Monday, January 30, 2006

Sayonara Punanni

October 31 – November 6 2005

Xinlei’s parents have come to visit him for a few weeks. Both of his parents are retired, so it’s kind of an open-ended ticket and no one knows how long they’ll stay, Xinlei estimates 4-6 weeks. If my parents came to stay with me for that long, there would be a death, an arrest, and a Court-TV movie in the family.

Last year, his mother got very sick and he had to take a loan out from our company to help pay for surgery and doctor’s bills. When you combine the averages salaries of Chinese people with the average salaries of our company, he’s getting monetarily undercut twice. Needless to say, he’s been struggling to get the money paid back. Luckily, this project has helped both of us out financially. Living in another city, with the company and the client picking up a good chunk of the tab, has allowed both of us to make little stockpiles of money in our accounts (or in the buried coffee cans behind the hotel).

Tuesday, I went to dinner with Xinlei and his parents. Of course, neither of his parents speak any English, so it was just like every other meal I’ve eaten since I’ve been here. His father is a very quiet type; he smiles like my grandfather and says very little. His mother smiled and laughed at me a lot. After she found out that I was 31 years old, she started giving me the business about not being married and starting a family. It is a curious feeling getting chewed out through a translator.

Of course, Xinlei was quick to point out that he had introduced me to Mattie and the hopes that we will get married in the next 18 months. That’s an interesting perspective, I thought. I’ve noticed that people put timelines on some strange things in this country, but ignore other timelines (such as the ones associated with food expiration dates.)

The hotel life has become more and more stressing over these past weeks. The place is a huge gossip factory and up until now they really haven’t had much to gossip about me. But that hasn't stopped them from creating topics from nothing such as keeping track of my meals and what time I eat or asking me where I’m going every time I get on my bicycle or what I was planning doing with a bucket of bolts and a case of pudding pops.

But now it’s different. The first day they saw me with Mattie, the hotel regular scheduled programming was interrupted. The people here have accepted me into their circle and I think they’re kind of disappointed that I’m dating outside the circle. There’s probably a housekeeper on the 4th floor that won the ‘Marry the Honkey’ raffle. She’s already got her dress and has our 8x9 apartment picked out.

Being noticed and talked about can be quite annoying, but I have begun to get used to it (kind of), unfortunately, Mattie does not share my attitude about the gossip train and is quite embarrassed and bothered by it. I had to go around to key friends on the hotel staff and make sure that they understood that she wasn't a hooker. Plus she wanted us to ride the elevator down separately from time to time.

Until this past week, Mattie has still wanted to keep my brother, Xinlei, out of the loop about our relationship. As I mentioned earlier, there is almost no way that he doesn't know about us. He’s taken me to Beijing to visit her, he’s organized taxi rides for me, she’s come to stay at his apartment for the weekend and never once set foot inside his door. I have respected her wishes and not told him anything about us, but he knows. He’s not stupid, in fact, her naivety about the whole situation makes me thing she may be a little dense on the subject.

Last week, he asked me, “So, how’s it going with Mattie dude?”.

“Pretty good man, but she doesn't really want me to talk about it with anyone.” I replied, getting slightly embarrassed.

“Ahhh, I see, that’s cool. It’s really not that abnormal for Chinese relationships. Consider the topic dropped man. But congratulations.”

“Thanks and thanks man.”

Last week the cat was let out of the bag, much to her disliking, but none the less. If there’s a proverbial cat and a proverbial bag, there’s someone that wants to keep it in there (proverbially). Mattie was this person in this situation. Up until now, her visits had been visits where she stayed at his house. ‘Staying at Xinlei’s house’ meant that she stayed with me until around 2:00 am and I walked her over to his apartment where she slept for about four hours and returned to my room. Like I said, how in the hell could he not know what was going on?

Mattie called me up to tell me that she was going to come and stay with me for a couple days, which was good. Her stipulation was that we kept the visit a secret from Xinlei which was bad. I refuse to lie to Xinlei, I just wont do that (I will, however, lie to about anyone else).

My task for the day was to ‘clear my schedule’ for the evening. This meant to make sure Xinlei was to leave me undisturbed from the end of our work day until the next day. By this time, Xinlei have settled down into a nice little routine where we work together and call it a day, not seeing each other until the next day. About once a week, we get together for dinner, a handful of beers and a couple games of pool, but other than that, we’re pretty much on our own. There has been times when we haven’t seen each other for several days at a time. We talk on the phone and email and stuff, but it’s nice and relaxed. This is a good sign for me, which means that I’m feeling at home and comfortable and he knows that I don't need to be entertained every night. We still get along great and are wonderful friends, which I attribute to the simple fact that we are not around each other all the time. This meant that I knew that there was only about a 20% chance that he’d want to do something that night, so the odds were in my favor. This is why I’m not a gambler.

We were on our way home from the office (after our charity forty five minutes of work for the day) and he said, “Hey man, you wanna drink some beers and shoot some pool tonight?”

“Aww man, I’m sorry. I’ve got some stuff going on tonight, we can do it tomorrow if you want.” I said, hoping that he’d let it drop at that.

“Plans huh? Ok man, that’s cool.” He replied. I realized that my choice of words was horrible. I haven’t had ‘plans’ that didn't involve Xinlei in four months now. But he let it drop and I jumped out of the taxi feeling like shit. That damn hot woman.

Later that night, Mattie and I were hanging out in the sack, when her phone started ringing. It was a text message from Xinlei saying, “What are you doing?”

“Mattie, he knows.” I replied simply.

“What?! Did you tell him?”

“No, I can just tell.”

“Ok, I’m going to send him a text message that says that I just came to Langfang and seeing if he wants to eat dinner, I’ll tell him that it was a surprise.” She said with a slight teetering to her confidence.

“Ok, but I’m just telling you. It wont work. He’s probably known about ‘us’ longer than we have.”

“Well, aren’t you bothered by it?”

“Honestly, it’s killing me to sneak around behind my only friend in this country. You’re wonderful and I’ve done it for this long, but you don't know what that guy has done for me and it’s very hard to keep such a stupid secret from him. When this whole thing comes out, it’s going to be a huge relief. Don't worry, he’s not going to be angry, as long as we just come clean. Trust me.”

“Well, I still think I should try the ‘surprise dinner’ tactic.” She said, obviously trying to hang on to the lie a bit longer. As soon as she said this, she got another text message from him that said “I know your secret.”

“Oh my god Luke!!” she exclaimed, “He knows! How did this happen?!”

“Did I ever tell you about ‘Housekeeper Games’?”

“No, but what does that have to do with this?”

“Well,” I began, “when I first got settled into my room, I was bored and spent some time playing jokes on the staff here, nothing serious. But the next day Xinlei knew about it.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I kind of built a stage and throne out of the desk and….”

“No,” she said, cutting me off “what do you mean that he knew about it the next day?”

“Don't you get it?” I said, “He’s got an inside man. The inside man is my housekeeper. They’re pretty good friends.”

“He’s friends with your housekeeper?” she practically shouted, “Why didn't you tell me this?”

“Well, I knew that if I told you, you probably wouldn't come over.” I said, knowing that I had screwed up.

“You’re right. I can't believe this! Now what can we do?”

“Well, I know he’s hungry and I’m kind of hungry. Let’s have him over and we’ll come clean.”

“Ok, but how do we do it?”

“You’re asking me how to tell the truth? Jesus, just follow my lead, the only thing you have to say is that you weren’t sure that you wanted everyone to know.”

I have never seen such a large smile on that man’s face when he met us for dinner. He was grinning from ear to ear. All he could say to me was “Congratulations dude.” He was truly happy and not at all upset. Mattie, on the other hand, was a different story.

She was having trouble making eye-contact with him. She was silent nearly the whole meal and felt like total shit. She was convinced that Xinlei was mad at her and just couldn't see why he wasn't mad. In her eyes, his smile was a smile of contempt or disdain. She even started crying once and told him to quit making fun of her. He was just sitting there smiling.

Eventually her phone rang and she stepped out to answer it. While she was gone, I had a quick talk with Xinlei.

“Hey man, I’m really sorry about this whole thing. I was not trying to lie or mislead you, Mattie just wasn't comfortable with everyone knowing about this.”

“Dude, don't even worry about it. I’m so happy for you, don't even mention it. We’re cool brother.”

And that was it. I knew we were cool and happy and that was the end of it. Xinlei was happy, I was happy, but Mattie was still embarrassed. Either way, Lucas and Mattieco went public that day and stocks have been on the steady decline ever since then.

So now, Mattie and I have been together for about three weeks and it’s been a crazy up and down ride. She’s really smart and fun to be around when she’s in a good mood, but when she’s not; it’s a real chore. There are so many differences between us that I have begun to wonder if there are enough similarities to keep us strong together. It takes a lot of energy for any relationship to succeed and this is magnified even more.

Most of the issues are based firmly in the realm of cultural differences (or at least the excuses for our differences are in the cultural realm). Some of the things I say or do often make her cringe. She is extremely shy and timid. Many of her sentences start with “I’m a Chinese girl…”. This is her way of saying that I’m doing something she doesn't like or is not accustomed to.

I live anywhere from one to three hours away (depending on traffic) and every time we see each other, it’s going to cost one of us about 260 RMB ($30 USD) for cab fares. That gets expensive quick. My communication skills are so bad that I can't get a taxi to take me to visit her on my own, I have to get in a car and hand the phone over to the driver so he can hear directions from Mattie on the other side.

We both work quite a bit, but she is significantly busier than I am. Plus, her work schedule is about as normal as a ten legged dog and our plans often change drastically in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to make any plans. She doesn't realize it, but she’s getting rolled over by her company and if I try to explain it to her, she just says “It’s different here, you wouldn't understand.” That may be true, but you’re still getting taken advantage of in a horrible way. If we were in the states, the roles would be switched and I would be the one with the crazy schedule, but that doesn't make it any easier. I feel guilty for keeping her from her work, usually because she’s so quick to point out that she should be working instead of spending time with me.

Xinlei and Mattie fight like brother and sister. They both call me crazy when I say it, but it’s true. Neither of them have any siblings, so they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s the constant bickering and fucking with each other sorts of fighting. My sisters and I fought like that for years and years, slowly growing out of it by the time I was in my mid-twenties. These two haven’t had the sibling rivalry before and are making up for lost time. I refuse to get involved and it pisses Mattie off to no end. In her mind, it is my responsibility as her boyfriend to take her side. I tell her that I’m not in the business of taking sides on stupid arguments and that they’re going to have to figure it out. The only times my parents got involved was when it begun to affect their activities, and even there it was complete reluctant involvement. Penalties were handed our quickly and harshly with no chance of appeal. “You’re sister gets the hacksaw and you get the machete. That’s the end of it, now let me get back to my damn record collection.”

I cannot be more clear on my ‘no sides’ stance. Mattie cannot be more clear how much this angers her. She is even more upset when I refer to the situation as childlike bickering with me in the father role. We argue about this every time we leave his house, but that is the consequence I must pay for riding the fence.

Another issue has been that she has had only two boyfriends in her life. She has had sex with only two people in her life, and she was with both of them for at least three years each. She also said that she loved them completely, which is why it was so difficult her to be with me after only two short weeks.

Which brings me to my biggest and stupidest mistake. It was after she gave my wonderful birthday present.

“Lucas, you didn't say you loved me.”

“Umm, excuse me? I was couldn't hear you because I’m deflating the blow-up goat. Can you rethink your words and repeat the question?”

“Well, you just didn't tell me that you loved me and I was wondering why.”

She knew I was lying and I knew I shouldn't have said it. I still don't know how it came out, but one thing is for sure - I’m a total dumbass. I made the mistake for telling her what I knew she wanted to hear instead of being honest. Being able to read people's minds is useless if you don't do the appropriate evil with the knowledge gained. I had no idea how much the guilt was bearing down on her. I never intended to make her feel so bad and guilty and I need to set things right. I mistook loneliness for love and it has caused white-hot pain in the eyes of someone that didn't deserve to be hurt.

I will be leaving China in about six weeks. I’ll be going home for a much needed rest and I still don't know when I will be coming back and for how long (or if I will come back at all). This is another source of stress. I want to have the answers. But these subjects are answered by my employer usually a day or two before I have to depart (see Chapter 1).

Even more than wanting to know and understand answers to difficult questions, just once, I want to have the strength to say them aloud to another pair of ears. My heart is filled with an unpleasant mixture of dread and anxiety for how I’m hurting someone I care about. I’m homesick, the edges of my eyesight are always blurry and my head is in a continuous daze, this has made it a very difficult time to be around me.

All of these things came to both of our attention Saturday. We were going to spend the weekend together shopping, playing with puppies, eating cotton candy, all that cool lovey shit. Xinlei and his parents were going to do some sightseeing, so we all left Langfang in the morning, the highway was closed again because of fog, so it took us three hours to get to her apartment. When we got to her apartment, Mattie’s eyes got huge when she saw me taking my bag out of the trunk of the car.

“Why did you bring that?” She asked with an obvious nervous laugh.

“What?” I replied innocently. “It’s the smallest bag I have, there’s really not that much stuff in it.”

“No, why did you bring it? What’s in it?”

“Just a change of clothes for tomorrow silly.”

“Ohh, you cant stay here tonight, I’ve got too much to do tomorrow.”

“Ohh, ok, that’s fine, I’m sick could probably use a good nights rest, I’ll go home tonight. No big deal.” Honestly, I really did feel like shit and just want to go home and sleep, but the misunderstanding really pissed me off.

I could also see that the whole situation bothered her as well. I could see it in her eyes and her quiet mannerisms as we ate lunch with Xinlei and his parents. She barely spoke and wouldn't even look at me very much. Eventually, she loosened up and we were all smiling again, but I could see that one of the little ‘cultural’ barriers had been roughed up a bit.

Later the two of us went shopping at a market so I could buy a few Christmas presents (from me to me). She was still somewhat distant and it was really making it hard to be around, if she didn't want to be around me, fine, we can cancel the day. She’s told me several times that when she’s upset or stressed, she doesn't like to talk about it, she just likes to go the gym and sweat it out (in other words, bottle it up, that sounds familiar). We weren’t doing anything that I couldn't do anytime on my own. Plus, I like shopping alone at my own pace anyway.

Eventually, we decided to go to a movie. This was a nice little break and chance to sit down for a while and sleep (which is what I planned on doing as soon as the lights went out). There were a couple English movies playing in a mall downtown, so we went in and chilled. By this time, she had cheered up considerably and we were having a nice time. I actually stayed awake during the movie and enjoyed it (so much that I will take the title of the movie to the grave with me). It didn't help that the seats were about the size of kids potty training chairs (or Chinese horse saddles).

After the movie (it was almost 10 pm by this time), we called the driver to pick us up and take Mattie home and me back to Langfang. He said he’d be there in an hour, so we went into a coffee shop and grabbed a couple drinks and relaxed while we waited for the driver.

This is when all of the problems began to surface (or ‘more’ problems, or surface ‘again’). It was torture for her to talk about them; it was forcing her to be more honest and up front than she had ever been in her life (at least that’s what I assumed). She was showing me how to be strong and wished I could mimic half of it.

She just cant take being with me; being with anyone, especially a foreigner, at this point. Her heart is still hurting from her last relationship and wants my help and advice as to where to go from here. She puts all of her energy into a relationship and wants to know if she should put it all into this relationship. No games, no ‘easy come, easy go’, just straight relationship. She doesn't love me; she knows she really likes me (which makes me feel slightly better, because the guilt I would have if she said she loved me would be crushing).

I can see that I’m killing her and my seven deadly sins are fighting for control of me. I am too proud to admit that I’m wrong, I am too greedy to let her go, I am too envious of happy people to admit that I’m in a bad place, I am angry at myself for being weak, my mind is gluttonous and my soul is slothful and slow to react. My lust has gotten me in this predicament and now stands over my battered soul, laughing at me.

By the time I left, she posed an ultimatum to me. Do you or don't you? The fact is I simply cannot handle this insane long distance relationship. Mattie is one of the moodiest people I’ve ever met and it drives me insane. When she’s up, it’s spectacular, but when she’s down it’s like being with an angry warthog. The writing is on the wall, and this relationship is over. Whether it ‘officially’ ended that night outside the movie theater or not, once I’m back home we will not be together any longer. Of all the phrases I wish weren’t true, ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is my least favorite. I had a drop dead beautiful Chinese girlfriend and haven’t been this sad and guilt ridden in years.

Why do I make such strong statements about love and feelings and trust in the beginning of a relationship? I say these things when I don't even know the person. It’s like an job interview where the employer asks all these questions in a twenty-minute phone call to determine if I’m worth the risk, hoping that you’re telling the truth, all in an attempt to see if worthy enough of getting the opportunity to prove my nobility as a man and lover at a later date. Then after I’ve had the time to get to know her, it’s always such a painful process of admitting that I was simply wrong. It’s not like I’m lying, I’m just saying things that I don't know for sure.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Is it really karaoke if nobody gets arrested?

October 28, 2005

Friday afternoon I was invited to a hotel Karaoke contest. Armed with a notion of my newfound creativity and the previous knowledge of how serious karaoke is in this country, there was no way I would be able to have peaceful sleep if I had knowingly passed up the opportunity to see my roommates singing their little hearts out. So at 2:30, I headed to the Nite Club on the 2nd floor of my house and had a great experience.

I have already described the private karaoke experience in China, as performed by Mattie, but this was a good opportunity to examine the Chinese public karaoke freestyle lifestyle (which to this point I had assumed was as rare as a unicorn). Karaoke in the States is a fairly simple yet highly entertaining phenomenon. Once a week, bar owners nationwide transform their white-trash establishment into Karaoke Night. Usually on a Tuesday or Thursday night, Whitey erases the $1.50 PBR special from the marker board and writes in beautiful misspelled cursive ‘Karaoke Night!!!!’ across the smoked-out yellowed board. Then, some of the tables are unstuck from the floor and moved around a bit to create a pseudo-stage atmosphere, or at the very least, a centralized location for ashtrays to be thrown.

Around 9:00, when the GM plant switches shifts or when the dart league is finished at Rusty’s, Camaros and Firebirds begin to trickle into the parking lot. The smell of Camel’s and Polo begin to fill the nose and the floor texture slowly changes from sticky semi-dry beer to slick-fresh beer as belligerent white folk begin their transformations into belligerent white folk who think they should sing. Patrons pass around several folders that contain the top karaoke hits of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, plus about three thousand songs that no one has ever sang in a karaoke bar.

Dirk finally finds the song he’s looking for – Stranglehold, the great Ted Nugent song – and swaggers up to the sign-up sheet to put his name and the song number right below Barb who will be singing Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker. After successfully adding his name to the sacred karaoke book (next to the strip-poker touch screen game), he goes back to his seat and drinks three more Natural Lights, has a shot of Old Crow and chain-smokes Camel Lights while patiently awaiting his shot at the big time. About thirty minutes later, his name is called. Of course, he’s in the bathroom, and by the time he gets back, they’ve already moved on to Snake, who’s already halfway through his show stopping rendition of November Rain. Naturally, this infuriates Dirk and the only person he has to take his frustration out on is poor Snake on stage. He then picks up his girlfriends bottle of Coors and throws it at Snake, hitting him in the side of the face, splattering beer all over his best White Lion shirt.

Snake’ friends are obviously outraged and throw an entire table at Dirk and his girlfriend and panic ensues. The police are called, Snake and Dirk (who are brothers incidentally) are both arrested and Dirk will have to wait until next Thursday to sing Stranglehold. All in all, a pretty low key, low rent and surprisingly common American experience.

As far as I know, all karaoke in the States is the public Mullet-Madness style, and American karaoke being the only karaoke that I have any first hand experience at, I brought some safety goggles and a whole back pack of shit to throw. Needless to say, the Chinese karaoke style is slightly different than Thursdays at the Red Balloon.

I had never been into the Nite Club (capital letters because that’s the official name of the place, I’m surprised it’s even spelled right, or semi-right). Several times, I had approached the place, but always chickened out at the last minute. Judging from the steady stream of slutty chicks that flowed in and out of the place night after night and some vicious rumors, I knew that the place was basically a whorehouse, but apparently every now and then they put it to it’s God-given use (or Mao-given use).

Not really knowing what to expect, I cautiously approached the door of the Nite Club, hoping to peek in and get a general feel for the room and locate a place to set up camp. As soon as I looked through the door, I was recognized by someone and dragged into the room. Stimuli overload ensued. I was trying to take a good look at the room, but a throng of people crowded around me (not to be confused with a ‘thong’ of people, which would have been really uncomfortable). The room was packed with roommates, all aspects of the hotel were represented in droves; housekeeping, cooks, wait staff, security guards, management, hair-styling whores, even the guys that shake the drops from your junk in the restrooms were there (no thanks guys, I don't usually shake hands).

The room was like a disco bar from the 70’s, complete with neon and lighted floors, except that there were no people dancing or cocaine. Instead of dancing and narcotics, there were three rows of couches all facing the stage. The couches were packed with roommates; as were the booths on the sides, add them to the hordes of people in the standing room only section brought the total to at least 150 people, all wanting looking at me. Not really staring at me with the normal China-grey stares, but looking at me and smiling. I felt bad for whoever was singing at the time, because my presence created quite a distraction. People were going out of their way to come and greet me, shake my hands, slap me on the back, take my picture, sign chests (one minute sir, I haven't forgotten about you). I felt like Puff Daddy. I tried to sneak off and stand in the corner to observe quietly, but my size, unusual nature and constant presence in the hotel prevents me from doing anything quietly and unnoticed. I was tossed around through a gauntlet of roommates, I may have even signed an autograph, it was probably just my bar tab from the night before.

Jenny saw me and whisked away to a safe place in the VIP section – the couches. Everyone stood up in my row to let me through, kind of like that jackass who keeps going to the snack bar at a movie theater. Keep in mind, all this time; some poor girl is standing on stage singing her heart out. The front row had all the contest judges, including the hotel general manger, who stood up in the middle of this girl’s song and shook my hand.

Finally, after creating this typical massive distraction, I was able to sit and watch some good ol’ karaoke.

In the corner of the room lurked the familiar shape of a Karaoke Cerebro machine; this one was industrial sized, for song contests of up to 40,000 competitors. Apparently the day before, each person submitted the song that they would destroy onstage and all entries were painstakingly entered into the command center, at which time the machine spew forth a tickertape of the order of competitors. By this time, everyone’s name was reduced to a four-digit number, much like the Nazis or my company. This was handed out to the judges and posted at staff high-traffic areas (such as the locker room and the spittin’ hole) so everyone knew what time they would perform.

The stage was a raised platform of clear Plexiglas that stood about four inches above the regular floor. Under the stage were various neon lights and, what appeared to be, a decorative rock garden. There were spotlights at all kinds of ‘cool’ angles and colors throughout the room. In the middle of the stage was the karaoke podium. It was a thin triangular piece of clear plastic that gradually enlarged to a flat, angled surface that contained, what I can only guess was the karaoke television (the TV that played the bad video and displayed the embarrassing words that the horrible singer was supposed to try to duplicate). It kind of reminded me of a sci-fi evil warlord command control center, the one that he always appears behind during the evil transmission where he tells the entire world how he will rule and destroy all those who stand in their place. Of course, instead of an evil warlord, a mouse-like Chinese housekeeper commanded the world, or at least those who were willing to pay attention in the Nite Club.

The official emcee was Langfang International Hotel’s version of eye-candy. She girl stepped onstage with the strut and swagger of an MTV Spring Break model and carried the microphone like a wet T-shirt contest hose. She spoke with energy that only cheerleaders have and smiled the fake toothy grin of a weatherman. Her job was simple, introduce the next person and hand the microphone off to him or her, then get the hell off the stage. The only thing that could be considered a challenge was that she only had about three minutes to do this before the next song started playing automatically. Only a true KTV professional could manage under these conditions.

After the contestant was introduced, he or she (it was about 80% ‘she’s) came up to the stage, grabbed the microphone and began to sing. The microphone had some strange echo-feedback that made the singer sound like they were singing in a canyon (I also noticed this when I was trying to beatbox at the private KTV jam-session that I went to with Mattie last week, so I think it’s normal). The transformation that took place in these people when they got onstage and gripped the mic was remarkable. So remarkable, that I am convinced that the microphones are actually magic microphones, transforming feeble, timid people into loud-and-proud musicians with no regard for their own image. This would account for the self-confidence blown forth by the professional ‘musicians’ in this country who would argue that the single quotes should be dropped from this statement.

Each contestant was greeted with appropriate applause based on his or her rank in the hotel and the corresponding click. Managers were greeted heartily, while cooks or cock-shakers were mostly ignored. During the song, people would applaud at seemingly random times, I could never really figure it out. I think a lot of it was the group mentality, if one person started clapping, everyone else joined in (I swatted a fly on my leg once and that set of a string of applause like a carpet bomb). The key – don't be left out, give everyone their dues; if someone thinks a singer deserves applause, we all should feel the same way. How cute. It kind of reminded me of the pathetic status of children’s sports in America where the score is not kept, which teaches our future that there are no losers in life, just ignorant mathematicians. I will destroy these children in my workplace until I retire.

The other hip thing to do was to hand the singer flowers during their performance. One of the singer’s friends would go onstage in the middle of their song and hand them a flower, and of course, everyone would clap. After a while, one flower turned into two or three and two or three turned into whole beauty contest bouquets. “Where the hell are all these flowers coming from?” I thought. I’m looking around for a FTD shop in the corner, but I couldn't see one. After a while, I realized that they were just using the same damn flowers over and over again. The singer would get done singing, go sit down and hold the flowers until someone came and took them to give to the next singer. That’s some ghetto shit people, recycling flowers. I guess if it were me, I’d be happy to have someone take the flowers away from me, that would just save me the trouble of tossing them on my way to the car (and then trying to explain why I didn't keep them, and why I’m always such a inconsiderate bastard. Don't you love me?!)

About halfway through the afternoon’s performances, the general manager was asked to sing a song and he obliged. He walked up to the stage with thunderous applause, boy band type of shit, Beatles reunion in Hell type of noise and grabbed the microphone. He said a few words, everyone applauded again and then the music started.

“Holy crap! What the hell is that sound?” I thought there was some industrial metal ripping machine or a pig getting skinned alive somewhere in the room. Despite the horrendous voice, over the course of his four-minute song, he was showered with applause and presented every flower this side of Shanghai (which is believe was Southeast of me), I could barely see his head sticking out of the top of the flower pile by the end (What a bunch of kiss-asses.)

Jenny had her turn and turned out to be a pretty good singer. She overcame the pathetic music of this country and actually sounded decent. Mu Duo was pushing me to go up on stage to give her a flower, but a sudden bout of shyness kept me firmly planted in my seat. Thinking back to the distraction I made when I simply walked into the room, there was no telling what would happen if I actually approached the stage, plus Jenny would likely piss her pants out of embarrassment, and I really didn't want to see that.

The whole time I was sitting there, I was treated like royalty. They asked me if I would like to sing (that’s one of the stupidest questions I’ve ever been asked). They kept bringing me bottles of water (hot and cold), hot towels (like a quarterback on the sideline), a pen (for autographs, I assumed), and, of course, the ever present massage queries (no thanks, just here to toss some ashtrays at drunkards).

During and after each performance, the judges were working hard to fill out the contestant forms, this was a contest after all, and there was a MP3 player at stake. Even though the forms were in Chinese, I could guess, almost to the stroke, what was on the forms (appearance, singing voice, stage presence, energy, number of flowers received, number of teeth, body odor, the list gets pretty boring after that.) This being a communist country, however, I was concerned of the ramifications to the judge’s families if they actually picked a winner. In this society, you can’t just tell someone that they are a better singer than someone else, are you crazy? In the end, all 100 contestants received a 51%, straight across the board, better than average, but not enough to elevate the individual to some misunderstood ‘elite’ status. Long live China!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Persistence of Birthdays

October 21-24, 2005

This weekend was my thirty-first birthday. I think it is a common feeling that as you grow older a person gives less and less importance to birthdays. Not long after you move out of your parent’s house, for a normal person, the odds of getting a remote controlled car or new stereo are effectively reduced to zero. Anymore, I get a phone call at most, there was no grandfathering the removal of gifts, it happened immediately. It makes me think that the only reason my parents bought me stuff for 18 years was because parents are required by law to acknowledge my birthday. But it’s a two-way street, somewhere along the line, I lost the sugar-induced desire to get gifts and have parties with clowns and mimes thrown in my honor. Plus somewhere around the age of thirty, time and age begins to work against you (I say that because I’m thirty and don't know about what happens when a person turns forty). I no longer look at birthdays with the sense of pride of being a year older; I look at it more like one year less. Less time to live, less time to make big decisions about my life, less time to live happily ever after. My body has begun to fall apart, my hair is thinning, my skin looks more and more aged, I am noticing more and more the irreparable effects of gravity and it takes more than a big lunch at Arby’s to get over a hangover.

These sad things said, birthdays will keep coming, with the slow and unstoppable force of a glacier and this year was no different. I wasn't trying to hide my birthday, but I wasn't broadcasting it on the Langfang City Square Jumbo-tron either. Xinlei and Mr. Feng had asked me early in the project when my birthday was, but I hardly expected any of them to remember. I didn't think I told Mattie, but there’s no telling what I may have said in some strange hazy lust of a conversation in bed over the past week. No one in the hotel knew about my birthday because, well, I just didn't think to talk about it to any of them. That’s where the bubble was burst first.

The day before my birthday (Friday), I was downstairs talking to a couple of the girls when one of the hostesses informed me that Saturday was Mu Duo’s birthday. Now, I’ve already got a soft spot in my heart for this beautiful girl and to find out that her birthday is on the same day as mine is just too much not to bring up. However, the communication is so difficult most of the time, they wouldn't understand if I told them that mine was Saturday also, so I had to step up my game a bit. I pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to Mu Duo.

She looked at it confusedly for few seconds and then suddenly let out an ecstatic yelp that echoed throughout the lobby, it kind of sounded like a puppy when you ‘accidentally’ step on its foot. She jumped up and smiled and hugged me and started passed my license around to everyone else (which was about six people by that time). They were convinced that I “did that on purpose”. Despite not being able to converse with any of them, the whole hotel staff that I deal with on a daily basis has full knowledge of my crush on Mu Duo, so it was all extra special to everyone. In fact, I was banking on a hunch that I would develop a crush on a girl I couldn't talk to, and before I left America, I made 184 separate fake drivers licenses, one for every day that I would be here and every day I put a new one in my wallet just waiting to realize that it was her birthday. It’s all about planning ahead.

So it began, the cat was let out of the bag, the bubble was broken, the flood had broken the levy and the best part was that I had something in common with this beauty. Of course, my birthday was to be my 31st, she would be celebrating her 19th, but what’s twelve years between two people who can't speak to each other? A lovely way to put it into perspective, when I was graduating Halstead High School, she was just getting potty trained enough to be accepted to kindergarten at General Mao Grade School (or whatever school people go to when they’re five years old.

Mattie has been totally swamped lately. Her manager has been in town from Holland, so she’s working about 15 hours a day. These people are machines when they need to be. They go from super-lazy, sleeping at their desks to midnight meetings with clients at the drop of the hat. Her manager was supposed to leave by Friday and she knew that Saturday was my birthday (which either meant that I told her or that Xinlei told her). We planned to go to the Beijing Zoo on Saturday and have a gay ol’ time. This was actually my request - I just love zoos (yet I am still able to prefer boobs over men). I had a summer job at a zoo one year and any time I’m in a big city that I’ve got some free time in, I try to hit the zoo. I’ve been trying to get there for two months, but, surprisingly, no one else seems to share my interest. Why the hell would you want to go look at animals that we can't eat? Sometimes you just can't argue with the bulletproof logic of a hungry nation.

Alas, Friday afternoon, her boss decided to stay a couple more days, so we were not going to be able to see each other. She said that she would have to pack that night so she could leave early on Saturday, which totally sucked. In my desperation to see her, I suggested that I could come and help her pack and just sit with her for a while. She agreed and upped the ante; she said that she’d get me a hotel room so that I wouldn't have to come back to Langfang late. She really wanted to see me on my birthday and felt bad that she wouldn't be able to spend the weekend with me. Of course when I reminded her that her manager has been to Beijing over ten times and that he could probably manage for one day, she accused me of trying to get her fired.

I ended up getting to her apartment about 11:30 pm (30 minutes from 31). She was still packing, so I just got comfortable outside and told her I’d wait for her to finish. She said it would be a while, but it would be ok for me to come up to her apartment while she finished.

For real? Hell yeah. Xinlei’s gonna freak!

Her apartment is a little two-bedroom place that is in a very typical Chinese building (partly because it’s in China). The ground floor of the city is almost all businesses – restaurants, bars, salons, shops, and whorehouses. But the following three to twenty floors are apartments. The only apartment that I’d been to so far was Xinlei’s rental. His place is pretty sweet, I’d definitely live there, but it’s also in Langfang where the cost of living is super cheap. Beijing is real city life, which means every aspect of life here is expensive and there’s never much room to go around.

When I said ‘little’ before, I meant little – two bedrooms that were barely large enough to walk around in, a kitchen the size of a hallway, the actual ‘living room’ was more like an entryway. These two girls are packed in there tight. The place was about the size of a small one-bedroom apartment with a couple extra walls thrown up to create a ‘room-like’ atmosphere. Yet another railroad spike driven into my head about how much we have in America. The place was rode hard and put away broken. Everything here is just used to death, torn down and then rebuilt.

I couldn't believe it, but it took her three hours to pack for a two-day trip. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon before with other people, but holy crap, I was about to fall asleep. We had to be extra quiet because she didn't want Sherry to know that I was in her room. We went through makeup, shoes, pants, shirts and every combination of anything in between. Chinese people have about one tenth the amount of clothes and shoes that their American counterparts have, men and women both, which meant that she tried on every combination of her six outfits and four pairs of shoes three times (that’s 144 combinations if you’re checking my math, one outfit equals one pair bottoms plus one top). Even more surprising, Mattie fit everything she needed into a backpack. If I pack for a two-day trip, I’ll need at least a small suitcase because I would pack for at least three days, which means a minimum of four pairs of shoes.

It struck me as a bit odd that she would still make me cover my eyes or look away when she changed clothes, especially after the stuff that we did last week in the sack, but it’s her game and if she’s going to be shy around me, I’m just going to sit back and be entertained.

Eventually, by about 3:00 am, we finished up and we went to the hotel (by this time I was 31 and three hours). The hotel was a nice little local place, none of that crazy international stuff that I get at shitholes like the Celebrity. Mattie gave me a small birthday cake and we stayed up all night where she gave me my real birthday present. It was quite awesome and it was worth the three hour packing and silence exercise I had been put through earlier in the night. We got about 45 minutes of sleep before she had to wake up and leave town for the weekend with her manager. She put me in a taxi and I headed back to Langfang on cloud nine.

You would think that I may have more to write about my birthday present, but I just don't know how to write about sex. In fact, I blush just typing the word. I have no problem doing the locker-room type of talk, but being honest about the whole act in a reflective and mature manner, I just can't do it. You would think that someone who can write a 130,000 word book, each claiming to be about being honesty, the truth, and inner reflection - no matter how embarrassing - would be able to write about something as simple and natural as sex. Think again. I hear tales from my mother who says that she and my sister have regular conversations about it. Are you guys fucking crazy? What the hell is wrong with you? It makes me feel like some 75 year-old Texan or a gentleman out of a Bocaccio novel.

Anyway, what a great birthday.

I slept for most of the remainder of the day, mostly to take full advantage of my spectacular dreams. By early evening, good feelings were beginning to be displaced by feelings of hunger so I headed out the door for dinner. When I walked, birds sang and children smiled, dogs wagged their tails and cats purred. All was good for that moment. After dinner, Jenny, Sky, Ann and Lily called me back up to my room for a ‘surprise’ birthday party. These poor people get so excited about their surprises that they can't keep a secret worth a damn, like a kid who gets his mother a really cool ashtray for Christmas and ends up telling her all about it before the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone. They brought me another birthday cake and a pair of gloves. We hung out for an hour eating cake and looking at pictures and then I went to sleep. I slept like a rock, still on cloud nine from the night before. I was somewhat disturbed that they got into my room to decorate while I was eating dinner, but they maintain my deepest trust.

Sunday, Mr. Feng and his wife, Xinlei, Mr. Li, and some girl I don't know took me to diner where I had a third cake, this one even larger than the others. We ate at the steak house again, and it was still pretty good, I couldn't do it every day, but it’s kind of nice to use a fork and knife every now and then. They all gave me presents, I had my picture taken with some children at the table next to us and it was a fine evening.

I think my problem with birthdays and these types of holidays is that I just don't want an issue made of stuff. No gifts, nothing. Over the course of three days, I had three completely different birthday parties thrown for me with completely different groups of people and it’s just too much. All this time I was thinking how I’m getting all this stuff, when Mu Duo - who’s celebrating the same thing on the same day - is probably not getting anything other than a hug and that familiar buzzing of her alarm clock, because for her, it’s business as usual, just like the day before, just like the day after.

I get in these reflective moods and feel like total shit for what I have and how easy I have it. Then the next day comes and I’m totally pissed off at how hard it is for me and how little I have. It’s times like these where I feel burdened for being able to see things from different points of view. It makes me feel like a hypocrite and I don't like it, but it will continue to be written and described as how I’m seeing it at the time. Today’s happy story is tomorrow’s angry story with the only difference being what side of the street I was standing on when the bus splashed the water onto the sidewalk.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Well Deserved Break - My Side Projects

Ever since the local chapter of the United Nations has recessed, my free time has increased to a level that I haven’t had in many years. With increased free time, there comes an increased amount of fidgety boredom so I have taken on a few little side projects to pass the time. As much as I love reading, I have to get out of bed periodically. Since there is nothing on television, I have taken on several little side projects. All of these seem to center around the same thing - my knowledge of English, but all are unique in their own little ways. The people of the hotel have always hinted around me helping them out with some various language related issues. Their ‘hinting’ reminds me of a child trying to score some candy from another kid without actually asking for it.

“Hey… uh … what’s that?”

“English.”

“Really?…. uh… How does it work?”

“Well, you speak or write it.”

“I’ve never had any English…. I’ve always wondered how it would work, but I don't have any way to learn it.”

“Well, if you’d like, I can help you with your English.”

“That’d be ok I suppose, ….I mean, …it’s no big deal.”

Actually, I’ve told the hotel staff on several occasions that I would be more than willing to help out with anything language related, little did I know, they would take me up on it. In America, you can make offers like this, knowing full well that no one will ever actually take you up on it, I call these statements Smart Promises. There is no such thing as a Smart Promise in Big Red.

First through the gates were hotel documents. Seemingly easy because I could just mark up the problems while I drank beer and giggled like a little girl. Because this is an ‘international’ hotel, all documents in the joint are in English and Chinese. I’m sure the Chinese is good, but the English is hilarious at best. Part of me wants to leave the documents alone just so that the other foreigners have the same entertainment opportunity as I have had. Much like the Chinese work force, the pool of document material is bottomless, there is absolutely no way I could do a complete overhaul of the highly entertaining aspect of the hotel. Whether it is the hundreds of signs around the hotel with words out of order or misspelled, the Internet connection directions, the weekly housekeeping poems or the services directory, the fact is, Chinese just doesn't translate to English very well, and the results are spectacular. Here are a couple of my favorite examples.

This hotel has an indoor driving range and putting green. It is unbelievably expensive, something to the tune of $50 USD an hour, but the flyer clearly states that it is “$120 RMB per hour for a practice beating.” That’s pretty cheap, I usually pay double that for my beatings, but then again, it is only for practice (ok, my comment isn’t very funny, but it’s all I could think up). At some point, this document was put in front of me and I corrected it in about three minutes, all for the cost of a cup of coffee (which is equal to the cost of flying to Columbia and getting it your damn self), however, to date, these changes have not been reflected in the fliers.

Over the course of a week, I was presented with all of the hotel restaurant menus and asked for help correcting them. It was quite a fun experience; these little guys spell like shit. If you look in an English dictionary, you can see the words are usually spelled out phonetically based on English phonetics, but China uses a completely different phonetic schema, so the words come out in various forms. They usually get most of the letters right, or maybe the correct number of letters, but they’re never in the right order, often mixed with the England versions and American versions. Most foreigners would have no problems with the menu, but the hotel is still concerned about getting these things correct to make them look more professional, and rightly so. They could send it to any American second grade class for corrections and it would turn out better than it is.

After getting into the menu a little more, I realized that there were more problems than just misspellings. They actually confuse food items quite a bit. The hotel manager politely informed me that I didn't know the difference between broccoli and cauliflower. The also have problems with bamboo shoots, asparagus and kale, but who am I to judge, vegetables are all the same to me.

To take it a step further, I have been asked questions as to why much of the menu is avoided by foreigners altogether. The problem is simple (to foreigners) – many of the restaurant menu items do not translate very appetizingly. Not many honkeys order the Sizzling Fish Head, Swallow Saliva Soup, or Eel Intestines in Blood Sauce. Even though I have eaten both of these dishes, I would have never ordered them on my own. The name just doesn't do the taste justice. I have been challenged to help make the English versions of normal Chinese dishes sound more appetizing. I have suggested using tantalizing adjectives to try and sugarcoat the disgusting nature of Chinese food. Succulent Sizzling Fish Head, Tasty Swallow Saliva Soup and General Mao’s Bang-tangular Eel Intestines in The Blood of Capitalists are sure to turn some heads.

I have also taken advantage of my menu translation time to discuss the absurd price of coffee in the restaurant. One cup of fresh coffee is 45 RMB (about $4.25 USD). This is a cup only on the most technical sense of the word, it is cup-shaped and holds liquid, but it only holds about 6 ounces and they only fill about two-thirds up. You’re paying about $1 an ounce. I told Hatchet Harmony, the Western Bar manager hag, that an extra-large coffee at Starbucks in Beijing is only 24 RMB. She told me, in the same cold defensive manner she told me I don't know my vegetable identification, that their coffee is better, that’s why it costs so much more. They’re so dismissive when you start comparing their hotel to pesky things like facts. My only response was that foreigners will not buy their coffee, ever. I will stand by this statement forever; every foreigner that I talk to says that it’s obscenely priced. I have begun to prove this point by buying the same instant coffee at the grocery store and carrying it around in my backpack everywhere I go, right next to my mouse and camera. This includes carrying it down to the restaurants. The hotel provides hot water and spoons for free, so I can sit at my table and drink coffee for hours on end without paying the ridiculous prices. This has sent waves of panic and anger through the staff, actually just Hatchet. She could be one of the most greedy people in the country and hates the fact that I do not buy coffee there. I’m saving about 300 yaks a week, plus I am given extreme pleasure from pissing her off, it’s a win-win situation.

I also spent some time working with Liu, the front desk hottie that I never talk to anymore, on correcting a document that explains how to get on the Internet. I took a copy of the document and started marking it up, but it was so bad and confusing that I just rewrote the entire thing for them on the spot. Their document was like reading an encrypted map to an ancient civilization. It took me about 15 minutes, complete with screenshots (everyone likes pictures). That one got me free lunch.

One of the greatest pleasures I have is the looks in the management’s eyes when I tell them that signs are misspelled. Signs in the hotel are probably not cheap. Most are engraved brass, neon or carved wood (not neon wood of course - neon signs and carved wood signs). That means that they were likely special ordered and slightly more expensive than the photocopied coffee shop menus. The thing is, as entertaining as the thought of a Cloak Room is, most people in the world no longer wear cloaks, outside of Anne Rice novels. Low ceilings with signs that say ‘Be Care Your Head’, while they do get the point across, often cause more casualties from people pointing and laughing at them and actually forgetting that they’re walking under a low ceiling. Bonk.

I have also been asked to teach English to the son one of the hotel managers. This kid and his friend are 11 years old and we sit in the lobby once a week and try to speak English to each other. It is very difficult, mainly because I don't know how to teach English to foreign children. Where do you start? I usually start with numbers, which they understand pretty well (much better than my understanding of Chinese numbers). We talk about colors and animals and usually end up frustrated and stopping. Plus, it always ends up with his mother and a couple more of the hotel managers standing around us, watching me, which makes me really uncomfortable. It makes me feel like a stand-up comedian who has forgot his bit and just stands there, silent and sweating, under the hot spotlight, tugging at my tie around my neck and sweating profusely. These kids have no desire to learn English even though his mother really wants him to learn. The one thing I do know about teaching, you can't teach the unwilling, so it’s turned into a grand waste of time. These classes have been cancelled due to lack of interest in both parties.

I was recently approached by gay-Tony and forced to stand through another excruciating conversation with him. This one about helping him with housekeeping English lessons. He is the ‘professor’ to the housekeeping department, which explains their horrible English.

“Luksa, I teach the housekeeping staff English.” He spittled at me.

“That explains why they can't understand a damn thing I tell them.”

“You have been helping out in the hotel and I would like you to help with my English class. We usually have the class one day on the weekends from 4:30 to 8:00 pm.”

“You’d think you would be able to accomplish more in three and a half hours. I would enjoy helping, just tell me when your next class is and if I don't have any plans, I’ll be there.”

“Luksa, I would like to know when you’re available and I’ll set up the class then.”

“Just tell me when you’re having your class and I’ll try to make it.” My schedule is shaky at best; one thing I’ve learned here is not to make plans because there is about a 176% chance that they’ll be changed in some way.

“How about this weekend?” He stammered out to me.

“When? I can’t promise you anything; my job and personal life have to come first. Remember, I’ve got a girlfriend now and I must concentrate all efforts on getting her pants off”

“How about Saturday from 4:00 to 7:00 pm?”

“Just schedule your class man and tell me when it is. If I’m available, I’ll be there, but I can't make any promises now.”

A couple days later, he asked me if I would be able to attend. Of course, by that time, my schedule had changed and I would be unable to go. I apologized and told him that maybe next week.

“Luksa, I hope you can attend, I told them you would be there and it makes me look bad. You said you would be there and you are going back on your word.”

My head snapped and my lips started forming words before I could stop them. “Listen dick, I don't give a fuck about you looking bad. I’m volunteering my time to you and you’re trying to give me a guilt trip? You sound like my ex-girlfriend. You can go to hell man.” This guy is the source of more painful conversations than anyone I have ever met in my life and he’s been wearing pretty thin on me for weeks now.

“Luksa, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to upset you. But you said…”

“I said I would try, but my job comes first, no matter what that means to you. I’m a paying guest of this hotel and you’re a prick for trying to pull this shit on me. You’re lucky I don't go to your boss about your attitude.”

I walked off, leaving him standing there, either stunned or confused; I’m guessing the latter. There’s one side project I can mark off my list.

In addition to my knowledge of the English language, my size and striking agility have been put to good use. In an effort to put all of my differences to some sort of a use, I have begun to help the Langfang Junior High School Chinese Kung Fu class on their basketball skills a couple times a week. This is nothing official of course, but they seem to be finishing up their practice about the time I cash my first free throw on most evenings (after missing my first fifteen). There are always five to ten of the kids that hang around after practice patiently waiting to have a go at taking it to the rack against the cracker. I remember when I first started playing basketball, in the third grade in Cheney Kansas; I couldn't make a lay-up to save my life. It took several weeks of training from my (English speaking) coach to get my footing down right. I already knew the basics of dribbling and traveling and it was still a bitch for me. These kids don't know how to dribble, have no idea what traveling is and speak absolutely no English. To date, only one of the kids has performed a legal lay-up. But it’s great fun and they like it when I swat the ball away from their friends.

Several people have contacted me via email from around the world who are interested in teaching English in China. I’m not sure how they have found me, but I always correspond with them as much as they like. Most of them are insecure unattractive women about 24 years old who feel like ‘making a difference’. They just want to know if they should teach in Taipei, Beijing or Shanghai. I tell them all pretty much the same thing - beats me, they’re all basically the same; overpopulated and polluted and joined in their common skepticism of white people. I too once thought I could make a difference, I have since realized that I need to concentrate on making a difference out of myself. If you think that helping people learn English is going to make a difference in your life, you better not even waste your money on a passport. People in general, especially in this country, will take advantage of you. The real world is risky territory for people with generosity of spirit.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Here Ye! Here Ye! ...We have struck booty!!

October 6-12, 2005

I barely slept a wink that night. I kept tossing and turning in bed, sweating and heartbroken, my eyes felt like they were doused in broken glass. I just felt the need to be understood, not necessarily by someone else, but to understand myself. I know I was chasing a fool’s dream, but these little hopes and short-term energy sources seem to keep me going, moving forward. I just could not comprehend why I am always affected by simple things so harshly.

I moved through the morning in a sort of daze, not sleeping, but definitely tired, trying to understand why I insisted on staying in bed despite knowing that I was unable to sleep. I read and wrote a bit, but my mind was wandering uncontrollably, I tried to work, not really, but I should mention work from time to time.

The next afternoon, Mattie sent me a text message, just saying hello and seeing how my day was going. Needless to say, I was somewhat shocked. I completely expected to never hear from her again, in America, if a girl tells you not to call her that means ‘you shouldn't wait by the phone because I’m never going to call you again either.’ I know that I was never planning on talking to her again. What’s the point? I have a very hard time facing my failures and this was no exception. However, I’m not a complete idiot, if she was willing to make the effort, I wasn't going to ignore her, so I sent her a message back, something along the lines of ‘I’m ok, just tired. How about you?’ I’m so smooth.

Over the course of the day we exchanged a couple more messages and she convinced me to install yet another chat program on my computer so we could talk more. I was still pretty confused, but at the same time I could not resist her. Even though I couldn't see her, I could picture that smile and those eyes and smell her skin and I’m a glutton for punishment when it comes to desperation of relationships. This was rapidly proving no different.

We ended up chatting online for about 4 hours that night and during the course of our conversation, the crux of her strange actions were revealed. Her and her boyfriend of four years had split up just two months ago. He was still hanging around her, trying to get her back, calling, dropping by, following her, all that psycho boyfriend stuff (I find his amateur techniques amusing, I should give him lessons). This has stressed Mattie out quite a bit and, needless to say, meeting another man is the last thing on her mind right now. It’s not because I’m a foreigner, it’s because I’m a man (or at least an extremely hairy boy).

This shed a whole new light on circumstances. I knew that her and her boyfriend had recently split up, but I had no idea it was such a serious relationship and that he was fucking crazy.

“Jesus, Mattie. That makes so much more sense, and makes me feel horrible. If I had known that, I would have backed off you and left you alone more.” (Maybe…. eh.. probably not.)

“No, it’s ok, I did have a good time with you, but I’m just very scared of anything that has to do with a relationship right now.”

This nugget gave our conversation a whole new life, mainly because being alone is one of my feature presentations. We talked of heartbreak and of sadness, confusion and anger, and of course how much talking can help (not that I ever talk about my feelings, at best I write about them, knowing that most of my friends hate reading and will never realize the truth about me). If she had been asking me questions about how to make a relationship successful, I’d have been screwed, but we kept it on the happy topic of relationship failures and the depths that a person can sink from disappointment. I can always talk to the recently single class, I know what they’re going through, unfortunately, despite my best efforts, they all graduate to the ready-to-move-on class, leaving me behind to greet the next wave of recently single people like a friendly old man at the front door of Wal-Mart.

Her mother was at her house and could hear us chatting. I sent her a couple of the pictures from our trip that she hadn’t seen. Her mother commented that she thought I looked very nice and had a very gentle way about me. Totally sweet dude, I’m already getting in with the mother and I haven’t even had to talk to her (not that I could if I wanted to).

In the middle of the night, I went to sleep much happier for me and yet much sadder for her. She’s going through a bad time and I was absolutely no help. My subconscious is speaking much louder to me these days and I’m beginning to realize that he is evil (and surprisingly handsome).

The next day, we chatted again and towards the end of the conversation she said, “I have something to say to you, but I’m very shy.”

“What is it? You don't have to be shy with me.”

“Ik mis jue” (or something to that extent).

“What the hell is that? That doesn't look Chinese, it looks Swedish or something.”

“It’s Dutch, but I can’t tell you what it means, you must figure it out.”

I don't think Mattie realized that I was sitting on the Internet and had the entire world at my fingertips. It took me about three seconds to search for it and the search results made my jaw drop.

“Mattie….that means….‘I miss you’… is that right?” I stammered.

“Yes, I’m too shy to say it though. But I do miss you. I’ve been looking at our pictures from Ba Shang and realizing how I really do miss you.”

“Awww, I miss you too.” I managed to stutter. I’m so confused now; this is an unbelievable change from two nights ago when she didn't want to ever see me again.

I kept repeating Xinlei’s advice to me. “She’s Chinese, you must take it slow and at her speed, don't force anything dude.”

The normal Lucas would have replied like this, “Will you marry me and move to an island with me?” The new and speechless Lucas replied, “I wish I could see you again. I know you’re very sad, but it will be ok. You have tons of friends around you who love and care for you. Please let me know if I can do anything to help you, it would be my pleasure.”

The new speechless Lucas is such a fag. First of all, I can't believe I actually said, “It would be my pleasure.”

Not long after, she had to go and face the visit from the ex-boyfriend to exchange stuff and talk. She was pretty nervous, but knew she had to do it, so with a mixture of emotions we both left each other for the time being.

That evening, Xinlei and I decided to have a couple beers at the hotel and shoot some pool. It wasn't long before two or three beers turned into about fifteen beers and we were somewhat drunk. About 12:30, we were sitting down in the bar finishing our beers when my phone rings. I look to the caller ID and see, much to my surprise, that the ‘no phone call’ embargo that Mattie had placed had apparently been lifted.

She was very sad and crying. She said her ex was crying and getting angry and just wouldn't leave her alone (damn amateurs). She cares for him and says that he’s a good person, but she doesn't want to be with him anymore because he’s so immature and he just wont leave her alone. She was so sad and just wanted to talk to someone. She said she called me because we could talk in English and her mother wouldn't understand. She just wants to run away. I told her that if she had to run away, she could run away to Langfang (with that nervous laughter after the comment that does a horrible job in hiding the truth in the suggestion).

We talked for about two hours and she kept apologizing for calling me and for crying and showing me how weak she was. “Come on Mattie, it’s ok really; I don't think you’re weak. Don't confusion emotion with weakness.”

By this time it was about 2:30 am and it was getting difficult for me to cover up my drunkenness. Mattie was tired and wanted to go to sleep, plus her mother was lurking in the shadows of her apartment, wanting to talk with her, so we said goodnight.

“Go give your mother a hug and cry on her shoulder. She loves you very much and is concerned about you because you’re so sad.”

The new Lucas is such a fag.

The next day, we chatted for a bit in the afternoon and she said that her ex was supposed to come over again that night and she just didn't want to see him. Once again, she said she wanted to run away. I said, just run away to Langfang (again with the nervous laughter), we’ll take care of you. Next thing I knew, she called Xinlei and asked if she could stay in one of his extra rooms for a day or two. Xinlei, being the Romeo nice guy, immediately rented a car and drove to Beijing (conveniently forgetting me of course).

I told Mattie and Xinlei that I was going to go play basketball for a couple hours and to give me a shout when they got to town and we could grab dinner. I went and played basketball for about three hours and dominated the courts. I’m starting to get my jump back (I can get up about three inches in the air now), my shot feels good and the good people of China still suck ass at basketball. My new bicycle makes it an easy quick bike ride to the gym, so I don't have to rely on taxis anymore.

Xinlei, Mattie and I got together about 7:30 for dinner in my house (the hotel). The stares abounded as we walked through the lobby, the bad part of being accepted into a family is that you have to deal with the family-like gossip train. We headed back to the Western Restaurant for a quiet dinner. I was particularly mindful of Mu Duo, whose smile was minimal and shock was apparent.

When I sat across the table from Mattie and took my first good look at her. I could just see it in her eyes, she was sad, no smiles, no laughing, just a quiet impassive person, sitting across the table. Over the course of dinner, Xinlei and I got her to loosen up a bit. Cheery stories about the way I was raised by my parents and how my sisters and I fought all the time are apparently a gold mine of humor. Trying to explain how I kind of lived in a religious mansion for a while was pretty difficult, mainly because China has neither religion nor mansions. By the end of dinner, Mattie was smiling and laughing and things were going well once again, she was also looking at me with those amazing eyes more and more.

After dinner, Mattie and I decided to take a walk and Xinlei decided to go drive around town for a while (he sure does love driving). Mattie and I walked to the big square across the street from the hotel and spent about two hours talking and holding each other. We talked about our bad luck with pets and our families and telling each other stories, looking into the sky. Real romantic shit. Of course, I was looking and smelling my best after three hours of basketball, but she didn't seem to mind.

Then it happened. Like an explosion in the night. First kiss. It was very brief and she couldn't even look at me afterwards, but it happened. It wasn't fireworks type of stuff, but it was really there, she kissed me on my lips. The fact that it was her initiative to kiss me made it even doubly lovely. I could hear Xinlei’s voice in my subconscious “Take it slow dude, she’s Chinese” so I put the wedding ring back in my pocket and just put my arms around her and held her. This is her ballgame and I don't mind playing it. I felt like dancing, in fact I did briefly, but she got embarrassed even more. It was just a couple bars of the Cabbage Patch, baby.

Eventually, we made our way over to Xinlei’s apartment where he was waiting for us. Our walk lasted two hours and covered three city blocks. Not a bad evening.

The next day consisted of Mattie coming over to my room in the morning and staying all day. Most of the day spent making out in bed like a couple high-school kids, keeping it pretty PG. I was in heaven; of the two girls I’ve kissed in my life she’s the hottest. I felt like once she gave me access to her lips, I had access to the whole body. It was like going to Disney World, once you got through the front gate, you could ride all the rides for free; however, there is always that one ride that’s super special that you have to pay for – The Exhilarator. I hope that the Exhilarator opens up some day.

That night, the three of us shot some pool in the hotel game room. Xinlei was pretty frustrated and somewhat upset the whole evening, he’s extremely lonely these days and Mattie was super-flirty with me the whole time, so it just compounded his loneliness. In an attempt to improve his mood, she suggested we go to KTV (Karaoke TV), which is the most popular thing in China, outside eating snakes and whorehouses.

Xinlei wanted nothing to do with it, he doesn't sing and didn't feel like being pressured into singing. Mattie just wouldn't let it go, she was absolutely convinced that this would help him and her persistence just upset him more. He would barely look up and would hardly talk. I had the mental image of Mattie, dressed in an explorer uniform from the early 1800’s, poking an irritated bear with a stick. I was starting to get a bit of a sore throat and didn't particularly want to go there either, I’m not a singer and I do not play one on TV. Karaoke just isn’t my thing. In the US, I’ve been several times with a handful of people; we get drunk, if you want to sing, then sing, if not, no one’s up your ass about it. I was slightly curious about what was behind the walls of one of the many KTV buildings in this country. Plus, it was Mattie’s idea, and I always vote booty on trivial amendments, ask any of my constituents.

Eventually Xinlei said that the only way he would go was if he was assured she would not banter him any more about having to sing and that he could just sit there drink beer. She agreed and the tables were set for a rocking night of karaoke, at least for one of the three of us.

We were off. My first KTV experience. Walking into the place, I immediately thought of a cross between a movie theater and a casino. Lights everywhere, crazy carpet, Chinese video games in random places, and floors upon floors of hallways of doors to private rooms; I was completely awestruck to the point of dizziness. If Alice In Wonderland were remade today, it would have at least one scene in this building.

There was no public-bar style of karaoke, everyone rented their own private room and, with the door safely shut, sang their little hearts out. As we walked down the hallway, I noticed that there was a waiter or guard or something like that, outside each room. He would open the door, take your booty wine and fruit orders, wipe up the sex messes after climax and pretty much anything in between.

I assume that the rooms come in various sizes, just like dining halls and meeting rooms. Our room was about the size of a small living room. Around the perimeter of the room was a big U-shaped leather couch. Along the outer wall was a 45” big-screen TV that was connected to a Cerebro-type command center in the corner with two microphones coming out to rest on a big, glass coffee table with a fruit-basket in the middle of the room.

In typical Chinese fashion, the room looked much nicer than it really was. The leather couch was actually plastic and was about as comfortable as a leather floor, the walls were spray painted black and the carpet was coming up off the floor.

Cerebro had peaked my interest and I immediately went over to it and started pushing buttons. It resembled one of those touch-screen games at a bar. The stupid thing was all Chinese and had more buttons on it than a computer from a 1960’s sci-fi movie.

Mattie pushed me out of the way and jumped on the thing like a kid on a broken piƱata and didn't move the whole night (I just realized how much I miss Mexican food). She started pushing buttons and programming songs and doing voice exercises. These people take this shit serious. She sang and sang and sang; Xinlei drank and drank and drank; and I coughed and sneezed and ate a banana. Mattie’s voice was surprisingly good, and she did a good job overcoming the horrible pop music that is presented to these poor people.

Xinlei and Mattie were both pretty preoccupied with their respective activities, so I had a good opportunity to analyze Chinese popular music. My thoughts? Extremely lame. The songs have the sound recording quality of a garage band EP. The videos are pretty bad, very bad, actually. But in China, if you have the money to get a video and an album, you’re going to be popular, there are 1.23 billion people here, so you’re guaranteed to have a niche. Plus, these people are so starved for entertainment that they latch on to anything they can get with the voracity of a tick on a dog’s ear.

Xinlei’s mood was pretty touch and go, so I tried to entertain him and chill, but my health was deteriorating rapidly and he was getting kind of drunk and looked like he wanted to keep drinking alone, so I mostly left him alone. It seemed like we sat there for six hours while Mattie got her KTV itch scratched.

When we finally got back to the hotel, I made my next costly foot-in-mouth mistake with Mattie. Xinlei was going to go home and keep drinking and it was obvious that he wasn't in the mood to have company.

As we got out of the taxi and headed up to my room to get her stuff, I pulled her aside and whispered, “Hey, Xinlei doesn't look like he really wants to be around people tonight. Would you like to stay here with me? I’ll take the couch, you can have the bed.”

The color left her face and she looked away. Oh shit. On the elevator, she quietly freaked out on me “Is that a common thing in America?”

Realizing my mistake, I said, “Well, actually, yes. It’s not that big of a deal, I wasn't asking to lean you over the balcony. I’ll sleep on the couch, you can have the bed, that’s really all I meant.” At least one portion of that statement wasn't actually in the dialogue.

The thing is, I was telling the truth, normally, she would have caught me in a lie, but not this time, I was feeling pretty rough and just wanted to go to sleep, but she didn't see it that way. She got all of her stuff and basically left me in stunned silence. There it was, my one-day relationship.

I didn't sleep a bit that night, I just felt so horrible about how the night ended with Mattie and I wanted to explain to her, but I really don't know how to. I also started to notice this extreme up and down behavior and wasn't sure what it meant, I just assumed that it was because we were two people from different cultures and it was all part of the learning process. This was two nights in a row where I slept horribly because of a mistake and it was beginning to suck. Whether your pillow is wet from tears or sweat, it is still cold and morning cannot come quick enough.

The next morning, I went to Xinlei’s place to see her. A black mood was upon me and I had no idea what I was going to say or do, but I just felt the need to test the waters a little bit. By this time, I was sick as hell, coughing, sneezing, just feeling like crap (Avian flu anyone?) She was pretty standoffish to me, like the night before. Xinlei was on his way out the door to Beijing for the day, which left us there, alone and confused. I felt like a total dipshit. I wanted explain to her that I had honest intentions, but you can just tell when someone has their mind set and nothing you can do or say will change it (I’m not the only one with blind faith in my first reactions).

After about five minutes of trying to get muster courage of honesty, I chickened out and I told her that I’d let her go and leave her alone. She told me to wait while she changed clothes and disappeared into the bedroom. About two minutes later, she re-emerged wearing my Ecko t-shirt and a lot of skin; within about 30 minutes, we were in Xinlei’s bed, ass-deep in another day of making out and getting more and more intimate. Eventually she said that once she saw the look in my eyes, she realized I was telling the truth and she couldn't be upset anymore. Interesting note to file away for future use (What? These old things? Yeah, I just use them for looking at flowers and stuff, baby.”)

We were lying on the bed, taking a make-out break and we started talking about our holiday trip, this time from her point of view. So far, Mattie is the one who’s been embarrassed all the time, with me standing off in slight bewilderment of what exactly I did to turn her red. This was her opportunity to make me feel embarrassed, and she did it like a champ. My parents couldn't have done a better job with my baby pictures.

First, I offered to let her lay her head in my lap to sleep. She thought I was just being considerate, so she accepted the offer. I can tell you this, if it were Xinlei, I wouldn't have offered.

Then I put my arm around her while she was laying down across my lap (because I couldn't keep my hands behind my head for 14 hours), she didn't mind and thought little about it.

Then we casually started holding hands. At this point, she still thought I was being friendly and didn't want to offend me and ruin her pillow for the weekend. She thought it was a bit odd, but I was a foreigner and that’s just the way foreigners are in her mind.

Then, when I first started kissing her hands, she really freaked out. The only reason that she didn't say anything was because she was too shy. After that, she found it hard to make eye contact with me because she didn't want to laugh at me. After thinking about it more, she never did return my kisses.

The rest of the trip she spent in a confused state, not knowing what she should do about my advances and feeling overall uncomfortable.

So there it is, a woman’s point of view of my ‘method’. Basically it works out like this, the only reason that she even spoke to me afterwards was because she was just to damn shy to tell me to stick it. I made an ass of myself the whole trip and she was just too polite to say anything and the only reason I kept doing it was because I made the mistake of thinking that she was into it. I’m still chalking it up as a win, for now at least.

Mattie and I had a great day, but she had to return to Beijing that evening. One thing that rang clear in our talks was that she really didn't want us to tell anyone about us being ‘special friends’ (her words, not mine). She doesn't want anyone to know anything at this point, including Xinlei. This probably explains why she freaked out when I invited her to stay the night with me yesterday. Xinlei is a smart fellow, and unless he had a frontal lobotomy this morning, you can bet he knows exactly what’s going on (however, he probably thinks we’re at least using another bed).

She also is a sales manager for a competing company for my company (that’s a lot of words that begin with ‘comp’); this is a huge deal for her. See, my company only has four people working in China, Xinlei and I are two of them, the other two are sales guys, which means that she routinely is in the same meetings with clients as they are. One of the guys can be a downright prick, and she doesn't want to give him any more fodder than necessary, and in China, this would definitely be fodder. So at best, 50% of my company already knows about us. Not to mention all the pictures I’ve sent to my boss bragging about China.

I however, could care less that she works at a competing company. I leave my work at the front gates of our office; I simply don't have anything to talk about to the ‘outside’ world, nothing of interest. I could probably give our software demonstrations and copies of all of our companies presentations to 99% of the world and they would be immediately flipped over and used as scratch paper for fantasy football drafts.

I know all about sneaking around, I’m a former heavyweight champ at it, but there’s a couple rules that need to be ‘bent’ a bit from time to time, one is that you occasionally have to lie and the other is that sometimes you just don't answer the phone. Mattie has none of this, so she’s at a very difficult ethical crossroads and I’m afraid that my advice would be damaging to her sweet soul.

As I watched her taxi pull away Thursday night, I realized that I now have what I asked and dreamed of before coming over here – a smokin’ hot Chinese biddie. True, she may not let me tell anyone about it, but writing about it is technically not ‘speaking’. This is the best part of a relationship, when I can ignore the inevitable problems that will start tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

I Dont Eat My Words as Often As I Swallow My Heart

October 5, 2005

On Wednesday, the day after returning from our holiday extravaganza, Xinlei and I returned to Beijing. Two of the five watches I bought during my honkey shopping weekend with the Limeys and Laura had already stopped working, so I decided I would go back in there and see if I could get them exchanged. I knew it was a long shot, but I knew the worst that could happen is that they would tell me no. We were also going to go see Mattie for lunch, which is the double bonus. Mattie was planning on visiting her parents and Xinlei volunteered to drive her. Her family lives about another hour south of Langfang, he was still in the driving mood and I was still in the seeing-Mattie mood, so it was a good opportunity. I really didn't know what to expect, but my mind was in the aloof dream-like state that often surrounds the excitement of a new relationship.

Our first stop was the Silk Market and it was packed with honkeys as usual. I walked out of the elevator on the fourth floor with the confidence of a senior citizen at the Sizzler. I knew I needed to get a rough idea of a plan of attack to use. I doubted that it needed to be that good of a story because they would barely understand me, but I needed to have something prepared so that I could play the part and not be seen as an out and out liar. I was also putting a lot of stock on the fact that this place gets a lot of tourist traffic, so the odds of them remembering me were quite slim (all white people look the same right?). There are about 20 kiosks for watches and I had two to exchange, I doubted that I could exchange them both at the same place, so that gave me a 1 in 10 chance, and I was prepared to go each one until I found a story that stuck. I approached the first kiosk off the elevator and three girls flocked to me with that ever familiar twinkle of greed in their eyes.

“Hey sir, would you like to buy a watch? Breitling? Tag? Rolex? Omega?”

“Yes, I would love to buy a watch. I bought three watches here about two weeks ago because you have the best quality, but one of them is having some problems. I was wondering if you could look at it.” I replied confidently. I seemed to remember the ‘best quality’ bit being quite popular with the sales staff here, so I was going to play it up.

Two of the girls immediately turned around and pretended not to hear me, the third looked at me quizzically and said, “Are you sure you bought it here?”

“Yes I am, I remember you and the best quality. Here’s the watch, the problem is that the minute hand won’t move past 12:00 because it’s offset a little bit.”

She took the watch from me and quickly said, in a dismissive voice “You didn't buy this watch here, it’s not good quality, we only sell good quality watches, this is bad quality.”

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’m sure I bought it here, and I would just like to exchange it for another one, it’s a beautiful watch, but it just has a little problem.” I quietly replied.

“No, I’m quite sure you didn't buy it here.” She repeated with the same conviction.

“Here’s the deal, I’ve got a few colleagues coming to town this weekend and I would like to bring them here to buy some watches, but we’ll have to find another person with good quality watches, perhaps these people may have better watches than you. It’s a shame, because I really liked you guys, but you’re too dishonest for me to bring my friends to.”

Xinlei smiled and translated for them and they quickly changed their tunes.

“Ooooh, we’re very sorry, here, let us get you another watch and exchange it.”

It took about ten minutes, but I got one watch exchanged successfully, I even bought another watch from them as a token of good faith, it was needed to repair my karma a bit because I lied at least four times in the previous conversation. See if you can find them, treat it like the back of the placemat at Red Lobster.

Now, I have 19 booths to attempt the exchange of my Tag with faulty band. I decided to skip down a few, to get out of earshot of the first group of people. I stopped at a larger kiosk with a handful of young ladies working.

“Hello! You like watch?” One of them practically yelled at me with glee.

“Holy crap! You can't jump out in front of me like that, my brakes don't work so well anymore. Yes I do, I like your watches very much. In fact, I bought one here last week, but the band is broken. Can I exchange it?” I replied, putting my best friendly-foreigner eyes on.

“Do you have our card?” She asked skeptically. Each kiosk has a business card with the number of the kiosk on it. They don't have receipts, but if you have one of these cards, it’s a good start on proving to them that you’ve at least bought something from them in the past. Of course, I didn't have their business card because I didn't buy the watch from them, or maybe I did, I really didn't know, it all runs together quite a bit.

“No, I’m sorry, I don't think you gave me a card last time, but I’m sure I bought it here, because you had the best quality watches. Here, take a look.” And I handed the watch over, showing her the band. Xinlei explained what was wrong with the band, which was pretty much unnecessary seeing as the band had broken in two.

“No, you didn't buy this watch here, this is bad quality, we only sell good quality, you’re trying to steal from us, you’re very bad man!” She angrily replied.

This wasn't going nearly as good as the last one, I had to think up something quick. This little pistol is feisty, I like her.

“Yes I did, I would hate to tell my friends that you’re dishonest.” I was still sticking with the same story, but seeing that it wasn't bought. “Ok, ok, I did buy it here, but in a show of faith, how about if I buy another watch. Will you agree to exchange this one for me?” I don't know why the word ‘faith’ had chosen this day to appear in my vocabulary.

Her eyes lightened up and she said, “You’ll buy another watch? Which one?”

I found another watch I liked and held it up. The next 10 minutes featured me bartering them down to a reasonable amount of money. As we got close to sealing the deal, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that they were fixing the faulty band. We were stuck at about 350 yaks.

“I’ll give you 300 if you exchange the watch.”

“Ok, deal.” She said and handed me my other watch.

“Oh, but wait, you’re not exchanging the watch, you just fixed it. I’ll only give you 250.”

This was like trying to negotiate a hostage exchange with terrorists (if terrorists were cute didn't believe in any sort of religion and didn't have guns).

“You what?!!! No, no deal, you said 300!!”

The cute feistyness had pretty much worn off by now, so I decided to be a bit of a dick.

“Nope, you lied! You said you would exchange, not fix. Here’s 250, take it or leave it.”

We went back and forth for about 10 minutes, but I finally got my way, with the usual slur of bad names and such, however it’s less with Xinlei around. Xinlei kind of makes me feel like I’m a child telling on my sisters, only I’m narking on his country. “No man, they don't stare when you’re around, only when you’re not around! Make them stop!”

We left the Silk Market and successfully negotiated the exchange of two broken watches for two slightly less broken watches. Luckily, one of the things I have going for me is my total willingness to humiliate myself. This has proven itself true time and time again during my life, but usually less in matters of retail than with matters of the heart, such as the second half of my day was going to display.

Going to visit Mattie was much more anticipated than exchanging watches, for obvious reasons. I was hoping to exchange my dignity for her shirt. We were expecting to pick her up and drop her off at her family’s house and then return to Langfang, which would take about 14 hours by Chinese travel standards. I could sense the inevitable conclusion on the horizon, the simple, uncomfortable letdown, but I’m in it for the duration this time. Worst-case scenario, there’s one more person out of this country that I will not be able to date.

Xinlei called her to let her know we were on our way but Mattie was a little sick and decided not to go home, instead she asked Xinlei if he could come over so she could get a copy of the pictures from our vacation.

We get to her house and I jump out and start heading up to the building and Xinlei called out to me to stop. Apparently, the living quarters of Chinese girls are strictly off limits to men, so we had to wait outside for her to bring her computer down. This is quite a bit different than America, not only are ladies houses not off limits, they are often hosts to some real barn-burner parties. Here, they act like going into a girls house means that you’ll immediately have sex (maybe there is some truth to that. If I ever get into a girls house, I will let you know).

After waiting for about 15 minutes, Mattie came down. She was in an extremely sour mood and looked very sad, like most people when sick. As the pictures copy, Mattie and I chat, but her discomfort is obvious. She asks Xinlei if he’d take her to the grocery store to pick up some stuff, so we set off.

The best part about the rest of the trip was finding peanut butter at the grocery store. I haven’t had any for months and I bought four jars of the stuff. You never know when you’ll be around peanut butter again.

Mattie’s unpleasant mood continued through our trip to the market, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt because she was sick, even though it was reminiscent of the first five ours of our trip back from Ice Country yesterday. We dropped her off and I told her to have a good night and I’ll talk to her soon, her reply was to turn around and return to her apartment without a word. I didn't dare approach her, so I let her go with a wave and a strained smile.

The rest of the afternoon I felt horrible, a sinking feeling in my stomach, my mind screaming for help, my heart spinning in confusion. It was an unbelievable 180-degree turn and I was just shocked. Later that evening, back in Langfang, I mustered up the courage from my darkness and decided to call Mattie to see if she wanted to talk.

“Hi! Mattie? Hey, I just wanted to call and tell you to have a good night. I hope you feel better tomorrow, you looked very sad today. I’m sorry.”

“Luke, I have to be honest with you. You’re nice, but I’m Chinese girl and I feel like the saying ‘easy come, easy go’, and I am not comfortable talking to you.”

Ouch. There it is. The whammies are always there; you just got to know when to stop and when to take your prize blender home with you. The house always wins. Somehow the broken English made it even more embarrassing this time.

“Ohh, hey, it’s ok, I’m sorry too. It’s just that I had a good time with you and I’m sorry that I make you so uncomfortable. I’m so sorry; I hope we can still be friends (not really, but that phrase always finds its way into these conversations). I really am sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, but I have to be honest with you. I don't think it’s a good idea if you call me any more. Maybe we can still talk through emails or SMS messages, but you don't even know me, and you still act like I’m important to you. Foreigners are just too much different than Chinese girls and I don't expect you to completely understand.”

I needed to understand something, whether it be Mattie’s point or something different altogether. So what level of understanding could I possibly gain in the brief instant of time before my inevitable reply? That flash of electricity through my mind. When you are challenged to understand something, something always hits first. I understood, in that split second, that I am a total liar. I lie to everyone around me when I think that I want something, I lie to my friends, my family, and worst of all, myself. Why cannot I challenge myself to prove that something is important? Why do I insist on this blind faith of my fool’s feelings? There’s a certain amount of emotion that comes when someone can accurately point out the reason of your anguish and this was no different.

“I understand, I’ll talk to you later I guess. I’m sorry again.” I muttered as I hung up the phone.

And I was sorry, it’s a horrible feeling making someone uncomfortable, it’s also a feeling that I always have to deal with in other people. The truth is that I make many people uncomfortable. I know it’s my quiet desperation and wide open loneliness, but I just cant help it. It’s a self-esteem issue, I’ve been getting beat down and disappointed my whole life and it makes me feel stupid for dreaming for happiness in the first place.

There it is, once again. She told me a while back that Chinese men don't like girls like her and her cousins because they’re too strong. Good for them, they need to be strong, especially over here because women are treated like total shit in China. Good for her because I’m weak and jealous of her.

I will be upset and sad for a few days, trying to sort out if I’m sad about not being with Mattie or sad about only being with myself. But eventually I will realize that I’m sad because I continue to allow burning passion to arise in my heart and the only result is my heart gets burned. Eventually the flame dies, just in time for the next gust of wind to arise and reignite my heart. Each time my heart becomes a little harder, a little more black and a little smaller. It will never be any other way.