Saturday, February 28, 2004

On the 7

The No.7 subway train is a moving lifeline that cuts through Queens, spewing out immigrants and their heavily-weighted dreams and obligations along the way. You can predict who is getting off at which stop depending on their looks.

Here are my observations:

Times Square to Grand Central -- Mostly white Manhattan-dwellers

Hunters Point -- Affuluent-looking whites from Westchester trasferring from Metro North

45th St. and Courthouse Square -- actors and artists going off to the Silverspoon Studio (Where interior scenes for the OZ and the Sopranos are shot, thanks to the rabid pirating going on in China, I've seen every popular movie and TV series made in America before they're even on DVDs here) and that ominous old warehouse-converted-into-studio building.

Grand Central to Queensboro Plaza -- wannabe Manhattan-dwellers who are living in Astoria for now.

46th st./Sunnyside -- Russians

82nd st./Jackson Heights -- Puerto Ricans, Pakistanis

103rd st. and 111th st. -- Dominicans

Willets Point/Shea Stadium -- car mechanics and Shea Stadium employees

Main st. -- Chinese, Pakistanis, Koreans and retired Americans who can't afford to move away.

The moon is rounder abroad

I didn't get a good night's sleep, Dan Min had some company over yesterday. All night long, footsteps rang above my head. I would talk to him but he's never in the house when I'm awake.

During lunch break, I decided to go talk to my new friend, Sheena, at a nail salon closeby. The set-up in her salon includes a rented private area, for massage therapy sessions. I saw ads for these places, they seem to be always looking for new employees, I would have applied but I have a phobia for touching strangers.

Sheena winked at me as I walked in, she motioned to the closed door of the private area with her french-manicured hand. "Must be a high-energy session... The client has been in there for more than 20 minutes."

The room has large glass windows, the yellow curtains are drawn and the door is shut tight. I wanted to walk closer to listen for any sounds, but after remembering what happened the last time I evesdropped, I stopped at Sheena's desk instead.

Right then the door burst open and a pale-looking man, in his late 20s, walked out with a backpack. He didn't look at us at all, just hurried out the door. His medium height and slim build made him look to be Cantonese, the excessive highlighting in his hair was a pretty good giveaway. When will trend-following Chinese guys learn that blonde highlights only work on Caucasians? They saw a few pop stars with them and all thought they could do the look too.

"Sheena, have you had lun --"

Delia, standing in the doorway, her hair a bit mussed, and wiping her hand with a cloth, stopped talking to gape at me.

Sheena stared at the two of us. I stared back. So this is Delia's gig.


When I told Dan Ming, he didn't look surprised. Of course, he must have been a client too.

"Don't look so self-righteous. How do you think all the "da gong zai" (working guys) deal with being away from their wives for years?" He said while chomping down pork ribs.

Watching him wiping the red gooey sauce off his chin, I felt sick to my stomach. "But..."

"Oh, I forgot I was talking to the white guy-loving -- "

I didn't let him finish. Here's one thing good about living in a house, you can stomp outside any time. No elevators to wait for, no waiting around.

The moon looks full tonight. There is a saying for those Chinese who think foreign countries outside of China are unconditionally better. "The moon is rounder abroad." If they can slap a foreign-sounding label on a domestically-made product, it's a fail-safe way to sell it to the foreign-worshipping public.

Tonight, the moon just reminds me of the face Delia had when she saw me. Wan, and a little drained.

Friday, February 27, 2004

I've been going across the street from the store every day to get lunch at a take-out place, not a bad deal, $3.95 for a lunch special of three entrees and a soup, with rice. I usually skip lunches in Beijing, not because of dieting -- all the client lunches and dinners are hard on the digestive system -- after the third Mongolian hot pot of the week, not eating seems like a relief. Now that I'm no longer white-collar, I've gotten my appetite back... better watch out for the "American 15." I call the weight gain every new immigrant seems to go through the "American 15," like the "Freshman 15" (thank god for TOEFL's English phrases review book, I know all the cliches Americans know!). Only instead of fattening up on dining hall food, we get rounder and more American thanks to more deep-fried Chinese-American fare. Like today's lunch, deep-fried tofu, broccoli & beef stir-fry, and a cornstarch-laden chow fen too. I hope the chefs who work at these Szechuan/Cantonese/Shanghainese restaurants know that they're ruining the reputation of Chinese food irrevocably. Twenty years from now, even "authentic" Chinese people like me would forget that Chinese food is about more than spring rolls and moo goo gai pan (a dish I've never heard of in China).

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I wrote this years ago, for a creative writing class, hope it makes sense still.

The Barefoot Doctor

They called her the "barefoot doctor." She often didn't have time to put her shoes on before the middle-of-the-night knock on the door -- another villager's baby to be born, another feverish child to soothe.

Rumors had it she was from the city. When village gossipers ask her whether she had a family and where they were, she always deflected the question back to them.

"I have had more babies than I could remember..." She smoothed back her short jet-black hair, held with a spiral-shaped tortoise shell barrette. The clip meandered on her hair like a serpent, weaving in and out of the silky strands. She has delivered a succession of boys ever since the beginning of her practice and was popular among the villagers.

Eventually Guan Ming, the shop-keeper in the village, found out the secret from a traveling salesman. The barefoot doctor was driven out by her husband's family since she was barren. The gossipers stopped asking her prying questions then. Instead, they asked about whether the babies carried by their daughters were male or female.

"Why do you need to know?" She would smile and say.

"Daughters are like water poured on the ground - you can't get them back once they're out the door." The gossipers would cluck their tongue and shake their heads with frustration. They would give the usual reasons -- a girl takes on her husband's name, and one's own lineage stops there. Plus, a girl can't watch the fields at night by herself. Several attacks have happened when a lone female watermelon crop watcher was attacked by a group of marauders.

At the end of the monsoon season, when the flooding has stopped, but the ground was still moist & wet, Guan's third daughter, Yuan Yuan, went into labor. Her water broke at midnight and didn't stop. The barefoot doctor rushed to the small bamboo-shrouded house and started her preparations.

It was the woman's first birth and it was taking a long time. The barefoot doctor loosened the mosquito net around the bed and tried to bring more fresh air in. Then she saw it, a green snake, perched on the edge of the mosquito net's opening, its sliver of a tongue licking the edges of the gauzy fabric.

Guan saw it too and tried to grasp on to a spot seven inches from the snake's tail, thought to be a snake's Achilles heel. Yuan Yuan was breathing heavily, trying to push the baby out. When Guan tried again to tackle the snake, the barefoot doctor said,

"It's okay, it's only a field snake. They eat grains, not people."

"So long you deliver us a boy, I don't care if the snake stays on as a baby-sitter!" Guan's
face reddened with the outburst.

Just then Yuan Yuan screamed, the baby's head poked out, and everyone forgot about the snake. The whole family crowded around to see the baby -- it was a girl. The snake was still perched atop the netting, oblivious to the commotion. Many comments were made, the main one being:

"You've delivered 48 boys, and now you give us a girl?"

The barefoot doctor tried to explain but there was no time for words, for the snake has slithered onto Yuan Yuan. The doctor dove forward and tried to grasp the snake's tail but it was too late. Yuan Yuan's blood flowed from the wound in her throat and mingled together with the white bedspread and the green snake skin.

The Guan clan threw the doctor out of the house, and flung her medicine bag after her.

"But what about Yuan Yuan?" The doctor wailed. The snake was thrown out too, its torso chopped into pieces by a machete.

After that night the doctor no longer had appointments, her reputation as a boy-deliverer shattered. She still lived in the same rickety house that she rented before. The few that bothered to visit her claimed they saw many snakes there, some hiding in shrubs outside, some hiding in corners of the damp stairwells.

The next year was the year of the serpent in the Chinese zodiac, and the barefoot doctor delivered a healthy baby boy by herself. Speculation was rampant about who the baby's father was, the most popular theory said it was the snakeman.

When the doctor took her baby out to the market, she would dress him in green. People watched her walk away, her black hair pinned up in a chignon now, held with the same serpent-like barrette.

What Never Sells in China...

Self-tanner. I had so many women come in today, asking for the Shiseido UVWhite kit, because pale is considered more attractive, for women especially. A dark complexion is seen as closer to the peasants' skin tone and undesirable. Yet I see ads here touting tinted this and self-tanner that -- Americans see tanned skin as equivalent to good health and having had a vacation -- so pale is out I guess.

Green hats for men. In Ancient China, prostitutes and men in their families had to wear green. Even now, if a man wore a green hat, it's as if he is annoucing to the world that he's been cuckolded.

Monday, February 23, 2004

America is Mine, Mine, Mine

I always thought every American each had their own private physician, accountant, meat butcher, etc. That's how I heard it spoken in the movies, "My chiropractor said I should stop playing golf..." What does the doctor do the rest of the time his/her patient doesn't need him/her? Now I know, it's just a way of saying that's MY doctor -- is it just expressing something in a possessive sense or a linguistic quirk? In any case, America is not so much all about me but all about mine. My house, my car, my dog, my wart, my pimple... Is there any thing any one hasn't claimed yet?

Splurged on some roasted chestnuts today, eight dollars, for a tiny paper bag's worth! They smelled so good, kind of like maltose candy I used to beg my grandma to make. Maltose is more opaque than honey and has a nice, mellow flavor. You have to wind them around & around a wooden spatula to eat it since it's so stringy, it was mesmerizing just seeing it being made.

I have enough savings so far to survive, but I need to seriously start thinking about working somewhere where I don't need to stand all day.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

My New Neighborhood & New Job

There is something familar about my new neighborhood. Not quite China, a little bit American, but really, it's a pragmatic hybrid of the two. The streets downtown are unevenly-paved and littered. Ambiguous odors, some pleasant, others less so, waft in and out from various shop doorways. Stores are crammed together, with signs overlapping each other. Some are restaurants, some are 99 cents stores (Beijing has these too, only they're "Eight RMB" stores, which converts to about a dollar). The restaurants here are supposedly better than those in Manhantan, I'll have to try one of those and judge for myself.

New immgirants settle down here at first, but then move on to better, more suburban places in New Jersey or upstate New York, or at least Long Island. But they come back here on the weekends to shop for fresh fish and juicy bok choy. You can tell who they are -- they're the ones who drive the Mercedes and Lexuses and park at Kam San and Hong Kong supermarkets, and complain about the airplanes flying overhead. Their kids, if unfortunate enough to be dragged along, will mutter back in English when spoken to in Chinese. Dan Ming told me about their label, ABCs (American-Born Chinese), or bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). I am fortunate to be given my own acronym -- FOB (fresh off the boat). Hah.

I got a job at a Shiseido cosmetics specialty store. If my grandparents, who told me about the Nanjing massacre, knew of this, I would surely be damned. But it's either this or working for a family as a nanny/housekeeper. I doubt my housekeeping skills are that marketable, and there is something icky about there being no boundaries.

Traffic was slow at the store, I was tempted to try on some makeup and do a makeover on myself, but then people started walking in. One woman made eye contact with me and walked closer to the counter; I guess she would be my first client. Her hair looks to be freshly thermal-straightened, and she wore a pair of black boots with a knee-length suede skirt topped with a denim blazer. Okay, late 20s yuppie, possibly willing to be suckered into this new $200 skin regimen I'm told to be pushing. I put on my professional smile and realized it's my ex-coworker from Beijing. She froze when she saw my face close-up and then squealed my name. Well, it's better than being recognized as a restaurant bus-girl, I suppose.

Delia, that's her name... she was one of those people who work at foreign companies in China that insist on being called their American names. I heard that she married a guy who was some government bureaucrat's son and came here a couple years ago with him.

I told her where I'm staying now and we settled in the living room to chat.

"Got any kids?"

"No, divorced."


"He had a company that's like a gift from his father. It's pretty much a plaything for him. There weren't any business. He spent all his time gambling at Atlantic City and would go through a couple thousand each time he went--"

Dan Ming came in. When he saw her, he flinched. I quickly looked over at Delia, she lowered her head and excused herself and said she needed to get back, but she never did tell me where she is working now.