Sunday, May 8, 2011

Saturday Night

It’s another Sunday, and I’ve been working my butt off at a local savings bank , stayed out until 2am with friends and feel like writing more fluffy musings (because that’s just about my mental capacity right now).

I’ve lived in three different countries (India, China and Taiwan) and was musing this morning while lying in bed considering whether or not to get up – as one does on Sunday mornings – on what it was like on Saturday night, that iconic bit of free time, in each country.

Bad Girls in India: 2000

I read a comment online recently directed at someone whose boyfriend was about to move to India for a year to study. “While she’s at home on Saturday morning waiting to Skype, you’ll have opportunities to go out, meet people and have beers with other expats. On Sunday morning when you’re ready to Skype, she’ll be going out back home.”

Yeah, uhh…maybe in some of the bigger cities, but that wasn’t my Saturday night experience in Madurai. Mine went something like this:

After spending the day doing some sort of student group activity, I might stop downtown at the tailor’s and then retrieve my bike parked at the post office (the closest place to downtown where I could ride without getting killed and park my bike). I’d ride home on quieter back roads – by quieter, of course, I mean there were only about a million people and forms of livestock walking down the road instead of ten million – stopping off for a Limca and waving to various locals manning their storefronts. The snack guy, the “Indian pizza” guy (it was a chapatti covered in sugary ketchup and paneer), Zum Zum Tailor and the folks who hung out outside the nearby shrine.

I’d rumble on home down a bumpy dirt path as the neighborhood kids shouted “HELLO SISTER!”, maybe swerve to avoid a goat, take my shoes off in the anteroom and head upstairs. A quick cold-water bucket shower and fresh salwar kameez later and I’d reappear downstairs to chat with Meena and Kumar, watch cartoons with Shiva when he wasn’t doing his homework and watch the cook prepare dinner.

Amma would come in, wash her hands, grab a blob of chapati dough and plop down on the floor in her sari. She never had never really gotten used to the idea of chairs. She’d insist on TV rights and Shiva would grumblingly hand her the remote. The cook would roll out a length of wax paper, right there on the floor, Amma would turn on her favorite TV show and watch while rolling out dough rounds.

Meena would begin studying with her son. "He's really dedicated to learning his multiplication tables," I noted once.
"Yes, he is going to be engineer isn't it?" Meena replied.

"Really? He's nine years old!"

"Yes. He is going to be engineer."

This wasn't the desperate push of a mother living vicariously through her son - who seemed to be genuinely good at math - she was an anesthesiologist and her husband was a zoologist. Amma's late husband was a prominent linguist. This was not a family who shied away from intellectual pursuits.

The show was a well-known Tamil drama about three “prostitutes” who live together. Of course, nothing tawdry ever goes on during the show – it’s just understood that these three single Tamil women who live together and solve crimes (???), and who are visited regularly by a gun-wielding fat man, are Ladies of the Night. My Tamil was never all that great but I got the impression that their profession was likewise never openly mentioned – you were supposed to know they were prostitutes because duh, they’re three single women over twenty living together, and one of them wears lipstick! For shame! India has a long and distinguished history of cosmetics – from kohl-lined eyes to whitening cream – but Western-style makeup such as lipstick in more traditional parts of southern India are a major taboo – only prostitutes wear it (it’s fine in cities and in northern India, brides generally wear tons of makeup, including bright lipstick).

Amma thought this show was terrible, which is of course why she watched it so religiously. “Oooh…so bad…those girls are very, very bad,” she’d mutter – in English – as she sat on the floor idly smacking a chapati. “Bad girls. So, so bad only.”

I would sit on the floor next to her, trying and failing to match her chapati-making skills, the edges of my kameez tucked primly under my knees, watching women no less prudishly dressed as I was cavorting on TV.

So bad. So very very bad, only.

Cement and Beer in China: 2002-2003

When I first moved to China, I had no friends. That tends to happen when you pick up and move to an entirely foreign country where you know exactly no-one. For the first few months my Saturday nights consisted of going to the Western-style coffee and teahouse in Zunyi, down by the bus stop and Honghuagang, and studying Chinese while people stared at me…and doing a poor job of it.

Later, Jenny arrived in China and we became fast friends. We’d occasionally have the good fortune of a visit with a coworker and mutual foreign friend, Julian. By then, I’d discovered that the hoppin’ place to go on Saturday night was down by the river – the riverbank was paved over; a long concrete esplanade replaced the natural grassy shore. Along this strip, old laobanniang would set up portable carts selling peanuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, beef jerky, various small snacks, beer and ferocious baijiu (rice wine). Jenny and I would head down there, often with Julian, and drink cheap chemical-laced Chinese beer – Moutai if we were cheap, Tsingtao if we were feeling spendy. We’d get plates of snacks and shoot the breeze, make fun of China – not in a mean way, but in a “blowing off steam, culture shock can be stressful, really we’re having a great adventure” way. OK, also sometimes in a “China sucks” way, but only after bad weeks. If it was just me and Jenny, we’d bring cards and play rummy or canasta.

During the colder months we’d stay home, crank up the totally-not-safe-probably-going-to-explode heater, buy local hawberry hooch and mix it with horrific “citrus” soda, grab a bag of beef jerky and some White Rabbit caramels and play canasta at home while watching bad Chinese TV. We’d tell stories about the adorable children we taught, and make jokes about Huang Qi, the school head’s ne’er-do-well spoiled younger brother who had horrible teeth, smoked too much and called me fat to my face, in Chinese, thinking I couldn’t understand. My Chinese wasn’t great at the time, but I could indeed understand.

On my second-to-last day in Zunyi, there was a going-away party held in my honor (awwww) on a Saturday night. Julian and Jenny came, as did Huang Min and the unwanted Huang Qi – the same one I mentioned in this post, who elevated himself in my estimation on the last day I ever saw him and probably ever will see him again – by telling his story. As much as I may dislike a person, I always want to hear their story. To shorten an already-told tale, he was studying in Beijing in June of 1989, was at Tiananmen, and saw his friend get shot in the face. This forever affected his view of the Chinese Communist Party, and I see him as a symbol – an archetype – of the average Chinese person who knows what their government is up to but lacks the ability to do anything about it.

The party was held on a Saturday night and after the obligatory banquet, at which I wore my only remaining ‘nice’ shirt, bought in Hong Kong, a group of us retreated to the riverine cement beer garden.

Another teacher, Angel, was there, as was a random Englishman that Angel literally picked up off the street (and the only other expat in town besides an antisocial Dutch woman). We all got impossibly drunk on beer so bad that the cancer we’ll all get in ten years will have been directly linked to it, Angel went off in search of whores and we found him with his pants down, face down in a gutter (The Englishman dragged him out so he wouldn’t drown in fetid water). Huang Qi told his story and started crying. I got so blotto that I started shouting dirty words in Chinese (not that uncommon on the riverside – nobody really thought anything of it). Jenny and I sat on a bench trying to recover with the Englishman – I’m not sure what happened to Julian. I left for Beijing two days later – the next day I had a hangover that shook the universe and drank six cans of coconut juice – and had my brief romance with Brendan years before we started dating seriously (let’s face it, deep down under everything else there was always a spark between us). Jenny and Graham later got married. Julian moved to Beijing, met a Sichuanese woman and married her. I wandered the globe, dated inappropriate men and then finally got my act together enough to deserve a gem like Brendan. I never did see Angel again but hopefully waking up covered in Chinese gutter sludge made him rethink his lifestyle.

I would say it was something of a life-changing Saturday night.

Taiwan: Funky Student Pubs 2006-present

Last night was a typical Saturday night for me here in Taiwan. I’ve never been much for thumping music in bars, and although I do enjoy dancing I don’t necessarily want to do it more than once every few months, if that. I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to every pore when I do go out to a crowded bar (yes, if you are curious, I have tried a cigarette. It was thoroughly disgusting. Brendan is more sensible – he knew they were disgusting without ever putting one in his mouth, but I’m the sort of person who has to try things, even if I know I won’t like them).

Instead, at about 7 or 8pm I am far more likely to throw on jeans and a beloved t-shirt, a pair of funky earrings and beaded sandals and head up to Gongguan or Shida. Brendan and I might hang out together- we might dissect films we both enjoyed or hated, or talk about politics or travel plans, or make observations about books we’ve read or religious tenets we do or do not agree with (we both agree: religion as a force teaching kindness and tolerance = great. Religion warped into judgmentalism = bad). We might shoot the breeze about current events or just crack jokes over beer. We might just enjoy each other’s physical presence and read or blog, knowing the other is right there, occasionally reaching over to squeeze a knee or give a smile. We’re both big readers, politically engaged enough to keep up with a few news sources each, and I’m into blogging – as you can see - so we don’t always feel the need to talk. Gongguan and Shida are lined with funky student cafes and we’ll pick one of our favorites – La Boheme, Shake House, Drop Coffee, Café Tea or Me, Zabu or Red House.

Or we’ll text a bunch of friends, see who is at loose ends and invite them out. We’ll pick one of the above places, get drinks and talk about much the same things that Brendan and I would normally talk about on our own, although generally more people = more witty banter. We’ll drink but not get drunk. We’ll enjoy good beer – you know me, I always want the best if I’m going to have anything at all – and we’ll keep great conversation going until 2am or later.

Last night was no exception. We went to Red House in Shida (紅家), a long, thin bar built into a funky old brick house of indeterminate age. We met our friends Joseph and Catherine, ordered Belgian beer and fries and kept lively conversation going until the wee hours.

I know a lot of people imagine being thirty, especially married and thirty, means quiet nights at home and settling down, generally acting older. I’d say we’re acting older in the sense of being more mature, but no less fun. I no longer get smashed on Chinese riverbanks, and a Saturday night out in Taipei is far more stimulating than a Saturday night in provincial India, although my India experience was definitely local, eye-opening and authentic. That aside, I like the people we’ve become. Educated and conversant, happy to go out and be sociable but not desperate to find a thumping bar somewhere. Comfortable in our skin, and with discriminating enough taste in beer that we’ll actually consider whether to get the Rochefort Tripel or the Kasteel Rouge rather than “Beer? What’s cheap?”

I do think Saturday night in Taipei is symbolic, in a way, of life here. Equal but different halves of a wonderful whole with my husband, older and wiser, more well-read, maybe not quite as wild as I used to be but still lively and hoping to be so for a long time to come. You’ll have to pry my Abbey Tripel out of my cold, dead hands – and if I die with a Belgian beer in hand I will consider it a good way to go!

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