Merry F*cking Xmas! I’m stuck in Florida

 

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Zdravo Marijo 2 by Milos Milosevic

I’ve been sitting on this article for days: cycled through a range of emotions from frustrated to depressed to apathetic to suicidal. I’ve paced around my childhood home, screamed in the backyard when my parents left to run errands, laid on the floor while staring blankly at the ceiling for hours, washed the same set of dishes three times in one day, and binge-ate a variety of chip flavors that I’d missed out on during my past three years in Asia.

Bad Blood

I didn’t talk to more than a few close friends about what actually happened in Florida back in early 2016 before I went to China the second time. I flew in from Washington, D.C. with the intention of spending no more than 10 days visiting my parents. It seemed like the right thing to do before leaving again for an undetermined amount of time.

As usual, I felt irritated from the moment I got off the plane to line up at baggage claim. It took airport staff almost a half hour to get the bags onto the conveyor belt and the drive from Tampa to St. Petersburg wasn’t exactly quick. Because I’d been eager to get out of Florida at the age of 16 and rarely visited since I’d left about 12 years ago, I didn’t have more than three friends in the area: one girl, *Mandy, I rarely talk to due to the nuclear power plant levels of toxicity in our relationship.

My mom not only suffers from stage 4 kidney failure but severe mental health problems as well. Dad failed to tell me that Mom was in the middle of a psychotic breakdown. She couldn’t comprehend the world around her. He’d also been drinking every day after work and cried into his beer cans. I started arguing with him because I needed him to man up for a change. This situation stressed the hell out of me which made me wanna smoke pot, drink, and do pills with Mandy almost every day.

Mandy and I decided to blow off some steam at the mall. As we walked into the bathroom, she realized that she’d lost her purse. We spent hours looking for security, which surprise-surprise was nowhere in hell to be found until we decided to check the food court. A bald dude in a pit-stained white shirt with a protruding beer gut led us to the security area where they’d preserved her purse, minus all the cash in her wallet. More stress meant going back to the car and smoking even more pot. Suddenly, Mandy’s phone vibrated.

“It’s my grandma,” she said after taking another riff. “If I’m not home by tomorrow, she’s gonna call the cops.”

“Pfft, you’re 23. Let her try it.”

I should have known better. After all, Sandy a.k.a. the Devil Herself™ never backed down on a threat.

I sat outside with my hair in a silk scarf, leaned back in a weathered lawn chair, and smoked a Newport. A skinny, bald, sunglasses-wearing cop jumped out of his cruiser and started barking at me like a pit bull in the hood.

“Whose house is this?”

“Mine,” I said after taking another drag.

“I’m gonna check the house and if she’s in there, you’re going to jail.”

“For what?”

He ignored my question as three pigs barged into my house. My mom walked outside and sat in the lawn chair next to mine.

“Ma’am, is there anyone else in the house?” the main pig asked.

“She’s mentally ill! She can’t consent to questioning,” I replied.

They tried again. I repeated the statement until it got through their thick skulls. My blood boiled. Sandy stood at the edge of our driveway with a wry smirk stretched across her face. The cops climbed back into the cruiser.

“You know my mom is sick and you brought these fucking pigs to my house instead of talking to us directly like human beings. I will never forgive you for this!”

“Your parents might be afraid of you but I’m not,” she said, then turned around to walk away.

“You’re gonna be afraid of me, you old bitch! You’ve gone too far this time! When the hell are you gonna die?” My voice cracked and tears welled up in my eyes. I ran back into the house and slammed the door. Mandy slinked inside through the back.

“It’s ok, mom,” I said as Mandy and I guided her to the bedroom. We figured she’d need to rest after the ordeal. After mom laid down and closed her eyes, we took the car out to Tampa.

The Inciting Incident

The highway stretched into the sunset. My speakers poured Al Rocco, a Chinese Hip Hop artist I’d become obsessed with in 2015. When I pulled up to the club, the parking lot was pretty much empty. I met with the manager for my third shift at the bar. He let me set up early since I really didn’t wanna be at home. A few hours later, an Asian-American guy in his early 30s walked in. We hit it off. I told him I’d be going to China in a few days. He suggested a celebration. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lighter in the car so I had to drive about 500 meters to the nearest 7-11.

I pulled into a parking spot, turned off the ignition, took the key out, and looked into the rearview mirror. To my horror, an officer walked up to the driver’s side window. I tried to remain calm. They asked if I’d been drinking, asked me to get out of the car and do a bunch of field tests, then put me in handcuffs. They took my Lexapro bottle out of the glove compartment and put each pill on the hood of the police cruiser, one-by-one. The female officer pulled up my sweatshirt and began touching my bare skin and my breasts with the palm of her hands. I’m convinced it wasn’t a normal pat down. Either she wasn’t trained properly or she was sexually assaulting me on purpose. I couldn’t think straight.

“Fuck you, you coon ass bitch,” I yelled before hawking a loogie.

When I got to jail, they said there were possession and battery charges in addition to the DUI. They also didn’t take any information from the guy in the passenger’s seat. In Florida, a DUI is only a misdemeanor but it carries some heavy penalties like an automatic six-month suspension of your driver’s license. If it happened in New York, I’d be looking at 90 days and they wouldn’t have cared about a few Xanax and Percocet: which, by the way, every middle-aged, white, suburban soccer mom in this country pops on the daily to deal with the absolute mind-numbingly boring existence that is life in modern America. If it were China, I don’t think I’d be writing this article at all because the police over there aren’t as out to get people over minor shit like the ones in the American South.

The Decision

My Dad got a 7k loan from the bank to bail me out of jail. I went home and faced an impossible choice. I had just over 1k in the bank. That money was for my first month’s living expenses in China. If I stayed, I wouldn’t have been able to afford a lawyer. I wasn’t foolish enough to rely on some overworked, underpaid public defender. If I left, eventually I’d have to come back and face the music, but it would give me time to save up enough money for my legal defense so I’d at least have a chance to fight for my life.

End of the Rope

On November 2, I went to the U.S. consulate in Shanghai to renew my passport because there were no pages left. One month later, they sent me an email asking me to come in. I knew exactly what would happen.

A representative from American Citizen Services and another from Law Enforcement sat behind a glass wall in front of me.

“Did you know there’s a warrant for your arrest in Florida?” they said.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” I replied.

“Well, that’s your right,” said L.E. He slipped a letter through the opening in the glass. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve seen in the movies or anything. We don’t arrest people here at the consulate or anything like that. What’s gonna happen is we’ll give you a temporary passport that’s only good for five days. You’re gonna need to go back and take care of this. We won’t tell the Chinese government why we’re holding your passport as long as you cooperate. And don’t think you can just stay here and wait as long as you can, because it’s only a matter of time before they discover you don’t have a passport and you can’t live here without a passport. In my opinion, your charges are not that serious. It’s only murderers and child molesters that we alert the local authorities about. We don’t feel like doing those scumbags any favors. As for your case, you’ll be working with ACS to get back home. Get a lawyer, pay the fines, and come back to China.”

DaJie had waited downstairs at the coffee shop for over an hour. “What’s wrong, Eli?”

I couldn’t talk. I just put my head down and cried inconsolably for over an hour. When I mustered a little strength to go outside, I sat down on the sidewalk and started crying again.

“My life is over.”

An old beggar woman started chatting with DaJie. DaJie’s brain is a bit fried from too much Ambien so I worried about this lady tricking her out of what pittance she had. We took a DiDi back to the apartment and she helped me begin packing.

I had to make the call. “Dad, I need a lawyer immediately. I’ll give you all the money I have. Please just help me.”

The following day, Quantum(量子), Chloe’s old pimp, took the stuff I couldn’t carry as well as my cat, Sparky. Every other time I put Sparky in the carrier, she’d jump in like we were going on an adventure but that time she kept jumping back out. I think she sensed that I wasn’t coming back for a while.

“You’re gonna need money,” said my boyfriend, *Joey. He transferred 10k RMB to my WeChat. I reluctantly accepted.

The next day, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking shadows in the corner belonged to Sparky. That Thursday morning I went to the consulate to pick up my temporary passport. Everything on the American side worked seamlessly. On the Chinese side, I hit snags at every step.

At the Shanghai immigration office, they told me to go to the local police station to register my new passport. Another hour on the subway. I dug through all the cabinets, drawers, and crevices of my apartment but the rental contract was nowhere to be found.

I called the guy who took me the first time since I couldn’t even register in my actual neighborhood due them asking for several documents that were impossible to obtain. The guy was out of town. His friend was late, the rain poured down without an end in sight, and rush hour traffic blocked every road. He went to the wrong police station at first which caused us to spend yet another hour bumper-to-bumper. By the time we arrived at the correct police station, all the people handling registration had gone home. Apparently, they got off work at 4:30.

The security guard told me to come back in the morning, but I’d need my rental contract and I knew they’d be stringent about documentation so I decided not to waste my time. I couldn’t even register at a hotel due to my passport not having a visa inside. I’d essentially been fucked three ways to Sunday.

I braved the morning rush hour, waited for no less than three trains, and held the rail for almost an hour. When I got there, the same bitchy little woman who gave me problems about documents for the student visa by not telling me anything and making me go to that office several times was working the lost passport desk. She had me make copies of my plane ticket and some other paperwork. After all that, she told me I needed to go to the police station to register my new passport. I tried to explain to her why I wasn’t able to do that but she wouldn’t listen and just rudely threw the papers back at me.

I decided to take my Dad’s advice and go over her head. I called my contact at the U.S. consulate. Within ten minutes, the head of immigration walked out from behind the glass. He pointed at me as a gesture to follow him.

“Your consulate called me. Why do you need to go back to your country in such a hurry?”

I calmly explained the issue with the documents but left the reasons for my departure purposefully vague. He went behind the glass for a few minutes and came back with the same stark facial expression.

“Will you live in the same place for the remainder of your time in Shanghai?”

“Yes,” I replied.

He handed me a new registration document and motioned for me to head back up to the same window. My phone vibrated. I picked it up.

“Hello, Ms. Cunningham, this is *Sam with ACS. I’m sorry, the immigration office insisted on knowing the reason why you need a humanitarian visa right away. I told them there was a traffic incident a few years ago. I asked them if it would affect your return to China and they said ‘no’.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Wish you a safe return to the U.S.”

Last Monday, my boyfriend took a cab with me to the airport. For two hours, he didn’t utter a single word. He wouldn’t even hug me goodbye but I’m thankful that he stood by my side until the end.

11 hours later, I woke up in San Francisco. The sun peaked out from the horizon. That day there was no night.

The Setback

There’s a 13-hour time difference between Shanghai and the Eastern United States. The jet lag usually lasts about a week. My lawyer got me a court date last Thursday. All of the felonies were dropped but I was still convicted of a DUI. I was sentenced to 18 months probation with the ability to cut the time in half if I follow all of my conditions. This means that the minimum amount of time I’ll be able to get out of here and get on with my life is 9 months.

My parents live in a small seaside city full of retirees and snowbirds. There are no jobs here or at least, none that I’d be able to justify doing for the measly pay they offer which wouldn’t even cover my legal fees. There’s also no way to get around without driving. The only saving grace is the fact that there’s Uber now so at least I can run some errands without bothering my family for rides. I’m still waiting for an unlocked phone to come in the mail because none of the SIM cards I bought work with my Huawei.

As a condition of my probation, I also can’t drive for six months and can’t work in a bar, the only job would pay somewhat decently in this area. My money can’t last more than a few months at the most.

I’ve decided to take out a loan in order to survive until the end of my probation. I wanna go back to New York. That’s where all my friends in the states live and it’s my official residence. The most messed up thing about all of this is that I was thinking about leaving China for several months but I wanted to do it on my terms. Now everything is ruined. I mean, the passport can be reobtained after my probation but I may no longer be able to afford my lifestyle since it’s hard as hell to make money in the U.S. and everything is so fucking expensive. I’m frustrated beyond words.

I just feel like my life is over.

*Some names were changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned in this piece.

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The Art of Not Giving a Sh*t

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‘Balloons’ by Andrew Hedges

The people who care too much are the most miserable. I can tell you a lot about misery. I’ve been in that state of mind since the day I was born. In fact, my Dad used to tell me that I was an unhappy child. I almost never laughed as a baby. Sometimes, Dad would spend a half hour making animal noises and contorted faces just to get me to crack a smile.

I spent my entire childhood in pretty much complete isolation but that didn’t stop me from taking up social causes as I was always a justice-minded individual. I used to accompany my grandmother to the seabird sanctuary in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’d marvel at the wide variety of feathered critters from flamingos standing on one leg in the sand to owls perched on a crooked tree branch. We went to cat and bird shows together and discussed the differences between various species. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that these shows were no place for animal lovers because they put an emphasis on whatever breeds were fashionable at the time. This encouraged breeders to cater to the market; often in unscrupulous ways.

Later in life, I took up human rights causes as well. I developed an interest in renewable energy and the accessibility of clean water in developing nations. I emailed my politicians about anti-hate crime legislation to protect the LGBTQ community. I criticized my parents’ church for sending missionaries offering only “Bible-based” aid to developing nations instead of proper education and no-God-attached resources. The list went on.

In college, I stopped giving a shit in all the wrong ways. I started drinking, smoking pot, and doing pills. My human and animal rights work got overshadowed by my new-found love of anarchist philosophy and I questioned my professors about our curriculum’s lack of real leftist literature such as ‘No Gods No Masters’. I also got more and more interested in transgender rights and body positivity. My off-campus sorority, Zen Haus, started as an anarchist collective and eventually grew into a legitimate 501c3 non-profit organization: specializing in creating space and support for up-and-coming artists of all mediums.

I graduated and moved to China. I think it was China that finally made me stop giving a shit. The first guy I liked here turned me down to get married to a Polish girl. Come to think of it, I’m glad they ran off into the sunset together. I couldn’t imagine being stuck in a shitty, podunk town living a life of poverty thousands of miles away from home. I like the big city.

Recently, there’ve been some Facebook posts discussing race relations in Asia. When I first came here, I admit, I cared way too much about what these local men thought. I wanted them to like me because I liked them. I liked that they paid a lot of attention to their girlfriends by holding their bags, asking if they’ve eaten, taking them clothes shopping, never complaining about picking up the tab at the restaurant and/or movie theater.

However, I realize now that all around the world, people are just people. They aren’t inherently good or bad. They simply have their own tastes and preferences and I’m tired of letting them get me down. I look in the mirror now and I love myself. I love my brown skin, brown eyes, and dark brown hair. I love my slightly curvy physique and the little belly I’m working on turning into abs with my 3x a week workouts. It took a long, long, long time to get to this point: the point of no longer giving a shit what anyone else thinks; if they like me; if they think I’m pretty. It took 28 years to build enough confidence in myself to say: I love me and I love my body. If you don’t like it, too bad.

I’ve refocused on my passions. I won’t throw my writing career to the wayside again. I’m in competition with no one else but myself. That’s the art of not giving a shit.

Feeling Like a Human Again

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Mura Mezura

When I was a kid, and my grandmother was still alive, she sat me down on the couch and showed me a photo album full of pictures from her trips around the world. From Africa posing in the middle of the Serengeti with zebras in the background to a zoo in Australia where she cuddled a baby koala, grams knew how to live her best life while contributing her final years to valuable conservation efforts worldwide.

“Make sure you travel when you’re young,” she said, “when you get to be my age, everything hurts, and you need to stop for rest often.”

I took her words to heart. It was easy to do as a 12-year-old stuck in a small seaside city in Florida where the most exciting things were happening in internet chatrooms or the video games I played to pass the time between childhood and adulthood. If someone gave me a time machine today, I wouldn’t go back to those days. Life is happier and more exciting in Shanghai.

It took several years to get to this point. I moved out and got my GED at 16. I bounced around the U.S. until I ended up in upstate New York at the age of 19 where I stayed for four amazing years. The friends I made in college are for life, and I’ll always love them.

After I came to China, I finished my novel, and I had a lot of time to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t cut out for teaching kids. I liked club work, but it’s not something I can do after 30. Also, due to the increasing amount of restrictions in China, they aren’t letting foreigners work in the KTVs/clubs as freely as before.

During my prime KTV days, I hopped around from city to city with my Chinese friend. Technically, we were homeless. If you followed my blog, you’d know that I was living like this for years on and off. Homelessness does weird crap to your brain, especially when you’re in a foreign country. You tend to hold on tight to what little you possess. Since the end of 2014, everything I owned could fit into two suitcases. I didn’t dare to buy anything else, for fear that I’d have to pick up and move again soon.

After I got my residence card in Shanghai, I felt safer. I got an apartment and started filling it with things. Just last week, after almost three months of living there, I felt safe enough to buy a bath mat and a little plant for my desk. Maybe next month, I’ll buy posters. Next time I take a trip, at least I’ll know I have somewhere to come back to and I don’t have to carry all my possessions. I’m starting to feel like a human again.

 

The Top 5 Online Resources for Chinese Language Learning

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Learning Chinese is a challenging and exciting experience. Whether you’re planning to move to China or simply want to learn the language for fun, the following resources have everything you need to get started or brush up on your Mandarin.

The Chairman’s Bao

This is an excellent website for reading practice. They publish Chinese news articles and categorize them based on HSK level. If there’s a character you can’t read, you can simply highlight it and a dictionary will pop up in the sidebar. You can practice with one free article per day per HSK level.

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YOYO Chinese

Yoyo Chinese has a huge video library for Chinese learners of all levels. All of the videos use real-life examples and are simple and easy to understand. The Facebook page often posts free videos but paid courses are also available for a nominal fee.

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Chinese Skill

Chinese Skill is an incredibly useful app available for Android and iOS. The app’s basic features include Chinese listening, reading, and writing exercises. It even offers a story-based feature for intermediate and advanced learners. Best of all, it’s 100% free.

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Dig Mandarin

Dig Mandarin offers a variety of courses from several Chinese teachers. Some courses are free, others are paid. They also offer HSK prep courses at a discount.

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Gurulu

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Gurulu is a helpful resource for people preparing to take the official HSK test. Don’t be fooled by the rustic layout of the site. Multiple choice questions, listening activities, and sample tests based on the official format are all available here.

‘Grasping Feathers’ Progress Report

Well, as promised I published the eBook on Amazon today. However, I didn’t anticipate a plethora of formatting issues that took several hours to sort out. I also didn’t realize there’s a 72-hour waiting period for the book to go live in the marketplace.

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So guys, thank you for your patience. I’ll make another update when I get the official email from Amazon. The paperback publishing process is significantly more complicated so I may delay it until I have time to spend a couple of days reading through all the formatting guides.

I’m off to go fetch my glasses: forgot them at the gym yesterday.

UPDATE (October 9, 2018): The formatting issues have been fixed and the eBook is now live and available for purchase. As for the paperback, I’m waiting for the proof copy. When it’s available, I’ll post an update here. Unfortunately, due to KDP’s policies, I don’t have much control over the price of the paperback. I wanted to make it available in more countries and keep the price below $10 USD, but it wasn’t possible. If you don’t have a kindle and find the price of the paperback too steep, please email me and I’ll work with you. I believe stories should be accessible to everyone. If you can, please support me on Patreon so that I can continue creating for you guys. If you can’t donate but you like what I do, please share. Thank you so much for your support. ❤

UPDATE (October 10, 2018): The paperback version is now available on Amazon.

The Beauty of Cotton

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“Cotton” from Fox’s Star

WARNING: SPOILERS!

I’ve been on a TV binge for the past few days while waiting for the new semester to start. My boyfriend’s iQiyi (Chinese Netflix) subscription led me to a variety of amazing American TV dramas that I’d missed during my four years abroad. Fox’s TV series, Star, takes us on a heart-wrenching journey with two sisters beaten down by the foster care system and a rich friend they’d met on Instagram who gave up everything to follow their dreams by starting a girl group in the eccentric city of Atlanta.

While the three main characters are interesting in their own right, the one who moved me the most was Cotton, a transgender black woman with a fervently religious mother. During the day, Cotton works in her mother’s salon as a receptionist. At night, she works in a seedy strip club where she turns tricks in order to pay for expensive bottom surgery.

Cotton’s mother, Carlotta, struggles between her Christian faith and trying to accept her only child. She treats her late best friend’s two daughters more like family than her own flesh and blood which leads Cotton to resent Carlotta. The final straw for Cotton was the day her mother asked her boyfriend, a local pastor, to hold a group prayer in the kitchen. The pastor begins performing an exorcism ritual and tries to force Cotton to say “I am a man”. She breaks down in tears and runs away.

The juxtaposition between faith and marginalized identities is a common thread throughout Cotton’s narrative. Carlotta merely tolerates her presence but struggles to fully accept her as a daughter, yet she also sees the church as a source of comfort because she associate’s “worldly things” with the drugs that took away her best friend.

While sitting alone in an upscale bar, a wealthy Asian man approaches Cotton.

“I don’t do Asians,” she remarks.

The man whispers something in her ear which causes her to go with him. After what we can assume has already been a few dates, Cotton tells Elliot about her gender identity. To her surprise, he readily accepts her as she is. This gives Cotton the confidence to bring Elliot home to her mother. However, her mother becomes angry when she assumes that she’s brought “a john into the house”. Cotton, feeling betrayed by her mother’s distrust, runs upstairs.

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Elliot and Cotton

While the new couple is out on another date, Elliot tells Cotton that he wants her to “stop hooking” and become “only his”. She hesitates at first but after some cajoling agrees to his terms. However, old habits die hard and the pressures of having enough for bottom surgery cause Cotton to get back into the game. Elliot catches her getting out of another client’s car and breaks up with her on the spot.

More hardship awaits when she comes home to find her roommate stole all of the cash she’d saved up. Desperate, she goes back to Elliot’s home, where she discovers that he’s already replaced her with a blonde white woman. This not only paints Elliot as a playboy but provides a glimpse into racial preferences which are often played out in the real world. White women are often put on a pedestal, especially by Asian men. Black women who date men of other races will often find themselves replaced with a white or Asian woman after they’ve served the purpose of fulfilling a sexual fantasy. Upon witnessing Elliot’s behavior, Cotton feels justified about stealing his checkbook. She didn’t want to be disposable and she couldn’t bear feeling taken advantage of. These feelings combined with the urgency of needing to feel right in her own body led her to the actions that would ultimately result in her arrest at the end of the season.

Cotton’s story is a tragic portrayal of a transgender black sex worker living in the south. Atlanta may be home to largest black LGBTQ community in America but the specters of racial and sexual violence as well as religious abuse place the most vulnerable in society in severely compromising positions. Because Cotton didn’t get to complete her bottom surgery or legally change her gender marker before she was arrested, she will be put in men’s prison. Trans women in men’s prisons are not given adequate access to hormones and are subject to rape from guards and inmates at rates much higher than their cisgender peers.

The existence of a multi-dimensional black transgender character on a mainstream cable network TV show points to the progressive direction the U.S. is heading. Stories like these will bring attention to all of the real-world Cottons from urban Atlanta to rural Ohio. That’s the beauty of Cotton.