Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No matter where I look, naked guys

It’s been an interesting couple of days, and most of it as not interesting in a “good interesting” kind of as way.

Yesterday was my very first Chinese lesson with my very own personal tutor. And it was pretty confusing, as I am probably going to pay the price for this reputation I have among all the corporate contractors, drivers, cafeteria workers and building maintenance people of being the guy with the really good Chinese language skills. I set myself up, responding to the owner of the language school in typed characters instead of English. Suddenly I am the star pupil.

My instructor therefore had this notion that I could speak, so she started off using the text book and speaking only in Chinese. Immersion is a great thing, particularly in a language that shares some percentage of words with your native tongue. Like Spanish. I mean Spanish is easy; all you have to do is add an “a” or an “o” to the end of an English word and speak really loudly. Your beer always shows up by following that technique. But not so here, and the thing that struck me almost immediately is that my Chinese is based around telling people to go and asking how much things cost and telling the waiter that you’re not eating the chicken because you saw the chef drop it on the floor. None of my Chinese has anything to do with listening to an instructor tell you what she wants from the exercises in the book.

After a couple of hours of this I finally hit on something – I learn best if I am given the English and told to give back the Chinese. So we did that for a while until she asked me to translate “Ask the shopkeeper to bring you a coat for your wife in size XL.” That broke me down once and for all.

It was time for the dispensing of the homework and she carefully wrote out a page of characters and told me to memorize them and to be prepared to write them tomorrow. I flatly said, “No way.” I don’t think she understands just how much hunting and gathering I have to do each evening just to survive. I bet she takes the bus home and her Mama has a big bowl of dumplings ready, fresh from those thousands available in the grocery store frozen food section. Not so me, I have the whole “expat with a cup of coffee” thing to do. By way of compromise, she asked me to do ten – I said “no.” “Five?” “No” I finally caved at three. You see, I am getting the knack of this whole bargaining thing.

Towards the end of the lesson, my phone started going nuts with pages from my driver. Seems we had a misunderstanding between my company, his company and his boss over something or another to do with some service and he was therefore in some kind of trouble. Not bad, two weeks in-country and I’m getting my driver fired. I finally figured out what the problem was and told him I would fix it. What was touching was that he was so very upset about me losing face, something that never in a hundred years would even factor into my consideration in solving the problem. But it did strongly factor into how I had to approach solving it on the other end. I went home with a major black cloud over my head, something that was not improved by my realization that I had left my passport and room key in an unlocked drawer at my office. So I grabbed James as he was pulling away and back we went. To say that I was pretty much done with the whole China experiment by that point would be a severe understatement. I ended up with peanut butter and jelly on crackers for dinner in front of a 30 Rock marathon. But please don’t get me started talking about how the fast forward on my “digital media player” locks the damn thing up.

Today dawned with an early morning meeting. I was picked up by James who apparently still had a job which made me feel quite a bit better. This morning I was working at the other office, getting certified for site access during the close of the construction period. It was a good class and I was able to get my badge made. I left and went back to my other office about midday day, still being driven by James.

At lunch time I gave into a craving – I just had to have a salad. I’ve not had one since I have been here, as things like raw lettuce and vegetables appear prominently on the CDC web site as potential vectors for all sorts of diseases. Apparently “night soil” is one of the preferred fertilizers here, and having been out to have a look at the farming communities last Saturday, I was pretty much positive that I would never eat an uncooked vegetable again on this side of the world. Additionally, the only green things in the grocery store are either cabbages or scallions and so the opportunity might never present itself. And the only lettuce I’ve seen was being sold off an old shower curtain on a street corner and I have not yet mastered buying from the street guys. Throwing caution to the wind, we went to Eddie’s and rolled dem’ bones.

The salad bar looked pretty fresh and I imagine all the raw stuff had been washed in Hydrogen Peroxide and Bleach just like our government recommends, so that was my selection. That plus a nice bowl of cream of pumpkin soup and some fresh hot bread. It was a great lunch and for a few moments I almost felt like I was back home, at least until I looked out the window and saw the guy from the restaurant across the street dump a big pot full of gray water out the window into the street.

I had another Chinese lesson today and I received the coveted “two thumbs up” Post-it for being Xie Li’s most clever student. She was extremely impressed that I was able to draw 我 你的 and 他 straight from memory. Never mind I did the strokes in the wrong direction, at least I got them in the right order. Also please ignore the fact that what I have mastered is “I”, “You” and “He/she/it.” It’s a big step for me.

James did me a very big favor by getting my broken glasses fixed. He took them to an eyeglass store yesterday and told them that I had purchased them there and they had broken. I had two choices, try to find an exact pair of frames for the lenses I had, or have them welded, “burned” in James’ lingo. I elected the latter since the former seemed impossible and tonight we picked them up, completely fixed and covered with flux, greasy prints on the lenses and severe discoloration from the welding torch. But you know what; they’re a decent back up pair. In the US they would have gone in the trash.

I wanted to make one more trip to the electronics mart to see if I could find a cable with dual male 3.5mm stereo jacks on it. Turns out the Honda has an auxiliary input and I can run my trusty iPod through the car stereo. Amid all the bleakness and desolation that has become my life; a tiny pinpoint ray of sunshine has broken through the dense petrochemical smog and shined ever so brightly for the shortest moment in time. No more girl band hip hop for me.

Tonight was the next step in my personal development – going to the gym to ride the spin bikes. I almost went last night, but I was so shaken by the day that lying on the couch was far more appealing. And so tonight there would be no more excuses. I got into my cycling clothes and headed down the street into unknown territory.

I figured out how to use my card to get in, well actually the girl behind the desk took it away from me and handed me a locker key. Lockers, yea right, like I’m ready to hang out with a bunch of naked Chinese guys.

Back in September I had taken on a tour of this gym and so I had a vague recollection of where the equipment was. So I just kept climbing the stairs until I saw something I recognized and walked out of the stairwell. I guess gyms everywhere look the same, I can’t say I know because I’ve not had a gym membership since they were called “gyms” and not “fitness centers.” I remember hating that place, sitting there among naked guys who were blithering on about which Benz they preferred seemed a bit pretentious to me. I rarely went and when I moved I let it lapse. So here I was again reveling in the smell of sweat, people in 1980’s exercise wear (that had not changed apparently) and feeling completely and totally awkward. I checked the little handmade activity bored and saw that there was a spin class from 17:00 to 17:45. I took a look in the spin studio – no people. Ah well, maybe things were going to work out nicely for me after all.

I adjusted the bike to my fit and got into my routine. My stupid heart rate monitor started beeping, suggesting that I was endangering myself. I messed around with it until it shut up. After a bit a cleaning woman came in and started mopping the floor. She put her mop down and climbed on one of the bikes and started spinning, smiling at me as though to say “dude, check out my climbing form.” Getting bored with that, she went back to her mopping, actually making me stop pedaling while she mopped around the base of my bike. It was really hot. Unlike the rest of the world, the Chinese keep their workout rooms bordering on the uncomfortable so that once you start working up a sweat you really hate being there. I ignored it and drank more water. A few people came and went; a personal trainer brought in a woman and made her do standing push-ups using the handlebars on two bikes. A couple came in and spin for about 45 seconds and towards the end I was joined by a trainer who wanted to talk on his cell phone away from the techno that was pounding out among the weight machines.

My interest waned at 60 minutes so I gathered my stuff and went downstairs, figuring I would at least try to find the locker I was assigned. First room – no such luck, just a bunch of naked guys. I asked at the desk and the young man took me to a different room, also filled with a bunch of naked guys. I took one look, a shallow breath, choked and decided I would never, ever visit the locker room again.

So there you have it, my grand adventure. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and one of my expat pals is having an orphan celebration. Something I would never have considered back in the world. But desperation and loneliness go a long way towards vanquishing a natural inclination towards introversion.

I have to say, I am really looking forward to it.

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