I have to admit it was pretty weird being back. I knew all the sights and sounds intimately, but they didn’t feel like mine. I no longer had a connection to the place, certainly nothing like I had a mere month ago. It might be true that we lose that attachment to all the places we’ve lived, but this break seemed final and mutual. Work had pretty much gone on without me, much as I expected. Some people were glad to see me, others really couldn’t care. And in each case my feelings mapped theirs. I visited a few here and a few there and there were lots of hugs and smiles but overall I was really nothing more than an interesting oddity. Someone who had left; I had moved on and so had they. The evenings though were different because now I was back out in the street taking the same long walk I took just about every evening while I lived there.
Two and a half years ago I donned a hardhat and walked through a construction zone to have a look at some model apartments in an as yet unfinished building. I was concerned about where I was going to live during my stay in Dalian and this place offered a genuine opportunity at a higher quality of living. Of course riding up in the freight elevator and picking my way through a debris choked hallway didn’t speak well of the place, but once past the makeshift plywood door, I was in another world. The apartments were beautiful, modern and above all else as fancy as something I could expect in one of the finer cities of the world. I was in love and there would be no other place for me. There were framed prints of horses in the elevator lobby, as strong an omen of this being the right place for me as there could be.
Shama Luxe was supposed to be done well in advance of my November 2008 arrival but it wasn’t so I took a temporary place in an awful hotel and waited. Looking back at that time it was pretty sad, no, it was downright depressing. My room was a dark tube with a horrible view overlooking a shabby apartment courtyard. I hated every minute of my time there and the only thing that kept me going was knowing that sooner or later I’d be in the apartment I’d dreamed of. But the months went by and the delays piled up and finally I realized I couldn’t wait any longer – it was a choice between waiting for the ideal or moving and saving my sanity. I chose a nice bright apartment in a Chinese building and I made my home there along with the people in the elevator and the building guards and all the neighborhood denizens whom I came to know and who came to know me. It was the right decision and in retrospect, living there probably made my stay in China as good as it could be.
On second night back I had dinner with some friends in their apartment in that mythical mansion on the hill. This was my first time back since my construction visit. The lobby was posh, the staff friendly and the security staunch. I rode up to their apartment and rang the bell. Their place was just as I remembered the models – modern and simple and pleasing enough to the eye. But the more I stared and wandered around it became obvious to me that the place was really just a giant hotel room. They’d made it personal, with wonderful pictures of their handsome little boy and other things accumulated by their China travel. But in the end, it was so polished that its nature just couldn’t be overcome – this was temporary living and it was never going to be anything more. I realized then and there that I had made the right choice so long ago. I’d lived among the people and that had been the right thing to do for me. I put those thoughts away and had a great evening of conversation over some incredible Indian food. Of all my goodbyes, this one, realizing that this was almost certainly the last time we would see each other, was the most poignant. I’ve met and worked with a lot of people during my time here and for the most part I don’t care a whit about any of them. These two though and our time together will remain with me forever.
My neighborhood looked no different but the streets were not so vibrant due to the cold. The dinnertime food stands were gone as were the evening strollers. People were now bundled up and walking with a purpose, namely to get out of the bone chilling cold. I stopped by Sunny’s Expat Store for a candy bar and the little girls clearly remembered me. Not so at Starbucks where the staff was completely new. I sat there and had one last Iced Americano staring at the earnest young western women spending their time in this backwater teaching, thinking about how many hours I had sat at that very table, writing, talking or just thinking. One of those obscenely loud live entertainment shows was going on outside, designed to entice people into the mall for some shopping promotion or another. Even inside the beat was pounding and adding an odd accompaniment to the acoustic Christmas music that was playing. Someone sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” another “Silver Bells” both underscored by that driving beat. I finished my drink, tossed it in the trash grabbed my jacket and went outside. The music was bouncing off the buildings, following me down the street and back to my hotel.
I checked out of my hotel the next morning, having had a nice chat with the desk clerk who told me that my Chinese sounded “Chinese.” I couldn’t think of a better compliment. One last day at work and one final omen that my time here was up. My colleague Ben bought me lunch and we went looking for a table. The place was very busy, one last reminder of the half-baked job that was done with the design. When it came to the cafeteria, it seems that the design firm put the original plans into a copier and reduced it by 25%. A table cleared and we made a beeline. I was walking between two lines of tables when something caught my right shoe in mid-stride and I lost my balance. I did a reasonably good job of recovering, bobbling my tray full of food for what seemed like a full minute. But the momentum was too strong and I stumbled forward. The food flew off into space and I went down, hitting my right cheekbone squarely on the back of someone’s chair before ending up on all fours. I stood up and saw a horrified Ayi rushing towards me to clean up. I took a look back at my path and realized what had happened – a young woman was sitting half sideways on her chair, its leg straight out into the aisle. I gave her a stare and she looked terrified. As I sat down to get my bearings, she and her friends hastily gathered their things and left.
A little vacation was next on my agenda and so Ben and I left work late afternoon to head to the airport. Evening traffic was just picking up but we made it in plenty of time. Ben got busted at the bag check for having a brand new (empty) cigarette lighter he was bringing as a gift. The confiscated it but gave him a receipt so that it could be retrieved at a later date. We waiting and boarded on time entering through Gate 5 but walking about a half mile down the terminal to some other gate, far down in the International Section. This flight had apparently originated in Osaka, Japan and so had docked down in the area where they have Customs. I thought this was a pretty odd route, Japan to Dalian to Chengdu, on the other side of China, down in the southwestern province of Sichuan. As I walked I saw two or three people boarding from the last gate on the aisle making me think that there would almost certainly be a problem with my carryon bag if this plane was already loaded. It turned out not to be an issue, those three people were the only three continuing.
At the end I came to a pair of closed glass doors. I figured we had to wait for the agent to come up the jet way and open them so I waited. Down at the bottom some young man, flight attendant perhaps, made a gesture with his hands which I interpreted to mean “I’ll be right there” but the tiny woman behind me had a different assessment. She pushed me out of the way and gave the doors a solid whack with her palm. They opened right up and we went down.
This trip promised to be interesting - Ben, his wife Sahsa and a friend of hers, a wealthy Chengdu businesswoman. We were going to see all the sights while being chauffeured around in the friend’s BMW – a far cry from any other trip I’d taken in China which typically meant taxis and broken English. We arrived more or less on time, made our introductions although the friend seemed to be trying to decide between “Kelly” and “Jennifer” for a western name. I didn’t like either so I suggested “Zoe” but I’m not sure anyone was excited about that despite Ben’s explanation that it was a very classy appellation. In the end she decided to stick with her Chinese name Susu. We spent a half hour trying to find the car in the parking lot and then loaded up and left. We were off. It was close to 11PM, the skies were cloudy but the temperature was mild and it didn’t seem to be raining. I’ve been here twice before but never outside of the airport; I was excited.
The first thing I noticed was the amount of trees. I’ve never seen so many in China outside of the French Concession in Shanghai. Big Plane Trees, still bearing a full crown of leaves lined every road we drove. China is urban and modern but throw in a canopy of leaves and you’re taken back 100 years to when these cities were still clad in their Chinese history. I sat back and watched the shadows playing on the moon roof. They took me to what would be best described as a “food court”, a three storey alley lined with small restaurants and bars. We parked and walked in and were immediately harassed by a little girl, perhaps 6 or 7 trying to sell us a rose. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, at one point actually sticking one in Ben’s back pocket. Retail starts early here as it takes time to develop the fully obnoxious behavior necessary it takes to be successful selling things that no one wants. A young man in a shiny silver suit sidled up and asked us into his place; we walked on rounding a corner and entering the last place on the block. Brightly lit, seemingly clean and about half full of late night diners. Ben and I sat down and ordered, the girls stood up to leave but not before Sahsa asked me what flavor rabbit head I wanted. Ben and I had been joking about those the day before so I took that as a humorous question. I told her “very hot” and they left. A couple of courses came out – dumplings, fish, a couple of other things or two. We had a long discussion about beer, insisting on cold ones and they brought us a couple of bottles. Beer is almost always served warm in China and often it’s the only choice. The food was great - hot and tasty, the two hallmarks of “Chuancai” as it’s known here. I was just about stuffed when they returned with another meal in take out bags – it’s not a problem here to sit in a restaurant, order some things and then supplement the meal with food from some other place. Sahsa handed me a pair of plastic gloves and one of those bags that we use for fruit in our supermarkets. It contained a dark brown globe swimming in sauce – I was about to further extend my culinary boundaries, I was about to eat a rabbit head.
At first impression the thing looked like a bird. I guess when you strip away all the cute bunny exterior stuff like ears and cheeks you’re left with just those two buck teeth sticking out front. Sort of like a beak which makes you think Chicken. I was torn between digging right and taking some photos so I opted for the latter. Problem was I couldn’t handle the thing without using the gloves but I couldn’t work the camera with the gloves because they were coated with the sauce. I finally managed to turn them inside out before digitally recording this momentous occasion. Sahsa explained that you start by tearing off the jaw. Next you split the jaw down the middle like a wishbone which grants you access to the tender meat inside. I was able to get this part done and the meat was very tasty. I was dared to eat the eyeballs but I couldn’t meet the challenge because they were too hard to get out of the skull. The final phase involved biting down on the top of the skull and splitting it to get to the innards, but I drew the line there and went on to the other stuff on the table.
It was well past midnight when we polished off the last of the food and made our way back to the car. The little flower hustler was still there but she had lost her boldness on the second pass. Across the street a dance bar was just beginning to get busy, a throng of skinny Chinese women in skin tight pants and high-heeled boots milled around under a street light. We made a plan to start Friday at 10 AM, the Leshan Buddha was our destination, about 2 hours outside of town. Susu dropped off Ben and Sahsa at their apartment and then delivered me to the Shangri La. I climbed into bed about 1:30 and lay there thinking. This night was over but I could tell that this was going to be a special trip.