Saturday, November 29, 2003

Sisters are doing it for themselves
Thanks to Thanksgiving and some other connections, I recently met two of the few foreign barbarian females in Shenzhen. Male expats outnumber them by a wide margin for several reasons -- the most obvious one, for many, but not all, men, being Chinese women.
Simply put: even if a guy was the worst kind of deadbeat, possum-sucking scuzzball in Europe, the U.S., Britain, Australia, India, the Middle East or Africa, if he has round eyes, a pulse and something resembling a disposable income he's pretty much guaranteed some kind of female attention. Quality and quanity may vary and contents may settle during shipping, but it's not hard.
However the foreign women have their fun, too.
Jocette and Laura are two Australian English teachers who have pretty much left Oz behind and can't see being anywhere else.
They make boatloads of money working single digit hours weekly for an "experimental" language school -- "Yes, we experiment on our students," Laura cackled. "Next week we're grafting pig ears on their shoulders" -- that also pays for their western-style apartments. And they aren't hurting for social lives.
Jocette, who has two sons and a husband in Sydney, was particularly emphatic. "I've got more male friends than I can handle," she said. "Never at a loss for them or women friends, for that matter. The foreign men might have their Chinese girlfriends, but they always tell me, 'It's such a relief to find a woman I can actually talk to!'"
She described her old life as a housewife and mother as "deadening, stultifying" -- a routine of cooking and caring for three males who were happily sealed off in a Y-chromosome world of soccer, rugby matches and dirt bike racing. They're still there and she's here and she says she and hubs have no intention of divorcing -- "What's the point? It's so complicated and expensive."
The family does reconnect for holidays and birthdays in Australia.
"I'll stay for three weeks or so and my husband will begin to notice that I'm getting restless," she said. "'Time for you to go is it? You're not happy here,' he says. I say, 'Yes, you're right,. I'm not' and I'm off to China again."
She loves to dance, particularly on bar tables though she drinks sparingly, and also revels in a routine of the low cost/high maintenance luxuries that the Chinese spas and gyms give her.
"I've found paradise," she said. "Where else can I go night clubbing until 4 a.m., then go have a shower, steam bath, body massage, pedicure, facial and then sleep in the spa until the early afternoon? All for $20? Not in bloody Sydney! Not bloody likely, I'll tell you that."

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Watching the detective
I was deep into a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet '02 - a piquant, sassy offering with just a hint of frisky Guangdong pesticide - and channel surfing the other night when I stumbled on a Chinese language drama about a Chinese detective in New York.
Charlie Chan he ain't, though the production values, acting and the unlikely script were all on par with the '30s era Chan movies.
The detective whose name I discerned finally as "Detective-Inspector Li" wanders freely while ignoring little details like "legal jurisdiction" through a New York like none I've ever seen. It's largely populated with native Chinese. The cityscape is crowd and traffic free, all the pay phones work - and connect quickly to Beijing with no change or phone card required, the buses are nearly empty, the laundromats and video arcades are spotless and there's no graffiti.
So how do I know it's New York? The generic cutaway shots, of course, many of which look like they came from the New York Visitors and Convention Bureau circa 1988. Mercifully, though, there were no shots of the WTC.
There are some black and white denizens of this New York, but unlike the Chinese most are junkies, thugs and similar barbarian scum. (They are also not professional actors. It's clear that they are expats, probably star-struck English teachers recruited for the show).
Li - who speaks no English, and when he isn't being beaten up by rude New Yorkers and recuperating at no cost in a hospital bed where he smokes with his 02 tank running - wanders seemingly aimlessly from clue-to-clue throughout the Big Wonton seeking a guy identified only as "Tony" or sometimes "Tony from Hong Kong."
Not surprisingly, though, not many New Yorkers are very helpful when suddenly accosted by a short, weatherbeaten looking Chinese guy flashing a Beijing police badge and demanding to know where "Tony" is. While the majority of the dialogue is in Chinese, the barbarians speak English, which is helpfully translated by a bilingual young female Chinese artist with a lot of time on her hands whom Li coincidentally encountered while searching for Tony.
Sample dialogue, guaranteed verbatim:
Inspector Li stops a young black dude at random, flashes badge and barks in Chinese
Helpful artist/translator: He is a Chinese detective-inspector. Do you know where Tony is? He is a notorious bad guy!
Black dude:I haven't seen him, I'm sure. Anyway, all Asians look the same to me.
Inspector Li: More Chinese...flashes a roll of bills and peels some off for black dude
Artist/translator:Are you sure? Tony from Hong Kong?
Black dude:Takes money. Oh! That Tony! Sure. I'll call him for you.

There is one similarity between this TV cop drama and American ones set in New York. Inspector Li doesn't drive, but when he gets a ride, the driver always finds an open parking spot right in front of the destination.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Working Class Hero
Colleague Helen D. is a 24-year-old page editor at the Shenzhen Daily. It's her first job out of college. She's single with a boyfriend or two on hold, loves to dance, to drink hard cider, likes Chinese and American pop music - particularly Justin Timberlake. She loves watching Sex and the City and 24 Hours. She wears stylish blue tinted designer glasses, tight blue jeans, a green gauzy retro-hippie chick blouse complete with small hanging shells, and she has a wicked sense of humor.
She's also a Chinese Communisty Party member.
When she shouted this revelation to me over Ja Rule's Clap Back being pumped at ear melting volume in a popular disco here called Chicago (with absolutely no Chicago-related decor, though the visages of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are displayed), I was momentarily stunned.
It was as if my little sister had casually mentioned voting for George W. Bush or sleeping with Charlie Manson.
"No shit? For real?" was my eruidte, reasoned response.
Nonetheless, I urged her to tell me more. I'd never met an honest-to-gawd Chicom that I knew of yet and the seminal images in my mind center on The Manchurian Candidate and a circa-'64 panel from an old comic strip called "Dan Flagg" in which Dan was staving off machine gun toting yellow hordes with only a pistol while shouting "Come on you sons of Mao!!"
The party still prevails, of course, but membership is not compulsory, and has shrunk and most young people I've met here who will even talk about it seem to dismiss it as irrelevant and old fashioned. Sort of like the Moose or Elks in the states.
Helen said she joined out of sheer self-interest and at the urging of her mother who isn't a member but thought her daughter needed to beef up her resume.
"For every position we take, we must fill out many forms answering questions about ourselves, our education, our background and also about our parents and grandparents," she told me.
What kind of questions?
"They ask what did our families did in the Cultural Revolution. What were we and our families did during in June 1989 (Tianamen Square Massacre). My family did nothing during the Cultural Revolution. They were peasants. I was too young for the June demonstrations. My family and I are officially OK. But my mother wanted me to join the party to have something more. She said my record is too boring.
"It might also help my career. It does not hurt."
I asked her about party meetings. She said she only attends a few a year and mostly to vote to give awards to party members.
"We always vote for the leader of our group. He always says, 'no', but then we honor him anyway, again."
Like the Moose or Elks, I thought, voting to re-elect Herb or Lloyd as treasurer for the eighth year in a row because no one else wants the hassle.
But I continued my hard boiled inquiries into the machinations and intrigue behind the bamboo curtain.
So, do you call each other 'comrade' and stuff like that?
She laughed. "No. No one uses such words anymore. I have only read of that."
So who else at the paper is a party member?
She laughed again. "I cannot tell you that, 'Comrade' Justin."

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Dear Ma,
It's been eight years today since you died. As you may or may not know, depending on whether you're currently the ethereal all-knowing spirit that you sometimes imagined yourself as in life or simply a vaporized carbon form, a lot has changed since I got the call that afternoon at the newsroom from your visiting home nurse telling me that you "appeared to be dead."
You would've gotten a laugh out of that, because, yes, you more than appeared so when I got there and based on what that well-meaning ninny told me later, you'd been like that for at least an hour before she arrived, let herself in, dithered around and then decided to make some calls.
No matter. Well, I'm in China now for at least a year. And Julian is in college and doing very well. Anyway, what I wanted to you was "thank you."
Thank you for teaching me how to see. More than a mother, you were an artist first and foremost and it was that gift that you passed on to me, whether you know it or not. Not the gift of drawing or painting, but teaching me how to see, sum it up, soak it in and catch the details. The light and shadows. You put it on canvas and I've tried to put it into words.
How to see the beauty in the hard light and sharp shadows of a descending day in autumn. How to look at a seemingly ordinary person and see something special, comical or tragic. It's in your paintings. The young man leaning defeated and tired in in the half light of a Denver apartment hall. The back of an old Chevy truck in a Boulder alley on a late September afternoon.
I was reminded of what you taught me just yesterday. Shenzhen is a terrible place for good light. It's polluted and often smog choked. But there are days, like yesterday, when the winds blow in from the Pacific and sweep the gunk away the light is magical.
I was walking back from lunch and saw an impossibly beautiful woman. No one special, just another Chinese office lady on the surface, but with a face that simply glowed. Living porcelain. And as the sun moved just a fraction, there was a subtle shift that readjusted every shadow and definition on her face just enough that I could see her not as an young beauty but briefly preview her as the elegant old woman she will someday become.
You taught me how to see that years ago when we were eating lunch on an autumn afternoon on the Pearl Street Mall. You interrupted whatever I was rambling on about to start gesticulating with that weird pointing and chopping motion you'd do with your hand when you were excited and pulled me closer to point out a gorgeous, long-haired red headed woman sitting at a table nearby.
"See her?" you hiss/whispered. "See that woman there? Look. She's beautiful now and you can see how beautiful she'll be when she's old. It's a trick of the light."
Yes, I saw that trick then and just yesterday, again. This time it wasn't a red head, but the effect was the same. Thanks, ma. I love you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I read the news today, oh boy
Foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I have been fighting some losing battles lately and most have been us vs. rest of the staff regarding what, exactly consititutes "news."
To whit: In the last two weeks there have been some staggering reports of mass murders in China. A serial killer confessed to 65 slayings recently. His motive? According to the official PRC press agency, Xinua: "He was spurned by his girlfriend." This sore loser's story was buried on page 6 of our paper while the front page trumpeted something like "World lures Chinese tourists."
In contrast, when the Green River Killer recently 'fessed up to his 40something killings, the SZ Daily ran a half page story with a color photo that was also used on the front page as a "refer" - (pronounced "reefer" and U.S. newsroom speak for those teasers that refer readers to stories inside the paper). But he is a foreigner, so that is "different..."
A Chinese verson of John Wayne Gacy was arrested elsewhere about 2 days before the spurned serial killing swain after police were alerted by a high school boy who escaped from the guy's house. Inside they found the bodies of 25 young boys buried in the walls and under the floors. He made page 4.
In fair Shenzhen, we have also had our share of mayhem when a married couple was arrested 10 days ago for robbing and killing 12 young women who had responded to employment ads. They made the bottom of page 2 and barely that. Page 1 of that edition had a story about "Local trade fair vows improvements". I did a google search and found that the Las Vegas Sun had printed a version of the Shenzhen slayings that gave more details.
They had nothing on the trade fair, however. Let it be known that we take no prisoners when it comes to trade fair coverage!
In our Monday morning critique session, Jeff and I recently tried to make case that all of these murder stories warranted better placement, more details and that some of the headlines could have been better. (The headline for the 12 murdered women originally read: "Police solve robberies." Jeff tried to change it to "Pair arrested for 12 murders" but was told that we can't use the word "murder" in a headline. The compromise was "Police solve robberies, killings."
The paper's third-in-the-chain-of-command, a somewhat arrogant guy named Paul defended the first headline by proclaiming that "headlines should not be explicit."
Well, therein lies a major cultural and journalistic divide that cannot be bridged comfortably. It also doesn't help that the only people on the staff with any formal journalism training and previous newspaper experience are Jeff, me and the paper's top editor. Everyone else was an English major in college and Paul is particularly proud of the month he spent in Germany honing his English skills.
The cultural gap is even worse at times. Chinese are not usually explicit or blunt and much of their communication seems to use a lot of poetic euphemisms in place of forthright expression. For instance, "clouds and rain'" is a common allusion to what you and I know as "sex".
I'm wondering now if the Clinton/Lewinsky affair featured headlines here such as: "Clinton denies stormy weather allegations."

Monday, November 17, 2003

The Pretender
I've already mentioned the penchant that the Chinese seem have for using foreigners as living, breathing exotic trimmings to promote otherwise routine events, but I recently had the chance to take the experience to another level and to get paid for it.
It was also an opportunity to partially fulfill a fantasy I've had since childhood, that of passing as someone I am not. In other words, a con man. I think the "duke and the king" characters in Huckleberry Finn were my first introduction to the concept and I was hooked from there. Stories of men who successfully posed as physicians, lawyers, linguists, pilots, etc. - as depicted the movie Catch Me If You Can, for instance - but who lacked the credentials, enthralled me.
Hence, meet Justin Mitchell, noted expert on the Chinese-American K-12 school experience as well as on the expectations that Chinese-American parents have for their children's education.
The invitation to speak on these subjects came unexpectedly and through a Hong Kong businessman I know only as "Jenkins." "Jenkins" was desperate to find an articulate foreigner to address the subjects for an education seminar sponsored by a large real estate firm for which he is a consultant.
Don't ask. I did take the gig, but still haven't figured out the connection is between selling luxury apartments in Shenzhen and Chinese-American kids in U.S. schools.
I demurred at first and was honest with Jenkins. Well mostly honest. He'd gotten wind, though, that I'd had some teaching experience in the States. Yeah, but it was substitute teaching. A whole different animal. And, yes, you're right my son is half-Korean, which is kinda/sorta Chinese, but no, really, I couldn't...
Then he named my fee. It was about a quarter of what I'd make here in a month. In cash. Immediately after the speech.
Thank god for the Internet. Within several hours I was able to cobble together enough facts, figures and studies and weave them into a semi-coherent 30 minute speech full of generalities and mostly positive stuff about high-achieving Chinese-American students, which I realize is a biased stereotype, but I was told they didn't want to hear the stories about the kids who hanged themselves because their SAT scores weren't above 1,200.
I was assigned a translator, a young woman whose English name is Alice, and to whom I gave a copy of the speech a day before we would appear. We met at the SZ Daily building and were driven to the seminar which was held in the front hall of the real estate company's office.
"Italian Culture Salon" proclaimed a sign inside, though the only thing vaguely Italian about any of it was the red and white horizontally striped psuedo-Venetian gondolier shirts worn by some company staff members. We had an hour or so to kill before showtime and spent part of it, to Alice's amusement, being shown various model apartments well beyond my financial reach while I pretended to seriously consider questions like would I want to rent or buy a 4-bedroom unit with a clear view from a bedroom balcony of the three-quarter scale Eiffel Tower at the "Windows of the World" theme park.
The audience consisted of about 30 mostly middle-aged, well-heeled Shenzheners, a few with squirming children who ran unsupervised around the chairs and sometimes on to the platform as I was introduced, in Chinese, along with two other speakers, a headmaster of a local elementary school and a teacher at the same school. What they spoke about - and at great length - according to Alice, who was either too bored or too tired to give specifics, was mostly "rubbish."
My turn to deciminate rubbish arrived and I began. I could only deliver a sentence or two at a time in order to give Alice time to translate and about three quarters through page 1 of my 7 double spaced pages, I realized that the audience was glazing over rapidly and that at the rate we were going I would soon be addressing a hall of coma victims.
"I'm cutting the next two paragraphs," I hissed to Alice after she stopped talking.
She immediately said something in Chinese to the audience.
"No! Don't tell them that!" They had visibly brightened.
"I told them that you thanked them for their attendance."
Nice touch. I liked this woman.
I labored on, with Alice transmuting my chicken shit into some kind of Chinese chicken salad for which I got some polite applause. I then asked for questions, as the other educational experts had done. They'd received plenty.
The female emcee for this debacle then said something.
"What did she say?"
"She is offering a gift to anyone who asks a question."
Immediately, about six hands went up.
The emcee picked a young mother with a squirming daughter. Mom addressed the emcee with her question.
"She wants to know what the gift is," explained Alice.
Suffice to say that she got a metal pencil box in the shape of a sports car for her daughter for asking me if I liked Chinese food.
The next questioner, a man, got a racquet ball racquet for asking me if I could use chop sticks.
But, hey, the joke was ultimately on them. Afterwards, I used part of my fee to treat Alice and I to some expensive pizza that we ate with our hands.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Beggar's banquet
There's a beggar on my block whom I've become somewhat fond of. Of indeterminate older age, skin like tanned leather, balding, stubbly, with a sturdy upper body and withered legs, he appears semi-regularly on the sidewalk in front of a message he's written in white chalk in Chinese that apparently is the equivalent of "Need money for food." Except his tidy caligraphy is not scrawled, but comes from an obviously trained hand, and it is about two sidewalk pavements long. The lengthy plea is usually scrubbed away early every morning by the brigades of street and sidewalk cleaners, only to reappear again when he stakes out his territory.
Unlike many of the beggars I've encountered here he has a quiet resigned dignity. No guilt tripping. He rarely, if ever, makes eye contact, even when I drop some change in his bowl. And best of all he doesn't have a half-starved monkey that scares the living bejeezuz out of me and anyone else within leash range like a notorious Shenzhen beggar near a downtown train station whom I've nicknamed "Bonzo Goes Bonkers."
I had imagined he barely noticed me and my small donations. That is until Thursday evening when I was coming home from work and saw something new in his message, though by then he had packed up his bowl and cardboard mat and scuttled off.
Following the usual Chinese script, it had an addendum in English that read: "Thank you for helping me. I wish you good fortune."
As far as I know I am one of only two barbarians within perhaps two miles of the Lucky Number Apartment so the gratitude was obviously directed at me or both of us. It was a simple, classy touch I thought, and his grammar was perfect. That alone was a tiny joy after a day of editing Chinglish.
Perhaps I'm a sucker, but I appreciated his effort. When he returns I will give him a raise.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Ay, yi, yi, Katie
It's a typical night at MoonDance, a new watering hole that I've begun to favor because the first time I drifted by I could hear the sounds of Canadian cowboy balladeer Ian Tyson's Navajo Rug coming from the outdoor speakers. That brought me up short and sweetly. In a country where it's a virtual lock that you'll hear at least a snatch of Unchained Melody and/or My Heart Will Go On daily and where the Carpenters and Air Supply are still superstars, this was a major cultural find. Hell, most Americans have never heard of Ian Tyson and it's a safe bet that a lot of younger Canadians either haven't or consider him an rustic museum piece.
“Aye, yi, yi, Katie, shades of red and blue,” sang Tyson. Aye, yi, yi, indeed. Momentarily Shenzhen faded away and I was happily ensconced in my rathole Louisville, Colorado apartment, sipping bourbon with my dad or a Guiness with my friend Paul while adrift in Tyson’s epic 1986 release Cowboyography and its a songs of lost love, Western landscapes and cowboy icons and outlaws like artist Charles Russell and fugitive survivalist Claude Dallas.
Bluesman Robert Cray followed in the mix and I was on my way to becoming a regular before darkening MoonDance's doors.
MoonDance is owned by a Canadian man with a Chinese wife, so the Tyson was easily explained. He's also a legal consultant to a Shenzhen law firm as well as a frustrated screen writer. She says she's a former dancer and singer and her voice and legs don't bely her story.
And, as usual, there are a lot of stories here tonight.
MoonDance is next to a major Shenzhen hotel frequented by Chinese and international businessmen as well as various human pilot fish, foreign and domestic, whch feed off the crumbs.
And central casting or Warren Zevon couldn't have assembled a bunch of rogues, roguettes, con men, lost souls and liars at the tables around me.
There's a flaming queen from Arkansas wearing an oversized pewter gothic cruicifx and a white cotton shirt bared to the navel. He speaks red-neck and fluent Chinese with a strong southern accent and says he's in the “entertainment production” business – “Everything from porn to off-Broadway Beijing, baby!” but he's a bit vague about any recent (or notable) productions. Near him is a trio of twentysomething Russians, two men and a woman, talking with a young Nigerian man and an aging Chinese businesswoman who is (uncharteristically for a Respectable Chinese Woman) pounding shots and chain smoking Marlboro Lights made in Hanoi while they all discuss setting up a Russo-Afro-Sino import export deal involving what sounds like plush toys, sexual devices and soy beans. Or maybe it's plush sex toys made from soy beans. Hard to tell.
At another table a German who hasn't been back there for years and claims to have just snared a job working for a legit business owned by the KGB is chatting up a Scottish stockbroker with three homes in east Asia and none in Scotland.
MoonDance's assistant manager, a 24-year-old Chinese woman with snake hips and hair like black ink spilling over her silk white bare shoulders, is working the tables, shmoozing and pushing drinks to two middle-aged French women and their sugar daddy for the night, a fat Taiwanese guy with the world's worst comb over – three or four single strands about 10-inches long that he keeps pushing and rearranging across his sweating, gleaming bald pate.
I'm a little buzzed, singing along softly to Tyson's Summer Wages and sitting with the Canadian, his wife, a Korean IT whiz and his Chinese mistress, a Chinese Hong Kong businessman named “Jenkins” and a very drunk Shenzhen Airlines pilot who is celebrating his birthday and looks like a demented clown what with the white cake frosting smeared liberally on his cheeks. He has been whooping it up since 5 p.m., it's nearly midnight and he says he has to fly to Chengdu in 10 hours. We wish him luck and happy birhday as he gets and up and promptly falls down on his way out. I briefly wonder about Chinese flying regulations and if “Plane Crash Killls 223” will be the main story tomorrow but then shove the worry aside.
At the moment, I've got good music and the world's best free entertainment. I'll let tomorrow take care of itself.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Please, Mr. Postman
Chinese has been an exceedingly difficult language for me to learn. There are five tones: high, rising, falling-rising, falling and neutral. For instance, the word "ma" has seven unrelated meanings depending on the tone, and in two cases, the context: mother, hemp/numb, horse, scold/swear, and it also is used to mark a sentence as a question.
And anyone who has ever heard me try to sing will attest that I am virtually tone-deaf. I am convinced this is part of the problem. Another I struggle with is that many basic names and phrases that I believe should only require a succinct, easily memorized verbal burst turn out sounding to my ears as if something like "Where is the bathroom?" is actually the entire text of the Gettysburgh Address as sung in Flemish.
Which is all by way of saying that I made a complete ass of myself recently while trying to mail some paperwork back to the states at the post office. I do have a very handy Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook, but am hampered with it in learning to speak because I have no one to regularly bounce the tones off of without severely embarrassing myself. But as happenstance would have it, I also caught a Chinese for Barbarians lesson via a Hong Kong TV broadcast with an episode entitled "At the Post Office."
It went something like this:
White hairy giant enters virtually empty, sparkling clean post office and goes to the window clearly marked both in Chinese and English: "Express Mail Service" where a smiling, polite clerk greets him.
Hairy Giant:(In Chinese): I would like to send this by express mail to Great Britain.
Smiling Clerk:OK! Please pay a very small fee and we will send it promptly!
HG:Thank you!
Well, that sounded simple, I thought. I scribbled my approximation of what the hairy giant said, checked what the phrasebook had for the post office entry and cobbled together a small script.
The next step was actually locating a post office. That took about two days of my patient colleagues standing at the south window of our 37th floor and pointing at the streets and buildings below and saying things like, "See green building?" Well, suffice to say I am red/green color blind ...
I finally figured out the approximate location and was happy to see it was an easy 10 minute walk from the Lucky Number Apartment. Armed with my script, the signed documents and - crucial mistake - not the phrasebook which I had forgotten, I ambled over to the post office on a Sunday morning.
One nice thing about China is that everything is open 7 days a week, including banks and post offices. I figured a Sunday morning PO would be a crowd-free cakewalk.
I was wrong, of course. It was jammed and let's just say that the concept of "lining up one at a time" is as alien here as paying extra for toilet paper or a tissue "napkin" in a public toilet or restaurant is to the average American. There were bilingual Chinese/English signs, but none read "Express Mail." Some said "Integrated Mail" and I decided to chance one of those. Elbowing my way through the masses, I stood, sweating profusely, at the counter and finally caught the attention of the postal clerk whose demeanor was remarkably akin to his American counterpart, as in "going postal."
Me (Haltingly, from the script)"I would like to send this by express mail to the United States"
What the clerk apparently heard me say:"Monkeys live in your sister's pants on Tuesday."
Clerk, frowning, calls over another clerk. Crowd begins to gather behind me.
Me:Frustrated, but gamely trying again"Express mail, United States!"
Clerk:"What the hell? I do not care that your mother's penis is a turtle. You are a mad man! Next, please!"
Finally, I spotted a batch of what appeared to be express mail envelopes on the counter behind him and pointed frantically at them. Slowly, using sign language, we came to an agreement. Incidentally, the fee was not ridiculously small like it was on TV. But nothing ever is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

White Like Me
I'm beginning to get a rough idea of what it must be like to be a token minority in the U.S. One of the (non-contractual) duties foreign devil coworker Jeff and I are required to occasionally perform is to make appearances at civic events somehow connected with the Shenzhen Daily.
It somehow lends a touch of the exotic and more credibility and prestige to the occasion, whether it's serving as a judge for a photography or English language contest or simply being the lone 50something white face amid a sea of Chinese at a puzzling 1 and a half hour ceremony featuring narcolepsy inducing speeches.
I was at such an event a couple days ago, along with another token foreigner, an Indian English teacher who also couldn't fathom why her presence would make the slightest bit of difference, but appeared anyway out of politeness. There were perhaps 300 Shenzhen municipal workers gathered in a city auditorium at 9 a.m. to get plaques and nod off while listen to city leaders drone. TV cameras covering this snoozefest kept panning and focusing in on my companion and I who were, despite our non-involvement, were assigned prominent seats in a front row. Thus we couldn't doze and clapped enthusiastically whenever an incomprehensible speech ended.
That night while flipping through channels, sure enough! There we were applauding madly on the local news - perhaps a .5 second close-up, but enough to let Chinese viewers know that the event was important enough to draw awed, appreciative foreigners.
Jeff said he'd met one man, another Australian, whose "job" is simply to sit silently and solemnly in a three piece suit at the side of a wealthy Chinese businessman in meetings throughout southern China.
"He gets a bloody fortune for it, too," swears Jeff. "Nice work if you can get it, I suppose."
It got me thinking about the possibility of setting up Rent-A-Foreigner in Shenzhen.
"Looking to lend a sparkling international touch of glamor and intrigue to your next affair? Foreign faces - both genders - available 24/7 for your banquet, board meeting, nightclub or home!
"Choose from our large selection of Americans - white and black - ages 20-65!
"Australians, British, Indians, Germans, French, Packistanis also available. Well-mannered, polite and patient, these domesticated and adorable barbarians take directions well and respond promptly to both voice and visual commands.
"Chopstick proficency guaranteed!
"Special this week only: Two Canadians for the price of one!"

Monday, November 03, 2003

Space Oddity
I've a distinct sense of deja vu following the success of China's taikonaut, Yang Liwei. It's May 1962 and I'm thrown back to Miss Doak's 3rd grade class room as we watch a fuzzy black and white broadcast of local boy-made-good, Scott Carpenter launch for three orbits in Aurora 7. A short time later Boulder gave him a hero's welcome with a parade down Pearl Street.
That feeling is new here, but Yangmania is everywhere on TV and recently in Hong Kong where he made a four day tour with Chinese politicians, local dignataries and Jackie Chan. Folks were standing in line for 24 hours to simply view his space suit and capsule during an exhibition that also was open around the clock for four days.
He's all over TV, or at least endless reruns of his launch, orbits and and return are. Last night I watched a truly bizarre variety show featuring Yang and chorus members of the People's Liberation Army, a troupe of modern dancers and folk and pop singers mostly dressed as if they were going to an Iowa high school prom where the theme was Gone With the Wind.
The highlight for me was the androgynous dancers, clad in electric blue body suits, arms waving, bodies weaving and generally doing their best Martha Graham moves in front of footage of the liftoff as Red Army soldiers flanking the video screen sang some kind of strident, booming number praising the latest Great Leap Forward.
While it's brought a sense of national pride here, I can't help but feel slightly patronizing whenever I'm asked what I think about it.
One almost wants to say, "Yeah, yeah, good job. You got a man into space. What's next? Tang? Super Balls? 8-track tapes?"
What's been missing are the endless commercial tie-ins. No Yang T-shirts, posters, mugs, backpacks, hats, instant noodles or model rockets seem to be hawked here yet. There've been a few TV ads with kids playing taikonaut, but other than that, nada.
The explanation for this missed commercial opportunity is probably government control. Everything regarding the Shenzhou V mission has been carefully controlled, scripted and under wraps since inception. The launch, of course, was only broadcast nationally on tape delay after it was successful. Word was that if it failed the powers- that-be feared "social disorder."
Hell, I thought at the time. The USA has the guts to fry its astronauts and school teachers live and in color on multiple networks and there are no torch and pitchfork wielding mobs storming the White House gates.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Sex and the City
Trying to make sense of Chinese sexual mores is a puzzle for a lot us gweilo (foreign devil) types. On one hand you have a country where a cleavage sighting is as rare as beer at a Mormon picnic but where you can find a shop called "Sex Store" (no tasteful euphemism like "Sinsations"), wander in and see mulitiple shelves of tasefully lit vibrators and other sexual toys displayed like museum pieces and where the modestly dressed, young female clerk will demonstrate how a penis vacuum device works with the aplomb and sincerity of a Nebraska 4-H teenager demonstrating a quilting technique.
It's a country with numerous red light districts, but one where full frontal kissing (but no tongues, please) both in real life and on screen is a relative rarity.
A country where men commonly take "second" or "third wives" but where men and women are generally expected to marry the first person they date.
Porn is illegal and 98 percent of any ads depicting any skin feature western models, as if to say "only decadent foreigners will display themselves shamelessly for this product but buy it anyway."
So it was with some wonder that I recently found myself talking frankly about sex with a group of young and middle aged Chinese men and women.
The occasion was an English language salon sponsored by the SZ Daily. I had been enlisted as a last minute subsitute for another speaker and the real topic was the anarchy that is Chinese traffic.
I dutifully and soberly delivered "Blood on the Bumper: A Foreigner's View of Traffic in China" and then, according to the salon format, opened the floor for a Q&A session.
At first the questions were (by now) numbingly familiar and few were about traffic. They already know it's bad.
Yes, I like Chinese food.
Yes, I use chopsticks. (Demonstrates with two pens. Gasps and murmurs follow because....)
Yes, I am left handed.
Yes, I really use chopsticks with my left hand. (Demonstrates again. Feels like Barnum sideshow oddity)
Yes, I have heard it said here that left handed people are very clever.
Yes, I like Chinese food.
No, I don't speak Chinese.
I am from Colorado.
No, I did not know John Denver.
No, the Grand Canyon is not in Colorado. Neither is Yellowstone Park.
Then the talk turned to movies. Several wanted to know why, exactly, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had won an Oscar. I got the feeling that it was not as popular here as in the U.S. - sort of as if the likes of Roger Corman's Slumber Party Massacre III was acclaimed at Cannes.
As film chat continued it became alarmingly clear to me that more than a few in attendance also thought that American movies and TV shows depict real American life.
No, American Beauty and Sex and the City (a hit here when it was recently broadcast) are not "real."
They are comedies. Exaggerations. Hollywood is not reality. Does a Jackie Chan movie show real Chinese life?
No, but don't all Americans have sex as much as they want all the time?
No, we only wish we did. Do Chinese? You must if you have a one child-only policy.
Giggles. No.
But is it true that American women can have sex with many men and not marry any of them? And she will not shame herself or her family?
Well, it depends on the woman and the family but theoretically, yes.
The formal Q&A came to an end and then a group of us convened for more talk about the fire down below and dinner at a nearby restaurant.
By then I felt like a combination of the Kinsey Report and Dr. Ruth.
Based on this non-scientific beer-fueled survey of 9 out of 1.3 billion Chinese it was clear that there's a lot of pent-up sexual/social frustration and curiousity among men and women alike.
They all thought the recent publicized expulsion of an unmarried college couple from a Beijing college after the woman became pregnant was wrong and asked if the same thing happened in the U.S.
Except for maybe BYU or Bob Jones, or Oral Roberts U, no. Otherwise, it's not really an issue, I said.
All bemoaned the lack of sex-ed in Chinese schools.
"I was 28 and did not know how to sex my first time!" said one man, now 33 and miserably married to the first and only woman he did finally figure out how to "sex."
"They only teach us the biology," said a 27-year old woman who works at an insurance company. "Nothing specific. The teachers are all too embarrassed and our parents, never, ever."
Well, that last part about the parents sounds familiar, I told them. You're not alone in that.
So, at the urging of another man, we raised our plastic beer cups in a toast to better sexual relations and sex education - both in China and the USA.

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