I didn’t think I’d ever been stared at more in my life. As I boarded the flight from Dubai to Beijing, the whole plane, consisting mainly of Chinese people, turned to me like I was a tourist attraction. I don’t mind it when somebody looks at me, but rows upon rows of eyes looking directly into yours? Not my cup of tea.
Maybe I was just a little touchy since the booze had started to wear off. I hadn’t slept on the flight from London to Dubai due to excitement. The plane was also basically empty and I had a whole row of seats to myself with screens in the back of the seats in front. Drinks and food were complementary and I had taken full advantage of this fact. Not surprising when you consider I had spent the beginning of my young adult life on and off the dole in Britain under Conservative rule. Complementary was not a word I had heard very often. Instead I’d heard a lot of ‘Where are you going?’, ‘What’s your last name?’ and ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ from the drones at the job centre. If I wasn’t there, I was working at some odd job that paid the bills and nothing else. If it wasn’t retail work it was charity canvassing; if it wasn’t that it was serving fast food; and if it was none of the above I was back on the dole. I was well on my way to becoming a lower class product of a conservative, capitalist environment.
On Good Friday, 2012, I woke up groaning as tears began to fall from my eyes. I lifted my head from the pillow with all the strength I could muster. Then a plan began to unconsciously form in my head. I would go down to the NCP car park in town, take the elevator to the top floor, climb over the concrete perimeter that overlooked the train tracks, and jump. As I stood outside the elevator on the ground floor later that day, I made a decision to leave Cardiff instead. I took an online TEFL course, secured a job with an English language centre in Beijing, and got on the plane with a dire desire to be happy with my life.
As soon as I sat down on the flight from Dubai to Beijing I fell asleep due to too much free whiskey. When I woke up we were about to land.
I met the man in the arrival area who was to take me to my temporary accommodation. He was short and chubby with a welcoming smile that separated him from the crowd. After the introductions we walked to his car and he drove me into the city. The heat shimmered in the air, giving the place a golden, psychedelic quality. This mixed in with my lack of proper sleep put me in a dream-like state as we ploughed down the road. My mouth hung open the whole time. Car horns blasted all the way along the third ring road as drivers darted into the tightest of spaces trying to get through. Several times I saw cars bump into each other and carry on regardless. In Britain that would have been a good enough reason to get out of the car and start a fight.
We eventually turned off the ring road onto the streets. Every block seemed to be made up of super malls punctuated by makeshift outlets that looked like they would melt in the heat. The streets reminded me of the Scooby-Doo cartoons where the gang ran down a hallway and passed the same objects again and again as they went. Bank of China and KFC stood next to places that looked like charity shops with Chinese characters above the sliding doors leading in. Occasionally we would pass a sex shop with an old man on a stool spitting on the floor as people passed. I opened the window and smelled the pollution. My breath felt short and clogged in the haze as I gawked at the endless crowds bustling on the grey pavements that lay in the shadows of the skyscrapers.
Before we reached the area of Jinsong, I spotted an old lady walking by a clothing shop. Her back was arched as she carried on it a pile of clothes bigger than she was. Her face contained millions of lines, but not one of them was a smile. She waddled down the street never stopping to complain or moan. One foot landed in front of the other, determined and precise.
We arrived in Jinsong and I was shown to my apartment. There was no living room, just a hall with a washer and dryer that connected three small bedrooms and a bathroom. The guy informed me that a woman called Helen would bring me to the English centre the day after tomorrow. I thanked him and shook his hand before closing the door and crashing down on the bed. I was asleep in seconds, content that I was an ex-patriot about to start a steady job. Finally, I was on my way to being happy with my life.
Have you ever seen the Rain?
Rain owned a bar called Cellar Door on Fangxia Hutong in Andingmen. My workmates from the English centre and I stumbled in late one night about three months after I arrived in Beijing. I was struck by the picture postcards of various music icons that covered the wall in a collage. Keith Richards, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain glared at the punters who drank excessively and craved attention from the owner.
Rain was from Shanghai and effortlessly beautiful. She had jet black hair that hung down way past her shoulders. She wore a white shirt with red and black checked shorts, with a pair of braces loosely thrown over her elegant shoulders. Her shoes were pale green with a bit of a heel to them which she tilted to the side when she stood. She spoke softly and always smiled with her head tilted down, never taking her eyes off mine as she spoke about music, literature and how much she loved British men.
One day we went for a wander around the hutongs near Cellar Door. She usually wanted to get away from the Andingmen area. I couldn’t blame her, since she spent what seemed like her entire life there running the bar and taking deliveries. Today she had taken some time out to show me around. We joked with each other, holding hands and petting the dogs who passed by. After passing The Temple of Confucius, we were met with the splash of colour and vibrancy that was the Yong He Gong Temple. I mentioned to Rain I’d never been in a Buddhist temple before, and she immediately dragged me up to the gate.
As we walked up the path paved with marble slabs, the volume of my thoughts began to lower. We reached another gate which lead into the temple grounds and stepped over the lower frame of the large wooden door. When my foot hit the floor I immediately became focussed on my surroundings. Lush trees stretched over the halls of the temple, giving shade to the worshippers kneeling in front of large steel buckets of burning incense. The smell and the smoke counteracted with the droning noises I could hear all around us. I felt my heart rate decrease and my mind clear itself of all thought.
Rain wandered off on her own for a bit and I went in the direction of the first hall. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust once I got inside, since the day was bright and the halls were dimly lit. All over the halls were golden statues of Buddha with vibrantly coloured ribbons covering the torsos. At their feet lay offerings such as chocolate bars and fruit for the monks. I watched as tourists and residents alike prayed in front of the idols before placing their offerings in the baskets. This seemed like a much more informal and civil way of worship to me. I came from a Roman Catholic background where everything was based on ceremony and precision in worship. Here there was nothing of the sort. People prayed if they felt like it, offered if they felt like it, spoke if they felt like it, and walked wherever they pleased through the tranquil courtyards.
I thought of my father, who had been raised in a Catholic boarding school. He always testified to everyone that Catholicism was what fucked him up, but this didn’t stop him from sending me to a Roman Catholic primary school. The head teacher was a cat enthusiast named Ms Shelly-Pierce. Every morning she would give long winded talks in the style of sermons as we sat in orderly lines cross legged on the cold floor of the assembly hall. I remember once she told us that if anyone drove up to us asking for directions, we shouldn’t stick our hand out to show them which way to go as we would be snatched by the wrist and pulled into the van. I later realised how ridiculous this warning was but at the time it affected my approach to strangers. I always approached people with caution and nerves, subconsciously thinking I could be snatched into darkness at any minute.
I continued through the hall to the next courtyard. Clouds of incense smoke rose up into the sky. Laughter was hidden away in the mutterings of passers by. I noticed a lone monk stroll past me in red robes. He had a handful of beads on a piece of rope that he was holding in front of his chest while he muttered in a low tone something I couldn’t understand. What struck me about this monk was the fact he didn’t seem to notice anything around him. His eyes never met anyone else’s. His concentration on his own dialogue was so intense that I felt his inner peace radiate onto my skin like the blazing Beijing sun. He had nobody to answer to but himself in that moment. Nobody was expecting anything from him and he wasn’t looking for anything in anybody. He was just strolling, serene and satisfied.
Seeing the monk reminded me of the walk back to my mother’s house from the job centre. After signing on I would hang around for my friend’s lunch break. He worked behind the counters signing job seeker allowance sheets. We would go to a nearby park and smoke weed on a bench until he had to go back to work, then I would walk home. I walked on cracked pavements past wheelie bins and seagull droppings with my stoned gaze fixed on the end of the street. I blocked out everything around me with a haze of smoke that circulated in my mind until I got home. For those fifteen minutes I didn’t have to think about the fact I had no job, no prospects and no future. I was just content to walk aimlessly until I had to find the next suppressant to keep me from being miserable as an unemployed city kid.
I bumped into Rain again in the courtyard. She reached out and grabbed my bum in a playful manner, and I threw my arm across her shoulders before we continued walking together. I didn’t speak for a few minutes as we walked. She asked me if I was okay and I said I was. The truth is I was thinking about how much I had been looking for satisfaction outside of myself. Rain made me happy, but it somehow didn’t feel complete. The drugs I had taken in the past only made me feel good temporarily. I always told myself that if I could just find steady work to have enough money I could be happy. All these thoughts stewed as we approached the last hall of the temple.
This hall was smaller than the others. It had a tall tower and very few doors leading inside. The exterior was dark brown with red painted door frames. We stepped into the hall and my eyes adjusted once more. As I focussed I became overwhelmed by the largest replication of Buddha I had ever seen. It stood right in the centre of the hall eighty feet high. Tourists craned their necks to behold the gold that covered it from head to toe. Lotus flowers were placed at the feet and in the hands. Long pieces of multi-coloured fabric were draped across the neck and torso. The expression was neither happy nor sad; it was relaxed.
We walked out of the temple and I took Rain back to the bar. The rest of the day I felt a strange mix of melancholy and intrigue. What had I just experienced there? I thought back to the monk meandering through the halls ignoring all outside influence chanting to himself. There was definitely gold inside of him, but not for everyone to see.
Heart of Gold
I was living in Andingmen with an American roommate, a golden haired angel called Katie. The first time we met I came home from work to find her all moved in and beaming with joy that she was in living in another country. We talked for the next two hours without realising where the time went. It was as if nothing existed outside of those hours. We were fully in the moment and completely unaware of ourselves.
For the next couple of months we worked on a routine. We would wake up and have breakfast (usually fruit or oatmeal), then we would do yoga for an hour or so before I would pack my bag and head to work. Each morning we adhered to this routine, but it didn’t feel forced. If I didn’t want to do a whole hour of positions because I felt sore, she wouldn’t force me. It wasn’t strict or dire like any other routine I had stuck to before. It wasn’t focussed around money or societal progression. It was there just to be there and make both of us feel good.
In mid-September while the leaves where turning gold, we woke up and began our ritual. In the middle of moving into cobra position I caught her eye. I can’t explain why but I started to laugh. There was no in joke going on, it just bubbled up inside me as I felt my torso stretch into a blissful sensation that coursed up my neck and into my brain. I couldn’t help it; I broke my position and began laughing uncontrollably. Since the silence before was so great and was now pierced with my belly laugh, Katie began to crack up too. Before we knew it we were both cracking up on the floor of the apartment as the sun shone in through the bedroom door making the floor glow.
I didn’t have any drugs in my system, I hadn’t achieved anything of commercial or material value; I was just unconditionally happy. I told Katie this and she seemed perplexed. I explained how I had never experienced happiness like that before, even when I was a child. She looked even more bemused and saddened by this. Then she came to a conclusion. Katie was wise like that. I don’t know where she got all those golden nuggets of truth to hand out at will, but she had them in abundance. She said to me that someone told me I was no good in the past and I’d made the mistake of believing them.
The week after Katie left for Greece I came to a conclusion that all I needed to be happy was myself. I thought I would be sad when she left, but actually I was grateful because she had given me the tools to be okay without anyone by my side to hand me some happiness in a neatly packaged box.
Rain and I weren’t together at that point since both of us relied on each other too much to be happy. Both of us wanted more than either of us could give. If you don’t love yourself, it’s impossible to love other people. Neither of us knew this when we met each other, but the songs she used to play in her bar should have been a clue for both of us. She always used to play a particular Neil Young song that had one line that still echoes in my head like a mantra.
“I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold and I’m getting old.”