Monday, September 29, 2008

Dangers of the KTV

Ruby took me to her friend's birthday party in one of the karaoke places in the city. After introductions I sat down to play Liar's Dice with some of the men. At one point someone asks me if I have many fives and, using the new slang I have picked up, I reply, "I have a lot of fucking fives." (lit: I have big dick fives). Everyone laughs it up and for a while I'm left to play in peace and drink beers, rather than being forced to sing Elvis Presley and Righteous Brothers songs for everyone.

Eventually the party starts to wind down and Ruby is ready to go, but two of her friends want to take me out for further festivities. Ruby leaves, but seems worried. I can't tell if it's because she thinks her friends will get me into trouble, or because I've had so many beers already I can hardly walk.

After Ruby leaves I go to a different lounge of the KTV with my two new friends, Johnny and Shoe. I don't know Johnny's Chinese name, he introduced himself to me as Johnny. Johnny knows nine or ten words in English, which he repeats to me many times.

Johnny leaves Shoe and I to drink for a few minutes, then comes back with one of the hostesses who welcomed us to the party. Johnny matter-of-factly informs me that I can have her for the night for 500 rmb. I'm not interested and a little worried he's embarassing her talking so openly about this, but the next time I look over at her I almost burst out laughing. She's bent slightly forward at the waist, her back arched, and she's licking her teeth and lips and giving me the most whorish looks I've ever seen.

When I politely decline Johnny and Shoe seem dumbfounded, then consult with eachother, then again with the hostess, then tell me 300rmb is ok, if I'm short on cash. I can see this could go on all night, so I just tell them I have a girlfriend. Johnny and Shoe and the hostess seem to think this is a funny joke, but at least she finally leaves.

Eventually it's time to go and we pile into the elevator. We were on the top floor of a highrise and a few floors down another group crowds in. There are four men and a woman. The men are all pretty big for Chinese, taller than I and athletic looking. One of them is probably two meters tall and I guess they're part of some athletic team or something. They too have obviously been drinking, and they're swaggering and scowling and belligerent. One of them, who is wearing a greet t-shirt which says "sneaker genius" across the chest scowls and grumbles something when he sees me. I don't catch it but whatever it is, Johnny tells them I'm a good guy, and tells them I even speak some Cantonese. Johnny then prods me encouragingly, so I go into trained parrot mode and recite a little poem about rain flooding the streets, a boy selling firewood, and a road lined with pearls and butterflies. The men chuckle and the woman claps her hands and says I'm cute. Johnny keeps pushing me but I'm drunk and can't think of anything else nice so I say, "I have big dick money" and they laugh some more. Then I point to the elevator door and tell them to all get the fuck out. I'm not serious, obviously, but I learned this phrase earlier (it sounds something like: lahn-si gut lo, although I can't figure out the literal translation. whatever it is, the people who taught me to say it laughed long and hard when they heard me repeat it).

The response from the new group in the elevator is shocked and angry. Johnny is starting to look a little worried and trying to get me to shut up, but Shoe is laughing and egging me on so I tell the other group to go fuck their mothers. They're starting to yell and gesture and warning Shoe and Johnny to stop me. Johnny is tugging at my arm but now Shoe is laughing hysterically and telling them to fuck their mothers too. The biggest guy then points his finger in my face and yells something so I tell him that his whole family should fall down in the street and die and the next thing I know the elevator has erupted into a brawl.

Fortunately the others are even more drunk than we are and Johnny, Shoe and I manage to get the upper hand. As we leave the building we're still breathing hard, and Shoe seems to be sobbing a little, but by the time we get a block away Johnny is already starting to laugh. By the time we cross the second intersection Johnny and Shoe are laughing and slapping hands and patting backs and complementing me on my Gong Fu. Another block and they are yelling and throwing kicks and punch combinations into the night air which they never came close to throwing back in the elevator (but which I'm certain their friends at work will have to hear about for weeks to come). I want to join them in their celebration but guilt and remorse have already begun to sink in and at the next corner I tell them I'm heading home to sleep. We exchange cell phone numbers but I don't tell them that tomorrow will be my last day in China and I probably won't see them again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


If I think of myself in cultural terms, I generally think of myself as Asian. I often forget I don't look the part, however, until I come to a place like this.

There aren't any tourist attractions here, so foreigners are a rarity. People I pass in the street stop and stare, open-mouthed and unabashed. I've been here a few times now, but I still haven't gotten used to it. Jie's hospital is in a poor part of Guangzhou. They probably see a couple of foreigners a year here, if that, so the stares are even more common than usual.

Around the corner from the hospital is a store which sells framed pictures of historical figures. The largest samples on display are of Mao, Sun Yat-sen, and...Stalin! I suppose the Russian ends up adorning the apartment walls of older Chinese who remember the good times of Russo-Sino relations, back in the old days before things turned bitter.

I'm pondering the price a nation might eventually have to pay for propping up thugs like Mao and Stalin as role-models when I feel something prodding my hand. I look down to see a young girl staring at me, reaching out to touch me as if to see if I were real. We share a surprised stare for a moment, then her face lights up in a bright smile and she runs away laughing.

Miracles of Modern Medicine

Ruby's sister Jie is getting an operation at the Women's Hospital. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is but Ruby drew me a picture and I'm guessing there's some sort of blockage in the fallopian tubes. Either that or she's got something stuck in her antlers.

When I go to visit she's sleeping. The operation was a success, and her mother is sitting by her bedside. She has a container of rice porridge or "jook", which is much admired around here both as a delicious meal and as a sort of cure-all for minor ailments. She talks to the nurse and the nurse gives her a lemon which I gather is to be held under Jie's nose to help combat nausea.

I feel sorry for Jie's mother. Not just because her daughter is in the hospital, but because everything around her is conforming less and less to her worldview. This hospital, for instance. Almost everything you see here is exactly what you'd see in the US. It's modern medical equipment, syringes, plasma drips. No herbal remedies, no weird massages, no incense. The only things here she can really understand are the jook and that lemon, and she holds onto both fiercely.

When Jie wakes up her mother begins furiously shoveling jook into her mouth. Jie hasn't eaten in a couple of days and I suggest that perhaps she shouldn't try to ingest too much food at once, but what does a silly foreigner know about the restorative powers of jook?

Sure enough, after a few minutes Jie starts to vomit and her horrified mother grabs Jie's head and starts screaming for the nurse. She's holding Jie's head up and Jie is choking on her own vomit, so I push the mother away and turn Jie onto her side so that her mouth and throat can clear. In the meantime Jie's mother has forced her way back between us and is shoving the lemon into her daughter's nose. After the nurse shows up and Jie seems to be breathing normally again I go to wash up.

When I get back the nurse is gone and Jie's mother is spooning jook into Jie's mouth, although less rapidly this time so hopefully it will be ok. She casts a few guilty looks in my direction, but doesn't stop feeding her. I tell them I'll be back later and walk out. As I leave I see Jie's mother reaching for the lemon again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


My friend Ruby is taking me to a party tonight, but first I'm accompanying her on some errands. "Ruby" is her American name, and I don't think it really fits her, but her name in Chinese could be roughly translated as "small red", so I can see the reasoning.

Ruby is slim and quirky with big eyes and a scratchy, party-girl voice. She's constantly in motion and full of nervous energy. She can't weigh more than 100 pounds, but in a country of aggressive drivers, she is certainly one of the most aggressive. She drives the wrong way down streets, honking her horn to make people move out of her way. Chinese house music constantly blaring from the speakers, she drives on sidewalks, disregards traffic signals, and gives no pedestrian any chance at all. I ask her if the police ever stop her and she tells me that her car used to belong to an associate of hers in Beijing and that it has government plates so the police are afraid to stop her. Like most things one hears in China, it's tough to tell how much of this is true, but I have driven with her on many occasions, and the police never do stop her. In fact, I notice that the police don't do much of anything except harass shopkeepers and taxi drivers. I suppose in a country where corruption is the norm, a police officer has to worry about stopping the wrong person.

I'm not sure what Ruby does. She told me once she works for a bank, but I can't believe banks, even in China, work this way. Whenever I'm with her we drive around Guangzhou, Ruby yapping into her cellphone as we approach our destinations. As we drive up someone will come over to her window and they'll exchange a few pleasantries, then Ruby will hand them a bundle of money wrapped in a shopping bag. Ruby is always happy to have me with her on these errands, apparently as some sort of security. I want to point out that I'm not a particularly intimidating looking person, but I have no idea how to say this in Cantonese, so I just smile and go along with the game and hope nothing bad goes down.

Sometimes Ruby will want to show off how much Cantonese I speak. She'll have me talk to her friends, or recite some silly limerick I've memorized, while her friends clap their hands and laugh. I feel like a pet dog being asked to sit or roll over.

China looks like the future

There's a cinematic quality to this part of China; a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction sense of ancient culture struggling with modern technology in a crumbling world.

The back porch of my apartment overlooks a small street. Cars don't fit there, but in the day it's usually busy with bicycles and pedestrians. You can have your hair cut there for 3 rmb (less than 50 cents US). For 4rmb you can have your hair washed as well as cut. Of course there is a 10 minute massage included in the price.

Today I watched a small man, probably in his 60's, making his way down the street with a bamboo pole over one shoulder. At either end of the pole were cloth bags full of who-knows-what. He wore a conical bamboo hat, a simple white shirt, ratty pants, and sandals. His ancestors a thousand years ago might have worn clothes that didn't look much different, and carried burdens the same way. I watched him trudge slowly through a sea of younger, much taller Chinese in knock-off Versace sunglasses or G-Unit t-shirts, some waving their arms as they yelled into their bluetooth devices, others herding young children with LED's flashing in the soles of their shoes. I followed his progress down the street as he appeared and disappeared in the crowd, until finally I couldn't see him anymore.