Monday, October 24, 2011

attack of the real estate agents

The street on which I live contains an imposing still-under-construction apartment building that promises to be the most posh edifice in the neighborhood. It will likely eclipse “The Palace,” which presently takes highest honors in this category. (I live in “Twilight Court,” aptly named in my opinion: considering all the leaks, cracks and crumbles, my 30+ year old building is presently in its twilight years.)

Though many months away from completion, this new housing complex is now apparently up for purchase, meaning that interested parties can buy a flat in tower 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, or 7. (Nope, there’s not a tower 4. Bad luck.) After years—literally, years—of passing by this construction site and seeing trucks, workmen, equipment and materials going in and out of a muddy entrance, through a sagging metal gate covered in torn vinyl, I noticed yesterday that a red carpet has been laid on the sidewalk surrounding the gate. Non-workmen are not allowed to go inside the construction area, but anyone can walk on this red carpet that leads nowhere.

Furthermore, dozens and dozens of assertive real estate agents are situated on the red carpet, on the sidewalks around the building, and on the other streets in my neighborhood as well. Saturdays and Sundays are opportune days for such business, so yesterday (Sunday) this army was out in full display.

My first realization of this matter occurred when, while riding in the car of a friend who was giving me a lift home, we encountered an eager young man who jumped out at our moving vehicle, waving a flier. Other agents turned their heads in our direction, also waving papers and fliers, but we kept driving up the street and they shifted their attention to cars behind us. This continued to happen as we drove the one-way loop around my neighborhood until we arrived at my flat.

How can any of these agents obtain business if they have to compete with forty or fifty other equally ardent agents? Moreover, any person who is seriously in the market for such a luxury flat will most likely explore the property with an agent of their choosing—not a flier-waving maniac on the street.

The complete absurdity of this situation struck me later in the day yesterday. I watched as a moving car approached the corner near the posh building and slowed down as the driver rolled down his window, ostensibly to obtain a flier. Suddenly, no fewer than eight aggressive agents descended on the car, all yelling, and each pushing an advertisement into the driver’s face. An image of a safari jeep stopping in lion territory and brandishing a slab of raw meat came to mind.

I think I’d be less fearful of a wildcat in a game preserve than a handful of real estate agents trying to sell a Hong Kong flat.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

a marshmallowless barbecue

“Too close to fire. It will burn.”

I am sitting around a barbecue pit, surrounded by half a dozen elderly Chinese folk, being instructed on how to roast a hot dog over a campfire. Several hundred church members have gathered at a park, which we rented for a day-long fellowship outing; the center point of the event is the barbecue. We are divided into two large groups, and each group is sent to a particular section of the park; I am told to meet at Pit B.

Pit B consists of twenty or so small barbecue pits built of concrete, permanently affixed to the ground, surrounded by benches. I am standing alone, surveying the area, trying to decide which group I should join, when a woman grabs my arm and urges me to sit with her group—the elderly Cantonese Sunday School class. In my mind I shrug, thinking that if I must attend an authentic Hong Kong barbecue, it might as well be experienced with true locals.

Grateful that everyone is wearing nametags, I am introduced to the group, and told which individuals can speak some English. Though I worry that my presence will bother them (sometimes, in my experience, Cantonese speakers who do not know English feel intimidated by a native English speaker), they seem pleased that I’ve joined them. I soon have them rolling with laughter, as I try learning a few new Cantonese words and entertain them with the one or two Chinese idioms I already know.

Meanwhile, plastic bags of charcoal are delivered to each campfire, and the men set out to build fires. Hong Kong charcoal is not made up of uniform square bricks as seen in the States; rather each piece is a different size and shape. Cheap fabric gloves are worn by those who arrange the charcoal in the pit. When it comes to building a fire, it seems that all cultures are the same: the guys stand around and debate the best way to arrange the charcoal and kindling, each studying the situation and offering different opinions, but few actually knowing what they’re talking about. (Written with utmost apologies to my male fire-building friends.)

No lighter-fluid is used, but each campfire is given a box of nuggets of some fire-starting material. Stacks of newspaper are also distributed, and soon each pit is surrounded by paper-waving people, while bits of ash and flakes of newspaper float down from the sky. I step away from the smoke, covering my mouth with a tissue, as I note how many dark-haired Chinese have grey paper fragments on their heads. It seems like proper kindling—twigs and small sticks—would be better for the environment and for my lungs as well.

Eventually the fires get going and the remaining newspapers are spread out at our feet. I am handed one thin plastic glove, a long metal barbecue fork…and a ziplock bag filled with disparate pieces of raw meat. My stomach turns as I realize I will have to use the glove to pull out a piece of meat and place it on the fork for roasting. I’m accustomed to barbecuing already-cooked meat (i.e. hot dogs) or placing raw meat on a strip of tin foil (i.e. hamburger patties).

I gingerly pull out the only hot dog from my bloody liquid-filled bag, and place it on the skewer, while the others go for the raw chicken wings or thin slabs of pork. I am trying to get into the spirit of the moment, but my mind is waving red flags on which are written words such as salmonella, E-coli, and food poisoning. My solution is to overcook the food, which causes the Chinese grandmas to fuss at me: “Don’t hold it so close to the fire. You’re burning it!” I recall the hundreds of times my family went camping when I was growing up; I am no stranger to the campfire or hot dog roasting process, but I bite my tongue.

I actually like the crunchy blackened portions of a hot dog, but these new friends warn me that I should not eat it, lest I get cancer. Though we are each handed plastic non-disposable plates, they look old and poorly washed, so I choose the germ-free option of eating the frankfurter directly off the hot metal skewer, prompting more admonishments from the grandmas.

Next, I pick up the only already-cooked meat in my baggie, which are two very small hot dog-looking items. When I place the tiny bits on my barbecue fork, I am criticized for wasting space on the skewer—after all, several chunks of meat could have fit on there at the same time. Foregoing my desire to eat the mini hot dogs straight off the skewer, I try to place them on my plastic plate, which is quite a feat since one of my hands has a plastic glove covered in raw meat juice. Unfortunately, the tiny hot dogs roll off onto the ground before I can get them into my mouth, and I forlornly realize that there is nothing else in my meat baggie that I want to eat. I briefly consider proposing a trade with someone: I’ll take that hot dog off your hands, and I’ll give you this whole bag of carrion in exchange. No, I probably shouldn’t do that.

Instead, I try roasting a few dim sum fish balls—a favorite among the locals—but they taste so dreadful that I can hardly swallow them. Why couldn’t they have rolled onto the ground? I spy a box of apples nearby, which, along with slices of stale white bread and a few ears of corn, is the only other non-meat item we are offered. I eagerly devour the fruit, and surreptitiously offer my bag of raw meat to a teenager sitting at the next barbecue pit.

While eating, I make conversation with the woman next to me, commenting that I wish we had marshmallows to roast. She doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, so I begin to describe a marshmallow—a task I’ve never undertaken before. It’s small and white colored. Made mostly of sugar; it’s soft and squishy. When it gets hot, the inside melts. Her face finally lights up and she says the word in Cantonese. “Yes, that’s it,” I respond, as if I know what she’s saying.

I continue to fend off questions from the Chinese grandmas—Why are you not eating more? Surely you’re not full yet?—when I suddenly spy the person who drove me and a few others here. He is standing on the other side of the barbecue pit area, but I see a slight, undercover cop-like nod and wink. We are leaving. I am saved.

I abandon my bag of raw meat, toss away the apple core, and grab my backpack. “I’m so sorry I have to leave early,” I announce, “but my ride is departing and I must go.”

I must go. Home to where I can eat a satisfying fully-cooked lunchmeat sandwich, followed by a bit of chocolate.

Next time I’ll bring the marshmallows.