Chairman Mao

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I left the hotel at 5:30 and the streets were deserted except for a handful of cars and electric scooters. Whether you like it or not, China is our future, and our future is electric. The scooters were silent except for the sound of their tires, and it struck me that despite the darkness no one bothered to use their scooter headlights, perhaps to save battery run time. Nor are helmets required; it was strange seeing so many bare heads on motor bikes.

But of all the things that were strangest and most disturbing about China, none was even remotely as disquieting as the constant surveillance. The video cameras were everywhere, every sixty or seventy paces, and they were matched by a constant police presence. The public security apparatus was on every street corner or not far from it, and you quickly dispensed with any notion of privacy or unobserved activity of any kind. Although I was traveling phone-and-computer free, I could easily see how total the surveillance becomes once the state has the power to intercept all digital communications, which are your thoughts. I was glad that my paranoia was benign, accepting that the monitoring was constant, but not really caring other than to note how effectively the surveillance modified behavior and thought.

The Chinese goal of total thought and behavioral control, however, wasn’t simply for the purpose of maintaining political power, but to maintain political power through a consumer economy that was constantly raising the standard of living. The vibrancy and energy of China is not easily observable in art or culture, but is overwhelming in its manifestation of consumer activity and the development of financial structures that  enhance and accelerate the growth of domestic spending.

Commerce, in other words, was everywhere, but art and those things requiring independence of political thought, especially dissent, were nowhere to be seen. This played hand in glove with the total ascendancy of data aggregator/tracking devices, which keep a billion-point-three people glued to screens that alternated between carefully tailored political messages, advertising, monitored peer-to-peer and peer-to-network communications, and music. And selfies.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

At any given time in any given crowd, the great majority of people were bent over their data aggregator/tracking devices, oblivious.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

As I made my way downtown, hungry, I passed a woman with a small cart on which she was energetically cooking up what looked like the most extraordinary breakfast burritos I had ever seen or smelled. I ordered one and she began frying an egg and mixing in all manner of ingredients over a flat pan that was heated by coals.

However good I expected it to taste, after going to bed hungry and stomping the streets for an hour to further stoke my raging appetite, it was a thousand times better. It was also filling, fresh, and hot, and set me back a total of $1.20. Before long I had a hankering for coffee, and could not resist my generation’s equivalent of McDonald’s, which is Starbucks, or “Xingbaka.” I swore, falsely it turned out, that this would be my sole stop there, and slunk in, embarrassed, for my tribute to American industrialized food. Nor was I surprised at the incredible price of $7.00 for a grande latte, for which I could have bought five street burritos.

And I have to admit that it tasted very, very good, enhanced no doubt by the deep loneliness that had set in after an entire two days of no contact with family, friends, or news from outside the Great Firewall.

On the way back to the hotel I felt pleased to be able to find my way around a pretty big city with nothing but a map written in Chinese, but I was dispirited at my difficulties in speaking. As it turned out, reading was much more useful anyway.

Along the river I passed an impromptu flea market where vendors, none of whom was under the age of about 70, had spread out the most useless of wares I had ever seen, and for which they had, incredibly, no end of customers. Old blankets, old belts, stained kiddie shoes, ancient underpants with frayed edges, rusted toenail clippers, plastic and glass jewelry of the lowest sort; it looked like a supplemental income program for the aged.

Finally something caught my eye, proving that there is one born every minute. An old woman was selling Chairman Mao pins and old banknotes and medallions. We began haggling. She wanted $1.40 for a couple of tiny pins barely worth a nickel, so I offered her eighty cents. She laughed and we haggled some more until I got them for a dollar. Then she tried to sell me a broken transistor radio. Remember those? I moved on.

Sort of wondering about why I had stopped to buy a memento of one of the all-time mass murderers, I passed another blanket with a similar layout. I made the fatal mistake of pausing for the briefest of seconds, and the old duffer was instantly pushing a collection of canceled Chairman Mao postage stamps into my hand. “Fifty dollars!” he said.

I thumbed through the plastic display case which couldn’t have been worth more than five dollars, probably closer to fifty cents. I offered him two dollars and he said he couldn’t take a penny less than twenty-five for such rarities, so we went back and forth until he put them down and offered me an equally useless collection of stamps bearing Sun Yat Sen. One thing about negotiating in China that you need to learn early and often is that you always lose. It takes time to know the value of useless crap, and to make it worse you know and they know that for you, five bucks is a cup of coffee–except at Starbucks. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they have a mercantile culture dating back five thousand years. Plus, there is national pride at beating Americans, and especially tourists, in any negotiation.

I finally caved per the script and shelled out the insane price of ten dollars. I took no comfort in the happiness he got out of the deal. Then I noticed that the Chairman Mao stickpin lady had been standing off to the side, scowling. She had followed me and monitored the entire transaction. As I left she sidled up beside me.

“He defrauded you. What a rip-off! A cheat! You were burgled in plain daylight!”

“Really?”

“He’s a notorious cheating old man, a criminal, a thief of the worst kind. I would have sold you those stamps for nine dollars.”

“Quite a bargain.”

“Right! That old man is known for cheating everyone. He even cheats his poor old aunt.”

“Aunt? My goodness! How old is she?”

“She’s a hundred and three, totally blind. He steals from her all the time. Look,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out the identical Mao stamp set that the old man had been hawking. “Nine dollars, only for you because you are my good friend.”

Whenever a Chinese person who you don’t know calls you a good friend, you are about to get fucked. The old man had said it about twenty times and here she was, another street thief, calling me a good friend for a dollar less.

“Good friend?” I asked.

She brightened. “Hao pengyou! Hao pengyou!”

“Hao pengyou price is $1.00. Not hao pengyou price is $9.00.”

“$1.00 not hao pengyou.”

“Hao pengyou price is one dollar. Not hao pengyou price is fifty cents.”

She thought about that for a second and saw the way the negotiation was going, and vanished. It was almost 8:30 AM and I had succeeded at my first full morning in China. I had gotten breakfast, walked for hours, had coffee, bought some crap, learned the city layout on foot, and most importantly for cultural understanding and global relations, had made at two hao pengyou.

About the time I reached the hotel I was feeling peckish again and happened to look down a narrow alley filled with carts, each cart the site of a major culinary operation. The tastiest appeared to be the spicy flat-noodles-in-a-paper-bucket guy, and I was struck again at how much skill and actual cooking went on for a buck twenty. He cooked my noodles on the spot and I wandered over to the curb to sit and slurp.

The eating was extraordinary and the noodles were brimming with flavor and brimstone. My eyes and nose discharged immediately but I couldn’t stop eating. I had thought the burrito lady was queen, but decided that the noodles-in-a-bucket guy was king.

Back at the Hotel Celerich I continued having difficulties with the staff, or rather they continued having difficulties with me. The essence of the problem was that they did not give a shit about anything, and my butchery of Chinese combined with their inability to speak English meant that all interactions were to be terminated as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoided at all costs. There was no talk of hao pengyou.

This time I wanted to know how to get to the city of Pu’er, which appeared to be an hour or so away, and is the most famous city in China for tea. You can’t go to tea shops in Kunming without seeing a display of the big round wheels of dried Pu’er tea for sale, wrapped in beautiful paper.

Asking the front desk dude about getting to Pu’er caused almost as much stress and confusion as when I had asked where I could find razor blades. After much back and forth with the other staffer, and repeated searches on his data aggregator/tracking device, he ended with a question.

“Pu’er?”

“Yes. Pu’er.”

Dali is much nicer.

“I don’t want to go to Dali. I want to go to Pu’er.”

“Dali is more famous.”

“I still want to go to Pu’er.”

“Today? When coming back?”

“One day trip.”

This caused another round of consternation and discussion, with no one really believing that I wanted to do a day trip to Pu’er. I knew I was fucked when the manager came over and kept glancing at me with incredulity every time they said “day trip to Pu’er.”

He straightened his jacket. “No train to Pu’er. You should visit Dali.”

“I don’t want to. What about a bus?”

More consternation. “Bus okay.”

“Which bus?”

“Bus stop at train station.”

“Which station?” It was like pulling teeth from an angry tiger.

“Go to subway.”

“Which one?”

“Bus.”

“Which bus?”

He shrugged. Everyone had done their best to give the visiting idiot exacting instructions and they now had better things to do, such as anything but this. I returned to my room, defeated at another negotiation but pleased at having been defeated using only Chinese.

It was also dawning on me that one of my difficulties wasn’t simply my obtuseness, although that did explain a lot. The other problem was that in Yunan Province they speak heavily accented Chinese at best, dialect at worst. Back in the hotel room where the television announcers spoke with a squeaky clean Beijing accent and everything had subtitles, I could understand a lot. Why didn’t the locals walk around with subtitles? It was as if I’d learned English from an Internet teacher in London and made my first trip abroad to Biloxi.

I got cleaned up and went out for my second sally of the morning, hoping to get my hair cut. I passed a decrepit hair salon with a bored hairdresser standing outside with her hands saucily on her hips, daring any passers-by to come in for a trim.

“Haircut?” I asked.

“Of course!”

“How much?”

“$2.50.”

“Deal.”

She sat me down and got work. We chatted and I mentioned wanting to visit Pu’er.

“Pu’er? You like tea?”

“I love tea.”

“Pu’er tea is the best. I have a friend who is from Pe’er. I will introduce you to my friend. My friend has a tea farm in Pu’er. Friends. Okay? I will make you hao pengyou. Come back in half an hour, okay?”

Despite the danger words of “hao pengyou,” I agreed. I didn’t have anything to do anyway, so why not get murdered? I left her excitedly talking to her pengyou on the phone. She had been speaking to me nonstop about the pengyou for about twenty minutes the second I mentioned Pu’er, and I understood basically none of it, only nodding and saying “Hao,” when it was obviously time for me to say something.

She spoke with a crazy thick accent and I was mildly concerned about the friend and what I had agreed to. I thought the friend was perhaps going to drive me to Pu’er and show me around, but wasn’t sure, and then I also wondered about the wisdom of taking off with a stranger who was so sure she had found a hao pengyou, i.e. a sucker. Still, the haircut would have been good for $50, and a Hollywood movie star cut for the $2.50 it actually cost. I wandered around for half an hour and came back.

Meizi was very happy to see me, and a cluster of young men were standing around her, although they turned out to be with the adjacent shop, a motorbike repair place.

“Watch my store!” she said, and they all grinned as she had obviously told them about the hao pengyou, and off we went.

I tried to keep track of the streets and turns as we walked farther and farther from the beaten path, which was hardly well beaten.

“There!” Meizi pointed. Her friend was on the other side of a busy street, raising a hand and smiling. I was relieved to see that the friend was a woman and not another cluster of motorcycle mechanics holding large tools. Maybe we would be driving to Pu’er after all.

“Are we going to Pu’er now?” I asked, but they were talking excitedly and paid no attention to me.

We kept going down side streets until we came to a gate. “This is Xiao Lin’s house,” Meizi said.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “I hope the kidnapping quarters are comfortable.”

We entered and as the heavy iron gate slammed behind me I saw we were in a garden. Against one of the enclosing walls was a small tea ceremony table with a large chair in the center and a carved wooden bench opposite.

Xiao Lin sat in the chair and motioned me onto the bench, facing her. Meizi sat off to my side. “Would you like to try the new tea or the old tea?”

I had no idea what was going on, other than that, at a minimum, tea was going to be drunk. “New?”

“Okay!” Xiao Lin said brightly, and reached into a large wooden crate, taking out a small bag of tea. She and Meizi spoke without pause and I understood nothing, not so much as a word. It occurred to me that they were speaking in dialect. It would take me pages and pages to describe how Xiao Lin prepared the tea, and the tools and accoutrements involved, but suffice it to say it was complex, and what was more unusual, the tea cups were only slightly larger than thimbles. This was a tasting. The teapot itself was quite small, and like the teacups was made of glass so you could see the color of the tea.

Xiao Lin poured my first cup, which was delicious, and then told me to smell the cup as soon as it was empty. The aroma was so sweet and complex, it filled my nose and ran through my palate like a gentle aromatic current. I mimicked Xiao Lin as she tested each sip, swishing and swashing the tea around in her mouth.

She continued to brew and pour and brew and pour until we had drunk I don’t know many cups. “Are you hungry?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Yes, a little.”

She called loudly and a servant appeared. After a minute the servant began bringing out dishes heaped with chicken, sausage, celerich, steamed rice, pickles, and fruit. The chicken was all on the bone and still had two huge black chicken legs with feet attached.

“Country food,” she said. “Healthy for you.” I passed on the claws.

With lunch done she smiled and said “Now let’s try the old tea.” She carefully removed a wheel of dried tea from its paper wrapper and showed me the date, 2004. “It is thirteen years old, very good.” She took out a small screwdriver and rather indelicately hacked off a corner and put it in the teapot.

Xiao Lin’s family has the only CERES certified organic tea farm in Yunan, and she had the servant bring out the certificate. The tea was ready and we drank it. It was indeed delicious, free of any bitterness at all, smooth and fresh and completely clean on the palate with no aftertaste, but I’m not sure I would have waited thirteen years for it.

Plus, no one seemed to be in a hurry to set off to Pu’er, so I kicked back and drank cup after thimbleful of rare tea, water gurgling in the pond, listening to the two women talk endlessly. One of the other side effects of untethering was paying less attention to time. When I checked my watch almost three hours had passed. I had drunk at least a hundred of the tiny thimblefuls, maybe more, and although I had lost count my bladder hadn’t. It stood up and roared.

“May I use the bathroom?” I asked. It was more of a desperate plea than a polite request.

I entered the large house only to see that it wasn’t so much a house as a business office. Along the far wall was a display case filled with round after round of paper-wrapped Pu’er tea wheels. I used the bathroom and when I came out the two women were standing in front of the display case.

“Would you like to buy some tea?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Sure,” I said, relieved to finally know the shot, and even more relieved that she hadn’t called me her hao pengyou.

“Which one would you like?” she asked, a trick question because nothing had a price tag.

“Which would you recommend?”

“You seemed to like the old tea?”

“Yes.”

“Then this one.”

“How much is it?”

“30,000 yuan.”

I did the arithmetic, $500. I had brought a total of $700 cash for the entire trip. “Uh, no.” The whole operation was way out of my league and I started backing for the door, afraid some kung-fu security guard would jump out and demand payment for all the rare tea I’d drunk.

“It’s okay. I have a cheap one for 15,000.”

“No,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out about sixty bucks and handed it to her. “Thank you for the lovely afternoon.”

Both women held up their hands in dismay. “We are friends! Hao pengyou! No money, please.”

At the utterance of the dreaded words, I placed the cash on the desk and turned to go. It had been an amazing afternoon but I was getting worried. Xiao Lin saw me set down the cash and ran off into another room, reappearing with a round of tea, and shoving it into my hand. “Because hao pengyou.” We were at a stalemate, so I took it, smiled, and left.

Back outside the compound I tried to retrace my steps. Somehow I found a main street, too, took out my map, got oriented, and headed back to the hotel as the sun set. I managed to slam a bowl of fiery noodles before staggering into my room. It had taken three hours to get back to Hotel Celerich. My back, legs, and feet ached. I fell immediately to sleep.

END

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