China is a confusing place, an ecosystem of pure juxtaposition. Hauntingly beautiful one minute, yet infuriating the next, my mind was often clouded. But you were there for me, offering a moment of clarity in the metaphorical and physical smog.
I thought we had a good thing going on, Authentic Western Style BBQ.
You were a celebration, the crowning jewel of a week-long school camp at which I was the teacher. Every Thursday, we would take the kids to visit, and you would always provide. You did not discriminate. Whenever I sampled your miscellaneous, unidentifiable grilled meats and potato salad, I knew the end of the workweek was near, that I had just one night left before a precious weekend break.
But you had a secret, a hidden agenda.
You were into me, but I didn’t pay you enough attention. You were a jealous lover, Authentic Western Style BBQ, and you made me pay.
The first time is always special. I woke at 2 in the morning, a thunderous cannon shot emerging from my bowels. I was so cold. I crawled to my ensuite and came upon the squat toilet just in time, but nothing could prepare me for the internal onslaught from a jilted lover. I hardly had the strength to hold myself in the necessary acrobatic position to use such facilities, and woke again several hours later sweating in the foetal position. Unable to move, I lay on the floor beneath the shower, my tears mixing with lukewarm water and running into the drain.
The second time you crossed me I was prepared. Hurt, but prepared. The third instance, however, you really did a number. I don’t know what I did to enrage you so, Authentic Western Style BBQ, but you were angry that day.
You found me on a sunrise hike to the famous Moon Hill, an incredible rock formation in South-eastern China. Everyone was excited. I was to lead my group of 15 students up the hill to watch the sun burn through the haze of pollution before accompanying them to the airport later that morning. I’d slept the whole night, convinced I’d beaten the Authentic Western Style BBQ curse – how could I have been so naïve?
I stepped off the bus around 4am and felt those familiar pains, a gurgling sound signalling the battle to come. Not again. We started hiking with the rest of the year group and I quickly fell to the back along with one of my students. He had similar complaints.
“You alright up there Owen?” I called, having given Owen some space to come to terms with what was happening.
No response. Not that I really expected one. His head torch filtered through the trees and I heard an ungodly heaving sound, like a lion coughing up a fur ball or small gazelle. No lions in China though. Perhaps a panda? My musings were cut short as I felt the BBQ creep its way up my own throat. I lay on the ground, the mossy path akin to a mother’s comforting touch, and Owen made his way down the hill and into sight. And what a sight he was, tears streaming down his face and mixing with the vomit already caked to his fleece jumper.
I was in no position to judge. I put myself in Owen’s shoes, and looked down at myself – a pitiful excuse for an adult, a man supposedly fit to take care of him and his schoolmates, fit enough to climb one lousy hill without unleashing hell’s fury into the nearest bush.
“I think it was the BBQ,” Owen helpfully suggested, the mere reference sending my gut into another spasm.
“You could be right,” I replied, knowing full well the source of the raging river flowing through both our colons. For poor, innocent Owen, this was simply bad luck. I, however, should have known better. You had betrayed me for the last time, Authentic Western Style BBQ.
I had already survived swine flu and bird flu since being in China, but the previous night’s pork and chicken had finished what their airborne cousins could not.
I’m not angry though, Authentic Western Style BBQ, I’m thankful. Owen and I shared something that day, something more than E. coli. This 12-year-old boy had an insight into the passionate, painful world of love and excess, jealousy and regrets. While I may make a terrible guide when it comes to sunrise hikes, I hope I managed to teach him some perverse lessons about life, love and deceptively authentic meal options.