Thursday, February 12, 2004

Secret Agent Ice Cream Man
Foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I have had our schedules flipped for a few days due to the SZ mayor's office. Hizzoner has a State of the City address to deliver soon and as the Daily serves double duty as a newspaper and the city's English language propaganda organ (not necessarily in that order) we were told on Tuesday afternoon that I would temporarily work nights and Jeff take the lighter day shift so he could also "polish" the English translation of the mayor's 40-some page oratorical masterpiece.
Why the mayor doesn't employ his own English speaking polisher and we weren't assigned to split the duty wasn't addressed, though after Alex gave us our marching orders -- including a warning to Jeff that the contents of the speech were "very confidential" and not to be shared with anyone -- there was some speculation by others as to why I was left out of the process.
"Maybe it's because you're an American, mate," Jeff cracked. "Aussies aren't a threat. We're all about kangaroos and cuddly bloody koalas, not screaming eagles."
Actually, I had seen portions of the speech before the edict because two of the Chinese staffers doing the translating had asked me for help. Suffice to say that what I saw didn't exactly inspire me to contact my CIA handler, though I briefly considered registering it as a new, miracle sleep aid.
Later, the "Ugly American theory" was also independently proposed by two Chinese pals, one of whom I had lunch with in a mall prior to starting work Wednesday afternoon. "K", a friend of Peter's, is also a party member so I took him at his word.
Besides, he was right about the ice cream rule.
After lunch I spotted a Baskin-Robbins outside the restaurant and stopped to order a cone of mango sorbet. I asked K if I could buy him a scoop, too.
He laughed and declined.
"No Chinese man eats ice cream," he said.
"Why?" I said, licking a swirl of the sweet icy mango.
"We say that only women and children eat ice cream."
I mentally checked my genitals and wrinkles. They seemed to be still intact so I ventured another small bite of sorbet.
"Sure you don't want one? It's really good. Just like home. Mine, that is."
"A man will be laughed at if he is seen eating that on the street," K continued.
"Let's test that," I said brazenly. After all, SZ isn't a Chinese version of Hooterville. It's a cosmopolitan metropolis of affluent mostly educated residents who - despite occasionally dubious sanitation habits and standards - enjoy the sophisticated worldview that comes with having regular access to KFC, McDonalds and Walmart.
We went outside and I began conspicuously slurping the sorbet.
Within three licks, a group of adolescent school girls in identical blue and white sweat suits spotted me and the largest one pointed at the eunich foreign baby eating ice cream and began laughing. Then she made a bizarre grimacing face at me and pointed down with both index fingers at her torso in a repeated up-and-down motion.
Her schoolmates thought it was hilarious. I was baffled. Usually they just smile politely and shyly and say "hello!" hello!" and ask where I'm from. The more pushy ones sometimes commit what another foreigner in China has called "language rape" which involves incessentally badgering you to "practice" English with them - but this was mocking and a little startling.
"What does that mean?" I asked, still gripping my cone o' shame after my tormentors had had their fill. "That thing she did with her hands. What does it mean?"
"Ignore it," said K. "You do not want to know. But please finish the ice cream quickly."

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