Saturday, April 08, 2006

Weekend in Wuxi Part II (or You just eat the head not the whole thing)

Lou Reed's 'Andy's Chest' goes through my head when we walk into the Gang Li Hotel in downtown Wuxi, maybe because the once majestic hotel now looks tired. The sort of hotel where Candy Darling might hold a press conference to celebrate her new perfume - Dead Bombshell. The marble floors needs shined. The dark wood trim needs puttied and restained. The furniture needs recovered. The flower arrangements do not hide the fading grandeur of the place, a Hyatt on hiatus.

Allen's grandfather, a lawyer who does business with the hotel, negotiates our rooms. Three female clerks are on duty. One of them asks for our passports which Allen translates for Maureen and me. We tell Allen to tell the clerk that the school has taken them to get our work papers. We have xeroxed copies which we hand to the clerk. The clerk looks at them suspiciously and writes down something. I think she may be taking down the numbers.

We all stand around for what seems an eternity but is probably only 10 minutes. At first, I am afraid they are telling Allen's grandfather that we can not be checked in without passports. However, I soon breathe a sigh of relief. We are all given our card keys, one per room. We are on the 8th floor - rooms 818, 820, 822. Max and I share room 818.

Before we go up to our rooms, we go into the dining room for dinner, lazysusan style of course. The dining room looks like what might have once been a nice dining room but now is beginning to show its age. The aesthetic reminds me of a neglected Furr's. Allen's grandfather stays long enough to make sure everything is okay.

The waitress takes our drink order first. I feed my coke habit with a coca cola. She brings Maureen a tea with a handfull of dried chrysanthemum blooms floating in it. She then brings green tea, orange juice, melon juice and water. Before the first course comes, I have five glasses of various liquids sitting before me. Maybe that is why I was was was was was was wwas was waw aw awwas aws awswas wasswasw2asawas...such a prolific drinker in my urinating-on-stairs-in-South-Tulsa days.

The server sets down silver fish soup as one of the first courses, not one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Nevertheless, I do like it more than the usual chicken foot soup. Allen, after I tell her - "Not too much" - ladles me out a small bowl. By the time I have eaten it, the other dishes start arriving. One of the tastiest dishes is steamed asparagus with a spicy red sauce poured on top. Another hit at the table is beef with assorted colors of bell pepper which is very similar to fajitas.

We eat and talk. Maureen has studied the Chinese characters for a few years so she can read some of the labels. She reads a saying that is on Miko's carton of milk. Miko tells her, her English is good and starts laughing uncontrolably. The whole table laughs because Miko is laughing so hard.

After the meal we put our stuff in our rooms and head back down to the lobby to meet Allen's dad who is our tour guide and chaperone for the evening. He takes us to see a glimpse of Taihu Lake, which is the third biggest lake in China. On the drive there, he is the typical hip dad. He plays Chinese teen star hits. At one point, I asked Allen who was singing one of the songs and she told me Angela who seems to be China's Britney. Later, Allen told me that the songs were hits from a few years ago. They are not done by the original stars but by cover artists. That reminded me of the days before the Ronco hit records in around 1970 when hits collections included songs such as 'United We Stand,' 'I Can See Clearly Now,' 'Love the One You're With' but they were not by the original artists. In small print somewhere on the album jacket it would say it was not songs recorded by the original stars.

The inlet of the lake, where we were taken, looked as if the landscaping, parking lot, sidewalk, lighting, coffee shops, docks were all new. Allen's father said that quite a bit of money had been spent to beautify the place. Many factories were shut down and moved due to pollution. It was hard to get a true feel of the scene. We were there after dark and there was a mist in the air. When we were there, we were the only ones walking around the boardwalk except for a few younger couples and 3 (almost) rowdy teenagers.

Allen's father seemed very proud of Wuxi. He was born and raised there. I got the feeling that he was one of the social elite since his dad was a lawyer who had ties with the hotel. At first, I did not want to ask too many questions because I did not want to wind up as a lake ornament. As the weekend progressed, I no longer felt like I had wandered into the Wuxi Sopranos.

We were then driven back to the hotel after we had walked around in the mist. We were all generally exhausted. The next morning, we would leave the hotel at 9:30 to see the 500 meter Budha.

Back at the hotel, Max took a shower and a movie with Luke and Owen Wilson was on the television. I did not recognize the movie. Jackie Chan and the lead from '24 Hour Party People' wandered onto the screen. Before Max got in the shower, I asked him if he knew what movie it was. He said "Around the World in 80 Days." I did not remember or know that it had been remade recently. I remember the version with Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis. When Max disrobed to get into the shower, I noticed that he is wearing long underwear under his jeans. I wondered why. This is barely jacket weather.

While he was in the shower, I took off my pants and I was in my cheap Hanes boxer briefs. Max came charging out of the shower with a towell around himself. He was flustered. He tried to speak. I thought the hotel was on fire He tells me that someone knocked on the door. I get caught up in the moment, thinking it must mean a fire (I absolutely do not know what I thought). I started to go to the door. He sees that I am in my underwear.
" No! No!" and he points to the fact that I do not have pants on. I look down and realize "Yes, I am not wearing pants." I put on my pants; he rushed back into the bathroom. I opened the door.

Allen is there to see if we want to go down to the dining room in the morning for breakfast with them. I tell her yes.

Max gets out of the shower and gets completely dressed again. He rings and runs the girls rooms. The girls take a bit to get organized to come to our room. By the time they make it, Max is in his long underwear under the covers. The girls try to pull off the covers. I start to explain the concept of a 'dogpile.' Allen looks hopelessly bored during my explanation like I am about to go into the mathematics of the situation or give an after hours quantum physics lecture or something that she could care less about. This is when I yell "Dogpile!" and I jump on Max. This gets Allen's attention. She and Miko laugh and Max exclaims "No! No Dogpile No!"

Finally, we set the alarm for 8:20 and go to bed. I dreamt of bicycles. I was involved with a gang of cyclists. In the dream, the rest of the bikegang are riding nice mountain bikes. I am riding a little kids BMX. We rode around from institutional kitchen to institutional kitchen for free lunches.

At 8 AM, I wake and take a shower. Before I get into the shower, I read the rules of the hotel on the back of the bathroom door. 'No Whoring' is one of the no no's. I step into a shower free of water pressure.

When I get out of the shower, Max is engrossed in what looks like a Chinese soap opera. As in American soaps, the villains are immediately easy to detect. In this case, as soon as I walked out, the villain is in a car and he runs down an older gentleman in front of the older gentleman's son (I presume). The son looks as if he is in his late 20s and has that ridiculous soap opera hipness about him. I am listening to phrases here and there. I go in to the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I come back and the villain and a siren are at a bar. Out of nowhere, the siren hits the villain over the head with a beer bottle. The villain yells "Feng Le Ni!" at the siren. I asked Max what the villain yelled. Max said he yelled "You're crazy!" I rehearsed it a few times and ran out of the room with Max at my heals. The time was now 8:25 AM. I rang Allen's doorbell (yeah, weird, this hotel had doorbells for the rooms). When she opened the door, I yelled "Feng Le Ni!" She walked past me, walked around the corner to where Max was hiding and slugged him in the arm.

All of us gathered and went to the dining room for breakfast. For the first time since I left New York, I had coffee with my buffet breakfast. The breakfast was a mix of Chinese and Western. I had rolls and butter, fresh pineapple, sausages, bacon, and cheesecake and of course a few un-nameable items. The cheese in the cheesecake was not sweet so it actually did taste like cheese cake. All of us ate two and three plates of breakfast. We were going to need energy to handle the 500 meter Budha. I drank three cups of coffee. I felt like I had shot a speedball.

We walked to the entrance of the hotel where Allen's father was waiting for us. We hopped into the mini-van and headed for the Budha theme park that included a 1,000 year old temple, pigeon feeding and the bathing of baby Budha. To get to Budhaland, we drove out into a rural area where there were vineyards. We drove for over 30 minutes.
"Look!" Allen says and points toward a hillside.
We all turn and look and there it is, the 500 meter Budha standing (not sitting) on the side of a hill. The road curves around and we pull into a parking lot which makes me think of Dogpatch USA for some reason. Allen's father buys the admission tickets for everyone and we go into the Budha theme park. The park is a mix of budhist spirituality and crass commerce. Fountains and koi fishponds are scattered around the park as is trashy knick knack stands that would satisfy anyone's need for any variety of Budha keepsake.

Allen buys seeds to feed the pigeons which I say are doves because the whole flock is entirely snow white. Everyone else says no they are pigeons. Correct me if I am wrong but I thought doves were just completely white pigeons, not that it matters. We all fed them. They peck the food practically right out of your hand. When they fluttered a bit too close, Miko got a bit freaked and screamed. Max of course thought this was quite the funny site and let out his patented stream of consciousness Chinese or what I pretend is stream of consciousness. He is the Patti Smith, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Elliot of contemporary China. "i don't f--- much with the past but i f--- plenty with the future."

After we feed the doves, we make the long long long ascent to the Budha, eight long flights of stairs. Halfway up, Maureen has to stop and rest. I do the 'Rocky' theme music. No one understands.

When we make it to the top, we are ready to go back down to the bottom, very zen. The 500 meter copper Budha is impressive but we do not want to miss the bathing of the baby Budha. We start our descent. Halfway down is the temple. We hear the monks chanting. We look into the doorway where observers can view them. They are in their robes. It is amazing. I am about to have a religious experience until I look past the monks.

I look deeper into the temple. In the depths of the temple, a man is pacing back and forth. He is on a mobile phone. So much for my religious experience.

We walk back to the entrance where a lotus 40 feet in the air will open up and baby Budha will be revealed and then bathed. This is quite exciting. The Rain starts. We duck under an awning near the site of the bathing. Music begins which is the Chinese equivalent of the 1812 Overture. Baby Budha is revealed. From the 9 dragon heads at the base, firehose pressure water shoots the revolving Baby Budha. Top that Oral Roberts!

Shows over. We head to the mini-van. It is now time for lunch. We are set to have lunch on a boat docked in the great Taihu Lake. Excited about lunch on a boat which we imagine to be a yacht, we all climb into the mini-van and set out for the boat. I hope to meet the Chinese equivalent of Captain Stuebing.

Exactly what I expected, I am not sure. I thought it would be like a barbeque on a luxurious yacht which would ferry us across the lake while we ate. That is not even close. What we got was the equivalent of a Midwest City trailer park on the lake complete with debris littering the site.

We walked to the boat at the fartherest end of the dock. The whole time, I thought it was very nice of Allen's father to show us such a good time. I had no right whatsoever to complain even if the complaining was to myself.

Once inside the restaurant, we were shown to our table - in one direction we had a view of a side dock littered with blown chairs and forgotten and broken restaurant equipment; the other view out the 'boat' was a doghouse set on a precariously swaying make-shift dock which housed a dalmatian which occasionally would venture out of his dog house and stare at the patrons in the restaurant; the other view was three overflowing slop buckets. I switched between the view of the doghouse which included glimpsing the occasional dalmation, and my lunch buddies.

Allen's father - with Allen overseeing - ordered. The first course was the standard silverfish soup. Next, came a plate of fish staring at us. A tofu and fish soup arrived next. The obligatory prawns - almoat all family stule meals seem to include prawns - came next. After that, we got dumplings with soup inside (one of my favorite dishes to date). Allen told me how to eat them so that I could savor the soup inside. You do not just carelessly poke them. You have to gently pick them up. You then bite an edge and let the excellent hot soup bathe your taste buds.

And then, a bowl of what I thought were black olives arrived. While we were waiting on our first course - when I was trying to not look at the slop bucket, I spied the food on other tables. I thought it odd to have a plate of black olives in a Chinese seafood restaurant. On closer inspection, I see that they are not black olives. They have hard shells. These are snails. Up close they look like a bowl of beach, something a young housewife would put on a coffee table in a nice apartment in the heart of New York City, not something that you would put in your mouth and suck out the insides as I was told to do.

I do not mind escargot. My first weekend in Songjiang I had escargot on toast with the students at the Pizza Hut. A team player, that is what I am. I am a good sport when I need to be. I do not want my nickname to be Finicky American, Finicky Mr. Tyson.

Allen and the rest of the table all have a soup bowl full of snails with which they seem to be in sucking heaven. Allen grabs a toothpick from the table and tells me if I cannot suck it out, I can pick it out and eat it that way. I grab the toothpick and dig the whole worm-like morsel out in one go. I pop it into my mouth and chew it up like it is filet mignon.

Everyone is staring at me. The hosts like to stare at their guests to make sure the guests are enjoying themselves fully, very polite. Everyone bursts out laughing. Allen tries to speak but she cannot because she is laughing so hard, as are the other students. Maureen and Allen's father seem stupefied. Allen finally was able to utter:
"You eat only head, not whole thing!"
"Oh, well, the whole thing was very tasty," I replied.


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