A Poet's Guide to Beijing

Stephanie Warner walks us through the metropolis

Photo Credit: Stephanie Warner

Photo Credit: Stephanie Warner

Ne pas essayer trop vite de trouver une définition de la ville; c’est beaucoup trop gros, on a toutes les chances de se tromper.” (Don’t be too hasty in trying to define the city; it is much too big, and there is every likelihood that you will get it wrong.)
–Georges Perec 

The Ghost

THE MANDARIN SLANG for foreigner is lawoi—ghost. That’s what I feel like as I take a job teaching the 19th-century American novel in Beijing. For a year in China, I will wrestle with my insubstantiality in the mega-city, a landscape of walls and gates, and vast distances navigated by taxi. In concrete terms, I’ll take up the post of literature professor in the English and translation program of the University of Geosciences, with the hope that low teaching hours, and a room of one’s own, will help me finish my first poetry collection.

 During lengthy correspondence prior to the move, my employer, American Bill Jones, angles the contract as a literary retreat: a year to write and read the classics, plus plenty of time to travel. “Though the salary is not a princely sum, it will allow one to live quite comfortably in our North Eastern district of Haidian. The walk to work is a pleasant one, down a lane lined by poplars.” Jones lives in a flat lined with the classics, his bed tucked away amongst the volumes: no mattress—just a mat of wooden slats in the old Chinese style. He speaks of Beijing in the tone of a long-suffering husband. Acerbic wit and academic pomposity, mingled with fatherly concern for his veteran colleagues, he will think nothing of drilling you on your Hardy, Dickens, and James over dumplings during staff lunch. Somehow, your literary chops, never quite reach his mark.

Volunteer geoscience students usher me through the Byzantine bureaucracy of life in the Middle Kingdom. This means knowing the language but also the system, and how to strong-arm through the echelons of administration. My full name is one character too long for the campus bank’s computer system. Every month my paycheck arrives late, processed only after a flurry of rubberstamps on pieces of paper that seem to dwindle, with every authorization, from reassuring cardstock to tissue-thin receipts. I learn to bring a book for these monthly paper-trails around my unwieldy name, and come to associate Hardy’s desolate moors with the staccato of civil servants typing, stamping, and notarizing.

Near the beginning of term the foreign teachers are herded through a series of medical tests in a trade-fair-like jumble of examination stations. MRIs and blood samples are executed: boxes to be checked. Veteran teacher Chad, who generally keeps himself barricaded from us with electronic devices and video games, helps me with the task of buying a phone plan. In China, certain telephone numbers are cheaper than others. I opt for the least expensive with lots of fours: the character is homonymous with the word for death, and thus unlucky. I also learn to never stick my chopsticks in a bowl of rice, which is seen to mimic the burning of joss-sticks at a funeral. I even grow accustomed to elbowing my way through the metro, and gesturing with an open hand in my classes. (Pointing is considered vulgar.) Besides confronting the sheer scale of the city itself, I find my sturdy Western sense of self dissolving into a mysterious trompe-l’oiel of niceties and faux-pas. I learn to take photographs of the pictograms of whatever bar or café I’m traveling to by taxi. Attempting to shore myself against Beijing’s surreal fragments—the result of thousands of years of upheaval, destruction, and rebuilding—all I will seem to want to do is write sonnets and listen to The Smiths, which isn’t, I suppose, such a ghastly form of exile.

Besides confronting the sheer scale of the city itself, I find my sturdy Western sense of self dissolving into a mysterious trompe-l’oiel of niceties and faux-pas.

Even the site of Beijing doesn’t span its storied 3,000 year history, having been relocated in the 14th century from the verdant mountains of what is presently Nanjing, to a plateau encircled by a horseshoe of mountains that would resist Mongolian invasion from the North. Such defensive geography nowadays traps the pollution from coal mines, cars and factories, only to be relieved by swift winds, or the arrival of a political summit. Arriving to class one beautiful clear-skied day, my students inform me that all of the factories have been shut down in anticipation of APEC. They’re calling the color of the sky ‘APEC blue’.

Though the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square complex, around which the city radiates architecturally (and perhaps psychically) in ring-roads, are steeped in history, the feel of the military camp, ready to be moved at a moment’s notice, clings. In fact, the Hutongs—the interlocking courtyards of what remain of old Beijing—were designed to be portable as movie sets. The Chinese did Ikea before Ikea. (Visiting the furniture conglomerate in Beijing is an experience unto itself: Chinese families spend the day sleeping and relaxing in the displays, eating Swedish meatballs alongside prawns and noodles).

Although I’m accustomed to Barcelona’s paseos and plazas, with their reassuring gravitational pull, Beijing extends beyond this human and provincial scale. It tugs at the edges of my perception, more abstraction than metropolis. Beijing reminds me of much smaller Canadian cities such as Red Deer or Cranbrook: real-estate developments cobbled together through one-off speculation, and the old downtowns withering while the big boxes replicate blithely down ‘the strip’. Like Ashbery’s “Lacustrine Cities,” Beijing seems at once as impersonal and cyclical as weather, a city which has “emerged until a tower / Controlled the sky, and with artifice dipped back / Into the past for swans and tapering branches…”. To take the metro is to flicker in and out of futuristic urbanity, and islands of yet-undeveloped wasteland. Steel and glass shards of modern architecture seem to be plunked, pell-mell, along tracts of farmland, as if real-estate was sporing, rather than being deliberately planned.

One’s sense of scale is distorted, too, as the distance between metro stops expand in the outer ring roads, like telescope segments. Twenty minutes elapse between my station of Wudaokoa, where the universities are concentrated, and Sanxi, the glittering computer district. Just dusty hinterland in between: a man dragging his donkeys; a woman burning squares of golden paper to usher in the new moon. Brick and corrugated roofs pass the windows, then suddenly a real-estate development of pseudo-venetian luxury condos swallows the sky. One is reminded of Paul Virilio’s overexposed city, in which boundaries between micro and macro, near and far, seem to blur: “if the metropolis is still a place, a geographic site, it no longer has anything to do with the classical oppositions of city/country, nor center/periphery.” I begin to develop a sort of nocturnal amnesia, waking up in the middle of the night with no idea where I am. The phenomena will disappear as soon as I move back to Barcelona.

The Airpocalypse

I BEGIN TO write sonnets in my air-filtered bunker, which despite the dreadful condition of the stairwell (the competing phone numbers of plumbers plaster the walls), is a spacious and modern apartment. In China, one begins to draw a distinction between the upkeep of private and public space. (The Communist Party credo is prosperity first, environment later.) Nevertheless, the Chinese remain avid gardeners: homesickness is walked in the maze-like cluster of campus apartment blocks. Trellises span every cavity between the residential buildings on campus, dusty courgettes, zucchinis photosynthesizing what they can, and Styrofoam units overflowing with herbs. Mature trees are dug-up and shuffled around campus according to mysterious horticultural orders from on high. I begin to notice the lack of insects or birds, aside from silverfish and cicadas.

There are days when the pollution levels exceed the highest reading on my smartphone app. I go through a dozen 3M face masks a month, but never quite believe in the flimsy cotton thing I loop around my ears to filter carcinogenic particles; the PM 2.5s are minuscule enough to shimmy into your bloodstream. Expats congregate in microbreweries—the latest fad to sweep Beijing, uniformly hipster with their filament bulbs and exposed brick—shooting the breeze about the ‘Airpocalypse,’ arguing over the best brand of mask, and weighing their ludicrously high salaries against the long-term erosion of their health.

I go through a dozen 3M face masks a month, but never quite believe in the flimsy cotton thing I loop around my ears to filter carcinogenic particles; the PM 2.5s are minuscule enough to shimmy into your bloodstream.

Get your ass to Bali!, my app helpfully recommends one day, the maroon bar extending past the limits of my iPhone screen, and the PM2.5 readings 900 times over the WHO recommended limit. On such days the air felts your tongue and teeth, and particulate screens of white rub out the fountain just a few yards beyond my window, where every morning old ladies practice tai-chi. If you are foolish enough to venture outdoors, the city assembles itself, apartment block by apartment block, as if you’d slipped into some elaborate piece of choreography—Russian Arc in one take.

Nevertheless, there are mornings when a night of brisk winds off the Mongolian plateau has scrubbed the city clean, and standing on the elevated Wudaoko subway station, I can see flashes of the Fragrant Hills flanking the city, even a crescent moon. Suddenly delineated, buildings take on a hallucinatory quality, like Wordsworth’s view of London from Westminster Bridge: “Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky; / All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

The Flâneur

HEADY DAYS OF smokeless air are few and far between, and after several respiratory infections, hair loss, and a constant low-grade headache, I decide to book my first ‘lung cleaning’ winter holiday to coastal Sanya. In Hainan, China’s tropical island province, my hostel is just minutes from white sand beaches, where middleclass Chinese, the women in head-to-two coverings, throng the surf with selfie sticks. Newlyweds frame the setting sun with curled fingers: a heart. Their professional photographer tips the bride’s head back to a more coquettish angle. Nobody swims. Here the ‘build and they will come-eth’ adage is more obvious than in shape-shifting Beijing, where the plan is inscrutable. I marvel at the progression of mega-resorts, full of moneyed Russians, replicating down the beach with increasing adjectival boldness: Pearl and Perfume Perfection World (Free Escalator to Beach!). The hotels subside into open houses with free-flowing cocktails and mega-resorts still in diorama. This is followed by just-poured shells of towers and, finally, cranes and pylons parataxically lurching, as if dowsing for more development in the pink sky.

This far down the beach, sand would have to be shipped in: the indigenous population, fishing for clams between outcrops of shale—where would they go? Walking back to my rented chair on the beach, versions of the same Filipino cover band sing Credence Clearwater Revival, ABBA, The Clash. Along the boardwalk the resorts bleed into each other. Every terrace bar is engaged in an arm’s race of flash and kitsch: the mimicry of Western hits increasingly uncanny, the palm trees increasingly kitted out in neon. I swear I see sangria being served from a bowl whose glass walls house live goldfish.

But however disconcerting the sense of a city assembling itself around you, Sanya was at least of a comprehendible scale: just a few million, a mere village in Chinese terms.

The Great Water Canon

WITHIN THE WALLED perimeters of my campus, a city unto itself, one begins to pick up on daily rhythms: the biweekly circuit of the tiny water-delivery trucks; the yi, err, shen of a primary school’s hourly calisthenics; and an old man’s evening commute on a steampunk contraption he motors with a hand-pedal, his chitzu pulled behind in a wagon. Venture outside the university walls, and the clockwork idyll shatters: the human tide obliterates nuance.

Aside from the few remaining Hutongs, easy to romanticize with their hair-pin turns and tiny clutches of stools spilling out into the street—even crowds of pigeon fanciers, the birds in ornately carved wooden boxes—Beijing is a city navigated by taxis, bone-rattling buses, and one of the largest subway systems in the world

To be lost in such a city is to be profoundly and existentially displaced. One night I was privately escorted for hours in a taxi, through the architecturally uniform hinterlands of Haidian. The driver couldn’t speak English, and every interstate with a tower block and hotel looked like the one close to my university—but wasn’t. Finally, my tongue assembled a close enough approximation of the tones in Wudaokoa, and I was whisked back to my room, where a glass of Baijo, my air filter, and VPN assumed a trifecta of such preciousness I nearly wept. 

 Beijing is a city of walls. Parks, university campuses, hospitals, the nested courtyards of the ancient Hutong homes—thousands of microcosms going about their business, in the historical seat of the heavenly empire. Whatever trauma lingers from the violence, mass famine, and ideological madness of the Cultural Revolution, it isn’t apparent on the surface of day-to-day life. We are schooled, reluctantly by Bill, not to mention the three T’s (and one H) in our classes: Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet, and the Halong Gong. The fact of our university being filled with geo-scientists—unlike the language and culture university directly across from us, with its large international student body—means that we slip below the radar of silent, but effective, intra-faculty monitoring. We can get away with Slaughterhouse Five, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s disquieting fable of organ-farmed clones, Never Let Me Go.

Whatever trauma lingers from the violence, mass famine, and ideological madness of the Cultural Revolution, it isn’t apparent on the surface of day-to-day life.

Though protected from pricked eyes and ears—what Marina Warner has called the ‘ecstasy of obedience’—our campus isn’t spared from the implicit self-monitoring that has come in the wake of Xi Jing Ping’s massive anti-corruption campaign. The university’s finest restaurant, where we lunch and have our weekly staff meetings, suddenly, and without explanation, changes the menu. Decadent northern dishes, and a fine array of sea-food, are replaced with inedible heaps of greasy vegetables and noodles. In a grand hall laden with rice-paper screens, coffered ceilings, fountains, and statues of storks, we are now being served cafeteria slop. Around the same time there are whispers of a Beijing-wide office re-shuffle, in which civil servants will be reassigned working spaces that precisely reflect, in square meters, their rank in the party’s supra-structure—a form of bureaucratic madness not even Kafka could conceive. Though never explicitly stated, our campus, like all institutions, is doing its best to evade undue attention by avoiding any sign of luxury.

The walls extend, of course, to the digital realm, where some of the greatest computer talent in China work to keep certain inflammatory ideas from trickling into the mainland. I struggle for my first month with the Internet. Sometimes the BBC loads and sometimes it doesn’t. Gmail works, sort of, but has obviously been fiddled with: it’s just slow and glitchy enough to deter users. After the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong (the spin-doctors at China News Daily, the state-sanctioned English rag, speak of anarchists bent on destroying China’s harmony) Instagram slows down, then one day is rubbed out entirely. For a few weeks trying to access any site with a Facebook-like button reroutes me to a Polish travel blog and sometimes a digital software company, a new cyber-censorship technique dubbed ‘the Great Water Cannon.’ China even records a state-sanctioned anthem, lauding the glorious Middle Kingdom Internet, which is almost as bizarre as a recent English ditty (warning: it’s ludicrously catchy) about their next five year plan. Eventually I purchase, with Sam’s help, the pricey VPN software to circumvent the ‘Great Firewall.’

My colleague Ryan, who mostly keeps himself buried in Chinese literature and calligraphy exercises, develops an obsession with the portable, waist-grazing lengths of fencing that go up and down throughout the streets of our neighborhood, with no discernible rhyme or reason. Just high enough to be difficult to jump over, the fences seem intended to help direct Beijing’s considerable foot traffic and deter street vendors as well as the grandmothers who gather to do synchronized dances in any scrap of public space. I later learn that these fences mitigate street vendors hawking stolen iPhones, bing (a heavenly fast-food of flaky pastry, cilantro, red onion and egg), and, more disturbingly, live bunnies stacked in cubed cages.

I live a two-hour subway journey from the nucleus of Beijing itself, the imperial Forbidden City, a byzantine feat of fortification with “gate towers, gates, archways, watchtowers, barbicans, barbican towers, barbican gates, barbican archways, sluice gates, sluice gate towers, enemy sighting towers, corner guard towers, and a moat system”, the outer wall of which was torn down to make the first ring road, which would ripple out into increasingly vast ring roads during the building frenzy. Lately there has been talk of constructing a 7th ring road to swallow satellite cities surrounding Beijing, to create a mega-city of some 70 million people.  

The Forbidden City’s imposition of order and harmony, with buildings constructed along principals of Feng Shui—their importance advertised not in degrees of architectural grandeur, but in how many mythical creatures creep over the wing-tips of ceramic tiled roofs—begins to explain Beijing’s love of fences and gates. In enormous royal parks, artificial lakes and rolling hills echo the serenity of ancient Chinese tankas and haikus.

The Vaccination Center

BY THE TIME I reach the mid-point of my stay in China, with six weeks of paid holiday ahead of me, a round of vaccination is the only thing standing between myself and a meditation retreat in the countryside of Cambodia. Zhao Yi—our magnificent administrative go-to within the faculty—arranges for a Chinese student, Linda, to escort me from campus to vaccination center, a trip I would undoubtedly fail to make if left to my own devices.

(My first hospital Beijing visit involved two hours of being ferried up and down lifts to retrieve mysterious slips of rubber-stamped documentation from every corner of the hospital, before I could be ushered into a waiting room. The hospital even had its own clutch of ticket scalpers, lingering outside the building entrance, selling passes that could push you ahead in line.)

After the better part of an hour spent whizzing down multi-lane highways, slipping in and out of ring roads that look vaguely like the one in question, we finally chance upon the correct exit. Once again I experience that lapse in continuity—a soft inner click—as we step into a tract of Hutong and Old China, leaving the freeway behind.

To be lost in such a city is to be profoundly and existentially displaced.

In China, female friends walk the streets with interlocked arms, an intimacy which extends to the relationship between host and ‘foreign friend.’ I suppose there’s a level of practicality here, too: linked to the body of another, the external pressure of the city is divided. Perhaps it’s my Scandinavian blood, but I’m sure Linda felt that she was dragging a manikin past the char and dumpling joints. Finally, the Hutong was replaced with a quadrangle of modern towers, finished in the sand-blasted burnt sienna Beijing favors these days.

In the elevator, I ask Linda a few questions about her family in the South who still live in a tiny fishing village, and have invested what money they have in sending their daughter to Beijing. The solicitousness of her hosting role suddenly drops, as she explains to me that her father died only a few months ago. My ears pop as we ascend another twenty floors, and Linda brushes away tears with a perfumed tissue. I consider putting a hand on her shoulder, but my fear of committing another faux-pas trumps human instinct.

In the waiting room, both of us ensconced again in the privacy of our smart phones, I begin to think about this city of walls, and the ones who slip through the cracks. I think about Bill’s tour of the college campus, where the phenomena of ‘floating titles’ was explained (department names that sound more important than their actual contents, usually with adjectival phrases like ‘globally affiliated’); the curious lack of building exits (Chinese buildings usually only have one entrance); and then the dorm tower from which a doctorate student had recently thrown himself.

In a country marked by the miraculous rise of the middle class, a dizzying rate of construction (China’s GDP recently eclipsed America’s), it’s easy to forget about the infrastructure that has yet to catch up. Mental health services are all but nonexistent in China, though Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker about a burgeoning trade of Skype psychoanalysis among the intelligentsia in Beijing and Shanghai. Our boss is frank about the possibility of students approaching us with stories of grief and loss that haven’t yet found an outlet.  

The Great Wall of China

IN RETROSPECT, IT seems fitting that the first novel I chose to teach was Henry James’ Washington Square, an arch deconstruction of the Gothic melodrama, centered on the conflict between a brilliant though cold doctor, and his dull daughter. The story’s only instance of emotional exchange cannot occur in rigid, aristocratic New York. Instead, it blossoms in a scoured, metaphysical landscape: high in the mountains of Switzerland, wrenched from grid-work roads and imposing towers. Something flashes in Doctor Slopper’s eyes, and finally Catherine is permitted to see the full extent of her father’s scorn of her plainness and lack of intellect—as well as his own self-hatred. The catharsis allows Catherine to cut the cord of an infatuation with a young dilatant who doesn’t cherish her. The anguish caused by filial piety strikes a chord with my students. So does the depiction of New York’s dizzying development of in the late 1900s, which Doctor Slopper—a patrician with old-fashioned values—barricades himself from in tidy Washington Square.

Linked arm in arm with Linda, vaccination achieved, we step onto the foot-traffic bridge that spans the freeway sidled up against the China University of Geosciences—our home. It was a rare blue-sky day, after a night of wind and rain, and from our perch we could see the campus, the image that appears on the website and brochures. From this vantage point the main building doesn’t look so shabby (no chipped tiles or laundry hanging from a window). There’s a hint of Palladian proportions, two tree-lined paths sweeping around the chubby statue of Mao, which from this distance drapes his face with shadows, lending him a look both avuncular and severe.

I ask Linda how she feels to be in Beijing, so far from her family, studying international trade in a city so different from the one she grew up in. She considers the question carefully, and says it was the sense of hope, and of being caught up in something historic; in Beijing, with luck, she can be anything.

The city of byzantine fortification nevertheless keeps stretching the tentacles of its subway system further; by 2020 it will have doubled the size of the London underground. The largest airport in the world is under construction, in the shape of a nebula. The China Dream that my MA students refer to in scare quotes, with the same tone of cynicism and resignation with which they coined ‘APEC blue’, is for Linda a source of pride, and a feeling of connection.  And perhaps she’s right: Beijing vibrates with a certain energy, perhaps not so different from the headiness of New York before the wars, where artists from Europe flocked, returning to Paris and London electrified. In New York, speed itself was the muse, cubism capturing the sense of a collective dream. If Ashbery’s “Lacustrine Cities” can be interpreted as a sort of sigmoid curve of the urban experiment, perhaps Beijing is trembling on that cusp where disappointment breaks into “a rainbow of tears”.

With time, will Beijing develop its ‘Washington Squares,’ or Spanish placas, Henry James’ islands of “established repose which [are] not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city… [with] a riper, richer, more honorable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a social history”? In Franz Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”, told from the perspective of a civil servant overseeing the construction of the wall, it’s the piecemeal nature of the construction that niggles: the structure is built in segments, rather than continuously, despite the apparent impracticality of continuously shipping workers up and down these islands of construction. The wall itself is built not in a circle, but in a horseshoe, to ward off the vague threat of demons on horseback, who live off the windswept steppes in the north. In fact, according to the supervisor, it’s the deliberate incommensurability of the project that provokes a nationalistic ecstasy, the endeavour stretching beyond the limits of the imagination.

Like Catherine contemplating her father’s “great faculties” that “stretched away to lose themselves in a sort of luminous vagueness”, the scope of the China Dream stupefies and dazzles and, with help from Edmund Burke’s sublime, chills. But then to be dazzled is to be frozen—unable to act. At the worst it encourages a sort of stunned passivity, as in Kafka’s imagining of the Great Wall’s construction:

Every countryman was a brother for whom they were building a protective wall and who would thank him with everything he had and was for all his life. Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China… In view of all this, the system of piecemeal building becomes understandable. 

Beijing extends beyond most of our imaginative capabilities—it presents a whack-a-mole board of construction and demolition, too rapid to wrap one’s mind around. Faced with horrendous pollution and environmental degradation; conditions mimicking a nuclear winter; infants developing lung cancer—the prevailing attitude remains somewhere between awe, and the often heard “it is what it is.” This attitude clings to the ex-pats, too, those who make the mental calculation of health versus salary, who speak of the ‘airpocalypse’ only in terms of extra grievance pay. More nets are thrown up around the Apple factory towers.

It should be noted that Chai Jing’s recent documentary concerning air pollution, Under the Dome (a reference to the air-filtered recreation bubbles for middle-class children), slipped the Party’s censorship for a couple of weeks. Eventually rubbed out by the firewall’s amnesia machine, it was nonetheless viewed by millions of Chinese, while volunteers rushed to write English subtitles. Even the censorship seems to come in waves, tightening and relaxing. Its arbitrary nature only reinforces the hold it has on people.

It’s hard to know how to feel. After centuries of famine, bloodshed, war, and political instability, it seems only natural that China’s now swinging toward the European tours, Louboutins, and a building boom: in short, their own Gilded Age. It’s difficult not to lapse into Ashbery’s longer view, where the secular, civic, global, and cosmic rise and fall in mysterious rhythms, where “we” (not specified) “have all inclusive plans for you.”

Even the censorship seems to come in waves, tightening and relaxing. Its arbitrary nature only reinforces the hold it has on people.

Nevertheless, Bill’s zeal begins to make sense when one considers the power of literature to obliterate this spell of blandishment and paralysis. Navigating the damage done by Chinese primary school rote learning isn’t easy; relentless hours of cramming and results-driven pedagogy tend to drive out curiosity and playfulness. More than teaching narrative structure, or elements of style, our task is to lay the groundwork for an experience of reading, which has more to do with pleasure and self-reflection than memory work for a test.

The bulk of my teaching hours are with the masters of literature students, in seminars of six to ten people. The MA room, once a coveted corner office, has been chosen by Bill for its lack of fixed rows of desks and computer consoles. He even salvaged a handsome cherry wood round table, seized during one of the office shuffles (perhaps a civil servant turfed it for its whiff of elegance and luxury). The chalkboard has been custom built by geoscience students, and is placed, oddly, much too high up the wall. Bill has stacked his back issues of the New York Review of Books by the door, though I seem to be the only person rifling through the dusty heap. A flurry of scansion ticks and the Greek words for “love”—from Bill’s evening class on Homer—are left in a corner of the board in a PLO bubble. Everything in retrograde. I grow accustomed to the chipped floor tiles and ever-present layer of dust. I shave off a few years of my life photocopying in a labyrinthine network of basement rooms, presided over by a rotation of chain-smoking students. When the pollution reaches hazardous levels (likely worse inside our unventilated classrooms) these seminar discussions take on a hallucinatory quality, as I find my mind tunnelling into Virginia Woolf’s dessert of dates, or Eliot’s filament of platinum.

Between lectures and film screenings (the latter saved for the most polluted days), I begin to learn more about the lives of my students: the challenges of sharing dorm rooms with 8 bunk beds a piece; the obligatory military training, when undergrads sleep in barracks along The Great Wall, and spend hours a day singing patriotic songs. There’s even a student who survived the earthquake in the Sichuan province. I begin to recognize Eric’s prowess in teasing out patterns of visual symbolism, and Annie’s shrewd insights into psychological motivations in fiction. I come to know a brilliant though obsequious auditor, Deng, who will take me aside to make pedagogical (though not ideological) observations. There is some debate among the foreign teachers whether or not he’s a mole of Bill’s, the Party’s, or just an eager student keen to curry favor with the foreign teachers.

Over the course of the year, I single out four or five students who will become great readers of books, and one who turned out a rather good sonnet on the air pollution. For my last class we break out the bubbly and fancy dress in an homage to the salon parties of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. (It’s strange to think of these same students filtering into the campus at dusk with their plastic baskets of toiletries, queuing up for a quick evening shower). I really have no idea what my students make of my classes: in China, everybody is passed.  Nevertheless, I will eventually receive a kind message from one of my first-years saying she misses our stream of consciousness writing to Arvo Part and Bela Bartok. It was something she’d never done before.

STEPHANIE WARNER’s poetry has appeared in Event, Descant, Arc, This Magazine, The Malahat Review, and Prairie Fire and the Montreal International Poetry Prize Global Anthology. Her first collection of poetry will be released with Fitzhenry & Whiteside in the spring of 2017.

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