Province near Beijing. He left his wife and children to work in the capital as a migrant worker 16 years ago. Mr. Li had planned for his two children to join him so he could enroll them in a Beijing migrant school, yet he was the exact kind of low-skilled laborer that the government was trying to weed out in order to transform Beijing into a safe, beautiful and international capital.

“There is nothing I can do. The government is determined to leave no room for us underdogs to breathe.” Mr. Li shook his head as we chatted in his car. Because his small village could not provide elementary education above the third grade, his children would have to leave home when they reached age eight to attend a boarding school ten miles away, which Mr. Li himself did as a child. He did not respond as I wondered aloud if his family might have a better chance to immigrate to America.

During meals, Mr. Li listened to our conversations in English concerning arts, travel and international affairs, quietly picking at the dishes. He understood a little English but could not speak any. His stoic quietness reminded me of my early days in New York, sitting in silence among my American classmates, foreign to the literary references and political jokes.

A Chinese proverb goes, “Water flows down, people walk up.” In times of peace, leaving home for better opportunities is a choice of freedom. Another example is Mr. Gu, an established Chinese artist from Fujian Province in the south who now lived in a spacious studio near Feijiacun while operating a sculpture foundry further on the outskirts of Beijing. During the eviction campaign, the police inspected his foundry and warned him about the broken roof and his use of a stove in the kitchen, which presented a fire hazard. Gu had hired an ayi to cook for a dozen Chinese workers; they ate at the table like a family every day. He dutifully fixed the roof and talked his way out of the cooking violation.

“We are walking on brittle ice every day. Our fate is all subject to the government’s whim.” Gu served us exquisite Wuyi rock tea in his studio, performing, with scholarly pride, a tea ceremony on a Ming Dynasty table. Many of Gu’s artist friends who were less well-connected had returned to their hometowns as a result of the evictions. Gu remained in the center of the storm: “We must fight as fiercely as we can to get in the elite circle so as not to fall into the underclass abyss. There is no middle ground.”

We are walking on brittle ice every day. Our fate is all subject to the government’s whim

Although Gu’s foundry was doing well, his family had no hope to get a Beijing hukou (household registration record), which provides coveted education, property rights, healthcare and other civil benefits, but is extremely difficult to obtain for Chinese migrants. Gu had been saving money to send his children overseas –– perhaps New Zealand – for their education. He and his wife were now weighing the pros and cons of her going with them.

When I mentioned that a rural migrant worker like Mr. Li would run in circles when chasing his dreams, Gu paused for a second and said, “If Mr. Li has worked in Beijing for 15 years and is still a driver, it might be an indication that he is not working hard enough.”

Throughout the months, more and more migrants returned to Feijiacun. The sound boxes in the Oppo stores cleared their throats to hawk colorful smartphones with myriad modern functions; fruit shops were warmly lit, with sugarcane peels and peanut hulls covering the grimy floors; marinated duck necks and animal intestines in the corner stalls oozed mouth-watering aromas; hair salons sent waves of hip music out of their glass doors, where barber’s poles were lit. By the end of the month, the dingy East-West Clinic reopened. It claimed to perform “professional B ultrasounds, ring insertion or removal, painless abortion, drug-induced abortion, vaginitis treatment, and cervical erosion repair.”

Outside Feijiacun, on Laiguangying East Road, a parallel universe orbited around a gated residential community of American-style villas, McDonald’s, Annie’s Italian Food, Michael’s German Bakery, Fella’s Canadian-American Pub, and Jenny Lou’s International Supermarket. They served the nearby Western Academy of Beijing, a European-style international school, and the foreign artists living nearby. These facilities withstood the eviction storm targeting Chinese migrants, but the foreigners were far from feeling secure, running about like ants on a hot wok, scuttling to maintain their legal status in China.

A foreign freelancer or temporary worker has to arrange a regular trip outside of mainland China to reset the clock on their tourist or other visa. For those with long-term goals in mind, weaving through a delicate social network is necessary to secure a formal Chinese visa. In addition, foreigners are required to register at a local police station when they arrive, move or travel, and they can only check into government-authorized hotels that are eligible to accommodate waibin, foreign guests.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to classify foreigners in China into A – B – C grades, by encouraging the top experts, controlling the mediocre professionals, and limiting the low-skilled workers to build an innovation-driven economy. According to an evaluation chart, the highest score goes to the young and strong alumni of the world’s top 100 universities, earning more than 450,000 yuan (about $70,000) a year with work experience at Fortune 500 companies, possessing technology patents or intellectual property rights. They not only speak fluent Chinese, but show deep loyalty to the People’s Republic of China, serving where the country needs them the most – northwest, northeast and central China – and sacrificing their comfort to build a socialist China in the new era.

The foreign artists I mingled with in Beijing carefully navigated the blind spots of the surveillance-camera-covered capital to gain a different kind of attention – international recognition. Although their ratings were unlikely to be flattering, foreigners from first world countries still enjoyed cultural and emotional privileges among the Chinese populace. When I went out with them and spoke fluent English, I not only felt admired by other Chinese people, but I myself could not help indulging in a ticklish feeling of pride, especially when I remembered that my ancestors were mostly southern farmers who “buried their faces into the brown earth and showed their hunched backs to the sky,” and did not even speak Mandarin Chinese, let alone English. When my foreign friends ordered dishes in a restaurant, the waiters would be extra attentive to keep them away from any shocking ingredients that a Chinese chef-magician might throw into a flaming wok.

I met an American visual artist named Joe who came to China on a temporary visa the year before. After his wife became pregnant, they decided to have the baby in China where the delivery would be less costly (they had dropped out of their Medicaid plan in America) – they were now scrambling to secure a long-term Chinese visa. I was excited to find out that Joe came from Atlanta, where I live, and Joe initiated a passionate commentary about Atlanta’s gentrification issues. The art studio he had rented in East Atlanta Village had recently been demolished to make way for new construction. In a video, Joe stood on the roof of the studio, waving at a large crowd while championing human rights, justice and world peace, which were also his artistic themes.

When I heard Joe’s condemnation of Atlanta’s gentrification, I scrutinized my conscience for traces of guilt, and decided to remain silent. With the help of my Chinese parents, I was able to purchase a small one-bedroom apartment in the prime, wooded neighborhood of Midtown Atlanta for a price that could maybe afford a closet in Beijing or New York.

Artists often latch on to intricate circumstances to unleash their artistic expression. Yet Joe’s victimhood had vanished once he arrived in Beijing. His wife was now teaching English at an international school, where their young daughter enjoyed China’s most privileged education, usually reserved for children of high-ranking Chinese officials and celebrities. His wife’s work visa was now being processed, enabling Joe to maintain his status as an international artist. Their son would be born in a private Chinese hospital with enviable features – fair skin, big eyes and straight nose.

One can walk around the city and find these desirable features on bright advertisement billboards promoting skin-whitening products, haute couture brands, and plastic surgery clinics that zoom in on high-resolution images of white models with prominent facial features and porcelain skin. In addition, the key ingredients or technologies of popular Chinese products are often claimed to derive from a developed country, such as France, Germany, New Zealand or the United States. These companies’ Chinese CEOs often highlight their credentials from Silicon Valley or Ivy League MBA programs.

I grew up believing in the value of these pedigrees, and I was eager to blend into the mainstream after I arrived in New York City for graduate school. When I graduated and met other Chinese in New York to exchange grievances, we often fretted about our flawed English, which precluded a job, a promotion, a relationship or social status. For us, speaking English so fluently as to slowly lose our mother tongue marked an evolutionary victory, worthy of boasting under the disguise of grouchiness. As a result, I kept Chinese-language workplaces at arm’s length, but accepted unpaid internships from reputable institutions such as the United Nations, cheerfully ignoring the irony: while I supported the UN mission to empower young women from developing countries, I myself was struggling with an expiring visa and bleak job prospects.

On the policy level, whether openly or in a veiled fashion, both China and the United States are shrewd calculators in restraining immigrants. However, at the personal level, a foreign resident’s self-esteem often presents a stark contrast between the two countries. The foreigners I met in Beijing faced little pressure to change their languages, values and beliefs. Upon feeling a tic of discomfort in China, their criticism would rarely turn towards themselves – precisely the “cultural confidence” endorsed by Big Daddy Xi in his Confidence Doctrine: “Confidence in our socialist path with Chinese characteristics, confidence in our theory, confidence in our system, and confidence in our culture.”

A phenomenon frequently furrowing a foreigner’s forehead is hapei – a pedestrian strolling past who suddenly spits green slime out of a clogged throat onto the ground, and walks away calmly. Empathetic foreigners would try to rationalize this public habit as a medical condition or a symptom of pollution. Sometimes, they cannot resist the temptation to give it a try, too. But what drove my Austrian neighbor to his wits’ end was when he was packed in a dense crowd, and a gunk out of nowhere would explode, flying by his neck. When he turned, the shooter of the soft bullet had disappeared into “the apparition of faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough,” leaving the artist wondering wistfully whether the sludge had clung to his coat or slipped down his collar.

At last, we find ourselves torn between the alternating angst of humiliation and indignation.

Chinese people are used to feeling ashamed of themselves on their home turf. The ancient sage Zengzi taught everyone to “reflect on [yourself] three times a day.” Modern prime minister Zhou Enlai famously pledged to “work hard for the rise of China,” mobilizing generations of Chinese youth into action – JFK would not have needed to admonish us. In addition, our post-1989 textbooks urge us to “let the Western imperialists who had trampled our land witness our strength with regret.” Further, because family scandals are not to be broadcasted, we see our faults but resent external criticisms. At last, we find ourselves torn between the alternating angst of humiliation and indignation.

Fortunately, Big Daddy Xi prescribes one dose after another of spirit-triumph drugs for the 1.4 billion commoners who seem more at a loss in the materially-abundant peace years than during the war-torn 20th century:

     “Listen to the party’s command; we can win the war.”
     “Follow the key values of socialism; study the spirit of the party’s 19th National Congress.”
     “Use Xi Jinping’s action guide to realize socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era; work persistently towards the great revival of the Chinese people’s dream.”

These banners fly over wide avenues and narrow alleys, tall buildings and low bridges, boosting Chinese citizens’ morale. But most of the foreigners around me could not read Chinese, compromising their study of Big Daddy Xi’s spirit of the party’s 19th National Congress and opening a gulf between them and their Chinese colleagues.

Towards the end of my residency, I attended an embassy event at Tsinghua University. During the evening cocktail party, a Russian project manager at an art gallery and a British marketer for an architecture firm discussed the “five-year itch.” Normally, a skilled foreign worker would leave China within five years after gaining substantial field experience. Those who remained past five years would spot each other in a crowd mixed with old and new faces, becoming immediate confidants and combing through each other’s emotional threads to untie knotted strands of despair.

As I listened, I remembered it would be my seventh year in America when I returned. I still speak with a heavy accent and I always need a native English speaker to proofread my writing. Yet as I become more skillful in parsing linear English syllables, the symbols of Chinese ink characters are slowly fading away. I find myself uprooted, standing in the middle of a passage, outside an exit and before an entrance. At last, I have obtained my dual foreignership.

By the end of 2018, Feijiacun’s main streets have been razed and all residents are evacuated, except for stray dogs and a few stubborn property owners. Our host program lost all six studios in Feijiacun and found new residency space near the 798 Art Zone. Nobody seems to know what Feijiacun’s land will be used for. Perhaps a new shopping center, or a grove of trees.

Mr. Li is still working in Beijing as a driver. He visits his family in Hebei once a month or longer. His first daughter is now attending boarding school far away from home. When I asked him if there is any hope his children can go to school in Beijing, he answered, “Impossible!”

The Chinese artist Mr. Gu’s foundry is doing well and he is designing a new studio: “All the studios in Feijiacun are demolished. Beijing’s life is changing fast and I am used to it!”

The American artist Joe is back in Atlanta. We recently had coffee together in East Atlanta Village, where Joe seems to know everyone. It was only when I immersed myself in Joe’s element that I began to feel his sense of loss as an aged artist in the changing cityscape of Atlanta. When Joe told me that Feijiacun was demolished, I shared the loss with him.

Joe could not show me any photos of Feijiacun’s ruins, since he had deleted all the photos for fear of retribution from the Chinese authorities. After Joe’s baby was born in early summer, the air pollution intensified in Beijing. He and his wife found it frustrating that their infant had to be confined indoors at all time. Atlanta’s blue sky is a privilege he no longer takes for granted. ∎

Header image: Feijiacun (LydiaC)