Squeaking Into the Darkness

Here I am at 2:30 in the hot summer Sunday AM, the squeaks from my 300 RMB mini bicycle echoing through the empty polluted streets of Beijing, looking like an idiot, exposing my lean non-Chinese figure with tight work pants and a Banana Republic shirt raised above the belly button to limit further drenchings of sweat, Taobao fake 3M pollution mask aface, bike seat raised to the max and still not high enough. Sanlitun is buzzing as usual tonight, but within a matter of minutes I ride from bright club avenue to dark, desolate road. I’m slightly afraid, yet that feels 5x better than sitting in a noisy gay bar where I feel nothing but pop beats and awkwardness. The late night dramatics of a solo bike ride in a gigantic city kind of hit some special inner escapist note.

Here I am at 3:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the cheapest possible IKEA bed frame provided by the apartment agency resonating through my small room, capturing ridiculously subtle private movements such as taking an almond out of an almond bag, which I do one at a time, likely audible to my Chinese couple neighbors. Although I just showered, my room’s AC is not strong enough to prevent a further wave of sweat on my lower back and face and annoyingly my hammies, so now it feels like I’m getting a cold as I watch a Chinese soap opera to try to learn Chinese the way many Chinese people learn English, but I’m really just reading the English subtitles. I eventually switch to VPN’ed Netflix, whose original Star Trek episodes are loading excruciatingly slowly, and yet I guess the five whiskey sours I downed and the hookah I hit quite heavily have given me these bursts of energy and patience that are completely unwarranted for such a retrospectively lackluster American 60’s TV show.

Here I am at 4:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the desk I have switched to painfully audible as I enjoy crunchy Chinese Skippy with stolen hotel chopsticks, for some reason watching another episode of Star Trek with large headphones, which I think amplifies the chewing noise. In no way do I feel sleepy, but I decide it’s time to hit the sack now to avoid waking up in the PM. I watch recaps of American baseball games to get in the mood, and while there are 162 games, seeing the Cardinals’ loss instantly puts that mood into a depression, but more like a childish pout than a full-on adult depression, and I finally fall asleep with bad thoughts in my mind.

Here I am at 7:30 in the hot summer AM, and nothing, something something too tired think squeaks. Please coffee. Wake up. Wish more sleep.

Here I am at 8:30 in the hot summer AM, back at it again with the bike and the squeaks thing, coffee recently imbibed somewhat quickly. Severe lack of sleep and surprisingly only slight hangover aside, I am ready to get up and go on this Sunday, to accomplish meaningful things, to figure out my life before work tomorrow. I park the bike and head inside my first stop, caffeine and I walking in together with a determined smile.

Here I am at 1:30 in the hot summer PM, stumbling out of the bank trying to figure out why it’s so difficult to send $500 home, starving to the point where decision making is no longer possible, no actual meal-serving shops in sight, still many more things on the list, dinner plans being one of them, and what with transit times and the time it takes to digest food and not be in a trance, I realistically will have like 30 actual minutes to get something done, and I really miss living in a smaller city. At this point, I realize the squeaks have probably ended for the day.

Here I am at 10:30 in the hot summer Sunday PM, biking through the streets again, wondering where the weekend went, questioning my choice to live in this city, but as I stop thinking for a moment, I hear the squeaks of this silly bicycle, the ones I thought had disappeared for the day. I laugh, because the squeaks are the reason I’m here. I made the choice to be the person who gets into nonsensical adventures, the person who faces seemingly unnecessary adversity, and this place has definitely fulfilled those whims. For that reason, I will gracelessly, inelegantly, but eagerly continue squeaking into the dark night, wherever in the world that night might be.

6 Occasionally Fun, Usually Interesting Months in China

Month 1

I succumb to the $14.99 in-flight Wi-Fi just in time to see the Cardinals lose Game 4 and the series to the Cubs, and while flying over the North Pole that is gorgeous but also makes for an extremely confusing route on the non-sphere-shaped in-flight map, I am in a six-minute existential crisis that goes away when the old Chinese woman next to me falls asleep on my shoulder.

I arrive in Beijing unable to see Beijing, sweating and standing in an extremely long customs “line” learning how Chinese queues work, pulling the protruding metal rod from an overstuffed yesterday-purchased Wal-Mart luggage bag which has already broken somewhere between CLT and PEK.

I am of course expecting movie-esque fanfare from my company upon airport arrival, when instead, an aloof old Chinese man holding a piece of paper with the company name scribbled on nods at me and wordlessly speedwalks ahead and I am apparently supposed to follow, and he is now a tiny speck in a closing elevator, and I get stuck entering. The expressionless stares from a crowd of Chinese people will become familiar soon enough.

After 30 minutes of intense small-bus driving, my closed-eye instincts tell me we are close to downtown. I open my eyes: we have gone from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. We’re picking up another person, and my driver parks illegally in a muggy parking garage. I guess I’m supposed to wait inside the van. I’m drenched in sweat and almost deaf from reverberated honking when he returns with another employee from America one hour later. She is annoyingly overenthusiastic about the whole experience, but she’ll later be a friend. We get stuck in the Beijing rush hour on the way back, the kind where the drivers put it in park and get out and socialize on the road while smoking cigarettes in the dense pollution and run back when things get going and floor it three feet and park and do the whole thing again.

When our van finally arrives at the He Ping Li Hotel two hours later, we almost die by lightless electric scooter and then by wrong-way aluminum rickshaw as we cross the side road to get to the entrance. It’s been about a week since I actually slept, and that’s all I want to do now. I don’t want the Chinese gf to see me in this sub-human insomniatic jet-lagged state. No people tonight, just a nice bed and…oh, there she is standing in the lobby to surprise me, and we were supposed to meet later, and I’m upset that she will see the not-real version of me on our first-ever date together in my dramatic first night in a very distant country that I dreamed would go perfectly. I smile.

The next two weeks are spent attending intense training and listening to the exact same Norah Jones album while eating the exact same hotel breakfast every day. And I wake up at exactly 3:43 every morning because my body clock is confused I guess. Also, the hotel bed is a queen-sized rock.

I have to find an apartment in the next two days in the like eighth largest city in the world and I have had approximately ½ day so far to actually look for places, and I have zero idea what I’m supposed to be looking for, and I fully accept that I will probably settle. On the last day, I find a decent-looking place close to work. On the rental website, there is a picture of a robot man, a robot couple, and a question mark. I move in, and I am for some reason surprised when the place is not a third-world shanty. The other robots end up being Chinese, and one of them becomes a friend.

There is a confusing IKEA security incident where I bring an IKEA bag from home and I think they think I’m stealing it.

Observing, teaching.

All of my weekends are spent doing complicated bureaucratic visa-related things in all corners of this gigantic city.

Month 2

Lots of teaching and pollution. It’s getting cold and dry. Finally starting to have time on weekends, but it’s freezing out and the city’s so freaking big and I don’t have a car and I don’t know where to go so I go to these weird deserted mountain parks that are in the city but take a 1RMB 3-hour bus-ride to get to and only one or two end up being interesting. I do get to see a quiet part of the Great Wall while there are still leaves. Going out to eat for nearly every meal because it’s cheap and I work weird hours. Starting to learn basic Chinese words, but pointing and saying “this” or “that” works for perhaps too many things.

Month 3

Seeing the gf more. Christmas is a day by myself Western coffee shop-hopping in big malls reading Philip K. Dick for the first time while Chinglish Frank Sinatra performs quite well at an odd little gala. It’s smoggy, and there’s little on the fanfare front because it’s not a Chinese holiday. Christmas night is a 35RMB fake Taobao tree and later, an expensive English version of the Phantom of the Opera we’re still humming to this day.

Same kinda thing for New Year. They’re on a different calendar here, so a good chunk of the Chinese population is sleeping while I’m in a French bar with English teachers standing in a dark corner with no TV or anything like that engaging in a very anticlimactic countdown that is confusing because the apparent bartender who is standing on a stool leading it does so at 11:56 on our iPhone clocks.

I’ve started to “grade my language” even when I’m not teaching English.

Feeling the old dramatic existential thoughts, why am I in China, I’m regressing, etc. etc.

Month 4

I don’t know how I’ve made it this far. Some of the other intake groupies are getting restless to the point of possibly breaking the one-year contract.

My gf’s bday is stressful because I still don’t know her that well and what do you get a foreign person when you are a clueless inhabitant of their foreign land and you know nothing about the culture and the norms and there are lots of weird things you are not supposed to give people here because of bad luck or whatever, but she likes elephants and I find something with an elephant on it at the last second. The following day is my birthday (we planned that nicely) and she gets me a heavy winter coat that will still barely save my life in the next two arctic months.

In February comes the absolute madness of Spring Festival, which is like a weeklong Christmas + New Year x 3 that will make you despise fireworks and hallucinate about long traveling lines leaving the city. We go to my gf’s small hometown, where I learn that I am a Russian movie star. I meet her ridiculously nice family: 25 Chinese people seated around a very large table, asking questions in Chinese and toasting toxic baijiu, gf translating, no clue how to answer, just smile and take the smallest possible sip.

We go to an island in Thailand. The water is pretty, and we snorkel and boat, but the last day ends in infamy because I flip the rented hotel scooter while not even doing anything dangerous (maybe it’s karma for walking away unscathed from Mexican MarioMoped with the bros), and when we check out (with still-fresh wounds), there is a large extra charge on our final bill and a much bigger one on my ego.

I miss San Francisco a lot.

Month 5

It’s getting warmer out after the long winter, yet I’ve realized Beijing is kind of boring to me, so I start to leave more. I get used to pre-awake taxi rides, speed trains, and exiting Chinese airplanes. I’m closer to maximizing my middle-of-the-week weekends. I remember that I like taking pictures. Get to see pretty things like Xiamen, Shanghai, cherry blossoms in parks. Maybe I’m becoming comfortable in China.

Month 6

Just when I think I get into a work-life balance groove, my body completely gives up for a few days after a weeklong smog, and I get what they first a “common cold” and then a “respiratory infection.” No idea what it is, but NBD, back to normal. I spend the night in a small village and get to drive through the mountains and am pleased that I have taken my spoken Chinese from level 0Aa to 0Ab. But then the sickness thing happens again on a bigger scale, and I start to question my future here. One foot is out the door. Maybe one and a half, but I somehow muster the energy to bring the one-half foot back in and persist, and I get better, and hopefully it doesn’t get bad again.

I watch Kobe’s dramatic last game and Golden State breaking the Bulls’ record on opposing screens while eating pulled pork in a Memphis-style BBQ place with my friend from Memphis who says it’s really Texas-style.

I hit Chinese Starbucks Gold, which is ridiculously harder than and annoyingly separate from the American version.

I do more traveling, spending some time in coastal cities like Dalian and Tianjin, and I make a few friends. I like all of the places I’ve visited more than Beijing, but it’s easy to like them when I only have short adventures there, ya know?

We finally throw away the Christmas tree.


In conclusion:

I constantly feel nauseous, and I’m not sure if it’s the pollution or the 7/11 Kung Pao chicken.

My English has improved since moving to China.

Chinese hospitals…

No tips seems to work better than tips.

I have met some really cool people here.

The VPN makes the Internet even more unbearably slow.

Cheap Western staples like Mexican and burgers and greasy spoon breakfasts are expensive here, and I miss taco salads and bacon and eggs with hash browns.

Repetition. Playlists at restaurants are the same like six songs literally for months. Video and audio billboards play one 20-second ad over and over and over again. Vendors say something like “please come buy my products, this one is on sale right now” in Chinese into a megaphone and hit the repeat button and sit in a chair for hours. No minds seem to be lost except mine.

So much lip-syncing where the amount of mouth- and eye-work to sell it is actually quite impressive, and this is crazily impossible with rhythmless Chinese opera, but they do it anyway.

Insane as the driving and traffic is, I have not seen a single major accident.

There is a choreographed dance by employees in front of some company or by old women in some park happening every single day.

What is a “paper towel”? “Napkin”? Cheap toilet paper is used for absolutely everything except restocking the communal bathroom roll.

There’s nothing like a refreshing glass of scalding hot water.


OK, gotta go buy more pollution masks. There are plenty of other things I’ll tell some of you later.

As they say here, “adiós.”





Beijing: One Month In

Six months ago, I had no intention of ever visiting China, Asia, or anywhere in the remote vicinity. My life was so strange and confusing, and I actually thought I would be moving back to Chicago from San Francisco. Out of the blue, something popped up in SF that offered me the stability that would surely cure my troubles. I started making friends and enjoying the city for the first time in a few years. I did things that I had been meaning to do because I finally could. Yet the happiness I was expecting never came. I felt ashamed for betraying the situation around me just like I had in the past and for considering something so detrimental to the career path I had barely stumbled onto, but I needed something dramatic that would stop this stuff once and for all. I considered trying weird medicine that would miraculously put my life on track, but I decided that seeing the world might be the cure for my enigmatic ailments. Before giving up a good thing, however, I needed to find something specific to care about and work toward.

So I did a Google search for jobs that require travel and applied to teach English in Beijing, and I had an interview the following week, and I got offered the job the following day, and I had to jump through hoops and revisit burned bridges just to get the extremely complicated visa arrangements in order, and I lived dual lives for an insanely stressful two months until I knew for sure was going, and then it became a reality, and then I had to tell everyone, which included my employer, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I had to look at myself in the mirror on a daily basis and ask myself how stupid could I possibly be?, and I started to finally feel at home in my quiet little SF neighborhood, and I started having second thoughts, and everything started having a “last supper” feel, and I knew I couldn’t go, and then I went, and now here I am.

It’s been a month now. No revelations yet, but I’ve been so busy with training, finding an apartment, doing visa stuff, and hanging out with the amazing girlfriend that I still don’t feel like I have arrived. I’m teaching about 90% full-time now, and by the end of the month, I’ll be at 100%. They really throw you in the mix right from the start, but I actually like that. Each class topic is pre-arranged, and the lesson plans are partially planned with plenty of room for creativity. Some of the lessons are really cool, and other ones are a little more interesting… There are two main types of classes: workshops for up to 25 students and “face-to-face” classes of up to 4 students that have more of a tutoring feel. I struggled with the workshops at the beginning because I am so terrible at speaking in front of people, but I have definitely improved. Some classes have gone really well, and I pat myself on the back for accomplishing something in a field I never ever dreamed of entering in my life. Oh, I teach adults. In my interview, they mentioned they preferred kids’ teachers, and I said absolutely not. I am happy with that decision because the adults (usually in their 20s and 30s) are pretty cool, but the downside is that they usually work in some capacity, meaning night and weekend classes. My hours are definitely not conducive to doing things like learning Mandarin, seeing the city while things are actually open, and hanging out with the girlfriend. It’s difficult, but it’s a one-year contract, and I will just “play it by year.”

I’ve tried lots of new foods already. I’m quickly getting used to the cultural differences, but the one thing that still confounds me is the madness that happens at intersections.

Also, it’s true that everyone thinks Americans are handsome. It’s nice at first, but it’s already lost meaning. I get weird looks in some parts of the city and in my apartment complex, especially while wearing the smog mask, but there were times when I felt like a foreigner even in the US, so I’m used to it. Speaking of the apartment complex, I live in a cheap 4-bedroom place that’s actually pretty nice, but the shower is not divided in any way from the rest of the bathroom. You just turn it on and go, and after you’re done, there’s an absolute mess of water everywhere. It’s pretty common here, but I don’t know why.

Also, there’s no dryer. It takes like three days for pants to dry.

I thought I saw crowds in big cities before, but it’s truly hard to imagine such a large amount of people in places like the subway and tourist sites until you see it with your own eyes. It’s crazy.

This is honestly the first piece of writing I’ve done in China. There’s other stuff to write about, and maybe I’ll have more time to share my experiences going forward. I’m still getting a feel for my surroundings.

Talk to you later.


As a teenager, I became acquainted with a person who wrote me short inspirational notes, made to-do lists, left interesting internet tabs open, and signed me up for activities he deemed fun or beneficial. He was sure he had my best interests in mind, but I hated being told what to do so profoundly that I ignored the notes and backed out of the obligations. I did not like this person at all, and I wished he would go away. I made this very clear to him, but he steadfastly continued with the forced role of personal assistant. On rare occasions, usually out of boredom or confusion, I would follow through with whatever stupid event he signed me up for, suppressing any enjoyment. Even the slightest acknowledgment of his existence made him giddy and euphoric. He was really annoying in those instances.

I eventually realized I would have to put up with his perpetual presence. After being around him on a regular basis, I started having more compassion for the guy. There were certain periods where we got along really well; I think I might have picked up a little Yes Man-ism from him. But with the new ups also came some pretty big downs. He got very structured, developing a streamlined system with the goal of making things even easier and more appealing on my end. I think I felt an inherent hatred toward structure in general, and I would explode on him without warning. We had multiple falling outs where I disappeared into a ruleless world of random wandering for a week at a time. Of course, I would always fail miserably in this endeavor, and my loyal friend would always be waiting when I came back. I was certainly grateful for this, but I was afraid of becoming too dependent on him for my own happiness.

With this in mind after one particular argument, instead of responding dramatically by disappearing into oblivion, I determined it would be mutually beneficial if we took an official break for one month. I asked what he would do with the time off, and his puzzled expression made it clear I was his entire life.

It was during this month that I stopped to think for the first time as an adult. I realized his notes had always taken on a bit of a fanatical flavor, and it had gotten more extreme lately. Furthermore, on multiple occasions in recent years, he had signed me up for things I had no interest whatsoever in doing, putting me in numerous terrible, awkward, and perplexing situations. When I thought further about it all, it seems that this guy had some serious issues. He had a knack for cynicism, and I believe he was also quite the schadenfreude.

Now here we are in the present, and I have decided to let him go for good. He is set to return tomorrow, so I’m hurriedly working on a termination letter. This is my current draft:


I fully expected things to continue as normal when you returned, but your absence has given me a chance to think for myself. You might laugh at my use of that phrase, but you’d be surprised what a month can do for a person.

As loyal as you have been to me over the past ten years, you are simply not very good at what you do. Your pro bono help has led me in no particular direction. I clearly struggle without you, but I’d rather struggle on my terms than live under the command of your absurdity. Besides, I no longer want to live in the paper world of notes, lists, and RSVPs, eyes closed to the reality in front of me.

I might have to burn a few bridges to rid myself of the façade you’ve erected for me. I might have to consider an important part of my life a sunk cost and start new. I might have to whimsically pull the trigger on a number of things I failed to act upon in the past. But in order to handle all of this, I need to be left alone. I appreciate all the work you’ve ever done on my behalf, but I can no longer reasonably accommodate you as my assistant.

Please take all your belongings and do not try to contact me in any way. Good luck elsewhere.

And by elsewhere, I mean in Hell.



A Person You Surprisingly Know Nothing About

Shared Tracks

I stand at the corner of Confusion St. and Certainty Ave. I take in the cool breeze, observing with cautious comfort the shimmering Ocean of Opportunities in the overwhelmingly infinite horizon. I hear the familiar rattle of the earth, and I prepare to jump onto the approaching They Line streetcar, yet much to my surprise, it seems to be rapidly accelerating. I step back as it perilously roars around the corner at an unprecedented speed, violently shaking the neighborhood. The car rips away from the electric line and uncouples from the tracks. Before I cover my ears and close my eyes as it inevitably careens into calamity, I look in through the rear window, expecting to see hundreds of terrified faces. From my admittedly limited glance, it curiously appears devoid of a single morning commuter. Nonetheless, I shield myself, preparing for the worst. After an eternity of silent seconds, I open my eyes to a neighborhood that shows no signs of any unusual activity, and the streetcar is not in sight. As I begin to reflect on what has happened, the bell of the They Line jingles as it arrives in front of me, full of passengers.

Did I miss something?

My Best Nightmare (An Extremely Overdramatic Rendition)

Good Lord, that’s any second now! This is actually happening?! Park the car, bumper blocking driveway, don’t care, haha, life! Run into the house. Eat the ice cream, eat it quickly, shut off the too-much-sugar, too-many-empty-calories filter. Stare blankly at the mini peanut butter cup that has fallen onto my khaki pants. Refresh the baseball trade rumors website. Refresh. Don’t comprehend the words. Refresh. Make sure to say that. Make sure to ask about this. Don’t think, don’t be dramatic, don’t romanticize the past. Refresh. Wait, he was signed by the Padres? Wow, haha! Make sure to be just the right amount of detached, exude confidence, act like you’re doing well. Don’t forget to mention…


Taking a deep breath, I instantly begin again, because I have awoken – no time for restraint. Everything up to this moment has meant nothing. I re-read our old conversations, but I don’t get very far because my eyes are suddenly warm and blurry. I look around the room for distractions only to conveniently notice the receipt from our first liaison. Why do I keep this stuff? I check my email; at least that will be neutral. 52 new messages. Nice, the amount of weeks in a year. The latest is from Francesca’s in the Chicago suburbs: ‘We cordially invite you to celebrate another Valentine’s Day with us.’ My eyes widen for the second, third, and fourth read. Mark as spam, don’t freak out, no such thing as signs, just a coincidence, don’t overanalyze. But why are they emai…


Look at the Dali clock. It’s funny. It’s supposed to look like it’s melting, but it just looks like an awkwardly shaped cheap plastic clock that is really hard to read. Look at the framed Dali prints. What are your thoughts on them? Have you ever taken a deep look at a single one? No, not really? Well try this time. Oh no, don’t look at them in the dramatic light. You always do that. Yes, you bought them with her, you spent a lot of time repositioning them in that crazy little underground studio with her, remember cooking there with her? remember taco night? remember when we listened to that song for the first time? remember when you worked on the puzzle for six straight hours and I…

Wait, when did you get here?

My left temple is throbbing. My fingers need a good popping. My lips are chapped. My shoelaces are way too long. But this throbbing, it’s not just in my head, it’s in my throat, in my chest. Whoa. I thought I had eliminated this knot when I left two years ago, but my stomach is apparently capable of reproducing it with the same, if not greater, intensity. Eat more ice cream and shut up. Just fo…

Whatisthat? I stiffen, dropping the spoon. The desk, the house, my whole life is shaken by a singular vibration louder than any previous vibrations in the history of the universe. What was I just thinking I forget it doesn’t matter. Pick it up! Here it is here it is here it is suspend reality live in this moment it’s actually h…

Breathe. Clear your throat.


“Hey. How’s it goin’?”

A Small Cheese Pizza to Remember

It was approaching midnight on a Los Angeles Tuesday, and I was at danger-zone hunger. There were no open options close to my Super 8, and this was pre- Grubhub or anything like that, so I just called around and finally found a place that was still delivering: Domino’s.

In my hunger haste, I forgot to pay with credit card over the phone.

45 minutes later, the driver arrived at my door, and I was as excited for that delicious cheese pizza as was Kevin from Home Alone.

“Small pizza with delivery fee is…$9.80 please.” In this, I sensed a touch of edginess, maybe because I was flirting with the delivery minimum, maybe because his life had come to delivering pizzas in the wee hours of a Wednesday morning, or maybe because this was his last delivery of the night, but probably all three.

The last thing on my mind was to be a difficult customer, so I quickly muttered, “Oh, can I still pay with card?”

“I’m sorry sir, not at this time. Cash only.”

I opened up my wallet to find nothing but a crisp $100 note. I had one of those annoying ATMs back in Peoria, Illinois that gave the minimum amount of $20s possible, so when I pulled out $300 in cash for this trip, I was given three bills, exactly two of which I used to save like $1.20 each time I filled up my gas tank.

I sheepishly offered him the $100 bill and asked for change. He only had $14 in cash, so that would amount to an $86 pizza.

‘That’s okay, I’ll simply get a $20 from the ATM downstairs.’ I took him with me.

It seems like a purchase on my credit card is blocked every single time I leave the city I’m supposed to be in, but my debit card has been blocked only once. Of course, the once was at this current moment, not in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, or even Kansas, but in the lawless foreign country of California; I never called the card company to say I was taking a road trip to the west coast.

‘I’ll get change from the front desk attendant.’ I walked over to the desk and, preparing to ring the bell, I noticed the sign: “Away from 12:01AM – 1:30AM. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

With panic looming, I looked outside the window for help. I was in a rough neighborhood in the middle of the night, and there were no businesses in sight.

‘Should I just tell him nevermind? Is that possible?’

The pizza guy was clearly annoyed at this point, and I was about to collapse from hunger, so I did what I do best and thought on my feet: I handed him the $100 bill and told him to keep the change. He was somewhat surprised but didn’t really argue against it.

I tried to starve myself the remaining two weeks of the trip by eating only carrots, apples, nuts, and string cheese, but to this day, I’m still trying to recoup that $90 tip.