Thomas Struth, Market with Stupa, Beijing 1996
Thomas Struth, Market with Stupa, Beijing 1996

My uncle, the old Communist one, rented a large car to pick us up from Peking Airport that winter. My family had not been back in over four years. Four years!—in four years, I had gone to college. Nathan had gone to high school. My grandparents now spent more time in their bedrooms. My uncle, the old Communist one, now walked with less marcato than he had flaunted in his military days, and his hair was now more salt than pepper. He still carried the same earnestness which had captivated me even as a child, and he still smoked at night over the kitchen trash can. He told us that his son, our cousin, was working back in Beijing now. Our cousin had a girlfriend he liked a lot, and a job he liked all right.

We were back mostly because of Yeye—because Yeye was forgetting things and faces. Every morning our two uncles took the old man on a walk by the artificial river which runs across the entrance of my grandparents’ hutong. In the last couple of years, this part of Beijing has become a major tourist area. These hutongs—these traditional alleyways in which my father had grown up, in which he had played soccer with the other boys, everyone popping caps off of food stand beer bottles—have become “heritage sites.” Zoo attractions for eager visitors carrying pocket dictionaries and xie xies in their clenched fists.

This was the same city I had known from childhood visits, yet so different now with the crisp smell of winter embracing hawthorn candy sticks and cold hawthorn candy vendors. The deep-throated odor of fried you tiao, sold in some American stores simply as “Chinese doughnuts” or “Chinese oil sticks.” I was different, too—I was an adult now, six months into my eighteenth year. When Nathan was lazy the next morning, I set out to explore on my own. I took pictures of everything. On the plane, Nathan had watched me take pictures of the sunrise, the nice cheese-and-grapes arrangement, the business-class ice cream sundaes—“This smartphone thing is really getting to you,” he told me, even as he snapped a silhouette of me against the window.

I walked with Yeye and my uncles along the river until they finished. I chased a stray cat down the man-made riverside. Then I went to find my way out of the maze of hutongs and to the park which lay across the main road nearby.

I approached the man who guarded this area of the river and hutongs. He was standing on the bridge and chatting with two old ladies. I asked him if he could tell me the way to Shidahai.

Shidahai?” he squinted at me. His roguish way of speaking ripped words out into the air like taking packing tape off a box. “There’s no Shidahai.” When I frowned, he grinned wickedly: “There’s a Shichahai! But I’ve never heard of this Shidahai, have you?”

“Well,” I said, “Please tell me the way to Shichahai.”

He did, and I walked away, slightly mortified. The old ladies told him not to mess with people like that.

Later, I told my relatives that a man had embarrassed me on my way to the park today. I related the story with humor, but I was actually bitter when I thought of the guard with his dirty teeth and cat-like eyes. “It was the same man who helped us park the car last night when we got back from the airport,” I recalled.

“Oh, that’s Xiao Yu!”

He was the regular guard stationed at the bridge. He liked to tease Yeye on his morning walks. He always asked to be invited over for dumplings and wine. My relatives laughed. He’s a good kid, that Xiao Yu, they said.

“Yeah, he was cool,” said Nathan. “Is his name ‘Yu’ like ‘fish?’ ‘Xiao’ means small. So is he, like, Little Fish?”

To my brother’s disappointment, Yu was merely a surname. “But he’s cool,” Nathan said to me. “Let’s talk to him. Like, become friends with him.”

One evening I convinced Nathan to come to Shichahai with me. There were swings there, and we swung until the neon of the stores flickered on, encircling the lake. The smog in Beijing has a way of settling like a wool coat; around dinnertime, its presence suddenly becomes noteworthy. The lanterns on the ice lit up like giant red winter fireflies.

On our way back we ran into Xiao Yu. We asked him where he was from. As we expected, he was not from Beijing—there was no way he was a city kid, not with those mannerisms or that browned skin. He, in turn, asked us where we were from, although I knew he already had the answer. We were the old man’s grandchildren, we told him—you know, the old man who takes walks every morning? Who thinks he is still going to work? Who has forgotten our names? We would only be here for a week. We told him our names, and he got a kick out of mine when I pointed at the entrance of Yu Er hutong; I told him that my full name was Yu Han, but everyone called me Yu Er, in honor of the street my father grew up on.

He laughed. “Now that’s interesting!” he said several times.

As a joke, Nathan and I now told our relatives that Xiao Yu was our best friend. Whenever we headed out we would stop and say a few words to him. Nathan pointed out the gold stars on the man’s uniform and they started doing soldiers’ marches together, up and down the bridge. When Xiao Yu saw us in the distance he would throw up a salute to my brother.

Our cousin took us hiking in Beihai Park one day before we left, and Xiao Yu briefly came up in conversation. Nathan and I took turns guessing his age. I conjectured in the late thirties, but Nathan was closer: Xiao Yu was only twenty-four.

“There’s no way he’s only six years older than me,” I said.

We stopped and looked out at the horizon where the sun was setting in the haze, past the urban rings of Beijing. “He’s from the farmlands out west, and his current job demands him to stand outdoors for so many hours at a time. He’s bound to look older than he is,” our cousin said.

When we got home, the darkness was deepening and we ate grapefruit in front of the TV. I was tired and still slightly jet-lagged, but I felt restless. I tried to convince Nathan to go trinket-shopping with me, or at least take a stroll down the river.

He sat up straight. “Let’s go hang out with Xiao Yu!”

Our other uncle appeared around the corner. “Again?” he asked. “What are you two doing, always hanging around with that kid?”

We laughed and said he was our best friend. That we were interacting with locals.

“I wouldn’t hang out with him too much.” Our uncle looked away. “And be careful of what you tell him.”


Our uncle shrugged. “Just be careful. He isn’t like us.”

“What do you mean? Because he’s a migrant?”

“You don’t know where he’s from, what his background is…He always wants to come over for dinner, but we’ve been careful never to slip our address. Don’t give him any information when you’re talking to him, alright?”

So we didn’t go. Before we went to sleep Nathan asked, half-jokingly, “What if Xiao Yu’s a bad guy?”

“A drug dealer,” I confirmed. “A gangster.”

“I don’t think he’s a criminal, do you?”

“No,” I said, “But how would I know?”

The day before we left, our cousin’s girlfriend visited. She was a French major, wore glasses, and spoke softly. My father tried to make conversation with my cousin and his girlfriend, and my mother and I chuckled at what my father thought was cordiality—in American, we call it third-wheeling.

That night, my uncle drove us back to our hotel. In the car, my mother told everyone I had said that I hoped our cousin would marry his girlfriend. I could hear their smiles in the dark.

I protested: “Mom! Now everybody, including me, is embarrassed.”

My aunt said, “He is already thirty, after all.”

The next morning we left, and said good-bye to Xiao Yu. Nathan and I spontaneously asked him to take a picture with us. He was, after all, our best friend.

I went up to him and tried not to break out laughing. I had a feeling it would be a bad picture because I was wearing giant furry boots with pineapple-patterned pajama pants tucked into them. I had my glasses on, and I always feel insecure wearing glasses. I felt ridiculous because of my clothes and because Nathan and I had developed such a strange and perhaps even patronizing affection for Little Fish.

Was this adulthood? Coming away from a family trip with thoughts about the unstable relationships between people and places, and people and people? I thought about how much permanence Xiao Yu’s job required, how constancy is the security guard’s only aim in his work. In contrast, the nature of the tourist is inherently fleeting. How fitting, then, that we should have developed a deep and troubling friendship with a neighborhood watchman, while our grandparents flirted with mortality. That we should “interact with locals.”

“We want to take a picture with you,” I said.

“Oh,” said Xiao Yu. He looked around and saw the Liang family staring at him with little smiles on their faces. “Well, let’s get it done, then!”

In the picture we stand like guards on his either side; he has a strange, open-mouthed expression on his face, but no smile; his eyes are small, yet it is clear he is not looking at the camera. We are facing the light. In the picture I have my hair brushed back so that my forehead gleams in the morning brightness. My eyes are so thin that they might as well be accidental brushstrokes on the luminous, white canvas of my face. Nathan has his arms crossed in a casual and clownish way that is also charming and boyish. Anyone who looks at the picture will know we are siblings. Later my mother looked at the picture and pointed at our mouths. “Nathan smiles like me,” she said, “With his gums showing.” Behind me, next to my shoulder, there is a black-masked figure riding a motorcycle. Where could he possibly be off to, dressed like that?

In the picture, I am wearing my mother’s long down jacket, and my father’s smile. Just off to the right is the alleyway after which I am named, where my father played street soccer many years ago.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.