Friday, November 21, 2008

Everything was just peachy until that drop of chile oil hit my cornea

The title refers to a little tidbit I forgot to share yesterday. Eating noodles from a hot pot with chop sticks is not an easy thing for a westerner. And judging from the barely veiled looks of disgust I see on the faces of my Chinese dining companions, I seem to not do it very well indeed. Yesterday though I was munching away when a blob of them fell back in the bowl, spraying my face with chile broth. What realy bad though was the one really spicy drop that projected itself straight into my right eye. It hurt so bad that I wasn't quite sure what to do except carry on my conversation as though nothing unusual was happening, in spite of the tears running down my cheek and the fact that I was clearly going blind. Trust me, if you haven't done this yet, don't.

Today was the day on which I wrapped up the last of the relocation loose ends. Critical things like getting my membership cards for the Metro Shopping Club and the Inn Fine Gym. I was also going to get my passport back from the government which would theoretically allow me to flee the country on a moment’s notice.

One odd thing happened today; my Chinese cell phone suddenly started ringing. The first time it went off, I had no idea it was mine. I was walking down the stairs at the temporary office and I heard this chirping. I figured it belonged to one of the driver’s who were milling around in their regular little group among the fleet of black Hondas and Audis that the car rental companies favor for driving us around. When it didn’t stop something clicked and I pulled it out of my pocket and sure enough, it was mine. So I answered in the traditional Chinese manner with “Wei?” Little things like this throw people for a loop, which is pretty much why I do them and sure enough, I got an earful of Chinese giggling – it was Ms. Li calling to tell me that my passport was ready 5 hours early. It was an interesting conversation, as they all are between two people who really don’t speak the other person’s language very well. I was trying to be accommodating and she was trying to get me to come to the office building to pick it up. I finally figured that out and so I directed James to change our pre-decided trajectory in favor of a slight detour.

When we arrived at the offices, I called her again and she was quite surprised that we were there already. She came down, I rolled down the window and she handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper to sign and handed me back my precious travel document, loaded with a brand new unlimited entry visa. I was no longer a captive guest.

James and I went on to my favorite ATM so that I could load up on some cash for my shopping trip. Metro is a little like our Sam’s Club or Costco, only with a slightly more Asian flavor. It’s a membership store and when I was here last in September I tried to join but was turned away because they had run out of cards due to the Moon Festival. I’d love to share the reasoning behind that, but I can’t. It’s just another one of those “because” things which are so, so common here. Two months later they apparently had re-stocked them and so I was on my way to meet my relocation consultant, Maria who would walk me through the process.

Cruising down the expressway my phone rang once again – it was Maria calling to tell me that she would not be meeting me. Something more pressing had come up and so she was sending her associate Jane to meet me instead. Of course I have neither met nor seen Jane but I figured she would find me as I couldn’t imagine there would be too many single Western guys showing up in the lot at 10 o’clock in the morning. We took the exit and looped back around under the highway and were nearly crushed by a train as we crossed the tracks in front of the store. While I didn’t know it at the time, this near miss was to be the first of several of the day. Having escaped the locomotive, James tried to pull into the lot but the main entrance was blocked by three cars treating the right and left lanes as though they were exclusive exits. The third car had lined up in the center for good measure, creating a most effective blockage. James though is a resourceful guy so he shot around them and used what was left of what should have been the exit side to go in around the three of them. The little delivery van that was attempting to occupy the same space that we were did not even cause him to pause.

We parked and I called Jane but her phone was busy, not a big surprise since Chinese people rarely seem to put theirs down. We decided to walk inside and sure enough, there was Jane talking on her phone while holding a big sign with my name on it, as though she was picking me up and the airport.

After introductions she led me over to the membership desk. James wandered off to stare at the 25’ artificial Christmas tree that had been set up inside the gates. Jane and I chit-chatted for a few minutes while the girls behind the desk ignored us and finally she told me to turn around and smile – one of the workers was holding up a video camera to take my picture. That accomplished, my card was printed out with my last name truncated by 3 or 4 insignificant letters. I grabbed a cart and we were off.

I had a few objectives – toaster oven, telephone, paper towels, knives, spoons a pan and chopsticks, plus whatever food was appealing to the eye. But I knew right away that this was going to be a short trip – Jane was being so helpful that I simply could not browse. She kept moving me from item to item to item, stopping by every store worker to ask for clarification.

I found a cheap phone and suggested we move on to the oven. She asked a worker, using the term “fuwuyuan” which I was taught means “waiter.” Apparently it applies universally to anyone wearing a uniform that is not in the military. The fuwuyuan said “Mei you”, we don’t have toaster ovens. I told Jane I found that hard to believe so she asked another – same answer. I insisted, she asked me “how many slices” and then it became clear we were stuck in the “toaster” part of the request. I said, no, “oven.” “Ah, a small oven” and we were directed around the corner where I was able to pick one out. Another fuwuyuan came over to get it down off the shelf when James interceded since the woman was about 4’11” and as he slid it off, she crouched down as though he was going to drop it on her head.

Okay, two items down and few more to go. The carts at this place have casters on all four wheels which renders their movement into what you might expect a regular grocery cart to do on ice – you go down the aisles at strangely changing oblique angles. Jane was close on my heels, running into me each time I swerved left or right. My knees started to ache from trying to keep the thing in a straight line.

I picked up a small pan and went on until I found the paper goods and grabbed a package of paper napkins. I asked Jane about paper towels and she thought I meant toilet paper. I tried the “what do you use in your house” line of questioning and the answer was “rags”. I did manage to find a giant package of the kinds of rolls that go into the paper dispenser in public bathrooms, but no paper towels in our conventional sense. So I went for the next best thing – dish towels. This of course brought more confused looks and conversation whereupon I just said “cloth towels” which I had to modify to “fabric towels” in order to get sent back to the cloth goods section of the store where I found them.

Next up were spoons and the only version I could find were those little white shovels you get with Won Ton soup back in the US. Figuring those were better than continuing to fork my yogurt as I’d been doing all week, I added them to the cart. Around the corner I found a package of real-live soup spoons which I grabbed, promptly cutting my finger on the exposed ends of the plastic wire wraps that were holding them on their card. Next to them was a huge assortment of chop sticks so I asked Jane which ones she liked. She really didn’t have an opinion, so I asked which ones were lucky. She giggled and told me that luck does not apply to chop sticks. She did offer that heavier ones might be superior but could not explain why. I pointed to a package that were wood with metal tips and offered that those were probably the heaviest; she made a face and said that she did not like those. Ah, so she did have an opinion.

By now I had decided that the best course was to return some other time solely with James who knows to stay out of my way, shopping in tandem was wearing me out. But walking out we passed the kitchen knives and so I grabbed a small one for cutting and a long, serrated model for slicing bread. The instant I placed them in the cart a lurking fuwuyuan swooped over and took them out. She said something to Jane who at first looked puzzled and then figured it out, telling me that I could not just buy those, I had to pay first while the worker held them. I could collect them after I checked out. Surprised, I asked “why.” Jane screwed up her face, clearly searching for the words and finally came out with, “I watch a program on TV where the police discover who killed the person by going to the store and finding out who bought the knife that was the murder weapon.” Again, please don’t ask me to explain.

Surprisingly there were no surprises at the check-out - Jane went back to get my murder weapons and James returned the ceramic spoons that I didn’t want to buy.

Driving on to the Inn Fine Hotel (where I was to apply for a gym membership that is included in my housing package) I asked Jane about the horse that her father has, out in the countryside. It seems odd, but I spend a lot of time talking about horses here. I bring it up, it gets a conversation going and that conversation often takes the strangest turns. She and I had talked a bit about this while we were waiting for my card to be issued. It seems her dad has a horse and a donkey and so I inquired as to what they were used for. She told me that many people in her village have horses for work and that her dad keeps this one horse to provide the service of producing “horse babies” for the other people in the area. That made sense, I asked her if the horse was a stallion, and she said “yes, and he is very fat.” I asked about the donkey and she held up her hand and pointed to the spot between her thumb and index finger and told me how the donkey had kicked her when she was a little girl in that very place.

As this was getting more and more interesting I asked what the stallion was fed and she replied the he received corn and beans as there wasn’t enough fresh grass to feed him. Beans were a new one on me and so she explained that the beans are mashed and pressed until they become sort of a bean cake and that is fed to the horse.

Nothing at the Inn Fine can top that conversation so I’ll not even bother with that tale. We left Jane in the parking lot after I tried repeatedly to get her to tell me where we could drop her, but she preferred to catch a ride back with a colleague who was somewhere in the neighborhood.

I went back to work for while and walked over to the canteen for lunch a bit after noon. The Quail Egg Lady gave me a big smile when I came in and I waved but today I wanted something else and settled on some noodle soup from another stall. It was made before my very eyes and I grabbed it and headed off to a table, taking a bite along the way. The meat was cold, which always sets off an alarm when you realize you are eating something that has not been cooked to death. I just rolled the rest of it down into the broth and figured the heat would burn away any badness before I got to it.

Leaving work tonight, James and I almost had a direct head-on accident with a guy on a motorcycle. We were heading down the exit drive from the office and he made a left off of the main road, electing to use our side, as in the wrong side of the road to shorten his trip. Unfortunately he was paying too much attention to the backsides of some girls walking along the side of the road to notice that he was heading straight for us. James slowed down to see where this was all headed and the biker looked up, realized he was about to land on our hood and did a sharp veer further in the wrong direction, nearly hitting the girls he was coveting. At no time though did he slow down even the tiniest bit. James mentioned that there are no requirements to ride a motorcycle in China.

After a quick stop at the hotel I decided to walk down to the ocean for some spiritual refreshment. It took about 35 minutes and it was pleasant, the sun was going down, a few stars were winking on and there were a few things worth taking pictures of. It got a bit interesting as the road curved along the beach, the sidewalk on my side of the road ended forcing me to cross and use what there was of one on the other. There was a legitimately demarcated space between the grass and the traffic lane, but since it had no curb, the buses felt it was free space to use as a lane to get around any cars they felt were impeding their forward progress. I finally resorted to walking in the last 6 inches, one foot in front of another as though on a tightrope after the 2nd or 3rd bus brushed me back with their extended rear view mirrors.

I came close to being run over by a taxi making a turn into a driveway I was crossing and I took this a sign that it was time to head back. It was dark now and getting cold and my sightseeing opportunities were pretty much reduced to the neon that decorates every restaurant and massage parlor along the road.

Arriving home I sat down to a snack of some Chinese cheddar and crackers when my room phone rang. I had a bad feeling it was going to be a complaint because I had the music on a bit loud and sure enough it was the manager. But, she was only calling me to congratulate me on the one week anniversary of my stay at the Kerren Hotel. I thanked her and she went on to ask me why I had not yet been over to the free breakfast in the 15th floor lounge. I explained that I had been very busy with early morning meetings this week and so had not had a chance, a half-lie as I found the place so depressing the other night that I have since not been able to gird my loins enough to go back. She told me that she had checked with the waiter and that he had reported my absence, something I found very odd, but having cleared that up she wanted to know why I was in my room at 6 PM on Friday. I didn’t really have an answer for that so she suggested that I come down stairs and meet her “right now.” I begged off from that, explaining that my day had been long and tiring. Perhaps getting the message, she reminded me that I had her business card and that I should send her an email with any problems I might have. I thanked her and in response she gave me an open invitation to have dinner with her in the restaurant. I told her I was really looking forward to that.

Here are a few of the pictures I took before I ran out of light. The first is my hotel, the rest, things seen along the way including the cows which I found in a little park on a cliff overlooking the sea. The park had a big fault line running down the center, dividing the half that was not falling down the hill from the half that was.



















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