Sunday, April 30, 2006

Today, I gave the students in Class 5 and Class 9 the comic strips with the dialogue whited out. One of the strips was Peanuts characters - Sally, Charlie Brown, Schroeder, Lucy and Linus - standing in a line. In the original comic, they are saying what excuses they will give the person who they are in line to see, a principal or teacher. Linus is first in line he has no word balloon. Ye Hui Jin (no English name given) wrote two unintelligible word balloons and then for Schroeder she wrote “I must be a tragic hero,” followed by Lucy saying “The god will bless me.” Ann took the easy way out – the first word balloon says ‘Four,’ the second says ‘Three,’ the third says ‘Two,’ the fourth says ‘I want a peanut.’

One of the other whited out strips I gave them was Drabble which I had forgotten about him and his ‘miracle drivel, optical sewer’ until I started subscribing to the Shanghai Daily. This particular comic has Drabble eating donuts with his family at the donut shop. On the table you see the donut box full of donuts. In the original comic strip, Drabble in the middle pane gets up and shouts how much he loves donuts, which embarrasses everyone. His wife says something to him unfunny and unmemorable in the last pane. Well my little Zhang Ming Hui wrote Drabble saying “Maybe it’s very delicious,” in the first pane. In the second pane Drabble says “OH MY GOD IT’S TOO SWEET!” In the last pane Drabble’s wife - who is holding a small carton of milk says “Here’s the milk” which Drabble responds with “Thank you.”

Using the same comic strip, Kevin has Drabble saying “I’ll be a famous inventor.” Standing, proclaiming in the next pane “Ladies and Gentlemen! The man who stands before you will be a famous inventor buy his invention.” In the last pane his wife asks “So, what’s your invention?” Drabble responds with “I don’t know I haven’t invented it.”

From the same comic strip, the first one that really caught my eye has Drabble saying “These cookies are very delicious,” (Never mind that he is eating donuts). In the next panel “I have decided to be a baker. I believe I can,” In the last pane, and I thought Gu Xiaodong showed a touch of genius by putting these words into Drabble’s wife’s mouth “Are you sure? You never go to the kitchen.”

With the afternoon off, after trying not to take a short nap, I wander to downtown Songjiang to look for supplies for the cruise down the Yangtze River. Today is actually hot. I need a stronger deodorant. I picked the wrong country to find a stronger deodorant.

I stop at the Leinhua Market which is small grocer at the edge of downtown. I look for coffee. All they have is instant. All any grocery store seems to have here is instant. Yesterday, I spotted a French Press at Lotus. I had it in my hand ready to buy it until I realized, after looking in what should have been the coffee aisle, ground coffee is not easily attainable here. They did have one can of Mocha ground coffee but it was 75 yuan for a small canister. I am not paying close to $10 for a canister of coffee. For the time being, I will stick with tea.

After being told the cruise might be a bit on the roughing it side, I have decided to buy a bag. The Delsey carry-on I bought before I left NYC, I am afraid it will get swiped. I am not super attached to it but it is part of a set which is still not that big of a deal but I thought this would give me an excuse to buy a kitschy cool Chinese bag. Store after store, I look at shoulder bags, book bags, backpacks with no luck. At a place I will christen the Hello Kitty Emporium, a clerk tries to help me find a bag. This clerk happens to know a smidgeon of English. My gaze has accidentally settled on some hot pink ‘hello kitty’ backpacks.
She sees where my gaze has settled (which is a shopping fatality in China) and says “These are most beautiful. You not think so?”
I actually don’t really like them I tell her.
“You no like?”
“Well, I think it is more for a girl,” I tell her.
“Oh, yes, I think so.Yes.”
I then see an army green canvas bag that has an abundance of pockets with no obnoxious lettering such as “Sport 101” or “Nikee” or “Addiass.” The price was less than $10. She took it to the counter for me. I took out my cash card. She shook her head no. I would have to go get cash.

I left the Hello Kitty Emporium and started walking toward my bank. Along the way, I stopped at a few shops. I looked in the window of the Pepsi athletic-gear store but I did not see any bags. I saw a lot of red and Pepsi blue in the display window. The other day I did see some silver tennis shoes there that I thought I might buy but I still cannot decide how I feel emotionally about Pepsi tennis shoes. Oh well, I continued my walk through this section of Songjiang which is an outdoor mall. It is at least the length of a city block if not longer.

a few weekends ago. a few weekends ago. a few weekends ago.(Oops, needle was skipping) A few weekends ago, Maureen and I sat in a coffee shop and we people watched. We saw a car drive by and we looked at each other. Is this not supposed to be a pedestrian area? We then saw a taxi whiz by. Again, we looked at each other – puzzled, dismayed. And then of course, a city bus went by. We have decided: In China, if the surface is paved, any vehicle is welcome to happily roll across said surface.

Finally, I spot a hipster shop, I stop in. Imagine a Chinese Urban Outfitters half the size of Armani Exchange. The clothes in the window look enticing. There is something almost Nolita about their ramshackle trendiness. I walk in to find some t-shirts with owls, dragons, trees stitched on them. They look as if they could be at the Young Designers Market in Nolita in NYC. I have finally found a clothes store that has some semi-cool threads. (Did I just write ‘threads’?) I find some shirts that I like but none in my size. As I am about to leave the store, a voice tells me to go to the back of the store where the jeans are, even though I have plenty of jeans at this point.

Up on the wall on a shelf I see it by itself waiting for me, my bag. It is a canvas backpack that has that unassuming look which finds often have. Easily, I could have passed by it. I have the clerk get it down with her merchandise fetching pole and I check it out. It is 148 kuai ($18.50). It is a Diesel bag which is not my favorite brand but I do like some of their things and I do like this bag. I take it to the counter. I give them my cash card which they accept and I sling my new Yangtze River Cruise bag over my shoulder and head out the door.

I must be smiling because more people tell me hello than ever. On my way back to my apartment I wave and smile, kiss children, whatever; I have my new bag. I am ready to take a river cruise down the Yangtze.

Jaywalking has become the hot topic here in Shanghai. If this was America, Crossfire or Nightline would do a piece on it. Jo (the manly ancient female Australian who buys raisin bread and gives it to me because she forgets that she gave me her toaster), Maureen (Birdflu of course), and Jennifer and I sat in Maureen’s apartment and chatted last night. Jo gives a section of the Pudong Police Department, English instruction. The topic of Jaywalking came up. The police department views it as a serious offense and the people should be detained – 7 to 9 days is reasonable to them. She said the policemen refer to the jaywalkers as suspects which gets Jo in an uproar. I could not stop laughing.

Of course, I am laughing now but I am a bit frightened I could get hauled in at some point. The policemen target anyone who veers off the crosswalk. You could be crossing at a light but if you veer off the crosswalk, you could still be fined or arrested. The ridiculousness of this is perversely humorous to me. I have to think of this in historical terms if the States had adopted this law in the 1850s. John Wilkes Boothe on his way to shoot Lincoln, jaywalks to enter the theater. Police ticket him. He goes Confederate on them. Does not make his rendezvous point. Lincoln does not get assassinated and since he does not get assassinated he does not make Mt. Rushmore. The Manson Family jaywalk from their car to the hardware store when they are buying rope and knives. Susan Adkins goes helter skelter on the traffic cop.

I just creeped myself out because when I just typed that a shadow fell across my laptop (I think back of the prosecutor’s watch stopping during the trial when Manson looked at him). I did not see what was causing the shadow. With the way the light is cast, the shadow would be coming from the balcony. I then realized the men working late (11.15 PM) on the building in my backyard are casting shadows. That’s not the Manson Family, that’s just Chinese construction workers.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

In Ponca City (Oklahoma) boys are biting off warts and making fingers bleed. In Songjiang, a District of Shanghai in the People’s Republic, the boss asks if any more doors have been jiggled. She is curious about ghost activity. At 10:30 PM, I take a photo from the doorway of the living room into the hallway and beyond of the metal and glass kitchen door and window which are bathed in the kitchen’s blue light. It has this institutional feel mixed with Picasso’s blue period. The camera I use is the old kind that uses 35mm film. I get the creepiest feeling after I snap the photo like a specter will appear - a jilted lover, a forgotten concubine, a madman riddled with a 1930s policeman’s 44 revolver’s bullets. I can almost feel a spirit hand on my shoulder.

At night, the balconies have an indescribable eeriness, like a vampire may touch down and gaze - with his fangs exposed - into my window. The vampire’s look will surprise me He will look exactly like Monty Hall from “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The building being erected in my backyard has the skeletal appearance of a doomed ballroom overtaken in a long past generation by fire; claiming the lives of the revelers; forcing them to dance and drink in agony for an eternity. The phantom orchestra plays the same set over and over and over. The same drinks are spilt. The same lovers jilted. The same couples argue. The same, the same, the same. This is the future. This is the past.

10 years ago I watched TV.

The painting is finished or at least near completion. My deconstruction will have to wait. The painting has transformed into a boy wading into the apocalypse or something close. If this is not my friends’ son, this is their grandson or maybe great grandson. Fossil fuels depleted, people ride burros across the plains; they row boats down metal-torn rivers. The jet-set pilot their atomic aircycles to frontier malls.

The Shanghai jaywalking crackdown heats up. Two more pedestrians have been detained for 7 to 10 days for disobeying police after being ticketed for the heinous crime of jaywalking. “We get so strange across the border.”

I cut out comic strips – Drabble, Blondie, Peanuts. I white out the dialogue. I make copies enough for 100 students each a strip. They have to come up with dialogue. This should be interesting. This will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will be 8 months sober.

Tomorrow is Saturday. Usually I do not teach on Saturday even though I believe there may be classes on Saturday here in Public High School No. 2. Since they are on holiday next week, they have to make up Thursday and Friday. Thursday and Friday will be made up tomorrow. This is China. “We get so strange across the border.”

Lately, I have been feeling antsy. When I feel antsy, I start looking at the horizon. I like this horizon. I plan to stay fairly close to this horizon. I walk into the kitchen and the gas is on. I do not remember leaving it on.

When summer comes, I am tentatively teaching summer school. I have not made up my mind for sure. I think perhaps I will teach one of the sessions, the one in July which lasts for 3 weeks but the students go all day. I do not know if I can gear myself up for this.

Today, I went back to the shop of cheap goods. I bought the frayed baseball cap with the printing of the skull. I bought a clip on light in case I need it for the trip at night to continue reading ‘Moby Dick.’ I bought another pack of cards. I must be collecting sets of cards because when I see a set I buy it. I bought some red ink. The boy who carries my basket - who always carries my basket when I shop there - pointed to the red color and looked at me quizzically. I shook my head yes. That was enough to satisfy him. I bought a quill.

When I get to the counter, I hand the cashier my card. He looks at it and shakes his head no. I thought I had used my card there before but maybe I had not, though I think I had. I go across the street to Lotus (the center of my universe of course) and get money out of the cash machine.

In New York, I would have been annoyed because the girl in front of me stands there for a few minutes in front of the ATM - after she has got her money - straightening things in her purse. She does not even look at me like she is sorry that she has held me up. I get 100 out of the machine and go back and get my stuff. For a minute, I consider not getting the money out because it seems like so much but then after I think it over I realize I am only withdrawing $12.

My sweet tooth is starting to swerve out of control. Since I have been here, I have eaten cookies and cakes and sometimes ice cream every day. Christine is a frequent stop on my walks. Today I bought the flaky cream cheese turnover. Sometimes I grab the little rolled chocolate sponge cake with cake decorator flakes on top. At the grocery store is a black and white swirl ice cream cone machine. The cones cost 1 yuan (about 12 cents). I feel like I may be turning into Carney Wilson.

Yesterday in the World Geography and Culture class with the Shanghai90210, I started ‘North by Northwest.’ Miko pointed to her chin and made a cleft. I said yeah I have a cleft.
She said, talking about Cary Grant “He’s very handsome.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I am very handsome.”
“No, HIM!” (pointing at the screen) “Him”(still pointing at the screen) “Him” (still pointing at the screen.) Max thought this was the funniest thing ever and turned around and flashed me that comic book look of his. I was sitting in the back – so I could watch and mark points off if they were not paying attention to the movie. Allen was working on homework from another class. She got no points for my class.

In our last listening and conversation class, I told the Shanghai90210 we would have a quiz today over a section of vocabulary words from Maus which I am reading to them. Today when I walked into the class, I asked them if they were ready for the quiz. They all looked at me in shock.
“I told you we were going to have a quiz over the vocabulary today.”
“Quiz?”- Tess.
“We thought we watch movie.”- Miko.
“Quiz?”- Max.
“Yeah, movie.”- Allen.
“I told you. You knew we would have a quiz over those vocabulary words.”
All of them had the look of shock and dread on their face. I let the dread hang for a minute or two and then I said.
“April 28th fools!”
I started laughing uncontrollably and they started laughing. Miko said “You! You! You!”
I know, without a doubt, showing a movie is a cheap way to teach but that rolling celluloid sure makes a Friday ease by.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Today is a half of a paper sort of a day, literally. Half of my paper arrived today, Section D onward. No good deed goes unpunished. Last night, I took snacks to the guards at the gate - potato chips (5 little bags), cookies, little cakes from Christine. Since they are part of my daily ritual now - with my paper always getting gruffly handed to me, I might say thanks in the form of treats. Do they not like beef stew flavored potato chips? Is that what the sometimes drunk always smirking guard was trying to tell me? Maybe I do need to take an immersion course in Chinese after all if I am going to live here and have any sort of normalcy. But, is there normalcy – or the sort of normalcy to which I am accustomed – in China? Sometimes I feel like this is the biggest struggle I have ever faced, akin to when Steve Perry shaved his moustache in Journey (which he did during the riveting documentary on the ‘Lovin-Touchin-Squeezin’ band).

When I sit out on the balcony or when I sit in the garden and watch the students - as if I am living in some other time forgotten by the modern world – I feel like I am the luckiest person who has ever lived and I ask myself why I am crying about getting half of a newspaper. Is the front page really that important? Should I not be happy that I did at least get the supplement section on the Netherlands? The Netherlands need love and attention too.

The weeks are colliding with each other it seems. Time here has been put in fast forward. The week has ended again, already. I am stunned by the way the weeks fly. I feel as if yesterday was Sunday. Tomorrow is the new today. Today, I teach class 5 and class 9.

Today, the fountain is off; the waterfall is still. A hesitant mood pervades the students –Class 5 - as they walk into the garden. They mostly walk around silently. Before we left to come to the garden, I told them they had to write about what they see in the garden and hand it to me. I then tell them they do not have to write, I just want them to enjoy themselves. Once they are in the garden, they are unsure what is to be done with this freedom. Cool walks around a bit. When he told me his name is ‘Cool,’ I went into a ‘cool’ babelogue – ‘joe cool,’ ‘that’s cool,’ ‘it’s cool,’ ‘coolsville,’ ‘it would be a lot cooler if you did.’ Joe Cool is the only thing that clicks. The Chinese love Snoopy. They love Peanuts. Peanuts and Blondie are in my Shanghai Daily…daily. Cool sits on the bridge by himself and starts reading, maybe Harry Potter translated. They love Harry Potter.

Cool gets up and walks around. Wolfbark and Ronnie watch another boy fish with a stick. A large group of students wanders up and are quite enthralled by this. Another student acts as if he is going to push Wolfbark into the pond. Wolfbark jumps. Wolfbark could be in a band, in a wolf band – Guitar Wolf, Steppenwolf, the Peter Wolf Group, Peter and the Wolf (the Band). He has that perfect teenage hair – ‘With your Rock and Roll hair, Let the good times roll’ - like Pink in ‘Dazed and Confused.’ He has a constant grin of guilt on his face. Today, he charged into class before the last bell rang. I love Wolfbark. His delinquency is b-movie harmless. He is a Chinese sweathog.

A student who could possibly be Wax Goard is sitting on the bridge with his arm around Wolfbark. It is not Wax Goard after all. Wax Goard is standing next to Ronnie. I cannot see who has his arm around Wolfbark because their backs are to me. The teenage male closeness is still odd to me. At times, I must stare because they remove their arms, hands, legs form each other. I do not want to change them. I want them to change the world.

Occasionally, a student will tentatively look my way. I smile. Cool is back at his spot reading his book. He looks like an actor, a guest star on ‘The Wonder Years,’ a forgotten cousin on ‘Eight’s Enough.’ He has glasses. He looks smart but with this quality which is indescribable, part Sal Mineo, part Ben Foster .

The students have now resorted to hurling a pen across the pond. A true authoritarian would do something. Fortunately – or unfortunately – I am not a true authoritarian. I sit and watch. I want to know what will happen. Of course, I know what will happen. Eventually, the pen will go into the pond. That is what will happen, unless of course it hits someone in the eye first. I will take the pond over an eye. On the first throw the pen skates across the patio. On the second and a few subsequent throws a student catches the pen. The pen at one point lands in the tree. The students laugh. On the next throw, the pen does go in the water. This makes the students roar with laughter.

The pen crowd moves on to another part of the garden. The students’ chatter sounds more like birds than birds. The birds try to compete. I hear them (the birds) sometime when the din of the students subsides. The birds are jealous of the students. The birds cannot compete with the students. The energy of the students loosed in the garden - after a winter of hibernation and studying - overtakes the bird sounds. Three minutes until 11:00, I tell the students they may go to the cafeteria. Wolfbark and a friend present me with a small bouquet of wildflowers.

I sit in the garden for a few minutes and enjoy the quiet and the restoration of the bird sounds after the students leave to go to lunch. Leisurely, I walk to class 9. This class starts with eye exercises. The eye exercise soundtrack has now become a part of the music in my mind. The flutes and piccolos play as the perky voice recites the numbers in Chinese while I wash dishes, shower, shave, cook.

While I am sitting on the porch waiting for class to begin; Harry Potter, the girl, asks if she can ask me a question. I tell her yes.
“Do you like Harry Potter?”
“Yes I do.” Granted, I am not as crazy about Harry Potter as others are. However, now that I am in China, I feel as if I do need to read the books because I am a representative of Western Culture to some degree and Harry Potter is the summation of modern Western Culture to some degree.”
“What is you favorite character?”
“Uh,” Now for me, that is a really tough question. One reason is I do not know the characters offhand. I tell her I like the lady instructor. Maggie Smith has left an impression on me in the movies. Harry Potter, the girl student, misunderstands me and thinks that I am talking about one of the other characters, one of the male characters. I am a little disappointed in myself that I am not a crazed Harry Potter fan because I would love to have a conversation with Harry Potter about Harry Potter. Harry Potter hesitates for a moment and walks into the classroom.

Gavin - whose leg is healing, he is still limping but off crutches – limps up to talk. He has heard that we are going to go to the garden. He wants to know if we are. I tell him that since they had midterms while my other classes went to the garden last week, we will probably go to the garden today. He then tells me he would like to go to lunch early. I tell him we are going to the garden. Gavin is one of those students who sits with Freedom and a couple of other boys and generally causes trouble. I can almost bet it was he who threw a paper airplane in Jennifer’s night class when I happened to be walking past the classroom - she was at the board - and I saw a paper airplane whizzing through the air. The funny thing is these kids do not understand that I perfected the throwing - and the not getting caught throwing - the paper airplane in class. B movie delinquents indeed! Ha!

Gavin asks me about teaching IELTs and why I do not do it. I tell him I do not like to teach at night. I did not answer his question. He was asking me something else. I do not know what he is asking. He gives up he walks into the classroom. Gavin is a Senior One which I take to mean he is a high school sophomore. About a quarter of the student senior one male population (and actually maybe an eighth of the female student senior one student population) has the beginnings of facial hair. By this time, I would think the sweat glands would be going into overdrive. However, I have not noticed bad body odor which of course American teenagers do not usually have body odor either. But in America, teenagers have access to deodorant. In China, or at least at the grocery stores, pharmacies, and markets, there is no deodorant. Jo told Maureen you can buy a German brand of deodorant in Shanghai somewhere. I have not found where this sacred spice is available. I will have to find it soon because my speedstick…(oh heck, insert your own deodorant joke.)

Isaac runs out of the class toward the cafeteria. A Chinese teacher walks by; I say “Ni hao.” He smiles and says “Ni hao.” The eye exercises start. I watch for Isaac. He comes in at the very last of the exercises with Ray and a few other boys. They have ice cream cones, Chinese pizza, pastries – all of which they are not supposed to have in the classroom which I have let slide but now I think I must be an authoritarian.

This is the part of my job I hate. Since this handful of boys came in late to class at the end of the eye exercises, I write ‘fair’ on the board and ask the class if they are familiar with the word. Most of the class say yes.
“I do not think it is fair that some boys can go to the cafeteria and grab snacks while the other students stay in class. I think I will talk to school officials and find out if their are rules regarding this type of behavior.” Harry Potter tells me that the class does not understand me. Again, I explain it. I think words like ‘if’ confuses them. If implies choice.

We make our way to the garden. Once we are at the garden. Harry Potter asks me what sort of games I have planned. Oops, I had not thought of games. This is the last class of my six classes of fifty students that I have taken to the garden. This is the first class in which a student would like to know if I have games planned. Since Harry Potter is who asked me, I ask her what she would like to play. She tells me hide and seek. I tell her that sounds like a good idea. I try to get the students’ attention but everyone is talking amongst themselves in their little cliques. I have no luck. Harry Potter – who is a petite girl – bellows something in Chinese. The students look up. She forms a hide and seek troop and this troop go on a hide and seek reconnaissance mission. I go to my usual place by the pond and watch the activities. Now and then, I will see Suzzy (two ‘z’s) pop her head up from behind a bush.

In the brush, I hear quite a few voices talking louder than normal. Curious, I go see what they are saying which of course I do not know but I might be able to guess. When I get to the place from which the voices are coming, I look up and see the subject matter. I thought maybe the students had spotted some rare spotted bird or come upon some endangered tree frog. No, the creature is from the student variety. Isaac is climbing a tree. When he has scooted himself quite a ways up into the tree someone says ‘monkey.’ I laugh, everyone laughs. Part of me thinks broken arm, broken leg, broken neck. Boys climb trees. I spent many a spring and summer afternoon in my favorite Sycamore in the front yard of my childhood home.

Since the students are occupied by Isaac and his tree climbing inclinations, I wander back over to the pond. Usually, I would write but today I just watch the students. A student – his name I cannot remember and I must remember because he is quite dear – tells me that he and his classmates do not spend much time in the garden because they have to spend so much time studying. I tell him that is too bad and that is why I think it is important to come to the garden. I know they must study but they must be able to enjoy the weather sometimes too. He agrees. He asks me if this is my first time in the garden. This seems to be some veiled reference to the book of Genesis but it is not. I tell him I have been here many times. Nor is this a veiled reference to fornication and the book of Genesis.

I ask him how his midterms were. He tells me he did well in physics but not in Chinese or math. I tell him I am impressed that he did well in physics. He tells me his parents are professors. They help him. They live in Shanghai now. They moved there from Harbin which is north and gets very cold. I tell him I saw that it just snowed there. I read that in the Shanghai Daily. We talk until the end of class. He goes to the cafeteria. I come to my apartment. Next time we meet, I must pardon myself, and ask him his name again. He is one of the reasons I feel lucky to be here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

In a week, I will have been in Shanghai for two months. When I first got here, I told myself I was going to study Chinese an hour a night, I haven’t. I have a phrase book, an exhaustive – and exhausting – dictionary, and a Chinese survival guide that I crack open when I think about it which is probably less than every few days. Part of me tells myself learning a language is something possible for children not adults so I do not even try. The other part of me tells myself, I have picked up phrases and basic pronunciation so I should try. If I spend an exorbitant amount of studying, I do well on tests. I must remember this.

In the US, I would rent a car and go across the country or hop on a plane and go across the country but here in China, I am not comfortable doing that. I will take a taxi or walk but I do not like to go to far away from home by myself. I feel like I have no safety net. This is a weird feeling. I have probably not felt this way since I was a teenager, before I started driving.

My mother raised me – by example – to be very independent. In the late forties (or early fifties), she went alone to Boston from Ponca City to nursing school. Of course, back in those days, slow moving letters by the post were really the only way to contact friends and family. Phones were too expensive for the commoner to call long distance. At that time, I am sure Boston seemed much further – or as far –from Ponca City as the People’s Republic seems from the United States today.

The thing about being here is I do not think I get homesick. That is the funny thing. I do not even know if I get homesick. With the number of trips I have made around the sun at this point, I know that I will see everyone again. Or, I hope to see everyone again. Of course, I may just be telling myself I am not getting homesick to keep myself from having a nervous breakdown. Last week I was walking through the enormous school gate and I smelt burning trash – nothing really that out of the ordinary here – and the trash made me have the most intense craving for the a cheeseburger at the Hungry Frog in Oklahoma City.

The funny thing is time has flown since I have been here. Time has been flying at a pretty steady clip since the turn of the century. Next week is May Holiday which is astounding to me. I cannot believe it has already arrived. I feel like I just got off the plane and was unsure about my future, if I had indeed made the right choice in coming here.

Speaking of the May Holiday, for the holiday, Maureen, Jennifer and I are taking a cruise down the Yangtze River next week. We will see a place called the three gorges which I heard is beautiful. Soon, they are damming where these gorges and some very old villages now sit. We have been told this is very important to see. Monday, we fly to Chongqing. We stay in a hotel that night and board the boat the next day. The cruise is a 4 day cruise. From what I heard, the meals are questionable, the toilets are questionable, the rooms are questionable. I think we are going to have the time of our lives.

But now, I am focusing on what is going on here and now. In class today, I asked Class 7 where they were going or what they were doing for May Holiday. No one responded. Slowly, I am getting the idea that most of the time they do not understand what I am saying. I walked back to where Bill – who I called Kira (which he quickly told me Kira was a girl sitting across the room, oops)and who had to give his presentation on China first last week after he kicked his friend – and his trouble maker friends were sitting. They talk though the whole class which is definitely annoying. I went back to ask them what they were doing and one of the boys said to me
“You are Pooh.”
This sounded very Tao to me but then I thought it also sounded a bit like poof.
“I am what?”
“Pooh,” he repeated.
“Pooh?” I asked
At that point, the girl who sits in front of this rowdy group of boys turned around and said. “All of their English is very poor. That is what he is trying to say.”
For some reason, I thought this was the funniest thing because I thought they were saying something of course totally different and the boy was telling me his English was poor. And then, for some reason unbeknownst to myself, when the girl – who was obviously one of the ‘smart’ kids - said this the boys were all very embarrassed and each of these really tough sorts of dudes put their heads down on the desks in embarrassment.

Tomorrow for the Geography and Culture Class, I am showing North by Northwest. Cary Grant and Mt. Rushmore, what else could a guy ask for?

Okay, so I have not buckled down and studied Chinese like I promised myself I would. I do, however, feel like I have got a crash course in the culture since I have been here. What I have learned during my time in China:

1. Egg goes with (and on) everything. Stewed cucumber and scrambled egg are a lunchtime side dish as is slightly blanched tomato and scrambled egg, a fried egg tops off any noodle dish, a mystery meat – that looks like ham – sandwich is not complete without a layer of egg.

2. It would be easier to find hip Chinese indie-rock at Quail Springs Mall in Oklahoma City than it would be to find it in ….China.

3. When creating a world geography and culture midterm, keep in mind that you will be grading said midterm later. Do not make the midterm a pain in the ass to grade.

4. Do not lose any midterm once it has been handed back from the student and before you have graded it. That is not smart.

5. If a somewhat spoiled Chinese teen - who seems to eat everything in sight - promises you the most delicious steak ever at an American style restaurant in China, opt for a poke in the eye instead.

6. If you must jaywalk and you are caught, pay the fine which - I read in today’s follow-up jaywalking story in The Shanghai Daily – will set you back between 5 to 50 yuan (60cents to $6.20). If you do not want to pay the outrageous fine, do not scratch or berate the policeman because you may accidentally be caught on videotape like the woman from the other day. You will then be on the news. You will then be embarrassed and resign your post from an educational consulting company. Masters be dammed. That’s educational.

7. The Chinese eat a lot of rice, every meal has a bowl of rice on the side. Surprise.

8. If the dish rotating around on the lazy Susan appears to be roasted goose shins, barbequed pigeon parts, goose foot soup, chicken foot soup, any part of the frog anatomy (which you might recognize from 9th grade biology), possum, chicken head soup, fish head soup, cow stomach, creek snails, river snake; you are in fact correct. That varmint is going to be in your craw before you know it. Yum.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

“Yesterday I got so old…” Today is a new day. I feel strangely energized. Today is the day that my red veneer chrome leg coffee table is to arrive. When I bought it, they told me I would get it on Sunday. The Sofa Negotiator called them on Friday and the person at the other end of the line told her the table would arrive Tuesday morning between 9 and 10 am. I get excited about a new coffee table. I have never ever bought a new coffee table. Yes, I am in a good mood. I have a much better outlook on life than I had yesterday. The sun is shining. When the sun shines, I feel better. I want to sing.

I wait until 10:10 am for the delivery, no show. Disappointed, I head across the parking lot to the office. I pop in on Jessie.
“The coffee table was not delivered.” I say a bit bummed.
“I called this morning. They will deliver this afternoon.” I make some tea and head to the Shanghai 90210 listening class.

My listening class with the Shanghai90210 is painless, even bordering on enjoyable. Allen participates fully. I am very pleased. Any sort of conflict makes me crazy. Some people seem to love conflict. I hate it. Yes, she is spoiled but she is good at heart. Her whims, she cannot help.

Class 3 made me beam. Jacky brought her cheap Chinese guitar she bought for 50 bucks (I would later learn) which actually sounds good. I played “Savior Boyfriend Collides” and “Feel like a Drugstore.” I wrote the names on the board. When I wrote the word ‘drugstore’ a murmur swept through the class. A few of the students punched the words into their electronic translators. I thought about explaining my drug days but I thought that might really confuse them and possibly get me ejected from this country. After I played the songs the class applauded me enthusiastically.

I then tell them we are going to play a game that I like to play on road trips. I write ‘road trips’ ‘kill time’ ‘2 or 3 hours’ on the board. Then I tried to explain the game which proved to be a challenge.

“You write a sentence, any sentence you want and then you pass it to your neighbor and your neighbor writes a sentence,” I say “You pass the sentences back and forth. Do you understand?”
I wrote ‘The boy went to the market’ on the board. Blank Stares. Someone had written ‘hero’ on the board in the back of the class. I wrote ‘The hero saved three children.’ Blank Stares.
“Stephen Roger, do you understand?’
“Freestar, do you understand?”
“You do?!” One person understands, maybe he can help the others.
“No.” Oh, this one person does not understand.
“You can write anything you want and then pass it back and forth.” Somehow these are the magic words. The majority nod in understanding. The writing begins. I walk around the room. Killback hides something in his desk. I do not ask what it is. He looks at me sheepishly. I ask him if his desk-mate, a girl, is causing trouble. He just smiles. His English is not good. I do not think he understands me. Freestar is sitting in front of him. I ask Freestar if they are misbehaving. He does not understand. His English is better than Killback’s. Nevertheless, he still does not understand me.

At Jacky’s desk, I stop and ask her about her guitar. Her guitar teacher found it for her. I tell her it was a nice one (which it is for a cheap guitar). She tells me her teacher has many. Maybe I could go with her to meet him. I tell her I would like that.
She says “He would think it pleasant to meet you.”
“Yes, I would most certainly like to meet him.”
She writes his number down in my journal which does me no good after she tells me he probably does not know any English.

At the end of the class, the students hand me a pile of notes, their masterworks.
An example, which seems as if it could be a song by the Sugarcubes:

“I saw a dog in the road. - (verse)
It has three legs
And it has no tail
And I walk beside it
She barked at me
Oh, too strange! - (bridge?)
I’m so nervous
I gave a piece of meat to it. - (chorus)
It didn’t eat the meat. It bit me!
Oh – No !
It wants to eat me
Then a ugly boy appeared.- (verse)
He ate the dog and me.
The dog was very delicious. I was dying!
And I went to heaven.
The toilet is near.
The last line is the perfect finale. I didn’t add the final commentary which was a ‘Fuck, too!’ which appeared on a few of the round robin notes. The author of this two word slogan I assume was looking for a post-modern phraseology for ‘Fuck, yeah!’ Perhaps he is reading all sorts of Derrida, Nietzsche, and Sartre late at night - when he should be working on Chinese arithmetic and memorizing Mao quotes. Or maybe he just wanted to write the f-word on every paper that hit his desk.

After class, I come back to my apartment and make dumplings. I eat them on the balcony. The construction site has been tidied. The first two floors are clear of boards and construction debris. The construction workers are on their lunch break.

I go to my 1:30 class. I explain the note passing sentence game to them. They understand. This time I felt like I explained the game more in depth. Some of the students do not start writing, nor do they pull out papers and pens. I walk around and ask them why they are not writing. They then start writing. Halfway into the class, I realize most of them seem bored. Many of them are not doing the activity. These students are talking to their desk mate or talking to the person sitting behind them. I just want to ride it out. We are only fifteen minute into the class. I look up and the back of the class have become motivated. They are writing like fiends. Later I look through their papers and they write sentences where girls in class are fat fish.

Dong Qian stopped by my apartment. She lives above me. I have not mentioned her very much. She is nice. When I first moved in she asked if I could not run my air conditioner (what they call the heater) at night because it was too loud. The heater is like a window unit stuck in the wall. Mine happens to be at the top of my bedroom wall which she lives above me so it is under her floor. I told her I would not run it. I did anyway.

She came by today because she has English questions for me. She has questions about cards. She asks about Jacks, Queens, Kings. Which is higher? I tell her Kings but sometimes Ace is the high card depending on the game. This makes no sense to her; Ace is a one. She then wants me to help her understand lyrics from a song. As I am reading, I assume the song must be from the Back Street Boys catalogue. “I am numberless. I am innocent.” She says these lines contradict the rest of the song. I tell her sometimes songs are supposed to be contradictory. If you ask a songwriter what a song means a lot of times he will say draw your own conclusion. I then look at the top of the page and see the song is by Sting. How do I explain songwriters? How do I explain Sting? How do I explain the Hallmark card sentiments of his lyrics?

At 4:00 pm, Jessie calls. She says the coffee table is right outside my door. After I hang up the phone, I put my shoes on and a young Chinese man wearing a blazer and dress pants is standing there. I do not talk to him but it is as if we are talking because afterward, I know I will remember a conversation between us that never existed.

Later I will remember him saying that he was surprised I opened the door because he put the table in front of the door down the hall, my old apartment where my sofa was delivered. He points to the sofa. All of this, he says telepathically. Or maybe he just does a lot of pointing and grunting. I pay him the 300 rmb balance. He says ‘bye’ five times and leaves. After he leaves, a strange odor permeates the room as if something has soured. I smell myself. I smell the new table. I then assume it must have been the delivery man. He took off his shoes when he came in. I spray the Osmanthus air freshener to rid the room of the odor.

I read the Shanghai Daily. I read a blurb about an illegal dentist who is sentenced to 10 years and has to pay remuneration because he pulled 10 teeth out of a woman at his roadside dental stand and the woman’s lung collapsed and she had a heart attack. She died. Another interesting story involves lucky plates, as in license plates auctioned off in Guangzhou. The Chinese look at the number 8 as being lucky. A middle-aged woman in Guangzhou paid 237,000 rmb ($29, 625) for an ‘888’ plate.

An unlucky woman, who obviously has no 8s on her plate, was arrested for jaywalking and sentenced to 10 days in jail. The story says Liu (the woman’s surname) berated the cop when he stopped her. She refused to be given a ticket. At some point she scratched the officer. Three female officers were needed to take her into custody. “Liu, who holds a master’s degree from a British university, has allegedly accepted the punishment and told police she is very sorry for the way she acted.”

However, she should look on the bright side. Her husband did not hang himself in their apartment. And - her landlord is not suing her because the apartment is devalued now. “Lin Xiao and her husband, a Frenchman (FAKE OUTLAWERS!), rented an apartment in March 2004 for two years. In November 2005 (the expiration date on the chicken chunks that I bought at Lotus the other night. I have recently realized I should check all expiration dates on food that I buy because most of the time the items seem to be expired by 4 or 5 or 6 months), the Frenchman hung himself from a beam in the apartment.” The landlord told Lin she could rent the apartment for two more years or buy it. She declined. That’s weird, why would she not want to live in the place where her husband hanged himself?
She may think about getting another part-time job like being a snack deliverer. Two Shanghai Jiao Tong University undergrads have started a snack delivery business online. The students must submit orders – for omelet pancakes, danbing (Chinese pizza), bacon rolls, and pearl milk tea - before 9:20 “so that staff have time to buy snacks from nearby stores and deliver them from 10pm to 10:30pm.” Pizza shuttle be warned!
Another interesting tidbit: “Some farmers in Chongming County were poisoned after eating an improperly prepared puffer fish at a self-cooked banquet on February 27. One person died afterwards.” Yes, ‘farmers,’ ‘self-cooked’ and ‘puffer fish,’ need I say more?

Monday, April 24, 2006

I keep telling myself I am lucky to be here. During the bad days, I tell myself there will be better days and I know there will be. I want to say the bad things are magnified here but they are not they are just different like the fried chicken is different like the way you eat fried chicken here is different. Even drumsticks you eat with chop sticks.

I start the day by giving the Shanghai 90210 a vocabulary quiz which I told them Friday I was going to give them today. None of them are prepared for it. None of them pass the quiz. When I sat it in front of them, they tried to look at their notes but I took those away and made them hunker down and do the quiz. Max kept saying “Let me look one minute!” He pointed to the notes. I told him no. Tess looked at it and wrote an answer but then laid her head down on the desk in defeat. Allen wrote one answer which was wrong.

After they agonized over the quiz for 30 minutes, I told them from now on if I ask them to study vocabulary over the weekend, I expect them to do it. I told them that if they did okay on the quizzes I give until the end of the semester, I would ignore the one I gave today. Tess was relieved.

After that I told them the grading scale for the rest of the semester: tests are 50% or their grade; in-class participation is 15% of their grade; quizzes are 15% of their grade; and homework is 20% of their grade. This is the system that I used in New York City. I have been very lenient with them which is my biggest problem as a teacher. If I am too lenient, they will learn nothing.

After class, we went to lunch and we were back to our old selves. On the way into the lunch room I said hello to Ding Ding, James, Robbie, Orange, and Bizmark.
Tess said “You know all of them.”
The Shanghai90210 (minus Miko) all sat at a table by the window. Tess and I both had the beef over rice which was really spicy today. Near the end of my course, I pulled a two inch wooden splinter out of my mouth.
Tess said “Must be toothpick.”
That was enough for me. I put my chop sticks down. Lunch was officially over. I then told them that it was maybe a splinter from someone’s peg leg - I have been trudging through ‘Moby Dick.’ Perhaps that is how they stirred the beef. I demonstrated a bit with my leg. The whole table went into a fit of laughter, Tess especially. She said the Chinese equivalent of ‘gross.’

I had Class 11 with Fred, Orange, James, Bizmark, Potato. As I looked at James, I told the class that I knew one or two of them snuck off last time. I asked them to put their names and numbers (1-50) on a sheet of paper first thing which none of them did. I then asked them again to do it. A few of them responded. I think their comprehension is much worse than I had first suspected. I then told them we would go back to the garden and write about everything we saw. Their eyes lit up when I told them we were going to do this. Orange - who was lethargic before - beamed.

I exited at the back of the room which is closer to the staircase and the school’s entrance. This time leaving the classroom was not as seamless as our other march to the garden. We were more like the Hooterville Volunteer Fire Department band this time. Out in the hall I look back and only 5 students are behind me. I wait a bit longer and more come. I march on ahead. This, as I have said before, is the only class of the fifty oral students that is in a building where we actually have to walk through the building to exit. Once I am out of the building and walking along the sidewalk outside - with a few stragglers behind me, but most of them still filing through the building - I see a Chinese teacher walk by who looks at me as if I am doing something wrong.
I say “Ni hao.”
He smiles and says “Ni hao.”
I feel much better. With the students trailing behind me, I walk on to the garden. I beat all of them there and go to my favorite spot by the pond and sit. A few minutes later, a mass of them are at the entrance to the garden where couple of steps lead down to a patio area. They wait at the entrance as if waiting for permission to come into my living room. I get up and walk toward them and they all pile into the garden. I sit down and try to write but my heart is really not in it.

28(if)Paul comes over and sits beside me. He doesn’t know what to write about. I tell him to write about anything, what he is thinking about.
“What if I am thinking about my girlfriend?”
“Well,” I start “You can write about her, but, please don’t make it to personal.”
“Oh, that okay,” he laughs “I only joking.” I laugh too.

I sit and think about where I am and who I am. This panic seizes me. The whole semester goes through my head, I feel like I am not accomplishing anything. I think I go through the same thing at the halfway point of every semester. The end of the semester rolls around and I am in a much better head space. I take a deep breath and enjoy the day with the exception of the dog crap smell that seems to be wafting through the air. When it comes to that sort of thing, I am always paranoid it is me that sat in some or got some on my clothes, big fear of mine. Every time the wind shifts, I smell it. The odd thing about this is that dogs here, unfortunately, if they do not have owners, they quickly become a family’s dinner or at least appetizer. As of yet, I have not had any but I have heard tales.

At the end of class, everyone hands me their papers except for the students like Fish who did not know they were supposed to write something. Fish just gave me a piece of paper with her name and number (1-50) on it.

After I tracked everyone down for their papers, I headed to the international building to prepare for my art class. Today I was going to talk about self portraits – Vincent Van Gogh, Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Frida Kahlo, John Singer Sargent, Francis Bacon. The classroom has no Power Point capabilities so I made prints of the self portraits from images I downloaded from the internet. The crappy LexMark halfway through printing decided to have printer teatime. I had half of the prints which made me angry at myself for not being prepared more in advance. I took half them to the classroom while the rested printed like molasses dripping from the Empire State Building.

I walk in and talk a bit about the ones I have. Tess is participating. Max is half asleep. Allen gets a text message or something and says something while I am lecturing. I get up and say I didn’t want to have to do this. I go to my office. I cannot find my grade book. I grab a notebook instead. I walk back to the classroom. Allen has her back to me. I slam the door hard. These are doors that sound like an explosion when you slam them. I sit down and I am not laughing, I am serious, very serious. I write Allen minus five in my book. Allen says something in Chinese. Max shushes her and he is roused out of his afternoon nap. He and Tess participate the rest of the class period. Allen pouts. Class ends. Allen does not go to the cafeteria with us for supper. Unfortunately, Max and Tess and I have a really nice, fun dinner where all three of us laugh a lot. There was nothing special about it other than Max and Tess are really sweet. Max is more outgoing when the whole group is not around.

I come back to my apartment. I paint. The painting had something emerging which I liked but then that something disappeared. I brought out the black paint. The painting is now no longer about me. Even drumsticks you eat with chop sticks.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

You read in The Shanghai Daily, fakes are now outlawed in France. You imagine Chinese business men walking naked through French airports after Versace and Armani knock-offs have been confiscated by officials. These officials will soon have evidence rooms full of knock-off Rolexes and prosthetic limbs.

You think you may smoke a cigarette. The sun is shining. It is one o’clock in the afternoon. You decide not to, you are trying not to smoke more than one a day. Instead you go for a walk. You know you will go to Lotus where you always seem to walk.

Today, you realize you are a global transient, a self-assigned refugee. Others know what they are to do with their lives. You still question yours. ‘Don’t panic,’ you tell yourself, advice from a friend at the beginning of the end of the last century. Now, somehow, you find yourself in China, walking along a canal on a sunny spring day. The smell of the water brings back memories of the creek by which you were raised. The creek you fell into many times when walking along its edge. Somewhere here there is a life metaphor.

There is romanticism in solitude. You are a priest among young clinging Chinese couples. They cling to each other and walk along the path or make out on benches. You want to sit and write but you do not want to invade the spring-ness of their love. They know this is their time. They are blooming or are about to.

A barge rolls by sending waves crashing against the canal wall. You wave to the woman who sits on the front like a tarnished hood ornament. A gravel pit separates her from her husband who is steering the barge. The cabin door is open. You see their personal effects on a counter. You feel like an intruder. “I know something about opening windows and doors.”

You take a detour. You walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods. You come upon a pavilion like the kind that holds livestock in a county fair. You walk inside. This pavilion reminds you of Dewey, Ponca City, Sapulpa. You think you may be a ghost, a ghost from county fair past.

No one stares at you. Usually, they stare at you. You are an oddity, an oddity in your new home. Are you indeed a ghost? You nearly bump into three people. They do not notice. There minds are on splayed chicken, Chinese vegetables, writhing river snakes packed in big Tupperware tubs. Tupperware is worldwide.

The deeper you walk toward the core of the building the more you feel like an unnoticed, unwanted outsider. A strange panic hits you. You walk back to the entrance. You are sweating. A group of men sitting on motor-less three wheelers laugh and say something. You wonder if they are talking to you. One of the men smiles at you. You may not be a ghost after all.

You think of the 13 students who are to visit the school in June. They are visiting from San Diego, escorted by their afraid-of-Communist-China parents. For the first time it hits you, you live in Communist China. You wonder what that means.

Off the main road, you wander into a store that sells kitchen ware and house slippers. You look at an interesting primitive stir fry pan with rough welded edges around the handles. You pick it up to give it a closer inspection. The proprietress points to a cheaply made aluminum new one. You shake your head no.

You think of the frustration you are having with your oil painting. Spray paint, you think, may add the magic that it needs. You are in the vicinity of the paint store where you bought the turpentine. You head that way.

You take a short cut through a gated guarded apartment complex. The guard stares at you. You walk through the gate. You keep walking. You wonder if you are trespassing. Someone calls. You hesitate before you look back. The guard has not moved. A man on a scooter greeted a neighbor.

You think of oral English and radio stations. You have class 11 tomorrow with Bizmark, Orange, Fish, Fred, Potato. You have not prepared an oral lesson. Lately, you think of some activity when you are walking into class. Will a student radio station come to be here in Songjiang a district of Shanghai? You think about the first song you will play. Bowie’s ‘I am the Djay,’ of course, comes to mind. Yes, Bowie shall have the honor of breaking the proverbial champagne bottle to christen the station before sailing into the airwaves of the unknown. Bowie has been good to your psyche, to your lifelong sense of alienation.

Out of nowhere, you think of your friend Debbie. Half a globe away, she is staging a musical. Opening night was Thursday, you suddenly remember.

You walk through the home store mall, to the paint store. Your turpentine tango partner is working. You successfully – a round of applause – pantomime spray paint. He shakes his head no. You pull out your phrase book and point to ‘where to’ in Chinese – which is the closest to ‘where’ you can find in the book. Again, he shakes his head no. You leave. You stop at another paint store which is not in the mall but across the street from the home store mall which is down the street from Lotus (which might- more or less-be the center of your universe now). Again, you successfully pantomime spray paint to the two clerks that are manning the store. They shake their head no. The store is tiny. You know they do understand and yes, they have no spray paint.

You walk around the Chinese strip mall aimlessly. The dilemma with the painting would have easily been solved with the spray paint. Perhaps, this is a life metaphor.

You get the jones to write. This is your new jones. Vodka martinis are a lifetime a way. You look for a coffee shop to fix. You are a junk-less junkie, a dog in heat.

You stop at U.B.C. coffee, a big elegant 2 story coffee shop. An oboe Muzak version of “Imagine” plays. In 1971, is this how Lennon imagined China in 2006?
You order a pot of mocha coffee for 50 kuai (a little over $6). You write like a fiend as you look out the window at the monochromatic color scheme of green. Occasionally, you look the other way, to the entrance where the curved aquarium greets customers. The goldfish crowding together look like an Associated Press photo –as it is being developed, still watery - of raised fists.

After you write all that is in your brain you get the check. You pay it and leave. You pass a milk drink tea stand where drinks are 2.5 kuai. You try to do the math of how much you would have saved if you had not got coffee but got a milk drink. Your brain cannot handle it. You tell yourself screw it.

You wander into the trinket shop that you are sure supplies places like ‘Claire’s’ and ‘Hot Topic’ in the mall. You look at a frayed brown trucker hat with a skeleton printed on it. You like the kitschy-ness of it. You may come back and buy it soon. It is 12 kuai –less than $2. You go upstairs and look at the socks.

The clerk who helped you the other day is there. He is happy to see you. He goes and gets a basket. You kindly shake your head no and smile. He smiles too. You have maybe made his day. He loves it when the oddity stops to shop at the shop where he works. He is probably still in high school. He still has that innocence. Innocence is safeguarded here. China could make a fortune selling innocence to America. Parents would buy it by the truckload for sons and daughters driving their fossil fuel depleters away from keggers to rehab.

He follows you around upstairs as you look at cheap oil pastels, socks – briefly, there are no new arrivals since the other day – and lights that attach to books or sit on bedside tables but are minute. A female wanders up and says a few words in English and then starts speaking Chinese like you will understand since the introduction was in English. The basketless clerk stands by her side smiling, hoping his pet oddity will start talking in a stream of Chinese. This does not happen. You tell them you will be back –they nod their heads yes but they do not understand – and you go across the street to Lotus. There seems to be a gravitational pull which pulls you to Lotus at this stage. You always need something there or need to look for something there or you just might need to look at the adult milk powder to make sure it exists.

In Lotus, you buy some cheap oil pastels for your painting. A boy - a young teen, hitting puberty like Ike used to hit Tina - brushes past you and rubs your arm while you are looking at the oil pastels. He says hello and smiles as he walks past. He is wearing a short t-shirt that does not quite cover his thin boyish stomach. ‘Cindy’ is printed on the t-shirt. You try not to be - but you are - slightly aroused. He swaggers over to the balcony and watches the people go down the stair-less escalator, the diagonal conveyor belt. He eyes a group of boys coming up the oversized conveyor belt as you are going down the conveyor belt. Your eyes meet again. He smiles at you one last time.

You leave Lotus. You say hello, as always, to the gang of 125 cc gypsy cab bikers. A Chorus of hellos comes back at you. You take a different route through the gated, guarded apartment complex. The sun has gone down. People are returning to their homes from a day’s or a weekend’s worth of escape. The working week is silently, steadfastly approaching.

And then the smallest, most wonderful thing happens. A scooter motors past carrying a boy and his dad with what is probably a week or two weeks worth of laundry in a couple of bags securely tied to the back of the scooter. The boy turns around as the scooter passes and in clipped syllables accented wrongly, he says “Ello Tyson” The boy is Bizmark. His dad is scootering him back to school. The smile does not leave for at least twenty minutes, maybe the smile is still hanging out a half hour later.

Back at the apartment, you work on the painting. You are trying to not paint a self portrait. Your painting is starting to become a self-portrait. You entitle it ‘My deconstructionist days are numbered.’ You mean something different. You rename it ‘I’m a deconstructionist; My days are numbered.’ You may add three numbers to it; your childhood phone number prefix - 336. You smoke a cigarette.

You remember being 12 years old. Your father told your mother he thought he might be Satan. He worked on the 6th floor of Phillips 66. Your phone number was 336-3691. Back then people seldom needed to use area codes because everyone lived closer to each other than they do now. Now people live in China, New York City, Los Angeles, Guthrie.

8:25 PM, the floodlights are off. The construction site is abandoned. Figures seem to move within. I know no one is there. The place is starting to look like a derelict building with bars around it instead of something new.

There is a light knock on your door. You jump a little. Maureen tells you someone tried to open her door early this morning. She was very scared. She asks if it was you. Of course, it was not. You tell her you have been reading all sorts of tales in the Shanghai Daily about angry migrant workers which involve landladies getting beaten with hammers.

You then tell her she needn’t worry. The would-be intruder was probably a student. When you go back to your apartment you check every possible place where an intruder might hide. You are afraid to go out on the balcony.

You remember you have no dress shirts for the coming week. You pull all five out of your clothes hamper and throw them in the washer after you rub the collars with random Chinese dishwashing liquid. You are still skittish. You hope that a hammer wielding psychotic migrant worker has not hid somewhere. Did you check under the fabulous new orange sofa? You then remember you have not seen your Prada dress shirt in awhile. Did you leave it at the cleaners in New York?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Plane tickets, a radio station and the cleaning lady ballet (or another Friday in Songjiang a district of Shanghai)

Yesterday, Maureen left a 500 RMB deposit on our plane tickets to Chongquing for the river cruise we are to take for the Mayday holiday. She had a class this morning. Jennifer and I were to go pay the balance and retrieve the tickets at 10 AM this morning. A simple task, going across the street to grab plane tickets, this should be easy.

At 9 AM, I wake. I get up and get dressed. I have tea and a Christine pastry on the balcony and watch the construction workers. From what I can tell, today seems to be a clean up day. There is an absence of hammering, clanging, and even cawing. My breakfast is somewhat peaceful. After I eat, I paint a bit on an oil painting I am working on that will hang over my washing machine nook – which will effectively hide the washing machine with art.

At 10 AM or actually a little after, I walk over to the guardhouse to pick up my second day’s Shanghai Daily. Again, I feel this paper has bought me a subscription to the adult world – the Dow Jones, the classifieds and Sports. Today is Friday. Today will be an easy day for me. I give the Shanghai 90210 an oral lesson after lunch and that is the extent of my day. Other than the required 40 minutes for the four darlings, the rest of the day is mine. I am happy.

I smile at the guards and say ‘Bao’. They have already had enough of me this morning. The paper is not there. The young nice looking one points to the clock and says “(-CHINESE-)” and holds up one finger. I take that to mean my paper will arrive at 1 PM. Just a minor blemish on the day, I am not upset. I walk back to my apartment. I go knock on Jennifer’s door. We were set to go to pick up our tickets at 10 AM. She did not show. The time is now 10:30, no paper, no Jennifer

This is definitely a job for the Sofa Negotiator. At least, she can get to the bottom of my paper woes. I brush my teeth (which I did not do to get my paper) and head to the International Building. I am wearing Club Monaco cords and a Club Monaco pullover long sleeve shirt. I am not wearing a tie which I try to wear most of the time in the office. My plan is to pop in and have Jessie call about my paper and come right back to my apartment, no big deal.

On the way out the door of my apartment building I see a ghostlike figure. Yes, can it be? I see a ghost from my recent past. My cleaning lady is walking in the door as I am walking out. I would like to ask her where she has been the last few weeks. Jo, the abrupt Australian, seems to think she has been spreading her cholera mop in other buildings. I feel like Jo and I have an unfaithful lover. I ask the cleaning lady – I run up and get my big Chinese dictionary when I see her – if she can clean my place today. Incidentally, I can not look up words fast enough so the dictionary becomes a bible-like prop during our discourse. She then pantomimes trying to open a locked door with no key; the old ‘I have not cleaned your apartment for three weeks because the door was locked’ alibi. She is very outgoing in a verbal sort of way that I, of course, cannot understand. She follows me back up to my apartment and gets busy cleaning. This time I fill the mop bucket with hot water from the shower and squirt in a generous helping of the Magic Amah. Not wanting to be trampled underfoot, I head to my original destination, the office.

At the office, I walk in and the Sofa Negotiator Jessie says:
“Oh you finally made it.”
“I finally made it…What?”
“You give Allen art test and listening test.”
“What time?”
“Oh, I wish someone would have told ME. My paper did not arrive this morning.”
“I will call them.”
I hand her the receipt with the number and walk into my office a bit stunned. I have twenty minutes until I give Allen the test. The test is in a locked drawer in my desk. That would not be a problem except right then Edgar walks in.

I will try to explain this, the best way I can. Edgar is my boss. I crapped on his name when I tried to pronounce it in Anji when I was MC Mr. Tyson at the speech contest. His Chinese name is Quian Qinchuing or something close to that. I am one of those people who is quite self aware of himself around bosses, especially during those special occasions when I have jobs that I would like to keep. Always, I try to look my best and be on my best behavior. This seems like a no-brainer. I am completely caught off-guard. I am not above explaining the situation.
I shake his hand and tell him I do not have any lessons this morning. I am just popping in for a moment. Usually I wear a suit.
He looks at me a little stunned with a sort of ‘why are you telling me this’ expression and says “No worry….Friday.”
I smile and as soon as he leaves the room. I run to the elevator. The elevator is there waiting. I look at my watch. I have approximately fifteen minutes to go home put on a suit and come back and give Allen her test. As soon as the elevator hits the ground floor, I walk briskly to my apartment which is roughly a two or three minute walk I believe, maybe less. Once I am in my apartment, I see my cleaning lady mopping and humming and generally enjoying her lot, I believe. I run into my bedroom and close the door part of the way. The door does not really shut all the way. (My building is 100 years old. I do not believe the Chinese are into rehab.) I throw my off my cords and pullover and start to put on my suit. This is when the mop comes gliding through the door. I feel like I am in some animated Disney film, or ‘West Side Story (China)’ and the cleaning lady is the Chinese Rita Moreno. She does not seem to notice or care that I am undressing and dressing. I watch the grace with which she guides her mop. For a minute, I am hypnotized and I feel as if we are in a ballet. She is Cinderella and I am Danny Kaye; I am from the King’s Court, a court in a fictionalized Eastern Europe. We are from a dimension with no genitalia. Everything is surface. Everything is in a movie. I am part of the movie, nothing more, nothing less.
I snap out of my Gilbert and Sullivan. The Chinese Rita Moreno is holding her twig broom up to me. Yes, the broom is literally made out of twigs and looks like a prop from ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ She holds it and pets it and says “Chinese Chinese Chinese.” She then holds up the new unblemished Lotus broom that I bought and thought it would make her job easier. She mocks it, or I think she mocks it. She points to the little raisins of dust which have attached themselves to the end of the bristles. I nod my head yes, I see. I button my shirt – Christian Dior; I tie my tie – Romeo Gigli; I pull on my blazer – Saks; I head out the door.
I run to the building. I get to the vestibule where the elevator is, three female Chinese students say hello. I say hello to them and then punch the button which is on one but right after I punch it the digital read out says 2 and then 3 and then 4 and then 5 and then 6. The two minute warning bell rings as the elevator is making its ascent without me. I am biting bullets, squirming in my shoes, the whole rice patty. Finally, the elevator makes it back down to the first floor. I ride up hoping Edgar is not strolling around the classrooms.
As soon as I walk into the hallway, out of the elevator, Allen bellows “Tyson I am going to kill you. You have to give me my test.”
In no uncertain terms, I let this cheating Chinese Shannon Daugherty know she cannot ‘Heather’ me. I run to the reception area to grab the ghetto blaster from Nancy the receptionist. I am Tim Conway on speed. I sit this Chinese Heather at a desk and I administer the test. Of the Shanghai 90210 kids, this one – in part because she is the youngest but mainly because she is spoiled and her parents need to give her regular beatings – is a thorn in my side quite often these days. Today, I am all business. Joking Tyson has left the building.

After she finishes the listening exam, I hand her the art exam. She spells Van Gogh – Vangor. I almost laugh but I am trying to remain serious. After she is finished, I take the test and I lock it in my desk drawer. I have decided to no longer play her games. I am here to teach not to play games with students. Later, in our staff meeting I broached this subject. I told my boss I had been too lenient with the students and a couple of the students had not taken it serious and cheated on a midterm. I have now learned my lesson.

I go home and have lunch. I reheat some dumplings and stir some bell peppers in with them. While I am cooking, I hear a ruckus on the construction site. Down below, I see a wet man pushing a wheel barrow - the wheel barrow, circa the Tang Dynasty - yelling at a worker up above on the third floor of the structure. The worker, I notice, has a hose. This was all accidental I am sure (wink wink). The worker accidentally hosed his friend below. For a minute, I thought I heard English:
“Hey Mac! What in the hell are you doing ya’ SOB. Ya’ got me wet! Now my ass is gonna itch all day because my shorts are ridin’ it like it is the wet’n’wild.”

I sit on the balcony and enjoy the sun. For my oral lesson, I have decided to read from Maus, the Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel that my friend Liz passed on to me before I left LaGuardia Community College and New York. I head back to the office to make copies for the students to follow along while I read. On my kitchen counter are a few little treats I had bought at Christine. With Edgar in the office, I know that Jessie is a bit frazzled. I have asked her to do a lot for me lately. I take the treats – two for her, one for Nancy. When I give them to her, she smiles. I tell her thank you for making the phone calls for me. She says no problem. Nancy is still at lunch so I put her treat on her desk with no note. She comes back from lunch while I am making copies. The copy machine is next to her desk. She looks at the little box which holds the sweet. Jessie walks up. They both confer in Chinese. Nancy turns around and says thank you very sweetly to me. I want to tell her it is for all of the times that I get frustrated but I don’t.

I go to class; I read from Maus. Allen pouts through most of the class. I ignore her and address the other three. I tell them to underline words which they do not know. After I read approximately 10 pages I ask them if they understand. They nod they do. I then look through the pages I have read and pick out words such as ‘textiles,’ ‘ashamed,’ ‘eventually,’ ‘regards,’ and I tell them to write them down and look them up. Tess is the only one who writes them down. I tell them there will be a quiz on Monday. Allen starts writing down words. Miko starts writing down words. Time is up. I go back to the office.

Jennifer walks in. I ask her where she was. She tells me she stayed up late and watched two movies. She just woke up. The time is 1:45 PM. I tell her I knocked on her door a few times. I ask her if we can go get the tickets now. She says yes. We head out. We hear rumors of a staff meeting so we hurry before they are confirmed. She has to get money out of an ATM. We do not trust the one that did not give us money yesterday so we hop in a taxi and head downtown to one of the big banks. Jennifer hops out and gets the money while I stay in the cab. I tell her that I think I will dock Miko and Allen for cheating on the exam. She says she thinks that I should.

The taxi takes us back to the ticket agency across the street from the school. Maureen gave us her money. We were quoted a price of 1,793 for roundtrip tickets. We each have 1,800. Over night, the fuel charge went up 7 RMB apiece. Each ticket is exactly 1,800. Jennifer wants to know why. On a sheet of paper they write ‘fuel charge’ as some mysterious equation. Jennifer wants to know if this increase is reflected on the ticket. I do not care. Jennifer says she just wants to know. She adds it up and yes, it is reflected on the ticket price which makes me feel better. I didn’t really care. The increase came out to less than a dollar a ticket but it is nice to know we were not being fleeced less than a dollar apiece.

We head back to school to see if in fact there is a staff meeting which so far since I have been here, we have only had one. I tell Jennifer I would like to stop at the gate to see if my paper has arrived. The time is 2 PM. The guards gruffly shoo me away and flash three fingers. I tell Jennifer my paper saga. She tells me the guards are quite surly. As frustrated as we get at Nancy - who does not understand us at times - the guards get equally frustrated. As Jennifer puts it, their Chinese translates as follows:
“I told you the last time you came by it would not be here until at least 3 PM. I thought you understood. You shook your head and said thank you and now you are back again bugging me. I have guard things to do. I cannot be chasing after a paper all day. Gosh you Americans are dumb, really dumb!”
Back at the International School of four students, the staff meeting is to be held at 2:30 PM. The time is now 2:30 PM. I did not bring my notebook with me. I want to take notes; I decide to take notes on a piece of scratch paper.

The first notation of the meeting: I notice how closely Jo looks like a female - and much more masucline - version of Quinton Crisp. She has a few more chins than him but she is quite proper. She is a dear. Today, she surprised me with raisin bread from Christine. She forgot she gave her toaster to me. Sometimes, I hear my door knob rattle because once again she has forgotten that she switched apartments with me. She is wearing a denim shirt over her blouse. We all are trying to figure out her age. We think she is somewhere in the vicinity of 80.
The second thing I notice: Jennifer doodles more than I do at the meeting. On her notepad, she has an elephant, a duck, some funny people, and ‘all snowflakes are not alike’ written.

Elizabeth tells us 13 American students will be visiting the school from San Diego in June. I say that it would be nice to give them each a little care package of very Chinese things. I mention the tea egg first.
“You’re not going to put tea eggs in there gift package are you?” Jo says quite operatically like she is the cowardly lion or oz or someone who speaks with power but may not have any.
“Uh, I quite like them.” I say.
“I do too” says Jennifer.
Elizabeth writes this down.
“I just thought it would be good to give them things that they might think are cool, like the tea tester.”
“Tea tester?” Elizabeth enquires.
“You know those clay boys that are everywhere and you pour tea on them and they squirt water,” I expound.
“I call them pee bodies.” Maureen pipes up.
”I was trying to show a bit more couth and just call them tea testers.” I say trying not to bring urine into the conversation.
“Can you get them anywhere?” Elizabeth asks.
“Yeah, everywhere,” I say. Since she is a native, I am a bit surprised that she would not know about them but they may just be on the tourist and global transient radar.
“I like the idea of welcoming them with bags.” Elizabeth states as she takes notes.
“We could welcome them over the public school’s public address system,” Maureen says. Maureen talks about welcoming and banners and photos and the mayor and craft fairs and polka a bit more and then she becomes transfixed. My back is to the window. With anyone else, I would turn around because, perhaps, aliens are landing or a dragon is peeking its head into the 6th floor window but since the person transfixed is Maureen, I know I need not be concerned or even slightly interested. Elizabeth is with me on this one. Maureen has become transfixed by the rain. She looks at the rain like this is something very unusual, like this is something magic, brought to us by some strange intergalactic messenger, the messenger of rain during a rainy city’s rainy season.

“Does the school have a radio station?” I ask Elizabeth. We are an hour into the meeting by this point. Jennifer is getting hungry. She has not eaten today.
“I hear music sometimes when I am outdoors.” Maureen says. At this point, I am not sure if she is talking to me or someone from a past life, or the invisible intergalactic messenger standing in between Jennifer and me.
“I think the school does.” Jo says.
“It seems to me,” I start - and I try to finish before Maureen wakes from her rain coma and says something inane, “if we had a radio station here. That would be the best way for the students to practice their English.”
Elizabeth perks up.
“If we offered something like that on a Friday night, as opposed to one of these basic English classes - which students ditch, I think a lot of students would sign up and they would improve their English. I say this because when I introduced myself to the 300 students in my public school oral classes, a majority of them did not know the words advertising, reporter, or journalist but all of them did know djay. ”
“Yes?” Elizabeth looked at me “And who would….?”
“I would be the helmsman if you would like to know who would run this program.”
“What would we call the class?”
“That I would have to think about,” I say “We would need to have djay in the title.”
By this time Maureen snapped out of her rain coma “I can see the brochures for the school now changing.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Yes.”

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Today is the first day that I shall receive my newspaper. First, I wake up at 6:30 am. I force myself back to sleep because I know that if I get out of bed I will pace the hours away impatiently waiting for my paper. The paper is not expected to arrive until 10:00 am. At 7:00 am, I stir again. Again, I force myself to dream of sheep. When I stir at 8:00am, I get out of bed. I am awake. I know it is no use to try to sleep. I get on the computer check my email and think of what I might do to kill time. I strip the sheets off of the bed and throw them in the washer. The sun is shining. This is the most perfect morning for reading my first delivered ‘Shanghai Daily’ newspaper.

After the sheets are going, I do the dishes that I have been putting off washing. From the kitchen sink, I put them in the (since she favors the cholera mop and bucket –the cleaning lady neglected) mop bucket and take them to the bathroom sink to wash. The kitchen sink does not have a hot water faucet. In the bathroom, I get the water as hot as it will get and I fill the bucket up and squeeze in a generous portion of random brand Chinese dish washing liquid. One by one, I take the dishes out of the bucket and scrub them with a sponge. I, then, rinse them with the hot tap water. After rinsing them, I set them on the white (with bright orange, green and red dots) tray – which I found at Lotus for the equivalent of $4; similar trays I have seen at Crate and Barrel for $18. Once I have washed and rinsed all of the dishes, I carry the tray into the kitchen and set the dishes to dry on the kitchen counter.

My morning activities have killed nearly an hour and a half. Impatient for my paper, I decide to walk to the guard house. I am armed with my phrase book. ‘Bao’ is the word for newspaper. In case I have to show identification, I take my wallet. I am still in my pajamas (Christian Dior sweatpants, Club Monaco long sleeved shirt). I put on my brown Miu Miu slippers. Out the door I go, confident in Chinese paper delivering efficiency. Mao be with me.

At the guardhouse, I say, “Bao.”
“Chinese….Chinese….Chinese….Chinese.” says the guard.
I point to the clock and say…. “bao”
“Chinese….Chinese….Chinese….Chinese.” says the guard, the nice looking younger one who squabbled with the Sofa Negotiator yesterday. The drunk guard, reassuringly says as he shakes his head “Chinese….Chinese….Chinese….Chinese.”
I walk back to my apartment.

Once I am back at my apartment, I fix breakfast. I steam two kinds of Chinese sticky rolls: some with custard inside, the others with mushroom filling. I let them steam for twenty minutes. While they cool, I walk back to the guardhouse.

As I turn the corner of my building, I see a cycle loaded down with what looks like packages at the guardhouse. As I get closer, I am able to distinguish the cycle as some sort of postal vehicle. This postal vehicle would give Mad Max pause. This time, the guards look genuinely annoyed when I walk up smiling to the window. “Bao?”
In more of a gruff manner this time:“Chinese Chinese….Chinese….Chinese….Chinese… ……………Chinese”
The younger nice looking guard makes a half a ‘k’ sign with his finger. I know this must be a hint or a clue. I walk back to my apartment and mull this over.

Back at the apartment, I sit on the balcony and eat my breakfast and ponder how much more enjoyable it would be if I were reading the morning paper while I was eating. Still, my breakfast is enjoyable. The construction workers poured the third floor of the building last night so I have a quiet breakfast. Last night was Throbbing Gristle revisited. The floors are poured with a huge hose that looks and sounds like an enormous vacuum cleaner or what I envision a Throbbing Gristle album may sound.

After I eat my breakfast and shower, I go to the office. I tell Jessie (Sofa Negotiator) the situation. I make the broken ‘k’ sign to her and ask what it means.” Is it a number?” I ask. She says it is not number; she has no idea what they were trying to sign. She calls the number I was given for the paper. She gets into - what I think may be - a heated discussion with the person on the other end of the telephone line. Part of me feels that subscribing to the paper was a mistake. Now I don’t know what I was thinking when I thought it would be a good idea to subscribe to a paper that will never arrive. My heart sinks by the minute. I will never feel the touch of ink dripping on my morning muffin, the soft rustle of newsprint blowing into my tea.

Jessie hangs up the phone, defeated.
“He said your paper come this afternoon.” My heart starts to float back to my chest from my groin. “The man who delivers the paper….” She then stops talking. I am suddenly concerned about the man who delivers the paper. I feel horrible. This is all my fault. I am heartless. How could I have been so thoughtless to not think about the safety of the Chinese paper delivery boy. Did he die? Did he get shot as an insurgent? Did someone think the paper was anti-Maoist propaganda? Does he floss?
“They make some excuse. You will have your paper tonight… it will be delivered on morning after now.”
Now I did not feel as guilty. The Chinese paper boy was not shot. He is just a slacker.

I walk into my office. Maureen is at her computer. We need to buy our tickets for our mayday holiday she tells me. Jennifer is teaching a class – the Shanghai 90210. I give them their geography and culture midterm at 2:20. We decide to go to the official Chinese travel agent across from the school at 1:30 to buy the tickets. We leave a note on Jennifer’s desk. I make copies of the exam and do other things and lose track of time. At one, I realize I am hungry. The cafeteria is closing as I walk up. I go home and throw some leftover rice and hot sauce with some soy sauce in a stir fry pan. Jo arrives from Pudong. She only teaches Thursday and Friday in Songjiang. My sheets have dried; I put them back on the bed as the rice is cooking.

Jennifer arrives. I take the rice off the stove and put it in a rice bowl and start eating while I talk to Jo, Jennifer and Maureen in the hallway. Jo tells me I look quite Chinese eating the rice in the little bowl with my chopsticks. Maureen tells Jennifer that we won’t have time to buy the tickets before my exam. This seems very odd to me. As with most things, buying tickets is another bizarre thing here. You give the travel agent your money and then it takes her an hour to process the request while you wait. I wolf down the rice. I give Jo a bowl as well since Maureen and Jennifer do not eat spicy food. Jennifer, Maureen and I go across the street to the travel agent. Jennifer remembers the travel agent does not take ATM cards so she and I go up the block to a bank. The cash machine tells us our request can not be processed. We go back to the travel agent to tell Maureen. Maureen has enough to pay a deposit. She gives the travel agent a 500 rmb deposit. I have to head to the midterm which is okay because the tickets cannot be processed until tomorrow anyway.

I stop at the guardhouse to make another futile attempt to get my paper. I know it will not be there. Why I stopped, I don’t even know. I look at them and mumble ‘bao.’ The nice looking guard looks around. On the desk to the side of him, he grabs something that looks like a small weekly. I am about to tell him that is not what I am looking for and then I see ‘Shanghai Daily’ emblazoned on the top. Part of me is excited that my paper has arrived. The other part of me quotes Peggy Lee “Is that all there is?”

I snatch the paper and start to walk. The guards ask me something sternly. I produce my receipt from my wallet. The look at it and make a signal with their fingers. They hold up two fingers and then three. I point to the clock. Oh it will arrive between two and three. They nod their head no. I give them a puzzled look. They shoo me away and laugh.

I tell Jessie this when I get back to the office. Jokingly, I tell her I think they wanted me to pay an extra yuan for handling. She tells me I paid yesterday and that I do not owe anymore. I did not know how to explain it was a joke.

I go to the classroom to give the students their midterm. I tell them no talking. They talk. I shush them. They shush me back. They talk again. I tell them no Chinese. Miko tells me she is talking in Japanese. I tell her no Chinese, no Japanese, no English and I give an extra long ‘ssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.’ They are quiet. I open ‘The Shanghai Daily’ and read.
“I have question.”
“What is it Tess?”
“How do you spell ‘Shakespeare,’” Déjà vu has struck yet once again.
I start laughing. “Tess you just gave away an answer.”
As the test progresses, Miko and Allen look increasingly more and more suspicious. Miko keeps laughing and saying “You are favorite teacher ever.”

I finally get up and go to her desk and I see a suspicious paper that she tries to hold onto which is her study sheet. Allen has one in her desk too. I take the study sheet and tell them I am going to go discuss this with Jessie. Off I walk to the office. I tell Jessie I am going to have them take the test over. Jessie is stunned they cheated. Later when I told Jo, she started laughing.
“How could students in a class of four cheat?”
I thought about it for a minute and started laughing. I think I do trust them too much. Max and Tess, I do not think they would cheat. Miko and Allen I realize cannot be trusted. Sometimes I forget that I am the authority figure. Understatement, right?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

For the last few days, I have thought about subscribing to one of the English language Chinese newspapers. This, I decided after looking for the English language Shanghai Daily at all of the newspaper stands in Songjiang with no luck. In this town, anything English print is not available. I must trek into Shanghai for such an extravagance. Jessie (Sofa Negotiator) told me I could get an English language paper across the street from the school at the newsstand shack manned by a chatty woman. Jennifer and Maureen told me there are no English language newspapers there. Jennifer told me that she usually found the English papers at the metro in Shanghai which is less than convenient. Imagine being in New York and trekking to Madison Ave. and 50th St. from the East Village to get the New York Times and you may understand my dilemma.

This being the situation, I decided a subscription was the way to go. Maureen told me to do it online. Yes, online might be the answer but I still do not trust the online transaction implicitly, especially when there are language barriers involved. She told me I could subscribe and then look at the paper online. She is dear but not very up to date. I look at newspapers online now without paying for them. My homepage is the New York Times for Pete’s sake. My aim is to have the physical paper to look at on my balcony with my morning tea and crumpet. A civilized breakfast is all I am asking for, really, nothing more.

Maureen then told me I could have the paper delivered to the international building office and I could pick it up there. Again, I do not want to traipse to the office in my pajamas to get the paper. My boss - who is sweet but very business like-would most certainly not appreciate seeing me in my pajamas in the office first thing in the morning. I like to come clicking in wearing my suit and tie.

Furthermore, I would like to get the paper as close as I can to my front door. Or if the Chinese paperboy would like to throw it over the (now three story) building under construction onto my balcony, that would be peachy. All I want really is the goddamned paper.

Today, I asked Jessie (Sofa Negotiator) if she had any other ideas. She told me I could go to the Post Office to subscribe to about any English language newspaper my heart desires. Lovely, I thought. I first had to give Shanghai90210 their English listening midterm.

The English listening midterm: a few minute ghost story, told in a proper British voice. I played it once (I told them I would play it 3 times. Max said “Four.” I said no three. He said okay.) After I played it once, the three students frantically wrote, filling in the answers. I played it again - more frantic writing. I played it the final time. The story took place after a lecture. One of the questions was - who was involved in the discussion about the ghost story. The students asked me what is ‘involved?’ I told them. I said “Who was there” as a statement. Miko thought I asked “Who was there?”
She replied “Students.”
“Miko, that is one of the answers,” I said getting a bad case of the déjà vu once again. Of course, that got me going. I started laughing and could only stop in minute intervals. When they get me laughing it is one of those from the bottom of my gut laughs that eventually makes my abdomen sore because I am laughing so hard and thinking “Oh My God, they are going to give me a heart attack.” Miko finished writing and brought her paper up for me to look at. She says “100” as she is handing it to me. I take one look at it and make the sound of a dive bomber and a bomb exploding and go into another laughing fit. Max starts laughing. Tess just looks frightened. I ask Max show me his exam. When he almost gets to me with it, he backs up and is frightened to give it to me. I without a doubt start laughing again. And, again, I cannot stop. These students are killing me.

Miko asks me to grade it right then. I tell her I have to listen to the CD to make sure I have the correct answers. Allen is still gone taking tests in her hometown. I will not give them back their results until after I give Allen the test. Jessie (Sofa Negotiator) tells me later that Allen will take her tests on Thursday and Friday.

The 3 students ask me about the upcoming geography and culture midterm. I make a dive bomb into a bomb exploding noise. Miko laughs uncontrollably. I call Max a sodbuster. Tess punches it into her translator and laughs “Farmer.”

After class, I stroll into the Sofa Negotiators office to see if she can negotiate a newspaper subscription at the post office for me. She says lets go. (She is always ready to go anytime, anywhere).As we are walking across campus to the gatehouse for directions to the post office, the Negotiator wants to know what paper I would like to receive. I feel as if this might be a test. I tell her ‘Shanghai Daily.”
“That is the one I read,” she says.
We stop at the gatehouse. She quibbles back and forth with a nice looking young guard. I wonder if there is flirtation involved. The older one - who stopped me once when I first got here and I smelt liquor on his breath at that time- looks at me and rolls his eyes and grins as the Negotiator negotiates directions to the nearest post office. I know better than to say anything. I always wait until the discourse is finished. Foreigner’s ‘Double Vision’ is running through my brain, a frequent occurrence for me before 11 am.

The Negotiator tells me we need to take a taxi to the nearest post office. We walk out to the road and immediately hail a taxi. The Negotiator jumps in front. I get in back. We zoom toward downtown. The post office is around the corner from the Pizza Hut where I ate with the students when I first arrived during Maureen’s bird flu phase; the same Pizza Hut where the woman was yelling from across the street at the passersby and onlookers “I hate you!”

We go into the post office. At one end of the post office is what looks to be a small-town sort of periodicals library with magazines on shelves and a long line of people waiting to see the man at what looks a lot like a ticket booth from an old small-town downtown cinema. The rest of the Post Office is a row of safety glass windows with postal clerks behind a few of them. We wander around for a minute or two while the Negotiator gets her bearings. Moody Blues “Lost in a Lost World” now meanders through my head.

We fall into a random line. We got the beat. A woman of authority walks by us. The Negotiator says something to her. The woman in authority leads us to a lineless window where a gaunt unpleasant looking young man is stationed. The Negotiator starts the subscription negotiations. This time, I add a few things.
“Do you want a subscription for six months or a year?” The Negotiator asks me.
“Six Months,” I say and then add “How much is it?”
“300 kuai.” I see my dreams of the sleek red chrome legged coffee table going right out the window.
“Can I subscribe month to month?” I ask.
“You would have to come and do this every month.” This I took to mean: I would be dragging the Negotiator with me every month for something that she would rather only do once.
“Oh, Do I have to pay it all at once?” I know in the scheme of things 300 kuai is a little over 30 dollars but I am not sure if I will definitely stay at this school when my contract is up at the end of June. I know a lot of schools in the Shanghai area need teachers. I feel as if I am a bit of a hot commodity. I may be at a school where I can buy the paper at a newsstand everyday if I am in a more Westernized part of Shanghai. To buy it everyday is cheaper than a subscription, much cheaper. The whole selling advertising because of subscriptions is not a part of the Chinese newspaper way.
The Negotiator and the disgruntled Chinese postal employee negotiate a bit more, at least I assume they are negotiating. He could be asking her:
“So where have you been all my life? Who is this douche you ‘re with? Where’d he get his hair cut, K-mart?

As I am mulling this over, the Negotiator gives me the final offer: She tells me I can get a subscription until the end of June. This is perfect. I hear angels sing. James Dean revs his Porsche Spyder. Natalie Wood dives into clear water. Sal Mineo waltzes with Rock Hudson. Randolf Scott cuts in. Cary Grant buys a new set of cuff links.
The subscription - starting the 24th of April - is 112 kuai. I take 120 out of my wallet. She tells me it will be delivered around 10 am every morning - I had hoped earlier –to the guardhouse. Mr. Disgruntled says something more. She tells me they can start delivering it tomorrow. I ask her how much that would be. She tells me 120 kuai which is what I coincidentally am now holding in my hand. She tells me to pay the clerk. I hand him the 120 kuai and say ‘Xie Xie.’ He hands me a receipt and writes some random numbers on the back. Is he giving me his number?
“That is phone number to call if paper not delivered,” the Negotiator tells me.

“Thank you so much,” I tell her as we walk out of the post office back onto the bustling lunchtime-crowd street. “I am so excited that I am going to start getting the paper.”
“Yes, that will be very good,” she says as we stroll along downtown.
“Do you want to walk back or take a taxi?” I ask.
“It does not matter.”
“Let’s walk,” I say. “Today is such beautiful day.”
We walked. A little boy with a begging bowl ran up. Sometimes I ignore the beggars but today I gave the boy with the begging bowl 1 rmb. He ran off and yelled something to the adults who were sitting along a building.
“What is he saying?” I ask
“Some people of authority are coming.”
“Do you have many beggars in your country?”
“In New York, there are a lot of beggars.”
She asks and I answer as are walking past a woman who I have seen often who lays on a stretcher and begs because her legs are mangled – maybe from birth, maybe from an accident.
“Look away.” Jessie tells me. I look the other way.
“A lot of people go to New York to become successful and sometimes they wind up on drugs. They then start begging.” I say as we walk past the mangled beggar woman on the stretcher.
Jessie misheard me. “They have guns?” She shudders.
“Sometimes, they have guns.” The Lower Eastside shooting last year flashed into my mind. I did not know how to explain gangs and random killings by teenagers.
“The authorities here come in and chase people off sometimes,” Jessie says as, believe it or not, we are walking past an all blind traditional Chinese music quartet. The blind quartet has a small audience of guys on scooters and women with their children.
“The authorities do not want people to think this is a poor area of China.” She says this as we walk past the mangled male version of the beggar woman we looked away from earlier (a man who has mangled legs who lays on a stretcher and begs) whom I have also seen often.

By this time we are at the edge of downtown and we have fallen into silence. We walk on the bridge over the canal. The sun is high in the sky. We wave to the guards when we pass the guardhouse. My apartment is the first building inside the school’s entrance. It is around the first turn. I tell Jessie that I am going to get out of my suit. I walk into my apartment building. She walks off toward the international building across the parking lot and driveway which is the width of the football field. Tomorrow, I will wake and walk to the guardhouse and gather my first newspaper subscription newspaper. I am now an adult.