Monday, January 31, 2005

Little Red Rooster
While I've felt somewhat smug at dodging the Christmas commercial crush for the last two years, it only takes about a month for my comeuppance in the form of the insanity that is the Chinese New Year. In 2005 February 9 ushers out the Monkey and brings in the Year of the Rooster (or Chicken, or Cock or Cockerell -- depending on who's doing the explaining or translating).
Faded, torn grinning monkey posters are papered over with strutting fowl. The stores are awash in expensive gaudy red and gold gift boxes, red lantern replicas fly from seemingly every street light and eave and a collective switch seems to trip a rogue neuron in the brains of 1.3 billion otherwise mostly rational folks that sends them into a frenzy of orgiastic shopping and, like salmon responding to the primal urge to return to the spawning grounds, traveling en masse to their home towns.
My friend C - who hails from a northeast province thousands of miles from Shenzhen - is no exception.
"I must buy gifts for 21 relatives," she declared matter-of-factly the other day in the same tone of voice that one might declare that they need to brush their teeth.
"Twenty one?" I exclaimed trying to stem the horror I felt imagining such a task, while silently giving thanks for my paucity of kin and wondering what became of China's One Child policy. "Big ones? Small gifts? How are you going to haul 21 presents from one end of China to the other. I mean I know Mao made the Long March and all, but he also had troops hauling his guns."
"Maybe 21 small ones. Or seven large ones for three families," she said. "Do you have any suggestions?"
My mind clambered nimbly as a three-legged dog on horse tranquilizers for quick inspiration. Twenty one pairs of socks? Seven large tubes of Black Man* toothpaste?
"Um, no, not really. I mean, they're your relatives. How would I know? I have enough trouble remembering my own son's birthday, much less figuring out what to get him. I can't imagine long distance shopping for 21 strangers."
"They aren't strangers. They are my relatives."
"Never mind. How about 21 gift certificates to Appleby's?"
"Twenty one apples?"
I could see it was going nowhere, and I had to split quickly for Hong Kong in order to make it to work for my 3pm-midnight shift so I mumbled a fond farewell and fled for the border. Enroute to work, though, I had to hit a grocery for take-out sushi for dinner as well as morning supplies because in China all-night supermarkets are still a pending concept, even in Hong Kong.
Inside at 2:15 pm the Last Minute New Year Consumer Frenzy was in full force. The store was virtually wall-to-wall with diminutive elderly men and women, all gripped with the Rooster Shopping Virus that had transformed them from frail, gentle, loving, patient souls into marauding single-minded zombies imbued with the strength of 100.
While standing in the "10-items-cash only" line, two geriatric thugs attempted to elbow and pry their way past me with what appeared to be at least 16-20 large miscellaneous scarlet and gold gift boxes. While I'd normally give way, especially to elders who don't speak my language, I'd had it. International relations be damned. This was war.
I hip-checked one grandmother who grunted in a very unladylike manner and gave way and then subtly jabbed my elbow into an offending grandfather, whose cargo kalumphed and rattled to the floor.
"Whoops, sorry!" I said in a mock-cheerful tone as I finally stepped up to the cashier counter. "But Happy New Year!"

*A real toothpaste. Once marketed in English in China and Japan under the unfortunate brand name, "Darkie", the label featured a grinning minstrel show-like black man in a top hat. After Colgate bought it Darkie was hastily rebranded as "Darlie" and the logo became a top hatted man of semi-indistinct race (but great teeth!). However, 3 out of 4 Chinese and Chinese dentists still call it "Black Man" (hei ren).

Thursday, January 27, 2005

House of the Rising Sun
In China Sun Yat-sen is akin to George Washington in the US. One is popularly known as "Father of modern China" or "Father of the Chinese Revolution" for his efforts to overthrow the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, while the other is the "Father of his country."
And, like Washington who seems to have spent a night in virtually every 18th century inn along the eastern seaboard, if you believe the frequent signs, plaques and memorials Sun apparently lived, slept or had tea at myriad locales throughout mainland China and Hong Kong -- that's when he wasn't honing his physician and revolutionary skills and rhetoric in Honolulu, Canada and Europe.
But I don't think there are any vending machines or gift shops in the middle of Mount Vernon. This came to mind yesterday during a day trip to Sun's boyhood home and museum in Zhongshan, a middle-sized mainland city between Shenzhen and Macau. Three gift shops and two vending machines are also part of the historical site, which due to repairs being made to the house (which he designed, but actually spent little time in because it built by his sister after the original was torn down) limited us to exploring the museum and Sun Yat-sen's next-door neighbor's property, where a young Sun used to tend his neighbor's water buffalo.
His wealthy neighbor was described by our gregarious and mostly-knowledgable tour guide, David Pan, as "Mr. Lu, a bean curd king." Lu's former home, complete with original portraits of his two wives and himself, was gorgeous and well-appointed, but in addition to being a bean curd czar he apparently was also something of a junkie. Among the elaborately carved wooden dragon chairs, canopied beds, an ancestral shrine and scatterings of gorgeous china dishes, two ornate, handsome opium pipes were also reverently displayed under glass. (The opium theme was repeated with life-size marble statues under a live banyon tree that depict an attentive young Sun and unidentified, equally rapt girl listening to tales spun by another neighbor -- an elderly peasant pre-revolutionary activist of sorts who is barechested, in shorts with an opium pipe parked on his lap.)
I briefly fantasized about one of my boyhood homes becoming a historic tourist site, but like Sun's closed temporarily for repairs, and visitors instead traipsing across the street to my former neighbor's property where I spent some time as a teenager smoking mind-altering herbs.
Tour guide: "Here we see the garage loft, with the original carpet remenants, Jimi Hendrix poster and black light where Justin and his neighbor's son spent inspiring evenings sucking on pipes, listening to FM rock radio and fantasizing about their 8th and 9th grade female classmates..."
Alas, that is not to be. The Sun museum, a large somewhat imposing structure that one reaches along a sumptious, shady tree-lined path is the finest of its type that I've seen on the mainland. It's well-organized and almost overwhelmingly comprehensive, covering not only Sun's 60-year life, but also detailing grandparents, parents, a sibling or two, his third wife (one of China's fabled 'Three Sisters' -- one of whom married Chiang Kai-shek) and his descendants.
It's also the only place on the mainland where I've seen what became the Taiwanese flag - the 12 pointed sun that was the symbol of Sun and Chiang's Kuomintang party which eventually lost to Mao. Displaying the symbol or flag is illegal in the mainland and Hong Kong. In the Sun museum, two originals were discretely folded under glass like creations from a Chinese Betsy Ross.
Our tour group, a junket sponsored by a Hong Kong tour company hoping to promote it, began the day early with a sleepy 8am, 90-minute ferryboat ride from Hong Kong to Zhongshan where stern-faced PLA soldiers at the border made of point of ridgidly scrutinizing our travel documents. It was the first time either I or my photographer, a well-traveled and extremely talented fellow named Simon (who once was the official Chinese news agency (Xinhua) photographer at the Clinton White House), had encountered PLA recruits doubling as border and customs clerks. He was also somewhat startled when they rummaged through his camera equipment and lectured him about bringing it all back and not disposing of it for a profit on the mainland.
"Why would I do that?" he asked rhetorically. "This is my job, my life."
While Zhouchang is actually a rather lovely, low-key, tree-lined town, complete with a relaxed pedestrian shopping mall sporting Portuguese-style facades, the bucolic effect was also briefly marred a couple times with the sight of local police strolling in pairs and threes touting light machine guns with banana clips sprouting from the chambers.
"Chinese New Year," explained tour guide David. "Police are afraid people make trouble."
In addition to shopping for jasmine tea, and illegal DVDs in an upscale audio-video store where I scored primo pirate copies of The Aviator, Meet the Fockers as well as 12 Grams and Baadasssss, we spent some time at a nondescript, rather shabby museum memorializing a 1960s-era commune and crusing on a tributary of the Pearl River in a catamaran to an "authentic" banana, star fruit and papaya farming community that seemed to be solely populated by the elderly and very young children.
"All the others have gone to the city where they can make more money," David explained as several crones tried to wheedle me into buying some bananas. There was also an enormous banyan "wishing tree" festooned with lightly-weighted red cloths bearing the written wishes of people - such as myself - who had paid 6 yuan to throw them into the branches.
"Your wishes are gone with the wind," David waxed eloquently. "Gone with the wind to be granted."
I asked him about some identical small black and white posters crawling with Chinese script and sporting cross logos that were glued to the cement walls along a village footpath.
"They are advertisements to treat sexual diseases," he said brightly.
"Is that a big problem here?"
"Not if you go to the place that is advertised," he replied.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Stray Cat Blues
"Do female cats have periods?"
C was asking. The question arose last weekend as we were discussing pet hygene while in the process of taking in a homeless skinny young white female feline we'd found wandering around the 13th floor hallway of our new Shenzhen digs mewing pitifully for more than an hour. I answered with a straight face and kept reminding myself that, as she put it, "Most Chinese of my generation don't have any experience with pets."
Indeed, her brief experiences were woeful -- the kind of stuff that would've had social workers, therapists and grief counselors in the US working overtime.
"I had two rabbits that I loved, but my uncle and my father killed them for dinner. And I had a duck, but a cat we had for a short time killed it and then my mother got rid of the cat because she said it was too dirty."
I confess I came close to tossing Gato, as I dubbed her (C said the Spanish name is also close to a Chinese word for "young girl"), the first night we took her in. After schlepping to a 7-Eleven for canned fish at 1 a.m. (pet food as we know it isn't readily available in China where many pets are food), I fed her and hit the sack at 1:30 am, only to truly fall asleep at about 4 am due to the cat's continual cries.
C was a little startled the next day when I ticked off the list of basics we'd need if Gato was to stay. Pet litter, litter box, real pet food, rabies, distemper and feline leukema shots, a bath - followed by a first-person account of the hell and folly of do-it-yourself cat bathing. She was even more taken aback when I told her how it had cost about US$60 the last time I'd had a cat professionally bathed and groomed.
C surfed the Internet for Shenzhen vets and pet stores and I was a little amazed to discover there were at least five animal clinics that also claimed to sell litter and litter boxes. Those were my main priorities because by then Gato had apparently gone almost 20 hours without evactuating anything we could see, smell or step in -- nonetheless Biology 101 told me she must have gone somewhere in the apartment. (Subsequent olfactory investigation revealed she'd been going under the bed and -- in a stroke of luck -- in the bathroom behind a wastebasket).
We priced the vets closest to us and my heart soared like a hawk when I found we could get her cleaned up and vaccinated for a total of about US$12. It was the toiletry supplies and food that really raised the ante -- another US$18.
Lacking a pet carrier, we improvised with a large faux leather satchel with the zipper open just a hair for air. Gato was amazingly calm about it -- unlike the cats I'd previuosly had which literally fought caging and transporting tooth and claw and, in one case, escaped and lodged himself firmly under the accelerator as I was driving him to the vet. The looks though, on some fellow elevator passengers' faces when the satchel began mewing softly was priceless.
"Take-out dinner," I explained evenly to the uncomprehending audience.
The pet clinic was divided into two next-door buildings -- the surgery-and-shots shop which was noticably cleaner than the Shenzhen human hospital I'd been to, and the grooming/supplies store which was filthy, but efficient. I don't think most pet groomers in the US smoke while hosing down and shampooing their clients, nonetheless I held my tongue, even after a thoroughly doped-up Gato urinated on the table while being blow dried and the groomer -- who donned a surgical mask after finishing his cigarette - wiped it up bare-handed with a tissue.
I simply made a mental note not to shake his hand upon parting.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another Standard column in which I've combined a modicum of reasonably fresh material with refried bloggery that regular readers will recognize. Apologies to them (and to my soccer-coaching pal Paul S). But aren't leftovers usually better the second time around?
God help me, I thought as I snapped out of my slack-jawed zombie-state in front of the television. I'm actually watching a fishing show on ESPN.
My sports-loving pals back in the US would be, ah, bemused to say the least and appalled at best. But my explanation was simple. I missed football. I don't mean "football'' in the sense as its known outside of North America wherein a bunch of foreigners dressed in skimpy shorts and corporate-sponsored jerseys prance endlessly about like a bunch of nancy boys, kicking a round ball back and forth until the score is 0-0 or 1-0 if viewers are lucky.
I mean ground-shaking, primal, steroid-fueled head-butting thuggery and occasional grace involving an oblong "pigskin" and teams with names like Broncos, Raiders and Vikings – not Canaries, Baggies or Rovers. And anomolies like Columbine, Iraq, drive-by shootings and the occasional NBA outburst aside, Americans generally prefer their violence ritualized on the field rather than as performed spontaneously by drunken rioting "fans."
So you might well ask how did fishing – a bucolic, peaceful pastime that can be easily as tedious as a soccer match to some – figure in the equation?
It was simple, actually. It wasn't the thrill of seeing a pathetic, 7-inch cutthroat trout struggling at the end of a nylon line, but just the sheer Americana of this particular telecast. It was a taking place in Jackson, Wyoming, an area I'm fond of and familiar with and the folks were discussing their catches in reassuring accents and cadences. It wasn't exactly iconic football commenator John Madden invoking wisdom like "He's the go-to guy" and "This game will be won in the trenches" or "The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer" but it was familiar and familiarity breeds comfort – something I'd lacked since being out of regular touch with football sportscasts.
The Internet and newspaper accounts weren't the same and couldn't fill the hole in a soul nurtured on Satuday afternoon college games and Sunday pro tilts. When my local cable provider had offered ESPN as a bonus to sign up, I thought I'd found the solution but little did I realize that ESPN in Asia stands for European Soccer Pansy Network. There have been a occasonal NFL broadcasts, including one recent heartbreaker in which my beloved Denver Broncos got pasted and cast from the playoffs, but most of the fare revolves around knuckle-whitening barnburners like Norwich 0-Aston Villa 0.
Still, I have hope. Last year China finally achieved First World status by broadcasting the Super Bowl live for the first time and I was was able to watch Super Bowl XXXVIII from my Shenzhen apartment. Doing so, though, took some some planning. While it was Super Sunday in the US, it was Miserable Monday in China and the game began at 7am.
I also was scheduled to work beginning at 9:30am but after I learned that New England Patriots vs Carolina Panthers would indeed be broadcast live on CCTV, I began scheming for an excuse to come in late Monday morning. It finally came to me on Friday afternoon.
I approached my Chinese editor and relying on the general ignorance of and indifference to American football told him that I needed Monday morning off for "religious reasons."
He may not have known NFL, but he was no fool and was a little curious. "Christmas is past," he replied. "What religion? Why Monday morning?"
I explained that I belonged to a minor religion – hard pressed to come up with a name quickly I mumbled something like "Turfitarians, an offshoot of Christianity, but more inclusive" – that followed the thoughts of great American prophets,
"There have been many - 37, or more - since the original teacher, Teacher Lombardi," I said, citing the surname of the hallowed Green Bay Packer coach in Super Bowl I. I followed with a string of legendary quarterbacks. "There were also the Prophets Namath, Unitas, Starr, Bradshaw, Montana, Favre, Elway..."
He was silent. I kept pushing. "Traditionally followers usually meet on the last Sunday in January or first Sunday in February for what we call 'Super Sunday.' This year is will be on February 1 in the US. We meditate on the thoughts and deeds of the two best prophets and one is appointed for the coming year.''
"This year there are Prophet Brady and a new one, Prophet Delhomme," I continued, naming the New England and Carolina quarterbacks. "I want to study and to consult with others on the telephone in the US during the same time. We will meditate and discuss Brady Thought and Delhomme Thought."
He thought for a moment and quietly told me it was OK. But I'm still not sure he bought it.
Though I donned a tattered, faded and shrunken Broncos '88 AFC championship T-shirt for it, watching the game with Chinese broadcasters and a Chinese feed wasn't exactly the same. Commentary and play-by-play action was unintelligible except for odd bursts like BlahblahblahChineseblah - BLITZ! - blahblah - IN THE POCKET! - bblahblahChinese - RED ZONE! (Yes, incredibly there is apparently no Chinese translation for "Red Zone"...)- blahblah - NO HUDDLE HURRY-HURRY OFFENSE! ..."
There were no commercials, the halftime show was mysteriously truncated and I only learned of Justin Timberlake tearing off Janet Jackson's top later from the Internet. But like viewing it in the US, I managed to miss some key plays and a couple touchdowns while I was in the bathroom or kitchen and was only alerted to significant action by one Chinese announcer who would scream "WOW-WOW!"
Lacking nachos, chips, pizza and Bud, I slurped down noodles and two glasses of Tsing Tao until the thrilling finale which amazingly mirrored the 2002 Super Bowl showdown wherein Patriots' place kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winning field goal in the final seconds.
I made to the office by noon and my editor asked how my "study session" had gone.
"It was much like a previous Super Sunday," I said. "After close examination and much debate, Prophet Brady was selected with the help of a Disciple named Vinatieri."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hot Burrito No. 1
It was not a great surprise to learn that Taco Bell has arrived in Shenzhen, seeing as how the city is also the site of mainland China's first McDonald's (complete with an official plaque tesitifying to its significance) and counts dozens of KFCs and a smattering of Pizza Huts among its culinary denizens. My pal James-the-Temple-Guy had already been there and was my eager guide to my baptism by-bad-salsa.
"What's it like?" I asked.
"What do you think? Like everything else taken from the US and put here. Just a little bit off."
Prior to our arrival, he made a point of telling me that it wasn't just any Taco Bell. It's an upscale, dine-in only version dubbed Taco Bell Grande with colorful tile tables and unbelievably bad fake Mexican art which makes the routinely bad Mexican tourist art look like Frida Kahlo. The menu has been tweaked for Chinese tastes so there are nada refried beans or Mexican rice, little cheese and it's all fairly bland. But it offers margaritas and Corona.
Unlike Hong Kong which boasts a few fairly respectable Mexican eateries, Taco Bell Grande is pretty much the whole enchilada as far as Shenzhen is concerned, though I've heard scuttlebutt about a burrito eatery in a district I rarely frequent due to distance and transportation costs. But James wasn't wrong about "just a little bit off."
The waitresses all sport straw sombreros with small brims and high crowns, knee-length dark blue skirts and severe looking psuedo-peasant blouses that appear to have been designed in someplace like Serbia and stitched together by Coco the gorilla. But they all greet you with a chorus of cheery "Hola!" when you arrive and "Adios!" upon departure. That was perhaps the high point for me - a chance to inflict what I could recall from my high school Spanish textbook on unwitting ears.
"Hola! Donde esta la bibliotecha? Me gusto mucho los bondegas!" (Hello, where is the library? I really like the meatballs!), were among the inanities I babbled at the smiling, uncomprehending waitstaff until finally settling on hastily teaching a couple of them how to count to five in Spanish.
Just like in the US, though, the service was reassurringly iffy. While my soft shell chicken tacos (no hard shell options) and tortilla soup arrived on time, repeated requests for ice water (bing xui in Chinese) met with many affirmations and no follow through until James and I stood on our chairs, stomped our feet and repeatedly chanted "agua frio! agua frio! agua frio!" ...
No, we didn't. But we were tempted.
The complimentary tortilla chips were passable, the salsa was terrible -- basically just reconstituted tomato paste and the tortilla soup looked like real deal, but basic ingredients like, say, soup stock and spices seemed to be lost in translation and further investigation revealed that all the food and recipes came straight from the Mother Ship of all Chinese Taco Bells -- in Shanghai.
Still, I believe I'll eventually return if for nothing more than another round of elementary Spanish lessons, the chicken tacos and a margarita. But I'm packing my own bottle taco sauce or Tabasco and using it liberally.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

House Rent Blues
There was a BB-size phlegm ball bouncing around my respiratory tract – tilt one way, even slightly and like a pinball it would trigger some kind of hair-trigger nerve which in turn would send me into an uncontrollable coughing spasm.
As such, I was trying to maintain a precarious balancing act aboard an early morning MTR train surrounded by other sleepy nervous commuters at-risk for catching whatever gunk had gripped me. Don't move, don't shift, don't breathe lest the hacking begin and dozens of Sars/avian flu-panicked eyes widen and then squint and avert their collective gaze in fear and disapproval. Unclean! Unclean!
Despite the rush hour crush, though, one seat on my immediate right remained vacant through seven stops – not unusual, though, for a foreigner sick or well on a Hong Kong bus or MTR. But on my left was an intrepid Good Samaritan who would not be denied.
"You are sick," he observed astutely. "Oh yes, very sick."
I nodded. I knew I should have been in bed or at a clinic rather than trying foolishly to make an emergency run to Shenzhen at the behest of my girlfriend who had phoned in a panic the previous night to say we were being evicted from the Lucky Number by the landlord who had apparently invoked clause 7a, subsection b of the 23-page Chinese language contract that clearly stated he could move his brother-in-law's third cousin into the space with no notice.
The Kowloon Tong stop was announced. "There is a hospital here," said my Chinese Florence Nightingale. "You must be to it post-haste."
"Not-my-stop," I wheezed before collapsing into another hacking spasm. "Prin, Prince ... Edw..."
"Two tablets," he replied, sounding something like a Shao Lin sage. "You must take two tablets. There are many tablets at Kowloon Tong."
I had taken two tablets of something, though not from Kowloon Tong but I lacked the strength to reassure him so I simply held up two fingers and nodded.
''Mmmm," he said solemnly. "You are not healthy. Not happy or healthy. You must have two tablets to be healthy and happy."
Prince Edward slid into view.
"Sounds-good," I gasped. "Will-do, my-stop, thanks-bye-bye."
"Remember two tablets!" he shouted as I stumbled out the door while remembering to mind the gap. "Remenber-the-Alamo!" I replied foolishly before another spasm hit me.
Thankful that the temperature scans weren't operating at the Hong Kong or Shenzhen border crossings I left the health questionaire blank except for checking the "no fluid exchanges with rabid civit cats" box and put on my best "I'm a glowing bundle o' health just here for a short holiday" smile for the passport inspectors before collapsing in a sweat-soaked heap in a taxi to my soon-to-be former digs.
There I found my girlfriend "C" amid a pile of half-packed boxes and debris. C had done well and found us another apartment in the same building in an amazing 12 hours but there were some small details that still hadn't been ironed out – like getting the deposit back from the man she and I now referred to as "the evil landlord."
And there was my condition. I could no more lift a simple cardboard box and haul it than I could recite the periodic table in Esperanto and it also became increasingly clear that returning to Hong Kong and clocking in for work was not an option. All I yearned for was a short, blissful coma.
Movers were found at bargain prices – two strapping young men plucked from the street who began efficiently lifting and toting while C supervised and I lay on the bare bed moaning. I overheard the two laughing as they picked up a Chairman Mao picture and a small Mao statue that had decorated the place in an attempt at kitsch.
"What are they laughing about?" I asked.
"They said these Chairman Mao pictures make the apartment look like their grandparents'. They want to know why you have such things."
"Tell them I'll give them some Nixon pictures for their place if they'd like."
Next stop was Shenzhen's finest hospital to see what condition my condition was in and – most importantly – to get a piece of official paper with a stamp saying I was too sick to work; kind of like getting a note from my mother excusing me from school except my mother never told me that I needed to be hooked up for 90-minutes in a grimy waiting room to an IV with a reddish drip that she couldn't identify.
"It is medicine to purify you," was all C could explain. "Chinese medicine. And the doctor says you need to come tomorrow for more."
I demurred, pleaded in vain for codeine instead and finally obtained the excuse slip and we began the hardest task – getting the deposit refund. Landlords were once No. 1 on a list of China's eight primary social evils and I see no reason why that list should not be reinstated.
C did the bargaining at the old place while I hacked and sweated six floors below awaiting a verdict. She returned and said the evil landlord claimed that a refund was impossible because I had lost my copy of the contract. The fact that he couldn't produce his, either, seemed to make no difference. I was wrong and he was right.
Pure, clean inspiration suddenly shot through my mucus-clogged self. The evil landlord knew I had worked for a Shenzhen newspaper and now had powerful Hong Kong press connections.
"Give me your camera," I said. "We're going to do a 60-Minutes press ambush on him."
"A what?"
"Never mind. I'm going back with you. When we go inside I'll shoot his picture quickly and then you tell him I'm doing a story on corrupt, cheating landlords with him as the primary subject. His sorry mug will be on Page 1 of every paper in the Pearl River Delta by the time I'm through with him."
We knocked, entered, smiled politely at one another and then I raised the camera while trying not to cough it out of focus. "Say cheese!" I wheezed as I squeezed the button.
He began shouting as the flash exploded and even put his arm up in the classic "shamed criminal" or "naughty film star" vain attempt to conceal his identity. C never had to say a word. He knew the deal and 10-minutes later we were at an ATM machine where he withdrew our deposit in exchange for deleting his picture.
He muttered something as he watched his startled visage vanish into the digital netherworld.
"What did he say?"
"He said it was a bad picture and that he remembers that you were also sick the day you signed the contract."
"Tell him that I'm feeling better already."

Monday, January 10, 2005

Communication Breakdown
Two brief items tonight from the inner recesses of the mighty bi-lingual media empire for which I toil.
1. A dinner special listed on the menu board in our company cafeteria: "Fried Spanish with spicy sauce." Calls to the Spanish counsulate asking if any of their citizens were reported missing met with polite denials.
2. One Chinese reporter who regularly files copy so confounding that his surname, Ng, has become an in-house verb - as in "I've been Ng'd!" - when a copy editor is unfortunate enough to get one of his stories, turned in one tonight in which the subject/source went from "he" to "she" back to "him" and then "her." The following exchange ensued:
Copy editor: "Is this person you wrote about in the SARS funds story a man or a woman?"
Ng: "Why do you want to know?"
Copy editor: "Because you have it as both. Is it a man or woman?"
Ng: "Yes."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Letter
What follows is my latest column for The Standard, based loosely on some recent holiday letters I've received and my past year or so in China. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Yet another mass-addressed ("Dear Friends and Loved Ones") holiday missive from an old chum arrived recently recounting her personal and professional triumphs in 2004.
She's a 50something one-legged amputee – the result of a long ago motorcycle accident – who somehow found time last year to run in several charity marathons, including one in Russia, volunteer for the John Kerry campaign and spend an unpaid stint at a military veterans hospital aiding US soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Did I mention that the special needs daughter she adopted, who was originally raised by a pack of mandrills, is now a renowned super model/particle physicist/playwright on the short list to be the first woman selected for a mission to Mars?
I threw it on the pile of similar letters and e-mail print outs I've received since December, including the one from a musician friend tapped to perform at the US presidential inauguration and one from a former porn star aquaintance who went straight, married a Mormon, became a real estate agent and in her first six months on the job racked up more than US$2.5 million in sales without shedding a sock.
I sighed and began to contemplate my accomplishments during the previous 365 days in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
While another aquaintance had successfully battled cancer, I had survived a bout of food poisoning courtesy of a sidewalk dim sum vendor as well as bravely triumphed over half a dozen hangovers.
Some correspondents had mentioned their selfless hours of volunteer work. I could only point to my ''English lessons" for underprivileged bar waitresses in Wan Chai and at Shenzhen's notorious V-Bar for which I had selflessly paid a heavy financial, physical and emotional price.
One pal's child had graduated with honors from a prestigious medical school and immediately turned down an offer from a renowned surgical center in favor of working with Doctors Without Borders. My offspring had graduated from a court-appointed counseling program and completed 72 hours of manditory community service following a college prank that involved – in no particular order – a, er, misunderstanding entailing unauthorized self-medication, a 255-pound Samoan transvestite and a crate of spontaineously purloined fruit bats at the Mexican border during spring break.
There was also the holiday letter from the 78-year-old family friend who had decided to take Finnish lessons "for fun" and had done so well that she had additionally broadened her linguistic horizons by translating Hamlet's soliloquy and the lyrics to Cole Porter's Brush Up Your Shakespeare into her newly aquired tongue "as a lark.'' Despite a year in China, I still could not count past six, though after repeated attempts I had mastered "beer," "yes," "no," "cold water," "thank you," "hello," and "bring me the bill."
Another US family wrote to say they had hosted their 16th physically handicapped foreign schoolchild in as many years for a 3-month homestay. For three seemingly endless days during Chinese New Year 2004 I had been hosted by a Shenzhen family for a cultural outreach homestay program in which I learned that Chinese families can be just as disfunctional as their American counterparts. It culminated with the alcoholic father still in his cups at an 8:30 am breakfast urgently declaiming something loudly in Chinese while brandishing an ancient (unloaded) Japanese army rifle in one hand and an entire cold, barbequed chicken complete with head and feet in the other while his daughter, wife and mother-in-law attempted to divert my attention with a book of family photos documenting a 1998 vacation in Perth.
Speaking of vacations, while others recounted environmentally correct green tours and high-end two week jaunts to exclusive European or tropical spas, I recalled only one Friday when I called in sick to work and then stole away for a long weekend to the ''Conghua Fairyland Make Wave Hot Springs Eden'' where my lodging reservations had mysteriously vanished. After that was finally resolved I found that the only thermal pools in operation weren't the enticingly named "Concubine's Spring" or the "Wine Pool", but the "Milk Pool" (cloudy and smelling like sour milk), "Coffee Pool" (like soaking in tepid Nescafe) and the puzzlingly named "Glossy Ganoderma Pool" which left me with a mysterious skin rash that did sport a certain glossy sheen until the topical antibiotic cream and repeated doses of something a Chinese friend recommended called Golden Monkey Snake Wine that promised to "moisturize skin, strengthen bones, tendons and muscles, treat hair loss and treat neurasthenia'' took hold.
After pondering this ignoble year and the possibility of a dignified reply to all my accomplished correspondents, I finally hit on a tactic.
Dear Friends and Loved Ones,
Hello from exotic China. It's been a very busy, productive year and I thought I'd share some of the high points. My work as a foreign correspondent has been fruitful though I've also found plenty of time to learn Chinese and do some after-hours volunteer English tutoring.
I've also established some remarkable relationships with a few of my students – some of whom are budding entertainment entrepreneurs – as well bonding with a Shenzhen family whose father and husband shares my interest in fine wines, cooking and Japanese antiques.
Though I have yet to visit popular tourist destinations such as Shanghai, Tibet or Beijing, I did discover a cozy, rustic hot springs and spa that is a proverbial "Eden" at which I spent some unforgettable days lolling in unusual mineral waters that did remarkable things for my skin.
I am also proud to report that my son has done well at college, particularly with some extracurricular civics and law seminars inspired by a visit to Mexico.
I'd like to close with a wish that 2005 – the Year of the Rooster -- brings you as much joy and inspiration as you have brought to me with your stimulating correspondence.
With love and best wishes,

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Father and Child Reunion
Damn, but it was good to see the lad clad in his Less Than Jake T-shirt, black hoodie and matching black Jagermeister cap loping into the arrival area of Hong Kong International airport only 24 or so hours after the handy itinerary provided by the travel agency said he'd arrive.
I'd done a inadvertant dress rehearsal a day before when I made the jaunt out the first time. It was only when the arrival boards had no flight number matching the travel agency info and I did some rapid calculating regarding time changes, international datelines and then badgered a United Airlines information woman who finally relented and told me that someone with his name was booked on a flight due the next day that it all became clear that booking through my newspaper's travel agency was about as reliable as doing it through one of those froggy loined guys pushing "copy watch -- almost REAL Rolex, sah!" outside Exit C-1 of the the Tsim Sha Tsui subway stop.
It was almost a real itinerary, except for the date.
After I stopped sobbing and sniveling and clutching him -- it had been a year and a half since we'd seen each other -- we fell into the old rhythms effortlessly. Perhaps our finest moments came when:
1. I made arrangements to get him a tourist visa so we could visit Shenzhen. The visa service came highly recommended from a normally impeccable source, but the logistics were, uh, like a lot of other stuff here, just a little unorthodox.
"So, dad. Let me get this straight. We meet some Chinese guy you've never seen before who supposedly works for a service you've never used before at a crowded subway exit at noon and give him my passport and HK$1,000 and he gives me a visa and my passport back a day later?"
Well, yeah. Exactly. And after waiting 25 or so minutes after our scheduled drop time both times (25 minutes is apparently "2-minutes" -- as in "I will be there in 2-minutes!" -- in Hong Kong time) at the meeting site while continually fending off the copy watch parasites the deal was done.
2. Riding the overstuffed two-day-old Shenzhen subway with Julian, my girlfriend, C, and a weighty plastic sack stuffed with melting, dripping ice and live crabs that we'd purchased for dinner at a store that specialized in only radio controlled mini-vehicles and crabs. ("Need 2.26 kilos of fresh crabs to go with that RC speedboat and 4X4, sir? I thought you would!") The subway is still a work in progress, despite the attendant positive hoohah of SZ TV and publications such as my old rag, The Shenzhen Daily. An entire escalator at one stop was ripped out, dismantled and stolen by ambitious thieves disguised as subway workers in broad daylight about a week before the opening. And despite the Shenzhen mayor's continual proclamations that his city is "international and English speaking" all annoucements for stops are in Mandarin only, not even Cantonese for the myriad Cantonese speaking Hong Kong visiting brethren who continually pour across the border for cheaper duds and grub. The exit signs are also only in Chinese - but there are occasional Chinglish signs warning passengers to "Be Mind Your Head!"
Additionally, at least one major stop shown on the schedule and advertised on TV is still under construction, the token machines don't take paper money yet and just fawgetabout the multi-ride cards. Advertised, complete with sparkling new despensing machines, but not available.
The sack o' crabs began slowly dribbling a pinkish, faintly rank mixture of effluvial exoskeletoid gunk on the train floor midway through our cramped journey, causing even the jaded Chinese passengers around us to express quiet disgusted curiousity at what horror might be in that foreigner's sack. C pretended not to notice while Julian stopped crowing "Hey, I'm taller than everyone here!" to join me in annoucing loudly: "Relax folks. It's simply a human head and kidneys harvested from a Bolivian tourist for strictly medical experimental purposes at the Lucky Number Apartment and Surgical Center. Rest assured that all procedures have been approved by the Shenzhen Subway Authority in advance!"

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