Recently my cousin Jennifer, a junior studying Chinese literature, visited me in Beijing. She flew in from Chongqing, from various friends’ accounts a dirty, choking, uncomfortably crowded (even by Chinese standards) megalopolis that lays questionable claim to being the largest city in the world. Recently, it’s been in the news for the refreshingly harsh punishments that have been leveled against its well-connected gangsters, including the deputy police commissioner’s sister-in-law, reputedly the ringleader of a gang and dubbed the "Godmother of Chongqing." A stout, homely 46 year-old, she reputedly kept no less than 16 strapping young men as lovers in her own harem.
Jennifer is from a small town in Borneo, and in addition to Beijing’s classic sights, I made it my goal to present her sides of the city that she wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to experience in Sichuan, but also those that she might not have expected at all. My own travels have benefited enormously from the generosity of hosts in cities ranging from Delhi to Tehran, who showed me around their hometowns and took me to meet their friends, and from those experiences, I’ve come to believe that the best insider tours of a city involve a mixture of natural beauty, interesting conversation with residents and a dash of the unexpected. Over the course of the weekend, I also had the opportunity to bond with my cousin sister, who I’d never seen before outside of the context of family reunions back in Malaysia.
Friday evening: “Old alleys, young chatter”
Having come straight from the office, I beat Jennifer and her fellow Malaysian friend Kelly, who herself is also studying Chinese literature but in Beijing, to Mao Mao Chong (“Caterpillar” bar), one of my frequent haunts. I’ve befriended the owners, recent parents Stephen and Stephanie, and they recommend a couple of house cocktails that feature home-distilled spirits such hawthorn-infused vodka for the girls, who arrive with gift-stuffed bags from Tiananmen square and shopping mecca Wangfujing. Stephen is a former pizza chef from Melbourne and his wife is from Guangdong: together, the two make a solid business pair—he makes the best (probably the only) gourmet chocolate dessert pizza in the city and Stephanie expertly handles all of the troublesome bureaucracy involved in running a small business in China. Across the walls of the bathroom, she has painted in broad Chinese characters the love story behind the bar’s name.
My girlfriend soon arrives and we take our two Malaysians along Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a traditional “hutong” district that has been renovated and sanitized into the closest thing Beijing has to New York’s Lower East Side. It’s filled with tiny boutique salons housed in sloping slate-eaved buildings that sell ironic pins, Cultural Revolution-era kitsch and bohemian houseware, interspersed by bars where hip folk singers with acoustic guitars sing out on to the din of the main street. Over dumplings, the girls tells us of their experience pursuing literature degrees in China: predictably, Chinese college students are more studious than their relatively relaxed Southeast Asian peers, and they find a lot of their classmates to be parochial and quite ignorant of things beyond their national border.
I take them to a rooftop bar housed in a banking tower in the nightlife district of Sanlitun, where a friend is having his 27th birthday party. There, amongst the elegantly landscapes of the garden bar, I introduce them to the eclectic group of expats and locals that make Beijing’s social circles so fascinating: among them AIDS researchers, political journalists, investors and climate change activists. They are particularly impressed when an American friend named John, for whom I occasionally beatbox, delivers a verse of his smooth eco-conscious Mandarin rap. Later, at “Latte”, one of the city’s utterly over-the-top, gaudy silver nightclubs, I escort the girls around like an over-protective Uncle as they observe an energetic array of live singers cover everything from Gloria Gaynor to Black Eyed Peas.
When I ask what the girls think of Chinese clubs, their reaction surprises me.
“Here it’s a lot more civil than clubs in Kuala Lumpur,” Kelly says. “Even though they’re supposed to be conservative, Malaysian youth are wilder.”
Saturday afternoon: “Family tales”
After a first day of cultural sites, Jennifer wants to see some of Beijing’s green spaces and I accompany her to Houhai and Beihai, two classic tourist parks that lie along a stretch of lakes just west of the Forbidden City. There, we try to evade the packs of local and American tour groups, some of whom whiz past in rickshaws, snapping photos of “traditional Beijing.” After a winter that lingered months beyond its welcome date, the weather is finally warm and the streets teem with activity: retirees are singing Peking opera on the lake or writing water calligraphy, free-to-join tai chi classes are taking place beneath centuries-old gateways.
Tired from more walking than my sedentary, office-bound legs have seen for several months, I plead for us to rest in the shade in front of a man in his sixties performing various tricks on a Chinese Yo-Yo. There, Jennifer tells me of an older cousin who devoted years of her life to an ex-husband, losing her own identity and falling out of touch with family in the process. When she found out that he had been cheating on her for several years, she left him, but not before finding that she had to rebuild her own separate life once more.
“I think that an ideal woman needs to be self-reliant. She should be able to support herself with her own career, just like those friends you introduced me to last night,” Jennifer said.
It dawned on me that I was having a conversation with my cousin about women’s equality: a topic I have discussed dozens of times with various friends but never before with a member of my family. And while to a feminism-raised audience in the west the topic would sound rather outdated, with her I could still hear the urgency and relevance in her voice. Both in Malaysia and China, where notions of the ideal “passive, selfless” wife remain widespread and associating the term “strong” with a woman can contain both good and bad connotations, Jennifer’s soft soliloquy sounded positively Hilary-like.
She displayed a similarly well-constructed moral compass over the weekend several more times, and each time I heard her deliver such rousing lines, I felt a mixture of both pride and shame: pride in that I have such a passionate, ambitious, responsible cousin sister, and shame that, despite all of my privileged Western education, I haven’t played a larger role in helping shape my cousins’ lives to date. It would turn out to be the theme of the weekend: while I introduced her to some of the city’s sociable, cosmopolitan types—like an Australian-Chinese gay couple who courted in Italy, or a young chef who cooks for the Canadian embassy—and exposed her to the violent theatrics of punk rock and elegant design of boutique hotels, she would provide me lessons in familial devotion and friendship, all the while gently filling in the vocabulary in my non-articulate Mandarin. It was a bit like one of those skill swap gatherings, except free of any weight of expectation.
That evening, over roast duck in a bustling local restaurant, we discussed our two youngest cousins, each of whom lost a parent while in their infancy. Jenny told me about the way that the other kids would tease them, hurling such schoolyard insensitivities as: “You don’t have a dad…that’s why you’re so poor you have to walk to school.” These days, almost all of my cousins have left their hometown for better-paid work, and until she too left home, Jenny would take care of Hua, the baby of our generation, playing the role of big sister and counselor.
“I hope as a teacher that I can both contribute to society but also make a high salary,” she told me at a Malaysian restaurant, shortly before flying back to Chongqing, her eyes flickering. “That way I can help to pay for Hua to continue her studies in the future.”
Sunday noon: “Return to reality”
“Going to Chongqing made me not like China,” Jenny explained over tea. “Traffic is awful, people are so uncouth…But Beijing is really different. It’s not as crowded; people are more civil.”
I ask her whether she’d ever consider moving here, but she says that teaching Chinese literature as a Malaysian national would be difficult in China, where they prefer locals. Instead, she’s been talking about going to New Zealand after she graduates, to “experience Western life.” I tell her to go to Australia instead, where she could be close to my parents.
Later, we walk through the commercial heart of Beijing: Sanlitun Village, where the consumer class aspires and acquires its Apple phones and Mango jeans. Arriving at the Opposite House, Beijing’s most famous luxury boutique hotel, I asked a local hostess if we could view one of the hotel’s legendary rooms. Though she tells us that the rooms are all fully booked, the English manager must have found enough authenticity in my English to give us a full tour, and Jenny snapped away with her camera while I schmoozed with the manager. Opposite House is the sort of uber-designed hotel where transparent showers are placed in the middle of the suite, every furnishing is hidden away and the USD $3,500 per night penthouse includes complimentary use of the hotel Maserati. She had never seen such luxury and I enjoyed utilizing my cultural capital to allow her a glimpse of it (something my salary certainly won’t provide anything more than).
“In places like those, I find that speaking English provides significantly better service,” I explain to her as we walk out. “They treat me completely differently when they know I’m Western.”
It reminded me of a humorous story that Jenny had told me earlier, from our childhood years in Borneo. When my brother and I were scheduled to arrive from Australia, Jenny’s mother wasn’t sure whether we would eat the family’s standard Asian diet and as such, had stocked up on bread and snacks before we arrived. Back then, my own family had also treated my completely different because I was Western. To be honest, they still do. But hanging out with my cousin in Beijing, conversing in the language of our shared cultural heritage, I saw those early lines that divided Western upward mobility from family belonging continue to fade away. I’ll never be “one of the cousin crew” – an entire life spent in other lands to date has guaranteed that. But I can still be; indeed, still am: “part of the clan.” And I’ll take that offer any day.
20-something Australian-Chinese MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Class of 2013). Previously worked in business education and international development. Interested in social progress, culture, travel, languages, joyful living.