Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I made my first trip into the city Sunday. Thomas, the Canuck, served as my fellow adventurer and interpreter (having someone who speaks Mandarin around is damned handy.)

Dalian is beautiful. Tall buildings, well maintained parks, street vendors, movie theatres, old buildings, new buildings, department stores, subways (in the British sense--underground paths to safely take you to from one side of the street to the other and you can pick up a new pair of jeans or a writstwatch in the process), trolley cars, and's a real city. What's most impressive is that it's really clean, minus an exception. The Chinese find it acceptable to spit anytime, anywhere. And there's nothing modest about it. You'll see an old guy standing on a street corner and he'll look you straight in the eye, hock up a wad and project it five feet onto the side walk, almost as if he was greeting you.

The Canuck and I wandered about for awhile, I had a roasted sweet potato (I could eat one every day), then we set out in search of either the Carrefour, or Wal-Mart. Despite the sun and clear, blue sky, Sunday was colder than a witch's tit. After 45 minutes of aimless wander, I casually suggested to the Canuck that maybe our powers of intuition alone would get us to Wal-Mart before my ears broke off in brittle pieces and maybe he should put his Mandarin skills to use and ask someone to point us in the right direction. "I don't know how to say Wal-Mart in Chinese," he said. "I betcha it's Wal-Mart," I offered. Still, we wandered.

When I was travelling with Ahearn, I noticed he, too, often felt that his powers of intuition would lead us across the great North American continent, so I concluded that the Canuck, was suffering from some chromosomal (or chromosomatic, for Russell) disorder, so I resigned myself to wandering about in the cold, unable to ask for directions myself.

Our wanderings took us into the Dalian Friendly Department Store, a multi-level, marble walled behemoth offering the finest and latest imports from all parts of Asia, Europe and North America. The prices were very similar to those in the states (to be read: more than what I can afford), however, three things came from the visit: 1) I bought a set of beautiful pillow towels (leave it to the Chinese to make something to put over your pillows so you don't have to wash the pillowcase) for 15 kuai a piece; 2) I found the cleanest toilets in all of China (yes, there were still holes in the ground) and 3) someone told us that bus 15, picked up in front of the store, would take us to Wal-Mart (or as the Chinese say it, War-a-Marr).

Wal-Mart is located in Olympic Park. Olympic Park is, as the name implies, a park. The only thing Olympic about it that I could make out was, in the middle of it all, there is a giant structure of the Olympic rings. I can't make sense of any of this, but I reckon it has something to do with the general Chinese pride associated with the Olympics being hosted in Beijing.

The store itself is actually underground, and it's huge. It looks nothing like Wal-Mart at home or on the mainland; it sells fresh food, there's a bakery, a huge freezer section, as well as the usual Wal-Mart dry goods part. The funny thing is, is that it's all very Chinese. For 1.7 kuai, I bought a bag of fresh manto (white buns). I got spicy tofu skins, and mochi balls with red bean paste. Milk comes in small plastic bags, the yogurt is liquid and you can buy tofu, fresh, and you take it away in a simple, small, plastic bag with handles (minimalist is the only way to describe packaging here). It was also in Wal-Mart where I saw my first other foreigner: a guy, being tugged along by a slim Chinese girl.

When you look around Dalian, “grim Communist China” is the last thing that comes to mind. There are slick, black AUDIs and Mercedes; tall, irredescent glass buildings, with more to come and at the Wal-Mart, families wait in long lines to pay for baskets of STUFF. The young people here take their fashion cues from Japan; baggy jeans, blue hair, frizzy permed hair and hip-hop gear are not that unusual. Rickshaws, blue Mao caps and unisex, government issued jackets are exist more in minds of Westerners (or maybe just the ones I know) than in the contemporay Chinese.

We made it back to campus, gear in tow and fingers attached (did I mention it was cold?). Benny called later that evening, and with the tone, pitch, accent and delivery of any-member-of-my-mother’s-family-just-pick-one asked “where have you been?” I’m very much treated like a little sister here, which is kind of annoying, but by the same token I can appreciate that, as my host and employer, they wouldn’t want to lose me. It is Communist China, after all.

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