Freedom in a Communist State

My vision was full of swirling rainclouds mixing with a background of daylight, my hearing dulled by the water and my naked body floated on the surface of a small lake tucked in the foothills near the Great Wall of Yongkang. Raindrops tickled my face and I felt so extremely small in the complete awe of one of those moments when appreciating the beauty of Nature makes one feel insignificant yet crucial to the makeup of the Universe. My body bridged the surface where gaseous sky met liquid lake and I was simultaneously within two forms of existence; both states rejecting me because of my inability to acclimate myself to its specific density. So there I was at the edge of either in a blissful purgatory of weightlessness and I reviewed my one year stay in China.

“Americans talk about Freedom like their french fries,” he had scoffed in reply to my foolish statement. It was a quote I never forgot. I was 18 years old and having lunch with my host family in Spain and a guy who had lived with them years earlier who was visiting. He was now living in South Africa and I believe we were on the topic of comparing countries lifestyles and the conversation was geared to how America wasn’t so great anymore. “But America has freedom,” was my silly input. I knew nothing of economics, international relations, nor the laws or freedoms of any other country. Not even my own country let alone Spain’s. I was simply regurgitating the propaganda slogans that had been fed me since birth. And it was true for living in Spain I did not feel any less free than I when was living in the states. The only real freedoms I knew of was a right to vote, own a gun and public speech. But even those are common among most countries and even now being infringed upon within the US.

Public speech is now a joke. On any school campus or mall or even city block, there will be a “free speech zone.” Doesn’t a zone designating the boundaries of free speech imply that speech is no longer completely free? The Patriot Act now declares that any act that MAY endanger someones life while attempting to coerce a group of people is considered terrorism. Meaning that if you stand on a soapbox or a bench and try to make a speech to many people to coerce (or convince- since that is usually what speeches are for) you could be a terrorist because you could get hurt if you fell off said bench. It is up to the government to decide what may constitute “endangering a life.”

There are many arguments now in the good ol’ gunslinging west for stricter gun laws and even the abolishment of firearms. Well if guns become outlawed then that means only the outlaws will have guns. But not de facto outlaws because they have guns but because they are outlaws who have guns.

And although we still have the right to vote, it seems the system of voting has become a charade. This was seen with the election of Bush Jr.- our most intellectual and articulate orator of presidents- who was not voted by the majority of people in the country but rather by a state numbering system which is further segregated by the antiquated gerrymandering system allowing political candidates to choose the boundaries of counties and therefore tip the polls in their favor. Not only that but with the humanization of corporations and corporate interest in politics, there never seems to be a truly fair ballot.

Living in China I did feel more free than in the states. Why? Because of practical thinking:

Pee

In the states, if you really have to urinate so badly that you are willing to do it somewhere in public, maybe in a bush or against a wall, its called public indecency because somebody could see your no-no so that’s…well a no no. In China you’re just peeing. Because everybody does it every day and its impossible to always be near a bathroom when it happens. As my good friend Reymon said after a baby pooped in the middle of his store: “Shit happens.”

Alcohol

Of about 195 countries in the world, America is one of only 10 countries that have their drinking age minimum at the old age of 21. The rest of the world settled on 18 as a default however most are able to drink much earlier around 16 years old because it is not so strictly regulated. Spain was one of those countries, 18 was official but if you looked about 15 and comported yourself like a mature person then you can get a drink. I was completely shocked by this and wondered how it was allowed that children could get away with drinking. It was because they weren’t doing anything stupid enough to make a big deal out of it. They weren’t OVERconsuming. They were having a beer or two and that’s it. In the states, kids go to parties to drink and its a special occasion so they drink ALOT and get drunk and then keep drinking and get into trouble. But in Spain, they were treating alcohol like any adult would because you can have a beer whenever you wanted. Its common practice to drink wine for lunch everyday so why should a drink in a bar be any different? In China it was pretty much the same. There were 18 and over signs at clubs but they were never really adhered to. I was NEVER carded once in China for buying alcohol or going into a club. And I look young for my age. And it doesn’t stop there because if you’re not finished with your drink, it’s okay, you can take it out with you on your walk. You can walk freely on the street or park with a drink and no one will hassle you. Why? Because you aren’t making any trouble. Once trouble is made of course there will be action. The beer alcohol content is cleverly set to almost half of that found in the states-2.5% compared to 4.5%. So the trouble takes longer to occur. However, in the states cops come making trouble because they have an excuse to. Oh you are sitting quietly in the park bothering nobody? Well that’s fine but if you’re sippin’ on some juice then you must be up to no good. I never felt more free than when I bought an ice cold beer on a hot day and enjoyed my beverage while I walked freely on my way. And I could do the same at 4 in the morning if I so choose since there is no cutoff time.

Food

I recently read an article entitled Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and China now more free than America in notable ways. In it, the author sympathizes with James Stewart, a man who committed the “crime” of running a members-only club where people could pick up farm-fresh milk, eggs, cheese, melons and other better-than-organic foods.He had started a collective for the trade of farmers and growers to have access to healthy and cheap organic food. But because of the ridiculously bureaucratic food regulations in the US, he was considered a criminal for distributing unpasteurized milk. Do you grow excess fruit in your yard and wish you could sell it on the street corner? In China, of course you can trade your fruit for a profit, for no one would deny your right to make honest money. In the states you must apply for a license and subject yourself to any manner of inspection. Food is very expensive in America and organic food is not cheaper. True, there must be a purpose for such regulations but that purpose becomes self devouring when common sense practice is crushed under blind adherence to every letter of the law. And it is not above reason to question the ethics of the FDA whose pockets are filled with the recently raised fists of politicians as they were promising a better tomorrow. In fact the newest member to the head of the FDA was previously on the board of Monsanto, a company which pushes the bar ever higher for the allowance of chemicals and GMO’s. In China I can get a meal for the equivalent of 2 American dollars. If I want to treat myself to a restaurant then I can spend about 10. I believe that you may judge the prosperity of a country by its amount of poverty. Although there are impoverished, they are not starving; food is cheap and one is allowed to grow it anywhere. One very striking sight here in China that made me question the regulations of food was seeing ubiquitous mini gardens. I saw food growing in ANY unused plot of dirt. The side of the road, empty plot of land that would be used for construction sometime soon, bits of city planning fragments that didn’t necessarily belong to any structure, and even in the clumps of dirt that lined water canals and draining systems. I mean ANY small piece of dirt was used by someone for food. That meant that most people were growing a good amount of their own food and therefore had to spend less money to survive. In the states it would be considered illegal because that land belonged to somebody, and if it didn’t then it was “the state’s” and called “public property,” meaning the public can’t choose to use it for its own silly whims like eating food. It probably meant that many small businesses were using unregulated food. But I would rather choose to have my food locally and organically grown than regulated and filled with chemicals and a small percentage of insects and feces as according to the FDA’s food defect action levels. I would rather take the chance at unregulated food than regulated food which has a limit for how many poisons they are allowed to use.

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A local food vendor makes some delicious noodles and soup from his portable cart on a morocycle.

Not only did I feel more free in that sense but also free from stress. The cost of living was so cheap that I no longer stressed about money. It also allowed me to partake in generosity more often. The Chinese have a generous culture where the check for a meal is never separated and it is an honor and privilege to pay. I have had my meal paid for so often that I couldn’t wait for my turn. You literally have to run to the counter before anyone gets up or have your card ready to give to the waiter and shoo him away aggressively as the others are trying to tell him no just to be able to pay. This allows for a pay it forward mentality and I very much enjoy it.

If you like buying cheap products or copies and cheap movies, enjoy smoking in public places, drinking and paying for sex, not wearing a seatbelt and wish you could drive the other way on a one way street when needed or use your adult discretion while driving and not adhere exactly to the rules, and want to start a business without jumping through bureaucratic hoops of fire, or drive an electric scooter on the street and highway without a license or age minimum, or swim naked in a lake then China may be for you. Western media gives us the impression that China is oppressed and lacks privacy, liberty and freedom. However, this is only true in the political sphere since China is an authoritarian military dictatorship. Elections are not practiced except for small town mayors and political speech is not tolerated. But everyday life is hardly inundated with political agenda. So in everyday life, in small pleasures that make being a human being human- China is more free than America.

I am not a proponent of smoking in public places, prostitution, public nudity and/or drunkenness, nor of children drinking alcohol. But in China one may act on their own discretion. If you need to pass a car on the road and no one is in the oncoming lane, why can’t you use it? Obviously 2 cars facing each other will see one another and act accordingly with the speed and direction they choose. You don’t have to wear a seatbelt because you are only endangering yourself. Prostitution is not technically legal but it is tolerated in certain areas. China is a manufacturing state that gets paid to make everyones products, so if they can make the same thing or nearly the same why can’t they sell their copy to their own people? There aren’t ownership laws in China anyways. How can you own a concept. Even in the states intellectual property laws such as inventions and written words can only be owned for a certain amount of time before it belongs to everyone. China just takes out the waiting period. If you need to partially park your car on the sidewalk, why can’t you if you aren’t blocking the entire path. It is public property after all. (This practice is also common in Europe, however the sidewalks are usually more spacious than a few feet wide.)

The internet is the only place I feel restricted. But only because I’m used to using google to search and I can’t write in Chinese so everything I search for won’t be from this country. The Chinese however get along famously. Youtube isn’t allowed but who needs youtube when youku has the same video sharing properties as well as entire movies and TV show seasons from around the world. I can watch any american tv show with ease for free because it is now in the public domain. And whatever I can’t find I can buy on taobao.com. The unadulterated unlimited Chinese version of ebay where you can buy straight from manufacturing and distributors and get ANYTHING for cheap. Clothes, electronics, movie,show or plane tickets, hotel reservations, sex toys, food, cold food shipped in coolers, cars, animals like pigs or jellyfish- even a 3meter man of war. You can pay your phone bills on taobao. And all for an unmatched price.

Yes, Americans pat themselves on the back as their chests fill with pride under the red striped flag for having political “freedom,” but when you’re in jail for a skinny dip, or having a beer outside, or peeing in an alley, or watching a movie for free that’s already out, or making an illegal vehicle maneuver on the road when nobody else was around but a cop, then you’ll remember how free you really are.

Birthday Weekend- Part 2

Once I had emerged from the trail, I was standing on a wide pavement leading up the hillside in a series of steps and platforms which each hosted a tent adjacent to the pavement with locals selling their souvenir wares. This resulted in a long gauntlet of knick knack filled tables with a seller or two who desperately attempted to show or offer this or that if you were unlucky enough to look in their direction for more than an instant. Their empty stares and despondent demeanor were only changed to slight interest of despair activated by the near passerby, as if one of those musical machines activated only by motion sensor. I wondered what life was like for the locals before the advent of large scale tourism; were they adapting to their environment by catering to supply a demand or or were they solely here because of the demand itself, seeking to take advantage of an opportunity?

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At the top of the hill was unsurprisingly another cluster of temples. One of them was paid entry and I had not yet come upon one with a fee so I assumed there must be something special about this one. I vaguely remember this being on some of the packages offered at the port of entry. I paid entry and was sorely disappointed by the views. In my opinion, all the previous ones offered more beautiful sights so I concluded that there must be an historical significance which was lost to me. At yet another site, I had ventured a little further than the rest of the tourist crowd into a hallway and found myself in a small beautiful garden with a zigzagging stone bridge just above the plane of a green reflective mirror pond. A lone monk sat on a stone bench and I didn’t want to seem an intruder so I filled myself with appreciative happiness and gazed at the garden walking very slowly and quietly perused the environment. On the surrounding walls was a long series of intricately carved stone reliefs recounting the life of Buddha.

On yet another temple grounds were the similar rituals being carried out by many a people, praying with incense which filled the air of the island. I came to a small corner of the grounds which offered yet another prayer sanctuary of similar deities and ornamental decor. I then spied a small quarters which no one entered, having some miscellaneous construction equipment and materials. I passed a man who seemed to be guarding said quarters without looking at him, and if he were indeed guarding the area, he did not seem to mind my harmless peering. I saw a small bit of light coming from a narrow archway with steps leading upward and I continued onward and upward behind the temple and found myself on grounds which were not filled with people. A few monks strayed about and looked at me oddly but said naught. Being higher up, I found that I could view the area in front of the temple and the tops of many peoples heads. I then wandered some more and found many clothes of orange and white swaying in the wind under a simple covering over the patio and the clothes were evenly spaced in a grid fashion. I sat down and couldn’t help but think of how beautiful this simple sight was. I watched as empty figures danced together to the same rhythm of rushing winds. A monk came up to the patio and began to wash his own clothes.

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From the top of the mountain, I bought passage on an enclosed sky gondola which took passengers down from the mountain, on a very long cable hanging high above the tree tops, toward the north end of the island. There one could see what was truly the islands most glorious of temple grounds high up on a hill surrounded by other buildings and walls which terraced upward towards a final building. It seemed fit for a king to live. And that was how they revered the buddha. I took lunch in a local restaurant next to the gondolas landing and rested my running feet. I had a couple bottles of warm beer while sitting at a table with people who clearly either lived there or were there every day. I took some time to make a sketching of an interesting fellow and continued my journey to the grand temple nearby. The entire architectural makeup was comprised of the most colorful and ornate designs. There were several different prominent structures, each paying homage to some deity or another, with living quarters on the peripheries for those who lived the practice. There were beautiful reliefs in white granite suspended over beautiful reflection ponds with pagoda like buildings towering above with multi colored facets and intricacies. At the paramount height I found the centralized temple to be housing an extremely large sitting buddha. For some reason, even though it was only the afternoon, there weren’t many people around. I figured that this temple wasn’t thronged by ware selling peoples and probably wasn’t as historical as those found atop the mountain, so it wasn’t promoted as much even though its beauty far surpassed the rest. I took about a half hour sit to meditate at the feet of the buddha, with both of us facing south.

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After exiting the temple grounds I noticed most people either going directly south to a very tall pagoda or back towards the east side of the island road to catch a bus. However, where the road continued around the apex to the south west there seemed not a soul interested so I continued on my usual unusual path away from the flow of the masses. I meandered through a small community and asked to charge my phone, solely for picture purposes, and bought some drinks and a nice suede cowboy hat. Continuing along, I soon found myself alone on a long and winding road that only offered the sight of the coast through glimpses of empty spaces provided by leaning trees. The reason no one came to this side because there really was nothing here. Once in a while I’d come to another road but barely a soul passing by. I was tired out by now and could no longer keep my jogging. I had a few hours of sunlight left so I took in the beauty of the trees around me on a nice stroll. I was passed occasionally by a slow bicyclist who would get off their bikes and walk them uphill, only to ride the downhill. I caught the attention of one and asked him in pantomime if i could sit on the rack above the rear tire. He agreed, but his tire pressure on the rusting bicycle was so low that it turned flat with our combined weight.

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After a very long and lonesome walk, I soon found myself looking down at what appeared to be a type of agricultural field/dumping site. There were some very old buildings in poor conditions with many people living there. Some were working in their fields, and others were carrying rubbish to and fro. I saw the road go parallel to the sea on a high straight wall but I decided instead to walk the path of the locals and meandered through some crops until i found a wide path surrounded on all sides by piles of brick, stone, demolished buildings, trash and even porcelain toilets and tubs. The sky was swirling with clouds and the setting sun soon set them ablaze with a life of color. When I rejoined the road, I saw some monks walking and talking who soon sat on the wall together to discuss and watch the sunset. I took a picture of them and their idea, and walked to the top of the wall to see the sights. I then sat down with the sea far below my feet to draw an island far off.

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Once back in a full circle, I explored some popular boulders in the early evening just as twilight was coming. I soon went to find a dinner and retired to my hotel for a long awaited rest after finding out from the hotel that the earliest boat out was at 6:00 am. I again awoke with the sun and headed towards the port. I was becoming nervous because my bus left in only an hour. The more I waited past 6 am for the ticket counter to open, the more I thought of how many people told me that travel in China was unreliable, and how nothing was on schedule. Soon, I became weary of my anxiousness and decided to let go. I can only do so much to change my outcome, and if things didn’t go smoothly I’d find a way back anyway. Stress doesn’t do anybody any good. So I let go. The ticket booth opened at 6:20. Our boat arrived to the larger island just before 7:00. The bus to the connecting small connecting hub arrived at 7:20 and I was on my bus just before 7:30.

The next morning, my friends picked me up in Helen’s car, and we were on our way to Guandong and entered a water park. Near the entrance they went into a swimwear shop and the girls looked at some items and they looked at my bulky camo surf shorts. They asked if I had swimwear and I said I was wearing them. The sells woman said something and they translated that I might not be allowed in the park, because I wasn’t wearing what appeared to be swimwear. I looked at the options and there were only spandex speedos. “There’s no way in Hell im wearing those. If they want a foreigner on the show they’ll let him wear his foreigner shorts. These are for water, if they don’t understand at first we’ll have to explain that in other countries they use other swimwear.” Helen was nervous, but I remained adamant. After some confusion of where to get in, we checked in to where the TV show patrons waited and Yong and I got free entrance because only she wanted to go on the show, while Helen and Xin had to pay. We were guided to an arena in the middle of the water park, sidelined by stadium seating for spectators.

After checking in we were shown the course and told we could have a practice run. Other teams were hesitantly at the start line trying to take the first step. There were several men in front of us but they weren’t doing anything, just timidly touching the first moving pad. I was about to go when a boy just ran across the wobbling pods to the first landing pad, and continued through the course until he fell into the water. I then went next and did not waste any time. I walked a thin curving line around a circle and jumped over a rotating rod that was turning around through the diameter, forcing someone either to jump or crawl. I quickly passed the monkey bars to the next landing pad and was faced with 2 very large rubber balls whose height was about 8ft whose sides were separated by about 3ft. Enough for someone to fall between. I wasn’t sure of the balls tension but took a few steps for momentum and in two bounds I passed well over my mark on the next pad and slid on my side. I then walked a conveyor belt in the opposite direction it was moving while avoiding punching poles which shot out intermittently from a wall next to me. Then I had to jump on a large circular pad rotating very quickly, and then to another before the next landing pad; they were like two large spinning tables. I jumped and turned 180 degrees to land on my knees facing outward, holding onto the edge. I made a full two turns and leapfrogged to the next pad in the same manner, turning around to be facing the outer edge. In another turn I made it to the next stable pad, which was quite small so I was a little nervous on the landing. I took a few breaths and then walked a very very thin rail for about 15 feet while avoiding swinging punching bags. Then I was confronted with two consecutive rotating wheels. Similar to what you would see on an old steamboat that paddled the water with a large rotating wheel. This wheel had 3 spokes or walls and they were turning in opposite directions. I watched this for a while before becoming confident and as soon as I was able, I leaped to the center and waited for the next wheel’s walls to lower level enough for me to leap the the center of the next and then I quickly jumped again to the next landing pad. From there it was a simple quick hops to the “wall”; a steeply inclined slope which had a rope netting for women and a simple line rope with knotted intervals for the men. While climbing up, a very large amount of water came pouring down and I soon made it to the top. Piece of cake. It only took me about 4 minutes. We were going to win this thing.

The time came for the competition, and the first team was excruciatingly slow and timid. Almost embarrassingly so, crawling on all fours to get to the next pad of the first semi- obstacle. My friend Yong Yong was first for our team and I was proud of her boisterous bravery. She made it halfway to the large spinning tables and fell off. When she got her second try, there wasn’t much improvement. It was up to me.  I flew through the obstacles in a flash, exemplary even by American sports standards. I didn’t bother to hesitate on the spinning tables, I simply made my jumps back to back as soon as I came close to another, not waiting for a full rotation. I could hear the exclamations of the announcers and some noise from the crowd, and I’m sure I was the first to accomplish such a feat here. On my way across the walking line, I got nicked by one of the swinging punching bags and fell, but I made sure to straddle the line and hug it as I went down. It was a little painful. But I stood up in place and continued and to the next stage and took a breath for a bit. I jumped onto the first rotating steamboat cog and waited my moment for the next, and when I made my jump I came up short, feeling my left crunch with a sidelike step and didn’t land in the middle, which caused the wheel to spin backwards not in my favor, thereby knocking me down. I couldn’t believe I was in the water! Some standby crew in the water helped to hoist me up onto the previous stage. I took my time before trying again and waited for the timing of the second wheel, with only a similar result. Once my foot landed, I quickly tried to jump up over the next wall, and got both arms over but it was still spinning backwards.

Once I was out of the water, my friends  tried to console me but I was too upset. And my foot was throbbing. I couldn’t believe I had flashed it first try when it didn’t count. AAAAARFRRGGGHH! We watched some more people continue for a bit before going to enjoy the rest of the water park for the day. We stayed until nightfall and saw some pretty amazing water shows and theatrics.  By then I was walking on my heel, and it was throbbing pretty good, but there was no bruising nor swelling at all. I figured it would be okay in a day or two. Either way, it was a pretty fun day.

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For my birthday, August 4th, we all went out to hot pot again for my birthday and then Alicia had arranged for us to go to KTV. Private karaoke rooms for all the Lamso school staff and my friends. They brought a cake, and Helen had brought one as well. For a guy who doesn’t like cake, that’s quite a lot. I got good and liquored up, but not too much as per my usual credo, especially around friends of profession. All in all, it was a wonderful way to celebrate my birthday and one month having been in China.

Birthday Weekend-Part 1

The last week of June marked the end of the first summer term.  We had about 6 days break before the start of our next term on the 5th of August. I had planned to travel to the small island of Putuoshan; a holy small piece of land riddled with Buddhist temples, broken off from the larger island of Zuoshan, which was placed just off the coast of Ningbo south of Shanghai. My birthday was on Aug 4th, and I had a habit of going to the beach for each of my birthdays, so the small island could still afford me to keep my small tradition. The first day I had hung out with Helen, Yong and Xin, they told me they were applying for a game for Television. They then found some pictures online of a classic Asian game show that involved people jumping over water through padded platforms and moving obstacles. This was a popular show in America, not so much for the sport but because of the great hilarity of watching uncoordinated Chinese get massacred in various ways and the odd enthusiasm of the hosts. They asked if I would like to apply with them and I replied with an enthusiastic yes! After we all applied, we asked when it was supposed to be held and they didn’t know, maybe a week or two. They would call us soon. That’s China. Everything last minute. But then we found out that it was to be on the 3rd. So I decided that two nights on the island was enough and I could be back on the night of the 2nd, and we would leave early the next morning, and it would then allow me to celebrate my birthday with everyone in Yongkang.

I was to take a taxi to the bus station to buy my ticket and a then find a boat to the island and then find my hotel. In a country where I hardly spoke the language, I knew that much could go wrong between those many connections, but I only thought of how easily everything would flow together, how I would find easily all that I needed. According to one of our schools helpful assistants, my 6 hour bus ride to Zhuoshan was to leave around 8:30. I awoke very early and walked to the nearest crosstreet, which happened to be between two hotels caddy corner from each other, where one was likely to find a taxi coming from any direction. However, early in the morning taxi’s were scarce. I was standing outside of the Bentley hotel and saw a man who was also waiting. After some time I was becoming anxious, and I asked the man if he also was going to the bus station. He replied no, and I continued waiting. Perhaps I should have the hotel call a taxi, I thought. I went inside to find no reception at not so aptly named desk. I then asked the man if he was waiting for a taxi, as well. He then replied in English “No, I wait for a friend.” I nodded in understanding and continued to wait as the man was on the phone. He then approached me with “My friend comes soon, she will drive you to bus station.” I then thanked the man with much appreciation. When she came I found that he was from very far away and visiting only for a few days, not for business but just to visit her. I found it very touching. Once at the bus station, I showed the ticket clerk my translated destination sent by my one of our schools wonderful assistants and paid my 130RMB. A whole $17 American.  I only waited about 20 or 30 minutes before departing. So far so good. My first time traveling alone in China and as of yet, things were going pretty smoothly.

I only knew from there I was supposed to find a boat to the smaller island, however according to my phone’s GPS, I wasn’t very near to the shore. I went inside the small terminal and realized that it was more of a smaller hub to take passengers to various locations. The counter women were all dressed in airline travel fashion and while waiting in queue before I had the chance to try my luck in Chinese and iPhone translator language, a woman asked in English how she may help me. I said Putuoshan, and she escorted me to the front of the desk and I paid for a bus and boat ticket and she then ushered me onto another bus which then took me to the ferry terminal. I was greeted by a large mountain of white buildings stacked atop each other in Greek fashion. It was very impressive and it seemed like a mini-city. I wondered if this was for the business offices of the ferry, or if people lived here. I had the feeling that it wasn’t authentic Chinese architecture and seemed like its purpose was somewhat of an attraction, built for tourists. I continued through an enormous archway, which seemed fit for a stronghold’s portcullis. I soon found my way to the small boat and within a half hour we were at Putuoshan. I tried walking out of the terminal to the street but apparently I didn’t have a ticket to exit! I went to the desk and saw many deals for tour guides and different temples. I told them I didn’t want any of that, I just want to go to my hotel. I was still charged an entry fee. The holy island had become just another paid tourist attraction. I asked about my hotel, showing her the reservation on my phone, and she pointed the the street and motioned left. When referring to a map pamphlet she pointed in an unmarked generalized area.

I crossed the threshold into paid holiness, and was heckled by different tour guides. I shook my head and told them “Bu yao,” and continued on my way passed them down the street. Like most island life, the locals all rode a bike and I made a note to try to rent one. I wandered around a beautiful garden park and then continued to find my hotel. I asked several people for directions, trying to enunciate the hotels name. And people pointed in different directions as per usual in China. I was then walking through a very long tunnel and a local stopped me to ask why I was taking a picture of a napping man on his bike-cart. I then asked him about my hotel, showing him my phone. He pointed back the way I had come. I saw a young girl on bike talking to an older man near the entrance of the tunnel so I then elicited her help, as most young Chinese were more familiar with English and usually made more of an effort to help. She then told me she was visiting her uncle for vacation and wasn’t very familiar with the island. I asked how she got a bike, and she told me that it was her uncle’s and tourists weren’t allowed to ride them because the roads were dangerous. She then took me around to some shop owners, showing them my phone and asking where it was. Finally, a cell phone dealer had the bright idea of calling the hotel and she then translated to me that they were coming to pick me up. How convenient!

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The hotel that my assistant Jing Jing had helped me book online seemed to have a very impressive reception, whose elaborate interior far surpassed that of the pictures shown of the room. After checking in, he then took me down from the top of the hill and through a small neighborhood area of compounded apartments, which seemed to more appropriately match what I had paid. He then showed me into a small apartment with a kitchen, small eating table and 3 different rooms, each with a number and a lock. He gave me 2 keys, one for entry into the apartment and another for the room. Each key had to be turned several rotations. After dropping off my backpack I wandered aimlessly about.

I commenced by heading into the nearest hill after first seeing what was behind a great man-built mound to find a small reservoir with hundreds of dragonflies swarming the atmosphere. I then followed a small path upwards to an abandoned building which was not entirely so, as it was still being used for some sort of communications as I could see many antennae on top of the roof and some wires leading inside to a system of sorts with blinking lights and I then sauntered back downwards. In my perambulations I came upon the nearest temple grounds chock full of tourists teeming throughout otherwise beautiful grounds inlaid with a large pond pregnant with coy and turtle. Beautifully crafted stone bridges transcended colorful reflections and pink lotus sprouting from a sea of green. The occasional monk donning flowing cloths of orange would cut through the crowd, and I was even surprised to see a few on their cell phones. I suppose the western ideal of monks made a large generalisation concerning their acquittal of all possessions. But surely in today’s world, if you could speak to your family instantly, then letters were still of little use. There were carts toting small snacks and cold drinks much needed in such a hot and humid air. And carts with traditional Chinese garb for tourists to don and take silly pictures with the ancient backdrop. I high stepped over the threshold curb onto the temple grounds and was greeted by what seemed to be a very large and elaborate oak tree whose presence appeared as magnificent as the building it grew up with. Many were carrying incense to the black iron pot belly vases full of fire and after having them lit, would directly go to their place of choice and mutter prayers under their breath as they placed their palms together in front of their chests, with incense between them, fingers pointing heavenwards. They sometimes would bow intermittently to four directions and others would kneel in the familiar orthodox fashion. I noticed immediately that monks did not appreciate having their picture taken, and even seemed to sense when they were in frame. So I would simply look ahead of where a monk was walking and set my picture and wait for him to walk into frame. Sometimes this took much patience.

I wandered around well past nightfall, but strayed not too far so that I might get a bearing on my nearby whereabouts. While thinking of finding a place to eat, I noticed to my left, 2 foreign girls sitting at a table at an eatery and they waved and smiled. I returned the salutation and went inside to introduce myself. It had been quite awhile since I had happened upon other foreigners and on this island, it was the first time I had seen any. They spoke some English and I instantly knew they were European, probably German. They were from Austria, and going around China for holiday. They said they had only seen one other foreigner on the island so far. I ordered the same vegetable soup they were enjoying and we talked of our adventures. We then walked around together and bought some beers to bring to a beach. We sat and drank and talked of many things and of nothing while staring into the blank abyss that offered nothing but the soft rhythmic lapping of the sea. We somehow came to a point in the conversation where one girl knew of a Scandinavian song that required a type of chorus and we decided to try it out. One person started with a low vocal rhythm, and the second then joined in with a higher faster tempo bee-bop and then she finally joined in with the fast paced song that sounded like a funny pop song that might not have an end. It was so silly that we could hardly keep from laughing. She then told us that she had once done it with a group of people for hours. We ended the night early knowing that we would have to awake early to see the most we possibly could, and I in the one full day I had on the 3km long island. I wasn’t planning on taking the tour bus; I had brought my Vibram 5 toe shoes and my water pouch Camelbak, I was going jogging for the day, around the island and up some of the hills and mountains.

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I arose with the sun and found some small foods vendor to break my fast. I soon found another temple and had a photographers field day with the picturesque sights to behold; orange walls, monks in matching colors, red doors, dark wooden architectural ornaments, cherry wood furniture, circular portholes instead of archways and plants in divers patterns of Chinese vases with brooms nearby made of sticks and straw bound together. One such temple had a very high walled pond almost in well fashion to look down into, and its building sheltered several large deities making ferocious faces to warn those who dared to have impious thoughts. It’s courtyard enclosed a beautiful garden. I then found a path less traveled (by tourists at least) and found myself witnessing the reconstruction of older temples, which had an exoskeleton of bamboo jutting out in varying lengths. I ventured past this construction site and the workers didn’t question my lonely prodding. I found, a little higher up, another temple completely placid in the serene absence of people. It had a balcony which offered a view of the nearby coast. I encountered a very large obelisk stone with many characters chiseled onto its facade and I found behind the temple a charming water feature with 3 deity statues making some fanciful and ludicrous stances. I then soon discovered an opening in the large boulderous mountainside under yet another temple atop a winding path of stone steps. My curious speculation sighted some light deep inside and I soon found myself inside a cool shrine with red candles melting all around and incense burning around small figurines. I then took a small tour of some local dwellings hidden by the thick trees. Most of their living areas seemed to be self built, but with gardens at every corner and crevice none went without food. However I was quite disturbed, when perusing said gardens to find a bucket full of human feces. This was no “outhouse.” It was being used for fertilizer. I made my way to the road which encircled the environs of the island, and continued north on the South Eastern coastal length. I came upon a clustered neighborhood of locals living atop each other, with lines in all directions sporting the multi colored clothing flying in the air like flags of strange territories. They had a small street, or rather a gauntlet of shops and restaurants all with plastic bins full of water and some strange sea creatures for eating. I made my way down the bazaar of strange items with tents, umbrellas and awnings of various fibers and color just overhead. After purchasing some interesting tassels with wooden carvings for hanging decoration, I lunched and asked for some vegetables and rice. Soon after, they were setting out many foods on a large table and then came in several guys my age and older and they greeted the owner with a warm welcome. From what I could sense by body language, it seemed the owner was family to one of the men and he was traveling there with a group of friends and possibly workmates or university colleagues. I took the opportunity to make a drawing of them at dinner in my small sketchbook, to give my feet further rest before continuing onward. The road was abetted by an adjacent walkway made of wooden planks, that flowed like a river along the curving road. I came upon some more houses and spotted a little girl by herself, who seemed to be looking for something. She then bent down and pulled her pants down. She had found what she was looking for; an ideal spot to pee. Directly in front of the middle opening of an alleyway in perfect view of the street. I had heard many a story of how the Chinese allowed their children to urinate and defecate in any location necessary, but had never witnessed it until now. And here it was happening solely for my viewing entertainment.  I had seen many baby butts hanging out of split pants. I had never been so excited to see anyone pee. I laughed and took a picture. Classic.

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After some time, I had come to a crest in the hill atop of which sat a lonely bus stop awning. I paused to look around at the view and sit in the shade a moment. There were some local men there and they were very intrigued by my foreign mug. I then smiled and took some pictures of them and they started laughing. I could see that there was not much close by along the road from my map, and there was a juncture which led inland so I decided to continue my jog up into the island. I would randomly pick a direction if it spoke to me, such as a set of stairs leading off the road, and would find myself at some type of facility, and from there a small path in the grass which then led me back to the road, which was now traveling downhill. I could see the other shore far ahead, and at one turn of the road, just at its pinnacle I spied a path leading up the valley into the forest and decided it was time for a change of scenery. I made my way up a series of rocks which were really steps in the hillside made by putting some stones together by working hands long long ago. I enjoyed the foreign hum of wildlife all around me, and it seemed as though I were in an enchanted forest. Grasshoppers flicked the grass all around me, and butterflies played in the air before me. I saw what was probably the largest hairy caterpillar I had ever seen, which was longer and thicker than my finder, and a couple large spiders. I then came upon some stone built houses, with some low walls. I realized that they were more shrines, and I peered inside to see the burning of those familiar smelly sticks near unknown deities without a person in sight as if they had lit themselves. One of the buildings seemed to be a home and I noticed a very narrow wall with steps made into it which then led to another similar level. I then found my a pathway again, and it seemed the island was riddled with them used by the locals as shortcuts, so I was confident that they would lead somewhere of interest. I even came upon stone markings with red lettering and arrows. I followed different paths and came upon what used to be a very short tunnel that was now closed off with stones for some reason, and could see the light on the other side, so I simply climbed over and continued on my way and noticed the path to be much less traveled if at all. It was deep with leaves and seemed now to be more of small ravine for the rainy season. I was starting to become doubtful when the brush became thicker but soon found myself on a wide path which then poured onto a perpendicular pavement. I had returned to society, or rather the constant flow of tourciety.

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Last term week

I soon formed a tight knit group with my newfound friends and we hung out often. It was sometimes comical to see Xin vie for the affection of Yong, who had a boyfriend in the military and pretended to be the disgusted and uninterested victim although she did seem to enjoy the attention. I finally talked to him about it asking why he kept pulling at her when she was obviously pushing and suggested a reverse approach. I told him that the female is very similar to the feline, an animal kept as a pet but rarely acted as one. When you chase or even move suddenly to pet a cat, it runs away. But when you wait for the cat to gravitate near you then you simply reach out slowly and pretend to pet it, and the cat will arch its back to reach your touch. He said it was good advise, but he already knew that she wasn’t interested so he liked making a joke of it and torturing her a little since she already knew. Yong was the youngest in the group and sometimes acted as a child throwing a tantrum but never overdone in an annoying way but rather endearing, and her outbursts usually made me smile. Helen tried to teach me Chinese at every opportunity and I returned the favor, because she was as eager to learn as I was. When I told her a new word she would repeat it and ask “how to spell?” and look down and wrote on her hand with her finger as I told her and she repeated. Once, late at night we were at an outside restaurant after catching a movie, Xin was saying that he had a headache and felt a bit ill, and Yong was telling him that he must do zhua sha; a strange phenomenon that mostly Yongkang locals partook in, whereby someone pinched the skin on your neck in certain places and pulled up hard making a snapping sound and leaving a bruise mark. This was done repeatedly until a line about the length and width of a finger was left, and usually done in pairs or even on either side of the neck. He protested at first, but his weakness for Yong soon gave way and he allowed her to do this strange practice. She patted some water on his neck to make it easily pliable, and pulled away. He groaned in pain at each pull, and it was even painful to watch.  I can say I wholeheartedly believe in the practice and thought of acupuncture, as everything is connected within the body and indeed the Universe itself, but i found myself a reluctant believer and dubious bystander for this one. And this was something that not all of China practiced so I don’t know anything of its true validity however the next day he said he felt better and still was, so there must be something to it.

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Soon after I went on a unicycle ride one day and decided to tackle the nearest hill and wandered around it and the only entrance I could find was a long series of stepped platforms which could easily be tackled by a better rider than I, but my Oregon was pretty heavy for a muni and I’m only good enough to conquer a few at a time. I pushed my uni up until I found a trail and tried my luck at a steep incline and ended up pushing it along until I came to some negotiable trail. Nearing the top I found some horizontal bamboo attached to some trees for a workout area and the area around was cleared. It looked ancient, and probably has been a long standing practice to make areas like these for who knows how long. Once at the top I found a small playground like area for exercise, much newer than what I had previously seen jimmy-rigged by some handymen. There was rubber flooring and varying types of colorful gymnastic bars. A photographer with a large telephoto lens was surprised to see me and requested I ride for him and he shot a few photographs and we exchanged wechat info so he could send me a shot. The environs of the playground was surrounded by yet more bamboo climbing poles and exercise areas supposedly erected by the community and I noticed one of them had ancient Chinese inscriptions. I made my way down the large hill by stairs and trail, which I thoroughly enjoyed and once at the bottom on the other side from which I came, I meandered through a small poor neighborhood and happened upon some old low tombs overgrown with tall grass and vine. I saw a man sauntering along the road with a fish in net in hand and a pole slung over his arm so I followed behind him to get a few interesting shots. What a parade we must have shown! He with his fishing accouterments and I following on unicycle reaching out to with iPhone to take a few pictures. Once I had almost found my way home I found a small path again leading up to the hill and decided to have a look, and came upon an interesting small dirt road with very deep ruts on either side and then a small path ran perpendicular so I took it on whim and I soon came upon a hidden shrine of some sort. It might not be hidden per say, with a path leading directly to it, but it was definitely shrouded in overgrowth. Once inside one was greeted by numerous Gods and a colorful display of adornments. In one corner was some hanging iron band in a spherical fashion with spikes for candles, but it looked more like a medieval dungeon torture device. The ground below with pooled with ages of dripping wax. I reminded myself to go off the beaten path a bit more in China as it seemed very rewarding.

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Later that week was the last week of the August summer month term, so we planned something special for the kids on the last day. We would take them to Da Run Fa, the local grocery store and they had to bring only 20RMB and learn how to budget by buying whatever they liked but they couldn’t spend more. For the older kids we rented a KTV room for them to have a small party and karaoke. We did it all in one day. We grouped together all the children, which was only about 20 in all. But there were 3 teachers and several assistants as well so it wasn’t too difficult. We then met at the KFC inside the Da Run Fa and went over the rules and guided them through each section like Books & School supplies, Toys, and then Snacks and Food. We were pretty much a store parade, and everyone else wanted to be involved in some way or watch the spectacle as foreigners were showing Chinese children around the store. Some tried to help the students say the correct price in English if they knew it well enough. One woman who was in the Toy isle with her son was helping them say what some of the toys were and when I spotted a Chinese Hackey Toy (a group of metal circular washers or coins with a fletch of feathers coming through the middle, allowing it to float ever so slower through the air) I was excited to see it, as my friend Mark had brought some back from China when he visited and I tried doing it to no avail. The woman picked one up and went at it as if she’d been doing it for years, and probably had. I was very impressed with her impromptu skills. Other bystanders were simply that; awkward. In the States they would be shooed off as potential predators. The children had usual likes, however seemed more interested in school supplies than toys, and had an odd taste of snacks. Then again this was an entirely different culture from that I was accustomed and even their clothing was odd. Most of it covered with English words in arrangements that made no sense. With the children we talked about what each toy and food was and how much they cost and wrote down their tally on a piece of paper and at the end we got in line and they each paid for their items. Surprisingly, many were not sure about the payment protocol even at 12 years old. Most just gave their money immediately before the items were priced. KTV ended being a headache, literally. The microphone was always turned up too loud in those rooms and in Chinese fashion, being louder and more enthusiastic overwon cadence and rhythm. They all brought many snacks, most of which carried a foul odor, and the place was thrashed when we left looking like a true rager had taken place. I felt sorry for the cleanup crew.

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Friendship

That Saturday night at the club, a couple of girls came over to our table and started drinking. I wasn’t sure if this was normal, but who was I to question a couple of ladies in their hometown? One of them spoke English quite well and introduced herself as Helen and her friend as Yong, so I thought maybe she knew BJ, and assumed she was an English teacher at one of our sister schools. She said she wasn’t. Soon thereafter, BJ came from his set and said he didn’t know them, and then his friend Johnny showed up and greeted the girls. They were friends of his. After some camaraderie drinking in the Chinese fashion, we were all good friends, laughing and dancing the night away. I now had a working Chinese SIM card for my phone and exchanged weixin info with Helen. WeChat in English was a simple networking app that allowed txt, pics, and voicemail to be shared without cost, and it allowed a simple profile with picture updates. Every Chinese had it, and was the easiest way to exchange information without having to give someone your number.

The next day was my day off and I decided to go out for a ride and see where the day would take me. I took many pictures and soon found myself in some parts of the city that were quite dilapidated beyond repair. I ventured into some broken hallway and found myself in the square of a building overgrown with trees and plants. Even with the slight sense of alarm one gets while in a place they probably shouldn’t be, it was still so beautiful to see the trees and vines reaching upward to the rays of sunlight pouring in through the centralized sky view.

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I was riding around some more places nearby and taking some more photos when Helen messaged me on WeChat. She said her and her friends were going swimming and wanted to know if I would like to join them. I had already been to the reservoir plenty of times and it didn’t seem very appetizing. I asked what time they planned on going, and she replied that they would go in the evening, when it wasn’t so hot. Chinese women are afraid of the sun. I told her that the best time to swim was when it was hot. She then said that they would climb on a mountain and then go swimming. Now i was intrigued. When she came by to pick me up, she was with her friend Yong Yong and another girl. We drove off towards the mountains and Helen asked if I had heard of The Great Wall of China. I replied that all had heard of the Great Wall. She said that Yongkang also has a wall and started to laugh. She said were going to see it. I was pretty thrilled, and when we arrived to our destination, we were at a beautiful village at the foothills. There were wooden structures and bridges surrounding a large pond ensconced in bamboo and weeping willows. We walked across a stone bridge and made our way up a long series of stairs. We then came to a crest in the hill and could see a large structure paying homage to the Great Wall in a miniature fashion sprawling across mountain ridges and snaking up and down over mountaintops. The wall was only about 10 feet high but maybe 25 feet wide and had large towers intermittently at each crest of the snakes arching back. We made our way along its meandering path and they were having a difficult time negotiating the stairs. After about half a mile, we could see the end of the wall far off, where construction was still in progress. We were all covered with the slobber from the wet kiss of humidity. The girls were tired and were taking a rest in the the second tower but Yong wanted to see the end. So did I, if anything just to get a higher viewpoint, so we jogged on ahead and after about 10 minutes we were out of breath and at the top of another crest. We climbed up on the walls parapets and took some photos of the view around us. After heading back down, we dropped off one of the girls and we then headed over to pick up another friend. His name was Xin, pronounced sheen. His English was also excellent, and it made me realize how underachieved our youth was in the states. We then made our way to the reservoir, stopping on the way to buy some floaties, and continued on for a well deserved swim. Except for Xin, who didn’t really know how to swim, which didn’t really surprise me because every other person had to carry a floatie with them. We swam across the water from the dam to the mountains on the other side and it even though it was hot, the clouds above eschewed a light drizzle which made the moment even more beautiful. I was floating in the water, ears underwater deafened to the outside world and eyes fixed above on the sky filled with white and gray clouds. The misty air gave the green mountains around us a beautiful mystique, and seemed to come straight from a Chinese painting.

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Afterwards, they decided to take me to one of their favorite restaurants. Hua Gua, meaning Hot Pot, whereby a large pot of boiling water was poured into an insert in the middle of the table and segregated into two parts for different sauces, and you ordered many meats and vegetables and poured them into your desire flavor to boil for a bit before fishing them back out onto your plate. An eclectic variety of sauces were available for creating your own mix in some small bowls, into which the hot contents of the pot were placed to marinate as it cooled before enjoying. We asked each other many questions and they were impressed with my ability to eat with kuazi, however it was still difficult to grasp some slippery shrimp dumpling balls from pot of water with only two sticks, even my friends could not get it at every first try. When we were finishing our meal, Helen and Xin hurried away and I thought they were going to the restroom and when they returned I asked about the bill so we could split it and they told me they had just paid. Something I was still getting used to, the Chinese’s insistence on paying for everything. “Next time, next time,” they assured me. A phrase that I would hear very often after trying to pay for myself. Once we got to the car, I thanked them for an amazing day and taking me to see many parts of Yongkong. And they said no, that they thanked me. Why? I asked. “Because we are glad for your company they said.” I was truly touched by their humble response and grateful that I had said yes to the invitation to hang out with them, and couldn’t believe I had been about to decline. I smiled to myself and reminded me that yet another fruitful experience came from saying YES to opportunity.

Afterwards we drove around to “get a cold drink.” And we were soon in the city centre and found ourselves next to a group of people watching some street dancers. I told them we should park and watch them, and they agreed and simply parked their car right where it was. China. We got out and enjoyed the show of a few fellas breakdancing going back and forth. I was glad to see that the hip hop subculture was strong around the world. Once the show ended, we decided to look for some drinks and I told them I knew an ice cream shop nearby. Tigger had given me a card for her shop and I had saved the location on my phone. I guided them over and when ordering our ice creams I handed over my card right away so there was no confusion. I beamed in triumph at my success in paying first and we adjourned to the sitting area upstairs. They all had ordered vanilla and I told them I was disappointed in their lack of imagination. It was a small joke, but I later learned how truly oppressed Chinese imagination was. They all agreed that my mint ice cream was much better. We had ordered different drinks and mine was like a milk tea smoothie with small flowers in them, which i found to be quite charming.

 

Acclimation

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The next day, Sunday, was my day off. BJ said he and Christina wanted to go swimming in the reservoir so I accompanied them, but this time I was going to bring my unicycle. When I had gone last time, I was scoping the slope of the dam and decided I had to uni it, as many extreme sportsmen do when they are without their ride, specking out a spot they deem supreme; be it a skateboard, mountain bike, snowboard or unicycle, especially if it not only seems challenging but a good photo/video opp. I borrowed a few bungee cords from BJ and strapped my muni to the seat of the scooter, leaving just enough room for my own seat and even sat slightly on the tire to ensure that my thousand dollar device of deviousness wouldn’t loose itself on the way. I followed them somewhere south of our house and then we stopped halfway at a small convenience store sporting some flotation paraphernalia under a stand alone awning. BJ bought a few for Christina and himself and I eyed the cooler nearby and decided on a beer. The woman in charge  said it was 3 quai but I didn’t have any cash on my so I offered her a $1 bill, at first in jest. When she refused I insisted and told her it was worth 6 quai. Then she seemed to take to the idea and then told me I should take two. I could not understand but a word she said, which might have been something to the tune of the number two, or liang ge, meaning two of, but rather I inferred from her gesticulations. I then showed her my currency converter app on my phone and how one dollar was worth just over 6RMB. She then smiled a great smile after handing me my two beers and then held the dollar bill at arms length with both hands and admired her acquisition, and then proceeded to flaunt it to her nearby children. I left feeling happy to know that I had probably made her day, not knowing if the bank would charge her for a conversion, but thinking that she would probably keep it for herself or as a gift for her children.

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We passed by many gardens and small crops of diverse produce, so picturesque that it seemed to pop right out of a national geographic magazine. Men and women alike under straw woven conical hats to keep the sun from their brow as they tilled the earth. We passed under a traditional Chinese architecture archway as if to greet us to wonders which lie behind. We soon came to another large similar structure overtaking the road, this time filled with several people in the middle, who were apparently stopping cars for a fee and BJ zoomed right past them so I followed suit and some tried to block my passage and I dexterously maneuvered around them while angrily sucking my teeth at them and allotting a disgruntled “bah!” in annoyance as I passed by, for they truly seemed to want to be run over.  We came to the gravel parking lot and soon parked our rides and started to lock up the tire with the metal U-lock. Some of the locals came running up to us angrily, which I knew was because of our avoidance of their payment demands. BJ soon retorted with his defense, in which his tone seemed to portray a sense of right and clear obviousness which, to me, seemed to say that we were locals as well and not to be taken advantage of, for we were not going to pay money to visit that which was our right to visit. His tone seemed that of obviousness and disgust and then soon turned to jest as he smiled at them and got them to agree with him that it wasn’t a big deal and even teased them a little pushing the shoulder of the man closest as if saying ” am I right or am I right?” and even they started to crack a smile and slowly started to saunter off. I inquired about the conversation and he said that he simply relayed that we were only here for a short while and would be gone before the traffic of most cars came. Looking up at the dam, I soon realized I was seeing it from a different view. It was much higher, and I wondered why we hadn’t gone up to a higher level. We started up the long stair way and once we had crested I realized we were in an entirely different location from that which Alex and I had visited the week previous. This one had a floating dock deck area made of large plastic puzzle like pieces in the middle, which enhoused a small shop and ensquared a covered pool area. I had BJ get a shot of me unicycling a high wall which dammed the lake and reserved an aqueduct behind, about 40ft down and was almost flush with the water level on the front. Some people were sitting on the wide concrete with their feet in the water and I had plenty of room to move right past them and then at the end I did a little hop and turn and came back. We then took a brisk swim in a lake full of people with their various colored floaties.

After an hour or two of relaxation, there were some guys our age who wanted to take pictures with us and they awed at my unicycle. I then motioned for him to see me ride and he relished at the opportunity so I gave him my phone to record me and I attempted to Uni down the dam’s hill, which was a bit of a hard task, since there was no smooth transition from the top walkway to the brick and grass slope. Only a stairway opening, so I had to drop down a step before hitting the slope at an angle and then try to turn to face straight down the hill. That one step transfer proved harder than I thought it would be. The difficulty was not in the step but in changing direction down a steep angle to be able to just manage it with my handbrake. Within 2 tries, practically the entire crowd of the reservoir gathered around to watch a crazy foreigner brave the wall on his dulunche. They only received an amusing show of failure as I only made it past the step perhaps a few yards. I was soon out of breath with attempts, and stopped the recording. After a break, I started at the top of the slope adjacent to the stairway, holding onto the railway and the brake as I hopped on and then took the slope that way, with my tire already pointing in the right direction. There were many woops and hollers from the guys who rooted me on as I balanced my way down the bumpy terrain of dirt moss lumps and grass, with one hand waving in the air for counterbalance like a modern bullrider. I crested a halfway platform and then continued down the remainder of the hill, covered only in concrete brick and finally made it down the end, of course without anybody recording. Next time. I looked up and saw a throng of people looking down, and some started to turn away, knowing the show was over. I took a picture, well knowing there were almost ten times that amount who got a free show.

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Soon after, I got my first real experience in the grocery store. Da run fa which was named RT-Mart, was actually a mall and grocery store and target in one. There were stores and restaurants, an appliances and household items floor, and one reserved for food. The grocery store experience is always an interesting one in another country; strange foods and smells, packaging unfamiliar and familiar but with a twist. Seeing animals dried and hanging along with other meats and multicolored fruits on display in the market fashion, brought back many memories of my similar experience in Spain, at La Boqueria food market just off Las Ramblas. Dragonfruit and green tangerines, squid which was scooped by the handful, flat flounders on ice, live fish tanks full of fish and frog and eel. I stocked up on some vegetables and many packaged food I needed and most I just wanted to try. Trial by error, that’s how you find out what you like. Their stock of cereal was limited to about 4 choices, many of which were expensive. I was delighted to find that they at least had Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and peanut M&M’s. Once home however, I was dismayed to find that the cookies were a bit thinner and drier than what I was used to, and tasted like coffee. A great coffee complement, but not the classic I was hoping for. Even the Cheerios were different. You’d think that an international foods company would strive for some sort of consistency if they were going to use the same branding logo. The peanut M&M’s were my only constant, which I was truly grateful for.

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The next week I was more easily acclimating to the swing of my classes. They loved the flash card game where I simply put them in a pile and we gathered around to be the first to touch the one called out. I was adding rules and making it harder by calling out similarly sounding words or replacing B’s with P’s and S’s with Z’s and even mixing the vowels, and I made them give back a card for every one they touched that actually wasn’t there. On my free time I rested and read and practiced my Mandarin. One day I decided to go out on a ride, while trying to scope out some karate studios. I found that if one simply slipped behind the veil of a major street, they would find themselves transported as if to a completely different neighborhood, with poverty and dilapidation lurking just behind the facade of a thriving city. All around me in plain sight were the small territories of mud and dirt that was obviously being used to grow some food for some unknown seedplanters who would find time to walk there from their home to cultivate; in every ditch by the road that allotted some rainwater there grew stalks of corn and produce variegate in size. It was public property and therefore used as publicly by deemable fashion; for the sustenance of those who tended to it. I imagined a typical california suburb community doing that in Rancho Cucamonga or Huntington Beach, where there were simply miles of plots of grass by the sidewalk with ample soil and tree shade and even a public property watering system that would be tastefully and logically maintained by those who lived nearby, or those that had no home to live by, for supplemental vittles, vegetables and herbs. But alas, the voice of Logic was trumped by the voice of Public Decency to disallow such vagrants as they who, would have enough time for time was all they had, flock to such public locations. I suppose that’s where the “Freedoms” of America somehow seemed lacking in comparison with the communism of Asia. I took many photos and cruised around and found myself near a park I hadn’t seen so I decided to have a gander. It was a beautiful, enclosed park with careful and thoughtful planning to the ponds and pagodas and the wooden adornments of artwork which graced their sides, complete with wooden bridges and walkways of stone patterns. It seemed more of a beauty garden than a park, although the main floral attraction was, of course, the omnipresent pink lotus, whose spires jutted forth from the depths of murky water covered mostly in large green lily pads.  photo 3(3) photo 4(1) photo 1(3)

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That Saturday, we had open class again and we were going to do “cooking.” I decided to give them some American culture and we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ants on a log, and lemonade. Most were disgusted with the thought of a PB&J but once we made them, many had changed their minds. There were varying responses for the ants on a log; some rather enjoyed the celery, most preferred carrot, and there was a general disliking for raisins which allowed the peanuts its time to shine on the paste of its battered and buttered brothers. Many complained however, in the end, all mouths were full and busy with mastication more than expostulations. That night I had planned to keep to myself in my quarters and do a whole lot of nothing, and around 21:30 BJ came by my room to check up on me. He said he was going to the club. “Why donchu com wit me man? You ant doin anyting, its been awhile, comeon.” My bottom lip pursed up in a typical De Niro fashion of “why not.” I agreed and promptly changed then we rolled out onto the the thick oriental air cutting through the night as smooth as silk on our electric scooters.

Hit the ground running

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Sunday July 7th, my first full day in China, we awoke early to go to rehearsal held in the morning when it was cooler. I met our ballet teacher Alex, and then we all grabbed a taxi to make our way to one of the city plazas which normally sported a water fountain which shot streams of water into the sky from beneath grates that were flush with the plaza’s tiles. The girls went on ahead to get the students practicing while us guys went to find some food. The humid heat bore down heavy upon us with the trees rattling from the calls of thousands of cicadas and as we were walking, Alex was flamboyantly waving and laughing as he said Ni hao to all who met his gaze. Eventually there were two young girls walking together and staring at him when he suddenly thrust his arms out and scared them with a “GRRAAAAHHHH!” and they screamed in fright and then hurried off frightened and talking excitedly. We couldn’t help but explode in laughter at his sudden outburst. Some lookers-on were now pausing and staring in even more awe and confusion. I was a bit perplexed as well, but just laughed it off because it was still hilarious. He was being a little choosy with finding our eats so we passed by a few places, apparently looking for a specific shop. We finally found it; a quaint looking bakery. I was pleased with his choice, “Good call Alex!” We went inside and apparently they were still waiting for a few more batches to come out and didn’t have their usual variety. He was sorely disappointed and wanted to go across the street to McDonalds.  “Fuck McDonalds!” was my reply and I got a plastic tray and tongs and proceeded to choose a few at random. I grabbed two of what looked to be some odd drinks in a pouch with pictures of milk and the aloe plant on it reminiscent of American Capri-sun’s and I asked BJ to help me translate to pay but he insisted on paying himself perhaps for courtesy or perhaps for expediency since they seemed impatient to get to McDonald’s. During our sit down in what I considered to be an evil omniscient presence of corporate greed to stuff people with unhealthy food, I found out that my aloe drink was really a yogurt drink; not quite viscous yogurt yet not quite fluid. However was delighted to discover one baked good in my bag of varietals I enjoyed thoroughly. It reminded me of a Mexican “pan dulce,” a round bun with yellow sugary mosaic encrusted upon the surface. After quickly devouring our meals, we navigated our way back to the plaza. On our way back, I was still like a puppy dog in a new place with a short attention span stopping to look and sniff everything strange and new; some things familiar like a drink dispensary machine, yet different in the way it was presented. Or even how some small alley hid a majestic yet decrepit Chinese architecture completely foreign to me; something only found in media or false Chinese tributaries in the U.S. Sure we were in an industrialized city, therefore most architecture was modern and blase, however once in a while a small gem representing what true Chinese culture used to be there shone in small obscure place like backstreets and alleyways and “old town” neighborhoods.

On our short walk I received so many stares that I profoundly came to the understanding of Alex’s behavior. It was much easier to accept and recognize the fact that you were a popular outsider than to these peoples who only saw your kind in mainstream movies and media than to internalize your thoughts about their inquiring stares. And after so many prolonged looks and feeling sometimes like an escaped lion and other times like a monkey in gorilla territory, you can only take so much and must act out in attempt to take back some of the energy taken from you on a daily basis. His sudden explosion towards the young girls was not just a release of this built up recognition but also a return of self-gratification and indulgence which the Chinese took so often.

For the next several hours we watched as children awkwardly danced what they had apparently practiced before to music from a small portable boombox and Alicia’s direction as the stage was still being set up around us. I had bought several ice cold waters and what was left after my continuous effort to hydrate was soon tepid and then warm with the outside temperature of about 100F, which seemed multiplied manifold with the humidity. I wandered over to the adjacent river; a large walled in aqueduct not more than 50ft across. I walked next to a rattling tree humming with the sound of a hundred cicadas and leaned against the large heavy iron chain that boundaried a cement precipice of about 20ft high from the very dark water below. I looked straight down and saw a little red monster walking on the wall just below the surface scrounging for food in the algae field. I remember the first time I saw one of these when I was a young boy of about 10 years old; my father had taken me to a nearby shallow aqueduct which flaunted tall cattails so that we could catch some frogs together. “Dad look!!! A lobster! There’s a lobster in the creek!” Obviously I hadn’t spent much time in these atmospheres. He came running over confusedly and started laughing at what I was pointing at. “Pshhh. That’s not a lobster, it’s a crawdad!” He exclaimed as if there were a huge difference. I was still convinced I was right for it clearly had lobsterish characteristics. “Lobsters are large,” he explained “and live in the sea. These stay small and are in creeks.” I quickly deduced that they were plainly of the lobster hereditary who had ventured out of the sea against the flow of a river and creeks and marshes and these were what remained of their once regal stature. I smiled slightly as I looked up from the reflections of reveries there below me, to the sight to be beheld before me. Chinese stonework under me, Chinese woodwork ornamenting the bridge before me, Chinese people walking throughout against a Chinese architectural background in Chinese heat and smells. My heart swelled with pride, awe and wonder. “I can’t believe I’m in China!” I laughed to myself.

After a sweaty several hours of watching some performances and general sun sitting and shade finding we decided to head home. Alex wanted to go swimming but everyone else had things to do so I told him I’d love to go. When the taxi arrove at our house, we told him to stay for a few minutes and we made expedience to change into our swimwear and grab some essentials before jumping back in. On our meandering way in the backseat of what seemed a 1980’s  stickshift Volkswagen Santana, with Alex directing the driver with zhi ge (this) and pointing down different roads until we stopped suddenly and let some other white foreigner in a fedora in the car. He smiled and shook my hand. I was confused. “They just share taxis like this when people head in the same direction?” I asked. “No, no. These my friend,” Alex supplied in his Romanian tinged tongue. “Ohhh ok. Nice to meet you,” I greeted with a smile and he returned the same formality in kind. He too was apparently from the same country as Alex and so they, probably being the only two of their kind in Yongkang, befriended. After the end of the asphalt down a long road we bumpily made our way to a very large stone covered hill and got out. Alex asked if he could come back in an hr, and the taxi refused. Alex sucked his teeth and we made our way up a very long stone staircase topped by several people. Once the hill was conquered, I realized it was a dam holding a very large reservoir at the foothills of a beautiful green mountainscape with tall sharp crests proclaiming their majestic presence. There were not too many people there and there was a large tent set up in the middle of the wall to sell an eclectic assortment of plastic and rubber toy floaties. We made our way to an embankment, which was sadly littered with trash and underwear and many deflated toys; we made our way to a clear spot and soon jumped in the cool water. Everyone there had some type of flotation device, and I thought it silly being that I had only previously seen these used for children. Although, it did allow them to swim out far and even to opposite embankments in comfort. We however, went without and I swum along with the Romanians to convene somewhere in the center until I was winded and made my way to the opposite shore to catch wind and explore a bit with bare feet. I drank in deep breaths along with deep satisfaction at the sight before me. I had heard many warnings of the air quality in China, and had only seen a terrible fire-like haze landing in Shanghai but hadn’t noticed any drop in quality here in Yongkang so I thought it was due to being surrounded by many green hills and mountains, but I did seem to tire out faster than I thought I would have in the quick swim; then again swimming was never my strong point. After a blissful hour in cool water we dried off and walked down the long dirt road back to asphalt and then a bit more to the main street where we found a bus headed back in our general direction. Alex’s friend took leave a few stops before us and then we walked about 10 minutes back to our house which warranted a much needed cool shower after that sweat drenched endeavour. We had a bit of time to relax before having to head back to the plaza again as the show started around 1800hrs and we had to be there an hr early.

 

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Alex and I shared a taxi and met up with many other employees from the other schools Tigger owned, and one of them was just across the street where the kids were getting ready in a frenzy of changing and screaming and hurrying and make-uping, for boys and girls, which I thought a little strange but then again make-up is used for all theatrics around the world. However they boys seemed to don faces that were too reminiscent of drag. After walking back and forth between the plaza for interest and the school for AC, I became hungry and wanted to get some type of food so I wandered down the small street adjacent to the school which was full of shops and food vendors. I saw some of our schools high school aged assistants enjoying some soup at the first shop, which was more of a deep window display with 3 small tables on one side and the “kitchen” on the other with a mobile island out on the front step where the women prepared the same food over and over again with only reprise to cool up a requested meal. I sat with them for a while and asked their assistance in getting me some food. The woman preparing was trying to talk to me but I could only reply with a ting budong, don’t understand, and she laughed and happily continued her work. I watched her effortlessly crank out many bao zi, which was was similar to a small round potsticker. She took a piece from an already prepared lump of dough and flattened it with a rolling pin and then took a handful of prepared diced meat from a bowl and then wrapped it up and proceeded to twist it in such a fashion that wrapped the opening around her thumb. She then pulled it up in the air and dropped it with a “thud” on the metal slab and gave it a pat. Then repeat the whole process again. I started to photograph her but she was embarrassed and put her hands up laughing so I had to pretend to only photograph her handwork and I slowly pulled back to allow her in the frame as well. After that I came back several times for cold drinks which were in a glass doored fridge on top of the steps. 

 

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The children were singing their songs and I noticed that there was no reaction from the crowd. Christina and I talked about this, even when the show ended there was no applause; only a stoic discernation. I had noticed a similar indifference at the club the night previous when any performer went on; hardly a smile in the crowd and the only signs of interest were bored faces recording with their phone like it was their job. While the show was going on I went behind the stage, which was luckily backdropped by a large TV compilation screen and equipment, to practice with the fuel I would be using for the firespinning so I could time the burn and get into my rhythm. I decided to try something new and practiced doing a momentary one hand stand and then a few steps leading into a one handed cartwheel, but while making the firespin look interesting and not just hanging in my hand. This then turned into a cartwheel where I threw up the baton when I righted up. I decided to try it since I was going to be giving a show. I had never done this on stage before. My fire baton is just one of my toys I like to play with at the beach or maybe even bring with me to a backyard party, and I was no professional. I wouldn’t deem myself good enough to be payed or anything because it wasn’t something I seriously practiced. I usually drop it once or twice during a burn, especially if I’ve been drinking, so I hoped this time I would be able to keep my focus. When I went on, I had them turn off most of the lights and luckily Austin had picked a really good beat by Pantyraid called Beba. It started off light and led into a switch with some heavy beats and faster rhythm. The show was almost perfect; my cartwheel throw was too vertical and I fished wheeling slightly further than the throws hang time so I barely missed the catch. I then did a quick spin or two and then ended with the firespitting, which actually made the crowd respond with some ooohs and aaahs.

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Afterwards we all had dinner at KFC, which happened to be across the street. It was close and easy for all of us to eat there. My first reaction was that of dissatisfaction as I had been speaking about their deforestation policies for one time paper product use for almost a month. Their suppliers had helped Indonesia receive the Guiness Book of World Records for fastest rate of rainforest destruction in human history, which not only contributed to more greenhouse gases than any other entity due to its unique carbon-rich peat lands but also encroached on endangered animals homes; the Sumatran Tiger is a regal animal sporting the only webbed paws in its genus allowing it to swim as fast as it runs as well as the largest cheeks; the orangutan- literally meaning “people of the forest” were only indigenous to the lands that were being destroyed. Not to mention (but I will) the thousands of tribal indigenous peoples being forced out of their homes, and having no choice but to join a mass exodus to Jakarta, which is one of the worlds leading cities for sex slave trade and human trafficking. I had taken a personal choice to not eat there again; not a difficult choice as they had sub-par greasy chicken and even their packets of honey were synthetic. I was just going to join my friends and not eat, but I did remember that KFC China had cut off those suppliers long ago, so I allowed myself the experience of trying Chinese-American fast food. They even had a “fresh fungus bowl.” I wasn’t thrilled with the experience but it was interesting to say the least.

Monday morning I awoke early and practiced some Mandarin with Rosetta Stone and walked to the school early and arrived at about 8am, Class started at 9 so I was one of the first. I was teaching 1st and 2nd grade which was one class age group from 8-10 years old. I had a collection of children stories book that they also had with key vocab words on flash cards, as well as a simple book with those words and sentence uses that they had to work out of. How I taught them was up to me. Luckily I had a Chinese assistant whose English was not perfect but better than I could have hoped for. I started with introduction, and found them to be trained as all Chinese had with a good morning and a reply to “how are you,” with “Fine thanks, and you?” This was their answer to all inquires of their well being. We went over class rules and I asked them what they thought the punishment should be, and most chose a corporal punishment of some sort; the least offensive was standing up for the rest of the class, which seemed to me like a good idea but I didn’t want to cross any lines. We went through the flash cards and I did a little charades and pictionary of my own to illustrate the difference between words and ideas. We played a simple flash card game and then read out of the book. They were two hour classes with a short recess in between. I then repeated this two more times. It was interesting teaching the simple steps of the language and it brought back a lot of young child memories and games, and it only reminds one of how much is forgotten.

Wednesday morning I was brought out of slumber by a loud cry on a loud speaker at 6:45 yao mai WEI!!”…..yao mai WEI!!” ….yao mai WEI!!”…. I was pretty sure it was a recording on repeat. I looked at the time and wondered what the hell it could possibly be. It must be some sort of emergency, maybe a fire. I heard some commotion in the house of someone moving about and I waited for someone to come into my room and tell me to get ready because of some danger, maybe it was an air raid. No one burst in the room. I got up and looked outside, and from what my small view could afford I saw no smoke in the air and no screaming or panicked people in the street. I got ready and still no sign of danger, so I figured it was for  something menial. Later at school I found out that it was a cry for fresh fruit and vegetables. “Sometimes they have fresh eggs too. Or maybe they’re different guys with different calls, I dunno,” Christina supplied. “But usually, it’s around 9am, not that early. Weird.” I wondered if that’s what I had to look forward to every morning, an obnoxious loudspeaker cry for selling food and wares. BJ later told me that it literally meant “things for sell.” I then met our new English teacher roommate who was teaching at the other school across town. Her name was Lea and she was from Kenya. On our lunch break Tigger took me to get a sim card for my phone and while in the store a typhoon started outside. Basically a summer rain with some strong winds. I love thunder lightning and rain and in this heat I was grateful to have such an occurrence. I smiled in gratitude and breathed in deep to fill myself with electrically charged energy that was literally accumulated in the air around us.

That night Bj, Christina, Alex, Lea and I went to a small restaurant for dinner before BJ had to go to the club. At the entrance they had long shallow plastic tubs filled with water, each with its own critters to be served up. Some fish, crabs, snails and eel. I reached over and poked an eel on the head whose nose was surfacing. He bobbed down and up gain, he wasn’t phased. I surmised that apparently he had received many a poking from inquisitive children. Or maybe it had given over to the inevitable destiny of its doom. Alex asked about the eel and judging by his face, either an eel had farted or he very much disliked the idea of eating a slippery scum sucker. The lady went over and grabbed one, pulling it out with a whip of tail splashing some water around. Alex squealed and shivered and shimmied away as if he had done it himself. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. We sat down in the back room around a large round table with a rotating top, and turned on the fans and AC. We had ordered a delicious plate of squash, and vegetables, fish and a very large order of small black snails. Some sweet and sour meat and eel came soon after. BJ’s face lit up with the arrival of the snails and said he lived for these snails. He started sucking at them and throwing away the shells faster than an automatic weapon. I tried a few times and only got the flat mini-manhole cover that sealed it in. “No man, you haf to put yoh leeps like this,” he kissed at me “like you keesing it, and then ‘smchooo’!” He sucked a big kiss. I followed suit and kissed the snail to the back of my throat. I coughed it back to a comfortable spot and spit out the mini-manhole as they all laughed at my endeavor. There were a few banters exchanged between us all about kissing and back of the throat and I managed to get the hang of it. Again the sauce was delicious, so the snails therefore were as well.

Class became easier, and because I was teaching the same lessons and age groups for 3 classes, I was able to quickly learn from mistakes in my first class and implement them immediately. Such as noticing what the kids tended to do in any given situation and setting up ground rules pertaining to those tendencies in the next class; seeing where they had trouble and focusing more on those topics before moving on; and ultimately thinking ahead to prepare a little better. In one class, the two mischievous kids gravitated and would always sit adjacent to each other. Their names of course were Tom and Jerry. Almost all the girls were good little angels, and the only bad kids were boys. All boys weren’t bad but all were pretty rambunctious, which is as to be expected I suppose. However, because of their lack of attention span and reserve, their studies suffered and were usually the slowest. Flash cards were the heart of my class, and I had fun with them. I had them yell words and whisper them. Whenever I yelled or imitated a bear with a loud growl they would jump back in fright and pat their chest to show their heart was beating from being frightened. I noticed even the boys did this, and realized that they just scared very easily, much more so than any average child in the states. I randomly came up with flash card games for them to do, and their favorite was when I put them all in a pile and they had to be the first to touch one when I called it out. It was in true free-for-all Chinese style. Indeed it was very difficult to get them to line up for anything; they would throng around me from all sides and demand their work be checked first or their books stamped for the amount of “good stars” they received, which could later be traded for small toys.

I had also just started using Austin’s scooter to go to and from school within 2 minutes time. And since i had a working phone with GPS, I felt confident enough to ride around at night and explore, getting lost intentionally so I could take in as much of the city streets’ night life as much as possible. When reviewing the map at some street corner, I found myself near a park and decided to see it. I wasn’t sure if going to a park at night was the safest thing in China, but I wanted to see if maybe it offered good lighting. I found that many other scooterists also were driving around. There were not only scooters but many people walking about late at night. Couples and families with small children and friends. I scooted around slowly along some beautifully set paths among dispersed lights. There were many water features, and streams with small bridges reaching over and stoneset pathways meandering alongside. Well lit pagodas were dispersed along the paths from which emanated the soft lure of some kind of traditional flute or small instrumental music either from an old man holding the real thing or a small fm radio playing the similar tunes. I was enchanted by not only the beautiful setting but with the freedom of the community to relax in a small solace of nature nearby their homes without worry of criminal activity. I heard some loud screeching music coming from afar and knew it to be the inexcusable howls of kareoke in a badly supplied audio system. I navigated around the streams and rolled down a small hill to a large community pagoda house adorned with white plastic outdoor tables and chairs scattered nearby to accompany those who wanted to eat and drink or chat. The house was just adjacent to a very large pond and allowed cooler air to come in through the doorless entries. I payed for a cold beer and grabbed a seat to watch the singers and people around me. I was soon invited to a nearby table by a very happy looking gentlemen, who then ordered some more beers for the both of us. We did not speak each others’ language but we both shared a liking for drink and song. He gestured for me to take the mic after he sang and I communicated an affirming no as I said ting budongpointing to the screen. He sauntered over to the dj and after a few moments talk he gestured for me to come over and showed me his tv screen which had a selection of English songs. I soon made a familiar choice, after smirking at the sight of The Carpenters, which I knew to be popular here, and then sat down to sing my song. It might have been a Michael Bolton or Bryan Adams, one that I did not know but I knew the general tone and that was enough. When I finished I received a grand applause by all present and continued to drink my beers.

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On Saturdays we had “open class” wherein there was not necessarily a strict lesson to follow but rather a fun day geared toward something we had learned. Our first Saturday, I printed outlines of animals we had learned and had them choose their own and cover a lamination plastic sheath with glued tissue paper. I demonstrated to them first how it should be done. Showing them the different colors and how they should be cut. I accidentally nicked the webbing of my fingers with scissors and shook it in slight pain. I checked for blood and proceeded, and the children all said something that my assistant told me was “be careful!” I then had an evil thought and couldn’t resist. I continued cutting the strips of tissue paper and when I came to the end of one, I pretended to be in deep concentration and showed a little difficulty and then when I made the last cut I curled one finger down to my palm and screamed in terror and pain and showed them the back of a hand missing a finger. They all jumped back and screamed with me in the same tone of terror. Simon, a boy who usually acted the class clown and very alpha male confident, slammed his hands on the desk and screamed with a mouth that seemed to be larger than his face. His eyes went so wide that he was no longer Chinese! I might have given him a mini heart attack. I put my finger back up and started laughing, and they yelled in shock and protest to having been tricked and laughed at their own fright. I was laughing so hard that it took me a while to start cutting again. Tears were coming from my eyes, and the children were still laughing, even when I was cutting again someone would snicker and we would all start laughing again. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed that hard when it wasn’t late at night. I then pointed to Simon and imitated his reaction and they all started laughing again. Simon was trying to hold back his laughter and pursed his lips together and squinted his eyes with a scowl in pretend anger and only looked slightly embarrassed at having been tricked as he side glanced at the others, knowing full well they had been duped just as good as he. For as long as I live, I shall never forget that look of fright on his face.

How to flee the country fast

I’m going to China and I’m bringing a Unicycle. My offroad 26×3″ mountain unicycle to be specific; or a muni for short. I smirked at the absurdity of that sentence which flashed in my mind as I stood up from packing, or rather stuffing, the last of my things into a gargantuan suitcase just at the limit of international economy flight travel which allowed for a total dimension sum equivalent to 62 inches. “Pack light and just bring what you cannot buy here,” the voice of Alicia, my contact in China resounded in my head. I wondered if I could ditch anything; but my several books, journal, and 1957 top view Zanza Bronica SLR gifted to me by my photographer uncle Butch were imperative. A few shoes, laptop, a large bag full of medicines, and enough clothes to wear a different outfit each day of the week seemed as slim as I could go for a year. I also had my fire devil stix baton crammed into the side for structural strength, but whats a few ounces more? I glanced over at my makeshift shipping crate, made from several different boxes to accommodate my other important items. The ones I would not find in China: my muni and rock-climbing gear. My dad smiled and called it a Mexican suitcase. We’re Valenzuelas- Spanish blood but with Mexican heritage, therefore any action could be considered “Mexican.” It was functional and it fit the job, and more importantly the allotted dimension cap. I had searched for hard-shell suitcases, shipping cases, ATA music cases, scuba watertight cases, and plastic storage bins; in craigslist, ebay, and convenient shopping stores but the closest I could find for bike tire dimensions still within flight parameters was a box which held an outdoor firepit at Target. It even came with a plastic carrying handle. I bought the firepit and returned it at another Target on the way home, sans box cum receipt. ‘merica!

My heart quickened pace for a beat. The first sign of reality sinking in since the 2 weeks I had generally known I was going to China, now arriving on the morning of my flight. I took a deep breath and let it sink in deeper. The corner of my mouth twitched up in a cat-caught-the-canary smirk which usually appears before I do something really fun or very crazy…or dangerous, which is usually fun. I gave thanks and allowed myself to appreciate the opportunity. The opportunity to live, and to finally travel again. Ever since leaving Spain 8 years ago in 2005 after living there for a year, I dreamed and yearned almost daily for another country flavor.

I was currently working as a fundraiser for Greenpeace; the largest and most successful environmental non-profit that uses grass-roots campaigning and organization to hold corporations and sometimes governments accountable for their dirty deeds and irresponsibility. I was hanging out with my brother-in-non-violent-arms, Roy. A cheerful, boisterous and bold Nordic descendant who looked like he belonged on a raiding crew ship several thousand years ago. Blonde hair and blue eyes and a Hulk Hogan mustache. We had similar souls and probably warred together in past lifetimes. He hit it off immediately. We were on the topic of of camping and hiking and I challengingly asked what he liked to do for fun. I usually one-upped people in this field. I had paintballing, rock-climbing & spelunking, bmx, mountain biking, painting,  fire-spinning, and snowboarding in my back pocket and recently added off-road unicycling to my repertoire. He mentioned airsoft and we had a back and forth over the pros and cons of bb’s to paint. I asked what else. “I go to war,” he stated matter of factly. The question on my face told him to continue. He rubbed his neck and laughed, and said coyly, “Welllll, have you heard of LARPing?” I had. Live Action Role Play, where a bunch of kids and/or nerdy type get together and hit each other with foam swords and staff, reenacting fantacy Role Playing Games or stories where you could be a warrior or an elf or magi and everything in between. I furrowed my brows, and wondered if he was serious. “Yaaaaaa,” I said slowly in a go-on with your story tone. “Well, it’s kinda like that but NOT at all. We wear real metal armour and hit each other with swords.” My jaw dropped.

“With actual swords?” I inquired in disbelief.

“No, with hard heavy wooden swords, but they are no joke man! People get hurt sometimes.”

“People do this?” I was incredulated.

“Ya man, alot of people!”

“Like how many people”

“Like hundreds!! It’s war dude!”

“Are you fuckin serious???”

“Ya man it’s so fun, but you don’t actually sustain injuries because you are wearing armour and pads from head to toe, and you have a shield but you REALLY feel them hitting you man. They are HARD blows. And its not just swords, there’s long pikes and mace and arrows.”

“Oh my god! I have to go!!!!”

And so we did. Several months later on the weekend of May 25th, 2013 we pitched our tents in Potrero Park east of San Diego and just north of Tecate, Mexico. He belonged to one of the largest groups or “clans” there. Just as you would expect many tribes and territories to gather for war, and divvy up space between them for their separate camps, so it is done. Everyone wears “period” clothing, similar to a renaissance fair, but if you are without, then you may rent some period garb before entering and everyone receives a wooden token to wear about their necks. Mine is still proudly donned in memory of a great weekend. Being a nostalgian, I often kept necklaces, bracelets and memory tokens from special places or events. Thousands of people gathered for hundreds of fighters, who usually brought their friends and families, all with varying sets of armour either bought, wrought by metal workers or made at home; usually a combination of the three.

By day we battled. After seeing the first few battles of “broken field,” a strategy term describing two general sides with groups of varying numbers in different positions along their battle line, who charged separately running towards the enemy with battle cries and culminating into massive clashes of shields made from street signs and the like into armour and wooden weapons and bodies, I quickly gathered spares and leftover pieces from many of Roy’s friends in the Clan to join in. One must have a helmet which covers the facade with a chin strap, a gorget to protect the neck, a body breast plate, a gauntlet on the weapon hand if the other is carrying a shield, and a cup to protect the importants. I quickly pieced them together ( as quickly as one can don heavy clunky armour- so about 15 minutes) over some hockey padding and went forth unto the battle field. They changed strategy to “bridge,” which meant enemies on either side of a sinking sand and dirt path bottle-necked by bales of hay. The skirmish caused omniscient clouds of dirt to rise into the nostrils and eyes and caked the lips. I was laden down with a breastplate meant for someone a foot taller than I; a single piece of polished bronze and a shield of similar disproportion. I jumped to the front of the line with Roy. My brother in non-violent arms became very much the opposite. Both sides timidly felt each other out like boxers in the ring. 15 foot pikes jabbed out from each side once in a while smacking a surprised warrior in the face, who then grumbled as he walked off the scene to the back of the group. The energy rose and shouts for shields together came from my sides. With a bold cry we then charged forward and I pushed my shield out attempting to bowl over my opponent and felt some give-way before the push-back, and then I was pushed from behind by reinforcements. I was no longer a warrior but a piece-stone in the metal wall comprised of armour and flesh. I was merely the force tool for those behind me. Blows came down over our shield wall and thunked my helmet several times. I attempted to return the favor but movement was out of the question. Several people were bowled over and took others with them like pins in an alley. There’s no getting up after that. Ever seen a turtle on his back? Ever seen a turtle with a shell much larger than he’s accustomed to on his back? Once they were being trampled, the refs shouted hold and the entire battle resounded with a roaring “HOOOOOOOOOOOLLLD!!!” The battle froze and fallen brethren were helped up and off the battle grounds before continuing. I did as well until a righteous clang on the head shook the foundation of my soul and left my ears ringing.

A few more rounds of this and one more strategy of “Storm the castle,” whereby we tried to work our way through a maze of hay bales. Then when the main crowd dispersed to lick their wounds and shower and rest, those hungry for more participated in pickup fights. One on one challenges. I was hungry. A few skirmishes to work on skill and form gave me confidence until a sword came around my shield and chopped off my head from the back of my neck like a scorpion whip. At least that’s what would have happened had I not been wearing a metal plated gorget, or had it been a real sword. That was enough for one day.

After a brisk shower, I let my long wet hair down to keep me cool as I mosied along in the heat, my curls gracing my shoulders with nice cool drops of water. I walked around the merchants to see what wares were available. On my way back to camp I saw a girl who looked about my age setting up her tent just on the outskirts of an encampment. If she was in period clothing, then she was a gypsy or fortune teller. She had a beehive of dreads crowning her head. She looked up and saw me sauntering along and our eyes met. “Hey,” she said, “I like your hair.” The usual nonchalant comment from one long-haired to another, with a subtle tone of thanks and fellowship for representing the mane. “Thanks! You too,” the convo inevitably led to me saying I was a Leo so I have to let it grow out. “So am I, as you can tell,” pointing to her beehive. “Actually,” I said, I’m a Lion and a Tiger. Year of the Tiger according to Chinese calendar. “No way!!! Me too!” she exclaimed. “What!? I’ve never met another Lion Tiger.” From there we found out that we had both lived in Spain and had traveled. She had been to about 50 countries and lived in 6. We both were keen on the topic of psychology, which framed the majority of our conversation. She practiced hypnotherapy, and I had a deep interest in anesthesia and the power of the mind and it subconscious ability to use hypnotherapy in medical applications. She carried a black belt in Aikido and invited me to knife fight….Using police issue rubber practice knives of course. We became instant best friends. Oddly enough, the only other time I had experienced that was with Roy. I had met myself if I were a woman and 12 years older. Her name was Christina and went by Tina or Nomad, because she “never lived in the same city or did the same job twice.” We both had 3 syllable names and usually went by our nickname. I’ve also had many a various job, because I liked learning a bit of everything. And I had always dreamed of living in as many countries as possible.

By night, we feasted and drank. Many a person brought their own homemade brews. A random gent poured me some of his own blackberry stout. Each person carried their own chalice, mug, stein or goblet and many drinks were given and shared without need of recompense. Each camp held their own party, and most were open invitational. Our clan Corvus was one of the largest and tonight it celebrated its 10th anniversary with a beer garden of several kegs of home-brewed ales and stouts and wheats as well as a vodka symposium with many different bottles to choose from and a vodka juice which was drunk from of a 6 foot silver spoon. Fires were burning, drums were flaring out rhythms, gypsies dancing and the moon was full. Walking with Nomad at night we talked of synchronicity; she mentioned always seeing the number eleven and asked if I was also seeing the number. I mentioned seeing my birthday 804 many times recently. We looked up at the vast sky and she said “Whenever I look up I always see..” I cut her off. “No way!” I already knew what she was going to say. “Orion,” she finished. The same had been happening to me for quite a while. It seemed to be not just coincidental but prevalent, even if there was only a small patch available through some trees, there it was. I then realized that I had somewhat been seeing the number 11. I mentioned not seeing 9-11 often but noticing the number pop up with significant dates or times in my life. I had to stumble upon it several times to start noticing it, and then found out that I had started working for Greenpeace on September 11th the previous year. I had requested a court appearance for a ticket and it was scheduled Sept. 11th of that year. “You know why, right?” she inquired matter of factly. My questioning brow begged the answer. “Nine plus One plus One.” I hadn’t even thought of that. The synchronicity of numerology at its best. Later on in conversation she mentioned teaching in China and Japan. I expressed my great interest in doing so.

“If you’re interested, I know people in both countries. Let me know and I’ll send out the word to some of my contacts,” she said.

“I just said I was. You let me know!” I retorted.

She did within two weeks. I sent my resume along to her friend currently teaching in the Zhejiang province of Easternmost China. His name was Austin. He shared the name of my best friend who had passed away about 5 years previous. I took it as a good sign. He passed on my resume to one of the supervisors and a skype chat ensued. I accepted the terms of contract which allotted the same pay I was currently receiving as well as paid housing. However, the fact that the cost of living in China is dramatically cheaper than America, no less Orange County California, made the salary much more appealing. The term was to start in September. Skype chatting on the 19th of June, I was asked to come earlier because they were in dire need of summer class help. I said why not? I was up for it. How much earlier? I was told by the beginning of July. OoOooOohhh. That was too soon for comfort. September allowed me to get some Mandarin language Rosetta Stone practice in beforehand, do some research and reading on China, as well as fulfilling a longtime wish to road trip up to Alaska for a few weeks since my cousin Kristen was working at a national park there.  I responded that I would not be able to pay for a plane ticket that soon. I am reminded of instances when girl friends of mine express how difficult it is to convey to a guy they don’t like that they don’t want anything to do with them. “But I told him I have a boyfriend.” Or “I keep texting him back and dropping hints that I’m not interested.” I don’t understand this “Don’t text him at all!!” is my reply. “Don’t beat around the bush and say some excuse that isn’t the real reason. Say what you feel. I am NOT interested in you at all, don’t contact me anymore.” If you give a bullshit objection, then it will be circumvented. I gave a semi-bullshit excuse. It wasn’t my real reason for saying no. It was the truth, but not the real reason. The next day I was told that if I came sooner, my plane ticket would be covered. Shit. I wasn’t prepared to make a decision.

I let it sink in for a day before acting. I was pretty sure I wanted to go sooner, it would save me at least $600-700 for a plane ticket bought now for several months in advance but I feared I might be acting a tad brash. I called my childhood best friend Mark and asked him for advice. He agreed that going to China was incredible, as he had gone the year previous for several weeks and loved every second of it. He got to the bottom of what was holding me back. I suppose it was not having the peace of mind to let my brain marinate in the kung pao sauce idea of living in China. That and an Alaskan road trip. If they found someone else for the summer, perhaps they would enter into the year contract as well and I would miss my opportunity. That’s what scared me the most. En fin, he suggested I should go for it. I was pretty sure I was going to go, so I called my younger brother. Not the spontaneous type, tends to err on the side of caution. Our mom was shocked when several months previous, I convinced him to come skydiving with me and some friends in Lodi, California just south of Sacramento when I was there for a work travel trip with other Greenpeacers. “I don’t know dude, that sounds kinda freaky,” I remember him hesitatingly respond to the idea. “C’mon man, this is the only place in the US and probably the world that allows you to jump under the age of 18 with a parent present, and I’m here now and I’ll pay for you. How many other kids at your school can say they went skydiving!? None.” He paused for a moment. “Alright I’ll go.” I was even a bit surprised myself. Several days later he, our mom and I jumped out of a plane. As a thrill seeker, I hadn’t shared too many rush experiences with him besides the occasional trail unicycle ride. (He started before me and once I saw a video of him going down a tiny slope, I was so inspired by him that I had to pick it up.) I was glad that we shared probably the greatest rush experience possible together.                                                                                      I explained the situation to him and asked what he would do. “I think you should do it dude.” That was it. I was going to China.

My head was swimming with a hurried to do list. Luckily my passport was still valid for another year from when I went to Spain. I immediately went to a travel agency to apply for a visa. I had to get vaccinations and go to the doctors for just-in-case medications. Found out that some vaccinations are covered and others aren’t, travel ones such as typhoid and malaria are out of pocket. Doctors appointments for last minute check ups. What should I pack? What should I bring? I had to clean my room. Should I close my bank account? Surely they accept Visa there as well. What is expensive in China that isn’t in the states that I should bring? I should probably get presents for people. I had to register my car as non-op. I needed to go visit family to let them know I would be gone for awhile, especially my grandma who was pushing 93 years old. My dad and others were saying that there wasn’t much time left, but then again they had been saying that for about 10 years. She was slipping into the slope of dementia but i had faith that she would make it very close to 100. Nonetheless, I made it a point to see her. The plane ticket wouldn’t be bought until my visa was done which would be about 5 days. Until I had confirmed the flight I didn’t believe I was going. But I tried hurriedly to get everything done. I let my second family know I was leaving as well. My Greenpeace family. I told them I was 90% sure, since I didn’t have the plane ticket in hand, but if everything went well I wouldn’t see them for awhile. I told them one of my favorite poems as I usually did on our weekly meetings, somehow tying it in to grassroots inspiration to motivate and remind them why it’s so important doing what we do. This one was by Nixon Waterman.

If I knew you and you knew me
If both of us could clearly see,
And with an inner sight divine
The meaning of your heart and mine
I’m sure that we would differ less
And clasp our hands in friendliness;
Our thoughts would pleasantly agree
If I knew you and you knew me.

If I knew you and you knew me,
As each one knows his own self, we
Could look each other in the face
And see therein a truer grace.
Life has so many hidden woes,
So many thorns for every rose;
The “why” of things our hearts would see,
If I knew you and you knew me.

I told them that we do this everyday; meeting new people we nothing about and through conversation making a connection with them and inspiring the hearts and minds of individuals to stand up for what we stand on: our planet. I then said that I now had the opportunity to inspire the hearts and minds of children on the other side of the world and would keep my experiences with them in my heart forever. Then we partied as we often did at the “greenpeace house,” where three of them lived together.

My best friends Mark and Lydia, my lover, dropped me off at the LAX airport about an hour and a half before my flight, after a stop at a local Mexican spot for some breakfast burritos. We embraced each other and said our goodbyes. My suitcase was so heavy I was expecting to pay the $160 overweight charge, but apparently it was so much so that it had a double charge. She told me to go buy a box at the airport store and put half in there so i only had to pay the same $160 for extra luggage. I did so hurriedly and found my way to the gate.

I then gave my friend Pat a call. I had tried to call him for advice several weeks earlier to ask if should go now or later, but he wasn’t available. He is the reason I lived in Spain for a year. Our senior year of high school he had a Brazilian exchange student live with him for the year through the Rotary Club and he decided to go to do the same and had his mind set on Brazil. He invited me to an exchange weekend trip on a houseboat at the lake. Many exchange students from all over the world in the same county were there. After realizing the tangible possibility of travel I decided to go as well. I had always dreamed of seeing the jungles and desert of Australia, but after pondering a year stay I decided it would be more beneficial to learn another language. Seeing as how Spanish is the second language in America, especially so cal, and my Spanish blood, I decided to request going to Spain. Pat and I talked excitedly about our potential experiences and the dynamics of living far away. We hung out in a tight knit group of about six friends and after hearing our conversations, our friend Bethany also decided to go. That was a problem. Because we lived in the very small town of Weaverville, Ca. with a population of 3,500 people and roughly 500 of those in high school, the Rotary club had a cap of 2 students from our school. Pat’s spot was secured because of his involvement with the club and his connections with the board members. That meant it was either Bethany or I. I had already had my hopes up for so long and Bethany seemed to decide on a whim to go. Why should I be cut if I had decided to go first? It seemed childish, but the truth was I was worried because Bethany was very intelligent; intimidatingly so. After our interviews they brought us together and said that they always only let 2 students from this school, but because of our great interviews and enthusiasm they decided to let all 3 of us go!! They allowed us a choice of 3 countries, in case they were unable to place us in our first choice. We all got our first choice. Pat in Brazil, Bethany in Italy and I in Spain.

“Nicholas Valenzuela! Whats up maing?” he answered enthusiastically as per usual since we rarely saw each other. He was living in Portland. I told him I was in the airport about to go live China for a year to teach English. Long pause on the line. He was flabbergasted to say the least. “Wow,” was all that he could muster. We talked over some details about what was expected and what not. Between now and coming back from our respective countries years ago he had traveled outside the country several times and we met there for a chat on those occasions. He even had a later job with university exchange students and had to travel to LAX to greet and guide students to their connecting flights as LAX is a major US airline hub. It was a place of congregation not only for millions of people but for us on new adventures. So it seemed appropriate I had a chat with him now and told him so.  “You’re right, we have somewhat of a history there,” he concurred. After a long chat of catch up he congratulated me on my endeavor and I was off.

On the flight, a young Chinese student who was returning home for vacation sat next to me. We talked of our respective worlds and the prospects of living in each others’. Hours later I noticed him picking his nose more often and longer than the socially admissible amount. I then heard a clearing and hocking of the throat somewhere behind me and was instantly reminded of two things: the first was Nomad mentioning how she has nightmares of the sound of a billion Chinese hocking loogies and spitting. “They spit because they are sick, and are sick because they spit,” she said with a laugh. The second was a vague recollection of the way Chinese picked their nose in public without any attempt at furtive discretion. I decided to pay no attention and continued my book gifted to me by Mark; Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, a witty and direct account of a somewhat experienced Jewish teacher who joined the Peace Corps and taught English at a university in western China for two years. Several hours and chapters later, my peripherals notified me of some excessive nose attention going on to my right. My eyes shifted over and my brow lowered in slight perturbance. Damn man! Get it out already! It must be a case of the itchy nostril. I tried to pay no heed, but soon enough perturbance  turned to discomfort as he kept returning to the scene of the crime. I even turned my head to let him know in body language that I was aware of his excessive proboscis petting. His eyes were glued forward on some HD quality DVD rip download on his mini laptop, yet he seemed to give it a rest. I read on yet my discomfort soon turned to horror as I was pretty positive my peripherals informed me his lingering finger fed his mouth with cavernous atrocities. The elephant in the room just took a large shit. I could no longer focus. I also noticed a few more throat hockings. It was as if an invisible barrier had been broken and somehow the energy of difference escalated. Then it hit me in disbelief; the international date line! We had just crossed it and already the Chinese in the plane were acclimating to the customs of their culture again as they left America behind. I tried to catch him in the act of eating a bat in the cave, like a twisted nightmare of an Ozzy Osbourne show but his hand only lingered by the bay of his mouth like foreplay waiting for serious discourse with his nose as if he was gaining a sexual stimulation. I was thoroughly disgusted. I am no uppity stiff, but the way in which he went about it so fervently was like the drop of water on the forehead which turns to insanity when repeated in the stereotypical Chinese torture. Such was my official welcome entering Chinese territory. When saw the first glimpse of land through the clouds I wondered what life was like down below me. Then I saw ocean again; they turned on the diagram of the plane on its route and I realized we had flown over Japan. China would be my 15th country visited (including the U.S., Canada, Mexico and a layover in Denmark) but with Japan and Greenland being ones I had only seen from 20,000ft elevation.

I had left at 12:30pm on the 4th of July and arrived at 17:30 on July 5th. I had lost about 15hours after the 14hour flight west chasing the sun. My contact Alicia, the school supervisor and Tigger the school owner met me at the airport. Tigger bought me a bottled milk tea. The color of a mocha, it was sweet with sugar and cold and delicious. “You are in China now, this is a typical Chinese drink,” she had told me as she handed it to me. I thanked her and we made our way to her husbands car. They had done some shopping in Shanghai so my suitcase barely made it in the trunk. The women sat in back with my unicycle between them and I sat in front with Calvin her husband. I smiled a great smile inside as I realized that Calvin was married to Tigger, a cartoon tiger like Calvin and Hobbes, my favorite comic. Another good sign.

We finally left around 7pm and drove around Shanghai as Calvin searched for a certain mall so we could go to a specific restaurant. I took in as much of the city life around me as I could. Thousands of scooters and taxis and cars and pedestrians weaved in and out of each other inexorably consistent yet seemingly without any structure. Many times while driving down the road of a very structured and monotonous driving system of the states, I noticed that cars generally stay in the middle of the lanes, and when many idiots hit their brakes without reason or do not know how to keep a flow of traffic I realized it would be very easy to split lanes and slip in between them as a motorcycle does, breaking free from the “lines of society.” This is not just looked down upon and considered “reckless driving” regardless of your spatial awareness but would even make people angry and would lead to road rage as American thought is not just independent but self centered and they believe they own the space around them; their “personal bubble” extends further than anyone else. However it seems the Chinese had been capitalizing on this use of space for a long time. A two lane way on one side of the street often accommodated 3 and even 4 cars as they would sometimes move into the shoulder or oncoming traffic as long as there was an empty pocket to momentarily slip in and out of. Yes, oncoming traffic. Why? Because if they are oncoming we stop or slow down for a pedestrians right of way regardless; then obviously they can see a giant car as well and is treated the same. I loved how practical it all was. However the driving is not for the timid, in a country of a billion people with most crammed into city centers, one must assert oneself and make your presence known otherwise you’ll wait a century for someone to be nice enough to “allow” you to enter the flow of their lane as is sometimes practiced in the states with courtesy. However, even in the states, people decide to ignore your inching plea to enter the lane and pass by, so as a confident male driver I often already practiced this assertion. People driving with me (predominantly women) cringed at this assertion and even yelled “watch out” as if I were driving blindfolded and oncoming cars were on a fixed track at a fixed speed without the use of brakes. This intimidation annoyed me greatly. Here I had to step up my game if I were to drive. I relished the idea of finally breaking free of my structured driving constraints. In America, the Chinese stereotype made them famous for being terrible drivers. Here they flowed seamlessly like an ancient river; a turbulent and tumultuous class 5 river at some intersections seemingly with chaos yet always ending with at the same inevitable outlet; in between intersections was the serene placid stream with fish weaving in and out of each other as they had been for generations.

We ordered many plates; including seaweed salad, which i was no stranger to due to my many visits to Japanese restaurants; we had chicken feet and bean soup; a varietal bbq meat plate with duck and goose; and a delicious vegetable called cong sing zai meaning hollow vegetable, which looked an awful lot like bean sprouts with my favorite spice soo wan- garlic; all tied together with some kind or wheat or oat tea, which tasted like a subtly earth flavored water. Then we started the four and a half hour trek home. It was raining heavily, welcome in the summer heat, and thunder rumbled around us as shan dien flashed in the sky, backlighting enormous and ominous thunderclouds. We all fell asleep for a bit, and even Calvin had to switch with Tigger to allow him to rest after she had napped which gave us a chance to talk, as Calvin’s English wasn’t his strong suit. She drove for 2hrs, the longest she had ever remembered driving. We passed by the training center and two blocks after we hung a right past a hotel lit up by multi-color changing lights into a neighborhood of 4 story brick and stone buildings. Alicia and I were dropped off and we walked past a mini neighborhood garden to the second building and opened enormous iron gates which squealed eerily in protest to their use. After entering through one of two enormous wooden doors, we were in a high ceiling living room. I was surprised by the ample space. The entire house was floored with large square tile, the kitchen was set back and raised a few steps, and a tile staircase led up to the living quarters. She showed me to my room on the second floor after two flights of stairs. There were only two bedrooms per floor- one small and one large-excepting the 4th, which was one large living quarters not too much larger than the largest rooms due to the angled roof. I was in the smaller room. My roommate or rather “floormate” was Alex, a male ballet teacher from Romania. Directly above me was the empty room soon to accommodate a woman named Lea from Kenya, already living in China who would be sharing the floor with Alicia, who was from Khazakstan. Above them were Christina from Arizona and her boyfriend BJ from Nigeria. Alicia’s husband was also Nigerian, but he hadn’t returned from visiting home yet.  I loved the diversity our house had to offer and was reminded of one of my favorite films- L’auberge Espagnole (the Spanish inn), a french film that takes place in Barcelona with students and servers from around Europe living in the same flat. I expected to go to sleep immediately but instead found myself unpacking before crashing.

The next day was Saturday and I awoke early feeling refreshed. We were to start “class demos” and prep at the school at 12 noon. I took a shower, which is somewhat different than what most are used to in the states. Here, as well as other Asiatic countries, the bathroom is the shower. No doors or curtains. You take a shower and then wipe down the counters and mop the the floor. I had also been looking forward to the porcelain hole in the floor toilets however mine was a western, which had to be wiped down as well since the shower head was between the counter and the toilet. There was no way I was going mop the floor naked everyday before getting ready. I laughed at myself while I awkwardly did the chore, but I knew it would cease to be funny quite soon. I was going to buy shower rods and curtains even if I had to have them shipped from the states. I explored the house a bit more before heading outside. I used my iPhone to find a bank which happened to be caddy-corner from my block, and took out a few hundred Yuan, also called RMB even though it held the international exchange symbol of CNY, however to natives it was Quai. I guessed it was the equivalent of us calling dollars “bucks.” At this time, 100RMB equaled $16. I had hoped to find a bakery nearby on my way to the school but instead saw mini eateries and convenient stores. Due to the high Fahrenheit degree weather of the upper 90’s I decided for convenience. I bought some packaged sweet bread and a drink. Luckily they had a calculator and simply showed it to me. I paid and made my way to school an hour early. I met Christina and we all gathered in a semi-circle in the ballet room in the very small children’s desks with Teachers and assistants. The teachers looked no older than 15. Christina and I were the only Americans and Alicia made the third foreigner. They gave examples of ways to teach given lesson plans- a short story or dialogue with key words used in flash cards. Hours later during our first break, I met BJ. He was a DJ and MC at the clubs and was at the school to practice teaching a kid to perform “You want me” by Justin Bieber for the school talent show tomorrow. “There’s a school performance tomorrow? Like a talent show or like a play?” I asked. It was explained that it was a talent show to showcase the “ballet” dancers which was actually modern dance, as well as children’s English songs and even teachers. “Austin was supposed to be in it too but he’s not here.” Christina explained. He had left early back to the states for vacation before helping with the summer abroad program scheduled 2 weeks later. “You spin fire?” she asked with a laugh. “Ya I do. Who told you?” I replied. “Really?? You can spin fire!? Because that’s what Austin was supposed to do. Maybe you can take his slot.”

“Ya sure, why not? I even brought my fire baton with me.” Good thing I packed it. Two days in China and already my fire was not just wanted but needed.

Christina introduced me to BJ as the new roomate. “YOU ah living witus?!” he exclaimed in a heavy Nigerian accent. His English was near perfect, but with an African rhythm and camber not found in the states that threw together fluctuations and emphasis on syllables that actually gave a monotone language some flavor. “And iTis yoh fust night ‘ere? AHH man, I’m gonna takeyou outto night! Ah’ll takeyou tomy club!”

And so he did. We rode on scooter sans helmet for about a 15 minute ride. I’m usually very perceptive and intuitive when it comes to moving at high speeds and gauging others’ cross directional movements whether it be from navigating LA traffic or snowboarding on a mountain full of obstacles and people at differing speeds, however riding on the back of a scooter with someone else behind in control on Chinese streets made me clinch my sphincter and burst out in exclamations more than just a few times. Cars, vans, trucks, scooters, scooters with families, pedestrians, taxis, bicycles, tut-tut bicycle taxis, motorcycles and motorcycle-truck hybrids were abound in many directions even on just one side of the road as well as the sidewalks. And they all had horns and used them. Frequently. The traffic lights however had an ingenious system of counting down the seconds of green light left before turning. I again relished in the logic. Why don’t we have that in the states? “I can’t wait to drive here!!” I shouted as we pinched through an opening only a foot larger than our width, nearly taking out a pedestrian as he causally walked forward at a steady pace.

We arrived at the club unscathed, and parked the scooter and greeted the bouncers and security on our way in. He let the manager know his presence was accounted for and we made our way to the club floor. It had a raised stage in the middle and standing tables all around. Groups of people stood around tables which held about 10 beers each, some unopened along side dishes of watermelon and bowls of peanuts. Most were on their cellphones. The dj was dropping some hard beats, and music was blaring but no one was dancing. Not even the women. In fact, many seemed bored to death. We grabbed a table near the dj stand behind the stage on the outskirts of the floor, which had some booths on one side. Everyone was looking at me. Not all at the same time, but looks were given longer than just passover glances. BJ went to handle some things, and I was left alone for a bit. A guy at a nearby table came over with a beer and without words or facial expression and poured some into a mini tumbler for himself and I and handed one to me as if it were a civil duty. We raised our glasses and drank, and then he poured another round. We shook hands afterwords and he smiled a great smile and stood by me for awhile and then when our beers arrived at the table I did the same for him and his friends at the table. After BJ did a few MC performances, we had a few more beers and he went to “get me some girls,” coming back with about four women who all had nametags on. I thought they might work for a bank judging by their semi-formal dress attire and after a few more drinks I got them to loosen up and dance a little. I then noticed the clubs name on their nametags: Gplus. I wondered if it was a restaurant during the day, maybe they were hostesses. Some tried to get my “Wishin,” the name they had for an app titled “WeChat,” which was a multi-social platform app for free text, pics, video, and walkie talkie voicemail complete with a small profile and uploaded pics of your daily life. I used my google translator app to explain “I’ve been here a day. No Chinese phone number. Maybe tomorrow.” After awhile my drinking buddy called me out on stage so I dragged a few girls with me to get the party started. After a display of foreign dancing, it must have challenged the skills of the natives and they finally followed suit. After BJ’s performance there were 2 girls and one guy who were at the table next to us dressed in black leather punk style with hip hop sneakers who danced a routine to some music for a few songs. Then followed a woman from Cameroon who sang a beautiful Mariah Carey song that was totally out of place but greeted with a strong applause from the crowd. After some more dancing and getting random shy Chinese to jump on stage with me, the club was in full swing, meaning at least 5-10 people were dancing at a time on stage out of at least 100, with others groovin in place by the tables. Then security surrounded the stage as what was obviously the headliner act came on stage. A man played an amazing sax accompanied by some background beats. It was the most incredible performance I had seen at this type of setting. And after, when he was all sweaty from the blowing the notes of a few tunes, he then had some women assistants unroll a giant parchment, on which he had been painting running horses with traditional Chinese brush and black ink. He then finished the masterpiece by adding another horse to the crowd and some grass and minor details in a very wistful fast paced manner. In the back of my mind I was furrowing my brows in skepticism that my semi-numb and drunken face wouldn’t portray, for he could just as well have been finishing someone else’s work but I decided to err on the side of trust for this one considering his amazing sax work. It was already past midnight and we had to get up early for rehearsal tomorrow so we bounced.

BJ had more to drink than I, so we got off to a wobbly start but once on the road we smoothed out and meandered through streets I knew not of. It was still warm and a bit humid, so the ride was a blissful joy pulling my hair behind me in playful streams. We were on our way to find some food and we were crossing through a an open street square ensconced betwixt tall buildings. In the center were people gathered and sitting at tables eating from nearby food vendors set up with more than just your average mobile grills. I told him I just wanted to eat here. They had everything from fishes, to squid and meats and veggies all set on mini plastic ordering platters, which when given to them, they set on the grill for you. “What should I get?” I asked, over inundated by the strange choices before me. “Just get whatevah you wa’ man, I doncah,” he said with a wave of his hand. I chose a few mushroom and meat platters and then I pointed at what looked suspiciously like mini black cockroaches. “What are those?” I inquired dubiously. He spoke with the scrawny shirtless boy who looked about 16 years old with a poorly done tattoo on his arm. After a little back and forth, a nearby man grabbed some already prepared ones and handed him the plastic mesh bowl. “Jus try one, man.” I paused for a brief moment and in the famous words of my cousin Jason I said “Fuck it!” and popped one in my mouth before I could think. Hey, When in China……It reminded me a bit of those small seafood shrimp sized crawdads you can get that are more frustration than food to open up. No vale la pena. But like escargot, it was only as good as the sauce and admittedly the sauce was a pretty damn good spicy sauce. I grabbed half a plate and added it to the order. I grabbed some veggies and a few more things I had no idea what, and BJ got some whole fish. We grabbed a few beers from the coolers and sat down and awaited the food to be brought to us.  Everything was made on wooden skewers, and the meats were cut and put on so thin that it barely covered the wood. My favorite were the whole shrimps, and the thin tall white mushrooms which came in a planar fashion, like sections of a little white picket fence. They crunched and popped in the mouth. Everything, however was delicious. When we were almost done, an obviously poor girl came around with a beat guitar and a long song list in a plastic cover. No one bothered for a song, so when she came by our table I motioned for the paper. BJ grabbed it and chose a song, which I didn’t mind seeing as how I couldn’t read it anyway. She started singing and BJ cut her off and told her she was singing it wrong and started belting out the song himself. It was actually a good song, but I could see her getting uncomfortable. He asked her how much for her services and she asked for 10quai. Not even $2 American. He offered her 5 instead and she shook her head and he got angry and threw it on the table, and told me she wants too much because she sang so terribly. When she insisted on 10, he took it back and put it in his wallet. I motioned for the song list and he protested. “I don’t care man, I can’t understand it anyways. You chose your song now let me choose mine and enjoy it.” I inspected the list carefully as if i were making a judicious decision, and finally chose one at random near the bottom. It was soft and melodic and I enjoyed the rhythm. BJ was right, she hadn’t the most beautiful voice but I enjoyed it nonetheless and paid her a 10quai paper bill. I felt it a beautiful and appropriate way to end my first real day in Yongkang, China.

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Me, Nomad and Mark

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