Those 1000 words

One thousand words for one picture. Let me describe my afternoon tea.

The platform zig-zags, so there are many corners to choose. I pick one which overlooks the water, and I sit so that I in front of me is a sheet of new green leaves overhanging from the tarp above me. It’s better to look ahead than up – the tarp is blue and held up by stray bits of bamboo and scrap wood. Better to look at the foliage. To my right is the tea house itself, to my left is the rest of the park, so I can see people going by.

In the shallow pool which stretches the length of the tea house, brown carp suck along the leafy bottom. The algae hasn’t had time to grow, so I can see them rooting in the molding leaves. Next to them, far more handsome, are the golden carp. Unlike their orange and white brothers and sisters which inhabit every goldfish pond in America, or the brown bottom feeders, this small school of four is a bright soft yellow, so that they really do look like shining gold fish in the water. They swim next to the brown carp, making the latter almost disappear into the bottom of the pool. They make me think of legends and folklore, as though they would speak if they heard the right voice or question.

The tea house itself is old – a brown latticework building with a porch supported by brown pillars. A sloping tiled roof ends in the traditional end pieces, most of which have faces on them. The pond separates it and the pergola structure under which I sit. Brown wicker chairs surround small wicker tables, glass tops clean of debris. An ear cleaner walks amid the tables, long cotton swabs at the ready. He dings two pieces of metal together in rhythmic clanging. For a couple of kuai he’ll delve into your ears – a practice which unnerves me. I am capable of cleaning my own ears.

It’s cool out – a remnant of the winter now forgotten. Winters are not as severe here as back home, but everyone still celebrates the return of spring.

I order a tea – theoretically. I ask the man if he has tea, and he crosses his fingers in what appears to be an “x” while he’s talking. I don’t understand the gesture, and rephrase to politely order a tea (Qĭng gei wŏ yī bēi chá). He nods and leaves, neither of us sure of each other. It’s a tea house. I would like a tea. It’s supposed to be simple. Tea here is served in big glass mugs like beer (they pour beer into shot glasses. I have never seen anyone actually drink a shot here yet). There’s a chrysanthemum blossom tea, green tea, and some sort of flower tea with a dried piece of fruit in it. I wonder what I’ll get.

It’s possible I’ll be overcharged – 4kuai. It’s hard to wrap my head around that I’m getting ripped off being charged seventy-five cents instead of a quarter. More so because the tea will be refilled regularly without further charge. I can spend the day here for a dollar, listening to birds, watching golden fish, drinking tea.

After my tea arrives (green with small white flowers), the man drops off a monstrous thermos containing at least a gallon and a half of boiling water. Perhaps I won’t get change for my 10 kuai after all. Perhaps I’ve inadvertently ordered the premium service by not having correct change. It doesn’t matter – a dollar fifty then for an afternoon of peaceful reflection.

This is a disappearing practice in China. Tea houses used to exist everywhere in the country, but Western thought has no place for hours of gossip and reflection spent over cups of tea. So they’re disappearing, slowly but surely, in place of fast food and more “Western” (read: American) practices. The further inland you go, my books suggest, the easier it is to find a teahouse. The Wenjiang locals will sit here for long stretches of time. I feel a subtle, constant pressure to be doing something. Hence writing. Reflection can be scary and difficult, made more so when alone. Better to have something to do and distract in such times.

There is music in the air, lilting and peaceful. It sounds traditional. I recognize a flute and a stringed instrument, and listening more carefully I pick out another two instruments, one of which sounds like a guitar (I looked it up later – it’s a lute). I look about – a troupe of musicians has set up in a nearby pagoda. They are playing traditional Chinese instruments, and they sound really good. They are not, from the look of it, buskers. They are doing it because it is something do be done, to be given maybe. Or they’re practicing. In my meditative state, I like to think it’s because a park needs music, and a calm afternoon needs tranquil music.

Children walk along the handrail, balancing on the edge of the pond. Most are carrying little neon colored nets. Whether this is to try and catch the fish, or to help get the garbage off the surface, or both, is unclear. Most seem to enjoy just trailing the nets in the water, or smacking the ends on the surface, a sure way to keep their quarry far away. Some scoop up what appear to be snails, and run triumphantly to their parents or older siblings, mucky lumps in the netting.

Looking down, I see a giant brownish gray carp swim next to me. The other fish scatter before the long shape. It’s a shadow in the water, and maybe I was wrong about the magic of the golden fish. Maybe like the Holy Grail or the leaden chest, it’s the unassuming fish which has the real power. Or the biggest. Fish politics are beyond my ken.

You can write a thousand words, or take a picture. Well, here is one picture:





Currency rates for the rmb currently stand at 6.2 to 1. So 100 rmb is roughly 16usd

What can you do in WenJiang for 100rmb, apart from eat?

I present two options, if you had to choose:

1: You can go see a movie. I finally found out how to get into the movie theater! This is actually a minor achievement, as there were no obvious stairs leading up to the third floor. In fact, I did not even know there was a third floor until Bill told me when he saw the building. There is a single elevator attached to the back of the building which leads up.

This particular theater was very nice, and quite empty. No one sees Sunday matinees apparently. I had the pick of seats for the 3:30pm showing of “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” This was new – the ticket agent gestured for me to pick which seat I wanted, and I did so. I don’t know enough Chinese to ask if my ticket price reflected on seat cost. I also didn’t know how to ask which shows were not in 3D. These are not questions in guide books. I think future language guides should include “Which shows are not in 3D?”

Ticket price? 90rmb – for the 3D show. I noticed on the touchscreen that there were tickets going for half that price – perhaps because I had picked the front section of seats? When I go back, I will pick a seat in the back and see if that costs 45.

Now, due to a temporary brain glitch on military time, I confused 1:30 pm (13h30) with 3:30pm (15h30). I had two hours to kill before the movie started.

This leads to…

2: You can get a full body massage. I had promised my feet some loving after climbing Qingcheng Mountain, and yesterday had been mentally atrocious. Across the street from the movie theater, I saw a Chinese foot massage sign. Again, no immediate way to access the third floor on that building either – I bet I gave all the patrons of Good Mood Coffee a laugh as I walked around their store a few times. Finally, I matched the icon on the sign with an icon on the bottom floor of an interior staircase.

I found a spa. The receptionist spoke enough English to say that a 90 minute foot massage would cost 99rmb. I said that was great – 90 minutes and enough time to make it back to the theater! This she didn’t understand, so I backtracked and said that I would please like a foot massage, thank you.

In the states, a basic pedicure isn’t terribly expensive, but a day spa trip could run pricey, depending on the quality/ego of the spa. This place might have lacked some of the ambiance of a Western spa, but for the price the service was admirable. I was given tea and almonds, and they put on a tv for me, even though I don’t speak Chinese. It was quiet and the décor was traditional. I didn’t have to disrobe – just took off my shoes and socks.

My masseuse was a man – must have been in his mid-twenties. My first thought – thank God I shaved my legs. I had assumed that my masseuse would be a woman, since I had only seen women thus far. Nothing to bring all my self-consciousness to the forefront like a guy working on my calves. And once we both realized we were not going to be understanding each other, things went smoothly through the use of mime. I think that disappointed him, since we were both trying to communicate and it was just going nowhere. The “chaise” (since it wasn’t a bed or a chair) had the tub for my feet concealed under these nifty folding slats, which makes sense if you’re economizing space.

Compared to western massage, I’d have to say the Chinese technique is a little more…precise. My masseuse worked down my vertebrae individually, fanning out from there. And there was a lot more work with pressure points. Not sure which I prefer ultimately. And no my masseuse did not get hands-y – any more than you’d want from a masseuse, anyway. He was very professional. I tried to leave him a tip at the desk, but they would not take it.
I can’t imagine getting a full body massage in the States for twenty bucks – at least, not from a spa.

So, feeling relaxed and expanded like an accordion, I went back to the theater.

Popcorn and soda? 20rmb.
The popcorn is not like our popcorn – it’s like cold kettle corn. No Raisinettes, unfortunately. Also, no napkins – you buy/ bring your own.

I get my 3D glasses and go to this large theater. It’s really nice. Six people show up, tops. Maybe Captain America doesn’t translate here. They show trailers for movies, along with commercials, in the fifteen minutes leading up to the movie and then, at 15h30, the movie starts. So if you’re running late to the movies in China, you don’t have the cushion of trailers. Phones are allowed – I know because they were ringing at several points in the movie.

Guess what works really well in 3D? Yep, the subtitles! They just jumped off that screen. I’m just so happy to be listening to English and watching a movie like back home that I don’t mind the extra dimension. I recommend seeing “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” if you get the chance. I’m a big fan of Captain America, and this film was both entertaining and thoughtful.

I’m surprised that they cut the credits short – I was happily listening to the soundtrack and enjoying feeling relaxed and undisturbed, when the just cut them shortly after the “extra scene.” Maybe that was just for me, the only one in the theater – my cue to exit.

What a completely better day than yesterday – a reversal of fortune (Knock.on.wood)

And so, channeling Captain Rogers, I climbed onto my electric scooter (sans helmet – didn’t want to cart that thing around) and rode off into the streets of WenJiang. The weather is warming up, there’s a breeze. And the sun is putting up a good fight against the haze.

Hot Pot!

The Sichuan specialty cooking style is called “hot pot.” Have you ever had fondue? Maybe visited the Melting Pot at some point? Hot pot is essentially fondue, except instead of cheese or chocolate, you’re given a broth mixed with chili oil, chiles, and other spices. Chili oil seems to go into most dishes here unless you specifically ask for something not to be spicy (bu la de). Spicy is the default level.

I eat spicy in honor of my friends who are not with me and who love spicy food. I could do without it, but I can’t thumb my nose at the jealousy which accompanied me here over spicy food. So yesterday I went for hot pot with Bill, Vega, and the visiting investor Mr. Wu and his wife. Hot pot, at least in the street restaurants, is served communally. In the center of the table is a big, boiling vat of oil and broth, and families just dunk and cook meat and vegetables all together. We went to a “fancy” hot pot restaurant, where each person got their own little cooker. Mrs. Wu was kind enough to stop me before I drank my “soup” which was actually soy sauce and peppers. Mr. Wu ordered food for the table, and asked me to approve the wine.

Chinese wine – well, alright, it was a good effort at a red wine. I mean, it was a fine table wine and I am not a snob. I think a good table wine is important – it has to be able to go with a wide variety of foods. The red wine we had was nothing noteworthy – wow, guess you can’t describe wine without sounding superior. And I haven’t even mentioned the bouquet or the legs…

Anyway, so raw food starts arriving. There are artistically carved cucumbers, baby octopus, a sort of cone of shaved beef which is a really artificial red, pureed shrimp paste, chicken meatballs, salmon, veggie trays, some sort of Chinese root vegetable which has a slimy exterior, greens, snails served with chili peppers, and a second “marinated” beef plate (it looks like they marinate it in fruit punch).

I love baby octopus. That’s how this happened:

Me: Mmm! (Grabs baby octopus in chopsticks) I love these!

Mr. Wu: Ah, you don’t need to cook it.

Me: Excellent! (Takes big bite of tentacles)

*waitstaff chatter*

Mr. Wu: Oh, no, wait…

Me: (tentacle mouth)

Mr. Wu: They say, yes, you should cook that.

The only thing that keeps me from spitting out my octopus is remembering I’ve eaten it raw before. It’s a sushi dish. Should be fine either way, right? Mr. Wu confirms this once I plop the rest of my cephalopod into the boiling pot. He assumed it would be alright because in Japan he ate it raw too. I take it in stride, and we all have a chuckle at the timing. There are only two parts of the creature which revolt in my mouth – the eyeball (which I spit out, optic nerve attached), and one tiny, curly end of an arm. The latter just felt weird – like I could feel the curliness on my tongue.

Nearby is a buffet of additional spices and flavors. I get some peanuts and sesame paste, add a little hoisin sauce and oil, and make a tasty dipping sauce. For my meat, it’s scallions and garlic. I don’t add any more peppers.

I break the rules and don’t cook all my veggies. I’m eating some of them raw. I haven’t had a raw carrot in a month, and damn it you only live once! So yeah, let’s eat a piece of cold, crunchy carrot and have one of those artistic cucumbers! Viva la vida! It’s not like I’m drinking tap water. I try the salmon and cucumber dipped in soy sauce. I feel all the eyes of the table on me again – I have missed another important yet to be translated message. All at once I stifle an “Oh my God…” My mouth is coated in burn – icy, horrible burn! The wait staff whisked a liberal amount of wasabi sauce right into the soy sauce. Vega explains this to me as I try to delicately put a hand over my face to stifle my liberated sinuses. I haven’t hit the point where I feel like I’m making a real idiot of myself, but I’m getting close.

Other than this and the octopus (and maybe almost drinking the soy sauce – but why put it in a soup bowl and give me a soup spoon if it is not, in fact, a soup?), the dinner goes nicely. I make sure to cook my meat a little more than necessary, perhaps as compensation for the raw vegetables. The snails are not that good – they’re like the freshwater kind which don’t really have shells, and they’re coated in chili peppers – like hot gummy bears. Now I will be totally snobbish and say I prefer the snails in France.

For dessert – fried ice cream (fried ice milk, but you understand). The conversation, from what I can gather, is pleasant. Little of it goes my way, and I am comfortable with that. These are learning opportunities of a different sort. Normally, I carry the conversation and keep people entertained. It’s good to sit back and observe, to be invited to talk every once in a while. I ask Mr. Wu about his visits to the United States. I practice a few Chinese sentences. I drink a lot of hot tea, and miss ice water.

And so, the fullest I have been in a long time, I arrive at my hotel. Babiface is having a big party – the theme appears to be Transformers. Or haunted amusement park – April 1 is sort of like our Halloween. But I don’t have heels, so that exploration will have to wait.



The Perfume Road: Part 2

Just got out of the shower to knocking at my door. I don’t know how to say “busy” in Chinese, but looking through the peephole I see the two housekeepers. Since I can’t say “busy” I figure that if they see I’m still in a towel and clearly not ready for conversation they’ll give me a minute.

I am, in a word, wrong.

No, we have a whole conversation, even though I’m gesturing now with my free hand to my non-clothedness. It takes a couple of very awkward minutes, until I give them the paper I just wrote with the perfume names and prices on them, and the one returns my gesture about not being dressed. I shut the door and change, feeling unready for round two.

The one housekeeper pays me the rest of the money for the perfume. They are both disappointed in the prices on the paper, but it’s the best option. It would be just as much to buy cheaper versions in the States and have them shipped over (plus I would charge a fee for that much of my time). Ultimately, they ask for one bottle of the Fuel for Life.

Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to my TA Vega, prepping him for this perfume hunt in Chengdu. That poor kid is going to have some crazy stories to take with him to college! And I come to the conclusion that I am alright parting with the Diesel because I have found a new perfume that actually works with my natural chemistry and I like it a heck of a lot more – that would be Manifesto by Yves Saint Laurent, waiting patiently for me back home.

The housekeeper points to my battery and asks something. I know that word! It means scooter! Hao! They talk, and at this point I resort to Google Translate and the microphone button, which is sort of useful. I mean, it translated the following from Chinese: “Tomorrow you have the time you have time to play with us,” but that’s enough for me to understand that roughly these friendly housekeepers want to go hang out. But we don’t do well on time: “You played the national colors of day you go.” Maybe it’s the dialect – they don’t actually speak Mandarin Chinese here in Sichuan. They have their own dialect they use. I suggest after work, but we settle on “Another day we’ll play with you.”

Maybe in the near future, once I locate this Sephora and find the perfume and get this whole thing straightened out, I will go scooter driving with Du Rong and her friend.

I was going to walk to the movie theater tonight, but I feel intellectually exhausted. I mean, there’s only so much misunderstanding I can handle before I just give up. I don’t know if I want to venture into more confusion. It’s hard, and this language is not forgiving.

Although there was one other thing I did understand – I understood when Du Rong said that when I speak English, they don’t understand. I said I understand that they don’t understand. That I don’t understand Chinese. So let’s all not understand each other and smile!



Final update:

I think Du Rong is angry that she is not getting a 250 deal. No tea nor cups have been put in my room in two days. *Sigh* Road to Hell and all that…

The Perfume Road

My call to Dad drops at the same instant there’s a knock at the door.

Two of the housekeepers stood there, all smiles. I wondered what I did wrong, or what they did if anything. Perhaps they wanted to apologize for waking me up that morning? No, that wasn’t it. They entered the doorway, and one of them started energetically talking and gesturing to my perfume bottle.

My lack of language skills is so painfully…well, painful at this point. I get the impression that the woman is interested in my perfume. It’s my every day wear perfume – Diesel’s Fuel for Life. They stopped selling it in the department stores because apparently I was the only one who liked it. The bottle currently on my nightstand I had saved for a year after buying it in Paris, not knowing when I would be able to get it again. China seemed like a good time to have it with me. And now I have found someone else interested in it as well.

The two of them don’t speak a word of English between them. I break out my translator apps and notebook and proceed to get thoroughly confused. I understand she wants “three” of something – does she want to sample the perfume? No, I get the idea she wants to buy it – she’s gesturing to her pocket. So I write down what I paid for it – $50 USD. This is an undersell, actually. Given the strength of the Euro to the dollar, I probably paid more like $65 for it – well, maybe $60 (the dollar was rebounding a little). I show the number to the woman, and write the amount into RMB – 330. This is a slightly over the mark, because currently the exchange rate is 6.2 RMB to the dollar. I don’t know what it is compared to the Euro (I would look it up later). It all sort of evens out in my head.

After much discussion and more character writing I decide I am getting nowhere. No matter how slowly they speak I can’t respond. I figure out what she’s trying to say, sort of, but I don’t know how to formulate my responses. The words I translate do nothing to facilitate – they only lead to long explanations and laughter. So I say very slowly “1 minute…” and take off for the lobby. Tina is there, thankfully. Tina, who speaks moderately good English and is polite and patient. Tina translates one of the character sentences: “I would like to buy your shampoo.”

Breakthrough. So I trot back upstairs to my room, to the two laughing housekeepers, and write a discounted price down on the paper – 250rmb. It’s roughly $40, and my reasoning is that even though I haven’t used that much of the perfume, it’s still not new and I have used it, so charging full price wouldn’t be fair. I also appreciate that for $40 I could eat out every day for a week if I wanted, or eat lunch at the cafeteria every day for a month. But something is up – the one who wants to buy is still saying “three” something. It’s not 300 – because there’s no way she’d be asking to pay me more than I asked. The other one is trying to help my speaking slowly in different words, but I’ve hit my wall and there’s no going through it.

I do what I’ve been avoiding – I call reception and ask for Tina to come up to my room. I don’t like being an inconvenience, but I can tell when I’m in over my head and need help. Tina arrives like very polite cavalry, and through multiple translations we finally iron things out. The women want three bottles of perfume, and want to know when I can get them. I explain I only have the one, but that I could try to find some more for them if they wanted. Part of my brain is sarcastically asking when I’m planning on flying to Paris in the next couple of weeks. Then more details emerge – one cleaning lady wants a bottle like mine, the Fuel for Life. The other wants to buy my current bottle, and wants me to try and find two more Diesel perfumes which are not Fuel for Life. They both really like the smell.
Forget the Silk and Jade Roads – It’s the Perfume Road which runs through WenJiang…

I offer a couple of solutions to Tina. I can have my family find the perfume and ship it to me. Or I can try to locate it myself. Either way, I will find out the cost and let them know. The one gets serious – it’s her last day. And I am scheduled to check out soon – what happens if I find the perfume but I’m not at the hotel? I respond that even if I check out, I will bring the perfume back with me and drop it off with the other housekeeper, the one who is staying. I find the idea a little laughable – that I would go buy a bunch of perfume and then keep it.

Money in hand, perfume off the table, an outpouring of thanks to Tina, and then it is quiet in my room. Dad has gone to bed – I will have to apologize. And I am now reflective.

What just happened…?

In the hustle and bustle of miscommunication, I have somehow sold a bottle of perfume I’d been holding onto for over a year because it was one of my favorites. I sold my favorite perfume at what was most likely an undervalued price because…

I have no answer to this. That concerns me. Because someone else liked it and I can find more? Because I don’t remember to wear perfume most of the time anyway? Because it was a nice thing to do for a couple of ladies who maybe don’t see Western perfume that often? Because it’s just perfume and just money and really in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter? Because I have a real problem with not being able to say “no” to people, which I have not yet resolved? It’s a little of each, with a lot of that last one.

And now I’m hunting for perfume online? In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. Let’s see…I bought the perfume at a Sephora. There’s a brand new Sephora in Chengdu! And according to the Chinese Sephora website (which does not have an English translation button, for shame!) the Diesel line of perfume is available. Cost…460rmb. Huh – so those ladies got a steal for my 85% full bottle. If the store in Chengdu carries it, then my little treasure hunt becomes much easier.
Let’s see, as of March 29, 2014:
45.50 Euro = 65 USD
45.50 Euro = 388 RMB
65 USD = 403 RMB
460 RMB = 74 USD = 54 Euro

So perfume is considerably more here in China than back home in the States, and more so than Europe as well. The price of smelling good….

Oh, and if you’re in China and put in, you get taken to and there is no way to get to an English site. If you click on the “International” link down at the bottom you get taken to a host of other Sephora sites, none of them English. The Canadian site links back to the Chinese site. I can find information in Czech, French, Italian, Greek, and a host of other languages, but not English. Thank goodness brand names stay constant.