Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My quotidian existence (yes, I love that word and I am going to use it all the time)

After my rather exciting weekend, it was sort of okay to ease back into my regular rut. Meetings bracketing the wee hours on both ends of the day, a hot noodle crock from my friend at the college cafeteria, hanging out in my monk’s cell trying to decide if peanut butter and jelly really counts as a dinner. In short, the exciting life of an expat.

Having nothing to do but work allows you to put the daily activities in slo-mo and to observe the differences in life here in finer detail. For example, how pedestrians are treated by cars.

It’s very simple, if a couple of pedestrians want to cross the sidewalk that you’re driving down, you cut them off. If a group of people on foot wants to cross a major on the green crossing sign, you put your shuttle bus into a tight u-turn and head straight into the crowd. If you are pulling out of a driveway and two people are halfway across it, you move to their outside and get out before they slow you down. If a dad is trying to get across the road with his six year old son in a parka, speed up a bit and try to get inside of the kid before he gets to the curb. The rules seem easy enough to follow – pedestrians have no rights, they do not belong in any place that a car can go which means they should pretty much limit their movements to stairways and broken escalators both of which are available in adequate quantities.

And then there are the buses. We have two types here, the ones that are run by the city along predetermined routes and the ones that park on the sidewalks during rush hour and run to a specific destination. Hawkers stand by the doorway yelling what must be the name of the places they are heading to and hope that people will select their bus instead of some other. From what I hear, entrepreneurs buy routes from the government and then run them with profit in mind and the competition is fierce. Fights over clientele often break out between drivers. These buses also follow no rules as mentioned above; a group of people in the crosswalk is a reason to make that u-turn even if they have no intention of heading that way.

There is good news for carbon paper lovers here in China, it is still used extensively. I went to the Mykal department store tonight to pick up a couple of items. The instant I said I wanted this particular thing, the girl whipped out her little receipt book, jammed a tiny little sheet of carbon paper between two slips and wrote the item up. Well, I wanted two, so she repeated the action with a second little slip. And I wanted two of something else, as well, so once more, but this time she managed to put both on the same slip, perhaps conserving that precious carbon duplication resource. It was funny; she was so fast as to say “I’ve written it up, now you have to buy it.”

I marched off to the cashier with my three slips for four items and got in a short line that was queued up behind a woman doing an exchange which was taking forever. More people came and much to my amazement lined up behind me. It was taking so long that I had time to realize that Buddha might be testing me again, having passed the Koan of the Barking Dogs with relative composure. When it was my turn, she took my little slips separating the originals from the copies and stacking them into two little fan-piles of three each. She stamped a tiny little box on each one with a tiny little stamp, taking a moment to re-ink the stamp from a red stamp pad. She rang them up and then briskly stamped all six with a big, round stamp before taking the copies and impaling them on a spike. Yes, it’s 2008, almost 2009 and the fanciest department store (think Macys) in Kai Fa Qu uses one of those little receipt spikes that are so ancient that I can’t even remember the name of them. I do remember Rod Steiger jamming his hand down on one at the end of The Pawnbroker, however. She handed me the three originals along with a receipt from the cash register and off I went back to get my items from the girls at the counter. They took the originals, verified the stamps and analyzed the cash register slip to make doubly sure I had paid before helping me shove the goods into my messenger bag and sending me out the door.

Tonight I thought would be a good one for a trip to the gym. It was too early to avoid the Spin Class, assuming there actually was one and yet too late for me to get there in time for the start if there was any chance of one occurring. So I killed a little time remaking playlists on my iPod before heading down the street to the fitness center.

Climbing the stairs, I realized almost instantly that something was amiss – the disco was deafening. Spin Class was on, in full bore complete with music, yelling and flashing lights. I took a look in the door to see if there was an empty bike and not seeing one decided to just wait them out. It was 5:55, ten minutes after the scheduled end of the class. Okay, I’m starting to get it – we make believe that there are classes on days that there are not, only admitting that they didn’t happen when confronted with times and dates. On the days that the class actually happens, we neither start it nor end it at the advertised time. And when we do end it, we end it a couple of times before restarting it for just one more song.

I planted myself in a chair and decided to wait them out – the time would not be poorly spent as I could easily sweat off a pound sitting there in the sweltering heat.

The group yell finally ended and I went in and set up a bike and watched my friend the cleaning lady mop the floor; this time she did not make me stop pedaling. Have you noticed a trend here – I seem to be making the best of friends with service workers across China. For some reason I understand their lot and they know it.

The fitness world presents itself in an amazing tableau when viewed from the seat of a spin bike. You see people using elliptical machines with less energy than it would take them to walk to the refrigerator, making you wonder why they bothered to come to the gym at all. You see western girls walk around the place with so much self confidence that they seem to own the joint and just when you are convinced they do, they get on the abdominal machine, set it to two pounds and commence to do crunches that are clearly not working anything. You want to tell them that the tag is sticking out of the waistband of their tights, brightly displaying itself against the sallow skin at the base of their back but you just keep on spinning. You see fat little guys on the recumbent bike with the handlebars pulled up to their noses and you see that same woman who came in the spin studio with her personal trainer last week to do resistance free push-ups while he stands behind her, out of sight sending text messages on his cell phone. Yes, it’s a world of wonder, populated by more people wandering around exercising the towel around their neck than working their muscles.

One thousand calories and 90 minutes later I was out on the street walking home in a 100 MPH wind straight off Lake Baikal that wasn’t blowing when I went in. But the fear that I was now close to freezing to death on my three block wall was mitigated by the glorious conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. We had been blessed with a clear night, and there it was, hovering over the Bank of China making me realize that if I was seeing that same thing from West Ella Drive, I’d be doing it with my lovely wife and my faithful dog Tedward, and that all would be well with my world.

No comments: