The tea does very little to subside the crushing and all consuming nature of the coffee withdrawal expanding my brain to my skull’s limits. Living out of suitcases is wearing on the third day, and the small room, most of which is taken up by the hard bed, continues to close in on me. Why the fuck would I do this to myself? Is becoming a chorus.
I am in Shenzhen, China. The short amount of contact that I’ve had with the Chinese presents them as a gruff and busy people. Even the kids on the corners smoking cigarettes, crouched in want of sitting, skeptically looking at their phones, but never seeming to type, do so with ineffable purpose and laser focused concentration. This place, thrust hundreds of years into the future in the course of a couple decades, seemed to progress faster than the people could keep up. Knights with AK-47s. Cavemen with matches.
Why the fuck would I do this to myself? I cashed in everything to come on this trip. My seven year relationship with my girlfriend. My job as a community college adjunct. A family that has loved and supported me, bending over backwards to drag me out of slumps and depression. The creature comforts of suburban American life: bathrooms in restaurants, clean tap water, unregulated internet, a language that I grew up with.
Why the fuck would I do this to myself? The first couple days out here, this question bounced around my skull like a molten lead 22. It buzzed like an illness, shaking my bones, tightening my muscles, and fraying my nerves. The jet lag and the anxiety made my skin crawl until I shook.
I watched both Bladerunners on the plane. I thought it would keep to the cyberpunk theme of my trip to Shenzhen, where I would spend the next year. But in reality, all Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford managed to do was make me question the nature of the line between human and machine. How much could you take away from someone and still consider them human? Themselves? What’s the difference between what we were, what we are now, and what we’re going to be? Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
I got off the 16 hour plane ride to Hong Kong, not sure when I slept and when I woke. Passing over the North Pole completely destroyed any sense of time or natural circadian function I had. I was told by my advisor to look for a limo service to take me to the border so that I could be processed into China proper. Of course, as an American, I found the idea of ordering a limo only for myself absolutely ridiculous. I was neither a millionaire or going to prom. Only later did I find out that ‘limo’ in China means a small personal bus that could shuttle you to different locations.
Instead, thinking myself worldly or smart, I ran into a taxi driver. He had terrible teeth and a cocky strut, but he spoke english pretty well. The first sign that something was terribly wrong (that I noticed and then chose to ignore) was the strange way he took me out of the airport. At the side entrance, we loaded my bags into an old dirty cab. Not to make excuses, but as far as I knew this guy was a representation of anyone else I was set to meet out here. He loaded my bags up and instructed the Chinese speaking driver where we were going. They informed me it was about an hour out.
We exchanged some pleasantries for about fifteen minutes. “What are you doing out here? Teaching English? Oh, wow.” Eventually it came about the time that he handed me a piece of paper. The paper looked like a restaurant receipt, but in the corner it read “1980”. I may not have been familiar with cabs or chinese currency, but some quick research learned me that this came to approximately $300 American. Despite myself, you know, not being terribly versed in cabs or the chinese economic situation, I had to admit this seemed high.
“Oh,” I said. My mother, out of the love for her silly child seeking to find himself overseas and concurrently working at a bank, had equipped me with ¥1900 to get myself settled in the new city. There was a sentimental, symbolic meaning to this number, and this agent of chaos seemed to guess that exact amount judging by my pathetic look in a foreign country getting off the plane. How many times had he seen me walking down that ramp?
(Side Note: Apologies for making us look bad America, but to be fair Hong Kong doesn’t look great either. Draw whatever comfort out of that you can.)
There must be some sort of mistake, I thought like an asshole. Sheepishly, I handed the man a one hundred yuan note, hoping on hope that he really meant “¥19.80”. “What is this?” he said. Fuck. Anyway, insert some busted english dialogue here about how ridiculous the price was. The surely practiced con-man with bad teeth and a worse attitude, had a whole line of excuses. “I have to pay the highway toll.” (Found out later that official taxi drivers get free tolls in China.) “You want to wait for a bus? That could take hours!” (Probably not.)
So what was I going to do? I was in this guy’s cab in a strange country in the early hours of the morning in the dark and the rain. I forked over my wonderful, kind mother’s hard earned money to a chinese con-man. Fuck me right? Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
In a heartfelt and unnecessary aside, I need to say this: A big part of this trip is asking me to come to terms with personal flaws that are holding up progress in my career/future. Some selfish part of me latched on to this idea and set it up in my mind as a diversion. To run from the problems of stagnacy in my life. An amusement park of excuses in the far East. What could go wrong? You can get held up in a cab on your way from the Hong Kong airport. Shut up, other Christian.
One of the flaws this trip was bound to purge would be my bad habit of being a sore loser. Once in Budapest while waiting for a train to Serbia (because I overslept a train to Bosnia), I lost two matches of chess to an elderly heroin addict with mismatched eyes at the station for five dollars per game. I’d been playing with the kids in my dorm, so I’d gotten cocky and wanted to take my skills to the street. The man with mismatched contracted pupils offered to take away his rooks or even his queen. I asked if he would do both and he said he could not. I only realize now that I write this that he was probably following a script based around these starts and had devoured many tourists pocket change before me (and surely after). Instead he passed me off to a friend, an not as old but much more corpulent and gross, insisting that he wasn’t as good as him. In reality this was a hand-off to hook up a friend of his with a gullible American. (Again, apologies America.) The fat man promptly beat me with a creepy, throaty slavic chuckle.
I brooded over losing the money. Not my mother’s this time, but loan money which my mother kindly volunteered her credit score to help me pay off. A credit score that has since suffered for my sins. But to six years ago Christian, it wasn’t the money because money hadn’t become real yet. Pride was the true currency. I pondered how I could get it back. Double or nothing perhaps? No way; they were too good. (Why the fuck would I do this to myself?) There had to be a way to still win. But the realization came upon me, that the only way to win was to lose. I told the men through a series of waves and points if they played one another, I would pay the winner my final $5. They relished the contest and I bore witness to one of the greatest chess matches I had ever seen. The old man with mismatched eyes was aggressive, and the fat man made him pay for it. He took the old man’s queen and planted his own deep in the backline of the old man. As he did his best to stop the bleeding, it was the fat man’s turn to be aggressive. The moves flew by and the fat man blocked the old man at every turn. That was until a rogue bishop found his in on an isolated king. With a sniper like move, the old man pinned down the fat man’s king and with the look of a surprised child, he looked at me and declared checkmate. He was my favorite anyway and I was glad to share that moment and some dope money with him. We shook hands and I have never been back to the Budapest train station since.
Perhaps this story emboldened my sore-losing nature. Perhaps it is irrelevant aside that makes me sound cocky about my limited traveling experience. Regardless, I felt the story had a home here and I’ve been needing to tell it for some time. Six years later, in the back seat of the con-men’s cab, I was busy texting my adviser the stupid question, “Is ¥1900 too much for a cab ride?”
Quicker than he had ever answered me, he said. “Yes. You are being robbed. Call the police.” Friends, this is the last thing you want to hear in new country fifteen minutes off the plane. But how does one call the cops on a moving cab while inhabiting the back seat? I don’t know the neighborhood and I can’t read the street signs. I am fucked.
I complain to the con-man, but he uses the same lines and feigns ignorance. I suggest that he drop me off and give me a thousand yuan back. He doubles down and assures me that this is the only practical way to get to the border. And let’s break this down for a moment, fellas: this guy is an English speaker in foreign country, taking me where I need to go. His shitty word bore the responsibility of an entire continent. This man with shitty teeth and a cocky attitude is my only friend in the world. I pass his lines on to my advisor, which he continues to assure me is total bullshit and that I need to get in touch with the authorities.
I don’t know if these men are armed, but I take the chance that they are what they were: petty con-men. “I think I need to call the police,” I said. “My friend is telling me that your price is ridiculous.”
“Call the police?” This drew blood. The con-man relented and offered to return ¥800 because he “already paid the toll”. (Again, bullshit). In a voice I’ve never heard before come out of my body, I am proud to say that I said, “You people are crooks. If you don’t drop me off at the next stop and give me ¥1500, I am going to call the fucking cops.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” Exhausted and proud, I sat back and listened to the men curse at one another in Chinese. As he pulled over, I took a picture of his information (Found out later that it was just a useless telephone number.) The driver defiantly waved his hand out of spite to obstruct the camera and spat some chinese curses at me.
The man with the bad teeth pulled my bags out of the trunk and basically threw them onto the sidewalk. I took one more moment to shame him, telling him what he is doing is wrong and that he should be ashamed of himself. He cursed at me with a wave in Chinese and he and the driver peeled off into the dark early morning.
I lost ¥400, which equated to about $60 American. But I could only chalk it up as tuition to the Chinese School of Hard Knocks. My home for the next year. I had most of my money back, but more importantly, the fact that it was a gift from my mother made it a personal victory.
Checkmate. Game over. Battle won, right? That would have been true if I was not alone in Hong Kong before the sun was up in the pouring rain. Even if I knew the neighborhood the taxi dropped me, I didn’t speak the language and would be completely unable describe to someone where I was. Great. Sitting duck dead in the water. Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
What did I do? Well, guess you’ll have to tune in next time on the Mysterious Life and Times of Professor Corn to find out.
See you then.
[Image Courtesy of
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page Wikimedia Commons]