A Texan in China: 2003

Written By Vernon May

My first taste of China was at LAX airport.  Flying China Eastern will introduce you to China while still in the US.  Following my standard practice of reading while in line, I was frustrated by the lack of movement in the line to get my boarding pass.  It took me a while to realize that the line was moving, but I was not.  Evidently, if you don't get "orgy" close to the person in front of you, you are not in line by Chinese standards.  The people weren't being rude when cutting in front of me, even saying "thank you" as they passed me.  I simply was not following the rules.

China Eastern does provide a power outlet at your seat in coach.  However, whether it works or not is matter of chance.  The fact that the face plate fell off when I plugged in my laptop did not bother me that much, but when I complained about it not working, the flight attendant apologized and then made it clear that the matter was closed.  There were laptop power cables strung across aisles and over seats.  After a while, the "Ug!" associated with someone tripping over a cable while going to the bathroom barely woke me up.

About the time of the second meal, an odor wafted through the cabin that would have stopped a charging rhino.  There were several babies on the plane, so I just sat there breathing through my mouth and hoping that the parent would change it ASAP.  However, I do have to offer my apologies to the babies on the plane because the second meal was the source of the odor.  I don't know what it was, but I lifted the foil off the top and I thought somebody had hit me with a hammer.  I need to lose a few pounds and if that meal is a precursor to the food this week, I will be buff by the time I get back to Texas.

Much to my delight, my bags did arrive.  They arrived at the wrong baggage claim and it took an hour to figure it out, but at least I don't have to start my week with a shopping spree.  My ass however is another story.  A large chunk of it is still stuck to that concrete slab that China Eastern calls an airplane seat.  I filed a claim with the airline, but I have little hope of recovering it.

The hotel is beautiful and offers a damn good Club sandwich.

48 hours into the trip, a chicken fried steak and a Dos Equis are already sounding pretty good.
Would say "wish you were here", but I like some of you.

As the week progressed
People
To paraphrase an old axiom, "Those who do not know history are destined to piss somebody off".  I went to Zambia for an ITU conference several years ago, where every English-speaking country in Africa was represented.  After noticing that a few groups never said anything, I asked one of the coordinators why.  He explained that the telephone company was owned by the government.  Therefore, any comment about their conditions could be seen as criticism toward the telephone company and by association, the government. Criticizing the government in many countries will cause you to be taken in the night, never to return.  Things were not this bad in China, but Maoism and fear of the government does still exist.  I picked my questions very carefully while in country.

Really, if you consider that the people in Mainland China were taught exhaustively that we are evil demons for thirty years, they are quite nice and quite tolerant.  I was never alone outside of the hotel, but felt no reason to be afraid of being alone.  There were not many westerners in Mainland China right then.  That little SARS outburst from the lab was still being wrangled when I booked my tickets and the infrared cameras are still operational at the airport as I arrived.  I am sure that this has reduced the tourism somewhat.  However, if there is a downside of being a rare Caucasian, it is that you an open target for every beggar and street vendor within 100 miles.
The Lines
My initial installment was spot on, but what I did not know is that lines are a part of life in the cities in China and nobody even bothers to complain.  If you were ever impressed by how many clowns can come out of a car, you will be amazed at how many Chinese can fit onto a bus.  As my experience with lines in China continued, I varied from frustrated to mad until about Noon on Tuesday. Then, I was hit by an epiphany (that is a type of Chinese bird).  I am a little under average height and over average weight in the US, but I have a shear bulk advantage in China.

I do admit  to considering the fact that most of the women could whoop my ass, but I had not seen anybody "Kung Fuing" the shit out of anybody else.  So, I decided to risk being as pushy as everybody else.  This newfound skill came in handy at baggage claim on Wednesday In Guangzhou.  Evidently, the rules there have nothing to do with claiming your own bag.  It is first come, first serve for whatever bag that you want. My bag came out and Moses would have been proud of the way I parted that crowd.
My Afternoon Off in Beijing
The day could not have been more beautiful.  The sun was shining and there was enough breeze to reduce the pollution in Beijing.  The air quality there is so bad that smoking has no impact on your chances of getting lung cancer (source: CNN).  I knew that asking for a person to accompany me to the Forbidden City obligated the Chinese to comply, but they responded with vigor.

"Teresa" (can't pronounce her Chinese name) is the youngest and newest Marketing person at our partner firm.  After being told that she would be the tour guide for my afternoon off, she was admonished for not knowing the history of the Forbidden City.  Therefore, she was forced to spend the evening before studying.   To my surprise, when I saw her in the cab, she was in a chipper mood.  Sometime during the afternoon, I realized that she was going to use this opportunity do all the things in Beijing that she had never had the money to do.  However, being accustomed to being taken advantage of by women, I did not mind.  Lunch was true Peking Duck.  The restaurant only serves duck and the chefs only cook duck one way.  There is a ten-year apprenticeship involved to be considered a master.  I state this because this is the only dish on the planet better than my smoked chicken.

I had some pig stomach earlier in the week and got a little squeamish when I realized what I had eaten.  Still that was rather silly, when you think about what is in a hotdog.  This day, I ordered and enjoyed duck tongue as an appetizer.  Teresa ordered three different deserts, but I was so full of duck that I could not even look at the deserts.  My uncle ran a railroad Section Gang of huge men and I thought I had seen some food put away.  I was wrong, his little tiny woman put them to shame. 

While looking for a taxi, I spotted a bicycle rickshaw.  The ride was sublime.  The man was peddling slowly and I got a good look at the people and the city.  During this ride, Teresa said that she wanted to go out that night and would I mind if she brought a friend.  She explained that her friend wanted to meet an American and practice her English.  When we exited the rickshaw, you would have thought I was a worm in the chicken yard.  I was offered everything from postcards to some type of "candy".  With Teresa's help, I got the postcards and books that I wanted at about a third of the asking price.  If I had known how much I was going to walk that afternoon, I would have skipped the books. 

The Forbidden City is huge and the rickshaw ride had cost us critical time.  We just had time to run through and snap a few photos.
There was a peasant that got within a few feet of executing the Emperor back in the 1800's.  This was a bad little bastard because the Forbidden City is first and foremost a fort.  There was no river where they thought a mote should be, so in traditional Chinese fashion, they dug one; by hand.  Teresa had done here homework well.  She could answer almost all my questions and what she could not, we figured out between ourselves.

You would think that the Chinese had adopted the "Americans with Disabilities "Act back in the 1,500's.  Every set of stairs also has a ramp.  However, the ramp was only for the Emperor and nobody else dared trod on these, under penalty of death.  Though they were barred off, Teresa dared tostick a toe on a ramp.  A book could be written on the "Generation Gap" present in China right now.  I can make the point by saying that when I asked her if she would have liked to be Emperor, she said "yes".  That is completely beyond consideration for the most people old enough to be my peers.

I tend to overstate in these personal indulgences that my friends feel obligated to read.  However, the Chinese had brass water pots about the size of Volkswagen Beatles. These were for fire control, but I cannot imagine how many men it would take to haul on.  In this time of labor reduction, we cannot imagine the power associated with the word "possible" when near unlimited labor is available.
Bahai Park and the Emperor’s Lake
Beyond the Forbidden City, is the Emperor's Garden or Bahai Park.  NYC, LA, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, KL, Jakarta, London, Paris... all have all been wasted on me.  I will just never understand why that many people would choose to live together. However, the flora and fauna I have seen in my travels have probably never met a more appreciative eye.   Picking and eating the bright red fruit in the middle of a cashew in Trinidad is something I will never forget.

To call the plants in Bahai Park tended is like calling the Presidential Christmas Tree "trimmed".  I did not see how many people that they send in every day with scissors and tweezers, but it must be an army.  I rarely use the word "perfect", but every plant was perfect.  As culturally neutral as I try to be when overseas, it was past 5:30 and time for a beer.  I try the local beers wherever I go and I have never tasted one I did not like. However, the beer in China is excellent (even better than Belgium).  There I sat, having an interesting conversation, drinking a good beer and sitting by a lake with people rowing boats and speaking quietly.

A flock of ducks swam by, but still smelling our lunch, they beat feet to the other side of the lake very quickly.  I was still too full to pose any danger, but I think that Teresa might have really posed a threat.  About this time "The Cricket" (Teresa's friend) showed up.
 
We walked around the rest of the park (about two miles) and climbed the park mountain.  Now, Beijing is on the plains and no mountain is natural there. However, the Emperor wanted one, there were a hundred thousand people with nothing to do, so they took buckets full of dirt and rock and built one.  “The Cricket” knew the name and origin of every plant that I asked about and the walk was a pleasant education.  However, the books were getting heavy, I had to fly home early the next morning and I had little interest in spending the evening trying to put together "jigsaw puzzle" English.  I was looking for some way to bow out when we finally came to the end of the park. 

Then, Teresa asked if I wanted to take a boat ride and the thought of rowing or paddling did not appeal to me.  I explained that I was a little tired and she explained that a man would row the boat for us.  I figured "hell, at least I will get to put down the books" and so, I agreed to go.  Other than choosing to be born in Texas, that was the best decision that I ever made.  The boat, the rower and a woman playing a traditional Chinese guitar cost about $30 dollars for one hour.  Tea and snacks (dates, other fruits and nuts) were included.  I was offered beer for a little extra.  I declined.

It was dark by then and the peacefulness on the lake went deep into my soul.  The two young ladies were speaking quietly in Chinese. Young people speaking quietly in a language that you don't understand is a blessing at my age and I was left alone to my thoughts.  If you think you have seen a change in me since I have returned from China, that boat trip is the source.

They have a tradition of taking little paper boats, lighting a small candle and making a secret wish as your little boat floats away on the Emperor's Lake.    I must tell you that thinking of a wish on that lake, in that boat, with the traditional Chinese music being played was tough.  I mostly wish for internal peace, but at that moment, peace was mine. I made some wishes for my family. It seemed significant as I watched my wishes slowly float away and mix with the wishes of people that would never understand me anymore than I will ever understand them.
I only made one mistake that night and I made it about that time.  I was set up and there is no doubt about that.  My only excuse is that I was so relaxed that all my defenses were down.  Teresa asked if I was enjoying myself.  Since I was grinning like a possum eating shit, she knew the answer.  When I said "yes", she asked if I wanted to extend the boat trip to two hours. 

First, we docked and picked up two of her other friends.  Lisa was the worldly one and she probably will be Emperor.  She was tall, had the eyes of a riverboat gambler and was accustomed to getting what she wanted.  "The quiet one" also tagged along, but I have no idea why she came.  She had decided not to like me even before she met me.  When she later launched her "wishing boat", I fully expected to fall out of our boat.

I am not sure how something can be simple and intricate at the same time, but traditional Chinese music finds a way to mix these Western juxtapositions.  Even with four people now speaking in Chinese, it was still quiet and peaceful. 
I was thoroughly enjoying myself when I realized that my plan to keep my fluid intake down had been foiled by the fact that the ladies kept filling my teacup.  I had drunk much more than planned and it was building up.  Yep, I was an hour and five minutes into a two-hour boat trip with four very prim and proper young ladies and I had to pee.  Hoping to hold on, I did my best to enjoy the situation and not think about it.  After all, you never get never really get two hours when you pay for two hours, right; wrong!  At some point in the next hour, fourteen minutes and fifty-one seconds, I considered several reasons for my dilemma
  • The rower gets paid by the hour
  • The rower and guitar player are lovers and rarely get to work together
  • The rower had a cruel streak and knew my situation

The once soothing sound of the water being disturbed by the slow moving paddle became torture.  It has been a gender based secret for millennia, but men start considering every possibility in this situation.
  • Let go in my pants?  Last option, when there is no other option.
  • Pee off the back of the boat? Considering how Ozzy is still not welcome in Texas after peeing on the Alamo in Texas, I did not want to be the "Texan that peed in the Emperor's Lake".
  • Pretend to be sic and swim back.  I had on a coat and tie and I even more did not want to be the "Texan that drowned in the Emperor's lake".
  • Pretend to want to learn how to row one of these boats and speed up the process?  I considered this to be the best option in an emergency.  However, if required, the girls would have thought they were in a 250 Horsepower Bass Tracker.

The short version is that I did make it back to a bathroom and was able to walk with what I believe to be a dignified walk.  So much for the rumors about forty-year old bladders.  Much to my delight, we soon ended up at a bar and even Jack Daniels tasted good.  The ladies were still talking among themselves mostly, with only a comment or two to me along the way.  Considering my recent situation, I was in heaven.  The nearest bathroom was no more than twenty-five feet away.
My Night Off in Beijing
We left the park are and went to a "dancing bar".  Even with my imagination, this is a misnomer.   Only my "Chinese Line Skills" got us into the bar.  Getting a drink, dancing or hearing each speak was completely out of the question.  Teresa was at home there, but it was obvious that the other girls were as miserable as I was.  Then outside, Teresa's boyfriend and her car miraculously arrived and we went to a Karaoke bar. Again, I was no more than the excuse and funding for their night on the town.

In China, you get a private room to sing (probably to protect the sensitive Chinese ears from American bellowing).  All of them could sing well.  This is not a surprise when you consider that the Chinese language is sung and not spoken.  The difference between "your mother cooks good pork" and "your mother has boils on her ass" is all a matter of pitch.  Songs were sung, food was eaten and drinks were drunk.  From two, to three, to five and then to six people in the party, I figure the whole day cost about $150.  It gives you a feel for the cost of labor over there.
I hit the airplane with two hours of sleep.  After wedging myself onto the concrete slab again, I had beer, breakfast.  Mercifully, the long week (and night) had caught up with me and the next thing that I knew, I was in LA.
Back at LAX
Customs was backed up; the line was long and was not moving. Then, an Asian lady with "Honk Kong Elite" written all over her decided that she was going to cut to the front of the line.  I happened to be speaking to couple of oil engineers from College Station, Texas.  It is a little-known fact that China only allows three Texans in the country at any one time.  As we saw the lady pass us, we met each other’s’ eyes.  We had all had enough of line cutting and we were ready for this. However, we never got the chance to intervene.

This six-foot, 230-pound female Customs agent walked over to “Hong Kong lady”.  The agent started out very polite about insisting that the lady go back to her place.  Then, you could hear the line grumbling when “Hong Kong lady” told the Customs agent that she had an appointment that simply could not be missed and she was not moving.   None of us knew at that moment if “Hong Kong lady” would ever see the outside of an US airport again.  US Customs is just behind mother grizzly bears on my “don’t screw around with” list. The conversation pretty much went as you might expect with “Hong Kong lady” being very angry and the Customs agent being secure about who was in charge.
As the woman was removed from her previous place in line and moved to the back, people in line cheered.  The Rednecks from College Station began singing the chorus to "Proud to be an American".  Ah, home at last.

Being back in the US for a week, I have had the chance to put things somewhat into perspective.  If a transporter existed, I would go back to China every week, at least for dinner.  As I sit here on my patio in God's Country, I am a better man for going to China.  What damage I did to Chinese culture may never be fully understood.
Vernon