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...

1 comment:

Limbless Jack said...

you guys should get BFF broken hearts.