Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 10 -- No Shitting in the Toilet

I found the note on the kitchen table:


The loo is clogged! You can't throw loo roll down the loo in China! The plumbing can't handle it. I've spent many an hour with the plunger. I'll talk to the landlady and get her to fix it straight away.

Until then, no shitting in the toilet!


So that was why the bathroom smelled so bad nowadays.

I maintained discipline for a few days, taking advantage of the facilities at work. There was a price to pay for that. The apartment took on the fresh aroma of a sewer. The bowl itself assumed the color of Jif Extra Creamy peanut butter.

One night we were eating takeout Chinese food. She had a vegetarian dish. I was pigging out on the shredded fish-flavored pork and steamed white rice.

At the end of the meal, it happened. My intestines were filled to capacity and had to unload immediately. Except our toilet wasn't functioning anymore.

Think man, think. I need somewhere to shit. Maybe I should take a risk and use the forbidden toilet. No, Elizabeth would never forgive me. I had to think like my hero.

What would MacGyver do?

I bolted out of my chair and ran into my room. I snatched up an old plastic shopping bag. This was a good start. I zoomed past a puzzled Elizabeth and grabbed a big red plastic bucket from under the sink.

"What are you doing?" Elizabeth asked.

"Drastic times call for drastic measures." I hugged the bucket to my chest and barricaded myself in the bathroom.

Elizabeth gasped.

I played the MacGyver theme song in my head as I went to work. The plastic bag went into the bucket, lining it perfectly.

Now to assume the proper stance. I couldn't sit right on it, putting my full weight on the bucket. Otherwise, I'd get up and have the imprint of the bucket on my ass.

The new obstacle was balance. I had to summon Superman strength and hold myself up. I held the sides of the bucket in my kung-fu grip. I was as solid as a statue. This was going to work.

My hand slipped off and I almost fell down, nearly crapping all over the floor. Motherfucking gravity!

I righted msyelf, this time distributing some of the weight to my feet. My aim had to be pinpoint-accuarate. I only had one shot. I had to remember all my hours of playing Virtua Cop 2 in junior high.

There! My aim was perfect. Everything landed inside the bag, nothing fell outside. I cleaned up and tied the bag with a tight knot.

I avoided Elizabeth's eyes as I made my escape from the apartment. While I was out on the street, I had the horrible suspicion that everyone knew what I was carrying. I held the bag with two fingers and as far away from me from possible, like it was a bag of . . . a bag of . . . my own shit.

I tossed my shame into a trash can, damning it to Hell for good measure. Now to face Elizabeth.

I burst into the apartment. She opened her mouth to speak. Before she could say anything, I blurted, "I'm so sorry! I had to go! The pork made me do it!" My breathing was ragged. "Okay, what do you have to say?"

Uncomfortable silence. Finally,

"Could you spare another bag?" Elizabeth asked.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 9 -- Undercover with the Fashion Pirates

"Good drums do not require hard beating."
--Chinese proverb

"Where can I buy fake goods?" Rose asked me.

We'd met on the subway when she asked if we were on Line 2. She had wanted to see the Bund. Rose came from Istanbul, Turkey. Ah, yes. I'd go there for the kebabs alone. The Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace would be a bonus.

Back to her question. That was easy to answer: the Xiangyang Fashion and Gift Market at the corner of Huaihai Rd. and Xiangyang Rd. Take the subway to Shanxi Rd. station.

As we got out of our taxi, hawkers besieged us with offers. They all shouted the same thing: "Watch? DVDs? Bags?" Any white person has to fend off armies of hustlers looking to sell to the rich foreigner. Since I look Chinese (read: poor), I can walk through a gauntlet of them without that much hassle.

Rose had fair skin and brown hair, so she was a prime target. There were so many of them that we couldn't even walk all the way to Xiangyang Market. She chose the only hustler wearing a suit and tie. He wanted to take us somewhere else.

"C'mon, let's check it out," she said.

"Uh, I don't think that's a good idea."

She won, so we followed the hustler into the underworld. He took us behind the Mason Hotel Shanghai into a maze of dark alleys. No people, no lights.

"Is this safe?" Rose asked.

I wish she had thought of that sooner. "We'll see."

The hustler unlocked a door that looked like a rusty bank vault. He led us into a dingy apartment complex. Inspired by Soviet architecture, circa Cold War. Grim gray concrete and cracked walls.

Far away, in a backroom, was another world entirely. Soft lighting emanated from the ceiling. Polished wooden shelves gleamed under the burden of so much merchandise. We could have been in any designer store on Nanjing Rd.

Mountains upon mountains of handbags! Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, all of them were represented. The hustler said that the LV bags were the most popular. He said I'd even see the poorest woman on street, wearing tattered clothes, but clutching an LV bag.

Rose dived into the fray, shuffling through the bags.

I walked over to the Prada shelf. To my untrained eye, they looked real. There was a tag dangling from a bag. I flipped it over: "Certificate of Authenticity." They get it down to the last detail, these Chinese bootleggers.

* * *

Later on, I checked things out with my class. They wanted to know what the hustler said the Prada bag cost. I conferred with one of my students, who's an expert on handbags. She's the housewife of a rich man. Here is the price breakdown for a Prada handbag:

Hustler's price for a fake: 300 RMB ($37)

Fair price for a fake: 70-100 RMB ($9-$12)

Price for a real Prada: 8000 RMB ($1000)

Chinese for Shopping

Rose asked for some useful phrases for shopping in China. Here's what I taught her:

How much? = Duo shao "dwoe shau"

Don't want it! = Bu yao "boo yow" = use this to fend off vendors

Too expensive! = Tai gui "tai gway"

I want one = Wo yao yi ge "woe yow ee guh"

When you ask them the price, they'll answer in Chinese. Make the motion of pressing buttons on a calculator. The vendor will punch the numbers into a calculator and show it to you.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 8 -- Naming Names

"It is always easier to solve someone else's problem."
--Chinese proverb

My newest student wanted me to give her a name. While this seems unusual, it is a common request for foreign English teachers in Asian countries. Most foreigners find Chinese names unpronounceable, so they give their students "English names."

The catch is that most Chinese get their English names as children. As they grow up, Chinese people start to change their English names as frequently as they change shoes. Since I taught adults, all my students already had English names by the time they entered my class. Except this one.

Her name was Liang Lin. I wrestled with the naming process, because I thought it was such a huge responsibility. After we batted around a few possibilities, she chose Lillian. That one had the closest pronunciation to Chinese name.

My friends who teach English to children don't sweat this process. They've done it dozens of times by now. But I still saw it as a big responsibility. I've met Chinese girls with names like "Yo Yo" and "Moe" (as in the Three Stooges). They'll be humiliated mercilessly when they study abroad in English-speaking countries. The cruel foreigners who named these innocent Chinese need a severe beating.

Like many of my classes with new students, we spent the session getting to know each other. Lillian had spent time studying in Japan. Now she worked for a business consulting firm that helped Japnese companies enter the Chinese market.

After English, Japanese is the most popular language for Chinese to learn. China's biggest trade partners speak those languages, so that's very practical (European businesspeople use English as the default language). In fact, there's a Japanese language school next door to my English school.

I've met several women who've followed Lillian's career path. Get an undergrad degree in China, study Japanese in Japan, then come back to China as a translator. In the 1980s, around the time China started opening up, there was a big push to increase trade with Japan. Studying nihongo became a big fad. Being a translator was a hot job.

My translator students say it's a paradox: it's really hard to become a translator, but once you learn the language, the job gets boring. At first it's great, because translating is easy once you're fluent. But then reality sets in. Other executives get to work in production, marketing, and strategic planning, where all the action is. Translators do nothing but translate all day, all the time.

There's another danger. Translators accompany senior executives on business trips. Executives are often older men; translators are often younger women. They're stuck together in a hotel in another country, no prying wives in sight. That's a recipe for a soap opera.

I wrapped up the lesson, eager to get lunch from BreadTalk, the European-style bakery nearby. It's the Starbucks of bakeries. They have this awesome sandwich called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bacon." [insert sex joke here]

But Lillian had another request. She took out her name card (that's what the Chinese call business cards) and presented to me with both hands.

I accepted it with both hands. Name cards are usually bilingual, with Chinese writing on one side and English on the other. I turned it over. Blank. No English. Huh?

"Can you make an English name for my company?" Lillian asked.

I was dumbfounded. Naming a person was one thing. A company was something else. This career woman was going to place the fate of her company in the hands of a 22-year-old who almost flunked an economics class.

Not wanting to cause someone else's bankruptcy, I tried to talk her out of it. There are professionals who are much better at this sort of thing, I said.

Nothing would shake her. I was the right person for the job. Sometimes I'm too good at acting like I know what I'm doing.

We got down to work. The Chinese name of her company was "Zhiyou," (jee-yo) which meant "Intelligent Friend" in English. While this was good in her language, she thought it would not work in English. I agreed. Then she asked the impossible: to create a name in English that still had the Chinese sound and Chinese meaning.

How was I going to do that? I worked over endless iterations. She rejected every single one. I wanted to give up.

Finally, I decided to split the English name into two parts. One part would have the Chinese sound and the other part would have the Chinese meaning.

This was what I came up with: "Geo Knowledge Partners."

"What does mean?" Lillian asked.

"It means, 'Your friends that know the land,'" I said. My brain was fried by this point.

"That is perfect! Because we are business consultants! I love this name!" Lillian gushed. She promised to tell the CEO as soon as he got back from his business trip in Tokyo.

I imagined how he'd react: "Who came up with this piece of shit name?! If he worked here, I'd fire him!"

She made me give her my mobile number (like in Europe, the Chinese call it mobile phone instead of cell phone). Lillian wanted to invite me to meet the big boss as soon as he embraced my fabulous idea. I doubted that, but gave her my number anyway.

* * *

Later on, I told this story to David, one of my students. I thought he'd be interested, since he's an advertising manager.

"So how much did she give you?" David asked.

"Nothing. Why?"

"You did for free?!" He exclaimed.

"What? What?" I asked, worried.

"The name is the most important thing! It is the face of the company! Our clients give us a lot of money to give them names," David said.

So she hadn't thought I was capable, just gullible. A fortune in yuan (yoo-un, Chinese money) just slipped out of my grasp! I had pulled a major Homer Simpson.

Outside the classroom, students were booking classes at the front desk and using the computers. Suddenly, a sound ripped through the whole English school: