More than once I have been accused of being a little more than pessimistic, I, of course, prefer realistic because realists tend to see life as a list of goods and bads that don’t weigh each other out or create some kind of cosmic balance; but as goods and bads and parts of a universe that will find balance one way or the other. There is good in this world because people can choose to do good things, there is bad in this world for the same reason because people can choose to do bad things.
At the weakest moments in my life though, in the spiritual depressions and seasons of darkness and silence when it feels as if life is nothing but a relentless black hole of nothingness and apathy that even the most minuscule reminder of hope can be hope.
Mind you, I have spent a grand total of sixteen days in China now and of that time, it has been amazing. I am being worked like an under the table tourist, I get lost on average once a week, living by myself has revealed to me just how weird I actually am, I am either fifteen minutes early to anything or five minutes late for everything, my students are amazing, my colleagues are the best, for the first time in my life I have a peer group that is not ten years younger or twenty years older than I am, just yesterday a random Chinese guy was sent to my apartment to fix my water heater- turns out I just wasn’t holding the power button down hard enough- so now I even have hot water in my bathroom! So much of this time is being spent reveling in hours of quiet solitude where the only sounds are my feet smacking the marbled floors or me yelling when I stub my toes, knee furniture or trip on everything (see, constants are everywhere), that I forget just how much I am doing as well.
My second Sunday brought me to an expat church on Sunday morning, a very expensive lunch in the international district that I regret on principle alone, and then a “trial class” as my boss called it. Where I was gently reprimanded for not taking off my shoes before I walked into class (thank the good sweet Lord above that I had chosen today to wear socks), and then literally thrown to the wolves and their parents. For roughly forty five minutes I pointed to body parts, was touched, poked, prodded, and interrogated by six five year olds, watched a bit of Peppa Pig, sang the alphabet a couple dozen times, taught them how to sit Indian Style, read from a Roald Dahl book, and then about twenty choruses of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” all while watching random Chinese parents stick their heads in the door just to look at me, while trying my best to ignore the three Chinese dads sitting in the back of the class judging the foreigner silently, but also recording what felt like the ENTIRE class. I finally decided that we had ended our lesson. With exuberant “goodbyes” and screeches from the children, I packed up my things and was escorted out of the room by a very nice helper. He told me as best he could that my partner (boss Cathy) was on the second floor and pointed down the stairs. Cathy met me half way and asked me if I was taking a break, and that I should be ready for another forty-five minutes with the kids. I can only imagine what expression my face when I told her I had only planned for one class but that if she gave me a few minutes I could come up with something. “It’s ok, its ok, we are discussing with the parents now if they want to do another class or not.” She led me into a very nice office where there was a massive tea table, complete with ornate carvings and its own water heating system. Bob (Cathy’s husband/co-worker) was already seated in the office with another man who I remember as being one of the nosey Chinese parents who came in during my lesson- I just remembered him distinctly because he happened to have a saxophone around his neck when he did come inside. He and the man sitting behind the tea table/desk (who I also recognized as what I thought was the “helper” in my classroom, played musical chairs for the next couple of minutes. One would walk outside, the other would come in, sit down, pour everyone a cup of tea, talk to Bob and Cathy for a few minutes and then Mr. Sax would take his place, he would pour some tea, talk, laugh and make motions to me. All the while I am frantically taking notes trying to figure out how I am going to pull off the expectations that I have now set with this center. Thinking reluctantly of all the Montessori notes I never thought I would have to use in my career. Cathy would ask me a question and relay it back to the others, they would ask a question and Cathy would translate again. I decided that the more I was writing the less likely they would be to expect me to go back into that class as I realized the cause for the musical chairs between Mr. Sax and Mr. Helper (who I found out were like co-owners/principals of the center so no big deal) were discussing with the parents if they wanted the students to go any longer that evening. Thank the Almighty Creator, those noisy and overbearing helicopter parents thought that the students were too hot to stay in class any longer and so I was done for the evening. I leaned back (but not too far because I was sitting on a traditional Chinese stool that was about eight inches off the ground and had no back) in relief and then Cathy asked me if I had any plans for the evening, of course, my only plans were of going home, taking off my pants and binge-watching television so I told her no. She smiled and then patted me gently on the back, “Good, we will go to dinner!” It was only then, as I watched the way that she hovered around me and listened to the tone of her voice as she spoke with the others that she had just landed a major kind of deal, something larger than myself had just taken place. Whatever I had done in those forty-five minutes upstairs, sitting on a padded puzzle piece mat floor with six Chinese children whose palates were still soft enough that they could pronounce Ls and Rs without great difficulty was something that had Bob and Cathy looking at me like a winning racehorse. A small part of me shuddered at the implications of what may be expected from me in the coming ten months.
We sat in the office for about another hour, long enough for me to notice the giant goldfish in the tank in the corner and to be offered a very skinny cigarette from Mr. Sax. They talked, laughed, pointed and gestured at me. Cathy asked me some more questions, at least a half gallon of tea was poured, I noticed that each time Mr. Sax would pour the tea that Bob would rap his knuckles approvingly on the table next to his teacup. What I am sure had to be some kind of south China tea culture custom.
At one point Cathy leaned over to me and laughing through the side of her mouth said (referring to Mr. Sax) “He is very aggressive and ambitious.” Of course, she was talking about his business technique, which I again logged in the back of my mind for moments when I did not want to plan for whatever this kindergarten class had in store for me. He was a more modern Chinese man, a little bit more western influence as shown by the wedding ring complete with an inlaid diamond on the outside, casual jeans, t-shirt, and Supreme jacket attire, and then I remembered his saxophone; I was maybe dealing with a millennial Chinaman. This man looked at me as if I could hold the key to his future. Then I began thinking back to what I knew of Chinese culture, about what exactly I was doing here at this moment. This man had a child in my class (which I did not know at the time) and he wants nothing more than for his child to get an exemplary education, by Chinese standards being able to speak fluent English is the watermark by which a good education is judged. I was a Promethean foreigner bringing his child the branch of fire that would light ablaze the path of his academic future. Chinese sons live in a world of expectation because China is a multi-generational society- simply put- when Chinese people get old and retire they can no longer work to support themselves and will move in with their son and his wife so that they can work and the grandparents will take care of the home and raise the children.
As I watched this man pantomime with a skinny cigarette in hand and iPhone in the other, switching one out periodically to pour tea I saw the flicker of a ghost of millennia of Chinese generation’s past flash in his eyes. This was not only something being done for guanxi (the Chinese concept of face and relationship) this man saw not only his child’s future, but his very own life being weighed in the balances and somehow, with my hulking LL Bean backpack and frizzy auburn hair; I had tripped and landed right in his path. Finally and at long last everyone stood up to leave, “we will go to dinner now.” Cathy tells me. I followed suit, quite sure I was sloshing from the amount of tea I had consumed.
Walking out of the performing arts center, Cathy kept pushing me to lead the way and I continued to implore her to go in front of me “I will follow you because I don’t know where we are going.” I kept telling her. Another very uncharacteristic move for Chinese people who put a great deal of emphasis on age. Cathy couldn’t be more than fifty-two or fifty at the most, in fact, I was suspicious that she very easily could have been the same age as my mother, and yet here I was.
Dinner was thankfully held in the same plaza as the center so it was about three doors down, we passed the outdoor kitchen on the way inside to a Tibetan Barbecue joint that had an affinity for Tibetan beer so much so that the whole of the restaurant was decorated in empty beer bottles. Remembering the geography of Tibet which is a mountainous, arid, and freezing. My brain relayed to my gut that this would be a warm and spicy meal.
We were seated at a table where the booths were covered in what I assume could only have been Tibetan wool and a black cooking pot was simmering merrily in the center of the table; hot-pot! The first course consisted of mutton ribs which were served with their own box of cafeteria lady grade serving gloves, a bowl of soy sauce, chopped ginger, garlic, scallions, red and green peppers and then another bowl of what looked like fennel seeds and other raw spices. Cathy was trying to explain to me what they were for, “they are a little spicy, maybe you will not like, you don’t have to try.” You basically just dipped your ribs into this bowl of spices and rolled the bone around until you got how much you wanted- like pre-hot sauce I guess- being the cautious eater that I am I graciously turned down the bowl with the red peppers and precariously sniffed the spices. It was Cumin and I almost cried because visions of my mother standing at her stove cooking the best taco you will ever have in your life with the best homemade taco seasoning you will ever have in your life sprang into vision. “It’s Cumin!” I exclaimed thankfully and then dunked my rib into the bowl. I was completely content with this bowl of spices that I was also convinced God had special ordered just for me when Mr. Sax plopped himself down onto the bench across from me and next to Bob. He reached over the table and handed me another small bowl, it was the soy sauce mixture sans peppers. Classic Chinese hospitality. I gave an American and Chinese “thank you” between vicious chews of this not tender but very exquisite meat (whatever they meant by “mutton”) and dunked another rib being low key and yet aggressively (in the way that only mothers do) shoved into my face by Cathy and another new member of the party who we met walking into the school earlier, Steven. Course two was the hot pot dish, mushrooms, beef, pork, chicken, Chinese broccoli, lettuce and nothing else was served periodically between peaceful business negotiations and translations of my input in the conversation. After the hot pot was meat skewers that Cathy and Steven again made it their personal mission to force as many down me as possible and then more talking. During these lulls between eating and talking I drank copious amounts of tea and tried my best to make sense out of what was being said.
In that time I reflected on Cathy and how similar people who will never meet can be to someone. Since my arrival, Cathy had been pestering me (in the most loving of ways) to make sure that I ate enough, always asking at the end of a meal if I was sure I still wasn’t hungry and then looking me up and down suspiciously as if she was waiting for me to waste away to nothing before her very eyes. By Cathy’s own admission Bob was the family cook, as matriarch though, it was still her job to make sure that the meal was not over when I finished all of my food rather when I hated myself for how much I had eaten. Nothing passed under my nose that was not previously checked for any spice or smell or seasoning that I may not like. Each first bite I took was watched by all other members of the party to make sure I really did like it and I had to take care to make sure that I did not eat too fast or drink too much at once because as a rule, if your bowl or cup was empty it was shameful to the host- meaning that I never had an empty cup or bowl. I did not remember this until my fourth beef skewer and possibly tenth or eleventh cup of tea. My mother, church mothers, and work mothers who always made sure that I ate too much would breathe a sigh of relief knowing that another woman was making such a fuss over me.
How comforting is it to know that mothers are such a predictably reliable platitude of home? In a place where I have to carry a roll of toilet paper with me EVERYWHERE I go and there are days when I fear I may die in my sleep from what my paranoid mind thinks may be a bowel impaction, days that I am praying to the Almighty that he would just allow me to make it home before I poop my pants in front of roughly 8 million Chinese strangers. Yesterday, when I walked out of my apartment I made the mistake of peeking inside of a cardboard box sitting on the ground. There were two mallard ducks sitting contentedly, my rational mind knew all too well that they would be someone’s dinner that evening. Sure enough, upon my return that afternoon I noticed a gaggle of older ladies crouching next to a spigot located conveniently right outside of my apartment, which I guess makes for the perfect place to slaughter ducks. I immediately wanted to ask Cathy if this was an everyday practice and then remembered that I was in China and that this is life for so many people. Knowing that my discomfort could be taken to someone with a face and not a face 14,000 miles away and twelve different time zones away just helps. And for that I am thankful.
There have been a fair share of moments in the last few days where I severely misjudged what I have gotten myself into. I have to swallow down hot bile every time I think about paying my first month’s rent, not that I do not have funds for it, but because it is such a titular step into facing the reality that I will be living somewhere that is not home for another ten months. I get lost on average once a week and as long as I can find a good taxi or a familiar bus route I know that I can make it home. I finally bought enough kitchen supplies to boil pasta and grill a cheese sandwich- I had about six cheese sandwiches this past week alone. I feel safe in this strange new land, but I still carry a pocket knife open in my hand when I am walking home late at night. Kindergarten is absolute hell, btw. I do not know why I thought I could make any real difference with them but props to actual kindergarten teachers who can make it through a day without curb stomping one of the little monsters.
I am working every day of every week so far. There is talk of me getting a small holiday around Christmas where I plan to eat, drink, sleep without an alarm, and hop over to Hong Kong so that I can see Episode VIII.
I had a dream that I came back to America after ten days. Not because I wanted to but because I misheard the job offer and was only needed here for ten days instead of ten months. The most distressing part of that dream was that my legs were just beginning to look as moderately attractive as they usually do and now it would be another month of acclimating from jet lag but I would also have to tell everyone who knew that I was going to China- everyone I told I was going to China of my major misinterpretation. Another strange comfort to know that I can stress dream in such a new and exhausting environment.