Mike: I hope you saw my message

When I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2010, one of the first people to show me around my new home was a native Texan named Mike Peters.

Mike had helped me get a job at an English-language newspaper where he worked, and by the time I arrived it felt like we were already friends. We shared a small office on the second floor of the China Daily building, where we edited international news for the paper. It was my first editing job, and so I depended a lot on Mike for feedback on headlines and story selection.

Any other person probably would have grown impatient with me, but Mike was always willing to help … and honest when he didn’t agree with a choice I made.

Over the next few years, Mike and I would become good friends. After finishing a late shift at work, we’d often grab beers at a nearby restaurant and chat for hours about life and politics in one of the world’s biggest cities.

When my mother and brother visited Beijing, Mike helped organize a roast lamb dinner with other colleagues so they could meet some of the people we worked with. Anytime I had guests, Mike always met them and, after a cheap beer or two, treated them like old friends.

And, if Mike was reading this, he would probably say: “Jimmy, you’re burying the lede.”

Mike died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

I found out about his illness in early July. A mutual friend sent me the news in a text: “Devastating news. Mikey Peters has terminal cancer.”

He said the doctor told him he had three to six months to live.

I hesitated to reach out to Mike. What do you say to a person who has terminal cancer?

(“How are you feeling?” Well, awful. Haven’t you heard. I’m dying.)

Everything I thought about saying just seemed disingenuous.

Then, on Aug. 2, Mike sent me a photo from his hospital bed. He was surrounded by smiling coworkers. He looked weak and pale, but still managed to crack a smile.

We exchanged a few messages, and he told me how everyone at the office was preparing food for him. “Only eating hospital food half of the time.”

You are a celebrity my man, I told him.

“Haha,” he responded.

The day before Mike died, I wrote him another message:

“Hey Mike. I just wanted to let you know that I will forever be grateful for the way you welcomed me to Beijing and taught me that Taiwan was indeed a part of China. I was pretty green when I showed up and you made that transition a lot easier. I love you man, and I know a lot of other people do, hence the outpouring of support. I hope you can feel that.”

A few hours after I sent the message, a friend texted me and said Mike had suffered some complications from the cancer and might not make it through the night. He died the next day.

Given the timing, I doubt Mike read the last message I wrote to him. But, judging by all of the people who reached out to him after the cancer diagnosis and donated money toward his medical expenses, I know he felt the support.

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A devil of a hike

“How much farther do we have to go?” a young boy asked, as he passed me with his family while I descended from Little Devils Tower, elevation 6,908 feet.

“Is it like 35 feet?”

“Thirty-five plus a couple of zeros,” I responded.

His dad chucked, but the kid didn’t get my joke. “You still have a ways to go,” I told him.

Perhaps it was the elevation. Perhaps my lungs are still recovering from five years in Beijing, which at times felt like living in a smoking lounge. Perhaps I’m just out of shape.

The Black Hills, in southwestern South Dakota, is full of beautiful rock formations.

The trail to Little Devils Towers is around 3 miles out and back.

People come from all over the world to rock climb in the Black Hills.

Whatever the reason, I had to stop several times to catch my breath along the winding and rocky path to the summit of Little Devils Tower, one of the highest peaks in the Black Hills. The occasional breaks allowed me to take in the magnificent giant rock formations, which jut into the sky from the mountaintop.

The name of the place, Little Devils Tower, is misleading because there’s really nothing little about it. At nearly 7,000 feet, it’s one of the highest points in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

On a clear day, it is said you can see more than 100 miles out onto the horizon from the highest peaks in the Black Hills.

Little Devils Tower is located in Custer State State Park.

The skies were mostly clear when I visited. From the summit, you can see the spot where the hilly terrain ends and the high plains begin.

The last leg of the journey to the top is the most difficult. The dirt trail gives way to rocks and boulders, and I had to pause a few times to figure out the best way to climb over them safely. A series of blue markers posted on tree trunks and rocks help you stay on the path, but it’s easy to get sidetracked if you’re not paying attention.

A view from the summit, elevation nearly 7,000 feet.

From the trailhead, I was able to reach the summit within a couple of hours. It’s an easy hike to finish in an afternoon, unless, of course, you’ve got a kid in tow who asks “Are we there yet?” every 35 feet.

Lady in red

Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.

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Roast Duck Dynasty

Beijingers love their roast duck. It’s a dish that’s synonymous with the capital and has been served since imperial times.

There’s even a museum dedicated to Peking roast duck (北京鸭子), which walks visitors through its origins and, more interestingly, shows step-by-step how the animal goes from the farm to your dinner plate. The museum is located on the seventh floor of Quanjude (全聚德), one of Beijing’s most popular roast duck restaurants.

First, we see the ducks sunning under radiant blue skies, enjoying their last moments of freedom.

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Now in captivity, the ducks are fed to fatten them up, so they can later return the favor and fatten you up.

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Stubborn ducks that skip meals will not be tolerated.

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Once they’re nice and plump, things get serious and out comes the knife. Continue reading

Snakes and alcohol don’t mix

I recently wrote a review of the world’s first bar dedicated to baijiu, a traditional Chinese rice liquor. Capital Spirits opened in August in Beijing, and offers more than 40 different varieties of baijiu.

Baijiu, which literally translates into “white liquor,” has been made in China for more than 5,000 years. The drink is generally 40 to 60 percent alcohol by volume, and its taste has been compared to bathroom cleaner and cheap perfume. Continue reading

Postcards from (smoggy) Beijing

Pollution levels reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labled Beijing as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality in the city.

Air pollution reached “hazardous” levels in Beijing on Saturday. Some scientists have labeled the city as “unlivable” because of the poor air quality.

Pollution masks have become a necessity in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years, after I noticed that I was getting sore throat and coughs more frequently.

Pollution masks have become a part of everyday life in the capital. I started wearing them a couple of years ago, after I bought a bike and began using it to commute around the city.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. Some scientists have labeled the city as "unlivable" because of the poor air quality.

View of suburban Beijing from a subway car. An Australian soccer player who spent a year in China told the magazine FourFourTwo that playing in the smog “was like closing your garage door, turning your car exhaust on and running around in the enclosed space.”

 

Zima, back from the dead and now available in China

Remember Zima, that lemon-lime alcoholic beverage from the clear drink craze of the early ’90s? Coors Brewing Company stopped producing it in the U.S. in 2008, but it’s found new life in Asia.

The 7-Eleven near my apartment in Beijing began stocking it recently, and just for the sake of nostalgia I bought a bottle. Zima was a staple at house parties when I was a teenager, a drink for girls who didn’t like beer or liquor. Jolly Ranchers, a type of hard candy, were often added to “improve the taste.” Continue reading

When in China, beware of man-eating manholes

A friend of mine who moved to Beijing a couple of years ago told me that his mom warned him to be wary when walking near manholes in the city. She had read a story about a man in China who fell into an uncovered manhole at night and was found dead a few days later.

A mom's worst nightmare.

A mom’s worst nightmare.

As a mom, she was, naturally, worried that this was part of a larger problem, and that road work sites in China were more dangerous than ones in the US.

As silly as it seemed, her concern stuck with me, and whenever I bike in Beijing I always glance at manholes before speeding over them. Today, I biked past a road work site and saw this …

manhole.tree

Apparently, the construction crew ran out of cones and had to get creative. It doesn’t look safe, but I guess it might keep you from falling in.

Cupping therapy: no pain and no noticeable gain

During the hottest part of summer, temperatures in Beijing regularly soar above 95 F (35 C). To cope with the heat, women shed pants and long-sleeved shirts for tank tops and skirts, while the less fashion-conscious men simply roll up their shirts, exposing their midriff, however rotund.

The Beijing summer look for men that never goes out of style.

The summer look for men in Beijing that never goes out of style.

A few summers ago, one of the these bare-bellied men walked past me on the street. As I turned to look at him, I noticed a series of purple and pink bruises on his back, each about the size of a baseball. At first glance, it looked like he had been the victim of a brutal assault. But each of the bruises was the same size, and perfectly circular.

I told one of my friends what I had seen, and she said the bruises were from cupping, a form of traditional Chinese medicine commonly used in Asia and the Middle East. In China, cupping is known as baguan, and is used to alleviate everything from headaches to back pain. Continue reading