I’m brought back to a simple fact time and again. All the world over, everyone does the same things. We eat, we drink, we relax, we go to the bathroom. We have to do these things. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of being alive. Whether we’re in China, Brazil, Iowa, Mozambique, we’ve got to do them. We just do them a little differently.
“Let’s go, let’s go Mr. Luo. Time to eat.”
I’m shooting hoops, when Mrs. Wang, a Sanzhuang local teacher, calls me to go to dinner.
“Can I go like this?” I’m wearing a tank top and shorts.
“Mmm… yes.” Unconvincing.
“Give me two minutes.”
“I’ll be at the gate.”
I run back to my room and throw on a black polo. I don’t change my shorts, because I play by my own rules.
Mrs. Wang and I hop into the cab of a Yunnan style pickup. Half the size, slower, and louder than your average Ford F-150. We drive for a few minutes and come to an abrupt stop at a dusty side road. Our driver hangs a sharp left and winds us up the path. He takes another left and we arrive at a giant compound. At initial glance it feels a lot like Carcosa, from True Detective: A massive complex in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by low-lying shrubbery and dust. We hop out of the pickup. There’s a pen of irritable goats to my right. A bunch of guys I recognize are playing Mahjong at a table to my left.
The Yunnanese Tony Soprano incarnate, calls to me: “Hitler, come on, let’s have a drink.”
My Chinese name, 泰勒, Taile, happens to share the same final character as 希特勒, Hitler. As such, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano relentlessly calls me ‘Hitler.’ To explain to him why that is in no way chill, would be a waste of my time and effort, so I play along. I tell him I’ll be right back. I want to scope out this new place. I look into the first room; a bunch of people playing Mahjong. The second room; a few kids watching TV. I walk down a dirt path, take a left, and wind up in the kitchen. More people drinking and playing Mahjong. I walk back toward the front, where Tony and the regulars have quit their game.
“Hitler, come on! Let’s do one.” Tony hands me the red cap to a bottle of baijiu. It’s full. I slurp it down. We sit. There are about 6 or 7 guys at the table. Among them are my principal, Mr. Yang, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano, the current and former Sanzhuang security guards, the local doctor, and one other guy that’s always there, but as far as I’m concerned has no name. We’re sitting outside, in the courtyard. I’m the youngest at the table by a solid ten years. I’m also the only one without a kid or a wife.
Not a minute goes by before the dishes arrive. On the menu this evening:
Onions, sliced thin, soaked in lime and pepper flakes. It tastes like ceviche. It tastes like something you’d put on a taco. It’s a rare flavor out here, and is beyond pleasantly surprising.
Thin, flaky, giant sugary cheese chips laid on top of each other. Cheese is hard to come by in China, but these are the real deal.
Jumbo beans doused in salty oil.
Liangfen, grass jelly served cold, dipped in heavy soy sauce for optimal enjoyment.
Fish. Tiny whole fish, maybe 4 inches long drenched in garlicky soy sauce. I never eat these because I’m lazy. The effort required to extract meat from between the myriad bones is too much for me to handle. I also don’t like eating things that still have eyes.
Finally, the piece de resistance. Between the dishes, at the center of the table, is a bowl of pork soup. Big, fat bones and meat that gracefully slides off of them.
Rice. Of course.
It bears repeating. Almost all of this food is from the backyard. No preservatives, no GMOs, no nothing. It’s kind of like Whole Foods, except without a stock ticker.
For a few minutes, no one speaks. We devour. Then, the former security guard calls us to attention.
“Drink. Drink to good fortune.”
Everyone’s got a paper cup. He pours each of us a half glass of baiju. Everyone clinks and takes a sip. That familiar burn. All the way down to the pit of my stomach. It tastes like Everclear, but with half the effectiveness.
The current security guard’s brother is sitting across from me. He’s wearing a camouflage shirt that says “U.S. Army” above the pocket. He looks at me.
“Hey, in America can the government decide what age you can get married?”
“I believe it’s 16 with parental consent, 18 without.”
“Not bad. You know, it’s 22 for men in China. Twenty for women.” (I do not know if this is true).
“That late, huh?”
“Yes. Some colleges specifically forbid their students from getting married, as well.”
“I guess a wife and kids could be a pretty big nuisance to studying, eh?”
“You said it.”
The former security guard puts his arm around the guy next to him and pinches his cheek.
“In America, the two of us, heh, we could get married. I saw that on the news.”
“You said it.”
“But, you see. He’s too much trouble. It wouldn’t be a healthy marriage. He’s a drunk, you know. I’d have to throw him out.”
“Yeah well, if you married him, you’ve got to deal with the consequences.”
Another round of shots. What happens if you erode the walls of your esophagus? Fuck it, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.
It’s become clear to me that we like to view cultures and countries in the light of difference. “In America, you can get married at 18?” “In America, two dudes can get married?” “In China, do you really shit in a hole?” I play into that too. Everything I write on here is about how different my Chinese life is from my American life.
It makes sense. Differences are much more intriguing than similarities, right? If everyone looked the same, ate the same food, shit in the same type of bathroom, life would be unbearably boring. But, really, strip away one or two layers of difference, and we’re all doing the same stuff.
For the last five years of my life, I had a Friday ritual. I went to The Boot at 6:00 pm, sat outside with my friends, drank hard liquor, and told ridiculous stories. Now, on Friday night, I sit outside with my friends, drink hard liquor, and tell ridiculous stories. My friends are a little older, the liquor is a little harder, and the stories are told in a different language. The scene, though, is thoroughly similar.
That’s what culture is, really; slight tweaks of the human experience grounded in geography. We drink baijiu. We drink Pinot Grigio. We still drink. We execute a criminal by stoning. We execute a criminal by lethal injection. We still execute a criminal. We say say ‘Wo ai ni.’ We say ‘I love you.’ We still have affection. We live there. We live here. We still live. We just live a little bit differently.