Sunday, June 22, 2008

Working Class Hero
Never underestimate the power of the Chinese gossip underground. Faster than the Internet, I got a taste of it recently as I was leaving the office.

"Justin! Justin!" yelled a woman I'll call S, who works the paper's "Foreign Affairs Office" - essentially a group of Chinese assigned to babysit newly arrived "foreign experts" and help any others (like myself) when we can't do something like mail a letter, blow our nose or tie our shoes.

I froze. Sometimes it's not an entirely good thing when Foreign Affairs comes to you instead of vice-versa.

"Yeah, how can I help?" I said turning on the charm offensive.
"You are the HERO!" she said.
"Huh? Why? What?"
"The fire! You extinguished the fire. With BEER!"

Oh, that. It had happened the early evening the day before. I'd stopped at a corner shop for three cans of beer for a guest arriving later and as I got to my apartment I saw a literal pillar of flame coming from the battery-engine compartment of a small motorbike parked with dozens of bicycles at a rack. Two Chinese guys were watching it dispassionately.

Ignoring them, I ran to the apartment's security office to find ... no one. Running back I recalled the beer cans in my backpack and began popping and pouring and jumping back from the flames until the cans were dry and the fire was a sputtering low sizzle. Then one of the Chinese men came over and made a half-hearted effort to spit it out.

Two expats appeared on the porch of an adjoining apartment and I yelled at them to get someone or something other than a 12 oz can of Yan Jing to help me douse it completely. One returned with a fire extinguisher and almost threw it at me.
"Here, dude," he said. "I have no idea how they work."

This was the fun part. I pulled the pin. squeezed the lever and began furiously hosing foam over the smoking bike. When the fire was out, I picked up my pack and wandered back to the store, wondering if the bike owner might reimburse me sometime for the beer.

Between then and S's "you are the HERO" gush, I wasn't aware of anyone I knew seeing me in action, but obviously word had spread quickly of the valiant beer-touting, fire fighting foreigner.

"Aw, it was nothing," I told S.
"No," she said. "It was very kind. Three beers for the fire! I will write a letter. Perhaps you will be a Model Worker!" (China Daily awards this honor every 3 months or so; it's sort of a hangover from the old Commie work unit model and one I occasionally mock light heartedly)

"A working class hero?" I asked her, quoting the old John Lennon song. "Cool. That's something to be. Do I get new beer?"


Peter said...

Waste good beer on a fire!? Now I never....

Ben said...

Now just you wait a minute...I don't think it was clear that Justin didn't drink the beer first...

Matthew said...

There was a fire extinguisher in China?

They should make you honorary fire marshal for the Olympics.

pdm said...

But nobody's giving the Chinese guys credit for trying to help you by spitting at the fire. Let's give these patriots some props!

Craig said...

A first beer!

Did you ever get some more beer?