Dear America (and Australia and Singapore; I just realized I've been
leaving two of you out, so my sincerest apologies Jacob and Jessie),
It’s been awhile, eh? Yeah, I’m a little behind this go-around. And by
“a little” I mean extremely. A letter a month? Pfft, what a pipe
dream. Forget about apologizing for not making my April dateline; I’m
late for May!
So it looks like I totally blew my second New Year’s Resolution of
meeting all deadlines. But hey, it’s been tough enough trying to
adhere to Resolution #1
: see fewer penises. And I blew that one too
(wow, now if THAT isn’t the most poorly-chosen, Tobias Funke-esque
sentence combo I’ve written this year, I don’t know what is. I really
should revise it, but am just going to leave it, in celebration of
Arrested Development’s triumphant return this summer- a return I
unfortunately will be unable to celebrate until I’m back in the
Netflix-serviced U.S. this fall).
“Hold the phone!” You say. “This is the same penis-themed framing
device he used last time! If he’s going to recycle joke setups, by
god, he better deliver this time!”
And I will. I promise.
So we’re going to use our imagination caps again this month- or, if
you have your childhood cardboard box time machine still stashed away
somewhere, that will work too. Ready? Okay! Let’s hop back about three
months, to the very end of January. January 29th, to be precise. And
that is where this month’s edition of Brandon’s Belated Bowels Blog
begins (okay, this is a letter, not a blog, but come on- that
alliteration is just too delicious to ignore in favor of bland ol’
language precision). (Side note: you know what really grinds my gears?
When people use the word ‘delicious’ to describe something that isn’t
edible. For whatever reason, it just irks me. So what’s my excuse
here? Am I claiming my prose is so tantalizing and vivid, you want to
sink your teeth into it? No, not really. I’m just a hypocrite).
(Second side-note: I imagine if you COULD eat my stories, they’d taste
something like an Olive Garden entrée. Like, okay, sure, it’s
spaghetti, no one can really fuck that up too much- but still, you
can’t help but wonder how much better dinner could have been if a more
capable chef had prepared it).
On January 29th, the schools went on a month-long winter/new year
break (lunar calendar new year, a.k.a. Chinese New Year, a.k.a. Spring
Festival, as they call it over here). So Nick and I went traveling.
The plan was to take a train to Beijing, stay about a week, head up to
his hometown in Inner Mongolia for another 2 ½ weeks, and then come
home to Loudi.
As it turns out, Loudi’s pretty far from Beijing. The train ride was
about 17 hours. That’s a pretty damn long time to be on a train. Now
you might think: the flight over here from the States is like 14
hours, so what’s another three? Plus, a train is a more comfortable
ride than a cramped little plane seat, right?
Ehh… theoretically. So herein lies a nice illustration of the contrast
between theoretical knowledge, and practical experience. You would
think that having a whole train car to stroll about at your leisure
beats frequent confinement by a pilot’s insistence on wearing
seatbelts during turbulence (well EXCUUUSE me for living life on the
edge). But when the train management overbooks a car, as they often
do, the fifty-odd people crammed into the aisles with their bags turns
that casual stroll into an awkward maneuver through a human obstacle
course. So you end up getting confined to your seat anyway. And the
seat. Oh man, the seat. Now it’s not China’s fault that I’m six feet
tall, and that most Chinese people are not, and that their
infrastructure is thus scaled accordingly. But damn does it make it
tough on us taller guys and gals. The train seats were two-seater
booths that faced an opposing booth, with a small table in between.
The legroom? Non-existent. Height standards aside, I really think
you’d need to either be under twelve years old or a double-amputee to
get comfortable. I took standing breaks when I could, but after
spending 17 hours smashed up against strangers’ shins and a table leg,
it felt a sociopathic tiny person had stowed away under our table and
stabbed my knees with a paring knife all night.
When the train finally pulled into the Beijing station, I hopped up,
absolutely ecstatic just to be vertical again. The doors opened, I
stepped out into the air, and… KAKOFFKOFFHACK HAEEUGHHKKK HUGHK.
Beijing’s notoriously bad winter pollution hit me full-force.
Now if you watch world news at all, you probably saw some coverage of
this problem. And it really is that bad.
Imagine you walk over to your neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of
sugar, only to find him in the process of committing suicide. He’s in
his garage, seated in his car and running the engine, as the space
slowly fills with exhaust.
“Howdy, neighbor. C’n I help you with something?” He asks, affably.
“Just came by to get some sugar… but uh… what… whatcha up to over here?”
“Oh, just killing myself. Please, come in. Take a seat. Make yourself
at home. Though if you start feeling sleepy, I’d advise you to leave.”
“Okay,” You say, getting in the car and closing the door. The carbon
monoxide surrounds you in a cloud. As you settle in to your seat, you
turn to find your neighbor’s wayward teenage son, the one that had
that run-in with the police last month, in the backseat. He picks up
an enormous glass bong, shoves a chunk of coal into the bowl, takes a
huge rip, and blows the smoke in your face. “Oh, yeah,” he says with a
cough. “Good shit.”
Anyway, if you ever find yourself in this ridiculous scenario, you’ll
probably be breathing in about the same amount of particulate matter
as your typical Beijing resident.
We left the station, and the world was hazy, drizzly, cold, gray. We
went to the hostel, dropped off our bags, and headed for Tiananmen
Square. I took a bunch of photos that came out terribly, but that I’ll
probably hang onto, if only to keep in my wallet in case of an
unexpected climate change argument.
“Humans aren’t changing the climate,” this imagined adversary will say.
At which point I’ll retrieve the photos from my wallet, slap them down
on the table, and say, “WRONG.” Seriously, you’d really have to have
your head up your ass to think all that shit in the air wasn’t doing
Side note: I imagine that if you could manage to get your head up your
own ass, the air quality there would be comparable to… okay, I’ll
So we walked around for the remainder of the first day, exploring some
of Beijing’s famous lanes, strolling through a shopping district, and
eating one of Beijing’s many famous dishes (a delicious
pancake/noodle/cabbage dish loaded with vinegar, so good).
One of the first things that hit me was how much I blended in. I’m
used to being stared at wherever I go, but in Beijing foreigners are a
dime a dozen. No one’s wowed by just another white dude passing on the
street. Which was a good thing, because I looked like a straight-up
tourist. I even had a fanny-pack (okay, so it’s a “traveler’s bag”
that hangs across your hip to make you feel a little better about
yourself, but it’s essentially the same thing. And you know what? I
don’t give a fuck. I have yet to be pick-pocketed).
That night, when we returned to the hostel, we met three of our
roommates: a British fellow who’s been in the city for a year and is
between apartments, and two Chinese guys. The first, named Mao Mao,
was from Shanghai, and was just an all around friendly and down to
earth guy, with a pair of thick-framed Woody Allen-style glasses to
boot. I’ve forgotten the second one’s name, but I’m going to refer to
him as Criss (as in Criss Angel), because he absolutely idolizes the
famous magician of the same name. He had long, emo-boy bangs, and
complemented his introduction by fanning out a deck of cards. “Do you
I feigned over-enthusiasm, and sat down on the side of the bed. He
started off with some disappearing money tricks, moved into
card-predictions. Your typical amateur magician’s fare. But after he
made a lit cigarette disappear inside my belly button, my applause was
truly genuine. He told me his dreams of moving to Las Vegas and making
a name for himself. We all took a photo together holding out cards
like we’re too cool for school, which he said he’d put on his website.
Then he told me how he did all his tricks. And I just thought: dude, I
don’t think magicians are supposed to do that… If he ever gets his
career going, I’m assuming it won’t last much longer than his first
special. “So, did you guys like my illusions this evening? Yeah? Well,
here’s the truth: it’s all bullshit. No, seriously, I didn’t actually
do any of that stuff. Here, let me show you…”
As Criss finished explaining his last trick, Mao had a suggestion. “I
saw some cute girls at the hostel bar, why don’t we go have a drink?”
Criss brightened up, and immediately rushed over to his bag to change
his shirt and fiddle with his hair.
Five minutes later, we were walking to the bar to meet chicks. And I
wish someone had been there with a video camera to capture this trek
in slow-motion, because I’d love to play it back and see how
ridiculous it must’ve looked. Leading the pack, short little Mao Mao
with glasses too big for his head; next up, soft-spoken Nick; then
Criss, cracking his knuckles and shuffling his deck of cards; and
bringing up the rear, ol’ Brandon with his fanny-pack. Going to pick
up chicks? This group couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse.
Thankfully, no one tried. We went to the bar, saw the cute girls, and
then saw the beer prices. “Way too expensive!” Mao Mao exclaimed.
“Let’s go somewhere else.”
So we ended up alone at a table in an empty restaurant, eating nuts
and drinking beer, and talking about girls, as opposed to actually
talking to girls. Such is life.
Next day, I awoke and went to the window. “It’s snowing!” We bundled
up and trekked outside. The city was still gray and the pollution was
still terrible, but the snow turned it into something beautiful. We
went to a park and a mountaintop temple, and enjoyed some spectacular
views of a city blanketed in white.
But I’m not going to give a day-by-day recounting of every event,
because that would be exhausting for both of us. So to be a little
more concise: the third day, some winds blew into the city, and blew
out all the smog. The sun came out, and I got to see Beijing for what
it usually is. And it’s a hell of a city. But it was still damn cold,
and the ancient stone steps at most of the cultural landmarks were
still an icy deathtrap. I slipped down the stairs at the Temple of
Heaven twice. The second time, I fell into a woman and she started
screaming. It’s all a lot funnier when you remember I’m still wearing
a fanny pack.
The next day, we went to the Forbidden City. It was absolutely
incredible, and absolutely massive. It took us like 7 hours to walk
through it, and we still didn’t see everything there was to see. The
place has over 8,000 rooms! It’s unbelievable! Thankfully, there were
plaques at each one to help us remember how necessary all those rooms
were. “This is the room where the Emperor discussed matters of war
with his ministers.” “This is the room where the Emperor had tea
before going to the other room to discuss matters of war with his
ministers.” “This is the room where the Emperor changed into his robe
before going to the other room to have tea before going to the other
room to discuss matters of war with his ministers.” And so on. This
trend continued for many of his privileged consorts. He also enjoyed a
beautiful back garden, with temples and rock formations and a
courtyard that I bet are just breathtaking in the spring.
On our last full day, we took a 45-minute bus ride to the nearest
length of the Great Wall. And you know, Beijing is a city I would
return to again and again, because it truly would have something
different to offer for every season. The frozen lakes and snow-covered
trees are beautiful in themselves, but I’d like to see the Summer
Palace during the… y’know, summer. All that being said, I think winter
offered a singularly awesome experience for visiting the Great Wall.
I’ve seen photos from friends who’ve visited during peak tourism
season, and it basically looks miserable. Sweaty, tired people packed
arm-to-arm from one side to the other, pushing through each other and
trying to stake out a viewing spot. But in January, the place is
pretty free and clear. And we couldn’t have picked a better day to go.
That godsend of a breeze that blew away the smog held out for the
remainder of our trip, and when we reached the wall’s highest point,
the view of the surrounding mountains, and endless length of wall
snaking over and around them into the horizon, seemed endless. We sat
at the top for over an hour, just looking out across this magnificent
landscape. I wanted to never leave. I thought about just taking off
across it, out into the mountains and off into infinity, like Goku
heading on down Snake Way.
“Jesus,” you say, “He’s bringing up Dragonball Z for the second time
in this letter series! Who does he think his target audience is, a
group of 10-year olds in 1998?”
The final day in Beijing, our train wasn’t scheduled to leave until
the early evening, so we decided to head to the Summer Palace. That
morning, Criss headed back to Sichuan, while Mao Mao was taking a late
afternoon train. He decided to tag along with us. We said our goodbyes
to Criss and left the hostel. Winter was back in full force; it was
snowing once again. But despite the “Summer” Palace being our
destination, it turned out to be a perfect day. The massive lake
surrounding the palace had frozen solid, and was filled with people
ice skating and playing in the snow. We walked out across it, gingerly
at first, and more confidently as we went along. We took tons of
pictures together, each time Mao Mao insisting on removing his coat
and sweater and stripping down to his t-shirt, I suppose in order to
amass photographic evidence of his badass-ness. And he did turn out to
be quite a badass. Though most passersby that saw this young coatless
man out in the snow looked at him like more of a dumbass.
That night was another lengthy train ride: 12 hours. The next morning
was similarly painful. If I made a habit of traveling this way, I’m
confident I’d be arthritic by the time I’m thirty-five.
We arrived in Inner Mongolia before the sun, and even in the pre-dawn
dark I could already see this was a very different province. Mongolian
script accompanied all the Chinese signs. The men on the street were
dark, weathered, tough. They wore leather jackets and smoked like
chimneys, and eyed me with curiosity bordering on distrust. Or maybe
more like disgust.
I had a traditional Inner Mongolian breakfast, tea and dumplings
(maybe the best dumplings I’ve ever had), and headed on to Nick’s
house. It was located in what I found to be a typical Inner
Mongolian-style neighborhood: Low-lying valleys full of squat, square,
brick buildings tucked together down the embankments on either side of
the main roads. Dirt paths connected one to the other, all strewn with
rocks, trash, and stray dogs. The crumbling brick and mechanical
debris felt almost post-apocalyptic, and when I stepped into Nick’s
house, I was expecting an interior that matched this theme of
So it really threw me when I was greeted with a giant flat-screen TV.
This image really sums up for me the weird disconnect in the Inner
Mongolian lifestyle; it’s one that doesn’t want for many of the
material things we consider standard fare in the West (televisions,
computers, etc.) yet simultaneously lacks a number of other things we
take for granted (central heating, indoor plumbing). In America we
just assume these advancements come paired hand-in-hand, and forget
that not every culture progresses in lockstep. So of course it’s a bit
shocking to learn otherwise. “Wait, you’re telling me you got an
iPhone 5 before a toilet?”
So yeah, the style of homes is a little different. Most follow a
similar layout. In the front is a small, separate house with a coal
stove, table, and cabinets of foodstuffs. Maybe some storage in the
back. Behind it is a gate, and if you enter you find yourself in a
small enclosed courtyard containing two more buildings: the bedrooms
in one, and an entertaining area/living room and guest bedroom in
another. Each building has its own coal stove to keep things warm when
there are people inside, and not so warm when there aren’t. And since
the winter climate is downright fucking frigid, it makes sense to
build small, self-contained spaces. You burn through enough coal just
trying to keep a single room above freezing, so attempting to do so
with an entire house, especially when every room in said house isn’t
being continuously occupied, really would be a waste of energy.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention any bathrooms. That’s because there
aren’t any. Do you need to pee? Well, now you know what that bucket
over in the corner of the courtyard is used for. Feel a poop coming
on? Okay, you’re going to need to go out through the front, hang a
right, and follow the dirt path about a quarter-mile up the way. The
bathroom will be on the left. Can’t miss it.
And you really can’t miss it, chiefly because “bathroom” is a bit of a
misnomer. There’s no bath- which, you know, you’d expect would be
lacking in a public bathroom- but there’s also no room. Instead,
there’s a pit. A giant pit. Full of shit.
When you hang that final left for the first time, it’s quite the
surprise. The line of homes ends, and suddenly before you are three
middle-aged women squatting over a pit, pants down around their
ankles, all pooping and staring out you like YOU’RE the one doing
something weird. You avert your gaze and brisk walk to the other side
of the same pit, where some men are doing the same thing. Between the
two sides is a brick divider, about 4-ft high. Over the pit lay six
stone slabs, staggered with about a foot of space in between each. And
that’s it, in terms of structure. There are no walls, no roof. Anyone
happening by is treated to a full show of whatever you’ve got to
offer. At this point, you find yourself thankful for those
aforementioned piles of trash; they’re the only things standing
between you and the nearby highway.
And that’s the Inner Mongolian standard of privacy: you’re shitting
outside, four dudes next to you are watching you shit outside, some
women on the other side of the divider are occasionally peaking around
said divider and watching you shit outside, that elderly man passing
by on the way home is watching you shit outside… but, at least there’s
a well-placed pile of old ice cream wrappers 50 yards out that keeps
the motorists from watching you shit outside.
So you take a deep breath, try to ignore the collective gaze, straddle
yourself over one of the openings between the slates, and let ‘er rip.
All this aside, there is something mildly satisfying about dropping a
deuce down into a 10-ft pit full of feces. Afterwards you steal a
glance down below to see where it ended up, and aren’t surprised to
find you have no idea which turds are yours. As gross as this must
sound, as a Labyrinth fan I was overjoyed by the opportunity to visit
the real-life version of the Bog of Eternal Stench.
Maybe two of you got that reference.
Most importantly, hope you brought some paper for when you finish. The
shitpit offers little in the way of toiletry supplies.
Now I was up there for over two weeks, and I really tried to get used
to this set-up. But I never quite got the hang of it. Guess I’m a
little poo-shy. So through sheer willpower and a temporary avoidance
of fiber, I readjusted my digestive system to allow for nighttime
poops (I’ve always been a morning pooper, personally). There’s a much
slimmer chance of running into your neighbor at the shitpit after 10
p.m. And you also get to enjoy one of the perks to pooping outside: a
lovely view of the nighttime sky. The trade-off is the numbing cold of
an Inner Mongolian night. Pooping at ten below zero brings new meaning
to the term “steaming pile”; a 98-degree turd forced out into that
environment basically emits enough vapor to shroud Silent Hill. So
there are also downsides to this arrangement. And I can say with
confidence that the night I woke up with diarrhea and had to make
three separate trips to the shitpit between the hours of one and four
a.m. was one of the worst nights in recent memory.
But I’ve been neglecting the human element, and this is where Inner
Mongolia rules. Nick’s family brought new meaning to the term
hospitality. Nick’s mother is a hell of a cook, and every
breakfast/lunch/dinner, I was treated to homemade noodles, hot pots,
dumplings, and a vast array of other amazing dishes. And I rarely had
the chance to even serve myself. I’d sit down at the table and
immediately would be barraged by demands: “Try this!” “Have some
mutton!” “I see you’re enjoying that pickled garlic- here, eat the
rest!” And they’d load up my bowl until it was literally overflowing
onto the table, then turn to me and say, “Stop being so polite! Eat
whatever you want! Just take it!” And I just thought, maybe I would if
you had left space for me to do so…
I learned very quickly to feign fullness early in the meal, because
eating never ends there. “Here, eat some more!” “Oh, I’m very full,”
I’d respond. “Oh, okay… well, then just take two more pieces of meat
and another few helpings of vegetables. And here, let me top you off
with rice.” It was usually difficult to move afterwards. Not to
mention the amount of meat; there were a few points where I thought I
might die right there at the table, my heart slowing noticeably as my
arteries clogged in double-time. Mutton, beef, chicken, pork… it was
unreal. I was a vegetarian for about five years in my more idealistic
youth, and once read a claim by PETA that the average vegetarian saves
the lives of 95 animals a year. That means I was once responsible for
the well being of about 475 animals. I say once, because that is no
longer the case; I definitely evened myself back out during this trip.
If Dr. Atkins himself had been at the table, he likely would have
turned to us and exclaimed, “Holy hell, you folks need to chill on the
If I had been serving myself, I probably could have balanced my intake
a little more heavily on the veggie dishes, but again… I wasn’t
serving myself. I was basically being force-fed, and while they made
sure to give me a taste of everything, they assumed that meat dishes
were the best of the bunch, and loaded me up accordingly. I’d never
before had so much meat forced into me; it was like being the tail end
of a human centipede that just competed in a hot dog eating contest.
Meals ended with further demands. “It’s cold outside! Put on your coat
when you walk back to the guest house!” “Watch your head! The doorway
is low!” (This one was pretty helpful; despite frequent warnings, I
smashed my head on that motherfucker like ten times). “Okay, now that
you’re full, go take a nap!” “But I’m not tired…” I’d counter. “Of
course you are! Take a nap! Go! Rest!”
Home-cooked meals and naps? And all while never being allowed to so
much as help wash a dish. Damned if that ain’t the high life. I really
felt like a visiting dignitary. Though the demands continued daily:
“Put on your slippers! The floor is cold!” “Have a cup of tea! Now!”
It got to the point where I couldn’t even do anything for myself, and
at that point I saw the dark turn excessive hospitality can take. I
don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but after awhile it gets to be too
much. Like, come on people, I’m 25 years old! I think I’ve reached a
level of maturity where I can decide for myself whether the floor is
cold enough to warrant slippers, or whether I need a second nap today-
I don’t need to be baby-sat! I still felt like a visiting dignitary,
but more like one of the mentally-stunted manchild variety that
results from years of royal inbreeding.
About four days after I arrived, the Spring Festival hit. There’s a
lot of preparation that leads up to this day, as it’s essentially
China’s most important holiday (maybe some particularly patriotic
folks would tell you it’s National Day, but come on… that’s like
saying the 4th of July trumps Christmas. And sure, I love barbeques,
beer, Bruce Springsteen and blowing shit up as much as the next guy,
but there’s no way that all compares to the excitement of waiting for
an overweight immortal to break and enter into your home and leave
behind a Super Nintendo. And yeah, that’s going way back to my 7th
Christmas or so, when I first got my SNES, but I’d imagine most of you
would root your best Christmas firmly in your youth as well. In that
regard, we all tend to peak rather early).
In China, the new year is preceded by taking spring cleaning to a
whole new level. They clean their homes from top to bottom, in
anticipation of the relatives and friends who will come paying visits
in the days to come. They also make a point to take a really thorough
bath. Since Inner Mongolia is cold as shit (literally; the shit left
out in the shitpit does indeed get pretty cold), and also because most
people lack indoor plumbing, they don’t bathe very regularly during
the winter. They usually just heat up a basin full of water over the
coal stove once a day, wash their face and maybe their hair, and leave
the rest of the body to take care of itself. So when you want to
bathe, you do it at the public bathhouse.
This was the point I was looking forward to least in the build-up to
staying in Inner Mongolia, but I knew it was coming. And when it came,
it was just as bad as I thought it’d be. Hanging out in a room full of
naked dudes is never my idea of a good time, but even less so when I’m
the only foreigner in the bunch. I knew I was going to stand out, I
knew I was going to be the center of attention. So when I woke up the
morning before the new year and Nick told me, “Today, we’re going to
bathe,” I felt my heart sink, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay.”
A plastic bag full of toiletries, a towel slung around my shoulders,
and a mile-long walk in the cold down to the bathhouse. I don’t
remember this morning particularly fondly. And when I walked into the
place, took a left down the hall and entered into the male zone, I
just had to shake my head. So. Many. Fucking. Naked. Men. All just
going about their business, you know, no big deal… but then:
“AOHHHH, LAO WAI LAI XI ZAO!”
Or, as I will now translate for you, only slightly emphasizing one of
a certain term’s many connotations for necessary humorous effect:
“AOHHHH, LOOK AT THE FOREIGN DEVIL COMING TO TAKE A BATH!”
That roomful of naked men was now fixated on me, watching my every
move. Fuck. I trudged over to a locker, looking at the floor all the
way. I undressed, I took out my soap, and tried to make my way through
the throng. And while I attempted to avoid eye contact with all these
guys by continuing to look down, I quickly discovered what that gets
you: penises. Lots and lots of penises. Welp, there goes my
resolution. The trick was to center my gaze at a downward 22.5 degree
angle, thus avoiding both eyes and wieners in favor of belly buttons.
It mostly worked, though I could still see all their faces in my
peripheral vision. And they were all staring hardcore. Jesus, I mean
you could have Sasha Grey strut naked through a prison yard doing the
exercise hour, and she’d probably get less attention (at this point,
you can’t help but shake your head, tsk, and say, “An informed porn
reference AND a Dragonball Z reference in the same email? This… is
I sorta understand though. Here you are, an Inner Mongolian in Inner
Mongolia surrounded by nothing but Inner Mongolians, and in walks a
six-foot tall naked white guy, and a helluva hairy one to boot. And in
this month’s edition of Brandon’s TMI corner: for those of you who
haven’t seen me shirtless, I really am pretty hairy. It’s sort of a
pain in the ass, because I’ve managed to clog the shower drain in
every place I’ve ever lived since hitting puberty (Nick Crider, yes,
this includes your apartment’s tub while I was subletting), though
sometimes I like to have romantic daydreams wherein I ended up
pursuing a career in the Air Force, and became an ace fighter pilot
with the sweet nickname Wolfman, bestowed upon me by my friends during
Basic, after they saw me during our joint showers. Then I remember
that the daydream is just that, and I’m less a determined and
strong-willed soldier, and more the kind of guy that frequently nods
off in front of his laptop while eating chocolate and listening to the
Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack. In short: the forest that exists under
these clothes I wear would make a Wookie do a double-take. Which is
fitting, because the surprise and bewilderment and outright disgust on
these other men’s faces couldn’t have been more intense had Chewbacca
just strolled into the bathhouse. Around Hunan, when people stare it’s
usually of the “Oooh, look, a foreigner!” variety, but here it was
more like, “What the FUCK is THAT thing?”
I darted into the main bath area, which was one massive room with
showers lining the walls, and men lined up in front of each, awaiting
their turn. In the middle was one joint bath, full of gray scummy
water that looked like it was making everyone dirtier than they were
before they got in. “Do you want to take a bath?” Nick asked, pointing
at the tub. “No, I’m good,” I said, shaking my head. The only thing
submerging in that filth could possibly accomplish would be to test
the strength of my Hepatitis vaccinations.
Let’s just say that when it was finally my turn to shower, I scrubbed
down in record fucking time. I was in, out, and getting dressed before
Nick realized I was even gone. He came trotting back into the locker
area, still naked, with a worried look on his face.
“You aren’t going to shower?”
“Dude, I’m already done.”
He looked confused. “You don’t want to stay any longer?”
I wanted to tell him that, no, this isn’t exactly an enjoyable
experience for me. I’m not some ancient Roman heading down to the
public baths for an afternoon of cavorting in the water with my
neighbors and admiring the beauty of the male form. My purposes here
are purely utilitarian in nature, and I see no reason to stay longer
than I have to. But instead I just said, “…No.”
So I stepped outside and waited by the entrance for another half-hour
or so until Nick and his father rejoined me, and together we returned
home. The rest of the day involved further preparations for the
festival: hanging decorations, and buying fireworks. And holy shit,
they have the good stuff. A typical roadside fireworks stand over here
has an arsenal capable of equipping a small army. You’d probably need
a top-level security clearance with the Department of Defense to buy
some of this stuff stateside.
The next day was, in a word, INTENSE. At 7 p.m., I heard the first
explosion. I turned to Nick. “The fireworks are staring already?”
He smiled. “Just wait.”
BOOM! …BOOOM! slowly became BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!, then turning to
BOOOMkrackkaBOOMkrackkrackPOWBOOM BOOM BOOM! as the evening wore on.
One by one, more neighbors joined in. We ate a late dinner at about
nine, stuffing ourselves to our bursting points, as usual. Outside the
window, the sky was lighting up more dramatically with each passing
At 10 p.m. we went outside. Nick’s father built a massive bonfire.
Suddenly the intensity hit a J-curve of exponential growth. By 11
there wasn’t a single moment where something somewhere wasn’t
And then the clock struck midnight. And HO.LY. SHIT.
It was like being caught in the middle of a war zone. Every corner of
the sky was awash with deafening explosions. Neighbors were igniting
bonfires, throwing out huge rolls of firecrackers and lighting the
whole thing in one go. I’m assuming what I experienced beat even the
violent battles of August 1814 when the British hit Washington D.C.,
thus inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose our national anthem.
Because, really, the Star Spangled Banner is rather tame. I bet that
if ol’ Francis had witnessed some explosions more on-par with a
Chinese New Year, our anthem would have ended up sounding more like a
Cradle of Filth track.
And in the middle of all this madness, Nick ran up to me and yelled,
“OKAY! LET’S GO EAT!”
I’m sorry, I must not have heard you correctly over all this noise.
Because it sounded like you just said “Let’s go eat.”
But I had heard him right. We walked over to his uncle’s house, where
all the extended family was gathered for the traditional first meal of
the new year. It was another massive spread, though it mainly centered
around jiaozi (steamed dumplings). Two platters in the middle of the
table were piled high with the stuff, and hidden inside somewhere were
three coins. Whoever bit into a jiaozi and found a coin was destined
for good luck the rest of the year.
Of course, I didn’t find one. If I had, it really would have only made
me see the whole sham for what it is. “Universe, either you’re fucking
with me, or we’re just attributing human superstitions to your
arbitrary, chaotic order of creation. Because given my track record
with luck, there’s no way I was meant to find this.”
To which the Universe might respond: “Geeze Brandon, ever heard of a
“Yes, I remember enough from Psych 101 to occasionally reference it in emails.”
Then Nick’s uncle turned to me. “You can drink, right?”
“Yeah, I can drink a little.”
He clapped his hands. “Good! Good.”
Now I had heard the folks up in Inner Mongolia drink a lot around the
New Year, but I still wasn’t prepared to be immediately handed a glass
of baijiu, a glass of wine, and a beer all at once. The other men
I wasn’t sure where to start, so just raised all three. “Cheers!”
By the time the meal ended, I was beyond gorged, and beyond drunk; I
felt like a boa constrictor than had just swallowed a tub full of
moonshine with a full-grown moose bathing inside. We hung around the
house, half-watching New Year’s variety shows on television and
smoking cigarettes, and at about 2 a.m., Nick’s mother stood up and
said, “Time to pray.”
So we bundled up, headed back out into the war zone, and made our way
down the road towards the city center, where the local Han temple is.
As we neared, I could see a line of lights snaking up into the sky.
The closer we got, the brighter the lights became, and soon I could
see them for what they were.
Paper lanterns. Hundreds upon hundreds of paper lanterns, rising into
the night like a great flaming dragon. It was an incredible sight. The
temple itself was beyond packed, people thronged on the front steps
lighting their own lanterns and setting them off to ride the jet
stream with the others. We set off one of our own, and went inside.
Nick’s mother bought everyone some incense, and we lit them and held
them between our palms, making our rounds to each of the stone buddhas
and other icons, bowing before them, and then tossing the incense onto
a giant smoldering pile. In the middle of the temple courtyard was
another giant bonfire, with people circling around it and holding
their palms out to the heat, absorbing the warmth and energy of the
fire. I joined in, the whole time trying to get into the genuine
spirit of the actions, instead of feeling like a self-conscious
foreigner awkwardly imitating those around him. There were a few
seconds where I think I pulled it off.
We made it back home at around 4 a.m. The fireworks were still in full
force. I dozed off into dreamland with a relentless series of booms as
my lullaby. When I awoke the next morning, they were still going. They
didn’t stop for another four days.
That next week was Bai Nian, which is essentially when everyone takes
off from work or whatever they’re doing, and pays a visit to every
member of their family living within a reasonable distance. I tagged
along on each outing, and was treated as a special guest every time I
walked into another cousin’s, uncle’s, aunt’s, grandmother’s, etc.’s
home. More food, more baijiu, more wine, more beer, more smokes… and
all in all, a really fun time.
The final day culminated in a family-wide meal at a local upscale
restaurant. We had four huge tables between us. As we sat down and the
baijiu came out, I wondered if the drunkenness I had seen take place
in the privacy of the home would also come out in public.
They got sloppy. Hell, so did I. Everyone wanted to cheers me, along
with everyone else. And hey, when you’re on the receiving end of that
generous social gesture, you’re basically obliged to return it. So
essentially, I raised my glass to every member of Nick’s family twice.
It’d be tough enough to manage your intake if there was a beer in your
glass, but with the 80-proof engine degreaser that is baijiu,
drunkenness is a certainty. As the meal wore on, the people around me
got happier, clumsier, sweatier. At some point, a man came up to me,
raised his glass, and slapped a hand on my shoulder.
“Ganbei!” I smiled, and drank.
We made some conversation, and I addressed him as xiansheng (sir),
because a) I wanted to be polite, and b) I didn’t know his name. He
waved a hand and tsked. “Call me uncle.”
He smiled, and leaned in. “I’m going to the bathroom. Do you want to go?”
For a moment, words failed me. Then I managed a “Uh… n-no, I’m okay.”
But what I wanted to say was: Congratulations! That is officially the
creepiest fucking series of propositions I’ve ever heard. I was
half-expecting him to follow it up with: “By the way, I’ve got a van
parked out front that is just stocked FULL of awesome candy. Wanna
And then it was over. My final days in Inner Mongolia were pretty
low-key, with some small trips around town and more visits with family
members. On a Thursday morning, we woke up early, packed our bags,
said our goodbyes, and headed home.
And I’ve been here in Loudi just doing my thing ever since. What’s
happened since is another story for another day. But I’ll do my best
in getting caught up to the present in my next letter. I’ll also do my
best in getting said letter sent out on time.
Of course, you should all know me well enough to know not to expect
too much of my best.