Probably one of my weirdest experiences was in Chengdu, when a building exploded while I was brushing my teeth, and laughing hysterically. Standing on the pavement, laughing my head off, while debris rained down around me. Just to make it worse, I had toothpaste dripping down my chin. Once the initial shock wore off, everyone started looking at me and my comrade. We were the only (visible) foreigners, and I guess we stood out. But first, let me back up a bit and explain how this happened.
I woke up early that morning with a terrible taste in my mouth. Rolling out of my bunk, I proceeded to rummage through my bag, only to discover that yesterday’s plump tube of toothpaste was today’s minty mess. Somehow, the lid had fallen off, and the contents of the tube were now splattered everywhere. But, I was desperate, so I tried to find some usable toothpaste. Unfortunately, over the years the bottom of my backpack has become a bit of a swamp, and the toothpaste had basically mated with the dirt and strange grey stuff that usually hides under my first aid kit.
By the time I’d finished breakfast, I’d discovered that drinking coffee while your mouth tastes like the Beijing subway is pretty much a death sentence for anyone who gets close enough to smell your breath. With this revelation in mind, I decided that before I did anything else, I’d buy some toothpaste. On the way out of the hostel, I ran into a comrade who I was supposed to be spending the day with. Trying not to open my mouth, I explained that I needed to find a convenience store.
By the time we found a store, I had relaxed a little. Turns out that no matter how bad your breath is, Chengdu’s air is always worse. Nonetheless, we stopped at a store, and I grabbed some toothpaste. On the way out, however, I saw this:
For an 18 year old, this basically constituted the pinnacle of humour, and we both left the store trying to come up with as many jokes as possible about the unfortunate translation. Chuckling, I started brushing my teeth, and Jesus Christ it felt good. All of a sudden, it was like a happiness overload. I was grinning like mad, relishing that feeling of clean teeth.
Then, there was the explosion. A building to my right just seemed randomly decide to go supernova. Maybe fifty metres from the ground, the side of the office block erupted into flames. Glass went everywhere, and a billboard mounted on the side of the building groaned, then snapped off. Neon Chinese characters shattered as the block of steel and glass hit the pavement.
There was surprisingly little panic. People just nervously stood around, jaws gaping. Nobody seemed to know what to do. On the street at least, no one seemed injured. No screams, just smoke and debris.
Soon a crowd gathered, but still nobody really seemed to do anything. Then, slowly, I started to draw attention. I’d forgotten that I’d been brushing my teeth, and my toothbrush was now dangling from my mouth, oozing toothpaste. As the eyes started turning to me, I became conscious of just how stupid I looked. Trying to illustrate why the brush was there, I started brushing my teeth again, smiling. “Dude, stop that, you look like an idiot,” my comrade muttered, elbowing me. Awkwardly, I pocketed my toothbrush, without even rinsing it.
Sirens drew closer, and given the looks we were getting from the crowd my comrade wanted to leave. “Yeah, let’s just, back away slowly,” I agreed. And so we left, with dozens of eyes watching.