Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An American Tail: Jon Goes West

(Strictly speaking, I flew East.)

This is it, folks. After literally hundreds of posts, literally tens of visitors, and no ad revenue of any kind, it’s time to put this blog to bed for the summer. I wish my last post of the year hadn’t been about penises, but you get what you pay for. (?) There are so many stories I didn’t get a chance to tell: about the man on the bicycle who sneezed in my face as he was going around the corner, about the end-of-year presents Serena got for Gus and me (including a pillow embroidered with a picture of her face), about the time this week when I spilled a big jar of chilli sauce all over myself and then Gus and I ran out of the restaurant. That last one would have made a great story, but don’t worry: given my well-known inability to coordinate my hands and eyes, I’m sure something like that will happen again.

See you in August. We’ve got a whole ‘nother year to go.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mismatch, Teil 2

This is good.

Two days ago, Gus and I took our Cantonese tutor out to dinner as an end-of-the-year Thank You above and beyond our weekly monetary Thank Yous. We were laughing, talking, reminiscing (not in Cantonese, we don’t speak any Cantonese), just having a good wholesome time, when Serena’s dessert came: a seafood-papaya soup (I don’t get it either), complete with a little tropical umbrella. We made a few jokes about how exotic it was, and then I decided to tell her that, in English, it’s called a “cocktail umbrella.”

At least that’s what I tried to say.

Again, this requires a brief foray into murky Chinese waters. Bear with me. There are some Chinese words which are really fun to learn because their translations are totally literal. Take “bluetooth,” for instance, which in Chinese is 蓝牙, “blue tooth” — exactly what you’d expect, if you had never studied another language before and are an idiot. (If you’re reading this blog, and are an idiot: congrats, you can say “bluetooth” in Chinese.)

Cocktail is like that. Chicken is 鸡, tail is 尾巴, and alcohol is 酒, so “cocktail” is 鸡尾酒. Chicken-tail-alcohol. Umbrella is 伞, so cocktail umbrella is 鸡尾酒伞. This is easy Chinese. Preschool Chinese, if your preschool was into pre-naptime old fashioneds. (My preschool was Methodist, so we did grape juice instead of communion wine, and straight bourbon before naps.)

So yeah, I should have said 鸡尾酒伞. But 尾巴, tail, is two characters, and in a moment of thoughtlessness, I chose the wrong one.

“In English, we call this a 鸡巴酒伞.”

Serena, ever the professional, said nothing.

Gus and I sat there for a moment. I think both of us knew that something, somewhere, was terribly wrong.

Suddenly:

“Wait,” said Gus. “You mean 鸡尾酒.”

I thought about it. “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”

He continued, “also, doesn’t 鸡巴 mean…penis?”

“YES,” said Serena, and, finally free of the burden of having to politely ignore my mistake, she put her head in her hands and laughed and laughed.

To recap: I tried to say cocktail, what I actually said was just: cock alcohol. Jungle juice o’ the penis. The hard stuff. LITERALLY. I did not say this in the course of making a “joke”, I said it while trying to make friendly, polite conversation with adults at a restaurant. This is why my life in China is different from my like in America: here, I open my mouth and out comes penis alcohol. (We’re nearing single entendre territory over here.)

Anyway, I am going to try to turn cock alcohol into a “thing” as soon as I get back to America. (I mean a thing that people say. That may have been a little ambiguous.)

(I’m going to be in America in four days. Can’t wait for the packing gnomes to come by and put all my stuff in my suitcases, because at this rate I’m certainly not going to get it done myself.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mismatch

So I watched Pierrot le fou last night. (What a promising start to a blog entry! Just warming up for when I get rich and famous and open a Jean-Luc Godard-themed comedy club called La Nouvelle Gag.) I’ve seen Pierrot le fou before and I always laugh a lot whenever I watch it, but never as hard as I did last night and I’ll tell you why:

(We need a quick language lesson first: 安静 is Chinese for “quiet.” End of lesson.)

I don’t have a copy of the movie here, so I had to watch it on a Chinese video sharing website — luckily for me it had English subtitles in addition to the Chinese, because my brain is in no way prepared to handle two different non-English stimuli at once. About halfway through the movie, Ferdinand and Marianne are lying on the beach and Marianne says:

Fuck me

In case you missed it:

Fuck me harder

That’s “安静” (quiet) in the Chinese and, well, “Fuck me” in the English. (Fuck you in the English? I hardly know you!) Who’s right? The French line is “baise-moi,” so…English!

USA! USA! USA!

(In China’s defense, this also was a problem in the original DVD release in the United States, which also had “baise-moi” as “be quiet.” A commenter on youtube says that perhaps someone misheard it as “apaise-moi” at some point, though this seems like a stretch.)

I’ve got to say I am glad to hear I’m not the only one who confuses these two phrases. It can really be a problem sometimes. Like in libraries, or in church.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Guangzhou, China’s This Is It

Today was my last full Sunday in Guangzhou before my summer vacation begins. I marked the occasion by eating a large, filling dinner at a local restaurant and then going to Starbucks and spending exactly three times what I spent on dinner on one (1) tall iced coffee. Because I’m worth it.

Now with an introduction like that you might be expecting me to tell you about how much I’ll miss Guangzhou over the summer, how I’ll miss the unpretentious eateries, the warm summer air, the smiles of our neighborhood armless beggar — really, though, I’m pretty ok with taking a break from Guangzhou for a little bit. I like America. I don’t want to get married to America, but I don’t mind hanging out with America and fooling around with America a little bit, when America’s on-again, off-again biker boyfriend from Phoenix isn’t in town.

So even though it’s my last week in Guangzhou, do not expect any moving reminiscences. You should know by now that I am incapable of any prolonged earnestness or emotion. The closest I got to nostalgia was when I started singing “Graduation (Friends Forever)” to Wang Jiang this afternoon on my way to lunch, but he just waved his nubby little arm spokes at me and asked for more money, and that made me uncomfortable, so I stopped and moved on.

Countdown to America starts now.

(Editor’s note: there really is a beggar without arms near our school, and he does usually seem to be in good spirits, but there’s no way around the fact that his situation is just really sad. One thing I will not miss about Guangzhou is that there are some people here who are very poor and miserable and, I suppose, very, very desperate. Gus and I try to be generous with the people we see around our school, but we also know that many of them may be in the control of crime bosses who send beggars out to raise funds. (For anyone who was about to say, “just like in Slumdog Millionaire”: no, because in real life everyone doesn’t get up and dance together in the train station at the end.) I have deep sympathy for this man, and I hope that by invoking his cheerfulness here I haven’t trivialized his suffering. OK! Back to regularly scheduled jovialities and jests.)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On Liberty

There is nothing I hate more than two people ordering the same thing at a restaurant.

Everyone I know well discovers this at some point. I acknowledge that it’s weird, but I’m also not particularly embarrassed by it. I guess you could call it a pet peeve, but a pet peeve sounds like a cute peculiarity that everyone laughs about at parties, the sort of thing that makes people chuckle and say, oh, Jon, as they playfully push me on the shoulder or stare tenderly into my eyes. But no this is not like that; if this happens with you at a restaurant you might be laughing but I will absolutely not be laughing, I will very seriously look at you and say, as calmly as I can (though I will feel like screaming), “Really. Are you sure?” And then I will grit my teeth and pray that you’ll respond, “No, I was joking about the mint ravioli; I’m having the veal.” And then we’ll have a pleasant dinner eating two different things, like normal people do.

If you decide that you are not joking about the mint ravioli, then we’ll move to stage two (second base, as it were). Stage two involves a complicated set of psychological maneuvers designed to influence you to change your mind. I may retract my initial idea and say that I was also thinking about getting the grouper, in the hope that you’ll switch too, just like you shamelessly copied the original mint ravioli suggestion. This is a dangerous gambit because if you opt not to switch, then you’re probably pretty set on the mint ravioli, just like I am. Then I have to move on to third.

Third base is an old-fashioned backstabbing operation where I attempt to get the waiter to ask me for my order first, so that you, asshole, are forced to “also” yourself, as in, “I’ll also have the mint ravioli.” Then, even though I haven’t actually managed to keep the dish to myself, at least it’s clear to the waiter that you were the imitator and not me. It’s usually pretty easy to get the waiter to look at me first by using a set of subtle sexual cues, as well as by just talking louder than everyone else and not being afraid to cut people off.

What’s surprising about third base is that everyone is really good at hiding their mortification when they have to say “also” during their order. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that they don’t really care about ordering the same dish as someone else at a restaurant, a possibility I reject as being absurd on its face.

One problem with living with another American in China for 10 months is that you end up going to a lot of meals together, and your tastes sometimes overlap. Which means that, despite my misgivings, sometimes Gus and I order the same thing at restaurants. I usually try to make him say also out of spite, but I also recognize that our options are limited and it’s not worth alienating my only friend by trying to go to third base with him just to feel better about my restaurant ordering choices.

The other day, though, Gus and I were at a restaurant and I decided to get the 蜜汁叉烧饭 (honey sauce barbecue pork), and he decided to get 尖椒叉烧饭 (barbecue pork with chili peppers) — both 叉烧, barbecue pork dishes. Gus knows about my feelings w/r/t identical meals, so when I told him what I was getting, he chuckled, said, oh, Jon, and looked tenderly into my eyes and told me that he was not switching, and that he absolutely would not fall for a second, third, or even home base maneuver. So I said ok, it’ll be fine.

The waitress came up to take our orders and we each told her what we wanted and then it happened, the Worst Thing In the World, the whole reason I have this pet hatred in the first place: the waitress looked up and said, “You guys both ordered barbecue pork! The same thing! You Americans really like barbecue pork, huh? Can’t seem to eat anything else!” Gus gamely explained that we just both felt like eating barbecue pork that day as I sat in my seat and tried not to cry.

And I haven’t spoken to Gus since.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What’s this?

A lad at play! And his bottled water!

Me

Nope. 75% rubbing alcohol, liebe Leser. I know what you’re thinking: but he looks so happy!

Now, I knew I was buying rubbing alcohol*, but I’m going to put on my consumer advocacy hat for a second (after taking off my current hat, which is, what?, the sarcasm I use as an excuse to avoid intimacy? Not really sure about the current situation, vis-à-vis headwear.) — I’m going to put on the consumer advocacy hat and say that bottles of that shape and size are reserved for water. Other clear, colorless liquids need not apply. If you don’t speak Chinese and you walk into a convenience store and grab a bottle of this stuff, you’re not going to use it to sterilize your meth needles or clean your welding surfaces, you’re going to get thirsty and you’ll DRINK IT UP. I’ve almost accidentally drunk from it about 7 times since I bought it, and I bought it. Specifically because I needed rubbing alcohol. As a long time fan of consumer advocate headgear, I am troubled by this state of affairs.

*I knew I was buying rubbing alcohol, but it took me a while to figure out how to say it. I tried to describe it to an employee at the supermarket as a disinfectant liquid, but that didn’t work, so then I tried a literal translation of “rubbing alcohol”, which probably sounded like “massage wine”. I can understand why the employee refused to help me further.

If I didn’t know any better (and I do not know better; in fact, I’m sure this is exactly what happened), I’d say that they bought a big tub of rubbing alcohol, spent 10 minutes making a new label in Microsoft Publisher 98, and devoted the rest of the afternoon to putting the alcohol in stolen water bottles and counting their profits. Oh, and the label has already started to fall off. Once it does, I will have an unlabeled water bottle on my desk, except instead of water inside there will be rubbing alcohol, and I will literally be the only person in the world to know that fact. So, hey, Gus: don’t drink anything you find in my room. In fact, let’s just make that a general rule.

Anyway, an ultimatum: if this irresponsible rubbing alcohol labelling behavior doesn’t change in, let’s say, oh, 12 days, I’m going back to America.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Around the World (x 144)

The Shanghai 2010 World Expo was a grand, surrealistic, Michel Gondry-esque spectacle. It was fun and exhausting in approximately equal measure. Never before have I felt so much like a mummy dancing with a robot on the top of a giant turntable. Also, a fair number of the exhibits were made entirely of felt.

Despite having spent two days there last week, I still have no idea what the Expo actually is or what it’s about. All I have are my unreliable memories, some blurry photos from my digital camera, and tons of tattoos about my wife’s grisly murder. We’re going to stick with the pictures and see where they take us.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

So I get back from Shanghai, see?, and I’m feeling a bit hungry, see?, so I go to a local fast food restaurant. Because it’s fast. And I’m hungry.

Someone (can’t remember who, might have been close personal friend Anton Chekhov) once told me that I should “show” rather than “tell” in my writing, so here’s a copy of the menu so you can get a feel for the place.

Menu

I had the #6, which, as you can tell from the menu, comes soupercized. As you can also probably tell from the menu, this fast food restaurant (都城快餐) is like Panda Express, only slightly less classy. Also cheaper. Come on, Panda Xpress: eight dollars for fried rice and some tangy shrimp? What is this, Vegas?

(Maybe all of this is not clear from the menu. Maybe telling you would have been better than showing you. Maybe Chekhov lied to me. This is just like the time I went to a production of The Segull because the poster had a lot of seagulls on it and I assumed it was about a cool bird like Scuttle from The Little Mermaid, as opposed to Russians who DO SO MUCH TALKING.)

When I finished my meal, I noticed a garbage can, sort of like this:

Garbage can

CHEKHOV! Sorry, it’s going to be hard to get this “showing” advice out of my system.

I see this garbage can. It has trays on top of it, and I think the swing-door even said “THANK YOU” in English, just like in the picture. And when I see a garbage can like that, I have a very strong instinct which says put your trash here. This is the place for your trash. When I say thank you, I mean, thank you for putting your trash right here.

So I decided to try an experiment. Straight Madame Curie style. I decided to try to put my trash in the garbage can. So I stand up and grab my tray.

Pandemonium. Everyone around me looks up in surprise. Two waitresses begin to not-run-but-almost toward me, and one says in a loud and clear voice, “I WILL HELP YOU CLEAN UP. I WILL HELP YOU CLEAN UP. I WILL HELP YOU CLEAN UP.” When she gets to my table, she takes my tray, brings it over to the garbage can, throws the trash out, and puts it on top of the garbage can. Just like I was going to do.

Now, I know that in Chinese fast food restaurants (with the exception of the aforementioned Panda ‘Press), you’re not supposed to clean up your own plate. I’ve lived here for, what, nine and a half months now (to all the people I impregnated right before I left, I hope that the births went well!), so I know that Chinese waiters expect to clean up after diners way more than American waiters do. But, frankly, I was surprised by how vigorously everyone opposed my attempt to walk my tray twenty feet to a garbage can which, remember, had already thanked me for the service I was trying to perform.

Anyway, a good learning experience. This is the sort of thing I’m trying to do in my last two weeks in China. Pushing boundaries, staying on the edge. That’s just my style.

(I’m back from Shanghai. At some point soon I will upload some pictures from the Expo. I may even talk about them. You’ll just have to wait and see.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

White Devil in the City

There was a rumor going around the internet yesterday that the numbers station UWB-76 had stopped transmitting. (Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations that broadcast mysterious strings of numbers, letters, or tones, presumably to spies/Jeff Tweedy, who once heard a recording of a numbers station broadcasting “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and decided to make an album.) A lot of people thought that this was a serious problem, for reasons which are not 100% clear to me but which reportedly involve a Strangelovian nuclear failsafe device called Dead Hand, a device which automatically launches when it feels nuclear rumbles. I feel like there’s a joke in there somewhere, sort of a cross between my wedding night and world annihilation, which amount to basically the same thing.

Today is the first day of the nationwide (I’ll give you one guess for “which nation”) gaokao college entrance exam. The general feeling among students is that this is the most important test of their lives. I really don’t want to distract them. So I’m leaving. (There is a real danger that my presence is distracting, by the way. I walk around my house naked on a fairly regular basis (usually when Gus is gone, but not always), and we have a lot of windows, so my sense is that there are probably some students who spend more time staring into my apartment rather than at their textbooks. This isn’t vanity, this is truth.)

Anyway, I’m off to the world’s fair. I plan on eating a lot of saltwater taffy and going to the petting zoo. I will not be dissuaded by reports that “it’s not that kind of fair.” See you when I return.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oil!, or: I am growing a moustache specifically for twirling

Let me tell you a story.

Once, several years ago (let’s say…five. I don’t know. I’m not good with guestimates), I decided to transfer some money between banks. I wanted to make my money work for me (thanks for the tip, Rich Dad, Poor Dad), and even though it was doing a damn fine job at Bank of America, it would do a damn .2% per annum finer job at a smaller, sexier bank that Put People First. (That bank has since become insolvent, but that’s what you get if you run a financial institution based on putting people first rather than, say, money.) Because this hip young bank was not set up to accept electronic transfers (another thing that, in retrospect, they should have put before people), I had to withdraw the $2000 that I was transferring and walk it over to the other bank so I could deposit it there.

Like Suze Orman and the rest of the crew on lesbianmoney.com (real website!), I prefer my wealth management to be as fabulous as possible, so when I got to the teller and she asked me whether I would like the withdrawal in the form of a cashier’s check, I told her I didn’t want whatever fiduciary nonsense she was trying to sell me on, and that I wanted my $2000 in cold hard Frankie B’s, which I believe was the popular slang at the time.

So she gave me my money and: $2000 in one-hundred dollar bills is not at all impressive. Holding $100 in dollar bills makes you feel like an effing rock star but holding $2000 in crisp hundies makes you feel like a productive, responsible member of society. It was very disheartening. It’s a sad day when I can barely muster the energy to yell “Money, Cash, Hoes!” at the upper middle class pedestrians I pass on the streets of my overwhelmingly white neighborhood, which has five coffee shops, several restaurants which claim to be engaged in “fusion”, and a store where, for a fee, you can paint ceramic mugs.

(And then once I finished my depressing ho-free walk and got to the other bank, they didn’t accept cash deposits, so I had to walk all the way back to Bank of America, still sans ho, and go back to the same teller and ask her to take back my cash and give me a cashier’s check, and then I ran all the way home, cried for hours, and eventually decided to give up hoes entirely.)

All of this is a long, long (can we get an editor in here?) prelude to mentioning that yesterday I went into the payroll office and was handed ten thousand RMB in a rubber-band-wrapped stack of hundred-RMB notes. When the lady behind the desk asked me to count the stack to make sure everything was in order, I realized that that was probably the only time in my life that I would have the chance to count one hundred of anything. (Though there are a truly staggering number of amateur jokesters who, tongue waggishly in cheek, have asked me if getting a Mathematics degree at Princeton required:

  • counting to infinity
  • counting to a million
  • doing a lot of adding and subtracting and shit

to which I have traditionally replied, you are an idiot.)

So I counted the bills and I must have been smiling or something, because the lady laughed and said, “having fun?”, and I said, hush, money’s talking, baby, listen to that sweet summertime sound.

In other news, in 23 days I’ll be in America. Hoes-a-million over there, am I right?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Let’s Play Categories

It goes like this.

Questionable opinions espoused by my Cantonese tutor Serena while she was at our house last night

  • I bet you like Pearl Harbor.
  • You will enjoy the plot of this other Chinese movie I’m about to spend 15 minutes describing to you.
  • Maybe the reason you don’t like Pearl Harbor is that it is too depressing.
  • We did presentations on world events during in one of our business classes, and the funniest one was about September 11th.
  • Rudy Giuliani is wonderful.
  • Pearl Harbor is one of America’s best films.
  • You must be very concerned about Rudy Giuliani’s health.

(Drink.)

Unfortunate Freudian slips from a recent recent SAT tutoring sessions

  • When I intended to read the phrase “Men are not made for the landscape; the landscape is made for men”: “Men are not made for the manscape; the manscape is made for men.”

(Drink.)

Surprising responses Chinese students give to the question, “Can you name a concrete noun?”

  • Cockpunch.

(Drink.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What I’m doing tonight instead of posting on my blog

Going to an open mike night at a Chinese bar. My sense is that this will pay off in blog posts down the road, so I’m sure you won’t mind.

A while ago I mentioned that all buses in Guangzhou are equipped with screens playing non-stop educational and commercial content. Today I was on a bus that was playing a video of someone washing their hedgehog. On loop. I almost missed my stop it was so cute. I wish I had something to say but I can’t concentrate because I keep thinking of the way it rolled up into a little ball when the person tickled its stomach.

Update after returning from the open mike night: Seriously? That was it? You’d think that an open mike night in Guangzhou China would be full of things that are perfect for a “humorous” “blog” such as this one. But it turns out it was super American. Some guy played a “Florence and the Machine” cover. I danced the twist. Look, Edward Said, when I go to China I expect to see some crazy shit. This was mostly guys in flannel shirts pretending that we were in Brooklyn.

OK so honestly I had a great time.