Sunday, July 03, 2005

Hotter Than July
Not that we weren't warned. On Friday I'd noticed an all-Chinese language sign (save a website address for pasted on the Lucky Number elevators and lobby walls and asked C what it said.
"Oh," she said in the same matter-of-fact voice she uses for news like we owe $240 to the gas company for 5 months of unpaid bills we haven't seen because the landlady's key to our mailbox is lost and she won't give us a new one, "It says we won't have any power from 6am until 9pm on Saturday."
"It doesn't say."
Most of mainland China has been struggling under power shortages this summer due to strained coal supplies and high temperatures (that is, when floods aren't drowning hundreds of school children and other unfortunates) and rolling black and brownouts have been in effect. I chalked it up to one apartment's sacrifice; either that or just "routine maintenance" that would keep us without air conditioning, refrigeration, lights and home entertainment for 15 hours on a weekend.
"We'll be in hell here," I said, imagining going just 15 minutes without AC in the 90-degree/90% humidity with no Neil Young to listen to or bootleg Simpsons DVDs to watch. "We're going to have to stock up on candles and a flashlight or two."
She shrugged and agreed, though she seemed mostly to be taking a cue from her visiting mother. Stoic is the word. Her mother - a former Red Guard who went several years without schooling and supervised parental care while she helped heap mob abuse on intellectuals and teachers before being sent to feed pigs in a rural province - seems to take the long view in such matters.
A trip to two nearby grocery stores gained us exactly two candles and no flashlights. The whole flashlight concept, in fact, seemed to be either a quaint mystery or a work in progess - though one shopkeeper rustled up a handful of blue and red glow-sticks that I declined. And Styrofoam coolers and ice blocks for the impending fridge meltdown? (Gales of wild incredulous, derisive laughter followed...)
I awoke at 6:20am Saturday bathed in sweat. I fumbled for the AC control, which wasn't working and - shaking away a dream that had had me comfortably trapped in a Colorado snowbank - slowly I realized that a very long, hot day and evening lay ahead.
At about 8:30, after stuffing what I could into the rapidly warming freezer compartment and tossing the rest of our perishables I heard screams, wails and emphatic thumps outside the oven that was becoming our apartment.
C's mother sat unmoving, reading a Chinese old folks magazine, something like Modern Maturity: The Retired Party Cadre Edition and C perked up only slightly.
"Someone's in trouble," I said, wiping my brow in a fruitless effort. It was like trying to stop off a full-on garden hose with a feather. "It sounds like the elevator is stuck." Indeed though the power warning had assured us that the elevator power would be spared, that wasn't the case.
Cries of the trapped doomed and damned echoed from several floors below ours. That horrorific soundtrack continued for another 25 minutes or so as C and her mother pretended to be absorbed in studiously peeling fruit and I hit in the shower under a stream of tepid water.
Finally the elevator groaned loudly into action and after drying off I declared that we'd better evacuate ourselves before having to hoof it down 17 floors and back again.
C's mother elected to stay behind but we hit the streets with no plan except to find as much air conditioning and light as possible for the next 12 hours or so.
Not easy initially as most malls in Shenzhen don't open until 10:30 am, though after an expensive - and blissfully air conditioned - cab ride we found doors open at one with Shenzhen's only ice rink. Neither one of us skate, but I had a brainstorm.
"Here's 500 yuan," I said. "You shop. I'll stand next to the ice and search for the the next Michelle Kwan."
Which I did for almost 90 minutes until she returned with a plea to help narrow down her selections.
How many outfits can one person watch another try on while feigning intense interest for longer than 20-minutes? I'm the king, I think - nearly 3 hours, not counting food court time ("Happy Bread!") especially when the alternative is more sidewalk time.
By then the clock had crawled into near-mid afternoon and we'd exhausted one mall's possibilities.
"Do you want to go to Book City?" she asked, mentioning Shenzhen's largest banal bookstore. It's State Owned, which means the English language selections amount to language primers, dictionaries and poorly translated pirate versions of Hillary Clinton's biography and truncated editions of Moby Dick, Mark Twain and Jane Austen. Still it offered some brief relief, while - bingo! - a new movieplex showing a melancholy Chinese language flick, Shanghai Dreams gave us another 2 or so hours off the clock.
"Too bad about the boyfriend raping her and then getting shot," I opined as we left. "But at least the weather was cool in that movie. Loved the rain scenes. Can we watch it again?"
No such luck. We were short of funds and it was nearing dinnertime. With much trepedation we returned to the Lucky Number where the elevators were still working and entered an apartment that felt like a blast furnace.
Inside C's mother sat unruffled and sweatless, with steaming plates of rice, stir fried vegetables, pork bits and scrambled eggs she'd managed liberate from the by-now room temperature freezer and cook despite the threat of shutdown from the overdue gas bill.
Not exactly the cooling chef salad, ice tea and gazpacho I'd dreamed of but not bad. Later, as I continued to sweat pints onto the soggy New Yorker I was trying to read by candlelight and counting the seconds until 9pm, I noticed she was still quiet and seemingly content reading her magazine while C - hot, but not exactly bothered - chatted on and off with her.
After all, I mused, what's a few hours without power when one has grown up feeding intellectuals to the pigs? One must take the long view after a Long March.
You gave her 500 yuans for shopping, you are so kind for C or Jiang Qian. You should tell about her before I visited you in Hong Kong. I could go to Thailand instead... You mentioned that she is crazy about sex... I knew how enjoy you made me hurt. You never tried to call me up, because you had such girlfriend, so you also said about it before I went to Shenzhen also. Well... well.. probably samething would be happened same day, but perhups you gave her a lot of money.
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