Tuesday, 27 May 1997. Second day in Shenzhen, People's Republic of China.
It's about 7 a.m. I had a good sleep. I'm ready for breakfast. However, I was not ready for the CATASTROPHE ...
I get out of my room and ...
I see Basheer in the hall, with a somber face. He tells me the bad news:
SUKRAN'S HAIRDRYER DOESN'T WORK!!!
Basheer and I know well this is an emergency not to be taken lightly. On a previous trip, to Rio, Brazil, Sukran had trouble with another hairdryer. We had to go on a taxi, on a Sunday night, searching all of Rio, from the Sugar Loaf to the Corcovado, from Flamengo to Copacabana to Ipanema to Barra da Tijuca, looking for an adapter she needed for her hairdryer. We couldn't find one. She was on the verge of committing suicide. Finally, well past midnight, a hotel maintenance man saved her life. The hero limed the plug's metal prongs so they could fit in the Brazilian-style electrical outlet.
This time, the problem is different, she tells us. She had bought in Houston an "international" hairdryer with all kinds of adapters and built-in-transformers. It is supposed to work everywhere, from Tanganyika to Afghanistan to Mongolia. Well ... guess what? It doesn't work in China.
Sukran decides what she needs is another transformer, from 220v to 110v. Basheer and I are not sure that's the problem because the hairdryer does have a 110v-220v switch. But there's no point in arguing; when Sukran makes up her mind ... We need to find a transformer to save her life.
I'm worried. If Sukran dies, who's going to present our paper in Malaysia? She's the only one who can do it, she's the only who knows the names of the data files in the notebook. (She has a strange system; the file names are in Turkish, I think. Or is it Kurdish?) We need to get a transformer!
We ask our hosts but they don't even know what a transformer is. What are we going to do? If we had all that trouble in cosmopolitan Rio, what can we expect in xenophobic Red China?
(I wonder, what kind of hairdryer did Mao use? Maybe that's why he got bald. Quality certainly improved with Deng Xiaoping; he died with all his hair on.)
Don't ask me how, but we manage to calm Sukran down. She is resigned to go out without drying her hair today. But we need to get a transformer!
(As far as I'm able to understand, Sukran cannot style her hair without a hairdryer. I'm tempted to say I don't see any difference on her - with or without hairdryer. But I'm not that crazy. She might knock me down with a Kung Fu kick.)
We go to an elegant Chinese restaurant for breakfast. Cantonese style. The place is huge! And crowded too. There is no menu. Waitresses push carts stacked up with bamboo baskets of dim sum dishes. Customers choose something directly from the cart.
Dim sum is a snack-like collection of all sorts of little delicacies. They say there are over 1000 variations. It's uniquely Cantonese and justifiably famous. Dim sum means 'snack' although its literal character translation is 'to touch the heart'. The act of eating dim sum is sometimes called yum cha which means 'to drink tea'. This is because dim sum is always served with tea.
Eating dim sum is a social occasion, something one should do in a group in order to share many different dishes. Dim sum delicacies are usually steamed in small bamboo baskets. Each basket contains four identical pieces, so four people is the ideal number for a meal. We are six, so we have to order two baskets of each kind.
Many of the dishes are based on seafood, something Westerners don't usually associate with breakfast. Squid on a stick and sea horse soup, for example. What else? duck feet, lotus leaves, spicy spare ribs, steamed tripe, minced pork, beef balls, bamboo leaves, taro puffs, fried rice triangles, spring rolls, and all kinds of dumplings (pork, beef, shrimp, shark fin ...).
Some sweets too: coconut pudding cubes, egg pudding, steamed lotus paste buns, wrapped coconut, peanut and sesame ...
I don't see anything that resembles bread, cheese or milk. Tea is the norm; coffee is difficult to get. There is a cereal porridge boiled in fish stock. Another porridge is based on red beans, not cereal; it's quite sweet. As with any Chinese meal, we get lots of steamed, plain, white, gummy rice as a side dish.
I see duck eggs of two kinds. One is white as expected, but it tastes surprisingly sweet. The other kind is the so called thousand-year-old egg. On this preparation, duck eggs are soaked in a special chemical solution for several days. This turns the white of the egg green and the yolk black. In the old times, the 'chemical' used to soak the eggs was horse urine. Maybe they still use that, who knows. This is supposed to be an authentic Cantonese restaurant, and what can be more authentically Cantonese than thousand-year-old eggs with horse urine? The eggs smell like ammonia ... Actually, I like them. I like most of the dishes. I think dim sum is wonderful. I should try more of it in Houston.
There are no salt shakers but there is a pepper one. There are three small bottles containing soy sauce, a dark vinegar, and sesame oil. Chinese don't dump sauces on their food; they pour and mix the three kinds on a separate dish and dip the food into it.
No fork and knife, of course. Chopsticks - and ceramic spoons for the porridge and soup.
Our hosts take us to a shopping mall in downtown. It's a multiple story department store. Very Western, not unlike a big Sears. High fashion designer clothes, shoes, handbags ... Italian and French brand names ... ARRGHHH!! Disgusting! The Chinese are imitating the worst of the West. Everybody is Chinese but surprisingly the mannequins are European looking, blonde and tall. The ideal of beauty also comes from the West. A pity ... Chinese are beautiful people, with a very old civilization and wonderful traditions ... there's no need for this type of inferiority complex.
Electronic stores everywhere. Computers, digital cameras, TVs, camcorders, cellular phones ... Orientals, specially Japanese, Koreans and Chinese, have always impressed me as fascinated by electronics. Sukran should not have any problems finding her transformer ...
I'm not interested in shopping so I go outside. Basheer comes with me. In a scale of 0 to 10 of shopping haters, I'm a 7 and Basheer is a 12.
We go up to a pedestrian bridge over a busy intersection of six-lane avenues. This is certainly a surprising China. Not at all what I expected. No fish ponds, no rice fields, no farmers with straw hats, not even bicycles. The cars are all late model, the traffic is heavy, the buildings are all tall and modern, construction cranes all over ... Everybody is in a hurry, everybody has a cellular phone. This could be Manhattan.
There is an impressive 100-story-plus building with a huge antenna on the top. They tell us it is the tallest building in Asia. However, Hongkongers claim the same for their Central Plaza, and Malaysians do the same for the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Everybody wants to beat the rest. I'm sure the Shenzhen Chinese will win. If this is not the tallest building in the world, they will soon build another one to top them all. They are very determined. I don't think there is any place in the planet that is growing faster than Shenzhen. It was a small farm town just a few years ago ...
Basheer, who has been in Beijing and Shanghai, tells me Shenzhen is very atypical.
Another way in which Shenzhen is very atypical: we don't see any old people. I had seen plenty of elderly folks in Hong Kong, but none in Shenzhen. Everybody is very young; the average age is about 22. There are two reasons, I think. First of all, industrial Shenzhen is also very young, born in 1980. Second, this is a Special Economic Zone to which Chinese cannot enter without a special permit. And nobody is allowed to live in this zone forever. The maximum is about 15 years. After that, they are forced to return to their regions of origin.
Signs everywhere. I don't see any non-Chinese characters except for numbers, the M of Mac Donald's, and the KFC of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is a giant poster of Deng Xiaoping. His hair looks very stylish ... he must have used a good hairdryer. Another big sign shows images of Shenzhen and Hong Kong with a big 35. A reminder that Hong Kong will be Chinese again in 35 days. (Today is May 27.) They repaint that number every morning, keeping track of one of the most exciting countdowns of the century.
Sukran comes with a sad face out of the department store. What? No transformer?!?!? We are in big, BIG, trouble ...
(TO BE CONTINUED)
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