The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips (Part 2)

The Good: Random Exercises

I was going to simply write, under the heading of things that I’ll miss, “Random encounters,” but really, if you live in China longer than about an hour, “random encounters” will make up 95% of your time. Far easier to just break down the highlights. So. . .we pretty much have to begin with the chain bullwhip phenomenon. Some time ago I wrote about the chain bullwhip guy. For those of you who didn’t read that particular post, this was a guy who showed up at the little concrete park (another story in itself) under an overpass with a long chain bullwhip, which he proceeded to crack by way of. . .exercise? I’m still not sure. It could be a particularly eccentric attempt to diversify the nation’s military capabilities, for all I know, and it’s hard to argue with the intimidation factor of thousands of Chinese soldiers waving chain bullwhips. I can’t see how it could be simply for exercise, since there aren’t a lot of positive health benefits involved in a form of exercise which constantly yanks your shoulder hard against its anchoring tendons. A workout regimen like that wouldn’t produce the upper body of Brad Pitt so much as that of Gumby. In any case, I used to think that one bullwhip guy was the only one, but in subsequent months I’ve realized that the chain bullwhip thing is a whole movement. I now hear people all over the city just cracking away. It’s weird and wonderful. Why wonderful? Because life with random weirdness is infinitely better than life where everything you expect to happen, does.

Alongside the chain bullwhip movement, we also have the “slam your spinal column against a tree” movement, which is exactly what it sounds like: people who stand about a foot away from the trunk of a large tree, and bounce themselves back and forth against it. No, I don’t know why. There’s also the “shout random things in public while walking” thing, which is, again, exactly what it sounds like. I think this particular one is supposed to vent negative energy or something. There’s some truth to it, too, if you’ve ever experienced the catharsis of a good shout. And I could write a book about all the weirdness that occurs in weight rooms and gyms here. The guys with pooched-out stomachs who’ve been bench pressing with their backs bent into a “U” shape for years, or the other guys who do pull-ups by whipsawing their bodies back and forth so hard you swear they’re going to fire their ankle joints into a nearby wall, or the guys who do pull-ups and chain a bunch of weights around their waists. I mean, the list just goes on and on. In the interest of (relative) brevity, I’ll stop here, but few things over the years have consistently lifted my spirits like the utter randomness in the exercise regimen.

The Bad: Random English conversations

I know this will probably make me sound like a gink, and you should know that when I first got to China, I LOVED talking with anyone who wanted to speak English. But after many years, you get a little tired of being approached by random strangers who want to practice their English. Somehow, as though there’s a malevolent but minor deity out there whose only job is to pick the worst possible times for this kind of thing, such English requests always come when you don’t want them. Like when I’ve just settled outside on a sunny day with a good book, for example, or when I’m totally exhausted from a long day in Beijing and have to stand all the way back to Tianjin (this was before the 30-minute bullet train, when standing all the way to Tianjin wasn’t a joke). Few things in those situations are worse to hear than, “Excuse me! Where are you from?”

One story takes the cake, though. My first summer in Tianjin, a bunch of us were planning a big 4th of July bash. I had to teach that morning, and my good friend Steve Chee texted me sometime around 9 to let me know he was feeling pretty sick. I got two more text messages over the course of the morning as he let me know he was feeling a lot worse. He asked if I could bring him some ibuprofen or something. I said I would, and then there was a gap of about an hour. When he texted me again, he said he was losing feeling in his hands and feet. Not good. I immediately went over there, and Steve was rolling around, moaning, and couldn’t use his hands to text anyone. I called a Chinese friend, as well as two of Steve’s family friends, and we took him to the hospital. We attempted to explain his condition to the people on call, then went to get an MRI because…that’s about the only thing they could recommend.

Now first of all, you should know there was a line for the MRI that was about ten people long. That was definitely the first time I’d ever seen a line for something like that. I was used to seeing lines at, the grocery store or a particularly popular restaurant. That there were ten people lined up for a medical procedure should tell you a lot about how things are here. Anyway, at this point Steve was in a wheelchair, and was still moaning. He broke off moaning just long enough to say to me, “Help me stand up a little; maybe it will help.” I hauled him to his feet, but I had to hold him up because he didn’t have enough feeling in his extremities to stand on his own.

And it was at that point, with my arms around Steve’s torso, and his moans of discomfort and fear sounding in my ears, that a little old man walked up to me, smiled, and asked, “Where are you from?”

I just stared at him in disbelief. It was like Steve wasn’t even there, or that my new conversation partner had so many conversations with people in dire medical distress that it didn’t phase him any more. Or maybe his state of boredom after being in a hospital all day had reached a point where he simply didn’t care what else was going on, so long as he got the chance to DO something. Steve and I might have been getting mauled by a lynx and Comrade Whatsisname would probably still have smiled and tried to chat with us. I said, “I’m from America.”

He asked, still with the same big smile on his face, “You are an English teacher?”

It was the standard entry-level English conversation I’d had with hundreds (really: hundreds) of other people, and this time I was having it with a friend sagging in my arms. Unbelievable. I stopped talking and just focused on keeping Steve from falling to the ground like a pile of old laundry.

In case you’re wondering, after spending an entire day doing tests in about four different departments in the hospital, I managed to get the phone number for a Swiss doctor who was a friend of some friends of mine, and when I called him and told him what was going on with Steve, the doctor just said, “Stop what you’re doing right now. He’s hyperventilating.” It turns out that if you hyperventilate, or if your acid levels are unbalanced (both of which were possible given that Steve had been throwing up the night before), you can lose feeling in your extremities for a while. We got Steve a paper bag to breathe into, and after a while he was much better (though still sick from the night before). More on the hospitals in China later. Yikes.

The Survival Tip:

If you like it, don’t question it – A caveat here: this only applies if you’re not that concerned with what you put in your body. Are the lamb kebabs in the alleyway grill-stands really lamb? Probably not. Do they taste good? Generally yes, especially when you have a cold beer. So don’t ask what they are, unless you’re prepared to avoid EVERYTHING, because the vast majority of affordable food in China is either super low-quality meat, or a smorgasboard of critters they’ve run through a meat grinder. Seriously, you don’t want to know. Or if you do, I hope you either like cooking for yourself or make a lot of money, because you’ll either be doing all your meals at home or going to high-end restaurants. If you plan to do anything more “native,” then set aside your need to know and just enjoy it. You might be surprised how good grilled cat tastes.


1 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Survival Tips (Part 2)

  1. James says:

    If you go to a Korean restaurant, and you choose to grill octopus or squid, make sure you cook it well.

    The worst food poisoning I ever had was in Shenyang, from eating improperly stored or improperly cooked octopus. It was my first year in China, but I should have known better than to order seafood in Shenyang, so far from the ocean.

    Two days of vomiting – the first day, any time I even tried to sip water, and the second day somewhat randomly.

    Cook that seafood well done.

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