The Taxi Ride: Chinese Style

Once you get in, you're mine, sucker!
Once you get in, you’re mine, sucker!

Taxi drivers in KaiFaQu, the development zone just outside of Dalian city can run the gamut. They can be complete turds so vile that they require special instructions for disposal or you could end up singing duets with them (see previous entry). I’ve had my fair share of experiences with taxis, and in September I will have been here for two years, so I can at least offer my insights with a tiny bit of credibility on the subject.

As you travel, though, you run across many more turds in the taxi biz than you do possible singing partners.

First night in China: an 8 RMB ride becomes a 10RMB ride just because. I remember being suspicious of the price right off the bat, but powerless to tell the driver I thought he was being a bit turdlike, so I paid the fare.

Not a specific because it happens every times, but holiday hikes in prices. If it’s two days before Tombsweeping Festival chances are you’ll be charged a flat rate of 10 RMB no matter what time of day, and the price will continue until a day after the holiday. And if you know holidays here you know it’s not even a big deal! I can see Spring Festival or National Day Holiday (Which is like a week long despite the name), but there are times when I swear these buggers are making this stuff up. And these prices are non-negotiable. I’ve tried, going as far as even opening the door while still moving and just telling him to let me out.

The other near-constant is when it’s raining, has been raining, or has just stopped raining. They will charge you 10 RMB because they’ve spilled water on their windshield and called it rain. Okay, not that bad, but just about. They will also try this crap when it’s snowing, but you can wiggle with them during the winter. Is it because it’s more dangerous to drive in the rain? Does the two extra yuan really justify the risk they’re taking driving me three minutes? And isn’t it their job to drive? In all weather? If I don’t pay the extra two yuan will they become more reckless? What exactly is the extra charge covering? Oh, and did I mention, it can be considered rude to put on your seat belt with drivers because they can take it as a judgment on their driving prowess?

It's like the movie Taxi Driver...without guns, Deniro, or English...
It’s like the movie Taxi Driver…without guns, Deniro, or English…

Let’s see, we have simple cheats, holidays, rain and snow…what else?

If you’re traveling a distance that’s not a part of their immediate territory there’s gonna be a little battle, too. For example, if I were to get a cab from Kaifaqu to either Dalian or JinShitan (Golden Pebble Beach) both about 20-30 minutes away they won’t even turn on their meter. Instead, you must wheel and deal before he starts driving. Of course, this is only a need if it’s at a time when the Light Rail Train is closed.

Remember that one time when I helped that couple find their boat and we had to drive around for a while, looking at the docks and ports? Well the meter said something like 63.40RMB, but he charged the couple 100RMB. When I asked why, he just said it was because he had to drive around a lot and it was so far from he next passenger. Hogwash, considering I was his next fare and I was right in front of him. On the way back I got him to agree to 50, and the couple paid it for me, so that wasn’t one that directly cheated me.

The most common answer to the long-distance taxi ride is to call a sharecab. It’s what it sounds like. Multiple folks sharing the cost. They actually have that specific service, and I do have the number for the local one.

However, if you are out for the night, hanging with your friends at a restaurant or a bar, the share cab isn’t always an easy thing to secure. Then it’s just you and the driver going back and forth until he beats you into submission. Because they almost always win. I’ve seen gorgeous women try to bat their eyelashes and flirt with them in perfect Chinese, just to get like five RMB off the original price. And if you’re inebriated in the least, and they can see it, you’ll need to be able to negotiate or have someone who can do it for you.

I saw what should have been a 10RMB ride become a 50RMB because someone was visibly drunk.

Some easy solutions I’ve found for a few of these situations include simply asking the driver to turn on the meter (a phrase you can say like, “Ni neng da kai biao ma?” or “Biao, da kai.”), asking for a receipt (I usually say my boss wants it. “Wo xuyao fapiao. Wo de jingli xuyao.”), or just talk a lot about how much you like China (The goal here being that you’ll persuade him not to cheat you too much just because you’re a foreigner).

Ah, he looks hammered...If I play my cards right, maybe he'll give me his wallet.
Ah, he looks hammered…If I play my cards right, maybe he’ll give me his wallet.

I’ve traveled a little bit lately. Not too much, but enough to see different types of drivers in different cities. When you travel in China and want to avoid being cheated the best thing to do is be Chinese. If you’re not, you’ll probably get ripped off in some way, somehow. That’s not just a Chinese thing. I’ve seen it happen in America and heard about it everywhere. Travelers just need to resign themselves to having targets painted on them. Your goal is to make that a smaller target anyway you can. Good luck.

But being an American in China, it doesn’t matter. I have a target. And what’s more, it’s not only because I’m white. Some Chinese drivers will just cheat EVERYONE.

A few tales from the road, if you’ll indulge me.

Almost two years ago Noelle and I were in Beijing during the October National Day holiday I mentioned a second ago. It was the last day of our trip and we were trying to get to some of the must-see places. We were somewhere on the street and we wanted to be at Tienanmen Square. We declined a few crazy looking fellows, but then got won over by an unassuming old dude on a rickshaw. We went back and forth for just a moment about price, but then agreed on something like 30RMB. The price was already outrageous, but, you know, whatever.

Rickshaw Sample

We both climb into the seat and off the guys goes, not even peddling because his was a hybrid peddle/engine rickshaw, I guess. A minute or so goes by and another rickshaw driver, a bit younger, rides up pointing at one of the back tires frantically and basically just being a very concerned rickshaw driver. Turns out the back tire was too flat and one of us needed to get in the rickshaw with him. This is sounding funny to me, yeah, but I really have no way to convey my thoughts, so I just repeat the price we agreed on and the old driver nods passionately.

Well, off we go again, this time in two rickshaws, careening through dirty alleys, neighborhoods that are definitely not on the must-see list, and then we pull up in a dark, empty alley the man says is right next to the square. We hop off and then things get loopy.

They pull out a laminated chart with prices—all much more than 30 RMB. What ensues is a flurry of frantic gestures and raised voices in Chinese and English, and more and more furious pointing at the prices on the oh-so-official laminated sign. The gist: he wants us to pay 600RMB. Three for each cart. My first thought is, I can take these two little shits. And I give it more than just a cursory look before passing on the option of knocking them both over their rickshaws and just taking off. After all, it’s National Day, as in, Chinese patriotism out the butt, and we’re in the capitol—an alley in the capitol. We open our wallets to pay something, not the whole thing, but something, and what does one of them do? He literally snatches the money out of Noelle’s hand. Seriously. It was tantamount to being mugged, the way it wall went down. In the end he got around 300 or something from us, maybe 400RMB. And as we walked away he still huffed and puffed.

Things we could have done differently: be Chinese, not ride a rickshaw, jump off the rickshaw, push the man over the rickshaw, give him the agreed upon amount and walk away from the man and his rickshaw…

Sometimes, even now, when I think about the whole situation, I get royally irritated and want to go find a rickshaw driver, pretend I know nothing of Chinese, get him to agree to a price, and then wait for him to cheat me…just so I can curse him and yell at him in Chinese, or, maybe just knock him over his rickshaw. But not in Beijing and not during the National Day week.

And then when we got back into Dalian from that very trip we almost let ourselves get picked up by a black taxi.

We had just gotten off the plane and were walking around the terminal looking like lost laowai (informal name for foreigners) when a dude with the Chinese version of swagger just casually approaches us and offers us a ride back to Kaifaqu. I ask him if he’s a taxi driver and he assures us that he is. We ask how much, but he busies himself with looking official and leads us deeper into the terminal and away from people. We descend two flights of stairs with not a human in sight, and finally agreed on a price—something like 80-90 RMB.

At the ground level, we walked out to a dark part of the parking lot and he motioned for us to stay put while he goes to get his car. Noelle and I are exchanging worrisome glances, but it’s when I see him reach his black car that I make the call. We pick up our bags and speedwalk to the front of the terminal, about two hundred feet away. We make it there just as he comes up behind us and tries to motion us in. We stand firm and step in line with the other people waiting for actual taxis.

In the end, the ride home was 100 RMB, so chances are we might have saved money with the black taxi, but probably not. And if he had tried any funny crap we’d have had no way to combat him. The whole thing with him just had a strange vibe, so I’m still pretty certain we made the right decision by ditching him.

Two more recent ones…

On our way to the airport in Zhengzhou on our last day of vacation, Xiao Ming and I fell into a pretty elaborate trap.

We got off the train, and then walked to the bus stop. Tons of people everywhere, some standing in line, others gawking at nothin’ in particular, a few mothers holding their babies out in front of them so the kid can pee right on the street, and of course taxi drivers trying to catch fares.

As we approach the bus a taxi driver intercepts us and offers to take us anywhere, but we push past him and ask the bus worker about bus ticket prices. They’re not expensive at all. Then we ask him how long it takes to get to the airport. At this point the taxi driver we pushed through is right next to us. The bus worker looks from him to us and says, with a straight face, that it takes four hours. Four hours! That’s absurd. We ask why and he says because the bus must drive around the city first, collecting others from different stops.

Well, that is unacceptable. Our plane takes off in less than three.

The taxi driver then says, no problem, he can get us there in less than an hour. We reluctantly play the negotiating game with the man and eventually settle on 80 RMB. It’s a bit more than we’d normally pay, but whatever.

We get into his cab and find to others—a young Chinese man with big round eyes, and a man who looks old enough to set some sort of record—already waiting to go. We quickly ascertain that we’re all going to the airport, so that’s good. I feared that he’d do something shady if we all had different destinations. Yes, I’m that jaded.

So we push off. At first it’s all good, but then the situation deteriorates quickly. He begins to talk in rapid-fire dialect that I can’t follow. Turns out that he now want 20RMB more. Xiao Ming says that he will kick us out if we don’t pay now.

The two of them go back and forth for a while, both yelling. She tells him that he already agreed upon a price and that business is carried out that way everywhere. He counters that, no, it’s not.

She then assails his manhood. She tells him that a real business man, but specifically, she adds, a man, would not lie like this.

While they’re going at it the other two in the car are just silent. I’m adding in my own commentary on how much of a moron this guy is, but I’m not making much of a dent. And the driver is just meandering through back streets, threatening to leave us.

Finally Xiao Ming calls him out. She tells him that he purposely cheated us. He doesn’t want to admit it. Instead, he claims that, of course he had to agree to our price or we wouldn’t have gotten in his cab. We tell him, no shit. He somehow doesn’t see this as a cheat or a lie…

And then Xiao Ming hit him with mianzi. Mianzi, or Face, is a big deal in China, especially among men. It is respect, influence, peer admiration, clout—all rolled up into one. At this point Xiao Ming has gotten the guy to admit that, yes, he deceived us on purpose. He actually says it, “Wo pian ni le.” I cheated you.

He still wants his money, though, so Xiao Ming asks him one final question: Will 20 RMB buy your face?

Oh, that was great. The old man is staring at Xiao Ming like he’s witnessing a crazed animal spirit strike. The driver is resolutely staring straight ahead, avoiding my gaze in the rear view mirror.

She asks him again.

And he says, yes.

I can’t believe it, but then again, by this point it was obvious that he only worshipped at the altar of the dollar, or Ren Minbi, and wasn’t a man of any value himself. Even so, I couldn’t help add something to the moment.

As I passed him the 20 RMB note I said, “Hen pianyi mianzi.” Very Cheap Face.

About ten minutes later we’re on the highway and the driver pipes up again. He says we’re all getting off. I’m like, what the heck now?

He pulls up next to another taxi and they exchange a few words. We get out and the drivers help us haul our crap into the second taxi. After a parting glance, the first driver is gone like a fart in the wind.

Once in the second cab we get the story. Turns out, the first driver had called the second one an hour ago and told him to meet him there, on the highway. The second driver was always the one who was going to take us the rest of the way, apparently. We asked him if he did this often and how much he got paid. He said, yes, this was a common thing for him, and that he got paid 70RMB each time.

For a twenty minute ride, that’s not bad, but the first driver had collected 100 from us, 160 from the old man, and 120 from the other young Chinese guy. We then learned that the taxi driver is friends with a bus driver back at the bus stop, and that the bus actually got to the airport in one hour, not four. In fact, taxi drivers aren’t even legally allowed to be at the bus stop where we were picked up.

The Taxi Relay Scam, ladies and gents.

Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are....
Sometimes you just have to take off your clothes to really express how pissed you are….

And the one thing that happened on our last trip to Guilin also happened on our way out of the city. Though it wasn’t as bad, and much less elaborate, it still annoyed me.

Before hailing a cab we were assured of a certain price, or at least what a ride should cost, to our destination. The driver we got, however, only saw me as a white face with zeros attached somewhere. He wants a ridiculous amount, and when we counter he basically just says, foreigners are all rich, that what he’s asking is nothing. This is, sadly, a way of thinking here. It gets a lot of foreigners in tight spots. People just think we all have money. When you claim you don’t most won’t believe you.

At first, the driver only talks to Xiao Ming and I stay silent, just listen. They go on a bit, but then I finally interrupt. I ask him why he’s giving us trouble. He is surprised I’m speaking Chinese, but not for long. He asks me, “What trouble?” I tell him that he knows, “what trouble.” I add that if he doesn’t want to take us then he can just stop and we’ll get out. I tell him we’re not in a hurry and that we don’t need him. Wo men bu zhaoji. Bu xu yao ni song wo men.

He then changes his tune a bit. He offers to take us to a bus stop nearby. At a normal price, we get there. Then, as we’re getting out, he says something I don’t catch. I ask Xiao Ming what it is, but she doesn’t tell me until we’re on the bus. Chinese girl with a foreigner—what does she thing? His tone, she said, had a lot of venom in it. When she told me all I kept thinking was, “I want to break his face”—the one with a nose and eyes on it, not mianzi.” I wanted to chase the narrow-minded buttnugget down and…But she calmed me down, and soon we were driving away from Guilin and to the airport.

These have been a few of my experiences with the Chinese Taxi Driver, a species of worker who sometimes sees every fare as an opportunity to practice their own special style of kung-fu: the art of the grubby paws.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some pleasant ones (singing with a cabbie, a driver who gave great local descriptions, and even one who saved me money), but the bad ones are just more plentiful, and they have the potential to ruin your trip to some degree.

Some of the foreign teachers I met when I first got here had a phrase that helped them see their way through the hard, inconvenient, and downright strange times: T.I.C-This is China.

Song Shan Days 6, 7, and 8

Rain lazily poured down the sides of the bus as Xiao Ming and I settled in to our uncomfortable seats and prepared for the few hours ride to Song Mountain.

I could barely keep my eyes open, and my head wasn’t all that clear thanks to the cold I picked up in either Luoyang or Zhengzhou, however, as the bus took to the road the small TVs descended and a classic began to play—Shaolin Temple. (Shao lin Si)

The world-famous temple known for the almost supernatural Shaolin Monks is located on Song Mountain and it was definitely on our agenda. Having never seen the old film, my eyes were glued to the screen despite my fatigue. A few early surprises—finding a young Jet Li in the lead role, and watching as his character kills a pretty innocent dog by smothering it on accident only to then cook it and share the meat with his fellow monks (who aren’t supposed to eat meat in the first place) in an effort to hide his misstep from the cute shepherd girl—kept me awake enough to follow the whole thing despite there being no English subtitles.

The movie’s credits rolled up the screen just as the bus came to a stop in Deng Feng, at the foot of Song Shan. We disembarked and hailed a cab, ignoring the ubiquitous “Black Taxis” that are everywhere in China. Those are people who are, as you can probably guess, not legal Cab drivers. They all appear to have black Volvos or BMWs or Volkswagens, and are really good at cheating folks. They like to target foreigners, but also snare their compatriots just as easily. Stay away. I’ll tell you more about Taxi Mishaps I’ve been privy to another time, just to elucidate the full range of my disdain for them, but right now we’re in Song Shan.

We outran the rain sometime a few miles back, so we could appreciate the small town without needing to duck for cover. The presence of the Shaolin Temple very obviously is the heart from which the community draws its lifeblood. Everywhere around the town frescos and murals of monks training or captured in some crazy aerial maneuver can be seen. Shops sell porcelain monks with styles ranging from traditional to down right gaudy.

The narrow streets and small shops don’t really scream tourist destination, but what really made the place feel like a quiet village mostly forgotten was the lack of people—Chinese and foreign. We had chosen to travel during this week because it was a normal work week for most and not a national holiday, but it still seemed like Deng Feng was more vacant than it should be.

Even the hostel we checked into had an empty feel to it. Don’t get me wrong, the little restaurant/hostel combo was very comfortable—especially the restaurant/café part. The interior had a decidedly international theme going. Flags strung up around the ceiling, pictures from different countries, and even the ever-present American country music rounded out the ambiance (I’ve asked before, but, seriously, what is with American Country Music in Chinese Hostel?). But we were two of what I later realized was probably less than ten guests. The people were nice, and in the evenings they show movies for free, so it’s a place I recommend.

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It wasn’t too late in the day, still around lunchtime, so we decided to make plans. We bought tickets to the Shaolin Zen Performance for later that night, and then headed out to the famous Song Yang Academy and hike along Song Shan’s trails.

The ancient academy turned out to be pretty docile, but still worth a look. Truly ancient, the structure had first been used as a temple way back around 484 AD, but then became an establishment of higher learning for Confucian scholars hundreds of years later. Song Shan is a symbolic area not just because of Shaolin fame, but because it is on the mountain and its surrounding areas that three belief systems more or less peacefully coexisted—Buddhism, Taoism, and the art of Zen.

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We walked through the open courtyard design and I couldn’t help but think of the Great Mosque in Xi’an, the one with similar open courtyards. Ancient tablets with faded inscriptions and tombstones with faded names were everywhere. Two gianormous Cyprus trees also hung out in the courtyards. These suckers were huge, and old, apparently.

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I took some snapshots with Confucius and some bamboo graffiti, and then we found a little room where a man sold charcoal prints he claimed were taken from tombstones and frescos at the Shaolin Temple. I wasn’t supposed to take a picture…but I did anyways. He even sold five together in a pack, and after some serious bartering, I managed to get him to sell us one set for 100 RMB. Xiao Ming and I split them three and two. One of the prints I eventually had set into a scroll and gave to a friend as a gift. It was an old Chinese poem, but the characters were created from the leaves dangling from a bamboo tree. Pretty cool image. The other two I kept were also very interesting. One, a face made up of three people’s face was symbolic of the three beliefs on the mountain, and the other one, a representation of the five sacred mountains of China written in ancient characters. But what made them all even more interesting was knowing that the designs had actually all come from the Shaolin Temple, which we’d be seeing the next day.

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Because when grass smiles at you the fit is gonna hit the shan, man.

Thirty minutes into the hike, I realized two things: All of the people visiting the area had apparently congregated on the trails, and there was no way I was going to make it off the mountain alive if I didn’t turn back. The climb is really easy. Song Shan is a very old mountain, and it’s kinda got a globular shape more than a mountainous one. They even frequently refer to the mountain as an Old Man or Grandpa. It’s not steep at all, is what I’m saying. NO, it was my cold that had suddenly decided to kick my ass.

So in a move so out of character it was basically against my morals, I went back to the hostel and took a nap.

I look like a zombie, man. I was wiped out..
I look like a zombie, man. I was wiped out..

Later that night, though, I felt better.

We were driven about fifteen minutes away, to this outdoor theater of sorts, where the Zen Performance is held. The air held a chill that we hadn’t felt all vacation. Luckily, we packed anticipating a night or two of colder weather so we just enjoyed the brisk breeze and watched the show.

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The “stage” is really an elaborately designed set that is modeled after a village. Not just any village, either, but the one from the film, Shaolin Temple. And the show itself seems to model every act on scenes from the movie. First thing the audience is treated to is the sight of five elderly men in dark orange/yellow robes sitting in rigid positions about thirty feet in front of the area the audience is sitting. The men, we are led to believe, are traditional followers of the Zen practice. For the entire duration of the show they DO NOT MOVE. It’s cold, windy, and they are in robes, but they do not flinch, not even to pick their nose or scratch an itch. At different points in the show Xiao Ming and I questioned their very humanity, finding it hard to believe that modern geriatrics could pull off what we were witnessing.

The rest of the actual show progressed just as the movie had. We watch as a beautiful shepherd girl takes her flock to some fresh grass (they use real sheep and goats and seriously lead them to patches of grass on the stage). Then a bunch of young monks-in-training toting buckets held out to their sides come racing along the “village,” chanting all the way. Lights and music swirl around in the open air, and what’s probably the most impressive sight of all is the natural face of the mountain in the background, above and behind a temple. In the night the temple and mountain would normally be impossible to see, but they have incorporated both into the show as part of the set by having landscaping lights cast ethereal glows of greens, blues, reds, and purples all along both at different times. I found it difficult to constantly follow the show instead of just marvel at the scene and let the music fill me.

From young monks carrying water the show moves to slightly older monks going through fighting stances. The group seems to be in their early teens and much more focused. They through punches and kicks, and grunt and holler like true warriors, mostly. More dramatic music and dazzling lights. Then another group, older, going through more techniques, this time with weapons. The show continues on like this for a while, with small groups of monks performing various skills with an array of weapons. They pop up at all places, fully making use of every inch of the set, and making it easy for every audience member to see them. They never stay in one part too long.

At one point a portion of the stage actually lifts into the air and three electrified monks give an exhibition that looks like Christmas trees seeking revenge for being chopped down. Simulation battles, traditional Chinese songs, crazy light work, and five or six old monks who probably didn’t even blink the whole darn time—that about sums up the show.

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This image really just utterly fails to do any form of mild justice to the beauty of the actual scene…I’m sorry.

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When the lights dimmed and the woman on the speaker politely kicked us all out, then, under the cover of near-pitch black conditions, I saw the monk statue closest to us turn and look at the audience. They’re alive!

That night, back at the hostel, we hung out in the café/restaurant part and watched the movie, The Way. I had seen the flick before, but watching while you’re traveling gives it a different perspective. It’s about a father who goes to retrieve his deceased son’s possessions at the beginning of the Camino de Santiago. If you don’t know what that particular road is I recommend you do a little Googling. In the film the father, Martin Sheen, doesn’t just collect his son’s (Emilio Estevez) stuff, but travels along the old pilgrim’s road in an attempt to…just finish his son’s last goal. It’s a great movie that asks you to just take a look at what you’re doing and decide if that’s what you really want to be doing. Of course, the lead is a doctor who has the financial freedom to take more vacations than most of us, but the main thoughts are pretty accessible to all socio-economic levels.

In fact, when I began telling people that I was moving to China for a while a huge majority of them sighed and expressed a desire to do something similar, only to amend the wish with the words, “But I can’t.” I’ve not got much to my name, I’ve made scores of mistakes, and I’m still too young to be qualified to give advice, but when I think about all the people who have desires to change their lives, that want to do something else, only to crap on their own dreams with sentiments like, “someday,” “I can’t,” or “I don’t have the time,” I just want to make a blanket statement, the same answer to all of them: “Yes, you can.” That’s not a political reference but a basic building block of a simple belief. You can change yourself and your world.

Okay. That’s it. Pulpit is being burned down and used to cook come good Korean barbecue.

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The next day we took a bus to the Shaolin Temple bright and early. The temple area is more like a very big campus. You are greeted by a giant statue of a muscular monk, and then must walk a gauntlet of souvenir shops before you get to the actual grounds of the temple and its surrounding structures.

We took a cable car ride up the mountain to check out the scenery. I picked up a medallion as a souvenir for my step-dad and had the merchant carve his name into it. After having negotiated rather expertly for the prints earlier, I was disappointed when I only got the guy to take five RMB off the original price. Then we came back down and wandered around the Pagoda Forest for a while.

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We nearly missed the Shaolin Monk performance, but we raced down the narrow paths to the building and squeezed through the crowd in the dark theater and made our own seats at the base of the stairs. Creating our front row seats was surprisingly simple and a small kid thought it was a good idea, too, so he sat right next to me and periodically chatted with me in Chinese throughout the show.

The show itself turned out to be fun, but less genuine than an American kung-fu flick. Sure, the young monks had great skill and twirled their swords, staffs, and chains with precision, but the whole feel of it seemed a bit affected, a little too commercialized. A funny part of the half-hour performance included three young monks teaching three audience members a few steps and tumbles in the Monkey, Snake, and Tiger styles. The three audience members, young Chinese guys about my age, took to the tasks with about as much grace as a Hippo on a pogo stick.

A few demonstrations of qi were also part of the whole thing. One monk threw a needle through glass to pop a balloon. Another bent some metal bars with his neck. A third one did push-ups with one finger. All to rounds of applause.

After the show Xiao Ming bought a cheap DVD with more demonstrations and then we left the building. On the way out visitors were given the opportunity to pose for photos with young and old monks in fighting stances, or even allowed to hold blunted weapons and pantomime gestures for the camera.

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Finally, we headed to the actual Shaolin Temple.

It looked just like the movie! Only…smaller, in some way.

We entered into the temple, another open courtyard design (What is it the Chinese have against roofs?), and wandered around taking it all in. There were tons of other foreigners and Chinese tourists, some in small groups and others in larger ones led by tour guides. One group of French travelers had a Chinese guide with great French, so Xiao Ming (who got her PhD in France) kinda stalked them to get as much info as she could.

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A tree where monks practiced the sacred technique of poking.
A tree where monks practiced the sacred technique of poking.

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One of the famous monks from history Da Mo, is said to have been the one who gave Chan Zong or Zen to the Shaolin Temple. Legend says Da Mo traveled to India and back to learn the secrets of Buddha and that when he got back in town the current leader of the temple, otherwise known by his title as the Fang Zhang, wanted to become his disciple. Da Mo didn’t like the guy’s face or his arrogance or something, and said, “nope.” Instead, Da Mo found a cave and spent the next 8-9 years staring at a wall. The Fang Zhang, however, spent the better part of the next decade bringing food to the crazy guy in the cave so that he didn’t just rot away before he could pass on his teachings. Da Mo apparently psychically teleported the food from the bowls to his bowels because the legend says he just sat there, without moving. The Fang Zhang eventually got around to asking Da Mo what the hell, and the crazy man’s reply came out as something like, “Until the snows that fall become red, I will not train you.”

Having no regard whatsoever for himself or a rather inflamed sense of trust in men who spend every waking moment staring at walls, the Fang Zhang took the words to heart and chopped off his arm. He sprinkled his blood on a snow bank and then promptly tried to spell his name before giving a shout to Da Mo. When Da Mo got there he realized that the Fang Zhang’s crazy was that special little something that had been missing from his cave-staring days, and decided to take him on as a disciple.

The Fang Zhang’s masochistic nature is why Zen monks still walk around with their right hands in front of their chest. That, or it represents devotion and discipline. Either one.

Like this...
Like this…

Another story, about kung-fu, says that it was the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks that helped soon-to-be emperor Li Shi Min defend China against an evil opposing army. Of course, this is the story that’s depicted in the film Shaolin Temple. In the end, after the bad guys are vanquished, the emperor grants the fighting monks of the Shaolin temple the right to eat meat and drink alcohol. So basically, he gave China’s bodyguards the right to get plastered. Nice guy. Also, throughout history the monks show up to help emperors—always on the side of justice, of course.

Da Mo himself, ladies and gents.
Da Mo himself, ladies and gents.

Unfortunately, a lot of the structures of the temple are not that old. Fame didn’t really do the temple any favors over the centuries. At different times, various walls and courtyards of the temple have been destroyed and burned down. The most recent was sometime in the 1930s. Just like the Longmen Grottoes, the place has fallen victim to the crashing, volatile waves of political unrest, and iconoclast tyrants.

Back at the hostel we grabbed some grub and chatted with some of the locals. We turned in early in order to wake refreshed the next day. My cold still clung to me with a vengeance, but it had been a great trip regardless.

The next morning we caught a bus back to lovely Zhengzhou and then a cab to the airport. The taxi driver turned out to be a huge conman, but we made it to the airport in time to board the plane despite his over-the-top disregard for human decency.

On the flight back to Dalian Xiao Ming and I talked about Chinese history, and I outlined a story idea I’d been nursing for the last few days inspired by the places we visited. I reviewed some of the new words I’d learned and tried to sleep a bit.

Xi’an Day Three: Hua Shan Lun Jian

There are stories—in China there are always stories—about Hua Shan’s connection to Chinese martial arts. Famous novels depict the sacred mountain as a ritual meeting place for Kung-fu tournaments and a sword competition where the winner is given a sword and proclaimed the champion. The “Hua Shan Lun Jian,” or Mount Hua’s Discussion of the Sword is a well-known cultural detail that just about anyone that visits the place can tell you about thanks to the “kung-fu” author, Jin Yong. Though we didn’t have to defend our honor in a bloody duel, I did descend the mountain with a sword. Here, I’ll tell you about it…

From the hostel we took the subway to the train station, and then the train to the town Hua Shan is located. We missed our original train because of a confusion with the time…Not my fault! Anyway, because of that we did not have tickets with seats on the one we finally got on. For about twenty minutes we managed to pretend like we belonged in two seats while others filed in and stood around in the cramped compartment. Eventually our luck ran out, though. Someone with a ticket number matching (my stolen) seat booted me out and I had to stand. Xiao Ming managed to hang on to her seat and the two of us ended up sharing it for the rest of the journey. The whole ride took about an hour and a half or two. It was my first time on a train.

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At the base of the mountain chain, and the entrance to the site, the jagged, sword-tipped peaks were too far away to be intimidating, but the place sure was pretty. Xiao Ming and I ambled about in the welcome/info center, a state-of-the-art, artistically designed building that would be at home on the Enterprise. We paid the absurdly expensive tickets to get into the mountain and then grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants on the bottom floor. We had just missed a group departing for the mountain, so the center was mostly empty. As I’ve mentioned in different ways before: that doesn’t happen much in China. It’s one of those things I just can’t get around—I don’t like big crowds. I don’t even go to the stores here unless I absolutely have to. I will wait until all my resources at home are completely tapped before braving the throngs and overly heated supermarkets…I digress…

wandering around like an idiot...Or, in Chines, Ben Dan (dumb egg)...
wandering around like an idiot…Or, in Chines, Ben Dan (dumb egg)…Mts. in the background there…

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A shuttle bus took us up to the cable cars. The ride up through the base of the mountain was not what I expected. The shuttle driver reminded me of the van driver I had on the way back to Chiang Mai from Pai, a few months ago in Thailand. Both of them took the curves at ridiculous speeds and seemed to have forgotten what the brake was used for. Homicidal driving was not what captured my attention, though. It was the mountain. Rising up on all sides of the shuttle, the mountain seemed to just explode from the ground and shoot up into the clouds. Peering out of the windows while being jerked left and right as we rounded curves, I felt like I was looking straight up at skyscrapers. The peaks touched the sky like sword points being raised in celebration. I tried to take some pictures, but none could really do the scene any justice.

We walked up to the cable car place and weaved through the empty metal guide things that people have to walk around when they’re in lines…what are those damn things called? As we entered the actual building part I caught the screen of one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling. Avril, from at least eight years ago, belting one out. No worries. No one paid her any mind.

The cable car ride up through the mountains brought us even closer to those sharp peaks. We boarded the car along with three others. As we ascended one of the others, a middle-aged woman, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder. He joked with her, saying we were going to fall and that if the wind picked up we’d all drop. Most of us laughed, but it was easy to see that the woman had a genuine fear of heights. I loved being up that high. I kept leaning over close to the glass to get different views, but once I looked straight down at the cars that trailed behind us I got a bit dizzy. The angle, movement, and small space of the cable car kinda had that affect.

I know, I know…why didn’t we just climb up the mountain? That option was available to us, but we just didn’t have the time. We needed to catch a bus back by six, and even at the top, it takes hours to hike along the ridges and peaks. Taking the cable car saved us time and got us to the wonderful scenery faster.

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As one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains, Hua Shan is pretty famous. But it’s also considered dangerous. Xiao Ming’s father told her about how tourists die every year along the hike up the mountain. The narrow walkways, sharp angles and paths, they claim lives all the time apparently. That may be true, but our experience up and around the sacred mountain proved relatively uneventful.

The views were great, though. Up and down the peaks we hiked, snapping shots and resting to enjoy the scenery a lot. My thoughts drifted in and out of focus, tossed about, no doubt, by the wind and the simple beauty and history that surrounded me.

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Hua Shan Top View

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We bumped into two familiar faces, two of the girls who’d gone on the Terra Cotta tour with us. We chatted and they told us we still had several more peaks to see before we had to turn back around.

Along the way up you can see thousands of little locks with Chinese messages carved into them hanging from the guard chains. These messages contain names, hopes, desires, and even lovers’ names. People buy them, carve their special message, and then lock them where they want. They are given a key and a little note that describes the location of their lock. The hope is that one day you can come back and claim it if you want. Xiao Ming bought one and put her parents’ names on it. She said that she hopes one day they can make it back and unlock it together.

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Then, at one of the peaks, Xiao Ming bought me a sword. A bit paradoxically, the swords are cheaper at the top than they are at the base. It’s illegal to own guns in China, and in the Liaoning Province in the NE of China even knives aren’t that common, but in the Shaanxi province and around Xi’an, they are everywhere. For the last few days I had been seeing booths and stores with swords of all description. I have loved swords ever since I saw the first Highlander years and years ago, and even have a small collection in America. Seriously, I even tracked down the dragon katana that Connor McCloud uses. So when Xiao Ming asked me which one I liked I checked them out and told her. I never thought she’d say, “Okay, let’s wrap ‘er up.” When she began negotiating with the guy sellin’ them I butted in and tried to stop her, but she carried on until the two had come to an agreeable price. After that I still tried to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t need it, that it was too much, blah, blah, blah….To no avail. A few minutes later we were trekking back along the path we’d come, sword in tow.

On the way down we took some pictures, and since I was one of the few white guys on the mountain, AND I happened to be carrying a sword, people wanted to get in on the picture taking. I took about three or four pictures with different people, even letting one of them hold the sword, and then we got a few of our own.

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Ever since my hiking trip with my dad along the Great Smokey Mountains I’ve noticed a difference in the endurance of my knees. Up is no problem. Down is where the knees wanna just give out. It takes a while before any discomfort flares up, but it eventually does, reminding me that my old neighbor was right: jumping off roofs and doing flips out of trees as a teen has finally caught up to me.

We made it to the cable car place and descended, taking in the change of angle. Rising through the peaks was still more dramatic, but coming down through them also had its appeal.

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On our way down the walkway we sat down on one of the benches lining the path, and I finished off the rest of the sandwich from our earlier lunch. As the other people filed out down the path we caught a few of them glancing at us. Stares are just something you have to get used to as an Expat, but these stares and conversations were even more specific. I understood some of it, phrases like, “Foreigner with sword,” and “look.” I asked Xiao Ming to clarify.

“They’re saying, ‘Why does the foreigner think he deserves the sword?’ They’re referencing the old stories.”

Of course I was annoyed and wanted to use my limited Chinese to ask them, “What are you looking at?” but Xiao Ming gave me a better phrase: Jiao Liang Yi Xia (roughly: let’s compare). It’s a phrase that kungfu fighters used to begin a fight or contest of ability.

Once off the mountain and back at the train station we encountered the first of what would become many “sword transporting” issues. First off, before stepping into the place I handed the sword to Xiao Ming. It was in a box and a red string was tied to either end of it so you could sling it over your shoulder, but I’m white. And in China. Carrying a sword is just too much attention. Giving her the box just bypassed some of the superficial issues that could come our way.

I set my bag on the security belt and it passed through just fine. I walked ahead of Xiao Ming and tried to seem nondescript to the point of just plain old ignorable…By the way, never, ever works here. As soon as the sword passed through the woman behind the scanner sat bolt upright. She motioned to the box and then to the other security guard. I didn’t make eye contact with either one. Instead, I grabbed it and set it against the railing like I didn’t have the faintest clue what they were on about. Then the male guard came over to it and asked in Chinese what was inside it. I shrugged my shoulders and told him in English that I didn’t understand. I made a gesture to Xiao Ming and grabbed the sword and headed off in her direction. I gave her a heads up when I got to her just before the guard came over.

Xiao Ming told them it was a fake sword for her father, a gift for an old sick man. It was tied up tight and was not dangerous, at all. They relented and let us through under the condition that we didn’t open it or swing it around on the train. I kind of just stared at him when he said that. I wanted to ask what the hell fun could I have with it on a train if I couldn’t lop it around and do some permanent damage to body parts, but I didn’t…

Anyway, once we got back to Xi’an we took another bus to get us on the same block as the hostel. Before heading back we picked up some newspaper and tape. At the hostel we taped the sword up, using about five newspapers and an entire roll of packaging tape. Hopefully having it sealed up would limit the amount of bullcrap we’d have to deal with on the rest of our trip (barely any help, is the answer to that one).

We grabbed some more food at the hostel, but the atmosphere had changed. As soon as you walked in, the place felt more like a club. On the second floor a live band played and a Chinese girl who sounded like Sarah Mclachlin sang songs in Mandarin that I had no hope of understanding. Customers who were definitely not staying at the hostel came and went, ordering food, beer, smoking, and chatting loudly. The Han Tang Hostel is a strange and interesting place. They play American country music in the mornings, alternative international ballads in the evenings, and on our last night there they had a Chinese girl with a voice combo of Mclachlin and Pink. And the staff stayed friendly and helpful the whole time, even the over-worked girl from that first day maintained a scary amount energy and patience at all times. She even laughed at my jokes in Chinese. I spoke Chinese, she didn’t laugh in Chinese…

But we were leaving in the morning. Off to Luoyang in the morning, to see the famous Longman Grottoes. We packed our bags, and turned in for an early night. I dreamed of cutting things with my new sword.

The next morning, on our walk out of the hostel, we ran into Lady Jia Jia. She smiled at us broadly and wished us happy travels.

Pai and back to Chiang Mai, Thailand Part 2

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View from the Hostel
View from the Hostel
Some huts
Some huts
Rickety old bridge
Rickety old bridge

Pai, a small town in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province, has that laid-back, coastal paradise feel, only without the coast. Packed dirt roads, grass-roofed shops, and a tightly nestled community surrounded by hills and a lot of green make the place cozy and calm. Once the four of us climbed out of the suicidal driver’s van we hiked through the town and up a dirt path for about a mile or so before coming to a beautiful hostel. The Darling View Point Hostel is a burgundy wooded, clubhouse-looking place designed to keep everyone who stays there in a chill mood. It succeeds. For the first day nothing but Reggae played on the speakers, and I swear at all times there was at least one trekker swaying in a corner to a beat only he could hear. Even the owner, a French guy named Peter, seemed to have been on the down slope of a very substance-friendly lifestyle.

Pai is definitely a place to see in Thailand. The island feel and the scenery alone is worth a two-day stay.

The main building of the hostel we stayed in...I wish I lived there...
The main building of the hostel we stayed in…I wish I lived there…
By far the nicest hostel I've seen so far...
By far the nicest hostel I’ve seen so far…

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Although the sleeping arrangements were a, who cares, it's a hostel.
Although the sleeping arrangements were a bit…eh, who cares, it’s a hostel.

Once the four of us got checked in at the hostel I walked back into town and rented a Scooter. Within an hour I managed two almost crashes and one legitimate tumble when I attempted to start and turn at the same time. No worries, though, by day three I was riding like a pro…

That first day I just rode around a lot, taking in the area and watching the people. There were so many tourists I had a hard time discerning who was a local and who was just passing through. I ran into the Finnish girl a few times, and even the Chinese couple from Shanghai Dean and I met at the Doi Suthep temple. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I travel I seem to run into people multiple times. It’s amazing how that can happen. You bump into people once and then find them later on and share a meal and a story with them. Anyone else ever feel that way?

I don’t know what it is about me wanting bags or hats, but every time I go somewhere I seem to want one or the other. In Pai I wanted a hat. A fedora, precisely. So I bought one off a local merchant and haggled her down, but not as good as when I bought the brown bag I was still totting around. And unfortunately I did wear both of them together. I wish I could have gotten a picture of what I must have looked like on the scooter.

The food at the hostel was fantastic and each morning I made sure to get up around 7 and get some. On the second morning I happened to leave my fedora (my awesome fedora) on the table. When I came back for it it was gone. Peter said the tall English guy took it, but swore he’d bring it back later. Apparently the hostel has hats it lends out and the English guy thought this was one of them. On one hand, he’d given his own black fedora to Peter for collateral, so I knew he’d probably be back with it sooner or later. On the other hand, the guy was a loon. The first night we were there we hung out around a fire pit and this guy just kept rambling about this young woman he was traveling with and how she was the sun in his life, the energy and heart that keeps him sane (obviously not so good with the last part). The guy was so burnt-out he made Peter seem like a calm, calculated accountant.

When he did finally come back to the hostel I happened to be around and I asked him for the hat back. He relinquished it easily enough, but the look on his face made it seem like I punched his dog in the face or something. He mumbled again and then spoke up so I could understand him. He asked if I’d be willing to trade for the hat. When I told him I just bought it he looked just barely Okay with the refusal, but then asked me what the story behind it was. I asked him what he meant. “You know, the story, man. What’s the story about this hat? It feels like a story to me.” I told him I just bought it in town and that I doubt it had a story. He persisted by saying, “Well, surely you spoke to the woman you bought it from. Did she say anything about it?” I suppose this would have been a great opportunity to embellish, to say, well, shit, yeah this thing has a GREAT story! Each straw thread used in it had to be carried across war-infested borders, and the little girl who made it sold it as a means to feed her family…I don’t know. I just looked at him and shrugged, put the hat on, and walked away.

Great scenery
Great scenery

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Making our way down the "canyon"
Making our way down the “canyon”
Now there's a rickety bridge...
Now there’s a rickety bridge…

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Yes, I did indeed by a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin' to say 'bout it?
Yes, I did indeed buy a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin’ to say ’bout it?

On the second night we hit an actual Reggae concert in town. Along with a few Leo Beers and dancing, the night consisted of meeting a group of Australian girls who gloriously over-used the word, “Oi” to the point that I had to simply walk away from them, a guy with dreadlocks following us around, and a song with a chorus of “do, do, do, do, da, da,” that is still stuck in my head. Pai isn’t a party town at all, but that night we did all right.

The next morning while I was eating breakfast the tall English guy strolled into the common area wearing a tightly wrapped, multi-colored skirt, ankle-high snake skin boots, a woman’s denim jacket, and sunglasses. Clutched in his right hand—at 8 am—was a large Leo and a thin cigarette. He called Peter over to him and told him twice, “You’re name is Peter. That’s like ‘teacher,’ but funnier because you’re funny.”

To his credit, Peter just nodded and continued taking orders for breakfast.

Eventually we all got together and headed out for some trails. We rode for hours, up and down hills, weaving around on the dirt roads and paths. We got to a few waterfalls where we swam for a bit and even one where we did flips off the rocks. I met a Chinese woman named Sara at one of them. She works for Tabao, a Chinese internet company like Ebay. She filmed us jumping around. I’ll link to the video below.

On the day I was to catch the 3:30 bus back to Chiang Mai Dean, Brendan, and I went for a hike that was supposed to be like two hours. Four hours later found us deep into the woods where we waded through several twists in the river, trekking deeper and deeper in search of a waterfall. I decided to commit to the hike and just catch the last bus out of Pai, and eventually we made it to the waterfall. Honestly, it was a bit underwhelming, but it was a fun hike through actual forest trails. When we got back to our scooters we careened down the roads until we reached the Hostel. I grabbed my gear and headed into town to arrange my exit strategy.

Once that was done I met up with the guys for lunch and we talked about our plans. Brendan was going home soon like me, but Dave and Dean still had a lot of traveling left to do. It was a good meal—American style Cheese Burger, baby. We said our goodbyes and each of us extended offers for room and board if any of us were in each other’s neighborhood later down the road. At about 7 I said so long to the guys with whom I’d become fast friends and hopped on the bus back to Chiang Mai.

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Gathering our wits and regrouping.
Gathering our wits and regrouping.

The ride back was just as crazy as the one in, but this time it was in complete darkness. Twice the driver stopped for wild dogs and once for a random herd of cows crossing the road. How he saw them in time to stop I’ll never know. Somehow I slept a little.

I checked back into the Little Bird Hostel I stayed in a few days before and dropped my stuff on the same bunk as before. I was wired, so I headed out. I hit the night bazaar again and wandered around for a while by myself, lost in thought. I felt completely alone for the first time my entire trip. The next day I would be catching a plane to Kunming and the day after that one back to Dalian. I wouldn’t meet random strangers and begin traveling with them again. I couldn’t really chat with the guests at the hostel, either. All of them seemed much busier than the ones who’d been there before. Although Yanis, the French guy who designed those abstract graphs, was still around. I thought about him and how his life seemed perfect. After working in a massage parlor for a year training, he decided to branch out. He figured he could help someone start their own massage place, and that’s just what he did. He helped create a new business and even designed their website. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but the work he did for them keeps him comfortable. One time I remember him complaining that sometimes he even has to work four hours a day! No wonder he possessed such zen calm half the time and reminded me of Garfield the cat the other half.

But as I wandered around on the streets I began thinking about the hostels I’d stayed in throughout some of my recent travels. There were definitely levels to them, but the comfy ones were truly special. The one in Beijing and the one in Pai, those were great. Sure the owners probably weren’t rich, but if it was a good location I’m sure they did all right for themselves. Back at the Little Bird I asked the owner about what it takes to open a hostel in Thailand and he said it was pretty easy. A lot of other Westerners also had book shops or cafes in the area. When I was younger I dated a girl and we sometimes joked about a combination book and café shop we’d someday own. MJ’s Book & Café, we’d call it. Now I wonder if owning a hostel could be possible…

Just as I was deciding on turning in for bed I decided to take a look at the second level of the Little Bird hostel. I’d never been up there, so I just wanted to see. When I got up there two Chinese girls were chatting. I said hi in Chinese and asked how they were. They commented on my Mandarin and asked me to sit with them. We chatted a bit, but it wasn’t long before we switched back to English, my Chinese having run out rather quickly. B. and W. were both traveling, but were friends. W. was studying for a Thai Language test the next morning and B. was just enjoying the evening, thinking about her recent travels to a monastery in Nepal where she met someone and fell in love. After about an hour W. turned in and B. and I walked around the market. I bought a pair of black fisherman pants that looked cool, and got the merchant down more than half. B. was impressed, but I just told her it was from living in China. We walked and talked a lot that evening. We ended up hanging out by the western side of the mote surrounding the town until the night air got a little too cool. She told me about her family, about how her parents couldn’t have children years ago, so they went to a small village and bought her as a baby from a local and raised her as their own. A few years later they finally had a son, but all through childhood B. felt divided, separate from them some how. Originally she wanted to go to Japan, but there were money problems, so that’s how she ended up in Nepal instead. She still seemed determined to make it there some day soon though. I walked her back to her hostel and then I headed back to my room where I fell asleep and dreamed about my family.

The next day I packed up my stuff and decided to lounge around and finally finish the book I was reading, The Psychopath Test. Just as I turned the last page B. walked by. She asked me if I’d seen W. and I said no. She plops down and we chat a few before I ask her if she’s eaten, “Ni chi fan le ma?” It’s a very common question in Chinese. About the closest they get to small talk. In my case, though, I meant it. I was hungry and so was she, so we set out for some lunch. After ten minutes of looking for the “right” Pad Thai place I happened to spot Yanis and asked him for directions. He pointed me down the right alley and soon B. and I were munching on some good Pad Thai. After the meal we said goodbye and I caught a cab to the airport.

I still had one more night before I had to be back in Dalian, so I decided to find something to do once I got to Kunming. When I landed a friend of my friend directed me through texts where to go to catch the right bus to the Youth Hostel. Once I got situated in the room I tossed my stuff on the bunk, changed my shirt, and headed out. I wandered around the streets of Kunming, China’s Spring City, and then found my way into a packed bar. Filled with mostly college students, the place was dark, flashy, and loud. Dancers in wild outfits gyrating and lip-synching to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, crowds of young Chinese, and one Westerner—Me. I grabbed a drink, stood by a tall table, and within five minutes was invited over to a table with girls and guys all dancing and drinking. Once they learned I could speak to them in Chinese the drinking games began and the dancing and laughing continued. We hung out for a few hours, everyone laughing and joking like we all grew up together.

The next morning I slept in a bit too late and found myself rushing to catch a taxi to the airport in time. Before boarding I sent out a few texts to the people I’d met along the trip. I didn’t worry about goodbyes, just told them how much fun I’d had with them all. And then I got on the plane and headed home to Dalian.

Some art work back in Chiang Mai at the Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai, Thailand Part One

Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant's spaghetti....
Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant’s spaghetti….

This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).

The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.

It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.

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On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.

After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.

Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.

I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.

Come one...this is aweseome
Come one…this is awesome
A mote where the ancient wall used to be...
A mote where the ancient wall used to be…
These little altars are everywhere
These little altars are everywhere

It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.

As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.

On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.

On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.

I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.

Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.

Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.

Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.

During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.

I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.

A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.

We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.

Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.

Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.

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Notice the brown bag I mentioned...yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.
Notice the brown bag I mentioned…yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.

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On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.

Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.

Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.

No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.

Next: Pai, Thailand Part Two


San huo fan—a going away meal. The pin yin tones are 4th, 3rd, 4th on the characters. Apart, these three characters translate to “To break away/Dispel,” “Companion,” “Meal.” My current Chinese teacher explained it, too.

“Chi wan fan, fen kai.” “After we eat, we separate.” She said it’s the final meal before moving on.

Last week we had our sanhuofan.

Teachers, Coworkers, None of us strangers and all of us Friends.

I don’t know if it was a traditional one or not because a week later we’re still around. I know that’ll change for many soon, but as for now, we’re still together. The school is in a rocky period of transition that has come upon the heels of news it was closing. A few months ago we were told about the imminent closing of our doors, so people did what people always do: We reacted. For most that meant seeking employment elsewhere—I was/am having meetings with a handful of training schools in the area to secure a steady position. Some of the Chinese staff has already moved on to different jobs and even the Western staff is looking ahead to an immediate future apart from the school. All of this is natural—to be expected—when you tell people the place is shuttin’ down.

As I said, though, transition. The school is not done. The owner has moved out of the country, but a new one is at the helm. Changes abound—some not so good. Customs are a tricky thing, and generally speaking, the school was always been very helpful at bridging those cultural gaps with minimal amounts of inconveniences and annoyances. I’m talking about common business practices, polite social etiquettes, creating good supervisor-employee rapport, and even simple personal boundary manners. Yes, the cultures of the East and West are often times at odds with each other, and yes, you should be sensitive to the practices of the country you’re in and give them priority (maybe), but when you’re working within a company that prides itself on blending the two’s cultures I feel it’s OK to be a little miffed when things start to deteriorate and those holding the reins aren’t listening to the solicited advice they are receiving.

In China (holds breath so as not to make an overly general, borderline insensitive statement), it seems that those in power have this idea that the people who are working for them or who are under their influence don’t have the capability to handle information without it being spun or heavily filtered (and then makes one anyway). With such an emphasis on saving face (mian zi), and a reliance on the social/political/professional benefits of relationships (guan xi), it can be terrifically difficult to get straight answers—or answers at all—from those in high positions, express genuine emotions or even practical advice (even when it’s seriously needed). Anyone who has lived here, and I hope I’m not leaning into the condescending, pedantic territory reserved for those who think they know what they’re talking about, can tell you that these things happen at all levels of employment, and to some extent, personal relationships.

Par for the course, you say? Not a golfer, says I.

But it really is. Color it the price of doing business here or whatever you want, but it does happen, and as a wai guo ren (outside country person: Foreigner), I don’t have a whole lot o’ options. The best I can hope for is that I’m partnered with an organization that is both conscious of the differences between the cultures, and willing to round out the rough edges to make the environment professional and conducive to getting things done properly. Just as a side note, previously, that’s how the school has been run. I’m still holding on to hope for this next chapter.


One year ago today, Noelle and I arrived in China.

Class Photos

SK1, Each of the kids got a chance to take a picture, so in each shot one of them is missing.

I wanted to put a few more pictures up with a few of my students. This group of shots is from this weekend. Three classes: SK1, SK4 a, and SK4 b. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but every teacher knows that’s just not practical. These kids are definitely some of my favorites!

Just goofin’ around…
SK4, Just chillin’…
Betty helping Aiden and Jeniffer.
Lily and Aiden kept trying to cover my face in each of these shots.
Betty with the little runts. I do love these kids.
Tom tried to cover my face…again….But I managed to outsmart the eight year old.
Seriously…one of my favorite classes I’ve taught here at Jayland this year.
Will and Sophia…My other SK4 class. These two boogers are “hen congming” (Very smart! *In Pin Yin*)
He slowly slipped all the way off and eventually just collapsed on the floor…Haha…He’s a goof.
We’re missing a few of our usual students, but we still make it work.
I think Sophia is trying to eat me here….?


Fenghuang, the Phoenix, from ashes is it reborn. In Western mythology this amazing creature is a symbol of life after hardships. In Chinese tradition it’s used to symbolize high virtue and grace, but it’s also seen during new beginnings, eras of rebirth. Along with the dragon (long), the koi carp (li yu), the Phoenix holds special significance here in the Middle Kingdom. There’s even a tongue twister that talks about gold and silver phoenixes being born in Phoenix mountain (fenghuang shan li sheng fenghuang jin fenghuang yin fenghuang…)

The dragon is power and strength. How can it not be? Flying, freaky, fiery breath to incinerate obstacles and adversaries–this mammoth beast is viewed not only as a powerful entity, but one of benevolence and wisdom in China. The Dragon was actually used as a symbol for the Emperor for a long time, and even today there are idioms such as, “Hoping your son will be a dragon.” The creature is not the miserly hoarder of English legend by any stretch of the imagination.

The koi carp–the only one of these three animals to actually exist outside of legend–represents fortune and good luck. If I had to pick an animal to embody my prosperity I think I’d select something a bit more aggressive or intimidating, maybe an animal known for its intelligence–the fox or a bird of prey, a wolf even. The owl is out since in China it’s viewed as a bad omen by many people. And perhaps the wolf is out, too. There’s a term “se lang” (color wolf) that basically translates into English as “pervert.” The fox, on the other hand, already has a special place in Chinese legends. When an animal lives long enough, gains enough wisdom, or is given enough power (all depending on the telling of it) the animal can turn into a human. In some stories they’re immortal and in others they’re sort of like spirits or demons, but the most famous of these unique animals is the Fox Lady. She shows up in stories, pop culture, and even in a recently released Chinese movie I saw at the theater. The other lucky animal to have been granted a human form is the snake–again, viewed by many in Asia as a wise and noble creature. Anyway, at least the animal some credit for their good fortune each year ( there’s a phrase that goes “nian nian you yu,” every year there is some, that refers to the harvest and the fish–Yu–at the same time) is a real one. You can see the multi-colored fish hanging in store windows, neighbors’ doors, inside buses, and even in taxis. Maybe that fact, that it’s real, gives the superstition some girth, something for belief to get behind. Or maybe it’s the koi carp because it’s a prosperous sea creature that’s been fished and bred in this country for thousands of years and people just decided on it by a majority vote. Who knows?

But the phoenix, like in Western tales, is life renewed. Chinese legends say it is the balancing force of yang, the dragon. As yin, it evens out the field and acts as a counter weight. Life and death, good and evil. Seen in times of new beginnings, this animal has to be positive. No matter the path before or even how the path ended, rebirth symbolizes hope, a future forged from ashes left when a fire wore itself out. All fires run their course, some longer then others, and some have enough force to alter the landscape irrevocably. But all fires fall to cinders and ashes, and I’ve heard that ash has a way of revitalizing the soil by bringing nutrients back that were scorched away. Whether it be flowers or a phoenix, life does return, reborn from the very elemental power that wanted so much to wipe it from the face of the earth.

My first year in China is nearly at its end, but the thought or returning home is still far away. Fires have indeed burned and charred some of the terrain, and recent blazes still rage, but along the edges where the ash has settled life is already being renewed.

This type of paper art can be seen everywhere in China. I have a friend who is particularly good at making these. This one is of a Dragon-Long-and a Phoenix-Fenghuang. Together they symbolize Yin and Yang.

Kidney Stone Chaos

Inevitably, when you mention them in public to just about anyone, you hear something along the lines of, “You know, they’re the closest a man will come to feeling what it’s like to give birth.” With that said allow me to add: “I am so glad I am a man.”

I have had kidney stones once before, years ago, and they were not this bad. Three days ago, around midnightish, just as I climbed into bed, the lower left side of my back began to hurt. No throbbing or aching sensation. Just hurt. I sat up and twisted to the left and right, thinking I might have mysteriously hurt it somehow. A split second after that thought I realized that I could not stay in bed. I had to move because the pain spread like the ripples from a rock tossed into a pond–ripples made of fire and other painful stuff, let me tell you. Only, it didn’t really spread as much as it just intensified. The crippling fire in my left side stayed in my left side, but it gnashed at my innards and dug its claws into my kidney in a way that seemed to reduce the rest of me solely to that ailing organ. It was an eclipsing, incapacitating rush of agony.

Writhing around in the bathroom for about thirty minutes, shuffling back and forth between lying on the heated floor to hanging over the sink with my arms propped on the glass mirror, my second thought was: We’re probably not going Downtown in the morning (Noelle and I have been meaning to get down there all stinking week). My first thought was: I’m going to die in China.

Noelle, who by this time had also gotten out of bed, offered me some ibuprofen and a hot, damp rag to press on my side, began to get that big-eyed look of someone reaching that critical moment when they begin to seriously weigh the options of calling for help in the middle of the night. In most places—America—she wouldn’t have needed to do any more than drag me into the car and haul me into the ER, but as you know, we’re not in the good ol’ US of A. Instead, she dialed our immediate go-to person for all things China related. No answer. She called another number. No answer. She then began dialing just about every number in my Contacts list on my cell. I’m still waiting to hear back from some of those numbers. Those will be fun conversations. Yes, it was almost one am. Yes, this is the most important holiday week for every Chinese person. That doesn’t matter when malicious calcium harbingers of pain and agony wage war on your body.

She did manage to reach another Western teacher, and eventually—with much teeth-gritting, doubling over, and yarking up the day’s intake done by yours truly—we made it out of the apartment, walked the few blocks to the main street, and hailed a cab where said Western teacher gave directions in Chinese to the cabbie and instructed him to take us to the nearest decent hospital (yes, specifying decent was needed for reasons I may elucidate later). Ironically, during our last Chinese Language class, Noelle and I were taught the words for hospital, nurse, and doctor.

We get to the hospital and are barred from entering a room until we check in and pay the “check-in” fee. We are then allowed to shoulder our way through the plastic strips of material that the Chinese use in lieu of actual doors on hinges (a closed door is seen as impolite in public places traditionally) and make our way into the spacious yet unnervingly dingy looking check-up area. The walls and floors are dirty, biohazard trashcans stand sentry along the floor panels (most with their lids open and waste sticking out like a demented, germ-riddled parodies of Oscar the Grouch), and there is a distinct aroma of urine wafting from the doorless bathrooms to the right of us.

I can barely talk as another wave of nauseating, back-bending pain crests and forces me to writhe once more—this time before an audience comprised of a nurse, some sort of guard, and a doctor who seemed to vacillate between looks of intense concern and total apathy. Using Noelle’s IPOD and the English-Chinese App, I convey what Noelle and I had begun to suspect before leaving the house—that the pain is Kidney Stones. He seems to understand, but apparently there’s nothing he can do for me. He makes a call. Then he instructs us to go to another hospital. Seriously.

Noelle and I are incredulous. What choice do we have? Luckily, I guess, the guard sees or intuits our anxiety. He walks with us outside and attempts to get us a cab. No-go. At two in the morning, on a side street, not a one is in sight. Another stroke of luck finds us as a woman leaving the hospital offers us a ride—for 20 rmb (taxis are normally 8). We take it. I slide into the backseat, Noelle takes the passenger, and the guard hops in on my right. Along the way he asks me questions, and every time I understand him he laughs. When he asks if my side still hurts I grunt an affirmative. He laughs again. Before I simply kick him out of the car and into the intersection (in the fantasy world I’d begun to construct I was not in pain but being chauffeured around by my entourage) we arrive at the second medical care facility.

This time we check in without wandering around too much. We’re directed upstairs to what the nurse describes as the, “Stone smashing room.” This hospital is even more vacant than the other, and more dimly lit. We find our way upstairs and knock on the door with the English words “Stone Smashing” beneath several Chinese characters. We wait a moment as whoever in the room makes some noise and then cracks the door open. The technician is a thirty-something year old woman in slippers and a wrinkly white doctor’s coat. After miming and making our point as much as our limited Chinese can allow, she gives me a sonogram scan. The cold goo and not-so-gentle way she slips and slides the scanner over my stomach and back almost makes me regret waking her up. The cot with ruffled blankets and a pillow with a suspiciously human-shaped concave contour to it sit in the corner of the room. When she’s finished she tells us several things. All in Chinese. The only things I can understand are: I can’t see anything. Go downstairs.

We check in at the nurse’s station and then get directed to the Emergency Scanner room. This time we knock and another sleepy-eyed doc cracks the door only to tell us to wait a moment and then closes it. Five minutes passes before he lets us in. He does his test—the same one as the woman upstairs—and then prints off one sheet with two images on it. Handing it to me, he literally shoos us away with several hand gestures. Another violent wave hits and as we’re heading back to our friends the midnight nurses, I yark into one of two bags we brought for that very reason. Yay for forethought in the midst of pain. The nurse tells us we need to go to another hospital—the first one we were at!

We go. I’m a bit foggy on how we managed it, but we make it there.

I hobble out of the cab and we walk up the ramp, the same doctor, guard, and nurse from before staring at us as we enter the building. I show the doctor the images on the paper I was given and he nods knowingly, I hope. He tries to communicate with us again, but it’s a stilted, stunted conversation. I crack out the IPOD once again and type our suspected diagnosis. He nods again. Yes, we finally have confirmation that it is indeed Kidney Stones, but beyond that our line of communication breaks down. The doctor, guard, and Noelle and I just sit there for a few moments, the nurse moving about, having lost interest in the scene or resigning herself to the fact that I will die slowly and painfully, I’m not sure. That is until one of the Chinese staff members—one in a seat of power—returns Noelle’s earlier phone call.

From that moment on the night became much smoother. Don’t misinterpret that; the pain was still like a blender rearranging my side from inside, but things did happen that precipitated the demise of that pain. Wayne—the CEO of the School/Factory/Business combo—had not left Dalian during the holiday like everyone else on our staff. The staff member who called Noelle back got a hold of him and within half an hour he showed up at the hospital. Just before he arrived the nurse must have taken pity on me or maybe she wasn’t so keen on me dying after all. Either way, she stopped ambling around the large room and gave me a shot in the side, claiming that it would kick in within about 20 minutes.

That was a long twenty minutes.

As Wayne showed up another wave jolted my body. I put the second bag we brought to good use and then disposed of it inside the nearest open biohazard trashcan. Wayne and Noelle helped me to another room where they laid me down on a flat table connected to what looked like an MRI machine sliced in half. The table slid me through the opening and snapped a few shots, and then they ushered me out of the room. Wayne then went off to have a chat with the doctor. When he returned he informed us that he had wanted a second opinion and that was why I was given the MRI scan. I had two Kidney stones, he said. All the pain was a good sign, he added, and then told us we were going to go back to the other hospital to get them smashed.

He drove us back to the hospital (for those counting, it was our second time at the same hospital), checked me in, and helped get me upstairs to the Stone Smashing room. Again. This time her scan revealed the stones. Magically, I guess. Along with the stones I have water in my kidney and something (I still have no idea what) is inflamed–just in case anyone is reading this and saying, “You know, they’re not THAT bad.”  She directed me to climb on top of the table behind her and lay on top of an awkward looking collection of metal gadgets.

Sparing the details (for the best, trust me) of the Stone Smashing procedure, I will tell you only that it is not the sort of procedure you want your boss’ boss to see you undergoing. While I can bring to mind several more sensitive medical scenarios that are even more embarrassing, this one would at least make the top twenty when you throw in the particulars of the aforementioned audience.

Afterward, when the technician switched off the machine and told me to move over, I knew it had worked. The pain—which had been greatly diminished thanks to that shot from before—was now actually manageable on a civil scale. I still had soreness and hobbled a bit as I walked, but the gritting of the teeth had subsided and I no longer felt the need to crawl on my hands and knees (I swear I limited that to the beginning of the night when we were still in our apartment).

Wayne—the man is a saint—checked with the doctor once more. I was given an IV and moved into a room with rows of chairs and metal poles for holding IV bags. The IV room, obviously. Chinese hospitals are obsessed with IVs. Wayne told me this was the first of three, that I would have to come back over the next two days. During the forty minute wait for the IV to drain we stood by a window and talked. The sky was still dark, but threatening light on the horizon. I was told to move around to facilitate the movement of the stone, so I hopped from one foot to the other while the three of us chatted. Over those last two hours Wayne had opened up quite a bit to us and so had we to him. We discussed our lives, his recent surgery, teaching, culture, kung-fu, tai chi, and family. He gave us a ride home and told us he’d meet us at the hospital over the next two days to take care of things. He even invited us over that night for a family dinner.

Throughout those last few hours, during the moments between excruciating pain and yarking, I thanked him again and again for coming, for helping out so much, and for paying for all of the treatment. Without hesitation or any word to us, he had taken care of the charges. You see, in Chinese hospitals, if you can’t produce proof that you’re covered or otherwise insured, you’re not treated. And just today, as I finished my final IV, I realized that he also paid for the IV each day. I know it’s customary for one friend to foot the bill at a restaurant here, but a medical bill? China has its ups and downs, for sure, but I gotta say, working for a man like this makes me feel pretty darn lucky.

Noelle and I made it back home where we climbed back into bed around eight am. The sun was up, the birds were chirping, and the fireworks were already being set off, but we were finally getting to sleep. Thank God for a kind boss.

Somewhere on the lower right side, in that dark space, are two spots that should not be there. Those are those darn kidney stones.

Idle Distractions

I am tired of surfing Facebook, copying Chinese notes, watching TV, checking my email countless times, and writing in my journal. So here I am! Jordan has been telling me he’s missed “my voice” in the blog so I’ve decided to write an entry – I think it will break the monotony of listening to the fireworks that have been blasting outside our windows since 7 am this morning. It actually sounds like a war zone out there. Never in my life have I heard so many fireworks go off for so long – happy Chinese New Year!! (And the best part is… they call it Spring Festival and it’s 7 degrees outside!) These fireworks put our July 4th fireworks to incredible shame.

Two weeks off for Chinese New Year is a darn good vacation and a great opportunity to travel, however, Jordan and I decided to hang around Dalian for this break. We decided to save some more money and plan a nice trip for the spring. After seeing some beautiful pictures of a friend’s trip to Cambodia, we are thinking that might be our next destination.

Speaking of spring, hopefully it hurries on its way because I am going more stir crazy here than I do during the winter at home. Sometimes I think that might be the hardest part about being in China. I can say that I thought about a lot before arriving here, but I didn’t think I would actually get bored (bored in a foreign country?? nooo way). Well I am here to tell you, that yes, you can and will get bored as an expat at some point. You can only study Chinese, surf facebook, and watch pirated DVDs for so long.

I have watched more TV here in the past 4 months than I ever have in my entire life. Let’s see… so far I have made it through all seasons of Six Feet Under, all seasons of Californication, 5 seasons of Friends, season 1 of American Horror Story, and countless movies. At home I would feel so unproductive if I were to watch this much TV, but here it is one of the few sources of entertainment at least until the weather breaks.

China has so much to offer, though. I am realizing a year goes pretty fast and a full-time job doesn’t allow for the time to see nearly enough. I am hoping we are able to see quite a bit more before our time here is up! It’s already been 4 months and I think the remaining 8 will fly too. If anyone reading this is thinking about traveling to China, feel free to message us with any questions or concerns! I am going to go watch more fireworks out the window. Happy (Chinese) New Year!