“Carry some kind of tissue with you always. Finding a stall with toilet paper there is like trying to score a gluten-free crouton at Chuck E. Cheese’s.” That was my globetrotting little brother’s advice. He had survived toasted squirrel on a stick in Burma, a threesome with twin hookers in Rio, and an Alaskan bear eating his shorts while he was still wearing them. Thus, he is my go-to for international travel survival tips.
I had been booked to headline a week-long stand-up comedy tour in China in October, a week and change before my forty-eighth birthday, and was trying not to ruminate about pulling up to the bumper of fifty. Jimmy Schubert, a solid, road-dog of a comedian who I’d befriended when we were both finalists on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” had vouched for me. After some late-night email exchanges with the promoters, it was on.
The “Kung Fu Komedy Tour” consisted of shows in a different city every night: Shanghai, Wuxi, Chengdu, Beijing and Suzhou. The “tour” was just me, solo, doing 45 minutes to an hour after a local act — hopefully — warmed up the crowds.
About 90 percent of my act is about being a Jew who lives in Brooklyn, and who everyone thinks is Puerto Rican. Combining that with the fact that I have phobias of public toilets, crowds, tight spaces, and sneeze mist, I rarely perform outside the New York area. Considering too that I’d sworn off Chinese food a year prior, after a dinner at Brooklyn’s “Best Taste Hunan Palace” had turned my insides into a minefield, “The Kung Fu Komedy Tour” was shaping up to be a hefty challenge.
But here I was, standing in front of a Cathay Airlines counter, an obsessive five hours early, staring at my phone reservation, which was all in Chinese except for my name, next to something that looked like an upside down pitchfork, and the 1:45 departure time.
Only the 1:45 departure, which I assumed was p.m., I soon discovered was in fact for 1:45 a.m., the night before. This was a clear sign I should turn back.
Andy Curtain, the Australian promoter of the tour and sometime show host, soon texted me: “No worries, mate, the last American comedian did the exact same thing.” I felt proud to be American, and a little bit better, until he explained that the new itinerary had two connecting flights. “You’re on Delta, tomorrow morning, LaGuardia to Detroit, Detroit to Shanghai, pick you up in Shanghai and drive straight to Chengdu; you’ll still make the first show. So, tomorrow, nine a.m. flight; a.m. as in morning as in the bright thing with the sun that is the opposite of night.”
I almost curled into a fetal position and started humming to myself.
Texting back, I wrote: “So…like twenty-two hours of flying, then an hour of driving, then performing for an hour…”
Completely unaware of my medical-book-long list of phobias, Andy replied, “No worries, mate. You’ll sleep on the flight!”
* * *
The next day, my six-foot-four frame was crammed into a Bilbo Baggins-sized middle seat, my mind alternating between homicidal thoughts towards the short people luxuriating in the exit row and my New York friend’s awful-sounding advice about China:
“There’s no sense of spatial recognition. You’ll be in line and feel a chin resting on your back.”
“Everything is scaled to really tiny people. Beds there are like the size of an ottoman.”
“Don’t fall asleep on the train, you’ll wake up with back pain, and see a ten-year-old running off with your kidney in a Ziploc bag.”
“Accepting a direct compliment is considered rude and makes you ‘lose face.’ Instead, deflect the compliment with a counter compliment, but not too aggressively, otherwise then you’ll force the person complimenting you to accept your compliment, and now you’ve made them lose face. Understand?”
“Green tea is really warm pee.”
Then there was the elephant in the room: Would my New York jokes even translate in China? After 28 years of avoiding traveling in a business where one typically must travel, I was now confronted with my material’s universality (or lack thereof) in a place where the closest thing to mainstream stand-up comedy was a TV show where two guys in panda suits hit each other with plastic bats.
I’d also been told by the promoters that “most Chinese people have never seen live comedy before” and that “just the format of a guy telling jokes about his life is pretty foreign.”
I wondered too how some of the language nuances would translate, like in my joke about the pop-up vegan place where I had ordered an “LGBT-BLT with no trans fat, served by a fat tranny.” I knew the auto industry in Asia was huge and worried the word “tranny” would be interpreted as a car’s transmission.
To calm myself I practiced three Chinese phrases I had written on a scrap of paper that translate to “hello,” “thank you,” and “I make dirt on your ancestors,” in case hecklers got lippy.
Sixteen hours later, I was on the connecting flight to Chengdu with a bowl of noodle soup in front of me. I was now the only Westerner on the whole plane, a subject of interest to the other passengers who stared at me as I collected my noodles by twisting chopsticks with both of my fists like I was wringing out a washcloth. There was a moment when the only sound around me was a collective slurping, which when I tried to emulate resulted in a constellation of wet spots on my shirt. I was told later that soup stains on shirt fronts are a subtle way to identify newcomers to China.
* * *
The plane landed and the airport bathroom proved my brother was right. No toilet paper, and no toilet — just a porcelain-lined hole in the floor. Nothing like a spontaneous test of accuracy when one’s left eye can’t stop twitching from sleep deprivation.
At the baggage claim I met my contact, a lady holding a handwritten card with my name on it, upside down.
“We must hurry. The show was supposed to start an hour ago. Why did you miss your first flight?”
“Uh, sorry, I didn’t have a Braille translator for the itinerary.”
Ignoring my awful joke — my very first on Chinese soil — she said, hurriedly: “I called an Uber. Cheng Du is the number one city in the world for Uber, even though Uber is still illegal.”
Fantastic. I could already see the headline: American comedian sent to labor camp for aiding and abetting underground drivers-for-hire.
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in China is the pollution. I live near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so I’m no stranger to exhaust fumes. Every morning, I wipe a thin layer of soot off my backyard patio’s glass table, accumulated from the night before. Previously, that was my gold standard of dirty air, but in rush-hour China inhaling feels like doing sit-ups with a sleeping Buddha on your chest while free-basing sawdust through a bong made of a catalytic converter.
The venue was a performance space attached to a bookstore packed with a mixed crowd of expats and Chinese. In my mind, I ran through material I thought would translate. This show was sort of a test run — a small venue to get my feet wet, comparable to some sparring leading up to a title fight.
I had been warned not to critique the government or discuss “the three T’s”: Tiananmen Square, Taiwan and Tibet. Officials had supposedly been known to sit in at shows, transcribing material to be scrutinized for incendiary topics.
These boundaries didn’t seem to affect my opening act, an American who sang a metaphorical song about dining on his pet cat, Mao, to a lively chorus of everyone singing: “Mao, Mao, Mao.”
Great. First night here and I have to follow a guitar act singing about eating pussy. What the hell am I going to talk about?
I opened with a staple bit about seeing an old man doing tai chi in Brooklyn, who turns out to be a heroin addict and never falls over.
It did well in New York, but it KILLED in China.
My first laugh. I was in.
Between bits, I talked to the crowd and discovered that almost every Westerner there was an English teacher. The only employment qualification for the position seemed to be that they speak English, which is alternately wonderful and a little scary when one considers dialects from places like Alabama or…Brooklyn.
* * *
I made a mental list of what wasn’t working but, surprisingly, about 95 percent of what I talked about connected, and the jokes that didn’t just needed a little bit of explanation. I had to define what the “super” of a building was and how they have the “super power to disappear when anything needs to be done,” for example. This helped boost my confidence as the shows in bigger venues approached.
I got a text from Andy: “Early flight tomorrow. Seven am. Not pm.”
When I landed in Suzhou the next day, the airport lobby had a small crowd of young girls with white pollution masks, rakishly worn below the chin, waving banners embossed with letters that looked like stick drawings of busted five dollar umbrellas. I assumed they were fans because when they saw me they screamed and began filming me on their iPhones.
Andy’s partner, Turner Sparks, an American comedian who also imports Mister Softee ice cream trucks to China from the U.S., was waiting for me at the airport and snapped pictures of me with the screaming girls.
Taken aback, I said, “I’ve never had fans like that before…”
“Oh, dude, they aren’t here for you,” he replied. “There’s a famous boy band on that plane, those guys walking right behind you. The crowd thinks you’re some old, American folk singer who’s opening for them.”
Someone shoved a poster for the band at me.
I signed it “Willie Nelson.”
* * *
That night’s show featured Storm Xu, the only Chinese comic I’d see the whole tour, who talked about how when he recently performed at an army base, the soldiers would wait for the officers’ permission to laugh. He did well, and watching him perform his act in English made me thankful I didn’t have to do mine in Chinese.
When it was my turn, I tried a joke about seeing a lady driving a scooter with a Labrador retriever standing on the foot rest area — “fast food delivery” — which lead into a bit about New York cabdrivers. My material was translating, even more so than when I’d performed in different parts of the States.
The next day, I checked out the old Pin Jiang road district lined with Mah Jong parlors and opera houses against the backdrop of bridges and canals. A tobacco stall had a brand of cigarettes with the words “Smoking Kills” in big English letters across the front of the box. Turns out, it wasn’t a warning; that was the name of the brand.
The show that night was a veritable U.N. summit meeting. My openers were a Frenchman, a guy from Belarus, and Andy Curtain talking about his Chinese-Russian wife’s accent over the shouts of a Dutch heckler, all of which set me up nicely for a bit about my Albanian contractor, who used the word “technically” a lot, and wouldn’t show up for work due to a “date”:
“Technically, I had a date,” he says to me in the bit.
“You’ve been gone two weeks! What do you mean, a ‘date,’ Vladimir!?”
“Court date. I go with girl on date. She talk too much. I punch her face.”
“You punched her face!?”
When I got to Shanghai the next day, it felt like a giant wok tossed full of parts of all the great cities I’d ever seen, every square inch of space being used for something, with the old and new forced to hold hands and play nice.
I stayed across from a colossal Gucci flagship store where $20,000 handbags are released months early at an extra premium, and, fifteen feet away, open-air vendors hawk vats of fried chicken feet while lumberjack-bearded, Western hipsters hail pedi-cabs with manicured nails.
After exploring the city on foot, I met Andy for lunch at a Chinese restaurant with colorful pictures on the menu of dishes like “crunchy frog legs and blood intestine in fagola sauce.”
He ordered for the both of us and when the dishes arrived to the table, I noticed one of them was a quivering mass of tofu.
I HATE tofu. It’s a culinary parasite that always tastes like dirty laundry, its cadaverous white belly floating in its own milky sweat, siphoning a host dish for flavor while trying to pass as chorizo whenever my wife abandons it on my plate like an ugly baby in a basket at a church door.
But not wanting to lose face, I held my breath, thought of my dearly departed Grandma Sadie’s oft-repeated mantra “Try it, you’ll like it,” and ate a very small chunk.
The experience was like stepping into a lonely night ride on a New York subway, watching some dirtbag clip his toenails into an empty KFC bucket, until a soft brush from a curvaceous stranger reminds you that new friends are made in unexpected places.
I ate the whole plate, which made me briefly consider revisiting other things in my life I had scorned: pumpkin picking with my wife, or wearing one of those tiny men’s suits, three sizes too small with the jacket pockets all up by the nipples…
Nah, surrendering to soy is enough.
* * *
The Shanghai shows that night were lively. In a venue off the side of a fancy hotel, all carpeted in red, my revolving ethnic smorgasbord of opening acts consisted of one Englishman, two Americans, and an Egyptian, everyone talking about how Shanghai is full of Asian women dating Western men, but very few Asian men dating Western women.
Two Chinese audience members who had smuggled in their own Philly cheesesteaks from an “authentic” local joint held them up and publicly lamented.
“Not same as Philadelphia,” one of them declared. “Peppers…different.”
By the end of these shows, I had a decent chunk of China material ready for my last big gig in Beijing the following evening.
On the bullet train the next day, I watched the different types of landscape shoot by — smoky mountains, open fields, and “Blade Runner”-ish buildings with worn-out underwear hanging on a line.
The Beijing show was boisterous, complete with a turbaned Sikh stoner loudly requesting a signature bit I did about the aphrodisiac powers of unagi sushi.
I got two compliments after the show that I will never forget.
One man said I made him laugh so hard that I triggered an asthma attack forcing him to leave the room with his inhaler.
Literally almost killed a guy. Gotta love that.
Then a very shy lady approached me.
“New York?” she asked in heavily accented English.
“Yes,” I answered. “New York.”
“Brooklyn!” she said.
“I came from Brooklyn. Yes.”
She thought for a minute, then said laboriously: “You…very…funny.”
Remembering the “save face” advice, I deflected her compliment by paying her one.
“No, you’re funny.”
She closed her eyes, searching for the right English words and then ambushed me with the famous Pesci line from “Goodfellas”: “Funny? Funny how? Like clown? What, am I here to amuse you? What is so fuckin’ funny about me!?”
Then she was gone into the crowd, her panda-shaped backpack bobbing with each step, before I could tell her to go get her shine box.
* * *
Prior to the long flight home to New York the next morning, I took a stroll to see if I could score a gift for the wife, something with an easily removable “Made In China” sticker. Off the main street I spotted an alley with a shop crammed into a space the size of a tool shed. As I walked towards it, I heard a strange chirping sound. I assumed it came from one of the many flying robotic toys they were selling, but I trailed the noise to a giant cricket, trapped in a clear plastic cylinder about the size of a kazoo. It had no room to move, only chirping through a hole at the end. The casing had a horseshoe-shaped sliver of celery for its prisoner to nibble on, but it was unreachable because it had slid down to the box’s butt end and there was no room for the cricket to turn around.
I suddenly felt an overwhelming moral compulsion to free the cricket, so I bought him, tucked him into my pocket, and found a small park with a patch of grass by a pond. I opened the case and deposited the cricket onto the grass, where he lay, quiet and motionless. His legs were probably busted from being shoved in that tube and now I was just leaving him out, a helpless, crippled cricket frog snack, with my wishy-washy Western intentions. But, after a couple minutes, his legs started to unfold. He took a few wobbly hops, stopped, then shot off into the tall reeds without so much as a wink.
On the plane, I scribbled “setting the cricket free” on a napkin.
I wanted it to be a metaphor for me facing down fears, but instead it sounded like a code for something I did to myself when I was a lonely teenager.
I tucked the napkin in my pocket and watched three Bollywood blockbusters in a row. In each one, impossibly good-looking actors stopped mid-action sequence, to star in lavishly choreographed dance sequences.
Explosion. Gunfight. Car-chase. Electric Slide.
As I nodded off, I wondered if my bit about the tobacco shop in my hood that sells bootleg containers of chicken curry, made by a lady with one eyebrow who always looks surprised, would translate in New Delhi.