Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rolling towards the New Year and a nice respite down south

Tonight is Xiao Nian, the night of the Kitchen God. As the legend goes, the Man that became the God was a wealthy farmer whose eye was caught by a beautiful concubine. He turned his back on his wife and family and let his farms and orchards fall into disarray. His wife finally left him and once his wealth was gone, so did his paramour. He was reduced to wandering the countryside begging for handouts.

One cold night, close to death he stumbled up to a doorway and collapsed on the stoop. A woman inside opened the door and taking pity on him brought him into the kitchen and made a bed for him by the hearth. The warmth of the fire revived him and he slept peacefully through the night for the first time in many years.

He awoke the next morning and found the kitchen empty. Casting off his blankets, he went to the window and looked outside to see if his benefactor might be working in the garden. She was an old woman, bent over the winter vegetables, picking a few to make a hearty meal for her guest. When she rose and turned towards the house, he saw that she was his wife. He’d been saved by the very woman he’d turned his back on so many years ago. Overcome with grief and shame, he threw himself into the fire in the hearth. The old woman found him and tried to extinguish the flames, but he was gone – his ashes had floated up to heaven.

The Jade Emperor was so impressed with the man’s sacrifice and humility that he decided to make the man The Kitchen God. And so now The Kitchen God returns each year to visit the homes of the mortals to check on their harvests and their affairs, making sure that all is in order for the celebration of the New Year which comes seven or so days after his visit. The people put out drinks and sweets so that The Kitchen God will not speak poorly of them to the Jade Emperor. Today, the holiday is celebrated with food and wine and enough fireworks to make you wish that you’d never have to hear or see them again.

Last year, I stumbled into China during the week leading up to Chinese New Year. The noise got so bad that I called up My Lovely Wife and forced her to meet me in Spain. This year, I’m sitting here on the 24th floor watching the sky-bursts out both windows and trying to hear my background music over the continuous explosions. It’s nice for a bit, but not for five straight hours.

In addition to dodging firework displays, the last few weeks for me have been incredibly busy. I spent four days in Shanghai getting a taste of what made me love this country back at the beginning. Despite hours spent sitting in traffic, misty rain and never ending shortage of taxis, Shanghai is a wonderful city that has despite its incredible size, managed to retain its mysterious appeal.

My favorite hotel was clogged with visitors including some who jumped in on an idle comment about Disney in the elevator to inform us that they would indeed be delivering the famous Mouse here in 2014. Business seems to be booming once again in China’s economic center, a huge improvement from my last visit in the period leading up to the Olympics when businessmen couldn’t get visas and the hotel lounge was closed due to lack of paying customers. This trip it was different – the place was mobbed and on most evenings there wasn’t a place to sit if you happened to come in after the official opening hour. The conversation was like every other business lounge in the world – single men trying to best their friends with stories of cities, hotels, restaurants and women.

I had a couple of dinners at Hongmei Lu, my beloved little alley in the Hongqiao district, an old neighborhood street blocked now for cars and lined with every imaginable type of restaurant. Spanish Tapas, Punjabi, Chinese, Japanese, an American diner, a German beer hall, my favorite Thai joint and even a place specializing in Belgian food, whatever that might be. You grab a cab, take a short ride through what seems to be never-ending construction for the next line of the Shanghai Metro and once there, you stroll down the lane deciding what might be appealing on that particular night. My choice was a steaming curry at Simply Thai, enjoyed with a bottle of Pellegrino and the floor show which was put on by dozens of feral cats chasing each other around on the sidewalk just outside the window.

A few years ago, the Shanghai Municipal Government banned the unbridled use of automobile horns and today the effect is remarkable. It’s said that car horns are merely another means of communication here in China, and most people who spend time in cars will tell you that it’s true. Unlike the US where horns are used as a tool of insult and aggression, here they’re far more politely employed. You get a lot of “Hey, I’m over here so don’t hit me” instead of “You’re a moron.” The result though is maddening - a never ending cacophony of every horn sound ever dreamt up by bored automotive engineers the world over. I remember thinking I would lose my mind during one four week period I spent here, commuting daily in a minivan. Now the streets are almost silent, the only noise being the din of millions of cars, buses and trucks. Every commute we had seemed unbearably long, the price all Shanghainese pay for the magic of the night in their city.

I spent my last night at Xintiandi, the beautifully westernized restaurant and shopping district just off Huaihai Lu, one of Shanghai’s most famous and well-heeled shopping districts. Built from restored Shikumen ghettos by Benjamin Wood, the American architect known for the restoration of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, today Xintiandi is all polished gray stone, twinkle lights in trees, upscale boutiques and fancy restaurants, some of which even have no-smoking sections. It’s a nice blend of old and modern China and western commercial design. It’s also very popular with the expatriate population and probably the only place in China where westerners outnumber Chinese on any given night. Even the cab ride there is mesmerizing as you cruise down the tree-lined streets of the old French Concession and gaze at the trees lit in red and white along the main boulevards.

As always you can’t get far in this place without some sort of little oddball moments, China often seems a bottomless reservoir of memorable things. The trip from our hotel to the airport was special in that the taxi driver was so inept in his use of the accelerator that I of the “never been carsick a day in my life” crowd was about to throw up out the window. He insisted on having his window open which only served to freeze the interior while bathing us in diesel exhaust from the trucks on the highway. Thankfully there wasn’t a lot of traffic so the trip was as fast as it possibly could be and I managed to get out of the car with my breakfast where it belonged.

I was trying something new on this trip – a boarding pass that I’d printed out at work. Totally common in the rest of the world, you don’t see that many of them here so I fully expected an adventure when I walked up to the security check. The uniformed young woman looked at it both right-side up and wrong-side down. She looked at the back to verify that it was blank. She looked at me and she looked back at the paper, analyzing the way I’d folded it. Just when I expected to be told to go back to the ticketing counters to get a real boarding pass, she called her supervisor over. This young woman was having none of it – she rattled off some Chinese that was so dripping in attitude that it made me blush. I expect it was something along the lines of “You’re a farm bumpkin who would be better off back in a rice paddy pulling a Water Buffalo out of the mud than sitting here pretending to be an Official of the State. Did you sleep through your training or were you too busy chewing on a gourd to pay attention to what was being taught? Go over and watch the x-ray machine because that’s clearly something you can understand because it’s nothing more than watching television.” The supervisor sat down, took a look at me, repeated her tirade to the other girl - now running the x-ray machine - stamped my paper and gave me a sideways head nod to get out of her sight. Behind me my friend who was also sporting a printed pass received nothing but the most cursory glance before being sent on his way, official Stamps of the State duly rendered.

After spending an extra hour sitting on the plane watching the yellow fog burn off, waiting for a “delay due to air traffic congestion” to clear and eating our lunch while enjoying our beverage service, we took off and were on our way back home to that little industrial outpost hard by the side of the Bo Hai that these days we call home. Memories of the truly appealing city on this side of the world already fading away.

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