Friday, July 28, 2006

The eunuch is singing Judy Collins....

Today, I am not in the mood. Most of the time, when someone cuts in front of me, I do not get offended. To me, I am in their country and they figure that I am going to take longer or whatever to accomplish what I need done. Today, however, I have my bus fare out ready to hand it to the woman at the ticket window and a man just muscles in front of me and buys three tickets. This should not be a big deal but I just think it is really rude. When I get to the window, I smile and hand her my 6 yuan and she hands me my seat assignment. The bus which goes from Songjiang to Shanghai and vice versa has 48 seats.

I board the bus. I take my seat – seat 18. As I am looking out the window, I watch a woman boarding the bus next to mine throw two Styrofoam containers down on the ground (what was once her lunch no doubt) as she board said bus. After she boards the bus, she comes back to the door to throw her napkin on the ground.

This is one of the things that really bugs me about this place. The people do not seem to even give a thought to littering. There are not repercussions for littering here. People are not fined so they do not think anything of throwing trash around a parking lot, a school, the downtown or the Yangtze, wherever. They just litter away.

Because of this, I think of that anti-trash commercial from the 1970s. The one with the Native American (of course back then they were called Indians) who is walking around a stream and from what I remember he sees people littering and a tear comes to his eye. I think that is how it went anyway.

Maybe, the government needs to rethink that commercial here and adapt it to the Chinese. Perhaps, we could have a concubine or a eunuch walking around, or maybe both, or maybe they are even one and the same. Okay, we see a eunuch, a concubine, and an emperor having a picnic in a ravine next to a waterfall. There cutlery and such is made from bamboo and rattan. The emperor’s servants are setting everything out onto the ground on an elaborately woven rug. The emperor, the concubine and the eunuch are laughing and joking and having a wonderful time. The rug has tons of food laid upon it. There is wine served. The spirit of the meal is merry. The concubine is dancing. The eunuch is singing Judy Collins (whom I heard is a nightmare in person) ‘Send in the Clowns.’ The emperor is smoking the eunuch’s opium.

Until a rowdy group of teenagers on scooters drinking beer rolls by and throws a beer bottle into the ravine unaware of the picnic. The bottle sails into the ravine becoming an accidental dangerous weapon in the process. Although, it is seen as a dangerous weapon, there is still a bit of beer in it which soaks the concubine’s face. The emperor, not wanting to lose face, says a few magic emperor words and the rug begins to fly. The concubine, mad, is no longer dancing. The eunuch is now singing Croce’s ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown.’

The picnickers are now in hot pursuit of the rowdy scooter boys. The emperor is determined to give the upstarts a little of their own medicine. He is determined to soak them back. However, he does not want to waste the wine. And the group of diners did not bring any beer to backwash onto the rowdy scooter boys.

Instead, the emperor draws his sword. One by one, he lops their heads off. The eunuch is now singing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ The heads go flying. Since they are all high on opium, this is the funniest thing ever. They laugh. They laugh so hard they come close to wetting themselves. In Chinese characters, while this commercial is airing, a slogan would read ‘Do Not Litter Or The Emperor Will Decapitate You, Motherfucker!’

Of course, within a few minutes, the man in charge of sweeping the parking lot swept the refuse into a big green trash bin. I look over at the woman who is basically sitting across from me in the next bus. She is guzzling a bottle of grapefruit juice. She does not know I am watching her. This is giving me a voyeuristic strange pleasure.


While I am perfecting my revolutionary state of the art litter commercial, the line cutter sits down next to me. Figures, I think to myself. He and the two people that he is with are chatting and laughing loudly. He says something to me in Chinese. In Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. He repeats the same thing and laughs. Again, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand as I throw up my hands. I do smile as I say this. However, today, I am not in the mood to be the foreign butt of the joke.

We ride in silence. I stare out the window of the bus. My seat mate finally puts his head in his hands and rests. I feel a bit guilty. He cut in front of me in line. He probably did not even realize. He was just being friendly to me. Usually, I am friendly but today I am not in the mood.

The bus arrives at the stadium at 11:30. Michael and I agreed to meet at 1 pm. So that I am sure of where it is, I decide to walk by the office first. The office is close to the stadium. At one point there is a fork in the road, I have to jog my memory which way to go. I pick the right way. I find the office. This eats up about fifteen or twenty minutes.
I still have over an hour before I have to meet Michael.

The only thing that I ate for breakfast was two skinny pieces of toast and butter with my coffee. I am hungry for lunch. I keep my eyes open for anywhere where I think I might be able to negotiate the menu. Although I am not familiar with this part of the city, I hope that I can find a place like a cafeteria where I can point to what I want or a place with pictures on the menu so again I can point to what I want. Often, the choices are limited.

During this walk, I do not pass many restaurants. I pass a hotel restaurant, a nice restaurant named Orchid and a hole in the wall that frightens me more than just a little. The street that I go down has long stretches of nothing. There is a concrete wall that seems to suggest a neighborhood is being leveled and then built up again. This is very common here. Many people, foreigners especially, hate that historic neighborhoods are being bulldozed to make way for concrete and glass high-rises. I would love them to preserve the historical neighborhoods but then this is not my battle. Do I have the right to argue what is wrong and right here?

As I am walking, I daydream of happening into one of those diners that you might accidentally stumble upon in Topeka, Enid, Arkansas City, or Amarillo; one of those diners where the waitresses have been waiting the same tables for twenty or twenty five years, their children have gone from dishwashers to cooks to college to families; one of those diners that offer cottage cheese and a hamburger patty as a diet plate; a diner that has apple pie, cherry pie, chocolate pie and pecan pie – pecan pie is offered on Sundays only, a diner with autographed pictures of local celebrities such as college football stars and regional newscasters.

On a corner, I see a restaurant with a menu on a podium outside. I decide to glance over the menu which surprisingly has the items listed in English. The items I see immediately are various kinds of pasta. Without further ado, I walk in and I am sat at a two top.

The waitress hands me a menu. I look over the menu. There are quite a few dishes that look appetizing. They have spaghetti, different types of sandwiches, and pizza. The menu lists a hamburger and fries. I decide that is what I want. Of course, I fantasize that this will be the perfect diner hamburger. I order a coke with it.

I tell myself to not get my hopes up because this might not be the sort of hamburger that I assume it to be. I remember my disastrous hamburger incident at KFC in Ningbo, the thing that looked like a hamburger but was actually a piece of cod. Who knows what will be under that bun? Will it be an all beef patty? Or will it be pigeon, squirrel, roast newt?

As I am waiting, I take notes in a little notebook that I brought with me. I am starting to micromanage my time. I make a to-do list of projects for next year for my art classes– make a papier mache mask, find sealer, enlarge a photo of myself for a self portrait. Occasionally, I look up to see if my burger is coming. The time is now 12:25. I still have plenty of time to eat and walk back to the office but I hope that the burger comes soon. I do not want to be pushing it.

The burger arrives. The burger is one of those little fat patties that is actually smaller than the bun that covers it. Before I take a bite, I eat a French fry which is surprisingly good. The fry is a standard diner fry. I am happy. I dip it in the catsup that the waiter brought on a separate saucer. Then, I try the burger. This is the moment of burger truth.

The burger is not bad. By no means, is this one of the best burgers I have ever had but it is not one of the worst. The only thing that I really do not like is that the bun is soaked with mayonnaise. Really, I do not like mayonnaise in the least on my burgers. This time, however, I let it slide. I eat my burger and fries and drink my coke. I am ready to see this apartment.

Okay, after I pay my check, I head to the office. Michael tells me he will be ready to go to see the apartment in ten minutes. No hurry, I tell him. I sit in the office and daydream about the apartment. Roy comes in and chats in Chinese to the ladies at the front desk. Roy and Michael picked me up at the airport when I flew here from New York. Roy does not know that much English so I do not say anything to him.

I do not speak to him until we are heading to the car. I tell him hello. This is probably not strange to him because we have a language barrier. Roy drives. Michael sits shotgun. I sit in the back seat.

We pull into the high school where I am not teaching. Michael says he will be right back. He goes to the guard house at the entrance. He comes back.

We then pull into the middle school where I will be teaching. Michael tells me this is my school. I tell him I know. He gets out of the car and goes to the gate house again. He comes back to the car. We pull away and then pull into the apartments next door to the school. I say this is really close. We weave through the apartment complex.

We get to the apartment which is on the first floor. Michael tells me the landlord lives upstairs. We wait for the landlord to come down the stairs. We do not wait long. He appears. We are at the front entrance. He takes us around back. He does not have the key to the front.

Actually, this is nice to come into the back door. We come in through the back patio. I was told by Elizabeth the place has a yard. It does not, but it does have a nice big back enclosed patio. The entrance to the patio is private. My apartment is the only apartment that can be accessed. We walk into the patio and then through a sliding glass door to the living room which has wood floors and some nice columns. The place is really nice. The bedroom has a big cedar closet. There is a nice big open area off of the living room. The kitchen is small but nice. The kitchen cabinets are royal blue. The other exciting factor: I have a tub.

Of course, there is one drawback. You could probably guess what this is if you think on it for a moment. Yes, you guessed it. The living room furniture is puke dreadful. Part of me says, oh look at it like kitsch. I would love to but I can’t. Sure, it looks like Edith Bunker and Ben Cartwright went shopping and picked it out together. We could call it low-rent ranch. It would have been perfect in those trailer park Calvin Klein ads a few years ago. But I absolutely cannot do it.

I tell Michael I do not want the furniture in the living room. He tells me he will tell the landlord. This seems like a done deal. It turns out the person showing us the apartment is not the landlord but a friend with the key. The landlord shows up. He has done a really good job on the place. There are wood floors and marble tile floors throughout.

Michael tells him I do not want the living room furniture. This is when that old familiar song and dance begins. Well, we could move the sofa to this wall. I tell Michael I do not want it at all. He tells me that the furniture goes with the place. The landlord has no other place to put it. I tell him I do not want it.

This is the deal. Here, the popular view on furnishing is to put as many sofas and chairs in a room as you can. The living room is actually a nice size but with a sofa and two easy chairs and a large side table, the living room is now crowded.

Without a doubt, I do not want this crap in my new living room. The landlord tells Michael that he spent 7,000 yuan for the furniture and I will only be there for a year so he does not want to get rid of the furniture. Once I am gone, he will be stuck with no furniture and he will have to buy chairs and another sofa.

I ask Michael if perhaps we could move the furniture to the office. He says that we cannot do that because the furniture belongs to the apartment not the office.

As we are talking about this, I weigh all of the pros and cons. The last two weekends, I have had to haggle about furniture that I do not want. I know there must be a solution. We finally come to an agreement. The furniture will be stowed in a corner on the patio. At first, I did not want to do this but then as I thought about it, I could put a screen in front of that corner and no one would be the wiser.

There are many positive things about taking this apartment. An immediate move-in is the most positive aspect. Another positive, I would not have to pay an agent fee. I tell him I will take it.

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