letters from beijing and shanghai

The world belongs to you. Estonia belongs to you.

I’m a dinosaur. I imagined Beijing, I conjured Shanghai. I could see the men and women in their gray and blue uniforms with their gray and blue hats and their little red books, the walls but tapestries of propaganda red with little golden stars. Nothing but bicycles, nothing but cigarettes, nothing but military police and rice. But the “bicycle era is over,” they told me from the driver’s seats of their BMWs and Mercedes, and Big Brother is no longer Mao, but a retired American military man by the name of Colonel Sanders.

The satanically smug Colonel Sanders grinned down on me from a hundred locations in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou. In the Beijing metro, one can watch a commercial on the small digital televisions that are mounted in each train, a young pretty woman, a young handsome man, fashionable, sporty, business-like, the future, walking in peace, hand in hand, through a local business district, until the pretty young Chinese woman spies the Colonel and then they sort of leap through the air toward the gates of KFC where mushrooms collide with sauce midair and shrimps parachute into steaming plates of rice and the caramel-colored secret sauce bubbles and oozes forth from the buns of fried chicken sandwiches. So happy! 

In the back alleys of Shanghai, I was escorted into what could be called a townhouse where a young Estonian socialite now dwells. Like many promising youth, she has turned her back on her native country and vowed never to return. Refugees like her feel suffocated by the village gossip, the incestuous romances, the lack of opportunity as the gluttonous Winners Generation continues to gorge itself ever forward. They have grown sour on the atrophying political scene, where even the most damning of political scandals can’t bring down the Teflon Dons. And did you hear that Estonian Air is cancelling its route to London? Tragic. At home, the media sounds and pounds the alarms as Estonia’s youth pack their bags and move away. But the youth don’t care. They are already gone.

Anyway, it was an enchanting evening of pizza and hää eesti seltskond. One Estonian man, a hulking Viking of an individual who runs a Belgian window factory outside Shanghai, informed me of the pleasures of slaughtering pigs and making one’s own verikäkk. He keeps boa constrictors and feeds them rats. In winter visits to Pärnu, he takes his truck out on the frozen bay for rally racing. He complains how the Chinese men spend all their time lazing about and eating and whoring and not renovating their homes, even if a window gets jammed or a tile falls off the ceiling, “Can you believe it?”

The Estonian sea pirate warned me about the chemicals in all Chinese food, how one producer of lamb meat was actually taking beef and soaking it in lamb piss and passing it off as the real thing. Mmm, lamb piss, delicious. It’s so common though. Expats in Estonia bitch about the Estonians, expats in China bitch about the Chinese. What is an expat but a bitch who only bitches? “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” as a friend’s wife mock-says when her expat man goes off on the shoddiness of Estonian  journalism, “bitch, bitch, bitch.”

China is a land where people drink only hot water, and foot massages are extremely painful. And yet there is a majestic quality to it all, even to the bundles of toilet paper that litter the restaurant floors, as if it was just charming tumbleweed in some Old West saloon. It’s a raw, intuitive place, China. There is no need for safety belts, or for even following traffic rules, and pigs and dragons are lucky. In China, sometimes it is best not to know things. Like, what was in that food I just ate? I don’t know, but it tasted good and that’s all that matters. Or, did the chef wash his hands? I don’t know, but I didn’t get sick this time and that’s all that matters. Who cares if it was soaked in lamb piss or not if we wake up well the next morning and our toes are still tapping? Why do we demand on knowing so much in the West, huh? Ignorance is bliss indeed.

But still, I was tricked. The little boy in me expected one kind of cultural revolution, I got another in the form of two Louis Vuitton stores in one city, Shanghai, the “Paris of the East.” Never have I witnessed such shameless materialism, and this in a people’s republic, where the the Starbucks mermaid swims alongside the golden hammer and sickle of the CPC in the public’s stream of consciousness.

Security was tight in Tiananmen Square, where the 18th party congress met to annoint the next generation of leaders. Nobody was sure of the outcome, yet the outcome was assured. Of course, statistician Nate Silver told us that Obama’s victory over Mitt “47 Percent” Romney was certain as well. According to Prime Minister Ansip, Reform continues to be the most popular party in Estonia by a percentage point. So there. But still, the clawing anxiety, the anticipation, the foreplay, the debates, the build up, the waiting, the incessant website refreshing — in China, it just wasn’t there.

It reminded me in ways of the selection of the new pope. And in the Vatican of the East that rainy windblown week, all eyes were trained on the center of Beijing for that telling puff of white smoke.