Sunday, October 22, 2006

Scripted by a different god

Saturday 10 am

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you…

As I walk down the lane through my apartment complex, a man sneezes; the sneeze sounds as if he is sneezing “Christine! Christine!” This is the sound of a Chinese sneeze.

Saturday 2 pm
This is fantastic. I am seated in Swensen’s on the 6th floor of the mall; the one at Fuzhou Road. I have never ventured this far up into the innards of the mall before. Down inside, you’re getting nervous. You’ve never been this high before.

This mall is a mixture of stores like Evisu, FCUK, Energie, G-Star, Nike and Chinese designers who desperately want to be accepted and even sought after by Westerners. One jean store has an advert for what are supposedly vintage denim jeans. A scruffy American guy that needs a haircut is standing with a pale thin blonde by a pickup truck. Imagine your typical Levi’s ad with the exception that the jeans look totally out of place in the ad. This is not on purpose. The scruffy unshaven guy is wearing fashion jeans with crazy pockets and funky stitching. They have a gay Versace look to them. (Okay that phrase was redundant.) The name of the brand is Texware. The whole mall is littered with these sorts of places.

As I was saying, Swensen’s is tucked in the corner of the food court of the sixth floor. Because I am here after the lunch rush, Swensen’s is somewhat empty and I am able to snag a seat by the window with a view of the People’s Park and Nanjing Road.

Naturally, I would love to say the view is breathtaking, spectacular, stupendous; but I cannot. People’s park is under construction, or rather the subway line under People’s Park is under construction. Due to this, two story pre-fabricated migrant housing sheds and shabby temporary tin fences plastered with pop music adverts spoil the view.

Of course, here at Swensens, which I did not previously know was here, I order a salsa cheeseburger and fries with a coca cola to drink. The cheeseburger is nothing special but it is much better than chicken feet…goose shins…pigeon. Dare-devil, she-devil, printer's-devil, evil, I love you like sin, but I won't be your pigeon.

The server brings me my check. I pull out my debit card to hand to her. She shakes her head no. This is not good. At my apartment, I keep cash on hand in case, just in case, I am not able to withdraw cash from the ATM. The server looks at my card and shakes her head no. She leads me up to the counter.

and I gotta tell the world that I make her mine make her mine, make her mine make her mine make her mine make her mine….

To a boy at the counter, I pantomime withdrawing cash with my card. He says “One floor.” He seems to mimic that the ATM is one floor below. I leave my phone with him as collateral and I go in search of an ATM. I take the escalator down one floor. I look around a bit but I do not see an ATM. Two floors down, on the sign that tells what is on that floor there is an ATM. I look for it. A young security guard walks by. My ATM card is in my hand.

The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run,
but the movie kept moving as planned
The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker,
He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny
The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started crashing his head against the locker,
started laughing hysterically…..

The young security guard looks. He looks where he thought the ATM might be, by the toilets, by the telephones, by the stairs. There is no ATM machine there…

but the movie kept moving as planned…

“1st floor,” he tells me.
I take the escalator the rest of the way down. I decide to not stop on the first floor. In the basement, the ATM is at the foot of the escalator, I go there to withdraw my cash. I hope this works. While I was eating, I thought about how ridiculous a scenario it would be if I had to call Andrea to come bring me money because I forgot to bring cash from home. I hold my breath that I can take out cash. I have withdrawn cash from this machine before. I’m hoping for lucky sevens, snake eyes.

As I am descending the escalator to the first floor, there is a stage. A throng of people surround the stage. Coming down the escalator, I watch the action. Three Chinese girls are doing some sort of pop rap pop, badly. Maybe, I hope, this is a contest and they are not actually hired. Granted, I dislike this sort of thing but I do know when there is talent – or at least a Svengali – present. The girls seem to have little vocal solos as I descend. These are embarrassingly bad. The boneheads watching do not seem to notice. It is free. It is at the mall.

I take the escalator on down to the basement. A young couple is ahead of me. They withdraw cash with no problem. Since I was able to get my balance the other night, I assume I will be able to withdraw cash but I am not going to get overly excited about the prospect.

The couple leaves. Finally, I am at the ATM machine. I put my card in and punch in my pin and punch in the amount of cash I want. The machine is silent as if it is thinking, as if it is a cop, Santa Claus, God. My heart starts to beat a little bit, a little bit faster. Sweating, I am not sweating I hope. Because it is a hot day, I am sweating because it is a hot day. Processing Request comes up on the screen. This is a good sign. Then I hear the sound, the sound of success, that sound of an ATM machine dispensing cash. Yes, the cash comes out. I grab it and run up the escalator to pay my check and grab my telephone.

Sunday 10 am

The other day, during a walk, an alternate route walk to Dairy Queen; I passed a coffee shop, on the infrequently walked road behind the apartment complex where I live. The coffee shop - small, modern and inviting – called to me.

Actually, it did not call to me but I thought I would try it on a random morning. Never ever would I throw over a Mr. Donut morning for a new coffee shop but a Sunday morning would be a fine morning to try a new coffee shop. On the way, I stop and get a small bag of croissants from the bakery just outside my apartment complex gates. When I passed the other day, I saw no baked items through the window of this promising coffee haven. The shop may serve coffee and tea only.

This, I suppose, is not that unusual. When I get to the shop, the huge metal door that slides in front of the shop is shut. The shop is not open. Of course, this particular coffee shop is not open on a Sunday morning. How silly of me to think it would be. Time for plan b.

An Egg McMuffin goes floating through my mind. This sounds really good. However, last time when I tried to get breakfast at this time of the morning, the only thing left was pancakes. The Egg McMuffin I will save for another time.

Last night on my walk, I noticed a large second floor coffee shop along Guilin Road. I will go here. These Chinese coffee shops are hard to describe. Most of the time, they have couches on each side of the table which are by the window. This seating area is elevated one step. Many times, the entry on the first floor is like the foyer of a nice hotel or ballroom with a sweeping staircase that goes up to the second floor. This coffee shop is no exception. The entrance is quite grand with a large fish tank and vases of flowers and marble everywhere.

On the second floor, I sit on a couch by the window. Drinking coffee does not seem to be a popular morning pastime here in the land of the rising sun. Over the public address, some sort of insipid Kenny G music plays. This sort of music just makes me angry. Why does this sort of music make me angry? I need to analyze this.

As I am sitting waiting for my coffee and toast, I try not to think about the fact that I am spending close to $10 for a pot of coffee and toast. The prices are enough to keep me away from this place. In a city where I can get a decent lunch for under a dollar, I do not know what has possessed me to spend $10 for coffee. Maybe from now on, I will just go to Starbucks.

And, as I am sitting waiting for my coffee, I try not to think about what is to come in the coming weeks at school. On Friday, as I was leaving, my boss told me that this next week the principal and various other staff members would be visiting my classes. This is because in a few weeks, we will have parent’s day. This is a day when the parents are invited to sit in on any of the classes they would like to observe.

If I had a textbook, if the IBO training was in English (and not Chinese), if I was teaching one subject as opposed to five; if I was teaching subjects that I had taught before, if I was teaching an age group which I had taught before; I would not mind being observed.

I have doubts because I am still learning and figuring out what I am doing. And, I am always, always overloaded and overwhelmed by the workload, under whelmed by the students. Undoubtedly, I am probably worrying for nothing. Nevertheless, this is a bit daunting. As I have said, I know this is a good experience but sometimes while you are living it, the experience part is excruciating.

As I am thinking about all of this, the server tells me something. I just agree and say “Xie Xie” (Thank you.) Embarrassed, she walks away laughing nervous laughter. In the next booth, a man is sitting with his wife eating. He asks the server something. She says something back to him. He asks me if I need help. I tell him I am not sure what the server told me. He said she gave me different choices of tastes meaning toast. Actually, I had thought maybe she had given me options on the toast.

He tells me the choices. The choices are queer. Incidentally, she has already set down condiment saucers with dabs of jams and jellies on them. Strawberry is the only jam I recognize by sight. The toast choices are chocolate (which I assume is a cake) milk (which I assume nothing) and strawberry which may be a bit like raisin bread or maybe even zucchini bread. Strawberry seems like a good choice I tell him I will have strawberry.

Next, she sets the small pot of coffee down on the table with no sugar or cream. I pantomime pouring and spooning. She disappears and brings back two sugar bowls and sets them down. If I am paying nearly ten dollars for coffee, no fucking way am I going to settle for creamer. This is an outrage. My impromptu interpreter asks me what is wrong. He can tell I am a bit annoyed. I ask if he could ask for milk for me. He does, the server comes back with one disposable milk thimble. I tell him to tell her I would like three. After all, I am paying close to ten dollars for this. Never am I rude during this, I am just frustrated. This really is a typical day at a restaurant. Most of the time, I just deal with it.

While I wait for my mysterious strawberry toast, my helpful new interpreter asks what I do. My automatic response is always “I teach English.” Although, that is not really what I do at all.
“English First?” his wife queries.
“No, I teach at the Shanghai World Foreign Language Middle School,” I say, and then I add “I am actually a school teacher.”
“Very good,” his wife says.
“Where are you from?” he asks
“England?” he guesses as an afterthought.
“America,” I say.
He says something. I agree but I do not understand what he said. He points out the window. I then understand.
“Yes,” I reply “It is the same where I am from as here. We do drive on the same side of the road. In England, they drive on the other side. You are right.”
“What state are you from?” he asks
“Oklahoma,” I say Oklahoma because I have a strange feeling he may know where it is.
“We know Oklahoma. We work with company near,” he says and then adds “in Alabama.”
“Yeah, that is about a 14 hour drive from me.”

My toast arrives. The look of shock and disbelief on my face I do not try to mask. Granted, I thought strawberry was a weird choice for bread. What is brought to me is quite beautiful but absolutely not what I thought I ordered.

The best way to describe the presentation of what I, albeit wrongly, assumed would be an average plate of toast with the condiments laid out on the side, the best way to describe this - off the mark - masterstroke is if you were to imagine the most garish whip-cream laden waffle tower at the International House of Pancakes, the kind of waffle plate that sounds good after a solid night of whiskey pounding. The plate that is now oozing with sugar, syrup and cream in front of me is the intimate kissing cousin to that.

At this point, I tell my spontaneous translator I had hoped for a plate of toast, plain toast. He says something to the server. The server says something back to him. He translates to me. The servers - and seemingly the whole staff – were concerned that the toast alone would not be enough for me.

Okay, so this is what makes this place – this country, these people – so endearing. Who writes this stuff? It as if they have a different god scripting their dialogue. In the states, on Madison Avenue, we would make this into a major add campaign for Chili’s, The Olive Garden, Sizzler like the pandering slogans ‘When You’re here you’re family;’ ‘Have it your way;’ ‘We’ll keep the light on;’ ‘You deserve a break today.’

In the sheets
there was a man
dancing around
to the simple
Rock & roll

Nevertheless, I tell him to tell the server I would prefer plain toast. The server takes my whipped cream toast colossus away. With no irony, my impromptu translator tells me - in a very kind, non-patronizing way – things are different here in China.


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