blade runner and bicycle rickshaws (part 1)

Attention: I’ve been teaching supplementary summer classes for the last two and a half weeks, and will begin teaching regular classes on 2 September – tomorrow. There’ll be a new update (probably the second half of this post, which has been harder to write than I’d expected; possibly a completely different post) by Wednesday, 4 September.

If you ever have a chance to travel from Guangzhou to Shenzhen* by train, I suggest that you do it on a rainy summer night. The train will pull into the station, and you’ll go through the usual process of shoving and being shoved until you’re deposited onto the footbridge outside the station.
As you walk along the footbridge, you and your backpack getting soaked, you’ll look out down the street and see the restaurants, the skyscrapers, the office buildings, youth hostels, and barbershops, all lit up with a minumum of three neon signs apiece. It looks like the futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner: hazy, wet, dingy in a future-noir, cyberpunk way. If you are anything at all like me, you will be greatly impressed by the sheer number of skyscrapers per square mile here*, and then you will go down to the taxi stop and see the legless beggars scrambling around, knocking their heads against the feet of people waiting for a taxi, holding out bowls with a few cents’ worth of mao and fen coins in them.

With apologies to Quentin Tarantino:

VINCE:You know what it is about China, man? It’s the little differences.

JULES: Example.

VINCE: Like how piracy’s illegal, but you can buy pirated CDs and DVDs everywhere you go. And how the police don’t care, because they own a whole library of pirated and banned movies themselves. Or how when you go into a McDonald’s in Guangzhou and order Chicken McNuggets, you don’t say “Chicken McNuggets.”

JULES: You don’t say “Chicken McNuggets?

VINCE: No, man, you can’t even make those sounds in Chinese, not in any dialect. No, Chicken McNuggets are called “Wheat Joy Chicken.”

JULES: “Wheat Joy Chicken.”

VINCE: Yeah. See, “wheat,” mai, is the first syllable of the Chinese word for McDonald’s, Maidanglao. And then “Joy Chicken” is leji.

JULES: So you say “Maileji.” And “nuggets” ain’t anywhere in there.

VINCE: What d–

JULES: See, you say “Wheat Joy Chicken,” you don’t know if you’re getting a whole Wheat Joy Chicken, or half a Wheat Joy Chicken, or candied Wheat Joy Chicken balls, or what. ‘M I right?

VINCE: Well, that’s the beauty of it. See, if you think about it, “Maidanglao” doesn’t really sound all that much like McDonalds, right?

JULES: Point.

VINCE: But that’s the Mandarin reading of those characters. Now, if you say it in Cantonese, those same characters are pronounced Mahkdonglouh.

JULES: Which is closer to the English pronunciation. Cute. So how come the name doesn’t work in Mandarin?

VINCE: Because the Chinese name was used in Hong Kong first, where they speak Cantonese. Come on, man; 20 years ago, a Big Mac woulda been spiritual pollution in the PRC.

JULES: Gotcha.

VINCE: Now, if you say “Maileji” in Cantonese, ‘s pronounced Mahkngohkgaai.


VINCE: Think about it, man. Think about the sound.

JULES: I’m thinkin’.

VINCE: “McNugget,” man. “Mc-Nug-get.” “Mahk-ngohk-gaai.



JULES:So what do they call a Big Mac?

VINCE: Fuck if I know, man. I didn’t go to China to eat at fuckin’ McDonald’s.

But I did anyway, even though my Green-Party-backpacker conscience gave me shit about it for days afterward.
I wanted some familiarity. I wanted some stability and consistency. I wanted food whose origin was known and whose relative cleanliness of preparation was reasonably certain. So I went to McDonald’s in Guangzhou, and I will justify my crime as follows:

I got to Harbin, met some of my fellow English teachers, settled into my apartment, and soon found that my ATM card didn’t work at any machine in the city.
“Of course it doesn’t,” said the woman I asked at the Bank of China. “Foreign cards only work in Beijing and Shanghai. You’ll be able to withdraw cash at one of the windows on the third floor, though. No problem.”

Needless to say, there was a problem.
The signature strip on the back of my card had worn off from a year’s worth of pocket-borne abuse,* and without my signature, nothing – not the signatures on my passport or Voter Registration Card or school ID or expired Learner’s Permit; not pleading; not whining “Come on, be a pal!” in Mandarin; nothing – would convince the bank teller to let me withdraw cash.

I had around $15 in my pocket. I had been planning to travel around, and meet up with my Chinese professor in either Shenzhen or Chengdu.
This was a problem.

Fortunately, after all the contract-signing had been done, the school repaid me half the money for my airplane ticket, with a promise of the other half when I got back. That gave me 5000 kuai – a little under 4000 once I’d bought a cellphone and various apartment necessities – to play with. I reserved a hard-bed train ticket to Guangzhou for the end of the week, contacted my professor to let him know that I’d be in Shenzhen around the same time as him, got a few of my bearings* in Harbn, and then was off for Guangzhou.

The train ride from Harbin to Guangzhou – that is, from the extreme northeast to the extreme southeast – takes 37 hours. It marked the beginning of a four-day period where I spoke exclusively in Mandarin. It also saw me using Chinese-style toilets* more often then I really would have liked to.
And after all that, I arrived in Guangzhou, walked around with my backpack for a few hours, realised that, although I’d left most of my things in Beijing, my backpack still weighed a significant fraction of what I did, and decided to go back to the train station to check it. As I walked out of the station, blissfully unburdened, I saw the Golden Arches across the street, and decided:

Screw my principles. I want something familiar.

(to be continued)

Comments (15)

  1. Stewart wrote::

    It’s McDonald’s, but dude, it’s still China. Those Wheat Joy Nuggets you had were soooooo alleycat, deep-fried to perfection. Cat eater. You’re a total cat eater, making you now an official Chinese.

    Friday, August 23, 2002 at 10:45 am #
  2. Katie wrote::

    I can guarantee you that you will be eating at McDonald’s once you have money to start going to the Velvet more often, there’s one a block away and our skinny black monkey is always willing to run up there and grab something for the “zei” Americans.

    I kind of miss squatters in some weird way. I was at the fair yesterday and thinking “gee, I really don’t want to sit on that.”

    And with regards to the Pulp Fiction reference, next time Stephanie uses a “Maybe-ism” you really do need to respond with “ENGLISH MOTHERFUCKER! DO YOU SPEAK IT?”

    …at least I would.

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 1:22 am #
  3. Brendan wrote::

    Jane – I guess mai is, yes; it’s prefixed at the start of all the “McSomething” food names. I haven’t actually heard anybody say just mai for Maidanglao – although I have heard people say “KFC” instead of kendeji, which I found surprising.

    Katie: I suppose I see what you mean; at least with Chinese toilets there’s no ass/toilet contact to worry about. And you get thighs like a grasshopper.
    And: ” ‘Maybe’ ain’t no country I ever heard of! They speak English or Chinese in ‘Maybe?'” –Nah. Doesn’t have the same ring.

    Cedric: I’d say that the whole McDonald’s thing is really kind of a global phenomenon. For people here and in many other countries, KFC and McDonald’s are America, and America is the biggest and baddest and coolest. So people eat at McDonald’s and KFC to be cool, and other restaurants imitate McD’s and KFC (there’s a Chinese chain called “California Beef Noodle King Number One USA”). For those of us who have eaten too much shaokao and chao tudou sir lately, McDonald’s isn’t American food, or very good, or cheap, but it’s something familiar, something from home.
    (By this point, I would kill for good pizza, or a chocolate shake.)

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 2:50 am #
  4. Jane wrote::

    Well since McDonald’s is MaiDangLao, and Madonna is MaiDangNa, they are literally brothers and sisters in China.

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 3:18 am #
  5. Jane wrote::

    Hey Brendan:

    First of all love your site. Regarding Maileji, isn’t Mai short for McDonald’s in Mandarin?

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 4:03 am #
  6. cedric wrote::

    Hope you enjoyed your Wheat Joy or whatever it is that you ordered. I always see Asian people in the mall eating the terrible pseudo-Japanese/Chinese food and think �how can they eat that crap?� but it’s no different than a meiguoren eating at McDonald’s in China, I guess.

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 12:11 pm #
  7. cedric wrote::

    …and that’s assuming that these people aren’t just regular americans, which most of them are.

    Saturday, August 24, 2002 at 12:12 pm #
  8. Rose wrote::

    Wow. What a shitty country.

    Scranton for me, thanks.

    And Quentin Tarantino prolly hates you now. I know I do.

    Sunday, August 25, 2002 at 3:53 am #
  9. Kendra wrote::

    Yeah, definately packing some toilet paper. Maybe some frozen pizzas would be a good idea, too…what do you think?

    Tuesday, August 27, 2002 at 4:27 am #
  10. Brendan wrote::

    Thanks for sharing, Rose.

    Let’s compare:

    Scranton – pissant backwards-ass shithole filled, like all of Pennsylvania, with subhuman pig-men.

    China – one of the largest countries in the world, owner of the longest historical and literary tradition, home to a fifth of the world’s population, and most importantly, not in Pennsylvania.

    China for me, thanks.

    Tuesday, August 27, 2002 at 12:09 pm #
  11. Rose wrote::

    Yeah, and the cat eater comment was funny, right? Uproarious.

    I don’t understand why I am the target of your PMS this week, but you need to shift the aggression somewhere else.


    Thursday, August 29, 2002 at 12:56 pm #
  12. cat wrote::

    hahahahha…that’s so funny ….

    and so true about the pirate cds…it’s a multiy million dollar industry within china…good money…

    Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 7:47 am #
  13. Misty wrote::

    Hey! I resent the Pennsylvania remarks.

    Some of the pigmen live in New Jersey, too! I know I dated one.

    The women here, in Philadelphia at least, are very lovely, very lovely. And not just because I’m one of them, but that helps.

    Got here via Big Blogger All Stars, at Rusty’s encouragement. Really digging your words, man. The words! The cats, too. Hehe, wheat joy kittens.

    Tuesday, September 10, 2002 at 9:46 am #
  14. lu wrote::

    don’t they have pizza hut in china? with each meal costs at least 100 yuan?

    Friday, January 17, 2003 at 5:38 am #
  15. Brendan wrote::

    Yeah; a Pizza Hut just opened in Harbin about a month and a half before I came back to the States for vacation. I held off going for a while, because I’m something of a pizza snob, but eventually I got desperate enough that spending over RMB100 for a mediocre pizza sounded like a steal of a deal.

    Monday, February 10, 2003 at 11:10 am #