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A few years ago, in the wee hours of the morning near the Liangma River in Beijing, I was chomping down on a skewer of grilled chicken bought from a vendor on the street, just outside the Kunlun hotel. I was still a student at the time and had spent most of the night dancing my heart out in the Kunlun's swanky nightclub. As a student, this was an unusual choice for me. I was more used to the down and dirty clubs where all of the other foreign exchange students and underground artists go. I'd decided with two friends of mine to venture out and try this club for a change. Wow, what a difference a few Yuan can make! It was summer and sweltering inside, and hot, humid and gritty outside. Beijing is a dusty city. Winds whip dust down from the Mongolian plateau. Catching our breath outside, we munched away on our snacks, watching some very glamorous looking people come out for a break and a snack as well. I'd dressed up as fancy as I could, but had taken off my sports jackets because of the unbearable heat. I'd been sweating buckets inside. Some of the women coming out for a skewer of meat were models. A few of them were over 6 feet tall, which is pretty unusual for a Chinese girl. Waiting with an American friend of mine, I watched this fashion show pass by, the models walking down the street like they were on a catwalk in Milan. I've already mentioned the dust. If you've never been to Beijing, it's important to note that the sinuses can clog up quickly with dust and pollution. The preferred method in clearing them is to suck back your snot, hock a big luggy and then let it sail down to the pavement. I know, I know, not very elegant. My family and friends had to break me of this habit when I returned to the U.S. Well, as we watched this parade of beautiful women, one Chinese Amazon caught my eye. She was wearing a beautiful green and sparkling emerald-colored dress, with her shoulders bare. As I watched her, the dance music of the club still playing inside my skull, I imagined her on some Parisian runway, or on the arm of a wealthy industrialist. She seemed to embody grace in her every move. But suddenly the image was shattered. She stopped next to the curb, sucked back a gob of mucus, and after several loud snorts spit the green gob onto the pavement, right next to my foot. So much for the illusion of beauty…
After watching her slip off for a piece of grilled chicken, I decided to go back inside and track down my other friend, a woman from Hong Kong who loved to dance. If I didn't pull her out in time, we'd never make it home. My American friend decided he'd wait for us outside. The club was packed and it took me almost an hour to find her. By the time she'd collected her things and we left the hotel, the street scene had died. Most of the vendors had gone home. We grabbed our friend and looked for a cab. None of the drivers wanted to take us to the other side of town. Our Hong Kong friend told us that she had a cousin living nearby. We decided to escort her to her relative's place and then hunt down a taxi on our own.
Halfway there, because of the heat, we plopped down on a grassy curb for a rest. While we were talking, a large Chinese man in a leather jacket walked up to us. He wanted to practice his English, asking us how we liked Beijing. I told him Beijing was a great city. Then he invited us for tea. When we got up, he looked confused and upset. We'd thought he meant tea some other night, but he meant tea right now. I told him it was too late for tea, but if he gave us his phone number we could meet some other time. Offended by this, he gave us a dirty look and made a few unpleasant remarks about foreigners. Then he left in a rush. Our Hong Kong friend suggested we get a move on as well.
After we found the apartment building, she rang her cousin. Ten minutes later a slightly agitated Chinese woman came down to let our friend inside. We made our goodbyes and then I left with my friend. Either we'd find a cab or we'd have to walk across Beijing. There were no cabs out, so we decided to walk. This was the most tranquil we'd ever seen the city. It would be interesting to see the shops opening up and people bringing their goods in from the country to sell. Unfortunately, the man who we'd turned down for tea suddenly turned up… with his motorcycle gang in tow.
Apparently he'd followed us to the apartment block and then gone home and quickly rounded up a few of his friends. When I say "motorcycle gang," don't imagine a roaring mob of Hell's Angels on Harleys. There were only four or five of them on much smaller bikes, but still, they seemed scary enough. We spotted them a few blocks away from the apartment building. As bad luck would have it, my friend was 6 foot 4 with a shock of blond hair on top of his head. It would have been difficult for us to blend in with any of the locals out at that hour. We weren't sure what the intentions of the gang were. Perhaps the man wanted revenge for losing face, or maybe he really just wanted to have a cup of tea, no matter the cost. Well, we weren't going to stick around to find out. One of the gang members spotted us. They wheeled their bikes around. We bolted for a small alley and raced through it, and then we ran to another, ducking down behind a large bin, just outside of a construction site, all the while echoes of the hard techno music from the club playing through my mind. It was a great beat for a chase. After twenty minutes of carefully picking our way through some of the smaller streets, we felt it was light enough and safe enough to walk out in the open. I'm not sure what kind of lesson can be garnered from this story. Perhaps we should have gone to tea when invited, despite the late hour, or perhaps we should have caught the last taxi.