Saturday, May 27, 2006

Blowin' The Cobwebs Out My Head

One thing that I have learned is that you should never underestimate dirty and stressful conditions for their ability to get a person in the mood to write. My life has been spent in the basement under my grandparent’s living room ever since returning from China five months ago, desperately fighting to find the inspiration to write and be productive. My days have been surrounded by the pink and white decor of their old school style basement. The floor gently shakes from the television upstairs, turned up to louder than an Iron Butterfly concert because of their poor hearing. My phone rings every hour or so; grandma calling from upstairs to ask me a question or tell me that dinner’s ready (4:00 every day). Everything is properly dusted or scrubbed, waxed or laundered, swept or vacuumed in this castle of cleanliness. The air conditioner vents don't have smoke billowing through them. The conversation is easier, but the food has made me fat. I now understand why the greatest writers were unhappy or crazy. Who could write about the difficulties of life when they’re warm, well fed and well looked over?

So here’s the deal; I signed on for another stint in Big Red. This time for four months. By the time I return from China this time, I will have gone for over a year without a permanent address. Fourteen months without paying rent to the bastards (side note – upon returning from my last trip, I heard that my old apartment complex had a massive fire about a month after I moved out, serves those fucks right, and I’ve got a bullet proof alibi). Fourteen months with all but three suitcases and four boxes of my stuff in corporate storage, without seeing anything that I own except what I took with me to China last time. When I tell people that I’m going back to China they kind of wince and ask me, hesitantly, whether that’s a good thing or not. Do you want to go to back? How do you feel about it?

My answer? A slight shrug of the shoulders and a nonchalant ‘…ehh…’ In reality, I’m not positive how I feel. I’m really excited about going back to the hotel and hanging out with all the people there (of course, they’re all girls between the ages of 19 and 22, I’m not crazy), but at the same time, the thought of working with the same client again makes me shudder. We had a pretty fun time trying to get the contract and proposal all written to everyone’s liking, despite constant idiocracies from certain people.

I feel that I’ve done a better job of preparing this time around, in a way. I’ve packed four sticks of deodorant, three tubes of hair gel, two carafes of Ny-Quill, plus handfuls of various other medicines that I wish I had over there. I’ve got 150 sticks of patchouli incense to combat the odors of the neighboring rooms. I re-approached my book philosophy, instead of bringing a hundred books, I brought about 35 really, really big books. Not just fat novels, I’m talking serious literal heavy hitters – Les Miserables, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, to name a few. I have a third laptop battery, bringing my total power potential to upwards of 10 hours.

I’ve become the person I’ve been making fun of for the past two years and bought an iPod. I loaded up on music that I missed and a couple others that I just found to be awesome. Talib Kweli, Atmosphere, Arlo Guthrie, The Grateful Dead, just a few of the musicians that will provide my adventure soundtrack over the upcoming months.

I’ve bought five new pairs of shoes and picked out another five pairs that I can't live without and put all ten pairs in lovingly in their own, heavily protected, suitcase. Three pairs of adidas, four pairs of Pumas, one pair of Diesels, my ever present bright yellow of Sauconys and one pair of work shoes (knowing that after the first month, it’ll be tennis shoes about every day).

Has it really been five months? It wasn't until I checked my calendar today that I realized it is five months to the day since I got back home from Langfang, five months to the day that I have returned to Langfang. It’s my first week back and this is how it broke down.

I took Tuesday off work so that I would have time to pack and have one last opportunity to expose my clothes to clean laundry water and a dryer. Instead of waking up at 3:00 am, I decided to get a hotel room Tuesday evening by the airport. My friend Teresa drove me to the Hilton, we had dinner and I crashed early.

I woke Xinlei up at 10:30 am Beijing time to make sure we were on the same page. Poor guy only got 14 hours of sleep last night. Damn I missed China.

About seven seconds later, my alarm went off and I spent the morning fighting my natural urges to buy the biggest coffee money can buy while making my way through various airports in transit to Beijing. I actually slept on my flight from KC to Newark, which was surprising as hell; of course I was wide-awake for the 14-hour flight from Jersey to Beijing. I think that if you have to go to China, stopping over in New Jersey is a good launch pad. It’s good preparation for what life will be when you get out of the airport. Jersey is quite dirty by American standards, but if it were in China, it truly would be the Garden State.

I also changed my voicemail on my cell phone to something like this – “Yo fools, I’m out of the country for the next four months, if you’re a friend of mine, you should know this. If you’re a bill collector, feel free to try and extradite me. If you’re a credit card company or insurance salesman, lick a dick. All else, leave a message.”

Because of the Langfang Chamber of Commerce meeting all weekend, I was be unable to get to my Langfang hotel room until Monday at the earliest, which was really the main point of me coming over here nearly four days early – unpack, unwind, resume stalking Mu Duo, you know, just get back into the swing of things. Now, I was forced to stay in the Beijing Hilton, which isn’t really a horrible thing, I just really wanted to unpack and enjoy a few non-work days with my peeps. I have no peeps in Beijing, except Xinlei.

Xinlei’s life has changed since we last bent our ears in his direction. He broke up with his girlfriend because he’s sick of the long distance relationship thing. I can sympathize with that. Apparently he took it a step further by thinking that ‘self love’ is disgusting and refusing to practice the vile deed. If I lived my life by those standards, I would be like Old Faithful (albeit, not every 65 minutes, more like every four years).

I was in Beijing in March for a couple weeks and met his former girlfriend. She was nice enough I suppose, but he talked about her constantly last year. He would probably insert something about her into one out of every two non-work related conversations on a daily basis. Now here it is, less than two months later, and he tells me about his new girlfriend that he loves (it’s all the same to me, I never have been able to remember his old girlfriend’s name, of course now that they’ve broken up, I remember it’s Cindy). He said he took New Girlfriend on a long vacation together and she’s really great. I guess when you’re competing with 750 million men, you don't have time to waste on silly things like reasonable courting time frames, the population must be sustained.

What does this mean to me? Well, I have been here for four days and have seen the guy once, and that was when he picked me up from the airport. It’s not a big deal at this point, I’m pretty self-sufficient here, but when we start working and he’s driving from Langfang to Beijing six nights a week it may be a bit different.

My airplane reading this time was Christopher Paolini’s second book in the Inheritance trilogy called Eldest. I mention this for two reasons, one that outs me for being shallow and one that outs me for being selfish and jealous. I cannot read anything that requires much brainpower on airplanes, just too many distractions. My last China flight, I read a Harry Potter book; the previous time it was a Star Wars book. I buy these books purely for travel, when I get to my hotel and back into my ‘normal’ life, I’ll be able to bring some thunder, some strong words to fight fear and all that shit, but for airplanes, it’s children’s books about wizards, dragons and elves. Acknowledgement of these problems is the first step of a painful remedy. The second reason I mention this is because the author of this book was 15 when he wrote the first one and this one a couple years later. That’s bullshit! Despite this trilogy being an exact copy of Star Wars without spaceships, the guy’s a good writer and will probably be more popular than John Lennon (not really, but definitely more popular than Lucas Hutmacher).

I got to the hotel mid afternoon on Thursday, ate dinner alone and fell asleep at about 6:00 and woke up at 4:30 am Friday. My morning was spent checking and firing off a few emails to everyone letting them know I got here safely (if you didn't get one, I apologize – I got here safely). I did forget how expensive the food is here at the Beijing Hilton. The breakfast buffet is around 220 yaks (that’s like $30 USD, wow); lunch and dinner are slightly higher than that. Not that I have a choice, Xinlei is busy with girlfriend business and I’m not as self sufficient in China as one would assume by my previous statement of ‘being pretty self sufficient here’.

Many of the people at this hotel remember me, even though I’ve only stayed here a total of maybe 10 days in my life. Apparently, not all honkeys look the same, who knew. It really is a nice hotel and I’m glad I abandoned the horrible Celebrity International Hotel, that place was Squaresville baby.

I took about a three-hour walk after breakfast, the weather here is surprisingly not as hot as I expected. Xinlei told me that there was a sand storm in the city a couple days before and you can sure tell; this place is absolutely filthy, even by China standards. The normal grey color of everything has been replaced by a sandy light brown. It’s going to take a good rainstorm to wash this away, and remembering my last trip here, that probably won’t happen until the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies.

I spent the afternoon in our Beijing office. I really had no reason to go in, but I just wanted to check in and say hello to some of the people there. Even though I was only in the office a couple times during my last trip, I did meet some of them and I like to try and keep in touch, if only for contact purposes and to know colleagues other than Xinlei (plus there’s a real hottie that works there, who wasn't in the office…dammit, a waste of a shower).

Determined to stay up past sundown, I decided to go out for a couple beers Friday night. About a block from the hotel is a bar called Bar One, but the sign reads like Barone (like some Italian coffee shop). It’s basically a whorehouse that caters to old white guys, but it sells beer and has free pool, so what the hell. It’s one of those places that always creates a good story to tell and Friday was no different.

Of course, showing up at 7:30 is not what I would call the height of the evening. I grabbed a beer and decided to shoot a game of pool by myself because I was the only patron in the bar. That’s not to say that the place was empty, oh no. There were four bartenders and about nine hookers. The bar manager joined me for a couple games of pool. One thing I’ve noticed around China, people learn the English needed for their occupation. The Silk Market girls know all the numbers and sizes and brand names, they know how to tell you something looks good and they know how to tell you you’re cheating them. The bartenders know all the drink names (even though they don't necessarily know how to make it, you can be sure that they’ll make you something and call it the name you requested), they know all the various salutations (What’s up bro’? You like pussy?) and of course, they know all the proper vulgarities and when to use them to make westerners comfortable.

After a couple games, he handed his stick (haw haw) over to my assigned hooker. This is the girl whose job it is to use her specific English skills to alleviate me from my hard earned yaks. The conversation usually goes like this:

“What’s your name?”

“Ted Nugent”

“Where are you from?”

“Detroit, USA”

“America?! I love USA! What do you do?”

“I do several things. I rose to fame with a song called Cat Scratch Fever in 1977. Now I’m a writer. I recently wrote a cookbook with my wife called Kill ‘em and Grill ‘em. Have you heard of me?”

“Ummm… How long have you been in China?”

“I was emperor here in 1645, but I haven’t been back since.”

“You want to buy me a drink?”

“Not really. Would you like to buy a book?”

“Oh. Umm… my boss is calling me, I will be back.”

Then she splits and within another ten minutes the next one comes up to me and we get to do the whole thing over again, usually as Gloria Estefan or T. S. Elliot.

This poor girl was a rookie. She was dressed very improper for a hooker – yellow shirt and stirrup pants that did nothing but make her look like a janitor (however, on second thought, these guys do remember me and how I’m such a Debbie Downer when it comes to prostitution, so they may have actually stuck me with the janitor).

Because the bar was still pretty much empty, by the end of our second game, there were about six ladies standing around watching and clapping (Look at the honkey! He doesn't have grey hair!). After whipping her ass, she gave up the stick to the next hooker. I took her two games straight and then one from the next one and two from the next one before finally getting beat on some straight up bullcrap move by the #5.

I’m not sure how to continue my story without clarifying a couple things first. Mainly this – I have never been with a prostitute, I’ve never bought any of these girls a drink, never kissed them, held their booties or boobies in my aging hands nor led them to think that I was going to do any of the such (of course my presence in such a bar was probably what led them to those conclusions in the first place). I have, however, been here three times before, and like I said, a few of them remember me, one in particular, and I know why.

My pierced tongue and, to a lesser degree, my dancing skills.

Anyone who knows me or has seen me dance knows that I’m not an amazing dancer. I can keep a rhythm and that’s about it. I may be able to move my arms independent of my feet from time to time, but that’s about it. I’m nothing to put in a music video by all means. When alcohol is applied, I will dance like an idiot and not even care (it’s when I’m sober that I don't do so well, I must remove all inhibitions to get my funk rubbed out correctly) and I will dance with anyone within arm’s reach. But by Chinese standards, I’m Usher, the black Michael Jackson, I’m Gregory Hines (but never Mikhail Baryshnikov), and the first time I went to Barone’s I was drunker than an American West pilot, so, needless to say, I danced for about four hours with all these girls.

Of all of the girls, one of them just couldn't get enough of me; let’s call her Latoya Burgerfury. Latoya latched onto me like a barnacle on a pier, following me around, asking me to teach her how to dance and wanting to play with my tongue ring. There may be stupider things in the world than letting a hooker put her hands in your mouth, but I can't think of many. Last time, she asked me to be her boyfriend and to teach her English for two days. I’m not a complete idiot, I knew what was going on, but at least she wasn't on my ass all night asking me to buy her drinks like every other woman in the bar. She even stuck around after I painstaking explained to her (through an Australian who knew Chinese) that I wasn't interested in her services. For some unknown reason, I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for her and every time I’ve visited Barone’s, she’s always there and wanting to dance with me.

Latoya hung around me all evening Friday night. This time, she upped the game and asked me if I would go to a disco with her after she got off work at 3:00 am. I tried to explain to her that I had only been in town for one day and was very tired. I’m not sure she understood me or not, which is too bad because I probably would go dancing with her some other time (separate cabs and most definitely different beds. I’m scared of even using the same bar stools that these girls use).

She eventually left me to ‘get some work done’ and I felt a twinge of jealousy and a larger twinge of sadness. You can't preach to desperately poor people about morals, at least not in their place of business, as the manager doesn't appreciate it.

By this time it was after 12:00, I had been there for nearly 5 hours and 10 beers. The place was packed with white men older than my dad making out with girls younger than my youngest sister and it was just getting hard to handle. It is unbelievable how many Americans come over here and cheat on their wives and pay for something that they could never get for free. If I had the names of all those guys, I’d buy a page in the New York Times and list them as adulterers and molesters of Chinese women.

So it ended up like any other night at any bar in any country, me sitting alone, drinking a beer and trying to figure out how to leave without creating a distraction. Cue the fake cell phone call and don't make eye contact on your way out the door.

Saturday, out of sheer boredom, I went to the Silk Market. I really had no desire to buy more watches but just needed to get out and do something (as a side note, of the 25 watches I bought last time, 15 of them are broken in some way, that’s about $200 worth of watches). This time I had the iPod kicking the entire time, which is an excellent way to block out all the unbearable begging.

Finally got Xinlei away from his girlfriend, who apparently was in the hospital with a fever. What is the deal with these women going to the hospital all the time? Mattie has been in the hospital like seven times since I’ve known her. Anyway, I feel like a tool for feeling neglected by a guy who’s in the honeymoon phase of his new fling, silly me.

We headed to the electronics district for two things, new speakers for my computer and a cell phone with a speakerphone. The phone I have is Laura’s old phone and a total piece of crap. The rubber keys don't work half the time and the screen is the size of a letter on my keyboard.

We found me some sweet space age type of speakers that I’m already trying to figure out how I’ll get back home. They’re bigger than the ones I got last time and sound way better. My speakers from last trip sound awesome too but they’ve already had problems because of a crappy volume/power button. I definitely got my $40 worth out of them and they still work even if I need to baby them a bit at times.

We headed up to the third floor to find me a new phone and Xinlei went to work. He told the extremely helpful guy that I needed a phone that had a speakerphone on it and that we didn't want to spend much money on it. We quickly found one that would do. I asked if we could try it out and he said that we could only try it out if we bought it, but he assured us that the speaker-shaped grill on the back was a speakerphone and it was good enough for me. It cost about $90, which is pretty cheap by my standards and Xinlei put the thing together while the guy filled out the warranty information.

He handed it over to me and I called Xinlei to test out the speakerphone when low and behold, we found out that there was no speakerphone; it was just an extremely loud ringer. That shouldn't be a problem; we told him that we’d just exchange it for another phone with a speaker on it.

Actually it was a problem. He said that because the phone is not faulty he couldn't exchange it.

This sent Xinlei and I into a frenzy. The guy went and got his manager and Xinlei talked to them for over 20 minutes and the manager flat out refused to exchange the phone, despite the salesman flat out lying to us to get us to by the piece of shit.

I begged Xinlei to let me wait outside for the guy to get off work. I have no problem chain whipping a lying Chinaman who has taken me for a hundred bucks, but he said that we were stuck. We could buy another phone and try to figure out how to break the phone without them knowing and returning it as faulty, but in the end, I just jumped at the guy and screamed in his face nearly making him piss his pants and drawing several security guards near and leaving the electronics joint with phone in tow.

I’m going to keep the phone and every time I look at it, I’ll be reminded of a painful lesson about China. Electronics salespeople are lying fucks and they will take advantage of you in any way possible.

We celebrated our 50% successful electronics shopping day by going to a steam bowl buffet and ate shark meat and pig kidneys until our stomachs burst and headed back to the hotel feeling great because I knew that the next morning I would be heading back to Langfang, my second home, where I actually know some people, even though the only reason they are there is because the hotel pays them.

Every time I revisit a group of people that I thought I had a close relationship with, I subconsciously create a mental picture of the spectacular results. Every time I feel like this, I revisit a short story of when I was a young strapping lad of 18. I got a 3rd shift summer job working for Coleman Company in Maize, Kansas for the summer before heading off to college. One of my friends worked there and kind of hooked me up. My job was to feed little plastic caps into a machine whose sole job was to put them on the top of propane tanks. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Dusk to daybreak. That may sound like the most white trash job in the entire world, but it wasn't, it was safely seeded at number two (number one was held by a job I had a couple years later spraying ceiling insulation onto modular houses and listening to Jethro Tull). However, this lame job turned into one of the funnest summers of my life for some reason. Everyone was really cool and I actually looked forward to going to work.

Fast forward to the next summer. It was a no-brainer for me to go back to Coleman and I did. I looked forward with great anticipation to my first day back. I expected to walk in and be greeted by a round of high fives from the fellas; Harry, Jack, Slim Lib, Johnny Two-Tone, Sockface, Skillet and the countless others. I anticipated another fun summer filled with talks about our new car speakers, getting excited when they put the expired Twinkies on the lunchroom tables free for the taking, yelling back and forth all night, making up little inside jokes about commercials or Kathy Half-Calf, all the things that go into having fun.

I walked in on my first night to swift and immediate disappointment. First of all, I didn't get one high five, Skillet was on disability for the next six months and everyone else seemed to age fifteen years and not remember me or any of the fun times we had the previous summer. It was hard for me to make the connection between me having fun because I knew I was only doing this for three months and that the other people probably felt some level of resentment of me because they realized that they would be there through Halloween, Thanksgiving, have one week off for Christmas and a day for New Years, be there for Presidents day and Easter. They were there the previous Friday, and would be there for the Fourth of July and would be there for Halloween again. Rinse, repress and depress. I wasn't the ‘breath of fresh air’ that I thought I was. I was a painful reminder and a slap in the face of reality.

Plus I got fired for failing my drug test proven to be caused by four poppy seed muffins I ate the morning I filled a cup with yellow which caused my mother to say ‘fuck’ for the first time in my memory, so it was totally worth it.

That sobering thought in mind, I headed to Langfang, hoping to surprise everyone, yet not knowing really what to expect. I checked in around 11:30, right before the lunch hour, so there really wasn't anyone around, in fact, the only person to see me really was Lilly (of Western Restaurant fame). Xinlei and I snuck out and went to lunch and to go pick one of my other colleagues up at the airport.

Vince was arriving from Kansas City Sunday evening. The poor guy has got to be wicked tired. He has been out of town for the past three weeks (even though one week was vacation in Mexico, but it’s still hard to be away for that long). He accompanied me to Santiago, Chile last year to do some stuff and appears to enjoy travel, however from what I can remember, he’s a bit of a pussy when it comes to food even though he will deny it vehemently. He’s going to be in for a rude awakening this coming week. China is not for the faint of stomach or germaphobes.

We returned to the hotel later and apparently the lovely Lilly took it upon herself to hit the panic button in the hotel and sent a text message to everyone in the hotel telling them that I had returned (of all the things I have expanded on for humor and impressing the ladies, this is not one of them, she said she sent it to 45 people). My surprise was busted.

In no way was this experience like reliving my Coleman Propane nightmares. I was greeted by the high-fives I felt I deserved back in 1994, plus I was got hugs and shrieks of ‘LUKSA!!! LUKSA!!! DO YOU REMEMBER ME!!! I IS SO HAPPY TODAY!!!’ Qianqian and Mu Duo actually cried a little bit and my heart melted at the sight of them. My family didn't even act that happy when I came home from China. Sure, my mom hugged me and bought me an omelet, but there were no tears. NO TEARS PEOPLE!!

So now it’s Monday night. I just got back from giving Vince the dollar tour of the Slutty Chick District and am seriously tired. Tomorrow afternoon will be our first day in the office. It is official; I’m back in China. My tainted phone has been beeping off the hook with various text messages from Mu Duo, Jenny, Sky and a new Jenny that I was introduced to. I feel like I’m home and need to enjoy it tonight because tomorrow, the hurricane is sure to strike when I go to work. I feel good about this project, but the Chinese are masters of breaking a person down before they have any chance of building confidence.

I want to be positive. I want to be different than last time. I want to feel inspired. Tonight I’m happy and I feel the need to kill the negativity that plagued me last time. How can you feel so divinely inspired on one side and so fallibly human on the other? It’s what Jesus must have felt like on a bad day. I have turned the corner of Saturn’s Return and don't want to look back. These feelings deserve more words, but I don't want to ruin it, I’ve jinxed my karma enough for one week.