Bridge to Global Literature

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Headlines – Lida Stanchenko

Aug 6, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

When Katarina was about to leave for Beijing, she said to her friends: “Finally, I want to take ownership of my own future.”
Surrounding her, they told her:
“Good for you, Katarina, good for you!”

When Azamat was on the Urumqi—Beijing train, coming back from his holidays, he was trying his best not to think about anything.

When Katarina found herself at the Beijing airport after a night flight and saw her suitcase on the baggage conveyor belt, her thought was:
“Very good.”  Even though her suitcase turned out to have a long scratch on one of its sides.

When Azamat was heading home in a taxi from the train station, he still had no thoughts.

Katarina spent two hours in a taxi. When she was just getting in it after a huge line, her only thought was:
“Finally, I can sit down.” And then, the airport’s car parking dungeon reluctantly spat them out — a laughing taxi driver and a sleepy Katarina — out into a dim sunny airport-highway morning. A digital clock next to the wheel said 8 a.m. The driver turned the radio on. Katarina thought: “Now it’s time to look around.” She fell asleep.

Azamat got home. Hollow guitar sounds were coming from the next room, Hu Fan was practicing again. “Just like I’ve never left,” Azamat thought. A few months ago, when Azamat just moved into this apartment, he had said to Hu Fan: “Let’s go for a beer sometime!” But the guy said he didn’t go to bars, and never suggested anything else. Since then, they kept it at simple greetings.

When Katarina came to Beijing all she wanted to do was to act and to watch. “Little things like that shouldn’t bother you”, she said to herself, when the agent threw opened the door of her potential room. You could take exactly two steps from the door to the bed and then half of that from the bed to the window in that room. There was a stain of unknown origins on the once white wall. Katarina winced and said: “I’ll take it”.

Azamat has been living in Beijing for three years. If he goes for a walk, he always follows the same path. Every time. But not often. That evening he decided to go for a walk despite the tiredness. He wanted to stop by the bar he liked. After the first bottle of beer, he started thinking of the good times he spent there with his friends, who had now left for other cities. A girl wearing a short dress with glitter all over her face was sitting next to Azamat. The girl was awkwardly sipping her glass of beer. Then she moved a little towards Azamat and asked:
“Do you like Beijing?” The girl nervously giggled at Azamat.
“I do.”
The girl made a face of astonishment:
“You speak Chinese so well!”
“This is the only language I speak well”, having heard this long phrase in a perfectly clear Putonghua, the girl was yet again, astonished. Her eyebrows crawled upwards as she uttered “oooh”.

Katarina didn’t know that many characters. She couldn’t read a menu in a restaurant, but she got along well with the names of the streets and side-roads. “Beijing is so big!” She thought. Every day she exhausted herself trying to adapt to the city or taking long walks. She was always looking for something — for cheese or for people.

Azamat came back home late. He took that girl home in a cab. He left only after making sure, that the girl opened the door of her apartment and got home safe. When he was about to call a cab for himself, Azamat discovered that he’d lost his phone. “My poems…. Damn it, all my poems”, he thought.

When Katarina first came to her office she thought: “So cool”. The huge hall was filled with desk walls. A huge amount of people of all nationalities were sitting in front of computers, correcting letters and commas in news reports in their respective language. Katarina had her own desk.

Azamat always was the first one to come to the office. It was important to him to kick off the day with the words “You’re so early today,” said by his supervisor. At the end of the day, he wanted to hear: “You’re staying this late again!” No, he didn’t need the approval, he considered it as a special code confirming the correctness of his actions.

 For the whole first week, Katarina loved coming in office to work. She was one of the first to come in and cast a glance at a half empty, scantily lit hall with five dozen desks. She turned on her computer and began correcting the news reports from last night, starting on her green apple with a crunch.

When Azamat’s friend from Urumchi visited him, he asked:
“Still scribbling your news?”
Azamat responded:
“Yes.”
“On the 29th afternoon the delegation headed … arrived in Shenyang, something like that?” The friend giggled, feeling absolutely satisfied with his imitation.
“Yes, yes…”, Azamat grinned to be polite.

Katarina started to come to office late. Once, when she came to work and looked around, she saw that all her coworkers — from Peru and South Africa, from India and Great Britain, from the USA and France — were sitting in front of their desks. She thought: “None of them ever talk”. And she said “hello” to a Peruvian girl. Sometimes they greeted each other and sometimes pretended that had never met each other before. Katarina offered a green apple to the Peruvian girl. But the girl hid her eyes behind the desk wall.

Azamat, always read the government reports with particular care. When a new report was issued, he came to the office earlier than usual. He re-read the report several times, almost learning it by heart.

Katerina didn’t bring any apples to work anymore. She started to find joy in sounds that she heard on the streets of Beijing: someone passing her by, loudly taking a bite of cucumber right next to her ear; the beeps of countless scooters, cars and buses merged into one powerful cacophony; one little box, a ricksha-mobile expressing its anxiety with an electronic female voice in her yard: “请注意倒车[1]; cicadas singing in the park; cicadas stopping their singing all at once.

Azamat had started working late a long time ago. He wanted to exhaust himself. He was exhausted. But he still couldn’t run out of steam. “The commemoration of national fallen heroes was held in F city”. He wrote one line after another, exhausting his fingers. “The temporal rules, regulating the labor market, comes into force in China”. The automatic thought of the articles he wrote automated all the actions he made during the day: to get up, get dressed, to splash perfume on himself. “The vice-mayor of N city, X province, was investigated”. It took him 10 minutes sharp to get from home to work. He never stopped. “China’s State Council held a reception at the 69-th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China”. Beginning of the day — clacking keyboards. Middle of the day — clacking chopsticks against the metal trays in canteen. Afternoon — clacking keyboards. “Mister A inspected C province. Azamat never finished work early.

Katarina started to have varied needs. She needed everything. She wanted everything. She wanted to go to gym before work, and she went there, but the gym was closed. She wanted to finish the book in one week, not to forget what her native language looked like. But “The vice-mayor of N city, X province, was investigated”. She wanted to bring home cooked food to the office not to go to canteen anymore, but “Mister A inspected C province”. She wanted so much to watch all the autumn novelties at the cinema, the world of the cinema had always particularly attracted her. But “China’s State Council held a reception on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China”. The automatic thought of the translated news reports she corrected, automated all the actions she made during the day: to have a glass of hot water in the morning, to take a brief and melancholic glance at the sun outside the window, to splash perfume on herself. “The commemoration of national fallen heroes was held in F city”. Katarina started to finish work late.

Azamat was laying in the silence of his room. Behind the wall Hu Fan started practicing playing the guitar again. Azamat heard his practicing for the whole year that he had been living in that apartment, but his playing was as lousy as a year ago. Azamat poured himself a drink. Then the second one. And after that the third. The sounds of Hu Fan’s practicing were becoming louder and unbearable. Azamat opened a new note in his new phone. His tongue was parched. “I want to talk”, Azamat whispered in Uighur. Once he pronounced that, he couldn’t stop. He poured himself one more drink, and after he bottomed up the content of it, he repeated: “I want to talk”. Then he started repeating the same phrase louder and louder. He took his phone with the shaking hands and started to write… He had so much to tell this shining and shaking square of the smartphone in the darkness of the room. To say it in Uighur. But he could not. When he started writing, only phrases in Putonghua could come out of him: “Mister A inspected C province”.

“What do you do?” A tall and thin guy, who introduced himself as “Roberto, a fan of an extreme type of love” asked Katarina. In less than a minute, a long-fingered Paulo replaced him. Katarina gave him a code name “coriander-like”. A minute later there was a John: “Can actually teeth be so white”, — Katarina thought. A minute or two later, there was an Elisabeth. She confessed that she was in relationships with two more girls and one guy, they knew nothing about each other’s existence, but she didn’t want to lie to Katarina. And after that there was a guy, who’s name Katarina couldn’t remember, maybe because he never mentioned it. Katarina escaped before going through the remainder of the desperate faces — she ran along the street and laughed with all her heart: “Never, never will I go to speed dating again!” She wanted to call her best friend to tell her about her hilarious morning. But the multiple time zones dividing her now from the old friends became physically tangible. Katarina didn’t even want to write a message.

Azamat had few friends. And every day they went one by one. His Xinjiang friends started more and more to leave Beijing. Some of them went back home; some of them left for the South; some of them moved to another country. He didn’t try to avoid his coworkers, but his coworkers thought he kept to himself. His natural shyness mixed up with his origins, thoughts taking place in a different alphabetical system, made him terribly lonely and practically unable to have a conversation.

Katarina always considered herself as an open and easy-going person. But being in China she had to talk even more. As soon as she left the office, where the tendency of keeping silence was in power, she found herself on the street, where conversation settings kept happening to her all the time. A cyclist would pass by her screaming: “Hey, beautiful!” Whenever she entered a bar or an exhibition or a party arranged on some occasion — people would crystallize from the air, then turn into the list of her WeChat contacts, that was growing at alarming speed.

Azamat had always overseen all the most important reports. This helped Azamat increased the list of his WeChat contacts. Azamat would never get disappointed by the huge length of this list, as well as the fact that he would never use the biggest part of the contacts, and that even the bigger part of them needed the company he worked for. Azamat never thought about these little things. In fact, there were a lot of things he never thought of. The only thing that could disappoint him now is that poems wouldn’t come out… And it had been almost a year.

Katarina now divided her life in two worlds. The first one was the world where she corrected clumsy translated news: “Mister A inspected C province”. And the second world was made up of small talk: “Have you checked Y cafe? No?! You must check it! Best burgers in the city!” Or: “O boy, cheese…. don’t even say this word in front of me! I miss cheese”. Of course, there also was a third world, Katarina called it the world of hoops. This included “Hey, beautiful!”, “laowai[2], and any phrase about money, that is necessary when you buy things. But Katarina didn’t recognize herself in this world, she just came into contact with it. Once, in the middle of a cheese talk, Katarina inserted the phrase from her first world: “Mister A inspected C province”. Her companion exclaimed: “Yes! Yes! I checked that restaurant last week! Incredibly decent wine!” Katarina was surprised, but decided that her companion just didn’t get her, so she said: “The vice-mayor of N city, X province, was investigated”. Great was her surprise when her companion exclaimed: “X restaurant makes best burgers in the city!” Katarina thought she was starting to lose her ability to talk.

From time-to-time Azamat started to find in himself something very similar to a rage stroke, when he heard Hu Fan’s lousy guitar playing behind the wall. Once, when Azamat was particularly tired after work, he heard the poor strum again and mumbled: “At least Hu Fan produces sounds! And what do you produce?” He put his hands on his phone, but lines of poetry wouldn’t come out. Then he tried to text his friend. He erased the text several times and ended up not sending the message.

Katarina had a weakness for the hutong[3]. With the coming of golden, fresh, but sunny autumn, she especially loved getting lost in them, passing from one small street to another even smaller. She loved walking through the hutongs early in the morning, when old ladies opened their squeaking doors, letting their toy-poodles out, and old men lit their cigarettes and went to stretch muscles on the improvised simulators. The fruit shops traders splashed water on their apples and cucumbers, waking them up from their slumber. Katarina loved getting lost in the night hutongs, when all the small BBQ and noodles places lit their fires for two hours and mah-jong players got hot and flustered. Katarina forgot then, that “Mister A inspected C province” and “X restaurant makes best burgers in the city!”. She forgot about the existence of language or speech, she just got lost in the streets, not feeling tired and not wishing to make herself understood.

Azamat didn’t leave home often, but if he did, he would always take the same route — along the hutongs towards his favorite bar, when a band from Xinjiang was putting on a concert. That evening the band wasn’t playing, but he still went to the bar. He didn’t meet anyone he knew, even the barman was new. After the third Long Island (every time he ordered that cocktail, he remembered his friend saying, “What are you, a woman?”), Azamat put his hand on his phone again. Feelings burned in him, he wanted to write poems again, like he did before. But it seemed that after he’d lost his phone with all his poems, lines wouldn’t come out. Azamat wanted to talk. He grabbed a marker, that was lying around on the bar counter, and went outside. On the nearest wall he wrote, in Putonghua again: “Mister A inspected C province.””

“Why would you write this?” asked Katarina, when the hutongs led her out to the street, where Azamat’s favorite bar was.
“Can you read characters?” responded Azamat asking the question in Chinese.
“Not all of them, but these I can read,” answered Katarina in English.
They kept quiet for a while, looking at the black capture on the wall.
“I wanted to write a poem…” Azamat had no idea why he said this. He’d never told anyone he wrote poems.
“You need to work on your style a bit more,” said Katarina squinting and taking a step back to see the capture better.
“You think so?”
“Absolutely. You need to spice things up a bit. What about: “The vice-mayor of N city, X province, was investigated?”
Azamat smiled and put the line on the wall. Thinking a bit, he said: “Maybe a bit of solemnity, too». And he wrote: “The commemoration of national fallen heroes was held in F city.”
“Yes, yes! Also add a positive note: “The temporal rules, regulating the labor market, come into force in China.”
“And then, let the situation go: “China’s State Council held a reception at the 69-th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.”
“Great! Although, it’s probably better to finish the whole thing with “600 kids playing the piano and blocking the street in Z province».
“Oh, yes! You’re right!” But Azamat didn’t have time to finish the writing. An outraged citizen ran up to the excited couple and started waving his hands, screaming wildly in an unknown dialect at them.
Azamat and Katarina couldn’t help laughing. Without saying a word, they suddenly started to run. Just like that, never stopping their laughter, they reached the nearest subway station.
“What’s your line?” Asked Katarina when they got through the security.
“The 6th. And yours?”
“The 5th.”
The two stayed for a bit, looked at each other, smiled and split up, not having exchanged their contacts on WeChat.

__

Notes:

[1] Mind the reversing (translation from Chinese)

[2] The  Chinese local term for foreigners

[3] Little narrow streets in Beijing

Lida Stanchenko  is a freelance journalist. She worked as a chief editor at SPUTNIK International News Agency, Beijing Chapter. Before that, she also worked for Chinese State Media for several years both in Moscow and Beijing. Lida hold a Master’s degree in Oriental studies and linguistics and is fluent in both Mandarin and English.

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