Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Document Prints the Room

My hotel room has a water cooler. I am out of water. I go down to the desk to tell them. I cannot tell them. I have to draw it. I am mute, mute in China. At the desk, the woman who is not the manager is working. She is very kind. She gives me a blank piece of paper. I draw what I think looks like a pretty okay water cooler. She nods yes.

I go to my room. I had thought I might take a bath but I will wait. They are usually fairly snappy. I am watching Chinese television. Something that resembles a sitcom is on, the Chinese Golden Girls, wicker furniture in a living room, older actors.

My door bell rings. A woman who looks displeased is standing there. I invite her in. She stares at my television and looks around for the remote. She locates the remote and turns on the television. She then looks at me. I shake my head perplexed. I show her the empty jug on the water cooler. She seems to be saying ‘Why are you bothering me with your water cooler. I am here to fix the television. The television is now fixed.” I shake my head no and I give her the empty jug.

She disappears. I hope that she will return. I am starting to become very thirsty. I was thirsty when I asked for a water jug thirty minutes ago. Now I am getting thirstier. Actually, she comes back fairly soon. She un-wraps the plastic around the top of the jug. I motion that I will put it on the cooler. She shrugs me off and pole vaults the jug onto the cooler. I say ‘xie xie.’ She then points to the television again. I try to tell her the television is fine. I cannot commucate this. I point to the television. She points to the television. She knows the television is fine. She is under the impression that I am to thick to negotiate my way around the television and the television remote. Shaking her head, she leaves.

Another morning, the next to the last morning, I am not a morning person. I get out of bed and perform my routine, my morning ritual. At 8:10, I go down to meet the driver. He starts to peddle but then looks down and realizes he has a flat. Next to the hotel is a line of drivers. Two drivers peddle up – a man and a woman. I get into the man’s rickshaw. I would feel strange having a woman pump me.

At school, Jennie asks me how much I am making at this camp. I want to handle this with a modicum of decorum. I think about this for a minute. I tell her that I am making a lot less than I would usually make. This camp, I am doing for fun. She tells me she is only making a little. I ask how much the students pay to come to camp. She tells me, the students are paying 1,200 RMB each ($150). I tell her that is a lot. Next year, I will set up my own damned camp.

While the class and I eat lunch, the principal comes into the room and tells Jennie he wants the children to write what they learned during the 10 day class. Most of the students take this serious and write half a page of beautifully written Chinese characters. Bobby and Peter do not. They talk to their friends and goof off. Jennie scolds both of them. They are two of the smallest students. Now, Bobby sits and writes with seriousness.

Peter is now crying. I see the tears staining his paper. Jennie tells me he did not take it serious. His paper gets so wet he has to get another one. His head is buried on the desk as he tries to write. He lifts his head. I see each teardrop fall with a dramatic splash. Jennie is right, I know, I should not - and do not need to - undermine her. I stand in the background. I want to tell her that is the problem with having no brothers or sisters but I cannot get a word in edgewise because Peter has got her so stirred up. I am trying not to laugh because I am not sure who is being more dramatic, the 10 year old child or the adult teacher who is acting like a 10 year old. With everything I have, I have to suppress going into obnoxious belly laughs. Here and there, as I see each teardrop fall, which makes Jennie even angrier, I have to leave the room.

Jennie feels as if this is the time to tell me he has behavioral problems in all of his classes. His math and Chinese teachers pay not attention to his fits of anguish and despair. She says his father – the vice-principal – acts as if he is the best boy in the world. Again, I want to tell her that is the problem with being an only child. She tells me he is very spoiled. I want to give him the Chinese translation of Rimbaud, Verlaine, Plath, Morriessey.

During lunch, I type in a room with a sign that says ‘Document Prints the Room.’ This is the room where documents are printed and copied. It is a large white room with three small cheap wooden office desks, a double sink, and two copiers from the dawn of the Xerox age. Each day, I have to open the windows when I come in during lunch to air it out. Sometimes, there is a vague breeze. The heavy muslin curtains almost stir.

Outside I hear birds perched in and around the juniper singing. Car horns sporadically echo in the distance. The school is perhaps half a mile from the edge of town. Underneath all of this, I hear a faint Chinese voice coming from a radio. Now and then, I hear the sounds of big trucks lumbering past the school. Up the road, there is construction taking place. Up the road everywhere, there is construction taking place.

If I walk out of the ‘Document Prints the Room,’ I can hear the children one floor up on the third floor. They are enjoying their noon recess in the classroom.

Last night, I thought I might get a call but I did not. My plans seem to always be given to me at the last moment. Tonight, the Principal has asked me to join him for supper. We will have supper again in my hotel. Tonight we will have supper at 6 pm.Tonight is my last night in this small town. I need to ask someone where I am again because I do not know the actual town’s name. I know we are 30 minutes away from Huzhou City.

Two days ago, I got an email from my contact in Inner Mongolia. The camp has been cancelled. Now, I need not rush back to Shanghai in order to rapidly prepare for the camp in Hohhot.

Back from school, when I walk into the hotel lobby, my friend the desk manager points to my new shirt that I bought across the street on sale for 19 RMB. I point in the direction of across the street. I do not know if she knows where I am pointing. The shirt is a lime green knit pullover with a silver glitter decorative cross printed on the neck. It could become a new favorite. It is tennis glam, cricket chic, badminton camp.

I go upstairs to drop off my gig bag and my other supplies. Tomorrow, we are going to have snacks during our last morning of English camp. At the grocer next to the hotel, I buy Oreos for the students. While I am there, I look for a prize to give for the best picture. This afternoon, I told the students the best picture of their favorite season would win a prize. I then told Jennie to tell them this would be a small prize. They should not expect a new scooter or anything. I find a fish that blows bubbles. In my shaving kit, I find a penny. I will award two prizes.

At 5:30, the doorbell of my room rings. As I am opening the door, I remember that I forgot to tell the desk manager not to deliver a meal to my room. A staff person is standing at the door with a big tray of food. She puts it down by the TV on the luggage caddy. Not knowing exactly what to do about it, I stand and stare at it for a bit.

While I am pondering this tray of food, the doorbell rings again. I open the door. Eric is standing there. Now, through various miscommunications, I think perhaps we are eating in my room because there is enough food for three or four people. I ask Eric if we are eating here. He says yes. Are we eating in my room? He is puzzled. I point to the food. He tells me no. After we fumble with communication for a bit, I realize we are going to eat in the dining room. I tell him I feel bad that the food on the tray is going to go to waste. He says to not worry.

We go back down to the dining room, to the same room as last night. Again, two tables are set. Eric tells me the same people are meeting tonight for dinner. I tell him I am touched.

His mother is waiting. The three of us sit awkwardly for a bit. His mother and he say a few words here and there to each other. I assume they do not talk because they think that it would be rude or that I would want to know everything that they are talking about but I am happy just to sit and observe. His mother’s phone rings. She leaves the room. Eric and I eat peanuts from a bowl on the lazy Susan with our chopsticks.

Eric’s father the principal arrives. He hands something in a little case to Eric. Eric hands it to me and tells me it is a gift. This is very touching. I unclasp the clasps on the case. Inside, I find a set of quills with Chinese characters imprinted on them. I tell Eric they are really beautiful. I try to really emote. I stare at the quills longer than I should. I am touched. This time in this small Chinese town has had a touch of magic to it as if I have stepped into another world.

Other guests start arriving, the same people as last night. The rocket fuel rice wine and the chilled in a pitcher red wine are served. Pesci (as he will be known) is the life of the party. Until he arrives, the spirit of the party is subdued. Once he arrives, the energy level shoots skyward.

Tonight, I have another English speaker sitting next to me, a young man who has just graduated from a university in Beijing with a degree in Mylar (?). At least, I think he says Mylar. He tells me it is like plastic. He does not want to get a job in his major. His parents want him to get a job in his major. At one point, he tells me he is sitting next to his mother and daddy but he calls Pesci ‘Daddy’ too though he is not really his daddy. I laugh. He is making a joke.

He then tells me he likes Hollywood movies. I tell him I like Hollywood movies. He likes Star Wars. I tell him they are really good. I ask if he has seen all six of them. He tells me there are only five. I do not know how to explain that there are six. I just tell him I forgot he is right.

Pesci keeps looking over at me as he makes wild gestures. He has the whole table in stitches. Although, I do not understand what he is saying, I know he has a flair for delivery. I have to laugh. I cannot stop laughing. Pesci asks Eric something. Eric tells me Pesci wants to be my friend. Eric says friend. I say friend. I point to Pesci. I then point to Eric’s dad.

Eric tells me when I have time, Pesci wants me to go to the lake with them and stay at the hotel on the lake. I tell him I would love to go. That sounds like a lot of fun. They are the nouveau riche, the Chinese Gatsbys. Eric’s dad beams the whole time during this exchange. Pesci, I sense, is his best friend.

More toasts are being toasted. More cigarettes are smoked. Every time I put a cigarette out. One is lit for me. One of the wives, at the table, points to my coke and then points at the pitcher of wine. I tell Eric I do not drink. He tells me that’s okay. Again, he saws the leg of Porky off every time it makes a lap around. When Porky arrives, Pesci points to Porky and points to me and says something to the table. Everyone laughs. I know he must be saying how much I like this pig.

He then points to the man across the table and holds up his pinky and says something which I assume is off-color. This sends the table into hysterics, especially the man at whom he just pointed. Eric belly laughs hard to this. I do not ask him to translate because I know sometimes translations are not available.

Pesci and Eric’s father laugh and joke about something. Eric then asks me if I could go to the lake and stay at the hotel on the lake tomorrow after school. I think it over for a moment and tell him I can if he is going to go. He tells me he would go. I tell him that sounds like a lot of fun; I would love to go. He tells Pesci. I ask if his father is going. He does not know. His father is making a phone call.

This is when a Chinese wrench gets thrown into the plans. His father cannot get in contact with my handler. He knows that I am to go to Hohhot for the other camp. He is afraid I am shirking my duties. He tells Eric he cannot get Mr. Chen on the phone.

I tell Eric that her name is Ms. Chen. She was just protecting me. I told her I had a camp in Inner Mongolia. She knew I would not have much time in between the two camps so I would have to leave the day that this camp ended. That was the original plan. Ms. Chen had nothing to do with the camp in Hohhot. She was just protecting me. This is the first time that we have worked together and she knew that I had another camp to go to.

Now, I am frustrated because this will be hard to explain. I tell Eric I could show him emails, text messages. No one has email. My cell phone is in my room. It would look suspicious, I suppose, if I went to go get it. I don’t know why but I feel as if it would. Eric tells me his father will call Ms. Chen tomorrow and he will have Jennie tell me in the morning what they decide to do. Now for the kicker, Ms. Chen is in Australia at the moment. That is why she wanted to make sure that my interests were protected.

Over and over, I must tell myself, “The document prints the room.”


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