Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pakistani Politics and Sex Manuals

Andy left for Europe this morning and my friend Guillaume came to stay with me for the weekend. Our new apartment was still in a state of chaos but men seem to be fairly dismissive of cartons-piles-of-books-and-stacks-of-paintings in the middle of a room. The guest room was filled with boxes of things-we-do-not-need-but-cannot-bear-to-throw-away, as well as an antiquated refrigerator that had traveled from Africa to China, only to find that it was not needed since the apartment boasted a modern refrigerator in its kitchen. Guillaume suggested that we keep the extra refrigerator to store drinks for all the parties we were meant to host in the coming months. I suppose that as long as a bed, bathroom, and beer-filled refrigerator are easily accessible, most male guests are quite content, eh?
That evening we met my friends Sal and Henriette at a local hole-in-the-wall that was renown for an excellent Chinese kitchen. We were greeting by the sounds of oil splattering in a pseudo open kitchen where cooks shouted, smoked and tossed about pans. Complimenting this symphony were customers who slammed their beer bottles on the tables, released a cacophony of deep burps, and snapped their fingers for the waiters to serve them. Bereft of decorations, the restaurant’s floor was covered with a deep layer of spat-out-bones, chopsticks, and crumpled up napkins. A smell of food that had been deep-fried in once-twice-thrice used oil hung in the air and it mingled with the stale smell of cigarettes and sweat. The fact that we were the only foreigners was a confirmation of our choice, and within the hour the cue of waiting diners began to snake onto the street, their stares boring into the backs of our heads.

We were not quite ready to leave and asked for another round of beers. Our exchange with the waitress was a stunning example of how local rules of social etiquette differ greatly from those in the West. Smiling or being friendly to someone you don't know well can be considered rude or too familiar and in fact, diners can be aggressive, dismissive and outright rude to wait staff. As a result, not only was the waitress uninterested in the overtures made by our table of overfriendly smiling buffoons, she also seemed a bit frightened, recoiling from us like a confused deer. She brought our beers but they were lukewarm. We asked for cold beers and instead, she brought us a bowl of ice and some coffee mugs. A game of failed miming ensued and we reconciled ourselves with drinking the local white wine, whose taste bears a startling resemblance to a product I use at home to clean to deodorize the garbage disposal.

After dinner we crossed the road to a bar called Zapatas, and this Mexican watering hole was littered with drunken foreigners belting out the lyrics to songs from the 80’s and wiggling into the shapes of YMCA. We were told that a plethora of Asian prostitutes slithered about but in the sometimes-seedy nightlife of Shanghai there were many subtle shades of prostitution. How could one differentiate between the entertainers, Tiger girls, bar girls, butterflies, hostesses, and flirtatious women? The expectations of the girls waiting on the main road (Tongren Lu) were clear, however since they pounced into taxis if the passenger did not shut the door quickly enough. But for anyone confused about ones own professional inclination, help was at hand from the kindly bouncers at Zapatas as demonstrated by this sign:

Feeling a bit like a virginal maiden thrown into an American fraternity party at 3am after all the kegs had been consumed and the boys were blurry eyed, I stood and watched as people danced. A young man approached me and we started chatting. He claimed to be a young official from the Pakistani government and we began to discuss politics. Note to readers: never mix Tequila and politics. The conversation become quite serious and we were engaged in quite an inflamed, yet drunken, conversation about Pakistani and regional politics. I would spend the following day groaning and moaning about this poisonous drink called Tequila, utterly incapable of rapid movement.

Distracted by a woman who was eying him and realizing that our interaction would be limited to conversation - albeit torrid from a verbal sense - my new friend excused himself, under the pretense of going to the restroom. I resumed my mild voyeuristic journey and watched people interact-flirt-and-conquer from afar. One woman made an impact on me: wearing a midriff baring sequined tank top, plastic white go-go boots and a skirt that tickled the top of her thighs, her jet-black hair extensions reached her lower back. Men were gathered below her, handing her shots, while she danced seductively on the top of the bar. Gyrating and insinuating, I wondered which foreigner prey she would capture that evening.

Was this the new China? The government tries to convince us that overall poverty is lessening and the "Made in China" tag is also morphing into something with more panache and glamour that moves past producing higher-quality flashlights to be a revolution led by style gurus who are fashioning a modern Chinese aesthetic, redefining craftsmanship in everything from architecture, film and cuisine. Passé are the epic films with plum-cheeked peasant girls tilling the yellow earth, as are the urban soldiers marching in ill-fitting polyester Mao suits. Today, discerning Chinese dine on raspberry tea-smoked duck, wear Mandarin-inspired suits and buy contemporized calligraphy to decorate the Suzhou-silk walls of their weekend villas. The movies they watch - on pirated DVDs - portray urban Chinese sipping green tea cappuccinos from Starbucks and perusing sex manuals such as 50 Shades of Grey translated into Mandarin.

No comments: