“Ah. The usual,” he says.
“Want some company?”
Lao Zhang hesitates.
It’s a little weird. I can’t think of a time when I’ve called that he hasn’t invited me over. Even times when I don’t want to leave my apartment, when I just want to hear a friendly voice, he’ll always try and talk me into coming out; and sometimes when I won’t, he’ll show up at my door a couple hours later with takeout and cold Yanjing beer. He’s that kind of person. He works hard, but he likes hanging out too, as long as you don’t mind him working part of the time. And I don’t. A lot of times I’ll sit on the sagging couch in his studio while he paints, listening to my iPhone, drinking beer, surfing on his computer. I like watching him paint too, the way he moves, relaxed but in control. It feels comfortable, him painting, me sitting there.
“Sure,” he finally says. “Why don’t you come over?”
“You sure you’re not too busy?”
“No, come over. There’s a performance tonight at the Warehouse. Should be fun. Call me when you’re close.”
Maybe I shouldn’t go, I think, as I swipe my yikatong card at the Wudaokou light rail station. Maybe he’s seeing somebody else. It’s not like we’re a couple. Even if it feels like we are one sometimes.
Sure, we hang out. Occasionally fuck. But he could do a lot better than me.
“Lao” means “old,” but Lao Zhang’s not really old. He’s maybe thirteen, fourteen years older than I am, around forty. They call him “Lao” Zhang to distinguish him from the other Zhang, who’s barely out of his teens and is therefore “Xiao” Zhang, also an artist at Mati Village, the northern suburb of Beijing where Lao Zhang lives.
Before I came to China, I’d hear “suburb” and think tract homes and Wal-Marts. Well, they have Wal-Marts in Beijing and housing tracts—Western-style, split-level, three bedroom, two bath houses with lawns and everything, surrounded by gates and walls. Places with names like “Orange County” and “Yosemite Falls,” plus my personal favorite, “Merlin Champagne Town.” But Mati Village isn’t like that.
Getting to Mati Village is kind of a pain. It’s out past the 6th Ring Road, and you can’t get all the way there by subway or light rail, even with all the lines they built for the ’08 Olympics. From Haidian, I have to take the light rail and transfer to a bus.
It’s not too crazy a day. The yellow loess dust has been drowning Beijing like some sort of pneumonia in the city’s lungs, typical for spring in spite of all those trees the government’s planted in Inner Mongolia the last dozen years. The dust storms died down last night, but people still aren’t venturing out much. So I score a seat on the bench by the car door, let the train’s rhythms rattle my head. I close my eyes and listen to the recorded announcement of the stations, plus that warning to “watch your belongings and prepare well” if you are planning to exit. All around me, cell phones chime and sing, extra-loud so the people plugged into iPods can still hear them.
The nongmin don’t have iPods. The migrants from the countryside are easy to spot: tanned, burned faces; bulging nylon net bags with faded stripes; patched cast-off clothes; strange, stiff shoes. But it’s the look on their faces that really gives them away. They are so lost. I fit in better here than they do.
Sometimes I want to say to these kids, what are you doing here? You’re going to end up living in a shantytown in a refrigerator box, and for what? So you can pick through junked computer parts for gold and copper wire? Do “foot massage” at some chicken girl joint? Really, you’re better off staying home. Like I’m one to talk. I didn’t stay home either.
Excerpted from Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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