Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lotus Lane and Sweaty Boy-Band Crowds

Thursday night, back in Beijing again after my brief visit to Hong Kong. I’m really getting worn down from traveling around and feel more and more like I need a weekend alone, surrounded by books and my writing, but this will not be the weekend for it. Friday, we’re going to go out for dinner and have a few (many) drinks. Chris and his girlfriend are going to take us out to a bar area so it should be fun. Then Saturday will be our first official group outing, we’re going to do the Forbidden Tour Gold Tour (I made that name up, it means we’re actually going to go inside this time).

Friday morning, told Beijing Gas requested the charity of my presence in their office to answer questions for the morning, until lunchtime, but after that, really need to do some work on writing documents for PetroChina (or sleep). As half expected, when I get there, they say that they’re not going to be ready until this afternoon and Marlow tells them that it’s no problem, I’ll be able to come back after lunch. To which I replied, ‘I will not be here after lunch.’ I hate taking the hard line on this kind of stuff; I really could turn around my schedule some, but these people need to stick to a schedule at least once. I told them all week that I was available only in the morning and everyone said it was fine, then I get there and they change it. Screw that, I’m worn out from flying, sweating and generally ready for my weekend to begin. So they hem and haw about for a little bit, and finally get their shit together and we have our meeting.

This client is bad news all around. The project is only about two months long because they have a drop-dead deadline at the end of September (because the boss is leaving for a year for school). The contract got started in February, and they pissed and moaned about it and it got pushed back and pushed back, until another client came along and signed the contract (PetroChina). As soon as the other customer signed the contract, Beijing Gas, all the sudden, was ready to start work, not to be outdone. Originally, I was supposed to work on this project, back when it was a nice, worthwhile project with a reasonable time frame, but after PetroChina signed, I was moved to that project (since they were actually paying us). Well, now it’s been four months of contract negotiations with the clock ticking and the deadline not moving, and they still haven’t signed the contract.

To do this kind of project right, you really need 4-5 months. We’re down to two months and our team has already been here for two weeks. Ohh, and they still don't have a signed contract. I’ve been telling everyone that they’re waiting to see if we can get the work done before they sign (‘yeah right, you’re a dumb ass Luke, you don't know’). On top of that, they’re being total pricks about expenses. They wont pay for our hotel Internet (which is necessary for work, and posting useless journal entries). They require us to pay cash for everything and turn the receipts over to them directly, instead of going through the company, which is total crap. They’re being real sticklers for the finances of this project, so it’s nice and counterproductive. The amount of time wasted on this so far would pay for all of our laundry, meals and Internet for two months, but they just wont let it go. I eat expensive when I’m on their penny out of spite, screw these guys. I’m glad I’m only consulting on this project.

After the joke of a meeting in the morning, I headed back to the hotel to catch a nap and get some work done. While in my hotel room bathroom, I noticed a package that said ‘For Men Only’ on it. I just assumed it was cologne or deodorant or something like that, but this is what it says:

“This product is specially designed for washing men’s genitals. As the pure Chinese medicinal preparation, it can quickly kill any kinds of latent germs and pathogens. It can prevent any infectious diseases; use this product on and around the pudenda by massaging for 2-3 minutes. It can get a better effect to be used in a bath.”

There you have it, ‘it can prevent any infectious diseases.’ If it says it on the package, it must be true.

By the evening, I’m ready to go get smashed. So is Laura, so is Marlow. Marla continues to astound all with her complete indifference. Chris and his girlfriend (Christy? Charlotte? Peggy? Something) and the pack of honkeys are off to this area called ‘Lotus Lane’ (kind of like Superman’s girlfriend). It’s a bar scene for foreigners. Bars and restaurants surround a very long pond (I think it was an imperial pond, but everything around here is the imperial something). There are probably a couple hundred bars; all with people shouting for you to come in for the ‘cheapest drinks in the city’, of course every bar has drinks for 20 RMB (about $2.50 US), so it really doesn't matter. Every one has a local ‘folk’ singer inside singing their little Chinese hearts out, most have couches inside and out and on the roofs. We pick a spot, grab a couch and begin to drink heavily.

Laura, poor little thing, seems to find it necessary to declare that she will drink me under the table this evening. I quietly try to warn her that it’s not necessary to say those sorts of things. She barks back at me that ‘you’re going down, down to Chinatown!!’ I remind her of the vast difference in our two weights and all her response is a belch and an empty bottle.

Why do people constantly feel the need to challenge me like this? My friends don't do that to me, they understand that we’re friends and we’re going to get drunk, all in good time. It’s always someone who’s hanging out with me for the first time that gets all pumped up about partying. They always find it necessary to make this sort of statement and you can tell that inside their mind is a vision of me throwing up and passing out while they get high-fives and hugs from everyone in the bar because they were the person who drank goliath under the table.

These are the facts Jack. I weigh about 250 pounds. I’ve been drinking for nearly 15 years (sorry mom). I won a chugging contest in college for drinking a beer in less than two seconds, four times. Many of my friends are as big as me, and we don't drink beer, we drink bourbon and rum. This means that when we switch to beer, we can usually drink quite a lot. I’m not bragging or anything, I’m just saying this the way it is.

Laura is on a mission and I’m not. Have you ever sat at a stoplight and pretended that it was the beginning of a race? Then when the light turns green, you fire off the block and the other guy doesn't even know you’re racing? That’s pretty much what’s going on. My normal drinking speed is fairly rapid, but Laura just keeps pushing me and barely keeping up with my leisurely drinking. Long story short, by midnight, we had drunk maybe ten beers each. Not a crazy amount, I was feeling good, but I could have flown a Stealth bomber compared to Laura, who kept repeating ‘Luke, I’m trashed, I’m so trashed’. Instead of being the caring individual who should say “Laura, I tried to warn you, now lets get you home” I am actually saying “So what, get another beer pussy”.

I did get another great picture of the great bathrooms here so beautifully carved into the ground, these all have signs written in English behind them that say ‘No Shit’. Tell that to the skid-marks fellas.

While at one of the bars, I had a chance to chat with Chris some more. He’s a pretty cool guy, really into music and wants me to come over and jam with him and his friends who are trying to make an album. I told him I don't play any instruments, but I’ll still bring my air guitar. He’s also very into astrology. He tells me that Libras (apparently I’m a Libra) are very musically and artistically inclined. I love music and art, but draw and play music like a retarded kid.

At some point, Chris and his girlfriend took off; I think it was around 10:30. They were pretty wiped out. We decided to stay for another couple beers, which naturally turned out to be about four more beers.

By the time we left, it was probably 1:00, and the whole area had a completely different look to it. Instead of thousands of people trying to get you inside for a drink, it was replaced by closed doors and shut off lights. The Chinese (especially in Beijing) have really only been into the party ‘scene’ for about ten years, so they’re all still pretty new to staying out late. Plus, many people here work 6-7 days a week, so Saturday is a regular workday. Either way, it’s eerily quiet, except for sound of me singing and Laura's continued declarations of how drunk she is.

Needless to say, 8:00 am came pretty early, and it was going to be a hot day, and a lot of walking, and a lot of Laura, Marlow and Marla.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the Forbidden City. It’s about ¾ of a mile long. It’s really twelve rooms and twelve chairs. Each one has no lights on, so you can barely see inside of it, but people crowd around them and fight to get the best view. Laura is in the front of every throng of people screaming and pushing and sweating like she’s at an N’Synch concert. By this time, I’m basically just counting down until I can justify going back to the hotel. It is amazing, it is huge and it represents a huge part of Chinese history, but it’s also very boring and very much under construction (undergoing renovations before the Olympics in 2008). We get to the end, and the back door is shut, so we have to walk the whole way back, this time against traffic.

My new most hated thing in the world are umbrellas. I must have missed the ‘umbrella required’ sign in the front because there were so many umbrellas, poking me in the eyes and hitting me in the face I wanted to scream. A big difference with the culture here is that these people are so used to being surrounded by packs people all the time that they just do their thing, not caring at all for cutting someone off, or hitting them or anything. It seems rude at first, but it’s just the way it is, I’m already starting to do it some and no one even notices (except that I’m white, fat and have bright yellow shoes on).

About halfway back to the front of the City, we were confronted by this snaggle tooth guy who said he was a college student and wanted us to come see his school’s art. This was nearly exactly the same line that that smokin’ girl said to us the first day in town. This guy was not smokin’, but I was still curious. Marlow and Marla were somewhat curious as well, it was inside the City, indoors, air-conditioned, and how bad could it be?

Laura, however, had a different view of the situation. She was, once again, very leery of going into this little building to look at some art. She said that they wanted to watch us and pick our brains for the government.

My inner monologue took over: “Are your fucking kidding me? Laura, are you really that stupid? I don't know if you’ve noticed it or not, but I get stared at like pretty much 24 hours a day. Everyone who can asks me questions, and I answer every one of them. What the hell is going on here?”

I am truly baffled by this, and so is Marlow. Laura wouldn't even go close to the building. This place was about the size of a semi-trailer and nice and cool. It was packed with art, some of it interesting, some of it pretty velvet-Elvisy, all of it somewhat mass-produced, all of it cheap. Despite being preoccupied with Laura’s insecurities, one thought came into my mind. Chinese art is gay. It’s just not very interesting. I’m sure that some of it is nice and that I would like some of it, but everything I’ve seen has been pretty bad.

So, we gave them a retinal scan, allowed them to photocopy our passports, and drank some funny flavored Kool-Aid, took a quick nap, and left (my butt was kind of sore for some reason). The more I’m around Laura; the more I think she’s pretty close to crazy-cat-lady crazy.

On our way back, we decided to go to the top of one of the huge Forbidden City buildings. This, of course, was not free. They wont let you take anything except cameras in, so we had to go in shifts. This building over looks Tiananmen Square and I was up there for about twenty seconds before I was ready to go. Here’s a tourism tip: if you’re short on money, get a friend to enter the museum and have him or her describe everything to you via cell phone or walkie-talkie. I was hot and ready to go home. By this time, nothing was impressive to me, I just wanted to go home and sleep. Jayson was getting into town that night, so I was looking forward to hanging with him for a day before going back to Langfang. We finally grabbed a cab to head back to the hotel, Laura stayed behind to go do her thing for a few hours, probably see if she could buy some of Chairman Mao’s semen or something.

Jayson got in around 5:30, so we took him to a welcome dinner of local food at TGI Fridays. Marlow chipped a tooth on something and I fell back in love with ketchup. Jayson will be here for a week doing some data modeling for the Beijing Gas client and really has no idea what he’s expected to do, but he’s in China and that’s all that matters. I hope he isn’t getting set up. This is a confusing project and the politics of GE vs. China Anything are pretty strange.

Sunday morning, Xinlei took Jayson and I to the biggest computer electronics store in all of Asia. I feel bad because we kind of had to sneak out the back door of the hotel to avoid the rest of the people. It was my request, I take responsibility, by this point, I have had enough of everyone else, and really wanted some time to just be myself (which means, bitch about coworkers).

This computer store was pretty huge, it was five 7-story buildings. The thing is, it wasn't very much cheaper than in America. Supplies were, I bought a USB hub for about $2, but MP3 players were about the same as in America. Jayson and I were both expecting to get an IPod for like fifteen bucks. Each floor was a multitude of electronics kiosks, and it was mass hysteria everywhere. It was more like a meat market in Nairobi than an electronics store, people yelling, and throwing stuff, pitching their wares at you. Jayson and I had about a 10-foot buffer around us everywhere we went, silence and stares at the two white folk. Xinlei would stop and barter with someone for a minute then walk off to the next person. It was quite entertaining, but not the kind of place to stop at after church to pick up the new Amy Grant cd.

We decided to hit a place nearby for lunch. We had to take one of those over-the-highway-walkways. Xinlei warned us that this was a pretty dangerous place because thugs will take you shit from you on top and toss it down to their accomplice, who will run off with it down the street. The way he was talking, I just assumed we’d be robbed, but, to my disappointment, we weren’t. I would like to try my hand at throwing a person off a two-story walkway at oncoming traffic.

Lunch was a sub-par steak, but it was air-conditioned, so that’s all we cared about. We were all pretty worn out, and Xinlei and I had to get back to Langfang. So we hit a cab back to the hotel where we immediately ran into Laura.

The first thing she said when we got back was ‘I think I know where that huge computer store is.’ Now, this is a good opportunity to be honest and come clean, so naturally I said ‘Really, where?’ In reality, I didn't know where it was; I could never get back there. These lies and half-truths are always bad and the karma created by them have a natural tendency of turning around and biting me at inopportune times.
With my head hanging in despair and shame, I left the electronics store, Celebrity International Hotel, Laura, Jayson, Marlow and Beijing and headed back to Langfang with Xinlei for another week of frustration.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hong Kong's by-products, Buy Products!!

Until I started working for GE, I have never traveled in my life. My first ever airplane trip was less than 2 ½ years ago. Over the next year and a half, I became very accustomed to traveling within the US making thirty or forty trips to various places for work. About a year ago, I made my first trip to another country. I read a statistic the not long ago that said over 95% of Americans don't even have a passport, until last year, I was one of those people. My first trip to another country was to Lima, Peru and it was pretty damn awesome. But the nerves that came along with that were unbelievable. I probably put thirty or forty hours into preparing for that trip. Since then, I have traveled to countless places within the US and 5 other countries, each time, the nerves become less and less. In a way, the nerves were a big part of what made the traveling exciting, the vast unknown, the communication, the visas, passports, airports, taxes, finding my way around, everything was part of the experience. In the last six months, I have become more and more lazy with my trips and worry less and less, consequently I have a tendency to get caught off guard and be unprepared. Going to Hong Kong was no exception.

The trip sounds so simple, how could anything be more easy? Hong Kong is part of China now, right? So I just made my flight reservations, hotel reservations and left, not really knowing what I was going to do. I even skipped the part where I call the hotel and have a driver come pick me up, I thought, I’d just figure it out. I was vastly uninterested and unconcerned about this trip. A big part of this is the fact that I had absolutely no desire to go. I’m totally swamped at work and totally frustrated with all the bullshit I’ve had to go through to get this stupid visa/work permit/residence permit and everything involved. A few things were known. Firstly, my required paperwork: 1. Passport, 2. my China-sanctioned medical report, 3. Two passport photos (note, this is the tenth set of passport photos I’ve had to acquire for all the paperwork and there ain’t exactly a Kinko’s on every corner in Langfang). Secondly, a girl whom I’ve had conversations with from Santa Fe Relocation named Emma Cheung was to meet me in my hotel at 8:00 am to pick me and my documents up, after that, I really want sure what was expected of me. I assumed I was to accompany her to get all of this stuff taken care of. Thirdly, my flight was at 7:00 pm that same day. I had no idea when I’d be done with my paperwork, so I was just picking a later flight and hoping I’d be able to blow in time to get there. Fourthly, I had a meeting at 8:00 am in Beijing on Friday morning. Because of the short duration of my stay (overnight), I figured I’d ‘rough’ it a bit and not bring any clothes, just my backpack, books, and computer. This becomes annoying later. Total trip planning time: one 20 minute phone call, 10 minutes to pack my bag and call the hotel for a driver (quite a difference from thirty or forty hours).

Desperate to extinguish my foul mood, I packed my bags on Wednesday while listening to Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key of Life. That’s a great pick-me-up album and seemed to do the trick. When you listen to as much music as I do, the song you sing to yourself all day is important. We have very little control over this phenomena, however, I have found a couple tricks that insure something not too annoying: No Spice Girls after lunch, unless it’s the Spice World movie of course (Scary Spice, I’m talking to you exotica…); Try to learn the words to as many songs as possible, nothing sucks more than singing a song that you don't know the words for; and listen to one whole album of a good artist, you increase your chances of having one of the songs stick. A similar phenomenon exists if you’re prone to sleepless nights and strange dreams (those damn Smurfs can be scary).

Quick recap: Langfang to Beijing, Beijing to Hong Kong, paperwork, Hong Kong to Beijing, meeting, Beijing to Langfang. Thirty-six hours of travel, thirty minutes of preparation.

Once I got back to Beijing from Langfang, I had about three hours before going to the airport for my flight on Dragon Air (sounds awful witch-crafty…). So I hit the Starbucks to get some reading done and a bit of work. Marlow, Marla and Laura all met me there and we had a little impromptu meeting, the contents of which I cannot recall due boredom induced sleep.

Got to the airport around 5:30 for a 7:30 flight, I still have no idea how long it should take to get to the plane, I figured two hours was enough with no luggage. In China, you fill out customs forms before even leaving the country, before even checking in. I didn't know this, so I had to fill out another damn piece of paperwork before even getting my ticket (the goal of this trip is to fill out paperwork, recurring theme?). Got all of this taken care of and got my ticket. Because I was early, the bumped me up to an earlier flight, which would get me to Hong Kong about 1 ½ hours earlier, I’ve been here for about two weeks now and am pretty much over the jet lag, but I’m still totally wiped out by 9:00 at night, so a couple extra hours of sleep will be nice.

The most embarrassing guilty pleasure I have, and something that I’ve been putting off since getting to China is Harry Potter. I got the new book a week ago and was looking forward to start reading it. I had planned this trip to Hong Kong as my chance to read the entire book, away from distractions and co-workers who are in contact with other co-workers who like to poke fun (Franzen, Morley, Utley, Schrunk, Meserole, pretty much the entire software department, and the night cleaning guy). It’s a three and a half hour flight, plus the same back, that’s seven hours of reading, plus hotel time could easily double that, more than enough time to read a 650 page book. I was salivating for getting on the plane to start the book. Plus, this is a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, which made it a pretty good chance that whoever was sitting around me wouldn't speak English. This is good for two reasons, one is they wont talk to me. I hate talking to people on airplanes, I generally have nothing to say to anyone and they don't have anything interesting to say to me, I often wear headphones with the jack tucked into my pockets just in case. The second reason I was looking forward to the language barrier, is that they couldn't see what I was reading and wouldn't wonder why I was laughing out loud, crying and cussing Snape for three hours. Plus, they couldn't ‘out’ me to my friends and family (which this essay is effectively doing). I have been reading Alexandre Dumas and Hemmingway for two weeks, and now I’m reading a kids book about wizards and looking forward to sitting on a plane for three hours. Then sat down Clive.

Of course I didn't know his name when he sat down, but I could tell he was white (because I’ve got cat-like perception), which meant he probably spoke English (because I’ve got Sherlock Holmes-like deduction skills), which meant he may try to talk to me (because I’m me and I’ve got broken-mirror type luck). Clive started by asking me if I lived in Hong Kong, of course I told him no, but I couldn't think up a good place to tell him I lived to improve my story, so I just said Kansas City, but in Beijing for work for a few months. He said he lived in Hong Kong for 11 years. This is great and all, but the thing that jumped out at me even more, this guy was fucking British! This is a triple-quadruple whammy. No language barrier, lives in Hong Kong and likes to talk about it and he’s English, there’s no way I could get Harry Potter out around this guy, he’d lambaste me. The fourth smack is that he’s interested in talking to me. Usually, if you can make it all the way to take-off without talking to someone on the plane, then you’ve effectively got the no-talk-flight in the bag. Clive was talking before he even got his seat-belt fastened.

As bad as I felt for not being able to read and sit alone, he was a really good guy and we had a great conversation. Of course, it mostly revolved around me quietly realizing that I was not at all prepared for going to Hong Kong. Over the course of the next couple hours, I realized I had vastly underestimated the amount of preparation I should have made for Hong Kong. I’m pretty lame when it comes to international knowledge (culture, customs, currency, location on the map…. Did you know China has a billion people?), so some of the stuff I didn't know is pretty embarrassing and of course I’m going to divulge a few of the face-reddening details. Did anyone know that Hong Kong has different money than China? Did I know that Hong Kong was actually an island? Did you know that Hong Kong still isn’t technically part of China? Did you know that people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin (not that it matters to me, whom speaks neither)? Did you know that people in Hong Kong drive on the other side of the road? Basically, if I hadn’t talked to Clive, there’s no telling what would have happened to me. Of course, I acted like I knew all that shit, and if anyone asks me how to get a cab in Hong Kong, I’ll laugh at them for not knowing, everyone should know this stuff, damn. Everything that has to do with transportation or going sight seeing for the rest of this chapter are directly because of Clive’s suggestions (even though he doesn't know it, because I told him I knew all this stuff).

After exchanging a couple hundred Chinese RMB for a couple hundred Hong Kong dollars (thanks Clive), I hit the train that goes from the airport on Lantau Island, to Tsing Yi island, to Kowloon and finally to Hong Kong Island (thanks Clive). It was about a half hour ride to Hong Kong Island, where my hotel was at. I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to get to the hotel, but I figured, getting on the island was a big step. It was 11:00 at night and dark, so I couldn't see much coming into the city (also because the train is underground and under water most of the trip). The train station (Central Station) was pretty much empty because not many people are going out that late on a Wednesday night (I found out later, that I was actually early for a Wednesday night). I followed a sign that said ‘Taxi’ with hopeful anticipation. As I stepped out on the street, I saw a line of about 200 taxis, all identical red and white, all on the wrong side of the road all lined up. I grabbed one and just said “Grand Hyatt Hotel” and off we went. I assumed he understood what I meant .

A $20 cab ride and 10 minutes later, we stopped at the hotel. As I got out, he said “Thank you sir, enjoy your stay in Hong Kong” with an English accent. That’s when I first realized that I was in a vastly different world than what I had just left.

The hotel I was staying in was supposed to be one of the top two or three hotels in the city, and sure enough, it was pretty pimp. They gave daddy the Rain Man suite and it was pretty swank. It was pretty late, so I ordered room service instead of finding somewhere to eat. Afterwards, I decided to go on a walk-about, check out the town, see and be seen, something like that.

About three blocks from the hotel is the Central Bar street. Every other one was a strip club and every one had people outside trying to talk you into going inside. The marketing move reminded me of South America, but it was way more in your face. Grabbing arms, stepping in front of me, following me, girls across the street waving at me. Apparently, I stood out a bit. Not nearly as much as I do in Langfang, but these people’s job is to spot a sucker, and even though the city is a haven for foreigners, I stood out. I ended up stopping at a bar for a couple beers. The bar ended up selling beer but specializing in bongs. After a couple beers, I decided to go back to the room. It was about 1:30, I was sweating my balls off and had to meet Emma at 8:00 am.

Now, keeping in mind that the only thing I brought with me was a computer and about three hundred pounds of paperwork, I was forced to make a sleeping decision that I hate. Sleep in the clothes that I’ll be wearing the next day (probably two days) that are already soaked in sweat, or choose a slightly cooler and greatly more embarrassing form of sleep (unless I wanted to sleep with my computer, which, being GE property, they probably would have fired me for an integrity violation). I typically enjoy wearing some clothes in the sack, but I had to stretch my only set of clothes out at least one whole day, so I hung everything up (everything…) and hoped the sweat was dry by morning and fell asleep dreaming of a hotel fire and losing all my clothes.

Seven am, phone alarm blasting in my ear and the room temperature dropped to about the temperature of a Quick Trip freezer and once again, I’m wondering what city I’m in and where my clothes are. I quickly put two and two together and arose just in time to dress and meet Emma to take off on my visa extravaganza that was the only reason I was in this damn city for.

Emma met me and looked at my paperwork and said “Ok, I’ll be back by 6:00 pm to drop everything off.” You mean I don't have to go with you? I’m in these clean and dry clothes just for you Emma (two lies, face saved).

She basically told me that I just needed to wait for her and suggested I go see the sights. So, she set off and I had a bomb breakfast and pondered my next move. Since I didn't have anything with me, I was afraid to take a shower and wash off the last remnants of deodorant and risk a worse odor than I already have. So I just decided to take off and walk to the biggest building I could see.

This was my first sight of Hong Kong under the light of day. The island of Hong Kong is packed to the hilt with unbelievable skyscrapers. These things are crazy big and all over the place. The biggest is the International Finance Center. The thing is 88 stories and nearly 1,500 feet tall (Clive…). I could see it pretty well from the hotel so I took off walking to it.

The thing about big stuff, it’s very hard to judge distance, especially when you really don't know how big it really is. It took me nearly an hour to get there, and this sucker was big. I walked up to the corner and took a picture straight up the side of it. After my first picture, a security guard came up and told me I couldn't take pictures from that close, that I had to go across the street (I think he knew I was a Saudi Arabian spy from my adidas shirt and Jurassic 5 hat). So I took his picture and moved on. It was about 9:00 am by now and I was drenched with sweat. Luckily, the place has a mall attached to it, so I went in and kicked it in the air conditioning for an hour or so before making the trek back to the room to cool off. This place was just like an American mall (completely different than Beijing malls), all of the stores had huge pictures of American models on the outside sporting sunglasses or designer underwear, I kept expecting to see a picture of my old roommate on one of them. It also had very American prices on everything, including the two Starbucks in the building. I had to get out and get back to the hotel. If this was the kind of place Hong Kong was, then I wanted nothing to do with it. I’ve been around that kind of shit for 30 years, I don't need to go overseas to see more of it.

I’ve made the comment to several people about parts of Langfang and Beijing being just like the city from Bladerunner, the dirty air, fog, sounds, neon signs in another language, pimps, prostitutes, miscellaneous food being cooked and consumed on the street. All this time, I kept hearing the voices of several people telling me how much Hong Kong is ‘really like Bladerunner’. Bullshit, Hong Kong is really like a big-ass city that’s about to be destroyed when China takes the fences down in Shenzhen in a few years and 150,000,000 Chinese people flood the island; desperate to hang on until the last minute and desperate to price gouge anyone in sight.

On my hour walk back to the hotel, I passed six Starbucks and four McDonalds. Hong Kong is such as waste of energy, it’s no wonder prices worldwide are through the roof on anything energy related. Pretty much every building I passed had air conditioners pointed out to the street. The air was cold for about three seconds before it condensed and turned into humidity. I was sweating profusely by now and every clothing item I had on was soaked to the bone. I decided to get back and risk a shower, all I really needed to do was scrounge up some deodorant and I’d be cool.

After spending $50 on deodorant (because the hotel doesn't have the cheap free shit), I took an ice cold shower and my spirits began to rise. Because my room was still freezing, my sweaty clothes were standing in the corner. It’s hard to dry frozen underwear. So I had to free ball it around for a while. Now, I have the body of the Michelin Man with the body hair of a mid-transformed werewolf. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the good men and women of the Grand Hyatt Hotel Hong Kong for forgoing the traditional wall paper in leu of wall to wall, floor to ceiling mirrors. I’m pretty much the most uncomfortable person in the world about my naked body, and mirrors make me feel pretty awesome about why I’m single. Just talking about this makes me blush like a eight year old girl.

I bought a map on my earlier walk and was looking it over and realized that on the other side of the bay, there was about 10 art galleries. This is what I need to be doing, so I dressed in my still soaking wet clothes and took off. The ferry ride costs about a quarter and provided a good view of the concrete jungle of the island. Kowloon is about one kilometer across from the main island of Hong Kong, and is part of the mainland. The map said there was the Hong Kong cultural center right off the boat, so that was my first goal.

Sure enough, there it was and in I went. To my surprise and dismay, all that was inside was a bunch of advertisements for plays and art exhibits that were coming to the city (mostly plays). There was no art, no culture, just advertisements. This place was huge, every door was locked, the art gallery was closed under construction. So with my head held low, I took off down the pier. The ‘pier’ was actually a huge sidewalk with Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Stars, that kept my attention for about five seconds (but people were flocking to these pentagram-shaped stars like flies to potato salad).

I pulled out my map (total tourist) to locate the other galleries in the area. It pointed me to a few blocks north of where I was at, so off I stomped. Apparently, this is where the Bladerunner references are that people kept throwing back in my face. Nathan Street in Kowloon is about ten square blocks of store upon store upon sign upon street vendor upon dirt upon smell that makes up the street sales district. It was pretty cool to walk around, but nothing that made me fall in love with the city. Every shop was owned by a different race of people. Food was typically local, electronic stores English and local, but the really annoying ones were the suit stores. These were ran by middle eastern men. Every store had people outside trying to get you in, but these pricks were the worst. They’d follow you a whole block (larger pursuit radius in Hong Kong) trying to get you to come in for a custom tailored suit for $200 US in one hour. “Hey, you’re a good looking guy, but just think how successful you’d be with a new suit.” “Hey peckerhead, how often do you think I wear a suit? This place is hot as fuck and the last thing I need is three more layers of fake silk and linen, back off Habib.” They’d grab you, corner you with another guy (insert funny stereotypical middle eastern name here). It made me want to tell the US government that Kowloon sits on a oil field just so we could napalm the bitch.

After a couple hours and several unsuccessful attempts of finding any sort of art museum or gallery, I decide to head back to the hotel to see what my odds are of getting out of town that night instead of the next day. Walking through a park back to the pier, someone shouts out “HELLO” to me. It happens to me so much, that I barely bat an eye, but I always say it back with a smile on my face (even if it is a bit forced at times). The difference here was that it was actually yelled at me by two older ladies about five feet from me. It actually scared me a bit. They were both staring at me and then one of them said “You’re so Taaallll!”. Thus a conversation began.

The ladies were from the Philippines and were the greatest people I’ve met in the country. They were on vacation and mainly just wanted to work on their English. They spoke great English and were totally awesome. I ended up sitting with them for about 15 minutes chatting with them. They invited me to Manila to meet their daughters (How about tonight?), I told them about my Pilipino roommate and how we call him a Mexican and they (luckily) thought that was the funniest thing in the world. Very cool ladies and I got a much needed good impression from the city that was supposed to be so great. Hong Kong is a melting pot of thousands of different cultures. It may be hard to see culture in such confusion, but that’s what’s made it what it is. It’s an area that is very important to the western world, and as long as it’s that way, it will always be a mish-mosh of languages and people.

I ended up getting on a flight back that same evening. No Clive, just me and Harry Potter. However, there was still chance for one more way for my unpreparedness to come back and bite me. I have learned to keep a hotel business card in my wallet, so if you need a ride back to the hotel, just flash the card to the driver and off you go. This in mind, I didn't arrange for a car to pick me up, I was just going to pick a cab out from the throng in front of the airport. By the time I got back to Beijing, it was about midnight on Thursday and I was still pretty stinky and sore, plus they played Chinese elevator music over the speakers on the plane for the last three and a half hours, so I wasn't in the mood to screw around with anyone.

Outside of the gate in the airport I announced that I needed a driver and about seven guys surrounded me offering my services (not gay hooker, taxi, gentlemen, taxi). I pointed to one of the remaining three guys and said ‘You, take me here..’ and showed him the hotel business card. He said no problem and started walking me out to the car garage. About halfway there, he whipped out a card that stated their standard rates for taking me into the city. The trip to the airport was $60 RMB (about $8 US), this card said $450 (about $40 US), I was like, listen dude, you’ve got to be kidding me, there’s no way in hell I’m going to pay that much. He said that it’s late and dangerous, plus I was getting five star driver in an Audi. I said, I’m looking for a ride, not to buy the damn thing. I’ll give you $100. He looked at me like I was crazy. We eventually settled on $200, which is still a sham, but I’m super tired and want to go to bed.

We get to his car and there were actually two guys and it was no Audi, it was a broken down Toyota, but like I said, my laziness made these guys a lot of money that night. The whole way home, he kept trying to barter me up to like $300, I stood firm at $200 and was getting pissed. Plus, it was a bit nerve racking. I could see the potential for trouble; I was with two guys, in a city that I could never find my way in, these guys could take me out and whip my ass and take all my shit. The driver asked me if I needed a driver over the weekend at the hotel and that they’d be able to do it for me. Yeah right, these guys are professional price gougers. Then I had another bright idea of the ‘punk asshole’ sort.

I told these guys that I had a friend coming in the next night and I needed to arrange for a driver for him. They were all over this. I had them hand me a piece of paper and a pen so I could write down his flight details. I said that he was traveling on the company credit, so he’d have no problem paying the full $400 RMB. These guys were getting excited, yes, yes, yes, we’ll do it!!

So on the piece of paper I wrote my friends name down and the time of his flight. To them, Ted Nugent is just another person to gouge, to me, it’s the Great White Buffalo, the singer of Cat Scratch Fever, the author of Kill ‘em and Grill ‘em. But to them he’s getting into town at 5:30 pm. I made sure that these guys knew that they’d have to write his name on a big piece of paper and wait outside the gate and that he’d be there, I also said he’s pretty hard of hearing, so they may have to shout his name a couple times (all those years of rockin’ can cause permanent damage to the inner ear). Then I made a fake call on my cell phone to ‘Ted’ to tell him that I’ve got a driver all set up for him.

This gives puts a much needed smile on my face. After the last 30 hours of sweating and hating people and crowds and elevator music, I’m dead tired and have to turn around and have a big tourist weekend in Beijing. It’s really the simple pleasures that keep me going.

I have no doubt that these guys will do exactly what I asked, this city is dissolving to a desperate greed that abounds in areas of poverty. Honor and pride mean less and less every day. I know these two are just trying to make a buck, but they caught me on the wrong day. This city revolves around money to a level that I’ve never seen before. Nothing is free, everything is for sale, and it makes me sad and angry. My heart is a volcano and it’s not surprising that flowers cannot bloom in my hands.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Forgetfulness is a form of freedom

**Note: I’m so far behind on my writing that this is actually from about two weeks ago. Hope you enjoy laughing at me as much as I enjoy being a jackass –L***

I was sick all last weekend. Not ‘diarrhea-cha-cha-cha’, but a nasty head cold. My nose is raw from the sandpaper style tissues so prevalent here, my cough has given me a mid-brain headache, my sinuses have given me a front-brain headache, and like the feeling you get from staring into the sunlight for a whole day. I want to drill into my head and drain the snot out like syrup from a maple tree. Friday, we had our weekly work meeting over Peking Roast Duck. The food was good; the meeting was kind of gay. The Project Manger here, Marlow, is a pretty cool guy, but he’s already starting to kill these projects with details and duplicate work. We already have to do timesheets for GE, but he wants us to fill out a spreadsheet so he can keep track of the finances. We already have to do expense reports, but he wants us to keep track of our receipts in the same spreadsheet. Now, I typically do my expense report for a trip all at one time and it’s a great pain in the ass. This is a bit of overkill. I’ll just copy and paste my other report and turn it over to him, he can fill out the necessary details himself. He’s only going to be here for a month or so, and is pretty sick of it here already, so maybe he’ll back off a bit after that trust level is established.

Saturday rained all day, I spent the whole day working, sneezing and thinking I should have just stayed in Langfang for the weekend. I would have gotten just as much done there as I did here. I’ll be here at least the next two weekends doing sightseeing stuff when Jayson comes to town, but alas, here I am, waiting to return to Langfang. I’m sick of hotels; this is probably my fifth one in two weeks.

I did manage to walk to a Starbucks on Saturday. Coffee is a sacred resource around here. There’s no such thing as the ‘bottomless cup’ unless you’re at the hotel breakfast buffet and even then, the waitress only comes by once the whole meal. I’ve resorted to watch where they put the coffee bucket and serve my damn self. I have been balancing myself out as much as possible by coffee. The grocery store only really has two types of coffee and I bought one of each. I drink it all day in my room and dream about it when I’m in the office. It’s all pretty nasty instant coffee, but as long as it’s got caffeine in it, I can adapt. Starbucks is the only place that has actual brewed coffee, so I hung out there for a couple hours today reading a book and chugging cup after precious cup of the lovely, black, bean. Unfortunately, it’s got those damn North American prices too.

We did trek through the rain a few blocks to a TGI Fridays the other night. All of us were kind of feeling the need for a burger after a week of eating every other type of meat. The only time I’ve ever eaten at TGI Fridays is in Chile and China, I wouldn't even think of eating there in the US. Marlow and Laura have been going through the tummy-trouble problems the last day or two, I’ve been going through this cold thing, Marla is just sick of the crazy foods, so it just tasted good. I gotta give it up for the wait staff at these American restaurants; they all speak pretty decent English, even though they probably learned it just for the job, and you know they get made fun of by every piece of shit American that eats in there.

I realized over the weekend that it’s probably a good thing I’m not working with Laura. She’s really nice and fun and very smart, but she’s so pumped to be in China that it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s like in college, when we had a keg party, there was always the guy who was so excited for the party that he gets totally wasted by lunchtime and spends the rest of the night passed out (of course, I’ve never been that guy, never….). I completely understand her excitement, she’s really into the Asian culture and the Chinese language & people, shit, it was her major in college. I’m just more of a subtle-excitement kind of guy not a keg-stand-after-breakfast guy. Once again, I’m a total prick & a pain in the ass to travel with, I am just making an observation, I know I’m grumpy all the time and can be real chore to be around.

Evelyn came in from Kansas City on Sunday afternoon. Evelyn is coming to Langfang for a couple days to install another program for PetroChina and do some risk consulting work. She’s really good at what she does, but often expects too much out of the people that work for her. Consequently, several very talented young people in our department have transferred to another part of the company or quit because of her. My relationship with Evelyn is pretty up and down, mainly because she’s very demanding and doesn't listen very well & I’m an asshole and like to have my way. When we’re not working together, we get a long very well, she’s smart and funny and generally fun to be around. But when we work together, it’s a complete different story; my jaw is clenched and my head becomes filled with murderous thoughts. I wasn't too sure how we’d get along this time, but she sounded pretty good on the phone & I have high hopes.

I finally got to take a solo walk around Langfang Sunday night. I know I’ve said it before, but I get stared at quite a bit. The only way to make it bearable is to smile as big as possible. It lets them know that you know they’re staring, but that it’s ok. Most of them come back with a big “HELLOOOO”. I think I found a whorehouse, but I’m not positive. There is this weird shaped shopping center about two blocks from the hotel; it’s a big rectangle, like two blocks long, with a courtyard in the middle. Around the whole thing are two floors of miscellaneous shops; each shop has a street-entrance and a courtyard-entrance. These are not shops like the Gap & Foot Locker; these shops are just made up businesses that you wouldn't think would pay the rent. A comb shop (I have no idea why, but they’re all over the place around here), internet cafe with two computers, a pool hall, a couple bars, a wig shop, street-food all over the place. Well, this being Sunday evening, nearly everything was closed, so there were very few people out. It was mostly people just sitting around watching for a change in scenery that didn't change. Of course, I was the change in that scenery. This place is a trip; I can’t wait to walk around when there are more people.

Anyway, one of the shops had all of the windows painted, so you couldn't see inside. Outside was one guy and three girls who were dressed up nice & slutty like my ex-girlfriend on a Friday night when she was cheating on me. From across the courtyard, they looked pretty decent, but upon ‘casually’ strolling by to gain a better look, I felt gypped. Have you ever seen a Picasso? Picasso’s paintings are interesting because he will paint a face that has all of the necessary components, but he may kind of scramble them up a bit, the a nose & the eyes may be on the chin, with the mouth on the shoulder, that kind of style. These girls were technically all there, but that’s all I’m going to say.

Most people selling stuff around here will follow you trying to tempt you, but they have a pursuit radius that is proportional to the size of their shop (or towel of bracelets on the subway). So, for example, if it’s a newspaper stand, they may follow you five feet. If they’re selling something off the street, they may take one or two steps. But if they have a building, these guys may follow you 25 feet or more (which means you have to say no about 6 times).

The only guy outside followed me about half a block trying to get me inside. Meanwhile, the Picasso’s were laughing behind me. I bet those eyes & noses fall into their correct location after a few shots of that nasty ‘wine’, tonight is not the night to find out. I’m not saying I won’t find out, but not tonight. I’ll probably get wasted one night and wake up next to a goat in a bed full of golf balls. It’s all part of the experience.

Xinlei is out of town for the week doing Green Belt training in Shanghai. Green Belt is part of this scam that someone has sold GE called 6 Sigma. The value of Six Sigma falls somewhere between the value of an extra nipple and used toilet paper. Someone sold this crap to GE & ran off into the sunset laughing and counting their money, kind of like the Springfield Monorail (Simpsons reference). So on Monday morning, we were introduced to another new person who will be available to help us out with translation and such. His name is Chris. He came in with Marlow from Beijing in the morning. The job market in Beijing is pretty competitive, 1.3 million people and about 25 jobs. Chris is an electrical engineer with several years of experience speaking and translating English. Chris is very nice & fired up to help, but it can be a bit overbearing I think.

By mid-week, Marlow was driving me absolutely crazy. Evelyn is talking and running the show for her stuff today, so I’ve been taking advantage of this to get some other work done. It was going great until Marlow got in and started reading over my shoulder and pulling documents out and making me ‘understand’ them. It would be different if he could sum up his thoughts in an orderly, time effective manner, but the guy goes on and on and on. Ask a yes or no question and I get a college dissertation. I start to drift off in my own little world with random thoughts I didn't know existed: “Do I like ranch or BBQ?” “If you say thesis really slowly, it sounds like ‘this is’, now that’s comedy.” “BBQ” “Duck tongue tastes like rubber.” “I need a shoe phone like Get Smart, that’d be awesome”. Then suddenly, he’s looking at me like I’m supposed to answer. Quick, say something to make him think you’re paying attention: “BBQ Duck tongue in my shoe phone!!” I’ve been caught.

Evelyn has already made several comments about her gaining 10 lbs in 7 months to me and the first thing that Mr. Feng says to her when we got there was ‘Evelyn, you’re more beautiful because you’re more fat’. That’s a tart pickle to swallow. (Evelyn, I can gain 10 lbs in two days.)

We went out to dinner with the PetroChina guys, Chris & Evelyn on Monday night. Those guys had the nasty booty-wine flowin’. I think the pervs like to get Evelyn drunk, but in the end it was Chris who was throwing up in the bathroom, on his first day of work. We were picking our stuff up in the office after dinner & Chris went to the bathroom & started making crazy-loud noises, like he was trying to cough up a porcupine. It went on for like 10 minutes, people were looking around kind of nervous, I was trying to pretend I was nervous, but really all I wanted to do was go down to the bathroom and point and laugh, some college habits are hard to break.

That night, I took another walk around the poor-folk district, or as I like to call it, everything outside of the hotel gates. This provides a great opportunity to the community to stare at me & say ‘hello’. I think I’m doing a community service. I think every business in what I thought was the whorehouse district is actually a bar, and I think I was standing at the back door. Every building has about five to ten people inside of it & when I walk by, they all stop what they’re doing to watch. It’s the perfect scene from a movie, like when a bum walks into the Ritz or the black guy walks into a bar in Mexico. Soup spoons mid-drink dripping slowly, music scratching stop, pool sticks stop, the only thing that moves are eyes, and they all move in unison watching me. (It’s worth noting that my high-school football coach was always barking at me to keep my eyes on the ‘numbers’, he should go down here & recruit these people, they’d take Halstead Ks by storm.)

Chris is like a robo-interpreter. When anything is going on, he’s just appears over your back like some kind of Chinese shoulder-angel. ‘He says: It’s hot today & we may have to drown our child if it’s a girl”. What?! Man, I don't think they want everything translated, besides, that guy is a street merchant, and I really don't care. Evelyn understands a bit of Mandarin, so she can kind of get the jest of what they’re talking about & he’s driving her crazy. So every time she goes to talk to one of the guys, I make sure to whisper to Chris that he really needs to be over there helping, so he sprints over there & perches on her shoulder, meanwhile Evelyn is getting all flustered at him. Good times.

There are three people in the office that are kind of managing the technical part of the conversion; they’re basically just production workers fresh out of college. We’ve got a ton of this level of people in KC. I’m horrible with names, so, I’ve been forced to make them up (again). The guy, who’s name is Mr. Chen (pronounced like the place balls should rest on someone’s face), so of course his name is Deez. There are two girls, Hansel & Gretel. One is pretty tall & speaks her English by drawing out the O’s and Ahh’s with her low voice. The other is about 15 lbs and likes to wear 1980’s prom dresses to work. When she stretches, it looks like she’s got a couple Chihuahuas’ in a headlock, plus her legs are about as hairy as an Italian butcher’s (not that I know, but when I think of leg hair descriptions, you really need two words). All three of them speak a little English, but it’s mostly just really frustrating because I can’t understand a bit of it & Xinlei has to translate their English to his English and I translate to my own version of English. Ohh, and they’re all smarter than about 90% of our staff & have their Masters in things like engineering, software programming & database technology. Other than that, they’re just like our entry-level staff.

If the steak I had for dinner was a rib eye, then I’m wearing purple panties and a Spice Girls t-shirt. I’ve always wondered what hamburger meat looked like before getting sent through the grinder. Is it really supposed to be grey? Note to self: When ordering meat here, get it well done, unless you like that cool icy center of meat in the middle.

Installing and getting PVI to work today is a totally frustrating experience. A combination of my sparse knowledge of administering a SQL database server, my even sparser knowledge of the software & my yet sparser knowledge of reading the Chinese language on a computer were the beginnings of my frustrations. The frustration increased even further having up to seven people standing anywhere from two feet to ½ inch from me the entire time, all barking directions in several languages.

There is this ‘drink’ that the PetroChina people put in the rooms here, that looks pretty good from the packaging. The packages make it look like a cup of pudding, I sure do like pudding. They tell me it is milk. These cups are kept at room temperature (which is about 88 degrees around here) on the table for several weeks. So, of course, I was a bit leery of room-temperature milk that has been out for a couple weeks, and also, of course, I had to try it. The stuff is thick, like heavy whipping cream and tastes like warm unflavored yogurt. Not a totally offensive taste, if you don't mind unflavored yogurt, but it is hardly something that I would drink down after a jog in the park or a handful of Oreos. The room is hot and Chris gets right in my ear & slurps this stuff down like it’s a cold beer. Then he smacks his lips for about 3 minutes afterwards, getting every bit of that warm yogurt flavor into his gullet. It makes me want to stab him in the eye with a chopstick.

When I got home, I called Troughton who is at a user conference in San Diego, which means he’s either wasted or hung-over. He’s coming to town in a week & wanted to talk to me, so he gave me the ‘call-anytime’ green light. So I called him at 9:00 pm, which is around 6:00 am California time. Part of me was looking forward to waking him up, mostly because I’m jealous that I’m not out there with all those guys. He answered the phone and sounded like a man on his last breath in the middle of the desert. He said he just got home a couple hours earlier & was too wasted to talk. I told him I’d call him back, but the next time I remembered, I was drunk.

I’m leaving for Hong Kong on Wednesday to get more visa stuff taken care of. One thing I’ve really been leaving out of this gay journal is all of the phone calls & emails that I’ve been barraged with concerning my relocation. Every day, I get at least two phone calls and three emails. My visa was issued, now I have to go to Hong Kong and get my work permit. I have no idea what it will be like; everyone says that I’ll love the city. What do any of these people know about me and what I’m going to love or hate? I’m leaving Wednesday night & returning to Beijing on Thursday, quick trip, probably not much time to get a lot of sight seeing done, but we’ll see.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Saturnz Revenge

A new day in the PC offices brings yet another surprise. This locker room of a building comes fully stocked with bathrooms of course. There is nothing funny I can say about them other than just to try to paint a picture. The urinal is about normal, dirty, but somewhat normal. The sink is also fairly normal, however if you wash your hands in here, they will likely be dirtier after washing them. The surprise comes when I try to find the source of the rancid odor that gives me an immediate headache – the actual toilet. It is called a ‘Turkish Toilet’. The poor Turks. The toilet is behind a normal bathroom metal wall (with out a door) and is nothing more than a tiled hole in the floor with skid marks around it. It looks like the monster in the desert in Star Wars that Jabba the Hut was going to push Luke and Han into, the Sarlacc Pit Monster. The way this thing works, actually all it doesn't do any work, the way you have to work, is to squat over it and release the hounds. Looking at this thing makes my butt hole quiver. There are no handles to hold on to and no toilet paper. The way I see it, what are the odds that I will have to take a shit in the client’s office one time in six months after eating frog soup or a sea slug or goat stomach for lunch? I’m not a betting man, but I’d probably say, ohh, maybe 10,000%. That’s a pretty good number to bet on, a 10,000% chance that I’ll have to perform the greatest feat of balance and concentration since Philippe Petit tightrope walked between the Twin Towers in 1974.

Lunch today was exactly what I needed. Xinlei had two hours so went back to the hotel, ate at the hotel restaurant and then we went up to our rooms and relaxed for a while. Actually, I worked most of the time, but an hour away from people in the middle of the day can be invaluable when appropriately used, especially here where I have so little time alone. Xinlei takes a nap, I catch up on my emails or work for a while, the main thing, is it is a brief time when I’m not talking to a roomful of people.

After work, Dr. Wang (another PC employee) wants to show Xinlei an apartment. Xinlei may be relocating here as well, so the PetroChina guys are helping both of us find appropriate living places. This apartment is right around the corner from the office, in one of those back alley neighborhoods. There are a lot of people outside sitting around, mostly retired people and young children. All of them stop what they’re doing and watch me intently. The apartment was ok I suppose. The building was like something from that really bad hotel in the Blues Brothers, but the room was decent enough, except of course for the kitchen and bathroom. Sanitation is not an important thing here. Once again, we are sat down and given water. Trying to win us over. Despite being wiped out and ready to go back to the hotel, I enjoy these little excursions into the reality of life around here. This is a land stitched together by ghettos and it is important to witness them, if not live in them, to gain an appreciation for what most of the people in the world go through in life.

After work, Xinlei and I went to a mall/grocery store to get some stuff. He bought some new shoes (floor 4), I bought some coffee. In the US, every store in the country sells coffee, here there’s like three kinds and about three boxes of each. They look like they’ve been there for quite a while, dusty like the stuff for sale in old barber shops like old combs or battery converters or whatever random shit they thought they’d be able to sell when they bought the place back in 1971. Every box was open, there’s no such thing as a safety seals here, and everything has been opened before you get to it.

I had to dial into a conference call while in the store, which was kind of strange. Trying to pay attention to a meeting while all of my senses are getting hit by other stimuli: kid running around buck naked, police roaming the isles, every four feet is someone trying to sell something, this place has got to have 300 employees.

I have never been stared at so much in one place in my life. Langfang is pretty remote and most of these people have probably only seen one or two Americans in their entire life and I’m most likely the largest. Children follow me around and whisper to each other. Old people stare at me with the cold eyes of people who have seen more than their lips have been able to describe.

By the next morning I realize that I’m starting to get sick again. I woke up this morning with that scratch in my throat that comes the day before trouble. It’s Thursday, which means that I’ll in the offices tomorrow and then back to Beijing for the weekend. If I’m sick, I’ll probably try to hole myself up in the hotel room for most of the weekend. I’m so far behind on my writing, I need about 10 hours to catch up on it, I’ve got scattered notes all over the place of memorable events and ideas and stuff like that, but I’m just to worn down to dedicate much time to it. Every evening, going out for a ‘quick bite’ turns into a two or three-hour ordeal and it’s wearing me down, that as well as changing hotel rooms every few days keeps me from getting my stank spread out into a room enough to call it home.
Thursday and Friday go pretty normal, if you can say that. It’s very difficult getting adjusted to another culture’s work ethics. Xinlei likes it out here, he says they’re very lazy, which is why we get 2 ½ hour lunches. They’re always asking if we need to leave early for anything or come in later, or take longer lunches. Every day we come back from lunch and the contractors are sleeping at their desks. I do enjoy the relaxed atmosphere but we really need to get a ton of work done. I’ll be working weekends, nights, mornings just trying to stay a step ahead of the game. These past six months have been real hard on me around the office; I haven’t been able to find the drive and inspiration to put in the extra time. A big part of me hopes that these next months will provide me with a boost of inspiration and a desire to continue my life on it’s present course. It will either do that or the exact opposite. This is another example of how Saturn’s Return has struck my life here in my 30th year and I am anxious to be happy again. I’m starting to become bogged down and paralyzed with a despair that comes from feeling that all that I have known or worked for or believed in during the past few years is wrong or stupid, so I am have to change my mind or change my actions or be content with what I am.