Here's the setup: I'm in the passenger seat of a blue Buick minivan driving through downtown Beijing at three o'clock on a blistering afternoon. A fifty-three-year-old Beijing local named Lao Wu is driving. He will always be the one driving in this story. He wears pressed high-waisted blue jeans and a sharp tan Windbreaker. Driving is his job; that is to say, he's a full-time driver. When Lao Wu came back home from the fields after the Cultural Revolution, the high schools had been closed. That was the week he learned to drive a Mack truck, and he's been driving ever since.
This is my third day in Beijing, and jet lag still pulls me down by my ankles. I lean back in the seat, my mind thick with sleep, and the van slows so I can count twenty waitresses lined up outside the Din Tai Fung dumpling house. The girls wear blue cotton qipaos and do jumping jacks on the sidewalk, then they salute a head waitress who stands on a small, black wooden box. Next they let out a cheer and march in a circle on the sidewalk. The head waitress calls out more instructions (how to fold the napkins? how to take a drink order?) and the girls yell back in a call and response. Then they salute their leader one more time and march into the restaurant.
People don't march much where I'm from. Maybe the occasional high school band at the annual Bath Memorial Day parade. But marching is very much the way here—some kind of simulation of the hard-nosed Chinese army way of life? Some kind of leftover from the Communist heyday? Except we're still in the Communist heyday, aren't we?
At the apartment complex where we live there are more marching guards. They salute me every time I come back to the building. It's creepy. I want to tell them I'm not their senior officer. No. I am a forty-year-old American wife and mother of two who can't remember how to pronounce the number eight in Mandarin. This is a problem, because eight is where we live. It's China's luckiest number, and let me say right now that numerology is intrinsic to the whole China operation. Numbers here have secret, mystical powers. There are no fourth floors in China because when spoken, the Chinese character for the number 4 sounds too much like the character for death. So what good fortune that our apartment sits on the lucky eighth floor of a building called Park Avenue, across the street from Beijing's biggest city park. It's mostly Chinese families at Park Avenue—well-off Beijingren, the term used for people born and raised in the capital. Many are people who somehow got out during Mao's reign and have returned because China's prospects now look so good. There's also a big handful of Taiwanese here and Hong Kong Chinese and a smattering of Europeans.
We could have lived in Palm Springs or Champagne Villas, Yosemite or Central Park, Park Place or the Beijing Riviera—vast compounds whose names move beyond kitsch into the surreal. To get through the front door of our apartment lobby, we say "Ni hao" to the teenaged guard. He says, "Ni hao" back and salutes us. Then we say "Xie xie," which means thank you, and he says "Bu keqi" (you're welcome), and lets us on the elevator. He salutes us one more time to make sure. We play out this Beckett-like scene of absurdity many times a day, until the humor in it has dried up and flown away on the winds of the Gobi Desert.
Tony has come to introduce credit-rating systems to the Chinese state-owned banks. This means that he meets with senior financial officers, trying to explain in Mandarin why buying complicated American computer programs is crucial to China's success. Sometimes Tony has to pinch himself to make sure it's him and not an imposter wearing that blue banker's suit. Because when Tony lived in Beijing the first time, he had a different gig.