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Beijing, Beijing

Kylin Gao: The dragon heads chiseled on white stones are lasting reminders of the park’s first owners–the Mongols who conquered Beijing and founded their Dynasty.
Beijing

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

One cannot rest well when one’s hometown is at war, wrote Chinese poet Fu Du. It is even more so when one’s hometowns are at war with each other.

“You are from China?” Sergeant Wightman asked.

 Master Sergeant Wightman sat in the single spotlight in the unlit studio. The bright ring light exaggerated the crease extending from his cheeks to the corner of his mouth. The medals that he wiped before filming are pinned across his right chest. He talked about each of the patterned squares to the abyssal eye of the camera. I was in tenth grade, sitting squarely in front of him for a history project on US foreign policies. Whitman was a Korean and Vietnam War Army sergeant, Massachusetts-native, of English descent.

I said I grew up in Beijing. His gaze shifted from the camera to my face, once concealed in the darkness. For the first time, I heard myself. I heard how “Beijing” sounded, what it meant in his vocabulary, in his language. I heard the Anglicized pronunciation; the emphasis on the e instead of the i, the way I pronounced j like J in Jay instead of Jeep. I called my city by a different name. And I’m referring to a different city. One he knows without being there.

But the one I meant to refer to was a city he knew nothing about. 

“What is Peking like?” he asked.

Spring in the park is much prettier. When the tiny buds start popping up on the willow branch, in a couple of weeks, all of the soft branches will dip into the green water, getting snacked on by a crowd of baby ducks. The lily pads can grow so big that a child can lie on them in the summer without touching the water. The water lilies graduate from white to pink on the tip.

The dragon heads chiseled on white stones are lasting reminders of the park’s first owners–the Mongols who conquered Beijing and founded their Dynasty.

I remember my father telling me to be like the water lilies, to come from the mud but not be tainted by it. Elders in silky matching shirts and pants walk around to take photos of them, their cameras proudly hung in front of their chests. The dragon heads chiseled on white stones are lasting reminders of the park’s first owners–the Mongols who conquered Beijing and founded their Dynasty. They fell in love with the luxury of the agrarian lifestyle, my mother said; that’s what Beijing does to all invaders.

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The people who roamed through half of the continent built granite temples in the center of the city and gardens for their families. When the emperor died, the park was inherited by the next one. Three more dynasties came and went, a republic rose and fell. 

The rubbery surface of street crossing bridges is where wrinkle-skinned, accented vendors set up shops for electronic gadgets. Spongebob-shaped iPod case, plastic pearl-embedded iPhone cases, and teal apple earbuds lay on a white bed sheet. The vendors eyed each passing pedestrian without a word. From the bridge, the sidewalk looked like ants crawling in a colony, busy tracing their line of scent. I brush shoulders with hundreds of strangers each day. The sidewalk is never wide enough, so people walk on the bike path. The bikes with groceries hanging from the handles traverse the motor path. 

Almost everyone in the city has a hometown, a lineage, a taste of childhood that doesn’t fit in the cold, gray streets of the city. Everyone was once enchanted by the city’s opportunity and modernity and begrudged at one’s own inability to feel at home. My father’s accent came on like a broken radio. At one spot of the house, he spoke it fluently. Three steps further, he stuttered and spoke in a different tone. Unlike me, he wasn’t born in The Capital. He made it to Beijing.

My friend’s father came to Beijing with an elementary school education and a driver’s license. He drove pianos around the city to make a living. He wanted his only daughter to study beyond elementary school. Her mother painted nails at a salon. She motorcycled my friend for an hour and a half to my elementary school every day.

I grew up with a Manchu boy who had never left the city; neither did his parents or grandparents. His father often talked about the white stone bridges and alleys, and his father’s father talked about the Old Summer Palace before it became a ruin. The royal guards he had never seen but conversed with in dreams.

“It's a big city,” I replied.

Whenever “Beijing” appeared on CNN’s white and red captions, it reminded me of the lake, of the way people looked at ants from the crossover bridge. I supposed that I knew what CNN meant; CCP is what they meant.

The communist totalitarian regime is what they meant. But I couldn’t see Beijing fully in that light, just like someone from the US couldn’t see the tranquil lake and crosswalk bridge fully. I missed when I didn’t hear the name “Beijing” with someone else’s ears and saw memories that were not my own. But more than anything, I’m afraid that some will never see Beijing as a place where people live.

One cannot rest well when one’s hometown is at war, wrote Chinese poet Fu Du. I still remember how my friend hushed me at a rally in my town. Her eyebrows ticked up and her eyes glared to give me a message that says: don’t draw attention to yourself. The Asian American in an predominantly-white crowd, I’m a cardboard cutout of my race, my community, my country. Don’t draw attention to yourself, unless you want to be a piñata. 

Kylin Gao Promo Image

Three months ago, a Fox News guest said on live TV that the US “needs a military full of Type A men who want to sit on a throne of Chinese skulls.” I don't know if my skull is Chinese enough, but one of the people back in Beijing most definitely is. Beijing. Twenty million people are living in a seven-letter word. Between seven letters, students are running across the street to catch the bus, elders walking their birds between the two-people-wide alleyways in the morning so early that the dew hasn’t evaporated. Beijing, no matter how irredeemable it is, is someone’s home. 

Kylin Gao