Thursday, October 30, 2003

Peep show
Privacy is hard to come by here, at least in a Western sense. For instance, dentistry and hair care are great specatator sports when a traffic accident isn't available. It's not unusual to see a "dentist office" or "barbershop" consisting of several shoddy, knockoff La-Z-Boy type chairs in a vacant lot or sharing space with cars in a dirt parking lot. Crowds gather to see Mr. Wu grimace and spit blood into a tin can or gasp in awe at little Peng Fei getting her first haircut under a street light.
I also recently saw one "dentist" apparently cleaning his right toe with one of his instruments in one of these outdoor clinics.
The indoor varieties offer protection from the elements and presumably better sterile conditions, but often also have the seats plunked right in front of a plate glass window for easy sidewalk display.
If you're a foreigner is being displayed, the crowds are even larger. Foreigners are adorable when they've got a head full of shampoo and don't think they're being watched.
Generally I've gotten used to it and worse. Small children sometimes want to pull the hair on my "monkey" arms and a black American woman told me several months ago that she's had children and adults alike want to rub her skin to see if the color comes off. Lucky for them that she's a patient, tolerant soul.
I was not so patient the other day, however while giving my laundry to my smiling-laundress-with-the-forehead-goiter. Her shop is an open face affair and she has a ritual we go through everytime. She plucks each soiled garment from the plastic laundry bag, examines it, shakes it -- occasionally giving a "tsk-tsk" kind of sound/comment indicating that I was raised and clothed by wolves -- counts it in English and Chinese and records it in a notebook.
She was on boxer-shorts-no. 1 when I heard some giggles and turned to see two skinny middle-aged men with bad teeth marveling at my Homer Simpson boxers. The titters and stares increased by shorts-no. 3, a tasteful red pair sporting small pink and white dancing elephants. I gave 'em my best unrelenting glare at that point and they finally moved on. Too bad. The purple and yellow chili pepper shorts would've brought the house down.
The positive side of the privacy issue here is that it works both ways. There's a guy on my apartment floor who thinks nothing of every morning standing with back to his open doorway, generally clad in nothing but black briefs, arms outstretched and singing as loudly and lustily as he can.
I've come to think of him as my morning wakeup call. If I miss his performance, I'm probably late for work.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Monster Mash
Halloween is fast approaching and while the "ghost festival" as one coworker describes it isn't celebrated in China, it is an excuse for parties and promotions at bars, hotels and restaurants in Shenzhen looking to cater to the barbarians and Chinese wannabe foreign devils.
Press releases from various establishments eager to get some publicity in our weekend edition have been trickling in. Here are a few events I can look forward to: (All items reprinted verbatim)

*"At our Holloween party on October 31 you will find kobolds, gnomblins, witches, and suck blood ghosts women out there invited to join us! Any person carving a costume will pumpkin drink free. Booh! Booh!"
*"Party Time! Killer to catch a young lady to the stage and use the much sharp sword to cut through her throat deeply. Kiss! Kiss! Drink blood! All ghosts to uplift the lady's body. Ghost Ambassador to take photos!"
*"Teiko to frantic spooky dancing among foreign guests and scare them with force." (Editor's note: No idea who or what Teiko may be)
*And my favorite: "White-Boner to dance among the guests!"
As barbarian coworker Jeff said when I told him about "White-Boner": "Now that I'd pay to see."

Sunday, October 26, 2003

You Say It's Your Birthday
Last year I celebrated my 50th birthday with my second ex with dinner (thanks, dear) and a concert that Bob Dylan was kind enough to hold for the occasion. I never thought that at the same time next year I'd be spending the afternoon of my 51st with an apparently autistic 4-year-old Chinese child on a beach with signs forbidding "Whoring and fuedalism."
But I digress.
The weekend began as a judge for the First Shenzhen Daily English Language Cup competition. Besides polishing stories, foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I are frequently shanghaied for duties such as this. We never decline because it's bad form, we always get a free meal and often a small stipend.
The contestants were middle and high schoolers who gave short speeches and answered questions from judges - the Miss America format without the talent and swimsuit competitions - and a few had picked up the accents of their foreign teachers. I'm used to hearing a posh British accent emenating from the mouth of an English speaking Chinese person now, but while concentrating on adding up the scores for one contestant, I was not looking up when the next one began her speech.
While frantically calculating 9+4, I heard a distinctly rural southern voice coming from the podium.
"Ah'm glah'd to be heah, ladies and gennlemahn...."
Briefly I thought it was some middle aged expat school administrator from Alabama until I looked up at a 14-year-old bespectacled Chinese girl in a tartan skirt/white blouse school uniform.
While her content was average, I graded her high just for the sound of sweet home Alabama.
I had dinner plans for my birthday, but while leaving the office late in the morning a coworker asked me if I was free for the afternoon. A friend of hers was picking her up for a drive to a beach, something I'd never seen here before. Despite Shenzhen being a coastal city, you'd be hard put to know it from most areas here and this seemed like a great opportunity. The friend arrived with her 4-year-old son in the front seat sanschild seat or seatbelt, which seems to be SOP here.
The kid was extremely attractive, but as we drove I began to realize something was terribly wrong with him besides the fact that he had dug into the glove compartment and was now brandishing two Chinese disposable (and non-child proof) lighters as he rolled around from the seat to the front floor and back again.
He was completely silent the whole time and given to periods of incessantly rocking back and forth and wouldn't meet anyone's gaze. I'm no pro, but I've substitute taught some special ed classes and he looked autistic to my untrained eyes.
I asked the coworker about him.
"Oh, he does not speak." Nothing about the other behavior.
So, has the mother taken him to the doctor?
"No, she says it is too expensive and his age now, 4, is an unlucky age. She says maybe he will speak when he is a luckier age."
Mmmm. Ok.
At the beach - which was really a several kilometers strip of banyon tree and grass park land with a walkway along a fenced off rocky shore - we strolled a little while the kid more or less trailed along, stopping to spin around and still clutching the lighters tight.
That's when the park sign caught my eye: "Whoring, gambling, drug taking, feudalism and superstitions or other illegal activities are strictly forbidden."
Despite the sea air and the exotic locale, I kind of yearned for a simple dinner and Dylan combo at that moment. But maybe next year.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Voices Carry
Except for consultations about word choices and curious American customs like the MLB playoffs or private home ownership, I am frequently out of the conversational loop among my coworkers. They often debate English terms and words among themselves in Chinese, but only when they seem to reach an impasse do they think to ask the Long Nosed Human Dictionary sitting among them. Today, though, there was a furious exchange between three men and one woman that went: "Chinesechinesechinesebabblebabble 'making love' babblechinesebabble 'having sex' babblebabblechinese 'making love, having sex' babblechinesebabble,etc." repeatedly.
I couldn't resist.
"John," I shouted, interjecting myself rudely into their discussion. "Why are you talking about sex in the office. I thought only crude westerners did that!"
John Wu looked up startled and then laughed. I like him, partly because when he really works at it he can produce almost perfect English copy. And he's also a little older and more worldly than most of staff, and as a result somewhat cynical and occasionally almost burned out. He has also lived (for 3 years) in the States, in, of all places, Kissimmee, Fla. where he worked translating for a Chinese theme park.
And he writes under three bylines - including one of the best of all time: 'Flame Wu.'
"We are discussing the difference between 'making love' and 'having sex.' What, in your opinion is the difference?"
"Uh, emotion, feeling, I guess."
"Yes, one can have sex without making love."
"Yeah, I'd agree."
I decided to see how far I could push the English lesson.
"John, (lowering voice and motioning him to come closer). Do you want to know an American slang term for having sex with a friend with whom there is no romance?"
You could hear the proverbial pin drop around me. I could see the others pretending to studiously gaze at their keyboards while straining to hear me more clearly.
"Yes," said John.
"It's 'fuck buddy.' You know, 'buddy', right? And you know (more sotto voice) 'fuck', I am sure."
John smiled again and repeated it back to me slowly. "Fuck buddy. Yes. Thank you."
I went back to my work. Less than two minutes passed and the conversational flow resumed: ""Chinesechinesechinesebabblebabble 'fuck buddy' babblechinesebabble 'buddy, fuck buddy' babblebabblechinese..."

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Turn the Page (very slowly)

When I am not spending evenings helping the orphans hone their bar tending and customer service skills, I like to lie in the Plexiglass Bedroom under the comforting glow of a neon light, sip a cold Tsingtao and read while listening to the sounds of the traffic and people 19 floors below through the Window That Will Not Close.
But English language reading material is scarce here. Very scarce. I've been told it can be had in Hong Kong, but I haven't had the chance to venture there yet. There is a very large bookstore in Shenzhen, like a bigger version of Denver's Tattered Cover, but a scouting expedition revealed very little in English except tech manuals and dictionaries.
Which is all by way of explaining whyI am thrilled to announce that a copy of the Oct. 13 Sports Illustrated arrived today, along with an early birthday card. (Oct. 26 for anyone keeping score.)

"Do You Believe? - Kerry Wood Leads the Cubs Into Magical Territory" is the cover story. Unfortunately, I already know how that story ends, but I'm going to read it cover-to-cover anyway, including the 2003-2004 Hockey Preview (which I normally have no interest in). I just finished a tattered, grimy and yellowing Ken Follett novel that foreign barbarian coworker Jeff says has been through about 110 expats before me. There's also a glossy Japanese arts and culture magazine that an email friend in Tokyo was kind enough to send me that I am reading like relaxing slowly in a warm bath.
And I read, and re-read the instructions on a package of instant rice, bamboo shoots and pork many times last night both both for the meager pleasure and to figure out exactly how to fix them. I'm still trying to figure out what "Insert meal package in meal package after beginning monkeys discarding is boiled firmly" means.

Monday, October 20, 2003

Working for the clamp down
While it professes to follow Associated Press style and to model itself after Western journalism, the Shenzhen Daily is actually a weird hybrid between East and West that wobbles along a fine line, veering mostly on the side of journalism as cheerleading/propaganda.
A typical Monday morning news meeting is instructional. We gather at 10 a.m. to critique the last week's papers. Outwardly it's like any news room meeting. Staffers dribble in clutching refreshments - in this case not cups of joe, but bags of nuts and cans of sweet herbal tea - and it begins late.
For the benefit of foreign devil coworker Jeff and I it begins in English. It can be a painful process for all concerned, as the staff's English level, while generally well above the average English speaking Chinese, varies greatly.
The critiques vary, too as does the degree of cultural and journalistic confusion. No one on the staff, save Jeff, myself and one senior editor, have been trained as journalists.
This critique began with an advisory from the paper's second-in-command that foreign wire stories be checked carefully for the "Western opinion" that China's trade surplus is "large."
"It our government's opinion that it is not so large. So we must speak to the point of view of our government, not the U.S. government," he said sternly.
The sound I heard was Tom Paine rolling over in his grave.
Another editor, Paul, is also probably one of the few Communist Party members on the staff. He spent three months in Germany once and, as such, believes he has a superior command of the English language. He is ambitious and like ass kissers every where tends to criticize only when he thinks he will score points.
Our "taikonaut " coverage - which was extensive and as good as the state controlled media could provide - was praised, but Paul singled out a story with a headline that read: "Postive reaction to China's space launch".
Saith Paul: "The first person who speaks in the story is an average citizen of Hong Kong. Only later do we read that distinguished foreign leaders praised our space launch. This is not right that an average citizen should be quoted before leaders."

Therein lies the germ of a bigger battle that Jeff and I fight daily. Hierarchy, especially when it comes to media coverage here, is all in China. Only recently did we manage to get a photo cutline in the paper that identified every single person, foreigner and Chinese woman alike, in the picture from left to right with the Shenzhen mayor listed last. No big deal one might think but there's an explanation for our small triumph.
Normally, unless the person is a prominent foreigner - like Madonna or Dubya - they are not identified.
"Foreigners gaze in awe at Great Wall" is typical. It might as well read: "Martian savages who live in caves and drool while eating roots and berries marvel at superior Chinese technology."
If the subjects are Chinese, they are not identified from left to right, but according prominence. This can lead to some very confusing cutlines. If they are unfortunate enough to be born a woman and lack political or social power they are normally not identified at all.
Back to Paul. He was also upset with the headline. "We should not use the term 'Positive,'" he proclaimed firmly. "Because this infers that there might be negative reaction to our grand space shot."
But that's what the story is about, Jeff and I said. It's about positive reaction to Yang's flight. There was no negative reaction. People all over the world were happy for China. And even if there was negative reaction, you would not have printed it, right?
Paul ignored the last question but stood firm. The paper's editor, who had initially agreed with Paul, veered now toward the foreign expertise of the barbarians. Finally, so no one would lose face, another editor intervened.
"I think we can agree that the space shot was postive and that the nuts that Miss Feng has brought from her home province are delicious."

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Playing the numbers
Some of you reading this recently received a mass e- mail trumpeting the news that I finally have phone service in the Lucky Number Apartment. It included my new phone number. Well, go ahead and throw it away. Things have changed.
Mr. Tan just came to me, clearing his throat, sucking his teeth and smiling apologetically.
"It seems that your phone number will be changed in a couple days," he announced flatly, handing me a piece of paper with two eight digit numbers, one that looked familiar and another with several boxes scrawled around it for emphasis.
I thought he was talking about my office number because I share a phone line with a reporter here, something that often causes confusion when he gets calls from non English-speaking sources and I answer it.
"Well, great," I said. "When is 'a couple days'? Monday, probably?"
"Perhaps. You can try calling it and see."
"So I won't be sharing a phone with David anymore?"
Mr. Tan's face fell.
"No, it is not this phone. It is the phone in your flat."
"WHAT?" I composed myself whle mentally wrapping my hairy barbarian knuckles around his scrawny neck. "I just sent out e-mails with my number to my family and friends. I have told people here."
"You will have to tell them again." More throat clearing. Heavy tooth sucking. "Do you want to know why it is changed?"
"OK. Why?"
"The flat owner says your current number is unlucky. So he has had it changed to a lucky number."
Would that it were that easy with Qwest. But dumbfounded does begin to describe my emotion. I pressed on and found out that because the old number contained two fours and that in Cantonese the word for "four" and "death" are very similar, four is a doomed digit.
"Is the flat owner Cantonese?"
"No, but he must have a belief in this."
"What if I do not have a belief in this?"
"It does not matter. It is done already."
I went to foreign devil coworker Jeff for sympathy. It was nothing to new to him. In fact, he told me that cell phone number rates here vary according to how "lucky" or "unlucky' the numbers are.
"You can get some great rates with unlucky numbers. I've done it myself and I'm still here to tell about it. But otherwise, they're worried about you, mate. It's their way of looking out for you."

By the way, here's the new number with access and country code. I'll be sending out another email sometime next week, too. If I'm still alive to do so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Boom, boom, out go the lights
The Lucky Number Apartment is rapidly morphing into the Amityville Horror. Recently I was returning from a late night of, er, uh, volunteering at an orphanage. Yes, that's it. The orphans. Poor. Starving. Grateful for my selfless help. Anyway, upon entering the apartment and switching on the overhead flourescent (only the best in ambient lighting in the Lucky Number Apt.) living room light I was greeted with a flash, a small popping explosion, followed by darkness, a burning smell and the sound of shattered glass falling on tile and a glass coffee table.
Not wanting to test the rest of the Lucky Number's electrical system and drawing on my atrophied skills as a Boy Scout for one week in 1961, I craftly flicked on my lighter and surveyed a landscape littered with gleaming shards of glass over which I stealthily crunched and crackled in wide steps for the sanctuary of the All Plexiglass Bedroom Unit.
Cut to late afternoon the next day. I am home again, sitting in the rapidly appproaching gloom on my chic vinyl turquoise couch awaiting the apartment manager whom Mr. Tan has assured me will be there "shortly."
What followed could serve as a primer in How Things Are Done in China (or: If These People Ever Get Organized, the Rest of Us are Doomed)
As in all projects - whether it be driving a bus, which takes three people a driver, a ticket taker and a woman to scream out the stops over the din of the passengers; buying something in a department store, three clerks minimum, usually four - sometimes five - fixing my exploding fixture wasn't a one man job.
When the knock came I greeted four fellows. The apartment manager/super in a short sleeved white polyester shirt and black skinny tie (to designate his status as manager); two guys in wife beater T-shirts and a younger dude fashionably clad in a T-shirt decorated with a quote dubiously attributed to "Huxley" (presumably Aldous) which read: "Summer happy sweat penguins hip-hop cool with atrophy boy."
Funny. I can't quite recall reading that in Brave New World.
None spoke English but if there were subtitles it might go something like this.
All four stare up at the inspect the blackened light fixture. None have brought flashlights, and I've been too chicken to switch on any other lights so Wife Beater T-shirt No. 1 flicks on the Plexiglass Bedroom Light as I flinch. The light flickers on sans explosion. I stop holding my breath and exhale.
Apt manager, staring at broken fixture. "It appears to not be operating correctly."
WB Nos. 1 and 2: "Yes. It is a shame. The Foreign Devil is very careless and unlucky."
Chinglish T-shirt kid, pointing at TV set, which I had bravely turned on previously: "Look! The latest installment of a gripping quasi-historical soap opera set in the Ming Dynasty. Thankfully for us the Foreign Devil was watching that instead of English language reports on Hong Kong Gem and Precious Metal Indicators. Let us take a break from our labor and smoke cigarettes and watch the Ghost Vampire Woman attempt to vanquish the Pure Jade Maiden."
All: "Agreed!"
Smoking and TV viewing commences for about 8 minutes.
Apartment Manager, gazing woefully at light fixture:"I am dismayed that it has not repaired itself. And I have just realized that the fixture is several meters above our statures. We will need a height raising device. Comrades 2 and 3! Take China's Slowest Elevator down 19 floors and spend 40 or so minutes trying to find such a device before eventually returning. Comrade 1 and I will remain here to monitor the travails of the Pure Jade Maiden and her handsome Virgin Prince. Please do not bother to bring anymore cigarettes back with you, as the Foreign Devil seems to have enough that we can look longingly at and eventually cadge from him after we have consumed our own."

Wife beaters 1 and 2 eventually return with a rusty, slightly unbalanced step ladder.
Mgr shakely steps up ladder as the remaining three gather 'round it steadying it, eyes still glued to the TV.:"Yes, we will need a new illumination fixture device. And also a new illumination tube. Just as I thought. But first we will need tool devices in order to dismantle the offending fixture. This time I will volunteer myself and Comrade 1 to descend in China's Slowest Elevator in search of such materials. We will probably also take our sweet time consuming a meal. Comrades 3 and 4, please stay here and smoke what is left of the Foreign Devil's cigarettes and otherwise make yourselves at home. I believe a new installment of another historical potboiler is begining soon and I think I glimpsed soft drinks in his food cooling unit. Perhaps if you look longingly at those, he will feel compelled to offer them to you!"

Hours pass, Foreign Devil's soft drinks and cigs are drained and inhaled, the light fixture is eventually fixed, but not before more trips for supplies and several fitful and somewhat scary attempts - finally successful - to shut the power to the living room off in order to make the repairs.

Apt. Mgr., loosening tie, wiping brow:Our work here is done!
All cheer. Foreign devil mutters to self
Wife Beater No. 2:He invokes his Foreign God! I did not know that Jesus Christ's middle name is 'Fucking'! Hee! Foreigners are funny because they are not like us!"

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

It's a man's, man's, man's world...
or at least a little boy's world here. There's a term, "young emperors" that describes the way males are revered and raised here. Because of the one child policy and because males are valued more, having a son means you've won the birthing lotto. (And when was the last time you heard of a Chinese boy being adopted in the US?) Boys are also often spoiled beyond belief.
Cases in point:
* While at a McDonald's, foreign devil coworker Jeff and I are annoyed and startled when a 5-or-so year-old boy wanders up to our table and repeatedly tries to grab our fries. I almost slap his wrist lightly and we both shout at him (Yes, "No, you little fuckwad!" may have been the term I used, your honor) , drawing stares and glares from other tables. His parents - who are sitting about seven tables away - have been allowing the little bugger to happily frolic from table to table filching fries and ours is the only spot where he's been pulled up short. Mutters of general disapproval grow and we exit a bit sooner than we normally would've.
* While walking back to the Lucky Number Apt. after work I watch a woman overseeing five children across a busy street. All appear to be around 4 years old - three girls and - BINGO - twin boys; a vertible Bio-Powerball Jackpot. She carefully and firmly holds the twins' hands while allowing the girls to make their own ways threading perilously and erratically through the nonstop stream of cars, bicyclists and motor scooters.
The result, I think, is that women here - if they don't get mowed down in traffic - probably grow up to be more resourceful and self-sufficient. Virtually all of my younger Chinese male coworkers are surprised that I cook for myself and have admitted they don't have the slightest idea of how to prepare anything except instant noodles. One even confessed that he isn't sure as to when it is that water exactly boils.
"Wait for the bubbles," I tell him with authority. "That's what we do in America."

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Wild, wild East

Foreign devil coworker Jeff recently invited me to see the other half of his life. He's got a comfortable two and a half bedroom apartment that he shares with his Tibetan girlfriend, but, unknown to her, he also shares a smaller one (two bedrooms, no kitchen) with another Australian expat named Phil that they use for, uh, extracurricular activities. It's in the heart of a red light district dubbed "The Village."
But Jeff and Phil have to vacate soon -- probably this weekend due to events that unfolded in another city in this province last month and have since caused a minor international incident between China and Japan. Variously described in the media here and in Japan as a "three day orgy" or "romp" or "sex tour scandal" involving hundreds of Japanese male tourists, some reportedly as young as 16, and an equal number of Chinese working girls all publicly cavorting in a major hotel, it has also created a ripple effect on the sex trade throughout the province.
While prostitution is illegal here, it's also widespread under a sort of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
But the Japanese made the mistake of scheduling their public display of promiscuity on a sensitive anniversary in Chinese-Japanese relations. September 16 is regarded as something of a national day of humilation here because it is the date that marks the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931.
Chinese guests staying at the hotel were quoted as saying that the Japanese men groped the women in the lobby and on elevators, and that guest floors overflowed with scenes of carnality and drunkenness
The result has been a temporary, but widely publicized clampdown on the sex trade throughout the province, complete with near-daily TV and Chinese language print coverage of dozens of pimps and hookers being cuffed, interrogated and humilated by the law.
It's also affected Jeff's alternative living situation. He said he and Phil had a recent visit at their pad from the local police who told them they want the foreigners to vacate the premises.
"We're foreigners, like the Japanese to their minds," he says. "They also are afraid of us dying there. There have been reportedly 18 deaths - a few foreigners and the others Chinese guys who died here while having sex. It's a huge embarrassment to them when that happens and they don't want to chance it."
We left his apartment and took a portable chess set to a "barbie" (barbecue) shop where we sat outside in the cooling evening air, drank some beers, played some chess, ate some BBQ and watched the few soiled doves, their pimps and mamasans left in the area gossiping with each other and drift languidly around looking for clients.
Suddenly around the corner came a lot of shouting and the sound of people running. Four frantic young men carrying a fifth by his arms and legs appeared, brushed by our table and ran up the street into what appeared to be the entrance of an emergency medical clinic. It went by fast, but the prone gray- faced fellow was covered with blood and there was what appeared to be a pocket knife or short handled blade protruding from his chest.
No cops and no ambulance ever appeared.
"Didja see that, mate?" said Jeff. "It's Dodge City, here. Bloody Tombstone."

It wasn't all spicy goose intestines, tearful interrogations, psychotic driving episodes and irregularly scheduled covert bedroom play.
No, dear Reader, life is much more than that in Chengdu.
It's also a daytrip to see the world's largest stone Buddha carved from a mountainside in Leshan - very impressive, but my favorite part was when Cherry asked me to take the wheel for about 65 kilometers on the freeway ("Yeehaw! I'm actually DRIVING in Communist China!" I screamed, startling Cherry and Dana) and a 2 1/2 hour variety show at a glitzy Chengdu hotel that was something like a Chinese version of the Catskills, Ed Sullivan and a little Vegas rolled into one.
We went at the insistence of Cherry's daughter who had loosened up a little since my arrival and had - temporarily at least - made the transistion from hormonally-racked, spoiled rich Chicom teen into something resembling a pleasant young woman-to-be.
Cherry had been urging us to go to a karaoke bar so, as Dana, said, "She can sing you many love songs. She says she has a wonderful voice."
I was not thrilled at the prospect. Her daughter even less so. ("Well, sure, mom! I'd love to go to a smoky bar filled with drunk middle-aged businessmen and pay-to-play "hostesses" to watch you make an ass of yourself serenading an uncomfortable and embarrassed long nosed foreign devil who isn't my father. What normal teen could pass up such an opportunity?")
I assured Cherry through Dana that while I honored at her suggestion, I could not reciprocate properly because I cannot sing and only do karaoke when blind drunk and the song is Louie Louie.
The hotel showroom was packed with families and groups of all ages and what transpired onstage turned out to be quite entertaining, even if I couldn't understand any of the jokes or lyrics. Dana translated at times, but couldn't bring herself to fully disclose what she called "yellow material" i.e. dirty jokes.
The host physically resembled nothing more than a portly Chinese George Jessell and warmed the crowd up with some "yellow material" that involved - as far as I could tell - fart and fuck jokes.
The format involved about six different singing and comedy acts all mostly backed by a mostly bored-looking power quartet of a Chinese bassist, Chinese drummer, Chinese keyboardist and Korean guitarist who opened the night with a rousing snatch of Metallica's Ride the Lightning. It was one of the few times they looked like they enjoyed playing. It was clear that their hearts were into hard Western rock, not Chinese pop schmaltz.
Speaking of schmaltz a fog machine and a bubble machine were liberally used throughout, particularly as buildup for the performers.
Highlights? I'd have to say it was a tossup between a startling, hard rocking, muscular young woman who came on firing like Joan Jett with Iggy Pop's moves (I'd seen nothing like her here before and -- apparently neither had the crowd. She got a tepid response until she closed her act with a vapid-sounding pop ballad that didn't shock the audience's sensibilities); a singing dwarf who sported a shaved head and flourescent yellow curled spit curl; and the headliner who combined singing and acrobatics - at one point singing while standing on his hands - and - huge surprise to me - political satire.
Very mild by our standards - we're not talking about Dana Carvey doing Bush I - but here he was on China's National Day holiday doing physical and verbal impressions of Mao and China President Jiang Zemin and Premier Wen Jiabao.
China's censorship of political expression being what it is, he only took it so far, letting the physical nuances carry the comedy while reading more or less straight from what Dana told me were well-known pronouncements by the principles.
Still, especially when he turned his back and then turned slowly back around as Mao - not unlike Andy Kauffman's Elvis transformation - there was an audible gasp from the audience, a mixture of mild shock and awe at his boldness.
But no one applauded harder than I.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

I returned to the table realizing I had bitten off more than I could chew both literally and psychologically. I explained through Dana that I had a one year contract with the Shenzhen Daily and would not consider breaking it unless the circumstances were very unusual. Cherry did not appear pleased but I feigned ignorance.
Cherry drives. Very badly. In fact, I can say she's the worst driver I've encountered since coming here and that's saying a lot. She's bad even by Chinese standards and the ride from the airport to the Rat Restaurant and back to her home gave me a sample of what I could expect for the next four days.
Lanes and oncoming traffic meant nothing to her as she routinely drove - drifted is more like it - heedlessly and obliviously like a bemused empress on too much Valium - the wrong way for as many as two blocks in one way lanes and when going the right direction often straddled or wove back and forth the dividing stripes. She also used sidewalks and bike paths as roadways and thought nothing of sudden U turns across four to five lanes of busy traffic going both ways. She got lost countless times and often stopped the car in the middle of traffic to get out and flag down another driver for directions, which were acknowledged but usually ignored, while cars piled up behind us honking furiously.
She herself used the horn like a brake and the turn signal was frequently going for as long as 3 minutes without being switched off.
We finally arrived at her house in a gated community through a narrow alley roadway outside a lower class market area of Chengdu.
"Cherry wants to know if this is like your house in America," says Dana.
No. I can safely say that I do not live in a pink stucco monstrosity with two large gold cupids (which appeared to be weeping due to moisture and humidity) adorning the front, five bedrooms, four bathrooms, three marble tiled floors and furnished with with hideous white leather and white and gold wood trim furniture that looked as if it came from the set of a Bulgarian movie about Marie Antoinette.
I was shown my bedroom on the second floor and given a tour of hers on the third floor. It was a vertiable Shrine to Cherry decorated with a plethora of enormous color and black and white studio photos of Her Cherriness - all taken probably 5 to 8 years ago. Her closet - jammed with racks and racks of clothes - was about 3/4 the size of my entire apartment.
The next day was spent meeting her somewhat surly 15-year-old daughter, and watching her firing her cook and cleaning maid - but only after breakfast was prepared. We then left to run errands, which included an extended shopping expedition at a large Japanese owned grocery store where she began to make her move.
I'm fairly conservative when it comes to public displays of affection and the Chinese as a rule pretty much limit it to casual hand holding. Not so, Cherry, who began "accidently" bumping me, and finally grabbing my hand and dragging me through the aisles and at several points firmly putting my hand on one of her breasts.
As already a focus of attention as the only foreigner amid hundreds of shoppers, I was more than a bit mortified. Dana, who was with us every step of the way, pretended not to notice.
Next stop was a tour of two new business offices she's having built. (She owns two businesses, one is a bio-tech research firm and the other I never figured out. She claims to also want to build a small medical clinic.) We clambered through sawdust, mud and electrical wiring, old lumber and plywood and found the workers snoozing on lunch break.
Though this is standard operating procedure in China and even extends to my office where employees sack out at desks and on couches after lunch, the proverbial shit hit the fan and I broke away from her grasp as she laid into them.
After driving on the sidwalk to exit the construction site and narrowly missing a head on collision with a rusty, blue cabbage truck, it was on to another site where dozens of middle-aged women were milling around outside. It was a sort of day labor employment place for maids and cooks.
"Cherry wants you to help select a new babysitter," said Dana. I explained the difference between cook and babysitter and maid and then said I had no desire or qualifications for such an honor.
"It does not matter. She wants to include you."
I was shown a pleasant appearing eager domestic worker who spoke no English and I passed on my ignorant approval. She joined us in the car and we went to another crowded grocery store for more casual bumping and grinding and food.
A late lunch followed, more hot pot minus goose guts. I stuck to the lamb and beef and mushrooms. Then back to manse Cherry for a nap.
About 30 minutes into my snooze and there was a knock on my bedroom door. It was Cherry with an invitation to her inner sanctum.
Fade to black.
Gentle reader, I will spare you the daily nitty-gritty, but suffice to say that the days and nights that followed included a barrage of more upper crust hot pot restaurants, meeting her relatives and two employees, seeing the newest cook fired and being replaced by her mother, and listening to a seeming randomly generated series of (to-me) bizarre and inappropriate questions and demands based on her belief that I wanted to marry her and my (mostly polite) insistence that that was and would never be in the cards, no way, no how. Nada. 'Nuff said. End of story.
An overnight trip to a Chengdu spa for luxury shower and foot massage and viewing of a bootleg DVD on a huge screen of a newly released flick called Warriors of Heaven and Earth that China film buffs hope will be another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It is nearly midnight and I am almost asleep in my padded Commie barca lounger trying to decipher the non-subtitled movie when out of the blue Cherry says something sharp in Chinese and Dana asks gently in English: "Can you prove you are divorced? Do you have your divorce paper?"
My wha?
Roused from my lethargy with a shot of angry adrenalin, I grit my teeth and explain patiently that unless marriage is in the offing no such proof is needed in America and while I could conceivably come up with the aforementioned document from the Boulder, Colorado County USA Clerk and Recorder's Office it would be a huge pain in the ass, take months, and basically what-the-fuck?
Snapshot No. 2Out of the blue again. This time on another death ride (to what is allegedly the world's oldest standing dam) while lost and stalled in a miles long traffic jam on a rural byway because Cherry ignored the traffic signs that even I could read because they were also in English.
I was passing the time immersed in a pastoral scene watching an elderly woman in a bold blue tunic and pants herding bright white ducks along a misty rice paddy dike when the barrage began.
"Was your Korean wife pretty? Was she prettier than your American wife? Which wife was prettier? Did you divorce them because they were too ugly? Am I prettier than them? Did you beat them?"
Dana, bless her heart, was as sick of having to ask these as I was gob-smacked attempting to answer or even acknowledge them. She complained frequently to me about Cherry's lack of tact and class and about the low wage she had accepted for what she had thought would be a part-time job. In fact she quit early - the night before I left.
Another snapshotI am once again summoned to the boudoir but this time not for pleasure. Dana, sleepy herself, knocks on the door with the invite at about 1:30 a.m. We trudge up to the Queen's Nest and once again I am asked for divorce papers and to explain why I "only want to be friends." I leave her in tears, which I suspect are of only the crocodile variety - or at most, self-pity - and crawl back to sleep.
Tomorrow the melodrama concludes

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Cherry, oh baby.
In which our hero narrowly arrives at his destination only to escape the matrimonial machinations of his wealthy hostess in a distant city. Difficult questions during a foot massage and viewing of a blockbuster movie are adroitly dodged. His life is risked daily and head-on death by a blue rusty van overloaded with cabbage is averted. The world's largest Buddha is gazed upon. A Chinese Joan Jett and George Jessell entertain. He is displayed like an exotic pet. Goose intestines are served.
Well, I'm back, barely. You know the "no such thing as a free lunch" cliche, of course. I'm here to report there's no such thing as free plane tickets, lunch, dinner, breakfast, tours and more without at least paying some psychic tolls.
I left Shenzhen on Wednesday night with a prepaid ticket to an ancient city called Chengdu in the courtesy of a woman named Husubi (it means Cherry) with whom I'd exchanged some - from my vantage point entirely platonic - pen pal emails prior to coming here.
Since arriving she'd put the full court press on me to come to Chengdu in Sichuan (Which means: "Ancient home of nasal dripping, rectal ripping spicy food often boiled in lard") Province to visit her. I'd initially demurred, begging lack of funds and the need to settle in Shenzhen before beginning to explore elsewhere. Hell, I can still barely find my ass with both hands and a flashlight at this point.
She kept upping the ante until it was a paid vacation with tickets delivered to my office and a guaranteed personal ride by a connection of hers to the Shenzhen airport.
I caved. Nothing going on here for the 7-day "Golden Week" as far as I was concerned. Just me and the new families of cockroaches that I've recently welcomed into the Lucky Number Apartment.
Bad Omen No. 1 The promised ride to the airport arrives at 7 p.m. Oct. 1. My flight is scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. It's also the eve of the holiday week and traffic is like white on rice. Fifteen minutes after leaving we hit a huge traffic jam. My driver sits it out for awhile and then makes a u-turn and heads back in the direction we came from.
"Ah, ha!" thinks I. "Crafty fellow. An alternate route!"
No. He merely drives back to our starting point, turns around again and heads back on the same route we'd previously been jammed on. We then wind up inert about a mile behind the original spot where we'd been originally stuck. The saying about "Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result each time" occurred to me. But I kept it to myself.
Suffice to say we made it to the airport with about 20 minutes to spare. I took off my shoes, got the full beeping wand treatment and cleared security, wheezed to the gate and found that the flight was delayed. Two flight attendants were passing out room temperature Cokes, bottles of water, cans of soup and boxes of crackers as compensation to the delayed passengers who were crowding and jostling each other like starving refugees grasping for the packaged crumbs and drippings of culinary beneficence courtesy of China Air.
Bad Omen No. 2Touched down in Chengdu after at two hour flight at about 12:30 a.m. and was greeted by Cherry and - surprise - a translator holding a sign with my name on it. Turns out that Cherry's emails, which I had naively assumed to have been written by her were actually the work of 21-year-old Dana Hu, a female college senior majoring in English language studies. My phone contact with Cherry was spotty here and her spoken English was poor, but I attributed it to nerves. Turns out it was worse in person. So Dana starts doing all the talking as we repair to a plush hot pot restaurant where, as I am beginning to choke down goose intestines boiled in lard out of politeness, Cherry tells me via Dana that she can get me a job in Chengdu at twice the salary I'm making in Shenzhen-and-so-why-don't-I-move-there-quickly.
At this moment, goose innard recoiling in my throat, early warning light flashing in my brain, that I see a large black rat scamper across the restaurant's marble floor to the sanctuary of a group of pottled plants.
I quickly excuse myself to the restroom, vomit up the goose and assess my situation.
To be continued

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