Get in the car and don’t ask any questions.
That’s the last thing I remember my friend telling me before he got in the car.
Here I was, stuck in China at 2 am being forced into a large van with people I just met.
As soon as I got in, I surveyed my surroundings.
4 Asian men, all of them with shaved heads, all with tattoos on their arms, chest, and back.
That only meant one thing.
My friend (who speaks Chinese) starts talking with these guys to see what they have planned for us.
It turns out they wanted to show us a good time.
A nice meal, a dance club, and a private karaoke bar before the sun comes up.
All of this is to replay a favor from a friend of a friend from years ago.
Strange culture, but I’m not asking any questions.
Once in the van, a phone rings and the leader picks it up.
The van is silent and my friend is trying to understand the phone conversation as best he can.
Suddenly, he turns ghost white. He says nothing to me at that moment.
He didn’t need to – I knew something was up – but I was too drunk to care.
Here I was, an American, living it up and having the time of my life – while these guys were making phone calls to ensure our safety and that money got to where it needed to be that night.
I make a comment about one of the guy’s nice white shoes.
That was a mistake.
Turns out they are some fancy Gucci shoes and only cost him $1200.
He offers to loan me money so I can buy my own pair.
I respectfully decline the offer, slowly counting my fingers and toes, grateful that none of them would be removed after borrowing money from these guys.
The next thing I know the van stops.
In the middle of the freeway.
These guys weren’t worried about stopping traffic or police bothering them.
One of them steps out to releave himself – that’s when my friend and I make eye contact and he starts whispering to me.
It turns out that phone call, the one that turned him 50 Shades of Grey, had a story behind it.
It seems one of the high rollers at a local mob controlled casino had just broken up with his girlfriend, who was also a working girl and working for this gang.
I guess this girl took the news pretty hard because she complained about this to her boss.
Well long story short, the phone call was between the gangster and the high roller. The gangster demeaned payment from the high roller to the girl to the tune of $100,000 to show how sorry he was from breaking up with her.
If, the higher roller didn’t want to pay up, then the gangster couldn’t guarantee his safety anywhere in China.
I’m not going to repeat exactly what I was told, but lets just say, if this guy didn’t pay, death would have been a welcomed guest compared to what they threatened him with.
I started looking for a way to get out of the van at that moment.
My chance came a few minutes later when we arrived at the karaoke bar.
We had circled the bar for a good 20 minutes before being allowed inside.
There was a good reason for this – two days earlier these gangsters had beaten up a rival gang outside the club and they wanted to make sure none of those guys had come back to shoot up the place that night.
How thoughtful of them 😉
We were whisked from the van to the club in a matter of seconds and locked into a private room for what seemed like an eternity.
Then the door opened.
Food, beer, wine, and an assortment of new friends poured in.
I had one beer, which turned to 12 quickly.
Songs were sang, friendships made, and beer (lots of it) drank.
But, I kept looking for a way out.
All I could imagine was being locked up in some Chinese prison for the rest of my life because I got into a van with a bunch of gangsters who instead of killing us (like I first thought) were trying to feed and drink us to death.
I had to escape.
I stumbled to the bathroom and then made my way downstairs.
I told the bartender I needed a cab in my best English/Chinese/Drunk Guy speak.
He handed me a box of condoms.
“No you idiot – those guys up stairs are going to kill me if you don’t get me out of here like now.”
I stumbled outside and now I was determined to get a cab myself.
In the middle of China, drunk off my ass, and speaking exactly two words of Chinese, I Tim Castleman was going to find my way back to the hotel (who’s name I couldn’t even remember).
That’s when I felt the hand on my shoulder.
I didn’t want to turn around but I didn’t have much of a choice.
When I did – guess who was starring back at me?
Why the head gangster of course.
I mumble about not feeling well and wanting to go back to the hotel and rest (aka please don’t kill me).
He looked at me and then he was on the phone again.
Was he calling in a hit squad, was he calling a cab for me, or was he making arrangements for my funeral – I had no idea.
In less than a minute a brand new Ranger Rover pulls up the club.
He opens the door and points to back seat and for me to get in.
This is it. This is where the life and times of Tim Castleman come to an end, or so I thought.
Before I go he grabs my hand to shake it.
He does more than that though, after shaking my hand he rubs his forehead all over my hand and then looks me in the eyes and says:
“You will always have a home in China. My family is your family, and your family is mine. If you need anything please call me.”
So now I’m wondering what should I do in return? Do I rub my sweat and fear soaked forehead all over him or do I just jump in this sweet ride and pray I make it back safely.
I opt for the car.
In a few minutes we’re speeding down the freeway again on the way back to the hotel.
Attempting to find out if I was going to be killed or not I try to make small talk.
Ummm, this is a really nice SUV you have here, it looks different on the outside than Ranger Rover’s in the USA.
His broken English tells me why.
“It’s bulletproof” he manages to get out as my genitals shrunk inside of me.
We drove the rest of the trip in silence.
It’s not like I didn’t try to speak, just nothing would come out.
A few minutes later I was dropped off at my hotel. Before I made it inside the driver yelled for me.
As I walked over to the car all I could think about is how close I had come to getting home safe and now my life was over.
He handed me a card that was written in Chinese. He wrote a number on the back of the card and in broken English basically told me that if I needed anything call that number. That number was always answered no matter time of day it was.
I thanked him, stumbled to the elevator and waited for the ride back to my room.
One the elevator doors closed, I paused and looked in the mirror at myself.
I was safe.
The next morning my friend and I said nothing to each other.
It turns out that he stayed with his new buddies for a few more hours until the bar closed and the check came.
They gave him the same car to come home in, only this time, 2 vans followed him as well.
Once the car arrived at the hotel they told him to exit quickly and run into the hotel.
Someone was following them.
He did as instructed and our new Chinese friends disappeared into the night.
I still have that card and every once in a while I’m tempted to drunk dial those guys and thank them for the amazing night I’ll never forget.
But then I remember how much I like my body being in one piece and the temptation fades.
What a crazy night.