“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Emily Dickinson
I live in Beijing, China. Wangjing, to be exact. It’s a subdistrict of the Chaoyang district inside the 4th Ring Road on the North East side. Home to 70,000 South Korean expats, Wangjing has been dubbed “Koreatown.” Wangjing means a “view of Beijing.” The photo at the top of this is my particular view of the city. I’m aware of the typo and when/if I get that corrected I’ll upload that copy dated in the correct millennium.
It’s been a month and I’m remiss. Forgive. It is the winter. And as you see, there’s pollution. Copious amounts of pollution.
About 2 weeks after arriving in Beijing we moved into our apartment here in Wangjing. We live in a rather nice hi-rise apartment with close to Western amenities complete with a Western toilet. And a separate bath/shower unit. That is a score. Our kitchen does not have an oven. As it happens, both Aly and I are home cooks. The lack of an oven has stifled our culinary desires but such is life. This is an adventure, after all. And you’d be surprised at what a $30 toaster oven can accomplish.
One fine afternoon (a Monday to be certain) shortly after moving in, I was reading in our lovely modern living room on our what was once white sofa (remember pollution) with our windows open enjoying the somewhat fresh (polluted) autumnal air. I was reading Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. That memory is rather distinct as the book sparked both the happy excitement of planning a tour of Mt. Everest base camp, I’m just a short flight away from Tibet after all, and the vexatious feelings that my own particular obstacles may not permit. (It is my daily work to not be cross at my own physical self. Who am I to be discontented? These are the lungs I was given and these are the blood cells I was allotted. Judgement of my abilities is other people’s business. I must leave them to it).
Anyway, I digress as I’m oft to do. Back to Wangjing, our apartment, the dirty sofa, a brilliant read, and the windows. Open windows on the 17th floor. Well, really the 14th floor but labelled the 17th due to the cultural importance concerning auspicious numbers and other superstitions. Open windows on a lovely fall afternoon, almost twilight, and I heard a noise. A man moaned. Or did he scream? And then shortly after two large bangs. Gun shots. No, that’s the Měiguó rén thinking. A Houstonian, even. There are no guns in the hands of the people, here. It must have been construction noise. Or some such other explosion. Something else. Something in the distance. There are so many mysteries in China and the book was heating up in my hands. Eight climbers died in 1996 during a fluke storm on Everest. Krakauer’s account is riveting and highly criticized. I absolutely recommend his book. The difficulty in acquiring books written in the English language has presented another Great Wall for me, but at the first available opportunity I will be reading Anatoli Boukreev’s account of the same ascent, The Climb.
An hour or so later, Aly arrived home from work. Looking slightly, but not overly, disturbed she reported a dead man lying near the pavement. “I didn’t see any blood or anything. I don’t know maybe he’s not dead. But there’s policemen all around and he’s really still. His body is in a weird position. He’s in the grass kind of near the sidewalk.”
Where did he go–is he hanging in that murky layer in the Beijing skies? A lacy ether that rose out of his pores or some crack from the fall? I walk out of my building, each and every day, past ayi digging in the recycling bin for loot, past the children, past the dogs, past the little family of cats, past the cages of birds out for “fresh air,” and past the imaginary indentation on the ground where a strange man jumped to his death and pressed the earth deep. And permanent. And I think about him.