Wednesday September 8, 2011
Another day, another class, another meal at the Muslim noodle shop. Our tiger mother invited us to a wedding when we first arrived in China. Today was the big day. She sent her niece, Nana, to escort us. Nana is tall and pretty and speaks good English. We met her at the Television and Film building. She wanted to see the dorms, but first, she informed us, we had to buy a special envelope for our gift [Chinese weddings require a minimum cash gift. The gift for this wedding was 200 RMB]. After buying the envelopes, we hiked up the stairs to our rooms. She said my room was dirty [the next morning I cleaned it].
We were told that the wedding was a traditional Chinese wedding, so I was expecting a ceremony in an open space with very specific clothing and maybe fireworks or something. I was a little confused when we pulled up to a hotel. Several of the lower levels of the hotel are designated for events. We entered a banquet room on the third floor that hosts two or three weddings a week. The banquet room had thirty round tables that sit eight people. Each table had a Lazy Susan that had various types of pre-meal food, a botte of baiju, a bottle of wine and other non-alcoholic drinks. Apparently there aren’t any traditional weddings in China. Many people get married by going to a judge. People with money will host an event like the one that we attended.
The ceremony was supposed to begin at six. In what has become a de facto tradition, the ceremony didn’t begin until 6:45. By then I was starting to get annoyed. Then the emcee took the stage. Yes, an emcee, as if we were at a bar mitzvah. The emcee announces the bride and groom who come forward and do some kind of weird, fake western ceremony that involves lighting candles while the emcee yells into the microphone presumably about how beautiful the bride or love or both is. I found this to be extremely annoying, but I was glad it was over. We started eating. The food was terrible. Whenever the meal is “traditional”, it’s terrible. The meat they serve you gets weirder and there is no rice and no noodles to fill your stomach. In the middle of biting into a piece of jellyfish [I have no idea why anybody would choose to eat jellyfish. It tastes like what Quentin Tarantino’s penis looked like in Planet Terror] the emcee starts yelling into the microphone again. Apparently there were more games to be played. These games lasted another two hours. Halfway through the festivities I left to go get fresh air and to relieve myself of some jellyfish. I must have been gone for thirty minutes.
When I returned Laurel was holding a stuffed animal he had won. Two minutes after I sat down they started playing “American Music” [Their idea of American Music, or at least American jazz, is Muzack. I should have mentioned earlier that when the emcee was announcing special guests he announced the three Americans in the crowd. He welcomed us to Nanjing.]. They insisted that we dance. On stage. We weren’t even drunk because we weren’t allowed to open the baiju. But rather than let down a room of 250 people, we went on stage and danced [If we were to make the three Chinese people at an American wedding dance, the UN would have our heads. Well they don’t have any power, but we would be in some kind of trouble.]. Sufficiently humiliated, we sat down. The emcee, however, was not finished. He made Laurel give a name for the newly wedded couple’s baby. Laurel chose the name Rose, very obviously trying to extricate himself from the spotlight. No luck, because five minutes later they requested that one of us sing. Laurel and I tried to pass the buck to one another. He eventually stepped up. I told him to sing “Row, row, row your boat.” It was a smash.
It was pretty much over after that, but I was so worn out from the whole thing that I had to go get more fresh air, not realizing that the wedding was literally ending as I left the room. The whole thing, as I’m writing it, sounds fun and harmless, but it was infuriating and frustrating while it was happening. The only upside was that we were allowed to take home the unopened bottle of baiju. I cracked it open and took a swig every couple of minutes while writing my Chinese characters. Suddenly I could care less about the wedding. And then a fuse blew in my room. Not a huge deal but a little inconvenient. Also the lounge was shut down. Basically someone closed the door and we don’t have a key. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but I was drying my laundry in there. Oy vey.
Thursday September 8, 2011
It turns out that I didn’t blow a fuse in my room, that is how the electricity works. You have to buy it in advance, a minor detail Howard forgot to mention. After class Laurel and I went to the office that Howard sent us to, but they looked at us like we were crazy when we explained that we were there to buy electricity. We returned to the dorm and I ranted and raved about Chinese beauracracy. Eventually Laurel left to run some errands and I took a deep breath and fell asleep. I awoke to a repairman trying to fix the electricity. The people in the office had misunderstood us. They thought there was a physical problem with the electricity. I had to explain for five minutes with various hand gestures that they were wrong.
Friday September 9, 2011
Laurel and I ate lunch inside of an outdoor mall at a coffee shop. Their menu said they had western food which turned out to be a plate with rice and chicken. Soup was served on the side. Chinese soup. Very western. I called Rachel because I didn’t know how close I was to the school. It was inside of the mall, on the third floor. We were introduced to the teachers and then shuffled into a classroom. Five or six teachers acted as my students. What unfolded was five minutes of a grown woman acting like (read: retarded) five year-old. Like full on retarded. I struggled to convey my message. Because they didn’t tell me how old the (pretend) kids were going to be, I made a lesson plan for kids who understood the concept of words. Kids who are old enough to learn. The lesson was how to say “Hello, my name is John. I am from China.” After about five extremely frustrating moments Rachel and her panel critiqued my teaching style. Except most of the critique was about my lesson plan. I was growing angrier and angrier. Eventually we left. She told us that we could come back tomorrow and watch Adam, some fruitcake who works there, teach a demo class to prospective students.
Anyway, four hours and three double glasses of Jameson’s later, I was able to talk again. Laurel and I tried out an American bar that was listed in the expat magazine. It was easily the best western bar we’ve been to so far. They play sports on HDTVs and they have hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza. The name of the place is Jimmy’s, owned by a fella by the name of Jimmy. From Tennessee. He’s been in Nanjing for eleven years. For those keeping track at home, that’s a long time. As we munched down on French fries a little alley cat walked in and sat next to us. I don’t know if cats are good luck in China, but he made me feel better. I left my issues on Jimmy’s table. We called Luciano. Ellen’s bar was the rendezvous spot. Laurel and I arrived first. Ellen’s was packed, not a seat in the house. Luciano arrived in a taxi and we all hopped in and headed to a different part of the city.
[While we were waiting for Luciano, I got a call from a woman, Gloria. Our teacher gave her our number because she’s looking for Americans to voice a cartoon. We are meeting here on Saturday.]
Luciano had a friend with him. Katie is visiting from Beijing. She knows Luciano from Austria, the old country. It makes sense that they’re friends, they’re both very laid back which is a good thing to be when hanging out with two idiots. Luciano took us to a gay bar. We met a guy name Peter immediately. He asked to sit at our table. We never really figured out if he was gay or not. We ordered eight pints of piss-water (2.5% alcohol) and drank through the boredom. The bar was mildly amusing, but we weren’t sure why Luciano brought us there [I don’t know how I feel about going to a gay bar and saying that is was mildly amusing. It seems to smack of bigotry. Or at least some kind of exploitation. To be fair, they later put on a show which was more than mildly amusing.].
And then the show started. At first it was a couple of karaoke singers including a pre-op transvestite [Laurel and I called that she was a man, but Luciano and Katie maintained she was a woman until she stopped singing and spoke. I didn’t have to wait for that, I could tell from the breasts.]. Then two boys got up and danced extremely provocatively. There number lasted a couple minutes. Then it was someone’s birthday. They gave him a cake and made him go to the stage. In standard Chinese form, they yelled into the microphone for ten minutes about the same thing. They spoke in the regional dialect so not even Luciano understood them. That finally ended. The owner of the bar came on stage in a dress, a wig and a terrible make-up job. He was meant to still look like a man. He had drawn lipstick around his lips so that he looked like a clown. He was joined on stage by a more, but not by much, feminine drag queen. She performed a pole dance that was hilarious. She couldn’t jump up high enough to get on the pole so she had to get a stool. Comedy gold. The owner and she started to do shtick, but we were ready for the next bar.
The next bar was castle bar. Very crowded on a Friday night. We ordered a whiskey and a beer and sat down next to a pool table that belonged in a Michel Gondry film. Everything was slightly smaller: the balls, the cues, the table itself, etc. The cue ball was missing so they used the 1-ball, solid yellow. At first glance it looked normal, but once you stared at it for awhile you noticed something was amiss. That’s actually a good microcosm for China. We met a few people in the bar, Luciano’s friends. The girl, Erin, is from South Carolina. She had been in China for five years. Shiraz, her boyfriend, is also a student. We chatted for a bit and then they dispersed. The bar was getting on our nerves so we went upstairs (the bar was downstairs) to buy some baijiu. On a side street, around the corner from the bar, there was a bunch of food carts set up and a few old, rickety tables with rickety benches. There was also a liquor store type thing there. We bought two bottles of baiju, 36% and 56% respectively. We drank and ate and drank and eventually Laurel and I began freestyling. The table next to us took notice, but they said nothing. After an hour of drunken nonsense we returned to the bar in search of McFlurries. There is a McDonald’s right next door to the bar. Laurel ordered a McFlurry, but the manager informed him that it was past the hour for McFlurries.
We went to the curb and reunited with Erin and Shiraz and a few other people from the bar. Laurel and I began making crude jokes. We met a Palestinian who was scared of going to California because of the gays. We began telling him how everyone in California was gay and that we would sodomize him if he ever came to California, as was required by law. [I felt making fun of his homophobia exorcised any demons I had from earlier in the night.] Shiraz had a Native American on his shirt and we made some inappropriate remarks about it. Laurel began spouting nonsense at an unprecedented clip. Everyone was dying of laughter. At some point we got onto the subject of races. The Palestinian guy professed his love for Jews. That was deemed to be too weird. We took a taxi back home and fell asleep.
Saturday, Sunday, Monday September 10 - 12, 2011
I remember volunteering to go get water Saturday morning because Laurel and I were in a bad way. We were sober by the time dinner rolled around. We met Laurel’s family friends at their apartment. We went to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It lasted awhile, and even though we were tired all day long we still called Luciano to see what he was doing. He told us to meet him at the school. Katie was with him when we arrived. The four of us got into a taxi, but before we made it to the first stop sign, we saw an outdoor barbecue and beer drinking event going on across the street. [Laurel and I had met with a woman earlier that day about doing voices for animation and she had mentioned an event like this one. We didn’t know what she was talking about.] We ended up paying for a five second cab ride.
Sunday was another wasted day as far as the morning went. In the evening we celebrated Luciano’s birthday. We met up with him and Katie at a DVD store. This particular DVD store sold tons of art house movies. We geeked out and then headed to a restaurant, one of Luciano’s favorites. Many people we had met were there. There was much drinking and eating; some kind of award winning fish soup was served with rice. We drink bottles of Tsingtao and warm baijiu. Dinner ended and we walked to the always crowded Ellen’s. It was too packed to stay. The group dwindled down to six people. We walked over to a bar near Nanjing University.
The bar was nice enough, a very typical bar for Nanjing: loud music and darkened lights. Like a club and a bar had a baby. We sat around for a long time smoking hooka and bullshitting. I think the weekend was taking a toll on me.
Monday, the day of the moon. I forgot to mention that this whole weekend was a celebration of mid-autumn day [they call it that even though it’s the beginning of fall] when the moon is the biggest it gets all year. Monday can best be described as a “Delicious Chinese Expierence!” I think Laurel and I woke up completely unwilling to eat Chinese food. We were tired of it. We tried to order food online but then we realized that we didn’t know how to say where we lived. So we looked up a route to a local western restaurant, but when we left the dorm we realized we couldn’t make it there. So we went back to the muslim noodle shop.
It was good, as usual, but we’ve been eating the same goddamn thing for two weeks now. After we left, we went to the grocery store to buy western breakfast. You’d be surprised how much happier we are when we get to at least eat cereal for breakfast instead of rice. After shopping Laurel realized he was still hungry, so we went to a dumpling shop. The one, a few weeks ago, where the lady stared at Laurel while he ate. Our plan was to gobble down some dumplings and leave as quickly as we came. We went inside and ordered er liang dumplings. Which is like 10-12 dumplings. What came back was two bowls of transparent noodles in a broth with bladders and kidneys. A common Chinese dish. And we had to eat it. We couldn’t just walk out, it would be rude. I was already full as well. So we sat there for twenty minutes pretending to eat a delicious meal that didn’t make us want to vomit.
We went home and relaxed until it was time for dinner. Our tiger mother invited us to eat with her family to celebrate the moon or whatever. We went to a restaurant on the river. The meal was unequivocally the worst meal I’ve had in China so far. We ate nothing and they kept bringing out dishes that were completely inedible. “Bitter melon”, bean curd sushi, peacock eggs, soup with chicken toes and turnips. Towards the end of the meal they brought out spinach dumplings, thank God, and a turnip cannoli type-thing. Delicious and a saving grace. We finished eating and made tracks back home. Delicious!
Tuesday September 13, 2011
Back to school. Afterwards we had a bunch of paperwork to sort out with Howard. There seems to be a never ending stream of things to do with regards to our residency. Laurel had an appointment at one for acupuncture. One, actually several, of Luciano’s friends studies Chinese medicine. She offered to do acupuncture on both of us, but only Laurel accepted. I brought along the kindle so that I’d have something to read.
She stuck about ten needles into old Laurel, each one causing varying levels of pain, pleasure or sensation. Mostly sensation. At some point a random woman, a friend of the doctor in training, came in and sat with us. I read an e-book, the two women talked and Laurel lay on a ludicrously short bed with needles stuck into his abdomen and legs. A fun time had by all. She kept trying to get me to take treatment. They do something called cupping which somewhat curiously has nothing to do with your testicles. They put hot cups of water on your back and it relieves the stress. I declined, but as I type this, I can feel the cords of my muscles being pulled in my neck. Whatever. Aside from some mild discomfort, Laurel was fine. The doctor stuck a couple things in his ear that he’s supposed to take out tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll work.. We asked for directions to the local market and took off.
Laurel showed interest in a drawing class. Howard offered to let us sit in on one and join if we liked it. The class was completely in Chinese. We sat there for an hour and a half listening and daydreaming and occasionally (like every 15-20 minutes) answering background information about ourselves. He asked me if I played basketball. And then if I sang. And then if I danced. Tomorrow I’m going to do the old soft shoe while juggling mini basketballs. The basketball thing was understandable, I am tall and black. The singing was based off of my pronunciation of the little Chinese I spoke [which had to be complete bullshit because when I asked a girl later on if she spoke English (I asked her in Chinese), she backed away from me in horror. In retrospect this may have had nothing to do with my pronunciation.]. The class mercifully ended. We had to go back to Howard’s office and finish up some business before retiring to the dorm.
Later, as I was making flash cards I received a call from a guy we met at the bar a couple nights ago. He had the drop on a modeling job for Laurel. He asked if he could give my number to a friend of his, a girl. I agreed. She called five minutes later and mentioned that she may need a second model, “so send your pictures along if you think you’re good-looking.” I sent the pictures along anyway. Yes, Laurel and I took the worst pictures of our lives, in our dingy dorm rooms, in the hopes of making some fast money with our good looks. What have we come to?
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
I’ve yet to explain about the sun in China. It hardly exists. Usually the city of Nanjing is cloaked in layers of pollution and clouds that create a type of grimy, overcast quality that is perfect for manic depressives. Coupled with the humidity the effect of the gray sky is exhausting. The last couple days had been cool, as in cool enough to wear pants during the day and not break into disgusting sweating bouts that soak shirts through and sour moods. Today, I kid you not, was the first time Laurel and I had seen the sun since we arrived in China. And the sky was blue. Unfortunately it was hot and the humidity returned, but you can’t always get what you want.
After class we had planned to get our student visas, but we were missing pieces of paperwork [a residency permit that was to be filed within 24 hours of entering the country. (clears throat)] and signatures from Howard. We went to his office after class, but Howard was on his “rest period.” The Chinese have a siesta called wujiao which lasts around three hours, in some cases. It’s pretty much always three hours in Howard’s case. Due to the siesta we couldn’t get the necessary paperwork in order for the visa. We decided to get the residency permit anyway, as that would save us sometime the following day. We arrived at the police station only to find that they too were on wujiao. Upset and sweaty, we went to a coffee shop, running into three people we knew on the way. The coffee shop restored my spirits and when we returned to the police station an hour and a half later, the paper work was already finished.
The importance of getting the paperwork done on time was that we had an audition for an animated television series produced in China. We took an expensive (for China) cab ride to a remote, business-y part of the city. The company we went to does video games and animation all of which require motion graphic technology. The audition was strange in that we were handed three sides (sections of a script) and told to choose only two (which was even weirder because we could choose 1-2 or 2-3, but not 1-3) sides to read. They already had audio recorded for the sides, which they played for me. [We auditioned one at a time. Laurel waited downstairs, on the floor where they produce video games, not that he was allowed to play with anything. He sat practicing Chinese.] I had to read both characters at once, reacting against myself which made it extremely difficult to pace correctly or generate real emotion [Not that I necessarily would have been able to, but reading to myself and the melodramatic script, about a Viking boy who chooses a dragon over his clan, didn’t help.] for the scene. The responses were devoid of abject praise; it was difficult to tell if they were smiling out of politeness, actual pleasure with my reading or because that was an automatic reaction to a foreigner who just willingly acted like a schizoid. I left the room rather dejected. Laurel had much the same experience, but seemed to be more upbeat about the whole thing. We find out in a week.
After dinner we went to the library which is huge. The 2nd-5th levels are substantially longer than the first level and so they protrude out over a Greek amphitheatre [Chinese students were watching a film in the ampitheater tonight. A dubbed, American film. I don’t understand why people watch dubbed films, it’s lazy and it robs the original movie of inherent emotion. What was cool was that it was a film print being played off of a reel projector.] type thing; those levels are supported by cement pillars that makes one pray that he is in Abu Dhabi [the nickname we’ve given the Muslim noodle shop] when/if an earthquake hits. The massive library is brand new, state of the art, and boasts an impressive art book collection in English that will become my new obsession whenever I have free time. Luciano elected to show us his department, calligraphy, so we took a slight detour before heading back to the dorm. Tomorrow I plan to participate in the wujiao. Time to embrace the culture.