Wednesday, April 28, 2004

 
Watching the Detectives
It looks as though Shenzhen Zen and I may soon relocate to Hong Kong. I can't post details here at the moment because it seems that, though it's blocked in China, this blog has acquired a powerful SZ reader or two not exactly comfortable with some recent posts.
It's a damn shame and I was damn foolish to feel as insulated and yes, even as smug as I sometimes did. Trust no one here, soon-to-be-ex-foreign-barbarian-coworker Jeff warned me upon my arrival.
I did and it's come back to bite me.
Meanwhile, if the rest of you are interested in details e-mail me at average_guy26 at yahoo.com. Otherwise, watch this space and I'll update with the salient details when the storm clouds clear. The good news is that I have a job nibble from a HK paper.
On a lighter and less controversial note, however, classical music and golf lovers may be interested in knowing what I spotted on a large poster last night in the auditorium lobby at a piano concert by a young virtuoso named Lang Lang.
(A concert, it should be noted, that was punctuated with frequent camera flashes and featured the sight of several blatant audio and video tapers, one of whom had the tripod set firmly in front of him - meanwhile China wonders why it has a problem with arts and entertainment piracy...)
It was a picture of Lang Lang walking in front of Carnagie Hall with his name on the marquee. Below the photo was a blurb in Chinese followed by "Tiger Woods."
"What's Tiger Woods got to with Lang Lang?" I asked a friend who had come with me. "He's not a musician or a critic."
He studied it and then translated: "Tiger Woods says Lang Lang plays beautiful music."
And Shaq says: "Tell yo mama, 'Don't miss Yo Yo Ma!'" I thought.
It's only one of the many weird marketing connections all too common in China, though. I saw a newspaper ad for an upscale apartment development last week that depicted an array of wood-cut portraits of historical western greats ranging from Copernicus to Freud. The theme, according to a coworker, was "great thinkers" who would presumably be the kind of folks to live in a 35-floor luxury condo in Shenzhen, China.
Initiially, one fantasy tenant in particular jumped out at me. Between Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Graham Bell was their neighbor, Robert E. Lee.
"What's he doing here living next to Abe Lincoln?" I asked. "He lost our Civil War. Lincoln won. Otherwise, he was a great general but do you know who he was?"
"Yes, that is Thomas Jefferson," she replied.
I looked closer at another face. It was a young man in overalls and a newsboy cap beside the grill of a 1920s-era Chevrolet.
"Who is that?"
"He made steam machines."
"James Watt? That's an old American car. Watt worked with steam engines in the 18th century!"
She shrugged.
Then I spotted Charles Lindbergh and the date 1903 under his mug.
"And that's a Wright brother, right?"
"Yes. He invented airplanes."
"No. It's the man who was the first to fly across the Atlantic by himself nonstop."
She looked a little chagrined, shrugged again and then brightened
"I bought an apartment there. They're very, very nice."


Monday, April 26, 2004

 
Bang a Gong update
Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair you've got a friend of sorts in China. Yes, it turns out that USA Today and the New York Times aren't the only papers with rogue reporter problems. You won't read about this in Editor and Publisher, of course, but one of the two Fanlungong incidents at the Shenzhen Press Group has been solved. Turns out it was a copycat crime, of sorts, involving a young woman in the Daily Sunshine's entertainment department who confessed to subbing in the FLG material after deadline.
She was reportedly pissed at the paper's editor and hoped her stunt would get him canned. No word on what her grudge was, but she supposedly was inspired by the FLG photo brouhaha that put the editor of the Shenzhen Evening News out of a job and into disgrace. She denied any FLG connection, though that's probably a moot point as far as "the authorities" are concerned.





Friday, April 23, 2004

 
Luxury
In recent weeks I've been moonlighting two nights and one Sunday afternoon a week trying to hone the English conversation skills of a novou riche Shenzhen couple who have hopes of eventually going to England to get MBAs from a university in Leicester.
I'll call them the Yan's, though neither one has that surname and Chinese couples don't go by one surname. Both come from proletarian backgrounds, but have taken advantage of the economic freedom China's experienced in the past decade or so to leverage themselves up to the point that Mrs. Yan quit her old job as an accountant to work fulltime at home playing the stock market while hubs brings home the rest of the fatty, bony pork from his job with China's largest bank.
They own a new four door Honda with brown leather seats and have their sights set on a Beemer for their next car.
Their four bedroom condo is in a gated high rise community buried behind about a mile and a half of palms and foliage on a narrrow winding, well-paved road in an area called Overseas Chinese Town (OCT in local lingo) because it was originally populated by wealthy Chinese who'd made their money overseas. With the palms, the golf course, private security and the reek of money it reminds me little of Boca Raton, but minus the aluminum walkers, 02 tanks, Haitan nurse/attendants and the nearest kosher deli is probably 18,906 or so miles away - unless there's one in Hong Kong.
There's also an additional WASP element to their community's restaurant which is where they invited me for dinner last night as a thank you gesture for what I fear are my fruitless tutoring efforts.
From the outside, the Laurel Restaurant ("Chinese cuisine with the (sic) Friendly Service") is indistinguishable from a swanky counterpart in Boca, L.A., Palm Springs or perhaps Vail or Aspen. There's valet parking with rows of glittering Beemers and Benzes and their ilk and gracious attendants with discrete headphones and in-house mobile units clipped to their trim hips to greet you at the door and ensure your reservation is intact and that you don't trip over the pile carpet or slip on the marble on your way to the dining area.
But whether you've got a candle-lit table by the man-made lake or a leather chair in the well air-conditioned dining room the perspective starts to warp just a little if you were expecting to meet Biff, Buffy and Caldwell Holdridge III for prime rib and Mo√ęt.
For starters there was the Chinese and English signboard at the dining room entrance proclaiming the night's specials.
My eye was immediately drawn to: "Braised goose feet with boiled sea urchin."
Please, I prayed as I glanced to my left and saw other succulent special offerings, including a complete pig's head, minus body and sporting two marishino cherry "eyes" under plastic wrap on a heavy, blindingly bright white china plate, please God. If you're here tonight and can spare some time off from Iraq or Israel or maybe that 87 passenger bus plunge going on in Hainan Province right now, please don't let him order the specials. Anything but the specials.
The Yans were gracious hosts. They did ask me if there was anything I didn't normally eat when it came to Chinese food. Since I've arrived, my attitudes have changed a bit from eager-to-please by appearing to enjoy anything through which blood once passed to a few basic no-nos.
"No heads, no feet, no stomachs and no pets," has become my new inflexible dining rule.
But there's something I always forget and this time it was the "no weirdly textured, slimy, spongy, oddly prickly stuff that I can't identify and you don't have an English word for, but it really, really makes me want to hurl." That was in my otherwise delicious cup of beef broth soup. I rolled it round my mouth for a moment, suppessed the gag reflex and then brought the cup up to my mouth and discretely spit it back in.
In doing so, I'd immediately violated one rule of Chinese dining etiquette in order to not commit another dining sin.
Of course, it's not polite to begin eating food and then put it back. That's universal.
In China it's OK to spit out waste like bone or shrimp shells. No problem there. But there's a catch. It's ONLY OK to LITERALLY spit it on to your plate. Like from 6 inches away. Only barbarians discretely deposit the waste in their hand, napkin or by bringing a bowl up to their mouth and slipping it back into the soup. But try as I have, I still haven't been able to bring myself to lustily hock bones, gristle or shrimp shells back onto a plate as Mrs.Yan had just done with a bit of beef bone in her soup. (Meanwhile, the Mr. had his rice bowl almost to his lips as he bent over and shoveling with chop sticks, loudly sucking up the plump grains,)
The Yans had brought their 4-year-old daughter with them and even she knew better than their guest. Observant little tyke that she was, she had caught me in the act with the soup bowl, laughed and said something to her mom in Chinese. Mrs. Yan smiled apologetically, but I had caught the world "monkey."
As I gazed around the room there were some other moments when I felt as if I was dining in a parallel universe - one where a version of the Chinese Beverly Hillbillies ran the world.
To my right was what appeared to be an elderly well-heeled businessman with a much younger and gorgeous female companion - whom, judging from their longing gazes and fingerplay across the table, probably wasn't the woman he'd married 35 years ago who was probably at home in Hong Kong playing high stakes mah jong at that moment.
The mistresses' cell phone chirped and I watched her slide the tiny, sleek silver phone from her Prada bag, slowly withdraw her hand from her partner's liver spotted grasp and, as she chatted away, begin mining her left nostril with a carefully manicured, cherry red nail.
Yes, here it's perfectly acceptable to publicly pick your nose.
He continued to watch her adoringly while I supressed another gag reflex and excused myself to the W.C.
When I returned our first course was ready.
It wasn't a head, a stomach, feet or a pet. Just large cubes of cold beef with requisite half-inch chucks of clear fat - dyed red, of course. Everyone knows Americans love beef and only the finest establishments go to the trouble of dying the fat red.
I thanked the Yans for their thoughtfullness, closed my eyes ever-so-briefly and then reached for the chopsticks.









Wednesday, April 21, 2004

 
Hair
The more contact I have with a few other foreign barbarians here, the more the feeling grows that perhaps it's better for their families, ex-girlfriends and Western Civilization in general that they are here and not exhorting from a crowded street corner or breaking into a church service or day care center in New York, Toronto, L.A. or London to spread the urgent news about the demonic little squirrel people that live in their socks.
A fellow American I'll call "S" is a case in point. S also lives in the Lucky Number complex, though - thankfully - I've had little contact with him since I first encountered him about three days after my arrival in September.
He's always "very busy." Very, very busy "teaching" and "editing" and "setting up deals" and "marketing trade deals." He's about 33 or so, wiry, has brown curly hair, an intense gaze that never rests or focuses from behind triangular wire rims and is about 5-9. And, despite his strident claim to be an L.A.-native, he has New York - more specifically, Long Island - written all over him. It's in his accent and gestures and in occasional small details like calling a "pizza" a "pie." We run into each other occasionally coming and going from the apartment elevator and the exchanges have been mostly one-sided.
Me: "Hey, S. How's it going?"
S: (eyes skittering like green marbles in a paint shaker) "I'm busy. Very busy. Gotta run. What's new? I'm working on a trade deal, on deadline. My computer's down. Gotta find an Internet bar. Yeah, yeah. Busy. Trade deal. Editing it and marketing it. Teaching, too, all the time. What's your name again? I'm so busy I can't remember. It's crazy. You got a girlfriend? Mine moved out. Gotta find an Internet bar for my deadline. Girlfriend moved out. Gotta go. We gotta have coffee sometime."
Me: "Uh...OK. Coffee. Bye."
So imagine my surprise a few nights ago when we met on the way up the elevator and he asked if he could drop by my apartment.
"What do you do about medicine here?" was his first question before telling me that my place needs airing out.
"Uh, like what kind?" I said, thinking that Prozac or Lithium weren't probably readily available at the local pharmacies.
"You know. If you need medicine from the States, what do you do?"
He still hadn't said what kind, so I skipped the followup question and told him how I'd had problems getting blood pressure meds shipped here and - thanks to Peter-the-SZ-fixer - had finally found what appeared to be a trustworthy equivalent marketed by a Western pharmacutical company in China.
(Kids, don't try that at home.)
I offered to fix him up with Peter and asked again what he needed meds for.
He sighed, looked a little embarassed and ran his hand through his bushy brown hair.
"My hair. Baldness."
"Like Rogaine?" I asked in bemused disbelief.
No, not Rogaine. He followed a mind-numbing lecture on how Rogaine was one kind of hair growth treatment and he needed another kind, and, to be exact, some of kind medicine that is used to shrink prostates but also helps hair grow.
"But you've got plenty of hair," I said almost apologetically.
"You don't see! But I can," he replied. "A lot of people can't see it. But I know. I know." He tugged at a lock. "See! I'm losing it!"
I began edging toward the door.
"Yeah, OK. You're losing it. Right."
I again mentioned Peter and then suggested that he order some of the Prostate-Shrink/Hair Miracle Grow from the Internet, maybe from a Canadian pharmacy.
"But you don't know what you're really getting!" he said. "I've thought of all that. It could all be counterfeit, expecially from here. Lemme see your meds!"
I showed him the English language package and he'd heard of the company.
"But it's made here! It could be fake! How do you know?"
I told him I'd had my blood pressure checked before and after taking the stuff and it was back to normal since I started.
"But you still don't know for SURE!"
I was getting increasingly nervous and also felt my blood pressure beginning to rise.
"Uh, so what do you want to do? Why are you asking me if you've checked all the alternatives."
He sighed and for once looked straight at me.
"No one can help, I know. You know why? I want to buy it from Walgreens. It's got to be from Walgreens. Then I'll know it's real."
There is, of course, no Walgreens in China and no answer to a revelation like that, unless you're a trained therapist. Which I'm not. I just occasionally play one at the Lucky Number.







Tuesday, April 20, 2004

 
Bang a Gong Pt. II
The mysterious Fanlungong has struck another blow against the mighty Shenzhen Press Group. Early Tuesday morning, an alert distributor dropping off copies of a sister publication, Daily Sunshine, discovered that an entire page had been subbed out and replaced by FLG material. Authorities were alerted, papers destroyed, the page was remade and unlike the previous, recent offending photo in the Shenzhen Evening News which hit print and caused the News editor to lose his job, no heads have rolled - yet.
But as foreign barbarian coworker says: "There are no accidents in China. Someone always has to be blamed."
As with the photo incident, no one seems to know exactly how it happened - whether someone hacked into the Sunshine's system or if there's an FLG mole buried in the Press Tower or printing plant which sits behind the tower.
It's caused quite a stir throughout the building, the SZ Daily included. A last-minute meeting was convened Tuesday afternoon by our Editor-in-Chief to warn the staff to be on guard, though foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and were the only employees who were excluded.
Initially we were puzzled about the reason for the meeting and a bit offended at our exclusion, until I recalled what I'd heard about the Sunshine page earlier today and told him.
"That's got to be it," he said.
Indeed it was. And I got my licks in.
The staff streamed back into the newsroom talking excitedly among themselves and I innocently asked what was up.
Jeff and I missed you guys, I said. We were worried.
"It is a mystery and we cannot say," said one.
"It wouldn't be anything about Fanlungong and the Daily Sunshine would it?"
Heh. I live for moments like that. Stunned silence followed by a torrent of questions.
"How do you know? How can you know? Are you a spy?"
"A good journalist never reveals his sources," I smirked.
But I must confess it has disturbed me a little. In the unlikely event that the FLG successfully messed with the SZ Daily, the paper could conceivably be shut down, no questions asked. Heads would wobble and some might roll.
And I'd hate to see any of my coworkers - even Evil Anti-American Paul - in jail or unemployed.

Monday, April 19, 2004

 
Pride in the Name of Love/MLK
I can always count on the middle school three blocks west of the Lucky Number to rouse me - if even briefly - promptly at 7:45 a.m. , six days a week. That's when the martial music begins pumping, followed by about 10 minutes of strident sounding unintelligble announcements, exhorations and proclamations as the kids stand more or less at attention on the soccer field before finishing with jumping jacks stretching exercises and going to class.
Sometimes, I try to imagine what they are hearing.
"Valiant students, future enlightened scholars and ever-striving future cogs in the glorious Chinese organ. It is with great, unbounded joy that I proclaim a pep rally promptly at 16:43 to support our nation's ongoing struggle to liberate the Autonomous Region of Taiwan from rogue, separatist elements. Don't forget that tommorow is Young Pioneer Day so be sure to wear your cleanest red kerchiefs. Warmly welcome and greet substitute teacher-cadres in the following classes: calligraphy, flower arranging and fourth period Deng Xiaopeng Theory.
" And, Li Feng, please report to the headmaster's office for further re-education."
I mostly just groan, pull a sweat soaked pillow over my head and roll over.
But this morning after the usual aural clatter, I heard what sounded like English - more specifically, a young girl speaking English. It took me a little longer to figure out that it also sounded vaguely familiar.
..."my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream..."
Wha? Kicking aside a roach trap, I bounded to the kitchen in my torn racoon boxers and pitted Julian, California winery T-shirt window, grabbed my trusty counterfeit Soviet army bincolulars, scanned the school yard and saw her earnestly speaking, sans notes into a mic.
..."I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners..."
Yes, indeed. It was Martin Luther King's 1963 Washington, D.C. speech being clearly and expressively orated by what appeared to be a 12- or 13-year-old girl in 2004 Shenzhen, China.
I kept listening - half in disbelieve and mostly in a state of slight awe and puzzlement.
"Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!..."
I started clapping from the window. "And from Tienamen Square, too!" I shouted, though no one 19 floors below seemed to hear me.
..."we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Except for another round from me, there was no applause, but she bowed slightly, said something to a teacher who then took the mic and apparently told her schoolmates to form single file lines and return to their prevously scheduled lives
I had to share this with someone who could relate and as my enslaved non-English speaking cleaning lady wasn't handy, I immediately called recently arrived foreign barbarian pal, James, told him about it and asked if this was the anniversary of King's death. I knew it was in April and couldn't recall the day.
"I think it's April 4," he said. "But if they observed Pearl Harbor Day here it would probably be on Dec. 15."
"It was weird and wonderful," I said. "I have no idea of whether she knew what she was really saying."
"Yeah, there was probably a disconnect between the content and the comprehension," he said.
Later, I asked a couple Chinese coworkers what they knew of King and I Have a Dream.
They'd learned of him and the speech in school and had the basics down - one even said, not entirely unaccurately, that he "was regarded by some elements to be an enemy of the U.S. government" -- so thanks partially to J. Edgar Hoover, King's become a mythic figure in Sino school curriculum.
"But I think we know more about your country's famous people than you know of ours in your schools, right?" one asked.
I somewhat shamefacedly agreed and told him I'd start working on memorizing Mao's 1956 "Let a hundred flowers bloom and one hundred schools of thought contend" speech as soon as possible.





Tuesday, April 13, 2004

 
Bang a Gong
The editor at one of the Shenzhen Daily's sister papers, the Shenzhen Evening News is apparently out of a job and undergoing "re-education" after the Sunday News ran a photo spread about substandard rental housing in Shenzhen. His misstep, though, had nothing to do with libeling slumlords but with what most readers probably never saw unless they were intently scanning one picture.
It shows a man lying in a bed and behind him on a wall is a blurry picture and shelf with two books. The picture is of a leader of a banned-and-reviled-in-China religious group called Fanlun Gong and the two books are also Fanlun Gong-related.
I don't know much about Fanlun Gong except that they seem to be regarded here as a cross between the Moonies, Jim Jones' suicide cult and David Koresh's Branch Davidians with a little of the Manson Family thrown in for good measure. In the West they present themselves as very peaceful and very persecuted.
But, as I was asking fellow staffers about the picture and the editor's fate I realized that even saying the name "Fanlun Gong" in a tone louder than a whisper was a little like shouting "Hey, do you remember what time the NAMBLA meeting is tonight?" in a crowded American elevator.
The photo was taken by a freelance shutterbug and his fate is unknown, but several staffers have assured me that that he's undoubtedly a crafty Fanlun Gong member who set up the shot. "They are extremely clever and crafty. There is almost nothing they cannot do," a deskmate told me hushed tones, not daring to use the "FG" word out loud.
None of it makes much sense to me. Unless one really scrutinizes the photo - unlikely for most readers - and knows what the Fanlun Gong bigwig looks like (also unlikely given the media blackout) the offending portrait and books aren't noteworthy or particularly discernable. Why Fanlun Gong would go to the trouble of setting something like that up knowing that it would not be publicized if discovered baffles me. But if true, perhaps it was their version of subliminal advertising.
Still, someone noticed and now someone else is paying for the "error."
The editor, I have been told, will be "placed in a job of lower rank" after "several months of education."

Monday, April 12, 2004

 
War (What is it good for?)
Iraq was on the front page of the SZ Daily four out of five times last week and it'll be front page again today because seven Chinese civilians became the latest foreigners to be kidnapped in Iraq when they were abducted by an armed group yesterday. The word swept quickly through the newsroom Monday morning and I have to admit with both feelings of smugness and guilt that Dylan's mocking, taunting "How does it feeel?" line from Like a Rolling Stone was also sweeping through my head.
You see, I've been getting a bit weary of both the thinly veiled anti-American sentiment frequently expressed by third-in-command Paul when he barely contains his glee about the latest U.S. setback in Iraq and I've also gotten tired of the sincere-but-naive "How do you feel?" questions from simpatico Chinese pals and coworkers concerning the same issue.
How the fuck am I supposed to feel? I want to retort. Yes, it's shaping up as another Vietnam. Very clever anaylysis on your part. Many Americans and Europeans predicted that before the war began. No, I'm not happy or proud of it, but it's not my doing and if I'm still here in November, I'll be voting for Kerry via absentee ballot. Meanwhile, it makes me sick to see history repeating itself.
My irritation though, pales in comparison to that of another, more distinguished journalism expat in Beijing, a J-school prof named Joseph Bosco who blogs on a site called Longbow Papers (http://josephbosco.com/weblog.htmland) who, in his words, "took great umbrage at four extremely graphic images of the four (American) civilians murdered, mutilated, dismembered, and hung in Fallujah, Iraq, which China Daily chose to put on the front page of Thursday's English language print edition. From the hate e-mail that has been pouring in, one would think I had called for the desecration of Mao's tomb."
His blogged outrage was answered by a slew of annonymous e-mails from Chinese blog readers, a couple of which I reproduce here verbatim:
"America, Shame On You!
"You invade other's country for oil. Now the dead is just for justice.
"Nothing related to china daily. If you don't want to work in china, go out!
"China Daily is just publish the news.
"Shame on you America!
"XXXXXX He"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"A raper went to other people's house without
"authorization and tries to rape a woman. Unfortuntely
"he gets killed. Looks you strongly supportly the raper.
"Let's see if the raper goes to your home. what's your feeling.
"Shame on you and brainless comments
"A Guest
"XX Liu"
*******************************************************************
As it happens, foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I successfully argued at the time against the SZ Daily using the same picture on our front page. It's tasteless, we pointed out over Paul's objections that it "only showed the truth."
"What if those were Chinese bodies?" I asked. "Would you print it?" The concept was completely foreign to him, it was clear. After all, China is the largest power that has opposed the U.S. war in Iraq and he couldn't comprehend any scenario involving fellow countrymen. Though it was also front page news later when three Japanese civilians working in Iraq were kidnapped and threatened with gruesome deaths unless Japan withdraws its troops from Iraq, in his mind, and those of other Chinese who can't get over WWII and the rape of Nanjing, it's only Japan's just desserts for once again sending armed forces outside its borders.
But China? Mao and Deng forbid. That karma will never happen.
Surprise.
At the time, he didn't answer my question. He simply ignored it as many Chinese seem to do when faced with having to respond to a potentially embarrassing query or retort. Though he might have the opportunity to rethink it soon. But I'm sincerely hoping he doesn't.


Wednesday, April 07, 2004

 
A Change is Gonna Come
The Lucky Number neighborhood is not what it used to be. Change, while not sweeping, is in the air and most doesn't seem to suit me yet.
The missing park benchs outside the Lucky Number were the first signs that the apocalypse may be imminent. I'd loved all three of them because they provided equally good vantage points to watch a slice of sino-world go by on a lazy weekend morning or slow Sunday evening . Though they were usually occupied, this being the world's most populous country and all, I did enjoy the chance to plop my fat, hairy barbarian butt on one to catch the show.
It's not every day when you can watch a guy buff the sidewalk, for instance. There's a wide and long tile sidewalk in front of a collection of stores running along the bottom of the Lucky Number complex and it gets a daily hosing down and buffer job from two fellows in cheap green jumpsuits whom I've dubbed "Hoser" and "Buff Man."
Buff Man has the hardest job. His buffer runs off a 40 yard extension cord that is plugged into an outlet in a shed about 42 yards from his farthest buffing point. Hoser has it easy, just letting the water run and setting up little yellow plastic Chinese "Slippery When Wet" signs that are usually knocked over by his co-worker's efforts to control the bucking buffer.
If they aren't on duty, there's usually another show going on such as one inside a new barbershop under construction. One night I watched a manager-type outside the shop repeatedly test the automatic garage door style security gate with his remote control. Gate goes up, gate goes down, gate goes up, gate goes down -- I heard Homer Simpson's voice in my head as this middle aged man in a ill-fitting cheap suit repeatedly pushed the buttons and beamed at his handiwork.
Until, that is, gate goes down and stays stuck, which trapped three Chinese versions of Moe, Larry and Curly working inside the shop. They pounded on the gate, shouted and tried in vain to lift it while their boss stood outside impotently punching the remote while a crowd gathered to offer commentary.
But I awoke earlier this week to find the benches had vanished. No more free seats for the greatest small shows on earth.
The second blow came when I was buying a couple Tsingtaos from a merchant whom I've become fond of. He and his family live in a small store front business that serves as a grassroots 7-Eleven. He speaks passable English and his wife, who doesn't, would favor me with a free tangerine or pack of dried beef or squid slipped in my bag, no matter what I'd purchased.
His name is Mr. Lan, but I'd privately dubbed him Happy Skull Man because his head - with protruding teeth and gums, high cheek bones and a nearly bald pate - resembles a living skull and he was always happy to chat with me. But Happy Skull Man told me last night that this is his last week in business. He's sold the store and is thinking of opening up an Internet bar somewhere else in Shenzhen. I'm going to miss him and his wife's little freebies.
Blow number three also came this week when my friendly laundress with the forehead cyst told a Chinese friend of mine to tell me that she's going out of business "soon." No specific date yet, but I'm going to have to learn to handwash my unmentionables or break down and buy a washing machine.
Change number four is kind of positive, though. A new foreigner has moved into the Lucky Number complex and he's only a few doors down from me on the 19th floor. We made eye contact outside the elevator but quickly learned that our European heritage wasn't enough for a lasting relationship.
He's French and speaks no English. I know only three phrases of atrociously accented French, not including "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" from Lady Marmalade, which I didn't think would probably be appropriate given the circumstances.
So I asked in Spanish if he spoke Spanish and he replied in Italian that he speaks Italian and then in French asked me if I parlez vouxed Chinoise to which I replied "mei-wo." (No, in Chinese).
We established my name and his (Christian) continued this fractured dialogue complete with body language up 19 floors to the bemusement of five Chinese fellow passengers who began giggling and hiding their smiles behind their hands at the ridiculous sight of two barbarians who couldn't communicate with each other.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

 
Here comes Peter Cottontail
Monday morning's planning meeting for the week's stories was lurching merrily along like a three legged dog on Quaaludes. One enterprising reporter said he "might" do a story on the cancellation of an Irish step dancing troupe that the paper had previously ballyhooed as coming here. Another impassioned crusader for the public's right to know said he was going to write "something about French food" and "one other topic which I have forgotten."
Then someone, not me, pointed out that Easter was approaching.
All eyes on the foreign barbarian. "Er, it's not really a major holiday like Christmas," I said. "It's more of a solemn religious holiday. There is the Easter bunny, but that's for children."
"Is that the giant hare?" asked one page editor. "He lays eggs colored eggs like a chicken and travels around the world in a single night in a wagon pulled by flying stags and then children and families gather together to eat him, yes?"
"Well, he doesn't lay the eggs. Just hides them for children to find. No flying wagon and stags. That's Santa Claus. And we only eat the chocolate hares. It's important to bite their ears off first. Then the heads."
This was received with puzzled, polite stares.
"Then there are the Peeps," I said, pushing it. "They're flourescent yellow chickens. I have some that a friend just sent me. We bite their heads off first, too. I'll bring some in if anyone wants to try one. You just have to promise to bite the head off first."
Collective nervous laughter ensued. But I am bringing the Peeps package in on Good Friday to see who will take me up on the offer. After all, chicken heads are just another savory snack for most of them. It's time they tasted the real deal.

Monday, April 05, 2004

 
Doctor Doctor
Saturday was rapidly turning into a bust. Plans for a semi-depraved evening out with Peter-the-SZ-fixer had turned into a fully deprived evening out after his wife made other plans for him. Thanks, Mrs. Fixer.
So, I decided to make won tons out of lemons and began walking to the upscale grocery nearby, possibly for a bottle of Stoli - which, due to the fact that the former Soviet Union is a near neighbor - is cut rate rocket fuel here, while an especially exotic foreign import like Gordon's or Gilby's demands even higher prices. But on the way, I ran into two guys from Cameroon and a Chinese dude named "Tiger" Cai of the Big-Ben English Training Group.
Ain't that the way it always is?
Turns out Tiger operates an English language school temporarily housed in the always-under-construction cultural auditorium across the street from the Lucky Number and needed native English speakers for an outdoor 7 p.m. English Salon he was promoting to entice customers. Also turns out that the Cameroonians haven't been paid for a month for their English skills, but that's another story. I worked for free Saturday night.
Sure, I'm not doing anything, see you later, I told them and walked across the street again 90 minutes and two Stolis later to converse salon-like with eager English speaking and English-speaking-wannabe Chinese passerbys lured in by the posters and a guy yelling in a bullhorn.
That's when I met Dr. Edward K. Teih, 87, ob-gyn. I had to see a man about a horse and after leaving my conversation group and asking for directions for the "bathroom" ("Do you want to take a bath?" - "No, just a piss", I replied, before caving in and asking for the "W.C.") I got distracted on my return by an elderly Chinese man who had drawn a crowd at the salon with his stories.
"I have traversed a very tortuous course in my life," I heard him say. I could relate in a small way and decided to hear more so I pulled up a small, kindergarten sized blue plastic chair next to him and butted in with questions and a pen and paper.
He handed me his card, " Edward K. Tieh, M. D. Vice Manager General, Anboan Reproduction Center" and here's what he told me.
Dr. Teih managed to get a medical degree between 1937-1945 in China, thanks to something called the Canadian Union Missionary Medical College. Not a bad trick when his country was fighting the Japanese and trying to carve itself up at the same time.
"I was trained as a surgeon first and my first wife died in labor and then after I saw her dying in childbirth I had the will to try to save all the Chinese women I could from hard labor."
His story got a little hazy until I asked about the Cultural Revolution.
"I was secured in a mortuary," he said. "There was no person there but myself and guards and many cadavers. I had to wear several clothes at the same time because of the cold but I had done nothing wrong and spent my days and worked on a paper about the vissitudes of preparing for various pregnancy complications."
His wife, he said, smuggled the text - written, he said, on whatever he could find, winding sheet fragments, tissue, newspapers, papers found in the pockets of the dead - though she had some problems, too.
"She stumbled and fell in the dark over a corpse upon her exit," he recalled. "It was difficult for us both."
The paper, he said, was reassembled after he was "liberated" after a year, published later and in the early '80s he was invited to an ob-gyn conference in L.A. to which the Chinese govt. allowed him to go.
"I was asked many questions after I gave my talk. Many were good. But several were, very frankly, very stupid. One man asked how many women whom I had examined were virgins. Another was 'If we had chosen to meet on a battlefield, how would I feel?' This was the most stupid of all."
I apologized on behalf of stupid American doctors and backtracked.
"How did you get through your time in the mortuary. What kept you inspired?"
"In the morning there was light through a small window door. I would stand on the steps and recite what I could remember from Abraham Lincoln."
What from Lincoln?
He stood up. And the English speaking fans, most of whom I'd venture hadn't followed most of our conversation moved back a step or two and looked expectant.
"Mr. Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby," he said. (It's a condolence letter to a woman who lost five sons in the Civil War, attributed to Lincoln, but believed by most scholars to have been written by a secretary, John Hay.) He recited without pausing:
"Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."
I was stunned, to say the least. I barely knew of the letter and couldn't have recited one line even under pain of mortuary confinement or worse.
"I also spoke the Gettysburgh Address," he said, and, without prompting, began "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal..."
Again the crowd was stilled and seemingly baffled, but I was moved and suffice to say, he nailed it.
So, how did he feel about his own country? He wasn't reciting the thoughts of Chairman Mao while locked up with corpses.
"I endured many rigors," he said. "But China is my home. In my mind we should be focused on what China has accomplished, not the mistakes."
He added that a year ago at age 86 he had performed his last operation and retied a woman's tubes so she could get pregnant and, "perhaps produce another surgeon."
I shook his still steady hand, thanked him for the civics lesson and walked back home, feeling very humble.









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