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 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.