I Don’t Know


“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.


“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.


Snorey Night: A Bumpy Evening on a Chinese Sleeper Train

I knew immediately he was going to be a problem.


            He was a man of ample proportions. He was balding. He wore glasses. He was bumbling and stumbling, a known prerequisite to rumbling. And, most notably, he had sinus issues. Every two minutes he’d grab the garbage can and liberate his nasal cavities of swaths of swath. It continued like that for a while. I surreptitiously eyed him with preemptive disdain. Bastard. I couldn’t let him win. I pulled my sleep mask over my eyes and pleaded, begged my subconscious to overtake me. But I lost. I was soon engulfed in a cacophony of grunts, groans, and guffaws.


            When you travel on the cheap you expose yourself to people you don’t know. For the purpose of saving cash, you sacrifice your privacy. You share. Simple enough. You stay in dorm beds in lieu of private rooms. You fly coach in lieu of spending a month’s salary on a plane ticket. You take communal sleeper trains instead of any other fathomable form of transportation. In regards to these money-saving practices everyone has their reasons for wanting to escape them. Some people fear theft. Some people fear insufficient legroom. Some people fear conversation. As for me, I solve those problems by locking stuff up, blatantly lying that I’m willing to help in the event of an emergency, and putting my headphones in and pretending that I’m unavailable for small talk. I could even care less about bathrooms. In regards to that, I guess if you read this blog you understand my learned ambivalence. Nah. There’s only one thing.


            When I lived in Shanghai in 2010 I had this roommate. He was 31 years old, from Lima, Peru, a great guy, and a chronic sufferer of obstructive sleep apnea. However, it isn’t really the snorer that suffers, but those lucky enough to be in his vicinity. Note: After doing some research, I discovered that snorers actually do suffer quite a bit. But, that’s of no importance here. If he fell asleep before me—he usually did—I was in for misery. I spent many nights plotting the most inconspicuous ways to asphyxiate him. See, you lose your mind when there’s a snorer afoot. We were good buddies. We played basketball together. We amicably used the same bathroom. We liked each other’s statuses. But, at night, all I could think about was putting him out of my misery.


            I survived that year, and, somehow, so did my roommate. Since then I haven’t cohabitated for an extended period of time. But, whenever I stay in hostels, dorms, or sleeper trains, I have dark, dark flashbacks of 2010, year of the Tiger, year of the obstructive sleep apnea. On my most recent trip through India and Southeast Asia, I had the pleasure of mentally revisiting my tiny Shanghai apartment on numerous occasions, none more harrowing than my final ride back to Heqing.


            I arrived at the Kunming train station six hours early. I spent the afternoon drinking bubble tea and getting stared at. It was good to be back in Mainland China. My train left Kunming at 9:50 and figured to arrive in Heqing around 6:30. If things went according to plan, I could have 8 hours of relatively comfortable sleep. The sleeper train is an underappreciated tool of the budget traveller. It’s transportation and lodging in one. I get access to a bed and incredibly inefficient transportation for 8 hours for about twenty bucks US.


            As I explained above, I knew I was screwed the moment I saw him. He was the quintessential snorer. One look at him, and you could more or less hear it, emanating silently. He took the bottom bunk across from me. There are six bunks in each “compartment”—three columns and two rows—two rows of three beds. None of the upper bunks filled up. The train was relatively desolate. I looked at the man I had only just met, shook my head with (slightly) inexplicable hatred and disgust usually reserved for the moments after sniffing a fresh bottle of baijiu or a Wayne LaPierre quotable, and settled in and tried to coax myself to sleep. The problem is, of course, when you want to sleep it’s an exercise in futility, especially for me. It’s a wicked game. I gave myself a few of the silent, “sleep-immediately-you-idiot pep talks.”


            Alas, I was on the brink of slumber when it began. I angrily looked to my right, but my neighbor was still struggling with the removal of his socks. However, the rumble was unmistakable. If not him, then who? I soon put together that it was coming from the adjacent compartment—the one that was separated from mine by a paper-thin partition. I took the offensive. I would be fighting a war on two fronts this evening. I began banging the partition wildly. My neighbor looked up from his socks, part confused, part petrified. His look said, “This white person is unstable.” I gave up and went to the bathroom. The train bathroom, of course, is a squat toilet. I’d like to note here that a squat toilet in motion is one of humanity’s most indefensibly careless creations. Its use requires a balance rarely seen outside of the Olympics or the circus. I truly believe that if you can execute perfect use of a moving squat toilet, the sky is the limit as far as your personal capabilities. As for me, I just brace myself against the wall and hope for the best. On the way back I glanced at the guy in the compartment next to me. He was a spitting image of my neighbor—the friendly seeming socks guy that I had come to hate. He slept on his back and his shirt was two sizes to small. His belly button was very much on display. An outie, as it were.


            I returned to my compartment to find my neighbor “sound” asleep. As I crawled back into bed, I was surrounded by an orchestra of “rugghuhgs” and “guhguhghughus” and “mememememes.” I remembered my experiences from 2010. The most valuable piece of advice I can give: You cannot stop a snorer; you can only hope to contain him. You’ve got to disrupt his sleep enough that he comes to for a moment, only to ideally change his breathing pattern, or whatever it is that creates that sound. You can’t punch or slap him in the face, though. Then he’ll really wake up, and you’ll have to fight him. And anyways, it’s not nice to disturb someone’s sleep, now is it?


            So, for the guy in the adjacent compartment, I continued banging on the partition. As for my neighbor, unfortunately he was just out of reach, so I could not flick or poke him—as I’m known to do when encountering complete strangers on empty train cars. As such, I devised a genius plan. I had a plastic water bottle. At first I figured I could just pour it on his head. You know, kind of like a milder waterboarding type of deal. But, I took some deep breaths—not as deep as his, of course—and thought better of it. Instead, I twisted and crinkled it in his face over and over again. Everyone knows that corrugated sound it makes. It was a perfect foil to his roil. Each time he woke up, momentarily adjusted his breathing, and I industriously returned my attempts at sleep. When he inevitably began again, I’d abandon sleep and feverishly crumple the water bottle in his face. He’d wake up and we’d do it all over again. A few times, I bopped him with the bottle straight up—yes, lightly. So, I’m banging on the wall with my left hand and brandishing my water bottle in my right. I had no choice, really. This continued with varying levels of enthusiasm for nearly an hour.


           After a while I got tired, more tired than I was before. I gave up on the adjacent compartment guy. After one particularly egregious crinkle, I momentarily sedated my neighbor. I rushed to sleep, which, this time, actually met me. I was woken up by the train attendant a few hours later.


            I woke up, grabbed my bags, and gave my neighbor a smile and a thumbs up (I do that now). He returned the smile and, awkwardly, the thumbs up. Nice guy, my neighbor. I’m happy I didn’t pour that bottle of water on his head.

White Whale: In Pursuit of the Mysterious Foreigner of Heqing

He’s like Chupacabra, or ghosts, or mountain lions in New England. Platform 9 ¾, in human form. He’s rural China’s Loch Ness Monster. Scores of people claim his existence, many even claim to have caught a fleeting glimpse of him on a hazy afternoon, but the evidence is thin and the story is different each and every time.


One guy at a corner noodle shop professes to have once known him. He’s an Australian English teacher, with a wife and a little boy. However, upon secondary questioning, the little boy magically becomes a little girl. A tuk-tuk driver once had him in his cab. He’s a businessman who deals in furniture exports. German for sure. Or was it imports? Had he said he was Russian? A woman at the hair salon knows a guy who knows a girl that cut his hair once. He was demanding and irritable, in classically French fashion. Which one is he? Is he all of these things in one? Is he none of these things in all? Is he one person or twenty?


He’s an ephemeral being. One second he’s standing in the middle of the street, blink and he’s disappeared in a crowd. Poof. Who is he, you might be asking? He’s the laowai (foreigner) of Heqing, and he’s everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. The stories were getting tired and disorderly. I needed a restorative moment of faith, like when Christ’s image appears on the underside of a grilled cheese sandwich. I needed proof. Cold, hard, white, proof.


You know those maps in National Geographic that plot electricity use at night? Heavy population centers with excess wealth shine the brightest. North Korea is almost completely dark, while South Korea is essentially entirely ablaze. I want one of those maps representing foreigners in Mainland China. I think it would look something like this: The Beijing-Shanghai corridor would be gleaming; business centers Guangzhou and Shenzhen would be super bright. Big cities like Chengdu, Changsha, and Chongqing would also be alight. Yunnan’s glow would come from Kunming’s sizable foreign population. Heqing, though, is deep in the heart of Southwestern China. It would be pitch dark, except maybe, for one little mysterious blip.


Despite being in between massive tourist destinations, Dali and Lijiang, Heqing City is completely devoid of foreigners. It’s not unusual. Most cities of 50 some odd thousand in China probably don’t have many, if any outsiders. This is why when I hear of another ex-pat in Heqing whose full name, hometown, and life story I am not familiar with, I suspend belief. I would have seen him by now or at least he would have seen me. A foreigner, especially one of non-Asian descent, is about as hard to miss as a giraffe in the middle of the Arctic tundra. No, if I hadn’t found him by now, he most likely didn’t exist, or he was actively avoiding discovery.


So it was, one overcast afternoon in June, I found myself on the bumpy road to Heqing City. I planned to meet some friends for dinner and relax somewhere with access to water pressure and air conditioning. I hopped out of the van at a hotel next to the bus station. I paid the driver the five-Yuan (80¢) fee for the pleasure of spending 45 minutes in fear of my life, and continued to reception.


I arranged to share a room with my friend and TFC colleague Sunny, who, like me, is undoubtedly not Chinese. I hadn’t spoken to her about specifics, but I knew she was already at the hotel. I walked up to the receptionist, who looked mildly perturbed at the thought of a customer.


“Do you have a room?” She inquires.


“Yes. I already booked one for tonight.”


“So… which room is it?”


I realized I hadn’t asked Sunny the room number.


“The one with the foreigner.” That’s how few non-Chinese people there are in Heqing.


“Ok. Room 501. Fifth floor


“Elevator?” I doubt there is an elevator in the county of Heqing.


She chuckles and motions toward the stairs.


So, I lumber up the five flights. The fifth floor is quiet. Eerily so. It’s a distilled silence, devoid of even the baseline buzz of life. It feels as though no one has ever been here before. It seems odd that Sunny, or for that matter, any guests would be all the way up here. The hotel certainly did not operate at capacity, and one would reckon that reception would fill up floors 1-4 before sending guests to hike to their rooms. I looked outside, where there was a rather large communal balcony. There was a little green plant in a pot on a table. It wisped up and down slowly in the silent wind. There was nothing peaceful about the fifth floor. It was uneasy.


After I got my bearings, I headed to room 501, which was all the way at the end of the long yellow hallway. As I walked, the sound of my steps bounced off each wall. I got the feeling that one of the doors would open, I’d turn around, and two little girls in blue dresses would be standing there, asking me to come play with them, forever and ever and ever.


I arrived in front of room 501 and appraised the door for a minute. I briefly thought about calling Sunny then chose to knock. I discerned a rustle, the first sound I’d heard since arriving on the fifth floor. After a moment, the door creaked open and in the threshold stood, not Sunny, but a man who must have been all of 6’5” with long, greasy blond hair that hung in a haphazard ponytail and terminated at the middle of his back. He had a mild hunch about him and looked to be in his early 40s. His eyes were deep and dark and decidedly cold. He appeared as though he hadn’t seen sun in months. He kind of looked like an ex-hair metal bassist who had done far too many Quaaludes. His most staggering characteristic, though, by any stretch of the imagination, was his whiteness.


“Dui bu qi,” I was flustered, and apologized in Chinese.


He looked at me, gazed into my soul briefly, then shut the door and slunk back into the bowels of room 501. I had the disconcerting feeling that I had just laid eyes upon something I should not have—like an intern who accidentally stumbles into the President’s classified files, or the unlucky bro who views the video in The Ring—and I couldn’t take it back. I paused for a second then broke into a walk that could only be described as not quite running—the kind of walk that says, “I need to get the fuck out of here, but don’t want to look ridiculous.” I wanted my mother.


Once I got back to the lobby I called Sunny. As it turns out, she was posted up in room 104. Of course.


I cannot stress how utterly impossible this scenario is. At that moment, there were probably three foreigners in the entire city of Heqing: Sunny, myself, and the man upstairs. That he happened to be in the same nondescript hotel as both of us and that I knocked on his door is almost infinitesimally unlikely. We’re talking thousandths of one percent. Bizarre to an even further degree is that this mystery man didn’t even utter a word. It’s possible that he was too startled for speech and simply collapsed back into his room and promptly died of shock. However, Heqing is not New York. It’s not Shanghai. It’s not even Dali. If you see another foreigner here and you aren’t in a swiftly moving vehicle, I believe it is required by law to say hello. Or at the very least to offer up a probing “Who are you and what are your intentions?” Honestly, I’m not even sure how I would approach such a situation, as it’s never happened to me before. But, I know I would do or say something. The guy in 501 just stared at me. And said nothing.


I imagine if I were ever to see a ghost or Bigfoot, it would be a lot like this. It would happen quickly, without warning, and in a completely fleeting manner. Afterwards, I would be unable to reliably parse the details together. Out of confusion or fear I’d begin to change my story. I may even convince myself that I was making it up all along. If I went back to room 501 tomorrow with all my friends I would knock, and after a moment a little old Chinese lady would come out and ask me if I was lost. They would all laugh at me and say, “You idiot, there aren’t any foreigners in Heqing. You’ve really lost it.” I’d frantically go looking for the noodle shop owner, but the shop would be closed down. The tuk-tuk driver would have moved to another city. I’d go to the hair salon only to find that it’s been converted into a small clothes shop with a 95-year-old seamstress and she’d look at me like I was a lunatic and say, “Hair salon?I’ve worked at this shop since 1931.”Unknown-3

Then I’d think I’d really gone crazy. I’d pack my bags in the middle of the night and move into a nondescript hotel in a faraway town in the middle of China and never come out again.

On the Other Side of the World

Sometimes I feel an urge to stand up, shout, and toss my porcelain glass of baijiu against the wall. It’s not for anger or drunkenness or some irritable combination of the two. It’s just that sometimes I get this feeling in my stomach, right below my chest, like a massive balloon is about to burst, but can’t. Whatever it is can barely be contained without some sort of cathartic explosion. Sometimes I’m just overcome by reality. I’m overcome by the realization that what I’m firmly planted within is not a dream, but is actually very real, and just improbably incompatible with my previous notions of reality. Think of it like this: Imagine going to a foreign planet. The things you would see there would make no sense to you, yet they would be real. They would conform to all laws of physics and chemistry of that particular place. How about going 100 years forward in time? The things you would see would simply not line up, but still, they’d be real, super-real. And, all you could do is stare and scramble for a method to the madness. Real, but relatively speaking, not so real.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the nearby state of Chuxiong in search of new schools for Teach For China. The experience was eye opening, to say the least. Each school was unique, each had it’s set of problems, each had it’s needs. The most fascinating school, though, by a long shot, was Wanbi Middle School.

We left Guihua at noon. Before we departed, our local host warned us, “the road isn’t made yet.” We began to ascend the mountain around 12:30. We climbed higher and higher, a tiny speck inching up the side of an imposing cliff face. Our rickety manual Mitsubishi could barely exert enough force to wind around some of the more unnerving turns. Three thousand feet up, no pavement, barely enough room for one vehicle, 10 degree turns, no guard rails. I had to accept that my life was in the hands of the guy behind the wheel early on. I was happy to see that he wore a Buddha around his neck. We kept going higher and higher. The trees disappeared. Still, people lived there. The people up that high in the mountains seemed like ghosts in a way, heavenly beings. They were so utterly removed from the cities and towns on the ground. They lived in the clouds, really.

Around 3 pm we stopped on the side of the mountain. Our caravan included two Mitsubishis; one white, one green. We were nine total: Our team of five TFC staff, two local leaders, and our drivers. I hopped out of the car. In each direction was a slab of rock that looked like something out of The Odyssey. Flat-faced, gray with green patches, and almost straight up against the horizon. Even thousands of feet up, it gave you a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling of inescapability. I threw a rock down the face, which made me feel even uneasier. I went back to the car. Straight below, bounded on all sides, was the Yangtze River, which would terminate thousands of miles East in Shanghai. Here, the river is surrounded by natural monoliths, there by manmade ones.


At around 6 pm, we finally managed to find a smooth dirt road. The sun had begun it’s descent long before, but it was still hot and bright. Hot, the place was just really hot. The Mitsubishi climbed over one last little bump and before our eyes, in the middle of absolute nowhere, was a city. Wanbi was dusty and dry, and hot. I’d been told nothing about our destination before arrival. As I scanned the horizon, I realized something very peculiar about the place. Every single building was under construction. This was no village either. This was a large, dusty town in the middle of nowhere, and everywhere you looked something was being built. Not a single edifice was fully constructed. Makeshift eateries and convenience stores popped up all over the place. Shirtless guys with all manner of construction contraptions prowled the streets. The citizens had a makeshift vibe too. They didn’t feel right there. It was all very Truman Show.The eeriness was accentuated by the fact that, as I’ve made rather clear, there was literally nothing but rocks and shrubs for hundreds of miles and the sunlight was waning.


It took me a while to figure it out, but I wasn’t staring into the edge of the world. A massive Chinese company was under contract to dam the Yangtze. As a result, all the villagers had to be relocated uphill. The company was paying for every piece of destruction and construction. They were paying for a town to be created.

I’d like to point out something here: It’s very tempting to look at this scenario and vilify China as a heavy-handed violator of human rights, taking poor minority people from their homes and relocating them to a completely new life. First, as far as I could see, the project was necessary, from a developmental standpoint. Second, as far as I could see, the company is doing as right by the citizens as it can. Third, and most importantly, look around. Every big box strip mall, every highway, every Taco Bell, every dam that you see each day did not come without a cost. The land in which those conveniences reside was not blessed by god and set aside as special capitalist zones in year zero. We’ve got a gigantic manmade reservoir in Sherman, CT: Candlewood Lake, the biggest lake in Connecticut. When we’re out there in July on our boats, having a beer and shooting off fireworks, we often joke about the life that’s going on beneath the surface. We all know that thousands of acres of farmland were flooded to make the lake. It’s said that the ghosts of countless cows and pigs are still down there, living a slightly more watery existence. We see images in the news all the time of the one Chinese geriatric standing in front of a bulldozer that’s preparing to make dust of his home. If you think that same thing didn’t happen in your hometown, or all across America, you might be a little delusional. Capitalism has a price.

I digress.

We step out of the Mitsubishi. I feel like it’s going to explode. We are greeted by the principal and two administrators. The principal: A rail thin middle-aged man wearing giant glasses. He is the spitting image, both in appearance and mannerism, of Dale from King of the Hill. Administrator one: Toad from Frog and Toad. Utterly and completely. Administrator two: A tall, buff guy, who looks like a big, jacked tadpole. He’s almost bald, but hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Wholly amphibious, with tight facial features.

We’re hungry. We head to a makeshift restaurant near the school. There are two round tables set up and a tiny cooking station in the back. It’s still incredibly hot. Toad looks like he’s about to go down for the count. He’s sweated through two layers. To make matters hotter, we’ve chosen a hot-pot restaurant. Two tables, about twenty people (two women). As the endless object of curiosity, I get to sit between the principal and the amphibious guy. If you’ve paid attention to this blog, you know that principals and administrators in this part of China tend to be prodigious in the art of getting incredibly drunk. Let’s party. The sun is pretty much gone by now. The waitress brings a pot of boiling soup to the table and places it on a hot plate. The town is too new, I gather, for a stove. Despite the impending darkness, it’s still seeringly hot. Toad has shed his button down. The hot-pot is a bubbling brew of chickens’ heads, pig’s liver, stomachs, bones, tiny fish, and stuff that I try to block out of my mind. It’s brutally spicy. Each bite brings me closer to dehydration. Naturally, there is nothing to wash it all down with, except 55% baijiu. Luckily, there’s a lot. Toad is going to die, I’m sure of it.


The principal gets going quickly. Soon, I’m ambushed from all angles. They’re pouring chicken guts and scalding soup into my bowl. They look at me and smile; “Here, take it. Here. Just try it once.” They’re coming at me with shot after shot of baijiu. Not just the principal and the jacked tadpole, but everyone. Even one of the women comes after me. They’re singing songs in strange dialect, my BAC is climbing, I swear I see Toad look me right in the eyes as he sinks his fangs into a still beating cow’s heart. It’s an overwhelming onslaught of hospitality and high-spirits. I stand up. I look around, like a tiny mouse in the middle of Times Square, and think to myself, “Where am I?” A cramped little room, high above the nearest anything. A fake town genuinely being built over my head. A bunch of the friendliest, strangest assortment of people I’ve ever met. Is it even real anymore? That’s when I get that feeling. I just want to smash my glass and scream, like a Jew on his wedding day. I’m overcome by the sheer existence of it all.

Five hundred years ago, you could go anywhere on earth and get this feeling. As things flatten out and foreign cultures meld together, this sensation is disappearing, there’s no doubt about it. The sensation at hand is discovery; the introduction of something so rare, strange, new and exciting that you can barely believe it. It comes about when you’re smacked in the face full force by a new reality. It pushes people to reconsider what they already know. It’s actually a quite scary feeling, a total release from the healthy confines of the “comfort zone.” But, it’s one of the most alive feelings a living person can have. Don’t be fooled by the compression of society or the complete coloring in of the world map, the sensation of discovery still exists, you just have to want to find it.

South of the Border

Most places in the word command little explanation. Many sites, cities, and even countries can be described in a word or two. For example, I passed through the 7 million-person metropolis of Shenzhen on my way to Hong Kong. The word “industry” pretty much tells you the whole story. “Sludge” is also acceptable.  Some locales can be summed up by comparison. If you asked me, “What’s Massachusetts like?” I’d probably tell you “It’s kind of like Connecticut.” If you asked me, “What’s Connecticut like?” I’d be inclined to give you the dead-honest straightforward truth, “It’s kind of like Massachusetts.” Naturally, places with a little more swag about them than Connecticut (almost anywhere) could be worth a sentence. If we’re talking somewhere pretty special, like a Montreal or Shanghai caliber spot, a few remarks, maybe even a whole paragraph might suffice. “They kind of speak French in Montreal! Winter is cold! Hockey!” “Shanghai is the biggest city in China! It is very dynamic! There are a lot of tall buildings! Pedestrians are the lowest life form.” Then, there are places that deserve a page or even a chapter or even a whole book.

            Hong Kong is none of these. Hong Kong is beyond description. It resists description. It is one of the few places that cannot be understood or even perceived until it is experienced.

            I arrived in Hong Kong last week. My co-fellow Nicole and I came through the border crossing in the aforementioned Shenzhen. From the sky, Shenzhen looks like a miserable shithole. I didn’t get out of the airport, so I can’t give it the definitive shithole stamp, but I have a pretty good feeling about it. It’s kind of the poster-child for what many Westerners think modern China is: Gray and peppered with endless factories. We were headed to HK on a visa run. Hong Kong’s international status is ambiguous. It’s technically part of the PRC but retains a lot of the special benefits and government structure that it had in 1997. Having Asia’s financial epicenter fall into your lap after hundreds of years is rather fortuitous. So, China lets them have access to Google and Facebook for their troubles. I’ll refrain from delving into the complete and utter absurdity of the visa process because just thinking about it makes me want to waterboard myself.

            If Hong Kong were a work of art, it would be a cross between a Pollack and an incredibly complex and detailed architectural blueprint. It’s chaos in its purest and most disciplined form. Initial thoughts: streetlights, white people, dazzling sensory overload. I’ve been living in a place that doesn’t have a restaurant or a non-Chinese person for miles. I also haven’t had a meal without rice in two months. Hong Kong’s energy smacks me in the face. And it hurts so good. I cannot imagine what someone from my village (my Chinese village, not Sherman) would do if they were snatched off the street, blindfolded, and dropped in the middle of central Hong Kong. They’d probably put the blindfold back on.

            At first the white people are what really get me. Not just the white people, but also the black people and the very large population of brown people too. When I fly home, I’ll obviously see a lot of non-Chinese. But, that’s expected. Asians are a relatively small minority in the West. In Hong Kong, the majority is still of Chinese heritage (93% officially). That statistic definitely warrants downward readjustment in the tourist and finance hubs. Ninety-three percent may seem pretty Chinese, but it’s obviously nothing compared to my village, which at the time of this writing, as I am still in Hong Kong, has a non-Chinese population of approximately 0%. I unabashedly embraced the hypocrisy and stared at every white, black, and brown person I saw. How exotic they all are.

            My hostel is located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. “TST” is a five-minute  $2.50 HKD Star Ferry ride across the water form the imposing vertical metropolis of Hong Kong Island. For simplicity’s sake Kowloon is something like Brooklyn and/or Queens and Hong Kong is Manhattan. After a metro ride to TST, I finally set foot on Hong Kong territory. This after a journey that began forty hours ago on the side of the road in my tiny village. Immediately, I’m swarmed by suavely dressed Indian and Pakistani men with slicked back hair calling my name. “Taylor!” “Hey Taylor, dude.” “Hey buddy, Taylor, Taylor!” This is my second go around in HK, so this time I know better. Whereas in Bangkok they’d be saying “Girls? Girls?…. Guys?” or in Shanghai they’d be saying “Rolex? Handbag? DVD?” in Hong Kong, tailored suits are the thing everyone and their mother is trying to con you into buying. I continue toward my hostel. As I move to enter the building, a bespectacled grandfatherly local man sitting on a stool stops me. I stop short, he kind of looks official. “Massage?” he inquires. I continue to my hostel.

            Our booking is on the fourteenth floor of a fifteen-story building. Unfortunately, only one of the two elevators is operating. We’re told we are lucky, because last week they were both out of commission. They elevator fits a China seven. Basically, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest. Space is the ultimate commodity in Hong Kong. Since it’s been an isolated city-state for the entirety of its modern existence, the only new frontier is up. What’s considered tight quarters in New York would be cavernous in Hong Kong (rents are somehow DOUBLE Manhattan rates). Nary a square meter is wasted. Endless skyscrapers jut out from steep mountain faces. Hong Kong’s endeavor to utilize every inch of their 407 square miles of land appears to defy the laws of physics.  In Hong Kong, people live, work, and play in the sky. It is the quintessential urban jungle. New York is the only city that can even make a case for comparison.

            TST is a mashing together of malls, flashing ads for hotel rooms 28 stories up, dubious Indian restaurants, and the notorious Chungking mansion. Chungking is a giant building that houses numerous different hostels. On the ground floor you’ll find men from south Asia and Africa selling almost anything you can imagine. It retains a somewhat pleasant smell of curry and cigarette smoke. I once read a statistic that 20% of in-use cell phones in Sub-Saharan Africa had passed through Chungking mansion’s doors. That statistic rather eloquently sums up the kind of things that go on inside.

            Across the river is Hong Kong Island. This is the Hong Kong that people who’ve never been hold in their imagination. Beautiful skyscrapers with the logos of JP Morgan, HSBC, and Standard Chartered rise above the water like giant trees forming the canopy high above the urban jungle below. On the ground, masses of shops, bars, and restaurants feed the feeders of the international finance machine. At night the high-rises empty their contents into the streets. Leisure time appears to be an extension of office life. Competitive, fast-paced, and meticulously stylish. Cocktails cost $100 HKD (10+ US). Clubs charge $400 HKD to come in and have a look.

            The jet set is alive and thriving in Hong Kong. But, next to all this are the equally fast-paced, equally capitalist, altogether much grittier local neighborhoods. Taxi drivers (driving on the left side) yell at pedestrians in Cantonese, English, and Mandarin. Old woman hawk live fish and frogs from giant tanks stacked on top of each other. Even marine animals get a taste of the jam-packed Hong Kong city life before they meet their demise. Sinewy shirtless 20-somethings excitedly mind streetside stalls that promise to fix any broken electronic device ever created. Among the pandemonium Cantopop finds its way from fuzzy boomboxes into welcoming ears. You can meander these districts for hours and not see a single foreigner. It’s insanity, but you can’t stop, you can’t even sit and think, because you’ll fall behind. And, in Hong Kong, the state of behind is the most feared state of all.

            The mindset is the same, but the means are different. Champions of capitalism ply their trade from the 94th floor of grandiose superstructures. They wear tailored suits and gold cufflinks. They eat steak and drink wine. Deep inside the valleys and canyons others grind, and push, and fight to carve out their own piece of Hong Kong. They wear dirty white undershirts and listen to Raymond Lam. They eat giant crabs and fish balls. Perhaps the only tangibly binding tie is that they all ride the same unprecedentedly efficient metro rail.

            To say Hong Kong isn’t Chinese is false. To say Hong Kong isn’t a first-world, Western city is false. It is both of these things at once, side-by-side, and inside out. However, in the street vendors and the financiers to the crazed taxi drivers and the pair of Indian brothers operating a hostel on the 28th floor of and the Nigerian guy hustling cell phones from the mainland across the Indian Ocean in some corner of Chungking mansion, there is a binding desire for something more. No one in Hong Kong settles. Like the city itself that climbs higher and higher into the sky and up the mountains even when it seems impossible, everyone is reaching up, not out. There is an ambition present here unseen anywhere else in the world. Not even geographically imposed limits can keep Hong Kong contained.  One architect makes a tall building, another makes a taller one. One guy fixes iPhones for 30 bucks, another fixes them for 29. Hong Kong is in an endless race to squeeze every last bit of possibility out of everything. There is no why or how or where? Questions don’t exist. You must do before you are done in. You don’t have time to question how the machine runs so seamlessly, you just accept the fact that it does run, and it runs incredibly well.

            Then you leave, and you have no idea what just happened.