Monthly Archives: October 2016

Taxi Drivers Who Hurt, Taxi Drivers Who Help

An emotionally gone taxi driver, stalling his taxi on the road. I am in the backseat, wondering where we are going. I make him pull over to the side of the road. He’s mumbling in a way that makes me think he’s sick in the head.

I get another taxi driver. This one drives a clean car. I hailed him on uber. He talks about how America is great, but China is safer. He doesn’t think Hillary Clinton will make a good president because she is a women. I laugh along with him because he talks in a funny way like he knows everything.

I buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store. The man there says he will go to bed soon. We both laugh because it’s hard to understand each other. He tells me my Chinese is no good and then says zaijian in his trademark way with long drawn out vowels.

I go up to my apartment and shuffle through my pockets for a key. There is no key. Maybe it’s at my office. Maybe I lost it in the street. I don’t know.

I call a friend. No answer. I call another friend. No answer. The third time I get through to a friend with a couch that is kind enough to put me up for the night. This is my Monday, go figure.

I’m on the corner of the street now smoking cheep three dollar-a-pack cigarettes. My phone battery runs out, but that’s ok because this taxi driver has a charger. Only I have to make sure it’s connected right.

I charge up my phone while heading north on the fifth ring road. Barely get enough battery life to meet my friend in the road. He’s standing there on the corner in all black. I get out and smoke another cigarette.

And then I am inside again, in the warmth of a home on a couch with a blanket. My phone is dead but at least I have a place to lay my head for the night, until I can wake up and find the keys to my apartment.

That was my Monday. I guess I have had better ones. Probably I will have worse ones too.

It’s Halloween and I wonder if all this stuff is connected. Is this my karmic retribution or simply a roll of the dice? I’m too tired to think about and I drift off to sleep to the sound of his golden lab snoring under the computer desk in the corner of the room.

 

Sunday Morning Calisthenics

I like it when the sun shines through my window on Sunday mornings and wakes me up. It’s like when I was younger and my mom used to pester me. Now instead of ignoring my mom’s cries I just roll over and bury my face deep into my blankets so that I can go back to sleep.

Eventually I get up. Then I do 15 minutes of calisthenics before meditating. I find that’s a good way to ease into my day.

After that I make a large pot of coffee. I drink cups of it and avoid looking at my phone while I lay against a pillow and smash away at the keys. Hopefully someday I will say something worthwhile.

Eventually I can no longer survive on apples and bananas and, like a bear emerging from its hibernation cave, I go in search of solid food. Normally I am so hyped up on caffeine that it reminds me of different times, when I couldn’t fall asleep at night.

I used to live for Saturday nights. To me, there was nothing more important than getting fucked up and going to extravagant parties. I guess I still think that way sometimes but lately I have mellowed out in that department.

Now that I don’t drink or do drugs I find that Sunday mornings are much better than the night which comes before. It is a peaceful time and I would play jazz if I wasn’t so into electronic music right now. It reminds me of when I was just a little kid and my mom used to make chocolate chip pancakes while I watched cartoons. 

Now, time spent on things besides reading and writing is mostly reserved for administrative matters. Banking, grocery shopping, cleaning, stuff like that. Maybe this is what being a grown up feels like. I’m not sure.

Today I called the plumber and had him reseal the toilet in the bathroom. Apparently when they built the place back in 2013 they decided that speed was more important than functionality. Go figure.

There is a special place in hell reserved for those that only half seal toilet seats to the ground.

My days are simple now but that’s OK. Last night I cut a pumpkin with a friend (Carving Pumpkins). Today I got a candle for it. I tried to buy it but the shop keeper didn’t have any in stock. His wife found one and gave it to me for free. Go figure.

If I squint my eyes hard enough, it’s almost like I am back home on a dark and gloomy road in New Hampshire.

Beijing Beginnings: My Early China Days

I remember the first time I came to Beijing. I got put up in a cheap hotel on the third ring road. It was on the outskirts of a hutong cluster near the Lama Temple. At least, I think it was there. Everything was so confusing then. I was afraid to leave my hotel room.

I remember the first breakfast. I went downstairs and saw a bunch of people with the fear in their eyes. I scarfed down food, equally famished and jet lagged from the journey. We were all American. Most of us had never been in Asia, let alone China, before.

A handful of the group did have China experience. They could order food, say thank you, and even explain what country they were from in Mandarin. They were like gods.

My roommate, a fellow English teacher at our company, EF, was like that. His name was Steve and he was from San Francisco. Well, not really. He was actually from a small town two hours north. But he liked to say San Francisco the same way that I liked to say Boston. 

Steve had a prior year in Beijing before being asked to leave due to some visa complications. He told me that he came back because he thought the city was fun and he could have a good standard of living. He liked to keep his hair short and gel it up in the center to make a mohawk. His father was Swiss and his mother was Mexican. He liked to hang out with Brits and talk about his ideas for new businesses.

Much to Steve’s chagrin we were assigned to an apartment in the Fengtai district. It was in the west of the city. Steve told me that Fengtai was where foreign dreams went to die a Chinese death. I didn’t understand him. Later I found out that all the good restaurants, coffee shops, and clubs were on the east side.

He was a particular fan of the restaurant, Kro’s Nest.

For all the things that pissed me off about Steve, he was a good guy to have around. Now that I have a few summer’s under my belt I can understand just how disappointing it must have been to be placed with a green China hand such as myself.

He showed me around town. Told me how to get into clubs for free. Got me a room in the same apartment that he moved to after leaving our place in Fengtai. He even brought me to Kro’s Nest. 

“When you’re homesick man, nothing like a little Kro’s.” I remember him saying fondly, as he picked up a slice of greasy cheese pizza and took a bite. 

In those early days everything was lonely and new and horrible. I got yelled at by my center boss a lot for my attitude. One time I threw a stack of scrap paper in the trash and proclaimed to everyone that they were my students’ tests. While the joke was very obvious to me, my center boss didn’t see the humor.

Looking back at it now, it’s all still very hard to understand. Maybe I just had to reach an equilibrium. I didn’t know how to interact with the Chinese and they didn’t know how to interact with me.

My sarcasm was like a scarlet letter in those days. What’s worse is that it’s true what people say about first impressions. I could never shake it off. To this day I don’t know if I was really such a bad teacher or if it was just the fact that I made a bad impression.

Despite myself my life gradually improved. I learned more Mandarin which increased my independence. I saved up some money. I even got laid.

That’s how it was in the beginning. I was 23 and didn’t have a fucking clue about what I was doing. Looking back at it now, those were some of my best days in Beijing. Back when everything was a surprise and anything was up for grabs.

Bridge to Shangdi

Lights inside the concrete buildings’ windows lit up the industrial park like a Christmas tree. I drove over the bridge on my electric scooter. Below, cars moved east and west on Beijing’s fifth ring road. There was also a river. The same river I saw every morning.

Normally I couldn’t see a thing in the haze of pollution. But today it was clear. Crisp even.

I could see everything. I could see the river and the buildings and even the bridge in Shangdi which reminded me of the one back home, in Boston. The way it’s struts were long and almost string like, a cats cradle bridge.

I could even see beyond that. Farther away, in the west, where the foothills of Beijing lay. Where royalty had once journeyed in search of game, on hunting trips, or for a moment’s peace from the troubles of courtroom life.

My ears and fingers were rosy from the wind’s chill. But the air was fresh and I didn’t want to go home quite yet.

I was speaking Chinese again. I was back at my desk, spinning yarns once more. I was moving forward. At least, that is how it felt, in that moment, at that time.

The way the river looks, with the mountains in the background and the sun fading now. I bet people would love that, I thought to myself. I wanted to bottle that feeling up and keep it with me forever.

I descended the bridge and stopped my scooter on the road’s shoulder. I twisted around to see a flood of yellow and white lights, equidistant from each other. They slowly descended in parallel form, moving into the city’s interior.

I waited for them to pass and then drove down to the next traffic light where I could make a U-turn. Then I drove north, back towards the bridge, hoping to get a photograph of what I so quickly passed by.

As I approached the bridge from the south I could see the offices of the famous technology company, Xiaomi. It was just on the other side. Their offices were 10 or 15 stories high, lacquered red, almost orange, and you could see into their large glass pane windows from miles away. It looked warm inside.

It had been getting cold recently, but I didn’t feel the chill on my scooter. I knew it was there. I can even feel it now as I type these words. My fingers, slowly being thawing, warmed by my brains need for both dexterity in movement and thought while I try to explain this. 

Back I went up the bridge. I stopped at a spot just before it crested. I liked the angle there. It looked as if you could take off into the stratosphere if you went fast enough. Leave this whole godforsaken city behind.

I planted two feet firmly on the pavement while my hands fiddled with my iPhone. I took my pictures quickly as the cars whizzed by. I had to be quick. After a few snaps I dropped the phone back inside my jacket pocket and gripped the handle bars. Then I was back into the stream, darting in and out of the spaces between cars to make my way towards the traffic light on the north side of the bridge.

I was nimble enough on my bike that I could navigate my way to the front before the light turned green. That was important for time. If you didn’t make it before the light changed, then you would have to wait a whole rotation before you could cross the street.

I headed south again. Back to the top of the bridge, but this time on the opposite side. I stopped over the river to take pictures of where the city faded out from urban clusters and became mountains, trees, and wild things.

I shot some using the pano feature. I think they came out ok, however I am still rubbish with the camera. The river looks nice though. Better in real life, but you get the idea.

Then it was dark out. Cars still drove by me, but faster now. People inside with their heat blasting, probably impatient to get home to their families. I rolled back my right hand on the scooter to accelerate into twilight’s fading gray. 

Back inside my compound there was a rickshaw with a Chinese flag flapping in the wind. Grandparents walked with their grandchildren as the sun set. I rode my bike through the gates then across footpaths back towards my apartment.

Snapshot Of An Outsider

I sat at my computer clicking on different windows aimlessly. Typing a few words here and there. Occasionally I sent out a message on QQ or Wechat to a colleague. The office drummed with the sound of worker ants beating away on their solitary black computing machines.
In front and behind were rows upon rows of desks. Each with it’s own flag to mark the department title. A sea of people.
Over my ears were big plastic headphones. The kind with batteries that you could turn on to muffle outside noise. I listened to a slow tempo mixtape while I sipped a cup of black tea.
My wandering cursor couldn’t seem to find the right window. I hadn’t been able to focus ever since the morning. That’s when I had been told that I was being ordered by the higher ups to change the style in which I wrote all of our previous lessons. No more repeating sentence patterns. I wrote stories for children learning English.
The PHD in charge of the project, the one with the moon shaped face and thin black hair, wanted more story. She was barking up the wrong fucking tree. I sipped my black tea.
I should be productive right now, I told myself. I am at work. It’s Monday. But I couldn’t help and allow myself to wander aimlessly through the internet like a man who has wandered down the wrong alley and then sees something interesting in a shop window.
Anger mixed with confusion stopped me in my tracks. Those sentence patterns should repeat, shouldn’t they? Those children didn’t have a high enough language ability to know multiple sentence patterns. If we repeated the sentence patterns, well, then surely we could vary the vocabulary inside and therefore teach them new words.
I could feel the boiling rage. Old and stale like a stew left over night. The same rage that came when I learned I was being screwed out of a bonus a year ago. The same one that came when I found out that she had slept with him.
They didn’t understand how to work. It was stupid and inefficient and that’s all there was to it. Maybe I was crazy.
I left work that day with only two stories finished, 60 words a piece. Look at me, I thought to myself, here, alone, decaying in a Chinese industrial park. Who would have thought? Wasting away.
The wind lashed at my face as I rode home on my electric scooter. The road was darkened from a light drizzle that had snuck through the clouds. I wore a thick wool sweater and a long sleeve shirt underneath a thinner canvas jacket. It was the color of merlot wine.
I changed into long underwear and sweat pants in the confines of my apartment. The pin on my calendar still had not landed on the 15th of November, when the government was scheduled to fire up the city’s heating system. My apartment was cold.
I sat on the couch and used my phone to ordered some Korean fried chicken. Then I logged my spending on a spreadsheet in my phone. My stomach growled.
I normally didn’t eat that early. I liked to wait until around 8 at night to eat. Maybe it was the cold. When it’s too cold out your body is forced to burn more calories to stay warm.
So I sat on my couch and waited for the delivery man to bring fried chicken. Outside my window the clouds grayed out the sky line as night rolled over us. My couch was in the back of the apartment, far away from the only real window in my bedroom, everything was dark there except for a signal lightbulb which burned overhead.
Later, as I wolfed down my chicken, my mind wandered to those lonely places your mind goes when far away from home in strange lands. I thought about the house I grew up in. The people and how they all looked just like me. My first grade teacher. My mother. How it must have been getting cold then in New Hampshire, the leaves would be on the ground then, ready for us to rake them up.
I got up and looked out my window. In the final week of October it was as if I could see November in the distance, out somewhere beyond the apartment clusters. Waiting to ride the Siberian winds down through Mongolian and sweep through the city.
I wondered, as I often did in times past, when this feeling would leave. When the spring would come. How it might feel to wear a t-shirt inside and not worry about sentence patterns or their potential stories.
I didn’t know the answer. Just like I didn’t why I was there, in that moment, in that time. Something larger than me guiding me there. Holding my hand all along the way.

 

Democrats Abroad At The Bridge Cafe

Today I went to the offices of democrats abroad to cast my absentee ballot. Those running the booth are, naturally, volunteers. So when I saw the topic for today’s daily post, I thought it was quite timely.

Volunteering is good in the sense it connects you with other like minded people. 

I entered the cafe and was instructed to go to the 2nd floor. There, in the back, was a woman on her macbook pro, handling all the administrative paperwork. Besides her was a black bulky printer supplied by the democratic party.

I sat down and two hours and a lot of confusion later I had cast my ballot. At least, I think I had, considering that the volunteers seemed to have just as much information as I did concerning the ballots.

Now I am a bit disillusioned with the whole process. Not that I was extremely gungho about our country’s political system before, but it just seemed that no one really knew what was going on at The Bridge Cafe.

As I sat at the table and filled in form after form of bureaucratic necessities I endured a constant barrage of pro-democratic speech. That is the catch when the polling offices abroad are controlled by the democrats.

I don’t begrudge them this. Republicans seem to go out of their way to discount the vote abroad. If they cared a little bit more, then perhaps we all wouldn’t be presented with such a one sided corner of the The Bridge Cafe.
 
Not that those living abroad make up a large percentage of the voting population.

In some ways it just gives the democrats a better name. They care what we have to say. And, if you think about this long term, most of us will not be staying abroad forever. It is a great marketing tactic.

In truth, I actually want to vote republican. Historically, to be a republican simply meant you supported less government and more individual autonomy. I’m from New Hampshire. Live free or die.

But, Donald Trump, really? How am I suppose to vote for a person like him. 

For a time I did entertain the idea of voting for Trump. He was a white man, like myself, and good in business. Two things that I can get behind. However, when I tuned into the presidential debates and saw the way he handled himself, constantly undermining the questions and going for the cheap laughs, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted.

How could anyone vote for a person like that.

I know that it’s too late to join the democrats abroad group now, but I will say that my loose affiliation in the group has given me inspiration to become more politically active in the future.

Those that volunteer in the group seem to have a purpose. They are connected under the banner of a common cause. That fosters good friendships. Moreover, political thought and strategy is intellectually satisfying, so it’s also a good way to flex your brain.

Politics is such a big topic.

I often wonder if my time spent in China is a big reason for the recent spike in my political interest. In China, I see how a radically different political system helps to shape the country. Those successful in politics have a lot of power because they can dictate organizational policies. This, in turn, directly and indirectly affects the people.

Mao Zedong, for example, was not a business leader. He was a military tactician and political thought leader. Sure, there are many bad things we could say about him, but the way in which he affected such strong change throughout the country was through political mastery. If nothing else, Mao shows how politics can affect change.

Then there is Deng Xiaoping. While he was much more business oriented than Mao, he was still a politician first and used politics as the engine to affect economic change.

Fast forward to Xi Jing Ping today. A political leader that is focused on reforms within his own party and the country at large. Today, he has more issues to contend with then previous leaders due to the economy’s success, however these decisions still hold enormous weight on the future of the country.

Politics, in a way, is the method of using thoughts to guide groups of people. Political parties form to support specific lines of thinking and accordingly push their agenda forward.

So, volunteering for a political party is not only very important, but also very practical. If you align yourself with a party that you truly believe in then you will increase the strength of your social network, you will help shape policy, and furthermore engage your brain in a intellectual pursuit worthy of your time.

All of my friends know that I am notoriously noncommittal in political affairs. In the past I have always considered them out of my control and a distraction.

Normally, my line of thinking was “Who cares about the president? I have never met him and never will so what’s the point of getting involved in all of this stuff anyways.”.

Most of my friends are passionate democrats. That’s probably because I live abroad. They like to talk about Hillary and their party, but whenever the conversation comes up I like to tell them that I am voting for Trump. That’s mostly to get a reaction. And of course it works. I don’t actually care.

But seeing the volunteers this afternoon, sitting in a dingy corner in the back of the The Bridge Cafe in Wudaokou, a new, slightly foreign feeling came to me. Maybe all of this stuff does actually matter.

Even if I never meet the president, believing in an idea bigger than myself and belonging to a group that shares this belief can be one of the most rewarding things that you do in life. At least, that is what people tell me.
 
Maybe these volunteers are doing something right…
Volunteer

Ancient Chinese Culture and How We Relate

My skin feels dry like the Gobi desert. Down below my office, the sounds of beeps and honks in the late morning Friday traffic barrage passerby. 

I am sitting at my desk behind the module. That is my dual monitor, modem, keyboard, and mouse. I have no idea how it works, but it turns on and off everyday like a charm. 

(In case you haven’t checked out my other articles, I will clue you in. I live in China.)

China and ancient are two words that go together like, marzipan and Vegemite, ants and a log, or red scarfs and black leather jackets. 

Now, while I don’t condone the scalping of cows, I do respect a good traditional garb. The Chinese, with all their history and culture, have the qipao ( 起跑). That’s the dress with no collar which clings tightly to a woman’s body.

It is a remanent of the Qing dynasty, when the Mongolians ran the show in Beijing.In that time, all the Han Chinese were forced to wear it. Then, as they laxed their policies to allow ethnic Chinese more freedom, local women decided with their own free will that they preferred to wear this style.

Shanghai in the 1920’s fostered another qipao comeback. Today it is worn by many Chinese and foreigners alike, both on special occasions and out on the town.

China has a lot of history and it’s one of the coolest parts of living here. If you get past the rich, often engrossing period of the 20th century, you can see it. You can see it in cities of  Xi’an 西安,  Nanjing 南京. You can see it on the Yangtze River 长江.

So when I see the word “ancient” for the daily blog post, I am overwhelmed by the possibilities about what I could write.

Perhaps the most interesting thought in all of this is how people relate with their ancient history today. 

To many Chinese, walking down the street with a coach bag, drinking a Starbucks coffee, and playing on their iPhone is a symbol of success. These types of things are a symbol of the middle class and thus a better life in China.

But perhaps that idea is a bit old hat now. 

The more time I spend around the middle kingdom, the more I realized that perceptions from stop over journalists and newly minted language grads is, while not exactly wrong, not exactly right either.

Many of my Chinese friends here have adopted these international customs and shed them accordingly as they prefer.A hip Chinese today will be much more in-tune with their rich ancient culture.

My good friend, for example, recently had the better part of a tattoo sleeve finished. On the sleeve are the five Taoist elements (with a preference for water because he is a fire element by birth). This is a guy that has spent 4-5 years in the U.K. and has many foreign friends.

A girl I once dated has a jade Buddha pendant suspended from a necklace around her neck. She did her undergrad in D.C. and is also quite aware of the west.

These two people illustrate how many Chinese have evolved from an infatuation with everything modern to an appreciation of that which is ancient. 

I wonder sometimes what that would me to me, an American who grew up inside of this contemporary culture. Many people my age disdain fast food, wearing logos, and going to Starbucks. However, Americans don’t have that deep pool of cultural melange in which we can dip our ladle.

I speak with them and after reflect what this all means to me, an American who grew up inside the womb of contemporary culture. Many of my friends disdain fast food, wearing logos, and going to Starbucks. However, while we have stopped frequenting these places, we also don’t have that deep pool of cultural melange in which to dip our ladle.

It seems that the best course of action for us is to take other people’s ancient artifacts and make them our own. We are the melting pot, after all.

Ancient