Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The road goes on forever

Two days after returning from the US following my father's death I was in a corner shop at about 7:30pm having the predictable language difficulties with the 17-year-old clerk who spoke no English and the fossilized barbarian who, though he has lived in China for more than 3 years, still lacks the basic linguistic skills to clearly count to 10 in Chinese without clerks and onlookers collapsing in manical laughter.

The amount in question was more than 10, however and a malfunctioning calculator came into play. Enter: "Road", a young Chinese woman bundled to the eyebrows against temperatures that were probably about 65 degrees Farenheit, though I've also given up trying to convert metric nonesense to Normal Measures as well as any serious attempts to learn how to count in any other language but Spanish.

"Can I help?" she asked. This was before had given me her self-appointed English name. She straightened out the accounting problem, pronto, and then began babbling nonstop to me with a mix of the usual non-intrusive questions such as "where are you from, how long you stay, how old are you, why do you have so many disgusting liver spots on your hands, why are you so fat, how many wives do you have, what do you do, how much you pay for rent. and didn't I see you on YouTube with the lifesize Latex schoolgirl doll and a sheep" questions.

I was kinda charmed. Not in a romantic way but it is rare to have a random Chinese civilian not involved in the tour, service or bar trade - especially in cosmopolitan Beijing - take any kind of seeming unsolicited interest in a foreigner. And I was admittedly bored and lonely. She asked about jobs at China Daily where I work and I took a leap and invited her back to my apartment to talk some more. Not what you're thinking...

There she told me the reason for her name ("Life is a journey") and launched into a slightly fractured and unsolicited account of her life and times ("My love story, do you want to hear?" "Sure, everyone has one or more, what's yours?" I replied) and series of jobs since arriving here about 3 years ago. She works as a hotel maid - very unusual for someone with her language skills - is largely self-taught but has a year or two of university and her best professional years so far seem to have been selling insurance in the developing - some would say primitive - Chinese insurance trade.

This brought on a string of Norman Vincent Peale-type Power of Positive Thinking slogans she had learned as an insurance trainee, albeit slightly skewed in translation. Example: "Change your thoughts and you change the world" became "Change vorld (difficulty pronouncing w's) with happy think" and "Go forvard with bus sign" which I finally realized was "Go forward using the plus sign." Why she quit or was fired wasn't clear but she said she has found new life as a hotel maid in a 4-star hotel where she hopes to meet "many foreigners for Olympics."

As my Olympic skills are limited to record setting times with the TV remote and clicking off porno sites at work when I realize my boss is standing behind me, what she wanted from me wasn't clear. It still isn't except I agreed to let her do some tour guiding, shopping and to clean my apt for a slightly above average minimum wage. As Neil Young sang, a man needs a maid, as well as a tour guide and personal shopper.

True to her word, Road took me on the weekend to Tiananmen Square complete with an outdated Chinglish tour book from which she began to read until I gently asked her stop. "But I am your guide," she said. "It's okay," I said. "Just getting here is enough." You know how visiting landmarks often results in a "it's way smaller than I thought" scenario - Dealy Plaza in Dallas, site of JFK's assassination comes to mind, as does Graceland, the White House and a return to Mrs Pollard's room in my 6th grade classroom - lemme say that T-Square, better known to aging westerners as the site of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and massacre is Gi-farking-gantic.

It is unbelievably huge and on this Saturday packed with a small city's worth of Chinese tourists and hawkers. As I ruminated on the ghosts of dead protesters and what scumwads such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger must have thought in 1971 being ferried to the imposing Great Hall of the People in a Red Star limo along a road large enough to contain a small African nation, Road and I were snagged by a thirtysomething guy who told me he wanted my opinion on whether the art he was displaying would appeal to "Americans who want to learn to paint like Chinese."

It was a thinly veiled sales pitch, but I played along and ultimately gently told him that most Americans didn't want to learn to paint or draw anything that didn't involve glitter, glue guns, spray cans or broad stroke Magic Markers - something that I think couldn't be achieved by taking "35 years" to learn to painstakingly paint "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy in Qing Dynasty Sprngtime".