by Lilly Zheng, Layout Staff
I thought I knew Beijing well. The hot weather. The constant scent of car exhaust. The short breaths. The clogged lungs. I used to walk the familiar paths around my grandparents’ apartment complex, looking down along the river bank at the trash floating in the water. Sometimes, I’d even see people crouched on the side, washing their clothes in the murky soup. I grew accustomed to stepping around the “tan,” or tiny spit blobs, littered on the ground and the feeling of the air, like molasses, wrapping me up into a sweaty, rosy-cheeked burrito.
My maternal grandparents, Popo and Agong, lived in a community of apartments mostly filled with elderly inhabitants. A cafeteria, a supermarket, a hair salon, and a few abandoned buildings filled the one block of peace and quiet among the crowded skyscrapers of Beijing. Little gardens and parks provided the rare bit of greenery in the city of steel. If I woke up early enough, I could even see the old folk practicing tai chi there.
Popo and Agong used to take me to these massive shopping malls when I was in middle school. They were usually six floors and had hundreds of small cubicle stores on each level. The salespeople stampeded you every time you got just a little bit too close, cheerily welcoming you, followed by “Ni yao shi yi xia ma?” as they asked if you wanted to try an item on. Whenever we walked in places like these, I whispered my English to my parents. I tried my best to use my Chinese as much as possible, but I could never avoid letting slip Chinglish every once in a while. Even with my straight brown hair and just slightly tanned complexion, it was difficult to hide my Americaness that would’ve made bargaining much harder.
Back then, before their legs grew too weak, Popo and Agong often took me for strolls along the bustling expressways. These became the times I’ve feared most for my life. My grandfather was two things: a no-nonsense military officer and a stubborn prankster. Whenever we reached an intersection, Agong would grab hold of my arm and drag me diagonally through it, not taking a second to look left or right. The problem with Beijing drivers is that they have a strong “Me first, pedestrians second” rule. And so with quaking knees, elementary schooler Lilly followed helplessly in her grandfather’s iron grip amidst the dust and screeching horns. When we had successfully parted the sea of traffic, Agong smiled down at me, then waved for Popo and my parents to hurry up. I was looking at the Grim Reaper as he brought me to the underworld. I could only close my eyes and pray to see the light again.
After my near-death experience, we reached the tent markets. I began seeing delicious foods and colorful signs inviting customers to fill up their empty stomachs. We weaved through the crowd, holding our bags and belongings tightly to avoid the frequent pick-pocketing. The smell of sweat quickly gave way to nostril-pleasing jianbaozi (fried dumplings), yangrouchuan (lamb kebabs), youtiao (fried bread twists), and roujiamo (Beijing sandwiches). I was ready to inhale ten pounds of fat no matter the consequences. I loaded up on everything in sight, skipping happily alongside my family. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks. The looming canopies gave me a sense of foreboding for the hassling to come. As I crept hesitantly through the tunnels of tent markets, my mother grabbed my now-empty hand to look at the goods on a nearby stand of hair accessories: scrunchies. With new sweat breaking out, I began debating with my mother in low-whispered English which to buy. When a Chinese word I knew popped up, I spoke louder, trying intently to prevent the storekeeper in close proximity from discerning this foreigner. When the brightly-colored goods were chosen, I quickly ran off into another stall as my mother started bargaining. With the haggling avoided, it was time to start a new search.
When the weather got too hot or the smog too dense, I often spent my days lying motionless in my bed, AC blasting in my face, watching kiddy cartoons until my parents, enthralled in their WWII TV show, remembered I existed. I remember the mornings spent whining to Popo to let me sleep five more minutes. She would bribe me (quite successfully) with youtiao and fresh, warm doujiang (soy milk). I remember the long eternity of five minutes watching Agong play my father in weiqi, a mind-boggling Chinese boardgame I still struggle to comprehend. I remember the gifts and kisses. The heat. The scents. The summers I spent in Beijing were the prime of my young, stress-free life. Maybe once this pandemic passes, I’ll be able to revisit those happy memories again.