You see them off and on in the regular places – hubcap belt buckle, tight baseball caps with rounded brims, untucked cowboy shirts over a classic beer belly, running shoes, jeans, a scruffy beard and a not wholly young or attractive Chinese woman on their arm. Always wearing look which translates as “Don’t short change me or I’ll throw a chair through the window.” These are the oil rig guys, the fourth leg of the expat table after the German automotive guys, the tech workers and the aimless students trying to make a positive change in the world. Usually you can find a handful of them in the same restaurant night after night eating western food because that’s what they know. Chain smoking and nursing a beer over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Their companion always sits there silently drinking a soft drink and staring into space with a look of bored disgust making you wonder what the details of the arrangement are. The deal here isn’t about conversation, it’s about comfort.
I went to town today with a couple of pals, horning in on their romantic afternoon visit to the Lantern Festival at Labor Park. I’d heard about it and thought it might be a nice chance to get into town and do something other than sit around the hotel room eating mini-Cadbury bars. So off we went to have a look.
It was an interesting set-up and comparable in spirit to the Harbin Ice City except that these sculptures were made of wire painted fabric and ping pong balls instead of blocks of ice. I suppose it’s a spectacle after dark when everything is lit up, and it wasn’t bad in the late winter afternoon light. We wandered past stalls selling food and trinkets and marveled at the constructions in a chintzy sort of way. Yet another mélange of Eastern designs mingled with Western pop culture ranging from 100 Little Mermaids forming an arch over a walkway to dozens of little space ships and robots malingering at the top of the hill. They even had a ski slope with virtually no vertical drop consisting of an inch of icy slush and a t-bar rope tow. Everyone was drinking it in and taking lots of photographs, particularly on the bronze zodiac sculptures under the Mermaid arches.
I too took a lot of pictures and then escaped to Starbucks to get my freezing hands around a warm Americano. Around 6 PM I met up with another expat and planned to have dinner at a Bavarian restaurant. I’d arranged with my driver to pick us up at this hotel and when he didn’t show I sent him a message inquiring as to his whereabouts. He was sitting outside my hotel, 40 kilometers away. So much for crisp communications and planning – I guess he couldn’t grasp how I got into the city in any manner other than via Honda #C58.
We rearranged our plans and caught a cab asking him to retrieve us in a couple of hours. The place was empty when we arrived but quickly filled up with Chinese and cigarette smoke, as though I’d missed a couple of lungs full of the second hand variety earlier this week in Spain. We deconstructed the entire expat experience over a couple of beers and sausages in a truly Teutonic manner. The people watching was fantastic between the tables full of drunken youngsters who kept spilling beer after beer making their cigarettes soggy and the oil field guys who wandered in and out. I struck up a conversation with one sitting a few feet away asking about the nature of the rigs being built in the harbor between Dalian and Kai Fa Qu. I learned that rigs like those are moved via “dry transfer”, built and loaded on a ship for delivery. This guy was from the Gulf Coast and had been here 2 years too long in his estimation. His companion ate soup and stared straight ahead bringing to mind those couples you see in restaurants everywhere, alone together.
One of the youngsters in a parka with a fur collar sat there staring at me in a manner that was either envious or menacing, I wasn’t quite sure and in a bar you never can be. He was smiling so I just kept on talking and laughed along with him when his girlfriend tipped over her glass and flooded the table.
An hour or so of smoking is about all I can take so we beat it to the door and found my guy waiting for us – communications reinstated. I spent my drive back to the hotel quietly staring out the window at the New Year’s lights along the roadway,
Simon Winchester did a nice bit on expats in China in his book “The River at the Center of the World.” He talked about Scottish mining engineers and their relationships with the local girls and the community in which they worked. Having read it a while back, I have to say now that he nailed it – foreigners come, they take what they need to stay sane and they get out. Those that fail at the middle part come unglued and do terrible things to themselves and to others. I suppose it comes from being displaced in both time and space – you need your anchors to remain who you are. Without them you become someone else, or rather the person you might really be, unbounded. It’s an interesting thing to ponder.