4:15 a.m. and a stranger’s in my room

It was about 4:15 on Saturday morning when I heard the door latch click. Through the webs of half sleep, I saw a shadow twist from the door, then lumber silent through the gloom. Slowly I raised myself from the pillow and pressed myself against the headboard.

I tried to shake myself awake without moving. Moments before I’d been dreaming that the clothes rack standing in the corner had been a bird-beaked man looming over my sleeping form like a vulture waiting for my breath to cease. As my mind slipped back to reality, the vulture man faded. The lumpy shadow didn’t. And it kept moving toward me from the door.

Despite its reeling gait, I watched it move toward the foot of the bed, managing somehow to dodge the shoes strew about the floor. It moved past the foot of the bed, then paused at the clothes rack to bury its face in my drying underwear. By that point, I could tell it was some kind of woman. After breathing deep of my underwear, it moved to the curtain and began persistently pawing the flowing fabric.

I was out of options. I flicked on the light. A heavyset, red-faced, 30-something woman turned to gaze upon my half-naked form.

“Uhhhh,” I said.

“Uhhhh,” she said.

“This is my room. Who are you?”

She looked baffled.

“What are you looking for? Do you know where you are? Where are you supposed to be?” I asked.

“I need to use the bathroom,” she slurred.

I put on a shirt and told her I had one of those. I led her out of my room to the kitty-corner bathroom. She closed the door, and I looked around. My roommate’s door was gaping open but he was wrapped up tight in his bed, asleep. The front door was cracked ajar, too. I sat down on the couch and started to piece together what must be going on.

My apartment complex is full of foreigners. Europeans, Koreans, Americans, most of them college students studying abroad. Friday and Saturday nights, then, can be pretty raucous. I put it together:

Somewhere on the floors above me, the foreigners threw one of their weekend ragers. The woman currently in my bathroom probably lived in my building, or at least had a friend here that she was staying with. She’d wandered smashed down the half-lit stairwells or hit a wrong button on the elevator or taken a wrong turn into the corridors. She’d found my unmarked and unlocked door and stumbled in, thinking she was “home” only to end up in a stranger’s house and a stranger’s bedroom. All I had to do then, was figure out where she was supposed to be and get her home. Then I could get back to sleep for a few more hours before work.

She came out of the bathroom.

“Do you know where you’re supposed to be?” I asked.

“Yeahhhhh,” she said.


“We’re all cool, man. I’m cool. Are you cool? You’re cool.”

“Yeah, I’m cool. But where are you supposed to be? I don’t know you.”

“I don’t know youuu.”

“But this is my house! You are in my house! And I don’t know who you are!”

“I don’t know who you are,” she said.

“Where are you supposed to be? Do you know what apartment you should be at?”

We weren’t getting anywhere. It was s clear she doesn’t know where she was or hardly even who she was. I couldn’t even get a name out of her. I asked her repeatedly who she knows. If she knows anyone who lived at my apartment.

All she said is, “I don’t know you.”

Briefly I wondered how she managed to navigate my entire room in the pitch dark with the dexterity of a monitor lizard if not the speed. Then she laid down on my couch.

“I’ll just sleep here,” she said. “We’re all cool. I’m cool. You’re cool. Are you cool?”

“You can’t sleep here!” I was starting to grab my hair. “I don’t know you!”

For a moment, I considered letting her sleep on my couch. Then the scenarios started to run through my head:

  • I wake up; a bunch of stuff is gone; my roommates find out I let a stranger sleep on our couch
  • I wake up; a stranger wandered into my roommates room; something bad happens; my roommates find out I let a stranger sleep on our couch
  • I wake up at 7:30 to go to work; she’s so drunk she refuses to leave; I can’t get her to leave without calling the cops; my roommates find out I let a stranger sleep on our couch and the only way to get her to leave is to cause us all a lot bigger problems; we miss work
  • I wake up at 7:30 to go to work; I can’t wake her up; my roommates find out I let a stranger sleep on our couch; a stranger died on our couch
  • And so on

“You can’t sleep here!” I shrieked again.

“You want me to leave,” she said, arms stretched out straight above her head, a look of contentment on her face.

“Yes. I want you to go home.”

She got and looked at her feet. No shoes. More evidence she’d wandered into the wrong apartment. (I had a friend who was arrested twice for doing this). We hunted around for a couple of minutes. They were nowhere to be found. I tried to give her my shower shoes and told her I’ll walk her to her apartment.

“Nahhhh,” she said, making wheel-turning motions with her hands. “I’ll just drive myself home.”

“You don’t have any shoes.”

She looked at her tattooed feet, then back at me, startled.


“Look, you can sleep on my couch for a couple of hours,” I finally relent. “Just sleep there, it’s no problem.”

“No. I’m going home.”

“Do you live in this building? This is apartment 404. Really, just sleep on the couch for a while.”

“Yeah, I’ll just walk home.

She walked out the door. I sat on the couch for a moment. A half hour had passed. Work was coming fast. But I felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I got up and put on some shoes. I couldn’t just let this too-drunk-to-see woman stumble around alone all night. I had to help her get somewhere.

By the time I got to the elevators, she was gone. One of lifts was in the basement. One of them was one floor up. One of them was in transit down. I ran up a floor and scurried around to the different crannies. Nothing.

I ran down to the ground floor. Nothing. Through a window I got a glimpse of a lumbering shadow. I ran outside. Nothing. Gone. Around the buildings. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

I went back to my apartment thinking maybe she’d returned there. Nothing. I didn’t know what else to do, so I crawled back into bed. After another hour lying awake worrying, I drifted off.

I woke up feeling pretty good, if also pretty tired. I packed to leave for work, and when I opened my door my roommate was also walking out the door.

“Hey man, you didn’t have a heavy-set woman sleeping in your room last night, did you,” I said half-joking and ready to tell him of my ordeal.

He blanches. “Yeah, where is she?”

Uh oh.

Turned out she’s a friend. The night before, the two of them had been playing pool at a bar down the street. She’d gotten too drunk, and he’d agreed she could just sleep in his room since her house was a few kilometers away. Last he remembered, she’d asked him where the bathroom was. It all clicked together.

When he’d woke up, she was gone, of course. He’d run all over the apartment complex looking for her. Nothing.

“And the thing is, all of her stuff is in my room. All of it. Her phone, her keys, her wallet, her shoes.”

He took a breath.

Her shoes!”


*Postscript:* She was eventually found barefoot but unharmed at a friend’s house about a kilometer and a half from our complex. All’s well that ends well, they say. She doesn’t remember much.


Health check

All my organs are still in their proper locations. At least that’s what I assume the ultrasound was about.

It’s that time of year again: Health check time.

Every foreigner who’s lived in China on something other than a tourist visa knows what I’m talking about. The wonderfully bewildering cattle call that aims to learn something about your health. But things they are a-changin’.

I’ve taken half a dozen trips to the Beijing International Travel Healthcare Clinic way out in the hinterlands of the Haidian District. It’s the only place in Beijing where a foreigner seeking a long-term visa is able to get the official health check they need every time they apply for a new visa type. It takes longer to get to the hospital than it does to do the exam.

I remember the first time well. Accompanied by my Beijing-based friend, Jordyn and I walked into the clinic feeling the nerves of healthcare anticipation buzzing. But that buzz of anticipation turned to a hum of confusion as we were given a sheet of paper and herded from room to room to complete a barrage of tests that included an EKG, chest x-ray, blood drawing, eye test, and more.

I realized something strange was going on about the time that Jordyn laid down on an exam table at our first station and had her shirt yanked up to her throat with nary a shielding curtain in sight before her naked flesh was slathered in cold jelly.

And then when I was jammed up against the x-ray machine with no lead apron to be found. And then when then ear, nose, and throat exam consisted entirely of sitting down in a chair and standing back up without the doctor even looking at me in between grunts.

And then the assembly line blood drawers who as far as I’m concerned are the best in the world, sliding their needles and vials in and out without me ever feeling a thing.

And then when I walked, heart pounding, up to the door labeled “surgery” to find just a scale.

In fact after that first time, I’ve come to view going to the health clinic as a treat. It’s that sweet look on every first-timer’s face stuck somewhere between anger and fright and bewilderment which finally melts into “what just happened to me” as they walk out the door.

But changes are coming fast in China, and the healthcare clinic is just one more little example. The first time I went, each mini-exam required the signature of the presiding doctor. Yesterday they all had premade name stamps. There were guides to point you from one door to the next. There was a lead curtain to keep the x-rays at bay.

The eye and throat tests were still a joke, but now they even close the curtain before they take off your clothes.

Chengdu Day 1

I’ve put off writing about Chengdu (成都) because I don’t really know what to say about it without inducing boredom.

That’s not because Chengdu is boring. It’s because the best parts are like the humid fog that rises out of the Sichuan’s mountain forests and mixes with the humid smog that rises of its drab concreate forests: languid, hazy, smelly, and not at all what you expected. Lonely Planet has it right. By all means Chengdu should be a miserable place. Actually, it’s pretty lovely. It’s just hard to see why.

So instead of writing some kind of terrible Chengdu opus in which we could wander blindly and lost, then, I’m just going to break it into a few little chunks and call it good. Those Panda’s I promised at the start will finally arrive. Soon.

For starters, Jordyn and I have wanted to visit Chengdu since we started looking for jobs in China. One of our early job offers was teaching children for EF in Chengdu. We read plenty about it. It sounded like our kind of place. Surrounded by mountains. Laid back. Full of tea house culture. Ancient culture. The home of the Pandas.

It isn’t anything like we thought. But it is, too.

We took a short walk to the city square the first morning, getting a good look at the resident Mao statute and the uncheckpointed square nevertheless guarded by dogs and Segways and armor trucks. We got some coffee at McDonald’s. Globalization has its benefits.

Chairman Mao welcomes you to Chengdu's central square.

Chairman Mao welcomes you to Chengdu’s central square.

But our first real goal was to get the ancient history of Chengdu out of the way. Forty kilometers outside of Chengdu is the Sanxingdui archeological site believed to have been a major Bronze Age city and the center of a kingdom that flourished in Sichuan for more than 1000 years. Artifacts from the Kingdom of Shu indicate that isolated from the rest of China by the mountains which surround the Sichuan Basin, the Shu developed a unique and distinct culture until it was conquered by the Qin in 316 B.C. and integrated it into what would become the Middle Kingdom.

Another also distinct Shu site was discovered in 2001 in the Chengdu city limits during real estate development. Called the Jinsha Site, this second ancient city represented the final era in Sanxingdui’s cultural evolution as the political capital relocated to what is now Chengdu. A new museum was built around the still-active dig, which has uncovered jade, weapons, tools, ivory, and some beautifully advanced iron and gold work.

This gold mask is one of the Jinsha Site's most impressive treasures.

This gold mask is one of the Jinsha Site’s most impressive treasures.

Plus on the way to the museum we got our first introduction to roosters tied with leashes to trees like dogs. We would see a lot more of these.

More of these.

More of these.

In the afternoon, we wandered around the Wenshu Temple neighborhood.

Wenshu Monastary is Chengdu’s oldest, founded during the Tang Dynasty sometime around the 7th century. It was torched during the wars of the Ming Dynasty, then rebuilt in its current form during the Qing.

Wenshu was our first encounter with the sweeping eaves style of architecture that dominates in Sichuan and diverges considerably from the Beijing style. The sprawling temple itself was crowd- and incense- and monk-filled in the usual style, nothing particularly unique but still pretty and peaceful.

We struck up a conversation with a group of old men who wanted to take some pictures with us. They tried to teach us something about Buddhism, but the dialect made understanding near impossible until a tiny septuagenarian with long, thin hair, no teeth and a great James Hong impression told them to cut it out. He talked to us in superb English about America instead. He’d never been but knew all about it. He still wanted to go to California someday. Then we all snapped some pictures and went our separate ways.

In the park outside of the walls, the old men gathered with their caged birds, hung on lines between the trees. The birds squawked and squealed at the wind while their owners shaded in a pagoda squawked and squealed at their card game.

After the temple, we walked the reconstructed “old” streets nearby, watching the food and ware hawkers ply their trade. There were nut vendors, meat vendors, bamboo juice vendors, calligraphy vendors, and even “Panda IKEA.”

The highpoint of our first day in Chengdu, though, was Wenshu’s vegetarian restaurant. The sleek wood and white dining room tended to by monks and nuns featured a 5-dollar, all-you-can-eat, all-vegetarian buffet with choices of more than 25 different dishes. Salads, soups, pastas, breads, casseroles, and deserts of all types with more kinds of vegetables and beans and tofu than I’ve ever seen. And perhaps the tastiest I’ve ever eaten.

Culinary enlightenment?

Wenshu's vegetarian restaurant.

Wenshu’s vegetarian restaurant.