I went back to the hostel and tried in vain to contact my parents back home to let them know what happened.  At about four o’clock, I got a call from Bethany, a friend of a friend back in the states studying business in Beijing.  She invited me out to have drinks with her and her friends, and I thought that it might do me some good, so I agreed.  I met her in Sanlitun bar district, and she brought me to a rooftop terrace where foreigners and wealthy Chinese were soaking up what I was told was the nicest day in Beijing in months.  We sat down at table full of beautiful girls and fit guys, all in their Sunday best because they had just come from a school organized Easter function.  They ordered over-priced cocktails and smoked fat cigars. I felt like I was on the set of The Hills.  My frazzled beard, unkempt hair, and dirty jeans did not mix well, and even surrounded by my fellow countrymen I felt like somewhat of an outsider.  I did my best to add my two cents wherever appropriate, but I couldn’t help but feel like there was just so much that separated us; interests, dreams, bank accounts, experiences.  I suppose that I also resented them in a way, because it seemed as though they were having so much fun while I was struggling to keep my head above water.  Like I tossed myself into this culture head first, and they had just gotten their toes wet.  I was angry at them for eating burgers every Monday and ordering pina coladas as if they were in Miami, and at the same time I was painfully jealous of their posh lifestyle.

I went back with Bethany to her dorm so that I could use her Skype to call my mom and tell her the bad news.  Bethany went out and I fell apart in her room, whining about home and feeling inadequate, breaking into tears when I heard the familiar sound of the wind slamming my front door shut and the distinctive clang of the bell that hangs there. My mother did her best to give me what motherly advice was appropriate, but I screamed in petulant resistance.  Nothing could draw me out of the hole I was tossed into, and I blamed no one by myself. “What’s wrong with me mom?!”

The truth is, there’s nothing with me.  My mother eventually grew tired of my bad mood and hung up.  I didn’t want to go back to scene of the crime, so I joined Bethany in her friend’s room where they were playing drinking games.  It wasn’t long before they were laughing at my jokes, asking me about my life in Liaocheng, impressed by my lackluster knowledge of the Chinese culture.  We went out to bar street and I met more interesting people, a fellow writing major studying Mandarin, a know-it-all who grew up in Height Ashbury in the 70’s, two French twins celebrating their birthday.  We discussed our favorite television shows, pondered the future of Google in China, and swapped favorite musicians.  By the end of the night I had all but forgotten about the disappearance of my computer, and had it not been for the walk home I might have forgotten that I was in China in the first place.  It goes to show how far a little good company and a little bit of dance music will go.

The next morning I woke up early and began working on a way to get a new computer.  Buying a computer is daunting enough as it is, but the thought of buying one in Beijing, having to discuss the pros and cons of any given model and haggle in Chinese, it just seemed like an impossible feat.  Luckily I got in touch with Jen, a Chinese girl who had been one of my trip leaders during my first visit to China and was now living in Beijing.  Jen was out of town, but she put in touch her friend Lisa, who spoke English well and had the time to help me.  I was talking with Lisa on the phone outside of my hostel when I stepped on a manhole and suddenly found myself plummeting to the depths below.  I caught myself, but just barely, and crawled out with a sizeable lump on right hip and a scrape on my ankle.  It was at this point that I began to take a much lighter approach to my troubles in Beijing.  Yes, my brand new computer might have been taken from me.  Yes, I was alone on the other side of the world, far from my friends and family, with a dwindling bank account and a less than firm grip on the local language.  But I had people who were willing to stick their neck out for me.  I had a mother and a father somewhere on the side of the ocean that loved me, and sooner or later I was bound to learn the language.  Besides, anyone can make the mistake of stepping on the wrong manhole, break their neck, and that’s it, game over.  So why not be happy, even in the worst of times?

My train left that afternoon at about 2:00 PM, so I had to go to the train station to have my ticket changed to the next day before I could meet  Lisa.  On my way to the subway station I bumped into Guang eating strawberries and looking rather bored.  He offered to accompany me to the train station in case I needed any help, and thank God he did.  I had already switched my train ticket once, and it was pretty easy the first time.  They have a designated English speaking ticket counter at the train station and I just told them when I wanted to leave, and that was that.  This time around, since I had already changed my ticket once, I could not change it again, and instead had to get a refund and buy a new one.  Despite knowing a bit of English, the lady at the ticket counter could not explain this to me, and Guang had to intervene.  We had to wander down into the bowels of the train station, a massive building with an ever confusing set of stairwells, twists, turns, and levels that seemed to make no sense to me.  Every so often Guang would ask for directions to the ticket returns counter, at which point he would be hassled to sell the ticket to whomever he asked so that they might make a profit off of it.  When we finally made it to the ticket counter the lady there told Guang that it was too late to refund the ticket, that I just had to bite the bullet and either get on that train or buy a new ticket for the next day.  After about thirty minutes of back and forth gobbledygook of which I understood perhaps thirty percent, Guang finally convinced the lady to refund my ticket, and I bought a new one for the next day, on a much nicer, much faster, yet less expensive train.

At this point I nearly broke down in tears trying to express my gratitude to Guang.  It’s a perfect example of the generosity one encounters in Chinese culture, and Guang was a bit shocked to see such a powerful reaction from me.  I tried to explain that in America people always have their own agenda in mind before that of others, especially strangers from another country.  He said that perhaps now I can go home and teach people to interact the way the Chinese do, going the extra mile, or ten, just to help out someone in need.  I assured him I would, and I promised that if he ever made it to America he had a place to stay and friend to show him around.

After the train ticket debacle I met Lisa at the computer market, and was thrilled to find that she was one of the gentlest, kindest, and most beautiful girls I have ever met.  She worked for Li Bing Bi, a famous Chinese actress, and was well connected in the Beijing show-biz scene. What luck, I thought, that my computer was stolen, that I might have the chance to meet this wonderful person.

We found the right computer and negotiated the right price, and it seemed as though life could not be farther from the duldroms of the day before, that is, until she invited me to her friend’s studio to drink tea and meet some of her colleagues.  Juzi worked with Lisa for Li Bing Bi, and Ahua, was a studio musician and song writer for famous Chinese pop stars.  The studio was dimly lit and as we entered I heard the calming sound Stan Getz’ sax solo in The Girl From Imponema.  I was greeted with a warm welcome, and given a variety of snacks and teas from all parts of China.  I conversed in my broken Mandarin, but with Lisa’s help I was able to convey just about anything I wanted to these fascinating people.  We talked about music and film, and about the differences between our cultures.  I showed them pictures of Vermont foliage, and told them about my sisters.  They complimented me on my hair and beard, and asked if they might try on my glasses.  It was quiet in the studio, tucked away from any big roads and ten floors above the ground level.  I felt an intangible peace with these three strangers that calmed my frayed nerves and reminded me of the reasons that I left the comfort of home in the first place, to try and see if I could find comfort elsewhere.

That night I met a group of Swedish architecture students who had just arrived in Beijing the day before.  They were deeply impressed with my knowledge of the culture and language of China, minute as it might be, and their curiosity brought out a genuine sense of appreciation for them in me.  We went out for drinks and on the way there I began talking with a street vendor.  “That’s so cool!” one of them exclaimed.  “That you can just start talking with this guy, asking him what’s this, what’s that, how much does it cost, that’s just so cool.”  When the vendor told me that one of the items for sale was sheep testicles, the Swedes nearly burst with joy.  “We have to try that!”  We ordered three and gobbled them down with ease.  It was pretty much all fat and the texture left something to be desired, but I suppose Westerners in China don’t eat something like sheep balls because they think it might taste good. We do it for the stories, so that we will have something to tell our friends about when we get home.

The train ride home was packed with weary yet jovial travelers.  I watched intently as a group played cards and trash-talked their opponents, laughing the whole time.  I told those around me about my studies, what life is like with four big sisters, why Chinese food is more nutritious than food in America.  I watched a group of twenty-somethings in the standing only section curl up against each other and sleep the miles away as the train rolled towards their destination.  It was a strange thought, but for the first time in China I felt like one of them, like I was part of this fascinating culture that never seems to fail to captivate me, love it or hate it. I was happy to return to Liaocheng, happy to get out of the hustle and bustle of Beijing, where the subways are so crowded you begin to wonder if you’ll ever get out, where everything is overpriced and the vendors will literally drag you by the shirt sleeve to have a look at their selection of knock-offs.  But I made it out alive, all the wiser.

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