Apparently it’s more difficult to pack for a year than I remembered. As mom sat in my room folding all my button down shirts so that they didn’t resemble paraplegic origami like the first few I folded, Dad and I were looking rather skeptically at the proposed two suitcases I was to use for this little adventure. One was large but not huge, and the other was less than large. Suffice to say it was apparent after packing half the large suitcase that the small one would have to go and we’d have to go to the bullpen for another monstrous square box.
At about 9 PM the Egans showed up, which with Irish visitors is just a metaphor for alcohol showing up, it just happened to be connected to hands. I put a hold on packing and went upstairs to greet my booze. After the parent Egans went home to prepare for work their offspring Ryan stayed up drinking with me in preparation for the ungodly flight I had ahead of me. This wasn’t to be like the ole’ days of preparing for finals with a baptism of Milwaukee’s Beast and Natty Ice, we only had 12 between the two of us, it was just a merry farewell.
As the drinking got underway and the packing accelerated, it became apparent that some adjustments might have to be made to the packing strategy. God do you really need that many shirts? Ryan would say, Of course, how else could I justify bringing all these ties? I would respond. But in the end Ryan would be right and I would be horribly, horribly wrong.
After it took three of us to close up the big suitcase Dad brought down a scale to weigh the baggage, I imagined I was well over the allotted 50 pounds we were allowed to carry without penalty…only by a little bit. The two bags together came in at 140 pounds! Including my computer and the stuff in my backpack, I had packed more than my body weight worth of crap. I looked up the rules for weight on American Airlines website and proceeded to get rid of 20 pounds, or transfer more of the weight to my carry on. After packing was finished there was only one thing left for Ryan and me to do, the activity necessary before breaking any boundary from one segment of life to the next. I would cross the ephemeral curtain of two life stages on the back of a few glorious and overpowering victories of Magic: The Gathering our teenage claim to geekitude. I won’t go into details about my perfectly timed counter spells, creature management and land destruction, but suffice to say it was a thing of beauty. Afterwards I showered, shaved, put on some obnoxiously bright clothing, said my goodbyes and left for my next great journey.
It began as all great journeys do, with a smaller and much more manageable journey. I had the good graces to fly out of Newark airport in “Joisey” rather than its more congested New York equivalents. Mom drove, and I think we were both on the verge of passing out, I hadn’t slept for a solid day and a half or so, thus it was an unusually quiet drive. We parked at the terminal and I carried my heavy ass luggage to the counter.
I have to say the best way to take care of overweight luggage is to check in at the counter with the prissiest, bitchiest, I’m going to murder your baby looking employee you can find. This will most likely be a woman, but a gay guy will probably work just as well. They have to look like the world has conspired to beat them into a shapeless mass with little will to live and no motivation or drive remaining to them to accomplish anything. Suffice to say they’ll process you without a word or smile, but they’ll ignore the fact that your luggage is pounds over the limit give you your boarding pass and send you on your way.
On the plane to Chicago…I slept…moving on.
After a brief stop in O’Hare I was on my way again, this time on a 15 hour flight, across the USA, the Pacific, Japan, and then eventually to Shanghai. I stayed up just long enough to watch the ground and Chicago disappear under the clouds before I passed out. I went under and didn’t recover until some mush in a compartmentalized plastic tray was staring at me from my tray table. It was a good start to an otherwise arduous flight, I slept straight to the first meal. My communication with my neighbor was a sort of combination between head nods, guttural clicks, and drooling on my tee-shirt. Sometimes to add inflection I’d scratch myself or roll my eyes.
After another meal and another few solid hours of sleep I began spoken communications with the life form next to me. As it turns out the guy was unbelievably well preserved, he looked like he was in his early 60’s, he looked the kind of guy that played a good Santa if you gave him some padding. He was actually 83 years old, and meeting an old friend from Singapore. I usually manage to end up sitting next to someone with a story to tell when I’m stuck on a long flight. So our conversation continued broken only by 2 hour gaps to watch Spider-Man 3 over and over again.
We landed without fanfare and I stepped foot on Chinese soil for the first time, it was incredible…how much the International Airport in Shanghai resembled every other international airport in the world. Went through customs, changed some money over, and went out into the massive crowd outside the arrival gate to find a placard with my name on it.
Toward the end of the line a Chinese dude had a little sign with my name on it, he spoke English, well a little bit, with a massive accent, so I decided to just get in the cab and keep quiet for a while. As we streaked out of the airport, sticking mostly to the passing lane, I let the city fill me, the traffic, the trucks with piles of hay between the cab and the cargo, the horns with their high octaves from tiny cars, and the endless squealing of breaks that needed changing.
Everyone had warned us about the smog before we left but my first day here, the sky couldn’t have been bluer, dotted with white puffy cumulus clouds. The cab driver and Frank, an employee of my school, were deep in conversation and my eyes slid from the right window to the left, letting the geometry of the city unfold into its grids and towers and slums around me. From my vantage point, slightly above the city on an elevated highway, it didn’t seem much different from any other city, but the one thing that stood out in my mind as a we’re not in Kansas anymore moment, was when I spied the nuclear reactor, right in the midst of the city.
I haven’t been able to find it again, though I haven’t searched particularly hard, but there is a large nuclear reactor very close to, if not within Shanghai proper. This is something that to my knowledge has never been done in the US, for seemingly obvious reasons. It took a little while for the cab to hit traffic, but hit traffic it did; and one thing I did notice was some odd configurations on motorcycles and mopeds in the city. For instance one might see a motorcycle body with one wheel in front, two in back with a canopy hovering over the rider/driver and a little table on the back. People in this city have somewhere to go, those who can’t afford a car get a moped, those who can’t get a moped get a moped/bike combination, like an electric bicycle with pedals and a motor, and those who can’t get one of those get a bike. I haven’t seen a single rickshaw to my complete and utter dismay.
We pulled a few turns, ran a few red lights, and finally pulled into my humble hell hole; which for the purpose of anonymity we’ll call the Fortell Business Institute. The school happily paid for my cab ride which was nice, but no good deed goes unpunished. We rolled my luggage a whopping 12 feet from the front door into my new apartment on the first floor. It’s actually not such a bad place, about the same size as my apartment in Japan, and my commute to school is about a three and a half second walk.
After I set down my luggage I went to talk to The Boer in her room down the hall. The Boer is a South African lass who is the closest thing to an arch-nemesis my Jesus Camp of a grad program has offered. I suppose I looked more familiar than the Chinese guards who didn’t speak a word of English. So we exchanged pleasantries and I delivered her deodorant to her. I know that sounds like a strange greeting, but those are the customs of South Africa… Ok, seriously some of the people in the grad program had a two week stint in South Korea teaching at an English camp before coming back to the states and then off to China. However, The Boer under the advisement of P. Diddy MarkyMark, our program coordinator, only took a photocopy of her green card, and as a result would not be admitted onto the flight or into our fair land of freedom. Thus a multitude of items had to be fetched for her in the states, I was on deodorant duty. So remember kids, if you have a document that you think is important to your survival, livelihood, and entrance into a country – remember to take a photocopy AND the actual document with you on your travels.
As I was unpacking I was soon introduced to Kim-Kraut, a mulatto girl from the states. She is a perfect 50/50 Korean to German and proud of it. The introduction was short, but the evening would prove a little on the long side.
Myself, Kim-Kraut, and The Boer endeavored to a nearby Wal-Mart…called Trust-Mart. Goooooo Globalization! Kim-Kraut had been in Taiwan for a year so she went to track down some Taiwanese cookies or other such confection, The Boer and I knew exactly what was going to happen when the boys arrived, I bought about 20 beers and she bought a bottle of wine and Champagne…and nothing else.
The beers hit the fridge, I continued unpacking and then the boys stumbled, ambled, and staggered through the door. Wino, Longboard, and Crimson Cowboy were still in various stages of drunk, recovering, or poorly recovering from a real flight that had free booze. Wino had apparently taken an ambien and collapsed through the final hours of his flight as Longboard challenged a Chinese lad to a chugging contest and proceeded to vomit in a trash can and Crimson Cowboy proceeded to vomit on himself, shirts were discarded and replaced from carry-ons and the boys were for the most part better for the experience.
Everyone dropped off their luggage and then the whole group of us went across the street for noodles and beer, and/or some kind of non-beer beverage for the girls and Crimson Cowboy. My noodles were unbearably spicy and I got through about a third of the bowl and a third of the beer before my stomach went on the warpath. Something was rising through my bowels and it wasn’t happy thoughts. Once I stopped eating the devil’s noodles things were beginning the slow decent to normalcy, however, it was fast approaching 10 PM or 9 PM. The important thing is that it was getting late, and a decision was bearing down on us, after or still drunk, would the boys spend their first night in Shanghai resting off the plane ride, or attacking and burning the city to the ground? The Crimson Cowboy was the first to bail out; due to the shirt vomit incident we didn’t give him too much lip about it. The Boer was the next and last to drop out. Longboard tried to squeak out of the evening but I convinced him to come out “for one beer.” …but I think we both knew he was sealing his own fate as soon as he left his room.
Kim-Kraut, Wino, Longboard and I ventured in the Shanghai night, with no expectations, loan money to burn, thirsty gullets, and open minds. I don’t know how she knew where to go, but when we got into the taxi Kim-Kraut told the driver where to go, to a street with “a lot of bars where foreigners go.” For day one that was good enough for me.
When we paid three and a half American for a thirty minute cab ride we were in good spirits, when we realized the cab had dropped us off in an area with more neon bar signs than a Bukowski flashback we moved straight to high spirits, and ambled jaws agape to the closest boozatorium. The establishment in question was called Bar 88, it had a healthy smattering of gangly white folk and a compliment of Chinese drunks. We sat at a table pondering and calculating how quickly this funny money would disappear when three Chinese waitresses wearing rather revealing red dresses with high slits up the side of the leg offered us a beer menu. Suddenly a phrase from a Chinese history book popped into my head, in the nineteenth century Shanghai was known as The Whore of the Orient which for some reason made these leathery old waitresses somewhat more appealing.
We ordered some beers and were showered with bar peanuts for a solid hour or so before the urge to crawl came on. We wandered down the street a bit trying to gleam a little insight from anyone sober enough to walk in a crooked line and were given directions to a few of the more substantial bars. We moved down the street a few blocks where the sights ranged from a 20 foot statue of an Indian, (feathers not dots) a bowling alley/trance club combination, a Turkish restaurant/Hookah bar and a myriad of Irish pubs, a T.G.I. Fridays, and about a dozen crones offering massages with what I imagine would be the happiest of endings to a blind man. We clearly had stumbled onto Gringo Ground Zero in Shanghai.
Our next stop was a non-descript place called M-Factory. It had no cover charge and was quiet on the outside, but as we descended the stairs the bass started making its way to my sternum. We turned a corner and walked into a freakishly cool free club, filled wall to wall with Chinese twenty somethings. Not only that but there were bikini clad dancers all over the place, on the bar, next to the DJ, above the stage and anywhere we seemed to turn. The fact that they were horrendous dancers didn’t bother us so much…what with the bikini clad aspect to the performance.
We headed for the bar and then headed for the dance floor and had a gay olde time in the most heterosexual sense of the phrase. We were blinded by a hail of laser lights numerous times, jostled about by some ecstasy addled teens, and sweated like crazy dancing sweaty people at a club after an hour or so. It was however, an excellent little joint to study the massive generation gap buffeting this country. The old guard, literally guards, at the club stood stone solid on the top floor watching the new generation of China raving, consuming drugs they will probably never understand and listening to music so disparate and foreign from tradition that they may never come to like, enjoying Shanghai prosperity that they had never known, and may not yet have fully come to accept. Communication between ourselves and our new countrymen was rather lacking, and even attempts to converse with the geriatric guards patrolling the upper level were met with complete failure. All in all we were being terrible ambassadors for Concordia University and The United States of America. We were here to enlighten the city going and nationwide people of the People’s Republican of China that not all Americans were obnoxious drunks, and that we didn’t just come to Asia because of some petite fetish. We decided another bar and new patrons would remedy the situation.
Unfortunately on the way to our roadmap for peace we took a detour at the shimmering highway rest stop of insanity. As we passed by a less than charming tourist trap known as Narcissus we noticed patrons brandishing multicolored sparklers inside of the bar. It should be remarked that Narcissus seems an entirely unlikely name for a bar in Shanghai, but after some drunken philosophizing I’d decided that Shanghai is an entire city utterly devoted to worshipping its own reflection, and maybe wholly unknown to most of the customers maybe the most symbolic boosery in the metro area. Anyway back to the sparklers, they were bright, colorful, and on fire, we had no choice but to enter. We walked to the bar grabbed a dozen sparklers each and went to town. We set about in swirling, spinning, jumping, falling, and whatever else our sluggish minds could force our limbs to do. Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, our attention span faded as quickly as those deadly pixie sticks because after five minutes of feverish activity, panting and laughing we moseyed to a table and order some beers.
After the fury of the fire dance ended and we sat down to take in our surroundings, they had some imported beers like Heineken, Chimay, and others. They also had a professional Brazilian Karaoke cover band. How does one accurately describe this…well imagine any American bar cover band full of 40 somethings trying to relive their college days by playing an endless volley of Lynard Skynard and Journey – now change those guys into two Brazillian women clad more in my drool than the little slips they were wearing and put a drummer behind them with more tattoos than a masochistic Hell’s Angel and you start to get the picture. However, after staring at the women for some time I realized there were sounds emanating from somewhere above their breasts and as it turns out they were trying to sing. They tried to sing in such a way that threatened to sober us up. We took a vote and came to a unanimous decision to chug our beers and culturally empathize with somebody who wasn’t tone deaf.
After paying our tab and running for cover we realized there was a Turkish restaurant next door…that was quiet. Well was being the key word there. We ambled in as true cultural ambassadors, demanding a hookah and the finest Arabic maidens. We got some hummus and another round of beers. Words danced around our heads and some of them managed to spill out in long chains of things resembling sentences, but not quite making it. Remember when that guy…with the thing…came out and, Wino rumbled. He totally fucking ate it…and did you see that dude? I encouraged. Fucking A…this town, Longboard continued. What the hell are you guys talking about? Kim-Krout would invariably attempt to be the voice of reason, or grammar, or something. That guy! We would admonish.
At this point I noticed a rather sullen looking gentleman eating some Turkish dish by his lonesome. Here was our chance to prove our mettle, drunks with a heart. I probably meant to say something diplomatic, to re-assure this lad we were welcoming, thoughtful people ready to tackle the ills of the world and bring all the sufferers under our umbrella of care and understanding. What came out was Hey! Get over here and have a drink with us. But one can’t argue with results. Came he did, and drink he did. He was a German and his name was Renee, but true to our mission we hardly made fun of his…You know that’s a girls name in the US right? Fucking Wino. Anyway it turns out he was some kind of cog in the sales and marketing machinery of Porsche, and he had a damned fancy little business card.
Renee seemed more interested in Kim-Krout than having a conversation with us, but we remedied that situation by a constant barrage of questions, as I believe he’s the first person in the city we’d actually managed to talk to. We then moseyed out to the last bar we’d hit that evening. It was about 2 AM at that point. There was an epic metal fence around the street corner opposite us, and the inside of what sounded like a hugely crowded establishment was completely obscured by huge shrubs. As we turned the corner a horde of tired looking Chinese woman offering massages came charging at us like some kind of hooker cavalry. We ducked, dodged, weaved and fled in terror and pretty soon we were in the courtyard of Zepatas, Mexican restaurant by day, expat sanitarium by night. We were completely surrounded by large white men looking down the shirts of short Chinese women. Half of the patrons wore suits, and the other half looked like us, grungy, drunk, and loud. We were happy with the turn of events…and then 80’s rock emanating from the bar area. The sirens of our youth compelled us, though we would order on the rocks not crashing into them. The four of us, with Renee in tow, formed a small circle inside the bar, belting out familiar tunes at the top of our lungs. I fondly remember Renee going berserk when they started playing 99 Luft Balloons (the German version of 99 Red Balloons for you Philistines). We all grabbed each others shoulders and tried to sing German with him, but like those balloons floating away we were mostly full of hot air.
We stayed on for some undisclosed amount of time before getting into a cab. Renee made a last ditch effort to take Kim-Krout home with him, and we all kind of stood around not knowing what to do. We had only known the lass for about a half a day, but eventually I nudged her more toward the get in the cab and go home crowd. I’d like to say I was motivated by compassion but seeing as the two of us were dating a week later I doubt my motives were entirely altruistic. The cab sped off into the night, through the dizzying maze of a new city on the first night. We made a spoken recap of the night as the taxi flew past the half dozen establishments we’d frequented that evening and after about 17,000 apartment complexes flashed by the windows we were back home.
We strolled into our family mart, the 24 hour convenience store outside of campus, and added a few more beers to what must have been a monumental tab for the evening. We sat outside our new apartments in the little front lawn and drank our last beers when of all things, the sun appeared. We’d made it to sunrise, for some reason that seemed like an accomplishment. Wait, we’d survived until sunrise…there we go. A half hour after the sun rose the Crimson Cowboy appeared at the doorway ready to go for a morning jog. We were all still outside, in high spirits, and high BAC’s and immediately began telling the story of the evening. By telling, I of course mean screaming gibberish. I decided to go for a little run with him and retold most of what had transpired but after three laps and maybe a tenth of the story behind us I decided maybe running around wasn’t the best thing for all that poison worming its way through my system. Soon after I got back we decided it was about time to collapse in our new beds, in our new home, in our new lives. Welcome to Shanghai.