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Family Time

Caffeine is a hell of a drug, I should just stay away from it, but I can’t because it smells good and I’m usually put in situations where it seems like a good idea.  I got two hours of sleep after I left Shenyang and had to stand on the train all night.  My Dad arrived at Beijing later that morning so I arrived at the airport with nothing to do.  “I can’t just sit here” I thought, “I’ll fall asleep and then Dad will walk out and not be able to find me and then he’ll take a taxi to the hotel and then I’ll wake up and wonder if I just missed him OR, either he had a heart attack on the plane or he’s actually a spy and when he landed they took him into custody using extraordinary rendition and he’s in a prison in Yemen.”  So I should probably stay awake.

I don’t understand how people can drink so much coffee, I have friends who drink four shots of espresso and then later say, “whoa, I had a lot of caffeine today, I feel pretty high energy.”  High energy?  If I had four shots of espresso, I’d kick my foot through a door or break down crying on the floor.  But there was a coffee shop, and I had my laptop so I could do a little bit of writing, maybe answer some emails as I eat an airport-style mozzarella and tomato sandwich.  I mean, I only slept two hours, a little caffeine is balancing Jim.  I packed up my laptop and decided to stroll around the airport terminal, and the second time I passed the McDonalds, I noticed my hands were shaking slightly.  My Dad’s flight arrived at 4:05, so at 4:06  I walked over to the exit and waited.  I stood there, with the caffeine pumping through my veins as I watched each person walk out of the gate. Every once in a while a group of pissed off white people exited and I thought to myself, “Oh, these are definitely New Yorkers who were in a delayed flight”, but they kept coming and passing by with no sign of my father.  For an hour I stood there, making eye contact with a steady stream of passengers while my arms twitched and my feet performed a whole STOMP show.  I was sure that if I missed him, we would never find each other.  Most of the time I stood there wondering how a secret service agent does it all day, and if they drink too much caffeine and have emotional breakdowns because of the pressure.

For the past five months I’ve been staying in mainly dorm rooms.  Sometimes I would meet friends and they’d let me pass out on their couch or floor for free, in places like Cat Ba Island I got a hotel room for $6 and during the meditation I had my own cell, but every other night I was in a room with anywhere from 3 to 15 other people.  My dad booked us a room at the Grand Millennium Beijing, a five-star hotel.  We had our own shower, a bathtub, free bottles of water in the room, EXTRA PILLOWS, a whole extra room to bath and brush our teeth, access to a gym and a 25 meter pool (boner alert!), and a large jacuzzi next to that pool.  There was a concierge downstairs to answer all our questions and book our tours and a lovely man in a coat with one of his front teeth missing would greet us as we walked out and yell at a taxi driver to come up and pick us up.  He would open the door for me and gently hold my arm to assist me getting out when I arrived back at the hotel.  The only arm action I normally got in China was to touch my arm hair, and now my hand hair, because I’m getting older and weird things are happening to my body.

The next day we walked and walked and wandered over to Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City, where dad commented on how many people there were – it was packed, not Six Flags packed, China packed, and we were the only foreigners in sight.

The next day it was the Great Wall and, like Machu Picchu in Peru, the structure itself is incredible but the real beauty is that you’re standing on top of an enormous mountain.  The only other time I had been at the wall was when Ren and I went to the North Korean border at DanDong back in 2007 and this time was nicer and safer.  After the great wall the tour guide took us to a tea house near the hotel where a women tasted us on a few teas and then spent a good half hour presenting all the different deals we could get by buying certain combinations of teas and cups.

We saw some other sights over the next few days and, feeling restless, we booked a ticket to go to Qingdao for the day on Sunday.  It would be five hours in the morning and then five hours at night on the train but the weather was perfect and I was able to see all my old friends.  Dad even got access to the secret room upstairs in Huge’s hostel, a pretty big deal.


I had some clothes that needed washing, all of them really, so I wrote a list detailing everything like they said and alerted the front desk, Dad threw in a few things as well.  The clothes had never been so clean.  My three t-shirts were nicely pressed and hung up, my sweatpants were beautifuly folded and Dad’s sweatshirt never looked so good.  All of our socks and underwear were left in a special box that looked like it normally held pearl necklaces.  While we were walking out to get dinner Dad wanted to see what his bill was at and I waited outside.  He came out and jokingly said, “what was in that laundry?  Just kidding.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Was it a lot?”  I took the sheet of paper and looked at the charges.  The charge next to laundry was 1,172 yuan.  That’s $180 for a few shirts and some underwear.  Dad told me not to worry about it but I said, “just give me one second, I’d like to talk to them”.  You must understand, other hostels washed my clothes for about $3 max, and for the past five months I’ve been living on such a budget that if I was charged $1 or $2 more than I thought I should have, there would be words.  And this was an entire weeks worth of money on the line.  It wasn’t on my credit card of course, but I didn’t care.  I focused on my breathing and tried to stay calm as I asked the receptionists what kind of magic powder they were washing my boxer briefs with.  But Dad told me to let it slide, and so I did.


My Dad possesses a wisdom that only a lifetime of near death experiences and reading history books can give you.  From fighting in the Vietnam War, the attacks on the twin towers on 9/11 and in ’92, and countless other instances, there is a deep understanding of contemporary cultural and political shifts which, in my mind are the most pressing in history, but he sees as the pendulum swinging back and forth as time goes on.  I push him hard on international affairs and what I see as grave injustices, and sometimes he agrees with me, but usually he pulls a historical event from deep in his mind to present an identical situation from the past and how it unfolded.  There isn’t any nonchalantness, just a calmness and a desire to understand, rather than point the finger and blame.  For me, the best description is the brilliant monologue done by Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War;

There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.” 

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