Monday, September 25, 2006

She said, She said
"What's that about?" I asked, bending over C's shoulder to squint through my trifocals at the laptop screen full of Chinese text illustrated with a artsy black and white photo of a nude buff torso and butt of a (presumably) Chinese guy striding manfully up a staircase. I thought of my bloated, sagging physique briefly then snapped quickly back to more cheerful thoughts like the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

"Ten things a man should eat for better health," she replied cheerfully.
"Like what? Beer and beef jerky?"
"Number one is dog," she said.
"Hmmm...yeah. And what else?"
She ticked through the list. Save for Lassie it was either common sense or too difficult to translate, as in "fish" and "another kind of fish, maybe white?"
"But dog. That's just wrong," I said, mindfully omitting the fact that I've eaten it twice in my life, once unwittingly and the second time because it was Boxing Day/Mao's birthday and I didn't want to offend my Chinese coworkers. "Civilized countries don't eat dog."

"Civilized countries don't invade other countries," she shot back in a not so subtle shot at my homeland. "Oh, and do you think Japan and China will go to war?"

I didn't need to ask why she'd asked that. Not only is the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre this month -- something that automatically heats up the easily inflamed Chinese Netizens, Japanese makeup has been taking a beating here with reports that some of the best sellers in China are chock full o' toxic heavy metals. Oh, and then there's the new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, even more of militaristic nationalist than his predecessor, Junichiro "Worship at a Class-A War Criminal Shrine Today!" Koizumi.

C is firm believer in most of what she reads on the Internet, particularly when it concerns Chinese science and Chinese medicine, (or Chinese "science" and "medicine" as I prefer to think of it). And I, except if it's e-mail from "Henry -- All Love Enhancers on One Portal!" or from "Miss Blessing Soke" whose "late father who was killed by the rebels in a recent crisis in Cote d'Ivoire in 2004" and Miss Blessing wants to give me a share of his $3.5 million bequest in exchange for my bank account particulars, well .... I'm a generally a skeptic.

I had decided to give the dog-as-male-health-food argument a pass, though, because C had shredded me earlier that week on the Japanese makeup scandal. She'd called me late on Thursday night from Shenzhen to tell me that one of her favorite Japanese creams and cleansers, made by SK-II and distributed by Procter and Gamble, was "poisonous," contaminated with heavy metals. How did she know? It was all over the Chinese Internet and news.

My Crap Detector needle hit the red zone and I sighed. "Look it's a rumor, I'm sure. A rumor because P&G has a long history of false rumors against it, like devil worshipping. And SK-II is Japanese and this is the anniversary month of the Nan..."

She cut me off. "I know what you're going to say. How come you don't believe anything Chinese news and Internet says?"

"Uh, maybe because they lie, just maybe?"

Wrong answer. As flames from her end began to erupt through my cell phone, I finally decided to submit it to arbitration. I told her I would call an aquaintance who monitors the Chinese Internet for his blog EastSouthWestNorth and translates whatever strikes his fancy. C knew of him through my mentions and occasional links I'd send her. His name is Roland Soong and he's a multi-lingual international class act and intellect, not normally a low level Love Doctor/mediator for a bubbling domestic spat over makeup and Internet rumors.

I called Roland and apologized and explained the situation. He put down whatever Susan Sontag critque of an obscure 17th century French novel he'd been reading in its Farsi translation and gracefully agreed to help.

"Your girlfriend is right," he said. "SK-II is in trouble and it's not a rumor."

"So I have to grovel?"

"Yes, grovel."

I called C back. "You were right. The Chinese Internet and news were right. Roland said I should grovel."

"You should listen to Roland more often and to me all the time," she replied. "Good night. Sleep tight."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Another Brick in the Wall
When one has to scrawl a picture on a piece of scrap paper for your English language-impaired editor at Hong Kong's No. 2 English language paper in order to explain what a "blimp" is, it's probably a clue that it's not going to work out and your talents -- such as they are -- are probably better utilized elsewhere, like maybe 3rd shift at an Arkansas poultry abatoir.

Nonetheless, I managed to write a fairly decent feature story about the recent Shenzhen Goodyear blimp sighting, though it has yet to hit print in favor of -- oh, here's another one -- a gripping account of a crack in a first floor beam at a Hong Kong subway station. That one wasn't my idea and it grew even staler when after very reluctantly taking the assignment I discovered that the small crack...
1. was reinforced properly with permanent repairs scheduled
2. posed no danger to subway users in general
3. or to people who were using the subway as transportation to ride a nearby newly opened cable car tourist attraction, which, yes, has been bedeviled with problems but sometimes small cracks just happen to structures that aren't directly connected with a cable car.

Nonetheless the story was being ballyhooed by the Chinese language media that day so, despite the absolute paucity of news value as I understand it, I was ordered to "get to the bottom of this coverup!" And do so in 2 hours. They already had pictures of the crack courtesy of one of our sister Chinese publications along with a poorly translated story that hinted at apocalyptic doom for subway and Skytrain riders alike should this travesity continue unchecked. (Meanwhile, in the last six months there have been two cop-on-cop shootings resulting in three deaths and a high ranking former member of the HK triad investigation unit jumped to his death from the roof of his apartment building. Does any HK paper, much less mine, expend any resources looking into this? Nah.)

What I got to the bottom of was my patience for calling Chinese language message centers for Hong Kong bureaucrats and politicians and taking 5-7 minutes to calmly with clenched fists and a skyrocketing blood pressure to painstakingly s-p-e-l-l m-y n-a-m-e three or four times, repeat my phone number, professional affiliation and reason for calling an equal or more number of times and then wait for a call back from a puzzled someone in a packed, Cantonese-squawling karaoke bar/jackhammer test center.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Led Zeppelin

So I'm sitting on the balcony of the 20th floor of my Shenzhen digs at about 4:50 on a slow Saturday afternoon doing some email business and look up and out randomly to the horizon to see....the frigging - yes, the Goodyear blimp gliding and bumping (slightly, there's some wind) across the smog and phlegm choked northern horizon.

I thought for a moment it was either an optical delusion or maybe some kind of slo-mo Luddite version of a 911 attack or perhaps a US-Sino joint venture reenactment of the Hindenberg inferno, when, for a moment, when it appeared that due to my skewed optical perspective that the Spirit of America might collide with the mammoth ZTE tower about a mile away.

(We pause now for a commercial break: "ZTE, China's largest telecommunications supplier. We'll wire your world ... particularly if you'll overlook paying for slave and convict labor!")

But why is the Goodyear blimp here? I'm almost wondering if I did really see it. It was as nearly as tantalizing as a UFO sighting. So weird. So very, very weird.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tax Man
In addition to my Hong Kong income tax, I've had another, albeit much smaller yet incredibly stressful and puzzling government debt hanging over my head recently.

It's called the "stamp tax" -- which as an American is something I normally associate with one of the reasons we rebelled and threw off the weighty yoke of British colonialism. Hong Kongers, except for the elderly men and women who riot yearly when the free rice lines get clogged, have never rebelled with any serious force that I know of and thus the stamp tax lives on.

I know nothing about it except that it costs me money and the little female Goebbels who runs our human resources department kept sending me dictatorial, vaguely threatening and always snippy e-mails "reminding" me to pay it.

She also sent me a link to the Hong Kong Stamp Tax Revenue website where I found screenfuls of incomprehensible bureaucratic Chinglish and quickly clicked off in favor of "Hot Asian Babes Who Can't Get Enough of Old Overweight White Heart Attack Victims Who Smoke, Drink Too Much, Hate Their Jobs and Are Heavily in Debt.Com"

I never asked Ms Goebbels-Ng to explain it herself because asking anyone in HR to explain anything is like asking an epileptic mollusk to explain how gravity works. Instead, I turned to a New Zealander who'd lived here longer than me to explain this stamp tax thing.

"Stamp tax?" he mused. "Oh. That's simple. That's where you take three or four hours out of an otherwise good day to walk 3 meters across that bloody crowded fuck-all walkway bridge in Wanchai to the Revenue Department for the privilege of handing over a thousand dollars or so to some twat of a paper pushing bureaucrat behind a counter so they can put a stamp on your lease while you sit on a plastic chair for an hour or more imagining how much beer, food and good times that money would've bought otherwise."

You know what? He was right. Except I found that there was an element of mercy. Turns out my perception of my deadline (Friday, Sept 15 as dictated by Mistress Goebbels-Ng) was at odds with the official Stamp Tax deadline, which I'd missed by one day. One frigging day. The "twat of a paper pushing bureaucrat" who turned out to be a mild, polite Chinese guy named "Saul" told me that as I'd missed deadline, I now owed a penality fee that doubled my original bill.

"A what? Double? No! Cut me a break!" I pleaded. "It's only one day. I was in the hospital with a heart attack. Human resources lied to me. And basically I'm stupid foreigner who doesn't understand this whole stamp tax thing or what it's for!"

He told me I could write a letter to his superior pleading my case and handed me a blank sheet of paper. "Where do I send it?" I asked.

"I will give it my supervisor after you write it. A decision will be made."

I sat down in a plastic chair and began groveling with my pen. "Dear Honorable Sir or Madame...So very, very sorry...heart attack...ignorant...begging for your benevolent mercy and very sorry...heart attack....stupid white guy....didn't know better...will never do it again..."

Feeling like I'd kowtowed to some faceless Chinese emperor with a petition pleading for heaven's mercy, I handed the letter back to Saul who motioned me closer to his Plexiglass cage.

"I will give it to my superior. In my experience you will receive a $500 deduction from the penalty."

Saul was right. I returned to his booth to thank him.

"You're the nicest tax guy I've ever met," I said. "I wish the tax people in the US were like you. It is much harder there."

"Oh?" he said. "Your stamp tax is more expensive in the United States?"

"No, in the US we rebelled to get rid of the stamp..." I trailed off. He was looking at me blankly. "Never mind. Thanks again."

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tears of a Clown
An old friend, Ben posted a comment recently more or less telling me to get off my ass, update the blog and good naturedly chiding me for ''generally ignoring all of us who depend on your cynic wit to balance our otherwise sensible and sedate lives.''

I replied that I've been in a deep fried funk but provided no details.

But what the hey. Lessee. In addition to the heart attack, my job makes me feel like I'm being skewered daily from eye socket to bunghole and then placed on a spit so that my sagging flesh can be roasted by the searing gale of flatus which issues forth from the spined haunches of Satoshi, Eater of Souls. That's on a good day.

And I recently received an Inland Revenue statement (that's Hong Kong-ese for IRS) telling me I owe HK$81,000 in taxes which is about $10,400 in real money.

Ha. They might as well have demanded US$81 million. I simply don't have it.

Sometimes there's a lot to be said for sensible and sedate lives. I know I could use one at the moment.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Recent T-shirt spottings collected from various sources in and around Hong Kong in the last few weeks. All typos guaranteed correct.

"Happy Smell!" adorning an elderly woman.

"The World Would be Better if We All Had a Little Piece of Heart" - wearer unknown.

"Thinr About AIDS/HIV with Sammy" -- wearer unknown. (Sammy is a perky Cantopop princess)

"No Wag at Iowa" -- wearer unknown.

"Fallsoded Success Challenge" -- Worn by a 13 or 14 year-old boy.

"Wated to gml you soweting extra for test BO3111!" -- On a middle aged housewife.

"I'm a No. 1-B Virgin!" -- proud sartorial boast of a fat, sweating guy hauling a 5-foot tall load of bundled cardboard and crushed plastic water bottles on a gurney.

And finally..."Awww, fuck off!" -- Not a T-shirt but an impassioned verbal fund raising appeal by a female middle school student frustrated at being ignored by a foreign couple after she hit them up for a donation. (Thanks to Doug C. for this one)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sincere thanks to all of you for your kind words and to Spike for spreading the word. Here's a short version of life in a Cantonese cardio care unit. Currently on the mend with C in Shenzhen...
Stand By Me
Time passes a drop at a time when you're the only gweilo pinned to an IV drip in a Cantonese cardiac care ward.

My five geriatric wardmates in Hong Kong's United Christian Hospital, ward 5-B - an aging structure that according an elevator plaque, came courtesy of Hong Kong film pioneer and philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw (who, with brother Run Me Shaw was the first to bring talkies to South Asia, not to mention '70s classics such as Monkey Kung Fu and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) - are stoic.

Though we can only communicate through smiles, grimaces and occasional farts and belches, I assume that like me, questionable lifestyles and dietary choices -- a steady diet of cigarettes, booze, oily foods, stress and perhaps genetics -- have thrown us together as roomates for a few days and nights.

It takes about 12 hours to figure out the rhythms and customs of ward 5-B, including the distressing news that, unlike hospitals I've been unfortunate enough to be in in the United States, the visiting hours (5:30-8 p.m.) are strictly enforced.

It's also helpful if you packed your own toilet paper and some other sundries such as soap, shampoo, shaving gear and snacks. Fortunately, my first visitor, a coworker and angel of mercy named Olivia has shown up and cunningly talked her way into the ward outside of visiting hours with some of what I need, including TP.

Authorized visitors armed with books arrive a few hours later. The books are especially welcome as a steady diet of Hong Kong TV squawking from the ceiling rack is unintelligible and unendurable, though I am briefly rejuvenated when a bottled water ad featuring a Cantopop singer who goes by the name "Justin" is broadcast. "JUSTIN! JUSTIN! JUSTIN!" fans scream. "I hear you," I mutter. "I'll be better. I promise."

After the pain began shooting through my left arm and shoulder, coupled with heavy sweats and a chest that felt like the late John Candy was sitting on it and daring me to join him, I had presence of mind to pack a few things before hailing a cab. While I was sweating and cursing while fumbling for my fare, it was clear that the cabbie was also stressed and couldn't wait to eject me at the emergency ward entrance. Cantonese are notoriously superstitious and the thought of a foreign ghost haunting his taxi for eternity was obviously distressing.

Inside I went through a battery of questions, forms and tests before being wheeled up to bed 11 and my home away from home for three days. I am introduced to my doctor, a third year resident who looks all of 13-years old. The meals arrive on schedule at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. and while my wardmates slurp theirs down with chopsticks from bowls, I am pointedly served a tray with a fork and fare piled on a plate.

Breakfast marks the biggest difference, though. While the others consume congee, a nutritious, kinda-sorta low fat mix of rice gruel and eggs along with a slice of toast, I am given a traditional American cardio care morning repast of a lunch meat and Velveeta white bread sandwich with a room temperature box of irradiated milk: expiration date December 13, 2017. The "milk" will survive longer than I, I fear. I also wonder what constitutes a heart healthy diet in Hong Kong medical lore? And why do all the medical workers and most of the visitors wear surgical masks? What disease can one contract from a heart attack patient?

(There are other cross-cultural medical puzzlements. At one point following an angiogram for which a very small incision was made in my right groin, I am told that I absolutely must lie still and flat on my back for 15 or so hours so as not to open "the wound." Nature, boredom and my digestive system take their course after 8 hours when I tell a male nurse that I must leave the bed to use the toilet.

("It is not permitted!" Hong Kong's male version of Miss Ratchett informs me sternly. "Do your business in the bed." He hands me a bed pan. Hostility ensues on my part and I insist that there are certain bodily functions I am not comfortable performing with a bed pan. A remedial English speaking doctor is summoned who nearly shouts in his insistence that straining my bowels on a toilet rather than in a bed pan could "open wide wound, break artery and kill you so fast." I reply that Lenny Bruce and Elvis both died on the toilet and that I am willing to take a chance. He is clearly not impressed nor knowledgable regarding Lenny and Elvis's last hours, but finally relents. I am happy to report that I have risked death by toilet and lived to write about it.)

Diagnosis: no damage to the heart muscles, though an angiogram to explore my arteries for clogs, wreckage and the fabled ruins of the Temple of Ancient Cheeseburgers is strongly advised. I agree to it and afterward, find myself recuperating for an hour along with a masked nurse named Maggie in what appears to be a combination storage room and MASH unit. She asks me if I want to listen to some music.

"English songs?" I ask.
"I will see," she says in that robotic English delivery by people not normally accustomed to speaking it. She sorts through some discs and shows me one labeled "TV Music" which contains an, uh...,er, eclectic mix that ranges from drek to almost delightful. "Disc 2, please," I say largely because Ben E King, The Temptations and even Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera are less likely to give me another heart attack than Air Supply, Lobo and Toto.

As King croons Stand By Me my eyes begin unaccountably welling up. I miss C who is away in Shanghai at the moment, but I am also suddenly unbearably homesick and overwhelmed with self-pity.

The past is calling. I want my dead mother. I want my second ex-wife. I want my son, my father, my sister and Stateside friends. I think of a picture in a New Yorker I had seen a few hours ago of a new adddition to Denver Art Museum and want at that moment more than anything to be walking outside it by the Red Grooms cowboy and Indian sculpture on a hard, clear, crisp sunny autumn afternoon to meet them all. I want to kick my way through crackling leaves.

"You are sad?" Maggie asks through her mask.
"I am homesick," I say. "Sorry."

Ben E. King is still singing. Maggie walks closer to the gurney, hands me a folded tissue, stands almost at attention and looks down at me, eyes wide and sincere above the mask.

"I will stand by you," she says.

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