Melissa From the Bank Hates Me (But Really She’s Projecting and Hates the Bank)

bank teller oneI loathe calling the bank. Despise it. Of all the things in life that I have to do, calling the bank is one of the worst, right down there with filing taxes or taking a dump in a public restroom. I try to avoid these things as much as possible. But sometimes emergency situations arise, and the dirty deed must be done.

A few days ago, I dialed up First Niagara Bank, ready for the frustration and disappointment that I normally encounter when talking to them. A friendly voice pranced from my phone, cheery and feminine and clearly adept at customer service.

“Thanks for calling First Niagara Bank,” it said. “I’m Melissa. To start, can I please have your name?”

“Hello Melissa,” I said. Years ago, I used to have a roommate who was in sales, a businessman, and he told me to always repeat the person’s name during calls like these. And then to say the name again every time you speak. Because that way, you’re slyly communicating that you remember the name, and can rat the person out to their supervisor if need be. Yes, on the surface, it seems friendly, personable, to say, “Hello Melissa.” But what you’re really saying is, “I know your identity, sucker, and will criticize you to your boss in a heartbeat.”

The beginning of a bank call is sort of like a game show. Some kind of trivia challenge. They ask you a billion questions and you have to shoot back the answers with the kind of authority that implies you haven’t memorized facts after a long night of hacking and identity thieving.

“What’s your date of birth?”

“Phone number?”

“Last four digits of your social?”

I passed the test and, wiping the sweat from my brow, proceeded into the reason I called in the first place. “See, Melissa, I’m going to be doing some traveling, and I wanted to let First Niagara know, so that if I use my card in another country, you guys won’t think it’s stolen and block it.”

First Niagara loves doing this. They’ve blocked my card so many times in the last five years, I’m beginning to think they just like talking to me.

“Ooh,” Melissa cooed, her affect suddenly darkening. “You’re asking me to create a travel itinerary, but unfortunately I can’t do that. We would need a driver’s license or passport number to verify your identity, and we don’t have those things on file.”

“Well, okay, I can just tell you my passport number if that’s what you need. Melissa.”

“No, no, no. I would need a scanned document, like a pdf.”

“Really? Why?”

“To prove your identity.”

“But didn’t I just answer five minutes’ worth of questions to prove my identity?”

“Yes, but in this case, I would need to see photographic proof.”

“So let me wrap my head around this, Melissa,” I said. “The concern is that I stole William Panara’s credit card. And now I’m planning on doing some traveling, so I called the bank ahead of time because I don’t want the stolen card to get blocked. Is that about right?”

Melissa was not pleased with my attitude. I went on to complain for two or three more minutes, and as I did, Melissa’s tone got more and more fed up, changing from ‘how can I assist you today?’ to ‘go fuck yourself, a-hole.’ In all honesty, I kind of delighted in this. If I have to call the bank for ultimately no reason, at least I can make myself feel better by ruining someone’s day.

bank teller two

After the call, I got to thinking: Was I wrong for giving Melissa a hard time? I mean, she’s just doing her job, right? It’s not her fault that First Niagara has bizarre policies. She probably doesn’t even agree with those policies. My school has lots of bizarre policies that I don’t agree with. What if someone, a parent or another teacher or something, started forcing me to defend those policies? I wouldn’t be too thrilled. Then I wondered what percent of the policies of any given company or institution its employees agree with. Maybe 40%, 50%. The rest of the time we’re forced into defending crap that we, like the angry customer, also find ludicrous.

And that’s why I decided it was right to give Melissa a hard time, or to give any employee a hard time. When her tone became bitter and contemptuous, it wasn’t really me she was angry at; it was really First Niagara and their asinine policies. Melissa was just projecting. After the call, she probably started thinking about things, questioning her life at First Niagara. She probably said things like, “Jeez, they really make me work long hours. And the pay, oh dear God, the pay. So crappy. And this phone, it gets so sweaty, and then the side of my face breaks out. I have a date on Friday and now I have asymmetrical acne. You know, I can probably get a better job. Yeah, I can. And then I would make more money and the different sides of my face wouldn’t look like the before and after pictures in a Proactive commercial.”

bank teller three

That’s probably what she said to herself. So I did her a favor. A service. Melissa should thank me, and then she should create me a travel itinerary in a display of gratitude.

I guess the point of all this is to say when we dislike our jobs, as I assume Melissa does, it’s the responsibility of whiny customers to kick-start a change. I put my phone back in my pocket proudly, somewhat looking forward to calling the bank again, later, when they inevitably block my card for buying a t-shirt in Cape Town.

The Rats are Coming! The Wine is Here! (Or My Dinner at V & A Waterfront)

Li Li with wineFang Deng wanted to get a bottle of wine. Actually, that’s not true. I wanted to get a bottle of wine. Because I like to drink and dinner, sometimes, is a good excuse to do that.

“White wine goes well with seafood,” I said, giving some rationale for the boozing I planned to partake in. In truth, I didn’t much care if the wine and the food went together at all. Or if there even was food.

This was our second night in Cape Town, South Africa. We had spent our entire day at the V & A Waterfront and had settled down at the Cape Town Fish Market for dinner. The Waterfront truly is spectacular; the wharf and the harbor is beautiful and clean and the place is hip and trendy and we just loved it. It’s got a swell presentation going on. Case in point: look at the cool ice bag the fish market put our bottle of wine in.

waterfront 1

Anyways, we ordered a big platter of seafood and started drinking the wine, a really cheap Chardonnay that was surprisingly good. I’ve paid more in the past for box wine that was borderline undrinkable. Everything was going swimmingly well. The food was great, the wine was kicking in, and there was this lovely rectangular potted plant next to our table that ran about four feet in length and served as a barrier between the restaurant and the outside world. Things were all fine and dandy, until I glanced over and saw a long tail sliding down the wooden bridge of that rectangular potted plant sitting next to us.

waterfront 2
This picture of the seafood platter sits where logically a picture of a rat should be.

It was a rat. A huge, giant rat. Walking around in chill mode only a foot or two from our table.

I tried to block it out. The thing had disappeared and was gone. I told myself not to say anything to Fang Deng, because she might freak out. The bastard had left and all was safe.

We finished our bottle of wine and then, feeling free with my thoughts, I said, “Hey, did you see anything scurrying around next to us while we were eating?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I thought I saw a rat.”

“Me too! I didn’t want to say anything.”

“Where was it?”

“Right there, next to you. It was enormous!”

We laughed, and then we went quiet. There was a sound coming from the plant, a slight ruffling noise. Then, like a nightmare brought to life, the face of the rat lifted from the foliage. It revealed itself only for an instant, just enough to terrify us, and then was gone. Kind of like how there are images of Satan spliced into The Exorcist for subliminal effect.

Both of us were petrified.

What is it about a rat? It’s not necessarily the ugliest animal in the world; in fact, I find rats quite cute. But put a rat in my vicinity, and I immediately lose my shit. Especially when I’m trying to eat. There could’ve been a severed human hand in those bushes next to our table, and I would’ve waited until I’d finished eating dinner to report it without worry. But a rat? Cause for panic. And panic we did.

Both of us jumped up and moved our chairs to the far side of the table and then stared at the bushes in horror, like Shelly Duvall looking at the bathroom door in The Shining. We quickly summoned the waiter and got the check. Then after, we told him that there was a big ass rat hanging out next to our table. Not to complain. Just to let it be known.

“Well, it is a wharf,” he said, smiling. “We try to keep the rats away, but it’s impossible.”

Later, drinking beer at one of the breweries, Fang Deng would be attacked by a cockroach in the bathroom. From what I understand, she ran out of there with her bladder only half emptied.

Which is fine. Cool. Because no matter how clean and well-presented a place can be, it kind of is what it is. A wharf is a wharf. There are rats and roaches and birds that might take a shit on you. These are things one just has to deal with.

We both staggered home drunk and laughing. The rat had, in essence, spiced up our night, and we were thankful for that.

In Which South Africa Makes me Realize that Living in China has Drastically Lowered my Expectations

Hello friends! Short post today, as I am just waking up in Greenpoint, an area of Cape Town, and will be embarking on a trip to the hotel breakfast buffet soon. The faster I write, the sooner I’ll get to coffee, so I plan to type pretty quickly.

The past two days are a blur. A fifteen hour flight from Beijing to Johannesburg. Followed by four hours in the airport, and then a brief two hour flight. Lots of time in planes. Lots of worrying about crashing. Lots of weird half-sleep with my head rested on the lowered food trey, which is kind of like the airplane version of how my students sleep with their heads on their desks in class.

Anyways, finally we got to Cape Town, and it was then that I learned that living in Beijing for the past three years has drastically lowered my standards and expectations. First, the air. Oh, the air! My girlfriend and I can’t stop talking about the air! It’s breathable, and you don’t need a mask with a filter, and there are even birds flying through it. All we could talk about for the first hour was the air. There could have been a gang of children beating an elderly man to death in plain view, and we just would’ve stood around happily breathing the air. That’s what Beijing has brought us to. Some people go to other countries seeking adventure; we simply sought oxygen.

Later we went to a restaurant and were amazed by the wait service. The waitress, a short blonde girl with a ponytail, kept coming over and checking on us. “Everything ok?” “Is there anything else I can get you?” “Do you need another drink?”

What was this? Fang Deng and I were amazed and confused. I mean, we’re used to Beijing service, which basically consists of the wait staff playing on their phones or talking to each other or just plain zoning out and, as a consequence, totally ignoring you. This kind of attention was unheard of! To us, the waitress is supposed to slap down the plate of food with an angry scowl on her face and then never be seen again.

All of this is to say that things are going swimmingly so far. I’ve never written while traveling before, and look forward to keeping up the blog while here in Cape Town. And with that, I am off to drink coffee. Cheers!

The Person That Grabbed My Penis in Cambodia

angry birds cambo threeSomething will go wrong.

This is what I’m telling myself, packing my backpack for a two week trip to South Africa that begins tomorrow. I’ve got ample amounts of underwear, my electric razor, a ton of podcasts downloaded on my mp3 player. I feel prepared. I’ve emailed my bank to tell them I’m traveling, and I’ve sent my mother the latest version of my novel just in case the plane crashes. I feel like I’ve got all the bases covered. Still, I remind myself:

Something will go wrong.

Because that’s the nature of traveling. You try to think through all the possible horror scenarios, but there are always things you fail to see. And they will happen, and then you’ll pull at your hair and wonder, “What the hell? Why didn’t I see that coming?” But it’s not your fault. This is just the way things are.

To illustrate, I thought I’d tell a quick story about a trip I made to Cambodia this time last year. I had traveled there with my friend D, and we had planned to go from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh and then to take a bus into Vietnam. It seemed like a wonderful plan. We had booked all our accommodations and had read up on how to get from place to place. The only thing left to do was to get our visas for Vietnam, and, from what we read on the Internet, that sounded extremely easy.

But oh no, my friends. To our dismay, the Vietnamese embassy closed for Chinese New Year, leaving us stranded in Phnom Penh, which has to be one of the most boring cities on the face of the earth. For some reason, neither of us ever thought that this could possibly happen. We never went, “Hmm, maybe the Vietnamese celebrate Chinese New Year too.” Never crossed our minds. And as a result, we got stuck in awful Phnom Penh, getting drunk out of boredom and spending way too much time in ridiculous talk bars playing Connect Four with women that possibly were prostitutes.

These chicks are unbeatable at Connect Four.
These chicks are unbeatable at Connect Four.

The real kicker, though, came on one of those drunken nights. D and I had gotten smashed at one of the talk bars, a place called “Angry Birds,” named after the mobile game. I’d had many drinks and had lost many, many games of Connect Four. D and I were in different hotels, and so we bid each other good night, and then I started walking home. Soon later, walking down a dark and empty Cambodian street, I would have my penis grabbed.

I don’t even know how to describe the culprit, either. I would say it appeared to be a drag queen or a tranny without a wig on. In other words, it was a Cambodian guy in heavy makeup and a dress, but with a short buzz cut like Lebron James. At least that’s how I remember it. He was kind of heavy-set, too, which I found odd. Say what you want about transgendered people, but they’re usually in good shape. I give them credit for that. They’re a very physically fit demographic. Anyways, the person quickly approached me and started asking me if I wanted a massage.

“Massage? Massage?”

I said ‘no,’ but the person was determined. She reached out and grabbed my penis, hard, squeezed it and twisted. I winced in pain. I mean it really, really hurt. I took my hands and tried to bat away the death grip that this person had on my junk, and a few seconds later, she thankfully let go. Then she sort of giggled and ran off. At first I felt relieved, pleased that she had stopped crushing my Johnson. But then I reached into my pocket, and that’s when I realized what had happened.

My phone was gone. The fat tranny had pickpocketed me. She’d molested me as a diversion tactic and stolen my phone.

I ran down the street yelling for her to stop and come back but it somehow didn’t work. Maybe the only English word she knew was ‘massage.’ Anyways, the next morning I was still stuck in Phnom Penh, only now I didn’t have a phone anymore and my testicles were sore.

So that’s it. My fun little anecdote about Cambodia. The point is, one can try to anticipate the things that might go wrong on a trip, but one can’t foresee everything. Really, who knows what’s going to happen to me in South Africa? Maybe I’ll have another phone stolen, or I’ll get eaten by a lion on safari.

As long as it results in a somewhat entertaining story, I guess it’s not all that bad.

The Sky is Trying to Kill Me

reneI had a dream the other night, and it went like this:

The first thing I remember is that I’m sitting on an airplane. I have a window seat, and I’m looking out at the runway. The plane hasn’t taken off yet and is just sitting there, as planes often do, the aviation equivalent to being stuck in traffic. Fang Deng is next to me, although we’re not talking or anything, and I’m looking out the window not paying any attention to her. No, I’m thinking about the plane. I’m thinking about flying.

Because, the thing is, I’m really scared of flying. In real life and apparently in my dream world, it makes no difference. The plane starts to move and suddenly I start thinking things so unlike me. Normally I would be going into a slight panic at this moment, sure that something will go wrong, that the plane will ascend slightly and then droop to one side, fly sideways for a short spell before slamming into a building. That’s what I typically envision during take off. But this time, looking out the window at the huge wing of the plane, I’m totally confident. Comfortable, even. I think, “This plane is enormous. It’s a beast. A beast of the air. A pterodactyl. And it’s totally, completely safe.”

The plane takes off and my heart doesn’t race, my hands don’t shake, I don’t grab Fang Deng’s arm and force her to soothe me by petting me like a puppy (it really is soothing). Instead, I sit and look out at the body of the plane and think that everything, every minute of this flight, is going to be all right.

But then something happens. Another plane zips by at tremendous speed, very close to our plane. The near miss rattles me. “What the hell?” I think. “That plane almost hit us.”

Then the pilot comes on. “Folks,” he says, “there are an unusually high number of flights today. It might be for the best if you just closed your window shades and go to sleep. We don’t want the number of planes in the sky to alarm anyone.”

I immediately look back out the window. What I see, Jesus Horatio Christ, it’s unbelievable. There have to be at least thirty or forty other planes out there, in the sky, all flying packed in together like birds in a formation. Now I’m trembling. Before I had thought so foolishly that this strong and mighty plane made of steel was indestructible. Before I had thought that I would live. What hubris! The sky is crowded and I’m going to die in a nine plane pile up.

This is the last thing I remember of the dream. I wake up fine. Not screaming or covered in sweat or anything. Not the way people wake up in movies, sitting upright and looking wide-eyed into the camera. Nah, I’m pretty chill. I’ve dreamt about dying in a plane crash like nine hundred times before, so I’m used to it. The people in movies wake up terrified because they’re in disbelief; I wake up calmly from a plane crash dream because I’m resigned to my fate.

Next week I’ll be taking a thirteen-hour flight to South Africa. I’m equal parts excited and nervous. Really, flying is the only thing I do on a semi-regular basis that makes me think, every single time, that I am certainly going to die. And since I generally fly during breaks from school, I’ve got this nice routine. I feel miserable and bitter about life through the final few months of school, and then I go and get on a plane and think about my mortality until the stupid thing lands, and then afterwards I have a renewed will to live.

The cycle is most notable during the landing, when I feel a sense of overwhelming peace. I say to myself, “I’ve lived a good life. I’m ready to go.”

Catharsis. Nothing provides it like being on a plane. Picturing yourself dying in a hell of fire and broken plastic. And then living. And then going and getting breakfast and totally forgetting about the stranger sitting next to you, the one you just pictured charred and badly maimed.

I can barely wait.

The Squid Will Come When You Least Expect It

squidOn Friday night, Fang Deng and I decided to go out to eat at a little Thai restaurant in Beijing for dinner. It was six o’clock in the evening and I was starving as though I’d just gone through months of famine. I fear this is my body getting older and thus craving dinner at earlier and earlier times, until I eventually transform into my grandparents and start eating at four in the afternoon. I guess that’s part of the aging curve. In another decade, I’ll probably have to accept pre-sunset dinner times just as I’ll have to accept balding and impotence.

Flipping through the menu, I knew immediately that I was going to order an appetizer. I really only order appetizers when I’m starving, as it’s my understanding that ordering an appetizer means food will come quicker. Wasting as little time as possible, I looked up at the waitress and placed our order.

“We’ll start with the fried squid,” I said, and then I ordered some red curry with chicken and a spicy beef and pepper dish. Fang Deng and I then drank water and she talked about something while I thought about food.

About ten minutes went by and suddenly there was the red curry with chicken sitting in front of us with two big plates of rice. Next came the spicy beef. And then, after we’d eaten everything, our appetizer arrived.

Which wasn’t exactly surprising. It’s just another one of those things that you have to adapt to, living abroad. It seems to me that in western culture, we apply logic to a lot of stuff, including how we eat. We have drinks and appetizers and entrees and deserts. Here, things aren’t so orderly. Here, it’s anarchy.

Like, for instance, if I order a drink at a restaurant back home, it will likely come first, before the food. Not so much in China. In China, the drink sometimes comes well after the food has been served. Because there’s not the same thought process going on. No one thinks, “Hmm, the food will probably make the person thirsty, so we should give them something to drink first! It’s brilliant!” Nope. Here, it’s more like, “Well, I wrote this thing down first, so we’ll serve that. And then we’ll serve the next thing I wrote down. Unless something else cooks faster. In that case, we will serve that. Unless I forget it. Yes, I will likely serve the thing I forgot last.” Sometimes one dish comes out and then an eternity passes before the next one shows up, unlike the synchronicity in which the dishes arrive back home. Sometimes one dish will be a real stragler and arrive like an hour after everything else; sometimes you will be tempted to cancel something because it’s taking so long, and then, as soon as you complain like an impatient foreigner, it magically appears.

Food timing. Yet another cultural division between the east and the west. Fang Deng held her stomach and said she was full, our freshly delivered appetizer now sitting on our table. I was stuffed as well. In the past, I’ve heard people say that there’s always room for desert.

I’ve never heard anyone say that there’s always room for fried squid.

A Sense of Belonging in Aisle Four

Grocery StoreAbout a year ago, my girlfriend Fang Deng confessed to me that she hadn’t eaten breakfast in about a decade, and as a result we headed to the grocery store to rectify this problem. She was living in Beijing at the time, and on the weekends I would stay at her place as a guest. And as her guest, I had to take credit for getting the ball rolling on the breakfast thing, because simply having a guest over at one’s apartment can really help a person get their shit together. I, for instance, didn’t clean my apartment at all for months until Fang Deng first came over to visit me. Then in those few days before she showed up, my brain suddenly switched on, and I found myself sweeping the dust off of my windowsills and taking out the trash left from 2014.

It was about eight o’clock at night when we arrived at the grocery store, and I was surprised by how packed the place was. There were loads of people, all quietly floating through the aisles or weighing fruit on that little silver fruit scale thing. Fang Deng kept asking me what to get for breakfast but I wasn’t sure, as Chinese grocery stores don’t always stock cereal that my Western tastes deem as edible.

We kept walking around, and I kept looking at the people shopping for groceries along with us on a Saturday night. There was an old man with a goofy newsboy hat walking around super slow with a plastic bag full of avocados. Then there were two women in hiking gear shopping with big smiles on their faces. A gang of old women chatted idly by the checkouts. A weathered looking guy with eyes so small they looked like pin pricks slowly glided across the floor with an enormous jug of cooking oil.

I looked at all these people and it made me feel nice. This is why I’ve always liked grocery stores. Loved them, even. Because, man, there was a time in my life when I went through a terrible, dark depression the likes of which I hope to never see again. During that time, I fell into a deep cave of loneliness and despair. Few places could take me away from that feeling. I’d go to bars and find a few desperate people sitting around drinking in silence, and it would just bum me out more. Or I’d go to church and feel like an imposter, an outsider, someone who had to smile a lot in order to hide his true feelings of agnostic uncertainty and being-around-religious-people uneasiness. Or I’d go to the library and the heaviness of the books mixed with the general absence of people would immediately make me think about death and late fees.

But the grocery store was never like that. It was different. The grocery store, it seemed, was my one true respite from all the weariness. There’s happiness in the grocery store. Life. You buy food with a small sense of excitement, glad to know you’re doing something that will keep you living. Everything is bright in the grocery store and inoffensive pop music plays at a very reasonable volume. There are always people in the grocery store, too, always doing exactly what you’re doing. And there’s no social pressure, none whatsoever, in the grocery store. You don’t have to talk to anybody, nobody is going to try to be your friend, and there’s no self-imposed pressure to meet girls. Nope, you can simply walk around in the midst of lots of other people while pushing along a big massive metal cart, feeling a tiny sense of belonging that you can’t seem to find anywhere else.

Fang Deng eventually settled on yogurt and pears. We left the bright grocery store and stepped back out onto the dark street, where a few people were smoking cigarettes and some dogs ran around playfully biting each other. Breakfast was secured, my sense of belonging in the world was rejuvenated and, as we walked home, my girlfriend reached out and took one of my hands, the plastic grocery bag gently swaying in the other.