Today is one of those days in which I am reminded why I love China, My China. At every corner is a new surprise. “I’m always crashing in the same car.”
Miko’s surprise birthday party is at noon. The Sofa Negotiator is picking me up and she and I are going to the bakery to pick out a cake at 10 am. Somehow, I believe, I may have got up on the wrong side of the bed even though I got up on the side on which I always get up. 10 am comes, no Sofa Negotiator. At 10:15 am, I call the office to see when she is coming. Elizabeth has shown up and piled a pile of work on her desk. She asks if I can go. I do not want to be fussy - which since I bought a couch instead of settling for the cholera couch in my apartment, I am known as fussy – so I agree to go alone to broker the cake deal.
I do not take a shower because it is 10:20 and the party isn’t until noon. In my mind, I have plenty of time to walk the 10 minute walk to downtown Songjiang, a district of Shanghai, to get the cake and come back and shower and put my suit on and surprise Miko, plenty of time.
Downtown, there are three bakeries from which to choose. All of them are, more or less, across the street from each other. Before I comparison shop at the bakeries, I stop at the grocer to search for tissue paper to put in the tiger striped bag in which I have Miko’s presents – a set of water colors in tubes, an artist’s pad, paint brushes, a Hello Kitty cup, a Snickers bar, two packs of Skittles, and a DVD of ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.’ Browsing the aisles, I realize if the clerk asks me what I am looking for I have no idea how I would pantomime tissue paper. Would I wipe my nose and act like I am wrapping a present with it?
I head on to the first bakery (the cheap one next to the grocer); the gift will have to be without tissue. None of the cakes fit the bill. On to Christine, I walk. In Christine, the cakes are beautiful but they are much too expensive. From Christine, I jaunt across the street to the new bakery which I believe is trying to put Christine out of business which makes me feel like a turncoat because I love the treats at Christine but on this occasion we can not spend 300 kuai on a cake for Miko as much a I love her. At the new bakery, the cakes look nice and are priced in the budget I have been told to spend. This is communist free enterprise after all. Shopping for the perfect cake, I am starting to feel like Goldilocks and the three bakeries.
The counter girl asks me something. I walk away. I take out my cell phone and dial the Sofa Negotiator. (Oh yeah, I have a cell phone now which is a whole other story. Silly me, I decided to go by myself to get the phone last week. This of course involved several clerks and hangers on following me around talking to me in Chinese and me waving my arms in the air and then meeting a 22 year old who acted as my interpreter even though he does not know English and then taking a ride on his scooter getaway style, but that’s not important now.)
Miko’s birthday is what’s important now. I hand the phone to the clerk. The clerk and the Sofa Negotiator discuss the matter. The clerk hands the phone to a tall young buff man who I assume is the manager. The manager and the Sofa Negotiator discuss the matter. To my ears, the discussion seems heated. After what seems like a battery drainer of a discussion, the manager hands the phone to me. I say ‘hello’. No one is on the other end. He walks over to a table and pulls a chair out for me. I sit down…and wait….and wait…and wait.
Now I wonder if they are making the cake from scratch. By the time the cake is finished and put into a box which is put into a bag and handed to me, the time is 11:30. I then hand the manager my bank card. They do not take cards. I have to walk up a block to get cash. I rush up and get cash and wonder if I can take a shower and be ready by the time of the party.
Usually, I would go without a shower but I do not know if my big boss Edgar –whom I crapped on his name at the speech contest in Anji - is showing. Quickly, I shower and dress – Club Monaco cords, white with red stripes Ted Baker dress shirt, charcoal angora sweater vest, charcoal Brooks Brothers blazer, charcoal Yves Saint Laurent tie. I am dressed to take on authority.
I grab the cake and the gift bag and I head to the international building. The elevator which is horribly slow is slowly crawling down to the first floor. The bell rings. The time is 12:00 on the dot. The elevator opens. Allen and Max are in it. They are on their way to the cafeteria. The party has been postponed until 1:00 pm. I get into the elevator and take it up to the 6th floor. I get out and walk down the hall. I walk past Miko and Tess sitting in a classroom. They see me pass but I do not know if Miko knows I am carrying presents and a cake. I believe it would be pretty easy to figure out. I set the cake in the office. Elizabeth and the Sofa Negotiator are going over documents. They look surprised to see me. I tell them it took much longer than I had expected to get the cake.
Jo is in the staff room. I put the gifts under my desk. Maureen and Jo are the type to think any small bump is a major catastrophe. Jo tells me Maureen has decided everything is ruined. I tell Jo the cake took longer than I thought. Jo then asks me why I am so on edge. I tell her I am not. I would rather not play the ‘goad me game’. I tell here I have not had the chance to eat so I am going to go have some dumplings and I will be back at 1 pm. I leave the building and go back to my apartment.
Without much fuss, I fix the dumplings and eat. I do putter around the apartment a bit and then I realize it is getting close to 1 pm so I head back to the international building again. My cell phone is ringing as I leave; I leave it behind. I get off the elevator and Jo and Maureen intercept me and point me back to the elevator which I follow their directions. The Sofa Negotiator comes out of the classroom and guides me in. I do not know what is going on. The students are standing there. Miko tells me the cake is beautiful. I tell her happy birthday. We have no lighter to light the ‘1’ and ‘8’ candles that are placed side by side. Everyone looks at me. Nancy, the secretary, goes to find the janitor, a smoker, to borrow his lighter. All of us stand around except for Allen who is sitting playing the Japanese number game.
Finally, the lighter arrives. The Sofa Negotiator lights the two candles but they will not stay lit. Max tries to take a picture with his camera phone but does not have much luck. With one candle lit, he takes the picture. Maureen cuts the cake which is pineapple flavored which is a bit of a surprise. She starts handing pieces to everyone. Jo drops a frosting coated cherry on the floor which she says quite a few times she will wipe up.
After I eat my piece, I go to my office to get Miko’s gifts. As I am coming back to the classroom, I meet Jo and Maureen in the hallway with extraordinarily sour faces.
“Don’t go in there; they have got cake all over the place.” Jo says.
“It’s a Chinese birthday tradition,” Maureen adds.
“I got to see,” I say, forgetting that I am wearing my Ted Baker shirt – my nicest shirt since my Prada has disappeared. Did I leave it in a dryer at my cousins in Wagoner?
About that time, Miko comes charging out of the classroom with her face smeared with frosting. I head into the office and hide. I quickly I decide I do not want to be a part of this tradition after all. From the running around, I realize Allen and Tess ran from Miko and ducked into a vacant classroom. A second after I go into the office, Max comes charging in. Once again, Max is a cartoon character come to life. I see Miko’s face through the window of the door. I hide behind the door. I am emphatically saying “Not me, I am wearing a Ted Baker shirt.” She goes past me and puts Max in a headlock and smears frosting all over his face and in his hair. I am laughing so hard I almost vomit and pee my pants. Yes, the little things are the things that remind me why I love teaching and why I love China.