What It’s Like

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

There’s a woman at the next table with a big Detroit Tigers “D” woven into her sweater. I’m in the Nanshan KFC, sitting by the window as it gets dark. There are photos of a birthday party taped to one of the columns near the door and children’s drawings on the wall. Vague pop music plays, lyrics in English only sometimes. Eight or nine tables are occupied: a grandmother, mother, and six-year-old son, two women, father, mother, and baby, me, a couple tables of college kids. I look up and catch a full view of the baby’s bare ass crack. Chinese baby clothes are split all the way up the butt and they don’t wear diapers. This baby is wearing a pair of patterned red overalls and is crawling on the table. One of the KFC women—gray slacks, light pink shirt, gray cap, young—is wiping tables and bussing trays. She wears a little cloth holster that holds a spray bottle of disinfectant. A little girl plays with a plastic toy while a vanilla soft-serve cone sits in front of her. Two women and two men come in. The men go to the counter and the women sit; maybe a double date. This KFC has turned out to be the only place I can go to hang out and sit. Restaurants are too bustling and there are no coffee shops or anything like that. It’s Saturday evening, about 5:15.

The other day I had lunch in a kind of dumpy little place downtown near the bus station. It wasn’t much different, really. I had a bowl of spicy soup with quail eggs, baby octopus, tofu, and spinach for 5 rmb, less than a dollar. I ate out of the plain aluminum bowl with disposable chopsticks and slurped warm water from a white cup. Four men in factory uniforms smoked and ate from one shared bowl at a table to my right. Slightly behind me a well-dressed woman ate by herself. Some kids came in, four guys and a girl, and the girl went to the back to order while the boys sat up front. It’s November so everyone was dressed warmly. Chinese long underwear is at least three times thicker than American, and comes in colors and patterns. In the twenty minutes or so that I ate lunch a few more people came in, pushing through the heavy clear plastic strips that hang in doorways everywhere. People ate, talked, smoked, picked their teeth, smacked their lips—just lunchtime on a Wednesday.

I’ve been here in the Nanshan area of Longkou nearly two months now, and this is what it’s like. It’s totally normal. People are out, having a meal or a snack, doing some shopping, going to school or to work, maybe taking the bus home to watch some TV, do the laundry, go to bed. On Monday everyone will basically go to work.

Taking the bus downtown is still taking the bus downtown. Walking down the street is walking down the street, except you can walk in the street on the extra-wide shoulders, which I love. Lunch at school is served on sectional metal trays by lunch ladies in white aprons, more or less the same as it was at fancy Milton Academy in 1987 when I was in high school. Girls in sixth grade won’t volunteer to read a dialogue with a boy, but are eager to pair up with another girl, which doesn’t tell you anything about China but it says everything about being in sixth grade. Not that different, all in all.

The little girl has finished her ice cream cone. Another girl in a pink headband wanders around the restaurant. It gets louder as more people come in. In fact, the only unusual thing in here, the only alien thing, is me.

In two months, I have not once put salt on my food, or seen a salt shaker. I haven’t seen any graffiti on the street whatsoever. I haven’t touched hot water out of a faucet, as the sinks in my apartment and at school only have one faucet. (The hot water in the shower is very, very good and never runs out.) I’ve sat on a couch once. I haven’t gotten a voicemail message (not because no one calls me but because there’s no voicemail in China). I doubt I’ve gone through a revolving door. I haven’t printed a file from a computer or eaten with a fork (duh) or ridden in an elevator. I’ve seen eight dogs and three cats.

  1. Emmy —
    Monday, December 07, 2009 :: 02:04 PM

    I love that they put kids’ pictures on the walls of a KFC… THAT is different. Will you pick me up a pair of those extra thick and colorful long underwear? Keep posting please! xoxox

  2. Amanda —
    Thursday, December 10, 2009 :: 12:16 AM

    Since you’re speaking of food…

    I wonder if those Chinese bun shops are as omnipresent in actual China are they are in Chinatowns? Since moving to Sydney, I’ve been dragged into one of those at least monthly. While I love the smell (a diabetic version of Subway at baking time), the in-between not-sweet and not-savoury taste of red bean buns is hard to reconcile.

    Thoughts?

  3. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
    Saturday, December 12, 2009 :: 01:08 AM

    Have you converted anything to pdf there?

  4. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
    Saturday, December 12, 2009 :: 06:42 PM

    I vaguely recall something called a PDF—it had something to do with clients calling at the last minute or something? In any case, no I haven’t. And I have only 1 non-system font loaded on my computer.

    Amanda - There aren’t really bun shops, at least in this town. There are a few places to get pastry (cakes, cookies) and there they have stuffed buns but they’re fried and brown (not white and steamed like the Chinatown ones). There is also a chain called Bread Cafe that has very tasty and fancy pastry. The Bread Cafe sign promises they also have coffee, but it’s a lie. No coffee except at KFC!

    Now, is this Amanda P. from SVA, or Amanda G. from DJ Wines, or some other Amanda?

    The underwear is excellent—turns out it’s lined with fleece, Emmy. And some have knee-pads sewn in. So crazy.

  5. Amanda —
    Sunday, December 13, 2009 :: 06:49 PM

    It’s another Amanda. An inferior-feeling one, now that Amandas with better credentials (artistic merit, free booze) have been introduced.