Living Like a Prince – written 9/20/09
At home frugal is my middle name. Just call me Liam Frugal Stephens. Pinching every penny and living comfortably with a free book from the library and the occasional cup of tea. I am a man of the mind, and I am content to wander in those space while I kill time and save dollars. These habits of mine constantly worry my mother. She thinks I am neglecting myself, somehow. When I made my plans to go to China she told me, “Please, don’t live like a hermit while you are over there.” Keeping these words in mind and taking advantage of the exchange rates, I have managed to live like a prince.
I went out for karaoke with a bunch of friends on Friday. What we call karaoke in America is a little novelty for wannabe divas and college students looking to kill time on a weekend night. What they have in China is a palace of worship for a national past time. They put you in your own personal room with wrap around leather couches; floors buffed and polished to a fine sheen; wide screen televisions placed around the room for best angle, all controlled by an elaborate computer system for picking just the right song in whatever personalized fashion you want. The staff is constantly coming in and providing all manner of services from maintenance, to delivering every kind of food you could want (don’t be afraid to try the pigeon if its offered), and every time they leave the room they bow with the deepest respect and gratitude. “Such an honor to serve you” is read in every gesture. Once the music starts it ceases to be a game. Every Chinese friend I had put their heart into each song they sung. They all have such beautiful voices and I feel like an American jackass who can’t sing, but knows a thing or two about stage presence.
I tried my hand at a couple Chinese songs too. No, I don’t know the tune, but I can get by reading the words and trailing along in backup behind my Chinese friends. After four hours in our own personal haven I felt the urge to get out and dance. I wanted to move, so I told my friends I would treat to wherever we went, if they just lead the way. Our Chinese friend, whose English name is “Okay”, took us to the “1912 District” in Nanjing, the best place for night life in the whole city. Once I got on that dance floor things just started moving. If you are friendly and outgoing in a Chinese club you make friends left and right. Total strangers invite you to their personal rooms. One introduced me to his whole family and he said I was his new, “American brother”. I don’t know if I will ever see them again, but the feeling was not lost.
Today I climbed to the peak of the Purple Mountain, a site filled with nature set right in the middle of the city. We made it to the top and I saw the city in its fullness for the first time. It would have been a flawless view, but the pollution is so dense here that everything disappears in a grey fog when you look further out. In my exhaustion from the long hike I asked if we could go for food, and was treated to Chinese hot pot. This is an experience that everyone should try at least once in their life.
They put a bowl of boiling water in front of you, set over a built in hot plate. You order a bunch of raw food served to you in single dishes, and then let the feast commence: Everything in the pot! We had fish balls, beef, shrimp, all sorts of vegetables, you put it straight in and watch it cook in front of you. Everything absorbs the flavor of everything else. It is an overwhelming experience that had me in a numb joy by the end. The steam from the pot, the amazing quality and sheer quantity of what I ate made me want to pass out for a nap. The whole time I walked back home with a smile on my face.
I am in CHINA! And it just keeps getting better and better. I started here with an awkward ambivalence, but it grows on me very quickly. My Chinese is getting better too. So maybe by the end of the year it will be like a second home.