“We’re going to prison!”, a friend yelled at me while I pulled on a second sweater. I had been in Wuhan for less than an afternoon, and it was too early to speak of getting locked up; I was freezing, and sweaters were my agenda. Having ridden the high-speed north from Guangzhou, I had gone from a sub-tropical climate of 65 degrees to a less than tropical temperature that tangoed with the freezing point. After 9 months of continuous heat, Wuhan was a shock to the system. My friend, a well-travelled Norwegian with an accent that flies between Europe and the Deep South, let out a second joyous call to arms.
“Wuhaaaaaaan Prison! You won’t even need that second jumper after you’ve been in Prison”.
Pushing our way into the cold, we went to the dormitory adjacent ours and met up with a guy from Louisiana, who is spending two years in Wuhan to work on his Masters. The corner of his room was dominated by a large plastic Christmas tree, a relic of the holiday that had just passed. Above the fridge sat a water jug that had been converted into a tank for some goldfish, all of whom appeared to be praying for survival in a winter without much heat. A year ago, the conglomerate of things would have seemed strange – now, it’s just a piece of life. It all fits.
As we waited for a few others to get ready, discussions turned from the theft of the Christmas tree to our plans for the first venue of the night, a self-styled beer house called Golden Hans.
“The new subway line just opened. I thought about waiting a few days to see what accidents will happen, but we could be the first foreigners to ride it”.
A brief joke ran around about the quality of Chinese engineering, and the reality that we may in fact be some of the first non-Chinese to enjoy the benefits of the Wuhan Line 2 Subway. As it was explained to me, the new line was going to be elemental in increasing the efficiency of getting to the bars and restaurants near to campus, a true sign of progress in the eyes of thirsty foreign students in the heart of China. 20 minutes later, we were on a subway and headed into the depths of the city.
Like any good Chinese interpretation of a German beer hall, Golden Hans was culturally absurd and satisfying on every level. Sitting in a booth next to a massive window, we looked into the hallway of the mall as families came and went from the supermarket across the way, unaffected by the table of foreigners drinking comically huge one-liter beers. An array of mismatched steins and goblets adorned the upper reaches of each wall, unified by their sheer number and lack of continuity. I tried to grab a server, and was ignored by a waiter wearing a cowboy outfit and hat, a strong contrast to the women who were all fitted in blue Victorian floral something-or-others, a possible attempt at beer-wench garb. I’ll cheers to that. The beers began to disappear, the voices got louder, and by the time we were ready to Gagnam Style, it was on to the next bar.
We opted to walk, trudging across a foot bridge and further into the cold of the streets. Somewhere along the way, a boy had set up a makeshift shooting range on the side of the road, complete with balloon targets and bright orange air guns ready to cause hell amongst the tipsy masses. 10RMB bought us a bunch of shots and more of a health hazard than we had bargained for, as the rifle was soon being pointed at all objects available, people and buildings included. Pulling our group away, the Brazilian threw his hands into the air. A few paces ahead, I could hear him yelling, the front of a joke that had become synonymous with our evening. “I don’t want to go to Prison. Please, don’t take me to Prison!”, he yelled, with a huge grin on his face and the wobble of a man ready to dance.
You wouldn’t find Prison if you didn’t know what you were looking for. Half climbing, half falling down a rickety step ladder into an entry like a dugout on a baseball field, the blackness of the bar brought me back a half dozen years to antics of a college life passed. A large group of Russians, crowded the door, and a sign over the bar confirmed any misgivings that the seasoned China expat has while buying drinks;
“We Don’t Serve Fake Alcohol”
The Norwegian pointed and laughed.
“Ha, ‘course not”, she said, “No one would dare serve fake liquor. Try this tequila – completely real”.
The sarcasm was lost on no one, as 15 dollars bought enough alcohol to make our collective heads spin. A holiday special promised true Vedett beer, on tap, for 18RMB a pint, and no one was going to argue about the value in that. Within 10 minutes, I heard the first distinct sound of shattering glass, and looked over to see the Chilean pushing the remains of a broken Vedett glass under a table, grinning sheepishly. 15 minutes more and the second glass met its end. After that, they started serving all of our drinks in plastic cups.
The problem in going out with a group of South America is surely a matter of dance; One minute, you will all be at a table, the next, half of them will be on the floor, moving their bodies in ways both criminal and in defiance of the laws of mechanics. They will always like to dance, and they will always be better than you! The positive side, however, is that they are some of the friendliest people on earth, and insistent that you will not only learn, but that you will do so without delay. Seeing my poor attempts at Salsa, the Chilean quickly stepped in and gave me an on-the-spot lesson.
“You need to feel it, man. Everyone thinks ‘Oh, I just cannot dance’. No. You just don’t know the steps. If you cannot dance, you cannot get the girl!”
Spoken like a true champion, he quickly pushed me back with the Norwegian, who was not only able to dance, but could do so very well. The Columbian girl arrived and scolded her;
“ehhh, no, no, no, no, no, what are you doing? Too advanced for him, you must go simple!”
She yanked me away, and began a different pace of slow steps left and right, laughing the whole time. The Chilean handed me more Vedett, and smiled when I joked that South Americans were born to move.
“You see, when you are little, your father puts you on his feet, like this”, he said, while pantomiming the balancing of a child on his shoes, “before you are even grown up, you already know this dance”.
The process continued. Drink, Salsa, laugh, repeat. By 2 A.M, people were lagging, and the sloppy handed self-introductions that accompany a late night began, with two dozen strangers suddenly finding themselves to be best friends. The Brazilian was drinking out of random glasses, one of the Columbians had fallen asleep in a chair and an Irishman was quizzing patrons on best ways to get him drunk. It was an appropriate time to head home, and out we went in search of a cab.
Stepping out of the car somewhere near the university, we weren’t sure which way to go. It was 3 A.M. and the huge streets were almost empty, a strange feeling in a city of nearly 15 million. As foreigners, we often feel out of place, stray elements in an unfamiliar world. We cling to our foreign counterparts, searching for homogeneity in our anomalous nature. There could not have been a more unlikely group of people to come together in one night, but this is China, and unlikely is a standard. It may be that this was the first and last time our group would be together- but then again, there I was in Wuhan, drifting aimlessly with one of the first friends I made, long ago in Beijing. Unlikely, but not unheard of.
“Come on”, said the Norwegian, snapping me back to earth, “let’s go get some noodles”.