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...

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