Sunday, March 21, 2010

Instant Guanxi

My favorite street in all of Nanchong is Yuying Lu, Teach Bravery Road. It is the only street in town that you might be inclined to call "pretty." Absent are China's ubiquitous coal-stained, white-tiled, blue-windowed, barred-in twelve-story apartment buildings. The shops that line Yuying Road are two stories and two stories only, and they are made of red brick. On Yuying Road there are trees and wide sidewalks, and bicycle lanes that the cars keep out of most of the time. In short, it is a street that feels as though it were designed for humans. Yes, the city planning commission must have thought things through for at least five minutes before they started building Yuying Road.

I will often take the bus to Yuying Road simply for the pleasure of walking beneath the relatively green boughs of its relatively living trees. But it also happens to be home to the only bar worth going to, and the only coffee shop worth going to.

The bar specializes in overpriced Coors Light, and it reeks of burnt popcorn at all times. The owner has an affinity for badly scratched Celine Dion CDs. Still, I will be charitable and maintain that it is the only bar worth going to in Nanchong.

There are two coffee shops on Yuying Road, but only one of them is worth going to. The other seems to double as a massage parlor, as its windows are painted over with cleavage and thighs, and I have never in all my passings seen anyone go in or come out.

The coffee shop I go to is named Little Prince Coffee. I like to go there with an empty notebook and sit for hours, deluding myself that I am making progress in some direction or another. The first time I went, I thought about walking back out straightaway, as the house brew cost a staggering three dollars. But I decided to treat myself, and in so doing, began to accumulate that mysterious socioeconomic grease that the Chinese refer to as guanxi.

The first day, they charged me full price for two coffees, but gave me a membership card. The second day, I got one free coffee, and the waitress asked me if I had eaten. The third day, the waitress bought me a pack of cigarettes after I had run out. Tonight, the owner himself asked me whether I had eaten. When I answered in the affirmative, he insisted that I sit with him and eat again.

I have rounded a corner with Mandarin: people laugh less at my mistakes than they do at my jokes. That is not to say that they don't laugh at my mistakes. Nor is it to say that my jokes are the least bit witty. My Chinese humor runs in the Seinfeldian vein: what is the deal with Chinese drivers? what is the deal with hot pot? what is the deal ... and so on with the deals. But I am happy to be of some amusement to people. I imagine my Chinese self as a kind of deranged, wild-eyed Slav who goes on long tirades in his sub-Russian brogue, mixing up the words for household objects and school supplies with those of vegetables and genitalia. "And then I opened the potato, walked in, and discovered that my ass had fallen off!" he might shout, amidst much laughter that he doesn't understand.

After dinner and many such ill-fated tirades, the owner gave me a free bag of espresso ("We're closed during the daytime," he explained) and after I'd paid my share of the bill, he offered to drive me home. A few of his long-haired friends tagged along. I asked whether they lived near the university and they all shook their heads no. "We have some important business to do in the neighborhood," explained the owner. And in saying that, I noticed that he had slowed the car to scope out some of the nightclubs we were passing.

"What about that one?" he asked the other guys.
"They won't be there tonight," said the kid next to me.
"Okay, then how about this one?" He stopped the car in front of a place called "1984."
"Hao, hao, hao, hao, hao," said the kid. Good, good, good, good, good ...

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