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.
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?
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.
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)