looking for a mountain to call my own
singapore sunset
I am exhausted. Work is fucking exhausting. It's just the same old shit, though, you know? The same problems as everywhere else. The same politics, the same cliques. The same people trying to make shit work. The same people frustrated that it doesn't. And the same me pulling 10 hour days and sucking down a few beers every night to try find some way to de-stress. It's like the last 9 months of sabbatical/vacation never even happened.

I wanted to be able to give y'all some insight into how Chinese offices differ from those in the west. The insight is they don't. The only unique thing i've seen so far is the lunchtime siesta - the lights go out over lunch, and a lot of people who don't head out for the break just nap in their chairs. Then they wake up and it's business as usual.

So instead i will talk about the other big thing in my life right now and that is apartment hunting. I haven't actually been seriously hunting, per se, but what i can say is that my whole experience of urban jaunts has changed since i landed with a work visa in my passport. Instead of wandering about aimlessly looking for adventure, i am wandering about pondering if a particular neighborhood has all the basic necessities.

One very good piece of advice i got about finding an apartment here was simply to go into a real estate agent and tell them what i am looking for. I mean, no shit, right? But up until now i had this weird feeling like most real estate agents wouldn't be interested in helping foreigners find an apartment, especially not a rental. But even my colleagues who can barely speak a word of Chinese said you just go and show pictures and gesticulate and they'll figure it out. That was the push i needed. It turns out when dropped into the situation my Chinese is good enough to explain exactly what i want without needing to show pictures or gesticulate, and i can even understand what they are saying back to me too. I guess i did learn something these past 6 months after all.

Last weekend i switched hotels to one further away from work - about 45 minutes at a decent march. The area has a wet market and a handful of passable restaurants, although like the previous place they are geared more toward the Cantonese palate. To the west, heading downtown, is a skinny park with a lake in the middle. To the east is bump of a mountain with some bamboo growing on it. Up north there is a larger mountain where i found a little outdoor gym.

Did i mention Chinese like to build outdoor gyms on the tops of mountains? In the modern areas downtown, the city installs workout machinery next to kids' playgrounds to encourage old people to stay fit and healthy. I think this is some kind of Mao-era holdover or something, the idea that people should work out in public. But perhaps it's an older cultural thing, because even in Hong Kong up in the mountains you will find these little clearings where it seems people have just independently lugged stuff up the hill for public use: hand weights, exercise bikes, step machines, hula hoops, heavy bags etc.

Anywho, the mountain up north had a great little gym where i spent some time on the heavy bag. I took it easy because no gloves, but it was good to feel strong again. I kinda miss boxing. I also missed climbing those stairs. It was on that mountain when i resolved that wherever my new apartment would be, it would definitely have to be near a mountain so i can do at least one climb through the week, even if it's just a short half hour thing in the morning.

Sunday i continued roaming, over the bamboo mountain and then further to a park that is below the dam of the Shenzhen Reservoir. That park is the first park in Shenzhen i've seen that allows people to come in on bikes, which is kind of neat. It connects up to a greenway that apparently goes all the way around the reservoir and perhaps further north too.

I walked a few km along the reservoir then went offroad and clambered up the mountainface alongside. There were some small trails there that i figured must lead somewhere. The view at the top was great - reservoir on one side and a view across the rest of Wutong National Park on the other. When i climbed back down - through a rare-in-China un-bushwhacked trail - i got trapped behind a huge wall of twigs and branches that i guess the rangers had put up to stop people climbing that path. There was a sign saying no entry, which i only saw after squeezing through the undergrowth and falling conspicuously back down onto the main (paved) trail where everyone turned their heads to look at the muddy barbarian who had just unceremoniously dropped out of a tree. Oh, China.

There is a tiny suburb nestled in the mountains that has both an urban village and some new development attached. It's surrounded by hills and is really beautiful. Well, beautiful considering it's in the middle of a city of over 10 million people. I could see myself living there, except the only way to get back downtown - other than the greenway - is the freeway. The subway is rapidly being extended out that way, so no doubt the prices will (rightfully) skyrocket once it opens. Might still be worth looking at a place there now, though the walk would be very long - beautiful, but well over an hour.

I mean, i don't need to be walking distance from work, right? In Berlin i was, but everywhere else i have lived i had to take public transport unless i was really in a mood of wanting to spend a couple hours pounding pavement. But, i guess, living in Berlin changed the way i think about living in the city. I still think living in some ritzy downtown condo a few steps from the office would not be cool. I need some kind of separation between my work life and my home life. But being able to walk an hour or so into the office and back clears your head so much better than jamming yourself into public transport or sitting in traffic blasting out smog for the same amount of time.

I started to make a list. Top priorities... Within a 1 hour walking circle from work. Less than 3000元 (about 380€, which is around what i paid for my place in Berlin). Comes with a bed and preferably also a washing machine (after 6 months of washing my clothes in hotel sinks, i'm ready to not have fucking blisters any more). Mountain nearby. Street vendors nearby. Window that lets in some light. I don't give a shit about air conditioning or a TV or how close it is to a subway or a supermarket or any of that. Just give me a bed, some natural light, a guy selling food on a stick, a walkable commute and some greenery.

Today i went on my first visits. When you visit real estate agents here, they immediately take you through the buildings in their neighborhood. Because there are so many high rises, there are real estate agents on every big block, and i guess for the most part they only deal in apartments on that block. I dropped into a place near my hotel after work, since this area - having 3 smaller parks nearby and Wutong National Park just a few bus stops away - is pretty much ideal for me. I got shown 4 apartments in a building on top of Walmart. Convenient. One was the clear winner. Just a bare, white, tiled studio, but it had a bed and a fridge and a washing machine and a stove and a window facing north-east that if you crane your neck you can see a mountain through the highrises. 10 minutes walk from said mountain. An hour walk from work. Not bad. The guy was desperate for me to sign - at fucking 9:30pm Friday night - but i told him i needed time to think.

What i really also needed was time to go home and figure out what the fuck is going on tomorrow. Even though this hotel is a dive, i had planned to extend my stay here. How much of a dive? Well the last week winter has been kicking our asses here in Shenzhen - it's been getting down to about 5 degrees overnight and not much warmer during the day. My hotel room does not have heating, and the windows are permanently cracked due to a hole smashed in them to jerry-rig the air conditioning pipe. Let's just say there is a bit of a breeze in the room. There is no hot water tap in the bathroom either, although the shower does have hot water. Except when it doesn't. Like on Thursday, when i woke up and could see my breath in the air and then the hot water was out. Fuck my ass. Cold. Fucking cold. So fucking cold.

When i told my manager why i was cranky that day, she freaked and work organized to move me into a fancy hotel downtown. I refused, because i feel guilty for work paying for my living space. Then i got home tonight with my plan to extend my booking here for a few days and found there are no rooms. For fuck's sake. So now i need to move hotels anyways - i might as well have just accepted work's offer and actually had a good night's sleep in a hotel that doesn't have an all-in-one soap/shampoo dispenser stuck on the wall and condoms on the night stand and fucking ice-cold wind blowing in through a mallet-smashed hole in the window. Instead i am moving to a place even cheaper than this one, with no windows at all. At least it should be a bit warmer.

And maybe soon i will have an apartment of my own. Where any problem will be much worse, because i won't be able to just move away from it. But after i move (again) this weekend, i am going all out to find a permanent-ish place. Fun fun fun. Not really fun. Signing a lease will be the true death knell of my freedom. But i'm working now anyways so i guess that's already down the tubes. At least there will be a mountain close by.

let's talk about work... no, let's talk about food!
singapore sunset
I am flonked. Also, my stomach is a mess. Before i talk about work in general, let's talk about work and how it relates to food.

My office is located in a building a stone's throw from the Shenzhen/Sham Chun River, which marks the border between the Hong Kong New Territories and mainland China proper. This is neat in some ways, because Luohu District is the oldest and therefore the most cyberpunk/80s-looking district of Shenzhen, but it's less cool because it appears there are far more Cantonese and Hongkongers here than out-of-province migrants. Without a doubt, the workforce is very diverse, but the people who own the shops are less mixed than out in Nanshan or Bao'an districts. Which means, basically, eating here is like eating in Hong Kong. Eating in Hong Kong sucks.

Why does it suck? I mean, Cantonese food is eaten all over the world and Hong Kong is a renowned foodie destination. A lot of people would say this is the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine. Well, a lot of people are wrong. Cantonese food sucks because spices are not a thing in Guangdong. Guangdong cuisine subscribes to the philosophy that Western chefs call "honest food". That is, barely seasoned. You steam the ingredient and then serve it. The end. Plus, famously, they eat nose to tail. So it's the worst of all worlds - lots of meat, lots of offal and lots of no fucking chili. Add Hong Kong cuisine in there too, which is largely influenced by colonial-era British cuisine (milk tea, eggs on toast, custard buns), and it's basically a vegan nightmare.

But, you know, there are a few things i can get by on. For instance, 河粉 or "hor fun" as it is often called overseas. 肠粉, the ubiquitous rice noodle roll. Singapore noodle, which anyone who has ordered from an American Chinese restaurant will be familiar with. That's about it. All of them require copious amounts of chili to make them taste of anything. The saddest part is that a lot of Cantonese restaurants don't even have chili and vinegar on the table, which is basically China's mustard and ketchup.

So that's what i'm working with. Lunch with the guys at work means being dragged to some overpriced Hong Kong chain restaurant that mostly serves bland, meat-based dishes. Today i didn't even get that far. I went out with my PM, who is a vegetarian. She's Indian and doesn't speak any Chinese at all, so her go-to here is Subway. I can't remember the last time i ate at a Subway. There is one vege option, and it is exceptionally unexciting. Plus it has cheese. All-veg would have been okay with me, but we split a foot-long, and i let her order whatever to avoid being difficult on my first week. Speaking of mustard and ketchup, that's exactly the sauces she got. And Thousand Island dressing. And mayonnaise. It tasted like a Big Mac without the meat.


I should have known better. I've gotten an upset stomach i think four times since coming to China, and three of those times have been when i had typical Western food. Not that it tastes any different here, but i think there might be a psychological aspect where i am so disappointed to be eating food that i didn't even eat when i lived in Europe my stomach just says "fuck you". I mean, pretty much all i ate at work lunches in Berlin was Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and "Asia" (bao) burgers. Oh, and falafel.

Man, i wish someone here did falafel.

The area of Luohu where i am staying does have one conspicuous group of out-of-province migrants, and that is the Uyghurs from Xinjiang and the Hui from the rest of Silk Road China. The common thread here being that they are Muslim.

China has a strange relationship with its Muslim population. The Hui are tolerated as just a funny-hat-wearing minority. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, face heavy oppression thanks to a violent separatist movement that has painted their whole ethnicity as terrorists. Sound familiar? America's War on Terror has only egged China on. Recently a sensationalist news story went around about how 100,000 Uyghurs are currently in prison. That sounds like a lot, but it's under 1% of the population. For perspective: almost 5% of black American men are in prison. Still, compared to the rest of China (~0.1% incarceration), the situation in Xinjiang is undeniably fucked right now. I am not surprised some residents just said the hell with it and moved 2500 miles across the country to cook beef and lamb for Shenzhen office workers.

Because that's what fucking Muslim cuisine is in China. Beef and lamb and more beef. Also bread. Bread that is kind of like a pita bread. With beef in it. Also sometimes nuts and dried fruit because Silk Road. But mostly beef. Today, after the Subway debacle, i thought i would improve my day by getting my favorite "oil splash noodle" from a new restaurant i found down an alley somewhere. Unfortunately i missed that it was a Muslim place, so the "oil splash" turned out to be beef drippings.


Why don't they do falafel? I guess i am just ignorant. I associate Muslim cuisine with what is actually probably just Mediterranean cuisine, because i am a European and all the halal restaurants there are run by guys from Turkey, the Levant and North Africa. In China it's something different, and probably a lot closer to Mongolian cuisine - famous for its big chunks of meat, gruel and animal fat.

Actually, just writing about it is making me queasy. I bought some mini bananas on the way home so i guess that and my one can of beer will have to hold me through till the morning.

Tomorrow i am "moving house" to a hotel up in a different neighborhood. It's not walking distance from work any more, but it's the only hotel under 150 kuai (20€) now that my current hotel is bumping its rates due to Spring Festival. Hopefully up that end of town i will find better food to make up for the commute. It's still Luohu District, though, so who knows?

Oh yeah, work. I'll write more on that over the weekend, perhaps. Short summary is it's the same old same old. Doesn't matter where you are in the world, work is always the same. The good news? They have a fucking espresso machine. And one where you just press a button and it grinds and brews and does everything without you needing to be a pretentious twat about it like at my last couple jobs. Fucking. Yes. Coffee.

back in china, and starting work
singapore sunset
The flight back here was hellish. On my leg from Shanghai to Toronto the lady at the checkin counter must have taken pity on me, because when i got on the plane i discovered i was in an exit row with a ton of leg room. Leaving Toronto i was relegated to a middle seat way at the back of the plane. But, hey, you can't win 'em all - 40% chance you're gonna be the middle guy. Just wish they stacked the deck based on your height a little more often.

Still, middle seat is fine as long as you are surrounded by considerate folks. My neighbors were two older men who kept to themselves. The guy in front was mercifully not one of those assholes who likes to recline their seat. Unfortunately the lady behind me spent the entire flight digging and jabbing the back of my seat. I have no idea how someone who is barely 5 foot manages that. After about 8 hours of keeping a stiff upper lip i finally turned around and asked her if she could try to kick me a little less. I guess she took my polite request literally and just kicked me a little less. For the next 6 hours.

Getting back to Hong Kong was good, though. I headed to the bus and zoomed back to 上水 (Sheung Shui), which is the last stop before the Shenzhen border crossing. Ducked over expecting a song and dance with my work visa, but they just did the usual flip through the pages, stamp and wave me on. Walked for about 20 minutes to my hotel and that was that.

I headed out for dinner that first night and found a guy with a wok and mise en place and asked him to make me 炒河粉 (chǎo hé fěn), which you can probably find in most Chinese malls overseas because it's a Cantonese thing. It's just thick rice noodles fried up with whatever. Chilis, pickled green beans and fresh bean sprouts was this guy's base, plus egg and ham on demand. I decided to spoil myself and go with egg.

Next door was a small convenience store where i ordered a can of Bud (China's favorite beer) then plopped down on a plastic stool and almost started crying i had missed it so much. Of all the things that are frustrating and problematic about China, the one thing that makes up for all of it is being able to sit on a plastic stool on the sidewalk, sip beer and eat noodles. It's my happy place.

The next day i got up at the crack of dawn, skipped breakfast and headed straight to the hospital for my physical. They have it down to a fine art. There was a whole platoon of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed English teachers in the waiting room when i arrived. Couldn't speak a word of Chinese. I exercised my linguistic privilege and snuck through to what turned out to be a fucking production line: draw blood, check blood pressure, listen to breathing, check eyesight, get weighed, chest X-ray, ultrasound, EKG, pee in a cup. Each step was catered by a dedicated person. I was out of there in about half an hour. And, because i hadn't had any coffee in the morning, could barely squeeze out a third of a cup.

I spent the rest of the day getting all the goodies i missed. 肠粉, which is the most popular Cantonese breakfast dish - a big flat rice noodle sheet rolled up into a gooey tube with some (optional) pork, egg, lettuce and bean sprouts. 凉皮, the Xi'an speciality which is some kind of cold white noodle with some spongey seitan chunks plus julienne cucumber, bean sprouts, peanuts and so on. 凉面, the cold noodle where each place makes it a bit different, but it's always fresh and if you order it how i like it's assburningly spicy. 热干面, the hot dry noodle with peanut butter sauce. Steamed buns. I got some with rice vermicelli and pickled cabbage inside. Rice crackers. I guess that's more of a Japanese thing, but whatevs. Tiny little bananas. Jackfruit. 豆干, or tofu jerky. So much awesome.

Wait, i got carried away. I am mixing two days worth of food together.

Today i didn't get up to much besides picking up my health check. As usual i have unusually low blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently i also have a gall bladder polyp and some blood measurements outside the norm but nothing worth worrying about. So, cool. Cool cool cool.

I'm not cool. I have been trying to relax because yesterday i got an email saying "hey why don't you come into work on Wednesday for onboarding".



I haven't been in an office since March last year. I haven't even looked at a single line of code. I feel like an impostor. I know i know my shit and i know that they won't expect anything on the first day anyway, but i'm scared. Maybe i won't wake up on time because of jet lag. Maybe this tickly throat will develop into a full-blown flu. I'm worried about weird stuff like i chucked out all my makeup before i got on the road, and all my clothes are beat-up, and my hair is faded and fraying, and what kind of first impression is all this? What if they invite me out to lunch and feed me a bunch of fucking meat and cheese the whole time? What if i hate my new boss? What if after 5 minutes back at work i immediately remember why i wanted to drop everything and disappear on a boat to China in the first place?

But what else am i going to do? I have basically blown through my life savings learning Chinese. I didn't blow it climbing mountains or scuba diving or partying on the beach. I just sat in a classroom being boring and now i have no money. So now i have to work. But why did i accept a job at the lowest salary i have had in over 15 years?

Oh wait, that's right, because i asked to start at the lowest rung because i think software engineers globally are hideously overpaid and also i didn't want to feel like a neo-colonialist coming in and expecting to be paid more than the locals simply by virtue of the color of my skin. Hooray for my moral fucking backbone. Now i am scared i will hate it and won't even have the salary to justify keeping on.

I know, i know. First day jitters. I'll probably just spend the whole time doing paperwork and setting up my goddamn laptop. Get it together. Maybe they have a coffee machine. Lordy, that would be something. Mmm, coffee.

a winter wonderland
singapore sunset
The Toronto Island is a spot i discovered soon after first moving to the city back in 2009. It's essentially just a collapsed sand bar with an airstrip, an amusement park and a couple of car-free residential communities. There are no shops or restaurants; residents need to take the ferry into the city for everything. My main experiences there have been off-season, when even the amusement park is closed. In the dead of winter it's one of the most serene places in the city.

On my last day in Toronto i headed over to the island. The harbor was iced over, but it seemed like there was a clear channel for the ferry. Turns out that was true till about the last 500 meters or so, when our little boat became an ice breaker and had to crunch its way through to the dock.

My favorite spot on the island is a little point at the east end where you can look across the channel to Leslie Street Spit. I have taken both my mother and father there when they came to visit, because i think it's so great. I have a delightful memory of showing my dad Ward's Beach, only to have him immediately strip to his underwear for a swim. I can't even remember the last time i swam anywhere.

One thing i never knew until i moved to Toronto is that the Great Lakes have waves. If you've only ever visited the ocean before, walking along a Great Lake is really bizarre. There is plenty of wind whipping up waves and tossing spray in the air, but there's no taste of salt and the water is a deep blue and doesn't foam. In the winter, the spray freezes as soon as it lands. This makes for some pretty spectacular ice formations.

I got a great surprise a few km down the boardwalk where the entire pathway had been icicled. It was bitterly cold out there, but well worth the hike. There were a handful of brave Chinese tourists and a single hipster with an old-timey box camera taking photos, but for the most part it was totally isolated. I stayed as long as my body could hold it.

Which, actually, wasn't long. In total i guess i was outside for 4 hours in long johns, jeans, tank top, hoodie, bandana and beanie. No gloves. I only really noticed i had probably been suffering from exposure (hypothermia?) after i got back to my hotel and spent an hour shivering under the covers with the heater on. My fingers and legs were burning. I guess i finally got that "true" Canadian experience, after 10 days shrugging off the cold. I forgot that very cold temperatures are entirely manageable as long as you keep stepping out of and back into warm places every half an hour or so. It's only when you are out for extended periods that your body really starts to give out. I'll remember that next time a bunch of warm-climate people start lecturing me about how i need to buy a fucking parka for a 10-day vacation in a major city.

Anywho, cold aside, going out and enjoying the big skies was my favorite day of my trip. I will try hold on to the memories of those huge horizons while i am back here in the smoggy PRD. It's the ultimate North America to me. Clean air, no people and vistas that go on forever.

Coming up next - my flight to Hong Kong, joy at being back in Shenzhen and a production line physical where i failed to produce a full cup of pee.

Culture shocks
singapore sunset
Toilet door gaps. Yeah, that's a weird thing. But, odder than that: flushing paper down the toilet. It has become such a reflex to wipe and then dump the paper in the trash, I started to panic at the first toilet I sat down on where there was no trash can beside it.

People eating with their hands. After 6 months in a place where people eat everything either with chopsticks or directly out of a bag, watching people's hands get dirty and seeing them lick their fingers really makes me squirm.

(That said, I also haven't gotten used to the Chinese spitting out bones, husks and pits onto the table.)

Overweight white people. Coming back to North America from Europe the girths are disconcerting. Coming back from China where even the (few) overweight people are much smaller than me, it's like arriving in Brobdingnag.

On a related note: portion sizes. I ordered a sushi lunch special. There were something like 16 large pieces - twice as much as I expected. J asked me worriedly if it would be enough. Her "bento" was a foot-long serving tray. It's grotesque.

Being asked for a credit card. In Europe (or Germany, at least) they are used rarely. In China it appears they skipped credit cards altogether and use mobile payments for everything. Here you're looked at funny when you say you don't have one, or that you prefer to use cash.

Being offered a parking spot. Since when did hotel rooms come with parking spots? Why would anyone voluntarily drive a car on holiday? To a city?! I'm so very far out of the car owner lifestyle I can barely comprehend this is a thing people do.

Peanut butter. Peanut butter is fucking great. Of course it's sold everywhere in the world for home consumption but only in North America can you order it in breakfast joints on a bagel.

Bars. Oh lordy I missed proper bars. Bars where you can walk in at a respectable hour and drink alone and not feel obliged to bring friends or play drinking games.

Tap water. I can drink it without boiling it first. I can drink anywhere, for free! What luxury!

But also: ice water. What is with ruining a perfectly good glass of water with a half ton of ice?

Kindness. There is something nice about having a "sorry war" when one person inconveniences the other. It's nice that cheerfulness is considered an asset in the service industry. Chinese are polite, but not very kind. Europeans are neither polite nor kind. Kindness isn't necessary, but it really is nice.

Diversity. China is a diverse country in theory. Different regions have different languages and cuisines and cultures. Domestic migrants face similar challenges to international migrants elsewhere. But even still, almost everyone is Chinese. It's not a country that has ever welcomed immigrants. Toronto feels like a global city. China's cities, aside from Hong Kong, all feel Chinese. I forgot what it was like to see the rest of the world around you.

I go back tomorrow. I am glad I took this trip; it felt like both a holiday and a homecoming. But it has also left me feeling fat, bloated and a little ashamed at the decadence. Not that the Chinese nouveau riche are any better, but at least they have the excuse it's all relatively new to them. The developed world should know better. I expect more. I expected more from myself, coming back. Three crippling hangovers. Coney fries. Really?

Today I am going to visit my favorite place in Toronto: the island. It's almost free (just a ferry ticket) and there are no shops there, no bars, no food, just some bicycles and cottages and a Great Lake. I need to take a walk and remember this place is more than just a monument to colonial excess with potable water and peanut butter bagels.

Burst like a bubble
singapore sunset
I got divorced officially officially today. I also got my Z visa so I can head over to China to work. I am exhausted from waking up at 4am to take the train into the city. I am fat from eating my second Canadian cheat meal - coney fries. I am dead from spending the last week under extreme stress, fearing my visa might be refused. I should celebrate, but I am so emotionally shattered I don't know if I can order another pint. Maybe tomorrow I will go to the island. Thank Christ the day after I can take my return flight without worrying. I'm done. Happy. Anxious. Done.

drinking on the border and an asshole bartender
singapore sunset
I am a professional drinker. In the sense that from the age of about 15 on, i have visited bars all over the world. Occasionally i put on my pretentious upper-middle class hat and attend cocktail bars, snooting around with the well-to-do, but for the most part i visit dive bars. I have been to dive bars in many states of the United States, big cities and small towns in Canada, places Down Under, all over Europe, China and even Namibia. The one common thread of my traveling is that i will always seek out a dive bar and get drunk with the locals.

I have never been cut off.

Or, perhaps, i have never been told "you are cut off".

That changed last night. After days of miserable jet lag that left me feeling physically ill, passing out at 6pm and waking up before 4am, Tuesday i finally slept 8+ hours through and woke up at a sensible hour for people in the Eastern Time Zone. We spent the day eating Canadian (American) Chinese food, then headed out on the town. We picked the first bar because it was a typical American-style sports bar that had taken the time to put one or two veganish things on their menu. The waitress treated us like gold - the kind of fawning that never happens overseas and honestly rarely even happens in Canada because it's only America where the wait staff are so desperately underpaid and hunting for tips. But it was lovely to experience such attention and good humor. I was all set to put the place down as a top-notch sports bar worth returning to.

We left, then headed to a proper dive bar where a very drunk guy was trying to explain something about being a traveling electrical engineer who was just back from a business trip in Cleveland and something something something. I mean, that place was proper Great Lakes. Flyover country and proud. No fucking bullshit "craft beer", ice hockey on the television, a bar full of very drunk regulars, and plenty of "eh". Canada, fuck yeah.

After a few beers we hit the road, because R kind of wanted to give me the full bar crawl experience. The last time i was here we crawled to a country and western bar that actually kicked us off our bar stools because they wanted to turn the joint into a nightclub. I didn't know that country and western fans had nightclubs, but apparently they do. I've traveled all through America - including Texas - and never knew country and western nightclubs were a thing until i visited Windsor. But that was last trip. This trip R wanted to take me to a strip club.

Windsor is a border city. It's across the river from Detroit and one of the few parts of Canada that is actually south (!) of the United States. Like Detroit, its economy is/was built on automobile manufacture. Unlike Detroit, it's extremely white. The most famous thing that ever came out of Windsor is Richie Hawtin, aka Plastikman, one of the most successful (white) techno DJs in the world. But outside of Canada he will forever be known as a "Detroit" DJ. For those who don't listen to techno, i think this city is also the place Michael Moore visited to make a point about how nice (white) Canadians are in his movie Bowling for Columbine.

So Windsor is a city that is mostly famous for being next to Detroit, except with more white people and less murders. For the kids in America, it's the place they can go to legally drink between the ages of 19 and 21. Before Detroit decided to allow casinos to dig itself out of bankruptcy, Windsor was also the place where Americans could come to gamble legally. Plus, strip clubs.

I've never been to a strip club. I've been at the door several times in groups and i left when i found out you have to pay cover charge. I only know strip clubs from the movies, as places where the punters give cash money to the girls, not places that charge cover presumably pocketed by the promoters/pimps. The whole concept of paying a man cover to watch women take their clothes off creeps me out, even at my drunkest moments, which is why i have always left before going in. But this place was "only" 7 bucks to get in and R spotted me so whatever.

We went in and the music was great. It might be the only joint in town that plays hip-hop. The drinks were disgustingly expensive, but it looked and felt like a gay bar. Perhaps gay bars were patterned after strip clubs? I don't know. Mirrors on the walls and disco lights and dark corners. My kind of place. There were also topless women pole dancing and busty women coming to offer "tit shots" and whatnot. Plus single dudes sitting around not drinking at all. It was less sleazy than i imagined, but also more sad and pathetic than i imagined. Still, i like music that isn't fucking classic rock, and i'm on holiday so don't mind spending a bit more on drinks, so it was an okay place to hang for a while.

Because we are old, and i knew today i would have to leave back to Toronto, we headed home early. We decided to drop back to the place where we had dinner for a nightcap. The bar was almost empty. We ordered two beers. We were having the usual argument about who to pay - R put some cash on the table and i handed over my credit card to start a tab - and then the bartender told us he was cutting us off. At fucking midnight. In a town whose main industry - after the collapse of manufacturing - is selling alcohol to underage Americans. Like. Are you fucking kidding me?

I have been (too) drunk at bars all over the world and this is literally the first time i have ever been "cut off". We weren't being racist or sexist or refusing to pay the bill or starting a fight or doing any of the things that bartenders are supposed to kick people out for, we were just a couple of drunken fortysomething women hanging out. Jesus, we probably would have headed home after that one beer anyway, since that's where we were going in the first place. But the bartender - the bartender!!!!! - getting fresh is a whole new thing for me. I didn't know how to handle it.

Obviously i was drunk - i was at a bar for fuck's sake - but that doesn't mean i am okay with being treated like trash. Since it's the closest joint to R's house, i asked her if it was okay to say something to him, and she gave me the go-ahead. So i told him that we specifically decided to come back here because of the good service earlier in the night and that i didn't appreciate his tone or his manner in preemptively "cutting us off" as paying customers who were not being abusive or causing any kind of drama. In response he literally took our (paid-for) drinks off the bar, poured them out and told us to get out.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Never. Never. After 20+ years of being a drunk, i have never been treated that way by a bartender. I had enough sense not to make a scene. I just shrugged and took R home where we listened to Katy Perry and drank gin and passed out. But now i have woken up i am still pissed. I have seen plenty of racist bouncers and asshole bouncers and bartenders whose schtick doesn't rub me the right way, but i have never been "cut off" as a paying customer in an empty bar who was literally just hanging out with a friend talking drunken nonsense.

I mean, being a bartender is a huge responsiblity. It's like being a nurse or a therapist. You are guiding someone through their drug addiction, keeping them safe and dealing with raw emotions and hearts that will never open up the same way in other environments. People are vulnerable when they are taking drugs. You're the fucking caretaker! It doesn't take a strong man to dominate drunks, because they are emotional wrecks to begin with. The only way to respect your clientele is to use a soft touch. And if you try to score a point as the one sober guy in the room, it just makes you look like an insecure asshole.

I can't. I really can't.

Tomorrow i have to meet up with J and finalize the divorce. I also have to pick up my passport that may or may not have a visa in it. Meanwhile back in China one of my documents has been marked as "delivered" online but apparently it still hasn't arrived, which is going to fuck up my work permit application. I have no idea of my immigration status and i am in complete limbo and high stress. This is not the time for some douchey white male bartender to get on some power trip with his fucking paying customers, for God's sakes!

Yeah, Canada. Apparently it remains the country where i have the best friends and the worst experiences. I love it and everything - i didn't choose to become a citizen for nothing - but fucking hell. People are such assholes. Even in America it's not this bad. If my visa is refused and my whole China dream gets fucked in the ass, this is where i am coming back to. I guess i'll just become a hard drug addict again because dealing with this nonsense sober is depressing. Oh wait, dealing with it drunk is depressing too. Sigh.

Toronto → Windsor
singapore sunset
Life has a strange way of working things out. Yesterday's hangover was abysmal, but I still wanted to go out to see D again and dance to Heather, since she is one of my fave DJs and it's been a long time since I heard American style house music.

The weather intervened.

At around 9pm I put on my brand new super fuzzy warm hoodie and walked up to Mother's Dumplings. They're a Toronto Chinatown institution - they make all kinds of different dumplings and other dishes noone bothers with because the dumplings are so good. But the hangover had me craving 葱油饼 (cōng yóu bǐng), which is a mungbean pancake. I remembered that their take on it was a lot thicker than the mainland style, a bit more like how it's made in Taiwan. Lordy, did that hit the spot. I had the pancake, fat and gooey and heavy, and 6 tofu and rice vermicelli dumplings and a small plate of chili spice bean sprouts.

Food aside, let's talk about the walk. It was only about 5 minutes from my hotel, but the temperature was -10 or lower. I regret not buying gloves. The new hoodie is warm, but I forgot that this kind of cold freezes your eyeballs in their sockets and cuts straight through your jeans and turns your hair into icicles.

The other thing it does is cancel flights. So Heather was stuck in Chicago and that was that. I crawled back into bed and set my alarm for 4:30am.

Walking to the train station at 5 in the morning was rough. 20 minutes or so in -15, with wind in my face and a pack on my back. I jammed my hands in my pockets and pulled up my bandana for maximum veganarchist/antifa effect. Canada is fucking cold, eh.

At the station there was a McDonald's coffee shop, so I picked up a bagel and a coffee and danced a little jig waiting for R to email me a ticket. The line at the ticket counter was crazy long considering it was before 6am, and for various reasons I don't want to go into I couldn't book online myself. Oh wait, yeah, it's that "living in North America without a credit card" thing. Fucking, you really are a nonperson here if you don't have credit.

Anywho, I'm on the train traveling to Windsor. The weather there is even more bitterly cold, and the people are disturbingly racist and the public transport situation is embarrassingly bad, but my Canadian bestie lives there and I think we both need some quality hetero lifemate time.

We just pulled into Aldershot, which is some town I don't know where it is that shares its name with my town of birth. The sky is still dark but getting lighter. Outside everything is covered in snow. I want another bagel. Canada is starting to feel a bit like home again.

a night of bar fights
singapore sunset
Last night turned into a clusterfuck, so i guess that's par for the course.

I could sense things were heading downhill when a very loud old guy started ranting about "eco terrorists". Let's shelve the discussion about whether direct action groups should be considered terrorists for sabotaging infrastructure, because this guy had also decided that Justin Trudeau and the whole Canadian Liberal Party were "eco terrorists". They are all bought and paid-for by the Chinese, you see, who are the ones who are really in charge of the Canadian government. Also, all indigenous-led protest movements like NoDAPL and so on are actually not really indigenous-led but cunningly engineered by a secret cabal of New York "elites" whose only objective is to destroy the Canadian oil and gas industry, without which (apparently) the entire country would be an economic basketcase.

Seriously, this guy's nonsense was an art to behold. It's got to be so exhausting trying to maintain an elaborate conspiracy that the entire world is maliciously trying to stop using fossil fuels just to target and hurt the Canadian economy. Oh yes, folks, Canada has its very own brand of conservative batshittery, ripping talking points from the Americans and then rejigging them to make it sound like they are being patriotically anti-America to court the local nationalist vote.

But i ignored him because who gives a shit about people ranting drunkenly about conspiracy theories in a bar.

It got worse.

A bit later on a young girl walked in for a glass of wine and we got to chatting. At some point she called me "he" and i corrected her usage. Because she was a woke millenial, she decided to make a big fuss about apologizing even when i told her it wasn't a big deal. Which is when obnoxious clown number two decided to inject himself into our conversation. This guy had been at the bar earlier bragging about all of his food and wine knowledge and bla bla bla. He asked me "where can i go to party, where can i party in this town?" I assumed him to mean "where can i find drugs?" although R later pointed out to me he was probably looking for chicks. I told him about a nearby chain bar that would probably have more groups and less regulars, at which point he left. I mean. He was an asshole, but i have no problem interacting with assholes on a superficial level and not being an asshole back, especially if it's to direct them elsewhere.

Anywho, said asshole returned a couple hours later and decided to reintroduce himself to me by cutting into a conversation with my new friend and attack her for mentioning her family's religious background. She was just trying to contextualize her view of gender, but i never got the chance to hear what she actually wanted to say because this guy proceeded to turn into a raging Bill Maher clone. I can't even get into the preposterousness of what he started talking about. Dude was like an honest-to-God real-life version of Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly, or that kind of talk radio dweeb. If you've never been unfortunate enough to watch one of these guys in action, their schtick is to make some kind of inflammatory comment, then wait for the predictably outraged response, then interrupt the person responding and accuse them of a logical fallacy or pick out minor verbal tics, then claim victory without ever listening to or addressing the content. It's television politics 101 - don't ever let the other person say their bit, because then it would become painfully evident that your so-called political stance is actually just a paper-thin excuse to be spiteful. Once you've figured out their game it becomes really pathetic and transparent, but it doesn't make the abuse any less damaging when you are on the receiving end.

And, my God, we had to put up with this fucker aggressively taking down the woman sitting next to me for everything. His vitriol was shocking, considering he had never met her before and didn't even let her speak more than a handful of words. The worst part was when he proceeded to claim me as a badge of his open-mindedness. After mis-gendering me over and over and over, he decided to make a grand show of asking me my preferred pronoun and then pointedly using it once before going on: "see, i am totally willing to give a little, look, this person and i are good friends now, i don't mind what gender this person chooses to be identified as because i am a man, i was born a man, i will respect this person's freedom, and this person respects me too, unlike you who is forcing your liberal opinions on me, i mean, you're talking for this person, you won't even let this person speak, you won't even let me speak" and on and on and on. Like, dude. I am not your fucking mascot. But i didn't say anything because what's the point? Anyway, the girl got progressively more upset and teared up and i guess that helped this dickhead to believe he had won whatever battle was in his head so he offered to buy us drinks to show what a magnanimous and open-minded gentleman he was. Um. Okay?

I hate angry drunks. I mean, i get angry drunk too, but i never point that anger at the people around me. I will rant about work, or my relationship, or society, or whatever, but not abuse other people in the bar. I do not get and never will get bar fights. People who get drunk and want to abuse their peers, like what's the fucking point? How is ruining other people's night going to make your high any better? There's no winner in a drunken argument. Even if you claim victory you are still a drug addict who got your kicks from picking on others in a vulnerable state. Whatever.

Instead of entertaining the guy any longer, i ushered the girl into the back where (thankfully) there was a group of young students celebrating a birthday. We played a lot of tunes on the jukebox and danced and tried to forget. It felt very pure being around people who were unironically enjoying Rihanna and Drake and Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran.

Of course, that was just the beginning of a much longer night and a much longer discussion. It turns out i had befriended a depressive survivor of domestic abuse whose PTSD was triggered by the angry guy at the bar. She had plenty of her own issues to deal with. I mean, obviously. That's why people go to bars, right? To forget whatever other shit is going on in their lives. So we talked it out. She's a Brit, from an East African family. She tried to explain the cultural complexity about how important it was for her to get her father's approval, even as she knew he was an abusive jackass. I don't really understand the black experience, or the Muslim experience, but i do understand depression and self-harm and using alcohol and other drugs to try escape. I listened. I held her. Later, i walked her home, where she was anticipating a torrent of abuse from her strict aunt with whom she is staying.

This is why getting in a bar fight is such a selfish and fucked up thing to do. Here was a woman with a whole lot of problems of her own and along comes some douchebag exacerbating it all. I mean, i get it. Said douchebag was a brown guy, and between his raging nonsense i gathered that he was too brown for the other bar and they kicked him out. Well, probably he was just being a drunk asshole over there too, but again - i don't know the brown experience so i can't speak for him. I do remember being turned back from a bar in San Francisco and i stormed out, convinced it was due to transphobic bar staff. So i get it. If you are a visible minority small things can have a bigger impact. And of course the alt right appeals to this sort of person, because it sets up a structure where gay men and brown guys can also punch down - whether at women, or at first-generation immigrants, or at transpeople, or whatever. But come on. When your "conservative" allies show their true colors and ruin your night with their ignorant racism, why perpetuate the situation by going elsewhere and attacking someone's religion or gender identity? I mean, it's a bar for fuck's sake, we're all here for the same reason. Don't rob the people around you from their brief moment of escape.

I mean, fuck.

Times like this i realize why i like drinking in China. I am sure there are just as many dickheads over there. Actually - hey - i met one at the visa center yesterday morning, which is why i went out to drink in the first place. But because there isn't really the concept of a Western bar, i don't get confronted with dickheads all the time. My life over there is very isolated and i like it better that way. I can disappear into the crowd. Don't get me wrong, i am glad i was able to help out H last night, and i really hope she gets through her current difficulties, but i don't know if helping out one person is worth the stress and the bullshit. Putting up with everyone else's fuckery, i mean urghhhhh. Better to just buy a couple cans and sit in my room. At least i can preserve my own sanity.

Because now i am hungover and i have to go out tonight because i promised and all i want to do is hide under a blanky at R's house and watch reality shows and eat Canadian Chinese food.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

Toronto. Stalled.
singapore sunset
So. This is upsetting.

My experience at the visa center was awful. I mean, I expected bureaucracy because that comes with the territory, but this was some kind of power tripping nonsense I can't even.

For those who don't know, China has a pseudo-independent organization to handle visa applications. The embassy or consulate is the actual party that grants your visa, but this other organization accepts and checks your papers prior to submission.

In Germany they sent me back home after my first appointment to collect more paperwork (flight tickets etc). That's why I have spent the last couple months being so meticulous about getting all my papers in order. Of course, that still wasn't enough.

I walked in and waited in line, where they immediately sent me away to photocopy my passport. Why do they need a photocopy when they are already taking the hard copy? Who knows. Why did they need a copy in the first place when it's not listed on the website as a requirement? Who knows. Almost everyone at the Staples downstairs was photocopying their passport for the China visa center. Like. Come the fuck on.

Then i got in and handed over my papers and the first thing he said is that my passport has water damage. This is from a rainstorm several months ago, and I have entered and exited China numerous times since then. But he said that my passport was damaged and that even if my visa was granted I may not be allowed into China. Then he made me sign a declaration saying I acknowledged my passport was damaged and that this application was therefore strongly advised against.

Then he got on my case about putting Hong Kong and Taiwan on my visa application. Which, of course I considered very carefully because I know this is a very sensitive issue in China. But the form specifically states to list all of the "countries or territories" you have visited. I presume they listed "or territories" deliberately for the case of Hong Kong and Taiwan, since both of those places do passport checks and have completely different visa requirements to the mainland. Still, I know better than to argue, so I told him I understood the situation and apologized. But he didn't stop.

His next thing was to take a separate slip of paper and write down "Ontario, Québec, Canada" and ask me if that made sense to me. Like. Fuck off dude! I have no horse in this race. I don't care. I really don't give a shit. In fact, this is literally the first person I have met who has ranted about it outside of Taiwan, mainly because most mainland Chinese don't give a shit either. They consider Taiwan a runaway child and they do believe it's part of China but it's so far down their list of priorities to complain about. In fact this is one of the reasons I specifically chose the mainland over Taiwan to settle in, because I found the endless pontificating about the situation exhausting.

Anyway, so I had to fill in half the form all over again, and sign yet another waiver that I acknowledged my documentation was incorrect and indicating that I would still pay the visa center fees if the consulate refuses my visa. Like, come on guys! What a wank.

While I was changing my form, the bureaucrat even lost it at one of his Chinese brothers coming back into the fold. Like. This fucking guy was obviously of Chinese descent. He spoke perfect Mandarin. But the bureaucrat got on his case about listing his country of birth as Hong Kong saying that there is no such country. Now, I am a poor judge of age, but I am quite sure this guy was born prior to 1997. When the applicant tried to explain himself - with the exact same argument I had used (that the form explicitly lists "country or territory") - the bureaucrat even had the nerve to bring up the Tang dynasty. The Tang dynasty for fuck's sake!

Like, take a fucking breath dude. If this is the kind of asshat representing China in North America it's no wonder so many people here think the whole country is a miserable fascist state full of brainwashed drones. Thank Christ I know better. I know that most Chinese are very easy going and just as open-minded (or not) as people anywhere else in the world and they certainly don't feel the need to spend 10 minutes evangelizing to foreigners about two piddling little regions whose combined total population is barely the size of a single tier 1 city in the mainland.

After that I was done. I was shaking I was so stressed. I messaged D, an old friend from back when I lived here, and told him I needed a beer. I haven't seen him in 5 years, but we were right back in it. He was close friends with N, a reasonably close friend of mine too, who ODed a while back. And L, who committed suicide just a month or two back. Toronto, city of dead friends.

His sister also passed away recently, and he was the sibling who had to deal with it all for his mom and the rest of the family. It reminded me that J's father also died recentlyish. Speaking of ex-wife J, she has also been trying to catch up with me today, but after the visa center situation I have all clammed up. I don't have the emotional space for any more awkwardness.

It was good to talk to D. He is doing alright, had a pretty stable job for a while and still getting out and about to party on the reg. I enjoyed chatting with him so much we kinda made a date to go see Heather on Friday. I had been idly thinking about it anyway since she was the first DJ I saw in Toronto and yanno, symmetry. Also she is an awesome DJ and the promoter booking her here is my age and known for getting the (now) 35+ crowd, so I won't feel like a creeper and may bump into some other familiar faces.

Maybe I planned that prematurely because I was upset. I know I probably should come back to Toronto to pick up my visa on Tuesday just in case they didn't grant it and I need to reapply. But I owe R a long stay at her place in Windsor and if I only get down there on Saturday I should definitely stay through Wednesday.

And yanno, if my visa gets refused for having a water damaged passport or a "blurry photo" (seriously) or a now-scratched-out reference to Taiwan I fucking give up.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Canadian me. I felt at home enough in this country to submit to citizenship, but it's also the country where I have lost more friends than any other to suicide and overdose, the country I got married and divorced, the country I was a balls out hard drug addict, the country I spent a couple months as a psychiatric inpatient etc etc. I love it but it's crazy making. I forgot that.

So, what to do after lunch with a wicked jetlag and incredible anxiety about my future thanks to a true believer of a bureaucrat? Get fucking drunk. Get very drunk. I might thumb my nose at aspirational veganism and grab my fave bison, blue cheese and peameal bacon burger from my local. Fuck everything.


Log in

No account? Create an account