Back to Reality
In between the various TV performances, I’ve been working hard trying to put together the pieces of my future while at the same time making enough cash to pay the rent. Seeing as how these TV shows were not offering me any money, I needed to find something relatively fast and most international companies that are willing to interview foreigners are based in Shanghai or Beijing, not Hangzhou, so, reluctantly I went back to the well…. Teaching English. Although Chinese people aren’t necessarily the most superstitious people, there are some notions they abide by that most “Lao Wai” (foreigners) would call crazy. A big one is this notion of “yuan fen”; basically “fate”. Ingrained in Capitalist society is this idea that we are the masters of our own destinies and that “fate” plays no part. Of course, we all like to dream and watch movies that talk about “the one” and how one person is destined for great things etc, but how many of us would actually place our life in the hands of fate? Well, for a great deal of Chinese people this is precisely what they do. Yuan Fen plays a huge role in the lives and decisions of Chinese people. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it is the most popular form of birth control used in this country. I’ve asked several friends who are recently married if they have plans to have kids and when and the answer is almost always “看缘份吧”, or in English “let’s leave it to fate”. In terms that I can understand that means they are not using contraceptives.
It doesn’t stop at having kids though. The Chinese depend on Yuan Fen for a great many things. Just to give you an idea, here are some questions I’ve actually asked people:
Me: “So what kind of job are you going to look for when you graduate?”
Me: “Do you think you will be able to pass the exam?”
Me: “When do you think you’ll be able to immigrate to Canada?”
Me: “Are you looking for a good time?”
Hot chick at the bar: “看缘份吧”
Anyway… you get the picture.
One weird thing about China is that when you’re here things just tend to happen without any potential explanation. Many times I find it hard not to believe in this at least a little. For example, when I was considering buying an electric bike in Suzhou and all the accidents kept happening. What’s my point? Well, I was really reluctant to take any teaching jobs at first. I really didn’t want to end up as a full time teacher with no time to pursue anything else and stuck in a contract that really will not lead anywhere in the future. Last thing I want is to be teaching English in China for the next three years and then still have no real career to speak of. Unfortunately, my first three interviews with “reputable” English institutions were only offering exactly that and demanding a contract of minimum 6 months to a year. After turning down 3 job offers, I started to reconsider. Part of me simply wasn’t ready to give up, and the other part of me was thinking that I’ve been living here for almost 2 months without an income… Fortunately, I had one more interview at a school that supposedly wanted part-time teachers. The director of the school, named Christina, is very sweet. Long story short, the position she was offering was basically, perfect. 4 hours a week, good pay, no long term commitment, and she pays cash. Oh yeah, and she has the exact same birthday as me… same day, same year. Yuan fen? Of course, when it rains it pours, right?
I had been thinking about maybe getting some of my writing published for some time, considering that there are only two English magazines in Hangzhou, I thought I might be able to get in contact with them. One night I emailed the editor of MOREHANGZHOU magazine, which is a privately owned magazine for expats that was been circulating the city since about 2003 or 2004. The very next day, my uncle suggested I contact the very same magazine to write for them. Weird coincidence. Anyway, that night, as promised I took one of my old students out to my friend’s bar. This particular ex-student (Yoyo) was living and working in Suzhou up until about 5 months ago when she got a new position in Hangzhou working in communications at the Marriot hotel. So we go to my friend’s bar and there’s a live foreign band playing with a Chinese singer. Actually, they were better than I was expecting.
So we’re sitting there and listening and finally about to leave when the singer announces that it’s her last day and tells the audience her name. At which point Yoyo gets really excited and says that she just spoke to this girl on the phone yesterday and that she’s the editor for MOREHANGZHOU. I was like “you gotta be kidding?”. When Jingjing got off stage Yoyo introduced us and sure enough, she is one of the people responsible for creating MOREHANGZHOU magazine back in 2003. Yoyo was getting really tired so I didn’t have much time to stay and chat. I put Yoyo in a cab and started to walk home, but simply couldn’t pass up this opportunity so I went back to my friend’s bar. Of course Jingjing was sitting with my friend (the owner) and chatting it up. I got a second introduction and as it turns out, she knows many of my friends in Hangzhou. Small world! In fact, one of my close friends gave her his guitar back in the day when he decided to trade in his guitar for a double base. Before I knew it we were playing fuzzball together and well, I left feeling pretty good about my chances writing for MOREHANGZHOU until a couple days later when Yoyo introduced me to the marketing coordinator for the other English magazine in town; That’s Zhejiang!.
While MOREHANGZHOU was taking their sweet time getting back to me, That’s Zhejiang! Had already gone through samples of my writing and received me for an interview. Within a day, they had booked me for an outing and offered me a two page spread in their April edition. Admittedly, the first article wasn’t my best work, but it was good enough to have me invited back several times since and today (that’s fast forwarding about 2 weeks) they offered me a job as the chief editor for their weekly newspaper… but we’ll get back to that later…
Meanwhile, a different friend of mine had mentioned me to a long time customer who’s brother was about to write the IELT’s exam and was in desperate need of some private tutoring. For about 10 days I taught him about 3-5 hours a day. Somehow, between the teaching, the writing, and the interviews, I some how fit in some time for a very fun and important afternoon with my old friend Thomas Wang.
Now I’ve known Thomas for a very long time, since probably my second trip to China. As such, I’m sure most of you have heard me mention him several times. Meeting with him this time was great. The last couple times I was in town I had missed him, either cause he was away on business, or simply too busy. In the last six years his life has completely changed. Marage, a baby boy, and becoming a millionaire, will do that to a person. It was really nice to spend some quality time with him and catch up. It was also REALLY refreshing to see that his success has changed him very little. I guess sometimes good people do get what they deserve. His first restaurant, which is probably one of my favourite restaurants, is doing as well as ever. There’s a line-up of about an hour every day for lunch and dinner. You can get a look at some pictures from his website here:
In Hangzhou alone, he now has three restaurants and they all share similar success. He’s also opened one in Beijing that is doing equally well. This year, Thomas plans on expanding and opening another 6 stores in: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, and 2 more in Hangzhou. You never know, if you’re lucky I might convince him to open one in Canada!
Thomas was a little upset that I hadn’t mentioned to him my dream/plans to open my own bar… after I explained that I hadn’t really had a chance to talk with him so much, we decided to take a little trip to Shanghai and Beijing together to scope out the scene there. I’m gonna skip over some of the details, simply cause I am starting to believe more and more in Yuan Fen and I don’t wanna jynx it!
I will tell you about one amusing thing that happened in Shanghai though. There is an amazing amount of foreigners walking the streets of Shanghai. Thomas took me to an upscale bar street in the city around 5pm in order to see some of the western owned bars. One in particular that brews their own “German” beer. So we’re sitting at an outside patio chatting and behind us are some rather loud foreigners. Finally, they get up to pay the bill and of course are sifting through wads of cash in front of the waiter (who makes about 300$ a month salary) trying to figure out how to split the bill between them. Eventually, they fork over a pile of cash and belt “you might wanna double check that! Haha! We’re dumbass Americans! Hahaha!” to which I simply couldn’t resist responding “isn’t that redundant?”.
They laughed pretty hard at that “joke” – albeit not as hard as my Chinese friends when I translated it. Turns out they were hockey fans and pretty upset about the hit on pachioretti… but definitely not fans of Subin. I think one of them said something along the lines of how we need to settle down that monkey. I guess they also felt that Subin wasn’t playing the white-er right way. Anyway, as you can imagine, I ended that conversation as fast as possible. (for those of you who don’t know… that was a big Freudian slip made by a TV sports reporter a few months ago about Subin).
That night we flew to Beijing where I was denied entrance to a hotel because I’m Canadian. I was almost expecting that cause it’s happened before in Beijing, but Thomas was pretty upset. If it wasn’t 1:30 am I think we would have had a huge argument on our hands. Fortunately there was another hotel about 15 paces away that did accept foreigners at basically the same price. Still, I have no complaints. There’s a famous idiom in Chinese that goes like this 塞翁失马焉知非福. The lose translation is “an old man lost his mare, but it all turned out for the best” basically sometimes a loss is not a bad thing, but rather a blessing in disguise. Of course, the idiom goes along with a story, but I’ll spare you the details. In short, maybe it was yuan fen because the next day Thomas was so upset that we all changed to a different hotel, which was fantastic. Actually, the new hotel was a youth hostel, but amazingly, double the price of the hotel. The rooms themselves were nothing special, but the hostel was a thing of beauty. Smack dab in the center of industrial Beijing, and only a 15 minute walk from Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, hidden behind old rustic shops was this small old wooden door that open up into a little travellers’ cache. It isn’t the easiest place to describe, but if you can picture the type of little house Fred Penner might live in, chalk full of travellers’ books, posters, pictures, postcards, vines, plants, a couple couches and wooden tables, a guitar, and then add a computer, you’d have the lobby. There were always one or two sweet young ladies (who speak English) working at the desk and eager to answer any questions. To get to the rooms you had to walk through an adorable communal Chinese-style courtyard, beautifully lit by the sun. Several rooms had their windows facing the courtyard as well. Because the hostel only housed 14 beds, the place was always quiet and you never felt the bustle of over-populated Beijing. I have to admit, when Thomas mentioned the idea of opening a youth hostel, it was hard not to fantasize about.
Although the purpose of this visit to Beijing was to do some research with regards to potentially opening my own establishment, on the last day, I found myself acting as tour guide for one of Thomas’ restaurant managers who had never been to Beijing. It was a little weird being the tour guide for a Chinese person in China, rather than the other way around, but still entertaining.
That’s a Canadian air Canada flight attendant I met.
The afternoon that we spent together did yield some interesting events and I did manage to witness one thing that I had never seen, or at least never noticed, before.
That’s right, a sign designating the squatting facilities. But that wasn’t the best public facility. There was an even better one that I wish I had the chrutspa to take a photo of. Unfortunately, you’ll have to use your imagination for this one. I walked into a tiny little public hut to hang a wiz and once inside the small 8ft by 8 ft chamber I found 2 wall urinals facing two squatters, and a western-style toilet all side by side with no walls or doors. As if a westerner would use that toilet! Let me repeat NO WALLS! At the time there were two patrons squatting side by side chatting and smoking cigarettes. I really had to pee, but I got out of there as fast as I could. I think I even dribbled on my pants a bit as I rushed to do up my fly as I ran out.
We hopped into a cab later that afternoon to check out a particular bar that is famous in Beijing. I wish I could say this was the first instance this has happened to me, but if you remember my story about hitting the ebike, you know it’s not. As we drove along, a lady in a little blue car decided to make a left turn ignoring the oncoming traffic as though she had the right of way. In China, people don’t really slow down or yield when someone does something stupid. They just continue on. The lady decided to stop mid turn right in the middle of the intersection and our driver showed no signs of slowing down. I shouted to stop and the driver seemed to all of a sudden wake up from his stupor and hit the brakes. Fortunately we were only going about 30 km per hour and the woman started to drive slowly as if she hadn’t even noticed us. I wanted to believe we’d make it, but I saw the accident in my head even before it happened. Sure enough we clipped her back wheel and tossed her little car about 4 feet off course. No one was hurt and no superficial damage to either car. The damage was to my ear drums when the idiot woman came out and started yelling at the cab driver as though he was blind. We switched cabs.
That wasn’t the first time I predicted an accident and it wouldn’t be the last…
…but I’ll tell that story later.
When we got to the bar I met with two of my pet peeves. One is unique to China, the other is prevalent in Quebec. Service… a word that Quebec waiters and waitresses seem to forget the meaning of all too often. One of the main reasons that I want to be in the service industry is that I quite simply hate bad service. When waiters/waitresses ignore your requests and mess up orders cause they are lazy and not listening or when they ignore you even though you are speaking to them in their language and even though they aren’t busy, when they are laughing and playing with other staff, or sleeping instead of serving you, I get pissed. Well, the staff that day was doing all of the above.
Even more remarkable was the customer sitting near us apparently on a date. The girl simply would not shut up. Normally, that doesn’t bother me. I mean at least they are having a good time and entertaining themselves. BUT, in this case, every single sentence the girl said (and when I say every sentence I mean every sentence, I’m not exaggerating in the least) included one mispronounced English word or misused English expression. After two or three it was starting to drive me crazy. It took two pints just to calm me down so that I wouldn’t go over there and stuff my foot in her face. To me that is the height of modern Chinese pretension. They think it makes them look and sound smart to insert English words despite the fact that the other person may not understand, despite it often being redundant, and despite it often being wrong. It’s not like a Chinese person speaking English and inserting a Chinese word because they don’t know the correct English word, or vice versa. It’s just a Chinese person trying to piss me off. Somehow she knew I was there and this would bother me (even though she didn’t know me) and she decided to speak loud enough for the whole bar to hear that she was doing this to make me angry. She did help me learn a new Chinese expression though: 能猫不教教猫不能。In English, that means the capable cat doesn’t show off and the cat that shows off isn’t capable.
Returning to the hostel I learned two more things that I didn’t know. First of all, because of the crisis in Japan, Hangzhou had sold out of salt. For 3 days there was no salt available for purchase in the entire city of Hangzhou. That’s what happens when 9 million people think salt will save them from radiation sickness. Secondly, I learnt the name of Hitler in Chinese; Shitler! I kid you not. The Chinese call him SHITler. I think that’s apt.