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How The Hell Did I End Up In China, Part 2

Two years later, I was a senior in high school. I was no longer taking the Chinese class, and beyond the great time that I had on the trip there, I had no plans for China in my future. That is, until one day I found out that the teacher’s son, the same guy I didn’t want to room with two years previous, had returned to China over the summer to teach in an English school that our tour guide, Gavin, ran with his wife. I still had the travel bug and thought this sounded like a good opportunity to go traveling solo.

I walked into the foreign language teachers’ office one day on my school lunch break, and sought out the Chinese teacher. I told her how I heard about her son, and I asked if there was any chance I could do something like that. She said that the possibility was there, but that she needed time to consider it. I wondered if she had heard about mine and John’s illicit drinking, after all.

A short time later, perhaps that night or perhaps a week later, I received a call from my teacher. She said it could be done if I was serious about it, but that I would have to write a short essay about why I wanted to go, and list my “educational goals” for while I was there. No problem, I told her, and I handed her the requested documents the next day at school.

And that’s how, just a couple weeks after graduating high school, I was on my way back to China, this time two years older, wiser, and more able to handle drinking responsibly. Also, this time, I was alone. I was told by Gavin that I would be met at the Shanghai airport by their friend, but I didn’t have a name or phone number in case anything went wrong. I didn’t even have a phone, in case something did go wrong. I landed in Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, picked up bag from the baggage claim, and made my way out to the area where people wait for their arriving friends and associates.

I looked among all the signs being held… Japanese names, some English names, some tour group names, but mine was nowhere to be found. I didn’t panic, instead I sat down on a bench with my bag and waiting. Not long after, perhaps after waiting ten minutes, a chubby, balding Chinese man ran up to me, out of breath, and said, “Are you [name]?” Why, yes, yes I am.

He introduced himself to me by his English name, which was Evans. Not Evan, but Evans. He led me outside to catch a city bus in the direction of our hotel. Despite having already been to China, the last time around was a clean, sterilised tour-package, including air conditioned private buses and English speaking guides. Evans spoke English, but not quite fluently. He was a professor in the small town of Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, where Gavin and his wife, Lily’s school was located. The bus dropped us off, and we proceeded to catch a taxi from that point. Evans asked me if I was hungry, which was a resounding “yes” from me, and so he asked the taxi to pull over while he popped into a convenience store.

Evans returned to the car with an armload of canned beer and vacuum sealed meat snacks. The meat was of various kinds, some of it identifiable, some not. We arrived at the hotel, where we shared a room, and we sat on our respective beds, watching soccer and eating our convenience store supper. Evans was in his underwear, and I felt slightly awkward sharing a room with a middle aged stranger wearing nothing but briefs, but hey, different culture, right? We had a train to catch the next morning, he told me, and so after finishing our dinner of mystery meat and warm beer, we said good night and went to bed.

When I woke up, it was still dark out. I looked for a clock, but like most Chinese hotel rooms, there was none. This is because in Chinese culture, the word for clock sounds similar to another word having to do with death, and for this reason giving a clock as a gift is a massive cultural no-no, and hotels generally don’t have them either. I shuffled through my bag for my American cell phone, which, while it didn’t have service here, could at least tell me what time it was. Four in the morning. Stupid jetlag. I wasn’t tired, so I went downstairs and walked around the hotel grounds for a bit and explored.

I got back to the room an hour later, waking Evans, and I apologized to him for causing him to rise at such an ungodly hour. We took showers and headed downstairs again for the hotel breakfast, which consisted of zhou (also known as congee), dumplings, fresh fruit, and tea and coffee.

“Our train doesn’t leave till this afternoon, what do you want to do today?” he asked me.

“Uh, whatever is fine.”

“How about going to a shopping mall?”

“Sure.”

After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the train station, to deposit our luggage. We then caught another taxi to go to a nearby mall. Chinese shopping malls are simply massive. The one we went to was probably eight stories high, with dozens of shops on every floor. We mostly just window-shopped, passing by shops for Adidas, Nike, Gucci, a Lego store… nearly every shop was something that could just as easily be found in the United States. So much for that foreign experience.

We ate lunch that day at the mall’s Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut in China is nothing like the ones in America. Rather than being a greasy little shack where you can pick up a pizza pie, Chinese pizza hut is a sit down restaurant, complete with waitstaff, tablecloths, fancy lighting… the whole shebang. Pizza is only once facet of the menu; steak and seafood are also options.

We finished our lunch and headed for the train station. Our train was of the old fashioned variety, most likely built during the 1970s, with a peeling red finish on the outside. We had sleeping berth tickets, but not the fancy ones, so we spent the train ride sitting on a hard cot, the lowest of the three bunk beds. As the train made its way through the countryside, I passed the time by reading one of the books I had brought along on the trip and chatting with either Evans or the girl who was sharing our compartment with us, who was about my age. She lived in Jiujiang, she said, and we should hang out sometime during my stay there. I asked her to help me come up with a Chinese name for myself, and she dubbed me Hu Rui, “Hu” being an abbreviation for Shanghai, where we met, and “rui” meaning “clever.” I would eventually change the “hu” to something else (because my name sounded too much like “hooray”), but otherwise I have been using the same she christened me with ever since.

Jiujiang had been described to me as a “village”, but when the train pulled into the station I realized that it was anything but. Later research would tell me that it was actually a city of several million people, though in China that hardly qualifies as being large. This middle of nowhere village had more residents than the capital city of my home state. We arrived some time after midnight, and were met at the station by Gavin’s wife, Lily, and a taxi driver, who was actually a relative of hers. Lily explained that Gavin was out of town working (he’s a tour guide, remember), and wouldn’t be back till it was almost time for me to leave, a couple of weeks later. The four of us drove through town, when I was again asked if I was hungry. The answer to that question is always in the affirmative.

We stopped at an outdoor restaurant and drank bowls of cool green-bean soup. The consistency took some getting used to, but it was actually quite delicious. We continued on to the apartment I would be living in for the next three weeks, which belonged to Lily’s sister and her family. Her sister and the husband had been so nice to go stay with other relatives for the duration of my stay, so that their son, Yao Chen, also my age, and I could be roommates for the duration of my stay. I would be sleeping in Yao Chen’s usual room, and he would be staying in his parents’ room. The room was quite cozy, and it wasn’t so different from the room of any American teenager. It was filled with comic books, a BB gun, and a computer. I went to the bathroom for my nightly ablutions, noted that the toilet was of the squatting variety, and went to bed.

The next morning I was woken up by Yao Chen, or Johnson, his English name which he preferred that I called him. I chuckled to myself at the preponderance of the surname-as-first-name phenomenon I was beginning to notice. Because the city had been described to me as a village, I had been picturing a picturesque Chinese hamlet, surrounded by rice paddies and with rounded misty mountain peaks in the background. The village of my mind had maybe a hundred huts and no cars. Thinking I would have an overabundance of spare time on my hands when I wasn’t volunteer teaching, I had brought a small library of books with me that I pictured myself romantically reading while sitting on the stoop of a village house while overlooking the workers in their pointy-hats toiling in the fields. So far, everyone who had seen how large my bag was (I had also brought way too many changes of clothes, as I would later discover), couldn’t help but commenting on it, and Johnson was no exception.

We went down to the street to have a breakfast of steamed dumplings (known as baozi) and hot soy-bean milk. Jiangxi province is in the south of China, and it was very hot and humid, so starting the day with a piping hot beverage didn’t seem like the best idea to me, but when in Rome, I thought, finishing the whole thing. In contrast to the peaceful village of rice fields and smiling villagers I had pictured in my mind, seeing Jiujiang by daylight was another beast entirely. The street our apartment was on was up a windy cobblestone road from the main thoroughfare, and that road was full of people selling vegetables, fish, poultry, you name it, for most of the day. Almost all of the livestock was alive, and was slaughtered to-order right there on the street.

The city itself was a sprawling expanse of short, squat, and dirty apartment buildings, the kind one imagines populating Soviet Russia. The one I would be living in for the next several weeks was no exception. The roads were narrow and windy, full of honking traffic, and merchants of all sorts lined both sides of the streets. Johnson showed me around the city, introducing me to local scenic spots and the university where he was a student. Today was my one free day before I was to begin teaching, and I used to time to orient myself in the new city and purchase a cell phone I could use for my time in China. I paid about $15 for a phone and enough pre-paid minutes to last me the rest of my visit.

I spent the next three weeks in Jiujiang teaching English classes to a bunch of preschool and kindergarten aged children. I was required to be in the school from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening, with a two hour break for lunch, despite only having two or three hours of time in the classroom per day. And not being a real teacher, I didn’t have papers to grade or lessons to plan (the Chinese teachers who taught class normally handled that), so I would often sit in the office, where I was given a desk and a computer, playing online games or browsing my favorite social networking site, Reddit. I would often pop downstairs and go across the street to buy a popsicle or a cold drink in an attempt to combat the brutal heat of the city. My classes were mostly uneventful, but I do remember reading Dr. Seuss books to the children, particularly One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (a classic for all ages), and bumping heads with the traditional Chinese teaching methodology.

In a Western classroom, or at least the ones I have been in, learning has always been a group process. Students are encouraged to ask questions, to discuss things, and generally do whatever it takes to expand their knowledge in a given subject. Chinese education, on the other hand, perhaps due to traditional Confucian influence, emphasizes that learning is what the students are doing when the teacher is talking. As such, it is difficult to get Chinese children engaged in classroom activities, because they are used to sitting down, shutting up, and letting the teacher learn them good.

One lesson in particular stands out to me: The children had been learning to read by pronouncing simple three letter words, like box, dog, cat, hat, et cetera. I tried showing the students how just by adding one letter, the pronunciation changes entirely, for example, “hat” can become “chat”. I understand that these students had an extremely limited grasp of the language and that this may have been asking too much of their abilities, but the reaction of their usual teacher, who was in the classroom with me, has stayed with me. She jumped up from where she was sitting and hurriedly came to the chalkboard and erased the extra letter I had written.

“No, we can’t teach them this.” That something simply can’t be done seems to be a common trend in Chinese society. I thought that what I was doing might help the students, or at the very least prove interesting to them, but from the reaction of their usual teacher, you would have guessed that I had just exposed myself to the classroom, or told them that Americans believe their beloved Chairman Mao to be a brutal dictator who killed millions.

Other than teaching, my time in Jiujiang was occupied by walking around and seeing the city, playing pool in an open-air pool hall on the ground floor of mine and Yao Chen’s apartment, and getting foot massages. When I told my host, Lily, what I was getting myself up to, she worried that I was associating with “bad people” in the pool hall. And when I told her husband and my one-time tour guide, Gavin, he was afraid I would be exposed to prostitution in the massage place. But really, the massage place was staffed by a young couple (who when I would go back a year later would be married) and an elderly man. I discovered that one could pay 20 yuan, about the equivalent of buying a hamburger at McDonald’s in the States, or maybe a bit cheaper, to get a ninety-minute long foot massage, so every couple of nights I would go relax by having my feet soaked in tea and rubbed by an old man.

Here is where I should probably mention that I had smuggled marijuana with me on this trip. In retrospect, bringing cannabis into a country that does not look kindly upon it was a really dumb decision. I had ground up the weed, only about two or three bowls worth, wrapped it in saran wrap to make a small pellet, and then put it in a pair of balled-up socks in my carry-on. I would smoke it in the evenings, by myself, in the stairway of the apartment building. I used either an apple or a soda can (bad idea, kids, using aluminum to smoke can give you cancer!) to craft a makeshift pipe, and would take a few hits off it before heading downstairs for a foot massage, sometimes to comedic effect as in my intoxicated state I would lose what little Chinese abilities I had and be left a babbling fool.

Flashback time: Two years prior, on the high school class trip to China, the tour group and I had visited a university in Beijing, who our teacher’s father had once been a professor at. We had an organized tour, and then some free time in which to walk around the campus and hopefully meet and interact with some local Chinese people. At some point during this free time, I was using a public restroom on campus, standing at a urinal, when a Chinese student came up and started using the urinal next to mine.

“Hello!” He said, “where are you from?”

“Uh…” I’m a firm believer in American urinal etiquette. That is, you don’t stand next to someone else when there are other open spots, and you don’t talk while in the process of relieving yourself. But, once again, different cultures. “I’m from America.”

“Oh, cool!”

Once I finished and washed my hands, I was free to engage in conversation. His name was Alvin, and he was a student at the university. After chatting for a few minutes, I asked him to write his email address on a crumpled scrap of paper I had in my pocket.

Upon returning to the states, Alvin and I would become pen pals. We wrote back and forth a few times, and he taught me a bit of Chinese, occasionally coming at me with his own question about English (though English was his major, so he didn’t have as much progress to make as I did). I told him that if I ever returned to China I would contact him, and our emails had gradually died off.

Shortly before coming to Jiujiang, I had fired off another email to Alvin, after several months of no contact, telling him that I would be returning to China and would like to come visit him in Beijing again. He sent me his phone number and I wrote it down in my handy-dandy notebook that I brought with me on the trip (I didn’t have a computer with me, and Chinese internet is notoriously unreliable; not due to infrastructure, but because of government censorship), and contacted him once I was settled in Jiujiang.

We planned that after my three weeks in Jiujiang, I would take a train to Beijing and he would show me around. But a few days before the scheduled train ride, I received a phone call from him. His voice sounded frantic, and he told me that he had come down with a mysterious illness, returned to his hometown in Inner Mongolia, and would not be in Beijing during the time that I had planned to go there. My heart sank with disappointment. What was I supposed to do now?

“But you can come to my hometown if you want, and stay with my family.”

Hearing this made me ecstatic. I didn’t know the difference between Inner Mongolia and plain old Mongolia at that time (Inner Mongolia is an “autonomous” region within The People’s Republic of China, while plain old Mongolia is just Mongolia), and I was so excited to be able to visit another country on the trip. I would take the train to Beijing as planned and his friend would meet me at the train station, and escort me to the airport where I could get on a flight that he had already bought me a ticket for (and could pay him back when I arrived). This was great news to me.

Alvin’s hometown is located in the northernmost reaches of Inner Mongolia, also making it one of the northernmost cities in China. Unlike the “village” of Jiujiang, with a population of millions, Alvin’s hometown was actually a town, with a scant 50,000 residents, surrounded by sheep pastures and grassland as far as the eye could see. Channeling Sarah Palin, you literally could see Russia from his house (well, from the top of a hill near his house). Compared to the chaos and grime of Jiujiang and Beijing, this place was a paradise. The air was clean and pure, the skies were blue, and at nighttime you could see thousands of stars and the arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Alvin’s hometown is what I would describe as rural, though he gets upset when I refer to it as that. His family lives on a small plot of land, in a brick house with a small backyard, in which they raise vegetables, chickens, and ducks, all for sustenance. There was no running water… drinking water was delivered in a 55-gallon-drum, and the bathroom was a hole in the backyard with some wooden boards serving as the floor (for squatting on), and tied together sticks as a minimal barrier of privacy. For bathing purposes, one had to go to a local bathhouse, where you can pay 5 yuan to take a shower, and an additional 10 yuan to have an elderly man in a Speedo swimsuit scrub you down with a washcloth, ass-crack and all. Alvin’s dad laughed at us (and probably thought we were pussies) for showering daily, owing to our city-faring ways, as he boasted about only bathing once per month. I overcame my fear of public nudity in the bathhouse, in fact becoming proud of it, and I soon began to strut around in my birthday suit like a pro when we went to the bathhouse. I would also take advantage of the toilet facilities there — although they were also squatters, they were made of porcelain, and I didn’t have to fear splashback from the pool of human waste that had accumulated over the course of a year in Alvin’s family’s outhouse.

We played ma jiang, we drank copious amounts of beer and baijiu (not always voluntarily… having dinner with Chinese men and not drinking at the same pace as the rest of them is a source of shame), I vomited on Alvin in one of his cousins’ automobiles, and I nearly got a tattoo from another of his cousins who owned a tattooing machine. The same cousin gregariously shared stories about pillaging sheep from the surrounding pastures to cook and eat. One day his family took me out to eat a local specialty, dog meat soup.

“We saved the best part for you,” they said, using chopsticks to thrust some kind of organ onto my plate. Already feeling uneasy (morally) about eating dog meat, I turned to Alvin and asked what it was.

“It’s the penis. If you eat it it will give you strength.”

Refusing food, especially when being honored as a guest, is another cultural faux pas, so I did my best to eat the penis and look happy while I was doing it.

“Mmm… tasty?” I said, perhaps not so convincingly.

With two days left before I would catch my flight back to the States, Alvin and I boarded another train to Beijing. My previous train experience had all been in sleeping berths, but this time beds were sold out and we were relegated to “the hard seats” - the cheapest and most uncomfortable kind of ticket. That is, except for the “standing” ticket, holders of which crowd the aisle in the hard seat area, making it nigh impossible to go anywhere, including the bathroom, and meaning that for most of the train ride someone else’s sweaty and smelly ass is pressing into your face, if you are unfortunate enough to be seated next to the aisle. To make matters worse, the train ride from Alvin’s hometown to Beijing requires nearly two days in transit, the longest stop being long enough to pop out for a breath of fresh air and a quick stretch, before the train is in motion again.

We slept hunched over the miniature table shared by six people (the table was big enough for one uncomfortably, two extremely uncomfortably), and taking turns leaning on each other’s shoulders as a pillow. We passed the time by playing card games and listening to Lady Gaga songs with the other young people in our small compartment. At some point in the extremely long and excruciating train ride to Beijing, Alvin mentioned that he had a friend in the capitol who runs an English school, and may be able to get me a job. Phone calls were made, and a meeting was arranged for that night.

Having arrived in Beijing, and still in much pain from the train ride, Alvin helped me check into a hotel (after being turned away from several who, by law, did not accept foreign guests… supposedly a hotel needs a special permit for that), and I washed the grime of the last 36 hours off of me. We hardly had time to settle in when it was off to meet with this friend of Alvin’s.

Her English name was Kiko, a thirty-something woman with a Korea obsession, an English school, and money to burn. She agreed to give me a job teaching English, and to pay me 200 RMB an hour, about $30 in American currency. Compared to the minimum wage jobs I had held back home, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I told her I would love to, but that I had a flight to catch the next day. She said whenever I could come back the job would be waiting for me.

I had a good long think on the fourteen hour long plane ride back to the United States the next day. I didn’t have much going for me back home— just a minimum wage job at a supermarket and no plans for college, and I set my mind on quitting my job and going back to China, as soon as possible. The plane had a layover in Seattle before continuing on to my home, and while in Washington I called my mom to tell her about my decision. “Don’t be stupid! You have a great thing going for you with your job at the supermarket!” She said. Yeah, right.

Using the money I had received as various graduation gifts from family, and some other licit and not-so-licit means, three months later I was headed back to Beijing to begin my new career as an English teacher, at the job I had already obtained.

China memoir


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