Summer Shorts: Understanding the Chinese

A short short story by Aaron Fox Lerner


I never understood why Derek disappeared until I got the business card. Before that it was a mystery. One day he was there, the next he wasn't. I didn't see him at the nice hutong bars he normally haunted, or at his favorite burger place in Sanlitun, or at the indie rock shows he used to attend regularly. He was nowhere.

After asking around, I discovered he wasn't the only person to have vanished. Everyone else shrugged the phenomenon off. It's Beijing. Going away parties are more common than birthdays. Foreigners leave all the time. Sometimes they don't tell anyone.

It bothered me that my friend had disappeared, though. I checked around any neighborhoods I thought he might be in, from Tongzhou to Dashilan'r and even Wudaokou, but found nothing.

Then, at the end of a long night that started at an art show and continued at a half-empty club and finally limped its way through streetside chuan'r, I pulled the business card out of my pocket, utterly unsure how I'd gotten it.

All it said was "Understand the Chinese" and a phone number. The minute I saw the card, it sparked this feeling in me that I was missing out somehow. I'd been in Beijing for more than two years. I spoke conversational Chinese, I had friends, I had a job that wasn't just teaching English, I thought I belonged, at least in my own way. After I got the card, though, it really started to bother me that I lived in this country but most of my friends came from outside it. That the Chinese people I was close to all spoke good English, or had lived abroad, or played in bands, which made them all exceptions. My life here didn't seem real.

I figured it couldn't hurt to call the number. When I did, a voice on the other end explained to me in precise English. It was simple. They ran an exchange. A Chinese person would absorb my American essence, I'd absorb theirs. The Chinese customers paid a lot, but it was free for foreigners. We were in demand.

When I went, I lay down next to my Chinese counterpart in a large machine and waited. Nothing happened. Then the machine opened up, a technician told me that I was finished, and gave me an address. I felt the same. I assumed I had to go to the address in order to complete the process. It was a plain apartment complex on the far west side of town. I knocked at a door on the third story. Derek answered and smiled bitterly when he saw me.

"Do you recognize me?" he asked.


"Then they got you too. I tried coming back, but no one could see me. That business takes something from us. Like...our aura. I don't know how, but they steal it. And we get nothing in return."

"What about the authenticity?"

He shrugged.

"I still don't understand the motives of people around me, I still don't like innards, I still hate Chinese music, I still make speaking mistakes, I still can't understand dialects. All problems that Chinese people can have too. There's nothing else to understand."

I tried to go back home. My friends didn't recognize me. Any foreigners I saw looked past me like I was a ghost. Chinese people didn't care about me one way or another. I didn't matter.

With nowhere else to go, I returned to the address, where there was a community of us victims living together. There were a few dozen of us living in that building, and we became our own insular self-supporting system, creating one of the millions of personal worlds that make up Beijing.

In its own way, the card fulfilled its promise. Over time, ensconced in our own realm, feeling that we couldn't fit in with anyone else, we came to convince ourselves that there really was just one kind of China, and because of our own shared unfortunate experience we were the best equipped to comprehend it. Yes, we told ourselves, we were special. Now we were the only ones who truly understood China after all.

Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and lives in Beijing

This story was an entry for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition