Sunday, May 29, 2005

One Night In Shanghai...Part Four

(part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and if you haven't read them, I suggest you do before reading part 4, or it will make little sense...)

Paul became increasingly particular about what food he would eat. This began before we went to Shanghai. I remember one night, the two of us wandering aimlessly up and down the Santa Monica Promenade, looking for a restaurant that would suit him. Nothing seemed to. I think eventually I insisted that we pick a place and eat something, because it was getting late and my blood sugar was dropping. But I can't remember what we ended up eating...

During our Shanghai stay, not surprisingly, this issue resurfaced, though not as often as you might think. Shanghai, even ten years ago, presented a comforting, modern facade. I mean, Shanghai had Italian restaurants, with decent pasta dishes! If you are a recent traveler to urban China, you might wonder, what's the big deal about that? But from the China that Paul and I knew, the China of 1979, it was nearly inconceivable. I remember the two of us having dinner in an Italian restaurant in some fancy hotel, chuckling over the silverware, repeating to each other: "Can you believe this? Fettuchini Alfredo!"

When we took a day trip to Hangzhou and Suzhou, however, Paul's food fears came roaring back. He simply could not find a place where he felt comfortable eating.

I on the other hand was getting very hungry.

The Hangzhou leg of our trip consisted mainly of a wild taxi ride around the lake, where we could vaguely glimpse the famous scenic spots (I really do need to go back there someday. I hear it's a pretty nice city). The taxi driver seemed like a nice young guy. So finally, I asked him, in my minimal Chinese of that time, if he knew anyplace where we could get a decent lunch? Paul's food neurosis of that day was that he couldn't eat any meat. Mind you, he had been eating meat throughout the trip, but today, he was convinced that eating any meat would make him deathly ill. "He cannot eat meat," I explained earnestly to the driver. "It is bad for his health."

Of course the driver knew a place. Grinning, he aimed our hurtling cab through a series of narrow, rutted side streets, until at last we reached our destination: a small shack made up of narrow concrete slabs, open in the front like a box that is lying on its side, with a couple of rickety tables. "My family," he said, beaming at us.

"I can't eat here," Paul said to me. "Look at this place!" He really was on the verge of a meltdown.

"Hey, come on, let's just try it. If it's bad, you don't have to eat it. And sometimes the best places look like dives." Besides, it would be very rude, I thought, to tell the driver that we weren't willing to eat at his family's restaurant.

In retrospect, I suppose that even though I knew Paul was ill, had counseled him to get some help, had encourage him in his attempts to lead a healthier lifestyle, I still was in some form of denial about his condition. Maybe, in retrospect, eating at the Chinese equivalent of Mom's Diner was not the wisest choice.

I dutifully repeated Paul's dietary restrictions, and the two of us sat there uncomfortably, Paul utterly convinced that he would be eating his last meal.

But in this particular instance, things worked out just like you'd hope they would. The young woman who was serving - a sister? a cousin? - brought out an endless succession of vegetarian dishes, all of which were beautiful, delicious, and dirt-cheap. At some point in the meal, the restaurant workers and our driver wanted to take a photo with us and our meal. I happily complied. If you look at the photo, you will see a small group of smiling Chinese people and one very glum foreign male.

The irony of this is that Paul didn't get sick, I did. Not from the Hangzhou meal, presumably, but from something I ate later. The day before we were to fly home, I started feeling ill. By evening, I was very ill. Throwing up, feverish, wishing I could just go ahead and die already. The hotel doctor advised me not to travel. But I had to. I wasn't getting paid for this vacation; I had to get home to my job, that is, if I still had a job.

The friends we'd made saved me. Brigitte, the German, gave me some descriptively named meds from her home country called "Vomex." Mark, the injured Hong Kong movie villain, pedaled a borrowed bicycle to a local pharmacy and returned with three kinds of Chinese medicine, including what turned out to be the local version of Dramamine. A note to travelers: Dramamine is not only good for motion sickness. The active ingredient is a weaker version of Compazine, what they'll give you in an ER to stop vomiting. A doctor once told me this, when I was sick with food poisoning, too sick to drive myself to urgent care. Since then, Dramamine has been a lifesaver for me, especially when I'm traveling. Don't leave home without it! Anyway, I stopped throwing up, managed to drink some Coke and get on the plane, 102 degree fever and all...

But this happened later. After Paul and I returned to Shanghai from Hangzhou and Suzhou, we ran into Mark, who announced that we should all go out that evening. He knew the perfect place. Paul wasn't in the mood. He was tired, he said. I wasn't sure what to make of this. Paul had always been the partyer, the guy who could stay out till dawn, and it was hard for me to tell how much of his reluctance to go out was genuine fatigue and how much was the paranoia that he could barely keep in check. Regardless, I wanted to go. I was back in China, things had changed, and I wanted to see it for myself. "We'll go to JJ's Disco," Mark decided.

JJ's Disco. Okay...

Now, back in the ancient days of my youth, there were of course, no discos in China. In fact a continuing theme of our stay there was the paranoia on the part of the school officials where we taught that Paul and I would infect the students with the knowledge of "the disco dance," as though it were some sort of contagion that would lead to...well, Mao knows what. Presumably sex, or some other type of bourgeoise Western decadence. When we first got to Beijing in the fall of 1979, I remember seeing the most charming scene in a public park: a young man, wearing a top hat, of all things, dancing his version of a ballroom dance to some scratchy old record on a portable phonograph player. I cannot remember if he danced with a girl or not. But what I do remember is, being told later by one of Paul's parents' students, a young man named Simon, about how the authorities had shut the dancing down. "They weren't doing anything," he told me bitterly. "They were just dancing. And the authorities forbid them to. Why? What is wrong with just dancing like that?"

So, JJ's Disco Square, Shanghai, 1993. We get out of the cab, pay our cover charge, and enter through a long black hallway. Into...

A disco. I mean, an honest to god, decadent, mirror ball spinning, laser lights flashing, speakers booming goddamn disco. Huge dance floor. Mylar confetti falling from the distant catwalk above.

I desperately needed a beer.

I went and got one. I believe it was a Heineken, though I much would have preferred a Reeb. Stumbling dazedly amongst the tables, looking for Mark, I suddenly felt a tug on my sleeve.

"Hey. First the Democratic Convention in 1992. Now JJ's Disco in Shanghai. You certainly get around, don't you?"

It was the Famous American Director, surrounded by his Asshole Buddy posse.

"Sit down," he continued. "Let's talk."

Why not? I did. We chatted a bit.

In addition to the coterie of asshole buddies, there was a young Chinese woman sitting at the table. Very young. Cute as hell, wearing an outfit that vaguely resembled a tightly cut sailor suit.

"Ni hao," she said brightly.

I said hello back.

"Say, do you speak Chinese?" the Famous American Director wanted to know.

"A little."

"Great. Maybe you can help me out. Because I think she wants to have sex with me, but I'm not sure."


The young woman and I chat a bit, minimally, because I really don't speak much Chinese. Finally I ask what she wants.

"I want to go to the foreigner's hotel!" she chirps.

"I think you're right," I tell the famous director."She wants to go to the foreigner's hotel."

The Famous American Director grins. "Great. Ask her how much."

"Is he your boyfriend?" the girl wants to know. "Can the three of us go to the foreigner's hotel together?" She liked the idea of having someone along she could talk to, I think.

"No, he's not my boyfriend," I assure her hastily. "He's a well-known man in America."

"What are you two talking about?" the Famous Director asks me.

"I'm telling her that you're a well-known person in America."

"Don't tell her that! It'll raise the price."

I just sit there for a moment. "You know, I'm really not comfortable with this," I finally say. "Cause right now she wants to know if you're my boyfriend and if we should all go to the hotel together. And I don't think that's a great idea."

The Famous American Director exchanges a look with one of his Asshole Buddies (the one who played a non-speaking role in his last big movie). "No," he says, looking a little uncomfortable himself. "No, that's probably not a good idea."

The next morning, I see the Famous American Director in the lobby of our hotel, with a different Asian woman - older, more sophisticated than last night's Japanese anime heroine. "Hey," he says with a lazy smile. "Linda. How's it going?"

"Lisa," I correct him. "It's going fine, thanks."

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