First act of the new year, I moved into a new guesthouse. Used to be I’d put on my backpack and leave and viola, I had moved. Now I’ve got a backpack, a suitcase, a desk, chair, and a big old duffel of whatever else. It still fits in the trunk of a taxi, but next time…well, I’m cutting it close. Swallow, the waitress and co-chef at the Gogo Cafe, introduced me to my new place. When she first told me the name of the hotel, she said, “Texas Hotel”. “Texas?” I asked, “You mean, like the state, in America?” She said she didn’t know what it meant in English. It’s just a name. It is, in fact, ‘Texas’ like the Lone Star, but it’s named after the game, not the state. The full name of the inn is the “Texas Hold ‘Em Hotel”. Apparently the owner, whom I haven’t met, is a huge fan. Texas Hold ‘Em is over by the East Gate, on the opposite side of town. So I’m an East-sider now. Much of Dali’s activity takes place on the West Side of Remin Lu, where I’d been living for most of the past several months. I hesitated making this move, being so far from the action, but in retrospect it’s giving me an excuse to explore the quieter side of Dali. I started by ambling into a new cafe for lunch today. I don’t know the name, but big numbers on the windows shouted “2013”. The Gregorian New Year is usually just another day in this part of China, so I thought what an auspicious venue for my first meal of 2013. There were two other patrons in the cafe. A couple. Young, American. Or Canadian. And as soon as I walked in, the guy looked at me and said to his girlfriend, “I think we should get going.” I could sense it. That feeling of being in a tiny restaurant in China on the far side of Renmin Lu. Away from the hustle and bustle. Thinking you’re the only laowai around. And then wham–this other stupid American walks in and shatters it. And then, to appear even stupider, this American (me) asks the manager for a menu using my own version of Chinglish, which consists of me saying “men-yu” slowly and loudly like an idiot and making a ridiculous hand gesture, like holding a book (or a small frog for that matter). Usually this is a faux pas for two reasons, but in this case, three: First, over the past several months, dozens of friends, waiters, and fellow diners have taught me the Chinese word for menu and I still can never remember. Second, in Chinese, “mei nu” is slang for beautiful girl, so you never know if the waitress thinks you want a menu or are just being fresh. And the thirdly, in this case, the manager was from L.A. Alhambra, actually. She was Chinese-American and had been living in Dali for a couple of years. Before that, Guangzhou. Guangzhou is the largest city in Guangdong Province in southeast China, and the third largest city in the country. She said she had grown tired of Guangzhou over her six years there—I had grown tired of it in six hours—so she moved out to Dali to help her friend run the restaurant. We talked about our old stomping grounds, and then about Dali. She said the west side of Renmin Lu, by the Monkey, reminded her of Venice Beach. I could see the connection: drugs, dreadlocks, and handicrafts. I told her my time in Dali was beginning to remind me of my decade in and around Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade area. A decade that began with small independently-run shops, and ended with mega-banks. Similarly, in Dali it seems like every couple of months old shops and restaurants are being replaced with new shiny ones. “Months?” she said, “You leave for two weeks, come back, and you don’t recognize anything.” In the two years she had been here everything had changed. “It used to be so quiet. Now cars driving by all the time.” I looked outside. My recollection of the city in March was much less bustling than it seemed now, though I couldn’t be sure if that was just a seasonal change. I showed her a picture I had taken coming down Renmin Lu a couple days ago. Something you don’t see every day in L.A. One of Dali’s ancient mosques being demolished by a bulldozer to make way for a new one.
The manager introduced me to a Chinese-American man walking through—boyfriend or co-owner, I wasn’t sure, but his name was, of course, Steven. The cafe had wifi so I emailed my friend Chantale in Quebec. As I checked out of the Jade Emu this morning, I saw a flyer for a band called “Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project.” Chantale and I had driven across the U.S. in 2006, inadvertently stopping for bluegrass music between Waffle Houses. At a Memphis club we even wandered into the front row of a women’s dance contest, in which Chantale stubbornly refused to participate. It’s an American thing, she insisted. Quebecois don’t do such things. Twenty minutes later, the MC asked the winner of the contest, a bespectacled, curly-haired mouse of a girl, where she was from. Sweaty and out-of-breath from annihilating a floor full of American women at their own game, the winner answered, “Montreal.” So I thought Chantale would appreciate a flyer of the “Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project” even if it was from May. Sometimes, as you can tell, these flyers aren’t taken down right away. Or maybe the band’s playing this coming May and are just really on the ball. No, probably last May, because I have a vague recollection of meeting one of the band members at the Monkey. I had no way of transferring the iPhone photo to my laptop without the cord, so I took this photo of the phone with my laptop camera. And I share it with you because, due to the slightly out-of-focus image and the rear lighting of the cafe, I appear more even devilishly handsome than normal.