Fortunately, I was tired enough that I managed to get some rest.
Early the next morning Wing and I were joined for breakfast by Mr. Zhou, a Chinese gentleman from our host city. Since “Zhou” sounds a lot like “Joe,” I quickly took to calling him that. It was never quite clear to me who exactly this Joe was. All I knew was that he was going to help us convert that slim wad of Ben Franklins into local currency. But first, we had to eat.
We went to the hotel’s breakfast buffet, filled our plates and sat down. Among other things that I mostly didn’t recognize, Joe was eating an egg. Rather, I should say that he was engaging in some sort of activity that involved a fried egg and his mouth. He would lower his head to his plate, and then using his chopsticks push the egg towards his mouth while he sucked it in, sort of the way a vacuum cleaner might. The egg would then stay in his mouth for a moment, and then it would suddenly be back out on his plate.
He repeated this process several times:
- sucking sounds
- chopsticks push egg into mouth
- most of egg returns to plate
I had heard that birds feed their young by regurgitating, and had always thought less of them for it, but this was far worse. While this was happening, the most horrific slurping noises were being created by the interaction between the egg and his mouth. And all the while, he was trying to explain to us the plan for the day.
“Burble, burble…slurp, something in Chinese, something in Chinese… slurp slurp, gurgle, snort…something in Chinese, slurp,” is what Joe seemed to be saying.
Wing did his best to translate for me, but most of it didn’t register as I struggled to divert my attention from Joe’s captivating performance across the table.
“Mumble, mumble…dollars…something, something…FEC…mumble, mumble…thousand yuan…help to exchange…RMB…slurp, snort, nervous laugh…special exchange place…something, something, slurp…heh heh mumble,” is what I recall hearing from Wing.
To be fair, none of the slurping or snorting was coming from Wing. He was only responsible for the mumbling and the nervous laugh. As we proceeded through this unforgettable meal, Joe raised his bowl to his mouth and made all kinds of clucking noises as the food was messily transferred from the bowl to his mouth. All of this was interspersed with a variety of hearty belches, none of which seemed to cause him any embarrassment or concern.
Having spent a fair bit of time in Europe, I knew that Europeans often displayed and appreciated table manners more than we casual Americans did. Being from Long Island, I figured I came from the less refined end of the American spectrum of manners in general, and so I was always sensitive as to whether any aspects of my behavior might inadvertently cause offense. Needless to say, I had never personally been on the receiving end of such a transgression, mainly because I just didn’t care too much what anyone did. My breakfast with Joe changed all this. I was actually taken aback by Joe’s apparent lapse of manners and even felt offended by it. In fact, it was the first time in my life that I had ever been offended, by anything at all. I looked over at Wing, hoping for a sympathetic “yeah I know this is unbelievable” kind of glance, but he didn’t seem to be the least bit perturbed.
After breakfast, Joe, Wing and I got into a taxi. Joe barked the address to the driver. The driver sped through town; swerving, zigzagging and cutting off every vehicle that didn’t otherwise cut him off. We stopped in front of one of those non-descript slabs of concrete like those I had passed the day before. It seemed to be some sort of office building but I couldn’t quite tell. All of these buildings seemed similar to me. It could have been a factory of some sort, or a prison, or maybe even another hotel. Joe led us up a few flights of unfinished concrete steps, down an unlit hall and into a dark and shabby room.
Inside was a man sitting on a bed who seemed to be expecting us. He motioned for us to sit down, but there were only two chairs remaining for the three of us. Joe and I sat. There was enough room for Wing to sit next to the man on the bed, but he remained standing. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of a currency exchange office. I knew that I needed to exchange American dollars for local Chinese currency, and I knew that this wasn’t a service that was officially provided for in China, so I knew not to expect a brightly lit place with a big board on the wall with all the exchange rates so you could see just how much you were being ripped off. But this isn’t quite what I expected either. It didn’t feel right to be doing business in this cross between bedroom and office, but I had no choice but to go through with it. I felt just as I had when marching toward that Tupolev the day before: resigned due to a lack of alternatives.
I presented my slim wad of twenty one-hundred-dollar bills and was given roughly eleven thousand and some odd Chinese RMB. The largest bill in China then was the 100 RMB note, but it was newly introduced and in short supply, so I was mostly paid in 50s and 20s. The result was hundreds and hundreds of bills, so many in fact that there was no way they could be stuffed into my pockets. Fortunately I had a really large computer bag with me, the kind that had space for overnight clothes on one side and my computer and documents on the other. Since I was on a long trip, I wasn’t using the clothing side. I counted and loaded the money into the bag, which was now overstuffed, and we made our way back down the steps and out onto the street.