Monday, December 21, 2009

Away in a stranger (land)

While the novelty of Christmas in China has pretty much lost its sheen – the sight of Beijing noodle store clerks in red and white elf and Santa hats no longer bemuses me – I gotta say there are some moments.

An outdoor bike repairman who fixes tires and adjusts gears and cables near my apartment in the coldest weather recently strung some scrounged silver and gold tinsel around his portable worn wooden work table. A nice touch and if I had a bike I’d mess it up just a little just so he could fix it.

There was also a 10 or 11-year-old Chinese boy skateboarding slowly in my apartment lobby while sawing away on a wincingly bad version of Jingle Bells on his violin as his father shot video for gawd knows what purpose. If he'd been a dog it would have been excellent for one of David Letterman's old Stupid Pet Tricks. Nonetheless, I watched for about 10 minutes and left happier than when I'd arrived.

Another are my newspaper’s plans for a holiday party, to which only three foreign staffers that I know of have been formally invited (as in told specifically where and what time it will be.)

I am not one of them and I not miffed. I know we are welcome but I've long since learned Chinese protocol when it comes to foreign employees frequently simply does not include niceties such as clear invitations that give us time to plan. It simply never occurs to them just has it never occurred to me that spitting on a public bus is perfectly normal and hygenic behavior. We're just supposed to suck the info up via telepathy or osmosis and then jump at the last minute.

But most of us won’t be jumping anywhere except to our own makeshift expat gatherings or on a flight back home as the party is being held after sundown on Christmas Day at a far distant hotel and – due to skinflint budgetary concerns – will be lacking booze and food, though I’ve heard rumors of “free fruit.”

Mmmm, mmmm. “Hand Santa baby another brown apple, a wrinkled saggy Mandarin orange and a couple of those gratis grapes, won’tcha my little Sino-elf?”

“Who holds a Christmas party on Christmas Day?” asked one American rhetorically. Indeed. But it's not just any Christmas party. Dozens of Chinese employees have been roped into learning traditional Sino song and dance routines (none having to do with the holiday, which isn't officially recognized, of course) – many on their days off with no overtime – in order to bring cheer and reflected glory to their benevolent leaders.

“I did not go to university to dance like someone in the North Korean mass games,” remarked one slightly cynical reporter. “But I need this job.”

She had just emerged from a large conference room as deadline loomed where instead of working on the next day’s stories, she and three other reporters had been frantically rehearsing steps, dips, sways and bows as an instructor hired for the occasion clapped and counted “one, two, three, four … again!” in Chinese.

The irony of a newsroom on deadline being used for choreography purposes for a foreign holiday in an atmosphere where the staff is frequently harangued to “work harder, work longer!” wasn't completely lost on her.

“Dance longer! Dance harder! And make deadline too!” I replied. “Merry Christmas!”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Riding with the King

"Doing Burger King for lunch, join us?" read the text message from a US pal Jeff last Saturday. A frisson of excitement - almost erotic - ran through me as I read it.

Unlike ubiquitous McDonald's and KFC, BK has yet to really crack the Chinese market. There are only two in Beijing - one in the airport and another in the Xidan area of Beijing, an hellishly packed shopping mall zone the size of Lichtenstein that in my mind is sort of like those 14th century maps that showed unmapped regions containing sea monsters, dragons and cyclops reading: "Here be dragons."

My mental Beijing map that includes Xidan says the same and shows demon eyed Chinese shopping 'bot zombies crushing anyone and anything underfoot for space and bargains at a Levis outlet as multiple PA systems compete at 170 decibels in the aural equivalent of water boarding.

So I have avoided Xidan and others like it since coming to Beijing, unlike Shenzhen where C - for whom these mall plague zones are like oxygen - would often lure me under false pretenses that I'd rather not admit to buying into at this point. But the thought of a real Whopper and BK onion rings seemed irresistible. Hell, I'm told some expats here used to make pilgrimages - a fast food Haj - to Beijing International Airport spending more on taxi fares than the meals to indulge themselves in fatty greasy Flame Broiled Goodness.

Done, sealed, delivered see you there,I told Jeff. I was one my way to the Promised Land after, what? maybe three years since I'd last snarfed a Whopper Jr for the equivalent of about $112 at the Hong Kong Airport. Outside Xidan craning up at the multiple malls, I looked in vain for what Jeff had told me was the "Joy Center" complex while disco versions of Christmas carols cranked like hell's own anthems and I tried to squeeze into as small a space as possible for an overweight guy in three layers of winter clothing in order to avoid the shopper tsunami.

Jeff finally located me on a pedestrian bridge where he said later, "it looked like you wanted to jump." Close, yes. But the King called.

Inside on the third floor Jeff yelped, almost trembling: "No line!" His Chinese girlfriend rolled her eyes and patiently explained to me, "Last time we were here the line was out to here..." pointing toward a vista that went from BK to electronic equipment, luggage, sportswear, weird stuff no one really buys and eventually where dragons be.

Order made, settled in and inhaling the Whopper (or huangbao "Emperor Burger" as it's translated here) and rings suddenly I felt at peace with it all. The grease felt oh so right at the moment. It was almost with regret that I wiped it off my mouth and cadged another onion ring from Jeff.