Kermit, my devoted partner and laptop, was sick. His screen was cracked, he wouldn’t charge, and he’d cannibalized most of his battery life. We were in Beijing for a month and actually I hadn’t been so healthy myself. My first week was marked by a nasty cold, a migraine, and constipation—who knows, maybe a dash of black lung.
I was pushing 30 and had been laid off from my marketing job in New York seven months ago, so I was in Beijing escaping my unemployment. The recession was lingering and after 120 job applications, I decided I would sublet my studio apartment and use the money to skip town. I’d been to Beijing once before and loved it, and though I didn’t want to move to China, I did want to visit while I applied for New York-based jobs using the same avenues I would at home: internet job boards, email, Skype, LinkedIn, and my online portfolio. Of course I needed Kermit for all this, and what’s more, we’d been through a lot together over the years. He’d been all over New York and spent a year with me in Argentina; I really hoped this wasn’t the end of the line.
I was in my room at a hostel (in the form of a traditional Chinese courtyard house), so I walked down the hall and entered the foyer, which was covered from floor to ceiling with ferns and creeping vines. I approached the young woman at the front desk and got my hands on a surge protector, but of course the problem was not the wall outlet, it was Kermit, either his power cord or A/C adapter. So I asked the young woman where I might buy a replacement.
“Go right, two blocks,” she said in English.
“Thanks. That’s an electronics store?” I asked, making a strange, unhelpful gesture to try and bridge the language gap.
“Yes. Or Zhongguancun,” she said, pronouncing it jong-gwan-soon.
“What’s a Zhongguancun?”
“Computers! Train to Zhongguancun.”
I left Kermit at the hostel and took his cord down Xinjiekou Street, which was lined with musical instrument shops selling violins, zithers, and gongs, older men playing their two-stringed erhus on the sidewalk. Then I crossed one of Beijing’s terrifying intersections, where sixteen lanes of traffic and swarms of people collide under a low-lying cloud of carcinogens.
The store was hopelessly miniscule, about the width of a twin mattress, and there was a teenage boy inside. I entered, said nihao, and pointed to the cord, saying the most descriptive thing I could come up with: zhuanjieqi chatou bushi (“adapter plug not so,” according to my glossary). The teenage boy took it from me, fondled it, jammed its weary plug into a surge protector, then deemed it broken with a mixture of Mandarin and basic sign language. He also pointed out that it was the A/C adapter, not the cord, that was the problem, and no, they did not stock this part.
I was already skeptical about going to Zhongguancun, which I figured was an electronics district. The U.S. is practically hemorrhaging Chinese electronics, but with my luck, this adapter would be the one thing I couldn’t find here. That would be embarrassing, to tell people back in New York that I failed to find a computer part in the birthplace of all computer parts.
I left the twin-mattress-sized store and took Kermit’s cord with me to the nearest subway station. I squeezed into the first train heading up to Zhongguancun, my head of curly brown hair far above other people’s heads, and I later emerged above ground into a mass of young people, hundreds upon hundreds. Every single one of them was not just holding, but simultaneously using at least two mobile devices, if not three or four: smartphones, Bluetooth, GPS, mp3 players, portable speakers, netbooks, tablets, video games, the works. The iPhone4 wasn’t on sale in the States yet, but here it was, in the hands of a kid who probably should have been in homeroom.
There were electronics stores as far as I could see, many of them sleek and newly-built, and there were two skyscrapers right near the subway, seemingly the district’s left and right ventricles. I randomly chose the one to my left, and by “chose” I mean I was funneled in that direction by a throng of ravenous consumers. Where were all these people coming from on a Tuesday afternoon anyway? Could they all be unemployed like me? Or was this something Beijingers did on their lunch breaks?
The moment I stepped into the mall, I felt a firm grip on my upper arm and spun around. I was faced with a young spiky-haired man sales-pitching me at the speed of light, waist-deep in laser printers. I had no idea what he was saying, but I wrenched my arm away, only to bump into another salesman, and another, each one reaching out to grab some part of my spindly upper body to get my attention. It was like an insane bazaar, except it was inside a shopping center where the people doing the grabbing were in suits and ties. Maybe they were onto something, seizing people by the rib cage and shouting, to demonstrate their business acumen. Maybe I was being too passive in my job interviews, not enough of a “go-getter.” Maybe I’d have a job if I approached it like your typical reality show: I didn’t come here to make friends, I came here to WIN!
I took the escalator to the other floors, almost running to dodge the salesmen and shoppers, scanning for a stall that sold spare parts. Even besides the big Western brands, there were too many to count: Nod, Xuema, Tongfang, Kyocera… it was like Black Friday in New York, but every single day of your life.
At the back corner of the 5th floor, I finally found a junky booth with cords draped all over the place. I approached what looked like a mother-son team and presented my issue with abysmal pronunciation. The son took the adapter, fiddled with it, set to rifling through a box of parts, and produced a cord that looked like mine. Thrilled, I paid him 98 yuan (about $15) and left. As usual, it didn’t occur to me to bargain, especially because we weren’t on the street, but I was suddenly embarrassed not to have tried. I could hear the rebukes already: They make those things in Hong Kong for a dime each, it should only cost 50 cents! In fact, they should be paying YOU to take it!
I dashed through the gauntlet of salesmen, shoved my way outside, and took a jam-packed train back to Xinjiekou Street. Back in my neighborhood, I ran past the handmade violins to the hostel, and went straight to my room to get Kermit, cooing to him as though he might hear me and thereby wake from his coma. But the new plug didn’t slide right in. Maybe I was being too gentle. I applied a bit of pressure, and then stopped, afraid of breaking something new altogether, and I looked at the plug in disbelief. This wasn’t going to work.
So I crammed Kermit into my backpack and took off again for Zhongguancun. I emerged from the train into the same mass of young nerds, and this time one of them pointed to my three-generations-old iPod nano and laughed. Really laughed his ass off. Good thing he didn’t see my flip phone, which didn’t work overseas anyway, or God forbid my planner, which was made out of paper (pa-pər: a Chinese invention about 2,000 years older than Google Calendar). I snaked my way into the left ventricle, elbowed past the salesmen, and found the mother-son team. They looked ambivalent about seeing me again so soon, but they swapped plugs for another one. I set Kermit on a stack of boxes, tried the plug, and breathed a deep sigh of relief as it clicked into place. Poor guy, his fan was whirring away at top speed, but he was successfully booting up.
It was jarring to go from Zhongguancun back to relatively calm Xinjiekou Street, past the siren sounds of men playing their erhus, down one of the city’s historic hutongs (alleyways), through the wooden door of the hostel and into the silent, leafy foyer. These hutongs and traditional courtyard houses embodied old Beijing but were actually being systematically razed to make way for the future: new buildings, new technology, new jobs, progress. Fancy shopping centers, 50-cent A/C adapters, and iPhone4s before everyone else on the planet. Success, for which the sky and a person’s ambition are the daunting limit. I retreated into my room and thought about the frantic employees at Zhongguancun, the relentless salesmanship, the idea that I might need that aggression in order to succeed, not just selling products as though my life depended on it, but selling myself to hundreds more potential employers. I turned Kermit on and he lit up, but instead of getting online, I just stared at the screen for a minute.
I decided not to apply for any jobs that afternoon.