When you first move to a new neighborhood, you wander aimlessly looking for all of the shops, hoping that you will find some places that you can hit regularly for those things that you took for granted in the States but here in the People’s Republic, they do not seem to exist. You hope they exist but they do not seem to.
Here, you wander into a CD store and you find the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn (deluxe packaging) and Animals (Re-mastered), John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges (deluxe packaging), Led Zeppelin III (with the cover printed upside down – Is that like back masking?) and that Antony album that everyone raved about.
And it is like those dreams in your childhood where you find all of these great albums that you have been wanting for like a dollar. Well, here, it is true. It happened. Next to the Back Street Boy records are these finds. Yes, I have to say I did a double take when I saw Lennon’s Somewhere in New York City.
Of course, there is the downside; you purchase the new Walkmen double CD which is quite exciting since you did not even know that they released a new CD. You get it home and when you open it, one of the CDs is the last White Stripes CD which you put in the player to check it out because you didn’t listen when it came out because it had so much hype around it and you got sick about hearing about them really fast and you played them until your ears bled at the radio station where you djayed.
When you put it on, the sounds coming from the speakers of the stereo are not really what you expected. It is more Jack Black than Jack White. The first song seems to be called ‘Kill or Be Killed’ and is it ironic? Maybe? Somehow you have stumbled on to some devil music of some sort. You listen to snippets of each song and you still wonder if it is supposed to be ironic. By this time, you are fairly certain that it is not the White Stripes or the Walkmen. Maybe Ween (another band starting with the letter ‘W’) have released another ironic release this time capturing the irony of death metal. Ironic isn’t it?
In my neighborhood, I have found three CD / DVD shops. Two of them are quite good and I am left to my own devices to browse. At the third shop, the clerk who is somewhat adorable seemed to want to impress the girls with his selling skills. As I am looking for anything remotely interesting, he hands me Rod Stewart sings Gershwin which I assume is some new schlock that Rod (the Mod not God – insert Rutles reference here) has gotten himself into. I just laugh and shake my head no which does nothing good for the young clerk but makes the girls at the shop titter uncontrollably.
The next thing he hands to me is a bit of a mystery. It says Andy Williams Moon River on the cover but the picture is of Don Williams. I guiltily love Andy Williams. He was one of the artists that my mom and I loved together. One of her favorite albums, which is indeed one of my favorite albums that I buy anytime I see it on vinyl and so in storage I have multiple copies of it is his album Days of Wine and Roses. ‘Exactly like You’ is one of those songs that my mom would sing to me when I was a kid. When I was in the eighth grade, way before he went Branson, my mom and I went to see him in concert at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center which at the time was only a few years old. Now, I am in Shanghai with a precious (I like the way you cross the street ‘cause your precious) clerk flashing Andy William Moon River in front of me. How do I tell him that is not Andy on the cover; that is Don? How do I say it’s okay to an answering machine? How do I explain the significance of Andy not Don?
But I ain’t got time for that now. At every grocery store I enter, I look for cheese. Immediately, I make a beeline to the dairy section. In Songjiang, I knew I could get cheese at the Bai Ren Fa. The way I see it, if I can get cheese in Songjiang, I sure as heck should be able to get it somewhere close by in Shanghai – estimated population 18 million.
Now and then, I am greeted by processed cheese-food slices that are about five steps down from American Kraft Singles. Imagine cheap processed cheese from Buy for Less; it isn’t hard to do. That is what I must contend with when it comes to cheese here in the People’s Republic. From somebody who made daily trips to the cheese store on 3rd Avenue in New York City, this is maybe the most difficult struggle that I have had to battle; if you can call the lack of cheese a battle.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand – cheese – I need it; I need it real bad. I have to find cheese. At the grocery across the street from my apartment – where I can handpick a meal of sushi for a little over a buck – I found the sort of cheese that you might get as a cheap gift, some sort of Hickory Farms dairy reject. It was packaged in the same sort of cylindrical wooden box as brie. Okay, this is a step up from the processed cheese-food slices that seem to be the rule. Spread on a crescent or a baguette, this cheese is actually pretty decent.
Speaking of, the abundance of good bread is truly a mystery to me. When I am out walking, I walk by countless bakeries, many of them claiming to be French. These bakeries sell the usual fare – crescents, baguettes, éclairs and other pastries. With all of the bakeries, and all of the access to baguettes and crescents and loaves of bread, why in the name of all that is cheddar, Edam, provolone and colby jack (or longhorn, rather) is there a cheese shortage in China? This gives me pause. This makes me want to move.
Sometimes, I have to take my cheese snob mask off and just deal with the fact that cheese here is about as rare as non-judgmental Baptists.
So of course when I do find cheese here packaged in hunks, it is a bit of a cause for celebration for me. Yesterday, when I was out searching for candles and other apartment accessories, I ducked in to grocery stores on recon cheese missions. At the Linhua by the TrustMart, I scored. Not only did they carry the brand of cheddar from New Zealand that I have found at Bai Ren Fa in Songjiang but they had my old friend Lady of the Lake from the USA. Since I was on a walking tour, I did not grab it. I just made a mental note to come back.
Across the street, I ate at a Chinese fast food place which I am relegated to these sorts of eateries for the most part here because usually on the menu board the food is pictured. As well, there is usually a menu with photographs of available food. Although, I am not a big fan of soy milk in the States, for some reason here it is different. I really dig it. At this fast food place, I had the cold soy milk and a sticky stuffed bun stuffed with mushroom and mystery meat. As long as I don’t know it is chicken feet, I do not mind eating it. Around here, when it comes to food, ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ is my motto.
Nevertheless, for the most part, I have settled into my apartment. Last night, I found candles when I walked and walked past construction sites, past the Happy Jinjiang Amusement Park, past a strange hotel with ramshackle jets grounded, bolted down in the back garden. I finally happened upon the South Brilliance Mall which made me feel as if I was doing the timewarp back to the suburbs of San Diego in 1975. At the South Brilliance Mall, I found a store that had a Target aesthetic to it. In my jaunts through the neighborhood, I have come upon many a Chinese discount store that promises the pleasure of Target but does not quite deliver. This store delivered. At this store, there was a whole section devoted to candles which does not sound like that big of a deal but here it is. No one has candles. Sonic Youth sang an ode to candles on Daydream Nation and it was called…what in the heck was that song called? Oh yeah, it was called ‘CANDLE.’ And, as a matter of fact, there is a candle on the dadblasted album cover.
As gay as it sounds, I am man in love with candles and cheese. To me, these are two of the staples that hold our civilization together as we know it. Of course, with the cheese, I would love to have some wine but now that I do not drink, I have to be content with just cheese. That in itself is one reason that it is such a tragedy that cheese is so scarce here.
As I was saying, at the South Brilliance Mall, I found candles which actually surprised me because I have searched everywhere for candles and I have found them only at one other place since I have been here in China. Since I had walked a few miles, I decided to grab more than a couple. I grabbed six. Six seemed to be enough to put in the bathroom while I bathed and still have a few to place around the apartment. Now when I walk into the apartment, I have that candle smell which is so not Chinese.
While I was there at the place that I want to call TrustMart but TrustMart was a place that had no candles, I bought an ashtray. I know smoking is bad but I only smoke one cigarette a night, if that even. Since I no longer drink – when I was a drinker, I drank wine in the bathtub – I decided I would smoke a cigarette while I bathed which of course seems a little English Patient but oh well; sometimes decadence is a cliché. As a matter of fact, decadence always seems to be a cliché. Smoking is the new drinking.
In the late evening, I take my nightly walk. Here, I take long morning walks, leisurely midday walks and exploratory late evening walks. All walks are exploratory in someway when it comes down to it. Tonight, I decide to take the long walk back to the South Brilliance Mall. This time, I take a different path. Before I took the straight shot to the expressway which I walk alongside the entire way, this time I zigzag through neighborhood streets, trying to keep my bearings.
As I am walking through strange deserted neighborhoods, I think to myself I should not be carrying as much money as I am carrying, not that I am in a bad neighborhood. I am in a deserted nice neighborhood. The money from the camp, I had put into my wallet out of my desk drawer before I moved because I did not want to misplace it during the move. I have not put it anywhere yet for safe keeping. It is still padding my wallet. I feel as if I am some scotched out businessman without the scotch of course.
Then I think that for the most part, there is not that much crime here. The authorities, as I have said before, deal with crime swiftly and severely. You mug someone on Monday; you’re tried Tuesday; you’re publicly hanged Wednesday. This makes me walk easier. Although from the heat, I am a little chafed so I am not walking as easily as I would like to walk.
Pink Floyd’s ‘Lucifer Sam’ plays in my head. Sometimes my head has the best random play jukebox. Barrett passed recently. There were a few human interest articles on him in the Guardian; one written by famous rock photographer Mick Rock (who befriended Barrett before he went off the deep-end), an art school friend of Barrett’s wrote the other article. Both of the articles were touching in that they showed his playful pre-depressive, pre-mindblown self.
After walking a long desolate city block, I come upon nightlife of sorts. I come upon a vein off of the main vein that is the expressway. I walk under an overpass. I stand next to a swarm of scooters. I have become fixated by the bright yellow ones. When I get a scooter, I will purchase a bright yellow one.
As I am walking under the overpass, I spot a huge building that has a sign that says METRO in big bright orange letters. The building is set back with a huge parking lot with a few cars and busses in front. The building is far enough away that I can not really tell what it is exactly. On first inspection, it looks like some sort of corporate office for the city’s metro employees. Metro signs are everywhere here for the subway. The lettering is a bit different but that just seems to me to be because this is China and how things are done here.
Really, I have no particular place to go. I am a bit like that Chuck Berry song. I walk through the parking lot. I figure I might as well check this out. After all, I am an urban explorer. As I get closer, to the building, I notice it is some sort of retail store, maybe a builder’s supply. The building is massive and it seems to be just one store not lots of stalls with random items such as socks and hair ties which seem to be the main thing that those stall stores sell.
The entrance has a turnstile with two high desks on each side as opposed to the sort of entrance that most huge mega stores have in America. What I have walked into seems to be more Orwellian than Kafkaesque. Somehow I have walked through the looking glass and I have walked into an Orwellian Sam’s Club (which is probably a redundant statement). The first thing I see is a package of six pairs of slippers for 9 yuan which is roughly $1.12.
Aimlessly, I wander through the store. I stop in front of the flat screen televisions and daydream about how cool one would look at my new place. A young couple is looking at them at the same time. The sound is turned down on all of them. The controls are on the side of the televisions. The one I like, I try to turn up the volume. The screen goes blue. The couple looks at me. As they continue looking at me, I hit all of the buttons with no luck. The blue screen does not change; the screen stays blue. The couple is intrigued by me. Finally, the young man comes to my rescue. He pushes as many buttons as I did with no luck (because I probably really threw it off when I was panicking). Finally he hits the top button and the picture comes back. I smile and walk away.
Of course, I come across more candles while I meander through the store. This is good to know, another place to buy candles. Along with electric kettles, I stumble upon coffee makers and espresso machines. Coffee is not an every morning sort of thing here. People may go to Starbucks as a treat but most Chinese do not get up and have a cup of coffee. When they do, the coffee is instant. Thus, to stumble upon the coffee makers, espresso machines and especially coffee grinders is a bit of a small shock. Have I suddenly been teleported to Midwest City?
If there is coffee paraphernalia, there must be coffee unless it is comparable to the marijuana paraphernalia law in which the said wares are sold ‘for tobacco use only.’ Perhaps this Candyland of coffee paraphernalia is meant to be used for tea. The grinder to grind the tea leaves into hashish.
Oh well, maybe I will stumble upon coffee. Coffee, like cheese and candles, is another item that I perpetually look for. When I do find it at a few select stores, the price is excruciatingly high, to the tune of eight or nine dollars for a small can. Why is coffee so danged expensive in the People’s Republic? Something tells me, cocaine is cheaper here.
As I browse, I think about the upcoming semester. Lately, I have had quite a few lucid moments regarding thoughts pertaining to next term’s curriculum. This has been a constant struggle because I have not had anyone at the school who I can ask what they want these classes to entail. One of the classes I am to teach is an all encompassing arts class. The language and the pedagogy phraseology, I have thought over. In this situation I feel as if the school is looking for something that sounds impressive, something to rattle the parents’ brains in an academic way. The course can certainly be what I make it which I think will be educational.
As I browse, I think, I think about how I want to structure the course. This course is to follow the International Baccalaureate Organization standard. All of these thoughts blast through my head like Rachmaninoff style piano runs. Of course, I do not want to be known as the Liberace of language.
The all encompassing art course, I have decided, will be divided into three categories – visual arts, performing arts, and aural arts. From what I have ascertained by reading the IBO’s mission statement, whenever it is possible to have subjects cross over and intermingle with one another that is a success. Of course with the visual arts, we will study art and artists. Briefly, we will study art history but our emphasis will be pop art and found art which again fits the IBO profile because the IBO encourages environmental awareness. Nothing says environmental awareness like found art.
Earlier today, as I listened to the Beatles’ ‘Rain,’ it suddenly became important to play this for my future middle school class. This feeling of grave pop importance overtook me as I was listening to the song, as I was listening to the song and falling in love with the song without drugs and without booze all over again. Of course, I could pontificate about what an important song it is in the heralding in of psychedelia to the mainstream but more importantly for me, I want to know what my students have to say about the song. I want some 12 year old to tell me what sort of attitude Lennon has while he is singing. Why is the backward singing at the end of the song like magic, like shamanism? Something inside me tells me a Chinese youngster will have a specific insight into this.
This is aural art. ‘Revolution # 9’ has been said to be a sound collage countless times. What makes it any different than Rauschenberg’s Canyon? In comparison, what is the equivalent to Warhol’s Marilyn in the terms of pop music? ‘Hey Jude?’ ‘Imagine?’ ‘Tumbling Dice?’
Then performing art of course is drama but then we can add performance art to that and film studies. That brings the subject back around to the visual arts because Film is a visual art and a performing art. This, I think about while I am meandering through this strange Chinese equivalent to Sam’s Club. I walk into the meat department which is sequestered into its own cold storage room. Pig carcasses hang as if they are waiting to star in some early 1990s Nine Inch Nails video or Marilyn Manson photo shoot.
I do find the coffee. There is a whole section. Most of it is expensive but I find a small package of Rumba (made in Italy) for $2.50. Happy, I walk on through the store. ‘I need a love to keep me happy.’ That jukebox in my head keeps on playing. This is such a pleasant surprise. To know that I can come to a real store where I can purchase real food is comforting. Of course, something as strange as cheese is too much to hope to find.
I think of the cheese store in New York City. Going in was a constant surprise. In the front of the store were the special deals, hunks of Edam for a buck, havarti for a buck and a quarter. On really wonderful, lucky days; their might be a cheese on special laced with cranberry. Those New York City cheese days are some of the best food days of my life.
But then, I stumble upon it. Seriously, I almost start crying. This is overwhelming. This is like Dorothy stepping out of her twister catapulted farmhouse. In front of me is a whole aisle of cheese, every sort of cheese that your heart can imagine is represented, Swiss, Colby, cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, Edam, havarti. All of it is here. All of it is ready to be gnawed and bitten. I almost hug an old Chinese woman I am so happy.
Most of it is unmarked, I do not care that I do not know the price. This is my manna from heaven. I grab as much as I can hold in my arms and walk the mission accomplished walk to the cashier. This is like in a movie, an 80s movie starring C. Thomas Howell and Ally Sheedy. This is success. Here comes success.
Okay, I must retract something. I am sorry but I just told a whopping lie, a fib, a falsehood, an untruth. I, in fact, do not grab all the cheese I can carry and walk to the cashier. That is just a stupid lie. Why I would write a stupid lie that could easily be verified. You could easily find out I was lying lying lying if you called the Metro supermarket in Shanghai and found out what cashier’s line the goofy little American - who was doing the mission accomplished walk – which line he went and stood in. Of course, checking would mean that you would no doubt have to learn Chinese or at least learn enough to be able to find out yay or nay on if I did in fact walk with an armload of cheese down the aisle as if I was getting married to this my dairy bride; but now, it does not matter because I have come clean.
Instead, I grab one package of cheddar and walk to the cashier. By the way, I do not do the mission accomplished walk. I walk normal, chafed but normal.
At the cashier, this is when everything starts to go a little wrong. The man before me checks out and he seems to need a card from what I can tell before he can pay. Whether this is a discount card or an actual Sam’s Club type card, I do not know. Me, I just proceed like nothing is wrong.
When I get to the cashier, she says something to me. I have no idea what it is. She might be asking me if I am trailer trash - cut or uncut? – Whatever. I have no idea. This actually works. She punches in some code which I take to mean is her own code. The man before me had to ask the lady before him to borrow her card. I smile and tell her thank you in Chinese, still one of the only phrases I know.
I pay and am pointed to another cashier sitting at a customer service style desk where I assume I get my receipt stamped. At most grocery stores here, there is a guard at the door who stamps your receipt. That this one is a woman sitting behind a large counter in the front of the store does not seem overly peculiar.
Like some discount places in America, this is a bag yourself store. I have a few items – coffee, jam, ham, cheese. The woman at the counter has bags behind her. I hand her my receipt. She just looks at me and says something. Of course, I have no idea what she just said. We stare at each other for about a minute but it seems embarrassingly like it is much longer.
A man who speaks broken English steps up to translate. Yes, it is that time again; translate what is going on with the goofy American. He knows enough English to tell me that I have to pay. I tell him I have already paid. He tells me this is improbable. Improbable? I point to the cashier that I paid who before did not have a long line at her stand but now she does. I have paid. I try not to get upset because I know once we talk to the cashier she will straighten this out but it is just one more small thorn in the side that happens here. I point to the receipt and tell him I paid close to 95 yuan already.
“No, you must pay for your bag,” the man tells me. I start laughing. The bag is .3 yuan which is somewhere in the vicinity of 3 or 4 cents. There are 10 in a yuan. One yuan is equal to about 12 cents. I hand the lady 3 of the small coins. The man explains the mix-up to her. All of us laugh; I leave the store in good mood.
As I am walking through the American sized parking lot, I have to smile again. It is always good when you have to smile again. A happy family of four is coming to the Metro to shop. They are your average nuclear family. However, what separates them from the average American family is the fact that they are all on one cycle. The small son is riding the gas tank; the father is behind him guiding the cycle; the mother behind the father; and the daughter who looks a bit older than the son is riding on the back fender. This is living; this is living in China.
As I am observing this, I realize that there is an extra family member. Here, one child is the rule. Maybe one of the children is a niece or nephew.
‘Whatever gets you through the night plays in my head’ as I walk home from the Metro Discount Mega Mart. ‘Don’t need a sword to cut through flowers…Don’t need a gun to blow your mind.’