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.