My landlord has just arrived. Yesterday, Michael told me he was going to send the cleaning lady over today. I told Michael to tell him not to because I was going to spend the days getting my supplies for school. Michael told me he would tell the landlord. Ten minutes ago, I heard the familiar honk of the landlord’s scooter outside my office window. London Calling plays on my stereo. As he starts knocking on my window, I go to open the metal gate that opens onto the patio. Before I go, I turn off London Calling. I do live by the river. River apartments are prime real estate.
Our conversations are the most ridiculous non-verbal pantomimes imaginable; the conversations between the landlord and me. The first thing he pantomimes is phone which means call our mutual mouthpiece Michael. The recording tells me Michael’s mobile is power off. The landlord has a bag of cleaning supplies. He then pulls out a receipt for 126 yuan. Am I supposed to reimburse him this amount? This seems a bit presumptuous since I already have cleaning supplies. And 126 yuan seems to be an exorbitant amount for said supplies.
A few minutes later, another player comes onto the scene. This player is the cleaning lady. She is young. The landlord guides her around the apartment and gives her instructions of what to do. She shakes her head in agreement. Occasionally he looks over at me for my approval. He seems very adamant in his instructions.
After he instructs the cleaning lady, he pantomimes ‘Call Michael’ again. The power is still off on Michael’s mobile. The landlord pulls out the receipt again. He then pulls money out of his wallet. Is he giving me money, no he wants me to reimburse him for the cleaning supplies. I reimburse him. He has just blown my 50 yuan a day budget that I have tried to keep. Oh well, I start working on paperwork at my computer.
The landlord cuts out little scuff pads and he applies them with glue to the bottom of my bistro set. Each time he finishes one, he scoots it over to my desk for me to inspect it. I smile and thank him. He smiles back.
The cleaning lady attacks the bath first. After he is done scuff proofing the bistro set, the landlord goes to inspect the cleaning lady’s work. Occasionally the landlord calls my name in that broken accent of his and I go to investigate. He makes a motion. Yes, the bathtub is nice and clean thank you. He smiles. The cleaning lady smiles. I smile. Everyone is smiling. ‘Here comes the Sun King.’
After the bathroom has been properly attended, the kitchen is scrutinized. First the landlord brings my kettle out for me to inspect. He has steel wooled the tarnish off of the blessed little object which I have accidentally left on the stove a few times – imaginary water boiling, real water not. Now, it has a Zen-like beauty to it. He then sets about to breathe new life into my miniature steamer, which has dumpling residue now residing in the bottom of the pan. This is more than a little embarrassing. Oh well - another ‘oh well’ – that is why I have a cleaning lady.
After she sanitized the bathroom, shined the kitchen, and crawled over me to thoroughly dust the window sill by which my desk is placed, the cleaning lady goes out to the patio to rinse the patio tile. She washes out her rags and hangs them from the pole where I hang my clothes.
While she is finishing, the landlord draws a clock. He then draws a diagram of how long the cleaning lady has been cleaning my apartment. He then writes how much she makes hourly. I try to write the equals sign so I know what she is to be paid but in Chinese the equals sign is the word ‘two’ hence the two slashes. Finally, I realize for an hour and a half she should be paid 30 yuan ($2.75).
At that point, my cell rings. Michael is calling. I tell him that the landlord is at my apartment. He apologizes. His phone was off. He has been sick. I tell him I am sorry to hear he is sick. It has worked out that my landlord is at the apartment. I can get my school supplies later. (I had not looked forward to sitting in my apartment two days in a row waiting for folks which is part of the reason I thought I would go get school supplies but since the landlord just showed up and I did not have to wait around it worked out fine.) I then tell him that I gave the landlord money for cleaning supplies. He tells me he had told the landlord to pick some up for me. He will reimburse me.
Am I to pay for the cleaning lady I ask? He tells me the landlord pays for the cleaning lady. I tell him it seems to me that the landlord expects me to pay. Michael tells me the cleaning lady is included in the rent. He asks to talk to the landlord. Something tells me, as much as I like the landlord, he would try to bilk me if he could.
The landlord and Michael talk as the cleaning lady finishes rinsing the patio. The landlord leaves with the cleaning lady. I go back to work typing at the computer. I hear the landlord’s scooter fire up and roar away.
With the television, everything worked out. It always does. At the time, I got very frustrated. That evening, Winnie came over with her partner (which may have been her boyfriend or maybe they have a partnership in which they support the morale of foreigners in the community. Who knows?)
I was certainly glad to see them when they showed. I apologized like a self-proclaimed jerk. The young man was very nice. Winnie told me she knew that it must be frustrating to live where you do not understand the language. They came in and hooked my DVD to the television. They got my cable rocking. They programmed everything. Her friend showed me how everything worked. With the owner’s manual open, he kept pointing to the Chinese to explain things as if I would see a character and suddenly I would understand Chinese completely. As they were leaving, I invited them over to watch a movie some night. Now I wonder if they think I am some lonely pathetic weirdo.
At the meeting with Sophie on Tuesday, Mary and I were told to report to the school at 8 am on Friday. Friday is our first day. The students start school the following Friday. Surprisingly, I do not have trouble getting to sleep. A chapter of Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ puts me under. And, fortunately, I do not dream of blowing up bridges in Italy. I do not dream of dynamite at all. ‘I’ve got a New Rose; I’ve got it good.”
Friday morning is filmed in new improved cinemascope. At 7:53, the morning is already mind-numbingly bright. As I am walking to school, no one notices me. Everyone is busy starting there day. Some people seem to be midway through their day already.
Bombastic orchestra music is playing over the public address when I walk into the school. In the classes, students in their uniforms – blue shorts, white shirts, scarf-ties - sit and listen to teachers. Inadvertently, I go up the wrong staircase. As I am walking, I am starting to sweat. The day has already become hot and wet.
At the moment I come upon the proper staircase, students descend in an impenetrable wave. At the bottom of the staircase I stand. The last few students to descend call out ‘Hi Teacher’ to me as they pass. I smile. Fortunately, I am still a few minutes early.
My prediction, I will walk into the teachers’ room and it will be full of Chinese teachers. Chinese teachers for the most part are very dedicated. The international section is on the fourth floor. This seems to be the only deserted area in the whole building. The teachers’ room is locked. This means I need to go all the way back down to the guard gate to get the key. I am the only one in the international department. “Yes, I knew that I always would.”
Now, I am sweating profusely and not happy about the situation in the least. The ensemble I chose for the first day of preparations - in case I meet the principal, I want to be well dressed – my brown Prada slacks, my black Miu Miu dress shoes, my black Calvin Klein belt, my pink shirt with brown and green stripes, and a antique Saks Fifth Ave. brown tie. My back feels as if I have been sunk in a dunk tank.
Crestfallen, I take a walk back down to the guard house. When I get there, I realize I do not know exactly what room key I need. I guess. I tell him 404. He gives it to me. I walk back up to the fourth floor. I have the wrong key. By now, the time is 8:05. I call Mary. I ask here where everyone is. She tells me she thought we were not supposed to be at school until 8:30. I specifically remember Sophie telling us 8 am. Mary tells me she is on her way. She will be here in ten minute. For the time being, she lives in the school’s dorms.
I wait for a few minutes but the heat is making me miserable. Without a doubt, I need to go back home and change. I send Mary a message that I have gone back home to take a shower. I send Sophie a message to call me when she gets to school. I get a message from Sophie that she is at the other campus. She is not even coming to the campus where she wanted us to meet. This is typical of how things are done here. I should not even be surprised.
After I rinse off, my mood improves immensely. I lie down and listen to the second side (or now, on CD format, the last half starting with Gallows Pole) of my Chinese pressing -with upside down printing on the sleeve - of Led Zeppelin III. Yes, life is not bad.
Later, I go back to school. However, I cannot access my computer because I do not know the password on my computer. The hint is ‘ribbit.’ I enter ‘frog’. That is not it. In the movies, they can always figure it out. Maybe this morning has not been shot in New Improved Cinemascope after all.
Sophie is now at the school. She emails the former teacher. Until she finds out the password, she tells me to work at home if I would like since I have a laptop. I tell her thank you. She tells me we have a staff meeting at 1 pm in the library. She will introduce me to the Chinese teachers then.
At 1 pm, I go back to school. I go to my desk and ‘froggy’ is written on a piece of paper. I try it as the password. It works. I log on just like in the movies. The meeting was set for 1 pm but everyone is still chattering at that time so I decide to look for a desktop background. Since I will be teaching the arts, I use the cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band as my desktop. This is something I would probably not do anywhere else because it is probably on a million screens in the world but here in China it fits. Here, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band has not arrived at the CD stores. Maybe in a year on its fortieth birthday, it will make it here as a new release.
Finally, we go to the meeting. Sophie asks me where Mary is. I do not know. Did she know about the meeting? Yes, Sophie tells me. Sophie assigns a young teacher named Michelle to interpret for me at the meeting. Michelle – Chinese – teaches English grammar. Most of the meeting Sophie conducts in Chinese. Most of the meeting, Michelle does not interpret. This I do not mind. She will tell me what I need to know. Sophie at one point hands us a calendar for the semester. On the Fridays on the even numbered weeks we will have International Baccalaureate Organization workshops. Mary shows up at this point. She had a meeting with her landlord. It was hell.
After the meeting, Mary tells me she signed a lease on a place that she is not crazy about. She is frustrated. She gave 500 yuan to the agent but she is not crazy about living in the space. I ask her if she would like to see my place. She could get an idea of what she should be getting for her money. She tells me yes; she would like to see my place.
We come over straightaway. She walks around my place complimenting me on it. I tell her I really like it. She tells me this has helped her make her mind up. She has a line on another place that she may go see. I ask her if she would like to go to the realtor that I used but not the one I went with because this place where I live I got through the company for which I work. I take her over to really nice female agent who showed me the places that I liked the best.
The really nice female agent, Mary and I stumble through English, Chinese and drawing pictures. This is how we communicate. Mary tells me I do not have to stick around. I tell her I may go back to my place and have a rest. We agree to meet for supper later with Andrea, a young German student teacher from Frankfurt.
Back at my apartment, I drift in and out of sleep and I debate not going out to eat because I am so exhausted. Nevertheless, when Mary calls at 6 pm, I get up which I am glad I do. This is the first time I have been around Andrea. She is quiet but really nice. She is the entire German department at the school. Mary tells me that she sat at the school (the East Campus) with nothing to do and at the end of the day they just told her to come back Monday. This is very annoying. She is a student teacher so this might be why this happened. Now, I am glad I took the initiative to take off since I did have nothing to do.
There is a place I tell them I would like to try that is at the intersection of the Guilin Road West and Guilin Road. They think that it might be a bar if it is the place of which they are thinking. To me, it looks a bit like a hip restaurant. We walk past and people are eating. A bar sign is on the front but it is nice inside, nice in a much different way than most of the other restaurants that I have been to here. Most restaurants, that are nice, seem nice in that formal way in that you would take your parents or your grand parents there to eat.
This place, Bamboo, is nice in that it is funky with pastel walls and looks as if it could be in some hip little East Coast American sea town. There is an absence of families eating. Most of the diners are young professionals, male and female and a few college-looking types. We are a block away from the Shanghai Teachers’ College.
Andrea has a five page printed out list of Chinese food with her that she consults. She seems to know many languages. The waitress brings the menu but when we get the menu Andrea is not able to read any of it except for the drinks. She is perplexed. The waitress brings back six separate Xerox pages that represent the English menu. We all like spicy food which makes me happy. We order spicy beef, spicy fish, spicy pickles, and spicy bamboo. Andrea and Mary split a tall beer which really looks good. I tell them about my alcohol exile. I try not to make it that dramatic. I have my third coke of the day. I tell myself at least I am not drinking liquor.
The meal is indeed spicy, spicier than we had planned. We enjoy our dinner. We are a very compatible trio. This is really nice to meet two people that I am really looking forward to having a good time with this year. At one point, I am explaining something to Mary. I tell her I am planning to stay here for the long haul unless something unforeseeable happens. She tells me if I just leave with little notice she will hunt me down. We are all in this together. This is a good feeling. At last, at last.
Young mothers sitting in lawn chairs away from the glare of the streetlamps cradle their babies as they talk to each other. Their chairs dot the apartment complex’s drive. Tonight is Saturday night. My new friends Mary and Andrea are going to see a Shanghainese rock band tonight at a local club. If my stomach was not doing somersaults from the spicy food last night at Bamboo, I would join them.