(Bell’s Amusement Park circa 1978, Mayberry RFD the Rickshaw Years 2006)
The third night I request spicy beef with a side of rice. At 5:30 – dinner time, there is the knock on my door. I have the woman put the tray on the luggage stand that is affixed to the desk and television stand. I light a candle at the table by the window and wish I had a view.
Jumping distance from my room, parallel with me, is more of the hotel. I would like to ask Jennie to see if I could be moved to another room but everything I ask her has become an insurmountable task. Something that would take a total of two minutes at the most is asking too much. At times like this, I would love to have the Sofa Negotiator. I need the Sofa Negotiator like Chicago needs Harry Truman.
Before I arrived, I was told I would have four Chinese teachers helping me with the camp. When I got here, I was told I would have two helping. Now that I am here, I have one who is not that much of a help. She complains about the heat, about being tired, about the students. She has begun to surf the internet during class-time.
I eat. I read. I begin to reread Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The first time I read it was 23 years ago. The people he writes about I am familiar with them now. When I read it the first time I did not know the people of which he wrote. After reading nearly half of the book, I go to bed.
Today, I ask the children what they want to be when they grow up. James wants to be a guitarist. Tom wants to be a basketball player and a guitarist. Ed wants to be a basketball player. Billy wants to be a scientist. A few of the girls want to be doctors. Many of the girls want to be teachers. Donna wants to be an English teacher and an artist. They then draw pictures of what they would like to be. I tell them the pictures are very good.
An older man – a grandfather? – comes into the class during lunch. He says something to me in Chinese. I look at a student for help. He walks away. I have no idea what he wants. He finds his granddaughter – I assume she is his granddaughter - and administers some sort of cod liver oil while her friend holds her face.
After school, the principal wants to meet us for supper. I have had no communication with him. He does not speak English. I like Jennie but she is not very motivated. I have no way of knowing how I am doing with my class of 33 students. I hope that I am doing okay. This is the first time that they have had this camp. I am trying to do my best. When I agreed to doing the camp, I was told the purpose of the camp was to have fun. Now, I am told that the students will have a performance on the last day.
At 4:50, I take the elevator down to the lobby. I stand outside to wait for Jennie. After waiting for a few minutes, I realize I do not have my cell phone in case she is trying to call. I hurry back up to get my cell phone and hurry back downstairs. I do not want to keep the principal waiting. Again, I walk outside no sign of Jennie. I then hear my name accented wrongly. I look around. Jennie is sitting at a bench next to the cheap eyewear counter. The time is 4:55. I ask her if she is ready and if the restaurant is close. She tells me that we are eating at half past 5. I ask her why I was told to be ready at 4:50. She tells me something that does not make much sense. This is China after all.
She asks me if I would like to go to the grocery. I went there thirty minutes ago. Frankly, I have no desire to go back. I was on a mission for a candy bar which was a bit of a failure. At the counter were Peanut M&Ms and some sort of Nestles’ bar which resembled a Crunch bar. More than likely, it had nougat. Somewhere in the store, I, mistakenly, thought there might be more candy bars. A team of store experts followed me around. I was stumped. I did not know how to pantomime a candy bar.
By this time, I had wandered through most of the store and ascertained there was not a secret candy bar section. Below, a display of tea drinks, one of the experts slid a storage door open and removed a pad and pencil. With the pad and pencil, it always seems to be assumed that I will start drawing beautiful Chinese characters. Instead, I draw a Hershey bar with ‘Hershey’ in bad block lettering, of course. This stumps them. I knew this would stump them. With this, I made my getaway, making a quick getaway purchase of Peanut M&Ms on the way out.
Jennie tells me the other grocery store is bigger, the grocery store where I satisfied my bubble bath jones after the aforementioned store came up with nada. This happened a few nights ago, maybe last night, maybe the night before. I do not remember. This is a blur. Nights in China are a blur. Nights are forever without you for England Dan and John Ford Coley. I try to remember this.
Yes, this grocer is bigger. The health and beauty department does not seem bigger but seems to have more of a selection. Again, a team of store experts come up to help me. By now, I have perfected my sitting in the bath pouring bubbles. After I am led away from the beauty items to the baby tubs, I lead the team back to the section where I was. The first girl picks up shampoo. No, that is not it. The second girl picks up toothpaste. No, neither is that. Another girl picks up hair gel. No. At this point, I wonder if they were even paying attention to my elaborate middle of the aisle show. I finally spot what I want - ‘Chamomile Itch Stopping Bath,’ not exactly Calgon or Mister Bubble but it will work. They all shake their heads knowingly when I pick it up.
When Jennie and I walk into the store, I do not see any of the experts who helped me the other night which is fine. We bump into friends of hers, a couple with a small boy. I think she tells me the woman is another teacher. The man keeps staring at me like he wants to ask me something or tell me something but he cannot. We do not know each other’s language. We just stare at each other mutely and smile.
When we walk down the aisle where I found the bubble bath, the bubble bath is no longer there. It was next to bottles of bath oil and rosewater. There seemed to be a full stock when I bought the bubble bath. I think it peculiar that there are no bottles there now. I assumed it was not a popular item. Maybe it is a hot item, now that the foreigner bought it.
Jennie wants to have a look at some clothes across the street before we go to dinner. The shop we go into has a few racks of khaki knee knockers and poorly sewn t-shirts. Jennie tells me they sew the clothes in the store. I am not impressed. I tell her they look nice.
We get back into the rickshaw and start for supper. Jennie tells me the restaurant is not far. She tells me she told the driver to not take Main Street. She tells me this way is much more beautiful. On this route, we go along the main road and then we go down an alley until the alley dead ends.
At that point, the rickshaw goes off road through mud and mud puddles. I am positive we will get stuck and have to walk. Yes, we do get stuck. I ask Jennie if we should get out. We are surrounded by poodle swallowing puddles. There is no way we will not get muddy or wet if we get out of the rickshaw. This is turning into some sort of third world ‘I Love Lucy’ moment. Meeting the principal caked in mud is not what I had anticipated. I ponder this. Jennie tells me “no need to get out.” I, of course, imagine some dramatic rescue with helicopters and rope swings. There will be no helicopters today, just rope now swings.
The driver hops down and pulls down a rope that is tied between the frame at the back and the handle bars. He pulls us like we are in a covered wagon going across the plains. This is maybe in some small way the most dramatic thing I have experienced yet. Jennie tells me she feels bad that she told him to take this route. At the restaurant, I tell him ‘Good Work’ in Chinese. I pat him on the back. He smiles. Jennie tells me my pronunciation is very good which it is not.
We pull up to the restaurant. We walk in. In the lobby is a wall of fish in tanks. On each tank, a price is written. I assume the fish are like bottles of wine. You pick the one you want to have as your dinner.
Another couple is there with there son who Jennie tells me is 10 years old when we get there. Jennie does not tell me who they are. I say ‘Ni hao’ to them. The man offers me the seat on the love seat next to him and pulls out a cigarette for me. He lights it. He lights one for himself. We smoke in silence. He sits close to me. Occasionally, he smiles at me.
More of the guests arrive. The hostess guides us down to the end of a long hallway. All of the rooms seem to be private rooms for large parties of diners. We are shown into an elegant room with a large table in the middle.
My student Peter, who I did not name, and his father, the vice principal, join us. Peter takes the seat next to me. Jennie sits on the other side of me. I tell Jennie that I do not drink, that I cannot drink. I am serious. I tell her I will have juice. She asks me if I can drink beer. I tell her no. Later she asks if I can drink wine. Again, I tell her no.
Before long the table is crowded with people laughing and toasting. Peter toasts orange juice with me. He shows me the proper way to eat crab. His father, the vice principal, sits across from us beaming.
The principal’s wife and their son come in last. The principal has not shown. Jennie tells me who they are. His wife is very chic in a foreign movie sort of way. She, as do many of the Chinese I have met here, looks to me as if she is Italian, French, Hispanic. She has a quiet strength about her. The son looks like he would rather be somewhere else. He hardly eats anything. He is home from college. He is doing his duty as a son. Finally, the principal arrives. Everyone greets him warmly. He stays for ten minutes and then leaves. Jennie tells me he is expected somewhere else. The principal is a very busy man.
By this time, Jennie has toasted quite a few times. Her face is red from drink. She keeps telling me I should go talk to the son, go talk to the son. This is a bit uncomfortable. I do want to talk to him but I do not want to put him on the spot. He seems shy. The rest of the table is very boisterous.
Finally, I go over to where he is. He seems grateful for the company. I pull up a chair beside him. Since his father did not stay, there is an empty seat. I am surprised that his English is as good as it is. The first thing he tells me is his oral English is bad. He tells me his English name is Eric. After talking to him for five minutes, I tell him his oral English is quite good. He says thank you and blushes.
He is 18. Here, the months in the womb count so he is really 17 plus a few months. I am surprised he is so young to be a sophomore (next term) at university. He tells me his parents were very busy when he was young. He spent most of his time at school. He finished early. He tries to convince me that he is not smart. I tell him he is very smart. He is going to university to become a policeman which surprises me.
I point to his plate and tell him he did not eat very much. The plate is relatively clean like there has not been food put on it. He tells me he has a small stomach. He then says ‘Help yourself,’ and points to the dishes that are still full on the table. I tell him I have had enough. He tells me his father told him I was a very good man. I tell him that I am honored to be told that by his father. I am sure I blush. At points, there is a lull in the conversation. We watch the others.
There are more toasts. I watch a 10 year old guzzle a wine glass of beer in one gulp. Eric sees that I am shocked. He tells me that he heard in America youngsters do not drink. I tell him it is against the law. The legal drinking age is 21. I then try to explain Louisiana but I know I cannot, so I do not go very far into that one.
After I witness the 10 year old guzzling drink, a drunk with a cigarette - who looks like he has chain smoked a couple of lifetimes - walks into the room and toasts with several people at the table. I assume this is another head of the school board since he is staggering drunk and loud. Eric tells me this man is a famous regional doctor. Again, I am visibly shocked. Eric laughs. He then tells me the doctor tells his patients to not drink or smoke. We both laugh.
I tell Eric I have to use the toilet. I get up and go. I passed the toilet on the way in. When I come back to the table (a total of five minutes later), Eric is gone. I ask Jennie where he is. She tells me that he has gone to look for me. I am touched. I go out into the corridor and find him. We exchange numbers. I tell him that I am tired so I will go home. I go tell Jennie I am going. She tells me that she will go too. I tell her to stay. I can find my way. She tells me I will get lost.
At this point, the man - that I met who gave me a cigarette when I first got to the restaurant and whose son guzzled the beer ten minutes ago - jumps up. Jennie tells me he will give me a ride. He seems very eager, too eager to give me a ride. She says she will go too. I tell her she should stay. She says no she will go. She says I am her responsibility. I tell her she should stay and have a good time. She comes with us.
The days fade into each other. I think today may be Saturday but I am not sure. I am keeping track of the dates. Today is the 7th. The 4th came and went with no fanfare. I am not sad. I do not care that I missed Independence Day. I have seen many 4ths already.
Some days are good. Some days are bad. Many 4ths ago, I had pop bottle rocket fights with my brothers and cousins.
Today, we are finishing doing papier mache. I explained to Jennie that the students cannot bat the mache’d balloons around. Already, at least two have busted. I tell the students no but they do not understand me. They understand little beyond ‘How are you?’ ‘I am fine thank you’ is their rehearsed answer. She tells me that she will explain. Another student throws another one. I tell her again. She has to explain what we are doing. With this she loses her temper and lets the children really have it. She then tells me she may not be back to teach tomorrow. She has a hangover from last night. I am being too hard on her. I then tell the children very slowly that they cannot bat the papier mache. I ask if they understand. They understand. I apologize to Jennie. I tell them to apologize to Jennie. I have not sung for them other than ‘From Me to You.’ I play a couple of my songs; everyone claps and yells. The dark cloud has lifted.
I realize some of this may inadvertently be my fault. I think she is a young teacher. She was told I was a single American. As sad as it seems, many Americans who come here are desperate to marry. Obviously, that is not the reason I am here. As a young Chinese woman, it is encouraged to marry an American. She could have a big family.
Furthermore, I get the feeling she is not being paid for this camp. I think she thought it would be fun. To me, it has been fun. I hope I am not asking too much from her. Anything that I have asked her to do seems to really put her out especially now that she know there are no wedding bells involved. I do not mean this in a mean way. That is the facts here. Before I arrived, she sent me a come hither type of picture that my contact forwarded to me. I should have had some clue at that point. In many ways, I am dumb, or at least naive.
The second day I was here, I wanted to get a thumb drive for my computer which makes my job lots easier. I can do things on my laptop at the hotel and transfer them to the classroom computer. She says this would be no problem. At the end of the day, I asked her if we could go get it. She told me she was too tired. We could do it the next day.
Granted, it was raining the next day but that did not mean I did not still need the thumb drive. She looked at me like I was crazy. I told her she did not have to take me if she could tell me how to get there or have someone else take me. After I made it clear that I wanted to get it that day, she begrudgingly went with me in the rickshaw. The computer store was beside the town square where we had walked the night before. In a nation of only children, she is the downside of the one child family. She has been doted upon all her life.
That same day, her 10 year old niece sat in the class. Her niece was perhaps the youngest student or at least among the youngest in the class. Jennie told me her niece was horrible. She did not listen to anyone. She did not mind others. My experience with her niece was a very good one that day. Her niece was one of the most well behaved children I have ever encountered. Maybe she was on good behavior to impress me which she did. Nevertheless, I was around her all day and she played nicely with the other children. She was a very well behaved child.
Sometimes, I feel as if I am an endlessly riding the Himalaya at Bell’s Amusement Park with the ride operator asking over the public address “Do you want to go faster?” Foghat ‘Slowride’ plays at distortion level. Everyone screams. I think of that Talking Heads’ song ‘Heaven.’ ‘When this kiss is over, it will start again.’ Everyday is different in that everyday is the same. Everyday is another dream. Everyday is another dream delivered in a rickshaw.
I get home. My dinner is not on time. So far, they have delivered it to me on schedule. Tonight, they do not. I am lonely and sad because I have no place to turn and there is no one I can talk to about my frustrations. To have dinner not arrive is one more frustration. Everything here is much more of a challenge. New Yorkers understand. I am ready for something easy. This is so frustrating. I want to throw the ashtray through my picture window with no view.
I go to the desk and tell the woman with the poker cigarette voice - whom I really like – that I have not got dinner. Of course, I cannot tell her in English. I have to think of any Chinese word for food that I know and I put ‘bu’ (no) with it. She explains the situation but I do not understand. She knows ‘okay.’ She says ‘okay, okay okay.’ I go back to my room and wait. After a thirty or forty five minute wait, my food arrives. I tell myself to grow up. Would I rather be sitting in front of the television watching Lost, Desperate Housewives, Fear Factor, Arrested Development? No, I would not.
I send a message to Eric. An hour later, Jennie calls me. The principal wants to take me to a coffee bar with his son. I ask her when. She tells me now. She tells me she is too busy she cannot go. I just got a milk drink from across the street. I went out with my shirt wrong side out. I change clothes. I go down to the lobby. Jennie, the principal and his son Eric are talking to the cigarette voice woman.
Jennie leaves. The principal and his son take me for coffee at a coffee bar in this small town. On the way there in the upscale family sedan, the son tells me his father said that all foreigners love coffee so they are taking me to the coffee bar. I tell him to tell his father, his father is right. We do love coffee. I tried to stop drinking coffee but I cannot.
We pull up to a place that is adjacent to the town square on the same block where I bought the thumb-drive. The hostess starts to seat us downstairs. The father requests to be seated upstairs. We are then guided upstairs. On the way to our seat, we stop and say hello to a few tables. Actually we say hello to the only people in the place. They give us cigarettes. We take them to the table. We do not smoke them. Eric and his father, I assume, know everyone. This is a small town – Mayberry RFD, the Rickshaw Years. ‘Tropical Hot Dog Nights’ by Captain Beefheart plays in my mind. ‘Meet the monster tonight.’
The coffee bars here seem to be modeled after five star hotel bars in America. We sit on couches facing each other. Eric sits on one side. His dad sits with me on the other. We have a picture window to look out which looks over the town square. I tell Eric, the son, the view is beautiful. He says thank you.
We talk about guns, kids, school and America. I talk about the ‘Right to bear arms.’ Many people in America take that as the right to bear semi-automatics and Uzi’s and the younger Americans take that as a right to carry said weapons to school to shoot classmates.
Eric asks me if it is competitive to become a policeman in America. I tell him no; there is a shortage of policeman. He tells me in China it is very competitive. Of course here, justice is administered quickly, perhaps not fairly but quickly. This is a place where you do not want to get on the wrong side of the law, convicted for drug trafficking one day, buzzard food the next.
The father asks many questions which Eric translates. I answer but he does not translate my answers to his father. After they drop me at the hotel, maybe they will talk about me –the latest movie, the traveling exhibit, the bestseller - on the ride back home