Getting Settled in the City of Perpetual Gloom

A  green-eyed monster was here.  I knew it when another foreign teacher complimented Sarah, a post-doc student assigned to help me transition to life in one of China’s largest cities, the City of Perpetual Gloom.  To me, the green-eyed monster was a minotaur which shook its head furiously and threw its horns to either side.  They were big horns too.  The kind that would pierce, rip, and crush if they ever connected with your heart.

“Wow, your English is very good,” the other teacher said.  Ingratiation oozed from his pores.

He was one of those nice guys.  He reminded me of myself, actually.  Maybe that’s why I wanted to smack his bitch ass up.  Yes, welcome to China.  There are people here who speak English as a second language better than those who call it their first and only language.

Now that I was back in China I was reminded of harsh climate.  At first I thought the bone white sky would get to me.  I felt like an alien crash-landed on a strange world.  I told myself to be thankful the place had more visibility than Yoda’s swamp planet, Dagobah.  There was drizzle that made the sidewalks slippery from a mélange of dried cooking oil, mold, phlegm, and the undifferentiated effluent of this country’s Industrial Revolution.

But then I found my sunshine.  At first, every time I thanked her for something she told me it was her duty.  Now she told me it was her pleasure.  Perhaps she liked me as much as I liked her.  All of a sudden, merely by landing in China, my curse of invisibility to girls timed out, as if suddenly I reappeared out of nowhere.  Sarah did not care that I had been a vagabond, a wastrel, and perhaps, if not for generous parents who worked hard to weather the Second Great Depression (as this will be corroborated by independent journalists and historians several years from now), a destitute slacker whose ambition was to lead an aimless, purposeless-driven life somewhat apathetic to status or wealth-building.

And now outside the English department there was this guy from America saying, “Yes, oh my God, you’re English is perfect.  You even know slang.”  He creamed his pants.

There was a vague urge to chin-thrust, beat my chest, growl, and charge forward a couple steps.  Throw down some dominance and watch the competition shrink in terror.  And besides, didn’t he already have a post-doc helping him?

Sarah pointed to me and said that she had a good teacher.

“You better believe it.  I think Sarah’s ready to learn some good swear words,” I said.  For some reason, Paradise Lost came to mind.  I felt bad to the bone.  There were some other teachers standing around pretending to mind their own business.  Little did I know that Sarah did not need lessons in swearing.  But that is another story.

In the ideal situation Sarah would have told him to fuck off.  Already I was idealizing her.  Sarah was innocent.  Very pure.  The Tang Dynasty had Eunuch bureaucrats.  The current dynasty had Virgin Scholars.  During our conversations she had told me that guys thought she was “unqualified.”

Their loss is my gain, I thought.  She was amazing and beautiful.  Maybe guys were intimidated by her intelligence.  She told me things that would –if we were in the 1970s – send up to a re-education camp.  During one of our walks around the tree-lined boulevards of the university or sitting by one of the lily ponds, I had had asked her if we were friends during the Cultural Revolution would we go to prison?

She misunderstood me, saying yes, just for being friends with me she would go to prison.

“No.  I mean if I was Chinese and we talked about this stuff.  Would we go to prison?”

“Probably.”

“Together?”  Because it would not be so bad if she was there, her and I farming rice, backs bent over plucking weeds, hauling buckets of shit-water up terraces, and working as human plows hitched to water buffalos.

“Probably not.”

“That sucks.”

Now we were still standing outside the English Department with a small group of new foreign teachers.  There was silence.  People were thinking of how to leave and go about there day.

“Shall we go?” I said looking at Sarah.

Sarah was going to help me move into my new place.  That was Friday.  She stayed at my place for a while as we waited for the lock smith and some cleaners.  We looked over Tom Carter’s book – which I had brought all the way from America so I could put it on my new coffee table.

“This book is half the reason why I came back,” I said.   “I had been considering other options, but coming back to China seemed like the right thing to do.”  I didn’t tell her that just weeks before I had been ready to sign a contract that virtually guaranteed that I lose my mind or a limb or my ashes and the pink mist of myself on the frontier of an empire.

Sarah had helped me find my apartment.  She had helped me buy a second hand bicycle (Battle, a Chinese brand whose slogan “Walking, we’ll help you” is branded across the bike’s blue top tube).  She said that we went through more drama acquiring these things in the past couple days then she had had in a year.  We visited the black markets where denizens beckoned to us on street corners.  As soon as some Chengdu women found out I was on the market for a bike, a whole crowd gathered.  Later, Sarah told me that as one woman began bargaining with us, others gathered round, chipping in with advice:

“He’s a foreigner.  You should make him pay more.”

“He looks like a rich foreigner.”

“That price is too low.”

It was me versus a veritable hive mind.

And then there was the quest for an apartment.  We saw many places.  Just outside campus there were rat traps going 1800 yuan.  I asked the landlord about getting the walls painted and about the cockroaches.  They told me I was on my own.   The housing quality increased the farther away you got from campus and the closer you got to where all the laowai lived.  Having laowai in the neighborhood increased the property value.  So I brought the search away and into a Chinese neighborhood.

This city felt like Manhattan or Paris or Venice.   People lived and worked and recreated all around my new home.  In the evenings, middle aged and elderly people went to town on an adult-sized jungle gym.  A man with a crooked, yellow-toothed smile was in rapture as he gripped yellow metal bars that hung from a chain and swung his arms left and right.  Another old man in a wife-beater, grey shorts and black socks hung from a pull-up bar.  In the mornings elderly people practiced taiqi or danced with flags.  There was an old plump woman with short white hair slicked back and she swung a sword against invisible foe that seemed to waltz around her in slow motion.  Old men sat on park benches playing Chinese checkers.  They hung bird cages up in the boughs of trees.  Black birds with yellow streaks under their beady eyes sang.  The old men eyeballed me, watching my every move, alert as if they were ready to spring to life on a chopsocky film set.  This was all along an olive drab Jinjiang River from which stone steps led into the water and men set up fishing rods, and white herons poked sharp orange beaks into the muddy banks.  Downriver, there was a replica of an ancient bridge called The Wind and Peace Bridge.  The bridge was so famous that it had been mentioned in the book of my predecessor:

“Let us now speak of a great Bridge which crosses this River within the city. This bridge is of stone; it is seven paces in width and half a mile in length (the river being that much in width as I told you); and all along its length on either side there are columns of marble to bear the roof, for the bridge is roofed over from end to end with timber, and that all richly painted. And on this bridge there are houses in which a great deal of trade and industry is carried on. But these houses are all of wood merely, and they are put up in the morning and taken down in the evening. Also there stands upon the bridge the Great Kaan’s ‘Comercqu,’, that is to say, his custom-house, where his toll and tax are levied” (Marco Polo).

In order to get my apartment Sarah and I sat through hours of negotiations and showings.  We haggled, made small talk, and talked about making wonderful new friendships with the landlords.  Throughout it all Sarah kept me in the loop.  Occasionally a landlord or agent would pipe in with a “hello” or a “yes” or a “very good” or a “thank you.”  Sarah would tell me what so and so was talking about.  Usually the conversation revolved around selling points such as a the newness of the furniture or the fact that there was a Starbucks or Carrefour or a couple laowai nearby.  Naturally, such things increased the value of the property.  And hence the monthly rent.  This was the way of things in China.  You’d pay a certain price for a thing.  But if you actually wanted a thing that worked, then oh, that means it cost more.  And if you actually wanted something that would last a while, then you had better be prepared to lay down some yuan.

In the end I settled on a place near one of the rivers that wound its way through downtown.  It was a blank space on the city map with not a single icon denoting a famous restaurant, expat bar or tourist attraction for many blocks around.   As we approached the complex, our agent pointed to a place across the street, “You can’t imagine how much the rent is there,” Sarah translated, “6,000 RMB per month.”  This was in a country where 2,000 RMB/month was a respectable income for people hoping to break into the middle class.

As for my place, it went for about the same price as a place that had cockroaches inured to the Chengdu daylight (or the lack there of).  It resembled a studio apartment overlooking a miniature Central Park.  It had a floor-to-ceiling window in the living room, hard wood floors, etc.   I knew that I would be spending countless hours lounging on the red and white leather couch staring at the bone white sky, day dreaming, creating castles in the sky.  All I had wanted was a decent place to eat, sleep and write.  But now I had place worthy of entertaining concubines.

Sarah was excited too.  Or rather, she was excited for me.

Or maybe she was just happy to have helped stranger.  She wanted to know if it was possible to have a similar place in the U.S. if she were to come there to teach Chinese.

“Absolutely,” I said.  It was a lie.  Already I wanted to protect her and give her hope, and something to live for.  But the truth was that in America where 1 in 7 people now lived in poverty we would be lucky to have a roof and a job, and live in continuous fear of losing lose both any day without warning.