Hot Pot

I had been warned to never eat hot pot from a street tent. At the moment that I was picking out what bit of food on a stick to put in my boiling bowl of soup, I didn’t really think about the warning or even what ‘hot pot in a street tent’ meant. It wasn’t until I was on the bus heading home at 7:00 in the morning, after a ridiculously late evening out, that I remembered that I was warned.

The bus gently rocked and lulled me toward sleep. I had a thirty minute bus ride to get home. I stared at the few Chinese denizens sitting on the bus. A man was asleep in the far  back corner. His head was slumped over his right shoulder. It hung like a loose button on a thin thread, and I wondered if a jolt of the bus would break his neck.  I wondered if he stayed out to late too. It was a Sunday morning, not a work day. What were these people doing on the bus? Shouldn’t they be busying themselves at home? Shouldn’t they be just waking up? I still haven’t grasped China. I’m not clear if it is really a five day work week or if people are working on the weekends. Some do. I was trying to justify why I was so wrecked on this bus at 7:00 in the morning. Trying to find some partners in irresponsible crime. I was concerned about being judged. Which shouldn’t matter, but I’m always stared at and examined. I didn’t want to join the ranks of drunken irresponsible westerner, but like I said, it didn’t matter what anyone thought. My life was only temporarily passing through this place. Temporarily passing through many places it seems.

I ate the hot pot from the street tent. I realized this while my thoughts were on the strangers on the bus. It is because of the gutter oil. The oil that people dredge from the gutters and reuse in order to save money. I figured I would be sick later. I’m sick often after the street food. It can be anything. It took a few months before my stomach toughened up some. I can’t figure out if it’s my age or the food. Maybe, a combination of both.

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I don’t go out much. I’ve turned into a sort of hermit a kind of recluse. It could be culture shock, but I know it’s a combination of many, many things. Things not worth writing about yet. The nights out are rare, but they always end the same- It begins with drinks at one place, and then a move to another place to have too many drinks and then to a club. Drinks are bought together because you can’t have a table unless you buy the bottle or a rack of beers. The crowd is mixed- Chinese, Americans, Mexicans, Arabs, Africans, English, Russians- mostly young, but sometimes there is a range in ages. After a bottle is bought (usually Red Label Whiskey) and the worst sweet tea mixer ever designed, the dancing starts. Dancing on spinning dance floors, raised dance floors, floors that have hydraulics- the works. At times I think the Chinese are absolutely crazy. There seems to be so little concern for personal safety. I’m aware that I grew up in a world of hyper-saftey concerns sometimes over the top, but I was raised in the 70’s and 80’s so I did experience pre-seatbelts and all of that, and I did live in Germany where there is a kind of ‘go at your own risk’ type of safety concern. I really liked Germany’s take on it. It allowed you to take personal responsibility for your own actions, yet you still could take a risk if you wanted because it’s your life, but you better be aware of the consequences. I liked that. I’d say maybe China is like that, but then again it seems like there is no idea of consequences. As if people go about their day never even thinking that anything bad could possibly happen to them even if they are driving on their e-bike at night with no lights driving the wrong way on a one way street while reading a text message. What could possibly happen? There’s never any helmets worn and people drive on the wrong side of the road, never give right of way cut people off. I’ve seen children as young as four standing on the shoulders of the front seat of the car with their heads out of the sun roof. This lack of safety concern is in everything. The way buildings are built, pavements are laid, toys are made, how a person crosses the street. The dance floors reflect this nutty wildness. It seems to me like the worst idea in the world to create a dance floor that spins in a club where people are drunk. I don’t know why we don’t see more Chinese people in extreme sports because they seem fearless.

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The clubs and bars are smokey like America in the early 90’s. It can be hard to breath especially when dancing on the stage. It isn’t really a stage, but more like a runway raised four feet from the floor, and made of metal. I love to dance, but I find it difficult to get into the dance scene here. The  crazy amount of smoke with absolutely no air circulation, the narrow dancing space, and the great noticeable distance from the stage to the floor. There are tables all around the runway dance floor so if you were to fall then you’d fall onto a table. I find it hard to relax even with too much Red label Whiskey mixed with the god awful sweet tea. The music, er, well, I’ll just say the music from one club to the next is not that much different, and in all fairness, to give a bit of perspective, bars and clubs in this part of China are still a new thing. I’m also a secret curmudgeon. I don’t really like clubs. I like dancing, but club scenes are not my thing (even though I continue to find myself in them). Still, in retrospect it is a worthwhile experience mainly because of the fact that I’m living in China. When my mind is in a state of complete discomfort which it has been often while living here, I’ll have this sudden realization that I’m in China on a spinning dance floor with a group of people from all over the world, and that this is just a moment; a rare blip of a moment that will be over in a couple of hours, and how strange that all sounds to me.

The hot pot night was a little different then the usual night out because it was morning with strangers and four different possible languages, but English was the one we all had in common. At five in the morning I could care less about the gutter oil.

What do you get when a Russian, a Chinese, an American and a Mexican walk down a dark alleyway… food and conversation about love. A red tent with a hot pot eatery. Five am beers are ordered. The soup is ordered. The noodles are ordered and we pick our own food. The soup is in a plastic bag placed inside a bowl. I don’t think of sanitation which is the best way to get sick. I only think of eating and then going home to sleep, but it is so far to where I live (another reason why I am a part-time recluse).

Outside the sun is rising. The smog is rolling into the city like fog off a bay. Pictures are taken and taxis are waved down, and I wait for the number 7 longing for my hard bed. I wonder what the hell compelled me to stay out so late. I give myself a little reprimand then think about how often I stay up till morning at a dance club with people from all over the world, and then stumble down a dark dirty alleyway to a double sized red tent to find a hot pot inside filled with Chinese men that work late or start their day early. Not very often. I forgive myself and look forward to sleep. This is a year in China. It won’t happen again. Not in this city.

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