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.
Me, Nomad and Mark