Massages, Monkeys, Madness

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Another two weekends down, which were (for the most part) uneventful. Well, at least, nothing disastrous happened. Speaking of disastrous weekends, the Jinshi government and Jinshi No. 1 Middle School somehow scraped together enough money to reimburse me for my abducted cell phone. They gave me 84% of the value, which apparently was all they could manage. A bizarre bit of news: the hotel in which we stayed has apparently gone bankrupt in the short time since we were there, and the owner has fled the area. Jinshi must have been in an uproar during the past month. Irate provincial education officials leaning on the school, communist party leaders putting pressure on the hotel, a business owner becoming a fugitive from the law...

Jeff's mom came into town on the weekend of the 16th, so we rode into Changsha in style in a taxi. We briefly boarded the bus, but quickly got off, as his mom had a full fledged panic attack before it even pulled out of the parking lot. I'm sure a lot of people who claim not to be claustrophobic would find out otherwise if they, too, found themselves wedged into the back of a bus the size of a minivan, with a chain smoking, dandruff-ridden man sitting on a plastic stool in the aisle next to them. We warned her that they pack 'em in like sardines-we weren't kidding.

In Changsha, Jeff and I had to drop off the down payment for our May vacation. I spent the majority of Friday afternoon trekking to various Bank of China branches and every ATM machine within a two mile radius of our travel agency, which naturally doesn't have the technical ability to accept credit cards. For some inexplicable reason, all of the banks in Changsha were experiencing glitches in their systems, so getting money proved to be much more difficult than you would ever believe. Or in this case, completely impossible. I was told at the bank, "Sorry, you can't get money today." No explanation. China as a global economic superpower? Possibly still a few years away...

Saturday night, Shida Fuzhong (Jenny and Rachel's school) held a banquet, and Jeff and his mom and I tagged along for the spectacle. We dined at a swanky restaurant called Ba Liu Ba (Eight-Six-Eight), and afterwards went out for a foot massage. Tiger, the foreign affairs officer, led us into a large, open, dimly lit hall. Picture a movie theater with stadium seating, but with rows of enormous reclining armchairs, all facing a stage. For our viewing pleasure, the massage parlor provided a young guy strumming on a guitar and singing Chinese love songs, as well as a girl playing elevator music on the piano.

Jeff was given a girl masseuse, and the rest of us were given male masseuses (none of whom could have been over 18 years old). After working on our feet, they reclined our chairs and flipped us over onto our stomachs for a back massage. Which they proceeded to give using their knees. It was quite a sight. At one point, I looked down the row and saw all of us (Jeff's mom included) being straddled and pummeled by adolescent Chinese boys with spiky hair. It's strange, but this kind of sight barely has an affect on me any more. What, this isn't a normal way to spend a Saturday night?

The next day, while riding the bus from Shida Fuzhong to the train station, I got caught in a serious traffic jam. It took me awhile to realize that Wuyi Road, the main thoroughfare through Changsha was completely blocked off. At first I thought it was a parade, but then I saw hundreds of policemen milling about. Some were in military garb, some were in full riot gear. It turned out to be an anti-Japanese protest, one of the many that took place all across China that weekend. Apparently the police formed a barricade around Pinghetang Mall, the huge Japanese owned department store downtown, to prevent looting. This all made me a little nervous. Given the mob mentality and the deeply ingrained hatred of all things Japanese, anything was possible. I couldn't believe that the protests had reached us here, the most inner and isolated part of China.

I arrived in Liuyang quite a few hours later, tired and grateful that the weekend was winding down. As I made the walk from the bus station to my school, I came across a huge crowd gathered on a street corner. Crowds of gawking spectators are not an unusual sight in this country. This is why there were so many people present at the aforementioned protest. I think there were probably only a handful of college students who were chanting anti-Japanese slogans and the other hundreds of people were just there to watch the action unfold. I really feel that Chinese people would gather to watch paint dry, if they saw someone else doing it. Jeff and I have decided that one day soon we will test this theory by going down to the pedestrian shopping mall and staring at a trash can for a few minutes. We've placed bets on how many people will stop and join us.

At any rate, I (naturally) had to see what the attraction could possibly be this time. It turned out to be a dirty, shoeless peasant with three monkeys on leashes. PETA would have had a field day with this guy. He was screaming commands to three of the most beat down, tired looking monkeys I have ever seen, all the while cracking a leather whip at them. They would occasionally bare their teeth in response to the small children in the audience who were hurling stones at them, and to their handler, who appeared to either be drunk or slightly deranged. The monkey man's friend, an equally sketchy looking fellow, walked around and collected money from the bystanders. I had to physically remove his hand from my arm-he tried to restrain me when I started to leave without paying. There was no way I was going to contribute to the exploitation of the innocent monkeys. I had a hard time explaining this to him, though, as you can imagine.

Just a typical Sunday afternoon in China, albeit slightly more disturbing than usual.

This past weekend I celebrated my birthday in ZhuZhou. Mellisa's birthday was on Sunday, so we threw a joint party on Saturday night. The crew came down from Changsha for a wildly entertaining pi jiu (beer) fest and KTV experience. The party also involved a stockpile of American chocolate and a hoarded bottle of Jack Daniels. We willingly participated in karaoke, and there was not a single Chinese person in the group coercing us into going. Which proves just how little there really is to do around here. All in all though, it was a satisfactory entry into the Quarter Century Club (am I really that old?). My students sang "Happy Birthday" to me, and Rola sent me an endearing, if somewhat garbled text message on my cell phone: "Happy birthday my honey wish you happy and pretty forever. Enjoy yourself keep good spirit there is a star twinkling at you." One more week, and then I have a week off...I love these Communist holidays. Destination: Tibet!
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