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The Great Charlie Brown The 1980s generation has to grow up sometime 现代都市里文艺青年们的 困惑、挣扎和追求

2016-01-10刘丽朵

汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年4期
关键词:文艺

刘丽朵

When Kongshan said she was coming to my house that day to eat, I hurried to get some chicken wings to make for her. She hadnt been over many times, and we didnt see each other often—you couldnt exactly say we were “BFFs”. The last time she came was spring of the previous year, or maybe spring the year before. The weather still hadnt heated up, and everyone was wearing sweaters. It was evening. As soon as she came through the door she took her thin, long coat off to show a black spaghetti-strap dress, revealing her shoulders. I asked, surprised, “Arent you cold?” Kongshan said she wasnt cold, but went straight for the shower, where she turned on the hot water. That day it was just me at home, and Kongshan appeared like a wind and disappeared into the shower behind the white door as the sound of falling water bled into the room. Id just mopped the floor, and it was still a bit moist. I stood alone outside the shower as the air blew in from every room in the house. It was cool and comfortable.

The oil in the wok was heated, so I threw in the peppers, and then the onions, frying as I went. I added some more oil, heated it, and then threw in the already cut chicken wings, plus a bit of red wine for flavour. While I was in the middle of this, Kongshan arrived. The smell of the chicken and spice was all around the room, but Kongshans perfume managed to make its presence known in the kitchen atmosphere.

“And what fragrance is that?” I asked.

“Paul Smith Rose,” she replied.

I had put thought into what I was going to wear, but I knew that Kongshan would have something to say about it. She wrinkled her brows as she asked me, “What kind of color combo is that?” I had some drab blue trousers on with a red shirt, underneath it a neon blue camisole. “You look like a rock band member from the last decade.” Yeah, sure.  So I look like a rocker from ages past—as if thats some really negative thing. I can accept that.

“I got you that electronic music you wanted, Portishead. Its a bit jazz, but I think theres some electronic elements in there, too.” When I brought the food to the table, Kongshan took out a CD. I read the yellow label “Mysterious, desolate, cold, and dark, this trashy trip-hop will delight…” I laughed, reading the label as I stuck the disc into the machine. The desolate, cold voice of the girl singing mixed with the drums and noise, just like the crappy spring weather that we were having in Beijing. I suddenly thought, just like the “rockers of ages past”—all those bands that Id listened to before—the traces had been wiped clean like how a tidal wave washes away all scars on the sand. Id had hard times in my youth, but Id gotten through them, and wiped them away. 2010 was an unbelievable year, and this year had just started. There had already been a number of earthquakes, and the smell of Armageddon was in the air. The real Armageddon, however, was that people born in the 1980s were now all entering their 30s.

Id been mumbling and whining since the previous day, just like before...After being comforted for an hour, I went on MSN and complained more to Kongshan.

“Yes, Yes, why are you complaining…” Id been at it for an hour when she wrote this.

“Because Im old.”

“Ah, so… (Said in the whiny style of a Korean soap opera).”

“I feel like theres no hope, Im holding back tears.” And I really was holding back tears, rather than just saying it.

“Ive already been whining for a year, crying about this and that… Two days ago I played cards with a group of people born after 1985, and I didnt dare tell them my age for fear of killing the mood.”

“Thats just it! I feel like Im past all that whining and love story stuff. Ive grown up, but Im also not on the level of my accomplished peers.”

“Thats right!!” My whining and complaining was always responded to with ardour from Kongshan. This is the basis of friendship.

And I think these people younger than me are also on the path to becoming accomplished.”

“I think Ive been cast off by my successful peers. Im an outsider with people of my own age now.”

The voice on the albumaccompanied us throughout our meal. The person I married—friends all call him Grandpa Q—sat at the same table as us. Grandpa Q believed that the Warring States poet Qu Yuan was the model for Lin Daiyu, one of the main female characters in Dream of the Red Chamber, which I had relayed as fact to Kongshan, which she approved of. She was like the reincarnation of Lin Daiyu: emotional, cold, and dark. Maybe that included me, too. Id been through the vicissitudes of decades (not just the run-up to my 30s for nothing) and in one year (which I cant remember precisely, a reflection of my age) I had a great discovery: the power that guides our ability to decide the direction of our lives isnt something else—its words. Words that for us are intuitive, innate, that provoke a certain kind of first reaction, enter into our commonly used vocabulary, and we find ourselves using them unconsciously. These words determine whether or not we like something, they determine everything. “Alone, lonely, and cold,” she would say. “A frail chrysanthemum opens late,” I would say. “Wilted,” she would say. “Not the concern of the solitary and sad,” I would say. “He lowers his head and laughs, as a dark flower blooms,” she would say.

After spending a lot of time and effort I discovered these words werent favorites. Most people liked words like “vigorous”, “successful”, and “moneyed”. Kongshan and I werent 100 percent on the same page. When she was in high school, she read a lot of French novels, and then in university Mishima Yukio and Tanizaki Junichiro made her view herself as such, whereas I was too busy swimming in Russian tears and vodka—walking through the psyches of those murderers became normal. We thought in the same vein: the words we both loved were all negative.

“Hows work?” Asked that guy I married, Grandpa Q, face and voice warm.

“Eh, Im busier when rent goes up,” Kongshan replied.

Kongshan had a very good job; she worked at a powerful media company, but the salary they gave her wasnt enough to get her to stop worrying about her 3,000 RMB monthly rent. She originally lived in Beijings Wudaokou suburb in an apartment she shared with others. When I helped her move out, there were cockroaches everywhere, and books were piled to the ceiling. The rent on that eight-square-meter room went up to 2,000 RMB, and so she moved to Wangjing, where for the same money she managed to get her own one-bedroom flat. A year later, that figure became 3,000, and after looking all around she found that there werent any comparable places below 3,000.

“In addition to going to all those press conferences, I can sometimes sell stuff weve already printed to marketing websites, 400 RMB for 1,000 characters,” said Kongshan, amused with herself.

“When you think about it, the people born in the 1960s were very lucky. They got all those preferential government policies, went to university for free, then the state gave them a job and a house. People born in the 70s did well, too. You have it the worst, those of you born in the 80s. You get nothing,” Grandpa Q sighed.

“Yeah. Like Yazhuang and Caiwang. They were in the same course during undergrad, but Yazhuang spent almost ten more years finishing his PhD. Hes going to be competing with people born in the 80s. Caiwang has a house, is in charge of his own department, and Yazhuang has nothing,” I said, raising an example. Caiwang was Kongshans supervisor, and was big in the media now.

“So Im saying, you have to look at peoples ‘effective age, like Yazhuang. You could say hes in the same lot with the 80s kids now,” said Kongshan.

“Okay, okay, well I want to do a PhD. After I finish, will that make me a 90s kid?” I was pumping my feet.

“Yep.”

“Not you, dont go throw in with the 90s kids,” said the guy I married, Grandpa Q.

“I will, I will. I want a job, not just being a housewife.”

“Well, you can be one of the kids from the turn of the century,” said Grandpa Q, laughing. “You know, around 1900. Some women went out to work, others stayed at home.”

The weather was very cold, the first time in a few years the cold had extended to May. “Beijings spring is very short,” people often say, but that year it was very long. At the end of March I bought a number of short-sleeved outfits, thinking I could wear them soon after, but I still wore a quilted cotton jacket for a whole month after that. Taking off a jacket like that and wearing short sleeves is something Im used to every year, but this year, after switching out of it I discovered that I didnt have enough sweaters to face this long, bleak, cold, dark spring.

After Kongshan and I went out, the cold air went straight through my trousers, reminding me that not wearing long underwear was a mistake. Kongshan just wore leggings and a frilly dress. I know that she didnt have long underwear—the mark of fashionable people is to never wear that stuff. Thus, although we got to the bus stop, she decided we should take a cab. In the cab, we talked about our views of the world and the universe, as well as new things wed learned reading. I said that Id heard that some girl in some county only had a high school education, and being average looking, still managed to marry the village party secretary and had two children. After the village secretary went to the county level, she divorced him and married the county magistrate. After the magistrate went to the city, she remarried again, again, again, until she ended up marrying someone at a high-level department and became employed there. In light of the fact that even women who meet the basic requirements of “good education, looks, and finances” are everywhere, legions of men are still not in a rush to marry them. The girls looking for that “right guy” are single because the “right guy” isnt around—theyve already been snatched up. Kongshan angrily asked how this girl pulled it off.

“So, is she just really shady or low?” Kongshan asked.

“Well, you know. Its how people do things,” I replied. “She probably didnt think she was being shady.”

“You know, after reading Julia Kristeva, I feel like Im pretty shady, or at least low.”

“Once you start thinking about yourself like that its over. Youre not shady.”

“Working every day, its the same shady stuff. Even if I can stay in a five-star hotel, or dine on some Michelin-level cuisine, I feel like Im pretty low. Like a maid for rich people. The media all just use everything they have to try to curry favor with rich people, which I think is the same, so low. I wonder if my colleagues that work with me feel the same, that its so low. They seem all so excited, they think theyre part of society now, write books likeHow to be aClassy Girl.”

“So do I not have a job because Im not low?” I thought about this.

These are my principles: dont have a boss; dont cater to anyone, especially the rich people and fall over yourself trying to kiss the pinkie ring; dont wake up every day and go straight to the news. You dont have to maintain real-time awareness of what other people tell you is the important stuff happening around the world at each instant.

During the course of our heated conversation, the taxi took the long, long way around. Our ride should have only been a little over 20 RMB, but it came out to 35. I wasnt thinking about it, though, and paid quickly. The taxi driver shooed us out of the cab and drove off before wed even gotten a firm stand on the street.

The weather was cold desolate. Kongshan went into a bookstore that she frequented. Downstairs, there were all kinds on offer, 40 and 50 percent off. She looked first at A History of Foreign Sinology, leafing through the first few volumes. Kongshan was in good spirits. “Dont you want to go upstairs?” I asked her. “Ill check this out first,” she said, “Im going to buy a lot here.”

I understood Kongshans logic. During the economic crisis, we discussed this topic. Everything was expensive, but books were relatively cheap, on average 20 or 30 a volume. So if you bought 200 to 300 RMB worth of books, you could stay at home for half a month without having to go out and spend money. So we decided to read books to pass the crisis. The kinds of books she read were very different from the kind I read. She loved theory and culture, and I loved anecdotes and stories. This is the difference between the Pisces and the Taurus. When she was putting Research into Institutions throughout Chinese History, Abnormal Psychology, and Japanese Aesthetical Sense into her cart, I was reading 1948: Protest of Shanghai Club Dancing Girls. “Ah, that ones nice. Yeah, check it out, at half price, its only 13 RMB.” I still didnt buy it, and instead bought some books written by some poser foreigners who thought they understood China, an English-Chinese bilingual book: Annotated Review of the Literature and Life of Jin Shengtan, Research into the Song and Tang Style Prosein Ming Dynasties, and upstairs: The Complete Annotated Four Books. Maybe I buy the lamest books of anyone.

At a certain point in my life I started to become lame and just went with it (just like Im now old, and just go with it). I hadnt read any books by foreigners for a few years—except for foreign Sinologists. Those foreigners really pen some interesting stuff. Looking at it, you wonder where the hell they get their perspectives on China from. They turn everything into fairy-tales, just repeating old stories and stripping them of all traces of realism. They turn boring trials that Chinese people are forced to sit through, plays for festivals and the birthdays of old people, into exciting spectacles that all must cry out in joy to observe. Its a real circus. When these silly fools, these foreign posers, go and try to do research on classical China, its like me, aging and cast off by mainstream society, trying to make my way—just really not “with it”.

I felt bad for Kongshan carrying this giant, heavy bag of books, and suggested we go to Hualian Market via taxi. “Why would we take a taxi? Lets just walk, its close.” Kongshan wasnt having it.

“Im afraid youll be tired with all those heavy books.”

“There was a time I went with Corgi and we each had a huge pickle jar. We still went shopping all afternoon, going into every store.”

“Okay.”

We walked along the pedestrian path, and I suggested that I take one of her bags, but Kongshan was unwilling to let go of her big environment-friendly bag with its 500-coloured pencil advertisement printed upon it. “Im the great Kongshan,” she said. I completely believed her. That frail body contained massive amounts of energy. Kongshan wasnt just powerful, she was energetic enough to generate electricity.

“Come with me to that store, I want to find a bag I can take to work.” We crossed the road together, and coming upon the light rail, she suddenly had a different idea.

We turned around and went into the Korean store. There had been a time previously when we stopped in while passing the store, and Kongshan bought a bag she liked. For this reason, Kongshan had high hopes, so we went to the secluded store on the second floor, and she took a look, but there were none she liked.

“I want to eat something.” I said.

“Then lets go have a cup of milk tea.”

“I said I want to eat something.” I said.

“Ah, so you want to eat, then what do you want to eat?”

“I want some thin, hard chocolate, or something sweet, Im not sure.”

“Theres a 7-11 over there.”

Wed already crossed the road and passed the light rail, and the Hualian Market was in front of us. “Lets go to Snoopy,” said Kongshan. “Uh, isnt that the same as Charlie Brown Café?” I asked. “You know it,” said Kongshan.

Wed met up here before, but that was a long time ago, maybe a year or two. At that time Kongshan still lived in Wudaokou. When I was lonely, Id go to Wudaokou, and see her at the same time. Occasionally, wed meet up to do something else, like the time we went to IKEA. What I didnt expect was that Kongshan would bring home a totally busted cabinet for 60 percent off. Even with the discount, it was more than 1,000 RMB and was made out of those cheap, tacky IKEA particle boards. The door was bent, and almost couldnt be put on right. Even the installation workers looked at it from a few angles and asked, “Why would you buy this?” On the same side of the cabinet, there had to be one door that opened left, and one that opened right.

“This cabinet is like a Mondrian painting,” said Kongshan, as she spent the entire night happily stroking the thing.

We walked into the Charlie Brown Café. They were in the middle of their afternoon tea promotion: one coffee and one pastry for 46 RMB. Kongshan wanted a coffee, and I wanted a pastry, so we split the bill.

“Sure you dont want anything?” said the girl behind the counter with a smile?

“No.”

We walked up to the second floor, and sat there with our caramel macchiato and marble cheesecake. Kongshan pushed the cup toward me. “You drink it.”

Im not totally comfortable with the closeness that lots of girls have with each other. For example, when Kongshan or Corgi are out, they always want to hold my arm. It takes me a while to get used to it each time. I think of when we were younger—girls used to hug each other all the time, walk shoulder to shoulder and arm in arm. Oh, the past seems farther and farther from me. (Theres the age thing again.)

“The first thing Culi ever said to me was: ‘Hey, can you help me organize these recordings? I still remember it now. She probably thought that I was an intern. But on that topic, even when I was an intern, I never helped anyone organize recordings,” said Kongshan.

“I was so low, when I was at work, I helped anyone do anything. That was my first job. Then, after a lot of effort, I got out of that BS IT job. Second, I was at that cultural unit, which I really liked at first. Never would have thought that after a while Id quit because of my pasty boss with his weird, white beardless face.”

“The first job was at a French magazine. Caiwang hooked me up. But he just gave me the intro, an opportunity. In fact, that magazine almost never hires anyone without experience. That day, I went, I had some stilettos on, my bag was on point, I talked about foreign publications with the interviewer, and she hadnt heard of most of them. I made her understand: Im fashionable, and I know about foreign magazines.”

“See, youre good at interviewing. This is why I have no job.”

“Eh, the most I can brag about my interview history is when I, a more or less literary person, almost took a job at a big four accounting firm. You know, I dont know accounting, but Im very logical. After round after round of interviews, they actually wanted to hire me.”

Kongshan didnt actually talk much. Id been out with her many times and she only said a few necessary phrases in front of strangers. I didnt know she was such an ace at interviews. However, for PKU graduates, anything can happen. So many of my course mates have hidden surprises that Im used to it by now.

“So…” I said. “You ended up at the magazine.”

“Oh, the magazine? That wasnt on purpose. Every time I went to an interview I gave it my all, that was the only exception. That time, Id just quit my second job at that famous firm, and been at home for three months. My current boss, Bai Mang, came to me. I really didnt take it seriously, said I didnt have time, or postponed the interview, repeatedly. One day he called me and said he was downstairs. He took me to a café, and bought me a coffee. I usually get the interviewer to talk a lot to find what kind of person theyre looking for, but that day Bai Mang didnt say much. I couldnt figure out if he wanted someone professional or someone artistic.”

Id never really taken a good look at Kongshans lips, and today was the first time. Kongshans lips hardly moved as she talked. She had previously described herself as a “stutterer”. I focused all my attention on this aspect of her. The movement of her mouth was slow, almost halting, like a kind of dance, every movement putting you on edge, like a black-and-white silent film. I kind of spaced out as I tried to remember where it was that Id seen this before.

“The second day, I wasnt feeling great, and I apologized on MSN, said that I wasnt doing too well the previous day. Bai Mang said, ‘Oh, sorry, me too, I couldnt get myself together, all that..”

“Which means that he was looking for someone artistic.”

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