Chinese Hamburgers

Lenovo Digital Still Camera

I arrived in Beijing at the height of the summer. The view from the taxi’s window was familiar – there were a few more cars than before, but dust still covered everything, reducing new Audis and antique VWs to the same metal ghosts.

My driver was singing along to a love ballad on the radio, his falsetto ruined by cheap tobacco. I smiled from where I sat in the back seat, my shirt already soaked through with sweat. So much had happened in the three years since I’d left China, but it melted away when the plane touched down, as if the flight had travelled through time.
In one of those coincidences suggesting cosmic design, The Carpenters came on the radio with Yesterday Once More.
“Very good,” the driver said, pointing at the radio, and smiling back at me.
“Yes,” I said, leaning forward and putting my face next to the grimy Perspex divider. “Very good.”

I was heading back to the small city of Xingtai, where I’d taught English for a year at a university. At the time, I hadn’t had the slightest inclination to stay on for longer. Those 12 months had burnt out my circuits and left me completely frazzled. I hadn’t particularly wanted to go home to England; I’d just wanted to get away from China.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps even just a few months after getting back, I’d started to feel a strange sensation of home-sickness. Just as you only feel a mosquito’s bite once it’s flown, China had got under my skin without me even being aware of it. I watched a documentary set in Beijing and smelt the streets they showed on screen, heard the voices in the background calling out for me. I felt exiled, as if China was a second home that I’d abandoned. The longing to return built steadily, until one summer I found myself with three months of leisure and enough money for a plane ticket. I messaged my old employers, asking about the possibility of them letting me stay in my old apartment. I was astonished when they agreed. After so long, I was going back.

I dozed on the train from Beijing West, thinking about all the things that had made my life in Xingtai. I’d kept in contact with my co-teachers, but my student’s subsequent lives were a mystery. The last time I’d heard from one of them they’d been working in a factory in Shenzhen and were expecting a baby. I felt a little pang of guilt, though it seemed natural that we’d fallen out of touch. We’d all known that my presence in their lives was temporary, and we’d made the most of it while it was there.

What I missed most was the place, especially the area around my apartment. There had been a market a minute’s walk away from my front door, and it was there that I felt most at home. I could still see all the familiar faces – the gap toothed grandma selling knock off clothes, the guy in an old army jacket ladling black broth into plastic cups, the bicycle repair man surrounded by broken pedals, the tailor and her Soviet machine; a whole cast of characters acting out their lives in a muddy alley, offering all the services anyone could need for a pocketful of change. It all came back in a haze, like the clouds of steam that used to rise from the noodle stand, carrying everywhere the peppery scent of coriander.

I’d missed the street food in the market more than anything. My favourite lunchtime treat had been a rou jia mo, known in phrasebook speak as a Chinese Hamburger. It’s a misleading name. Instead of questionable beef, the Chinese Hamburger contains tender chopped pork, stewed in soy sauce and 20 spices. Instead of a bog-standard bun, the meat is held within crisp, unleavened flatbread, salty and fresh from a clay oven. There’s no lettuce, tomato, or gherkin in a Chinese Hamburger, no red or yellow sauce.

I’d bought my rou jia mo from a married couple, whose stall was on the back of a tricycle. The speed with which they prepared the food was miraculous, made even more wonderful by their apparent lack of effort. The wife would knead the raw dough into perfect white mounds, and then lift the lid off the oven and whisk out the cooked bread, refilling it with raw dough in one continuous movement. At the same time, with a dreamy attitude, her husband would ladle a hunk of meat out of the blackened pot and set to chopping it with his cleaver, all the while gazing into the distance and chatting idly with his wife. She chided him frequently for his slowness (to no obvious effect), though a smile always lurked at the corner of her mouth, a smile that spoke of a long-suffering patience that had ripened to love. I wished I’d been able to say a proper goodbye to them, and to thank them for feeding me for 12 months, but even after a year my Chinese hadn’t progressed much beyond single words and pointing.

I’d searched in vain for rou jia mo in Chinatowns around the world. Like a weird inversion of Proust’s madeleine, whenever I thought of China I could taste them, and the desire to eat one again was as strong as the smokers need for nicotine. Now, finally, I was getting my chance.

We arrived at Xingtai station, and I hailed a cab outside, surprised that I still remembered how to say the address. We pulled out into the traffic, horn blaring, and started on the old route home. Round the backstreets, onto the main road, under that bridge, round the square – it all came back to me. I got lost a couple of times, thrown by the building sites that broke the landscape like bomb craters, but soon enough a familiar building would appear. I sat bolt upright when we passed the park, for I’d knew we’d soon be there.

I paid the driver and nodded to the bemused guard at the Univeristy gates, then hurried through the campus, barely giving my old class rooms a glance. Groups of students eyed me in silence. I didn’t mind, I was so eager to sink my teeth into another Chinese Hamburger I would have walked through fire to get one.

I turned a corner and went by my old apartment, stopping to talk to a pair of kids with a rabbit in a plastic cage. My belly grumbled and I carried on, turning another corner and then stopping short.
A newly laid road, flat and white, stretched far into the distance. There were no cars on it; the destination was still under construction.

I retraced my steps, thinking I’d made a wrong turn. It was no use. The market was gone. I spotted the bicycle man squatting by the gate, still surrounded by broken pedals. He nodded to me and turned back to his work. Everyone else, including my rou jia mo couple, had disappeared. I wondered where they’d all gone. Had another market sprung up somewhere? Who could I ask to find out?

Over the road was a new shopping centre, its glass sides gleaming in the waning sun. My stomach grumbled again, demanding to be fed. I went into the shopping centre and waited with a bunch of students in the KFC. Looking around at families enjoying their ice creams and chicken fingers, I thought about a quote from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, which I’d read on the flight over. Andy said that you can be just as faithful to a place as to a person. He’s right, but a place may not stay faithful to you.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Look (and Other High Street Lies)

Rock n Roll T-shirts

I was in Brighton, being dragged by a girl I barely knew to what she promised was “a cool place.” In reality it was a dive, and she’d only wanted to go there because the barman had slept with her a couple of times and then stopped calling. I knew I should hate him, but the Nirvana T-shirt he was wearing awoke an older, more personal, form of loyalty than the one I felt for the girl.

She said hello in her frostiest voice and then lapsed into silence.
“Cool T-shirt,” I said to the bar douche. “Nirvana were the best.”
“Ummmmmm, yeah,” he said, with an embarrassed smile. “Thanks.”

He turned away to try and flirt with the girl, leaving me thirsty and confused. At first I put his discomfort down to my terminal unhipness (I’m well used to feeling like I’ve missed something in Brighton), but then it hit me, and I had one of those Usual Suspects type flashbacks where you see everything with new eyes – a spotty seventeen year old in a Public Enemy hoodie – a pop star wearing a Ramones T-shirt – a girl on the bus with the Rolling Stones lick on her chest – now this bar douche.

“That’s it!” I thought, my imaginary coffee cup spiralling to the floor in slow motion. “People don’t listen to the bands on their T-shirts!”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Over the past few years I’ve had to get used to people lying on their clothes. I remember when my friend started wearing a hoodie with UCLA written on it. I didn’t know he’d even been to California, never mind studied there (he hadn’t – he’d studied among the slightly less glamorous hills of Swansea). Soon enough, even I was at it, picking up a T-shirt with “Mindy’s Diner” written on it. I had no idea if the diner was real or invented. I felt like a phony, and lived in perpetual dread of someone asking me what their was like, or even worse, meeting someone who had actually been to Mindy’s and would want to compare opinions on her Sloppy Joes.

I watched as the high-streets of Britain were flooded with a growing tide of empty slogans, for Japanese electrical companies, university sports teams, cities, diners. None of them meant a damn thing, and definitely couldn’t be relied upon to start a conversation. Band T-shirts, however, were still safe, being reserved for people who actually liked the music. From the scary biker with a collection of old tour T-shirts (usually by shitty hair metal bands), to the fey outsiders wearing eyeliner and nail polish, a band T-shirt was a way of showing your colours, of stating your inclusion in this gang, and your exclusion from that larger, more boring, one. When I was a teenager, wearing a Nirvana T-shirt around town used to be enough to get you beaten up for being a “grunger.” Now they sell them in H&M. They no longer carry that sense of inclusivity, they’re simply that touch of rock and roll glamour to complete an outfit- they’re a look, pure and simple.

But where does that leave genuine fans of The Ramones and Nirvana? If every bar douche is wearing their T-shirt, how do you separate yourself from the fashionable masses now? Perhaps wearing a less common design would be good enough. Or (and this always worked for me), as well as wearing the T-shirt, you could grow your hair very long, never wash, and make sure no one ever sees you in any other state than near catatonic stonedness or falling around drunkenness. People should be able to tell you’ve never been to H&M.

Why Facebook is Better Than Your Brain

Photo by  Dimitris Kalogeropoylos (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos (copied from Flickr)

You wake up with the sweet tang of Sambuca at the back of your throat. Your head is made of grease-streaked concrete. The effort required to drag it off the pillow leaves you sitting breathless on the edge of the bed, waiting for the strength to stand. You can’t even begin to think about what happened last night. You can’t think about anything at this stage; you’re a zombie, your arms outstretched for coffee and breakfast.

Later, having tried unsuccessfully to degrease your face, you check your Facebook and see there are red balloons in the top right hand corner. It gives you a thrill, though you know it’s probably just an invite to an event you won’t attend. You click the balloons anyway, and find that somebody’s uploaded photos from the night before. Each one’s at a progressively tilted angle, and shows increasingly terrible things, some of which seem familiar, and some of which you’d forgotten completely.

And that, right there, is why Facebook is better than your brain. While you were sleeping (or indeed, still dancing like a twat in some dimly lit booze-hole), Facebook has already processed the events into folders and albums, complete with times and dates. Your brain, on the other hand, has either filtered out most of what happened (having deemed it unimportant), or else is engaged in consolidating the traces of memories it has admitted. This process of consolidation involves moving a memory from one part of the brain to another, from short term to long term memory, and eventually to places in the brain even super-clever science types don’t really know much about. This process is a slow one (even without the stupefying effects of alcohol), taking anything from hours to years to complete, during which time the memory may only be available to you in dreams. Facebook memories, for better or worse, are instantly available the morning after.

Of course, Facebook wouldn’t have memories if it weren’t for the input of you and your friends. A specimen like you, mired in substance abuse and sans camera phone, is entirely reliant on other people’s Facebook uploads to remember where you were any given night.

This delegation of memory is nothing new though; people have always relied on other members of their social groups to store information on their behalf. Perhaps, in the old days, your partner would remember your friends’ birthdays for you, while you remembered where to hit the TV when it starts playing up. Now, with ubiquitous access to the internet, you no longer need to rely on your partner because Facebook issues birthday reminders – you no longer have to call your music geek friend to find out the name of that singer who did that song you like – you just google it instead. A recent article in Scientific American (Vol 309, Issue 6) suggested that reliance on the internet for information decreases our ability to remember it for ourselves, producing an attitude that can be summed up as: “why learn when you can google?” The article called the internet “the external hard drive for our memories,” and explained how we are increasingly treating it as an all-knowing member of our social group.

If the above is true, then Facebook is a friend who knows all the parties and clubs you’ve been to over the last year. It’s seen you at your best, and liked you at your worst. It knows who you’re dating, and will never forget your birthday. Best of all, it’s always interested in you. “What’s on your mind?” it asks, every time you visit.

And what is on your mind? Well, too much as it turns out. Not content with out-stripping the brain, Facebook (and the Internet at large) could be damaging its capacity for remembering in more disturbing ways than simply inducing google-search-laziness. The process of memory consolidation requires periods where the brain is less active, periods which are becoming ever scarcer in our age of information overload. There’s simply too much stuff on an average person’s newsfeed for the brain to handle. As soon as we acquire one piece of information, another one’s there to push it from your mind, then another, and another, meaning nothing’s actually absorbed or consolidated. One scientist likened the modern mind to a full glass of water. We keep topping it up with attention-grabbing items, but soon they too will flow down the outside of the glass, a never-ending stream of memes and pornography forming a puddle on our collective tables.

So thanks for the memories Facebook, but it looks like you can keep them.