Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When Andrew Met Susan

Winter in Shanghai chills you to the atom. You lose 70% of your neutrons – they freeze and fall to the floor – and the electrons in your extremities hibernate, impairing your motor functions. You can’t write, eat, or dance naked, and sex is only possible after a very hot bath. And you can’t run a bath because it leaks into the apartment below and they shout at you in Chinese.

Dani had rearranged the living room so she could sleep there. She claimed it was warmer than her bedroom. For someone so creative her methods were rather crude: She shoved the dinner table to one side, pushed our wooden sofa-benches (so cold now, like marble) against the walls and dumped her mattress in the space she had cleared. There she slept for 3 months. She moved the TV and DVD player to within inches of the bed, bought a hot water bottle, and sprinkled the bed with woollen gloves and my hats – I think she was trying to achieve a critical mass of warm objects that would generate limitless amounts of heat.
Thus when she brought Susan home I was in her bed, wearing a hat, watching Jackie Chan.

“Andrew,” said Dani, and I felt the thrill I feel when a girl, any girl, says my name. “This is Susan.” Jackie Chan was fighting a large man in a room containing a ladder – there’s always a ladder scene in his movies, but it’s always worth watching. I turned my head, bravely exposing my neck to the cold. I saw Susan.

Dani had met her in some weird place – perhaps Greek Yoga class, or the three-minute holistic sauna at the gym – I didn’t pay much attention at the time because I didn’t realise Susan was beautiful. Susan was having some problems and needed a place to stay until she got herself sorted. I had said she could stay with us ‘for a bit.’
When I saw her, my first words were, “Susan, you can stay here for as long as you want.” People like me can understand chemistry, but only people like Susan can create it.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Sin Bin

“Marriage is too expensive; divorce is too final. When marriage turns sour, people have nowhere to turn. I sought a creative solution, one fit for the modern Taiwan. The results, as you know, have been spectacular.”

I had accepted an invitation to meet Yan Xiang Ling, Taiwan’s Ministeress of Confucian Sustainitude. She wanted to discuss her controversial Spouse Bin policy. “Please tell me how you thought up the idea,” I said.

“After my divorce I was very unhappy,” she said, “while my ex-husband found contentment in brothels, gambling dens and all-night sex parties. I set out to correct this injustice and find some way to reduce divorces. However, although Taiwan is the world’s best country and our tourist slogan is ‘Our Country is Better Than Yours’, it is well known that Taiwanese people are not creative. I used the Internet to research foreign culture and came across the term ‘sin bin’. In some of your barbarian sports, the judge can make unsporting players leave the field and think about what they have done. Marriage is very much a team sport, so I adapted the idea.”

“But,” I said, “In sports the sin bin is a bench next to the pitch, whereas you have erected a concrete prison cell on every street corner in Miao Li.”

“Yes,” she said enthusiastically, “it’s a very elegant system. If a man fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, or stares too long at a pretty waitress, or commits any of the 999 Spousal Hate Crimes listed in the legislation, his wife can call the hotline. A squad attends the scene, interviews the witnesses, and can place the husband in the local sin bin.”

“Doesn’t it lead to more divorces?”

“No, because the squads take the view that the woman is usually right. Within a very short space of time, men learn they have to keep their wife happy or face cold, foodless nights in the sin bin. Miao Li is like a paradise now.”

“Have there been any unexpected side effects?”

“Yes,” she said, “there have been no marriages for two months. But no marriage means no divorce, so I have achieved my goal. The Mayor of Miao Li will be delighted – when his wife lets him out.”

Friday, September 23, 2005

Chinese Taipei vs. Iraq

Classic unpublished blog from September 2004

My girlfriend met me at the airport when I got back from Thailand. She wore a pink qipao (traditional Chinese dress), pink shoes and carried a dainty little cream/pink handbag. She looked ridiculously hot. Every other guy in the airport stared at me in disbelief. "Satine," I said, "you look so beautiful." "I know," she said cutely. I decided I would pay her back by taking her somewhere special – the crumbling football stadium near my house!

A game was scheduled for a couple of days later, and Satine was keen to go. Taiwan (known as Chinese Taipei for political reasons, yawn) welcomed Olympic semi-finalists Iraq. Iraq! I invited my American friend Robin to join us and he thought it would be a good laugh. Satine arrived wearing another stunning outfit – the Manchester United shirt I bought in Thailand. Robin arrived with apparently no concern for his physical appearance, wearing ‘foreigner-shorts’ and an unbuttoned shirt.

We walked into the stadium without paying so I assumed it was a friendly, but Robin saw a banner: “Germany 2006 World Cup qualifying match.” In other words it was an important game. It didn’t seem right that Taiwan and Iraq should be in the same regional qualifying group. How does that work? It also didn’t seem right that when we entered the stadium we walked within two metres of the entire Iraq team and all the referees and assistants. Security, anyone?

We sat on the concrete terrace of the main stand, the only place with a roof to shelter us from the rain. We listened to the anthems, and Satine asked me why they were playing the ‘national song’. “Does it make you love your country?” I asked. “No,” she replied, puzzled. The game kicked off, a Taiwan player tried to pass the ball and kicked it out of touch ten yards from his nearest teammate. I had a look round. About three hundred people sat in the covered stand with us, and the rest of the stadium was empty except two people sat in the uncovered stand opposite us, huddled under umbrellas. Iraq scored.

I’d brought some Perrier water with me, and Robin and Satine had sushi. The nearest meat pie was 6,000 miles away. Satine tasted my expensive water and pulled a face like I had given her sour lemon mixed with poison. She didn’t see the point of drinking fizzy water. “It’s expensive,” I reminded her. “It tastes like ass,” she said. I’d been teaching her English.

The game bored me, but it was a new experience for both Robin and Satine. Iraq passed the ball well and put pressure on Taiwan. Taiwan lacked quality, but played with spirit and could maybe have got a draw if they didn’t have number 41 playing. Number 41 was the worst player I have ever seen, at any level of football. Without exaggerating he lost the ball one hundred per cent of the time it came near him. It bounced off his legs, he failed to make contact with headers, his passing was desperate and he was slow; slow and fat. I was quite amused except I wanted Taiwan to do well for Satine’s sake. “Why do they keep giving the ball to the other team?” she asked. She got so frustrated she punched me in the arm. I leapt to my feet. “Come on Taiwan!” I shouted. “Jiayou!”

At half time we went to get some food. Robin left to go on a date. Americans are like that. I bought some little rice cake things and kiwi juice from the sushi place and we went back to the stadium. Someone had taken our seats so we had to move. We ended up in front of an English guy with two little kids. Satine loved their cute British voices. “Will your children have cute voices like that?” she asked scarily. Did she say ‘your children’ or ‘our children’? Alarm! Alarm! “Let’s watch the game.”

The two people in the opposite stand had been joined by a friend. He didn’t have an umbrella so he sat in the middle. Three people covered by two umbrellas – It was real teamwork. There was more good teamwork on the pitch. Iraq strung some slick passes together and began to carve Taiwan open at will. They scored a goal. But wait! I saw the linesman raise his flag for offside, think for a second, and then put it straight back down again. The goal stood. The Taiwanese players were rightly furious, and the captain complained himself into the referee’s notebook. They restarted the game in a frenzy of attacking football. “They can use their anger to get more power,” Satine told me. Even number 41 managed to control the ball and pass it successfully. With every incident, Satine made an excited ‘eh?’ noise. Then a Taiwan player struck a long shot right against the crossbar. The stand erupted in a wave of belief. Jiayou! You can do it! And then – goal! Satine was delirious. Taiwan’s cheerleaders (four men in plastic Macintoshes) became yet more energetic, prancing and flailing like witch doctors, praying to the football gods for more goals.

More goals came. For Iraq. After they made it 4-1, Satine punched me again. “What makes the goalkeeper think he can catch the ball with that crowd of players there?” she asked, correctly laying the blame for the goal. “But… Taiwan scored a goal…?” I reminded her, trying to make her happy again. “He’s a dick,” she said. “He made me lose face.”

After giving both teams a warm round of applause, everyone left. We walked out of the stadium into the drizzle, and we saw a very nice coach parked outside the main entrance. “Eh? Some fans hired a coach to see the game!” said Satine. “Um… maybe that’s the Iraq team coach?” “Oh… yeah…” she said, and looked abashed. “Let’s go,” I said.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Speaking Chinese in England

Ordering Chinese Food

I overheard my mother and brother talking about getting some Chinese food. I went in to the living room; they were perusing the menu. 'Please can I have some hot and sour soup?' I asked. 'Do you have any money?' asked my mother. 'I have two pounds thirty pence.' 'It's not enough,' she said. 'If you want food you shall have to perform like an abused Thai Elephant,' said my brother, his face twisted, his smile malicious. 'Whatever do you mean?' 'I will buy you some food if you embarrass yourself by speaking Chinese on the phone.' 'I lack the Chinese for such a task.' 'You shall talk, or you shall starve,' he said, and he ran his finger along his neck.

He dialled and handed me the phone. My mother said, 'When you call she will say 'number 7?' – You won't even need to give the address. It's so funny.'

'Hello, Peking House.'
'Can I order a delivery?'
A long pause.
'Do you want the address?' I asked.
'7 Roman Road,’ I said, ‘Do you know it?'
'So I want sweet and sour chicken. But no pineapple!'
'No pineapple?'
It was time to speak Chinese. 'Meiyou Pineapple,' I said.
'Okay. No pineapple.'
'And lemon chicken, and beef with peppers. And rice.'
'Okay fifteen minutes.'
I took a breath and pretended I was in Shanghai. 'Duoshao qian?'
'I'm sorry?'
'How much is it? Duoshao qian?' I was saying it perfectly.
'What language are you speaking?'
'It's called.... Chinese...'
A pause.
'Say it again.'
Duoshao qian?''Oh! Duoshao qian? Fourteen pounds.'
'Your Chinese is bad,
' I told her, in Chinese.

'No, your Chinese is bad.'
'You're a bad egg,'
I said. I'm allowed to insult Chinese people because I'm cute.

'I'm not a bad egg, you're a bad egg.'
'I'm not a bad egg, I'm a good egg.'
This is the funniest thing you can say to a Chinese person and so hysterical that the phone call ended.

'I am pleased that you lost face', said my brother. 'You will eat tonight. But next time, ask her if she has a boyfriend.'