It was a crow’s tail before midnight on Jinhui Rd. And I was on one of my binges again (earlier in the day, I’d watched the Dark Knight and taken down a dozen White Russian’s). I was on my ¥3,250 moped, swerving in and out of traffic entering the city’s Red-light district. The Luniz, an Oakland rap duo popular in the Mid ’90s, was slapping through my earphones, and the mix of booze, braggadocios raps, and the seedy underbelly of the city made me feel adventurous and unstoppable like Batman. In reality, I was a drunk, lonely Bay Area kid fueling my demons in East China.
It had just started to rain, so the roads were slick. I pulled over to see if the British girl I was trying to get with had responded to my texts. We’d hung out once before and shared a lot of sloppy kisses (the kind that makes you cringe when you think about them), but I doubted she would text me back. You see, the night she met me, I got in a fight in a nightclub’s bathroom with a trio of local Chinese who must have wanted a piece of the obnoxious foreigner. I landed some good ones, but during the scuffle, a glass broke, and a shard cut deep into the top of my thumb. When I made out with the British girl later that night, I kept running my hands through her hair with real passion, just like in the movies. I guarantee she woke up with a lot of my blood in her hair because I woke up in my bed with a bloodied sock over my hand, which was still bleeding.
There were no texts on my phone, which meant it would be another solo night unless I got with a prostitute. I looked down the dirty street at my options; four separate storefronts held the lights signifying whoredom, and despite the time, the road was packed with Chinese who paid no mind to the parlors where women from villages often worked to get their start in the city. I wanted sex, but I wished I didn’t have to pay for it.
I should have sucked it up and stumbled into one of those cathouses, but the gangster rap of my favorite Luniz song lured me back onto the street,
It’s the ice cream man,
Bitch don’t you hear the music??
(Dope king, dope king.)
I got the shit fiends holla if you want to use it!!
The Chinese got a kick out of seeing me in their neighborhood, and they all stared that night, so I throttled the bike full-speed, passed the parked cars, and swerved in and out of traffic again. I imagined they marveled at me, thinking, “Look at the lǎowài go.”
In the middle of the street, I tried to make a U-turn, and the moped’s back tire slid out. I put my left foot down to stop from going to the ground, but my speed and the moped’s weight were too much for my limb, which snapped inward as the bike fell on top of me. My earphones ripped from my head, and all of a sudden, I was surrounded by a bomb of sounds: car engines, clattering of pots and pans from food stalls, and Chinese people chattering,
“Wàiguó rén shòushāngle ma?” (Is the foreigner hurt?)
"Yúchǔn de wàiguó rén hē zuìle!” (The dumb foreigner is drunk.)
My adrenaline, shame, and drunkenness got me to slide from underneath the moped, hobble to one foot, and lift my bike. A pair of older men, maybe my father’s age, approached me with wide eyes and red faces. They were smoking cigarettes,
“Nǐ hái hǎo ma?” (Are you okay?)
I looked at them but was speechless. My shock was transforming into pain, and like a dog about to die, I felt the urge to hide. I screamed in terrible agony as I managed to get back onto the moped.
“Nǐ de jiǎo wāile! Hēi, tíng xià! Nǐ de jiǎo!” (Your foot is crooked! Hey, stop! Your foot!)
I sped off into the night as the rain pelted my face, and when I’d made it out of the traffic of the Red-light district, I took a moment to scan what I’d done to my body. I felt a type of pain that I’d never felt before; it was like someone had taken a hacksaw through my ankle; it felt like I was being tortured.
I screamed and, at a horrifying pitch, repeated, “Fuck! Shit! Fuck!”
Tears burst out of my eyes and stopped, then started again and stopped once more. It was like my body couldn’t decide what it wanted or needed to do.
Trying to navigate the slippery road, I reached down to my ankle to see if, like the blind, I could feel my way to understanding what had happened. I felt a knob of bone, and my fingers were wet with blood.
“Fuck!” I screamed again and again as I drove.
Suddenly, three Chinese teenagers on one moped pulled up beside me.
“Hēi, nǐ hái hǎo ma?” (Hey, are you alright?)
“Nǐ wèishéme jiān jiào? Zěnmeliǎo?” (Why are you screaming? What’s wrong?)
I shouted back at them, “I broke my ankle! My ankle is fucking broken!”
The driver shouted back at me, “Nǐ shuō shénme?” (What’d you say?) Then he looked toward his friends and said something.
The man at the end of the moped shouted at me, “Wǒmen néng bāng nǐ.” (We can help you.)
I blurted out, unexpectedly crying again, “Bù huì shuō zhōngwén. English! I speak English!”
And they nodded and said something to each other, then dropped back behind me, and I thought they might be gone forever, but they were good people - angels, really - and they followed me.
In my apartment building’s parking lot, I came to a jerky stop in the space where I usually parked my moped. The rain was coming down lighter than before, but I knew that even if it had been dry, I couldn’t have gotten the kickstand down with one foot, so I put my good foot on the ground and pushed the moped away from me. A piece of its side mirror broke off and went flying as the bike slammed to the ground.
“Fuck,” I yelled, collapsing.
The three teenagers pulled up soon afterward, their moped’s headlight blinding me for a moment. I stayed on the wet asphalt writhing in pain and making the sounds a man might emit before he was about to die.
One of them said, “Zhè lǎowài fēngle!” (This foreigner’ crazy).
I knew what a lǎowài was, and I’d never felt more like a foreigner than at that moment. They stood over me, blocking some of the rain, and talked amongst themselves.
“A! Kàn kàn tā de jiǎo!” (Ah! Look at his foot!)
Another said, pointing at me, “Nǐ xūyào qù yīyuàn.” (You need to go to the hospital.)
I couldn’t understand what they’d said, but in their tone, I knew they were there to help.
One of them lit a cigarette and handed it to me. I took fiendish inhales as I protected its flame from the rain.
They talked to each other for a couple of moments longer and then looked at me.
“Haas-pit-tul,” One of them said.
“Yes,” I exhaled some smoke, “I need a hospital. Take me to the hospital.”
One said, “Hel-p, you.” Pointing to his chest and then at me.
“Yes, please, help,” I begged, “Please.”
They looked confused again and glanced at one another, “Wǒmen kěyǐ bǎ pòsuì de wàiguó rén dài dào nǎlǐ?” (Where can we bring the broken foreigner?)
I’d never been in more need of a translator or felt more regretful that I’d been so resistant to learning their language. I needed help and only had one person I could call: Ann, my ex, who lived three hours away in Xi’an. We had a nasty breakup when I moved to Xiaoshan, but she was my only lifeline.
I reached for my phone and dialed.
My call startled her from her sleep, “Shawn?”
“Ann, I need your help.”
“Wǒ de tiān a,” She said in a motherly, not-again, kind of way, “What’s wrong?”
“I fell on my moped. There’s these guys here, and I need you to tell them to take me to the hospital.”
“What?! Shawn! Nǐ zhēn hútú! You’re so stupid. How did this happen?”
“Please, just talk to them,” I said, crying, before extending my arm for them to take my phone.
One of them grabbed it, “Nǐ hǎo, zhè shì shéi?” (Hello, who’s this?).
The guy nodded his head a couple of times, and I thought things would be okay, but then he yelled.
“Lā shǐ! Shǒujī méi diànle!” He waved my phone in the air and dropped his hands in defeat like he was a kid who had just dropped a three-scoop ice cream cone.
“Is it okay?” I asked.
“No,” He shook his head then pointed to my phone, “No, power.”
He gave the phone back to me, and it was off.
I demanded, “What did she say?”
“No. No English,” The guy said, waving his hands.
“Fuck!” I screamed, “Please,” I begged him, “please, take me to the hospital.”
“Okay. Okay.” The guy said before turning to his friends and saying something else.
Soon, they’d helped me stand again and placed me on the back of their moped. I winced in pain as my foot dangled against the side of his bike.
The driver patted his waist and said, “Here,” and I wrapped my arms around him, feeling like he was my only hope.
He took me to the Hangzhou Xiaoshan No.1 People’s Hospital, and the others followed in a cab. Xiaoshan is a tiny city, and there was no one there who spoke English. The trio carried me inside and started talking to a receptionist and pointing to my ankle. I don’t remember the details of what happened after that because it was late, I was exhausted, in pain, and drunk, but here is some of what I do remember:
-Smoking cigarettes inside the hospital and the doctor’s office.
-The doctor smoking cigarettes as he surveyed my trauma, removed my shoe, and cut off my sock with medical scissors.
-Bloodstain splats on the wall from where patients or employees had squashed mosquitos.
-Them taking my phone from me.
-The doctor cleaning my wound and then stabilizing my ankle with a makeshift splint made out of wood and an ace bandage wrap.
The next day, I woke up in the same clothes, to a banging on my front door (I have no recollection of how I got home); it was Ann with the three guys that had helped me. I was on the floor because I’d crawled to the front door; they looked at me like I was a turtle without a shell.
“How are you here?” I asked Ann, who was smiling like the whole thing was a joke.
“They said that I am the best girlfriend,” She said, looking at the three teenagers, “I didn’t tell them that we broke up.”
“Tell them I say thank,” I asked her, then looked at them, “Thank you,” I said, “Xièxiè, thank you.” It was all I could do.
Ann and I were left alone in my studio apartment, in the kitchen, as wide as a prison hallway. I was scooting toward my bed on the floor, and she laughed at me. For a moment, I didn’t think about my pain or my situation; I only felt her teasing, which was a blessing.
“What did you do?”
I told her the story but left out that it had happened in the Red-light district and how drunk I’d been. She scolded me for riding in the rain like a mother does a child.
We hadn’t seen each other in seven months, but we were thrust back into intimacy by the accident, and we treated each other with the same familiarity we had when we were dating. She sat next to me on my bed, and I listened to her talk about her journey to Xiaoshan (the teenagers called her after my phone was charged, and she took the first plane she could to get to me). The sun beamed in through the window in such a way that if I relaxed my eyes, her face became a silhouette. None of what was happening seemed real.
When I asked Ann how she and the teenagers figured out where I lived, I found out that she’d contacted the school’s owner - a man I’d never met before - and he told her.
I was astounded by her initiative, “What did you say to him?”
“I told him that you were in an accident and I was coming to help you. He said that I was so nice for doing that,” She laughed, “And that I need to keep him updated.”
“Shit,” I said, “I won’t be teaching for a while.”
“You think you’re going to stay?” She asked, shocked. It was then that the reality of my situation struck me; perhaps my time in China had come to an end.
The following day she took me back to the hospital, which was an ordeal in itself because they didn’t have crutches that were tall enough for me, and there were no wheelchairs either. I had to hop on one leg from the taxi to the doctor’s office.
The doctor showed me x-rays and talked to Ann about my diagnosis. Her English was excellent, but she didn’t know any medical terms, so the translation was poor, but the question that made me decide that I was going back to the United States was one Ann could translate, “Do you want the Chinese metal, the German metal, or the USA metal?”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
“He told me they will need to put a sort of metal in your ankle. He’s asking what country do you want the metal from because the price is different.”
I didn’t want to have to make a choice, but maybe, by injuring myself, I already had; I couldn’t stay in China. The language gap, the lack of facilities at the local hospital, the logistics of life post-surgery, even thinking through physical therapy - it was all too much of a hurdle. I left the hospital with my head down.
In the two days that followed, Ann showed me how quickly the Chinese can move to get shit done. She managed to end the lease on my apartment, sell my moped, and get ¥3,000 from my boss, who also arranged for transportation to the Shanghai International airport. I couldn’t thank her enough for helping me, and on the last night, after I’d broken down in front of her for the umpteenth time, I leaned in to kiss her, but she turned away.
She told me that she was in a new relationship with another foreigner. Before my accident, I would have been jealous of this, and I might have even seen it as a competition and tried harder to sweet-talk my way into getting with her, but the new me had nothing but gratitude. I was genuinely happy she’d found someone; I hoped he was better than me.
The next day at the airport, after a three-hour drive, I started drinking again. It was a way to numb the pain and get through the travel. Also, it was my way of escaping the reality of life back in the United States. Just a few days earlier, I’d felt like a quasi-celebrity, then the accident happened, and all of a sudden, I was going home as a twenty-something invalid to my worried mother. It was pathetic.
I spent my final hours in China, sitting in an airport wheelchair, pounding Tsingtao Beer as I watched the planes take off. I wanted to figure out my answer for what I was leaving China with, but soon I was drunk again, and an airport employee came to wheel me towards the gate.
It was time.
As I took the last sips of my beer, I noticed that people were looking at me. I wondered if I looked cool and thought of how euphoric it would feel to pop some oxycontin after my surgery. Then, I felt my phone buzz, and I fumbled it from my pocket.
It was the British girl.
Her text read, “I was ignoring you because the night we hung out, you touched my hair with your bloody hand, and it stained my bedsheets. But I’m over it now. What are you doing this weekend? P.S. You owe me new bedsheets.”
I chuckled to myself and boarded the plane.