Monday, March 12, 2007

Drinking with the Manchurian Hairdressers

In Shanghai I stayed with my friend Tim, who has got to be the perfect host. However, there was a price to be paid for his hospitality, he warned me. "We have to go drinking with the barbershop guys."

I thought this seemed like a fine idea. I'd met the hairdressers last year, the staff of the barbershop where Tim gets his hair cut. Apparently they're always bugging him about when he's going to bring some of his American friends by. They are quite a colorful bunch, mohawked, streaked and dyed hair, fancy embroidered jeans and Renaissance-style shirts. All of them are from Harbin, in Manchuria, though the Boss (e.g., "Laoban") has lived in Shanghai since he was a kid.

I wasn't sure why the occasion had an element of dread for Tim, since he likes the guys a lot. Plus, we were only going about a half-block from Tim's apartment, to a restaurant across from the barbershop.

I started to get an idea when I saw the amount of beer involved. "Harbin" Brand, naturally.

There were five of them, and Tim and me, and we started with a case of large bottles - I don't know metric well enough to tell you how large, but they're big. Everything seemed to require a toast, and toasting is "Ganbei!" - meaning you have to drink it down.

Well, I'm a girl, right? I figured I had to be exempt from some of this.

I figured wrong.

"Lisa," Laoban would say. "Nide yanjingde yanse zhen piaoliang." - "Your eyes are such a beautiful color." Now, the Boss is probably a good 10 years younger than I am, a stocky guy with the sides of his head shaved and somewhat bloodshot eyes (he'd already been out drinking today, he informed us, and his head wasn't feeling very good, but such was the importance of this occasion that he made the sacrifice of drinking more. Much more). This did not stop him from being a real flirt. Laoban liked my eyes, told me I should wear bright colors more often and not so much black, and all the guys liked my standard Beijing accent. I told him that I was way too old for him. He insisted this was not the case.

Then, somehow I ended up with a new husband, the kid Tim had nicknamed "Mozart" because of his hairdo, which could certainly be described as baroque. Mozart looks like he's about 18, with delicate good looks and a high-pitched voice - if they were still casting men in the female Peking Opera roles, he'd probably be a prime candidate.

I can't remember quite how this happened, because I think we'd finished the first case of beer by this point. After that, it was never one more bottle, it was always two. Laoban insisted.

Then we had to sing. This is one situation where all those years of singing in a rock band pays off. I belted out a couple of verses of "Hang On Sloopy" (something I can manage regardless of degree of drunkeness). The guys were surprised and impressed. If you are going to find yourself in the role of performing dog, it helps to know the tricks.

But like Tim said, he wouldn't go along with the barbershop boys if it weren't in good fun and good spirits. The next day, I had two text messages from Mozart, addressed to "Beautiful Friend," asking how my day was going.

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