Scenes from the Asian road – 1

Seoul. I am meeting with a potential South Korean supplier. We are in an old part of the city in a building which is part office and part museum. We have all removed our shoes. While we talk, we partake of seemingly endless cups of tea prepared and drunk in the traditional manner. Some of these teas have been preserved for decades and are discussed with all the seriousness of vintage wines in our culture.

It is mutually understood that no decisions will be made today or even at any time in the near future, as is the norm in most Asian cultures. Eventually it comes time to leave and I sit on what I perceive to be solid looking stool to put my shoes back on. Something indefinable shifts in the mood, although the smiles remain.

Walking down the laneway leading away from the building, I take our translator discreetly aside and test whether I have sensed the mood correctly. He politely informs that the ‘stool’ I sat on is a 400-year-old ceremonial tea table and only its superior craftmanship has averted disaster for all concerned.

Shanghai. I haveboarded a flight to Beijing and I am seated next to a tiny elderly Chinese gentleman. My Chinese does not extend beyond ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you). However he seems delighted to have my companionship and repeatedly pats my stomach.   

Beijing. Having landed at the airport, I am waiting for my interpreter to arrive. I notice a small group of young men clearly delighting themselves with their competing versions of my corpulence and my resemblance to Santa Claus. Not uncommon wherever I travel or at home but I sense a particular degree of malevolence in this pantomime and when I meet their eyes there is a defiance and an unapologetic invitation to dare to challenge their mockery.

My interpreter arrives and we head for the exit, passing the group of mockers. I stop to admonish them for their bad manners. Their leader, who clearly speaks excellent English, feigns incomprehension. My interpreter has gone white and hurries me away. I explain my outburst and he says I may have challenged the wrong people because it is difficult for foreigners to distinguish individual Asian people. I ignore the insult because I interpret this as the beginnings of his defence of me if they call security.

Singapore After a long, tiring day of conferencing (is there a more tedious form of social gathering on the planet?), Our Glorious Leader invites me and a fellow US colleague to join him for dinner at a reputedly very fine Japanese restaurant he has discovered on Orchard Road in a Google search. Our hotel is just off Orchard Road so he says we don’t need a cab, we can walk there. I gently point out, having visited Singapore before, that Orchard Road is some two and a half kilometres long and the street number of the restaurant appears to be a long way removed from where we are. He consults Google Maps on his phone (then a very new and not entirely reliable app) and assures me that Google tells him this is not so.

I’m still wearing my business shoes from the conference. They are less than ideal for walking any sort of distance. Combine that with my weight and the steamy Singapore atmosphere and after several blocks I suggest we consult a local but Our Glorious Leader’s faith in technology is unshakeable. Several more blocks later we get to the point that our electronic beagle insists the restaurant should be. But it isn’t.

Eventually we locate it down a side street and, after we enter, I repair to the bathroom to mop up my sweat. The meal turns out to be ordinary, slow and expensive. When we leave, my companions decide they will walk back to the hotel. I and my aching feet wish them well and I go in search of a cab. (Our Glorious Leader would later entertain others with his recounting of The Night of The Long March.)

Sighting a cab rank across the street, I immediately feel much better. Waiting to cross at the lights, I feel the gentlest of nudges to my left and I turn to see a scantily clad young woman smiling at me. Then I notice a proliferation of such young women and realise that while we were in the restaurant this end of Orchard Road has transformed into a red light district.

I politely shake my head and cross over to the rank. There are many cabs but all refuse my fare. I am about to resign myself to the trudge back to the hotel when a cab pulls up on the outside of the rank and the driver sounds his horn. I go over and he asks where I want to go. I tell him and he indicates to get in.

As we drive, he tells me the cab drivers can earn far more from the short-time ladies of the night than they could from me. He’d picked me up because it was the end of his shift, I looked somewhat distraught and he was heading my way anyway. At my hotel I noticed he hasn’t set his meter running. He refuses any payment and drives off into the night.

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