Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unintended-Consequence Hell!

Dalian traffic is a nightmare. The city grew from a patchwork of little villages snuggling up against hills and mini-mountains and surrounded by an irregular coastline, so there's nothing remotely resembling a street grid. Indeed, the map more closely resembles a bowl of spaghetti thrown up in the air and allowed to fall to the ground as dictated by chance.

However, up to now I've been able to avoid too much gnarly traffic as long as I refused to drive at rush hour. It's a nuisance when I have 8AM classes, but if I leave home at 5:30 and drive home between 10AM and 3 PM, all has been well. This semester has been a breeze so far, because almost all my classes are between 3:40 and 8:30 PM. It's not fun working that late, but at least I never had to deal with bad traffic.

Until today, when traffic was an absolute war zone even in the heart of what is normally smooth sailing. We left home this morning at 9:00, and I didn't make it to campus until 10:30. Coming home again at 2:45, it took a bit more than an hour. (Should've been 45 minutes, tops.) And the time delays tell only part of the story: that's an hour of constant stress and near-misses, as opposed to a leisurely 45 minutes.

I was scratching my head trying to figure out what was going on. There weren't any accidents anywhere along the route, nor is there any big event going on in town. (At least not that I know of. Government conferences aren't always publicized in this country.)

Then finally, Ma Lei figured it out: I was stuck in two hours of unintended-consequence hell.

You see, the local government recently decided to "solve" the traffic problem on one of the main highways into town by instituting alternate-day driving: on even-numbered days, people whose license plates end in odd numbers will get an expensive ticket if they drive on the freeway. Vice versa, on odd days.

Once she mentioned that, I looked around at the morass I was stuck in the middle of. And sure enough, every license plate I saw ended in an even number (today's date being March 25).

So thanks a lot, Dalian City Government! You sure did a wonderful job on that traffic problem.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


This morning I took the dogs outside. When we got on the elevator, there was already a dog there, along with an old guy who looked like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride. (To be fair, an awful lot of old Chinese dudes look like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride.)

The dog was a brown poodle, male, un-neutered. Chinese people never neuter their dogs. He was half-again the size of Qizai or Mimi — but they've studied from Ma Lei, so they know how to put someone bigger in his place.

The poodle hopped over and tried to get dominant with Mimi, till she went "Yipe!" and nipped him in the ear. He responded to this rejection as all men do, by going to the back corner of the elevator and lifting his leg to pee against the wall.

I believe my response-time has been quickened and my inhibitions lowered by living in this particular part of China, because rather than standing there, mouth agape, I instantly whipped out a leg and kicked the dog, just hard enough to stop him from peeing. He only managed to make a little coin-sized mark on the wall before my foot met his butt. (I am not a proponent of kicking dogs, but I'm even less fond of allowing them to stink up a public elevator.)

I shot a glance at Wallace Shawn, who was watching the whole thing with his trademarked grinning equilibrium. Of the two logical responses to this situation — either to chastise his dog for pissing in the elevator, or to chastise me for kicking the dog — he chose neither. He just grinned dumbly. So I figured "hey, that's cool!" and grinned right back at him.

When we reached ground floor, the old man wanted to go one way, while we were going the other. His dog, of course, totally ignored him to go with us. (Neuter your male dogs, people!!!) At the structural column halfway to the door, the dog again lifted his leg before I could call out HEY! and make him stop.

We went on our little ten-minute walk, and as we were coming back toward the building, there once again was the brown poodle with Wallace Shawn. The dog once again tried to make a pass at Mimi, then at Qizai, and once again got nothing but snarls and yipes. 

(Yeah, dog, I understand. I've been there, and I feel your pain. But you really need to stop trying. The third time is definitely NOT the charm.)

The old man, still grinning, said "Your dogs are really lihai."

For my friends who don’t know, Lihai is a word in Chinese that doesn't translate very well into English. It's as multivalent as the word "pride," and can similarly be used as either a compliment or an insult. A man with a well-deserved position of high authority might be described as lihai. A cowardly, nasty man who beats his wife is also lihai. The guy who always comes up with the best ideas at office meetings is lihai. So is the snarky guy in the back cubicle who cusses everyone out for no reason. Women are almost never lihai, except my wife. She’s lihai on steroids.

But when somebody out of the blue says your dog is lihai, it’s almost always in the bad way. Dogs aren’t supposed to be lihai, in this country, unless they’re guarding your front door.

By this point, I'd had enough of Wallace Shawn's dumb loser grin, and I was feeling just a little bit lihai myself, so I unsheathed my rapier tongue. Sometimes it’s nice, but dangerous, to speak reasonably good Chinese. As I used to say of my Spanish, “I know enough to get myself into trouble — but not enough to get myself back out again."

I said harshly: "Lihai?! You think my wife's dogs are lihai?! They don't piss on the elevator, they don't piss in the hallway, and they sure don't bully other dogs. And if they did, I wouldn’t just stand there like a monkey with a smile on my face.” 

He just stood and listened, though his dumb grin had slackened a little with surprise.

Lihai, my ass! As the Chinese would say, fang ge pi lihai! (No good translation, but it basically comes out as “you say lihai, I say fart.”)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bar of Babel

I had an interesting experience on my way home from work today, the first day of the new semester. 

You may know that I’m now living out in the Dalian Development Zone, about an hour’s drive from the university campus where I teach. My drive home takes me right past Five Color City, the bar district in the Development Zone. Today was my LONG day of teaching (8 AM to 8:30 PM), so I decided to stop in for a beer to reward myself and relax a bit. I’ve only been to that district a few times, so generally when I go I like to have one drink at a bar I already know, and one at a bar I don’t know.

The first one I stopped (the bar I know) at was a really nice little bar called Tiffany’s Girl Bar. The name is sadly misleading, as there should be a hyphen between “Tiffany’s” and “Girl." It refers to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — “Tiffany’s-Girl” — whose pictures are all over the walls. The first time I went there, I was somewhat hopeful that this would be a girl-bar owned by someone called Tiffany. But no, that would have been a very different experience.

The manager is a really cool woman with whom I enjoy conversing in Chinese. In fact, the only reason I went in that bar in the first place, a month or so ago, was that I saw her out front on at opening time on an evening when there’d been an ice storm. She was down on her hands and knees, carefully chipping ice out from between the bricks of the walkway to the bar. That kind of attention to detail is unbelievably, extraordinarily rare in China, a country where the guiding philosophy seems to be “There are too many of you, so who cares if you slip and kill yourself?” I was sufficiently impressed that I decided to reward this fastidious bar manager with a sale. I was even more impressed with her professionalism as I saw how she ran the bar. If I ever had a business that needed a manager, I would try to hire this woman.

Anyway, I had my one beer there, then went to check out the bar just across the street. It was a somewhat intimidating place without any windows, just a big, heavy-looking metal door that looked like it might be the back alleyway door to a warehouse in the Bowery. I almost didn’t want to go in, but I figured what the hell, if it was too scary inside I could always leave.

Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful, inviting space done up in Japanese style, and indeed the only customers were two relatively elderly Japanese guys drinking sake and chatting with two beautiful waitresses. I sat down next to the Japanese guys, and there ensued my strangest Tower of Babel experience to-date.

The younger of the two waitresses (also the prettier — stunning, to be precise) spoke reasonable Japanese, but had forgotten most of her English. The other one spoke a little more English, but not quite as much Japanese. One of the two Japanese guys spoke a tiny bit of Chinese, and a tiny bit more English. The other guy seemed to know little of either language.

The Japanese guys clearly were regulars, and big spenders, but all four of them were happy to have an American join the mix. So the stunner occasionally would interrupt her conversation with the other guys to try to talk to me — but invariably she would bust out with a string of Japanese, the only language in the room that I don’t know. 

The one Chinese guy would then translate her Japanese into broken English. Then the other bar girl translated the first girl’s Japanese into Chinese (which, after all, was BOTH of their native language, so it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if the first girl had just spoken to me in Chinese!).

All four of them enjoyed trying out little phrases of broken English: “What-a you-ah name-uh?” “Drink-ah wine!” None of them really spoke enough to be conversational, though the one Japanese guy came closest. (He did have that stereotypical Japanese lispy accent, though, with “flied lice” and w’s for r’s.)

I had some reasonable conversation with the two bartenders, especially the one who wasn’t trying so hard to speak Japanese. 

Then the other girl with the good Japanese would translate into Japanese, the guy with some English would take a stab at re-translating it into English and/or do his own Japanese translation, and the bar girl would either confirm or deny the accuracy of his translation. Once in a while one of them would turn back to me and ask a question in English or Chinese, to make sure they’d understood. Or the Japanese guy would ask the Chinese girl a question in Japanese or Chinese, when he didn’t know some of the Chinese vocabulary I was using. It was like a linguistic Escher drawing, or an other-worldly echo-chamber.

“You speak-a Chinee welly fast-uh,” the Japanese guy complained teasingly, with a big, complimentary smile on his face.

I’ve had conversations before that were half in English, half in Chinese, because there was some other foreigner there who didn’t understand Chinese. I’ve had plenty of conversations in Chinese that probably should’ve been in English, because the girl I was chatting with had better English than I have Chinese. (I’m often selfish that way: I’d rather work on my Chinese than help her work on her English.) But this was the first time I’ve experienced that bizarre crosshatch of mismatched linguistic incompetencies.

Actually, it was kind of sweet. Everyone was relaxed and playful and having fun. I was beginning to think I should make this a regular hang-out, until I finished my beer and asked for the bill.

The first bar charged me about $4.50 for a single bottle of Qingdao beer — pretty steep, but not totally out of the question. The second bar charged, for the same beer, a whopping 70 rmb — something like $12!!! So sadly, my new Japanese friends will have to drink without me from now on.