Tuesday, June 13, 2006

China Stories Pt. 11: The Work Unit Guesthouse

After our train arrived in Chengdu, our new friend took us to his work unit guesthouse. It was nice to walk out of the train station with someone local. Coming out of the train station can be intimidating. There are unlicensed taxi drivers standing around, who try to get you to go with them. They take advantage of your being disoriented, they don't have meters, and its very easy to be taken advantage of.

We were happy to avoid the shady characters outside the train station. But on the other hand, we were getting into a van with a guy we met on the train. Were we crazy?

Well, no, I don't think so. It felt completely above-board. I'm pretty hazy on this particular detail, but I think Bob and I both felt pretty comfortable.

For the most part, as a foreigner in China, I felt pretty safe from the typical run-of-the-mill crime. Foreigners were still somewhat... exotic. Set apart. People didn't really know how to deal with us. Nobody wanted to have much to do with us outside of transactional situations ("I'll have a bowl of noodles."). The threat of creating a spectacle sometimes came in handy.

The work unit was not only centrally located, it was virtually across the street from a famous Buddhist temple, one of the main tourist attractions in Chengdu.

Our host led us through a dark arch way into a small courtyard, and told us to wait. After a few minutes, our host came back, and led us to the guesthouse.

The "guesthouse" was really just a four-room apartment. It had two bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom, sort of. It didn't so much have a bath, as it had a tiled basin you could stand in. And it didn't so much have running hot water, as it had a couple of gas burners and kettles. You could heat water for a bath in the kettles, and then mix it with cold water in a small wash basin and pour it over yourself. No problem. It was just for a couple of days.

Bob and I with our hosts at the work unit in Chengdu. Room temp: about 40 degrees F.

It really looked quite comfortable. We set our bags down, and our host insisted on making us tea. While he made us tea, a couple of other people came in to talk to us. We made small talk. It was made smaller by the fact that our new visitors had Sichuan accents, and we could only understand about half of what they said. I did a lot of nodding.

They were speaking Mandarin, but it was somewhat different. And some words were completely different. "American" in Mandarin is "mei guo ren." In Sichuan, however, it sounded like "mei gui ren."

"So what?" I hear you asking. Well, "gui" can mean "devil." As I heard this walking around in Chengdu, I wondered: were all these people calling us "American devils?"

Eventually we were able to clarify.

After a cup of tea, our hosts took their leave, and Bob and I looked around our little apartment.

"Hey," we thought. "This will be just fine."

We took the dust cover off the TV and turned it on. Since it was Spring Festival, CCTV was showing their giant spring festival special, a program that lasts, I think, 3 days. Seemed like it.

We saw a foreigner on the program, Dashan. He was a Canadian expat who frequently appeared on TV and who spoke, to my ears, near flawless Mandarin. I mean, really good. He was accomplished in something called "xiang sheng," a type of comedic dialogue that relies on speed and puns/homonyms. It's similar to Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First." (I had seen him at Bei Da, where he was a student. I'd heard that he frequently wore a "Canada" Hockey sweater because he did not like to be mistaken for an American.)


The Spring Festival TV show was punctuated by loud bursts of firecrackers coming from outside our windows. As the city geared up for New Year's, we knew that it would get steadily louder until it sounded like we were under attack.

Eventually we got tired, and decided to go to bed. Then we realized: hey, it's cold in here. No problem, we thought. We'll just.... Oh. There's no heat.

Bob and I cheerfully adapted to our surroundings. I went to bed that night under a heavy comforter, wearing long underwear, pants, two pairs of socks, two shirts, a jacket, a hat and gloves.

I heard a rustling noise from the next room.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm running in place under the covers to try to warm up," he said.

I tried running in place too, and it did help a little. I lay on my back, watching my breath curl up towards the ceiling.

"At least we're saving money," Bob, said.

We both laughed, knowing that the small amount we were saving by not staying in a real hotel in NO way made up for the lack of heat and running hot water.

Yet we also knew that no amount of money spent at a hotel could have given us such a unique experience.


At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The threat of creating a spectacle sometimes came in handy."

Sounds like the life of a toddler.

Keep going!!

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Misha said...


When I lived in Tokyo, our "apartment complex" (one room studios with enough room for a futon and a sink) had one shared bathroom down the hall, and it was just an "eastern" toilet (urinal in the floor that you had to squat over - trying to pee in it while extremely drunk was an adventure for a woman).

And my room (that I was sharing with my sister) had the only sink that had hot water.

There was no shower, so we showered at a tanning salon a block away.

All for $1200 a month.

Good times.

At 6:32 AM, Anonymous Hazel said...

more more more...what happens next?????


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