Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ni How?

The flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai was uneventful. It began with the map that is so often shown on the inflight monitors, with your location and a dotted line leading to your destination, always represented by 2 concentric diamonds. And my heart rose to the thrill, heading to a new country and continent, and a destination several thousand miles away from anywhere I’d yet been. Most of the people on the flight were Chinese, and the guy next to me spoke no English. However, the poor inflight service provided a promising bonding opportunity.
The flight attendant forgot my coffee, which is an important element of my “shock and blah” assault on my nervous system to maximize sleep about 2-3 hours later. I let it go, but my newfound buddy bitched at her in Mandarin and I got coffee. OK, I thought. I’ll remember. About an hour later, after a meal of such bad fish that it could have inspired the key plot element in “Airplane!” we both asked for wine. She got us one, and he looked at me and smiled. I remembered I am not totally illiterate in Chinese, having learned to toast properly from Jing Jin. Gan bei, I said, and my new friend smiled and raised his glass. We asked for another glass and she scuttled away quite gracefully. His efforts to secure a second glass failed. With over 9 hours left in the flight, we faced the prospect of trying to sleep in an airplane seat nearly unsedated. Fortunately, although it took me over a year to work out, I had finally learned that the greatest gift one can bring from Graz is neither chocolate nor pumpkinseed oil, but schnapps. I have over 3 liters in various size bottles scattered within my hotel room. Bonus feature: the Spar at the airport sells 100 mL bottles, which happen to be the exact size allowed by security. Said bottle was soon being unscrewed in front of my wide eyed friend, who seemed totally enthralled by it any had to show it to all his friends. (This worried me, as I had planned on dividing 100 mL among 2 people, meaning 2 shots each.) But he then returned the bottle toward me, most deferentially. I shook my head and pointed to his cup. Gan bei, I said. He got it. We slept well for a couple hours, until he had to go to the bathroom a few times. After the second time, I wondered if it was my fault. I was then kind of glad we couldn’t really communicate.
I am in my hotel, a 3 star that cost under €20 per night. Everything so far seems really cheap by western standards. The room has enough packages of noodles to feed me for most of my trip, as well as a plastic display selling underwear and condoms. I can’t remember seeing any of these things just sitting there in a hotel. The noodles make sense. Condoms – there are also several cards for prostitutes sitting in the room. But, like, underwear? It seems to be a non-consumer item, unlike the other two. Unless they use it differently.
The Chinese are master consumers. They consume, like the obedient citizens of industrialized nations must and forever will, until of course we can only consume each other. They wield air conditioners and neon lights like chopsticks, and anyone who can invent a more energy-efficient version of either would do a great service to the world and whichever Chinese manufacturer steals his idea. Some Han Chinese also seem unabashedly fascinated by Westerners, gawking and staring and sometimes repeating the last word of whatever we just said in English. Fortunately, since I’m traveling with 2 people who live here, we can establish a little bit of street cred, which I absorb by proxy.
Among many things, I learned which Python movies are considered funny here. Life of Brian, no. But Holy Grail is pretty funny to Chinese students, except that they mistranslate the word “ni”, which may not matter. The Chinese say ni how? I asked, which is a homonymous with a really, really stupid question.
Today was spent between gardens and the Suzhou museum. Suzhou is one of the most ancient cultures here, the springboard of many others, and hence a delightful place for my first full day in China. It was horribly hot and humid, as I’d been warned. Although the gardens offset this mugginess somewhat, the Suzhou museum was nicer, as it was air conditioned as aggressively as everything else. We got a feast of street food for the equivalent of 6 euros and then were perhaps the first to pair it with marillen obstler, aka Apricot schnapps. Not bad. Further experimentation shall ensue.

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