Green Desks

When I think back to China, I always think of my desks. Even if I was busy from drowsy harried pre-dawn to the hours after desk, or if I didn’t slump down until the hours before midnight, the desk is still where I did all my work, where I collected my sense of place.
My first residence in Beijing was in the hotel for foreigners on the campus of Peking University. I shared a standard room with a plump, mignon liberal Mormon from Pennsylvania with a love of all things cute and incessant enjoyable chatter. From my desk by the window (where I tried to block out her chatter) I smelled the dust at the edges of summer, the lilies growing in the famed ponds, earthy green; green swaying trees over the courtyard almost blocking out village traffic to the nearby market with its fresh-faced peasants and broken-down stalls (it’s now been succumbed by a superhhighway, METRO store and VW dealership); heard the clatter of professors still biking to class and exchanging gossip on the university paths, following the same tracks as decades past; caught the spicy sweet wiff of Korean food being grilled in the cafeteria for the crowds of identical hipster-like Korean exchange students with their dyed hair, chunky black glasses, pinstriped shirts and zippy mopeds. Sometimes we’d hear the long-off wail of students practicing their English at the edge of WeiMing Hu (Nameless Lake) mixing in with the dusty dew of morning, “ANG-KHUL, ANNNKLE“, and a pigeon cooing.
Later that summer, when I came back to Beijing, I moved into a one bedroom flat with three other people – all Chinese, all recent grads not speaking much English. The boys had the living room, and I shared the bedroom with a grad student who was always upstairs at her boyfriend’s flat except for the two hours a day she spent studying or watching anime. The second day after I arrived, on the end of a long, hot and dusty summer just in lethargic shock from the long-anticipated Olympics having actually ended, we set out for another local bazaar to buy me a table. This was another pocket of Beijing poverty, Beijing small commerce, Beijing localness. Behind the apartment buildings that had sprung up to house the ballooning population of Korean students and voyageur expats lay a low-roofed affair of half a dozen small shops and stands selling bedsheets, mung beans, hot bread, and toothbrush holders. I bought a folding card table, matte mint green, with a zebra-striped folding chair (China is not one for subtlety), bedsheets, that toothbrush holder, and some fuzzy peaches. I wanted to set it up in the semi-enclosed closet-sized space before the bedroom’s lone window, but was informed that this space was reserved for hanging the laundry to dry. Instead I set it up on the wall by the bed, my back to hers, and wittled away at my Chinese characters, and a love growing lost overseas back in America.
My third residence in Beijing was in a quiet old brick apartment from the 1950’s set just between one of Beijing’s biggest business centers and the old stone houses being ripped out by the river. The flat belonged to a friend’s relative who never knew that I existed. It had maple floors and plenty of sunlight opening onto a spacious one room housing the refrigerator and three beds that also served as sofas. There was also a tiny, dark kitchen opening onto an airshaft like a catacomb, and a small room painted in that same mint green that was too large to be an entrance hall and yet too small to be a proper living room. I moved the table there, next to a windowsill housing a row of spider plants. From my window perch on the 6th floor of an  old red brick building I watched the city go through its rhythms of sleep and wakefulness: dotted gold lights from the surrounding mountains of anonymous identical brick buildings at night; the soft clink of men sitting at majong tables spread outside under the warm night; the early morning cries of vegetable sellers carting their goods and the chant of schoolchildren doing calisthenics, the static nasal wail of morning announcements; white collar workers pouring out of the subway station and streaming into the surrounding sleak high-rises; the mid-day lull of another hot and dusty summer; the indecipherable chatter of old residents with the bent-back doorkeeper minding the plants at the apartment entrance; shashlik sizzling on the outdoor grill in the late afternoon and shirtless men sweaty and loud after a toast of cold beer in green glass bottles. I wrote that summer, though I’ve lost all I wrote. I explored scholarship programs for post-graduate language study and Master’s degrees in Chinese literature. I started to paint, with supplies bought on the street behind the national art museum, in a short burgandy-coloured book. I read sheaf after sheaf copied from my college library, organized my notes, and wrote 50 pages on encounters between urbanites and peasants in 1950’s communist short stories. I cracked open edamame pods from the mixed salad seller downstairs.

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