Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Nail That Sticks Out


Looking up from my seat in a crowded restaurant booth, I see a waitress grabbing her arm in pain. To her left, an old, decrepit Chinese woman limps forward and brings a menu into the air. She strikes the waitress with a second blow to the shoulder.


Next to me, my friends start laughing.

“What the hell is going on?” someone asks.

The perpetrator strolls sluggishly over to the head of our table. Wrinkle after wrinkle comprise her timeworn face. The hair above her thin eyes is nonexistent, but I can somewhat make out where eyebrows may have once been. Her hair is beyond disheveled, largely the result of a severe overuse of hair grease. A black smudge outlines the top of her forehead and makes its way to her ears, which are decorated with black hair grease spots. I realize I’ve never seen such embellishment of one’s ears before. I wonder if she could be the start of a great fashion trend. Then I remember why earrings were invented.

“Hello”, she says to us in an abrasive, raspy voice. She has a strong Chinese accent.

I notice her take a deep inhale. With every word spoken, she seems to take a few seconds off her life.

“A – B – C – D … E – F – G”

We chuckle with delight.

Having exhausted her knowledge of the English language, she switches to her native tongue. Sounds begin to flow from her feeble mouth, but I cannot place any meaning on them. I frown at my poor listening skills and turn to my friend Morrison, who is pretty much fluent in Mandarin. Wearing a slight smirk, he shrugs his shoulders and extends his arms with his palms open.

I have no idea what she is saying,” he says.

Is she speaking Shanghainese?” one of my tablemates asks.

No, she’s speaking Mandarin, but I can’t understand her”, Morrison replies with an emerging grin.

Seeing that no one could comprehend her, she lowers her hand to the tabletop and begins drawing characters with her finger.

We break into laughter. Even in English, it would be difficult to make out what she was writing.

Shortly thereafter, a timid-looking waitress roams over to our table. She appears ready to take our order. 

The old, tottering lady interferes, beckoning the waitress for a pad and pen. She begins writing her message out on the piece of paper.

Having gotten a good look at the scene, a middle-aged man comes over to our table and addresses Morrison.

“Ni shuo Putonghua ma?” he asks [do you speak Mandarin?]
The man points his fingers to his brain and rolls back his eyes. I make out the phrase, “Nianji dao le.” [lit. “her age has arrived” but more like “she’s a little past her prime”].

We learn that the woman is 86 years old.

Completely oblivious to the presence of said man, our dinner guest is still hard at work writing her characters.

This is getting ridiculous, my friend Drew says, “I’m frickin’ hungry”.

After a minute or so, the timid looking waitress returns. But this time, she not only wants to take our order, but also plans to rid us from this lunatic of a woman.

She taps on the old lady’s shoulder to get her attention. She says something in Chinese and points toward the door. Our ancient friend wants none of it. She swings her arm briskly towards the waitress’s face and returns to her piece of paper. Letting out a shriek cry, the waitress scurries away in fright, only to be replaced by a second waitress with a more intrepid persona. 

Leaving the old lady to do her thing, the brave waitress takes our order and then hands us a check (at many restaurants here, you pay before you get your food). When she’s finished, the waitress takes a quick look at the old lady, smiles, and walks away.

After another five minutes, the madwoman finally looks up and presents her work to us. The characters are hardly legible, but Morrison decides to take a crack at it. I look over at the woman’s hands and see how frail they are – I recognize the effort she made to get her message across to us.

It says something about how seeing foreign students come here makes her very happy”, Morrison tells us.

With a warm feeling of gratitude, I looked up at the old woman, who now seemed to be slightly less deranged. I was half expecting her message to be something like: You see what I just did to that waitress? You guys are next.

Recognizing that she has finally gotten her message across to us, she returns to her sheet of paper and continues writing.

Oh my god, she’s still writing," my friend Mike says.

Our frustration soon dissolved upon the arrival of our dinner. With chopsticks in hand, we began to devour our long awaited meal, wholly ignoring our guest at the head of the table.

As plates filled with chicken, peppers, beef, fish, eggplant, bok choy, tofu, and rice were nearly licked clean, we suddenly heard three loud knocks on the table. With her fist still clenched, the old lady said something in her dark, grating voice.

She wants to buy us beers,” Morrison told us. He was wearing a look that could only mean something like:  I can’t decline her kind offer of delicious beverages, but this woman can probably barely afford food. I mean, there’s no way that China has a Social Security system even remotely comparable to that of the United States.

The old woman walked away from our table and soon returned with two bottles of Tsingtao beer. We announce to each other “Ganbei!” [Bottoms up!]. The old woman watched in extreme delight as we passed around the bottles, gulping down her gifts.  

Wanting this feeling of ecstasy to last, she insists on getting us more. We beg her no, but know that our attempts will be to no avail, for gift giving is an important and highly valued part of Chinese culture.

She says she really wants to buy us more. She keeps saying this is once in a lifetime,” Morrison tells us.

We gulp down the next two Tsingtaos in a similar fashion and express our deep appreciation.

We finish our meal, and I suggest we take a picture with her. Gathering around the old woman, my friend hands our waitress a digital camera. After a bright flash of the camera, the old woman requests that we give her the picture. Morrison tries to explain to her that we can’t possibly do that. She doesn’t seem to understand why. He tells her we’ll give her the picture another time. She’s not too pleased with the response.

Seeing that the old woman doesn’t intend to go anywhere until she receives the picture, we take turns sneaking away from the table. As we congregate outside the restaurant, we’re all in agreement that it’s fun to be a laowai (a foreigner in China).

There’s an old Asian proverb that says, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.” It’s meant to convey the importance of conformity and sense of a common purpose among citizens.

But apparently if you’re a laowai, the nail that sticks out, gets free beer.

From left to right: Drew, Kehoe, Texas Mike, me, Morrison, and Dustin.

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