Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Something is wrong. I hear no clanging, no pounding, no voices cawwing. I look at my clock - 7 AM. Where is everyone? I get up to go to the bathroom. Outside a dreary, rainy day waits for me. While I was reading last night, the concrete was poured for the two staircases in the new building. Until I looked out, I thought someone was blasting a Throbbing Gristle record, no just the sound of concrete chugging into a stairwell. Now the site is abandoned. I need the comfort of construction cacophony. I go back to bed and back to sleep.

Last night, after eating the last cappuccino cream filled cake, I was still hungry for a snack. I debated putting my jeans on and going to the convenience store - All Days - for a snack. I looked in my fridge. I did not want to take the time to boil dumplings. All I had in the fridge were random ramen-style noodles, a vacuum packed mystery hard boiled egg and lettuce.

After making some green tea, I went back to the bedroom to finish "Turn of the Screw" (the book not the porno). My stomach was rumbling. I got up again and made a mystery egg salad. I chopped up the vacuum packed egg (which may or may not have been soaked in soy sauce), chopped up some lettuce. I put a dab of hot Chinese salsa on top and then I poured a bit of vinegar on top of that. Surprisingly, the dish was quite delicious. (Mei Wei.) And, it did not give me nightmares during the night.

The wonton supper, I ate earlier in the school cafeteria, did not carry me through the evening. While I was sitting eating with Jennifer and Maureen, I asked them how their observations went. Maureen was upset that Mrs. Mao told her the activities were too juvenile for the students. Jennifer was bummed because the students didn't do their homework.
"You give them homework?" I asked. "What did Mrs. Mao say?"
"I should be stricter with them and make them do their homework."
"That makes sense" was my response.
"Was that lady's name, Mrs. Mao?" Jennifer asked me.
"I don't think so,” I said. “I just think she looks like she could be the Chairman's wife."
Actually, Mrs. Mao looks like the Chairman in drag, if the truth be known.

At 8 AM, I drag myself out of bed. The first thing I always do is check my email. I look forward to hearing what is happening stateside. Sometimes it seems like I left a lifetime ago.

I read an email from Meg. She had a confirmation that the package she sent me has arrived. Someone named Zhou signed for it. I look up "Do I have mail?" in the Berlitz phrase book that Meg armed me with before I left the States. I look up the word for ‘parcel’ in my large Chinese dictionary. I grab my passport and put my shoes and a sweatshirt over my pajamas and walk to the gate house. I never know how complicated this sort of thing might be. When I get to the gatehouse, I simply say 'baoguo' (parcel). On the desk, less than a foot from the guard, is a parcel. He picks it up and hands it to me. I check the address to make sure it is mine. At first, I see the wrong address and I am disappointed until I look again and I see my name. My spirits are lifted.

The guard hands me a clipboard to sign which I do before I rush home with the parcel which has been sealed quite well. After fighting getting the tape off, I open up the package and see the new Moleskin journal which I have been anxiously awaiting and several packets of Mary Twining Spiced Tea (my favorite) and to top it all off two disposable cameras are included in the parcel to capture the magic of Tess, Max, Allen Miko and assorted Shanghai 90210 guest stars.

9 AM - I walk into the office. Maureen is sitting at her desk. I turn on my computer. She asks me if I signed my Foreign Experts Certificate which was waiting for me on my desk yesterday after the observation. No, I tell her. She shows me that she has signed hers under her picture. “Oh,” I say.
"Did they give you a Chinese name?" she asks me. At this point, she is at my desk, hovering over me, pointing to a page on the passport type certificate where a name is written in characters.
"I don't know" I tell her. "My certificate is at home."
"They gave me a Chinese name" she says "And this is not the Chinese name I have given myself."
I want to tell her "Do you realize it is 9 AM. I have never been a morning person. When I was a pop singer, many times this is when I would have been going to sleep. I can come up with my own Chinese name for you. I really want a cup of good coffee but I have been dealing with drinking tea because it is probably not as harmful as coffee. Yes, I have stopped drinking coffee but now I am drinking Coke and Pepsi again. I thought I would come here and just drink green tea and eat macrobiotic vegetable sprouts! Leave me the Mao alone!"
Instead I say "Oh."

The joy of seeing my passport waiting on my desk after my observation, I cannot express in words. Being in China without a passport is maddening. For a moment - when I went to Wuxi - I was paranoid that I could not be checked into the hotel without the passport. Carrying a xerox copy of my passport around with me is like carrying Monopoly money around hoping no one will notice it is fake. When I saw my passport on my desk waiting, I felt like I had been reunited with an old friend. My passport is the Skipper; I am Gilligan.

At 9:30 AM, I have two lessons back to back with Shanghai 90210. For the most part, during the week, I teach them conversation and listening. However, once a week, I teach them geography and culture (Thursday) and Art (Monday). Yesterday, Jessie (sofa negotiator) told me I give them their midterms next week. Instead of our usual conversation lesson during the week, I decided to do a midterm review. Part of me is in a panic because I feel like I have taught them absolutely nothing the last month I have been here. I then snap out of it and tell myself, “Oh yeah it’s high school. This is certainly not the time to learn anything.”

Due to the rainy weather, all of them are lethargic. When I say Max are you with me he makes a sound not unlike the mummy in Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy. Tess is even less vocal because her head is on the desk asleep. Miko just says “Whaaa?” Allen is the only one who is with me. She says “I am with you Tyson.” I am having one of those days myself where I just want to sleep.

I tell the students to get out their geography lessons. I write their names on the dry board side by side. Then, I ask the questions. Tess answers four questions rapid fire. She has 4 points. Miko then answers a question. Finally Max answers a couple of questions. Allen is discouraged because she has not answered one. Tess wins the first round - Chapter One - and I award her with the Chinese equivalent of a penny. Max thinks this is hysterical. He leans back in his chair and almost falls over backward. He wins the next round. I award him with the same. Then, the game becomes Max and I trying to sneak the change back onto each other’s desks. Tess has put her Chinese penny on Max’s desk by this time. Max almost gets the coin down the front of my pullover long-sleeve Club Monaco shirt, but he doesn’t. We do not accomplish much. I hope an adult does not walk in.

Off in the rain, I go to class 7 who have the eye exercise before class. As usual, I sit on the breezeway porch outside the class and write in my journal. I listen to the raindrops hit the PVC pipes (which split from the gutters and go into the ground. They must be some sort of water system which I had not noticed.) The tall thin cedars sway in the chilly light rain. I watch a supply truck pull into the entrance of the canteen.

After the eye exercise, I explain to class 7 that I want them to do presentations. I want to know about China. I want them to share this great land with me. Blank stares are the students’ collective response. Once a few students have the light bulb light, the whole class starts to understand. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a student kick the student sitting next to him in the shin or thereabouts.

He looks like a jock. He is nice looking. He is a troublemaker. When I tell him I saw him kick his friend, he smiles. I tell him his group will be first. His friend and his friend’s group laugh and point at the kicker. At that point, brought on by the kicking and the general back of the class horseplay, I tell them the rock concert theory. I then run to the back of the class and tell them that in fact I do believe I will teach the class from the back. Superman and Color Wolf just stare at me. They look like your typical outcasts – somewhat smart but not smart enough, not stoners, not jocks, not pretty boys.

The students powwow but I notice as I am walking around the room no one is writing many notes for their presentations. I ask Albert (the boy who ran up and shook my hand to help me remember him) if they know what they are going to present. He looks at me like I am some sort of strange fruit. I point to the board where I have written topic ideas. He nods and says “Yes, yes, yes.”

Two minutes until the cool kid gives his presentation. I try to remember his name. I know he is not Demon Hunter because Demon Hunter is sitting in the middle of the classroom. Superman is sitting in the corner with Color Wolf so I know he is not either of those guys. I see he has Kira written down on his paper. (I had told them to write names down and numbers for me to know how to credit them in my book.) Yes, Kira is usually a female name but in the land of Stoneage, Alien, Orange, Green, Potato; any name is up for grabs for either sex. I call him Kira. He does not say anything so I say. “Okay, Kira, go ahead. Your group is going first. Everyone be quiet, Kira’s group is first.” The rest of the class is laughing.
“My name is not Kira,” He says. “Kira is over there,” he points to a girl sitting by the window. “My name is Bill.”
“Oh, sorry Bill.” At that moment, I am every bad hometown guidance counselor.

The bell rings. In the rain, I trudge back to my apartment. For lunch, I fix dumplings and lettuce. After lunch, I cannot decide if I want to get out in the rain and walk to the convenience store – All Days – to get a snack for later in the afternoon. The rain is starting to seriously bring me down. A taxi ride to the store seems to be a better idea. I sit down and make a list. I arm myself with the two phrase books and a grocery bag with the grocer address in Chinese characters.

I walk to the front school gate to hail a cab. A cab comes within a few moments. In the cab, my spirits lift. Riding around in a cab, in a district of Shanghai, has a certain sort of glamour to it. I feel like a bit player in some sort of Chinese period piece.

At Lotus, I wander aimlessly bumping into other aimless Wednesday afternoon daydreamers. A crowd is gathered in the bakery section. Fresh rolls are out of the oven onto the rack and into bags which are quickly snatched and put into baskets. At the disinfectant department, I see my friends the air freshener squad from last week. They immediately swarm into help me. I pull out my phrase book and point to something an item I know is in another part of the store, so I can make my getaway. I walk down the dried adult milk powder aisle but nothing strikes me.

The only lonely days are these days of grey construction-less rain when the only sound that greets me when I return from the grocery is the forgotten bathroom vent. I ask myself what would I be doing if I was back in the States: In Oklahoma City, I would watch friends drink at the Hi-Lo Club and remind myself why I stopped drinking; In New York City, I would watch my friends drink at Lucy's, Kabin, Scratchers, Phoebe's, Doc Holliday's and I would remind myself why I have stopped drinking. I tell myself these things to ward off homesickness. The loneliness, I know, will pass. It always does. It is more of a drifter than I am.

To override my doldrums, I make tea and toast. At the grocery, I bought raspberry jam and milk (for the tea). Before I got in the taxi to come home, I stopped at Christine Bakery and bought bread. Meg sent me the mother-lode of Mary Twining Spiced Tea. I just took a sip, I am in heaven.


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