It was Saturday evening and dusk was falling. The thundering had stopped. There were text messages from Sail asking how I was doing, “Was the apartment convenient for u now?” And Vanno, a highschool senior and the son of a chemistry professor had called to see when it would be convenient for him to come over to practice English. I had met Vanno the day before, and he made himself useful by helping out as translator and carrying bags. He introduced himself as “very eager to learn oral English” from me. Vanno prefaced his suggestions and advice with, “Is it convenient, if…”
I tried texting Sail back but I couldn’t figure out how to work the keypad. The directions were in Chinese characters.
I rolled out of bed, ate some brown colored bread shaped like bowls that had been left over from a restaurant meal the day before. The world outside had grown dark: A study in violet and the hills were black before the hazy twilight. It was a perfect Kodak moment. Seized with purpose, I grabbed my camera, went outside, closing the door behind to prevent further insect infiltration, and snapped some shots of the deserted campus which had taken on a phantasmagoric ambience.
Returning to my room, I found the door locked shut. Inside laid my keys and cell phone. I stood there in the darkness alone, silent, aghast. Now what? A Chinese couple climbed up the stairs, linked arm in arm. My presence there in the dark scared the shit out them—my tongue was tied, and they giggled because I was just a foreign ghost lurking in the stairwell, a yangguizi, not a real ghost—and they were gone before I could even say, ni hao.
Not knowing what to do and wearing only a pair of green soccer shorts and sandals, I walked down stairs, thinking that maybe I could find a security guard or a janitor somewhere on campus. But on the first floor I saw an open door leading into another brightly lit apartment. Cooking smells came from inside and there were voices.
I knocked on the door and said hello. Somebody came from around the corner. He was young Chinese student. Two others popped out from behind their desks. Of course we all had noticed each other before and greeted each other with one of most common words on the planet: “Hello.” They spoke about fifty words of English between them. Between that pool of vocabulary and my body language I was able to tell them I had been locked out, request the use of their internet to find emails containing Bob and Sail’s phone numbers, and then use their phone to call them. Sail would arrive about an hour later to let me in. But the students, one of whom had the English name of Heron, invited me to stay for a dinner of steamed rice and stir-fried tofu, greens and chilies. We tried talking but the most we could communicate was that I was a teacher and they were students of medicine, chemistry, and mathematics. The food was good. The company was better.