One day I found myself squealing like a pig in front of children. I pushed my nose up, grunted, and oinked. We were playing a simplified version of charades. It was a Sunday afternoon in the bleak of January. And this being China, it was bleaker than bleak. The dean of my university had loaned me out to a private high school as a “favor.”
My latest rendition caught the students’ attention. Girls stopped texting and boys ceased roughhousing long enough to look up and shout “pig!” in unison. I asked the teacher if they’ve played this game before, adding, “They’re very confident.” Either the blood of Shakespeare coursed through my veins or the children were very smart.
I spent the next ten minutes striking curious poses. I shapechanged into a frog, duck, and cow. By some feat of thaumaturgy, I even managed to turn an ordinary seat into a flying bicycle, which I rode around the room. But the archfiend boredom was in the room as well. It stalked the children. One by one they fell prey it. I wondered if I could win their hearts and minds back if I showed them the wonderfullest trick of all – the coffin trick. That is escaping from a coffin after it had been nailed shut.
Then the Chinese teacher, the boss of the private school – a smoking hot Celestial maiden rare and radiant with skin as fair and pure as a tube of skin whitener – showed me the Card of the Goat.
“Don’t be shy, just have a try,” she said, smiling, hoping to instill confidence in my Performative English.
My heart skipped a beat. Her words thrilled me. I looked into her brown eyes. But alas, it was just a phrase drilled into her by previous instructors. Only this and nothing more. We skipped to the next card. Dog. Pavlov’s dogs came to mind reminding me exercise some self-control of my salivary glands. I asked her to skip that one too. It was becoming clear to me that I rapidly descending the evolutionary ladder. Then came the Card of the Cat. Now there was a flash of inspiration: To crawl on all fours, rub up against her brown leather boots, growl like a great cat of the Serengeti, and kiss that sacred erogenous zone behind her knees.
Each card turned me into something bestial. I discarded my impulse and decided on something more appropriate for this conservative audience. So I meowed and made a clawing motion at some phantom menace. The students shouted the answer. We played this game some more. Students learned some more words, while I fell down some more rungs. And I wondered for perhaps the bazillionth time this afternoon what the hell I was doing here.
Today’s field trip had started with a simple yes. My philosophy was to volunteer for anything and everything. I had been grading final exams when the dean called for a favor. Translation: Somebody asked him for a favor so I had been farmed out to his favoree. That is how I found myself walking with a university student whose English name was Ivyl one Sunday afternoon at the end of my first teaching semester in China.
It was another cold and wet day in Chenzhou. It seldom down poured. But if you left shelter then you would be saturated in microdroplets of freezing water which no amount of fleece or gortex could keep from the marrow of your bones.
Ivyl waited for me at the front gate of the university. She wanted me to get on a motorbike taxi. I had come under the impression they had arranged a car me. But traffic was so bad today that we would have to take a motorbike taxi in order to bypass the gridlock to where our driver waited.
I did some quick calculus. Perhaps in some parts of China riding motorcycles without helmets through the urban chaos was a relatively safe gamble. I had even resorted to this method of travel in Changsha as a kind of Christmas-gift-to-myself thrill ride. The adrenalin rush had been exquisite. There is nothing like hanging on to the Grim Reaper, his jaw clamped down on a cigarette, as we whizzed through, by, against, and around hordes of iron beasties and hapless shades. The Scooter of Death had a velocity of 10 near death experiences per kilometer. Good times. But that was Changsha. That was a 2nd tier city. And this was Chenzhou — a 4th tier city with 3rd tier aspirations. Chenzhou rated on my Urban Quality of Life Scale as somewhere between New Haven, Connecticut and Monrovia, Liberia. The answer was simple. My chances of survival were greatly increased if we walked. Of course I had to simplify my explanation for Ivyl.
“I don’t ride motorcycles in China,” I said.
“No, you do not have to ride motorcycle,” the freshman said, “You just have to sit.”
We actually haggled back and forth; until it became clear I had no problem with losing face and the only alternative was to cancel the whole damn thing.
“No. I won’t go on a motorcycle. Maybe we can walk.”
Chenzi Highway was the only road to the city’s center from my university. And it was choked with traffic. The green hills to either side of the road were being dug up in a wild orgy of destruction and construction. Bathroom tile high-rises, karyoke bars, clothing stalls, and noodle shops sprung up like bioengineered, insect and climate change proof weeds sown upon a fertile, freshly bulldozed plot of cesspools and landfills. It was the road to hell before it was paved with good intentions.
Drivers protested and exercised their right to blast their horns in futile protest. They did so with wanton abandon as if they knew that this freedom too would one day be taken away. People in bright colored winter coats and weather-beaten skin bore baskets of goods that hung from a bamboo stick balanced on one shoulder. Mothers with babies bundled up and strapped to their backs carried groceries. Men in camouflage pants, mao jackets, and straw hats carried barked into cell phones or hauled sacks of rice or live chickens. Some pushed red carts of brown, dried meat. They heaved and puffed like steam engines; smoke billowed out of their noses and mouths. Children walked, their oversized, puffy coats forcing their arms to stick out like penguins, their eyes level with the bumpers and tires and tailpipes of trucks creeping ever forward.
The constant winter rain finished off whatever the yellow growling vehicles didn’t destroy. Rumors had it that this section of Chenzi Highway would be fixed within two months. Some netizens even whispered that now that the Middle Kingdom had successfully leveled off its population growth, they would even build tunnels or bridges for pedestrians. I mentioned this to Ivyl as we picked our way through the charcoal grey mud and pot holes.
“China is still developing country”, Ivyl said, confirming that it was just speculation. She pointed to either side of the road where freshly built high-rises with Grecian columns stood empty and lifeless. Adverts showed happy, shiny, light-skinned family units enjoying “Mid Level Luxury.”
“Why do people not live here. Why have businesses not started?” Ivyl said.
“I don’t know,” I said, scanning the apocalyptic landscape.
“It is wastefur.”
“Yes. I agree with you.”
We trudged onwards in perfect harmony. Small talk ensued. She told me that in order to get a job at the private school she told them she was a junior. Noticing that I journeyed with a smile and had an easy laugh, she told me that she thought I was very warm hearted and optimistic. Maybe. Maybe not.
Meanwhile vehicles idled and belched black exhaust. Scooters and motorcycles flitted about, squeezing between behemoth coal trucks. Men in conical straw hats huddled over fires in front of the empty buildings as yellow bulldozers smoothed gravel and dirt about. I felt like I was in a movie like The Children of Huang Shi or The Road. But instead of soldiers or cannibals there were poor, ignorant, careless people who had been taught that population was a major problem, and had exchanged a water buffalo for a car. Their sense of freedom and progress was measured in muddy rice paddies, gridlocked roads, and the godlike power of a motorized vehicle.
We finally made it to the choke point where vehicles drove around a police officer. He would have been bored if he wasn’t so busy shivering. His eyes had that distant far off look of one who has dissociated from the present. Who the hell did he piss off to have been stationed here where it was nigh impossible to supplement his income?
I was very lucky that I was here as a favor for somebody. And I knew there was a chance that this excursion would supplement my income. Life worked out in strange ways. And then there was probably someone who pitied my rootless, exiled life shackled by deep thoughts and tough decisions and self doubt, as they lounged by a pool behind high walls – the toughest decision they would ever have to make was where to go shopping and what to buy.
As for me I was bogged down in self doubt. What the hell was I doing here? Now that we were about half way into the city, there was a part of me wished I had put my foot down at the front gate and said no to the whole damn thing. Another part of me adhered to a credo to volunteer for everything and suck it up like a champ. Who knew what dreams may come? I told myself that if nothing else I was sacrificing myself on the altar of education.
After all, I was a philologist. Or was it logophilist? I couldn’t remember which. But this is what we lovers of words did to earn our bread and butter. Just as archeologists found ancient treasures and battled evil doers, and symbologists deciphered codes and foiled dark conspiracies, I shared my love for words and literature, and figuratively battled monomaniacal motorists and bitched about the dehumanizing effects of a mechanized society. It was dirty, tough work. And children would learn some words today. Maybe tomorrow they would learn Celine Dion songs. And then one day they would read the English translation of Don Quixote. I was a pioneer in the new Wild West, laying down a foundation for freedom and democracy. Maybe within the next decade this city would even have a Pizza Hut.
I taught English literature and drama at a university in a dingy city in southern Hunan. Mos Eisley has nothing on this city which, despite being about a hundred miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, was continuously shrouded in bone-chilling brown fog. The sun appeared once or twice a month in the form of an ochre smudge. Snow dusted the green, egg crate peaks that surrounded the city. The city itself had a Wal Mart, several KFCs and McDonalds franchises – all signs of its glorious ambition to become “The Tourist Capital of China.” These outposts were good places to go to the bathroom if you didn’t mind coming out smelling like an ashtray. The rest of the city was an eyesore – the kind of eyesore you get from gonorrhea in the eye.
Instead of looking at this as menial weekend task, I decided to look at as an opportunity. It was a chance to observe pre-gao kao Chinese students. The gao kao was the exam of all exams – the kind of exam that determines the rest of your life. Apparently, college was viewed as some kind of post-gao kao afterlife where shell-shocked students recovered from the exam’s psychological trauma by catching up from a childhood of sleep deprivation and hanging out in smoky internet cafes, chatting online and playing first-person shooter and role-playing games.
We made it to the private school where Ivyl introduced me to her boss and the number one teacher. The first order of business was to play charades with the high school students. Then the teacher wanted me to sing and dance. I knew some classics by NWA, LL Cool J, and Tribe Called Quest, but I didn’t think they were ready for such advanced Hip Hop English I had picked up during my sojourn in New Haven. My complete uselessness was revealed when I told the teacher I didn’t know any good songs, not even the “Merry Christmas” song.
I told her I could tell stories. It was my last ditch effort to redeem myself. But I had to think fast as the children were waiting. They weren’t just waiting. They wanted salvation. They were bored. (As an aside: If China ever goes to war, then it will be branded as war to keep children safe from boredom.) A semester’s worth of English literature flashed through my mind. There was Huckleberry Finn, The Glass Menagerie, The Alchemist, The Giver, The Waste Land, and The Great Gatsby. Maybe I could toss these stories into the crucible and distill something simple? There was no time. So I made a split second decision to just tell the Story of Myself…
“A long time ago, in a beautiful country far, far away—”
“Wait,” the teacher said, “Do you understand him?”
There was a chorus of nopes. And the teacher told me to slow down and to simplify, simplify, simplify. Alas, teaching university English majors had spoiled me.
“Okay,” I said, “Where was I? Oh, yes. There was a boy. The boy had a dream. His dream was to go to another country.”
“Maybe they do not understand you.”
“And there was a cat,” I said, redoubling my effort to speak Hemingwayesque dialog. And adding an anthropomorphic cat would make for a side kick. I also revised the rest of the story to incorporate the words they had just learned. Maybe the boy and his cat (or was it, the cat and her boy?) would journey to the animal farm in the center of the earth…
“The cat was the Cat in the Hat.” Pleasure rippled from the class as soon as I mentioned this. At last I caught their attention. “The boy and the cat wanted to go to a new world.” I lost them again. Maybe it was time to give the boy and cat some swords and some trolls to use them on.
“Maybe you should hurry.”
Boredom was coming. You could hear its growl in the children’s restlessness. It’s roar shook the cavern, and rocks and rubble began to shower down upon us. It was up to me to lead the children to safety. There was a glimmer of daylight ahead. It was the cave’s exit.
“Okay,” I said, steeling myself for the last leg. I lifted my torch. Follow me.
“The cat and her boy sailed across the ocean. They had many adventures. And they met nice people. The end.” We made it. The children were safe. And just then the cave collapsed in upon itself and the yellow-eyed monster, boredom, was contained for now.
However, I neglected to mention that the daring duo went to the concrete island where the polite things are, taught a village of hobbits the secret alchemical process of separating quicksilver from milk, and discovered that the dragons who laired in the cosmic center were wingless, corrupt bureaucrats, almost the opposite of their western counterparts, a species of aristocratic fire-breathing capitalists who called the ragged edge of the universe their home. But that was a tale for another day.
Now it was time for another game. It was the “Learn Chinese Game.” It was also known by its traditional Chinese name “Civilize the Foreign Monkey.” This is when the children actually, surprisingly got in line in front of the player – me — and proceed to impart the famous wisdom of great thinkers from Confucius to Mao upon him — that is, me. But the children in the back of the line lost their patience and soon ran riot and threw up bunny ears behind my instructors. All the while the teacher oversaw my education, completely oblivious to the world swiftly crumbling around us. A student would tell me something. I’d listen, nod, and say okay, next one. But the teacher would not let me off so easy.
“Do you remember? Do you know it? Try again.”
A heathen child pulled his mouth open and let off a blood curdling scream. Meanwhile some of the boys played Soldiers and Uigers (kinda like cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians in the America) in a corner. Girls turned on their music players and added Chinese pop to rising din.
“How do you say, ‘good morning’?” I asked. My face begged for mercy.
“No. That’s too easy.” Hers was an unreadable mask.
“How about, ‘Will you be my girl friend?’” My face transformed in hope.
“No, that’s not very useful in everyday life.” Annoyance flashed upon her face.
Then a boy came over and consulted with the teacher in Chinese. I tried in vain to read their expressions. They were plotting something.
“He will teach you some Chinese,” said the teacher.
“Oh, okay.” That was my mantra. A little something I had picked up while on a pilgrimage to Hengshan Mountain.
The boy said some words. Many words. There were many words strung together in a seamless singsong rhythm I was so powerless to decipher. The teacher explained to me that it was a famous Chinese saying that meant something like, “May God bless you with happiness and good fortune.” Then we went over the phrase one word at a time. Actually we went over this several times.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the dark recess of my mind, Rod Sterling informed me, “You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination…”
The room spun and I heard The Twilight Zone theme song. Please, God, let that be somebody’s cellphone.
“Do you understand?” the teacher piped.
“I think so.” I had spent my first five months in China struggling with tones and pronunciation. Each word had four different tones. And then there were letters and sounds my speech organs were powerless to make. Now I realized this game was too advanced for me. Plus, I was a visual learner. Meaning, I needed adult female(s) wearing lingerie to help me learn Chinese. So when I saw that the teacher had a ring, I lost my motivation to learn even in this, the antithesis of my ideal learning environment, where bourgeois young ‘uns had transformed the room into a jungle island Where the Wild Things Are, shouting, singing, laughing and dancing around a wild pig.
I suddenly longed to be back on that bleak road to hell where at least the purpose of life boiled down to one simple question: Do I feel lucky?
I stuttered and stammered through the student’s “lesson.” I found out what it meant to be a Chinese student in China. I never would have made it here. I would have been one of those students who realized quite early that the gao kao was a fate worse than death. Such a lottery system would condemn the likes of me to the underworld. Had the Fates planted my soul in China, then I would have packed up my Hello Kitty™ backpack with mooncakes and dried chicken feet, built a bamboo raft, and floated down the Yangtze with a noble Uighur savage to seek my fortune as a river pirate.
The end was near. Students now had an opportunity to field questions. I got the usual assortment and by now I had fine tuned my answers to something they could all understand. They asked me if I liked basketball, knew how to use chopsticks, liked Chinese food, the quantity of cash and girlfriends in my possession. and one girl asked me about “the global economics.”
Then the interrogation was over. I sighed. Apparently I had forgotten to breathe. But then somebody asked one more question. A girl asked something that was mostly incomprehensible to me. Earlier in the afternoon she had said that it was her dream to become a writer. Now I gave her a tip of the hat for adventuring even further beyond the borders of the Mediocre Realm in the Center of the Earth for asking such an impolite question. I was only able to pick out three words from her question: “war” and “poor people.”
I asked for clarification, but the teacher cut her off. The girl looked down to hide her blush and was about to go back to her seat. I stopped her and asked again. Sometimes conflict was a good thing. Actually, the easiest way into a foreigner’s heart was to sow conflict. There was hope for this generation yet.
“She is asking about war in general,” the teacher said.
“Oh, okay.” It was one of those damn oppressive Confucian moments when conversations were monitored to maintain harmony and preserve stability. But I knew which war the girl wanted to know more about. Images and emotions flashed. My own military service came to mind. And that of my cousin’s whose blood now mingled in the sand beside another road to hell. Where should I begin? How could I simply explain things? Could she understand that I didn’t support the war, but supported the troops — even as a fourth front opened up in Araby. How do I explain collateral damage and flying killer robots? How do I explain madness? In the end, I settled on, “War is bad. Very, very bad.”
Later that night after the teacher drove Ivyl and me back to the university, and after she had probed my feelings about teaching cute, adorable children eager to learn English during my evening, weekends and holidays, I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It was the Jan. 6, 2010 episode with Admiral Mike Mullen. Mullen, a Vietnam veteran, said Afghanistan was “America’s War.” He had a government issue smile; crooked like somebody with Bell’s Palsy.
The audience cheered. And I remembered that little girl’s question war and poor people. Or was it the “wall” and “pool peopre?”
Maybe I had read too much into her question. Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever the case it made me wonder.
“Here’s your moment of zen,” said Stewart.
I finished my latest dispatch from the Middle Kingdom, posted it, shut off the computer, wondering if that old refrain heard so often across the Pacific, “I don’t support the war, but I support the troops,” had devolved into a meaningless, thought-terminating euphemism. Like the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wanted to know, “Are we still the good guys?”