Friday, January 30, 2009

When in Yanzhou

Just 3 days after making the trek back to Shanghai, I found myself on a train bound for Yanzhou. For the second time in as many days I was running like hell in public, with luggage, to catch my departure. I made it on the train, but found myself on car 13 when I needed to be on car 5. Insert heavy sigh here. Nothing quite like squeezing through several crowded cars, startling young children with my now flushed, but most definitely "white" face. Thrill seekers, take notes.

It seems silly that a 6 hour trip on the bullet train could seem long after a 16 hour flight across the ocean, but low and behold. The trip was easy and definitely less fuss than flying, but the real downside were the videos. Ah, the short loop of videos. Part train features information (look! bathrooms! and sick bags!), part ridiculous cartoons and a huge helping of Olympics videos. I was treated to super glossy, sometimes cheesy musical renditions where everyone is swelling with pride over the seemingly upcoming games. I've seen such stuff in America for sure, but the Chinese have it down to an, well, maybe a science. I told David we should take bets as to when they will stop showing Olympics ads, as though they hadn't taken place yet. I say 2010. In April. If we're lucky.

After the fifth repeat of "Aren't the Olympics wonderful?!" I started contemplating the etymology of the word "torture" and its relationship to the word "brainwashing", but just then I arrived at my stop. A driver from the plant picked me up and we drove back to David's apartment. Later I met David and two of his coworkers for dinner in Jining. We had Korean food of all things and also got some bonus entertainment in the form of "bad/funny things happen when people who can't handle alcohol do the unthinkable and actually drink the stuff." Small town drama. Good stuff.

The next day, Wednesday, was the main event, the very reason I had made this journey. It was David's company's end of the year awards ceremony followed by their New Year's celebration. The celebration involved performances. The performances included David singing a cheesy song and acting out a funny skit, all in Chinese. Yeah, no way I was gonna miss this!

The ceremony was damn boring. There is nothing quite like listening to a thousand Chinese names being read off to make the brain want to curl up and die. A good study in Chinese tones though. I found myself trying to guess them. "3, 4, 2, 1, 4,or maybe 1?, 2, 3, 4, 4...blah, blah, blah." They had headsets for the foreigners so we could listen to a "translation." It just didn't work out too well. I got bits and pieces. Basically, it's like any company presentation/ceremony where everyone has to speak of good things and the value of hard work and achievements, America and
China aren't that different.

The second part was way more entertaining. Songs, skits, comedy routines, acrobatics, martial arts, dances, and traditional story telling. The neatest thing about it was that everyone works there. The acrobats work in the plant. Some of the dancing girls work in the company hotel. It wasn't all first class entertainment, but impressive nonetheless. A group of Italians from the other joint venture did a song in Italian. David and Scott sang Xiang Qin Xiang Ai De Yi Jia Ren (The Whole Family Love Each Other) with a big group and this, of course, required hand holding and swaying a la "We Are the World." I never thought I'd see THAT in a million years.

A few acts later David and 3 others did a sort of rhyming story called Three Words where each person has a line in each stanza, more or less. David was the 4th guy, who is supposed to be a dopey clown-like figure. I thought he was quite funny even though I had no idea what his lines meant. They gave him these specific moves to do with each line which only added to the effect. He thought he was the worst guy for that role because he's not comedic, but maybe that's why it was so funny, at least to me. The audience was genuinely excited when any foreigner attempted to speak in Chinese, but they seemed to be truly laughing at the content of his lines. They really loved it. So did I.

And now for your viewing pleasure...

A Star is Born

Afterwards there was a lunch with, of course, toasting-o-rama. I managed to get away with not drinking baijiu this time, just red wine.
Yes! (I forget if I have talked about baijiu yet, but basically it's 50% alcohol, tastes and feels a lot like jet fuel and knocks out foreigners and locals alike.) Toasts happen all throughout the meal, but eventually people get up and wander around, doling out ambush toasts. And very often the toast is supposed to be bottoms up. People were drunk within half an hour. That's when the scene really picked up.

I was getting all sorts of attention because David's coworkers have all been
uber curious to meet "the girlfriend". They know all about me. Word travels fast in that place. When I arrived, I met one guy who said, "You arrived at the train station at 4!" And he was right. It's a very weird experience. Take into account the curiosity, the alcohol consumption and the fact that in a sea of black suits I was the only one wearing pink, and I was in for it. All the foreigners present were obliged to pose for numerous pictures anyway. So we'd meet someone and then we'd take a picture (or 10) and then they'd get their friend and we'd all shift around and take another couple pictures.

I met David's fairly bizarre boss and he was WASTED. We'll call him Mr. Gone. I told David it looks like he gets in fights with junk yard dogs. He was significantly shorter than me and he kept shaking my hand, trying to focus his eyes on me while teetering to and fro. I was just afraid he would throw up on me. David's friend/co-worker Frank also paid his respects. I met Frank the last time I came to Yanzhou. He was beet red in the face, but much more composed than Mr. Gone. He said hi and then asked for a hug, which is something I never see Chinese people do, let alone request. David came over afterward and I told him about it. He said Frank already told him. He said, "Frank loves you. You just boosted my career by hugging him." A little later he added. "I might need to tell him to chill out though." Oh man, craziness!

At some point they were tossing us around for pictures so much I felt like the potato in hot potato. Add in the drunk Italians getting all chatty and getting on really well with all the drunk Chinese and it's just a wild mid-day "I love you man!" fest. Aside from the shenanigans, I did get to try a few non-scary food items, all fruit and vegetables, mind you. I couldn't bring myself to touch what looked like gray, bumpy animal innards, but I was all about the roasted sweet potato. I never thought of sweet potatoes as Chinese fare, but I'll take it!

The afternoon ended with a group photo and much staggering back to apartments to pass out. We were fine, but decided to head back to the apartment ourselves for some restorative tea and peanut butter cookies. That night, we went for hot pot with our friend Daniel in downtown Yanzhou. This place gives you your own little pot of boiling broth, so you can choose what to cook for yourself. Quite tasty. Plus, I managed to scare the pants off another two year old. Just another day in Nowheresville, China.

I am having a good time so far. Now that I'm back, I remember the things that I actually enjoy about this place and that is a nice realization. Even in an ugly, dirty place like Yanzhou there is life. At night the town and grounds of the plant were lit up with Christmas lights and huge red lantern displays
for the holiday. It's a shame they can't leave them up all the time. It was beautiful.

Here are a few snapshots from the celebration:

And a picture of me, David, Daniel and Scott