Well Otherside readers it appears as though my new outlook on life in China has already paid off.  After I posted yesterday I took off into the city with no particular plan and no particular expectation.  I promised myself that I wouldn’t return to my cold white dorm room until I had had one of those “how the hell did I get here” experiences.

School boys cause trouble on the streets of Liaocheng, having way too much to notice me taking a picture of them.

I stopped on the way at a little street vendor selling bowls of cold rice noodles drizzled in vinegar and chili sauce, with bits of bread like pieces of tofu and diced cucumbers thrown in.  This dish had previously struck me as rather un-appetizing—I’ve never been much for cold noodles, the very thought of pasta salad is enough to kill my appetite—but to my surprise it was actually delicious.  So much so that I ordered another bowl and chatted with the lady who sold it to me.  She complimented me on my Mandarin, saying that it was very impressive that I had only been in China a month and could converse with her, as broken as our conversation was.  Of course no matter what I say, as long as it’s in Mandarin, the people here always say I speak well.  I’ve learned to take the compliment with a grain of salt, but for some reason I found it especially encouraging yesterday

My next stop was a part of town I had walked by several times, but never had the courage to venture in.  It appeared to be some sort of iron market, jam packed with heavy bits of machinery and wasted engines.  I dubbed it “Tetanus Town.”  The workers there gave me the usual stares I get anywhere I go around Liaocheng, but I suppose they were a bit more surprised to see me wandering around this place.  Why come all the way to China to hang out in a metal dump?  The reason is simple.  In the hyper-hygienic, overly insured American culture you simply don’t come across places that look like this.  In a lot of ways I think it exemplifies China’s status in the world as a first world nation with its foot still in the third world.  Industry is growing so fast in China that they still operate much like they did one hundred years ago, except now the machines are bigger, faster, and more complex.

Later on in the day I walked past what I believed to be an old abandoned hotel.  There were large machines parked in the courtyard, and several families mingling around an old dried up fountain.  I used this as an opportunity to practice my Mandarin, and engaged a number of them in conversation the best I could.  It wasn’t long before a large crowd of children gathered around me, shouting what little English they knew.  Hullo! Sankyou!  Nice to meet you!  What are your hobbies? They never stuck around for any answers, retreating in fits of giggles if I gave them the slightest nod of comprehension.  They gave me tea and cigarettes.  I showed them pictures of Beijing, which none of them had ever been to, despite being just three hours away by train.

I love this picture. It was a brief interaction but I'll never forget them.

For dinner I found an outdoor barbecue restaurant and hadn’t been sitting but 10 seconds before an excited twenty-something man in a jumpsuit sat down next to me.  “Hullo!” he said.  “My name is Fang Wai.” This was all the English he knew, probably taught to him by a classmate of his, or an English teacher in high school that failed to make any lasting impression.  He asked me the usual questions; how long had I been in China? Was I a student or a teacher? Why did I come to Liaocheng? Could I use chopsticks?  He invited me to sit with his friends, and before I knew it I was bombarded with conversation I could barely understand.  They were kung-fu students, and apparently on a long awaited break.  They ordered me dishes and poured more and more beer into my cup.  In China, when one person at the table drinks, everyone must drink, and a sip is not enough.  If I didn’t finish what was in my small glass they would shout at me, “He duo ju!” Drink it all!  They called friends and invited them to hang out with the foreigner.  More beer.  More beer.  More beer.  By the end of the meal I was tipsy and they were downright pissed.  All of a sudden they rose from their seats and the meal was apparently over.  At one point I had told them that I loved to eat garlic, and on the way out one of them stole a couple cloves of garlic into my breast pocket, holding his finger to his mouth and whispering shhhh. I asked them to show me their kung-fu.  They did splits on the streets and threw fake kicks at my face. Before we parted I gave Fang Wai my telephone number, and he promised to teach me kung fu.  I wandered slowly back to my dorm with a full tummy and a swimming brain.

These guys could barely stand up by the end of the meal, it was pretty shocking that they could still do a little kung fu.