Liang is a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, with olive skin and wondering eyes. She goes by the name Simona when she talks to foreigners. An American friend introduced me to her. He met her at a subway stop, while asking for directions. When Liang heard that I research Chinese media she immediately revealed that she spent seven years at People's Daily, China's most official newspaper. She quickly muttered how boring it was, and how glad she was to be out of there.
Towards the end of our first encounter Liang asked for my phone number, wanting to stay in touch.
She called me one week later: “Maria! It's Simona! I am very interested to speak to you about Chinese media. Let's go to a bar and talk.”
The next day we were sitting together at the Bookworm, a cafe popular with foreigners, and filled with books on China. Liang ordered a coke and I had a glass of red wine. She kept saying how much she likes the cafe and staring at me with much anticipation. It turned out that she was looking for friendship, not a media discussion. She shared her difficulties in finding a boyfriend, frustrations with working with all men at her new company, and the impressions of her studies in New York.
An hour into our meeting she suddenly asked if I had any questions about Chinese media. I questioned her about censorship and professional pressures at People's Daily. To my surprise she was most struck by the journalists' corruption, encouraged from the top. Newspaper leaders advised journalists to work hard to solicit advertising revenue and keep some percentage for themselves. “Everyone would accept bribes...Everyone was after money,” Liang said. “All my friends were surprised when I quit to start my own business. Nobody ever quits People's Daily. It's a stable job. People stay there for a lifetime...I don't regret leaving though,” she adds.
As our media discussion draws to an end, Liang asks me when I am leaving Beijing. Hearing how soon it is, she exclaims that she will miss me! She then quickly takes out a tiny notebook and asks me with a very serious expression on her face what other cafes and bars I can recommend in Beijing. “You are the one who lives in Beijing!” I laugh. She ignores my comment and repeats the question. I then give her the names of my favourite places, and she jots them down carefully, double checking the spelling. Once she is done, she smiles with satisfaction and says: “Whenever you have a free time, just write me, and we go to bar together, have a drink, talk to other guys, do a dance. I will join you anytime!” I try to suggest politely that I am going to be very busy before my departure. She ignores the comments and repeats the idea of going to bars together with much enthusiasm. I feel sleepy from red wine and try to find a way to leave politely. My new friend, caffeinated from a huge iced coke, has no intention of leaving. She keeps asking me of the best ways to practice English, best bars for dancing, meeting other foreigners, and much more. Finally, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, pay, and tell Liang that I need to go. We walk out into the rainy night. Liang gives me a tight hug and repeats her bar hopping proposal.
The next morning I wake up to her message: “Maria, great to talk to you last night. Whenever you want to go to a bar, let me know, and I will catch up with you!”