Friday, September 30, 2005

What is that glowing orb in the sky? It burns my eyes and skin.

This week consisted of me writing a 150-page document in the hotel room every day and night. We’re trying to finalize the first part of the project & the document is very important. I’ve written several of these, so it’s fairly mindless work. After the past weeks of being in the client’s offices all day every day, this is a great break. There was some uncertainty on my part as to how much I’d be in the client’s office during my stay over here and I’m still not sure how much I will be in their offices for the rest of my trip. One thing is for sure, if I have to spend six months on-site in the client’s office, it will not be cool. The office is hot, the people are nice, but they’re right in my face from the time I get in to the time I leave, it’s not like I have a desk to work at where they leave me alone, I could handle that. It’s straight conference room time with anywhere from four to ten people at a time.

Next year we will start the next phase of this project and there is a good chance that I’ll be back for some unknown amount of time, anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. It’s a big unknown and I will really need to weigh my thoughts to the possibility that I could be here another year. I’m quite sure that another year in Kansas City may kill me, but how much better could a year in China be? I’ve only been here a few weeks and I’ve been pretty depressed the whole time, but that’s expected, massive change is always stressful.

On Friday, Mr. Feng took me out to dinner. We went to an ‘American’ restaurant that served steaks. The place was packed, and the food was really good. They serve the steaks here similar to the steaks in South America, with onions and a couple fried eggs on the side, only about one-third the size. I am still convinced, however, that they create American type food based solely on pictures; I had a hamburger the other day with cabbage instead of lettuce. Mr. Feng is about 35 years old, which is only a few years older than me. You would think that we may have a lot in common, but we really don't. He’s a great person & I’ve been lucky to have him around for this project, but the fact is, we’re from extremely different cultures and worlds. I think it’s going to be that way with anyone I meet here. Xinlei is different from most of these people because he lived in the UK for a year, America for a couple months and is in constant contact with westerners. He understands where I’m coming from and he’s great at explaining things to me. Mr. Feng’s English is really good for China, but overall, it’s not that great (once again, I only speak one language, so he’s way up on me). The communication gap makes it difficult to carry on much of a conversation, but he’s a good guy & I hope the project continues to go smoothly for him.

During dinner, he kept asking me how his knife/fork technique was. I thought that was pretty funny. This whole time, everyone and their dog have spent time with me on my chopstick technique, but I just assumed the knife/fork combination was more of a world standard (Western ignorance). He watched me intensely to see how smooth I cut the steak & then shoveled mountains of food down my gullet. I got him straightened away & he was in business. Glancing around the room there were various techniques for using these crazy utensils with curves and serrated edges. One kid was using them just like chopsticks, another lady was using one in each hand to scoop the food up to her mouth, one guy was using the wrong ends, it was so damn cute. I do have to say, however, that I’m becoming a straight pimp with the chop sticks, I haven’t caught a fly or anything yet, but they’re great for pulling stubborn nose hairs and scratching those hard to reach places on my back.

The fire between Jenny and I is already dying down. It’s not surprising really, we talk every couple days, couple emails here and there, but reality has set in. It was fun dreaming while it lasted, but not being able to see each other is a real buzz kill. It was the same thing with Gisella in Lima, she was totally awesome and we really got a long great, but when push comes to shove, distance kills relationships (she could call me today and I’d still be on a plane to Lima this afternoon though). All of these international relationships have a couple things in common. First, the girl is always out of my league. If we were in America, she’s never even give me the time of day, which is why it’s necessary for me to seek out these problems in the first place. Secondly, we usually only have one or two days together, followed up with a couple weeks of intense email, phone, text mail passion, where most sentences begin with “I wish we could…”. Then finally the fire dies down over the course of a couple days or a long weekend when we get away from the computer and back out into the world of reality, in my case it’s unattainable women that I really don't like anyway, fake tans, tits and personalities, Botox, colored hair and glitter makeup. These beautiful women of other nations help me build my self-esteem to where I think I can attain anything, which is smashed to pieces immediately after the realization that I’m only visible under the hot spotlight of rejection and failure. Their English is usually good enough for them to be completely honest with me & I am forced to be completely honest with them, there’s no games, no guessing, just the hard and refreshing thump of truth on my ears.

I’ve read through about eight books since I’ve been here, which is pretty good for five weeks. I’ve been reading Hemmingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls this week. Hemmingway is a great writer, and I’m convinced, a closet racist. So far, nearly every book of his I’ve read has a slight to not-so-slight racial overtones. He’s still a great writer, even though his daughter is a quack. I was on an airplane in the US once reading ‘To Have and To Have Not’ (which is one of his worst books in my opinion, I was just reading it out of spite) and there was a redneck guy sitting next to me. He kept looking at me and my book, which isn’t a surprise (I get that quite a lot actually, people are surprised that there are books that people actually read that are written by authors other than Tom Clancy or Stephen King, and don't expect some punk like me to be reading Dumas or Hemmingway.)

So as we were getting off the plane, the guy stopped me and said “Hey, what Hemmingway book is that?”

“It’s To Have and To Have Not,” I said. Thinking, maybe the guy is a Hemmingway fan and I can have a quick-exiting-the-plane-intellectual-conversation-with-a-redneck story to tell everyone. Those are always great stories, but not this time.

“I live down in Key West, I partied with Maurel a few times, she pretty crazy chick man.” he replied with blazing pride.

There it is, the expected response. Give a redneck a window of opportunity to talk about a hot chick that’s marginally famous, and he’ll grasp it with both hands and ride it like a bull. I bet he’s done that to every person he’s ever seen with a Hemmingway book. This is probably the greatest story in the guys history and he’s told it a million times, like a fisherman describing catching a whale. He probably hangs out at bookstores and libraries in the General Fiction section, just waiting to drop his gem of a story, hoping to be able to use his fourth degree of fame to score some hot lovin’.

I’ve finally started to get settled into something that can be considered a routine in Langfang. My days consist of waking up, grabbing a quick breakfast, coming back to the room and going through all the emails from the previous night for an hour or so, working on the PetroChina project until lunchtime, eating lunch with Xinlei, returning to the room and working for a few more hours, grabbing dinner, working for a couple more hours. Xinlei and I have started playing a lot of pool at night. He’s already better than I am of course. I rarely leave the hotel except for brief visits to the grocery store once a week. It’s so difficult to do anything here because of the communication gap that it’s just easier to stay in the hotel. You can’t just take a dictionary with you to translate stuff, how do you look something up in a book that’s a symbol that looks like a haystack? Plus, there are some really good people here and I enjoy spending time with them, helping each other learn the other’s language and just being cool.

Getting settled in is key to my life if there is to be any hope of a mood improvement; I’ve felt like a man on fire since I got here and am in desperate need of some down time. I need to be strong and live life, but I also need to give myself some time to recuperate.

I’m still waiting on my residence permit, working permit and visa. I turned it over to someone a couple weeks ago and have absolutely no idea where it’s at right now. It’s up to over two months now for all the paperwork. It’s been mostly out of my hands for the past few weeks, but I really want it to go through because it’s also holding up my salary bonus (which will add an extra $1000 a month to my ‘new’ salary, but that means that I have to buy my food and taxi rides out of my own pocket). We’re still waiting to see what happens first, me get my visa and passport stuff back or Xinlei getting his drivers license, it looks like it will be a photo finish.

Most people (including me) assumed that I’d lose a ton of weight over here, but it’s actually been the opposite. The weight is starting pile back on, the weight that I worked so hard to drop over the past couple years. The food in the hotel is really pretty good, but they just serve so much of it and I have zero self control and even less self discipline. I’ve started taking steps to try and avoid some of the food, but I’ve developed a sort of mental block here that my mind tells me “you better load up on food, for you never know when your next meal will be.” I’m trying to break that block, but the food the first couple weeks was pretty strange, so my mind controls my weak hands and shovels the food into my mouth faster than I can stop it. Not having a kitchen is going to be difficult for me. I’m not a cook, but I spent a lot of time learning how to eat simple and small, and now it’s all being thrashed to pieces. Even if I had a kitchen, the food in the grocery store is nothing that I’d like to buy and prepare. I miss peanut butter almost as much as I miss coffee.

Everyone reacts to change and stress different. Some people smoke more, some drink more. I eat more. It’s like this every time I go out of the country, but I’ll be here long enough that I should be able to get over the hump and stress, but it hasn't happened yet. I’m still quite disoriented and just got into my long term hotel room, so it’ll happen, just takes a bit of time.

Xinlei brought me back some ground coffee from Beijing last week, but I have no filters. We bought a tea kettle with a mesh filter in it, but the coffee runs through it as if it weren’t even there, I’m still drinking it (actually ‘eating it’ would be slightly more accurate), but I can only imagine what the grounds are doing to my stomach. I’ve got another colleague (people world wide use the word ‘colleague’ instead of co-worker) coming to town from KC in September, and I’ve started compiling a grocery list of items to bring, so far it’s coffee filters, peanut butter, my Bob Dylan and Beatles MP3’s, and a select list of books.

The weather here has finally broken. All it took to clear the skies up was two days of rain. The temperature has dropped, the humidity has dropped and the pollution has been washed down the drains. After the rain, we had three days of beautiful sunny, cool days. It feels like springtime here. Visibility is at an all-time high; I can probably see two or three miles in all directions. So after five weeks here, I can finally get a glimpse of the entire landscape….man this place is flat. Perfectly flat. Driving around the city, you notice the flatness, but seeing it from the top of a fifteen-story building, you really have to be impressed at what they’ve done to the land around here. The immense number of people here, working six or seven days a week, factories chugging away 24 hours a day for who knows how many years brings the thoughts of man versus nature into a whole new level. We have parts of the country that are polluted, but here, nature is clearly fighting a losing battle. After the three days of clear skies, the factories have begun to choke the city again with their lovely chocolate coating. Until next time nature makes another hopeless assault on the area. This is what I have to live for while I’m here, rooting for nature, the only person in the visiting bleachers cheering on the underdog.

These toilets never cease to amaze me, I still have not had the pleasure of shitting down my leg above one, so I count my blessings everyday, however, today I witnessed another amazement in sanitation practices, this time featuring this old nations future, the children. In America when they are potty-training children, happy little parents run off to Wal-Mart to purchase a toilet trainer thing that basically reduces the toilet diameter from extra-wide American style to extra-narrow fat child size. They latch on to the top of the toilet, thus convincing the child that a step ladder is necessary to take a poopy (this may be why it’s so difficult to house train kids, it’s just too much work for little Johnny, it could also play a role in the maturity level of construction workers, I’ll have to think about that one more).

Because the toilets here are super-fancy holes in the ground, the Chinese have come up with a simple solution for teaching the kids to hit to hole as well as work on their balance. They have these plastic cones that the kid sits on above the hole. These cones resemble the thing the vet puts around your dogs head after surgery to keep the dog from ripping out its stitches. I saw a kid using one of these little contraptions on the street. Remember, the hole isn’t necessary; all that’s necessary to take a crap in this country is gravity, which happens to be fairly cheap here. The kid did his business, stood up and walked to his mom, where his mother pulled the cone off of his ass, and they were off. The balance part comes from the fact that the thing is fairly unstable, the kid was swaying back and forth like a gay man on rollerblades. The punishment for imbalance is steep; you have to fall in shit. Another quick lesson learned from children. In America, the worse that can happen is you may fall off the ladder or have your parents hate you for shitting your pants until you’re seventeen (I was a slow learner).

My spirits are beginning to lift as I see a light of equilibrium coming into focus after six hard weeks. The project is going pretty well, I’m getting used to the dirty world surrounding me, I’m making people smile (and laugh often) and it’s getting better. The reality is that I shouldn't be glad to have my nerves deadened by the poverty around me, it’s very real, very desperate and very sad. My minds edges are dulled by repetition of my environment, no matter what that environment is. It is necessary for me to find ways to feel the blunt force of the real world often and long, otherwise I will truly become heartless and things that are so important like me will become painful, thinking will feel like treading water and feeling will become a burden. I wont let it happen, I can’t let it happen, or else I will be no different than the people I left behind me.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Much Needed Break - Chinese Do The Darndest Things

China has one newspaper in English and it’s called the China Daily (there are probably more, but this is the one that you see in all the hotels). On page three everyday is a section called China Scene. It details important news stories from all around China. Only one part of that previous statement is true. If I were to write the sentence again I would say “It details hilarious bits of nothing in spectacular headlines.”

Because I’ve been so busy lately and haven’t had time or proper motivation due to sleep deprivation to edit another entry, I’ve decided to copy, word for word, letter by letter, the China Daily News China Scene from September 23, 2005. I would like to make smart-ass comments after each one, but it’s really not necessary. I find these very entertaining, and is likely the least profane post I will ever make.

- Very tired Lucas…..

Teacher has facelift to impress new students
Elderly people in Jinan are increasingly turning to cosmetic surgery. An example of this is 67-year-old teacher Wang, who underwent surgery to remove wrinkles and eye bags.
Wang came out of retirement to resume teaching, and wanted the surgery to lessen the age gap with her students so she could communicate more easily.
Experts warn that seniors should be extra careful when considering cosmetic surgery, as diseases like hypertension and diabetes can make cosmetic surgery unsuitable.

Farm allows city dwellers to return to their roots
For only 500 yuan (US $62) a month, Jinan’s urbanites can return to nature by having their own small farm.
For this price, city dwellers can purchase a plot of land, and grow their own vegetables with 30 kinds of seeds and technical support.
This project is in New Century Farm Park, and there are initially 60 plots available. Free planting, tools, water and electricity are provided.

Groovy grannies have finger firmly on pulse
Getting up at 2 am to watch football? Staying up until 10 pm to watch soap operas? Pop music booming out of stereos?
Sounds like a typical Shanghai of 20 year-old right? Actually, this is the daily routine of a switched-on group of senior citizens in the city’s Taiyuan Road, aged between 80 and 90.
Never wanting to lag behind the times, these old folks wow the locals with their inventions, poetry and depth of knowledge of contemporary pop culture.

Marriages flounder on sea of misconceptions
The divorce rate has increased fast in China’s big cities. A recent survey revealed that each day in Shanghai 75 couples break up, an increase of 40 percent from 2003.
Marriage analysi Shu Xin said that there are many misconceptions among divorcees. The most common is the thought the next partner will be better.
Other Problems include impatience in communications, attempts to alter a partner’s personality, and the belief that marriage is a burden.

Children struggling to understand traffic
A recent survey has shown that 60 per cent of Shanghai’s traffic accidents involve children of migrant workers.
These children’s knowledge of traffic safety is very poor. Ninety per cent don't use underpasses or pedestrian bridges, and 40 per cent have never been taught about traffic safety by their parents.
School busses were also criticized, as they are overcrowded and dilapidated.
Safe Kids Worldwide, the non-profit organization that conducted the survey, says it will gradually implement education programmes at the city’s 200 schools for migrant workers’ children.

Loving neighbours ease handicapped man’s pain
A 64-year-old woman in Guangzhou has looked after a mentally handicapped neighbour for a decade. The 42-year-old neighbor became ill 38 years ago after suffering meningitis.
Because of his disability, the man was often bad tempered. However, with the kindness the neighbour and her husband showed, he gradually overcame his anger, and began to get on well with local people.
The old couple were very sad when they learnt that the handicapped man and his family were moving away a couple days ago.

Student aims for stars with sci-fi writing
A 12-year-old sci-fi nut in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, has discovered a love of writing.
She wrote a story of six brave warriors who flew to Mars, battling to survive in the crushing environment. Her classmates were so taken by the story they urged her to continue writing, and now she devotes all of her spare time to it.
However, her parents demanded that she stop, as it might damage her academic performance. She wouldn't give up that easily, and continued writing. She plans to finish the books in the next two to three years, and adapt them to a cartoon series.

Development leaves giant banyan tree in shade
Hong Kong’s biggest banyan tree is on the verge of death, and the government is doing everything it can to rescue it.
The tree, nearly 200 years old, is 18 metres tall with a trunk diameter of 4.3 meters.
It began loosing leaves abnormally this year, as the roots were damaged during the redevelopment of the garden.
Officials have demanded an improved growing environment for the tree, and fingers are crossed for it’s speedy recovery.

Hong Kong theme park battle heats up
Ocean Park in Hong Kong is set to undergo a HK $5.5 billion (US$71.43 million) expansion, due to be completed in 2010. The project will double it’s entertainment facilities.
Operators said it would introduce more animal species to the park, such as killer whales and penguins.
While newly opened Disneyland focuses on cartoon characters, Ocean Park will highlight ecology and the environment. Operators insist the two parks are complementary, offering more choice to visitors.

Butterflies to flutter in new Guangzhou park
A new attraction in Guangzhou’s Panyu District called Million Sunflowers Garden will open soon. The garden will boast 30,000 green and white butterflies dancing among the flowers.
It is the first successful attempt in Guangdong to mass breed butterflies. It is difficult considering the climate and environment there is not favourable.
To keep the butterflies from moving elsewhere, millions of attractive plants and foodstuffs have been planted in the garden, such as American pagoda trees, butterflies’ favourite food.

Girly men need support during army training
Are sanitary towels solely for women?
In Guangzhou, a new trend is starting for men to use them: as insoles in their shoes during military training.
Senior university students passed on the tip to the new freshmen, as blisters are frequent during the tough training. Although the students felt a bit silly to start with, they were quickly grateful.
Some on campus considered the measures pathetic, saying that young men nowadays aren’t accustomed to hardship.

Private scholarship boosts village academic level
An elderly man from a village called Wuxing near Nanchuan, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, has established a personal fund to reward fund to reward students with good academic performance.
Guo Binyao, 79, moved to the village after his retirement in 1981. He launched the fund from his personal savings last year to encourage local students’ enthusiasm for study.
Anyone who qualifies for university gets a 100 yuan (US $12.3) award, while anyone who enters post-graduate studies will receive 500 yuan (US$61).
In the past year, 12 students from the village have qualified for the award.

Little babies thrown in at deep end
Dozens of babies, all less than 12 months old, took part in a swimming competition on Monday Chongquing Municipality.
The babies were fitted with buoyancy aids, placed in a small pool and given a gentle push: the first baby to reach the other side was the winner.
The event was organized by a women and children’s healthcare centre in the city.
Doctors said that swimming at a young age is beneficial to a child’s mental and physical development.

Migrant workers indexed in database
An electronic database has been estabilished in Yuzhong District of Chongquing Municipality, which has files of 20,000 migrant workers.
The database will contain details of health records, marital status, and personal skills. This should aid workers in finding a suitable role for their talents.
Another 10,000 workers will be added to the database in October.

Shortage of girls causes alarm in Yunnan
Gender disparity in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province has been a cause for growing concern over the past two decades.
A recent population survey has shown some alarming statistics. For example, the province now has 1.6 million more males than females.
In 1982, 104 boys were born for every 100 girls, and that gap has continued to grow. In 1990 it was 107 boys for 100 girls, and in 2000 110 boys for 100 girls.
One major cause of this is that prenatal medical check-ups reveal the gender of the baby, and if it is a girl, many are aborted.
Measures are being taken to tighten administration to ensure a balanced population, employment and marriage prospect in coming years.

- ok, maybe one little comment - I will personally take this action item and see to it that we repopulate the female population of Yunnan. This is a travesty, a sham, and a debacle of beauty. - Lucas

Medical journals reveal touching story of devotion
A man has demonstrated his deep love for his wife in the last 30 years by his constant efforts to extend her life.
Zhang Qinghua, 62, married Yang Jingwei in 1973 in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. However, his wife became seriously ill in the fourth year of their marriage.
Zhang has kept a detailed record of his wife’s illness and doctor’s suggestions oover the past three decades in a total of 23 notebooks.

Internet-addict boy drives mother to suicide
A mother in Wuhan tried to kill herself by jumping into the Yangtze River because she could not prevent her son’s Internet addiction.
After numerous attempts to stop her son’s addiction, the mother gave up, and threw herself into the river.
The 16-year-old-boy had indulged in Internet games for months, not eating or sleeping properly, and refusing to go to school.
Fortunately, the mother was rescued by police. The boy’s reaction? He went straight back online and carried on gaming.

Good cop bad cop confusion in handbag case
In a confusing development in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, a street gang who stole a lady’s handbag were in turn robbed by three men masquerading as policemen.
The fake cops witnessed a robbery, and were quick to “apprehend” the thieves, claiming they were plain clothes. They took the bag and warned the gang members not to re-offend.
Unfortunately for them, a regular policeman witnessed the incident, and not recognizing the men as fellow officers, he apprehended them. The street gang was also caught.

Dopey police get wrong man in drugs bust
A coal miner in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, was falsely accused by police for doping offences, and imprisoned for three months. He was also ordered to undergo rehabilitation.
Throughout the rehabilitation Li maintained that he had never touched any drugs, and he subsequently sued the police for dereliction of duty.
The local court found that the police had acted without sufficient evidence, and ordered them to pay 5,700 yuan (US$704) in compensation, and make a public apology.

Ping-pong balls from heaven cause stampede
A department store promotion went slight array in Central China’s Henan Province when over enthusiastic customers had caused a stampede and stopped traffic.
The department store launched ping-poing balls full of gold rings and bank notes from its roof in a bit to entice passers-by into the store.
Several children were hurt in the ensuing crush.

Owner sues company after new car self combusts
An irate car owner in Beijing is suing Volkswagon Shanghai Company, after his one-year-old Passat self-combusted on the street.
The man purchased the car in April 2003, but in July the next year he parked the car, crossed the street, and looking back saw the car billowing smoke. Fire services came, but the car was completely ruined.
His insurance company compensated him with 200,000 yuan (US$24,660), but the man believes Volkswagen Shanghai Company should also cover some of the cost. He has sought compensation of 110,000 yuan (US$13,564).
However, the car company has argued that the owner could provide no evidence to demonstrate the car had quality problems, pointing out that there were already 30,000 kilometers on the clock.
The case continues.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Love and Doubt Have Never Been On Speaking Terms

Over the next few days, Jenny and I spoke frequently, very frequently, like twice a day on the phone plus several text messages. The one recurring theme seems to be how much we wish we could see each other and how much of a pain in the ass it’s going to be to get together again. She lives about seven hours from Beijing and only comes here on special circumstances (I’m special aren’t I?). She works in Beijing for the next couple days while I work in the hotel room in Langfang. They’ve got her doing pretty stupid work. We’ve got a salesman moving here for two years (a Chinese guy who’s a Canadian citizen) and he’s basically treating her like a personal maid. One day she has to iron his bed sheets and all his clothes and mop the whole house (my little Cinderella…awww, I’ll rescue you from that asshole). The next day she had to house sit for him for a total unknown reason. He makes her take a bus to work because a taxi is too expensive and leaves her instant noodles for lunch. Needless to say, she got pretty sick of it.

We talk a lot about how much we miss each other and how we wished we could have another couple days to spend together. Then we move on to planning on how we can meet each other again sometime. Its always fun making plans that you know will likely never be fulfilled. It’s not that I don't want to, it’s just that it’s easier to organize a space shuttle launch than to organize a way to get to another city in a communist country where you need a travel permit to meet a girl that you have only met once and whom you don't even know her real name. That also means I’d be meeting the parents and there’s still no booty guarantee. It was the same way with Gisella, my Peruvian princess. I had one weekend with her and it was one of the best weekends of my entire life and I haven’t seen her since either.

So, I’m still in Langfang, still moving rooms, still alone, still writing, reading, and thinking, still drinking, still feeling, sleeping, and dreaming, most of all, still hoping. For what, I don't know, just to have my soul and spirits raised. It’s been very stressful and busy, hot and humid, dark and bright, no moon or sun, just mist, smells and the hearts and eyes of people who have it worse than me.

Just when I was feeling it from all sides and angles, a genuine smile forced my face muscles to return from the atrophy that they had gained over the past month. Happiness and change always comes in different packages and the surprise in that package is always a big reason. Getting caught off guard can be a good thing. Enough banter, enough lame descriptions of feelings. What could it be? Money? Love? A banjo? What?!

There’s always a thrill that comes when you move into a new apartment, house, hovel or what have you. Tuesday was that day for me. I have been officially moved into my new pad on the 15th and top floor of the Langfang International Hotel (which adds up to the total number of rooms I’ve been in so far). It’s basically a one-bedroom apartment without a kitchen. My rush of emotions is like a roller coaster (not really). As I stroll through the room I notice several things that will bug me and very few that will please me.

First, the Internet plug-in is behind the couch in the living room, but the desk is next to the bed in the bedroom (about 50 feet away). The TV is in the bedroom, but conveniently not facing the bed nor the desk, it’s a good thing that I haven’t turned a television on in this country for over two weeks, so it will be used as a night stand or coat rack. The bed is basically three inches of mattress and six inches of cement (good for the back right?). If I lie flat on it or roll over on it funny my balls are crushed. The balcony is about 30 feet long, but it doesn't matter because there’s a table and two chairs placed in front of the door, forming a nice little sitting area where me and Ethel will be able to play bridge and talk about Walt’s colon polyps. The bathroom is much smaller and there’s no seat in the shower, this hits me pretty hard, I really was getting to enjoy my Epiphany Chair every morning. There is a filtered water cooler in the living room, which is totally excellent because now I’ll have a place to hang out and tell priest and rabbi jokes. There are four phones in here, which is good, because now, at no time will I be more than four feet away from housekeeping. The living room hosts an array of furniture that have a comfort level comparable to sitting on the hood of a Camaro (without the cool mullet to turn the chicks heads).

Within about 20 minutes, I’ve completely unpacked. All of my clothes are crammed into the closet, which is about the same size as my suitcase, but at least my Jurassic 5 t-shirt is now upright where the wrinkles can naturally flow out over the course of a few days. I have moved the desk into the living room, moved the Camaro hood couch out by the window to give me a little room to work. I have made a pile of stuff in the corner that I’m going to give to housekeeping and tell them never to bring it back until someone else is paying for the room, among the items; salt and pepper, toothpicks, three gallon water pitcher, bag of tea (not to be confused with teabags which are a GE specialty), all of the nasty booty-wine they put in the mini bar, three vases full of various flowers in bloom from the China countryside, two of the seven lamps that seem to be places in every corner and on every flat surface and of course the female-genital wash from the bathroom (the joke is wearing off and I’ve stockpiled enough for Christmas).

From my new deck I have a new view of the city, a much more interesting view (not really). I can look down the street we go every day to get to the client’s offices and notice how much construction there is. From the street, everything looks normal (for China), but all of the buildings are only about 50 feet deep, behind most of them is a vast open space of construction. It will be interesting to see how fast the buildings go up. My guess is that they’ll be up quick as hell. The Chinese construction industry has many things working in it’s favor; first of all they have a limitless worker pool, which means they can hire as many people as they want and can make them work millions of hours without the fear of things like unions and workers rights and other such detriments to corrupt construction companies. Secondly, they don't have all of those annoying safety standard, for both workers and building safety. It’s acceptable to have bamboo ladders that reach up seven floors (and they don't have to put toilets in, just leave a hole in the floor with a pipe leading out to the street).

There is an open lot right next to the hotel; it’s actually hotel property. In the middle of the overgrown weeds and rusty pipes is a burned down nightclub. There hasn't been a peep out of this area since I’ve been here, which seems a bit odd. There are very few places within the city that have no action whether it be building, destroying or functioning, so it is a bit odd to see idle land around. But just within the last couple days I’ve noticed a little movement. It’ll be interesting to see what this amounts to, probably a whorehouse, hair styling boutique whorehouse, cigarette shop whorehouse, karaoke whorehouse or a bicycle shop whorehouse (I have a glimmer of hope to see a Starbucks whorehouse, but that’s just silly talk).

Every day here is the gloomiest day in the country of the year. When I first arrived several weeks ago I was astounded by the total grayness and lack of sun that seemed to fall everywhere. Every day since my first day, it has gotten worse. Now, I cannot even see the ground from my hotel room, just the grey blanket that is a mixture of fog, pollution and people’s souls. My windows are always wet from the condensing humidity that has reached new highs. This area is a very dry area (dry in a sense of no rain), but it feels like a rain forest. The dirt and exhaust mixed with the deep sighs of a billion people raise the humidity to levels that cant even be attained in a lab.

I am quickly becoming to enjoy all of the people at this hotel. All of the waitresses and doormen and desk people and everyone else here recognize me immediately. On my way through the lobby, I regularly wave at anywhere from six to twelve different people. As soon as I step from the elevator, all eyes are on me watching me, seeming to plead for me to make eye contact with them and smile. It’s unbelievable the value of a smile around here, a real genuine smile, not that token smile all the people in America give you.

None of them really speak very good English, which is a shame, because they’re desperate to communicate with me and I can see how frustrating it is for them to only be able to say one or two phrases. I have started to notice several of them making the effort of using new words or asking me how to say certain things (actually, they have to ask Xinlei, because if they could ask me, it would have to be in English, which would defeat the purpose of asking me how to say it, confused?). Happiness and kindness are so rare here, that these people just burst from the seams when you say hello. Several people have made the comment to me (through Xinlei) about my eyes. They say that they like smiling and saying hello to me because my eyes are kind and truthful. That’s one of the best compliments that I have ever received from anyone, anywhere and that is why I love the people here. I have questioned my choice to stay in the hotel for six months, but no more. These people are great and if it’s as simple as being kind and smiling and helping them with some words in English, bring it on people of China, I’m here for ya.

Of course, my smiles and laugh have gotten me in a little bit of a pickle with one of the ladies here. Xinlei told me that several times she has told him how handsome I am (I think I should buy this little lady some glasses). Once again, attraction via personality. This girl speaks about fifteen total words of English, and unfortunately is not one of the five or six attractive members of the staff (while they may be able to overlook my physical flaws, I still seem to be attracted based on appearance to a large extent, plus I cant talk to them very well, what else can I go off of?). Her name is Mengmeng (pronounced Mong-Mong).

Over the weekend, Xinlei went back to Beijing and I stayed at the hotel. At dinner on Saturday evening, a new guy came over and started talking to me. He’s a young guy, probably 19-20 years old and speaks fairly decent English. He told me that they needed my number; I assumed he meant my room number (in the hotel world, the room number is the equivalent to your social security number).

“Number? Ahh, 1517.”

“No, need phone…”

“Huh? Ok, I don't really know my phone number, but here’s my phone, you probably know how to work this thing better than me. But if you change the language to Chinese on it, I’ll stab you in the neck with a chopstick.” I said as I handed my phone over to him.

New guy took my phone over to Mengmeng, where she proceeded to enter her phone number and name in and hand it back to me. Ahhh, I get it.

“You want me to call you?”

“Yes, yes Lukason.”

“Thank you, thank you. However, I’m not really sure what to do with this, but I should probably be going back to my room.” I smiled and stammered, getting slightly blushed.

So, I now have the phone number of one of the wait staff on my phone. Even if I called her, how the hell will I talk to her? So my predicament is, I cannot really call her, and I cannot bring myself to break this girls heart, there’s no telling what she would understand that as. She may be forced by honor to cut a toe off or get caned by her boss or something strangely brutal. So I did the only thing I know how to do when I’m bored and not hungry, I took a nap.

The rest of the weekend featured her following me to whatever table I was eating at to serve me, no matter which of the four restaurants I was eating at. Every time I made eye contact, smiled and said thank you, to which, every time she nearly pissed herself out of embarrassment and giggles.

Finally when Xinlei returned, I gave him the rundown and looked to him for support, to which all I got was laughed at very loudly. Thanks for the support dude. As good as a translator as you are, you suck at cultural relationship advice.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Behold!...A Lady

Wearing my brand new, government issued Great Wall Balls, I decided to go out on a limb Saturday evening and contact Jenny. New Communist Balls, when mixed with the consumption of ten or twelve beers will greatly increase confidence. Text messaging is a really good idea, you can ask questions without needing to face or talk to someone, plus, it’s difficult to assess how much the sender was drinking at the time. My first message was a ‘Thank You’ type of message, just to see if I even had the correct phone number and to see if I would get a reply at all. Low and behold, I got a stunning response, filled with exclamation points, happy faces and ‘thank you too’s’ so I was forced to continue the conversation, gradually leading up to me asking her if she’d like to do something on Sunday. She had the day free and said she’d love to have lunch, or something, I’m praying for the ‘or something’, the food here can have pretty bad effects on my afternoon booty.

Xinlei and I are leaving around 6:00 pm for Langfang, so I’ve got the whole day to kill. I called her up shortly after breakfast Sunday morning, she said she was shopping and would call me when she was finished, around 11:00-12:00. Of course, this sort of waiting game sends me into a nice pleasant Sunday morning nervous fit. It’s always like this and I don't know why. I’m really not a ‘ladies man’ and have had very few girlfriends or nookie-partners in my life, but the pursuit of women is always on my mind in some way. Not in the gotta-get-laid but in the why-do-the-girls-I-like-pay-me-no-attention way. It’s strange that the thing I desire so much is also the source of so much pain in my life. I really have no idea what to expect, and in reality, it’s probably just going to be a quick lunch where she’ll realize that what she thought was interesting charm yesterday is just plain annoying, at which point, she’ll excuse herself and disappear from my life, only to reappear periodically when we’ve got people in town to entertain, at which point, I’ll be too embarrassed to even make eye contact. It’s easy to see how someone from here would be curious of someone like me, with my overgrown body, overgrown personality and pseudo-self confidence. Combine these things together; you create quite an interesting beast. All three of those traits are largely absent from the vast population of this country. The curiosity usually wears off fairly quickly and it’s back to business as usual.

Of course, I had about three hours to ponder the life of unattractive men with a little personality and my other shortcomings, because it was nearly 1:30 before my phone rang. Jenny’s English is not too bad, considering she has been taught by Chinese people, but she has a tendency to switch words around (the strangest of which is the way she misuses ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘him’ and ‘her’, she constantly refers to people in the wrong sex, which forces me to have a Jenny-decoder ring to understand correctly). The beginning of her first sentence was “Lucas, I’m sorry but I have to….”, normally I could finish that sentence in any number of ways, all with the same result (“wash my hair” “have a kidney removed this afternoon” “report back to my military unit” “never mind, I just don't want to see you today fat-ass”). So, I’ve already begun to wash the disappointment from my hands and begin the usual process of having a shitty day because I was stood up again. But to my great surprise, the end of the sentence was “recharge my cell phone, so I couldn't call you. I’m in the lobby.”

“It’s ok, I don't mind, maybe some other time we can…. WHAT?! Oh, ok! Yeah, great! I’m on my way down! It’s ok, I really don't mind, I’m on my way down! Just don't leave in the next five seconds; I’ll just jump out of the window instead of waiting for the elevator! I’m sorry about your phone; it’s probably my fault because of all the text messages I’ve sent you! I’ll buy you a new battery today! Just wait right there!” Or something very similar to that which, to any American woman, shows how desperate I am and how they have me in their hands.

Wiping the dirt from my shirt and ignoring my broken shoulder from the jump from the 12th story, I stroll into the lobby trying to act cool. I’m kind of like an NBA player, I always see myself in my mind’s eye from a third person perspective and am constantly thinking to myself “Hutmacher is a cool mofo, that’s a great stride, let the ladies come.” Then, I see it on videotape (thanks Marlow…) and realize it either looks like I’m smuggling a roll of nickels in my ass or looking for the weight room and obviously not fooling anyone.

Jenny is dressed super hot today, like only a hot girl can dress. Tight pink shirt, mini skirt that wouldn't cover a teacup and legs like a supermodel. We exchanged pleasantries and established that neither of us were hungry and decided to go out and just figure something out. Normally this spells disaster from someone like me who’s overmatched with a hottie looking for a way to ditch the chubby guy. I told her we could get a cab and go somewhere to walk around, but she didn't want to spend any money (I agree, I like money and don't like giving it away), then I remembered that if we were going for a meal (eventually), this cab ride is a company expense, especially since she kind of works for us. It may be a stretch, but it’s a $5 cab ride that I would have taken anyway. I said I’ll pick up the tab and we can go wherever she wants. Her eyes lit up in amazement and she quickly said that she wanted to go to the Forbidden City because she’s never been there.

The damn Forbidden City. This is the fourth time I’ve been down here; each time I hate it more and more. This time, however, it was much more bearable (anything’s cool to do with a hottie in tow. I once spent six hours at a pig farm just because the girl had big boobs). First of all, Jenny was so impressed by the taxi; you would have thought we were in a limo. Anything for you baby. Second, the cab driver must have read my mind about the limo, because he charged us double. I wasn't in the mood to argue (this thing of getting pushed around into compliance is a general theme for the day, for reasons I know not, oh, wait, I remember, …hottie…), so I paid without even thinking twice and we jumped out (I did however want to send the taxi to pick up my colleague Ernie Hemingway at the airport, but I didn't have the time). Here it is, my first excursion into the city with pride, and my first time I was stared at, not for being a monster, but for the same reason I stare at every white guy with a local girl in the city, comparing the girl to the white guy to see how he’s faring. Some guys do better than others. Today, I feel like one of the lucky white perverts. I’m such a loser; I should hire a gang of thugs to beat my ass.

The cab dropped us off at the back of the city and we decided to walk around to the front to get the whole experience, so we casually walked through the hoards of street peddlers, homeless people and other perverted desperate white men looking to find the love of their life in someone who doesn't understand how truly repulsive they are (now I notice they’re everywhere). The first thing she did was pop out the umbrella. Umbrellas, when held by someone shorter than me (which is everyone), have a tendency of being right at eye/ear level. The thing kept hitting me in the face all day, how cute (note that other umbrellas that hit me were immediately snapped over my knee and thrown into the moat).

We talked about our families, she was truly amazed that I used to have long hair, and even more amazed that I didn't get whipped or disowned by my parents because of it. She said her parents beat the tar out of her brother when his came home from college with his hair halfway down his ears. I began to realize how different our worlds are and that all we have to offer each other is our own company, but we were having a great time. The thing that interested her the most was my ‘style’ of speaking. She said the she couldn't understand a whole lot that I was talking to Jayson about when we were at the Wall the day before. I quickly realize that I have acquired another student of Luke-speak. What good is knowing English if you cant use it to create your own words (then repeat them in front of people until they start saying them)? So far, I’ve gotten to teach various students of the English language some very interesting slang. Santiago is a master of the words ‘faggot’, ‘shithead’ and (my personal favorite word ever created) ‘teabag’. Xinlei is getting very useful with the terms ‘cool’, ‘off the chain’, and ‘Skywalker’. We worked an all-nighter in Kansas City earlier in the year, so I plugged my computer into an overhead projector and watched the entire trilogy, the real one, not the overproduced sham that George wasted my time and money with these past few years. There were only three Star Wars movies ever made in my mind (no more Star Wars talk, this is another reason I’m single).

We walked around to the front of the city (which is the farthest point from the back) and in through the front entrance of the Forbidden City, to get the full effect. Of course, the place is absolutely packed to the hilt, the Sunday Forbidden City has around 15 million people there, all with umbrellas pointed directly at my eyes, pushing, clawing, begging (it kind of looked like a school of jelly-fish from above). Seeing how many people were there, and realizing how long it would take us to get all the way through the place, we decided not to spend the cash to go through the whole thing (Awesome!). So we instead walked over to Tiananmen Square (where there was a mere 6 million people) to have a look around. On our way across the street (under the street) Jenny said something that sent me into a fast forward fantasy:

“Lucas, can we find somewhere to have a sex?”

“WHAT?! Hell yeah, how about in front of all these people?” I said in a trembling voice, like a child who sees a Christmas present wrapped in the exact shape of what he asked for.

“Good, I’m tired and would like a place to sit. Why did you take your pants off?”

“Sit? Sit?! Oh, yeah, sit. Pants… wha? Oh, I uh…always take them off before sitting so I don't uh… wrinkle them.”

Damn. This story could have gotten a whole lot more interesting. I also thought it was strange, because I touched her hand earlier and she shrieked like a little girl and jumped away (minor turndowns are embarrassing in any culture…). Instead of getting busy in the Forbidden City subway station, we were off to find a place to have 'sit'.

At least this gave us a reason to get the hell out of the throng of people at the Forbidden City and the Square. Off we walked to a row of hotels. If you’re looking for someplace quiet to sit in the city, hotels are your best bet, they have air conditioners and the prices are high enough to keep the street peddlers and ruffians out. We briefly stopped under another under-street tunnel to talk for a couple minutes, this one was completely empty and it was all I could do to restrain myself from trying to sneak a kiss, but after the whole pants-off thing, it’s probably just too soon. I try to pick a little bit of time every day to not be an idiot, it’s an interesting sensation and surprisingly boring to write about.

One of the hotels was called The Beijing Something Something Something Hotel. Jenny said that it was the most famous hotel in the city because that’s where all foreign politicians and dignitaries stay when they’re in town. It looked awful air-conditioned, so I suggested that we go in and have a drink and rest.

“Really?! Do you think they’ll let us in there?”

“Why wouldn't they? I’m obviously an American and you’re hot.”

We walked into this place and Jenny’s jaw dropped, total disbelief that we were in there, just walking in and no one was stopping us. It was a nice place, but not the best I’ve seen, definitely nothing to sneeze at (except maybe by Beijing standards). We found the lounge, sat, and ordered three drinks each (neither of us felt like beer or anything, so it was a non-alcoholic break, which is fine by me, when I drink around girls I tend to make a spectacular ass of myself and I figured I wouldn't need any help in that area today). She couldn't believe how expensive the drinks were. Water was like $35 RMB, my ice-coffee was $40 RMB, her watermelon juice was like $30 RMB, and the Coke was like $35 RMB, with a grand total of about $15 US. It was kind of like when the kid gets to freestyle on the candy store in Willy Wonka. We just went nuts and the total damage was barely noticeable. I really wasn't trying to impress her, we were just thirsty as hell.

Communication between us is somewhat difficult. Most people here who speak English are really bad at it. I understand how difficult it is to learn another language, I know I could never do it, so I’m not bashing on these people, but the fact is, most of them just don't get to speak enough English to be very good at it. Jenny is no different, she reads it like a champ and speaks it decently, but she doesn't understand me very well. I had to repeat everything I said two or three times, each time slower (and louder for some reason), and it just made it difficult. We were still having a great time, but it was becoming very obvious to me that the same-planet-different-worlds saying speaks loud and true here. To complicate matters even further, Jenny doesn't even live in Beijing, she lives in TaiYuan, which is a seven-hour bus ride from Beijing. That helped to explain why she wanted to go to the Forbidden City (and maybe it was her dream to eat a peach off the tree instead of our dream…).

We decided to head back to the hotel to look at pictures from yesterday. My mind sees another booty-window, hot girl, hotel room, stop it, stop it please. She is thoroughly impressed with my hotel room. She goes to look out the window and awes at my view of the bus station parking lot. I walk up behind her and attempt to put my arm around her, she giggles like a ten year old and backs away from me. Booty-window softly clicks closed.

We sit down to look at pictures, she loves the pictures of herself and is impressed by Chile pictures. Jenny said she’s never met Xinlei before and would really like to, she’s talked to him on the phone several times and he’s responsible for her getting hired to help us out (actually, her super-model legs are responsible for Xinlei getting her hired), so she wants to wait around until he gets there. We’ve got another half hour or so before Xinlei shows up, so we sit on the couch and chat for a bit. By this time of the day, we are both understanding each other much better, so it’s much more laid back.

“I really had a good time today, I’m glad we got to see each other and hang out today.”

“Me too, Lucas. I had a lot of fun, my job is to make you guys have a good time this weekend, and I have a good time too.”

Window slams shut and breaks.

“So, today was part of your job?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

This is where it gets kind of tricky and hard to explain and the communication barrier slowly begins to rise (at the same speed of the cultural barrier). “Well, I didn't know you were here because of work, I thought we would just go hang out as friends and get to know each other. I’m sorry for taking up your whole day, you should have said something.”

“I’m sorry Lucas, I still don't understand what you mean.” Embarrassed giggles from Jenny (she always feels so bad when she doesn't understand, which makes me feel even worse).

“It’s just that, I feel that the only reason we got to spend time together is because you had to for work. You’re mother and aunt are in town, you should be spending time with them instead of me.”

“I don't know what you mean still. Did you not have fun today?”

This is getting frustrating, my English and motivation for communication deteriorates rapidly when stress and confusion are applied. Right now, I’m not really sure why we’re still having this conversation. I should just say ‘never mind’ and move on, it would be easy enough to do, but I realize that I need to continue, I need her to understand the difference, for my good and for hers. Jenny is cool and beautiful and I need her to hear me, I need to hear me. Even though we may never see each other again, this is an opportunity for practice, practice talking and expressing my feelings, practice swallowing my pride a bit and letting my guard down when the outcome is unknown.

I’ve tried this before with pretty bad results, when you get burned while playing with ice, it tends to confuse and embarrass you more than hurt you. I’ve been in love before, but it turned out to be painful. Pablo Neruda says that loving is short but forgetting is long. I think about her nearly every day and my sadness turns to anger and my anger turns to wonder and self reflection. The pain of confidence and soul repair is a long and daunting process that can feel like a never ending roller coaster. My kindness was mistaken for weakness and I was the one who paid the price, a little more scared, a little more hesitant, a lot less trusting. This conversation is necessary for me in some strange salt-in-the-wound reason, prove that the pain isn’t as bad as I remember.

“Jenny, you’re very beautiful and nice and fun. Yesterday I had a great time with you with everyone and I wanted to spend time to get to know you today. I wanted to be with you to see how I may really felt about you and to see how you felt about me, but if you’re only hear because your job requires you to be here, then I understand.”

“There is no difference, it’s my job to be here, but I want to be here. You’re very funny and help me understand English and I like being with you and spending time with you and would like to spend time with you more, but I have to go back home in two days and I don't know when I’ll be back in Beijing”

That was nice, I extended myself and it didn't turn out in disaster. I wasn't dashed against the rocks of the ocean shore, I am still in one piece and I’m not embarrassed. It was a nice piece of closure on the day. This conversation ate up our half hour. So we snapped a couple pictures of each other (put a camera in front of Jenny and she becomes a model, posing, smiling, she eats that crap up) and headed downstairs to check out. After checkout, there was still no Xinlei. A quick text message to him and he told me that I still had an hour or so, apparently in my haste of drinking, sweating and watching Jenny like a stalker all weekend I had mixed up the times.

Since I had checked out of my room, I was kind of stuck in the lobby. I told Jenny that Xinlei wouldn't be here for another hour or more.

“I have to wait here for him, I’ll just go upstairs and wait in the lounge. You’re more than welcome to stay with me and wait, but I understand you’re probably ready to get back to the hotel, it’s been a long day.”

“If it’s ok with you,” she giggled “I would like to sit with you and spend more time with you.”

“Really?! Yeah, that would be great, lets go grab a couch.”

Upstairs in the lounge, we leaned on each other and I read her some of the stuff I’ve written. I’m not sure why, I don't show to many people that stuff, but she was very intrigued by it. In China, if you have something to say or write, you just say or write it, there is no creativity in the writing. She said, “Lucas, I had no idea you were so profound.” Awww, how cute, I’m profound. That’s also a huge word for her to use, very nice Jenny.

Something had changed in us, she was not shying away from me as much, and I wasn't thinking only about her legs. We had reached a level of mutual humanity where we could just be ourselves and forget everything else.

We ended up sitting in the lounge for an hour and a half, while Xinlei waited downstairs, not knowing we were up there. It was a familiar conversation. I’ve had the same conversation several times, the last time was with Gisella in Lima.

“Jenny, I had a really great time today, I only wish we had more time. When can we see each other again?”

“Lucas, I had so much fun today, it’s very difficult for us to see each other because I live so far away and it’s very expensive.”

“Don't worry about the money, we just need to find a way to see each other, you’re wonderful and I would hate for this to be the last time we see each other. I’ll be here for 6 months, maybe longer, we have to be able to find a way to see each other again before I leave.”

“Ohh, Lucas, yes! That would be wonderful, I hope we can see each other again, it makes me happy to think about.”

I wanted to reach over and kiss her, put my arms around her and squeeze, but I just couldn't gather the strength to chance ruining the end to a really good day. So we went downstairs, met Xinlei and got ready to leave.

Before jumping into the van for Langfang, I ran back to Jenny and threw my arms around her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. It scared her pretty good, mainly because it probably looked like I was going to tackle her, but I stopped right in front of her and said “Where I come from, this is how we greet and say goodbye to the people we care about, thank you for today.”

Goodbye Jenny, I hope this is not the last time you grace me with the charity of your presence.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Great Wall is a Great Scar on a Great Mountain

Saturday morning was our much-anticipated trip to the great wall. The trading company organized the trip for us. We employ the help of a girl from this company who’s helping us out with ‘logistics’ for our stay in Beijing named Jenny. She helped me get my hotel reservations for my weekend in Beijing (which were under the wrong name, but it was easily cleared up). Rumor has it is that she’s pretty good looking, so was looking forward to kickin it with a hottie for a day. Luckily, I got pretty wasted the night before so I knew that I’d be looking and feeling my best. I choked down some breakfast at the hotel buffet. As usual, most of breakfast was spent trying to get the attention of the coffee caddy guy. I know I must do something to improve my mood for the weekend, but massive amounts of coffee are the only thing my brain can comprehend. I know Jayson and I will have fun despite everyone else being around. Xinlei backed out at the last minute; he sent me a text message saying he was too hung-over to go. Good boy. I can respect that. Xinlei has done so much for us (especially me); I don't know how I will ever be able to repay him.

With each sight seeing trip I am reminded of how little I care for ‘sights’. We should take a sight seeing trip to an orphanage or a prison. The sights should reflect reality. I am well aware of China’s long, long past. But what seems to be put to the back of everyone’s mind is the troubled present of China, of how they are barely sustaining a standard of living, of how they are entering a whole new revolution, a revolution of Capitalism, of how they continue to push their weight around Taiwan and Tibet. Those are the sights that we need to stare at in awe and wonder and a concerned eye.

Jenny didn't disappoint, she was pretty smoking. I think this may have been part of the reason for Laura’s negative mood for the day, and the only reason I was in a good mood all day. I’ve noticed a lot of women get really uptight when they’re around attractive women, it’s the same principal that makes men get extra-macho around them. So as I walked through the lobby towards Jenny and the rest of the group I made sure to stop and pick up a table (strong) and kiss a baby (compassionate) while sucking my fat belly in. If I knew that on the elevator to the lobby I was about to take my last comfortable breath of the day, I probably would have enjoyed it longer. My hangover disappeared and my eyes brightened and I stepped off into the world of reluctant tourism.

Laura’s to the point now where she’s got a certain level of overconfidence and doesn't want to be shown around to anything. I feel the same way when people make me listen to ‘this album that you’re going to love.’ It’s a form of snobbery that we all suffer from from time to time and I’m probably the worst in the world about it, so I shouldn't cast stones. First off, we were taken to the Ming Tombs and she complained pretty much the whole time. She just wanted to go the Wall and taken back to the hotel so she could go off and do other stuff again without all of us ‘westerners’ around. I’ve been like that before, so I can’t fault her, in fact, I’m like that most of the time.

Mr. Feng, the project manager for PetroChina, provided us with a van for the day, yet another very gracious gesture that went largely unnoticed by everyone. He even showed us the courtesy of sending one of the safer drivers, not Honky McCarcrash. Mr. Feng has gone out of his way for Xinlei & myself to help us be comfortable and safe. I’ve noticed this in every country I’ve been to (except America of course). You really have to watch your mouth around people and think twice about what you say. I’m always making fun or bitching about stuff (99% of which is just to get a laugh or to hear my voice), in these places, they actually listen and pay attention to you. Everything said is heard loud and clear and several times already I’ve had to stop him or Xinlei or someone in the hotel from running off to flog someone or get me clean sheets or buy me a camel (sarcasm is a lost art in the eastern world). True hospitality has been put to lonely rest in America.

The Ming Tombs are sort of on the way to the portion of the Wall that we were to visit that afternoon, so it was a nice, simple side trip that I’m glad we made. My favorite part of the day was that we were actually out in the countryside. Beijing is a very flat city, with zero relief and I think that’s a part of the reason I don't really care for it. I’ve started to realize over the past couple of years that my heart is really in the mountains and not in the flat concrete wastelands of cities. Until I began visiting these enormous cities, I always pictured myself living there, being part of the scene, be and be seen, meet and greet, but I think I just need something simple for a time.

The Tombs were on the outskirts of the mountains and in a very pretty landscape (the word ‘pretty’ may make me sound gay or like a little girl, but that’s the only word I can think of). There was a long walkway to the tombs on a little mini-Great Wall (apparently, the Chinese like to build walls that are thick enough to be walked on). The Tombs themselves were kind of bland, basically underground cement warehouses with some boxes in it that hosted (past tense) the bodies of a few emperors and empresses. They reminded me of the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones.

My continuing showing off (picking up villagers, throwing donkeys, dancing with policemen, posing for pictures with vegetables, singing Bob Dylan songs to a hip-hop beat only heard in my head, snapping trees in half using only my thumbs) has already paid big dividends with Jenny. I was posing by a sign that said ‘Way Out’ talking with Jayson and she came up to me just laughing her ass off.

“I like you because you’re so funny and so tall and so fat!” Hee-hee-hee.

Of course Jayson was right there and about spit beer out of his nose laughing. Marlow, laughing, Marla, laughing, Jenny, laughing, Laura, who knows where she’s at (probably negotiating with a street vendor for a musical instrument made out of pig toes and bamboo). Luke, bright red.

There it is, first impression. Funny and fat, all in one extra-large package of fat, rolled up in a tunic of lard with easy grip love handles. What about strong? Didn't you see me break the head of that 4000-year-old lion/turtle statue? What about nimble and loving? Didn't you see me walk across three kilometers of telephone cable just to rescue that kitten? I DID IT ALL FOR YOU JENNY!!!! Nope, still fat.

Of all the thing’s I’m self conscious about, the first is my body, so this hit particularly close to home. Not enough to make me bulimic or anything, but ouch anyway. Turns out that ‘fat’ is the only word she knows for ‘not-Minute Bol.’ Ok, she’s forgiven, for now. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go juggle those Ming Sarcophagi, are you watching Jenny?!

There are actually 13 tombs here, we only went to one. That was plenty in our minds. We spent about an hour walking around the area and decided to hop in the bus again towards our next destination, which we all assumed would be the Wall.

It was actually about noon already, so Jenny thought I’d be a good idea to stop for lunch, just a quick bite before heading to the Wall. We stopped at a pretty questionable restaurant near the Tombs and ate a questionable lunch. None of us ate a whole lot; I was slightly hung over from the previous night and taking care of my stomach. I never thought that I would have to think of availability and quality of bathrooms for the rest of the day when I choose my food. After lunch, Jenny thought it would be cool for us to go to a peach orchard & pick our own peaches & eat them right off the tree. None of us were really that excited about it, but what the hell, it was a big deal to her & she was very hot, so I was on her side. Laura just wouldn't let it go though, mumbling under her breath from the back of the van, but still loud enough for me to hear. It was quite annoying. I’m usually not surprised by my rudeness, but other peoples always kind of gets me. I live my life by the double standard and it’s one of my worst personality traits. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a place to pick fruit, everyone she asked looked at her like she was crazy and I wanted to go and stab them for looking at her like that. Jenny was disappointed but the rest of us were pretty much un-phased.

On to the Wall. We were pretty sure that we were on our way to Badaling portion of the wall, which is the most popular area, which means there would be several million people wanting to get the best view of the Wall. When I say ‘we’, I’m referring to everyone else because I don't really care and am really not paying attention. Laura and Jayson were trying to talk Jenny into taking us to a ‘better’ place according to the Lonely Planet guide, but she said it was a long ways away. So we just assumed we were on our way to tourist-central. The area we actually stopped at was pretty desolate and there were maybe a couple hundred people there and about 198 of them looked like they live there.

Chairman Mao once said that in order to be a real man, you must climb to the top of the Great Wall & we were all bound and determined to do it. It looks so peaceful from the road, nice sloping wall, bounding into the horizon. After we got our tickets, we saw it as more of a straight up staircase as far as the eye could see. This Stairway to Manhood was one of the most painful walks of my life, but dammit, I really want the dead communist leader to realize that I am a man. Every stair was different, some one or two blocks tall, some five or six, some a foot deep, some six inches, some two feet. But all of them were slightly moist & very slippery & they all headed straight up. Don't let the pictures on the postcards fool you, this wall is not something that would be fun to ride a skateboard on or take a leisurely stroll with the loved one of your choice on a Sunday afternoon. As I was throwing up off the edge of the wall, I remember thinking that the popular places are probably popular for a reason, some for their scenic beauty, some for their impeccable bathrooms, some for the fantastic rides, some are likely popular simply because there are no stairs.

It took us about an hour to reach the top & become men (even the women were given complimentary balls). We were all sweating and hot, Marla was about to pass out, Jenny was sporting one of those famous welders-masks-sunglass-windshields that is all the rage here, Jayson and Laura were dying, Marlow looked like he was a step away from a heart attack or stroke. My legs were hurting pretty good, but I was probably the least torn down by the trip, which is not saying much for everyone else. Jenny is crazy, she did the whole thing in jeans & high heels (and windshield), she should receive two sets of balls for that.

Marlow brought along his video camera today. I absolutely hate video cameras, I can barely look at pictures of myself, but watching me in real-life-awkwardness is simply too much. I tried to explain this to him, but it didn't matter, he had that thing to his eye the entire day. Every time I turned around, that camera was on me. He kept saying, “Do one of those funny things that you’re always doing.”

“You mean throw your camera into the lake? Or how about that funny thing where I shove it up your ass? Yeah, I like that one better, it’ll he hilarious.”

I’m really not that funny most of the time, but people often see me as nice comic relief. I think it’s because of my way of making fun of myself; it makes people feel happier for some reason. In his mind, I was going to talk into my shoe like a phone, or wear a lampshade, or maybe dance a jig, or drop a little “What’s the deal with Chinese people…” Give me a break. Unfortunately, instead of me telling jokes & riding a unicycle he got me giving Jenny the stalker-stare down all day and trying to hit on her. So I guess technically, he did get me on camera doing on something funny.

The view was fantastic, even though it was still very overcast. The mountains are where it’s at; forget the stress and pain of the city give me Desolation Angels and pick me up in three months. My heart always rises along with the mountains and fresh air. I try to figure out why I have this sudden urge of isolation. I’ve been feeling my ‘people skills’ falling away from my personality gradually over the last few years. I think part of it is that my self-confidence has been shot to pieces by heartbreak and despair caused by other people and disappointment in what I’ve made of myself. I go through seemingly happy periods where I make the mistake in believing in others and of course it always ends in disaster with my head and heart and soul paying the price. My hopes are built high in a friend or a woman who I think may be special and it turns out to be the same as ever, the thought of happiness clouds my mind from the truth of my life. Mountains are eternal wisdom. They represent something that I cannot destroy with my hopes, they breathe confidence from their peaks, a confidence that I wish I could replicate. Peaks that have seen, valleys that have done, slopes that have and will be.

The walk down was much quicker and all was good in the world for that brief time. I kind of pulled myself away with my thoughts and took it all in, knowing that in a few mere hours, I would be back in the land of distractions and noise of voices that I cannot understand coming from eyes that I can understand.

After the Great Staircase of China, Jenny took us ahead to the real tourist part of the wall, but none of us were in the mood to see any more brick, steps, umbrellas or anything that was farther away than a refrigerator. We walked around the place for a brief time and decided to head back to the city. After dropping us off at the hotel, Jenny was off and once again I was unsuccessful at rustling up any female support. We talked quite a bit throughout the day and she was pretty cool, but the writing is on the wall and I will probably never see her again.
Anyway, back to the heat. Back to the flood of people. Back to the humidity. Back to the pollution. Back to the work, the flies, isolation and sad energy of life.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Never Judge A Man By The Color of His Bicycle

Someone who had visited China once said to me ‘There really aren’t as many bicycles as I thought there would be’. This person should be slapped. This country has so more bikes than I can say anything funny to compare the number to, that’s it, just a shitload of bikes. It takes about seven seconds after getting here to notice all the bikes, you can practically see them from the plane, like an ocean of grey, slowly flowing up and down the streets, but since arrival, I’ve now noticed several very interesting varieties (which I shall describe in mind numbing detail).

Firstly, the normal bike. Probably 75% of the bicycles here fall into this category. These are mostly rusted out conglomerates of several older bikes. They are held together by a delicate balance of rust, wire and rope. They are all the same color of rust-brown, with grayed out tires with various bends in the frames from merciless taxi drivers. They all have one gear, which makes everyone look like they’re pedaling in unison, to some creepy Hitchcock theme song; slow, steady uphill, downhill, same speed, watching, watching. Along with the single gear, all bikes come equipped with a Toto basket on the front, which makes me want to exchange the Hitchcock statement for the Wicked-Witch-in-the-tornado music, still creepy of course, but better sound effects. Nearly all of these have some sort of rack on the back, something that good American school kids would bungee their books to on the way to school in Any-Town, USA (if kids in America would use bikes, books or go to school for that matter). In China, they’re called ‘passenger seats.’ I have seen people, young and old, male and female, all shapes and sizes riding down the street on the back of a bike, their tiny asses clenched to the thin bars of the bike rack, holding their feet mere inches off the ground as the driver weaves in and out of traffic, dodging other bikes, pedestrians, cars, trucks and the various other vehicles on the road. Children are given the precaution of a sort of rope-style seat belt, which they usually hold on to or have in their mouths; it’s all about the safety. One thing can be said about the people of this country, they all have amazing senses of balance, what between the amazing toilets, the tai-chi, and the fact that four people can ride a bike at the same time like a pack of carnival clowns. It’s quite impressive, I’ve been known to fall down by tripping on the edge of a rug, or not be able to sit in a three-legged chair.

The second type of bike is the full-size mini-bike. These appear to be fold-up bikes, but they’re not. It’s the China equivalent of those annoying Razor scooters that were all the rage a couple years ago (the little scooter with the skateboard wheels). These bikes are come in all the bright colors - black, brown, tan, janitor-uniform-blue. The tires on the bikes are roughly the size of a hubcap. These are the bikes that ‘those damned kids’ like to ride around on.

Next is my favorite type of bike, the electric-manual scooter-bike. I got to get me one of these. They’re basically normal size bikes that you can plug in and charge up. Once charged up, these puppies scream down the street at speeds topping three or four miles an hour. But the bike doesn't stop there, kick in on the pedals and you can gain an extra half-mile per hour (maybe). Mostly old ladies have these types of bikes. There is a little speed gauge and a power meter that lets you know that you have exactly six minutes to get to a plug in. The part of the frame with all the complicated charging equipment provides a nice little footrest (if you wear the national average shoe size, which is equal to the size of the fat end of a pool stick).

A third type of bike is the three-wheel bike. These are very popular with the farmers, low-end construction companies, and the local crazy-cardboard-collector guy. They usually sport a small truck bed (from a real truck often) that is used to carry produce, wood, tin cans, or, more often than not, about ten people. I think the Chinese are also blessed with very strong thigh and calf muscles. There are the non-motorized versions (tin can collector guy) and the semi-motorized versions (produce guy), but both always have some sort of a rigged braking system that is the equivalent of sticking a stick through the spokes, but it runs all the way up to a fine point on the handlebars to a place where if a stick was really thrown into the spokes, the driver would be impaled (poor poor Chen). These are also in a wide variety of colors - black, rust, wood, wire (usually all displayed on the same bike).

Finally, the rich pricks here have the fully motorized scooters, which are basically Vespas. Except that they go about four miles an hour and are all dented to hell and have that familiar rust-dirt color to them. There is a law here that says you do not need a license to drive anything that’s electric, so there are no gas-powered mini-bikes (so they really sneak up on you when you’re walking home drunk).

All major roads are about six lanes wide, with the outer lanes on each side only for pedestrians and bikes. It’s a great way to promote alternate transportation and sure beats pedaling down the interstate with this years peach crop teetering behind you on the truck bed with a sharpened stick for a break staring you in the eye the whole way.

Despite the lack of bicycle shops, there are these cool little portable bicycle repairmen who set up at the street corners. They set up shop on a corner and people bring their bikes up to get various ailments fixed (shop is usually a bag with a variety of patched tubes, bailing wire, a hammer & used duck-tape). These guys will retrofit anything, you want dubs? No problem. They’re not very good with bodywork, they’re mainly concerned with getting you on your way, but it’s a nice little way to do business.

Once you get away from the bikes, the vehicles get even stranger, but harder to imagine. There are the three-wheeled semi-trucks that are the size of a minivan that are often loaded down so heavy that the rims are actually touching the ground. There are the minivans that are the size of a Civic, the taxis where the driver is surrounded by bullet proof glass that makes it look like he’s sitting in a helicopter ejection seat, the truck-van combination that are huge & would make the perfect band travel vehicle, I could go on and on.

These thoughts were organized at about 3:30 am while being sick from dinner on Wednesday. What happened? I thought you had an iron-gullet? What made the giant fall? The answer is Brazil.

The greatest restaurant in the world is in Houston. It’s called Fogo de Caco. It’s a Brazilian steak house. The give you a card that’s green on one side & red on the other, when the red side is up, they leave you alone, but when the green side is up, you get a barrage of waiters surrounding your table with skewers of the best cooked meat in the entire world. Steak, chicken, fillet, bacon wrapped steak, bacon wrapped chicken, bacon wrapped bacon, sausages, deer, lamb, like 25 different kinds of meat, all cooked to perfection. A two-person dinner there will cost around $150, but it’s totally worth it, at least with the company card.

Wednesday night, Xinlei and I went to a similar restaurant here in Langfang. He said ‘Brazilian Steak House’ and my knees began to tremble. The restaurant kept the Chinese tradition of being hotter than an oven, but it doesn't matter, I was happy to be at a meat buffet. This place had the same as Fogo; turn the piece of wood to the green side for food, the red side for mercy. However, the food was slightly different. Freshly skewered beef tongue was a little rubbery, however the chicken hearts were pretty tasty, much better than the lamb penis, which is what they kept trying to put on my plate. If I had a nickel for every lamb penis I’ve had in my mouth.

Plus, the waiters only came around every 5-10 minutes. Now, when you’re at a meat buffet, you got to keep the food rolling, no matter what body part or animal it comes from. I spent most of the meal waiting for more food. But somewhere between the eel soup and the yak tail, I must have gotten a hold of something a bit, um, undercooked. It first hit around 12:00, when I was trying to sleep. It hit like a semi ramming into a granite embankment and had me doubled over in pain. It was one of those pains that drain you of the ability to do anything, walk, open eyes, just hold your breath and hope the searing pain stops. This is the closest feeling a man ever gets to childbirth, my colon was contracted to about 150 centimeters and I literally had to crawl to the bathroom. It was one of those truth-pains, where you see everything clearer for a while, the sky seems bluer, the water tastes better, the air cleaner, everything in life is deserving of appreciation, except for that damn restaurant.

I took a few shots of Pepto, drank some water and fell back into a nervous sleep where my dreams were filled with greasy food on long car drives through the desert and plum juice and Mexican food. Suprisingly, when I woke up at 6:30, I was back to normal, in fact, I felt pretty good. It’s a good thing, because I had to go to the office in a couple hours, the office of the lovely toilets. I thought that Thursday may be the day that I was broken on the toilets, but I was able to fend the lurking monster off for a short time.

I’ve only been here for three weeks, I was hoping that by now the days would start flying by a bit faster, that I’d be able to get into some sort of a routine, but it’s not going to happen. I’ve been working from the hotel room for a couple days, which will help my mood greatly. It’s been extremely frustrating working with the client. They’re all very nice, but the communication barrier, compounded with the uncomfortable work environment (and that toilet looming in the background every day) makes it difficult. The work environment works about like this: I’m in a room with anywhere from seven to thirteen people, all watching, listening, but only one or two of them actually speak. Everything confuses them, and because I cannot talk to and understand them, everyone gets frustrated. The room is steaming with heat, I’m sweating like a janitor in the boiler room, I am constantly served hot water from a kettle for refreshment and Xinlei’s phone rings off the hook all day because nothing can get done in GE China without him (which is excellent for him, but annoying as hell).

My hotel room is pretty nice. The bed is hard as a rock, and the pillows are about the size of a grilled cheese sandwich. When I’m working from the room, the maid cleans right around me, which is kind of unnerving, but probably something I should get used to if I plan on bringing one of them back to the US with me to be the future Mrs. Duo Li Hutmacher. They clean the balcony with a rag on their hands and knees. I haven’t turned the TV on for two weeks, what’s the point? It’s all in Chinese and the acting is porn quality without the good stuff.

This visa/passport/residence permit bullshit is absolutely killing me. I’ve jumped through so many hoops since I’ve been here, my head hurts. Every time I turn around, there is another form to fill out, another piece of paperwork to sign, another person taking my passport to fill out paperwork, another trip to a stupid ass city. It’s absolutely asinine. I haven’t had my passport for the last two weeks (since I got back from Hong Kong and there was someone waiting at the hotel to take it to it’s next stop), so I get a call today that said they were going to drop it off at the hotel for me (in Beijing of course, not the one I’m actually staying in) so that I could request a form from the hotel, then they’re taking it again on Monday. I’ve been here three weeks, I worked on this for three weeks straight before coming & they tell me it’ll be at least two more weeks. It’d be different if I was coming into a country where all women walked around naked and they shot all ugly kids at birth, but no, this snaggle-tooth, hairy women havin’, stank wine drinkin’, shit in a hole in the floor country is where my karma sends me. In a past life, I must have been some sort of IRS worker and this is my repayment.

The weather here is pretty nasty. Every day is mid-90’s with a humidity of 100% for all but about two hours. In three weeks I have yet to see the sun. Walking outside is like getting a blast in the face from a diesel exhaust pipe, my skin is gritty and slimy from the time I get out of the shower until I get back into the shower. You can feel the film of pollution gather on your body throughout the day. Sweat stains are no longer that lovely light-yellow hue, but form a darkened bruise on your shirt around your neck and arms. The other day I woke up and could not see the ground from my window. It shouldn't be surprising why there is so much rust around. All the buildings are chipping away, exposing the underlying metal (probably due to the highly unregulated cement to sand mixture that makes most buildings a time bomb).

Shirts are completely optional in this city. It is common to see a table of people sit down to dinner and one or two of the men take their shirts off before eating. If I did that, they’d probably start calling me Moby Dick and start picking me apart with chopsticks and dipping my flesh in peanut sauce.

Friday I left to head back to Beijing (again). This weekend, Jayson is still in town & we’re going to do the much-anticipated trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs and all that crap. If I wasn't so sick of doing the hotel room shuffle, I’d probably be more excited. As it is, I’m about a heartbeat from canceling on the whole weekend so I can stay here and sleep, read and write. It’s been extremely difficult getting reading time in, I have to force myself to step back from work for an hour a day so I can get some reading done. I’ve still managed to get about six books done since I’ve gotten here, most of them have been pretty lame unfortunately.

This is also my chance to meet the much talked about Jenny. Her job is to help us out with ‘logistics’ (buzzword that gets passed around the business world way too much). She’s organizing our trip & coming along, so I’m kind of excited to meet at least one non-hotel staff girl.

On top of that, the Great Wall is not in the city & I really need to see something other than the concrete jungle of this country. Who knows, maybe this will be my only chance to see the sun. My body and mind are definitely wearing thin and I think the lack of nature and stress of the city is largely to blame for it. I’m sad and lonely a lot right now, this is the kind of sadness that I’ve seen in other people, the kind of sadness that comes before quitting or betrayal. I need the sun and the sky and the nighttime moon and stars to pull me out of it, but have been abandoned here in these cities of greed and destruction.