Friday, September 26, 2008

Sharon's Headache

Sharon just went to the hospital. This is entirely due to the students. For the last few days, she has had a constant headache. These students, more specifically these boys, are making her crazy and have given her a headache that may manifest itself into a brain hemorrhage at the rate that she is going now. I have told her and told her that she takes her job much too serious. She cannot force these boys to study. They must take the challenge upon themselves. This is not her responsibility.

Before she left, she told me that Elliot told her that the other boys cheated when they marked each other’s tests, the test that I gave them yesterday afternoon. Really, I guess I am not entirely surprised by this. Maybe I was a fool to think that Danny only missed 3, Venice only missed 2. Nevertheless, I told her that they are only hurting themselves, famous last words coming from an adult.

Leta had Elliot's to correct. Leta did not cheat so she marked all of the wrong answers on Elliot’s test. Elliot complained to Sharon about this. I told Sharon that’s what happens - the other boys in the end screw over Elliot (which I am not sure if she understood my delicate terminology) because they marked their friends’ papers and cheated while they did so. This made Elliot and Lillian the big losers.

Jane had Kevin's paper and I know that she would not cheat. Lillian did not cheat for Paul who missed 6. Leta told me that maybe some of the boys were giving each other the answers in Chinese. This is why Leon who cannot utter a word in English only missed 6.

Even though it is Friday; today is not a true Friday because I work this weekend because next week is Golden Week, an important weeklong Chinese holiday, which is really only 3 days because we have to work Saturday like it is a Monday and Sunday like it is a Tuesday - confusing, I know.

Nevertheless, Friday afternoon is rather slow. Sharon traded her afternoon class for my morning class. I still have an after school class but I am not sure if the boys will show because there is a sports meeting. That is fine. I am a little annoyed with those cheaters anyway. Actually, I love them and really, I care but it does not devastate me that they cheated. If they are hurting anyone, they are really only hurting themselves. If they cheat, I have no idea what they know and what they don’t know.

While the boys are at the sports meeting, I talk to the girls about the cheating incident. I know they are not the ones that I need to talk to because they did not cheat, though I know that Lillian would cheat if she had the chance. I tell them that I know they, the girls, would never cheat and I am not sure if the boys know what a serious crime cheating is in America.

Leta tells me that it is a serious crime in China. If you are caught cheating in high school, you carry a paper with you that you are a cheater; you carry it to university and then you carry it to your job after you graduate from university. That is serious, I told her.

In America, you could get kicked out of school if you cheat. Really, for me, it does not matter that much that the boys cheated because I know that at these high priced Chinese boarding schools, grades are changed if they do not suit the parents so I am not going to fight it just to lose in the end. Nevertheless, at some point, the cheater will get caught (or become president, one or the other).

At the meeting at my company yesterday, Edgar asked me if I would teach an IELTs course. I said I would but now I am having second thoughts. I would be the second teacher teaching a class that is not the better students but the class that is the lower level students which are usually the students who could give half a crap. I guess it would be easy money but it is not that exciting to me.

In addition to that, a former student from XiangMing has emailed me a few times about teaching his mother spoken English which I think would be fairly easy. This I would do in the evenings one or two nights a week. They live fairly close.

Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Emily who took me to get my physical last September and who is no longer with the company. She sent me an email to see if I could teach her spoken English. Really, I am so busy at the moment that I really do not have time but I like her and I told her I would. She then replied that the lessons were not for her but at her new company. They would be business English classes.

She sent me the contract with the specifics. And, actually, it is a great part time job, an hour and a half a week for about $50 a session. Of course, there are a few drawbacks. One is that it is almost all the way out to Songjiang on the metro, which really is the boonies.

The other drawback is the lessons have to be during the day and really my schedule is such that the only way that I can make it work is if I go on Tuesday or Wednesday in between my lessons. On Tuesday, my lessons end at 9:50 am. I would need to be there at 10:45 am, which might or might not be cutting it close. Over this holiday this next week, I will have to ride out there and see if it will be problematic or not. I guess it comes down to $50 extra a week, or $200 a month for 15 weeks. I will have to think about it.

In addition, to everything else, I have still not signed the new contract for this term with my company. I have an email agreement concerning the new school but I have not actually sat down and signed the paper contract.

After the sports meeting, the boys came back into the classroom. Sharon, back from the hospital, talked to the class for five or ten minutes and then handed the class over to me. She then left. I am happy to see that her brain, skull and face are all intact. She had no hemorrhage, no bursting blood veins.

I tell the boys that I heard that some of them cheated on their tests; I have to explain ‘cheated’. I them tell them how serious cheating is. Danny has a smile of guilt on his face the whole time. Kevin is innocent as is Paul. The guilty ones are Danny, Venice and Leon. I do not get mad. I just try to explain why they shouldn’t cheat.
I smile and it is over.
After my little talk, we fill in the blanks with music. Today we do ‘Last Nite’ by the Strokes and ‘Daft Punk are Playing at my House’ by LCD Soundsystem. I explain that Daft Punk is the name of a band and that you have to move all the furniture into the garage so that you can have a big party. I explain ‘working the door’ but I do not go into the fact that ‘Sara’s girlfriend’ refers to a lesbian relationship. They can learn all about that stuff when they go to America.

After class, Danny walks up to me. He has his vocabulary work sheet. He tries to tell me something but he cannot find the words. I tell him it is okay and I squeeze his shoulder. He smiles.

In the last month or so, since I have got back from the States, I have somewhat befriended one of the new guards at my apartment complex. At first, I just said ‘Ni Hao’ when I passed and then as the days and weeks passed our conversation has become more involved each time I pass.

If you saw him, you would see him as the quintessential Chinese man. He is a little guy with glasses who looks as if he is about 14 years old but he must be at least 18 and I am sure he is probably in his mid-twenties. His uniform fits like it’s about three sizes too big. He has a belt that he cinches tightly around his waist; this, I’m sure is the only reason his pants are not down around his knees when he is talking to me.

And, the talking, the talking is what is most endearing about him because I look at him while he is on a roll and then if he thinks that I do not understand a word, he will replace that word with about 50 other Chinese words. Sometimes, a stray migrant worker will wander up and listen to what this young guard is telling me. Usually, the migrant worker, who belongs to the building crew building the office building at the entry of my apartment complex, will nod in agreement or look at me to see my response. This Chinese guard is always most adamant in his rapid-fire presentations.

For the most part, I think our conversations have something to do with eating or with watching DVDs but I know no specifics beyond that. Maybe I have even inadvertently invited him over to my apartment sometime in the not too distant future to watch movies. I do not know.

At this point, in our relationship, I do not have the heart to tell him I do not understand a word he is saying.
International Joke

Sharon sometimes makes me laugh my ass off, I swear! Earlier, the phone rang and she was resting. I motioned that I would answer the phone. I never answer the phone in the teachers’ office but I was feeling feisty. Sharon motioned for me to go ahead so I did. Before that she had told me that the students had worn her out or something to that affect so I thought she should rest. I told her she should not work so hard. We do have a bit of a cat and dog relationship but I do really like Sharon. She is abrasive but she means well, probably.

"Wei?" I said, a ‘hello’ of sorts in the second Chinese tone, which sounds like a question.
The voice at the other end sputtered some tentative Chinese. In the background Sharon tittered as I listened and spoke.
"Ting bu dong," I replied meaning 'I do not understand.'
This put Sharon nearly over the top, she giggled to herself uncontrollably as she got up from resting - in one of the lounge chairs that are placed by her desk because she has many visitors- to take the phone because she saw me looking at her in a panic.

Once she had the phone, she composed herself in a very businesslike manner. She talked for less than a minute to the person on the phone. When she hung up the phone, she laughed. I, however, was a bit nervous.

"You made joke," she told me as she walked back to the chair where she had previously been resting and complaining about the students.
"Who was that, was it someone important?" I was a little concerned. I hope that I had not offended the local communist leader or someone important.
"International joke. You make international joke." She answered.
"International joke?" I asked perplexed.
"Yes, that was foreigner," she said laughing.
"Oh, that was an international joke," I said laughing with her.
"International joke!" she said once more for emphasis.

As I type, Dolly is babbling on about the difference in pronunciation between cunt and can't. I am never sure what she is talking about really. Perhaps she is trying to entertain me. She is as interesting - and entertaining - as a random piece of gravel. She then told me that our company will not pay her until she turns in lesson plans. I shrug. I am not sure what to tell her.

Finally, fed up with the dildo can’t-cunt lady, I get up and go to the school store in the recreational building on the first floor. As I leave the teachers’ office, two women and a teenage boy enter the office and sit down and talk to Sharon.

Since I just had dumplings for lunch, I think it a wise idea to buy not single mint but Double Mint gum; Wrigley's is everywhere. As I walk down the hall outside of the 8th floor teachers' office, I bump into some students enjoying their lunch break. One of the students I ask if he has holiday plans for the 7 day holiday coming up.
"Homework," he tells me.
"That's horrible," I reply.
As I wait for the elevator, I tell two students hello who are playing ping pong without a table. They are running around hitting the balls like maniacs all over the area by the elevator bank. I smile at them as I get into the elevator.

At the school store, which is short walk across the quad, I locate the gum and I am about to tell the lady behind the counter (since everything is behind the counter and the clerk must fetch all of the items) what I want when a big noisy group of students come in pushing and shoving; they jostle me back from the counter. I make my way back to the counter like I am a salmon swimming up stream and in Chinese, I tell the woman ‘this’ and I point to the Wrigley’s Double Mint.

As I leave the store, I pop a piece of the Wrigley’s into my mouth and head back to the teachers’ office. The boys are still playing table-less ping pong when I get off the elevator on the 8th floor.

Dolly is gone when I get back to the office, which means that perhaps I can even do a little work without her buzzing like a fly in my ear. Buzz, Buzz. Can’t Can’t Cunt.

"I think you talk with him," Sharon told me as I walked back into the office after I popped down to the school store to buy gum.
“Hi,” I say to the young man sitting across from Sharon at her desk.

Sharon tells me that this is the person that was on the phone speaking Chinese. He is Korean. I laugh and he laughs. The two women who are with him do not understand why we are suddenly laughing.

I go to class to give the students their first vocabulary test. I tell the class I do not want any cheaters.
“What is cheater?” Kevin asks.
“Someone who looks at others’ papers.”
“No cheater Riki,” he tells Leon whom he refuses to call Leon. All of the boys still call Leon, Riki. They refuse to call him Leon.

I hand them the test. I walk around the room while they work. I want to make sure that they really are not cheating. At the back of the room - where I can watch to make sure they are not cheating; I park myself and work on lesson plans at the laptop that the school gave me. At one point, I look up and Leon and Danny are talking maybe - with Kevin in between concentrating. I clap my hands loudly like you would at bad puppy. Everyone jumps. Danny and Leon look particularly guilty.

“Leon bad boy,” Danny says in his own defense.
I shake my fist at Leon. Really, these are sweet kids. I try to never get angry. Getting angry with Leon, or Danny, or Kevin is really no different than getting angry at a naughty puppy. I cannot get angry with them. That would be really heartless. I tell Leon to finish his test.

Leta and Jane finish first. I take their papers and tell them to work on whatever they would like. Surprisingly, Leon gives me his paper at roughly the same time. Lillian then gives me her paper. After she gives me her paper, Lillian lays her head down on the desk. Jane and Leta both work on homework. Next, Danny gives me his paper. Then Elliot and Paul give me their papers. Venice and Kevin are the last to finish. While they are working, the other boys roam around the room.
“Hey! What are you monkeys doing? Sit down! Class is not over!” I tell them. “Kevin and Venice are not finished.” The boys sit down in less than a rush.

When Venice and Kevin finish, I hand the papers out for the students to grade. Lillian tries to get me to give her paper to Jane; I give it to Venice. I explain the rules. I will read the answers and they mark it if it is wrong.

At the end of this exercise, I am not surprised at the results. Lillian misses thirteen out of the twenty. Elliot misses ten out of the twenty. This does not surprise me because neither of them ever pays attention. When we are to be working on an activity Lillian reads a Chinese novel or lays her head on her desk. Elliot talks in class and bothers Danny when Danny is trying to pay attention.

Leon misses 6 of the words. Paul misses 6 as well, which is okay because I know that their English levels are lower. Danny misses three. Kevin, Venice and Jane each miss two. Leta, of course, misses none. She is the most hardworking (and youngest) student in the class.

Back at the office, I hand the results to Sharon. She has problems with Venice. He makes an effort in my class. I actually really like him. I tell her that he did well.
“Venice?” she asked.
“Yes, he does well in my class.”
She then tells me that the students have trouble with Dolly. I want to tell her that I have trouble with Ding Dong Dolly but I hold my tongue. I am in a rush anyway. I have to go to the office for my bi-weekly meeting.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Good Good Scooter Fever

The last few days, I have gotten it into my head that I really want a scooter, now I am not talking about just any scooter. I want one of those good good good like Bridgette Bardot scooters, one that looks cool, some sort of Italian inspired design, one that you might see tooling through a scene in Fellini’s Roma, perhaps one that is white with a black seat or white with a red seat, or white with a white seat or even black with a hound’s tooth check seat. Maybe this is because I saw a scooter for sale for about $400 that fit my specifications. I imagined myself on the scooter scooting around Shanghai, zipping through alleys, exploring the markets, scaring the pigeons. Yes, it was like some really cool travel commercial and I was the star.

This scooter, this Fellini movie scooter, I could park by a canal, any canal running through town - this is my Venice, my cha cha cha dance city - and I could have some noodles and then hop back on this Fellini’s majesty and maybe ride the countryside. This was a very exciting prospect. The price seemed right so I thought about calling the seller but then since I am a procrastinator, I thought I should do some research on the scooter that I fell in love with online, really, my first online romance, Geely, my amour.

Well, first I surfed around to see if the price was good on the Geely because for something with an Italian design I thought that seemed a good price. I didn’t find anything just like it but I did find some comparable scooters for like $1,000 so a mere $400 seemed like an okay price. I was starting salivate thinking about it. This was the best box of chocolates ever.

For kicks, I decided to see how reliable they are. I see people – lots of people - tooling around on scooters everyday, most of them seem reliable, the scooters anyway; I don’t know how reliable the people on the scooters are. So I thought I would be a Columbo and do a little dick work.

That is when reality came knocking. I learned very quickly that these Geelys are crap, nothing but crap. They break down pretty much immediately. They are just crap. Oh, the hell on wheels humanity!

I know what all of you are saying: buy a Honda, a Yamaha, a Suzuki. Yeah, that would be the smart thing to do but I really have this vision of riding something that has that Italian pizzazz. That is what I want – pizzazz. And, I just do not feel like Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki have pizzazz. I need pizzazz. I really need pizzazz, that Fellini like pizzazz.

My friend told me about an Indian scooter made by a company Bajaj. They are basically the parts used in Vespa but much cheaper. This is very interesting to me. I may have to explore this option.

At lunch, as I ate the fish that seemed to be either freezer burned or out and out tainted, I thought about my scooter dilemma. All of the sudden I really want a scooter, that same burning desire I had about moving to Mongolia and owning a camel. I am not sure which is more economical. Would the camel eat me out of house and home, yurt and mudhut? This I will have to research more in depth.

Here, I am in the land of scooters. You spit and you hit a scooter. They sell them everywhere. Riders ride them everywhere, even on the sidewalk, actually, especially on the sidewalk. Many a time, I have had to jump out of the way narrowly escaping getting plowed into by fathers with young daughters in tow that seem to think the sidewalk is a scooter interstate. I want to be part of this world, this scooter interstate world that I feel excluded from because I do not have wheels. I need some wheels – in color, and in black and white.

I sent Michael a message telling him I want a scooter. He sent me a message back telling me that he is in a meeting but that the scooter idea is cool. I think that since he has a lot of disposable income, he will get one too. His will be quite a bit nicer than mine because he loves the best. I see him getting a Bentley Scooter if such a thing exists. We will go scooting together. This will be like a movie, the Shanghai Easy Riders.

Last Saturday, Michael took me and one of his college buddies to the Shanghai Grand Prix, a track and field event, at the Shanghai Stadium. As we got out of the taxi to go into the stadium, Michael handed us our tickets. I looked at the ticket price 980 RMB which is well over $100. I asked him if he spent that much. He told me that he got them for 300 RMB each which is over $100 for the three of them. I told him that was so expensive. Here in Shanghai, that is about half the price of a scooter. He told me it was not a problem. He wanted to see the Olympians competing. He loves to spend money.

Once we got inside the stadium, we found our seats which were really good ones. I was one of the only foreigners there. Probably because of this, I was interviewed for the Shanghai Sports Channel. They wanted to know who I was there to see. I had to ask Michael whom I should say I was there to see; I had no clue whom I was there to see. The next evening Michael called me and told me that he saw my interview. Of course, on Monday when I came to school, the other Michael, the teacher, saw me interviewed on the sports channel as well.
On Friday, I had to get my visa renewed. Lisa, from the office and Edgar met me at the government office to have this done. Of course, it took much longer than we had expected. There was a lot of waiting....and more waiting. The visa officials interviewed Edgar about why the visa had lapsed and I think he said something that was probably pretty close to the truth. After we waited and waited, I left to go to school to my class that started at 10:50 that I would have barely made. On my way to the metro, Lisa called. She had forgotten that I needed to take a picture so I had to go back and take a picture which now meant that I would definitely miss my class. I told her to call Sharon and tell her. By this time, I was really hungry because I had not eaten. On the way to school, I thought I might stop by Starbucks and have a snack but instead I had to go back and have my picture taken which I was sure would take another hour.

While I waited to get my picture snapped, I thought of my current situation. At this point, I do really like Sharon but she really does not understand how difficult this job is for me. Once again, I have had to completely come up with a curriculum spur of the moment. She, as do all of the other teachers, have curriculum or books that they have used for years. And, add to this the fact that a few boys in the class have no idea what I am saying, ever. Their English levels are just so low.

While I mulled over my situtation, Lisa called Sharon and everything was okay. After everything was squared away with the Visa, Edgar took me back to school. He wants to start a SAT class at the center. He wants me to teach the class a few nights a week. I told him I would love to, what I did not say is that they will have to rework my schedule, if I am to work some nights then I must have my morning classes rearranged. I can no longer teach these crazy early classes if I am going to be teaching at nights as well.

He then suggested Dolly as the math teacher. Usually, I would never do this but I do not want to have this woman around ever. I told Edgar that I did not think she was doing a very good job. She had just come late to class the day before and Sharon told me that the students cannot understand her thick accent. No, she would not be a good choice. I told him about Markus who is now in grad school. Markus would be a better teacher for this but would he have time I wondered. Fortunately, I only see Ding Dong Dolly twice a week but it is two times more often than I would like to see her. I would be completely happy to never see her, ever.

Couple that with the fact that, at the moment, I spend all day at school. That is another reason that I want this scooter, so that I can take off and go home in the middle of the day and then come back in the afternoon and teach. I think my life would be a lot better with a scooter.

Forever, I thought I would just get a bicycle but then they always get stolen so I might as well just save that money and look at a scooter. I know this is a bad idea because it will probably be breaking down all of the time but I might go ahead and look at that Geely after all because it just looks so cool. And, after all, really, it is still good good good like Bridgette Bardot!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Visa
Ever since I got back to China, my company has been working on renewing my work visa, which is always a drawn out process. For the last two and half years, this process has been a mystery to me, a mystery that never worries me. I hand over my passport for the renewal; a few weeks later I have my passport back and my work visa.
For some reason, this time, this process has been a bit more muddled and peculiar than usual. Emily started the process before I left to go to America but then she quit the company. Lanny took over and began handling the details and now Lisa (another office worker) has taken them over from Lanny because Lanny is dealing with Australian exchange students at the moment. There, as I have mentioned previously, have been some problems along the way, which have made me have a few meltdowns.
Now, out of the blue, Lisa calls me and tells me that they want to see me at the Visa office. This sets my mind reeling. Every mistaken identity story - which includes a few Hitchcock films, North by Northwest and The Man who Knew too Much, in particular – plays in my head like some newsreel set on repeat. I cannot get this out of my head. Has my number been called? Is my life hanging in the balance? Am I 46 and savaged? Is my goose cooked? Is my duck Peking’d? This makes me very uneasy.
I try to think about other things. Before, I have mentioned how much I like Edward. He is always jolly and considerate. Lately, several times, he has reminded me that he is looking for the Shanghai Brand Watch for me at the lowest price.

I always enjoy talking to him. I especially enjoy lunch with him because that is when his motor is really revved. At lunch, he is always on a roll and I just sit back and listen and nod occasionally.

Today at lunch, he told me that Dolly was late ‘by 20 minutes this morning.’ This, of course, really upset Sharon. And I was privy to the information that the students cannot understand Dolly's Filipino accent. This I can understand since I can barely understand her as well and I must ask her to repeat everything she says about five times.

Dolly really is just an embarrassment for all of the Dollys of the world. For the most part, I have tried to be nice to her but she just always rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it is because when I first met her she immediately rubbed me the wrong way and she has since not rubbed me right.

After lunch, I was busy preparing for my class at 1pm. Usually, I have everything ready but sometimes, I have to do a few things at the last minute to insure that the lesson is the best that it can be. This seems to be the time when she wants to talk to me, always. And, anything that she says to me I have to have her repeat because I do not understand her.

Today was typical. She said something and I tried to ignore her and just do my work. She said it again louder and I asked her to repeat what she just said, not because I cared, simply because I was making an effort to be polite. She repeated what she had said and it took me a minute to realize she was asking me if I wanted a roommate, which was completely out of nowhere, completely.

Naturally, this completely stunned me, completely, stunned me. I know there are people who love having roommates and probably have to have roommates to stay sane. That’s great! I am not one of those people and Dolly Dildo is not someone I would ever even almost consider as a roommate. Does she not have any clue that it is hard enough for me to deal with her on the days that she teaches, like today when she was talking about her teaching methods as if I cared? Maybe she is a really great teacher but if the students do not understand her it really does not matter how great she is.

Later, after I returned from teaching my class, she asked me if I would switch schedules with her in the morning; take her early classes. Yeah right! No, I told her laughing when she asked. This, I could not believe she would ask me.

"I thought I would ask," she said in response when I laughed. I mean really, yeah, sure, I would love to take your early class Dill Weed Dolly Dill Do. Finally, Dolly Dilly Dill Do left. Do Do Ran Ran!

At the moment, someone is talking with Sharon, a young Chinese guy whom I have never seen before. They are chattering away animatedly in Chinese.

I do like Sharon. She has a strong personality. As I have said, her and Edward do not get along. He smokes in the office to annoy her, which I, of course, find amusing. For the most part, I am trying not to get involved.

Sharon does really work hard. I think that she puts more effort into this than she should. She stays at the dorm with the students on some nights. She is discouraged because the boys seem to be making no progress.
“The girls are hardworking. The boys are lazy.” - She tells me.

Yesterday, I took the students to the Shanghai Biennial, which the girls really loved and the boys didn't. The boys ran around knocking into people and sculptures and generally causing havoc. I acted as if I did not know them.

At one point, Elliot who was once Mark told me that he thought the exhibit boring. Danny who was once Bill agreed.
"Would you rather have lessons?"
"Oh, no, this very exciting." Danny exclaimed after he thought about it for a second.

Later, when we were by the gift shop waiting for the girls, Danny said something about being bored. 
"Did you say you don't like me?" I asked in my most mock accusatory fashion.
"No, like like!"
"He very like you" threw in Elliot. "He gay."
This of course, made the other boys burst out in uncontainable laughter. They could not contain themselves for about five minutes. I made a Mr. Bean face and pretended to hit Elliot, which made them laugh even harder.
We waited and waited for the girls. They were about a floor behind us when we separated. After fifteen minutes, I started to wonder about them a bit. I was not worried. They are all high school students but at the same time, they are three schoolgirls which maybe I should have been more worried than I was. I know that they are smart and that they would not go with someone against their will.
There were four floors of the exhibit. The fourth floor was a pretty quick look of a floor. We kept waiting. Finally, the boys decided to send Leon, who was once Riki, to find them. He disappeared. We sat down just inside the entrance to wait. Maybe I should have been more concerned. The boys always concern me much more than the girls.
While we waited, Kevin played a basketball video game on his mobile phone. I watched.
After about fifteen minutes, the girls showed, waving and laughing, with Leon behind frowning somewhat. Somehow, they had gone past us and were at the exit. I told all of them that I was very proud of them for being able to stick together.
On the walk back to school, we decided to get a small snack which the boys thought was the best idea ever. We gave a few places a glance but the boys vetoed each one. All of the places I suggested were not delicious enough.
Finally, the boys decided they wanted to just go back to school and play basketball. That was okay with me.
About that time, Leta told me that Lillian who was once Belial wanted to ask a question. Lillian then told me that Jane who has been Jane the whole time was the one who wanted to know. Jane told me that Leta wanted to know.
Leta has always been Leta, by the way.
“Would you like eat supper with us?” Lillian asked.
“Supper?” I asked
“Outside school,” Jane told me.
It was at this moment that I realized that I never pay that much attention to the girls, part of it is because they seem so autonomous and self sufficient, part of it is because I just did not think that they look at me as more than another adult in the parade of adults with whom they interact. For some reason, I don’t know why, I was truly touched, truly touched.
“Yes, I would love to have dinner,” I replied.
They all squealed as if this was 1970 and they had won a date with David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman or Tommy James. Again, I was touched and feeling a little guilty that I had not paid that much attention to the girls in class.
Leta and Jane are hardworking. So far, they have impressed me with their understanding of Frankenstein. The boys at this point seem to just stare into space or look at me with those looks of bewilderment when we talk about Frankenstein. We have been taking it very slowly.
I know it is very difficult for the boys but at the same time, they do not seem to want to put the effort they need to put into their studies. Yet, they want to go to America in a year and be able to assimilate with the American kids. After teaching international students in NYC, I know how difficult this is and it has to be their decision to put forth the effort, not mine.
While I am at dinner with the girls, I think about the boys. I love the boys but I realize that I must help the girls as much as I can because they are the ones expending the effort to learn. Once the boys realize that they must put more effort into this, I will gladly help them.
The girls chattered in Chinese and English at dinner. We ate at the girls favorite restaurant, a Japanese noodle place in the mall by the school. Lillian and I both got the cold sesame noodles. Jane got the lunch plate. Lillian got hot beef noodles. We all began with miso soup. While I ate, I realized just how precious this time is that I have here. The dark episodes may come and go but really, I have a lot of reasons to be thankful. Unaware, the girls, at dinner, helped me to remember this.
After dinner, we walked around the mall. They bought little candies at a candy shop. Jane swooned at the Hello Kitty store. At the mall, they were typical teenage girls, shopping and chatting and laughing. Eventually, I told them I had to go home. Instead of taking the bus, I took a long walk home. For part of the walk, I walked through one of the long underground malls filled with clothes shops and toy stores. Part of the way, I walked through the park. The rest of the way, I walked down Julu Lu - my street, my neighborhood. Really life is okay.
This evening, when I cannot take it any longer, I call Lisa because I am worried about this upcoming appointment in the morning. Since I have never had to go to the Visa office, this just seems really odd. What do they want? - I want to know. This is Hitchcock-like or Kafkaesque; I really am a bit worried.
“Oh, hello Tyson, nice to meet you.” This is how Lisa greets me on the phone, which is a common greeting here.
“Yes, nice to meet you too. Uh, I am worried about this meeting in the morning. Should I be worried? I am really worried?” I tell her in rapid succession.
“Oh, don’t worry!” she assures me. “Edgar (my boss) will answer questions. They want see your face, take picture of you.”
“Oh, okay,” I tell her. This makes me feel much better. I hang up the phone, breathe a sigh of relief and put on Bowie.
And in the death…as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare…

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cold Morning Bus

Something kind of hit me today….

Over the weekend, for lack of a better word, I experienced an episode. This is something that rarely happens. The last time it happened was probably 5 five years ago. This feeling is hard to put into words. The best way to describe it is a sense of dread, like wolves baying at the door, or being alone and lost in the woods. There is a sense of panic with the sense of dread and you feel short of breath and you cannot eat.

It hits hard. I have had it last only for a few seconds but sometimes it can happen for an extended amount of time. When it is over, you really do not want to do anything.

Michael and I had plans to eat an early birthday dinner to celebrate my birthday which was the day after. I forced myself to go. A counselor friend told me once that if you can still function you are okay. I forced myself to function and go to dinner with Michael.

The whole time we walked looking for a place to eat, I tried to not think about it, tried to block out the state of my mind. I hoped it would go away. Usually, it goes away.

At dinner, when the first dish arrived, I could only take a few bites and then a strange panic seized me. This panic immediately took my appetite. I tried to force down the other dishes. Michael knew something was wrong. I told him everything was delicious. He knew something was wrong.

“Maybe you don’t like Chinese food,” he guessed.

I kept eating because I never want to hurt Michael. I could not fathom hurting Michael. I forced down the egg and escargot, the gamey duck, the weed-like greens. I forced them all down. Michael is such a sweet person. I cannot hurt him.

I know that there are many people who suffer these episodes worse than I do. My mental health problems are probably slight in comparison to people who are on medication. For years, I just thought that people made it up. They made up their problems. Maybe sometimes they do but I know with my slight mental imbalance that it is not something that is made up. There is something that is off in the brain, that figment of the imagination that is a living breathing nightmare. Holly Golightly called them the mean reds I believe.

Really, all you can do, all you can ever do, is just get through it, just make it through it. I knew that by Monday, the mid-autumn holiday for the moon cake festival, I would feel a bit better. This is like getting over flu.

The next day, I did feel a bit better, a bit despondent but I tried to snap out of it. At dinner, the night before, I had not eaten much so I knew I must eat. This was a problem. I really did not want Chinese food. I just could not stomach noodles or dumplings. I just couldn’t do it. I did not want to eat McDonalds because I had eaten McDonalds on Saturday. (I limit myself to McDs once a week. In the States, of course, I never go. Here it is different. I must have comfort food once a week.) I looked through a little phone book of restaurants and came upon Subway which is new here in China. Again, I try to avoid Subway in the states but here, it was like angels calling to me.

Subway is on Maoming road which is near my movie store - Even Better than Movie World - which is across the street from Movie World. I thought I would go to Subway and then get some DVDs at Even Better than Movie World since of course it is even better then Movie World.

On the way to Subway, I did not know if I would be able to eat or not. Once I got there, not that this is an advert for Subway, I would get the cold cut combo or whatever it is called. Believe it or not – and I never thought I would say this about a Subway sandwich; the sandwich was inspired. Well, maybe not inspired but I did have no problem woofing it down. The fresh vegetable and the bread made me happy. Seriously, I might have to add Subway to my weekly routine.

After the Subway pit stop, I strolled over to Even Better than Movie World and got some movies, nothing that memorable, a futuristic take on the book of Exodus and an Australian school suicide movie.

By this time, since I had started late with my late lunch, I had to get ready for the company dinner my company planned, honoring the mid-autumn festival, sometimes known as the moon cake festival, a time when you eat moon cakes and stare at the moon - though the moon is usually not visible here in Shanghai due to clouds and smog.

Fortunately, the dinner was at a restaurant within walking distance to my apartment. I started the trek there. The weekend at this point had been a rainy one. I brought my umbrella just in case, the umbrella that I bought on the way home from Even Better than Movie World. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I had lost an umbrella the day before. Umbrellas are fleeting like a spring romance (whatever that is).

There were a few drops but not enough for the umbrella so I just swung it along by my side, unopened, as I walked.

As I got close to the restaurant, I bumped into other foreign teachers on their way to the same function. The restaurant was housed in what looked like a former estate with a gated entrance. Inside the gate were some Australian exchange students taking photos with camera phones. Their handler told them to take photos later that their hosts waited.

I followed the sea of diners into the estate. On the second floor, where the party was just starting, I was given a tag and told to fill out a nametag. I did this and stuck it on my shirt. I made my way inside. Lanny greeted me immediately.

We were selected to co-host the party. Needless to say, this was a bit of a shock. This would definitely bring me out of my ‘what it all mean’ panic-depression. Lanny gave me some rapid fire instructions as Fairry found me a suitable place to have my meal. Edgar my boss took my umbrella and hung it on a faux fireplace mantle. The suitable place where I was about to sit did not meet Lanny’s approval because it was sadly away from the action. Lanny found me a table in the middle of the room.
“Mr. Tyson, this is much better; much more suitable.”

Bill, who has changed his name to Danny, sat next to Mark, who has changed his name to Elliot, across the room. Riki, who changed his name to Leon, and Kevin were seated at my table across from me. I sat in between three Australian high school girls clustered together as one and a Chinese university student. Frank, who changed his name to Ziv but was told to change it again because ziv may or may not be Chinese for taking a crap and so he is now Paul, came in late, he immediately made his way to Danny and Elliot.

Everyone was seated. Lanny gave me my orders. I was to co-host with her. She did most of the speaking. I was to introduce the Australian diplomat in attendance. Edgar spoke before I introduced the diplomat. He did not know the diplomats name he fumbled for his card which I held. He tried to nonchalantly slip the card from me. Since he was speaking in Chinese, I was not sure what he was after. He finally just asked the diplomat his first name.

Lanny and I were in charge of games and entertainment as well. Finally, when the dishes were making there way to the tables, I told Lanny I would like to eat. She excused me but she kept on hosting.

The dishes arrived and the Australians next to me were taken aback by most of the dishes. Since I have been in China for so long now, I had forgotten how the most ordinary Chinese food seems exotic to new arrivals. They were not sure what to think of the dish of bamboo.

And, it took them a minute to open their 7UPs (which they called lemonade) because they are the old fashioned pop tops. You know the kind. The kind that were banned in America in like the 70s because people would put them in the can after they opened the cans and swallow them, cutting everything on the way down - and past the stomach - to ribbons. They had never seen anything so primitive.

We ate and then played games and then ate some more. Lanny picked out some students to play some games and then I picked out some of my students to play games. Everyone had to have partners. The game was movie charades.

I picked Kevin and then he got to pick a partner. He picked me. He did the action. I did the guessing. I am horrible at this stuff. First, he pretended to conduct an orchestra which made me think of Fantasia but then he did something that looked a bit obscene in his boy area. This was in a crowd of maybe 100 people or so. I knew no movies, or super hero blockbuster movies that involved masturbation. This was bit of an embarrassing dilemma. Finally, someone coached me.
“Harry Potter!” they yelled.
”Harry Potter!” I guessed in true myna bird fashion.

After that, the girls from my class – Jane, Leta, and Belial who is now Lillian – presented me with the most beautiful cake I have ever seen. It was a big chocolate mouse head, that is, it was big for a mouse head but small for a cake, not enough for 100 people by any means.

Edgar suggested I put a piece on each table and everyone could have a bite which was sensible. The girls helped me do this; meaning - they were the ones who cut and distributed the pieces. After the last game, Lillian presented me with my own piece of cake. I half-heartedly tried to share it with others but really, I was happy to have a piece to myself.

This morning, I really did not want to get up and come to work. I wanted to stay in bed and just sleep the day away. Really, for the most part, I am fine in the aftermath of my episode. I just do not have much energy. Nevertheless, I took the bus, the cold morning bus, to school.

I tried to force down a red bean steamed bun in the canteen. This was not easy. At my desk in the teachers’ office, I prepared for class. Edward chattered as I prepared which was fine. Finally, I made my way to class. As I was leaving the office, Sharon told me that the Secretary of the Communist Party would be sitting in on my class. This rank is as important if not more important than the principal. I told Sharon that was fine.

Once I walked into class, and saw all of their faces smiling and looking at me for encouragement and some sort of guidance, I knew I would be okay.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Watches and Passports

“When you speak Shanghainese,” Edward said, “it sounds very strange, very funny to hear foreigner speak Shanghainese.”
He told me this when I repeated a phrase that I overheard him say to Sharon.
“When we speak English,” he asked, “it does not sound as strange?”
“No,” I told him though it really does sound strange to me but I did not want to offend him because Edward is such a sweet person.

Sadly, I was in somewhat of a rotten mood, which I try to never take out on anyone. As soon as I got to school Lanny called me. Lanny now works for my company. You may, or may not, remember she was my co-hostess at the speech contest, a few years ago, when I first came to Shanghai. I did not realize until yesterday that this Lanny who has been emailing me about my passport is that same Lanny.

She called me this morning and wanted my passport number and my signature. She is getting my working visa renewed. That is fine except that I went to the office fucking yesterday and got my passport from her after I had a meeting with David – the assistant to the owner - and it seems like it would have made sense to get all of that information then while she had the thing in her possession. So now, she wanted me to find a scanner somewhere and scan my signature. In America, this would be no big deal but here in China, it is hard enough explaining little things and I just did not want to deal with it because I was working on lesson plans and I had no time for her fuck ups, basically. She wanted my passport number as well. I told her my passport was at home. It is not like I am carrying it around with me. I told her I was busy. I would talk to her later.

The reason, I urgently needed my passport back is that I tried to pay my rent (a few weeks ago) and I could not transfer the money to my landlady’s account without my passport. On the phone, I told Lanny that I still have to pay my rent. These little things that should be little things turn into major things and really puts me into a crappy mood.

After I got off the phone, I went back to my office and talked to Edward. I told him about the whole affair.
“It’s just stupid,” I said,
“Yes, it is stupid,” he repeated

The other day, in the Shanghai Daily, I read an article about Shanghai watches. The Shanghai Watch Factory was established in 1955 and at that time was the biggest watchmaker able to turn a profit for a state owned company. Now people are starting to collect the watches that were made in the 50s and in the 60s. Supposedly, the ones made in the 70s are fairly cheap but good.

Okay, granted, you can get a fake Rolex or Omega on every street corner.
“Watch! Bags!” The hawkers call as you make your way to the grocer, Starbucks, wherever.
“Cheaper for you! Best quality!” They invariably add.

Nevertheless, the Shanghai Watch bug has bitten me. I really want one. Chairman Mao wore one, as did many others in the Chinese Communist elite. Communist Chic is very in this year.

So, I have this stack of newspapers on my desk and I went sorting through them because I really wanted to find the article about the watch so that I could ask Edward if he knows where I can find one. Although I could not find the article right off, I knew I kept the paper. I kept digging and digging, looking and looking. I finally found it and then realized after I found the article; there is a big picture of the watch on the front page of the section because the article is the cover story of the section. Oops!

I then showed Edward the article.
“Where can I find one of these?” I asked.
“Oh, a famous brand watch,” he responded.
“You can find that…”and before he had the chance to respond, Sharon was right there to make sure I knew that she knew where I could buy the watch. Of course, this made Edward angry so he went silent.

This is how it is with them most of the time. They bicker and squabble. Sharon has such a strong personality that she always overrides Edward. Edward is so nice that he usually lets her.

Briefly, they argue about pronunciation, the Chinese pronunciation of the shop that carries the Shanghai Brand watches. Something tells me that Edward is right because, well, he usually is.

Edward tells me, while Sharon is squawking in the background, that I can get the watch on West Nanjing Road, maybe. I ask him it he can tell me where on Nanjing Road. Sharon writes something in Chinese on a piece of paper and hands it to me.
“This is watch shop,” she tells me.

Later at lunch, I sit with Edward and then Sharon comes and sits with us. After five minutes or so, a friend of Edward comes by and Edward tells me that his friend wants to have lunch with him. Actually, I know the reason he went to eat with his friend - Sharon would not shut up for a minute. Edward is a really good person and very helpful to me. But, now, I am beginning to like Sharon because I think she is learning the boundaries with me but at the same time, it makes me angry when she just tromps all over Edward.

Edward left and it was just Sharon and me.

“What do you call that?” she points to my bowl.
“No, not soup.”
“Oh, uh, seaweed.”

Usually, I pass on the soup because it is often egg and tomato or mystery chicken parts but today I got the soup because I am fond of seaweed.

“You don’t like soup.” Sharon tells me.
“I don’t like most soups,” I tell her “ but I do like seaweed soup.”
“Oh, I can’t eat.”
“You can’t eat it?”
“No,” and with that she points to her neck and pantomimes swelling.
“Allergic” I tell her.
“Allergic. You are allergic to seaweed.”

I then tell her I once had allergies but I took shots when I was a kid to cure them.

“Not allergic.” She says.
“Not allergic?” I ask. “I don’t know what else it could be.”
“Not allergic!” she says as a confirmation. “I like all soup but seaweed, you like no soup but seaweed.” This sent her into a cackling fit, which made me laugh.

“That kind of soup,” she said, “can’t eat because of my age.”
“Age?” Okay, now this really stumped me. Sometimes, conversations here are like trying to work out some abstract crossword puzzle with half of the clues missing. Oh, okay, I think I see.
“Do you get really hot?”
“Yes, really hot!”
“And you get cold, really cold too?
“Oh, that is called menopause!”
“Men – uh – paws!”
“Men-uh…paws!” she repeated it slowly and tentatively but said it.
“Yeah, good, menopause.”
Sharon has somewhat slithered into my heart because she is totally whacked out of her brain.

After lunch, I thought I might go to Nanjing Road, a few blocks away, and see if I could find one of those watches that I had read about. Edward had disappeared. I called him on the phone to ask if he might go with me. He was outside the school gates so we met at Guangdong and Guangxi, which is the northwest corner of the school. He pointed the way to the shop but could not go with me because he had students waiting for him in the teachers’ office. They were there to give their recitations.

As he started for the school he turned to say one more thing:

“You may have to go to the Shanghai Watchmaker factory shop to find watch.”
“You may not find the watch on Nanjing Road,” he said. “I talked to friend. I know of another place to look for watch. We can go there when we have time.”
“Okay, thanks.”

I headed off to Nanjing Road. That part of Nanjing Road is a pedestrian mall of sorts. Tons of Chinese are selling all sorts of things that you never want unless you are into hookers and massages. Today, I was not in the mood for the hustle bustle - especially hustle – of the road. A woman approached me; I ignored her.
“Hey you walk too fast,” she told me as I passed. “I no catch you.”
I smiled to myself. The watch, the Shanghai Watch, was not there. This was a place to buy expensive watches. I walked back to the school somewhat dejected.

As soon as I got back to school, Sharon accosted me; Lanny had called. She absolutely had to have my passport now. They had to renew the visa today. I told Sharon the whole story. At this point, I was very angry. They wanted Sharon to take my remaining lesson at the end of the day, which I thought was ridiculous that they would put her in that spot. I told her I was very angry with them after I explained the story again.

“I was there at the office yesterday. Lanny gave me back the passport. She told me she did not need it. ” I told Sharon. “Yesterday!”
My little tantrum made her laugh. I told her that it made me really angry that I would miss my lesson at the end of the day. She had a lesson at that same time in the public school so she could not take it.
“That is okay,” she said, “that is extra lesson. Students don’t need lesson then.”
“Well,” I told her. “I am really angry. I never miss lessons.”
“It is not your fault,” she told me.

Lanny called again. She told me she would come to the school and take me to pay my rent and then take the passport. I asked her when. She told me in a few hours. I told her that I could go home, get my passport and go pay my rent before that.
“Oh, that make you too tired,” she told me.
“That is okay,” I told her, “I will go home. Call me when you are coming to get it.”

As soon as I got off the phone, I had yet another small outburst. Sharon had left the office. Edward was there.
“So stupid,” I told him.
“Yes, stupid,” he repeated.

I left the office, took the bus home, got my passport, went to the bank, stood in line for about 30 minutes to pay my rent because Friday afternoon is an universally busy bank day. Finally, after I was done, I walked back home. By that time, I was really tired.

After I recuperated for about an hour, I called Lanny because I was curious why she had not called.
“Hello Lanny.”
“I am at the gate”
“The gate of my house?”
“The gate of the school.”
“I left the school hours ago. Come to my house.”
“Yes, I will come to your house right now.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dumplings and Frankenstein

Yesterday, we were supposed to go swimming in the school pool. After my last class, I came back to the teachers’ office to do such. Edward with whom I was to swim was missing. Edward had gone missing late in the day. Maybe he took the advice from You Tube and found a girl in his area to seduce.

Whatever had happened, he was not around. I thought about going home but I thought I would wait to see if he showed because I really like him and he is so nice to me always and I did not want to just leave without talking to him.

I busied myself on the computer doing lesson plans and filling out this teacher’s diary that my company gave me last week. At first, the diary seemed a bit like an albatross hanging around my neck with no mariner in sight. A man needs a mariner or something like that. But then, the diary became something that I deemed useful for myself, fairly easy to fill in data here and there. Thus if my company wanted to see the diary at the end of the term, I would have something fairly exhaustive to show them, something that would probably make no sense to anyone but me. Thus, I busied myself with this diary.

A short time later, Edward came into the office. Another man came in shortly after. They chattered in Chinese. Somehow I ascertained that they were talking about our upcoming swimming expedition.

Edward phoned someone. I tried to make out the Chinese words as he chatted but it was useless. I understood nothing.

He hung up the phone. We could swim the next period which was nearly an hour away. That was fine with me. I decided to wait.

Shortly before the period ended, the phone rang again. Edward answered it. Again, he chatted, it seemed, as he had had previously.

This time when he got off the phone, he picked up the phone again and dialed a number as he dialed he said – “No one seems to know when we can swim. I am calling some other person.”

Again he had what seemed to be the same phone conversation. When he hung up the phone he said “The Huangpu professional swim team is training now. The swimming pool manager will call me back and tell me when we can swim.”

At that point, I was no longer in the mood to swim.
“I think I will go home.”
“Do you have evening plans?”
“No, I am just really tired.”
“Yes, you are a hardworking man.”


Frankenstein has been a struggle, more of a struggle than I would have predicted. The vocabulary is much too advanced for these students. The students try but this seems to be an impossible task.

In the afternoon, we attempted to read the rest of the letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister at the beginning of Frankenstein. As I read, I tried to explain the events taking place. I told the students to raise their hands if they had questions. Bill raised his hand at one point.
“Bill, do you not understand?”
“No, do not.”
“Okay, well, the ship is out where no man has ever been, right? That is what the captain thinks but they see a giant.” And with this, I try to pantomime giant. “This giant is in a sledge”- I explain sledge – “pulled by dogs.”

Bill nods like he might understand a little of what I say.
“Do you understand?”
“This man, this stranger, is out on the ice.” Bill and the rest of the boys stare at me blankly.
“Does anyone know what ‘ice’ is?”
Everyone shakes their heads NO except for Leta.
“Leta, do you know what ‘ice’ is?”
“Would you mind telling the rest of the class?”
With this, she turns around and addresses the boys in Chinese. They shake their heads vigorously in agreement.
“We know!” confirmed Bill.

At one point, Frank told me that this is boring.

“Frankenstein, boring? Boring for boys? Frankenstein?”

“We do not understand many words.”

“Well, I will try to explain it to you.” I told him. “And what I cannot explain, maybe Leta can explain.”

This appeased him somewhat. I really do not mind how they learn as long as they learn.
“Tonight, I would like you to try to read Chapter One,” I told them. “I know it is difficult but please try to look up the words and understand the general meaning. We will talk about it tomorrow.”
After class, Belial (which no one is really sure if Belial is actually a name or not) handed me a packet that looks as if it had some sort of ointment within.
“Sweet, like pudding,” she told me as she handed it to me.
Well, Sharon drives me totally crazy. I just have to grit my teeth. Fortunately, she is the only problem at the new school and I am learning to toughen up a little around her since I know that she is just a bit of an oaf to everyone. Maybe I should not be so hard on her. After my last school where I liked everyone so much, I think I might be a little spoiled by how good I had it there. I know that I had it good. But that is okay. Sharon is really the only problem at the new school.

In class, I asked the students if they read Chapter One last night. They shook their heads YES. I wanted to believe them but I am so accustomed to students not doing the homework that I thought they might be telling me they did it just to appease me.

I started with Leta. I asked her what happened. She told me the first major event that Frankenstein’s father married a friend’s daughter when the friend died and left the daughter alone. I told her this was good.

“Frankenstein adopted,” Bill, who can be a bit shy, told me.

“Yes, Bill, that is great; Maybe, the most important thing that happened is that Frankenstein was born, not adopted. If he was not born, we would not now have a story. Very good Bill!”

Bill may be my favorite. He shushes the other boys sometimes when I am trying to talk and he looks at me intently as if he is trying to decipher everything I am saying.

As Kevin and Jane told me what took place in Chapter One, I walked around the room. When I looked over their shoulders at their books, I saw Chinese translations written above several words in each sentence. I told them that I knew they worked really hard because translating Frankenstein into a story they can understand has got to be difficult.
The morning class was a good one. Maybe they can all be as good, or close to as good.

Next period, the students are going to make dumplings. I told Sharon that I would help which I am somewhat regretting now because I would like to spend less time rather than more time around her but I feel as if I do put in my time, I will, in the end, have something noteworthy to write.

But, forget about that now, more on Edward, we were on our way for our mid-morning coffee-break, as we were leaving the teachers’ office, the phone rang. Edward answered and talked briefly to someone.

“That was the principal,” he began, “he wants to talk to ME. He wants me to come meet the mayor.”

“That is great!”

Everyone loves Edward except he and Sharon seem to often have harsh words to each other in Chinese.

Believe it or not, the dumpling making went without incident which somewhat stunned me. Sometimes, Sharon is okay. The dumplings that I made were sad dumplings – too much filling, not enough filling, folded wrong – sad falling apart at the seams dumplings. I thought Sharon would scold but she did not. I relied on Frank (who I learned now wants to be called Ziv which Sharon asked me if it was a name and I told her not a name I know but he can choose it if he likes if that is, in fact, what he wants to be called.)

When the dumplings were ready, the boys were typical boys and swarmed around the dumpling pot like flies. The girls were not aggressive. Leta and Jane were the most polite. Of course, as soon as I started eating my dumplings, I thought about Jane and how she had missed a few days because of fever.

Psychosomatically, I started feeling as if my nose was clogged. This, I know, is because I got it into my head that Jane is infectious, that she is carrying some sort of rare strain of Birdflu which will stop me dead in my tracks, which will cover me in boils, which I will need some sort of Chinese medicine to cure, the Chinese medicine that you buy in some back alley thinking you are getting medicine but you are actually getting Gizmo the Gremlin. I must remember to not get him wet, to not feed him after midnight.

At one point, Jane came close to me and I did everything in my power to not visibly freak out. I really do not want to get sick. It seems I get sick often here in China. Naturally, I never enjoy it.

“Look like monster teeth!” she said of the dumpling that was floating in her bowl carrying another strain of Birdflu.
“Or an alien head,” I added knowing that the dumpling in question was one of the ones that I shoddily put together.

After I had four or five dumplings, I sat at the back of the classroom where the dumplings had been assembled and I watched the boys at the front of the classroom gathered around Sharon and the dumpling pot waiting for the next batch. The girls stood back behind somewhat uninterested. While I watched the activity – the boy’s rowdiness, Sharon’s zigging and zagging between dumpling pots, and the girls who were the center of the orbit of it all; I thought to myself- “Without a doubt, I really must eat some apples and drink some vitamin C energy drink when I get home. I certainly do not want to get sick.”

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

Sharon is not having a good morning. Her car died after – or maybe before - she started it this morning. Her explanation to me was vague. I told her it might be the battery.

“Impossible” she replied “Car only 8 months old.”
“Did you leave on the radio or leave on the lights?” I asked.

She stared at me blankly.

“Car is at mechanic shop,” she told me, maybe to end the discussion which was just as well with me. I did not really want to try to explain car mechanics – or car batteries and how they charge when the car engine is running and drain when the engine is not running if the overhead lights have been left on overnight. This would be impossible for me to explain to her in English when we have enough trouble with our daily simple conversations.

Most people, of course, do not have cars in China. When they do have a car, the entire family and extended family share the same car, much like it was in America before everyone had to have a car to drive three blocks to the grocer because of lack of sidewalks.

My job is to prepare these students for a military academy and for the SAT. They will not be taking the SAT for another year and a half. Nevertheless, I still feel as if it is my responsibility to ready them for this hurdle as much as I can. On Friday, Dolly asked me what our goal is with these students. No one had really told her what she is to teach. I told her that we are to prepare them for the military academy in the USA and to get them ready for the SAT, which they will take at a later date. Upon hearing this, her response was the SAT should not be our responsibility. Someone else can do that. I told her she can do what she likes but I am preparing them for the military academy and I am preparing them for the SAT as well.

Now, I wonder why I did not just take the easy way. Since Frankenstein will boost their vocabulary, I thought it would be a pretty cool book to do. Man, was I wrong. Really, I did not think that Frankenstein would be such a difficult book for the students to grasp but then of course it was published in 1816 and spearheaded the Romantic Movement so to speak, so the language, though modern, is quite flowery and quite a bit more advanced than I had expected for these students. Not to mention, my brightest student, Jane, is not here today because she is home with fever.

We skipped the introductions and the preface and went right to the letters written by the character Captain Robert Walton –
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

Maybe I could say the same for the class. I am not sure. Needless to say, in that first sentence there were six unfamiliar words to my students. This is going to be bumpy road indeed. Since I have a computer-to-overhead-projector capability in the class, I showed the trailer for the original 1931 Frankenstein and then tried to show the Coppola version but nothing. Today is obviously not my day.

Not to mentions, this is after Sharon told me that I am lazy because I am not learning enough Chinese words. This is after she pointed to the board at some Chinese words. I need to learn as many Chinese words as the students learn English words. Then she will test me. This, she said, in front of the students which angered, flustered and, basically, stunned me.

So, needless to say, I was flustered when I started Frankenstein with the students. I stumbled over words and forgot what I was saying mid-sentence. This is not how I had envisioned starting Frankenstein. I wanted to start Frankenstein with a bang. Add to this, two Chinese teachers came to sit in on class because they want to improve their English.

Somewhere about mid-class, I got back into the swing of things but I still felt as if I was limping along. Just letting go and not letting what Sharon said bother me is what I needed to do but I was having difficulty with this. I just could not believe that she would say something so wildly inappropriate in front of the students. How she could be so unprofessional, I did not understand.

Maybe I should write an email to Fairry at the company. When I got back to the office, I had planned to write Fairry an email anyway so I thought I would mention it then. But then, Sharon walked in and I just told her that I was angry, what she said was very inappropriate, that is not something that you say in front of the students. She was shocked but I think pleased that I said something to her. She is someone who seems to like conflict which is really foreign to me. She told me that she was only joking. I told her what she said is still not something you say in front of the students. I told her that I did not want to be mad at her; I just had to let her know so that I would not keep it bottled up. I wrote Fairry an email but I did not mention the incident.

Edward came in soon after and the mood improved enormously. Edward is always in a chipper mood and puts me into such. He is an incredibly upbeat guy who is also very curious. Over my shoulder, he watched the Coppola Frankenstein trailer. On the phone, Sharon chattered in Chinese to the mechanic about her car.

“What is You Tube?” Edward asked as we were watching the trailer.

“A site where you can watch video clips,” I replied

“Can you watch English movies?”

“I think you can watch trailers,” I replied and added “I’m not sure about movies.”

“Oh, okay. I will type it into my computer right now.”

I went back to working on my lessons.

“We will go swimming this afternoon,” he said, ‘with a girl.”


“The pretty girl who sat with us in the cafeteria,” he added.

This pretty girl is one of the teachers that sat in my fumbled and dazed Frankenstein class.

“Okay, I have classes until 2:30.”

“That should be not a problem.”

“The students go 4th period I thought I might go with them,” I said thinking aloud. At this Edward said the students might be shy going with me, especially the girls.

Sharon then butted in out of nowhere – “Such nonsense, the boys and girl go separate.”

This offended Edward. He told Sharon she offended him which caught me off guard and made me laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” Edward asked as I just kept laughing. “You laugh as if she has already made you angry this morning.” I still kept laughing because I was not sure how in the hell he knew that she had made me angry by my nervous laughter so I laughed even more.

“Sometimes, she is very rude and she says words she should not say,” he added which made me laugh even more. “Why do you laugh? I do think she has already made you angry this morning.”

Sharon then left the room and I did not want to talk about her behind her back since I thought we had cleared up our disagreement but then I wanted to tell Edward what had happened because he seemed to know already. Maybe Sharon had told him at some point.

“Maybe she said something in front of students?” he asked.

“How do you know all of this?” I asked. I was truly baffled that he knew her that well. They have shared the office for many years. I did not want to pass judgment this soon in the game but I think Sharon is going to be someone with whom I will have to be cautious, on guard against.

I then told Edward what happened and he told me that he and the other teachers sometimes have problems with Sharon. She says inappropriate things, which has angered many teachers in the past. Oh good, I thought. That is all I need.

He then told me that she told him that I was lazy which baffled me and made my anger rise once again.

“Lazy? She has called me lazy?!”
“Yes, she said you leave trash in the classroom.”
“I leave trash in the classroom?” This was downright absurd. I am not sure to what this pertained. “What sort of trash.”

“Water bottle.”
That was the most ridiculous accusation ever. I had left my water bottle in the classroom once because sometimes I forget things when I am wrapped up teaching. A water bottle is one of those things that I tend to forget when I am gathering my things. This happened once and I got the water bottle later because it was nearly full. Wow, I could not believe how ridiculous this woman is. Part of me wishes that Edward would not have told me but then I am glad he did because I want to know if someone is badmouthing me for no good reason and she was certainly badmouthing me for no good reason. I am lazy because I left one water bottle by accident in the classroom?!

Then, maybe to change the subject or maybe because he was curious, Edward asked
“What is tube? Like channel?”

I tried to explain but failed miserably. I don’t think he would grasp the boob-tube concept but then speaking of a different sort of boob or two, I look over at Edward and he is looking at videos of pretty girls on youtube. You know the sort of video; the one that asks you to hit a certain button to learn how to seduce girls in your area now. That is somehow where he had landed.
“What is seduce?”
“To have sex with someone,” I told him. Maybe I should have said something along the lines of conning someone into sex but then after all I am not really much of a walking dictionary.

“That is common for foreigners right?”
“Uh, I guess. Are you ready to go to lunch?” I asked.
“Yes, let’s go to lunch.”

As we walked to lunch, he tells me that his friend asked him to watch an erotic video.

“I learned some new words on this subject,” he announced.

“Oh yeah?!” I asked; my interest piqued. I was wondering what sort of vocabulary he might have picked up from a porno.

“Job-blow!” he told me proud to have learned such an important erotic term.
“Blowjob,” I corrected.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Fist Sandwich

“Not my students!” I exclaimed with dramatic affect. “They’re angels!”
Sharon, who runs the international department at Gezhi was talking about the naughty boys in the class. And then she held up her hand and made the peace sign -
“And after only two days!”
It seems that she had to come back to the school at 10 pm because as she said the boys were ‘fighting’ which I took to actually mean roughhousing.
“I think you might need to give each one a fist sandwich,” I said, with this she gave me a look of bafflement.
“You know sandwich,” I started, “like you eat.” I pantomimed eating a sandwich and then I made a fist as if to shove it in my mouth.
“Oh, oh, fist sandwich,” she laughed. “I give them fist sandwich.”
“Yes, fist sandwich,” I confirmed.

Sharon is okay. At first, I was not sure because she is playfully confrontational. On the day before, a few representatives came from my company to meet with the teachers while I was at my bank trying – yes, trying – to pay my rent. Yes, Sharon had said something about them coming but I was not sure what she was trying to say because of the communication barrier.

Later, when I came back to the office, and the representatives had gone; Sharon told me that I misunderstood because of her ‘poor English.’ I told her that even native speakers misunderstand each other. This seemed to make her feel better.
“You need learn more Chinese words!” Sharon then told me, as if learning Chinese is something that I could do overnight and those words that I learned overnight would be in fact the words I would need to know every time I needed to know a Chinese phrase.
“What am I to do?” She asked me in resignation after I did not respond to her previous exclamation.
“Well,” as I said this, I looked over the class schedule, “it looks to me as if the students only have PE a few times a week.” I pointed this out to her for emphasis.
“Yeah, a few times a week,” she repeated.
“That is not enough exercise,” I said, “especially for boys. Boys need much more exercise than that. That is not enough.”
“No, that is not enough,” she agreed.
I then looked over my countless classes with the students.
“I could, perhaps,” and I paused and then continued as if I was solving a case like I was Hercule Poirot or Columbo, “ turn some of my language classes into PE classes.”
“Oh, yes,” she agreed, “give English words for sports they like at same time.”
“You will have to clear it with boss.”
“Sure.” I guess I must admit here that I thought Sharon is my boss. I assume she means the owner of the placement company that places me. “I will do that.”

Mid-morning I went to XiangMing, my old school to return my food-card and my key to the teachers’ office. At the gate, I saw one of the guards that I knew. He smiled in recognition as I walked past.

Here and there, I saw students studying in hallways and stairways, standing studying in the hallways, sitting studying on the stairways. I made my way to the teachers’ office like a ghost, or an outsider. I felt as if I no longer belonged.

When I opened the door to the teachers’ office, Qi Min and Geoffrey looked as if they, in fact, were seeing a ghost. Qi Min, as I think I have said before, reminds me a bit of a Chinese Mary Tyler Moore. Geoffrey is a little harder to describe. His thinning stringy hair conveys its own emotions, a little bit Bryan Ferry, a little bit Don Knotts.
“But you, you are in America!” Geoffrey stated, stunned. A few strands of hair fell past his eyes almost to his nostrils.
“You did not return to China.” Qi Min added.
“Two girls came from your company with the new teacher,” Qi Min explained. “They told us you did not return to China. We thought you must have good job in America.”
“No,” I told them perplexed. “I am back. My company put me at another school.”
“I will call the school authorities!” Qi Min barked.
Needless to say, my company had put me in an awkward situation. I was not sure what to tell Qi Min and Geoffrey. They are both friends, really good friends. I really cannot lie to them. Honesty is the best policy probably and avoiding the subject of my physical whereabouts is an even better policy.
“Yusseff is a good teacher,” I started.
“Joseph.” Qi Min corrected. “Is he American?”
I had no idea. I had never met Joseph who I thought was named Yusseff.
“He says he is,” Geoffrey said in doubt, one of his stringy hairs curlingaround his brow at this point, “ but he is dark. He looks like no American I know.”
Both of them discussed this for a minute in Chinese while I stood with my mouth agape.
“Well, uh,” I stammered, “I am sure Joseph will do a good job. If you do not like him, let me know and I will come back.”
“Perhaps your company moved you to this new school because you are teaching more subjects,” Geoffrey suggested, his hair falling back into a Don Knotts’ disaster.
“Yes, I am teaching more subjects at Gezhi.”
“It is the best school in Shanghai,” Qi Min confirmed.
“I would still like to go on outings and lunches and such with you,” I added.
This made them both smile. I had averted a small catastrophe.
“Do you think your maid would come and clean my flat again?” I asked Qi Min. Sure I was upset to know that my company had been dishonest but at the same time I have always believed in that bit about cleanliness next to godliness or godlessness or whatever.
“I will ask her.”
“Do you mind, I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Oh, not a bother, you are a friend.”
After promising to visit when I have time and go to school lunches, I made my exit and made my way back to my school – the school established in 1874, the school where I am preparing the students for military school in America.

Later, as I was leaving the cafeteria, I saw Bill, Kevin and Frank enter from another door. They did not see me. They are boys. I am the teacher. We occupy two different worlds. In a year, they will be at military academy in America.
Already, they are under my wing. I have promised field trips, picnics and song. So far, I have come through with song. Maybe, this makes them happy. They do not know how happy they should be at this point in their life. They are all becoming friends. They are all new friends.
The geography teacher has been sitting in on several of my classes. At first, I thought this is because she might have a small crush but then Edward told me about her wonderful wedding. Now, I realize she wants to improve her English.
She told me that maybe the students should not speak Chinese in my class, which is a common problem that to me is not a problem. Anything that helps them learn English is fine with me. I know that when I try to learn Chinese, I must have the language explained to me in English. Why should it be different for them?
Now that I see both sides of the argument – if in fact it is an argument; I am more empathetic toward the student than I once was. The geography teacher is nice. She smiled the whole time that I explained my position. I went on to tell her that I want to be the one person, teacher, whatever, that the students can come to for help. That is just the way I am. I am not an authoritarian or a disciplinarian. That is not me. At points, I have apologized for this, but now that I am on my fifth year as a teacher, I am more confidant than I was when I first came to China and was sabotaged by Birdflu and the Old Twat.
Sure, the geography teacher meant well but she is a Chinese speaker teaching them in Chinese. She has not empathy for my situation with them. Before, I would have taken offense to what she was telling me but now I know that she is only trying to help but she is trying to help only seeing how she sees it, not how I see it.

Maybe there is something depressing about the corridors in a school at lunchtime when everyone is elsewhere. Time adjusts your wristwatch to remind you that he is passing. Dark clouds gather for a moment and then disperse. All is happy again.
“Did you have your lunch?” Sharon asked as she walked back into the office.
“Yes, I did, thank you.”
“What will you do with the students this afternoon?”
“This.” I pointed to the oral English book, which I have used for most of the lessons so far. “Until I get a computer, I have limited resources.”
This seemed to be a catalyst. Sharon, posthaste, rushed to the phone and made a call. She left a message for someone.
“Thank you,” I told her when she hung up the phone.
“You understand what I say?”
“A little,” I lied.
This made her smile.
“So now you don’t know what I understand and what I don’t understand.”
She looked at me, raised her fist, and said “Fist Sandwich!”

Monday, September 01, 2008

Space Station Shanghai, Dangerous Noodles

Summer’s over. I am back in Shanghai. This is always strange like coming back to a space station after an excused leave to earth, Space Station Shanghai.

The first morning that I was back I was depressed in this vague way. I thought Badfinger would help but Badfinger only made it worse. Looking out of my lonely room Day after Day.

Really, there was no concrete reason for me to be depressed. I think I was missing my friends and family. America had been such a nice reprieve from my life on another planet, another planet that I love but another planet nonetheless.

At the end of last term, Edgar, my boss who owns the company that places me, told me that he was placing me in another school this semester. I kept telling him I didn’t want to go. He turned a deaf ear to this. He told me the school I will be going to is the best school in Shanghai. I will be preparing students for the SAT and an American military academy.

Over and over, I told Edgar I didn’t want to go to this school. However, The military academy image did fill me with a perverse pleasure. Nevertheless, I kept telling him I did not want to switch schools. He kept his deaf ear turned turned turned, like the Byrds, ELO or Fleetwood Mac. He told me about the gymnasium and the Olympic sized pool and the ambitious students. I told him I did not want to transfer to a new school. I love XiangMing. I want to stay at XianMing. I don’t want to leave XiangMing.

He did not seem to hear me. Instead, he told me of the raise I would be receiving, of the incentive program that comes along with the job, of the swimming pools and movie stars. Well, maybe, there are no movie stars involved with this endeavor but there is the aforementioned swimming pool.

I kept telling him I did not want to leave. I thought of all my friends at XiangMing. I thought of Qi Min who took me to the dentist and set patiently over the course of three appointments while I had the dead nerves ripped out of a rotting chomper. I thought of Jerry, Tom and Roy. I thought of Hades Li. I thought of the Magic Red Monkey Television Show that never quite got off the ground. I really wanted to get it off the ground. Most of all, I thought about the secure life I had at XiangMing with no more meltdowns. Oh, the humanity. What was too happen?

When I went back to America for the summer, I did not know what was going to happen. At that time, I thought I had made myself clear on the matter regarding the to switch or not switch schools question. I guess I had not made myself perfectly clear because a few days into the summer, I got an email from Edgar’s assistant with details of my post at the new school. He wanted an email confirmation from me, a tentative contract agreement, whether I was going to the new school or not. A XiangMing option was not in the contract.

I guess I would be switching schools after all. Although, I did not really want to go, I told myself that this would be a good career move.

Everything happens for a reason. That is what I tell myself. Everything happens for a reason. If this school does not work out, maybe I will make my way to Korea, Thailand, Mongolia, Saudi Arabia. The wheels are now in motion. More than likely, I will be going to the new school.

Fast forward to arriving back in Shanghai after a summer’s holiday of rest and relaxation. Somewhat ready for the adventure of teaching at a different school, I went to my company’s office to meet Fairry whom I adore. she would escort me to the new school and introduce me to the powers that be. An English speaking math and science teacher would accompany us.

At the office, I talked to the staff and asked them about their summers. Fairry told me my hat was interesting. Here, I should interject that I had on my brown summer suit with a Christian Dior light pastel striped shirt and a tie that matched the yellow window -pane lines in the suit. To top this off, I had on a standard issue Sinatra sort of old man hat which everyone at the office seemed to think interesting as they told me about their summers staring at my hat the whole time. Unlike me, everyone had a busy summer.

A foreigner sat waiting in the conference room. I asked him if he was the math and science teacher who would be accompanying us. He is not. He is there to sign his contract. He will be teaching law. Later, he told me, as I was waiting for the math and science teacher, he had practiced law for three years in Kansas but got sick of it so he moved to China. He had just arrived that morning.

Ten minutes later, another foreigner came in who I was sure was the math and science teacher. He had that cool math and science teacher look to him or maybe I was just thinking of some math and science porno from the 70s because he was not the person for whom we were waiting.

After quite a long time of waiting, a woman walked in. She told me her name, which was something like Dolly or Dali or Dollie. She had a thick Philippine accent. The math and science teacher arrived. The driver, Fairry, another company employee, Dollie and I got into the company car - the same Volkswagen that picked me up at the airport when I arrived two and a half years ago – and headed to the school.

Dollie could have been Mary’s mother – Mary from the middle school where I taught where I had all of the meltdowns. This was starting to feel like déjà vu in a very unpleasant way. Dollie has that same sort of brashness as Mary, which I might or might not grow to love. In Mary, I did grow to love her brashness. In Dolly, I am not sure. On the way to the school, she sat in the middle between Fairry and I in the backseat and grilled me. “Where do you live?” “Why do you pay so much in rent?” “Why don’t you get a roommate?” “Why do you pay so much for such a little place?” “Why do you not just commute an hour and live in a hole and save money?” “Do you go out?”

When I told her I am a recovering alcoholic, she finally took a breath. When Fairry told her that I play guitar. She made sure that I know that she likes the piano better. She really does not care for the guitar. She will be teaching part-time. I don’t think I will hardly ever see her, which, frankly, is a relief. I am sure if I do see her often, as the semester progresses, I will have a nickname for her. The nickname will most likely not be flattering.

Originally, I had been told that the students were ambitious top students. The school, after all, is the top school in Shanghai. Now, Fairry was giving me a Speak and Spell book that would be our textbook. Something was not adding up. This game, I had played this game before. Stop this game!

Then, Fairry told me that I would be teaching an extra-curricular class. This class would be guitar. Yes, this is déjà vu indeed. I love Fairry and I was not really sure how to tell her I would rather eat glass, ride a rhino, listen to Pat Travers, watch a musical, or anything else that I loathe; rather than teach guitar. This I knew I would have to nip right in the bud.

We arrived at the school. There was a light rain. We made our way the best we could to shelter. The school is four connected buildings that form a courtyard in the middle. Half of the school looked new as if construction had just been completed. The campus is somewhat compact but much nicer than XianMing. Actually, XiangMing is a very ugly school, lovely people but an ugly campus.

We took the elevator to the 10th floor, the top floor where I later met the principal and vice-principal who seemed very nice. We walked into a conference room where Mary, uh, I mean Dollie and I were the only foreigners. A meeting seemed to be in progress. We were introduced to Chinese math teachers, science teachers, history teachers and a Chinese Chinese teacher.

They asked Dollie what she planned to teach. She told them algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology. They asked me and as usual since I was confused I told them I would have to test the students before I could determine such. This seemed to appease the man whom I presume to be in charge who is named Michael. Michael is a popular name among the Chinese who name themselves. They love the lead in that television drama, Prison Break. I have never seen it.

After we met, Michael led Dolly and I to the teacher’s office. Dolly gave me the desk facing the door since she would only be there a couple of days a week. Dolly has a really strong personality. Her personality seemed to get stronger by the second. At one point, Fairry mentioned the guitar class again and I told her I think it would be better to do drama, that guitar is too difficult to teach a group of students. At this Dolly told us that she loves to do drama, loves it. I may have rolled my eyes at this point, maybe.

Then, a woman, much like Jane from XiangMing, appeared. I think her English name is Sharon. She told me she has a son in college. I told her she does not look old enough. She then smiled and told me that she will retire in two years. This surprised me. She looked at my suit and tie and told me not to wear a suit and a tie. She does not want the students to be afraid of me. Dress fashionable, she told me. This was nice to hear. I do like to wear a suit and tie but I do like to wear jeans as well so this will be great. Actually, the other men in the office were wearing shorts and t-shirts.

At the teacher’s office, I met a man named Edward. He will be my link teacher. We hit it off immediately. He gave me a tour of the school. He showed me the billiards room where there were what seemed to be about 20 pool tables. He took me to the table tennis room, the badminton / basketball court, and the Olympic sized pool. He pointed out the aviary. When there is no rain, we can have a look – he told me.

We then went back to the teacher’s office. Fairry and the other company worker were waiting for a customer. Edward asked if I wanted to go to the bookstore with him. I told him sure. We walked through the halls to the elevator. The teachers’ office is on the 8th floor. He told me I should dress more casual. I told him I would from now on. I wanted to make a good impression. I think I did make a good impression but more importantly everyone made a good impression on me as well, which I have learned is as important. If you do not like your co-workers, there is a real good chance you will not like your job.

By this time, the rain had dissipated for the most part. We walked to the school van and were driven down a back street to the bookstore, which was a few blocks before the Bund. The bund is up ahead – he told me. I told him I had been to the Bund with my friends. The Bund is perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of Shanghai with the views across the river of Pudong, which includes the Pearl Tower and all of the futuristic high-rises. Someone not in the know has told me that Shanghai has more high-rises than anywhere else in the world.

Of course, the bookstore was a madhouse. We were there to get textbooks as was everyone else in Shanghai. We actually got them fairly fast, in about five minutes. As Edward checked out, I talked to the Chinese bookstore clerks or actually I grunted to them like I knew what they were saying. I told one I was American not English because I could somewhat make out what he was saying.

The van was parked right outside the bookstore, which was convenient. I opened the door to get in. There was no place to sit. Suddenly, the van was packed full of books and a different driver was at the wheel.

“Oh, not our van!” Edward exclaimed and we both laughed way too hard for our mistake. Our van and driver were up the street.

We got in and the driver pulled away and we crawled through the late afternoon heavy traffic.

Before we left to go to the bookstore, I told Fairry she did not need to wait for me. When we got back, there she was waiting for me. Fairry introduced me to the customer who turned out to be a student and the student’s mom. The student had just spent a year in Tennessee. I told her I had spent time in Tennessee.

“Where did you study?” I asked
“Nashville is a really great place,” I told her. She looked at me oddly.
“So you stayed in Nashville for a year?” I asked.
“Yeah, I have a friend who lives in Nashville.”
At this point, her words registered.
“Oh, yeah, Knoxville!” I confirmed. “Knoxville is a great place too.”

She then whispered something to her mom in Chinese. Her mom said something to Fairry.
“She would like to ask you a question,” Fairry told me.
“You may ask me anything you want.” I told the student
“Do you have a nickname?” the student asked.
I thought about this for a moment and then replied – “I have a few nicknames, but I will let the students think of a nickname for me.”
She nodded her head yes.
“Do you have one for me?”
“Yes,” and then with a giggle she said –
“Mr. Bean!”

Sunday morning coming down -

While I was in America, Michael – my best friend in China - paid my bills with money I left and he dealt with my subletter for which I was very grateful. Incidentally, my subletter turned out to be very good. He left me a new umbrella, some books, and plenty of toilet paper.

Last night, I took Michael to eat at the place where he took me for Christmas that specializes in Northwestern Chinese cuisine like leg of lamb, fish head soup, fried locusts and other delicacies.

When we got to the restaurant, there was quite a wait. We sat on little stools in a waiting area and ate sunflower seeds and drank tea while we waited for a table.

“Friends of yours?” Michael asked and laughed pointing to some waiting foreigners in close proximity to us.
“No, not my friends,” I replied and added. “You know ‘em?”
“Oh no no no.” Michael laughed like this was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

Each time one of the wait-staff passed, Michael barked an order of some sort. Each gave him the same short reply.
“What did they say?” I asked.
“Wait a moment.”
“Oh.” I then asked him how to say it. He told me. I practiced and practiced which invariably made him laugh each time I tried to say it because my tongue tripped all over the words in the phrase.

After a few minutes of this, one of the staff that Michael beleaguered brought a menu. Michael handed the menu, which was in Chinese and English, to me. I perused it.
“Did we eat this last time?” I asked as I pointed to the leg of lamb.
“Yes, very delicious,” Michael replied.
“Okay, yeah, let’s order it again.”
“Okay,” Michael agreed as we continued to survey the menu.
“How about this?” Michael pointed to the fried locusts and laughed.
“Uh, I don’t think so.” At this point, Michael is aware of foods that make me squirm. Fried locusts would definitely fall into that squirm category.

After we decided what we wanted, Michael barked at each waiter and waitress who walked by us. A waitress finally stopped. Michael started to place our order. The waitress said something to him and walked off. At this, Michael looked stunned and a bit downtrodden.
I asked Michael what the waitress said to him.
“We cannot order,” he told me. “We must have seat first.”

After we looked over the menu and as we ate sunflower seeds, I scanned the restaurant – a large open room on the second floor with windows lengthwise that faced the street. I noticed a two-seater preparing to leave who was sitting next to one of these windows.

“That would be a good place for us to sit.” This I told Michael because I knew that we were probably the next ones to be seated. And, I knew by telling him this that he would agree and make every effort to get that prime location for us. After all,

Michael is wonderfully pushy. Sometimes, I am a bit embarrassed by the way he barks orders at wait-staff, something that I would never do. However, this is something that is very common among the Chinese upper middle class.

Sure enough, the hostess tried to seat us along the wall, at a table that had already been cleaned. Michael howled as if he had been shot. The hostess and he argued for nearly 30 seconds. After this brief explosive interlude, the hostess seated us by the window.

As soon as we sat, Michael stopped a waitress in her tracks and ordered for us. The menu consisted of several pages of options. Occasionally, Michael would be stumped as he tried to find a dish upon which we had decided. The waitress would try to help by pointing at something such as chicken heart stew or cow stomach and noodles. At this, Michael would wave his hands and say no no no NO!

Finally, he made it through the menu nodding to me after he had done this. I smiled. Back in the saddle again.

First the leg of lamb arrived which was probably over a foot in length. Since the meat is so juicy, the waitress gave us oversized plastic gloves to prevent us from getting our hands super greasy.

While we gnawed on the leg of lamb and guilt washed over me about doing such - I thought of the paraplegic lamb and it made me sad. The waitress brought us various items made from corn meal, a small cone shaped corn meal cake topped with a black olive, a corn meal pancake with chives and a plain corn meal pancake. We ate these as we finished the lamb legs. Michael cleaned his closer to the bone than me. Really, I am not a fan of cartilage.

What I thought we lamb meat kabobs were actually lamb fat kabobs. They came to the table next. Fortunately, they were so flavorfully spiced that the fat did not make me gag…too much.

While we ate, we talked about where we are going to go for October holiday. Michael and I are going away together. He has an IT job now, which frees him up on holidays. When he was a realtor, he was never able to go away because holidays were a busy time for him. Now that he has changed careers, he can go on holiday.

He mentioned all sorts of places involving beaches and mountains and rivers and delicious food and, of course, shopping.

Although, I am excited about all of this, I am letting him do all of the arranging. I told him that I would like to go to the mountains. He told me that we would stay with his uncle and that he would call his uncle and have his uncle prepare me a nice gift. I told him he did not need to do this. I brought Michael gifts from America because he is such a good friend. I do not expect him to out-gift me.

At one point, Michael asked me about my holiday in America. The two months in America were great - I told him – but I missed you. That made him smile. He then added.
“You just get back from America and you already plan next holiday!” This, of course, made him laugh uncontrollably again, which, of course, made me laugh as well.

This is when the waitress brought the noodles of death. The noodles that we would later declare dangerous, an innocuous looking cold noodle dish with diced cucumbers, vinegar and slices of beef. If I were to have known how slick and twisted these noodles would soon turn out to be, I would have not stuck a large mouthful in my mouth, the mouthful of death. Death walks behind you – warned Atomic Rooster. Death walks into your mouth is my warning to the uninitiated when it comes to death noodles.

Imagine the noodles, very slick and sticking together winding around my chopsticks like a tree engulfing an innocent in a haunted enchanted forest. Like the boogieman behind the door catching the victim unaware, the noodles crowded into my mouth and slid down my throat. At this point, I realized that I might be in the process of eating my last meal.

Michael, still talking about our holiday plans was unaware of my cold noodle deathtrip. He then watched in amazement, as my mouth became a noodle clown car as I pulled a whole bowl of noodles out of my mouth, out of my throat. This made him laugh yet again until he saw me with tears in my eyes because I was starting to choke. With this, he went into panic overdrive, which made me think he would pass out before I did. This, I am sure, all took place in less than a minute but it seemed, as in all near death experiences, as if it lasted an eternity, noodles and noodles and then more noodles. While it was happening, I thought – Yeah, this is quite a way to go, in a freak accident by noodle, nice job.

What seemed like hours later - but was probably really only a minute; I had all of the noodles extracted from my throat and into the bowl. At which time, Michael called a server over to take the offensive deathtrip noodles away.

“Those noodles are dangerous,” I said with watery eyes, which sent Michael into yet another uncontrollable fit of laughter. This fit of laughter lasted the rest of the meal with Michael miming over and over pulling the noodles out of the throat like some sword-swallower magic.

Later, after our meal, Michael and I slipped into our usual routine, which pretty much just involves shopping, clothes shopping.

First, we strolled along Julu Road hitting our usual shops. Nothing captured our fancy.

Michael had one more shop he thought I should see. This shop was past the scooter boy shop- the scooter boys, who I have passed every day for the last year and a half on my way to XiangMing. I am not sure if they are 15 or 25. They are just the scooter boys. It was not until the last of last semester that I finally learned their names – Xiao Fei and Ye Kai Qiang. Now that I know their names, I say them proudly when I pass, though I do forget Ye Kai Qiang’s name occasionally.

Since Michael and I were to pass the shop, I wanted to introduce him to the scooter boys. Anytime I pass, there is always the tentative silence of not knowing what to say because when you do not speak the same language there is nothing ever to say.

This time, since Michael was with me, I thought this problem would be alleviated. They could all jabber to each other in Chinese and I could listen and try to translate a word here and there but there would be no uncomfortable silence.

However, when we got to the shop and the introductions were in place - and after I said my obligatory hello; there was silence, uncomfortable silence. Michael clammed up like that chatterbox 1st grader that suddenly becomes shy in new surroundings.

No, that is not right, he did not clam up, he just did not talk in Chinese. He insisted in talking to them in English, which I thought a bit odd. They just looked at him baffled since Michael is obviously Chinese.

Obviously, this was a mystery to me. Maybe Michael did want them to think he is a foreigner. I know that he loves America and would love to be American. Maybe that was it. I also thought that since he did not know them, he did not trust them. Talking to them could associate him with their world of underground, underbelly scooter politics. Or, maybe – and this is the most plausible – Michael is of the social class that does not want to stoop to talking to scooter shop commoners. Whatever the reason, I will probably never know and I did not feel like it was my business to know so I did not ask.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Michael and I left the shop. We ducked into the action figure shop next door. As we were looking at Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and Bruce Lee; we heard a commotion that seemed to be coming from the scooter shop, all sorts of yelling and stamping, and the sound of things hitting the floor.

I thought that maybe Xiao Fei had lost control and was beating Ye Kai Qiang with a tire iron or something. Michael and I rushed back over to see what all of this commotion was. And of course, what we saw was not what we had imagined it to be. This was not a hammer horror at all, nothing of the sort.

The scooter boys were chasing a cat, a wild crazy cat, around their small shop, which is about the size of a one car garage with a open front that closes by pulling down a cage-like garage door. As we peaked in, the cat was running up the wall like Jet Li and Xiao Fei was half chasing, half running from the cat like it was a dangerous mountain lion when in fact it was just a few months from being a kitten.

Of course, this sight put Michael and I over the edge and we could not begin to contain ourselves. Then the cat disappeared. It crawled up the wall and literally disappeared. We could not tell where it had gone.

Then, like in Alien, the Shining or Creature from the Black Lagoon; we heard the commotion next door. This time the cat was wreaking havoc in the action figure shop. Spiderman, Superman, Jack Skellington – they all went flying. The action figure shop owner grabbed a squeegee and went after the varmint. Like in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings or some other screwball Southern comedy, the shop owner wreaked as much (if not more) havoc than the cat did. The squeegee sent Bruce Lee, Hellboy, Batman flying.

As we watched all of this taking place, Xiao Fei ran next door to the scooter shop and quickly - but not expertly – shut the garage door to their shop. This happened in fits, taking a few tries. He did it as if the cat was right behind him about to tear into his neck like he was an unfortunate victim in Cat People.

At this point, the cat was completely out of control and running up and down the street like a little lunatic. Xiao Fei went stomping after him and then the cat turned around and went hissing after Xiao Fei which sent all of us bystanders into more fits of laughter. Finally, the cat found an opening and whizzed down an alley. None of us followed.

Diane Keaton is looking for Mr. Goodbar. John Fogerty is looking out his backdoor. David Johannsen is looking for a kiss. Me? I’m looking for P.T. Barnum - some sort of circus wizard who loves a sword swallower. I am taking my dangerous noodles on the road. I’m bringing the crazy-cat-in-an-action-figure-shop skit along for the ride. Yeah, all is well on Space Station Shanghai.