Sunday, December 04, 2005
Today I was awoken from my deep slumber at 7:00 am with a message from a colleague whose wife is applying for a public relations/marketing job at Starbucks. As happy as I was for him, I had to admit that I was a bit surprised that he wanted to call me in China just to inform me of his wife’s career goals. Of course it came out like “Do you have any fucking idea what time it is?”
“Yeah man, it’s like 5:00 pm.”
“Very funny, why are you calling me about this?”
He then went on a informational rant I can sum up by saying that part of her interview process required her to answer a handful of questions, a small number of those questions deal with doing business in China. Ahh, I thought, so we finally get to the crux of the contact. She wanted to talk to me and get my opinions or thoughts on the matter.
First of all, the only qualification I have to answer these questions is the fact that I’m living in China. Technically I live in a hotel, but that building is in China, so I live in China. I know nothing about marketing and even less than public relations. I know that many of these people may be the fakest people in the world, trying to explain to the rest of the world why their shit is good or their client didn't rape the child or that their cigarettes are the safe for kids (or is that lawyers? I always get mixed up).
As I enjoy talking, I ate up the chance to pretend to know what I was talking about. I will not bore anyone with the actual conversation, but what I will do is provide Starbucks with a complete analysis of how I think they can get their foot in the door and make China a good market for their stuff. I am doing this for two reasons; the first is my love for coffee. Coffee is good - I have stated that before. Coffee is black and makes my hands shake after more than five cups. Coffee makes me think of happy things, like not being tired, or omelets. The second reason is that I just felt like writing more about something other than my shortcomings as a lover, my faults as a person and my attitude about my job. Writing about something informative are very difficult for me, I find it hard to organize my thoughts into something that makes sense and ‘flows’ to a good conclusion, so here goes nothing.
First of all, I am speaking of Starbucks. I don't necessarily love them but I have no problems with the company, they have good coffee and seem to be open late nights and early mornings. They are a bit overbearing at times, but it’s a good place for people to get caffeine without being belittled by employees of the hip local neighborhood coffee shops for not knowing the difference between Americano and Macchiato (I do, however, hate that their sizes aren’t the universal small, medium, large unit of measure, but I digress).
Here’s the simple truth. Starbucks will never truly succeed here until they find a way to convince the people of China that coffee is good. I’ve been doing my best here to do that, but they just don't seem to share my enthusiasm (not for Starbucks, but just so that I can get it at more places). Chinese people don't do the caffeine thing like westerners do. I drink between 3-10 cups of coffee every day; most of the people in my office in Kansas City do the same. Chinese people drink tea, which has no caffeine in it. I’m talking Chinese hot-tea, not Lipton. Chinese tea is basically yard trimmings in hot water. Many Chinese people grow their own tea. It’s very cheap (and very flavorless in my opinion).
The fact that coffee is not popular here has absolutely nothing to do with Starbucks, but if they are going to succeed, they first need to put in a ton of money in convincing the people of China that coffee is good. I compare it to the ‘Got Milk’ or ‘Pork, the Other White Meat’ ad campaigns in America. These are not necessarily advertisements for specific milk brands, just something that raises public awareness. This is very important; most people here simply don't know anything about coffee. They know it exists, but many people have never tried it and none have ever seen a commercial for it.
How can we raise awareness about coffee in Big Red? Advertising here is a lot different than in America, but the basics still apply. Advertisements need to be placed where they can get the most traffic (I suggest whorehouses, just kidding…or am I?….). But in order advertise efficiently, we have to find a target market.
Starbucks isn’t going to put a franchise in Inner Mongolia (they’re no McDonalds…). The vast majority of the population is ineligible for getting ‘target market’ status based on things such as poverty and remote locations. But if you can reel in a couple target areas, the rest will follow. This is an all-or-nothing country. No one will step forward until one person moves forward, then everyone will follow in about a nanosecond. The key is isolating the parts of society that will be the most likely to step forward and embrace the Starbucks culture.
I see only two groups in the Chinese society that can manage this, and surprisingly, they’re not much different than target audiences in the Western world – university students and middle class businessmen. Both of these groups are likely to be ‘step-forward’ groups, for different reasons, and the actions of both of these groups will trickle down to separate other culture groups in China.
College students are the easiest. These people are just sheep looking for someone to tell them what the next cool thing is to do – how the hell else can you explain the insane popularity of karaoke here? The 18-23 year old class of Chinese citizens are absolutely desperate for entertainment and things to make them feel cooler. It may sound harsh, but it’s the plain and simple truth. Xinlei once told me that the cool kids in his university would spend up to four or five hours a day hanging out in McDonalds. I’m not talking about white-trash Chinese people, the cool Ablecrumbre and Fletch and Pumma wearing kids.
How do we (Why am I speaking like I work for Starbucks now?) approach this target crowd? I think it’s pretty simple. First of all, there needs to be an elevated presence of coffee on and around the universities. We are not dealing with highly mobile students, like in America. These people are about 99.99% car-less and, at the most, may have a bicycle. Chinese universities are basically gated self-sufficient communities, which makes it difficult to get an inside leg on the campus by the way of selling coffee and advertisements.
I suggest a method that is used in many American universities, a method that the students are nearly completely unaware of. It’s an idea that makes many people cringe, the same people that despise MTV and other representatives of ‘The Man’. Many companies in America hire students that are determined to be ‘cool’ and prostitute them out to the students of the school. These companies go through rigorous selection processes to find people that have a mixture of next-level type of style, are attractive and have cool personalities. These are the people that are always there when there is action, concerts, art openings, sporting events, their personalities naturally draw people to them and they are constantly talking and meeting people (not in that car salesman way, but real interest). They then have them hand out propaganda about different things around the school; stuff like stickers, demo cds, different types of things that may be appealing to a college student. Since this is coming from someone ‘cool’, the students take this stuff and advertisement accomplished. The cool kid loves the job because he knows everyone and gets tons of ass plus gets free clothes and other stuff. It’s a hard and time consuming job, plus they cant tell anyone who they work for and all that jazz that will tarnish their rep’. The students of China would bite into these type of people hook, line and sinker, without a doubt. It’s the easiest sell in the world.
Next you’d place a couple coffee shops around the university, have the cool kid get a group of friends to request coffee in cafeterias, once the cool kid and his ‘friends’ are seen drinking coffee all over the place, the neighboring coffee shops will become more popular than duck tongue and massage parlors.
High-school and younger aged kids in China will follow the university trends like the pied piper, now you’ve reached the 10-24 year old demographic. What power they do not wield financially they more than make up in sheer numbers.
The middleclass businessmen is the next group that I think should be targeted. They will not follow the university students, but there is something that they will follow – someone in a position of power telling them how good coffee is. You’ll notice that this is very similar to the college aged target, in fact, it’s the exact same, with a different method of goal achievement. The people of China will follow their superiors off the edge of the Great Wall like a bunch of lemmings, in fact, I believe that they do it so blindly that it goes completely unnoticed except from the untrained eye of an American who thinks it’s ludicrous. The key is trying to find the best person for that job.
I wouldn't know the best place to start on that, but keying in on international companies with western employees may be a good idea. Partnering with these companies to put the Starbucks logo on certain promotional items would be key. Free shit is always a good way to get attention. Having discounts for these companies for lunch catering meetings and industry conferences would work pretty well. The people will start seeing the Starbucks as more than a sign on a building or a commercial on television and start seeing it in action, in places where Chinese businesses notice them. Chinese businessmen are not immune to the ‘cool kid’ syndrome and once they see it as cool, everyone will follow in droves.
This will pull the entire workforce into the mix, admittedly it will take time for some, but once it the governmental personnel start to feel cool, you’ve gone a long way.
The basic fact remains that Starbucks will be considered a luxury for most people of China, but the prices for coffee here is actually cheaper than coffee in nearly every other establishment that sells it, so I don't think that lowering prices will do much to effect the market, in fact, once the public has bitten, the company will be able to slowly raise prices. Eventually, the market will level off with restaurants offering coffee at lower prices than Starbucks. Does that matter?
I say absolutely not. It doesn't take a marketing analyst to looking at places like McDonalds or KFC and realize how much the people here will bite into any bit of western culture they can. These two companies are, by far, the most successful western businesses in China. These places are considered cool places to hang out. These places are absolutely packed all the time. Why? Because they don't know how cool it is to hang at coffee shops…yet….
Unfortunately it’s not like Field Of Dreams, you simply cannot build it and expect them to come, people have to be coaxed into it.
Like I said earlier, I am not a marketing or public relations officer, nor do I play one on television. I have no doubt that this situation has been thought over in many meetings by Starbucks and similar companies in America and doubt that my insights have brought anything new to the table, but sometimes it’s just good to write something down and see how it sounds when you’re finished. Better luck next time.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Sunday, February 19, 2006
December 02, 2005
It seems to me that China has an unusually large number of conventions, meetings, parties, celebratory dinners and just about every other type of social gathering known to man. It could be the same way in America, but, not living in a hotel in Kansas City, I just don't see them as often. Even though the hotels are overstocked with people to work these events, the organizers of these gatherings often bring in extra manpower to account for the added alcohol consumption (nearly always in the form of women). These rental hotties do even less than the normal staff, in fact, most of the time their only job is to stand there and point to the proper room, table, chair, or spittin’ hole for the patron. They are always dressed exactly alike; short red skirts with various amounts of pomp, flair and ruffles positioned discretely around the boobs or elbows, tall plastic white high-heel boots, white gloves extending to mid-forearm and super-fly slutty hairdos. These girls do everything in unison; talk, point, stare at me. The hotel staff is at a constant West Side Story type of competition-slash-rivalry with these girls (often unbeknownst to them of course), they are competition to some unknown prize and the heat is high.
Throughout the day Friday, I noticed a large number of these rental hotties standing around outside helping people in, pointing to the elevators, saying something in unison. They ran around the hotel in packs of three to ten, all staring at me and giggling like a bunch of, well, Chinese people. During my dinner, I could hear abnormally elevated ruckus gurgling from the Seafood Sunshine restaurant and decided to stick my head in and see what the noise and hotties were doing here. Tonight, apparently there was a local winery party with entertainment. The entire hotel service staff was working, regardless of job, all assistant managers, spare western restaurant folks, even the hostesses were helping. Keep in mind, that the ‘local winery’ is not some quaint little chardonnay or merlot vineyard in the hills of northern California, this is Chinese booty winery, which could only mean one thing – extreme local drunkfest with entertainment.
I have seen these sorts of parties before, mostly from the lobby, but I have never spent more than a few seconds looking through the cracks in the door at the experience, but Friday was different. I was dragged in by a couple of the hotel waitresses and placed ‘inconspicuously’ in the back by the bar. Unlike the dark and dirty streets of China, the bars and restaurants are lit up like a light bulb factory, which means that there is no shadowy corner for white folk to sit back and observe and I knew that my ‘out of the way’ corner would soon be the most stared at leaning post in the whole country.
Being tall as hell, my back row seat provided me with a great view of the entertainment. It was a sort of live action Chinese variety show (with out the benefit of a Jamie Farr and a gong). With entertainment like this, there was no need for that extra flair that Chuck Barris provided.
The act that was on stage when I got in was a girl in an Evil Knievel jumpsuit playing rock-and-roll erhu. The erhu is a Chinese stringed instrument that kind of looks like a two-string violin built on a stick. It is a very traditional instrument; I’ve often seen old men playing it in the streets. Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised to see a 16 year old jamming on this thing with heavy metal pop guitars in the background. Citizens were eating this up, dancing in their seats, toasting booty wine and chain smoking.
The next entertainer was a young man of about 25 who stepped on stage to heavy applause. Judging by the applause, I assumed he was a person of some importance or fame. I asked someone who he was and they replied something to the extent of ‘just some guy with a microphone’. That’s exactly how I would have classified him. He was wearing a black vinyl jacket with the collars flipped up nearly as high as his smile. He sang three numbers, each one sucking a bit more than the previous (this meant that every song this guy sang, you were probably hearing to the worst song that he had ever performed). In the middle of his first song, a bubble machine malfunctioned and sprayed him directly in the face with bubbles, which was pretty good for me, but it wreaked havoc on the vinyl, making him a slippery, soapy mess (maybe it wasn't a malfunction, it’s just getting so hard to see what these people do on purpose anymore). By the third song, he had abandoned the stage and began to stroll through the audience serenading different ladies. This immediately made him a massive crowd favorite. Getting singled out of the crowd is huge (as long as it’s not relating to a work issue). The people here just eat up anything that puts them in the ‘Citizen’ class, rather than the ‘citizen’; capital letters are of utmost importance.
The next performer that I had the pleasure of making fun of was a magician, a Chinese magician (but by this point, I think we are beyond prefixing everything with ‘Chinese’, Chinese singer, Chinese magician, Chinese wine, Chinese prostitutes – we have established that there are very few non-Chinese here and even fewer in the entertainment industry). China has a curiously high number of magicians and I cannot figure out why. Of course, magic is the only thing I watch on television here because you don't need to understand Chinese to watch magic, but the fact that I can find some sort of magic being performed on TV at any given time is a bit disturbing. I could understand it if there was a Magic TV channel here, but I don't think there is. Come to think of it, there are a shitload of televised variety shows here. Magic is something that can be performed alone, which means there is neither complicated choreography involved nor the need to form a team of acrobats.
This magician was the masked variety. The masked Chinese magicians do a bunch of slight-of-hand tricks centered on changing their masks really fast. The subtle changes to their complicated jester-like uniforms are so quick and subtle that I had no idea they were doing anything for about half of the show. This man was no different. He was dressed in a silver and green metallic clown suit with a very baggy metallic black jacket over the top (the ‘very baggy’ was important, because the thing was bursting from the seams with various implements of amazement).
The first half of his skit or performance or show featured him pulling umbrellas and colored napkins from out of nowhere (nowhere of course being the bulging sleeves of his coat). The stunned crowd would gasp in surprise, as he held up his arms in expected amazement after every umbrella would appear, like a guitar player acting amazed at himself when he does a complicated solo. He would then drop it to the floor and do it again, the difference being, well, there really was no difference, except maybe he would pull it out of the other sleeve.
The second half of his skit was the quick-mask-change portion. The only reason I could tell that he was moving on was the large pile of umbrellas on the floor and the empty shirtsleeves. He would move his hands across his face and the mask would change. From a happy face to a sad face. From yellow to light yellow. From eyes open to eyes closed. From sleepy face to tired face. It was the stupidest thing I have ever seen, even by Chinese standards. Like the previous performer, he too took his show on the road and went around the crowd changing masks for individual people.
The end of the show came after his final mask came off to reveal his face. The most interesting part to me was that after his skit, he had to clean up the stage himself. It added a kind of ‘you made this mess, now you clean it up’ touch that made me think that my mother was the event organizer. Magicians take their trade so seriously, like Renaissance Festival actors, trying desperately to stay in character and only making the rest of the world laugh at them even harder. He stomped through the crowd, right past me and out the back door, no doubt to go fold up his umbrella collection and stuff them back up his sleeves, just in case he was called back for an encore.
The next performer was a lady who sang in the most horrible dying-swine shrill voice that I have ever heard in my life. This was the kind of voice that could break glasses (even the plastic ones). I spat coffee out of my mouth at the first note in non-suppressed laughter. This, of course, drew many looks, but I was beyond caring at that point. I have heard this ‘style’ of voice several times coming from various meetings, KTV rooms, and torture chambers throughout the country and cannot, for the life of me, figure out how these tone deaf people can put up with it.
The final performance was a six-girl fan show. Of course, the stage was so small that the girls on the outside kept falling off, eventually abandoning the spotlight to dance on the floor area next to the stage (amongst the waitresses and service staff). This was the same kind of style that I have seen the old ladies performing in the streets with the background rhythm section of old men beating on coffee cans and homemade drums. It is actually pretty non-obtrusive, mostly because there was no vocalization or synthesized pop-guitar riffs in the background.
Throughout the show, it was obvious that I was paying much closer attention to everything going on than anyone who was actually invited to the swaree. The restaurant has about 30 round tables. Each table seats about eight Chinese people comfortably, while most tables had closer to ten people. The current currency exchange on Chinese/English comfort puts that at about 4.5 Americans. Everyone at every table was drinking heavily. Strangely, even the women had abandoned their normal juice and tea for booty wine, but this was a party for the employees of the local booty winery, so it should be accepted I suppose. Looking across the crowded, noisy place you would see a table of people stand up, toast some booty wine and shake each other’s hands and sit back down. I cringed every time I saw a glass raised to lips.
This is a very social culture, but in a businesslike way. Most people attend these things with two things in mind - drinking and kissing up to the officers. It was easy to spot the business officers, they were the people who were visited and toasted repeatedly by lesser, drunker and dirtier employees. Officers are treated with a sort of nervous reverence here and respect is commanded, though usually not deserved. A man was kissing his officers ass (not literally thank god) and introduced his child to the manager. He was trying to get the kid to shake the officer’s hand, but the kid had a normal childlike bout of shyness and shrunk down in embarrassment behind his father’s legs. The father then proceeded to pull the kid out from behind him and whip the shit out of him, slapping him repeatedly in the face and the ass until he tearily grabbed the officer’s hand and shook it. Even more shocking than witnessing a complete ass whipping was witnessing the complete and total indifference, bordering on expectation from the officer.
Whether jarred by the chandelier shattering vocals, the lightening reflexes of the magician, the bubble machine or the bone-jarring child beating, the gods sat up and paid attention to Langfang Friday night and delivered the first snow of the winter season. It was a beautiful half-inch grey blanket that provided the children something to sled on upon stolen car hoods Saturday morning.
Over the course of that same night, winter arrived. I have been unable to determine if there is a correlation between the evening’s entertainment and the shift in seasons, but I’ve got a hunch. All leaves were abruptly blown from the trees and the temperature plummeted about twenty degrees. Yet another sign of my impending departure from this place in three weeks.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
November 21-26, 2005
Today I was eating lunch and reading in one of the hotel restaurants when a man came up to me and asked if I was Lucas.
“Yes I am, nice to meet you.” I said as I racked my brain to figure out how this guy knew who I was. I thought it may have been an assassin sent from my former apartment for nonpayment of rent, but he was old and English (instead of the traditional young muscle-bound Italian hit man).
“Ahh,” he replied, “Roger told me that there was a big guy here for six months named Lucas, and I just guessed that that may be you.”
This has started happening more and more lately. The foreigner traffic has begun to run together so much that I have problems keeping them straight. I remember Roger, however, because he is a former employee of my company who was here a while back doing some sort of work (I have met three former employees and three current employees whom I never knew existed thus far). I have gone through the first round of introductions of foreigners, now I am meeting the second round of people from the same companies. This is yet another sign that I have been here too long.
This week there was another return guest to the Big Show; a guy from Sweden named Gunnar. Gunnar was here way back in September when Laura, Dave and Niall were here. He kind of showed up at the end of the first session of the UN, but he brought some good whiskey, so I remembered him well. At the time Gunnar told me that he was coming back in late November, but that was so far from September that I immediately forgot about it. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when he showed up at the hotel Sunday.
Gunnar brought with him five colleagues, all from Sweden. These guys like to drink and are pretty bored, which spells bad news for me on all sides. The first night they were here, we all went up to the VIP bowling alley and drank and bowled for a couple hours. I knew the hotel had a bowling alley, but I had never been there, I had no idea that it had a ‘VIP’ bowling alley as well. Having VIP facilities is a very popular thing in China. It provides a way for everyone to do the same thing but still add some level of class separation to the thing; VIP bowling alleys, VIP foot massages, VIP restaurants, VIP elevators. The people of this country have had the one person, one country ideal shoved down their throats for many years that they just don't have very good methods for showing how much better they are than everyone else. Te people here are desperately trying to find ways to be unique, and the first way is separation based on income.
In order to gain VIP status, the facility must provide something that the normal facility does not have, this is often difficult to achieve, but the people of China have found new and improved ways to make you feel like you’re getting something really nice (such as clean seats or fresh chicken heads). The VIP bowling alley is no different. There are two lanes and glass tables to set your beer on. The lanes are no different than any other bowling alley. When your ball comes back from your most recent gutter ball, a staff member is waiting by the ball chute to pick your ball up, clean it and hand it to you for your next gutter ball. None of us were very good, but it was good to have some company and drink a few beers. The cost was outrageous, more than double the price of the normal ‘commoner’ bowling alley in the basement.
The second night, we went to the hotel driving range and I tried to show them how to swing a golf club. The hotel has got a ton of amenities that I have never used. The problem is that they’re all somewhat expensive. You have to pay to use the tennis courts, pay to swim, pay to sit in the sauna; they’d probably make you pay to walk in the halls if they could find a way to track it. The driving range is no different, this place is unbelievably expensive. You have to pay per club, per ball and per minute. This means that at any one time, there is a minimum of three meters running up your tab. The driving range is pretty nice, the walls are painted with a sort of bright blue and green landscape with green trees on the walls, blue and white ceilings, even a cement water hazard in the middle (which puts a wicked bounce on a shanked ball).
In short, the Swedes were not good. None of them have ever swung a golf club, which isn’t too surprising, in their world golf season is probably about 13 days long, then it’s back to snow, ice and blonde babes in bikinis. The first swing of a golf club is not a pretty work of art for anyone, I remember my first time and it was a painful experience for my uncle’s Toyota parked behind us. I have improved significantly over the years and despite giving up the game a decade ago due to insane prices of the sport I still can swing the sticks. The girl working at the driving range said she has never seen anyone hit a drive as far as I had. Skills people, skills.
On the way back from the driving range, a few of the guys wanted to stop off and get massages. By this time, it was after 1:00 am and I was tired as hell. Lately, I’ve actually had to go into the office in the mornings (which is BULLSHIT!), so I headed off to get some sleep. The next day I found out that they got the ‘whole’ massage, if you know what I mean. Swedes are pretty funny when they try to make sexual innuendos. These guys are all tall, blonde and goofy as hell. Swedish fashions are similar to America circa 1985, with super-tight T-shirts and nut-hugging jeans. I can just imagine these guys taking a Chinese hooker to the rack, complete with Swedish Chef dirty sex-talk, tossing rubber chickens over their heads, and cutting up basil with a pickaxe.
By mid-week, Xinlei had got all the hotel wait staff to refer to me as ‘honkey’, which is totally awesome. He’s very interested in English racial slurs, not because he’s racist, but because the words usually sound so funny to him. I’m surprised that he hasn't asked me what the negative slang for Chinese people is, whenever he decides to ask me, I’m sure he’ll eat it up and make me start calling him by whatever term I choose to tell him. I rarely use these words and it is strange to say them to other people, even for educational purposes (not honkey of course, but everything else). I don't want to feel self-conscious and nervous, looking over my shoulder and whispering words, so I’ll probably make up Chinese racial slurs for him - Nickel, Artificial-Sweeteners, Plastic Siding, Hot Air Balloons, whatever comes to mind.
Thursday was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is America’s number two holiday, behind Christmas (based on the 2004 end of season rankings). Surprisingly, they don't celebrate this holiday in China. Why wouldn't they celebrate the holiday when Europeans landed on Pilgrim Rock and began the quick annihilation of the natives? When I left Kansas City, back in July, my mother asked me if I would be home for the holiday.
“No,” I told her, “I’ll be back for Christmas, but not for Thanksgiving, I’m sorry mom.”
“Well, I’m not so sure I like the idea of this ‘China thing’ anymore.” She replied tartly.
Thanksgiving is particularly important to my family because is a good low-stress holiday for us. The whole family gets together and eats, drinks and fights for a day. Not the guilty you-forgot-to-get-my-new-boyfriend-a-gift-and-I-am-your-mother fighting, but good clean wholesome you-were-an-asshole-to-me-when-we-were-kids fighting.
I’m already ready to go home, but when you start throwing missed holidays into the mix, it makes it a real bitch. A surprising number of people here knew that it was Thanksgiving so I got several ‘Happy Thanksgivingson Luksa’ or ‘Merry Turkada you Honkeysa!’ wishes today, which helps to put a smile on my face.
Christmas is a good family holiday as well, but as my family gets older and people get married, have kids, get divorced, get remarried to people with kids and stuff, the whole gift buying process can be confusing and stressful. This year is different, I made a list of everyone I’m required by law to buy presents for and will head to the Silk Market and buy that exact number of Rolexes. The Silk Market, your one stop shopping stop.
Friday, February 03, 2006
November 7 – 14 2005
I will be leaving for home in about five weeks. The significance of that statement goes beyond the 35 days created by multiplying five weeks by seven days. It goes beyond the amount of work that I have to finish. It means much more than the simple definitions of ten words that make up the sentence. The fact that I have flagged my departure date on my subconscious calendar and have quantified the rest of my trip means that I’m ready to leave. This is the first time that I’ve thought about my departure and I have felt the slow tilt of the rollercoaster in its final downward direction. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of China and that makes it official, I am ready to go home. Not necessarily forever, but at least for a break. This place is killing me, driving me crazy, pissing me off, aging me at double time. Many of the things that were cute little nuances in the beginning have become quite bothersome and they are making me miserable. I knew this time would come; it was just a matter of trying to predict what form my hatred and demise would take the form of (much like in Ghostbusters). What would be the first thing that would make me want to quit my job and fly home? The following chapter may be the most angry and annoying of my ‘journal’ and they have been written down without any regard of potential conflict with any of my previous statements. This is it, the ‘vent’ chapter. The place where I reveal myself for my true personality. Everyone can be a good person when times are good, it’s when times are trying that we see our true selves and I have a bad feeling of what my reflection will expose. So with a deep breath, a crack of the knuckles, and a fresh pot of coffee, here I go….
I am sick all the time. The changing of the seasons, combined with living in a different country and being in a hotel full of people have wreaked havoc on my immune system. I was sick two weeks ago with a cough; this week I’ve got a head cold. In the states I’ll get flu-like sick two or three times a year, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been sick six times. SIX TIMES! I cannot buy medicine, they don't have ‘Western’ medicine anywhere here, all of the medicine is that voodoo ancient Chinese shit. I’ve tried some of it and it made me sicker. It took me half an hour at the grocery store to find Chap Stick and another half an hour to figure out how to pay for it and get out of the store. I have also been cursed with conflicting subconscious disorders; doctor-phobia (Iatrophobia) and I’m a hypochondriac. If I get sick and require a visit to the doctor, I have to convince myself that I’m going to die and the doctor’s appointment is just a mere formality. This has caused me sleepless nights throughout my life and is just compounded by the cornucopia of ailments present in this beautiful land where the communist party has deemed antibodies a danger to the people.
Chinese men are assholes. Plain and simple. This is not necessarily a blanket statement, but when referring to the business class middle aged men, it is a safe stereotype. They walk around this place with their noses so far up in the air that I can see the backs of their eyes. They are rude to everyone in their presence. The noises they make with their bodies are absolutely disgusting, farting like a rhinoceros after eating a dozen burritos, belching like a 300-pound construction worker at happy hour at the Clarette Club. They stare me down like I insulted their families. It boils my blood to see the way they demean and mistreat women. Their lives are run by pride and greed and most of them deserve to be chain-whipped by Sonny Barger. When wrong or backed into a corner, they stick to their guns like the captain of a sinking U-boat and simply refuse to listen to reason. I’m right and you’re wrong, now how can you fix the problem? This is all before alcohol is applied. I know that I’m no saint when drunk, but these guys get a bottle of booty wine in their gullets and it’s like lighting a match in a firework factory. They come up and hug and bark in my ears the one or two English words they know (considering the level of hygiene of most of these people, it is a very unpleasant hug). They yell at the wait staff, throw stuff at each other, chain smoke and steal.
Last week, I was followed to the elevator by a couple of guys who were wasted and wanted to talk to me, the problem was that they didn't know any English and kept grabbing at my arms and trying to hold hands with me. I didn't want these drunk fucks to follow me up to my room, but they just kept persisting while I was waiting for the elevator to open. I lost it and pinned one of the guys to the wall by the neck, lifting him up off the ground. I held him there until the elevator opened, not saying anything, just staring into his eyes with that cold stare of someone who just doesn't give a fuck anymore. No smiles, no grimaces, no anger, just squeezing and lifting. Surprisingly, the other guy didn't come anywhere near me during this time. After ten or fifteen seconds, the elevator dinged and I let the guy down and stepped into the elevator, hoping that they wouldn't follow me, but I think my cold stare let them both know that I would smash him in the face with a chair.
Next topic, this time something that does not involve assault.
I know I’ve said it before, but this place is dirty. That’s probably been one of my least favorite elements; it has also been the least varying element of my journey. There are trashcans, but the homeless people just empty them onto the ground looking for plastic bottles. People regularly throw sewage and old food out into the streets (whether the coast is clear or not, my poor Adidas will never be the same). Public restrooms are a widely available and widely optional location for bowel movements. One use explains why so many people piss and shit on the sides of the roads (or even on the roads). The smell is heavy, that’s the only way I can describe it. It is a peculiar mixture of dirt, human waste, rotting food and car exhaust that makes you realize why no one even bothers with deodorant. I expected it to let up some with the changing of the seasons, but it really hasn't.
There is dirt everywhere. Autumn is my favorite time of the year; the heat gives way to cool breezes, the leaves fall and smell like Oktoberfest. Here, the heat gives way to dusty winds and the leaves only mix with the unknown liquids in the streets. The bluish overcast fog of the summer gives way to brown gritty dust storms with a net change of visibility of zero.
Living in a hotel was an interesting experiment for about three and a half months. My opinion of this has changed drastically over the past few weeks. There are no secrets in this world. The people in the hotel work seven days a week and live eight to a room in the dorms across from the parking lot. This means that in any given dorm room, there could be a waitress, cook, housekeeper, bellboy, assistant manager or any other hirable job. If you had no days off and lived with six people without a television, at least 18 hours a day are dedicated to work or sleep and the remaining six hours are dedicated to hotel gossip. Because I’ve become such a presence in the hotel, I am one of the most talked about subjects of the year.
I have gotten tired of getting waited on hand and foot in the hotel. When I sit down to eat, someone comes over and arranges the plates and napkin for me, then they go get my drink and pour it into a glass. So far, this is acceptable. Then, every time I take a drink, someone comes over and ‘tops off’ my glass. Beyond the extra ten trips to my table, that should lead one to think that a waitress is standing by closely, watching my every move. This is a correct assumption, if you take the phrase ‘a waitress’ and pluralize it to ‘waitresses’. In the States, the waitress usually drops the menu off and gives you a couple minutes to look over the food. This is not the case in Big Red. The waitress hands you the menu and stands there, pen cocked and ready, waiting for you to order. This is unnecessary stress for me, who is extremely indecisive by nature, cannot read Chinese, and must rely on matching up pictures to menu items. Once the food is brought to the table, the waitresses wait for you and change your soiled plate about countless times during your meal. I go through more plates during lunch than baseballs in a Major League Baseball game.
My comfort with the staff also brings on undesired advice about eating. I have repeatedly been asked why I only order one dish and why I don't get a cold dish to start off with. The people of China put a lot of stock in body temperature equilibrium. They say that if you get something hot, you should have something cold to offset it. If you have a fever, you should drink water cooler than your body to lower your body temperature. The fact is, Citizens of Big Red - human beings are not reptiles and our body controls its own temperature, it’s called being warm-blooded. They are aghast when I don't get a bowl or rice or when I leave my tea untouched. Plus, Jenny and Sky are always giving me the business about reading while I eat. According to Chinese mythology (mythology, law, education, something), you are not supposed to divide the body’s actions between two things, such as eating and reading. To this I reply, “Leave me alone and let me read you stinkin’ quacks.”
Next topic, one without bagging on the roommates.
When I first got here, I was quite amused at the amount of staring that I got. People stare at me all the time, especially in Langfang, where foreigners are as rare as sunlight. Over the course of five months, however, it has started to fray my nerves. It seems that people are less and less tactful, like they’re standing 50% closer to me than they were in August. I’m like the kid with the Pac-Man watch in first grade, the fact that the thing tells time is secondary to the fact that the other functions create too much of a disturbance in class (which is straight bullshit). I feel that my presence has become too much of a distraction to the average Citizen, therefore, I must be taken away from the People (like my first grade teacher whom I still hate with all my heart). I have a couple examples of how I am China’s Pac-Man watch.
I was walking down the street during one of my afternoon walks in Langfang not long ago, casually watching the mixture of foot traffic and bicycles trickle by. One young man, about 19 or 20, rode slowly by and stared me down like an Old West shootout movie. He continued to slow down as he passed, craning his neck to get a better look at me. Little did he know that Grandma Citizen was riding a bit slower on her three-wheeler in front of him. He hit the back tire on her bike and went tumbling. That put a genuine smile on my face and a spring in my step immediately. Normally, in a non-comedy routine, that would have been the end of it, but there were several other people giving me the stink-eye behind him. Before long, a simple game of Freak Stare turned into a bloody five-bike pileup in front of my eyes (without the blood, like an episode of The A-Team). All it takes is one person paying attention (or not paying attention as the case may be), and the whole outcome would be different. It was so much that I actually stopped and watched them all get up, untangle their bicycles and ride off (of course, they were all going the same direction, which meant that they were surrounded by co-wreckers for at least another block). Just shameful.
The people of this country are raised in such close proximity to other people their whole lives that there is no proper shame in normal body functions, such as going to the bathroom. This means that many restrooms are void of privacy barriers. Public restrooms are also very disgusting, usually not more than a cement slab with a series of holes cut in the floor (it is suggested that the waste goes into these holes, but apparently it is merely a suggestion). I do not shit in public restrooms (or ‘sit-down potty’ as my grandma calls it), call me obsessive compulsive, but I just don't do it. I have no problems doing ol’ Number-1 though. Any restroom you go into may (and usually does) have at least one person doing the crouch-and-poop maneuver. Since the hole is just a hole, this frees the person up to position himself in anyway he would like. When I go into a public restroom, I try to pick the hole farthest away from anyone doing their business, which is standard operating procedure for American restrooms (like the buffer-seat in a movie theater). Upon unzipping, I often hear a strange shuffling sound from somewhere in the room. What is this shuffling sound? Another piece of Western restroom etiquette is ‘eyes forward’, this means keep your head pointing forward and don't wander. I know it’s stupid, and every man is guilty of checking out his neighbor’s schlong out from time to time, but overall, eyes forward. So it is not natural for me to look around when urinating, however the first time I heard this sound, I had to look around to see what it was (if it was a snake coming into the restroom, I would like to know). There was no snake, the shuffling sound was the sound of shitting-man turning towards me and staring straight at my package. This action is in direct violation of the North American Men’s Restroom Treaty of 1975 and I recommend sending in troops immediately. If any of those men are reading this, I would just like to say – You’re bathrooms are cold and being watched makes me very nervous, so please don't judge.
Not to further humiliate myself, but I want to point out that I get extremely gun-shy when being watched and have been known to have complete bladder shutdown in these situations, which makes it appear that I came into the bathroom just to pull my pants down, show off for a minute and leave.
My next example happened to me Sunday on my afternoon bicycle ride last week. This last incident was the one that sent me rushing to my calendar to count the weeks left in my trip. In recent weeks, I have practically given up walking around town. This is because when riding a bicycle, people have less time to stare at me and it gives me less time to be bothered by it. Take a naked pedestrian, if you saw said pedestrian streak by, you often doubt that what you saw was real because it happened so quickly, but if that same naked person casually strolled by, you’d know it was real and would stare intently. In China, I am the naked pedestrian (in the form of a fully-clothed white monster).
A couple streets here have quite heavy foot traffic and there are often people-traffic jams. Sunday was no different. This people-jam, I noticed, had it’s own soundtrack. In front of one of the businesses was a stage with speakers on it and music blasting. The voice was pretty bad, so I figured it had to be live music (even though recorded music in China often features equally bad voices but with slightly less distortion and more treble than a businessman’s Toyota Camry). These street side concerts are actually quite common around here. Any time a business wants to attract some customers, they throw a stage in front of the store and give a microphone to some lame prick with a horrible voice and add some background music. The performers are somewhere between the level of a Gong Show entertainer and a hidden track on any Mr. Bungle album. The crowds flock. I usually stop at these places for a few minutes for the writing material alone, so I decided to stop at this one.
The difference was, I could hear the bad voice and bad music, but I couldn't see the bad performer. I thought I saw little feet sticking up in the air, but they immediately disappeared. Then I saw a little head popup with a microphone.
“Man,” I thought, “this stage is really low.”
As the crowd moved around some, I realized, to my pleasant surprise, I had stumbled upon a one-man Chinese midget acrobat karaoke show! I was in heaven and immediately rushed the stage hoping to get one of my man-breasts signed (actually, I just stood in the back with a rather large smile on my face). At times like this, I wish there was punctuation better than an exclamation point to use.
After a few minutes, I noticed that the attention had shifted from the silk-vest wearing midget that was standing on his head singing to something behind me. Not wanting to miss something better than a little-person acrobat, I casually turned around to see what the ruckus was about. All that was behind me was the normal street with taxis and bicycles. “Well, I must have missed it” I thought. But the people were still looking behind me. Ohh... wait a minute… The people aren’t looking behind me; they’re looking at me. Just great.
“People of China, I have an announcement! Please gather around!” I shouted through my megaphone. “Closer, closer please. I want all 1.5 billion of you to hear it.”
“It has become clear to me that my presence is too much of a distraction for me to remain here any longer! The perfectly good midget with the hula-hoop on stage should be enough entertainment for you and if you cannot realize that, than I must leave. Thank you, that is all.”
That is enough angry topics for today. My life has changed in that I have begun marking days off the calendar with a magic marker. I knew that this was going to be a roller-coaster ride; it’s unfortunate that I must crash before getting off the ride. China has been good to me so far, but it is becoming more and more difficult to stay positive and enjoy myself. I want to say something good and reflective about my mood, but I’m so pissed and weary that I simply cannot. I am starting to see how writing can be used as a defense against the anger and despair that seems to be in continuous ebb and flow in my life.