Sunday, August 08, 2004

I was waiting for a bus at a border crossing between Shenzhen and Hong Kong recently when I spotted another foreign barbarian who reminded me of myself about three months ago when I'd been waiting at the same crossing wondering when, and if, I'd ever see the right bus on which to transfer.
The logistics of these crossings/transfers aren't always smooth and as many buses don't have English signs identifying their origin and destination, it's sometimes a long guessing and waiting game. He was sweating heavily, obviously a little confused and pacing frantically, heavy backpack weighing him down as he scanned bus after bus trying to make sense of it all.
"It's a long wait sometimes if you're going to Shenzhen," I said. "Not always easy to figure it out. Just be patient. If all else fails, wave your ticket and look lost long enough and eventually someone will take pity and put us on it."
We began talking in stops and starts as we kept scanning buses ("There! No! Not that one.Maybe...nope. That one?") and what he told me about his year so far in China made me realize how damn little I know and how lucky I'd been to be insulated in the Shenzhen bubble. When we met, he was returning from R&R in Macau and Hong Kong, his first trip outside of his teaching gig in a remote area of northwest China in almost a year.
His said his name was Robert, a 30something year old Australian horse trainer who'd signed on over the Internet to come to China to teach English with an eye to working his way eventually to Macau where there's a thriving casino and horse racing scene. After arriving in Bejing for "training" by what sounded like a joint Chinese-Australian scam outfit, he'd been assigned not to his original school in the south Pearl River Delta (and closer to Macau) but to the hell hole he began to describe where he was one of only 10 foreigners.
His contract stated he had to take housing in the college where he taught and as such he was also forbidden to bring women into his apartment. "I've was celebate for 11 months, but I just made up for that in Macau," he said, chuckling grimly. "I couldn't even meet a woman for a cup of tea or coffee, much less walk down the street with one because men would shout at her and call her a 'slut' because she was with a foreigner. It made dating a little difficult."
That wasn't the least of it. He said he believed his phone was tapped ("I would call family in Melbourne and then a day later an administrator would say something like 'I hope your brother is doing well' after I'd just spoken to him") and he knew he was being followed for several months after his arrival.
"Then I think they realized that my life there is so bloody boring and routine and meaningless that they got bored tailing me. But I'd get invited to 'lunch' a lot by local police and some city officials and they'd want to know over and over what I thought of Bush and Iraq and (Australian prime minister) Howard."
While the police were apparently interested in their Aussie suspect, Robert said they turned a blind eye to goings-on at the Chinese pubs he'd hit.
"People there snort rails of ketamine (a horse muscle relaxant) right off the bar. Chinese blokes will buy one beer and then eight glasses of water cuz they're higher than kites snorting powder off the tables and bar. Meanwhile, I was drinking eight beers a night. The pubs make more money selling water than beer. It's the wild west, gone mad."
He said he was going to finish out his contract and then hoped to find something else closer to Macau or Hong Kong. I offered to try and get him some English teaching contacts in Shenzhen and he gave me his e-mail address.
We found our bus and finally cleared the Shenzhen border where we parted - me to see some SZ friends and him to the airport and a long flight back to the abyss.
We exchanged goodbyes and as I started toward a cab stand when I heard him shout. I turned and he spread his arms in mock desperation.
"Help me!" he shouted as the various bus station/border crossing passengers and hustlers stopped for a moment to stare at the weird foreigner. "Help me, please!"
"I will!" I shouted."E-mail. I promise. First thing Monday!"

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