Sunday, October 30, 2005

Ruined stereotypes and female robots

This week, we found out that our company had another guy here for a few weeks; his name is Ruizuan, pronounced Reason-1, like a rapper. This is the best name so far. We grabbed a couple drinks together Monday night and got to know each other. Xinlei worked with him in Mongolia for about a month last year. It was a nice little reunion, these guys get along really well, and it reminded me of when Santiago and I got to spend some time together in Chile. A couple people just click and have a great time together despite the reason or length of their meeting.

Tuesday night the three of us got together for what was bound to be fat dinner in the hotel. Just as we were ordering, Mr. Feng from PetroChina called Xinlei and invited us out to dinner. My response, of course, was ‘Tell him no, we’re already eating.’ Mr. Feng said that the president of his company was in town and wanted to take us (me specifically) out. There was no way out, this guy says jump, we say how high. Neither of us wanted to go out and do anything, we were wiped out and just wanted to hang out with our guards down. I hadn’t showered in two days and was ultra-funky. I’m running out of clean clothes so I’m on about round five on most of my clothes.

This last minute stuff kills me. These guys do it once or twice a week, any time of day, and we pretty much have to bend and put a smile on our faces and get out with them. This is one of my least favorite parts of the Chinese culture. It’s not just me that they do it to and it’s not just dinner. “Xinlei, I need you to translate this 40 page document by lunch.” “Lucas, we need you to prepare a demo for a meeting this afternoon in Beijing.” “We would like to take you to Chendu this afternoon for one week.” I should just learn to expect this kind of behavior but I can’t do it. Plans are spoken and broken, set and forgotten faster than promises of love and forever that are made in the back seat of your parents car on prom night.

I didn't even have proper time to be angry about my short notice induced bad mood because we had ten minutes before Mr. Feng was to pick us up. Quickly and no so quietly, we had to excuse ourselves from Ruizuan, cancel our orders, and sprint upstairs to clean up. This was big-time invitation type of meeting, so we had to be on our best behavior. Dammit, I hate best behavior. It’s always best behavior and it’s a terrible face to wear. Of course, the entire wait staff was standing around watching us freak out, laughing at us, Mu Duo was they’re being extra smiley, so my knees were kind of wobbly from looking at her. This was turning into a shitty night.

Flashes of lights that signify short amounts of time passing has us arriving at the restaurant and being shown to a private room. Mr. Feng said that it would just be the four of us (Xinlei, Mr. Feng, myself and Mr. Young the president). Apparently, Mr. Young doesn't know how to tell time because we waited around for him for nearly an hour before he showed up (we waited for him even longer last week at our company wide meeting).

Dinner was really good. It was on this night where I started to think about how much I really do like the food here. I have painful memories of a childhood when we would eat Chinese food as a family on my mother’s birthday. It was almost a punishment at times, eventually I was able to talk my parents into stopping at McDonalds on the way to whatever funny-smelling Chinese restaurant we were to present ourselves as a loving family at. It’s all very different than food I’ve ever eaten in my life, but it all tastes so good and is really healthy for you. There’s no bread and dessert, there’s vegetables, meat and fruit. I think this is why these guys smoke and drink so much and still live to be old farts.

Mr. Young speaks no English, so it was pretty frustrating for both of us, who really wanted to just chat and be social, get to know each other and stuff. I have a pretty decent personality and when I can communicate, it pulls me through nicely, but when I can’t talk and listen, it’s easy for me to lose concentration. I cant understand him, so the only time I really had to pay attention was when Xinlei was talking to me, but you really do have to pay attention when people speak, regardless. It’s respectful and body language says a lot. Mr. Young is very nice, our limited conversation was great and he has genuine concern for my personal well being while here. All of the questions were such like: Do you exercise? What do you do to relax? Do you miss your family? Is there anything we can do to help you out? All very good and sincere questions that are really appreciated. Even better was that there was not one work-related questions (my least favorite topic).

The reason these guys call me and invite me out all the time is because they’re worried about me. They know I’m away from my family and friends for a long time. On top of that, I cant speak the language, which means I cant do simple things like travel alone, eat at different places, get to know people, really live life. I admit it is somewhat frustrating at times. But when I’m at home in the States, I really don't do a lot of that stuff anyway. I’ve got my friends, but we only hang once or twice a month, I don't eat out too often, I don't travel (other than for work). I’m just me. I read. I write. I think. I spend time alone, whether it’s in a hotel or my apartment, I’m alone, and it really doesn't bother me most of the time.

A couple years back when my inner-self was recovering from a traumatic break-up, I was asking myself fairly common questions about myself, each one starting with ‘why’ or ‘what’. Why do I feel empty? What makes me happy? Where is the remote control? I began to come to the harsh and painful realization that my priorities may be a little off, a little off-center, a bit out of whack. I realized that what’s truly valuable to myself and the people I love isn’t working 65 hours a week, it’s not knowing the spread on the Packers game, it’s not on an online video game, it cannot be found in man-made happiness, it must come from homemade happiness. I needed to get to know myself better, I didn't know what was really important to me, I was quite sure it wasn't the thing’s I’ve surrounded myself with in the past (television, unhealthy food, cheating girlfriends who value the mirror more than me). But how will I crack this case? How can I possible chip away at my chocolate exoskeleton to my inner nougat? What tools will I need? How safe is it to be real? The real world can be a dangerous place for people with generosity and a caring nature; I must first arm myself – to the teeth. First thing was to get rid of the negative and un-useful, get myself back to a reasonable fighting weight; the unhealthy appendages of my lifestyle (the drinking, the horrible food, the extra weight) must be removed. Physical heath, while absolutely boring to attain, is important unless you want to die when you’re 35.

Secondly was to find out what was going on inside my head. Why am I such a bitter person? Why can I not get close to people? Why do I dream about things, and hate them the minute I get them? Why are sins such as envy, greed, and sloth so prevalent in my life? My life has featured one intense hobby after another, but I’ve not been able to sustain any one of them for more than a year. I have the attention span of a child on an ether binge. I decided to try something crazy, I abandoned my television and sports withdrew myself into a world of books. Books are timeless, but you have to read and desire to understand them to realize their timelessness. Start with the golden oldies, Dumas, Verne, HG Wells, Hugo, all the books that I should have read in my life but never did. There are hundreds of books that are considered classics that I’ve never even thought about before (which I found somewhat embarrassing). Then find books that mean something, not sci-fi books or comic books, but books about people whose eyes have seen and whose fingers have done. People sharing their experiences are so important (Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac, Rollins, Wolfe, Ginsberg etc). I had no idea how to learn about myself, but there were things in these people that I could relate to, things that I could see in myself, things I liked, things I didn't like, many things I didn't like. I realize that I’m not the only person like this, that I’m not the only person laughed at for caring out loud. I’m not the only person to abandon the life of people for a life of solitude because of a broken heart. Read, read, read, book upon book upon book. Stick to reading with the energy of a benny addict. Books started piling up in the corners of my room, it’s was an immediate obsession. I truly love it. I look forward to three-hour layovers where I can knock out a couple hundred pages of my book. I take three books with me everywhere I go. I’ve brought about 60 books with me to China. What do I do with my free time? I read my books. I’m happy. I’m learning.

In recent times I’ve applied a dose of writing to my time. It’s much more difficult and much less rewarding, but I have been able to realize that seeing the words of my soul can be helpful in strange ways. It doesn't all come out like a unicorn at sunset or a description of a fall day, but I can do it. It must be pursued.

This is part of my life that people don't understand very well. It’s hard for people to accept that I enjoy my time alone. The people here in China understand this even less than the people in America. I think the communication gap plays a big role in that, but I also think it has a lot to do with the sheer number of people over here. Chinese people are never alone, you see cars with seven people in it, public bathrooms with zero privacy, ten people in an elevator, everywhere you turn there is someone standing or sitting. You cant put a billion people together and expect them to understand what it is truly like to be alone, it is a meaningless word here.

Mr. Young made sure that Mr. Feng knew that part of his job was to make me comfortable and get me out of the hotel. This isn’t a bad thing, it shows that they care and it does do me good to get out, but I try to keep my off-hour client contact to a minimum (I hate ‘best behavior’). Over the course of dinner, Mr. Young assigned Mr. Feng with several tasks; buy me a basketball, include me on the PetroChina staff activities and invite me to his house. He asked me if I’ve had a foot massage since I’ve been here, which I haven’t. This is another example of how they take everything to heart; no sooner had the words fallen from my mouth, Mr. Young called for the bill, paid and took all of us to get a massage.

Just like that, a quick dinner has turned into an entire evening.

Before describing the actual experience, let us explore my mind to see how I picture the traditional ‘foot massage’: I walk into a room of pillows, softly burning candles and fair Chinese maidens, all beautiful and disease free. The massage chair has been prepared with the finest silken linens from all the land and resembles some sort of body transforming machine where you can go from sitting to laying down with the flick of a wrist. Upon sitting down, five beautiful women each grab an appendage and start rubbing beautiful honey and flower scented oils into my skin, one on each leg, one on each arm and the one with the largest breasts lovingly caressing my head, shoulders and back (where else would she massage… perverts?). Over the course of the massage, the pile of clothes in the corner continues to grow until all of the women are wearing only their soft skin and dangerous smiles, each pointed lovingly at me, the guardian beast who will protect them and provide them a wonderful life. The camera slowly shifts to the candles flickering, focus shifts and blurs the edges of reality until we have faded to darkness. The morning brings a return to the light only to see the sun slowly peeking it’s face through the window, the rows of candles burned to their lovely extinction to see the six of us eating grapes and saying a tearful goodbyes to each other.

That was interesting; it was also disgusting and successful in fulfilling quite a handful of sick stereotypes that reside in my head. That said, here’s how it really went down.

The four of us walk into the lobby of a building about the size of a small restaurant. We were shown by a couple of people to a couch where we were asked (told…) to take our shoes off. Our shoes were whisked away on an adventure of their own and we were presented with a kind of plastic bathroom slippers. Then they saw my feet. The old man gasped and grabbed a pitchfork and held it to my feet like Frankenstein, his wife held a tissue up to her forehead and passed out. The son, trembling with fear, ran to a bookshelf, pulled a couple books and a secret passage opened up, backlit forcing me to cover my eyes from the brightness. He disappeared and returned some time later with the holy grail of bathroom slippers. These things looked to be about a size 18 with cracks along the sides from ages of disuse.

Panting out of breath and knocking dust and cobwebs out of his hair, he bowed and presented me with the wondrous shoes. I felt as though I had just fulfilled some sort of legend. “On the Fifth Year of the Snake, a giant man with a pale face and strange beard will appear on the steps of a massage parlor. He will require the ancient shoes of the Yeti and will deliver us from the evils of pollution and unknown ailments that inhabit the earth.”

My Yeti slippers broke in half by the time I got to my next destination where we were shown into a room with four chairs, four beds and four sets of gowns to change into. I was slightly worried because there was about a 99.9% chance that these things would not fit me and it would look like I was wearing flannel tights and a skintight halter-top. Plus, I’m not all that excited about dressing down into my nothingness in front of my Chinese boss and the presidents of large companies. Luckily, they were optional and no one changed into one.

We all grab a chair and sit waiting patiently, this is when I first began to feel haunted by not going to the bathroom before coming here and you can bet your ass that I’m not walking barefoot into any bathroom in China. In front of each of us was placed a wooden tub of hot water that fit Chinese feet perfectly. When I put my feet into it, my toes looked like cypress roots growing out of a swamp. Then someone appeared in front of me with a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Awesome! I love Kool-Aid hook it up dog! Then he poured it into my wooden foot box and it was piping hot. Maybe it’s Jell-O, I like Jell-O too, I’ve never had it form around my feet, but I’m in an experimental mood, so bring it.

Xinlei saw me grabbing for a spoon and informed me that it was actually a mixture of foot medicine and ancient foot cleaning agents, disappointment. Then a guy came in with a hot water jug and filled my tub up until it covered my toes, each drop hotter than the first, finally once I had tears of pain in my eyes, he stopped.

Then, like the beginning of a movie, the lights were turned down and the Hi-Fi was turned on and four people came in. None of them looked like fair Chinese maidens (especially the two guys), but the boiling foot torture wasn't in my dreams either. One of the two girls lined up behind me and started to go to work.

Many people are uncomfortable having a man massage them, but not Chinese people, and not me really, it’s not that big of a deal, as long as he doesn't kiss my neck (too itchy….). Just let the masseuse cards fall where they may. I was expecting a nice relaxing massage and the girl behind me started with my neck.

After about three seconds, I realized that it wasn't a woman behind me at all; it was actually a Chinese made female robot with steely fingers and a grip like a metal vice. Those hands moved from my neck to my shoulders and it felt like she was trying to touch her fingers to each other below my shoulder blades. White-hot pain, bright lights flashing behind my eyes, the Hi-Fi is not very relaxing but suddenly Death Metal, I think I’m going to pass out….. I tried to glance around the room to see if everyone else was being tortured so cruelly, through the tears staining my eyes I could see that everyone was in deep concentrated relaxation. What the hell is wrong with these people? Do Chinese people not have nerves in their bodies?

Finally she moved off the shoulders and started punching me in the back of the head. I could hear that we were all getting our heads punched. But this actually felt good compared to my new pierced shoulder, they used the little slightly opened fist that makes their hands pop a bit and, other than catching me off guard at first but felt really good.

After punching me all over my back, head and neck, she started giving me a scalp massage. This was totally awesome, she kept sticking her steel fingers into pressure points around my head and releasing. Next was an earlobe massage, which made me shake in ecstasy (good thing it was the female robot instead of the male robot, because that may have made me gay). Then she put her finger in my ear and slapped her hand, it was kind of like driving a railroad spike into my brain, but louder.

After about 30 minutes of white-hot searing pain mixed with head slaps and loin quivering ear massages, the massage robots left the room for some reason. After a minute or so they came back carrying sacks of, what I just assumed were some sorts of weird sex toys and they showed us to our respective beds. By now, I’m praying that my dreams of a Chinese foot massage are wrong because I would probably be sick if I had to watch Xinlei get some man-love in the bed right next to me.

Of course the beds are meant for Chinese people, so my feet hung over the end by about a foot, which everyone thought was really funny. Out of the sacks they pulled out hot sand filled weight lifting belts that were placed below our lower back. It’s already pretty warm in there, plus they’ve been feeding us warm water beverages for the last 45 minutes with our feet sitting in boiling Jell-O foot medicine water, needless to say, I’ve got a good sauna sweat going. Oh yeah, I still had to really go to the bathroom. They also place a hot sandbag under our necks and a thick beach towel over our whole body up to our chins, haven’t these people ever heard of ice packs? Damn.

Once our body temperatures were safely raised 110 degrees, they made little booties out of washcloths and wrapped our feet in them. Needless to say, they had to get a couple beach towels for my feet.

Then they set to work on the left foot, took the bootie off and gave my doggie a nice lotion rubdown and started in on the actual ‘foot’ part of the massage. It felt awesome, rubbing, hitting pressure points, giving each of my little piggies it’s well earned attention, slapping my feet, punching my heels, they even snapped my toes, which made me break out in a laugh.

It was a well-rehearsed procedure, every time they started in on the slapping or punching; all four of the robots did it in unison, like a little foot marching-band cadence or heavy rain in the springtime. They did my left foot for 30 minutes then did the exact same thing to my right foot for another 30. It felt amazing, Xinlei was asleep, I would have been too, but I was afraid that I would piss my pants if I fell asleep with all the warm water in the room.

After finishing with our feet, they did a couple minutes on each calf and thigh, which included a little rubdown and some slapping. It felt really good until my robot slapped me right on the tip of my mushroom tip. My girl-like scream signaled the end of the massage experience.

After the robots marched out of the room, they left us alone for about 15 minutes to wake up and reorient ourselves with the world of reality. When we went out to the lobby, our shoes were back from their journey into the unknown and we paid and left. Total cost for a Langfang 100 minute foot massage and shoulder piercing: $55 RMB, or about $7.00 US. I’m coming back to this place for real.

Mr. Feng and Mr. Young asked me how I liked it, and my sleepy yawn and affirmative headshake told them the story. All in all, a very nice evening with very nice people. It more than made up for the short-term dinner notice I got three hours prior.

That night I slept like a rock and every muscle in my body hurt like hell for three days. Xinlei decided to wait until we were outside to tell me that it’s ok to tell them they are rubbing too hard, and then he laughed at me for about three minutes. Thanks dude, you’re a real Jim Dandy.

I think the most surprising thing about the foot massage was that I was totally non-sex related. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but I’ve just gotten so used to everything here turning to a request for money through the channels of sex that this caught me off guard a bit. The foot-massage industry is a prime candidate for intercourse requests, but there were none. It’s a bit worrisome that I’m getting so used to this kind of environment because it’s very harsh and sad.

Friday, October 21, 2005

One Year Ago Today

In the fall of 1998, I was entering my second junior year at Fort Hays State University in Hays Kansas. I was a small fish in a small college pond of a small town pond. A typical weekend in Hays consisted of drinking from about 6:30 pm to 11:30 pm at someone’s house, then moving the drinking to one of the four bars in town until about 2:30 and then stumbling to late night party at some house that you were likely to never find. Periodically this routine was altered when there was booty on the horizon, which, for me was about once a semester.

This weekend was no different than most and after the club kicked us out, me and a small group of friends were walking to a party that we all knew about, but weren’t quite sure where it was. Normally, we just walked around until we saw a house with a handful of people outside and casually strolled up through the people to the refrigerator to see if they had any beer and stayed or moved on depending on the scouting reports.

Walking through the dark and empty streets, making normal drunk noises; singing, yelling, belching, whatever, I though I heard a non-normal drinking related sound. It sounded vaguely like a kitten, but I brushed it off like I do with most abnormal sounds that are the result of spending most of my student loan money on beer or vodka. We kept walking, but the sound persisted, I was the only person to notice it (even further proof that it was coming from my head). Eventually, I had to turn around, heed the voices in my head and risk ridicule from my friends by yelling out “Am I the only one that hears a damn cat?”

There it was, a damn kitten. About twenty feet behind us. It could have easily been confused with a piece of furry trash. Black and white and about the size of a can of Busch Light, screaming it’s little heart out at us, at me. It had followed us about two blocks and had the steely look of determination in its eye that made me think it would never stop following me.

At this same time, we heard the more familiar sounds of a ragin’ kegger around the corner. I should mention my soft spot for all things living (except clowns, clowns should be executed). My family has always had cats or dogs with varying degrees of success. Usually the cats live by sheer will and spend most of their life looking at us with insurmountable indifference, coming around only to eat and then leaving again. The dogs have always met some sort of strange demise such as jumping out of a car window or curling up for a nap around the rear tire of the family Oldsmobile 98 before Mom decided to go get some more milk. Maybe the sad, young deaths of many of our animals created some deep seeded guilt in me to constantly try to save the lives of animals.

It doesn't take a scientist to figure out that if this kitten followed us to a party in redneck Kansas, there was a pretty good chance that it would be bar-be-cued or fed to someone’s pet snake. So I took it upon myself to kindly tell the cat to turn around and go home, to which he responded, “Suck me tubs, I’m goin’ to the party…” (That may not have actually happened, I was pretty drunk, and this was a long time ago). My second option was to pick the kitten up and take it to the party with me, be its ‘protector’. This cat fit comfortably in the palm of my hand and bit me immediately before curling up and falling asleep.

Just a note to desperate men reading this (from the desperate man writing this); holding a kitten at a party is the best way to meet girls in the entire world. Moving on now.

After the party, I headed home, kitty still in my hands. While it was sleeping, I snuck a peek to find out if he was a boy or girl. It was a boy and would probably be very angry if he knew I was telling the world this, but he had really small balls. We got a couple blocks from the party and I put him down and told him that the free ride was over and he really needed to be getting home. I started walking off and so did kitty, following me, step for step.

At this time, I lived on Main Street. Like most towns’ Main Streets, this was one of the busier streets in Hays. He just wouldn't listen and would have probably gotten hit by a car in the morning.

“Ok Kitty, you can come in, but tomorrow, you’re ass is out of here. You’re sleeping in the living room, the bathroom is around the corner, and there are a couple beers in the fridge. Be quiet, I’m going to sleep.”

Fast-forward two years. Kitty moved all his shit into my house and stuck me with the small bedroom. My apartment was very large and was often the site of some of the same late-night parties that I protected him at in his youth. I think he had more friends at the parties than I did; he could defiantly out drink me, and the chicks he pulled, damn. He liked to bite and didn't take shit off anyone, especially me. I was his bitch. One of my friends had a black lab and they would chase each other around the house all day, neither backing down or getting scared.

Little by little, between Kitty humping my leg while I slept and sleeping in beer boxes (him, not me…most of the time) I realized that this cat was tied to me forever. I loved this cat and he loved me, in a very painful scratchy way. He followed me around the whole place; he sat in the window until I got home. He would sleep in front of the bedroom door when I was in the sack. All this time, he still didn't have a name. Most people called him Luke-Kitty, but other names were Fuckin’ Cat, Stupid Cat or simply just Kitty.

By this time, the leg humping and scratching was getting out of hand, it non-stop, like me when I learned how to spank it. All day, all night, it was hilarious. But it was also somewhat disgusting, so I decided to get him fixed and de-clawed. The first money I’ve invested into an animal and I wasn't happy about it one bit.

I took him to the vet and we were filling out the paperwork.

“Luke Hutmacher”
“You’re cat’s name is the same as your name?”
“Ohh, the cats name. He doesn't have a name.” I replied simply.
“You have to give it a name sir.” The vet replied.
“Ok, how about Kitty?” I said hopefully.
“Don't be a dumbass sir you have to give it a real name.” She said with an edge to her voice (many female vets are lesbians who don't take shit off anyone).
“I’ll give him a name if you quit calling him ‘it.’” I said with a smile on my face.
“Ok, ok, you have to name HIM.”

Man, this lady is going to shred my cat’s balls. I should be nicer to her.

My family has a long history of naming our animals strange names, often based on dead Jazz musicians. Not wanted to break the curse, I decided to stay in line.

“No, Coltrane. You know, the greatest jazz saxophonist to ever life. Lived hard, played hard, died young?”
“I have no idea who you’re talking about sir.”
“I’m sure as hell not going to name him The Indigo Girls just so you approve. His name is Coltrane, write it down.” I can’t believe that I’m auditioning cat names to a vet.

And so it went, two and a half years after moving into my house, Kitty has a name; Coltrane. Thought up over the course of a five minute conversation with a gay vet who was going to charge me $250 to cut off my cats nuts and yank out his fingernails.

I think that was probably the last time I ever said the name Coltrane to him, but he still had a name. I immediately went back to calling him Kitty and my friends continued to hate him for biting them all the time (pussys).

Fast forward to last year around October 15th.

I’m living in Kansas City now and Kitty is still biting and pushing his weight around, he weighs nearly 21 pounds now and eats like a horse. I was living alone, traveling more and more and always looked forward to coming home to see Kitty. One night I noticed that he was moving around less than usual and seemed to be walking funny. I just assumed that he was getting way to fat and probably broke his leg trying to clean his ass. The strange behavior lasted through the night until I heard him moaning in utter pain in the middle of the night.

The sounds emitting from him scared the hell out of me and in the morning I took him to the vet ‘emergency room’. When I picked him up, he screamed bloody murder and I nearly started crying on the spot. The vet told me that he had kidney stones that were blocking his urethra (pee-canal) and that they needed to stick a tube up his pee-pee and drain the backed up urine out.

I ended up leaving him there for two days and on Monday, they transferred him to my regular vet, they also transferred about $1500 from my checking account to theirs, but I didn't care, I really wanted my cat back.

He spent about 4 days in my regular vets office getting better. It was about an hour from my office and I went to see him every day. He was so pathetic; he was so sore and just wanted everything to be over with. I agreed and wanted him back too. The vet sat me down for a serious talk.

“Luke, your cat has sand-sized kidney stones. We can get them out without surgery, which costs about $3000, plus the bill I have in this envelope from the past week he’s spent with us. We can let him go home and see if he starts blocking again, he may, he may not, we just don't know. This is a problem with male cats. Normally we don't like to discuss this, but this could get very expensive with unknown results. This is an instance where we would approve euthanasia if it happens again, but of course it’s completely up to you.”

Of course, I’m crying like a little girl, stuttering that I understand and hoping that he’ll be ok. The vet releases Kitty to me and I release another $1000 from my checking account.

That night I babied Kitty like he was a young king. Watching him closely to see if he was able to use the bathroom and I thought we were in the clear. I went to bed with Kitty sleeping next to me and I was starting to feel better.

I was awoken early in the morning of October 22 to the sound of my cat in pain once again and I knew that it wasn't good. The vet basically told me that unless I was willing to spend another $3000 on surgery that was no guarantee, that I would have to put my cat down and this is all I could think of.

I called the vet immediately and with tears in my eyes and a choke to my voice, I told her that Coltrane was blocking again and was in great pain. She asked me what I wanted to do. She was very nice and understanding about the decision that I knew I had to make but was unable to say.

“I think I have to put him down….” I was barely able to get out. Just saying the words made me want to die. I knew I just couldn't afford this and I knew I was making the right decision and I knew that my cat was in great pain, but it just hurt me so much.

“You can bring him into our office in three hours. Spend some time with Coltrane and we’ll see you this afternoon. Hang in there Luke, I know how difficult this is.”

The next three hours I cried like I have never cried before. The only thing I could say to Coltrane was “I’m so sorry Kitty, I’m so sorry. I love you so much, I’m so sorry.” I kept repeating it for three hours straight.

Right after lunch (like I could eat), I took Coltrane to his death. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The little fur ball that followed me home from a party, the fat cat that used to hump my leg and would go toe-to-toe with a black lab on a daily basis was no more.

One year ago today, I put my Coltrane to sleep.
One year ago today, I turned 30 years old.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

This Hotel Done Gone Crazy On Me

The people in this hotel have gone crazy on me. Must be some strange moon cycle or something. Xinlei is still working on his driver’s license, so he’s out of town on the weekends, sometimes stretching it into a three-day weekend. This weekend there were several incidents that, standing alone seem somewhat innocent and not entirely strange, but when piled on top of each other over the course of a couple short days create a nice little package of strange wrapped in a piece of weird (much like a sexual harassment issue).

I’ve been here for nearly six weeks now and am still dealing with this visa debacle. This week featured several more forms and a package of paperwork in Chinese that I had to FedEx to some unknown address. Once again Xinlei was invaluable (ultra-valuable, extra-valuable – whatever word means more than normal valuable) in the process. He got me all squared away over the phone and told the hotel business office staff that I was a retarded child, so they would be unable to communicate with me (or he told them that I didn't speak Chinese, I have no idea what he tells them about me). I went down, dropped them some cash, signed a couple forms and just assumed that everything was taken care of.

Later in the afternoon, I came downstairs to work in the lobby for an hour or two and Liu, the front desk hottie, told me that I had some extra change from the package delivery fees and I could pick it up in the business office. Always a fan of getting money, I bolted to the second floor and demanded my money from them like a rabid dog demanding an ass to bite. Actually it was more like this:

“Hello, my name is Lucas, I delivered a package earlier” I should point out that it was after shift change, which meant new faces (I’ve only been to the business office two or three times, so I’m not really a familiar face in those parts).

“Hello, you want to deliver a package?”

“No, I had a package delivered this morning and they told me I had some change, you know, leftover money?” I tried desperately to create a hand signal that signified ‘change’ or ‘leftover’ which ended up looking like I was explaining how a volcano worked.

“Change? We have packages to deliver for you?”

“No, you already delivered… never mind, can I call Liu at the front desk?”

“Front desk? Here.” She picked up the phone and called the front desk, rattled something off and handed me the phone. I was expecting to hear that beautiful voice of Liu on the phone, who would be my savior and rescue me from the evil business office who holds my money in their clutches, even if they don't know it.

“Liu, hello! I love you, do you want to come to America with me?”

“Hello, this is Tony. America? I know where America is!!”

“Tony? Who the hell are you? You don't sound very sexy.”

“What can I do for you sir?”

“Well, I delivered a package earlier and I was supposed to come to the business office to pick up my change, you know leftover money?” Of course he couldn't see my volcano motion over the phone, but I still made it.

“Ahh, yes, you would like to know the conversion rate for US dollars?” He replied proudly.

“What? No, no, I don't care about that. I have money here and they are supposed to give it to me. Do you know what I’m talking about? Can I talk to Liu?” I should also point out that I mispronounce her name every time I say it (Leo, Luuu, Ryu, Low, Bomb Diggity front desk girl, it’s always something different).

“Um, can you repeat?”

“Ok, hold on a sec, I’ll come down and talk to you. I do a great volcano impression that may help this out.” And hung up the phone. I did the international sign for ‘wait here one minute’ to the staff. They smiled in that ‘I have no idea what this ape is saying’ way that I get so often around here and I headed down to the front desk with diminishing hopes of a Liu-rescue mission knowing that some guy named Tony was awaiting my arrival.

Getting to the front desk, I could tell who Tony was immediately. He was the mid-20’s manager guy waiting for me at the elevator door. I have talked to him before; he is one of the people who knows enough English to make talking to him the most frustrating experience in the universe. He was excited like a kid in a zoo, dancing around me like an idiot trying to help me out. I gave him exactly three seconds before I cut him off and went to find the lovely Liu.

Liu’s English really isn’t much better than Tony, but for obvious reasons, I don't mind that much. Plus, she knew about the money that I was entitled to. I quickly explained to her that the business office crew had no idea what I was talking about and she called them up and got me all straightened away in like ten seconds. “Wait here, they will bring the money down in a minute.”

“Sweet, I’ll just hang here and chat with you while I wait. Any chance of them getting lost on the way? It could buy us an extra minute.”

“I have a present for you!”

“No kidding?! What?” I practically shouted. Liu noticed me! She did! First, the wedding is going to be Star Wars themed. Then we’ll move to Seattle for the weather where I’ll get a job running a small company, which will get bought out, and I’ll be able to retire in five years. We’ll have two kids, little Dangus, who will have a blond Afro and play the piano, and Beatrice Ann, who we’ll call Kitty and will be a scientist. We’ll have two cats and we’ll live in China six months out of the year.

“Yes, it’s not from me, she doesn't want me to tell you who it is really from.” She then presented me with one of those huge all-day suckers. How cute.

“Aww, come on Liu, you little vixen.” I waved my hands at her in flirty disbelief.

“No, I’m serious, it’s not from me.” She replied seriously, very seriously.

“Just dashing, just wonderful. Is she at least hot?” I anguished.

“What is hot?” she questioned me with a confused look.

“Never mind, you sure you wont tell me who it’s from?”

“No, I’m sorry, I cant.” This is when I noticed that all ten girls at the front desk were watching me, all blushing, giggling. This totally distracted me from the fact that I was really here to get money. I’d gladly give up the money to know what the hell just happened.

I think it’s this girl Li. Liu asked me to go to Li’s English class with her last week. I’m sure it’d be a spectacular experience, but at the time I didn't feel much like being an object of show-and-tell, like a geode from Yellowstone. They’d all be poking me, asking me weird questions. At the time, I just wasn't in the mood. I just am not sure which one Li is, odds are that she’s not hot.

Suddenly I realized that one of the girls from the business office was standing behind me like a wraith with a few measly bills in her hand. She handed them over, apologizing hand over hand.

“Really, its no problem at all, please, stop bowing, I’m in the middle of something.” I turned around and Liu was gone. What’s up with these people? They move like ghost rabbits.

I turned back around, head hanging low, ready to sit down and throw my headphones on and get a little work done and nearly ran over Tony. Tony had replaced the business office wraith like some sort of shape shifter.

“Whoa there Danza, sorry man, excuse me.” I stepped around him and started walking to a seat, but I could feel his presence not decreasing with each step. I turned around and he was following me with this idiotic grin on his face. This guy is like the butler from the Adams Family.

“Lu-Ka, I would like to talk to you for a minute. Do you have time?”

“Um…yeah, I guess so. What’s up man?” I said unenthusiastically. I keep expecting to get in trouble for something around here, I’m not sure what, but I can just feel it coming. I expected this to be the one. For the past 30 years, I have gotten in trouble by someone once a month. It’s usually my boss telling me to quit jacking around so much, or the stupid landlord telling me to wear pants in the pool. The worst ones are when I get in trouble when I’m a guest in a hotel or something similar. It’s usually something like ‘quit following the girls around’, or ‘housekeeping has made several comments about strange activities in your room’, or ‘quit bouncing the basketball in the lobby’, blah blah blah. These conversations are so embarrassing I want to crawl into a hole and it usually keeps me from showing my head much for a few days. I really feel like an idiot when I get in trouble, but it still happens regularly. I think I rely on other people to just tell me what’s wrong or stupid rather than just using my own judgment most of the time, kind of takes a lot off my mind and frees me up to be a jackass, thus creating good stories.

“Let’s go somewhere and sit down.” He gestured towards a couch, smiling broadly.

Great, here it comes. He’s sitting me down. I wonder if it was housekeeping, it had to be housekeeping, those bitches, I’m going to trash my room like a Guns N Roses after party tonight. I told Xinlei to apologize to them for moving the television into the bathroom. In my mind, sitting down means it’s either going to be a long talk, or they’re going to execute me. At this point, I’m not sure which I’d prefer.

The contents of the ensuing conversation are a bit blurry to me for a couple reasons. The first is the unfortunate fact of Danza’s English. Tony’s English, like I mentioned before, is kind of like talking to a very old German woman; mumbling, heavy accent, strange eye contact and excessive drooling soaked my shirt with spittle and my head with confusion. The second reason for the blur is the fact that the conversation lasted for a painful hour and fifteen minutes. I wouldn't have known this if Tony hadn’t positioned himself between me and the four-foot clock in the hotel lobby.

The basis of the conversation centered on what I like about China, where America is located, and what kinds of movies I liked (I think, he could have asked me to star in a porn, he really mumbles a lot). After 75 minutes of excruciating conversation, I finally had to tell Tony that I really had to get some work done, at which point he stood up, shook my hand and declared us ‘best friends forever.’

Excuse me? Am I a fifth grade girl (don't answer that question please)? It has all become clear now, Tony Danza is in love with me; Tony Danza forced the beautiful Liu into running a homoerotic errand in the form of an all-day sucker. Danza is my secret admirer!

After retreating to my room to recover for a couple hours from the stunning news that I am the new gay icon for the Langfang International Hotel, I realized amidst all of all this excitement, I had been ignoring my poor stomach’s cries for food. Because I still cannot order food anywhere but within the hotel, I decided to venture to one of the hotel restaurants.

It was about 2:00 pm, which virtually guaranteed me an empty restaurant, perfect for reading my book in semi-peace (except for the smiles, waves and chatter of the waitresses who gather around any place I eat). Walking back through the lobby, I heard quite a ruckus coming from the some unknown source. As I approached the restaurant, the shouts steadily got louder and louder. The entire marble hotel lobby has impressive acoustics, the sounds seemed to echo from all directions, but the only had one source, the restaurant (the restaurant is called Seafood Sunshine, but has very little of either ironically).

“Ohh! Please tell me Tony’s ok, I just hate it when he fights!” I shrieked running across the lobby towards the commotion.

By this time, quite a crowd of my roommates (hotel staff) had gathered around the entrance and as I approached, they all parted like the Moses parting the Red Sea for me. Inside the restaurant was a lone table of about eight people. It appeared to be a family, grandmother, grandfather, mom, dad, a couple children and they all sounded totally wasted (especially the children, damn kids, keep it under control). I had no idea what they were yelling at, but as soon as the drunken father spotted me, I knew my query was soon to be answered.

Our eyes locked and he was drawn to me like a vampire to blood. Carrying a plate of my favorite food at arms length (these ribs that are cooked in some sort of syrup which kind of makes them Dessert Ribs), this guy came rambling towards me shouting “Hello, Hello, Hello!”

Ok man, damn, I see you. “Hello” I replied in a questioning way. He came up to me and shoved the dessert ribs in my face pointing to something on the plate, shouting and tugging at my shirt. That’s when I saw it, a fly on the plate. All this noise over a damn fly? You’ve got to be kidding me. You dumbasses eat locusts off the ground after rain, you eat duck feet and blood soup, don't even get in my face about a stupid-ass fly.

He just kept in my face shouting, what I assumed to be derogatory remarks about the restaurant and the people that work there. He grabbed my arm and started to pull me away, all of the staff was standing by in some sort of strange awe that I was just standing there laughing. Then he grabbed my hat. That’s not very wise sir. Ohhs and ahhs from the crowd as I grabbed it back. By this time, the rest of the family was standing around me, shouting and pointing at people, grabbing my arms like homeless people in India. He just kept shoving that plate of delicious ribs in my face and shouting.

With possible options dwindling as the crowd grew in size, I realized that I had to do something. Someone from the hotel was trying to pull me away from him, but he just kept coming, shouting, screaming, the noise, the noise! So I did what any self-respecting person would do in situation. I got rid of the situation. If the fly is such a big deal, if the fly is evidence, if the fly represents a tarnish on the hotel, my home, if the fly is soaking in delicious rib syrup, it must be gotten rid of. Hotel/home honor must be preserved at all costs.

Over the course of an average person’s life, an individual will swallow around three pounds of insects. I guarantee, none of them have been carefully prepared in an outstanding syrup sauce, slow roasted over an open flame and prepared on a beautiful plate of garnishes, except one.

You could say I did it for any number of reasons, a laugh, to shut up the drunken Chinese family, attention, to have a good ate-a-fly-on-purpose story. I ate this to defend the honor and reputation of my roommates. Plus it was delicious.

This pretty much shut everyone up for a second. It was my chance to exit stage left. As I walked away, the stunned silent crowd just watched me, much more intense and shocked stares than usual; I caught the eye of one of the hostesses, Mu Duo, and winked at her as I walked away. She blushed and giggled in embarrassment.

Tony (remember Tony?) quickly caught up with me, just spilling apologies and helping me to my seat in the other restaurant. “In my heart, I hope you still eat in our restaurants.”

“Listen Danza, I’ve eaten much worse shit in my life than a fly, I’ve eaten worse shit than that since breakfast. The fact is, where the hell else can I go in this city that has English menus? Don't worry about it man, I really don't mind.” I told myself that if he sat down to eat with me I would be forced bust him in his chops and that I’d be much more likely not to eat here if he kept bugging me (no pun intended).

What is happening to the people around here? Once again, I was forced to retreat to my room for some much needed reflection time. About twenty seconds after locking myself into my room, there was a knock on my door. I assumed it was Tony coming up to kiss me good afternoon or to bring me a flower or just to tell me he was thinking about me. It was, in fact, another guy. Maintenance stopped by to fix a light in my room.

Ok, come on in guys. Wait a minute… is that a mullet? Awesome. Wait another minute…are those breasts? Holy crap, you’re not a man, you’re a manly lady! Ok Barb, just don't beat my ass or leave a flannel shirt on my bed. What can I do for you?

Barb the cleaning lesbian was followed closely by three other people (possibly handlers). She headed for the bedroom with tool-belt in tow with one of the other people. I followed them for no real reason, and as soon as I saw the duct taped wiring behind the television that they started ripping out, I decided that I had no desire to gain a better understanding of the local electrical practices. I now understood that if I were to die here, it would most likely be from a 220-power surge through my shoes to the remote control. I’m already pretty sure that the light wasn't broken in the first place, I should know, they turn on every light in the whole room every night while I’m at dinner (there are 13 lights in my one bedroom hotel room). So I’m already kind of leery of their real intentions.

I apparently interrupted something in the other room because when I returned, one of the other hotel staff was guarding the front door while two others were rummaging through my bathroom. I caught these guys red-handed. They both turned around to see me smiling down at them and practically ran out of the room. Shortly after that, Mr. Barb finished in the room with my light and ambled out.

You bet your ass that as soon as they left I scoured my pad for hidden cameras and recording devices. This is the kind of stuff that freaks me out, I really don't have anything to hide, but these people are in my room several times a day and I have no idea what is so interesting. I’d understand if they had a hummingbird feeder on my balcony that required refilling every day, but that is not the case (unfortunately, hummingbirds are so beautiful).

That very same evening, I was reading my book at dinner and noticed there was an unusually large number of hotel staff in the restaurant and, of course, they were all watching me. Lest we forget, I had, not 6 hours ago dined on a honey-dipped fly in front of nearly the entire hotel staff. I assumed that my heroics were the talk of the nation and that I would have to start kissing babies and shaking hands in my free time.

I was using an unknown business card as a bookmark in my book, which was lying open on the table. One of the hostesses came over and picked up the card. This girl is drop dead cute. Her name is Mu Duo (the one I winked at earlier) and speaks absolutely no English. This is the kind of girl that makes my face warm just watching walk through the hotel. We always smile and say hello to each other (which I do with everyone in China out of kindness and she does to everyone in China because it’s her job). She picked up my card and asked if it was me (ok, she speaks a very little English, but very very little).

“No, I’m not sure who the person on that card is. Here, let me give you one of my cards.” I’m very proud of my business cards, for one, they’re in Chinese on one side, English on the other side (and because they mistakenly put the wrong job title on the cards which makes me look like a playa).

She took the card and smiled like no one I’ve ever seen. “Thank you, thank you!”

“Sure, thank you for coming over and talking to me.” I managed to get out.

She walked off, studying the card intensely. I know this because I was studying her intensely.

That was pretty cool. I’m grinning from ear to ear now, my stomach feels like it was put in upside down, I can’t think about eating or drinking or anything. I’m on cloud nine. My business card made a hottie happy.

On my way out, I walked past her and smiled as big as I could manage. She walked up to me and handed me a note and smiled even bigger than me. A note! Sweet! I said thank you like a freed refugee thanks the soldiers and sprinted up to my room to read the note.

Her note was a ‘thank you’ note for me giving her my card. It said that the note took her like half hour to write and she is very happy to meet me and had her phone number at the bottom. Holy crap! Did I really get a phone number? I immediately text messaged her a thank you message and hoped that we could talk more sometime. Of course, I knew she wouldn't see the message until she got off work in several hours, but that was no reason for me to send her 20 more in the next five minutes asking her why she hasn't responded to me yet.

Here we go again. I am presented with a brief period of giddiness that will no doubt be followed by a realization of truth, but if we don't live for hope, what’s the point of living at all? My life has been reduced to being happy talking to women that come from a different world than me until I meet the next one that comes from a different world. This has been a great way to fill time and a great way to cloud my thoughts during a boring day of work.

There it is, the weekend that the hotel staff went crazy on me, of course some of it rubbed off on me (I did eat a fly, remember?) When life gets boring, you must find your own ways to entertain yourself, I don't usually have much of a problem with that, but around here, there is always something entertaining for me to watch. If that changes, or I get used to it, I must leave, the change and strange are the only reasons I’m here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Peoples Republic Of Meeting Rooms

August 23, 2005
Housekeeping games were brought to an abrupt and embarrassing halt Sunday when I found out that Xinlei is friends with one of the housekeepers on my floor. Good thing I found out now, because they would have been really pissed at me if they walked in just as I was putting the finishing touches on my to-scale tofu and napkin based version of a 1968 Cadillac.

Tuesday was an excellent lesson in business culture, that is, if you were paying attention, and since I don't speak the language, I had about 9 hours to soak it up. To officially finish the first part of our project, Mr. Feng wanted to organize an ‘experts’ type of meeting with all the management for PetroChina. Details were sketchy and I really had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me.

The previous Thursday, I worked with Mr. Li on a PowerPoint presentation that he would deliver to the management people. I put together a slightly watered down version of a huge presentation that we give other companies and wrote comments about each slide for him. I didn't think much of it, we’re asked to give presentations all the time in Kansas City, but Xinlei told me that this was an immense honor and a very good thing for Mr. Li. Mr. Li is a bit younger than me; he’s fairly tall and has a voice deeper than Barry White. He wears shorts and flip-flops to work every day, smokes in all meetings, so naturally he’s my hero. The best part about it is that once I turned the presentation over to him, I was officially off the schedule, which means that I didn't have to come up with something to say, and I could just sit there thinking random thoughts about nicknames for the people in the room.

PetroChina rented out a hotel meeting room (but not in my hotel, so I got to visit yet another hotel). Marlow was to leave the country on Wednesday, so he came out to Langfang for the day to say his goodbyes and help us have a presence of more than two people.

The meeting room was huge, and how they got the table into the room is beyond me. The dark oak table sat about 45 people, with a microphone in front of each seat, a row of chairs all around the walls, several flags at one end of the room, projectors and fresh cups of hot water all over the place. Plus, sitting on each seat was a bag full of unknown goodies.

These bags have begun to baffle me in some stupid way. In the Langfang International Home of Hutmacher, they have meetings every day. Every person at every meeting gets one of these bags and I’ve always wondered what they contain. I’ve learned so much about the hotel services industry, but these bags have been a hard egg to crack. The bags are the type of bags that we use in America when you’re too lazy to buy wrapping paper and wrap the presents (just like me). They are featured at every gathering of more than three people China-wide and are more common than chopsticks and more popular than Jesus (just like the Beatles). They always feature the logo and name of the company putting on the meeting, or the store that you bought the clothes, food, shoes, knives, whatever at. I’ve been busted at least three times trying to look into one, it’s always assumed that I’m trying to steal one, which makes me want to get my mitts in one more than anything and the fierce security around the bags leads me to think that there’s money or an amulet of power in there.

There they are, I will finally get my chance to crack into one and receive what I have rightfully earned. As I walk nervously towards one of the bags on the Tuesday morning, trembling with anticipation of what color and powers the amulet may possess, someone stopped me again.

“I’m sorry sir.”

“What?! I’m actually supposed to be here this time! I want my bag!!!”

“Jesus, ok, I was just going to have you sign in sir.”

“Ohh, yeah, right, ok… here …Agador Sparticus, from Wisconsin. There, we cool?”

I resumed my slow, memorable walk to a bag at the table. Slowly, bounding, momentous. Then I was stopped again, this time by Mr. Feng.

“You cannot sit at the table, you must sit in the outer rim.”

“What? Ohh, ok, gotcha, sorry thanks.” (“Sorry, Thanks” is my typical response for everything I do here in China. This serves two functions, an apology for screwing something up, appreciation for setting me strait without arresting me. I use it about 35 times a day.)

One more time, slowly, around the table, exciting, fear, agony, pain of the unknown, quivering knees and shaking hands. Damn, this is a long walk, screw it.

So I sat down and grabbed a sack and poured it out on the floor like a child on Christmas morning dumping his stocking full of candy and toys and underwear (thanks pop…). A quick account of the contents were slightly disappointing. Here’s the official list: One pen, black; One Notepad, white; 10 Post-It notes, yellow; One schedule, Chinese; One PowerPoint print off, Chinese. That’s it. The total contents contained no gold, amulet, not even an elf or a kitten. I was totally bummed (but I still immediately put all the stuff in my backpack, the pen may be a magic pen, I’ll have to test it out when I get back home).

After waiting around for twenty minutes or so, the meeting was set to begin. I was pretty much expecting it to be similar to a meeting we have in North America, which usually consists of a presentation and open discussion, but I couldn't be further from the truth. The meeting started with the Vice President of Operations of PetroChina giving a welcome, followed by a five second applause, exactly five seconds. Next, the Senior Project Manager guy did the same thing, followed by another five-second applause. This went on for about five people. Twenty minutes into the meeting is when I first felt like I was going to fall asleep. There is something about the relaxing timbre of the Chinese language that is like taking a sleeping pill. I get the same feeling watching NASCAR, or listening to Dave Matthews desperately tries to ‘rock-out’.

Looking around the room, I started to take account of the people who were here, assigning my own little stupid nicknames, then planning on altering them as needed throughout the day. There was Gabriel, the gay officer, Elvis, Drunk Bobby, whistling Charlie and so on. I did notice that there were only three women in the meeting. I wasn't completely surprised by this; in fact, I really kind of expected it. China is a very sexist country, and women’s rights are pretty much reserved for all things food related (serving, making, delivering) or hotel related (cleaning, booking, staring at white guys), so it’s good to see some of them getting their feet in the door in these types of industries.

It would have been an easier day if I could have taken my computer out and worked or written a book (I doubt the headphones would have gone over too well however). The level of honor given to this meeting was pretty impressive, no computers, cell phones or anything. Total attention to the topic of the hour. We should be so lucky to get this sort of support from management when we ask their opinion or advice.

There were two PowerPoint presentations. One by Mr. Zhou who did a 45-minute presentation on the goals and achievements of their GIS (GIS means Geographical Information System, which is what I actually do for a living, copy and paste into your favorite non-pornographic search engine to find out more mind numbing details.) Keep in mind, everything is in Chinese, the slides, the schedule, the language, so there was no way I could have understood what they were talking about. However, every slide had some level of familiarity to me and I couldn't put my finger on it, until, like a scream in church, I realized it. These were all GE slides; this PowerPoint was obviously plagiarized from one of my company’s presentation. In reality, this presentation probably has no value, but I’m again reminded of the fate of everything we sell this country. It will be copied, redone, re-stamped with another name and practically given away.

After the first presentation, we had a ten-minute break, exactly ten minutes. It was kind of like being in prison and getting prodded by a poker or smacked with a book in school when you’re late. I was so nervous, I only went about three feet from the front door of the conference room.

Outside the room, Mr. Li was awaiting his big presentation. He speaks a little English, so I went up to wish him good luck. This guy was a nervous wreck, he was actually breathing deeply and shaking his hands out to try and relax.

“I’m so nervous Lucas” he stuttered.

“Hey man, don't worry about a thing. Just remember that you know more about this than everyone and I’m right here if you get in trouble, just ask, you’ll be fine.”

I tried to sound encouraging, but he was making me nervous for him. This was his first every presentation. Lucky for him, presentations here seem to be 100% guaranteed uninterruptible. That means that he will be able to speak his peace and then be done. No questions, no interruptions, no cell phones, nothing. Just a hot room with canned lights above every seat, warm bottles of water, cups of boiling water to quench the nerves, the hum of the projector, the microphone that reverberates your voice unnecessarily around the room, the silent eyes of 60 people watching, judging, staring, glaring, nostrils flaring at your imperfections.

Other than that, he would be fine.

His presentation was…I don't really know, I found out how to get the internet working on my cell phone, and since I was banished to the back row, corner, behind the shadows of the sound system, I was trying to figure out how to check my email for the next hour. Before I knew it, it was lunchtime. I was starving, so we helped them take the bloodied corpse of Mr. Li to the dumpster and got our grub on.

There was some question as to if PetroChina really wanted us to stay for the whole day or not. Often in these meetings, they like to have a ‘closed door’ portion where they boot us out of the room and talk about us. Apparently, it was blaringly obvious that if they wanted to talk about us, they could just speak Chinese and we’d have no idea. So after a two-hour lunch, we returned to the room for the afternoon discussion session.

Discussion sessions in North America consists of kind of an open forum where everyone brings up points, others agree, disagree, reply, laugh at (that’s my job), whatever. They can get out of hand if the meeting isn’t very well organized, but generally, the end product is better for the wear. This is what I was expecting for the afternoon. I expected to be asked a few questions or be looked at to help explain certain things, just kind of be the expert guy from the Evil Empire of America.

Once more, I couldn't be further from the truth. The ‘discussion’ consisted of this: one person would turn his/her microphone on and talk for five to ten minutes, then someone else would do the same, then someone else, until everyone was talked out. Using Xinlei, I was able to see that nearly all people said the same thing.

“I want to thank Mr. Feng and his team for their hard work. I am very much in favor of the database design and I think this is a good starting point and look forward to learning more in the future.”

Then the next guy.

“I want to thank Mr. Feng and his team for their hard work. I am very much in favor of the database design and I think this is a good starting point and look forward to learning more in the future.”

And so on, and so forth for two hours. There was really no actual ‘discussion’, even though several good questions did come up, no one made any attempt to answer them and no one seemed concerned that there was no answer.

All of this discussion was isolated to who I like to refer to as ‘the table folk’; the people important enough to sit at the table. Everyone else sat there silently, listening (and often sleeping). I downloaded Pac-Man.
During the first presentation and introductions, I noticed one of the guys from our meetings running around taking pictures of everyone talking and a girl running around with a little digital voice recorder, placing it in front of whoever was talking. This continued throughout the entire day. If you were given the floor, you got your picture taken and everything you said was recorded. This probably accounts for the lack of creativity and proactive thinking from the discussions.

We finally got to Gay Gabriel’s turn. This homo turned his turn into a 25-minute rant about something. He was lisping and all kinds of stuff, arms flailing, neck twitching, it was pretty strange. I’m impressed that I could detect a lisp in Chinese.

Xinlei turned to me and whispered, “I think that guy is faggot.”

YES! Two things, I guessed right earlier, and Xinlei is using the word ‘faggot’ now, which means another one of my minions is learning Luke-speak well and using it in his normal life.

I knew Gabriel was bullshitting, because no one was paying attention to him, it was the equivalent of reading names from a phone book in a Congress filibuster. This guy appears to have mastered what I like to refer to as the idiot’s defense mechanism. So many people in my company have this down to an art. Here’s how you master the IDM: Firstly (and most importantly), you must know absolutely nothing about what’s going on. This is the most critical step for obvious reasons. Secondly, you must feel the need to talk anyway, so that no one suspects that you’re an idiot. Thirdly, learn buzzwords and use them incorrectly and repeatedly and talk for way too long, so as to bore anyone listening to death. Fourth, believe that you’re successful at your mission. And lastly, step five; fool no one (except for others that have no idea what’s going on). Optional steps are: make more money than me and get a promotion, continue to not get fired, repeat steps 1-4 at all gatherings of friends and family (not necessarily step 5).

Our company is running two projects simultaneously in China, one is Beijing Gas, and the other is PetroChina. Both projects are basically the same except for time constraints on the Beijing Gas project. The strange thing is that the same company owns both companies. Both companies are paying us quite a bit of money to develop databases for their needs, but they both want the databases to be basically the same. Even though they’re based out of different cities, the project managers of both projects talk quite a bit about progress, database status, cock size, typical things. The company as a whole could have saved several hundred thousand dollars by combining their forces into one ultra-powerful Voltron type project, but they opted not to. Even though this was the PetroChina meeting, there were several people here from the Beijing Gas company that were listening intently and examining the database with a very interested eye.

The project manager for Beijing Gas is Mr. Wong. Throughout the day, he continually proved that he knows more about our system and functionality than anyone else in the company. He hit me up with legitimate questions and took a genuine interest in my answers. His project is the project with the extremely aggressive schedule and I hope that we can pull it off. I’ve been in the consulting role on that project for the most part, quick phone calls, advice etc. But as the project wears on and the time runs out, I’m being pulled into it more and more. He’s a good guy and I could easily work with him, so I really don't mind, of course my company knows that too, so I’ll be getting leaned on pretty heavy in the coming weeks to help out.

Finishing up the day around 4:00, we headed back to the hotel. On our way out, we were invited to dinner with all the bigwigs. It goes without saying, these sorts of dinners are very important to client/contractor relations. I’ve been to several of them in America and South America. They usually involve good food and heavy drinking, which just happen to be two things that I excel at. I hate these damn last minute dinner invitations. This happens all the fucking time. When work is done for the day, I’m done, all I can think of is getting back to my room and drinking coffee until I fall asleep. They usually give us about 20 minutes notice and it pisses me off every time. I the kind of guy that just likes to have due notice of what is required of me, even if they told me at lunch, I would have been fine with it, but 20 minutes is a bit short to keep me in good spirits.

This restaurant featured the largest dinner-round table I’ve seen since being in the country. It sat 25 people comfortably and had a bouquet of flowers in the middle that was about the size of a hot tub (this later turned into a hot-tub sized ashtray unbeknownst to the flowers). At each seat was a pot of soup sitting on a flame, which signified one thing to me. FIRE BOWL! This is the best food in the country. I’ve had it with Xinlei a couple times and each time I ate myself into a stupor and I planned on doing it again tonight (short term dinner notice dinner spirits rising gradually). All this food would be required if I had any hopes of staying sober with all the booty wine that was lurking in the shadows of this private restaurant room.

We all sat down and one by one over the course of about 45 minutes, the bigwigs started showing up. Each as late as their position is high. The final person to show up was the president of the company. Somehow I ended up sitting in the boss area of the table, so I was kind of surrounded by VPs, CEOs and PMs and all the other business acronyms that we hear every day in these troubled times of greed.

Finally, it’s time to eat. I was about to eat my chopsticks. The waitresses had been bringing food in for the last hour; raw meat sitting there, waiting to be boiled in the lovely stew that has been boiling over the open flame in front of me for the last half hour making me sweat profusely. I’m about to get ass deep in some fire bowl, here it goes….

All the sudden, someone starts talking. I say someone because I had no idea who it was. I’ve noticed that in meetings when someone starts to talk, I have no way of telling who it is unless I look at each person one at a time and see if their lips are moving. Everyone sounds the same (except for Gay Gabriel the Filibuster King of Langfang). The more people around, the longer it takes me to isolate the source of the words that I don't understand. This room has roughly thirty people in it, so I have to move quickly, the clock is ticking and this guy isn’t going to talk all day (hopefully). To the untrained eye, it may look as if I’m just not paying attention, casually gazing around the table, off in my own little world. But in my head, I’m frantically trying to solve the puzzle of the unknown voice. I’ve been doing this all day, but at the dinner table, I’m not second row any longer, I’m right in front. A couple times, the person was finished talking and I never did find out whom the voice belonged to. This time, it was the President (I realized that if I just followed everyone’s eyes, I could find the location much easier).

He held up his glass to a toast, I held up my glass along with him, no one else in the room held their glasses up and they all briefly stared at me. I put my glass down quickly, right onto my cup of tea, spilling the hot tea across the table and creating a noise similar to a jackhammer in a crystal goblet shop. All gazes returned to my once more, and unfortunately not for the last time.

It’s cool, I’m cool, we’re cool, you’re cool. Carry on Mr. President, you were saying…. Thus begin dinner and my steady decline into an unknown drunkenness with typical results for someone of my size and dexterity.

We had about five toasts with the nasty booty wine right away. Each of the top dogs got their shot; we all held our glasses up and hit them on the glass table then took a shot. My throat was on fire and my stomach empty.

Finally, people started eating and I dug in like an Ethiopian at The Sizzler, shoveling handfuls of raw meat into the boiling pots, waiting impatiently for them to cook enough to eat. Pulling it out with the chopsticks, dipping in the dipping sauce and then cramming it into my mouth, only to find out that the simple dipping sauce was liquid fire. This sent me into an immediate coughing fit and sent everyone else at the table into an immediate laughing fit.

Several times during dinner, the actual eating degenerated into a drinking festival with everyone walking around toasting each other. I finally finished my glass of booty wine and switched to beer (everyone else had switched to beer long ago). The president of the company started it off by going around toasting everyone in groups of two or three at a time. He even toasted me, saying that he has heard all about me and wanted to go to dinner with me sometime. He’s very busy, but he promised that we would go out to dinner. Xinlei said that that was a pretty impressive honor and that if it happens; it’s newspaper type of news. I actually felt humbled and honored that this guy, who is the boss of several thousand people actually knows who I am and wants to kick it with me. Should be another great experience, but I doubt it’ll ever happen.

The Chinese culture has it’s own distinct form of dinner etiquette. As far as the actual eating process, everything goes; elbows on the table, smoking while others are eating, eating with fingers, belching, farting, shirt and shoes optional, spitting on the floor, eating off others plates, it’s kind of every man for himself. I like it. But the etiquette comes from the toasting and listening. When someone toasts you, you’re supposed to toast with your glass below his or hers as a sign of respect, especially when the person is a higher officer than you. Certain times call for the opposite, like when the officer is truly wanting to thank you; these times the officer will toast the glasses evenly, or even (gasp), below yours. Of course I didn't know this until much later. The president toasted me and I did it like I’m used to, smacking glasses and tilting the glass back the ol’ maw. This did not go unnoticed. When the president is toasting, everyone is watching you out of the corners of their eyes. Eventually I learned to just hold my glass and wait to drink until the other person drank, much safer.

By the end of the night, everyone was toasting everyone. Here’s to America, here’s to China, here’s to your nose, here’s to my nose, here’s to the waitresses, here’s to the flowers, basically anything that came to mind. Needless to say, we got pretty wasted. The lackeys from the other room came in and made sure to toast the president, it kind of looked like a little choir behind the guy, singing Christmas carols (except with beer in their hands and cigarettes hanging from their mouths). The people in the lackey room were totally wasted, I should have ate with them, they’re used to my social mistakes. Everyone has to toast the new guys, especially if you’re Americans. I probably had 15 beers and was still going strong.

Then out of nowhere, the president said something and everyone just got up and left, stumbling into the street, arm in arm, singing our own songs, beer on the breath. Dinner was over as fast as it started.

This dinner was Marlow’s last night in China. He’s been ready to leave for the past three weeks, his wife hates it here, and he’s sick of the food and living out of a hotel room. He hates China, not because it’s China, but because it was China where he realized that he’s tired of traveling and this country will always be that place for him. I can see where he’s coming from, unlike me, he’s got a life back home in Canada. It was a good night and a good sendoff for him. He’ll be back in a month or so to help us finish off the other projects. I’ll still be here, trying to settle into my new routine of living in a hotel.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The 2005 Olympic Housekeeping Games

The housekeeping services here continue to baffle me. They come in every day and pick very strange things to clean I think, one day it’ll be the mirrors, one day the plastic lamps, just kind of random areas of extreme intricate cleaning. I’ve actually started to play games with them to see what they will and wont clean, nothing sick of course, but just little experiments to pass the time and write totally useless theories of maid services in China.

First game I created I like to call ‘Stack Stuff In Weird Places’. This game features me taking objects from the room and stacking them up to see what the results of the housekeeping staff will bring. I put my water-heating kettle on top of the toilet and she put it back in its proper place (one strike on me). The next day, I stacked all of the cans of beer and cola from the refrigerator on the balcony, once again; it was put back in its proper place (two strikes me). Knowing that I needed something strong to keep the inning alive, the next day I put my shoes all along one wall, all the right shoes on the right, all the left shoes on the left (so that I could jump into any pair exactly right assuming my feet were the correct distance apart). Ahh, finally, I got her, she left them (strike one housekeeping). The following day, I took all of my bottled water that I had been saving and stacked them in a checkered pattern on my bed with a sock on the top of each one. Housekeeping steered clear from that one and they left them untouched (probably because of the socks) and I evened the count (strike two housekeeping). Finally, the payoff pitch. I knew this should be something really strange, or they’re going to send me back to the minor leagues. The next day I removed the drawers from my dresser and built a mini-stage out of them. Then I put a chair on top, kind of like a throne. This may have confused them even more and I won the round (three strikes housekeeping, yerrr OUT!). I was master of ‘Stack Stuff’ this week.

The next game I like to call ‘How Can I Get Housekeeping to Fold My Clothes’. My first day in the room, I noticed that housekeeping folded and put away all of my clothes that I unpacked and left on the bed. I had every intention of doing this myself, but had to leave and when I came back, it was all taken care of. Some days, I notice that they don't fold certain clothes, so I decided that I had to form a hypothesis about the limits and definition of the clothes folding extremes of the housekeeping staff. Here are my findings. The staff will fold clothes left on the bed. They will not fold clothes on the balcony (or even bring them inside). They will fold linens in the bathroom no matter where they’re located (except in the toilet I assume, but I’m not that heartless). If something is left on a chair, they will fold it and leave it on that same chair. If there is a pile of clothes on the floor, they will not fold them. If you have two shirts inside of each other, they will fold both as one and not separate them. They will fold stocking hats. They will not fold any piece of clothing that is taking part in the function of something else in the room (such as a sock on a light bulb to dampen the glare, or a shirt tied up to hold grapes). Not much of a game, but good for the learning process of a slightly bored tenant.

The last game is a game that the housekeeping staff came up with without telling me, I call it ‘Trash Or Not’. I realized this game was being played when I found a stack of receipts on my table missing. The housekeeping staff won this game hands down: it’s all trash unless it’s hidden in a suitcase. I guess we both get to make games up and it’s up to the other team to learn the rules.

I think my games have created some confusion amongst the 15th floor housekeeping staff and the service has started to slack, not that it bothers me all that much, this place is still way cleaner than anywhere else I’ve lived.

Sunday night, in my quest to find a place to work other than the desk uncomfortable desk in my room, I ventured through some unknown parts of the hotel and found a place on the third floor of the lobby the other day that suits my needs fairly well. There’s several off-white leather couches, the seats are stained black brown with some kind of like someone shat in them, but oh well, they’re comfortable. I’ve gone there two or three times over the course week. Finding a place outside the room forces me to use my headphones, which I’m always looking for. I seem to get more work done when I’ve got them on, kind of like an invisibility hat or something. My headphones are the best $25 I’ve ever spent in my life. They’ve got a ten-foot cord and the earpieces are the size of biscuits (not like those gay iPod earbuds). I use them all day every day when I’m in the office back home, since I’ve been in China, I mostly listen to speakers, which is nice for the inner-ear heat buildup problems that come from wearing headphones, but I like to have the music surrounding my entire world, which starts at my ears and ends at my eyes. When they’re on, I feel isolated in my own little world. With that said, I pretty much act like I’m in a nightclub when I’ve got them on. I have no scruples with dancing in my chair and often singing out loud. I also convince myself that everyone within eyeshot of my singing and stomping knows exactly what I’m listening to.

In some strange way, I also enjoy the distractions of people walking around as well. The work that I do involves waiting around for the computer to do it’s magic for five minutes several times an hour, so it’s always a good time to look around, see and be seen, maybe take advantage of the long cord and break out the moonwalk or a couple of bars of the Running Man in front of the cleaning or wait staff.

It’s hard to understand how I can create a less than typical work environment and thrive in it so well. My laptop battery lasts about an hour and a half, but in that short time, three times this week, I got more work done than I had the entire previous week. My Magic Headphones.

I’ve also proved to be pretty entertaining to the staff of the third floor. The third floor has very little traffic, only a four or five people work there and there few facilities to attract crowds (like sauna or restaurant). But those that are up there throw me plenty of smiles, laughs and nearly frightened looks. I think I need to take this show on the road, or maybe just to the first floor lobby.

During dinner in the restaurant Jenny #2 (who works in the bar) brought me a Diet Coke. This is strange since she doesn't even work there, but she brought it, sent all the other staff away and poured it for me, then bowed, smiled and turned bright red. Then we chatted for a couple minutes, she asked me about my book, I tried to ask her if she went out the night before, but she had no idea what I was talking about.

Poor Xinlei. After he’s gone for the weekend, his whole first day back is spent with the hotel staff telling him stuff to tell me that they couldn't communicate to me. They come up to us over lunch and tell him what to tell me, he tells me, waits for my answer, redelivers it to them in Chinese and they smile, laugh and walk off, then the next person comes up and the process repeats. None of it is work related, and it’s usually pretty strange questions from the staff.

“Do you like the fruit?” “Yes, thank you, it’s very good.” Thank you, next.
“Is America big?” “Um, yes, yes it is.” Thank you, next.
“Do you like the Chinese beer?” “I guess so, I’d give it all up for some Makers Mark or Captain Morgans though.” Thank you, next.
“Do you speak Chinese?” “What the hell do you think?” Thank you, next.

This goes on quite a bit, and Xinlei handles it like a champ. I think he kind of enjoys the attention, but so do I of course.

After dinner, which consisted of baby ribs in some type of syrup that’s kind of like eating heaven, as well as small talk with the waitresses (very small talk, as none of them speak English. Write them down ladies, Xinlei will be here tomorrow) and reading about fifty pages of my next book, I came up to my room and realized that I was pretty unproductive over the weekend. This prompted me to sit down to get a couple hours of work done. These weekend hours add up and allow me to sleep in a bit during the week, as well as provide a way to while away the hours some. I pretty much work seven days a week, anywhere from three to fifteen hours a day, they have a tendency to add up over the course of time, but I’m pretty used to it and it gets me used to working long hours when it is required (and it also helps avoid the 100 hour weeks right before a deadline). I have been wrongly accused of having a good work ethic many times, but it’s simply an outright lie, I just try not to get swamped and stay a bit ahead of the curve. But there is a warning that comes with this method of thinking: Becoming too popular or too good or too right or too on time too many times to too many people will cause them to depend on you, lean on you and finally crush you. I feel it from time to time, but have been able to divert the pressure with various amounts of success.

My interest in work lasted exactly seven seconds so I loaded my computer up and headed down to my Third Floor Business Office, but it was so quiet there that I decided to hit the big show, the First Floor Lobby. I sat down there and worked until my laptop batteries were completely drained. If attention is what I needed, I sure got it down there. The lobby is right in the middle of every thing in the whole hotel; the front desk, the buffet, the VIP Restaurant, the Western Restaurant, the Chinese Restaurant and various entrances to other hotel facilities (pool, bar, club, blah, blah…) and the front door. At each door is stationed a minimum of two girls, who, on Sunday night are bored out of their mind. To watch the white guy dancing with headphones on for an hour was quite a pleasure apparently. They would disappear for a second and return with a couple more girls who would watch me for a minute, giggling like crazy women, and return to work.

After my battery died down, I stopped in the bar to see how the German’s trip to the Great Wall was today. He looked pretty worn down, those guys don't wear shorts and Pumas like me, they’re in black pants, black shirts and black dress shoes all the time, so he was probably hurting pretty good. They took him to Badaling, which is Great Wall Tourist Central. Then he told me that they ate at a really good duck restaurant in Beijing.

“For real?! That’s the greatest restaurant in the city man, if I knew you were going there, I would have forged the army of umbrellas and pasty white Europeans.”

“Yes man, it was the best food I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Wolfgang and another German came in not long after (Michael I think). Those guys love their beer. I was pretty tired, so I said my goodbyes and hit the elevator.

However, something caught my eye on the way to the elevator. There is a girl at the front desk that is movie star hot. We always smile at each other (I smile at everyone here, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise), but when I walked by, I noticed a couple of the other girls talking to her and nudging her. She looked up and said something that I couldn't understand very well, but that was enough of a window for me. I ended up talking to her for about fifteen minutes. She said she didn't have an American name, but her Chinese name is Liu. Immediate respect. Every time you ask someone their name, they always come back with their American name, which they choose themselves (Dorothy, Mary Jane, Petra, John, Hector, what have you); I’m way more impressed by people’s real names. Tell me the name your parents want you to be called, not Ducky or Barbara or Emilio, your real name.

Liu speaks very good English, probably the best so far in the hotel. She wrote some things down for me in Chinese that I can learn to say, which I will memorize because she’s hot. There was a couple words she couldn't think of in English, so she wanted me to talk to her tomorrow and she’ll have her dictionary (Someone say 2nd date? I think so.).

It was a very nice conversation with promise for more in the future. I made another pact with another girl to help them with English if they help me with Chinese, if they really understood English, they would know that I’d help them with English if they help me with booty acquisition.

I think it has something to do with my hair growing into phase two. Phase one is the one to three weeks after getting cut where it pretty much looks like it was designed to look by the barber. Phase two forces me to put a part in it and lasts an additional four weeks. I have no idea how I’m going to get a haircut; I should just grow it out like Sampson. I’m set to enter Phase three in two more weeks which features the middle part with a hat all the time. Phase four is an additional four weeks - the Johnny Damon. My power mullet.

All in all, things are smoothing out nicely, I’m getting to know people around here, getting good work done on time, writing, reading and smiling more. Change and pressure can break you if you let it, but when you see a light at the end of tunnel, you have to charge at it with all your will and hope that it’s not just another fuse waiting to ignite an explosion of pain. You never know until you approach it.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

That pimp just grabbed my unit, just ask the German

Mr. Feng bought me a ‘learn Chinese’ phonics book; the ages are 0-3 (or 30 year old Americans). I’ve pretty much given up on trying to learn the language; it’s just too difficult. Everyone tells me how to say something different - hotel, car, beer, his or her names, numbers. It goes in one ear and out the other, I repeat it until they are convinced that I am pronouncing it correctly and immediately forget it. Everyone thinks that I’m picking these words up and placing them neatly into my long term memory, little do they know that my long term memory is a cluttered mess of random things that are totally useless for me to remember; my family’s phone number when I was five years old (542-0287), the definition of facultative heterochromatinization (because it’s really long word and somehow justifies seven years in college studying biology), Ozzie Smith’s hometown (Mobile, Alabama), plus a smattering of memories that I wish I could forget. Instead of Chinese, I’ve spent my time learning how to spin chopsticks on my fingers. It’s entertaining for everyone to watch and keeps the communication on a ‘demonstration’ level instead of words.

Xinlei went back to Beijing again this weekend for driver’s school. Apparently, to get your drivers license here, it’s a major undertaking. He goes for about 10 hours a weekend for around 2 months, that’s a lot of hours. Some of the tests that he describes, I know there’s no way I could pass. The process rivals the passport and immigration process that I’ve been going through, but once you have your license at least you get to drive, I just get all my underwear from customs when I’ve got all my paperwork. From what I’ve seen, once you get the license, all bets are off, and you’re free to drive on the sidewalks and run red lights.

Friday night, I was extremely bored, so I went on a walk through the Slutty Chick District again. This time I went several blocks farther to an enormous city square. People here are always doing stuff outside, the streets and benches and sidewalks were packed. This is most likely due to the fact that the average Chinese citizen household does not own a television. I know that I’ve been much more productive since I’ve been here away from the television (I’ve had the time and lazy motivation to write all this crap down).

This square featured an outdoor auditorium style water show. They played classical music and jets of water and light went off in unison. It was similar to how American fireworks displays are. It was a very surreal experience, old, young, parents, children, everyone sitting around on concrete steps all pointing down to this sunken pool with lights and flashes and water going everywhere to music. Next to the Water Works Cinema, there was an outdoor track that was about the size of a basketball court. People were walking, jogging, sprinting around this thing; others were sitting back watching, smoking, kissing, or holding each other. People everywhere, just enjoying the beautiful weather while it lasted.

After an hour or so I meandered back to the hotel and decided to hit the hotel bar for a beer or two. I sat down at the bar with a German guy named Kai. Kai is here for a couple weeks installing a machine of some sort. He’s about 26 years old and has the same comments as I do about the communication issues here in China, which is even worse for him being a German speaking English to Chinese people who speak it right back to him. It’s amazing to think that the language spoke in his meetings here are non-native languages for everyone in the room.

There were three waitresses here and we had a really good time talking to them. One of them, Jenny (another Jenny?), spoke pretty good English and the other two (Joanna and Harmony) spoke a slightly less. These are the first real people I’ve met in the hotel since I’ve been here. I typically don't hang out in bars, but sometimes, it’s nice to get out of the room. I had six or seven beers, Kai had about the same. Somewhere along the way, before I got there, Kai had given Jenny the nickname Monica. I’m not really sure where it came from and why he thought it was so funny, but it was a joke and I laughed right along with him. Jenny asked me if Monica was a good name. Being the good honest person that I am, the only legitimate response I could give her was “Monica? That’s a great name. Monica is the Princess of America. Very honorable.” The German spit beer out of his nose at that one.

The ladies got off work at midnight to be replaced by another guy (Ben) who spoke no English. About 15 minutes after that, I convinced Kai to venture out to the Slutty Chick District to find a bar and have a couple drinks. He had the same comment about every suggestion “Shit, happens, let’s do it.” Awesome, we’re out.

The nightlife in China is more of an evening-life. They pretty much roll up the carpets around 11:30, so by the time we got over there, the bustling of sluts and pimps and hairstylists had been reduced to a mere smoldering of a handful of people just hanging out with the hopeful looks of possibility in their eyes. There may have been three or four places that were still open, so we just picked one and went in.

This is where it got a little bit strange.

This place was pretty rundown, it was about the size of my living room, with bright pink lights all over the place (again, just like my living room). There were two stools at the bar and two couches and a coffee table in the main part of the bar. That’s it, nothing else. On one of the couches laid a fat girl with some serious dental issues, grinning at me like an idiot. On the other couch was the ‘mammason’, sprawled out with enough hair in her armpits to clog a toilet. The manager guy, who kind of looked like DJ Q-Bert, got us a couple beers and started getting in our faces slapping his palm with his fist, which I now know is the international sign for “you want sex fatty?” Kai immediately was extremely uncomfortable; I was drunk and trying to explain to the guy that we just wanted a beer and nothing else. He didn't know a lick of English, so it ended up with me just laughing at him and telling him that my friend here, Johnny Cochrane, is interested in buying some property in South Africa.

By this time, Q-Bert was around the front of the bar, standing between us. Out of nowhere, he reached down and grabbed my package.

“What the fuck? Did you just grab my junk Q? …….THAT’S SO FUNNY!!!” I howled in a drunken laughter.

The German didn't share my sense of humor and got pretty offended, but it still didn't stop Q-Bert from grabbing both of our units a couple more times. He only stopped when I, laughing my ass off, grabbed his little unit like Crocodile Dundee at a cocktail party.

By this time, Q was getting desperate, he was asking us if we wanted two girls, or 14 year olds, he was even trying to pimp out some dude that was washing dishes. Somewhere along the way, Snaggle Tooth came up next to me and started rubbing her tits on me and Captain Caveman mammason was rubbing my leg and the German was about to go Hitler on these guys, so I suggested we quaff the rest of our beers and get the hell out of there. But, the beer was super cheap, so I knew there was a pretty good chance that I’d be back there sometime.

Total elapsed time in this bar? About thirteen minutes.

It was only about 12:45 and we really needed more beer, so we went a couple whorehouses down and found a nice quiet little place to have another beer. This place was very similar in appearance, but without the super aggressive pimp. There was an older guy and two girls eating some food, no music, nice and quiet. They served us a beer and left us alone. The quiet made me think of something; the Chinese eat loud as hell. This cute little girl was on the couch slurping her food and smacking her lips, grunting, snorting and spitting. It was like watching Shirley Temple back up the toilet and spend a half hour going to town on it with a plunger. Totally sexy. Of course, by this time, we were both pretty drunk and extremely loud. What started out to be one beer, quickly turned into about five. After about our third beer, I noticed these people were dropping off like flies. One guy was sleeping on the couch, a girl was curled up in the corner like a Labrador, but we just kept drinking.

This place had the wettest bathroom in the city. A mixture of the amount of beer and the urine/greasy tiled floor made it extremely difficult to hit the hole in the floor. Plus the ceiling was so low I had to duck down. It was kind of like going to the bathroom in the back seat of a Volkswagen.

Finally, out of some mixture of pity, we decided to let these poor people go to sleep and took off. By this time, it was about 3:30 AM, and there was nobody anywhere. We stayed up later than the whole city of Langfang that night. Arm in arm, we returned to the hotel, singing and laughing and dancing like white morons, hoping that the hotel bar was still open, but alas, it was closed. Once again, my only option was to go to sleep and dream of a hangover.

Saturday was much the same, work from the hotel room, eat a couple light meals, work a bit more. In the evening I went down to the bar again where I kicked it with the German for a couple hours. I met another German, Wolfgang (for real). These guys are everywhere. Wolfgang is an older guy who does some sort of instrument configuration work for some German company. He’s really nice and we had a good talk. Kai had to go to bed early because the next morning he had his big sightseeing trip to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City (poor guy, he better wear umbrella safety glasses).

After the waitresses got off work, they made sure to come back through the bar to show off their non-work clothes. Jenny (the new jenny) came out dressed nice and good, she’s pretty cool. I think she wanted me to go out with her and her friends, but alas, Wolfgang was beatin’ on my eardrum when she left. I ended up staying up talking with Wolfgang until about 3:00 am. It was a good week and I’m starting to feel a bit more comfortable here at last.

I’ve been enjoying the seclusion quite a bit. It’s been nice to not be expected to communicate; it has freed my mind for other activities and freed my subconscious from the burdens of sorting out white noise from background conversations. It allows me to use my senses for other purposes, using my ears to hear the city, using my eyes to taste the air. It’s like a blind person being able to improve his other senses to help see the world. My heart has felt empty over the past few years and I’m beginning to realize that it is because I haven’t allowed my mind and body to fill it with the wonders and problems of the world. Walled up in Overland Park or New York or Houston or anywhere in America have dulled our minds to life, but when the walls begin to crumble it becomes apparent that our hearts cannot be consumed with our surroundings if we are to have clarity.

Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim “It is extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had ever known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much – everything – in a flash – before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence.”

How true.