I have been infatuated with giant pandas since high school. I’ve done reports, painted pictures, collected magazine articles, and have found myself drawn to any and all panda paraphernalia (pandaphenalia, if you will). I owned a panda mask, and far more stuffed pandas than I’d care to admit. If I were older, fatter, and hairier, people would find my borderline obsession to be creepy, but my boyish good looks make it appear innocuous, like my tendency to draw penises when I have had too much to drink.

So why am I so drawn to these creatures? Perhaps it is because they encompass a set of characteristics I find particularly attractive. They’re clumsy and cute. They are vegetarians in spite of their carnivorous digestive systems. They demonstrate a general disinterest in having sex in a cage while a team of scientists watches. And they’re Chinese.

I even studied Mandarin for four semesters in college, believing that if pandas were to eventually develop the power of oral communication, it would be in the national tongue of their motherland (Cantonese-speaking pandas would require translators).

So it was that I set out to Chengdu, China, to visit the Panda Research Center and hopefully to realize my lifelong dream of holding the majestic bear in my arms. The Lazybones Hostel organized a tour for me, and I left with two Swedish girls, our Chinese shuttle driver, and my internal trepidation, excitement, hopes, and rehearsed Mandarin conversations I might be able to have with the pandas.

The shuttle driver giddily led us around the base, clearly as excited as I was. Though a tall man, he was fleet of foot and skipped throughout the park, giggling. The Swedish girls found this entertaining, but I understood his enthusiasm.

First we observed the giant panda’s red-headed cousin, the red panda. These raccoon-like critters are also cute, but like all other animals (imaginary or not), when compared with the giant panda they look like mutated, hateful abominations. Comparing a red panda with a giant panda is like comparing a Caucasian baby with an Asian baby; the formers just don’t measure up.

After seeing the red pandas amble about and make feeble attempts to be as cute as their cousins, we basked the beauty of God’s greatest creation: the giant panda. We saw mothers, fathers, and babies lounge and eat in their faux habitats, and we acknowledged that only 1,600 have the luxury of doing these things in the wild. Before leaving, we stopped in a panda-themed café to watch a panda propaganda film (a propapanda film! That’s two panda-puns!). I noted the narrator’s assumption that English speakers use the popular phrase, “You’re behaving like a baby panda!” to chastise our children when they are finicky eaters. We do not do this.

The driver again led us through the park, frolicking this time to the exit. Since he didn’t speak English, there was no way to know our itinerary for the day. Now we were leaving, and I had not accomplished my mission. I had to speak up or forever live with regret.

“Wait!” I cried. “Can I hold one?”

The driver happily complied, and for the price of 1,000 Yuan, I entered an enclosure and donned the protective smock and gloves.

Before I knew what was happening, I had a squirming ball of black and white fur in my arms, about the size of an obese adult cockerspaniel. He nibbled on the half-apple I was holding. The handlers recorded photographic evidence of the event. I forgot all of my Mandarin, but the panda understood me.

“We are one.”

I can’t be certain whether it was me or the panda that thought this, because our minds were completely intertwined. There was no time, only us.

But there actually was time, and I think it was only about sixty seconds. Then it was over. I was given a token mouse pad, and the Swedes, driver, and I returned to the hostel, away from Nirvana.

Since holding that baby panda, I have changed as a man. When one looks into the face of perfection and sees it smiling back, there is no greater reward. Death no longer frightens me, and in life, I have done what I set out to do. Mission accomplished.

On another note, people often comment about how expensive a 1,000 Yuan (roughly $200 USD) panda-holding fee is, but I just explain that years from now I’ll be able to look into my grandchildren’s sweet, innocent eyes and say, “Decades ago I felt the majesty of the giant panda in my very own arms, and that’s something you’ll never be able to experience. Because now they’re all dead. All of them. We tried to save them because they were cute, but I guess they weren’t cute enough. You should have been born sooner.”

You can’t put a price on that.

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“What the hell did he just say?”

A periodic variation on this theme permeated our Thanksgiving party every time Jean-Philippe spoke. He spoke English, but it wasn’t the Queen’s English, nor the Prince’s, nor the Prime Minister’s, nor the President’s, nor the City Councilman’s; for the first half hour, it was almost unintelligible. Was Jean-Philippe French? Was he Scottish? Was he both? Can you use “joie de vivre” and “shite” in the same sentence?

Curious and determined, I made conversation, sifting through the bog of his accent to unearth his mysterious origin. He had an acerbic sense of humor which I brought out by carefully peppering our conversation with flirtatious and overly friendly remarks. We verbally abused each other throughout the night, but it was good-natured. As we ate, someone made the suggestion that we go around the circle and say why we are thankful for the person next to us (Thanksgiving parties are wont to bring out the “corny” in cornucopia, but after making that joke I can’t really complain), so I made a short speech about the deep friendship Jean-Philippe and I shared.

He busted my balls for it.

From what I gathered, he hails from France and learned English in Scotland, which accounts for his unique accent. He works hard labor for nine months of the year and travels for the other three, because life is too short to be a slave to your job. And he’s right.

This is how he ended up at our international Thanksgiving party in the first place. My friend randomly met him on a bus and told him he was more than welcome to accompany her. So he did.

And then we all said goodbye, and I never saw him again.

Until February.

I arrived at the Lazybones Hostel in Chengdu, China, feeling ragged. I needed to eat and clean my body, laundry, and spirit.

Later in the day, as I sat at one of the hostel’s computers, I heard an unmistakable accent at the front desk. Was it Scottish? Was it French? What the hell did he just say?

A man I had met once at a Thanksgiving party in Jeju-do, South Korea, was standing in the lobby of my hostel in Chengdu, China.

“You motherfucker!” I greeted him, laughing.

We caught up, did a bit of eating and exploring around Tianfu Square, and even went camera shopping together. Along with a Scottish couple, we visited a Buddhist temple and witnessed some of the ceremony.

And then it was over. And Jean-Philippe went off to his next destination.

I don’t know if I’ll ever hear his barely intelligible dialect again, but I do know this: it’s possible. Running into Jean-Philippe again has enlightened me to the fact that the world is a lot smaller than it seems. And if something doesn’t make sense to you at first, just give it a half hour. Maybe you’ll even revisit it in the future.

 


“Inebriation knows the liquor. Love sees the heart.”

This was the last English phrase I read before boarding the night train from Xi’an to Chengdu. It read more like a sponsor for relationship counseling than for alcohol. Although I was sober and alone at the time (two things I often try not to be), and although the advertisement doesn’t really make sense, I believe it is true.

I bought some snacks in the train station and boarded the vehicle that would aggravate anyone’s hypochondria. And hemorrhoids. I had bought a “hard seat” train ticket to Chengdu, the third city on my Chinese itinerary, and a hard seat it was. The two troll-men sitting directly across from me were pro bono.

I should have taken more time to “know the liquor” for sanity as well as asepsis.

I leaned against the window and attempted to read, while ignoring the slurping, mucous-hacking, lung-hocking, and the shrapnel of sunflower seeds being picked out of teeth and spat onto the table directly in front of me. The men looked like they had been through a lot, but never a shower. And while ideally I like to judge not by appearances, it’s difficult to do that when you’re convinced you’ll get Hepatitis just by making eye contact with someone.

Besides, these men never covered their mouths when they coughed, heartily blow-drying my face with stale air from the bowels of their tar-caked lungs. So fuck ‘em.

Only their eyes didn’t repulse me. They looked like caramel-coated gems, rich with life or maybe macular degeneration. But they had beautiful, saturated eyes.

I attempted to close my own and rest, but my legs were the only things I could get to go to sleep. For most of the ride I experienced a zombie-like half-consciousness, nodding off and awakening to find young females standing in the aisle or sharing seats next to me. I ignored them.

You can’t be unchivalrous if you’re unconscious.


Penis Envy?

02Aug11

I spent my final day in Xi’an making a daytrip to Starbucks before heading out to the train station. After my coffee, I stepped out to smoke one of my cigarettes, which I only purchased because there was a panda on the tin. Chinese tobacco marketing strategies are ruthless.

I lit the cigarette like a suave panda, pretending it was a nutritious bamboo shoot and not a carcinogenic bastardization of indigenous North American ritual. A woman in her 40s or 50s saw this and motioned for me to sit with her.

I offered her a cigarette, and she declined, producing a pack of her own slim brand. She began to ask me questions in Chinese, and I responded with disjointed caveman-esque answers. I explained where I was from, where I was going, and where I had been.

After about five minutes, she decided my openness and honesty gave her the necessary foundation for her next question. I’m still not exactly sure what it was. I can only speculate.

With her hand on my thigh, she leaned in and quietly made her inquiry. Then she raised each of her index fingers and placed them about an erect penis’s length away from one another. She brought her fingers together and seemed displeased. She drew them apart and seemed satisfied.

I hoped she would not try to measure me, as I was flaccid and frightened.

Struggling to alleviate the awkwardness my dick and I felt, I told her I had to ride a train instead of her. She wanted me to sit with her outside Starbucks for a little longer, and after about three minutes, I finished smoking my own tobacco-filled phallus and said farewell.

Hopefully someday she finds the penis she’s looking for.

I’m not sure if she was a prostitute or just a randy stranger, but I do know that for us to have exchanged fluids, we would have to exchange cash. Because there was no way I would sleep with her without some sort of monetary compensation, or at least an extra paid vacation day.

As I walked away, I imagined what our conversation might have sounded like in English.

“Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been? How big is your pecker?”

The answer to all of these of course is, “It depends.”


Huashan

02Aug11

For the second day in a row I nearly failed in my attempt to board the proper bus. On this day I planned to hike Huashan, one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains, so I arrived at the bus terminal an hour early. Unfortunately, my propensity for punctuality far exceeds my ability of observation, and I wandered between buses for fifty minutes before actually finding the correct one. There was one empty seat left. Had I been any later, I would have missed the trip entirely. That seat was for me. On this morning, the Taoist deities were in my favor.

After reaching the destination, three English-speaking Chinese lads exited the bus with me and asked if I was going to hike Huashan. I told them yes, and they asked if I would like to accompany them. This was prior to losing my naiveté somewhere along Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, so I agreed.

Luckily, these young men had no intentions of cannibalizing me along the trail (or if they did, they were very ineffective), and we traded pleasant conversation and snacks as we trekked through blankets of fog along snow-glazed paths.

As the hike became steeper and my sneakers became snowier, my grip became shittier and the 35 Yuan price tag on a pair of slip-on shoes from a tiny mountainside shop became more reasonable. These rubber-bottomed gripping-slippers accompanied me to the 2154.9 meter summit of the south peak and now they accompany me virtually everywhere else. One of my companions also made the purchase, and we were able to carry on hiking without sneaker-surfing off a precipice.

Eventually I needed to separate from my Chinese friends, because I would miss the return bus to Xi’an if I continued at their speed. We took a photograph, and I finally learned what their names were (in order of progressive bizarreness): Derrek, Prince, and Stone. I didn’t make any Purple Rain jokes, and they didn’t have to pretend to understand what I was talking about.

It’s always awkward saying goodbye to transient friends, because chances are I’ll never see them again, but out of habit I always say, “See you later.” And after I realize the idiocy of what I said, I usually mutter, “Well, maybe. Probably not,” as I trip while walking away.

I was now alone and with an empty water bottle, and I didn’t know if I was further from dehydration or the peak. As my thirst increased, so did the price of water from the crooks working as vendors along the way. One tried to charge eight Yuan for a twelve ounce bottle (about five times the market value). I told him I’d rather die of thirst on principle.

I couldn’t even fill my bottle from the bathroom taps along the way, because none of them worked. A Huashan conspiracy, perhaps.

Regardless, the snow on the mountain didn’t taste half bad, and considering the altitude, it might not have been polluted.

And it was free.

Because it fell from the sky.

Just like all water.

Trudging along, I crammed banana chips into my face like a zombie would brains, and with icy toes I finally made it to the top. Someone took the obligatory picture, a reminder of why I did the hike in the first place: so I could tell people about it.

In the interest of time, I took a cable car to a shuttle bus. This was a mandatory service in the interest of safety, so I would have to pay for a ticket or be stuck on the mountain forever. This possibly accounts for 40% of all Taoist hermits residing on Huashan.

I missed the return bus to Xi’an. Fortunately, so did a bunch of other people, and we took a more expensive, possibly privately-run bus home. I didn’t care about the cost; I probably would have offered one of my fingers (but not the good ones) to get home and pass out. Relatively scam-free, I had dinner, and took my weary legs to dreamland.

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On my second day in Xi’an, I rose early and set out to see the world famous terracotta army. In the back of my mind I entertained the idea, as all repressed megalomaniacs do, that I might be the one to bring them to life and usher the world into a new era under my rule. I also entertained the idea of getting some of the best coffee China has to offer- McDonald’s coffee.

Once caffeinated, I made my way to what resembled a bus terminal. Unsure of how to procure a bus ticket, I approached a queue and waited. I made sure to follow the unwritten rule of line-waiting in Asia: If you’re not standing close enough to moo shu pork the guy in front of you, someone else will. And then you have to wait longer.

When I arrived at the window, the man could not decipher the bastardized Chinese-English mixture coming out of my mouth. Or he was frightened. Regardless, he pointed in the direction of the English scholar at the next window.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Bus 306?” I asked back.

“Where are you going?” she repeated slowly, and more loudly.

“Terracotta soldiers,” I replied.

“Where are you going?” she asked even louder.

For some reason, I had never learned the characters for “terracotta” in Chinese class.

“Terracotta soldiers,” I tried again.

“Where are you going?” she asked even louder, clearly frustrated. Almost as frustrated as the long line of native Chinese speakers standing behind the ignorant foreign dickhead who clearly had no idea what he was doing. I thought getting to the most famous attraction in Xi’an would be easier.

“I’m telling you!” I said, exasperated. Defeated, I walked away, swearing under my breath.

As it turns out, you’re supposed to buy tickets on the bus, and they’re only 7 Yuan.

I sat down on bus 306, and once again, my guardian angels Kevin and Amy accompanied me on my journey. We saw the three pits of terracotta warriors (and their horses), viewed an informative video in a 360 degree theater, and even saw some of the methods being used to excavate the figures. A “No Photography” sign was strategically placed in front of one of the archeologists’ stations, so that when the project is finally finished, they can deny that they just used scotch tape and hot glue to reconstruct the bodies.

The only disappointment I faced all day was my inability to breathe life into even a single warrior.

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The Bro Cab

21Jul11

In almost one year, my Korean language abilities have blown up from nonexistent to “I can sort of bullshit with cab drivers” proportions.

On Monday, I hailed a cab and showed the driver the address of my destination. After a short while of driving, he asked me, “Kabasseyo?”

I had no idea what that meant. I thought it had something to do with going somewhere, but I told him I didn’t know. Then he gave me an ultimatum.

“Kabasseyo? An-kabasseyo?”

The man clearly wanted an answer, so I gave him one.

“Kabasseyo,” I said, opting for the positive variation.

The driver only spoke Korean, and when I explained that I only knew a little, he called me an idiot. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand that either.

I called him evil, and told him I only spoke a little Korean but a lot of English.

“Speak English,” I said in Korean.

He told me his situation was similar, but he spoke no English at all and only Korean. I called him clever.

He asked if I had a girlfriend. Watching to make sure he didn’t get fresh, I told him yes.

He asked if she was Korean. I said she was Canadian. He said I should have two girlfriends, one Canadian, and one Korean. I laughed and said they could never meet. After telling him that I was American, he decided that I should have three girlfriends: an American, a Canadian, and a Korean.

Laughing, I told him I liked the idea, because I didn’t know how to say, “I can’t even satisfy one girl.”

Then I exited the cab, pondering how to fill the remaining two girlfriend positions. The cabbie drove off somewhere, probably to an annual “whistling at girls” convention, where they give away women’s rights as a door prize.