Thursday, April 30, 2009

Winter Oblivion, Or How I Barbecued with a Mongolian Migrant Worker (part three)

Wang Xiaowu’s facial features all appeared to be aligned upon a single vertical plane, which is typical of East Asian skull types (technically referred to—and this is no coincidence—as “Mongoloid,” though this term has a somewhat stigmatized connotation). His eyelids were covered with prominent epicanthic folds, leaving the skin below his sparse eyebrows creaseless and smooth. With a lower and less pronounced nasal bridge and broad flat cheekbones, his eyes, which were nearly black, seemed isolated from any other part of his face (including each other) as if two small incisions had been made into the skin and then stretched open. He had no facial hair and his tanned flesh looked like it had been rubbed in with loess clay. Another striking feature were his teeth, which were perfectly aligned and stone-like, as they were striated with subtle grey veins, giving them the appearance of being ridged. His mouth was framed by dull-bruised-purple lips that were full and curveless. His hair was sooty and unkempt, the overgrown remnants of a bowl-cut.

So I had agreed to travel with W. back to Tangshan. He told me that he would need my help purchasing a train ticket, claiming that the ticket office wouldn’t give him same-day passage, which they supposedly reserved for foreigners. Whether or not this was true, I can’t say, but I have a feeling that he really believed it. He showed me that he had the money to pay for the ticket, so I agreed, considering it a fairly harmless gesture on my part. With that, he thanked me and pulled a water bottle—half-filled with what I quickly identified as “baijiu,” a popular Chinese grain-alcohol—from an old rice bag that he was using to carry his belongings, which consisted of a change of dirty clothes, some convenient store fare (ramen noodles, pickled peanuts, etc.) and a roll of toilet paper. He filled up a bottle cap’s worth, which I respectfully declined, but he would hear none of it. I wondered if the empty half of that bottle had been a recent occurrence. There was evidence to support this; the way he sort of yelled when he spoke, and laughed heartily while slapping my arm a little too roughly, and didn’t seem to care or realize that I couldn’t understand even half of what he was saying most of the time. He also asked me to help him find a job when we got to Tangshan, which I thought was an unusual request. I really had no idea how I could help him other than pointing out where there was construction going on, which he really didn’t need my help to find. I think he might have expected me to speak to whatever foreman on his behalf, and perhaps my being a foreigner would have given him an advantage despite my deficiency with the language. I told him I would see what I could do. It felt like he was binding me to him, and I had to wonder why. It occurred to me that maybe he would want more than just my company or assistance. Perhaps he would expect some money or a place to stay, things I would be reluctant to give a total stranger, let alone a potential alcoholic migrant worker. But maybe he just wanted to be my friend.

He handed me the money as we walked over to the railway station, and I asked him where he was planning to stay in Tangshan, while trying to imply that he wouldn’t be able to stay at my place if that was, in fact, what he had expected. He said that he would find a cheap boarding house, and I felt relieved that that issue had been addressed. I didn’t have any trouble obtaining a second pass as there were multiple ticket booths—but really, would it even have mattered if I had gone to the same one? It was a fairly simple transaction and they didn’t even check to see any sort of identification. I suppose there’s nothing like adding a touch of paranoia to create the illusion of an adventure.

I met him outside the station and covertly handed him his ticket, though he told me to hold onto it, and then offered to carry my bag of groceries for me (or rather he pulled it from my grasp), indicating that his ticket would serve as an assurance that he would not run off with it. Of course, the value of my groceries exceeded the train fare by about five fold, but I didn’t expect him to know that. The fact that he would even feel the need to assuage any concerns over his trustworthiness raised its own questions, but this train of thought becomes highly speculative. Still, I didn’t like the idea of holding my groceries for me, but he would not give them back. I understood that this was probably a cultural thing, and that he saw me doing him a favor with the train ticket and felt obligated to repay me, so I dropped the issue.

We had about two hours left until our departure, so we began heading back toward the overpass. A small crowd had gathered where a car had apparently dented another car’s fender, and I could see Li Xiaodong among them. W. said he wanted to drink some tea, and I asked him if we should invite Li Xiadong too. He made an expression of distaste and waved his hand by quickly rotating his forearm back and forth like a stopping guard. I wondered if he had any reason to dislike Li, or if he wanted just to get me alone.

We walked down the block and stopped at a small convenient shop located on the side of a bungalow residence, where W. asked if they had any “doujiang” (soy milk, which is popular in China beyond reasons of dietary health or moral standpoints), seeming to have changed his mind about having tea. He also made sure to let the shop-owners, an elderly couple and their son, know that I was his American friend and an English teacher, which he proved by showing them a business card I had previously given him when they looked at him incredulously. I sort of just smiled and nodded dumbly, feeling too embarrassed to say anything. In any case, they didn’t have doujiang, but told us there was another shop down an alley that did. When we got there W. suddenly seemed to lose interest in buying doujiang. He told me we should go back to the other shop. This was just one example of his increasingly erratic behavior.

We went back to the other shop and sat at a table outside. He bought me a popsicle, which I didn’t ask for, as well as two bottles (liter-sized) of beer—again, at his insistence. Before the elderly man could hand us a bottle-opener, W. bit them open. We clanked bottles and he tilted the bottle a full hundred and eighty degrees, chugging beer as it spilled down the sides of his mouth. I was pretty convinced that he was an alcoholic at that point. He asked me if I liked my popsicle (which tasted like sugar and ice) and I said yes and tried to give him money for it and the beer, but he refused. He opened a bag of pickled peanuts, grabbed my hand and dumped some in. I was still trying to finish my popsicle, so I put them on the table, and he seemed almost hurt, asking why I didn’t like the peanuts, and I told him that I was still trying to finish my popsicle, and he nodded and lifted his bottle for another drink. We shared the rest of my coppa and bread, and I asked him questions about his life back in Inner Mongolia. He was thirty years old and had a wife and a newborn daughter, who was maybe two months old at the time. I didn’t find out much about his childhood, other than that he probably grew up speaking Mongolian but fully identified himself as being Chinese. For obvious reasons, I was unable to ask more in depth questions about economic conditions in Inner Mongolia or what made him suddenly decide to quit farming, though one could assume his daughter might have had something to do with it. Did he have to provide more money for his family, or did he want to avoid the responsibilities of being a father? Unsure of what else to ask him I resorted to Mongolian stereotypes, and asked if he liked riding horses, drinking fermented mare’s milk and wrestling, all of which were in the affirmative. I suppose this inquiry into the Mongolian machismo inspired him to challenge me to a game in which you and another person lock middle fingers together and pull in opposite directions. After beating me, he stretched out his forearm, flexing his muscles which actually sort of bulged out of his arm, and explained how he was stronger than me. I nodded in agreement.

About forty-five minutes—which I should add that W. would periodically get up to look at the clock tower above the train station to remind me of the time every ten or fifteen minutes—from our departure, we left the shop as W. said that he wanted to buy me some fruit for the train ride. He did not seem to comprehend the meaning of “Buyao! Buyao!” (“No want! No Want!”). If we had spoken the same language, I could have made a rational argument and exerted more of my willpower through dialogue, but I was finding myself impotent against his stubborn generosity. To some extent I understood that he wanted to thank me for helping him, if that is indeed what I had done, but another part of me suspected that there was an ulterior motive, that he would expect something in return for it all. We went into a small market and thankfully, the fruit was more expensive than what he was willing to pay. Instead, we ended up down another alley where he bought two more bottles of beer from some hole-in-the-wall vendor.

We sat up against a wall and he insisted that I sit on his bag of belongings, to which I protested and said that I could squat like any other Chinese person. He then lifted me and forcibly sat me on his bag. We sat awhile and drank, and I offered to buy him dinner at a “kaorou” restaurant (the Chinese equivalent of barbecue) when we got to Tangshan in an attempt to repay him for his generosity. A good deal of Chinese culture seems to be a never-ending cycle of generosity. I checked my phone for the time and we had about twenty-five minutes left, so I told W. that we should get going, but he seemed to panic when he saw the time, his face flushed with alcohol. He hurriedly gathered up our things and asked to see the train tickets. After digging around in my pockets amidst various receipts and bills, and some hair-pulling from W. (his own), I produced them and he snatched them up, saying he should hold onto them, obviously upset with the fact that I could not immediately find the tickets. So we began toward the station which was just across the street, but he began running and telling me to hurry up. I tried to tell him to calm down, but it was useless.

At the main entrance to the station, we stopped to pull out our tickets. W. began pouring through his pockets frantically and getting very upset and pulling his hair, saying he couldn’t find the tickets and that didn’t I still have them? I sighed, and told him to just stand still, while I checked his jacket and found our tickets. We passed through the security gates and again W. began running. I let him go ahead, and he went to the wrong track and began asking other passengers where they were going and generally acting like a madman. We were the next one over, and I told him to follow me and to calm down. We got onto the platform and located our car, which happened to be the same. As we boarded, I could see that all the seats had been taken and that they were squeezing as many people as could stand in the remaining space. I accepted this as the way it probably always was, but later found out that it was the day of the Qingming Festival, or “Tomb-Sweeping Festival” (a traditional day for ancestor worship in China) and that was likely the reason for the high volume of passengers. We were pushed deep into the car and ended up near a back compartment where there were two doors on each side and no open-able windows. I had to sort of hunch my shoulders and wiggle each arm one at a time just to get my jacket off, and already the air was stuffy and humid with human breath. W. was separated by from me by a few people but he pushed his way through then pulled me back toward one of the side doors where some luggage had been stored and an elderly man was already sitting. He told me to sit upon the luggage, and I tried to resist saying I could stand like everyone else, but he just pushed me until I fell on top of it. Meanwhile, the other passengers began to complain, and W. just shouted at them, saying I was his American friend and that I shouldn’t have to stand like they did, to which they sort of rolled their eyes and I was feeling very embarrassed indeed. W. scoffed defiantly and pulled out the business card I had given with him (and really wished I hadn’t written my cell number on, at that point) and began waving it around like a backstage pass. The nearby passengers all looked at me curiously, surprised that W. wasn’t a complete raving lunatic. With that, everyone seemed to calm down, and I just tried to convey as best as I could via facial expressions that, yes, I knew this man but that I had no control over his actions and nor did I, in the very least, condone them.

I made some small talk with some of the passengers and was generally glad to be around other people despite the sauna-like atmosphere. The train was going to arrive in Tianjin, a port-city along the way, in an hour and many of the passengers would disembark. W. managed to secure some open seats when we made it into Tianjin and we were able sit down. Incidentally, there seemed to be almost as many passengers getting on at Tianjin as had gotten off, and people began to squeeze in again. Apparently, there were actually seating assignments for some people, because various passengers wiggled their way through the crowded aisles to claim their seats which were being unrightfully occupied by people like W. and myself. As to be expected, we were in someone’s assigned seats. W. relinquished his seat readily when the time came, but when another passenger came to claim her seat from me, he explained to her that I was an American and should be allowed to sit and pulled out my business card, and that there was plenty of room to squeeze onto the seat together as it was bench seating. I still tried to get up but now everyone seemed to be telling me to sit down, and they all began asking me questions like why I didn’t look like an American and how did I know this man who claimed me as his friend, to which W. laughingly interjected and told me not to tell them. As it so happens, there was a college student sitting next to me who spoke some English so I was able to relate a little bit of situation to her, which was a relief to finally be able to do. We got into Tangshan about an hour later, and W. asked the college student if she could do some translating for him when we got off the train. After meeting up with a friend of hers who had been on another car, we exited the station together, and W. asked them if they knew where we could find a kaorou place nearby. They agreed to walk us there, though I felt bad that W. was obviously trying to drag them along for whatever evening he had planned. When we got to the restaurant, the college student told me, “You should take good care of your friend,” which sounded almost like a warning, and I think she could see the slight confusion on my face, because she told me next, “What I mean… be careful.” Then she said that she and her friend had to go, and I agreed, knowing that W. was my responsibility to deal with for the rest of the evening. As they were leaving, W. asked why they weren’t staying, but I told him they were very busy and they had to go. He started to become upset and asked what we had been saying and English, and did I tell them to go? and was it because of him? and why would I do such a thing? Now, when this comes from someone who has low self-esteem and is meek in nature, it’s pitiable, but when it comes from someone who is high-strung and physically threatening, it’s frightening (as in fearing for my own very personal safety). I told him that I had invited them, but that they were honestly not hungry and very tired, and were very busy college students, and that he didn’t need to worry about, and couldn’t we just get something to eat because I had classes to teach tomorrow, and needed to get some rest too. That seemed to diffuse his anger for the time being.

We sat down at some tables outside despite the chill weather. The “grill” was outside which consisted of a long narrow trough filled with charcoal over which thin wire grating was placed to cook meat and other foodstuffs on. I ordered what were essentially lamb kebabs, some chicken hearts (you’ll learn to love ‘em) and steamed bread which is then toasted over the flames. W., naturally, ordered four bottles of beer, which I (perhaps hopelessly) told him would be it for the evening, and of course it wasn’t as he later insisted that we finish the rest of his baijiu. Over the course of dinner he asked me again why I had told the girls to leave, which I reemphasized I that had done nothing of the sort. He also said that I was his very good friend and which he had proven by making sure I had a place to sit on the train and by carrying my groceries for me. Then it came, as expected—he asked me for money. I acted like I couldn’t understand him, and he seemed to be getting very agitated about it, though he eventually dropped it for the time being. I went ahead and paid the bill. He tried to order three more bottles of beer. I told the waiter no more, and that if W. was buying me beer then I wouldn’t drink it, and finally he agreed to take two of the bottles back. I helped W. finish the remaining bottle hoping to get the night over with as quickly as possible. I wondered if he was going to let me leave without trying to get some money from me, and if not doing it willingly would be in my best interest. I should have left, but I needed to urinate. I asked the waiter if there was a bathroom, and he pointed to the dark end of the alley that the restaurant was in. I hesitantly began walking down, and W. began to follow me.

He caught up with me as we passed by a brightly lit window where a Chinese woman was sitting on a bed, not seeming to pay attention to what was happening outside. W. stopped me and lifted his chin toward the window, while rapidly sticking his right index and middle finger in and out of a hole formed by his left hand, the international sign for sex as it were. I waved him off and kept walking down the alley, knowing I should have turned the other way. I stopped by the corner of a building and tried to piss with W. stumbling drunkenly around behind me, wondering if he was going to attack me, because if there was any time and place to do it, it was then and there. Was I being paranoid? Did he want my money? If so, did he really have any intention of inflicting physical harm upon me to get it?

I finished, zipped up and walked back down the alley without incident. As we passed the lit window, W. nudged me again but I ignored him and went over and sat down at our table. He said it would probably only be thirty yuan, and that he’d wait for me until I was done. I looked at him very seriously, placing my hand on his shoulder (as people who want to be taken seriously often do) and refused. Then I went on to say that I certainly hoped he wasn’t spending his money on prostitutes when he didn’t have a job and had a wife and daughter back home. He emphatically denied ever having solicited a prostitute, which I was hard-pressed to believe. Now I’m not one to lecture people on morality or personal responsibility, and maybe it was the alcohol, but I felt the need to say something, because at that moment I really felt sorry for his wife, and the woman in the window (was she even a prostitute?) and most of all, his infant daughter. I wanted him to feel sorry too. I tried to explain to him how helpless little children were, and asked him to tell me what it felt like when his daughter was born, and didn’t it feel wonderful? I was damn near in tears with sentiment for a child that I had never even seen and indignant because of principles W. would never have the luxury to understand (as if I, myself, even could). But he looked back at me and told me that he cared about his child, that he never felt so happy as when he held her in his arms, and I could imagine her big dark expressionless eyes gazing up at him wholly dependent and innocent, and all I wanted was to believe him. But all I had was the wanting. There was no certainty, no trust. Was I so cynical? And what could I do? I pulled out a hundred yuan from my wallet and told him to take it, and that I hoped he would be able to find a job and take care of his family. The gesture seemed to touch him, and he sort of sat there looking like he was about to cry. I felt drained and very tired, and told him I had to go home. He walked me down the street to hail a cab. Before I lifted my hand up into the air he pulled me into another alley, got on his knees and kow-towed, calling me “Ge” (“elder brother”), and I felt embarrassed by it. He got up and embraced me firmly, then we went back onto the street and I hailed a cab. As the driver was beginning to pull away from the curb, W. ran up to the window and paid the driver ten yuan for my fare. Driving off down the street, I felt the relief of escaping something dangerous, or maybe it was from having fought it and survived.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Winter Oblivion, Or How I Barbecued with a Mongolian Migrant Worker (part two)

So after departing the Beijing Zoo I decided to check out the “666 Rock Shop,” which was purported to be one of the few places that one could find vinyl records in Beijing and perhaps all of China. It was located on a street lined with various instrument retailers, skate shops and a popular underground rock venue called the “MAO live house” (no blatantly apparent relation to the Chairman). As its name might have suggested, the shop seemed to cater specifically to the heavy metal crowd, a likely intimidating "Slayer" poster to the unsuspecting Chinese national was displayed on the front door. The store was roughly the size of your average walk-in freezer, which is about par for many of the small businesses I’ve been to in China. There was only one employee—a late-twenties Chinese male of average height and build, dressed in tight jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket (all black, though I think that goes without saying), sporting a serious mane pulled back into a ponytail—inside and no customers. I don’t really recall what was playing on the stereo, but I suspect that it was probably a metal band, perhaps even a Chinese one. Most of its stock was comprised of CDs shelved on the left side, with the right side used for displaying various heavy metal paraphernalia (a good deal of which, as you can imagine, involved skulls). A small box sitting on the floor next to the CD shelf held all of six or seven second-hand (perhaps third-) records, the majority of which were Whitesnake albums. I had a romantic notion that this shop was going to be some sort of stomping ground for disaffected Chinese youths, where I could mingle and get the real scoop on the Beijing underground music scene, which it might well have been, and maybe I just came at the wrong time of day. The shop assistant spoke some English, and I asked him about the local clubs and bands, but he seemed a little nervous, while I just felt guilty for speaking to him in English. He handed me a flyer, and I thanked him and left.

Now I'm genuinely afraid that I've been coming off as sounding deprecatory or overly sarcastic, but I assure you that is not my intention. It’s not my objective to go around China and pick apart their interpretations of Western culture, and especially not their own—or anything else in this world for that matter. And it’s very difficult for me to put this into words. Because yes, I go out of my way to make fun of certain things, mainly because I think I'm being funny, and I like the idea of me being funny. But at the same time I have a deep yearning for honesty and sincerity. So let me just say that I care, if I never say it again. I care about this world and I care about the people in it. With that in mind, I’ll spare you the account of my uneventful evening at the D-22 club, which could be chockfull of ironic sentiment (that, and extendedly talking about music generally makes me feel like an asshole), and get straight to (more or less) how I met a Mongolian migrant worker named Wang Xiaowu.

So the next day, I checked out of the hostel around nine and treated myself to two breakfast burritos and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice at Grandma’s Kitchen, an American homestyle-cooking establishment (and yes I’m aware of the irony that I got breakfast burritos), located in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, which has typically been described as where the majority of Beijing’s expat population resides. After that I proceeded to perform my Western-goods grocery shopping as well as pick up a world map for my boss. Perhaps, you are curious as to what it is I bought, and anyway, it’s somewhat relevant to the rest of this anecdote. I’ve since lost the receipt, but I’ll try to recall it from memory:

1 bottle of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup
1 packet of Johnsonville Hot Links
1 packet of smoked salmon
1 packet of Italian-style coppa (a cured deli-meat)
1 packet of fresh sweet basil
1 packet of fresh green chilies (Thai?)
1 jar of black pitted olives
2 cans of black beans
1 baguette
1 bottle of Listerine
1 bottle of Thai fish sauce
1 bottle of Snapple Peach Iced Tea (which I immediately drank upon purchasing)
1 bottle of Spicy Brown mustard (for my boss)

So now you know some of the things I cannot get in Tangshan. From there I took a taxi to where I assumed I could catch a bus back home. Now it isn’t as straightforward as one would think because the drop-off points are nowhere near where they pick you up, and this last time I was dropped off at a different location, and was previously informed by one of my coworkers that bus service back to Tangshan was no longer available beyond a certain morning hour and not at the previous known location (see, I told you it was complicated). I chalked this up to his deficiency with the Chinese language, and figured I’d be able to work it out. I decided to wait at the drop-off point (which was just a public bus stop), assuming I could either get on a bus from there or ask the driver where I could get picked up. It was nearing noontime and I sat on the sidewalk, waiting as crowds disembarked the public transit buses with a few stopping to look at the various notebook planners or jewelry being pedaled out of suitcases by the people next to me. Some people seemed to be eyeing my bag of groceries, wondering if I was selling anything. After about forty-five minutes with no signs of a bus approaching and my frozen hot links and smoked salmon softening in the peculiarly high Beijing heat, I decided to check out the old pick-up point near the Beijing Railway Station. As I probably could have guessed, there were no buses waiting, so my only option seemed to be taking the train. Having not taken the train to or from Beijing before, I thought this would be an interesting experience, so I went ahead and purchased a ticket (which was only slightly less than the bus ticket), though it wasn’t departing for another three and a half hours. I contemplated going out to sightsee or something, but it really wasn’t feasible, so I plopped myself down in the shade of an overpass and started eating some coppa and bread.

It only took a few minutes before I became aware that two Chinese men, who were squatting flat-footed nearby, were talking about me. From what I gathered, one was remarking to the other about how much paler my skin was than theirs and that I certainly must have been a foreigner. Inevitably, our eyes met and I said “Ni hao,” and communication was established. They invited me to sit over next to them, and I obliged. They both turned out to be migrant workers, one of whom was waiting for a train. The other was just waiting, I suppose. The one who was waiting for a train was named Li Xiaodong and an ethnic Han. The other was a Mongolian (from the Inner Mongolia region of China) named Wang Xiaowu, though he had also a Mongolian name, which I neglected to write down. It turned out that they had also just met. Wang Xiaowu told me that he had just left his home and life as a farmer to find construction work in Beijing, but he wasn’t having any luck so far and visually expressed how the city made his head hurt by clutching the hair at his temples. He asked me what I did, and I told him I was an English teacher in Tangshan, where I was then waiting to head back to, to which he suddenly became excited and exclaimed that he wanted to go there too, saying that he knew a lot of construction was going on there (which was true) and he could probably find a job. I could tell that he was indicating that he wanted to travel with me, and I didn’t really see any reason not to, so I told him we could go together. In fact, I looked forward to it as an opportunity to better understand the life of a Chinese migrant worker. If Li Xiaodong had any idea that Wang Xiaowu was unstable, he certainly didn’t express it to me.

To be concluded...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Winter Oblivion, Or How I Barbecued with a Mongolian Migrant Worker (part one)

I know what you all must be thinking. I spent the entire winter buried under twenty feet of snow with all lines of communication knocked out, and having to fend off wolves and protect my coal stockpiles from Dickensian street urchins. The answer is yes. But now spring is here and I can return safely to the Internet.

Taking advantage of perhaps my first free Friday night in the six months that I’ve been here (as in I don’t have to teach English on Saturday) I recently made a trip to Beijing to check out one of its underground rock clubs. And to make a day of it I started with a visit to the zoo and caught my first real-life glimpse of a bona-fide Ailuropoda melanoleuca (which was really just a view of its backside sprawled out in its cage as if it were indeed a rug). Thankfully there were plenty of other pandas to ogle, some of which were actually showing signs of life.
I began the visit by taking pictures of the animals, then slowly transitioned into taking pictures of the other zoo-goers taking pictures of the animals (taking a hint from DeLillo) and finally just getting bored with the whole thing. All in all, I’d say the experience was anticlimactic, which really has more to do with me than it does the bears, bless their hearts. The same goes for the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, which I took the time to grace with my indifference over the winter.I suppose my well-I-might-as-well-go-do-this-touristy-thing-while-I’m-out-here attitude is not the best way to capture memories, but what are you gonna do? To further deepen my apathy/shame of being a tourist, I later met a young Indian gentleman—a self-described practitioner of parkour, which he explained that if you don’t know what it is, it was recently publicized by one of the villains in Casino Royale, to which I said, “Ohhhh! Freestyle walking!” and he sort of winced (“extreme walking” would also have been (un)acceptable)—at the hostel I stayed at, who named the same three tourism hotspots as the first three he’d gone to as well, though in different order, which nevertheless made me feel predictable. Though I suppose my whole attitude toward tourism is about being just that. While we're at it you can throw in the national stadium and aquatics center (of the 2008 Beijing Olympics fame), but I didn’t have to pay to see those and was really just trying to use up the time of whatever day I had decided to go to Beijing (much of which is often spent on looking for food I can't get in Tangshan), so they don’t really count, right? Oh, but then there was also the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (or the “Mao-soleum” as I’m sure I’m not the only one to have thought to call it), which you don’t have to pay for, but you do have to pay for a locker to store your bag if you have one, because you can’t take anything inside. That was actually something I found interesting, which coincidentally took the least amount of time to do. Allow me to digress.

Basically, you start off in a line that wraps around the hall from the outside and in order to move on to the lines that pass through the security gates, you have to show either your Chinese ID card or your passport to guards waiting at a metal barrier—which I didn’t have but they let me in anyway after I tried to look genuinely upset about not having it. Once you’ve cleared the security checkpoint, you’re herded very quickly in groups of thirty or so people, up the steps where attendants offer you an informational brochure (redundant?) for two yuan and into the main lobby, which has a huge marble sculpture of Mao sitting in a chair looking avuncular and cheerful, as I recall, about which hundreds of potted flowers are lain at his feet (the statue’s). The odor in the hall was distinctly that of a columbarium, which shouldn’t have been surprising save for the fact of the distance between the two places I was comparing. You’re then instructed to remain absolutely silent by various attendants (I don’t recall if any of this is done in English) while entering through a doorway on the left side (or the right, depending on which security gate you passed through) of the lobby above which a scrolling LED marquee instructs you to do the same. After passing through a dimly lit hallway—which adds to the solemnity of the moment—you reach the holding chamber which seems much smaller than it is due to the low-lighting and protective glass walls surrounding none other than Mao’s transparent and trapezoidal coffin (think of a Fort Knox-style gold bullion or a single piece of a Hershey bar, or maybe it really isn’t so difficult to imagine a trapezoidal glass coffin). You only have about a minute or so view his remains as you circumvent the glass walls in front of which four stoic PLA soldiers stand guard at either corner. Mao’s corpse looks to be made of rubber with his nostrils illuminated to a fleshy pink translucence by the overhead lighting. His hair looks brittle and is nearly the same color as his steel grey... well Mao-suit. From the shoulders down the rest of his body is shrouded not by the emblematic flag of the People’s Republic of China, but of the Chinese Communist Party, which is just the iconic golden hammer and sickle against a red backdrop (and here you thought that only the Soviets were into that sort of thing). Then out you go, and feel free to purchase something commemorative at the souvenir booths outside!

Some interesting information I picked up while writing this entry, but didn’t bother to verify:
-The coffin is actually made of crystal.
-It’s trapezoidal shape is specifically designed to diffract glare.
-There is some controversy over the authenticity of Mao’s remains as China did not have the technological know-how that was used by the Soviets to preserve Lenin & C. due to the deteriorated state of their relations at the time. (Was it really such a coveted secret?)
- This place can pimp out your coffin if you were in the military or a firefighter, or if you just want your loved ones to feel really embarrassed at your funeral because you weren't either(I'm waiting for the camo-casket):

Well that’s about all I have time for. Tune in next time for the exciting beginning (and possibly the conclusion) of the story I had meant to tell you!

Monday, December 29, 2008

An Abandoned Village of Blueprinted Excess

It was about two weeks ago that I was riding a bike (which was not mine, but was nevertheless (and continues to be) at my disposal; this being a detail which is of no relevance aside from justifying my use of the indefinite article rather than the possessive pronoun) through Tangshan’s Nanhu Gongyuan (“South Lake Public Park”) when I happened upon what appeared to be the remnants of a suburban housing development. As I mentioned before, I am fairly certain that the majority of Tangshan’s urban residents live in one of the many six-story apartment complexes or one of the newer high rise buildings. Then there are the one-floor bungalows made of brick and smell of burning coal that comprise the slums that are littered about the city. What I didn’t expect to see was a neighborhood of tract housing (or “McMansions” if you will) nestled in between the park and Tangshan’s urban sprawl; one wonders if it could factually be termed as “suburban” given its proximity to the city’s center, but that is really none of my concern (which is a lie, as I am obviously preoccupied with semantics).
In any case, the entire community was about the size of your average Wal-Mart, perhaps half-again, and all of the homes were two stories, though many of them were merely concrete skeletons—concrete framework seeming to be the standard for all architecture out here. The roads were unpaved, overgrown with brush and littered with debris; it looked like the place had been sitting there for years (though it was probably much less). Some homes had a lot of work done on them; one in particular had columns of affected Roman design at the front doors, and upon further (and likely illegal) investigation of the interior was revealed to have concave ceilings with gold-painted moldings and what I can only describe as a large marble wall sculpture depicting nubile celestials from the Renaissance-era (art history majors, feel free provide me with the correct terminology). Now this would all seem like a tragic waste of resources to have all this opulence go unappreciated by an upper-middle class Chinese family, but it was somewhat heartening to see that one of the upstairs rooms had at least been occupied, as evidenced by a pile of matted down straw in the corner.
That being said, the neighborhood was not completely uninhabited, and I’m not just talking about squatters and transients. There were actually two or three homes that were actually (or mostly) completed and you could see that people were living in them; the telltale signs of life being clothing left out to dry and, well a car in the driveway is a pretty good indicator as well. I could see through a window that a TV was turned on in a half-finished house (as in one half of the house was completely built while the other was filled with bricks and rubble). I was not the only non-resident either; there was particularly a lot of activity on the neighborhood’s northern border which was partly separated from the slums by what would have been an artificial pond had it ever been filled with water. The other part was a small open square with a few empty shop fronts that would have likely become a strip mall and perhaps served as a buffer zone between the slums and the suburb. This place had now become an area of recreation for the local elderly residents, which mostly consisted of various stretching exercises performed in mid-conversation with each other. There were slums to the south and west of the neighborhood as well, separated by an open field and a similarly uncompleted apartment complex respectively. It begs the question of what exactly the developers had to clear to set up in this location.
Regardless, it doesn’t take much to figure out why this project failed; in a country where 800 million people are still living in rural poverty, and to which the government’s response is to “urbanize” said demographic—as in relocate to the cities where they can lay down the plow and pick up the scales, so to speak—it simply isn’t very practical to have a single family living in a four or five bedroom house with Roman columns and domed ceilings, overindulgent though it may be.

Some more pictures I took.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Night at the “Easy Street” (Part Two)

So where was I…oh yes, I was sitting alone in the bar, sipping at an imported Budweiser and taking notes. After finishing my beer and getting started on another one (this time a domestic brew), I decided to start asking a few questions. In particular, I was wondering how a place like this stayed in business. As seven o’clock approached most of the peculiarly uniformed workers began to leave, and it clicked that they were probably service staff, and that this place was most likely a restaurant during the day, though there was no indication of it from either the outside or in. This was confirmed by the female worker, who had now taken the place of the previous bartender and was wearing a black track suit over her uniform (her bowtie and rose dress shirt still visible). Now I suppose this is nothing unusual, the combination of a bar and restaurant, but I got the feeling that this place would not be able to survive without pulling in the extra income from serving food during the day. Well, that is, until I decided to inquire about the tab I had thus far accumulated. The Budweiser (12 oz.) was an astounding 20 yuan, and the Qingdao (1 liter?) was a still upsetting 10 yuan. Now, in US dollars, this amounts to something less than five dollars, but when you get used to buying a liter-sized beer in a restaurant for 3 yuan, the mark-up just doesn’t add up. And keep in mind I’m making a Chinese salary, so it’s not like I can just spend money like some kid who’s just got a blank check after Miguel Ferrer runs over his bike. I called up my boss to make sure I wasn’t getting hoodwinked, but apparently it was the Mao-honest truth. Well, I figured I wasn’t going stick around much longer, though one of the other workers was insistent that I have another beer, and despite my protestations of “Tai guile!"(too expensive) he nevertheless opened up another bottle and placed it in front of me.
Meanwhile, the bar-staff fired up a karaoke machine and LCD projector that displayed aquatic scenes to the tune of classical Muzak when not playing contemporary Chinese-pop music videos. They also turned off the one unflattering light bulb and hit the dim colored lights hanging over the bar as well as what I consider extremely tacky flashing LED light tubes that were liable to cause seizures, which stretched under the bar and beneath the projector screen. The transformation was complete.
Not long after, patrons began to filter into the bar in small groups, most of them middle-aged men, some accompanied by girlfriends or mistresses—anyone but wives. They all took seats at the booths or tables and began ordering various Chinese snacks and beers. What transpired in the following hours was a deafening demonstration of one of China’s favorite pastimes—drunken karaoke. Now it was nothing stereotypical like Japanese businessmen with thick-rimmed glasses, getting plastered on rice wine and singing songs from the 80s off-key and out of tune (which shouldn’t really be applied to the Chinese anyway because I know all of you and the rest of America know the differences between Chinese and Japanese). When I say deafening I mean it literally, as the volume was cranked up so unnecessarily loud. But I guess that’s how the Chinese like it. I’ve noticed this with a couple other things—ring tones for instance. Regardless, if you could cut through that and all of the reverb, they weren’t bad singers, as far as I could tell, not knowing any Chinese songs.
Well, I was getting ready to leave, when a gentleman from one group asked me if I was a foreigner. Upon discovering I was, he became very excited, and brought over a Chinese woman who turned out to be an English teacher at a local middle school and who offered me a baton-sized cut of bamboo that had been soaked in sugar water. He invited me to sit at his table and poured me a glass of beer (Budweiser, no less). Conversation was extremely difficult because, as I said, the volume on the karaoke machine was deafening and there was rarely any down time in between songs—that and the language barrier; the English teacher mostly stayed outside smoking cigarettes and was unable to provide any translation. Still, I was able to find out that the man and his friends were government workers. The men would pour me beers and give me more snacks, but didn’t seem all that interested in trying to communicate with me (as if it could have been possible with all the noise). But sitting there amidst the discord, panning back and forth across the bar, I couldn’t help but think that I was really just a sort of novelty for the men at these table. Now, I don’t mean to spit on their hospitality or anything like that, and it really wouldn’t bother me if that was in fact the case (I mean, hey, I was getting free beer and all kinds of goodies). But, it was then and there that I saw a distinct hierarchy within the bar. The table I sat at with the government workers—they were all drinking imported American beer and snacking on sugar-soaked bamboo, and smoking high-class cigarettes and now, they even had a foreigner among them. At one point, one of the gentlemen went out and bought two large grapefruits and gave one to the men at the other long table in the middle of the bar, who were only drinking domestic beer and snacking on sunflower seeds. Now I found nothing haughty or patronizing about their behavior, but rather that this all had some deeper implication about the Chinese psyche; that this kind of stratification would always occur wherever it was possible and that it was something very organic and natural to the Chinese without the airs or insecurities of the West.

At some point, an older Chinese woman (late forties?) who turned out to be the proprietress of the bar came to our table and took me by the arm then guided me outside and over to other bar on the right side of the tea house, which, of course, was also owned by her, and also called “Lu Yi Jiu Ba” or as I’ve translated (and very likely incorrectly) as “Easy Street Bar.” The layout of the bar was slightly different, though the atmosphere was roughly the same, save for the fact that there weren’t as many people in this bar and the karaoke machine wasn’t blasting either (thankfully). Anyway, she sat me down at the bar introduced me to a young Chinese girl about my age (23 if you’re wondering) who was tending the bar, then went off to schmooze with other patrons. At that point I was approached by a young man about my age as well, who spoke a few words of English and was quick to pour me a beer and begin conversing with me. As it turns out, he was a cop, which he translated to me by holding up his wrists in front of him to signify handcuffs. I found that somewhat interesting considering that he was pretty drunk and smoking, and in general lacked the kind of seriousness you’d expect from a cop, though from what I’ve heard about the cops out here I suppose it’s not surprising.
Anyway, at some point I realized I had been away from the other bar for quite awhile, and I felt bad for having been whisked away so abruptly without properly thanking the gentlemen for their hospitality. The young cop accompanied me back to the other bar, taking my hand in his, which apparently is not something stigmatized out here. Luckily the gentlemen were still there, though they were leaving, and I was able to save face and express my appreciation for their kindness and generosity. On the way back to the other bar, the young cop very casually explained to me that the girl at the bar was his wife, but that he didn’t mind me talking to her because he wanted her to learn English with me. And really, there was nothing threatening about him, which just made the whole situation seem kind of weird.
So yeah, sitting back in the bar, the young cop told me to talk to “his wife” at the bar while he grabbed a mic and dedicated the next song to me. Well, as it turned out (I find myself saying this a lot), she was not actually his wife, not even his girlfriend. Apparently, his mother and hers (who, as it turns out, is the proprietress of this/these bar(s)) are friends, and I’ve landed right in the middle of some teen drama. It was amusing to say the least, because after a few more drinks the young cop started calling her his wife openly, and she would yell at him in a way that suggested that she often had to do this. She did, in fact, want me to teach her English (which everyone out here seems to want me to do) and I suppose I made some flirtatious and disingenuous offer to do so. Anyway, there isn’t much more of any relevance to mention. I didn’t see her mother, the proprietress, again until I began walking home and saw her sitting on the passenger side of a black Mercedes (or some other kind of luxury car) next to a shadowy businessman-type figure in the driver seat, oblivious to my awkward wave as I passed by.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Night at the “Easy Street” (Part One)

Evidently, the idea of a bar is something foreign and distinctly “Western” in China (not as in John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or even "Wild Wild West"(c. 1999), but as is in the “Free World”-West). The Chinese are not accustomed to going to somewhere specifically to consume alcohol, even for the sake of socialization—restaurants seem to serve as more appropriate venues. Of course, in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, I’m sure there are probably hundreds of bars, but here in Tangshan I’ve only seen two and they’re pretty much right next to each other, a tea house is all that separates them (something else I will have to go investigate sometime).

So, it was this past Sunday that I decided to check out one of these bars after work, and I should mention that Sunday is now my Friday (which means I get to cut loose all by myself; the reasons behind why I can’t “cut loose” with the few coworkers I do have out here are too digressive and insignificant to really get into). From the outside, you already know this is a place meant to cater to Westerners, or rather evoke some feeling of “Western-ness”. Basically, there are big pictures of attractive bourgeois white couples sipping wine in either picnic settings or else amongst identical couples someplace brightly lit and indoors, and they are all candidly smiling and appear to generally be having a good time. Well, my first encounter already began on the front steps, upon which a sort of dingy-white Chow Chow mix laid, and which cautiously avoided my attempts to pet it and then began nipping at my calves as I opened the solid red doors of the bar.
It was around 6:30, and I seemed to have caught everyone inside off guard. The interior was roughly the size of what you’d expect any one-room bar to be; there were booths all along the right side, two long tables in the middle and the bar was all along the left wall. The first thing I noticed was the lighting, and how uninviting it was; (please let me know if I’m overusing semicolons) there was one bulb hanging from the ceiling over the booths giving off a harsh, buttery colored light, the kind of light which gives you license to say it makes one’s skin appear sallow. Also, on the wall above the booths are more pictures of good-time-havin’ foreigners, which makes you wonder why in the States you rarely see depictions of drinking inside a bar, unless it’s a Polaroid of some twenty-one year old downing an Irish car bomb or some other such collegiate puerility (of which I don’t pretend to separate myself from having been apart of, I should add). As I was saying, the people inside (all Chinese, roughly in their late-twenties to mid-thirties (but who can really tell, right?), about five or six of them and only one of them a female) were sitting at one booth eating what must have been dinner, and watching a Chinese soap opera on a TV suspended in the corner (which I only heard at first, but later witnessed). They all looked at me sort of confused, and one of the young men stood up at asked what I wanted (which came along with a lot of other stuff I didn’t understand in Chinese). They were obviously all workers here at the bar, and I was intruding in upon their dinner, and though I felt a bit embarrassed I sheepishly requested a beer.
The bar was unlit with no one behind it, and the young man was quick to get behind it and begin bartending. I noticed that he and some of the other workers wore identical outfits, which consisted of black slacks, rose-colored dress shirts, black bow-ties and a silvery vest with embroidered flower patterns. Like in America, the alcohol was all displayed along the wall behind the bar, though all the foreign liquor, sparse in number, was up on the top shelves and lacked the pouring spout (I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, and even more sure that there’s a colloquial frathouse term for it) you would normally see on a bottle. There was no tap and most of the beer wasn’t refrigerated, but considering the amount of people in the bar, it didn’t look like that would be a problem. I could see that they had Budweiser, so I was interested to try imported American beer, as I’d already had many opportunities to try the local drafts at different restaurants. Now I can’t really remember what Budweiser tasted like back in the States, nor did it really ever matter to me what it tasted like, but out here in China it was definitely different, though ultimately disappointing (as drinking Budweiser alone always should be). I felt bad because the one guy stayed behind the bar, and I tried to coax him into going back to finish his dinner, but I suppose that would have been a dereliction of duty, and well, you know how the Chinese are about that (right?). Well, like any asshole who fancies himself a writer (or her-), I pulled out my journal and began jotting down notes about being in the bar, not yet feeling comfortable enough to begin conversing with the workers.
Some other physical details about the bar: hanging from the ceiling were foil garlands that one would expect to find at a New Year’s party and balloons that seemed more suited for Easter or perhaps a baby shower, also there were letters pinned up over the bar that read: “M   E   R   R   Y     C   H         I   S   T   M   A     ”
Now, I hope so far that I’m not coming off as being snide and sarcastic, a sort of ha-ha-look-at-these-silly-people-and-their-laughable-attempts-at-catering-to-Westerners kind of vibe. In a way, I’m both fascinated with and saddened by it. Why would a place like this even exist in a city where you can count the foreigners on your fingers and toes (probably not true, though the Chinese do have a really ingenious way of counting beyond ten on your fingers)? And how? In any case, if this place was ever meant for Westerners, it isn’t serving that purpose now—well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, actually; there’s still more to tell, but, unfortunately, its getting late and I must retire for the night. Happy Thanksgiving, or what I like to tell people that I like to call “Dracula’s favorite holiday”—you know, “Fangs”-giving! (Or was it a werewolf’s?)

To be continued...