The principal wants to see me. Everyone dreads hearing those words. My heart skips a beat. Scenario upon scenario goes through my head. I know I must be in trouble. I feel as if I am in eighth grade again. I recap what has happened in the last 24 hours in my head.
This morning, when I got to school, I had my usual confrontation with Jennie. The principal wants to call off the student presentation. This comes as a surprise to me. She tells me that she thought Eric told me when we had coffee last night. I tell her no this is news to me. I ask why. She tells me the students are not prepared. I tell her I could teach them a few more songs. She then tells me their parents are not going to be happy with a few songs. Chinese parents expect more. She tells me what they expect but her oral English is so bad that I cannot understand her. She is very snippy about the whole thing. I think she uses words like ‘drama’ and ‘poetry’ but I cannot be sure.
She then asks me if I would like to stay after 3:30 and work on the presentation. I ask her what the children want to do. She says they want to do the presentation but they do not know it will be ‘too much work.’ I ask her if she could ask the children and get a show of hands. Some of the students are very vocal about doing the presentation. They are talking in Chinese so I do not understand them. Ed – who is maybe the most adorable 13 year old in the world – seems adamant about doing a presentation. His voice is on the verge of cracking –as only a passionate 13 year old voice can be - during his whole Patrick Henry delivery.
I try to not get caught up in the heat of the moment. Jennie seems to like to push my buttons now that she is positive there are not wedding bells in our future. I ask her if she could explain the situation to the children. They back down into a quiet lull. I ask her what they want to do. She tells me that they do not want to do the presentation now that they know it will be so much work. I tell her that is okay.
Today, I talk to the students about animals. We talk about animals at home, animals on a farm and animals at the zoo. We talk first about animals at home. For the most part, I am given the common household pets – cats, dogs, fish, mice; but then Susan (whom I did not name) says ‘monkey.’ This tears the class up. Everyone laughs and yells “NO! NO!” Ed yells the loudest in that voice on the verge of cracking. I say there are no monkeys at home. She laughs. Donna (whom I did name) says ‘Pig!’ I agree that people do have pet pigs. Some of the students say ‘No!’ but I hold fast with Donna.
We next talk about farm animals. All of the common farm animals are named quite quickly – chickens, cows, geese, horses. I then say ‘peacock,’ which is not the most common farm animal but I have seen them. Jennie tells me there are no peacocks on farms in China. I erase peacock from the board.
Last, we talk about the animals in the zoo. This is very exciting for the students. after naming the standard issue zoo fare – lions, tigers, bears, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, snakes, rhinos; their animal naming comes to a halt. I tell them there are many more. I describe an aviary. I tell them about birds – toucans, parrots, cranes. They do not know what a toucan is. I find a photo on the net. I show it to them. They giggle. To them, the toucan’s beak is the funniest thing. I then ask if they know the hyena. They do not. I find pictures. I tell them about the panther. I find a picture of one snarling. The children gasp. I tell them about llamas, yaks, emus. They love hearing about the animals. They enjoy the pictures. They love the bison and buffalo. I tell them I grew up around bison. They do not understand. ‘Wo ting bu dong.’
We have lunch. After lunch we talk about the animals some more. I show them pictures of hippos, nyalas, antelope. We put in a video, an animal ABC’s special. They have seen it. This was in their care package that they took home. They are unimpressed.
I ask them if they would like to see ‘Corpse Bride.’ They squeal with delight. This time I do not make the mistake of sitting with chatterbox Jennie. I sit with the boys on the back row. I sit by Billy (whom I named).
Corpse Bride holds their attention for approximately half of the movie. The girls start passing notes back and forth. They seem to think that I do not notice. The boys get restless. However, Peter and Jim in the front row stay focused on the movie. Peter turns around to shush Bobby (whom I named) at one point.
We take a break near the end of the movie. I did not know how to time the break. This throws off the schedule. We take another short break at the end of the movie. We then have thirty minutes to kill. As a spur of the moment, last minute, out of ideas maneuver; I write ‘wedding’ on the board. I ask the students to name things at a wedding. Jennie looks at me like I am nuts. After I point to the cover of Corpse Bride, I write ‘groom’ and ‘bride’ on the board. I then write ‘minister.’ Donna yells “CAKE!” I write ‘wedding cake.’ Susan yells “Flowers!” I write ‘flowers.’ Someone yells “CAR!” I write ‘limousine.’ The children seem to enjoy this game. Last minute lessons are my specialty.
At 3:25, I tell them we have time to practice our song before they go. They yell ‘Yeah!’ I take my guitar out of the gig bag and quickly tune the high e. Ed counts off, which has become his job because he gets so excited to sing the song. He counts it off before I do. Now I let him do it. He is the most adorable 13 year-old in the world. Soon I will fade into the recesses of his memory with those people who only briefly fluttered into his life. We sing the song. To my ears, they are the best children’s choir in the world.
At 3:30, while I am zipping my guitar into my gig bag, Jennie tells me the principal wants to talk to me right now. “Right now?!” I think to myself. She tells me she does not know what it concerns. She insinuates this will not be good. This makes me uneasy. I play the scene in my head. I had coffee with him and his son last night. His son is very sweet. The principal is very nice to me. We had such a great time. I hope I have not disappointed him in some way. I may be jumping to conclusions but I feel as if the jig is up. He must know that I am a fake, a phony. I am a rotten teacher who flies by the seat of his pants. I care as much about making learning a pleasant experience for the children as I do about the actual learning process.
I finish putting my guitar away and walk with Jennie downtrodden to his office. She will be our translator. Maybe she has told him I am a rotten teacher who needs to be tarred and feathered. The funeral march plays in my head as I am walking, cinematic me, the camera focuses on my feet, my scuffed shoes, dear old Miu Mius.
We walk into his office. He is smiling. He shakes my hand. He says something to Jennie. He is meeting the chairman of the region (a governor of sorts I suppose) at a restaurant in the neighboring town. They are leaving at 5. He would like for me to join them. I am flattered and relieved. I ‘xie xie’ like I have never ‘xie xie’d before. Eric and the principal’s wife will come as well. This is a relief. Eric is the perfect interpreter. The principal will pick me up at the hotel. Eric will text message me beforehand.
This is fantastic. I am so paranoid. I do not know why I get into such a tither. With a new lease on life, I bound down the stairs. This afternoon, I have a different rickshaw chauffeur. As I say ‘Ni hao,’ I climb in and he whisks me back to the hotel; whisk is actually not the word. He peddles me slowly back to the hotel.
The staff is hanging out in the lobby when I walk in. I was given a few words to tell them that I will not be eating. They laugh at my Chinese. They say ‘Sank you.’ I laugh and get into the elevator.
At 5:00, the phone in my room rings. Eric’s father is on the other end. I tell him I will be right down. I do not think he understands me. I throw on my black all purpose Calvin Klein t-shirt and head down. I leave on my brown boot-cut Prada slacks.
Eric’s dad, the principal is waiting in the lobby. I shake his hand as his phone rings. He grabs my hand as I am shaking his and leads me to the car and puts me into the back seat. He is one of the kindest men I have ever met. We speed through the town silently. I do not know how to ask him if Eric is coming. I do not think he would invite me unless Eric will be there. We turn into an alley. We stop at a villa type place with a big enclosed backyard.
Eric comes out and gets into the backseat of the car with me. He is sweating. I ask him if he was playing basketball. He tells me he was running. We ride in silence. We make another stop in front a row of – what I assume are – middle class apartments, not impressive but okay. Eric tells me they are picking up Mom. I ask if this is where the family lives. He tells me no this is her friend’s home. I ask him if he lives where he got into the car. He tells me yes. I tell him it is very nice. He tells me they have the bottom floor. I tell him it is very nice. He thanks me. He is proud of it.
His mother gets into the car. We drive on through the town and out onto the highway. I look out the window and daydream. Sometimes, I feel as if I am driving on the old highway that connects Bartlesville with Dewey. We stop by the side of the road. Eric tells me we are waiting for another person. We wait for five minutes or so. I watch the passersby. A small motorcycle putters past carrying three teenagers. Traveling in a late model luxury sedan makes me very aware of the haves and the have nots in China.
Finally, the car we were waiting for arrives. It passes us. We are following it. Eric wants me to see the license plate. I think it might say something funny. We get up to it. The numbers are 00001. This means the person is very important. A few months ago, I read where a woman spent an enormous amount of money on a lucky license plate. I tell Eric this is really interesting to me. In the USA, people have vanity license plates but it is by no means the sort of revered status symbol that it is in China. This is the government official that is joining us. He is chairman of the region which is very important.
The restaurant is nicer than the one that we went to last night. We are taken upstairs to a private room. Tonight we will have hotpot which I like. With this style of food, the raw food is set on the table. Pots of boiling oil are set into recesses in the table. The raw meat or fish or dumplings or whatever are thrown into the boiling oil. My favorite is the thinly sliced beef that goes from looking like raw bacon to shriveled up gray matter when; it is done it is quite delicious.
Everyone sits down. I sit on one side of Eric. His mother sits on the other side. The principal (dad) sits by the chairman. The chairman, instead of flinging single cigarettes to all of the men (and some of the women) flings packs of Chunghau cigarettes. This seems to be the brand that the wealthy smoke. Eric does a double take when this happens. He tells me these cigarettes are the best you can buy. They are 70 yuan a pack. Paying close to $10 for anything here is shocking.
Eric asks me if I would like to have some wine or beer. I tell him I do not drink. I told him I do not drink last night. I am telling him I do not drink again. That is okay. It is nice to hear myself say it. I will have some cola. He orders me cola. The server brings out a liter container. Eric opens it and pours me a glass and sits the liter container on the floor. He keeps an attentive eye on my glass, refilling it when it needs it. He drinks beer.
The first plates of raw meat that the server brings out, I would be safe in saying, unnerve me. One plate is mystery dark meat that could possibly be heart. The other plate is a plate of what is unmistakably brain matter. Admittedly, I have never seen a raw brain in the flesh but I did take biology and I do know my way around the gore movie genre. These are brains that have been set on the table. Unmistakably. I hope I am not staring. This is intriguing and perplexing and I will not be trying the brains; thank you very much.
During the meal, I have prawn on a stick. Eric keeps digging them out of the boiling vat and handing them to me. They are a hassle to eat. In China, the prawns are so small. The Chinese put the whole thing into their mouth and are able to decapitate it and shell it with their tongue. I cannot. I try to avoid the prawn. I feel like a failure when I try to eat it. I keep eating them.
He then ladles fish dumplings into my bowl. After that he ladles fish balls and very hard rubbery meat balls into my bowl. The thinly sliced beef is still what I like the most. He and his mother scoop out entire ladles of the thinly sliced beef for me. In the ladles, the beef shrivels and bunches all together. His mother has the mother-lode in a ladle for Eric. He refuses. I accept. The ladle of meat slides into my bowl and at that point. I realize what I thought was a ladle full of thinly sliced beef is not. What I now have in my bowl is brains. In my bowl, I look at it and it looks like molded pudding or chocolate ice cream. I decide to be brave and try it. I do not want to be rude. I am a diplomat of sorts I must remember. I decide to eat it in three quick gulps with my soup spoon. I bravely and heroically eat the brain. After I swallowed it, I ask Eric what I just ate –although I know he does not have to tell me; I already have a pretty good idea. In a matter of fact voice he says “That is-uh pigs-uh brain.” With the consistency of oysters, Pigs brain tastes like liver.
The server comes and the chairman peels out a wad of kuai. I know the meal must be expensive because he hands the waitress what looks like nearly a thousand kuai. Here, thee hundred kuai is an expensive meal. This is very impressive. He must be important.
Going back to our little town thirty minutes away in the car, I drift and dream. Eric’s parents are typical parents. They talk the whole time in the front seat. Actually, Eric’s mom did most of the talking with his father saying a sentence every five minutes or so. I thought they might be talking about the mundane things of life. At one point, near the end of the ride, Eric looks over at me and tells me his parents are telling him he has to study hard. I tell him that is universally what all parents say. He smiles.
Back at the hotel, I am restless. I take a walk downtown. This is a small town which reminds me of Lawton, Barstow, Winslow. In the opposite direction of the getaway Peanut M&Ms, I spot another grocer. This is an older grocer undergoing remodeling. It is like a Ben Franklin, Kress, Woolworth. It has an indescribable Ponca City cool to it.
The last hour of the day drags. This is like being back in school as a youngster. I tell Jennie I need some fresh air. The girls are painting their papier mache creations. One group of boys is painting Chinese characters on their paper mache balloon. The other boys, however, have decided to throw theirs. The space that makes a triangle between the stand up air conditioner in the corner and the wall seems to be the goal. Jennie is surfing the net and playing music that sounds like the soundtrack to a soft-core porn flick. I walk out for some air. The air smells of freshly mowed grass. The grass was cut yesterday. I stare at the young junipers that are being trained to grow straight with bamboo poles and rags.
At the end of each day, I am exhausted. I climb into the rickshaw and collapse. We go through the back alleys, by the canal and come out on the street by the hotel. I look out the back glassless window. Crystal (whom I named) and Sarah (whom I did not name) are riding their bicycles behind the rickshaw. When they see me, they smile and wave enthusiastically. I wave back. The rickshaw pulls up to the hotel. Crystal and Sarah pedal past.
The woman desk-manager with the smoke voice calls my name as I walk into the lobby. She is trying to tell me something. I recognize words like food and eat. I am not sure what she is trying to tell me. She seems to be alluding to me sleeping and last night and perhaps Jennie but I am not sure. I tell her ‘Okay.’ She says ‘okay okay okay’ in reply. I go to my room.
In my room, I turn on the television and drift off into space. At 4:15, I decide to go to the store and get a snack – Lays International Texas Grilled Barbeque Flavor Potato Chips and a can of Coke. I bring them back and eat them as I watch the news on the one English language channel. The bombing of a mosque in Palestine by Israel is the top story.
I receive a message from Eric that his dad wants me to go to dinner with them again which thrills me. Although, Eric has to do all of the translating, I feel as if his father has made me part of their family. We are having dinner at my hotel at 5:30. I have been here a week and I have not been to the dining room. This will be nice, a low-key dinner at my hotel.
At 5:25, I go down to the lobby to wait. Within two minutes of me waiting, the whole staff is down there talking and pantomiming to and with me. My friend the desk manager calls me over. I go to the desk. She points to a piece of paper and writes ‘1982’ on it. I scratch my head. She retrieves the paper she filled out with my passport number and such on it. She thinks 1982 is when I was born. I write ‘1962.’ She seems shocked.
She then asks me something and I say in Chinese I do not understand. She pantomimes something to do with height and shorter than me. She is asking how many children I have. I tell her none. I just did not want to lie and tell them four like I told the phone card lady. They ask why. I am not sure how I know this but I do, intuition I guess. I tell them I run to fast. They do not understand. I act like I am running. They still do not understand. I draw a picture of a female running and a male in front of her. I point to myself. They finally get what I am saying. The whole staff laughs like this is the funniest thing ever. During instances like this, I do not feel like I am in China. I feel as if I am in Puerto Rico or somewhere where the people are known for their boisterousness. I then sit down and wait for Eric and his dad. Occasionally, I look over at a staff person and smile as I wait. This is my life now. I am on display. I do not mind. I am never lonely.
Eric and his dad pull up in the family sedan. I greet them. The desk manager says something to them, the three of them laugh. I smile because I know it must pertain to me. We walk into the dining room on the second floor of the hotel. The hostess takes us into a side room with two big tables. Eric tells me to have a seat. I sit down. His dad sits down next to Eric. I ask Eric if we are the only three eating. Eric points to the table and tells me there will be more guests. I ask him if the entire room is ours. He says yes. He tells me a bunch of his dad’s friends are coming to dinner. I tell him I feel honored that his father would invite me as their guest. He smiles and blushes. He is a very sweet boy.
The guests start arriving. Eric asks if I would like some wine. Again, I tell him I do not drink. He then asks me why I don’t like to drink. I tell him I like to drink but I cannot drink. He looks confused. Actually, he had asked me what I wanted to drink but I misunderstood him. He asks if I would like a cola. I tell him yes. Once again, the dinner is cinematic in scope. Red wine is served. Here the red wine is poured into a pitcher and then poured into glasses. Some people put ice in it. The time that I had it in Anji, the wine was served cold. The men drink tall glasses of Chinese beer. Some of them drink the rice rocket fuel that they call rice wine which makes it sound harmless.
Twenty to twenty-five people crowd into the room at the two big tables. The first course is a cold sweet bean soup which is surprisingly good. The second course is garlic noodles which are quite tasty as well. Eric becomes my server. I do not know how to thank him for making me feel so welcome. I tell him he makes me very comfortable. Comfortable is an English word that Chinese people like to use.
Eric’s mom arrives. His dad gives her the seat by Eric and he sits across the table from us with a man who is the loud one of the group. He has mannerisms like Joe Pesci.
He is very theatrical and keeps me laughing through the whole meal. He gives me the thumbs up several times. He gives me the peace sign at one point. Eric tells me he has two children. I am puzzled. I tell Eric I thought you were only allowed one. He tells me sometimes there are exceptions. Pesci then holds up his pinky and points to Eric’s dad and then holds up his thumb and points to himself. I think this must have something to do with children and the tools required to do so. He then points to the man sitting across from him and goes into more theatrics about the cigarettes. Eric tells me this man is the chairman of the cigarette commission. I nod like I understand. I am laughing because this is one of the most cinematic moments I have experienced yet and I have experienced plenty.
The waitress brings me two cans of coke. Eric opens one of them and fills a wine glass with it. The other one he sets under the table. While this is going on, cigarettes are passed around the table once more. I do not score a pack like last night but I do amass five until the man next to me starts lighting them for me and I smoke three in a row.
The dish that Eric notices that I really like is the pig leg. Every time it does a lap, he saws off more leg for me and puts it in my bowl. Sitting at the table behind Eric and I are three boys that look to be about Eric’s age. I ask if they are all the same age. He tells me they are his classmates. I tell him I thought they might be his age. He drinks wine tonight. One of his classmates comes over to toast with Eric. The classmate downs his glass. Eric only takes a sip. I think this is very commendable of Eric. His parents seem more temperate than the other adults at the table.
Here, people seem to abruptly get up from dinner. This may be because I do not understand the prelude to the dinner finale. Eric and I make our way to the hall. His father stands with us. I try to explain how touched I am by their kindness. He says thank you repeatedly. I say thank you repeatedly. If he has tine, I tell him, I would like for him to come visit me in Shanghai. I try to make this an offer with no pressure. We are on the second floor. I walk the two flights to my room on the fourth floor. Soon, this camp will be over.