Bus Rides in Changchun

Winter in Changchun, China can lead to treacherous navigation, as most roads and sidewalks are coated with varying layers of ice. Two teachers that I know personally have broken bones. You have to watch your step, especially at night, when the darkness veils the ice. Oh, and be sure to wear shoes with decent traction.

I’ve seen a few buses stall when driving uphill. It actually doesn’t snow much in this city, but what precipitation the city gets will stick throughout all of winter. The last time it snowed here was about four weeks ago, and it only snowed half an inch. There’s still a quarter of an inch on the ground. When the daytime highs are rarely over 10 degrees Fahrenheit, not much melts.

Cars and buses have snow tires, of course, so rarely do things get shut down. Usually, I take the bus.

Riding the bus in China can be quite an experience. The bus drivers in this city are often totally insane. You have to get used to them yelling and cursing in Chinese, which can be funny because they like to draw out their “arrghhhhs!” like pirates. They drive aggressively by most standards on roads that seem too narrow for the vehicles. They honk constantly and frequently miss hitting adjacent cars by inches. I often stare out the window in awe, thinking, damn, I thought for sure we’d nail that car. I’ve never seen an accident though.

One bus driver I encounter regularly has every stop light timed to the second on his route. At the longer stops, he will transition the bus to “park”, take out a mop, and start cleaning the floor. Then as the seconds wind down, he’ll rush back over to his driver’s seat and take off just as the light switches to green. It’s a pretty impressive feat because he clearly has the stoplights timed to the second.

If the bus seats are taken and I find myself standing, some of the citizens will be in awe from the height difference. I’ve had a few short people hoist up their hands to see if they can reach my head. I’ve also had a few sneak pictures of me when they think I’m not looking.

Navigating cities in China. Always an experience.


Alternative Lifestyles

“Don’t tell me what I am doing; I don’t want to know! What a way to live. The only way.” – Ray Bradbury

I like to operate differently than most people. I don’t say that to brag; it’s just part of my personality. I prefer to march to the beat of my own drum, for better and at times for worse. Maybe it’s because predictability bores me. You only have so many breaths to take in the world, after all, and I can’t see the point in using my breaths to follow a predesigned plan, an expected path, a linear life. It feels too cliché to live that way, and there’s nothing I hate more than a cliché film! I need a few curveballs thrown my direction and I need to throw a few curveballs of my own, or I ain’t having fun.

Thus, I spend my Sundays ice skating and playing basketball in China, while my old high school classmates pay off their mortgage, change diapers, and break sweat over their chain of emails they’ll have to answer on Monday morning.

I recall, once, a significant other telling me that her dream was to have a nice house in Raleigh, NC, to settle down, and to raise kids that go to a good school, whom she drops off with a RAV4 before heading to her corporate office for a nice middle class salary with a solid 401k plan.

That’s a perfectly decent dream, but it ain’t mine. In my mind, I was scuba diving somewhere far away from this significant other, somewhere like Thailand. After all, I’ve heard that story before, so I don’t see any point in living it. Every story ends the same, after all: with death. And once you realize the inevitability of the ending, you can find it within yourself to start shaping the middle acts in ways that feel personally worthwhile.

I had enough nights at the bar with suburban buddies, talking about who’s pregnant and who’s getting laid off and the bonus you may or may not get in the near future and the list of houses you might buy and the new platinum gym membership and the renovated kitchen.

YAWN! Heard it all before.

By the way, I hate cars, especially RAV4s. And kids are fun to teach and coach, but teaching and coaching is where I draw the line. Once again, it’s just my opinion. And spare me the “you’ll flip on these things” speech. I’m turning 33 this year, and my opinions have solidified on these matters.

I’m not saying that my life is better than anyone else’s. Not at all. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, after all. I know a lot of very happy people in suburbia, as well as some unhappy expat teachers. I’m just saying that I prefer life when it has a twist. I like operating on the fringes, where few dare to go, where you’re on the cusp of a compelling and odd story at the turn of every corner.

I don’t think it surprised anyone close to me when I said that I was moving to China. It would have been more surprising, I think, if I said that I was ready to settle down.

Living life with the chirping and pestering of critics tuned out is something I’ve always done. I cannot explain why or how I do it. I can only say that I’m usually reasonably happy, so it can’t be that bad a thing. To not give a damn what other people think, to me, is always the route to a smile. Thus, I never had the fear of a career decision or life decision being judged as bad by whomever. I just get an idea and go with it.

What’s my point to all this? It’s not to encourage people to pack their bags and move to China. That might not be for you! My point is, there are a lot of unhappy people out there, popping Xanax to get through another bland week, which blends into another bland year, which blends into more gray hairs and a “where the fuck did my life go” panic attic upon looking in the mirror one day as the days and years meld together and the third act to the story nears.

My point is to ask yourself if you’re really happy, and if you aren’t, to ask yourself if you’re living by the standards of outside opinions and judgments. If not, I suggest you go deaf to these outsiders and start having some fun.

But be sure to make money and stay employed. Those two things are also important. You cannot achieve the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, after all, if you can’t put food on the table.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so don’t let anyone insist to you that their way is the only way. The only “right way” is the way you prefer to use.



When the Cold Bites Your Flesh

Someone who grew up in the southeastern US, attended college in Texas, and lived for three years in California does not quickly adapt to a cold weather climate.

I was faring with the cold decently, considering my background, until about a week ago. I bought the appropriate clothes. I allowed myself routine outdoor walks, and I took the bus when possible (it forces longer exposures to the climate due to the waits at bus stops).

In November, the temperature dropped to daytime highs below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I was fine. I mostly enjoyed it.

By December, daytime highs were often below 10. I felt the cold, but I still handled it well. It rarely bothered me. Only on one particular morning trek to school, when it was eight degrees below zero and windy, was I in pain.

This last week of January, though, has been nasty. Yesterday, the daytime high was negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Nothing can prepare you for this level of cold when you’ve never experienced it in your 32 years of existence. I had to go out (briefly) for lunch that day, and even with my warmest gloves (gloves that make most freezing weather seem like summer), my hands were in pain within minutes. Within twenty minutes I could no longer feel my fingers. My feet, insulated with wool socks and winter boots, also went numb. It’s a painful numb, not the numb one gets when a leg falls asleep. It’s the kind of numb that makes you feel like your hands and feet are moments away from being easily ripped from your body.

Yes, this week hurt. On Monday I went to the cinema with a friend. The movie ended at 8pm, which in hindsight was four hours too late for a movie to end in this weather. We walked outside and found ourselves exposed to a negative 22 degree (Fahrenheit) night. There is nothing a Southern boy can do to make this kind of weather feel good. My nostrils ran fluids as though they were an overflowing Nile river. My extremities felt a biting pain, as did my forehead. The cold seemed to eat through the flesh of my skull and freeze my cranium as though I had just scoffed down a bunch of ice cream too fast.

We hurried to my friend’s car, which I was grateful to have access to. I don’t know if I’d have survived a bus that night.

Changchun is cold. Yes, it’s really, really cold.

But on the bright side, you can ice skate, ski, and if you have an inner child still alive, you can build snowmen.

The parks are now adorned with beautiful snow sculptures. I don’t know who does them, but they’re nothing short of magnificent.

snow dragon

This is my favorite of the snow sculptures; it’s located at the Northern entrance to Nanhu park, which is one of my favorite places to relax each weekend.

Even the students at school seem to be in the winter spirit.


This field of snowman was made outside the back entrance to the high school that I teach at.

I, for one, was in too much pain to go out for much of anything this week. Once things get back above zero, I’ll be the fun and adventurous expat that everyone assumes me to be. Until then, I remain a hermit.

The Haircut From Hell

So the blog title is a little melodramatic for the subject at hand. Regardless, I think it’s appropriate for this story.

I was long overdue for a bad haircut. Long, long overdue. I developed a knack for locating good barbers in my 20s and had a hell of a run of suave cuts.

It was only a matter of time before a bad one hit, and living in a foreign, non-English speaking country adds exponentially to your odds of a bad cut.

First, a side note. Going to a barbershop in a foreign country is surprisingly nervewracking. The store setup is different, the procedure is different, and because the culture is different, you don’t know when you’re committing a major faux pas. In America, you often get your hair shampooed, either before or after the cut. Likewise in China, but the process isn’t quite the same.

First, you are led to a back room, where a man who isn’t your barber massages your head and shampoos your hair. I say man because I’ve never seen a woman take on this role. “Head masseuse extraordinaire” is the man’s only job, and he gives massages to an assembly line of customers, all day every day. It’s like this at every barbershop I’ve been to.

Depending on how swanky the barbershop is, he could spend anywhere from a minute to twenty minutes giving you a wash. My previous cut in China was at a more expensive place, where I damn near fell asleep in this dimly lit and aromatic back room due to the calming sound of the water as the man’s hands sifted through it, and the soothing traditional Chinese music playing from speakers.

For this go-around, though, I went to a cheaper barbershop.

To be fair, it wasn’t as much the barber’s fault as it was my inability to communicate what I wanted. Sometimes, everything you plan gets quickly tossed down the drain and only your improvisation skills can keep you afloat.

In the hours before getting this haircut, I had worked to memorize a few key phrases to use when I arrived. “I want a haircut.” “Please clip the sides.” “A little product.” “Cut the sideburns.” I rehearsed them, over and over again, until I was satisfied that I had them memorized. Then I embarked for the barber.

Upon entering the shop, my nervousness caused me to forget every phrase I had practiced. Every. Single. One. Well shit, I thought. This used to happen to me in grade school while taking major exams. Everything you want to recall seems to be on the tip of the tongue, but on the tip it remains. Then you go home and your mind seems to magically work again and you’re left thinking, “What the hell!? Why did I not think of that?”

So, I tried using sign language. I pointed to the sides of my head and made a hand gesture to indicate “small.” In my mind this meant, “take a lot of hair off.” The barber interpreted it as, “he wants most of his hair intact on the sides.” Then I pointed to the top of my head and made a hand gesture to indicate “big.” As you can probably guess, the barber interpreted this as, “He wants to keep it all on.” Then I pointed to my sideburns and shook my head “no.” I thought this one was obvious, but those sideburns did not get touched.

What resulted was the ultimate mushroom head, the closest I’ve ever been to having a head of hair shaped like a wide bush. As much as I would’ve liked to correct the barber, it’s impossible when you can’t speak Chinese. After all, I couldn’t even communicate what I wanted in the first place!

Feeling anxious and defeated, I decided to leave.

At home, I let my pride, my fatal flaw, get the best of me. Believing myself gifted enough to correct the issue myself, I retrieved a pair of school scissors and began to cut away. If you’re still reading this you might be thinking, what!? But in my mind, in the heat of the moment, it seemed like a good idea. Anything but going out the next day with a bush on my scalp.

Worse yet, I didn’t think I needed a mirror. I thought I was just that good. Note to self: you’re not.

If you haven’t tried this before, I assure you that it doesn’t work. Ever. Especially not with school scissors.

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After my “hair suicide mission,” I was pretty distraught. NOW what would I do?

Sometimes bad just goes to worse, and the rocks at the bottom of the fall look all the more jagged.

A little reflection told me that I had two options: I could buzz my head and be done with it, or I could take on the challenge of clipping the sides and trimming the top in an attempt to give myself my own haircut (round 2). It would have to be very short after the insanity that I pulled with the scissors.

I decided to challenge myself and try to cut my own hair. In the worst case scenario, I reasoned, I could still buzz over any failure anyways.

The next day, I bought some good hair clippers, scissors, a comb, a mirror, and a spray bottle.

I spent about two hours watching YouTube “how to” videos on trimming your own hair. I also focused on how to clip the sides and back of your head with a “fade” effect. This makes your hair shortest around the ears and neckline, and gradually lengthen up to the crown. I practiced holding the scissors and comb correctly. I decided I would take my time for round 2.

Due to what I did the previous day, the clipping would have to be very short (as you can see in the photo, certain sections of hair were nearly eliminated already, and I had to even this out). So, there could not be much of a “fade” effect.

The end result, I’m pleased to say, was satisfactory. Even without the fade I would’ve liked, it at least looks like I didn’t have my hair trimmed by a 90 year old one-handed schizophrenic on an opioid binge. I managed to successfully give myself a trim, in a style that covered the previous night’s damage.

Better yet, now I can cut my own hair. How much money will this save me over the years? I suspect a lot, assuming today wasn’t beginner’s luck.

Feast your eyes on the aftermath.

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This probably seems like a cliché time to write, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonades.” But damnit, that cliché exists because it’s valuable. There’s a deeper meaning to my haircut story.

Sometimes you run into a string of bad luck. I’ve had some bad luck. Some of it is self-imposed, some of it just plain unfortunate, and some of it, like my haircut, is a bit of both (that is also what being 32 and single is all about). I still consider myself lucky to be where I’m at now. I do believe, reflecting on the last ten years, that travesty can beget opportunity. But you have to take a drill bit and rip that opportunity open, because the son of a gun likes to be well hidden.

The aftermath of struggle really can (not always, but sometimes), I believe, unveil the most previous jewels of being alive. You just have to make the effort to go looking.



Basketball in China

Every day at 11:20 am, I gather with some of the Chinese school teachers at the gymnasium for a game of basketball.

We don’t just play basketball, though. We bleed basketball. The games are one hour of sheer intensity.

Injuries are common. One of the Chinese teachers, who I’ll refer to as “The Best Friend” here, sprained his ankle about a month ago. He was on crutches for weeks. Another teacher broke his pinky. It didn’t just break; it took a 90-degree bend the wrong direction. Collisions are common. So is falling, physical wrestling for a rebound, and taunting.

After “The Best Friend” was injured, the Foreign Languages Department manager was pretty exasperated.

“These men,” she said to me while rolling her eyes. “They do this every day, no protection. How can we have the teachers dropping like flies because of pickup basketball?”

I was immediately thinking back to when the other teachers convinced me to play.

“Just for fun,” one of the Chinese teachers, “Ed”, casually told me in an effort to have me join them. “It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, win or lose.”

It is fun, I will admit. In fact, it’s a daily highlight. Here I’ll introduce some of the characters who play on my team; they make for some over-the-top stories.


Ed, whose Chinese name sounds like “Chongli”, is about my age. He’s one of the Chinese English teachers, so we run into each daily. He’s also the guy who convinced me to join in their lunchtime basketball shenanigans.

He’s very competitive and just over 6 feet tall, which puts him on the taller end of the height spectrum. He’s also one of the better players, easily the best on our time. He has a sense of humor that I’m still trying to understand (some things get lost in translation), but a few times he’s definitely made me laugh.

The previous American teacher here, David, used to get drunk with Ed all the time. Ed boasted this to me once at lunch when we were talking about David, who essentially retired shortly after I arrived. “Years back we would finish class and go out, have many beers. But now I have a three-year-old, so not enough time. It kind of sucks, because playing with the three-year-old is so boring.”

Ed is a huge Houston Rockets fan. It isn’t uncommon for him to live-stream Houston Rockets games on his phone shortly before we play, in order to get himself amped up. I’ve seen him in a James Harden jersey from time to time.

Once, he overheard me telling a story to “The Best Friend” about how pet birds can cuss if their owners are foul-mouthed. He must have just heard me say “Dirty Words” because he said, “Dirty Words! Yes, we often say very dirty words to each other during basketball in Chinese. Perhaps soon you will learn these words and use them as well.”

“The Best Friend”

I refer to this guy as The Best Friend because he’s my best friend at the school, and I can’t pronounce or write his name for the life of me. It’s one of the tougher names. I also forget his name entirely about three times a week, and now I’m too embarrassed to ask him for his English name (I’ve been at the school for almost five months).

He’s tall—close to my height—and pretty athletic too. He’s also an English teacher at the school. Usually I, him, and Ed are on the same team. I referred to our team once as “Team English,” which I think they got a kick out of. The other team refers to us as “The really tall team that can’t shoot.” That’s also pretty accurate.

The Best Friend tore something in his foot years back, so it constantly reinjures itself. If not for the foot, he’d be a basketball machine. The day of his last ankle sprain, he was really on fire. It actually broke my heart a little seeing him go down that day. Regardless, he’s moving around again.

The other day, we were talking about holidays and family. This is what he told me:

“I visited America once, and saw how big the families are. I really like that. It makes Holiday meals so much more interesting, with all the people and family drama. Here in China, most just have one kid. One child policy, you know. So, holiday meals with the family are just the same few people. Same old, same old. So much more boring.”

He tried to help me with my shot once because frankly, my shot really sucks. Then he saw that I’m left handed.

“Oh damn. I don’t know how to teach you since I’m right-handed. You might be stuck with the incorrect shot, but the good news is, left-handed people are clever.”

I told him it was fine. I was cool just going for rebounds and assisting.

“The Boss”

The other players refer to this guy as “The Boss” because he’s the Dean of Students at the school. He’s older, likely mid-to-late 50s, and short, likely the shortest player. He’s at least a foot shorter than me.

“The Boss is really bad at basketball,” Ed told me once. “But we let him shoot anyways, because he’s the boss. So now he thinks he’s really good, but really, he kind of sucks.”

The Boss is always on “Team English” as well, mostly to balance out the height (me, The Best Friend, and Ed are the three tallest players at the school).

The Boss is also the definition of streaky. He has a shot technique that’s odder than anything I’ve ever seen—even stranger than mine. There are days when The Boss makes ten 3-point shots in a row and I’m in total awe. There are also days, though, when The Boss attempts ten 3-pointers in a row, but none of them even hit the board (what we call “air balls”).

Here’s my favorite story of The Boss (because it involves me). On one of the days he ended up being “on,” I had been the one to pass to him immediately before he took his first shot. Mind you, he always stands on the same spot outside the 3-point line and waits for someone to pass to him. Being eager to get the ball out of my own hands, I lobbed it over to The Boss. His first shot was good.

The next time we had the ball, I assisted The Boss in the same manner. He drilled the second 3-pointer as well.

Being as superstitious as he is, The Boss became immediately convinced that I was his “good luck” foreigner. He insisted to Ed and The Best Friend that from then on, I should be the only one to assist him for every single shot, until his good luck well ran dry.

Every time I got the ball, I’d see The Boss’s eyes light up in eager anticipation. He’d wave his arms and clap his hands. I’d lob him the ball, and more often than not he’d make the shot. It wasn’t long before he was sporting the biggest grin I’ve ever seen and shouting various things in Chinese. Suddenly, I was The Boss’s assist maestro.

Something tells me The Boss is his own best friend and worst enemy on the basketball court.

“They could have blocked all of his shots if they wanted,” Ed told me after the game. “They just let him keep shooting… because he’s the boss.”

Those are the three constant players on my team. Once, there was some drama in a ten-player game. We had lost the game by quite a bit, and The Boss argued with our team’s fifth player over whose fault it was. To prove that it wasn’t The Boss’s fault, The Boss decided he would play for the other team the next day. He claimed that if the other team won, it would prove that our team’s fifth player was the real problem.

In The Boss’s mind, you see, he is the captain, the Lebron James, the MVP. To suggest that he was in fact causing us to lose was the ultimate sleight.

In exchange for The Boss, the other team gave us a particularly manic player who lifts his shirt up and screams every time he makes a shot. He’s actually much better than The Boss, but this was a negative for our team; it means people actually try to guard him.

Unfortunately, the other team beat us that day, allowing The Boss to claim that he, in fact, could not possibly be the reason we had lost the day before.

“We could have beaten them,” Ed casually told me after the game. “We just kept letting The Boss shoot… because he’s The Boss. Every day, we just let him shoot.”

The next day, The Boss was back on our team again, feeling newly triumphant and confident in his own abilities.

So there you have it. “Team English.” An average height advantage of six inches, an average age advantage of a few years (we would be significantly younger as a whole if not for The Boss), more speed, and more jumping ability. And yet, somehow, we still lose about 2/3 of the time.