The good news was that the room was free. Nearly everything else about the Beijing Language Institute, unfortunately, was bad news. Especially the roaches.
Normally, they don't bother me. My family grew up in Hawaii and I remember encountering titanic tropical roaches with regularity. Even restaurant roaches don't faze me. If they're not in my food and not on my body, they are of minor consequence. I learned very quickly, however, that the roaches residing on the seventh floor of the Beijing Language Institute were of major consequence.
The Beijing Language Institute -- a collection of stark high-rises that have come to symbolize cutting-edge Communist architecture -- attracts students from all over the world. Most come to study Mandarin Chinese and soak up the sights, smells and sounds of Beijing's shanty 'hoods that extend from the city center like shock waves.
My one friend in Beijing, Andrew, had convinced his kindly roommate Eljain to let my fellow traveler Kris and me stay in their dorm room on our first night. Eljain was a stout man who still referred to his native Azerbaijan as Russia. When pressed about the harmful effects of spraying noxious pesticide to combat the cavalcade of roaches festering in his room, Eljain bellowed, "In Russia, we use this spray for mouthwash!"
I wasn't about to dispute his claim. Besides, I had seen only a few small roaches scurrying and I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. I was more concerned with the bathrooms. The backwash from a clogged squat toilet had joined forces with the overflow from a ruptured shower main and the resulting deluge was seeping into the hallway.
So I was actually relieved to settle into bed -- a wooden slab covered by a quarter-inch rubber mattress barely wide enough for Kris and me to sleep head to foot. It was oppressively hot that night and I had difficulty falling asleep. I finally slipped into a fitful slumber, my thoughts fading into the shouts and cicadas in the courtyard below.
When I awoke, it was still dark. I was sweating copiously, Kris' feet were staring me in the face and there was a cockroach meandering along my left cheek ridge, presumably heading toward my eye. I managed to head him off at my nose with a solid slap to the face.
Determined to remain vigilant and driven by my feverish fears, I fought to stay awake. I entertained warped roach scenarios: What if that first roach was a scout and its disappearance had signaled a colony-wide assault? The nightmarish possibilities seemed infinite. But ultimately my fears gave way to exhaustion and I was once again teetering on the edge of repose.
It was then, as if some B-movie horror director had cued the scene, that I awoke to the blood-curdling sensation of a cockroach burrowing into my ear. As in most insect-related emergencies, the details that followed the initial orifice penetration remain sketchy. Especially at 3 a.m. Especially in Beijing.
I erupted and, as a course of reflex, started clawing at my ear. When my spasms subsided, I persuaded Kris to fill my ear with ethyl alcohol in a desperate attempt to flush the roach.
As it turned out, the roach had apparently fled sometime during my initial upheaval. As far as I knew, however, the little guy was forging ever deeper, driving toward my cerebral cortex.
Andrew, who had been sleeping on the slab next to us, awoke to find Kris examining my inner ear with a pen light. He immediately gathered what was happening. "They're scared of bright light," he calmly warned. "If you keep shining that in his ear, it'll only go deeper."
This was a very real concern at the time. I disclosed my theory that the roach was already nesting and preparing to lay eggs. In an effort to dispel that thought, I began searching my bed for the offending roach. And that was when I peeled back our thin rubber mattress and exposed the colony. There were close to 100 roaches scheming how to violate my body.
So that was the big deal. Andrew just shook his head and rolled over to go back to sleep. "You're not supposed to look under there."