Saturday, May 4

Waxing Romantic

One day, when we were still living in the U.S., I went for a bikini wax.  I adore my esthetician: she’s Chinese, moved to the US with her husband years ago, had two kids, divorced, and now lives with her parents in South Berkeley, providing depilatory services in a little room off their garage. (Where, as you lie on the cushioned table wishing the space heater was a little closer to your naked bottom half, you can hear her kids thumping back and forth across the floor above you while you discuss whether, this month, you’d like the full Brazilian or just a little off the sides. If the former, Ming will eventually ask you to turn over “so I can do your asshole,”* the final dousing of the glow of pampering that usually surrounds this service, but refreshing if you’ve often wondered whether the conceit that having all the hair in the most sensitive area of your body ripped out by the roots ought to be considered pampering was devised by—gosh, I’m debating between writing “sadistic latent pedophiles” and “men.”  You pick.)

At any rate, Ming was very excited to hear that we were moving to China.  Or at least, she had a lot to say about it. “You’re lucky you’re going to be there after the Expo,” she said.  “Oh my god, the crowds! And everybody pushing. And people are so dirty—spitting on the street.”  At the time, I thought maybe she’d been living in America too long, and was simply reacting as an American would, but a hundred Shanghai taxi rides later, I think she was displaying the sort of low-level kvetching that Chinese folks seem to do about all Chinese with whom they’re not directly connected—their regard for each other, and people in general, seeming to decrease with each degree of separation from themselves.

The main themes of these complaints are: 1) There are too many people in China.  This is generally said with head-shaking, and leads directly into complaints about the comportment of those people, as above.  2) The many ways in which you can be cheated, scammed, or randomly and improbably violated (as in the recent rumor I heard about the 20,000** HIV positive Xinjiang people who were said to be traveling around China lacing restaurant food with their blood).

As a foreigner, I am believed to be both a likely target (the Chinese couple who notarized the documents for the transfer of my medical license to China wouldn’t let me leave their Berkeley office without teaching me how to say “I live here,” in Chinese, a phrase they hoped, even in the absence of capacity for any follow-up, would protect me by moving me one degree closer to my interlocutor) and woefully naïve.

It was this latter presumed deficiency that Ming then began to attack.  By now she was using her wooden tongue-depressor stick to spread on the warm wax, and I was trying to relax into the one part of the experience that could remotely be described as pleasurable, when she said “Listen, when you’re in China and your husband goes out with his friends from work, you have to go with him. Every time.”

I popped my head up.  “What? Why? What if I don’t want to? What if I’m working?”

“Because if you don’t,” she said, patting down the muslin strip on top of the wax, “then they’ll go to a different place.”  Rip!

“What kind of different place?” I asked, when I’d caught my breath.

“A different place,” she said, grimly, patting down the next strip.  “You have to go with him.” Rip!  “Every time.” Rip! “Now turn over, please.”

Maybe she was right about my naiveté, or maybe the same thing that made me go visit Ming in the first place—sadists and masochists exist in symbiosis, after all—made me force her to spell it out: the karaoke, the drinking, the private rooms, the girls.  Ming was utterly convinced that these things would be available to MTH immediately on our arrival in Shanghai, like the fruit platter at a beachside resort.


Two years later and I’ve gone out with MTH and his colleagues exactly once—an experience so tame that it made me think Ming must have been right—this couldn’t possibly be what they are actually doing for fun.  And yet, her presumption that direct blockade is the only way to avoid MTH—or any man’s—straying toward that platter filled me mainly with pity for Ming.  She’s not alone—I recently watched a Chinese (well, Hong Kong-ese) movie on the airplane whose entire plot consisted of men sneaking around to meet their hook-ups while their wives/girlfriends tried to catch them at it.  All except the main character, who wasn’t sneaking around, and his girlfriend, whose attempts to catch him at the sneaking around he wasn’t doing became more and more lunatic, culminating in the two of them spending every waking moment together, in what read to me like a horror-story, but appeared to be meant to be a quirky romance. 

One never knows for sure, of course, and MTH is now in Beijing four days a week, which would provide ample opportunity for sampling from that platter (I didn’t even think to ask Ming what I was supposed to do about that eventuality--was I supposed to go along on business trips, too?  Or was her strategy a Shanghai-only plan, aimed at damage control rather than full prevention, sort of like Mark Bittman’s “vegan before 6pm” diet? ).  The women of China (or anywhere, for that matter) would be fools not to throw themselves at him—his beautiful eyes, warm smile (when he cracks one; it’s rare enough to be a special treat), wit, and extreme capability make him hard to write about (if you’re the kind of writer whose inspiration is the blundering awkwardnesses for which her own life is an endless source), yet easy to love.  But, two years after my conversation with Ming, it strikes me as important that my only reaction to it, as I got dressed and hobbled out of Ming’s parents’ garage, was to think “I cannot WAIT to tell MTH about this,” pleased to have a story I knew would make him laugh.


*I later grasped that this wasn’t so much a cavalier break from beauty services tradition but a literal translation—in Chinese the commonly used word, even in a salon or a doctor’s office, is 屁股洞, or ass-hole, which, let’s face it, has no more reason to be a swear word than belly button.  Yet there it is. 

**One of my favorite things about urban legends here is that they always come with such specific numbers, and the numbers abide.  In fact, for me, the numbers often serve as a marker: When you hear one featuring prominently in a statement—as in “Mao was 70% good,” (now the official party line), you can be sure that the statement is not so much representative of the speaker’s actual, independently-made opinion or experience but an iteration of the brand of oddly specific rumors and state-sanctioned nonsense that abounds here. 

Thursday, April 11

Ancestral Homeland

I am drinking cold TsingTao from a can, eating the crumbly almond cookies (think pecan sandies, but with almonds and even sandier) that are, according to the bucket-shaped red tin they came in, a local specialty.  I bought the cookies at the convenience store just next to our hotel, where I was also able to buy a razor, shaving cream, two notebooks, a roll of toffees, more TsingTao, some Coke Zero, and a soft-ball-sized roll of the red plastic ribbon used to tie stuff in China (where we have that hairy brown twine, they have this ribbon, giving even packets of printer paper a festive air).

These needs have all come up (and been satisfied on our doorstep) in the three days we’ve been in Zhongshan, one of the 100 or so cities in China with a population over a million that you’ve never heard of.  Zhongshan is in the south of the country, in the Pearl River delta, with Macau just to the south and Honking just to the east.  It is, as the local official who ate lunch with us today (roast chicken with the head on, roast squab, sweet buns, sautéed greens, steamed fish with ginger and scallions) told me, famous for the export of  Chinese people.  “There is nowhere you can see the sun where there are not Zhongshan people,” he told us, which of course got my arguing hackles up (outer space? Antarctica? Wyoming?) but I got his point.  He also said that 80% of Hawaii’s overseas Chinese are originally from Zhongshan. 

So, from his vantage point, the fact that the Chang/Leung/Choy family, whose common primogenitor was born in Zhongshan, is here seeking their roots may be typical to the point of cliché.  To me, though, the record-keeping on both sides that makes this quest possible is staggering.  On the American side, the temptation to let the past—which, sketchy as the details are, we know produced a strong desire to emigrate and a woman with mutilated feet (the girls’ great-great grandmother)—die must have been strong.  Since the families’ ancestors arrived in Hawaii, the distractions—two world wars, motion pictures, Facebook—have abounded.  It doesn’t make the history any easier that there are only a hundred or so common surnames in Chinese (one way to say “everyman” or “a regular Joe” translates as “the old 100 names,”) or that the same name’s spelling outside China varies wildly (the single character denoted by “Leung” above has also been spelled Liang, Luong, Yang, Nio, Niu, and Neo when converted into systems using the Roman alphabet). 

Yet MTH’s father and his cousin have not only kept the family tree their parents provided them, they’ve converted it into PDF’s, had it translated, and, in the cousin’s case, traveled the world in search of relatives (a quest hampered by the fact that the clan assimilates quickly, so that by the time he made it to Peru, for instance, he and his relatives had no common language with which to comment on their common characteristics).

On the Chinese side, of course, since the C/L/C ancestors left, there’s been a couple of revolutions in addition to the world wars; then the mass murder that was the Great Leap Forward (the people ordered to neglect their fields and instead build backyard smelters in which to melt their own woks serving as a nightmare illustration of the quibble I have with the Chinese idea that success is possible through hard work alone); then the Cultural Revolution, with its insistence on destruction of the Four Olds (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) making it a federal offense to do anything so bourgeois as care who your grandfather was, and encouraging the public burning of the family and village records that were, until then, religiously tended.  And now, of course, the distraction is the cut-throat, every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog capitalism that China is still, with tragi-comic results (on our street it’s not uncommon to see a woman navigating her pink Porsche—dashboard loaded with pink teddy bears—past a guy in earth-colored fatigues grimly pedaling the bicycle cart he piles with cardboard to recycle for a living), attempting to disguise as communism. 

And yet still, at village after village that we visited, each one arrived at after a drive long enough to require some advanced-level kid-entertainment techniques (thus the red ribbon, for cat’s cradle lessons, although it eventually had to be confiscated as the boredom quotient increased, and with it, the chance of self-garroting), we were met first with the non-committal stare that I’ve come to realize represents intense curiosity here, then by a policeman or low-level official, then an elder or higher-level official.  And then, after initial wariness and  confusion, eventually we would be led to a sort of community hall, and “the books” would be laid out before us.  In one case they were bound in brown paper, in another red, with characters inked in black on them.  In one case we were never allowed to see them, but the relevant bits were xeroxed for us.  In each case, though, there was page after page of family relationships, mapped back hundreds of years.  Photos were brought out, more elders summoned, notes compared, and, eventually, the connection made (with, in at least in one case, extra wives discovered).

When the twenty of us were at the Village of the Red Books, one of us asked our guide to ask the locals where they’d hidden the books during the Cultural Revolution.  “I won’t ask that,” he said, “it’s like asking ‘where do you keep your mistress?’.” 

And that, I suppose, has been the hardest thing about the trip for me.  Separated by language, culture, politics, and time constraints (with three separate families seeking information about their respective maternal and paternal lines, we approached each village like an attacking battalion, with roles—videographer, cartographer, close-up photographer, background photographer, stuff-toter, red-envelope stuffer--meted out on the bus beforehand), we had to try to make some kind of connection with the people we met, without even the capacity to satisfy our natural mutual curiosity about each other.  And so we sat, and traced lines in books, and took pictures and videos, and gave gifts. 

But I, for one, am left wishing that we could have forgotten the books and just sat down and asked them, these folks leaning on their motorcycles and toting babies on their backs; the ones sitting in drafty gray rooms at work, the bright thread atop their sewing machines the only spots of color in sight; the old ladies missing teeth and the calcium to keep their spines straight; the guy burning shipping pallets in an otherwise pitch-black garage; asked them, the great-great-grandchildren of those who stayed, what their days are like, and their nights. 

Monday, March 25

I have always found Easter the most surreal of jubilees

Today the girls celebrated Easter at school.  And how does a public grade-school in China, a school which exists as an arm of the staunchly anti-all-religions-but-the-religion-of-government government, observe this holiday, a holiday whose Chinese name, 复活, literally translates to “resurrection festival”? 

According to the Princess, the celebration started off, as all momentous occasions at school seem to, with “some seventh or eighth graders coming to say what we would have.” Per her, the big kids informed the smaller ones that “Easter is a holiday that includes eggs.  On Easter morning, all the kids wake up and eagerly go to see what they have in their Easter baskets, because they’re full of candy, and colored eggs, and toys.”

And then, the Princess told me, “they said ‘today we are going to have an Easter egg hunt,’ and they told the rules: ‘nobody can take more than two eggs. If you still want to find more eggs, find them for other people.’”

“Then,” the Princess reports, “We waited for five minutes and then we went down, and we saw eggs laid all over the grass, and we rushed for them, but I didn’t get any that were on the grass, I got some that were hidden by some trees.  And there were some people that got more than two,… and they gave theirs in to the teacher.”

The Princess got her brace and called it a day, but, naturally, there followed the post-hunt haggle. Apparently the eggs came in two sizes, a choice as mysterious to me as the choice to celebrate Easter in the first place.  The Princess’ original two were both of the bigger variety, but not for long, as someone—she swears, however improbably, that she can’t remember who—convinced her to trade her large egg for his small one.  “But then I switched back,” she reassured me. 

Why, pray tell, would you switch a big egg for a small egg in the first place? “Because that first time someone asked, I didn’t want to say no.  But then the next time people stopped me and asked me, I just said no.” 

And how about the hapless dupe whom she then induced to trade his big egg for her newly-gotten small one? “He was fine with it, he wasn’t happy or unhappy, he just gave it to me.”  Which may be true, as it seems that each egg, whether big or small, contained two pieces of candy. 

I saw none of the small eggs, but the bigger ones were metal enamel, decorated with Victorian-looking images of bunnies playing cellos, surrounded by fuzzy chicks and red-cheeked flute-tweedling cherubs. 

And the Rooster, did she do any wheeling and dealing with her eggs? “No, because I’m the kind of person that just doesn’t really like trading.” To which she added, immediately, “After I finish my homework, I’ll show you how to play Mad Eggs.”

The Princess looked up.  “Like Mad Birds?  How do you play?”

The Rooster, thus encouraged, set aside her homework right then and there and demonstrated her newly invented game by bashing the eggs together, fiddling bunny against fiddling bunny, repeatedly and resoundingly, while the Princess, quickly losing interest, moved on to a demonstration of how she’d had her knees in her jacket all day (to stay warm in the heatless confines of the classroom) and fell off her chair sideways.  This scene I present to you without commentary.