(THE CHINA CHRONICLES) #2: Beardie, Stinkbugs, and the Four Unexpected Lessons of Doom

I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have started the chronicling of my trip at the end. My trip home, as I now see, lent well to a fictional retelling via blog post. My trip itself, however, really wasn’t all that funny. Why?

Fact: Communist China isn’t very funny.

In any case, I’ve attached pictures to help guide you through the characters of China Chronicles, Part 2: Beardie, Stinkbugs, and the Five Unexpected Lessons of Life.

I traveled for one week around Beijing with my brother Adam (boy, age 24) and his teacher friend Amaelia (girl, age 22). (Another fact: Amaelia doesn’t like when you ask her if she’s read the Amelia Bedelia books. How do I know this? I asked her if she’s read the Amelia Bedelia books. Even worse, I followed my ignorant question with, “And how many people ask you that?” to which she said, “Everyone. And they always follow it with that question.” Blimey.)

Before we left Wuxi, the city where my brother teaches, I skyped with my mom because she wanted to see my face and hear my voice and know that I was OK. I told her to send me my eye prescription so I could get cheap glasses made while on my trip. “No problem. Have a safe flight,” she said. Then she hung up.

(I’d like to discuss briefly the problem with those closing lines. And this isn’t an attack on my mother. Instead, I prefer to view it as an aside on how many of the things Americans say don’t really make much sense. Exhibit A: “no problem.” I hate when people say this. It assumes that the person inquiring is laying a problem on the other person’s shoulders. Can’t you ask someone else to do something without it being a problem? Exhibit B: “have a safe flight.” I know this is offered as a harmless sentiment, but considering I have a fear of flying and therefore think about all the forces acting upon me when soaring into the stratosphere, whoever’s telling me to have a safe flight, in actuality, has no control over the safety of my flight. Nor do I. And trust me, I sincerely wish this wasn’t the case. I’d love, more than anything, to throw on my Spider-Man suit in the face of danger and save a plummeting plane, but sadly my store-bought superhero suit doesn’t come equipped with fictional powers. And this sucks. It really, really sucks.)

We arrive at the airport and I’m wearing my Star Wars shirt. I immediately realize this is a mistake. People are staring. Lots of people. In China, white people are spectacles, so we didn’t really feel like drawing any more unnecessary attention. And by wearing a bright blue shirt with Darth Vader on it, I wasn’t helping. (My brother once got asked if he was Yao Ming even though Ming is Chinese and over seven feet tall and my brother isn’t Chinese and stands significantly under seven feet.) So, Lesson Numero Uno: don’t wear Star Wars shirts in China unless you want to feel like Janet Jackson did at the Super Bowl when Justin Timberlake ripped her shirt and revealed her right nipple.

We soon boarded the plane, and I grunted because there was no on-demand TV and movie selection. I quickly plugged myself into my iPhone where I had a small but sufficient supply of TV shows to watch, and everything was OK. Lesson 2: don’t watch cable TV shows on airplanes. I enjoyed the chart in Chronicles, Part 1, so I’ve made another one to illustrate this point below:


Why You Shouldn’t Watch It on an Airplane (or on any other form of public transportation)

Dexter People will think you enjoy watching naked people being killed and, at the extreme, deem you a necrophiliac.
Six Feet Under People will think you enjoy watching naked dead people being dressed to look as if they’re alive. And that you’re probably a necrophiliac.
Hung People will think you’re watching a porn movie on account of all the sex in this show.

Now, this chart assumes you care what people think about you. I like to think I don’t, but we all care what people think about us. Especially on airplanes with little children. So, out of respect for the families in the world, I turned off my shows and pumped up my Glee soundtrack instead. I mean my Beastie Boys album. “Sabotage.” Yup, “Sabotage.” Then I feel asleep to Mike D and MCA whispering sweet melodies in my ear.

We had a short taxi ride to the hostel, so I pulled out the book I’d been reading for a few weeks and looked disappointingly at the placement of the bookmark. Sometimes I read books within a few days, but sometimes I’ll read a book only once a week and therefore spend months on the same one. This was the case here with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It’s about expats in Paris and Pamplona in the 1920s, so I chuckled at the notion of reading a book about an American abroad when I, myself, was an American abroad. I pictured myself like Jake, the main character, wooing an Englishwoman to tea at a quaint outdoor café. Then I realized I was in China and would have to revise my plan to include a Chinese girl and a random dumpling joint with flies swarming around the kitchen. This depressed me. Life Lesson 3: don’t model your life off of books.

The taxi stopped and we got out in a small alleyway, and it was a really freaking cool alley. Bikes and trash and little kids and cats everywhere. We quickly found the hostel and approached the front desk, where I learned that the Mandarin word “nigga” is the equivalent of our “um”—they were just confused, not racist. We were then shown our room, where I held my breath, put my travel pack down, and immediately returned to the outdoors. The source of this smell, this very distinct foot smell, will be later revealed.

Now a journal entry from my first night:

Hostels: an amazing place to meet different people from all over the world. Also a place to meet fucking smelly ass people who have no respect for personal space. It’s not all bad though. I sat with everyone tonight and listened to them share their travel stories. I can’t wait to have travel stories to share. One guy (the one from Norway who asked a lot of questions) slept in a tent in Africa and was woken up by the sound of a lion on the other side. A lion! And another guy (Indian guy with the alien head) saw a zebra eat a baby lion! A zebra eating a lion! Wow! I thought I wouldn’t haven’t anything to talk about but I was surprised that everyone wanted to hear about Manhattan and all the famous people I’ve met and how James Franco taught my class once. Some thought it sounded like heaven while others expressed some negativity toward the U.S. I expected this. They don’t like how we’re an “imposing superpower.”

I remember exiting that conversation feeling really good. Like I had just had an experience, one that everyone says makes traveling worthwhile. Meeting people who made your world seem bigger, you know. We all got up from the table, said goodnight in our various languages, and headed off to bed. A bunch of us were assigned to the same room, so after a few awkward remarks like, “Ah, small world. Goodnight, man,” we all went to sleep.

Or some of us did, rather. Yet another fact: Norway guy snored like a motherfucker. I mean, really, fucking snored, like the big bad wolf that had to huff and puff and blow the house down or else the guy holding a gun to his head would pull the trigger. (I bet you didn’t read that version of the story as a young lad or lass.) And, on top of that, Indian dude with the alien head kept rolling around in his bed and whispering…something. Probably, “No zebra don’t eat that lion! He’s just a baby. He’s just a babyyyy.”

In the morning and the days that followed, I couldn’t look at the guys the same. I just couldn’t. Yes we had a wonderful dinner full of riveting stories, and yes it was very cool they had traveled all over the world, but all I could see were Mr. Puff and Mr. Night Whisperer, the guys who stole my sleep. I hated them for this, but I’ve since forgiven them because 1) I’ve caught up on said sleep and 2) there are bigger things to worry about in the world like war.

This is a good time to introduce the cast of primary characters that populated the rest of my trip. I wrote them all down in my journal. I hope to do this on all my future trips so I can remember the characters I stumbled upon. You’ve already met the first two:

  1. The Norwegian Inquirer
  2. Indian Dude with Alien Head
  3. Sick Boy
  4. Beardie/Beardie 2.0, Yin-Yang Edition (my brother named him this)
  5. Sean (with an accent over the “a”)
  6. Whispering Whale Man
  7. The Stinkbug Whisperer
  8. Weedie Cabbie
  9. Monica
  10. Peanut
  11. Kids on the Great Wall
  12. Naked Shower Man
  13. Other Naked Shower Man

While I won’t go into detail with all of them, you can make assumptions as to what they were like based upon their names. Sick Boy was the sick boy in the first room we were assigned to at the hostel and also the probable source of the foot smell. We changed rooms because of this. Sean was a nice UK kid who ate dinner with us on our first night and who had just come from teaching in Japan where he met his beautiful Japanese girlfriend. Weedie Cabbie was one of our cab drivers who clearly wasn’t opposed to getting high every now and then or hour. You can figure out the rest. (Whispering Whale Man could be misinterpreted. He was this other Norwegian guy who ate a lot of whale growing up and spoke really softly while telling me so.)

The others, however, require stories. Beardie’s real name was Justin, and Justin had a very unruly beard. Hence, “Beardie.” We found out more about him over the course of the week, but basically he was from Canada and worked with schizophrenics. He’d lived in Beijing before and speaks Mandarin like a native and is, in my opinion, very lonely. Sometimes you can just look at someone’s eyes and know they’re lonely, and Beardie was one of these people. I was sitting on the couch in the hostel lounge on my first night when I heard laughing nearby. I looked up, and Beardie was guffawing whilst typing on his computer. Now, when someone close to me is laughing and I have no idea why, I usually like to find out why they’re laughing. I asked him, and he told me if you asked twenty-three people what their birthdays are, two of the twenty-three will have the same birthday. I first questioned why he was laughing about this. I think it’s a cool test, but I don’t really find it ha-ha funny. In any case, over the next thirty minutes, Beardie surveyed the whole hostel and found two people with the same birthday, after which most people returned to their business with a “that guy is weird” along the way. I thought it was kind of cool, though. I always respect people who commit themselves fully and passionately to something. No matter how weird they may be. (The “Beardie 2.0, Yin-Yang Edition” title comes from the last day of our trip when Beardie decided to shave the right side of his beard and the left side of his head. His explanation: “I got bored.” I’ll take it. Good for him.)

We met Naked Shower Man and Other Naked Shower Man at the same hostel. Naked Shower Man purposefully changed with the shower door open while Amaelia was also in the bathroom, in plain sight of his stall nonetheless. Other Naked Shower Man…well I accidentally met him. I’m in the shower and I’m wearing my flip-flops because who doesn’t wear flip-flops in a hostel shower. Now, my flip-flops were particularly cheap (kudos, Wal-Mart) and thus prone to sliding on the wet shower floor. So, I’m showering, and as I turn to reach for the conditioner, my left foot slips under the wall of the stall. The next thing I know, my foot is touching another man’s foot, presumably a big one because it stopped my little foot with a hard thud. “Pardon me, mate,” Other Naked Shower Man said. Based on his accent I think he was from the UK.

“My bad,” I offered nervously. I pulled my foot back to the appropriate side of the wall and quickly turned off the shower off and exited, with traces of shampoo still in my hair. Life Lesson 4: don’t buy flip-flops from Wal-Mart.

A few days later we took a van up to the Great Wall. It was like the shitty Volkswagen Minibus from Little Miss Sunshine except it wasn’t yellow and it had much less character. The van broke down about halfway into our trip so the driver had to pull over. Adam and Amaelia speak enough Chinese to navigate basic conversations, so they discovered we had to wait about an hour for his friend to come help. It would’ve been easy to get mad in this situation, but it’s hard to do so when incredibly beautiful scenery and family and a friend surround you.

And then I heard the noise. Yes, that noise. This time, though, it started as a loud buzz and stayed that way. For the whole hour. The source of this buzzing, my dear reader(s), was the fucking stinkbugs, which thankfully harassed me only during this short hour. They also don’t stink, which is very considerate of them. And they loved our driver. I mean, he was the fucking Queen Bee. They were on his head and arms and legs and bum. This is how he got the name The Stinkbug Whisperer.

We eventually got to the hostel, where we met Monica, the owner of the hostel, and Peanut, a one-month-old puppy she’d recently found. Next fact: Peanut is the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen, even in spite of the fact that he may or may not have been blind in his right eye. More important, he fit in a cup. See pictures and video below.

We only stayed in that hostel for one night, but the Great Wall was the closest thing to a dramatic movie moment that I had during my trip. When surrounded by mountains and trees anywhere and everywhere you look, the moment kind of transforms into this extraordinary one where you’re suddenly extracted from real life and planted in this parallel, more surreal one. (Exhibit C: “extraordinary.” If it’s extra ordinary, doesn’t that mean it’s really normal?) While climbing the wall, or whatever was left of it, I felt like Marty McFly, except rather than being accidentally sent back to the 50s, I was purposefully sent back to 200 BC to climb that wall until I got to the very tippy freaking top. (A little history lesson: The wall is in northern China and was built to protect the  Chinese Empire against attacks by various nomadic groups. It’s also about 5,500 miles long, which is one long ass wall.)

After our hike we headed back to the hostel, said goodbye to our clan of characters (except for the Norwegian Inquirer, Indian Dude with Alien Head, and Other Naked Shower Man), and headed back to Wuxi. The last entry in my journal from my Beijing trip will conclude this post nicely:

I had this expectation that I’d be inspired by my trip, because the people in the books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen always seem like better people once they travel. But this hasn’t exactly been the case. I guess it makes sense considering China isn’t the most romantic or inspiring of places. Perhaps it’s this thing called Communism. I blame Mao. People are kind of like robots here—short black hair, families with only one kid, no personal expression. It makes for a cold and calculated culture. I certainly feel no connection to anything here, except for the Great Wall. All I can think about when visiting these famous historical sites is how fake they look, like manufactured culture—the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square. No revelatory or literary moments here. Perhaps I should go with Sean on the Trans-Siberian Railway and drink vodka and read Tolstoy while taking in the sites of Russia outside my window. What a revolutionary idea…waking up in the morning without knowing what you’re going to do that day or week or month or year.

 Viva La Revolución.




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