When we arrived in Beijing, exhausted from our Mongolian adventures, we decided to take it easy for a bit. I spent some time researching our train tickets, and we ventured out just for two things — food and Peter’s main errand in Beijing: getting his hair cut.
I have gotten my own hair cut in Beijing before, and was subjected to thinning shears. So, while I was supportive of Peter’s need for a trim, I was also a bit wary of what a potential hairdresser might have in store. My wariness intensified when I saw the young men at the salon Peter had chosen: they all had long haircuts with bangs swept across their foreheads; some of them had gone a step further and styled it upwards to create poufy pompadours. They looked like what would happen if Ashton Kutcher stuck his finger in a socket.
But how difficult could a normal haircut be? After explaining in broken Chinese that Peter had hair and that he would like it cut, not too short but not too long, I asked them if they had a book of hair cuts so we could choose a picture. They did indeed — but the models all looked like the guys in the shop. We picked the least offensive one and showed it to the stylist. He nodded and got to work.
In retrospect, there were many indications of impending disaster. Like, for example, the fact that the guy in the photograph had highlights. And also, the model’s hair was wavy.
But I didn’t have a chance to really think about that second point because the owner of the salon came up to me and started trying to sell me a deep conditioning treatment for my split ends. “It’s from Germany!” he told me. “It is good for hair!” He picked up a loose strand of my hair and inspected a frayed end as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, pale and tired, with flat, limp hair that clearly was in need of some professional attention. But still. Twenty bucks for German conditioner? I’ll just put it up in a bun.
I kept saying no, and he kept pushing. I didn’t want to be rude but I also didn’t want his conditioner, so I was relieved when he said a word that I recognized from my previous time in Beijing: massage. I’d forgotten that in China, haircuts usually come with a head rub. And I love having my head rubbed! As Peter’s stylist snipped away, I negotiated a rate for a head massage, sans German treatment.
“Will you be okay?” I asked Peter.
“Sure,” he said, eyes still closed. I followed a young woman to the back of the room.
Over the next fifteen minutes, I received a nice massage and again was encouraged — one might even say pressured — to try the German conditioner I chatted with a young massage therapist and was offered a back rub. When it was over, I walked to the front of the shop, expecting to find Peter waiting for me by the door.
But Peter’s fifteen minutes had been very different from mine. He had not received a head rub. Nor was he waiting for me. Instead, he was sitting under a heat lamp. His hair was twisted into foil-covered spikes and covered with saran wrap.
He was getting a permanent.
I took one look at his head and started to laugh.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I do,” I said. “You’re getting a perm.”
Peter looked at me as if I were crazy — which was ironic, given that he was the one with tin foil on his head. The rotating circular heat lamp, combined with the spikes, made him look like some sort of punk angel.
“He asked if I wanted tall hair.”
Clearly there was a gaping hole in Peter’s knowledge of salon treatments. I have never gotten a perm myself — but I know one when I see one. And while Peter assumed that he was just going to end up with a temporary curl or two, anyone who saw the vertical rise of his foil-dreds would know that the stylist had something different in mind.
“They’re making it stand up,” I told him, glancing at the other men in the salon. I’d assumed that they had achieved their gravity-defying styles with massive use of product, but upon closer inspection, I couldn’t see any tell-tale signs of hair goop. “They’re making it look like theirs.”
At this point, Peter started to get a little worried, especially when I asked the young man how much longer he would be spending under the heat lamp, and he said a half an hour.
“But I can just brush it down, right?” he asked. “It won’t last long.”
“Peter,” I said. “It’s a permanent.”
By this time I was starting to get a serious case of the giggles, but I didn’t want to insult the young stylist dutifully keeping track of the heating lamp’s orbits. I stared at my lap for a bit, then out the window. Eventually, the young man removed the lamp and saran wrap and began unwrapping the foil.
The effect was reminiscent of a porcupine — sharp little spikes of hair sticking up in neat rows from his scalp. It didn’t get much better when the stylist fluffed it — Peter’s hair not only stood up straight in the air, but its texture had changed. It looked fried.
The stylist then pulled out the male version of the German conditioner, a treatment that we refused both because of cost and out of fear that it might add additional permanence. The hairdresser seemed genuinely concerned — were we crazy? This stuff was essential! — but when we continued to say no, he reluctantly led Peter back to the sink for a final wash.
The water didn’t matter, though — his hair just popped back up again. I managed to hold myself together till the street, then burst into laughter that resumes any time I think about what his hair looked like from the side. We raced back to the hotel and Peter scrubbed his hair twice more in the sink — which made it look a little better, but could do nothing to change the fact that it felt like a shag carpet.
Here’s hoping it grows out fast.
Nanjing, China, was not on my list of places I must see before I die. Peter and I ended up here because of a logistical snafu — we were hoping to go overland by train from Shanghai to the western city of Xining, but the trains were sold out. We had to buy plane tickets, and the easiest place for us to leave from was Nanjing.
My previous knowledge of Nanjing was as follows:
1. Nanjing is one of the “three ovens” of China — the hottest cities in the country.
2. Nanjing’s most famous recent historical event was The Rape of Nanjing — the horrific incident in 1937 when Japanese troops raped and murdered tens of thousands of civilians.
For what it’s worth, it’s also a former capital of China, and is supposed to have pleasant tree-lined streets, a big park, and the mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen.
Peter and I arrived here exhausted after our supposedly relaxing two days in Suzhou and checked into the Jiangsu Hotel. If the picture on the hotel brochure is to be believed, it is the only tall building in the city. The brochure is not to be believed — but that’s not to say that the hotel doesn’t have its charms. For example, the selection of toiletries on sale in the bathroom includes not just a toothbrush, but a pair of “exquisite article lady’s pants” and a vibrating condom. When we woke up this morning, someone had slipped an ad for call girls under our door. We didn’t place an order — but that didn’t deter the brochure delivery guy. He slipped another one under the door about an hour ago; I looked up from the desk to find it had magically appeared on the carpeted floor, the Jiangsu equivalent of nightly turn-down service.
Here is something else I didn’t know about Nanjing: unlike most cities in China — most notably Beijing, where the communists destroyed the city’s magnificent walls and built a big road — its Ming-dynasty walls are largely intact. It’s pretty amazing, given that they were built during the 1300s. According to our guidebook, they’re over 30km long, and each brick was supposed to have been stamped with the name of the workshop that made it, so that any poor quality materials could be traced back to their source.
I recently read a book about modern China (Jan Wong’s “Beijing Confidential”) that described the Chinese obsession with walls. She hypothesizes that China’s love of walls demonstrates its desire for safety and security — a desire so extreme that it trumps the potential for expansion. These walls range from absurdly huge (the Great Wall) to the everyday (building courtyard homes that only have windows facing inside). Looking at Nanjing’s wall really brought that obsession to life. Once you build something like that, you’re going to think long and hard before expanding the city’s boundaries.
Anyway. Once we’d gotten outside the walls, the traffic and noise of the city melted away into a beautiful lake-side park. We were considering renting a paddle boat, but then stumbled upon one of those amazing, unexpected spectacles that one can only find in China — like early morning ballroom dancing, or limber 80-year-olds gathering for their evening stretches. It was a bunch of people, many in uniforms that looked like gold pajama suits, playing with tops.
Actually, “tops” isn’t the right word. Having just done a bunch of googling, it seems the closest term is “Chinese yo-yo.” That sounds like a derogatory term, but in fact refers to a toy “comprised of two identical discs attached together by an axle at the centre. Two sticks with a piece of string attached to the ends of the sticks are also required to use the toy. The yoyo is used by holding a stick in each hand while spinning the yoyo on the string attached to the sticks.”
When we first approached the yo-yo plaza, there was only one woman practicing. Wearing a red t-shirt and loose pants, she was spinning her top back and forth on its string as she performed a tai-chi influenced series of poses, culminating in a descent into a split. I thought she must be busking, but then we noticed that there were dozens of other yo-yos (tops, not people) on the plaza, resting on the ground and steps. In fact, the crowd gathered around her wasn’t really watching; they were getting ready to warm up.
Peter, having caught sight of an enormous top — maybe three feet in diameter — suggested we grab a seat on the steps. “This is going to be amazing,” he said. And he was right.
After finishing their metamorphosis from civilian clothing to golden pajama suits and other team outfits, the toppers, as I’ll call them, gathered in a row of lines. Alternating between attentiveness and boredom, they listened to announcements broadcast from a microphone held by a pot-bellied, baseball-cap wearing man, who had the air of an overly invested coach of a little league baseball team. This went on for quite some time. “Let them spin!” I cried in mock protest. “We want to see them spin!”
Eventually, the coach guy finished his monologue and the performance began — following cues from his whistle (and a small flag), they began entered the plaza in small groups. Each performance was set to a different piece of music, ranging from traditional Chinese songs to what sounded like Chinese hip hop.
I would have thought that watching people spin tops on pieces of string would soon become boring — how many tricks can you possibly do — but it was not. Not only did every person have a different style, but their actual tops differed, from those the height of a shampoo bottle to the enormous top Peter had seen lying on the plaza (it was somewhat anticlimactic, since the top snapped the string). Also interesting: the length of the strings and poles used to propel the tops ranged from your standard length-of-your-armspan variety all the way up to 20-foot-long strings that the toppers controlled with sticks the length of fishing poles, creating a captivating sight: tops whizzing across the plaza on elegant trajectories as if being controlled by some invisible force, the top spinner gracefully dancing beneath them.
The tricks themselves were impressive, but what I enjoyed the most was the pride and joy of the people doing them. I mean, let’s face it: top-spinning is a little ridiculous. But these people loved it, and it showed. That’s something I enjoy about China — whether it’s ballroom dance or spinning tops, there’s a lack of irony here. Why not devote hours each day to playing with a top? Why not gather with your topper friends on a lovely afternoon and put on a show? Men, women, old and young — everyone seemed to genuinely be having a wonderful time (with the possible exception of the lady doing splits — she seemed like a tyrant). As I watched a young woman with a scraggly pony tail and imperfect teeth proudly stand in the middle of the plaza, simultaneously spinning tops around her neck and around her knees before jogging off, top still spinning, I actually got tears in my eyes.
We watched the toppers for several hours before finally moving on, strolling along the wall and enjoying the view of the lake and the refreshing trees. Not too far away from the toppers, a semicircle of young people sat on the ground, listening to what appeared to be trivia questions being asked by a woman on a microphone (as anyone who has had to share space with a Chinese tour group can attest, they are very into megaphones). I was captivated: I could understand perhaps 50 percent of each question, and what I could understand made me think (perhaps erroneously) that I knew the answer. There was something about two trains, and another question regarding the sun and the time of day. The closest I got to an actual answer was in response to a question about the English alphabet. I imagined raising my hand, demonstrating to the crowd my expertise both in Chinese and knowledge available to the average American kindergartener. But unfortunately, I didn’t know what she was asking about the alphabet, so I stayed quiet.
I was focused so intently on the questions that I didn’t hear Peter calling for me. Peter, for those of you who do not know, was the Nutmeg State Badminton Champion in the early 1990s, and he had set a goal for himself: to play badminton in Nanjing. (He even had me stop a guy on the street who had rackets in his bag and ask him where he intended to use them.)
When I finally did hear Peter’s shouts, I turned around to see that across the path from where I was standing was a small badminton court. Peter was holding a racket. I ran over and watched with wifely pride as he didn’t just keep up with, but trounced, his friendly opponent. (“I was the Nutmeg State Champion,” Peter reminded me when I praised his performance.)
And then, back to the hotel, for a dinner of steamed buns and warm beer. (The previous night we’d gone out in search of non-Chinese food and ended up at a supposedly Thai restaurant where the menu looked suspiciously Chinese, and the same plaintive love song was on repeat for the entire two hours we were there.) I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to Nanjing — but I’m very grateful for its toppers.
Some thoughts on Shanghai, Sightseeing Tunnels, World Expos and Shopping For Bras. (And a few other things, too.)
-The World Expo. Shanghai is the home to this year’s world expo, a fact not particualrly cared about by anyone other than the Chinese.
The mascot of the Shanghai expo is a small, blue cartoon character who bears a strong resemblance to Gumby. His blueness, though, makes me think of a different pop culture reference. Anyone else remember the episode of 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan keeps hallucinating that there’s a little blue guy following him the set? He should not – I repeat, not – go to Shanghai until the Expo is over. That blue man is everywhere.
We’d been warned about the Expo’s lines but decided to take our chances and go anyway. And indeed, at first we were lucky – there was no line to get entrance tickets, but it was clear from the amusement park-esque waiting pens that it could easily have taken several hours. Inside seemed empty, too – though that turned out to be an illusion likely caused by the fact that we entered at the park’s unpopular end, and there was an apocalyptic rain cloud rushing across the city.
As soon as we got over to where the actual country pavillions were located (as opposed to say, pavillions for natural resources and technology companies), we caught our first glimpse of the legendary lines. Japan, for example – a giant purple structure designed to look like a silkworm – had a line so long that, looking down at it from a pedestrian walkway, I had to turn my head to find the end. No way. A family friend had warned us that if there was no line, a pavillion was likely not worth seeing – but we disregarded his advice and escaped the rain by ducking into Iran. Aside from a water feature and multiple photographs of Ahmadinejad, it was pretty empty. North Korea, also no substantial line, was similarly unimpressive, with a fountain decorated with white cherubs (both in color and ethnicity), a video screen of an opera singer and some acrobats, a photograph of what was supposed to be Pyongyang, and a banner that said “Paradise for People.” (One wonders if sanctions have also been placed on irony.) The best part was the gift shop, which had surreal postcards showing photoshopped cityscapes and larger-than-life seagulls, and a large selection of the works of Kim Jong Il. We also glanced into Iraq, bought chicken birani from Bangladesh, and talked to a puzzle maker in Mongolia.
We thought we should try to see at least one popular pavillion, and after dismissing Japan, decided to try Saudi Arabia, which was housed in an enormous dome with palm trees growing out of it and a ticker running around its top. The line already looked too long for my taste, but we tried to find the end nonetheless. Kept walking. Still a line. Kept walking. More people. Eventually the line disappeared and was replaced by holding pens full of people, each kept separate from the next by a row of policemen. There were easily seven or eight holding pens, all packed with more than 200 people a piece. When we finally found the end of the line – so far away that the giant Saudi Arabia pavillion was no longer visible – I saw a sign on a post indicating how long the wait time was estimated to be. FOUR TO FIVE HOURS. To get into Saudi Arabia. Dude, that’s about half the time it would take to actually get to the REAL Saudi Arabia. I asked a guy on line how long he thought he’d be waiting. He confirmed – fou to five hours – and then proudly announced that he’d waited for a similarly long time to see China’s pavillion, a giant inverted red pyramid that only 1/10th of daily visitors were predicted to actually be able to enter. (The fact that he was already in China seemed not to matter.)
Peter and I looked at each other, confused. What attraction would possibly be worth waiting that long for? What was inside Saudi pavillion? Did you get a free barrel of oil when you walked out?
-A thought on Chinese toilets: why do they never have toilet paper? I have spent more time than the average person thinking about Chinese restrooms – why women line up for stalls as if they’re checkout counters at a grocery store, for example, why they often don’t bother to close the doors, why even in Beijing, many Chinese women, when encountered by a Western-style toilet, will climb up on the seat as if it’s an elevated squat toilet. But this trip, I’ve been particularly interested in the lack of toilet paper. Why do they not supply it? Is it too large an investment? The reason I keep thinking about this is that every time I use the toilet (my own tissues tucked into my pocket), I end up face-to-face with a toilet paper dispenser hanging empty on the wall. This is not because it ran out; the paper never existed in the first place. (On a recent train ride, for example, the dispenser was empty before our train left the station.) And when you do get toilet paper, say in a hotel, they provide it in miniature rolls, barely enough for two Americans to make it through the day. I suppose their stinginess is probably related to the lack of toilet paper in public restrooms – hotels they gave any more, people would just put it in their purse. But still. I think that given China’s other investments these days, it’d be a worthwhile splurge.
-Lines. This is something I hate about China – no one waits on line. Instead, it is a country of cutters and mobs. If you combine a nonexistent sense of personal space with 1.4 billion people, you create circumstances that make an otherwise kind and relatively gentle American want to punch someone in the face; thisis what I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter where you are. A train station. A grocery checkout line. I even had a woman appear out of nowhere and jump into the squat toilet before me. (More power to her on that one – there was a huge pile of crap on the floor.) In the Shanghai metro, Peter and I watched as a man with a baby stroller positioned himself on the platform in a way that completely blocked the people inside from getting off. Instead of moving to the side, he plowed right through them. (In that case, more power to the baby.) Here’s a scene from our rerouted plane trip from Nanjing to Xining, taken when three flights’ worth of people were put in the same waiting room and then asked to board a bus to the tarmac. (Just before this shot, an irate customer had nearly punched the room’s one and only customer service representative in the face, resulting in an even bigger mob.)
– And lastly, shop clerks. When I first visited China in 1991, there were very few stores open to foreigners. And in those stores, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to help you. You’d have five, maybe seven clerks standing behind a counter, doing nothing, acting like it was a major pain in the ass if anyone actually wanted to buy something.
But capitalism has come to China (in fact, in many ways it’s more capitalistic than America). Now, the problem isn’t getting people to help you; it’s getting them to stop.
This is obvious just when you walk down the street – there are clerks standing outside clothing shops with small megaphones delivering a nonstop, high-pitched monologues extolling the virtues of the store’s, say, flannel shirts. We even saw a woman on the street selling fruit out of a basket who had prerecorded her sales patter and was broadcasting it from a small boombox, both saving her vocal chords and guaranteeing that any potential customers would stay at least 10 feet away.
This is annoying to begin with. But god help you if you step inside. Within seconds, you can have a phalynx of shop clerks descend upon you, occasionally with backup clerks standing several feet away, just in case you manage to escape.
Case in point, a lingerie shop I entered, in search of a replacement bra. It easily had 10 clerks for a one-room storefront. It’s awkward to have people swarm around you when you’re looking for shoes; it’s another thing when you’re shopping for bras.
Once I’d actually made the mistake of touching one (bra, not clerk), a clerk materialized from nowhere with a measuring tape and deftly lassoed me before I knew what was happening. This is an aspect of bra shopping that I hate even in the States – a situation where it is socially acceptable for a stranger to wrap string around your nipples. She plucked the correct size off the rack and continued to trail me as I made my way around the store. A different salesclerk, noticing the two bras that by that point were in my hand, took it upon herself to hand me a third, a lacy, purple number that was far from my style, but which I took from her anyway so that I wouldn’t have to linger.
Then, the dressing room. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be alone – and I was right. I’d barely gotten the first bra on when I heard a chirpy voice announce in Chinese that she would help me, and my shower curtain was pulled aside.
“It’s too small,” I tried to explain, covering my chest with my hands as she reached for me.
“It’s not too small,” she replied and dove right in, her fingers deftly manipulating the straps.
She helped me out of the bra and into my other choices – all with the shower curtain open, of course; I took a deep breath and tried to adopt the mantra that Peter’s dentist used to say to him, somewhat creepily, whenever he was about to administer a dose of novacaine: “It has to be. It just has to be.”
And, indeed, it ended well. I bought a bra, and bid her farewell with a smile. If only I had the same success on my quest for pajama pants – I was so overwhelmed by would-be helpers that I had to make an evasive manuever around a rack of tops decorated with cartoon sheep.