Foreign Morning Senses

Two adjacent slowly spinning fans. Tables of fake glass, fake wood, fake plastic hosting turning pages of real news. A rooster above the days on the wall, flapping first month of the Western year. Cloud-shielded sunlight on diminutive dirty tiles. No doors.

Helmeted singles and doubles speeding by, a gaggle of mechanical geese, a flock of weed eaters. Zhong bei, jia tang. Western indie pop from petite speakers. Bing de. Nice day for ice. Clinging. Wings of hummingbirds flapping against glass.

Oil oily and yolk yolky. Luo bo gao: is it a radish or a turnip? Straw transferring frothy new substitute like unsweetened marshmallows to the back of the tongue and its roof, lingering. Bitter skin of fruit, a remorseless first impression keeping the sweetness at bay.

The outer wisp of a small, condensed chemical cloud, stinging nostrils, burning tonsils. Soap. Perfumeness as she breezes by. Sharp salty sea: the port olfactorily. The beans, brewed, always smell cozier than they taste.

Whittling wooden chopsticks. Warm breeze on dry squinting eyes. Pain from ear to temple because I chugged here instead of sipped to go.

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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.”