Life in Peking
Hostel No. 3 was located in a quiet residential section of the city. It was a grand old stone building with high ceiling hallways and long corridors. It was probably fashionable around the tum of the century. The receptionists at the front desk were waiting and handed me my key=-Room 249. The room boy, a young lad about fifteen named Bon Yee, took the key, whisked my seabag from me and bid me follow him. There was no elevator and we walked up carpeted steps to the second floor. Yee opened the door, stepped aside and let me enter. It was the most depressing sight I had ever looked upon. To one side was a single bed with a lumpy quilted covering of different shaped patches sewed one over top the other, and across the room against the wall was a washstand with a porcelain basin and pitcher with rabbit-ear handles next to it. There was no water faucet and no plumbing, only a bucket under the washstand for collecting water. There was but one light, a naked bulb suspended from the ceiling. The light switch was a dangling cord that you had to pull to turn the light on or off. The window was the worst thing about the room. Although it was large with glass panes, it was so yellow and stained with age that very little light entered the room, and what did made the room appear even more dreary. I don’t think the window opened, and if it did, rags stuffed around the window would fall out. The rag across the sill was brown with dust. The whole room in fact was dust-covered.
Yee placed my seabag on the floor, and then explained that the communal WC was down the hall. He smiled proudly as he pulled the cord to show that the light worked and pointed to a towel hanging by the washstand. I could see that he was pleased to show me the room, and rather than disappoint him I nodded my approval. He beamed even more. By his standards, of course, I was getting five-star accommodation. But no sooner had he left than I realized something else about the room. It was unheated. I took my coat off and had to put it on again after only a few minutes.
On my table next to the bed, I placed my three Lin Yu-tang books, the Dowager Empress, the old Spoken Chinese text from Guam and my most recent acquisition, a history of the city, titled Peking. I laid down on the bed, my mind wandering, and studied the room, my new home for the months to come I was following a crack across the ceiling when there came a knock at the door. It was Yee again. He was carting a bundle of clothes. He laid them piece by piece on the bed: heavy-duty wool sweaters, two of them; two pair of Chinese trousers, the wrap around kind that require a belt or sash to hold them up; a quilted parka with enormous pockets; a muffler as long as I was tall with a golden dragon spitting out fire embroidered along one edge; and a pair of soft-leather boots with fur lining.
I was surprised that they fit, although a bit snug. The most prized possession was a fore-and-aft lambskin hat. I would be well clothed, thanks to the Chinese Nationalist Government, and thanks to the US Government for giving lend-lease to Chiang K’ai-shek so that he had the money to spend. I didn’t really know which government to thank, so I thanked Yee and decided to let him sort it out. As he was leaving he said dinner was at 20:00.
In my resplendent new wardrobe I marched into the dining room, and immediately wanted to do an about face and leave. There was not another white face in the room. The steward saw me, came running, and as he escorted me to my table, everyone stopped eating and heads turned to see who this foreigner, this foreign devil, might be. I was on parade. I felt ridiculous, even stupid, in my dress and wished I had stayed in uniform. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I had ever had, and my thoughts went to poor Melanowski. He had to be in torture, about the same time, or else he was very hungry.
Servants in much worn white jackets loafed around with napkins over their arms. There were more servants than diners. Two rows of four-bladed fans hung from the ceiling in long shafts, but none were turning. Everything about the place was shabby, the tablecloths and napkins, the chipped plates and the cutlery with no two pieces the same, and yet, there was a pride that the Chinese displayed that couldn’t be denied. It was almost humorous, and could have been a comedy had they not been so serious. Everything they did was done in earnest seriousness. They performed well, as if they were in the Court of the Queen of England and the dinner guests were all dukes and duchesses. The food was western, or an attempt to be western. It was awful.
I finished my dinner and lingered over a cigarette, and then another one. I dreaded returning to my room, to the cold and the loneliness, and considered taking a walk but then I remembered the weather. I returned to my room, climbed into bed, and tried to read, but with the light bulb directly overhead shining down in my eyes, it was impossible. My first duty the next day would be to buy an extension. I yanked on the cord and the light went out. I pulled the cover over my head, and with the fur parka over the top of the bed, and with my trousers, shirt and socks on, I still froze. I thought I would never get used to the cold.
The light filtered through the window the next morning and I awoke slowly, wondering if this was real or was I dreaming. I even imagined someone was in the room, but when I heard the shuffling I knew it was not imagination. I turned to find Yee standing by the washstand. He was placing a bowl with a lid on top on the table. I hadn’t noticed but he had already placed hot bricks at the foot of the bed. When he saw me stir, he said breakfast was being served in the dining room.
With my fur parka draped over my shoulders, I put my feet on the warm bricks and the cold didn’t seem so bad. I went to the wash stand assuming the bowl with hot water was for shaving, but when I removed the top, I saw tea leaves floating on the top. I returned to the bed, sat down and while drinking my tea, I read some from Peking. The more I read about Genghis Khan, the more I was fascinated with this man, a Tartar invader from Mongolia. He and his heirs ruled China for several hundred years. I was anxious to read how they were expelled from China but if l didn’t hurry breakfast would be over. It wouldn’t have mattered much had I missed it. No fruit juice; no bacon and eggs; no toast and butter. Not even coffee, only tea. Instead we had congee, a thick rice soup with a few vegetables floating on top, and more tea. Life was taking on many changes for me, and I found it all rather amusing.
I had the day all to myself. I didn’t feel like reading, but what would I do? In the Marines we were always surrounded with buddies and were never alone. This was different. If I knew where Melanowski and Gilbert were, I could meet up with them. But, of course, I didn’t know. I wouldn’t mind even putting up with Melanowski’s grumbling. I tried to imagine what Stevenson would be doing in Tsingtao. He was one guy who wouldn’t be bored. He was probably taking Judy to a movie on the base. Maybe Roger was taking Judy to the base to meet Stevenson. What would we do without Roger? No more thinking about Tsingtao; I decided to go for a walk.
I bundled up in my parka and put on my leather fur-lined boots and made my way to Tiananmen Square by following the map in my Peking book. The wind came sharp, and even with my parka pulled up tightly around my neck the cold still got through.
A few snow flurries filled the air, and when I looked out over the square there was not a soul to be seen. How remarkable, I thought. Here I was standing in front of one of the world’s best-known landmarks and I had it all to myself, completely. No Genghis and a hundred thousand Tartar horsemen raping and pillaging, no US Marines in the Boxer Rebellion defending the foreign legations, no Dowager Empress leaving the Forbidden City for her last time, no Japanese conquerors riding white stallions as I had seen in LIFE, no more Generalissimo Chiang K’ai-shek and his parade of warlords and their troops showing their strength to the Eighth Route Regulars. The only echo now was my leather boots on the cobblestones of empty Tiananmen Square. How alone could I possibly be?
I missed lunch, not that I wasn’t hungry, but I didn’t want to go to a restaurant alone and have everyone stare at me. I didn’t want to try to hold a conversation in my limited Chinese either. I went back to my room, and to keep warm I climbed into bed. I began reading Peking. Now and then I looked up at my Chinese clothing hanging on books behind the door. Little by little it began to sink in. I was now a bonafide student in Peking. And for the first time in my life I was alone; I mean really alone. But there was always Monday morning, my first class, and I’d be meeting students. I didn’t sleep much that night, and it wasn’t only because of the cold.