My friend Ryan from Tennessee was part of a band that consisted of him and several Chinese band members. Ryan played the guitar,
and his skills were actually quite exceptional. His good friend and fellow band member who everyone called “Monkey” ran a small guitar
shop on Houju Lu a couple blocks down the road from Babel past a bank with a huge lot in front and several restaurants and shops.
Inside of the bank, there were several ATM machines directly across from the entrance on the opposite wall, and there were always long
lines in the middle of the day. It was definitely necessary to make sure no one was trying to look over your shoulder to find out your pin
number. Ryan told me that particular bank often gives out counterfeit bills, but I never had that problem. Monkey’s guitar shop was long
and narrow like a hallway, with many guitars hanging on the walls and a piano on the right side in the middle of the front room. At the end
of the room was a desk where Monkey or others would sit and wait patiently for clients while playing computer games and what not. They
also had a small studio in back where the guys would rehearse. The place had a real homely feel to it.
     Monkey himself seemed like quite a character. He had very long hair, something that most Chinese men these days do not dare to
have. There was something very dark about him, like something terrible happened in his past that he could not erase from his
conscience and carried it with him wherever he went. He didn’t look like he was Chinese to me at all. Instead, he looked like he was
from Mexico. He was very quiet and often emotionless, and I wasn’t sure what kind of person he was at all because he revealed nothing
about himself. “I don’t know about Monkey, man. I don’t think that dude likes me.” I said to Ryan one day. “Nah! Monkey likes you!” Ryan
said. I couldn’t tell. He always seemed indifferent to my presence and didn’t say much to me when I tried to speak to him. I wasn’t sure if
he wanted to kill me or what. Monkey played the bass guitar in their group, and they also had a singer named Lu Yao. Lu Yao was a small
and skinny guy, but he was always very energetic and was usually smiling. He was a funny guy. He was part of the minority of Chinese
that didn’t care about face at all. He would wear whatever he wanted and didn’t care about acting so seriously. Whenever he would see
me, he would say, “Andrew! Andrew! Andrew!” like he was cheering, but he couldn’t speak much English. Their band played at Babel on
the weekends with several other bands before they started playing the dance music when they would remove all the band equipment and
open up the dance floor for everyone.
      One day Ryan came into Babel and told me a story. He said the previous night that he was at a Chinese-style barbecue restaurant
with Monkey, Monkey’s brother, and a few others. This street formed a T intersection with Houju Lu at the end of the road; turning left was
where all of the barbecue restaurants were, and turning right were a series of small clothing stores and barber shops as well as small
stands where people sold things from food to pirated computer games. Students from Guangxi Normal University and also the Guangxi
University of Economics and Finance were always walking around this area from morning till night. Certain times during the day the
crowds were less, like during class time and also very early in the morning or very late at night. At night the barbecue restaurant section
of the street was very dimly lit, and it almost looked like the kind of place you don’t want to be at alone, but usually there were people
there. Ryan and everyone else were eating their ordered dishes of skewered meat and vegetables when Ryan noticed a Chinese guy at
another table who kept staring at him. Being an ex-golden gloves boxer, Ryan wasn’t afraid to speak up for himself. “What the @#%% are
you lookin’ at!” Ryan yelled in Chinese, but the guy just waved his hand and pretended that he didn’t want any trouble. After most of their
group left, Ryan and Monkey’s brother were walking up Houju Lu back towards the guitar shop when suddenly about eight guys with
bamboo sticks ran up on them. Monkey’s brother was the first to get hit by them, and he fell to the ground and was beaten by several of
them at once. Someone ran up on Ryan and swung at him, but Ryan painfully blocked it with his arm and put them to sleep in mid-air.
Before long the bamboo crew ran away and Ryan was left to tend to the wounded. I guess Monkey’s brother got beat pretty badly.
      A couple of weeks later, my boxing friend Tony told me that he was at an Internet bar on Xin Zhu Lu, the first street I lived in Nanning
when suddenly a group of about eight or so goons with baseball bats ran into the place which was up on the second floor and started
busting up all the computers. Tony and all the others ran out because they didn’t feel it was necessary to ask why they were doing that. I
wondered if it was the same group of people that attacked Ryan. Seems like almost every week now there was some kind of disturbance
against someone I knew.
       The 2008 Beijing Olympics were fast approaching. It was the country’s single potentially bright spot in the midst of a year of chaos
and destruction: First the heavy winter storms that came through in the beginning of the year that killed many and forced many more to be
stranded at train stations during the holiday, the riots that started in Tibet where who knows what was really going on and an undisclosed
number of people were killed and a lot of property was burned to the ground, the Si Chuan earthquake, and the year wasn’t even over yet.
Many people started wearing t-shirts that said “I love China” with a red heart with the five yellow stars from the Chinese flag inside. The
Olympic torch was having its run through each of the provincial capitals of China. On July it would pass through Nanning, so Tony and I
made a plan to be there when it happened.
      On the day of the parade, Tony and I met on Dong Ge Lu near the center of the city. There were thousands of people walking through
the streets to one of the locations where the torch would be relayed from one person to another. This act would occur at the intersection
of Gucheng Lu and Minzu Da Dao right near my company’s main office. We had to walk the crowded Dong Ge Lu to get to Gucheng Lu,
and on the way I saw a familiar face. I saw someone who I recognized from a Thai restaurant across the street from our company named
Sun Li. She was very nice and very beautiful. Earlier in the year she invited me to attend the celebration of the Thai New Year where they
had a water splashing event after I made friends with her when Jamie, Tony, and I went there to eat once. The strange thing about the
Thai restaurant was that they often changed their prices, like every time. The service was also quite unreliable, so we stopped going
there. Sun Li was crossing the street to the other side and walking parallel to us, and I couldn’t really say much to her anyways because
her English level was not so high and my Chinese was nothing, so we just waved to each other and smiled. Tony and I squeezed our
way through the crowd to get to the intersection where the torch relay would occur. The streets were packed with people standing on the
sidewalks. There were many police walking around the streets controlling the activity. That would be the best time to commit a crime in
another part of the city, because probably most of them were there. When the torch runner finally came through, I couldn’t see anything, so
Tony gave me a boost and I was able to get a picture of the exchange. It wasn’t all that exciting, but still it was nice to be there.
      At the boxing gym, Jamie started getting lazy and not showing up much. He was too busy chasing girls to come and train seriously.
Marcos and Daniel were still coming regularly, as well as Tony and I. A new member joined us at last named Dominic. I guess he and
Paul had some kind of beef and Dominic was sending Paul text messages talking about how he was going to make him regret he ever
crossed the line into manhood. Dominic was a tall and relatively thin guy from Germany who spoke very good English. His blue eyes
were slightly piercing but not overwhelming. He had long reach, so when we sparred, it was easy for him to land shots, giving the rest of
us something to improve on. He and Paul were sparring one time and he actually cracked one of Paul’s ribs which caused him to quit
training for a while, but he still came to coach the rest of us. Dominic was a friend of Daniel and Marcos.
      One time I saw Daniel and Marcos sparring inside of the boxing ring. I heard Daniel say, “Marcos! We’re sparring! You can’t hit
people that hard!” I later asked Marcos what that was about, and he said that Daniel was doing his usual routine of charging in too hard,
so once in a while he would intentionally hit him too hard and then say, “Oops, sorry!” and pretend it was an accident. Speaking of these
kinds of things, Adam, the one who first introduced me to Paul the previous year was also sparring too hard again. He was leaping
forward with his punches trying to put everything into them and ducking down and trying to windmill punch me from down low to keep his
head safe. I decided I had enough of it, so I came out and started punching him hard and knocked him against the ropes. Then he tried to
crouch down again, and I hit him with an uppercut that must have hit him in the right place, because he got dropped. He was too dizzy to
keep fighting, but he later had another round where Paul wasn’t going easy on him either. Tony said, “That’s a K.O., man!” I guess it was.
Not that I was proud of it, but that was the first time I ever knocked someone out. I wasn’t sure if it would be the last, though. Adam came
back the next day with a huge black-eye, but neither Paul nor I were sure about who gave it to him. His wife was very angry, and sent
Paul many messages, including one that said, “A bully is always a coward.” Who was the bully? We were just trying to defend ourselves.
Adam was the one pushing the pace of the fights.
      On Marcos’s last day to train boxing with us, he had a silly idea. There was a boxing dummy in one of the corners of the room that is
meant for practicing body-shots made of foam on the outside, but the inside is made of strong metal. Whenever I punched that thing my
hardest, it would only rock slightly. Marcos decided he was going to hit the thing so hard that it would touch the ground, so when he did
it, he discovered it was not only impossible, but he also discovered how many bones in his fist he would break from making the attempt.
He broke three bones and had to take a break from boxing, indefinitely.
      Tony’s birthday came on July 12th. Tony’s Chinese girlfriend Ellen, Tony, and I celebrated by going to a small buffet near the center of
the city to have dinner. They had some Chinese food there as well as fruit pizza and a couple other Western dishes. I filled my stomach to
maximum capacity, and then we decided to go to the boxing gym because the Chinese trainer Xiao Lu announced that there would be a
boxing exposition there that night. I knew he was going to try to ask me to fight if I showed up, but I went anyways. When we arrived at
the boxing gym, there were about 30 or so Chinese spectators of different ages. I saw another foreigner there from England named Kam
who I had seen a couple of times but didn’t speak to much. He walked past me and said, “Hi” while looking quite serious. I saw in his
eyes that this would be the one I was going to have to fight. Sure enough, Xiao Lu asked me to have a three-round match with the guy. We
were about the same size, but he looked like he might have done more weight-training than me. He had some tattoos on his body and a
scar on his stomach where he might have gotten stabbed by someone. Tony said, “Nah, man, I’m cool. I don’t really feel like getting
knocked out on my birthday.” So it was up to me to go ahead with it. We put on our headgear and gloves, then someone rung the bell, and
then it was time for us to ring each other’s bells. We both came forward to the middle of the ring, and I gave him a little jab to the face,
lightly because I was treating this as a sparring match, but when I hit him, he got that look in his eyes like he already had enough. He
came forward and I put up my guard to protect my face, and he swung away, seemingly as hard as he could, doing hooks to try to get
around my guard. Some of his punches got through. When he stopped, I gave him some more jabs, and he looked angered by each one.
He came with wild punches several times, but I blocked most of them. That first round seemed to last forever. During the one-minute
resting period, Tony encouraged me to use all of my strength on the guy, but I was a little reluctant. “Man, that dude’s tryin’ to make you
see stars!” he said. The second round I played it a little smarter by moving around more instead of standing still and blocking, and I gave
him a few more jabs and hooks to think about. The second round, though still seeming to last for an eternity, seemed to pass a little faster
than the first. During the second rest-period, Xiao Lu told Ellen to translate for me, “You don’t need to hit each other hard. This is only an
exhibition.” “Somebody tell him that!” I said. I wasn’t using all of my power on the guy, but I was getting tired of putting up with what he
was doing, so in the third round, I adopted a different strategy. Whenever this guy tried to go on a swinging barrage in round three,
instead of blocking and waiting for him to back up, I would wait for the right time and swing hard and hit him in the jaw with a hook. The
first time I did it, I knocked his headgear off his head. The referee put it back on and we continued. He tried to swing on me again with all
his might, and I did the same thing to him and knocked his headgear off again. This happened about five times before they decided to
change his headgear. His new headgear wasn’t going to fall off so easily, and we spent the remainder of the round swinging, missing,
and hitting each other, and then the final bell rung. It was over! The referee stood in between us and held one of each of our arms and
prepared to announce his decision. He raised the arm of my opponent and then I realized I had lost on points. We gave each other a
friendly hug to make sure all the combat stayed in the ring. I might have lost on points, but it was clear who won on damage. I had not a
scratch, but he had a black-eye and a busted lip. I went over to the carpeted area in front of the large mirror that people use to do
shadowboxing and lied down on my back. My stomach was in great pain. I decided I would never go to a buffet and fill my stomach
before having a boxing match again.
      Pascal from Cameroon and I became friends after meeting each other at Babel parties several times. We went out to a couple of
places together, including 66 Bar on Yuan Hu Lu east of the center of the city near my boxing gym, and also to KTV at Wanda(Wahn Dah)
Square, which was the same KTV I went to with all of my new co-workers when I first joined the company. At this KTV, he introduced to
me one of his good friends, a Chinese girl named Sina. I could tell right away that there was something very unique about her. There was
some level of mystique about her, but also something fun-loving about her. Pascal eventually decided to go to South Korea to study, so
he wanted to sell his electric-scooter. I was too happy to ask for it. Sold!
      One evening as I was hanging out at Babel with my friends who were regulars in the place, I received a phone call from one of my
students. Her name was Cathy, and she was studying General English in Tai An building. Her voice sounded like she was dying.
“Aaaaaaaandrew, Heeeeeelp meeeeee,” she said. “What? What are you doing? What’s wrong?” I asked. “I need heeeeelp. Come to
Wanda Square. Pleeease. Hurryyyyy,” she said. I thought she was making a joke, but I decided I had better not take any chances, so I got
on my newly purchased electric scooter and headed toward the center of the city. I went to Wanda Square and inside of KTV to the lobby
area, but I didn’t see her anywhere. I called her on the phone, ”Where are you??” and she replied that she was in the W.C. and was
coming. Suddenly, the door to the women’s W.C. not far away from me swung open, and Cathy stumbled out and crashed into the wall and
didn’t look like she knew where she was. I picked her up and carried her to one of the couches that was in the lobby and asked her what
happened. She said she was in a KTV room with some people she didn’t know and had some beer. “How many beers did you have?” I
asked. “J-j-j-just one,” she said. Drunk off of one beer? No way! She must have been drugged by one of those people. Her friend Rose
also appeared and helped me get her to a taxi to take her back to her apartment. She was in really bad shape and vomited a couple of
times on the way up the stairs to her apartment, but we finally got her to safety. Rose thanked me for helping her friend and then
disappeared. I backtracked to Wanda Square and got on my scooter and went back to the university area. Apparently those guys at KTV
didn’t know how to treat a lady, but that was nothing compared to what was about to happen.
China Dispatch/Andrew Gramling
Disturbances, a boxing match, and more