The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
First of a series as our Far-Flung Correspondent returns to her birthplace - RE
• Grace Wang of Toronto
I've always thought about coming home.
As a person of Chinese descent, I was born and raised on this yellow earth until my early teens. It was my home, my roots, my place.
Then, one day, that place shifted... across the ocean to another continent, to a place called Canada, and along I went. In a strange country where everything was bewilderingly new, where even the light seemed different (less pollution, probably), I had to learn to be who I was all over again. I loved books, and suddenly I couldn't read. I loved writing, and suddenly I couldn't write. Well, not in a way that was understood to be the norm anyway. To a kid, there was no more important thing in the whole, wide world.
Like a pebble thrown into the sea, I lodged myself into the first safe crack and tried to keep still. I filled up journals with a fierce determination. I finished all the Chinese books in my local libraries, at that time was a pathetic amount. When there were no more books to read and English still seemed to be the predominant language, I decided that if I couldn't make the norm come to me, that I would go to it. Around that time I discovered "America's Funniest Home Videos," a TV series that was on every weekday afternoon before the six o'clock news, just in time for getting back from school. I loved Bob Saget's perky voice - he seemed like a cartoon character with that goofy smile and those peppy, perfectly enunciated words - and started watching religiously.
It was there in the living rooms and backyards of America, beside grinning toddlers and silly pets, with close captioning, that I laughed, repeated, and learned to speak the way of this new world I came to inhabit in. Years later, when people ask how I came to learn English as a second language, I always smile and reply that it was from watching too much TV. That usually gets a few chuckles and some questioning looks suggesting that I am withholding a secret formula, when indeed I am telling the whole truth: There is no shortcut, only hard work, laughter, and Bob Saget.
If TV was responsible for introducing me to my new home, it was films that somehow led me back to my old one.
When I started writing about movies, it was as always, for me, a form of communication. Not an objective or critical one, but a subjective and personal one, a choice that I hold fast to today. I didn't write in desire to receive anything in return, except to cast my voice into the void and listen for any echoes, rare and faraway as they may be. To my surprise, somehow through a serendipitous chain of events they came: whispering at first, before growing louder and louder. Then, one day last March, I saw a film called LAST TRAIN HOME and wrote a review for Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents feature. Half an hour after the article was posted, I received a direct message from Cameron Bailey, the co-director of Toronto International Film Festival, on twitter: "Grace, I'd like to talk to you on a TIFF-related matter."
A year later, I find myself back on familiar soil, in a city that I last saw more than a decade ago, on behalf of a job that I love.
It has been both surreal and natural, and I feel incredibly grateful and fortunate for my every minute here.
In the past ten days I've traveled throughout Beijing, in company of friends, family, and myself. Staying at a filmmaker "hostel" pad, where ideas and film crews are constantly shuffling through the door and you never know who's going to be crashing on the couch at any given night, it's hard to not be provoked and inspired. I've had countless conversations with directors, cinematographers, writers, and even a local film festival director. The consensus is that independent film-making is hard, but independent film-making in China is downright non-sensible. There is so little room to maneuver, that it seems that getting a film finished is sometimes all one can wish for. The fact that the majority of these efforts will never be seen by the majority of audiences in China and elsewhere is heartbreaking, often as much as the contents carried by those particular films. More on this in the next post.
Aside from work, everywhere I turn, Beijing the city has been on my mind.
Beijing is vast. The subway map is a maze of colored lines and rings not unlike those that mark the famous Beijing opera masks. The longest west-east subway line counts 34 stations. Mind you, one subway stop here is not the same as one subway stop in Toronto, or New York, or even Tokyo. It is not measured in blocks but in kilometers. When I asked someone if we can walk to the next station, I received a blank stare. Moreover, there is a myriad of transportation choices aside from subway to suit every need and budget: buses, cars, taxis, scooters, streetcars, and rickshaws -- both motorized and man-powered ones in certain HuTongs (ancient Beijing alleyways) draped in red embroidered fabrics. Want to seem like a tourist? Ride one of those and smile, because you're likely to be caught on another tourist's candid camera.
Beijing is deep. As the capital city of People's Republic of China and many dynasties before, it holds a long and rich history that goes back 3000 years. This is common knowledge. But to physically be in the city, to walk through its massive streets and tiny HuTongs, to stand in front of soaring towers and meander through ancient arches and ascend steps that were once only walked on by emperors, is another feeling completely. It's hard to not be in awe of everything: the sheer size and volume and density of everything that fill up a day of life in Beijing.
Beijing is fresh. Waking up in the morning to sound of bicycle bells and morning hellos as the city stirs into motion. Make your way through rows of apartment buildings to the local mom-and-pop eatery, and have your choice of hot soy milk, porridge, steaming buns and sizzling pancakes of various fillings and sorts. A bowl of rice porridge and two pork buns will fill you up and set you fresh back $2.60rmb ($0.40usd). Feeling hungry? Live large: a plate of dumplings with porridge costs $7rmb ($1usd).
Beijing is busy. Cars flow like rivers. Crossing the street is an art. If you live near a subway station though, that will likely be your main hub of transport. Descending the stairs as you approach the ticket entrance, you are greeted by security officers who direct you to put your bag through an airport-like scan machine before being allowed to proceed to the gate. This takes place at every station, every entrance. Once you pass through the scans, press your subway card (a plastic card onto which you can load funds) to the electric sensor, the gate snaps open silently and you're through. Each trip costs a flat fee of $2rmb (0.30usd) with unlimited transfers. The trains are modern, with flashing TVs and advertisements throughout. The platforms are wide and roomy, but perhaps not roomy enough for the population of China, as it is still almost always full and at times, crushing. If you plan on getting off at the next stop during rush-hour, it is best to start making your way towards the door two stations in advance.
Beijing is modern. All the public transport signs are in both Chinese and English, as are subway announcements informing you of the upcoming stops. There are cuisines to be found from every country imaginable. Walking into the nearest shopping mall, you can easily be convinced that you're in any other world city. All the familiar storefronts from budget to luxury to household lay welcome. The only difference is the food court, which instead of the typical North American fast-food brands in a big court, comprises of rows and rows of small eateries with flavors from all over the country and world. Want to snack on some sticky rice from HaiNan before going for a Korean BBQ, followed by sweets from Taiwan and Italian gelato? No problem. And yes, you can also find the McDonalds and KFCs and Subways and Starbucks, should you be feeling homesick.
Beijing is complicated. A meal can cost two dollars and a coffee can cost thirty. Police dress warmer than street cleaners, and seem to do less. Service can be impeccable, though there is no tipping. Things can get done in an hour or a minute, depending on who is doing it and who you know. It is a place of both extremes and harmony, black and white, where shades of gray abound when no one's looking.
Beijing is... still to be discovered. From the food to the sights, the morning stalls to the noon fruit carts to the night markets; there is always another layer to peel back.
My favorite part of Beijing so far, though, has been its people. The northerners, or people from the northern parts of China, carry a reputation for being open and generous, and I've never found that to be more true than here in the past week. Countless times people have given me directions to where I was going. Shop owners have given me back money when I accidentally handed them the wrong bills. One night I got into a cab and told the driver where I was going, without missing a beat he replied that I was better off hailing another cab from across the street which is in the direction I'm going, where as it'll take him a couple extra blocks to make a turn. I should note that cabs are ridiculously cheap here (10rmb/$1.5usd flat rate for the first 3km, with 2rmb/km after), and based on my accent, it is evident that I'm not a Beijing native and would not have been any wiser if he took the extra few blocks to get some much-needed business. Instead, he called me "Guniang" (a dear term for "Girl") in that warm, distinctive Beijing accent, and helped me save a few extra bucks that he probably needed more than I.
Earlier that same day, a young woman and I started talking as we both stood in line for a tiny bakery. The bakery only has a window-front and a single cashier, but the line stretched across the sidewalk onto the afternoon traffic. I was walking by and got in line out of simple curiosity, having no idea what is being sold. The girl warmly explained that this was one of the most popular bakeries in the area and suggested items for me to buy. I learned that her name is Hu Dee, and she is about to graduate from college and already working her first job as an administrative assistant. She then, after hearing where I was going, offered to take me there - on her scooter - despite having to head back to work after. "As long as you are not afraid of me kidnapping you," she chuckled. I looked down at her three inch tasseled boots and decided that I can take her, in my flats, should I need to. So there I went, in the fading afternoon light, racing through a maze of narrow Beijing Hutongs on the back of an electric scooter driven by a 22-year-old girl in 3 inch heels.
"Do you need a license to drive these things?" I shouted into the wind.
"Nope. Anyone can get one!" She yelled back as she hit the throttle expertly.
"How fast can it go?" My next instinctive thought.
"Umm, pretty fast!" She laughed, and hit the throttle again.
"Hold on! This is fun, right?"
And on that note, on that dusky, Beijing afternoon, it was indeed right. Everything right.
As I finally got into the right cab at the end of the night, on the other side of the street, I nestled into the seat and thought about my day. I thought about the girl on the scooter, the man in the cab, the places I'd been, and the path that took me through all of them.
The cab driver, another Beijing-er with a kind face, looked at me in the rearview mirror: "Guniang, where are you going?"
"Home." I replied without missing a beat.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...