The Beau Soleil
My Time at The China Shuck-Off
Prologue: Flashpoints and Friendships
Flashpoint: It’s Halloween. A close friend of mine is dressed as a princess. She wants to introduce me to a guy she’s seeing. His name is Mike. He goes to an acting conservatory in town. He bounds past us wearing a baby blue crop-top and a white, animal-eared hat. My friend grabs him by the arm and swings him around to introduce us. He is in a rush. It’s not that he has someplace to be, it’s just that Mike always seems like he’s just been shot out of a cannon.
A friendship is made of little bursts of data, memories where vapours gather and ignite.
Flashpoint: Mike and his acting conservatory friends, all now graduated, have started a theatre company. They’ve taken over a short play festival. It’s the after-party at the small but mighty Little Mountain Gallery. Mike clears a path through the party-goers dancing on stage. He gets a running start. He leaps feet-first through the air and puts himself right through a cheap, plastic, beer-pong table.
One of the wonders of friendship is how well it can be sustained by the whole-food of memory.
Flashpoint: I’m living with Mike several months after I’ve failed at marriage. I’ve written a one-person show about how you pick yourself up after loss. Mike is the first person to read it. I sit across from him watching his facial expressions while he drinks his morning tea, eats his morning kimchi, and steps into my intimacy.
A memory sparkles into your mind.
Flashpoint: I’m on my way to Kits Beach with a book and a blanket. My phone rings. It’s Mike, his voice shaking. I hail the first cab I see. I run inside his apartment. A year before, I lived here with him. I come through the front door and he tells me he’s all right. I hug him and he throbs, chest heaving in my arms.
There’s a photo I don’t recall being taken on that Halloween-night we met. I’m wearing a purple shirt and a porkpie hat. I’ve taken off my thick glasses and fake moustache. He’s dressed as Finn from Adventure Time and I’m Gene Shalit, Entertainment Weekly’s movie reviewer. Though we stand apart, the roots of our meeting are preserved forever in this physical photograph.
When I found out Mike won a major Oyster-Shucking Championship and was being sent across the globe for the World Final, I decided to look up flights. There was a seat sale from Vancouver, on Mike’s exact flights, into Shanghai and out of Beijing.
The world is full of mystery and excitement. Sometimes you receive an invitation. Sometimes you have to invite yourself. I booked the flight. I couldn’t pass up the chance to inject several more flashpoints into our dim, boyish heads.
- The Airport
On May 20th, 2018, we left Vancouver for Shanghai. I got to the airport and Mike was already there with Malindi Taylor. Malindi was there to do PR for Mike’s employers: Fanny Bay Restaurant and Taylor Shellfish.
I met them in a fancy airport-bar where they drank mimosas with another man, Ben Wolven from Denver. Vancouver is the main hub where all flights intersect and connect to China. Ben is a fine-dining restaurant manager who was competing in the Wild Card portion of the World Championship. The top three finishers in the Wild Card get to compete in the finals with the other national champs. From there, who knows? It’s oyster shucking after all, there’s certainly a few elements of luck.
Ben has brown hair and a square jaw. He looks like Clark Kent. He looks like a New England Patriots fan. He has a five month-old son at home. On the plane, he suggested trying to trade seats with someone next to Mike and Malindi so that we could all ‘get shitty’ on the flight over. I concurred. We left Vancouver at 11:20 am and got into China around 2 o’clock the next afternoon. We lost the first day entirely to time zones and sky.
In Shanghai, I was staying with my friend and his girlfriend in the French Commission. China was more beautiful than I expected it to be. There are amazing knotty trees lining the road, canopied over the street. People sell breakfast sandwiches and savory pancakes out of frontages in their homes. You can sit on a stool in an open-air living room to take fresh noodles and sauce.
The friend I stayed with worked as a helicopter mechanic. I met him when I backpacked in Europe the year before. We went for a quick dinner and he set me up with a key. He had to fly out that evening to fix some broken-down chopper in remote China. For us, the timing was off.
He dropped me at a small wine bar called Osteria to meet Mike and the Shuck-Off crew. Osteria’s sign was underlined with a broad ribbon of oyster-shells that looked like the bodies of pigeons. It had the feel of a speakeasy with the class of a marble countertop. The man behind the bar was the owner. He was also the organizer of the China Shuck-Off. His name is Rudy Guo.
Flashpoint: Mike and I high-five. He’s been here a few hours. Rudy pours me a complimentary Cab Sav and Mike jumps behind the ice-boxed section of the bar. He shows off how comfortable he’s already become. This is one of Mike’s gifts: he easily finds himself at home.
Mike shucks an oyster for each of us, one for Rudy, and welcomes me to this place where I am completely alien. From that point forward, Rudy treats me as if I’m part of the group — this initial pact of oysters includes me. As soon as Mike begins to shuck, the barmen crowd around to watch his craft. They’re almost awed by him.
Then a young, white kid in a backwards ball cap, plain t-shirt, and silver chain sidles behind the ice. The barmen leave Mike and keel over to Honor Allen, the U.S. champ. He comes from Florida. He vapes like a clambake. There are no oysters on order, he just keeps shucking. Honor takes practice more seriously than any other participant in the event. For Honor, all is reps.
My polite Canadian demeanor is in shock. Oysters are a premium in China, shipped from across the world. There is no such thing as ‘buck a shuck’. I’m getting antsy as Honor fills plate after plate when Lynnea — another member of the Taylor Shellfish empire — grabs Mike and I by the elbows and rushes us out to a cab.
I will often feel like an extra, a tag-along, an annoying little brother on this trip. We get to the cab and it’s already partially full, there’s only room for two. Mike sits confidently and Lynnea shoves me down against him. Then she hops on top of all three of us in the back. Sprawled out, she shouts something in Mandarin and away we go.
The other man in the back bench of the cab was Lynnea’s dad, Jeff Pearson. It takes me a few days to figure out all the connections. Jeff is in his fifties, he’s got curly, grey hair and a gap between his front teeth. He’s stout and his party ethic is through the roof. He is one of the heads of Taylor Shellfish.
Throughout the trip, he and his wife, Janet, will treat me with hospitality I won’t forget. That night, we went for authentic Szechuan; spicy food that doesn’t burn both ways. Later, in Beijing, they took Mike and I for lamb at a place called Ninety-Nine Yurts. All ninety-nine yurt dining rooms were equipped with their own karaoke machines and a Mongolian ritual-carving of your lamb. You divide the lamb portions by spinning the lazy-susan and rip pieces off the carcass with your bare hands. On the final day of the trip, we ended up at the most revered Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing. Billionaire skincare-baroness, Jessica Alba, walked past us on her way in.
At the Szechuan restaurant, water was scarce and beer was copious. We damaged countless non-disposable chopsticks, plunking the caps from our bottles. Jeff introduced Mike and I to Baiju, a clear, traditional, Chinese liquor made from Sorghum flower. It tastes more like whiskey than vodka and can be up to seventy-five percent alcohol. You drink it from a tiny, half-ounce chalice.
“Gum Bai!” translates to “Bottoms Up!” When someone shouts it, you finish your drink. People are shouting it all the time. The phrase reminded Jeff of Joe Harty. In a hushed tone, he leaned over to Janet and said, “I don’t want Mike to meet Joe.” He turned to us and deadpanned: “Joe is the devil.”
Every time I used the bathroom there was a different patron throwing up in a stall. Malindi fell asleep at the table. Late in the dinner, I discovered Mike in the next room, smoking cigarettes with locals who were dropping fish from their soup on to a plate he was eating from.
Back at Mike’s hotel, the other shuckers pickled around the lounge: Xavier Caille, from Paris, with twisty, white hair and beaded bracelets cooling his joints like eels in buckets; his wife, who would cock Isabelle Huppert’s head; the Clark Brothers, Wild Card favourites and contemporaries of Honor Allen, from the same community in Florida — Chris Clark, stable as a tree trunk, always shucking, headphones-in, to a Slipknot tune and slamming the table in front of him, win or lose; Brian Clark, who will go on to win the US championship the following year; and Jessica, Brian’s wife, who films every one of his heats, even when they’re just for fun. Joe Harty was no where to be found.
It’s the Clarks and Honor who first verbalized to me that shucking is really about community. All marginalized specialties are. I work in the theatre which is as necessarily marginalized as activities get. It is inherently local. The main event is the show but the real attraction is the audience; the people who share the passion for this something that is your thing.
Human beings were put on Earth to play. We each have our own trivial little practice we put time into to become an expert at; to distract ourselves from life but also to celebrate the ecstaticness of it. Anything obscure you can think of has a world championship: the care-taking of golf courses; stenography; exhibition event-planning. These are all real tournaments.
The China Shuck-Off is colourful. There are as many unique personalities as professional wrestling. Is an Oyster-Shucking World Champion that hard to believe? Oysters, after all, have such beautiful names: Sunseekers, French Kisses, and my favourite, the Beau Soleil.
4. The Plump Oyster
Flashpoint: Rudy owns another restaurant in Shanghai called the Plump Oyster. For the festivities of the China Shuck-Off, he had his staff construct a beautiful, rooftop patio. Eventually, after we leave China, this bar will become known as Botanik and win Timeout Magazine’s 2018 Award for Best Restaurant in Shanghai.
Some initial shucking heats take place with Eamon Clark, the defending world champ, commentating louder than Rudy despite his lack of microphone. Most of Eamon’s comments have to do with the lady on an adjacent rooftop hanging her underwear to dry on a clothesline.
The bartender feeds us endless Palomas. He tells me the staff of the restaurant — the servers, managers, the bartenders — hauled every piece of wood up to the roof themselves. This is China. There was a cool row of bars near my friend’s house. One night, after too many noise complaints, the city moved the entire row across town. Another night, over a hundred-thousand Chinese workers showed up and built a new train station in less than sixteen hours.
The Plump Oyster is decorated with a full salmon that must weigh fifty pounds. Mike and Ben pick it up and toss it like a football to each other across the bar.
5. Soft Feet
We got taken advantage of at the fake market — a bee hive of knock-off shops in an underground lair populated by cunning Chinese salesmonsters. I spent forty bucks on a pair of Vans shoes that walked like they cost ten. I got separated from Mike and Ben and had to buy a pair of ‘Beets’ by Dre headphones in order to access a shop’s wifi. Mike was busy on a quest to buy ten rings so he could pretend to be Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War.
We split in the direction of Dim Sum and ran into the shucking champion of Singapore, Ricky Chong. We ate old food in a cafeteria at the center of Shanghai tourism. Ben was sick in bed the entire next day.
The haggling ladies were Vaudeville legends. One woman snatched a piece of gum out of Ben’s hand. She cackled, turned, and convinced me to buy a stapler that stitches clothes. In turn, Mike tried to sell the ladies his rings. Mike also bought two pairs of raybans at the fake market and, walking through town, wore both pairs at once. When someone tried to sell him more sunglasses he pulled the top-pair off, David Caruso-style, and revealed the second underneath. We were swept up entirely in the hysteria of commerce.
I left Mike’s side for a second and he negotiated twenty dollar foot massages. We followed a lady away from the crowded marketplace and down a side street. Ricky spoke a little Mandarin and it helped a lot. The woman led us out of the tourist area and into old Shanghai. We walked for half an hour until the road was no longer paved. Stray cats were everywhere and I felt the same.
We got to a storefront full of locals chattering away while other men rubbed their feet. At the sight of tourists, they hopped up and gestured for us to take their spots in leather chairs. The massage started with upper body work that has altered my posture forever. The locals laughed and pointed when Mike and Ben took off their shirts. I was quiet throughout and surprised at the end when my masseuse asked me to pose for a picture.
On freshly-softened feet, we walked back to the hotel. My friends went in for a rest. I walked the half hour back to my place. It was pure good fortune that I was staying so close.
I walked past Chinese pottery stores and dress shops and thought about the presents I would’ve bought if this trip happened two years before. One of the gifts of travelling is forced presence. It’s why people often ‘find’ themselves while away. You stop thinking about where you’ve been or where you’re going and allow yourself to be where you are. You have to. For a few moments though, I let the past rush through me.
I thought about what happened to Mike before the trip. He’d flown home to Saskatchewan to be with his mom. He thought he might have to cancel his plan to come overseas. But time away is a salve. In a place as distant as China, doing something as crazy as trying to win the World Oyster-Shucking Championship, you have no choice but to dive, feet-first, into the present.
6. The Revolution
Flashpoint: It’s our final night in the city, we’re getting up at 6 am to catch a train to Beijing. Most people are having a chill night-in.
I come through the doors of Osteria. A vampire of a man, ruddy-skinned and wild-eyed is speaking to the bartender in an accent so thickly Irish he seems like he stumbled out of a Guy Ritchie flick. He could be a character in a Martin Mcdonagh play, a ghost, exiled from Hell and across town after too many noise complaints. He’s howling and pointing at a bottle of Jameson’s, demanding the poor barboy give him the whole thing. This can only be Joe Harty.
Honor Allen is with us. He is recently married and not usually a heavy drinker. Tonight he is. Tonight we all are. Anyone in that bar with an eye toward an early night is torpedoed by Joe Harty and that bottle of Jameson’s, not to mention the bottle that followed.
The barboy hides the Jameson’s behind a stack of decorative books. The second my glass is empty, Joe walks behind the bar, pushes the books aside, and pours the whiskey himself. He phones an associate, beckons us outside where his cigarette waits for him, already lit, and hails a cab.
There are surprisingly few Chinese people at Revolucion Cocktail. The bartender has a tower of red hair that mirrors his pointy goatee. He’s more goat than anything. He’s got mongrel teeth. There’s a neon-sign above the dance floor that reads ‘Hell is Empty and All the Devils are Here!’ I can count at least two of them.
There are pretty boys and pretty girls. They’re good at making you feel wanted. It’s easy to make extended eye-contact. Then you notice they’re making extended eye-contact with everyone. Mike meets a receptive German girl. He asks her if she smokes but she says no. He replies: “Me neither, wanna go outside and pretend we do?” and disappears into the warm, Shanghai night.
7. The Rules
There’s an inherent problem with the way an oyster-shucking competition is judged. Each competitor starts off with either eighteen or thirty oysters. The winner is whoever has the best time, minus penalties.
Shuckers are assessed penalties for pierced bellies, non-detached adductor muscles, dropped oysters, and broken grit from the shell–or blood from the shucker–entering the edible section of the oyster. Bonus points are awarded for superior plating. The penalties vary based on offense, but four seconds per fault is a typical baseline. The penalty-time a single shucker may accumulate is usually between twenty-four and forty-eight seconds.
The competition is exciting; the crowd chants, “Shuck! Shuck! Shuck! Shuck!” The competitors move quickly and deliberately. It’s a ballet of specificity with the added risk of knives. The shucker who finishes first raises his hands and half the crowd spins around in triumph or defeat. The others chant on. The shucker who finishes first is rarely crowned winner.
Speed is nothing compared to quality. The scoring itself takes time. Viewers can’t usually see the oysters themselves. There could be a mirror above the competitors, the tournament could be presented in an amphitheatre with spectators looking down on the action, but would the naked eye of an amateur detect what it takes specialists, up close, a few minutes to analyze? Oyster shucking will never be admitted to the Olympics and will always be a marginal competition that mostly appeals to experts.
And that’s okay. Like theatre, one of shucking’s most alluring concepts is that it’s not for everyone. There is a barrier of accessibility. It is sort of ephemeral. It is a kind of phantom. It is only for you.
The World Championships took place in Beijing, at the East Beijing Hotel, where most of the shuckers were staying. It cost $250 per night. I didn’t have any friends in Beijing so I booked a single room online, in a hostel five-minutes from the hotel.
By the time I got the information to book a train from Shanghai to Beijing, the schedule the shuckers were on was sold out. I rode alone, an hour later, and memorized maps while I had the luxury of wifi.
I got to the hotel with the plan of heading to my hostel but I was immediately met by Cannonball Mike. I couldn’t text him while I was riding. I had no data. He managed to stall the group before dinner, but I had to be ready to leave right now.
We went to Ninety-Nine Yurts. The goat-carving ritual was accompanied by a full song and dance. The performers were masters of flirty eye-contact. This is what separates a decent live performer from a great one — the ability to make the viewer feel like they’re the only one in the room; the ability of the performer to make a roomful of people feel like that.
We got back from dinner around midnight. I still hadn’t checked into my room. I walked with Mike and a couple of new friends from Nova Scotia: Matt & Emily. They felt as alien in this group as I did, on the outskirts of the community, less loud than the young shuckers and less successful than the old. They were also on their way to an offsite hotel. Wild Card shuckers had to pay their own way.
We hunted for Jai Lu Building One. We found Building Two. We found building Three. Where Building One should’ve been there was only some burnt-down ruins.
People in Beijing do not speak English. When you try to talk to them they wave you off. At first I thought this was rude but by the end of the trip I realized it was the gestural language of the city.
The way people drive in China is terrifying. Lanes are suggestions. You don’t stop until you absolutely must. There are so many people in China that their driving has a chaotic elegance; a necessary efficiency. In the same way, an aggressively dismissive wave — “I can’t help you because I can’t understand you” — is a brisk gesture that saves everyone time.
I released Matt & Emily from the obligation of keeping me company. We had to be up early the next day. We were going to the Great Wall of China. Mike and I got back to the hotel and he went up to bed too, promising he’d keep his phone near his ear.
I asked the front desk for their best English-speaking employee. After an hour, he found me a spot for $85 a night. He wrote instructions in Chinese on a sticky note and hailed me a cab. It was 1:30 AM. I had to be back in the lobby by 7:00.
My cabbie pulled up in front of a brothel. I pointed at the address written on my sticky note and said “hotel?” The driver pointed at the epileptic-blinking sign that said “Spa.” What could I do?
A man with no shirt screamed at the front desk clerks. I waited my turn while he drunkenly weaved himself into the elevator. I handed the clerk my note and she charged my credit card.
A barely-dressed woman shouldered a man to the desk beside me. He was so drunk he put his face down on the cold, marble in front of him. I bet it felt good. The clerk gave me a key and a nod of the head. The elevator was half-submerged in watery puke. I prayed for the first time in months.
In my room, the walls were filthy and the tile floor had a chez lounge deckchair in the middle. Sometimes you find yourself in a spa in China wanting to scream: ‘Why can’t things be okay? Why can’t I fix this?’ But, there was a bed too, so my prayers didn’t go completely unanswered. I thoroughly checked the room for bed bugs and fell asleep just before 3:00 AM.
9. The Great Wall
Flashpoint: Mike is running toward me from across the crowd at The Great Wall of China. A popular novelty act is the ‘Shuck and Slurp.’ Each competitor is teamed with a spectator. The shucker has to open six oysters while their teammate slurps them down. A team isn’t finished until the spectator swallows the last oyster.
From where the bus drops us, we trek a half-hour up some of the steepest stairs I’ve ever seen. Some are two-feet tall and six-inches wide. The oysters are carried in heavy boxes. Rudy is standing on the Wall announcing the ‘Shuck and Slurp,’ looking for volunteers. Mike is breathless when he reaches me and looks in my eyes.
“Don’t do it.” He gets out between gulps of air. “Don’t eat those oysters.” The midday sun is brutal. I reapply sunscreen every ten minutes. The oyster boxes are no longer filled with ice. I’m lucky to have someone looking out for me.
We’re on the Great Wall of China. If not one of the seven wonders of the world, why not? I can’t care to watch people break open shells. I’m marvelling, eating ice cream, drinking snuck-up cans of beer, avoiding Rudy’s eye contact while he hunts for competitors. I walk away from the group, up a length of cobbled stone. I watch the greenery and the Wall roll in every direction as far as I can even think.
My dad loves oysters. When I told him I was going on this trip, I saw the wheels in his head turn, figuring if he could come with me; tag along with the tag-along.
Fathers watch their sons evolve and condense until it’s like looking in a startling mirror. The mirror is even more startling for the son. No one wants to be their dad and no dad wants to hear that his son doesn’t want to be him. Fathers can love you and pick you up and make you okay again when you are in a Chinese spa ready to scream.
Eamon Clark’s dad founded Rodney’s, one of the biggest oyster restaurants in Canada. He is oyster royalty. He is also a father himself. Ben is a dad too. He has his own complicated relationship with fathers that he confides in me but asks to keep off the record. Some people want their stories held closely and privately. Others want their stories told. They believe in the power of the telling.
The vastness of the Great Wall of China spills something inside of me. I want to run across it, looking for Mike. I want to put my hands on his shoulders, look him in the eye and take care of him like he took care of me — kept those poisoned little oysters out of my mouth. I want to give him permission.
I want to let him be angry; at his dad and at the world. I want to pull his hand and run away from the crowd. I want to howl and throb and scream over the side of the Great Wall of China. I want to steal some lady’s walking pole and beat it over the rocks. I want to give the stick to Mike and let him weaponize it, thrash it at everything and everyone, smash it against the stones until a part of history itself crumbles. I want to watch him crack a marvel in two. Like it’s only some silly crustacean. I want him to split the Beau Soleil so light and sun rip the world apart. It isn’t fair.
Just before we left on this trip, Mike’s dad died. ‘He’s in a better place’ wouldn’t cut it; ‘it’s all right’ was a platitude; ‘moving on’ was an insult. I want Mike’s dad back. I want him back. I only met him once but I miss him too, the guy Mike describes, the one he’ll eulogize, I miss him for my friend.
I will never forget the sound of Mike’s voice when he called me just after he found out. I was on my way to the beach. I ran into the apartment we’d lived in together and I held him in my arms. I had to cry in the cab because I needed to save the tears in the house for him. I couldn’t take any of them. All I could do was make room. I remember being afraid of doing something wrong and then realizing it was impossible to do anything right.
The oyster shuckers put everything into the competition, into their knives. It must be good for Mike to have something to focus on. Even more than the China Shuck-Off, Mike puts his everything into the new friends he’s making and into the old one he’s brought along. He knows the preciousness of bonds. When you have something so obscure in common as shucking oysters; as repairing motorcycles; as public speaking; as literature; as fishing trips; as a new lawnmower; as the workshop; as the hockey game; as seeing a show; as hunting; as music; as blood — the bond is instant. It spans miles and miles and miles.
Life is utterly nullifying. Yet, we find so much to be ecstatic about. We press our shoulders back, put our hearts forward, and find a way to catch our breath. When you open an oyster, it is alive. It’s raw. The brine is wet with life like the coughs of passengers on commuter trains. And when you swallow that oyster down, it still hasn’t died inside of you.
11. The Wild Card
Mike had only been shucking for eight months. Some of the people in the China Shuck-Off have been shucking their entire lives. With fire in his eyes, he told me his goal: “Just so long as I don’t finish last.” It was a reasonable expectation among the best shuckers on Earth. As the day went on, he began to believe. There were eighteen shuckers competing in the World Cup and the top six would go on to compete in the finals. He soon asked the question, “What if I make top-six?” It’s oyster shucking after all, there’s certainly a few elements of luck.
It was hard to find a friend on the day of the Shuck-Off. Everyone was prepping and practicing at various bars around the East Beijing Hotel. They were plating $25 oysters with the precision of mechanical engineers. I eventually came upon Matt Dean Pettit. For a while I thought he was a shucker too but his lack of nerves gave him away. He’s a chef from Toronto who recently put out a seafood cookbook. He has a retail line of quality, microwavable dinners in Sobey’s and Loblaws called Matty’s Seafood. He had a VIP bracelet and snuck me a complimentary glass of Cab Sav. He introduced me as ‘press’ to Beijing’s finest restaurateurs. He’s the type of person you want to surround yourself with, someone whose default is to believe in you and raise your status. One of the reasons why Matty’s own status is so high is because of his skill to elevate those around him. Important people are with important people.
I found my friends from Nova Scotia, Matt & Emily. We shut our eyes and bought $15 beers. Matt was self-deprecating about how he’d do in the Wild Card. Every competitor I spoke with was the same. One reason Matt was so nervous was because he was usually hammered when he shucked. It’s difficult to get hammered on $15 beers.
Ben was intense. This competition meant the world to him. He believed he could win. The Clark brothers were favourites. Johan Malm from Sweden had been world champion before. Xavier from Paris shucked like he was making love. Another competitor, Mike Langley, had been in the oyster-shucking game for a long time. Duke Landry from Louisiana was a former US champ who shucked slow but deliberate with very few penalties.
The Wild Card spanned three separate heats to determine the final World Championship entrants. Ben shucked well, finished second in his heat but by then I knew that hardly mattered. Duke finished second last but that mattered even less. Chris Clark dropped an oyster and slammed his hands against the table. Brian Clark’s wife filmed and nibbled her fingertips. Johan was inconsolable when he was done. I’ve never met a shucker who didn’t believe they were terrible immediately after finishing. Except Eamon Clark.
At the end of the Wild Card heats the results were announced. Duke shocked everyone by placing first. He had one penalty out of eighteen oysters. Brian Clark came in second. He smiled humbly while his wife cheered her head off.
There was a tie for third.
Ben finished with the exact same time as Mike Langley, down to a tenth of a second. One would go on to the World Cup and the other would be eliminated. It would come down to who had more penalties and, even then, the two were only separated by one infraction.
One tiny, little piece of grit was all that kept Ben Wolven from achieving his goal of making the World Final. Mike Langley took third.
Ben whipped off the stage. I asked him if he wanted to get a beer and we started-in. A few shots later, he found a sheet of paper on a random table next to us. This little scrap was the actual, hand-written result from the Wild Card. There was his time, actually one-one-hundredth of a second faster than Langley’s, but with a little circle next to it saying, “more penalties.”
He shared a lot of his life with me over those eight days in China, most of it off the record. He smiled at me and conceded, “this story is gonna be about me, isn’t it?”
Flashpoint: Another shuck and slurp competition to relieve the pressure between the Wild Card and the World Final. This time with six chilled oysters for some layman to slurp up. Mike hunts me down in the crowd and grabs me by the shoulders again. He looks me in the eyes, “Now you eat the oysters.”
Ready. Set. Shuck. I shout at Mike to “Go! Go! Go!” and my mouth is full from then on. The final oyster is huge, almost too big, and Mike screams at me to “Eat it! Eat it!”
We’re in China. We’re standing in front of dignitaries and VIPs. We’re screaming hysterically at each other, dripping in brine, railing together against the world.
13. The World Cup
There was very little suspense in the World Championship itself. Eamon Clark is the best oyster shucker in the world and it’s not particularly close. In the final six competing for the World Cup, Eamon finished first by a large margin. He got away with very few penalties and one judge said it was the most beautiful plating he’d ever seen. Eamon was world champion again.
Mike shucked next to Eamon during his heat. He lost an oyster early but shook it off. “Instant forgiveness” is an essential skill for an actor to have. If you make a mistake on stage, flub a line, forget a prop, it’s not going to help to rake yourself over the coals. So you let it go. You give yourself grace. You start from scratch. Mike is a much better actor than he is a shucker.
Flashpoint: Mike finishes his heat, steps off stage, lights a cigarette. He flops down flat on his back on the pavement. Johan comes over and congratulates him. They’re giddy in their failure. They grab hands and run to a nearby playground and scale the equipment, whipping down the slides. Then they realize this might be creepy and sheepishly walk back over to us. It’s a picture in my head now, as physical as a photograph.
After the Shuck-Off is over, Joe Harty sneaks me into the VIP area with free drinks and food. All the participants get a China Shuck-Off apron. I’m not really a participant but Joe grabs three aprons and presses them against my chest, scrabbling away about this, that, or the other.
A few of us go to a bar shaped like a soccer ball and Mike and I dance on the tables. The bar tries to over charge us but we refuse. If the world isn’t fair, that doesn’t mean we have to be quiet about it.
The next morning, Mike and I walk alone through the Arts District of Beijing. A lot of our new friends have left China already. We’re running out of time to get to the airport to take our flight home. We run through galleries, filling our eyes with as much of the country as we can capture in our little pinheads. We eat ice cream bars and chicken sandwiches from the front of someone’s house. We watch middle-aged men get cheap haircuts in a park. Mike is now officially ranked the 16th best oyster shucker on the planet. He did not finish last. And, hey, that’s something.