Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Bling Dynasty

Lisa called on Thursday night to tell me that we had "business" to discuss. I showed up at the Jack Bar around ten, and she set out my usual two bottles of Bud Ice. She told me to sit so I sat. I was expecting bad news, probably the long-anticipated termination of my duties as the Jack Bar's official court minstrel. But instead, she gave me an offer that I couldn't refuse.

"New apartment grand opening," she said. "Heavenly Peach Blossom Lifestyle Development. You play two song. Only two song. We pay you $100 U.S. dollar."

Of course, I belong to the monastic order of the Peace Corps, so I couldn't accept the money. But I wasn't interested in making bank anyhow. No, this was the sort of gig I was more than happy to do pro bono - the sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that only comes once a week if you're a foreigner in China. A backstage pass to the heart of Chinese opulence, a journey to the center of the housing bubble, a lo-fi interlude in the middle of a high-tech freak show.

"I'll do it," I said.

The next day, Lisa called me and told me to meet her at the front gate in five minutes. I was naked at the time and woefully unprepared, so I tossed a pair of clean underwear onto the radiator and frantically scribbled some lyrics and chords in my trusty green Chinglish notebook.

I had spent the afternoon deliberating what songs to perform. Theme: houses, apartment complexes, construction. Mood: snide, cheeky, tongue-in-cheeky. I judiciously ruled out "The Roof is on Fire," as well as "Grave Architecture" by Pavement. "Burning Down the House" wasn't going to fly, and sadly, neither would my dad's tasteful suggestion, "The House of the Rising Sun." I needed something sweet and melodic but subtly jeering, the sort of inside joke that only a bona fide laowai would get. Finally, around 4 PM, it came to me: "Our House" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Two cats in the yard. Perfect. It was a bit out of my vocal range, but so are all the songs I sing.

For my second number, I decided to go with "Long Way Home" by Tom Waits - not exactly relevant, but with lines like "money's just something you throw off the back of a train" and "let's go out past the Party lights," I figured I would get a chuckle out of singing it, even if nobody else did. By the time I'd finished writing, my boxer-briefs were hot to the touch and I was ten minutes late.

One of the Inner Mongolians sat behind the wheel, Lisa in the passenger's side.

"We go to banquet first," she said.

"Hao hao hao hao hao," I said. "Good good good good good."

Chinese banquets are the panopticon of dining rituals. Fourteen people in a brightly-lit room, crammed elbow-to-elbow around a circular table with a not-so-lazy susan spinning round at 120 RPM. Everyone can see everyone else, but all eyes are on Mr. Laowai. The Asian world wants to know: can he use chopsticks? Ordinarily yes, but banquet chopsticks are oversized and extremely slippery, so someone eventually claims Mama Bird duty and puts food in Mr. Laowai's bowl. There is an overabundance of beer, if you're lucky, and rice vodka if you're not. Everyone toasts everyone else. If you have fourteen people at the table, that adds up to 91 toasts. Things can get sloppy very fast.

Our guests of honor were from Heilongjiang Province, the beak of the chicken-shaped Chinese landmass. Although Heilongjiang is practically cosmopolitan compared to lowly Nanchong, the out-of-towners were even less tactful around me than my Nanchong entourage tends to be.

"Whoa, a laowai. Can he speak Chinese?" the b-boy in the gorilla sweater asked Lisa.
"Yes," I said. "I can speak Chinese."
"Holy cow, a foreigner who can speak Chinese. Now I've seen everything. Can he use chopsticks?"
"Yes. I can use chopsticks."
"Wowzers. Amazing. Where is he from?"
"I'm from America."
"America. What does he do?"
"I am an English teacher."
"How much money does he make?"

And so on.

I was the center of attention for a short while, but after it was established that I could speak passable Chinese and feed myself without making a mess, everyone seemed to grow bored of me. There was a Cavaliers game on the big screen, so the men zoned out watching it, breaking the trance every so often to shout "Good ball!" or to express their admiration for the legendary Lei-bu-lon Jei-mu-si.

One by one, the men toasted me. I wish you happy every day. I wish you colorful life in Nanchong. I wish you find beautiful Chinese girlfriend. The tempo picked up. The men began touching each other below the belt. Everyone kept poking fun at the b-boy's beer belly, and he responded by laughing triumphantly and beatboxing while playing his gut like a bongo drum. So when it came time for me to toast him, I patted his belly and wished him and his baby a long and happy life together. He chuckled, but he didn't smile. A line had been crossed. Chinese ribbing is one thing, but a fat joke from the obesity capital of the world is another. I made my escape and ran over to toast the elderly couple who were smiling bashfully at me from the other end of the table. I downed my beer and they downed their walnut milk. We all smiled bashfully. Then it was time to go. The Inner Mongolian grabbed me by the arm and yanked me out into the hallway. I shouted a frantic farewell but everyone was too drunk to notice.

The Heavenly Peach Blossom Lifestyle Development was so bright that, from a distance, the murky Jialing River looked downright resplendent. Searchlights darted back and forth across Nanchong's low-hanging heavens. Faintly audible: a stubborn beat, the voice of a circus barker.

We arrived. The Inner Mongolian parked illegally and a policeman came running over to scold him. But he indicated the laowai in the backseat and the policeman nodded and walked away.

We made our way up the red carpet.
"Did you drink too much?" asked Lisa.
"Chinese beer? Impossible," I said.
"Are you nervous?"
"Me? Never."

If the former was a slight fib, the latter was an outright lie. Even by Chinese standards, the crowd that had assembled to christen this residential behemoth was truly gargantuan, in the thousands, easy. The Volkswagen insignia was plastered up everywhere, and there was a trio of Volkswagen SUVs rotating on platforms, barely dressed xiaojies caressing their aerodynamic curves. The jumbotron on stage was looping a montage of a Volkswagen GTI Hatchback skidding up and down a rain-slick mountain road. The circus barker was whipping up a frenzy, but the only word I could make out was Da Zhong Qi Che - Volkswagen.

There was a visible divide between the people on the inside of the velvet-roped stanchions and the people on the outside. The out crowd was the same riffraff I usually encounter down by the bus station: old timers in filthy suitcoats wielding bamboo sticks and swollen duffel bags. Wielding ducks, wielding chickens. I passed an old man chewing a quid of tobacco - a quid of tobacco! The out crowd was very Ming Dynasty. Meanwhile, on the inside of the stanchion, it was all champagne and mini-cigars: The Bling Dynasty.

My opening act this time was a magician. At least it wasn't a pole dancer. But he wasn't too well-versed in the ways of magic. He just about strangled himself with his own neverending handkerchief. The MC saw me and came rushing over.

"Hello, please to meet you," he said. "I am MC Li Zhong Bo. What is your name?"
"You can call me Pan Da," I said.
"Oh, you speak Chinese."
"Sort of, yes."
"What is your American name?"
"Keith," I said. "K-E-I-T-H."
"Okay! Okay! Kitty!"

He noticed my Chinglish notebook.
"What is this?"
"My music," I said.
"Cannot use. We have no," he said, searching for the word. "We have no ... thing."
No thing. Shit. I would have to play two songs from memory. So much for the two cats in the yard.

The magician, deeply ashamed, left the stage with his neverending handkerchief between his legs. It was my time to shine. The MC summoned Kitty to the microphone, and I Obama-trotted up to the stage.

"Our foreign friend has come tonight to entertain us with a few songs!" he said. "Now, what is your name?"
"My name is Pan Da and I am a laowai," I said into the microphone.
"This is Pan Da and he is a laowai. Very good. Pan Da - is that your Chinese name?"
"Yes. I am a national treasure."
Someone coughed.
"I see. Well, Mr. National Treasure - what kind of music will you be playing for us tonight?"
"American rock and roll."

There is footage floating around of Bob Dylan performing "Mr. Tambourine Man" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. He was young back then, and widely believed to be the Second Coming. So the crowd is awestruck and silent for the whole seven minutes, all these bucktoothed boys with wheat-colored hair sitting at Dylan's feet, blowing dandelions and musing quietly to themselves. The haunted, frightened trees? - one hand waving free? - circus sands? - what does it all mean? Meanwhile, a dust bowl wind blows havoc into the banners and stage curtains, and warbles the hell out of Dylan's already warbly voice.

Now, I'm not comparing myself to Dylan by any means, though I am disheveled enough these days to bear a passing resemblance to some of his latter day incarnations. But for all the glitz and pyrotechnic Volkswagen displays, the grand opening of the Heavenly Peach Blossom Lifestyle Development turned into the 1964 Newport Folk Festival the moment I started playing. Which is not to say the audience was awestruck. They were perplexed, slightly bored, somewhat uncomfortable. And they were dead silent. I played two Beck songs that featured a combined total of three chords. I played them because they are dear to me, and because they are simple - in front of all those people, I just wanted to leave the stage with my face intact. At the end of Jackass, the MC had to bark at the crowd until they applauded, and midway through Beautiful Way, he barked at them again, so that the second verse was drowned out by microphone feedback and a listless round of clapping. And then it was quiet again, just me and Lisa's beautiful thousand-dollar acoustic-electric, me and my three chords, and my warbly voice warbling in a wind that had come down all the way from the Himalayas just to mess up my hair.

I bowed and left the stage. I put the guitar away and the Inner Mongolian grabbed me by the arm.

"Now you play at Jack Bar, okay?"
"Okay," I said.

The next act passed me in the aisle: a very tall man with a very small bicycle. Later, at the Jack Bar, my opening act was a pole dancer.

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