A strange thing happened on the way to the market. It happened over five years ago, but happen it did, and I can still remember it so clearly and so vividly that it may as well have happened yesterday. I watched a man plummet from the sky.
It was my last day in Beijing. I had been there for several months, studying Mandarin at Beijing Foreign Studies University. I had little on my mind that morning besides completing my souvenir shopping, and breakfast. Definitely breakfast. The parties had not stopped as my new Chinese friends insisted on making my last days in the city the drunkest. I was hungover and hungry.
I gathered my friend and fellow American classmate, we’ll call her H, and her sister, C, who had flown in from the USA a few days prior. We planned to walk down a street near campus which housed some of our favorite restaurants. This street also led directly to the bus stop which would take us to the Metro, and on to the Silk Market. Despite my pounding head and gnawing belly, the morning was shaping up wonderfully.
This street was a go-to during my stay in Beijing. One side was lined with great restaurants and shops and the other with imposing high-rise apartment buildings. These buildings were shiny and new, and sported elaborate, and often nicely designed, high fences and gates, along with the requisite security that the Chinese just love. I was up and down this street almost every day.
Although it was almost 10am on a Sunday morning, that street was quiet. So quiet, in fact, we became aware that the restaurants weren’t even open yet. A young lady swept past us on a bicycle as we discussed simply waiting to eat until we arrived downtown. I grumbled inwardly, certain that I would die if I didn’t eat right that minute, but I agreed and we walked on.
I was peripherally aware that the young woman on the bicycle was entering a locked gate at the apartment building on the other side of the street. I glanced over to see her walking her bike through the gate, then she climbed back on and began to pedal. She and her bike had covered about fifteen feet down the driveway when all hell broke loose.
A man came crashing down, feet first, onto the pavement just behind the woman, missing her by inches. H,C, and myself froze in shock. Had I really just seen that? That was a person, right? Tell me it wasn’t! How does this happen? Did he jump? Was he pushed? I thought those ideas were just thoughts, until I realized that I was screaming all of those words and more as I ran across the street. I vaguely recall H dialing 120 on her mobile as we made it to the gate, and I could see the man lying on the pavement just inside. The woman on the bicycle had frozen in shock for a moment, then sped away.
I looked frantically around, for someone, anyone who could help. There was no one. The gate was locked and impossible to scale. H spoke from behind me that an ambulance was coming, and I tried to assess the man’s condition from where I stood. One leg was badly broken, and I fully expected a pool of blood to begin seeping from his head at any moment as a seizure gripped his body. I looked up the side of the building to try and assess how far he had fallen. Curious faces began looking out of their open windows, but no one had an expression or attitude that would suggest this was their husband or father who was lying in a heap on the driveway below.
Suddenly, a security officer appeared from behind the building. Terror and shock were apparent on his face as he approached the man. It was at that instant the man on the ground moved his head. Although he was looking at the officer upside down, it was obvious he could see him. I couldn’t hear what was spoken, but the officer said something, then placed the man’s fallen glasses on his face and turned to run away. The man on the ground reached his arm in the direction the officer had fled, then proceeded to scream. That was the first sound I heard him make. Above his screams we heard ambulance sirens approaching, and H and C literally dragged me away. As we grabbed a taxi I saw the ambulance arrive, and we went to the Silk Market as planned.
I spent the rest of that day, and many after it, trying to figure out what happened. I tried to decipher, with my limited knowledge of physics, the trajectory and path that his body took to the ground. I created stories in my head to explain the sequence of events. He owed money to the Triads and was thrown from the window. The woman on the bicycle was his unfaithful wife returning from her lover’s house. He was so distraught and had planned an elaborate murder/suicide by jumping to his death and taking her out as well. If that were the case, he must have watched at the window and waited for a long time. Maybe he was simply cleaning the window and fell. And perhaps the biggest question of all, did he survive?
After I returned to my home in Hawaii, I checked Beijing’s online newspapers for weeks. I never saw a single mention of a man who had fallen or jumped from an apartment building near BFSU.
In a city of fourteen million, his accident was likely just one of many that took place that day. In a city of fourteen million, I was just one of many people who could have been at that place, at that moment. I’ll never be able to remember Beijing, and all of the wonderful experiences I had there, without remembering this man, and my limited knowledge of his life, and perhaps his death, as well.
I really, really wish that I knew.