Friday, June 22, 2007

sad song, last dance, no one knew who the band was: China part two

After long days of traveling from vendor to vendor, exploring showroom after showroom, being shown the inner workings of resin factories from Xiamen to Macau, we all needed a drink…and, well, a massage. Did I forget to mention that this trip was for business, not pleasure? Well, who says the two need to be mutually exclusive? Not I.

As I said previously, we spent much of our days in transit, usually crammed shoulder to shoulder in a small minibus. There were times that I was so busy working on a spreadsheet that I would forget I was in China. One glance out the window at the green, luscious hills dotted with small niches dedicated to the lives of former monks, the landscape striated with red gashes of clay, though, and I would remember.

And then we would arrive home. Home, of course, generally being a nicely appointed hotel in a small urban area. Checking in would always take an endless 20 minutes, and then I would slide the card into my door, unlocking it, and enter, wishing for just a second that I could unpack. But no, I rarely had five minutes to even wash my face before it was time to change out of my humidity-dampened shirt and head down for dinner.

During our first week, we were treated to traditional Chinese dinner, followed by a foot massage. Thanks to an incredibly epicurious family, I have had the privilege of being introduced to many a foreign cuisine, but even with this background, I found myself asking time and time again, "what is this?" as various bowls of (it could only be assumed) food rotated toward me on a huge lazy susan in the middle of the table.

Sometimes I would taste first and ask questions later, whether it was because I was pleasantly surprised (eggplant and shiitakes) or not so eager to have more (alligator…yes, fried alligator tastes like chicken, but boiled alligator with skin remaining is a lot more like a giant fishy rubberband.). Still, other times I needed to know what was going on in that bowl ahead of time, because even though I knew I'd taste it, I needed to steel my stomach in the event of a gastronomical disaster (I think she said it was some sort of fat? Perhaps something was lost in the translation there, but needless to say, the effect was as I had expected.).

This particular day had been unusually exhausting and thankfully the wine flowed freely. We were already late for dinner and it was waiting for us, hiding undercover, when we arrived. One of our associates, however, was still missing. When he walked in about 15 minutes after we had been sitting there, I for one wondering (with a growling stomach) what would be revealed once the lids were lifted on the dishes in front of us, he explained his delay with a story that may or may not be uniquely Chinese in nature.

When we had first arrived at the hotel, the assistant accompanying us to dinner had told us the restaurant would be on the first floor, but somehow our associate heard "third floor," and so he headed there after washing up. When the elevator doors opened, he was already feeling a bit apprehensive, as the lighting in the hallway seemed a bit dim, but once he stated the name of the party, the woman waiting there led him directly to a small room and seated him.

Not two minutes later, the door to the room reopened and in filed 10 young women, presumably for his choosing. He immediately reacted to the error by jumping up and leaving, eventually finding us on the first floor, but while he was describing the incident over boiled peanuts and grilled beef tenderloin I couldn't help wondering how many men would have appreciated the mistake and stayed, not to mention the fact that these "mistakes" were likely to be fairly common.

After all, only a day or so earlier we had been in Macau, the gambling center of China. Formerly a Portugese possession, the Chinese had regained the property in recent years and although visiting there is much like traveling to a foreign country, involving going through immigration, changing money to Macau dollars, etc., etc., it is still distinctly Chinese. I think one of us even remarked that there wasn't a single person of Portugese descent to be found anywhere on the island. That aside, Macau has been built (and continues to be bolstered in its endeavors) to become a smaller, dirtier version of Las Vegas. There's a Wynn hotel and soon to be a Venetian, but make no mistake, there is a seediness to the entire area that permeates your being. I don't normally take baths, but it was necessary after walking through the streets in Macau.

And much like Vegas, there are drunks everywhere, the sounds of slot machines kerchinging their way into your ears from all directions, and, of course, members of the world's oldest profession walking the streets well into the early morning hours. Madams handing out cards on the streets were one thing, but the basement of our own hotel was another.

Having been directed there (with an ominous giggle) by a friend in our own business, we soon found ourselves walking a circuit populated almost exclusively by some of the most beautiful women I had seen in this country thus far. But their beauty was matched by their entrepreneurial enterprise (the redundancy is appropriate, trust me…gumption's got nuthin' on these girls). It was an experience, to say the least, and so when my associate relayed his personal encounter, I was amused, but not particularly surprised.

And so we laughed through his story and toasted his late arrival, opening yet another bottle of wine and picking our way through the new plates of food being brought out. We were finally able to relax.

After dinner it was time for a foot massage. Now this was definitely new to me. Every step in the process had to be explained to me, but thankfully we were accompanied by an associate who spoke Chinese, and so it was only the girls' whispers and giggles that were left to one's imagination (and perhaps personal insecurities) to interpret.

What started as a simple foot soaking and massage evolved into having (nearly) every muscle in my body relaxed under knowledgeable fingers and elbows. This was legit, or at least it was kept as such because I'm a woman and I was present among the men there, but either way it was incredible. I ordered a beer that I never finished because after about 20 minutes, I was informed that the massage would last nearly 2.5 hours and I was welcome to fall asleep. Maybe next time I will, but something wouldn't allow me to while I was in that chair. It could have been the persistent kneading of the chair itself, but more likely it was my own reservations that kept me awake. Plus, it was good to know what had caused the bruises on my calves…then again, I bruise easily.

Either way, towards the end of the massage I felt a compelling need to compensate my masseuse beyond what she was already paid. I just wanted to tip her, but I wasn't sure how much. I felt that surely this was something those who accompanied me would also be doing, so I didn't want to leave too little, but I was still having trouble with the exchange rate (math is not a language I speak).

I worked in the restaurant service industry for more than ten years, so tipping has become second nature, but in this country I kept feeling like nobody is paid their worth…this of course being because the standard of living itself is so far below those of western cultures, but all the same I didn't feel that a simple "thank you" conveyed what I wanted it to without the backing of cold, hard cash. Maybe the service industry jaded me in this regard, but, as they say, money talks, and in this case I wasn't sure if I would hold up my end of the conversation appropriately.

And so as I lay in my chair, desperately trying to calculate an appropriate amount, and then, as always, deciding too much was better than too little, the ladies filed out of the room and my friend awakened from his snoring slumber and turned to me while putting on his socks, saying, "How are you?" and I knew they had disappeared and weren't coming back. No tip. No tip expected, none necessary. And, again, in my western misconceptions, I had simply assumed something that doesn't even exist.

***i messed up my sleeping schedule today, so as writing put me to sleep earlier, i figured i'd give it another go...and it seems to have worked :)***

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