Thursday, July 06, 2006

Royalty in the Rickshaw

Before we leave the school to go to dinner, I meet my assistant teacher Jennie. She is a - recently graduated - fourth grade English teacher who has just finished her first year teaching at the school. She tells me she is very excited to have me here teaching at the school. Her oral English is better than most of the locals in that she knows the rudiments of the language. We exchange numbers in case we need to contact each other.

She asks me if she needs to make printouts for tomorrow’s class. I tell her I do not think we need anything printed out for the first day. I would like for the children to wear nametags so that I can call them by their names. I am told most of them do not have English names. My handler translates my conversation to the principal.

A few minutes later, a bag of nametags similar to the kind attached to nice luggage are brought into the room. These nametags have a place for the name, address and telephone number. As I explain I want the tags so that I can see the students’ names at a distance, I try to keep my game face. This is not a major catastrophe. I turn the piece of cardboard over inside the tag to see if the back is blank. It is. It is plain cardboard.

Jennie says tomorrow she will bring nicer paper to put in the tags for the students to write their names. I tell her that is a good idea. She will meet me in the morning at the hotel and take me to the school. She tells my handler it is much too dangerous to entrust a rickshaw driver with me. I wonder what sort of Miami Vice town this is where I have found myself.

My handler tells me the principal has dinner plans for us with some other principals at a restaurant in Huzhou City. Currently, we are in a small town thirty minutes away in the principal’s office. We have penned down what I am teaching in the morning. Mainly the students are getting to know each other. Brain Transplant’s friend who put the schedule together wanted me to sing ‘Getting to Know You’ from The King and I. This probably will not happen.

After refilling our cups of hot water several times we leave the school – the school that seems to be located in the middle of nowhere. Jennie does not go with us to dinner. She is so enthusiastic about the camp, I assume she will spend the evening preparing for tomorrow.

Across the canal from the school is a wine factory, winery is a much too gentile of a word for this sprawling dilapidated, decaying foundry. As we pass it, I see what looks like large pots. The stacks and stacks of pots give it the look of a, well, a pot factory. I am reminded of the Smelters from my childhood; a place that belched out zinc which made the air for miles around un-breathable.

On the other side of the wine foundry, a new apartment complex stands. The apartment complex, next to the canal, has an air of affluence to it with a large stucco privacy fence surrounding the grounds. The apartments themselves have lots of picture windows, bay windows, and dabs of architectural interest.

To get to Huzhou City, we drive back through the town - this town of fruit stands, electric fan stalls, milk tea dives, cakeshops, decaying temples, knock-off sporting good clothing stores and makeshift shoe stores. Outside of the town, we drive on a highway that is much like a blue highway; one of those connect the dot highways that connects Coffeyville, Kansas to Independence, Kansas; Independence, Kansas to Sedan, Kansas; Sedan, Kansas to Moline, Kansas.

We drive past rice fields and ramshackle shacks. Here and there gas stations and mysterious industrial type buildings dot the landscape. At a random gas station, we pick up a passenger. My handler tells me this passenger is another principal. He has a huge mole on the side of his face that I cannot seem to stop staring at.

Eventually, we roll into an industrial looking town. I am reminded of New Haven, Baltimore, Detroit. In front of a non-descript row of office buildings, we park the car. We walk half a block, enter a random office building, get into a glass elevator, and take it four-floors to a huge restaurant. We are led to a room that is set up for our party. A big round table is in the corner of the room. We are the only patrons in the room.

At the table, nine people of various stations are waiting for us. On the table, a few appetizers have been set. The appetizer that stares me in the face (and, in fact, seems to follow me around from restaurant to restaurant here in China) is my old friend roasted chicken feet. Now, I am wise. I just put on my plate what I know I will eat, especially when I am with 11 or 12 other people. My handler, (our driver) the principal, and I are the last diners to sit down in our party.

As soon as we sit down, the server starts opening big bottles of beer and sits them in front of everyone. My handler abstains because she has an upset stomach. The principal (our driver) abstains because he is driving. I abstain because I no longer drink. At the beginning of the meal, I am slightly tempted to drink. However, as the meal progresses, once again, I am happy with myself that I declined.

At this meal, my favorite dish is, what I assume is, spiced slice brisket. The meat is lean. The slices are bite size. No one else seems to be touching this dish. Each time the lazy Susan goes around; I grab two or three more slices. No one seems to mind. Other dishes are foisted upon me but I do not really enjoy them. The other beef dishes are too chewy. I have given up on chicken at restaurants here because the whole chicken is used. I pass on the duck soup as it makes its way around because Daffy is staring at me when he passes, suffering succotash.

My handler tells me there are three regionally famous people at the table with us – a poet, a painter, and a well know calligrapher. They are all fifty-something. The poet reminds me of Bob Denver in ‘Dobie Gillis.’ He has the goatee, thinning hair combed forward, a beat poet on Dragnet, Love American Style, The Lucy Show, Bewitched. Next to him sits the painter. The painter, has feathered hair that is highlighted with reds and blondes mixed in with his blacks and greys. Due to his well-fed appearance, I know he is not a starving artist. He would not look out of place in a reunited Jefferson Starship. The calligrapher seems self-deprecating and flash-less. All of these men teach at various universities in the region.

Next to the principal (driver), a woman principal sits, whom Jane Weidlen could play in the movie. Whether or not she is a fan of ‘New York City Thug Core,’ I do not know. Nevertheless, that is what is repeated on her collaged graffiti style knit golf shirt. At one point, the head of the local education board barges in the room drunk. The guys who are heads of the education boards here seem to always be drunks. Of course, thus far, I have only encountered two. But in both cases, the men were staggering drunks.

Drunkenly, he insists this female New York City thug core principal drink with him. She tries to politely decline. Everyone at the table insists she drink. He then gets our designated driver to drink a toast with him. He then coerces my handler into drinking a toast with him. He then starts working on me. I am drinking canned tea. He tries and he tries. I feel like a home-schooled prom date. The more he prods, the less I am tempted. He is, of course, talking in Chinese spouting what I imagine is similar to what someone would be saying to me in English. Fuck it. I do not drink. I do not even drink a sip. I toast my tea with him. I then tell myself I am happy I no longer drink.

Along with the meal rotating around on the lazy Susan, a handful of cigarettes make their way around the table in a wine glass. The various principals and teachers sitting on the opposite side of me from my handler and our driver/principal chain-smoke. They do not wait until after dinner to do this. They smoke through every course. When I start smoking with them, I become cool. They nod and say encouraging things that are meant to make me feel like I am one of them. Although, I appear to know what they are saying, of course, I do not.

Across the table from the female principal sits the vice principal from another school – he is the Chinese Davy Jones – Daydream Believer, Another Pleasant Valley Sunday. Beside him sits a math teacher, the Chinese Samuel Jackson. The more beer that is guzzled, the more affectionate the math teacher gets with his friend the vice principal. As he eats his noodles, he is rubbing his upper arm against the vice principal’s upper arm. The vice-principal does not seem to mind. He keeps talking to the calligrapher whom he is sitting beside. When he is not eating, his arm is around the math teacher’s chair. When I drank, I may have been oblivious to this sort of behavior. Now that I am sober, this sort of behavior is a bit more glaring.

Cigarette butts in ash trays of beer; half eaten platters of fine Chinese food; noodles strewn about the table; when we left, the table of teachers (one teacher’s handler) and principals seriously resembled the party shrapnel left at Barney’s Beanery or the Rainbow Room on Sunset Boulevard. Todd Rundgren’s ‘International Feel’ goes through my head. ‘Here we are again, the start of the end but there’s more.’

The 12 person crew crowds into a glass elevator meant for 8. At the entrance of the building, everyone splinters into groups; some of those splintering are staggering. My group of four hops into the principal’s familiar late model Toyota and we speed off into the night.

The trip back to the hotel seems to take longer than thirty minutes. This could be because every minute or less our driver honks the horn while he is driving. At first, I think he is warning other motorists, which includes scooters. On closer inspection, I realize he is honking either for the heck of it or to warn Chinese night varmints that a vehicle is speeding through and to not run out onto the road into said vehicle’s path.

Finally, we make it back to the hotel. My handler tells me breakfast will be delivered to my door at 7:30 am and the rickshaw will take me to the school at 8:00 am. The time is 9:00 pm. I go to my room and look at the tub. The tub looks as if it still has not been cleaned. It is still disgusting. I ask my handler to call them to see if they can do a better job. She calls the front desk. She does not want me to be unhappy. I feel a bit like a dick. She then tells me to take a look at her tub; she takes showers so she would not be taking a bath in the tub. She has a dark green tub. The grime is camouflaged which is okay with me. We switch rooms. My handler goes to bed.

I decide to walk around outside by the hotel. Across the street, I spot a hole-in-the-wall milk tea stand. The tapioca balls for the tea are in a kitchen drawer under the machine, which affixes the thin plastic covering to the top of the cup, which seals it.

Everyone stares and says hello and points to their friends when I am walking around the block. I do not mind. I am the town’s newest attraction, most popular exhibit; part Zsa Zsa, part Groucho.

Exhausted, I go back to my room and take a bath. The bathing experience is dismal. The water pressure is non-existent. The hottest the temperature gets is lukewarm. I am disappointed. I do not stay in the bath long. I dry myself and lie in bed and read the Robert Cormier book. As I am reading, I drift in and out of consciousness. I turn off the light and go to sleep.

I hear a buzzing at the door. Breakfast has arrived. My handler hands me a warm milk tea drink and the Chinese equivalent of two sausage biscuits. I tell her thank you and I shut the door. Since I bathed last night, I do not shower. I take my time eating. I fix myself an instant coffee. I am ready to start the day.

A few minutes before 8 am, I take the elevator down stairs to meet Jennie. My phone rings. Jennie calls to tell me she is at the school and that the rickshaw will take me there. I ask her if my handler is with her. She tells me no. I hang up the phone. My handler steps out of the elevator. She tells me she knocked on my door. She is glad that I came on down to the lobby. We both get into the rickshaw and head to school.

The rickshaw takes the back alleys along the canal to the school. I imagine I am in Tangiers or somewhere exotic. Then I snap out of it and realize I am somewhere exotic. All the passersby stare at me as if I am royalty in the rickshaw.

We pull up to the school. My handler and I get out of the rickshaw and walk to the classroom. My assistant teacher Jennie is waiting for us in the classroom. She tells us that we may start a little late today because today is the final day of school. This is odd that it is the final day for two reasons. The first reason, the date is July 3rd. The second reason, the time is 8:30 am. What time did they get to school 5 am?! This is China at its most Chinese. If I had not asked to start the days at 8:30 am, I would have got to school at 7:45. For an hour or more, I would have waited and no one would have felt obliged to tell us otherwise.

My handler goes to talk to the principal. Jennie asks me if I would like to meet her class. I tell her yes. We are on the 3rd floor. We walk to the 1st floor where her class is held. Out in the open air, the school sounds like an enormous aviary with the sound of excited children ringing in the air.

The moment we are spotted, the children all run up to Jennie but do not get too close to me. They study me intently. I smile. Some of them smile. Others run off or hide behind classmates shy and embarrassed. Jennie guides me into the teacher’s office. I meet the other teachers. I have my back to the window. I turn around and more than a dozen faces are pressed against the window desperately trying to get a closer look. I feel as if I am a Beatle or a Martian.

After standing in the teacher’s office for ten or fifteen minutes, Jennie and I head back to the classroom. I ask her if she knows where I can buy a guitar pick. I describe to her what a guitar pick is. She tells me the music teacher has a music store downtown. After school, we can go there. A few minutes later, students start to wander in. The first to wander into the classroom is a little guy who has chosen the English name Peter for himself. He is the vice-principal’s son, not the Davy Jones vice-principal from the previous night’s dinner. Peter takes a seat at the front desk next to the window.

A few minutes later, a whole hoard of students come in and sit down. I tell them hello. They say hello back to me in unison. Peter and three girls – Susan, Sherly, and Sarah – are the only ones who have English names. Jennie tells me I will have to name them. So at 9:05 in the morning I set out to name 29 students. After a term with Potato, Demonhunter, Wolf Bark, Freestar, Devil; I decide to give these students names like Ed, Tom, Ralph, James, Harry, Anna, Ruby, Tiffany, Donna, Veronica, Sabrina, Samantha. Anna was Billy until I was told she was not a boy. I write their names on the cardboard backs of the nametags. Jennie did not bring the elaborate paper she promised. I do not mention this to her.

After I name the students, it is time for a break. During the break, my handler tells me she is going back to Shanghai. She has visas to work out for her trip to Australia. She tells me she will check on the train to Hohhot for me. She will email me. I tell her thank you and I hope to see her soon. She leaves.

When we come back from the break, I ask the students if they have pets. Some students have dogs. A few of the girls have cats. Donna tells me her cat’s name is Huan Huan. I tell her that is a pretty name. After we talk about family pets, I tell the students to draw pictures of their families. Some of the students mistakenly draw pictures of anything they feel like drawing. I do not mind.

At 10:45, the kitchen workers bring in a big pot and a smaller pot, some Styrofoam containers, and chop sticks. The students jump up and run to get the food. Five or six teachers come in at the same time. I stay back. Someone hands me a container of food. This is some sort of ham with a vegetable that I do not recognize with a brown hard-boiled egg as a side dish. The vegetable is like a turnip, onion, or a potato.

Jennie leads me to the vice-principal’s office where I meet the gym coach and some more teachers. I eat a bit of the dish, which has a soup-like consistency. Jennie leaves and comes back. She tells me some of the students are upset because the cook did not make enough food for everyone. I feel really guilty and sad because I just ate a little bit of mine. I could not stomach it. Jennie then says that the cook will cook more. They will just have to wait.

After I eat, I ask her if I could walk somewhere to get a cola. She looks at me as if I am a lunatic.
“It is too hot,” she says.
“That is okay, I can walk somewhere if you tell me where to go.”
“Oh no, it is too far. I will take you.” She loves to use the word ‘too.’ She got As on all of her ‘too’ and ‘very’ exercises in English classes through the years.

I thought she told me she had a car. I thought she told me a few times she had a car. I swear I heard her say ‘car.’ I follow her to her vehicle, which is a somewhat weakly powered electric scooter. I get on the decrepit scooter. She immediately accuses me of being too heavy. We crawl away from the school. Once we hit the road we speed up to approximately 10 mph. She pilots me over the canal, past the wine foundry. Beyond the nice apartments is a row of shops, most of them repair shops – television and appliances, scooters, cars. At a shop that looks like a small bingo parlor, we get our drinks. They do not have coke cold. They have tea cold. I tell Jennie tea is fine. It is really hot outside. I just want a cold drink.

We get back on the scooter and head back to the school. As we cross the canal, I ask about the apartments where some of the teachers live. I ask Jennie if she lives there. She tells me they are much too expensive; the rent is 1000 rmb a month ($125). She tells me there are more economical apartments within the complex though. She lives with her parents. She has lived here all of her life. She went to college in Huzhou City, which is where I went for dinner last night. She tells me she wants to go to America. She asks me how she should do it. I tell her I read there is a shortage of Chinese teachers in America. Although, she is an English teacher here, she could teach Chinese there. She just wants to visit she tells me. Oh, I had forgotten that it is hard for Chinese people to get visas to visit America.

Back at the school, we go back to the vice-principal’s office, a den of smoke and men’s talk. The gym coach offers me a cigarette. As he lights it for me, I say ‘xie xie.’ I can tell he is the cool one in the bunch. He listens to Bird, smokes pot, dates multiple women. He is his own sitcom.

In the afternoon, we watch the latest ‘Wallace and Gromit.’ During the movie, Jennie will not stop talking to me. I am sitting in the back of the class. I do not want to be rude but I feel as if she is not setting the right example. In the scheme of things, this does not matter. I am only teaching for ten days. I let her rattle on. Something tells me, she does not have many people to talk to or maybe she is talking non-stop because I am the only English speaker she knows.

Halfway through the movie, we have a break. The students run back to the back of the class where the lone air conditioning unit is feebly blowing air. The boys crawl all over each other to get the chilliest seat. When we start the movie again, the students - who had been completely immersed in the movie – seem uninterested. Jennie tells me it is not a very interesting movie. Actually, the reason the students are not interested is because there are no curtains on the window and the sun has washed the image from the screen. By now, I am familiar with the picture and I have a hard time deciphering what is happening on the screen. Slowly, the students fall back under the spell of the film. The film ends approximately at 3:30, which is the time when class is over. In a mad rush, the students leave. Some of them say ‘bye teacher’ to me as they are going.

Jennie tells me to go down to meet the rickshaw driver in the circle drive of the school. She tells me she will meet me there. The driver is waiting. I say ‘ni hao’ and board the rickshaw. Jennie rides up on her scooter. As the rickshaw driver peddles, Jenny rides side by side with the rickshaw on her scooter. Back over the canal, past the wine foundry (the only way to describe it, really), past the new apartment complex, on the edge of town, we pull up to a store front that has heavy curtains pulled over the front sliding glass doors.

We walk into the store, a small store, greeted by a young student playing scales on an upright piano. Jennie walks me to a small counter. The woman behind the counter brings out a paper folded into squares. Perhaps, Jennie got confused when I told her what I wanted. Maybe she thought I wanted to buy a pane of blotter acid.

The woman unfolds the paper. Nestled in the paper are 5 picks, the store’s pick stock. These picks are commodities. They are 6 yuan (75 cents) each. In the USA for picks that are much nicer, I pay a quarter apiece. I tell her I will buy two. Jennie looks at me as if I have lost my mind. She asks me why I would need two. After I think about it, I tell her one pick will be fine.

Once I have settled up with the lady at the counter, Jennie tells me she will meet me back at the hotel to tell them what I want for supper. I get into the rickshaw. The rickshaw pulls away from the curb. We make our way back to the hotel. Out the back of the rickshaw, I expect to see Jennie trailing. She has disappeared. Maybe she will call the hotel and order my food. I sit back in the rickshaw and enjoy the ride.

The rickshaw driver pulls up to the hotel. I hop out and go into the hotel. Jennie is waiting at the desk. She and the woman at the desk are joking with each other. They look at me and the woman makes wild gestures and laughs. This woman has a poker playing laugh and a cigarette smoke of a voice which is more Hispanic than Chinese. She laughs easily. She talks to me in Chinese peppered with broken English. Jennie translates what I do not understand. Jennie asks when I want my meal. I tell her 5:30. Someone will deliver the meal to my room then.

Jennie leaves. I go to the elevator and press the button. I wave and laugh. The cigarette smoke voiced hotel desk-lady laughs and says something to the other workers. By this time, the whole staff has congregated to get a close up look at the foreigner. The elevator arrives. The doors open. I turn around and wave once more. I am Burt Reynolds, Sir Laurence Olivier, Elliot Gould, Dr. Doolittle, Anthony Newley.

In my room, I lie on the bed and drift in and out of dreamless consciousness. Somewhere I hear a bell; I hear the bell again; I hear someone call my name wrongly accented. ‘I’ll be your Mirror’ plays in my dreamless head. Someone is ringing the door. I open the door. A female hotel staff-person stands at my door with a plate of steamed dumplings. She hands them to me. I tell her ‘xie xie.’ I take the plate and shut the door. Yes, this is the life.


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