Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Dead in The Middle Kingdom

It would seem to an outside observer that the people of China revere their dead. They have a "grave sweeping" holiday where relatives show up once a year and put fresh flowers on their ancestors' graves. Many families will have a black and white photo of a recently (or not so recently) deceased loved one propped up in a prominent place in the house with prayers in calligraphy along side it, as well as some fruit and incense. So how is it that while I was living there, I saw more ignored dead bodies lying around in roadways? I have to say, I had never actually seen a fresh dead body before I went to China. In America, bodies are quickly covered, either by a witness or passerby out of respect, until the police arrive. Not in China--at times it becomes a form of entertainment.

I personally deal with death not so well. I remember going to a funeral with my mother when I was a wee lad, about four I think. From my vantage point all I could see was the tip of a nose over the top of the big dark casket. Since I had no idea what death was, nor why everyone was looking at a big wooden box with a nose on the top, I began to fidget and got uncomfortable with the whole thing. See, everyone was adult and there were several and they of course all had on black, and nobody was smiling and everyone was very quite. I asked my mom rather loudly "Why is there a nose on top of that box?" She simply shushed me. I didn't stop. I began to panic. I kept asking, even louder why everyone was looking at a nose, and why just a nose. She promptly took me home and returned without me. She had to explain all this to me years later. I had no memory of it, but after she began explaining what happened I told her I did recall the "nose on the box", but had no idea where the memory came from or why. Then years later my grandfather died, who I adored, and it disturbed me to see him in that same type of box, nose and all. Now I refuse to go to funerals. I go only to wakes. If someone thinks I am disrespectful, so be it. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I was out of the country when my parents died. It may seem terrible to say, but I am glad, because I am not sure I could have gone to their funerals.

The first dead body I saw in China was while on a bus leaving the school I worked for that was in the countryside. I had only been in that country for three weeks so everything was still shock-a-minute no matter what I did. The bus slowed down and someone tapped me and pointed out the window. There on the side of the road lay a woman, a dead woman and nobody around her. There were some people on the opposite side of the road, but it looked as if she were there for some time. The blood near her head had turned black and was dry from my vantage point. Nothing to cordon off her corpse either; it was just there, half in the road and half  in the ditch. I was stunned to say the least.

Then it happened again not four months later; I remember this well because the first one had been in December and my birthday is in April, and this was April, so easy peazy to recall the time frame. Me and a girlfriend had just crossed a four lane side street to go to a restaurant on the other side. The entire time we ate we never heard anything or noticed any commotion outside. We couldn't have been in the place more than 30-40 minutes. We actually had some business at the local police station--I had to register with them because I had just moved into their jurisdiction, a requirement for all foreigners (though I only did it once and moved multiple times; most don't bother). We had just left the police station while they processed my ID so we were only three blocks from a police station. When we left and went to cross the same street as before, there in front of us was a small van with a bump on its hood and 12 feet away a dead body. In the street. About a dozen people stood nearby on the sidewalk, looking at it. It obviously happened within the time we had been eating, and it was also obvious that it had not just happened in the last few minutes. Yet no police or emergency services of any kind, although one was obviously very close. We walked on down to the police station and my girlfriend told them about it. They had no idea. Nobody had called. And everyone in China has a mobile phone (more on that later). She very nearly blew up at the attending officer because he made no effort to inquire more, just looked at us as if we were a distraction. Absolutely nothing was going on  there. I saw about six policemen, smoking, joking and doing nothing. No paperwork, just hanging out like it was a clubhouse or a cafe.

The next body I saw was very unnerving because it occurred near girlfriend's apartment building, but I don't guess I can count this one because there were people doing something with the body. This one ranks as one of the "strange and unusual things" I witnessed while living in the Middle Kingdom. I had just left my apartment and was walking to my girlfriend's place. It was only half a block away and I was excited to see her. I had gotten off work early, and we had only been dating about a month so we were looking forward to a great day. As I rounded the corner to where her complex was I was facing a long concrete stair case to a neighboring building. I heard a commotion from above so I looked up. Coming down the stairs three men and an old woman in a rattan chair. Two of the men were carrying the chair in front, while one held up the back. The old woman's head rolled back and forth across the back of the chair. She looked like she weighed 80 lbs. And she was quite obviously dead. There was no urgency in their manner. In fact, right in front of me, they all stopped, sat down the chair, and took a break. Once guy looked at me and said in Chinese "old mother, dead." I started to say in Chinese míng míng (obviously) but stopped myself. At times the Chinese can be so blatant about things it begins to rub off on you. Then after an awkward moment, I said  Dùi bù qĭ  (sorry). As I walked toward my girlfriend's building, I stopped and looked back; they had picked the chair back up and were just rounding the corner. I thought "what will other people think when they see this?" and then just as quickly I realized that nobody would even notice. Why should they? It's just another dead body.

When I arrived at her apartment, my girlfriend said "what's wrong?". I guess I wore some beleaguered look on my face because I simply said, "oh, nothing--just had a 'China moment", which she knew was my term for seeing something totally bizarre, so of course she prodded me into telling her. Her response was "we have 1.6 billion people dear, we can't be concerned about everyone." Good answer. Practical. If nothing else, the Chinese can be practical when the rest of the western world won't.

Her and I eventually moved into our own apartment, replete with an enclosed courtyard. I still think of that place. We had our first and only Christmas there and her first--ever. One Saturday while I was home on the computer and she was at work, I heard some loud whaling and screaming through the walls. We were on the ground floor and the wall behind our bedroom opened into a stairwell. That is where the sounds seemed to come from. At first I thought it was a fight, then I realized someone was upset and other people were trying to calm someone down. Behind the building was a narrow access way, open the outside, with a series of sheds for residents to store things. I looked out the bedroom window in the direction of these storage sheds because I could hear that the commotion had gone outside. I saw two policemen with three or four civilians shuffling around arguing and pointing further down the access way, then they all went back inside and the noise stopped.

Not sure what it was about, I went back to surfing the Internet. Curiosity got the best of me though and I went outside to our courtyard and walked to the back of our unit where I could get a better view of the access way. An iron fence stood between our courtyard and the access, so I could see through the bars. I saw something at the far end but it was drizzling outside and I didn't make it out at first. Then with horror I realized I was seeing a slim human body hanging by the neck from the roof of one of the storage units! It appeared to be a thin middle aged Chinese woman. I went inside and got my camera and came back and debated whether or not I should take the picture. I resolved to do so, took a few pics, then went back inside and called my girlfriend. This time she had a bigger reaction--remember, this is our second shared dead body moment--she said she would be home right away. Not sure why I told her OK and hung up.

Turns out she used the dead woman as an excuse to get off work early; she told her boss she knew the woman and her family! Of course she didn't, but hey, I probably would have done the same thing if I had to work on the weekend.

And finally, the last dead body wasn't a body at all, but a British friend of mine who died while in the hospital. He, like so many expats found love in China. Unfortunately he wasn't really of the right mind to handle rejection and his girl rejected him in the most awful way possible. He went into a favorite watering hole and there she was, on the arm of a portly Austrian guy, laughing. When she saw him, she pulled him over and said "This is Rolph! He is my sweetheart!". Not my friend mind you, but the hun! My friend replied "What do you mean 'my sweetheart?" She went on to explain that her and her model Arian had been together for a long time and that he (my friend) had simply been a distraction while Rolph was out of the country.

Now to be fair, the Austrian was a friend of mine long before I had met, well "my friend"--OK, his name is also Michael, so I didn't want to confuse things. Rolph is a very generous guy and often invited me to go drinking. He and several other Austrians and Germans would regularly have cookouts in the back of the very pub Michael got rejected in. So this whole thing was somewhat uncomfortable for me. I knew the girl was nothing but a hump monkey, but it wasn't my place to say anything. Michael began drinking very heavily, a full bottle of whisky every two days. I mean he would drink one half one day, the other half the next. Eventually he ended up in the hospital for cirrhosis of the liver and I thought he was doing OK; he was released after 10 days and he quit drinking for a while, then he went back to his old habit and was hospitalized yet again. I had heard from him on a Thursday; had asked me to get his laptop from another friend who had borrowed it. On Saturday I was walking to a cafe where I knew this other guy was so I could ask him about the computer. Just outside the place a taxi slammed on its brakes and yet another friend named Christopher leaped out and hollered "Mike! Have you heard? Michael died last night!" Then he got back in the cab and sped off. I stood there a moment, not really sure how to take this terrible news. I finally walked into the cafe, went over to the couches where the guy with Michael's laptop sat, with the laptop and I sat down, stunned. He looked at me and said "What's wrong?" I very nearly said "Oh, just had a 'China moment". I looked him squarely in the eyes and said "I guess you just inherited a computer". He wasn't sure by what I meant so I sighed, leaned back and told him. Now it was his turn to be silent and stunned.

So much death in China, on a regular basis. So much so that everyone becomes numb to it all. I know I did. About six months later I saw yet another accident victim laying in the road. I was on my cell phone while sitting on a bus, nearly identical to the first body I had seen so long ago. I glanced away and continued my conversation, never once pausing or telling the other person. Just another dead body in China.

Pabst Blue Ribbon Alive and Well in China

When most other expats took leave and escaped to the nether regions of Asia during the holidays, I was always greedy and worked. I could work for one or two weeks and make the same money I would have earned in four weeks, so that's what I did. One summer I had the opportunity to go to a new place in Guangdong province (where I lived; just above Hong Kong)and not only make some money, but enjoy some new scenery.

a billboard in Zhaoqing, advertising it's factory there.

Zhaoqing is a minor tourist area of the province, known for its fresh fish and mountain scenery. I worked for ten days, then had the apartment provided by my school to myself rent free for another week. I called my girlfriend and told her to catch the train and enjoy the week with me.

Once she arrived, we went about the area, touring and window shopping and eating. Every area of China has its own cuisine, and Zhaoqing was no exception. Also many areas of China have their own distinct beer; the Germans have been a presence in China for over 400 years, so beer became prevalent because of the Jesuit priests that settled throughout the country.

We asked for and found a restaurant serving local food and settled in. I asked my girlfriend to tell the waitress for the local beer. I had only been "in- country" about 14 months so my language skills were still limited. My girlfriend placed our drink order and then we continued to chat for a bit when the waitress returned and set two one liter bottle of...Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on our table. It's not uncommon for a Chinese entrepreneur to try to not only impress a foreigner with their imported goods, but to also make more money off the said foreigner. I told my girlfriend to tell the waitress that although I appreciated the import beer, I preferred to have the local variety. She proceeded to explain to the waitress, a discussion ensued, a few questioning eyebrow movements and wide eyes later, the waitress left, not taking the PBR with her.

My girlfriend than began to tell me "It seems that there is a large brewery located on the river in the area and it produces and ships PBR all over China!"

I was shocked, but nevertheless enjoyed my PBR in the middle of nowhere China, pondering how in the heck it ever arrived here in the first place.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Woman In the Rain

2003, Near the Garden Hotel on Huanshi Dong Road,  Guangzhou China

A LONE WOMAN stands on a pedestrian bridge overlooking the gleaming wet, empty boulevard below, cold December rain pelting her umbrella. The silhouette the streetlight creates tells me it's a woman--short jacket to mid thigh, knee high boots with stilted heels. It is well after midnight and I think to myself, "She must really need the money to be out in this weather." All the other “working girls” have long since gone, giving up to the rain, the chill, the empty streets. This is mainland China and the city is Guangzhou, better known as Canton to the western world.

I have to cross the bridge, it's the way home. As I reach the top of the steps I tilt my umbrella to cover my eyes, avoiding her gaze and solicitations. "Michael?" I stop walking, smiling now when I recognize the voice. "Lily!" I say, tilting back my umbrella to lean in and kiss her quickly; her cheek is ice cold. She huddles closer, our umbrellas bumping intimately. She offers me a cigarette, and though I don't usually smoke, I accept. She lights me up with Marlene Dietrich flair, touching the glowing tip of hers to mine until it lights. Lily is honest, straightforward, and sincere, which is exceptional in her world of sex, money, and danger. Unlike other hookers, she never propositioned me. The first time I met her was very similar to this night, minus the rain.

"Ni chi fan, hao bu hao ?" (Have you eaten, yes nor no?), I ask, as I shiver from the cold. She smiles and takes my arm without answering, guiding me across the bridge, intuitive to our destination. We've played these roles before. It has the surreal sense of a movie scene; a little intrigue and a little danger. Six months before it was exactly that because she saved me from being robbed and perhaps a lot worse.

The pubs in central Canton cater to a varied crowd of visiting foreign businessmen and expatriates. I have friends from nearly every corner of the world there: Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia--even Finland. Because of that, there was never a problem finding a drinking partner; Hemingway would have loved it. A few of us routinely made pub crawls to change things up, inevitably catching the eyes of the gi (chicken), Chinese slang for prostitute.

As a group, the street walkers can be formidable, surrounding an individual mark and purring in their broken English hopeful words of seduction. So having a friend or two in tow while changing bar venues made it a safer gambit. A buddy pushing you along, saying "She's pretty, I know! Just follow me into the pub, you'll thank me tomorrow!" makes a run through the chicken coop much easier. Most are reasonably pretty, as well as young, and nearly all come from the countryside of other provinces, driven away by their families to make money any way they can.

The Hopeful Hookers

They come along with tens of millions* of migrant workers who hope to tap into the vast wealth and opportunity of the "world's factory floor" as the area surrounding Guangzhou is known. Most of the girls end up here or in one of it's many satellite factory cities: Shenzhen, Dongguan, Foshan, and Zhuhai. That's exactly why I and so many other foreigners were here; money, excitement and adventure in a foreign land.

Hookers in China are surprisingly moral. These filial daughters will send back a sizable portion of their illicit gains to their family for support. The fortunate ones can end up learning a trade, such as waitressing, or tending bar. I watched a young girl named Flower transform this way. She came into the employ of the Hill Bar when she was just 16, was naturally beautiful and always had a smile. She started helping out behind the bar and soon became a bartender. Her entire English vocabulary consisted of "Hello", "Tank you" and "Bye Bye" when she arrived. Within six months she was rather fluent, within a year she was reading as well as writing. She saved her money and began taking computer classes in her free time. For every success story like Flower though, there are tens of thousands in China less fortunate. The estimates of how many prostitutes working in China very from several hundred thousand to ten million. Big discrepancy, but big numbers to say the least.

*26.7 million migrant workers thrive in Guangdong Province, one third of the entire country's migrant work force.

Rescue In The Disco

A few months after I met Lily, I went to check out an after-hours night club I'd heard about, as it was well after 2 AM. It was typical cheesy Chinese club decor: loads of overstuffed wall sofas, high tables and chairs, go go dancers gyrating on pedestals, bartenders flipping bottles, and about forty patrons fairly well into their cups. Groups of thin Chinese men in ill-fitting clothes nervously eyeballed tables of shy, Chinese girls they would never get the courage to mingle with or talk to. A clump of well dressed Indian and Pakistani businessmen flirted with four hostess girls, whose job was to drive up their bar tab. Chinese couples flirted and laughed while drinking sangria from fruit laden pitchers and playing liar's dice. All in all an OK place to finish the night.

I ogled one of the dancing go go girls when a curvaceous woman showing ample cleavage appeared beside me. She took my arm and led me to a table with two other girls and so I sat with them. She kept smiling at me, speaking Chinese, stroking my arm, then my upper leg beneath the table, slowly working her way up higher with each pass. I soon found a drink in front of me that I didn't order. I was already half drunk when I arrived--"what the hell" I thought. Yet after two glasses I could hardly hold my head up. The girl who now squeezed my leg very near my crotch a little too enthusiastically whispered "Massagy? You, me--go!" She stood and pulled me up to unstable feet, and as I lurched around, there stood Lily before me. She wore a shiny, long sleeved dress that hugged her body like a second skin, looking like an albino python, ready to squeeze the life out of someone. Her thick and silky, blue-black hair shone in the pulsating lights. She took my arm from the girl, placing herself between us and said "We go Michael, she is ma fan! (trouble). My legs were like noodles so Lily took my arm and wrapped it around her shoulder, the other girl yelling at us as we weaved toward the door. Lily hailed a cab once outside, slipping us into the backseat together. Lily gave directions to the driver, then pulling my head over onto her shoulder, stroked my hair, whispering "We go my home..." I soon blacked out.

Lily's Lair

San shi kwai--30 Yuan, Lily said to me, arousing me from my stupor. I handed her my wallet--I was in no condition to count. She paid the fare, gave me my wallet, and we slithered from the car. Lily led me through a dark and twisting stone-cobbled alleyway between shabby multi-story buildings that seemed to squeeze in closer the deeper we went. Overhead was a multitude of overhanging barred metal window enclosures where drying clothes, potted plants, and dried vegetables hung. The whole area seemed in constant decay. We stopped at a door that Lily adeptly unlocked in near total darkness. Here it smelled of rotting fruit, vegetable peelings and open sewers. A large dark shape darted past our feet, hugging the wall, "lao shu!" Lily squealed. She shivered against me, although the rat had gone. Once inside we mounted a number of staircases, startling yet a second rat that merely watched us pass, its red eyes glowing, then we were at Lily's floor. My feet were lead and I felt embarrassed that she half dragged me here so I tried to began to apologize. "Shhhh!" she scolded me, "No talk, many people sleep now!" She unlocked a series of locks on two separate doors then pulled me inside.

Lily seemed to have a large spacious apartment—the high ceiling and distant looking dark walls feeling like a gloomy cavern in my still-drunken state. She helped take off my shoes and socks while I slumped into the stiff wooden couch. She gave me rubber slippers, then disappeared into the bathroom. I soon heard water running and she returned, wearing a robe. "You clothes--off." I stood and began pulling off my shirt as she worked my trousers loose. I stepped out of my pants and underwear and she led me to the bathroom. She paused a moment to remove her robe, then she twisted her hair up in a loose knot and we stepped into the shower. I enjoyed this private moment to admire Lily's exquisite, ballerina-like figure. The shower itself was hardly big enough for us both, but I didn't mind. The near scalding hot water cascaded over me as Lily began to scrub me with a soapy wash mitten. I was feeling revived, the effect of the alcohol in my system somewhat abated. Lily kissed me softly, then ordered me out. "Go! My bed." I dried myself off and walked in my squishy slippers toward the bedroom a lot less wobbly thanks to the invigorating bath. It was the middle of June and the weather was beyond sultry, so I turned on a nearby floor fan, pulled back the sheet and moved to the far side of the bed. Lily must have taken some time in the shower, because I awoke to her cool hand on my chest. She had snuggled close to me, a towel wrapped about her mass of hair. We kissed me tenderly for a moment, then Lily whispered wan an!--good night.

Slipped A Mickey

I woke up to bright light streaming into the room from the high window over me. I sat up and saw Lily in her robe, perched on a wooden chair, munching a cookie, two tea cups on the bedside table, the clock there read 10:30 AM. She took a small white porcelain teapot from the floor and filled a cup and handed it to me, kissing me lightly on the lips. As I sipped the wonderfully strong green tea, she talked while watching an old black and white Chinese drama on TV. She picked up the ubiquitous Chinese/English red pocket dictionary everyone has, referred to a bookmarked page, then said "I save you.". She looked at me smiling then returned her attention to the TV. "That girl, really ma fan! I do not like her!" She said between bites of cookie and sips of tea. "Her friend give you drink, make you stupid". Then I understood--I had been drugged! I sat there staring at nothing particular, stunned and feeling truly stupid. "How did all this happen?" I wondered.
"They take you, go a place, take you money, you phone, hit you on head, maybe kill!" I nearly spilled my tea at this. "Oh my god Lily, really? Thank you! Thank you my angel!" I then reached over to her hugged her close and began kissing her nose, her cheeks, her mouth, saying "You did save me, thank you!" I continued thanking her "I had no idea, really! I didn't see you there, where were you?" Lily gave me a devilish smile, happy with my praise, then said "I sit in back, watching ma fan girl. I know she do this many time on lo wai (foreigner), my friend tell me “Miko go to that disco” I know you drink too much pi jiu (beer). The girl see you, talk her friends, she get you." Lily paused and retrieved the pot and poured more tea. " I watch them, see if they make trouble to you." She gave me the last bit of her cookie, then leaned on my shoulder. I realized then that Lily needed the comfort of someone she genuinely cared about. We cuddled up to one another, my arms around her, my face nestled in her fragrant hair. I was finally realizing how much she cared about me. "So what did you see?" I asked, as she twisted to her side, looking up at me. She draped one smooth, slender leg over mine. "I see another girl from their table go to bar, get pi jiu, then come back. Behind you, she put drug in glass." Lily made a sign with her thumb and forefinger close together, emphasizing perhaps a pill. We kissed and spent the afternoon together being playful in bed. This was the first time I had slept with Lily and we would have several other intimate encounters through the next few years.
Before long I told her I should go home and even though she refused money from me, I discretely left her several 100 RMB notes on a table before we left together—she had saved me after all.

Confronting A Thief

Some time later she found me sitting at a table outside the Hill Bar, sipping a gin and tonic, alone. Ni Bu Kwai le? (you unhappy). I told her that I had gotten drunk the night before, taken a girl home I didn't really know and the next day, no phone no wallet and no girl. "She is gi--a hooker (literally "chicken"). I told her I didn't think so, because I met her at the pub just up the road. She asked her name, and I told her I only got her English name, and described how she looked. Lily looked at me seriously, "Michael, she is gi, no good girl will do this!"Then she got up, rummaged through her hand bag, then glanced at me. "You need money?" She smiled and pouted at the same time, "cigarettes!" I took out 50 RMB and gave it to her, she leaned over and kissed me, a quick hug, then ran off. After a few steps though, she spun and looked at me with large eyes, her mouth forming a large "O" with excitement. She ran back to me, her eyes still flaring. "Michael! I know this girl! She is new girl! I will find her, you no worry!" Then she ran off before I could say a word, her heels clicking rapidly down the walkway, her silk dress barely containing her wiggling bottom.

Several gins, a few beers, and a few shots of tequila later I was still at Hill Bar, but inside now, listening to one of the many Filipino bands that play around the city. I was drinking with a couple of German friends when someone tapped me on the shoulder; the Germans' eyes lit up and they grinned. I turned around and there was Lily, now dressed in a traditional Gi Pao, the tight, slit-at-the-thigh Chinese dresses foreigners love. She motioned me with her hand to follow. I stepped away with her, the guys making rude noises. We stood in a dark corner of the bar, and Lily reached into her clutch bag and pulled out my phone and my wallet.

"Where? How?" was all I could stammer. Lily looked up in my eyes, and put her arms about my neck. "I am you angel, yes?" I laughed and kissed her, "Yes, Lily, my angel in China!" I waved to the guys and Lily and I walked out hand in hand, heading off to our usual rendezvous, the Blue & White Cafe.

A Bridge Between Worlds

Lily and I often sought out one another many times after that. If her “business “was slow, or she was simply bored, she would wonder into one of the bars to relax and sip coconut juice. She was one of the few known prostitutes allowed into the expat bars. I suppose it was because she had a way about her with Chinese and foreign men. Plus she would never allow herself to be seen leaving a bar with a future client. She insisted that she leave first and to meet outside down the walk, away from prying eyes. And she always dressed classy, spending money on flattering yet tasteful feminine attire. I suppose that is how she could afford such a large place. If I were between girlfriends, or more likely, arguing with the current one, I would go find her at one of her locations: the pedestrian bridge, or a small shop near one of the five star hotels, maybe a street cafe near the bar. It always began with either a visit to a restaurant, a Star Bucks, or on occasion, an expensive tea house nearby. Sometimes that was all we did, other times, we ended up in each others arms in her large bed. I left China a few years ago, and I often wonder how Lily is doing. I always picture her alone on the bridge, confident and fearless.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Rose Kids of Canton China

2005, Near the Garden Hotel on Huanshi Dong Road,  Guangzhou China

"Michael, cigarette?" a Chinese policeman says to me, putting a foot upon the step near me where I sat sipping a beer in front of a convenience store. "Sure" I say. He lights it for me, and we have a small chat, while beside me, nine street kids slurp up steaming noodles, oblivious to the both of us. "Ni hun how!" (you very good!) the policeman says. "Miko hun how!" the kids all chime in. I smile, a bit embarrassed. Those kids and that moment will stay with me all my life. They are the Rose Kids of Canton.

I was living in mainland China in the bustling city of Canton (actually Guangzhou, third largest city in China) doing a variety of jobs, and enjoying every hour, every day of my life there. I came there not knowing a single word of Chinese, and less than two years later, I was communicating rather well with the locals. There were only a few extracurricular activities an expatriate such as I could do there. We could access two English language TV stations out of Hong Kong. Buy a limited number of paperback novels from one major book store, and of course exchange books with friends. Other than that one could take up a hobby like Tai Chi or calligraphy. Even in a large metropolis like Canton expats had limited choices so most of us met up quite regularly in a neighboring pub, letting loose our frustrations and shared anxieties.

Near the center of Guangzhou, a number of watering holes existed, as there were several international businesses and consulates there. And where expats congregated, so did a variety of opportunistic enterprises: prostitutes, grossly maimed and deformed beggars, ethnic minorities selling various strange wares, and children selling roses

Over time I was as familiar a face to the street people in that area as they were to me. Because of that, I developed a somewhat friendly, albeit, aloof rapport with some of them.

One particular night after leaving a pub on my way to another, the rose kids surrounded me. Some of the children were as young as three, while most were between five and ten years of age, with one preteen supervising them all. They all had small bundles of singly cello-wrapped roses that they would attempt to sell to passersby. I never bought any from them, but I would occasionally pick up one of the smaller beggars and carry him or her a few steps, and try to get a smile out of them. Since they all knew me I was successful every time.

On a whim I invited them all into a nearby convenience store. At first they were hesitant, but with a little bit of coaxing, and a reassuring smile from the store attendant, they entered with wide eyes and smiles. In my ignorance, I thought they would load up on chocolates and soda, but they all went straight to the instant noodle bowls, and obediently lined up at the register, waiting for me. I asked if some wanted milk or juice as well; a few opted for that, but most were happy with just the noodles. I paid the cashier, and then helped the younger ones with adding the boiling hot water from the dispenser nearby.

When I paid for the last one, I went out to find one of the youngest kids sitting on the steps, slurping his noodles happily. I sat beside him, sipping the beer I had bought. He looked at me with the most soulful eyes and asked me, "You hungry?" in Chinese, while holding up some noodles adeptly with his chopsticks. My eyes watered up, and I accepted, slurping the hot noodles while he looked on, beaming; he was no more than four years old.One of the most life altering moments in my experience there.

It wasn't long afterwards, perhaps two or three days later, I did the same thing for four or five prostitutes, and again, they wanted noodles, as well as juice, milk, and cigarettes. I realized I couldn't do this every night, so I told the children once a week. The hookers were another dilemma, because those girls would take advantage if I didn't watch it. One time when I thought only three girls were going in to the store, one motioned to some more hidden in the darkness of a small side street, and I very nearly got stampeded by another four girls. I could see the headline in tomorrow's paper, "Expat Trampled To Death By Ravenous Prostitutes."

My name became well known on the streets soon after. I would hear my name, "Michael!" being shouted from a short distance anytime I came near the bridge. Even the security guards who patrolled the streets (or should I say walked the streets; they never helped anyone) knew my name by then.

Because of this name association I had, a funny thing happened to me one night while I helped a very drunken friend get back to his apartment. As we approached the bridge, a chorus of girls saying my name greeted us. "You slept with all of them?" My drunk friend asked. "No, not a one" I told him, unconvincingly. Past the bridge and down the next street I could see another gaggle of girls on the next corner. I thought to myself, "please don't shout out my name" but of course they did, and by now my friend is laughing hysterically, saying "Yeah sure! You never slept with any of them!" What saved me was when we rounded the corner of the next block. The rose kids were there, avoiding the security men who for once were actually enforcing the laws. "Michael! Michael!" they shouted as they ran to me and my companion. "Oh! I see now, everyone just knows your name!" my friend said, and with that, he reached into his pocket to give them money. "Wait!" I told him, as I picked up one of the tiniest girls, "just follow me". We all walked into a small store and as the rose kids went about getting their noodles, I explained to him what was going on. "Let me foot the bill this time!" he exclaimed. And so he did, and from that point on, he also became their benefactor. Although I am no longer in China, several of my friends remain. I was told in a recent phone call that "our" rose kids ask about me. He also says he has passed the torch to other expats as well, and so the tradition continues, and now and again I think about them with fond memories.

© COPYRIGHT 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Mike Lovett aka China Mike 

Introduction: Why China Sweat?

Welcome to China Sweat

I WILL BE migrating stories to here from some of my other blogs and sites. For now let me just start off with this. 

Why China Sweat? Because I lived in *Guangzhou, which is in south China, just above Hong Kong and it isn't just humid; you will walk outside in mid morning and have thick beads of perspiration competing for space on your forhead in moments--it's makes everyone completely torpid. It's so humid that animals look miserable, but then again, the Cantonese eat most of them so that adds to that look too.

But the title also refers to what it's like to live in mainland China. Foreigners like myself, who I will refer to as *expats from here on out, arrive under four main guises (not counting tourists)
  • diplomats
  • company people
  • teachers
  • exporters 
The Diplomats
I was surprised to find out how many there were in Guangzhou.  Although I had read up on the city before I arrived and knew that it was the capital of Guangdong Province and that it was a major manufacturing area, and that a very large world trade fair took place their twice a year, I wasn't prepared for this: Guangzhou is home to more consulates than there are in the alphabet! Currently, there are 29 countries represented there:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Cuban, Britain, Cambodia, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Singapore, Korea, Sweden, Thailand, USA, and Vietnam.

The Company People
This also surprised me but certainly not on the level as the diplomats. It seems China wasn't all that prepared to grow as it has without outside help and expertise. The Russians can attest to that. If it weren't for the Communist from old Mother Russia, China would not have had steel expansion bridges, railroads and power stations during the 50s and 60s. In fact Chairman Mao had a fallout with them during the construction of a major bridge over the Yangtze River that flows beside Nanjing, so the Russians pulled up stakes and left the Chinese hanging, literally--only half the bridge lay suspended above the wide expanse of the Yellow River and they were in a panic. Fortunately for them they found enough local engineers and mathematicians to figure out how to finish it and so they did, and it was a major moral booster for the very insecure Chinese psyche at the time.

The expat men (I don't recall meeting any professional women but I am sure there were some) who made their living in Guangzhou was broad and diverse. Some were there as IT professionals, adding intranet systems in businesses. A number of them were supervising the new subway system. Others were experts in carpentry and welding that lent them to all manner of infrastructure projects, and so on. One fellow I met was there to supervise the construction of a large, lightweight superstructure roof to cover the brand new airport.

The Teachers
That would be my party. I was hoping to meet several seasoned teachers but it seemed that everywhere I went, the teachers were as new as me. Oh, I met a few teachers that had been there a six months to a year, but I really only met new ones, not sure why.

China as most people know, is overpopulated, and it shows. Any given day at any given time (even at night) the sidewalks are crawling with people going to god knows where. There is always an undertone of city noise wherever you are and it takes some getting used to if you didn't come from a wall to wall cityscape. Because of this vast population the government is hard pressed to provide even the most basics of needs throughout the country. Because of a revamping of the agricultural system in 1984, surplus grains were seen for the first time. Education was another matter. 

There are only so many slots available in Universities so Chinese students study like no other students in the world for these very competitive entrance exams. Another situation is, there aren't enough teachers, classrooms, and schools for the entire country. Yet they try. And they also understand that teaching English to their population is essential to compete on the world stage, hence me being in China, along with thousands of other expat teachers.

The Exporters
 Because of the Canton Trade Fair, held twice a year--one in Autumn and one in Spring--Guangzhou changes dramatically at these times. Thousands of businessmen and women arrive in South China to find that great "next product" or simply to re-order goods or re-establish business relationships with factory owners and sales staff. Because of this, the China I got used to became the China I didn't want to be in. These people took over the city, the city I loved and had grown very fond of. Prices go up on beer, food, everything! Fortunately it only lasts a few weeks. For the five years I was there I actually made friends with a few who returned year after year, but mostly I avoided going out while the fair was in session.

I didn't mention tourists in the list because I never met any. Tourist to China take tours, they don't just buy a ticket and travel around on their own. Well almost. I did meet a couple of young Euro-backpackers, but they are usually full of themselves and not worth getting to know.

Even though I am currently in Hawaii, I plan to get back to China very soon, but first I need to polish my Mandarin, and save some flight money. Until then I'll keep posting my past experiences and current observations on present day news and stories on China.

Guangzhou--The third largest Chinese city and the largest in South China, known historically as Canton or Kwangchow — is the capital and largest city of the Guangdong province

Expat--An expatriate (in abbreviated form, expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex ("out of") and patria ("country, fatherland").

 . © COPYRIGHT 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Mike Lovett aka China Mike