You’re Stunning, Mr. Cabbie! No…I Mean It…You’re Literally Stunning Me!

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blog donkey in cabLiving in China can be bizarre. In the three years that I lived in South Korea, I thought that I existed in some strange parallel universe that only vaguely connected to the rest of the world. Silly me. Compared to China, South Korea feels like one of the quirkier states in the US, like how I imagine Portland or Louisiana being. Weird but with a certain degree of charm. China, while absolutely possessing charms of its own, is not really like that.

That’s because China has an overall ambience of lawlessness and disorder that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Everyone knows that China is a “communist” country. I knew that. But it turned out, when I got here, that communist countries aren’t all how I imagined them being. For starters, there’s not much in terms of propaganda in China. I’ve been here over a year, and I still wouldn’t be able to tell the president apart from some guy working in a corner store. There are no huge pictures of the blog kim jong unpresident plastered across buildings the way North Korea dresses the country up in Kim Jong Un. Likewise, there’s no sense that people are ‘sharing the wealth’ here, not the way my high school history teacher taught me communist countries are supposed to. No, just like in America, a few people here appear to be really rich, and everyone else is broke as hell.

Especially cabbies. Or, in reality, older guys with cars. Because that’s what most cabbies are. You see, China is so extremely deregulated, almost anyone can do whatever job they want to do. Have no training but you own a pair of scissors? Great! You are now a hair dresser. Want to run a restaurant but you’re worried about inspections and getting a good sanitation score? Don’t sweat it! As long as you don’t kill anyone, nobody is going to bother stepping foot in your kitchen. And even if you do kill someone, just stop serving whatever dish they ordered and I’m sure things will work out fine.

By the same token, owning a car is all you really need to do in order to become a cabbie. Yes, there are real cabs here that have meters and a thing on the roof that says ‘taxi,’ but they’re vastly outnumbered by what are generally referred to as ‘black cabs.’ Getting a black cab is easy and can result in a truly exciting experience. Instead of generalizing, I will instead illustrate this with a quick story:

It was about three in the morning, and I was ready to go back to the hotel. My friends were still out, drinking and partying in Sanlitun. But I was tired. So I made my way to the street and hailed down a cab. I knew right away that it wasn’t a legal cab. I did not care. After some confusion regarding where I needed to go (don’t expect an illegal cab to have things like translation or a GPS), the cabbie put the car in drive and we hit the road.

blog cab gullable touristAbout ten minutes later, we were at my hotel. Thinking back, I knew I should’ve bargained the price before we set out. I hadn’t done that because I wasn’t in the mood and also because I didn’t have a good idea of how far away the hotel was. Anyways, now that we had reached the destination, I turned to the cabbie and asked him how much he wanted for the ride.

“100!” he loudly stated.

I almost burst out in laughter.

“100 RMB for a ten minute cab ride? That’s insane! I’ll give you 20.”

This did not please him. The cabbie was probably in his sixties, an old man with thin arms and a bald head. He gave me the look of death and shouted out his next price.

“50!”

“Now way, man!” I said. “25.”

We argued a little more and then, although he spoke only in Chinese, I could tell that he was threatening to turn around and bring me back to Sanlitun.

“Fine, bring me back,” I said. “I’m not paying 50.”

He yelled in Chinese and started turning the car around. Then he stopped and began negotiating again.

“This is stupid,” I said, and I turned and tried to open the door. It was locked. I moved my hand to the lock and pulled it up.

blog stun gunYou’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to leave the cab. My bad. The next thing I knew, his bony little fingers were yanking at my collar. I turned to see him reach under his car seat, remove a stun gun, and proceed to stick it in my face.

“What the hell, man?” I said. “Are you serious?”

He was so elderly. I figured I could’ve easily taken his wrist and snapped it in half, then beaten him with his own hand. But I’m a nice guy. I instead offered another price.

“35. Okay?”

“Okay!”

He still had the stupid stun gun in my face.

“Dude, I’m not paying you shit until you put that thing away! Put it away!”

The cabbie returned the stun gun to its spot under the seat, I paid him the 35, and he let me go. I went to my hotel room and found that my friends had somehow gotten there first.

So what’s the point of all this? That illegal cabs are bad? That China is crazy and unsafe? Nope, that’s not it at all.

The point is simply to say that people who are firmly against government regulation of the business world might not understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Deregulation is fine in theory, and even in practice, actually. As long as you don’t mind fighting with cabbies from time to time.

Or getting bad haircuts.

Or being served fake tequila in bars.

Or having a restaurant cook your food with reused oil.

Or having the air so thick with pollution you can barely breathe.

Just think about it. As shady as the beef at Taco Bell is, it could be shadier.

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Snapshots of the Boryeong Mud Festival

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It’s 8:45, Friday night, and I will be on a bus for the next three hours. The bus will carry me and a group of 50 other people down to Boryeong, where one of South Korea’s most popular festivals starts the next day. This is the “Boryeong Mud Festival,” a two week extravaganza based around the idea that it is fun to cover oneself in mud. That it’s fun to jump in mud, play in mud, and throw mud in your friends’ faces. Riding the bus, relaxing, I imagine what might happen over the course of the next two days. I’ve brought my camera with me. I’m, perhaps pathetically, thinking about the blog post I’ll write about it. It’ll have pictures and hilarious stories. Obviously. Granted, I don’t know what those hilarious stories will be, but I’m confident they will happen, organically, like how mud just sort of happens. One doesn’t have to force mud. Sand gets wet, and the magic happens. I’m positive my blog about the festival will be a real winner. What should I name it? I’m thinking perhaps “My Name is Mud,” after the Primus song. No, why would I do that? I don’t even like Primus. What about “Mud Gets in Your Eyes”? Sort of a play on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Again, I don’t like it. Coming up with the title is going to be difficult. I will wait for it, like a meal ordered at a restaurant, to come to me.

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Last year, I remember talking to my friend Toronto. “You going to the Mud Festival?” I asked him. “No man,” Toronto said. “I’m 30. Why would I want to roll around in mud?” It was a damn good question. “You’re right,” I said. “I’m not going either. We’ve gotten too old for this shit.” There’s nothing more embarrassing than middle-aged men rolling around in mud. I didn’t go, and spent the weekend at a Buddhist temple instead. I felt it was a mature decision. But this year my friend included me in on a modestly priced excursion down, so I figured what the hell, I would roll around in the mud. I’ve heard it’s good for the skin.

I wouldn’t be showing immaturity by going. I would simply be trying to get properly exfoliated.

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7:30 AM Saturday morning, I’m sitting on a picnic table drinking beer and smoking skinny Korean cigarettes. I’ve been drinking and smoking all night long. The sun is up and I’ve purchased a small carton of milk to help settle my stomach. There are four other guys who have stayed up all night drinking as well. One of them is a US soldier. He spent some time in Afghanistan and now he’s here, stationed in South Korea. We talk about war and girls, and what he’ll do after his time in the service is over. Most of all, we talk about North Korea. He says they tried to launch a rocket at the USA, and that everyone in the military knows about it but the media was stopped from reporting it. I nod although I don’t believe him. He’s probably right and there are secret rockets being fired all the time. An hour later I’m too sleepy to talk about rockets and death, and I stagger up into the pension and fall asleep on the floor beneath the sink.

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The Boryeong Mud Festival began back in 1998. The small city of Boryeong was using mud from its flats in cosmetic products and decided to throw a festival for promotional purposes. Mud from the flats was brought to the beach in trucks and used to create a giant mud pavilion. They set up a mud slide, a mud pit, mud wrestling, colored mud for body painting, and an entire mud obstacle course. I wake up on the floor under the sink around 11:00 on Saturday, someone brushing their teeth above me. My friend who I came down with is gone. I can’t find anyone I know and my phone is dead. I end up going to the beach with two South Africans girls I’ve never met before in my life. We wander over to the mud pavilion and use paint brushes to lather ourselves in mud. I think I’m still drunk. The mud is thin and watery and feels cool and nice. One of the girls pours mud over my head. Everyone is coated in mud and they look sort of grayish blue, kind of like aged smurfs. My stomach is turning and I lose the girls in favor of getting noodles at a corner store. I try to find them again, but can’t.

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4:00 PM on Saturday. I start thinking about the upcoming blog. What is there to write about? For the duration of the actual festival, I’ve either been searching the beach for my missing friends or trying to sleep off my hangover. I still can’t think of a title. I’m sitting on a staircase at the base of the beach, and two Koreans approach me. They’re from an organization called “The World Peace Initiative.” They hand me a dry erase board. I look at it. It says, “Peace Is” and then is blank. They ask me to write my definition of the word ‘peace.’ They will then photograph me holding the board and put the photo on the Internet. I stare at it blankly. I can’t think of anything to write. What is peace? Does peace involve secret missiles? I eventually jot down a quick definition and they snap my photo. I feel like a fool. Soon I will be on the Internet, covered from head to toe in grey mud, holding a board that says, “Peace is people living in harmony and not killing each other.” It’s not a dictionary definition, but I feel it summarizes ‘peace’ adequately enough.

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I’m back with the two South African girls. 4:30 AM Sunday morning and we’ve been in a bar all night long. I’m happy that I’ve only had a few drinks, as my body still hurts. My blog has gone to hell, I think. I didn’t take a single photograph the entire time, and nothing very interesting has happened. The only evidence I was even here in Boryeong is the picture The World Peace Initiative took. I feel happy though, because I’m drinking with the two girls and a really funny American guy and at least I’m not alone anymore. I’m beyond exhausted and still don’t know what happened to my friends, but it doesn’t matter. One of the girls is speaking without direction, sort of stream-of-consciousness style, and she mumbles the phrase, “Mud, sweat and tears.”

“That’s it!” I declare in my head. The name of my blog will be “Mud, Sweat and Tears”! But really, there are no tears and there isn’t any sweat, either. Only mud. Lots and lots of mud.

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One week later I search the Internet for my “Peace Is” photo. I find a gigantic gallery on The World Peace Initiative website, but I am glaringly absent. So there you have it. There are no snapshots of the Boryeong Mud Festival, not a single one. I have nothing to show anyone, and no hilarious stories to relate. I don’t even feel up to lifting the clever title from the South African girl. All in all, it was nothing more than 3 simple days spent by an American living in South Korea, hoping something interesting would happen.

I wonder if mud ages. The Earth is always getting older, and that must mean mud gets older too. Really, if you think about it, the Earth looks pretty damn good for its age.

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