I occasionally go to Xiamen, China, to do Quality Control work in a metal factory. The original factory was located relatively close to the downtown area of Xiamen island.
But in an effort to promote more tourism, the government decided to move all factories off the island. (That’s one of the many, many Blessings of Socialism….Big Government can simply move “undesirables” to other places, whether it’s factories, human rights activists, political opponents, people living upstream from the 3 Gorges Dam, Tibetans, or entire industries. No questions asked. Don’t you wish you lived under a government like that? No? Then start voting for Libertarians….)
The new factory is 45 minutes away from the island. The company driver always picks me up at the same coffee bar, along with a few salespeople or office workers who have gone home to the island instead of sleeping in the factory dormitory. Catching a free ride in the company car with The Great American (or Brit, Swede, Kiwi, etc.) is free and fast, as compared to taking a bus that stops at every fish stand between the island and the new factory.
My driver was named Mary.
Most Chinese people like Mary who work with Westerners usually acquire a Western Name. This has nothing to do with Imperialism, Colonialism, Capitalism, or Ethnocentrism. It’s about vowels. Since Asian languages are typically tonal languages - vowels can rise, fall, fall-rise, or stay flat - anyone like me from Merigold, Mississippi will fail to hear the differences in the tones. In Merigold, Mississippi, individual vowels wander pointlessly for several seconds but with no specific goal other than a reluctance to get to the point.
It’s worse when we try to speak a tonal language. Anyone from Merigold, Mississippi trying to get the right person on the telephone will fail. (Can I speak to Mr. Hu -- Mr. Hu ! ! Mr. Hu ?? Mr. Hu \__/ )
At some point, the Chinese individual will pick out a name he or she likes, and say “Call me Roger.” Or the Westerner will get frustrated and declare “In honor of your contributions to this enterprise, I hereby dub thee ‘Roger’”. The newly minted Roger will try the name out a few times, get the spelling down, and struggle with the R’s at each end. He’ll eventually Google “Roger” to make sure there’s no historical bad Mojo packaged with the name, like the bad Karma now found with Adolph, Benito, or Dahmer.. He’ll either declare the name acceptable, or suggest an alternative.
My Chinese friend Wendy, the factory’s leading salesperson and interpreter, once decided that Mr. Chen, the factory owner, needed a Western name. Wendy proposed “Charlie”. As in Charlie Chen. I didn’t explain the negative connotations surrounding the 1940’s and 50’s movie detective Charlie Chan, and that many people wouldn’t respect any Asian who voluntarily went by that name. So I told her that Mr. Chen is THE MAN at that factory. Nobody else gets called Mister. Therefore, a Western name was unnecessary for a man of Mr. Chen’s wisdom and stature. That’s how I killed the Charlie Chen project.
I once met an American at a Xiamen bar called “The Londoner”, who confessed to naming an entire Chinese office staff with aliases that reminded him of American strippers. He loaded the place with Ambers, Ashleys, Tiffanys, Mistys, and Lolas. That’s just wrong.
But I have my own confession to make. My political leanings go toward Libertarianism. Perhaps that’s why I subconsciously named people after Defeated Democratic Presidential Candidates. I was about 3 names into the process before I discovered I’d given the QC Manager the name Walter (Mondale), the Welding shop was run by George (McGovern or Wallace, name your poison) and the Wire department was managed by Albert (The Goracle of Music City Tennessee). Those first three weren’t intentional. Unlike the names I gave out during my last trip, when, I’m delighted to say, I ensured that the Final Assembly department would be ably managed by John and his lovely wife Theresa-Heinz (Kerry).
I’d pay my own airfare to China, just to name the purchasing agent “Hillary” as a pre-emptive strike.
But I digress. The point of all this is to explain that my Chinese driver on the day of The Typhoon had the unlikely name “Mary”. She was the first female driver to show up in Mr. Chen’s car, and was visibly nervous. People from her obviously impoverished background don’t get to spend much time with round-eyed Barbarians. Unlike the previous Davids, Tommys, and Mikes, Mary had absolutely no English, other than “Herro, Mister Aaron!” (In Merigold, Mississippi, I was named Allen. In China, it comes out as Aaron.) But once I saw that Mary could cope with the odd meter rhythms of Chinese traffic as well as anyone else, I would dive into my laptop within a few minutes of each departure.
(I’m writing this from a cruise ship on the Mexican Riviera, a long way from Xiamen China. But I can still hear the two CD’s in Mr. Chen’s company car: The Carpenter’s Greatest Hits, and a Richard Clayderman (?) CD of 1970’s movie themes, including Love Story, Romeo & Juliet, Moon River, and The Godfather. Those songs been pounded into my soul)
I couldn’t tell anything unusual about the weather on the day of the typhoon. Chinese weather is hard for me to predict. Because of China’s total absence of environmental protections, the sky is always the color of 10,000 outbursts of Satanic flatulence. China lives beneath the Marlboro Man’s overflowing ashtray. A Dickensian London Fog mixed with Plutonium for good measure.
Cleveland Ohio was once the only U.S. city where a river caught on fire. In Xiamen, that might happen to the sky. So who knows if it’s cloudy or not? Plus, the coastal fog and mugginess give everything the feel of stepping into a mildewed shower stall. One of the upsides of a typhoon is that the sky afterwards is a brief radiant blue, and everyone’s mood is noticeably improved.
Once I got to the factory, I worked until around 3:00 p.m., when Mr. Chen found me and said that a Typhoon was coming. I had one opportunity to get back to the Island. There were none of the usual delays waiting on hitch-hiking office workers, and I was the last one to get in Mary’s car. Wendy the Salesperson/Interpreter, Karen, her assistant, Nancy the office manager, and Walter from Quality control were in the back seat.
This was my second typhoon. The first was weathered from the relative security of the Osaka, Japan, airport. The airport typhoon experience was like being outside of a carwash, looking in. This one was like being inside a blender, vainly looking out. The windshield wipers weren’t squeegee-ing the water, they were briefly stirring it. When we could see out the windshield, we saw branches flying in front of us. The scraps of woven plastic mesh bags, broken chunks of tile, and rusted chunks of sheet metal that are China’s Roadside Beautification Program were washing across the road.
But we felt secure. Big Sister was with us. The ever present voice bringing reassurance in our time of trouble, the unseen comforter giving guidance to our tiny vessel. No, I’m not talking about the propaganda recordings of Mrs. Mao, the White Boned Demon. I’m not talking about any of the minor Buddhist or Hindu deities. I’m not even referencing the Mother of Our Lord and Savoir whose namesake was gamely gripping the wheel. No, we had the audible presence of the most prominent, inspirational voice in all of China, whose words ceaselessly blast from every Karaoke Bar, Bootleg CD shop, and restaurant on the continent: We had the music of Karen Carpenter.
And we were singing with her:
“When I wass young I lissen to dah radio,Waitin Foe mah favree song…..
When dey play I sing along
It make me smile
EvLeee Shah Lah Lah Lah, Evvv Leee Woa Woa Woa,
Evv Lee Sheen a Leen a Leen, Dat dey Stahting to Siiing
When dey get to dah Paaaht where he breakin’ her haaaht.
Eee can rearry make you cry…
Juss like Befooooe, Is Yessuhday One Mohhhhh. (Zhoo Bee Doo Woe Woe)
God, it was surreal.
I'm adding a YouTube of The Carpenters singing the song. Don't bother watching the video. Just turn your speakers up to ELEVEN, and let it provide a soundtrack for the rest of this story.
We drove and drove. Normally we could expect a slowdown with factory traffic heading back into town, plus the usual slowdowns from ox carts, bicycles, mopeds and pedestrians. Not that afternoon. The road was ours. If we could only see it.
Evv Lee Shah Lah Lah Lah, Evv Lee Woa Woa Woa Woa, So Fiiiiiine….
Chunks of fence were coming across the road. Chickens. Mud from the hillsides.
Evv Lee Sheen a Leen a Leen, Dat dey stahteen to siiing, So Fiiiiine
For a moment, I knew I was going to die in a flooded Chinese ditch with those people, listening to Karen Carpenter reminisce about 1950’s DooWop music. When the Chinese government finally dispatched an ambulance to the scene of our crash, they would find me with my eyes frozen wide in terror with “It’s Yesterday Once More” still running on auto-repeat.
(Zhoo Bee Doo Woe Woe….)
And then there was total silence from inside the car. Silence. The rarest of all Chinese commodities. All I could hear outside was rain, wind, and the defeated windshield wipers. Wendy had said something that prompted Mary to turn off the CD player.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Did we hit a dog?” (Which is another story….)
Walter, Karen, and Wendy waited a few seconds and then started wildly Speaking in the Unknown Tongue. All I could pick up on were various permutations of the word “Ma”, which, depending on the tonal inflection, can mean Mother, it can imply Ownership, it sometimes means to Scold or Curse, and it also mean Horse, or Marijuana. Throw a “Ma” onto the end of a sentence, and it can turn statements into questions.
(Here’s a potential Chinese Pronunciation Exercise: “Mama, your damn horse ate my marijuana ????”)
I looked into the backseat, where everyone was talking, looking and pointing wildly, as if hornets were trying to get in through the windows.
“What’s the matter?” I asked again.
“We are missing…..???” Walter answered, pointing behind us. “Who are we missing?” I asked, dreading a trip back to the factory to pick up some clerk who just HAD to be back on the island that night.
“We are missing….???” Walter said again, this time scooting away from Karen as if making room for one more Chinese butt on the back seat.
“We are missing….???” he said one more time. Walter is a good kid, but sometimes a little dim.
“Oh Waltahh,” Wendy said, throwing her hands in the air. “In Engrish, you do not say We Are Missing. You say ‘AARON, WE ARE LOST’.”
Then it was my turn to start looking around like a madman. All I saw past the typhoon was generic Chinese landscape. Trees weren’t bent double any more, but they were still leaning. Conversation resumed in Chinese. More pointing and head twisting. We eventually came to an intersection with an unmarked road, where Mary balked, waiting on instruction from a higher power. It was chilly, but her hands were sweating. Chairman Mao and the Gang of Two were in the back seat. Richard Nixon was in the front seat. Mary wasn’t trained for Henry Kissinger-type work.
I started advocating a right turn, since I knew we were going north. Ocean, and therefore island, were both to the east. I was overruled by the residents.
We drove and drove. Finally we came to another road. This one had a sign POINTING TO XIAMEN. I know the characters that make the word Xiamen. There’s the little gallows with a bee hive hanging from it, followed by the half-box “men” character that makes things plural. It was a sign pointing toward home, and they wouldn’t let Mary drive down it. I argued. I cussed. THE DAMN SIGN WAS POINTING TO XIAMEN.
But they didn’t know that road, Wendy explained. We might get lost worse. We were already lost worse I explained.
“Look,” I said. “How many bridges go onto the island?”
“This country doesn’t spend anything on road signs, since that would be helpful to the people who live here. But somebody, Buddha bless his soul, has put a sign here saying this road goes to Xiamen. I promise you, this road leads to other roads that lead to one of the bridges that will get us to Xiamen.”
Wendy said something to Mary. Mary, trembling like a whipped dog, crept past the intersection without turning. I decided to roll with it. “I’ve always wanted to see Russia,” I said, deteriorating into The Ugly American.
Thirty minutes later, we were still heading north. The rain was winding down, and we saw people coming out of their houses to start the cleanup. In the distance, there was a low, flat range of hills. They almost looked man made.
“Look,” I said. “There’s The Great Wall of China.”
Nobody laughed. We kept rolling.
Five minutes later, Walter piped up….”Aaron, the Great Wall is in far north China.”
Wendy was disgusted. “Oh Waltaah, Aaron just making bad joke.”
I honestly don’t remember much after that. We eventually got home by turning right, somewhere in Baha Beijing.