Once upon a time I lived in China for two years. And in June 2012 it was time to go home, so I flew from Hong Kong up to Pudong International in Shanghai. 14 hour layover before the long run over to JFK.
The best SAT word to describe my mood that day is “despondent.” No more China meant no more novelty. No more China meant no more getting laid simply because I existed. Being a white man in Asia is like being a hot woman anywhere else in the world. You should try it. No more China meant no more $40/hour tutoring gigs. I’ve never been arrested but I have been sent straight from recess to detention and this was the same feeling.
Flight at 7 a.m. 14 hours left in Asia. I bought a ticket for the Maglev bullet train going downtown.
The train goes 430 km/hr which is 268 m.p.h. You ride it and you’re in a jetliner forty feet above the pavement. The tracks are laid out right next to rooftops. Then you go over a highway and you’re riding four times faster than the cars. You can’t ride the Maglev in America because we don’t pay to build anything except tanks.
Downtown Shanghai in eight minutes. I got to Longyang Road. I wanted to go to Pudong and stand on top of something tall. Pudong is China’s Manhattan. Pudong is the first thing Google Images shows you of Shanghai. It has that big Pearl Tower which is the first image you associate in your head with “Asia.”
I got off at a random metro station. Ended up two blocks from the World Financial Center. 101 stories of money, shaped like God’s bottle opener. I went inside and paid the guy in the blue uniform to take the elevator. When I got to the top it was night.
The view from the top of Hong Kong and New York is textured because you’ve got the bays and rivers. Up above Shanghai it’s just high city, going on absolutely forever. The observatory is 100% glass. Floors walls and ceilings. You walk the length of it like an intergalactic warlord surveying his capital. Under your feet are a hundred trillion lights heating up the planet to a boil. People whine about global warming but I look at Shanghai at night and think: this is worth it. The view is such that you can’t help but get existential. I wondered why I was leaving. I think it was some vague perception of responsibility. And guilt over having fun for two years. Like I wasn’t allowed to not feel stress. Like I owed it to America to grind it out and be bored again.
I wanted to eat a meal that was too expensive and then I wanted to get laid for free. Two years in Asia and I’d gotten used to coming up with ideas and then having them work out. Once I went back to America all my ideas would stop working and I think I could already sense that.
I had a black suit in my backpack and I put it on in the lobby bathroom of the Financial Center. Then I walked a mile out to the Huangpu River ferry. Passed a huge dragon carved out of a bush at the base of the Pearl Tower. Passed a Hooters too. I was going to cross the river over to the Bund. The old French Concession. Picture a long row of gold palaces on the riverbank and that’s exactly what it is. Like twelve Versailles lined up, probably. I don’t know. I’ve never been to Versailles.
I checked my bag at a club but didn’t go inside. For my last supper I got ravioli and Heineken at Bocca. Fifth floor of one of the palaces on the waterfront. A place where the waiter has a big napkin on his arm and hovers behind you like an indentured servant and the water only comes in the sparkling variety and costs seven dollars. My table faced the window and I looked back out at the Pudong bank towers and thought important thoughts about myself. I took slow sips of beer. The meal felt like a ritual, maybe a memorial service for the part of my life that was ending.
The chef was Italian and came out to see how everything was. I asked him about the nightlife and he gave me a handwritten hit list on a thick piece of paper that he folded in half. I gave him 400 RMB ($75) and left.
First up was Zeal. Two palaces over. Hot crowd, same view as Bocca, ten dollars for a Stella. I leaned on the rail and drank. The visuals were overwhelming me. It was one of those movie bars where the whole scene is somehow really dark and really bright at the same time. The tables had lights inside of them. The girls had Hennessy in clear buckets. The girls had perfect, perfect legs.
I didn’t realize I was in VIP and this Chinese kid in a tux told me to leave. Rich people have observational superpowers like Sherlock and can tell if your suit costs under a grand. I acted like I didn’t understand Chinese so he switched to English. Then I acted like I was French and didn’t know English and he wrinkled his nose and flapped his arms a little. He had a security guy come over and move me back to the bar.
A black girl in a black dress was talking to a Serbian in a black tee and she left him and came up to me. Said she was American, in charge of customer relations or something. She was paid to mingle with foreigners. I made a few condescending cracks about the kid in the tux and she brought me to meet the owner, an old German with a Jagger face. He was clearly fucking one of the girls in VIP. He brought me to his table and gave me a whiskey sour. He asked what I did and I gave him the most glorious bullshit of all time. I said I worked in “industry.” Which was technically true because don’t we all work in an industry. I shared my drink with the American girl.
There was an energy to the night. Things were clicking. One last night in Asia. I made sure to salute the kid in the tux when he heard me speaking English. When I read about China’s economic slowdown I think of him and hope he’s personally bearing the brunt of it.
I got the American girl’s number and then left Zeal so I wouldn’t burn through my cachet of goodwill with the owner. And so the girl would miss me. Game 101: act much, much busier than you are.
I did a hit and run of another bar. 18th floor, koi ponds pointlessly laid out around tables as obstacles. I was talking to a thirty year-old Chinese girl who she said she’d been to Everest the year before. She showed me her summit pictures. I took her number and went back to Zeal. The Serbian guy was still there, orbiting around the edge of VIP, and I saw his mind explode when I walked in.
I went back into VIP. Do you have a couch, I asked the American. Which is a great question. She said she did. She also said she knew the Serbian and she didn’t want to piss him off so it was better if we left separately.
Then she slid me her address and I pocketed it like people slide me papers discreetly every day.
Twenty minutes in a taxi, south through Shanghai. I wondered if she gave me a fake address. When the taxi pulled up I had five hours till my flight took off.
The guy dropped me at the wrong apartment tower and I scaled a fence to get into the right courtyard. An unnecessary move to be sure; I could have just walked around until I found the gate. But try pitching that to a man with sex on his mind.
Up in her place she had made up the couch. Plausible deniability. She’s a woman so even if she wanted something to happen she had to pretend like she didn’t expect anything to happen. She got in her bed to play with the Photo Booth on her new MacBook. I followed.
You’re not sleeping in here with me, she said.
Come on Fred, I thought. Game time. Tonight you’ve won everything and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Now cap it off.
I know, I told her. I just wanted to thank you and give you a kiss goodnight.
I made some faces for her webcam and then we kissed and I played it slow. Real easy with the tongue at first. After ten minutes she told me to get a condom.
In Shanghai I was James Bond for a night. Actually I beat Bond. In Skyfall he didn’t get laid in Shanghai.
I woke up so tired I was nauseous. Three hours until takeoff. Ninety minutes minimum to get to the airport. I hustled north. Half in a desperate rush, half-hoping I missed my flight so I could get lost here. Become that old German club owner, but become him before my face got craggy like his.
Back on the Maglev train I watched the sun boiling up over the towers. Asia woke up and I checked in and flew off. I’d steeled myself for America to be bad but it worked out even worse than that. I went to interviews and told lies about corporate synergy and task prioritization. They could see me gagging on my own bullshit. I am neither a smart nor competent man. I’m a guy who goes places and does what he can to get by while he’s there so he can fuel his wasteful writing addiction. Think of the applicable skills I could have developed or the connections I could have made with all this time invested on the keyboard. Whatever. Those are for boring people.
I’m back in Asia now. In six months from I’ll probably be riding a motorcycle through Vietnam with my cash burning up faster than the gas in my tank. My best friend at home just got a good job selling loans. He’ll still be there six years from now. One of us is jealous of the other one.
This was originally published today over on the Crusade.