Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Tale of Two New Year's (a guest post)

The author of the following is the editor of China Daily Show, a site that, when it first launched, ended my 10-day blogging hiatus and made me write, "Go here now. The greatest thing to happen since Ask Alessandro." The man is British, so pardon that. And the Dickens reference. Personally, I would've gone with "A New Year's Tale of Drugs, Sex, and Thievery," though only one of the three (that we know of) happens in the story. Hint: it's not drugs.


If there’s any time for the foreigner to feel especially dislocated in China, it’s during Spring Festival, when everyone gets ready to do one (or all) of these three things: travel, watch a disappointing four-hour televised revue, let off fireworks. Oh, there’s other stuff -- drinking, dumplings, the sending and receiving of mass blessings, some ancestral worship, perhaps the temple fairs -- but I warrant those three are the biggest, which is why, as editor of China’s only reliable news source in uncertain times, I chose to write about only two of these but will probably post the other soon (next year, say).

The celebrations are a bit of a mystery for the outsider: sure, the spirit of the festive holiday is there, especially in the nightmare 45-hour standing-room-only commute plus managing expectations after finally seeing your home and family for the first time in a year -- I’m expecting a flurry of “Migrant worker kills two after wife’s affair with ESL teacher” stories as the nation’s love affair with English penetrates even the most remote Han outpost -- but generally, China expats fall into two camps: married ones making the diligent journey to their in-laws or single youths who celebrate their way (boozing, pratting).

It’s a bit like being an orphan invited to join another family’s Christmas but given that the authentic one was less than a month ago this year, I found it particularly hard to enter the Spring spirit. But what would I have done with it anyway? Probably headed somewhere pleasant: my girlfriend, although a proper Beijinger, feels little for the festival either. Her mother, a somewhat difficult divorcee I’ve yet to meet, greeted her admission of having a winter cold with the curt directive to stay away. That was a win, though, as far as we were concerned.

As the shit kicked off around 4pm, I watched fireworks from my balcony with amused detachment, though it was already getting cold out there within seconds. I knew it was -15 outside, and there was every reason to stay indoors and hit the download collection all night long but the tiny part of me that hasn’t become a curmudgeonly, sixty-year-old estranged colonel in the East India Company was suggesting we actually go out.

No such luck for my English former housemate, C__, who was two days into his annual visit to see his best mate from the days (2007-9) back in the jewel of the Pearl River, Dongguan. Fortunately he doesn’t have to stay there (read for a summary of every night out that ever conceivably happened in DG; he’s nailed the One for the Road) as Rex’s folks actually live in nearby Hunan -- so it’s off to the country. C__’s sort of a migrant worker himself, except he doesn’t work very hard, but during these trips he gets very much under their skin, travelling down by rail “sleeping standing up, with a man with four massive packing cases for luggage snoring on my shoulder.”

Things don’t get easier on arrival: a day before New Year’s Eve, he arrives casa Rex, a remote village (maybe he should open an English school there?) one can picture easily enough: lots of one-storey buildings (ping fang) and farm outbuildings, rubble everywhere, some petrified trees, a few sorry-looking or dead animals, and kids with even sorrier-looking “toys” (often dead animals). In a few decades or so, this enclave might be replaced by three high-rise apartments that don’t accept chickens as guests, but for now it’s rural China as it really is: a hardscrabble existence. He’s a brave boy but sure enough, even he was shaken: “general living conditions are horrific… ” he texted. “I haven’t had more than 2 hours sleep in a week and about to try. Not sure when back… in my minds eye as soon as possible” ([sic], obviously, but not too [sic] considering his usual sleep-deprived texting quality).

As I received this, I’m opening a bottle of discounted weiss beer and checking the Sichuanese-style pork rinds we’re roasting in our oven like some bubble-icious expat cocooned in the 1920s. In fairness, our compound is just a bunch of squat, Soviet-style building which, in any country outside China, would rightfully be full of junkies and condoms, so it’s not inauthentic -- still, the most anti-social sight you’re likely to meet there is a granny pretending she can’t see you desperately running for the elevator.

I suspect the chief enemy out in the sticks is boredom, which, just after bad weather, is hard to deal with on a short-term basis so I sent C__ a cheery text from the history book I’m reading, which is about the sex lives of British Empire-seekers. A considerable amount viewed the Empire as a handy way to enjoy the kind of private life it would’ve been near-impossible to enjoy back home, while the rest would have been succumbed out of sheer desperation (the writer offers some salutary stuff about the chronicle of those who buckled under the toil abroad, “the heat and constant rain, the inertia and loveliness, the monotonous food, the lack of inertia and intellectual stimulus, sometimes snot even white neighbors to make up a game of tennis and bridge… men took mistresses, developed homicidal manias, drank themselves to death or broke down into neurotic wrecks by themselves in the back-bush.” We’ve all been there).

And indeed, C__ was there at that point. Was he considering taking a peasant mistress or had he, at least, developed a homicidal mania? For the situation was worse than even he’d expected: an SMS missive (no web!) baldly stated: “[I’m] living in a barn with chickens, no heating, it’s pouring with rain and I am sharing a hard bed with [Rex]. A grandma has just pumped and boiled some water from a well and given it me with a flannel so I can have a strip wash” -- no doubt, one hopes, all to take place under her vaguely disapproving, unblinking gaze. When people talk wistfully about the Real China, this is what they are in fact talking about, whether they know it or not. That’s foreign people, of course -- diehard Maoists aside, you rarely find proper Chinese yearning for the authentic old life, outside the city. That’s an indulgence only foreigners can afford.

(Plus, as anyone who’s grown up there can testify, the countryside is no place for anyone to grow up. The cost of not having multiplex car parks for shopping malls, cinemas and bowling alleys spoiling your view is -- no cinemas or bowling alleys.)

Communist country tends to be even worse. To witness this in living motion, take a train from Germany over the Polish border -- you can see the quality of life declining by the mile.

So I had an advantage in simple access to entertainment: decent-enough bookshelves, Playstation and live Republican debates, all at my fingertips. Yet... has been shut down (by the folks who brought you SOPA, surely? Never used it or even heard of it actually), so I had to go out, didn’t I? Even though I wasn’t (nor ever will be) one of those sorry bastard expats joining four generations of in-laws under one leaking roof for a week in rural China not doing much.

I gave a hongbao to my ayi, then texted another couple who immediately agreed to meet at a central nightspot offering an 80-yuan open bar and 2-4-1 champagne (it turned out to be 120 when we arrived). My stomach honestly baulked at the thought of all that booze for under a tenner -- there’s nothing quite so debilitating as a gutful of fake Long Island Ice Tea -- but choices are thin on the ground if one doesn't want to spend the evening outside inhaling firecracker dust. We watched Bill Maher for an hour, then waited inside an ATM booth (whose incessant alarm was shrill enough to drive me out into the cold, among the fireworks people) to be picked up by L__, a friend of my girlfriend who had just left 14 family members playing mahjong to drive us all to Chaoyang Park West Gate. After one of the most hassle-free journeys I’ve ever enjoyed in any city ever, we arrived around 10 to find the champagne waiting, which was a delight as champagne so rarely waits for anyone. Anyway, when the critical hour struck I was mildly drunk, drunk enough to stick my head out the door to observe the jolly display (no one bothers with countdowns in China).

Fireworks don’t drive me quite as mad as they do some people, but they are irritating to me because they provide such little value: the same pop, bang or fizzle repeated ad nauseam, like a kids’ TV theme. I don't even mind listening to them outside all week, though it’s much less fun when you’re actually on the ground (cycling this morning, two giant crackers in the middle of the road went off just by my face, placed there by a group of adult men outside a restaurant). Still, five minutes was more than enough: through the smoke, I glimpsed a staggering drunk waving a lit roman candle, a mobile phone clamped to his earmuffs. Two other men dressed like security in black were unspooling firecracker rolls like soldiers solemnly preparing a Gatling ammunition belt.

The air was thick with smoke, singed with cordite and tasted worse than napalm in the very early morning. We beat a retreat upstairs, where the bar was now heaving with the city’s cheapest skinflint drinkers, mostly exceedingly young American students and Nigerian men in sportswear and sunglasses. It was either one of these two demographics possibly responsible for what happened next: my pal got his wallet lifted from his back pocket as I ordered drinks at the bar. That left us pleading with management to view footage from the camera trained on the crime scene, while I aggressively eyed disco-goers for suspicious behavior (slurred voice, strange gestures, short skirts, wearing sunglasses at night) while the womenfolk left behind on the VIP sofas got thoroughly drunk.

Indeed, on our return L__ had gone from sparky, independent 21st century Chinese woman to tearful wreck requiring full-time reassurance from the other two about the dull Scottish teacher who dumped her suddenly after returning from their beach holiday. “This is why I don’t like hanging out with girls,” A__, one of her comfort women, confided. “Half an hour ago, she wanted a threesome. Now...”

I pictured C__ down in his rain-battered barn, surrounded by farm birds, possibly watching Chunwan, probably trying to sleep. He’d mentioned having “two Advil I might drop now, or might save till later. I completely forgot to bring any books…” So, one thing in common for New Year tomorrow morning: we’d both be popping Advil.

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