Friday, September 23rd, Day 8
Thank you! I know these blog entries are long. I don’t really have any expectation of you reading all of them, or all of any particular entry. I do, however, want this to be my “memory” book, from which I can refresh my own remembrances. So, enjoy the fun parts, skip the rest. I won’t be giving any tests. I WOULD appreciate any comments about parts you like, and what you might have wanted me to talk more about. That way, when I get around to telling stories about my adventures, I am more likely to tell the parts that are entertaining.
Your correspondent in Chengdu,
My phone rang at 10am. I assumed it was Melissa, but it was my first call from China. Jeremy, the American I met at the Consulate movie night, called to set up lunch for 12:30pm at Peter’s Tex-Mex near the Sichuan University West Gate. I had seen a Peter’s Tex-Mex, close to the Beer Nest, but Jeremy said there were lots. I needed to go to the one by the West Gate. I told him I’d be there, even though I wasn’t sure where it was.
Melissa did call, just as I was finished with Jeremy. She was tired, had gone out for the night to play Rummikub with the neighbors. It was nice to hear her voice, even if she couldn’t keep awake!
I found the West Gate, walked right past the restaurant, knew I had gone too far, made a U-turn. There is very little advertising in Chengdu. Walking along the street, it’s not easy to find the name of any restaurant. When I told Jeremy I walked by the first time, he said that was normal. Many places don’t show their names, he said, because people who go to the restaurants already know where they are, or are being taken there by someone who does. Perhaps that is why there are so many street merchants, too, I thought. Maybe business comes from word-of-mouth referrals. I wonder if there are families who have been the merchants for other families for generations. Or, like my experience in Laos, maybe people only shop at stores owned by extended family members.
Peter’s Tex-Mex had a clientele more like the former, a “friends of friends” kind of place. Jeremy said he ate there a couple times a month, and even though I suggested eating Chinese, he preferred to eat American today. Peter’s Tex-Mex is famous for having the best American food in Chengdu. I’d seen it on Trip-Advisor. You could get a good hamburger, fries, and milk shake. Jeremy got a BLT. I looked for, but did not find, anything Tex-Mex that was vegetarian. I thought about ordering something without the meat, but decided I shouldn’t press my luck. Instead I got three eggs and toast.
“Scrambled or fried?” the waitress asked me in English.
“Fried”, I said.
“Sunny-side up?” she asked.
It made me chuckle. I was impressed with her knowledge of greasy spoon English. I looked over at Jeremy.
“Should I risk asking…,” I began.
He nodded, encouraging me to test the waitress’ knowledge.
“Over medium, please,” I told her.
“Over medium, ” she repeated correctly.
The strangest part about Peter’s Tex-Mex is that the original chef, the guy who started it all, was from Chengdu, not even American.
A waiter delivered our meals as fast as any diner in America.
“Catsup?” Jeremy asked as the waiter set down his French fries.
Like magic, the waiter produced a small dish with catsup. I noticed it didn’t look exactly like catsup, but we were half way around the world from America.
“Hot sauce?” I asked Jeremy.
“Hot sauce?” he repeated to the waiter.
“Don’t suppose it’ll be Tabasco,” I said after the waiter left. “Probably pepper paste.”
Pepper paste was a regular part of the Sichuan diet. Made from ground up hot red peppers and mixed into a paste with oil, it was in almost every regional dish. Sichuan, being so far from the ocean and any source of salt, used peppers to preserve the food, making it so hot that even the bacteria couldn’t stand it! I had already found the shelves of pepper paste in Wal-Mart, using it to spice up my own cooking at the apartment. Which is why I was surprised when the waiter came back and plunked a bottle of red Tabasco sauce on the table.
“I’m impressed,” I said, cutting my eggs to find them cooked perfectly. “Very impressed!”
Jeremy started to dunk a French fry in the catsup.
“That’s not catsup,” he said. “That’s jelly.”
“Must be for my toast,” I said, reaching for the jelly before it got exchanged.
I flagged the waitress over for Jeremy.
“I asked for catsup and I got this,” Jeremy complained. “My Chinese isn’t that bad, is it?”
The waitress laughed, turned, and headed for the kitchen. We watched as she passed the word back to the kitchen, that somebody had delivered red jelly instead of catsup. It was like telephone as one person told another, laughter, then that person told another, laughter. It was a little strange, until later that night Melissa would remind me that in China last year we had seen how laughter is often a reaction to criticism. Before long, our waitress returned with a small dish of catsup. We ate for a couple minutes in silence.
“If you’ve got any questions…,” Jeremy said.
“I do. I wrote them down,” I answered, reaching for my notes on the movie flier from last night.
Q: How much did it cost you to call me, since my number is in the U.S.?
A: Nothing, really. My plan allows me to call the U.S. I have to do it all the time.
Q: Do you drink the tap water?
A: Nobody drinks the water straight from the tap. It’s always boiled. Don’t know if it’s safe to drink unboiled or not. Everybody boils it. It’s the custom.
I eyed the glass of cold water I had been drinking without thinking.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about the water here. Americans want cold water. It’s safe here.”
I peered into my glass, saw something floating, realized it was bits of lemon, and took a cautious sip.
“Really, it’s okay,” Jeremy reassured.
Q: How do I get a SIM chip for my phone?
A: It’s not an I-Phone? I don’t have a clue. Be sure to take someone who speaks Chinese when you go. Even my wife, a native, doesn’t understand the phone plans.
I’d been trying to get a SIM chip for my phone for a week now. It dropped in priority when I got my VOIP line up and running. But I was still hoping to get my phone working, so I could search the internet on the go and text folks, like Jeremy, when I have to meet them somewhere or I get lost. China is no different than any other country in which I’ve lived. Getting a local phone for a couple months is a pain.
Q: Tell me about the Chinese classes at Chengdu University.
Jeremy had taught at Chengdu University, had taken the Chinese courses, which were convenient and free (for him). But Chengdu University is an hour away by bus from my apartment, and the course would cost me. I’m going to check to see what more local alternatives I have.
We talked for a couple hours, Jeremy sharing his experience of three years in Chengdu, me talking about what I was looking for. We were the last people in the restaurant when we left. I paid, as a thank-you to Jeremy’s generosity with his time. It came to about 40 yuan, enough to feed me for two weeks, assuming I cooked for myself, and didn’t use things like catsup and Tabasco sauce.
We parted and I went over to the West Gate and on to Sichuan University. It’s a big place, but filled mostly with student housing. I didn’t find the offices or lecture halls. Interspersed with the housing were small shops, just like outside the University, but fewer, and catering to students’ needs. One of the stores was covered with signs that had words like 4GL, 10Gb, and 1000 SMS. Looking inside, I was right, it was a cell phone service store. What better place to get a SIM chip than at a University store? All those students coming in, needing phone service and new SIM chips. What a stroke of luck to find this store! And of course, being a University store, everyone would speak English!
“Nĭ hăo,” the clerk replied, then said something I didn’t understand.
“Do you speak English?”
“Does anyone speak English?”
My plan had failed. On to plan “B”.
“SIM card?” I asked, holding up my phone.
There was a flurry of discussion, then someone was heading to the back of the store calling a name.
“Wait,” the clerk told me, giving me a hand signal that I understood, too.
I went over to the chart on the wall. There I could make out rows and columns, each row a different plan, each column a different feature. There was a column with a picture of a text message, and numbers below that looked about right. Another column had a phone off the hook, with numbers that looked about right for number of free calls included. I searched through the plans and found the one that looked right for me, assuming I was interpreting the chart correctly. The plan that I wanted cost 82 yuan per month (I had to look up the character for month just to confirm my guess).
In the background, as I looked at this chart, I heard someone calling a name over and over, disappearing further and further into a room behind the office. Finally, a young man came out. I think nerds must look alike the world over. And being one myself, I can spot another from 20 paces. He was a SIM card wizard. Without a moment’s hesitation he popped open the slots to my phone with an unbent paper clip, grabbed a SIM card from a box of them he was carrying, made sure the card was facing the right direction and the right side up, and carefully inserted the card in my phone. He did it with the ease and confidence that only comes from having done it hundreds of times. I was in good hands.
He waited, didn’t get a signal, tried another card, tried the other slot, but nothing worked.
“Where you get?” he asked, no longer looking confident.
“Shanghai,” I told him. “A gift.”
He winced, shook his head, as if he were a doctor who had lost the patient before getting him to the emergency room.
“Not work with China Mobile,” he said.
“Locked?” I asked.
He didn’t understand that term. Instead, he pointed me up the street to another phone service that he thought might work.
“Two hundred meters, then left,” he said.
But I never found another cell phone store. Instead I walked past the student union, the stadium, and then found myself outside the University by the main gate. There was a banner saying that 2016 is the 120th anniversary of the University.
A bicycle went by pulling a trailer loaded with computers. I looked in the direction he was heading and there, only a block away, was the New Century Computer Plaza. I smiled. I was beginning to know my way around the neighborhood!
I had the time today, so I followed a pull cart loaded with computer equipment into the building. I was accosted by four salespeople as soon as I was inside. I waved them off, but one, a young lady, kept coming at me, waving her finger. I made a face, waved my finger back at her. I’m not sure what I did, but she pulled back like I had the plague.
The Computer Plaza had five stories. As I circled each floor, salespeople offered to help me. I told them I was just looking and kept my pace fast enough that it looked like I knew where I was going. With each floor higher, the stalls got a little shabbier, and the salespeople a little more nerdy. I’m sure the prices were going down as I went up, too. By the top floor it was my kind of place: computer guts laying all over the floor with guys taking computers apart or putting them together. I tried to think of something I might need, just to haggle about prices, but nothing came to mind. After circling each floor, I went back down to the first floor and rushed for the door before the mosquitoes could land. I noticed that the young lady that had been so aggressive earlier turned her back to me.
Instead of going home the way I knew, I took a different route, using small streets. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the number of people that also used the back streets, including motorcyclists and bicyclists, who were determined to make this route take less time than the main boulevard. I’ve only been in China a week, but I already have ears growing out of the back of my head to listen for the approaching traffic. Pedestrians are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to street priority. And having an electric motorcycle sneaking up on you from behind and suddenly honking at you is an experience you won’t soon forget. I now can hear the whir of an electric shaft at 10 feet, just enough time to step to the side before being honked.
I got lost, again, found my way back to the main boulevard, then came to a corner that I knew led to the farmer’s market. I spent a whopping 11 yuan on vegetables from a lady who talked to me the whole time I picked out vegetables. Then over to the tofu vendor for a 2-yuan large brick of hard tofu. All told, it’s enough food to last me another week, and it cost about $2.
I tried to find the best way back to the apartment, but am sure there is a shorter way. Back at the apartment I tried to read e-mails, and fell asleep. I lay down for a short nap at 5:30pm and woke up at 12:30am! So I wrote my blog entry until 5:30am. Tonight, I’m finishing at 3am. I won’t be able to keep this up. Anyway, if you’ve made it to the end of the entry, congratulations! Good night!