The Beijing Sickness

Those who’ve read my previous blog posts (all four of you) know that I often write in praise of Beijing. I have many good memories of the city and life there. But it was an acquired taste. In fact, for the first several years I disliked it intensely. In fact, one of the worst periods of life I’ve ever endured took place in Beijing, a few months after arriving.

I moved to Beijing in late August 2005. I’d finished my master’s degree, hopscotched across the United States seeing people, then flown from Vancouver to Shanghai on an Air Canada flight with a one-way ticket in hand. After a week in Shanghai, I boarded an overnight train to Beijing and the next day dragged two suitcases and a couple of backpacks through the front gate of the Beijing Film Academy ready to embark on the life of a sinologist. By December, I was sicker than I had ever been before.

It started with an orange which I had bought at a fruit stand. I ate it one evening in the campus kafei ting–coffee shop–where students would go to study or argue scripts or just socialize. It was unheated and I was cold all the time because it was winter and I didn’t have a proper winter coat. Every day I went around wearing the same five layers of clothes like some Shaanxi farmer. The mistake was eating the orange before it had a chance to heat up to room temperature. That was enough to kick my body over the edge.

The sickness started in the stomach and emanated out from there affecting every part of my being. I completely lost my appetite. Waves of nausea went through me day after day. The only thing I was able to stomach–and I ate it every meal for almost three weeks–was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I would trudge out the back gate of the Film Academy and down the alley behind it which wound through the guts of a typically ramshackle Beijing neighborhood. In that alley there was a Dia grocery store where I could count on finding Skippy peanut butter (the crunchy kind), grape jelly and (vaguely savory) sliced white bread.

I would go back to the dormitory and sit on the wooden chair at my desk and assemble two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–the jelly always before the peanut butter. I would wash the knife in the sink in the dorm room bathroom. Then I would polish off the sandwiches, crusts and all.

I was extremely poor back then–living off an RMB1,100 stipend as part of the Harvard-Jiang Zemin Fellowship–and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were the only western food I could afford. As my diet pinholed, my immune system collapsed and flu and sickness raced through me. I was in bed for an entire week. I had some sort of medical coverage, but I didn’t use it. Nor did I take any medicine. Nor did anyone suggest that I take some medicine. I just layed there in a daze watching DVDs.

It was a miserable time–the most miserable time I’ve ever had in China. I hated everything. Nothing was right. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt betrayed by my dreams. I was deeply lonely. A couple of friends from Shanghai days took pity on me and one night invited me to a nice Xinjiang restaurant which had decent quality food and performances. I scowled through the entire meal. I told them I wanted to give up.

But of course I didn’t. And in time things turned around. The flu went away and at some point I was able to eat Chinese food again. And shortly thereafter I got a commission to do some editing work on a couple of China books at the Harvard Asia Center over the winter holiday break. I borrowed money from my parents and bought a return plane ticket. This was more like the life I had imagined. Things were looking up.

Subsequently I have heard other people tell about their own Beijing sickness. It’s a phase transition some people have to go through. Scientifically it’s probably about replacing the western bacteria in your guts with their Chinese counterparts. And I’ve never heard of it happening in Shanghai–only Beijing and other rural places in China. I lived in Shanghai for many years before Beijing and never experienced anything like that.

It’s more than culture shock or acclimatization. It’s completely physical. In some way, it is becoming Chinese. It’s a reminder that our bodies are on life support tethered to the stuff immediately around us. When you unhook from one system and hook into another, this is the result as the system responds and rebalances. Maybe that goes for identity as well. They don’t talk about things like that in culture studies, but maybe they should.

And still to this day, I never eat cold fruit in winter.



One thought on “The Beijing Sickness

  1. I never heard this piece of life told quite so well. You are a great writer and budding cultural analyst. I think you are correct as your dad and I are about to make our own semi annual shift in a very small way – southwest to midwest. We are rounding Indy heading for FtWayne. Miss you and do enjoy.White Confucius.

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