Saturday, March 1, 2008

This is me eating a hot pot. It doesn't do justice to the amount I was sweating.

Strange in a strange land

(PICTURE: A Hot Pot)

T-minus one hour till the greatest sporting event in the universe: The World Table Tennis Championships. Three out of twenty channels here are airing the games non-stop. China is the defending world champion and so far they look unbeatable. Last night we watched the Chinese men's team wipe the floor with the Czech Republic team. Anyway, this entry isn't about table tennis. This is about my first impressions of China.

The first thing to keep in mind is that I'm in Guangzhou. Yeah, I had never heard of it either before finding out about the table tennis championship. This city is absolutely enormous but has no tourism industry. Nobody comes here that isn't Chinese. This became quickly apparent when I asked the front desk what I should do in Guangzhou. The guy, who speaks better English than anyone else we've met here -- a vocabulary of about a hundred words -- shrugged at me and said, "I don't know what there is to do." Frankly, I'm pretty sure that many of the people in this city, if not the majority, have never seen a white person. I'm taking this guess because everywhere we go people literally stop in their tracks and stare at us. When we eat people at other tables put down their chopsticks and observe us. People have even been stopping in front of restaurant windows, calling over their friends and watching us like animals in a zoo. I feel like Brad Pitt...except a little better looking and I don't have to sign autographs.

Besides being able to order a hand grenade and a gas mask in my hotel room, there have been some other culturing differences and strange occurances. A few of my favorite moments so far have been:

1. Playing bar games. Mark and I went to a bar two nights ago and the bartenders taught us how to play a dice game that is similar to Liar's Poker. Before we knew it four hours had passed and we were best friends with not only the bartenders (Xiang Xiang) but a bunch of the costumers as well. We literally said nothing for over 240 minutes except numbers: "four two" "six five" "three four" etc. Last night, coming off a dice game high we strolled into another bar. Someone had already taken the dice game so we played another, slightly more familiar game: Jenga. We set up Jenga on the bar and once again had all the bartenders playing with us. We got the tower up to twenty four levels before I knocked it over. However, in my defense, Jan, an extremely cute bartender was poking me in my side trying to make me mess up.

2. I know all I ever talk about is food but this deserves mention. They have something here called "hot pots." I've never seen anything like it. The closest comparison would be Korean BBQ when you cook your own meat in the center of the table. Basically a hot pot is a large metal bowl that boils in front of you. However, it's also aptly named a hot pot because inside it is a broth of about 1,000 red chilis. You know those red chilis you get at Chinese restaurants from time to time that are hotter than hell? Well, these are those and they are in everything. When you stare into the hot pot all you see are red chilis. You have to fish through it with your chopsticks to find the meat and vegetables. The problem is the food has already soaked in all the spice. For those of you who have ever eaten with me you know that I tend to sweat a little when eating spicy food. Well, times haven't changed. After just a few bites my hair gets wet, puddles form under my eyes and water begins to drip off my nose. Asians in general don't sweat so they look at me as something of a freak. Which in fairness people often do in the States as well. After a few meals of these chilis we decided last night to get something less spicy--purely for my health so I don't pass out from dehydration. Well, we went to another restaurant with a picture menu and pointed out a few dishes. Sure enough when they came out they were covered in chilis. My stomach has been bubbling for forty-eight hours and I finally understand the true meaning of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."

3. Ordering food has been quite an experience. They speak no English and we speak no Chinese. To get the food we want we've adapted two methods. Method A: walk around the restaurant and point at other people's food. Method B: going into the kitchen and pointing at what we want to eat.

4. This is just a funny anecdote. The first night I went up to the front desk and asked, "Where is a good restaurant?" The response from the woman was, "You want massage?" I guess that is a more common question here.

5. Jackie Chan has his own line of clothing here that is both hideous and hideously expensive. We went into the Guangzhou Friendship Store at a mall that was probably the size of The Mall of America. We naturally were attracted by the large Jackie Chan signs and followed them into the store. At first we thought we'd buy something because they were hilarious but then we looked at the price: 700 Yuan...about a hundred dollars. Who said things are cheaper in China? I went into a sporting goods store and Nikes were also around a hundred dollars.

6. Strangely it is warmer at night here than during the day. Perhaps it has something to do with the pollution. LA smog has nothing on Chinese air. Finding a star at night here is as likely as finding an English speaker.

7. Some building facades are made of tiles. Yes, tile. They are like giant bathroom floors.

8. I have seen no birds.

9. People love to wear track suits here.

Those are my initial stories to share although I have plenty more. However, the games begin in thirty minutes so I've got to run. And by run I mean walk very gingerly since my stomach might not be able to handle excessive movement at this juncture.