Friday, November 26, 2010

Nothing Says ‘Night Club’ Like Monks and Stuffed Animals

My first visit to a so-called dance club in Jining was so mind-bogglingly bad that I was tempted to call the search for decent night activities around town a lost cause. Still, I held a shred of hope that maybe my first experience was simply an off night. Surely every night in every club in this city could not be like this hodge-podge assortment of elements that I had just experienced?

The early evening started with perky club beats and dancing girls, two of whom were bleach blondes from exotic Tajikistan. The semi-normal disco scene changed abruptly at 11 p.m. to amateur Josh Groban covers, followed by an auction of stuffed plush animals and bottles of Jack Daniels. Once the snake dancer arrived, I had completely lost all sense of place. When the tarantula poked all eight of its fuzzy legs out of the dancer’s mouth, I knew it was time to leave. The dark, mafia-like vibe held little intrigue for me and the freak show element proved over the top. I went home to bed and tried not to have nightmares about spiders in my mouth. Or Josh Groban.

I mused for days afterwards about that evening. The club seemed to be trying to appear wild and happening. Stripper poles abounded, and one dancer spent some time spinning around on it, but it was certainly not a strip club. Suggestively dressed girls did fairly tame dance moves with looks of bored detachment on their faces above a dance floor full of young men who didn’t seem to notice them. I had wondered if things would get racier as the night went on, but that notion evaporated when they cut the music and brought the lights up. Without missing a beat, the men shifted from dance mode to auction mode, trying to outbid each other for giant teddy bears with big, pink bows. It was jarring and didn’t make a damn bit of sense.

The Party World club scene in my adopted 3rd tier city in Shandong Province seems to occupy an unlikely space between an edgy, dark haven for local mobsters and slackers and an enthusiastic attempt at crossing modern dance clubs with cabarets with side shows with prizes from Chuck E. Cheese’s. The result is about what you’d expect. It’s like dumping four different boxes of puzzle pieces, a bowl of mashed potatoes and a hamster on a table. Shove the pieces together, use mashed potatoes to hold it all together and put the hamster on top like the cherry on a sundae. Jigsaws are fun, mashed potatoes are tasty and hamsters are cute, but all together, you’ve got a big ol’ pile of discord.

I never went back to Party World, but I did recently go to Banana, or in Chinese, Ba Na Na. (Admit it, the name makes you snicker, too.) An American friend teaching English had convinced this club to give him free beer in exchange for singing a few songs on stage, just for fun. Two songs, forty free beers. He invited everyone he knew to watch and take care of the libations. So, six months later, I found myself at another Jining night spot. And I found out it wasn’t the same as Party World. Nope. It was even more bizarre.

Banana at least looked more like clubs you find in the big cities in China. A bit more lighting in the entrance certainly made it seem less seedy. The motif seemed to be “Egyptian” with giant relief carvings of pharaohs standing in profile lining the back wall, spotlights in shifting colors highlighting their faces. The DJ played the standard watered down club music. Women were present on the dance floor, unlike at Party World where the all too rare and mystifying “big-group-of-men-dancing-together-but-not-interested-in-each-other” dynamic prevailed. The two local hired dancing girls were present, but took a less prominent role in the back.

Any notion of a carefree environment to get one’s dance on and let loose quickly withered in light of the presence of several helmeted policemen standing around the stage looking glumly serious. The DJ frequently interrupted the tracks with a lot of “Yi, er, san!” (One, two, three!) and drawn out spoken announcements most definitely out of sync with the music, which for a DJ is pretty tragic.

And then, just like before, 11 p.m. arrived with a screeeech! Kill the music! Bring up the lights! Sweep off the dance floor! It’s singing time! Look, our singer is dressed in uber hip clothing, with a hip, black hat and hip, skinny jeans and Marilyn Monroe on his t-shirt. He’ll sing something sappy about love. People will buy him beers and make him down them on stage. Yawn. I found my pile of sunflower seeds more interesting, frankly.

After a couple acts like this, a woman came out who actually had some impressive pipes and an even more impressive dress: a sparkly silver evening gown that gave way to a mini skirt after the first song. This lady and the host then did some sort of comedy skit, which my Chinese-savvy friends informed me was quite dirty, which I could already tell by her mock offense at what he was saying, coyly protecting her lady parts hiding beneath her barely-there skirt.

She then did a fairly good rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” which would normally be horrible given that I have heard that song more times in the past two years than in the 13 years since the movie came out. But the host added a twist to the performance. He draped a shawl of toilet paper strips on the lady’s shoulders and fanned her with a giant piece of cardboard, fluttering her hair and shawl to simulate the boat scene in a show of admitted, intentional cheesiness. They drew laughs from the locals and the foreigners, a tall order to be sure.

Then it was time for our friend to perform. He sang his songs, one being the Chef’s from South Park. I’ll let you figure it out, but needless to say, we got the lyrics and most other people did not, so we got to giggle as we cheered. “Devil Went Down to Georgia” was baffling to the audience given the country-ness of the tune, but we found it entertaining. For my part, I thought adding to the randomness of the evening was a bit more fulfilling than just being a bystander.

I thought things would wrap up after the novelty foreigner act, but no. We hadn’t gotten to the freak show portion yet. Silly me. This time it was a lady tearing a metal bowl with her bare hands, bending swords with her throat, and wrapping rebar around her neck, which was seriously painful to watch. Cringe-worthy human tricks are usually not on my to-do list of nighttime fun activities, but at least this time no spider-induced chill bumps were on the bill.

I hadn’t stayed past the circus side-show portion at Party World, so I didn’t know to expect anything more. Is it over now? No. No it’s not.

Cue the monk.

A chanting track fit for a temple started playing over the sound system and a Buddhist monk came out to paint a scroll on stage. It took at least five minutes for the whole thing, the monk patiently painting a single character on a scroll, stamping it, waving incense over it, walking around it, presumably blessing it. We all sat in dumbfounded silence. My Chinese friend whispered, “This is so weird!” in my ear, so at least I knew it wasn’t simply a cultural difference, for once.

So why have a monk paint the symbol for Buddha on a scroll in a night club? Apparently, to auction it off. I know close to nothing about Buddhism, but it just felt wrong, bringing some old monk guy in to paint something to be auctioned off before the ink even dries, for 50 bucks US, no less.

After all this, I found out that they bring back the dance music for the last hour before closing around 2 a.m., like they suddenly remembered that a dance club involves dancing. I was surprised anyone was still around to dance. I was also surprised I was still around, it now being impossible for me to avoid using the restroom there, which on a scale of 1 to 10 after two years of squat toilet experiences, was firmly at a 1: craptastically awful, pun intended.

With one too many warm, free beers in me, I took my leave to avoid a second bathroom trip. I now felt I could legitimately make an assessment from my small comparative study of the awkward teenagers that are dance clubs in Small Town, PRC. It might be interesting to make a return visit in 10 or so years to see if the clubs have moved closer or farther away from the Western versions. But for the rest of my Saturday nights here, I’ll be content with a cold Tsingdao from my personal fridge.

Oh, and Banana? The temple called. They want their monk back.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hello, Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye

Yes, I know. It's been ridiculously long since I posted. There is a decent reason for that: I moved back to the States.

So, is the blog over, you ask? Well, not exactly. When I named this blog, I did so with the intention of it fitting other definitions, other stages of life. Life is change and all that. I'm not sure how sold I am on continuing to write about life here in the States, or whether to just start a new blog for such nonsense or what. Decisions, decisions.

In the meantime, I figure there are plenty of stories I haven't yet shared about China and my travels while there. In fact, I have one in the queue all ready for you lovely people as soon as I get back home to my computer. (Ooo the anticipation!)

So while you wait, just for kicks, here is an example of some of the reverse culture shock I have been experiencing.

Ridiculous portions of sugar!