Thursday, July 23, 2009

You get in that kitchen and make some noise with those pots and pans.

Monday called for a trip to IKEA and so I arranged with Jiang to pick me up at 4 for the trip into town. IKEA is located right next door to Metro on the very edge of Dalian proper. Today though the weather was not threatening as it was on Friday when the sky opened up and we spent 2 hours making the 20 minute trip back to Kai Fa Qu. I really had no interest in repeating that experience as interesting as it was, watching the cars float down the rivers flowing down the streets.

I was curious how Jiang had made out on his trip back to the city after dropping me off in the storm. By the time we had arrived at my place the rain had significantly dissipated but there was still an awful lot of water on the streets. One of the unfortunate things about the whole driver program is that 95% of them live 25 miles away in town. And that fact was the #1 reason why I chose to live where I do seeing no romance in waiting for an hour or more for my chauffeur to drive an hour to collect me to go and buy a quart of Blutorange Juice. My life here rotates around walking for my hunting and gathering and that is exactly the way I wanted it. But while we tend to think of our convenience picking us up and ferrying us around typically means a hundred miles of driving just in the picking up, dropping off and returning to their homes.

Jiang beat me to the punch, asking me to take a guess. I figured it was probably twice more than normal so I said “2 hours.” “More” he said. After two more guesses I hit the magic number - it had taken him 5 hours to get home after leaving me at 6:30. That made me feel really bad and I said so and he replied “mei wenti” and said it was his job. I apologized again and asked what the delay was; apparently the whole road across the bay – six lanes and three miles at the level of top of the marsh grass - was underwater. So they just stopped the traffic and Jiang said he went to sleep until they opened the road back up. I wondered if his wife was angry and he said “no.” While I know that they understand the inconvenience to their lives, and that they signed up for it, I simply can’t bring myself to arbitrarily ask them to come and get me when I can solve the problem another way. I just don’t have it in me.

IKEA is now about 2 months old and the last time I was there it was sparkling clean and loaded to the gills with everything you can imagine. My goal for today was simple – a French Press for coffee, some rugs for my kitchen, a pillow for the couch in my study and some miscellaneous kitchen stuff. The first thing that struck me was that the place had lost a bit of its gleam. While everything Scandinavian tends to be pin neat and shiny, the Dalian store looked as though it had been used pretty hard. A lot less organization and many missing items led me to think that perhaps the bloom was off the rose. Odd though because 99% of the stuff on sale had been manufactured right here in the Middle Kingdom, so how was it that inventory could be low?

The coffee press was easy though – they had pallets of them and at the equivalent of $6 per I made the bold move of buying two. I grabbed a cheese grater and a nice stainless steel garlic press and stopped for a moment to take in the scene in the kitchen wares department. In addition to the items on the shelves, they had set up big cardboard bins of junky little items like peelers and melon-ballers. And each bin was 3 deep with people picking up the little items and holding them close to their eyes for examination. They’d pick them up and do this close scan turning the item over and over to observe every square inch of surface before throwing it down into the pile and fishing out another one. Not a single person left, they just kept picking and scanning and picking and scanning. For some reason all I could think of was a horde of Meercats sitting in the Kalahari on their haunches in a patch of shade outside their burrow in the midst of a Locust plague assessing every single dried bug before deciding to eat it or throw it at their friends. I didn’t see much buying going on but I did see plenty of shopping.

The IKEA Shopping Engineers have done a great job of designing the place to force one to look at all the merchandise. The store is essentially a one-solution maze and you walk around in giant zigzags from the entrance to the exit. If you’re not careful you’ll go in looking for pot holders and come out with an armoire, lanterns and a new carry-on bag. But if you look carefully you will find little wormholes that go from one dimension to another. They are typically embedded in the middle of a wall rack, surrounded with goods and covered with white curtains but they are there. With a little work you can go straight from furniture to glassware and avoid about 15 departments in between. In the past I have done the serpentine, today I took the time to find a way across time and space and in doing so saved an awful lot of walking.

The checkout guy inquired about my Chinese and told me what little I knew sounded pretty good. I’m getting his comment so regularly that I’m not sure if this is a country of really polite people or if there is actually some truth in it. I picked up a couple of IKEA shopping bags, loaded my stuff and was out of there.

On the drive home we had a talk about the quality of the air. It was pretty smoggy and the visibility was not all that great. Jiang called the haze something or other and we fell into our regular discussion about words; Chinese just has so many ways of saying the same thing. I didn’t precisely grab what he had said so I took out my iPhone and did some searching. It finally occurred to me that he was saying “mist” or “fog” and naturally there were a couple of ways of articulating it. There is “wù” which means “fog” or “mist” and there is “wùqì” which also means “fog” or “mist” with the additional bonus meaning of “vapor.” In a pinch though you can get away simply with “qì” which means “gas, air, smell, weather, vital breath, to anger, to get angry or to be enraged” leaving an awful of room for contextual interpretation.

The characters don’t exactly help either, wù is 雾and wùqì is雾气 so of course qì is 气 regardless of what it is supposed to mean. The simplest explanation is that qì isn’t enough so you need wù to give it enough contextual oomph to get the meaning of “fog” across.

If that’s not enough for you there is “yānwù” which like qì also means “smoke, mist, vapor, smog or fumes” adding that tiny little nuance that suggests that it might not be natural in its cause. Its characters are 烟雾 which as you can see uses the same character as wù, making it very simple to understand, right? Except that now the wù is the second term instead of the first. In this case the compound more or less means “smoke fog” which brings us back to “smog.” Heading back to wùqì while we’re still beating this dead horse, with wù in the first term and qì in the second the simple definition shakes out as “fog air.”

Clear as ní, yě, nínìng, and níbā all of which mean “mud.”

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