Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Back to China

I should've applied for a China visa in the US. Guess I thought maaaybe my work visa hadn't been canceled. It had been. Applying in Vientiane requires a stupid pile of paperwork, it was so frustrating that I had to resurrect my China mantra, the one I retired five months ago: "No why, Leslie. No why..."

I assembled everything Friday and headed to the embassy. There was a sign posted outside the office saying it was closed for Labor Day. All the rage boiled up inside me and I thought I might start cursing the heavens and gnashing my teeth because if the office was closed Friday there was no way I was going to get a visa by Monday and thus no way to make the Tuesday flight I'd already booked, but then I walked inside and they were, improbably, open for business. "Yeah. Sure you can apply for your visa here. Today."

Of course it's not that simple, you file documents at the embassy, but you have to go to a bank across town to pay for it. Ugh. Whatever, China. At this point, I wasn't even surprised, still running on the relief of being able to drop off my paperwork.

I wandered outside and wondered how I was going to get to this bank since there were no tuk-tuks in sight, but then a Chinese guy who was behind me in line stepped out. Maybe he had to go to the bank too. He offered me a ride and was all excited and surprised that I speaka the Zhongwen.

On the way to the bank, he talks to me about a middle-aged Chinese person's favorite thing (or, one of) to talk to a foreigner about: Chengyu. He's a businessman here in Laos. He manufactures hard liquor and charcoal bricks (I had to look up the word for the latter later, I just knew he kept mentioning "wood something"). He explains a chengyu to me about how a poor man is always trying to get rich. Where other people might see poverty as the hand of God, he says, Chinese people see it as something to overcome.

After I'm done in the bank he offers to drive me back to my hotel, it's not far out of his way. When we arrive he says he has a couple hours of work but afterward he wants to have lunch. I've already made it clear I'm not doing anything, so I agree.

The restaurant has views of the Mekong, with Thailand visible on the opposite bank. Since that's where my trip started, it felt a bit like coming full circle.

Over several plates of seafood, we talked about everything. Or mostly everything about China - Xi Jinping, rich Chinese people, nouveau rich Chinese people, the exhausting hurry-hurry culture of Shanghai and Beijing that made him opt to set up in laid-back Vientiane.

At the end of the meal, he says he wants to take me to Sichuan hot pot for dinner. At one point at lunch I'd slipped in the advisory "My boyfriend blah blah blah" anecdote. I got zero creepy vibes from him. He wasn't nervous. He wasn't trying to impress or charm me. And I, once again, obviously had zero things to do. So I said okay.

But back at my hotel, I started to get cold feet. The afternoon sun was so hot and my brain was already exhausted from speaking Chinese for two hours. Plus wasn't two meals overkill?

I try to walk a fine line between being a cautious person and not declining things based on outsized fears. So in this case the fine line was deciding I was going to go to dinner, but I emailed James with my hotel details, local cell phone number and instructions that I'd email him again in several hours after the meal. Plus I wrote down the number for Vientiane police and the 24-hour US embassy duty officer hotline. Like I said, cautious.

Dinner went off without a hitch. I didn't expect to be eating delicious spicy Chinese hot pot - the kind where they give you a separate dish of un-spiced oil so you can leach off some of the fire - in Laos. And I was surprised and pleased with how my Mandarin held up after five months without practice. When we were finished eating he asked if I wanted to join his friends for karaoke but this time I begged off. Then he had a waitress take a picture of us together and said how glad he was to have made friends, that I was the first American he'd really talked to.

Ah-ha. Of course. Here was a fairly educated Chinese guy - living abroad, interested in what's going on in the world - but who doesn't speak English. There aren't so many of us Chinese-conversant Westerners floating around. I guess I forget that after living in Shanghai and Beijing where we're a dime a dozen. That's why I'm two-meal worthy.

He dropped me back at my hotel and we exchanged emails and emphatic invitations to each other's hometowns.

And so, my day of preparations to re-enter China started with the worst of what I've learned to expect from my home of three years (bureaucracy) and ended with the best, good food and hospitality.

On to Yunnan!

No comments: