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.”


Blogger Mister said...

Sounds like time in a foreign country is similar no matter which one it is. I spent a year in Germany, I felt like I was in a Kafka novel. Nothing seemed to make sense, and I had a similar problem of not having enough to do which is a great and terrible thing. Every day I went to the grocery store, walked around for at least two hours, spent at least two hours cooking . . . and since I had no money the cooking was interesting . . . I invented 100 variations on onion soup . . . often the variation was just playing a different song while I ate it. Good luck, Shanghai sounds interesting.

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