I forget where I am. It’s March 1, 2018 and I have to rub my eyes a little bit to see the TV I left on to know I’m in a hotel room in Beijing, China.
My father doesn’t think I should be here, but I’m living my life as if he has passed away, free from the clutches of his judgment a book told me would only come with his departure.
I walk downstairs to eat some breakfast.
“It’s free,” I was told, but I’m still skeptical and have no idea how much money I am actually making in this country.
I go through the charades and then I’m sitting in a chair, staring blankly at the wall while me and my cohorts wait for the next move.
“Hey, man. How’s it going?” asks a dude that has walked up and seems keen on my presence.
“Good, bro. Just chilling,” I respond, feeling good someone took the time out of their day to notice me.
His name is James. We had shaken hands earlier in the day while exchanging pleasantries. He stands 5-7 and is attractive, from a part of the USA where dreams come true. I figured I’d never speak to him again after he ran off with some chick, but here he is, asking me how my day is going.
“I came up to you because you were attractive,” he tells me later.
I have heard of women surrounding themselves with friends based on attraction, but rarely a dude, until now.
For me, my boys are my boys. I could care less what they look like. Some of my boys could slow down on the milkshakes and others are good looking because they have shed boyhood and entered manhood. But when I’m looking for a friend, I don’t care about any of that. It’s all about do we vibe? Do you roast me, and do I give it back and then we laugh and get wild off the GG together? Can you appreciate me for who I really am?
Life is too short to be concerned with vanity. That’s why I’ll always take the cool chick over the hot chick, because she has way more to offer and there will be a day when I’ll be an eyesore and the woman sitting next to me will be as well. When that day comes I want her to be my best friend, not someone I chose with ideal beauty in mind.
James and I end up moving in together, a three bedroom spot in Dongzhimen with a local woman that hides in her room all day.
“Be quiet,” reads a passive aggressive note on the wall when I come home from work one evening.
James and I have evidently been having too much fun after 10 P.M., trading stories in the living room until I unearth the one yawn experience tells me will be the last one before my eyes close.
“The process,” James inhales when I sit down to ask what brought him to China. “Well, I had just graduated college and didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to travel, and I knew I wasn’t ready to settle down.”
“Define settle down,” I ask.
He sips on a cigarette and blows the smoke out the window. It travels the same way as life after his contract: into the unknown.
“I didn’t want to resign myself to the rat race life,” he says of the desire to abide by convention so that society validates his parking ticket. “And yet here we are,” pausing and laughing because even though we came here, it’s like we never left home at all.
Flash back to a time earlier this year. Me, him, and B are riding the subway. I don’t know why but I’m feeling good about life, and then James drops a haymaker.
“Actually, Quentin, you’re a plague on society,” he says matter of factly, a sentiment he later revealed was laced with envy and frustration.
I laugh dismissively. This is just a hater watching from the sideline.
James has taught me so much though, just in terms of how I could be living. Before I met him I was out of control, and I did not want to admit as much, preferring to chalk it up to youth. But he really has balanced me out and instilled discipline, whether that’s calling me skinny or telling me I need to write more. His anecdotes are always knowledge I don’t want to hear.
He’s much like a guy I rode across the USA with. He too would always give me the medicine I didn’t want to swallow. I’d cackle and disregard his words but he was always so right, and so smart, the big brother experience I always wanted.
Now, I’m James’ big brother, six months his senior and six inches taller than him. We both grew up fifteen miles out of big cities, him in L.A., me Minneapolis. We both love riding bikes. I fear I’ve done my riding, two major trips encompassing a couple university degrees. Now I’m in the real world where I actually have to make money.
James is about to hop on his bike and do a trip of his own.
“No better time to do it,” I tell him, the reality of bills and chicks constantly reminding that their biological clock is ticking all too real.
“They’re like a blur,” James recalls of his first two weeks in China. “At the time I didn’t feel much of anything. It was kind of a pain in the ass because we had to do all that learning.”
And early on James knew he didn’t like the job. It wasn’t the people or the environment. He just didn’t feel he was on the path to fulfillment.
“It felt nervous, into boring, into good,” when describing his assimilation into life here. “Week three, four. Right when we started working. I didn’t like the work at all.”
The more I’ve gotten to know James, I’ve learned how much his emotions fluctuate on a daily basis. Many times we would be riding the subway home from work and remark how well things were going. Other days, he would comment on his complete lack of faith in finding enjoyment in China.
But his inconsistency is a clear representation of life in your twenties. After my honeymoon period faded, I began having a lot of battles with duality. One morning I would wake up and feel great about where I was, and then two weeks later I would find myself mired in hopeless thoughts concerning life’s trajectory.
“Don’t think this is just going to be a vacation,” James advises about coming to China. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is special. It is in terms of growth, but you’re not living a crazy, adventurous life.”
I push back here. Yes, the newness fades quickly, but there are so many opportunities to travel, chances to get out from the 9-5 grind and experience cultures much different from the customary. James sees it differently.
“I think you have the potential to grow in a year way more than if you just got a job in your city or town,” he says of someone that comes here. “They make you into a substantial person, someone who is someone. Not someone who is just fluff, who only thinks what other people think, who only lives the life that other people live because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. You’re someone who has walked your own path and has become something because of that. Confidence comes from experience. Knowing something is not enough. You have to live it. This is giving you a lot of life to live so you do have that internal confidence and strength in who you are.”
James and I went to Tokyo back in October. We had a good time, perhaps “too much fun,” as my mom would perpetually say to a teenage version of me.
My parents would not have liked the vortex Tokyo sucked me into, but at least my dad would snicker once I hung up the phone and my mom was out of sight.
“Japan was fun, because Japan was fun, but also because it was just me and you. I feel it was almost like an old married couple going out trying to spice up their marriage a little bit,” James says, referring to a lull in our friendship. “It was a nice little rekindling. A good night out with the boy,” he says with a laugh.
I talk about finding yourself, and for some time it took a lot of James sitting in his room, contemplating who he wanted to be. He gets that way sometimes, becoming a recluse that would rather hole up in his room and read Shakespeare than delve into the nightlife. And that’s fine.
It will be bittersweet when we part ways. There will be a lot of joy in cleaning out our respective apartments and moving onto something different. But that will also be the closing of another chapter, a time in our lives that we can’t get back.
I’ll obviously miss the nights we go out and get reckless, but that isn’t what will be my first thought when I look back on our time. Instead, I’ll think of standing outside his room as we debated and spread individual gospel.
I’ll be reminded of the afternoons on our days off where we chilled for hours on end, talking about anything that felt right in that moment.
“So what’s next?” I ask.
“Start in L.A. See my mom, eat some food. Chipotle. In-n-Out. Just feel what it’s like to be back,” he says of the next chapter.
“Ask myself, did I grow by meeting and talking to people that I knew back at home. Did they see a change in me? Do I feel a change in myself as I interact with them? Just figuring out how I’ve changed.”
Then it begins.
“Hop on the bike and go across from L.A. to D.C. to see my brother’s wedding. That is definitely the plan, and then from there bike to South America. And from there it’s anyone’s guess.”
I wish I was going with, myself not even two years removed from an epic bike ride. I still want to be on the bike, grinding everyday from morning to night for no reason other than it’s special to feel free.
“I want to see the people and go through small towns and see how life is,” James notes. “I’ve lived in cities my whole life. I want to go out of that and see how people live entire lives in a completely different culture within my culture.”
This is the trip of a lifetime for James, and it’s not a cliche. A journey that has no end date, very little financial restriction, and an open road can only be cast with that label. He is going to hop on his bike and think very little of what he is leaving behind. Coming to China was the beginning of his life. His next step will be the plunge we all have thought about taking.
“I don’t want to live a life of mediocrity. That weighs on me, a lot. This is an easy way of doing something incredible. For me, whose not attached to people, or places, or things, it’s super easy to just hop on a bike and go on a trip.”
“If I want to be a great philosopher, I need to be great. That might never happen. That’s a lot to ask for. But just biking across the world is really not that big of a deal. You can do it if you got legs.”
Traveling can be misleading. Anyone can book a flight and take a taxi to a hotel. Maybe they even see Mount Rushmore and have dinner at the hotel, but still they haven’t really traveled.
“That’s the stuff I want to see, is the stuff I don’t even know exists. The world’s so fucking big. There’s so much more to it and we have no idea. I want to see these things give me this broader perspective, so I can look at life and have a pretty good grasp of what it really is. So many people have no idea what life really is. That’s the human condition for most people. Do what you’ve been told to do and what everyone’s been doing. I’d like to learn enough to realize I know very little and have that peace with myself.”
I smile with joy while he recites a belief I have heard on multiple occasions. I have known James the philosopher, but perhaps the next time I see him, he will be something more.
“End of the bike ride I’ve written and published at least one book. Whatever its reception, doesn’t matter. It’s that I’ve done it. I’ve found a path that I will walk. Whether I achieve it or not, this is what I’m going to do.”
What I really want to do is jump on my bike and keep riding, without a destination, just being lost in the freedom that when I’m not on a bike I cannot seem to equal.
Last year I almost died in Michigan. I was coming out of lunch and laughing it up with my friend when suddenly I hit a jagged railroad track and flipped into the lane of traffic. I looked up and my face was three inches from the wheel of a semi.
That night I fantasized my death. I was about six months removed from being dumped because I was a horrible boyfriend. Many days I hated myself for being so self-possessed and selfish.
I still find it incredible how hard it is to get out my own way and embrace the happiness right in front of me. It’s like I have a nice pair of shoes on but refuse to tie them, and so I keep tripping and scuffing up a finished product.
And this is where James has revolutionized my thinking.
“You can’t change the past. You can only learn from it. And to be honest, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
One of our first arguments began when I gave a homeless guy a couple bucks. James doesn’t believe in that, but I don’t think a person has to be well-off to give back. When I look back on this year, and how much I’m going to miss my consummate bro, I’m reminded of what’s in my wallet. I don’t have it all, but I have enough. Enough to appreciate the beauty of it all.
Quentin Super’s first book, a nominally successful work of art, is available for purchase here
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