No Meat, No Rats, No Dysentery: Food Road Rules

Cambodian market food

It will be fine it will be fine it WILL be fine

It had been a busy day of Hangzhou-ing, and we were ready to eat. It was murky and rainy out and we quickly moved from restaurant to restaurant, trying to find any that would pique our interests. The famousest and fanciest of Chinese eateries were long full and boasted impressive waiting lines.

We eventually settled on one tidy, pleasantly mediocre-looking joint. Jen, our life coach and Chinese interpreter, set about discussing what to eat with the waitresses, while another staff member led us to a room in the back. We filed into what appeared to be my grandfather’s dining room circa 1947, and began gathering around the table, which was draped in an enormous doily and then sealed in mylar.

Agnes cringed as she pulled out her chair, and pointed to the skittering vermin that she had loosed. It flexed its pincers or tendrils or legs or whatever at us angrily, unhappy at being disturbed. “That’s a fairly large cockroach,” Agnes muttered, attempting to undersell this monstrosity. If the cockroach had sat down to the meal with us he could have fit in an infant’s high chair and requested a kid’s menu.

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The Language Babysitters and the Grown-Up Infant

In use

Don’t worry, my surrogate mom will deal with this.

I sat in my apartment, thumbs twiddling. I was waiting for a mysterious stranger. There was no way of contacting her–my cell phone and internet service had been cut off, which was what prompted her visit. I turned off the lights to wait in the dark, as being without internet or cellular made me feel like a caveman anyways.

My real estate agent had sent her. Charlie was twenty-something and awkwardly tall, as though the material that made up his body had been stretched too thin beyond the original blueprints. His English was superb, which was his purpose in my life. Aside from securing the apartment in which I currently dwell, he was also my personal caretaker. He dealt with my problems when they grew to a complexity beyond what cereal to buy or how to brush my teeth.

Confronted with a cell phone that no longer cell phoned, I grunted and bawked and mashed at it like a Neanderthal or a grandpa dealing with a DVD player. My technology no longer did technological things, and I was already out of ideas. I scratched at my heavy, sloped brow, and attempted to wifi-squat until I could contact Charlie and whine at him to solve my problems for me.

Within hours Charlie had conscripted a young woman to find me at my apartment and shepherd me through the city. She attempted to give me a ride on the back of her tiny, delicate scooter, but being twice her height and weight made the prospect unfeasible, and her offer to let me drive her vehicle through the rain in Chinese traffic terrified me to the core.

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Crash Positions and the Bag Boy

Straight razor

“I’ll have a little off the top, please.”

I entered the salon prepared for battle.

Years of terrible Korean haircuts meant a trove of neuroses as dense and fibrous as the mop of hair I was then sporting. Every excursion to a hair stylist meant almost certain doom and failure, a horrific exchange of miscommunications and dire proclamations of woe from both customer and merchant. It meant dismay and misfortune, it meant a furrowed brow and a trembling hand, and it meant a series of really dumb haircuts.

Over time my defences grew strong and I tried to mitigate the destruction rent upon my scalp through readiness. I knew vocabulary in Korean, as I now do in Chinese, to describe vaguely the kind of haircut I desire. I photos of myself from multiple angles with an approximate coiffure goal. I can draw myself in comic form, present a rule to give exact dimensions, and even guide them physically if necessary. A bad haircut in the latter days of Korea was a hard-won failure, but at least the fault was entirely upon the barbers, and not on me.

And so as I entered the salon in China, I was similarly clad for war. I had my pictures and my words, my sternest expression, my exact specifications and the blueprint for my head, the support beams and the girders and the gridlines required to sculpt my scalp into something vaguely like what I desired. My lip was curled, and my fist was around my phone, which was already scrolled to a picture of me, shorn-headed, with a similarly scornful sneer spread across my face.

“Sit down over there,” the barber said, rivulets of tedium pulsing through his voice. “I’ll shampoo you in a second. What kind of haircut do you want?”

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The Every-Asia and the Ghost of the 7-11

The path

Good old Anywhere, Asia. Right?

My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.

Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.

Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.

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The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

Inwangsan Route

On strange streets, far far away, no one can see you at all.

My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.

Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance.  Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.

As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.

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Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

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Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket

Trinket town

This is the Buddha head selection station. The Buddha head buying station is around the block.

I clutch the most boyish thermos I could find amongst the sea of shiny pink and purple aluminum. A Chinese mall thrums around me on all sides, and this one particular sector is dedicated only to mugs and coffee containers. A young saleswoman hovers around a laptop, scowling every time I turn her way, knowing our interaction will involve a lot of pantomime, frustration, and tedium. She awaits my dull, Mandarin-less grunts with dutiful stoicism.

When I move towards her and indicate that I have found my desired item, she asks me a few questions, to which I answer yes, as it is one of the few words I have learned thus far. She taps away at the laptop and then begins scribing an enormous, hand-written scroll of instructions and numbers and arcane glyphs, which I assume I will need as incantations to summon Pazuzu. She hands me the slip of paper, clutches my thermos loosely and waves me away with my desired possessions gripped possessively in her talons.

I stare around my surroundings, pondering my next step. Everywhere there are desks, laptops, angry and tired-looking staff waiting at the ready, taking things away from shoppers. I am more than a little dazed. I wonder if I need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt, if I am being summoned into a hero’s quest and will need to bring this woman back the Golden Fleece. Perhaps I will need to answer a troll’s riddle? Or slay a dragon. Or maybe this is an Ikea situation, and my theoretical thermos was only a floor model, and my little slip of paper was actually a map, a guide, a thorough set of instructions on how to spelunk the depths of the storehouse below us to find the shrink-wrapped and ready version of my cup.

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