January 05, 2009

Having a ball

Last week, a friend of my wife asked us to donate three garbage bags full of clothes and other assorted things to charity (they're going to be out of town when the charity collection wagon comes by). She told us we can keep anything that grabs our attention.

For the most part, nothing grabbed our attention.

Until I noticed a small box that contained Chinese stress balls.

For those not familiar with Chinese stress balls, or Chinese health balls, or Chinese exercise balls, or whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-them balls, they're basically two spheres with bells inside them that you're supposed to rotate in the palm of your hand to relieve stress and promote general health.

Those of us in the West tend to be more direct and just call it masturbation.

Anyway, seeing those Chinese stress balls tucked in with all the other charitable donations jogged my memory back to a class trip I took to China back in 1993, when I was just a wee lad of 18 years old.

The China I witnessed in 1993 was Communist in name only, and I don't imagine things have gotten more Communistic in the last 15 years or so. If anything, China was/is more of a fascist state that pragmatically embraces capitalism, so long as it allows them to put lead into everything they make.

I don't suppose it's probably the case any more, but back in 1993, the Chinese government printed two types of currency: one type was for the Chinese people, and tended to be more unstable than Tom Cruise; and the other type was for tourists and other foreigners, and tended to track more reliably against the U.S. dollar.

As a result, one of the first things I encountered outside of the Beijing airport was a phalanx of Chinese money changers eagerly wanting to exchange their volatile peasant currency with the more stable tourist currency, typically at a 2:1 margin or more. For an impressionable 18-year-old, the chance to double my money that soon after landing was very compelling, but our teacher/chaperone advised against such foolishness.

So, how does all of this relate back to Chinese stress balls? I'm getting to that, so just shut the hell up.

Towards the end of our Chinese trip, we went to a well-known shopping building in Beijing (I think; it could have been Shanghai. . . it's been awhile), where we were told they only accepted the tourist-approved currency, although there were plenty of money changers outside trying to convince us otherwise.

The building was basically a museum that happened to be selling all of its exhibits. There was, for example, a model boat sculpted entirely from ivory which, if memory serves, was selling for many thousands of dollars, as well as several other items that you would buy only if you routinely shit gold. Interspersed amongst the higher end items were more reasonably-priced goods. And, amongst those goods, was a display of Chinese stress balls.

Now, I had already bought a pair of Chinese stress balls earlier during the trip. I had actually haggled a pretty good deal for the pair at one of the shops at The Great Wall, so it was only due to a combination of curiousity and boredom that I approached the stress ball display at all. I grabbed a box from the display, opened it, and started twirling the balls in my hand.

And then I dropped one.

The ball hit the floor with a sickening and definitive crack, while the bell inside it let out a mournful, dying "gong." The ceramic shards on the floor left no doubt in my mind that I had irreparably damaged the stress ball. And, to my absolute horror, I realized a shop-keeper standing nearby had witnessed the whole pathetic thing.

I quickly scooped up the broken ball from the floor and glanced nervously at the price tag on the box which. . . it's not that the balls were horribly expensive, but they were about five times what I had paid for the pair at The Great Wall. I honestly considered putting the balls back in the box, placing the box back on the shelf and walking away, possibly whistling innocently. Unfortunatly, that damned shop-keeper was apparently reading my mind and had started walking towards me.

Summoning what little acting skills I had, I started twirling the balls in my hand, both the pristine one and the horribly fractured one, and I feigned my most interested, pondering look, doing my best to look like a customer really considering a buy.

Before the shop-keeper could get close enough to inspect the scene, or the balls, I put the balls back in the box, walked over to him, and said "I'll take these."

Now, there are some things that transcend language and cultural barriers, and in that moment I experienced one such thing. I knew he knew I broke a ball; and he knew I knew he knew I broke a ball. There was just ever so small a smirk gracing his little Chinese face. But, bless him, he let me save whatever little bit of tourist face I could by not letting on further he knew about the broken ball. I simply paid the exorbitant price and was just happy not to be going to some Chinese gulag, which I'd been told were not pleasant accomodations.

And then, once outside the building, I threw the balls in the trash.

Posted by Ryan at January 5, 2009 10:43 PM | TrackBack

It is probably just a rumor but I've heard that talented people (read that, hookers) can play a tune with the bells after they've, ummmmm, inserted them into their butt. Or maybe that was just a daydream I had once.

Posted by: Erik at January 6, 2009 04:37 PM
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