Wednesday, December 31, 2003

TV Dinners
I was editing a story this evening about 110 new laws the Chinese government has instituted that will take effect on New Year's Day. Among them is one that states that during "'peak dinner time' the public will not see any TV advertisements of 'offensive' products like sanitary napkins and hemorrhoid medicines. Many viewers object to the broadcasts while they are trying to eat."
I can sympathize. Those Kotex ads really make me want to hurl when I'm sitting down to enjoy a steaming plate heaped with savory goose guts, tripe, chicken feet, pig snouts and Spot.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

It's a Family Affair
The Chinese Lunar New Year - also known here as Spring Festival - is approaching and it mean a week off beginning Jan. 22. Unlike my first week-long Chinese holiday, National Day in October, I plan to spend it close to home and not hundreds of miles away in the scarlet talons of a wealthy, sex-starved divorcee control freak. (See: Cherry Oh Baby, Oct. 7-9). But I will be spending part of it in a Chinese home. I just don't know which one yet.
The Shenzhen government has come up with an "Adopt a Barbarian for Spring Festival" program wherein lonely expates are matched with Chinese host families for two day homestays during the holiday.
To enroll I first tried called two numbers that were listed in the Shenzhen Daily, however no one who answered spoke English. This also might explain why the deadline for expats to apply has already been extended twice. But a co-worker took pity on me, made the call, and was faxed a form in English for me to fill out that asked for ID info and my hobbies.
I listed "reading, traveling, music" - and just for the hell of it - "16th century Estonian cross-dressing."
The paper ran a story recently saying that an initial batch of host families had been approved, including one obviously priviliged fellow who said his family will take their foreigner on a private fishing cruise and a "village chieftain" outside of Shenzhen who said he will also invite relatives from other provinces to welcome the lucky expat with lion and dragon dances.
Both sound promising but I have yet to be notified about my match and as time passes I'm beginning to feel a little like those Save the Children ads you see in the U.S.
"Little Justin, 51, dreams of a better life but it's not easy when he barely has enough for the lukewarm, watery beer and pirated CDs he needs simply to survive. His communist taskmasters pay him slave wages for finger breaking work hunched over a keyboard - often for mind-numbing minutes at a time. A learning disability makes it impossible for Justin to make even his basic needs known to billions in the country where he toils. Can you help? A modest fishing cruise or adoring villagers worshipping his arrival with exotic native dances are just two ways you can begin to let Justin realize his simple dream..."

Monday, December 29, 2003

We Can Work it Out
Foreign barbarian coworker Jeff is on vacation, so I've been working his night shift recently (as well as my day shift) and I was walking back to the Lucky Number last night when I heard some sobbing and shouting on the sidewalk ahead of me.
I had been musing about some new posters on a temporary wooden wall fronting an upscale apartment complex being constructed across the street. Like many ads promoting a "modern" lifestyle in China - especially real estate (I've seen Bill Clinton's smiling face used for another development and also for a brand of beer though I'm doubtful he signed on to promote either) - there are no Asian faces, only white ghosts and this one is a doozy. There's a wanton, laughing woman brandishing a drink in one hand, a designer purse in the other and her dress hiked up to her thighs as she rides atop a smooth, smiling guy's shoulders; several heroin chic young folks looking fashionably wasted; a somewhat disheveled, but well-dressed businesswoman who appears to be having an orgasm at the sight of the McDonald's logo; and a 50-foot woman in black latex cat suit standing astride an urban landscape with a subway train - paging Dr. Freud! - running between her legs.
But my attention was drawn from the Attack of the 50-foot Cat Woman the more sobering scene coming into focus.
It was a young woman squatting on the sidewalk in a near-fetal position sobbing her heart out as a guy who was probably her boyfriend paced around and around her, alternately shouting and trying crudely to calm her as he sucked down a butt.
Of course, with no Chinese language skills I had no idea what the grief was about - which only made it more painful to see. Had he cheated on her? Was she pregnant? Had he dumped her? Or was it something more mundane? Maybe he'd criticized her cooking or said her jeans made her look fat.
It's easier to absorb a sad sight like this when you can understand even shred of the context, but lacking that insight I felt like one does when confronted with a hurting animal or infant, simply helpless.
I resisted the immediate urge to bust him in the chops and spirit her away to a place that's safe and warm, a sanctuary where no one could ever hurt her again, and just kept walking, of course. Some other passerbys had stopped to gawk and the Catwoman was still ravaging the landscape across the street but the young woman's choked sobs and the guy's erratic outbursts followed me to the entrance of the Lucky Number.

Friday, December 26, 2003

How Much is that Doggy in the Window?
Matt Silverman, a friend of mine in Boulder who had been to China before I came passed on a sage observation shortly before I left: "I had the best and worst food of my life in China."
It has stuck with me throughout my stay but at no time did it become more salient than at last night's Boxing Day/Mao's Birthday staff outing.
Everything about it, including the setting, was surreal to a "white ghost" like me - though it was chow down-business as usual for my coworkers.
Imagine, if you will, a banquet menu inspired by a combination of A Christmas Carol and Apocolypse Now and you're beginning to get the idea.
The staff was giddy with anticipation shortly before we left the paper on Friday. If you didn't know better, it felt like the staff at any American paper getting ready to go out for a holiday get together on a Friday afternoon; if I closed my eyes I was almost back at the Rocky Mountain News circa 1987 as Mary, Bobby, Mary-Jane, Joe, Robin, Mark and Mark, Jackie, etc. wrapped up last minute year end stories and piled out the door for a nearby bar -- except, as I kept saying to myself, "We-didn't-go-to-eat-dog, we-didn't-go-to-eat-dog."
There were 14 of us, including Jennifer's 6-year-old daughter and our destination was about 40 minutes outside main SZ. We took a staff van and two private cars. I had been told several times that it was near a newly built, supposedly world class golf course called Mission Hills.
Sure enough, as we hit a toll booth, looming on three billboards above were enormous photos of golfers Jose Maria Olazaba, Annika Sorenstam and David Duval with their last names and Mission Hills in English and the rest in Chinese script. They apparently played the course, or at least that's what the billboards implied. But I don't think Jose, Annika and David took their 19th hole at the Doggie Diner, which was a good two or three fairways away and tucked in a drab, grey industrial park with Stanlist-era architecture factories, apartments and a mammoth furniture outlet.
You couldn't miss the Doggie Diner, however. It had a large sign over the entrance with painted pictures of the menu within. It looked like the world's weirdest pet store or one of those post-resurrection "Lion Lies Down with the Lamb" illustrations from a Jehova's Witness tract: A cobra cavorting with a lamb, pig, goose, swan, duck, cow, shark, eel, chicken and - yes, what appeared to be a Siberian huskie.
Mmmm, mmm good!
The wait for our feast was long and while the rest of the staff settled in a private room to play mah-jong and a card game involving three decks of western cards and rules that assigned different point systems to the face cards as well as the four different suits that I found incomphrensible, Jennifer and her daughter and I took a walk around the industrial neighborhood. We got her girl a cold can of coconut juice, watched some factory workers watch us as we watched them shoot pool outdoors and then returned for the spread.
First course: chicken soup, no problem. Except for John "Flame" Woo's lame, patronizing statement/question to me: "We call this 'chicken soup' in China. Do you have it in America?"
Second course, stir-fried tripe, from which I picked the vegetables and garlic, but left the intestines.
Third course: Fish heads. I took some from the cheeks and then stuck with the veggies.
Fourth course: Smoked duck. Savory, succulent and I began pigging out.
Sesame Fifth course: sesame fried eel. As it happens, I like eel and this was superb - very sweet with the sesame seed coating giving it a nice snap and crunch.
Sixth course: Tah-dah! A heaping platter of broiled Lassie!
All heads turned to see what I would do. I had told them about eating it in Korea, so they were appreciative when I picked a couple chunks out of the mix and gamely consumed them. It wasn't bad, actually. Very sweet, but the psychological factor was too strong and I was relieved when the roast goose arrived. This was the Christmas Carol touch. It was simply the best goose I've ever had, in fact very nearly the best fowl. Juicy with crackling skin and laced lightly with ginger and garlic, I tore in.
There was also corn. Fresh, sweet corn on the cob that, according to the ebullent restaurant owner with-no-bottom-teeth who kept joining us and urging me in Chinese to bring more foreigners next time, had just been picked. It tasted as such and I clogged my teeth mowing down two ears.
We weren't able to finish it all and that's when I began involuntarily laughing out loud. The waitress was collecting the leftovers to box them and put them -- including roasted Rin-Tin-Tin -- into doggy bags.
I explained to my coworkers why I was laughing and they seemed to appreciate it.
But I declined a dog doggy bag and accepted some leftover goose.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Feliz Navidad
Well, there's been a Christmas tree in the lobby of the Lucky Number Apt. for about a week, white stenciled "Marry Christmass 2002" (sic) sprayed on the entrance windows and I heard Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus as well as other holiday favorites while shopping for groceries at the corner store yesterday. And by the clock here it's been Christmas for about an hour and 7 minutes. So, I guess it's officially Christmas in China.
I worked a regular shift today, got a surprise gift from Jennifer who gave me a gingerbread house that almost made me tear up, and then because they couldn't find any other foreigners to host it, spoke at the SZ Daily English salon to all six Chinese who came to hear me talk about Christmas and read some holiday-related standards.
The rest of Shenzhen was already partying hard, though I took pains to tell my rapt listeners that in the USA, Christmas Eve and Day are not treated like Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day and Halloween rolled into one.
Striving for a condensed overview I read them The Night Before Christmas, the N.Y. Sun's "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" editorial and the account of Christ's birth from the Book of Luke as well as explaining that not everyone in the states observes Christmas, which led to explanations of pagans, Hannukkah and what I could of Ramadan. I skipped Kwanza.
The questions were pretty good - especially the guy who couldn't understand how Santa got in the Christmas mix because there's no mention of him in the Bible. And what's with the stockings? The highpoint, though, was a hand-knitted long blue scarf that a woman I'd only met once before at a salon gave me as a Christmas present. A very sweet gesture and I have to say I look bitchin' in it.
Afterwards, Chicom Party Member Helen D. , her roomate and I joined another staffer as well as Josette-the-wild-Australian-gal, a guy from Ghana named Barney who was dressed as Santa and swilling straight from a gin bottle and an India Indian named Sameer at MoonDance. It was an eclectic evening, to say the least. Josette and I sang along to Christmas carols being piped outside, while inside a slew of Chinese, some in Halloween masks and many with yellow and blue glow sticks writhed to trance music.
The Chinese MoonDance staff had also gone wild with the white flock spray in trying to create an ambient holiday mood. There were some demented looking snow men, Christmas wishes and what appeared to be a cock and balls painted on windows and door glass.
"I didn't catch that one," said MoonDance owner, Gary as we gazed at the crude phallic depiction. "But I did manage to stop one from painting a skull and crossbones on the door."
And at the behest of Gary's wife who'd bought a costume, I dressed as Santa, complete with a beard, and wandered around the dance floor amid the pumping din and bodies shouting "Ho, ho, ho!" til I was hoarse as I tossed cheap gifts such as sock puppets and plastic hammers and more glow sticks to all the good little Chinese boys and girls. Then I took a break. Santa needed a cigarette and a cold Tsingtao. All in all, a memorable Christmas Eve.
And a Merry Christmas to all of you. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Dog Eat Dog
I don't know about you, but I won't be spending Dec. 26 returning gifts or watching bowl games or even observing Boxing Day with the Aussie, English and Canuk expats. It's Chairman Mao's 110th birthday and some of the staffers have planned a special excursion.
I was invited by Kathy, a page editor whose appearance and demeanor resembles that of an elementary school librarian. Gentle, but stern when need be. Plain and simple attire, glasses, sensible shoes and hair.
She approached me the other day and asked brightly if I'd like to go have a special dinner with some other staffers on Friday for Mao's birthday.
"Sure," I said. "What's special about it, though?"
"Oh," she said. "We are going to a special restaurant. We will take a bus. It will take maybe 40 minutes on the bus."
"Yeah, OK. But why is it 'special'?"
"The food," she said, smiling and adjusting her sensible spectacles. "We will eat special duck and also dog."
As it happens I have eaten dog (unknowingly) before but it was about 30 years ago in Korea. It tasted fine and made up the major part of a stew or thick soup that a farmer whom a buddy and I - while tripping on LSD and exploring the Korean countryside - had helped to push a cart out of a mud hole. He treated us to the meal by way of saying thanks and when I asked using baby talk Korean and hand signs what the delicious dish had been he said: "Kae!" - which is Korean for dog.
I don't know now whether I'm up to it again, though. I'm beginning to sympathize with my vegetarian friends back in the States. Keyman and I were eating at a restaurant last week and he ordered a spicy chicken, peppers and rice dish that's wrapped in a leaf. But before it was served, a restaurant employee came to our table with a large orange plastic bucket and plunked it down on the floor for our approval.
Inside was an alert bright-eyed brown and tan chicken - our meal-to-be. It was kind of cute and I felt a brief pang of regret. I asked Keyman if we ordered beef or pork would they have led a cow or pig to our table.
He laughed and then told me that in some rural villages that is exactly what is done.
I did sign on for the Chairman Mao birthday bash by the way, but I'm undecided about dining on dog - especially if they bring one to our table.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Born in the USA
There are a few moments when I feel that my Chinese workplace is beginning to turn me into a raving red, white and blue waving loonball. I loathe George W. Bush and his ilk and the thought that I lived through a Reagan era still seems unbelievable, yet there have been some recent in-house moments -- mostly generated by our 3rd in command, a stooge named Paul -- that almost make we want to buy a monster truck, festoon it with flags - U.S., as well as a couple Japanese and Tawainese ones for good measure - and moronic bumper stickers proclaiming my citizenship and love of country and drive it bumping and belching up the stairs to smash it through the pristine plate glass doors of the entrance to the mighty Shenzhen Press Group tower.
Paul's power at the SZ Daily is a mystery to foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I as well as to a few Chinese coworkers with whom I've shared my frustrations. He's young, perhaps in his early 30s, has no prior journalism experience, has denied any party membership when I once ventured to ask him point blank about it, yet even the older two senior editors above him almost always routinely defer to his warped news judgment and slavish devotion to Mother China's propaganda line. Jeff and I think he's been planted by the party to inform on counterrevolutionary thought, though maybe he's just got some compromising pictures of his superiors and some farm animals.
It's most apparent in the Monday a.m. meetings where we are required to rehash the prevous week's papers. Paul kicks off the meetings with a torturous recital of his idea of the top stories and you can almost see his erection grow and the spittle beginning to froth when he begins to relive and spin them with a blindly nationalistic line.
Saddam's capture, suicide bombers in Iraq, Taiwan "independence," a hotel orgy for Japanese tourists for which two Chinese organizers were recently - in his view - "justly a good example made of" when they were sentenced to life in prison for their part in it; ignoring logic as westerner's know it, he nonetheless manages to somehow twist them all into a warped view and commentary of China as a virtuous victim striving to maintain its purity against an a thuggish outside world bent only on rape. His ignorance of the world beyond his desk is often appalling, though he is quck to cite a month he spent in Germany as his credential both for his (unremarkable) command of English and international expertise.
I usually just hold my tongue.
"Justin," he asked today. "Do Americans stand and allow bus seats to elders?"
No, because we're usually too busy eating our children, I almost replied.
Yes, usually, and to the handicapped, too, I actually replied. Or even anyone regardless of sex or disability who seems like they need a seat badly. Why?
He was crestfallen. Turns out he had an idea for a weekly editorial topic wherein four folks - usually three Chinese and one foreigner - are asked for their opinion on a topic of burning interest. He'd "heard" from a "friend" that Americans do not respect old people and apparently delight in watching them stand for hours on crowded buses.
I tried to politely disabuse him of the notion, though he was reluctant to let it go.
"But it is also said that you put your elders in hospitals and abandon them to pursue pleasures, am I right?"
Um, some do. Some don't. It's not always that simple, I replied. I didn't mention the times I'd tried in vain to give up a seat on a Chinese bus to an old person or a woman stacked with pounds of shopping bags and boxes. Or the elderly beggar outside the Lucky Number.
"I don't think it's a good topic, Paul. It would only make the paper look silly. If I can think of one that is better, I'll tell you."
He didn't respond, but I took it as a yes.
Nothing like pointing out that the paper would lose face. I'm learning a little, I think.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Rock Show
Turns out that a Chinese stadium rock concert is pretty much like its Western counterpart, minus the chaos. And I must admit I kind of missed the chaos. I also found myself in the rather odd position of steering Keyman through the basics of a stadium show and explaining the hard realities of cheap seats and limited views.
We arrived at Shenzhen Sports Stadium at 7 p.m., with Beyond scheduled to begin at 8:15 p.m. The stadium, used primarily for soccer and track and field, has an open air dome and probably seats about 50,000. Businesses, including the infamous Chicago bar, ring the outside.
Like a U.S. there were a lot of people milling around outside, though unlike the U.S. none of them were tailgating, blasting the headlining band's music, drinking, blowing chunks or smoking dope. Most of them, in fact, seemed to be vendors selling glow sticks and cheap binoculars. I'd say that vendors outnumbered fans nearly 2:1 at this point.
I spotted only a tiny Beyond T-shirt booth, which looked more like a child's lemonade stand and featured only one design and size. It also featured no business. When Keyman inquired about the price, we found out why. He was outraged.
"One hundred!!" ($12.00-U.S.) "No way! We will wait until after the show!" he sputtered. "How can Beyond charge so much? They sing about social justice!"
I didn't have the heart to tell him that concert T-shirts in the Land Where Rock 'n' Roll Began sell for at least four times as much and often more.
He had no clue as to how to enter the stadium and began by happily waltzing toward what was obvious to me was a floor VIP seating entrance.
"No, no," I said. "We have cheap seats. We aren't down here, believe me. We are probably up there" I pointed to the stadium heights.
He didn't mind and I urged him to read the ticket, something I was unable to do since, except for world "Beyond" and a few numbers, the rest was all Chinese to me.
"There's a number for a section," I said. "That's where we go in."
"OH!," he replied. "Yes, you have done this many times before, I think."
"A few."
We found section 10 and gathered with a small knot of other early fans until the security guards - which weren't scruffy, obese goons in yellow STAFF T-shirts or windbreakers, but very young willowy men in green uniforms and high crested military hats that looked like Bavarian army surplus wear - decided we could go in. Another difference: no one was frisked and backpacks and purses were untouched.
We arrived inside and soon found that our assigned seats made any view of the stage impossible. We were so far to the side that even the stage lip was invisible.
Keyman was both crestfallen and indignant. First the T-shirt ripoff and now this.
"I will complain tomorrow!" he said. "There is a telephone number. Here! See?" He pointed to a number on the ticket.
"I will call them and tell them that it is not right."
His faith in the system was touching, but I also felt like I was watching a child who has just been told that not only is there no Santa Claus, but also that his real father deserted the family years ago after trying to trade him for a 12 pack.
I suggested something radical. There were huge blocks of empty sections with better views. Let's just go sit there, I said, and if someone claims the seats, we'll act like we made a mistake and move to another empty area.
"Oh, I like this idea. It is not, perhaps, how do you say it...ethical. But yes."
We settled into a better view and no one claimed our new seats. In fact, just as the show began, dozens in our "new" section vaulted over a divider into still-better vacant territory.
Beyond gave the fans - perhaps 5,000-8.000 in all - a decent show, though, for me it was a bit like watching a video. Glow lights flickered throughout, the band - a trio of bass, guitar, drums - used backing tapes and only a lone, unidentified keyboardist to augment the songs. They even may have been lip synching for all I could tell, except for the between song patter that, as Keyman translated, sounded just like the "Hello (Fill in name of city), are you ready to rock?" palaver of their western counterparts.
Two huge video screens flanked the stage and three smaller ones were above it. No flashy effects, no pyro explosions, and precious little real stage action though the fans didn't seem to notice or mind. They cheerfully just waved the glow sticks and sang along to every word. I could see a few weeping, too, when archival video footage of the dead singer and guitarist appeared. And they went bonkers for the false finale when the band was lofted out, still playing, above the first three VIP rows on an enormous cherry picker.
"It is like they are flying!" shouted Keyman. "This is wonderful. What is your analysis?"
I smiled and gave him a thumb's up. Afterwards, as we left he mused wistfully: "Does no one go up and send them flowers? I wonder why"

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Rock 'n' roll Fantasy
I met Keyman about two and a half weeks ago at a SZ Daily English salon where I attempted to talk to 20 Chinese ages 20-40something about the history of rock 'n' roll and a little bit about my history of writing about it.
With questions like "Who are the Beatles?" and "Do you know Karen Carpenter?" it was hard going at times, but I was able to connect with one skinny 20something guy in the front row who was actually taking notes.
After my rambling speech, he buttonholed me, introduced himself as "Keyman", said he played guitar and breathlessly told me he'd traveled standing two hours on a bus for my talk.
Suffice to say I was humbled. My years of writing about it had made me a bit jaded, to say the least. And here was a guy for whom the music really mattered, mattered so much that he'd come two hours on a jammed bus to hear someone he'd never heard of natter on about it.
"I LOVE the music of rock 'n' roll," he said. "It is very precious to me. My underground band broke up two years ago. I swore I would not form any bands any more at the broke up party. But I never restrain my fondness for the music of rock'n'roll. The music of rock 'n' roll is a kind of weapon. It help me to fight against the fate of life, the corruption of political and the hurt of my heart so that I can grasp the truth, freedom and courage and strength."
He paused for breath.
"I have many questions."
He pulled out his notebook, flipped through the pages and came to one with lyrics printed on it.
"What is California Hotel about? My friend says it is about being in a nice hotel. But I think no. I think it is a very dark song. 'You can check in any time you want, but you can never leave.' It is how I feel here and in my life sometimes."
He meant Hotel California, of course. A song that if I never heard it again I could still die happy. But it was fresh, fascinating and meaningful to Keyman, and his energy was beginning to be infectious.
Without underappreciated composer/guitarist Don Felder there to speak for his work himself, I tried my best to explain that it's a song about being sucked up and trapped in the hedonistic Southern California lifestyle. But it wasn't always easy.
"'Warm smell of colitas'...what is 'colitas''?
"It's about smoking marijuana," I said.
"What is marijuana?"
A rocker ignorant of weed. This was different indeed.
As the evening progressed, and over the sounds for two young women spontaenously singing Yesterday Once More and Country Roads together at the table next to ours, I gave Keyman a list of "must have" discs regarding other bands and performers, including the Beatles (whom he had heard of) and the Stones (only distantly).
"Aerosmith, Gun and Rose, U2, Nirvana also attract my heart," he said, and I did my best to give him as much instant input as I could.
In turn he began telling me about Chinese rock, particularly a band called Beyond which -- in terms of their history, if not their music -- is sort of the Asian equivalent of Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Doors, with a smidgen of Spinal Tap thrown in the mix. In other words, after attaining popularity, their lead singer and focal point died ignobly when he tumbled off a high stage at a concert in Japan.
Beyond took the requisite hiatus, then regrouped with the dead singer's younger brother trying to take up the slack.
I told him I'd be interested in hearing Beyond and other bands he mentioned and we recently met at the Lucky Number Apartment for a listening party.
He played some Beyond - which was a little too poppy and overproduced for my tastes -- as well as some Chinese heavy metal by bands called Black Panther and Tang Dynasty that was a little more interesting, if only for its crunch. I could hear that both had done their Metallica homework.
In turn I played him selections ranging from Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, early Dylan, Revolver-era Beatles, Who and some old Stones.
Interestingly, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and Sympathy for the Devil pretty much left him cold but he lapped up As Tears Go By and Play With Fire.
And he recently e-mailed me to say that Beyond, now celebrating a 20 year anniversary, is playing at the Shenzhen Stadium on Dec. 20 - would I join him?
How can I resist? Keyman stood in line and scored two cheap high altitude seat tix and we'll be there tomorrow night.
I can't wait. I burned out on stadium shows years ago but Keyman's energy has me ready to rock and raise my flaming Bic again.
In the meantime, he had another question.
"My friend says Smoke on the Water is the vanguard song of rock 'n' roll. Is this true?"

Monday, December 15, 2003

Hot Springs and Sassafrass
"Justin, may I ask you a question?"
Sure, I replied. It was only 8 a.m. and the coworker who asked me often has patently ridiculous, mentally taxing queries. I also usually don't take questions until about 10:30, but I was feeling especially benificent and mellow. It was the morning of our second day of a Shenzhen Daily hot springs retreat and tours of nature and historical sites in Guangdong Province.
"What do you call oral sex in your country?"
I almost spit out my mouthful hot rice, mushroom and egg soup -- the Chinese breakfast equivalent of our bowl of Corn Flakes and cup of coffee. The staff was seated at three different tables at a Chinese truck stop, and foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I were hierarchally grouped with the Daily's two senior editors, older reporters and page editors, and a lone woman, the long-suffering (but eternally patient,) staff secretary, Lilly.
The senior editors looked at me expectantly. They had apparently been discussing the subject with the reporter who asked me. Lilly looked embarassed and stared pointedly down at her lap. Jeff supressed a grin.
"Um...what kind of oral sex?"
"When a man receives it."
"A blow job?"
"No, that is slang. We know that. There is a technical term that we do not know."
"Oh! Fellatio."
All three repeated it with varying degrees of success and Lilly finally looked up cautiously.
"Thank you."
"You're welcome. Now I have two questions."
"All right."
"The first one is, what is the Chinese term?"
"We are not so graphic. We are more poetic. We call it 'playing the flute.'"
"OK, so why are you talking about 'playing the flute' at 8 o'clock Saturday breakfast,?"
"When do Americans talk about it?"
"Usually not at breakfast."
I still don't know why they wanted to know. While some company overnight excursions in the States might result in some employee hanky-panky, this one was strictly G-rated. Well, maybe PG. There were some slightly "yellow" jokes after many beers and shots of Chinese rocket fuel - mao-tai - during karaoke as we celebrated Jeff's 59th birthday the night before. But no flute playing that I could discern. The genders were strictly segregated in pre-assigned rooms at our hotel.
Like everything else that transpires at the office, Jeff and I were the last to know about this trip, a perk we both agreed beat anything any newsroom in the Western world might organize. No particular reason, not even something like a "team building exercise" was given for this largesse, an element that made it all the more appealing.
It had orginally been planned as a weekend flight to Sanya, China - an island resort best known for recently hosting the recent Miss World competition. He and I had cleared our weekend schedules, he had invited his girlfriend...then as the days passed it became clear that the plans might change.
"So, are we still going to Sanya?" I asked the woman who was in charge of coordinating it.
"We are not sure," she replied.
"Well, give me an estimate," I asked.
"I am thinking 98 percent yes," she said.
Take the 2 percent, Jeff told me. This is China.
He was right. But the hot springs in Conghua ("Conghua Fairyland Make Wave Hot Springs Eden" to be exact) was a nice alternative. Like all mass excursions here, this one was a package tour. There's a bus with a video player, a gregarious long-winded guide who carries a colored - usually red or yellow - flag with the tour logo on it and everyone gets a complimentary baseball hat with the tour logo and color. Mustn't leave the group and follow the flag. Group harmony must be maintained at all times. God help you if you're wearing a red tour cap and wind up with a group of yellow caps...
"Conghua Fairyland Make Wave Hot Spring Eden" is only two years old, and I was told that the springs themselves were only discovered in the 1930s when a pilot flying over the area saw plumes of steam rising from the thermal springs.
"Do they have hot springs in the United States?"
I must have been asked that a dozen times. I patiently explained that yes, we do, and we even have them in Colorado. I didn't mention how appallingly dirty and reeking I found the ones in Glenwood Springs in my only, mercifully brief, visit there.
Fairyland Eden was much better than Glenwood Springs. Clean and pristine with 38 pools, including several secluded, screened off with a high fence and barbed wire "Lovers Pools."
The pools we sampled had vaguely medicinal or herbal sounding names, except for the "Emperor's Concubines Pool" which, alas, contained no concubines. But we soaked and lolled and chatted for hours in the soothing warm waters and light scents of the the "Sasafrass Pool", "Wine Pool", "Ginseng Pool", "Lemon Pool," "Peppermint Pool", "Coffee Pool", "Lychee Pool," "Milk Pool" (the only disappointment, it was cloudy colored and smelled faintly of sour milk) and, my favorite, the "Glossy Ganoderma Pool."
I have no idea what "Glossy Ganoderma" means, though I've been meaning to ask. It sounds almost poetic. Maybe it's like "playing the flute" or "clouds and rain." Or maybe it's a rare skin condition.
I've just got to wait until the next 8 o'clock staff breakfast for the right opportunity.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

For What It's Worth
I just learned last night that my pod partner - a soft spoken, bespectacled, diligent reporter and devoted mother who regularly frets about finding enough time to ferry her 5-year-old daughter to piano lessons - was a student at Tiananmen Square during the June 3-4 1989 protests.
The fact that she told me this was amazing enough.
Fourteen and a half years after the demonstrations and deaths, it's still a taboo subject in China. It's certainly not a topic for casual conversation with a "long nose" while you're stuck in a traffic jam as we were on our way back from a newly opened psuedo-Moroccan pink stucco mega bar, restaurant and disco that she had reviewed.
Jennifer and I had been talking about her frustration about being a reporter at a paper where she can't write the stories that she wants to. Her father was also a journalist and had urged her to avoid the trade for the same reason.
"It is too political here," she said. "I studied economics in Beijing at China's finest economic and business university. I want to write real business stories."
She laughed just a little bitterly and quickly eased her Nissan into an open spot just in front of a mini-bus that was threatening to take off her right door and fender and me with it.
"But I cannot. What do I write here? Rubbish, mostly rubbish. Restaurant reviews. At least people read them."
It was shortly after that when she quietly dropped her bomblet about what the Chinese simply call "June 4."
"You know June 4? I was there."
You were? My "Huh, what?" reflex kicked in again, as it has so many times since I arrived.
I began pressing her for details and what emerged from her perspective sounded like the demonstrations were - until the soldiers began slaughtering the students - more of an excuse to party, with calls for democracy almost an afterthought.
"I left just before the trouble," she said. "My friend did not feel well and I went back to our university with her. "
But why did you go to begin with?
"I am curious about many things. I like to watch and listen. It is why I like being a reporter. I went just to watch. There were no classes, everyone was there. It was also very that the right word?" She laughed self-consciously.
I don't know. What do you mean, 'romantic?'
What Jennifer described was the erotic frisson familiar to anyone who has spent an extended, intense period of time in a hot house environment with others bent on the same mission, whether it's producing a play, working overtime at the office or trying to overthrow a government.
"Many students fell in love there. They got engaged there. Some shouted to get married right there." She laughed again. "Some of us said these romances would not last. None did."
Did you see the Statue of Liberty?, I asked referring to the homemade, crude replica that the students had constructed.
"Of course. It was a little ugly, do you think?"
I liked the spirit, I said. Any American who saw it understood and applauded the spirit.
"Of course. It was very symbolic."
She seemed lost in thought and also was trying once again to avoid being crushed as cars on the left and right kept pressing her for space.
We were both silent for a moment then she said: "The day after the deaths, it was so quiet on our campus. No one talked. We knew something terrible had happened but no detail. Silence everywhere. Empty classrooms, empty rooms, empty canteenl. No one could talk about what happened. I rode my bicycle to Beijing University because I wanted to see what it was like there. It was quiet, too.
"I looked up at some windows and I saw new white flowers. White flowers at windows and balconies. Do you know what that means?"
No, I said. I don't.
"White is our color for death."

Monday, December 08, 2003

Merry Christmas, Baby
Christmas is coming. But how do I know, living as I am in a godless Communist country? Well, there's the calendar of course. But other than that, you might be hard pressed to know it. No canned carols filling the air, no last minute commercial rush and crush, but the workers at all the SZ McDonalds are sporting Santa hats.
Shenzhen is also the world's largest supplier of artificial Christmas trees. If you have one, odds are it was made here and I've seen a few sprouting in local restaurants and stores, though mercifully they didn't appear until the last week of November. (Now, there's a Chinese custom I heartily endorse.)
A Christmas tree stand of sorts also recently sprang up outside a large grocery and department store near the Lucky Number. As much as I dismiss Christmas in general and harbor even more ill-will towards artificial trees, I got a little wistful looking at some of them and came close to buying a "Charlie Brown" tree; tiny and slightly skewed it would fit fine in #1918.
And just this morning I overheard coworker John "Flame" Wu earnestly phoning expats for a story he's doing on how foreigners plant to spend Christmas Day.
His tone was quite earnest, but also just a tad condescending, I thought. A bit like like a clueless anthropologist probing the curious goat worshipping rituals of a newly discovered stone age tribe.
When he hung up, I said, "Hey, John do you want to know how I'm spending Christmas? Just like every other Westerner without a family here. Alone in my apartment, crying and sucking on a bottle of whiskey with a gun to my head."
John looked shocked. "You have a gun? Other foreigners also have guns at Christmas?"
Irony doesn't translate well here.
Christmas, such as it is here, is more of a Western novelty, like the Santa, reindeer, elf and snowman pictures one occasionally spots hanging year round in odd spots.
Unfortunately I have yet to see the equivalent of what allegedly was once displayed in Tokyo department store window during the holiday season: A life-size Santa dummy hanging from a cross with adoring elves at its feet.
The religious aspect seems to be completely absent, though I've recently heard that there are one or two "goverment approved" churches in SZ.
This was brought home to me about two weeks ago when a young woman at a SZ Daily English salon asked me to explain Christmas. I began by saying it was originally intended to observe Jesus Christ's birthday (never mind trying to explain the whole solistice/pagan connection).
"Who is Jesus Christ?" she asked sincerely. It was at this same salon, where I'd given a talk about the history of rock 'n' roll, that I was also asked: "Who are the Beatles?'
After those two questions, I thought briefly of combining my explanations with John Lennon's infamous "Beatles bigger than Jesus" gaffe...but, no.
The Christmas spirit may be creeping up on me, though. Yesterday a package arrived from a friend in Boulder. Inside J. had enclosed some books, the first Christmas card I've received and a carefully wrapped snowman ornament with "Merry Christmas Justin" printed on it.
I put the card on top of the TV - the only decent display area at the moment - and decided the ornament needed a real home.
And I think I know just the tree for it, just a few blocks from the Lucky Number.
Thank you, J. And Merry Christmas to you, too.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Call Me
Well, I finally joined the 21st century in China today. I bought a cell phone, something I'd decidedly resisted and sometimes derided in the States. I caved because it was becoming clear to me that without one in a country that has the highest number of "mobile phone" users (they don't use the term "cell phone" here and I get occasional puzzled looks when I use it) in the world and in a city that has more cell users than fixed phone ones, that I was a pitiful, walking anachronism.
"You don't have a mobile phone!?" was the usual response, delivered in tones that implied I must also communicate with grunts and palsied hand gestures from my rude cave. Even foreign barbarian coworker Jeff was getting weary of my reluctance to communicate while on the go.
"I tried to call you last night, mate. No answer at your apartment. Your bloody bad luck, I'd say. Met a woman who wanted to pay to serve breakfast in bed to an American. Said her name was Michelle Yeoh or something..."
I exaggerate, of course. But you get the picture.
And it was Jeff's connection with a Chinese guy named Peter that snagged me a fine used Nokia for 170 yuan ($20.54).
Peter is a story in himself. He's got Shenzhen wired. You need it, he can find it. He's the ultimate fixer and a nice guy to boot. He's about 34, speaks decent English, lived in the states for several years and delivers non-stop speed monologues about his travels and life, kind of a Chinese Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady, though the names would mean nothing to him.
His experiences in the States make mine here look like I'm posting from Mayberry RFD. In one 5-10 minute speed rap he detailed living with 5 other Chinese in a NY tenament where they were the only Asians amid Dominicans, Haitans and some black Americans, then he fastforwarded to some road trip he'd taken across the US and how he wound up unwittingly picking up a Mexican transvestite in El Paso.
"Nice kisser. I thought she was best kisser I'd ever had. Beautiful, beautiful too! We kiss, touch, we go to the bed, then I reach down and touch her, oh no! Big, big lump! You know? Surprised! Very surprised! I had to leave very fast..."
He's also married to an American woman from Peoria, Illinois and has an 11-year old Amerasian daughter - but neither Jeff nor I have ever seen them and Peter's normal cumpulsion to spew information fades a little when questioned about them.
His "real" job is manufacturing bootleg video games and systems, something he's also a little vague about. I did ask him how business was, because the govt. has been cracking down, and he admitted it's been a little slow.
Well meaning moron that I am I asked if he had a website that might drive some business his way. He looked at me with a mixture of pity and just a little contempt.
"WEB SITE? Why I want to advertise on Internet that I sell pirate Sega or Sony? You would not be talking with me now. I would be in jail!"
Point taken.
Before we bought the phone, we had to buy a phone number. Phone numbers here are priced based on how many "lucky" numbers they contain. One with a bunch of sixes and maybe some eights can go for 800 yuan ($96.65). In the spirit of frugality while heedlessly tempting fate, I bought the cheapest, unluckiest one I could find. One with several threes that cost 110 yuan ($13.30).
He then took me to a huge indoor market stuffed with hundreds of cramped booths and vendors who do nothing but shill used and new cell phones. It was dizzying and the hawkers and booths all looked identical. Vendors screaming in Chinese, shoppers jammed at every booth shouting into phones they were considering buying. But he knew where to go and within 15 minutes found the right seller and hooked me up with a Nokia formerly used by someone in Hong Kong.
"Good phone, I think. Four years ago, maybe 5,000 Chinese dollars ($604), now you have for only 170. Just like buying a used car, you know?"
I took it back to the Lucky Number and began phoning friends crowing that I was finally hooked into the grid. Then I took it to work and showed it to Helen D., my Chimcom party member coworker.
She was pleased to hear I'd joined the human race but underwhelmed with my purchase. "I would say you should pay no more than 200 for this. But 170 is not too bad."
Then she pulled hers out. It was a sleek, silver tiny Sam Sung number that made mine look like a black rotary dial monster from 1943. Hers takes pictures, has a color monitor, a slew of video games and instant messaging. It also hooks up to the Internet and for all I know also washes the dishes and takes out the trash.
Oh, you can also make and receive phone calls on it.
"It was smuggled here," she said proudly. "You cannot buy it legally here yet. It is from Europe. I went to the same market as you."
Nice, but I've gone as far as I'm willing as far as cell phone technology goes.
Call me, sometime, though. I'm at 13715304037.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Rocky Mountain Way
As much as I like it here, yes, I do get homesick and it hit me hard two days ago when I was mucking my way through the tangled syntax and tortured grammar of a feature story about a 24-year-old Shenzhen woman who had returned here from the states to promote a book she'd written and a movie she just acted in that is based on the book.
Her pen name (all Chinese authors have them) is Niuniu, and her book, written in Chinese, is a best seller here.
It's called A Sheep with Wings (the title refers to her Chinese birth year sign, a sheep). It and the movie - no title for it yet - are based on her years living in England as a Chinese expat while she attended a boarding school. Interesting, though the reporter's prose had me rapidly traveling the one-way express straight to Comaville.
I suddenly regained consciousness, though, as the reporter detailed Niuniu's more recent years: "She awarded Economics degree presenting by University of Denver."
My mind did an immediate Homer Simpson: eyeballs rolled back, mouth drooling, tongue flopping....Broncooooos, Rockiessss, Boulderrrr, Flatironssss...
My mission was clear. I had to meet Niuniu. We had important matters to discuss.
Turns out her English name is Jennifer Li and she laughed when I finally reached her cell phone number. Maybe it was because I was babbling incoherently: "You really went to DU? Can'tbelieveit! Gawd-it's-so-good-to-talk-to-someone-here-who-knows-where-Colorado-is. Meet-me-for-coffee. Marry me! Or just have coffee. Pleeeezzeee!"
She took pity on me and obliged. 'Twas wonderful. She speaks flawless, American accented English ("I purposefully got rid of my English accent when I got to Denver") and is attending NYU film school now, as her recent movie experience turned her attention from economics and finance to acting and directing. But she misses Colorado - her Subaru, mountain bike and her "favorite pillow" are still there in storage - but, as she said, "It's like, whatever!"
Yes, she actually said: "It's like, whatever!"
I melted. As cliched as the phrase is, I realized I hadn't heard it for months. I actually missed it. I almost asked her to repeat it, ("SAY IT, JENNIFER! C'MON, SAY: 'It's like, whatever!') but figured she'd think I had some kind of creepy old guy linguistic fetish.
We talked about her book (she's writing a sequel about her years in Denver), her fans, her movie, acting school, the trials and tribulations of being a stranger in a strange land - and, of course, Colorado.
She misses the weather. "There are actually four seasons there! Amazing!" And we both shared memories of the Blizzard of '97. Me about digging my car out of 3-foot drifts and her delight at seeing her first snow.,
"It was so huge, I'd never seen snow in Shenzhen and it blew me away. I was in a dorm with foreign students at DU and we lived on chips for the weekend because the cafeteria was closed. But we loved it. Absolutely loved it!"
She also misses Pho 97, a Vietnamese noodle place in Denver ("You can't get decent Vietnamese food in Shenzhen"), the spring cherry blossoms on Evans in Denver, going to Rockies baseball games and snowboarding at Keystone.
My snowboarding skills are like my brain surgery skills, nonexistent, but I could relate to all the rest. It felt like home for a moment.
I returned to the office and a coworker who was working late asked me where I'd been.
"Oh, I had coffee and a long talk with Niuniu," I said casually. He looked awe-struck. "Niuniu! She is very famous!" It was if I'd offhandedly told someone in America that I'd just had lunch with the likes of Jennifer Aniston or Gwyneth Paltrow. But I played it cool.
"Yeah, it was OK. You know, it was like, whatever."

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

The Real Me
We interrupt the irregularly scheduled blogging schedule with an important announcement. My son and I have hit print at a Denver weekly, Westword. Here's a link:

Monday, December 01, 2003

Rear window
Sights and sounds from the 19th floor kitchen window of the Lucky Number Apartment; some enhanced with a pair of cheap, bootleg Soviet army binoculars, others only viewed with the naked eye.
1. Sunrise. A woman on the 11th floor of the apartment catty-corner from mine comes out in yellow and black pajamas to gather laundry hanging on her balcony. She looks like a queen bee emerging from a mammoth hive. The clothes are colorful-- purple towels, blue and white acid washed jeans, an orange T-shirt, pink underwear and a red jacket that still hangs awkwardly after she leaves, momentarily lifeless without arms to animate it.
2. Half a block north behind a concrete wall that blocks the ground-level view of a vacant, abandoned construction site there is a family living in the hollow confines of a raised, half-finished foundation. I can see them from my height, but they are otherwise hidden from the street and sidewalk 40 yards from their "home." She emerges with a portable grill and begins cooking breakfast.
There's a blanket that serves as a door to the foundation's interior and it opens again as their child, a toddler walks unsteadily into the morning. A few minutes later a man pushes the blanket aside and joins his wife and son. They sit on cinder blocks and an old folding chair to eat. The man goes back into the foundation and returns with a rickety bike. He wheels it to the wall, peers through a long, vertical crack just wide enough for him to push his body and the bike through and - seeing the coast is clear - goes off for the day.
3. Hundreds of middle school students in a military style formation and white and blue uniforms stand at attention on a soccer field as a loudspeaker blares The East is Red and then Country Roads.
4. A bicycle loaded with 5-foot long planks of lumber, atop which a small child sits sanshelmet while the (also helmetless) rider steers a precarious path through oncoming traffic and pedestrians. At one point he almost wings an elderly woman with the boards which are strapped crossways on the bike. I am reminded of an old Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy bit.
5. Behind the walls of a performing arts center that seems to be permanently under construction, there are five bulky, middle-aged Chinese matrons in velour purple and white sweat suits doing morning exercises with swords and fans. Despite their heft, these women move with remarkable grace and quickness, combining deft footwork and graceful swings with the swords which are adorned long red cords and tassels on the grips. The tassels sweep the ground as the blades slice the air.
When they lay the swords down and take the fans, they begin to a sinuous, silent dance. First the fans are closed and then simultaneously snapped open with enough force that I can hear a faint 'pop' carried by the chilly morning breeze that has begun to push through my open window.

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