Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Day to day here, I do not think of anything, really, outside of my miniscule Chinese world of students, ex-pat instructors, school cafeterias, and rocking new sofas. Occasionally, I glance at the NY Times to keep abreast of events in the USA. Part of me knew the USA (or those who decide where we have strained relations) may have strained relations with China but the Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/17/world/asia/17hu.html) on Monday the relationship presented was much more dire than I had really imagined, with: "But no one has much hope that the two countries can develop deep feelings of trust, either."

Trust is a word we like to throw around. I used it with two of my classes today. I told them I was giving them a test, a test involving trust. I wrote trust on the board. Of course, the chalk broke twice when I wrote ‘Trust.’

This week, as I mentioned yesterday, the public school students have their mid-terms on Wednesday and Thursday. As a conscientious objector of piles of studying and homework, I have aligned myself with the students to some extent. Today, in class 3 and 8 when I came into the class, I asked the students if they wanted to go outside. They looked at me oddly. (Later a student told me students are sent outside when they cause trouble in class. No one but the thickest student wants to go outside.) I then explained we could go to the garden. Eyes lit up throughout the room.

That is when I write ‘trust’ on the board. I ask them if they know what the word ‘trust’ means. Most of them shake their heads ‘yes.’ I tell them this is a game of trust. If they sneak off and go somewhere that means I cannot trust them and that I could possibly get in trouble if they get caught. I ask them again if they understand. They shake their heads yes.

In class 3, at 11:10 AM, the class immediately got up and walked in pairs in a military like formation. We walked to the garden with no problem. Before we left, I told them they had to march orderly and that is what they did. Etta (because she likes to et eggs) was the platoon leader of sorts. Once we got to the garden, I sat at my favorite spot. Jackie asked if she could sit with me. I told her yes. At that point, five girls crowded in, each crowding the other away from me - turning a comfortable spot on a rock for two into a less comfortable spot for six. I was flattered.

Jackie told me that the students have two exams a week and they have no time to do anything but study. I told her I didn’t study that much when I was her age. Today, is a day to enjoy I said. We watched the fountain and the koi as we talked. Etta said that the school only turns on the fountain when officials are visiting. She then added that maybe the fountain is on for us. We all laughed. I told them that this (China /Songjiang) was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Even the students are proud of the garden.

Today, a group of boys could not sit still. Walking was not enough for them. They started playing a game. Jackie told me they were playing a game named ‘hide and go seek’ as if I had probably never heard of it. I loved their activity and boyishness. They ran all over the garden trying to catch each other. They are kids. This is a time for running not midterms.

Jackie asked me how important English grammar is. I told her grammar is important but many writers break rules and you have to know how to listen for what sounds right when you write. She told me senior 2s and senior 3s do not have oral English. I told her that was a pity because oral English is as important if not more important than written English.

At 11:50 AM I dismissed the class. They were ecstatic to be able to leave for lunch 5 minutes early. I came back to my apartment to drop off my Jack Spade book-bag since I live so close to the garden. I then grabbed 400 rmb (50 smacks) from my boss which is my monthly lunch allowance paid on the 15th. On the way to lunch I ran into Fred and Paul from class 11. Fred is number 29. Paul is number 28.

A few weeks ago, Paul told me remember his name by thinking of Paul from the Beatles. I tried to tell him what a coincidence that he was number 28 and picked Paul. The coincidence of course is when the Beatles (or maybe it was another coincidence in which the Beatles had no part) tried to convince the world through hidden messages that Paul was dead - he died in an auto accident (“he blew his mind out in a car…”); “I buried Paul” / “Cranberry Sauce” at the end of “Strawberry Fields;” the babbling during “I am the Walrus” and “Revolution #9” as funeral rites and whatever else was mentioned. The coincidence with this Paul and the Beatle Paul is the number 28.

Out of 50 students, Chinese Paul is number 28. On the license plate on Abbey Road – (they are crossing the road, Ringo is the pall bearer, John is the minister, Paul is dead –he is barefooted, George is the grave digger) on the Volkswagen is the letters 28if which is the age Paul would have been if he had lived through the crash. In class, when I thought that to be quite a coincidence, I told Paul. I started to talk about Abbey Road with which he was not familiar –fair enough he is a 16 year old Chinese kid; I then started to go into the license plate which I had to explain what a license plate is. Needless to say, he did not get the cosmic significance. Maybe he is dead Paul reincarnated as a Chinese student who really digs his English past-life self.

On the way to the cafeteria, I asked them if they would mind if I joined them for lunch. Paul (who is not dead but may still be digging his pop past life self) told me I might not like what they like. No big deal, I was not offended. I did not mind eating alone.

I stopped to fill up my card from the woman in the card charger window. I gave her 100 kuai and she nodded and I nodded and she put the whole thing onto my card. (The 300 remaining, I may put toward a sleek mod low standing square white coffee table with short chrome legs which is where I found the killer sofa. The coffee table is 400 rmb -50 dollars. In New York, the coffee table would easily be priced at $200.) Paul and Fred stood waiting for me as I made the food-card charge transaction.

We walk up the side stairs, by the card charger window, to the third floor. Paul asks me what I want to eat. I tell him I like the chicken patties if they have them. He tells me they are beef - which they are. (Beef and chicken sometimes confuses me. The word ‘confuses’ confuses them.) These scrumptious patties are a variation on the chicken fried steak theme and are quite a hit with the students and me. Paul asks me how I order when I am by myself. I tell him I point a lot.
“You order by how food looks?” he asked.
“Yeah, usually.” He nods his head and smiles in amazement that I would be so bold. I suppose that is bold in a land of chicken foot soup, fried pigeon, and tripe surprise (because tripe is always a surprise).

Fred goes first and he gets the patty, scrambled eggs and tomatoes (a Chinese lunchtime staple), and tofu and brown sauce plus a questionable looking banana. (Fred is not much of a conversationalist. He smiles at me bashfully. He is adorable.) I tell Paul I want the same thing. He translates my order to the cafeteria lady. Fred takes his tray and grabs us all chopsticks. We find a table that is relatively clean by the window. Paul tells me (he is the first to tell me this) that my rice should be in the front on my tray which is next to where my milk drink with tapioca balls is. I say ‘oh’ and rotate my tray. After a month and a half, I am grateful someone has told me where my rice should be in the scheme of things.

I pick up my chopsticks (which I am fairly adept with - from all of the sushi and Thai food I ate in States). I am anxious he will have a critique about my handling of the sticks. He nods what I think to be approval. I take my first bite. Rice stays on my sticks. All is a go.

I ask them what they listen to. Fred just nods and smiles his bashful smile. Paul tells me the Beatles (which I of course know since he is the reincarnation of dead Paul). He mentions J which everyone is wild over here. He has been compared to Prince. He then tells me Eminem which makes me ask why. He tells me that Eminem sings about freedom. Eminem has the power to say what he feels and he is not afraid to do such.

Jaded me hates Eminem but when I am given Paul’s perspective. I understand Eminem a bit more. Eminem not my cup of tea but I like to here a Chinese boy speak passionately about him like he is Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln.

At 1:30 PM, I go to class 8. I give them the same spiel that I gave class 3 - trust, trouble, a test and so forth. I lead them outside. However, with this class, the first twenty people leave and then the rest of the students stay in the class. I look back to see what the problem is. I then see the remaining students coming out. The student next to me I tell him (one of the many Wangs) there are some slowpokes in the class. He does not understand. I tell him it is a regional term. I then say ‘cowpoke.’ Nothing.

At the garden, this class actually studies. Twenty students sit on the bridge with their legs dangling. Happy Ending is among them. He is listening to music. He falls asleep. Someone jars him. He knocks one of his books into the water. It floats like a skydiver. It floats under the bridge into an unreachable spot. J and I find the gardener with the kind face and the one white eye. He gives us a pole. J heroically digs it out like it’s a downed plane in Lake Superior.

I look over to a rock where three boys are planted. They start to get up and go somewhere. They see me see them and sit back down. I tell them they are not in trouble. I trust them. They can walk about the garden. They do not have to study. I told both classes the one thing I required from them is to enjoy the day. Later, I did not see the three boys. Perhaps, they snuck off. I was not that concerned even if they did sneak off. When class was nearly ended, I walked over to the round concrete table where I had given the cokes to the Shanghai 90210, a place where boys seem to like to congregate. This is where I found the three boys. They had not snuck off; they were with the cool guys of the class at the round table. The only thing missing was coffee and cigarettes.

When I started out writing about trust, I am not sure why I thought to pick trust out of the article in the Times. I think I thought something might come to me as I wrote. But nothing really did come to me of importance, of world importance, of New York Times importance, of presidential importance.

Only a fragment, one more minute detail to add to my miniscule world: To trust someone, or to have trust in anyone, you must know that person; Or at least somewhat be involved with that person on some sort of regular basis. I trust these students. I knew James would sneak off yesterday but it does not matter because 90% (if not more) of these students are trustworthy.

Now that I am here, these people actually are people and not some intangible place I see on a map. I hear them laugh when I laugh. I hear them let out a flood of Chinese when I give them a swift kick because I cannot control myself and I yearn for that flood of Chinese expletives. I love these people. They are not heartless automatons as some random Western political figure may paint them. Yes, they are just as ambitious as you or I but they are people. I am fairly certain, most of the people I have become friends with here in this little world of mine are good people. I do not think they would shoot me, torture me, beat me, or wish me ill. After seeing my apartment cleaned for $2.50 a week, and knowing the average wage earner brings home 2,000 a month compared to my 8,000 (not even including that my apartment, bills, and food are paid), I tend to side with the Chinese. Maybe they do deserve a bit more.

Later, I went back to the pond at dusk after I had eaten what I picked out for myself at the cafeteria which included cooked cucumbers and scrambled eggs. I sat at the pond and wrote.. Two female senior 2 students walked up and started a conversation. They asked me if I knew of the teachers from a year ago that taught English. I told them no, I did not know of these teachers. This made them a bit sad.

I thought about the transitory aspect of my profession. This seems to be a place where people come for the experience; for future anecdotes at cocktail parties and conventions. When I tell the students, I have come here to make this my home, they are stunned. When I tell the students I have come here to make this my home that is my plan because I trust this will be a fine place to call home. And as my home, I feel I should be protective of it.