Friday, February 20, 2009

Terry abandons after Stage 5

It was sort of a tough week for me, after a couple of months of deliberations my management and I decided that it would probably be best for me to take a breather in the US for a couple of months. We’d started this dialogue when I returned to China in January as the change to our program schedule had resulted in my crew being delayed in coming over for about six months. And while I did have a few people on site, the bulk of my work remained in the west and I was finding that it was pretty hard to stay on a western schedule while living in the east - too many late night meetings leading into early morning meetings. So I put the wheels in motion and made my plans to leave with an eye to returning when everyone else moves over.

It is funny how attached you get to a place. My emotions were all over the place, obviously glad to be going home but sad to be leaving people behind. And while living here can be tough, it can also be challenging in a fun and exotic way countered well with the tiring and grating ways. With the decision to go my focus shifted from going out hunting and gathering every evening to trying to figure out how I was going to fit four suitcases full of things into the two I had with me. You see, I had populated my place over the course of two trips and so now I was faced with 200 pounds of goods and two 50 pounds sacks. Confounding that further were the twin facts of a) my apartment would not be ready for at least another and so could not be used for storage and b) I had brought so much of my regular stuff from home and in order to return to life there I had to bring a lot of it back. Luxuries mostly, things like shoes and pants. So I threw myself into the effort right at the start of my remaining five days and finally arrived at a few logical conclusions – no pharmaceuticals, no winter clothes, no house supplies. Those I crammed into my ample supply of shopping bags and the one good sized carryon bag that I would not miss. I loaded them up and left them with a friend who had invited me over for an excellent dinner of green curry fish and stir fried vegetables.

As it turned out, I had a great week from a hunting and gathering perspective. Between friends feeling sorry for me and extending dinner invitations and Mexican Night at the American School my dining needs were met entirely and the latter was a very interesting experience from a sociological angle. One of the expat couples out there is from south Texas and so the wife of the pair decided to lead the school kitchen in preparing a big Mexican buffet. They do these topical food fests weekly, but this was the first which didn’t feature local cuisine. And it was packed with hundreds of people showing up, the allure of something from the other side being that strong. The food was good – red enchiladas, quesadillas, empanadas, ceviche, homemade tortillas and refries. Of course not up to the standards that I might expect in my home state, but darn good indeed. There was even a bottomless plate of bizcochitos. I went with Matt and his family and sat with a friend of theirs and had a great night of conversation and food over a couple of mugs of cold Chinese beer.

But the learning here was not about the food, it was about the people who are over here working alongside me. I spend a lot of time wondering how people stay sane in such a place, and I’ve written previously about my thoughts on immersion versus walling oneself off. This evening gave me a genuine glimpse into that alternative solution – the crowd, the conversation and the activity were no different than what I might have been doing 18 years ago at a parent’s night at my girl’s Montessori School. The thing that hit me most directly was that I had not been around that many westerners in a single place in a long, long time. And it was very obvious that for many people this represented their complete reality over here. No dealing with the discarded skewer sticks on the stairway outside Trust Mart, no looking at the beggars huddled in a pile of rags along Jin Ma Lu, no walking in the filthy passageways under the street. We were enjoying a clean, Caucasian, mid-western family gathering that could have been taking place anywhere in America, but seemed so very out of place here.

And then there were the children, their behavior representing the greatest departure from the aforementioned Montessori night - they were loud and completely out of control. One or two of the teachers made attempts to bring some sense to the chaos, but in the end the kids were sent out to the cavernous marble foyer to run and scream with abandon. I’ve read many, many things about children’s behavior these days, and I don’t want to sound like a crotchety old curmudgeon, but all of the bad things I’ve heard of were proven genuine in the two short hours I was there. And perhaps the most amazing thing is that given the marble surfaces and slippery floors, none of them were sporting 50 stitches in the forehead by night’s end. Once through with my food, I just sat there nursing the one beer I was allowing myself and made mental comparisons between the din in this place and the cacophony in the streets of Kai Fa Qu during rush hour shopping. They weren’t that far apart.

We had two days of snow this week. Both of the storms came over night which presented an interesting commute on those two mornings. For being a northern city, Dalian is woefully unprepared for even the lightest snow. I’ve heard rumors of a snow plow, but I think they are apocryphal. I’ve not seen it, instead I only seem to pass the trucks with men shoveling salt out onto the road, the women sweeping the streets with tree branch brooms and the occasional person shoveling a path with a piece of plywood nailed to a 1x2 board. I was beginning to wonder if snow shovels actually exist in this part of the world when I did see some uniformed men using one to clear the sidewalk in front of the light rail station. I’m going to venture a guess and say that while most plastic snow shovels are undoubtedly manufactured here, like so many other things they must be for export only. The same for brooms, something I have never encountered in their traditional form. Even the doormen at my hotel were using tree branches to sweep the marble parking lot. The net result of that effort was to leave just enough loose stuff to render the random highly polished marble tile extremely dangerous. Some likened it to walking in a mine field.

While the early parts of the day were gray and bleak, the sun did finally come out making the mountains look festive and turning the (guess what, marble) parking area in front of the temporary office even more treacherous than it normally is. But the rest of the place took on a slightly happier look excepting the two delivery trucks that made head on left turns into each other in the intersection at the bottom of the hill by my office.

And for some reason the cold and the snow increased the number of cars driving down the sidewalk in front of my place. That one I could not figure out.

I had dinner on my last night with some friends from home who live in a high rise by the name of Sun Mansion. Their apartment, rented from some Chinese with feet in both the local community and the US was something to behold. Their landlords had asked to leave it furnished and to my amazement, it was furnished in the very stuff that gave me a panic attack on my furniture shopping day.

Jabba the Hutt couches and love seats, lots of steel, glass and amazingly out of scale lighting fixtures. The couches were surprisingly neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, just sort of medium considering their overstuffed presentation. One room looked precisely like those rooms in the palace of some Eastern European president where you see Obama and Putin and Brown sitting and smiling for the cameras. Giant intricately carved wooden chairs that defied one to lift even a corner off the floor. A massive 2 meter diameter ceiling fixture bathed the whole room in hot yellow light. Inserted in the wall behind what appeared to be a throne was a window in front of a glass panel, back lit and painted with leaves in fall colors, attempting in vain to give the impression that you were looking outside at tree level. A feat given that we were on the 12th floor. Enhancing the illusion, a working set of mini-blinds was provided lest the artificial sunlight add too much brightness or heat to the room. All of it made me wonder how they had gotten it up the elevator.

The most interesting little detail though was the disco lighting installed in several rooms. Tiny clear glass cones protruded through holes in a false ceiling and when turned on they sent out rays of red, blue and green light creating little moving spots that rotated around the room. Take those and the mirrored bedroom closet doors and you immediately went looking for the steel pole, but alas it was not there.

The kitchen though was very, very nice and I think if you had a cot in the corner and a small bathroom you could just live there.

Dinner was great – grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup and a couple of Harbin beers; again, good conversation and laughter and a nice evening of comfort food to send me off.

I bid them adieu and went down to the lobby where the night guards were joined by what might have been their little brothers. The boys had spread a board game out on the marble floor in front of the doors and were busily setting it up. Rather than make their driver wait around, I had elected to walk home and on this short jaunt I managed to avoid falling on my face and losing anything. On cold nights like these the streets tend to be empty and last night was no exception. I crossed an intersection where three police cars sat idle, their emergency lights running for some reason and the officers standing around chatting and waving their arms to stay warm. I passed two men walking the same direction as I was while Kenny G played either across the street from us or from a radio that one of them was carrying. It was that song we all hate and it was loud and incredibly out of place.

I spent the rest of the evening packing and adjusting and charging up all of my electronic entertainment devices. My driver was picking me up at 6:30 for an 8:30 flight and so I went to bed knowing the morning would come early.

Henlly, the sales manager whom I met the day before had sent the bellman up for my bags as promised at 6:20. Things were falling into place. We went down and I handed in my keys and found my driver waiting for me in the lobby, early for a change and on a day when I genuinely appreciated it. I said goodbye to the two managers who had come down just to see me off. The bellman and my guy loaded up the luggage and just as I was getting in the car one of the managers came running out to tell me that I had unpaid charges. I was a bit surprised at this as the relocation company had checked me out the day before and I asked her what it was for and she suggested that it might be the mini-bar, reminding me that yes, I had accidentally drunk a bottle of premium water back in November. I went to the counter and collected the bill – 28 kuai, $4, paid it and over the continuous offers of bread, breakfast and something to eat, said goodbye again and went outside. We started out and the clock read 6:24, I was ahead of schedule.

Five blocks down Jin Ma Lu my local phone rang. It was Henlly and she was telling me that I had forgotten my DVD player. This was a surprise as I was sure I had collected everything but then she said it was “red” which stumped me even further because I was sure my red iPod was home in my nightstand drawer. I tapped my driver on the shoulder and told him to head back. The bellman saw me and asked me to wait so I stood by the elevators watching the floor indicators, trying to get a sense if she was coming down. Finally the car went up to 9 and started its descent, stopping for the longest time at 4 before appearing. Henlly came out carrying a cheap plastic folder that my relocation company had given me back at my original arrival. It had contained a lot of introductory maps and guides and now was pretty much empty. The DVD player as it turned out was the one the hotel had put in my room as a courtesy four months ago and as I knew, my red iPod was home in my nightstand. China was not going to let me out of its clutches easy.

My headroom completely blown, I was now back on the road. It was 6:35 and I was now more or less conforming to the schedule I had originally planned – 30 minutes to the airport, 90 to get checked in and through security.

We arrived in exactly 30 minutes and I jumped out. My driver asked if I was coming back which got me to thinking about the impact we the expats have on the lives of people like him. If I’m here, he works. The same with my Chinese tutor. When I’m gone they don’t work, or at least not as frequently. I for one am not used to having that kind of direct impact to someone’s livelihood and the feeling is not warm. I told him I would call him and handed him 300 kuai as sort of a tip for looking after me these last two months. I said goodbye and went inside.

Much to my amazement and consternation, the international departure zone was mobbed and I knew instantly that this was going to be bad. I parked myself in the line for Seoul and stood there for about 10 minutes. There were perhaps 50 people in front of me and the agent was moving at the way a glacier might have, back before global warming. I was beginning to get a bit upset when I took a look at the VIP line reserved for frequent fliers of a specific standing. It was mostly empty and while a member, I have no status whatsoever so in theory it’s not really an option. But I figured “what the heck, I’ll just go bluff my way through this” and I moved over.

Some idiot was at the head but once he and his family loaded their luggage and got the rest of their crap out of the way, the line moved. The man in front of me cut straight in front of the woman in front of him when she couldn’t get her cart around the giant electronic keyboard in a box that the original head of the line idiot had not yet managed. The cutting guy checked in quickly as did the woman and I was up.

Being a westerner does have some advantages here - people will rarely challenge you when you are doing something wrong. The agent asked me where I was going I said “Seoul” and then instantly corrected myself remembering my lost bag experience and told her “San Francisco.” She verified my flight with me and I was on my way. The young woman who had been in line in front of me before my brave escape had moved about 3 feet.

My immigration agent was a beautiful young woman in a snappy green uniform who stamped my passport and sent me on. Security was a breeze and I was in, one hour before departure.

I found a seat in the waiting area and sat down. All was fine there until some man came and sat next to me; his exhaled breath reeking of whatever it is these people eat for breakfast, sort of a rotten garlic smell and all too common. I took it for as long as I could and then got up, figuring I’d be sitting for hours so perhaps a little standing around in fresh air might do me some good. The gate continued to show that the current plane was boarding for Munich. When the announcement came it was pronounced with a “ch” as in “church.”

Thirty minutes before departure our announcement came and I was surprised to find that I actually caught it in Chinese. The scrum started and I positioned myself in the center. A few of the Chinese had got the drop on me but I was fairly well positioned to be early enough to find a spot for my two bags. I handed in my ticket and went through the door expecting to head down the jet way. But no, we were going to have a bus ride today so off we went down the corridor, the escalator and that last flight of marble stairs thrown in just to vex those with carryon luggage. I got in the bus and took a moment to decide which side the doors were going to open on when we arrived at the plane. No point in making it through the gate check early if it was all going to be blown by a bad bus door decision. I threw my lot with the far side and elbowed my way in front of some guy who was already there.

We took a nice long drive out to the plane, passing what might have been the luggage trolleys for our flight although I didn’t see my bags. Sure enough, we rolled up and my door opened – I’d made the right call. I jumped out, elbows akimbo to block anyone with the temerity to try to pass me and made it to the stairs, 5th in line.

The plane was some sort of weird miniature version of a Boeing 777 with a 2-4-2 configuration. Sometimes I think that Airbus merely steals Boeing’s design drawings and runs them through the copier on 85% instead of 100. The overhead bin size required a lot of adjustments and changes to get my bags to fit but the finally did. I settled in to see who might show up for my row.

Three more busloads resulted in a full plane. A guy sat next to me and it soon became apparent that he had had the same breakfast as the guy in the waiting area; here though there was no escape. We took off and I went to work on a crossword puzzle.

We were aloft on time and the meal cart came with sandwiches that I had no interest in. I had a Coke and all the guys around me had beers. It was 8:50 AM.

The flight was short, I took my time getting off rather than fight the crowd, made my way through security, this time delayed by the guard who made me take my GPS apart and went off to find a boarding pass. The United agent had a very strange way of speaking English, with tones that went up and down like an old roller coaster. He confirmed by Business Class upgrade and completely failed to understand my question about checking one of my carryon bags in San Francisco, choosing instead to describe the luggage flow there that I have done a hundred times.

From there, the lounge, one of the best of the bunch I frequent. Ramen, Diet Coke, little puffy pastries and brownies and some time for a Blog, off again in an hour.

I forgot to mention this week’s cell phone story. I was concerned that my phone would (once again) run out of minutes during my stay in the US so I decided to charge it up for five or six months. So I gathered my wits, girded my lions and went to the China Mobile store for one last bout of humiliation.

I got off the escalator on the 3rd floor and marched straight over to the girl behind the computer at the desk I went to last time. I told her I wanted to deposit money and handed her a piece of paper with my phone number on it. She looked at it, asked “how much” and I told her “five hundred kuai.” All in Chinese. She asked me my name, took my money, counted it, typed something in the computer and handed me a receipt – a nice, clean little transaction with no one laughing in the background and no burning red faces of humiliation. If only it could be that way every time.

2 comments:

aaron p said...

Sir, where are my updates?

JosephinesMountain said...

Nice write up TerryB. Really enjoyed it, especially some of the imagery of the place and the contrasts to "typical" western living as opposed to what you encountered.

Cheers!