Chapter 38: Traveling While Gay: Vigilante Squads, Unnatural Carnal Knowledge, and Plenty of Piña Coladas

At the airport in Malaysia, waiting to board our flight/escape unharmed

We were walking zombies when we arrived near midnight at the Sama Sama Express Hotel inside the Kuala Lampur, Malaysia airport. We were on our way to Vietnam, and we’d been traveling for more than 24 hours on three different planes that literally took us halfway around the world (in economy, no less). Now we had an 11-hour layover here until our next flight, and the only thing on our agenda was a steaming hot shower and sleeping while lying flat.

Thankfully we didn’t have to be coherent to check in at the hotel since we had booked and paid online a month before. And since it was located inside the airport, all we had to do was mosey over about two minutes from our arriving flight to the hotel’s front desk and flash our passports. Easy-peasy.

There were two young women at the front desk. One of them read from her computer, reviewing our reservation aloud: one night, standard room, checkout at noon, breakfast included. Then she abruptly stopped talking, looked at us, back at the computer screen with squinted eyes, then back at us.

“It says king bed,” she announced.

“Yes,” I answered. “Also, we’ll check out before ten since we have to make a flight.”

She looked at the other clerk with alarm. I wondered, were they upset we were leaving earlier than the established checkout time? Whatever—we just wanted to sleep.

Once in our hotel room, Jamey wondered if it was the king bed that had distressed them. After all, we were two males, and Malaysia was a Muslim country. While I usually looked into the LGBT situation in countries before we visited, Malaysia was just a layover and I had skipped the research. So I did a quick online search where we discovered that the front desk clerks’ discomfort was the least of our worries:

Malaysia:

  • 20 years imprisonment, fines, and caning for same sex sexual activity.
  • Vigilante groups round up men accused of being gay and had them arrested.
  • Government officials deport any visiting foreign cabinet ministers or diplomats who are gay.
  • The People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement lobbies for stricter criminal laws against homosexuality.

Then there was this fun tidbit:

  • The Malaysian Film Censorship Board announced it would only allow depiction of homosexual characters in movies as long as the characters “repent” or die.

Apparently in 2017 Malaysia tried to censor Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over some “gay moments.” I totally have to get a copy of that version.

Now, I’ve had some sleepless nights in hotels in the past for a variety of reasons–an air conditioner in Belize that chilled the room to meat locker temperatures, a room in Cairo without AC or a window or a fan or apparently oxygen—but this was a whole new ballgame. Would these clerks turn us in to the People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement? Would we be caned in the airport food court, right in front of Starbucks? Would we be featured in the next season of Locked Up Abroad? We even pulled out the convertible couch and made it look slept in—just in case the vigilante squad showed up.

The next morning we checked out earlier than we had originally planned, did not make eye contact with the clerks, and loudly talked about football stats as we sped through the lobby. We finally stopped sweating when those airplane wheels left that Malaysian runway. See ya’ later, haters!

Jamey and me at the 1993 March on Washington for LGBT rights

The whole anti-gay thing has never made sense to us, and the fact that most of this bias is based in religion (you know, that institution that’s supposed to make humans better people?) makes it all the more bizarre. I’ve fought hard over the years to combat this discrimination—marching on Washington, volunteering for human rights organizations, speaking before city councils, writing a monthly article in a local alternative newspaper, picketing and boycotting anti-gay organizations, and writing an email nearly every week to a person or company who debases people because of their sexual orientation. But, c’mon! When I go on vacation, I don’t want to think about an anti-gay vigilante squad ready to bust down our hotel room door. Unless they are going to take us to see that steamy version of Beauty and the Beast…I’d be totally down for that.

In our travels around the world, we’ve mostly avoided these awkward get-put-in-the-slammer-because-of-how-we-were-born situations because, as a rule of thumb, we avoid countries that might maim or kill us. For example, there are ten charming countries that impose the death penalty for being gay (Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen) that will probably not be the spot for our next spring break hullabaloo.

Uganda was almost on that list. Home of the infamous 2013 “Kill the Gays” bill, they originally called for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” Now I have met some very aggravating homosexuals in my lifetime, but to be clear, I never wanted to kill them. The punishment was later downgraded to life in prison (Whew! Thank goodness for small favors!) after most of the world threatened to withdraw all of their financial support from the country. Nope, I have little desire to explore a country where violent and brutal attacks against LGBT people are common and cheered on by political and religious leaders (and often performed by state officials). Nothing ruins a holiday more than a beating overseen by a Ugandan pastor.

Unfortunately, over the years we have slipped up and took trips to places that we really

The streets of Accra, Ghana. Wonder where he went to med school?

shouldn’t have. A few years back we tagged along with some friends on a driving trip around Ghana (For the sordid details, see my blog’s Chapter 15: Cause Every Little Thing is Ghana Be Alright). We didn’t research the country since our friends had made all of the plans. However, we had an inkling something was up when we saw that the windows of many Ghanaian cars were adorned with large adhesive letters that said things like, “I am covered in the blood of Jesus.” The drivers must have toweled off because, overall, they looked fine to me.

On the beach in Ghana, smiling even though they want to use those oars to beat the gay out of me.

For the first couple of nights we stayed at a rundown beachside hotel that gave new meaning to “seedy.” It was the kind of place that returned your laundry nicely folded, but still unwashed (yep, really happened). There was no Wi-Fi so we couldn’t research how Ghana felt about LGBT people. At one point I asked the front desk clerk if I could change some money, and as she was giving me my Ghanaian cedi she looked straight at me and said, “So you’re American. I don’t like that Obama. He legalized homosexuality.”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to reply. Maybe she was setting me up? Maybe she was just mean? Or covered in the blood of Jesus? So, I fake-smiled, took my wad of cedi, and racewalked out of there. Once we made it to the first place with Wi-Fi, I discovered these fun facts about Ghana–the country we would be traversing for the next eight days:

 Ghana:

  • three years imprisonment for “unnatural carnal knowledge” (e.g. code speak for being gay)
  • physical and violent homophobic attacks against LGBT people are common, and often encouraged by the media, as well as religious and political leaders
  • reports of young gay people being kicked out of their homes are also common
  • reports of torture programs designed to “cure” homosexuality

Rest assured I did not hum a single show tune or discuss any episodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta for the next week and henceforth did not get the gay tortured out of me.

Ethiopia. We’re just close friends, I swear!

We inadvertently visited other African countries where the laws don’t favor us, either because we tagged along with others, attended a conference, or just missed the info in our research. I mean, it’s not exactly publicized by their travel and tourism bureaus. “Visit Egypt! See the pyramids! Float down the Nile! And if you’re gay, crush rocks in a hard labor camp for 17 years!” Here are a few of the countries we naively visited:

Egypt: Homosexuality is not specifically outlawed, but “morality laws” are used to punish gay people–up to 17 years in prison with or without hard labor & fines.

Ethiopia: Up to 15 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Morocco: Up to 3 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Senegal: Up to 5 years imprisonment for same-sex sexual activity.

Tunisia: Up to 3 years imprisonment and fines for male same sex sexual activity.

Sometimes it didn’t even cross my mind that a country would be anti-gay. Take Bhutan, for

Trekking to Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest monastery) in Bhutan, where we could have gone to prison for a year for making whoopie in the hotel room.

example, known worldwide as the first country with a Gross National Happiness index built right into their constitution. Everything the government does is supposedly weighed against this index, which includes a guarantee of psychological well-being. And yet:

Bhutan: Between 1 month and 1 year imprisonment for same-sex sexual acts

Well, listen here King Wangchuck (really his name) of Bhutan. If I’m a gay Bhutanese fellow, I’m not experiencing much of that Gross National Happiness you advertise. This hurts even more because King Wangchuck is young and handsome (seriously, clink on the link–he’s model-like) and is pals with Will and Kate. Surely he watches Will & Grace?

Another big travel blunder we made was when we visited the Maldives, that exotic string of islands in the Indian Ocean. We didn’t even think to check on the LGBT situation before we traveled there, mesmerized as we were by those over-the-sea bungalows we’d seen on screen savers and travel posters.

It was a painfully expensive adventure, but we sucked it up because, hey, those over-the-sea bungalows! And yes, it was dreamlike stepping off our veranda right into the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and having a cabin boy decorate our bed each day with little pictures made of flower petals. Good thing he didn’t create a picture of the Maldives Penal Code which would have shown us this:

Maldives: Up to 8 years imprisonment with possibility of whippings, house arrest, or deportation for same sex sexual acts or…gay marriage!

I discovered this fun fact while lounging on the veranda of our Maldivian over-the-sea bungalow, sipping a tropical drink, and doing a search on my iPad. And let me just say, there weren’t enough piña coladas in the world to make us forget that we could be languishing in a Maldivian prison just because one day back in 2012 we drove to Iowa (one of six U.S. states at the time that allowed same-sex marriage) to get legally hitched after being together for 26 years.

Maldives. Can you please wait until after breakfast to whip us?

It’s one thing to feel disappointed when your vacay doesn’t turn out exactly as you planned—maybe it rained, or the hotel room had a mildew smell, or the hotel restaurant had stale bread. But imagine being on vacation and filled with dread just for being, well, yourself (while paying a whole hell of a lot of money for that privilege). Next time we want an over-the-water bungalow experience without the fear of a gay whipping, we’ll pass on the Maldives and head to places like Fiji, Cambodia, and the Philippines that won’t throw us in the clinker for being lawfully wedded.

We really began to understand the hateful side of the world when we decided to become international teachers, and began our search for schools. One of our first offers came from a school in Seoul, Korea where we really hit it off with the principal after several Skype interviews. He said we would be perfect for his school, and the last step was for him to get the final okay from the school owner. But a day later he informed us that he didn’t even make it inside the guy’s office—the secretary out front had stopped him dead in his tracks when he explained that we were a gay couple.

“You can’t tell him that!” she exclaimed. “That’s not allowed at our school!”

The principal asked, “What’s not allowed?”

“You know,” she answered. Then she mouthed the word “gay.”

You pretty much know when a school secretary can’t even voice the word “gay,” we weren’t going to be sashaying down the halls of that institution anytime soon.

It only got worse. As we started to look at schools with available positions, many were either in countries where gay people definitely would not be welcomed (hello Saudi Arabia!) or were religious-based schools where they probably mouthed the word “gay.”

To keep track, I ended up making a color coded chart that included every school (Green = gay friendly! Red = We will imprison/torture/kill you!). We discovered that nearly one third of international schools were off-limits to us.

Thankfully, both of the international schools where we ended up teaching were extremely gay-friendly and actually, just friendly in general. Our school in Shanghai even hung a banner across the front of the building announcing their support for LGBT people—it was signed by all administrators and loads of students. Both schools were also located in countries that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal in China since 1997. In Mali, no laws against same-sex sexual activity have ever existed in the country.

Throughout our job searches and vacation searches, I can’t tell you how many times we heard someone say:

 “C’mon, it’s safe for gay guys in _________! (insert name of obviously anti-gay country) They might have those laws on the books, but they hardly ever enforce them!”

In other words, “You PROBABLY won’t be stoned or imprisoned, so just enjoy your piña colada!”

Sorry, not worth the risk. There are just too many countries in the world that welcome me for who I am, where I don’t have to worry about the repercussions of bizarrely inhumane religious laws, or antiquated British colonial laws that treat same-sex relations as a punishable offense. If I want to spend a gazillion dollars a night for an over-the-water bungalow, I’ll do it in a country that appreciates and maybe celebrates my keen sense of fashion, knowledge of Bravo shows, and witty repartee.

Sadly, our own home country isn’t a bastion of gay friendliness either. Up until 2003, same sex relations were illegal in the United States (let’s just say I was a repeat offender from way back in the day). You know things are bad when communist China legalizes same sex sexual activity six years before the U.S. And to this day, it is still legal in America to fire an employee for being gay in these 28 states:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

It’s all pretty alarming to me, especially when I just read some research that shows that unequal treatment of LGBT people causes economic harm, leading to lower economic output for individuals, businesses, and even entire countries. On the other side, inclusive policies can actually boost a country’s GDP. Surely that news would spur countries to change, right?

Nope. Just over the last year or so, countries have become even more anti-gay. Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brunei implemented new laws that increase penalties not just for being gay, but also for simply supporting rights for LGBT people. We’ve still got a lot of work to do in this world.

Which means, it’s definitely time for a piña colada. Or the whole pitcher. Oh, what the hell, just give me the bottle of rum.

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Chapter 35: Hear No Evil, Smell No Evil

When my family added HBO to our cable line-up, I was one satisfied kid. I liked nothing more than sitting in our shag-carpeted rec room in the basement, watching movie after movie after movie, until my eyes were glossed over. I was a premium cable channel zombie, and proud of it.

But there was one thing that brought me out of that TV stupor, and that’s when one of my sisters came down to the basement, plopped on the couch, opened a bag of Fritos, and started crunching away. One, that crunching sound—like someone chewing river gravel—penetrated my brain like a dentist drill. And two, that aroma that came from eating Fritos was horrifying to me–a mixture of dirty socks crossed with bad breath and burnt popcorn. Even if I was watching Boy in the Plastic Bubble, right at the part where Tod is about to risk death by leaving his bubble for the girl next door, I’d run from the rec room to escape that smell.

I’ve always been acutely aware of scents and sounds, which as a kid concerned me. None of my friends ever seemed to be bothered by these things. Was I part beagle? Alien? Cyborg? Why was I the only one so affected by these two senses? I mean, I can hardly follow the story line of a movie in a theatre because of the open-mouth-crunching popcorn eaters (who seemingly go unnoticed by everyone else). If I’m a half block downwind of a person with body odor or halitosis, I’ll hold my breath until I pass out. If someone within a mile radius of me is doing that thing where they pop 80 bubbles in rapid machine-gun-succession every time they chew down on a piece of Juicy Fruit, I pray for a piano to fall on them from above. I don’t think I’d mind the sound of the piano crashing even one tiny bit.

It’s something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. When I was a high school

At 7972.4 feet up in the Andes at Machu Picchu, I finally discovered fresh air in Peru.

exchange student, I was overwhelmed with the general stinkiness of my host country, Peru—so much so that I applied cologne under my nose every time I went outside. It was a tough decision every day: Do I reek of Hai Karate or Aqua Velva, or do I allow the scent of human urine and poo and diesel fumes and rotting garbage to enter my nostrils freely? Now granted, I’m sure New York and Chicago have similar odors, but I was a Midwestern boy from a small town who was used to smelling fresh cut grass, Herbal Essence shampoo, and ham and cheese casseroles in the oven. Aside from the cabbage field by our house that smelled like farts near harvest time, my town smelled pretty good. Even the boy’s bathroom at my school didn’t smell bad, although I did have an aversion to the scent of that sawdust-looking stuff the janitor sprinkled when a kid vomited in the classroom. And that sound of vomiting would make me want to…well, you know.

This sensory affliction does make traveling and living abroad a tricky proposition. When I

Italy…I can’t smell any B.O. up here.

backpacked through Europe during a college summer, I remember a 10-hour overnight train ride down the length of Italy in which I shared a small unairconditioned compartment with several very ripe-smelling, older gentlemen. By hour two I had rubbed a full tube of cherry Chapstick under my nose (the only pleasantly scented substance I could find), but I was still inhaling that musty, vaguely chicken soupish, sour-wash-cloth odor. Finally, I chose to surrender my paid compartment seat, and squatted on the floor in the narrow train corridor where every person on the entire train bumped into me at some point. I didn’t get much sleep, but my nostrils were pleased.

No burning suitcase smell up here!

When we lived in Mali a few years ago, I recall sitting on the couch in our house one day with the windows wide open, a fresh, spring breeze drifting through the windows. Then before I knew it, an acrid, chemically smell invaded. As I slammed the windows shut I saw a trash pile burning across the road where an old vinyl suitcase had been tossed right on top. I can still conjure up that smell in my head today. We also lived a couple kilometers from the abattoir, which is a beautiful sounding French word for slaughterhouse. Sometimes if the wind blew just the right way, the scent of butchered sheep and cows resting in the warm Malian sun would make its way to our windows. I’m still deciding if that aroma was worse than the blazing Samsonite.

Entrance into the chamber of horrors (aka, the wet market)

We now live in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, where my nose and ears get a workout every day. For example, the wet market, a place where vendors sell fresh meat, seafood, and produce, is a stone’s throw from our apartment building. When we first moved to this neighborhood, we thought this would be a real plus—inexpensive, fresh food straight from the farmers and fisherman, right at our doorstep. But on our first visit inside I was sure I’d entered a recently unsealed crypt full of mouldering bodies. The stench was overwhelming. Plus, there were mounds of guts from fish and eels and other bizarre water creatures that were still wriggling. I fled, dry heaving into my shirt that I had pulled over my face. The only thing that would have been worse is if everyone was eating Fritos in there.

Unfortunately, we must pass the wet market daily on the way to the morning bus stop at 5:25

Wet Market, 5:30 AM, already in the red zone on the stink-o-meter

AM. And I can tell you with confidence that the very last smell you want to encounter in the pre-dawn hours is rotting seafood. But fish markets always smell bad, you might argue. But trust me, this isn’t a fresh-fish-sitting-in-crunchy-ice kind of smell one would encounter at, say, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. That smell is almost pleasant, with a vibe that reminds you of a sleepy fishing village with colorful boats bobbing in the harbor.

But this wet market has no such vibe. Nope, this vibe is more of a “you slipped and fell into the carcass of a decomposing sperm whale that had eaten a tanker ship full of vomit.” It’s a place where the juice from those underwater creatures has run into cracks and seeped into the concrete to fester in the humid Shanghai air, day after day, turning into something that I believe could be used in warfare instead of nuclear bombs. Seriously, this odor would bring anyone to their knees–and yet, the wet market it is crowded with shoppers all day long who are certainly not dry heaving into their shirts.

It’s more than just scents here in ol’ Shanghai, though. For me, the sound that is synonymous with this city is that awful noise people make when trying to clear their throat to gather phlegm for spitting (seriously, just hearing someone say the word “phlegm” is an assault on my eardrums). But hearing the actual expulsion sound is cringe inducing for me. And trust me, I cringe a lot, because I hear it all day long, even through the closed windows of our third-floor apartment. Even when I’m wearing Bose Noise Canceling headphones. Even when we’re inside a restaurant and someone does it outside on the street. And probably even when I’m inside a submarine in the Mariana Trench 35,814 miles below sea level.

It’s horrific, like someone is hurking up a chunk of lung. And everyone does it—young people, elderly ladies, probably famous Chinese movie stars. And as with the wet market experience, this sound causes me to dry heave. Of course, there is the foul aftermath of this sound to contend with as well, which is why the sidewalks here are always dotted with wet spots and why I look down when I walk on the sidewalks here, and why our shoes have never, ever touched the floor inside of our apartment. No lung matter on my shiny wood floors, please.

Regarding this spitting thing, I’ve actually heard people say that it’s “cultural.” Yeah, no. I fully honor and embrace the many cultural differences I’ve encountered here, like how Chinese people avoid confrontation, or have no sense of personal space, or how they talk so loudly that I think they are arguing when they’re just chatting about buying eels at the wet market. But hocking up a big loogie is not a part of any culture—it’s just a terrible habit, like picking your nose or making those loud sounds when you yawn. It’s a habit that one could kick by simply drinking some hot tea, or maybe by not eating slimy, wet market sea creatures that look like they belong in a horror movie.

In the meantime, for the morning walk to the bus stop I’ll be dabbing under my nose a generous amount of Gucci Guilty Black Pour Homme cologne, a scent highlighted by notes of coriander and lavender but also with base notes of patchouli–a combination that creates a scent that’s bold and noticeable without being overpowering (or so the reviews say). As long as it’s powerful enough to mask rotten shrimp and Fritos, I’m good.

Chapter 32: It’s a Wrap: Bumper Carts, Grocery Store Eels, & Armpit Anarchy

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Tuck

Source: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ (Faces blurred to protect the innocent).

Recently I trotted across the street to the sprawling Carrefour supermarket/ department store in our Shanghai suburb. Maybe “sprawling” doesn’t exactly convey just how massive this megastore is—I mean, people actually ride bikes inside. And Shanghai has 22 of these French superstores, which are sort of like a less skeevy Walmart. Seriously, here at Carrefour I haven’t seen a single mullet, butt crack, or mauve elastic pants worn as both a top and bottom.

IMG_8372

Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s stock shelves during our peak shopping hours!

 

Megastore shopping is a big change for us, having spent the past three years in megastore-less Bamako, Mali. Not that we felt we were missing anything in Bamako–we actually enjoyed shopping at quaint markets, hole-in-the-wall bakeries, and roadside produce stands where the food was local and fresh and there wasn’t a Pop Tart or Hot Pocket in sight. But there are 25 million people here in Shanghai–that’s three times larger than NYC, six times larger than LA, eight times bigger than Chicago, and 625 times grander than my hometown of Quincy, Illinois. So the stores really have to be jumbo-sized to handle the approximately gazillion shoppers. Go at the wrong time—the weekend, around 5PM any day—and you will play Chinese bumper carts whether you want to or not.

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It’s blurry because someone ran into me with their cart as I was taking this photo.

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Another fun day shopping at Carrefour with me and 17,000 of my closest friends/consumers.

It’s strange—you’d think that in a nation of so many damn people that they would be keenly aware of their personal space, you know, like “Gee, let me not stop in the middle of the narrow, crowded store aisle to check the WeChat on my iPhone,” or “I definitely shouldn’t ram my shopping cart into someone else’s upper thigh and act like it didn’t happen,” or “It’s just common knowledge that when one shopper is looking at something on the store shelf I should never stand directly in front of him as if he doesn’t exist,” or “I’d never think of butting right in front of someone at the checkout lane even if they already had their items on the belt in front of the checkout person,” or “I realize that not everyone comes to Carrefour to take a leisurely stroll so I’ll make sure to move aside when someone behind me is in a hurry, especially that Westerner whose face is currently turning red.” But the local folks seem to be quite clueless about these sorts of things, so Jamey and I just follow the “When in Rome…” adage and behave like clueless people too. It’s actually sort of fun pretending you are the only one in a store full of a million people, kind of the King of Carrefour with a million subjects you can ignore and bump into without regret.

anarchyYou’d also think a store of over 100,000 square feet would have everything ever manufactured worldwide since 1973, but there are some noticeable omissions. We recently searched 20 minutes for deodorant, only to discover just seven roll-ons tubes (for women) tucked near the face whitening creams. And yet the face creams take up one entire aisle. I mean, Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 4.00.58 PMobviously they have flawless complexions here, but don’t they want to “raise their hand if they’re Sure?” Then I did a bit of online research and found out that Chinese people rarely use deodorant mainly because they don’t have to! What? Due to genetic factors, their bodies do not emit the same odors that the rest of us have to try to mask with scents like Brazil, Paris, and Hawaii, which are Secret deodorant’s new flavors (strong enough for a man, but made for a jet-setting woman), or from Axe, Anarchy for Him. Anarchy? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want a “state of disorder due to absence of authority” going on under my arms.

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Jamey getting part of our lunch from the biscuit sample girl dressed to coordinate with the biscuit box.

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You may think we are visiting the serpentorium at the zoo, but this is a food aisle at Carrefour.

I think a good quarter of the population actually work at the Carrefour too. They have dozens of check-out lanes, a lady driving a massive floor cleaner the size of a Zamboni (driven, of course, during peak store hours), multiple sales ladies in front of various products (e.g. a lady in front of the toothpastes, another in front of the crackers, one by the eggs, etc. and I’m not sure what they do besides eye us and straighten up any product we touch), young guys and gals in a row in different brightly-colored costumes shouting on loud speakers (seriously) to buy some random product (a mop, butter, some sort of machine that makes either ice cream or spackling paste), a lady that weighs your wrapped candy, others that weigh your produce, nervous-looking middle aged managerial types with stern looks pacing the aisles (maybe wondering if the Zamboni floor cleaner ran anyone over), people cooking all sorts of things like little dough packets filled with some greenish mixture, the sample ladies doling out free chocolate chip cookies (I could walk to this booth in my sleep) and tea in tiny paper cups and pound cake cubes on paper doilies, guys wrangling the live creatures that I wish were enjoying life back in the swamp they came from like turtles, bullfrogs, eels, crayfish, and giant fish, and bakery ladies who spend a lot of time arranging sassy-looking baked goods in glass display cases.

It was the bakery ladies that I visited on this particular trip as I needed to quickly pick up a birthday treat for a colleague’s birthday the following day. As mentioned earlier, a number of the bakery ladies were busy organizing 3-packs of muffins (13 RMB, or about $2.00) in a glass display case with the intensity of a Tiffany’s sales clerk arranging diamond necklaces in a 5th Avenue window display. Unlike the tens of thousands of shoppers around me, I was in a hurry so I quickly chose what I assumed would be the simplest item for them to grab and put in a box—6 mini carrot cakes about the size of cupcakes.

When I finally managed to get the attention of one of the product-arranging bakery clerks I pointed to the mini cakes and, using my best elementary school Chinese said, “Liù” which means six, and sort of sounds like you’re saying “Leo” in a deep Southern accent while having a mouth full of cheese grits. The clerk looked at me like I had said, “This is a stick up! Give me all your carefully-arranged muffins!” Which I might have actually said since one tonal change in Chinese can create a whole new word. So I did the “five fingers, one thumb” sign and she nodded, still with a look of surprise though.

At this point I expected them to pick up the six mini cakes—which were already housed on cute little plastic plates with a clear bubble cover–and place them in one of the boxes I saw behind the counter. But this is what two of them did: Placed each mini cake (still in its

Taking a rest on my wrapped up carrot cake squares.

Taking a rest on my wrapped up carrot cake squares.                                                                 Source:http://www.vijaybisht.in/2013/04/worlds-largest-ball-of-plastic-wrap.html

 

plastic bubble) in an individual cellophane bag that they folded over and taped; then placed two of these wrapped cakes each into a larger cellophane bag that they folded over and taped, then placed the three larger bags (containing two smaller bags of already bubble encased mini cakes) into a large plastic bag that they—you guessed it—folded over and taped. I was sure that I could put these into a time capsule and they would still be fresh in 2115. At school the next day it took three of us, with scissors and Exacto knives, 10 minutes just to open up these nesting doll-like treats and put them on a plate.

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I was thinking a lot about this whole packaging thing during the 27 minutes it took the two bakery clerks to wrap these mini cakes. I recalled that my disdain of over-packaging isn’t JF 5th grade poetry bk - 1new. Back in Grade 5 at Webster School I was in the “Advanced Reading Group” (clever name, and so thoughtful toward those unfortunate students in the “Primitive Reading Group” or “Just Plain Old Average Readers Who Won’t Amount to Much” or whatever they called the ones beneath me). Our teacher Mrs. Morgan had us create a book of poems called Poetry by Advanced Readers (obviously the clever title shows just how advanced we were), and my contribution was a poem called “Open It.” It went like this:

Open It
by Jeff Fessler, Grade 5

It makes me mad about the store,
The way they wrap things up,
I dig and tear and grip and bite,
to find just a coffee cup!

I use a hammer and an axe,
to open a cardboard box,
I chop and chop and chop again,
I would rather be an ox!

And in the end I use my teeth,
to open that pesky package,
But then my teeth turn out to be,
a great big pile of wreckage.

JF 5th grade poetry bk - 2

The original mimeographed page containing my masterwork.

Well, despite the fact that I tried to slip in a near rhyme rather than a real rhyme in that last stanza, I still made my point. Over-packaging is definitely a thing here. When you open a box of Cheerios you’ll find not one, but two impossible-to-open silver packets of cereal, because apparently after eating half of the contents I need to be reminded how much I hate over packaging. We recently went to a bakery and bought a baguette that the clerk slipped into a long skinny paper bag. I was having visions of strolling down a Paris avenue, baguette under my arm, beret cocked to one side on my head. Then the clerk took a plastic bag, slipped it over the open end where a few inches of the baguette was peaking out, and taped it on with enough scotch tape to make it waterproof. I looked like I was carrying a giant penis encased in a condom, something I could not envision carrying down Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

2 hands

Presenting something with two hands, as if you were giving it to Lady Mary on Downton Abbey. Source: http://www.visitourchina.com/blog/detail-162.html

I suppose, like every country we’ve visited/lived in, there are customs that we just have to embrace. And for the most part, I feel like we’ve done that. Here in China it’s polite to use two hands when giving someone something, like presenting cash to the checkout person. We always do that, and I like that one a lot because it turns a simple action into a fancy, polite one that makes me feel I’m on Downton Abbey. Years ago Jamey worked at a magazine shop in Palm Beach while he was in college. I happened to be visiting him there when a privileged sort of woman (with a fair amount of work done on her face), grabbed a water from the case and threw a dollar bill on the counter in Jamey’s direction. Before she exited the door he said, “You’re a quarter short,” and she took the coin from her baby eagle skin clutch and threw it—THREW IT—across the room toward his counter. Jamey just shook his head as he was numb from this sort of behavior. I, however, followed this skin-encased turd outside as she got her into her villain car and in less than 30 seconds reminded her how sailors talk.

There are other Chinese customs I’m finding it hard to embrace, such as drivers honking beep_beep_roadrunner_93their horns all the time for every little thing at all hours of the night. And I’m not talking about one of those quick taps on the horn where it makes a little squeak like the Roadrunner that says, “Hey my friend, just a casual reminder that the light turned green. By the way, I hope you’re having an awesome day!” No, it’s a full-on, trumpet blast/supertanker in the ocean honk that says, “MOVE!!! Can’t you see that the light turned green .0036 seconds ago!?!?! I’ve got to get to Carrefour so I can leisurely walk around blocking the aisles!!!”

It’s weird because the honking drivers are weirdly dead-faced and very still as they do this—no obscene hand gestures or screaming out of the window or brandishing a gun (with a few exceptions, private citizens in China are not allowed to have firearms). They just totally let the horn do the dirty work while they remain emotionally unattached to the situation. Even funnier is that it’s illegal to honk a car horn in Shanghai! But according to a recent study, car horns are used 40 times more often here than in Europe, so go figure.

There is a Chinese custom that I fully embrace, even though I find it challenging. The

Chinese children having a terrible argument.

Chinese children having a terrible argument.

Chinese don’t lose their temper, even in a very frustrating situation. They don’t yell at people. They don’t show anger. If anything they giggle when they are mad or embarrassed, like after running their shopping cart into my upper thigh at Carrefour. This is interesting because sometimes a normal Chinese conversation sounds like one of the arguments on the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

One day the bus drivers outside of school sounded like they were ready to rip each other’s throats out. Their voices were raised and they were talking over each other. It made me a little nervous. But then my Chinese colleague said they were just talking about gardening. I tried to imagine how this would sound in English:

BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU SPACE THE SEEDS ABOUT 5 INCHES APART!!!”

BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “YOU’RE RIGHT!! AND COVER THEM WITH ABOUT A HALF-INCH OF LOOSE TOP SOIL!!!!

BUS DRIVER 1: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “THEN JUST LET MOTHER NATURE GO TO WORK, THOUGH I HEARD MIRACLE GRO HELPS!!!”

BUS DRIVER 2: (yelling at top of his lungs with stern look on face) “OH WELL, ENOUGH GARDENING TALK!!! LET’S GO TO CARREFOUR AND BUMP INTO PEOPLE!!!!!

Happy shopping!