Friday, February 03, 2006

My Homesick Rant

November 7 – 14 2005

I will be leaving for home in about five weeks. The significance of that statement goes beyond the 35 days created by multiplying five weeks by seven days. It goes beyond the amount of work that I have to finish. It means much more than the simple definitions of ten words that make up the sentence. The fact that I have flagged my departure date on my subconscious calendar and have quantified the rest of my trip means that I’m ready to leave. This is the first time that I’ve thought about my departure and I have felt the slow tilt of the rollercoaster in its final downward direction. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of China and that makes it official, I am ready to go home. Not necessarily forever, but at least for a break. This place is killing me, driving me crazy, pissing me off, aging me at double time. Many of the things that were cute little nuances in the beginning have become quite bothersome and they are making me miserable. I knew this time would come; it was just a matter of trying to predict what form my hatred and demise would take the form of (much like in Ghostbusters). What would be the first thing that would make me want to quit my job and fly home? The following chapter may be the most angry and annoying of my ‘journal’ and they have been written down without any regard of potential conflict with any of my previous statements. This is it, the ‘vent’ chapter. The place where I reveal myself for my true personality. Everyone can be a good person when times are good, it’s when times are trying that we see our true selves and I have a bad feeling of what my reflection will expose. So with a deep breath, a crack of the knuckles, and a fresh pot of coffee, here I go….

I am sick all the time. The changing of the seasons, combined with living in a different country and being in a hotel full of people have wreaked havoc on my immune system. I was sick two weeks ago with a cough; this week I’ve got a head cold. In the states I’ll get flu-like sick two or three times a year, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been sick six times. SIX TIMES! I cannot buy medicine, they don't have ‘Western’ medicine anywhere here, all of the medicine is that voodoo ancient Chinese shit. I’ve tried some of it and it made me sicker. It took me half an hour at the grocery store to find Chap Stick and another half an hour to figure out how to pay for it and get out of the store. I have also been cursed with conflicting subconscious disorders; doctor-phobia (Iatrophobia) and I’m a hypochondriac. If I get sick and require a visit to the doctor, I have to convince myself that I’m going to die and the doctor’s appointment is just a mere formality. This has caused me sleepless nights throughout my life and is just compounded by the cornucopia of ailments present in this beautiful land where the communist party has deemed antibodies a danger to the people.

Next topic.

Chinese men are assholes. Plain and simple. This is not necessarily a blanket statement, but when referring to the business class middle aged men, it is a safe stereotype. They walk around this place with their noses so far up in the air that I can see the backs of their eyes. They are rude to everyone in their presence. The noises they make with their bodies are absolutely disgusting, farting like a rhinoceros after eating a dozen burritos, belching like a 300-pound construction worker at happy hour at the Clarette Club. They stare me down like I insulted their families. It boils my blood to see the way they demean and mistreat women. Their lives are run by pride and greed and most of them deserve to be chain-whipped by Sonny Barger. When wrong or backed into a corner, they stick to their guns like the captain of a sinking U-boat and simply refuse to listen to reason. I’m right and you’re wrong, now how can you fix the problem? This is all before alcohol is applied. I know that I’m no saint when drunk, but these guys get a bottle of booty wine in their gullets and it’s like lighting a match in a firework factory. They come up and hug and bark in my ears the one or two English words they know (considering the level of hygiene of most of these people, it is a very unpleasant hug). They yell at the wait staff, throw stuff at each other, chain smoke and steal.

Last week, I was followed to the elevator by a couple of guys who were wasted and wanted to talk to me, the problem was that they didn't know any English and kept grabbing at my arms and trying to hold hands with me. I didn't want these drunk fucks to follow me up to my room, but they just kept persisting while I was waiting for the elevator to open. I lost it and pinned one of the guys to the wall by the neck, lifting him up off the ground. I held him there until the elevator opened, not saying anything, just staring into his eyes with that cold stare of someone who just doesn't give a fuck anymore. No smiles, no grimaces, no anger, just squeezing and lifting. Surprisingly, the other guy didn't come anywhere near me during this time. After ten or fifteen seconds, the elevator dinged and I let the guy down and stepped into the elevator, hoping that they wouldn't follow me, but I think my cold stare let them both know that I would smash him in the face with a chair.

Next topic, this time something that does not involve assault.

I know I’ve said it before, but this place is dirty. That’s probably been one of my least favorite elements; it has also been the least varying element of my journey. There are trashcans, but the homeless people just empty them onto the ground looking for plastic bottles. People regularly throw sewage and old food out into the streets (whether the coast is clear or not, my poor Adidas will never be the same). Public restrooms are a widely available and widely optional location for bowel movements. One use explains why so many people piss and shit on the sides of the roads (or even on the roads). The smell is heavy, that’s the only way I can describe it. It is a peculiar mixture of dirt, human waste, rotting food and car exhaust that makes you realize why no one even bothers with deodorant. I expected it to let up some with the changing of the seasons, but it really hasn't.

There is dirt everywhere. Autumn is my favorite time of the year; the heat gives way to cool breezes, the leaves fall and smell like Oktoberfest. Here, the heat gives way to dusty winds and the leaves only mix with the unknown liquids in the streets. The bluish overcast fog of the summer gives way to brown gritty dust storms with a net change of visibility of zero.

Next topic.

Living in a hotel was an interesting experiment for about three and a half months. My opinion of this has changed drastically over the past few weeks. There are no secrets in this world. The people in the hotel work seven days a week and live eight to a room in the dorms across from the parking lot. This means that in any given dorm room, there could be a waitress, cook, housekeeper, bellboy, assistant manager or any other hirable job. If you had no days off and lived with six people without a television, at least 18 hours a day are dedicated to work or sleep and the remaining six hours are dedicated to hotel gossip. Because I’ve become such a presence in the hotel, I am one of the most talked about subjects of the year.

I have gotten tired of getting waited on hand and foot in the hotel. When I sit down to eat, someone comes over and arranges the plates and napkin for me, then they go get my drink and pour it into a glass. So far, this is acceptable. Then, every time I take a drink, someone comes over and ‘tops off’ my glass. Beyond the extra ten trips to my table, that should lead one to think that a waitress is standing by closely, watching my every move. This is a correct assumption, if you take the phrase ‘a waitress’ and pluralize it to ‘waitresses’. In the States, the waitress usually drops the menu off and gives you a couple minutes to look over the food. This is not the case in Big Red. The waitress hands you the menu and stands there, pen cocked and ready, waiting for you to order. This is unnecessary stress for me, who is extremely indecisive by nature, cannot read Chinese, and must rely on matching up pictures to menu items. Once the food is brought to the table, the waitresses wait for you and change your soiled plate about countless times during your meal. I go through more plates during lunch than baseballs in a Major League Baseball game.

My comfort with the staff also brings on undesired advice about eating. I have repeatedly been asked why I only order one dish and why I don't get a cold dish to start off with. The people of China put a lot of stock in body temperature equilibrium. They say that if you get something hot, you should have something cold to offset it. If you have a fever, you should drink water cooler than your body to lower your body temperature. The fact is, Citizens of Big Red - human beings are not reptiles and our body controls its own temperature, it’s called being warm-blooded. They are aghast when I don't get a bowl or rice or when I leave my tea untouched. Plus, Jenny and Sky are always giving me the business about reading while I eat. According to Chinese mythology (mythology, law, education, something), you are not supposed to divide the body’s actions between two things, such as eating and reading. To this I reply, “Leave me alone and let me read you stinkin’ quacks.”

Next topic, one without bagging on the roommates.

When I first got here, I was quite amused at the amount of staring that I got. People stare at me all the time, especially in Langfang, where foreigners are as rare as sunlight. Over the course of five months, however, it has started to fray my nerves. It seems that people are less and less tactful, like they’re standing 50% closer to me than they were in August. I’m like the kid with the Pac-Man watch in first grade, the fact that the thing tells time is secondary to the fact that the other functions create too much of a disturbance in class (which is straight bullshit). I feel that my presence has become too much of a distraction to the average Citizen, therefore, I must be taken away from the People (like my first grade teacher whom I still hate with all my heart). I have a couple examples of how I am China’s Pac-Man watch.

I was walking down the street during one of my afternoon walks in Langfang not long ago, casually watching the mixture of foot traffic and bicycles trickle by. One young man, about 19 or 20, rode slowly by and stared me down like an Old West shootout movie. He continued to slow down as he passed, craning his neck to get a better look at me. Little did he know that Grandma Citizen was riding a bit slower on her three-wheeler in front of him. He hit the back tire on her bike and went tumbling. That put a genuine smile on my face and a spring in my step immediately. Normally, in a non-comedy routine, that would have been the end of it, but there were several other people giving me the stink-eye behind him. Before long, a simple game of Freak Stare turned into a bloody five-bike pileup in front of my eyes (without the blood, like an episode of The A-Team). All it takes is one person paying attention (or not paying attention as the case may be), and the whole outcome would be different. It was so much that I actually stopped and watched them all get up, untangle their bicycles and ride off (of course, they were all going the same direction, which meant that they were surrounded by co-wreckers for at least another block). Just shameful.

The people of this country are raised in such close proximity to other people their whole lives that there is no proper shame in normal body functions, such as going to the bathroom. This means that many restrooms are void of privacy barriers. Public restrooms are also very disgusting, usually not more than a cement slab with a series of holes cut in the floor (it is suggested that the waste goes into these holes, but apparently it is merely a suggestion). I do not shit in public restrooms (or ‘sit-down potty’ as my grandma calls it), call me obsessive compulsive, but I just don't do it. I have no problems doing ol’ Number-1 though. Any restroom you go into may (and usually does) have at least one person doing the crouch-and-poop maneuver. Since the hole is just a hole, this frees the person up to position himself in anyway he would like. When I go into a public restroom, I try to pick the hole farthest away from anyone doing their business, which is standard operating procedure for American restrooms (like the buffer-seat in a movie theater). Upon unzipping, I often hear a strange shuffling sound from somewhere in the room. What is this shuffling sound? Another piece of Western restroom etiquette is ‘eyes forward’, this means keep your head pointing forward and don't wander. I know it’s stupid, and every man is guilty of checking out his neighbor’s schlong out from time to time, but overall, eyes forward. So it is not natural for me to look around when urinating, however the first time I heard this sound, I had to look around to see what it was (if it was a snake coming into the restroom, I would like to know). There was no snake, the shuffling sound was the sound of shitting-man turning towards me and staring straight at my package. This action is in direct violation of the North American Men’s Restroom Treaty of 1975 and I recommend sending in troops immediately. If any of those men are reading this, I would just like to say – You’re bathrooms are cold and being watched makes me very nervous, so please don't judge.

Not to further humiliate myself, but I want to point out that I get extremely gun-shy when being watched and have been known to have complete bladder shutdown in these situations, which makes it appear that I came into the bathroom just to pull my pants down, show off for a minute and leave.

My next example happened to me Sunday on my afternoon bicycle ride last week. This last incident was the one that sent me rushing to my calendar to count the weeks left in my trip. In recent weeks, I have practically given up walking around town. This is because when riding a bicycle, people have less time to stare at me and it gives me less time to be bothered by it. Take a naked pedestrian, if you saw said pedestrian streak by, you often doubt that what you saw was real because it happened so quickly, but if that same naked person casually strolled by, you’d know it was real and would stare intently. In China, I am the naked pedestrian (in the form of a fully-clothed white monster).

A couple streets here have quite heavy foot traffic and there are often people-traffic jams. Sunday was no different. This people-jam, I noticed, had it’s own soundtrack. In front of one of the businesses was a stage with speakers on it and music blasting. The voice was pretty bad, so I figured it had to be live music (even though recorded music in China often features equally bad voices but with slightly less distortion and more treble than a businessman’s Toyota Camry). These street side concerts are actually quite common around here. Any time a business wants to attract some customers, they throw a stage in front of the store and give a microphone to some lame prick with a horrible voice and add some background music. The performers are somewhere between the level of a Gong Show entertainer and a hidden track on any Mr. Bungle album. The crowds flock. I usually stop at these places for a few minutes for the writing material alone, so I decided to stop at this one.

The difference was, I could hear the bad voice and bad music, but I couldn't see the bad performer. I thought I saw little feet sticking up in the air, but they immediately disappeared. Then I saw a little head popup with a microphone.

“Man,” I thought, “this stage is really low.”

As the crowd moved around some, I realized, to my pleasant surprise, I had stumbled upon a one-man Chinese midget acrobat karaoke show! I was in heaven and immediately rushed the stage hoping to get one of my man-breasts signed (actually, I just stood in the back with a rather large smile on my face). At times like this, I wish there was punctuation better than an exclamation point to use.

After a few minutes, I noticed that the attention had shifted from the silk-vest wearing midget that was standing on his head singing to something behind me. Not wanting to miss something better than a little-person acrobat, I casually turned around to see what the ruckus was about. All that was behind me was the normal street with taxis and bicycles. “Well, I must have missed it” I thought. But the people were still looking behind me. Ohh... wait a minute… The people aren’t looking behind me; they’re looking at me. Just great.

“People of China, I have an announcement! Please gather around!” I shouted through my megaphone. “Closer, closer please. I want all 1.5 billion of you to hear it.”

“It has become clear to me that my presence is too much of a distraction for me to remain here any longer! The perfectly good midget with the hula-hoop on stage should be enough entertainment for you and if you cannot realize that, than I must leave. Thank you, that is all.”

That is enough angry topics for today. My life has changed in that I have begun marking days off the calendar with a magic marker. I knew that this was going to be a roller-coaster ride; it’s unfortunate that I must crash before getting off the ride. China has been good to me so far, but it is becoming more and more difficult to stay positive and enjoy myself. I want to say something good and reflective about my mood, but I’m so pissed and weary that I simply cannot. I am starting to see how writing can be used as a defense against the anger and despair that seems to be in continuous ebb and flow in my life.

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