February 24, 2010

Independence Day...in China?

I write everything down it seems, on scraps of papers, napkins, you name it. Some of it is a little strange. Most of it is dated.

Fourth of July…the sound of fireworks rips across an early morning sky. To some, this could be the prelude to an Independence Day celebration in Any Town, USA. It was, however, just another day in Suzhou, China. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good explosion as much as the next American, but China is the final word in fireworks. Pyromania is not a condition here -- it is the norm. You’d think all that noise would have a strange effect on people. Excessive twitchiness, perhaps, but it’s not long before your subconscious starts to block it out. Give it a couple weeks. Like a bird’s song and a morning cup of coffee, those explosions slowly become a part of you.

Of course, I didn’t stumble into China saying “golly” every time a mortar exploded. The thing I found strange was that for the amount of fireworks ignited, there aren’t a whole lot of shops selling it. There are bootleg DVD markets out the wazoo, enough cigarette stalls to keep the population under a trillion, and too many green tea boutiques to count. Much like the noise, it’s easy to walk past a long row of storefronts without giving them a second look. Whether you’re in Suzhou or Shanghai, shopping can get mundane on the main streets. That is, unless you go out shopping for adventure.

A few blocks away from my apartment complex is a neighborhood plaza. Once you make a right at the NO SPITTING sign, there is a police supply store that sells cattle prods, batons, and pepper spray, amongst other things. It’s right across from a baby clothes store. My friend Todd went in to buy an authentic police helmet to wear on his electric scooter. Todd pointed to it and the shopkeeper eyed him, picked up the phone and began dialing. When he had someone on the line, he handed over the phone. It was the police. From what Todd could make out, they wanted to make sure that he, a 230 pound Kiwi, wasn’t going to use it for “official” police business. He bought it for 50 Yuan.

The 47 bus will take you down Shi Quan Jie, or as it’s know in Suzhou, bar street. The bars have been closing down lately, due partly to the slowing economy and the city’s rapid expansion. But it’s not all bars. We stepped off the bus after spotting a sign that read “Sex Shop.” There’s a lot of talk about censorship in China, which is why we had to check it out. When you walk in, the downstairs is filled with baby clothes. A leather clad mannequin points you upstairs to a small room. The boy working there was suprisingly shy, and knew very little English. We were very quiet. The shop carried a relatively small selection, and some of the packaging was a little faded. It almost felt as if we were visiting a museum. At the end, in what appeared to be an attempt to fill space, there were some delicate porcelain eggs behind a display case.

For lunch, we walk down to our favorite restaurant, a Chinese Muslim kebab joint. We take a seat at the outside table, next to grill and the canal. We order fifteen lamb kebabs. The grill master dismisses us with a wave of the hand. He tells us we want twenty. I’ve never eaten at this restaurant and not been amazed by this man. He drinks steaming water from on old metal kettle, and catcalls the pretty girls who walk by. Todd had been studying Chinese and decided to get some practice in.

“He wants to know if you’re English,” said Todd. “He says English people hate lamb.” Todd told him I was American. The grill master looked at me, smiled, and went back to tapping the sticks above the coals.
When the sticks were ready, the grill master joined us at the table. He gawked to girls on the sidewalk and sipped from his silver kettle. Mostly he ignored us. Todd asked him if he ever ate pork.

He replied by scrunching up his face, then spitting on the ground.

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