Friday, July 17, 2009

When it rains, it pours

Last night went down the drain in about the same manner as the previous – trying to figure out why my VPN was not doing its cloak and dagger thing. After lots of email and many edits, the gal in customer service finally asked the critical message – are you running it as an administrator? Which of course I wasn’t. But now I am and so here we are once again, publishing from behind the Bamboo Curtain.

I made another trip to pick up some groceries last night having forgotten fruit juice on my last trip. I decided instead of taking the clean, well lit, excellent product selection route, I would give another try to my old haunt – Trust Mart – or the Chinese subsidiary of that giant retail juggernaut we all secretly patronize back home. You know, the one that shares the second half of Trust Mart’s name.

I’ve been a fickle consumer during my stint here, going back and forth between Trust Mart and the other brand across the street, Haorizi Huazhuangpin Supermarket with neither having the goods to triumph over the other nor failing so miserably as to be unworthy of another visit. In fact many times they complemented each other in ways that made a visit to both advantageous. But once Tesco took the third corner of the four that form the heart of Kai Fa Qu there was no going back – it beat the others into submission almost instantly. Now I’ve heard a couple of rumors to the effect that the Trust Mart manager was asking the guys that run out cultural immersion program, what it would take to get the Euros and Sawbucks back in his joint. The answer of course is we don’t like shopping in fire traps, we don’t like getting the bottoms of our shoes contaminated with seafood leakage and we want paper towels. Simple stuff, right?

So off I went to see if the Trust Boys had done their job. The weather last evening actually had the tiniest bit of a chill to it. Had we not had the everyday car exhaust greenhouse thing going on, I would have been almost to the point of needing a sweatshirt. It was a nice turn after the steam bath of the previous two nights and I enjoyed the walk down the street.
On arrival, the first thing I noticed was the lack of discarded bamboo kebob skewers littering the staircase down to the lower level (supermarkets here are all in the basement.) For a moment I thought they might actually be trying to clean the place up. Score one for the expectations of westerners. Those annoying hanging plastic strips that form a weather barrier were still as greasy as ever but you can sort of get through them without actually having them contact your flesh so no points deducted here. The inside mall was still the same - little girlies trying to get me into their stall to try on hip-hugger fashion jeans. Moving on I found my way to the entrance, stormed past the girl who was supposed to confiscate my messenger bag and went on into the fray.

Trust Mart is pretty much an all-purpose store and you have to walk through the aisles of household goods and clothing before you find any actual consumables. I passed a mountain of power strips and grabbed one for grins. Most Chinese apartments have on average one outlet per room and so power strips are probably the single most common product in every store. And here they have a veritable panoply of choices – number of outlets, ground faults, color of the sockets, and distribution of the three standard plug configurations we use (regular American, American clothes dryer and American clothes dryer with two angled plugs.) I chose a nice sky-blue and off-white strip with two standard Americans and two American clothes dryers.

Now one thing is true of all Chinese supermarkets – the distribution of products does not follow any rhyme or reason compared to what we are used to. The liquor aisle is sandwiched between bottled fruit and toilet paper. Eggs have their own unrefrigerated center section and the Oreo Array is near the bottled water. Cleaning and beauty products are never mixed in, but the giant aquariums full of sea slugs and crabs are sometimes hard on the rice and noodle aisle. It’s no big deal, you just have to hunt around a lot and so I did manage to find what I was looking for.

I was pretty impressed with the fruit and produce section which had undergone a major re-stocking in the months since I had last visited. They truly had just about anything I would want and most of it was wrapped up in nice Styrofoam packages. The amazing thing was that Trust Mart had managed to top Tesco which had greatly disappointed me earlier in the week. So the market arms race had truly kicked in and this now meant one thing for me – I would be able to have some choices if I was willing to shop all three markets.

I added a couple of things to my basket before trying to hunt down the expat foods section. This was always my favorite aisle because I could stand there and admire the Dinty Moore beef stew packages and dream of home, even if they were labeled in Korean. There was rarely anything I wanted other than the occasional box of German drinking chocolate, Swiss cornflakes or one of those dandy pots of jam with the ribbon and paper cover on the lid. But hanging out there always made me feel like I wasn’t trapped in one of those places where someone yells “fire” and 50 people end up crushed in a pile against the chained emergency exit. Something was wrong though because the little section was gone from its former location between laundry detergent and Vodka and when I did find it its relevance was oddly diminished. Somehow, some way, I had turned a corner and didn’t need the warm fuzzy feeling I once got from staring at boxes and boxes of English digestive biscuits. I walked on, still trying to find the juice.

Rounding a corner and about to just give up and buy a 5 liter jug of “fruit drink” I was stopped in my tracks by a strong visual whiff of familiarity – there among the boxes of Chinese juice (of which the Concord Grape is pretty darn good), was the familiar blue and yellow box label of an old and dear friend – Jumex. Not only did they have Piña and Durazno, they had Guayaba. Picking up the box of Piña, I drifted back to those silky nights on the Sea of Cortez with a jam jar full of ice, Piña and Bacardi Añejo, Toots Thielemans and his Brasilero Buddies softly playing in the background and hummingbird-sized mosquitoes beating themselves to death against the screen much to the amusement of the mewling feral cats, waiting for their nightly handout. Needless to say, that box was in my basket in a flash.

I had a twofold plan for Friday – first to retrieve my hopefully replaced debit card from China Merchant Bank and second to head off to Metro for my third shopping excursion of the week. I realize as I write this that my existence here seems to revolve almost exclusively around the gathering of food. But I assure you that this is not the case – today I had many other things on my list, chief among them cleaning products as my place is starting to get a bit dusty.
Jiang had told me yesterday that it was going to rain and when I woke up it was heavily overcast but interestingly the space between my windows and the shore was crystal clear, much more so than I have ever seen here. The old temple down below was very crisp as were the towers under construction down by the bay. There was no sign of rain on the streets or the buildings.

When it was time to head to work I grabbed my goods and went to the elevator and had a look outside – it was now pouring. I turned around, went back to my apartment and fished around for a rain shell and having found one, retraced my steps. The elevator was still not there. I have never lived in a high rise before and I am amazed at just how much time I have to dedicate to getting out of the building. I waited a bit and it showed up, carrying me down to my car.

Jiang and I had a great conversation today about the weather and my program of spending time learning new words in general conversation and plugging them into my iPhone is almost turning into fun. We were so intent in our discussion of the upcoming migration of Intel expatriates that he drove right past our turn.

I put in a truncated day and Jiang collected me for the trip to the bank. By midday it was really raining hard, driven on by a strong wind that made me wonder if this pattern is the tail end of the cyclone that plowed into south China earlier in the week. Whatever it was, it was coming down hard.

The bank was easy - my manager buddy literally abandoned some other customer to take me to the window for my new card. The process of handing it over involved a two person review of my passport, fingerprint scans of the teller and his supervisor, confirmation of my signature by two additional people and comparison between a signature given today and the one in my passport again by the teller and his boss. Eventually they pushed it out the little slot and once I’d confirmed its functionality in one of the lobby ATM’s, I was on my way back out into the rain which was now failing even harder.

Metro is about 15 miles away on the edge of Dalian proper and is always a tough ride anytime near rush hour. I knew today would involve some sitting in traffic, but the rain promised to make it even more interesting. As it would turn out, I would not be disappointed.
While I don’t need to do my regular shopping there, it is worthwhile to make a monthly trip in to get things they just don’t have at the local stores. Decent cheese, good cold cuts and general bulk goods are available and so the suffering pays off. It’s not unlike going to Sam’s Club or Costco in the US.

We arrived in reasonably short order given the weather. The drive in was interesting to watch – the drivers all turned on their emergency flashers which somehow managed to blink in time with one another. Their on again/off again coupled with the medium beat of the windshield wipers and the smearing of the water created an interesting blurry ballet of red and yellow lights drifting back and forth across our windshield in concert with the twists and turns of the road.

Like all warehouse stores, this place is huge and is topped with a corrugated steel roof and the pounding of the rain made it very, very noisy inside. I grabbed a cart (one of those great ones that have casters for all four wheels that make it impossible to drive) and went about passing up and down the aisles. Cleaning products were my first goal and a kindly woman intercepted me while I was looking at what were apparently the most expensive options on the aisle. Between my Chinese and my iPhone and some pantomiming I was able to make my wishes for a floor cleaning product, some kind of spray cleaner and a toilet product known. She was very helpful, even pointing out the advantages of the floor cleaning by reading me the back label and pointing out the various superlatives right over the top of the fact that I told her I don’t read Chinese. The toilet cleaner bottle had a classic label – a child sitting on the pot with his pants scrunched down around his ankles. We got hung up on a something to spray the dust mop with but I spotted Pledge and told her that’s what I use at home. That done it was on to the food where I found some interesting things like “French style baked ham”, prosciutto “praga style” and a nice block of Gruyere. I spent some time contemplating giant packages of rice noodles before deciding to pass and went off to find some salsa, coming across a jar of medium Old El Paso. At the end of one aisle I actually found a bag of tortilla chips imported from San Antonio and the promise of microwave nachos was too hard to resist. I finished up with a stainless steel dumpling steamer as a traditional bamboo version was not to be found. I’ve tried a couple of places for one and have come up empty handed each time. I finally decided that $20 was a small price to pay so I threw it in the cart.
By the time I was done the effect of the rain was beginning to be obvious – there were rivers running down the streets. As we pulled out of the parking lot we crossed a rushing stream that was cascading down a small hill, past the two bronze elephants in front of some hotel and down into the swale along a set of train tracks. I suppose I was ready for the traffic on the highway when we arrived there, but the absolute deadlock was still a surprise.
By now it was raining tropical storm style. The windshield wipers could not keep up and the streets were more than half covered with door frame high puddles. Unlike the typical rainy US traffic jam, the Chinese adopted very modest speeds. They made up for that safe behavior by changing lanes constantly.

We were crawling along, I was spending my time loading weather words in my phone and Jiang was listening to the Chinese traffic report. During a break in the updates, a 90 second English language training spot came on, “Did you retrieve my luggage?”, “Where did you place it?”. I found it funny that the goal seemed to be the production of service workers.
The water continued to rise and we began to have some thunder and lightning. Traffic was stopped in both directions - we were moving perhaps a quarter mile each 15 minutes. Eventually we crept up to the cause – two of the three lanes were completely flooded. To deal with this the police pushed aside the center barriers and directed our lane across into the oncoming traffic. The situation was controlled only by one cop at the crossover and one up the road where we went back. A few cars were slowly making their way through the flood, the rest of us were driving headlong into a long line of oncoming headlights.
Once past the flood we were directed back to our side and the speed picked up. Big flows of wildly colored mud were streaming across the road, running down the banks from unpaved construction sites. It made me think of some Impressionist doing a series of canvases in the Painted Desert. We sped on and he rain kept coming down.

The traffic ground to a halt again near the entrance to the tunnels that go through the small mountain that blocks the way to Kai Fa Qu. We were unfortunately in the passing lane, close up to a truck when the right hand lanes opened up. Jiang somehow managed to make the car really thin and through a series of tiny forward and backward maneuvers, got us in the open lanes. We took off, hit the entrance to the tunnel and met up with the jam that brought us back to a stop. We crawled through and out the other side and were able to actually begin moving as the traffic was finally being reduced by cars stalling in the floods and taking the exits.

This section of the road rolls along the shore of the bay past the deep sea oil platform construction yards. The accumulation of the downpour was now so incessant that puddles were somehow forming on the steep inclines. I sat there trying to think of what kind of road engineering could provide such a road, one that piles up water in defiance of gravity.

It was beginning to get dark as we hit Jinma Lu and closed in on my home. While the day was certainly interesting, I had to feel sorry for Jiang who now had to turn around and head back in the other direction. I told him that and he said, “Mei wenti”, no problem, and off he went.

I lugged my stuff upstairs and put it away. Dinner tonight was a pan-cultural wonder – left over stir fried pork and scallions served in a low-carb tortilla with Land O’ Lakes Pepperjack cheese and Old El Paso Salsa. If you’re planning a weekend dinner, I suggest you give this combo a shot.



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