I’ve been lost before. Anyone who has read the past couple installments of this blog probably gets the impression that I have a fair share of emotional lost-ness as well. But geographically, I’ve been lost plenty of times. I’ve even been lost in New York and Philadelphia just as easily as I’ve been lost in East Orange and Camden. I’ve ended up in bad neighborhoods, taken the wrong train, had to retrace my steps, taken a couple gambles. You learn to deal with it.
That rainy morning in Hong Kong is by far the most lost I’ve ever been in my life. In Russia, I was a student. We were escorted by the hand everywhere. You only went to pre-approved places or the places that you were previously shown by the supervisors. When I got lost, young (borderline foolish) optimism and the Russian speaking students around me helped me through. Right away on this adventure, I was on my own and hopelessly illiterate and mute.
For the first couple minutes, I just stood there. I bore the weight of two hundred pounds of luggage and the questionable decisions that brought me here. Getting into that cab at the airport, I knew the driver was shady, but I really wanted to give the situation the benefit of the doubt. I could tell you that it was out of the belief in the kind and forgiving spirit within all humans. But the real reason I trusted the sketch ball with the busted teeth was that every egg I’ve ever owned was in this basket. This trip had to work out or I would be ruined. When this all went to shit so immediately, so abruptly, so completely, a small part of me broke.
This was a bad idea. I accepted the money and good faith of my loved ones and promised in return that I would come back a better, more fulfilled person. And now, here I was: hopelessly lost in a foreign country with no one to blame but myself. I failed on launch. Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
I never thought that it would affect me as deeply as it did to see everything in Chinese. Back in the states I thought it would be novel to see street signs in advertisements in the complex and cryptic alphabet of the Chinese, but being out here it became foreboding and angry. If I am going to add an emotional tangent to this blog entry, I must say that one of my harsher insecurities was that society is like a living organism. I have always darkly feared at home that I would be deemed unnatural by consensus, like splinter or a malignant cell or unfavorable gene. In turn the organism would trigger an immune response and purge the my pathogen in order to protect the integrity of the whole. Animals kill albino children for fear of corrupting the genetic pool, and such is the way I would be processed. Completely baseless and self-defeating, but being lost in a foreign country with a completely different language and culture than one’s own inflamed this feeling past sneaking suspicion into full on reality. I was exposed and vulnerable. As far as I knew, the next shady cab driver with bad teeth was just around the corner waiting for me to step into their burrow. I was on my own and everything was dangerous. Those first couple days felt like I was a transplanted organ that the body could reject and kill at any time. That was the real culture shock of it all. Not that I was intimidated by the different customs outside of my own or differing opinions on food. The real shock of it, especially in a country with a very high opinion of its own nationalism, was that everyone else had inside knowledge to an exclusive club. Knowledge that they would be very upset if they found out that I didn’t know. And that fact that I didn’t know it was plain on my western face. They point. They stare. They whisper and take pictures. They get nervous when you’re around your children. I’ve never felt the plight of a minority more in my life.
On the corner, I took to the phone and reached out to the only person on the continent that I knew: my advisor (the one who informed me that I was being robbed in the cab). As it turns out, he did not know Hong Kong very well. I learned later on that though Hong Kong had been integrated into the People’s Republic of China through law in the eighties, the culture had developed completely separately from the rapid revolution of the mainland. It seems customary to Westerners that in these instances, one culture would overtake the other. It was expected in the West that either British/Hong Kong culture would diffuse into the mainland or through a rapid gutting and brute force reorganization of the island, China would inflict its will onto the former British colony. Much to my ire (and the West’s), it turns out China took a strange approach of ‘one state, two governments’. This should be moment of pride, I myself coming from a union of culturally independent states, but in this particular instance, it put me in a very serious bind. This political quandary put me on opposite sides of the Chinese border from safety and protection.
So though my advisor didn’t know Hong Kong all that well, he did know somebody who did. I would later find out in my stay that my advisor knew very little of anything and often delegated his work load out to others. This was only my first experience with this, but I assure you, we will revisit this in future installments. For now, he said that he would get back to me soon and to hold tight.
I watched a whole series of buses passing me throughout the morning coming in a variety of colors and sizes. New people came to the stop and got on the buses while others got off and dispersed into the early morning. I asked a woman for directions to the border or back to the airport. Luckily, she spoke English, but unluckily she was awful at giving directions. They consisted of something to the effect of “Take Train A or B four or five stops, then get on Train C or D. I don’t know which one.” I thanked her anyway. There was an elderly man that I resorted to asking. He pointed at a sign that appeared to be a bus schedule. I pointed at it and he nodded. It was foggy in the rain, but when I wiped it off, it was, of course, all in Chinese. There were the names of the stations in English, but they did little to tell me where to find either the airport or the border. I stared at it for twenty minutes like it was going to relinquish some detail from the old man’s wisdom. If this nugget was there, it never materialized. I was left with nothing again.
I was on a bus stop, dragging my luggage back and forth on the uneven brick pavement, pacing from one end to another looking for something I could grasp and help me navigate. Even if I wasn’t jet lagged and disoriented from the dark, the rain, and the situation, everything was so terribly foreign was debilitated from feeling confident in leaving in any direction. This bus stop was now my home. Forever.
This was the first time in years that I was truly alone. I felt like a fat dog that had been kicked out of a car. Hungry and looking for a hand out. It was a hard, terrible feeling, but in that moment I became painfully aware of myself. It was something of a religious experience. It was me and God, and no one else was coming. The truth of it was that I didn’t like what I saw. It was in these moments that I came in touch with a lot of the resolutions I profusely spouted in the last installment. (Sorry about that, but I feel way better now that I wrote it down.)
I get a couple very unproductive calls back from my advisor. Mostly consisting of “Where are you in Hong Kong?”, to which I replied, “I have no idea”, followed by panicked stammers from my advisor. In these exchanges, I take notes on my surroundings. Believe it or not, I was in front of a Chinese restaurant. Aren’t they all Chinese? No, it turns out there are actually Chinese restaurants in China. As a matter of fact, there are a ton of them. Many right next to one another serving the exact same quality of noodle as the next place. I have no honest idea how businesses survive out here. Empty dining rooms. Shitty clubs. Stores with sleeping shopkeepers. There is probably some morbid fact about the communist system here, but honestly, many don’t even seem to be trying.
It turns out there’s a Bellagio hotel across the street and I think, Bingo. Coming from the West, I think this has to be some sort of landmark that might be able to assist my advisor in triangulating my location. Nope. My advisor thinks I am using a word in English that he doesn’t know and puts off the information as not helpful. He asked that I send my location via WeChat (the Chinese monolithic social media service unilaterally used by every Chinese person I have met out here). He takes one look at it and confirms, “Yeah, I don’t know where you are.” This guy is super helpful, right? My only friend in the world turns out to be a putz. I find out later that he had only been working the job for a couple months. I was in his first batch of teachers coming over. This is just the first instance of how incompetent these coyote-like companies are haphazardly smuggling American teachers over here (barely legally, I later find out). Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
I ask if I can take a cab, but he says they drop me too far from the station. (I had no taste for cabs at that point anyway.) He suggested I go back to the airport, but there was a certain point of pride here where I was in the cab for almost 40 minutes. I couldn’t imagine how much time or money would take me back. There was a point where, probably out of desperation, my advisor handed the phone off to an American. I thought it was somebody who knew the area or could explain something about China. In reality, the guy had never been to China before and was only here a couple days and had no idea. Why my advisor thought that this guy could fix my situation was beyond me.
It was in this moment I perhaps can see a little of myself in my advisor. If you just hand your problems off to people, maybe they will be able to fix it better than you and deliver the sweet relief of escape. The difference was that now the problem was my lost ass in Hong Kong. I think respectively it had never been more clear that this strategy wasn’t working out.
More brainstorming revealed that Hong Kong has Uber. I figured it might be expensive, but I would at least be able to get to the border and figure it out from there. I ask him “Why I don’t try that? His answer is, “That might work.” (Fuck me, right?) So, I try to download it on my American network in China. It turns out it will take half an hour to download. It gets down to 7 minutes before I get an error message and it refuses to start again. Once more, square one.
The rainy morning delayed the coming of the sun, but by now the sickly glow began to light the streets around me. At least I could progress forward in the light. Angry and emboldened, I determine that this bus stop sanctuary is not conducive to me spending the rest life there. I navigated the poorly arranged intersections to take refuge in the Bellagio. At least it wasn’t raining there in there.
It was a small lobby, lined with golden mailboxes and sickly house plants. The security guard was skeptical and asked if she could help in Chinese. I asked, “English?” She shook her head. “Lobby?” I asked. She nodded and gestured to the room around her. I had been at this for probably close to two hours and I just needed a place to sit and put my bags down. I had probably already done irreversible damage to my back and shoulders. I pinched nerves I still feel today. I weigh the pros and cons of homelessness versus just ditching my bags and taking on China with only the bags on my back.
In that lobby however, I got my first hard knocks lesson in positivity. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t home. My family wasn’t here. There was no love for me to cushion life’s little anxieties to throw my weight on. But at least it was warm and it wasn’t raining.
Finally, my advisor gets back to me on WeChat with a contact card from another advisor. He tells me that she knows Hong Kong better than he does, but I think the reality of it was that he was having a bit of a breakdown over the situation and was at a loss on how to help me (Super Comforting). I put my faith in her and she told me to hand the phone off to a cab driver and he would take me where I needed to go. I thank her a thousand times and I set off in the cab. Free at last, right?
In the back of the cab she arranged, I deemed it time to alert my family to the insanity of the past couple hours. I was safe now. I had to be. My family (my brothers and sister; I didn’t dare tell my mother about this yet) were just happy that I was safe, and we go on assuming that this elderly cab driver had my fate well in his hands. I look at the passing smoky hills and old huts nestled within them. It is in this cab that I have my first positive I’m in China moment. It really is surreal to look up once and awhile and realize that I, a kid born in Jersey going to public school, could make my way out here. That is until the cab driver turns and asks me a question. I tell him ‘Huanggang Checkpoint’, which he responds by asking the question again. We come to an intersection and he repeats the question. I close my eyes and pick one way on a 50/50 shot.
We pull into the bus station and I even tip the fucking cab driver. I was home free, what did I care? I could literally see Shenzhen from where I was. I even took an Instagram picture to celebrate. I captioned it ‘Huanggang Checkpoint’. I checked my location and I could even tag both mainland China and Hong Kong. This had to be it. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t Huanggang Checkpoint).
I asked my advisor where he was. He asked where I was. I started to get mad, “I don’t fucking know. I’m wherever you told the cab to take me.” I sent the picture to my advisor and casually informed me, “Yeah, I don’t know where that is.” (This guy should win an award or something.) Turns out I chose the wrong one on a 50/50 shot. It didn’t help me feel any more welcome in this strange place. Why the fuck would I do this to myself? He tells me to take the first bus I see, but I only have hundreds on me (like a fucking tourist. In all honestly, you can’t blame that cab driver for trying to take advantage of me. That was really probably the hardest part of this whole thing. Anyone could have stood in line and taken advantage of the ignorant American lost in the situation. And the locals knew it. There clearly was an entire industry that could subsist on our fat ignorance). Obviously, the bus driver has no change for a two quai bus ticket.
I asked my advisor what to do, but at this point he was just as much at a loss as I was. He told me to go buy a water or something. For the next hour or so, I was going up and down stairs with two hundred pounds of luggage, lost at a bus station. I almost fell down the escalator. Out of sheer fear of falling for several minutes, some adrenaline allowed me to get control of the outrageous weight. Onlookers gave me shitty ‘fucking American’ looks and no one offered to help. This was not a welcoming place. In that moment, I hated Chinese people as much as they hated me.
There is nothing more maddening than trying to find a place that you don’t know what you are looking for. Then you are removed again when no one speaks the same language as you. I began to crack. I wanted to give up and cry, but I kept asking myself what good that would do me. For the first time in too long, me and Other Christian agreed on something. I needed to keep moving forward.
I finally found a 7/11 (Go figure). I was severely dehydrated and soaking wet. The water gave me a little bit of life back. The second advisor (the good one) sent me a picture of a yellow bus and told me that I needed to find it. I showed the locals including cops and bus directors. They kept pointing me in opposite directions, telling me to take this bus and that bus. It got to the point where I accepted that I was just going to keel over and die out here at some point, so I just hopped on the next bus and hoped for the best.
I tried to hold my balance and keep my bags from drifting back and forth while simultaneously calling my advisor who was no longer picking up the phone. A group of teenagers (the first people not to scowl at me since I had been there) tried helping me when I showed them a picture of the bus. They used a translator app to tell me I was going the wrong way. I didn’t want them to see me cry, so I turned back to my bags and finished the ride. I hoped they were wrong, seeing as I we were going the way I came on the taxi. I even saw the same intersection where I took the 50/50. The ride took much longer than expected because two buses had gotten into an accident where I was taking the cab just an hour before. I felt grateful to not have been on that bus, but I was faced with the harsh reality that dying out here was a distinct possibility. So mortal. So vulnerable. So sweaty. So tired.
It turns out (thank God) that the teenagers were wrong and I saw the fabled yellow bus from the pictures. The next step was getting on one. I was there just in time to see one pull away. This is the closest I came throughout the entire process to just sitting down and giving up. I doubted that these were the right buses. I doubted the words of my advisor. I doubted my faith in people. What if I got on the bus and it was going the wrong way? What if I was just tumbling deeper and deeper into the depths of Hong Kong? I told my advisor how close I was freaking out. Finally, I put him on the phone with what seemed to be a tour guide. She was bewilder and kept speaking Chinese to me, hoping that I would understand, but eventually she escorted me around the building, and I payed more money out of my deep ole’ American pockets and got on the yellow bus.
This was the true Huanggang checkpoint. Signs and everything. I crossed the border. I lugged my two hundred pounds of luggage through two separate waystations. I gave the Chinese government my identity and all of my finger prints. I saw two arab-looking men in fine suits looking like they just got a good night of sleep and a hot shower like China was easy. I hated them. They were indifferent toward me.
On the last check, the officer didn’t believe that I was the person on the passport, probably just because I looked like hell. I was expecting them to turn me away and I was going to have to drown myself to death in the public toilet (If it was even a bowl toilet capable of such a feat). She called over her supervisor and I gave them my driver’s liscense and took off my glasses. They asked me what I was doing here. I told them I was teaching English. They were the first people I told who didn’t sound enthused about this. Eventually, begrudgingly, they let me through.
I saw my shitty advisor in his blue blazer and jeans. I said his name. “Christian?” he asked. I gave him a big hug. I was in China.
We took a car to the hotel and I saw the giant, clean city that was Shenzhen. Walking down the sidewalk with all my luggage drew the stares of the xenophobic Chinese. Kids pointed and chuckled. Adults just scowled. The hotel was a discount prostitution den located over a small indoor mall. My advisor showed me to my room. It was a closet. Most of the room was taken up by a huge hard bed, and there were no windows. He left me there and said, “Call if you need anything.”
That second of loneliness and stress washed over me and I just utterly began to weep. A heaving and open cry. I got out of the pan and ended up in the fryer. The day was so difficult and hopeless, and I was only four hours into China. I couldn’t imagine the week, let alone the entire year. My emotional backbone crumbled beneath the weight of the time I was about to undertake. This moment is what inspired the title of this section of the blog. As I cried to no one and as nobody cared, I could only ask: Why the fuck would I do this to myself? Expose myself to this long, wicked trial of me against the world. My family was frustrated. My girlfriend was gone. My job couldn’t stand the sight of me. I had nothing but this shitty hotel room to show for it.
I called my advisor back immediately and said that I needed a window. Call me a pretentious first-worlder for it, but if I didn’t have sunlight, I was well on the way of losing every bit of hope and sanity I had left in me. He came back and I had to shell out some more cash to stay in almost the same exact room, but there was the beauty of the outside world. The ugly, stupid Chinese world that hated me for being an ugly, fat American.
Again, I was alone, and again I openly wept. I cried a deep cry of anguish, of loneliness, of regret. The reality of the moment washed over me. I was hopeless. I called my family and told them I wanted to come home. Of course, I worried the shit out of them, throwing my weight on them one more time, costing them another night of sleep on my behalf. I knew it was impossible to come home immediately, that it would require another 16 hour flight, another great deal of money on top of that which I had spent to get here and was now ready to abandon. But the grief I felt in that moment was like a mortal wound. The old me died right there on the fake wood floor. I’d like to think that this me, the one who wrote last week, the one I am trying to be for the kids at my school, is better. I did not know that in that moment though, and I grieved for myself.
Which ‘grieving for myself’ is exactly what I had been doing this whole time, but with the extremeness of this situation, it required an extremeness of self-pity. A lot of that has burned away since, but I had a headache for three days.
My mother told me to get some sleep. I was jet-lagged, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I needed to come down. A couple hours later, I was invited to lunch with another new arrival with my advisor and he showed us a noodle shop. Later that night, I had dinner with the other new arrivals in my hotel. It was amazing to see that all these people were all just as lost as I was. We shared stories and it turns out that they already knew me as the guy who was lost in Hong Kong. We laughed and exchanged WeChat info. It turns out that we needed one another so that we knew that it wasn’t ourselves against an entire 5,000 year old culture. I think in that night we all said goodbye to our old selves and gave in to this life here in China. The guy whose story I told in the last blog entry said something to me that turned out very useful as my time here began: Accept China for what it is. It’s problems and its inconsistencies. You had to because if you fought it, you will only self-destruct.
“Why the fuck would I do this to myself?” has been the running title for this section of the blog. Perhaps it is a little self-depredating and certainly funny, like this was all some type of mistake. But I think the real reason however is that I knew that I needed something. Call it a change, call it a challenge, or a circumstance, I knew there was a something missing in my life. Things had grown easy, and deep down, I knew it. But I had become too fragile to fix it. It probably is pretentious and first-world-y, but I’m too afraid to join the army and the waiting list for the peace corps is too long.
Why the fuck would I do this to myself? The answer is because it needed to be done. I got too smart for myself. I drank and smoked too much to cushion my discomfort in the mundane. I was in a self-destructive cycle. Somewhere in my body, I knew that. So I solved it quietly conspiring against myself. I put my own future in an inescapable situation. I told my friends and my family, almost braggingly, that I was going. My pride would never let me back out. I can say ‘I didn’t know it was going to be this hard’, and I didn’t. But then that is exactly the point. Maybe once and a while you need to be completely peeled away from not only your comfort zone, but your comfort zone’s comfort zone. Nature knows the rules: if it’s not working, burn the mother fucker down. Let it die. If not, it’s holding up the entire ecosystem, and that will only end in more destruction. I think humans are a perfect model of that.
Why the fuck would I do this to myself? Because I couldn’t do it to my loved ones anymore. I may not have known it in the hotel room that day, but what I am learning out here is how strong I am. I have been afraid to say that for a long time, because I never allowed myself to be strong. Because sometimes you’re wrong. And I hate being wrong, so I stopped trying. I haven’t touched the book out here yet. Maybe I never will again. Maybe I’ll never be the writer I saw myself as. But maybe I knew that already and I was trying to preserve myself, so I never had to face it. But maybe I will be. Maybe I need to accept defeat to win. That isn’t what I was learning at home, with my relationship, with my career, with my family. I never fully accepted defeat because I always expected the heroic romantic ending to come. I was never defeated, because I would prefer stalemate. Well, I lost now and I’m not expecting out of it. I’m just learning from it.
Thank you guys. See you next week when we finally start a new story when I start job hunting in China.
God Bless. Cheers.
Actual picture that I went around showing people of the bus I needed to take.
Not helpful, right?]