Saturday, July 29, 2006

Looking up at the bluest sky possible

Shanghai in the summer reminds me of the last summer of my teens; traveling, finding myself, anxious to know who I might one day become. Summer, random cafes, and the heat always remind me of times with my mom. That is when we had our best times together.

My mom – a few years after she left my dad, left her position as a nurse at the family planning clinic in Bartlesville to become a contract nurse. Actually, in between the two phases in her life she pursued a career in real estate which lasted long enough for her to get her realtors license and trade her small car in for a Buick Century. A few months into the endeavor, she decided she did not like the real estate profession and that is actually when she became a contract nurse and traded the Century in for a 1980 blue Honda Civic hatchback.

Her first gig as a contract nurse was in West Texas in Plainview. By this time, I was a few years out of high school and was just knocking around trying to decide what to do with my life. This was back in the time of easy summers, the good life or I remember them as good at least. That same summer, I sold some stock and with some added money from my father went to London on a whim with a friend. Later, that summer, I hopped in a 1976 Datsun B210 with two other friends and went to California. On the way back, they dropped me in Plainview to stay with my mom for a few weeks.

In their divorce settlement, my mom made my dad agree to help us kids through college. By this time, my oldest siblings had families. Curtiss who is six years older than me had a year or so to go in college. Gentry had no interest in college at the time. He divided his time between being a bass player in a southern fried rock band and being an electrician’s assistant to my Cousin Duane. (Later, Gentry would surprise us and graduate from UT on the dean’s list in the unheard time of three years.) After Curtiss graduated from college, I would be able to go, if that was what I wanted.

At this point, I was happy knocking around doing nothing. I have never been one to plan much in advance. I earned a little money that summer cleaning up some junk around my Cousin Duane’s house. He was in many ways like an older brother to Gentry and me. I remember he paid me by the hour and then he gave me an extra twenty.

Anyway, my friends dropped me off in Plainview to spend some time with my mom. While I was there, she had three or four days off in a row. She thought it might be fun to drive to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. This sounded like fun to me. Now, more than 20 years later, I do not remember that much about the trip. I remember driving through the vast stretches of nothingness that define most of New Mexico and Texas.

Most of the time, we tried to get oldie stations on the radio. For some reason, I remember hearing that song ‘Spooky’ as we were driving - looking up at the bluest sky possible - through the New Mexico desert. We were in that 1980 blue Honda Civic; which during the trip she told me when she got a new car, she would give the 1980 to me. This would have been the summer of 1982.

On the last day of the trip, when we were leaving Carlsbad, we tried to decide if we wanted to eat an early lunch or wait until we were on the road and eat then. We were usually in agreement about most things and this time was no different. We decided to put some of the road behind us before we ate lunch. My mom was a big fan of cafes and diners as am I. At the time, I do not remember if I was or not. I assume I was a fan but I do not remember those sorts of details.

We drove. We drove. We drove. For hours, it seems; we drove. Both of us were getting hungry. Actually we were beyond hungry, we were famished. There seemed to be nothing for many miles. We saw no signs for towns, no signs for rest stops, nothing.

At last we saw a sign, a big sign for a place twenty-five miles away. The sign was big. The restaurant looked very reputable by the sign. There seemed to be something on the sign saying family owned for like fifteen or twenty years. That seemed like a glowing endorsement to us. We decided that was the place for us.
Finally, we reached our destination. From what I remember, the outside needed a fresh coat of paint but that did not seem to be a warning sign. That indicated that the place stayed so busy that the owners did not have time to paint. This seemed like another endorsement for the place.

We walked in and sat down. There was a jukebox. Some innocuous tune was playing. I excused myself to use the restroom which was my first mistake.

At the time, the dirtiest restroom I think I had ever seen was the restroom in my Uncle Harold’s gas station. It was the typical backwoods gas station restroom that has not been given much attention by the cleaning lady who of course was my Aunt Connie.

The restroom in this restaurant was off the scale when it came to dirty. Without getting obscene, I do not know how to describe it. All I can say is imagine a restroom that has not been cleaned in two or three years with a toilet that has not been flushed in that same amount of time; this was worse.

Needless to say, after my trip to the restroom, I was a little gun shy about ordering. Like in a horror movie, I do not know why we did not leave. Without a doubt, I could have asked my mom if we could leave right then. She would have understood. Looking back, I don’t know why I did not say anything at that point.

When I got back to the table, we ordered our food. Or actually, we may have ordered our food before I went to the restroom. That makes more sense. That would explain why we didn’t leave and I did not really say much – if I said anything – about the restroom.

In any case, I believe I ordered roast beef and green beans. Mom ordered meatloaf and mashed potatoes. We could usually go anywhere to eat together because she and I loved the same type of food. Sometimes, I was the one to order meatloaf and she would sometimes order roast beef.

After we sat down to eat somewhere, we would always talk for five or ten minutes after we ordered. This was never planned; it just always happened. This day, I am sure was no different. Our talks a lot of times centered on my friends whom my mom adored. Sometimes we would talk about the future, college, her job. She never pushed me. She told me I did a good job of that on my own. Which now, seems weird to me because I was not working or in college at the time. Nevertheless, I had worked from my junior year in high school until I had just recently quit a job managing a small restaurant. Their was a lull in our conversation.

About this time, one of my mom’s favorite songs came on the jukebox – a gospel number, Christy Lane’s ‘One Day at a Time.’ My mom loved to sing along to songs. Often she loved to sing the wrong words along to songs but she did love to sing along to songs. Whether it was Christy Lane, Rod Stewart’s ‘Do you think I’m Sexy?’ (One of her favorites), Rufus’ ‘Tell Me Something Good’ or Supremes’ ‘Love is like an Itching in my Heart,’ she loved music and she loved to sing along, no matter where we were; crowded restaurants were not excluded from this pastime of hers.

Usually, when she got to the chorus, she would really start belting it out. Or in my young mind, she seemed to be belting it louder than anything else. I was never one to tell her to stop because she enjoyed singing so much that I just could not hurt her feelings. Instead, I took the coward’s way out and leaned back in my booth and listened to the conversation in the booth behind me.

The diners in that booth were just being served their food when I tuned them in. I heard the waitress say:
“And here is your roast beef and mashed potatoes, mam.”
Soon after, I heard the woman respond:
“I can’t eat this, you could not pay me to eat this.” She then added in disgust, “Take it back. Bring me a hamburger.”

Since she was behind me, I could not see the offensive platter of food. I could just imagine what the offensive platter of food resembled. Remember, I had the bathroom visit as a reference point.

The song ended approximately the same time that the discourse with the waitress ended in the booth behind me. For some reason, I started to laugh because I thought the whole thing was amusing. My mom - who was not privy to the hygienic state of the bathroom or the woman’s conversation with the waitress - wanted to know why I was laughing. This made me laugh even harder. At this point, I was laughing so hard that I could hardly speak.

All I could say was “I think she had what you are having,” as I discreetly pointed to the woman sitting behind me. My mom just looked at me perplexed. She still had no idea what I was talking about. To her, this was still an idyllic restaurant.

A few minutes later, we were served our meal. She tore into her roast beef like a savage. She had no fear when it came to ptomaine. Once, as an adult, I asked her if hardboiled eggs went bad. She told me no that when my brothers and I were kids we would find Easter eggs months after the fact out in the yard and still eat them.

When the waitress sat down my meal, I was terrified to take a bite. My mom noticed that my green beans looked a little weird. “Are they supposed to be that color?” she asked. They were an elephant grey.

Her courage - or ptomaine naiveté rather - was encouraging to me. I started eating my meal. Now, I do not remember how it tasted. I am almost positive it had some sort of off taste to it but that might have just been psychosomatic. Without a doubt, I know that the meal was most certainly not delicious. Nevertheless, my mom seemed to enjoy her meal so I kept my mouth shut.

We paid the check and headed back toward Plainview. We were still in New Mexico.

My brother Gentry, as I said earlier, played bass in a southern rock boogie-woogie band. Diamondback, his band, were on a regional tour and playing that night at a club in Grants, New Mexico. The clubs his band played were at places with names like Rockers, Rockies, Snookers, Whiskers.

Grants was either on our way back to Plainview or not too far out of the way. We decided we would try to track him down. Of course, this was way before the time of email and cell phones. Fortunately, Grants was a small enough town that we could probably locate the club and the hotel where his band was playing and staying without much difficulty, especially if we had a little luck on our side, which when I was with my mom we always seemed to have.

A few hours after leaving the restaurant, we pulled into Grants. As I said, this has been over twenty years ago, but it seems like we immediately drove by a hotel and Gentry and the rest of the band were getting out of the band van – a somewhat mod Dodge. Our encounter was brief. We told him we were driving by and thought we would say hello which we did and then we headed on back to Plainview.

We had debated staying and watching his band but neither of us was too enthused about going to a biker bar in Grants. Gentry may have even helped talk us out of going. Whatever the case may have been, we did not stay; we drove back.

Now, this is where my mom and my dad were very different in their views, in their views about travel, specifically their views on when to fill up the tank. On family vacations was the only time when I truly was a witness to my dad’s gas tank logic. Once the gauge had dipped past half a tank, my dad told us to keep our ‘eyes peeled for a gas station.’ If we did not find one by the time the tank got to a quarter of a tank, there was a full fledged panic. At that point, he would begin to make a plan for who was to walk for gas if we ran out.

With my mom, about the time the gauge would dip a bit past the eighth of a tank mark, it would dawn on her that maybe we should think about at some point getting gas but really there was no hurry. We had time. She did not panic. She was very nonchalant about gas and those sorts of things.

On the last leg of our trip, when we were down to a little less than an eighth of a tank, we passed a station. As we passed it, I remember her saying maybe we should have got gas there. I agreed but said there was probably another place close. She agreed and we kept on driving….and driving….and driving. We were now in West Texas where the gas stations were no more plentiful than in East New Mexico.

At the point, when the gauge had dipped past empty, we saw a sign – Plainview 21 miles. We thought there might be something before then. We thought for sure there was something ten miles out of town or so. We both prayed and crossed our fingers. It was way past dark. Back then, as I said, there were no cell phones. We certainly did not want to run out of gas in this untamed ‘the Hills Have Eyes meet the Chainsaw Massacre’ country.

We kept driving. Ever so often, I thought I felt the car lurch. That might have been psychosomatic or my mom – who could be quite the prankster – messing with me. The whole time, I thought of Leatherface and that movie ‘Last House on the Left.’ Fortunately, I had not read ‘A good man is hard to find’ at that point.

Finally, we hit the outside of Plainview and a gas station. We rolled in on fumes I am sure. We filled up and Mom said something like “I will sure never do that again,” which I most definitely think she forgot she said a few tanks later.

When we got back to the apartment, within an hour or so, I became what I thought was deathly ill. There is only a few times I can remember being that ill, that is a few times before I was a mad drinker. Later, when I became a drinker of inestimable proportions, I would get that sick routinely. But as a youngster, who had not yet been gripped by alcohol, I was as sick, or sicker, than I had ever been before. At the time, I was positive I got food poisoning from the restaurant with the elephant colored green beans.

Now, I am not sure. A year later, when my mom was a contract nurse in Miami, FLA, I had to be taken to the emergency room because I had the start of an ulcer. I was once a nervous person.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The eunuch is singing Judy Collins....

Today, I am not in the mood. Most of the time, when someone cuts in front of me, I do not get offended. To me, I am in their country and they figure that I am going to take longer or whatever to accomplish what I need done. Today, however, I have my bus fare out ready to hand it to the woman at the ticket window and a man just muscles in front of me and buys three tickets. This should not be a big deal but I just think it is really rude. When I get to the window, I smile and hand her my 6 yuan and she hands me my seat assignment. The bus which goes from Songjiang to Shanghai and vice versa has 48 seats.

I board the bus. I take my seat – seat 18. As I am looking out the window, I watch a woman boarding the bus next to mine throw two Styrofoam containers down on the ground (what was once her lunch no doubt) as she board said bus. After she boards the bus, she comes back to the door to throw her napkin on the ground.

This is one of the things that really bugs me about this place. The people do not seem to even give a thought to littering. There are not repercussions for littering here. People are not fined so they do not think anything of throwing trash around a parking lot, a school, the downtown or the Yangtze, wherever. They just litter away.

Because of this, I think of that anti-trash commercial from the 1970s. The one with the Native American (of course back then they were called Indians) who is walking around a stream and from what I remember he sees people littering and a tear comes to his eye. I think that is how it went anyway.

Maybe, the government needs to rethink that commercial here and adapt it to the Chinese. Perhaps, we could have a concubine or a eunuch walking around, or maybe both, or maybe they are even one and the same. Okay, we see a eunuch, a concubine, and an emperor having a picnic in a ravine next to a waterfall. There cutlery and such is made from bamboo and rattan. The emperor’s servants are setting everything out onto the ground on an elaborately woven rug. The emperor, the concubine and the eunuch are laughing and joking and having a wonderful time. The rug has tons of food laid upon it. There is wine served. The spirit of the meal is merry. The concubine is dancing. The eunuch is singing Judy Collins (whom I heard is a nightmare in person) ‘Send in the Clowns.’ The emperor is smoking the eunuch’s opium.

Until a rowdy group of teenagers on scooters drinking beer rolls by and throws a beer bottle into the ravine unaware of the picnic. The bottle sails into the ravine becoming an accidental dangerous weapon in the process. Although, it is seen as a dangerous weapon, there is still a bit of beer in it which soaks the concubine’s face. The emperor, not wanting to lose face, says a few magic emperor words and the rug begins to fly. The concubine, mad, is no longer dancing. The eunuch is now singing Croce’s ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown.’

The picnickers are now in hot pursuit of the rowdy scooter boys. The emperor is determined to give the upstarts a little of their own medicine. He is determined to soak them back. However, he does not want to waste the wine. And the group of diners did not bring any beer to backwash onto the rowdy scooter boys.

Instead, the emperor draws his sword. One by one, he lops their heads off. The eunuch is now singing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ The heads go flying. Since they are all high on opium, this is the funniest thing ever. They laugh. They laugh so hard they come close to wetting themselves. In Chinese characters, while this commercial is airing, a slogan would read ‘Do Not Litter Or The Emperor Will Decapitate You, Motherfucker!’

Of course, within a few minutes, the man in charge of sweeping the parking lot swept the refuse into a big green trash bin. I look over at the woman who is basically sitting across from me in the next bus. She is guzzling a bottle of grapefruit juice. She does not know I am watching her. This is giving me a voyeuristic strange pleasure.

While I am perfecting my revolutionary state of the art litter commercial, the line cutter sits down next to me. Figures, I think to myself. He and the two people that he is with are chatting and laughing loudly. He says something to me in Chinese. In Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. He repeats the same thing and laughs. Again, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand as I throw up my hands. I do smile as I say this. However, today, I am not in the mood to be the foreign butt of the joke.

We ride in silence. I stare out the window of the bus. My seat mate finally puts his head in his hands and rests. I feel a bit guilty. He cut in front of me in line. He probably did not even realize. He was just being friendly to me. Usually, I am friendly but today I am not in the mood.

The bus arrives at the stadium at 11:30. Michael and I agreed to meet at 1 pm. So that I am sure of where it is, I decide to walk by the office first. The office is close to the stadium. At one point there is a fork in the road, I have to jog my memory which way to go. I pick the right way. I find the office. This eats up about fifteen or twenty minutes.
I still have over an hour before I have to meet Michael.

The only thing that I ate for breakfast was two skinny pieces of toast and butter with my coffee. I am hungry for lunch. I keep my eyes open for anywhere where I think I might be able to negotiate the menu. Although I am not familiar with this part of the city, I hope that I can find a place like a cafeteria where I can point to what I want or a place with pictures on the menu so again I can point to what I want. Often, the choices are limited.

During this walk, I do not pass many restaurants. I pass a hotel restaurant, a nice restaurant named Orchid and a hole in the wall that frightens me more than just a little. The street that I go down has long stretches of nothing. There is a concrete wall that seems to suggest a neighborhood is being leveled and then built up again. This is very common here. Many people, foreigners especially, hate that historic neighborhoods are being bulldozed to make way for concrete and glass high-rises. I would love them to preserve the historical neighborhoods but then this is not my battle. Do I have the right to argue what is wrong and right here?

As I am walking, I daydream of happening into one of those diners that you might accidentally stumble upon in Topeka, Enid, Arkansas City, or Amarillo; one of those diners where the waitresses have been waiting the same tables for twenty or twenty five years, their children have gone from dishwashers to cooks to college to families; one of those diners that offer cottage cheese and a hamburger patty as a diet plate; a diner that has apple pie, cherry pie, chocolate pie and pecan pie – pecan pie is offered on Sundays only, a diner with autographed pictures of local celebrities such as college football stars and regional newscasters.

On a corner, I see a restaurant with a menu on a podium outside. I decide to glance over the menu which surprisingly has the items listed in English. The items I see immediately are various kinds of pasta. Without further ado, I walk in and I am sat at a two top.

The waitress hands me a menu. I look over the menu. There are quite a few dishes that look appetizing. They have spaghetti, different types of sandwiches, and pizza. The menu lists a hamburger and fries. I decide that is what I want. Of course, I fantasize that this will be the perfect diner hamburger. I order a coke with it.

I tell myself to not get my hopes up because this might not be the sort of hamburger that I assume it to be. I remember my disastrous hamburger incident at KFC in Ningbo, the thing that looked like a hamburger but was actually a piece of cod. Who knows what will be under that bun? Will it be an all beef patty? Or will it be pigeon, squirrel, roast newt?

As I am waiting, I take notes in a little notebook that I brought with me. I am starting to micromanage my time. I make a to-do list of projects for next year for my art classes– make a papier mache mask, find sealer, enlarge a photo of myself for a self portrait. Occasionally, I look up to see if my burger is coming. The time is now 12:25. I still have plenty of time to eat and walk back to the office but I hope that the burger comes soon. I do not want to be pushing it.

The burger arrives. The burger is one of those little fat patties that is actually smaller than the bun that covers it. Before I take a bite, I eat a French fry which is surprisingly good. The fry is a standard diner fry. I am happy. I dip it in the catsup that the waiter brought on a separate saucer. Then, I try the burger. This is the moment of burger truth.

The burger is not bad. By no means, is this one of the best burgers I have ever had but it is not one of the worst. The only thing that I really do not like is that the bun is soaked with mayonnaise. Really, I do not like mayonnaise in the least on my burgers. This time, however, I let it slide. I eat my burger and fries and drink my coke. I am ready to see this apartment.

Okay, after I pay my check, I head to the office. Michael tells me he will be ready to go to see the apartment in ten minutes. No hurry, I tell him. I sit in the office and daydream about the apartment. Roy comes in and chats in Chinese to the ladies at the front desk. Roy and Michael picked me up at the airport when I flew here from New York. Roy does not know that much English so I do not say anything to him.

I do not speak to him until we are heading to the car. I tell him hello. This is probably not strange to him because we have a language barrier. Roy drives. Michael sits shotgun. I sit in the back seat.

We pull into the high school where I am not teaching. Michael says he will be right back. He goes to the guard house at the entrance. He comes back.

We then pull into the middle school where I will be teaching. Michael tells me this is my school. I tell him I know. He gets out of the car and goes to the gate house again. He comes back to the car. We pull away and then pull into the apartments next door to the school. I say this is really close. We weave through the apartment complex.

We get to the apartment which is on the first floor. Michael tells me the landlord lives upstairs. We wait for the landlord to come down the stairs. We do not wait long. He appears. We are at the front entrance. He takes us around back. He does not have the key to the front.

Actually, this is nice to come into the back door. We come in through the back patio. I was told by Elizabeth the place has a yard. It does not, but it does have a nice big back enclosed patio. The entrance to the patio is private. My apartment is the only apartment that can be accessed. We walk into the patio and then through a sliding glass door to the living room which has wood floors and some nice columns. The place is really nice. The bedroom has a big cedar closet. There is a nice big open area off of the living room. The kitchen is small but nice. The kitchen cabinets are royal blue. The other exciting factor: I have a tub.

Of course, there is one drawback. You could probably guess what this is if you think on it for a moment. Yes, you guessed it. The living room furniture is puke dreadful. Part of me says, oh look at it like kitsch. I would love to but I can’t. Sure, it looks like Edith Bunker and Ben Cartwright went shopping and picked it out together. We could call it low-rent ranch. It would have been perfect in those trailer park Calvin Klein ads a few years ago. But I absolutely cannot do it.

I tell Michael I do not want the furniture in the living room. He tells me he will tell the landlord. This seems like a done deal. It turns out the person showing us the apartment is not the landlord but a friend with the key. The landlord shows up. He has done a really good job on the place. There are wood floors and marble tile floors throughout.

Michael tells him I do not want the living room furniture. This is when that old familiar song and dance begins. Well, we could move the sofa to this wall. I tell Michael I do not want it at all. He tells me that the furniture goes with the place. The landlord has no other place to put it. I tell him I do not want it.

This is the deal. Here, the popular view on furnishing is to put as many sofas and chairs in a room as you can. The living room is actually a nice size but with a sofa and two easy chairs and a large side table, the living room is now crowded.

Without a doubt, I do not want this crap in my new living room. The landlord tells Michael that he spent 7,000 yuan for the furniture and I will only be there for a year so he does not want to get rid of the furniture. Once I am gone, he will be stuck with no furniture and he will have to buy chairs and another sofa.

I ask Michael if perhaps we could move the furniture to the office. He says that we cannot do that because the furniture belongs to the apartment not the office.

As we are talking about this, I weigh all of the pros and cons. The last two weekends, I have had to haggle about furniture that I do not want. I know there must be a solution. We finally come to an agreement. The furniture will be stowed in a corner on the patio. At first, I did not want to do this but then as I thought about it, I could put a screen in front of that corner and no one would be the wiser.

There are many positive things about taking this apartment. An immediate move-in is the most positive aspect. Another positive, I would not have to pay an agent fee. I tell him I will take it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

She goes to sell her language to another customer...

At the moment, I am slightly overwhelmed. Within a month, I need to have a curriculum set for the classes that I am teaching at this international middle school next year. A period a day, five days a week, I will be teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th graders English Lit. In America, I could go browse the bookstores and I would have a multitude of choices. Here, although Shanghai is a major city, a world city, the choices are limited. There are two international bookstores here I know of. If there are more, I have not heard about them.

At the international bookstore that I prefer, there is one big table when you come into the store that contains English lit choices. The choices are what you would imagine – Dickens, Poe, Hemmingway, Twain, Hardy, Shakespeare.

The problem that I am having is the selections which are lacking. I would like to assign The Indian in the Cupboard, James and the Giant Peach, Harriet the Spy. Unfortunately, these titles are not available. The other bookstore carries the Lemony Snicket books which I think are fun but should they be assigned for a lit class? Ah, why the hell not. They will also set me back about 230 yuan a book which is crazy expensive. Supposedly, I am getting reimbursed money I spend. However I do not know if I get reimbursed the cost of a 230 yuan book which brings me to the next problem.

Why don’t I just ask my liaison with the school? That is a marvelous idea, truly it is. In fact, it is such a good idea that I have emailed her. I have emailed her twice with no response. Should some red flags be raised in my head? Probably, but I am optimistic. I have questions. I am not getting answers. This is very frustrating.

I go to Shanghai to look around and get some ideas for the classes. I browse the bookstores. For some reason, I want to teach the students Macbeth. In junior high, I studied Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. For some reason, Macbeth seems a bit more hip in my mind. Why, I do not know. At both bookstores, I look for the film versions on DVD. The Roman Polanski version may be a bit of a long shot but the Orson Welles version seems like it would be a possibility. Both stores have Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Macbeth to me does not seem to be a stretch.

At the international bookstore that I do not go to as often, a clerk asks if she can help me. She is Chinese. Her English is okay but she is by no means fluent. I am in the English language DVD section on the 7th floor. I tell her I would like to find a film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She asks me if she is an actress. I tell her Shakespeare is a famous writer, maybe the most famous English writer, ever. This means nothing to her. She is Chinese. I find Hamlet and Julius Caesar and show her.

She then asks me what I do. I tell her I teach English. She then gives me a brochure for Chinese lessons. At the international bookstores, the clerks always give you brochures for Chinese lessons. She tells me she can take me to meet with someone for more information. They get a commission from this I am certain. At the moment, I tell her I am a little preoccupied. She goes to sell her language to another customer.

At this point, the guard decides to give me a hand with my DVD selections. He hands me a random Russian language film. The table where I am parked has a few Russian language films. I try not to laugh. This would be the same as if I found a Korean movie and handed it to him assuming it to be Chinese.

Shakespeare is still on my mind. At the other bookstore, I found a book of abridged adaptations which I think could be interesting for young readers. In this book, Macbeth has been rewritten into a short story, a short story which I believe my students would understand.

However, again, there is a problem. I have been given a few hints about these students but I do not know where they truly are in their reading skills. If I come up with a curriculum, I have the possibility of going in the first day and realizing all my work is for nothing because I have designed a curriculum that is over their heads.

Part of me is telling me, I am making this much too hard, choose some books and be done with it. The other part of me is telling me, I want to be a really good teacher. I want them to say later that I was a really good teacher. Whether they like me or not, that is one thing but I want them to actually take away something from this. I want them to remember me the way I remember some of my better English teachers.

For the last few weeks, I have been surfing sites looking at curriculum overviews. I would like to know what sort of time I should spend on each book. Most of the sites I have found, give a list of suggested readings but they do not say whether they spend a week, two weeks or a month on each book. Obviously, since this is my first time doing this, I am a bit gun shy. Many other people have done this before me; that is what I need to keep telling myself.

At the bookstore, my imagination goes into overdrive. I have all of these ideas and my thoughts crystallize. I know exactly how to plan the class. And then, as soon as the solution comes to me; it leaves. This is maddening.

Time for lunch, I decide go to an American area of which I know. I believe there is a Tony Roma’s there. I am not sure exactly where it is but I know I found it with Sailor a week ago so I should be able to find it again. While I am in that area, I will look at cheap compact discs and pirated DVDs.

As with most of my walks in Shanghai, some areas look familiar some do not. I walk past the giant Coca-Cola bottle. I am in the huge tourist shopping plaza. A young woman in shorts and a tank top approaches me. This is not unusual here. She starts talking to me. I talk to her for a bit but I am really hungry and I do not feel like getting into a long winded conversation. She asks if I would like to go get some coffee or tea somewhere. I tell her I am in a hurry. Otherwise, I would love to have coffee with her. She storms off. I am a bit taken aback that she leaves in a huff.

I continue my trek to an American eatery. In the same area, another young lady comes up to me. Again, this one has on shorts but is wearing a tube top instead of a tank top. She is instantly very friendly. I tell her I am not interested because I finally am aware what is going on with these two women. Naïve, silly me; I finally realize they are hookers.

The funny thing is I can usually spot hookers but I am completely taken off my guard by these two women. They look average, almost plain. If I was in New York or Hollywood or even Cleveland, I would not be surprised but here I am surprised. Before I moved here, if somebody told me he was approached by a hooker in Shanghai, I would have not batted an eye. As a matter of fact, I probably would have been surprised that he was surprised that he was approached by a hooker. But since I have been here, this does not hit me as a hooker place, oddly enough.

As I am walking away, I wonder if I look like the typical smarmy foreign businessman looking for a Tuesday afternoon hooker ride. Then I wonder what the average smarmy foreign businessman looks like. I have on my pink LaGuardia Community College t-shirt and my Blue Cult jeans (and yellow Nikes). Am I wearing the latest in smarmy foreign businessman attire?

As I am walking, I pass a Taco Bell Grande, not just a Taco Bell but a Taco Bell Grande. This is sit-down service. I am tempted to have lunch. I have not had Mexican Food in six months. I prefer the mom and pop places in the Southwest but I will settle for Taco Bell if that is the only Mexican Food available, especially after I have just about overdosed on noodles and dumplings. I peak in the door. Inside, it looks like El Chico or a vintage Monterey House. The waitresses are all wearing sombreros that come to a weird point on the top. Maybe they are Mexican witches and wizards. Of course, for no apparent reason, I start thinking of the Uriah Heap Demons and Wizards album. ‘Easy Livin’ starts playing in my head like a bad church hymm.

The set price to eat at Taco Bell is about $8.00. Realizing I am not that desperate, I laugh and keep moving. A Pizza Hut is next to the Taco Bell Grande. Actually, it is on the floor above the Taco Bell Grande. A swanky circular stair case at the entrance is the invitation to come in and taste the deliciousness that is Pizza Hut. Unfortunately, I am much too familiar with Pizza Hut these days. I move on down the sidewalk past the Ferrari and Mercedes Benz dealerships. They stare each other down from opposite sides of the street.

Again, some of my walk is familiar; some of my walk is not. Eventually, I come upon the mall that contained the Armani stores where Sailor and I browsed and drooled. In this mall, I remember, there was a Kenny Rogers’ Roasters. Last time, I had this, and maybe the only time I have had this was in Alabama with Steve and his family during his brother’s high school golf tournament. (His brother graduated from college a few years ago now.) There is something strangely comforting about the gambler having a franchise restaurant in Shanghai.

As I think about this, for some strange reason the soundtrack in my head continues which should be a Kenny Rogers song but of course in my world it is not Kenny Rogers and it is not motor city Bob Seger. Instead, a song by the other gambler, the gambler in pills plays in my head - Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky.’

Today, maybe I will not eat at Tony Roma’s; maybe I will eat with the Gambler. Actually, physically, he is not here. Like that song ‘Superstar,’ he’s not here, it’s just the Kenny Rogers radio. When I am seated ‘Lucille’ is playing which is followed by ‘Lady.’

Again, this is a sit-down table-service restaurant. The one in Alabama was a move through a line, that mix of cafeteria meets fast food. I look over the menu. The club sandwich looks really tasty. I order it. The lunch special comes with a coke. The waitress brings my coke first. Then she brings me a saucer of cut melon which tastes like onion. Oh, Kenny, sometimes you disappoint me.

I would get up and do a strip tease if ‘52 Girls’ by the B52s played at this point. Fortunately, for the wait-staff and the patrons, this does not happen. Lady’ is followed by ‘Coward of the County.’

My club sandwich comes with strange boiled potato spears and coleslaw. Everything is not what you expect here. The club sandwich is not layered. Sliced cucumbers are substituted for bacon. The whole sandwich is swimming in what I suppose is supposed to be mayonnaise. The nice touch is that the crust is cut from around the bread’s edges. I was never one of those kids who demanded his crust cut. By the time I knew about crust cut, I was too old to demand it anyway. Nevertheless, today it is a nice touch.

Lunch with Kenny was a bit of a disappointment. ‘Islands in the Stream’ comes on as I am paying the check. I wander around buy some movies and CDs from street venders. The best find is a two CD set of Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, and Pet Sounds for what equals $2.50. This is not a bootleg, this is the real thing.

Tomorrow, I am to meet Michael Wang to look at the apartment that my company has rented near the school where I will be teaching. I have been told it has a small yard which is unusual here. If it turns out that it is nice, I will take it. This is the apartment where the teacher lived whom I am replacing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

They’re making up things that we’ve all heard before like romance and engage and divorce…

The boiled water is brown; I do not trust it. People tell you to boil the water and it will be okay. I do not trust it. Boiling the water does not remove the sediment and filth. I use the water from the water cooler in my apartment. Even when I am boiling potatoes, I use the water from the cooler. I do not trust this nasty water that comes out of the faucet. I do not trust it at all.

I had hoped there was enough water in the water cooler reserve this morning to make coffee. When I put my cup under it – the cup that I put into the microwave to microwave water to pour into the coffee press; only a quarter cup of water came out. This meant I would have to put on my jeans and walk to the administration building to get another jug of water. This is no big deal. This is just one more added step to the morning ritual.

The empty jug I take with me so that I do not have to explain what I need. The man in the cage at the entrance of the building understands. He takes my empty jug and goes into the water jug room and gets another jug. He is a slight man, smaller than me. I have offered to carry it myself before but he always waves me away. He waves away any sort of fruit or baked goods that I offer him back at the apartment; so I do not offer fruit, baked goods or assistance anymore. I lead the way to my apartment. Although, by now, I am sure he knows I am the foreigner in 202.

I hear from a friend that another friend may be getting a divorce. Psychedelic Fur’s ‘She is Mine’ goes through my head. “They’re making up things that we’ve all heard before like romance and engage and divorce… I called her fab and Mrs. Fish…”

Lunch has become a bit of a stalemate, if you can call it that. I know I have to eat but I do not know what I want. I know what I don’t want which seem to be my only choices. It seems like my choices are rice, noodles or dumplings. That seems to be my choices. My other choices are junk, junk from McDonalds, junk from KFC, junk from Pizza Hut.

Of course, everyone loves the food of their own country. American food, I am really starting to miss you. I never knew how much until I came here. Food is really the only true difficulty.

Sure, the language barrier is frustrating. The last time I had a conversation with a native English speaker, I cannot remember. Yes, I get really frustrated when I am apartment shopping. A point that I thought I had made clear - as clear as anything could possibly be made – is forgotten or tromped on or treated as if what I am asking is something that I did not spend 45 minutes talking about previously.

Sunday, I went on another quest for apartments. The whole day’s journey is not worth trekking back over. It was more or less a rerun of the previous Sunday with the addition of new agents. I was under the assumption that we would be talking to the really cool agent that I liked from previously. No, we did not go shopping with her. Yes, hunting for an apartment moves slower than a soap opera.

We stopped by the agent who had shown me the slumlord palace the previous time. This time, she had something nicer and by the school. This place was much nicer than the dump she took me to last week. Off of the entry was a nice little square kitchen with a stovetop that actually had three burners. Here, most stovetops have two. They are very similar to Coleman camping stoves. At night, you are supposed to turn the gas valve off to the tank which I always forget to do on the one in my apartment.

Down the hall past the kitchen was a little baby blue bathroom with a nice little tub. The kitchen and the tub were definitely selling points. At the end of the hall was a door which went into the living room. The living room was long and dark. The bedroom was on one end and the covered ghetto patio which let in a minimal amount of light was on the other end. This place had potential but I do not want to be confined to a dark apartment. I realize I need my sunshine.

At the next place, a two bedroom that had most of what I wanted, I went into the bathroom and there was a shower. I explained to my friend who has been apartment shopping with me the whole time that I want a tub. I thought I made it clear the last time. A bath tub is an essential need. He told me it had a bathroom. I say tub over and over and over. At this point, I am saying it more to hear myself say it than anything. This is the truly frustrating part because there is no way to explain. Once you thought you have already explained and explained, you have to explain again. This gets to be like Freddie, you think he’s been killed but he keeps rising up with those claw hands of his. Finally, I drag him back into the bathroom and I sit down in the shower. He understands but I am still frustrated.

He talks this over with the landlady. I go into the master bedroom and look around. The apartment that we are in has all of this slightly older art deco inspired furniture. A few years ago, I would have totally loved the place. My deco days are gone. They left long before my patience. I am learning patience. I really am.

When I walk back into the living room where the discussion took place, my friend tells me that they put the shower in for the last tenant. They could put a tub back in but it would cost me. I tell my friend it is a pity. Everyone here seems to know the meaning of the word ‘pity.’ I am not paying to have a tub put into the apartment. I will keep looking

He then tells me I could buy a tub like the Japanese in which I stand. I tell him tubs are for lounging not for standing. That is the whole reason I want one. I tell him I want to keep looking.

Later, we look at a three bedroom (3,000 yuan a month, my maximum amount allotted – 2,000 from the company, another 1,000 from me) in a high rise with an elevator. The place is really nice. There are two bathrooms both with tubs. The drawbacks are major. The first drawback is the excessive amount of oversized furniture in the living room – two oversized arm chairs, an oversized sofa, and an incredibly bulky six person Guido dinette set, and an enormous television cabinet. The stuff was nice if you are into Soprano Chic. The other drawback was the 1980s soap-opera-hospital, puke pink wallpaper. For 3,000 yuan a month, I want a much more chic sort of high rise apartment.

When I told my friend, this place was not for me, for once, he understood. We even laughed about it. After seeing that place, I thought back to the place I saw with 2 floors that he thought would be too noisy. I really liked that place. I told him I really liked the place with two floors.

He told me that it is difficult to find a place with two floors. I understand that. I wanted that place. He did not understand. I kept trying to explain. I could not explain. I even used the Chinese word for that. He still did not know what I was trying to tell him. At one point, he thought I was asking him to move in with me. I became so frustrated and I lost my cool again. He told me he was sorry he did not know enough English to understand.

Again. Again. Again, I felt awful. He is the nicest guy. For some reason, I seem to think he is my whipping boy. He does not get angry with me. I feel so horrible afterward and I apologize like a maniac.

Another element that did not help the situation was the rain. Off and on, it rained all day. I was dressed for hot weather. On the bus, the air conditioning worked very well, usually it does not work so well. I was chilled on the bus. As we rode, I tried to remember how hot I was the other day riding the bus.

When we got off the bus, I never seemed to warm up because the rain had cooled off Shanghai. It’s odd to think that in July, I might need a jacket here. My friend had an umbrella that he held for us both, making me wonder if passersby thought I was the rich foreigner who hired him to hold my umbrella. He may have been hired to walk me in the rain.

All of that stuff, all of that apartment hunting stuff, I can handle. I can deal. Yes, I lose my cool but I can deal. I apologize and try not to let the steam whistle blow that seems to control my brain. Of course, if does blow again, I apologize like a madman after and it is fine…again.

It’s the food. Everyday, I have to decide what I am eating today. You might say have a salad. Well yes, sure, I will have a salad. Of course, the only vegetable I can find that I am familiar with is tomatoes, and of course, it is actually a fruit. Oh and I have to have it without salad dressing because salad dressing is impossible to find. I could put soy and vinegar on top. I would love to have shredded cheese on top. Oh yeah, there is no shredded cheese here or really any cheese period. At Bai Ren Fa there is one kind of cheddar cheese and that is the only place that you can get it and it is expensive. Maybe I will not have a salad.

So, I go out searching for food. I seem to remember a restaurant with pictures on the menu. I noticed it during a night walk, a restaurant that I have not been to as of yet. Most of the places are mom and pop places. As in America, the true mom and pop places have Xeroxed menus with no pictures. In China, it is much the same. The menu is all in Chinese Characters. There is no Roman alphabet anywhere which does make it difficult.

Thus, what happens, I start out with no particular destination in mind. I walk and walk and get hungrier and hungrier until I just land somewhere. Today, I planned it out. I remember a place I passed or I think I remember a place I passed. This place is by the CD store where I got the Doors’ ‘Strange Days’ for what was equal to $1.25 - if you ever pay more than that for the Doors, you are seriously getting ripped off.

Yes, I spot it, a newer place, like Del Rancho without the drive-in part. The first time I met Budweiser, (the boy not the beer); Beez needed a ride back to Moore from his brother’s place in Norman. This would have been in 1989, I think. He called Bud who lived at home. Beez lived at home or was home from the JuCo that he was attending at the time. Maybe Bud was home from JuCo too. He asked if Budweiser was there when Bud’s dad answered. His dad hung up. Beez looked at me and said, ‘Maybe his dad doesn’t know we call him Budweiser.’ He called back and asked for Bud by his given name which I actually do not know. Bud came and got us. We went to Del Rancho. This place almost made me think of that time.

Here at the Chinese Del Rancho, I order the beef with peppers over rice. A soup comes with it. The soup comes, it tastes like heated mop water. It’s okay. The beef with pepper was good. It was 10 yuan -$1.25. The man at the next table sneezed a Dumbo sized sneeze when my food came. I tried to ignore it.


Under the moonless sky, the Mao Generation leaves the pagoda like zombies. My eyes meet the eyes of a man - bearded, younger, and perhaps tortured. He knows me. He sees deep inside of me. He starts browsing through the record collection in my soul. The Glen Campbell albums interest him. At some karaoke party he heard a man sing ‘Rhinestone Cowboy.’ He assumes I am from Wichita. It’s July and winter is already approaching.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Slouchers United

When I slouch, I look fat. I took a picture in front of the school with my favorite guard. He was out of uniform. He always smiles at me when I walk past. He is maybe in his late 40s. I assume he has a family. I would like a picture of him in his uniform. He is one of the main guards, I assume. Sometimes, he does not know, I watch him watch the monitor in the guard house. He is always sitting up straight. He does not slouch.

Later, when I look at the picture, I look fat. I am not fat I don’t think. Don’t slouch, that is what we are told all of our lives. The reason we are told that is when we get a certain age when we do slouch; we look like Jabba the Hutt. We think we look like Keith Richards or Patti Smith but we look like Jabba the Hutt, clear and simple.

As I write this, I realize I am slouching. I cannot help it, I am a sloucher. I have been a sloucher all my life. My heroes have always been slouchers. Of course, there are exceptions; Cary Grant is not a sloucher. He always stood up straight and tall. James Dean is the ultimate sloucher. He makes slouching into an art, as does Jimmy Page, Mick Ronson, the Ramones, Crispin Glover and (the aforementioned) Keith Richards. The data is still out on Ariel Bender. I do not think he slouched. Robin Zander, Tom Petersson – slouchers.

On Ed Sullivan, the Beatles are standing up straight. When I watch that old footage, Mr. Sullivan makes such a fuss over what good boys they are – their manners, their posture. He does not make that same fuss over the Rolling Stones. Maybe he does, I actually do not know, but for mythology’s sake, we will say he does not. So, then, the Beatles vs. the Stones battle could actually be the slouchers vs. the non-slouchers, the non-slouchers being the Beatles. They went through a slouching period during 1968 when they were doing the White Album, slouching. They are slouching on the Beatles Again album cover.

The Beach Boys did not slouch. Brian Wilson slouched during his creative psychedelic period. He slouched when he was able to get out of bed, that is, during Smiley Smile and beyond.

Pictures, self-portraits, are a funny thing. We have an image of what we look like when we think of ourselves. We have an image in our head. My mom would always tell me that she thought she looked like this or that and would ask me if that is how she really looked. When I was behaving, I would tell her the camera lied. She looked the way she imagined herself looking.

Supposedly, cameras don’t lie. However, I would like to say, I think, sometimes they do. Or maybe it is not that they lie but that they do not tell the whole truth. With some people, I do not think that a camera can properly capture that person’s aura. I have a few friends who are really nice looking but when you see a picture of them, the picture is never good. And those friends always tell me, ‘I do not take a good picture.’ They are right, I don’t tell them that, but they are right, they don’t take a good picture. Maybe it is because they have become afraid of the camera and the camera, like an animal, can sense fear. Or maybe their auras cannot be captured digitally.


We get these impressions of people, often people we see day to day, people we do not know. When I walk to Chritine Bakery or on into downtown Songjiang, I pass a tea shop which may or may not sell Chinese herbs. A young male mans the shop. He may be a teenager, he may be older. He often stands in front of the shop. He smiles and says ‘hello’ to me when I pass. He seems nice but guarded. He has a teen movie appeal. He could be in a movie with Kirsten Dunst - her next door neighbor, the new boy at school. He is tall with angular features but he has boy-next-door eyes.

Here, the tendency to get attached to strangers is easy. When I pass the tea shop, I hope that he may be standing outside. I hope that we may say ‘hello’ to each other. I think of the track ‘Wave’ on Patti Smith’s Wave. Finally, I feel as if I understand what she is saying. She may be talking to the pope but I reinterpret the meaning. This intangible emotion that we have for the unknown, we are able to invent a scenario, this perfect picture, this dream.

I hope to talk to this boy who works at the tea shop which never has any customers. Never. I pass it frequently. No one ever goes there. Ever. He does not slouch when he stands in front of the tea shop. The Chinese are not slouchers. They have not been raised on the Rolling Stones and James Dean.

This is not the kind of shop where you sit and drink tea. This tea shop is where you buy tea. It is packaged or in canisters, whichever you prefer. Logan told me when I got here the best time to buy fresh tea is in the late spring which I had forgotten until just now. I will have to wait until next year now I suppose to buy my fresh tea.

When I walk by the tea shop, I sometimes notice changes. Last week, they added a television in the back room, which is to the side of the counter. Now, he does not stand out in front of the shop. He sits at the counter with the backroom door open and he watches what I imagine to be Chinese soap operas. Often I walk by in the late afternoon. I will see a face take up the whole screen, a young Chinese actress. Sometimes, the face is crying.

Now that the television is there, he no longer stands in front of the shop. He no longer says ‘Hello’. I feel as if I have lost something. I have lost something within my daily dynamic. To him, I no longer exist. The foreigner has gone into the catacombs of his mind. Now he is lost in China’s As the World Turns.

I walk over the canal bridge. A bicycle approaches. It is early afternoon. It is him. He is on the bike. He says ‘hello’ and smiles, an old friends smile. I smile and wave. He rides past. We have our connection again. This is fleeting. The chance of me seeing him on his bicycle is slim. This is just a snapshot that will soon fall and sink and disintegrate into the river of my memory.

The next move is mine. He would not understand the Pretentders’ ‘Kid.’ “I know you know what I’m about; I won’t deny it.” He is too Chinese. He does not speak English, I assume. He understands McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC. He understands Superman, Spiderman, X-men. He does not understand the Pretenders. I do not have the words to explain the meaning to him. I barely have the words to explain the meaning of the words to myself.

I know about the lazy hometown summers. I spent those same sorts of lazy summers in America, those summers waiting for my life to unfold, waiting, waiting working in a cafeteria, at a record store, or picking apples. I wanted New York, London - the world. When I got it though, it was not as wonderful as what I had. What I had - this fragile moment in time before people around me started dying:
• at twelve years old, listening to Bowie, Iggy and the Dolls with the money I made picking apples in the family apple orchard, dreaming about the future telling my mom I would someday like to have an apartment in Tulsa;
• still young, the summer right out of high school, hanging out with the town skate punks - the soundtrack that summer was 999, the Clash, 60s Who, 20/20, David Werner, the Shoes - playing on the circular swings at Sooner Park, talking about hitchhiking to California, dreaming of having a band that played gigs;
• a few years later, the summer of American History in summer school at University, and All My Children noontime watch parties (Vaubel, Mer, Walker and sometimes Parker), drinking occasionally on Friday night.
• that same summer - the dialogue with my self-confessed impenetrable college friends about Big Star, Nick Drake, the Fall and all of the other music for record store geeks – as we slammed the Thompson Twins, Howard Jones and the Hooters. Mer especially loved to denounce Journey’s Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’. Some of us by then were in bands, we played house parties. The future would never be this good.

These days, I clean the toilet, steep tea and talk about those days when I was a drinker – passing out at parties, setting my hair on fire with candles, burning down houses, writing songs as a youngster about being old, writing songs about mad girls.

(Incidentally, in China, if you clean the toilet before you go away to camp for ten days, the toilet bowl will be filthy upon your return due to the sad state of the tap water here and its general nastiness.)

CJ sends me a message. We can hunt for apartments on Sunday. I write back that sounds fantastic; I would love to hunt for apartments on Sunday. My life is now unfolding at a rapid clip. Sometimes, I feel as if I cannot keep up. Still, ‘Mystery Achievement’ plays in my head.

I walk around downtown Songjiang. Now that I do not drink, I get sugar cravings in the night. The gates of the school close at ten pm. I have to go and be back by then. Christine always has plenty of cakes and pastries from which to choose.

While I am out, I decide to have supper. Supper here is sometimes difficult. This time I have my phrase book which Meg gave me. On menus, everything is written in characters. At one place off the beaten path, I walk in, I point to a Beef stir fried dish in my phrase book. The guy that I am almost conversing with has a runny nose. Runny noses and restaurants do not mix well with me. I walk out.

Down the street from this place is a place in an alley which always smells of grilled food. It is usually crowded. I walk by. It is crowded. I do not feel like being in a crowd. People always gawk at me.

I make my way to the other side of Main Street. Any place I go to will be random. I go into a place that has a few people sitting at tables. It looks nice. I sit down. I have my phrase book. I point to fried noodles and then I point to stir fried beef. I would like to have stir-fried beef with noodles. Instead, I get an order of stir-fried beef and an order of fried noodles. The waiter leaves a teapot of hot tea on my table.

Beside me, a table of people (three women and a man) are laughing, eating and drinking. Occasionally, the man looks over at me as I eat my meal alone. He may be the husband of the woman that he is sitting beside. He watches me as I eat my stir fried beef with my chopsticks. He hopes I drop a piece. Foreigners cannot use chop sticks. That is most likely the topic of conversation at his table. When he’s not looking, I do drop a piece of sliced beef. He does not notice.

I walk to the counter and pay my bill - 29 yuan, close to four dollars. This is a nice restaurant. I will probably not come back.

I walk home. I walk past the tea shop. The boy is sitting at the counter, watching television. I do something rash. I walk in. He turns around and sees me. He smiles that old friends’ smile. He comes from behind the counter and shakes my hand and does not seem to want to let it go.

He starts talking rapid fire in Chinese. In Chinese, I tell him I do not understand. His allusiveness, I now know was just shyness. He no longer holds what he held for me before I walked in to talk to him. He points to the couch for me to sit down. I sit down. He sits on the other end of the couch and starts talking rapid fire in Chinese once more. Again, in Chinese, I tell him I do not understand.

The mystery that I had built up between us is now gone. As a stranger, what I felt for him, I no longer feel. He points to a package of tea. I shake my head no. We sit on the couch. He still talks. He is trying to get through to me. He does not. I cannot even get through to myself. I point to the door. He nods his head. I get up. I walk out the door.

In the future, when I walk by, he will be watching television. He will be sitting up straight. He will not be slouching. He will be lost in a world of television drama and skin crème commercials. He will not be standing outside. He will not be waiting for me. He will be waiting for his life to unfold. His life will unfold but he will not realize it. I will not have to stop and try to talk.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Sailor goes to Pizza Hut

Sailor occasionally sends me emails. I met him during the speech contest in Anji. He is the one who asked me why the contestants got shortchanged after the contest. He will be a Senior 2 in the fall.

Today, I am meeting him at a mall in Xujiahui in Shanghai, walking distance from the stadium where the bus from Songjiang drops me. As I said, we email each other occasionally but this will be the first time we have seen each other since the speech contest which was in March.

He had asked if I wanted to meet him at 10 am. I wrote him back that I preferred meeting at 11. He wrote me back that if we met at 11 he could have a better rest. Yes, a better rest is good.

I wake up at 8:30 am and do my usual morning ritual, microwave some water, put it in the coffee press, make my bed as it is steeping, go through my overnight correspondence on the computer, drink the coffee, shower, shave, putter around a bit, debate taking a taxi or walking to the bus station. I opt for a taxi. Today there is a slight drizzle. I have my card that has the bus station characters written out. I do not know how to say bus station in Chinese yet. That would probably be a good thing to learn.

The taxi drops me off at the bus station. By now, this is easy. I get in line and hand them my 6 yuan. They know me. They know I am going to Shanghai. Maybe everyone in the line is going to Shanghai.

I get on the bus. I sit by the window. As I am sitting waiting for the bus to take off, I look into the window of the next bus. I am an observer observing the people paying the attendant. The bus I am observing has a woman collecting money from the passengers for their passage. That bus is not as nice as the one that I am on. I feel lucky, fortunate, happy.

Once we arrive at the Shanghai Stadium, I quickly get off the bus and I start walking toward the mall, The Orient Shopping Center. The rain has stopped. There is a heavy wetness to the air that sits…heavily. I walk toward the giant JVC sign. I know the mall is beyond that. I keep walking.

My phone rings. Elizabeth is calling. She tells me that there is an apartment rented if I want it. The apartment is where the girl who I am replacing at my new school was living. I am a bit wary because I am a bit particular about the place that I will live for the next year. I somewhat have my heart set on a two bedroom. She tells me she thinks it has a yard and it is close to the school. She tells me to not sign a lease until I see it. I thank her.

More or less, I have arrived at my destination. The mall is on the other side of the road. There is no crosswalk to the other side. There is a metro labyrinth. I walk down into it hoping that I can find my way back up to the spot where I want to be. Once I am down inside, there are hallways that jut into every direction. I survey my options. This is always tricky. I use my instincts. I choose what I think looks like the most direct route. I see a stairway up. I follow it.

I am at the edge of the entrance. I am to meet Sailor at the entrance. I scan the area. On a muggy Thursday at 11 am sharp, not many people are loitering at the entrance of the Orient Shopping Center. I see an older man with pants riding his chest. Past him, I see Sailor. Sailor is scanning the premises. He sees me. I am smiling as I approach. I am coming from the sun side.

Sailor is the typical teenager –Chinese, American, British, Italian. He has on tennis shoes (maybe Addidas), khaki shorts, a t-shirt with a random sports logo emblazoned on the chest. He also has a mouth full of braces.

We greet. This is awkward. I try to make it as comfortable as possible. I am sure he is trying to do the same. We only know each other through the speech contest from a few months ago. And even then, we did not talk that much. I ask him how his semester was. It’s like I am carrying a handbook - ‘Appropriate Questions for a Teacher to Ask a Student.’ I feel like such a moron.

We walk into the mall. This is one of those malls that have perfume counters and handbags on the first floor. We walk past the Burberry and the Hermes counters. At the Burberry counter, we stop and get a sample of Burberry ‘Brit’ which I have probably inadvertently smelt fifty times. We continue to walk around aimlessly.

I ask him if he has had lunch and if he is hungry. He has not had lunch and he is hungry. He tells me there is a Starbucks near that we could go to for lunch. By now, I know the magic words here. I say them – Pizza Hut. He is excited at the prospect. Pizza Hut is an event here, a special occasion. I tell him there is one across the street.

We go back down into the labyrinth and come up at the mall across the street from the mall where we just were. This is like strange mall time travel. The malls are black holes delivering us into consumer utopia.

Usually, there is a line to get into Pizza Hut with a 30 to 45 minute wait to sit down. Today, there is no line. Actually, Pizza Hut is fairly deserted. We are immediately shown to a table and given a menu. I ask Sailor what he likes. I ask him if he likes the Meat Supreme or the Original Supreme. He prefers the Original Supreme. We order the stuffed Crust version. I order a Pepsi. He orders an orange soda. We get an order of garlic toast. The garlic toast comes immediately.

He asks me if I eat Pizza in America. Although, pizza comes from Italy, I tell him we have a lot of different kinds of pizza in America. I tell him about thick crust and thin crunchy crust. He shakes his head in understanding.

Pizza Hut is not a nice restaurant in America. I would never go to Pizza Hut in America I tell him. Here, however, Pizza Hut is actually nice. I look around me and yes, it is a nice restaurant. I shudder when I think of the scary Pizza Huts dotting their way across Small Town, America from Tucumcari to Chattanooga.

Our pizza arrives. The waitress forgot the pizza server. When she looks my way, I pantomime server. She understands smiles and brings me one. I motion for Sailor to go first. He tells me to go. I slide the server under a piece and put it on his plate. The waitress, who is still standing there, dislodges the cheese stringing from the piece to the pie and puts it on top of the slice. I then slide the server under a piece for myself and put it on my plate.

In the beginning, we both use our forks. I am hungry so I have taken four or five bites at least. I look at Sailor’s slice and he has hardly eaten any. I ask him if he likes it. He says he likes it but he is having problems using the fork.

I tell him he does not have to use the fork. He can pick it up with his hands. I demonstrate. I ask him if he has had pizza before. He tells me not very often which I think might mean he has not. I start shoving pizza in my mouth. I tell him with American food there are no rules.

Once I pick up my slice and start eating, he does the same. We are both becoming more comfortable with each other. He is enjoying himself. He asks me what American teenagers do. I tell him they start working at places like Pizza Hut when they are his age. He tells me he would like to work at Pizza Hut and have his own pocket money. He uses the term ‘pocket money.’

I tell him that Chinese students are smarter than American students because they are forced to study more. The fact that I did not go to school full time my junior and senior years flashes through my head. Of course, I had my freedom, my own pocket money, and a job. He wants what I had.

We talk about cars. Do most families have two cars? I had told him that many kids inherit the family car when they start driving. When I tell him most families have at least three cars in America, his mouth drops open.
“That is too many cars,” he says. When he talks, he sounds like Yoda. This is very endearing.

He likes Avril. He asks me if I like Avril. I tell him I have friends that are big fans. After I say this, I wonder if the kids I am talking about are still fans. Sailor tells me he is trying to learn how to play guitar. It is hard. His fingers hurt. I tell him that is part of it.

I ask him if he likes the pizza. He tells me he really likes it. He is a teenager. All teenagers like pizza. I tell him in America teens go out for a movie and pizza afterwards. That is what I did when I was his age. I ask him if he gets together with his friends during the summer break. He tells me he does not. He never sees his friends.

He asks me if I wear cologne all the time. I tell him yes. He asks me what I am wearing, which I did not realize it was that strong. I tell him Creed, French cologne. He asks me how much it cost. I tell him around $100 a bottle.

He tells me his uncle brought him back some Gucci from America. He wants to go to the Gucci store. I tell him we can go after lunch. He says he does not know where it is. I think I do I tell him. I tell him I think it is off of Nanjing road. We could take the metro to the People’s Park

Two pieces of pizza are left. I tell Sailor to take them. He says I should take them. I tell him I will not eat them. He gets them wrapped up. I pay the check and we go to the metro which is right outside the Pizza Hut.

At People’s Park, we wander around a bit. The day is nice. The heat is not as unbearable and heavy as it has been. The heaviness of it has dissipated. Once we are at the park, I realize that I am not exactly sure in which direction the Gucci store is. I call my connection that I met through Brain Transplant. I know that there is the International Market in the same area where my connection told me I could buy English language magazines. I do not ask him about the Gucci store because I know that he will not know. I ask him about the magazines. He gives me a vague idea.

We start walking. Every time I think we are close, I am wrong. We meander through the streets. This okay there is nowhere either of us has to be.

We happen upon a row of street venders selling CDs. I find the Beach Boys and an Iggy comp. I haggle with the vender. I keep telling them too much and laughing. Sailor is laughing too. He tells me they will not come down any lower. That is okay because I spot something that was set there for me, something set there for me by Providence, a guardian angel, the ghost of James Honeyman-Scott. For 5 yuan (a little over 50 cents), I find a copy of the first Pretenders album on CD.

It is one of the albums that by now I have bought, I am sure, multiple copies here and there. My last copy, I gave to Derek and Raechel. This is truly a strange cool find on the back streets of Shanghai. Maybe in fact, James Honeyman-Scott heard my compliments. I give the woman vender 5 yuan as I am explaining to Sailor that Chrissie Hynde influenced Avril. As I look at the cover, I notice the same dark eye liner, that mock toughness. I tell him I will email him a song.

We continue our walk. We happen upon a mall that has a Prada store, a Paul Smith store, an Aramani Emporio. In the Prada store, I find a green leather overnight bag that I really like. I convert yuan to dollars in my head and decide I would be nuts to spend $2,000 for it. I just pet it a few times instead. I tell Sailor I have Prada pants and shoes that I really like.

As we are browsing, I tell him when I lived in New York, I had multiple shopping buddies. In New York, I shopped all the time. Maybe he and I could be shopping buddies. He tells me that he would like that in his Yoda sort of way. He is very dear.

Once we step outside of the mall, the area into which we have wandered becomes more familiar. I tell him I know where we are for sure now. We walk a few more blocks and there it is - the Gucci store. It is a small store. We do not stay. We have accomplished our small goal for the day.

‘Mystery Achievement’ continues to go over and over in my head. Off and on, it has for days, maybe years. Maybe this, this life that I have, this life that I am making, maybe this strange frustrating and wonderful Chinese life is my mystery achievement.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

…at any moment Bea Arthur will come stumbling in drunk from the balcony singing ‘Send in the Clowns,’…

As I said, my imagination goes wild. I imagine a very Chinese apartment – utilitarian yet stylish, garish yet functional, black yet white. CJ, the agent and I walk through the apartment complex. A lot of the apartments look as if they are being refurbished but the refurbishment looks as if it has been abandoned, makeshift of sort. I think of those tiny towns in Oklahoma where people use camper tops as a foundation to build a sprawling shack. I tell myself ‘This is China’ over and over. Part of me feels as if I am walking through an apartment complex in Skiatook, Perry, Blackwell.

At the edge of the complex, we enter a building. The interior is concrete, fulfilling my utilitarian dreams. We walk up a flight of steps. We walk up a second flight of steps. We walk up a third flight of steps. We walk up a fourth flight of steps. At the top of the stairs, the agent puts a key into the metal security cage-like door. This feels like New York City’s Alphabet City of the 1980s. We all take a breath. She opens the door.

The living room is tiny, definitely not big enough for my fantastic orange ultra-mod couch. Off of the living room, the kitchen and bathroom are on one side and the bedroom is on the other side. The kitchen is a tangle of wires and grease stains. The bathroom could be called Trainspotting Chic but that would be too generous. The bedroom is big but is old and dingy. It smells of mold and sour milk. Off of the bedroom is an enclosed balcony, more like an enclosed hothouse. The rent is 1,600 RMB. My company is fronting 2,000 for a housing allowance. I am willing to put in another 1,000 just to make sure I have a nice place. I tell the agent I want to keep looking.

We walk back toward the office. I ask CJ if we are looking at other apartments with her. He tells me this is the only one she has. She will call him if anything comes up. During our discussion, the agent is on her phone. Back at the office, she and CJ talk. She smiles at me.

CJ and I leave and go to the next real estate agency. This agency is even livelier than the last one. A younger woman comes to our aid. Although I do not exactly know myself, she seems like she might understand what I want. She and CJ talk. She goes to her computer and starts pulling up what I assume are prospective apartments.

CJ tells me she is taking us to see a place. This is very exciting. Even though she does not know me, I feel as if she knows me. We follow her down the sidewalk. We walk over the canal. We are not in close proximity to the school anymore. She points out a footbridge to CJ and tells him that is how I would get to school. MY GOD! She was reading my mind. This is really weird.

We walk toward a really nice Mediterranean-style apartment complex with wonderful balconies. Oh, this is going to be perfect I tell myself. ‘She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge.’ I imagine wrought iron, stucco, and split levels. I think of Laverne And Shirley’s 1960s apartment with the Beatles poster. This place I will deck out in fake fur rugs and flea market artifacts. I will play Pavement and Sergio Mendes. All of my friends will come over to smoke from a hookah. While we are walking, CJ tells me the rent on this place is 1,900. This is too good to be true, I tell myself.

This IS too good to be true. We walk past the perfect Mediterranean style apartment in the perfect Mediterranean style apartment complex. We walk on down the sidewalk. I think of ‘The End’ by the Doors. And, I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. He was right. Jim Morrison is a buffoon, what a waste. That reminds me, I saw ‘Strange Days’ at a CD store for 10 RMB ($1.25). I might as well grab it when I get back to Songjiang. “And through their strange hours, we linger alone.”

CJ and the young lady talk the whole time that we walk. I wonder if it is about me or if their talk has anything to do with me. Maybe they are talking about the weather, dumplings, television, Chinese pop music. I wonder if he is telling her how difficult I am. I would not blame him. I deserve it. I have got to stop being such a dick.

Finally we turn into an apartment complex. This is nicer than the first one. There is an absence of half-finished home-improvement projects. The curb is lined with nice cars, mainly late-model Volkswagens. We walk to the back of the apartment complex which is nice. Perhaps a back apartment would be quieter. The agent fumbles with her keys. She finds the right key. We go into the apartment building door. We walk up two flights of stairs which is fine.

After fumbling with more keys, she opens the door to reveal a somewhat unimpressive apartment with wood floors and another tiny living room. The bedroom is huge. The glaring drawback at this apartment - other than only having a shower with no tub - is the white oversized Liberace-in-Vegas bedroom furniture. I feel as if at any moment Bea Arthur will come stumbling in drunk from the balcony singing ‘Send in the Clowns,’ mistakenly thinking that she is on some mid-1970s variety show with Melissa Gilbert and Scott Baio. She feels like she cannot compete with Charo who is on next. But of course, Charo had just collapsed while guest-starring on ‘Chico and the Man.’ She is just not her cuchi, cuchi self these days. She may need to go to Betty Ford. Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’ plays over and over in my head. “Everyone is so near.”

We leave the apartment. I still have a month to find something. I try not to get discouraged. We will find the perfect Shanghai Crash Pad for me I know. We walk back through the apartment complex. The process of finding a place is still exciting, still new. I tell myself I am finding a place in a major world city. In many ways, this place is like London, Tokyo, Paris, New York. I try to imagine my 12 year old self imagining my grown up self living in Shanghai. My 12 year old self would be impressed that my grown up self is living in Shanghai. My 12 year old self would be puzzled that I am not wearing a New York Dolls T.

Across the street from the apartment complex is another realty company. Our young vivacious agent takes us there. She has friends or colleagues there I assume who might help. She talks to the women manning the office. She makes a phone call or two. CJ is listening to her. She gets off the phone. She tells me we will wait ten minutes. She knows a bit of English. CJ tells me we will wait 20 minutes. We sit and wait. The office is full of women. They all chatter to each other. I wonder if they are talking about careers, grocery prices, recipes, serial killers, sex.

Ten minutes later, our agent tells us we are ready to look at the next place. This is very exciting. We go back across the street to the same apartment complex. This apartment is in the middle of the complex. I am told this is a bit nicer. This is a two bedroom. The rent is 2,300 a month which is still within my budget. We trudge up three flights of stairs. She opens the door. There is an actual living room with a couch. On one end of the apartment are the kitchen and the spare bedroom. The bathroom is on the same side of the apartment as the front door. At the back of the apartment are a nice sized master bedroom and the enclosed balcony. The apartment is nice but it by no means takes my breath away. However, so far, this has been the best place I have seen.

There is one inherent glaring problem with the apartments here, or at least the ones I have seen. They are all furnished. This sounds like a good thing except when you tell the landlord that you have your own couch. You do not want the one that has been vomited and spooged on. You have become a bit hyper sanitary in the last few years and the thought of someone else’s semen stained couch in your apartment makes you a bit faint.

All sorts of solutions are posed. Put all of the hideous furniture that you don’t like – oversized desks, small crappy flimsy K-mart desks, wrought iron coffee tables, mismatched lawn chairs, fiber board nightstands, Sooner Rental sofas, stained padded headboards – into the spare bedroom. Why of course, why didn’t I think of that? Make my spare bedroom into a storage room for mismatched ghetto furniture. I have a better solution, why don’t I just chuck it all out the fucking window?

Of course, I do not even mention that I might want to paint the place. If I mention it looks like someone thought about painting it, but didn’t, in the Reagan years, that would fall upon deaf ears. For a moment, okay for less than a moment; I mull this apartment over. I tell CJ I want to keep looking. We leave.

Outside, the agent tells us there is another place that we can tour. This place is nicer. The rent is 2,500. This is another 2 bedroom. We walk. We are walking farther from the school. I had this vision of rolling out of bed and walking a short distance to school. I may have more of a hike. If the place is awesome, I will not mind.

The agent and CJ continue talking. They seem to be joking with each other. I pretend that sparks are flying between them. They will soon be necking at a random bus stop or humping in front of a Buddhist Temple. Who knows?

Maybe there is no electricity between them. I am sad because they have never listened to Captain Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot.’ “Magnet draw day from dark, sun zoom spark.” I then wonder if ‘Clear Spot’ is among my top five favorite albums. Yes, I tell myself it is. I remember when Terry Slade, the doctor of music made me a tape of ‘Clear Spot’ back in the 80s. I did not know what to think at first and then it hit me as the most strangely beautiful art as music ever. It was like seeing a Hamilton Beach Electric Blender being re-imagined as a bikini.

Some folks put Galaxie 500, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker into that top five category. Captain Beefheart hangs out with Patti Smith and the New York Dolls in that category for me. ‘Subway Train’ goes through my head about five times a day at least. “You stop and you stare as I’m leavin’ my favorite place.’

We cross the road where we got off the bus. If we had not got lost, the walk to the school would have taken us approximately fifteen minutes. If the apartment is in the complex we are walking past, I am digging it.

Suddenly, I feel as if I am in London. We are walking beside a tall concrete wall. The side street that we are walking down does not seem very busy. There is a skyscraper being constructed across from the apartment complex. In the lot where the skyscraper is being constructed, there is a long building that looks like a long two story garage. It has windows on the second floor. I can see bunk beds through the windows. This must be where the construction workers stay during the construction. This makes me wonder if they are low paid migrant workers. The accommodations look minimal like a bunkhouse at a ranch.

We walk to the end of the block and turn into a complex. We walk to the middle of the complex and then walk to the end of an apartment building. Beyond the building, there is a small wooded park, mainly cedars. This is very nice, a park right outside the door.

The agent rings a buzzer on the door. We are buzzed into the building. We walk up four flights of stairs, not my favorite thing to do. As we are going into the apartment, I am told this apartment occupies two floors. The family still lives here. This IS exciting. Immediately, I think of a nice London flat when I walk into the apartment. The entry is also a small dining room with a refrigerator in the corner. To the right of the entrance is a small square kitchen; next to the kitchen is a small stairway. Opposite from the front door is a nice sized living room, not grand but nice. The living room has a big picture window. Yes, my sofa would go nicely here. We look around a bit and make our way upstairs.

The stairway is U-shaped. At the top of the stairs is the tiny spare bedroom - with peeling baseball wallpaper – which has been made into a junk room. A child’s captain’s bed takes up most of the floor space. Under the captain’s bed is a pile of junk. Next to the spare bedroom is the bathroom with a small bathtub. Granted the tub is small; I am not bitching; there is a tub.

Across from the stairs is the master bedroom which has a day bed and a double bed shoved into it. I ask the owner if the daybed will be moved out. I think she tells me yes, but I am really not sure. The rest of the bedroom furniture is nice. It is like furniture from West Elm. We then go out onto the rooftop balcony which is amazing. I envision cookouts, student gatherings, coffee drinking, card playing, belly dancing.

This place, I really like. The problem, the big problem for me is that the place is not available until the first of September. I want to be settled into a place the middle of August. The problem for CJ, with the place, is the noise. CJ is very protective of me. I guess he does not want me any grumpier than I already am. Yes, there is a construction site across the street and there is an interstate flying by my balcony. But, I tell him the noise will not bother me. I lived at 116th and Lex in NYC for Christ sakes. Of course at the time, I was drinking half a bottle of vodka a night so nothing much kept me awake.

He wants me to think it over. The agent got a call while we were looking at the place. There is one more place she wants to show us. We walk back in the direction from where we came. We walk almost back to the agency. We walk into an apartment complex. The agent and CJ point at something. I do not know why they are pointing. Finally, I see, the school is across the street. This is nice.

What is not nice is the climb up to the 6th floor. The apartment is in a 6-floor walk-up. This does not thrill me. However, when we open the door, I am stunned. The apartment is beautiful, big and open with two big bedrooms, tile in the entry, a real entry with two big entry closets, a huge living room, a really nice kitchen – no oven, of course, there are no ovens in the kitchens that I have been in China – a nice bathroom with a big bathtub. The furniture is new mostly.

Except, and here is where I get hot under the collar, because this is what makes me crazy about this place. In the living room, there is a huge sectional, a huge fake black leather sectional which is worn and even ripped in a few places. I ask if the sectional can go. No the sectional stays. I point out that it is worn and ripped. No the sectional stays. CJ tells me that I can move it into different corner. I tell him that is not the point. The sectional is ugly. I do not want it in the apartment at all. All of the options for the sectional are laid out before me. I do not care. Why can we not just throw it out the window? I point out the window to CJ. CJ looks in the entry closet. We could probably stuff most of the sofa in there. I don’t know whether to hit him or kiss him. I do neither. The agent asks me if I really like the place. I tell her I really like the place but the 6 floor walk-up does not thrill me. The sofa scenario does not register with them.

We leave. The agent goes back to her office. CJ and I head back to the stadium to catch a bus. I want to hug him and tell him what a good person I think he is but I am afraid that it would seem fake. Instead, we wait at the bus stop for the bus.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

We do not find bus 32

Within a month, I will move to a new apartment. The school where I will be teaching in the fall is actually on the Shanghai Metro. This is very exciting. At long last, I will be a part of Shanghai. I will walk in Shanghai parks, shop in Shanghai shops, talk to Shanghai dogs, laugh at Shanghai jokes. Yes, there is a certain ring to it, a certain turn of the century romance. This is the year that I will write the great American novel. It will be set in Nova Scotia.

Now, from Songjiang to Shanghai, I have to ride a bus. The school does not provide apartments so I have to find one. Finding an apartment in a land where I do not speak the language, this should be fun. I enlist my friend CJ Lee (AKA Li) who I met on the bus. Meeting people on the bus is easy when you are a foreigner. I just smile and tell them I do not understand. I am the girl in ‘Common People’ by Pulp.

CJ and I are to meet at the front gate of my school at 9 am. After drinking spiced tea and showering, I am ready to find an apartment. I walk outside into a somewhat pleasant rain. It is light rain but real rain drops not that awful drizzle type rain. Today we have a pleasant summer rain. This cools off the muggy heat.

I think of the song ‘Precious’ from the first Pretenders album; Chrissie talking about Shanghai heat instead of the Cleveland heat. James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon do not OD. In this version, their opiates are not as toxic. Instead of becoming middle of the road on the third record, the band stays true to its rebellious roots, Honeyman-Scott and Farndon no longer senseless, footnote tragedies.

Outside the gate, I find a bench and sit down. I am armed with the address in Chinese characters of two schools, the one where I interviewed and the other where I will teach. My company was not sure which address was the correct one. When I get there I will know.

I get a message from CJ. He is on the way. He had a tough time hailing a taxi in the rain. I tell him that is okay. I am waiting. A big raindrop hits my head. I am happy. I think of the Jesus and Mary Chain. I then think of the dearly departed James Honeyman-Scott once again, maybe the most tragic of the rockers extinguished in their prime.

CJ arrives. I hop in the taxi and we go to the bus station. CJ always insists on paying for everything. This is so nice. He pays for the cab. He pays for the bus ticket. I try to pay he waves my hand a way.

He is a software developer for Citi-Bank. A few months ago, a few days after I got my cell phone, I met him on a rainy afternoon on the bus home from Shanghai to Songjiang. We sat next to each other. At first, I was wary of him because he looked like one of those guys at the bus station that try to sell you stolen computers. He was carrying a computer bag. I thought he was going to try to con me. I was nice but wary.

However, after we talked for ten or fifteen minutes, I was no longer wary of him. He gave me his card and told me his boss wants him to improve his English. When I told him I was an English teacher, he was excited. Since I had just gotten a cell phone a few days before, we exchanged numbers. For a few weekends in a row, he had plans for us to sight see which was really nice. These tours would start in the early morning. I started bumping the starts from 8:30 am to 9:30 am. They would last until well after dark.

Sometimes, he would bring his girlfriend with us. She is very sweet. On one such tour, she told me her only day off from the Japanese company that she works for is Sunday. Usually Sunday was the day, CJ would plan our outings. This made me feel guilty. His girlfriend is very sweet. I hate to think I was cutting into their romantic time together.

Today, on the bus, I show him the piece of paper with the addresses. I try to explain the situation. He tells me that the schools may not be close together; they may be a ways apart. I try to tell him, I will know once I see the school at which school I will be teaching. He is such a sweet person but we have a serious communication problem. He does not understand what I am saying. I say it again and again and again. He does not understand.

I feel like a dick because I get so frustrated. I am visiting his country. He is bending over backwards to be the perfect host. He always pays for everything. Do people in America do this sort of thing? I think not. I didn’t when I lived there. Why am I being such a dick? He is such a kind person and I am being such a dick!

A younger man sitting behind us on the bus says something in Chinese to CJ. They strike up a conversation. They talk all the way to our drop-off point. I stare out the window. Maybe this person is asking him why he puts up with such a dick. Sometimes, I squeeze CJ’s shoulder which makes him smile. When we are getting off the bus, CJ tells me that the guy he was talking to is familiar with the schools and he told him they were both close together. What else they were talking about, I have no clue. Their conversation lasted the entire bus ride which is approximately 45 minutes. The Chinese are quite the conversationalists I have decided.

From our drop-off point at the Shanghai Indoor Stadium, we try to find bus 32 to take us to where the new school is. We wander around the bus depot. At this station, there is not an indoor waiting area. It is basically a parking lot with corrals that lead to ticket booths that lead to busses. As we are wandering, a bus honks at us to get out of the way. I jump. I did not see the bus barreling down on us.

We do not find bus 32. We find the corral for bus 162. CJ tells me it will take us there. We wait with 15 or 20 others. The bus arrives. We narrowly miss getting seats. Two people that cut in front of us get the last ones. This is mainly a standing room bus. CJ tells me we will take it 5 stops. As we are riding, I keep eyeing the other passengers for a would-be seat vacater. I have no luck. I stand for the 5 stops.

We get off the bus. A map of the area is at the bus stop. CJ looks at it and we start walking. We walk past the Shanghai Teacher’s College. We walk over a canal. We look at another map after we have walked approximately fifteen minutes. We walk some more. I do not ask questions because I do not want to be annoying. If I cannot contribute to the search, then I will be quiet. We walk to the edge of an industrial area. I see a few cabs go by. I tell CJ I will pay for a cab to take us to the schools.

He hails a cab. We get in. A woman is driving. She and CJ seem to be having a playful yet heated debate. Of course, I have no idea what they are talking about. CJ explains that we took a wrong turn at the last corner which was a city block away.

We drive past the school where I interviewed. I tell CJ I know this school but this is not where I will be teaching. The taxi drops us off at the other school. He tries to pay but this time I insist and he lets me pay the 11 yuan. CJ tells me the school is down the alley. I tell him I want to walk down the alley and make sure it is the school. We walk down the alley to the school. It does not look familiar. I tell him this is not the school. He says it is. We talk to the guard. It is a primary school.

The guard gives us directions to the middle school. We walk back the way that the taxi came. We turn and go toward the school where I interviewed. I tell him this is not the school. He tells me it is. I tell him it is not. I am starting to really get frustrated. I am almost yelling. He has to put up with me being a dick, I feel sorry for him. All he is trying to do is help, and I am a big dick! We talk to the guards at the school. They tell us something. They sense I am in a huff. I try to regain my composure. These little things make me crazy. He is only trying to help. He does not get frustrated but he starts stammering and then I feel really awful. He is so nice and I am such a massive dick.

We walk back toward the primary school. In between the primary school and the high school is a football field (the real kind) which we have now passed three times. This is the school. I recognize it. It is down a one way street. The taxi driver pointed it out to CJ. I had no clue at what she was pointing.

I tell him this is it. He says we now can find the apartment. We walk past the apartments next door. He tells me we must see a ----- I finish his sentence I say ‘agent.’ He says yes. We go into a small real estate office with flyers all over the door. Only one agent is in the office, a man. He tells CJ nothing is available. CJ relates this to me. We walk to the next place which is fairly close with flyers all over the door. A woman is the only person in the office. She tells CJ the same thing. I am starting to get discouraged. I tell myself we have just started looking, I should not get discouraged.

I ask CJ why there are all the adverts on the windows for apartments. I do not know how to read characters but I could figure out the rental prices advertised from 1,400 yuan to 5,000 yuan. He does not know how to explain this but he tries. Basically, the agents do not take down old signs after apartments rent; a way to torment the prospective renter with what they could have had I suppose.

CJ asks me if I am hungry. I am hungry. All I had for breakfast was toast. We walk to find a place to eat. We find a place that has a selection of dishes in the window. CJ asks me if this place looks okay. I tell him it looks good. He asks me if I like dumplings. I tell him yes. A cashier is on the other side of the display window in her own window, much like at a movie theater. A few people are in line ordering. I would like to make some movie joke but I don’t.

While CJ orders our food, I go into the restaurant and sit down. A family is seated across from me. The dad is wearing pajamas, which is not uncommon in this heat. A college aged kid in long gym shorts is milling around. He seems to be waiting for someone. He looks over at me like he is going to sit down. I try to give him my best ‘this seat is reserved’ face. CJ has ordered and is loitering outside the restaurant.

He looks in and sees me sitting. I smile. He smiles and comes in and sits down. We both are brought two frosty glasses of something which I assume is milk. Milk is different here. It does not taste like what I am used to in the States. I take a drink because I do not want to be rude. What I taste has a plant aftertaste to it that is not bad. I take another swig. I am actually enjoying it. Maybe this is some strange soy milk.

Our food arrives. CJ has the noodle soup with slices of beef. This is the same thing I order at the Muslim café next to the school. He asks me what it would be called in English. I tell him it would be called beef noodle soup. He smiles. The waitress then sets down two eggs – one fried, one tea stained and hard boiled. CJ tells me to help myself. At that point, a big bowl of dumplings arrives. He must have ordered a large order. I tell him it is a lot of food. He tells me it is not that much; he is afraid I will still be hungry after I have eaten them.

Some sort of brown sauce is on the dumplings. Warily, I take a bite. The brown sauce is a very delightful light peanut sauce. I am very impressed. Hungrily, I start eating the dumplings. CJ tells me to have the tea egg; it is very delicious. I grab the tea egg with my chopsticks and take a bite. It is very good. I tell CJ the meal is very good. He smiles. He is one of the sweetest people I have ever met in my life. Why he puts up with my grumpiness and American frustration, I do not know. This makes me sad.

He had told me when I first met him that his boss tells him to improve his English. His boss was at a dinner that CJ held for me. CJ had to translate the conversation that I had with his boss. I get the feeling he lets people run over him. I get the feeling his boss browbeats him. So often, I want to hug him.

We finish the meal. I feel better. He asks me if I am ready to look for apartments again. I tell him yes. He tells me we might not find one today. I tell him that is okay. I do not have to move for a month. This is a bad time to find apartments because university students are graduating, getting jobs and moving into new apartments. He tells me we can keep looking. I tell him that sounds good. We walk to a different side of the school.

We walk into an office that seems to be part of an apartment complex. This office is livelier. There are four people hanging out talking. CJ states our purpose. A business woman steps forth. She and CJ talk briefly. This whole exchange has me anxious. Are we at yet another dead end on a day of dead ends?

She pulls open a drawer and retrieves a set of keys. CJ tells me we are going to go look at a place. This is very exciting. This will be the first apartment that I have been shown in China. My imagination goes wild. Shanghai! I love you!