A Spirited Debate: Soju vs. Baijiu

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blog baijiuAs a teenager, I can remember hearing people in movies talk about brewing “moonshine” and thinking that was so bad ass. There was this sort of back-woods, law-breakin’ appeal to moonshine that I admired. Then, some twenty years later, I moved to China and found that moonshine is basically available everywhere and is the drink of choice around here. You know how there’s widespread popularity for Bacardi Rum and Absolut Vodka in the USA? Well, that’s the kind of mass appeal that moonshine has in China. Only they call it ‘baijiu,’ and you can buy it for basically nothing at any store that sells things.

blog sojuBut before we go on into baijiu further, let’s stop for a second and address South Korea’s drink of champions – soju. Soju is kind of like baijiu’s wimpier kid brother. It’s not as strong, not as mean, and seems quite substantially more refined. Soju is sold everywhere in Korea and everybody drinks it. College women, old men, kids in fifth grade. Everybody. It comes in green bottles and apparently compliments everything from barbeque to beer extremely well. Koreans even judge each other’s worth based on how many bottles of soju they can drink. A real Korean can down around ten bottles, or claims to at least. I’m highly skeptical when Koreans reveal how many bottles of soju they can drink. Especially since ten bottles is enough alcohol to kill multiple frat boys.

So today I’m pitting soju up against baijiu in a battle of national liquors. May the best poison win!

Contender #1: Soju

blog soju adWhat is it? – Soju can be distilled using almost anything. I’ve most often heard that it comes from rice, although apparently it can be made quite easily from wheat or potatoes too. It’s colorless and tastes kind of like watered down vodka. Soju is almost always taken as a shot. Sometimes people will sip it but that’s weird. Another common way to drink soju is to pour it into your beer (‘mekchu’ in Korean) – a devilish elixir referred to as ‘so-mek.’

Strength – Soju ranges from 16 – 45% alcohol by volume. 20% is the average.

Fun fact – Jinro Soju is the top selling alcohol brand in the entire world.

Personal experience – After being challenged by a Korean colleague, I successfully drank three bottles of soju by myself. This led to possibly the worst hangover I’ve ever had in my life. And a higher degree of respect from my colleague.

Contender #2: Baijiu

blog sorghumWhat is it? –  Baijiu is made from sorghum. What the hell is sorghum, you ask? It’s a kind of grass…just look at the picture. Unlike soju, there are seemingly a million different kinds of baijiu, and the quality can vary depending on the price. Baijiu comes in cool looking bottles, often cased in neat boxes, and appears to the untrained eye to be a rather fancy product. Baijiu is over 5000 years old and tastes exactly like how I would guess rubbing alcohol tastes. Similar to soju, baijiu is most often taken in shots, although it also can be mixed in cocktails (by westerners who are desperately trying to mask its hideousness).

Strength – Baijiu ranges from 40-60% alcohol by volume.

Fun Fact – The word baijiu literally translates to ‘white wine.’ Despite that, baijiu bears little resemblance to Riesling.

blog baijiu bottlePersonal Experience – Yes, I have gotten quite heavily intoxicated from baijiu on multiple occasions. But having said that, I’ve never gotten too enormously ripped off it. I think this is because baijiu is so strong, one is always conscious of its power and knows better than to mess with it. Baijiu is kind of like an enormous maniac with a tattoo on his neck. You just don’t push it too far. Soju, on the other hand, is more like a skinny guy trained in martial arts. You think you can take him, but in the end he whoops your ass.

Winner – Soju

It was tempting to pick baijiu, since it’s so extreme and I feel manly drinking it. But given the choice, I would much, much rather drink soju. Even if soju sneaks up on you like a ninja and knocks you out dead in the middle of the street (or on the Seoul subway), at least it’s a pleasant experience up to that point. There is nothing pleasant about baijiu. Drinking baijiu is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer until you feel warm and fuzzy. All while gargling nail polish remover.

So there you have it. The winner of this round is soju.

And the loser is my liver

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The Chopstick Delusion

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blog chopsticks miageLiving in China, there are certain things one hears over and over again. A short list of commonly accepted phrases would include:

“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.

“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.

“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.

Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?

It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.

blog hamburger head“Holy crap! Do you see what’s happening here? He’s Asian and he’s eating a hamburger! A hamburger! I thought he’d be eating rice or something, but nope! It’s a Big Mac! This guy is wild!”

Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.

blog chopsticksBut all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.

Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.

blog chopsticks with fork“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.

You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.

Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.

And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.

Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.

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The Black Elephant of Death

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blog black elephant of deathIt was well after two in the morning and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse. The room was completely dark and I clung to the blankets, felt the sweat dripping down my forehead. Hours had passed since the nausea and the pain set in. I’d spent most of that time in the bathroom, where I’d gone through an entire roll of toilet paper like it was Halloween and I’d just covered a house.

I would later discover that I was suffering from what is known as “Bali Belly.” It’s a common condition in which the food in Bali, Indonesia, causes a person, typically a tourist, to empty out their insides through any and all willing orifices. ‘Bali Belly’ got me my second night in Ubud, after I’d eaten some mahi-mahi and washed it down with several Bintang bears. This seemed enjoyable at the time. Little did I know I’d just mixed a lethal cocktail, a more expensive and exotic version of ipecac.

blog bali bellyBut all these epiphanies didn’t come to light until later. All I knew at the time, or prognosticated I should say, was that I’d been food poisoned and I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. Internally, I wished it would stop and that this had happened to the Julia Roberts character in Eat. Pray. Love. during one of those romantic nights with Javier Bardem. Because that would’ve been amusing. As with the the title of that book, I myself had in fact eaten and now I was praying, although I did not believe there would be any love taking place, especially since I was out of tp.

Externally, I wished that someone would help me. My girlfriend sat up in bed and asked me if I needed to see a doctor.

“No,” I said. “I just have to stay hydrated. That’s how food poisoning kills you, you know? Dehydration. As long as I’m drinking water, I won’t drop dead.”

“Stop it,” she said. “You’re not going to die. You’re being dramatic.”

That was quite an accusation and, after protesting briefly, I ran to the bathroom again. When I returned, my stomach felt much better (that’s how the cycle works) and I curled up in the bed to try and get some sleep. This would prove futile. Ten minutes went by and I was back in hell again, sweating and shaking, bent over in torturous pain in our darkened room.

Turning onto my back, I looked across the room and I thought I could see – damn it, I really do believe I saw it – an enormous elephant standing there. I know how that sounds but bear with me. It was huge and black and had tusks the color of coal. The elephant hovered over the bed, its colossal head filling the air above me, its trunk dangling by the luggage that sat at the foot of the bed.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s here. The Black Elephant of Death. It’s come to take me.”

“What?” my girlfriend mumbled, half-asleep.

The size of the animal was terrifying. I sprang out of bed and flipped the lights on, my heart pounding. To my relief, the elephant disappeared with the darkness. I fell back on the bed, my head spinning and my body woozy.

I grabbed my cell phone and quickly Googled food poisoning in Bali. The first headline jumped out at me and grabbed me by my upset stomach linings.

AUSTRALIAN MOTHER AND DAUGHTER DIE OF FOOD POISONING AFTER EATING FISH IN BALI

blog food poisoingEating fish? I’d eaten fish! I shook my girlfriend awake and told her that this was it, the end for me. Coolly and calmly, she got dressed and walked to the nearest convenience store, where she purchased some pills to help my stomach. I was still panicking when she returned; she gave me the pills with some water and twenty minutes later I was fine and fell asleep and dreamt about the Indonesian transvestite show we’d seen earlier in the night.

In the morning I began to understand things. I thought about the Internet and the Australian mother and daughter and I thought about paranoia and how I’d searched out something to legitimize my worst fears and I’d found it. Rather easily too. Maybe that’s one of the dangerous things about the Internet. That one can search for something, trying to locate support for whatever argument they have, and they can probably find it. Whatever terrifying thing that you’ve imagined, someone else has likely imagined it too, and has written about it online. There are people in the world that live in states of permanent paranoia, terrified that the world is evil and out to get them, and for those people, the Internet will always tell them that they’re right.

blog elephant number twoTake the Black Elephant of Death, for instance. Of course there isn’t such a thing. It’s ridiculous and totally moronic. But now, as soon as I publish this, it will go into the cyber world, where it will be real. Witnessed. Maybe in another year someone else will do a search for it, some other idiot that thinks an elephant god in Bali has come to claim his soul.

And to that person, I only have this to say:

The Black Elephant of Death is real. Don’t try to fight him. You’re screwed.

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Is This Thing On? – Inside My Abysmal Stand-Up Comedy Debut

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blog krusty stand upMy entire life, I’ve always loved stand-up comedy. Seinfeld, Carlin, Chris Rock, Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK…I love all these people. They’ve made me laugh and helped me stay sane. And I’ve always thought, “Hmm, maybe one day I’d like to try that.I think I could be good at it.”

So this past week I did. I got up on a stage during an open mic night held by Comedy Club China. And it did not go well.

Let’s back up for a second. This whole disaster began one night about a month ago when – surprise surprise – I’d been doing some drinking. In a moment of delusion, I started talking to my friend Katrina about my inevitable stardom as a stand-up comedian.

“I’m a funny guy,” I said. “You know how we went to those comedy shows in Beijing last year? Well, I think I could do that. I’m at least as funny as those comedians we saw.”

This moronic bragging over the abstract possibility that I might be funnier than some comics we saw a year ago slowly transformed into a plan. During our one-week holiday, Katrina and I would go to the open mic night and I would make my debut. I spent days writing a million stand-up comedy bits, and in the end I chose two that I thought were good. On a Sunday night, I met up with Katrina at the club…

…and basically had an anxiety attack.

“I can’t do it,” I told her. “I feel sick. I think I’m going to throw up.”

“Man up!” Katrina said. “You’re not backing out of this!”

blog better standup microphoneBut man up I could not, and I backed out. We decided to stay and watched as several men did four minute sets in front of a lot of empty seats. Most did not fare well, and this unfortunately gave me false hope. By the end of the night, I’d talked to the host and had gotten myself signed up to go on stage the upcoming Wednesday.

That would be the high point of the entire venture. Katrina accidentally left her iphone in the bar that night and it just sort of disappeared. She believed the bartender stole it. And in her anger at the bar, she decided she would not be going back there again…which meant I’d have to go back Wednesday by myself. This was not good. I took the train alone and got to the bar about an hour early. No one was there. I read over my jokes and drank two beers.

“Oh my God,” I thought. “None of this is funny. It’s not funny at all. In the clarity of this moment, I realize I’ve written total crap! I need to back out!”

I went up to the host and introduced myself. He was pleasant and I felt too bad to back out. Instead, I went and used the bathroom for the fifth time in a thirty minute timespan.

“This is going to be good for you,” I said to myself. “Just getting up there. You’re always so nervous…you’ll be facing your fears. And who knows? Maybe the jokes are funnier than you think.”

blog comedy crowdBy the time 9:30 rolled around, I was in a state of panic. The place had really filled up and there were a lot of people in the audience. I was slated to go on second. The guy before me had just headlined the last comedy show and is one of Beijing’s top comics. Again, I saw disaster looming.

“What if I can’t get the mic off the stand?” I worried. “What if I can’t make words? What if I go up there and urinate myself?”

The crowd was in good spirits as the first comic finished. It was my time to go on. I wandered to the side of the stage with the same level of lethargic commitment that people in movies have when they’re put under a trance and sent to kill somebody.

“I don’t know much about this next comedian,” the host said, “but I know his name is Bill Panara and I like his chain of bread restaurants.”

With that, I was on. I looked out into the crowd and saw nothing – the lights were blinding. A sinking feeling set into my stomach as I started my set. I was obviously nervous. The first joke landed with a thud. The next punchline pronounced nothing but silence and one loud groan.

“I’m bombing,” I acknowledged internally.

Still, I went on. Each part of my routine stunk the place up worse than the last bit had. Eventually I began commenting on how terrible I was and the crowd seemed to enjoy that a little bit, although it did not cause them to forget the trainwreck they were witnessing.

“And Princess Elsa is a whore!” I proclaimed, the final line of my godawful set. “Thank you!”

I practically ran off stage. The host was really nice and sort of hugged me, said something quick about the first time being difficult. Other comics – real comics – gave me high fives in support (or pity).

“You have to be exaggerating,” Katrina said the next day. “You couldn’t have bombed that badly.”

“It was horrendous,” I said. “You could’ve gone up there and talked about your breakfast and it would’ve gotten more laughs.”

“Did anything go right?”

“Well, the microphone worked nicely. And the blinding lights made me less nervous.”

“So the things the bar controlled…those were good.”

“Exactly. And everything I controlled paled in comparison.”

Perhaps in time I shall grace the comedy stage again. Yes, my debut was tragic, but that’s okay because comedy and tragedy are often linked. As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

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All My Coworkers Are Dirty Pigs

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blog dity pigWorking in China is a unique experience. It’s something I think everyone should go through for at least a year, just to see how different the mindset here is from other parts of the world. Take, for example, what happened two weeks ago, when my school conducted its annual fall apartment checks.

The new employees here are always baffled by the apartment checks. Heck, I was baffled too when I fist started. As soon as the school sent out the staff-wide email about the checks, one of the new teachers, a nice guy named Jesse, came to ask me about it.

“Bill,” he said, “can you explain the email we just got?”

“Well, on Monday the school is going to check your apartment.”

“Yes. But what does that mean?”

“That means that while you’re at work on Monday, your boss is going to go into your apartment and see if it’s clean.”

Jesse needed a second for this idea to settle.

“Why are they doing that?”

This was a question I could not answer. I really don’t know why my boss would care to go into my home and inspect it for cleanliness. You would think the boss would have better things to do. Or that she would see how people not originally from China would be more than a little uncomfortable with the whole thing.

“What if they don’t think my apartment is clean?” Jesse asked.

blog hoarderesAgain, I wasn’t sure how to answer. All of the foreign teachers here at my school are housed in the same place, a big ugly apartment building on the far end of the campus. And every year, our boss comes into our apartments periodically to see if anyone has disgraced the school with sloppiness. If behind these ubiquitous brown doors, there are scenes of chaos and havoc, settings reminiscent of the TV show Hoarders.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told Jesse. “It’s just what they do here. They want to look in your room.”

“But I don’t want them to look in my room. What right do they have to look in my room?”

“None. But they’re going to do it anyways. So just throw out the trash in the morning and try to pretend it isn’t happening.”

The day after the apartment checks, the school sent out another staff-wide email. This one was from the boss, and it congratulated us on our general neatness. It also said that one particular teacher, who went unnamed, had an unacceptably messy apartment and was being spoken to privately.

“I wonder who they busted,” Jesse thought out loud.

In a way, I wished it was me. Just so I could tell them that they’d made the mistake of employing a filthy bastard who was proud of being a filthy bastard, and that it would be appreciated if the next time she entered my place, the boss would clean it up a little.

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Four Days in the Unfortunate Universe of Having a Job

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blog jason vorheesDay One

Time: late August

Weather: hot

Physical Appearance: wearing blue suit, hair looks good, small pimple on chin

The beginning of a new school year is a lot like the first twenty minutes of a slasher movie.

You meet new people. Everyone is happy and the sky is generally bright and sunny. There are parties. People hook up. Clichés are muttered, like this is going to be a great school year, just as someone in a slasher movie might say this is going to be a great vacation out here in the wilderness. But meanwhile, despite all the pleasantness, there are undertones. Dark undertones. Hints of evil lurking in the near future. On occasion, ominous music plays (like the school chimes). Eventually you begin to wonder which of your teacher friends will be the first to go, and what back story will justify the actions of your psychotic students (overbearing mothers, traumas from the past, they witnessed poor classroom management as young children, etc.).

Keeping this in mind, I have my goal set for the year. Survival. I want nothing more than to make it to the end alive. Because the school year will soon disintegrate into Wolf Creek, and once that happens, I’d like to make sure the engine of my car is checked before all the crazy people start pulling on the door handles.

blog teacher dudeDay Two

Time: early September

Weather: slightly less hot than day one

Physical Appearance: wearing shirt and tie, unshaven, pimple on neck thankfully hidden by collar

It’s a curse to be blessed with talents in an area not of your choosing.

At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac, I’m a pretty darn good teacher. Damn good, even. I can run a class smoothly, limit behavior problems, and get the kids working. They have fun in my class and they cooperate. At times, I feel like this might be my calling. The kids are learning, everything is awesome, and, as much as I hate to admit, I’m sort of enjoying myself.

But, you see, all that is really bad. It’s devastating, actually. Because I never wanted to be a teacher. No, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I mean, who really aspires to be a teacher? No one. People aspire to be writers and end up as teachers. I spend my nights after school writing, slaving away at projects that never seem to get any closer to completion. That’s because, if I’m being honest with myself, my writing isn’t all that great. Sometimes things come out pretty decent and I’m satisfied, but it takes a lot of work and it never comes easy.

So this is my big problem. The torture of being good at something you didn’t ask to be good at. At work, on days where I have one excellent class after the next, I’m just more painfully aware that I’m a way better teacher than I am a writer. That this is my job, my profession, and the thing that I have all that passion for, well, that’s my hobby.

And then I start letting the writing slide, and spend my nights looking over lesson plans like a true loser.

'You're wasting your time. I like my job, but I'll never love it.'Day Three

Time: mid September

Weather: warm, nice pollution fog

Physical Appearance: checkered shirt and tie although I’m not sure they go together and feel somewhat self-conscious

Work can make a person’s dreams fade away.

This is what I’ve learned. Against my better judgment, I fear that I’ve become one of those people. You know the type. I spend hours of my free time doing things that relate to my job. When out with people, I talk about my job. When thinking, I think about my job. When dreaming, I dream about marshmallow people, but that’s only because I have no control over what I dream. Otherwise it would be my job. My job has become the one dominant focal point in my life, and I’m so ashamed of myself.

The real problem is that I’m happy. Yes, I know, it’s a catastrophe. Even though I complain a lot, I’m beginning to realize that I might (sigh) really like my line of work. I might even…dare I say…love it. Oh my God, how did this happen?  I’m like the person that gets kidnapped and then falls in love with their captor. I’m like Patty Hearst. At first I was kicking and screaming, and now I never want to be rescued.

My writing has completely stopped. I tell myself it was only a hobby anyways. I was born to be a teacher, and my lack of writing isn’t laziness…it’s destiny.

blog kids middle fingerDay Four

Time: late September

Weather: chilly, nipples slightly erect

Physical Appearance: wearing long grey trench coat, tell myself I look like Don Draper but think I look more like a flasher

A great thing happened today!

My class was terrible!

Absolutely terrible. The children were out of control, nobody learned anything, kids were giving each other the middle finger, and nobody did any work at all. I think these days are blessings. Granted, this is mostly because they’re few and far between, but when Wolf Creek happens, it’s kind of nice. It makes one pause and take a step back, look at the big picture for a moment.

This is my job. Not my life. I guess I need bad days to remind me of this. There are things that need to be written, projects that need to be completed, dreams that need to be chased. Without all that…I’d only have this job, this thing that pays me and takes up most of my time and occasionally involves children making lewd gestures at each other. And if that’s all I have…I’ll probably go crazy and end up in a looney bin trying to teach grammar in a straight jacket.

I sit in my room and smoke a cigarette. Then I open up my novel, which I haven’t looked at in almost a month. It sits on the same screen where my lesson plans have been a permanent fixture for the last five weeks.

Tomorrow the kids will probably be good again, and I’ll probably feel cocky about triumphantly completing my lesson on the future continuous tense. But for now I’ll write. I’ll take a few hours to dream. Because work is over and, technically, I’m not a teacher again until eight o’clock tomorrow morning.

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Like Watching Turtles Choose Shells

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blog faceless mannequinIt’s a Saturday afternoon and I need a shirt. Really, I need much more than a shirt – a whole new wardrobe would be better, and maybe a stylist, and maybe an endless supply of socks – but whatever, on this day I’ll settle for a mere shirt. I take the 52 Bus to one of the many malls in Beijing, where I stumble upon a store called ‘Jack Jones.’ The place is darkly lit and features faceless mannequins with shiny non-faces that are better dressed that I’ve ever been in my life. They’re also much more muscle toned, and I debate whether or not I’d sacrifice having a face in exchange for better clothes and abs. Really, if someone looked like one of these Jack Jones mannequins, I’d be willing to bet that he’d score more dates than 2/3 of men with faces.

Anyways, I’ve noticed that there’s a Jack Jones in basically every Chinese mall I’ve stepped foot in. All of them, as though the malls of China are like those faceless mannequins, the exact same replicated mirror image being constructed over and over again. Go into a Beijing mall and you’ll be sure to find a KFC, the Japanese fast food joint Yoshinoya, a Jack Jones, a few clean bathrooms, a few nightmarishly unclean ones, and a strange emptiness that pervades the place and invokes sadness the same way your house might the day you move out of it.

blog waldo mallFor a country with 20% of the world’s population, the malls in China are surprisingly vacant and ghostly. Floor after floor, all connected by inconsistently functioning escalators, you’ll find clean and open space, territory unclaimed, stores sitting idle and bored. At an H & M in Dongzhimen, I explored the racks of clothes completely alone while the salespeople stocked the already overstocked shelves. Or, wandering aimlessly around the mall in Xizhimen, I passed by the same t-shirt shop probably a dozen times, never seeing anyone, consumer or employee, inhabiting it. Then there’s the strange mall around Lishuiqiao station, which requires a short pilgrimage from the subway, a ten minute walk down a desolate road where hopeful shoppers slowly move in droves, staggering in the direction of the mall with the enthusiasm and countenance of someone forced down the Trail of Tears in 1831. 

That’s what I’m thinking as I step into Jack Jones. Immediately, only seconds after I enter, a young Chinese woman in her work uniform approaches me.

“Ni hao!” she smiles. “JACK JONES!”

She nearly screams it, as though she’s shouting out his name in orgasm.

“Yes,” I say, unsure of how to respond. She smiles and walks away, only to be replaced by another shop girl, this one also flashing an oddly frightening smile.

“Hello!” she says in English.

“Hi.”

“Jack Jones!”

“You’ve got that right,” I say.

blog men explore outfitsShe doesn’t say anything else, but parks herself directly next to me. This makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, awkward, having this salesgirl shadowing me, and I walk towards the back of the store hoping that she won’t follow. My plan doesn’t work. Keeping a safe distance of a few feet, she glides to the back of the store after me, like I’m the sound and she’s the echo. I try and try but I can’t lose her. All these shirts and sweater vests, I can’t even think, all I’m aware of is this stupid salesgirl three feet to my right. She recommends a green flannel shirt and I run. I dart through two full racks of clothes, a tight squeeze, praying that she’ll get stuck between them, but she doesn’t, and moments later she’s practically on my back, the closest I’ll come all day to wearing anything from the store.

I know, I know. This is good customer service, right? I tell myself that. This girl has devoted so much attention to me, it’s amazing, the polar opposite of the neglectful clerks working back home at JC Penny or TJ Maxx. Still, I hate it. I just want to be left alone, by myself, so I can pick something that I personally think is hip, even if it makes me look like I belong in a New Kids on the Block video. It would probably be difficult for her to understand any of this. I don’t really want to be helped. I’d prefer the freedom to fashionably sink or swim on my own.

Without saying anything, I quickly make my way out of the store. I don’t look back to see if she’s tried to follow me. I can still hear that name in my head, over and over, the way they kept saying it.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

It’s almost like a siren call, pulling me back. I mean, maybe I should go back, I have no new shirt, and I’m not sure where else to go. But none of that matters, because I’ve returned to the embrace of this empty shopping mall and I’m sure I can find some store, somewhere in the deserted landscape, where the only thing that will tell me I don’t look good in a pink cashmere sweater is the mirror.

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