Saturday, July 23, 2005

It is in change that we find purpose

This morning was my first day in the clients office. Beijing Gas is a pipeline company that’s owned by another gas company called PetroChina. Today is the Beijing Gas kickoff meeting where we discuss the scope of the project and other really boring items. I will be working primarily on the second project, PetroChina, whom we meet with tomorrow in Langfang. I will be providing support for the Beijing Gas project, but not a whole lot more. Their office is about two blocks from the hotel, so we were able to walk there. At 8:30 am, it is about 85 degrees, but the humidity is only around 2000%. Still overcast, still no sun.

Their office building is a very nice building, very good working air conditioner, nice bathrooms (which are really the two things I look for in an office). The conference room looks like a room from the United Nations building. It’s not very big, but there is a set of Chinese flags in the windows, a huge cherry conference table with a second row along one wall. In front of each seat, there is one of those machines that you can plug in headphones and speak to an interpreter (who sit in the second row with their own microphones). It’s nicer than any conference room we’ve got in Kansas City.

The meeting goes well in the morning, mostly Marlow discussing the project. Beijing Gas sends around seven people to the meeting. I’m not paying that great of attention because it’s not my main project.

We go to lunch with several of the Beijing Gas people and it’s nearly exactly like the night before. Several courses (15 or so this time), very hot tea, very un-air conditioned restaurant, very strange food. This meal featured deep fried sardines that you eat whole, an eel, various vegetables and goat stomach. All in all, very good (as long as you eat before asking ‘What’s in this?’). It was at this meal that I was introduced to possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I can sum it up in a short sentence & I will say no more about it. Pig intestines stuffed with coagulated blood. Peace.

Marlow had to go to a meeting in the afternoon, so I gave a three or four hour tutorial/presentation on how our database works and helped get them familiar with what’s coming up. Even though it seemed completely new to them, Xinlei said that I was the third person to go over this stuff with them.

Dinner was very similar to lunch. We met two additional GE employees, Bill Gu (the salesman) and a guy named Paul (from Australia). By now, I’m getting pretty worn of the meal thing, not so much because of the food, but because my meals typically are about ten minutes of eating while doing laundry or sitting in front of the TV. Luke (3rd person speak) is a creature who enjoys ‘down-time’. Since I’ve been here, I’ve eaten every meal with a group of people and by the time I get back to my room, I’m so tired, all I can think about is going to sleep. It’s keeping me from the things I like; reading, writing, and the things I dislike; working in the evenings. I’m sure it will slow down soon enough.

Tuesday morning, Xinlei, Marlow and I are on our way to Langfang. This is where I will be living and working for the next six months. Before leaving the states, I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn about my new surroundings. There are about two million web pages about Beijing and a total of one web page about Langfang, and all it really has is a link to a Beijing webpage. Looking at a map, Langfang is about 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. According to this web page, the population is about 3.6 billion, but web pages aren’t often checked for content and extra zeros, the population is actually 360,000. PetroChina (the client), sent a van to the hotel to pick us up along with our luggage. Xinlei is going to spend the rest of the week here as well and he’s got five bags. Unfortunately, my two bags take up all of the storage space in the van, so he is going to return to the city in the evening to get his bags and come back. This isn’t a huge van.

I usually enjoy driving around off-the-beaten-path roads, so I was looking forward to this drive. The smog is so bad that we can only see about 100 yards off the road. Our driver Random McHonkalot, sticks and moves in and out of traffic like a cat chasing a mouse through a garden, honking at random times, driving between the lines at random times and watching the road at random times.

The PetroChina offices are, in a word, shitty. The building is completely cement and reminds me of the halls and rooms gymnasiums. Very poor light, my footsteps echo down the hall with every step. This is place is called the Pipeline Research Center. Mr. Feng (you call everyone Mr.) is a young looking officer, maybe 35 years old. He’s very nice and helps me out all along the way. The conference room is slightly better, corner air conditioner and a window, wood chairs and a table plus three computers for the conversion vendors to work on.

The first thing I notice as people begin to file into the room is that everyone here seems pretty young, most younger than me. They’re all extremely nice and excited to practice their English on me. We go through introductions, I try to write down everyone’s name and specialty, but they’re extremely hard to understand and the spelling/pronunciation is very different than in the US, for example Weng is pronounced Wong. I’ve only been in the country three days, so it’s all still very new to me. I’ll start getting the hang of it, but for now, I’m really struggling to remember names. Xinlei (pronounced shin-lay, which is not what I’ve been calling him for three months) is a great help as usual.

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Mr. Feng cancels the rest of the day so that he can show us around Langfang. I am technically on what GE calls a ‘Bubble Assignment’, which means that I’m actually living in another place for an extended period of time. Part of a bubble assignment is that they help me find appropriate housing. Originally, my moving company thought I would be living in Beijing, which has plenty of furnished places to live in, but Langfang is about an hour from Beijing and I really don't feel like adding 10 hours of driving time (with traffic it would be more like 15 hours) per week. These mobility people are great at under-estimating or over-estimating to fit their needs. They told me that Langfang is only about 45 minutes away, but everyone else (who’s made the drive several times) said it was an hour at a minimum. So I had to immediately make sure that they were looking for place for me to live in Langfang, instead of Beijing. Piss and moan, piss and moan, they said it would be difficult to find me something, blah blah blah, but I stood my ground and had complete support from GE (for once).

The mobility people (Santa Fe Relocation) found me an furnished condo in Langfang that was 15 minutes from the office and sent me picture of it. It looked pretty sweet. Three bedrooms, on a golf course, ‘walking distance from amenities’, maid service. Pretty much exactly what I needed (except I really don't need that much space). Mr. Feng wanted to show me the condo’s because he said they may be a bit farther away than Santa Fe had mentioned. He was absolutely right, it was at least ½ hour away from the office and it was in the middle of a ghost town practically.

It’s hard to describe this neighborhood. We drove through a University town, which is a little gated community in the middle of the city and I was thinking “Ok, this is a little far, but living in a college area would be pretty dope”, but there was no one around, buildings upon empty buildings upon empty streets. It was like a scene from a weird movie where a man falls asleep and wakes up to find the world the exact same, except all the people are gone. Bikes laying on the ground, one wheel slowly spinning, piece of trash slowly blowing across the street, quiet, quiet. This area could have housed maybe 50,000 people and I probably saw fifteen people, and they saw us driving through like we were crazy, like we were driving into the radiation area.

Still on and on we drove, I kept thinking that we’d get there any minute, or drive out of the empty city any minute and return the hustle and bustle of the city, but it never happened. Now suddenly, we’re on streets that are basically long driveways between houses, houses that look familiar to the ones in the pictures, but not as ‘photoshopped’. We stop and there is a landlord waiting for us and she takes us in to show us around.

Keep in mind, I’m in a van with about 7 people, all taking me to see one place to live. I walked in and they sat to work on the joint, kicking the walls, checking the electrical outlets, opening and closing doors, cabinets, windows, discussing the place. It was like I brought my own team of house inspectors. And they all had the same thing to say “If you really like it, you should get it, but we don't think it’s right for you.” I had to agree, it looked nice on the surface, wood floors, nice leather furniture, TV, bathrooms, kitchen in progress. But upon further review, it was actually wood-vinyl glued to the floor, TV that didn't work, bathrooms that were built for midgets, and a kitchen without any appliances. Plus, the doors all had apartment numbers on them and most were locked.

Come to find out that we were in a resort community in the middle of China’s largest golf course, 108 Hole Green Golf Villa. That’s a lot of damn holes. These places were like the China equivalent to time-shares. People rent a room for a weekend to play golf and have community living for the kitchen/living room etc. This would account for why we were the only ones within 5-iron distance. This basically meant the following: 1. I could be the president and only member of the neighborhood watch committee 6 days a week. On the 7th day, there would be 200,000 people. 2. There was nothing in walking distance. I would have to take a cab to everything, groceries, restaurants, pornography outlet mall, to work. This wouldn't be a big deal if I could speak Chinese, but Xinlei would be ready to kill me.

I had to agree with everyone. But this is basically the only furnished type of place in the city. The Santa Fe people were wanting to sign me up with this place sight unseen, just to get me off their list and get their commission. They are also pretty weird about me going to see these places without them around, I’m not entirely sure why, but oh well, Mr. Feng is extremely helpful and he’s not getting paid for it, which makes me believe him a bit more.

I just assumed we were done and on our way back to the hotel, but about two blocks from the hotel, the van pulled down an alley and into a little side neighborhood. One thing I’ve already noticed is there are very few ‘residential’ type areas, but after looking a bit closer, my mind is getting pulled away from the big buildings and signs and looking down the darker side streets and gaps between buildings. These are the areas of life in China. The people live anywhere they can in the gaps between and behind shops. I noticed this first when walking around near the Forbidden City. These are the poor and huddled societies of the world, and cannot be described in the language of poets and brushes of painters, but must be viewed with the eyes of someone who has never seen and listened to with the ears of someone who has never heard.

This was one of those neighborhoods. We stopped and knocked on a door. I was really confused, what is going on here? Why are we stopping? This is when not being able to communicate hits me the hardest when I’m in a period of utter confusion. A lady answered the door & showed us around an apartment. This was her home, her and her husband were going to move out for six months if I needed a place to live. It was more ‘homey’ feeling than the last place, and most defiantly, closer to the ‘action’, but it was such a surreal environment and I really was having trouble comprehending what was going on. I’ve kind of given into the fact that I will not have the comforts of home and that I can live pretty simply, but when push comes to shove, there are a few things I really need. One is a clean bathroom. This bathroom was stricken with a color scheme of mold and calcified faucets. The bathtub was about the size of my suitcase. The shower came up to about mid-thigh with a steady stream of lukewarm water.

On our way out, the landlady said (through an interpreter) that if there was any room I didn't like, they’d change it for me & she’d come over to do my laundry and cook for me as much as I needed. This bend-over-backwards thing freaks me out a bit, it’s like when you’re talking to someone who’s really religious & really pumped about it and they wont stop shaking your hand and following you around (“This big sinner would be a great catch”). I was trying to get outside, but she ushered me over to a chair & brought me a cup of water, just doing everything she could to get me in the place. She’d be a great car salesman. I thought she was going to start cooking dinner, but finally after sitting there for a few minutes, we left.

I’m worn out & ready for the hotel to gather my thoughts and get some rest. Xinlei & I are staying here for the rest of the week, Marlow is going back to Beijing tonight, so I’m sure he’s ready to leave. But first, we have to go to dinner with the PC guys. We were picked up at the hotel around 6:30 and taken to a restaurant that had a whole wall of fish tanks. Not pretty fish tanks, but more of the food-storage type of fish tanks. We had a private room for dinner, it was really nice in there, cool air conditioner (which was immediately shut off), plenty of room (which is good, because about 10 people came in to eat, plus three waitresses).

Mr. Feng ordered dinner for everyone & the food started coming in droves. But first, they brought the ‘wine’. I have heard stories of the liquor that they call white wine here, so I was dreading this night, but I knew it had to come sometime. We each had three glasses at our table, one shot-glass size, one tea cup and one large orange juice sized glass. Naturally, I assumed that the shot glass was for the ‘wine’ and the other glass was for water/Coke or something, of course I was wrong. Both glasses were filled with the ‘wine’. I keep using the quotes to help with perspective (a sense of humor is the same as a sense of perspective and proportion). The ‘wine’ looked like vodka, and I was honestly hoping that it tasted like it because this shit made my throat quiver just looking at it.

Everyone that has traveled to China has told me that they toast and say ‘ganbei’ which means ‘chug sucka’. So, not wanting to appear more foreign than I already did, when Mr. Feng toasted us, I drained my large glass of ‘wine’. In the split second after chugging and feeling my insides set aflame, I noticed that no one else at the table did it, they all took small sips & were laughing at me like I was crazy, even Xinlei & Marlow. Apparently, this was not a ganbei, it was just a regular toast. I was immediately drunk. Once again, I am forced to put into words something that cannot be described. Upon contact with your mouth, this ‘wine’ (which has 60% liquor) begins to burn & taste like sweet vinegar mixed with fire. The thing is, the taste doesn't go away for about four hours, so I was tasting this crap until I went to bed. Plus, since my water glass was being used for this fire-water-piss-wine, I had nothing to wash it down with except hot tea. That was my first drink, but unfortunately it wasn't my last.

The waitresses see an empty glass as a sign of family dishonour, so as soon as I finished drinking, she came over and filled my glass right back up to the top. In China, it is ok to leave food on your plate, but it is not ok to leave liquor in your glass, so I knew I had to finish that glass before I could get up and go cut my tongue out in the hotel (like finishing your vegetables before the Muppet Show comes on). Luckily, there were nine other people in the room who wanted to make sure I knew that. Over the course of the next hour, every person in the room stood up & toasted me, welcoming me to Langfang/China/PetroChina/back from the bathroom, whatever came to mind. The thing about the toasts, the person picks who has to drink, so Xinlei & Marlow had their fare share of toasts, but most of the other guys just sat back and laughed. Finally, I finished my ‘wine’ and they let me switch to beer, which I drank three of right away to try to wash the taste of melted flesh out of my mouth, but it did no good.

Thoroughly tired and fairly drunk, I was ready for bed for real by now. Get into the van & we’re off, but not in the direction of the hotel. PetroChina has a volleyball team & Mr. Feng wanted to take us to the game & let us watch it for a while. It was quite a sight. A bunch of very official looking co-ed volleyball teams and a couple hundred people packed an outside court that resembles an inner-city basketball court. Lights strung overhead, people clapping & cheering, a generally happy place. This was a nice detour & I’m glad I got to see it, hopefully I’ll be able to come out some other night when I’m not so tired (and drunk). I also hope to get recruited to play on their basketball team. I’m fat & out of shape, but I’m 6’5”, and I’ll throw down on these fools.

Drive up to the hotel, this place looks like a casino, lights going up & down, flashing & changing. I get into my room & realize that they are right outside of my window, so in one window is a flashing yellow light and the other window is a strobe light. Close the blinds and like a child, close my eyes to avoid the darkness, finally, time to sleep. Every day I sleep later & later. This morning I slept in until 5:45. I was pretty worried about the jet lag, but I seem to be doing ok. My body has been through some roller coaster shit the last couple months and I’m pretty much pulling six month’s of all-nighters, so some discomfort can be expected. Four days down.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Man's Got To Eat

Saturday night, my first glimpse at darkness for nearly two days brought on an unparalleled sleep, even if only for about 6 hours. I woke up, wide awake around 5:00 am (4:00 pm KC time). However much I do like the idea of getting up early enough to enjoy the day, this feels a bit ridiculous. Lounged around the room for about an hour & half, which was about the amount of time it took me to check one email, wrote a couple words down, read my stupid X-Men book (on the flight over I read two complete books & this is the third out of the series, when flying these long flights, I find it easiest to keep the books simple & easy to follow. I made the mistake of taking a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel from the mid-1800s with me to Santiago, it put me to sleep, but the flight kept me from sleeping, so I was pretty miserable), and finally decided to call Laura to see if, by chance, she was up & felt like breakfast.

The breakfast was much better than dinner, mainly because it had stuff like scrambled eggs & bread, but it also had lotus root and the fruits that looked remarkably like sushi & tasted a it like Windex (as far as household cleaners go, Windex really doesn’t taste too bad, compared to Chlorox or shower cleaners, but I’d never eat it for breakfast or design a fruit flavor after it). Both of us were itching to get out & do something other than walk around the neighborhood, but we were kind of torn. Being here for 6 months, we really didn’t want to do all our sight seeing in one day, so we decided to go to the Forbidden City, but not go into the inner walls this weekend. Marlow was due to arrive this afternoon & we were going to meet for dinner and have a project meeting to kind of prepare us for the upcoming week, so we knew that we were on a slight time schedule.

Laura & I seem to get along pretty well, we’re both into the travel thing, neither of us want to sit around the hotel & we both walk at about the same speed (which is really the most important part in my mind). She studied the Chinese language in college, so she has some pretty good communication skills, while I have had to reduce my communication to somewhere between a caveman and a baboon, pointing my fingers & grunting a lot. I typically prefer to travel & wander alone, but this will be alright for a few days.

The cab ride to the Forbidden City, which was about halfway across the city cost us a whopping $3 US, in Kansas City, it would have been probably $35. I really didn’t know what to expect here because I basically know nothing about Chinese culture & history, the Forbidden City has always just kind of been a place on a map in the center of Beijing (and even that much information was stuff I gathered over the course of the past couple weeks). The cab driver dropped us off on the street across from this moat with a dark red wall that is about 50 feet tall. Because of the pollution (which the locals insist on calling ‘fog’, yeah right, that’s like me calling myself a five year old black girl), this wall seemed to disappear on the horizon. Walking along the moat/wall combination, about halfway (maybe quarter of a mile down), we came across a massive gate with an enormous building behind it. In front of this gate was probably 1500 people, standing around, snapping pictures, selling Rolex & postcards and stuff. I was most impressed & ready to go in only to find out that this was actually the back door (The Gate of Divine Prowess). The back door? Like the maid entrance? Holy shit, this place was literally the size of the front of the Nelson Atkins art museum or the home plate entrance to a MLB baseball stadium. When you’re at a place where the doors have names, you know it’s big. I jumped into the tourist thing & snapped a couple pictures & we kept walking, on our quest for the front gate (The Meridian Gate).

It took us about half an hour to get around to the front. I have never seen a front door in my life like this. First of all, the place was swarming with people, if I had to guess, I’d say 20,000 people, but not surprising, I could see over about 19,050 of them. On the front gate, there is a portrait of Chairman Mao that’s probably 150x100 feet. There are soldiers standing at attention all over the place, beggars, people selling shirts, personal tours, drinks of water, hats, food. This place is so big, so many people and animals, so hot & humid, so ‘foggy’ and smelly. This place does seem, however, to be well tended after, there is very little trash, the grass is manicured to a shine, there are always people running around picking up trash. It costs a couple bucks to get into the actual city, but we decide to leave that for another day.

Across the street from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. Most people only know about this place because of the riots that took place in the 90’s. Just a brief recap XXXXXXXXXXX. That’s great and all, but Tiananmen Square is really the home of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The Chairman, who’s picture is right across the street, overlooking the square, died in XXXXXX. Today, inside the mausoleum, you can go in & actually see his body. The US has their own Chairman, they call him ‘Old Blue Eyes’ & he died recently, but they don't display his body. I will have to go see this at some point, but it is impossible for me to put into words the number of people standing in line to see him. Tiananmen Square is basically the size of a NFL parking lot (without the BBQ and beer), maybe equivalent to ten square city blocks. Just south of the middle is the mausoleum, which itself is about two square blocks and looks somewhat like the Lincoln Memorial. From the Forbidden city front gate, we could see bunch of people going into the mausoleum, but it was hard to tell how big or how long the line was.

By the time we actually got across the street, I realized I was seeing something that you only get one or two chances to see in your entire life. Chairman Mao? No, he’s dead & you can see him anytime. I was witnessing the longest line in the entire world. I always just assumed the lines to the bathrooms at Arrowhead or the lines to the Back To The Future ride in Disneyworld would compete for the longest lines in the world. That’s like the difference between shooting a gun & throwing a bullet. This line, if I had to come up with a number, I would say probably had about 100,000 people in it. It wrapped around the square, ten people wide & was probably close to one mile long. I told Laura that my mission was to find the end of the line & we walked for about half an hour before finding it. Every time we thought we were there, it turned out to be just a turn in the line & the river of people flowed off in another direction. The entire place was roped off like a Hollywood movie premiere, inside the ropes was about a 20 foot buffer, on the inside of the buffer was a yellow line, like a highway line, then the line, about 15 feet wide & another line. There are speakers up all over the place with a recording that repeats in English & Chinese something to the extent of: “Welcome to Tiananmen Square, if you are standing in line, there are no cameras allowed inside the mausoleum, please leave them outside the lines”. It was loud, but still felt in the background, plus every 25-20 yards along the inside of the buffer was some sort of officer with a bullhorn. These guys were shouting at people various things that I couldn't understand, but judging by the general crowd it was: “No Cutting, stay in line & be quiet!”. Thus creating a strange, quiet atmosphere with directions being shouted in several languages from several sources. This is one of the most surreal thing I’ve ever witnessed. Who cares about seeing the Chairman, just go to see the line.

About two thirds of the way through the line, a girl snuck up behind me & started talking to me. This has happened several times, but this is by far the hottest one, plus she spoke English. She walked with us for about 15 minutes & was telling us about her school & her art exhibit across the street at the National Museum. Her job today was to go talk to people & see if they’d like to go to the museum. Now, I love museums & art & all that gay shit and I thought it was a pretty good idea, but Laura was having none of that. This is the first time I would have liked to be alone so that I could have gone seen some art with a hot local. If I had of gone, this story would probably gotten a whole lot more interesting. I should have given her my email address & told her to drop me a line & I’d take her up on that tour next weekend, but Laura was ready to get away from this girl, I think her spider-sense was telling her something. I know mine was, booyah.

Laura & I did have one major side challenge & that was to find a place to buy the new Harry Potter book. It’s a guilty pleasure & I left the US the day before it went on sale. I really enjoy the books, but Laura is kind of crazy-cat-lady about them, so she did all the leg-work on finding a big book store that we could probably get the book at & it was only a few blocks away from the Forbidden City, I think it’s was called The Forbidden Bookstore (actually, it’s called the Foreign Language Book Store, these guys have no sense of humor). We quickly found a bookstore & got our Harry Potter books, in English, but not at the Foreign Language Bookstore, at some other place that was like a 5 story book store.

One sentence paragraph: On our way to the book store area, but still on Tiananmen Square, I saw a child, completely naked with his mom steadying him, pissing while his brother thought it was a fountain. I just had to mention that.

After stopping for coffee, which is surprisingly expensive & very hard to find, we decided to head to lunch. Right before we stopped for lunch, I saw my first golf club knock-off shop. I could have bought a set of Calloway’s (US $1500) for right at $250. I’m not much of a golfer anymore, but at these prices, maybe I just need to learn to like it. I got a business card & 5 months to think about it. Lunch was at the Quanjude Roasted Duck restaurant. It was totally awesome, the bring a duck to your table, chop it up in front of you & you make little duck-meat burritos out of the meat & some vegetables. I’ll be going back there fo sho. By this time, it was getting close to time for our other co-worker, Marlow, to be arriving so we headed back to the hotel.

Around 6:30 that evening, we all got together for our kick-off meeting dinner. There was six of us & this was my first real Chinese dining experience (the hotel is kind of like a Kansas City Chinese food restaurant). Marlow & his wife, Marla, Xinlei, Laura, another interpreter who’ll be working for us named Eddy (her name is Eddy & this was her ‘interview’ I guess). Food in China is quite an experience I’m now beginning to learn. Food is all ordered ‘family style’, meaning one person orders all the food & put it on this huge Lazy-Susan in the middle of the table & everyone attacks it with chopsticks. But they trick you, after a few minutes they bring out two or three dishes, so all of us white folk just freestyle on it, no matter what it is. Then every minute or two over the course of the next hour, they bring in additional dishes until there’s about 15 of them on the spinning glass top. At this point, I’m determined to eat anything they put in front of me just to say I’ve eaten it. In this case it was goose necks, a carp deep fried in caramel sauce & served whole, a salad made completely of flowers, pig kidneys and a couple things I couldn't identify.

They don't server ice tea or water or soda with dinner (normal, typical US drinks), they server piping hot tea. Now, it’s already about 98 degrees here with a humidity of about, ohh… 10,000%, naturally, I’m craving boiling tea to wash down my caramel fish and pig kidneys. Overall, the meal was very good, I probably only sweated one or two cups of water & the grand total for a top notch dinner for 6 was roughly $35 US.

It’s about 8:30 pm, I’m wiped out & tired. Tomorrow is my first day in our client’s office here in Beijing. I really have no idea what to expect, I’m sure it will work out better going in with out any pre-conceptions. I have no doubt I will not be let down.

- L

Sunday, July 17, 2005

First Day In China

My 24 Hours of Daylight

My day started at 5:00 am in Kansas City. After moving out of my apartment on Monday, I spent the rest of my week staying at grandma & grandpa’s house. The worst part of this would have to be the 40 minute drive to the office & the one hour drive to the airport. The best part would have to be the steady stream of food provided by grandma. My sleep has been down to about 5 hours a day for about the last ten days because of the amount of work needed and the varying hours of business between KC and Beijing. On top of that, everyone I know wants to have a going away lunch/dinner/breakfast with me. I want to say ‘Listen dammit, this is why I had two going away parties!’, but of course, I’m still doing it.

I get the feeling that a lot of people I work with have this romantic notion of camaraderie and teamwork with me & envision watching me ride off into the sunset with all the knowledge and wisdom that they’ve instilled on me. Don’t get me wrong, there really are some people who have taken me under their wing over the years, and I don’t want to be a prick to them, but it’s just so hard to fit everyone in and the stress has been wearing me down physically & emotionally.

Monday morning the movers were to come to pack & move all my shit. All I really needed to do was organize what needed to go to storage, China & what I was taking with me. The company sent a carpentry team over around 9:00 am to build a special crate for one of my paintings, which was pretty cool. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I practically picked it out of the trash & that it had been completely soaked in water on at least one occasion. At around 10:30, a team of four people showed up to do the hard work. I honestly felt guilty playing on the computer & watching Buffy while they taped, boxed, sweated & cussed all my junk (I honestly didn’t feel that guilty). It was like having my own little swat team of movers. Like a tornado, they came & left, also like a tornado, all my stuff was gone. Four hours of cleaning afterwards, I turned my keys in & left Lenexa forever (until I realized that I left a box of cleaning supplies & had to return the next day). Interesting side note about getting out of my lease, the landlord actually said they thought they’d be able to track me down in China to collect on any fees that they decided to stiff me on, good luck, you guys cant even get my shower pressure right, peace.

About mid-week, I got quite a strange request from Xinlei. Xinlei is our employee in Beijing who’s going to help me out with this project. He spent about 6 weeks in KC & is a really cool guy. He left me an email requesting me to get six radar detectors for various people in Beijing (mostly clients). Apparently, these things are about $350 each in China. So I went to Wal-Mart & bought a couple for $65. I have a strange feeling about bringing this sort of stuff into a country such as China.

Anyway, back to this morning. Mom drove me to the airport around 6:00. Kansas City to Chicago by around 10:00, nice and easy. Flight from Chicago to Beijing, 13 ½ hours, not so easy. I’m traveling with a co-worker, Laura. She’s got a degree in Chinese & is totally pumped. I’m also pumped, but in my big-lethargic way where I just want to sleep it off all the time. Laura will be coordinating one project (in Beijing) while I’m running another project (in Langfang). We’ll have a day or two to hang out & see some sights, and after that we’ll probably be on the phone to each other a lot, but we’ll be living in different cities, so probably wont see a lot of each other. Anyway, Laura scores a whole empty row to sleep in during the flight & I’m smashed into a window behind a guy that looks like Lt. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. A thirteen hour flight includes three meals & about 4 runs from the flight attendants trying to pawn their cheap-ass Duty Free stuff onto us (Lady, we’re going to china, saving $5 on taxes is nothing, now scram & let me try to sleep!). Like any other flight, I hit the seat & was wide awake, I probably got about 3 hours of sleep total. Because of the path of the plane, the sun was in my window for the entire trip, super heating my to a comfortable sweat the whole time. Combine that with the time difference, it was daylight for about 30 hours.

It was surprisingly easy to get through immigration and customs. They didn’t even look at my customs information, it’s a good thing too because I had a suitcase full of radar detectors and books (who knows which the government would object to more).

Xinlei met us at the airport & helped us get to the hotel safely. This place is hot. This place is humid. This place is dirty. There is no air-conditioner in the airport, or if there is one, it’s set to about 85 degrees. Since my body is already nice & warm from the superheated pillow on the plane, I hardly notice the change in sweating locations on my body.

After getting to the hotel, despite being worn out, Laura & I decide to go check out the neighborhood. We walk around for several hours. It’s always exciting being in a new city and this place is no different. Beijing is very flat & unbelievably polluted, there’s a hazy fog laying over everything like a wool blanket. There’s so many people and sweat, so much poverty and construction. Legs shrunken from polio, heads swollen from birth defects, missing hands, eyes, feet, toes, fingers. The signs are huge, piles of dirt & trash on many street corners.

After a not-extremely-good dinner in the hotel, I decided to get online. This place has the absolute slowest high-speed internet in the world, most likely because every webpage I go through is routed through a government server to scan for content. I’ve been awake for about 32 hours straight now, having walked about five miles today & sweated about three pints of water, I begin to wonder if I’ve made the right decision on coming here at all. But, I am driven and weary and I don’t know where to go. In one stroke, I’ve changed my life, given up its last crude direction. But I’m still young, and therefore I believe there’s still love in my heart.