Alexander Chee Recommends “Days of Being Mild” by Xuan Juliana Wang

A story about rich Beijing hipsters making art and avoiding their parents


I remember when I read an earlier draft of “Days of Being Mild” back when I was on the faculty at Wang’s MFA program at Columbia. “Finally,” I remember thinking. The Chinese wealth youth quake that became the subject of so many trend stories seemed always to talk over the lives of the people described instead of letting them speak, but here was a story from inside that moment. A young Chinese man is preparing to obey his father and go off to America at what will be the end of a dissolute youth, spent playing at being a film maker. He is the center of a circle of friends, making a video for a Chinese rock star in Beijing, and is trying to make sense of why he can’t tell anyone what he’s probably going to do. 

Yes, your father in Beijing could buy you an oil rig in Louisiana and an American visa to go with it but what if you wanted to be a DJ or a photographer or a model or a porn star, or some combination of these? What if you had no talent but your urge to make art was an act of rebellion and valuable to you anyway? What is it like to enact a life as an artist according to Western standards and become illegible to yourself and your peers, much less your family—and yet still love it? Wang brings her failed filmmaker and his self consciously posed circle to vivid life, in dagger cut prose, allowing their contradictions and self destructive impulses to flower in front of us, and their catastrophes become the real art performances they are capable of. The resulting story–and the entire collection–marks the arrival of an urgent and necessary literary voice we’ve been needing, waiting for maybe without knowing. So, finally indeed. I’m so happy this day is here.

Alexander Chee
Author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Alexander Chee Recommends “Days of Being Mild” by Xuan Juliana Wang

“Days of Being Mild”
by Xuan Juliana Wang

It takes real skill to speed down the packed streets of the Zhongguancun district of Beijing, but the singer with the mohawk is handling it like a pro. His asymmetrical spikes are poking the roof of his dad’s sedan, so he’s compensating by tilting his head slightly to the left.

We are meeting with a new band to talk about shooting their music video. Sara is here to deal with the script details and she is leaning all the way forward to talk concept with the two guys up front. Sara’s long platinum blond hair is wavy and tumbling down her skinny back and Benji’s got his fingers in her curls. His other arm is pinching a cigarette out the window.

I’m staring at the women rhythmically patting their babies while selling counterfeit receipts and listening to taxi drivers ask about one another’s families as their cars slide back and forth.

Teenage part-timers are throwing advertisements in the air like confetti and somehow we’re managing not to kill anyone.

The band’s name is Brass Donkey and they’re blasting their music from the tiny speakers of the sedan. They sound a lot like Jump In on Box, the all-girl orbit-pop band that just got signed to Modern Sky Records. I’m digging the sound, but nobody asks for my opinion.

We finally make our way to the singer Dao’s apartment and more band members show up. He sits us down on the couch, and even though it’s only noon, he offers us Jack Daniel’s and Lucky Strikes. There are piles of discs everywhere and stacks of DVD players that the bootleg DVDs keep breaking.

“So this video, we want it to really stand out. We’re really into Talking Heads right now, you know them? Talking Heads?”

The drummer turns on the TV and David Byrne appears, jerking his head back and forth to his own beat. All the band members are talking to us at once.

“We’re no-wave Funstrumental, but we sound Brit pop.”

“For this video we want something perversely sexual, like really obscene.”

They look expectantly at Benji and Sara.

“Yeah, like really fucking sick, you know?”

“The more perverted the better!”

“Then we want this video to be blasting in the background during our debut performance at the next Strawberry Festival, on the big monitors.”

I smoke their cigarettes. “Aren’t you afraid of the police coming in and shutting it down?”

“That would be spec-fucking-tacular! It would be great to be shut down, even better if you could get us banned. Actually, let’s make that a goal,” says the singer, sinking back into his chair and turning up the music.

I watch Sara look down at her notes and then look up at me. I shrug. Benji stands up to leave and shakes everybody’s hand. Then we’re out of there. I can’t wait to tell JJ and Granzi, they’d definitely get a kick out of this story.

As for the video, we’ll do it if we feel like it, see how it goes.

We are what the people called Bei Piao—a term coined to describe the twentysomethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing. We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll and who fed ourselves milk, McDonald’s, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.

We come with uncertain dreams but our goal is to burn white-hot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money but we are very good at being young. We are modern-day May Fourth– era superstars, only now we have MacBooks. We’ve read Kerouac in translation. We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial-piety payments, but we are cool. Who is going to tell us otherwise?

Five of us live in part of a reconverted pencil factory outside of the fourth ring, smack in the middle of the 798 art district. We call our place The Fishtank and it covers four hundred square meters of brick and semi-exposed wall insulation. Before it became our home, it used to function as the women’s showers for the factory workers. As a result, it is cheap and it is damp. The real Beijing, with its post-Olympic skyscrapers, stadiums, and miles of shopping malls, rests comfortably in the distance, where we can glance fondly at the glow of lights while eating lamb sticks.

We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.

Our roommates include JJ, the tall, dark-skinned half-Nigerian from Guangzhou, who is loudmouthed and full of swagger. He keeps his head shaved, favors monochromatic denim ensembles, and is either drinking or playing with his own band Frisky Me Tender. The resident cinematographer is Benji, who is so handsome waitresses burst into fits of giggles when taking his orders. He is working on a series about migrant workers whom he dresses in designer labels. Benji, whose Chinese name we’ve forgotten, was renamed by his white girlfriend, Sara, a former research scholar who has since found it impossible to leave. Sara, with her green eyes and blond hair, speaks with an authentic marbled northeastern Chinese accent, and somewhere along the line she became one of us as well. There is Granzi from Wenzhou, the photographer who shoots product photos of new consumer electronics as well as an ever-rotating roster of models from Russia and Hong Kong. Some of them keep us company when they are sufficiently drunk. Then there’s me and I’m short like Granzi, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like someone accidentally photoshopped me into this picture.

I’m a so-called producer and what that really means is that I just have more money than the rest of them. Actually my dad does. My family’s from Chong Qing, where my dad made a fortune in real estate and has more money than he can spend. After I dropped out of the Beijing Film Academy, I’ve been hiding from my dad for more than a year and living off the money I got from selling the BMW he gave me. I said I’d try to make it as a filmmaker, but I’m low on talent. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of porn.

Our apartment is just around the corner from our new favorite bar See If, and that’s where Benji, Sara, and I go after our meeting. See If is three stories of homemade wood furniture and plexiglass floors. The drinks are named If Only, If Part,  If Together, If No If, and so on. The alcohol is supposed to supplement your mood, but it basically all tastes the same. JJ and Granzi and a bunch of part-time male models are all there jamming together. JJ is walking around suggestively strumming everyone’s guitar.

Benji says to the group, “Hey, you have to hear the story about our meeting with the Brass Donkey guys. I think they want to get publicly flogged.”

I get passed a pipe and smoke something that makes me feel like I’m vaguely in trouble. I concentrate on looking at my friends and feel swell again.

JJ cuts in. “Dude, today a cabdriver point-blank asked me how big my dick was.” We listen to that story instead. Being a half-black Chinese guy, JJ is used to attention.

With the 2008 Olympics finally behind us, Beijing is getting its loud, openmouthed, wisecracking character back. The cops stopped checking identity papers on the street and all of us Bei Piao are letting out a collective sigh of relief as life goes back to normal.

But then this thing happened. Last week I received an email from my father. He was going to give me, his only son, the opportunity to make my own fortune. He purchased a dozen oil rigs in Louisiana and is getting the L-1 investment visa ready for me to move there and manage them. It has been decreed that my piece-of-shit ass is going to move to the United States and make use of itself. In his mind, what was I doing drifting around in Beijing with hipsters when there’s an oil field in Louisiana with my name on it?

I said I’d try to make it as a filmmaker, but I’m low on talent. Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of porn.

In the spring, we test-shoot the music video on our roof and even though it’s a Wednesday, I make a few calls to modeling agencies and within the hour half a dozen models are strutting across our tiles wearing nipple pasties and fishnets. Sara’s the one posing them in obscene variations, asking them to take their clothes off. She can get away with almost anything because she’s a white girl who speaks Chinese and everybody likes her. Benji’s doing the actual filming while Granzi takes stills. Sometimes I load some film, but mostly I just drink beer and enjoy the atmosphere.

Just as the sun is whimpering its way down the side of the sky, the last girl shows up. She is a model from Hong Kong who renamed herself Zi Yang, The Light. She’s got a good face, but like most girls who assume they deserve nice things, she is extremely unfriendly. Then, just as everyone is packing up to go, she emerges naked from the apartment wrapped in Granzi’s blue bedsheet. Her waist-length black hair licks at her face, her arms gather the bouquet of fabric against her small breasts, and the sheet clings to the silhouette of her long legs. Sitting among our coffee cups and cigarettes, the rest of us hardly notice her; we smile at her but not much more.

Not Granzi.

He ties his hair into a ponytail, picks up his medium format lens, and follows her onto the tile roof like a puppy. He takes her hand and helps ease her bare feet onto the chimney.

With the sheet dripping around her, she looks ten feet tall and glorious. She lowers the sheet and ties it around her waist, covers herself with her hair, and looks away, purring like a cat, in a halfhearted bargain for attention.

So there’s Granzi, from whose lips escapes a “My God,” and he fumbles with filters and straps to get the perfect photo of her. The loose tiles creak beneath his feet.

“You’re gorgeous, too gorgeous,” he said. “You should father my children or marry me, whatever comes first.”

Sara whispers to me, “I think this is going to be trouble.” And I know just as well as everyone else that Granzi’s falling for this girl and it isn’t going to be pretty.

If we could grant Granzi one wish, he’d probably wish to marry a tall girl. A very tall, very hot girl. He claims that he wants to give his children a fighting chance. Can we really blame him though? Even if he only claimed to be of average size for a man, he’s probably only five three—in the morning, after he’s taken a big breath and holds it. Most of the time the poor guy has to buy shoes in the children’s department.

But all that is bullshit, it’s just for show. Granzi, perpetually heartbroken Granzi, is the only one of us who can still memorize Tang Dynasty poetry, is always the first to notice if sorrow crosses any of our faces. I guess deep down we could all see that his wants were so simple—to be loved, respected, and not tossed away, for his meager holdings on this earth. It was all the wrong in him that made him so special and we were all protective of him, ready to hurt for him like we would hurt for no one else.

After the shoot is over,  we go across town to D-22 to hear  JJ’s band perform. D-22 is the first underground punk rock club literally screamed into existence by foreign exchange students in the university district. JJ is opening for Car Sick Cars whose hit song is five-minute repetitive screaming of the words “Zhong Nan Hai,” which is both the Beijing capitol building and the most popular brand of cigarettes among locals. Foreigners love it, and the audience throws cigarettes on the stage like projectile missiles.

When JJ and his band hit the stage, it’s obvious that he’s wasted and he tips over the mike stand as he gyrates in his Adidas tracksuit. He is singing in English, “I trim girls all night long, white and black, I know how to trim those.” It’s Cantonese slang for “hit on girls,” coarsely translated into English, being yelled through a broken mike. These lyrics are new, probably bits of conversation he’d heard earlier that day, grammatically Chinese with clauses that don’t finish, lyrics that don’t make sense. We all know he kind of sucks, but so does everybody else and everyone’s liking it. The Chinese groupies who took day-long buses into the city just to see the show are thrashing their heads from side to side as if they’re saying “No no no” when they’re really saying “Yes yes yes.” JJ finishes the set by jumping off the stage and feeling up a drunken Norwegian girl who doesn’t seem to mind.

Like everyone else I know, JJ drinks a ton. Unlike everyone else, he doesn’t seem to want to make it big. He says he just doesn’t see the use of being a hardworking citizen. I can’t argue with that. I know most ordinary people will work their whole lives at some stable job and yet they’ll never be able to afford so much as a one-bedroom in Beijing proper.

When the next band starts plugging in their instruments, Sara goes to mingle with the Canadian bar owner while JJ joins Benji and me by the bar.

“I am not writing for record labels. I just want to write music for the humiliated loser, the guy that gets hassled by the police, the night owl with no money who loves to get drunk,” he says. I don’t know if he knows that his description doesn’t include someone like me, but we toast to it anyway.

We all go clubbing in Sanlitun at a place called Fiona. A once-famous French architect purportedly designed it in one hour. Every piece of furniture is a unique creation, and as a result, it looks like a Liberace-themed junkyard. Rainbow, an old acquaintance who runs a foreign modeling agency, is throwing a birthday party for herself.

“Can you believe I’m turning twenty-nine again?” she says as a greeting while she ushers us into her private room. She kisses everyone on the mouth and presses tiny pills into our hands.

“Oh, to be young and charming, I can’t think of anything more fabulous,” she says in her signature mixture of Chinese and English as she drapes her arms around a new model boy- friend. His name is Kenny or Benny, and he looks like a skinny Hugh Jackman. He is obviously a homosexual, but that’s just not something Rainbow has to accept.

The DJ spins funky house tracks and the springboard dance floor floods with sweaty people who pant and paw at each other. Old businessmen drool at foreign girlfriends who lift up their skirts on elevated cages. Rainbow buys the drinks and toasts herself into oblivion, grooving around the dance floor yelling at the foreigners to “go nuts to apeshit!”

I can’t find Granzi or Benji, so instead I try striking up a conversation with the skinny Hugh Jackman. He asks me to teach him Chinese so I start by pointing to the items on the table.

“This is a bowl,” I say.

“Bowa! Ah bowl!” he says with a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Shot glass.” I push it across the table toward him.

“Shout place,” he slurs, laughing. “Oh yeaah, shout place!” It’s a good thing he’s handsome, I think. I want to leave, but I’m too high to wander around looking for my friends. I stick by the bar for a bit and talk to the attractive waitresses who swear they’ve met me before, in another city, in another life, and I am sad that they have nothing to say to me but lies.

Beijing is a city that is alive and growing. At any given moment, people are feasting on the streets, studying for exams, or singing ballads in KTVs. Somewhere a woman with a modest salary is buying ten-thousand-yuan pants from Chloé to prove her worth. Even though I couldn’t cut it at the Beijing Film Academy, I knew the city itself was for me. The dinosaur bones found underneath shopping malls, the peony gardens, the enclaves of art—these things were all exhilarating for me. I walk through new commercial complexes constructed at Guomao, which look at once like big awkward gangsters gawking at one another, as if hesitant to offer one another cigarettes, and I think, I belong here.

Tonight, somehow I end up crawling out of a cab to throw up by the side of the freeway. Traffic swirls around me even though the morning light’s not fully up. Then out of the blue, Sara and Benji appear, apparently because they happened to see my big head with the grooved patterns shaved into it projectile-vomiting as their cab was passing. They pat me on the back and we eat hot pot on the side of the road from an old Xin Jiang lady. I am so happy to be with them. It’s at this moment I realize that what’s going on is already slipping away, and while the cool air blows against my damp face in the taxi home, I can’t help but miss it already.

One night, my last real girlfriend He Jing calls me.

She says, “I’m moving to Shanghai next month, and I’m wondering if you could lend me some money to get settled. You know I’m good for it.” She knows more about me than anyone and there’s not even a hiccup of hesitation in her voice.

That’s just how He Jing did things, the girl couldn’t just sit on a chair, she had to lie in it, with her head cocked to the side and a cigarette dangling dangerously. She is a sound mixer I met at the academy and always dressed as if she had a Harley parked out back. Her playground was Mao’s Live House, where she rejoiced in the last blaze of China’s metalhead scene.

It’s at this moment I realize that what’s going on is already slipping away, and while the cool air blows against my damp face in the taxi home, I can’t help but miss it already.

There was never going to be a future for us, my father would never have accepted a poor musician into the family. Yet it was she who dumped me, simply saying, “I wish I could give you more, you should have more.”

I meet her for coffee and hand her an envelope of money and she accepts it as though it’s a book or a CD. She has cut her hair like a boy but is still fiercely radiant with confidence.

“We’re doing well, you know,” I say. “Benji’s trying to get British art dealers to buy his photographs and Sara’s in talks with a Dutch museum to exhibit her media installation. And Granzi just got published in a Finnish fashion magazine.”

She goes, “That’s impressive, but what are you doing?”

My throat is dry, and I’m not sure what to say, so I go, “I’m in between projects.”

“Right,” she says, reaching over and messing up my hair.

Granzi’s relationship with Zi Yang isn’t exactly normal either. Two days after they met, she moved into his room and began spending all her time in his bed. It is so weird in there even the pets stay away. For one, she would walk around topless, one minute laughing, the next waking us up with bawls.

“That girl should be taking antidepressants,” Sara said.

In the mornings Zi Yang tells Granzi she loves him and he believes it. In the afternoons she says he is disgusting to her and he believes that, too. “You can’t just pick and choose,” he tells us. “When you’re trying to get someone to love you, you have to take everything.” When she sleeps with him, he marvels at all the soft places on her body he can kiss. It amazes him how easily he bruises when she kicks him away.

Granzi’s website quickly becomes a shrine to Zi Yang’s face. She is so crazy it’s as if she stole his eyes and hung them above her at all times. Gone are all the projects he’s been working on and we hardly see him without her. It is only Zi Yang, her in the bathtub with goldfish, her on his bed with broken liquor bottles, lovingly captured and rendered over and over again.

We send one another his links over QQ. “This is kind of obsessive,” JJ types.

“It’s just a major muse mode,” responds Benji as he leans over to kiss Sara behind her ear.

More than anyone, Sara is the woman who helped all of us  get over our shyness with and general distrust of white people. With Sara we learned many of her American customs, like hugging, and that took months of practice. “Arms out, touch face, squeeze!” We learned that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, such as the world appreciating their individuality. That they were raised believing they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy. It was endlessly amazing.

We also learned English. We realized how different it really was to speak Chinese. We didn’t used to have to say what we meant, because our old language allows for a certain amount of wiggle room.

In Chinese we can ask, “What’s it like?” because “it” can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple sounding as the one-syllable “men,” which means that you’re feeling stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?

But learn we did, expressions like “Holy shit” and useful acronyms like DTF (Down to Fuck), and we also became really good at ordering coffee. We learned how to throw the word “love” around, say “LOL,” and laugh without laughing.

That afternoon, I buy He Jing a parting present at an outdoor flea market. A guoguo, a pet katydid in a woven bamboo orb. They were traditionally companion pets for lonely old men, and the louder their voice, the more they were favored. He Jing picks out a mute one. The boy selling it to me says it will live for a hundred days.

“A hundred days?” she says as she brings the woven bamboo orb up against her big eyes. “This wee trapped buddy is going to rhyme its own pitiful song for a hundred whole days?”

I tell her, “That’s not so long, it’s the length of summer in Beijing. That’s the length of a love affair.” I realize I am giving away all my secrets. I think, I want to roll you into the crook of my arm and take you somewhere far and green. When she turns back toward me, I know the answer to my question before I even ask it. I realize it is a mistake, the gesture, everything about me. She isn’t going anywhere with me.

The only thing I have to offer her is money, and she has it already. I want to tell her that there’s a lot of good shit about me that she would miss out on. But there’s no art in me and she sees it plainly in front of her. Instead I kiss her fingers goodbye. They smell like cigarettes and nail polish, and I swear I’ll never forget it.

How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?

By autumn, the trees shiver off their leaves and Zi Yang, too, becomes frigid and bored with Granzi. Our old friend Xiu Zhu comes back from “studying” abroad in Australia. She is a rich girl who looks like a rich boy. She has a crew cut, taped-up breasts, and an Audi TT, which she drives with one muscular arm on the steering wheel. Within an hour of meeting Zi Yang, we can all tell that she is stealing her. By the time they finish their first cocktail, Xiu Zhu is already whispering English love songs into Zi Yang’s ear.

We see less and less of Granzi after that. He still hangs out with both of them, going to lesbian lala bars and getting hammered. The girls hold hands and laugh while he drinks whiskey after whiskey. He mournfully watches them kiss as if he’s witnessing an eclipse. A group of confused lesbians politely ask where he got such a successful gender reassignment surgery and he drinks until he passes out.

For my part, my father stops writing me emails asking about my wellbeing and just sends me a plane ticket. I don’t tell anyone, but I go to get my visa picture taken. The agency makes me take my earring out. Within the hour, the hole closes and now it’s just a period of time manifested as a mole.

In winter, Zi Yang moves back to Hong Kong and breaks two hearts. Shortly after that, Granzi packs up his things as well. He tells us that under Beijing, beneath the web of shopping malls and housing complexes, lay the ruins of an ancient and desolate city. And beneath that there are two rivers, one that flows with politics and one that flows with art. If you drift here, you must quench your thirst with either of its waters, otherwise there is no way to sustain a life.

“I realize there is nothing for me here,” he says, “no love, not for a guy like me. It’s waiting for me back in Wenzhou, that’s where it must be.”

He sells his cameras, his clothes, even his cellphone.

“I don’t want to leave a road to come back by,” he says.

We all take him to the train station where he is leaving with the same grade-school backpack he arrived with. It’s as if a spell has broken and suddenly we feel like jokers in our pre-ripped jeans and purple Converses. We remember years ago, after having borrowed money from relatives, those first breaths taken inside that station. How timidly we walked forward with empty pockets and thin T-shirts. We had been tu, dirt, Chinese country bumpkins. And now one of us was giving up, but what could we have said to convince him he was wrong? What could have made him stay?

Everyone on the platform has his or her own confession to make, but when we open our mouths, the train arrives, just in time to keep our shameful secrets to ourselves. Someone is about to give away the mystery of loneliness and then the train comes. A reason for living, the train comes, why she never loved him, the train comes, source of hope, train, lifetime of regret, train, never-ending heartache, train, train, train, train, train.

Afterward we huddle inside the station’s Starbucks, quietly sipping our macchiatos. Our cigarette butts are swept up by street sweepers whose weekly salaries probably amounted to what we paid for our coffee. The misty mournful day is illuminated by the pollution that makes Beijing’s light pop, extending the slow orange days.

Out of nowhere JJ says, “I’m not sure if I actually like drinking coffee.”

Sara says something about leaving soon to go home, and from the look on Benji’s face it is clear to me that this time she might not be returning.

I want to say that I might be leaving, too, but instead I focus on an American couple sitting across the room from us. The woman holds in her arms a baby who doesn’t look anything like her. They are an older couple, ruddy-cheeked and healthy, and they order organic juice and cappuccinos in English. As we sit together in those chairs, their Chinese baby starts scream- ing and banging his juice on the table. The couple is starting to look despondent. The woman catches us staring, and the four of us look encouragingly at the baby. It’s going to be okay, Chinese baby. You’re a lucky boy. Such a lucky boy. Now please, please, shut up, before the Americans change their mind and give you back.

We somehow finish the Brass Donkey video and it’s a semi-pornographic piece of garbage that gets banned immediately, of course. The band is happy because they’re stamping “Banned in China” on their CDs and are being invited on a European tour. Without telling my friends I go to the embassy to pick up my visa, secretly building the bridge on which to leave them. As I get out of there, I push back swarms of shabbily dressed Chinese people just trying to get a glimpse of America, and it makes me feel lightheaded with good fortune.

The crowded scene reminds me of waiting at the ferry docks when I was a little boy, before my father had any money. Our region was very hilly and in order to get any kind of shopping done, we took ferries to reach the nearest shops. The rickety boats were always so overcrowded and flimsy that they would regularly tip over into the river, spilling both young and old into the river’s green waters. What I remember most were those brief moments of ecstasy, when the small, overloaded boat gave in and the waters were met with high-pitched screams. And we’d all swim to shore, resigned to and amused by our rotten luck. Everybody would then simply get on another boat dripping with water, letting our wet clothes dry in the breeze.

Brass Donkey’s now-banned song is playing loudly in my head. It’s actually pretty good, a protest song hiding behind a disco beat. “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where is our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.”

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