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.

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