Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Weekend in Wuxi - Part One - Getting There (or I dare you to cross the street) (pronounced Wooshie?)

The trip to Wuxi: the students and I had been looking forward to going for several weeks. When the speech contest came about, I had to postpone the trip. When I told the students we would have to wait three weeks, Max exclaimed "Three Weeks?!" I felt rotten. Everytime an adult had disappointed me during my childhood came rushing back. Now I was the one who had to explain it can't be helped in that Mr. Cleaver sort of way. Thus, the entire week before we were set to leave, I crossed my fingers that something did not come up. I did not want to disappoint the students again. I could not bear to see the look on Max's face.

During the week, Allen filled us in on what we would do over the weekend. We would see the 500 meter Budha. We would eat steak and potatos at an American restaurant. We were set to eat seafood on a boat. Her parents were busy planning several activities for us while we were there.

Her grandfather would reserve us rooms in a hotel downtown. The girls would stay in one room. Max and I would share a room. At one point, I told them that Max and I were going to play poker and smoke cigars in our room which the mental picture entertained me more than them I suppose.
"Play Parker?" Tess asked
"Smoke Sugars?" Allen questioned.
I annunciated the words more plainly and they punched them in to their translators. They exploaded into laughter and Max ribbing. When they translated for Max, his face turned red and he fired off an explosion of Chinese. All of us laughed and laughed while Max defended himself and exclaimed (He is quite the exclaimer!) "No, no cigar. No cigar."

At one point, soon after this, we were sitting with Jennifer,(the teacher who told me the patients and staff smoke in the hospital) and we are talking about smoking and Miss Birdflu 2006. Tess and Allen told Jennifer that Max smokes.
"Max, you smoke?" Jennifer asked him genuinely surprised. I, of course, am sitting silent. "Max smoking is not good that is really bad for you."
"No smoke! No smoke!" Max the exclaimer exclaimed.
"He smokes cigars." Tess stated as matter of factly as possible
"Max,you smoke cigars?"
"And plays poker," continued Allen.
"You smoke cigars while you play poker?" Jennifer asked very confused.
"No smoke cigar, No poker, Tyson Tyson Tyson," is all Max could muster.

The reason for the trip to Wuxi: Allen's father has real estate related work in Wuxi. Allen's mother is a consultant in Shanghai. Mom and Dad are together on weekends. Wuxi is an hour and a half from Shanghai. Allen told us that her mother is always asking her to bring friends home. This is the first time that she will do so. Of course, the friends include a perpetually young male teacher (who happens to be on a collision course with middleage) and a considerably older birdflu carrier.

The car was to come get us at 5 pm. We go to the school entrance to wait for the driver at 4:55. We wait anxiously. Every car that slows down we think is possibly him. The Nissans, Toyotas, Buicks(?) and Volkswagen after Volkswagen pass us by. This is the time of the day when the traffic is the heaviest. The inner lane is cars, trucks and faster cycles. The outer lane is for slower scooters, mopeds, and bicyles. Seeing a large Chinese sized fridge riding sidesaddle on a standard bicycle is not that unusual here. As we are waiting, a three wheeled bicyle (which is common here) wheels past carrying a load of plywood. I don't know what is the odder site: the strange skinny western fellow staring at the cyclist carrying enough plywood to build a shed; or the cyclist staring at the western fellow staring back at the three wheeled oddity.

Allen receives a phone call. The driver is lost. We go back to my apartment. The time is now 5:45. The sun is going down. Allen receives another phone call. The driver is waiting at the gate in a yellow mini-van Allen tells us. We walk back to the gate and we tell Allen that the mini-van is white not yellow.

The five of us pile into the van. Miko and Allen sit in the very back; Max and I sit in the middle section; Birdflu Carrier rides shotgun. We make our way through downtown Songjiang and drive along the edge of Shanghai onto the turnpike. By now it is dark outside. As we drive along the turnpike, I gaze out the window and daydream. At times, I feel as if I could be on the outskirts of Dallas or Kansas City or St. Louis. Sprawling two story houses dot the landscape. I curiously look in lighted windows. All I see are stairways and sunrooms.

For most of the trip, the students are listening to an assortment of mp3 players. Max offers me an earpiece. I listen for a bit but we are sitting too far apart (in bucket seats) so I give him back the earpiece after a couple of boyband songs which I think I may recognize as Backstreet Boys. Somebody hits my shoulder. I turn around. Allen and Miko try to look innocent. My money is on Miko. I then ask Max if he has ever had horse bite.
"A wha?" He always drops the 't' when he says what.
"A horsebite." I try to make it sound as appealing as possible. Then I whinny like a horse and gnash my teeth to illustrate horse and bite. He shakes his head enthusiastically. He is probably thinking I am going to show him some secret cowboy handshake. (No, I'm not taking him to Brokeback Mountain, he's a minor for Christsakes!) I then grab a handful of the fleshy part of the back of his leg and give it a good twist. He jumps straight up out of his chair and lets out a yelp and starts laughing. Allen and Miko go into hysterics, they are laughing so hard. Birdflu turns around and gives us all authoritarian disapproval stares. I point to Miko and Allen like they started it.

We finally hit Wuxi which might be China's answer to Las Vegas or Reno. It is a city of lights. I am really excited. Most of what we drive past seems to be fairly new, perhaps built within the last 10 years. During the course of the weekend, I learn that many international companies such as Volkswagen have plants or at least corporate offices in Wuxi because it is cheaper than being in Shanghai but it is close enough to Shanghai to still be convenient. Thus, an assortment of restaurants representing world cuisine now thrive in this smaller sized Chinese city of 2 million.

We finally make it to the hotel. The driver pulls up across the street from the hotel. The hotel, the Ang Li, is a high rise on a bustling street. We park in front of what seems to be a downtown mall. Everyone hops out of the van and gets their bags from the back. Birdflu Carrier and I are last to retrieve ours.

The students charge across the street without looking. I am somewhat amazed one of them did not become pigeon food. The streets here are nuts (and I say that coming directly from New York City). Birdflu and I always say a prayer before and after we cross a busy steet in this land of upside down, lopsided traffic laws. The rule seems to be if you honk enough it is legal to drive through red lights and the faster the better. Pedestrians have no rights. Since we are crossing in the middle of the road and not at a light, I take a deep breath and decide to lead. Birdflu is following. An Audi whizzes past. I turn around to see Birdflu flying through the air. No, the Audi could not have hit her because she is behind me and the Audi was in front. She looks as if she is perfecting an Australian Aborigine swan dive. She is not quite as agile as Greg Louganis but she looks pretty good, except, of course, for the stricken look on her face.

I then think maybe someone pushed her. This is really not the time to stop and talk about it because we are only halfway across what I am starting to think is China's Indy 500. Just to cross one fricking street is a major deal. Within a few minutes of arriving at our destination, we already look wartorn. Birdflu limps the rest of the way across the road. When we are safely across, I look back to to see if I can spot what tripped Birdflu who by this time is standing by my side. For the first time, I have this familial feeling toward her. I ask her if she is okay. She says she may be a little sore in the morning. I tell her I am sorry for her. I feel guilty that I have been calling her Birdflu and Birdflu Carrier and Miss Birdflu 2006. I feel guilty that when someone the other day inquired about the best way to track her down I replied "Just follow the cough." I vowed to treat her better the rest of the trip. I would no longer call her any of the nicknames I had created for her.

I then saw what downed her. She had tripped on a wrapped cable that ran the length of the road. We never think to look at the ground when me make these death defying street crossings. The rest of the trip, of course, anytime I saw anything - gravel, sticks, uneven pavement, cups, candy bar wrappers, small children - that might interupt Audabon Influenza's gait, I mentioned it.

We then stumbled in to the hotel to meet Allen's grandfather.


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