Sunday July 7th, my first full day in China, we awoke early to go to rehearsal held in the morning when it was cooler. I met our ballet teacher Alex, and then we all grabbed a taxi to make our way to one of the city plazas which normally sported a water fountain which shot streams of water into the sky from beneath grates that were flush with the plaza’s tiles. The girls went on ahead to get the students practicing while us guys went to find some food. The humid heat bore down heavy upon us with the trees rattling from the calls of thousands of cicadas and as we were walking, Alex was flamboyantly waving and laughing as he said Ni hao to all who met his gaze. Eventually there were two young girls walking together and staring at him when he suddenly thrust his arms out and scared them with a “GRRAAAAHHHH!” and they screamed in fright and then hurried off frightened and talking excitedly. We couldn’t help but explode in laughter at his sudden outburst. Some lookers-on were now pausing and staring in even more awe and confusion. I was a bit perplexed as well, but just laughed it off because it was still hilarious. He was being a little choosy with finding our eats so we passed by a few places, apparently looking for a specific shop. We finally found it; a quaint looking bakery. I was pleased with his choice, “Good call Alex!” We went inside and apparently they were still waiting for a few more batches to come out and didn’t have their usual variety. He was sorely disappointed and wanted to go across the street to McDonalds. “Fuck McDonalds!” was my reply and I got a plastic tray and tongs and proceeded to choose a few at random. I grabbed two of what looked to be some odd drinks in a pouch with pictures of milk and the aloe plant on it reminiscent of American Capri-sun’s and I asked BJ to help me translate to pay but he insisted on paying himself perhaps for courtesy or perhaps for expediency since they seemed impatient to get to McDonald’s. During our sit down in what I considered to be an evil omniscient presence of corporate greed to stuff people with unhealthy food, I found out that my aloe drink was really a yogurt drink; not quite viscous yogurt yet not quite fluid. However was delighted to discover one baked good in my bag of varietals I enjoyed thoroughly. It reminded me of a Mexican “pan dulce,” a round bun with yellow sugary mosaic encrusted upon the surface. After quickly devouring our meals, we navigated our way back to the plaza. On our way back, I was still like a puppy dog in a new place with a short attention span stopping to look and sniff everything strange and new; some things familiar like a drink dispensary machine, yet different in the way it was presented. Or even how some small alley hid a majestic yet decrepit Chinese architecture completely foreign to me; something only found in media or false Chinese tributaries in the U.S. Sure we were in an industrialized city, therefore most architecture was modern and blase, however once in a while a small gem representing what true Chinese culture used to be there shone in small obscure place like backstreets and alleyways and “old town” neighborhoods.
On our short walk I received so many stares that I profoundly came to the understanding of Alex’s behavior. It was much easier to accept and recognize the fact that you were a popular outsider than to these peoples who only saw your kind in mainstream movies and media than to internalize your thoughts about their inquiring stares. And after so many prolonged looks and feeling sometimes like an escaped lion and other times like a monkey in gorilla territory, you can only take so much and must act out in attempt to take back some of the energy taken from you on a daily basis. His sudden explosion towards the young girls was not just a release of this built up recognition but also a return of self-gratification and indulgence which the Chinese took so often.
For the next several hours we watched as children awkwardly danced what they had apparently practiced before to music from a small portable boombox and Alicia’s direction as the stage was still being set up around us. I had bought several ice cold waters and what was left after my continuous effort to hydrate was soon tepid and then warm with the outside temperature of about 100F, which seemed multiplied manifold with the humidity. I wandered over to the adjacent river; a large walled in aqueduct not more than 50ft across. I walked next to a rattling tree humming with the sound of a hundred cicadas and leaned against the large heavy iron chain that boundaried a cement precipice of about 20ft high from the very dark water below. I looked straight down and saw a little red monster walking on the wall just below the surface scrounging for food in the algae field. I remember the first time I saw one of these when I was a young boy of about 10 years old; my father had taken me to a nearby shallow aqueduct which flaunted tall cattails so that we could catch some frogs together. “Dad look!!! A lobster! There’s a lobster in the creek!” Obviously I hadn’t spent much time in these atmospheres. He came running over confusedly and started laughing at what I was pointing at. “Pshhh. That’s not a lobster, it’s a crawdad!” He exclaimed as if there were a huge difference. I was still convinced I was right for it clearly had lobsterish characteristics. “Lobsters are large,” he explained “and live in the sea. These stay small and are in creeks.” I quickly deduced that they were plainly of the lobster hereditary who had ventured out of the sea against the flow of a river and creeks and marshes and these were what remained of their once regal stature. I smiled slightly as I looked up from the reflections of reveries there below me, to the sight to be beheld before me. Chinese stonework under me, Chinese woodwork ornamenting the bridge before me, Chinese people walking throughout against a Chinese architectural background in Chinese heat and smells. My heart swelled with pride, awe and wonder. “I can’t believe I’m in China!” I laughed to myself.
After a sweaty several hours of watching some performances and general sun sitting and shade finding we decided to head home. Alex wanted to go swimming but everyone else had things to do so I told him I’d love to go. When the taxi arrove at our house, we told him to stay for a few minutes and we made expedience to change into our swimwear and grab some essentials before jumping back in. On our meandering way in the backseat of what seemed a 1980’s stickshift Volkswagen Santana, with Alex directing the driver with zhi ge (this) and pointing down different roads until we stopped suddenly and let some other white foreigner in a fedora in the car. He smiled and shook my hand. I was confused. “They just share taxis like this when people head in the same direction?” I asked. “No, no. These my friend,” Alex supplied in his Romanian tinged tongue. “Ohhh ok. Nice to meet you,” I greeted with a smile and he returned the same formality in kind. He too was apparently from the same country as Alex and so they, probably being the only two of their kind in Yongkang, befriended. After the end of the asphalt down a long road we bumpily made our way to a very large stone covered hill and got out. Alex asked if he could come back in an hr, and the taxi refused. Alex sucked his teeth and we made our way up a very long stone staircase topped by several people. Once the hill was conquered, I realized it was a dam holding a very large reservoir at the foothills of a beautiful green mountainscape with tall sharp crests proclaiming their majestic presence. There were not too many people there and there was a large tent set up in the middle of the wall to sell an eclectic assortment of plastic and rubber toy floaties. We made our way to an embankment, which was sadly littered with trash and underwear and many deflated toys; we made our way to a clear spot and soon jumped in the cool water. Everyone there had some type of flotation device, and I thought it silly being that I had only previously seen these used for children. Although, it did allow them to swim out far and even to opposite embankments in comfort. We however, went without and I swum along with the Romanians to convene somewhere in the center until I was winded and made my way to the opposite shore to catch wind and explore a bit with bare feet. I drank in deep breaths along with deep satisfaction at the sight before me. I had heard many warnings of the air quality in China, and had only seen a terrible fire-like haze landing in Shanghai but hadn’t noticed any drop in quality here in Yongkang so I thought it was due to being surrounded by many green hills and mountains, but I did seem to tire out faster than I thought I would have in the quick swim; then again swimming was never my strong point. After a blissful hour in cool water we dried off and walked down the long dirt road back to asphalt and then a bit more to the main street where we found a bus headed back in our general direction. Alex’s friend took leave a few stops before us and then we walked about 10 minutes back to our house which warranted a much needed cool shower after that sweat drenched endeavour. We had a bit of time to relax before having to head back to the plaza again as the show started around 1800hrs and we had to be there an hr early.
Alex and I shared a taxi and met up with many other employees from the other schools Tigger owned, and one of them was just across the street where the kids were getting ready in a frenzy of changing and screaming and hurrying and make-uping, for boys and girls, which I thought a little strange but then again make-up is used for all theatrics around the world. However they boys seemed to don faces that were too reminiscent of drag. After walking back and forth between the plaza for interest and the school for AC, I became hungry and wanted to get some type of food so I wandered down the small street adjacent to the school which was full of shops and food vendors. I saw some of our schools high school aged assistants enjoying some soup at the first shop, which was more of a deep window display with 3 small tables on one side and the “kitchen” on the other with a mobile island out on the front step where the women prepared the same food over and over again with only reprise to cool up a requested meal. I sat with them for a while and asked their assistance in getting me some food. The woman preparing was trying to talk to me but I could only reply with a ting budong, don’t understand, and she laughed and happily continued her work. I watched her effortlessly crank out many bao zi, which was was similar to a small round potsticker. She took a piece from an already prepared lump of dough and flattened it with a rolling pin and then took a handful of prepared diced meat from a bowl and then wrapped it up and proceeded to twist it in such a fashion that wrapped the opening around her thumb. She then pulled it up in the air and dropped it with a “thud” on the metal slab and gave it a pat. Then repeat the whole process again. I started to photograph her but she was embarrassed and put her hands up laughing so I had to pretend to only photograph her handwork and I slowly pulled back to allow her in the frame as well. After that I came back several times for cold drinks which were in a glass doored fridge on top of the steps.
The children were singing their songs and I noticed that there was no reaction from the crowd. Christina and I talked about this, even when the show ended there was no applause; only a stoic discernation. I had noticed a similar indifference at the club the night previous when any performer went on; hardly a smile in the crowd and the only signs of interest were bored faces recording with their phone like it was their job. While the show was going on I went behind the stage, which was luckily backdropped by a large TV compilation screen and equipment, to practice with the fuel I would be using for the firespinning so I could time the burn and get into my rhythm. I decided to try something new and practiced doing a momentary one hand stand and then a few steps leading into a one handed cartwheel, but while making the firespin look interesting and not just hanging in my hand. This then turned into a cartwheel where I threw up the baton when I righted up. I decided to try it since I was going to be giving a show. I had never done this on stage before. My fire baton is just one of my toys I like to play with at the beach or maybe even bring with me to a backyard party, and I was no professional. I wouldn’t deem myself good enough to be payed or anything because it wasn’t something I seriously practiced. I usually drop it once or twice during a burn, especially if I’ve been drinking, so I hoped this time I would be able to keep my focus. When I went on, I had them turn off most of the lights and luckily Austin had picked a really good beat by Pantyraid called Beba. It started off light and led into a switch with some heavy beats and faster rhythm. The show was almost perfect; my cartwheel throw was too vertical and I fished wheeling slightly further than the throws hang time so I barely missed the catch. I then did a quick spin or two and then ended with the firespitting, which actually made the crowd respond with some ooohs and aaahs.
Afterwards we all had dinner at KFC, which happened to be across the street. It was close and easy for all of us to eat there. My first reaction was that of dissatisfaction as I had been speaking about their deforestation policies for one time paper product use for almost a month. Their suppliers had helped Indonesia receive the Guiness Book of World Records for fastest rate of rainforest destruction in human history, which not only contributed to more greenhouse gases than any other entity due to its unique carbon-rich peat lands but also encroached on endangered animals homes; the Sumatran Tiger is a regal animal sporting the only webbed paws in its genus allowing it to swim as fast as it runs as well as the largest cheeks; the orangutan- literally meaning “people of the forest” were only indigenous to the lands that were being destroyed. Not to mention (but I will) the thousands of tribal indigenous peoples being forced out of their homes, and having no choice but to join a mass exodus to Jakarta, which is one of the worlds leading cities for sex slave trade and human trafficking. I had taken a personal choice to not eat there again; not a difficult choice as they had sub-par greasy chicken and even their packets of honey were synthetic. I was just going to join my friends and not eat, but I did remember that KFC China had cut off those suppliers long ago, so I allowed myself the experience of trying Chinese-American fast food. They even had a “fresh fungus bowl.” I wasn’t thrilled with the experience but it was interesting to say the least.
Monday morning I awoke early and practiced some Mandarin with Rosetta Stone and walked to the school early and arrived at about 8am, Class started at 9 so I was one of the first. I was teaching 1st and 2nd grade which was one class age group from 8-10 years old. I had a collection of children stories book that they also had with key vocab words on flash cards, as well as a simple book with those words and sentence uses that they had to work out of. How I taught them was up to me. Luckily I had a Chinese assistant whose English was not perfect but better than I could have hoped for. I started with introduction, and found them to be trained as all Chinese had with a good morning and a reply to “how are you,” with “Fine thanks, and you?” This was their answer to all inquires of their well being. We went over class rules and I asked them what they thought the punishment should be, and most chose a corporal punishment of some sort; the least offensive was standing up for the rest of the class, which seemed to me like a good idea but I didn’t want to cross any lines. We went through the flash cards and I did a little charades and pictionary of my own to illustrate the difference between words and ideas. We played a simple flash card game and then read out of the book. They were two hour classes with a short recess in between. I then repeated this two more times. It was interesting teaching the simple steps of the language and it brought back a lot of young child memories and games, and it only reminds one of how much is forgotten.
Wednesday morning I was brought out of slumber by a loud cry on a loud speaker at 6:45 “yao mai WEI!!”…..“yao mai WEI!!” ….“yao mai WEI!!”…. I was pretty sure it was a recording on repeat. I looked at the time and wondered what the hell it could possibly be. It must be some sort of emergency, maybe a fire. I heard some commotion in the house of someone moving about and I waited for someone to come into my room and tell me to get ready because of some danger, maybe it was an air raid. No one burst in the room. I got up and looked outside, and from what my small view could afford I saw no smoke in the air and no screaming or panicked people in the street. I got ready and still no sign of danger, so I figured it was for something menial. Later at school I found out that it was a cry for fresh fruit and vegetables. “Sometimes they have fresh eggs too. Or maybe they’re different guys with different calls, I dunno,” Christina supplied. “But usually, it’s around 9am, not that early. Weird.” I wondered if that’s what I had to look forward to every morning, an obnoxious loudspeaker cry for selling food and wares. BJ later told me that it literally meant “things for sell.” I then met our new English teacher roommate who was teaching at the other school across town. Her name was Lea and she was from Kenya. On our lunch break Tigger took me to get a sim card for my phone and while in the store a typhoon started outside. Basically a summer rain with some strong winds. I love thunder lightning and rain and in this heat I was grateful to have such an occurrence. I smiled in gratitude and breathed in deep to fill myself with electrically charged energy that was literally accumulated in the air around us.
That night Bj, Christina, Alex, Lea and I went to a small restaurant for dinner before BJ had to go to the club. At the entrance they had long shallow plastic tubs filled with water, each with its own critters to be served up. Some fish, crabs, snails and eel. I reached over and poked an eel on the head whose nose was surfacing. He bobbed down and up gain, he wasn’t phased. I surmised that apparently he had received many a poking from inquisitive children. Or maybe it had given over to the inevitable destiny of its doom. Alex asked about the eel and judging by his face, either an eel had farted or he very much disliked the idea of eating a slippery scum sucker. The lady went over and grabbed one, pulling it out with a whip of tail splashing some water around. Alex squealed and shivered and shimmied away as if he had done it himself. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. We sat down in the back room around a large round table with a rotating top, and turned on the fans and AC. We had ordered a delicious plate of squash, and vegetables, fish and a very large order of small black snails. Some sweet and sour meat and eel came soon after. BJ’s face lit up with the arrival of the snails and said he lived for these snails. He started sucking at them and throwing away the shells faster than an automatic weapon. I tried a few times and only got the flat mini-manhole cover that sealed it in. “No man, you haf to put yoh leeps like this,” he kissed at me “like you keesing it, and then ‘smchooo’!” He sucked a big kiss. I followed suit and kissed the snail to the back of my throat. I coughed it back to a comfortable spot and spit out the mini-manhole as they all laughed at my endeavor. There were a few banters exchanged between us all about kissing and back of the throat and I managed to get the hang of it. Again the sauce was delicious, so the snails therefore were as well.
Class became easier, and because I was teaching the same lessons and age groups for 3 classes, I was able to quickly learn from mistakes in my first class and implement them immediately. Such as noticing what the kids tended to do in any given situation and setting up ground rules pertaining to those tendencies in the next class; seeing where they had trouble and focusing more on those topics before moving on; and ultimately thinking ahead to prepare a little better. In one class, the two mischievous kids gravitated and would always sit adjacent to each other. Their names of course were Tom and Jerry. Almost all the girls were good little angels, and the only bad kids were boys. All boys weren’t bad but all were pretty rambunctious, which is as to be expected I suppose. However, because of their lack of attention span and reserve, their studies suffered and were usually the slowest. Flash cards were the heart of my class, and I had fun with them. I had them yell words and whisper them. Whenever I yelled or imitated a bear with a loud growl they would jump back in fright and pat their chest to show their heart was beating from being frightened. I noticed even the boys did this, and realized that they just scared very easily, much more so than any average child in the states. I randomly came up with flash card games for them to do, and their favorite was when I put them all in a pile and they had to be the first to touch one when I called it out. It was in true free-for-all Chinese style. Indeed it was very difficult to get them to line up for anything; they would throng around me from all sides and demand their work be checked first or their books stamped for the amount of “good stars” they received, which could later be traded for small toys.
I had also just started using Austin’s scooter to go to and from school within 2 minutes time. And since i had a working phone with GPS, I felt confident enough to ride around at night and explore, getting lost intentionally so I could take in as much of the city streets’ night life as much as possible. When reviewing the map at some street corner, I found myself near a park and decided to see it. I wasn’t sure if going to a park at night was the safest thing in China, but I wanted to see if maybe it offered good lighting. I found that many other scooterists also were driving around. There were not only scooters but many people walking about late at night. Couples and families with small children and friends. I scooted around slowly along some beautifully set paths among dispersed lights. There were many water features, and streams with small bridges reaching over and stoneset pathways meandering alongside. Well lit pagodas were dispersed along the paths from which emanated the soft lure of some kind of traditional flute or small instrumental music either from an old man holding the real thing or a small fm radio playing the similar tunes. I was enchanted by not only the beautiful setting but with the freedom of the community to relax in a small solace of nature nearby their homes without worry of criminal activity. I heard some loud screeching music coming from afar and knew it to be the inexcusable howls of kareoke in a badly supplied audio system. I navigated around the streams and rolled down a small hill to a large community pagoda house adorned with white plastic outdoor tables and chairs scattered nearby to accompany those who wanted to eat and drink or chat. The house was just adjacent to a very large pond and allowed cooler air to come in through the doorless entries. I payed for a cold beer and grabbed a seat to watch the singers and people around me. I was soon invited to a nearby table by a very happy looking gentlemen, who then ordered some more beers for the both of us. We did not speak each others’ language but we both shared a liking for drink and song. He gestured for me to take the mic after he sang and I communicated an affirming no as I said ting budong, pointing to the screen. He sauntered over to the dj and after a few moments talk he gestured for me to come over and showed me his tv screen which had a selection of English songs. I soon made a familiar choice, after smirking at the sight of The Carpenters, which I knew to be popular here, and then sat down to sing my song. It might have been a Michael Bolton or Bryan Adams, one that I did not know but I knew the general tone and that was enough. When I finished I received a grand applause by all present and continued to drink my beers.
On Saturdays we had “open class” wherein there was not necessarily a strict lesson to follow but rather a fun day geared toward something we had learned. Our first Saturday, I printed outlines of animals we had learned and had them choose their own and cover a lamination plastic sheath with glued tissue paper. I demonstrated to them first how it should be done. Showing them the different colors and how they should be cut. I accidentally nicked the webbing of my fingers with scissors and shook it in slight pain. I checked for blood and proceeded, and the children all said something that my assistant told me was “be careful!” I then had an evil thought and couldn’t resist. I continued cutting the strips of tissue paper and when I came to the end of one, I pretended to be in deep concentration and showed a little difficulty and then when I made the last cut I curled one finger down to my palm and screamed in terror and pain and showed them the back of a hand missing a finger. They all jumped back and screamed with me in the same tone of terror. Simon, a boy who usually acted the class clown and very alpha male confident, slammed his hands on the desk and screamed with a mouth that seemed to be larger than his face. His eyes went so wide that he was no longer Chinese! I might have given him a mini heart attack. I put my finger back up and started laughing, and they yelled in shock and protest to having been tricked and laughed at their own fright. I was laughing so hard that it took me a while to start cutting again. Tears were coming from my eyes, and the children were still laughing, even when I was cutting again someone would snicker and we would all start laughing again. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed that hard when it wasn’t late at night. I then pointed to Simon and imitated his reaction and they all started laughing again. Simon was trying to hold back his laughter and pursed his lips together and squinted his eyes with a scowl in pretend anger and only looked slightly embarrassed at having been tricked as he side glanced at the others, knowing full well they had been duped just as good as he. For as long as I live, I shall never forget that look of fright on his face.