Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bravery, Egghole, and the Shanghai Belly

I force the lids of my eyes open. Feeling strained, they close again and convince my brain that a nap would be a better idea.  I obey. Leaning my head back against the cushioned seat of a coach bus, I put my mind at ease as the soothing voice of Phil Collins thrums through my ear buds. For a few minutes, I fall into a light doze. Then I feel something brush the top of my hair. I ignore it and continue to sleep. A few seconds later, someone near me lets out a loud snicker. Alright, nap time over, I have to know what’s so funny.  Slowly, my eyelids open. I see three smiling faces, all of them looking at me, including one with a flashing camera. I feel my hair and find a napkin resting on the top of my head. I shut my eyes again.

After a 6:30am departure from campus and a 2-hour flight from Shanghai to Guangzhou, it seemed like everyone was either desperately seeking some rest or acting childish from marked over-tiredness. Our director Wang had planned accordingly: upon our arrival in Guangzhou, we had a group lunch and then were supposed to check into our hotel and have a short rest. However, the hotel wasn’t ready for us yet, and now we were skipping ahead to the next item on our agenda: a visit to the Zhujiang Brewery Company and Beer Museum. Being pissed off about having to go to a brewery was definitely a sad moment in my life.

Greeted at the front door by two casually dressed Chinese men, our group was led into a small auditorium with a big projection screen and podium on the front stage. One of the men, probably in his early fifties, walked on stage and approached the podium. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew we were in for a treat. He spoke with such a heavy Chinese accent that it wasn’t until his third or fourth sentence that I was actually able to say with certainty that he was speaking English. I gradually became more and more accustomed to his voice and, with the help of visual cues, was able to gather that he was welcoming us to the brewery and would be telling us about the company’s business strategies.

As our host finished up his introduction, a PowerPoint presentation came on the screen, and the second man, who looked slightly younger and had more hair than the first, approached the podium. Ah here we go, this will be better. He began to speak in fast-paced Mandarin. I was perplexed. In our group of 27, there are a mere four kids who are fluent or near fluent. I am certainly not one of them and was wondering if I was going to get much out of this company visit.  The answer came as soon as the man stopped his speech and the older, original speaker chimed in. Oh my god, he’s our English translator?

Accompanied by comprehensive flow charts, a SWOT analysis, and diagrams, the Mandarin speaker rattled on about the marketing strategies of Zhujiang Brewery. Meanwhile, the English speakers were handed hollow explanations like “the management strategy has developed very fast in last few years” or “there are many opportunity for our bravery to increase market share in the egghole industry”. In a moment of eureka a few minutes later, I realized bravery and egghole meant “brewery” and “alcohol” respectively.

I made the most of the situation and decided to treat the presentation as a listening exercise. I was determined to try to do a better job of translating the speaker’s Mandarin into English than the egghole on stage was doing. For the most part, I fell short, but I definitely understood enough to know that the translator was failing to translate many major points that the speaker was making. At one point, I looked back and found that an entire row of my classmates had dozed off. I really couldn’t blame them.

After what felt like forever, the speaker opened the room up for questions. My general sense was that no one would be willing to put the poor guy on stage to trouble by asking a question. I was right, but the speaker mistakenly called on my friend Andrew who had been scratching his head. Not wanting to be rude, he pulled out the first thing on his mind: “I've noticed that Chinese beer is different from American beer in two aspects - alcohol content and size of the bottle. Could you comment on these differences?"

A solid question. But Andrew had asked it much too fast, and the older man on stage was unable to comprehend. Andrew repeats the question again, this time at a much slower speed and in a clearer voice. The man still doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. I close my eyes and let out a groan. Where’s the beer in this bravery…

Here's Andrew.

A whole lot of beer.
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Every street in Shanghai is insane – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians flood every intersection, competing to get to their destination. I’m a natural at Frogger though. I haven’t even lost a life.

There is an important, yet under-researched phenomenon that I have come across in my studies and observations here. I like to refer to it as the "Shanghai Belly". The Shanghai Belly is best characterized as a perfectly round midriff in a male. What makes the Shanghai Belly so fascinating is that only a select number of people possess this trait, but those that do are eager to let others know of their great fortune. Inherent in possessing the Shanghai Belly is knowing how to properly flaunt your special stomach flab. There are two crucial steps in this process (1) roll your shirt up so that it rests on the part of your stomach that extends out the farthest, and (2) act like you have no idea that everyone can see how unattractive your body is.

Here are two prime examples:

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