Friday, March 16, 2007

Now, Meet Mr. P

Really, usually, these days, often, I wake sometime before 8 am. If the time is closer to 7 am, I lay in bed a bit longer but if the time is closer to 8 am, I try to stir myself. Before, I started teaching at my current school – XiangMing High School, I would turn on the electric kettle as soon as I stirred from bed. Now, since I can go to the glorious coffee bar, I do not put on the kettle; I take a shower first, then I dress and if I need to shave, I shave. Usually, while I am still in my bathrobe, I have a small, very small, breakfast. Today, I had a wheat roll, buttered with a bit of raspberry jam.

I put on my new Armani suit, an old Liberty of London tie, and my new super cool comfortable Paul Smith brown wingtips and head for the bus. I take the 26 to school. Usually, I have to wait a few minutes for it to arrive. From what I have been told, the busses are scheduled to arrive every three minutes. Sometimes the same number bus will arrive at the stop at the same time.

Most mornings, I get a seat on the 26 but not today. Today was standing room only. On the bus, I look down and notice that my right shoe is untied. That is the one problem with these shoes. The right shoes’ shoelace does not stay tied. I hope this does not contribute to my demise. On my back, I have my army surplus styled Diesel backpack. Sally bought me a leather backpack 10 years ago for my graduation. When I go back to the states, I will grab that and bring it back. Backpacks are hip with the kids…still.

From my past experience, I always have this un-nameable dread when I come to school. That is from the past experience of the hell I served last semester under the Percy Regime. Mary, from the last school - who has turned out to be a really good friend and I really feel bad that I ever said anything bad about her, live and learn – told me that nine eighth graders left the school. She told me that my old boss, whom I still really like, had tears in her eyes when she was discussing this.

British Council William told me later that he got the story of what happened from Jacky, Jacky told him one of the 8th grade boys was transferred by his mother to another school. Jacky did not say which one. Nevertheless, when the boy transferred, he told his mother he did not want to go unless his friends went with him. She got on the phone and talked to his friends’ mothers. Thus nine students left just like that. Here in China, students seem to be nomadic.

At school, I look over the homework that I have already graded and drink coffee in the coffee bar. Sometimes, I do think that I am in a coma. This coffee bar on the 2nd floor is like cool bizarro world. I look at the time. I have fifteen minutes until my first class of the week starts – Class 3. Up to the teachers’ office I go to make last minute preparations. The Minuet Waltz plays over the public address system which means class will soon be starting.

I gather my things and head to class. The students look at me surprised. They tell me this is their physical education class period. I tell them they are wrong; it is time for their writing class with me. They tell me I am wrong. I ask them if they are sure. They seem to be sure. I think they might be pranking me but then maybe the schedule has changed and the change was written in Chinese somewhere.

Briskly, I walk back to the teachers’ office. I ask the woman who sits next to me – her English name is Mary so if I talk about her again I will christen her New Mary - what the deal is. She looks at my schedule and does not understand. I ask my link teacher. She goes to the office to question the office staff, the scheduling gurus. She looks at my schedule again. The time is 10:15, not 11:10. My computer is an hour fast. Later, I will realize it did some daylight savings across the seas maneuver. We do not recognize falling back and springing forward here in the People’s Republic.

An hour later, when I do go to class, we come to the subject of film. I ask them what movie they would like to see this term. William who sits next to Vincent spouts out American Pie. I tell him this is impossible. I write ‘filthy’ on the board and tell them that is what a parents’ group would call that movie in America. I ask them if they would like to see E.T. instead. The whole class lets out a collective groan.

Most days when I walk to lunch, ‘Yesterday Once More’ by the Carpenters plays over the public address in the lobby of the cafeteria.

On Mondays, I sit with Jeffrey and the two foreign oral teachers. Jeffrey is the older Chinese teacher who is obsessed with English. He asks me what I think of the conference that was just held, the one in which America discussed China’s civil rights atrocities. He brings up America’s atrocities in the current war. Of course, this is meant to goad me. I tell him I am in China BECAUSE I do not necessarily agree with the current administration’s policies in the USA. He continues to discuss the matter. I daydream.

Later, we walk back to the teachers’ office. Jeffrey tells me that during Mao’s time he was sent to teach in the country side. This was a good experience for him. Often, I hear conflicting reports about Mao. Jeffrey throws a favorable light upon him.

He asks me where I live. I tell him. He tells me that the former teacher paid much less for her place. I tell him that I purposely set out to find a place I like. I do not care that I pay a bit more. This is perplexing to others here. The theory is to live in some cheap place just because you can find cheap ratty places. I have had a lifetime of cheap ratty places. No more, No More.

My electricity shuts off. I have blown a fuse. This is something that cannot be cured with flip switching. A handyman must go to the fuse box on the outside of my apartment and replace the blown fuse. I am getting ready for school. Fortunately, I have already taken my shower. I call the agent who at this point certainly has earned his commission from me. I tell him I can be home by 3:30 pm if the repairman can come to my flat then.

A man in red quilted flannel pajamas smokes a cigarette as he waits for the bus. My bus comes. I have to stand. I do not mind.

Today, I have two classes. I am battling a head cold. After class the second class, I walk back home. On the way, I buy a funky wooden mop and a funky wooden broom. These costs less than $2 for both.

After I take a short nap, I walk to put more time on my phone card. As I walk to the little booth half a block from my flat. I meet the queerest little Chinese man. He introduces himself as Mr. P, the English teacher. He has studied English for the last 30 years. He studied English before China was open to foreigners. He talks as we walk. There is a bit of a cocaine urgency to his manner.

Since I cannot seem to shake him, I ask him if he would like to help me put time on my mobile phone. Maybe he could explain to the phone card man what I need. This would be his honor, he tells me.

At the phone card stall, Mr. P explains to the phone card man what I need. I hand the phone card man 100 rmb. Mr. P tells me I could put on 50 rmb. I tell him I would rather do 100 rmb so that I do not have to worry. As the phone card man goes through the procedure of adding time to my phone, Mr P keeps up his non-drug induced cocaine chatter. He asks me how I like China. He asks me how long I plan to stay. He sings me ‘America’ in Chinese. What do I do in my spare time he wants to know?

The phone card man hands back my phone to me. Mr. P asks if I have time for a quick drink. Sure, I tell him. We pop into the upscale two story sleek chic coffee shop bar that I always pass which has left me curious as to what sort of place it is.

He asks the server what sorts of coffee they offer. She recites the list. He asks me if cappuccino is okay. Fine, I tell him.

“You pay or I pay?” he asks.
“I’ll pay.”
I pull out my wallet to pay the 60 rmb. The server tells me that I can pay afterward.

We find a table for two by the window and sit down. He launches into a few little tidbits about his life and about the China of the past and the China of the present. I tell him that Shanghai is the best place that I have ever lived. He beams.

When China first opened up to foreigners after it had been closed for so long, Mr. P ran into some foreigners on the Bund. He was excited. He went up and talked to them. When they left, the police questioned him. The police asked if he was a spy. At that time, few Chinese spoke English.

Suddenly, Mr. P points to a server wearing a low cut blouse.
“Before women covered themselves,” he tells me. “Now, you can see their tits.” ‘Tits’ he
says with exuberant reverence.

We drink our cappuccinos. I pay. We grab matches. We make an appointment to meet again, Friday at 2:15. He will help me find plants for my garden.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Meet Tony Xu

Yes, I have now started my next adventure. However, the school that I am at now, I really like and I do not have that much to report. Today, I taught two writing classes. Now, the most classes I ever have on one day is four and that is on Monday.

The first class today, at a most lovely time of 10:15 in the morning, was quite noisy. A group of boys in the back kept talking to each other. At one point, I went back to investigate and saw that they were doing work for another class. After that, every time, I had a question, I would call on one of the boys in the back – the chatterbox boys. This class was my first really bad class so far. This is only the second week. I could feel my self starting to fume.

The rest of the class was unresponsive to questions. At the moment, we are discussing descriptive sentences. To do this properly I brought a stack of books and read some English and American lit examples. The first example I used was the description of Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Yesterday, I taught this same lesson four times to my Monday classes. In each lesson at least one or two people (or, usually, more) had heard of Scrooge or Dickens. In today’s morning class, I ask and I get blank stares. I am flabbergasted. I read the description:

“Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”

When I read the word ‘scraping,’ I ran my nails hard and slow down the chalk board. Everyone moaned and covered their ears. To really make a point, I did it twice. I enjoy this part of teaching.

My 11:10 class that follows the 10:45 class was one of the best classes I think I have ever taught. I read from A Christmas Carol, A Moveable Feast, The Great Gatsby, Dracula. When I read the description of Dracula a few of the girls had that look of mock fright on their faces. When I read from Hemingway, the students seemed to really understand. I explained that Hemingway wrote simply and beautifully on purpose. He knew big words but he chose not to write them. I read them the passage - from A Moveable Feast - in which he writes about meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time.

“Scott was a man then who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty.”

On the board I write '…with a face between handsome and pretty.' I ask them who they would say is handsome and who is pretty. A few of them mumble. I then make it a closed question and ask them if they would call a man handsome or a woman. They tell me ‘man’. I say – ‘good.’ Beside the phrase, I write ‘ying/yang’. Everyone perks up. I tell them that this is a cool trick which Hemingway has pulled off. He has used simple words - simple words that all of them know – to make a specific point. They are impressed.

With this class, I get to Fitzgerald and the bell rings. I have to quickly write his four word descriptive sentence on the board. ‘She was incurably dishonest.’ I explain it to them. Most of the class is listening. This is an achievement. So starts my life in my new school. This semester will have a handful of wondrous moments I am sure and it will have a handful of disastrous moments too, but I am ready for the ying/yang of it, for the pagoda temple roller coaster ride of it.

Okay, so I know you want to hear about my moving adventure. (Oh before I go into that, my new school has a coffee bar on campus. The coffee is free and delicious...and free! I think my jaw dropped when the really sweet link teacher told me. There is a server who actually brings the coffee to the tables, the tables that are flanked with sofas. Am I in a coma? Is this really happening?)

Okay on with the moving story. The agent (who is a total sweetheart - and, afterward, I went and bought him an expensive Paul Smith tie as a 'thank you') lined up the movers for me for $160 yuan (20 smacks) which is a little less than I have paid in the past but before I basically moved from a different town into Shanghai proper and that is why that time they charged more (different movers) and they let me know up front.

This time, after the movers moved all of my stuff into my flat, I started to hand the guy the agreed upon 160 and he shook his head no. He then wrote a figure - 1,500. To this, I replied 'Ni feng le' which means ' You are crazy.' I called Michael, the agent, and he told me to not pay it. And, he came straight over and argued with them as in screaming and a little pushing and shoving. I was unpacking as this was happening – putting Patti Smith Horses, Sparks Kimono My House and David Bowie Diamond Dogs next to the DVD player for easy access.

The next thing I know, Michael (the sweetheart) is calling my name - one of the movers is trying to drag him outside to beat him up of which brawny me (ha ha) gets in the middle and stops. Michael calls the police. The police come and they decide I should pay 260 rmb which is fine; I had no qualms about that. After the whole thing, Michael told me the movers were trying to take advantage of me since I am a foreigner. I think the police may have told them that they are crazy as well.

My new place is fabulous. I pay twice what I paid for my old place but that is fine. I am the first tenant in a flat that has been gutted and then outfitted with fantastic new appliances and fixtures. I am still getting the hang of the concept of a soap-less dishwasher. It basically cooks the dishes clean. I love that I have a big tiled garden almost as big as my flat. I am on the ground floor of the building. More about the apartment later.


Yesterday, a student wanted to speak to me after class. The matter seemed urgent. I told him I had one more class and then I could speak to him. All of these students are very bright. I have told them that I will help them in any way I can and I hope that they will call on me when they need me. Well, this student took me up on the offer.

After my last class, he met me and we walked back to my office. Most of the other teachers had left for the day so we both sat at my desk. My desk is placed by an old Dr Jekyll era picture window which looks down upon a neighborhood of old red tile roof houses. Beyond that is the expressway. Beyond the expressway is a glass wall background of new high rises.

The student had a hard time explaining his problem but then he was finally able to blurt it out. He does not have an English name. He had one last semester but he forgot it. To come up with a name should be easy; unfortunately, it is not easy. A lot of the guys like basketball but they do not want to name themselves after basketball stars.

I then wrote my name down. He was not sure what each name meant. I had to try to explain the difference between a first and a middle name. I told him that most people do not use their middle name unless they have a first name that they do not like and then they go by the middle name and keep the first initial as an example. A copy of The Great Gatsby was sitting on my desk. I used F. Scott Fitzgerald as an example.

Eventually, I believe that I cleared this up for him but I am not sure. He wondered if he needed a first, middle and last name. I told him he could use his family name as his last name which in China is the first name. His family name is Xu (pronounced ‘Shue’).

This inspired me. I told him Tony or Tommy Xu has a nice ring to it. The woman across and behind me exclaimed –“Tony where?”
“Tony where?” I asked.
The future Tony or Tommy Xu told me it is a famous clothing line.
“Oh, Tony Wear!’ I then understood. “Do you like Tony?” – I asked. I then explained the formal name is usually Antony or Anthony.
He told me he does like it.
I told him it is a good name for such a handsome boy. He beamed. Everyone meet Tony Xu.