Wednesday, May 31, 2006

From me to You…Sex is over

Today is my first time to teach the 7:45 am class that was loaded onto me. In a panic, I wake up. I am afraid I am late. I look at the clock. The alarm did not ring. The time is 7:35. I have ten minutes to brush my teeth, throw on my clothes and run to the garden. I rush into the bathroom. Once I am somewhat awake, I look back at the clock. I misread the time. The clock reads 6:37. I look to make sure that the alarm is set and I lay back down. I cannot sleep.

At 7 am, I get up. I make coffee. I eat a crescent with my coffee. I do not shower. I intend to shower after class. I toast some raisin bread. I have the raisin bread and pour a second cup of coffee. The time is 7:40. I lock my door and look out the foyer window. I see Tess. She sees me. We wave. She walks toward my apartment. I run down to meet her. We walk to the garden.

We see Max coming from the other direction. I ask where Miko is. Tess tries to call her. The bell rings. Miko is not there. I tell them it will mean a letter grade for Miko. Tess’s phone rings. Tess has a heated Chinese conversation with Miko. I add ‘Yeah, Yeah Yeah’ while Tess is talking.

Tess gets off the phone. She tells us Miko thought we were meeting in the classroom and then walking to the garden. I tell her that is excusable but then I think that Miko may be saying that she is in the classroom and might really be at the dormitory. Since I have some trust issues with Miko, I go to a spot where I can see which way she is coming from: the gate that leads to the dorm; or the sidewalk which leads to the school. I wait for a few minutes. I am starting to think she must be coming from the dorm but then I see her walking. She does not see me. She is coming from the direction of the classroom. This makes me feel good. I feel so good in fact that I tell them after tomorrow, this class will be conducted using the sleep therapy method. They ask me what the sleep therapy method is. I tell them this is when you sleep and dream in English. They ask me if this is something we do in the garden. I tell them this is independent study they do in the dorms instead of coming to the garden to class.

As we are leaving the garden, after class, I am walking behind Max. I absolutely cannot help giving him a swift kick in the butt. Miko and Tess of course laugh uncontrollably. Max exclaims.

I go home and prepare for Class 7.

Class 7, Bill always comes in late for the eye exercises. He is an adorable bad boy. I love to be the stock-teacher authoritarian with him. Today, I brought my new cheap guitar into class. Bill and a friend come in as the eye exercise is ending. I tell the class that Bill will be the song leader. He does not understand. He does not know I am talking about him. Maybe he has forgotten that he has taken ‘Bill’ as his English name. I tell them I will play a couple of songs and then we will learn a song.

I play ‘Feel Like a Drugstore’ first. Fortunately, they are not fluent in English so it is not really inappropriate because of that, I tell myself. As I play, the students all attentively watch. Bill sits at the back of the class. He puts on his glasses at one point and then takes them off. He does not want anyone to mistake him for a bookworm. The class claps enthusiastically when I finish. I feel as if I am in a movie, again.

I launch into ‘Savior Boyfriend Collides.’ Most of the class is attentive. Bill, however, starts talking to his neighbor. His neighbor seems annoyed. If he was a sweathog he would be Barbarino. Something about his movie star bad-boy-ness makes him endearing. When dealing with him I am Mr. Hand. He is Spicoli. This is the Chinese Ridgemont High. If a delivery boy were to bring noodles to him, I would not be surprised. I finish the song. Everyone claps.

During the eye exercises, I wrote the words to the Beatles’ ‘From me to you’ on the board. I tell the class we are now going to learn a Beatles song. For the last few nights I have been practicing this song which is full of strange chords of which I seldom play like C7s and D7s. After too many years of playing guitar, I struggle through the song each time I play it when I am practicing.

Since I am Mr. Hand and Bill is Spicoli. I tell Bill he is going to help me lead the class in the song. This time, since the whole class is looking at him, he knows that I am talking about him. He tries to duck down at his desk. The whole class claps. Everyone wants him to help lead the class in song. He protests. The class claps louder and cheers. He loves the attention as much as he hates the attention. He is John Travolta, James Dean, Bruce Lee.

He says as he points to the person sitting in front of him “Front friend must help.”

I say sure. He gets up and manhandles his friend into getting up. His friend wants to kill him. They drag each other to the front of the room. I am not sure who is dragging whom. Bill hits his friend on the ass several times as they are making their way to the front of the room. His friend giggles each time. During the other songs, I sat on the front desk and played but if I do that now, I will be blocking the lyrics on the board. I go over to a shy student’s desk and ask her if I can sit on her desk to play. She says yes and scoots over to the empty seat next to her which is fortunate that there was an empty seat. Usually, these classes have no empty seats.

I explain what a verse is. I tell them I will sing the first verse and then we will all sing the first verse. I sing it a couple of times and then I give them the count and…nothing. I tell them maybe the first half of the verse. I sing it a couple of times again. I give them the count and nothing. I look over at Bill and his friend. They are standing in front of the board and Bill is actually reading the words. This, I feel is some sort of breakthrough because he loves to be the bad boy. Maybe Mr. Hand wins a few. Maybe I am that annoying character that Robin Williams always plays in the movies.

Okay, I sing “If there’s anything I can do” a couple of times. I give the class the count and approximately half of the class attempt to sing it. I tell them very good and I do it again. More students sing. I do it again. More students sing. Occasionally, I look behind me at Bill and his friend. They are such boys. They take turns hitting and kicking each other. I tell Bill not to slug his helper. I know he does not understand me. I then tell him he may beat his helper while I am not looking. No one understands me. I am simply amusing myself.

We make what seems like excruciatingly slow progress with the song. This song is not even two minutes long. Right as I sing the first part of the chorus the bell rings. I tell them I will see them in a week.

Logan is leaving the company. Logan, I have not talked much about. He and the Sofa Negotiator share responsibilities when it comes to helping the foreign teachers. However, often Logan is at the Pudong office so he is not around. However, the first day I got to China he took me to eat and to grocery shop. His English is as good as or better than the Sofa Negotiator’s.

We are set to go to the IBC Coffee shop with him for dinner at six. Annie, however, has to go back in to Shanghai so we are to meet at 5:10 at the international building. Jennifer knocks on my door at 4:45. I ask her if she is ready to go over to meet everyone. She tells me know one told her about the time change. She has to put on her make-up. I tell her we will stop by and get her when we leave the school. On the way to the international building, I bump into Bird Flu. Logan has not arrived. They are waiting for him. She is going back to her apartment to drop off her lessons. She just finished teaching. I tell her Jennifer is there at her apartment. I will let them know when we are ready to go.

At the international building, I ask Jessie why we are waiting. She says we are waiting for Logan. I assume that Logan is still in Shanghai. The students want to play video games when we go downtown. (We found a new place that has a lot of video games, the driving and shooting kinds for the most part. Most of them even work properly. The new place is on the third floor above a huge shoe store. The first time I went, I was reminded of Bartlesville’s ‘Small World’ a two story foosball and pinball game center in downtown Bartlesville. ‘Small World’ moved into the space vacated by the sadly lamented ‘Larceny Whipsnake’s Music Parlor’ – where I bought The Dolls ‘In Too Much Too Soon,’ White Witch ‘Spiritual Greeting’ and the first Lucifer’s Friend record with the song ‘In the time of Job when Mammoth was a Yippee’)

I have tokens at my apartment. I tell them I am going back to my apartment. They do not know I have tokens left from the other day. Max and Tess got suckered by the game in which you put tokens into a machine which shoves tokens out like a slot machine if your token lands in the right spot. I was not fooled. I saved the eight tokens I had left. I go back to my apartment to get the tokens which they do not know I have.

Bird Flu is a flutter because the plans are not going according to plan. Now that we are waiting, we are not leaving at when we had originally changed the plan to leave. I ask her what she wants me to do about it. She wants me to call Logan and the Sofa Negotiator and find out specifics. I call Logan. No answer. I call the Sofa Negotiator. She tells me we are waiting on Logan because we are not going to the coffee place, we are going somewhere different. She tells me she will call when Logan arrives. Logan calls; he is in the international building elevator. I tell him thank you I will tell Maureen. The Sofa Negotiator calls. She tells me Logan has just arrived. He tells her he just called me. She tells me Nancy – the Carroll Burnett as a Ditzy Chinese secretary character – has gone back to her dormitory. We are now waiting for her. I knock on Jennifer’s door and tell her. She tells me that Bird Flu walked back to the international building because she was about to blow a gasket. Jennifer told her to go and that it would be a good idea for her to go back. Please go back.

I wait in my apartment for Logan to call back. Fifteen minutes later, Logan calls back. They are all in the elevator on their way. I tell Jennifer they are coming. I come back to my apartment to lock up. Through the apartment building foyer window, I see them walking across the quadrant. Tess and Miko see me see them and wave. I tell Jennifer they are coming. Jennifer, who always takes a few minutes more, cannot find her keys. I tell her they are in her front door. I point to her and say that I will blame our tardiness on her when Miko teases us. We both then laugh because Miko – when she makes it to class at all – is often late.

We all head toward downtown Songjiang. We go into the middle of Songjiang where there is a pedestrian mall – which of course includes bikes, scooters, and (occasional) cars and mini-vans. We find a family-style restaurant. The ten of us are ushered upstairs to a small room of our own with a big round table. Logan orders. The food starts coming. Jennifer asks what spicy beef dish it is that I like. I tell her the beef with pepper which he then orders. At this point, I know what to avoid. Many of the foods I avoid are absent. We are not brought chicken soup (as you know, with the whole chicken, heads, feet, neck, everything). We have a duck stew. I grab a piece. Tess tells me I grabbed the neck. I put it on her plate and tell her she may have it.

I overhear the cooks –which the kitchen seems to be right behind our room - and servers shouting one phrase over and over. I ask Tess what it means. ‘G’ma’ which sounds a bit like saying ‘c’mon’. She tells me it translates into ‘what are you doing’. I interject “Like ‘What’s the deal’.” She says ‘Yeah, Yeah.’ All of the students say ‘Yeah, Yeah’ now. Occasionally during the meal, at what I felt was the appropriate moment I say ‘G’ma’ which sends Nancy (Carroll Burnett secretary character) into laughing fits.

Shrimp, mainly because it is always looking at you here, I have started to abstain from eating. Jennifer is still quite courageous in her shrimp eating. Tonight, she has a whole pile of the discarded parts on her plate. The last shrimp she grabs spurts blood.
“I’m done with shrimp” she announces.

The bill arrives; everyone pitches in 28.50 RMB which is less than $4 apiece for a huge meal. Logan, of course, does not pay since the dinner is in his honor.

After dinner, Tess, Miko and I go shopping. Lots of cheap summer clothes fill the shops. I try on a golf shirt. Miko tells me we should look at the clothes at the other stores first. I tell her that is a good idea. She repeats “Good Idea.” At another shop I see a brightly colored button up shirt that has John Lennon’s head printed in the middle on the back. Around the head in block letters is the slogan “SEX IS OVER.” This at first took me off guard. ‘Sex is over.’ I then thought of his Christmas song ‘War is Over.’ Was this some sort of Freudian veiled reference? Now that he is a spirit, does this mean he does not have sex? Or simply is sex old hat? Over!

I mulled this over as Miko, Tess and I rode in a bicycle powered rickshaw back to the school. Sex is over.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shanghai90210 in a world with No Nirvana...or Coffee and Toast in a Chinese Garden

This morning, when I walked into the Shanghai 90210’s oral English and conversation class, I actually laid down the law to some extent. I told them I am pissed that I have to teach at 7:45 two days a week because they made it very to Maureen who made it very clear to Edgar they do not have enough to do. Jennifer teaches Monday and Tuesday at 7:45 am. She told me that Max is the only one that is not late. Armed with this information, I let them know that if they are late even once it means a letter grade for them. Yes, I am hardcore.

Over and over, I asked them if they understood me. They told me yes. Allen, however, tells me that she does not have the early class with them. She has a different teacher at that time in the morning. I told her she is lucky because I am everything but fun at such an ungodly hour in the morning.

In the old days, at that time in the morning, I would be taking stock of the damage to my apartment. If it had been a good night, I would have some holes in the wall, pop bottle rocket afterburn on the carpet, candles melted to Joni Mitchell album covers, and vomit in the kitchen sink to show for it. And, at least a few people would be walking around with their pants down around their knees, or completely off. Now, I am in Songjiang, a district of China, lecturing students on the importance of studying.

At that point, of course, I demonstrated on Max what I would do to Miko if she was late. Miko seemed nonplussed that I put Max in a headlock. Max exclaimed in Chinese. Tess said ‘No Chinese! English Class!’ (The other day, I played the soft punch game with Max. I told him we were going to see who could punch the softest. I let him go first. I then slugged him rather hard in the arm and told him he won. He laughed and rubbed his arm and socked me back. I feel like I am handing down games to another generation that my brothers taught me. Yes, I am a humanitarian.)

After I rode the do-not-be-late horse into the ground, I told them I had been told that they will be taking their IELTS tests in the fall and I asked them where they thought they might go to college. Miko and Tess are going to go to New York. Max is going to Australia. Absolutely, I do not want to foil their plans but I let them know what they have in store if they hope to go to a predominantly English speaking country to university in which they are not fluent in the language. They are by no means fluent in English.

Miko, who at times can be to cool for school, actually listened to what I had to say. She would like to go to art school. She is an artistic person. I told her she should definitely go to art school.

I wrote ‘discourage’ on the board and I told them I did not want to discourage them. However, I tried to explain what a difficult challenge they will soon face. I wrote ‘5 times’ on the board and told them international students going to university in New York may have to take my English 99 – or an English 99 class – five times before they were equipped to go into English 101.

I then wrote ‘Certified ACT reader’ on the board. I explained the ACT and told them I am a certified ACT reader. Since I am an ACT reader, I have a good idea what separates an English 99 student from an English 101 student. Obviously, it would be in their best interest to start preparing for the ACT exam pronto.

Miko then said that she would like to be an agent for famous people. She then said she would like to represent me. I told her that I need a manager. I, then, wrote ‘15%’ on the board. I told her that is how much she would get of my take if she got me gigs. I wrote ‘5000’ on the board. She asked ‘dollars’? I replied ‘yuan’. Tess figured it out. Miko would make 800 yuan ($100) if she got me a gig for 5000 yuan. I then told her imagine how much she would make if she got me a gig every night. She started rubbing her hands.

I then told her she could start amassing clients when she starts college. One of my friends who represented me at one time represented Nirvana at one point, I told them. They had never heard of Nirvana. I sang a little bit of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit.’ Blank faces.

Earlier, on my way out the door to go to the Shanghai 90210 oral English and conversation class, I bumped into the elusive cleaning lady. At first, I tried to tell her to clean my place tomorrow. I pointed to Wednesday on my newly printed new schedule. I realized that meant nothing to her since it is in English. She did the familiar door-was-locked pantomime. I walked back up to my apartment and unlocked the door. I then started off for class again. I then went back up and put the cleaning supplies out in the open from behind the kitchen door.

The bell rang. I went on to class 3. They had an announcement instead of the eye exercises today. We finished watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ which for the last three weeks, my oral public school classes have been watching. Off and on, for the last three weeks, I have tried to explain the cultural significance of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but this has fallen on deaf ears as in there is no point of reference for these youngsters. I write ‘Pink Floyd’ and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘1973’ on the board. I write ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘1939’on the board. I tell them sometime in the 1990s – I actually write ‘1995’ on the board – a university student realized you could listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ while you watched ‘Wizard of Oz’ and it gave it a new meaning which made the movie and the album popular again. Blank faces…again. I would like to explain midnight movies, ‘Rocky Horror,’ Burt Reynolds, but I know I can’t.

I come home for lunch and a clean apartment. The floors are still wet so I walk to the new grocery store which I just discovered last week. I buy apples and four slices of wheat bread (the way it is packaged in the bakery department). I come home and have a ham (with a Chinese aftertaste to it) sandwich with apples sliced thinly and put in between the mayonnaise and the ham. I drink a Pepsi.

The speaker system is class 11 sucks so I bundle up my kicking Hyundai computer speakers and take them to class with me. J helps me install them. He named himself after the Asian rapper who is so popular. As we are hooking up the speakers, J’s classmates move their desks. Everyone moves their desk over one. The people nearest the window slide their desks all the way to the other side of the room to the wall with the doors. I think of claymation while they are doing this. They do it quite noisily and the whole process is unorganized. I am not sure why they do not just move their books from the desks to new desks. This makes more sense to me. Of course, they have never heard Husker Du, the Pixies, Foghat.

Jo - the old fussy Australian who sometimes jiggles my door because she has forgotten we switched apartments – rang Maureen and asked her who told Edgar the students had nothing to do. Flu Screw seemed quite pleased with herself that she had added unnecessary work for everyone. I am not pleased that I now have to conduct class at 7:45 in the morning. The class will be held in the garden. I am bring coffee and toast.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Moo Flu Gai Pan…or How to add more classes without thinking

Thanks to Bird Flu, two 7:45 am classes have been added to my schedule. Okay, I promised I would no longer call Maureen ‘Bird Flu’ but she certainly likes to squawk so until further notice ‘Bird Flu’ is her name. A month or so ago, Miss Flu noticed that in the evening, the Shanghai 90210 watch Japanimation DVDs when they are supposed to be studying. Their classroom is conveniently equipped with a DVD player and a big screen TV. Sherlock Flu runs and tells me. I tell her I will assign more homework. I do not. Instead, I tell the Shanghai 90210 - something I either was told by a co-worker many years ago or maybe something that Chevy Chase said in Caddyshack – ‘If you are not busy, look busy. If you are watching a DVD, do not say you finished your homework. Say you are taking a break. And for Christsakes never say you have nothing to do or you will have a pile of busy work piled on you.’ I told them this was not their teacher talking but just a person.

Of course, the Shanghai 90210 keep watching these DVDs during the time they are supposed to be studying. Maureen spots them countless times watching DVD. She seems to think it’s a crime against humanity. She is a broken record. She needs to get herself a nice Chinese boyfriend. She hates Chinese men. On the cruise anytime she disappeared, I would tell Jennifer, Maureen was getting some action. Jennifer and I thought this was the most amusing thing ever. Sometimes we would tease Maureen about it. She was not amused.

I am of the school of thought that it is the student’s responsibility to study. They are the ones going to the United States and Australia to university. Yes, their English is poor. Yes, when they do go to an English speaking country they will struggle. Nevertheless, I cannot convince them of this. They have to learn it the hard way.

Miss Squawker must squawk. She loves to squawk. She finally had an audience who would listen when she saw Edgar - who says he is Australian but he is Chinese - on
Friday when he came to Songjiang.

Edgar is our boss. In Anji, I crapped on Edgar’s Chinese name when I tried to pronounce it when I emceed the speech contest not knowing that it was him. Edgar is a business man. Edgar does not like to hear about problems. When he hears about problems, he speedily comes up with a solution. His speedy solutions are speedy not necessarily efficient.

Today, Elizabeth – my boss who I actually really like – held an emergency staff meeting regarding the Shanghai 90210. These meetings are excruciating because usually they last for hours for no good reason. The meeting had to do with the Shanghai 90210 schedule.

Elizabeth had heard the students were watching DVDs and did not have enough schoolwork to do. To fill in the time, she had been told by Edgar to give them 10 additional hours of class a week. Jennifer, Maureen and I were to split these classes.

As I stated, I do like Elizabeth. She is a fair boss. She understands. I do not blame her. She was told by Edgar to do something. We had originally set the meeting for 4 pm but Jennifer was no where to be found so we rescheduled the meeting for 5 pm. At 5 pm, Jennifer was still not around.

In the huge conference room that could easily accommodate 25 people, Maureen, Elizabeth and I had our meeting. The conference room is depressing in that way that implies the school is struggling. It reminds me of a conference room in a failed dotcom. The most we have ever had at a meeting in the conference room is five people. With three people, the room seems even more in command as if we are trespassers and the actual board members will walk in at anytime and kick us out.

Before Elizabeth gives us the new schedule, she tells us that the students are to take their IELTS tests in the fall. We were under the impression that this would happen a year from now. The other teachers and I agree that the students are not ready to take this test and they will not be ready in the fall. The test is for much more advanced English students. We are afraid this will just set them up for failure. I wish we would have told Elizabeth something along these lines. Instead, we tell her we will do what we can.

I tell her I adore the students (which I do.) However, the students lack the motivation to learn. An inherent problem (which some Chinese students overcome) is they have no brothers or sisters. I do like all of them, but, Allen – who is definitely the most spoiled – is spoiled because her parents and grandparents cater to her whims. From what I have been told, this is the third school in which she has been enrolled.

My input into the dialogue at the meeting: I tell Elizabeth that they must be told by their parents that they must buckle down and study. We, as teachers, can only do so much but we cannot help them if they do not want to be helped. Their parents must be the ones to assert the authority because after all we are just teachers.

Elizabeth passes out our new schedules. Wednesday and Thursday, the Shanghai 90210 are in my care at 7:45 am. These classes I will conduct in the garden. They may wear their pajamas if they would like. Elizabeth asks me if this is okay. I tell her, no problem. I do not tell her these will be garden pajama classes. I start getting hungry.

Flu Flu starts yammering about the Songjiang weekend. She is one of the most precocious people I have ever met. If she knows she has an audience, she talks about everything elaborately and in the most annoying voice. What is the biggest pain in the ass is that usually what she has to say is criminally boring (to rob a phrase from ‘How Soon is Now’).

This weekend, a couple of the Songjiang public school students invited us to come along for a community event. I had heard rumor of this and I had been told we would be picked up at 8 am. I did not plan to attend. However, Jennifer called me on my cell phone and told me that the two public school students wanted to speak to me personally. I thought ‘oh god I really don’t want to do this’. They asked if we could talk in person. I told them I would come over to the international building.

I met with them, a girl and a boy. The girl - English name Cindy who I thought was Stephanie - had shared a cab with me after the trip to Anji. The bus let us off at the toll gate exit for Songjiang and she and I took a cab together back to school. This was something akin to a scene from a Jim Jarmusch film. Both of us were silent during the cab ride.

She asks me if I remember her. I tell her I do. She tells me they would like to have foreign teachers come to their community event at the community center in Songjiang. I tell her I hate to get up early on Saturday. Bird Flu interjects that we will be picked up at 8:40 am instead of 8:00 am. I feel like a dick. I can’t say no. I tell her and her friend who I later find out his name is Ding – English name Dean – I will be there. They both shake my hand. I try not to shoot Flu Moo a dirty look.

The night before the event, Friday night, I told myself I would strangle Flu Moo if she knocked on my door the next morning at 8 to see if I was up and getting ready. I did not plan to get up until 8:30 am. At that time, I would put my shoes and pants on and go.

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 8:00 am wide awake. I made some tea and toast. At 8:30, Flu Moo knocks on my door. The taxi is down stairs waiting for us. In China, everyone arrives early. When they arrive early, they act as if you are ill-prepared if you are not ready. Fortunately, I was ready. We go to the community center.

Once we get there, we are paraded around to see all of the crafts which are being crafted. The event is to bring attention to crafts which are disappearing because the craftsmen are aging. Ding leads me around. The volunteers have these really cool red baseball caps on with a fist (or maybe it’s a heart – hard to tell really) with Chinese characters around it. I really want one. Moo Flu says I should ask for a hat. I do just that. Cindy (who I called Stephanie repeatedly) nabs a hat for me. I put it on. I am interviewed by students with cameras. “How do I like Chinese Culture.” “What do I think of their event?” “Why did I come to China?” “Am I cut or uncut?”

On the steps of the community center, two teenagers played some violin like instruments which were native instruments. At one point, they really started cooking. I thought they might speed off into ‘The Devil went down to Georgia.’ They did not.

Some little kids were making animals and such from Play-Doh or the Chinese equivalent. I was not sure how this was a traditional art but I thought who am I to lay claim on what is traditional and what is not. New arrivals go to the rear. Cindy asked me if I would like to make a clay figure. No, I would rather not but I thought that her asking me meant they would like me to so they could take photos of their exhibit mingling with the customers.

The little girl – who fortunately had a translator because she gave me the directions in Chinese – asked me to make a fish. I set off to make the craziest Gumby inspired fish I could muster. I picked out a flesh color from which to create the fish. Yes, I felt a bit godlike.

Halfway through my Michelangelo like creation, the translator told me the little girl was going to show me how to make a fish. Oops. Not wanting to be culturally retarded, I smashed what I had molded into a ball and watched the little girl. As time went on, she seemed a bit exasperated with me because her fish had that clay fish perfection. My fish, after I added two rudders which I was instructed to do, looked an awful lot like a shriveled up penis with two flat rudder balls. Maybe I should not have picked the flesh color Chinese Play-Doh.

Yes, that was my day at the cultural downtown event. I really did not want to stay for another 45 minutes at this already hour plus meeting and listen to Bird Flu tell some inane story when my stomach was howling. I did not have much in the way of lunch today. It seems I inadvertently ordered pigeon or something that looked a whole lot like pigeon once it went from the pan to my plate.

Which reminds me: I would like to elaborate on my conundrum with McDonalds. Actually it is not a conundrum it is a love / hate hate relationship. Where I live, I cannot get tacos, pasta, hamburgers, sandwiches. When I go to the grocer, I cannot find the items to make tacos, pasta, hamburgers. The available cheese is the kind in packs that looks like the Kraft individual slices but is just processed margarine - from what I can tell and taste. Mustard is uncommon here. When I walk down the aisles at the store, I seem to run across aisles and aisles of soy sauce and adult milk powder. It is like a hidden camera is always following me. The viewers will love my expression when I come across the dried fish jerky, the whole chicken or goose (with head intact) in the deli section.

What I can get is rice, a lot of it. As a matter of fact, the Chinese word for food and for rice is one and the same. I can get dumplings everywhere which was great for a month but imagine eating dumplings every day. I have had it with eggs and stewed cucumbers, eggs with stewed tomatoes, hot noodles that sometimes taste like they are seasoned with ammonia or mop water or both.

Here, in Songjiang, a district of Shanghai, McDonalds is the only semblance of Western food. Yes, there is KFC and Pizza Hut but Pizza Hut is actually expensive and KFC is, well, KFC. If I was in the United States, I could go the rest of my life without McDonalds. I could get a hamburger or even a veggie burger somewhere else. McDonalds is the only place where you can get a burger here. I know it seems like it is not a big deal and it is not. I might not eat it that often. Nevertheless, on Friday, when I ate McDonalds, I did really enjoy it. If possible, I will stay clear but I cannot promise that I will.

Tonight for supper, I ate sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo. I would love to have fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy and biscuits, a steak with a baked potato, a Murphy’s hot hamburger, Dink’s barbeque, Van’s barbeque, Chelleno’s, Two Pesos, Bill’s Chilli. For the next year, I will have dumplings…and rice, lots of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

No slushy machines, No big gulps

At dusk, men on three wheeled bikes with bike bells as big as cowbells ring their bells as they pedal down the bike lane of Songjiang’s main street. Someone told me they ring the bells to remind the residents to turn off the propane valves that go to their cook stoves. The bikes are basically oversized tricycles with a place behind the seat to put things such as discarded lumber, mangled traffic cones, old bicycle, scooter, and car tires. At night the women ride their scooters in their pajamas and slippers.

An All Days is across from the school. I go there nightly to get items such as M&Ms, muffins, milk, dried green tea. Sure, it is like a 7/11 with no mustard or cheese products. They have Pepsi, Sprite, Coke but not Dr. Pepper. At the counter, corn on the cob and chicken on a stick stews in a crockpot. There is no slushy machine, no soda fountain so no big gulp. The only place that I have found ice is KFC and McDonalds. At home, I make my own ice trays with plastic disposable muffin packages.

McDonalds, I finally broke down and went after a year’s moratorium on the quarter pounder with cheese. When I was 16 years old, I could eat - actually I did eat - 4 quarter pounders in one night of cruising McDonalds which is what we used to do at that age in our Datsun B210s, Dodge Darts and the family station wagons – 1960s Chevrolets seemed to be the most popular. If a song like ‘Boogie Nights’ by Heatwave came on the radio, of course we would turn it up. This was when most of us teenagers only had AM radios in our cars. Cassette players were expensive; something that we would save up for and would stop working shortly after we saved up for them.

There is a McDonalds in downtown Songjiang. Mentioning how it differs from American McDonalds would be really no easier than describing how China differs from America. Today, as I was walking in a market of cheap Chinese goods the smell reminded me of Kress and Ben Franklin from my childhood. Sometimes, it’s as if the forces that created modern China stepped into a dimension which held 1970s America and they recreated it and modernized it a bit and it is the China of today.

As I said, I have not had a McDonalds’ cheeseburger in over a year. The last time I had McDonalds, I was drunk. Anthony picked up a bag of cheeseburgers at the McDonalds on 14th and brought them to Steve’s and Paige’s apartment. I ate two of the cheeseburgers and did not enjoy them. After that, I decided if McDonalds went from being one of my favorite places to eat (25 years or so ago) to a place which I found to be disgusting and just tasteless - in that my hamburger (billionth sold) failed to have a taste, I would no longer eat there. Of course, I could get all politically correct about it but I would rather not. (Because at this moment as I am eating M&Ms which are probably put into the packages by underage gypsy boys who work 17 hours a day for 3 kuai, I know parts of my life are probably inadvertently not politically correct.) So more than anything, I stopped going to McDonalds because the quality slid down down down in the last twenty years or so. Or maybe my tastes have become more discretionary. After all, I do not eat chicken foot soup, or pigeon.

Flashback to the afternoon of the McDonalds’ cheeseburgular: I am at my table waiting for my cheeseburger which I had to order by the picture. The clerk, however, does know some English. She asks me if I would like a ‘middle’ coke. I tell her yes. I give her the money, she gives me my coke. I start sipping on my coke. She told me there would be a short wait for my food which is a good sign. That must mean it will be hot.

I am starting to get that adolescent food excitement. The sort of excitement I would get when my mother and I would go to Murphy’s Steakhouse or Furrs’ Cafeteria. She would ask me about my day as we would wait for our food at Murphy’s or as we would start eating our food at Furr’s. Furr’s would always be a bit of a letdown once I took the first bite of the roast beef or the ground sirloin with mushroom au jus. I would always hope for cold English pea salad instead of one at room temperature

Murphy’s however could never go wrong with their hot hamburgers - I always try to make it there when I am in Bartlesville. The Murphy’s Hot Hamburger – maybe one of my favorite things in the world - is a piece of toast, a beef patty, brown gravy over that, French fries on top of the gravy and then a healthy dollop of Heinz Catsup over the whole thing, washed down with a coke of course. I almost feel guilty saying how much I love it. I love sushi too but I really love the Murphy’s hot hamburgers.

In another dimension, I would be a Bartlesville townie with a mini-van and a 401k. In the dimension in which I reside, I am sitting in a McDonalds in downtown Songjiang, a district of Shanghai. Of course, I am the only Westerner in the place. Customers who are leaving to go into the attached jewelry store stop and look over my shoulder - in a comically obtrusive Carol Burnett skit manner – to see what I am writing. Personal space does not exist here. As usual, I am an oddity in the world’s most famous American eatery.

My cheeseburger which I was hoping was a quarter pounder but is in fact a small cheeseburger, comes with the order of medium fries. Part of me hopes that I will take a bite and want to gag because it is so bad. Do I love being a masochist? I take the bite and I am surprised, very surprised. I want to sing. I want to sing the praises of McDonalds. I want to kiss the Grimace and Mayor McCheese. I am willing to blow Ronald. I debate getting another one. I do not. I debate eating McDonalds once a day. I will not. The French fries are hot and perfect. The cheeseburger is just as I remember the McDonalds cheeseburgers of my youth.

As I am eating, a thought comes over me, a dark thought, a thought I am somewhat afraid to think but I must think. I have not had McDonalds in a year. Now, we are united like old pals taking off right where we left off when I still loved this squanderer of the earth, this behemoth which I believe paved the way for the other behemoths like Wal-Mart and Home Depot . I am telling myself, ‘okay, I can eat McDonalds once a week. I am in China.’

Yes, that sounds fair but will my other long lost friend come to call. Will he come knocking like a trickster? I have seen him around town. I look his way but then I quickly look away. I do not want to flirt with this. I have come too far. I do not want to slide back down to where I was. Or even to a worse place, a place where dimly lit smoke filled Chinese speakeasys decorate my daytime.

At All Days, I see all of the Chinese beer sitting as singles in the cooler. On hot days, I love a Tsing Tao. But I know I cannot. I must not. I will not. Getting re-hooked on McDonalds does not automatically mean it will lead to harder things. In the kitchen, I make myself a nice cup of green tea.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Last Day on the Yangtze or the Expectation Days are Over

This is our last day on the cruise. Jennifer and I have become good friends with Bruce who we bumped into among the trinket and food stalls in front of the temple. This is the last temple that we will see on this cruise. He bargains for tea-testers for me – the ceramic figures that pee when you pour water over their heads. I am struck by white porcelain Buddha boys. I would like to have multiples of this particular tea-tester. He bargains the seller down to 6 figurines for 10 yuan – 4 or which are the porcelain Buddha boys.

Jennifer haggles with a woman over three pairs of baby slippers. These slippers are red Chinese lions which are hand stitched together. They are simplistic but nice. The woman is adamant. She will not budge from 20 yuan a pair for the slippers. Bruce tries to help bargain. The woman will still not budge. I do not want to be a pushover but I tell Jennifer 20 yuan is only $2.50 when you think about it. For something handmade for a baby, I think this is a good deal. She got money out of the ATM last night for the clothes so she pulls out 100 rmb and gives it to the woman. The woman smiles and says a few Chinese phrases and hands Jennifer her 40 rmb change.

Bruce tells us they charged him two yuan to get off of the boat. We tell him that we went through a different gate. We realize we went through the ship entrance gate instead of the ship exit gate. For once going the wrong way paid off.

He asks us if we are hungry. I say that I would like a steamed bun which I saw being sold at one of the food stalls. I do not tell him that I stood there like an idiot trying to get one before I bumped into Jennifer - and then him.

We walk back to where I was. He gets me two steamed buns for one yuan - which is like 6 cents a piece.

We walk back to the ship. Jennifer tells me that the cruise has been nice but she has not had any sort of epiphany. I tell her I did not expect anything so I am happy. She does not want me to feel bad. I really had absolutely no expectations. Maybe my expectation days are over, maybe not. Here, however, I have to add a note of sorts. And, I feel as if I must digress from the trip on the Yangtze. Bear with me.

If I write my expectation days are over, I realize that may be read out of context or with the wrong translation. Maybe this has to do with being older and wiser or maybe it is my own epiphany (for lack of a better word). I stop and think how different my life could be in good and bad ways. Mainly, I think of how my life could be much worse. I could wake up from this dream of China chained to a desk staring at a computer all day. I would not know Bizmark, Orange, 28if Paul, the Sofa Negotiator.

There would be no Shanghai 90210. I cannot imagine life without Shanghai 90210. My pal Max would not exist. Miko would not exist. Tess would not exist. Allen would not exist. My office world would have no place for them. I would be talking about 401ks and the Apprentice. Must see TV would be their possible replacement. Maybe I would buy magazines and read about Brad and Angelina. Odd sorts of things would not tend to happen (okay who am I kidding, nothing but odd sorts of things happen to me). Nevertheless, the stranger who made me take his umbrella last week because I did not have one, that scene would not have taken place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.

I would not be having a good time at Allen’s parent’s apartment. Allen’s golden retriever Star would not be licking my hand. I would not be telling Max that Star will not hurt him. Max says “Protect me Tyson.” Allen’s dog is barely more than a puppy, a big puppy but still a happy puppy. Max hides behind me. Max has never been around a dog. Max is 18 in November. I tell Max, Star will not hurt him. Star will only lick him. I am walking Star on his leash. Max is right at my side holding my shoulder. Max has now officially stolen my heart. Eventually, Max takes the leash. Max throws me aside for Star the dog.

Allen takes us to ski at an indoor ski hill which is one of the best times ever. All of us are novices. I get half way down the hill and bite it repeatedly. Max is as bad as or worse than me. We laugh at each other.

Tuesday nights are the nights I tutor and mentor Max. I read him Salinger, Saki, and Brothers Grimm. He looks up words. I try to explain English language literature. He seems to love Saki the most. I read him ‘Esme’ ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘The Open Window.’ He likes the ‘Story teller’ the most. He looks up words like ‘sultry’ ‘protested’ ‘persistent’.

The first beautiful Tuesday evening, I tell him we are going somewhere. This is a surprise. I tell him he does not need to bring his electronic translator. We walk toward downtown Songjiang at a fast pace. He is smiling. We have become close pals.

We go into the remodeled department store that has just reopened. We take the escalator up to the third floor. We walk past the toddler department, past the office supply section, past the toy section. We walk into the room the size of a large Duncan, Oklahoma living room where there are a handful of video games – driving games (race car and motorcycle) shooting games (man eating aliens and villains). They have the claw game. For one yuan you can try to snag a stuffed animal with the claw.

When Max sees where I have taken him, his eyes light up. I get 20 yuan worth of tokens and we play every game at least once. Most of the two player games are set up for only one player which ruins some of the fun but I let Max play and watch him and I cannot imagine another life.

Back on the ship, we pass mountain village plateaus which look like a washed out Van Gogh landscape – an absence of schizophrenia yellow is noted.

Bruce and Jennifer are talking. Bruce tells Jennifer he enjoys being her hostage. Jennifer and I both laugh. We tell him he means host. Hostage is not what he means. We explain the word hostage to him.

Jeff walks up with his son Jack. He does not seem pleased that Jennifer is talking with another Chinese man. He, Jack and Jennifer have plans to go on the dam tour together on the bus. He tells Jennifer they need to leave soon. She tells Bruce she will see him later and leaves with Jeff and Jack. They both say goodbye to me. They do not acknowledge Bruce.

When our shady travel agent told us of the dam tour, Maureen and I were not interested. Jennifer, however, wanted to go. As I told them, I saw Hoover dam when I was a kid and I was not impressed.

The first traffic jam I experience in China is on this ship on the Yangtze. We are in line to go through the lochs of the dam. Beside us is a gravel barge with a three story living and working area attached. The strangers look out the window and yell hello to me. I yell hello back. Everyone here loves to yell hello.

Finally, we are going through the loch. Going through the three lochs to the other side of the dam takes five hours. Each loch is like a wide two lane highway. On one side is a wall on the right is another ship. Each loch is approximately 5 or 6 ship lengths long. This is a long tedious task. Time does not fly.

I spend some of this time on the back deck. Around me are various groups of families, men playing cards, children playing games – taunting each other.

As I listen to this alien language, I feel closer but further. I know now, I will never talk about my 401k.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Have a Shampoo…or Is this how you cross the street in your America?

I dry off the best that I can with the French Connection t-shirt. I put on the army green ball cap that I got at the hello kitty emporium in case the rain starts. Jennifer and Maureen prepare to go to eat in the dining room. I tell them I will just grab something when Jennifer and I go into town with Bruce. There is a knock on the door. We open the door. Bruce is standing there ready to get a taxi to go into town. Jennifer looks at Maureen as if she is a child asking for permission to go. Maureen tells her to go ahead and go with us. She need not worry. The three of us go. Maureen stays behind.

We head for shore. On the road, a line of taxis are parked to take cruise passengers into town. The rain has stopped. We jump into a taxi and head up and into town. The town is at the top of a mountain. The taxi winds around roads past junk yards and ghettos into town.

Once we are near the top of the mountain, the taxi stops and lets us off in front of a restaurant. Jennifer and I hop out. Bruce insists on paying. We let him. We go inside of the restaurant and we are guided by the host to the second floor where we are seated. The restaurant is a nice family restaurant which is the size of a small ballroom. We are seated across from a large open picture window.

Bruce asks if we like spicy food. I say I do. Jennifer does not eat spicy food. We try to explain that she does not eat it. He thinks she should try some spicy food. After we debate this small detail for five or ten minutes, Bruce is finally convinced that Jennifer will not try the spicy food. He is convinced she is being obstinate.

He orders spicy food for himself and me and bland food for Jennifer. Bland food in China I dislike because most of the time it seems like that is when the chicken foot soup, chicken head soup, fish head soup, silverfish soup make their unwanted appearance. To me, ordering the spicy food wards off the animal parts I would rather not be gastronomically familiar with.

The food starts arriving. I take off my army green ball cap and put in on the chair next to Jennifer’s backpack. Most of the dishes are the usual Chinese fare – tofu with pork, scrambled eggs and chunks of tomatoes, the obligatory chicken soup (yes complete with diced chicken feet). However, one dish stands out. This is a spicy dish with peppers and chunks of beef. I eat practically the whole thing myself. Bruce tells me I can order this anywhere. I just must remember the name. Of course, I immediately forget the name.

“So,” Jennifer says to make conversation “The green hat? Tyson’s hat is a murky army green. It is okay for him to wear it, right? Men cannot wear bright green hats, right?”
“A man cannot wear any green hat,” Bruce says and then he emphatically adds “If he does, he is the biggest shame of a man.”
“A biggest shame of a man?” Jennifer asks, “Even if he is a foreigner and it is a murky green.”
“No girl on the street will date him,” Bruce continues, “A green hat is a sign that you have a woman who sleeps with other men.”
Jennifer starts to chuckle. With that last comment, I pick up the hat and fling it out of the second story window. Bruce is un-phased. Jennifer, however, goes into a laughing fit when she sees the hat sail out the window. I remain silent. Bruce does not even consider that he may have offended me. Jennifer does not care because she is laughing so hard.
“Would it be okay if I wore the hat?” Jennifer asks.
“Yes, for you, it would be fine. You are woman,” Bruce says.
“I want to see what happened to it,” Jennifer says. She and I jump up and run to the window to see what has become of the green hat.
The green hat landed upside down on the sidewalk. Couples walk clear around it. No one will touch it. Then a young family walks up – a mom, a dad, a young daughter. The young daughter starts kicking the cast-off green hat.
“Hey!” Jennifer yells out the window at the shocked child. The youngster picks up the hat and runs to meet Jennifer to give her the hat.
“Do you want your hat back?” Jennifer asks when she gets back to the table.
“No, I don’t want to be the biggest shame of a man.” I say. “I would hate to think a girl on the street will not marry me because I am wearing a green hat.”
The check came. Bruce insists on paying the bill.
“100 yuan, very cheap.” He says as he pays. We thank him and all head off into the night.

Up the street a half-block we run into another foreigner. Jennifer says he looks like a rocker. He is probably early fifties and has the damaged Keith (without the blood transfusion) Richards look. He tells us his wife is the owner. She is the boss. She owns the restaurant of which we are standing in front. He invites us to come in and eat. We tell him we just ate unfortunately. We walk on. Up the sidewalk a few blocks, we are offered a magnificent view of the river.

Across the street, Jennifer and I see a clothes store which has some non-hideous clothing in the window. (Many of the clothes stores here seem to cater to those who want to look like mid-1980s coke dealers.) Jennifer and I make a dash across the street which is more heavily trafficked than we had realized. Halfway across, a speeding taxi nearly creams us. He honks. He swerves. We safely make it across.

Bruce is visibly shaking.
“Is this how you cross the street in your America?” he asks
“No, that is how we learned to cross the street in your China.” Jennifer fires back at him. We walk into the store. I see a pink t-shirt with the silhouette of a reared up horse printed on it. “Do you know how to pony like Bony Maroney?” I try it on. Jennifer tries on some jeans which actually fit. She wants to use her ATM card which they do not take. The manager of the store drives her to an ATM machine to get the kuai. While they are gone, I spot some lightweight pants. If I squint, these brown plaid pants look as if they could be Burberry. I try them on. I love them. Jennifer comes back. We make our purchases.

Armed with new duds, Jennifer and I ask Bruce what he would like to do now. He says he would like to get a shampoo. This sounds like a good idea to us since I have only bathed once on our cruise and that water was probably from the fantastically polluted Yangtze. We head back in the direction from which we came. Bruce seems to think he saw a salon by the restaurant.
We walk the few blocks to the salon. Bruce and I sit in chairs side by side. Boys who look like a failed Kajagoogoo hair experiment clean our ears and shampoo our hair. The boy who is cleaning my ears, I know is making comments about how disgusting the fungus - in residency - in my ears is. How do I tell him I have been on the Yangtze for the better part of a week? How do I say its okay to an answering machine? For Bruce and me; our shampoo, ear cleaning, and hair styling - I look like a 1960s ad executive for Philco stereos – takes approximately 30 minutes. Jennifer’s hair, they take the same time to wash it as us but the stylist who blows it dry takes 45 minutes or an hour. We assume that he is the manager or owner of the shop. Watching him make love to her hair is almost erotic. We have nothing better to do than watch Jennifer’s hair get blown.

I think of Warren Beatty and Lee Grant. I think of the stylist who did my hair when I was 13. His name was David. The place was called New Dimensions in downtown Bartlesville. He had the latest Rolling Stones album jacket above his work station. He had cut out photos of Rod Stewart, Roger Daltry, Carly Simon, random models with shag cuts taped to his mirror. On the weekend, he would go dancing at ‘Where it’s At’. There he would dance with teenage clients and tell them what sort of conditioner would work best for their - Goldie Hawn, Susan Dey, Peggy Lipton – hair.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The three gorges on the Yangtze

So far, the cruise has been sun drenched, breezy days. Today, I wake up to an overcast sky. The whole day is gray. A melancholy chill settles over the mood of the last two days.

The built-in speaker over my bed seems more noisy than usual. The chinese pop and an announcers voice mix awkwardly. Once I have stirred, I realize the bad bed speaker is not what I am hearing. Our new roommate has the television blasting a Chinese talk show. Maureen tells me she feels that the younger Chinese generation does not have respect for others because usually they have no siblings. His talk show woke her up much earlier. She is not happy.

Today is the day to see the three gorges. We are all excited. Although, the sky is gray, we are excited.

The day goes slowly. I go up onto the back deck but the gray sky makes this leisure time less pleasurable. I try to read more of Moby Dick but I am getting impatient with all of the whale descriptions and still no Dick.

I settle into the lounge. A few tables of adults are playing cards. Aztec boy comes in with a group of other youngsters. He is the tallest which means he is probably the oldest. He towers over his cohorts. Two girls tag along. The whole group – six of them altogether – sits down and starts playing cards. I cannot help but spy on them. In the west, I would eavesdrop. Here, I cannot.

The day slowly rolls forward. I write. I daydream. I hope the Pequod on the rolling misty sea finds that whale.

I make my way back to the cabin. In our cabin, our new roommate is watching the television. He watches sports. He then turns to a game show. He then turns to the news. He then turns back to the sports. He then turns to a Chinese soap opera. Two females are having a heated conversation which escalates to an argument which escalates to a pillow fight. Did they see this on ‘Guiding Light.’ “I woke up and it was yesterday.”

Someone knocks on the door. Our new roommate’s friend from yesterday is standing there. The two young men depart together from the cabin. I tell Jennifer the cabin across from us is like a clown car. She asks me if that is on a circus train. I tell her like the clown car at the circus where all of the clowns get out of a small car. We imagine a clown car attached to the Trans Siberian Express rolling through Mongolia, on into Siberia.

Lo Lo Lo, our tour guide, knocks on our door. She tells us the ship will dock at 4 pm for the three gorges cruise. I go back to the lounge. At 3:30, I head back to the cabin.

Jennifer has some noodles. Jennifer takes a shower. Jennifer gets out of the shower at 4 pm. Maureen says she will wait for Jennifer to get ready. I have learned that Jennifer is a bit of a slow moving barge. I leave the ship and go to find Lo Lo Lo to get my ticket for the three gorges cruise. I follow the crowd.

I spot Lo Lo Lo at the next dock where everyone from our ship is walking. She tries to tell me that only one of us paid for this three gorges tour. I tell her that this is most definitely something that all of us paid for and I do not want to argue with her. At this point, I have started to have it with Lo Lo Lo. I know that she has to make money but she has done nothing for us other than give us the tickets – which are usually about double their actual cost - for the attractions at the places where we dock which we could certainly do ourselves. We were told we would have an English speaking guide which I do not really care about that aspect but I do get a bit miffed when I am told I have not paid for something that I have.

Lo Lo Lo’s cohort walks up. Jennifer and Maureen finally get there. I tell them the situation. At this point, Lo Lo Lo looks at her book and realizes she has made a mistake and gives all of us our tickets.

Two identical boats are docked next to each other. We had hoped they would be smaller than they actually are. They are about the size of double-wide, double-decker busses. This time, I decide to immediately assess the situation. Upstairs, most of the window seats have been nabbed. Jennifer and Maureen are right behind me. I tell them I am getting a window seat on the first floor. Maureen says that the view is not as good. I tell her I am going to sit on the first floor by a window. She may sit where she would like.

I nab a window seat before everyone else on the boat realizes that the seats are quickly being snatched. Jennifer and Maureen sit beside me. In the row in front of us - as we pull away – a man starts smoking a cigarette. Maureen moves to another part of the boat. I tell Jennifer that I feel bad that Maureen is so bothered by cigarettes that even if one is within a few meters she has to move.

The three gorges is not the exciting adventure I had thought it might be. From what we learn on the cruise from some English speakers here and there, since the river has risen the water is much less rough than it was before the water level was raised. We glide through the gorges seamlessly. At one point, I look up and I do believe I see a monkey jumping from one tree to another. I am sure my eyes are playing tricks on me. This must be a huge owl or something else.

A crowd is on the front deck which affords an amazing view of the gorges. Jennifer and I walk out onto the front deck. People eventually get bored and go back into the boat. Jennifer and I are able to lean on the railing and gaze at the scenery. Jennifer ponders what this will be like when the water level is raised 175 meters. The huge imposing cliffs will no longer be imposing. This makes us a bit sad but grateful to be seeing it now. Bruce walks up. I introduce Jennifer to Bruce. They instantly hit it off. They begin a conversation.

I wander back to my seat by the window inside the boat. This would be nice and relaxing if the public address system was not loud and distorted. The noise and the Chinese-ness of this make me feel as if I am at a Skinny Puppy after party on acid.

Midway into the cruise the rain comes down. Everyone heads into the boat but Jennifer and Bruce. Watching them, I feel as if I am watching a movie. Bruce then wanders back inside. Jennifer stand on the deck in the rain alone.

This is to be a six hour cruise. We are less than two hours into the cruise and the boat seems to be turning around. I wonder if we are going back and taking a fork that I saw thirty minutes previous. Once we pass the fork, I am not sure but I think we are going back the way we came. Yes, we hit the Yangtze. The three gorge cruise director is handing out something to people that looks like tickets. She seems to be talking emphatically about whatever she is giving them.

I am just as glad that the cruise, for whatever reason, has been cut short. Three hours is definitely enough to look at cliffs and trees after three days of already looking at cliffs and trees along the Yangtze. Jennifer and Maureen are sitting in seats at the front of the boat. I make my way up to where they are.

“Do you know why we turned around? Wasn’t the cruise supposed to be longer?” I ask in rapid fire.
“Yeah, Bruce said they said it was dangerous if we go any farther with the rain like it is,” Jennifer says.
“Oh, that’s just as well,” I say, “I was really ready to head back anyway. What were those coupons they were handing out?”
“They were tickets for a show in town,” Jennifer says “With dancing and singing. According to Bruce, the guide said that if people want to go into town and see the show they can since the cruise was cut short early.”
“Oh,” I say unimpressed and then add, “Bruce is nice, huh?”
“Yeah,” Jennifer says.
"I think I saw a monkey in a tree," I say.
"At one point, we passed monkey cove, so you might have," Maureen says.
“Going into town sounds fun,” I say
“I think having dinner on the ship sounds nice,” says Maureen. “I think I will just hang out on the ship. I don’t want to go out in the rain.”
Jennifer and I both stare at Maureen mystified. For the most part, we have been on a very unaccommodating, non-luxurious boat for the last few days. Staying on the ship for dinner tonight absolutely sounds dreadful to me as I am sure it does to Jennifer. Jennifer is however more diplomatic than I am. But, I am fairly autonomous. I like to do my own thing; I don’t really pander to others ever.
“I may have dinner on the boat and then go to town.” Jennifer says.
“That sounds good.” I say.
As we are walking back to the ship, we run into Bruce again. We tell him we are going to go to town later if he wants to join us. He likes that idea. He buys a cheap rain poncho for Jennifer and makes her put it on. I buy a cheap rain poncho for myself and I do not put it on. I enjoy the spring rain. I run back to the ship. In our cabin, I do not have a towel so I dry myself off with my dirty French Connection cut and paste collage t-shirt. I look forward to going into town. Tomorrow will be our last day on the boat.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Poetry Temple on the Yangtze at Night… or we’ll buy some drugs and watch a band then will jump in a river holding hands.

Jennifer and I duck back into our room – room 308. A young man is taking things out of a backpack. We are all surprised. We have a new roommate. We must have acquired him at the waterfall port. He is Chinese. Jennifer asks him some questions in her rudimentary Chinese. He responds. I have no idea what is being said.

The ship docks, we are at the temple for the night tour. This is quite exciting to see a temple on a hill at night. Although Maureen has paid to take the tour, she decides to stay behind. There is a knock on the door. Jennifer opens it. A stranger is standing there. Our new roommate and the stranger converse while Maureen, Jennifer and I remain silent. We assume the two are friends. The roommate who will remain nameless leaves with his friend. Jennifer brushes her teeth.

Jennifer and I ask Maureen one more time if she is sure she does not want to see the temple. We have almost hit temple overload. Maureen tells us she would much rather stay in and rest. Jennifer and I head for land. We have two hours before the ship leaves. We hear from other passengers that a few travelers did not come back to the ship in time from the ghost town and they were left behind. We do not want that to happen to us.

Sometimes when the ship docks, it must tie itself to another cruise ship which means we must walk along the 1st floor deck of the ship to which ours has docked. The 1st floor, we have ascertained, is where the crew and the crews’ family bunk - and the people who are traveling 3rd class. We get an eyeful when we make our way through the first floor side deck. To see a young naked gypsy child frolicking around in a room is not unusual.

This time is no exception as we walk from our ship through another ship through yet another ship to the dock to the shore. The shore is lined with merchants selling Chinese food, trinkets, and artifacts. Some of the artifacts look interesting but I know they are actually just tourist trap crap.

Torches light the way to the temple. For the first time, I feel as if I have stumbled into the China of another time. My reverie is shattered by other foreigners yelling and taking snap shots. Jennifer and I make our way on to the temple.

On our approach to the temple, ticket stubs litter the rock path. I am annoyed that the temple tourists would just throw their stubs down at such a sacred peaceful place. As we step into the area where the ticket taker takes our tickets, the stub litter is explained. He rips the ticket in half and gives the traveler one half and throws the other half on the ground. The wind blows the ticket stubs all along the ground.

Jennifer and I walk up several flights of stairs to the temple which is perched on the top of the hill.

Once we are inside, a crowd is gathered in the entrance listening to one of the tour guides talking in Chinese. This does us no good. We do know that this is the temple famous for poetry. Wings of rooms are filled with poetry on slabs which of course we cannot read because the poetry is written in Chinese characters.

We aimlessly walk through the temple. We take in the magnificent view of the river town across the Yangtze which looks like a Lite Brite magnified and given life like a Chinese Frankenstein. “Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?”

We run into two other foreigners who Jennifer had met previously on the ghost town excursion. One of them is a Louisianan student studying in China. The other is from Denmark and he is doing some sort of research for National Geographic. They are both very gracious and kind. I tell them I am pleased to meet them. I do not hear the Louisianan’s accent and I ask him where he is from. He tells me Louisiana and embarrassed I laugh. I thought he was French.

The researcher has lots of ground to cover. They scuttle off. We then bump into Jack and Jeff. Jack smiles the whole time. Jeff translates some of the poetry for Jennifer. I am unimpressed but I act as if I am impressed. I am unimpressed until we enter a room with huge slabs of poetry written in wide scrawls.

This fantastic indescribable art from many centuries ago has a perfect looseness. Artists such as Steadman, Miro, Bacon, Kandinsky flash into my brain. Pop masterstrokes such as the Beatles ‘It’s All Too Much’ and Pavement’s ‘Summer Babes’ play in the my mind soundtrack. The characters are scrawled on huge slabs. ‘Someone scrawled on the wall "I smell the blood of les tricoteuses"’

I have my disposable camera I take a picture.

As Jeff explains all of the poetry slabs to Jennifer, I feign interest but then after the fourth or fifth similar explanation, I start back to the ship because the clock is ticking and we must be back to the ship within ten minutes. On the way back to the ship, I am tempted to shop for some artifacts but I do not have the energy and I do not want to lug them to the ship and from the ship to the bus and from the bus to the airport and through the airport to the plane and from the plane through the terminal in Shanghai and from Shanghai in the taxi home. I can buy any kind of Buddha I want near Songjiang.

When we first boarded the ship, our tour guide - who has only been around to give us entry tickets to attractions which we are charged double – told us the men have a separate shower on the ship if I do not want to use the tiny one in the room. Ever since we left Chongqing, I have fruitlessly looked for this mythical shower. Back on the ship, I wander around aimlessly, half-heartedly looking for this elusive men’s shower. The shower is nowhere to be found.

I head back to our cabin. Jennifer has returned. Maureen is writing. Our new roommate is in the cabin. Our cabin is turning into a clown car. Of course across the hall from us is the real clown car with what seems to be 10, 12, 16 people in a room that four people can barely squeeze into. Jennifer and Maureen try to make Chinese small talk with our new roommate but it is typically awkward.

Tomorrow we take the small cruise into the small three gorges. This is grand finale for the cruise. I love the idea of floating down the Yangtze - Chinese style – but I am ready for my own Western bed in Songjiang a district of Shanghai. For now, I sleep in my Chinese bunk on a ship floating down the Yangtze.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Mystery on the Yangtze...(or Ghengis Khan vs. Chaka Khan)

Because of this child - this child who I will never see again, this child who will not remember my face, I have left no impression, I am truly anonymous, an old man – I begin to understand Death in Venice. I am watching his beauty become defined. He is unaware of what he is. He brings me indefinably closer. I try to put this emotion in to words. It is not physical and it is not spiritual. It has to do with art. It has to do with evolution and creation, some weird biology accident. Closer, I start to understand Michelangelo and Lewis Carroll.

Once again, I am in the lounge. This time I am drinking the complimentary dishwater tea. I am drinking it out of a Dixie Cup. The cup looks like a Dixie Cup. Are Dixie Cups made in China?

The Aztec boy has come back in with his cousin, brother, whatever. He says hello to me when I look up. He smiles. I smile. I want to talk to him but I do not. You do not talk to Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, Blue Boy.

I have the urge to follow him when he leaves but I do not. I try to read Moby Dick but I cannot. I go back to my cabin. I see the Aztec boy on the stairway. I ask him if he knows English. He does not. He runs off to find his cousin, brother, whatever. He is like a fawn or the Picture of Dorian Gray. I am anonymous. I am the main character who dies of the plague (Was it the plague?) in Death in Venice.

I go out onto the upper back deck and enjoy the solitude. To me the weather is perfect, the sun is shining which makes it warm but then the breeze blows so that it is not a still stifling hot. When I asked Bruce why the deck was abandoned he told me Chinese people do not like the heat. They would rather be in their cabins. The cabins seem more stifling to me.

I walk to the front fourth floor deck. Maureen and Jennifer are the hit among some young Chinese men. They are talking about the Chinese language. For some strange reason, I am jealous. I say hello and I ask if we are stopping while the bus takes those who want to pay an exorbitant amount to see some random waterfall. They do not know.

I go back to the back deck. The day drifts along. I read. I write. My insides start to feel as if Genghis Khan is trying to sink my battleship. I go lay down.

This is where you beg your body to behave. You do not want to be squatting in this space smaller than a closet.

Jennifer and Maureen come back to the room. One of the men they met wants to go to supper with them in the dining room. This seems so love boat. There is a knock on the door. The man – English name Jeff - is there with his son – English name Jack. Jack - a self-possessed ten year old - has plastic monster finger puppets for everyone. I am trying to sleep and I say a half-hearted thank you. Genghis has brought in the heavy artillery.

As soon as everyone goes out the door, I head to the miniscule bathroom for some privacy. Touch me I’m Sick! Now that I no longer drink, I am not used to such ferocious stomach pains. I admire the Chinese for being able to squat during sickness. I will be so happy to get back to my privileged Western toilet. After what seems like an eternity but is probably only fifteen minutes, I feel much better. I take a shower. I have not towel. I use a dirty t-shirt. With a new attitude that would make the Pointer Sisters or Sister Sledge proud, I decide to go to the back deck to write about the gastronomical ups and downs of life on the river. Did Mark Twain go through this? Is that how he named Huck Finn?

Twilight shadows the river. Other vessels pass by like phantoms with light sneaking out of cabins and reflecting on the river. I think of the spirits that might be floating around. I wonder if Karen Carpenter would have fared better on the food in China.

The twilight fades into a dark, cloud-filled, moonless night. I gaze out upon the bank. A few passengers come out and sit and enjoy the night. After sitting for awhile, my mood which was on the nasty side of things suddenly becomes much better. I am actually almost giddy. I head for the front deck because I am sure Jennifer and Maureen are there. Or I think they might be there. I head that way.

Yes, they are there sitting. I sit with them. I ask them if they had a nice meal. They told me they did. Didn’t I see the note in the room and the tray of food? Jennifer gets up and I follow her. Maureen is always a bit oblivious to her surroundings.
“Tray of food?” I ask
“Yeah,” Jennifer says “Weren’t you in the shower like ten or fifteen minutes ago?”
“No, I took a shower like an hour ago.”
“Well, who was in the shower?” Jennifer asks.
Jennifer and I are perplexed. We make haste to the room. I am actually looking forward to the meal although my stomach is at defcon 3, I feel daring enough to eat. I am still a bit mystified that someone was taking a shower in our room. Maybe the ladies imagined the showering.

On the way back to the cabin, I tell Jennifer I had been in a rotten mood but now I am in a much better mood. I do not know why I tell her. Maybe she cares, maybe she doesn’t. I am still almost giddy.

The tray of food is on the chair, a chair which has a missing back. Next to the tray is a note to me. I tell Jennifer I certainly would have seen this tray if it was me in the shower. Beside the tray is an unfamiliar backpack. The plot thickens. We are actually a bit freaked. Jennifer tells me she did not mean to but she told her new friend Jeff I am a famous American singer. She does not want to embarrass me. I tell her that is flattering. She then tells me Jeff would really like me to come by and give his son an autograph. I tell her I need to properly thank his son for the plastic finger puppet.

We traipse down the hall to 314 and knock on the door. Jeff answers the door. Jeff tells his young son that I am a famous American singer. He asks me if I will autograph something for his son. I tell him I would be honored. Jack tells me he would like to be a singer. This makes me feel like Lou Rawls, Johnny Mathis, John Davidson, Chaka Khan. I tell him I am now a teacher. After careful deliberation, Jack hands me his Chinese translation of Dante’s Inferno which he is currently reading. I sign my name and draw some obligatory crosses and hearts. Jack watches as I sign my name. I give him back his book. Jennifer and I head back to our room - 308. Later tonight, around 10 pm, the ship will dock and we will have a night tour of a temple which is exciting to tour a temple on a hill at night. I am reminded of playing kick the can and hide and seek at night out in the Osage. I am reminded of eating mushrooms in Connecticut with the Kittens.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Aztec Boy in China on the Yangtze
On other cruise ships, people play shuffleboard; they gamble in a casino; teens drink coffee and read Salinger - or these days Eggers, or journals edited by Eggers – in cruise ship coffee shops; they swim and play volleyball in cruise ship pools. I was led to believe Cruise ships are floating malls – pool tables and pickup bars. Our cruise ship does not offer this. We have the front or back deck on which to stand or sit and the karaoke room which is a lounge during the day to watch Chinese television and the dining room. I take my Moby Dick and I go into the lounge.

A boy, who looks like he may be an old thirteen or a young fifteen, runs in with his brother or cousin. They are having that childhood vacation. The younger one is mesmerized by the older one and this vacation will forever live in an attic somewhere in his mind. For the older one, this is perhaps the last vacation he will have with his family before he becomes an official teenager, a teenager who does not go on vacation with his family or may go begrudgingly. He looks as if he is an Aztec. He is tall and lean and has that beautiful unblemished Chinese skin. He says hello as he sashays past. I am drinking water and trying to read but the mighty whale is not holding my attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I am watching him and his cousin or brother. I hope I do not look like a pervert.

The day slides into the evening; the evening slides into the night. I read for awhile in the lounge and karaoke room. I get up and go back to the cabin to have a snack. I have more noodles. I get stir crazy. I go up to the back deck and sit by myself and watch the river. I can see how someone would become a riverman. The water carries you along. The time passes and it does not matter. You have nothing pressing. You have no one to meet. You are inside your own head. You are in China floating down the river. You are looking over the side of the boat at all of the rubbish which has been swept off of other ships. Beer bottles, noodle buckets, snack packages, random Styrofoam all become bound for the sea on the Yangtze.

The night is beautiful and clear with stars everywhere. No words can describe the feeling I feel as I lazily float down a river in China under a cavalcade of stars.

After floating and dreaming, I decide to go to sleep officially. Back at the cabin, I stare out the picture window as I fall asleep.

Morning comes crashing down with knocking at our door and voices outside. The cabin girl has come to empty and refill our cabin thermos with hot water. We also have a speaker in our ceiling that plays Chinese pop music. The Chinese pop music comes on early in the morning and we cannot figure out how to turn it off. It is always slightly distorted. For awhile, I am determined to sleep in. I drift in and out of consciousness.

Finally, I get up. On the river, I do not have a routine. No routine is my routine. I start the day by making myself a cup of jasmine tea. Here, (as in, in China) I have become accustomed to non-strained tea. At this point, I somewhat enjoy chewing on the leaves and bark. This makes me feel like a native in a Levis and Ralph Lauren sort of way.

I take my tea and go to the lounge and karaoke room. I find a chair by an open window. Again, I try to settle into reading Moby Dick. A family sits beside me – husband, wife, young son. I say ‘Ni Hao’ and ‘Hello’. The father tries to get the son to say something to me. The son is incredibly bashful. He will barely look at me. The father wants to show him off or welcome me, the outsider; I am not sure which. I go back to reading. Occasionally, I look up to see the son staring my way. He looks down dramatically when I look over. His father and mother smile. They leave. I go back to my reading. The Aztec boy and his cousin run in and sit for five minutes. The Aztec boy says hello. Again, I try not to stare. He is very unusual looking. He could be that break out star in a foreign film. He could be the Chinese Marco Hofschneider or Diego Luna. After mulling this over, i decide to go up to the top back deck to look at the scenery for awhile.

I grab a chair and sit starboard left. Large houses are perched on cliffs. I imagine tending sheep and being a guest in a house on a cliff overlooking the Yangtze. As I am daydreaming, a fellow daydreamer leans against the rails not too close but within talking distance. We are the only ones on deck. He is wearing glasses and has feathered hair.

I tell him the view is amazing. He beams. He is a proud citizen of China. I ask him what he thinks of the dam project. He is angry that the water level is being raised; that many artifacts are too big to move and will be gone forever. He tells me he wishes that China was more like Europe and less like the United States. He likes that in Europe old things are preserved. He did not seem fond of the United States. He does not like that old neighborhoods in China are being destroyed to build high rises. I tell him that is sad.

I ask him about the houses perched on the hill. My assumption is the houses are very expensive. He tells me poor people who live off the land live in these houses. These people may take a boat once a week into town to buy supplies but for the most part they live off the land. I tell him in the United States houses on cliffs overlooking the Mississippi - which would be equal in stature to the Yangtze - would be very expensive. In the United States, people pay for views and seclusion. He tells me I could pay $100 to a family and live in one of these houses for six month. I asked him if I would have to work. He told me I might have to help with the crops or haul water up from the river. I told him I would rather pay a little more and not have to work. He told me I might not have a choice.

He asks me why I am on a Chinese cruise. These cruises are not meant for foreigners. I tell him I want the Chinese experience. He tells me the foreign cruise ship would be much cleaner. I would not mind a cleaner ship. No one seems to know how to throw trash in a receptacle. Peanut shells and noodle tubs litter the deck. When the staff hoses the deck down, they hose whatever debris is left by the travelers off into the river.

My new acquaintance introduces himself. His English name is Bruce. I ask him if he studied English at University. He tells me he did not; he studied German. When he graduated from college, he tried to get a job at a German company in China but by that time German companies had been here so long that they no longer needed Chinese workers who spoke German. He then started a company exporting textiles. At this point, he started learning English.

Our conversation finally hit a lull. We both stare out at the hillside. Occasionally, we would spot a fishing boat or a strange water craft of some sort. After standing against the railing not saying anything for ten minutes or so, Bruce tells me he is going to his cabin to have a rest. I am now alone on the deck.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ghost Town on the Yangtze
In the morning, our tour guide knocks on our door at 7 am. I slept in my jeans so I am ready to go. All I have to do is put on my shoes and socks. After waiting for Jennifer and Maureen to get ready, we head out of the room and off of the ship to the ghost town. Jennifer has her camera so every minute or so she stops to take pictures, Maureen walks incredibly slow. We see the ghost town in the distance. After we climb the first hill up from the dock, an eighth of a mile or so away is a fairly monstrous set of stairs. After ten or fifteen minutes, I get bored waiting for Jennifer and Maureen to catch up with me. I walk on ahead to the vender stands and wait. A flood of tourists from another ship come through like locusts in a Nebraska cornfield while I am waiting. Many of these tourists are westerners. I decide to not wait for Jennifer and Maureen because they may have passed and I did not see them. I will meet them back at the ship.

Our tour guide sees me and hands me my ticket to get into the town. In broken English she asks me where my friends are. I say as I pantomime that Maureen has trouble climbing stairs. They are behind me somewhere, I think. I walk through the gate. The admission price is much less than what we were charged by our shady travel agent. Following the crowd, I go inside and make my way up stairs and paved foot paths to what must be the ghost town. At one point, I come upon a foot bridge. This is a sturdy looking foot bridge which links to hillsides. I see what looks like a castle beyond the foot bridge. I start to walk across the foot bridge and halfway across I realize how freaked out I am crossing this structurally sound but unsteady footbridge. When I was younger, I loved this sort of thing. As a kid, I loved walking across foot bridges, train bridges, rooftops. Now that I am older, I am not as anxious to scale the heights I once scaled. I walk in the middle of the bridge and I get across.

Once I am across the foot bridge, I walk down some stairs and I walk through the gate of the fortress which is quite majestic. I try to forget that I will have to cross the footbridge to leave the fortress. Souvenir hawkers sell variations of the Scream mask. I wonder if this is a tribute to Munch or to the movie. Ahead is another imposing staircase which I slowly mount.

The Chinese tourists are closing eyes and walking toward a sign of Chinese characters. They then open them and see which character they touched. I am intrigued by this. I want to ask someone about it but I do not know who to ask. Instead I let it remain a mystery.

At the top of the excruciatingly long staircase is the entrance to the castle. I follow the line of people inside. Inside is less than majestic. Decaying wax figures rise and fall. They are not frightening or even surprising. They are sad and dilapidated. This is like a small town haunted house. I imagine something similar in Joplin, MO. I walk through unimpressed. At one point, in the chamber of horrors (I guess every haunted house, castle, mansion, mortuary has to have a chamber of horrors) the lights are flicked on and off. This, I suppose, is to make the ghastly tortures look even more ghastly and the torturers even more torturous. However, this was laughable at most. An older woman, who I assume was from Topeka Kansas, says “Well Isn’t that Scary.” in a sarcastic deadpan way which I thought old women from Topeka Kansas did not talk sarcastically deadpan.

The only frightening aspect of this place is the fifty-odd person pile-up halfway through. That is when I start to sweat. Out of nowhere, the whole group has stopped and is no longer moving. Then we inch up a half a step at a time. I debate trying to go to the back and go out the way I came in but I am stuck right in the middle. Also I am curious why we are stopped and what everyone is looking at up ahead. Perhaps, an emperor from the Tang Dynasty has come back to life and is ready to party. All sorts of Abbot and Costello type possibilities float through my head. For a good 10 minutes, I get to ponder these possibilities because the line is not moving. Slowly, I make it to a half a flight of stairs. Slowly, I climb them. The children in this throng of people are getting moody and anxious and loud. At the top of the stairs, a ticket taker waits to sell tickets. The ridiculous wait was for a small train that fits about five people which goes off into a cave which looked pathetic and uninviting. I pay the money just to get through but I do not ride this train which is the most low budget ride I think I have ever witnessed and I have witnessed some stinkers. I go to the side of the line of people waiting for the train and I walk on through the rest of this haunted temple or castle or whatever in the crap it’s supposed to be.

Once I am outside, I decide to brave the footbridge again. I have had enough of the ghost town. Halfway across the bridge, I have anxiety. I tell myself I am fine; the bridge is fine; I will not plunge to my death.

Once I am over the bridge. I walk up to another temple on a different hill. In the side of the hill there is Buddha’s face. I am trying to get to it but I cannot figure out how to do it. It looks like it is some sort of entrance. “Candy’s Going Bad” from Golden Earring’s Moontan album briefly goes through my head. “Candy took the pearls got a head of the girls, got on top and found the secret entrance.”

As I climb and get to various plateaus, I debate whether to climb up higher or go back to the boat and rest. After I come upon my fourth temple, I realize they are starting to all look the same. I really wanted to see the hanging coffins which I assume are at the top of the hill. However, since I am not Chinese, I could not ask anyone where they might be, anyone who would know that is. The sun is starting to really cook. I decide to go back to the boat. I am happy I have made a decision. The walk down the hill is effortless.

At the bottom of the hill, I buy a cold coca-cola in a can from a vendor. This truly hits the spot. I am happy. I see a blue t-shirt with a white dragon outline which I like but I do not want to pay 80 yuan. The seller pulls out my size. I say no. A passerby - Chinese English speaker – tells me to offer 20 yuan ($2.50). I do. The vendor takes it. The passerby smiles at me. I smile back and walk to the ship. I see our tour guide while I am walking to the ship. I ask her about the Buddha head. She tells me that is not part of the tour. I cannot go to the Buddha head. The Golden Earring song keeps going through my head as I make my way into the ship. I am ready to rest.

On each floor, a crew person is seated in the corridor to let passengers into cabins. I am let into 308, our cabin. Jennifer and Maureen are still gone. I decide to have a nap. A nap is not to be. The minute I start to doze off there are kids yelling in the hallway. Across from our cabin, a family of - what looks like - 10 people are staying in a room that can barely accommodate 4.

Again, I try to sleep, more noise. Now, I decide to just lay and look out the picture window. Since we are docked there is no view. After awhile, I hear Jennifer and Maureen come in. I told them I lost them when all of the tourists stampeded into the ghost town. They tell me they did not see the haunted temple side. I tell them they did not miss much. I ask them if they saw the hanging coffins. They did not see them. They told me they are not where you can see them now which I thought was a bit of a rip-off because that is what we really wanted to see and what our shady agent told us about. We dig into our food supply and we each eat our own little bucket of noodles.

Monday, May 15, 2006

‘This ain't no mudd club, or C. B. G. B., I ain't got time for that now’…(or the Yangtze River Cruise Begins)
Any preconceived notions you may have about cruises and cruise ships - throw all of it out the window at this point. The sight that greets me as I step into the ship is not the Love Boat I had imagined. Dingy stained red wall to wall carpet and cheap wood paneling are the sleazy decorator touches which welcome me into this floating toilet. We enter on the 2nd floor of the ship which is where the check-in desk is located. Across from the check in desk is a counter which sells snacks and toiletries which are only slightly overpriced. Jennifer hands the concierge our receipt. Instead of keys, we are handed room numbers in plastic card cases. These we show to the clerk in charge of unlocking passengers’ doors. We are taken up to the 3rd floor to our cabin.

The clerk opens the door. Maureen and Jennifer both get bottom bunks. I throw my backpack on a top bunk. The room smells like a little league ball park toilet. On the wall parallel with the door is a large picture window which slides open. Next to the picture window is the toilet which is the size of a small square closet. On one wall is the shower head; on the opposite wall is the sink and in the middle of the floor is the hole. Non-Westerner toilets are the one drawback in China. That is if you don’t count chicken foot soup, fried goose shins, pigeon surprise (Surprise! We’re eating pigeon tonight! Enough said).

‘I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days But I ain't got no speakers, ain't got no headphones, ain't got no records to play’

Once we sit our groceries down under and around the desk which has a small television setting on it, most of our floor space is occupied. A wheezing air conditioner blows inconsequential air under the picture window. The space between the two sets of bunks is barely big enough for one person to walk through. We know right off that we will not be spending much time in the cabin.

Someone knocks on the door. Maureen who is sitting closest to the door knob opens the door. Our tour guide is at the door. We go out into the hall to talk to her which is easier than all crowding in our room. She tells us a deck pass is 65 yuan. Yes, this is our first scam. If we want to go out of our room to somewhere besides the restaurant, we have to buy the deck pass. With the deck pass, we are allowed on the front and back deck and the karaoke room where we can sing “for free” which she tells us more than once -‘sing for free’ and you ‘sing for free.’ For now we will nickname our tour guide ‘Lo Lo Lo’. The province where she comes from, n’s are pronounced as l’s. We pay her the scam money and we go to the back deck on the fourth floor of the ship.

An above ground pool in the middle of the deck would be right at home. The deck is covered in green soiled plastic turf. A big round metal dome sticks up in the middle of the deck. This dome, the children climb and slide down. In the USA or actually many other parts of the world, this dome would be a lawsuit anxiously waiting for a hapless child or drunk adult. By the time we make it to the deck, most of the other passengers have thought of the same idea. We see an open spot near the rear to which we make a beeline. Once we get back to the spot, we realize why it is vacant. This is where the ship’s exhaust belches out. We find some cheap plastic - (torturers of Mexicans) WalMart Lawn and Garden - foot stools to sit on. Maureen sits long enough to go into a coughing fit. She says she will see us later. Everyone in the vicinity – including infants, I believe – is smoking. We are still docked. After Maureen leaves, the ship pulls away from the dock and heads down the river. Dusk sets over the city. We look behind us at the lights. Chongqing is beautifully lit from the river. At times I think we are on the Mississippi leaving Memphis, St. Louis, New Orleans. As the darkness falls over the river, families start to vacate the deck. Jennifer and I graduate from the cheap stools on which we are perched to those hideous cheap plastic molded lawn chairs which everyone seems to have. These hideous plastic chairs which clutter up the world - I am sure - were born in China.

Doing as the Chinese do, we smoke a cigarette. Last night, after we got back from the community center/ food court, Jennifer told me she does not smoke but would like to smoke a cigarette. I told her I do not smoke but I smoke in China too. We bought cigarettes at a market a few doors down from the hotel. We walked around and smoked heading into the night into all sorts of directions which we should not have headed. In one direction, an amputee was walking toward us. We turned around. We were not scared just superstitious. Seeing and amputee seems like it would be bad luck. We talk about nothing in particular while we smoke. We inadvertently take a turn down a dark alley. We remember we are near an inner city bus station where live poultry is not uncommon; we turn around and walk back to the street. But now we are finally on the Yangtze River, finally.

As we roll down the river, we look off onto both sides of the bank. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we stay silent. Sometimes lights illuminate the hillside which rises up from the river. Sometimes signs dot the landscape. The adventure has not yet begun. Most of the other passengers have gone to their cabins. Now, only a handful of people are on the deck. Jennifer tells me some Chinese superstitions and customs of which I know nothing. Various Chinese friends tell her these superstitions. Men do not wear green hats in China. Green hats signify a cheating spouse. She is not sure who gives the men these hats. When her father was visiting, he had a green hat that he wore everyday. His was an olive green so she assumed it was not as bad as wearing lime or avocado green. Fortunately, the hat I brought with me is brown.

After we talk for awhile, we wonder about poor Maureen who we think may have had to abandon ship. We walk up to the front deck. Maureen is standing alone with the wind blowing through her hair. She tells us she has been out here all night. The smoke does not blow in her face here. The smoke blows behind her. She is happy. We are happy that she has found a place where she will not be affected. We have an early day tomorrow. We are seeing a ghost town with hanging coffins. The ship will dock at 6 am. We are to disembark at 7 am. We head back to our cabin. I have a vision of Lennon’s ‘Sometime in New York City’ re-imagined/updated – instead of Nixon dancing naked with Mao, Bush is dancing naked with Hu. Bush is the new Nixon. ‘Some people never had experience with air.’ I pull out my hat which I thought was brown. I was wrong, my hat is army green.