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!