Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Happy Birthday Brandon, Happy Birthday China
The People’s Republic of China turned 62 this year to a modest celebration. Instead of parading its nukes, Cold War-era tanks and aircraft carrier-killing missiles up and down Chang’an Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west axis, China’s leaders laid flowers at the Monument of the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Political speeches about China’s rise as a global player were prevalent.
October 10 marked the centenary of the 1911 Revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, ushering in the birth of a Chinese republic.
Smack in the middle of the festivities was another celebration, albeit a largely overlooked one: my birthday. And not just any birthday, but my quarter century milestone. On October 6 I turned 25.
China’s working masses get a week off work for the National Day and related festivities causing trains, planes and automobile lanes to become mobbed with people.
Wanting to avoid the inevitable baijiu toasts and shot drinking that accompany any birthday bash, I, too, decided to travel. I also needed a desperate change of scenery and some fresh east coastal Chinese air. I spent my special day in an American restaurant in Nanjing, China’s capital pre-World War II, eating a deliciously decadent cheeseburger, listening to classic American rock and fending off a particularly annoying prostitute. She didn’t even know it was my birthday, but still, she persisted.
The thrill, or anxiety, of turning 25 just wasn’t there, because in a sad sort of way the celebration wasn’t a true milestone. While October 6 made it official, for the better part of three years I’ve pretended to be 25.
Age in China, especially the workplace, is a delicate subject. The top spots at most companies are reserved for those experienced professionally and chronologically. Beijing Review and most Chinese publications are no exception. Almost all the foreign consultants I’ve worked with have been older than 35. And then there’s me. Brandon Taylor. Age: 25.
When I started at Beijing Review, I was 22, an unheard of age for a foreign expert. At the time the magazine was desperate to fill one of its foreign editor positions. I had no professional experience, but I spoke English. That was good enough for them.
My first day in the office I made the mistake of telling people my real age. Some of the Chinese staff immediately began looking down on me. I was just a kid. I was no foreign expert.
It was true. I was a kid, and definitely not an expert, but I learned quick and established a solid reputation at the magazine as a hard worker. I also learned to lie about my age. For the rest of that year, and the two following, I was 25. When I would let my beard grow, I passed as 30.
Having reached this age, I can see the appeal of turning 25. By this point, most people have added experience to their professional and social resumes. Some are married; some have families. And some are still trying to find themselves or get their lives on track.
When the People’s Republic was 25, in 1974, the country was in the late stages of the nearly decade-long Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous time where unchecked nationalism caused the destruction of thousands of historic buildings and relics and almost tore the nation apart. When the country’s great helmsman Mao Zedong died in 1976, the madness ended and a new era was ushered in with Deng Xiaoping and his reform and opening-up policy two years later.
Today, the country is a much different place.
I guess I can be glad the most drama I have in my life right now is paying off college loans and worrying about whether I will start going bald, following in dear old dad’s footsteps, any time soon.
PHOTO CAPTION: Guards stand by the perimeter of Tiananmen Square as a large red lantern shines brightly in commemoration of the People’s Republic of China’s 62nd anniversary. The large red lantern, and 20 million potted plants scattered around the city, replaced the enormous hammer and sickle that was placed in the square in July to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.