Friday, March 31, 2006

The Conclusion of the Speech Contest
At the end of the toasts and drinking, Lanny told me that professional hosts were lined up for the party after dinner. Previously she told me that she and I were set to host the party. Immediately, Bill Murray, singing the 'Love Boat' and 'Star Wars' as the lounge singer on Saturday Night Live, flashed into my head.

The party was down the hill a short distance from the restaurant. I walked with Lanny along a dimly lit road. I felt like I was at Osage Hills State Park in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Of course, that is, if Bartlesville were surrounded by mountains and had an overwhelming majority of Chinese who had just feasted on pigeon and goose shins.

In a clearing, were plastic chairs and tables. Peanuts and bottles of water were on the tables. Aunt Hagatha ws quite impressed with the Chinese Peaunts ("It must be something in the soil" she said.)On a makeshift stage, or a tea house patio rather, a karaoke machine was being set up. At this point, the students had their opportunity to shine. All of the hits that I had been waiting to hear would, unfortunately, not be performed this evening.

One of the students from the insurgence on the bus had an acoustic guitar. I was hoping she might sing 'We shall overcome.' That was not to be. Instead, she stood with a friend holding the mic to her face facing the crowd, nowhere near the stage, and sang some sort of makeshift song that she may or may not have composed, and which may or may not have been composed five minutes before she played. Everyone clapped. There was an endearing Spinal Tap quality to it. While she was singing one of the karaoke technicians was trying to set up a mic on the guitar. He completed his task as she hit the last chord which, incidentally, was the wrong chord.

A couple of the handlers sang some Chinese classics with which, of course, I was not familiar. Another student, Sailor's buddy, sang what I supposed was a Backstreet Boys song. He was really amazing. I was stunned by his near perfect annunciation. When I talked to him later, I assumed he would have flawless English. He did not understand a word I was saying. When he did understand something I said, I could not understand his reply.

Later, Kathy, one of the contestants sitting at the table where Lanny, Aunt Hagatha and I were sitting, went up and sang 'Memories' acapello. The whole time she sang, Hagatha cooed "Oh, she's good. Oh, isn't she good? Oh she is really good." Yeah whatever Hagatha, order another bottle.

The fun, for me, was soon wearing thin. I wanted, I really wanted to go back to the hotel and read and take advantage of its sumptious 4 starness. That was not to be. More people got up to karaoke. I started scanning the crowd for possible dissenters who might want to join me in my karaoke revolt. Crap, everyone looked like they were having a good time.

Then it started. It started to rain. My prayers were answered. Not quite. This is when the umbrellas were brought out and put into the holes in the center of the cheap plastic white tables. Foiled!

"Are you having good time, Mr. Tyson?" Lanny asked.
"Yeah, I am getting a little tired though."
"Ah, so, I am tired too Mr. Tyson," Lanny replied. "The party will end soon."
After what seemed like an hour more, but was probably only fifteen minutes, the party was wrapped up. We then walked along the road which was now even harder to see.
Finally we were back at the bus, I sighed. I will soon be home. Well, not home but the place where I am comfortably sleeping tonight.
"Yes, we will be back to hotel in thirty minutes," Lanny informed me.
Thirty minutes?! Why I assumed the hotel was only five minutes away, I do not know. I looked at the clock at the front of the bus. The time was 8:35. We would be back to the hotel by a little after 9.
Fortunately, we got back to the hotel with no difficulty. Pessimistic me imagined getting: lost; a flat tire; held up and taken hostage by anti-Maoists. None of that happened; we arrived back safely.
I procurred another can of coke from the concierge, threw all of my crap into my bag (so I would not have to do it the next morning), lit some candles, turned on my bedside light and settled in to read my book. Someone knocked on my door. I opened it. The concierge handed me a ticket for breakfast. I said 'Xie Xie' and closed the door and went back to reading my book. Five or ten minutes later, someone else knocked on my door. I opened the door; Megan handed me an envelope and thanked me for hosting the contest. I told her that I enjoyed doing it. As soon as I shut the door, I tore open the envelope. I was anxious to know how much I had been paid. Had the - Chinese Anji - man stuck it to me? Did I need to start an uprising. Fortunately, I was paid a nice Chinese amount. I was paid what it takes the average Chinese worker two weeks to make. I was paid 800 kuai (100 buckaroos). I was happy. After I put the money in my wallet, I got back in to bed. Five minutes later, there was yet another knock on my door. I opened the door. A student named Frankey stood there, holding a bar of chocolate. Would you like some chocolate? Yes, I would love some chocolate. He handed it to me; I said "Xie Xie;" he walked off; I shut the door and continued reading my book. Happy with my Coke and chocolate. I read for an hour or so and then I turned off the light and went to sleep. I had a wake up call coming at 7:30 am. I decided to live dangerously and leave the candles burning.

At 7:30 am, the phone rang. The same sugary female prerecorded chinese voice as yesterday said "This is your morning wake up call." For once, I felt rested and got up immediately and jumped in the shower.

Today, we were to tour the bamboo forrest where parts of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was filmed which I heard people repeat about every five minutes during the course of the tour and before. After eating another breakfast of noodles and pastries, I was ready to see some bamboo.

Past hovels of squalor and polluted canals, the bus made its way to the bamboo forest. At what I assumed was the bamboo forest which I had been hearing about for the previous two weeks("Oh, Anji, there is special bamboo in Anji." and "Anji has famous bamboo.") - we pulled into a rutted gravel and dirt parking lot. The parking lot had all of the permanence of a independence day fireworks stand. We parked and walked to the bamboo forest which was past a wooden stockade and cheap knick knack stands.

I would like to say when I entered this mythical bamboo forest of spiritual martial arts proportions, I had a religious experience. But, alas, I did not. The only thing I soon experienced was sore feet because I did not have my Nikes. I was tromping around in my Miu Miu dress shoes and not happy.about it. I did not know I was supposed to pack like Ginger did for that 'three hour tour.' Oh Gilligan!
This was the start of my not-so-happy phase with the day. The next thing I know is some of the group talking about digging up bamboo roots. If you dig it up, you can keep it because like chicken feet, goose shins, and pigeon; bamboo roots are good eating. This excited Lanny to no end.
"Oh Mr. Tyson, if you dig it up you get to keep it." She talked as if bamboo roots were gold or silver or diamonds. The thing for me about good eating is I am not into digging up my good eating. I like to go to the produce aisles or when I feel really daring I might buy from the farmer's market. Digging for good eating in my Italian leather shoes is not on my list of "Wow someday I want to do that!"

Of course, the next thing I know, I am walking along, part of the group, observing an old man with a pick like you would dig for something in China because god forbid you use something involving modern technology. He is digging up a bamboo root. I am standing back aways. The others are standing close enough to share his sweat. I think to myself, "Wow, I am so lucky because, I am part of the bourgeoisie. I do not have to do that sort of manual labor. And, I do not have to do that sort of labor using a tool popularized in the Tang Dynasty" About this time, I overhear Megan ask for volunteers. Again, I think to myself "What retard would volunteer to do manual labor?"
"Mr. Tyson should give a try." I heard my constant companion's voice. It was starting to sound much like nails on a chalkboard.
"That's okay," I started. "I don't really need to."
"Mr. Tyson, don't be shy," Lanny said with some Chinese thrown in after to seal my fate.
The next thing I knew, I was handed the pick and coached on how and where to swing it. I gave the root a few half-hearted swings as I was being coached in Chinese by the old man and in English by Lanny.
"Hit the side of the root Mr. Tyson"
The students watched attentively. I handed the pick back to the old man. He handed it back and said something in Chinese.
"Mr. Tyson, you have to dig until you can pull it out."
This is when my patience started to ebb. I knocked and scratched at the root with the pick. I was starting to sweat. I was wearing a Ted Baker dress shirt; I was fearing armpit stains! I looked at the root and it seemed happy where it was. Finally, frustrated and fed up, I sliced into the middle of the root with the pick.
"Mr Tyson," Lanny said in the same sort of voice as if I had drown a puppy or slapped a child. I thought she was going to cry. "You have ruined it."
Ashamed, I handed the pick back to the old man and walked off. Stunned, Everyone looked at me. I sat on a bench made of bamboo and sulked. From glory to pariah, that was life in China.

A few minutes later, the mutilation of the root was forgotten. This is when Lanny told me what we were doing next. We were going to the bamboo museum.

The bamboo museum was about as exciting as, well, a bamboo museum. In the entrance was the tallest bamboo in the world. However, it had been cut so that it could fit under the roof. Beyond the tallest bamboo in the world that had been chopped to make it not the tallest bamboo in the world was an elephant made from bamboo. An elephant that could have been a giveaway from Pier 1. "Buy $5,000 of our cheaply made sweatshop crap and get a free elephant."

Other highlights of the museum, a room of canned food that contained bamboo (Oh! Exciting! canned food in a museum.) and a room of yoga mats and floor runners made from bamboo. Lanny was my exclusive tour guide. Lanny was excited and excited to tell me all about the bamboo. After walking through room upon room focused on bamboo, we stopped for lunch. I was starving until the chicken feet soup arrived.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Speech Contest Part IV

After the contest, a few people came up to me and told me I did a really good job. Liars! I wanted to crawl under a rock. Lanny smiled and said "Don't woory Mr. Tyson." Since my boss did not come up and clock me or fire me, I felt better.

Sailor came up to me and I congratulated him. He asked me why he was only awarded 300 RMB. He had been promised 400 RMB. I told him I did not handle that part of the contest. I told him he should ask one of the handlers. At this point, I wondered what - and if - I would be paid. Shortly thereafter, I heard the rumblings of complaints amongst the students. When we got onto the bus the rumblings became a near mutiny. I heard the f-word which made Lanny wince. Up to this point, she and I had discussed the students' strong work ethic. Her comment now was:
"I hear bad language Mr. Tyson."
About that time, we heard a:
"Dis is Boorrsheet"
With each expletive, my cohost was becoming more and more embarrassed. I feigned shock to prolong her agony. Last, I heard a student say, as the bus drove past a trash heap (which there were many in this seemingly ecologically aware town):
"This is said to be an ecological town. Look at all the trash. This is no ecological town," which was punctuated by the F-word.
I muttered something to the tune of "Oh Gosh."
Lanny, I know wanted to crawl under the seat. At this point, a handler, who uses Megan as her English name, stood up and addressed the bus in Chinese. I was very curious to know what she was saying and why the students got stiffed, especially since I had been stiffed often in my last life as a pop singer. Megan was very sweet but I sensed if you crossed her she could explode in a chinese fire of jujitsu and karate. I did not cross her.

Lanny told me that Megan explained to the students the reason they did not get paid what they were promised was because the Anji government paid the prize money and so the Anji government stiffed the students. I thought to myself, "So the students are getting it stuck to them by the man." And then I thought, I wonder if that is the true story or if that is the story they are using to diffuse a potential mob scene. I could envision the New York Times headlines: "American Defenestrated from Moving Bus During Angry Chinese Student Riot."

However before I was defenestrated from the general proximity of seats 33 and 34, my feet getting caught in the bright yellow curtains as I sailed out of the bus at 90 kms an hour, I would make my plea.
"Brothers, Sisters, I am on your side. I too have hated and despised the man. We will rise up together and finish what the Symbiotic Liberation Army started in the USA in the late 1960s. They had a plan (a plan that at this point I really don't recall and also at this point does it even matter? I am after all just buying time during the climactic angry mob scene. I would then end my diatribe with) Kick out the Mao."

Yes, my psycho babble would not register and they would unclasp my ankle caught in the bright yellow curtains and send me, once and for all, on my way, out the window. However, it would be like in a soap opera, I would be thought to be dead but I would be alive, except I would look different due to the horrible accident which disfigured me. Instead of splatting on the pavement, miraculously I would land in the bed of a chicken truck heading in the opposite direction. My diet for the next season until the sweeps would be chicken feet soup and grub worms. Okay, so I would not be disfigured during the defenestration. I would, however, have amnesia and the chicken farmer would not know who I was or where I came from. But then the ratings would plummet and the audience would want something even more catastrophic to happen to me. That is when I would suffer a horrible green tea and dumpling accident. Of course, I would become a little deranged because of the chip implanted in my brain and I would pick some arbitrary person on whom to extoll my vengeance, some person who had done me wrong in business, who had stolen my lover, who had ripped off my sound, who told others I liked Pepsi better than Coke. I would come back looking astonishingly like Susan Lucci.

The mutiny was successfully quelled which means none of the above happened. In fact, ten minutes later, the students seemingly forgot about being cheated by the man. They were back to singing Back Street Boys songs in the back of the bus where the uprising had first occured.

I asked Lanny where we were going now. I wanted to go back to the hotel and have a rest. This was not to be. We were taken on a tour of a park in the Anji mountains which was nice but I really wanted to lie down. The tour seemed endless. We rolled around and up a winding road in a few of those oversized golfcarts that seats ten. I just really wanted to sleep. I feigned interest. Lanny pointed out every detail of every piece of landscape and then she pointed to some chickens and said "Geese!" I did not have the heart to tell her they were really chickens.

After an hour of rolling around on the golf cart, we were taken to the 4 star restaurant where we were to have supper. The party of 40 or so sat in a few different little rooms that I suppose were for the special guests of the restaurant. Lanny ("We have a seat for you here at this table Mr Tyson")and I sat by the 4 amped primary students. During the meal, these students were typical children; they stole each others chopstix and napkins and made loogy jokes. The youth and exuberance that I had admired in them last night quickly vanished. I now wanted to hit a couple of them over the head with a chair. The chaperones/teachers were with them. I had sympathy for them. They looked defeated but still tried to keep a game face. I made a mental note to never teach primary school.

The waitress came and we ordered our drinks. Most of the grownups ordered tea. I had Coca Cola with the kids. At all of the nice Chinese restaurants that I have been to so far, the meal is served family style. Each dish is set in the middle of the table on a lazy susan. (the fifties, sixties whenever - "Named it after my daughter, can't get her to do anything, made it out in my shop, idea came one night durin' supper, I was so dangblasted tired of tellin' her to pass the mashed potatos, ya know how i love mashed potatos.")

The servers soon started setting dishes on the lazy susan. This could be a food network gameshow. The loser winds up with a plate full of chicken feet and goose shins. In the last few weeks, I have become adept at this game. I have learned to put a satisfying amount on my plate just in case I like the mystery dish and it does not make its way back around but not so much in case I do not like it and I have to leave some on my plate.

First, a big bowl of chicken soup arrived. Here, when you get chicken soup, you get the whole chicken including the feet. Fortunately, the chicken is chopped up so it is not some bloated dead chicken floating in a bowl of broth. Unfortunately, the first ladle dipped out included a boiled foot. I half-heartedly drank some broth and waited for the next dish to hit the table. The next item looked like fried twigs which I thought was interesting. Yes, the goose shins had arrived, not that tasty. Next, since Anji is famous for its bamboo, we had boiled bamboo which was rather tasty. After that we sampled the best dish so far which were some simple greens, which were soon followed by a heaping bowl of tofu. Next to arrive was a meat dish that looked like it had been smoked. I thought it might be pheasant or duck or some exotic bird. I took a bite and asked what it was. Lanny replied "Gezi."
"What?" I thought the name sounded quite exotic and I wanted to be able to properly pronounce it.
"Pigeon," she said "is the English name."
Immediately, a picture of pigeons crapping all over New York City came into my mind. Why this is different than, say perhaps, steak, I do not know. Maybe because pigeons were an everyday pest in NYC and stockyards are sites - and stenches - from roadtrips. Therefore, stockyards do not invade my thoughts when I am eating a sirloin or a T-bone. Furthermore, eating pigeon is no different than eating rat which makes me think of Monty Python's 'Jabberwocky' and the rats on a stick scene.

DASH DASH DASH beep beep I INTERUPT THIS BLOG TO BRING YOU THIS IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT - JO THE AUSTRALIAN, JUST KNOCKED ON MY DOOR AND TOLD ME THAT SHE WOULD SWITCH APARTMENTS WITH ME. -STOP- SHE IS HERE ONLY ONE DAY A WEEK.-STOP- SHE ALSO HAS AN APARTMENT IN THE PUDONG AREA OF SHANGHAI. -STOP- MY FUTURE APARTMENT IN THIS SWITCHAROO HAS THREE BALCONIES INSTEAD OF TWO -STOP- A BALCONY OFF OF THE KITCHEN -STOP- A BALCONY OFF OF THE LIVING ROOM -STOP- AND A BALCONY OFF OF THE BEDROOM STOP-INSERT PERIOD (Oh while I am at it, I have just procurred a cleaning lady. She is to come to my apartment once a week at 20 kuai -$2.50. Jo told me I might think about buying some cleaning supplies because all this lady is equipped with is what Jo refers to as the cholera mop. Jo said that the cleaning lady who absolutely -willy nilly- only speaks Chinese is fond of spray bottles.) SORRY FOR THE INTERUPTION, AS YOU WERE. DASH beep DASH.

Okay, it is absolutely not funny that during the course of the meal Chicken Run voiced Maureen had a spell and had to go sit on the bus. I assume the barbequed pigeon may have induced a birdflu relapse. All I know is I looked up and Maureen's birdflu ass had flown the coop.

This was along the time, near the end of the meal, when a drunk Chinese man from the Anji Education Bureau came to the table with a bottle of Chinese white wine (which has all the sublety of Everclear). He insisted I take a shot. I kept saying no but he was drunk and he poured me a shot. He then poured himself a shot and insisted that we both drink.

Here, I should back pedal a bit. Rewind to fifteen minutes before when my boss Edgar (Chinese name Xian - of which I crapped all over the pronounciation at the speech contest) brought a bottle of 1995 red wine to our table which was supposed to be very good. I declined. He did not push it. A lady named Ann (who looked like she was very much a drinker and had been drinking steadily since approximately 1962)accepted. As she drank, she said more than once that a little bit of wine was good for the plumbing. Ann had an Aunt Hagatha air about her. She was sweet, harmless and ready to party. I am sure, eventually, she probably killed the bottle.

However, back to the story, when the drunk from the Anji Education Bureau came to our table, he would have none of my tomfoolery soberness. He emptied my small wine glass of coke into an ashtray and poured me a shot like a man would have. This is the first time since I have stopped drinking that I felt pressured, beyond my control, to drink. I was now facing one of my worst fears. How do I not drink without insulting someone from another culture? How do I tell them I have a drinking problem and should not drink? What would Jesus do? Would Jesus even be in China? Why did the chicken cross the road?

I think Jesus would take the shot. Like Jesus, I took the shot in one gulp. The women at the table, who were exempt because they were women, looked at me in shock. Lanny asked if I was okay. I told her yes. Well, after I took that shot, one of the drunk's Anji Education Bureau cohorts poured me a glass of the '95 red to shoot. At this point, I thought this would be the true test: Am I an alcoholic? Yes, I mean No. I mean I don't know. I downed the glass of redwine as a shot (the first time I think I have done red wine as a shooter - It's China).

Okay, here you must realize that I am with people that I have just met over the weekend. People who have never witnessed me: peeing on staircases in Tulsa; pulling out my watch and emptying clubs throughout New York City and Oklahoma with my watch exhibition; drunkenly catching my hair on fire; vomiting across the USA in a Ford extended van; impersonating Shaft late night in black neighborhood fastfood drive-thru's in Atlanta. All of the women at the table are now staring at me. One of the primary school teachers asked me - in that primary school way "Are you okay."
"Yes. Fine." I said.
But I was wondering to myself "Am I fine? Am I an alcoholic? Will this night end with me pulling out my watch in front of people I barely know in a foreign country?" I decided to address it later. I could not deal with it now because we had to go to Edgar's table and wish them well which is a Chinese tradition after the meal at a large gathering. At this point, I was not sure what was a tradition and what was a new tradition created by the presence of alcohol.

The next thing I know, Lanny and I are at Edgar's table and more shots are poured and demanded. At this point, there is no backing out. I made the mistake of letting them pour me a glass of wine at their table, which I thought I would nurse until we left the restaurant. Chinese tradition, you must finish the glass at the table where it is offered. I downed it. Everyone cheered.

This is the part of the movie where you really really want the protagonist to win. He is somewhat likeable and almost cute in this retarded sort of Boo Radley way. You want him to stop drinking. We've all seen Barfly and Trainspotting and Days of Wine and Roses and Lost Weekend. We know the story can end two ways. This is when we ask ourselves what kind of story this is. Is this Laurence of Arabia or is this Dazed and Confused?

Lanny and I went back to our table with the primary school students and the primary school teachers and Aunt Hagatha. The primary school teacher asked me again if I was okay. I told her I was fine. Everyone was a bit shocked that I was fine after seeing me drink so much so fast - and a school teacher no less. At this point, Sailor and a few of his friends dropped in to have toasts with us. He and all of his friends were drinking an assortment of fruit juices. His drink of choice for the evening was orange juice. I was not at the point where I was slurring words but I was on guard.

Because, I knew I was not fine. Now, I had that feeling a drinker gets when they have tasted enough liquour to crave more. I was at that point where I had been many times before. I knew I could turn onto the highway of no return or I could stop drinking. I was starting to become a bit lightheaded. I did not like this feeling which so often before I had waited for in anticipation in my drinking. For once in my life, I did not like feeling like I was not in control. I felt downright uncomfortable. Primary school students, junior high school students and senior high school students surrounded me. For no reason I could name, other than I am an adult, they look up to me. They were all having a great time drinking coke and various fruit juices. I cannot break character. The character I am now playing is a non-drinking high school English teacher in a foreign country who feels so lucky to have come out on the other side.

At this point, I felt I should tell the others at the table about my fight with alcohol. I told them about my days as a pop singer and how alcohol was always readily available. With the children around, I did not go into the whole drug aspect. All of them looked a bit shocked. After I had spilled my guts, Aunt Hagatha said, "You look as if you have never had a drop to drink in your life."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Speech Contest Part III

At 7 am, the phone rang. A sugary female prerecorded chinese voice said "This is your morning wake up call." I hung up the phone and debated not getting up. Responsible Tyson took over and dragged me to the shower. The water felt wonderful. I wanted to stay in the shower all morning but I knew I had to be quick because I still had to shave before breakfast.

Once I was out of the shower, I felt the chill of the bathroom which had no overhead heater. I turned on the blowdryer and let it dangle. It kept hitting the sink as it blasted hot air which quickly warmed up the bathroom while I shaved.

With my hygiene chores out of the way, I put on my D&G suit - which I had bought at Loehman's in New York a year ago on sale, a red and white striped Ted Baker dress shirt, my brown striped John Varvatos tie and my Miu Miu shoes. I was ready to take on the world or at least a small part of the world in the People's Republic of China.

I headed down the stairs to the adjoining building for a Chinese breakfast of noodles and pastries. My cohost was nowhere in sight. I was the last one to hit the buffet breakfast. At the end of the line were empty dispensers of orange juice and coffee. I would have really loved a cup of coffee or even tea. Later I found out that the Chinese drink a porridge for breakfast so they do not drink tea at that time. Since I was one of the last ones to eat, I ate quickly. After I ate, I ran back upstairs to get my notes for the contest. When I got back downstairs, at 7:55, a handler told me everyone was already in the bus and they were waiting on me. I dashed out and onto the bus.

When I sat down, Lanny asked me if I had a nice rest. I told her I had a very nice rest. She did not have a nice rest because of all of the noise in the hallway. I told her the noise did not really bother me.

"Mr. Tyson you are so lucky that you had a nice rest." For some reason, when she said this, I felt like I had won an award for sleeping through an atomic blast or something. She then asked me if I went right to bed or if I stayed up for awhile. I told her that I read some before I went to bed. She misunderstood what I said and thought that I stayed up and practiced being an emcee. With this she said, "Oh, you are so hardworking. I was too tired."

The bus rolled through town. The town was flat, sprinkled with sculptures and new buildings. The school was on the other side of town from where we were staying. On the other side of town was an industrial park like many of the industrial parks in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma. Most of the buildings looked like they had been erected within the last 10 years.

Anji Changshuo High School was the location of the speech contest. From what I was told, Changshuo was a famous artist who donated money to help build the high school which looked fairly new to me. The campus was the size of a small junior college.

When we arrived, Lanny and I were ushered back stage and given water and green tea. We were fitted with clip-on mics and corsages. Throughout the day, the mics did fine, the corsages were troublesome. At times, my corsage was upside down. The corsages were constructed of scotch tape, safety pins and random flowers. The corsages had the aesthetic of a VFW shotgun wedding. I imagined some Chinese mom putting them together the night before as she drank Sanka and smoked Parliaments. By the time we met everyone and put our mics and corsages on, the time was 8:40. The contest started at 9:00.
"Let's practice one more time Mr Tyson."
"Good idea."

At this point, I had decided I was not going to be nervous. I thought back to the times I had been booed during Kittens shows - Janes Addiction in Austin, P.I.L. in Boston. My cohost did not make not being nervous easy. She kept correcting me and telling me how important (as in world peace importance) my pronouncing the names was. For instance, when I introduced a professor from Zhejiang University, I had to remember 'zh' makes a 'j' sound. And that is the easy part, all of the places my tongue had to be during this endeavor was like trying to learn how to French kiss in braile. I would have liked to see Casey Kasem in my shoes.

The introduction went fine even as the engineer was trying to stop our mics from squealing like an Eddie Van Halen solo. I would speak and then she would translate in Chinese and nod to me and then I would speak and so forth. We then introduced the first contestant which was fine. I introduced her and told which high school she attended and then Lanny would say it in Chinese. We would then walk off stage and the contestant would come up and give a speech on the environment.

Backstage, Lanny would coach me on how to pronounce the next contestants name and high school. During this time the next contestant would come backstage and we would make small talk to keep said contestant from being nervous. I tried to tell most of them how courageous they were to tackle a speech in another language. Or, I would tell them to imagine the audience in their underwear like Marsha in the Brady Bunch when she was nervous before she took her driving test. This hit a big fat cultural barrier so I did not press it.

At lunch time, we survived intact, Lanny and I followed the others for a meal in the school cafeteria. Yum. (JOKE!) We had bamboo and cold fish (which she told me was most delicious, it was not) and mystery greens. After lunch we walked around the barren campus. One of the reasons that made me think the campus was newer was because the trees were all saplings. In the distance were mountains but where we were was as flat as Amarillo.

We then looked for a place to rest. We were led into an empty conference room and given water. Lanny disappeared. I asked myself why I decided to come to China as I sat there. Lanny came back in and told me that the gentleman in the office by the conference room wanted us to come into his office to listen to music. Lanny acted as our translator. The man had his PhD. He offered me a cigarette. I took it. Lanny looked at me in shock.
"You smoke."
"Yeah, sometimes."
"Mr Tyson, I did not think you would smoke."
"Yeah, sometimes." I did not know how else to say it. How do I say I am a non-smoking smoker and a coffee drinker who does not like coffee?
Our time in the man's office was a mystery to me. He seemed like an important official and wanted to practice his English but then Lanny acted as our interpreter. After drinking green tea and smoking cigarettes, we headed back to the auditorium to conclude the speech contest. The morning part of the contest was the junior high section which included the four children in primary school. The afternoon, the senior high students competed. At this time, the results were given to Lanny and me from the mornings competition.

During the last half of the senior high competion, I started getting nervous. Lanny at this point told me the order of the announcements and how we were to announce the students and the high schools they attended and the presenters which I thought the presenters would have to read some student names. No, all the presenters had to do was hand the students certificates stating the students had won the awards in the International Students English Speech Competition. The other factor that made me nervous, we were given papers to read and then five minutes later someone would come correct it, maybe the presenter had not shown up or a person was left out. This meant more names for me to potentially butcher and end the world as we know it. To add to all of this, I had to pee really really bad and I could not leave the backstage. Lanny said it would not be a good idea. I thought about peeing out the backstage window. In my drinking days, I would have.

Okay, to set this up, 32 students were in this final competition (15 in the morning and 17 in the afternoon) and 32 students won prizes. Do the math. Yes everyone won something. Which means, yes, I had to announce 32 winners and their prospective high schools and the presenters and their prospective titles and universities. Lanny said the names first in Chinese and then I followed in English with everyone including the presenters coming onstage. At first, I think I did okay but it quickly was reminicsent of the 'I Love Lucy' episode in which Lucy was in the production line at the chocolate factory. Names like Pu Jing Jing, Shen Li Li, Li Zhi Chao became a blur. At this point, the numbers on the stage made the Polyphonic Spree look like the Kingston Trio. Unbeknownst to myself, one of the presenters Mr. Qian Jianping was my boss whom I know as Edgar. The one name that I absolutely wanted to say perfectly I crapped all over.

I have not been that embarrassed since my miniature weiner dog, Goldie, got out when my mom opened the door to get the morning paper. Goldie - in her prime - chased after my junior high marching band - in which I played the snare drum - with my mom (in her house coat and night gown and morning hair) chasing Goldie. Since I took drum lessons from the junior high band instructor Mr. Tanzey, he knew my mom. Naturally, when she came up to collect Goldie, cordially, Mr Tanzey greeted her "Well...Hello, Mrs. Meade." And, of course, for the slower students (aka stoners) that did not realize it was my mom in a house coat, night gown and morning hair standing there holding a barking weiner dog; my friend Steve Fowler said to me loudly "Hey man, it's your mom!"

Fortunately, I am an adult now. I am able to laugh those sorts of things off. And, if that doesn't work, I have a credit card; I can move to another town. China is a big country.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Cheapskates of the World Unite and Takeover! (or how I bought a sofa with a 5 year warranty on a Monday morning in the Songjiang district of Shanghai in China)

I interupt my serial about the speech contest to talk about the fantastic new couch that I bought this morning before class. When I woke up, after showering and putting my bedsheets in the washer to wash, I got dressed - yellow polo golf shirt, random thrift store angora-blend pullover sweater vest, brown Prada slacks, standard black Miu Miu all purpose slip-ons. I walked the width of a football field to my office. Today is a beautiful day. The sun is shining. I think I heard birds singing. I started the day with Imperial Teen's 'Water Boy.'

When I got to the office, I went into see my friend and office manager - Jessie. She asked me about the speech contest. I told her how overwhelmed I was by the end of the contest trying to pronounce names pronouncing 'z's as 'j's and that sort of thing. She laughed.

I then asked her if she would go with me to look at the couch this evening. She told me we could go after my 1:30 class. If we went then, we would have to make it snappy. I was hoping she would want to go after we had supper. I think I confused her.
"Shall we go now?" She asked
"Sure." I said. I was prepared to be daring. I had an hour before class. I am never late. Today, I was willing to be late.

We quickly walked to the gates of the school and hailed a cab. She told me that she would try to get me a better deal than the 1,500 RMB I had been quoted. I told her that would be cool.

We got to the huge mall size home store and when she looked around she told me the store carried really good brands which relaxed me. We walked up the escalator and I started getting excited. Jessie told me to not show my excitement because she wanted to negotiate a good deal for me. I told her I would try to be calm which was difficult. I have never bought a new couch in my life. This was truly an exciting moment for me.

We got to the area where my prospective couch was waiting and Jessie kept her nonchalance in check. I tried to act as cool but I do not think I have a very good poker face. At this point, the saleslady starts talking to us. In Chinese, she told Jessie she remembered me from a few days before. They talked for a bit and I listened for the 4 or 5 familiar words I know but of course I had no idea what they were saying. I trust Jessie so I don't mind not knowing. Jessie at one point told me the couch was on sale for 1,580 and I think that is what the saleslady tried to tell me when I was there a few days ago. I thought she pantomimed 1,500. She agreed to 1,500 but that was rock bottom which was fine with me.

I asked Jessie to ask for the measurements of the couch. I had forgot to measure my crappy loveseat before I left my apartment. They talked a bit more. Jessie told me the saleslady would come and measure the space in my living room. I asked when this would happen. Jessie told me "Now!"
"Now?!" I asked in surprise.

The three of us then left the showroom and I asked Jessie if she could ask the saleslady how much it would cost to have the couch delivered. Here is where I thought there would be a catch. I thought the saleslady might say the couch is 1,500 and the delivery is another 1,500 or some sort of scam like that. The two of them talked a bit and Jessie then told me "Delivery is free."

The two of them chatted as we walked to where the cabs were. The saleslady, this was related to me by Jessie, asked Jessie if I was an English teacher. Jessie told her yes. The saleslady told Jessie who told me her daughter was having problems in English. I really did not want to volunteer to help. I told Jessie I could probably recommend an English computer program for her daughter. This was misunderstood to mean my email address which was forgotten once we moved onto other subjects such as:

The saleslady then told Jessie I looked very young. Jessie laughed about something which I think may have been a question whether Jessie and I were a couple. At this point, I should mention that Jessie is still in University. I think Jessie may be under 21. The sixteen year old that I sometimes have lunch with (who is not one of the main Shanghai 90210 characters) says Jessie is beautiful when Jessie lunches with the two of us. She, in turn, tells us it is nice to have lunch with two handsome men. Insert my nervous laugh here.

The saleslady, Jessie and I hailed a cab. The ladies sat in the back and I sat in the front. I was so excited that I forgot I had a class to teach 30 minutes later. We got back to campus and I handed the cabbie 20 rmb and he gave me back my 12 rmb change. The cab took off and the three of us walked up the flight of stairs to my second story apartment. I warned them that I had my bedsheets in the dryer so my place was a bit messy. (I had no idea I would have a saleslady measuring for a couch in my living room at 10:30 am.)

We walked into my apartment. I usually take off my shoes and put on my slippers but I did not want them to feel awkward so I left my shoes on. After giving my place the once over, like a seasoned professional, the saleslady whipped her measuring tape out of her purse and measured the area where my hideous lovejuice soaked loveseat camps. I was ecstatic with her results. My soon to be new couch was only a centimeter or two longer than my current piece of crapola. Right fricking ON!

The saleslady then pulled out her cell phone and made a call. I thought it was to tell her boss where she was. Jessie told me that she was calling the warehouse to have my couch delivered 'immediately.' I was stunned. I pulled a wad of kuai out of my wallet and started counting. I had fifteen minutes until my class started. I asked if either of them wanted a cup of tea. They both declined. I gave the money to the saleslady and asked Jessie if she minded waiting for the couch to be delivered with the saleslady; I had to head to class. I then peeled 8 more kuai out of my wallet for the cab fare back to the showroom for the saleslady and handed it to her. She tried to decline taking it but I told Jessie to tell her that I insisted she take it. She took it and I split for class.

The class was conversation and listening with the Shanghai 90210 kids whom I love dearly - Max, Allen, Tess, and Miko (who I found out from Allen that Miko sometimes tells people she is Japanese for the heck of it. She doesn't necessarily want to be Japanese she just tells people she is.) Allen had her hair cut over the weekend which I told her was a really cute cut. I then told them about the whole hair obsession in the USA and other parts of the world which probably has infiltrated China but I have not really come across it as of yet. I told them in the US there could be a place called MAX Salon named after Max and the girls loved this. Max started talking under his breath in Chinese. He more than likely was saying "OH Brother, these people are driving me nuts."

I then asked them to guess what I just bought. Since I was doing a sort of soft shoe when I told them, Miko guessed shoes. Tess guessed guitar strings for the cheapass rusty stringed guitar of Allen's with which I serenaded the class. I finally could not keep it to myself any longer and I told them I bought a couch and I ran to the window of our sixth floor classroom to see if a truck was parked in front of my apartment which would mean a new couch had arrived. There was no truck there. Bummer. All of them ran to the window and looked with me.

We then talked about the new set of frames that Tess got over the weekend and I asked if they were designer. I then explained the term designer and I wrote Prada and Miu Miu on the board. She told me they were made by Zero X but they were not designer. I think when I explained designer, they mistook it to mean that someone had perhaps designed something in their living room and then sold it. I lifted the soles of my feet to reveal the Miu Miu name but this seemed to confuse them even more.

I ran to the window again. No truck. Tess ran down the hall to the office to see if Jessie had come back meaning that the couch had arrived before I looked out the window the first time. No, Jessie was not in the office which meant that she was still at my apartment. All sorts of horrific thoughts flooded my brain. I thought perhaps I was part of a couch flim flam. Maybe Jessie was in with the couch lady and they had taken off with my 1500 kuai (less than $200 American). Maybe the delivery driver had a heart attack and drove off into the canal with my couch in tow only to be smashed into by a barge carrying sand. My mind was going absolutely crazy with all of the sordid end-of-my-new-couch-before-it-arrives details.

The Shanghai 90210 gang and I then talked about our upcoming trip this weekend to Wuxi to see Budha which was as settling as my friend - Valium. Part of the reason I call these kids Shanghai 90210 is because they come from wealthy families. Wuxi is where Allen's dad lives. She has an aunt there who has an American restaurant where there will be a party for us Saturday night which includes a steak dinner. Saturday during the day we will eat seafood on another one of her relative's boats. Another relative of hers has the 4 star hotel where we will be staying. This momentarily took my mind off the couch.

I wandered back to the window. Lo and behold, a truck was parked in front of my apartment. The truck looked more like a vehicle meant to transport weapons than sofas but who cares, right?

I asked the students if they would like to take a field trip and they asked me when. I told them now. Would they like to take a field trip to go see my new couch? Yes, they were quite excited. Miko told me I was the best teacher ever. I replied "I know."

As we walked the width of the football field to my apartment, I told them they had to come up with three comments in English about my sofa. Max told me my sofa was lovely. I counted that as a psychic friends network type comment and accepted it. By the time we got to the apartment and saw my sofa, I forgot to ask them for more comments. Oh well, everyone gets an 'A' for attitude.

We walked into my apartment and all five of us crowded onto my new sofa that is really probably meant for three (two comfortably). We folded it up and down to make it into a bed and then back into a sofa and then a sofa in the middle with the two ends folded down to resemble something from some swanky Manhattan show room and then one end folded down to look like a piece from the house on top of Mt. Rushmore in "North by Northwest." I blasted some music on my new loud Hyandai computer speakers and we sat.

We then decided to sneak off campus and buy some new guitar strings (for Allen's crappy acoustic) in downtown Songjiang.
Part II of the Speech Contest

Half way to An Ji the bus stopped at a rest-stop.
"Did you have a rest? No? Oh, there is a lot to see in the countryside. Oh, they have famous dumplings here. Are you hungry? I will buy." Sleeping Beauty had come back to life and was babbling a mile a minute.
"Yeah, cool, thanks." I replied.
"How many do you want? One or two or more? Meat or Sweet?"
"Two and meat," I said as I headed for the mensroom.
"I will meet you here," Lanny pointed to the ground by the entrance of the restrooms. The mensroom was actually nice and fortunately it did not smell foul. I was happy to breathe and whistle while I peed. A few of the students wandered in as I was leaving. I nodded to them. They, in turn, nodded to me. As I waited for Lanny, I watched the people walking by talking animatedly in Chinese. I wondered if they were talking about the news, game shows, bad TV, work, family. Lanny appeared swinging a bag by her side.
"I have dumplings," she said as she approached.
"Thank you so much," I said and then added as an afterthought. "That is so nice of you."
"These are most delicious," she said. "This town is famous for this kind of dumpling," she said as she handed me a bag of dumplings.
Of late, I have been cautious about famous food, such as chicken feet, goose shins, tofu on a stick, barbequed rabbit.
I pulled the first dumpling out and it was sticky like carrot bread. The dumpling was larger than I had expected. It was about the size of a samosa.
"Oh well," I thought to myself, as I took a bite "Here it goes."
"Yes, this IS most delicious," I said and it was. The first bite was heaven. The dumpling had the consistence of Thanksgiving stuffing with a tender piece of pot roast nestled inside.

We got back on the bus. Roll was called. The bus pulled onto the turnpike and we headed back into the night on our way to An Ji. I thought I might read but the book I had pulled out of my bag by Zelda Fitzgerald had too small of a print to read on the jostling bus. Instead, I looked out the bus window at the darkness and wondered what countryside I was missing. Lanny fell back asleep. A digital clock was overhead at the front of the bus; I kept staring at it. Time crawled. I was becoming anxious about the next day's contest. Why I had said I would be an emcee, I was starting to question. The bus rolled on.

Finally, we got to the hotel after driving through little shanty towns that reminded me of poor rural towns in New Mexico. The hotel was on the outskirts of what I assumed was An Ji. Everyone piled out of the bus with bags and backpacks. Inside, one of the handlers passed out room keys and breakfast tickets. After I got mine, Lanny (the everpresent) made sure I got to my room okay. I started to feel as if she was the man in our new instant relationship. On the stairway, one of the students introduced himself to me. He told me his English name is Sailor. I said "Good luck." He told me "I am a little nervous." I told him he need not be that he would do fine.

Four primary school students had made the finals. They were now loose in the hotel running laps in the hall to different rooms screaming and yelling as they ran. I looked out a few times. I loved their youth and exuberance. I smiled and shut the door.

I took off my sweater vest, shirt and tie, and pants and put on my Dior sweats in prepararation for bed. I looked in the drawers and closet to see what the room had to offer. I found slippers wrapped in paper, extra pillows and an extra comforter. I put the extra comforter - because the room was chilly - and the extra pillows on the bed. I then lit a few candles that I had thought to buy at the market in Songjiang and turned on a reading light over the bed. Then I settled into start Zelda Fitzgerald's novel which was a thinly veiled portrayal of her and F. Scott's lives. After two pages, I decided I was not in the mood to read it. I got up and grabbed an anthology that Dave Eggers edited. I started it and was in hotel heaven. All I needed at this point was a Coca Cola. I decided to get up and find a machine which was easier said than done.

In the hallway, I ran into a few of the handlers who spoke a minute bit of English. I did my fantastic pantomime. The concierge handed me a drinking glass. I scratched my head. I said "Coca Cola." One of the handlers decoded my message and related it to the concierge. I was told I could go back to my room and the can would be delivered. I was then asked if I wanted ice. I said "Yes." I was then told there was no ice. I went back to my room and waited. Five or ten minutes later, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and the concierge had the can of coke for me. She pointed to the price of 5 kuai on the top of the can. I gave her a 10 and she gave me 5 kuai back. I took the 5 kuai - there is no tipping here in non-international hotels - I said "Xie xie;" I shut the door; and I returned to my anthology.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

MC MR. Tyson the Crouching Tiger

A few weeks ago my boss Elizabeth told me I would be the judge at a speech contest in Anji - famous for white tea and bamboo. This was to happen in a few weeks. The next day she told me there was a change of plans: local university professors would judge the contest instead, so I was off the hook. However, by that time, I was looking forward to going and was now disappointed that I was replaced by Chinese professors. I had heard people in the office talk about the beautiful bamboo forrest which was used in the Ang Lee film, the non-gay martial arts one set in China. Fortunately, a few days later, I was reinstated as a judge and then I was told I would emcee the event with a Chinese woman. I had been in China for less than a month and I had already gotten my big break in showbiz. I just knew Ang Lee would be in the audience of this very prestigious high school speech contest.

(As 'Untitled' by Interpol plays, the workers on the construction site have returned to work from their supper break. The floodlight just came on. The foundation has been set. They are now starting the brickwork. They haul bricks in small two wheel buggies into the excavated area. They work seven days a week. This is Sunday evening.)

The speech contest was this weekend. At points during the contest, I thought to myself who in the hell do I think I am. My support staff and co-host were all calling me Mr. Tyson the whole weekend. My co-host, a young female named Lanny (which is pronounced closer to 'Lenny') was equal parts exuberant tour guide, annoying little sister, and speech coach. At times, I felt like such a dick because I just wanted to say leave me alone but I didn't; I dealt. Nevetheless, this is without a doubt, willy nilly, the most overwhelmed since I have been since I have arrived in China. The climax of the contest brought the "I Love Lucy" chocolate episode to mind.

Maybe I should start from the beginning. Roy (who picked me up from the airport three weeks ago and loves to drive in the urgent parking lane on the highway) was to pick up Maureen (who after the speech contest had an alergic reaction to the four star supper and had to be driven the four hours home), two Songjiang Public High School No. 2 high school students and me in Songjiang on campus and drive us to the main office where a bus and the other students and teachers would be waiting.

We were to leave at 2:30 pm. At 2 pm Maureen told me I needed to bring a xeroxed copy of my passport to check into the hotel. As I have said before, everything here is much more difficult than you can imagine. The Chinese government currently hold my passport while the papers for my foreign expert certificate is being processed. I know I had saved it in an email. I walk the football field length of the campus from apartment to my office. I dug through me emails. I found it and tried to print it. Nothing. A blank white paper. Elizabeth was at the main office. I called her in a panic. She told me not to worry they had a copy there.

I went back to my apartment to quickly pack a few more items. I have 'Who are the Mystery Girls' by the Dolls blasting, the perfect Emcee send-off song. I may be have been loudly singing along with it. I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door. Roy and Maureen are standing there. As I looked down at my watch, I sheepishly asked if it was already 2:30 pm. Roy looked at his watch and emphatically nodded yes. I told them I would be right down. I threw my Christian Dior jogging pants (for sleeping)in my bag and headed toward the door with my bag, my emceeing suit (which a year ago some naysayers told me I did not need to buy a D&G suit that fit perfectly and was priced at 90% off - boy am I glad I did not listen to them!), an overcoat, and a bag of fruit and other snacks.

In the car, Maureen sat in front. I sat in back with the two students. We drove to the main office. On the way there, I told Maureen I had found a couch that day that I liked at a expansive home store that was by the grocery store. Whether this was a mall or one store full of sinks, fishtanks, lamps, beds and sofas; I was not sure. However, I was quite excited by this couch I found. (Earlier When I told the office manager Jessie about it and asked whether I should by the couch or a digital camera, she told me to buy the couch. When I asked why, she told me that I could not sit on a camera.) As Roy drove us weaving in and out of traffic narrowly avoiding busses and scooters, I described the couch to Maureen. I felt so fricking gay.
"Well It's bright orange and it folds down into a bed. It's covered in a velour corduroy," I said trying to remain unphased by Roy's commando driving.
"Oh, that sounds nice," Maureen said - again imagine one of the chicken voices in 'Chicken Run.'
"Bright," she added.
"Yeah, Jessie told me I should buy it when I told her," I said. "And it's only 1,500 RMB (less than $200)."
"What a bargain."
"I know. Right?" I was about to tell her it looked like a sofa you would find at West Elm but I knew she would not know to what I was referring.
We made it to the main office and were ushered into a meeting room that was set up like a classroom. Roy disappeared. The four of us sat at the back of the room. Another teacher had given Maureen pineapple chunks to distribute. The students, Maureen and I ate pineapple chunks while we waited for further instruction. After we finished the chunks. My cohost made her appearance. Over the course of the weekend, I learned that her younger sister and her are both teachers; her younger sister teaches Chinese; my cohost teaches English; her father is a doctor; her mother is a nurse. Her parents would have liked either her or her sister to be a doctor; that was not to be. Her students call her by her first name because she is so young and beautiful, the Vanna White of the East.

"Mr Tyson," she called to me. "We need to practice."

I followed her to a conference room where we made changes to the script for the contest which she had written.After we made the changes, she taught me the pronounciation of the names of high schools and presenters. During this scene, I seemed to be equal parts Bill Murray and Peter Sellars. ("Do you have a leezinze for your moonkee?") In my head, a voice was foretelling disaster.

Believe it or not, the others had forgotten about us. The bus was getting ready to pull out. I had to pee before getting on a bus for four hours. I left my suit, bag and fruit bag with a handler.and went into one of the stinkiest mensrooms I have ever encountered which includes the worst one in the United States - and maybe the world - CBGBs where I am sure Johnny Thunders, Dee Dee Ramone, Patti Smith, whoever all shot smack. I was then hustled to the bus.

As I got on the bus. My cohost was evicting students from their seats.
"Mr Tyson! Mr Tyson! I got seats for us here."
Part of me thought, "Wow, I will not be lonely or feel excluded on this trip" and the other part of me thought "Oh Brother."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Maureen, the Australian teacher who speaks Queens English and sounds a bit like one of the chickens in Chicken Run, contracted the bird flu a week or so ago. Tuesday morning she was put on an IV or a drip as the Queens English Australians say. When I was talking to Jennifer (the other American teacher) about it in the cafeteria, I told her I felt horrible because I had not taken Maureen's illness that serious. When she told me she had the bird flu, to myself, I was like 'Whatever hypochondriac.'

When Maureen and I went anywhere she would see someone smoking and she would launch into the fact that she had contracted pnuemonia when she was studying Japanese in Tokyo and anyone smoking - be it within ten feet or a football field away - irritated her now asthmatic system. For example, when we walked into the school cafeteria the other day immediately she was put off and told me:
"Look at that! Can you believe it?"
I, however, was thinking of dumplings and tea soaked eggs so I did not notice the man 40 feet or so away and I replied:
"Look at what?"
"Over there!"
I squinted and looked. I feel I have as good a set of eyes as the next person. I have never had to wear glasses. A friend who is an optometrist told me once I might have to wear reading glasses someday in the distant future. When I squinted, I saw a man sitting at a table at the other end of the cafeteria and at that point Maureen fills in the blank.
"He's smoking!"
And, I think 'whatever.'
"He's smoking in a cafeteria around students. Can you believe it?"
Yes, I can believe it and furthermore it is none of our beeswax because we are ambassadors of sorts in another culture. I am such a good ambassador that I have taken up smoking in solidarity to the cafeteria workers around the People's Republic!
Well, the next thing I know, I have to sub for Maureen because she is in the hospital on the drip and I feel really guilty because I thought she was such a hypochondriac. I relate this whole story to Jennifer. I tell her that I thought Maureen's illness was psychosomatic and now she was on an IV in the hospital and I am yammering. Jennifer then tells me that Maureen will have quite a shock because the staff and the patients definitely smoke in the hospital.
This shocked even me.
"They smoke in the hospital?!"
"Yeah, when I took my sister, there were people on IVs smoking and the staff was smoking."
"You have got to be kidding"
"I am not kidding," Jennifer replied and then added "She is going to be in for a big surprise."
Later that night, Jessie, an assistant in the office who had escorted Maureen to the hospital, told me that Maureen was back at her apartment. I was confused and amazed.
"She is already out of the hospital?"
"Well, then I will go by her apartment to see if she needs me to go get her dinner."
"She is probably hungry," Jessie informed me.
"I had the students do Get Well cards for her anyway, so I will give them to her."
I went to Maureen's apartment expecting to see the angel of death with her. I lightly knocked on her door. To my surprise, she opened the door and invited me in and looked quite spry for someone who I thought was on a first name basis with the grim reaper.
She then explained:
"Oh, yes, where I am from in Australia if you are put on the drip that means that you are very ill indeed. Here they put everyone on the drip. Patients around me were eating crisps and drinking sodas while they were on the drip. It was like at the school cafeteria. It was a madhouse. They had babies on the drip. The babies they stuck the needle in their forehead so I heard quite a few crying babies today. It was mad! Did I tell you about the man next to me?"
"Was he smoking?"
'No, No, he wasn't that would have been the end!" she said with exasperation. "He tapped my arm and pointed to, I thought, the ceiling. I did not know where he was pointing. At first, I thought he was just being fresh. I finally realized he was pointing at my IV bottle"
"Your IV bottle?"
"Yes, I looked and there was somehing floating in it."
"Like a fly?"
"No, more like a spec of something. At that point I rang the nurse."
"Yes. " Maureen continued, "Of course the nurse tried to explain exactly what the spec in my IV was but of course I had no idea what she was saying. I was finally able to stop her by giving her the word 'CUT' in sign language."
"What happened next?"
"She took that IV bottle away and went on with the next bottle that I was to have. I would not wish this birdflu on anyone!"

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

As I write this, I am printing out a script from the Twilight Zone entitled 'The Howling Man.' I love the Twilight Zone and this is one of the first episodes that I ever saw. I think the first episode I saw is about the couple who wake up after going to a party and they don't know where they are or maybe the first one I saw was actually the 'room for one more' episode. My brother Curtiss (who was evil incarnate) would terrorize me when I was a tyke with this particular episode. He would stand at the bottom of the staircase of our somewhat subteranean house (which my dad designed) and say 'Room for one more.' I would scream and run back upstairs to our kitchen which was a sanctuary of Hee Haw proportions compared to the creepy, dank lower floor where all of the bedrooms - and monsters - were. Room for one more!

'The Howling Man' is equally unnerving. Those of you who are fans of the show should know this one, so put your head around the idea of four Chinese teens acting out this episode which takes place in a creepy castle. Yes, the fantastic four - the Shanghai 90210 stars - that I talked about a couple of entries ago. Tess, Allen, Max and Miko,in all of their glory, acting, reciting such lines as "I-I-I-I'm not a visitor. I-I-I'm a stranger here." And "They're mad Miss Ellington. All of them. Raving mad." I have not decided who should be who in this teleplay. Allen, I could see as the Howling Man. Tess with her inquisitive looks might be the visitor, Miss Ellington. The narrator might be Miko. Max could be the monk of course, a monk with comic book hair. Sometimes his hair stands straight up. The American teacher Jennifer and I have debated whether he uses products to make his hair do such a feat.

Fast forward to after class - I read part of the Twilight Zone script to the students and they seemed to really be into it. At first, I asked them who they wanted to be and it took me a bit to explain what we were doing and why. Actually there is no 'why' to what we are doing the 'why' is 'because I said so.'

After we thought about it for a few minutes each of them settled into a charactrer. Allen is going to be the Howling Man which will be fantastic. Miko is going to be Sister Vicky the alluring seductive nun which is reinterpreting the part of Jerome the monk. Tess will be the main character Ellington who wanders up to the castle after she becomes lost while taking a walking tour of Europe. Max and his fantastic comic book hair will be Brother Christophorous.

My goal is to videotape them acting this out. Again, you must put your head around the idea of 4 Chinese teens acting out a particularly frightening episode of the Twilight Zone. In class, I was having the best time showing them the fine points of overacting. William Shatner was my muse while I emoted and emoted. I emoted so much that my throat was sore and I had a bit of a headache after class but my thespian fueled pain felt good. I felt liberated.

I asked each of them if they were excited about the prospect of acting in this production and being caught on videotape. They tried to hide their enthusiasm. Max at times looked frightened. Allen tried to howl but did not put the desperation into hers that I put into mine. When I demonstrated the proper howl I howled with every animal urge I could muster. Allen gave me a very ho-hum howl. Her howl lacked attitude and verve. I can tell right now that I am going to have to devote a lot of time to perfecting her howl. I mean gosh darn it since this dang thing is called the howling man and the fact that we do not have a man but we have a woman doing the howling, she has to howl much better than a man could ever even think about howling. She must be the best howler in Shanghai! With that said, I could tell - after all of the remonstrations betweem me and them and then between them and me and general doubt -that they have all been bitten by that mean-mistreater known as the acting bug. Ouch. All I can say, at this point, I smell a Chinese Emmy!

Once we have the camera to do the actual shoot. I plan to tape them all over the campus. This is the perfect setting for a gothic production. We have old bullet ridden buildings and wooded gardens which could be ominous in the twilight when nothing is as it seems and devils roam the grounds. I feel as if I have been given the greatest gift. As they say in real estate Location Location Location. I may enlist other students - Freedom, Heaven, Freestar, Potato - to do storyboards, wardrobe, set design, make-up. This is going to be my Citizen Kane, or maybe it will be my Plan 9 from the People's Republic.

I have a dream and it is to make these gleaming Chinese teens into international sensations with their own cartoon, lunchboxes, cereal, and action figures. But now, I have to do the rewrites, this baby is gonna cook! Potato, where's my storyboard?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

at the moment, i am about to dig into my chinese pizza and wash it down with my milk drink with tapioca balls that i purchased at the cafeteria bakery with my food card. the school puts 400 rmb a month on the card which pays for most of my meals and a lot of my snacks and my now growing coke habit (as in coca-cola). i thought when i arrived in china i would stop drinking coke but it seems to be even more readily available here than in the states and here i am able to put it on my food card so i never have to buy it. when i do buy it (with my own money) from the school canteen which is in a shed, cans are only a quarter a piece. what a happy miser i am here in the land of the rising sun!

i love the chinese pizza. from what i have learned, pizza is a fairly new addition to the chinese menu. the students love it. the other morning, at 7:30 am on the way to the speech contest, a couple of students were chowing down on pizza as we listened to older chinese hip hop on the van's stereo. the songs we listened to all reminded me a lot of that song 'jump around.'

the pizza from the school bakery and at stands (which have popped up all over songjiang) is like a regular pizza with no sauce and no cheese but a ton of spices on top.the pizzas are all the same anywhere you go here in songjiang. they taste familiar but i cannot place what the familiar taste is, maybe garlic, maybe chives, maybe sea snake.

the other cheap good here is cigarettes. now that everyone around the world has stopped smoking or is stopping, i am starting. some cigarettes are 2 kuai a pack which equals 25 cents american money. these particular cigarettes are in very ornately decorated red packs with a drawing of a dragon. i cannot afford to not smoke at these prices. i smoke approximately one cigarette a day. in the evening, i sit on my balcony and drink a cup of hot tea and i smoke one cigarette and watch the construction workers excavating in my backyard.

before lunch, i taught class 3. they had to tell me how i can remember their names, the same lesson that i gave class 11 yesterday. angell told me that i could remember her name when i think of the song 'hey jude.' vera told me i could remember her name when i thought of the singer mariah carey. neither of these students had a concrete explanation of how i should associate mariah carey with vera and 'hey jude' with angell. when i got to ding ding, i was a bit cautious when i asked him how to remember his name. i breathed a sigh of relief when he told me after i have been knocked out in a fight i will hear a bell and think of his name. killback told me his name sounds cool and that is how i will remember it.

today has been one of those days and it is only 12:30 pm. i thought it would be fun to give my conversation class some dialogue from some film scripts i saved in my documents on my computer in my office. i pulled up my documents and there was nothing there - no scripts, no lessons that i have typed - nothing. i asked the admin assistants why. actually, of course, that became a game of 'guess what my problem is now' because of the excruciating language barrier. once i acted out the problem and they realized i was not having a heart attack or getting liver spots, the more fluent of the two assistants said 'oh you cannot save anything on drive c.' i took a deep breath. i tried not to get mad. i tried to put it into perspective. i tried not to use the f-word. my articulate response was 'i sure wish someone would have told me before i saved all of my lessons in my documents.' both of the assistants are extraordinarily nice. i did control an outburst which a few years ago berore i tempered my temper would have been a expletive fueled meltdown. at this point, i know that losing my sh-- does no good.

later, nancy (the assistant who gets a lot of browbeating from the australian teacher jo which is another story and i will try to tell it at some point) told me that she mailed the letter that i asked her to mail because i am not sure if i put it in a post box of some sort or if i have to go to the post office or what i do here when i have something to post. i , enthusiasticly, told her thank you. she smiled like she had finally done something right. i felt guilty.

i will find out at some point where i post letters. however, what should take 5 minutes usually takes 30! and what i thought would be a big deal is not. one of the other assistants, logan, i had asked him to hunt down a voltage converter for the laptop that i brought with me because i assumed i needed one. yesterday, after 3 weeks of waiting, he brought me one. what he brought was a simple wall adapter i was excited but i was nervous because the voltage is 240 here (or is it 220? sheesh). i was afraid if i plugged in my laptop it might blow up. i surfed around on the net to see if i had anything to worry about. i would have asked the other assistants but i knew it would be more trouble than it is worth. i asked the other teacher from america and she told me she had a friend here that brought his laptop from america so she called him.

the main reason i was nervous is because a friend in london that i went to see a year ago told me, i think, that when he plugged his apple in at his flat there in brixton it blew something and the something it blew was expensive. i, however, was not listening that closely because at the time i did not think it was information i might need later.

i was mulling this over while the other american teacher called her friend and curious, i was trying to make out what her friend was saying on the other end by her yes's and oh's. she got off the phone and told me that if it says that it converts to 240v on the computers power supply then it should be okay to plug it straight into the wall. her friend had plugged his straight into the wall with no converter. i then thought about all of the travelers that shlepped laptops from country to country and i felt more at ease. lo and behold, when i went home and plugged it in, my computer worked fine. now if i could just hook to the internet at my apartment this would then not be one of those days.

in perspective, the day is better after taking a few deep breaths and enjoying the deliciousness of my pizza and my milk drink, two contemporary chinese dietary staples.

Monday, March 20, 2006

i guess i should say before i begin this next post that i am fairly non-linear...some of what happens may have happened before the last post...i might even dive into things from my childhood or the future...who knows...

i think now is the time to start introducing the cast of characters in this section of the book known as my life...we have the four students that i teach in the international part of the school which i have christened shanghai 90210 one of which i just threw a white rabbit at and he ate...that would be max who is an amalgamation of the david, the dylan and the brendan characters. allen (the girl) is brenda if brenda really loved to eat snacks like chicken feet and tofu on a stick (several different varieties at that), tess with her glasses and disapproving looks toward the others at times is naturally andrea but memorable instead of forgettable, and miko is kelly, kelly that is if she looked more like a member of blonde redhead, the yeah yeah yeahs or the asian donnas instead of well a cast member of bev hills 90210. fortunately for all of us there is no breast implant casualty known as donna.

unfortunately, i am a minor character. i do not even remember if there was a cool teacher on the show. i am in the background. i tell them about patty hearst and the symbionese liberation army when they ask who the sticker is of on my notebook with a gag on the mouth that reads 'tyson.' i tell them about how wonderful john f. kennedy was as a president but probably not such a good husband with his affair with marilyn monroe. i show them movies like 'rebel without a cause' and 'psycho.' they teach me phrases like 'zai chao...wo sha le ni.' which means 'make noise again, and i will kill you.' we play badminton in the hallway. soon i will probably be sent to the principals office with them and he will look either like an asian schneider (from 'one day at a time') or it will be the actual ruth buzzi...or perhaps meg's mom jan.

i have construction in my backyard. have i mentioned that. a building is going up. they are in the excavation stage. i look off of my balcony and there are men right below working with rebar and concrete...working, smoking, urinating. this is like the beginning of a movie. name about any action adventure movie and at the beginning there is a dig. in the dig something magical or evil is dug up which sets the stage for the movie.

they work until 10 pm with big floodlights. on sunday morning at 5 am they set off fireworks. i thought we were being attacked. chinese terrorists were making there move. that is why the students taught me 'zai chao...wo sha le ni.' the other american teacher, jennifer, stood on her balcony and screamed at them, she told me later. she told me she screamed at them in english. i told her i wanted to call the police but i would have no clue how to call and how to know what to say if i did know how to call the police. later, my boss elizabeth talked to the person in charge and was told that before they break ground, it is good luck to set off fireworks. she asked them if they had to do it at 5 am. they told her 'yes.'

'how do i remember your name?'
that is the question that i posed to class 11 at 1:30 pm today. as i had wrote, i told them 'my name is tyson, so you think of the fighter when you think of my name.' some of them got it, some of them did not. wang told me that it is a family name which i am grateful that he did not tell me to think of something else. tony told me to take the 's' from tyson and i have tony. michael told me to think of michael jordan when i thought of him. potato told me that she likes to eat potatos. freedom could not think of anything so i gave him a question out of the magic notebook. his question was 'where do you buy explosives.' he answered 'the supermarket.' and then he changed it to 'the chemistry lab.' james named a famous nba star i had not heard of. stella told me to add an 'r' and i had the stars. i told her there is a band named stellastar that i used to play on the radio when i was a djay. i then mentioned the song by interpol named 'stella was a deep sea diver.'cyndiess confused me. from what i understood, his name is the name of a beautiful chinese female singer with whom he is in love. he seemed nonplussed that he had chose the english name of a sexy female star.
each of the kids have a number between one and fifty because i have fifty students in each class. i closed my eyes and picked a number with my finger in my attendance roster. each time before i picked a number there was an audible deep breath and then a 'whew' when i picked someone else. they loved it when fellow classmates had to stand up. ann was visibly shaking when she told me to think of her when i think of the first letter of the alphabet. sophia told me to say her name over and over until i remembered it. i gave her a plus for originality. i then wrote 'originality' on the board. at the end of the class some students started calling out numbers and i used that as my guide.

tonight, i plan to plug in my laptop to see if it will truly convert to 220v from 110v, oh the suspense. after that, i will play a dvd, a dvd i bought this weekend on my wild shopping spree in which i spent 150 kuai at the international bookstore on fuzhou road in shanghai. i walked out with 5 dvds, two books of postcards, some really cool printed cards, and a nice english/chinese dictionary (the one that all of the foreign teachers seem to have here). later when i stopped to think what the 150 kuai converts to i had to laugh. on my extravagant shopping spree, i spent less than 20 american dollars. misers of the world rejoice!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

less than a month ago, i was shopping for the best deals on airline tickets from new york city to pudong international airport in shanghai. the problem, i soon encountered, to buy a two-way ticket with a return date a year later was over twice the price of a two-way ticket with a return date within a month. the question: should i buy a ticket with a return within a month in case i hated china so i could bail if i needed? should i pay a couple of hundred less for a oneway ticket? or, should i pay almost double for a ticket with a return date a year later for almost twice as much but on my favorite airline - virgin atlantic? yes, i am a bit of a miser. i hate spending money pointlessly. already, before i had even left the east village bedroom which had become my temporary home, i faced a dillema. i thought this over as i watched mindless tv on the flat screen, a new arrival to the apartment. dilemma!

fast forward three weeks: i am finishing my 1st week of classes at songjiang public high school no. 2 in the suburbs of shanghai. the high school is a gardened boarding school which houses china's brightest (and china's wealthiest) young minds. to gain admission to this school, you must be harvard smart or your parents must be swimming in money. the campus itself is - for someone who graded papers in new york's central park - one of the most scenic places i have ever been. we have a small wooded garden area with an L shaped koi pond, a few little hills - emphasis on little - to tromp around, and the whole campus is shrouded in sycamore and magnolia trees. at times i feel like i am in the south on a plantation. with mortar scars left by the chinese/japanese war on some of the buildings, i feel as if i am in savanah after the civil war. instead of rhett and scarlett, i hear the sound of seagulls which is actually the changing voices of chinese youngters.

the senior 1, senior 2 and senior 3 buildings (aka somphmores, juniors, seniors from what i have ascertained from those in the know...many things are still a bit of a mystery to me) run parallel with each other and have that southern feel. they are long two story brick buildings which are a classroom wide. the classrooms have an open feel with a long row of windows and two doors that face what i think is the east. these doors open onto balconies which serve as hallways and they run the length of the building.

and somedays, although they rapidly pass, seem as if they could be a week long. at the end of the day, i sometimes ask myself if certain events happened on that day, the day before or sometime last week.

english speakers seem to be a fantastic oddity to the natives. walking around on campus, students always smile and stare at me as if i am some new animal in the zoo which they have only heard about. they say 'hello' and 'hi' and then giggle with their friends like they cannot believe they actually talked to this alien. and that the alien even spoke back.

today, i taught two classes with fifty exciteable junior high students in each class. (as i said earlier, this is my first week of teaching class here) invariably, in class, when i tell them my name is tyson, they laugh as if it is the funniest thing they have ever heard. they think of the fighter which of course i look nothing like. each of my 6 classes (of 50 students) so far have asked me how old i am. a student in one class guessed 20. most students guess ages from 25 to 33. 28 seems to be the most guessed age. sometimes a wiseass will say '50.' when i say '43' there is an audible gasp of shock which makes me laugh and, in turn, sends them into another laughing fit.

the other thing that sends them into laughing fits is when my chalk breaks when i am writing on the board. sometimes i will break 5 pieces of chalk while trying to write one word. this makes them laugh so hard that they bang their desks. i have never taught junior high in the united states. i wonder if chalk breaking would produce the same response in poughkeepsie?

so far in each class, i have spent the class talking about myself and various careers i have seeminly accidentally encountered. when i tell them that i was a singer in a rock band for over ten years, i hear an audible 'aaaaahhhhh' sweep through the classroom. at this point, my new students start to realize i am quite different from the other teachers. later, i tell them i was in advertising for a bit (but i make sure i mention how much i hated it). i get another 'aaaahhhh' when i tell them that i was a dj on a modern rock station. i then start naming the bands that were the cornerstones of the station's playlist. i say 'strokes, smiths, yeah yeah yeahs.' when i say 'yeah yeah yeahs,' they repeat 'yeah yeah yeahs.' i ask 'you know the yeah yeah yeahs?' they shake their heads 'no.' they just like to say the name. funny american name. i then ask if they know 'depeche mode, flaming lips, cure.' again, i get vacant stares and some somewhat obligatory apologies. i then tell them, these are bands that university students listen to in the states.

at this point, i would like to contradict myself a bit (deconstructionist that i am). one student, yesterday, raised her hand and had heard of the smiths when i mentioned their name.

incidentals - yesterday after class, two students walked up to me from out of class 7. the class i had just taught. (each group of senior 1s, 2s and 3s are divided up into -from what i can tell 11 classes.) although, they have been studying english for the last few years, they are still bashful about speaking, especially to an english speaker. the first student handed me a piece of candy and told me he would like for me to have it. i looked at the piece of candy labeled 'white rabbit' and put it into my pocket. his friend, not to be outdone told me 'i would like to give you my hamburger.' and handed me somehing with mystery meat lurking between two sesame seed buns. it was before lunch. i wondered how long said burger had been incubating in his desk. i was touched.

as anyone will tell you, there are adjustments but so far i love it. everyday, i feel like i am in one of those movies where some interesting character mistakenly leads an army or accidentally starts a revolution. as the young troops march forward, the protaganist is yelling 'NO! NO! That's not what I MEANT!'

yes, i think i made the right decision about the ticket. i flew virgin atlantic which was almost empty on the leg from london's heathrow to shanghai's pudong international. i have a return flight for approximately a year from now. i don't really even mind that i have to take a card with me everywhere with my address to show taxi drivers printed in chinese characters.