Monday, November 28, 2005

My Honkey Weekend

***Editors note: I have omitted the first couple pages of this weeks entry due to heavy inflammatory remarks about someone that I was very pissed off at the time of the writing. I believe that anybody with a writing lifestyle as flagrant as mine should have a spotless criminal record, if only for reasons of karma and keeping myself employed. My apologies if the beginning doesn't make much sense. Maybe it will come out in the wash in a later compilation of these lame writings. - Lucas

The only reason I wanted to go to Beijing at all has nothing to do with work (of course) or sight seeing (if I have to go back to the Forbidden City, I’ll be wearin’ a dynamite belt), that strange shopping bug had embedded itself in my noggin, like a high school cheerleader. We were planning on meeting Niall and Dave and going to the Silk Market, which is the knock-off shopping mall. They’ve showed me some of the watches they’ve bought and these things are sweet, about one or two of every ten quits working, but at $20, they’re practically disposable. I was planning on finding one or two that I like, barter them down a bit and roll out of there with an authentic Rolex (or authentic Relox). The second thing that I really needed to get is an external hard drive for my laptop. They don't sell them at the Silk market, but Xinlei said he would take me to the electronics district and wrestle a few gigs from their tiny vice-like hands.

Heading to Beijing for the weekend, both PetroChina and Beijing Gas refused our requests for a driver, which is always a bad sign, so we were loaded in two taxis. Chris and Laura took one taxi and I rode alone in the taxi with our usual non-work related driver. The guy is great, he knows a little English, but is constantly listening to tapes to learn more. Xinlei and him talk the entire trip anywhere when we travel together. Here’s a bit of advice, if you’re going to be somewhere long term without a car, find a driver that is really good, get his phone number (they will all give it to you) and use the guy all the time. Either he will be an honest guy or at least screw you the same way every time you use him.

I was really in the need of some alone time. Ever since Chris got here, he’s been knocking at my door every morning wanting to set up an internal network to ‘get some work done.’ Screw that dog; this homeboy is still getting his sleep on. If it wasn't at 8:00 am everyday, it’d be different, but my hours are stretched quite long (work all day, conference calls and other stuff well into the evening and drinking well into the night). There’s no such thing as a ‘regular work day’, if I work 8 hours, it’s probably spread out over about 20 hours of the day. Chris is way smarter than I am and he’s very curious to learn the stuff we’re doing which is somewhat new to him. Normally, I love showing people how to do stuff, but this has not been a good time to be a shoulder bird watching and asking questions. When there’s problems or errors or issues, I’m not a very pleasant person to be asking questions to. I feel bad for being grumpy the whole time, but I kept saying things like “Ok guys, just get out of here for a couple hours and let me work on it, I promise I’ll tell you what I found, but I just need to work alone.”

My pressure related team-working skills continue to degenerate to new levels, which will be bad when I get back home. It’s easy to be a good person when things are going straight, it’s the times of stress that we see what we’re made of, and I am often embarrassed of myself upon later reflection (one more thing in the long list of ‘things to fix’. Number 1,372: Don't be an asshole when things aren’t going well. Right below # 1,371: Cotton balls are not food, despite their resemblance to marshmallows.)

Getting into town at around 3:00 in the afternoon, I was hoping to go and grab a nap for a couple hours, but alas, Marlow and Xinlei were standing in the lobby when we got in. Our brief conversation went kind of like this:

“Marlow, welcome back to China. What’s going on?” I said cheerily, not caring what his response was.

“Hey Luc, (because he cant spell my name right even when he talks) just hoping to get you to come with me to the Beijing Gas office for an afternoon meeting.”

“Suck my what?”

“What do you have going on right now?”

“Well, I’m going to go upstairs and sleep for a couple hours and probably stay up all night working again. I told you I couldn't go to this meeting with you and I’m still not going. But let me know how it goes.”

“I know, I was just hoping… oh well. I at least need you for an hour later to go over some charges to the project. I don't know who some of these people are.”

“No problem, have a good meeting. Sorry Xinlei, but good luck.” I said to the angry Chinese man in the corner.

About two hours later Xinlei called me to let me know that the meeting was over and to try to figure out what was going on for the rest weekend. He has a million friends in Beijing and I try to leave him alone as much as possible when we’re here for the weekend. Originally we were going to go to the electronics store Saturday morning, but since we had a good chunk of Friday afternoon left, I suggested we do it then, that way he’d be free for the rest of the weekend. He agreed and we rolled up to the electronics store.

I get the feeling he comes this place all the time, it’s the ultimate tech-geek place and if you know the ropes, you can get stuff at bargain basement prices. His technique is to go around and get a general idea of the cost of the purchase, but not to purchase anything. It turns out that about 1300 yaks is the going rate for an 80 gig hard drive. Unfortunately, the sales people are always trying to sell the shelf goods, which are treated like our old dog when she pissed on the floor. The goal is to get something untouched and get it for near cost.

After wandering around for 20 minutes or so, we went to find his inside man (actually woman, actually girl) and give her the low down. She said that I was handsome and scurried off on a mission (the ‘handsome’ part plays no part in the story, but she said it, and I’m putting that shit in here). About ten minutes later, she returned and said she could get me the whole package for 1020 yaks (about $110 USD). I forked the money over to her and she was off running again. It was kind of a strange feeling, like we were doing something. I felt a journalist paying for a video of a senator sneaking around a hotel with a prostitute.

The whole time, Xinlei had a huge grin on his face. He totally gets a kick out of showing me how it’s done and I love watching him. China belongs to him, he knows the system, plus he’s had enough western influence between living in the UK and US that he can take advantage of it in very useful ways.

He dropped me off at the hotel and took off to a party. I was pretty worn out and had a lot of work to get done, so we bid farewell and set our Langfang return time for around noon on Sunday. He’s happy and free for the weekend in the city he loves and I grunted back to my hole to get some work done.

I was working in my room later that night, around 11:00 and the front desk called. They told me that they didn't take enough of a deposit out of my credit card and needed me to come downstairs to run my card again. I told them that it was too late and that I’d gladly do it for them in the morning, but they insisted. Work was going to shit and I was not in the mood to deal with these horrible people right now. The Celebrity International Hotel is very typical of China in general; on the outside it looks really nice and classy, but after about 10 seconds, you realize that it’s all a joke, the facilities are shit, the people don't have a clue and the beer is expensive. I hate staying here and every time I’m, it gets worse.

As it turns out, my credit card was rejected. I had them run the thing three times, the flashing red light on the credit card machine reflected in my eyes in intense anger. I grabbed the card back from them before they could cut it up and called Laura. I was so pissed off by this point. How the hell could my company card have gotten canceled? Was I fired? Has it really been that long since I’ve done my expense report? What the hell. I was fuming. The stress from work already had me operating at about an 88% anger/frustrated level; this just put me over the top. They told me I could use my personal card. Yeah right, I’ll sleep on the streets before I subject my credit cards to this thieving country’s credit card machines, especially at this roach motel.

Laura came down and rescued me and talked me back from the edge of the building, something that she’s gotten pretty good at lately. I spent the next two hours on the phone with the travel hotline and the credit card hotline and all of the other people that refuse to talk to each other, even though they’re practically doing the same service. Eventually, my findings were this: My credit card was cancelled and no one knew why. But if I had my manager log a case into the company Internet help desk, they would turn it back on… sometime.

Another couple of hours of phone calls with my HR manager and my boss and I was on my way, all said and done, I have no idea how long my card would be out of commission. By this time, I was in desperate need of alcohol and I knew just the companion I needed. Laura. I twisted her arm for about one tenth of a second and she caved and we went down to the bar to work and, more importantly, drink. Of course the bar was closing, so we ordered four beers each and worked until about 4:30 am.

I still had tons of work to do and things weren’t looking well for the project. I was frustrated and confused, tired and angry, quiet and not drunk enough. Reluctantly I went to bed, knowing that the Friday was going to be brutal. Project delivery in less than a week and I still wanted to go shopping this weekend. Naturally I slept like shit.

Friday morning came extremely early. I had a one-hour meeting with Marlow, an hour and a half conference call that I can’t even remember, and about six hours of project work. Overall, a fairly uneventful day. My technical problems are still not going any better and I am stressed. Kept a pretty low profile Friday night. The next morning, we were all going to meet Dave and Niall at the Silk Market for some shopping and public drunkenness. On a scale of 1-10, Friday was a flawed Three, with wild fluctuations from midnight to midnight.

Saturday morning was possibly the worst breakfast I’ve ever had, yet another reason to hate the Celebrity. I yearn (nice word) for Langfang dammit, long for, dream of. Around 11:30, Chris, Laura and I went to meet Dave and Niall, and more importantly, try our luck at negotiating us some stolen or fake watches and clothes at the Silk Market. Once again, my inner-mind expectations were significantly different than the reality in front of me. I was honestly expecting to be buying stuff from people in the street, like a fruit market, or at least temporary shacks along a row, maybe a sleazy back alley. It was nothing like that.

The Silk Market is a five-story shopping center. Each floor features a different set of goods. One floor was all bags and shoes (hello Puma…), another floor was men’s clothes, one was women’s clothes, one was house wares and art/souvenirs and the top floor was watches and electronics. Each floor was divided up into five or six rows; jam packed with goods about 50 yards long. There was so much stuff crammed in here; you could barely walk through the isles. White people were going nuts; it was like a Pottery Barn Black Friday sale in the place. I should have known better than thinking that this would be subtle; the Chinese people are selling stolen and knockoffs and don't give a damn, in fact, they built one of the nicest buildings in the city dedicated to it, and behold…foreigners came by the thousands, just like Mao predicted.

We quickly found the two Brits and I got the skinny on watch price range; never pay more than 300 yaks each (about $28 USD each). That’s all I needed to know and I set off to buy my first watch. Laura and Chris really weren’t into it, but I jumped into it like a child at the county lake on Memorial Day, only to find out that the water is still only a fraction of a degree above freezing. I knew that most people get taken pretty good for their first watch and I wasn't going to fall victim to this, I knew my price range and was going to stick to it. I quickly found a very nice Breitling. This watch was sweet. Here was the basic course of my ‘watch negotiation’ conversation with the poor young girl behind the counter.

“I really like this watch, how much is it?” I asked casually, not even looking up at her.

“Ohh, that watch is very high quality, one of our nicest watches, it goes for 2200 RMB..” She exclaimed proudly.

“Ha, ok, never mind then” I said as I started to put the watch back.

“…but today, I give you special ‘friend’ price, because you look like a friend, 1900.”

“Not a chance, sorry to bother you.” I laughed at her.

“Wait, wait, I meant 1500, but that’s a really low price for you.”

“That’s still way too high, I’m just wasting my time, thank you anyway.”

“Ok, ok, how much? What’s your best price?” She asked me.

“My best price? 20 RMB” My key is to get them as low as possible before I even mention money, the undercut the piss out of them.

“Come on man, that’s crazy. How about 1200?”

“No, this watch isn’t worth more than 40, there I just doubled my ‘best price’, that’s my ‘friend’ price.” I said with a slight smile on my face.

“No, no, come on, you must be serious with me. This watch is high quality, high quality, see!” She then took out a screwdriver and started banging on the face with it; somehow she was trying to prove to me that the glass was good.

“What the hell are you doing lady?! You’re ruining it, 35!” Of course she hadn’t done anything to it, but when you start going the other way, they flip out.

“No! No! This good quality, good quality! How about 900? That’s my best price.”

“Ok, how about 70? I’ve doubled my price again. We have a deal?”

“No deal! You’re a very bad man! I cannot go lower than 750! That is the price we pay for the watches, you’re taking money from me now!”

“No I’m not, you’re a sly little vixen. I’ll give you 140. I’ve doubled my price again, that’s twice in a row. Do we have a deal?”

“Come on, be serious. 675, my best deal, best price.”

“No way lady, I’ll buy one somewhere else, forget it.” And I put the watch back down and do my first ‘walk away’.

“Come back, come back! Ok, 600. You’re really going to get me in trouble.” She said desperately, grabbing me by my arm.

“That’s still way too much. I’ll give you 150 for it.”

“No, 550!”

“No, 155!”

“Be serious! 500! Best price”

“165.”

“450.”

“Just forget it, you’re cute as a button but hard as a diamond, I have to have money to pay for lunch and you’re trying to take it away. Do you not want me to eat food?”

“Yes yes, you should eat, but I cannot give you better price, 400.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, opening my wallet and taking out 200 yaks. “Here’s 200, that’s my last offer and I promise you I’m not getting any more money out. If you want it, just take the money, just take it.” I placed the money on the counter and stared her down.

“No, not good enough, 350.”

“I told you, 200. Should I leave?”

“No man, you’re very bad man! 300, please?”

Now I’ve got her, she’s actually asking me now, begging me.

“There’s the 200, all you have to do is take it, then I can bring my friends here and tell them how wonderful you are. Just take it, I promise it’s real, just take it.”

“250, please sir, please?”

“200, just do it and we can forget all about this.”

“210?”

“Come on baby, I’m not going to fight you over 10 yaks, just take the 200.”

“Ok, ok, but you’re a very bad man! You go now!”

There it was. Total time elapsed, about 10 minutes, if that. Honestly, I bet these people here love their jobs

I ended up buying four watches, spending a total of about $100 USD, plus I bought a pair of Oakleys that I’ll never wear for $4 and a Swiss Army weekend suitcase for $10.

Laura was pretty skeptical of the whole ordeal and hung back trying to ignore the whole process until she saw me negotiate my Swiss Army bag. Something in her snapped and was informed by her subconscious that she needed a watch, but was nervous about the whole bartering process and she asked me to negotiate her a watch.

She found a couple Rolexes that she liked and it was my turn to play. With Chris and Laura as my audience, I stepped on stage and went to work on the young girl behind the counter with a couple thumbscrews and pipe wrench. In about ten minutes, I ended up getting her two watches for about 275 yaks (about $35 USD). Laura and Chris were continuously trying to stifle their laughter and disbelief at the things I was saying to this girl. They were astounded and amazed and most of all, entertained (you cant put a price on that, especially in yaks). All Laura could say was “Man, that was so awesome!”

Chris slapped me on the back and asked me to do the same thing for him. He wanted the stereotypical ‘cheap’ Rolex, a watch that wasn't going to fool anyone about its authenticity. We found one and I started my business on another girl behind another counter, he should have gotten this watch for about 100 yaks, but when it was his money at stake, he was less apt to let me work and kept interrupting. He ended up paying more for his watch than I did for any of mine. I think he was afraid of offending them and getting us thrown out of the joint (the Chinese prey on these weak minded fools). There is no room in the Chinese society for scruples, especially if you’re a foreigner. They know we have money (compared to them) and that’s all we are to them, like in the cartoons where the duck looks at the rich chicken sees is a burlap sack with green dollar signs, a chained monocle balanced on the top, and chicken legs sticking out of the bottom.

Chris was then ready to try his hand at bartering (I didn't necessarily agree, but he wasn't spending any of my yaks). He found a laptop backpack that he liked and went into attack mode. Long story short, he paid about twice the amount he should have for his bag, Dave and I hung our heads in shame, but Chris didn't mind. I think the bag was still only about $18 USD.

After a couple hours at the Silk Market, we realized that we had been ignoring the cries for help coming from our stomachs and we headed to the Peking Roast Duck place. This is my favorite restaurant in Beijing, but it was closed for another couple hours (many restaurants in China celebrate the Mexican siesta work hours). We headed across the street to have a couple beers (which turned into about four monster local 30 oz beers). We all dumped out our booty on the tables like a bunch of pirates back from pillaging a merchant ship and passed watches, shirts, glasses, everything around and laughed at how awesome we were (back at the Silk Market, all those girls were doing the same thing with our fistfuls of yaks).

We continued to drink during dinner and killed two ducks and a ton of other food. This place is a tourist area, so we weren’t stared Langfang style, so it was a nice relief.

After dinner, Dave and Niall were going to head back to Langfang while Laura, Chris and I were going to roll to the Celebrity Hotel of Shit. We hung around outside with them for a couple hours waiting for their driver to get there, snapping pictures and of course, drinking more beer. Chris bought a Chinese fighter-pilot helmet for his kid, so we passed it around and pretended to be communists. Dave and I also posed for about a dozen pictures with various Citizens who wanted their children to remember the great white giants that used to walk the earth.

Laura and Chris were not coming back to Langfang, so tonight was their good byes with Dave and Niall. Chris had only been here for a week, so he didn't know them as well as Laura and I did. Eventually their driver showed up and Laura and the boys said their goodbyes. I knew that I’d be seeing them next week still, but they’ll be leaving soon too, it will be tough to say bye to them, they’re really good people and we’ve had some real fun together. One week from now, I’ll be alone again here and I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

Eventually, the three of us made it back to the hotel around 10:00 pm. By this time, we had been drinking on and off for about seven hours and I was already living on a dangerous combination of caffeine, lack of sleep and life frustration, my course of action should have taken me directly to bed. It would have too if Xinlei hadn’t messaged me to see if I wanted to go to a pub (calling ‘bars’ ‘pubs’ is his most noticeable souvenir from a year in the UK) and have a couple beers with him and meet a ‘pretty lady’ that he met not long ago. When alcohol runs my body, I will choose more alcohol and girls over sleep, even at the tender age of 30.

I had about 20 minutes to sober up, so I drank two beers while I waited for the coffee to brew and before I knew it, I was in a taxi with Xinlei on our way to a bar.

In the taxi, Xinlei gave me the hot-chick lowdown for me. He had met her at an industry conference in Shanghai last week (the same conference that I was asked to go to, but couldn't due to extreme work overload). She was 26 years old, single and very pretty. She had dumped her last boyfriend recently because he was kind of immature, lazy and it was pulling her down. She was on the prowl for someone who’s around 30 years old, funny, professional and is mature (they say “I need a Man, not a Boy”). Keeping in mind my alcohol level and knack for not remembering conversation details, as well as the fact that it was coming from Xinlei (who has been trying to get me set up with a girlfriend here for two months already), I really had no idea what to expect.

We arrived at The Goose and Duck at a noon according to my new watch. The Goose and Duck is an expatriate bar that caters primarily to English people. Soccer was on the television and pints of beer littered the tables in this packed house. We grabbed a seat, ordered a couple beers and watched the house band warm up. This bar had more white people in it than I have seen since I’ve been in China. It was like a damn Gap commercial and I was immediately on edge.

The band was an 80’s English music cover band, which meant that they played Elton John, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Flock of Seagulls cover songs. Cover bands are always risky business in America; the band members are usually musicians that fall into one of two categories. First, the cover band is their regular income while the constantly work on several side projects, making demo tapes, playing shows in basements or Junior High School graduations, guys who are just biding their time before they hand off their demo-tape to ‘the lead singer of Puddle of Mud’ at Ozzfest next weekend. The other types of cover band musicians are the people who just do it for fun, they’ve got day jobs and families, they just like to play music without the stress of writing their own music. The band at Duck and Goose was different, the cover band IS their life, there are no ‘side projects’, there’s no Puddle of Mud or Ozzfest (yet another reason to like China), this was their job and they held onto it with the dedication and sincerity of a brain surgeon. Their music reminded me of a Picasso painting; all the pieces were there, but not necessarily in the right place. Xinlei was impressed as I sang along to every song that they played. All in all, it even bad western music was a nice change from the ‘good’ Chinese music.

Somewhere between No One Ever Is To Blame and Karma Chameleon, we decided to get out of the way of the hoards of people flooding the dance floor. We made our way back to the dart boards and I taught Xinlei how to play cricket, not UK cricket with arm guards, bowling creases and googlies, but the proper drunk game played with sharp object being hurled at a cork board with varying degrees of accuracy (however, I was wearing the puffy shin-guards). After one game, I could see that Xinlei was beating me at my own game (much like when we shoot pool).

After about half an hour and three more beers, I noticed a very beautiful girl sitting by the bar in the corner. She was as hot as I was drunk (which often go hand in hand in my experience). She appeared to be checking us out (at least my drunk head was telling me so).

“Hey dude, look at that girl over there. She’s smokin’ hot, and she keeps looking over here I think.” I said, pulling on Xinlei’s sleeve (this is also a pretty good dart distraction tactic, but in this case it was true).

“Dude, that’s her!” He laughed at me. After he saw her, she smiled and stood up and walked over to where we were handling sharp objects and beer.

Her name was Mattie and she was drop-dead model type of beautiful. She doesn't drink, so she ordered some hot tea (imagine that) while Xinlei and I continued our downward spiral into a blurry haze. We played darts for a bit and eventually moved upstairs to shoot pool.

The evening was becoming a blur and I was cursing myself for not pacing my drinking any better, even though my watch said it was only 12:05 pm, I knew that I had been drinking for nearly 11 hours by now. I desperately needed to sober up and not make a jackass of myself, or at least sober up so that I can remember exactly the method of my demise.

At some point, Xinlei disappeared on the phone (no doubt to talk with some girl). Mattie and I sat down and chatted for a while, our first real conversation, our first chance to get to know each other, the introduction and presentation part of any first meeting between two people. This was a crucial juncture, one that should not be approached unless both people are either drunk or are sober. Unless she was slipping some everclear or gin into her tea, she was sober. You already know what state I was in, but there was no avoiding it. Lines of communication must be established and this was the only window of opportunity we may have.

There is no need to go into ‘conversation’ mode of the ensuing conversation for three reasons. First, I’m horrible at writing about it. Secondly, nothing very interesting happened, which is actually a very good thing, which means that I didn't try to grab her breasts, or ask her to marry me, or try to pick up the pool table to display my lion-like strength. Lastly, the specifics have slipped my mind, trying to piece together my notes is like trying to read Naked Lunch and I remember the general stuff. Another result of alcohol induced continuous partial attention.

She manages the Chinese sales market for a Dutch company, a company that is a direct competitor of my company. She is very dedicated to her work; she probably works about as many hours as I do every week. She’s fighting an uphill battle in her career. Chinese women are given very little respect as professionals in this country, and being in sales, it’s even more difficult. She’s very lucky to be working for a Western world company, which at least gets her respect within the company. She learned English through one of those power-English schools here. A person could get lost in her eyes and her hair is like a dark waterfall. We exchanged business cards (the new ‘hip’ thing to do) and phone numbers and resumed playing pool, drinking tea and beer, and chatting.

Mercifully, Xinlei came back before I could really put my foot in my mouth and we were ejected from the bar shortly thereafter because it was closing. I was wicked tired; you can imagine my surprise in realizing that only five minutes had elapsed since our arrival (according to my new watch). Mattie and Xinlei were hungry and they offered to get me a taxi back to the hotel, which I refused. I was drunk and tired, but I wasn't about to voluntarily lose the chance to keep kicking it with Mattie for another hour.

We went across the street to a Korean restaurant and ate some food. It really didn't taste very good, but I chalked that up to my taste buds being somewhat rattled from beer and cigars. About halfway through dinner, everything hit me like a freight train. The beer in my stomach, the intense heat from the restaurant, and the strange odor from the fish on the table combined to make me feel like throwing up and passing out. I was sweating like Oscar Zeta Acosta and my stomach was rumbling. Mattie and Xinlei just kept eating.

“What’s wrong Luke?” Mattie asked.

“Nothing, I think I’m just really tired all the sudden. What time is it?”

“It’s 4:45 am, we should get you back to the hotel.”

“Hmm, my watch says it’s only 12:15…. Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m sorry, it just snuck up on me.”

“That’s ok, I think we’re finished anyway.”

Mercifully, we left. We dropped Mattie off and Xinlei and I headed back to the Celebrity.

On the way back, I felt it necessary to talk, mainly to keep from passing out or throwing up in the back seat.

“Hey man, did something happen with you and your girlfriend lately? You’ve really been out and about a lot lately with a bunch of girls, not that it’s really any of my business.”

“Yeah, kind of. I’ll know more in a day or two, but I’m pretty sad right now.”

“Dude, I’m so sorry. If there’s anything you need, just say the word. You’re the man and I hate to see you upset.”

“Thanks man, maybe just a hug.”

“Ok…that’s a little more gay than I had in mind, but you got it.”

About 5:00 am (or 12:22 pm, according to what timepiece you were looking at), I finally made it to my bed. It felt great and I was going to sleep until 12:00 the next day (which was 22 hours from now according to my watch).

Apparently Laura thought otherwise. Around 8:30, she called me to let me know she was going to church.

“Ok, you better not mention what I did last night, just stick to your sins, I’ll straighten up with the big guy after I brush my teeth. Will you be back early enough for me to check out? I think I need to use your card because mine is still cancelled.” I don't know how I remembered that, but I’m glad I was able to mumble it.

“Sure, no problem. You sound tired.”

“Yeah, I’ve only been asleep for about 3 hours. I’ll tell you about it when I’m sober, sometime next week. You’re the man Cracken, thanks, Jesus loves you.”

The rest of the day was a haze; I ended up getting back to Langfang around 4:00. At some point, I sent Mattie a text message to apologize for ‘being so tired’ last night and she replied that she had a great time and it was good to meet me.

Xinlei tells me that I have my choice of any woman I meet, they all like me, but the fact is, they all like him. That was reaffirmed at dinner by one of the waitresses who said that all of the girls at the hotel are in love with Mr. Yu. It’s true, he is the man and I can’t blame them.

I spent Sunday evening writing and trying to figure out why I have this empty feeling in my stomach and why I keep thinking about Mattie. I need to clear my head. This week is going to be extremely rough; I have a lot to do. Wednesday, we’re delivering the final version of the first project and I will be working late and early the next two days, but it’s good to be alone again. Laura and I really hit it off well this time and I’d work with her anytime.

These past few weeks have been hell on me. I’ve been stressed, eating less, writing less, reading less and drinking more. Those are five things that I hate and I can see it in my eyes in the mornings and feel it in my heart at night. There will always be stretches like this, it’s just a matter of keeping a clear head and staying focused on the end. I must learn from these times, I must use the pain as an opportunity to make myself better. This is when we earn the stripes that we wear our whole lives.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Half-Court Hoop Dreams

Sunday morning, I had the chance to do what I’ve been hoping to do since I came to China; play basketball. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m at best an average basketball player. However, in my mind, I will be a pimp on the courts in China. I’m 6’5” and have some level of coordination. Where I lack is my stamina. I’m usually good for a solid five minutes before I call our team’s first time out. I was invited to play ball with Mr. Li (Barry White guy who gave the presentation at the big-ass meeting last week) and a guy that I only know as ‘Charlie’. We were going to meet a couple more people from PetroChina who I will never remember their names.

Li and Charlie picked me up at the hotel around 9:30 and presented me with a brand new basketball, as per Mr. Young’s orders at the foot-massage dinner last week. When I say ‘presented’, that’s exactly what I mean, they both had a hand on the ball and lowered their heads when passing it over to me, at which point I bowed and raised my hands to my head in a wai. Everything here is so ceremonious, it’s ridiculous sometimes. You don't just hand someone a business card, you present it with both hands and a lowered head. You don't just get a pen from your boss; it is handed over with a handshake and a photograph, like politicians signing a treaty. You don't take a drink at a business dinner without toasting someone or being toasted. If I asked my boss for a pen, I’d be lucky if he didn't draw blood when he threw it at me from across the room, if I asked him for a business card, he’d just point to the cabinet where they are and keep working. Honestly, I prefer the North American way of ‘serve yourself or get the hell outta the way’, it’s just easier and there is less opportunity to make a jackass out of yourself for some stupid cultural faux pas.

About four blocks from my house (the hotel), there is a community center that resembles the basketball stadium at a small junior college. Since this was going to be my Chinese debut, I decided to do it up right; Adidas tear always, big hooded sweatshirt, cock-eyed Cardinal’s hat, and some fresh kicks.

If there was a recreation center this size in North America, it would have about four basketball courts, two weight rooms, Pilates, yoga, swimming pool, all that crap (it would also cost about $150 USD a month to park your Hummer in the parking lot). So, I was expecting to see quite a bit of stuff in here. There were a handful of people there, maybe twenty or so and they all watched me intently as I crossed the court. The stadium featured a sunken court with one basketball court in the middle and about seven badminten courts around the side. That’s it. Buildings here are always much larger than their North American counterparts. They all have huge neon signs and grand stairways and beautiful gardens outside, but the insides are always about the same – pretty nasty. I often get the feeling that the entire nation of China suffers from some sort of small-man’s complex, or are trying make up for something that they all have that is very small (maybe feet or ears or something else that I cant think of).

Once again, I experienced the black-guy-in-a-bar-in-1820-Arizona phenomenon. All action stopped and there was nothing but silence and stares. Jesus people, haven’t you ever seen a magazine or something? There was a game of three on three going at one end and we headed to the far end of the court to shoot around a bit while we waited for the others to show up.

Today, I was looking forward to the stares. By this time, I’m seeing myself in the third person (like Rickey Henderson) and the camera is about five feet from me, a bit lower than my head and Jay-Z is my mental soundtrack. As the camera follows me across the court, the gym transforms from a Division II basketball arena to Madison Square Garden and all eyes are on me as I move slowly through my stretches and casually shoot around for about 15 minutes before tip off.

I tossed Li the ball to take a shot and he missed the lob and the ball rolled into the middle of the three on three game, stopping play once again. Li came back and did a lay-up with the precision of a fifth grade girl, the ball bouncing off the bottom of the rim, hitting him in his nose, then tripping him.

I’m going to dominate today.

Li chased the ball down and passed it to me, actually, it was more ‘at me’ than ‘to me’, but I managed to wrangle the stray cow coming at me and pop up my first jumper in china. It was a beautiful, arching 15 footer from the top of the key, perfect spin, good follow through.

Perfect air ball.

“Ok, Li, give me the ball, I was just playin’ with you guys.” I laughed dismissively.

Same shot, not an air ball, but it was a stunning brick.

What the hell? I look good, why haven’t I made a shot yet? This sucks. I’m supposed to be the stuff legends are made of.

One more time, I’m just going to try that ladies lay-up that Li just tried.

Ahh, there it is. Shootin’ 33% baby!

Right as I made my first shot, the other two guys from PetroChina showed up. If I was dressed like Kevin Garnett, these guys were Michael Jordans. They were dressed in full North Carolina blue uniforms (without the logos, just the light blue tanks and shorts), had matching shoes and looked like ballers. Of course, I forgot their names the minute they were introduced to me, but that’s fairly common.

Somehow Li divided up the teams using this spin-the-ball trick. Eventually, I realized that it was Li and I verses North Carolina.

None of these guys speak any English (Li does a very little bit, just enough to be frustrating). This means that my yells of ‘Over here!’ and ‘Nice shot!’ (which I never actually said all day) fell on deaf ears, but that didn't stop me from yelling and talking. Some of these things are just normal basketball.

Everywhere you play basketball has different ‘local’ rules. Everyone speaking Chinese makes these rules a bit difficult to understand, but eventually I realized that it was make-it-take-it without ‘checking’ the ball, just take it to the top of the key and drive.

And drove I did.

I was flying around the court, blocking shots, dropping lay-ups, sinking twelve footers, stealin’, wheelin’ and reelin’. For about two minutes.

After vomiting in my backpack, I decided to take it a bit slower. The thing is, as soon as I got the ball, everyone on the court cleared the lane, so I could casually go and make an uncontested shot. It was like they were throwing the game (and they very well could have been for all I know), but it didn't matter, I was loving it.

I had to be careful with my passes, if I put any sauce on it, the recipient would have no chance of catching it. I hit many noses, knees, nuts, elbows whatever. Sassy ‘trick’ moves like bounce passes were completely out of the question. I made a no-look pass once and they thought I threw it out of bounds on purpose.

These guys were so bad that I felt sorry for them. Every time I blocked a shot, they would all clap and cheer me on. If I touched the rim, they would shudder in amazement and everyone in the building would stare at me in awe.

Not long after we started playing, Mr. Feng and Mr. Zhou came to play badminton. We lost a couple players to other games so I took Li and Charlie on in a game of 2-on-1. I beat them three games in a row.

Xinlei and I played a game of badminton with Mr. Feng and Li. I’m surprisingly good at the game despite knowing none of the rules. My reaction time and long arms make up for my slow speed and large body and Xinlei was somewhat impressed.

The game also bored the shit out of me so I went back to the basketball court and played a game with a bunch of other people that had showed up whom I’ve nicknamed Stinky, Big Poppa, Bug Eye and Golfer Pete. These guys weren’t much better, but Big Poppa was as big as a sumo wrestler and did a good job of keeping me in line, I only put up about 28 points.

There it is, my debut as a semi-pro basketball player in China. It was about like I expected, I’m fairly good by default and the fact that I’ve played quite a bit of ball in my life helps out quite a bit. I’m likely going to play a lot more, it’s good exercise and these people think I’m a stud. Just what my ego needs.

After playing for a few hours, Li informed me that we were going to lunch. I don't know about most people, but after running for three hours, diving into some greasy spoon is the last thing on my mind, like smoking a cigar after a marathon. It didn't matter, and the five of us went off to the steak house.

The steak house is always a trip when you’re eating with locals. I had to help all of them use the knife and fork, plus they each ordered two plates (two ‘steaks’, two salads, two baskets of bread, two servings of pasta, two bowls of soup). I left that place with leg cramps from basketball and stomach cramps from badly cooked beef intake.

So my debut of basketball went. It was quite a bit of fun and, now that I know where the place is and have my own basketball, I’ll probably be going there a few more times. The United Nations was greatly amused by my basketball stories, but none of them would agree to join me next time.

Most of the week was spent working an asinine number of hours juggling two projects. Laura and I have been plugging away and she has held in there admirably. She’s great to work with and I learning a ton, which means that there’s one more person learning my job so I’ll be able to do other stuff. Chris has also been here to help us out, but he’s having a difficult time fitting in with the little schedule Laura and I have fallen into. Because of our late nights of drinking, neither of us wake up until mid-morning. Whenever we get up, we go to breakfast, if anyone is there, we sit with them, if not, no big deal. Under no circumstances do we call each other in the morning before the breakfast buffet is closed (10:00 am). With as many hours as we work, being able to sleep in the mornings is a great reward.

Chris is not of this school of thought. He doesn't participate in our nightly drinking excursions, so he’s not tired or hung-over in the mornings. So, every day, he calls Laura and I around 7:45 to see if we are ready to go to breakfast. If we don't answer, he’ll come to our rooms at 8:30, complete with his computer, ready to start working. This is at least one hour before I am usually awake. I have tried to explain to him to just chill in his room, we’re all kind of doing our own thing and the group work effort isn’t very necessary, but he has a hard time accepting that work can get done without defined structure. Everyone works differently, so it’s not a big deal. He’s a cool cat and it’s good to have him around.

Also this week, Jenny (Jenny #1) and I briefly reopened booty negotiations in the form of a couple phone calls and text messages. The first week of October is a national holiday week in China and most people in the Chinese business world get the whole week off work, including me. I’ve missed out on several US holidays and will miss out on several more before it’s all said and done. Jenny is in Chendu for a couple months assisting with translation for a couple people from our company and I’d really like to go visit her and she’d really like me to come visit her. The problem is, she has to work seven days a week. I’ve called in the closer, Xinlei, to see what he thinks and he’s been hitting the phone trying to organize a couple days off for her. This guy is amazing. It’s like trying to get three days leave in Tokyo in MASH.

On Friday, negotiations were abruptly cut short in the form of an emergency appendectomy for Jenny, which will put her out of commission for a couple weeks. It could still happen, but the cards are stacked again. It’s just good to talk to her because she really is great. Her English has improved greatly from working with honkeys for these past weeks and she’s really proud of herself, I am too, it’s quite impressive to speak other languages.

Since Laura as been here in Langfang, my drinking has increased exponentially. I’m not sure how much it has to do with her specifically, or just that beer is so cheap here and there is finally some good company to socialize with. I really don't like beer that much, but I sure have been drinking every night for three weeks until about 1:00 am every night. Laura, Niall, David and I are pretty standard bar flies right now, we’ve been accompanied by various other foreigners over the weeks; Franz the South African, some Swede guy, Jayson the other Sperm Sorter, this Austrian Michael who’s kind of a prick (isn’t there some other famous Austrian? I’m not sure, but facial hair comes to mind). It feels really good to be able to talk freely, at a natural speed and be understood. It’s a welcome change, especially because it’s only for a couple weeks.

This weekend, Dave, Niall, Laura, Chris and I are planning on going to Beijing to do some shopping and drinking. I’m not sure what to expect, but with all these people around, we’re sure to have a good time, or at the very least, a bad time with a good story to tell.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

They can't see us, you idiot, we're in the Spirit World

I got a haircut on Saturday. For some reason, every time I thought about living in a foreign country, the first thing that came to mind was “How will I get my hair cut?” I have no idea why it’s this thought that surfaces, I’m not very finicky about my hair, I just like it simple, but when you get a bad haircut, you have to look at it every day. Plus, you try to think about the ‘everyday’ things that you will have to do without being able to communicate. I think everyone would have something on that list that would concern them, or stick in their minds; groceries, getting gas, taxis, for some reason haircut got stuck in my head like that song you cant stop singing.

In Langfang there are about ten thousand salons, every other building is one with a handful of people lounging around. I would call them salons only in the most technical sense; they’ve got the haircutting chairs (maybe one or two), there are scissors and mirrors with lights around them, and there are people in there that will cut your hair, but most of them just want to take you upstairs for a mid-body manicure. For obvious reasons, I dreaded visiting one of those places. Niall had told me that the hotel salon is pretty good, so I gathered up the courage and hit the 2nd floor salon.

Up until now, I’ve always thought this room was a massage parlor of some sort. There are always a couple very attractive women in there in short skirts with deadly eyes. If you’re an attractive woman here that’s not working behind the front desk or helping you to your seat, there’s a good bet you’re a prostitute of some sort. I walked in and there was a guy sleeping in the corner and a very attractive tall woman sitting there brushing her hair. She saw me and jumped up and I made the international sign for haircut and she nodded and let me to a chair (this may be the first time anyone has used the international sign for haircut, I’m a pioneer).

The best haircuts are the quick ones. I don't like to make an afternoon out of it, just clip my shit for 20 minutes or so, let me hand you a fist of money and I’ll be on my way. She sat me down and gave me the first of three hair washings I would receive for the day. She scrubbed my hair and head for about 15 minutes, then proceeded to massage my neck and hitting all kinds of strange pressure points that felt really good. Then she went and started on my neck and shoulders and came around front and placed my arm across her nice bare legs and began rubbing my hands. This felt so good; I should do this every day. I was watching her with an intrigue of someone who cannot speak but still tries to see someone’s soul.

After about a half hour of hand and arm massaging, she asked me if I’d like a private massage in my room for 100 yaks (about $10.50 US), but she had that twinkle in her eye and a very coy grin. She wanted to give me a massage then get me to go for the Premium Package, complete with dirty sex and whatnot. There it is, she says goodnight the naughty way.

This is the first time I’ve really been tempted to do anything like this. I don't know why, it just seemed so innocent, and I was in a weakened state of post-finger massaging bliss that my will was nearly broken. This is also the first time that I’ve been proposed to when the girl has already been rubbing me down. I told her no, but if I had a beer or two in me, there’s no telling what I would have done. It’s just that there is sex all around this city, everyone is selling it. There are three facilities in my hotel alone that offer ladies; two of them have their own rooms for it. Everywhere you look, there is the advertised service and the moneymaking service and they are never the same. It’s a dangerous game and my conscious could never live with that in it’s closet. If I’m having bad dreams now, I can’t even imagine the dreams that would come from playing an active part in the prostitution industry. To date, this is the closest I’ve come to being broken and it frightens me more than a little bit.

As these thoughts were racing through my head, she leaned me forward and dunked me in a tub of water to rinse my hair. I now had about two cups of water in my nose and was coughing uncontrollably. I still haven’t seen a pair of scissors or clippers, so I’m hoping that I’m in the right place. The guy is still sleeping in the corner, but the massage slut with the bomb legs yells something to him and he comes over to lead me to another chair and begins pulling out clippers, brushes, rusty scalpels and other implements of destruction. It was all fun and games until the sharp instruments are brought into play. I’m also nervous about this guy’s capability of going from deep REM sleep to haircutting speed in a matter of 20 seconds. I know when I’m tired, I can’t spell right, I trip over stuff on the floor, I can’t even look at lights. This man has razor sharp blades in one hand and my scalp in the other.

He begins to comb my hair over and play around with it. This is particular communication issue that I’ve had on my mind. How the hell am I going to tell this guy what to do? The only thing I could do was point to different parts of my head and make show of fingers of how long my hair was and then make it half that. Either he understood or he didn't care because he just started lopping hair off left and right. Keeping in mind that I have worn glasses since I was in fifth grade, I cannot even see the mirror, let alone my hair, but I notice that something feels strange, like my hair is sitting differently. After about three minutes of wandering what’s going on, my anticipation of what he’s doing to me climaxes. I ‘casually’ put my glasses on and look at myself in the mirror.

I understand that, being only halfway done, this haircut should be considered a work in progress, but he parted my hair the wrong way! What does this mean? Not much other that when I reached up and fixed it, showed him where my part really was, my head looked like a big triangle, or a rapper from 1986, or maybe an anime cartoon character. This meant that he had to start the sculpting process over.

When it was all said and done, it actually looked pretty good and it cost about $6 US, plus I got my head, neck, arms and ear lobes massaged by a hot hooker and my hair washed three times.

The entire rest of the day, I couldn't get it out of my mind how close I was to breaking back there and it really bothered me. The act of sex is such a strange idea over here. It’s everywhere, but no one talks about it. The non-slutty chick part of society is so shy and timid, it’s hard to imagine that they would ever have sex; they get all flushed when you smile at them and cringe and tremble like wounded deer when you touch them. The slutty chick part of society just throws it right out in your face, flashing you, making funny animal sounds, eating lollipops. There’s an amazing gap between the two sides of the world and is no middle ground. David goes to the places several times a week; he says he usually gets two women for about 400 yaks (about $50) and that they’ll do anything he wants (“Do you want to see the pictures?” He asks me). I’m not sure how kinky the British can be, but I’ve got a good imagination. I hope his fiancĂ© doesn't find out.

Prostitution is still very much illegal here, but like so many laws, it is mainly ignored. How can it be enforced? The only prostitution related statistic that I could find was one that said in 1996, there were 420,000 prostitution arrests. In 1995, the population of China was reported at 1.22 billion people. First of all, that was nine years ago. Second of all, I have never seen one arrest in six months, and I live next to an entire neighborhood dedicated to it (in fact, I’ve never seen a cop outside of running traffic at busy intersections). So you would think that number might be one-tenth the total number (from what I have seen, even one-tenth is a very low number). That would put the number of prostitutes in China at 4.2 million (zeros are impressive: 4,200,000 women). Chinese police are more corrupt than Texas politicians, I bet the reason I haven’t seen any cops is because they’re all in the knock-shops helping young ladies ‘reduce their fines’.

By population growth charts that I casually looked up on the internet, the Chinese population has been estimated to be 1.5 billion by 2025, that would put it at roughly 1.32 million people now (a mere difference of 100 million people), so maybe 4.55 million women are prostitutes. Please keep in mind, the Chinese are not known for their honest statistics, they have historically reported numbers that reflect good on the country, I liken the Chinese government to a frat-boy’s response to the question “How many women have you slept with?” (Bad karma China, bad karma).

If you were to crack down on prostitution, that would flood the job market with and extra 4.55 million people. Jobs here are tough enough to get, if you made it more difficult by adding another 4 ½ million people, there would be some serious problems. What would they do? How would they make money? That’s a number that could affect the value of the yak, dropping it even lower. It’s quite a predicament and the government just doesn't have the manpower to stop it. I see relatively few police around here, many less than the number of police in the States. Every cop is bribable; you’d have to be an extremely bad prostitute to get arrested.

I will let my subconscious ponder the results of writing negatively about the Chinese government, in the meantime, I must move on to a happier and less hairy problem, my deodorant situation.

I’m nearly out of deodorant already, so I went to the shopping market/grocery store/mall to get some, I searched that place head to toe and came up with nothing. I was told that Chinese men don't stink. What the hell ever, I can’t even walk down the street past them sometimes. I think they just have really shitty noses around here. I’m going to have to figure a way to get some from America. One more thing to tack to the list of crap to have Chris bring when he comes in a week or so.

I noticed that the moon was blood red Tuesday night. Some cultures think that they can see the future in the color of the moon. I have never seen a moon as red as it was Tuesday. You only get to see the sun or moon once every couple weeks here, which makes them the two most endangered species in Asia.

Tuesday’s United Nations drinking marathon featured the standard cast of David, Niall, Laura, Franz and Michael (unfortunately, last week, we had to say goodbye to the Sperm Sorter and a bottomless well of joke material). David and the South African Franz started talking crap to each other right off the bat about who could drink more. The South African started every sentence with “I’m from lion country.” No one was sure what exactly that was supposed to mean, but he was proud of it. I quickly immediately began to make fun of it, which could have been dangerous because the guy is twice my size. “I’m from BBQ country.” “I’m from Country country.” “I’m from chocolate nougat country.”
These went on and on into the night, the absurdity increasing with each empty beer bottle on the table. Before we knew it, South African bought a bottle of the booty wine and we all had a shot. I then cut my tongue out and let it rest in my front pocket the rest of the night. Soon, we had us a good old-fashioned drinking contest going on between the nations. I tried to keep a level head in lieu of the fact that it was Tuesday, but Laura stepped up like a champ to represent the stars and stripes. Waitress Jenny refused to give Laura booty wine, she said that it is a mans only drink, but the South African strong-armed her into forking it over, and I can attest to the fact that Laura can out drink about 90% of the men in the world.

Soon, David had to be helped out of his chair and up to his room where he could dream of hangovers and prostitutes he has yet to defile UK style.

By now, it was approaching 12:00 (the only reason I know this is because shift-change is 11:30). This is about the time of night that our alcohol consumption tends to bring out the deep-drunk conversations. No topic is taboo and all answers are held in strict confidence (until some asshole writes about them and passes it out to all his friends). Anyone who drinks knows all about these talks.

The first question came from Niall and it was simply this: Why do Americans always say ‘I’m sorry’ after saying that they’re from the USA?

When you think about it, the natives of most countries in the world have deep-seeded love and immense pride for their country. While most Americans are definitely happy to be Americans, American pride is often not shown off much (outside of cool eagle tattoos), especially over the last decade. I don't apologize for being an American, but what I usually do is feel the need to separate ‘America the government’ from ‘America the people’. Right now, our government has reached astronomical levels of corruption and greed on a global scale. People from other nations are always questioning me to why our government is up in everyone’s asses all the time (or, arses when you’re talking to people from England); it’s often embarrassing to have to explain the governments actions. That’s one reason why I think people apologize from being American, we’re not sorry to be Americans, we’re sorry to impose our government on the rest of the world and embarrassed that the people have less governmental influence than corporations (who, technically, are not even citizens).

My second reason that it may not seem as though Americans have much ‘American pride’ is because we’re still a very young country. Most people here are only four or five generations or so from foreign soil descent. This places us into somewhat of an identity crisis where we still identify with our old blood some (kind of like a high-school kid). I drunkenly proved this point by asking Niall, who is Irish and married to an English wife, what descent his son would say he is. He said that he would probably say he’s English-Irish. England-Ireland is not a country (I had to check a map to make sure). What about his children? Well, it would depend on where they lived. That’s only two generations; I think the subconscious works longer than that. Americans are fighting a subconscious identity crisis. Drunk point made and drunk point taken.

Then came a more uncomfortable conversation on why Africa fails constantly. Niall says that the black people aren’t in a position to manage themselves. He wasn't saying this in a racist way, he explained, but take the sheer number of tribes plus country and state borders that do not follow tribal borders; this makes an immense cultural quilt.

Plus, in the slavery times, many tribes were capturing other tribe’s members and selling them to the white people. This, as you can imagine, created a very deep seeded anger between many tribes, anger that is not easily satiated and overcome by handshakes and apologies. The South African is racist, however, and says that they’re just idiots. That was about the last thing he said before stumbling to bed.

Then there were three; Laura, Niall and myself. We’ve already tackled racism and politics, what else could there be to discuss. Oh yeah, religion.

“What’s the point of religion?” Who the hell is asking these questions? It’s not me; I’m still reeling from the booty wine and slavery questions.

Laura is a Catholic, as is Niall. Since the gloves were off, they wanted to know how I felt about religion. Therefore, I felt free to tell them my opinion of the Catholic Church. Sham. The Catholic Church strong-arms its people with guilt and threats of damnation while it turns a blind eye on causes that aren’t financially suitable for discussion. It alienates homosexuals when everyone knows that historically the convents and priest-palaces have been a safe haven for gay people who would be tarred, feathered and hung by the general population if their ‘secret’ were to get out.

“Ok, then you’re an atheist, right?” Niall asked.

“No, absolutely not, I’m just a proud non-Catholic”

“Then, what’s religion to you?”

I’m drunk and in an honest mood so I decide to break down my feelings on religion and god for these two to hear. My feelings are this; there is a god and I talk to him on a daily basis. What do I believe is the key to get into heaven? Be good and believe. Ask every day for clarity, ask to be blessed to see the difference between right and wrong and truly repent for not knowing the difference in my past.

There it is, my views on religion and how I attempt to apply it to my life in less than 100 words.

“What about spirituality?” Niall asked next.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Well, for example, seeing spirits, other worlds, ghosts that kind of stuff.”

“Well, I can’t see ghosts or anything, but just because I cannot perceive them doesn't mean that they don't exist. I can’t hear a dog whistle, but that doesn't mean it’s not making a sound. How do you feel about it?”

“I’ve seen sprits my whole life. In this room right now, for example, there are two spirits.”

We have just lost cabin pressure.

“There is one guy standing over there in the corner, “ He pointed over to a corner. “He’s just kind of standing there; I really don't know what he’s doing here. He’s not in the way, for the life of me I can’t figure out why he’s here. He appears to be a waiter of some sort.”

Wow, this is great stuff. I mean, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up, but this is great stuff.

“Do they see you?” Laura quietly asked.

“Oh yeah, they try to communicate with me, but they can’t see you or each other.” By this time he’s whispering and has a glassed over look to his eyes, staring off into another direction. “But it’s this other guys that scares me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, slightly afraid of the answer.

“Well, I know why he’s here and he’s got me freaked out pretty good. He really wants to communicate with me more, but there’s no way I’ll let him closer to me. He’s a real bad person, real bad. He was an executioner or murderer or something, he killed, he killed a lot and he enjoyed it, really loved it. Even as I talk to you about it, his wicked smile gets larger and I can just see it in his eyes. He’s tied to this place somehow; this is the place that he did his killing long ago. He’s a very very bad person”

Just great, I won’t sleep for two weeks now.

Laura and I are speechless. The way he’s whispering, the look of fear in his eyes, there is no way I would doubt him. I’ve got another friend whose entire family sees the same things and they freak me out periodically.

Niall fell asleep shortly after that and we decided it would be a good time to call it a night. Laura and I thought that it was probably be a good idea not to explain our conversation with Sky or Jenny; these girls would piss themselves. Let this be a lesson: spirits can be a real buzz kill.

We all stumbled up to our rooms and tried to sleep. I had to call my friend in KC to tell her what happened, I was more than a little freaked out, but soon the ten beers I had won the battle and I was off into another strange dream infested sleep.

Another colleague got to town on Saturday evening, Chris. He’s a database administrator in our company and is going to perform some sort of computer magic that I’ll never understand. He’ll be here for two weeks and he brought me two very important things - deodorant and a 2nd laptop battery. Now, I’ll be able to work longer and smell better (not necessarily in that order).

Sunday was a Chinese holiday – Mid Autumn Day. The big thing is to eat Moon Cakes; everyone’s been talking it for about three months. I’m kind of glad to get it over. It’s been like Christmas advertisements around here. As I was leaving dinner Sunday, Jenny pulled me aside and wanted to give me a moon cake. She’s so damn nice to us, me especially. Her attitude is amazing and smile and laugh are great. Moon Cakes are like eating hockey pucks and I have accumulated about 100 of them in my room from various people (I was recently informed that no one really eats the things, they take the ones their given and give them as gifts to other people, pass it on, pass it on).

The people here are always being so nice to me. We’re all starting to be pretty comfortable around each other despite the language differences (which means that I’m responsible for getting my own beer and making sure they write it down on my bill). I was showed a few different people the Chinese for Two Year olds book that Feng bought me, and they just about die laughing, but then they each go over it with me. It’s slow going, but I’ve finally had my interest sparked in this language. It’s just like every other thing I have to do, at first it’s such a huge mountain that I’m just intimidated out of even trying it, then eventually you realize that a mountain is just made up of rocks and dirt that can be moved if you just start on it (or, as my dad would say “Hey, this mountain isn’t going to move itself buddy”).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

My Education

This week I’ve been reading William S Burroughs My Education, a book that he wrote over several years about his dreams. Burroughs has always impressed me as a writer for his ability to write about his truth, something I hope to be able to do someday, but it is a difficult thing to do. It means breaking down walls in your mind and exposing yourself for what you are, thus leaving yourself open to inevitable judgment of anyone who may have the ill luck of reading the result.

I am getting less and less sleep every night, and the sleep I have been getting has not been the wonderful, refreshing sleep of good times. While reading this and feeling the stress that has been slowly mounting over the past couple weeks made me realize that my nights have begun to be filled with a familiar series of stress and sad related dreams. I think that reoccurring dreams are common in the human mind, but I think they’re all difficult to describe and that part of the reason they are reoccurring is the due to their confusing nature. It has been a roller coaster of emotions since I’ve been here; every time I start to get comfortable and relax I hit another downward turn. I know very little about dreams in general, but part of me hopes that by getting them out in the open, maybe I will be haunted by them less. A good book will make you think. A good book will make you cry. A good book will spark an emotional response; sometimes it will be with you when you’re away from its pages. If these books didn't exist, then we have wasted our evolution of opposable thumbs and that extra two percent of brain power that separate us from apes and boy bands. In no particular order, I present to you, the judging reader – My Education.

I am crying out as loud as I can, but my voice is barely audible. I don't know why I’m crying, but it takes over my body with uncontrollable shaking. I feel like if I could just make someone hear it, I would be able to be free of the pain of crying. I’m trying cry out for help because my heavy sobs are suffocating me. My forehead is sweating and my hands are cold. I’m suffocating and dying because I cannot breathe. At times, I am not myself, I actually see myself in my dream, gazing at something but I can never see what I’m staring at, then I’m back inside my body trying to clear the tears from my eyes long enough to focus on something in front of me, but it doesn't matter what it is because I feel that just being able to speak will cure my searing tears.

I am trying to run to something, trying to catch something. My legs and arms weigh too much for me to actually run, but are light enough that I can walk with some definite struggling. I get close, but I cannot raise my arms fast enough to catch it. I don't know what I’m reaching for, it’s very dark and everything is silent. Most of the time I’m outside but I can only feel the ground, there is no wind or sky buy my heavy legs make large indentations in the soft forest floor. My feet get tangled, but my legs are heavy enough to break out of the twisted vines and unknown plants that attempt to slow me.

I am tired and out of breath. I must hide and be quiet because there is something or someone trying to get me. Who or what, I cannot tell, it is silent, but I can feel it moving and getting close to me. I am out of breath from running and hiding and I feel that I cannot stay quiet enough stay concealed. This forces me from my hiding place to another hiding place. I must run as fast as I can and hope to get far enough ahead to give me a chance to ease my breathing, but it never happens. I have no problem out running the Unknown, but I feel like I cannot even let it see me or something bad will happen, or that I am scared to see what it really is. There is no escape, I can only run and hide, complete escape is not an option. My breath is loud as a jackhammer in my ears and I cannot stop it, I try to hold my breath, but that only makes it worse, like the hiss of a deflating inner tube. I am unable to get away long enough to find any relief from my relentless pursuer or my heavy breathing. My lack of control over my body will be my final demise and it will lead my relentless pursuer to me. There is no escape.

Similar dream, but I am not running or out of breath. The same pursuer is after me, however I have succeeded in finding a secure hiding place, the problem is that I must stay perfectly still. I sit this way for hours on end; I can feel the Unknown pacing around outside, just waiting for me to move, to fail. He cannot hear me, but can see any movement I make. My muscles begin to atrophy, there is no winning this battle, there is no way to end this, I cannot overpower it, I cannot out run it this time, I have an itch on my face. The itch builds and builds into a stinging pain, like a nail is being driven through my head. If I do not scratch it and release the pain, I will scream or vomit. Every minute for what feels like hours I move my arm a fraction of an inch towards my face, each movement nearly takes my breath away and I am forced to stop my heart in exchange for the slight hand movement, so I can no longer breath. The pain has overtaken my fear and I know that without this pain, I will be able to face my fear. I always wake before getting to the itch, the pain on my face. In the morning, my muscles are tightened into knots all over my legs and arms, my sheets are soaked with sweat and I know I will be sore for the whole day.

I am more tired than I have ever been in my life. However, I cannot shut my eyes. I know that something bad will happen if I shut my eyes. It takes all of my strength and concentration to keep my heavy eyelids from dropping. I know if I shut my eyes, I will be overtaken by something that will cause ruin, pain, death, something unknown. My eyes begin to see flashes and streaks of white caused by the extreme concentration put into keeping them open. I begin to see things and it feels that the Unknown is beginning to overtake me despite my eyes. How can I think about keeping my eyes open when I am sleeping with my eyes closed? I have a feeling that my eyes are open during this dream and the things that I see are real reflections of light from my room.

I feel unparalleled sadness; sometimes I know the source of the pain, other times I do not know. The pain and sadness often reflects me dealing with the death of a family member and the regret that comes with feeling like I let them die without telling them how much they mean to me. Other times the sadness is centered in my feeling guilty or angry for being forced to hurt someone physically or emotionally. These dreams I wake up crying uncontrollably. Some of these dreams will affect me for the entire day. The realism is definite and the pain is real.

Several of my nightmares are rehashing bad things I’ve done in my life. I’ve had several dishonest moments in my life and I pay for my sins in the form of painful nightmares where my world is crashing down because of the disappointment of the people I’ve been dishonest to.

The truth shall set you free. I haven’t killed anyone or stolen a car in my life, but my sins are equally painful in my mind and my guilt is real. To all those I’ve wronged, whether you know it or not, rest easy, for I am punished for my actions and non-confrontational cowardice every night and every morning the skin around my eyes becomes looser and the lines on my hands become deeper from sleeping with clenched fists.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I call this meeting of the United Nations to order. Gentlemen, welcome to my hotel

An era of a legend has come to an end Wednesday, we moved Xinlei into his new Langfang apartment. He’s getting hooked up with a sweet three-bedroom apartment about two blocks from the hotel. It costs about as much as my little two-bedroom apartment in Kansas City and is easily twice the size. The place is tiled from head to floor (easy to clean up blood splatter I’m assuming). It’s in a gated community about thirty feet from the Slutty Chick District. I could have gotten a place exactly like this and saved the company about $3000 a month, but I’ve kind of grown to like living in the hotel. If I was in an apartment, I would have absolutely no contact with other people, plus, I’d be forced to cook food, and there’s so little food in the grocery store that I would even know how to prepare, it’s just better this way. If I was going to be here longer, I would have to get an apartment, but for now I’m fine. Our company told Xinlei that he was costing the company too much money living in the hotel, and by Chinese standards, he’s correct. It’s different for me because I have a monthly living allowance, and as long as I don't exceed it, I’m fine. My hotel room is right at the upper limit of my allowance. This would not be the case if I was in Beijing, but in Beijing I would be much more mobile and probably living in an ex-pat community with Quik Trips and Starbucks surrounded by the same people I’ve grown to not miss.

Xinlei went to Beijing to finish his driving school this week; he’s so pumped up about it. I take it for granted that I’ve been driving for 15 years and have had three cars in my life. He’s got a driving test to take, and then in ten days, he’ll be legit, but no less dangerous.

Monday was Christmas in August for me. After seven weeks of waiting, all my shit from Kansas City showed up. It was a great day; I had no idea how happy this would make me. I had been living out of two suitcases of clothes for seven weeks and nearly exhausted my supply of books. It had been so long that I couldn't remember what I packed for myself.

Inspired by the boxes in front of me, I now present to the hungry eye a self-esteem and mood improvement method.

Take everything you have and divide it into three piles. The first pile must fit into two suitcases and will be represent all you have in your world for two months. This will be with you at all times, which is a blessing and a burden, because you have to take it with you everywhere you go, no matter where. The second pile consists of things you can wait two months to have, but you will not receive any of for two months. This shit must fit into six boxes total and no more. After two months you will receive these boxes and you will live on only the two suitcases and six boxes for a total of six months. The third pile consists of everything else you own; you will not see any of it for a minimum of six months. I guarantee, the day your boxes get there and the day you get everything else out of storage will be the happiest days of the year for you.

I was literally dancing around my room, congratulating myself for being so smart as to pack certain things. My shoes are lined up along one wall like a battalion of soldiers, my closet bursting from the seams with clothing, to top it all off, I have a nice stack of unread books in the corner lookin’ all sexy. For some reason, I also have a bunch of random shit from my bathroom. I think they sent a wrong box, but it was so long ago, I may have asked them to ship it for some reason and just plain forgot.

Also, attached to the packet of papers that I had to sign, tucked away in an officially sealed envelope was something I haven’t seen in weeks, my passport. I have a feeling that my passport has had a much more interesting story to tell about it’s trip than I do. My passport also brought a friend along to play with – my work permit. It looks like my passport except that it’s red and in Chinese. At least on of us has been able to score some Chinese action.

While I happily unpacked my stuff, I my mood became more somber as I began to realize how much I have compared to everyone here. Xinlei has had everything in his name with him in the form of three medium sized suitcases, I brought more than that with me on the plane and just got six more boxes of stuff, I now have about 50 shirts and 20 pairs of shoes. Plus I still have a storage unit in Kansas City with ten times the number of boxes easily. I haven’t been ‘roughing’ it, I’ve been living high on the hog and now I’m living even higher. One of the girls was genuinely shocked when I told her that I have about 20 pairs of shoes here, she said she had two pairs and one was only for work.

I saw an interesting headline on a China ex-pat website the other day that was called “Leaving China? Help your domestic helper find a job.” I need a domestic helper, I would have him type up the China Scene section of the China Daily newspaper for me every day so I could publish a book out of the articles. It would be great bathroom reading.

There is still a steady flow of foreigners in and out of the hotel, and since I’m an official hotel ambassador now, I am introduced to them all. David and Niall are here for several weeks from the UK installing a metal milling machine; a guy named Jason is also here from the UK, his job is a sperm sorter, which is one of the most interesting professions I can imagine, sticky, but interesting; Jason’s assistant Todd is also here, he grew up about one hour from where I went to college and spends most of his time in the Slutty Chick District; Michael the Austrian and Franz the South African are here working on a pipeline project from Kazakhstan to China; George and two girls that I don't know are here from Germany studying something, I only see them at breakfast, so I don't know much about them.

Every night it has become a ritual to meet downstairs in the hotel bar and throw back a few beers. They’re so cheap, it doesn't really cost us much, plus it’s an excellent social time. Of course, there are those nights where it just tastes good and we end up getting wasted (about five nights a week). On any given night there are between three and seven people sitting around the Western Restaurant bar getting tanked. It’s nice to speak to people from time to time; I’ll be here long after they’re gone, so I may as well take advantage of the company while I can.

The stress is building and pressing in from all sides. This stress has very little to do with living in another country, it has to do with the position that I’ve allowed myself to be placed in. I’ve worked at least 70 hours a week for the past three weeks, I can’t sleep, my heart rate is faster, I break out in cold sweats. I cannot fail, but I cannot do everything. They expect me to do everything and if I don't try, we will fail. The stress must be driven out; it must be sweated and ran out of my body like a horse in heat. It must be extracted and destroyed from my mind by Kerouac and Burroughs, Dumas and Hemingway, Rollins and Wells. I must break out of this. There is no reason to be this way, I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again. I hear the doors of my neighbor slam ten times an hour for an entire weekend, the cigarette smoke from his room blows through into my room through air conditioner vents putting me on edge. Once stress appears it either grows or subsides, but it cannot grow forever, the body will end stress one way or another. The longer it is allowed to exist, the harder it is to rid the body and mind of it. The only way out is to just do it. Work, read, write. Punish my body like I caught it breaking into my house and heal myself by pure white-hot determination to succeed.