Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lotus Lane and Sweaty Boy-Band Crowds

Thursday night, back in Beijing again after my brief visit to Hong Kong. I’m really getting worn down from traveling around and feel more and more like I need a weekend alone, surrounded by books and my writing, but this will not be the weekend for it. Friday, we’re going to go out for dinner and have a few (many) drinks. Chris and his girlfriend are going to take us out to a bar area so it should be fun. Then Saturday will be our first official group outing, we’re going to do the Forbidden Tour Gold Tour (I made that name up, it means we’re actually going to go inside this time).

Friday morning, told Beijing Gas requested the charity of my presence in their office to answer questions for the morning, until lunchtime, but after that, really need to do some work on writing documents for PetroChina (or sleep). As half expected, when I get there, they say that they’re not going to be ready until this afternoon and Marlow tells them that it’s no problem, I’ll be able to come back after lunch. To which I replied, ‘I will not be here after lunch.’ I hate taking the hard line on this kind of stuff; I really could turn around my schedule some, but these people need to stick to a schedule at least once. I told them all week that I was available only in the morning and everyone said it was fine, then I get there and they change it. Screw that, I’m worn out from flying, sweating and generally ready for my weekend to begin. So they hem and haw about for a little bit, and finally get their shit together and we have our meeting.

This client is bad news all around. The project is only about two months long because they have a drop-dead deadline at the end of September (because the boss is leaving for a year for school). The contract got started in February, and they pissed and moaned about it and it got pushed back and pushed back, until another client came along and signed the contract (PetroChina). As soon as the other customer signed the contract, Beijing Gas, all the sudden, was ready to start work, not to be outdone. Originally, I was supposed to work on this project, back when it was a nice, worthwhile project with a reasonable time frame, but after PetroChina signed, I was moved to that project (since they were actually paying us). Well, now it’s been four months of contract negotiations with the clock ticking and the deadline not moving, and they still haven’t signed the contract.

To do this kind of project right, you really need 4-5 months. We’re down to two months and our team has already been here for two weeks. Ohh, and they still don't have a signed contract. I’ve been telling everyone that they’re waiting to see if we can get the work done before they sign (‘yeah right, you’re a dumb ass Luke, you don't know’). On top of that, they’re being total pricks about expenses. They wont pay for our hotel Internet (which is necessary for work, and posting useless journal entries). They require us to pay cash for everything and turn the receipts over to them directly, instead of going through the company, which is total crap. They’re being real sticklers for the finances of this project, so it’s nice and counterproductive. The amount of time wasted on this so far would pay for all of our laundry, meals and Internet for two months, but they just wont let it go. I eat expensive when I’m on their penny out of spite, screw these guys. I’m glad I’m only consulting on this project.

After the joke of a meeting in the morning, I headed back to the hotel to catch a nap and get some work done. While in my hotel room bathroom, I noticed a package that said ‘For Men Only’ on it. I just assumed it was cologne or deodorant or something like that, but this is what it says:

“This product is specially designed for washing men’s genitals. As the pure Chinese medicinal preparation, it can quickly kill any kinds of latent germs and pathogens. It can prevent any infectious diseases; use this product on and around the pudenda by massaging for 2-3 minutes. It can get a better effect to be used in a bath.”

There you have it, ‘it can prevent any infectious diseases.’ If it says it on the package, it must be true.

By the evening, I’m ready to go get smashed. So is Laura, so is Marlow. Marla continues to astound all with her complete indifference. Chris and his girlfriend (Christy? Charlotte? Peggy? Something) and the pack of honkeys are off to this area called ‘Lotus Lane’ (kind of like Superman’s girlfriend). It’s a bar scene for foreigners. Bars and restaurants surround a very long pond (I think it was an imperial pond, but everything around here is the imperial something). There are probably a couple hundred bars; all with people shouting for you to come in for the ‘cheapest drinks in the city’, of course every bar has drinks for 20 RMB (about $2.50 US), so it really doesn't matter. Every one has a local ‘folk’ singer inside singing their little Chinese hearts out, most have couches inside and out and on the roofs. We pick a spot, grab a couch and begin to drink heavily.

Laura, poor little thing, seems to find it necessary to declare that she will drink me under the table this evening. I quietly try to warn her that it’s not necessary to say those sorts of things. She barks back at me that ‘you’re going down, down to Chinatown!!’ I remind her of the vast difference in our two weights and all her response is a belch and an empty bottle.

Why do people constantly feel the need to challenge me like this? My friends don't do that to me, they understand that we’re friends and we’re going to get drunk, all in good time. It’s always someone who’s hanging out with me for the first time that gets all pumped up about partying. They always find it necessary to make this sort of statement and you can tell that inside their mind is a vision of me throwing up and passing out while they get high-fives and hugs from everyone in the bar because they were the person who drank goliath under the table.

These are the facts Jack. I weigh about 250 pounds. I’ve been drinking for nearly 15 years (sorry mom). I won a chugging contest in college for drinking a beer in less than two seconds, four times. Many of my friends are as big as me, and we don't drink beer, we drink bourbon and rum. This means that when we switch to beer, we can usually drink quite a lot. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just saying this the way it is.

Laura is on a mission and I’m not. Have you ever sat at a stoplight and pretended that it was the beginning of a race? Then when the light turns green, you fire off the block and the other guy doesn't even know you’re racing? That’s pretty much what’s going on. My normal drinking speed is fairly rapid, but Laura just keeps pushing me and barely keeping up with my leisurely drinking. Long story short, by midnight, we had drunk maybe ten beers each. Not a crazy amount, I was feeling good, but I could have flown a Stealth bomber compared to Laura, who kept repeating ‘Luke, I’m trashed, I’m so trashed’. Instead of being the caring individual who should say “Laura, I tried to warn you, now lets get you home” I am actually saying “So what, get another beer pussy”.

I did get another great picture of the great bathrooms here so beautifully carved into the ground, these all have signs written in English behind them that say ‘No Shit’. Tell that to the skid-marks fellas.

While at one of the bars, I had a chance to chat with Chris some more. He’s a pretty cool guy, really into music and wants me to come over and jam with him and his friends who are trying to make an album. I told him I don't play any instruments, but I’ll still bring my air guitar. He’s also very into astrology. He tells me that Libras (apparently I’m a Libra) are very musically and artistically inclined. I love music and art, but draw and play music like a retarded kid.

At some point, Chris and his girlfriend took off; I think it was around 10:30. They were pretty wiped out. We decided to stay for another couple beers, which naturally turned out to be about four more beers.

By the time we left, it was probably 1:00, and the whole area had a completely different look to it. Instead of thousands of people trying to get you inside for a drink, it was replaced by closed doors and shut off lights. The Chinese (especially in Beijing) have really only been into the party ‘scene’ for about ten years, so they’re all still pretty new to staying out late. Plus, many people here work 6-7 days a week, so Saturday is a regular workday. Either way, it’s eerily quiet, except for sound of me singing and Laura's continued declarations of how drunk she is.

Needless to say, 8:00 am came pretty early, and it was going to be a hot day, and a lot of walking, and a lot of Laura, Marlow and Marla.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the Forbidden City. It’s about ¾ of a mile long. It’s really twelve rooms and twelve chairs. Each one has no lights on, so you can barely see inside of it, but people crowd around them and fight to get the best view. Laura is in the front of every throng of people screaming and pushing and sweating like she’s at an N’Synch concert. By this time, I’m basically just counting down until I can justify going back to the hotel. It is amazing, it is huge and it represents a huge part of Chinese history, but it’s also very boring and very much under construction (undergoing renovations before the Olympics in 2008). We get to the end, and the back door is shut, so we have to walk the whole way back, this time against traffic.

My new most hated thing in the world are umbrellas. I must have missed the ‘umbrella required’ sign in the front because there were so many umbrellas, poking me in the eyes and hitting me in the face I wanted to scream. A big difference with the culture here is that these people are so used to being surrounded by packs people all the time that they just do their thing, not caring at all for cutting someone off, or hitting them or anything. It seems rude at first, but it’s just the way it is, I’m already starting to do it some and no one even notices (except that I’m white, fat and have bright yellow shoes on).

About halfway back to the front of the City, we were confronted by this snaggle tooth guy who said he was a college student and wanted us to come see his school’s art. This was nearly exactly the same line that that smokin’ girl said to us the first day in town. This guy was not smokin’, but I was still curious. Marlow and Marla were somewhat curious as well, it was inside the City, indoors, air-conditioned, and how bad could it be?

Laura, however, had a different view of the situation. She was, once again, very leery of going into this little building to look at some art. She said that they wanted to watch us and pick our brains for the government.

My inner monologue took over: “Are your fucking kidding me? Laura, are you really that stupid? I don't know if you’ve noticed it or not, but I get stared at like pretty much 24 hours a day. Everyone who can asks me questions, and I answer every one of them. What the hell is going on here?”

I am truly baffled by this, and so is Marlow. Laura wouldn't even go close to the building. This place was about the size of a semi-trailer and nice and cool. It was packed with art, some of it interesting, some of it pretty velvet-Elvisy, all of it somewhat mass-produced, all of it cheap. Despite being preoccupied with Laura’s insecurities, one thought came into my mind. Chinese art is gay. It’s just not very interesting. I’m sure that some of it is nice and that I would like some of it, but everything I’ve seen has been pretty bad.

So, we gave them a retinal scan, allowed them to photocopy our passports, and drank some funny flavored Kool-Aid, took a quick nap, and left (my butt was kind of sore for some reason). The more I’m around Laura; the more I think she’s pretty close to crazy-cat-lady crazy.

On our way back, we decided to go to the top of one of the huge Forbidden City buildings. This, of course, was not free. They wont let you take anything except cameras in, so we had to go in shifts. This building over looks Tiananmen Square and I was up there for about twenty seconds before I was ready to go. Here’s a tourism tip: if you’re short on money, get a friend to enter the museum and have him or her describe everything to you via cell phone or walkie-talkie. I was hot and ready to go home. By this time, nothing was impressive to me, I just wanted to go home and sleep. Jayson was getting into town that night, so I was looking forward to hanging with him for a day before going back to Langfang. We finally grabbed a cab to head back to the hotel, Laura stayed behind to go do her thing for a few hours, probably see if she could buy some of Chairman Mao’s semen or something.

Jayson got in around 5:30, so we took him to a welcome dinner of local food at TGI Fridays. Marlow chipped a tooth on something and I fell back in love with ketchup. Jayson will be here for a week doing some data modeling for the Beijing Gas client and really has no idea what he’s expected to do, but he’s in China and that’s all that matters. I hope he isn’t getting set up. This is a confusing project and the politics of GE vs. China Anything are pretty strange.

Sunday morning, Xinlei took Jayson and I to the biggest computer electronics store in all of Asia. I feel bad because we kind of had to sneak out the back door of the hotel to avoid the rest of the people. It was my request, I take responsibility, by this point, I have had enough of everyone else, and really wanted some time to just be myself (which means, bitch about coworkers).

This computer store was pretty huge, it was five 7-story buildings. The thing is, it wasn't very much cheaper than in America. Supplies were, I bought a USB hub for about $2, but MP3 players were about the same as in America. Jayson and I were both expecting to get an IPod for like fifteen bucks. Each floor was a multitude of electronics kiosks, and it was mass hysteria everywhere. It was more like a meat market in Nairobi than an electronics store, people yelling, and throwing stuff, pitching their wares at you. Jayson and I had about a 10-foot buffer around us everywhere we went, silence and stares at the two white folk. Xinlei would stop and barter with someone for a minute then walk off to the next person. It was quite entertaining, but not the kind of place to stop at after church to pick up the new Amy Grant cd.

We decided to hit a place nearby for lunch. We had to take one of those over-the-highway-walkways. Xinlei warned us that this was a pretty dangerous place because thugs will take you shit from you on top and toss it down to their accomplice, who will run off with it down the street. The way he was talking, I just assumed we’d be robbed, but, to my disappointment, we weren’t. I would like to try my hand at throwing a person off a two-story walkway at oncoming traffic.

Lunch was a sub-par steak, but it was air-conditioned, so that’s all we cared about. We were all pretty worn out, and Xinlei and I had to get back to Langfang. So we hit a cab back to the hotel where we immediately ran into Laura.

The first thing she said when we got back was ‘I think I know where that huge computer store is.’ Now, this is a good opportunity to be honest and come clean, so naturally I said ‘Really, where?’ In reality, I didn't know where it was; I could never get back there. These lies and half-truths are always bad and the karma created by them have a natural tendency of turning around and biting me at inopportune times.
With my head hanging in despair and shame, I left the electronics store, Celebrity International Hotel, Laura, Jayson, Marlow and Beijing and headed back to Langfang with Xinlei for another week of frustration.

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