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.

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