Air/Bourne Again

Directing the action movie of my own life

It was 2008 and I was watching The Bourne Ultimatum on a plane en route to the Beijing Olympics, where I would be working as a journalist.

“You made yourself into who you are.”

Jason Bourne stands with a gun to the head of a man who is finally answering the question that the unstoppable fighting machine and unfortunate amnesiac has been asking for three movies: Who the fuck am I? His search has led him back to the midtown Manhattan office building where it all began, where he was first broken down. The lighting in the interrogation room is harsh, the man’s words harsher.

“Eventually you’re going to have to face the fact that you chose right here to become Jason Bourne.”

The words hit me like a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. It was as if the man had said, You chose right here to become Val Wang.

It was true. Years ago I had been right here — not in this exact seat, no, but on a darkened airplane speeding to China from America. I had abandoned one life for another. On the other side, just like Bourne I would have a hard time remembering who I’d been before and I would spend years figuring myself out.

The man dangled a set of dog tags. “You didn’t even blink, Jason. You just handed me these.”

That first right here plane ride to Beijing took place in 1997. Without blinking and very much against my parents’ wishes, I left the world they’d created in the U.S. suburbs with its doctorly and lawyerly aspirations and went to the land they’d fled almost 50 years before to do that most American of activities: find myself. When I got to China and saw the epic transformation the country was undergoing, I decided to become a journalist and stay for a while.

The grand finale of the Bourne trilogy struck home because just like for Bourne, the moment was the end of a chapter for me. Two chapters, really, the first of living in China and the second of writing a book about the experience. By the time I got on the plane to go to the Olympics, I’d finished the book and had found an agent who was shopping it around.

But let’s be honest, every movie hits me like a ton of bricks on the airplane. Queen Latifah playing a woman who is diagnosed with a fatal case of Lampington’s Disease and hence decides to spend every last cent she has living it up at a deluxe hotel in the mountains of Bohemia where she learns that the true meaning of life is to laugh more, love more? Yes, I thought to myself, yes. The nearly daylong Trans-Pacific flights break me down and the most effective pick-me-up at that altitude is a Hollywood movie. Unlike at every other point in my life, I am ready to believe in happy endings.

The Wang Identity (1997)

The Bourne Identity opens with Bourne floating facedown in open waters. He doesn’t remember who he is or what he’s doing there. Soon enough though, his muscle memory kicks in and he’s hotwiring cars, shimmying down sheer walls, fighting off machine gun-toting assassins with just his bare hands, speaking French. Along the way he finds out some unpleasant truths about himself, the worst of which is that he kills people for a living.

My problem when I moved to Beijing was that I had little muscle memory. Sure, I did magically understand the language being spoken around me, but I’d never held a real job before, much less one where I had to interview people in Mandarin, never lived alone in a city before, could barely boil an egg. Life suddenly required me to be a woman of action but unlike Bourne, I looked and felt awkward doing almost everything I did. I too stumbled into some unpleasant revelations about myself, though luckily none as bad as Bourne’s: I was a hothouse flower, oversensitive, stubborn to a fault, terrified of talking to strangers.

I stayed in China for five years and only went back to the States once a year. I gradually got better at the mechanics of living but my life never stopped feeling like it was coming apart at the seams, in no small part because the city around me was demolishing and rebuilding itself at a manic pace.

The plane rides back to China always felt monumental. I can still see in my mind’s eye the island of Manhattan looking like a tiny clay model brushed with the golden light of dusk and can still feel the sadness of kissing it goodbye for a year. I remember resolving to move there at year’s end, as I did every year. We often traveled with the sun, over the Bering Strait, over a world that was always bright and awake. Out the window, the soft S-shaped rivers, the wrinkled brown earth, the vast stretches of uninhabited land all spoke of immense loss and possibility.

Movies about deep space struck the right epic note for the journey. In Armageddon, deep-core drillers sent to demolish an earth-bound asteroid hopscotch ever farther outwards into space in ever more rickety vehicles. When one of the vehicles is blown to smithereens, stranding them on the asteroid, I began to be short of breath. Being so far from home with no idea how or even if you were going to make it back, I knew that feeling.

I sat next to grannies on many of my flights, returning from visiting their children who had gone to study in the States and never come home. They had a penchant for staring at me, perhaps taking me as a stand-in for their own children or future grandchildren. One granny across the aisle, when not fixated upon me, hugged a roll of toilet paper, yelled out during fight scenes in The Patriot, and ate Thousand Island dressing straight out of the packet with a pair of chopsticks. In the high point of our relationship, she reached over and put a dirty, crumpled napkin on my tray.

After a small bottle or two of red wine, I was up for anything, even Good Will Hunting. Watching that movie was the first time I realized that my airborne self and my earthbound self had different tastes. Mentally, I knew the movie was terrible and yet I loved it, as I do every movie I see on the plane. Held hostage, emotionally bereft, desperate for positive human connection, I suffer an acute, mile-high version of Stockholm syndrome.

The next year I sat next to a granny who had brought nothing to amuse herself for sixteen hours save her curiosity. She watched me fiddle with my Walkman, eat PowerBars and bananas, pore over photos of rappers with diamonds in Talk magazine. (I can’t read anything more challenging than that on a plane.) I avoided eye contact. She held her tongue for nine hours — then the dam burst. I wasn’t a Beijinger, was I? How did my English get so good? What was I doing in Beijing? Why was I returning to Beijing? My existential quandaries exactly.

Valerie, what are you doing with your life? You oughta go to law school. The words of my parents’ brassy elderly neighbor from Queens echoed in my head, voicing what they were thinking. Secretly, I was tacking in the opposite direction, away from the practical: I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and a writer. But as of yet, I had nothing to show for myself. How could I face life on the other side? All I wanted was to stay on the plane watching movies forever.


Chicken Run.

Keeping the Faith.

Eventually the stewardesses would yank down the plastic window shades and the entire cabin would grow dim. By this time the flight had sucked every drop of moisture out of my body, corroded the entire canal from my mouth to my stomach, and boiled my mind down into a soft, useless putty ready to be decanted into whatever container was closest at hand.

Rom-coms were perfect at this interval. Notting Hill had a blissful, analgesic quality and I soared out my body into crazy love with that dashing matinee idol Hugh Grant.

But after tipsiness, a hangover and four movies, there were still hours left in the flight. Eventually I just wanted the plane to land. I arrived on the other side broken, all of my resolutions and memories melted down, my American self relinquished. Over time, I began to like my Beijing self better. Instead of being neurotic and self-conscious, she was fearless. Every problem had a solution for her.

Just like Bourne.

The Wang Supremacy (2002)

In 2002 I returned to the States with a plan to write a book about my time in Beijing. Again, the flight erased part of who I was; I could feel my neurotic American self awakening as if from long slumber. On the other side, finally in New York, I wrote furiously, trying to put down on paper the city that was disappearing off the earth and out of my mind, the city that had made me who I was.

The Wang Ultimatum (2008)

When I saw The Bourne Ultimatum on the way to Beijing for the Olympics, I had finished writing my memoir and was just waiting for it to sell to the highest bidder. I called it a memoir but it was really a book of reporting that told the story of China’s transformation through people I had known, including my Beijing relatives, underground filmmakers whose films I’d subtitled, my hairdressers, et cetera. The journalist in me had avoided delving too deeply into my own story, particularly anything that had to do with my own heritage.

Action movies are excellent to watch on planes but often the heart-pounding action does its job too well, sending my already burdened ticker into what feels like cardiac arrest. I can’t bear any ambiguity about what will happen or any weakness in my heroes. I need to feel omnipotent, invincible. This is why I love Bourne. He can hop borders without a passport, crack safes with only his cunning, foil assassins with nothing more than an electric fan and scotch tape. His only weakness is his tragic ignorance of who he really is.

In the process of recovering his identity, Bourne uncovers a C.I.A. black ops program employing waterboarding, rendition, and the extrajudicial assassination of U.S. citizens, malfeasance that neatly reflected geopolitical realities off-screen. But at the end, Bourne doesn’t truly care about those external dramas; he only wants to know how they made him into who he is today.

“Something happened to me and I need to know what it was or I’ll never be free.”

My book didn’t sell. It wouldn’t sell for years until, like Bourne, I put aside geopolitical realities and instead tried to figure out how what I’d experienced had made me into who the fuck I am today. This of course meant putting my relationship to my family and our past into the story. You made yourself into who you are. What an American idea, as if it isn’t also your family, your history, your society that has some hand in how you turn out. Now I’m finally ending the third chapter of this saga, of publishing the book. (I guess I should have known it would be a trilogy.) I feel free at last.

But I also feel as though I’ve just spent years building a house and as I drove in the last nail, the whole thing burned to the ground just as planned. I’m right back where I began. Empty field, blank page. I don’t know what’s next for me and part of me fears there’s nothing next.

I recently watched The Bourne Ultimatum over again. The movie ends as the series began, with Bourne floating lifeless in the sea, probably shot and possibly dead. But then a single violin screams out, anxious yet hopeful, the bass revs up and right as the techno beat explodes, Bourne’s legs kick and scissor him to the surface again. Me too, I thought, me too.

Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China by Val Wang was published by Gotham Books on October 30, 2014. It is now available for purchase.