February 16, 2011

The Great China Hell-Freeze

We lost reception at noon. Our pirate satellite was hooked up to the neighbor’s, our landlord, a stringy, ratfaced man with a bad stomach. Perhaps he was a drunk. Those violent, gurgling echoes from the toilet penetrated our walls each morning. The TV was out, but, fortunately for us, so was the landlord. Aside from my wife and me, nearly everyone in our building was traveling home for Chinese New Year.

The storm became serious. Peasant workers throughout Suzhou (having never seen snow before) set down their brooms and hosed the roads off with warm water. Predictably, their efforts resulted in the largest patch of black ice motorists ever encountered. Across China, thousands were stranded in train stations and airports. A rice barge navigating the Yangtze reportedly sunk after hitting an iceberg. It was a tragedy, but the details, like most second-hand information in China, were open to interpretation.

I hit the store before they closed, gathering the makings of a Survival Kit. The essentials: A bottle of Malibu, a bottle of Bacardi, and orange juice to ward off scurvy… also a case of Tsing Tao beer, Kahlua, and two fingers of powdered milk for bone health.

In what seemed like a good idea at the time—what seemed like a terrible idea in hindsight—my wife’s employers insisted on carrying out the New Year’s feast. We were bused outside Suzhou with scores of other foreigners to a plush, remote compound surrounded by whitened mud bogs. The staff offered us a steady supply of booze and food, in that order. In the Great Room, the evening air was filled with pidgin English speeches from The Board, slender girls swaying the centuries-old dance of Rainbow Skirts, and waiters trying to make sense of our mangled Mandarin requests. 

There were drawings. I won a slow cooker. By the end of the night, the snow was falling harder than before. Or was it? Perhaps I hadn’t even won the slow cooker. For all I knew, I’d removed it from the kitchen. The only certainty, which was evident to everyone onboard, was the busses scattered along the road like tombstones. One bus had its ass in the ditch, the front tires clinging to the road like a beast pulling itself out a pit. Others had dug great moats while power-sliding into the bogs.

Our driver could have taken this as a warning, but that isn’t the Chinese way. I don’t claim to be an expert, but, from what I observed, in China it’s considered a weakness to adjust one’s driving to weather and road conditions. So instead of slowing down, our driver sped up, weaving between those frozen monuments with a disregard for safety that dazzled everyone onboard. It was fantastic.

To many this may sound reckless, but it’s important to understand that in China, this all-or-nothing mentality is engrained on every social level. Holding back is not in the playbook, so to speak. One commits to a particular character, and tries to steal the show for that brief moment when the spotlight is upon them. 

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