Monday, August 09, 2010

Dog Days

I’m really beginning to hate my neighbor’s dog and judging from its behavior the feeling is mutual. It’s a little peach colored poodle and whenever it sees me it goes crazy – bark, bark, bark – as though that display is going to make me pack up my belongings and return to America. Unfortunately, it sees me about every day because my neighbor’s kids leave for school at the same time I leave for work. And their ritual is unyielding – mom goes out with the dog and secures the elevator while the boys grab their school stuff and run out the door. Prior to my arrival, the dog runs around the lobby yapping like crazy at nothing, at least until I show up and then it turns its attention to me.

The dog’s name seems to be “Guodian” which in my limited grasp of non-contextual Chinese means “Electric Dog.” I’m sure that’s not the correct translation, but in the absence of characters it’s all I have. They call him “Guodee” some sort of affectionate nickname and it’s not uncommon for me to be sitting in my study trying to concentrate on my solitaire game and to hear mom out in the hallway plaintively calling the little monster - “Guodee, Guodee” – as though he’s lost in the fog or a big forest. The elevator lobby on our floor isn’t exactly the Amazon, it’s a tee shape and the two legs are at most thirty feet long. But mom stands at the door imploring Guodee to come home from wherever he is. For all I know he’s looking out the window and barking down at the buses on Jinma Lu.

A couple of days after I returned from America, I left my apartment and turned to lock the door when Guodee heard me from the far reaches of the floor and began to bark. Their door was open and Mom rushed out of her apartment to get in between Guodee and me, intercepting him just as he came around the corner. Mom was wearing a thigh length nightshirt and when she bent over to stop the little devil I was granted a view of China that in all honesty I would have preferred not to have had. So much for the Mysteries of the Orient. She did catch herself in mid-bend and did a daintier curtsey to the floor to grab the mutt, scooping him up and bringing him back to their place. All the while he’s struggling and snarling and using all of the energy generated by his 2+ pounds to try to wriggle free and kill me in defense of his mistress. I was still standing there gape-mouthed at what I’d seen; too stunned to be bothered by the snapping blur she was carrying past my face.

Sometimes in the evening they’ll go out and Guodee will sit by their front door listening, desperately trying to get a handle on what I’m doing in my apartment. Our doors you see are at a tight right angle to each other and my study is just inside my apartment so while he’s in stalking mode, he’s no more than 15 feet from me. I hear him there snuffling and scratching and he’ll bark every time I drop a toothpick or click a pen or think a violent thought. So one evening I decided to have some fun. I began to call “Guodee” in my best Chinese housewife falsetto, starting very softly and slowly turning up the volume until he’d bark. Then I’d stop, give him a few minutes to ponder his situation and then I’d do it again. We went back and forth like this until I got really bored and went to bed. I’m sure he never did figure out why his mom was standing outside their door calling them.

My expat pals and I were given a big list of vaccinations that the CDC recommends for people embarking on an extended stay in China - Hepatitis A and B, Diphtheria, Typhus, Cholera - all the cures for the dangers of disease in a modern nation. Well, perhaps only if you consider the 17th century “modern.” There were a couple of extra shots on the list like Japanese Encephalitis aimed at treating uniquely regional dangers and one more really scary one – Rabies. Since no dog in China is vaccinated and hundreds of peasants die each year from the disease, it was suggested but not with much vigor; more of a “Rabies is a horrible death but it’s not very likely that you’re going to be attacked so you may or may not want to just play it by ear” kind of warning. It seems easy enough, don’t put your hand out to strange dogs in the countryside and you’ll be fine. Of course being a cyclist I might be at an increased risk but when I did the research and discovered it was 3 shots as a preventative and 2 more if you were bitten versus 5 shots if bitten, the math seemed easy to me – I don’t like pumping unnecessary crap into my body if the risk is low. Almost all of my friends though went the other route, friends whose idea of living on the edge in China is walking from their car to their apartment. As it turned out there was no vaccine available when I was getting ready to move here so the point was moot. But those of us without the shots do pay a bit more attention to the dogs we encounter. An interesting side note – where every dog in America will chase you if given the chance, Chinese dogs really don’t seem to care very much about bicyclists. I’ve been chased maybe 3 times and I’ve ridden past hundreds and hundreds of dogs in the city and in the country. For some reason they’re far more interested in doing doggie things here than in wasting energy trying to run down a bike. Maybe it’s because they don’t get fed really well.

My last encounter with Guodee came a few days ago. I heard the normal ruckus outside my door as I was getting ready to leave. I took a deep breath and opened the door and turned to lock it. Mom was at the intersection of the two hallways and Guodee was by the elevators when he heard me. She assumed the stance of a hockey goalie as Guodee, the little puck, came roaring around the bend. He went straight between her legs and got to me in about 2 seconds flat, hockey clearly not being a strong suit sport in China. I knew I was in trouble when he jumped up on my leg barking and snapping and snarling. It’s true you know - the world does go into slow motion when your life hangs in the balance. I stood there thinking a hundred thoughts - “Damn I wish I had taken that Rabies shot”, “I wonder if he can bite me through my jeans”, “Why can’t I get this key in the lock”, “I wonder if I’ll have to go to Hong Kong for my shot?” – my mind racing with fear but surreally lucid and calm at the same time. I looked up and saw mom standing down the hall both hands over her mouth, terror on her face. She might have been calling “Guodee” but I couldn’t hear her, all the sound was just like a 45 record being played on 33RPM. I looked down at the tiny peachy jaws of death and my most base survival instincts kicked in – I slipped my messenger bag off of my shoulder and let all 20 pounds of computer, telephones, iTouch, lunch and cameras fall straight down into the rabid whirlwind. And then all was silent. Guodee stopped barking and staggered backwards, stunned that the ceiling had fallen on his head. If he’d been a cartoon dog there would have been stars, moons, planets and little tweeting birds flying in a circle around his head. Mom came running over and scooped him up, smiling an apology at me as she ran into their apartment. I stood there for a second trying to decide if I felt any wounds on my leg. None detected I locked the door and headed to the elevators – the neighbor kid behind me. We boarded and as the doors closed I said, “Your dog really hates me” to which he replied, “My dog is crazy.”

When I decided to live in China, I also decided that I was going to spend as much time as possible riding my bike. Most of that time has been spent with my Irish buddy Dermot and to date we’ve covered about 2000 miles together. As my time here winds down, I’ve sort of set a personal goal of 3000 miles before leaving and so we’ve been doing some epic rides. One of our favorite routes is straight east up the coast to the city of Pikou which lies about 55 miles away. “Pikou” in Chinese means “skin mouth” and no one I’ve ever asked has been able to explain what the heck that means. Including a couple of Pikouans I’ve met. Jiang told me succinctly, “China has a lot of really weird place names.” The distance makes for an all-day haul and a “century” ride in the parlance of serious cyclists. 100 miles in a day is never something to sneeze at, even for a couple of China hands like us.

On this particular Saturday Dermot had hooked us up with a group of Chinese riders that he has raced with. They live in Dalian so getting actually hooked up with them met standing around for an hour at the light rail station waiting for them to show up. No one in their right mind rides out from the city – the road is fast, bad and very, very dangerous. So we stood and shot the breeze with a Chinese ride from our neighborhood that marveled at my lack of tan lines and interrogated Dermot on the state of relations between Ireland and Britain. Whenever you hang around in China with a western bike and dressed in western cycling clothes you draw a crowd and today was no different. People stand and stare and the brave ones come over and pick up your bike and feel the saddle and ask if you are Russian or French. During this wait two street beggars came over and demanded some money. I pointed to my spandex shorts and told them “No pockets” which they thought pretty funny. It must have been funny enough because they turned their attention to squeezing my tires and fingering my GPS before smiling and heading off in the direction of people wearing regular clothes. No hard feelings apparently.

The city folk eventually showed up – 15 or 20 of them mostly on very fancy road bikes. There were a few mountain bikes thrown in the mix and one guy on a tiny-wheeled Dahon folding bike. I hate it when people show up on these things because the younger Chinese are very strong riders in short bursts and there is nothing more embarrassing than being passed by someone riding a bike with 9 inch wheels when you’re on a $10,000 American superbike. Some of these rides take on a strongly international flavor and it’s not unusual to have an Italian, some additional Americans, a Mexican or two, some Irish and almost always an Australian. We took off and rode for maybe 20 minutes before it was time for a cigarette break. Stopping to visit and smoke is the one aspect of Chinese group riding that I find pretty annoying but the social aspect of riding is just as important as the exercise to the Chinese. I spent a lot of time at the back of the pack talking to a young woman riding one of the mountain bikes. She was covered from head to toe including full finger gloves, odd choices considering that it’s July. I know the reason and told her so when she tried to explain – Chinese girls are pathologically afraid of a suntan – white skin is very highly valued in this culture. So she heads out to exercise wearing what I would wear in January, because it’s impossible to ride a bike and carry an umbrella at the same time. We exchanged names and she told me that mine was very lucky. We did this stop and go thing for a few more times before we reached the end of the planned ride at 25 miles. We bid the pack “adieu” and went on our way.

We had been to Pikou one time before on a one day quest to ride 200 kilometers. It was the halfway point so we stopped for Cokes and candy at the only store we could find on the main drag. The owners were like all store owners in China – incredibly friendly and very interested in who we are and what we’re doing. Today as we turned to corner back towards the store we saw the proprietress sitting out on the front stoop. She saw us and began to wave, beckoning us over. I was quite impressed – we’d not been there for months, and she’d doubtless seen thousands of customers but she clearly had a place in her heart for the two of us. We rode over and parked, she brought a bench outside for us to sit on.

As impersonal and crowded and busy as this country is, the people in these rural shops always take time to be friendly and visit. I suppose we present such an odd attraction that their curiosity simply commands them to do so. But I doubt that in many other countries of this big world that people would take the kind of time that these people take. I’ve stood on street corners under umbrellas visiting with ancient men in tiny farming towns. We’ve talked with a family in store who brought out their older brother, hearing impaired and unable to speak, who wrote messages on little pieces of paper about the people he knows in France, wondering if we knew them too. The stories go on and on and they are certainly one of the things I will never forget about this place.

The woman who owns this store seems to be in her mid-40’s to perhaps early 50’s but it’s difficult to tell – all of the rural Chinese lead hardscrabble lives and I think it ages them prematurely. She is taller than most of the Chinese women I know and has sort of a wistful sadness about her, as though she had dreamed of something else but had ended up here in this shop on this small town street. She’s pretty and she cares about herself, taking the time to pencil in her black eyebrows and to do her hair. She loves to talk and ask us questions and Dermot obliges while I just try. On this visit I saw a little cluster of brown and blue bruises on her arm in the shape of a hand and as though she’d been roughly grabbed. No idea but I suspect it was probably a case of drunken husband, a common problem in these parts where people are poor and being left behind by the progress that others enjoy in the big cities and the resentment just builds, only partially assuaged by beer, cigarettes and arguments.

We visited for the better part of an hour, drinking and eating and entertaining all the children of the town who wandered by to see the laowei. As we started to pack up to go she pointed to an old and rusty bicycle parked against cases of empty beer bottles. I asked if it was hers and she said “Yes” and told me that it was 15 years old. I told her it was beautiful and she smiled, no doubt at my compliment but at the tiny connection we three had – cyclists all of us.





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