Thursday, January 29, 2004

Odds and Sods
A friend in Boulder e-mailed me and mentioned that it was "Donut Day" at her office. I suddenly realized haven't even seen or smelled a doughnut for months and between salivating like a rabid wolverine at the memory of a glazed Winchells, it also occured to me that while we don't have "Donut Day" at the Shenzhen Daily we do have random food days based on whatever hometown a colleague has happened to travel to. They return loaded with a bag or two of the local snack and junk foods and because Chinese cuisine is so diverse - for instance someone from Hunan might prefer their civet cat ovaries fried in oil, while a Shangdongite knows that only the offspring of a motherless street sweeper can stomach it when it's not boiled in mutton fat - it's always a surprise.
Mostly it's various candies and nuts but yesterday was "Exotically Flavored and Oddly Textured Dried Beef and Chicken Chunks in Packets From Some Province I Can't Pronounce Day". And the day before yesterday was "Tasteless Dry White Rectangle Thingies With the Consistency of a Dr. Scholl's Insole Day"....
Coworker Jennifer has a 6-year-old daughter whom I kinda adore and lavish some mindless attention on whenever she's in the office. Before our Lunar New Year break I gave Jennifer a little money in a red New Year packet ("Lucky Money" - traditionally given to children for Chinese New Year) to give her daughter and yesterday Jennifer came in the office with a spiffy, colorful picture her daughter had drawn for me. There's a house, flowers, a girl with hearts above her head, the sun and three flying creatures - one with an enormous smiling head - that I thought were butterflies.
"I love the butterflies," I told Jennifer.
She paused a minute, laughed a little self-consciously and said that she'd said the same thing but her daughter told her they weren't birds or butterflies. They are house flies.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

I'm Lost in the Supermarket
I once commented elsewhere that grocery stores in China are pretty much like those in the States, except that they have live fish, snakes, turtles and assorted aquatic-related creatures in the seafood department. (And let's not forget sea cucumbers, which resemble undulating strips of urine colored Velcro...)
But that's not exactly true. There are other differences. For instance, most everything is smaller, including the aisles which, at the corner grocery I frequent when I'm too lazy to walk 10 minutes to the more upscale one, are often blocked with employees standing legs akimbo and delicately balancing on the edges of the shopping carts which they use to reach higher when stocking. Actually, it's two employees. One who does the balancing act and stocking and another one who slowly pushes the cart along the aisle and presumably also acts as the spotter in case the acrobat tumbles.
You also don't see many people shopping in their pajamas in the U.S. - especially during the noon hour. While it might warrant some polite queries from a psychiatric social worker or a cop in the U.S., public pajama wear is not uncommon here. I've seen families, singles and couples of all ages wandering the streets and stores clad only in their cotton PJs with no one except an unenlightened foreigner gawking.
The meat selection isn't exactly the same either. Chinese don't butcher their pigs, fowls and cattle in any fashion recognizable to someone looking for say, a plump chicken breast or juicy T-bone. If As far as I can tell the method is completely random, resembling more the standards set by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre than the USDA. One picks through the odd, small hunks and chunks of meat on white foam trays and covered with plastic wrap, squeezing them and eyeing them in hopes of something reasonably tender. You know it's pork if it's pale and beef if it's red but poultry is another matter.
It's been chilly in SZ and I thought a pot of homemade chicken soup would hit the spot yesterday. I found carrots, onions, potatoes, dried mushroom, garlic - wrapped them in individual plastic bags and then jostled with other shoppers at the weight station to have them priced. The weight station isn't at the check out counters and in the case of my corner store, it seems to move of its own accord every four or five days to a different area.
If it's crowded, few stand in line - they just put their bags as quickly as possible one at a time on the scale, while elbowing others trying to do the same thing. A clerk - sometimes two - reads the digital readout, punches some buttons and affixes a price sticker to your bag which you're simultaneously reaching for while trying to throw another one on the scale before Grandmother Mei beats you to it.
With that out of the way, I went to the refrigerated poultry bin and began picking through the randomly cut chunks of chicken carcasses.
I found one especially large one that looked like part of a breast and an oversized wing, thanked the poultry gods and went home to begin the soup.
After stuffing the pot with the produce, I threw in a package of powdered chicken boullion that had inexplicably been taped as a promotional item to a bottle of shampoo I'd bought a few weeks ago and pulled the "chicken" out of its foam tray. It was suddenly clear why the breast part and wing were so generous.
There was a neatly severed turkey head - wattle and all - underneath the dismembered body part. A bonus that I quickly wrapped in an old plastic sack and heaved into the communal apartment garabage pail across the hall from me.
Where the drumsticks and rest of the breast were, gawd only knows. Where this turkey was during Christmas when foreign barbarian coworker Jeff was bemoaning the lack of turkeys in SZ, is yet another question for the ages.
But the soup bubbled up fine and I'm still enjoying it today.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

It's a Small World
Despite the Strawberry King's dipsomaniacal behavior, I must admit that while New Year with a Chinese family was no Christmas on Walton Mountain, much of my "Adopt a Foreign Devil" homestay contained some genuinely "aww, shucks" moments as well as one that proved that the "six degrees of separation" rule applies in China.
The latter occurred when the Qiu's pulled out some photos to show me and pointed to one in particular that showed Joanne outside Book City posing with a familiar face. It was the young Chinese author/actress/student Niuniu, whom I met and blogged about (Rocky Mountain Way, Dec. 4) after learning she'd spent several years at Denver University.
"Niuniu!" I shouted like an excited kidnapped child recognizing his long lost mother. "I know her!"
Turns out the Qius do too. When he isn't selling strawberries to finance the People's Glorious Shenzhen Cognac Museum and Repository, the Strawberry King also works with Niuniu's mother at an office that specializes in sending Chinese kids to school in Britain.
(The Twilight Zone music in my head went into overdrive several days later when I learned via e-mail from a man in L.A. named James Banquet who reads Shenzhen Zen and is coming here soon to teach that he's virtually certain that his Chinese girlfriend was one of Joanne's chaperones during her U.S. visit in 2002. Check out his blog, The Barefoot Fool at
While the Qiu's politely received my meager gifts of a Teddy bear and Finnish chocolates, I felt like someone who had thought he'd impress an advanced race of aliens with the gift of a disposable lighter ("It makes FIRE! Do you have fire?") when they gave me a red and gold embroidered padded silk Chinese jacket and an elaborate ceramic set for inks and brushes should I decide to suddenly begin studying Chinese calligraphy.
We were also tailed by a reporter/photographer for a Chinese language paper for most of the first day. That was a distinctly strange feeling - almost incestuous - at first, because I've also been assigned to write a story about my homestay for the Shenzhen Daily. A journalist writing about a journalist who is going to write about himself...
I was curious, though, to see first hand how a Chinese reporter works. Well, Simon Wei 24, whom Joanne quickly developed a crush on, spent a lot of time watching and flirting with Joanne and didn't take many notes, except for interviewing the Strawberry King at our initial meet-your-pet foreigner group banquet. He asked me only one question ("What is your view of this family?") and asked me to write my name down. But the Strawberry King and family were thrilled the next day when the paper appeared with a story and color photo of me in my new Chinese jacket with Joanne's cousin, both holding some plants with bulbous orange growths that resemble either blown up condoms or udders from lilliputian cows, depending on your viewing angle. The plants are deemed "very beautiful" here and especially lucky for students such as Joanne and her cousin, but to me they looked like something raised in a Chernobyl greenhouse.
According to Joanne I was quoted extensively and accurately in the story, though I can't vouch for it since I can't read it.
We found the orange mutant plants at a extremely crowded outdoor large flower market that was about one third plants and flowers and two thirds festival schlock, though I was ecstatic to score four Mao hanging ornaments depicting young Long March Mao on one side and genial fat old Uncle Mao on the other. Kind of like hillbilly cat Elvis and fat Vegas Elvis. Though the Qius have a Mao ornament hanging from a mirror of one of their two cars - which seemed to sometimes bob in time to the Backstreet Boys disc that Joanne continually cranked - they were mystified as to why I would want anything like that.
"Uh...they're for, um...friends in the states," I explained, feeling a little like I was caught buying porno. And they will be as soon as I can figure out a way to post them.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Everybody's got something to hide 'cept for me and my monkey
I think most people have experienced what I call "movie moments."
A movie moment is when you're confronted with a situation that is so bizarre, untoward, sometimes shocking - anything from your significant other telling you that he/she is leaving you for a 12-year-old Angolan child soldier to maybe just a glimpse of your 257-lb. bus driver neighbor clad only in his brown socks - that your mind goes into a "remove" mode and pretends it's all only a movie.
I had a couple of those movie moments during my "Adopt a Barbarian for Chinese New Year Homestay Program" courtesy of my host, a man I whom I will call the "Strawberry King" because part of this portly, bullet-headed, flat-top cut man's wealth comes from strawberry farms. The Nelsons or Cleavers, this family wasn't. They weren't quite the Osbournes, either, but there were enough revealing details that showed me that pretty much all families are dysfunctional, whether they hail from from Shenzhen, China or Shelby, Mississippi.
Movie Moment #1: Setting: Qiu Family Breakfast table, 9:14 a.m., day after meeting the aggressively pleasant non-English speaking Strawberry King, his genuinely pleasant non-English speaking wife, also genuinely pleasant non-English speaking mother, pleasantly tongue-tied, virtually non-English speaking 18-year-old nephew, and engaging, English-speaking 16-going-on-26-year-old daughter, Joanne. (A prerequisite for Chinese host families was that at least one parent had to speak English).
I am reaching for another heaping helping of dried, salted fish to go with my rice porridge. Joanne has just finished tellling me about the three weeks she spent in the U.S. with a group of Chinese middle school students and how tired they were of eating milk and cereal for breakfast. I nod in polite, sympathetic agreement, and immediately begin craving a bowl of Count Chocula when the Strawberry King bursts in from the kitchen with an entire cold, roasted chicken - complete with head - in his bare hands and plonks it down on the table. Chicken grease and liquid ooze on to the surface from the impact.
Stravberry King: In Chinese, while fixing me with a demented grin. I can still smell the mao-tai (Chinese rocket fuel) and Remy Martin cognac fumes on his breath from the last night's "Welcome the Foreigner" party he hosted.BlahblahblahCHINESE HAPPY NEW YEARblahblabh!
Points at chicken. Smiles. Begins tearing chicken apart with his grease smeared hands, pieces of chicken flesh flyi round the table as Joanne, her cousin, mother and grandmother look on approvingly. He finishes by adroitly snapping and separating the neck and head from the body and placing it in front of me with its wilted, shrunken cocks comb and one black vacant eye socket glaring up.
Movie Moment No. 2:Setting: Qiu Family living room, 13 hours or so after the Chicken Dismembering.
Strawberry King is well in hisg cups after a "Farewell to the Foreigner" banquet we've returned from where he and his best friend, Mr. Ling, a SZ cop, tried to outdo each other by chugging entire wine glasses full of (at separate times) cognac, mao tai and very expensive bordeaux. Mr. Ling lost and was last seen doing a face plant into a plate full of fish bones, tofu, goose intestines and other culinary jetsam from the oily hot pot. I stuck with one beer and sipped half a glass of the bordeaux, despite their pleas to join in the fun.
Strawberry King, with Joanne's embarrassed translation, is telling me that he is "not a drunk." "He says drinking is his hobby," she says, laughing a little bitterly. "He wants to show you it is only a hobby."
With Joanne, her cousin, mother, grandmother and me in tow, the Strawberry King begins a tour of the home where his "hobby" is indeed revealed. First stop, three cabinets under the already fully stocked liquor cabinet. Inside are dozens of boxes of mao tai, designer cognac and bizarre sounding Chinese liquors. My favorite and one he is particularly proud of is something called "Bear gall premium herbal liquor."
It's expensively packaged and bottled and according to the Chinglish blurb contains bear gall from "premium black bears raised for theraputic health supreme in glorious times."
It also contains 40 percent alcohol and is recommended as a tonic for "inconviences and disability of liver, kidney, circulation, diabetics, gout."
Upstairs he opens three closets and two other large cabinets -- all stocked with more cognac. In one closet, which I am alarmed to see also contains a rifle leaning against the wall, he retrives and reverently opens a small suitcase-sized box of Remy Martin in a large crystal flask and urges me to hold it. I do so gingerly and then return it to him. Strawberry King smiles, hugs it to his chest, collapses into a chair and tells me via Joanne that it cost him 1,200 US dollars.
We leave him hugging Remy and troop downstairs to watch TV.
To be continued.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Monkey Time
While my homeland breathlessly awaits Bush II's (Sorry) State of the Union address and the Super Bowl (Go Pats!) a kind of hush is settling in on Shenzhen as the Year of the Monkey Eve approaches on Wednesday. While I was grateful to escape the Christmas madness this year, I had no idea what awaited me regarding Chinese New Year.
Probably better I didn't know. Despite being illegal, fireworks have been exploding for two weeks at all hours outside the Lucky Number. With my trusty bootleg Soviet binoculars, I watched several kids accidently set a vacant lot on fire with some the other day. No fire crews arrived; in fact no one seemed to notice except the pyromaniacal urchins who scrambled like hell under the fence and away from the smoking scene of their crime.
The stores have been packed with frantic shoppers at all hours and are stacked with a plethora of red and gold displays featuring cartoon monkeys and slightly disturbing looking fat, little slug/eunich-like Chinese fellows, banners, produce (mostly oranges), cookies, candies and wines.
The PA systems blare shrill, piercing, repititive New Year songs that sound as if the singers have been on a 48-hour methadrine and gin binge, and there's a mad rush and crush for train, plane and bus tickets as most folks are leaving for their hometowns.
My favorite corner store has temporarily stopped selling the dumplings, mushrooms, boiled quail eggs and fish balls that I ordinarily consume as dinner several nights a week in favor of stocking a bunch of red and gold bling-bling.
To console me after I pretended to cry and rubbed my stomach feigning starvation, the owner's wife gave me a festive cardboard monkey to hang on my apt. door and another hanging gee-gaw with a Pepsi logo and a New Year's greeting in Chinese.
I won't be there to ring it in there though as I'll spending Wednesday-Friday with a Chinese family in the "Adopt a Barbarian for New Year" program sponsored by the "Foreign Affairs Office of the People's Government of Shenzhen Municipality."
Yes, a Miss Li called me last week to inform me that I had been "matched" with a family.
I won't meet them until a banquet on Wednesday at noon, and I know very little about them except what Miss Li was able to divulge.
The family name is Qiu.
One of them is named Qiu Mei.
The wife works at a bank.
They have a 15 year-old daughter who likes tennis, drawing and photography.
They want to take me to a flower market and botanic garden. (Frankly, my interest in viewing flowers ranks right up there with watching 1962 East German documentaries on gravel mining, but I can fake it.)
They live about 10 minutes from the Lucky Number - which is fortunate in case they get tired of me and I have to walk back.
I hope the daughter likes Teddy bears and that the family likes Finnish chocolates because that's what I'm bringing as gifts. The Teddy bear idea came from two younger women - my Chicom comrade, Helen D., and a 20-year-old intern. I said I thought it might be a little babyish, but they assured me that it was perfect.
"You know, if this was a present for a 15-year-old American girl, birth control pills might be more appropriate," I cracked as I fondled the bear's plush fur on a shopping expedition that Helen guided me through.
"NO!" she shrieked, and punched me in the shoulder.
After I bought the bear, I took her to lunch; my treat, her choice.
She chose a historic site: the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in China. No plaque marks it and it is undistinguished in every way, yet I felt the weight of capitalist and culinatry history on me as I bolted down my spicy chicken sandwich and egg, bamboo shoots, shallots, duck soup.
The first KFC in China was also the first in the world to serve duck soup when it ladled it out in a Styrofoam bowl on Dec. 26. Since then, it's been well received at other KFC's in Shenzhen and the chain is going to dish it up at other outlets throughout China, depending on regional tastes.
As I pondered this mix of the Colonel in the land of the Chairman, I was also wondering where I will be able to watch the Super Bowl. Such a First World problem in a Third World country....
There will be a slight interruption in the irregularly scheduled blogging while I decamp with the Qiu family. Stay tuned for an account and Happy Year of the Monkey to all!
Addendum: As I was ending this entry, second and third in command Alex and Paul came up behind me. I quickly closed the page and thought, "Oh, shit, busted!" and turned to face the dire consequences. But they were anything but.
"Justin," said Alex, a little shyly. "On behalf of the Shenzhen Daily we'd like to wish you a happy and prosperous New Year and present you with this gift." He handed me a red and gold sealed packet, which presumably holds some money. Paul - who in the past has seemed to regard Americans as Satan's lap dogs - grinned at me and said he was happy to work with me. Alex echoed Paul.
I told them I was very happy to work with them. And I meant it.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Puttin' on the Ritz
Peter, the SZ fixer, had been urging foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I for most the week to attend what he described as a "party" on Saturday night.
"The mayor will be there," he said. "The woman making it asked what foreigners like. I said they like to drink. So there will be beer. And something to eat because Chinese like to eat as much as foreigners like to drink.."
Otherwise, the details were very vague. Peter called Jeff four times between 5-6 p.m. Saturday and me three times in the same period with various, and often conflicting information about the location and transportation logistics.
Suffice to say Jeff and I finally met him about an hour and fifteen minutes late. The fact that the driver of my bus apparently received orders through his fillings midway through the ride that he must take a new, random route mandated by Shoku: The Robot God Mind Controller from Pluto also had something to do with our late arrival.
The "party", which Jeff and I had envisioned as a tasteful, indoor affair turned out to be a large outdoor variety show organized by organizations mostly unknown to us to celebrate the New Year.
A short distance from the Shezhen library about 400 folding chairs faced a covered stage, sound and light system above which hung a large red and yellow banner that - thanks to a translation - I learned read: "East, West, North, South - All of China celebrates the New Year."
I was grateful to learn this. It quelled my gnawing worry that maybe, say, parts of northwest or south--central China might be left out of this year's fun.
It quickly became clear that Jeff and I had been invited because the event had only one other barbarian - a genial American businessman in his 30s named Brian who is here working with a joint venture. Brian, from California, had a name card at his table in the front row and also had the honor of wearing a red and yellow sash like a Miss Universe contestant across his chest. He had no idea why he was there or why he was wearing a banner.
Jeff and I had no name cards or fancy sashes, but we did have one can of Kingway beer each, peanuts and tangerines and we were seated right behind where the mayor's group. The rows for shlubs began about two rows behind Jeff and I. You could tell where the demarcation line began because dignitaries like us had warm 12 oz. cans of Kingway, while the common folk had warm 24 oz. bottles of Kingway to wash down their peanuts and tangerines.
For reasons unfathomable to Jeff and I, canned beer is considered "better" here - and is more expensive - even if the amount is half as much.
"SMILE, fellow barbarian! But I wish we were sitting with the plebes," I said to Jeff, as a group of SZ tv and photo hacks all began pointing their lenses at us.
"I know. I bloody hate canned beer. Warm to boot. But it all tastes the same after the second one," he muttered, smiling and waving at the Chi-ccom paparazzi. We eyed the as-yet unoccupied chairs and unopened beers around us and each scooped up a couple more cans for future consumption.
We were both interviewed by an earnest young man from a SZ radio station. "Do you like Chinese food?" he asked us tape recorder running. "Do you wish us a happy New Year?"
What we saw of the show - we snuck away after about an hour and repaired to the Tibet bar - boggled me, but it was old hat to Jeff who'd apparently seen his share of similar affairs in his nearly three years here.
There were elements of the Village People combined with all the finesse of a Boy Scout troop jamboree when a group of grinning Red Army dancers, in dress uniform, accompanied a Red Army tenor who sang lustily about the joys of celebrating the New Year and camping out.
There was a little classic western song and dance: - a group of leggy female dancers in top hats, black net stockings and with canes strutting their stuff to a canned version of Putting on the Ritz.
And it wouldn't be a New Year gala without a long, heavy handed lip-synched skit about the dangers of not wearing a SARS mask and riding a train without a ticket.
The offender was a young woman who wound up being quarantined and lectured to by stern, masked law enforcement and medical authorities after it was discovered she had no ticket or mask. She cried a lot. She was contrite and confessed the error of her heedless ways. Then she was redeemed - by an insurance company!
It wasn't clear to Jeff and I how the insurance company figured in the mix, but the dramatics ended on a happy note with the cast waving white and blue cardboard hands emblazoned with the company's logo and singing its praises as the woman beamed gratefully at a man who was presumably her insurance rep.
Arthur Miller, move over.

Friday, January 16, 2004

"Chairman Mao flies on Friday, Saturday I go out to play..." Yeah, no eagles or dead presidents on the currency here, just one dead chairman, some flowers and the Great Hall of the People.
Today was payday, always an activity bursting with romance, mystery and suspense. Neither foreign barbarian coworker Jeff nor I are ever sure exactly when we are going to get paid. It's at the end of the month - give or take a couple days and sometimes in a manner that makes me wonder if they are consulting a necromancer who advises them on a "fortunate time" for payment. We have no idea how our Chinese co-workers get paid and are too polite to ask, though many of them seem to know more about our salaries and pay schedules than we do.
He and usually begin by placing descrete, oblique inqueries on about the 28th of every month. Because it's considered to be bad form, an approach like: "Hey, gimme my bucks!" is verboten and as such we've adopted more subtle strategies such as: "I can almost see the bottom of my worn rice pot vernerable editor. Do you know when the Jade Goddess of Fortune will allow me to replenish it?"
Our pleas drift heavenward to the Celestial Abode where the Shenzhen Daily's own Jade Goddess of Fortune, Lilly, the long-suffering, ever-helpful staff secretary hears them and eventually bustles by our desks to loudly inform everyone within earshot that our pay can be collected at a very specific time --usually something like ""4:17" or "9:51."
This month, though, with New Year/Spring Festival - it's the same thing - rapidly approaching and the paper shutting down for a week beginning Jan. 21, everyone is getting paid early. The Chinese employees need the bucks for gifts, food and travel - New Year is also their Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one - and Jeff and I aren't excluded from that largess.
Today was memorable, not only for the early payment, but also because of an identity mix-up.
I went to the accounting office - where I had been told be at "9:03" - and stared at a woman through the cage bars who stared back at me. No one in accounting speaks English, of course. I finally made the universal gesture for money - rubbing my index and middle fingers and thumb together - and pointed to myself and weakly grinned.
She smiled, got up, pointed to a stool near me and made the universal gesture for sitting down. I did so and she went into the next room. I was alone for about 5 minutes, until another customer appeared with a wad of bills. We smiled at each other and waited.
Another acccounting woman - one whom I recognized - finally appeared. The second customer went to the window and she said something to him that amounted to "The barbarian was here first" and motioned me to the cage window.
As is the norm, she pulled out some paperwork festooned with red rubber stamps, Chinese characters and numbers and pointed to where I should sign. The other customer was fascinated and stood extremely close to me and crained his neck in order to see the exact amount of wealth that the soft, fat, white maggot of a foreigner was about to leach from the sweat and toil of the People.
Feeling like I was in junior high, hiding my Spanish test answers from the prying eyes of Jerry Lesnett, I attempted to cover the paper with my right hand, scrawled my signature, folded the paper and passed it through the bars.
This next step is always my favorite. You see, we are paid in cash. And it comes from a squat, sturdy antiquidated cast iron safe with a large dial that always brings Jesse James to mind. It sits right behind the row of accountants' desks, in plain view.
Though the safe has a dial, accounting never uses it. Instead it's unlocked with a key that looks like an oversized prop in a elementary school play where a key is Very Important.
A hand goes in, bills are extracted and run through an automatic money counter and the assembled wad is passed through the cage.
This time I noticed that my pay was a bit larger than usual. I didn't ask questions, figuring it was a New Year bonus or something and just stuffed the stack into my sport jacket, ignored the still curious second customer's prying eyes, and went back to my desk where Lily appeared in a panic about 20 minutes later.
"Justin! It seems there has been a small mistake in the accounting department. I am sorry to trouble you. Perhaps we can go together back to there and discuss it?"
The small mistake was that I had been given Jeff's pay. The accountant mistook me for him.
He is about 2-3 inches shorter than me, 10 years older and roughly 30 pounds lighter. He has blue eyes. I have brown eyes. His hair is gray. Mine is dirty blond. I wear glasses all the time. He only does to read and edit. He has a noble Roman nose. I have a generic Anglo-Saxon schnozz. He dresses like a dapper country squire, often with a vest and tie. I dress like Otto the bus driver on The Simpsons. We are the only two white guys in a building of 2,000 or so Asians.
But all foreigners look alike, doncha know?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

She Said She Said
"Justin, do you have a moment?"
The questioner was Alex, who is the paper's second-in-command. He's a quiet, articulate and firm fellow in whose presence I am usually quite comfortable. But my "Oh crap, what did I do now?" needle suddenly veered into the red zone. It does that whenever anyone in authority asks if I "have a moment." It ranks right up there with a woman telling me that "we need to talk."
In the past some of those talks and moments have turned into dreary months of unemployment or celibacy - sometimes simultaneously.
Fortunately, though, Alex's question was relatively benign and had nothing to do with me blogging on company time or what was, in retrospect, my ill-inspired impersonation of a Red Guard during some down time in the office.
It seems that Shenzhen city officials think it would be a grand idea for the paper to write and publish a book for its Chinese residents on "300 English phrases." The SZ mayor has been pushing lately to make SZ an "international city" within 5 years and seems to think that such a book in the hands of its 7 million residents would help. (I am not as optimistic. For instance, the same day that the mayor announced the city's Great Leap Forward, I noticed that at a bus stop which I frequently use the handy English sign listing the bus routes had disappeared and been replaced with Chinese advertisements for breast enlargments.)
Alex wanted to pick my brain about what kind of phrases and categories would be appropriate for genial and helpful social/cross-cultural intercourse.
I told him I would mull it over and get back to him later this afternoon. But some immediate ones sprang to mind, though I don't think they may be entirely what the mayor has in mind.

Taxi driver: "I am very happy to take a circuitous, maze-like route to your otherwise direct destination in order to jack up the fare."
Taxi driver:"I know this is not your destination. Please pay me an additional 50 yuan for the honor of seeing an address that you have never seen before."
Taxi driver:"Excuse me while I drive like a baboon on meth."
Bus conductor: "This bus has no scheduled route or stops."
Bus conductor:"The voices in the driver's head tell him where to go."
Dining Out
Waitress:"We are serving you civet cat disguised as tofu. Please enjoy your meal."
Waitress:"The restroom is in the kitchen. Please remove the dirty dishes from the toilet before you go. "
Social conversation
Mr./Ms. Li"No, I cannot tell you if I am married or otherwise divulge any sort of even the most benign information about myself."
Mr./Ms. Li: "Allow me to ask you intensely personal questions based on knowing you for all of 12 minutes."
Mr./Ms. Li: "How much money do you make? How much is your rent? Are you a SARS carrier? At what age do Americans begin having sex with animals?"
In the elevator/grocery store
Total Stranger:"What is in your bag?"
Total Stranger: "Let me look more intently at what is in your bag."
Total Stranger: "Excuse me while I begin to stick my head in your bag."
Total Stranger: "It is my honor and duty to comment to others about the contents of your bag."
Total Stranger:"You eat the same foods as civilized people!"

Sunday, January 11, 2004

A Place for Us
Us hairy savages, that is. On Sunday evening the place was the Shenzhen Grand Theater - a venue that while not exactly grand, seating about 600 with all the ambience of a middle school auditorium but with better acoustics - where the paper, the SZ city government and the local brewery, Kingway ("Kingway! It's clear it's beer!"), sponsored a classical concert for expats.
The program was a pleasant mix of Strauss, selections from Bernstein including West Side Story, Tchaikovsky, Leroy Anderson and two modern Chinese classical numbers Love of Butterfly which featured a fine Russian violinist Julia Igonia and - my all time favorite title - the immortal, tender and moving Women Detachment of the Red Army. (Movement 1: In which Comrades Xirui and Mei Ge deftly defeat the imperialist running dog, paper tiger forces using only a single Model 213 Tokarev pistol, the Little Red Book and a rusty wok.)
Outwardly, it all went as planned. The free tickets were snapped up three days before showtime and the program went smoothly - despite an intermission that featured no beer - Kingway or otherwise -, tea, coffee or any other substance other than bottles of lukewarm water. Foreign barbarain coworker Jeff and I enjoyed it, but some of our Chinese co-workers weren't as enthusiastic.
Jennifer and another female reporter - both mothers in their 30s with sterling university and professional credentials - were "asked" to dress up in red, slit-to-the-thigh cheongsam dresses, spiked heels and yellow and gold "Shenzhen Daily" banners across their torsos to hand out roses to arriving concertgoers.
"Do newspapers in America require their female reporters to do this?" Jennifer asked a day before pulling duty as flower bimbo.
I thought of several female reporters I've known - my ex-wife and one named Mary C. in particular - and tried to imagine them doing anything other than telling their editors where to shove their roses before calling a lawyer.
"No," I replied. "It would be considered very demeaning. It's also illegal. Reporters are hired to write stories, not to dress up like Suzy Wong and hand out flowers. Did they ask you to bind your feet, too?"
Ironically, the same week as the Shenzhen Daily was firmly advancing women's rights and another newspaper, Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou was raided by cops who arrested the editor and six staffers due to its aggresive SARS coverage, the SZ Daily was also hosting a group of University of Missouri journalism school profs who were here for several days to lecture on the American approach to the craft.
The group included Pulitzer prize winner Jacqui Banaszynski who gave what several other SZ Daily reporters described as a fascinating lecture on how her series on a dying AIDS patient was put together.
"Could you do that here?" I asked one.
But I already knew the answer, of course.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

I Can't Explain
Letters. We get letters at the Shezhen Daily. Not many, though, because the editorial page only runs once weekly, on Monday, but a couple we've received lately are good examples of how frustrating the communication gap can be, especially when you're putting out a newspaper aimed at two different readerships: native English speakers and people who think they are.
I've dubbed it "one newspaper, two systems," taking a cue from Deng Xiaopeng's description of China and Hong Kong's relationship as "one government, two systems." My Chinese colleagues didn't think it's particularly funny (one told me not to let any senior editors hear it) but Jeff thought it was hilarious.
The first letter was from a retired English professor at Shenzhen University - a not-quite venerable institution that, in my admittedly limited exposure to it, seems to combine Ivy League pretensions with the rigorous academic standards of Mr. Ling's Third Floor School of Surgery and Nail Care.
The professor, whom I will call Dr. Xiao., was quite upset at a word we had used to describe a recent massive gas well explosion. The word was "blowout". Dr. Xiao could not find "blowout" in his three English dictionaries - which, as it turned out, were all written and edited by other Chinese professors - and believed that it was either a misprint of some sort or an inexcusable use of vulgar slang.
Whatever it was, it was obviously a grievous error that must be corrected at the earliest possible opportunity.
As is the norm, I could hear the top editors discussing Dr. Xiao's fiery missive for quite awhile before they bothered to ask the person who had written the headline: me.
"BlahblahblahChinese-speak-blahBLOWOUT! BLOWOUT? BLOWOUT!?blahblahChinese-speakblah, etc."
When finally consulted, I told them that it was a perfectly acceptable term and even pointed to definition number two: "A sudden escape of a confined gas or liquid, as from a well" in my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
That did not end the discussion. I was asked several more times during the day. The page in my dictionary with "blowout" was photocopied and there was more blahblahblahBLOWOUT? handwringing at odd intervals for hours.
It arose yet again several days later in a Monday morning staff meeting where we point out errors in the previous week's edition. Again I reassurred them. Yet it took 8-10 minutes of heated discussion among themselves to finally resolve it.
I could not figure out why a cranky letter from a retired prof with way too much time and not enough information on his hands would cause so much consternation. No one would tell me and I only found out by happenstance later that Dr. Xiao is also an "English language advisor" to the paper's board.
God help us, I thought.
The second letter concerned a photo caption that foreign barbarian coworker Jeff had written. It showed a couple kissing. The original caption read: "Couple kisses" and went on with some small details about them and why they were kissing.
Jeff changed "Couple kisses" to "Lip service' - a mildly amusing choice, I thought. And, as Jeff pointed out later, "You can already see it's a bloody 'couple kissing' in the bloody picture!"
This time it was a "Mr. Yu -- Senior English Translator" ripping us a new one. Written primarily in Chinese and sprinkled with English, it took the SZ Daily severely to task for using "lip service" in this manner. To make his point he had provided us with photocopies of definitions of "lip service" - none of which, of course, involved kissing. He ended this diatribe with a pithy quote from Homer (the poet, not Simpson) and the astute zinger that a Chinese person must have written this cutline because no English speaker would ever make such a blunder.
More handwringing. More soul searching. More consultations among themselves. Finally they asked me because Jeff wasn't in yet.
I explained that it was supposed to be humorous and a play on words. I painfully deconstructed why it was supposed to be funny, why it was a play on words and why it was OK to use it.
Jeff arrived later and was also interrogated. Hours later, following more phone calls and internal soul searching we were asked - together this time - to explain yet again why it was OK to use "lip service" as a term for an act that was not defined in the dictionary.
"English changes too fast," one reporter who had overheard a lot of this observed. "Every day it seems there are new words and new meanings. It is not so easy for us to know."
"It's the nature of the beast," I replied, instantly regretting my choice of words.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Stray Cat Blues
It's official! SARS is back on the mainland. And the civet cats are taking the blame.
For several weeks there have been daily reports about an unidentified 32-year-old "freelance TV producer" in Guangzhuo (not far from SZ) with SARS-like symptoms. The World Health Organization and China's finest medical authorities have been testing the hell out of the "SARS suspect" - who is in "stable condition and recovering" - and yesterday announced that he is not longer a suspect. He's the real deal.
No word on whether he ate or had any other intimate contact with a civet cat - the Chinese media acts as stenographers, rather than reporters, most of the time - but the news is also full of reports of a supposed genetic link between civet cats, SARS and people who include civet cat as part of a daily balanced diet.
To show they're on top of it all, surgically masked health and law enforcement authorities throughout China are busy staging photo ops of them confisicating cages of the beleagured cats for extermination - 10,000 in Guangdong alone. Rat markets and diners are also being shut down.
Television is also packed with public service ads urging folks to fight SARS by wearing masks, washing their hands and getting plenty of fresh air.
The first measure, in my eyes, is merely a cosmetic, feel-good measure - much like the doctor and nurse costumes that some drug store clerks sport here - and the latter a little ridiculous considering that the air quality in all the major cities is roughly the equivalent of smokng 87 packs of cigarettes daily between taking gulps from the rusty tail pipe of an idling bus.
I've seen no ads telling people not to spit in public or urging them to cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing - an apparently exotic custom practiced by few except barbarians and Chinese who have lived overseas and been unfortunately exposed to our quaint practices. While hawking up a loogie and launching it into the air and onto the sidewalk, street or elevator floor is technically an offense for which one can be fined here, it's rarely, if ever, enforced.
I've begun my own SARS prevention procedures.
First, I gave the 34 civet cats I'd been harboring in my apartment to the local animal shelter; anyway, they were hell on the furniture, particulary when they were in heat, and neighbors were either complaining or coming over to ask if they could "borrow"one for breakfast. I also eliminated rat from my diet, though it pained me greatly me to do so.
And I no longer take a crowded elevator at the Lucky Number. Recently six passengers and I were treated to the delightful sight of another rider who coughed up his green gold, delicately lifted the corner of his surgical mask and loudly expelled the glistening nugget out on the elevator floor.
No one else seemed to notice or care, but I got off at the next floor, though it was still 11 above my destination, and waited for another car.

The Day the Music Died
Most westerners have never heard of Anita Mui, but the 40-year-old "Canto-pop" (Cantonese pop) singer who died of cancer last week was extremely popular on this side of the blue rock. I had heard of her - and was fond of a kung fu flick she'd made in the early '90s - before arriving, but was sorry I didn't know more until I was editing the wire service obit and the tribute stories.
Actually, it's been a hard six months for Chinese entertainment fans and Mui's death on December 24, capped it all off.
A few weeks before her, a stunt man - a Chinese equivalent of Evil Knievel who'd made his mark here jumping the Great Wall and the Yellow River on motorcycles - died of an asthma attack after partying into the early morning hours.
Shortly before he rode into the great beyond, a well known lyricist named Lam Chun-keung died in mid-November.
And on April Fool's Day, another singer/actor - and coincidentally a close friend of Mui's - a man named Leslie Yeung jumped to his death from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong.
Mui was labeled by some here as the "Chinese Madonna" because of a sultry stage style and numerous costume changes - more like the "Chinese Cher" - and sadly it took her death to momentarily squelch the ubiquitous Carpenters/Titantic theme soundtrack that seems to eternally play here. She's been the subject of numerous TV tribute shows, too, since she passed. I've watched a few and though I can't understand any of the lyrics her talent is clear; a smoky, low melancholy singing voice, and from the interviews I've seen she also appears to have had a wonderful sense of humor and style.
She could also ham it up as an actress - if you're into a kung fu-as- a-comic strip, track down a copy of Heroic Trio in which she, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung kick some major butt as three super-powered heroines trying stop a nefarious baby thief. Made in '92 (eight years before Charlie's Angels), it's mostly an excuse to string together a series of extreme action sequences to showcase Ching the Invisible Woman (Yeoh), Tung the Wonder Woman (Mui) and Chat the Thief Catcher (Cheung) - but it's quite entertaining, and Mui is memorable.
She announced that she had cancer in September, gave her last concert in November and died less than a month later after a life that read like a movie script.
Like Cher's Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves persona (but unlike Cher) Mui did grow up poor and literally danced and sang for the money people threw when she was as young as 4. She dropped out of junior high to keep singing to support her family and after making it big continued to support them as well as numerous charities. She was the driving force behind a Hong Kong all star SARS benefit concert last year.
Mui never married, though reportedly she had a raft of tulmultuous love affairs with the likes of Jackie Chan, Yeung and - shades of Ashton and Demi - also robbed the cradle of a Canto-pop singer 15 years her junior.
"I would trade all I have for a woman's basic aspiration - love," she said of her failed romances in one translated interview I read.
How young she was. And how sad that is.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Almost (always) Cut My Hair
There are many small joys in China for a white ghost like me.
*School kids in blue and white uniform sweat suits trying out their rudimentary English by smiling, waving and yelling "Hello,-hello-how-are-you" just when I'm feeling despondent, homesick and unloved.
*Watching lines of folks tonight at the grocery store picking through, choosing, checking out and lugging home 6-foot-3-5 inch stalks of sugar cane, presumably for bizarre ceremonies concerning the upcoming Jan. 22 lunar New Year of the Monkey.
*The young guys who stopped and rattled my door at the Lucky Number the other night as I was playing an obscure Colorado bluegrass album (Towne and Country Revue) just mailed to me by a friend - and former bandmember - in LA. I hadn't seen the fans standing outside til I sensed a presence and turned from playing air banjo to see three Chinese dudes in bad crew cuts bouncing to the banjo and mandolin interplay that was wafting outside the metal grated door -- "Hello! Happy music!" one blurted out, before they scooted off -a little embarrassed, I think. I wanted to invite them in for more...
But let us not forget haircut nirvana. Fortunately, my hair grows fairly fast and I am able to feed my habit without turning into a guy with a bad crewcut bouncing up and down outside a stranger's door.
It's no frigging Great Clips or Sam's or anything else you might imagine. And it's only $3.00 American for the finest sensual experience short of communing with God or imagined sex with Selma Hayek.
Never mind the folks that may gather to peer through the window gawking and giggling at a foreigner with a shampoo crown. We're damn cute with a head full o' suds.
Just relax as you go through step one. It's a contained shampoo and scalp massage all in one. Everyone in the shop has a duty and speciality - from the person who sweeps up, to the barber - and you begin with the shampoo and massage girl who uses a bottle of water and shampoo to carefully and artfully shampoo and languorously scratch and massage your head and tweak, bend and rub your eears.
It's like electric butter flooding your brain. I've dozed off a few times with just the simple shampoo. She's careful to keep the suds up and then just as carefully collects them in her palms to toss them in a nearby wastebasket, before returning to scratch the itch some more.
After a 20 minute shampoo, you're led to the rinse-down chair which involves a second artiste who continues the scalp massaging while taking 5-10 minutes to run soothing warm water through the hair.
Then back to the shampoo girl for a upper torso, arms, hands and finger rubdown. Thump, bump, crack, rubbadubbabrubbadubba. Thump and crack some more. If you're not jelly by now, you're obviously an android or a registered Republican.
Next you're put in a body bag and heaved into a barber chair where - if you're lucky - the hairsmith understands sign language that means "just a little off the top, sides and back".
That work done, it's back to the rinse-down chair for another five minutes of warm water and magic fingers, then a turban wrap and back to the barber chair for the blow dry.
Easily the finest 45 minutes on the planet, especially for three bucks.

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