Thursday, August 25, 2011

Chinese Satire: "Biden Eats Noodles" ('Kong Yiji' Edition)

by a Chinese blogger

(Note:  In recent days, a satire post titled "Biden Eats Noodles" on the Chinese internet has been widely reposted, so much so I have been unable to verify the original author's name. Apparently there are many versions of the post circulating, perhaps continuously revised during reposting. The one I chose to translate is from a rights lawyer Chen Youxi's blog. This post, which derides both the Chinese and American governments, emulates the style of "Kong Yiji," a famous essay by Lu Xun from the 1930s. For you to get a flavor for the Chinese satire more completely, I arbitrarily found a translation of "Kong Yiji" on "The Translation Blog," which also has  the Chinese original to compare to. And for an easier comparison between  "Biden Eats Noodles" and "Kong Yiji," I tried to make my translation similar to that of "The Translation Blog"'s. Unfortunately, some humor is always lost in translation. – Xujun)

Photo from Chen Youxi's blog

[in translation]

The layout of the fried liver restaurants in the empire's capital is quite different from those in other towns. They are all big establishments with  a blockhouse facing the street. Cold dishes are kept available so that they can be served at any time. Laborers, back from work at noon or dusk, would spend 5 jiao to get a bowl of fried livers – that was the price over 20 years ago, before the capital's students were chopped by the emperor, and a bowl costs 6 yuan now—where they lean over the counter, eat the warm dish before going to rest. With an additional ten yuan, you can get a dish of "pea yellow" or fried sausage to go with the wine. If you are willing to pay over 30 yuan, you can buy a meat dish. But most of the customers are the “Under Shirts” who cannot afford such luxuries, whereas, those who wear Western suits and ties would stride to the back room, order their wine and dishes and sit there taking their time to eat and drink.

I worked as a busboy at the Yao's Fried Liver restaurant, located under the capital's drum tower, since age 12. The shop keeper said that I had a dumb-looking face and was probably not smart enough to serve the “suit-and-tie clientele,” and thus should only work in the front room. The “under shirts” in the front room, although usually easy going, were no less troublesome. Some wouldn’t be satisfied until they saw me scoop out the gravy-sauce from the pan with their own eyes, to make sure that there was no melamine at the bottom of the bowl, and even watched me put the flat bread in the gravy sauce. Under such tight surveillance, it was difficult to cut down on materials. Therefore, after a few days, the keeper said I couldn’t even do that. Fortunately, due to the influence of my patron, the  keeper couldn't  dismiss me but he assigned me to the insignificant task of just serving soybean-paste noodles.

After that, I spent all day at the counter, doing my specialized job where I couldn’t make any blunders. The thing that bothered me most was that the job was so monotonous and boring. The keeper always glared at me with a fierce face, and the customers were not friendly either. Therefore, I couldn’t slack off even a little bit, except for the few laughs that the foreigner brought when he came to the restaurant. That’s why I can still remember him.

Biden was the only one who ate soybean-paste noodles while wearing a Western suit and tie. He was big and tall, with a rosy face, and had a head of bedraggled grizzly hair. Although he wore a suit, it seemed not to have been Armani nor expensively tailored, unlike the Vice President of a dignified country. He used so many obscure words and archaic phrases such as "hello," "yes" when he spoke that his speech was half unintelligible.

The moment Biden stepped into our restaurant, all the customers would look at him and start laughing. Someone would yell: “Biden, you got a new deficit on your fiscal book!” He never answered them, he only spoke to the waiter behind the counter: ‘A bowl of soybean-paste noodles, no eggs.’ He then spread out 10 big coins, all ten-dollar ones. The customers then intentionally raised their voices: "You must have borrowed again!" Biden replied with his eyes wide open: "How can you accuse me, an innocent person, without any basis?……” “What kind of innocent person? I saw with my own eyes on TV the other day that your congress got into a fight over debt."  Biden’s face turned red and the veins on his forehead protruded. While defending himself, he said: “Great America is not poor…people are rich! … A democratic country's business, can it count as poor?” Following that he blurted out those archaic phrases, such as “democracy," "economics," so on and so forth. The crowd would burst into laughter; and the restaurant once again became lively and rowdy.

I learned from gossips that America used to be well off, but it listened to some nuisance called Keynesianism and often borrowed money to spend; eventually it became unable to control the loan addiction, nor was it capable of forceful demolition of houses (强拆) or making selling land the government business, less still to increase taxes. It got increasingly poorer day by day and was close to becoming a beggar. Fortunately, due to a thingy called intellectual property, it was just able to get by, making copies for others, to exchange for a bowl of rice. Though Biden was in dire poverty, at our restaurant he was more creditworthy than others. He never welched on his promise to pay. Even when he was really tight on money, he would write down the debt on the chalk board and always cleared it within a month and was able to erase the name of American Vice President from the chalk board.

After half a bowl of noodles, the flush on Biden's face faded. Someone sitting by him asked, "Biden, is America really the richest country in the world?" Biden stared at the guy who asked him, with a look of disdain. The guy carried on, "How come you can't even repay the foreign debt?” Biden looked affronted, his face turning dark, and babbled all the obscure and archaic phrases like "financial deficit" that no one could understand. At this moment, the people all broke into hilarity and the place was permeated with a festive air.

At these instances, I laughed along with the people, and those were the moments the shop keeper never scolded me for laughing. The keeper had also asked such questions to him many times, just to tease him. Biden knew that he couldn’t have a regular conversation with them, so he turned to the youngsters. Once, he asked me: “Have you ever studied English?” I nodded. He then said, “You have studied English, so let me test your knowledge. Do you know how to write the word 'fry' as in 'fry soybean paste'?” I thought, a bum like him, in what role is he testing me? I turned my back, ignoring him. Biden waited for a while, then said earnestly: “You can’t, can you? Let me teach you how. Remember it. It will be useful when you become a shop keeper. You’ll have to do the books.” I thought to myself that I was a long way from becoming a shop keeper, and our  keeper never wrote down soybean paste noodles on the books. Biden was being ridiculous and annoying, so I answered coldly: "Who needs you to teach? Isn’t it f-r-y, fry?” Biden seemed excited, tapping the counter with two long nailed fingers, nodding: “Correct, 'fry' has four synonyms, do you know all of them?” I became more annoyed, scowled and walked away. Biden was about to write something on the counter with the nail that had been dipped in the wine. Seeing me uncaring, he sighed, putting on a look of pity.

Our keeper sneered:" Let me tell you, I'm a veteran in battles! Have seen a lot. The famous American journalist Wallace came to my store for soybean paste noodles, we regaled jovially! His extravagance, you Biden can't compare. Therefore, as a Vice President, you need to raise your income level! Understand?  I see you didn't even dare to add an egg to your soybean paste noodles; I'm really worried for your America! Really, you Biden have one good thing:  you eat noodles faster than anyone, but your consumption level [unintelligible words]…" Biden was so embarrassed, he said resentfully, "Wasn't I richer than you before? This a hundred dollars, keep the changes for your tip…" Then he hurriedly wiped his mouth and disappeared behind people's laughter.

After that, I didn’t see Biden for a long time. Around the anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize, the shop keeper took down the chalk board and said, ”Biden still owes me 19 coppers!” On May 35 of the following year, he said again, “Biden still owes me 19 coppers!” But he didn’t say it at the dried meat festival, and Biden hadn’t shown up either.

I haven’t seen him since — Obama has probably stepped down indeed.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who Is the Guilty Party?

by Anonymous

(Note: I got this from a friend in China who asked to remain anonymous. – Xujun)

[In translation]

CHINA — Two years ago, I bought a tiny flat from a stranger. While making some minor changes to the old interior, the electrician I hired found problematic wires, and that the electricity meter outside did not work. The electrician, who had more than 20 years of experience, concluded that the previous owner had messed about with the meter in order to steal electricity. He pointed to a jumble of wires and tried to explain – why this wire did not connect to the meter and that wire did not connect to ground – only to make me further confused. Finally I got the gist of what he was saying: the previous owner installed a very small switch inside the apartment, and reconnected the meter to the switch, which fully controlled the meter's readings. As the result, if he had used 100 kwh of electricity, the meter would only read 10 kwh.

This was the first time I heard of such a thing, so I was at a loss as to what to do. I asked the electrician, "Could you please rewire the meter to its original design for me?" He teased me, "Why should I? Isn't it better for you to save electricity cost?" I waved my hand and said, "Drop it, I'm a coward, I won't be able to sleep if I steal. The money saved this way wouldn't even be enough to buy me sleeping pills."

The electrician fiddled with the meter, but in the end couldn't do much to help, because there was a red seal in it that said, "Do not remove seal, Electricity Bureau only; otherwise bear full consequences." He said he couldn't take the responsibility.

I called the previous owner, who neatly denied everything. His voice was full of surprise: "Really? Really? I had no idea! How could it be?"

With no choice, I went to the housing estate's property management, hoping they would help me solve the problem. The director was a young man who looked like he was just out of college. He patiently heard me out and calmly said, "Things like that are not our responsibility. We wouldn't dare to touch that seal either. Why don't you call the Electricity Bureau, perhaps they will send someone for you? But…" he hesitated a few seconds and then said, "For this kind of thing, you know, the Electricity Bureau is very hard to deal with…" He stopped again, his expression looked restrained.

Coming out of the property management office with a foggy head, I ran into Manager Zhou of the real estate agency. After listening to my story, he warned me against acting rashly. "I have heard things like this before," he said, "the Electricity Bureau only holds the current owner accountable. Change electricity wires without authorization? Fine 5000 yuan. You don't pay? They cut your electricity immediately."

I argued, "Can't they be reasoned with? I haven't even moved in, how can it be my doing? Plus, if it were me who did it, why would I take the trouble telling them? It only makes sense for them to consider it the previous owner's responsibility!"

Manager Zhou laughed in surprise: "My God! Are you from an alien planet? China's electricity is a monopoly trade, they are the boss, who do they fear? What's there to reason with them? They don't care to figure out who's right or wrong; it is the most convenient to just grab you. You want to live in this house? Then you have no way to escape. Even going to the court it is 100% your fault. Believe it!"

I didn't believe, but I took his advice to make the call from a public phone a few housing estates away. I explained the situation to the Electricity Bureau. The woman who answered had a flat tone like machine: Please provide your name, phone number, and address.

With Manager Zhou wagging his head to signal me, I hurriedly said this was for a friend, who just wanted to know what she should do in this case.

The woman's tone was unchanged: 5000 yuan fine. After the fine is paid we will send someone to fix the wires.

I couldn't help but raise my voice: "But this wasn't my friend's fault! It was the previous owner, don't you understand? Wouldn't you be wronging a good person and letting a bad one go?"

The woman's same cold voice held to the end: We only hold the current owner accountable. This is the procedure.

I almost cried out: Fuck the procedure! Are you a robot?

I also wanted to say, Are you forcing an innocent girl to prostitute herself (逼良为娼)?

Manager Zhou looked at me sympathetically: "You really don't need to care, let it be. It's not just one or two households stealing electricity. To tell you the truth, the house I rent now has the same situation. In our building 60% of apartment owners do this."

I was speechless for a while. Then I said, "No way! Thieves are in the open, and a moral person must sneak around, this is turning things upside down! I don't care what others do, I must correct the meter. Please help me find a way."

Manager Zhou gave me a wry smile: "Never seen one as stubborn as you are. Go look in the famers market, there may be someone specialized in this sort of thing."

I suspected he was toying with me. I often went shopping in farmers market, how come I never saw such a person?

In a corner of the market, I asked a fish seller if there was an electricity master who could change wires. He pointed behind without lifting his head. A fat man wearing oil-stained clothes took the hint and came to me, asking directly: "Where do you live?" and then simply said: "500 yuan."

I glared at him: "Are you robbing me? At most 200."

He did not get upset, but smiled: "What a temper! 200 then. Deal."

The fat man made a call, lowering his voice to give the other end my address. He then told me "Go wait at home. Arrival within an hour."

In less than half an hour, a slight man wearing the work robe of Electricity Bureau arrived. Within a minute of opening the electricity meter, he was done. Seeing suspicion in my look, the man said: "Rest assured. Wires corrected and the seal replaced. I'm from the Electricity Bureau myself and have done this job often. There will be no problem."

I was curious: "You are often asked to change wires?"

He said frankly: "Illegal changes are naturally more than corrections. I do all. 500 yuan for an illegal change, not a penny less. For corrections I can give better prices."

I saw a big wad of seals in his bag and suddenly understood: When the electricity meter was changed in the first place, the seal must have been removed; why did I see one that was intact? The only answer is: the Electricity Bureau's staff must be the thief who steal what they are guarding (监守自盗). Who knows, perhaps the one who changed the wires last time was the same man today?

I sighed about the shadiness when I handed the man the money.

He said modestly: "We are just giving a hand to help everyone, otherwise what's to be done? Everyone needs to be fed, right?"

Nearly two years passed. On a hot day last month, the power went off at noon. I called the Electricity Bureau, and a worker arrived in 5 minutes. He said the fuse was burned and needed to be changed to a thicker one. Then he discovered something and said: "The meter has been messed around with."

The adage goes that "A thief's guilty consciences make him cowardly (做贼心虚)." I wasn't the thief but was cowardly all the same. I tried my utmost to deny.

The worker said: "Come and see – someone changed here. The ends are still here. We experts can tell with one glance. No need to deny. I'm going to call the Bureau and have them handle this."

He started to dial his cellphone. I was forced to ask pardon. I told him the whole story and hoped he would let me go.

I bet the man was just a big boy not even 23 years old. With plump cheeks and shining eyes, his face was full of innocent smile. He said: "I believe you. But the other guy did not do a thorough job. He must have been posing as an Electricity Bureau staff. Also possible he's a relative of a staff member, got the work robe, and used it to make money. You found me by calling the Bureau, so I can't be fake. I can redo the correction for you and ensure you can sleep in peace from now on."

Now seasoned, I asked: "How much?"

He said calmly: "At least 300 yuan."

I said: "At most 200. Please give me your name and cellphone number. I don't want to be endlessly extorted by you Electricity Bureau people."

He smiled brightly: "Don't get angry, we are only taking money to remove ill fortune (拿人钱财替人消灾)."

Two minutes later he declared everything was OK now. He left his cellphone number and told me to call him if there was any problem. "But there won't be any problem. Rest assured, there'll be problems no more." His smile was very warm.