Killing with Kindness

Last night was warm with a constant, calm breeze and just perfect for walking about. A few friends and I got together for a late supper out on the street. All the tables we passed were hopelessly surrounded by merry Harbiners enjoying the belated retreat of winter. We finally arrived near the end of the sidewalk (it really just stops in the middle of the road - some of the bricks were removed to accommodate a construction project, but the locals continued swiping bricks after it was finished, so now it's a little desert crossing). We sat on 3 different types of chairs and ordered some beer, our table rocked as the waitress placed them, upsetting its crooked leg. Ah, back in China.

I'm glad I've been here for about a year. It's a good unit of time for exploring a new country and culture. You get to experience everything on the typical calendar cycle exactly once, you must endure all four seasons when they arrive, you can go to as many birthday parties as you have friends. My year has been enlightening in all kinds of ways, some of which I try to explain here, others that are more subtle and you only realize once removed from this environment. I guess a not-so-subtle example would be returning to the United States and witnessing how fat the average American is compared to the average Chinese.

My group finished devouring our skewered meats and headed towards the night market - a collection of impromptu clothes stands and food stalls with a side of random junk that makes it fun to explore periodically. It's a sweaty, crowded scene there as an assortment of stenches assault the senses: durians from one direction, smelly tofu from another. Not an ideal date spot. Neighboring this sprawling fire-hazard is a park large enough to host an array of sculptures, pagodas, playground equipment, kiddie carnival rides, a mound of rocks and small caves, a lake with an island kindergarden, enough concrete to host multiple sport courts, and still have room left over for grass and trees. We wound up kicking around a Jianzi - a kind of hackey-sack with feathers - for an hour or so with some occasional Chinese strangers brave enough to join in.

Our coordination was visibly suffering, perhaps due to an earlier encounter. Before entering this park, we'd stopped at yet another restaurant - occupying its one table. With us outside was another guy ordering some kabobs to go, who dropped some change on the ground. My ears are apparently well-trained to hear such a sound, and I eyed a few coins rolling around. The guy picked up and carried on with the transaction, but I later told him "Brother, under the stone." My statement wasn't cryptic to be elegant or mysterious, my Chinese just sucks that bad. He looked and didn't see, so I pulled out my phone, fired up the flashlight, and illuminated the shadow that his last coin was hiding under. He picked up the wu mao (half of a yuan) and seemed quite pleased by the scene. I was happy to help bring his image of foreigners up a notch. He broke the silent smiling by suddenly and loudly proclaiming my friends and I were to be rewarded with a round of baijiu, on him. Normally, I suppose this would be a call for celebration, except baijiu is airplane-fuel poison. I choked back my instinctive urge to vomit.

Sure enough, we were brought out 3 glasses of the vile brew, full to the top, probably 4 ounces worth. Of course, it was the cheapest they had. Don't get me wrong, I was quite honored by his gesture, and he gave us a lot of face, but we were going to lose it unless we swallowed down all of the shit. We might lose face anyway by reflexively puking it back up, too. After exchanging nervous glances for what seemed like minutes, we finally took the plunge and tipped back our glasses, downing the liquid and trying not to hit any precious taste buds in the process. Gross gross gross. My friend quickly suckled the red tea chaser he'd ordered in anticipation, my other friend kept making noises like he'd been resuscitated from a near-drowning accident, I wondered if I should continue helping strangers in the future.

Literally, we were being killed with kindness.

Not wanting our misguided benefactor to come back to toast any more, we quickly paid and ran to the safety of the cool darkness in the park. The jianzi was refreshing, as was our lazy walk home that toured us around half of the city for no other reason than it was 3AM and still wonderful weather outside. The full moon journey ended when we passed by my apartment block, and I passed out on my bed.

Sweet dreams!

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