Chengdu blues: May I clean your ears?

On Day 4 it made sense to take a break from the breakneck pace of touring, especially since my neck wasn’t broken and I hadn’t yet had a proper hotel breakfast, which is indisputably the best part of any trip to China. After that I figured I’d find a dry cleaner, as my short supply of underwear and t-shirts wasabout to go gamey, but like the fake Rolexes that were in such short supply, I was finding a similar dearth of Chinese laundries in, of all places, China.

Other items on my shopping list included dental floss, which didn’t appear to have been discovered yet, aside from those little bow-shaped flossers that you use once and toss. Though not averse to filth, I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m willing to retrieve discarded flossers. Yet. I don’t know if it’s related to dental floss, but public spitting is for sure still a thing despite all of the posters and public exhortations to QUIT SPITTING!

Why spitting?

Dr. Google, Ph.D., has several articles on spitting in China, and they all boil down to this: People spit because they like to spit.

What the good doctor doesn’t go into much detail about is the Chinese government’s side of things, which is that spitting is a major no-no and people should stop doing it RIGHT NOW. The genesis of it seems to be an awareness that you can’t be considered the leader of the unfree world if everyone is always hawking a loogie whenever they get the urge.

It’s also an attempt to counter the unrestrained racism directed against Chinese tour groups, whose money everyone welcomes, but whose physical presence everyone holds in the lowest regard. As with Japanese tour groups from the 70’s and 80’s, the same old prejudices have been dug up and trotted out:

  • They are obnoxious!
  • Always taking PIKCHERZZZZZ!
  • Can’t talk well English goodly!
  • Big groups!
  • No presheeyahshun of our KULCHURRRR!
  • And for the Chinese … YUKKY SPITTING!

Of my countless, most excellent spitting experiences, by far the best was observing a young buck and his spicy date at the hot pot restaurant. Every couple of minutes he’d look up from his cell phone as she looked up from hers, exchange a word or two, take a bite of food, and then hock a big, greasy loogie into a trash bucket next to the table. The loogie had to clear about three feet of open air, and even though the mouth of the bucket was capacious, I couldn’t help but watch with impressed horror as it somersaulted in the air into the bin.

Then of course they went right back to their phones.

Lovers’ spat

The amazing hotel breakfast buffet more than made up for the full-on lover’s screaming match that happened outside my door at 3:00 AM. They were both drunk and really hollered it up. It went on for a solid hour, and although I thought about calling the front desk to complain, after a few minutes I realized that it was an awesome free Chinese cursing and insult lesson, so I snuggled into my comforter and tried to parse the “you sorry bastard” and “you worthless bitch” that are common in every language.

But first a word about breakfast. My hotel was a cheap-o, yet it really put any other U.S. hotel breakfast to shame. There were about ten Chinese items to choose from, including fried eggs and fresh wonton soup made to order by the cook, and a similar number of Western items. So much variety, with vegetables, pickles, noodles, and tea, got you off to either a great start or a gut bomb that sent you back to bed for a couple of hours if you dared a second trip down the line.

Later, I headed out for People’s Park. It was around freezing and I was still in my hoodie. Although I’d brought a knee-length wool coat, I hadn’t bothered to start wearing it, and remained cold always. There is no heating in Sichuan because the temperature there is mostly warm and mild, and because people can’t afford it, and because rather than waste money on staying warm they nut up and stay ass-fucking-cold.

I know they were cold because, bundled up, they had their hands jammed between their thighs. I know it was cold because they looked cold. I know it was cold because it WAS cold. By the time I got to the park, a hot cup of tea was badly called for. People at the park were dancing, playing hacky-sack and badminton, but mostly they were hanging out smoking and drinking tea and being cold.

My eyes and throat had been punished by the air pollution for four days now. Finally frozen, I decided to have tea in the park. Chinese is hard but at least tea I could drink. First I watched how it was ordered. Then I ordered the top yellow shoot special tea #5, which came in a paper packet and wouldn’t settle to the bottom of the cup no matter how long I waited, which meant that every time I tried to take a sip I wound up with tea in my teeth.

I tried every manner of sucking the tea to strain out the leaves but since I don’t have a baleen the only thing that resulted was scalded lips.

Let’s get those ears checked

Amidst all this scalding and sucking, a handful of guys were working the area clacking what looked like giant barbecue tongs. Around their skulls they had belted doctor’s headlamps, and in the other, non-tong hand, they were holding a variety of long steel implements with feathery and other ends.

I observed a nearby table where people sat around cheerfully conversing as one of the party had an ear cleaner laboriously boring away into his head with the various long steel tools, any one of which could have easily “slipped” and gone straight out the other side. Apparently some folks liked to have a cup of tea, chat with friends, and get their skulls bored out.

After the guy finished, in a fit of hygiene, he wiped the implements on his pant leg and meandered over to me. “Clean your ears?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I will make them very, very clean.”

“My ears are so dirty that you will be here all day. And break your tools.”

This excited him. “Can I have a look?”

“Sure,” I said.

He switched on his light and peered into my ear. “Those are the dirtiest ears I have ever seen.”

“I’m impressed considering your line of work.”

“We would need to use the irrigation tubes and the extra-extender with the double brush tips.”

“I’m going to pass today. I have a meeting to make at noon.”

He nodded. It was the best refusal I could have picked.

Moving on …

While I was sucking tea leaves into my teeth and scalding my face an old man came over and sat down. What am I saying? I’m an old man, too …

This fellow made a valiant stab at getting some free English lessons but each time he tried, my own Chinese parried, then thrust, then slashed with superior vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interrogatories until he collapsed, bleeding, and spoke only in thickly Sichuan-flavored Mandarin that I could mostly misunderstand fairly well. We chatted for an hour, until the sixth cup was only the faintest suggestion of tea, then I left for the Sichuan Museum. Why there? It was free.

I was frozen from sitting outside drinking warm water, and most crucially, and for which I’d have paid up to $15, the museum was one of the only places in Chengdu that was heated. I thawed among the treasures of the porcelain gallery, which began with pieces made 5,000 years ago. It shamed every collection I’ve ever seen, containing pieces, pristine, from every period in Chinese history. Any pot they had would have been the centerpiece of the Smithsonian. Looking at so many pots, however beautiful, was completely draining, so I left for a lunch of fried and glazed chicken … nuggets.



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