After mr Li surprised me with his proposal three weeks ago (time flies when you’re having fun), it is finally time for me to repay the favour. Today is his 25th birthday, and while he knows that I am coming to Beijing to visit him, he believes I will arrive as usual around 9.40pm. In fact it is 1.45pm and I am already halfway to Beijing, as I plan to surprise him at the office. To make sure that he will stay at the office if I can’t be there on time I have told him a Kuaidai 快递 delivery guy will be arriving with a “little present”, although I wouldn’t call myself little.
This plan might go very well, or it might descend into chaos, as life usually does when I am involved. So far, Mr. Li called me to tell me that we had gotten a 10,000 word translation project from his old company, which will make us a nice batch of money for our honeymoon. That being said, it needs to be done by Monday and so, instead of a relaxed weekend, we are now looking at a full blown translation session.
Of course he called me on the train and so the announcements were blasting away in the background while I frantically tried to hold my hand over the microphone, making growling noises of acknowledgement and attempts at conversation and making up stories about where I am and what I am working on at this particular time. Especially since he already said to me this morning
“I hope you are not arriving any earlier than you said, as my flat is a mess and I still need to clean it.”
I am quite sure he suspects my not so masterful master plan. Ah, well. But it’s the thought that counts.
Chaos Incarnate – Beijing Traffic
The whole plan went very well overall, as I stormed out of the train station and hopped on the metro with my Baidu maps in hand and an hour to spare before he got off work. Up until I exited the station everything was fine. I arrived at the Shuangjing stop with almost half an hour left. I was doing good, I thought, and that is the exact moment when all hell broke loose. First I managed to jump on the right bus, but in the wrong direction. Since I had already given the driver a stern look to let me on the bus although it had already pulled one meter out of the stop and was stuck in traffic, I did feel worried that after he bent the rules to let me on, he might descend into a rage if I now demanded he let me off again. Of course, this was at Shuangjing Bridge, one of the most busy intersections in the area; although to be fair everywhere is busy in Beijing on a Friday at rush hour. So for the next 10 minutes we were stuck in traffic at the crossing as each green light period for all the other cars went on and on and on. Jumping off the bus at the next stop and storming onto the other sided of the street via the footbridge (in most large Chinese cities a majority of roads will have footbridges probably to save the lives of pedestrians who would otherwise be run over by the crazy drivers China is infamous for – most of them cabbies).
Luckily, I managed to get a taxi, however the moment I was getting in to the car, Mr Li called.
“Can I call you back? I am just going through the security check at the train station” I announced.
After telling the driver where I wanted to go and him setting off Mr. Li asked for the phone number of the delivery guy (I had told him that the delivery would arrive at the office at 5.30). Now I was out of excuses and frantically trying to think of a valid reason as to why I couldn’t give him the non-existent phone number of an even less existent delivery guy. When he called me back all I could come up with was
“The delivery guy is stuck at Shuangjing. He will be there in 5 mins.”
Of course at this point he put two and two together as for one Chinese delivery guys usually only deliver packages in the morning, but of course my exact knowledge of Mr Delivery Guy’s whereabouts ultimately gave me away. Next I had to use my phone to navigate the taxi driver, who as it turns out had no clue whatsoever where the address was I had given him (a very common occurrence amongst Chinese taxi drivers, especially since few have navigational systems in their cars).
I did manage to find the offices though and “surprised” Mr Li, after which we went for a lovely hotspot meal at Xiapu Xiapu 呷浦呷浦火锅 with his colleagues. This hotspot restaurant, while delicious, is very representative of how much Chinese love noise. At the entrance a woman with a microphone-headset greets you, after which all the staff in the entire restaurant shout out
“Welcome to Xiapu Xiapu!!!”
But wait, there’s more. Once you pay by card, the lady at the entrance screams into her mic for the whole restaurant to hear that
“One person is on the way to the cashier to pay by card!”
If she is sending guests down into the latter part of the restaurant she will shout instructions as to how many people await their table. Finally, when one leaves she screams this information into her device, so the entire restaurant can once again chant in unison
“Thank you for visiting our restaurant, see you again next time!!!”
The combination of one of this nation’s favorite foods with inexpensive prices makes it incredibly popular and so guests will arrive, be seated, pay or leave approximately every 3 minutes. To add to that we had only managed to get a seat right by the entrance, and so were in full blast range of the “greeting lady’s” sonorous announcements. Well, after having spent over two years in China, I have developed an effective coping mechanism for the country’s often terribly noisy environment – simply ignore it. And so I munched away at my delicious hotspot, which I had been hoping I would be enjoying this weekend, as there is definitely a reason it is so popular here. It is simply fantastic after all.
The Cake Conundrum
Afterwards we took home the birthday cake Mr.Li’s colleagues had bought him, since he never likes to make a public spectacle of himself, as opposed to myself. He didn’t even want us to sing Happy Birthday in public and so we trudged home with a far too large cake just for the two of us. Strangely, it was a Black Forest cake, which is where my parents live and where I will be going in a few weeks time.
Cakes are a very interesting subject when you live in China. Because milk, butter and cream are not part of traditional Chinese diet, the cake culture here used be extremely limited. At some point in the past, the Chinese did decide it was time to imitate the sweet deliciousness that can be found in most of the rest of the world and the results looked stunningly beautiful. That was however were the similarities with real cake stopped, as the Chinese cakes were filled with what has been nicknamed by most as “fake cream”. It tastes even worse than it sounds, but the meanest part is it looks exactly the same as real whipped cream. Many a foreigner will go through a serious case of disappointment upon purchasing what looks like a delicious cream torte but tastes a bit like what you imagine decorative spray foam must (not that I ever intend to find out whether that is a appropriate comparison).
Thank god for China’s opening up and the South Koreans. With the former having started importing more and more food over the last decades, nowadays one can get cakes that are splendid not only by looks but also by taste. The latter, having been exposed to US culture for decades, are well-versed in the art of cake making and have therefore opened countless bakeries with French names (just to make things more confusing) such as Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette, that sell delicious baked goods in any city that is second tier and above. Sadly, I am afraid that my dear Hohhot probably does not qualify yet, and so I do not believe it will be possible to get our hands on a great cake. This means that the decision whether or not to have a wedding cake at the Chinese wedding was made for us; but then that is healthier anyway.
Having received the big big translation job, which needed to be finished by Sunday evening, we spent the entire rest of the weekend working on translation and formatting of power points and proof reading. I was more disappointed about this than Mr Li, who never makes a big deal out of his birthday. According to him, Chinese do not celebrate their birthday the way we do, after all how is being born an achievement on your part? What I do find worthy of applause is a comment his cousin made: “Have you already called your mum and thanked her for bringing you into this world?” I actually like the idea that the mother is given credit for giving birth to a child on a person’s birthday. The Chinese saying to go with this (I maintain there is always an appropriate Chinese saying for any situation) is
“A child’s birthday is a hard day for a mother.”
So, after a rather busy weekend stuck behind the computer, I am back on the high-speed train to Nanjing, feeling a little sad that the weekend was over so quickly. While most of the time I am fine about being in a long-distance relationship, sometimes – and today is one of those times – it really sucks. I was cooking pasta for Mr. Li earlier today while he was helping me format the translation and he remarked “I miss the times when we lived together just like this” and I have to agree. I look forward to the day we will be in one city again, with a bit of luck that day is not too far off.