Fushan kids back in bus


Paris—30 September 2009:
Picking Up the Pieces in Paris, Part 2


"You have a wonderful resume," she said. "Your teaching demonstration was the best I've seen; it was really vivid. But," she added, "you're too old."

She was the young Chinese girl who was interviewing me for a job teaching English.

She had been impressed by the masters and doctorate degrees from Stanford University in a way that I no longer was; and she noted that I had not just the TESOL teaching certificate but the "advanced" one. Many of the teachers they hire don't have the teaching certificate—it's not a "fixed" requirement—and some don't even have four-year college degree. Mei you wenti, not a problem, so it seems, if you're under 30 and female.

"I wonder what Lao Zi would think?" I asked.

"Huh?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said.

I'm not ancient but I'm not a youngster anymore. I have taught in Shanghai before and did not get this response applying for jobs. But with the "economic crisis" Shanghai has been hit hard by college grads from Australia, Canada, England, and of course the United States who are unable to find jobs in their own countries. And some "educators" in China—obviously not students of Lao Zi or Confucius—have decided that under-30 females are the most desirable teachers. Although I can't prove it, I think the complete standard is under-30, females, and blond. Are these babes rich in wisdom and experience? Or sexy? You can decide.

So I'm packing my bags after a seven-months job search. The problem is this: My visa is expiring soon and I'm not messing with the Chinese government on this. I have gotten a few offers of jobs that I don't want—and that the under-30 "twerps" probably don't want either. And I've gone to a lot of interviews in the huge city of 18-million people, spending half my day getting to them and back. But nothing worthwhile has materialized. Lao Zi wouldn't stand a chance either. Or Confucius, who was so concerned with sound ethical behavior.

"Too old, you guys—get lost!"

So I arranged to get lost by going to Paris. Naturally, three days before leaving I got a good offer at one of the universities. I suppose they found no qualified young blond party-girl. But I had already bought my airline ticket. I plan when it comes to important life decisions. Apparently the educators don't.

So I gave notice on an apartment that I loved in the "Old Chinese City" in the Huangpu district. I appeared to be the only Westerner there. I told my Chinese friends goodbye, including five with whom I had been doing language exchanges—"your Chinese for my English." I said, "Wo qu Bali Fagua sange yue. Hui lai Shanghai yi yue" (I go to Paris, France, for four months. I return next year) to both friends and merchants and bought gifts—beijiu (white sorgum liquor) for my massage place, a highly decorative and colorful cell-phone purse for Coco at X Coffee in the Bund, where I had been doing an exchange with the entire staff ...

In short I uprooted a highly agreeable life because I couldn't get a job that could sponsor a visa. Bu gaoxing! I was also unhappy because I had been studying Chinese off and on for six years and this was a real learning experience, not a contrived classroom one. I have met no other "English teacher" who knew anything beyond "Ni hao" and "xiexie." When I ask they all smile and say, "too difficult." Truth to tell I have a passion for languages—I also speak German, French, and Spanish. But I guess that doesn't count either. Age and sex—not knowledge and skill—are the critical factors. Right, Lao Zi? Right, Confucius?

I am at La Fourmi (The Ant) in Pigalle thinking about the scene outside my Shanghai apartment in the early morning: the bike carts; the old men walking and waving their arms about, doing some kind of exercise; the bikes, the motorbikes, the single-cylinder motorcycles, and the delivery trucks. It's about 5 AM—I have worked all night—and it is just beginning to get light out. There is a haziness and quiet as the city begins to wake up. I see the blue uniforms of the street sweepers with their thatch brooms and big orange trash container.

Now I see an old man is swinging his arm around and walking backwards. Is that me? Am I looking at myself, Lao Louis? And now I see bundles being tossed from the back of a delivery truck and a bicyclist swerving to avoid one of the bundles. At this hour I spot no tourists, expats, or blond, blue-eyed English teachers. A couple passes my window on a motorbike, the woman's black hair in a pony tail; she rides in the seat in back of her boyfriend or husband. She looks content. He is watching for traffic ahead but there is little at this hour. There are few warning honks or the ting-ting-ting of bells on bikes. It is an hour to be going someplace. Then a truck full of workers goes by. The rear door is open and I can see the blue uniforms, some of the workers already stripped to the waist. They already look sweaty. They are undoubtedly headed to one of the city's many construction sites. Most of them are migrant workers. Some are wearing their yellow hard hats, some are holding them. They look grimy, like men who get a bath only once a week. I feel sorry for them. I know how that feels. Later there will be the sounds of jackhammers, cranes moving beams into place, and the scraping of shovels in trenches. The sweaty work will have begun, relieved occasionally by tea from a bottle and a cigarette.

Later on, as I walk through the allies of the Old Chinese City, I will see guys with their shirts rolled up half-way for greater air flow. I have already quit tucking in my shirt but have not taken to rolling it up yet. Walking along, I hear them clear their throats noisily and spit; I do that only occasionally. And, yes, I too have learned to throw my trash on the street, though only occasionally. It is quickly swept up by one of the blue-uniformed workers. And I have learned a new way of walking: I step high to avoid cracks in the streets and sidewalks that can trip you; and I have learned to walk flat-footed to avoid watermelon rinds and banana peels that can send you flying. My posture is still limber—that of the hip jazz musician, I like to think; I have not developed the stiff, lower-back posture of many Chinese men and women. I suppose it is only a matter of time. Or would have been. I remember when Xiao Xu at X Coffee introduced me to Coco, one of the fuwuyuan, or waitresses. We were doing a language exchange and talking in Chinese. When Coco asked where I was from, I said, "Wo zhu Shanghai" (I live in Shanghai). That didn't quite answer her question but let her know I wasn't just passing through Shanghai, as so many of the customers, or guke, are. "He's Chinese," Xiao Xu said. He was kidding, of course. But learning the language, or at least trying to, bought you respect. But back to the allies.

I see the older guys and workers with short hair—what is, or used to be called, a "crew cut." The younger guys have artistically styled hair, as if they are all members of Chinese rock bands. Given ten years most of them will have jobs and crew cuts. The Chinese girls are less original. I don't know why but most of them stick to bangs, a pony tail, and spiked sideburns. But it works; they are quite lovely. But I never see artistic creativity or wildness in the hair styles of the alley girls and wonder why. Don't they feel a little wild sometimes too?

I had wondered about "hangouts" when I first moved to Shanghai. I was looking for an equivalent to the Paris cafe or the bars in San Francisco. I looked but was disappointed. I did not find places that invited you to hang. Then I looked more carefully at Sipailou and the little alleys running off of it. They were nothing but hangouts. You found a hole-in-the-wall place where you liked the lude douzi, or green beans, the miantiao, or noodles, or yu, fish, and you set up a table wherever you felt like sitting and ordered plate after plate of pianye, or inexpensive, dishes. The big bottles of beer—pijiu—were almost free. You were never urged to move on and time seemed inexhaustible. A lot of places stayed open all night. When the sun came up, were you eating breakfast or were you still having dinner? If you were planning on a foot massage, or jiao anmo, you had better think of it as dinner. Night was a better time to relieve tensions with yi ge anmo. But there was no rule. From 6 AM till noon, however, it would be hard to find a massage place that was open.

How wrong I was about hanging out in Shanghai. In the Old Chinese City it is all hangouts. Just pick your place.

I'm sort of hanging out in Paris writing this but I have bought an espresso and a croissant for 2.35 EUR—that's good for about two hours of hanging out till you get the eye. In Shanghai I can get dinner and drink for 5 to 10 CNY—.5 to 1 EUR—and spend the next two days. "Mei you wenti. Hai yao pijiu ma?" (Not a problem. Want another beer?)

I began to feel depressed—jusangde—as I knew I would probably have to leave Shanghai and my Chinese alley. Then I got the flu. That left me feeling physically low as well. I had not bought much, as I was not sure how long I would be able to stay. But what I bought I carefully selected. Each item was an experience in language and culture. One thing I never did manage to buy was an ice tray. You need one if you are going to make cocktails. I had the same experience in Paris a few years ago. I don't know the reason why. I like cocktails but they are not so popular in Shanghai or Paris except at the big tourist hotels. In San Francisco, the city with the highest consumption of alcohol in the United States, it is no problem buying an ice tray. Wallgreens has 'em, corner markets have 'em; your aunt has at least three; everyone has 'em.

I took many walks in the Huangpu district, which includes both the Old Chinese City in the south and the Bund in the north. The "Bund," if you don't know, is the old "Western" section. France, Germany, England, the United States, and other European colonizers once controlled Shanghai and built European-styled buildings along the Huangpu river. They excluded the Chinese from their area but gladly paid them to do the laundry and other menial tasks. That ended when Mao and the Communists took over in 1949; the foreigners got the boot. But the expats have gradually drifted back now in the form of "foreign experts," teachers, and business executives.

I took many walks to the Bund, heading up the alleys from Sipailou and passing by the eastern wall of Yuyuan Garder—Yuyuan Huayuan—in a narrow alley. Yuyuan Garden is next to the Shanghai Temple, the oldest temple in Shanghai. Yuyuan Garden goes back about 500 years, the temple about a thousand. Walking in the narrow alleys, you experience Chinese history—these are still real places with real people—much as they were 500 or 1000 years ago. The big difference is the cell phone. Cancer-like, it has spread everywhere.

When you get past Yuyuan Garden and Remnin lu (road) you are passing out of the Old Chinese City and entering the Bund. On Sichuan or Jianxi you can head north to the heart of the Bund, or you drop down to Zhonghua if you want to walk along the waterfront with a lot of tourists. I usually walk north along Sichuan. At Gangdong the view opens up because of all the construction—or preconstruction. I am not sure what they are building here—a giant pit?—but it has not risen yet. Looking to the east you can see the Pearl Tower across the river; looking to the west you can see the buildings around People's Square. At night the view is spectacular. Both east and west you see the new creative architecture while immersed among the old European architecture of the Bund: Art Deco, Neo Classical, Beaux Arts ... To the east and west you can see the exotic new architecture with dazzling lights at night. They dwarf the gray and brown stone buildings of the Bund.

Proceeding along to Fuzhou lu, you have a lot of choices: You can head west to the bookstores near People's Square; you can head east to the Bund or the river front. Some of the Bund buildings, if you really stare hard at them, are pretty drab outside. If you think they look good, you have been brainwashed by the "Better City, Better Life" bunch; you should retreat, your brain declaring defeat. On the inside, however, you can be surprised. You will see fine materials and quality design. Between the waterfront and Henan lu to the west, you will find some coffee bars and restaurants that are less frequented by the tourists. Press on north to Nanjing lu and you will find shopping on a grand scale; including huangniu, or scalpers, who will lead you to smaller shops on the off streets with fake goods that will fall apart just as you get to the airport, and pashou, or pickpockets. If you stand on the corner of Fuzhou and Jianxi you can see Art Deco on all four corners—the Hamilton House on the south-east corner, currently a French restaurant, the Metropole Hotel on the north-east corner ... It will transport you back in time, though not on a grand scale. In fact it may leave your feeling a little depressed. If so, stand for a moment in the middle of the street and stare up towards People's Square. Light and playful design will lift your spirits. It's a bit strange but loveable when you get to know it. Or for a real experience of contrasts, stand at night in one of the narrow alleys in the Old Chinese City and look up at the surrounding skyscrapers with their colorful and dynamic lighting. It is like watching a fireworks show. There is also the matter of maneuvering through all this on foot. That is an art in a narrow alley with bikes; bike carts, some loaded with gas tanks for cooking; motorbikes and motorcycles; and of course a hoard of people. Constant ting-ting, constant shouts of warning, not angry but just letting you know that you are two seconds or two inches from being run over. But it all seems to work. You begin to use your perceptive faculties differently; you are always checking your right side, your left and listening. You become part of the flow, moving a little to the left, a little to the right as required. You don't fight it; there is no stubbornness about moving out of the way; your body does it for you automatically. It is a totally different experience from fighting for space, Western-style; the SUV driver who will not yield would be flattened in an instant here.

And there is one other adjustment you need to make: You need to take time talking with people. That takes awhile getting used to. You have to give up "time management," or budgeting your time to wring the most out of you day. Give up the idea; waste time talking with people. You'll find out it's not a waste after all. Leave you video camera in the bag; resist pointing it a people like a gun. If you want to shoot someone's photograph, buy them a beer first and get to know them first.

Somehow Chinese people have gotten the reputation for being rude. In some situations that may be true. There is a tendency when space is tight to be a little more direct, dispensing with some of the common apologetic expressions. When you bump into someone two or three times a minute in a crowed alley, it is a little silly to say duibuqi, or excuse me. It would also be a little noisy. Yet I have noticed that rarely are the collisions very serious. They are more like brushing up against another person as an inevitable consequence of limited space. At the same time there is flow in the small spaces. People know how to move around each other without thinking about it; it is in the blood. Where I have seen real collisions, caused partly by stubbornness, is in large spaces in the Western countries. Take Trader Joe's in San Francisco. I have seen the aisles virtually empty and yet two shoppers still manage to run into each other. In these cases a good deal of stubbornness seems to be involved. It is if they are driving on the freeway in SUVs—two beefy women, lets us say, who have just loaded up with maxi bargains at Costco—and one wants to change lanes. The one in the other lane speeds up to make the lane change more difficult. The other changes lanes anyway. Horns are honked, "bitch" is yelled by both. And of course neither looks at the other. The sun is out, it is a lovely day for a drive but their mental attitude precludes any enjoyment of the day or the drive. If they had guns, they would probably shoot each other dead. Some drivers of course actually do that but for some reason it is usually the men. In Trader Joe's with shopping carts filled with inexpensive but high-quality foreign goods, the situation is much the same. Face to face, they do not yell "bitch"; but the tension is palpable. The confront each other with nerves on edge in an empty aisle and only with great reluctance concede space. Not so in the Chinese alley. The people flow like water around each other. Again, they do not dui bu qi with a small brushing up against each other, but they don't howl "fiend" either. How silly.

But what I really wanted to talk about is friends, Chinese and other. When I had a Chinese friend come to San Francisco about five years ago—she came for the Summer—I asked her how she liked it. She said she loved the clear blue sky and seeing flowers everywhere. She also said she like the food: "So much, so good." But she said, "No one talks to you; no one has any time." I didn't quite get it at the time. Now, after four visits to China, one for a year, I do.

Chinese people take the time to talk. At least most of them do. And they take a lot of time. Let me give you an example. I went into a store one day—a store that sold pearls and pearl jewelry. I talked with the young saleswomen for over an hour. We talked in Chinese and English. I played the Zenme Shuo game with her. Then we exchanged phone numbers and arranged a language exchange—"your Chinese for my English." She came over on a Monday afternoon loaded with bags of fruit. I thought her parents must own a fruit market. She stayed till eight in the evening. We talked, we read, we listened. She looked at my lips when I talked, she watched my tongue. I did the same with her. She spoke right into my ear at times; it was like wearing headphones. I did the same for her. Our spoken Chinese and English improved dramatically. This was not the kind of improvement you would get from taking a class and reading a book. We went out and took walks in my local food allies with both hole-in-the-wall restaurants and markets. She scolded one merchant for charging too much; "not clean" she said to another. At my local wine shop she talked it up so long with the owner I though we would never get away. The women in the house next door came by and invited us over. In short, we got real practice, not book practice. But the important factor here is time. She took the time and did not consider doing so a waste of time. She wasn't in a hurry. Ta you le shijian. She had the time.

And she wasn't the exception. My other Chinese friends also "had the time." Who knows where they go it. No one seems to have the stuff in the West, where rushing here, rushing there is the norm. "Sorry Lou, gotta boogie." How nice it would be if she really did have to boogie. Do you remember the line in Jack Kerouac's The Mexican Girl? "If you don't know how to boogie, man, I know I can show you how." I like that. She had the time, and she was willing to take it. But who's got the stuff anymore in the West? Well, I'm writing this in the West and feeling like I may just be running out. That's how creepy the feeling is; it poisons your cells like cancer. And if we don't have time, what do we have? Matter? Energy? Well, those seem to be in short supply with Westerners too. So what is in abundance in the West these days? Short tempers? Big egos? Boundless greed? Maybe. But back to Chinese friends.

"Kelvin" also had time. ("Kelvin" is the only one of my Chinese friends whom I called by his English name. He seemed to like it.) We used to meet in a restaurant or cafe—canting—and talk for hours. He's the one who got my "z" right. "The tongue must be further back in the mouth. Let me show you," he said as he opened his mouth and showed me the tip of his tongue targeting what is known as the "soft pallet." People were not understanding me when I said, "Wo shi zuojia," or "I am a writer."

And then there was Xiao Ming, Xiao Xu, Coco, and the entire staff of X Coffee in the Bund. I used to drop by there once a week. We worked on equivalent statements in Chinese and English. That I found to be the most interesting and useful technique. You both got something out of it, and it clearly revealed the differences between the two languages.

Consider the two statements:

I don't need help eating cake.

You could translate it this way, as I first did:

Wo bu xuyao bangchu chi dangao.

That is a direct translation but, I am told, strange.

A good translation:

Wo ziji ke yi chi dangao.

Translating that directly back into English gives you:

I myself can alone eat cake.

Or consider the reoccurring line in the poem, Full Moon, by Juan Ramon Jimenez (first translated from Spanish into English):

Are you wandering around naked in the fields?

The Chinese equivalent:

Ni luoti de zai guang tianye ma?

Here's a litteral translation back into English:

You naked go around woods, right?

It reveals differences in word order, verb and preposition usage, and the way a question is indicated.

What is interesting is that I was able to get general agreement on the best way to make the Chinese equivalent. I didn't just ask one person. I submitted it to the entire community of my Chinese acquaintances for comment.

But what I was talking about was time and Chinese friends. A friendship takes time spent talking with another person. "Gotta boogie" says friendship doesn't count. It says achievement and money are what matter; it says people are not important.

Of course there are "big shots" in China now too. These are people who not only don't have the time but are a cut above you and want you to know it. With China's recent economic success, many people who could not afford a car before have now bought one. For the "big shot" the car is black, limo-like, with tinted windows. And they are so important that they do not stop at stop signs, they do not stop a red lights, and they drive right through cross walks crowed with people. They look neither to the right nor to the left as they talk on their cell phones; the crowd in the sidewalk parts. This shows everyone who is who.

Recently this became so perturbing to one retired Chinese gentleman that he made a pile of rocks and threw them at cars that went through cross walks and lights. He became a hero; the story was run in the papers all over China. I noticed after that that some drivers began stopping. But I also found it confusing: Was he really stopping to let you cross or was he stopping to take a call on his cell phone? Did you want to risk getting run over if he had simply been distracted by a phone call?

Big shots have never been popular other than with other big shots, or those who worship power. I don't know how China will deal with these people. Certainly five-thousand years of history should offer them some clues. Killing a few chickens to warn the monkeys might be a start.

I'm not going to miss the big shots. Hopefully they will all be barbecued chickens when I return. But I am going to miss the Old Chinese City and Sipailou and the other allies that like arteries run though it. I'm going to miss the massage place at the corner where, when you walk in and sink into a big lounge chair, you are always offered tea and a cigarette. The cigarette may be bad for your health but it is certainly good for your spirits. I'm going to miss the teasing of the girls about my hairy arms—"hen duo mao," one of them says pulling the hair on my arm. "Hen duo toufa," I say pulling the hair on her head.

And I'm going to miss my local liquor store where big bottles of beer, pijiu, sell for 3 yuan per bottle—about .45 USD—and a litter of wine, putaojiu—costs 14 yuan—about 2 USD. I remember when I could not converse with them in the beginning and later when we began to have little conversations. The struggle with the language and the desire to converse caused me to set aside at least two hours a day for learning Chinese. It first paid off when the owner of the liquor store tied a nice little knot in the carry-cords of my bag and I said "jihao de," or perfect. The big problem then became understanding. I had to say a lot of "ting bu dong," or "I hear but don't understand." I made a little joke of it and said, "Wo jiao 'Ting Bu Dong'," or "My name is 'Ting Bu Dong'." Given a little more time, I think I would have understood much more. My "listening comprehension" was definitely on the ascent.

I will miss my alley bakery with the seed muffins and big cookies that sold for about .15 EUR each. I'm eating flaky croissants but paying six times as much, and I can't see the oven and know that they are fresh. I'm staring at gâteau or cake that I can't afford and wouldn't buy it if I could. I will miss the flatbreads that sell for .2 EUR each. I'm eating baguettes with crunchy crusts and even though they cost about one EUR I have no complaints about them. The are warm and fresh from the over. But I will miss the peasant-like grin of recognition of the women who sold them to me everyday and her round, oil-drum oven in which she plastered them on the sides till they were cooked, a little black on one side. I will miss the great bargains of zongzi, or sticky rice, and jiaozi, or dumplings: a whole bag full, heady in the hand, for about 10 yuan or one EUR. I will miss the sight of the fat red shrimp and the huang shan, or swamp eels swimming in tanks. I remember the small son of one of the shop owners who used to stick his arm in the tank and play with them like pets. They are not friendly-looking to me but maybe to you if you grow up with them ... I will miss the big smile of some of the young girls, school age, who work part-time in the markets. When you get the big Chinese smile, da de xiao, from one of these, you felt blessed. It was like the sun coming out of the clouds on a cold day; it warmed you up, made you happy.

I remember walking into a big enclosed market one day and the girl there immediately asked me if I spoke Chinese. She had sold me carrots before and I think she suspected I was a teacher. "Shide" (yes), I said. She looked pleased and we talked for awhile in both Chinese and English, which she was studying in school.

I remember Gi Hong, a lively young woman who sold me underwear. I wanted large, or extra large, having found medium a little tight. "Dade," she said, taking a pair out of the box and modeling them for me by holding them against her body. "Shide, dade" (yes, big), I said feeling a little embarrassed. It got the big Chinese smile again. It was a happy smile, that of a child, unmixed with other emotions. I thought the Chinese were supposed to be modest. Most are but not Gi Hong.

And I remember going into one of my favorite hole-in-the-walls and picking out a plate of lude douzi he zhu, or green beans and pork, and watching the chef, a devilish-looking fellow with dancing eyes, first sizzle the oil, great flames surrounding the wok, then toss in the beans and pork, constantly stirring and tossing them by the motion of his hand on the handle, dump them form the wok into another container, add chopped red peppers and onions to the wok, sizzle them for a minute or so, the flames ever more intense now so that even he held his head back from the wok—I think he was trying to impress me with the high flames—then add the beans and pork back into the wok in a grand finale of sizzling sounds and high flames. Anything more intense and there would have been an explosion.

"Hen jidong" (very exciting), I said.

He grinned from ear to ear.

This is the kind of "big shot" I like, one trying to impress you with his cooking skill. The taste was haochide, or delicious. The peppers cleared my sinuses for weeks.

The big shots with the cars I will not miss. I hope to see their cars dented and their windshields broken by mobs of rock-tossing grandmothers. Interesting cultural note: When Chinese grandmothers take sides on an issue, that issue is settled; the Central Party does not oppose them.

I hope to get back to Shanghai soon. I don't want to be completely forgotten in my alley. "Wang Xin, do you remember the strange American who once lived amongst us"? "The one who bought all the wine?" "Yes, that one." And I want the folks at X Coffee to look at me with surprise and delight when I walk in—not dim recollection. Maybe the economy will improve and the blond twerps will find jobs back home and, following frantic text messages from desperately lonely boyfriends in Sydney, Des Moines, any town anywhere ... where anyone lived in a pretty how town, will move back and dance their didn't. In the mean time, once again, I'm picking up the pieces in Paris.