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.

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