One day at work there was a discussion about how my name “JIM” actually stands for the three people that I’m comprised of. There is Javier, the Latin American lover/traveler who studies languages and moves from place to place with no real plan. There is Ira, the old accountant who sits at his desk counting his pennies with sporadic anxiety attacks to see how he can make it through half a year on $6,000. Finally, the “M” stands for Maurice, a flamboyantly gay black man. Maurice’s Asian counterpart is Stan, my old friend from Shenyang.
Last month when I came to Shenyang for my birthday, Stan was at his new home in Chongqing, living with his fiancé. Stan and his fiancé both work as diplomats for the British government, and oh the stories, the stories. I would only able to spend one full day in Shenyang before my Dad arrived to visit me in Beijing, but why not take the five hour train ride for some Stan time. We met through mutual friends back in 2007 and after a few times hanging out we became very close friends. He picked me up at the station with a tall good looking young Chinese man who was previously his student. During our first embrace he whispered in my ear, “He doesn’t know that I’m gay so don’t mention it.” The last time I had seen Stan in person was eight years ago, the last time I had seen him via Skype was when he was living in London and he had a humongous pet python wrapped around his bare upper body. That’s not a joke or a euphemism, he really had a pet python wrapped. . around. . his body, believe me. It was like watching rehearsal for a Britney Spears video.
He took me to a hotel near the train station for a room that was way out of my budget but simply kept waving his hand telling me not to worry and that we’d figure it out later. Then he told me to come out with him to meet his first grade teacher. That also is not a joke or a euphemism – we really went out to drink with his first grade teacher. A woman whom he described as, “Ugh, to be honest Jim I really don’t even like her, I find her quite annoying, but my primary school Gym teacher who I’m quite close with told me that she’s drunk all day every day so I’d like to see that.” Stan, a Chinese citizen who speaks with a neutral Chinese accent with friends, has the ability to turn on a perfect American or British accent at will, depending on the situation. With business calls it’s British, with me it’s American.
WuJie -I don’t know how to describe this woman except for you to try to imagine a alcoholic, who had been in recovery for many years and then a few days ago began on serious alcohol and cocaine infused bender that’s currently winding down. That’s the kind of intense cockeyed look she surveys the room with. She greeted us in the street and led us into the Korean BBQ place where we’d be eating. Smoke filled the room, there were plates of raw meat scattered on the table for us to cook, and more than a few empty bottles of beer. Stan’s Chinese immediately switched to the thick, slurring Shenyang accent that I had struggled against eight years ago, and for much of the next three hours I was left in the dark in terms of the conversation. Most of what they were talking about was the school (which she still teaches at) and then the conversation moved over to the table next to us and how the one man clearly whitens his face like a girl. When we sat down Stan asked if I wanted a beer and really, in this situation what choice did I have but to say yes, but when WuJie heard that, she waved her arms over her head like a homeless woman shooing away bad spirits and ordered a case of beer. In these situations in China you don’t sip your own beer, every person has a small glass that one person fills up and you all cheers and drink together. But as the only foreigner in the place, other groups kept coming over and shaking my hand and offering up their beer and glasses for us to cheers. The blur of noise in the restaurant got louder and louder and Stan’s touches on my shoulder got longer and longer as he, WuJie, and I slipped into drunkenness.
In meditation we learned about liberation from misery, and how the path leads to total awareness. I sat there at that table, it’s freezing cold, it’s dark, everyone is wearing black, I’m in a smoke filled room eating food prepared by North Koreans sitting next to a gay Chinese Diplomat for the UK who is yelling at his drunk first grade teacher. I don’t know if this is what the Buddha had in mind but I don’t think it was possible for me to be more away of my surroundings at that moment. I felt happiness rise up in me as, once again, my mind cleared and the only thought was, “I love traveling”.
Stan passed out in the cab and then again in my hotel. The next day we woke up and he told me to come see his family on the outskirts of the city before I took the train ride back to Beijing. He then sneakily paid for the room. All the train tickets were booked for the day so I had to purchase the dreaded “Standing” ticket, and stand the whole way home.
Before heading to see his family we went to Xita, the Korean neighborhood in Shenyang because Stan commented on how I clearly wasn’t taking good enough care of my skin on this trip, and Koreans have the best face cream. The border with North Korea is very close to Shenyang, and on this particular street the South Koreans operate the shops on the right and the North Koreans operate the restaurants on the left. Eight years ago I went to the border town and had some nice chats with people from the north who came in to do business for the government, but this trip came at a more politically volatile time and every time I tried to get a picture with a North Korean in traditional dress they scattered away. But it’s always strange to see that flag proudly displayed on a building.
Stan’s family owns a few homes throughout the city, I believe his dad works for a food shipping company that deals in canned goods. We arrived at the building and took the elevator up to the top floor which opened into a beautiful apartment, marble/tile floors and leather furniture, ancient Chinese calligraphy on the walls. Stan’s dad welcomed me in, he wore blue velvet pajamas, you know, the ones with the large turned down multi-colored collar at the top that Hugh Hefner would proudly sport. His mother cut up some oranges and apples for us to eat and we sat in front of the tv watching Spring Festival competitions like the Dragon Dance, and then a cross country skiing competition in Norway where Stan would comment on the butt and jawline of every male skier as they went down the line introducing them. Fortunately the ladies came up next and I was sure to give him a dose of his own medicine.
His mother cooked us a seafood dinner with prawns, flounder, raw salmon, tofu and mushrooms, and a few other dishes scattered around. His dad had an impressive Baijiiu selection (Baijiu is a Chinese white liquor, try it if you dare) and brought out his most expensive bottle for me to drink. Stan refused after all the beer consumed the night before but I couldn’t be rude to this man. So we stuffed ourselves and retired to the couch again while Stan’s dad called all his contacts at the train station to try and get me a seat, but it proved fruitless and I headed back to the train station for a solid five hours of standing and squatting.