Friday, April 11, 2003

The China Chronicles

Sitting here, headphones on, listening to a melodic CD of Mandarin violin music I purchased while in Beijing last March. The memory it conjures is one of my daily strolls down Chegongzhuang Lu, towards the subway station in Beijing, heading to some planned destination. Every day was an adventure and a mental assault of activity, too busy to focus on all at once. On my return trip, heading back to the comfort of my hotel room in building #3 (the cheap seats), room #3403 of the Xindadu (pronounced Shin-da-doo) hotel, I passed a small music store jammed between other shops, banks and department stores.

In China you have to be alert to your surroundings or you'll miss something important. Fantastic shops and bargain palaces exist in cubby holes, not easily discernible to the naked eye unless you brave the throngs of people and their penetrating stares and explore a bit. A single entryway may give way to five shops of miscellaneous variety, normally missed from the comfort of the wide sidewalks near the road outside.

When first I ventured into this music shop, I was met with both curious and unfriendly stares. It's a bit unnerving actually and something you just have to experience to really understand what it's like. Chinese people quite literally stop what they are doing, turn and stare at you. You can paralyze a whole department store simply by walking in and carrying about your business. People will turn completely around, their mouths hanging open and gawk, not just stare, but gawk at you. Eventually, after days, weeks maybe, you get used to it.

Well, let me rephrase that.

You don't get used to it, but more accurately you learn to deal with it. You see, in a city roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire (which contains about 2.8 million people), Beijing, who's population is quintuple that of New Hampshire's, when you stand out like a turd in a fishbowl, it's rather hard to remain anonymous in a city that large. So, I began to fantasize I was a movie star.....hey, it worked for me.

The music store consisted of two rooms. The first room, upon entry, was filled with stereo equipment, speakers and the like, trance music booming into the street. The second room was full of DVD's, CD's and cassette tapes. All, if not most, were pirated. How do I know that? Well, first off because I had read in my research online prior to traveling to China, that pirated CD's and DVD's were a big industry there. Also, the price. For the price I would have paid for a single DVD in the U.S., I purchased around ten of them in Beijing.

I was in heaven.

Back at my hotel room, the twelve some odd television channels were beginning to wear on me. First off, I don't speak or understand Mandarin and there was only occasionally an old Western movie (typically John Wayne) dubbed in English. So, I scarfed up DVD movies left and right. My first haul was four DVD movies. On successive trips I was walking out of that store with twelve and twenty of them. Most worked fine, typically two discs, no menu, no reverse so you had better watch all of one disc or risk having to start all over again. Some didn't work at all, but for about .50 cents to a dollar and a half per DVD, I felt I could afford to be cheated a bit.

The DVD police never showed up at my door, I enjoyed full length movies and I began to develop a relationship of sorts with the sales girl in the shop. She, like others in markets or department stores, would follow me wherever I went, hovering close in case I needed assistance. At first, due to my American programming, I thought I was being watched in case I decided to steal something, but later discovered this was only the helpful way of the Chinese.

One day, just short of my departure back to the states, after a particularly busy day out sightseeing and getting in some last minute shopping, I stopped into the music store to sift through the DVD's in the rare chance I could find something I hadn't seen. I walked from isle to isle, the petite salesgirl in tow, and suddenly heard Jingle Bells being played over the speaker system. We both looked at one another and began to sing, both of us smiling widely, reminiscent of the final scene at the Chinese Restaurant in "Christmas Story."

We both had a good laugh after the last few bars of Jingle Bells, I paid my fee for my two DVD's and the Mandarin violin CD I'm listening to now, and said a final goodbye, mentioning that I was returning to the U.S. the next day. "Ahhh. Yes, yes. I see, I see, you too, you too," she said, smiling widely as I exited the shop....

She had no clue what I'd said.....



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