Sunday, January 23, 2011

Report #16

Other Jobs I’ve heard about in China, and Imagine myself Pursuing:

1) I’m dressed in a slick black suit that was hand made to fit me by a child with nimble hands. I feel overly proud for once in my life, to be white. My only task today is to be present, because, after all I’m a business escort. Not the kind that performs unspeakable things for cash, but the kind that accompanies Chinese businessmen to meetings in order to gain credibility. I’m the symbol for western modernity, a white face, and for this I charge 1200 yuan / hour. Riding around in the black Audis is nice, except for all the smoking. This I’ve had to adopt because it’s customary for cigarettes to be exchanged during a business deal. While I thought this career move would eventually lead to a deeper understanding of high stakes business I’ve absorbed nothing because most negotiations occur in Chinese. During these talks I drink bitter green tea and burn my mouth.

2) Before me are eager adult faces ready to learn like children. I teach English as a second language and make four times as much as a junior architect. I cannot speak Chinese and feel sheepish that my students are gossiping about me under my nose. I embrace myself for the call that will get there attention “Hi yo Ho Hello!” This is gibberish and means nothing but it sounds like a mix between English and Chinese and quiets them down nonetheless. I zero in a younger student giggling and feel uncomfortably warm like I’m turning red.

3) I borrowed $40,000 to buy a BMW in the States and sent it to China. I can do this once with the right kind of visa. Back in China I sell it to a nouveaux riche Chinese guy who is willing to pay $60,000 because BMW’s are in short supply, and he can’t easily go to the States like I can. This job is easy, and has earned me two years of comfortable, work-free life in Beijing. Now I spend my time like a free-spirited artist unencumbered by everyday affairs. I make strange things out of fabric and take photographs as though I am a visitor from another planet. This mushy life has both softened my palms and my speech. I can also touch my toes once again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Report #15

There are some stories that must be told:

My toilet seat broke the other day. Without getting to graphic, there are those who stand and cleanse and those who take care of the job while sitting. I fall into the latter category, which requires some weight shifting. And with that said, ‘Snap’, my plastic toilet seat cracked underneath me, and a big fragment of the seat fell into the toilet.

Now, my toilet is not like others. There really isn’t any water in it, except way down the hole, past where the eye can see. It flushes like regular toilets, swishing water across the bowl and making everything disappear. This design has its advantages and disadvantages. For one thing you have act fast on the courtesy flush, otherwise your small bathroom quickly turns into an outhouse at summer camp. The only advantage of the waterless bowl is there is never, ever any back splashing, which easily outweighs any disadvantages.

This could have been worse with a conventional toilet; it might have even clogged it. When the chunk of seat when down the hole I was in the safe zone in terms of the flushing sequence, just paper, which I tried to flush past with limited success. The fragment was too big to flush down, and even though it was far enough down the hole that I couldn’t really see it, there is no doubt it would cause future problems. So, with rubber kitchen gloves on, I went in and pulled out what looked like a white jellyfish. That was my first gross encounter.

The seat was still usable, although with the big chunk missing it gained the ability to bite and gnaw at your thigh like a lobster. To my disappointment, Carefour didn’t carry toilet seats. The only other place I knew would have it was taobao, the Chinese eBay, but this required the help of a Chinese person.

“Ying, I need a new toilet seat.”
“What? Why?”
“I broke it.”
“How did you break a toilet seat?” she asked.
“It just broke.” I said, trying to avoid going into details about the two different camps.
“But what size, there are probably different sizes?” she said. I was afraid of this. “You should probably measure it.” She suggested.
“Okay, well maybe you can just look on taobao and see if they are different sizes.” I pleaded.

Two weeks went by and the lobster claw pinched me many times, and never followed up with Ying. I also never got around to measuring my toilet seat, and even I had remembered to bring a tape measure home, the seat mounting screws were hidden from the top. And that’s what is really important when it comes to toilet seats, the seat mounting screws.

My apartment has been very reliable, but lately the bathroom is cursed. The next thing that went in the bathroom was the fluorescent light. This seemed easier to deal with. I pulled the cover off the ceiling fixture and unplugged the compact tube. It looked advanced but it seemed like something Carrefour would have in their aisle of light bulbs, but they didn’t. I had gone back to Carrefour for a second time that day on a return visit to stock up on Chinese candy to bring home when I head back to the States at the end of the month. I had my granny cart loaded with bags full of little candies from the bulk section. There are a lot of souvenirs one can bring home in trying to sum up a culture, but for some reason I think candy does a good a job, especially for kids.

On my way home with the granny cart in tow, I paid special attention to the strip of stores across from where I live. I see people out there making vinyl windows from scratch, and welding window cages for apartment buildings. In their tiny square storefronts you can see building materials like large looms of wire, PVC pipe, and bags of sand. I never really considered this strip of little stores to be hardware stores; it seemed more serious like a lumberyard where only professionals are allowed. I walked slowly past each glass window, peering in for clues that might lead to a D2 light bulb or better yet, a toilet seat. I went inside one of them that had lots of electrical wire. There were two women and two children behind the counter, lounging on a day bed. This is common to see in small stores, which double as the family’s apartment as well. I pulled out the D2 light bulb.

“Je ge Ni yo, ma?” I asked (do you have this?)
“yo” she replied (have)…this is a funny thing in Chinese, where you can just answer with the verb.
The store lady said more things in Chinese, of which the only thing I caught was something about ‘cheaper’. She pulled out three different brands of D2 light bulbs each a different price. I went with the middle of the road one. Next, I was going to try for a toilet seat. I didn’t see any in the store, which is no bigger than 8x12 feet. I waved my hand in the air for a pen as I gestured in a scribbling motion. This took longer than it should’ve, and finally they understood. While my mandarin is slowly improving, my ability to sketch thumbnails pic-tionary style has increase three-fold. I drew a toilet seat, which was easily understood judging by the eight-year old boy’s hysterical laughs. Actually, they were all laughing. The lady went in the back of the store and fished out new seat. I opened the box to check the seat mounting screws and was relieved to discover that they were universal, adjustable in fact. Twelve dollars later I was in business.

As I was leaving I realized that I had in my granny cart what was the equivalent to pirates treasure for kids, candy. I pulled out a bag and turned to the little boy and offered him a couple pieces. He declined in an almost automatic way. When the two ladies saw the candy they encouraged him. His older sister, probably ten, came running from the day bed behind the counter and gladly took some. I unrolled the bag and let them take their pick…. and he slowly took one, two, three, then four…the mothers were laughing and I could tell they seemed a little embarrassed, but it was funny.

Back home, I put in the light bulb and once again could see in my bathroom. I carefully put on my rubber gloves. Just when you think you’ve cleaned your apartment from top to bottom and all things disgusting are gone, you remove a toilet seat. I was careful to keep one sanitary hand for tearing off sheets of paper towel and administering spray cleaner. I scrubbed through the nastiest, gummy brown rectangle that was the extents of the toilet seat hinge. I felt clean and fresh putting the new seat on the now, completely white porcelain rim. I disposed of the old seat in the empty box, treating like evidence from a crime scene. My rubber gloves were retired after that episode, which concludes my second gross encounter.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Report #14

Short Accounts of Things I’ve Seen Recently in Exactly 100 Words:

The white painted walls in my office are made of concrete, which makes them thumbtack-proof. Chinese tape sucks and Beijing air dries out the sticky-ness, so hanging drawings on the wall is limited at best. Enter the Chinese carpenter man who screwed 4x8 sheets of soft, dense foam to the walls for a pin up space. He does good work, but what is even more impressive is when he mounted the 6’ folding stepladder like one would a horse, legs over each side, feet on opposite rungs, and started walking across the room as if he were on stilts.

I heard an explosion like a bomb went off, and then smoke filled the air and poured into my apartment as I leaned out the window to investigate. A small hair salon three buildings from my apartment had gone up in flames. I think the fire happened first and the explosion came later because when I joined the mob of onlookers in the street to watch the firemen hose the flames, they only seemed concerned about pulling out mangled furniture, not bodies. The roof was gone, and only the walls remained. Now, three weeks later, the salon is completely rebuilt.

One night I rode my bike to Sanlitun to meet some friends for a drink. On my way there I saw a large group of people and police cars gathered next to a canal below the airport expressway. People were yelling and pushing one another around. The subject of the dispute was a body on the bank of the canal between the water and the road covered with a tarp. When I rode home, the crowd and the body were gone, what remained was a wet spot in the dirt in the shape of the person who drowned that night.

It hasn’t snowed in Beijing this winter. Not once. However last weekend I went snowboarding with some friends an hour outside of Beijing where they don’t have snow either, just artificial snow blown onto the slopes. This makes for a strange scene in the landscape….drab brown then bright white slopes. Normally when I ride a chairlift at great heights and think of horrible things like falling or getting stuck for days, the jump down to the white blanket below seems feasible, even safe. Riding a chairlift over rocks and scrub brush makes one explicitly aware that chairlifts lack seat belts.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Report #13

No carts were available at the Carrefour grocery store, only a few stragglers at the front entrance that were either crippled or just passed up; because who wants to push a cart half a block when you can get one at the door? Not today. I doubled backed and rescued one of the castaways. Inside it was crazy. Carrefour was having a huge New Years Day sale that made Black Friday look tame. I suppose their weekend sale was perfectly timed with the first of the month. Unlike the states, where people seem broke on the first because their rent is due along with many other bills, in China today is payday. Most salaries are dished out in monthly installments, not weekly or bi-weekly as we’re used to. And people don’t pay rent here every month, most pay quarterly or bi-annually.

I visit Carrefour once a week to stock up on food and other necessities. It’s a two-story building with a grocery store on the first floor and a department store above where you can get almost anything. A ‘Report’ dedicated to this large grocery store is long overdue.

My first few visits to Carrefour were stressful and produced much anxiety. I just wasn’t prepared for the noise, the number of people, or the tactics required for actually gathering food. I’d leave exhausted, sweating from the winter clothes I didn’t need inside, and keeled over with a heavy Ikea bag to lug home. I dreaded going to Carrefour. Everything about it seemed awful.

The entrance is a wide and steep concrete ramp that leads up to carwash-style octopus cleaners, except they’re not blue and soft, they’re dingy, hard plastic and you have to fight your way through a slit opening to get inside. If you’re afraid of germs on a public door handle, this like getting the full body treatment if you’re not careful. The entrance foyer is flanked with official-looking people behind several different service counters. I’m not sure what they do, but it seems financial and large lines form from these service areas. It has the austerity of customer service or layaway. There are two ways to actually get into the store, a narrow path along the corral of check out lines, or up the long ramp to the 2nd floor, which deposits you into the electronics section with an empty grocery cart.

The scene inside is like a crowded subway car where everyone has a cart and they’re all shopping. One might think this scenario would produce anger or violence, I mean it certainly would in the states. I can just imagine impatient soccer mom’s wielding oversize carts around saying, “Excuse me! Your cart is in MY way.” That was my first problem -I was the impatient soccer mom, trying to bob and weave, and getting frustrated. But I quickly learned when to be aggressive and when to lay back and just flow with through the store with the sea of people. Below is a FIELD GUIDE that I should’ve been given upon first entering the store, it would read: “ADVICE TO WESTERNERS”

FRESH PRODUCE: First you must find the lone roll of plastic bags (this might take 10 minutes). And because there is only one roll, you must pull it like a careless toddler pulls toilet paper, getting your entire supply of vegetable bags in one go. Don’t bother sorting through piles of produce with all the Chinese people, their sorting and identification techniques are far superior and you’ll be left with bruised and blemished veggies and fruit.

Just watch one of them go through the miniature oranges, you’ll see no rhyme or reason why they choose one over another. Try it yourself and you’ll be disappointed with what you bring home. Your best bet is to stick with pre-packaged produce that the grocery store prepares. You’ll pay a little bit more money for a really perfect pair of spinney cucumbers because their hand picked by the best sorters, and 50 cents isn’t that much extra. Plus you can skip the line to weigh and price produce.

THE LINE TO WEIGH AND PRICE PRODUCE: Avoid this at all costs because it’s cutthroat. You’ll quickly learn that Chinese people cut in line, but it’s not the same as where you come from; a place where such blatantly unjust acts would be cause for verbal assault, or even violence. Here there are no managers to call, no customer service to soothe your temper. You just wait a little longer. It’s like “Oops, I guess I shouldn’t have looked at those apples for two seconds.” And the other guy is like “Ha, ha, foreigners are so slrrow and rlazy.” And everyone walks away happy. If you make it as far as the weigh machine, you’ll have to get into gear and start firing bags of fruit and veggies to the scale-lady, who is a teenager. Quickly hand each bag onto her scale, use both hands because it’s go time! She won’t look at you and wont touch anything in your basket. It’s kind of like interfacing with a human robot. She just weighs, bundles, stickers, and hands off. It will feel like the bottle return machine at Kroger with someone grabbing each one and crushing it with their hands before you. And no matter how fast you go, the ‘overload’ alarm will never sound.

PREPARED FOODS SECTION: This is worse than old country buffet, but equally fascinating. Lot’s of yelling happens here and you won’t be able to understand any of it. Just know they’re trying to sell stuff, even though you know that shouting out what can be imagined as “Get your greasy-boiled-spicy-pig’s-feet-liver-stomach-noodles. So tasty and delicious!” is no way to sell anything in a super market. But this where you’re wrong and the FIELD GUIDE is right; Carrefour has 50% of their staff loitering at every aisle and every corner to sell you something, by yelling. Avoid the prepared foods section, except to take photographs and send to your loved ones back home.

MEAT, FISH, AND POULTRY: This is very raw. The butcher shop is front and center, and while all of the land-animals have already been finished, it will be more than you’re used to seeing in the deli section back home. You’ll be tempted to buy one of the turtles for a pet, saving its life, but this is a bad idea. You won’t be so sympathetic to the carp because they’re carp and as Westerners we despise these fish for being gross and trying to get into our Great Lakes. With that said, same advice on the meat as the fruit and vegetables: go for the pre-packaged, unless you want to ladle through a pile of boneless chicken breasts. Also, don’t be alarmed when you see someone put a whole rack of ribs into their cart, unwrapped. Why waste a bag? You’ll also be impressed by how inexpensive meat is. What might cost you $11 dollars for boneless chicken breasts back home will only cost $1. It’s the same for beef and pork. At first you’ll be excited, and then a little nervous as you wonder why this price differential is so large. The FIELD GUIDE has no answer.

YOGURT AISLE: This is the one of the most happening spots of the whole grocery store. It just has that look and feel like something’s going on. There are big banners of yogurt-like Chinese models, eating yogurt, and feeling great about yogurt. You will also see what look like 60’s go-go dancer / anime pop star girls offering free samples of yogurt. They all wear brightly colored mini-skirt dresses, white leather boots, and microphone headsets, which project their voice x10 from a small speaker worn on their hip. They also wear medical facemasks. The go-go anime pop-star girls don’t work for Carrefour, they work for big-yogurt and are there to cut deals, like buy 5 get 1 free. The sample girls never turn off their hip-mounted loudspeakers even when having a conversation with a potential buyer, which really helps with the theme of yell-to-sell.

WINE AISLE: This is where they put the lowest-functioning aisle sellers. Chinese people don’t drink a lot of wine, so it’s basically a dead zone. The wine aisle seller will follow you but remain silent due to the language barrier. Once you make your selection they’ll mutter something and point to an adjacent bottle, which is a little more expensive. That’s it. That’s the wine aisle.

CHECK OUT LINE: This is where your ice cream will melt, so let it be the last thing you put in your cart before getting in line. Here you can observe a wide a cross section of Chinese people, short ones, tall ones, fat ones, old ones, every kind. It’s almost as varied as the ecology of Walmart shoppers, but fewer degenerates and outright wrong creations. You can observe the rising obesity epidemic among Chinese children here as well. The checkout line is almost as hurried as the line to weigh and price produce. There are no conveyor belts, just a little shelf to place your basket onto. This is where strategy counts. Of the three grocery vehicles: lone basket, cart that accommodates two baskets, and classic cart, the cart that is a frame for two baskets is ideal. Keep heavy items in one basket and light-fluffy-delicate things in the other. This will help ensure you get all the heavy stuff first because there is no time for sorting in the check out line. Unlike the States where the checkout ladies and gents seem deficiently slow or hopelessly depressed, the Carrefour workers are like black-jack dealers hopped up on Vegas oxygen. There is a manager that cycles through the check out lanes, but not to do overrides or price checks, it seems that this person’s job is to yell at the cashiers. You’d think that a public display of verbal abuse would be cause for protest amongst the sympathetic shoppers, but that’s just soft, western ideology. Quickly load your granny cart with the heavy stuff first, and then the light stuff on top. The granny cart is a nescessity for the 15-minute walk home. Don’t bother using a big shoulder bag or a backpack, use gravity and leverage to your advantage.