October 25, 2010

When everything is out, you gotta take it in

****Disclaimer: this is by far the longest blog post I've ever written, exceeding 1,500 words. The day was so epic and extraordinary it demanded so many beautiful words. Also, this blog is best enjoyed by listening to this song, which pretty much describes the state of my strange, strange life.****

“Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it.” – Jules Renard.

Some days in China are more extraordinarily ridiculous than others, and the day we went to the World Expo was certainly one of them.

The day started out with no water in our pipes. We had lost it the day before and only realized it after sweating like mad from P90X. Tired, greasy and smelly we crawled into the 12-passenger van.

We escaped into iPod land for the three-hour trip. The four year old in the back wouldn’t stop screaming and the woman in front of us threw up in a grocery bag at one point. I have never seen someone vomit so nonchalantly, I had my earphones out at that point and wouldn’t have heard it had I not been watching her.

Sunday was the final day for the general public to visit the Expo, so it was even more chaotic than usual. More than 600,000 people passed through the same entrance and security gates as I did.

The rest of the faculty from the van ran off to do their own thing, so Alex and I sought out an English map and looked for any open areas in the crowd. Pushing and shoving our way through the sea of bodies, we finally found a boulevard that led us to the Asia and Middle East sector of the Expo.

Being the political geeks we are, Alex and I couldn’t help but analyze the national pavilions.

Since when did Qatar or Myanmar (Burma) have enough money to build a fancy building at the expo? Shouldn’t that cash have gone to oh, I don’t know, food, medicine or clean water for their citizens?

We wandered back towards China and the long Expo Axis – a giant organically flowing corridor that spanned the middle of the expo grounds. Inside were a number of shops and restaurants.

We were beat down from the crowds and frustrated by all of the cultural barriers of the past few weeks, so we did the most cliché American thing we could think of: pig out on a Hawaiian pizza from Papa John’s and wash it down with a Starbucks’ Frappuccino.

The pizza was tasty – though the crust was impossibly thin and there wasn’t the yummy garlic butter that comes with the US-version. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. We were the only Americans in the restaurant, and many of the Chinese people were using their forks and spoons like chopsticks to eat their pasta and fries from the pizza place.

Starbucks was even more bizarre. It was located in a chaotic, pop-music blaring Tea House/Doughnut shop/Coffeehouse combination store and offered food items like a curried puff pastry, “New York noodle” (with steak), and a plethora of rice and beef dishes.

The actual coffee menu was severely limited, and we settled on a mocha Frappuccino. Extraordinarily sweet and satisfying, the drink accompanied Alex and I on our way to the Europe and Africa portion of the Expo.

We followed the raised walkway to try avoiding the crowds but were still really tired. We sat down for a rest two-thirds of the way to the end, near the Canadian pavilion. Downtrodden and sleepy, we sat staring off into space on a bench. A couple from Ottawa who were on tour in China for two weeks quickly joined us.

After a few moments of small talk, we looked up to find ourselves surrounded by eager young Chinese teens.

“Photo??” they asked. Before we could answer, a boy shoved his way in-between us and wrapped his arms around our shoulders. All I could do was laugh and throw up the peace sign. Then two girls joined in. The scene attracted some older Chinese folks who eagerly grabbed their cameras to have a chance to take a photo of some young Americans. At one point there were at least five cameras snapping at us.

We got up to escape the paparazzi, but it was only temporary. I lost track at counting how many people shot videos on their cellphones and took photos of us as we walked by. (Mind you, we were not showered and were wearing baggy, dirty clothes).

We started singing “Party in the USA” to try overcome the sheer awkwardness of it all.

Once the walkway ended, we decided to walk street level back to the China pavilion. We passed by Russia, Slovenia and South Africa before stumbling upon a Moroccan musical performance. Live drums and guitars and plenty of dancing.

This was probably the 26th moment of the day in which Alex and I turned to each other and asked, “Look at our lives, what are we doing??” (We actually have the statement down to a look now because every single day offers up so many bizarre moments).

Approximately 20 minutes later, we were walking in front of the very hip-looking Latvian pavilion when we noticed “The Flying Daiquiri Bar.” It was 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon at the World Expo in Shanghai, can you think of a better time for a Daiquiri? I think not.

As Alex ordered her mango drink and I my mojito, two middle-age Irish financiers started chatting with us. They asked us what we were doing in China, whether we were enjoying ourselves, and how we felt about Obama.

We’re not really sure what their job was at the Expo, but they asked us if we wanted to check out the show upstairs in the Latvian pavilion before the rest of the crowd entered.

Oh what the hell, as if the day could get much more random.

They showed us to the elevator that took us to the third floor. Before getting on, we saw the crowd of 200 or so people waiting anxiously to go exactly where we were headed.

The Latvian pavilion was designed as a cylinder, and the entire outermost covering is colorful theater gels cut into 6-inch squares – from far away, it looked like a giant tube of glitter. In the center of the cylinder is a wind tube that people can fly around in. It’s like a skydiving imitation machine.

Someone was practicing in the tube when we got off the elevator. The pavilion was completely empty asides from five t-shirt vendors. We stood in awe of our strange luck, and bought cheap t-shirts to commemorate the moment.

Then the crowd poured in. Alex and I stood in the background and watched as nearly every single person in the pavilion raised their digital cameras and let out “oooh’s,” and “ahhhhs,” in unison.

We escaped before the show ended.

It’s strange to think that most of the fantasy, fun-house national pavilions will be disassembled before we leave this country. China’s will remain a permanent fixture.

Beat down and worn out, we left the Expo nearly an hour before we had to return to the university van. We weren’t hungry, but we needed a place to sit, so we found a dumpy little restaurant.

The entire wait staff was eating since it was 3 p.m., and middle-age men made up the sparse local crowd. We were instant curiosities.

“Hello!” “America good!”

Ugh. We just wanted to sit.

Within a few seconds, we had three waitresses anxiously waiting to find out what the laowai (foreigners) wanted. Frustrated and plagued with a communication boundary, I managed to order Alex and I a bowl of dumpling soup to share.

Once the food arrived, cell phones and cameras emerged once again. We could almost read their minds, “Wow, the laowai are using chopsticks! Oooo look at them eat!”

I was tired of constantly having my photo taken and never reciprocating. So I asked the staff if I could have their photo. They shyly giggled and agreed.

Then one of the men, who had four stubs of brown teeth, walked over to us. He asked us in Chinese where we were from and what we were doing in the country. Thankfully, nationalities were one of the lessons I had actually covered in my Mandarin lessons before I came to China. I told him that we were teachers from the United States.

He raised one hand and said “China,” raised the other and said “United States,” then he grasped his two hands together to signal international cooperation. Once more, a scene dripping with international relations irony.

It was finally 5 p.m. and time to go; Alex and I were anxious to drive back to Hangzhou to shower, sleep and prep for Monday’s classes.

Then China threw us one of its sucker punches.

We learned we were going to a restaurant in Shanghai to join university officials and a former Director of China Programs from the University of Minnesota for dinner. All we could do was deliriously laugh when we found out about it.

An hour later we rolled up to a fancy hotel and were quickly ushered to one of many private rooms. The table was a large circle and the 16 or so attendees shuffled around chatting. Alex and I were the first to be shown our seats and we happily sat while everyone mingled.

Finally everyone sat down and the cold plates (appetizers) were brought out and set on the revolving center of the table. A while later the hot dishes came out.

We were treated to a traditional banquet style dinner – complete with toasts every few moments and our first taste of baiju, rice liquor that is as strong as Everclear. To make a good impression and save face, Alex and I ceremoniously took a shot. Well, we divided one shot into three different toasts. The alcohol burned all the way down and continued to burn for minutes afterward.

The men were throwing back baiju like their job. Yet again, Alex and I found ourselves in a surreal bubble. We were not even remotely hungry and somehow managed to hide the fact that we didn’t eat much at the meal.

Once all the food was finished, we were offered cigarettes. We told them we didn’t smoke. Alex said she had asthma.

“They are the very best tobacco in all of China. One pack costs $10 US dollars. You must try.”

We kept saying no. They kept insisting. Finally we agreed to share one. All I could hope was that my fake drags looked at least a little bit authentic…

At last the shit show of a day came to an end and we rolled into Hangzhou around 9:30 p.m. Our apartment had water and our decidedly uncomfortable beds felt more welcoming than ever. Night was the yin to our yang of a day. Harmony was once again restored.


  1. How much does baiju cost over in China? (I read this post, and of course this is what I comment about... not sure what that says about me)

  2. this made me laugh out loud several times. there are several sentences of which i'm sure you could pick out that made me laugh uncontrollably. They made me miss you even more. also, i just noticed my 'blogger' name is papajohnson. what the hell? i'm sure you can guess who this is. :p