Back in November, I interviewed for a job in Beijing, China. Two weeks later, I’d signed a contract. A few months after that, I was on a plane to Beijing Capital International Airport. What greeted me – the place where I found myself – let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. Yesterday was nice and sunny and so I went for a stroll and took some pictures. And thus I present to you my new home, for better or for worse. Cheers!
Of all the curious idiosyncrasies of the human race, people’s unique behavioral
blips, I’ve always been baffled by the decision some strange individuals make to wear underwear that has flowers on it. It’s definitely not sexy, unless one has a fetish for wallpaper, and from a strictly aesthetic perspective, a floral print can only be visually pleasing to those who think quilted Bounty paper towels are fine art. Mind you, I’m not against underwear that has personality – in fact, I own one pair of boxers with the Super Mario Brothers on it and another that retells the Little Red Riding Hood story (literary lingerie, there’s an idea, market it if you have the time). It’s just that flowers seem tacky. Grandmotherish. And flowers are also the most obvious vaginal symbol I can think of (right, Georgia O’Keefe?); a girl with flowered panties is sort of like a guy wearing tighty whities covered in bananas and The Washington Monument.
One Sunday evening, I found myself sitting in my room, the nervous breakdown that I’d been having for the previous three weeks beginning to subside slightly. I’d been hiding all weekend, terrified at the idea of seeing another human being, wanting only to be left alone, in the dark cavern of my apartment, taking shelter in my cave like an agoraphobic bear or an early 2000s Bin Laden. I’d hear people outside in the lobby of the apartment building, talking and laughing, and my heart would pound. Why were they out there? When would they leave? Their presence was cancer, a black widow spider hanging above my bed on its string, they were there to get me, I had to stay safe. The building was full of threats. Stepping outside my apartment was Russian Roulette, spin the barrel, pull the trigger, listen for noise.
For over a month I hadn’t done any laundry because the laundry room was down the hallway and I was too petrified of people to force myself to go. I figured it was easier to wear the same dirty underwear, BO scented shirts, and soy sauce stained jeans than risk running into someone in the public laundry room. But on this Sunday, the hallway was quiet, and I was feeling adventurous. I threw some clothes in a bag and literally sprinted across the lobby to the laundry room. The washer was all in Chinese and I had no idea how to work it. Whatever. I tossed my clothes in, poured a bunch of detergent on top like a Canadian eating pancakes and going heavy on the maple syrup, and punched buttons until the machine started. What was the worst that could happen? I’d either end up with clean clothes or turn the apartment building into The Impossible.
Forty five minutes passed. It was time to make the transfer to the dryer. I gave myself a pep talk, pumping myself up, like someone does before walking over hot coals, and then I darted back to the laundry room. There was only one dryer not currently in use but, to my horror, someone had left clothes inside it. I cursed under my breath and ran back to my room. Twenty minutes later I repeated the process, pep talk, 15 meter dash, dryer check. The same clothes sat in the dryer, left and abandoned, shed and forgotten, the same way cats leave their fur all over the place.
“Son of a bitch!” I shouted. I knew that I didn’t have it in me to come back again. Whoever was doing this was torturing me. I opened the dryer and started taking the clothes out, throwing them on top of the machine. To hell with it. My head ached. There’s a privacy agreement inherent in any Laundromat and I was breaking it, smashing it with each t-shirt or sock I tossed out of the dryer’s warm circular metal embrace.
And I would have kept going, had it not been for what I was unearthing. Panties. Lots and lots of panties. Whoever was responsible for this had washed a record amount of underwear, lifetimes worth. Flowered panties, tons of them, descending from the dryer, falling down onto my face, like I was an opera singer and the crowd was pelting me with roses.
How could I leave some girl’s underwear out in the open for anyone to gawk at? I only wanted to dry my clothes, not humiliate anyone. Anger filled me as I held the girl’s floral patterned panties in my hand. I imagined that if I was single, maybe one day I’d have a romantic hook up with one of my coworkers, bring her back to my apartment. Things would get heavy, bra unlatched, and I’d slide her jeans off, only to recognize this same pair of flowered panties snug around her hips. Passion would die right there. The lights would have to come on, and instead of sex, she would get a long lecture on laundry etiquette.
“Hours! You left your clothes in the dryer for hours! What kind of girl just leaves her panties in a public space like that? Have you no decency?!?”
It was no use. I put all of the mystery girl’s clothes back in the dryer, then took my soaking wet laundry and stuffed it in my bag. Returning to my apartment, I hung my drenched clothes around the place like I was redecorating, putting socks on bookshelves as if they were family photographs.
“I finally did some laundry,” I sighed. “I should feel happy.”
It was true. I was alone and safe, with wet clothes sitting in my closet, while some stranger was out and about, possibly having the time of her life, her laundry a minor detail of her day, already forgotten.
The Seoul subway is packed, just like always, and, also like always, I’m in a shitty mood. It’s mid-January and I’m headed to the airport, on my way to Hong Kong, a giant green suitcase containing half of my worldly possessions by my side, ready to make the trip with me. To get to the subway train, I must go down a staircase. I lift my suitcase, carrying it with both hands like a battering ram, and head down the stairs, taking the first step at the exact moment the train arrives. Approximately 8 million people get off the train and start walking up the staircase, flooding it, a tidal wave of Asians, coming right at me.
I sigh. I’m hugging the wall on the right hand side, as I feel I should be. One would think the people going up would do the same, two lanes, street traffic, headed in opposite directions, but they’re not. They’re spread out. This doesn’t deter me. I put my head down, the green suitcase held out before me, and walk with great speed, gaining inertia as I descend.
“Excuse me!” I yell. “Coming through!”
People duck out of the way, dodging me and muttering angry things in Korean. At least they’re moving, and I’m getting close to the bottom. But then I see an old woman, right in my path, walking up the stairs while texting. Why is an old woman texting? Why hasn’t technology passed her by, and who the hell is she talking too? Probably the retirement home, to tell them she’s escaped. She’s completely oblivious. It’s like a game a chicken and one person is asleep behind the wheel.
“Watch out!” I shout. That seems more pleasant than, “Move, bitch, get out the way!” The old woman continues towards me with her head down. I decide not to veer off, as I have heavy luggage and she should be the one that moves, and we collide. The suitcase wallops her good. She staggers to the side a bit and lets out a furious scream, shocked by what’s happened. I respond by saying “Pay attention!” and then make my way to the end of the staircase.
I don’t look back. It wasn’t my fault.
Maybe she’s learned a lesson about the dangers of texting. Or I’ve given Old Lady 21st Century something to blog about. Because she probably has a blog, with an upcoming entry called, “The Damn White Bastard Motherfucker.”
Mid February. Back in the subway station, a black suitcase this time, containing the second half of my worldly possessions. Another flight, the last leg of the move. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the train, my suitcase beside me like a son (in a bag, I dunno). There’s no one else in the general area and I’m poised to drag my luggage right onto the train when it comes. And then another person appears.
He’s old, probably in his sixties, with wrinkled skin and an Oakland A’s cap. Despite the fact that I’m obviously first in line, the old man doesn’t fall into place behind me, but instead stands directly next to me. I start to feel tense. There’s no reason for this – it isn’t crowded. Why can’t he just let me and my luggage get on the train first? I know that he’ll push his way by me. It’s happened a million times before with these old Asians. I grit my teeth. There’s no way I’m letting him ahead of me.
The train arrives, doors open. I pick up my suitcase and start heading on. The old man goes darts forward, and I feel his body press up against me, trying to push his way past. I guess I could simply let him go, but that’s ludicrous, and instead I position myself in front of him, cutting off his path. He doesn’t yield. Pushes harder.
That’s it. I’m pissed.
I turn and put my hand directly in the center of his chest and shove him back. “Stop it, God damn it!” Like the old woman I bashed with the suitcase, he’s shocked. I make my way onto the train and he steps on after me with hate in his eyes and his jaw agape. “Can’t you wait a second?” I say. I’m sure he doesn’t know a word of English but I don’t care. “I’m getting on the train. Don’t fucking push me.”
Riding the train, I start thinking. Really, if I’m honest with myself, standing on the platform before the train came, I was kind of hoping he would try to push past me. I wanted to do something, make a stand, just as I wanted that old lady to keep walking up the staircase so I could ram her with my suitcase. In truth, I was sick of Koreans being rude on the subway, and I was salivating at the opportunity to confront someone.
“My God,” I thought, “I’m like the George Zimmerman of the Seoul subway.”
Sometimes, standing up against something, be it thieves in the neighborhood or rude people on the subway, becomes a matter of personal need, an action waiting for a target. Maybe I shouldn’t have been such an asshole on the subway. I looked up at the monitor to see where I was.
Dorimcheon. I looked back at the old man and hung my head in shame.
I’d gotten on the wrong damn train.
I could feel the funk settling in. My floor was littered with unwashed clothes, and I hadn’t showered in two days. That’s the thing about depression – there are generally signs of it everywhere. See, depression doesn’t sneak up on you like Oscar Pistorious’ girlfriend on Valentine’s Day; it slowly makes itself at home. One day you sleep until noon but shrug it off. Then, before you know it, you haven’t shaved in two weeks and you’re suddenly listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell.
Well, at least that’s what happened to me. Relocating to China was beginning to wear me down, bum me out. Moving someplace new, really, is a lot like buying a porn magazine. Sure, the new issue of “Juggs” is thrilling for a day or two, but pretty quickly it gets boring, depressing to own, and you want it to go away. So was the case with China, at least in the early stages. The first few days were fun, but then I didn’t want to see its breasts any more, metaphorically speaking.
“Hey,” I said on the phone, calling one of the school coordinators, “I don’t mean to complain, but I can’t get any hot water in the shower.”
“Oh, you know it gets turned off, right?” she responded.
“No, I had no idea. What time does it get turned off?”
As soon as the number left her mouth, I knew I would not be showering again. Sure, getting up at that time would be fine when classes began. Until then, while the school was on vacation and I wasted the two weeks away memorizing the lyrics to “Blue” and attempting to feel better about myself by watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” there would be no way I’d be able to wake in time for the hot water. No, I would become dirty and disgusting, like a homeless person or someone vacationing with Carnival Cruise Lines. I considered my options – taking a cold shower or investing in a good bottle of cologne and bathing in the style of so many great Italians before me – and decided to just sleep more.
Writing this blog also seemed impossible. The Great Firewall of China was proving to be a greater foe than I had anticipated. Without exaggerating, I seriously spent about 10 hours trying to put a stupid Mitch Hedberg picture in my AIDS post, getting kicked offline by the proxy server over and over again. “Son of a bitch!” I shouted. “When I read there were Internet blocks in China, I didn’t expect that to apply to me!”
And then there was food. It took about a week to find a grocery store that stocked it. Finally I did, and I ran back home with delight, having purchased a whole chicken, cooked rotisserie style. I got home and cut it up with kitchen scissors. Starving, I devoured it. At one point, I was trying to gnaw the flesh off some part of the chicken – what appeared to be a wing – and was having trouble. I took the chicken from my lips and looked at it.
“What the hell is this?” I thought. Right after that I rotated it in my fingers, like it was back on the rotisserie, the image turning right side up, and that’s about the time my heart stopped. “Dear God…it’s the head!”
Yes, apparently the head of the chicken is not removed in the grocery store, and I had been nibbling on it. It was a horrifying sight to behold. Brown, soft and gelatinous, its empty eye socket stared up at me. “Fuckin’ shit!” I screamed, throwing its face back down onto my plate. It had to go, immediately. I grabbed a fork and thrust it down upon the chicken head, puncturing it through one of its eye sockets. Dinner had turned into a nightmare, and there was a gooey brown head on the end of my fork like a piece of fudge brownie from hell.
Afterwards, the chicken head flushed down the toilet, I sat on the bed and shook. I felt like a murderer. Terrible thoughts ran through my head. I pictured purchasing a bucket of KFC and opening it to find Colonel Sanders’ decapitated head inside.
Thankfully, things started getting better. Just as depression is quite apparent at its onset, it’s easy to tell when it’s left too. Things began to make sense and a new routine started to form. Plus, I got my passport back, which meant a quick trip to Korea to see my wonderful girlfriend, and if anything can get a guy over the self-loathing that comes from having eaten something’s scalp, love can.
There’s nothing less fun than having to take an AIDS test. Pregnancy tests aren’t fun either, but if those turn out positive, as a guy, I can take the girl in question on Maury Povich and hope somebody else knocked her up. And if that doesn’t work out, at least I’d get to be on Maury Povich. You’ll never see Maury doing AIDS tests:
“Well, I’m holding the results of the test in my hand,” Maury would say as I sweat bullets up on the stage. “With 99.9% accuracy…you sir…are not the father!”
“What? It was supposed to be an AIDS test.”
“Oh, yeah. About that…you got it.”
It just wouldn’t be good TV. Likewise, a show about my attempts to get a Chinese work visa would make for equally bad television.
“On today’s very special episode,” the voice-over guy would say, “Bill is required to go to a Hong Kong hospital and undergo a full health exam, including an HIV test. Viewer discretion is advised: this episode contains adult themes and isn’t entertaining.”
Really though, the doctors and nurses at the hospital in Hong Kong couldn’t have been nicer. They had me in and out of that place in about an hour, as though they were the Jiffy Lube of health examinations. I was told my results would be back in a week, and I nodded, knowing I’d be spending the next seven days freaking out.
Not that I thought I had HIV. But having the test put the thought in my head. It’s like, you never think about certain things until somebody brings them up. “Don’t you want more in-depth labels on food?” a person might say. “Aren’t you worried about what you’re eating?” Um, why? Should I be worried about what I’m eating? What’s wrong with what I’m eating? Is it going to kill me? Oh my God, it IS going to kill me, isn’t it? I’m such a fool!
So because somebody felt it was necessary that I take an HIV test, all of a sudden I became convinced that I had it. I walked around Hong Kong humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” song, imaging myself on the Real World, being harassed by Puck. One night I stood by VictoriaBay and got super dramatic, thinking that when the test came back positive, I would leap into the bay at night and commit suicide. No one would even know why I did it, the test results kept secret thanks to HIPPA laws. Everyone would simply assume it was due to my despair over “Gossip Girl” getting canceled or the Phillies signing of Delmon Young.
My anxiety was at an all-time high when I finally got an email from the hospital, saying I could come pick up my test results. The tone of the email was neutral, which I considered to be a good sign. After arriving, the doctor sat me down in a chair to go over everything.
“We did a blood test,” she said, “and you’re blood type A positive.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Relax,” I told myself. “She said A positive. There was no I or D or S.”
She proceeded to go over the rest of the results. I was HIV negative. I breathed a heavy sigh in relief. Then she told me my lungs had pleural thickening. “It’s not a big deal,” she said, “but it’s something to be aware of.”
“My lungs? Thickening? Is that because I smoke?”
“No,” she said, “pleural thickening is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Smoking is very bad, though. You need to quit.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Asbestos?”
I was dumbfounded. I thought asbestos poisoning was something that went out after the New Deal. How had this happened? I told myself that if one thing doesn’t kill you, something else surely will.
“Well, thank God you can’t get AIDS from old buildings,” I thought, leaving the hospital with my chest X-ray in hand, so I could show my pleural thickening to all my friends.
“Tune in next week,” my voice over guy said, “for a very special episode, in which the happiness of being HIV negative is somewhat muted by a 30 minute coughing fit.”
Sometimes, when traveling, one encounters a person with a name that is impossible to pronounce. In the Philippines, there was a guy from Finland that everyone called “Rusty” because his real name was too challenging; in Paris, there was a Turkish gentleman that we all, quite cleverly, referred to as “Turk.” The same thing happened to me in Hong Kong, where I met a young fellow from Sweden whose name was as hard to say as some Ingmar Bergman films are to make sense of.
“Just call me Thor,” he sighed, mercifully, after I’d butchered his name badly, leaving it disemboweled and beheaded.
“Thor?” I asked, wondering if that was really any better than calling him “Swede.”
“Okay, Thunder God,” I said. He looked down at the floor, as if by shifting his attention, he could erase the bad joke from ever having happened.
It’s a little known fact that Hong Kong, a small sovereign island off the southern coast of China, is actually the second most expensive place in all of Asia to visit (the first being Japan). The cost of living in Hong Kong, believe it or not, is higher than that of New York City. Thor and I met because we were both staying on the 7th floor of the Chunking Mansions, block D, the cheapest place in all of Hong Kong to stay. At fifteen bucks a night, we’d found ourselves in a room about the size of handicapped bathroom stall, with two bunk beds, one power socket, and two other men who, like us, did not possess enough money to stay anywhere better.
There was little doubt that all of us were broke. Early on, I’d decided that I’d save money by eating only ham and salami sandwiches, storing my modestly priced sandwich meat in the otherwise unused communal refrigerator that sat in the hallway. The others ate cheap curry sold on the first floor of the building. One day, Thor entered the room excited, a bottle of water in his hand.
“Hey guys!” he said. “There’s a water fountain in Kowloon Park. We won’t have to pay for water anymore! We can fill our bottles up for free!”
It was brilliant. I quickly headed over to the park with two empty water bottles of my own. I’d heard the park was lovely, filled with things to see, but I didn’t care. I was there for the free water. I rushed past a group of Chinese people doing Tai Chi, down a walking path lined with statues of famous Anime characters; I blew by a scenic pond populated with tall pink flamingos. None of it caused me to take pause. All I was focused on was the elusive water fountain. I’d been searching for around forty minutes and the only water I’d seen was being slurped up by flamingos. I felt like grabbing someone by the shirt collar and yelling, “I’ve been told of the free water! Where on earth are you hiding it?”
Then quietly adding, “Thor sent me.”
Thankfully, I found it, right outside the restrooms, where I would steal toilet paper to use as tissue. “What’s happening to me?” I thought. It was like I was turning into my depression-era grandfather, who used to steal napkins from McDonalds and magazines from the dentist’s office. Upon returning to my room, I found the rest of the guys lounging around, drinking from their water bottles.
“How was the park?” one of them asked, taking note that I had two water jugs stuffed under my arms. The four of us laughed, as though we’d discovered some magical oasis, Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Penny Pinching. Once in awhile we’d meet a new person in the hallway and we’d always nudge each other, nodding, telling the person of our secret water supply.
Then one morning I awoke to discover that someone had eaten all of my salami. This was a nightmare come true. The community fridge had been raided. “That motherfucker!” I said out loud to the empty hallway. “What kind of bastard steals a poor man’s salami?” To add insult, the person had left the empty package there, not even having the manners to throw it out. The ham was untouched, which confused me. “Who takes the salami and leaves the ham? I’ll tell you who – a fucking fool who doesn’t know how to make a proper sandwich, that’s who!”
I sat down on the bed in despair. My efforts to get by on as little as possible had been wasted, destroyed by pilfered lunch meat. It seems that for every cheap person in the world, there’s an even cheaper person; for every guy swallowing his pride to take water from the public park, they’re someone shamelessly stealing that person’s salami.
A few hours later, Thor and the others checked out. I looked at the twenty full water bottles we’d accumulated. “I’m not telling anyone about this,” I said to myself. “Those bastards can thirst to death for all I care.”
Or, I suppose, they could pay.
“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” – Charlie Brown
It’s Christmas, and I’m broke. Y, my girlfriend, hasn’t let this alter her wish list. She knows what she wants. We’ve been together ten months, and she wants us to get couple rings for Christmas. Couple rings are a very Korean thing – when Korean couples get serious, they buy matching rings to express their love and/or signal ownership. The meaning of the couple ring is vague, they don’t signify that you’re engaged or anything, it’s more like in the ’50s when girls wore a pin to show they were going steady. And Y wants my pin, in the form of matching rings that she says will cost around $150.
So it’s off to the mall we go. I’m anxious to get there, not because of the rings, but because I want to see if there’s an Asian Mall Santa. It’s juvenile, but the thought amuses me. I start thinking about how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would make a wonderful Santa Claus. They’re virtually the same person: they’re both fat, come from the North, live in secrecy, are surrounded by small people, and both of them have magical horned animals (If you haven’t heard, North Korea claims to have discovered a unicorn lair. No, I’m not making that up.) True, Mr. Kim is most famous for his nuclear weapons program, but who’s to say Santa doesn’t have WMDs too? Have we ever checked? I mean, what do you think little terrorist Al Qaeda kids want for Christmas? I don’t think the elves are making them wooden rocking horses.
That’s what I’m thinking about as Y and I start looking for rings. Kim Jong-Santa and his unicorn sleigh, flying around the world, giving good little children magical toys and spreading government propaganda. We hop from one jewelry store to the next. Each time, Y tries on rings and asks for the price, and every time the price is significantly higher than what we anticipated.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s $550.”
“I’m sure you’ll find another one to love,” I respond.
Plenty of rings in the sea. Although it turns out all the good ones are (not surprisingly) out of my budget. The jewelry store owners all seem grumpy, Scrooges all of them, and Y tells me it’s because we’re looking at the most inexpensive rings, and they think it’s ridiculous. “They see a foreigner and they think he’s rich,” she says. “They think all foreigners are rich.”
The day comes to a close, and we don’t buy anything. I tell her that I love her, but I can’t afford these rings. Then I try to make it sound like we’ve done a public service, since my broke foreign ass has shattered the stereotypes the jewelers had and we’ve enlightened them. Yes, I couldn’t afford a ring, but at least I expanded cultural awareness.
Fast forward. Christmas Eve. Y and I are watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which she’s never seen. This is just the beginning. I’ve also downloaded The Snowman, The Grinch, Rudolph, Garfield’s Christmas, and about 30 other specials. I see her future, and it involves stop motion animation. But before we can get to the next special, she takes out a box and gives me my present. It’s a wallet with a change pouch. I didn’t expect anything.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t have anything for her. Not a thing. What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst boyfriend ever, the boyfriend that stole Christmas.
I think she’ll get upset, but she doesn’t. She says all she wants is an umbrella. A heart shaped one. So the wet snow doesn’t fall on her. And she goes over to the computer so I can buy the gift online. The Internet, like Ernest, has saved Christmas.
Once, as a young man, I thought that I understood and could relate to the tree Charlie Brown buys in his Christmas special. You know, the little goofy one that helped teach Charlie the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years, I relate to it on a deeper level. Every holiday, it seems like the Charlie Brown Tree gets more and more important.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” – Linus
No rings, that’s fine. There really is no Kim Jong-Santa, so we’ll make do with what we can. We’ve got the snow outside and eleven hours of cartoon specials. A heart shaped umbrella is on its way. And we’ve got another day to spend together, so we’re pretty lucky.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown tells me. Being able to find someone who needs you, just like he found that little tree.