Two months in. I’m lying in bed wrapped in two blankets and a duvet. I slide the balcony door open , kangaroo jump to the bathroom and dump the duvet and blankets on the dusty, tiled floor. Soap in hand, I flick on the shower. It’s freezing. It has been freezing for a week and will continue to be freezing for two weeks more. The gas is broken. Because I haven’t paid my bill. I don’t know how to do it. I can’t speak Chinese. I’ve been reduced to an infant, an orphan. I’m unable to understand the world around me but something other than language prevents me from asking for help. Pride? Ha.
I step into the freezing water for five seconds and step out again, soaping myself up like a madman. Rinse and repeat. My shower lasts all of fifty seconds. I dry off as fast as I can and re-wrap myself up in the slightly damp blankets and duvet which at least still has some of my body heat. I kangaroo hop back into bed for ten minutes to warm up. I’m shivering violently. It’s 7:00 am on Saturday morning. It’s nearly time for work.
For lunch it’s pork and rice, a welcome relief. The restaurants near to my house are all noodle restaurants. The only noodles I know how to order is Beef Noodles. Niu Rou Mian. I’ll go on to eat them nearly every day for 7 months. Sometimes twice a day. Red with chilli, thick chunks of tender fatty meat. There’s two places I go to. The first one is the best, really good. Haochi. The other I go to just to make sure the first one doesn’t think I eat beef noodles every day. The second place is friendlier, but I can’t understand them much. Eventually I learn the owner of the second one couldn’t join the army because of the DIY swastika tattoo on his forearm. I find a new place to go.
When I finish work, it’s 8.30 pm. I’ve taught seven hours of English lessons today. I’m tired. The noodle restaurants are closed and so my only local option is Street Barbecue. I’m the official inventor of the Chongqing Street Barbecue Sandwich, and despite the locals being in awe of the foreign lad putting barbecue between bread, it never took off.
“Be careful which meat you choose. You gotta wonder where all the stray dogs are in this city.”
When I get home, loaf of bread in one hand takeaway carton of barbecue in the other, it’s 9:30pm. I flick on the light and an army of cockroaches scatter, diving for the darkness under the sofa and television as I unleash a flurry of stamps which kills twelve or twenty of the little creatures. Twelve or twenty amounts to nothing. I long ago abandoned the kitchen to the clever beasts. They have taken my cupboards and even my fridge. The kitchen is a red-zone. The hobs don’t have gas anyway.
At least eating out is cheap.
I don’t dare to think of the cockroaches in my bedroom. I don’t allow the thought of them crawling over my warm body to enter my mind. It’s too much. I can’t.
I see them on my desk at work. Not actual cockroaches but their shadows. Ghosts. I see them from the corner of my eye, scuttling over the smooth, clean table of my desk. When I look, they disappear. They retreat back into the cracks appearing in my brain. I don’t ask if anybody else saw them. There’s nothing there. I’m haunted.
Six months in. Summer comes. It’s really hot. My gas is fixed but the air conditioning is broken. It’s forty degrees and I sleep in sweat, my mattress still damp. I spend as little time at home as possible. I have friends. There are women.
The cockroaches don’t mind the change in temperature. They no longer fear me and I’ve all but gotten used to their presence. I don’t stamp them anymore and have harboured a kind of grudging respect for them. Killing them makes it worse, the internet says.
Life goes on.
Read the next chapter of my story: The Emei Mountain Adventure