The first thing I noticed upon exiting the Luzhou bus station two summers ago was a horse statue. To the right of the horse I noticed a large building that seemed straight out of Piccadilly Circus. It had columns in front, a rounded wall, and ornate stone patterns. This was the Shanghai Hotel. The bucking bronco appears near the entrance of Luzhou and any other city awarded China Excellent Tourism City status by the government. As he sits at the intersection of five roads (six including the entrance to the bus station), the designers apparently had to switch his orientation multiple times so that no visitors would be welcomed with the sight of his ass.
I had expected none of this. A young guy from the Foreign Affairs Office named Michael met me there. He told me, “This is the North City.” I thought he said “the Lost City.” For some reason that made perfect sense to me until a few days later.
He drove me south across the Tuo River to my apartment on old campus. Crossing the river I experienced my next surprise. Trees. Lots of them. And a big hill. A mountain pretty much, and a mountain covered in trees at that. A massive high rise sat on the summit. A giant nurse and doctor beamed at me from a blue billboard. “That is the hospital affiliated to the medical college,” Michael informed.
We drove up the mountain next, passed the main entrance to the medical college on the left, and continued down the other side of Zhong Shan Mountain to my apartment. The trees continued to surprise me. Along the right side were some nurseries and a little shop filled with people carving out coffee-table sized sculptures of eagles and dragons, the sort of junk you might see advertised in SkyMall but that, when you considered the little Chinese woman in flip flops wielding power tools to craft from a blueprint in her brain, actually seemed really cool.
Having spent my whole summer in a desolate Chengdu suburb, so much green blew me away. This place actually seemed…. clean. In fact that is another title Luzhou boasts: Clean City. Or, National Sanitary City, if your in the business of translating Chinese awards into English. I’m sure there’s a monument to its cleanness somewhere, just as I’m sure it’s not actually that clean. First impressions are everything here though, and there could have been plenty of worst first impressions.
Michael took me through the rest of Luzhou’s hotspots that afternoon. The downtown decked out in shopping malls with big advertisements for western clothing brands. Two McDonalds. Computer City, the big Chinese computer emporium. I kept getting reminded of a shrunken down Times Square.
Though my apartment was stifling from the summer heat during that first visit, and though I was disappointed to find I’d be pooping in a hole for the next two years, even my humble abode impressed me. I left it the next day to meet some other administrators and almost got lost trying to find my way to the Foreign Affairs Office Michael had shown me the previous day. We drove over to the new campus in the outlying area of the city, which was much more desolate. But even there you could see the beginnings of apartment developments and greenery.
When I returned to Luzhou for good a few weeks later, I had my welcome banquet, started classes, and truly began my Peace Corps experience. The first few weeks were characterized more than anything else by the sweat on my back and the frantic nature of my teaching. But gradually temperatures dropped and my lesson planning improved. I found my way around the city. I split my time between Old Campus, with its old grey architecture, high altitude, and greenery, and New Campus, with nothing to say for itself but a few trees, hotter temperatures, and some cell phone advertisements. New Campus did have the Tuo River going past it and a big stream connecting to it. But the stream smelled more like a bog that might one day inspire a movie about toxic creatures with three eyes. I couldn’t help but feel this was a place getting improved by people who’d never actually succeed in doing so.
I got to know a few a students and spent all my weekends that semester either meeting them in the city or drinking tea along the carnivalesque banks of the Yangtze or watching TV series in my apartment. The school gave me my space and most of my students lived on New Campus, so they too gave me my space.
I spent the whole first winter holiday away from Luzhou and, despite a rocky reentry, managed to pick up where I’d left in the spring. Except that most of the students I had become friends with were older ones who had to begin internships in their second semester. I saw almost none of them and, despite making closer friends with one or two other students, have spent the rest of my service wondering if I’d ever be as close with any of them again.
I started playing rugby in Chongqing with a club composed almost entirely of foreigners. I also visited a couple other volunteers’ sites that semester. My teaching improved but overall I spent just a little less time in Luzhou. Then summer came, I went home for a few weeks, had my Peace Corps summer project, and returned to Luzhou just in time to catch dust and mold and moldy dust and dusty mold covering everything in my saunapartment.
My air conditioning broke, and I left Luzhou promptly for the marginally cooler climes of Chengdu. I went there twice that August, saw off some of my good one-year Peace Corps friends, and again picked up teaching last fall.
I had to wonder if this was the same school I’d come to the previous summer. When I gave my new students instructions, they understood them. When I asked them for questions and comments, they asked questions and gave comments. They smiled. They listened. They didn’t seem so much like people on the way to electroshock therapy. From the freshmen to the postgraduate students, they all just seemed better. Is China developing that fast that just one year sees a sea change in the quality of its students? Or was it I who was better? I blame both.
I made some foreigner friends here who weren’t afraid to put up with the Luzhou bar scene and, until I grew tired of it by the end of the semester, enjoyed fleeting fame as one of the drunken foreigners of Luzhou city.
I also traveled more. I’ve always lived apart from my closest friends and never minded the distance. I’m the only volunteer in Luzhou, but Luzhou may be the most central Peace Corps site of all (not counting any Peace Corps sites in the northern province of Gansu). I can get to Guizhou, Chongqing, and any other city in Sichuan within a day. Sometimes that day is long, but still there’s the possibility. Being so central, I traveled almost every other week: for holidays, for rugby games, for Peace Corps business. I held parties for my students and yet again my teaching was improving. I could tell my students adored me. Even in the fall semester some of them begged me to stay another year. But still I couldn’t help but feel I was neglecting them.
Again the winter holiday came. I traveled a lot. This time I didn’t leave China, but the thought of staying in Luzhou, which is a cold, soaking place in winter, kept me out of it for any great length of time.
I knew my last semester here would zip right past. The pattern I set this fall has basically carried into this one. Teach for two weeks. Go away for a weekend. Teach for two weeks. Go away for a weekend. With my newer students, the teaching has continued well. But for my old students, who I’ve taught for an average of two classes every semester I’ve been here, I can tell they’re tired of me, just as I’m tired of them. Who wouldn’t be? If I had the same professor for four semesters of college, I’d be bored. But things don’t work that way here.
So I’ve given nearly all my exams and feel the better for it. I’ve taught rugby this semester. And I’ll say goodbye soon.
Old Campus, or Zhong Shan campus, has remained the same this whole time. The mountain remains arborous. The trees remain covered in Lyme. By Luzhou standards, the weather remains cool.
New campus, or Cheng Bei campus, or Lost City campus, has changed in the way that all of China is changing. They built a new bridge. They’re building a new nursing department. Apartment complexes are springing up all around and cranes dot the horizon.
Even trees seem to be everywhere now. They’re small and skeletal. Each one has a clear plastic bag of water hydrating it with two little tubes. But this life support has worked. They look better now. They’ve also planted lots of grass and bushes and installed a three-story pagoda opposite the peninsula left by a horseshoe bend in the stream.
They damned the stream in four places, leaving a pond above the horseshoe section. Looking out on the pond when it first started filling, at the green trees and grass, at the pagoda, at the students strolling along the walkway down by the river, I couldn’t help but feel that new campus had achieved what I originally thought impossible. It was green, it was clean, and against all odds, it was nice..
Then algae covered the lake a week later. The whole thing looked like split-pea soup. I once threw a rock on it, expecting it to bounce off the surface. Instead it broke through, making a crater of black water. Within five minutes, algae had again drifted back over the water. The green surface, the strange Chinese architecture, and the cranes in the background reminded me of science fiction. People would start living in pods, and eventually the world would be overrun by a big green blob and its army of zombie swamp cranes.
Then two nights ago it rained torrentially and put an end to my terrifying vision. The dams were overflowing the next morning and the algae were, for the most part, gone. Red flags and banners adorned the nearby library to celebrate graduation, the 90th anniversary of the communist party, and the 60th anniversary of Luzhou Medical College.
The scene was pleasant, until I noticed the walkways along the lake were also overflowing. I envisioned students getting caught on the flooding walkway and was reminded, as I am every day, that this is China.
But if they can bring trees back to life, who’s to say they won’t stop algae and flooding? I certainly doubt they’ll raise the walkways, as that would be too direct of a solution. Fixing nature is much more harmonious.
In the lost city of Luzhou, these are the things I’ve found.
My posts have developed a formula. Consider the following example. It’s an abstract of a post I might very well have written:
A) “It’s a running joke among my fellow Peace Corps China comrades that, after two years, we’ve all lost our minds. We spend hours imagining ridiculous people and stories and in turn spinning new people and stories off the old ones. Someone decided to call this technique riffing, or rifting. Anyone not privy to the delicate art of a riff would be justified in wondering what we’ve been smoking.
B) “When gathered for a weekend, we spend hours – literally, hours – doing this. We also decide which characters on The Wire we’d be, or like to be (Prezbo/Freamon), or which Radiohead song kicks most ass (Videotape, most recently), or which beverage best mixes with baijiu (none of them). We roll around in the dirt, sip coffee in McDonalds until the sun comes up, wonder when it all shook loose, and sleep through the afternoon bus home.
C) “Back at site we get back into the grind and initially wonder if the weekend away was even worth it. You’ve got a hangover, a hole in the wallet, and a pile of papers to correct. The obvious answer is no. But come one week or two of the same old, that urge to go somewhere returns, anywhere but the classroom and why not some place with friends as off the deep end as you.
D) “With a few possible exceptions, I don’t buy that any of us have actually gone crazy. But I do enjoy the joke. It makes us feel battle-worn, justified in said unjustifiable behavior. We’ve earned the right to make stiff drinks and tell anyone who’ll listen about that woman who punched the harmless dog so hard it’s head flew off to the gory horror of everyone else, particularly its owner, a miniature Chinese girl in a white Juicy track suit who should have kept him on a leash if she hadn’t wanted a red Juicy suit instead. ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ you should reasonably ask yourself right now. I came up with that Tarantino-ish riff while walking through Chengdu in undersized hotel slippers.”
Now I’ll dissect:
A) The introduction.
B) The anecdote. This could involve some situation at my site, away on travels, or with other volunteers. Usually I depend on lists and conversations loaded with umms for this part and the next.
C) The conclusion to the anecdote in which I drive home the dilemma or cynicism I’ve been hammering away at. I sometimes get a pit in my stomach rereading these parts. They can border on mean, rude, and inappropriate. I worry for myself. Have I always been like this? Did China make me this way? Am I just over-reacting to my highly self-conscious writing?
D) The disclaimer. A lyrical attempt to balance my cynicism with my decency as a person and earnestness of heart. I assure the reader that I’m actually healthy. I work hard at teaching. It’s just the way I cope. Don’t worry about me. I learned all about rising action and resolution in middle school.
I’ll leave Luzhou on July 4th, as I’ve recently told many students verbatim in steady, measured English. I always wonder if they’ll realize I’m leaving on Independence Day, but none of them ever say it if they do. They associate four with death, real death, since the words for the two sound similar. Then I realize that every time I told them about Independence Day in my culture lessons, or July 4th as I’m more likely to call it, they were probably wondering why America would have it’s most important national holiday on such a deathly day.
So I’m leaving Luzhou on a day that Chinese people associate with bad luck, if not death. American people associate that same day with freedom. The delicious irony of it kills me. I’m tired of so much here, and I’m truly going to feel freer that day than I’ve ever felt celebrating Independence Day back home.
But leaving Luzhou by bus won’t be an easy task. Consider this the D), the Disclaimer to my whole Peace Corps service. For all its frustrations, I’m going to be sad as hell to leave this place. I often write about Luzhou from the position of a curmudgeonly old man talking trash on an empty mountain. Whenever I do I add, as if in fine print, “I really like my city, though.” It sounds like a cop out. But I’m not actually lying.
When I started writing this post I’d actually meant for it to be about the reasons I do like Luzhou, much like my post about reasons why I respect China. In some ways it’s hard for me to imagine a more perfect site. I’m going to save those reasons for my next post, though. Luzhou won’t be my home much longer, but the high points deserve a place of their own.
Because I so regularly grumble about the perennial grey funk blanketing this city, I can’t really complain about the recent spate of sunny weather. Yesterday afternoon, however, I wanted to. I was sprawled face down on my bed, not sleeping so much as counting down the few remaining minutes of freedom. I’d arranged to teach touch rugby to my students last Sunday morning, but torrential rain made me postpone. At the time, 8:00 in the morning, I got to sleep a few more hours. Yesterday afternoon, as with all engagements here, I was again wishing I could just remain splattered across my bed like a crushed paintball. But luck wasn’t willing to have her way with me.
Groan, I thought. During the hottest days here, the sun has a way of acting like the sun in the desert level of Super Mario 3, the one that stalks you throughout the whole level and sporadically descends on Mario, bird of prey style, his face contorted into an evil grin. Temperatures haven’t been that bad this week, but thinking about teaching Chinese students the rules of rugby under a scorched sky scared me a little. Neither teaching Chinese students a completely new game nor third degree swamp ass are my cup of tea.
I walked up to my college to take the afternoon shuttle bus to new campus. Getting onto it, I sensed a gasp. The Chinese fashion gods randomly determine some time in spring when it’s ok to stop wearing jackets and later start wearing shorts. I’ve never been privy to either transition, or even cared. But Chinese people hold them sacred. When the gods snap their fingers, Chinese people take off their coats. At the next snap, they can get away with shorts.
We’ve been in shorts season for some time now, but many of the teachers have never seen me wear anything but pants. I’m not sure if I heard, saw, or smelled their gasp. I suppose it might just have been a fart. But the site of a foreigner exposing his legs like some barmaid from the Wild West perked the other teachers to attention.
Taking a seat in back, visions of sugar fairies danced through my head. Fifty of them were struggling to airlift a frosty mint julep straight to my mouth, its frost melting down the glass to drip cool water over my face. The shuttle lifted off and twenty minutes later dropped me onto a martian landscape overrun by little aliens with book bags and umbrellas. They were hustling to class in twos and threes.
It seems late in my Peace Corps service to finally teach my core group of students rugby. I’d wanted to do it earlier in the semester, but a busy schedule and poor weather caused delays. In this eleventh hour, though, I’ve somehow found a miraculous store of energy I’ve never really felt towards the end of any other semester. It must be my imminent departure. I’d been a little worried that I’d crash and burn, as at the end of all other semesters. There is certainly still time for that, but I’ve recently not been so hesitant about giving up free time to my students.
I’d already taught rugby here to P.E. majors last semester. I’d taught rugby, in other words, to students whose profession it will ultimately be to teach sports. They spend most of their time learning and playing sports as is, so they kept it together in spite of my clusterfuck of a lesson, most of it as translated through their teacher. My first year English majors are not graced with such athleticism. They already have a hard enough time following my instructions to take out a piece paper. I pictured an atom. The rugby ball and I made up the nucleus, a dependable neutron and proton duo, while my students were all electrons bouncing around in random orbit.
I bought some water and then met four students, three boys and one girl, in our classroom. Two of them, Jordan and Perry, were taller boys from northeastern provinces who endlessly play basketball and badminton. They usually wear basketball jerseys to class, always come to office hours, talk a lot, and complain about the quality of Sichuan noodles and dialect. They’re two of my favorite students in the class. They were also most gung ho about rugby.
The girl, Kacie, is another good student and probably the prettiest girl in their class. Her boyfriend, Benjamin, is a skinny dweeb, and as far as I can tell not the brainy kind. Though I’m not sure how it started, I’ve stopped guessing about those couples. Typical western rules regarding the alpha male don’t apply here. The fact that Benjamin comes from Shanghai, however, probably helped him land the fox.
We walked out to the soccer field where other students were supposedly waiting. I gave them the ball, which they eagerly began messing around with. Out of nowhere Kacie declared, with just a faint hint of regret, “I’m going to get black!” I didn’t bother telling her that we say “tanned,” not – as Chinglish speakers would tell you – “black.” (When I came back from Indonesia last year, students even accused me, the freckly, German-Irish mutt, of looking black.)
No students actually were waiting for us at the field, so we first just started tossing the ball around under the shade of a long metal awning beside the field. I explained some basic ways to throw and kick the ball. They got a kick out of looking at one person then surprising another by throwing to him instead. Eventually four other girls came along and joined the growing circle. The boys continually hammered the ball at one named Yasmine, their class monitor who sits in the front row and talks more than anyone else. When she’s not sending me a text message three minutes before class to ask why I’m late, she’s pleasant.
We kept passing the ball. A short girl named Riley dropped it a few times and eventually everyone started calling her butter fingers (impressively they knew the term) and yelling at her to sing a song. She squirmed in protest. “I can’t sing,” she kept saying in Chinese. They badgered and badgered, but I was happy she remained strong. Finally they left it alone.
I told them an American football is smaller but shaped similarly. Another girl, Sue, observed that the ball is shaped like an egg. The students agreed. So did I. “It’s like a dinosaur egg,” I added, “You know? Dinosaurs? Konglong?” We know, they said. The boys chuckled. “Yasmine is a dinosaur,” Jordan said to laughter. In Chinese, Dinosaur is slang for an ugly girl. I knew this, but Jordan’s endless smile and comically low voice – ever so slightly reminiscent of Louis Armstrong’s – made the joke at least sound harmless. So go the delicate Chinese. They’ll tell you look fatter with the same indifference I’d tell someone it’s started drizzling outside. They’ll also tell you Americans are direct.
Next I taught them how one would throw an American football and told Jordan to run away from me. My wobbly spiral went wide left and he missed it. But the students immediately pounced on the new game. One of them would take the ball and get a running start like a cricket pitcher or a baseball outfielder crow hopping. The other would run away from them, and they’d try to complete the pass. Since they seemed to enjoy it so much, I made a split-second decision to have them play a game of American football instead of rugby. We played for about twenty minutes, and the game went more smoothly than expected. Eventually most of them retired to the shade.
Finally I taught them five hundred and called it a day.
In my grand scheme, I was going to teach the second year students how to play rugby next week, such that the two classes can come together in the third week to play each other. I added that competition to drum up excitement, but the second years complained when I mentioned it to them in office hours on Monday: The first year boys are stronger and faster. True. They’re also older than the boys in are class. Really? Yea. The girls are stronger also. No, they’re not. They are! Ok, I’ll play on your team.
I could have predicted such griping. But teaching Chinese students brings with it the advantage of absolute control. They don’t ask questions, complain about grades, or talk back, so they’re not getting out of this game. It’ll be messy, probably for me as well as them. I’m the one who needs to oversee this thing and unlike Don King I’m not even paid. But I’ll be damned if my students are gonna chicken out this time. I’ll drag ‘em from their dorm rooms if necessary.
I regret not starting my secondary project sooner. It’s turning out better than planned.
I went to a music festival in Chengdu last weekend. Walking back from the bus station in Luzhou, I took a shortcut through the maze of trees and old concrete paths and apartments I’d liked to call my housing development. I share it with many other doctors, teachers, and students from the hospital and medical college. I take pride in the fact that none of it has been razed and converted into the plain, tiled architecture – common in China these days and totally lacking in soul.
Entering the maze, I noticed caution ribbon surrounding a long, four-story building on the left. Most of the ribbon had fallen to the ground. Darkness had begun to set, and the building seemed darker than it should. Empty of light and life, I immediately assumed a fire had consumed the building while I was away. The window frames appeared charred. I walk that way at least twice a week, and I was terrified. I’ve grown accustomed to the cozy quarters in which my neighbors go about their lives. The fact that they had been uprooted by a fire, if not worse, stunned me.
I edged closer. Someone had spray-painted a black character across the front wall: 拆. I moved closer and peered into a window. A group of people passing my way weren’t bothered by my trespassing. Limited light washed through from the main road outside the maze, so I used my phone as a flashlight. Through the window, the room looked empty. Peering more closely, the walls weren’t blackened at all. The dirty whitewash remained, the kind that could rub off on my clothing like chalk dust.
The walls would have been blackened, so there probably hadn’t been a fire. Relieved yet still stunned, I walked home. I had a feeling I knew what that Chinese character meant. Back in my apartment, I looked it up. Sure enough, 拆 means demolish, or chai. I’d seen it in a newspaper article, but never bothered to remember it. Not that I had needed to do. People still live in the other old apartments around my place.
Perhaps this marks the end of my crumbly kingdom of concrete and moss. At the rate I see other places around town getting vacated, demolished, and replaced with tiled apartments, I may get a call from my school tomorrow telling me I need to pack up shop.
“But I’m leaving in two months anyway,” I’d say. “Can’t I wait until then?”
“No,” Ms. Yang would rebut, thinking he’ll never understand. “You know, China is developing very fast.”
“If you say so.”
So yeah, China is changeable. Far as I can tell, the only thing that doesn’t change is my students’ continual use of the word changeable. Most commonly I hear: “the weather is very changeable these days.” Indeed, the weather does change a lot. My students never miss a chance to remind me of this fact. I want to tell them: “Your mom is changeable.” But then I’d have to explain “Your mom” jokes, and later I’d get a call from Peace Corps. Instead I agree and remind them that we more commonly use words like variable, as in, “the weather in Luzhou is very variable.” Or, “my iguana’s mood often varies.” Or, “Your mom….., I mean, your mahh….. jong game is variable.”
Everything else changes. Buildings. The way my students dress. The company I keep. The places I eat.
The eateries have been more stable than other aspects of my life here. I have two stir fry restaurants, two noodle houses, one dumpling joint, a lamb kebab restaurant, a barbecue one, two McDonalds (one for normal times of day, the other for drunken munchies), two Chinese fast food restaurants, a few street food vendors, two convenience shops, one supermarket, and a fruit stand.
I’ve found these holes-in-the-wall through trial and error. Upon arriving in Luzhou, I developed one rotation. Gradually I expanded and, upon finding better places, phased out the originals. The new one has better food or location. The old one overcharged, or the girl who worked there always took photos of me with her cell phone. I still feel guilty when making eye contact with some of these bosses and servers I’ve left behind.
But that’s capitalism, folks, capitalism at its finest.
I made one of my first friends here in a noodle shop. I’m careful not to say best friend, because I rarely understand exactly how Chinese people see me. But she is a friend, and one of my earliest at that.
As the noodle shop was near my apartment, I’d gone a couple times early on, always ordering beef noodles. The girl’s parents ran the place, and I ordered from them in broken Chinese. The second or third time I was there, I heard a cheerful female voice echo my order in English: “Beef noodles!” I could see through barred windows into the kitchen, where a short girl with tightly cropped hair was beaming out at me. I smiled back and said, “Yea, beef noodles.”
She smiled at me the next time I came, and the time after that started speaking English – slow, stammering English, but my language nevertheless. I answered her questions about where I was from and what I did here. Her name was Angel. She was a high school junior. That was a Saturday night, and she asked if I wanted her to show me around the downtown.
This was a difficult invitation, the kind I “should” accept. I still wasn’t used to getting leered at. But being the weekend, mega crowds would be roaming the streets–leering.
Besides, Angel was only in high school. I entertained no designs on this young lady, despite her pretty face, and was less than comfortable with what people would read between the lines: high school junior – girl (definitely) – showing around young college English teacher – man (sort of).
But I agreed. The weather was nice, and she seemed perfectly innocent and sweet. Her parents were happy with it, I imagined, as their daughter was getting a chance to practice English.
We walked to the fountain in the center of town, which Angel was disappointed wasn’t running that night, and down to the river. Then we walked back to her place, and I continued home. That was all, a pleasant walk I was happy to have taken. Later I met her and her friends at a nightclub for the National Day holiday in October, a prospect appearing even more scandalous on paper than our previous promenade, but that again turned out harmless. The same went for two karaoke meetings throughout the fall.
I never tremendously enjoyed going out with them. I felt like the babysitter. They took silly photos, ate weird snacks, and insisted I sing karaoke songs – something I’ve come around to enjoying, but which that early on I thought was ridiculous. My effort felt noble, giving them a chance to practice English and understand more of western culture. Anyway, it’s not like my schedule was burning up with invitations to the hottest parties around.
After that first semester, I never went out with them again. I still chatted with Angel at the noodle restaurant now and then, sharing some of the fatty pork and veggies her parents had prepared for themselves and offered me. But I’d found a better noodle place. She’d become more busy with school, applying to college this past year, hoping to study science in a Chongqing university. Once I needed a haircut, so she took me to her stylist, who charged me $4, as opposed to the 50 cents I normally paid at the barber near my apartment. I could have fronted A Flock of Seagulls afterward.
This past semester, I’ve only eaten there once. I wonder if I’ve just subconsciously been avoiding it. The restaurant is in a very public area, and Angel’s mom had a habit of discussing me with other customers.
I’ve also made other friends. My own students. Teachers. Chinese adults who like to drink and tell dirty jokes. Other foreign English teachers who like to drink and tell dirty jokes. People, in short, with whom I can relate. That’s not to say I’ve become a worse volunteer, but I’ve had to adjust my social life to a busier schedule and the ticking clock on my Peace Corps term.
Last Monday night, I got so worried thinking about that apartment due for demolition because Angel’s family had lived and served noodles there. I looked through their living room window that night. Nothing was left of theirs. They’d presumably moved on to wherever and whatever the government had set up for them, if anything. A noodle shop in a tiled apartment building, I’d hope. Despite the ugly architecture, the living conditions would mark a major improvement.
The relief I felt at Angel’s domicile not going down in flames gave way to a shameful feeling of relief: I wouldn’t see them the next time I passed this way and had to worry no longer about feeling abandonment guilt. But my relief at that only went so far. My final thought was that relocating, even if for reasons of development, must be a bitch. They ran a successful noodle shop and would have to start over.
Then again, what do I know? Perhaps they did indeed get moved to a nicer area. Angel might get accepted into a Chongqing university. By attending that school, she’d study in a cosmopolitan area just three hours away, yet three solar systems apart from the village outside Luzhou in which she was born. She could even succeed in the science world, earning a masters degree in Beijing, getting a grant to go abroad.
Sometimes change works.
(A somewhat normal Monday early this semester.)
7:15 AM: First alarm sounds. The beast stirs before reaching out from his mound to maul the snooze button with his simian crushing machine of a hand.
7:20: Second alarm. Grunt goes the beast. Hits snooze again.
7:25: Third alarm. Snooze. My alarm ends at three snoozes. It will not sound again. Disaster is certain for our noble brute.
7:30: My phone alarm goes off. I’ve started setting it as an auxiliary, having not been able to wake up within my clock’s two snooze cycles this semester. I hit snooze knowing it will give me one last chance to make it to class this morning, but don’t actually fall back to sleep.
7:39: Reach to phone to preempt alarm, but it turns to 7:40 right as I get there. I quickly end its digifunk rendition of bird songs, hop out of bed and pile jeans, sweater, hooded sweatshirt, and socks over my long johns (this Monday was that early in the semester – the thought of long sleeves makes me roll over in my grave on this hot-as-balls day). Fantasizing about the nap I’ll never end up actually taking today, I heat water for coffee and hard-boil an egg.
(Fast forward through a bus ride and some random walking around my campus to before class.)
9:42: Just as I utter the first sound of my lesson (“OOOOOOKkk……..”), I remember I’d been showing them a movie the previous week and we still had over an hour of it to watch. A divine glow descends on my throne as I realize that’s one lesson plan I get to save for later and fire up the projector instead. The same students who are always late straggle in and act like they’ll never do it again. Precisely one week from now, they’ll be straggling into class and acting like they’ll never do it again.
(Fast forward through movie and bus ride back to my apartment, where I probably dropped my stuff off before scarfing down a 50-cent bowl of noodles and beef boiled in pepper spray and oil.)
2:13 PM: I put the finishing touches on the same lesson plan I was going to teach this morning. I will have to teach to another oral English class this evening but foolishly forgot to also show them a film last week. I then catch the same bus back across town to the new campus of school where I must give office hours at 3:00.
3:03: I rush through my school building, up two flights of stairs, and down the 3rd floor hallway to my office. This early in the afternoon the pace on campus is still lazy, a lingering post-siesta hangover. Right before I make it to the sacred threshold of my office, I pass a boy outside who gives me the sort of look that makes me think he might have some English he wants to get off his tongue, were he not too timid to approach the foreign beast at first sight. I am familiar with his kind. The door to my office is open and I expect, disappointedly, to find another teacher using the office. Luckily no one actually is, and I sit to grade papers.
3:06: None of my students have arrived, a strange phenomenon since they always arrive in my office a dependable 23 seconds after I do, yet the boy who’d passed me in the hall creeps through the door and asks:
“Excuse me, are you Charlie?”
“Can I talk to you?”
“Yea, sure, no problem.” I feel strange offering seats to my students, but without the offer he’d linger about the room until eventually feeling it ok to sit, so motioning to the one opposite me I add: “have a seat.”
He pulls the door almost completely shut. Not liking this, I tell him he can keep the door open, a thinly veiled order that he accommodates by cracking the door open two more inches.
The problem with afternoon office hours is that, though my students usually remain sleepy from their recently interrupted naps, I’m also usually sleepy from my recently interrupted afternoon of doing nothing. Consequently I tune out whatever it is they’re talking about from time to time. Unintentionally of course, but a bad habit nonetheless, one that my friends and family may be all too familiar with.
My student will go on about how she likes to play mahjong with her family and how her grandparents raised her while her parents were off working the ride paddies and how one grandparent is now terminally ill, and with my eyelids drooped a quarter of the way I respond, “Huh? That’s interesting. You know, I like mahjong. It’s fun, but I’m not that good at it. I’ve only played for money twice, and both times I lost all my money. Sophie, were you going to say something before?”
But as this boy sits, I don’t feel sleepy at all. He remains silent, and in his timidity I can sense something brewing, something more than the average interview about my chopsticks and Chinese skills.
I begin instead: “What is your major?”
“Medical marketing.” His pronunciation had already tipped me off to his language skills, but the fact that he actually knows the English name of his major places him in the elite.
“Marketing?” I repeat, nodding in understanding.
After another short pause I ask, “What year are you?”
“What?” he asks, not understanding. OK, maybe not too elite.
“I mean… how old are you? Or, erm, are you a first year, or a second year student?”
“I’m just a first year. A freshman.”
“Ah. A freshman.”
Then he cuts in: “I know some of your students. They say I can talk to you. I have something I want to say.”
“I haven’t told anybody this, and I think, because you are American, you are open, and you can accept.”
“Mm huh.” I know where this is going.
“Can you accept?”
“Yeah,” I say, now trying harder to assure him of my undivided attention. (To reemphasize, I don’t always leave this impression.)
“You are the first person I have said this to. I have not told my friends or my family. I am…. gay.” The last word comes out slightly quieter and less enunciated than everything before it.
“Oh,” I respond, rapidly trying to string the right thoughts together.
He quickly follows up: “Can you accept?”
“Yes. Yeah. I can accept. Absolutely.”
“If I tell anyone else, they will hate me,” he says with seriousness. “Really.”
From here on out, weighted pauses bookend all my comments. I can’t seem to find the right words. “Well, it’s very good that you are comfortable with that yourself. It’s important that you know it’s ok.” Pause. “It is.”
The boy continues: “I just… don’t like…” He trailed off and before I could ask him to explain, my phone started ringing. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Only writing this now do I realize that the better thing to do would have been ignore the call, but it was an unknown number so I figured it could be someone important from Peace Corps or my school: “Excuse me. I’m sorry, I just have to take this call. Someone is calling me. It will be quick.”
On the other end, my student Kacie sounds frantic. “My classmates and I are taking a part-time job, so we are not able to come to office hours. Are you there now?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“I’m sorry!” Generally my students respect my busy schedule. They also have never been able to grasp the concept that I might use office hours as time to sit by myself in my office and work, whether or not they come, and whether or not I ever actually work. Thinking she’s taken up my time, Kacie is damn near hysterical.
I keep trying to insist it’s ok and end the call, but she keeps apologizing. Finally I just conclude, “Really, don’t worry about it! See you later. Bye,” and hang up.
The boy still sits across me from me. In true Chinese fashion, his expression betrays little of the discomfort he must be feeling. “I’m sorry,” I say by way of returning to the conversation. Pause. “Where are you from?”
He says the name of a city near the east coast. OK, so he is elite after all. It explains the good English.
All of sudden, though, he starts getting up and says, “Thank you very much.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Yeah, sure, really it’s no problem.”
I tell him he can always talk to me about it again, expecting him to ask for my cell phone number. But he is bee lining for the door.
“So, byebye,” he says, already halfway out.
“Ok, and hey!” I call for his attention.
“Don’t worry about it. Really.”
“Ok.” Then he disappears.
I get a text message from Yasmine, another student, apologizing for missing office hours.
I got neither his phone number nor his name. Still, over one month later, I haven’t heard from him again. I doubt I will.
Don’t worry about it? I realized soon thereafter that my last words could have applied to any minute part of our conversation, from his gayness to my confidentiality to the other people hating him for it. Really. But as impossible as it is for me to understand how it must feel to be a young Chinese guy coming out, something about the comment felt right, at least within my limits of time and language.
If my reaction seemed nonchalant, I’ll risk sounding insensitive by admitting that it was. A former student of mine, one with whom I have a more honest relationship than most anyone else here, confessed her serious depression to me. Over hotpot, a high school boy I barely know – and whom I suspect is gay – confided how much pressure his dad places on him to do well in school. To me – a random guy from across the world whose native language couldn’t be more far removed from his own. Similar stories circulate among other volunteers. Difficult as it is to imagine how most of our students here view us, at the very least we are detached from their culture and, thus, much less likely to be biased than any Chinese person. No face gets lost in the audience of foreigners.
Oddly enough, the previous week a postgraduate student had asked me a question using the same exact wording. I’d given a PowerPoint presentation for women’s day on women in America and devoted a small section of it to the LGBT movement. One of the only students who talks in that class, a thin girl from Chengdu, raised her hand after the lecture and, referring to gay people, asked: “Can you accept that?” I’d told her that I could accept gay people, but could she?
I never actually learned if she could. I didn’t even ask her; I quickly changed the subject for fear of her own perspective. Everything in her demeanor and intelligence would suggest that she’s open to same-sex relationships. But even the most enlightened students here can scare me with their ability to quickly and adamantly express the most irrationalized views on certain controversial issues, homosexuality being but one of them.
After my meeting with the freshman boy, I taught my evening class and, walking back across town, stopped at the local Muslim noodle restaurant – a staple business among Sichuan cities. A group of stockier Hui Muslim men were eating noodles. Their mustaches, wider eyes, wavy hair, and loose clothing gave the impression of a meeting between heads of Colombian drug cartels. The little boy one of them had been looking after ran off down the street and only five minutes after did they send out a relaxed search and rescue mission.
Due to their party of five, my food took longer than normal, and I had more time to ponder the freshman. Did I really say the right thing? Since he only seemed interested in my acceptance, how could I have assured him that I truly accept? My favorite hat is purple. My college roommate was gay, as are some of the best characters on The Wire. The new David Sedaris book is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read, and I went scantly clad to a Gay Pride Party held by a Peace Corps volunteer last month.
Was there really even a right thing to say, or did he truly just want to get it off his chest? I can really and truly accept. At least I think I can. And so many people I know can as well.
But so few people in his life will be able to. Really.
“The [expletive] MUSIC is back: that nationalistic [expletive]. It must be for Tomb Sweeping day. I just heard it. I need to get out of here.”
My Journal, March 3, 2011
I’d like to blame this quotation’s nasty tone on drunkenness, steroids, or PMS, but I was experiencing none of those at the time. Rather, I was experiencing time travel.
Songs, of course, have the power to warp us back to any point in time when we listened to them a lot. Having discovered Wilco while studying for a semester of high school in the Rocky Mountains, I always associate Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with Leadville, Colorado. UB40’s Promises and Lies whisks me back to the road heading east along Long Island’s North Fork, while Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” shakes me up and plunges me abruptly into the smelly school bus to Baltimore, where my freshman football team played Gilman, a squad whose large size didn’t stop us from killing them in the names of testosterone and big brown bears.
Not all songs carry us to such positive places, however. The ditty I heard last Thursday, the aforementioned “nationalistic crap,” struck a raw nerve. Last year I heard that song play five times a day for over a week straight. At the time I didn’t know why it was playing, where it was coming from, and why no one seemed to care that a recording of some obnoxiously nationalistic orchestra was looping through our brains. I also didn’t know exactly why it was making me so frustrated.
On April 1, 2010, I wrote: “Chinese nationalism pisses me off sometimes, like right now, for the 2nd or 3rd time today, there’s this orchestral, horn-heavy music blaring from somewhere outside… SHUT UP!” The next day, before I left Luzhou for a much-needed reprieve among the foreigners of Chongqing: “… that damn nationalistic tune is still playing, though I can’t figure out from where.” Upon my return to Luzhou: “Heard the orchestral music again. Hopefully that nightmare doesn’t persist.”
Why did no one seem to care? I’ve stopped asking myself that question in China. Both nationalism and loud, crappy music abound, and there’s nothing I can do to become as tolerant of them as the people around me are.
Where did it play from? I found that answer this year: not too far from the driveway into my old apartment complex, there’s a rather large stone monument on the opposite side of the road. It’s a squat tower that starts about ten feet wide at the bottom, then tapers slightly as it rises into the air, until ending in a pointy cone surrounded by red trim. It honors dead soldiers and is more than a little bit phallic. Around it, people have laid many wheel-shaped arrangements of bright paper flowers.
Why the music at all? The correct reason crossed my mind last year, but my irritation at it then prevented me from accepting any explanation other than the craziness of Chinese people. Had I looked for its source, I would have found the monument, and had I found the monument I would also have found the fake flower arrangements which can mean only one thing: honoring the dead.
The Chinese holiday Qing Ming Jie, or Tomb Sweeping Day, is just finishing up here. It’s a time for people to honor their dead relatives by cleaning graves and burning fake money as sacrifice. It’s Halloween without all the pumpkins and candy. The music marks the various services people have been having there. After all, each playing of the song has usually been accompanied by a speech delivered with the same fervor as my students talking about their nation.
* * *
A holiday is a holiday. That’s why I went to Chongqing last year during Qing Ming Jie. This year, two Peace Corps friends came to visit me in Luzhou. The day they arrived, we toured the original Luzhou Laojiao (“Luzhou Old Cellar”) baijiu factory (i.e. the old cellar), drank beers by the river, and ate hotpot. Yesterday we woke late and ambled slowly down into the city to sample street food and get coffee at KFC. KFC being packed with trophy wives and hyper children, we escaped out the side-door while juggling cups of coffee and boiled water.
Suddenly my phone started shaking and I had to put both cups down on the KFC stoop to answer:
The voice on the other end was familiar: “Hello Charlie. This is Yang.” Ms. Yang is the assistant is my school’s foreign affairs office. Her news always sounds more urgent than it is, but I could tell this was extra important: “Are you in your apartment now?”
“No, I’m not home right now.”
“The second floor neighbor called me and said that water is coming into their apartment.”
“Yes, it’s lots of water. Are you washing clothes?”
My laundry had caused some leaking downstairs last year, but I was most definitely not washing clothes. “No, I’m not washing clothes.”
“Is anything wrong, or broken?”
A clogged toilet had once also caused leaking, but, “No, I don’t think so. I was home fifteen minutes ago and everything was ok. But I can come home now.” I admitted this last part reluctantly.
“Ok, yes, please do that. It is serious. We can see if there is something wrong.”
“Ok, I’ll call you soon.”
Our plans to stroll the river were derailed, so I dumped my cup of boiled water into the drain and we hopped into a cab back home with our coffee. I wasn’t feeling the urgency, but I also didn’t feel like walking back up the long slow hill to my third floor apartment leaking radioactive foreigner waste.
No sooner had we screeched to a stop outside my apartment than my phone rang again. I awkwardly exited the taxi and put my coffee on the roof while my friends worked out the fare. Ms. Yang’s familiar voice greeted me again. This time, though, the urgency had evaporated. My student neighbors had realized that the leakage they had blamed on me not ten minutes earlier, lo and behold, was neither my nor my apartment’s fault. “You don’t need to go home now,” Ms. Yang said by way of consolation.
“Ok,” I said innocently. “Thanks.”
I almost forgot to grab my coffee from the roof of the taxi as it lurched away. The damage was done. We’d come home, but I was nevertheless relieved to return to an unbroken apartment.
* * *
This wasn’t the first complaint I’d gotten about water leaking from my apartment. It wasn’t the second, and it probably won’t even be the last one either. So just as music can spew us back through the windshields of our past, so can leaking water.
While my nightmares in April involve jingoistic horn music and dead people getting honored around giant stone dicks, my nightmares in August involved only one thing: the sun. Look back in the China Shop annals for proof of this fact. At least now, if I really want, I can escape Luzhou for a weekend and hope that the patriotic opus to the macabre has finished by the time I return. But in summer, the oven encompassed every place in Sichuan but one: any room with a functioning air conditioning unit.
Generally my bedroom fits into this lucky category. I’ve always tried to be sparing with the heating and cooling, but some days last summer I just needed Freon’s refreshing arctic touch. So after I’d been returned to Luzhou for about a week last August – during which time I was hardly sparing with my A.C. use – I got a knock on my door one morning.
I opened it to find my tall, self-proclaimed octogenarian of a neighbor standing outside in his loose cotton pajamas. I don’t actually know his name, but for purposes of this post I’ll just call him Frank. Frank started talking animatedly as soon as I opened the door, but all I understood were shui and kongtiao, the words for water and air conditioner. Eventually he held his hand out, palm up, and jabbed his other index finger into it while making a ping sound with his mouth. In retrospect, I wonder how this white-haired and weathered old timer was so much better at my students than miming, because I suddenly understood exactly what he was complaining about: water dripping against something in his apartment.
So I understood he was complaining about his upstairs neighbor’s A.C. Having gotten his meaning, I then had to process it like a sleuth. Wait a minute! I wasn’t using my A.C. that morning! I usually just turned the A.C. on at night. During the day, meanwhile, I closed my shades and bedroom door to conserve the cool air. I tried to explain this, but eventually led him into my bedroom to show that my unit wasn’t turned on. Knowing the water wasn’t mine, I even opened my window and directed his attention upward to the fourth floor unit which was – to my detective-like delight – dripping water.
Then I accompanied Frank downstairs where his slightly younger wife was waiting. She also explained to me that water was dripping and did the same charade with her upward facing palm and led me to the back of the building where the water from the neighbor’s unit was hitting a metal electric box that was attached to the building at a right angle. The resulting ping was understandably irritating to this couple who lived immediately indoors of it and didn’t themselves have the relief of an A.C. unit.
I studied the situation, acting guilty but not actually seeing how my inactive A.C. unit had anything to do with this situation or how my language skills even qualified me to help. Even if I had it turned it on, that’s what A.C. units do: they drip water. More than once has water dripped on me as I’ve just been walking down the street.
Or why not consult the fourth floor? Better yet, why not just solve the problem yourself and position a strip of plastic or wood diagonally across the metal box, thus angling the water downward and avoiding the ping? That’s what I’d have done. Then there’d be no need to consult the neighbors in the first place about a problem that wasn’t theirs at all. But from what I can tell, that’s what Chinese people do. They don’t think up the solutions themselves. Not first off anyways. They place blame, make a scene, and hope to see the fix come through other social channels.
After I’d stood outside, studying the metal box for about five minutes, a slight crowd had formed. Two other elderly neighbors had both also explained the situation to me. Up went the palms, down went the index fingers, and out came the ping. Finally I told Frank and his wife that I’d call my boss (in this case it would have been Ms. Yang) and get her on the case.
I didn’t do that. I just went back upstairs, regretful that I’d had to let so much warm air in to my room and confused why they wouldn’t just fix it themselves. Out of courtesy I didn’t use my A.C. for the next two days, relying instead on my ceiling fan. It didn’t compare, of course, so I was relieved when walking home one day to see that Frank had finally taped a strip of soft plastic over the metal box. Ping was out, my solution was in, and I rushed upstairs to chill in the afterglow.
Then the outlet near my A.C. jammed and a whole new chapter was sprung in the kongtiao saga…. Looked like I’d have to call Ms. Yang after all, but that’s a different story altogether.
* * *
As my PCV friends and I trudged up to my non-leaking apartment yesterday, I saw through a first floor window Frank’s wife working in their kitchen. I’ve seen her there a lot recently.
I began recognizing Frank and his wife before anyone else around my apartment, and they were probably some of the first people to recognize me. She fed the local red tabby. He read the newspaper. On sunny days, she did laundry while he sorted out little chili peppers to dry in a flat basket. She’d often walk back and forth with other old women, gossiping in only-slightly hushed tones, while Frank stayed sitting around, king to the neighborhood court in his blue Mao-era cap. By night, I could always make out a television glowing from within their living room.
Before the A.C. saga began, my closest interaction with them came the first fall I was here. I’d left some clothes out to dry on the public line and, upon returning to my apartment at night, noticed they were no longer there. Shit! I thought to myself. But by the next morning they were out again, so I left them there to continue drying. When I went back out at night, they were again gone. I now figured they weren’t stolen, but had no idea where they’d gone. When I went out the third morning, I heard an awkward “hello!” from over near one of the stone tables outside. Frank was approaching me. He started talking in Chinese about clothes and beckoned me over to his apartment, where my clothes were folded into a neat, dry pile. He gave me some parting advice I assumed to be a warning about leaving my jeans out at night.
After that I always greeted Frank with “Nin hao,” the formal version of “Ni hao” reserved for the elderly. But besides a few random attempts I made to ask him if he’d eaten or what he was reading, we never actually shot the shit. So goes life for a shy foreigner.
I’d never have described Frank’s movements as spry. But by this past fall his walks around the neighborhood were noticeably shorter, and a crutch had become a permanent fixture. After I returned from winter travels, I realized I hadn’t seen him for a long time.
His wife, previously the queen socialite, now seems to be sticking to herself more and almost always working behind that little kitchen window next to the stairwell.
* * *
Why did the nationalistic horns make me so frustrated last year? When I’m in the wrong mood, anything from school to my stomach to people getting onto buses to some little kid just misbehaving in a restaurant is liable to make me frustrated with China as a whole, no matter how much I try to avoid generalizing. Even a repeating horn tune can trigger such venom. It was just a small part of China, but one that was so quintessentially Chinese that, combined with every other stressful detail of this place, set me off for a moment. About a week and half’s worth of moments, to be more accurate.
This year, I’ve cared much less about the nationalistic orchestra playing on repeat through my life. I know now it’s for people celebrating their heroes, and that understanding cushions the blow. Call it adaptation. Without it a Peace Corps volunteer is nothing.
Last year, the sounds of Frank and his fellow retirees out slapping their hands together for exercise, waving their bamboo fans back and forth, and jabbering away in the warm morning air often prevented me from sleeping too late. I didn’t understand their words, but I never actually minded the noise. There was something relaxing about their chatter, their ease within a culture that may not always have been so easy.
Old folks command enormous respect here, and Frank earned his seat at the front of the bus. So Frank, this one’s for you. I hope you’re still jabbering away somewhere.
I had high hopes for The Sun Also Rises when I read it in high school, those awkward years when I still believed Morocco was in South America, Chinese people ate out of little white boxes, and leaving all marshmallows until last was the best way to eat Lucky Charms. (I actually still hold the last one to be self-evident.) Before even opening the classic, I was already excited for the bull-fighting epic it would eventually inspire into adaptation. Gladiator had recently been released, Hemingway seemed liked the thinking man’s badass, and I wanted to enjoy it.
Bullfighting and fly-fishing turned out to be only backdrop for the more important matters of love affairs, heavy drinking, and expatriotism. I being uninitiated into any of those worlds myself, my maiden Hemingway voyage left me uninspired. The characters were whiney expatriate winos. And that’s about all I got: cynical expats on the piss, one particular loser who couldn’t get the hot chick, a young Spanish bullfighter who could, and a little fishing.
Before even coming to China, I’d wanted to revisit The Sun Also Rises. Surely such a famous story had something to it that I’d missed. Now having lived some variation of the expatriate life, whining and wining in equal measure, I’m even more interested.
I’m a volunteer, you’ll say. And true enough, I am a volunteer for the U.S. government, about as patriotic a title an American abroad can earn without wearing doggy tags and a gun. Expats, meanwhile, make up the vast other, those souls who have departed our motherland for anything from money to wanderlust to women to simple disgust. Patriotism much less often makes it into these private wild cards, if it does at all. By definition, they are outside patriotism.
I was talking with Mark, one such American who recently moved to Luzhou with the Chinese woman he met in Los Angeles and married. Formerly working in the software field, he moved here to teach English and live quite comfortably on the easy money he makes doing so. His savings remain safe in America, or so he at least believes.
We identified the different expat archetypes. You have, on the one hand, older types. Like Mark, some just come for a less cutthroat life. Life is relatively carefree for the TEFL teacher (more on that later). Some come for love, in its various forms, while others come preaching the word of god, in its various forms. Then you have your young bloods, some of who come for the same reasons as the older expats: mission work, love, easy money.
Other young adults, Mark commented, come here because they possessed neither the fortune nor social skills to fare well in America and came abroad for acceptance. Though there are, assuredly, these awkward few who’ve been running away from something their whole lives, most of the younger Americans I’ve met here just strike me as another type Mark mentioned, your standard young adventurers. Be they passing through all of Asia or just China, they’re not so much running away as running to something lying somewhere in the future. Whether or not they’ve defined something is beside the point.
My Peace Corps brethren and I resemble most closely this last type of expat. We’re all open-minded characters who joined Peace Corps to learn about the world and ourselves. Day in and day out, we all share in the struggle of teaching English to university students who can’t pronounce “th,” giggle at the word sex, and think Americans have ever heard of Westlife before coming to China.
Volunteers generally get better cultural and language training than TEFL expats, while private TEFL teachers receive more than $230 a month. Volunteers are merely a different species from the otherwise same kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and genus. Were a PCV and private teacher to procreate, the baby would be blessed with both advanced social conscience and competitive salary.
As such, I think it more proper to call myself an “onloanpatriate.” Dignified as I feel saying I’m a volunteer, my work is so similar to that of private teachers that it can sometimes feel degrading. I volunteered to teach some classes, but also to learn the language and create some special opportunities for my students outside the classroom (known in PC lingo as a “secondary project”).
But I’ve just finished the busiest part of my week, Monday to Wednesday:
9:40 am – 3 hours of freshman oral English (on new campus, a bus ride across town).
3:00 pm – 2 hours of office hours (new campus)
7:00 pm – 3 hours of freshman oral Engish (new campus)
8:00 am – 2 hours of sophomore writing (new campus)
7:00 pm – 3 hours of sophomore western culture
9:40 am – 3 hours of sophomore oral English (new campus)
7:00 pm – 3 hours of sophomore writing (new campus)
Though my school tried to give me a Sunday class this term, I pulled the necessary strings and got it moved to Tuesday night. The beast was slain. But between teaching, taking the bus across town, and planning lessons three days in a row, I’m now more sapped by Wednesday night than the maple tree on an organic nudist coopt in Burlington, VT. The last thing I want to do today, Thursday, is take the bus across town to teach rugby, help create a student newsletter, or conduct a movie club. The same goes for inviting students over for dinner or giving monthly culture lectures. I have class tomorrow morning and as such don’t want to go out tonight with some Chinese friends who I know will drown me in baijiu, beer, and, if they get me in the right mood, a cigarette or two. But it’s going to happen.
I don’t even want to go on one of the many adventures I’ve been meaning to my whole time here, such as taking the ferry across the Yangtze to explore the village on the other side or creating a time-lapse photo album of the skylines sprouting a continual forest of cranes and empty skyscrapers. I just want to sit around all day, maybe exercise later, and then sip on cheap beer before lapsing into coma, waking for my class tomorrow, and then repeating.
If I had fewer classes, I’d at least in theory be able to accomplish more with my free time and with my students who already need fewer classes and more opportunities to think for themselves outside their teachers’ guidance. In fact they could really use a course on learning what to do with their spare time, since they never seem to do anything besides sleep and surf the Internet. That’s a class I’d love to teach. But I work the hectic schedule of a paid foreign teacher and, though it’s pathetic of me to say so, for almost none of the money.
In short, I’m a Chinese university teacher: overworked and underpaid. It’s not what I signed up for, but I have integrated in a manner I’d never have imagined when I was initially writing on my Peace Corps application about wanting to share my education with the people of the world too disadvantaged to have one.
Through my vagrant tours of Sichuan and Chongqing, I’ve met quite a few expats. Not only do they have the same work schedules as us onloanpats, but they also know how to party like us. You’re just as likely to find PCVs packed liked sardines into a Chengdu bar as you are other expats. United the expats and onloanpats stand, weekday workhorses, weekend warriors finding the courage we need to get by at the bottom of bottles and shot glasses.
We PCVs – or some of us at least – take a perverse glee in it all. We haggardly recount our morning-after stories to each other like badges of courage, whalers giddy on each other’s blubber and grog. Through it all, through the blurry nights and bright mornings, we tramp like jesters through Chinese cities, oblivious for once to the attention the locals so reliably give us whether we want it or not, but conditioned to it by the reality of always feeling like clowns anyways. Why not give them something to laugh at? Because we have each other. Cheesy at that sounds, I believe it to be true.
Unhealthy and unglamorous as I make life in Peace Corps China sound, I don’t think I’m actually behaving much more differently than I would if I still was home with my friends or still (shudder) in college. For all our partying, we still live in our small sites about 90% of the time. Besides the occasional banquet and begrudgingly accepted invitation to drink with Chinese friends, I rarely go out on benders. We teach and teach and deal with bureaucracy and teach and go out drinking with foreigners and teach again.
Which brings me back to The Sun Also Rises. I now understand the stresses of living in a foreign culture, and so I think I’d appreciate the story’s nuance a lot more than my Limp Bizkit listening teenage self. With the right cast and cinematography, it might even make a sexy movie. After all, this expat life is nothing if not a sexy movie featuring all my favorite B-list celebrities.
One Chinese person recently accused me of thinking too much. I took it with a grain of salt, the same way I take accusations of acting too serious as a foreign teacher, or too mature as a young guy, or too shy as an American. Although I’m flexible with some matters of immersion, I’m still western and accountable to my own occidental code. I’ve shed all but a hint of my original shame about defying stereotypes.
The reason I haven’t posted on this blog in so long has not been for lack of thinking. But I do apologize for the delay. It often feels that most of what I do here is introspection. Though this blog is about China, I often write more about myself and my own impressions of it. Once in a while I strike a Tom Friedman or Nicholas Kristof note, but even in those amateur attempts to fathom modern China, I feel like a bleeding heart overstepping his intellectual limits by trying to fit the world into a peace sign shaped box. More often I’ve written about my own psychology and dressed it up in loopy metaphors about animals, dragons, combat, cycles, and – in my most arrogant moments – the universe.
But despite my brain continually running like a hamster on a wheel, I’ve been bored. Until this week, I hadn’t felt busy for over two months and out of my resulting boredom came little besides laziness and hedonism
I was walking down the mean streets of Chengdu late one February night with some other volunteers including my partner in blogging crime, Keith. Discussing his own work, he defined for me well the main reason why, amidst my midwinter malaise, I myself could summon neither the thoughts nor balls necessary to drop a new blog post. “I just feel like I write about the same stuff, and there’s nothing else to write about,” he conceded, or something to that extent, before I loaned him three yuan for another road beer.
(I recommend the Expatriate Act, Keith’s sharp contribution to the blogosphere.)
So for stagnation I drank beer and for beer I stagnated. Until now.
Throughout my China experience, I’ve oft felt subject to a higher plan. Not that of a deity so much as the Chinese educational system, deified as it may feel. And my own government, incidentally. Every semester has had its initial thunder, then its plateau, eventually its halfway-through hangover, and finally its Bruce Willis-caliber crash and burn, guns blazing into a much-needed holiday. Anyone who has followed this bull through his China romp could probably trace that cycle last semester. Any foreign expert, moreover, could probably read into this blog my own feelings of culture shock, while any Freudian could probably extract from my predictability a whole bundle of psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo about inadequacy and dingle berries.
Every holiday always gets followed immediately by its own hangover, one debatably more devastating than the mid-semester one. Leaving Chengdu to return to site, I told a few people I was about plunge back into the abyss. Life feels that way after a long break from the game of TEFL. Last winter it was unbelievably depressing and made no better by a bad cold and diarrhea.
But I got over this recent hangover surprisingly quick. I had all the reasons in the world not to. Much as I sincerely like my school, it is impressive in its ability to leave me with annoying schedules. This semester it has cut no corners and is actually looking to surpass itself yet again. I have to teach at least three nights a week, and unless things really go my way by next week, one of those nights will fall like a big, furry bedbug on Sunday. On top of that and nineteen teaching hours per week for most of the semester, they’ve requested I conduct a monthly lecture series on some aspect of American culture. By Sunday night, I felt much like one of the many characters from The Wire who wax so eloquently on getting sodomized by their superior officers. I wished for a punching bag in my apartment.
But by late this morning, walking back to my apartment and stuffing a freshly fried beef-and-onion cake into my face, I felt strangely great. I’ve been back in class for two and a half weeks now, but only last night did I again sit down to work out a full lesson plan for my 8 a.m. writing class, and it paid off. Students seemed engaged. I had them play a game in the beginning, something I don’t often do but that did an amazing job of waking them up. The lesson on writing short notes could have gone boringly, but I spiced it up with enough wit, interaction, and slapstick that, come the end of class, their mouths weren’t agape and their eyes weren’t staring through a foreigner-shaped window.
A lesson like this morning’s leaves you walking on sunshine. Of course Luzhou has no sunshine, but that’s the honest power of positive student reaction to make you high. Though I’ve got three other things to do today, including writing my biannual Peace Corps report (due today), clouds parted and my writer’s block broke.
One thing I’ve cherished about my Peace Corps experience is that it’s never too late to try something new, some project, food, language structure, or teaching tactic. Easy as it is to feel stagnated and unaccomplished, two years is just too long of a time for it to ever really be too late. Until it’s too late.
I turn twenty-five soon. By Chinese definitions, I’m already twenty-six. Though my brain does keep trotting along its wheel, ceaselessly beating back like boats into the past, and though my behavior with other American friends still does little to imply maturity, I have successfully managed to make it as an adult, no less as a thinking, foreign adult, in a country at complete unease over adulthood, thinking, and foreignness.
So in this final semester of blogging about China, I’ll try to find those slices of life where I can step out of myself to focus less on my thoughts and more modestly on China, since she is kind of a big deal and I can’t deny that my courtside seats have been educational. I surely risk sounding bigheaded and Tom Friedman-ish, as I still only understand about 0.01% of the Chinese language and an only slightly less modest 5.3% of its culture. But I suppose bigheadedness could beat egomania (if not begat it), so if Big Red gives me something to work with, I’ll try to serve you all up somethin’ extra nice and unordinary.
And please, I do take requests.
My China bromance edges closer to its conclusion, a thought that brings both excitement and terror. My relationship with said Bro has been a rollercoaster. Like some beast from a Goya painting, he’s chewed me up, spit me out, and come chomping back for more. But despite our differences, he hasn’t swallowed me up yet. I feel neither glass-half-full nor glass-half-empty towards him. I just know there is a glass; in it there is some tea; on it there are some only slightly intelligible scribblings; and after drinking it, despite my most earnest attempts to understand the ingredients, I’ll still only have an iota of eastern clarity. And maybe diarrhea. But I like to imagine I’m approaching some final moment of laughing and reconciliation.
Now I sit in my apartment – one of the most anticlimactically defining images of my Peace Corps experience – during my final semester break at Luzhou Medical College, my fingers chilly, my brain poised for another month and a half of rest, relaxation, and drinks on the rocks, followed finally by semester four.
In Chinese, the number four is pronounced si, and so is the word for death. Four is, consequently, very unlucky for Chinese people. But right now, as I face number four, it has somehow come to me as a miracle that I don’t feel more of a sense of doom. The odds are stacked against me at the moment. My apartment is a concrete icebox. After some necessary traveling last week, I’ve been stir crazy since arriving back at site. Despite the free time, I’ve remained astoundingly unproductive (words can’t describe how accomplished I felt after just fifteen minutes of tidying my apartment yesterday). And the faint whispers of a Chinese beer hangover still lurk somewhere between my stomach and soul. Thanks to Luzhou’s foreign syndicate for the latter.
But still, the fearful four horsemen of the TEFL apocalypse haven’t materialized yet. Sure, the thought of just one more semester in Sichuan is scary. Even scarier are all the thoughts I devote to my broader future on this planet (assuming my plans to inhabit Pluto don’t pan out). In spite of all that scariness, though, I somehow feel at peace.
My attempts to share my experiences in this blog have been highfalutin, ungraceful, rambling, repetitive, and more than a tad conceited. I promise you, they’ll remain so. But I also promise that they have been earnest. So with frozen fingers and running nose, I return to task. China’s got a fever. And the only medicine is more rambling: watch me go!
Scheduling here amazes me. Chinese semesters last about a month longer than they do in America. Yet they still, by some Confucian act of cosmic trickery, end up with longer holidays also. Two gloriously long months for summer. Two more for winter. And a whole bunch of other weeklong “Golden” holidays that randomly float to surface like pimples on the calendar’s face.
My Chinese counterparts never seem to know when those acne attack holidays will erupt. The Chinese New Year? Oh, some time in February. Maybe near the end. But it could be near the beginning also. I’ll get back to you on that. The Dragon Boat Festival? I’m not sure. Maybe next year some time. You know? Just wait until you see the dragon boats. The National Holiday? OCTOBER 1! >_<
Long term planning becomes a bitch, but to the system’s credit, the delights of vacation are all the sweeter when they finally do come, especially when that vacation marks the end of one magically longer semester and the beginning of an even more magically longerer holiday.
Such was the case last month in the weeks leading up to New Years. If you’ve followed this blog, you’d recall that I came dangerously close to burnout after Thanksgiving. Pretty much from then until New Years, my interculturalism was about as inspired as the coyote after being crushed by an Acme-made anvil. On paper, I wasn’t worthless: I still managed to play in a Chongqing rugby tournament, visit the city of Zigong to see an old student and some volunteers, meet my Peace Corps program manager during her Sichuan site visits, teach rugby to P.E. students, and conduct classes and exams. But the whole while, my brain was on empty.
Steering me through the fog was New Years, both because it would bring some high spirited parties in Chongqing and, more importantly, because I’d have just finished my fall semester. My magically more longerer holiday would at last expand as far eyes chose to see.
Finally on December 31, after grading my exams, after tying up about three of the three thousand loose ends I have lying around here, after attending my school’s end-of-semester banquet (to be described in a future post), and after beating the original Toejam and Earl, I hopped on the 12:00 pm freedom bus out of Luzhou. From down the Yangtze I heard Chongqing calling, and I would answer that call heartily.
But rather than now describe that Chongqing weekend and the travels that followed, which you may be expecting, I’m going to switch gears. This has all been my grandiloquent way of introducing Chongqing, the real star of today’s show, because it’s been granted minor roles in my past posts, but I’ve never really paid that sexy little megatropolis of a waterfront town its due, both within my own Peace Corps China bromance and, more ambitiously, within my Bro’s broader bromance with himself.
Why Peace Corps China?
Bonnie, our Peace Corps country director, the head honcho here, asked us that question our first day in China. I’m guessing she has also asked it to every Peace Corps China group before us. But even if she didn’t plant the thought, I imagine I’d still have asked myself it every day.
Why does Peace Corps send volunteers to teach college students in China? China? He’s the big man on campus by now. He’s getting a full state dinner at the White House this week. His Shanghaiese children are the smartest students on earth. He hosted the most grandiose summer Olympics in recent history. His name dots every newspaper in the world.
What can I, a freckly squirt not even a quarter century into life and with only a Bachelor’s Degree in English to show for it, possibly contribute here? If you think I’m the best person to answer that question, guess again. I’ve got reasons, as does everyone else. And I think there are indisputably good reasons why we’re here. But first…
I hatched my idea for this post while, amidst my late fall malaise, I was reading two articles on Chongqing (pronounced Chong Ching): one a New York Times travel piece, the other a more analytical piece from Foreign Policy titled “Chicago on the Yangtze.” I recommend them, both as articles themselves and, especially the NYT one, as windows into what my life here is like. Luzhou, situated on the fork of the Tuojiang and Yangtze rivers, looks both in life and on map like a thumbnail print of Chongqing, a city on another, similarly S-shaped fork of the Yangtze.
Chongqing could be a thumbnail for all of China itself. It is, as the articles say, the biggest city you’ve never heard of. I’d never heard of it before coming here, and it indeed is one big ass city. A taxi to the airport (which lies within the sprawling city limits) from most anywhere else in the city can take at least thirty minutes and cost at least 50 renminbi. That’s less than $10, but $10 is still a big chunk of change here, particularly for a taxi. (And even more particularly for a volunteer salary – roughly 3.3%.)
Across the last century, it was a major wartime hotbed and was technically adjoined to Sichuan Province. Then it more recently separated into its own municipal province – the same status granted to Beijing and Shanghai – and became an early Chinese experiment in free market economics.
Now it’s got Starbucks, Subway, Haagen-Dazs, Pizza Hut, Hilton, Marriot, shopping malls, movie theatres, sushi buffets, big universities, a thriving night scene, a graffiti park, a new opera house, a metro, an army of yuppies, a mafia, and, of course, McDonalds and KFC.
It’s even got a bar called Nuts that showcases punk and indie music acts. Watching the crowds at these shows as they stand in one place, head banging in unison and taking pictures with their cell phones, I’m reminded more of my students kowtowing in class than a new generation of Sid Viciouses or Lou Reeds. But they’re still pioneering a type of music that, by definition, lashes out against the norm. And that is how far Chongqing has come: it has spawned an experimental music scene at odds with the very bedrocks of Chinese culture: collectivism, harmony, hierarchy, family, the norm. In Luzhou, I just struggle to find students who, when I tell them I like rock music, don’t automatically ask me about Avril Lavigne or Linkin Park.
But Chongqing also has Peace Corps volunteers, and living there, they probably ask themselves why more than any other volunteers, besides a few in other cities like Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Guiyang. But if they read between the ever-expanding skyline of neon lights and letters, I imagine they find the same answers. Chongqing is still held up by a massive core of migrant workers, many of who live in cramped, two room apartments that I’d best compare to unfinished concrete basements.
I shy away from sentimentality as much as possible, perhaps at some cost even to my own impression of China. Sometimes it even takes, ironically, an article in a western newspaper to remind me. But beneath all the glitter, China is still a developing country with massive amounts of poverty. Every now and then I have the opportunity to go out into the countryside, and though the economic workings there are beyond my understanding, it leaves the impression of a feudal society.
Watching farmers work their rice paddies, backs bent all day, feet bare and knee deep in water, I’m amazed at the promethean aspect of it all. Surrounded by endless green fields, these farmers look tiny. Maybe they carry their crop into town in wicker baskets on their backs. Maybe they sell it to distributers who come out to the country to pick it up. Maybe one family member has actually moved into the city to support his relatives back on the farm. But how much money changes hands? How much of it remains in their hands, the hands that picked that produce? By the look of their clothes and homes, I can’t imagine much, particularly when, back in the city, I see such a conspicuous concentration of new money, new clothing, new cars, new bars, new breasts.
Yet these are where our students, for the most part, come from. The countryside. The peasantry. The Chinese word for farmer, in fact, is the same word for peasant. Many of them haven’t had a foreign teacher before, and some haven’t even seen a foreigner. At my most cynical moments, I wonder if I’m leaving anything behind here. But at my most optimistic, I accept that, although many students may not express it, and a few may not even understand a thing I say, I’m still affecting them.
In a way, I even take heart that my students come from families of such grit. The endless Chinese bureaucracy can seem to me – in my admitted bubble of cultural bias – a bottomless pit of inefficiency and dysfunction. But some of these students, in contrast to that inefficiency, probably know how to kill a chicken, how to cook a meal, how to plant vegetables, how to stay warm in winter, even how to assemble a garment of clothing in a factory. Their survival skills are, simply, much better than mine and most other Americans’. More darkly, I’ve even heard of the steps some female students at other schools take to make some money on the side.
I teach speaking and writing, as do most other volunteers, and that is our stated goal for volunteering here. But so is exchanging our cultures, and that’s the greater goal of Peace Corps China. That’s why. I’ve left something, but I’ve also picked up a lot from my Bro. And that’s one reason I write this blog, as earnestly as possible.
So as horseman number four finally descends, and my contract with the U.S. government nears its Chinese number four, stay tuned for more. And don’t forget Chongqing; it is China, it is the star of this show, and it’s probably not done with you yet.
Happy New Year, all you goodlookin’ people.
I crow for memories
of cockle – I say I say – doodle, I
doo not, don’t crow for anymore purple morning
orange eggs an’ juice.
not for morning, but before
sweepers peel leafy night, crusty
sleep back from stone paths. Early
risers, them sweepers they are, that wake
first, to prevent old timers
slipping, to prevent us misplacing
our faces on the breaking brim of loudly different
day. But still I rise earlier, before truck horns and
hawkers, before sun first
croaks from eastern sky, I rise,
for lost crows, dodo bird
days, before stolen glances and taut
and untaught hellos, when a man, a cocky
man, a cock-fighting man like
myself had much manly peace, could walk fast
and tall, a stranger content to be strange
and steely, but not a man
of steel strangely teaching summer camp singalongs.
I sing sunken songs of alien
ghosts, if such things exist, though surely they must
here, where scarlet roosters announce not-black
night, where starlight hides behind slowly puffing bonfires
of black, like little starlets behind curtains, humming
steady red and neon blue.
I crackle for these deafened divas of a deeply
unsleeping city, and all others whose thoughts go
unvoiced, floating dreamlike through tree-lined tea shops and
avenues. To all them, I ring hollow
my hopeful voice.
I try crowing
normal, try criss-crossing into day’s
dawn, but I’m dazed everyday, so before night’s crust peels, before morning
glow steeps my city alive, I cry clear
and foreign into starless white-noise