I woke up dehydrated and with a splitting headache. I called Wing to make sure that we were still planning to meet downstairs for breakfast. There was no answer. Maybe he was sleeping it off, or maybe he was still slouched over in a chair in the restaurant. Either way, I needed food, so I headed downstairs.
Wing was in the restaurant all right. He was downing a bowl of congee and looking surprisingly fresh.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Ahh, heh heh, fine, fine.” he said as he took a big slurp of congee.
I wondered how this could be. I wasn’t used to having 20 drinks with dinner. Maybe he was.
I went over to the buffet and filled a bowl with congee. Looking at the other options, it was an obvious choice. Congee is a sort of rice soup often eaten with pickled vegetables for breakfast in Asia. It wasn’t exactly my idea of something to be consumed before noon, but compared to the Wheel of Death, it was nothing.
“So when do we head for the airport?” I asked Wing cheerfully as I sat down.
“Actually, our flight has been cancelled.”
“It’s okay. They booked us on another flight – different airline.”
“Oh, okay,” I said with relief, “when do we leave?”
“…What?” I said, hoping that this time something really had been lost in translation.
“Thursday evening – five-thirty.”
“What!? You mean in two days from now?”
“Yes, heh, heh,” he said matter-of-factly as if he had just pointed out that the fried noodles were to the right of the dumpling tray. “That is the next flight.”
“But my flight back to New York leaves Hong Kong on Thursday morning.”
“Yes, heh, heh.”
I wanted to choke him but there would be too many witnesses.
Maybe Wing didn’t mind two extra days deep in the Middle Kingdom, but I had a barbecue in the Hamptons to get to. The Hamptons seemed about as far as you could get from Changsha, in every possible way.
Since it was often nice to mix with the locals and get to know the flavor of a place, I decided I would make the most of this unexpected delay. We finished breakfast and with Wing as my guide, we headed out for a walking tour of the city.
The excursion started with Wing muttering about the unremarkable buildings just beyond the hotel entrance.
“This building is… uhh, maybe government office,” he said, “or it could be apartment building.”
It didn’t take long to figure out that Wing didn’t know much more about the area than I did, but he felt compelled to keep talking and guessing at our surroundings. We were ambling along at a pace appropriate for my hangover when I heard:
A man ahead of us had gathered together the contents of his throat, then cocked his head down and to the right and let fly:
I adjusted my stride so as not to step in it. Wing either didn’t notice or didn’t care as he continued droning on about the buildings. His monotone sent me into a mild daze and I can only guess what he was saying. Probably something like:
“This is a building. It is made of concrete. It is extremely ugly. Nothing about the building would suggest that you’re in China. It is like every other building we’ve seen. It has a door, some walls, ceilings and floors. Some bits are rusted and the paint, if it has any, is peeling. It is of absolutely no significance whatsoever.”
Wing was clearly trying to impress me with his knowledge of mainland China. Perhaps his boss Harry told him he needed to sound like an expert.
Hong Kong companies like Harry’s have always tried to position themselves as intermediaries between east and west. But since Hong Kong had been a British colony since 1860 and with China closed to the outside world until the 1980s, many of these firms, especially in the early 90s, were just as clueless about China as the companies they represented.
In any case, what we needed from Harry’s company was expertise in getting deals done in China, not a tour of Changsha. With the sun punishing my already throbbing head, I would have been more impressed with Wing had he been able to keep his mouth shut.
Dodging a stream of bicycles and an old woman who tilted her head as she emitted a hearty “hhhhukk ptooey,” we entered a more crowded part of the city. Here I noticed more discharges of phlegm, first from a man on a bicycle and then from a mother with a baby. The ground was a veritable exposition of expectoration, and I had to watch my step.
I’ve heard many theories for all the spitting in China. Some say the heavy pollution requires people to spit out the filth they’ve been inhaling. Others say it’s simply a case of bad manners or poor upbringing. My own view is that it’s a massive fit of the willies. Having shared so much saliva with so many people from so many sets of chopsticks at so many meals, they feel an uncomfortable and continuous need to expel it at intervals onto the street.
Whatever the reason, spit was flying everywhere: it was like having a box seat at a major league baseball game. At least the Chinese were cultured enough not to adjust their jocks and slap each other on the butt, and for this they deserve credit.
We ducked into a local restaurant to escape the heat. An air conditioning unit blasted me as we walked toward an empty table. It felt great. We then sat down a few steps away where the A/C had no cooling effect whatsoever, possibly because it was positioned next to a row of open windows. They might just as well have set it up on the street – at least then it wouldn’t have been so loud.
Wing looked at the menu.
“Do they have General Tso’s Chicken?” I asked, hoping to finally sample my favorite Chinese dish in China.
“Ahhh, yes, I order for you,” he nodded, but I wasn’t sure if he knew what I meant.
What arrived was definitely not General Tso’s Chicken. I wasn’t sure what it was. I ruled a few things out – it wasn’t eyeballs, snakes, dog, or shoelaces. Several more dishes appeared. I think I recognized one from the night before. Wing mumbled through lunch. I caught a few words here and there. It was like listening to a poorly tuned radio.
Wing and everyone around us slurped nearly everything they ate. I hoped that my lack of slurping wouldn’t cause offense. If it did, no one said so. The meal wasn’t bad. Perhaps I was getting used to this strange place. As we were finishing, I realized I hadn’t seen a fortune cookie since leaving New York. I hadn’t seen them in Hong Kong and I had yet to see them in China. I didn’t think they weren’t offered at the Wheel of Death dinner, but given my condition I couldn’t be sure.
“What about fortune cookies? Isn’t it a Chinese tradition to have a fortune cookie at the end of a meal?”
Wing had no idea what I was talking about, something I was also getting used to.
We set out back through the bicycles and characterless neighborhoods until finally the bleak sightseeing tour was over. As we headed toward the elevator, Wing said,
“We meet later and see more of Changsha?”
I detected not the slightest hint of irony in his voice. By this point I couldn’t bear more of Changsha or, for that matter, of Wing’s company. Wing needed to learn that if he was going to form enduring relationships with his clients, he would have to be quiet every now and then. As a professional, I felt it was my duty to tell him this. So I took a deep breath and said,
“I’d love to, but I’m really not feeling very well. I’m going to rest this afternoon.”
Why should I have to be the one to tell him that he was a pain in the ass? I decided to leave that for someone with more tact.
I rested happily in my room that afternoon, then ordered one of the three dishes that was listed in English on the room service menu: Spaghetti Bolognaise.
After fiddling with the various Chinese labeled buttons on the TV remote, I stumbled upon CNN. This was a remarkable and most welcome discovery. I happily caught up on world news, delivered in American English as if I was sitting on my sofa back home.
The spaghetti arrived, and while welcome and also filling, a better name for it would have been “Spaghetti with Watery Ketchup.”
After a while, the stories on CNN started to repeat themselves so I flipped through the channels and found what appeared to be a Chinese variety show. It involved a man in a bright blue jacket and an even brighter red tie moderating some sort of singing competition. Between performers, he yelled into the microphone and the audience cheered.
I watched this for a while and then switched back to CNN. I continued this routine for the next two days, during which time I got to sample the other two English language food items: the tuna fish sandwich, which remarkably wasn’t bad, and the rice balls. I first thought rice balls were something that you got from riding in a dirty rickshaw with loose shorts, but it turned out to be a decent side dish.
Every few hours a new story was inserted into the CNN rotation, and this lifted my mood. But after my fourth viewing of the story about the trial of the officers involved in the Rodney King affair and a related feature about whether the City of Angels was going to hell, I broke down and nearly called Wing. Instead, I ordered another plate of Spaghetti with Watery Ketchup.
Finally it was Thursday evening and as I walked with Wing toward the Russian Express – the Tupolev that I expected would fly us back to Guangzhou, from where we would catch the train back to Hong Kong – it became clear that it was not a Tupolev at all.
“Yeah, G’day, ladies and gentlemen,” came the announcement in perfect Australian after I settled into my seat, “this is your Captain speaking….”
The world wasn’t making sense to me, just as it hadn’t for the past week. But this time it was in a good way.
“Our flight to Hong Kong today will take an hour and forty-five minutes,” continued the good news from the cockpit.
Summoning my enormous powers of reason which consisted principally of perusing the literature in the seat pocket in front of me, I worked out that I was aboard a Dragon Air Boeing 737 and that Dragon Air was a Hong Kong based operation that hired foreign pilots.
When we got to Hong Kong, the city felt different. A few days earlier, it was a foreign place with a distinctly Chinese flavor. But after mainland China, it was a familiar and welcoming place. In the taxi, we passed glittering skyscrapers as we glided through orderly traffic. The friendly clerk at the New World Harbour View Hotel (now the Renaissance) quickly checked me in. I proceeded, without passing a single floor guard, to a room with incredible views of Victoria Harbour. The Italian restaurant downstairs was not only elegant, but also had real Spaghetti Bolognaise. In Hong Kong, I was as good as home.
I flew back to New York the next day, and made it to that barbecue in the Hamptons the day after. As I chatted with friends and recounted my Chinese adventure of the past few days, I appreciated how nice my surroundings were and how truly fortunate I was to not have to live in a place like Changsha.
I vowed that if it was at all within my power, for the rest of my life I would never again set foot in mainland China.