There are two kinds of foreigners in China: ‘Flying Pigeons’ and ‘Forevers.’
Named after two popular brands of Chinese bicycles, “Flying Pigeons” leave after brief visits and “Forevers” stay indefinitely. Washington, D.C.-bred writer Val Wang is neither of these, despite coming of age in Beijing, Washington’s sister city.
Wang (pronounced “Wong”) grew up flitting from Potomac Chinese School to Chinese dance troupe practice to karate classes to piano lessons to tennis training — “de rigueur for a proper suburban Chinese-American upbringing,” she recalls. As one of many Chinese Americans who grew up with this routine in Potomac, Wang didn’t know to desire anything else. But when she rebelled in college with a shaved head and leftist politics, she began to crave everything that D.C society wasn’t –even if it meant reversing her family’s quest for the American dream and returning to the China her parents escaped before the cultural revolution.
Wang’s odyssey was wholly inspired by the film “Beijing Bastards,” a 1993 Chinese film that follows the aimless lives of Chinese hooligans who, in Wang’s words, either drink, have sex or curse in a steady rotation of three settings: concrete apartments, rock concerts or train tracks. While Wang admits there’s not much to “Beijing Bastards” in terms of cinematic excellence, the film imprints on her an image of contemporary China. Through avant garde film, Wang doesn’t see China as the stiff and stodgy motherland of her parents’ generation but China, a dark and sexy underground for societal misfits.
The quest for the latter China is chronicled in Wang’s new memoir, cheekily titled “Beijing Bastard.”
The nod to the film is entirely appropriate. Like “Beijing Bastards,” Wang’s memoir is more or less plotless, full of aimless meanderings from beds to bars to dinner tables. And while her story may have less drinking, sex and cursing, Wang still paints a specific scene of a specific China.
In one story, Wang can scarcely stomach the stench of a public outhouse. In another, she’s visiting China’s first IKEA store. Later in the book, Wang is seen surfing Beijing’s hipster scene, attending gallery openings and interviewing artist Ai Weiwei. Not long after, she is harassed by a policeman who suspects she’s living in illegal housing (she is).
She realizes that the China she lives in now is not the strict communist country her parents fled. But it’s not the subterranean art scene she had hoped for either. The film directors she idolizes and befriend ultimately disappoint her. The documentary subjects she pursues end up pursuing her.
These stories don’t add to Wang’s idea of herself as a bohemian filmmaker but pieced together, they weave a strange patchwork of longing familiar to anyone who has ever had a dream but was too afraid to seize it.
By fleeing to China, Wang desired to prove herself. But it’s in losing her dreams and recrafting them at the end that she discovers what five years in China had done to her.
“In Beijing, I lost ambition,” she said in an interview with She The People. “But I shed the ambition I grew up with and tried to construct new ambitions to fit what I wanted to do. … Part of me wants to be a complete slacker and part of me is really, really driven. Even after Beijing, that conflict has stayed with me.”
It’s tempting, at first, to equate Wang’s coming-of-age to China’s rapid growth before its Olympic debut in 2008. But China’s growth was meticulously planned by the government and Wang’s growth lags for years before sudden spurts of inspiration propel her to new phases in life. She is careful to distinguish herself from her setting.
“It can be hard for people to relate to China,” Wang said. By writing the book she hoped to “be a bridge for the people I had known there. But I wanted those people to be known as human beings, not as illustrations of social change.”
In practice, this meant writing about a Beijing family that carried on the tradition of old Peking opera but allowing them to merely exist instead of forcing them into archetypal champions of lost culture.
Channeling her desire to become a writer, Wang returned to the United States in 2002 for an MFA program in creative writing. After years of resisting the higher education encouraged by her parents, she confesses it was hard to admit she wanted what her parents desired for her all along: to create something of value. She now teaches at Bentley University outside of Boston, where she lives with her husband and twin sons.
Despite finally achieving the approval of her parents, she says she still has “contrarian impulses.” Caught somewhere between a “Flying pigeon” and a “Forever,” Wang’s not sure how her rebellious streak will manifest in her life post-China. But as she writes near the end of “Beijing Bastard,” perhaps her China won’t last long enough to fly away from or to stay in forever:
“I realized China was a place I could return to, a place my parents could return to, as long as I accepted that none of it could ever be counted on to stay the same.”
Val Wang will appear at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Nov. 8 at 1 p.m. for a discussion and book signing.