The streets of Shanghai illuminated by street lights, weed smoke and Tsingtao. Chase Nuttall illustration.
Taking a piss in China can be a pretty awkward experience.
The first month living there, I went out drinking at a club with some friends. When nature called, I drunkenly stumbled into the restroom. An attendant stood at the ready next to the sink. I thought nothing of it. Until I felt strong, mannish hands grip my shoulders. I was peeing and the attendant massaged me.
Cutting the stream, I turned to look at the attendant. He was completely at-ease with the situation. To him, this was evidently no big deal. He apparently massaged peeing patrons on a regular basis.
I zipped up my pants, and fled. No amount of Google Translate was going to fix this shit.
A Surrender To The Strange
My year teaching English in China — worlds away from the mountains and rivers of North America — was full of bewilderment. Most of the time, words only got me halfway. My warped, twisted imagination filled in the details.
Living in an Eastern culture after growing up in the West can feel like beating your head against a brick wall, your intuition swimming against the current of a powerful river.
To successfully experience a different culture, you must surrender to the “weird.” It was a night on the streets of Shanghai that hammered it home.
I’d been living in China for over four months and hadn’t smoked weed for the entire duration of my stay. Tonight — as Shanghai whispered its strange secrets through a haze of street lights, weed smoke and Tsingtao, was finally the night.
Strawberry aromas billowed out of the hookah on our beer-cluttered table. Sitting in a dark corner of a pumping Shanghai watering hole named Zapatas, I waited for a text from Frank, a Nigerian drug dealer.
From 10-11 p.m., Zapatas had a “free beer hour” where patrons could crush as many beers as they could get their hands on — all on the house. The event was popular.
In China, western rules of waiting your turn don’t apply. They really don't apply during Zapatas' “free beer hour.” Chinese women rained tequila from the bar top strait onto people’s faces. The taps barely kept up with the onslaught of thirsty mouths. These 60 minutes were a thunderclap of tequila and beer, and those who could not forsake their egalitarian values and surrender to the chaos were crushed — bloodied and broken — to be left thirsty and meek in the cold.
Frank of the Long Shadows
Frank lingers in the shadows, waiting for eager customers. Chase Nuttall
My hip buzzed as the dust settled. Frank was around the corner waiting for us. My crew for the evening, comprising my coworkers Jeff and Wendi, our friend Eric and his girlfriend Amanda slid its way through the greasy grime of the dance floor into the cool, humid late-night air.
Steel and glass ripped into the sky all around us. The street lights cast an orange glow illuminating and softening the city’s rough edges.
Chinese women rained tequila from the bar top strait onto people’s faces. The taps could barely keep up with the onslaught of thirsty mouths.
Heading toward our illicit third-world drug deal, I felt apprehensive.
Was this chill? Was the state gestapo watching our every move? Going to bust us? What would happen if we were caught?
Heading into a side-street, we collected our Yuan (Chinese currency) into a fat wad. Walking deeper into the alley’s shadows, we discerned Frank’s outline by the glow of a cigarette ghosting though the darkness.
For some reason, every drug dealer I’ve met abroad is Nigerian. Maybe it’s something about their culture; they’re extremely entrepreneurial, and brave. Frank did whatever it took to close a deal.
“Haha, good to see you it is,” Frank said warmly in a welcoming accent that didn’t match the shadiness of our surroundings. “I have very good herbs for you tonight!”
We gave him our Yuan and he handed us a bag containing 14 grams of sweet-smelling cannabis. I inhaled the pungent fumes deeply.
“I have papers,” Frank said, holding up a pack. “You guys want to smoke?”
Yes. Yes we did.
The Noodle Pilgrimage
The full psychedelic majesty of Shanghai envelopes us wonder. Chase Nuttall illustration.
We walked endlessly that night — our locomotion fueled by chain-smoked weed, 7-Eleven Tsingtao and the promise of some far-off bowl of noodles.
Somewhere, someone was making delicious street food — and we would find it.
For a city of over 15 million souls, that night the streets were eerily deserted, seemingly forsaken to some plague or phantom that ruled the night. Looking up, the neon horizon reared mightily against a smog-infested sky, pierced by shards of skyscraper that disappeared into the haze above.
The THC in my blood made cartoons of sights, sounds and symbols I didn't understand.
For all the horror stories we’re told about breaking rules in foreign countries, especially a communist one like China, I felt at ease wandering the nocturnal metropolis. Big Brother didn’t seem to be watching, and if he was, he didn’t give a shit that we were smoking weed and drinking out in the open. Truth be told, he’d probably had a hand in the corruption that funneled that bag of herb to us in the first place.
The THC in my blood made cartoons of sights, sounds and symbols I couldn’t understand.
Indeed, China wasn’t big on micromanagement. No open-container laws, no suppressive rules on how to wipe your ass. There seemed to be an unwritten understanding between the communist government and the people that there were a couple things you didn’t say — and a few big things you didn’t do — but other than that, people were relatively free.
Government officials were too busy making corrupt business deals and establishing corporate dynasties to tell you how to park your car.
Bordello of Debauchery
“With Chinese food, it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need,” Eric said, his mouth half-full of steaming noodles.
After miles of walking streetlight-saturated blocks, we found a street vendor cooking up dishes of rice, noodles, barbecued vegetables and meats. We eagerly ordered from the matron of the stand while her husband sheepishly cooked behind her over a gas fire. We continued to drink and rolled up more cones.
Before long, the vendor dropped mounds of steaming food in front of us. I ladled copious amounts of chili on my noodles and dove in. Closing my eyes, my intoxicated taste buds led me to foodgasm after foodgasm. The chili, oil, sesame and street grit combined to send this plate of noodles off the fucking charts.
There is nothing like eating cheap Chinese food on a seedy street. Similar to many guilty pleasures in life, the less you think about it, the better it is.
As we ate, each of us heard a vibration in the distance. Ever so subtly, the ground seemed to resonate with the sound of a far-off beat.
“Is that a club?” Amanda asked.
Finishing the meal, of course we headed toward the noise. The vibrations beckoned us like a siren. We walked tentatively, like a hunter stalks prey, sniffing and tracking the party that we all knew was out there.
As we chased the sound, all the cheap beer was catching up to me, and I really needed to piss.
After six blocks of the vibrations growing stronger, we reached the source: A giant building shaking from internal base. It had no windows. It had only one solitary door, and Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and Porsches lined up out front depositing young Chinese princelings and socialites. With each well-heeled patron entering the club, there was a sweat-saturated, fucked-up patron leaving.
We’d found the party.
Upon entering, the club was nowhere to be seen — we walked into a sterile, white lobby with an elevator. in the elevator, the pounding was slightly suppressed, but as it started climbing, so did the vibrations. soon, the lift itself was shaking.
Then, the doors opened.
Smoke, darkness, lasers and flesh filled this cavernous bordello of debauchery. This was the Shanghai underworld you had to take a fucking elevator to get to. There was no use in talking; the only purpose here was to rage. We grabbed half a table and began to acclimate to our new surroundings.
About to explode, I beelined to the bathroom.
My imagination made cartoons of sights, symbols and sounds i couldn't understand. Chase Nuttall illustration.
When I stepped in the bathroom, the terror returned from my previous experience with an over-friendly Chinese bathroom attendant. Sure enough, the restroom’s host was vigorously massaging a Chinese hipster’s shoulders at the urinal. It seemed like he was loosening up the guy, getting him ready for his next binge in the club — like a race car making a pit-stop. As they finished, I stepped up to the now-vacant pisser, and, unsure of what to expect, cautiously peered over my shoulder.
The same host came up behind me, unpacked a stick of gum, and forcefully pushed it into my mouth. To my horror, he then went to work on my shoulders as I attempted to pee. Suppressing stage fright — and my Western-ingrained homophobia — I reminded myself that this was a real-deal cultural experience.
This was what I’d come for — the ultimate culture shock. There was no turning back now.
A Chinese man rubbed my shoulders while I pissed. Truth be told — it felt good.
High and faded, looking in the mirror while washing up after the fateful rub down, I knew I’d crossed some psychological threshold. I walked back into the club’s thumping freak show to find my friends. I was a little confused, a little weirded out, but honestly, sometimes, to be cool, you just gotta let a dude massage you while you piss.
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