I am sitting at the Royal Custine in Paris. The bar is long and clean; it is well polished. I am not royal but I have begun to feel like a person again. I begin to remember things, piece by piece, my mind wandering over the fragmented remains of the last three months in Shanghai, China.
"Ladies, shut up," shouted "Senior Academic Teacher" Blaire Greasly at a group of students laughing in the hallway. Blaire was an ex-military guy from Australia and seemed to like his title a lot. He put it on every document he wrote and personally signed it. Unfortunately, most of these documents showed up on the desks of the English teachers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and amounted to new orders or rules and regulations.
No behavior seemed to be beyond the scope of Blaire's rules. One might think giving a test would be a simple matter but not when Blaire got involved. Then one did not just give a test, one administered it. "Giving" a tests is what ordinary teachers did. "Professionals"—Blaire liked that word a lot—administered them. Administering a test went beyond common sense. Unprofessional teachers used only common sense: They spaced out the desks a little, they looked around now and then to be sure some few students were not cheating. The professional had a whole list of do's and don't's. First on the list was of course to arrive early in the class room, and not just a little early, as common sense dictates, but a minimum of ten minutes.
The "professional" of course does not leave the room during the test—not for anything. Nor does the professional allow a student to leave the room—not for anything. Nor does the professional trust the students. Only stupid, unprofessional teachers trust students. The professional giver of tests continually paces about the room, minimizing any opportunity for cheating. The professional giver of tests—excuse me, the administrator of tests—stays vigilant at all times, watching for eyes that wonder to a neighboring desk, listening for whispering pair of lips. The professional is of course hated and despised by his or her students, but Blaire does not say that. He has probably grown accustomed to it and enjoys the chilly feel of contempt from "enemy" students.
But enough of this. What are we talking about here? We are talking about a person who enjoys making the lives of his fellow teachers miserable via bureaucratic rules and regulations; a person who loves to control others and stem all creativity in his colleagues; a person who loves to create and distribute office memos as though they were decrees of some great emperor.
So, you might ask, how does he get away with this? The answer is fairly simple. He works for a person of a similar mind set. In fact, he works for a master bureaucrat. He works for the "Director of International Studies," a man who is even more feared and disliked by students than Blaire himself. He works for a man who, above all else, loves to yell and hear his own voice booming in the hall; he works for a man who allows another to get no more than half way though a sentence before interrupting, then talking non-stop for the next ten minutes. If it is a question you had, you are sorry you asked. If it was an idea you were trying to present, you are even sorrier.
Wang Xin, aka "Charles," is the name of this latter character. The setting is the afore-mentioned university, where testing is everything, learning and classroom performance nothing. It is a place where the superficial is raised to the highest level of importance, and what is important—the learning experience of the classroom—is treated as irrelevant.
So why the obsession with testing, you might ask. The likely answer is visibility. Students and classrooms are not visible to the highest level of administration. Testing is.
But administering tests to students is not the biggest problem facing teachers at the university. It is part two, the grading of those tests, that is the big problem. Are tests simply graded and handed back to students so they can see where they got it right or wrong? No way!
First there is a meeting to discuss what qualifies as a right answer, because on these tests, which are created by the Senior Academic Teacher, it is not always clear. A right answer may at times need to be marked wrong; and a wrong answer may at times need to be marked right. Make sense? It does if you are dedicated to discipline. Once a teacher "agrees" to the correct answers, teachers are then asked to sign a form stating that they agreed to the answers. This follows a brief look at the test. Once the form is signed, there is no revision—even if a wrong answer is proved to be right or vice versa.
There is one other wrinkle in this whole business that needs explanation. For each grade level there are two classes with one teacher for each. Now in most universities it is well known that professor X grades harder than professor Y; it is your choice if you want the harder grader, who may, however, be more interesting in the classroom. But at Shanghai University the grading of tests is designed to be "uniform." That is, both professors must follow uniform grading guidelines so that test scores are the same, or would be, if graded by either teacher. Now this is no easy task when it comes to subjective parts of tests such as essays. In fact, much of the grading effort goes into ensuring this uniformity of testing. For what value? Who knows! For administrative visibility is my guess. No student has demanded it. Nor has any teacher. Viva la difference, is the rule of the latter. But not so among administrators. Tue la difference!—crush the difference!—seems to be their law.
But things did not stop with uniform grading rules. Once tests were graded, they were then passed form one teacher to the other so as to grade the other's grading. Then there was this rule straight from Wang Xin: the discovery of a single "error" (difference) in grading by a teacher required that all tests be regraded by that teacher. Once that was out of the way, then the Senior Academic Teacher graded the grading of the grading. If an error was found ... But you don't want to know!
So what can I say. Rules and more rules. One rule seemed to necessitate another, with the new rule spawning still more. I recall arriving in the office one morning fifteen minutes early to pick up the tests for a class—fifteen minutes early so that when I arrived at the class room I would be ten minutes early—and finding on my desk a fifteen page document with additional details on test administration. No time to read it, of course, if I were going to be on time, as per the previous days orders. Somehow I managed to "administer" the test without knowing the new rules. A kiss is still a kiss, as the song goes, and a test is still a test, as any teacher knows.
Now you might wonder what the "overhead" was for all these rules about testing. Time-wise It was simply enormous. For the two weeks after a test was given—tests were given every three weeks—it took about a seventy-hour week to keep up. Hardly fair when the teachers had been contracted for a 37.5-hour week: six teaching sessions per day plus office hours. Still this testing was dubbed the "minimum requirements." In other words, don't do it and you are not doing your job and not being paid. "Minimum requirements" began to become slogan of abuse used by Blaire and Wang Xin. Some of us began to hate them for it.
And how did such a system hold together? How did it not lead to rebellion, or "social unrest" as the Chinese government likes to put it? Part of the answer is to be found in the recruiting of the other teachers. Most or all came from Bob Jones University in North Carolina, a fundamentalist Christian university. The other teachers simply had a high tolerance for submitting to authority, whether god's or demonic university administrators. I come from the opposing school of thought—the Question Authority school. I think that is a much better school when it comes to dealing with administrators of any kind.
One strange phenomenon I noticed while dealing with new rules and regulations: Once you get used to one level of nonsense, the next level, even though more bizarre than the first, seems relatively normal. I guess it is this way: You have accepted the bizarre and so you grow to expect it. It is probably much like spousal abuse. Following the first slap or punch, others are less surprising.
Three months into the school year I head a voice say:
'nough's enough, 'nough's more than enough; no more punches, no more blows, dearie!
I resigned on the spot, without notice, following the completion of the grading of the third test of the year. But let me tell you more. Testing and grading were not the only issues.
The closest town to the university is Yo Jiao. I did not know it was a town until I heard its name called out on the bus coming back from Zhoupu, which I thought was the closest town. Zhoupu is about five miles from the university, Yo Jiao about a quarter.
Yo Jiao is a blip on Zhou Zhu Highway, which runs past the university. But it has a grocery store and some whole-in-the-wall restaurants that make it significant. For me it was particularly significant because the grocery store carried wine, which the university mini-mart did not. In fact there was a lot more to Yo Jiao when you stopped to look. There were a variety of supply stores on Zhou Zhu Highway, a primary school on a second street that ran parallel to Zhou Zhu Highway, and even a massage place on a connecting street.
Potentially I found Yo Jiao interesting if I were going to stay at the university, but I had doubts about the university. For one thing, it was simply too far away from the places of real interest to me in Shanghai, which centered around the Haungpu River to the north east and where Pudong New District and Puxi, with its many old districts, were located. However, had I been stuck forever in Nan Hui, I'm sure I would have found Yo Jiao fascinating. The "big" local town, however, was Zhoupu. It I found interesting. It had a big main street and side streets and even a couple of super markets. But again, compared to Pudong and Puxi, it was limited. It was referred to as the "New Shanghai," but as far as I could see its day was yet to come; it was a sparkle in the eyes of some developers.
So how did I end up here? When I accepted the job with the university, I was not told clearly where it was: No one stated, "You do understand that you will be living in a rural village an hour away from the Shanghai you know and love, don't you?"
This did not bother me too much in the beginning. The university had a deal with local drivers to offer their services as taxis. For about 80 CNY you could get up to Pudong fairly quickly with one of the locals. They were friendly chaps who drove like madmen on all the back roads, so you also saw a lot. Then for some reason the taxis did not want to come any more. Was it because of Blaire or Wang Xin? Had they begun to issue rules and regulations to the taxi drivers? I do not know. But one day I was unable to get a taxi when I really wanted to get out of Nan Hui. The next time, ditto, and the next. This left me physically isolated from the Shanghai I "know and love," or wanted to know and love. Also, I had a girlfriend in Pudong; this made matters worse.
The isolation might have been tolerable, however, had it not been for the university's Internet service. I hate to say it but I have become dependent on the Internet for information and communication. It has become a standard utility, like water, gas, and electricity. But at the university the Internet was down about half the time; and when it was up, it ran at slow dial-up speed: about 10 kbytes per second. Web pages often took five minutes to load. On one software update that I badly needed for security reasons, the estimated download time was 47 hours! True, I wasn't going anywhere; in Nan Hui I had time on my hands; but 47 hours! Could my HP laptop remain running that long without an "Exception in module ..." and automatic shutdown? I had my doubts. The university system was also full of viruses, as they were running "copies" of Windows, not the "genuine" thing, and could not get security updates from Microsoft.
It was hard to even come by a newspaper in Nan Hui, whereas in Pudong and Puxi newstands were everywhere.
So unless I were to become a country bumpkin, the situation was not good. There was, however, one positive note. The food at the university was good. All of Shanghai likes to eat. Maybe that is why I stayed as long as I did. The "canteen" was a three-story building with about five or so independently operated restaurants. The food was not only tasty but cheap. There was a huge variety of dishes with many of the those "home town" dishes that you hear so much about in China. And there was this positive sign: always the workers in the canteen were eating their own food. Sometimes the dinning hall was filled with more workers having lunch or dinner than it was with students. The red caps and white attire told their numbers. And the price could not have been better: six or seven CNY per meal, or less than one USD. I remedied the wine problem—none!—by filling a plastic water bottle before going to lunch or dinner. With a newspaper and a book, I found the experience very pleasant for awhile. I read or reread The Portrait of Dorian Gray, The Call of the Wild, Alice in Wonderland, and A Clean Well Lighted Place, which the canteen was, while having my meals. But I think I knew I was killing time at the university. By choice I usually ate alone. I needed thinking time.
Maybe some background is in
Part of the reason I was in China was this: There was no work in the United States anymore. There hadn't been in some time. Strange to say, I was unemployable in my own country but highly employable in China, where there was plenty of work and it paid far more than you needed to live—about three times as much. Maybe this situation will change, but that is the way it was from September through December of 2008. But it was a situation that could not last for me. I faced bankruptcy back in the United States and I had an apartment in Paris that I needed to vacate, as there was no business there either. While the world economy had not immediately collapsed back in September when I came to the university, it started to shortly thereafter. The meltdown was the last stage of the sub-prime loan and high-risk credit phenomena that I had been reading about in the European press for over a year but that went unreported in the American newspapers until the meltdown began. When it did happen, the United States acted like it was sucker punched. I think that can hardly be the case. The U.S. economists read the European newspapers too—at least some of them do!
But what it meant for me was this: I was being blown around on the winds of the economy in a way that I had never been. I had control of parts of my life but not others. Things became fragmented. I could not settle down in Nan Hui even if I wanted to. My economic life in the United States and Europe were falling apart and I had to respond or be eaten alive. Or so it seemed at the time. One day I'm here, the next day somewhere else unpacking. I became an economic refugee. My life became fragmented. It split into pieces that I did not have the time to understand.
One fragment in all this was a friendship with one of the students, Xing Xing. She was a good friend but for too short a time. I needed some help opening an account at the Bank of China so I could move my money out of the reach of the U.S. government. Xing Xing was a university volunteer. She met me one Friday afternoon in the lobby of the teachers building, the "Guest House," and we went up to Zhoupu together to open the account. Most of the students at the university are from Shanghai and go home on weekends; Xing Xing was from another province and could not go home. She told me she would like to do things with me on weekends if I wanted. So for about a month we did things together and I got to know her. It was fun to hangout with an intelligent and attractive 18-year old girl. Wang Xin noticed and I don't think he was very happy about it but issued no rules or regulations; I, naturally, enjoyed his discomfort.
We went up to Zhoupu a couple of times for dinner and we both concluded that there wasn't much there. True, if you had to spend the rest of your life in Zhoupu, you could do it. But there were other choices.
Pudong and Puxi are what interested me. So far I was mostly fascinated by the new architecture there, though I was developing an interest in the food that went beyond being a mere consumer. But the architecture was interesting all by itself. In San Francisco I had known the new architecture in terms of the old. It was always worse. While the old was elegant and showed creativity in the design, the new was a product of budgets, low ones, and functional thinking and modular minds.
There is a chapter called "Edifice Wrecks" in Herb Caen's One Man's San Francisco that pretty well says it. He quotes, anonymously of course, one of The City's most successful builders as saying:
"I can't think of a building I've put up that's one tenth as beautiful as the one I had to tear down to make room for it."
Strangely enough, the opposite seems to be the case in Shanghai, unless I have brainwashed myself, since no one else has told me this. First, the new buildings are spaced out so you can see them from all sides. Space, what an idea! Secondly, they appear to be the product of creative design work, with no two looking alike. Thirdly, they are build with quality materials that may last through the rainy season unlike in Fog City. Finally, they are colorfully lit up at night; they are a dynamic light show of changing colors and patterns. They actually look fun, as though they are designed to be played with by children. Moreover, citizens take pride in them. Yes, indeed, something had to go to make the space. But the sacrifice seems worth it, people seem to say.
I can remember riding up from Nan Hui one afternoon with a taxi driver who spoke no English. With my limited Chinese we said almost nothing. But somehow we seemed in synch. When we were briefly stuck in traffic near the new technology center, he looked at one of the new buildings, smiled a big toothy grin, and stuck up his thumb as a positive gesture. I smiled and did the same. That is pride. In San Francisco, I think the corresponding gesture would be shoving your fist down your throat and chocking. Sad but so.
Xing Xing and I also just took walks along the roads and the waterways in Nan Hui and talked in the canteen for a long time. She told me she did not want to be at the university. It was a medical university and she wanted to study physics, not nursing, which she had been assigned to do. She said that when she took the college tests she was sick but was not allowed to postpone them and did not do well. She said her mother, who is a teacher, told her afterwards, "You are an unlucky girl."
She told me she did not relate well to the other girls at the university. "They want to talk about their hair or their boyfriends; I would rather talk about bugs."
Then we were onto the economy in the United States and the collapse of the banks.
"Doesn't the war in Iraq have something to do with the bad economy?" she asked.
"Yes, I believe it does," I said, though no one else had been accusing the Bush Administration yet of bankrupting the U.S.
"He and his friends are getting rich," I said, "while the country goes belly up. They're robbing the U.S. Treasury."
"I don't understand how that works," she said.
"It's like this," I said. "Just follow the money. That, I think, is what Voltaire said. If you want to know what is really going on in politics, forget everything else and just trace the money. Everything else is a lie"
"What do you mean? How's it done?"
"I mean it is done with military contracts and construction and reconstruction contracts. If you want money, all you need to do is start a war then help get contracts for you friends. This has been going on from the beginning of time. Of course it would be nice if you could just directly write yourself a check, but that would look bad. So you start a war, then help your friends get the contracts. In the case of the oil companies, they work out their own deals with the Iraqi government. All you do is shoot the way in for them and they're happy."
Xing Xing looked at me a little disillusioned.
"I'm sorry. That is the way it is. The world is not a very nice place. And the Bush Administration is one of the worst ever. I think Bush has irreparably damaged the United States. There will be some recovery when he is gone, but the U.S. will never be like it was before. He has also stood by and sold off, or allowed to be sold off, the computer industry to India. Sure, Wall Street gets a big hit, an obscenely big hit. But in the end you lose; it's gone and it won't be coming back. And it wasn't theirs to give away; it was the universities, the young men and women, the people with ideas, their creativity, their work, that produced it. The bastards traded it for beads."
"And what do you think about China?" asked Xing Xing.
"A lot smarter. I don't think they would sell their tea industry for a one-time profit. There is a tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken." I was run down.
"And what about the food?" she asked.
"Very tasty," I said.
"Wanna take a walk?" she asked
"Yeah. We can think about something else for awhile."
We walked over to the athletic field.
"What do you know about Bob Jones?" she asked.
"Not much," I told her. I told her what I had already found out by researching them on the web.
They were trying to convert her to Christianity but she said she didn't believe in god. That made Christ a hard sell for her.
"They want me to believe that Jesus is god. But I don't even believe in god."
"That does sound like a problem," I said. "Have you told them?"
"Not exactly," she admitted. She attended their Sunday services, mostly because she liked the music.
We walked around the track several times discussing black holes and other things that interested her. She seemed to know all about black holes. You might almost call her a believer.
The Bob Jones factor at Shanghai University was an odd one. I had the feeling that Wang Xin liked to contract with Bob Jones because the teachers would do anything. At the same time, Bob Jones got the opportunity to try to convert Chinese students. I thought the Chinese had been through this Christian thing before, having kicked them out of China at least on one occasion. Bob Jones was an odd university; it in no way represented American universities. Bob Jones had only recently allowed dating between white and black students. And it was not too long ago that they did not even admit black students. So why did Wang Xin have a deal with Bob Jones? I think it was, as I suggested before, because Bob Jones people were so cooperative when it came to submitting to authority. And they were not known for partying, as some Western teachers who came to Shanghai were.
I was the exception. You might say that I represented myself, which was not considered a good thing at Shanghai University. I was a free thinker for whom authority meant little. I think Wang Xin began to realize this from a few comments I made in meetings.
A persistent topic in meeting was discipline. It seemed to be on everyone's mind but mine. I did not have a discipline problem with my students, as it seemed that everyone else did. I was very surprised when the topic of punishments came up. I was unaccustomed to the idea of punishing university students. Especially by making them stand up during class or do extra homework assignments involving copy work. I thought that at the university level that kind of thing was not done. In fact I thought at the elementary school level that kind of thing was not done anymore. But here teachers seemed to relish the idea of punishing students. They went so far as to confiscate students cell phones, as that seemed to be the most hurtful thing you could do to a student. They kept them for a certain number of days or over the weekend so they could not communicate with their friends.
I remember one girl who wrote Blaire an apology for whatever she did, brought him chocolates, and showed up with friends, as compassionate witnesses I guess, to beg for the return of her cell phone. He would not budge.
Cell phones were strictly prohibited in class, a rule I did not enforce. When I pulled out my camera one day to shoot a picture of the class, half a dozen cell phones came out to shoot me:
I had a deal with my class. Be reasonable, learn something now and then, and we will have a lot of fun. I didn't let Wang Xin or Blaire know about this, however; I don't think they would have liked it. Fun is not quantitative and testable.
I did have a few problems with students talking during class. Who doesn't? But I handled that directly without punishments. I got right in their faces and told them that they could talk a little now and then but that they were over the line now. I told one young lady who didn't seem to get it to "stop the shit. Do you understand?" She knew the word and understood. But I didn't have to do that much. I was in fact known as the "friendliness" teacher as one of my students told me.
One of the reasons I think the other teachers had discipline problems was this: They bored their students to tears. If you bore your students, their minds are simply going to go elsewhere. It is like this: If there are two different televisions programs being shown in the same room and one of them is boring, you're going to watch the other one, right? And to prevent students from watching the other one, it is going to take discipline.
One day one of Blaire's students told him in Chinese to fuck himself. Blaire new the Chinese for this. You can hardly imagine what a fuss that caused. No apologies satisfied Blaire. Another day a student pulled back her paper when Blaire wanted to look at it. What an offense. Students are sometimes shy about showing you their work while it is in progress. I account for that and ask if I can have a look. Rarely does anyone say no; if they do, I wait for when they are ready. The offending student was made to come to Blaire's office, which was also my office, to discuss the incident. I don't know how it ended. Six month's suspension and the loss of the cell phone? A shaved head? It was the classic case of turning nothing into something and something into an "issue" so that a punishment could be devised and a report written. I never wrote any reports about discipline problems, which probably made me look bad; but I simply did not have anything worth writing about.
Wang Xin's own specialty was fear. He was proud of it. Students not only feared him but disliked him. I discovered this one day when his name was mentioned in class and students squirmed and made faces. So one day I did what I probably should not have done. I started making Wang Xin jokes.
"Imagine," I said before the class one day, "that it is five years from now, you have graduated and are working as a nurse in a hospital." We were having a lesson on how to make effective suggestions in the English language. We were learning how to use such expressions as "What do you think about ...?" or "Wouldn't it be a good idea to ...?"
"Imagine," I went on, "that Wang Xin is a patient in the hospital. Yes, he has had a breakdown—maybe from too much yelling—and is wandering around the hospital in his pajamas. You need to get him to return to his room. So you say, 'Wang Xin, don't you think it would be a good idea to return to your room?'" The girls found this very amusing.
But enough about student discipline. Teacher discipline would be a more interesting topic. Unfortunately it does not exist. I can think of several fine punishments for Blaire and Wang Xin.
Did I say it before? This "university" was a nursing school and all of my students were girls. I call them "girls." Blaire called them "ladies." But I don't like that. It imposes something upon them. I could call them "young women"—that would be more acceptable these days. But it does not express their vitality, so I will call them "girls."
They were mostly from pretty well-off families, so they had been spared such things as part-time jobs and learning how to cook. Only two had every been outside of China. A lesson on food and a subsequent assignment to describe your "favorite recipe" were revealing. Everybody's favorite recipe was a boiled egg or "tomatoes and eggs," a popular dish in China, or Shanghai, anyway. I had tried tomatoes and eggs in the canteen but did not much like it. It seemed runny. I noticed, also, that they added sugar.
After reading their recipes, I realized that few knew anything about kitchen basics, including the stove. One girl's description of "rice and eggs" has her boiling the eggs in the oven. No pan or container is used; the eggs go straight into the over. Oil also goes straight into the oven. What a mess! After reading her recipe and some others, I thought I had better bring in some pictures of stoves and talk about stove-top burners and ovens. We also went over measuring spoons, which were used for boiling, stirring and other tasks in their recipes; and measuring cups, which were never mentioned at all. I also showed them photos of common pots and pans. I went even further: I told them how to crack and boil an egg. Few, I think, had any idea. There was no lack of attention during these descriptions of mine; you would think I was talking about sex. You see, the girls loved to eat and I think they wanted to know more than their mothers had told them. I often used the overhead projector to show food photos from Fine Cooking. This seemed to keep them focused. It was perhaps a little like background music while studying. The mind relaxed, feeling comfortable and receptive around the images, and was open to learning.
There was, however, one girl in the class who knew about food and kitchens. Her name was Chen YuShan (perfect-looking Shanghai girl, shown below in a quiet mood). One day after I had shown photos of gourmet hamburgers in Fine Cooking—big juicy burgers with beautiful organic tomatoes and crispy fresh lettuce and gorgonzola cheese dripping down the side of the meat—she came up very excited after class and asked if she could borrow Fine Cooking. She said she loved to cook. Suddenly we had a connection. I had another magazine, La Cocina Italiana, that showed all kinds of Italian noodles and noodle dishes. We talked about the similarity between Italian food and Chinese, especially in noodle dishes.
"Italian is unlike French, which is more focused, usually on the meat or the vegetables, with a limited number of ingredients. Italians use a lot of ingredients and mix them together, a lot like Chinese food does." She could see this form the photos. We looked at the variety of Italian noodles, such as broad flat linguine, tagliatelle, and fettuchine noodles and the unusual penne and orecchiette noodles. "Spaghetti is but one type," I said, while comparing it to the typical Chinese noodle.
"I believe there is more variety in Italian noodle types," I said. She asked if she could also borrow La Cucina Italiana. I loaned her both. Her excitement was my excitement; it was stimulating. Suddenly we had a friendship based on food.
Although I only had my students for three months and my memories of them are scattered now—scattered and fading—I did find others who turned me on as well. These are the ones who were alive, not just sitting there because English was a requirement. Screw requirements! We spoke together of our deepest interests, true desires, and our passion. The English language was our means, so naturally we had to respect it.
There was Fang Fang, who initially sat in the back of the room but who soon moved up front to sit with Tina. Every time I looked down their eyes were shining up at mine, amused or interested or both. What a feeling for a teacher.
There was also all-around good kid Zhang HanHan, aka "Miki," who mentioned in the course of a travel lesson that her dad had taken her on a business trip to Paris with him. She wanted more information on Paris so they could do more stuff the next time. Was there a mom? I didn't ask. Miki was a girl I initially thought looked like trouble but was quite the opposite. She had the personality and looseness of a Southern California beach girl, if you know the type and will excuse the stereotype; she was fun and easy to be with. In the end she felt like a daughter—one I had for too little time. Lost to a bad economy and silly administrators and their grading system, she is one of the precious pieces I'm trying to collect at the Royal Custine, and right now Le Houdon Jazz Club, and gently place in my memory box.
There was also "Renee," whom I did not notice in the beginning (below, left, with Fang Fang). She sat about mid-way back on the right. She was a little on the tall side, thin, with medium-short straight hair, but did not stand out. Then I noticed her eyes, always attentive, and the amused look in them. If I didn't watch myself, I would find myself talking to her and not the rest of the class. She always got the joke, the irony, the what of whatever I was saying. One day in the canteen she came over with her friends and asked if I had wine in my plastic bottle. I admitted that I did. "Don't tell," I told her. "It is probably against the rules." She said her mother made wine and said it was good for you. We went from there.
There was also "Yolanda," who at first seemed troublesome—initially she wore a skeptical look when I spoke to her as though, because I was the teacher, I was the "bad guy." But in the end she dropped this look. She was a very bright girl who I think required attention and respect. So I gave it to her. I would be curious to know what life at home was like for her. I had the feeling that she had never been treated with respect or fully recognized as having value. But I will never know. I liked to address questions to her, preceeding them with, "Yolanda, you're smart, what is the answer to ...?" She always looked pleasantly surprised and always knew the answer.
There was Ding Hao "Joleene," for whom I often broke the no-sleeping-in-class rule. (Teachers faced a 50-CNY-per-incident fine for allowing students to sleep in class.) She just looked so tired. She was not a good student—she just wasn't interested—but outside of class it was another matter. She had a music group, and one day she asked me to help her and her friends learn the lyrics to a song. Then I saw a whole other personality: alive, raw, energetic. She had copied down a rap tune by ear and wanted to perform it with her group at a welcoming ceremony at the university. The screening committee wouldn't let 'em do it. Rap ain't cool girls, rap ain't the way, let us administrators have the say ... Sweet Dreams, Ding Hao.
There was also pale quiet "Irene" who sat with Ding Hao but who was not a sleeper and always knew what was going on. She was kind of funky, like some hippie girls I used to know in Santa Cruz, California, and did things her own way. She lived with her grandmother, she told me; her parents lived in Italy where they had a business. She had visited them over the Summer. Then she was out sick a long time. When she came back she was very remote, and it worried me. She was too remote. I knew there was a problem but I did not know what it was. Then she seemed to be coming around. I hope she is okay but I will never know.
And now I'm thinking of "Lori," though I'm not sure why. At the beginning of the year the girls pick English names for themselves, though it seems like a silly practice. What is wrong with their Chinese names? It's about as silly as my picking a Chinese name. I think my Chinese friends would find that very odd indeed. "You want me to call you Lao Lu? How about Stupid Lu? Ha!" Anyway, she first picked the name "Juta" for herself but the administrators made her change it. Not ordinary enough, they said. Could be a problem later on.
I had little contact with her other than in the beginning when I told her she needed to chose another name. She was interesting in that she had what I call "density." She was sexy looking and into her hair and body but had no lightness about her. I don't think her appearance brought her any pleasure or fun. She seemed, if nothing else, self-centered. But then a month or two in I noticed that she was always listening. It was like something had changed in her. Then one day she came up and erased the board for me after class. I thanked her and smiled. It was then that I notice that she was one of those people who can't smile. I wondered why in her case. But it doesn't matter. She had a fine serious look. But I am curious. Was she evolving as a person? Was she getting beyond her hair and her body? Perhaps.
Then there was "Angela," thin, fluttery, on the nervous side, who told me she really wanted to be a translator but was told that her English was not good enough. So she was stuck in nursing school, condemned to a life as a nurse by the people who make up and administer tests in China. As her memory fades away, I reach out with hope that she finds something in life that she really wants to do and that she is allowed to do it even if she doesn't "make the grade."
And there were good kids like "Daisy" and "Cissy" who picked just the right names for themselves. You couldn't feel unhappy when they were around; they wouldn't let you.
And there was "Sarah", tall, serious, smart, somewhat self-centered, sexy, artsy, and good-looking in her own unique way, who came by the office one day to tell me that class was boring and I needed to introduce some games. "Tami," said Sarah, "starts the day with word games." Tami was the teacher of the other class. So I gave her games, though not exactly of the type she had in mind. I introduced Kerouac, a free-association word-game-competition in which the class, spit into two parts, streamed words onto the board, from which stories and poems were then created. In one such session, Sarah and her team produced Banana and Blair, a story in which "Big Band went to Beijing to have a party ..." I don't think the administrators would have liked it but it was interesting. She complained no more about being bored.
I'm sorry that I won't get to see her change over the year. She came by before I left to see if I would edit the English version of the school newspaper. I told her yes, even though I knew I would not be there. Blaire was in the office and I did not want to give away that I was leaving soon.
Unfortunately, I had to surprise them with my resignation. I was afraid that if I gave notice, they would not pay me. So I waited to the end of the month, got paid in cash, as was the custom, then surprised them with my resignation. It was not a nice thing to do but not getting paid, which I risked if I gave notice, seemed worse.
And there was Wu Jing "Jane" whose Chinese nickname was Jing Jing. I got a lesson in pronunciation from her. The "u" in Wu was rising, the "i" in Jing was falling. I knew that but how much of a rise, how much of a fall? She'd say it, I'd say it. Close but not quite close enough. Again, she'd say it, I'd say it. Closer but ... I got a lesson from all the kids on pronouncing their names. One is particular when it comes to one's own name. Jane was one of the bright attentive listeners. And I think she was born with a smile. She always wore something pretty in her hair. It is easy to picture her mother. The same smile, I'm sure. And probably the father too, or the mother would not be smiling. She came by my office one day with Fang Fang to talk. She asked me what I thought about when I was standing out on my balcony. I didn't know anyone had noticed me out there.
"Nothing, daughter. Nothing at all."
I was thinking of a story called My Father Sits in the Dark that I had been reading in the canteen.
"Well, you must be thinking of something," she said.
"No," I said. "I'm just kind of checking out the clouds and the weather. Sometimes there are images in the clouds, sometimes there aren't."
She looked like she didn't believe me.
"You know, smoking is not good for you," she said.
"Really? I had always thought ..." I showed her the warning label on the pack of cigarette in my pocket. It was in Chinese, of course.
"That says Smoking Kills You!" Jing Jing said.
So many memories, so many broken dreams; my kids, now somebody else's kids, as I go off to take care of business that seems like none of my business anymore.
I had another girl too—a girl friend in Pudong. With the time it took to meet "minimum requirements" and the distance to Pudong, it was hard to get away to see her. I didn't like her that much in the beginning but I grew to like her so much it scared me. I wasn't used to that. She was not highly educated; she was from a small town. She was also a masseuse, make what you want of that. But she had big feelings and a sharp mind. She was studying Japanese and English on her own. She was trying to branch out in the world and succeeding. A peeled apple, watermelon juice ... these foolish things.
And now she, too, would go into my memory box: a small piece, a sweet fragment, of a mind afloat, lost in coping with a bastard economy, the bastards who caused it, and petty school bureaucrats. These foolish things, these foolish people.