Today was the last day of the teaching week, and it was a good day. This morning, the sky was actually blue — the first blue sky I’ve seen in China. It turns out that when the sky is blue in China in the summer, the sun occupies about half the sky and beams down unremittingly. It’s hot and bright and kind of wonderful, so long as you don’t have to do any real work.

At today’s faculty meeting, they fed us Pizza Hut pizza — faintly sweet with the mildest hint of five spice powder in the crust. Otherwise, very plausible. The only thing besides the five spice crust that betrayed its etiology was the corn on top. Yup, Nanjingers sure do love their corn.

I went for coffee with a colleague originally from Calcutta who has spent the past twelve years in North Carolina. His accent is a perfect cross of an Indian accent and a southern drawl. One of my students has an accent that’s half Nanjing and half Chicago. “Yo, what up?” is his usual greeting. I am falling in love with hybrid accents.

Tonight, SIE welcomed its students and faculty with a “band party” at the local “music pub.” There were posters everywhere advertizing it. We all three went. The Guy was late because he had to go to the 14th floor to mime to the front desk that none of our key cards were working; we were yet again locked out of our room. The door is a bit of a hybrid itself. There’s a mechanical lock, and the door handle itself performs different functions depending on whether you pull it down or upwards. On top of this, there’s a key card; when you tap it on the door, other mechanical things happen. In combination, it’s a pretty complicated puzzle; ergo, the instructions on the inside of the door for locking, opening, etc. Alas, instructions in Chinese. So, we’ve been working through the combinatorial possibilities on our own. It thus took a while to discover that there really is something wrong with our key cards. The Guy had already spent much of the afternoon trying to persuade the desk staff of this fact. This was his third trip.

The band party was in a trendy bar full of neon and white leather corner couches and cool lighting and futuristic chandeliers and hip Western drinks. Cold Stella and Corona and Guinness. (And, inevitably, Tsingtao — both cold for the foreigners and room temp for the locals.) The snacks were all — more or less — Western. Fries and ketchup, a dish here commonly shared over drinks, like nachos or wings. The places that serve fries have special plates for them with a little well for the ketchup. The fries are basically McDonald’s fries, but slightly undercooked, and served at room temperature. The other snacks: five spice popcorn and peanuts lightly scented with (what else?) five spice powder.

There were small balloons and glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and games. Well, one game really, in which young men prowled the room trying to trade bracelets with young women who’d caught their eye. If the woman accepted the advance, the couple was whisked to the stage. Once all the couples were arrayed in a row, there was some kind of ritual embarrassing of them, followed by a game of strength in which the young men had to do squats with the young women astride their backs. And then they played the game again, young women screeching and hiding behind the couches, or dragging their friends out from behind them.

The cool butch woman in the control booth — one of very few such women we’ve seen here — was indifferent to the game, scanning through car ads and the Chinese version of Facebook on her laptop.

And, there was a band. An awesome band, whose name I will probably never know. And karaoke. And surprisingly impressive displays of rap and break-dancing. And, just as impressively to someone accustomed to North American bars, smoking of cigarettes.

And dancing. They think it’s exciting or hilarious or something when their professors dance. So, when I got onto the dancefloor with the Guy, there were actual woos. But not as many as when the weirdly handsome Berkeley prof got up to sexy-dance with his preternaturally beautiful Russian wife. Damn Californians. Woo!

A good band party.

As we left the bar, we spied a couple of old women selling lotus fruits, which I’ve been dying to try. The Guy handed one of them 10 yuan and received in return a bundle of lotus fruits tied with a bow and placed in a plastic bag.

You’ve probably seen lotus fruits before in dried flower arrangements. You know that weird, fist-sized funnel thing with the big holes on its surface? Well, that’s lotus fruit and its seeds are a popular snack food here. You pick the seeds out and eat them raw, leaving the holes behind.

I really wanted to love lotus fruit seeds, but alas I didn’t. They’re kind of waxy and hard and bitter and cardboard-like all at once. I ate a few seeds and then wasn’t quite sure what to do with the remaining lotus fruit.

Just then, we passed a skinny, leathery old man who looks the spitting image of Gandhi. We’ve passed him several times on the street over the past week. He’s perhaps one of the poorest people on the planet. He was lying in an alcove trying to sleep, covered with a thin brown blanket, and fanning himself with an old magazine in search of relief from the impressive heat.

Maybe it was a terrible idea, but I thought, these people all seem to love this food, and he’s probably hungry. Why don’t I just give it to him? So I slowly approached him and very quietly greeted him, “Nihao, nihao.” He didn’t look up; so I simply placed the bag of lotus fruits beside him on the ground, whereupon he began to get up and to speak to me in rapidfire Chinese, with animated gestures. He seemed to want me to take the lotus fruit back and made as if to follow me. Of course, I couldn’t take it back, in case I was misinterpreting his meaning. You can’t give food to someone who needs it and then take it back if you’re not 100% sure that’s what they want. But he was agitated, really quite agitated. I kept saying, “No, it’s for you, it’s for you.” And then, I turned and walked quickly towards the hotel, gazing straight ahead, hoping that I hadn’t wronged him somehow. I think it was an ok thing to do, but man did he seem agitated.

At almost the very same spot on the sidewalk yesterday morning, I had an equally confusing exchange with a Buddhist monk. As we passed each other on the sidewalk, I let my gaze linger on him for a few seconds. He¬†immediately approached me and pressed a small gold-coloured metal object in a red envelope into my hand. “You are beautiful, you are beautiful,” he repeated in reply to my quizzical look. And, then he withdrew from his pouch a small exercise book. “Jiming Temple, Jiming Temple,” he said. “Oh, yes. I’ve been there!” I replied. He pointed to a line in the book and said something in Chinese. Taking his meaning, I wrote my name on the line with the pen he offered. Then he said “how many people? How many people?” “For what?” I asked. He wrote “1” in the relevant column. And then, to the right of that, he wrote the price. 200 RMB. “Oh, I don’t have that much,” I replied. 100 RMB, he wrote. “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t have it,” I replied. (I really didn’t. I was down to 80 or so yuan.) I pressed the metal object back into his hand. “You are beautiful. You are beautiful.” Out came a bead bracelet. “No, no. I’m sorry.” I replied. He smiled broadly, “You are beautiful, you are beautiful.” “Xie xie,” I replied, “Thank you, thank you” and hastily took my leave.

In general, I’m actually kind of enjoying not speaking the language. There is a kind of privacy and calm that comes of being unable to engage in smalltalk, being unable to eavesdrop on people on the bus. Have you ever read or watched True Blood? The protagonist, Sookie, is able to read people’s minds. Their thoughts come unbidden to her in a loud, overwhelming torrent. But she can’t read vampires’ minds. So, she likes hanging out with vampires. It’s quieter. I get that.

But, sometimes, quiet won’t do, and mime isn’t much better. Sometimes you need to know what the old man you’ve disturbed wants from you. Or the monk. Fortunately, the Kid, the Guy and I start Chinese classes on Monday.

A couple hundred feet from our hotel, we were stopped in our tracks by a car driving in a circle on the sidewalk while the street vendor’s little dog ran before it, looking slightly distressed. Everything here is interesting, and much of it is unintelligible.

Even the most basic communicative success is a kind of victory. Back at the hotel, there was a note on the counter of our kitchenette:

Sir:

The inconvenience. caused to you really. feel shy, Lock sometime looks. tor professional master repair again, now the door into the card can be used, the key also to you. thank you for your understanding and support!

A door opened, a puzzle solved. Time to call it a day.

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