When I started writing, I told myself and my 5 or 6 readers that this wouldn’t be a teaching blog. There are a lot of teachers doing that already, and doing it well. I thought I’d be better at writing about the bizarre state of affairs that is my Southwest Chinese life. I’ve done that. I haven’t really written a single thing about teaching, which may give some of my 6 or 7 readers the impression that I spend more time thinking about which of the nine unpalatable stalls in my school bathroom is the most palatable on a given day than I do in the classroom. It’s closer than I’d like it to be, but it ain’t that close.
In 1994, I started pre-school. For the younger set, 1994 was the year god rewarded the great nation of Canada with Justin Bieber. From 1994, to 2013, I spent my autumns, winters, and springs in a classroom. I woke up at 7 am. I ate lunch at 12. I ran to the bus, and later my Honda at 2:30. I did some homework and I perpetually stared at the clock.
It’s kind of funny, how many hours I probably spent staring at classroom clocks. Hundreds, thousands maybe. What a grand metaphor for being a student. Staring, waiting. I stared at those classroom clocks for almost 20 years. Doubtlessly, I did the same in my final class ever; the insufferable Sales Force Management (at Tulane) except by then the digital clock on the top right hand corner of my MacBook had replaced the clunky analog from 7th grade math—an all-time clock-watching event. When I wasn’t watching the minutes tick, I suppose I was learning. A great deal of things I was taught in school now escape me, but I think at least 51% of the stuff is still in my head.
I spent 20 years watching the clock, launching spitballs at nerds, and doing a rather healthy dose of actual learning stuff in between. Every kid in every classroom knows that they are in school on the pretense of education. They are there to learn, right. If I asked each of the billions of schoolchildren on earth, “Why are you in school?” I’d get billions of variations on, “I’m here to learn and get an education,” along with reasons why that’s supposedly important to them. But I think, learning, the process of being classically educated, is often a passive byproduct of school for kids. School is where they discover what it means to live in a civilization. I wonder how society would be different if everyone was home schooled. I shudder. Kids make relationships, develop crushes, figure out who fits where on Darwin’s ladder. I’ve often said recess is the ground floor of humanity. Just utter chaos. Dog eat dog.
As such, teachers’ roles become amplified to the nth degree. Such a fact is even truer of boarding schools. I think the word teacher is too often accepted at face value. Or further, accepted at face value incorrectly. People want to view teachers as “math” teachers, “English” teachers, “art” teachers. But, it is in no way that simple. Schools, and by that logic teachers, are the foundation, the base level of society. Parents have as much, if not often more influence on individual children, but parents only get one, two, maybe three or four shots. Teachers get thousands. Not to mention, your parents, they went to school too once.
As much as I want to avoid, cliché, I can’t not reiterate that I never felt this way before the roles were reversed. I saw teachers as roadblocks, rather than bridges. What’s more, I think I always thought I was smarter than many of my teachers, or at the very least, that I would be smarter than them when I acquired a little more knowledge. I often looked down on teachers, because frankly, that’s kind of what society does (“If you can’t do, teach…”). If I hadn’t become a teacher, I’d almost surely still feel that way. Teaching is an under-respected profession, when it probably should be the most respected profession of all. Anyways, you’ve heard that song and dance before.
What absolutely blows my mind though, is that I spent 20 years staring at clocks, texting my friends in class, and often disrespecting my teachers, and now, immediately after my student career is over… I’m on the other side of the classroom.
In 8th grade basketball practice I missed a shot. “Shit,” I exclaimed under my breath. The infamous Sherman School tattletale called me out to our coach (total uncool move). The coach reamed me for a minute, told me that “that kind of language is unacceptable,” yada yada yada. It probably took a lot for me not to break out in tears (read: I cried profusely).
Every night after dinner (literally right after dinner, which is just an all around poor decision) I play basketball with the kids. It’s usually me vs. a bunch of them. If there’s an exceptionally large number, I’ll take a very reluctant teammate. It’s unstructured and chaotic, but I’m the closest thing to a basketball coach they have. The kids usually speak in local Baizu dialect. I’m sure they’re talking trash, making fun of me, whatever. But, it’s not worth my time to figure it out. What I don’t know can’t hurt me kind of thing. I know next to no Baizu, but I know one word: “Ni ma bi.” It’s kind of the equivalent of “Fuck your mother,” but it’s more ubiquitous (generally, the equivalent of “fuck”). Either way, it’s a “bad” word. I used to hear it a lot, but since learning it’s meaning, I’ve eradicated it from my classroom. I’ve cracked down on “ni ma bi,” and I’ve cracked down hard. The other day, a kid missed a shot, and he exclaimed that 6-letter word. I immediately stopped the game, grabbed him, and took him to the principal’s office. He cried, I felt a smidgen of remorse, but mostly, I was angry with him.
What gives? Ten years ago I was that same kid. Furthermore, after I made him cry, I surely went back to my room and sent an email to one of my friends with multiple “fucks,” “shits,” and “rump-holes.” I find myself in this situation all the time. I’m imitating the exact same behavior that I was subject to for all my years as a student. Not only am I a teacher four months after I ceased being a student, I’m a teacher in a country that’s yin to my country’s yang. So, at once, I’m a freshly minted specimen with tons of “negative” behavioral habits, and I literally do not even know what acceptable behavior looks like in this new society.
That(^) led to some disastrous inconsistencies in my first semester. For example, I’d say nothing if a student was eating ice cream in class (a cardinal sin at Sanzhuang Elementary) but I would flip my shit if a kid called me by my full name (customary). Some kid could tell me in Baizu that he curses my ancestors and hopes I burn in hell and I’d politely smile and give him a high five. Another kid could say something that I thought sounded like a curse word and I’d pretend—yes, I only pretend (but they don’t know that)—that I was going to get my bamboo stick and actually use it. It was just totally screwed up.
Think of a girl who gets pregnant at 16 or 17. She has no idea how to raise a kid. She’s a kid, as the saying goes. In a much less responsible, significantly more convoluted, slightly older way, I feel that way about being a teacher at my unadvanced age. I need a damn sign to remind me to make my bed in the morning (it says “Make it!”). The state of my room hasn’t changed much from college, except that I couldn’t fit as much stuff in my boxes, which means my floor is still visible (and not covered in booze scented clothes). I’m an English teacher and my handwriting still sucks. There are certain words that I am going to great lengths to remove from my conversational vocabulary. I feel like a spy leading a double life. I’m not who I say I am!
The three groups of people who probably give the least facks in the world are, three year olds, college kids, and retired people. Three year olds can literally shit their pants and it isn’t their problem. College kids are in limbo between authority figures. Not really their parents, not a boss, certainly not their professors, maybe the bouncer. I think my biggest authority figure in college may actually have been my landlord, who I saw in person one time in three years. As for retired people, well, they can literally shit their pants and it’s not their problem. All joking aside, these three groups of people either have no concept of authority, don’t have authority, or could care less about authority and don’t need it to fit into society. Students are subject to authority. Teachers are authority. I went from one pole to the other, with only a stop in limbo land along the way. My concept of authority figures stems only from my experience under them, and I obviously was never completely fond of their tactics.
So, is that what I’m supposed to become? Is that what I’m supposed to have become 8 months ago? When I tell a student not to say “ni ma bi” am I telling her not to grow up like me? Is that what all my teachers were saying? I am the second, and for some students, the first line of moral defense. Yeah, I’m supposed to teach them English, but that’s easy (well, kind of). There’s a book for that, and it says you have to do it this way. There’s a test too, and everyone gets the same one. But, the other stuff, the important stuff, there’s no standardized test for that. Do I need to teach them to stand when I say, “stand?” Do I need to teach them to put their hand on their heart when they sing the national anthem or only use swear words when I’m not there.
Remember, the second the teacher leaves, the students go absolutely bonkers.
The way I see it, school teaches students about two worlds. One is their reality, the society of their peers. This is the one they absorb not by design. The other is the ideal, the society in which they interact with authority and learn acceptable behavior. The one they absorb by design. We all learn both. These two worlds will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Which, finally, gets me wondering. Is this concept of authority something we invented out of necessity, or is it inherent in us? Right now, I am in a position of authority, but it’s awkward and doesn’t feel right. That is, I feel like a role model, but not an authoritarian role model. When I raise my voice, it’s forced, not natural. The fact is, every bit of my new identity as administer of right and wrong is drawn from experience; what I was told as a kid. When I yelled at the student for swearing, I was tremendously angry. But, I would never yell at my friends for doing the same exact thing. Why was I angry? Because I believed I should be angry. It wasn’t the saying, it was the say-er. If that kid is going to grow up one day to, like me, hypocritically tell people not to use that word, what’s the point? It’s a massive cycle of one big silent agreement. Teach ‘em how they should act so they know how to teach other people how they should act 20 years down the road, and so on, all along flouting that very discipline at each opportunity. It’s all very confusing to me, is what I’m trying to say.
I’ll leave with this: You’re in a boardroom. You’re 28 years old, well on your nice and tidy career way. You’ve been in the corporate world for years now. You’re a boss and you have bosses, part authority part subject to it. You’re following all the rules: Paying attention, taking notes, speaking professionally, clapping when someone speaks, not shitting your pants. Then you look around, and you realize every single person around the mahogany table is someone you grew up with. You know all of them. They’re all your friends. Everyone else realizes it simultaneously. What happens? Does everyone start cursing, jumping up and down, letting out their suppressed flatulence, and throwing spitballs at each other?
I’m 6-foot (or, at least, on the right side of 5’11”). My vertical is probably a solid 18,” maybe 22’’ if I lift my calves. I’m slow. No doubt about that. My first step is about as predictable as the end of Titanic. Malcolm Gladwell said in Outliers that ability is founded greatly on how much you love what you do. Wayne Gretzky just really loved hockey, according to Gladwell. I’m living proof that Gladwell’s logic is not infallible, because honestly, I really really like basketball. I never believed that my inability to hit that next level of intimacy with the sport held me back from the NBA, the NCAA… or the high school bench. In any event, I’m an average athlete with above average love for the game.
In the United States, pickup basketball is a fascinating psycho-sociological platform. At Tulane our rec center had three main courts, creatively known as courts 1, 2, and 3, respectively, of course. I’ll start with court 3. Court three was at the far end of the gym. It was dark and generally just felt shittier. I remember it being colder too. That might just be selective. Who will you find on court 3? A lot of chubby, bespectacled freshmen who were just looking for, or in any case, needed, a work out. A game to 11 was good for at least 10-15 airballs, 30 turnovers, and 10 visible pit stains. If there was an athletic guy on the court, he was usually the type who would jump at the hoop and rocket the ball off the backboard. These guys were hopeless.
On court 2, you’ve got some ballers. Some kids trying to make the jump from court 3, some that don’t want to deal with court 1 (getting there), or some that were dragged by their superior or inferior friends to complete a full five. Guys who played on court 2 generally had either above average athleticism or above average skill/basketball IQ, but rarely both. Court 2 was a team game. Guys were good enough to know how to play team ball. And, because no one was incredible in his own right, team ball was the generally accepted path to victory on court 2.
Court 1. Court 1 was full of the same faces every single day. Court 1 was for giants. 6’3” to 6’5” guys who could knock you down and be completely oblivious that you even existed. But, they weren’t like the athletic guy on court 3 who would get a rebound and take off running with the ball clutched at his side, Adrian Peterson style. These guys were good. The disparity between court 2 and court 1 was enormous. That being said, court 1 was a miserable place to play. On court 3, there was no team basketball because no one was good enough to execute a pass and catch without someone needing an optometry appointment. So they wanted to play team ball, but they weren’t good enough. Court 2 was for team players who weren’t good enough to do it on their own, but who were good enough to know when to cut and set a pick. On court 1, everyone was good enough to play team ball, but it wasn’t the right venue. Whenever I was roped into playing on court 1, I spent 20 minutes huffing and puffing up and down the court praying for a rebound. If I received the ball on my teammates’ own volition (maybe once or twice) it was promptly stolen from me or I hoisted up an airball in fright that I would never get the ball back again.
Playing on court 1 was like having an intellectual conversation with Sartre and Nietzsche (I know, they lived in different centuries). You’re best to just shut up and if for some reason the dialogue lands on you, deflect it with an inconsequential comment of question. You’re only there to fill space.
I played on court 2. I liked playing on court 3 sometimes, because it gave me a minor self-esteem boost. Whereas, every time I played on court 1, I was unable to confidently talk to women for the following week. I could be one of the best on court 3, middle of the road on court 2, or a downtrodden space-filler on court 1.
American pickup rules, general:
Points to win: 11 or 15
Fouls: call your own
Win by two: yes
Dress code: Shorts and a t-shirt or jersey
Chinese pickup rules, general:
Points to win: 5
Fouls: call your own
Win by two: no
Dress code: Polo and jeans
When I got to China, my basketball destiny changed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say China is a “basketball-crazed” nation, in the sense that Italy is a “soccer-crazed” nation, but basketball is definitely the most popular team sport. Chinese kids are much more likely to know the names Kobe and LeBron than Ronaldo and Messi. However, basketball is, relatively speaking, new to the Middle Kingdom. Yao Ming’s being drafted number 1 in the 2002 NBA draft didn’t create basketball in China. After all, Yao had to learn to play the game somewhere. But, it massively changed the landscape. People forget, but Yao was really good. If he wasn’t so ginormous and, subsequently, injury prone it’s quite possible he goes down as one of the better centers of all time. It’s one thing to have 2 or 3 compatriots who play supporting roles on middling teams like, say, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It’s another thing when your country’s single offering to the league is simultaneously a number one pick, the tallest player in the association, and a perennial all star (even without the gratuitous Chinese voting).
Yao was gigantic in China (and generally, just, gigantic). But, what he did more than anything was create exposure. Few Americans watched Fulham play because of Clint Dempsey. Some did, surely, but they were the diehards. Much like few Chinese watched Nets games when Yi Jianlin was the 10th man off the bench. Yao was a pivotal piece of a playoff team. To this day, Chinese viewers are subject to more Houston Rockets games than any other NBA team. The result of all this: You’re much more likely to see a basketball court than a baseball diamond or soccer field pretty much anywhere in China. Ping-Pong tables are the only platform that compares.
So, basketball is pretty new in China, but the people love it. This set up perfectly for me, a denizen of court 2, to come in and make people believe I was the second coming of… a good basketball player. The average height of a Chinese male is 5’8.” While I would be considered “tall” in the US, I’m definitely tall, no quotations, in China. Most, importantly, basketball wasn’t a Chinese fixture until recent years. Whereas I’ve been getting halfway decent training/coaching since I was 5 or 6 years old, the Chinese generally play a much more unpolished brand of basketball. Many kids, especially outside of big cities, won’t get a chance to play any sort of coached, organized basketball until high school (if they even go).
What shocked me most about pickup basketball in China was the attire. Now, most dudes will show up in a T-shirt and shorts, or some minor variation. However, there’s always a substantial minority (30-40%) that look like they missed the locker room completely. Polos, khakis, jeans, SANDALS. But some of them can really ball. I once got crossed over by a high-schooler covered from head to toe in fake Versace (Werzace, [something Polish looking] I believe it was). A true low.
In Shanghai, I used to play at the Tongji University courts with a few expat buddies. We generally played on the proverbial court 1. Almost always half-court, games to 5. After every made basket, the team that scores simply has to clear the ball past the three-point line. There’s no checking, which I still haven’t acclimated to. The most noticeable difference in gameplay comes via foul calls. If someone misses an inside shot, it’s almost invariably a foul. On the flipside, you could get bowled over, knocked to the ground, and have 2nd degree battery perpetrated upon you by the opposing team, and you’d be called blind if you tried to cry foul.
A few years ago, I was playing at Tongji University. It was sunny. I should note that sunny means, “allegedly sunny” in Shanghai. You kind of have to take the meteorologist’s word for it, because you’ll almost never actually see the sun through the thick film of smog. In any event, it was a hot late spring day. My apartment was located on the same road, about 20 minutes by foot from Tongji. I always walked there, never walked back. So I met up with my buddy Nate, who I usually played with. We played a few games on court 1. During a water break, we noticed a huge crowd forming on one of the other courts. There had to be at least 75 guys. Approximately 30-40% of which were wearing skinny jeans. Almost all the courts had emptied. Everyone circled around the one. We walked over. They were all watching a 3-on-3 game. However, one of the six participants was a 7-foot black guy. On the court were a bunch of 5’5”-5’8” Chinese dudes (one wearing sandals) and the, literal, biggest person I have ever laid eyes on. When the contest finished, the dude sat down with us and we began to chat, as is customary (if not required) for foreigners who meet in China. He was a Haitian study abroad student from the University of Miami. His name slips me.
We decided to play the next game. My friend Nate, myself, and another pickup against the Haitian and two other random players. By this point every single game had stopped. There were ten or so empty courts. Definitely over 100 people. Bear in mind Nate has gigantic fire-orange hair and is a solid 6’2” himself.
Their ball. Game to 5 (1 point for shots inside the three-point line, 2 points for shots outside). I quickly realize three things: 1). Any shot taken with 10 feet of the basket is getting blocked. 2). There will be no rebounds for my squad. 3). The best players on the floor are actually the two Chinese guys on the other team. They feed the ball in to the Haitian. It’s laughable. He lays it up, hand touching the net, feet on the ground. We’re all over him, but it’s basically face to nipple. This happens for three possessions straight. 3-0. The crowd has seen it all before. On the third possession they try the same thing, but Nate jumps in the way and intercepts the pass. The defense is smothering. He kicks the ball out to me. One of the Chinese guys closes and tips the ball away, I grab it, turn around and hoist up an off balance 25-foot shot. It’s the only hope. Swish. Bottoms. The crowd actually goes kind of crazy. 3-2. Next possession. I dish to Nate. He steps in and throws up an exceptionally ugly long 1-pointer. Off the backboard. In. 3-3.
Next possession. I kick to Nate, I cut, he passes back to me. I go up for a layup. The next thing I know the ball is bouncing around three courts away. The 7-footer has filibustered my foray to the basket with formidable force. The crowd loves it. Somehow it’s their ball. On the next two possessions the Chinese guys on the opposing team blow by us effortlessly. We lose 5-3.
Considering I never played basketball past the middle school level, the piecemeal gathering of 100 Shanghainese teenagers is probably the most raucous crowd I will ever play in front of. I wondered if the same scene would happen in the US. After all, the crowd wasn’t for Nate and I. We simply added a little mystique. As much as I’d like to believe it, no one ever watched us play otherwise. I come to the conclusion that yes, the 7-foot guy would have drawn a crowd anywhere in the world, playing basketball or not. Why? Because I know that if I saw him in any given location: a desert Polynesian island, the airport, Starbucks on a Sunday, I would have been jaw-droppingly stunned, which got me thinking. Living in China is strange for me. Me living in China (especially where I live) is strange for Chinese people. When I urinate on a chicken I am floored with disbelief. When a cab driver ducks into the other lane directly in front of an oncoming truck laden with gigantic rocks I’m, per usual, dumbfounded (although, I’m starting to get used to it). When locals see my foreign friends and I, they probably aren’t dumbfounded, but at least surprised. Sometimes I’m blinded by relativity. I forget that some things are in general, just unusual, regardless of your context.
What’s pretty cool though, is when something happens that makes everyone say “wow.” A moment where I can stand next to a Chinese dude, put my elbow on his shoulder, point, and say, “Would you look at that. That is some rare shit.” A 7-foot person, a clear sky in Shanghai, Halle’s comet, Air Malaysia flight 370… world peace. Those are the moments I feel most human, I think. Those are the moments I feel most connected to humanity, not just a subset of humanity. The times when I am reminded that we are all involved in this grandiose, chaotic, absurd life. And that our differences are null compared to what really moves us.
Some background: Heqing city is about 45 minutes over a half-paved, half brutally rocky and dusty stretch of road. Where most roads under repair gradually converge as the unpaved stretch shrinks, the opposite appears to be happening on the DaLi Road that leads from Sanzhuang (my school) to Heqing. At this rate, the road will be completely unpaved by May. The peculiar thing is, I’m not quite sure the taxi/van drivers have gotten the message. While they grumble about the shittiness of the road, it has zero noticeable effect on their desire to be reckless; in fact it might even fuel it. It’s 45 minutes of straight rally raid action every time I need to go into the city. It’s probably something like Paris-Dakar, excepting the fact that it’s a necessity that people have to travel every day.
Heqing is a strange city, almost eerie in a way. Demographically speaking, it’s difficult to quantify. China generally calculates population at the lowest level based on counties. Whereas, in the US, I know that my hometown of Sherman has 4,000 people, that data would not exist in China unless measured by local authorities. According to the one line Wikipedia page, Heqing County has 260,000 bodies. I’d guess the city itself is home to around 200,000 of those. I’d also guess, few people outside Dali and especially beyond Yunnan have ever heard of it. Think about that: That’s akin to someone from Massachusetts never having heard of Hartford. That’s how gargantuan this country is. Heqing is pretty substantial. It lacks urban planning. Like many cities in this part of China, it’s still kind of figuring out what a city is. It’s very tied to the countryside. Seeing chickens is not unusual. It’s a perfect microcosm of what a city in the region should look like, kind of in the way that New Orleans embodies South Louisiana as faithfully as a metropolis could.
It’s bounded on all sides by a mammoth string of mountains. Consequently, when you’re within it’s confines, you feel detached from the rest of the world, which is accurate. It’s a big city essentially in the middle of nowhere. I think there are a bunch of cities/big towns in the American West that follow this pattern. Salt Lake City comes to mind, minus the magic underwear. It’s a far off feeling of, if something happened to you, absolutely no one would know. Note to any current or potential fugitives out there, splurge on the plane ticket and come to Heqing. You’re much better off here than Amish country. At dusk, the weather turns chilly. The city’s overriding grayness is intensified. Roll up doors rise to reveal the pink lights of brothels, girls in plain view, waiting. There’s a street of bars that seems almost perpetually devoid of patrons. The silhouettes of the massive mountain peaks are still visible in the near distance.
While I think geography adds to the muted spook of Heqing, a great deal has to with demography. Heqing has a population of 200,000 relatively poor people, most of who probably grew up or still live in the countryside during the week. Yet it’s built like a city with 300,000 people that caters to a slightly more urban, moneyed crowd. It’s as though the bars and hotels and massive Karaoke parlors are waiting for development that surely will come, it just hasn’t yet. It’s an extremely prevalent phenomenon in China, usually seen on a much grander scale. For example, there’s an unintentionally infamous city in Inner Mongolia by the name of Ordos. It was built for a capacity of 300,000, anticipating the rapid increase in Chinese urbanization, yet currently houses less than 30,000 people. Needless to say, not the greatest ROI. So, the anomaly at hand is not desertion, even though we would call a place like Ordos a “ghost town.” It’s the opposite. Cities are sitting there, waiting for life to arrive as opposed to come back. Heqing is this on a vastly less intense scope.
A few months ago I went to Heqing with my two co-fellows, Xiaojie and Yanan, to spend the night with a married couple that teaches at my school. We rode into town in the husband’s new Volkswagen. We started the evening at a hot pot restaurant. I got a little tipsy, but was ostensibly all there. After dinner, we set off to check out Heqing’s only tourist attraction: A site where Mao and his cadres passed during the Long March. It was certifiably cold at this point, probably 7 pm. We drove into the countryside, which is still kind of the city, but is definitely countryside. It was dark. I could make out the frosted sunflower patches bent over backwards in the moonlight
I had to urinate, real bad, bad enough that I asked Mr. Yang, the driver of the VW and our gracious host to pull over. I opened the door and walked to the side. The car pulled up, presumably to give me a little privacy. As I got out, I surveyed the scene. It was pitch dark. I could not see a thing. I took one step forward and WHOOOSH. The next thing I knew I was on the ground between two narrow stonewalls and covered in all kinds of shrubbery. My elbows and back were completely torn up, but not to the point where it wasn’t funny. Naturally, I was fully confused. I looked up and I was at the bottom of an 8-foot hole. This is a hole in which you actually had to look up to see out of. It must have been a drainage canal; luckily it wasn’t the rainy season. My clothes were caked in dirt, thorns, and miscellaneous. I probably looked like the kid from Hatchet, even though I’d spent considerably less time in the elements. I arched myself up. I still had to urinate, so I took care of business in the ditch and climbed out. If I were 5 feet tall, I honestly think I’d still be down there; it was that legit of a hole. I walked towards the VW.
I explained the story. Everyone felt bad, but obviously they thought it was rather absurd and hilarious, given their blatant inability to stifle laughter. I sat down next to my co-fellow, who is quite shy and whom I rarely share much beyond pleasantries with. At that moment I realized my pants were completely ripped, right in the sweet spot. No wonder it had been so easy to pee down in the hole. I looked at her, she totally knew. I did my best cover up job. The group consensus was to forgo Mao this time.
When we got back to their apartment, I had the epiphany that my arms and back were in pretty prodigious amounts of pain. First order of business was to get the clothes off. Remember, the pants are thoroughly ripped, creating a window into my world, if you will, and my sweater is comprehensively thorned. Unfortunately, the man of the house, Mr. Yang is about 5’4”, so I spent the rest of the evening and the subsequent day wearing essential capris and a shirt that even The Situation himself might deem too tight. When I came out of the bathroom, looking like a gay Italian guy ready for a night at the club, there was a bottle of Baijiu sitting on the table. It was for my wounds. Too perfect. I wasn’t sure if I should drink it or use it topically. I knew I didn’t want either option. I told them I couldn’t’ do it. So, the couple went out to get my pants fixed and grab—at least what was labeled as—a bottle of rubbing alcohol. My co-fellows and I spent the next hour and a half de-thorning my clothes. Everyone was incredibly hospitable if not thoroughly amused.
I could make a grand philosophical connection here wherein I contrast falling into a ditch with my overall experience in China. I suppose it’s possible to muse on how each day I find myself unexpectedly falling into and climbing out of the metaphorical drainage canal. But, truthfully, the moral of this story is: If you ever find yourself on the street in Heqing, China with an uncontrollable urge to urinate, look before you fall into an 8-foot hole. Words to live by.
There are many moments in a man’s life when he feels purely helpless: a double flat tire on the highway during a blizzard, that moment when you look at the test and realized you spent the last 24 hours studying the wrong revolution, when the bouncer hears you call him a douchebag under your breath. However, there is unequivocally no instance that embodies the word helpless as thoroughly as this (Bear with me):
You’ve made a huge mistake. You ate the hot pot. That bubbling, boiling concoction of limit-pushing spice and heat is now pushing its limits in the pit of your stomach. You’re walking the streets like you’re in some sweaty, drug induced mind haze. Everyone looks evil. You’re like a scared, deranged dog, head to the sky, twitching aimlessly. You want to ask for help, but you fear, that anyone you talk to might figure you out. Figure what out? You have nothing to hide. You’re deep within the bowels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is but a mere far flung illusion. Love and safety are figments of the weak. This moment is pure physiological anguish. It’s you against the hot pot.
You sink deeper into your despair and then you see it. A tiny shack with the handwritten “公厕” on it. Public toilet. The old woman at the entrance wants half a Yuan for admission. You only have a five. She takes precious time to make change. 10 seconds, 15 seconds. Every moment of hate you have experienced in your life projects onto her. She is all the world’s villainy anthropomorphized. She gives you the change. Onward, you inch forward to your dark, dank sanctuary, careful not to disrupt the powers that be, threatening your insides. You squat. You’ve made it. Eden. The promised land. Like a young knight on a mythological quest, you vanquished the hot pot and you conquered that 65 year old devil at the door. You’ve won. Hi, hater you murmur in her direction.
But then, you look left. You look right. You look up and down, in and out. “OH FUCK.” Your victory turns to pure and utter destitution. Paralysis. Hopelessness that not even Barack Obama can solve. You’re like Thomas Dewey holding the paper that reads, “Dewey defeats Truman,” as you watch Truman give his inaugural address. Then you think, if only you were Thomas Dewey holding that paper, any paper. All the electoral defeat and misery would be worth it to be holding that paper. Any form of parchment, even the Gutenburg Bible would do. Nothing is sacred in this moment. But you haven’t got it. There isn’t a piece of toilet paper as far as the eye can see. You’re categorically shit out of luck. You scramble. Your neurons fire at unprecedented speeds. Your knees can’t hang in their much longer. What can I do, something anything. Your latent belief in God resurfaces. You pray. Any God will do. Vishnu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster… does Pat Robertson count? The light flickers. You’re in a room with four walls, no door, and one abominable chasm beneath you.
Alas. What’s that on your feet? Yes, the most dispensable item of clothing: the sock. But you have so few. This one’s argyle. JCrew. Not even clearance. High quality. You’ll have to go foot to shoe, direct. It doesn’t matter. It’s the sock’s unlucky day. You acrobatically dislodge it without making any potentially life-threatening foot to ground contact. It’s a bittersweet farewell.
As you pass the smiling woman at the door, who no doubt is wearing two socks, your silent acrimony comes back. She hands you a small packet and says: “Hey, you forgot to take your paper.”