Our guesthouse in Beijing was located down an alley in a little hutong near Wangfujing Shopping Vortex. It was cute, quiet, and small, with a weirdly high number of families with children and a lackluster bar out front. We briefly died in the air conditioning of our little windowless room for awhile, then decided to sally forth to maybe find dinner.
That goddamned hutong was pretty magical, let me tell you. After all the crumbling Soviet apartment blocs and tacky skyscrapers of UB (I’m looking at you, Rainbow Building), it was nice to see something old, pretty, and well-lived-in. There were all sort of little crannies in which to creepily peer at people doing their laundry or petting their cat. It was all soft gray stone with occasional touches of paint and OH MY GOD NOBODY STARED AT US. Nobody gave a single solitary shit that we were there, except to ring their bicycle bells as they passed us.
There was something about just wandering aimlessly, taking whatever turn we desired. Nobody was waiting for us, we didn’t have to plan anything or be anywhere. The unfamiliar language just flowed over us uncomprehended. We might as well have not been there at all. It was something I hadn’t felt in a long time, this anonymity that makes you feel completely untouchable, like you could glide without incident right across the world and nobody would notice or mind.
So we dicked through the hutong in this manner, not feeling terribly hungry, and wound up at a little restaurant that had the embarrassing necessity of pictures on the menu. Suddenly our not-belonging had become a burden. China is much easier when you have a Chinese speaker around to babysit you.
We had our eggplant and pork and beer, and it Jesus Christ it was so nice to not eat Mongolian food any more. I have this kind of impotent rage when it comes to Mongolian food. There’s no not eating it, so while you’re eating it, you might as well pretend you like it, as it makes people happy and you’re going to have to eat it anyway. But I still have this fantasy where suddenly I stand up in front of all my Mongolian acquaintances and scream “I don’t like your food! I was lying! It’s awful and I’m NOT EVEN SORRY.” So there’s that.
We finished our dinner feeling normal and decided to stroll on down the main street to see what was what. That’s when we came upon Wangfujing, which is just…a howling brightly lit tunnel of Shit You Can Buy. I don’t even remember what we were looking for but we ended up following a bathroom sign into some kind of Uber Mall.
Now, keep in mind that neither of us had seen such a place in a very long time, and this one was a Big One. We wound our way through the blazing white corridors clutching each other’s hands like terrified children. There was an Apple Store, Forever 21, the Gap, H+M, something called “David’s Story”, a Pizza Hut…
And that’s when it happened.
I don’t know if any of you have read “The Second Bakery Attack,” but the premise is basically that there is this couple who wakes up in the middle of the night REALLY FUCKING HUNGRY. They eat some scraps in their kitchen but it’s not enough, the hunger only gets worse. They have to think of a way to fill this special new kind of hunger. I won’t give away the rest, but trust, vaguely creepy hilarity ensues.
Anyway, there in the Wangfujing Mall, my Traveling Companion and I got hard-core Second Bakery Attacked.
“A special kind of hunger. And what might that be?
I can present it here in the form of a cinematic image.
One, I am in a little boat, floating on a quiet sea. Two, I look down, and in the water I see the peak of a volcano thrusting up from the ocean floor. Three, the peak seems pretty close to the water’s surface, but just how close I cannot tell. Four, this is because the hypertransparency of the water interferes with the perception of distance.”
Suddenly we had to EAT. In a frantic, uncontrollable, terrifying way we had to eat and we had to eat EVERYTHING. We stopped at Pizza Hut and ordered two pizzas, plus bubble milk tea (“Preference given to persons with the deformities.” read our receipt). We paid, left, and hightailed it to KFC two doors down where we each ate a Zinger meal with fries. We were still hungry, so we got ice cream from Dairy Queen (which my friend Juli once called “the only place where you can see fat girls in China”). It was a deep, pathological hunger.
“While she hunted for more fragments of food, I leaned over the edge of my boat and looked down at the peak of the underwater volcano. The clarity of the ocean water all around the boat gave me an unsettled feeling, as if a hollow had opened somewhere behind my solar plexus–a hermetically sealed cavern that had neither entrance nor exit. Something about this weird sense of absence–this sense of the existential reality of non-existence–resembled the paralyzing fear you might feel when you climb to the very top of a high steeple. This connection between hunger and acrophobia was a new discovery for me.”
It made sense, in a way. Sure, we had been missing “Western” food, but we had just spent 2 weeks in UB eating all the pizza and burgers we wanted. So why now? This hunger was sudden, powerful, and overtook both of us. There was obviously something else going on.
Suddenly we were untethered. We had been in a place for two years, a place which made us inescapably visible. We were constantly being tracked, being cared for, being coddled and looked after not only by our Mongolian friends and coworkers but by the mighty US Government herself. Our health was monitored, our behavior measured, every seemingly meaningless gesture packed with significance, every action a means towards an end. Were we integrating well? Were we adjusting adequately? Were we interfacing with community gatekeepers? Were we fostering any goddamn Betweenness?
We had been harnessed to the toddler leash of Mommy Peace Corps for 24 months. Now we were suddenly adrift, with nobody to track our whereabouts, nobody to give us antibiotics, nobody to claim us. We were no longer PCVs With Opinions Not Of The US Government but just two idiots in an enormous foreign place. We had made it to the top of the mountain and now we were free, staring at the emptiness below us, all the time and space in the world to do whatever we desired. It was fucking terrifying, and the hunger was our reaction–a physical manifestation of the sudden gaping emptiness that had just opened up beneath our feet. What do you do when confronted with the horror of so much possibility? You do what you can. You eat 4 dinners.
After the ice cream we extracted ourselves from the mall (though we would be back many times) and went wandering out into the drizzling darkness. We acted as if nothing had happened, commenting briefly on how disgusting we both were. With that, the matter was put to rest. There would be many more days for this kind of reflection. It was only our first.