Friday, March 12, 2004

Yes. It has been some time since my last post. Please accept the usual excuses.

Brummie and I went out for a night on the town on Saturday. The Birmingham native (UK not Alabama) is also a Dalian teacher and blogger (you can check out his blog at and I first got in touch with him before coming to China. As it turns out, the guy is a real kick to the head (good thing).

We met at the train station and made an impromptu shopping stop at Victory Square (just a name, there's actually little square about it). The shopping center at Victory Square is actually a sprawling network of shops UNDERGROUND and anyone who enters risks never coming out again.

Brummie and I, both being film geeks, me more so, only made it as far as the DVD store closest to the entrance. We played "have you seen this? well it's not as good as his first know, the one with {name of obscure Hungarian actor here}” and then agreed that Drop Dead Fred is a good movie. About 20 minutes into our game I got the feeling someone was watching me. A well-dressed businessman in his fifties standing next to me shamelessly stared. I moved to the other side of the very small store and he followed. I made eyes at Brummie and he returned the look, acknowledging the guy's odd behavior. I looked back to the guy and half-smiled. "You speak very good English!" he yelled at me. "Yes, I do," I said, taken aback. "How?" he asked. "It's the only language I know," I said English teacher slowly, as I've learned to do with most people here. "You're British!" he concluded. (Everyone here thinks I'm British. Pear-shaped tones, Dad.) "No, I'm American," I told him. "Your parents are Chinese?" he asked. "My mother is Chinese. My father is American," I explained for the hundred and seventh time that week. "But you have black hair?!" he said as if I've really ruined his day. My hair is really brown. "All people with Chinese mothers have dark hair," I announced. Basic genetic theory is clearly amiss in Chinese education. "You don't have blue eyes and gold hair," he argued. (Blonde is not in the Chinese-English vocabulary.) "No. No one with at least one Chinese parent has blue eyes. My father has blue eyes," I offered. He stared at me some more and said, "I look you outside. I think you are Chinese woman." Realizing this guy has been watching me much longer that I thought, I got uncomfortable. Fortunately, Brummie jumped in to rescue me with "Have you see this one with Tom Hanks?" and I left the businessman to his own mental quandries.

The Chinese have taken bargaining to an art form. The skill with which my own mother can haggle someone to a half penny brings tears to my eyes. Haggling, however, requires a certain command of the language of transaction, as well as a bit of theatrics and the ability to just walk away if an agreeable price cannot be determined. I have yet to refine my haggle skills here, but I make an effort at every chance. With Brummie in tow, who speaks enough Mandarin to get by, I figured we stood a chance. We made our selections and I lumped them together for bargaining power. The sales girl told Brummie 60 kuai for the lot. I looked at our loot, then at the sales girl, pokerfaced. "Tell her 40," I ordered. He did. She looked at us with feigned exasperation. "No! No! Impossible!" she said in broken English. "Yes! Yes! Good!" I said. She looked at me realizing that I, not Brummie, was in charge of the deal. "No! Too little," she said. "Yes!" I said again. Then I grabbed my collar and said "good customers!" And then something happened that I didn't expect. She buckled. "45," she offered and I handed her the cash.

Foreigners are routinely ripped off because 1) they don't know the going rates for things, 2) they don't know how to haggle and 3) things are so cheap anyway that they'd rather just put down the asking price and not bother with the routine. The Chinese know this and milk it for what it’s worth. This was the first time I have successful haggled on my own in China and Brummie was duly impressed. "I've never been able to get them down at all," he said. "Whenever I try, they just flat out reject and then I give them more than what they asked for, just out of guilt.” We made off with our goods and a glow of a victory (immediately followed by the feeling that I should have started at 30 instead of 40).

Lonely Planet lists the Xinhua Bookstore as an English language bookstore. In my humble opinion, a copy of a Portugeuse-English dictionary, the Berlitz guide to Cuba and William Shatner’s (only, hopefully) sci-fi novel, does not an English bookstore make. There were loads of how-to-learn English books, but those don’t count. Brummie and I browsed stacks of books, just for their covers (I wonder if Winona Ryder knows she’s on the cover of the Pride and Prejudice) and split without a purchase (the first time in a long time I had been to a bookstore and not bought anything).

Dinner was had at a curry house (a nice change) and then we made our to Er Chi Square to go to a jazz bar that Brummie had been to before.

Dalian is a fairly developed city. The population of the city center is somewhere around 2 million. Different countries have occupied the port city, namely Japan and Russia, so one would think that the sight of a foreigner wouldn’t rouse more than a longish glance. Not so. I can slip through a crowd and as long as I don’t open my mouth I get pushed and shoved just as any of the 1.29 billion others. Brummie, on the other hand, has blondish hair and green eyes and wherever we went we got attention. Lots of attention.

“It’s got its perks,” said Brummie when I asked him about it. “For example, whenever I don’t know what to do, I just look lost and someone will come to my rescue. It’s how I get by,” he said proudly and that fact was only proven as the night continued.

We got to Er Chi Square by a cab driven by a man only too excited and proud to have not one, but two foreigners as passengers. Brummie did all the talking and the only part I understood was “America! England!” with a hearty thumbs up. We got out of the cab and Brummie said “this is the part where I tell you I’m not too sure where the bar is because I was drunk the last time I was there. I do remember what the front door looks like, though.” (Brummie studied philosophy at university and the comment didn’t surprise me.) We walked. In circles. And triangles. The great thing about being in a new city is that getting lost is really more an extended tour than annoyance. Even in the cold.

We eventually came close to where we started when a car beeped at a us. We looked over to see the our cab driver who asked us, I can only assume, what we were doing walking around in circles. Brummie got out his phrase book and asked for the jazz bar. Cabbie didn’t know, so he got out of his car and hailed down another cab. They had a brief discussion then made the general hand-circling-in-the-air gesture for “somewhere around here.” Second cabbie drove off and first cabbie stopped another. More hands circling in the air. First cabbie looked at us again then shrugged his shoulders.

We continued into the night until we came upon an English school. “They’ve got to have somebody there who can speak English and point us in the right direction,” I reasoned, “let’s stop in here.” He thought about it for a second, “oh yeah, right.” We marched in and said “hello” to the man behind the counter. “We’re looking for the jazz bar,” Brummie said. The man behind the counter looked at me and started rattling away in Chinese. “What’s he saying?” I asked Brummie. “I don’t know,” he said. Then I said very slowly “wo bu hui shuo putonghua,” I don’t speak Chinese. The man ran into a back room and brought out another gentleman. “Hi, we’re looking for the jazz bar,” I said. “I don’t speak English,” the second guy managed. “Isn’t this an English school?” I asked. “Yes, English school.” Brummie got out the phrase book and between the four of us we determined that the jazz bar was, in fact, somewhere in the area. A third guy came out, words were exchanged and then someone said “wait a moment.” The third guy at the English school, who also did not speak English, did know where the jazz bar and offered to take us there. Most of the way, anyway.

The jazz bar is located across the street from Augustus’s Pub (Vegas has Caesar’s Palace and Dalian has Augustus’s Pub). The bar serves imported beer and all of the waitresses are pretty and wear yellow dresses. The bar also proved to be quite the laowai hangout and Brummie and I played my new favorite game, count the fat, old, ugly white guys with the young Chinese girlfriends. Forty minutes of the game produced a total of 6 couples.

The waitresses are used to laowai and are good at small talk in English. One of the waitresses, however, was especially curious about me and kept repeating a word neither of us understood. Brummie handed her a Chinese-English dictionary and she perused it for several minutes before arriving to her meaning. She pointed to me and pointed to the word: half-breed. I laughed. “Yes, I’m a half-breed,” I told her.

Brummie and I had several imported beers, blathered about not much, spoke French to some Canadians (one of whom’s girlfriend wrote down the name of my school in Chinese so I could make it home), and got out. Brummie needed cash, so we walked to the ATM and on the way a small girl selling roses attached herself to him. Literally. She wrapped herself around one of his legs and refused to let go. Brummie dragged her for 25 yards yelling “wo bu yao” (I don’t want), but she held on fast. I stepped in to pull her off, but to no avail. Brummie shook her off and we made a run for it. “What the hell was that?” I said. “Oh, doesn’t that ever happen to you? Happens to me all the time. It’s annoying,” he said. The down-side of being a laowai.

We had a shot of Jose “Luervo” at Augustus’s Pub, then got a cab home. The cab came right up to my building on campus, then took off, leaving me in the cold (not a problem), slightly intoxicated (not a problem), to grapple with a front door chained from the inside (a problem). Shit.

I tugged on the door as if it made a difference. It didn’t. I walked around the building for an alternative entrance. No dice. I looked for an open window and found two, both barred. I yelled up into the night for the Canuck. Dust in the wind. I looked over at one of the dorms to find all kinds of activity. If worse came to worse I could knock on a door and crash there until morning. I came back to the front of the building. One window, on the third floor, was illuminated by a flashing television. Somebody was up, I reasoned. I rummaged the ground for rocks. No luck, but I did find a peach pit and a bottle cap. Good enough. I chucked both up at the window and the peach pit nailed it. I recovered both objects from the dark and tried again. I continued this shameless behavior until I lost both the peach pit and the bottle cap. I went back to the front door to see if it had undone itself while I was drunkenly lobbing small blunt objects at a window when the building manager came running out. “Dui bu chi” I said, “I’m sorry!” She returned the gesture repeatedly and let me in. Then she gestured “I heard something outside and came down to have a look and I’m glad I did because here you are and what are you doing out at this hour anyway?” “Xiexie,” I managed “thanks,” and I went to bed.

The next morning Canuck came down and I told him the story. “Why didn’t you just ring the doorbell?” he asked. “What doorbell?”

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