I haven’t caught on to the rhythm of a week, if there is such a thing in China. I think arriving on the first day of the Mid-Autumn Festival has put me at a disadvantage. Today is Tuesday, right? So why was there so much partying, noise, and celebration last night? Didn’t the festival end on Saturday? Wasn’t Sunday a work day? So why was last night the noisiest night yet of my stay?
Last night, in hopes of finding Lisa to talk about whether I needed to register with the police or they needed to register me with the police, I headed up to the Takka Bar on the 12th floor. The bar is owned and operated by the same company that rents me the apartment, Takka Homes. It’s where I was told I could find Lisa in the evenings, because not only is the apartment manager, she is the bar manager.
I could hear the music from the bar blaring as I crossed the 3rd floor courtyard. It was after 11pm. Don’t the neighbors complain? Aren’t there laws? Rules of etiquette? Obviously, it was time for me to learn something more about my own upbringing and culture in relation to Chinese culture…
The bar was filled with young (under 25) male Westerners and similarly young female Asians, about five males for every female, though the way a couple of the guys were looking me over, that might have been the right ratio. (Okay, it’s unlikely they were looking at me THAT way. More likely they were in a drunken stupor staring off into the distance and I passed through their field of view.)
There was a DJ, loud music, and even a disco ball. Nobody was really dancing, more swaying and bouncing, and it looked like the men and women were uncomfortable with each other, like I remember junior high dances. I eased myself past and between drinkers until I got back to the bar. Unfortunately, the girl behind the bar wasn’t Lisa and didn’t speak much English. The loud music didn’t help, nor the two ear buds she was wearing. After I repeated my question asking where Lisa was, she frowned, pulled one bud out. I asked a couple more questions, like, “When will she be back?” and “Will she be in tomorrow?” I cupped my hand around my ear, to encourage her to speak up. Instead, she tugged at the wire of her second ear bud and popped it out. Was her frown because I was interrupting her? Or was she frustrated that she we couldn’t communicate? Or that I was an old deaf man who couldn’t speak her language? I finally gave up, hoping that I had understood her correctly that Lisa would be in tomorrow around noon.
Back in my room there was another party going on at another local bar. I shut my window and kitchen door. It was almost quiet. Last thing I did before going to bed was to send an email off to Ellen, the owner of the apartment, asking for her help with the whole police registration thing. I told her I didn’t want to cause her any trouble, but if I didn’t hear from her by noon, I was going to go register.
This morning I was glad to sleep in until 7:30. Outside, everyone was liking everyone else, probably why I woke up. I lounged in bed waiting to see if Melissa called at 8pm. When she didn’t, I got up at 8:15 and called her.
Thank goodness for my Vonage VOIP phone! Best idea I had, even though it made my luggage an obvious choice for a detailed TSA inspection. And I did check my contract with Vonage. They encourage people to take their little box anywhere in the world and make calls as if you’re calling from the U.S. So I get 300 minutes of U.S. calls per month, and another 300 minutes of international calls, all for only $15/month. An added bonus for me, I can hand out my business card, in China, and the phone number on the card will reach me in China. Of course, you have to pay for a call to the United States. When the American Consulate asked me for a number where I could be reached in China, they didn’t believe me. I’ve been calling friends in Europe, too. Europe is six hours behind me, instead of six hours ahead of me in North Carolina, which is a little weird. So is being twelve hours ahead of Melissa.
After a good dose of love from my wife, I read my emails, then studied some Chinese. I was excited because I had an insight last night. I never really thought about how Chinese writing is another independent language from spoken Chinese. Somehow I had never understood how important phonetics were for learning English. When I was in grade school, I learned to read by linking the words I saw in the books to the pronunciation of the letters on the page: “See Dick run! Run, Dick, run!” Imagine how much harder it would be to learn to read if you couldn’t sound out the words. Pinyin is the official phonetic written language. It makes learning to write Chinese as if it is another language.
In some ways, that is great for me. Because my hearing may fail me in learning the spoken language, it does not disadvantage me in learning the written language. So I’ve embraced learning to write Chinese with even more vigor.
So I want to learn how to write Chinese, which requires knowing the order and direction of the brush strokes, paying attention to the relationship between the strokes, like does it connect or leave a little bit over the edge, is it straight, curved, at what angle, etc., etc., etc. And here’s the fun part: I found a computer app that shows me how, and then lets me practice, writing the characters. And I found another dictionary app that lets me draw a character on the screen, then pick the character from a list of “close” characters based on recognizing what I drew. I get to practice writing with the one app, then see how well I am doing with the other. It works surprisingly well, giving me quick feedback and a sense of accomplishment.
After practicing writing, I programmed my GPS with the address I was given by the librarian at the Consulate, checked my email one last time for any word from my landlord, and left for the police station.
A short, circuitous route led me to a major intersection where my GPS said the police station was located. I couldn’t find it. I asked for help from a young couple. The woman spoke English and carefully searched for the address on her phone map/GPS system. She gave me instructions to go another couple blocks down and turn right, just past the hotel, and go up another ¼ mile. I went down just past the hotel, came to a little lane. I looked for a street sign. It was the right street, so I headed up the tiny street, passing innumerable little merchants and noodle shops. The numbers on the buildings (shown in Arabic numerals) kept going down, a good sign since I was looking for #6. Then the number skipped to #2. I searched both sides of #2, as well as both sides of the street, but didn’t find and police station. I asked a man sitting on the sidewalk preparing food. He pointed down just a couple doors. It was # 6, a white building with a blue stripe. As I got closer I saw the emergency light, hanging from the wall at a funny angel, like it was broken. There was a driveway filled with police cars.
I went in to the first door, showed my American passport and was escorted to the second door, where a woman was not happy to see me. The internet was down. She had me fill out a couple forms, then called Lisa, the apartment manager. It didn’t sound like the policewoman was very happy with what Lisa said. In any case, I was going to have to get a couple forms from Lisa and come back tomorrow. I didn’t mind. At least they weren’t going to arrest and deport me for not registering with 24 hours.
I set a “favorites” point on my GPS so I could find the police station again, then headed back to the apartment. On the walk home, I came across a place called “The Beer Nest”.
What a find! Belgian beers, and Chengdu craft beers! Owned by a Belgian, and serving great beers. I had a Chengdu Smoked Stout, which I thought tasted just like Chengdu smelled – smoked. It was a pint, at 2pm, and I hadn’t eaten anything. I was feeling no pain. I asked to speak with the owner, but he was at “The Beer Nest #2.” Maybe next time.
There were lots of Belgian beers on the shelves, as well as these (though they’re probably made at the California brewery, not the North Carolina one):
On the way home, just outside of Wal-Mart (also called “Trust-Mart”), I passed a little stall where a lady was selling steamed buns. Yes, the same buns I bought at Wal-Mart that turned out to be empty. I walked right past her, then realized what she was selling and stopped. Why not? Why not try to use the words I’d learned from investigating the Wal-Mart labels? I greeted her with a “knee-how” (Mandarin for “hello”), then pulled out my Kindle Fire, brought up my Pleco dictionary flash cards, took a deep breath, and read the word for “vegetarian.” She looked at me like I was from Mars. I pointed at the word on my screen. “Row,” she said. When I didn’t understand, she said it again, “row,” and again, “row.” This wasn’t going well. So I put my tablet into “brush mode” and encouraged her to write what she said on the screen. She did, and picked the matching character when it came up. I looked at the translation: “meat.”
I nodded. Her smile made me smile. I thanked her and walked away. When I got back to the apartment I realized I had just had my first conversation in Mandarin!
The Lady with Steamed Buns, by James C. March
“Vegetarian,” I said.
“Meat,” she answered.
Instead of steamed buns, I gave 4 yuan to a vendor with a cart filled with Asian pears.
I still needed to get that police registration form from Lisa. I went up to the Hakka Bar, which was bustling, once again all men, except for Lisa. This time she knew what she had to do. Thirty minutes later I had the forms I needed. Tomorrow I will head back to the police office with papers in hand.
By this time it was after five and I was hungry, so I made braised tofu with ginger, broccoli and mushrooms, throwing in a little fungus, fermented black beans, onion, and topping it all with dollops of red pepper paste and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
I LOVE MY WOK! And the best part of the wok stove is that it has a strong fan pulling all those smoky pepper fumes right out of the kitchen! The combination makes it a breeze to really high-heat sear my tofu and vegetables. Such a treat!
I found a radio on my Chinese phone, so I’m listening to Chinese radio shows. The TV still doesn’t work. I told Lisa, who said somebody would be up to take a look tomorrow. I also told her the light in the bathroom above the mirror didn’t work. Did I tell you that I can sit on the toilet while taking a shower?