Thursday, December 14, 2006

Italian Noodles, Chinese Fire

Lately we seem to be seeing a lot of He Le, the young and charismatic owner of the bar China Fire. Last Saturday he invited us to invade his bar in the afternoon to cook Western food, and stay all night to hang out and drink. The menu included spaghetti, steak (of sorts), fruit salad, fish, and kebabs. I haven't had pasta (or "Italian noodles" as it is known here) for around 11 months, so I was pretty thrilled. He Le provided the spaghetti and other ingredients that you can't find here, and was suspiciously unwilling to give away his source. I suppose somewhere in the back alleys of Lanzhou there is an illicit trade in Oregano.

China Fire is getting well ready for Christmas, and luckily Stephen was able to provide us with accompanying music on his iPod. It turns out I love Christmas music when it hasn't been shadowing my every step for 8 weeks. We've become fond of He Le; when he has a free moment, he loves to come over and play cards, chat, and encourage drinking games. His girlfriend also seems to be among the friendliest and most approachable girls I've met in Zhangye.

My Chinese teacher Lina was also in attendance, and was responsible for probably my favorite moment of the evening. As is her habit, Danielle was overly excited about something or other during a drinking game, and said "shit!". So Lina (who is an extraordinarly polite young Chinese woman) said "Danny is always saying 'shit'. What does 'shit' mean?" Maybe you had to be there. Altogether I spent around 7 hours at China Fire, and in fact we were there last night, only to be invited again tonight for Danielle's birthday. I think my social life in Zhangye is probably more enjoyable than at college.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Chinese "Friends" in Bars

With the addition of two young American Peace Corps teachers in Zhangye this term, the "Friday Nights for Foreigners" tradition that began last term has been much more lively. We always meet for dinner on Friday, and this term we generally end the evening bar-hopping on European Street. Yes, that was "bar-hopping"; Zhangye, with its nearest international neighbor being Mongolia, has a cooler bar scene than my American hometown. In particular we've come to like two: "Gary's Friend's Bar", with the owner's girlfriend being a generally agreed front-runner for Most Beautiful Woman in Zhangye, and China Fire. China Fire has a good logo to go with a great name: the place is covered in posters with a flaming huo, the character for "fire".

Strange and amusing things usually happen when foreigners stay up past the time that decent people go to bed in Zhangye. Last time I went out, we attracted an unwelcome, but not unusual, amount of attention at Gary's Friend's Bar. This was, of course, focused on Danielle, who is not only foreign but a young female with blonde hair. She was double-teamed or triple-teamed this time, with a guy on each side, one of whom Gary was sure was Japanese. To this he would only respond confusingly, in English, "I am Japanese guide-o!". By the end of the night, Danielle told me "I think I've been told 'I love you' more times tonight than during the rest of my life combined". I had my own new best friend, who was drunk and mostly repeated the same conversation about seeing me play guitar at Hexi University, occasionally adding emphasis by playing air-guitar and saying "very beautiful!" in English.

Stephen also got a lot of attention, as his beard and long hair also make him a particular novelty. The owner of the bar, Gary's friend, insisted he looked like someone, whose Chinese name didn't make sense to any of us. Finally he found a photo in a magazine: Viggo Mortensen, best known for playing "Aragorn" in The Lord of the Rings. Apparently worried that the hero among us might be under-armed, he fetched a large and expensive-looking dagger (from where, I have no idea) and insisted that Stephen accept it as a gift. Someone soon pointed out that "hey, you look like him too!", referring to the poster of Kurt Cobain on the back wall. To anyone who has felt embarrassed about not being able to tell Chinese people apart, I assure you that they can't tell us apart, and are probably less embarrassed about it. As the swarming of weird, drunk Chinese men began, Stephen, who normally leaves early because his school is farther away, asked "is it usually like this after I leave?", and we assured him it was nothing out of the ordinary.

In an earlier night at the "Halloween Bar" (giant fake spiderweb on the wall), Danielle attracted a particularly persistent friend. As can be seen from the picture (which Danielle may or may not appreciate me putting on the internet), he had had a fair share of alcohol, and was getting a little too close for her comfort. Interacting with locals who pay no attention to the language barrier is generally a good thing, but possibly Danielle finds an exception in sweet nothings being whispered into her ear in unintelligible Chinese, peppered with the occasional "I love you" in English. But then again I could be wrong.

Live in Zhangye Prison

As probably goes without saying, performing rock music inside a prison to a crowd of Chinese criminals was memorable. For some reason, none of the Chinese people I was with seemed to find it as amusing as I did. The daily stares from Chinese people haven't fazed me for a long time, but as we walked through the room towards the stage, I couldn't help but feel self-conscious about a few hundred convicts turning in unison to watch my every move. The performance was on a rather official-looking stage in the cafeteria, with a red banner about World Aids Day; it seems the prison has a decent entertainment budget.

I hadn't practiced with them for months, and even on the stage I had not the slightest idea what songs we were playing. I finally asked Little Ma what song we were going to play first, and he just said "don't worry, we're playing the songs you know". For some reason the Guitar Club is not keen on learning new songs. The music went over pretty well with the audience, which included the guards at the front, and Little Ma knows how to entertain a crowd (not that I ever know what he's saying). The power went out during the middle of a song, which was slightly awkward (I'll refrain from making any cheesy comments about our "rocking out" here), but otherwise things went well. A few of the inmates actually performed, with mixed results, and I was unfortunately talked into a poor performance of an English song. I refuse to sing in front of a crowd of three in America, yet in China somehow I'm willing to sing in front of more than 200 prisoners. And Hotel California reared its monstrous, outdated head again, with just me and Little Ma playing guitar. I hope there aren't any serious long-term effects on my taste in music from my stay in China. But I think my favorite moment was near the end, when my friend encouraged the crowd to join him in a sing-along of a song that everyone but me seemed to know by heart, and I was treated to the spectacle of dozens of hardened young men singing their hearts out to a daydreamy Chinese song from the inside of a prison. Just when I think there are few surprises left in Zhangye...