Thursday, November 20, 2008

Street Life

Lunch time rolled around and we went back over to the students’ cafeteria to grab something. Thirty minutes later today, made all the difference in the world, the place was not nearly as busy as it was yesterday and so it was a bit easier to have a look at the food offerings. I walked up and down the aisle looking for anything that might be superior to the hot pot I yesterday, but nothing else grabbed me so I went back. This time I had a chance to actually ask the woman if she had chicken and she pointed and the menu and said “Yes” and told he that was what I wanted. She smiled and handed me the little plastic tab and turned around and asked the chef to cook one up for me.

The process here is interesting – what appear to be black stoneware bowls are placed directly on an open flame and when they are absurdly hot the cook drops in some broth, bean curd and noodles which instantly come up to a boil. When it’s nearly done by some indecipherable metric known only to him, he adds a couple of slices of meat to the top, cooks it a bit more and then the woman picks it up with metal tongs and places it on a metal charger which isolates your hands from the heat of the bowl. At least until the charger heats up due to the broth that slops over the edges of the bowl while you’re carrying it. So far it seems to stay cool enough to at least get carry it to the farthest reaches of the cafeteria.

While waiting I told the woman that I really liked the two little hard boiled eggs that are added as garnish to the charger. She was pretty surprised that I was able to tell her this in Chinese, especially since they are Quail eggs and I’d guess that the few westerners she sees in this place are not very likely to come up with that specific term. Smart guy that I am though, I had asked James last night what the proper term was and the word is Anchun - 鹌鹑. She gave me a big smile and the requisite compliment on my Chinese and I of course countered with my ever so modest, “Wo de Hanyu bu hao – My Chinese is very bad, and she of course refused to agree.

My number came up and she called me over and as I went to grab the bowl, she put an additional two eggs on my plate.

Over lunch I had a long talk with the young women from our finance department about owning horses and our house and our 2.5 acres to which one of them remarked that I must be extremely wealthy. Chinese women have a real love affair with our equine friends – every single one I have talked to about ours has remarked that it is a dream of theirs to have and to ride a horse. I explained that this was relatively easy to do in America and that regular people have them although they are very expensive to keep. From there our conversation moved on to Mexican food and how it compared to Chinese food, the altitude of New Mexico and how that kept it more moderate than Arizona and what odd people Americans are.

After work tonight I decided to go out and find an ATM to replenish my cash supply. Maintaining a wad of dough here is important as it really is a cash friendly economy and ATMs that are willing to accept a western debit card can be hard to find. At least ATMs with an English menu can be hard to find.

I decided to walk down and around the block to the branch of the bank where I have an account. Not because I wanted to withdraw from them, I just figured it was closer than the HSB branch I used the other day. The streets here are very busy at dinner time, and tonight they were more so than on the previous two days as the temperature had risen a bit. I made my way down through the underground tunnel figuring it was easier than trying to cross the street up above. The escalators in both directions were broken so the choice between them and the stairs was moot. These tunnels are useful in getting you from one side to the other, but they are not particularly pleasant places. Walled in dingy white ceramic tile, lit with pale green florescent lamps and lined with faded backlit advertising, the atmosphere suggests that you just keep moving. Back at street level I walked the half block to the bank and followed a man in the door. We were immediately stopped by a guard and told to go over to the ATM lobby – the bank was closed. I cut over and went in and was faced with a bank of 10 or so machines, some being used while people were queuing up behind. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me as there were as many empty as in use, but I have pretty much given up trying to understand why people do the things they do here.

My transaction was refused at the first machine I tried - it was apparently just for transactions local to this bank. Ditto the second, so I went back out in the street getting a tiny bit panicked. Not being able to get money out of these machines can pose a real problem if you’ve allowed your stash to get low. But figuring I’d never been denied at HSB, I headed down the road in their direction. I cut through the Mykal mall and found a Bank of China ATM on the way out. Figuring “What the heck” I waited for a young woman to complete her transaction and popped my card in the machine. Success, it took it and brought me to the menu which was ominously missing any transaction other than “check balance.” Nice that I can see how much I have in the bank 6000 miles away, too bad I can’t get any of it.

Less worried now than annoyed, I went back out into the street and decided to just go to the last place I was successful.

Thankfully I didn’t need to wait here as the lobby was empty so I put the card in, entered my PIN and asked for 3000 RMB, about $380. The machine denied my request and spit my card back out. I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer here, so I went back at it and asked for 2000. The machine thought for a bit, and then I heard the telltale sound of cash shuffling – victory, my money was on the way. Apparently I had hit my daily limit with my first request.

By now it was all of 5:45 so I decided to go for a walk. The thing I find least compelling about living here is the low point you hit around dinner time. The west is fast asleep, it’s still 5 hours until bed time for me and the thought of sitting around the hotel room is simply bleak. If you can get past this low point, then the run up to going to bed is manageable. Tonight I decided to kill time by walking.

I headed back down the road and decided to cut through 5 Color Town, that Disneyland on mescaline bad trip entertainment district I have written about previously. It was dead, only a few stragglers wandering around amid the neon, empty restaurants and bars. I did the complete circuit, even walking past the steamed up windows of the Real Eddie’s, the girl behind the counter in the first floor bakery was idly spinning a pen and staring at the cash register.

Having no specific goal, I decided to head down to Starbucks for a cup of Joe. One of the silly mind’s eye images I had of myself on this assignment was the hardened foreigner alone in the streets with his collar turned up against the wind and a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Sort of standing there stock still while the world blurred past, as seen in some cheesy music video. I figured I may as well go for that look, so off I went.

No leather panted fraus in there tonight, just a few couples and a single young western woman doing her homework with her ear buds in. I grabbed my cup and decided to head back to a street off to the side of the bank where I had begun this trek. Side streets in these cities are often the most interesting places, and as it turned out this one was not a disappointment.

The first block or so held clothing stores, all modern and every single one blasting techno as loud as possible. At one two down coated shop girls stood side by side clapping their hands to the music, the beat was pounding.

On the opposite side of the sidewalk, people had all kinds of junk for sale – clothes, shoe liners, stuffed animals. I finally figured out where all the plastic buckets that used to be sold in Mexico went, they’re now offered one block off of Jin Ma Lu in Dalian. It was like walking through a series of yard sales in a Rave, at first the music just drives you along and then you realize you should slow down lest you miss something. The clothing stores gave way to hair salons interspersed with some clubs, children’s stores and tea shops. Eventually the stores changed to restaurants, and the busiest ones were the most basic - the fancier and more modern the exterior, the less people were dining. By now the yard sales had changed to vegetable and fruit sellers with everything from Persimmons to Pomelos being offered from carts, tables and blankets on the ground. Some were selling giant melons and others had metal bins of black sunflower seeds, the variety was staggering. A half a block later, the fare changed to fungi and then it was on to seafood, slabs of fish laid out on pieces of plywood, crabs and shrimp in metal pans and eels in plastic buckets. The seafood tailed off and the meat began – big slices of beef and pork sitting on tables made of boards sitting on sawhorses. It was surreal and genuine at the same time. One seller, a woman wearing a surgical mask said “Hey there” as I walked by. Eventually the street looped around and the carts and vendors ended and I headed back in the direction of civilization.

The main drag in the Dalian Development Area has been modernized with government buildings, offices and here in the center of town, the cultural center. This building is an interesting mix of steel and glass that looks like two giant Japanese fans unfolded and facing each other. I decided to cut up and across it for a closer look. A beautiful theatre makes up the first part, followed by an exhibition halls and ending with the city library where a few lone readers were busy doing so at tables by the windows. The guard by the empty front desk was sprawled in an easy chair, his hat pulled down over his eyes. Not really interested in going in, I kept heading back towards the main intersection and my hotel.

I crossed under the street via the same tunnels for the third time, now having completed a transit from each cardinal point of the compass save one. I’ll get it some other time.

I thought I would wander by one last place before calling it a night. Passing by McDonalds I fell into a swinging gait, compelled to do so by the Hip-hop version of their advertising them emanating from speakers on the front of the restaurant. There was a steady stream of people heading into a building and down and escalator so I decided I had nothing to lose by following and I was rewarded with what appeared to be a better grocery store than the Trust Mart I had been frequenting. Sometimes it pays to take a risk. I wandered up and down the aisles finding all kinds of things I didn’t find at the other place and concluded next time I’ll try shopping here.

Had a bit of a hard time finding my way out though but did finally get my bearings and made it to the escalator. It’s probably worth mentioning that grocery stores in China tend to be in the basement of other buildings. And the entrance to the food part is generally choked with other shops selling cameras, wedding supplies, leather goods and stuffed animals. Don’t ask me to explain this, just accept my opinion that it makes shopping a little bit odd.

By now I was ready to call it a night so I headed back in the direction of my hotel, choosing to take the street behind it past a trash-laden park across the street from a row of upscale women’s clothing boutiques. One store had a short down jacket in red with puffy panels that someone I know would like an awful lot.

In reflection, I guess the thing I learned tonight was that life is where the people are. And it’s not really necessary to sit in a bar or join a club or go to church to get the uplift you can get from just being around other people. Wandering the streets and observing people going about their regular lives can be engaging enough. It’s certainly better than hanging around your room.

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