Foreign Exchange

Foreign Exchange

Like a vision from a Tom Robbins novel or a preview of IT’s next trick, the lives of two young women 5000 miles apart were suddenly on a cosmic collision course — that course for the one being dinner and for the other, lunch.

At 6:23pm and 12:23pm, respectively, amidst the bustle of Nanning International Airport and Naples’ Piazza Garibaldi, baggage handler Hu Jian Na (Jianna) and bus driver Giovanna Abruzzo were simultaneously and routinely completing what each had six days a week for the past six years.


Jianna (first name last to Westerners) was slurping the last of her Guoqiao Mixian 过桥密县, or Rice Noodles Crossing The Bridge, made popular in neighbor province Yunnan, with pork instead of chicken and rice strands the shape of spaghetti.

Giovanna (Gia to her friends) was noisily ingesting the remains of her Spaghetti Napolitano, made with plum tomatoes, ground sausage, extra red pepper and semolina threads the shape of, well, mixian.

Somehow through osmosis, or a symbiotic attraction between processed and reconstituted grains, or an agenda Bill Gates was behind, the last two noodles in the two bowls became one, each now the other noodle’s new other end, drawn taut between matching sets of sucking o-shaped lips like rope in a mouth tug-of-war, forming a conduit of not just nutrients but chi between Jianna and Gia, like the string between two cans in a pre-space-satellite, post-smoke-signal form of communication, linking the two men like their two continents.

They were transported and transposed.

They were swapped.

One became the other.

As surprising as this may be to you, it was a complete culture shock to Jianna and Giovanna.

Because for all of their collective years of service in the travel industry, neither woman had ever really been anywhere.

Day after day, despite the presence of others arriving or departing, each stared into her steaming bowl only daydreaming about seeing the world.

Sure, for Jianna there was the four-hour train trip to Guilin to witness the dramatic mountains many only see adorning cigarette packs or the backside of Chairman Mao.  (On yuan 远 currency, mind you.)

And for Gia there was the long weekend in Roma to see what all the fuss was about.  But despite throwing a coin into Trevi Fountain (legend has it she who does will someday return to the capital city), it was her only visit.  (Actually, she threw six coins, not sure about the amended version whether it is lucky to throw three coins with one’s right hand over left shoulder or vice versa.)

So to be suddenly thrust into not just someone else’s country but also that someone else’s identity felt pretty foreign.

Each woman pulled out her purse and checked her ID.  Jianna was still Jianna.  Gia was still Giovanna.  Jianna was still Chinese.  Gio was still Italian.

But everything else was Greek.

Where one woman’s address once read Nanning, it now read Napoli.

Where one woman’s purse once had euros, it now had 远.

Where one woman’s bowl once held chicken broth, it now held ragu.

And yet, even though each woman knew little about the other’s life, she was somewhat intuitively aware of the other’s existence.

So what do you do when you suddenly find yourself somebody else?

The first decision for each woman seemed pretty clear: Walk off the job.

Gia had no tolerance for dealing with anyone’s baggage, physical or emotional.  And airport codes like TKO, KIX and KOW seemed no less abstract than their Chinese hanzi 汉字 counterparts.

Jianna meanwhile couldn’t drive a car let alone a bus.  And a quick observation of the near accidents, cacophony of horns, ruthless tactics, hand gestures and general anarchy in traffic around the Piazza made him think few Neapolitans could, either.

Jiang at least had one advantage.  She picked up six hours in the trade.

The first question she asked herself none of us has to ask ourselves unless we have amnesia.

Where do I live?

Looking lost will invariably draw the attention of any taxi driver with an unoccupied vehicle, regardless of country of origin and registration.  By the time he reached the curb, Jiang had no less than four suitors headed his way, each seemingly willing to turn the contest into a demolition derby for the fare.

Jianna hopped into the first taxi to come to a complete stop and showed the driver his ID.  He pointed to the address.

Without a word or nod, the driver sped off spewing mini Italian auto emissions and provoking more of the local hand gestures from the Place, Show and Also-Ran drivers, including a middle finger farewell, a back-handed wave from under a chin and a clenched fist arm thrust with opposite hand slap to inside of elbow that seemed to say, “Your car has a lot of zoom.”

Seemed this was a place where people talked with their hands.

Meanwhile, Gia’s red-pepper-seasoned Mediterranean blood was raising different questions.

Do I have a wife or a girlfriend?  Can she cook?  Is she hot?  Do I have a wife and girlfriend?  Are they hot?

There was only one way to find out.  Gia flagged down what looked like a telephone booth mated with a tricycle.

Jianna and Gia’s apartments would be testament to the theory that each of us has if not a body double at least a mind double somewhere else in the world, with identical nesting behavior, hygiene and taste in furniture.

If not for the fact that he was now unexpectedly in Italy, Jianna would feel right at home in Gia’s one-bedroom flat, which was in layout and lack of decor the mirror image of the apartment he’d left hours earlier in the People’s Republic.

And she was delighted to discover that he wouldn’t have to do any clothes shopping.  Style aside, everything in Gia’s closet fit her perfectly.

Gia found Jianna’s place equally familiar and welcoming, and a quick review of the closet revealed not a trace of a man’s garment.  Meaning whichever woman Gia had traded places with was every bit as single as Gia was at home.

But it did have a good kitchen.  The other consolation was that it was down the hall from two attractive yet kooky female grad students who would often leave the door open, and practice martial arts when they weren’t braiding each other’s hair.  They smiled at Gia. She felt safe.

Day Two of their New Lives found Jianna and Gia on scouting missions to assess available resources and potential dangers, much like explorers on a newly discovered island.

Days Three through Seven of their great Role Reversal were spent on observational studies of local culture and behavior.  It was easy to learn what to do and what not to do, what was good and what was not, just by watching.

And pointing.  It was remarkable how much could be communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions.

Still, as much as Jianna and Gia accepted and adjusted to their Fickle Fates, each still wondered if there was a way to undo what had happened and somehow “wake up” from this altered reality.  Like if this were a comic book story, the hero would somehow figure out how to reverse the earth’s rotation to go back in time and place.

Jiang and Gia did the next sensible and (given their mortal limitations) feasible thing.  Each day and evening, for lunch and dinner, the women returned to the eateries from which they had been “delivered.”

Each time, they would order a bowl of their new favorite — Jianna, of course, now with an unexpected fondness for Spaghetti Napolitano and Gia surprised by her own cravings for 过桥密县.

Neither had to worry about being noticed by her former employer, even though Gia’s boss was still fuming and storming around with a bus tire iron in hand, just in case Gia decided to show up after a week’s sick leave without telling anyone.  It was as if both women had simply disappeared.

As long as their landlords received the rent, nobody asked any questions.  Not in Napoli or Nanning.

By Day Ten, both women had started to lose faith in the magic of a bowl of noodles to take them back home.  It wasn’t like putting on a pair of ruby red slippers and clicking your heels together three times.

They had tried to duplicate all of the specifics of the “departure” meal.  The exact time: 6:23pm Nanning time, 12:23pm in Napoli.  They even wore the same clothes: Jianna her baggage handler’s uniform and Gia her bus driver’s outfit.  But no matter how intently each stared at her steamy bowl and slurped and sucked, the end of each last noodle was indeed finite, slithering up into each woman’s “o,” merely a mouthful of chewy sustenance, not a Star Trek-like transporter.

One day, Jianna and Gia even considered a variable they’d overlooked until then. Perhaps in order to return home, they were supposed to eat exactly what they’d had when they were home.  But where was Jianna going to find 过桥密县 in Piazza Garibaldi?  And how was Gia going to find a bowl — a good bowl — of Spaghetti Napolitano at Nanning International Airport?

And that’s when the light switch flipped.

Simultaneously, each shared the same thoughts: Maybe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be!  Maybe I was transported here for a reason!  Maybe I’m supposed to bring what I know from there, here!  Maybe I’M the missing flavor to be added to this kooky international human recipe!

Jianna thought back on her recent cultural observations — most specifically about the topic that interested her most: food.  She had noticed that in addition to Spaghetti Napolitano, other pastas, pizza and panini, the locals (because of Napoli’s location on the Tyrrhanean Sea), also loved seafood.

And that’s when Jianna actually was transported back to Nanning.  At least in memory.

Jianna returned to one of her favorite places, a street behind the Longjiang Hotel called Zhong Shan 中山 Road that ever since she could speak was better known by locals and tourists alike as BBQ Street.

BBQ Street is a 365-day-a-year open-air food orgy that’s like The Taste of Chicago on steroids, with infinite items that would appeal to the daring and scare the hell out of anyone just looking for plain ol’ corn-on-the-cob.

From one end of BBQ Street to the other, anything edible (that being a relative term) from both the animal and plant kingdoms that can be roasted over an open fire, stir fried in a wok, sauteed in a skillet, fermented in a jar, seared on a grill, flamed-broiled on a skewer, deep-fried in hot oil, boiled in a pot or steamed in a bamboo basket, is.

Think you could stomach a string of cumin-spiced stomach?  You’d at least be able to give it a try on BBQ Street.

Jianna’s most vivid recollection of the Street also had particular relevance for his new Neapolitan neighbors.

She noticed that many shared his appreciation for you yu 鱿鱼.  A.k.a. Tentacled fish.  A.k.a. Squid.  Calamari, as the locals called it.

Some liked it cut up, battered, deep-fried and then served with a drizzle of lemon.  Many liked it in a red sauce over linguine, fettucine or angel hair pasta.  Others like it so much they actually made black pasta from the ink of the 鱿鱼.

And in a few restaurants, they even served it in a way the majority of 鱿鱼 stands on BBQ Street did.  Grilled, with a little bit of oil.  The way Jianna liked it.

But this option, at least in Napoli, was missing a key feature: portability.     Most of the food on BBQ Street is designed to be eaten on foot.  It is the giant walk-thru equivalent of the drive-thru.

Sure, you could sit, but you’d probably be surrounded by IM-ing teens, and your two options for seats would be those directly behind the cooking stalls (and you may not want the curtain pulled back on the whole experience that far), or tiny stools apparently stolen from doll houses (10” wide, 8” high — no lie), which test the hind muscles of anyone with no prior experience in the triple jump.

So in Nanning, at least on BBQ Street, 鱿鱼 was served on a stick.  Yup, just like a corn dog.

The most successful 鱿鱼 stand even had breakthrough marketing.  You could call it Word of Mouth, but it was really Word of Speaker — a loud, crackly, pre-recorded and looped voice repeated through a bullhorn every five seconds:           “Tie Ban You Yu, yi yuan yi chuan!”   “铁 板鱿鱼, 一元一串.”

“Tie Ban You Yu, yi yuan yi chuan!”   “铁 板鱿鱼, 一元一串.”

“Tie Ban You Yu, yi yuan yi chuan!”   “铁 板鱿鱼, 一元一串.”

“Tie Ban You Yu, yi yuan yi chuan!”   “铁 板鱿鱼, 一元一串.”

“Iron Grilled Squid, one yuan per skewer.”

This of course also made this stand the most obnoxious and annoying on BBQ Street, particularly to the adjacent Sugar Cane Juice and Stinky Tofu sellers within direct ear-shot 365 days and nights a year.

But for the customer who could walk away with tasty 鱿鱼 to go, the sales pitch was a small price to pay.  Almost as small as the actual price of 15-cents.

Realizing Marco Polo brought back a lot from Asia to Italy, but not everything, Jianna decided to settle some unfinished business.

So the next morning before sunrise, Jianna took a taxi to the Stazione Marittima, and at the nearest fish market bought all of the fresh 鱿鱼 they had.

By 11am, Jianna had her 鱿鱼 stand up and running on a prominent corner of Piazza Garibaldi.

By 11:15am, she had her first sale, to a businesswoman in a suit who was able to continue her cell phone conversation with a client/gigolo without pause.

By 11:30, she had given away her first free samples, to a city official who in exchange gave Jianna the necessary permit to sell 鱿鱼 in Piazza Garibaldi legally.

Jianna knew that the “Tie Ban You Yu, yi yuan yi chuan!”   “铁 板鱿鱼, 一元一串” mantra would probably only attract irate taxi and bus drivers with tire irons rather than hungry customers, so she instead used a small PA to broadcast the sizzle of the grill, drown out the cars and trigger Pavlovian salivation in anyone crossing the Piazza.

She charged not 一元 but 1 € 一串, or about $1.50 per stick.

By noon, Jianna had a line of customers waiting for his Calamari a Piedi, as the Neapolitans called it.  Walking Squid.

By 12:23pm, Jianna was reaching the end of her supply of 鱿鱼, a huge accomplishment for a first day in business.  But as significant as that feat was professionally, it was an even greater milestone personally.  Because even after the moment had passed, Jiang did not once think about his ritual bowl of noodles.

Home was no longer there.  It was here.

The next day, Jianna bought twice as much 鱿鱼 and sold it all.  She did the same the rest of the week, with greater success than the day before.  She quickly realized a Piazza had four corners, and he was working only one.

In Napoli, with its 25% unemployment rate, it isn’t difficult to find someone who wants a job.  So the following week, Jianna hired three apprentices and went from being a stand to a chain.

She decided his enterprise needed a clever name.  With English now a common neutral language between herself and her new countrywomen, Jianna had grown accustomed to confusion about her last name (same as China’s President), which of course he always say as if in China — first.

“What’s your name?” the Neapolitans would ask.

“Hu,” Jianna would answer.

“Yes, that’s right, who are you?”

“Yes, that’s right, I am Hu.”

So at one corner of Piazza Girabaldi — the first, original corner — Jianna named her 鱿鱼 stand Hu I Am.

At Corner Two, the name became Hu And Tu.  At Corner Three, run by Jiang’s young female apprentice and popular with her crowd, it became Hu’s Your Mama.  And at Corner Four, it became a nod and wink toward Jianna’s own entrepreneurial vision: Hu Knew.

Soon taxi drivers and others subjected to the snarling gnarled traffic of Napoli would call or text or Twitter ahead, in effect creating Hu Drive Thru, so they could enjoy their 鱿鱼 in their cars and still have a hand free to deliver one-finger farewells to others.

Jianna’s success did not go unnoticed.  The businesswoman on the cell phone who had bought the first 鱿鱼 on a stick made Jianna an offer she couldn’t refuse: an investment of capital to take her brand national.  Within months, the Romans, Milanese and Venetians were enjoying the delicious mobility of 鱿鱼 on a stick.

When her idea finally landed in the largest supermarkets — a cellophane wrapped version that could be popped into a toaster oven or microwave for late night snacking, there was no denying what Jianna had become:

The Annie Chun of Italy.

With Italy conquered, it was only a matter of time before Jianna’s idea would sweep across the Mediterranean.  She set up a web site, so customers across the area could order 鱿鱼 shipped in freeze-dried packages, and where they could even by T-shirts, hats and aprons and blog about the new Cultural Revolution: 鱿鱼.

And with that, this pioneer and cosmic traveler set her sights on building her empire across the Atlantic in the great United States of America.

At the first chance she’d get, she’d buy a plane ticket, fly over and open a location in New York City.  She already had the exact place and name in mind.  It would be right on 1st Avenue.

It would be Hu’s On First.


Meanwhile, Gia immediately left the Nanning International Airport, never to set foot inside the terminal building again.

Outside, she flagged a taxi and headed back into the city and rush hour traffic.  And for the first time since she arrived, she actually started to notice the traffic, not just for its sheer magnitude but also for its spastic orchestration.

First, in addition to the taxis, buses, scooters and bicycles, there were the surreal contraptions that qualified as transportation, seemingly from Mad Max or the Paris to Dakar Road Rally, like farm tractors wed to flatbed pickups and half-riding-lawnmowers/half-rickshaws that gave old meaning to the world “hybrid.”

Then there was the one and only Rule of the Road: The space I occupy is mine, even if it happens to be in your lane or on your side of the road.

The many white lines painted on the road and the few lights hanging above were merely for decorative purposes, like the red lanterns outside every restaurant, teahouse and bar.

It was difficult to say which was more exhilarating — making left turns across four lanes of traffic without the assistance of green arrows or delays for oncoming vehicles, or making blind corner passes around rolling environmental disasters — the massive 10-wheeled behemoths that monopolized the road, each spewing more exhaust than all the smokestacks in Gary, Indiana.

The near collisions were outnumbered only by the beeps of horns.

It was sheer chaotic madness.

It felt like home.

Gia imagined herself behind the wheel of his bus back in Napoli, where driving was every bit as chaotic and every bit as competitive.  In fact, she thought that the Chinese would actually be well-suited to negotiating Napoli traffic.

If only they were more animated and passionate.

A horn beep from a driver in Nanning simply means, “I am about to pass you.  Be careful.”  In Napoli, it could mean anything from “I will run you over if you don’t move,” to “Hey, your mother left her kneepads at my house.”

Where were their expressionists, exhibitionists and explorers, their lovers, lusters and wooers, their Fellinis, Pasolinis and Benignis, their Lorens, Lanzas and Lambherginis, their Martinis, Ferragamos and Cicciolinas?

They need someone here to stir things up, she thought.  Someone to dress up in a cheong-sam 车撒 and some eye shadow, show a little leg and a lot of cleavage, play romantic songs on the radio and dance in her fishnet stockings.

And I’m just the girl crazy enough to do it.

After all, nobody knows me here.

So with that, Gia made her second significant transformation in less than two weeks.  She had already become another woman without much success.  She decided he’d give it a go at being a man pretending to be a woman.  At least in presentation.  She began to wear a fake moustache.

Her first stop was Nanning’s largest dress-making shop, a sprawling space half a block wide, with fluorescent lighting and enough different fabrics to ensure that every woman (or man) in the city could wear a 车撒 without any duplicates.

The store seemed to have a sales lady for every 10 fabrics, meaning the place was swarming with young to middle-aged women in matching red smocks and apathetic smirks.  At that moment Gia was happy that he had not chosen to rob a bank as his new business plan, because he would then be a hairless Italian man on the lam in the most conspicuous and unlikely of hideouts.

Every salesperson turned toward her.  The younger sales women giggled.  The older sales women went right into their spiel.  Would she like to buy a dress?  Or three dresses?  Is she shopping for herself or her mother?  Good price.  Fine quality.  Fine price.  Good quality.  Included in the presentation was an instant trained smile and a sweeping hand toward the fabrics, as if the sales ladies were models on The Price Is Right and Gia’s eyes could not see them without assistance.

Those were the hawkers she wanted.  She was ready to buy.

Gia made a beeline straight for the most aggressive sales lady.  She wanted three dresses, one with flowers, one with dragons and one with no pattern — just a modest, multi-use number she could wear to the piano bar if ever invited on short notice.

Gia tried to explain that the dresses were for her brother (“When am I ever going to be back in here?”), but it just confused The Smiling Sales Lady and slowed down the process.  So Gia simply explained that they were a surprise gift for her sister (“Ah, sister!,” said TSSL), and that she and her sister were identical twins  (“Ah, twins,” said TSSL), and that she and she were exactly the same size.

Three days later Gia picked up his dresses.  She decided she’d wait until she got home to try them on.

Three days after that Gia picked up a car.  It was used, but clean and in good shape.  It was as non-descript as one could imagine.  Gia instantly set out to change that.

The interior was soon adorned with Christmas lights, small Chinese lanterns, dancing dashboard toys, stuffed rats (2008 was the year of the Rat), the five cute “Beijing 2008” Olympic Games mascot dolls Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni, decals, tube socks, plastic ferns, cheap clocks — pretty much anything that make it look like a rolling showcase of “productivity” and runaway human consumption — meaning anything made in China.

Now that he had the eye candy, he focused on the city’s collective ears.

Gia installed a CD player and extra speakers, and began to play, non-stop, the one disc he had on his person when his person decided to trade places with another — Capital Collectors’ Series: Louis Prima.  It included his favorite two songs, linked in the medley Angelina/Zooma Zooma.

“I eat antipasta twice,

            Just because she is so nice,



            The waitress at the pizzeria…

            If she’ll be a my cara mia

            Then I’ll join in matrimony

            With a girl who serves spumoni

            And Angelina will be mine…”

            When it kicked into Zooma Zooma, Gia would roll down the windows and turn up the volume and see how far she could drive without braking.  She was often given a clear path; Louis’ crooning proved a hundred times more effective that the average horn to even the most jaded drivers, cyclists and “hybrid” riders.

C’e la luna ‘n mezzo ‘u mare

            Mamma mia me maritari…

            O mamma, zooma zooma baccala

            O mamma zooma zooma baccala

From then on, when Gia went to his (Jianna’s) apartment she was Gia, but when she went out, she became Angelina, a drag queen.

In glitter letters on the side of the car she wrote Let Me Drive You Crazy.

She began to park near the Longjiang Hotel.  People who stayed there had been to bigger cities and to other countries.  They may appreciate the Italian driver in the flower print 车撒 with the tube socks hanging from the rear view mirror playing the entertaining music.

One night during an electronics convention, the normal ration of regular taxis could not handle the exodus of visiting Japanese businessmen pouring from the hotel.  One group looked particularly ready for more entertainment, having probably primed the pump with baijiu 白酒, the Chinese liquor with sort of the flavor and punch of a refined, semi-dry kerosene.

Angelina made her move.  She turned up the volume in her car.

Ti voglio bene

            Angelina I adore you

            Ti voglio bene

            Angelina I live for you

The Japanese businessmen took notice.  An Italian man wearing a Chinese 车撒 and playing Louis Prima was not the most provocative thing they’d ever seen, but it was close.  And it certainly trumped anything they’d experienced in Nanning, known as “The Green City” due to its tropical climate and biodiversity.

“Do you know where we can get some good Italian food?” said the leader — in English that Angelina thought was better than her own.

“Si.  I mean, yes, yes I do,” said Angelina.  The best Italian that Gia knew in Nanning came from her own apartment kitchen.  She could whip up a mean tomato sauce.  And at least she had plenty of 白酒.

“And maybe we can meet some of your nice friends,” the leader added.

If the Japanese businessman were at all skeptical upon entering Gia’s apartment, any concerns went away when Angelina broke out the 白酒.  And when recruited his attractive, yet kooky neighbors to join the party, the men were pretty much game for anything.

Two hours later, when the Japanese businessmen had tomato sauce on their shirts and braids in their hair, Angelina had unofficially been crowned the Entertainment Queen of Nanning.  Even when one of the men had made a move on one of the grad students and ended up in a chokehold under the table, the moment was commemorated with uproarious laughter, another shot of 白酒 and digital photos taken by the latest and sleekest cell phones.

That’s when the leader, still the most lucid of the group, leaned over to Angelina’s ear and whispered some advice.

“Nanning is too tame for you.  But Shanghai has an appetite for anything.  You should go there.”  He added, “I have a friend.”

The following morning, Gia, Angelina and Louis Prima began the two-day drive to Shanghai.

In Shanghai, buildings go up overnight.  On of them was Gia’s new club.

The Japanese businessman’s friend, was one of the most influential people in the city.  Half-Shanghainese, half-English, Miss Tina knew every star, model, artist, designer and entrepreneur in the city.  And when she took an interest in a project or person, the city took notice.  She liked Gia.

The club was actually two clubs, one at street level and the second below it underground.  The top club played a new style of dance music that mashed up hip hop, trance and classic Italian love songs, attracting everyone with her finger (and toes) on the pulse of the city.

Gia named it Zooma Zooma.  It was soon making 远 hand over fist.

The second club below was even hotter.  It had dark passageways leading to VIP areas that tempted the city’s most ambitious.  It’s where deals went down.

It was called Devilina.  The alter-ego of Angelina.

Gia couldn’t possibly even think of a better name.

After all, in a world where two women on two continents could trade identities and realize their dreams thanks to a cosmic slip of a slurp, it made perfect sense.

Zooma zooma.