Tuesday, June 18, 2002

I. Arriving in Beijing

In late September of the year 2000, I stepped from a plane into Beijing at midnight. I reacquainted myself with the postures of the airport people, the perpetual blurts of memorized English: "hotel near airport," "taxi," the acrid smell of coal smoke in the air, and the sensation of being different.

I had accepted a job teaching English in Eastern China. Having never spoken with my prospective boss, I had a vague idea, but no fixed expectations, of what the job would entail. All I knew for sure was that I would be living at a private military school in Shandong province. In my dreams, I was heading off to weld the "guanxi," the connections, that would pave my way to a luxurious, fulfilling life in China.

An eager cabbie convinced me to take his ride from the airport to my hotel. I half-believed what he said about the bus not running after ten. Then my bags were suddenly transferred into another man's cab, the back seat of which already contained a passenger. I hopped in front, as my new driver jabbered on about how the cabbie who'd just solicited me didn't even have a car to drive, how could he get me into town? I didn't care what all the fuss was about, as long as I reached my destination.

We went fast, passing all the other cars on the freeway. After dropping off the man in the back seat--who paid half of what I did--the cabbie drove me to the hotel, where I'd made it a habit of staying, in the semi-slums of southern Beijing.

Once the cabbie and I were alone, he ran through the regular questions, trying to get a profile of me--what country I was from, how old I was, how much money I made, what I did and why, how my love life was, my family, etc... I didn't bother to lie. I answered all of his questions, though perhaps vaguely, and asked him a few as well.

He was like all the cabbies I'd had in Beijing--a native of the city, working long hours to care for his family, with no ability, if aspiration, to go elsewhere. He said he wished he could go to America. He laughed when I said I had no plans to go back.

We arrived at the hostel to find it enclosed by a government construction project. They were widening the road, and planned to extend the subway to the hostel's doorstep within five years time.

The rooms of the hostel, which I'd stayed in before, were all in the basement. Up above was a normal hotel, catering mostly to Chinese (and rumored to be a gigolo haven). More often than not I got a whole room to myself, with four to six beds, for just a few dollars. Apparently there weren't that many guests.

When I asked my friend, a boy who worked there, if there were many guests that night, he said yes. But on opening the door, we found my room empty. He then explained how they always separated "blacks" from "whites" on either side of the hallway. I had never thought twice about how they always put me on the same side.

The majority of people who stayed in the hostel, it turned out, were from India. There was always quite a crowd of Indians, and the Chinese considered them "black." They were mostly men, but occasionally women also. My young friend said an Indian man had attempted to pay his bill with forged US dollars earlier that day, but I didn't quite believe him.

I laid out my belongings on all the empty beds, knowing no one would be checking in, as it was after one in the morning. The beds were numbered 1, 2, 3, 5. The 4 was missing, just as the13 is missing sometimes in America--it's an unlucky number. In China, four (si) has the same sound, but a different tone, as death (si).

II. Arriving in Bin Zhou
I took a train to Bin Zhou, the town where I was going to live. I arrived there early in the morning and was greeted by a couple of middle-aged women wearing cloth sleeve-protectors and dour faces, demanding from behind their grimy desk that I pay a duty for over-weight baggage. I handed over the sum of twelve US dollars and hauled my heavy bags onto the outdoor cement stage landing.

The dawn was just breaking, and desperate cabbies were badgering me to follow them through the dense crowd of haphazardly backed-up cars to their specific vehicles, hoping to convince me with their leering, determined countenances that they were the most trustworthy drivers. I threw them off with a decisive "someone's meeting me" in Chinese. To the left after exiting the station were a few red telephones, the hawkers of which service proved, like most people, to be friendly once spoken to in their own tongue.

I called Mr. Lee, the president of the "Martial Arts School," where I had arranged to teach. He balked that I had already arrived, without calling him first from Beijing, seven hours away, to tell him when to meet me. Twenty minutes later he showed up in a brand new Buick, accompanied by his bodyguard/secretary/student, Zhang Feng, a very tall, buff young man of twenty-two.

It was my first sight of the man who was to be my employer. In white gloves and dark glasses, standing about 5'4, he expertly loaded my luggage in the trunk, then drove me straight away to his school (he never let anyone else drive his car).

He showed me his office: shiny wooden furniture, walls bedecked with framed photos of himself shaking hands with foreigners and officials, a bowl of huge apples and grapes, cigarettes and lighters, napkins and candies at the guest table flanked by puffy leather couches, computer and large television lined imposingly against the north wall. I sat and he stood, talking and pacing excitedly. He spoke of all we that had to offer each other--our knowledge of two completely different cultures, our shared eagerness to bring them together.

"Do you know, for instance, how to write the work tai, and why it is written that way?" he asked me.

Tai means "highest, greatest, more, too, extremely, very" and is a common, easy-to-write word. Of course I knew how to write it, I told him, but I wasn't sure of its origin.

"Now what's the difference between da and tai?" He got a mischievous grin on his face and gestured what he meant--he planted himself, legs spread wide and arms straight out, to represent the shape of the character he was describing. The mark between the bottom two strokes of the character represented the penis between two legs in that position, turning the character "da" (big) into "tai"!

I laughed and was a bit surprised, having only just met this man.

Then he took me to my new house, on the bottom floor of a tall apartment building behind the school, with one door opening onto the campus and one onto the back street. He proceeded to spray my room heavily with insecticide to kill the mosquitoes. Then he took me to breakfast in the street outside, where we sat on tiny stools around a miniature table on the dirt sidewalk by the doorway of the purveyor of pastries--pretty cookie-like things shaped like frogs and flowers, filled with sweet bean paste, served with a bowl of lukewarm corn porridge.

After a designated hour's rest alone in my new office, down the hall from Mr. Lee's, we drove twenty minutes through semi-countryside. The air was filled with smoke, from burning stalks of corn. Mounds of kernels and cobs lined the highways, drying in the autumn sun, with people watching over them from small stools all day long. Many corncobs were drying intact, hanging from trees, roofs, walls--to be boiled later and sold whole, reconstituted, by vendors in the streets, as I'd seen so many times before.

We went to lunch with Mr. Lee's wife and several other people, including an "important leader" of something or another. All of our conversations were conducted in Chinese. Mr. Lee and his friends and family didn't speak English. When speaking to me, Mr. Lee and those who were able to spoke Mandarin, but amongst themselves they used the local dialect, much of which was incomprehensible to me (a convenient way of talking about me in my presence).

Our lunch was formal, with traditional seating arrangements according to the importance of the guests. We drank to my happiness in Zi Bo many times--many cups of the powerful "bai jiu" ( "rice wine"), with which my relationship was only just beginning.

After lunch Mr. Lee took me to see his house, with his wife and his secretary. By Chinese standards, it was a mansion. The décor was expensive, traditional-Chinese mixed with quasi-old-European. In the front room was a 52-inch color television. The entire second floor--a few bedrooms and a bathroom--was unused. After a spate of Olympics viewing, Mrs. Lee showed me upstairs to one of the bedrooms, where I napped for a couple of hours (beginning to notice the unending round of rest upon rest in China).

Around five I got up and we went to dinner in a private room of the school canteen, across a small yard from my new house. After the meal I went to unpack my things, and Mr. Lee introduced me to the young Chinese woman, Pang Yu Ting, whom he had chosen to live with me and take care of me. He told me I was never to leave campus unaccompanied.

I expressed my surprise at such strictness to Pang Yu Ting (PYT), who herself was a graduate of the school. She described the life that students experienced. They all wore camouflage, were consigned to campus for ten days in a row before every four-day break, all rose every morning at four to run and chant like in the army. But I had never been put in such a situation before, unable to unlock my own doors.

Pang Yu Ting said it was just initial treatment--concern for my safety--and that after some time I would be given more freedom. When I told Mr. Lee's secretary, Zhang Feng, how free I had been as a student in Xi'an --free to come and go as I pleased--he said every province in China was different, and Shandong had higher security compared to others, especially for its "foreign friends."

These words of assurance did not stifle my claustrophobia, however, and I woke before dawn the next morning, still on US time , anxious to go outside and breath the cool air. But the doors were all locked and the keys were in Pang Yu Ting's possession. After fiddling with the doors and checking all the windows for escape routes I began weeping with frustration in my room, which apparently woke my young housemate, for she presently came out of her room and opened the door for me.

We stepped outside together and admired the moon and the quiet, until people began setting up their breakfast stalls in the street outside the university wall, then we went out and ate their fresh wonton soup and egg sandwiches. I bemoaned my lack of freedom and Pang Yu Ting promised I could get a key soon, as well as a bicycle.

Later in the morning I snuck out alone and bought two packs of cigarettes. In my nervousness over disobeying the ridiculous rule that had been imposed on me, I tripped on a loose brick in the shoddy sidewalk and nearly fell on my face. I rushed back to the house just a few minutes before Mr. Lee, his wife, and his secretary arrived at my house unannounced with full boxes of pears for me.

They then led me out to the front of the school, where a couple of reporters and a photographer from the local paper were gathered to make news of my appearance in the town. A few students were brought out from their classes and told to act naturally as if they were talking with me while photos were shot.

After the photo session, Mr. Lee had his secretary bring out numerous gifts for the newspaper people--vitamin E face creams in pink plastic containers "from America" (he's visited America on several occasions), sets of tea dishes, and a large framed piece of Chinese calligraphy. Mr. Lee waved down a taxi and the gifts were loaded into it, and a sum slipped in to cover the reporters' fares. (The next day my photo was on the front page of the local paper--the new foreigner in town. In my opinion they chose the worst of all the photos they had taken, but no matter.)

At lunch Mr. Lee began speaking of the future, of the book he would write and have me translate, and the English language school he would start and have me run. I promised to join him in both these endeavors. We drank to them several times before the meal was over. He told me Chinese people amongst themselves would never "get into it" the way we were then, talking openly and excitedly about things to come. He said he'd learned this manner of communication partly through his rapport with Americans.

In the late afternoon (after a nap) we picked up Pang Yu Ting and went in Mr. Lee's Buick through the "developed sector" of Zi Bo--a long street lined with brand new unoccupied buildings. We stopped at a fancy new European-style hotel, decorated with half-nude statues of white women, some boasting wings and bird claws. Then we went to a bustling market section of town and played pool in the street for a while as the sun set, and Mrs. Lee insisted on buying me a beautiful new suit of clothes. Dinner was the most exotic and unusual I'd seen so far. Duck heads was the most popular item with Mr. Lee and his wife.

The next day at lunch Mr. Lee informed me I could not go traveling to Xi'an by myself during National Day holiday as I had hoped. He had arranged special expeditions for me--to Tai Shan (a famous mountain nearby), Ji Nan (the capital city of Shandong) and other places. I was quite disappointed, but gradually got used to the idea. "I'm in China after all," I thought. "I ought to be satisfied."

My only concern was my freedom. Thus far I had only managed to leave campus that one time by myself. It was obviously a small, safe neighborhood, especially compared with Xi'an, where I had lived for a year (a fact that everyone I spoke with pointed out to me, most of them alarmed that I had lived in such a squalid city as that).

That night we went to see the Chinese acrobats. First Mr. Lee and his wife and secretary walked me around the streets of their small home town for a while. It was lovely, with tree-lined streets and lots of cheap clothing stores selling silk, which is made nearby, and velvet and other fabrics. Mr. Lee bumped into many people he knew as we ambled along, and so did his secretary. After showing me off to their acquaintances and neighbors, we ate in a fancy restaurant with Mr. Lee's brother and his wife.

The Chinese acrobats were fantastic. They performed in a big movie theater. The audience was totally full. The style was completely Chinese, playing off of ancient historical images and myths. The backdrops were huge screens depicting the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The costumes were flashy versions of traditional Chinese ones. I had never seen such young girls performing such incredible stunts.

III. PYT (Pretty Young Thing!)
My first thought when I discovered Pang Yu Ting would be living with me was that she was probably very curious, and would probably look in my room once I was gone. So I was relieved when Mr. Lee gave me at least one key--the key to my room.

I kept to myself at first, leaving young PYT (nineteen years old) to herself in the living room in front of the TV. It was her chore to keep the place neat, but she did a better job of messing it up than I did, and it was usually filthy. One day I discovered her dipping the mop directly into the toilet for water to clean the floors with. I was unbelieving, and she declaring I was insane for thinking anything of it--the toilet had been flushed after all! She said everyone in China washed the floor this way, but I didn't believe her.

In general PYT and I got along well, but our relationship really improved once she got another job and no longer lived with me. I got sick of her cigarette butts on the floor, food left out for days, constant television noise, and visits from young men. She still stayed the night at my house a lot, even after moving out, but only when we wanted to be together. She rented a small apartment, but preferred to sleep on a cot at the beauty parlor where she found a job, rather than go home alone.

When we first met I thought she would be a straight, reserved young thing, but later her other side was revealed. The first time I lit a cigarette in front of PYT, after hiding it for the first day or so, she said "I can smoke too," and proceeded to show me. Since we were assigned to each other for constant company, we became friends, often conspiring to fool our mutual boss, escape out to the Disco at night, and eventually copy a set of house keys for me.

PYT was in the habit of wearing the same clothes every day for a couple of weeks, then discarding them in a plastic bag in the corner, never to be washed or worn again. When we lived together I started to notice the pattern of men and cell phones, which she periodically discarded also. She had different guys over all the time, and she could somehow afford to talk on a cell phone all day (another nuisance Mr. Lee didn't solve until Spring was the lack of a telephone in my apartment). Eventually this habit of using men and leading them on (she once told me she would much prefer the life of a "qing ren"--mistress--than that of a wife) culminated in a nerve-wracking thriller of an evening.

One afternoon I noticed a man in his early thirties standing outside the gate of the school by our back door on the street. PTY had introduced him to me before, so I assumed he was a trustworthy friend of hers and let him into the house. PTY evidently wasn't coming home any time soon, though. She had gone to visit her parents in the next town over. He told me he had been waiting for her outside since eight in the morning, when she had told him to meet her there.

Mr. Lee called me to his office to translate an e-mail and I had nothing to do but leave the man sitting in our living room--my own room was locked after all. When I returned I told him I would have to be going out, so we both left and I thought nothing of it until later.

At two in the morning I heard PYT outside my door, begging to be let in. I opened the door to find her half-naked and shivering with fright. I let her in, wrapped her up, and asked her what had happened. In a hushed and trembling voice she related the noise she'd just heard, of her door, which opened onto the patio on the campus-side of our house, being shaken.

We sat there silently in the dark. She was so afraid she could not stop shaking. We thought we heard little noises. Then suddenly, the fluorescent light in the living room went on! It flickered for a long time, in customary fashion, finally buzzing to a steady glare. We were both petrified, mouths dry, not knowing what to do.

Then we began a silent dialogue, scribbling on bits of paper about what to do. The cell phone was in the other room, and was out of batteries anyway. "Zenme ban, zenme ban!" (What'll we do, what'll we do), PYT kept writing. She was really terrified. "What if he breaks down the door! What if it's a pervert who wants to rape us!"

I finally couldn't stand it anymore. We hadn't heard any noises, really, since the light went on. So at four a.m. I went to my door with a bottle, ready to smash it over someone's head like in all the Chinese TV shows, if necessary. PYT fearfully urged me to just grab a basin from the bathroom and run back into my room in case someone was still in the living room. That way we could empty our bladders and still stay locked in my room. But once I opened the door I couldn't resist a check of the lit-up living room. It was empty. On further adrenaline-driven inspection, the whole house was empty, and we found no evidence of tampering with the doors.

It was only then that I told her of the man who had come to our house that afternoon. Then she told me his story: he had been "in love" with her for years, following her from a town two hours away where she had been stationed to work by Mr. Lee at a security company. He was divorcing his wife because of his infatuation with PYT, and PYT wasn't the slightest bit interested. She taught me the word "se lang," meaning "sex wolf. That's what he was. We both laughed off the terrifying night and downplayed it to Mr. Lee the next day.

I visited PYT's family and found her father to be highly a eccentric man. He was an antique dealer. She told me that when the policemen asked for taxes on his motorbike, he simply played dumb to avoid paying, and they would brush him off as an idiot. When we all walked down to a restaurant together, he trailed far behind, limping on a cane, even though he was in fine shape and didn't need one at all. It was all a show. He had figured out that being the outsider in a highly conformist society had its pros. He liked to be left alone.

He wore a 20's-style cap and a long coat sometimes. He had been a handsome man. Pang Yu Ting told me about his mistress, and her mother's lover also. Her parents didn't have a very good relationship. I asked her on the way home why her father had a missing front tooth. She said she hadn't noticed! Later she told me he had it pulled out on purpose, to scare people when he opened his mouth! The next time I saw him the tooth was curiously back in place. He must have bought a false one.

IV. Wedding
One sunny morning Mr. and Mrs. Lee took me to Ji Nan, the capital of Shandong province, for a wedding. It was about an hour and a half drive to get there, through beautiful countryside and signs of harvest everywhere--corncobs drying, laid out on every bit of cement (in front of buildings, on the platforms of abandoned gas stations...), corn stalks lining the roads, people busily shucking corn and preparing the fields for next year.

We went directly to the home of Mr. Lee's friend, another martial expert, apparently renowned in the whole area of Shandong. The man was over sixty years old, but didn't look more than forty. His son was getting married, and after an hour or so of chatting at the house we all proceeded to a big restaurant where the marriage and feast were being held.

The bride, wearing a white wedding dress (adopted from the west), was carried up the stairs by the groom. They were each just of legal marrying age--twenty-three for women and twenty-five for men. The ceremonies were like a comedy show. The master of ceremonies made many jokes, to which the large audience of friends and family laughed and cheered. The bride and groom bowed to their elders, to the audience, and to the government official who was present to bind the marriage legally. When they bowed to each other, about to say the final words, two young men came up and pushed their heads together, drawing even more laughs from the audience.

Then the master of ceremonies had the young groom wave his arms like a bird and go fetch two roses with his mouth from two young women across the stage, and carry them back to his new wife, who had to receive them, likewise, with her teeth. When a flock of young boys threw flowers at the couple, the bride was instructed to kiss each of them on the cheek, while the M.C. shouted out with his microphone "you'll get your turn--be patient!" to all the men in the audience.

After that ceremony , the bride changed into a traditional Chinese wedding gown--a long red dress embroidered with flowers. We all began eating and toasting numerous times. At our table were the father of the groom and several headmasters of martial arts schools. The bride and groom made their rounds of the whole party with four tiny glasses and a couple of bottles of red plum wine. They poured a shot for each person present, and everyone said some words of encouragement and goodwill to the newly married pair in return. Then photos were taken with selected members of the audience up on the marriage stage. Two photos were taken of me with the couple--one of me with the groom, and one with the bride. During the master of ceremonies had pointed me out to everyone saying "even a foreign friend has come to this wedding."

While we were in Jinan we went to get my mandatory physical exam at the government office of health inspection for foreigners living in China. Aside from the blood test, every other test was marked as completed and satisfactory (including the rectal exam) on the health card they issued me, even though none of them had been performed. (A few days later the card was mailed to the school with the blood test results. I went to receive it from Zhang Feng in his office. "I have bad news for you," he told me. "The blood tests indicate that you have AIDS." My jaw fell open and I was about to say it had to have been a mistake when he laughed and said "Just kidding!")

On the way back to Zi Bo, as on the way to Ji Nan, we had to pass through a toll gate on the highway. Mr. Lee both times handed the guards a laminated ID card instead of paying, and both times the guards at first were doubtful, but then, after a word with a higher-up on the telephone, ushered us on through. I could sense a certain tension in Mr. Lee, who obviously could not stand to have his authority and position go unrecognized. Each time they questioned him he snorted and barked out a disbelieving laugh at the guards, then rattled off a couple of names, before they would let him through.

V. National Day
To celebrate Chinese National day, October first, the People's Republic of China's fifty-first birthday, the Mayor invited all the "foreigner experts" residing in Bin Zhou to a gathering at the city government's official dining hall. Only about ten foreigners appeared in all, with representatives of the organizations they worked for (Mr. Lee in my case) and government officials far outnumbering them.

At our table there were two Russians, and the rest were Chinese. I knew they were Russian the moment I saw them--a very pale, short, plump, dark-haired woman, and an older, blue-eyed man named Vladimir. The Russian woman could speak some Chinese, but as far as I saw, none of the other foreigners could. The Japanese who were supposed to come never did.

The man seated at my left was a Municipal Security leader (chief of police). Before we had even begun to eat we were toasting and emptying our glasses of rice liquor and red wine with each other. Within ten minutes of the meal starting, everyone was quite drunk, and kept on drinking.

The mayor came to our table to cheer with us. I took photos for Mr. Lee of the two of them together, as he had prepared me to do, giving me his small German camera before we even arrived at the party that afternoon. Reporters were likewise on the scene with flashing cameras. The mayor asked me what I thought of Shandong. "I like how all of the people here are big and tall!" I said. Only later did I realize the mayor himself was an extraordinarily short man.

Later in the evening the Russian man came around to my side of the table to drink with me. We drunkenly toasted to friendship between Russia and the United States. He emptied his full glass of beer, and I my smaller glass of wine, then we exchanged kisses on each cheek, European-style. I could tell he was a good man, and I enjoyed his company more than that of all the other foreigners.

The next day I ruminated with Mr. Lee, as we sped toward another lavish restaurant banquet, how much I enjoyed meeting foreigners in China. There's often a good sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding, especially in out-of-the-way places like Zi Bo, which is not at all a tourist town.
"Aren't you afraid they'll seduce you?" my boss asked. I had to look the word seduce up in my dictionary.

VI. Teaching
The first day of classes, at four in the morning, all five hundred of the students marched around campus yelling in unison in their camouflage uniforms. I was introduced at mid-morning to the faculty. I stood at attention, as my boss had instructed me to, when he bellowed out my name at the oval table in the school's official meeting room. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, in that order, peered over the scene from dusty frames on the wall above. Each of the thirty or so other teachers and administrators nodded and smiled at me, the new arrival, a red-haired, twenty-something girl from America, the only campus worker besides janitors and cooks who didn't have to wear an army uniform, the first foreigner to teach at the school.

All of our students, I later realized, were kids who hadn't met the standards of the university entrance exams, whose parents wanted to keep them off the streets, give them some discipline, some further education, and secure them jobs after graduation. I think the latter was the major selling-point of the school with many of the parents, who had to give two years of tuition up front--a substantial sum to most families--with no option of getting it back if the school was unsatisfactory. My boss himself guaranteed he would find a job for each and every graduate of his school. Only later did I discover the kinds of jobs he was giving the students

In the first classes I had each student introduce him or her self to using English (there were equal numbers of males and females in the school). Very few of them could say more than "my name is," and "I am eighteen years old." But when asked to talk with me "free-style," several jumped at the chance, using Chinese, not English.

Everyone crowded closely around, with a few bold boys nearest to me. They asked me various questions varying from "do you like Chinese food," to "can you tell me something about American soldiers." One boy asked "Do you like sex?" I couldn't believe my ears, "SEX? Well, doesn't everybody? You do mean sex, don't you?" I said. "Yeah, sex! Dooodooodeedaaaaa--Kenny G.!"he said. He meant SAX--saxophone!

Rarely did any of the students attempt to speak with me in English--their English was too poor for any sort of conversation. My job was to improve their speaking abilities. I found that my first chore was encouraging them to be brave enough to stand up and speak without being forced to. By the end I felt I'd done a better job teaching them about America and world politics than I had teaching them oral English.

The school was at that time was named "Police and Economy School," but not many of my students wanted to be policemen. There were other specialties available for study, such as computer science and law. But no matter what their majors the students were all supposed to act like soldiers, learn to shoot guns, study martial arts, and march around campus singing and chanting in formation every day.

Each student gave me a piece of paper with his or her age, sex, and Chinese name written on it, and in the evenings for the first week I would sit down and mull through the pile, giving English names as phonetically close to the Chinese names as possible. Names like Nancy and Louie and Fran and Fred ran out fast, there being only so many sounds in the Chinese language. So I inevitably had to start giving out strange names like Goldie and Homer and Cherrie and Lucifer toward the end.

As I bestowed the English names on each student in class, there were intermittent bursts of riotous laughter as names popped up that sounded like words in Chinese. They thought "Paul" sounded like "Pao" (which means run, and the boy I had named Paul just happened to love running), and many of the names sounded like different snacks to my students, attesting to their obsession with food and the poor diet at the school.

On average, the girls were better language students than the boys--their pronunciation was clearer and they remembered more words. I tried to appeal to the boys' sense of bravery to get them to talk, but it didn't seem to work. In China nobody wants to be singled out, even for high achievements. It is best to be normal--not above or below average. My job was to put English words into all the heads of my students, and make them feel comfortable speaking these words. Not and easy task.

About a month into the semester I took to visiting the students during their evening study sessions, when no teachers were present in the classrooms, just one in the office down the hall. The students would sit in their desks until ten at night, supposedly studying, but really watching TV, napping, reading, goofing around. At ten the whistle would blow and they would scurry down and line up in formation for the march back to the dorms.

I started wandering from classroom to classroom, visiting my favorite students and teaching a bit of English slang, or just letting the kids practice what they knew, correcting their pronunciation, or foregoing English altogether and chatting in Chinese. It was a refreshing way to communicate with the students, out of the daytime formality of a student-teacher relationship. At night when I sat with my students we talked as equals. They asked me questions about America and we compared the differences between our two countries. I perused the students' textbooks and asked them questions about their lives on campus and off.

I learned a lot about China and Chinese culture in those evening sessions. During the course of our discussions I discovered most of my students were quite dissatisfied with the school. They all complained it felt just like prison. But their parents had already turned over the tuition for two years, and there was no backing out.

It was interesting to see the differences between my three classes. The youngest class I taught had a very different attitude from those of the other two. Most of the younger class (ages 15-17) preferred to play and be mischievous rather than study. When I visited them in the evenings there were more often than not several kids smoking cigarettes, and several boys and girls leaning on each other and flirting with each other. It was in the younger class that I ended up making the most friends.

Several of the boys began going to my house during breaks for parties, and sneaking over occasionally to get away from school during the ten-day sessions of living on campus. They were a playful lot, and extremely friendly. Though they were young, they harbored a sense of responsibility toward their friends and families. I appreciated this, and began thinking the result of prizing individuality and freedom above all in America has been the cultivation of lifelong children, whereas in China, where responsibility and conformity are top priorities, even babies seem like old men, and however young and immature people may be, they still perform like adults when necessary.

VII. Politics
I began to spend time with Zhang Feng, Mr. Lee's secretary, who had been given the added responsibility of being my private tutor, in exchange for my teaching him English. During our first private study session we talked about a subject I had brought up--Communism in China. He went over the history of China since 1949 a little bit, and said Communism would not be complete until the whole world was united and no passports or presidents existed anymore. He reckoned it would take thousands of years to achieve this.

I said we may all be dead by then, the way we're ruining the environment. Zhang Feng said he had read a few books and knew that Westerners were pessimistic. He told me that Chinese are, as a whole, very optimistic, and not afraid of anything. If the fields were eaten up by cities and there was no room to grow wheat and corn and rice, they would make the deserts bloom, he said.

This optimism (if it indeed exists) of the Chinese people is truly remarkable. It is understandable, since the nation has existed for such a long time, through so many disasters and wars, and still flourishes. Before I lived in China the first time in 1997, I was much more pessimistic about the human world, feeling it could crumble in a matter of years, and bring down everything with it, considering the flagrant waste and unsustainable expansion and I saw around me in the USA. But experiencing a culture still extant after five thousand years changed my views on life. The acceptance I saw in China of the natural side of human beings--death, life, consumption, excretion, all before everyone's eyes every day--made me more accepting also, and more capable of having hope for the future.

But some people in China did not spark any optimism in me. One day the politics teacher started asking me questions, first about the relations between Canada and the USA, then equating those with relations between Taiwan and China. He said he had read an article which sited a poll taken in Canada. According to this poll, forty percent of Canadians saw their country becoming part of US territory in the next twenty years. The teacher compared Canada and the US with Taiwan and China, saying both pairs would eventually yield united territories. Then he began speaking his mind about Taiwan, and I began to get frustrated.

He said he was all in favor of launching an attack in Taiwan, that he liked war and thought it would solve the problem of China and Taiwan. I vehemently disagreed; saying war in the twenty-first century would be catastrophe, and asked why he wished for it. Our views were irreconcilable.

Later I talked with Zhang Feng about this conversation, and about the Taiwan-China issue. He said that were it not for the Fa Lun Gong, China would already have attacked Taiwan a year ago. He said that when he was in college, two years before, he, too, was for all out war on Taiwan; but since then his views had changed. He said life in China is such that many people are dissatisfied, and many people think war could improve their positions in society, giving underutilized talents the opportunity to emerge and gain recognition.

Chinese history is but a string of wars, and through each war, great figures have emerged from the masses. People have been forced to struggle and renew the country. Thus many people long for strife, so as to break the monotony of everyday life, and give them a chance to rise above the crowd.

But Zhang Feng, though he still wholeheartedly agreed with the principle of bringing Taiwan back under the control of the motherland, said he now saw other paths and possibilities for reunification. He said Taiwan has relied on China for water and electricity for many years, and the first step in forcing Taiwan to negotiate would be cutting off the supply of these necessities. I mentioned what Mao Ze Dong said, that China could wait for Taiwan many years. But Zhang Feng corrected me, saying Mao did not mean China could wait indefinitely, and that if it waited too long, Taiwan would earn international recognition as its own country.

I was asked by several of my students about Taiwan as well. I told them about my experiences of Taiwan the summer before, when I lived and taught English in Taipei for a month and a half. I told my students what most Taiwanese had told me then--that until China's standard of living was up to par with that of Taiwan, the Taiwanese were opposed to a merging with the motherland, but that once China caught up, the Taiwanese would be willing to reunite. Of course, there were those who wished never to reunite with China, and there were the businessmen who, in practice, were already beginning to reunite (monetarily, with investments and business) with China, and were wholly opposed to any serious strife between the two governments.

When I expressed these Taiwanese sentiments to my Chinese students, they nodded and seemed to sympathize--were they Taiwanese, they would no doubt feel the same way, not wanting to go backwards in their standard of living. But the teachers I spoke with stressed the issue of time--China would not wait forever. The plan had been to make a contract with Taiwan by the year 2000, agreeing to reunite in stages or at some date in the future, as had been accomplished in the case of Hong Kong. That goal had not been achieved.

Zhang Feng stated that he was sure the USA would not back Taiwan in a fight against China. He said there had never been a really stupid American president, stupid enough to have an all-out war with China. I worried aloud that the future might yet hold a president that stupid. And I pointed out that even if the USA did not put manpower into a war with China, it was already in the habit of supplying weapons to Taiwan. Zhang Feng, of course, was aware of this, but emphasized that supplying weapons and supplying men were still vastly different matters.

VIII. Propaganda
In China the word propaganda is like the word advertisements in America. It does not necessarily carry along the sinister implications that propaganda does in the West. This is probably due to the fact that China has been pursuing, at least in words, the ideals of Communism, in which the word propaganda is more palatable than advertising, which carries the connotations of money and greed.

One day in late November, two of the campus staff--one the official photographer--came in yet another time with camera and tripod and bright light to get photos for our school propaganda. After class I had to go outside with a selected group of students for more shots in front of the school. It felt so artificial to me, as it always does when I am told to pose and act natural. To have a bright light shone in my face and be told to act extremely enthusiastic, and laugh and talk with my students all of a sudden, can be jarring. Especially when forced to do so in the computer room to show off the school equipment, though I'd never taught computers. The magic formula--foreigners and technology! It was getting annoying.

Nonetheless, I was cooperative. While they took photos in class I talked with one of the students about it. He said it was being done to make our school famous. I said I didn't enjoy it, and he said he didn't mind. He wanted his school to be famous, and was not unhappy to be one of the students in glossy-paper advertisements, standing beside the foreign teacher.

IX. Factory--English
One day I was taken to the clothing factory Mr. Lee owned. He said he had owned it for about two years. First we talked with the general manager of the place in a small office room, drinking tea. Then we toured the room full of Singer sewing machines and young women (and a few young men also), who were working away on a large order of brightly colored pants for Japanese children. I was told that ninety percent of the clothing made at the factory was sent to Japan.

We dined with the manager and several other manager-types in a private room of the canteen next-door. It was a fairly long dinner, with many toasts to my presence in China amid what the manager called their "big family," and to the company's future. "We all go where Mr. Lee goes," he explained (in Chinese of course--his second language was Japanese), "if the boat sinks, we all sink with it. If the company succeeds, we all do."

I wasn't sure of the success of Mr. Lee's factory, or to what extent he really owned the place. But I began to wonder about the appropriateness of a businessman running a school.

Halfway through the semester my boss issued a tiny phrase book called "1500 sentences of commonly spoken American English" to all of our students (requiring they pay for it, of course). This book was chosen because Mr. Lee had been using it for his dinnertime hobby of studying English with me.

In fact nearly half of the book was redundant--sentences like "Could I ask a favor of you?" and "May I ask a favor of you?" and "Can you do me a favor?" and "Would it be alright to ask a favor of you?" Another good many any of the sentences were simply wrong, and some of them contained bizarre, outdated phrases I had never heard of myself, such as "cherry girl" (virgin) and "apple shiner" (brown-noser).

But I was obliged to use the book. Mr. Lee said at the end of the semester he would examine all of the students for conversation abilities using English. He said that if the students couldn't converse using the phrases from the book (i.e. very simple, courteous, superficial phrases like "long time no see" and "your wife is very pretty," and "I would like to invite you to dinner"), then I was a failure of a teacher.

The funny thing was that Mr. Lee himself could not speak any English, and the English he had managed to memorize he had done so by equating English sounds, syllable by syllable, with Chinese characters. He had never mastered the phonetic romanization of Chinese, so instead of using letters he used characters to jot down the sounds of English words.

Thus "Hello, how are you" was remembered as "Hao lou, hao er yu?"--a meaningless combination of Chinese characters. Sometimes the Chinese phonetics weren't meaningless though, like in the sentence his lawyer friend taught him which he enjoying recounting to me on many occasions. "Lai zi gou tou bai de,'" which can mean "come from dog head white" in Chinese, was his way of saying "Let's go to bed."

I joked with my students that if Mr. Lee were really to "test" them on their oral English abilities, they could always just spit out a few fast, garbled sounds and he would have no way of knowing if they were legitimate or not! In fact one of my students did just that to his mother one day, who couldn't understand more than two words of English. She responded approvingly, believing his abilities had improved tremendously under my guidance!

X. Mind war
In late November my boss and I ate with the same Director of City Security (a sort of Chief of Police) who had headed our table at the government banquet on National Day. Mr. Lee had invited him to the school. After walking around with several underlings, taking in the layout of the campus, seeing the floors at their cleanest, being greeted by two very pretty female students at attention in uniform at the entryway, we drove, in three cars, to the restaurant where I had eaten a dozen times or more. We had "The Silver Room" this time. After being seated around the table in the usual formal fashion, in accord with the hierarchy of the guests at attendance, we ate sunflower seeds and then started the meal.

The Director was in the seat of honor, to the right of Mr. Lee, who headed the table as host. I was at the Directors immediate right, just like the night at the banquet. He remembered me--that I was from New Mexico, that I could speak Chinese, and that I had drunk just as much alcohol as he at the banquet two months before. He tipped some of his rice liquor into my glass several times, filling it up for another drink with him.

Like at the banquet, everyone got quite drunk within a short amount of time. Then suddenly everyone stood, and the Director walked out, accompanied by his chauffeur. The rest of us sat down again. The important man had left, and everyone seemed to be a little more at ease afterward, eating more and making small talk.

On the way back to the campus in Mr. Lee's car, he told me that the dinner had been a war between himself and the Director. A war? I asked. Yes, a form of war--a battle for power--an interplay between minds and "guanxi" (connections), with the aim of garnering and/or maintaining power. Mr. Lee, by having a school, especially one with a foreigner living in it, was expanding his power in the community, which was in the Director's jurisdiction.

I recalled how, during the dinner, the Director and his female aid had shared a conversation about another place they'd inspected recently, which had been broken into several times. They contrasted this sorry case with Mr. Lee's school, and admired the strictness of his administration. "Management is what we stress at our school," Mr. Lee had said, nodding.

But could this interaction have been a subtle combination of direct and indirect maneuvers--a mini-battle between minds? Our school had been broken into at least twice, in a fairly short amount of time, since I had moved there. Perhaps the Director of Security knew full well about this, though Mr. Lee had never reported it. He could very well have had informants on our campus, as well as everywhere else in the district he's responsible for. The way word gets around in China, I would not be surprised if he had heard about the two incidents on our campus, and staged the conversation with his aid to see how nervous Mr. Lee would get, perhaps showing him that he knew all and could not be fooled around with.

There were always the wars involving alcohol tolerance, display of wealth and power, and wit, during banquets such as this one. I had observed over the course of time that Mr. Lee was always adding tea to his beer, or ordering non-alcoholic beer with the excuse that he had to drive. Alcohol is a medium to loosen boundaries and self-control. Thus who can handle themselves under its influence have the upper hand.

The drunkest I ever saw Mr. Lee and his wife was after a luncheon I did not attend. They showed up unannounced, as usual, at my door, came in and made themselves at home. Mrs. Lee was laughing hysterically and running into things. Mr. Lee made the most lewd gesture I'd ever seen--he licked every side of his middle finger then shoved it up in the air making a suction pop sound with his mouth. He had an evil grin on his face. I said "her?" pointing to his wife. He looked at me and said "You." I made like to throw my keys at him, declared he was disgusting, and locked myself in my room. Later I saw his wife puking multiple times into my toilet with the door open, crouched down on the dirty wet floor.

XI. Names
I was teaching three classes a day. Despite the strict quality of the school, I really had free reign with the content and style of my lessons, and usually came up with them on the spot. I taught some songs and the new vocabulary those brought up--David Bowie's "My little China girl" and some simple Beatles songs. I taught them "Row row row your boat, gently down the stream," which they caught onto quickly and were even able to sing in a round. I sat on top of desk at the front of class, something they had never witnessed a teacher do. I wore different clothes every day, unlike the other, uniformed teachers. I was generally full of surprises and stories, and very lenient with my students. More than anything, I was their friend.

I taught them to alter the shapes of their mouths and tongues and make the correct sounds of the English language. In Chinese there are no such sounds as "v" and "th" and many of the adjacent consonant sounds of the English tongue. In their English textbooks there were illustrations of how to make these sounds, but no drawings can compare to the sight of a native speaker twisting her mouth around the strange words. I gave them pronunciation exercises such as saying "Norse" and "north;" "thumb" and "some;" "in white" and "invite," to target weaknesses most Chinese have in pronouncing English.

I had no foreigner friends, but after inviting a few of my students--boys, usually, because girls were too shy and only tagged along with their boyfriends occasionally--to my house for a Halloween party, they became my good friends. When I saw them at school we would always stop and chat. We became great companions for ping-pong, conversation and outings.

I promised one student I would teach him popular American songs, and since he played a guitar I gave him the name English name of Elvis. Another boy insisted his English name be "Beyond." I asked him if he knew the meaning of this word and he told me it was the name of a popular Hong Kong band. I thought it over a while and decided to give him a similar but different name, one that would arouse the same reaction in English speakers as "Beyond" did in young Chinese people: "Bond." Whenever I introduced him to foreigners he would recite his name exactly as I had taught him to--"Bond, James Bond."

The summer passed into autumn, with a few showers and the dropping of leaves, which our students had the duty of raking up and burning down to smoldering piles in the chilly dusk. By this time I had been carried along on countless luncheons and dinners with the men and women of import Bin Zhou. My alcohol tolerance had risen and my Chinese and ping-pong had improved. I had made friends with my 150 students--a few of them in particular. Besides the array of business and political leaders Mr. Lee had me wine and dine with, I had no other social life besides these teenaged kids.

It was both flattering and annoying to be the only foreigner. I was at once a star and a pet--well taken care of and admired, but lacking freedom and privacy at times. Wherever I went there are people watching, waving, and saying "hello!" Whatever I did, the word spread fast. I took to playing ping-pong every day with the students and other teachers at the outdoor cement tables. Being the foreign, I could easily get a place, even if the tables were completely full--someone was sure to offer me their spot.

But holding such a position was also rather lonely, for while everyone knew me by name and was friendly towards me, I was singular and different from them. I wished I could make closer friends, but if I spent more time with one person than another, assumptions will be made, and everyone will hear about them. Chinese society is extremely interwoven and complex. There are many things I did not understand--and I was the first to admit it. I sometimes missed the laissez-faire style of American living, but I was always very glad to be in China. The school was extremely strict, though, and a small community. I got to feeling bound, spending all of my time there.

XII. Clinic
In late November I got a cold, and one day it was worse. The heat in my apartment has been off for the past few days, after having only been on for about ten days since the official turn-on date for central heating in much of China. Mr. Lee and his wife urged me to go to the school clinic, and so I went for the first time.

I had often heard of the school clinic, for when students were absent from class, their classmates usually said "wei sheng shi"( "sanitation room"). Students often feigned illness and went to the quiet room with the big window to lye on one of the four or five cots and nap.
When I entered the room, there were two boys, neither of them my personal students (they were from younger classes), seemingly in great spirits, one lying down, and one sitting at the table with the young male nurse on duty. The nurse had me sit beside him as he felt the pulses in my wrists with three fingers of his right hand for several minutes. Then he asked me some questions: which parts of me were uncomfortable, whether I was spitting anything up and what color it was, and whether I had a headache.

While the nurse was getting the medicine the two students, grinning broadly, asked me a few questions, and I asked them some. They asked, as did all the Chinese once the weather set in, if my hometown got as cold as Bin Zhou. I assured them it could get even colder. I asked if they were really sick and they said they were. The boy at the table had a headache, and the boy on the cot just said "sick." I don't know if they were happy to see me, or just happy to be in the "wei sheng shi" instead of in class.

Presently the nurse had me lay down on one of the cots. I was about to be administered the "zhen," or needle, which so many people had been recommending to me for my cold. He rolled an I.V. stand over and had me make a fist until he could find my vein. I watched as he slid the needle in, then I laid back for the 25 minutes it took to let the cool liquid seep into my arm, numbing it. They didn't even warm up the sugar-water solution before injecting it into me.

After receiving my medicine, I went with one of the teachers to a storeroom and picked up one of the long green army/police coats--the kind that is issued to the students and teachers at our school, and is worn by millions of Chinese, especially police and army-associated men. I felt different in the long Soviet-looking coat, with the fake fur collar and gold bands and buttons and shoulder patch. I wore it to my next class. The next day I felt remarkably better.

XIII. Bo Shan
The boy dubbed "Elvis," due to his guitar playing and singing, invited me to his hometown, Bo Shan, during one of the four-day breaks in December. It was about an hour's train or bus ride from our school, and I saw several of my students while I was there. When I first arrived a whole crowd of them, still wearing their camouflage uniforms, accompanied me around town. I felt like I had a whole crew of bodyguards.

The first night I stayed at Elvis's, since he had been the first to invite me, and he had a kitten to give me. We ate with his parents. Their house was very neat and clean, like most Chinese houses I saw in Shandong. It was interesting to see how he got along with his parents. Unlike most of my students, he wasn't the slightest bit afraid of his mom or dad. He smoked and drank with them, and got his way with about anything he wanted, as far as I could tell.

After dinner we went to a disco, where I saw some more of my students. Almost everyone at the disco was from our school. It was one of those upstairs firetraps with low ceilings, bad ventilation, and horrible music. After dancing half-heartedly a while we went home, walking over the hills in the darkness.

"Bo Shan" means "many mountains." The mountains are not particularly tall, but there are many of them. There are a couple of natural caverns nearby as well. It is very industrial, but I found it a rather beautiful town. It used to be the capital of the area, before the Japanese were expelled. Many people work in factories--Elvis's parents spent their lives laboring in a cement factory.

I woke up to the kitten pattering around the room. Snow had fallen unexpectedly during the night; it clung to trees and covered the ground everywhere. Elvis's mother came into his room, which they had relinquished to me for the night, and opened the windows wide to the shockingly cold air. I couldn't understand the point of letting out the warmth. Only later did I get used to the Chinese custom of airing out bedrooms in the morning.

My student and I went to main street again through the mountains. On our way down the stairs of their apartment building I noticed something for the first time, which is quite commonplace in China: a couple of festive Chinese characters mounted on the door of an apartment upside-down. Elvis explained to me that the words, "arrival of riches/happiness" were upside-down to add extra meaning to the good-luck symbols: their very upside-downness indicated their "arrival." The words "arrive" and "upside-down" sound the same in Chinese. The neighbors were celebrating a wedding that day.

Near the path I had followed Elvis down blindly the night before, I could now see a few lone gravestones, stark and unkempt in the freshly fallen snow. The black sodden branches of trees created the same striking contrast with the sparkling landscape as did those cold, crumbling markers of forgotten lives. I started snapping photos, bracing against the cold, careful not to slip on the narrow path through frozen wild grasses. I went to pose next to one of the strange solitary gravestones, but Elvis refused to take what he considered an inauspicious picture.

We met up with another of my students, Jimmy, and spent the day walking around looking at the town, running into several other students on the way. We checked our e-mail at a little Web Bar that appeared to be a converted storage room, on the first floor of an apartment building, and I bought some music cassette tapes of Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd for two yuan (12 cents) each.

Two men from Xin Jiang (the wild West of China, where Muslim minorities live in the desert) with long hair and dark skin, in semi-traditional dress, yelled out incomprehensibly to me when I walked across a bridge. They were selling raisins in the street out of bamboo baskets. My student companions urged me not to look back. "They're wild barbarians, those XinJiangren! Crazy! Dangerous!"

In the afternoon we climbed a hill to survey the city below--a black-and-white industrial landscape with puffs of smoke and slowly-moving miniature vehicles. It was also the secret meeting-spot of Elvis and his girlfriend, a tall young beauty whom I had given the name Bella (I suspect they had each enrolled in our hard-core boarding school with the specific intention of thereby spending much more time together). As we waited for her we talked. We talked about society--they told me a few tales of the underground--drugs and gangs. Jimmy said Elvis had used heroine before when I asked if they had encountered it first-hand. Elvis spoke of the music scene--some good bands that had come out of Bo Shan, and the tragic end that had come to one promising young musician: death in a car accident.

Then Elvis saw his girlfriend winding up the path to meet him. As usual she had makeup on, and a glowing smile when she saw Elvis. They kissed and quickly exchanged a few words, then Elvis came over and explained to me the ploy they'd devised. She had told her family she was coming out to meet her foreign English teacher. Bella's parents didn't like Elvis. They had sent the old grandpa out after Bella, ostensibly to air his bird, but really to chaperone the precious only child of a family considered better-off than average by many of her peers. So I had to make an appearance in front of the old man to prove Bella was telling the truth about her outing.

I picked my way down a steep part of the hill, from the pagoda we'd been sitting in, to where Bella's grandfather (who she warned me was very old indeed, couldn't speak mandarin, was almost blind...) stood next to a cage attached to the fence. I nodded and no one said a thing. Bella hovered nearby. I gazed through the bars at the lithe, keen gray creature, regarding the austere old gentleman to my left through the corner of my eye. I couldn't even begin to imagine what he might think of me, of foreigners in general, and what he had seen in his lifetime.

That night I stayed at Jimmy's house. He, unlike Elvis, was truly afraid of his father, and treated very strictly by him. Their house was larger than Elvis's. Jimmy's mother was unhealthy--she hauled her bloated body slowly through the dark house, and had to take rests on a hard bed in the other room every so often. We had dinner and drank the moonshine Jimmy's father had made himself--strong corn liquor. I kept pace with the man, just the two of us drinking (Jimmy couldn't smoke or drink at home like Elvis). The powerful poison became overbearing, pooling up in my stomach with the glutinous skins of pork dumplings. A while before we all retired, before the meal was over, I had to excuse myself and go vomit in the toilet. Luckily all of these apartments have their own toilets.

It always amazed me to think what the generation born in the 1950s had seen and experienced in China--the changes and the turmoil. While staying at my students' homes, I often tried to image how their parents, my hosts, viewed foreigners during the Cultural Revolution. I thought of what they were doing at that time. Were they Red Guards, persecuting the educated and the wealthy? Now they are so welcoming, so open to my presence and my association with their families. A culture can change drastically--people can change drastically.

Many of the stories from the Cultural Revolution are tragic and horrifying. In China they aren't talked about. In many ways, it seems good not to dwell upon them. People have moved on, past the madness that reigned in the 1960s and 1970s. As my boss remarked to me, the right to say and do as one likes in China has become reality in the past fifteen years. One can now say what one thinks about the prime minister and not be taken away in the night. So the trust and security between people is improving, after that terrible episode of fear and distrust between even of the closest of relatives.

The new generations, especially the one young enough to have not been aware of the national situation when the Tiananmen incident occurred in 1989, are growing up in a different world from that of their parents. They are the first generation to live in a China truly opening to the outside world. They are driven not by ideology, but by commerce and pop culture. They are infatuated with popular music, the internet, technology, and foreign culture (especially American). They all study rudimentary English in school, and more and more have the chance to study computer science as well.

Of course almost none of them have brothers or sisters. The young people of China are raised not only by parents, but by grandparents, extended family and friends. They are nurtured and pressured to study and achieve the levels of education their parents were unable to in their time. I rarely ever met a parent of one of my students who could speak Mandarin. They only spoke the local Shandong dialects--evidence of poor education.

The next morning I woke still spinning from the liquor. I returned home by train, carrying my new white kitten, mewing inside my jacket. I chuckled at the "no animals on train" sign, recalling how many times I'd seen live chickens transported on trains in China. Still, I tried to keep the baby animal quiet, especially when train personnel walked past. It was no use, however, and a smiling uniformed train worker was soon peeking into the folds of fabric and asking what breed the kitten was, without a word of disapproval.
Part II.
I. Chinese New Year
I was enveloped into my boss's family for Chinese New Year (also called "Spring Festival") in February, 2001. I resided in various places for three days, amid the continuous spatter of comings and goings, faces and fireworks, food, television, lanterns and pedestrians. The popularity of the holiday is due largely to "re nao"--a lively, crowded, noisy atmosphere coveted by Chinese people.

Visits and meals with relatives and friends are arranged for the populace by the traditional calendar. Chinese New Year's Eve is spent at the home of the man's parents (he takes his family along if he has one). On New Year's Day, breakfast is at the same place, followed by a general round of visits to other relatives and friends. The second day of the New Year is spent with the woman's side of the extended family.

The scheduled visits extend for days. The older people receive visitors, while the younger people make the rounds. Teenagers take time away with friends; families indulge in playing Poker and Ma Jiang, passing hours and days away together in the home of the parents or an older sibling, with extended family and friends dropping in all the time, partaking of pumpkin seeds, candy, fruit, tea and re nao.

On New Year's Eve, after wrapping dozens of dumplings and washing them down with strong rice wine at the home of my boss's parents, ages eighty-seven and eighty-eight, I stayed on to sleep in their apartment alone. The rest of the party went their separate ways. The old couple went home with my boss, their youngest son, whose house was just around the corner, to avoid the impending midnight firecracker frenzy.

I retired shortly after everyone left, dizzy from the alcohol and excitement. Though it was only eight-thirty, I fell asleep easily enough on the hard bed, having set the thick "pillow," which was filled with something like styrofoam pills, aside. At midnight, the fireworks began storming outside. Literally every doorstep and every window in the five-story building had a set of dutiful men and children setting off long strings of gunpowder capsules ("bian pow").

Nothing could be heard but the insane crackling, booming roar. I could see how the impact was much greater in an apartment building than in the private house the old grandparents had opted for that evening. Up the wall the terrific little explosions flashed in the night, along with the brilliant showers of visual fireworks, the name of which in Chinese is the same as "flower"--"hwa."

I had no choice but to be wide awake. Feeling somewhat parched and queasy from dumplings and liquor, I went in search of a piece of fruit. After checking the glassed-in balconies in front and back, which serve as pantries and greenhouses, and finding only broad bamboo platters of dumplings (which are wrapped in abundance to be eaten the next day and sent home with departing family members), I made my way to the old woman's bedroom. I was welcomed with the sure smell of pears, and found them in a box on the floor between the closet and a small shoe rack, which I was drawn to with considerable curiosity, for the woman's feet were bound.

Earlier in the evening I had inspected the old black-and-white photo--blown up and framed above the television--of the matriarch as a young woman. Two of her eventual eight children were in the picture (she had her youngest some twenty-five years after her first), in which she was shown standing, in traditional dress, her pointy nubs of feet poking out under her skirt, which came down to her ankles. She was supported by the young children on either side of her, whose presence emphasized how very short she was. They all three looked solemn--it must have been a slow camera, for which the subjects had to stay perfectly still for some time.

In the old woman's bedroom, I kneeled on the carpet next to the fragrant pears and reached into the second of three shelves of shoes, pulling out one of the short black canvas ones, measuring it against my hand (about the same length--much larger than if her feet had been kept bound all her life). I wondered how much of the shoe her foot actually fills. I've seen a photo of such feet--reminiscent of mummies, crumpled and impacted and the size of a baseball. I've seen pictures of ladies seated along the bank of a pool, foot-bathing together on a summer's day.

After stowing the shoe back where it belonged and glancing around the rather cluttered room, I returned to the living room and turned on the television, to see what was happening on the TV New Year's party, which lasts for eight hours. The fireworks were going off as profusely as ever, so I had to turn the volume up as high as it would go. I peeled and ate the pear while watching absurd comedy acts--a bandaged man being unwrapped by a pretty woman, the strips of white cloth being unwound like toilet paper off a roll, like bindings from a foot. The glare of green and white and red "flower" fireworks illuminated all the windows. The roar of gunpowder continued for some thirty minutes, then slowed to intermittent bursts, which kept jolting me awake for some time after I had gone again to the guest bed to try and pass the night in dreaming.

Early in the morning, the fireworks began again, and I smelled strong smoke in the air. Someone was shuffling, with labored breathing, in and out of the room. I had dreamed I was somewhere else, in a city I've visited but never slept in. My first thought was that the fireworks had caused an accidental fire, as I've heard they do every year some place or another.

I stayed in my position on the bed, pretending to sleep, listening to the old man walking by over and over, wondering what he was doing. It wasn't even light outside yet. I waited for some of the dawn light to rise before slipping out of bed between one of the grandpa's trips through the room. As I stepped out of the room I saw what he had been occupied with--a Buddhist altar of "Guan Yin," the goddess of mercy, flanked by two smaller statuettes, and presented with small plates of shui jiao and burning incense-like sticks, which were producing the smell I had supposed was a fire.

The smoke in the room was thick. I went into the living room, and the old man said "thank you" when I passed him on my way. I wasn't sure if he was thanking me for getting up and leaving the room of the altar, or if he had something else in mind. I later saw people kneel on the cushion in front of the arrangement for a moment of prayer, to ancestors and the Gods, for a good New Year.

II. Spring Ride
I was pleased to be back at my house again after the flurry of festivities, so I decided to take a bike ride. Gusty Spring winds raked smoke and steam from the barrel stoves and pots of the sidewalk vendors, collaging my path with layers of aroma--spicy meat, frying roasting and burning, acrid coal smoke, steamed buns breathing their warm simple fragrance as their cotton blankets are lifted and tucked above them, sale by sale...

The sidewalk near my house, which had just been finished five months before, was being torn up again, tile by tile, red and green piles of whole and broken tiles, separated for future use. The quality of the sidewalk had been poor, with many unset tiles that squelched up spurts of brown muddy water on your ankles when it rained; but my first thought as to why the job was being redone was for the work. The enormous population must be kept employed.

I swung through the first intersection, drawn with the current of two bicycles, a three-wheeled truck, and a sputtering little motor-scooter. We crossed in the paths of two little red taxis going opposite directions. They kept at the same speeds and rattled by within inches of our tires. The traffic is thus in China. It is a swerving, beeping, smoking parade of all sorts of vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, and mule-carts, trickling along the great criss-cross of various paths and portholes that encompass China.

I pedaled past most other bicyclers--just the occasional man in business suit or boy in school uniform overtook me. The wind was behind us for once, and the sun to our right, flicking through between buildings and the swishing trees full of tiny bright new leaves. People hovered at the street sides and worked their way across, lane by lane, through the traffic, no hesitations, sandwiched between moving cars. Cars stuck together as closely as they could to avoid giving an a opening to pedestrians, who would then take their turn and herd across for several minutes.

I veered left to avoid an oncoming bike with a man pedaling a woman in a yellow skirt holding a child on the back. Three teenage girls walked arm-in-arm across the road in front of me and I missed my opening at the next intersection and had to wait a moment for a big truck to back out.

"Lao wai"(old foreigner), said the woman at a phone vending booth with drinks, snacks and newspapers. Several people planted their eyes on me and started a conversation about my looks and I flashed them a wide-eyed demonic smile to shock them the second before taking off. Horns blared at me and two other bikers as we crossed the road, but only out of habit. The traffic kept moving, and I with it.

The tarps of a sidewalk restaurant outside my house had been torn away in the wind, leaving the occupants of the vanished room on tiny stools with bowls of noodles, whipped by the fickle breeze, as the couple who lived in the haphazard shelter re-erected it with ropes and poles. Napkins rustled away and a plastic bag wrapped around the leg of a passerby, crackling in the wind until she kicked it off.

Smelling fumes from the upcoming cross-roads, I slowed my pedaling, gauging the timing of the traffic lights to avoid unnecessary time at the intersection. Construction workers stood up in the skeleton of a new building three floors up, their yellow jackets blowing in the wind, hard-hats shining in the sunlight. A crane moved slowly above them swinging heavy bundles up to the workers, who steered them into landing with their arms.

I pulled up by a bicycle-basket vendor selling bananas, chose a ripe bunch and waited for the man to weigh it. Suddenly I was knocked to the ground, off of my bike. I stood up quickly, totally disoriented, to find a truck had accidentally rolled into my back wheel as I sat there, knocking me and the bike to the ground. I brushed off my pants and assured them I was fine. A crowd gathered, with several people yelling that I should get money from the irresponsible driver. Surely I could have, but the poor fellow didn't deserve any trouble. I paid for my fruit and rode off on the slightly bent bicycle, to find my new jar of instant coffee had been shattered. For weeks I picked shattered bits of glass from each spoonful before stirring it into hot water.

III. Bled
By the Spring semester the kids in the naughty class were uncontrollable. I had pretty much given up on trying to lecture them. They knew I wouldn't punish them. The worst was Elvis. He not only played guitar (which I enjoyed, though sometimes his singing was obnoxious) and smoked in class, but made out explicitly with his girlfriend every day. Their arms were always under each other's clothes, mouths sucking, leaning over as far as they could on their side-by-side stools, she reclining in his lap, till I could hardly see them over the top of the desk. It was a real flirting session, that class. There were multiple couples who touched and flirted, but none to the level of Elvis! I never even told them to put out their cigarettes. Just sat there and watched it all.

In my other two classes, the students were older, and didn't make noise, just fell asleep or read their books whenever I tried to teach English. I mixed my lessons with a lot of storytelling and exchange in Chinese, with English words interjected. Only a small handful of students were interested in English, and I was losing the motivation to force-feed them all on a language most of them would never become proficient with.

One morning I was sick. I sat at the head of the naughty class, just watching my students. A guitar was being passed around, various boys trying their hands at a melody. The constant hum of chattering and laughing hung in the air, floating like the white seedpod puffs from the swaying trees outside, which swirled in the air and made their way into every crevice. A couple of diligent girls were reciting math and Deng Xiao Ping's thoughts in the front row. Another girl next to them was studying a pop star magazine with fervid interest.

Elvis and Bella were locked in a full-on kissing embrace. No one paid them any attention. Once boy was inspecting his face with a pink mirror, picking a scab on his chin. A few boys played poker religiously. Several kids preferred reading, or just talking together. The hands of the kissing couple slipped further into the camouflage uniforms, moving up and down on eager young skin. The girl sat up suddenly, dizzy from the spell of intimate touching, a broad smile on her pretty face, hair ruffled. Elvis strummed on the guitar for a minute, then they leaned close together again. The air was warm and the leaves outside had unfolded into almost fully-grown, though still pale, twinkling pages, with the clouds of cotton puffs drifting between them in the breeze.

I could feel my body was fighting something, the glands in my neck were swollen. In semi-delirium I didn't speak a word, conserving my energy, gazing at the students, my own private show. One of the girls seated in the front asked if I was feeling okay. When I told her no, several students asked if I had been treated at our clinic yet. I always felt a bit surprised at how eager Chinese seemed to utilize medicine for even minor ailments. I asked them why and they told me that if one only relies on the immune system to recover from a sickness, it is much slower than if medical techniques are used. Three boys in the back of the class were suddenly wrestling and the whole room turned to watch for a moment. Then the bell rang.

I walked with two of my students down to the school clinic. The male nurse on duty examined my glands and decided to bleed me. He used a special little tool to slice the skin off the edge of each thumb. He did the cut in a flash after a little dab of alcohol, then squeezed and vigorously massaged a little blood out of my left thumb, while my pet student did the job on my right. I wasn't sure if it was a useful procedure in any scientific sense, or just superstitioun, but the swelling in my glands went down dramatically afterwards. My boss told me he let blood regularly from different parts of his body to alleviate stress and headaches.

The next day there was no electricity in the classrooms. It was a cloudy day. The cotton balls in the air didn't sparkle the way they had the day before in the sunshine. There were guitar lessons going on. "Little 3" (his nickname) was learning from another boy. It was unusually quiet. Mellow music, subdued singing, the slap of cards, and the little exclamations and soft coos of lovers caressing were the only sounds in the dim room. The students' profiles were like reflections of each other--same hair, clothes, smiling cheeks...

A girl sensed my attention on her and her boyfriend and kept glancing my way. One girl spent the whole class, as usual, reading aloud to herself, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, sometimes almost silently. She finally read herself to sleep, her head in her crossed arms on the yellow table. One girl sat letting blood from her finger onto a tissue, squeezing it out like they had done to me the day before. She studded the white tissue with evenly spread polka dots for the whole fifty minutes.

Then a face appeared at the door and I was beckoned to the office to receive a call. My American friend, Thom, was on his way to visit--an old classmate from the university in Xi'an! I was so excited to see another foreigner, especially one who could speak Chinese! He was due to arrive in several days.

IV. Assumptions
From the beginning everyone thought Thom was my lover. The more we denied it, the more people believed we were lying. When he first arrived, Mr. Lee rented a hotel room for him. When they showed it to us, Mr. Lee's wife enthusiastically patted the double bed and said "It's okay, it's okay, you can both sleep here, see!" over and over again in that crude local dialect she was fated to speak her whole life. We both doubled over with laughter, but she was totally serious.

My boss was especially outspoken, goading us with lewd jokes during every meal. "Do you like to eat tofu," he would ask Wyatt, with a gleam in his eye. (Eating tofu is a euphemism for sucking on breasts in China).

"Sure I do," Thom would say, playing along.

"How about American tofu?" he would say. Wyatt, another sufferer of yellow fever, would reply in turn with "I like to eat Chinese tofu. How about you? What kind do you like to eat?"
In the presence of his wife all he could say was "I only eat the local tofu," and we had our laugh.

The shop owners all thought Thom was my husband. The students and other teachers stared and asked me in whispers when we planned to be married. It was all quite comical, and I wasn't offended by the assumptions at first, but after a while it began to annoy me, to the point where I devoted whole class periods to explaining how relationships in the West differ from those in China. I explained to so many people that just because Thom stayed at my house and spent time with me didn't mean were sleeping together.

V. Bait
My boss took Thom and I around as bait to different middle schools, to lure ignorant students into attending our academy. I refused to have photos of my head in a graduation cap printed on huge bundles of propaganda leaflets, full of exaggerations and false words, spread throughout the area, but Thom thought it was funny, so he went along with it.

My boss proclaimed to everyone that Thom was our computer teacher, and that we had five more foreign teachers back at campus. It was clear that a white male was more valuable than a white female such as myself. I could sit back at the boring school meetings where my boss was targeting for recruits and not say a word--all the questions that were asked were asked of Thom. He would glare at me, wanting me to do some talking, but I found it unnecessary unless someone spoke to me, and I enjoyed watching him take all of the heat.

I was recognizing the unscrupulous ways of my boss, and feeling more and more sorry for my students, who were trapped in a school where they learned almost nothing. Once graduated, they would be assigned such dead-end jobs as factory worker making clothes for my boss, and guard standing outside some company gate all day long.

At a bi-monthly faculty meeting, and Mr. Lee gave an impassioned speech about the problems our school had, and how they ought to be overcome. Among the major problems were: hair too long among some boy students, disorderliness of the dorms, and student misbehavior. Two of my students had been in a fight the day before.

Twenty-seven of us--teachers and various school workers--listened to this and then a speech by Old Li and two other school personnel. Old Li was the oldest school-master--the seasoned voice in his seventies who'd spent many of his years in the educational system. He started off his speech emphasizing that all teachers present have brains, but that ideas mean nothing--only results are worthy of account.

"Nothing can do everything, including the thoughts of Marx and Mao," he said. ("Shenme dou bu shi wan neng de, bao kuo Ma Ke Si si xiang he Mao Ze Dong si xiang"). "Everyone must work together to encourage those who have been making mistakes--work together as one heart and one body. It is fate, after all, that brought us together in this school, as a team that must work together."

The old man went on to remark on the breaking news: The universities of China would no longer set age limits of age twenty-five for new enrollment. This meant recruiting for our school would become harder, since up until then it had relied upon disappointed, desperate families whose baobao (child) had failed the university exam. (People were bamboozled into thinking they had the second-best choice after university: a military-style boarding school. Later they would discover it wasn't all it had been painted out to be.)

Old Li took a moment to commend himself on his own far-sightedness and fairness in judging people. He lit a cigarette and turned the page in his scrawled-up notebook. He said we mustn't think about other people differently from the way we think of ourselves. Of course we're all guilty of this, but we should try to start imagining ourselves in the places of the people around us, the people communicating and working with us, instead of letting our view of the differences between us exceed that of the similarities. He said some people spend ten yuan on something worth two, and then wonder if what they've done is right. I didn't know why he said this, but it made me think of the students attending the school, none of whom thought the price of tuition was worth it.

Two more comrades finished up the hour. The first one reprimanded certain faculty for sloppy appearance, stating everyone must wear suit and tie when not in standard police uniform, and people should die their hair black instead of letting gray show, and men should keep their hair very short, and everyone must strictly adhere to the call of duty. It was announced who would be set out in the next round of hunting for new students--who would ride the long rickety bus out on missions to find gullible enrollees from neighboring provinces and towns.

After the meeting was through, the boss's secretary followed me out and informed me that more teenage students of government officials and old teachers of his would be going to my house to see me. He asked if they had taken me out to dinner the last time and I said they had invited me but I'd refused to go. Zhang Feng said I should accept, as payment for my time with the kids. I said I'd be glad to take money, but didn't always feel like being fed big complex meals at a moment's notice.

An equally large young man, the same age as Zhang Feng, joined us at the top of the stairs. He was an English teacher. I couldn't resist asking him in English, since no one else could understand, why the school propaganda leaflets stated that we had five foreign teachers, when we only had myself. He immediately translated for Zhang Feng, to my chagrin, who rattled off some saying about the different levels of lying and what's acceptable and what's not. I said "yes, I'm beginning to notice this is standard procedure in China."

The English teacher went on his way. Zhang Feng said to me as I departed that he'd "heard" I hated the way Chinese people lie. "Is it because you think Chinese are much better at lying than Americans are?" he asked. I looked at him and thought for a moment, then I said
"No. Not at all," and walked away, looking at him, shaking my head as he laughed uncomfortably.

VI. Revelation
One day Mr. Lee took it upon himself to show Thom and I some of the nearby scenery. He drove us in his Buick for about two hours. As we entered a town, he pulled suddenly to the side of the road, spotting a pretty young woman.
He rolled down the window and spoke with her. "Are you waiting for a car?" he asked.

"No, a person," she replied.

He asked if she had time, and she said sure. Then she got in the car, in the back seat next to Thom. Immediately it was obvious this girl was something more than an acquaintance to Mr. Lee.
"This is my 'good friend,'" he said. He put on some romantic music and began referring to certain phrases in the song. "Is that how you feel?" he asked the girl in the back "That's how I feel." All the while he stared at her in the rear-view mirror. Sitting next to him, I saw the change in his demeanor, the sudden reddening of his face and the change in his voice. I was surprised and baffled as to why he was showing me this side of himself.

The love songs continued, high-pitched slow melodies, and Mr. Lee continued with his flirting until we arrived at the underground caverns. Then he began taking photographs of the girl in every different spot. We climbed through the caverns and the whole time he was at her side. It was obvious this was his girlfriend! I had never really suspected he had girlfriends before. He and his wife had been married twenty-one years, and seemed to be on good terms. But I was finally being shown, and forced to realize, that the ancient societal patterns in China are far from gone.

After the climb through the natural caverns, we sat looking out over a beautiful valley. Mr. Lee and his girlfriend sat close together and spoke in muted voices. I was in a confused state, wondering why he was showing this girl to me. Thom and I went for a walk, and when we returned Mr. Lee was busily taking pictures of the posing girl. Then we went to lunch at a fantastically extravagant hotel, modeled after the Potala in Tibet. It stood surrounded by countryside and flanked by outdoor tennis courts and pools, with an expanse of shining black cars in front of it.

Throughout the meal, Mr. Lee became more and more blatant and vulgar in his affection for the girl, but it wasn't easy to be sure of his meaning. He kept speaking of sex, everything from his experiences in strip bars in the United States (funny mix-ups involving language--unable to speak English, he didn't realize he had to tip the stripper in the peep show he had already paid for if he wanted to see her undress completely), to questions about the openness of sexuality in America.

He kept throwing kisses to the girl, and speaking of "last time" and how they had eaten the best food and sung and danced all night. Why was he telling all of this to us? I was afraid he was trying to promote a sexual rendezvous between Thom and myself, and would presently rent out two rooms upstairs, one for us, one for them.

After the meal he very purposefully took the girl to a shop in the hotel to buy her a gift. It seemed he was showing me the way extramarital affairs are conducted in China--a form of prostitution. After we had dropped the girl off, he asked me and Thom how old we thought she was. We both guessed she was in her early twenties.

"No," he said, "she's over thirty, and has a child."

Then the pattern became clearer. Divorced women in China often have no chance to remarry, but they can offer themselves to wealthy men as second or third women--like concubines. China hasn't changed so much. I often imagined what it would be like if I were the guest of a man like Mr. Lee a hundred years ago. It might not be too different, only instead of a Buick, we would ride around in carriages and rickshaws. Instead of his leather jacket and western-style clothes, he would be decked out in the Qing Dynasty fashion, with que and robes. Instead of having his girlfriends spread out across the area in various small towns, they would all be living in his own walled domicile, available to him at any hour.

I am still not sure if this revelation of his private life was designed to impress me, to educate me, to test me, or to bring me into his confidence. Overall I believe was part of a strategy to use and manipulate me. Perhaps he wanted to show me I was closer to him than others--I was special, and should feel that way. Perhaps he thought a show of manhood will make me admire him and trust him more, or realize his power was greater than I had thought it was, or just that he was a complex man, not solely bound to his verbose, uneducated, often annoying "first" wife. If it was a test of my loyalty and trustworthiness, then I proved myself. I spoke to no one in the town about that day.

VII. April 1
Thom and I were enjoying life, eating out, going to bars, having parties at my house with my students and other Chinese friends. We used the misconceptions of our relationship, and of westerners in general, and the secret language of English we alone shared, to fuel countless jokes around banquet tables with important guests of Mr. Lee's, over copious amounts of "white lightning" (the Chinese "rice wine"). Our antics were so entertaining, and we felt so recklessly free as a mischievous pair of pampered foreigners, that we decided to play the ultimate April Fool's day trick on the Mr. Lee himself, to show him we could lie as well as any Chinese.

The idea originated between Thom and PYT and myself. I wasn't sure if I could really play the part, but once I had made the first moves--skipped all my morning classes without a word to anyone on campus, pretended to be very ill on the phone when my boss called--the act unfolded with incredible seriousness.

There was a knock on the back door--the one opening onto the road, not onto campus. I scurried into my room and laid down on the bed quietly. I heard PYT open the door and my boss ask where I was and what was wrong with me. A moment later PYT summoned me from my room, and I walked out wrapped in a blanket, half hiding my face. I sat on the couch and Mr. Lee faced me from the middle of the room, in full military regalia. "What's wrong--tell me. You can trust me," he said.

I told him I was pregnant. I acted very distressed and said I had been sick every morning. I wanted to go home to America for an abortion, I said.

His face went very dark. He said "NO," and ordered me go to a nearby town for an abortion so that no one in Bin Zhou would hear about it. He told PYT to go with me (she was his eyes and ears, the girl he had hired to watch over me, after all). He said "it's a quick, simple process. Don't worry, I have much more experience in these things than any of you."

He asked me who the father was. I bawled and said I couldn't be sure. "How many are there?" he asked. I indicated three with my fingers, burying my face in the blanket around my shoulders, hiding involuntary smiles, feigning woe.

He asked who they were and I hesitated. My boss said that if I felt embarrassed in front of my American guy friend he should leave the room, and he did. PYT stayed on the other couch, hiding smiles with her hand. Finally I muttered, in a broken voice, "I feel terrible, I hope you can forgive me--they are three of the students at our school."

After a pause, he said "you don't need to tell me which three--I can guess." Then he ordered us not to tell a soul. We could lose face. He could lose face.

He told me to tell the three boys that I was pregnant and not let anyone else find out. He believed every word I said! He told me to always wear a hat outside, and never wash my hands with cold water, since I was pregnant.

Thom insisted we tell Mr. Lee it was a joke as he departed, and explain April Fool's Day to him. He didn't get it, had never heard of the holiday.

"We aren't going to get any "procedure" done tomorrow," I said. He nodded and left. We thought he understood, was perhaps angry at being made fun of, but nonetheless possessed a sense of humor and the capability of laughing at a prank.

But in the afternoon when we returned from lunch he called to make sure we were going to the capital the next morning "as planned." He had already made arrangements for my confidential reception there. I told him I had lied, and I could hardly believe he had taken me so seriously--did he really think I would have unprotected sex with three of my teen-aged students?

He said he had trusted me and believed everything I told him. He said he could understand my behavior, but only in the context of it being part of a traditional holiday. He wanted to talk with Thom, so I handed the phone over.
"So, you conspired with her to lie to me?" he asked my friend.
"Well, it was only a joke..."

VIII. Crash
My boss probably thought Thom was a bad influence on me. Maybe he was! But I allowed it to happen. My boss called the next morning saying he was ill. He said he knew Thom hadn't left town yet as he was supposed to, because otherwise I would have gotten up early and wouldn't still have noticeable sound of sleep in my voice... He told me I should go pester the guy in charge of our website at the big telecom building--get him to finish his work. "Things don't work the same in China as in America," my boss said.

"What, you have to go pestering people to get them to do what they said they would?" I asked.

"Yes," said my boss, "nothing's easy to do in china, but nothing is undoable." (In Mandarin: "mei you hao ban de, dan shi mei you ban bu liao de").

Later that day a student told me about the incident over the South China Sea. As he described it, a US spy plane over the South China Sea had made a u-turn and crashed into a Chinese war plane in a chase over territorial waters. All day we talked about the incident, about the American spies held captive on an island, about the cause of the accident.

Everyone believed it was completely the fault of the US spy plane, of course, and though I agreed it wasn't altogether friendly to be flying fly around over China's territorial waters, I was doubtful the big lumbering US plane had managed to turn and hit the speedy little Chinese aircraft. It was useless to argue this with my students though. Indignant nationalistic feelings flared when I asked what an appropriate response from the Chinese government would be in my students' opinions.

Everyone agreed Jiang Zemin was useless, meekly pawning Chinese pride for favor with the United States. Several of my students, even a couple of girls, said the most desirable response from their government would be a military attack on America. At that point blood rose to my head also. I asked which city they deemed a good target, and one called out "New York." I was on the verge of rage and went on a tirade against mindless war-lust, declaring that such an attack by China on the US would result in most everything on the planet dying, and only idiots who desired death and suffering for their progeny could support such a move by the Chinese government.

After the plane accident (which I deemed it to be), people were really upset in China. Every stranger I talked to who found out I was American gave me a lecture on how bad and stupid Bush and his cabinet were.

One day a man in his late thirties or early forties at my friend's beauty parlor, getting his hair cut, went so far as to tell me American people as a whole are bad. I refuted his argument and made the general explanations--the US is a country of immigrants, and so embodies every nationality; and people are not governments... He ended up just saying we shouldn't talk politics. He said he wished I were Russian not American (I wasn't sure if this was because he considered Russia friendlier, or if he wished I were the Russian prostitute he'd initially assumed I was).

It was sort of hard to deal with the US-Sino relations at that time, since by then I had already quit lying about where I was from. I had to keep my temper, and agree with people rather than argue, since arguing only made them mad. I wanted to do my small part of giving them a good impression of America...

On television there were lots of news shows, interviews with military experts and so forth, about recent weapons sales to Taiwan. They went on and on about how dangerous it was getting: America wanted to keep a balance of powers, but they were really just raising the level of firepower in East Asia, and the Taiwanese government was lying to their people saying safety could be bought from the US and the Chinese mainland could be avoided.

Often Chinese men told me "if I were president I'd bomb America." They scorned their own government and people for being weak and malleable in the face of the self-appointed world police force. And it just seemed to be getting worse--Bush stated that backing up the Taiwanese militarily was definitely an option.

One cabbie I rode with in Beijing pointed out the most obvious but most ignored factor in the U.S.-China plane crash, which is that neither side could conceivably have been so stupid as to run into the other plane on purpose. The characters involved in this crash weren't that brave, or that insane. Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot, was not some kind of kamikaze. Just young. An accident. Absurd to thing it was purposeful, that either side should take "full responsibility."

One day Clinton and Jiang Ze Min met in Hong Kong When I read the headline I momentarily forgot that Bush was now "on the stage" (as the Chinese put it). I thought "Oh good, Clinton is smoothing over the whole plane crash problem finally." Then I remembered he wasn't the president anymore.

IX. Yao Mei
I was given a "wai hao" (a nickname) by a couple of my favorite students. It was "Yao Mei." The first character means seductress, goblin, evil spirit. The second means little sister. I was the golden-haired temptress from another world, gliding about in a trance of debauchery, hypnotized by the complex criss-cross of mental patterns that surrounded me in China, and warped by the growing sense of my own foreign wickedness.

A Chinese lover had been high on my list of desirables since I moved to the small coal-mining town in Eastern China. I had discovered that the people there were tall, and the province was known throughout northeastern Asia for having big macho men. My boss had told me a Chinese saying, "men blossom at forty" (he was forty-four), and promised he would introduce me to many eligible (read rich, married) men, but never did.

I wasn't "Yao Mei" until a fondness got to brewing, between my boss's nephew and I. The kid was two years my junior, with a thin face and frame, smooth skin, full lips. His name was Jin. His father was the one man on campus I thought handsome--till Jin himself returned from the army, conditioned and competent after two years away from home.

At first he would call in the evenings after dinner, from the school shop where his mother worked (China is all about the family posse--only those with connections, "guanxi," get the jobs). "Watching TV?" he would ask. I'd invite him, whether I was actually watching the box or not, pleased to have a pretty guest, whose Mandarin was standard, and whose eyes and voice had enticed me since the day we met.

He would sit on the sofa by my side and I would study, picking up vocabulary and nuances from him. His drawn-out words and soft intonations became more and more sensual. I began to notice my own voice taking on the qualities of his. Before long I dreamed we were caressing in bed, he having slid in, nonchalant and natural. I perceived it was his dream--a shared dream we had.

Of course the dream and the glitter in our eyes was apparent to almost anyone who saw us together. After going out a few times and coming home late, the suspicion on campus was rising. He stayed the night innocently in the extra bed after a disco outing and was seen coming out of my house in the morning. The next evening when he sat on the sofa he told me, "you know, there are many people who don't want me coming here. In China it's believed that a boy and a girl who are alone together have some affection beyond friendship. Traditional society forbids it."

Thoroughly dismayed, I began a tirade of denunciations, lamentations aimed at a society that bars friendship from evolving as it might. Reminded by his words of how rigid and overbearing the gossips and jealous scoundrels were, I threatened to leave China once and for all. I expressed my contradictory emotions--my love-hate attachment to the country and its people.

"Don't worry, I'll still come looking for you, take you out with me and talk with you. You mustn't leave China," Jin said, "I'm not afraid of them and their meddlesome words." He didn't name any names. But I was still afraid. I suggested, perversely, that we ignore each other from then on. I stopped going to his mother's shop, and never waved to him when anyone was looking.

He didn't come over for several days, and I wanted to die--until I got my new name.
Upon becoming Yao Mei, I discovered the key to accepting both the humiliation and the reverence that was showered on me daily. I switched from sorrowful, reproachful confusion, to mirthful acceptance of my own wickedness. I became intent upon exceeding the wildest expectations Chinese people had of foreign-devil women such as myself. I suddenly was not attracted to Jin in the least.

X. Cabbie
I went to Jin's house for dinner one night, just as I was getting over my crush on him. We ate with his mother and father and they invited me to stay in Jin's bed that night--while Jin went to sleep at a friend's house down the road. I refused, and they insisted at least on finding me a cab, to take me twenty minutes through the countryside to my house. So we all walked down to the street and they hailed a taxi, which already had a passenger in back (it was common practice to obtain a cheaper fair to the neighboring town by riding two to a cab). I thanked them, said good night and got in the front seat.

The cabbie was pleasant and personable. I asked if he had a girlfriend or wife. He said he didn't, had never had one. I was surprised, thought it strange that a Chinese would be single at age twenty-eight. But he seemed sincere.

After he dropped off his first client we got to talking. When we arrived at my house around ten p.m. he said "do you really want to go home?"

I didn't. So we drove around all night. I was fascinated to see the life of a night-shift cabbie! He told me a big-time gangster had recently fled from Western China to Shandong and the police were hunting for him everywhere that night--there were roadblocks at the outskirts of every town. He let me drive his car at three in the morning. Later he told me he'd been scared to do so, but at least he was adventurous enough to let me! I found his attitude refreshing.

I told him how everyone thought I was a Russian whore (this was the default assumption, there being a few Russian prostitutes in town, and not much else by way of foreign girls), and all night long I proved it--everyone who rode in the cab (I would say "it's okay, it's okay--get in," and out of curiosity they would squeeze in the back) asked "are you Russian?" Russian girls had a very low status in Bin Zhou. I told him how once a reporter had failed to ask my nationality and had published my photo in the Bin Zhou daily paper with a caption saying "Russian girl enjoys the making clay sculptures at the international ceramics convention."

A couple of guys tried to take me with them when they got out of the cab at a nightclub. I told them I was a Yugoslavian journalist covering the life of night cabbies in China. I told them I couldn't accept their invitation to dance, but would gladly take an ice-cream, and they delivered two to my window.

At two-thirty a.m. the cabbie took me to eat that "kao yang rou"--lamb on a stick roasted over our own tray of coals at the table. He waved his arm to a boy down the street who had a guitar slung over his back. The kid came to our table and played lovely songs for an hour as we ate and drank and smoked and people-watched. Some old movie about Nazis was on the TV, and the operators of the all-night restaurant sat watching it. Some sprinkles of rain came pattering down.

At four-thirty in the morning we drove to my place and stowed the car around the corner. He hopped the back gate while I went through the front--the breakfast-vendors in front of my house were already setting up shop for the day. If they saw me bringing a cabbie home the whole neighborhood and my boss would know in no time. "Ma fan" (troublesome).

I showed him photos and my big cushy house and we sat around talking past dawn. Then he took the cab to its daytime driver. At that point I'd been awake for twenty-seven hours! I slept a couple of hours and then got up. The cabbie came over again, on his motorbike, and we spent the afternoon talking about crazy Chinese society.

The next day he called and said he had a friend he wanted to introduce me to. She also worked at the cab company. He told me "by all means don't tell her I ever drove you around all night--I could get in trouble with by boss." I promised not to, and when they arrived I offered them tea and sat down to make conversation.

The girl wouldn't drink any tea, though. I said "so you two are friends?" She nodded, without saying a word. From what the cabbie had said I thought this was supposed to be an enthusiastic friend of his who wanted to meet a foreigner. Maybe she was just shy, I thought.

They left shortly. I was puzzled at her attitude, but forgot about it soon enough. The cabbie continued giving me and my friends rides any time--all I had to do was call his cell phone. Once he even dropped off a customer half way to his destination and turned around to go pick me up instead. We developed a comfortable friendship. Pang Yu Ting liked and trusted him, too.

Then one day I got a call from him. "I lied to you once," he said. "I'm actually married. That woman who came to your house that day is my wife. Now she's jealous, thinks there's something between us, and wants me to stop seeing you. Right now I'm out walking with her. She's forcing me to work the day shift instead of the night, and never see you again."

I just laughed. Suddenly it all made sense, and he wasn't the weird twenty-eight year-old virgin I'd thought he was. This relieved me, until it dawned on me that his wife was serious, and my private driver was being taken away from me.

But within a couple of weeks, PYT called him up for me from a pay phone, just in case his wife checked the numbers on his cell phone and recognized mine. He came straight away to my house and took us for a ride, and everything was back to normal. He was a bit embarrassed. We never really talked about, just went on being friends.

XI. Tianjin trip
I made a trip up to Tianjin for a friend's wedding. I went to the station to return to Bin Zhou the next morning, and it turned out there wasn't a train until afternoon. I decided to try for a bus, and a swindling taxi-driver took me all over town looking for one, till I finally told him just to take me back to the train station, where I purchased the evening ticket.

With five hours to kill, and a chip on my shoulder from all the stares and "hallo"s and "I love you"s I was getting from the Han people in the streets (Han=majority race of China), I headed for the "fan hua" (flourishing) district, by the neighborhood of old colonial buildings, along a murky river, beside a huge outdoor millennial clock with all the signs of the zodiac and a big sun and moon twisting endlessly around in mid-air.

Walking along the river, which was brown, with bags and styrophoam containers floating at the surface, I noticed some "shao shu min zu" (minority people) selling their wares on the sidewalk. I went and looked at a Tibetan man's skulls and bones (which Han people buy and eat, thinking they're great medicine). A whole monkey skeleton leered up at passers-by from a red cloth on the ground. Then I started writing in my journal.

Han people came and looked, crowding in close and chatting rudely about me. The minority people didn't come quite so near, and only commented that my messy scrawl of English looked like Arabic. I got a man from XinJiang (north-western China, where the Muslims live) to write his name in my journal, and I could read it! Similar to Roman Script, but different.

His name was Abert. He said his ancestors were Albanian. He was very polite, leaving my side after writing his name in my book. Meanwhile the others continued to crowd around me. The Han people were the worst of all. I finally told them "you're all watching, you ought to give me money, or take me out to eat as payment." I shouldn't have said the last part, for several guys immediately invited me to lunch.

I ended up spending the whole afternoon with Abert, and nearly returned my train ticket to go home with him and meet his wife and five year-old girl. I watched him hawk his sweet dried fruit and nut cake to Han pedestrians. He taught me some words in his language--beautiful words with rolling "R"s (Chinese Han people can't roll their R's), and we talked about politics and life in China. "China's no good," he told me. "Jiang ZeMin controls us minority people. He's afraid of the results if we go abroad," he said, pointing grimly at the huge poster of the chairman that hung over the blue bridge next to us. He kept saying how he hated Jiang Zemin, would like to gut him, hated how the government kept him trapped in China

At 2:30 Albet went to pray--five prayer times a day for Muslims. I watched him kneeling on a clean sheet on the ground by the river, while one of his countrymen looked after his goods. I so enjoyed sitting with the outcasts, watching the puzzled expressions and appalled stares on Han faces when they saw me, a white girl, sitting with the people considered most barbaric, savage and uncivilized--those of Western China. To the contrary, I found these people extremely moralistic and kind-hearted, with their firm religious faith, and respectful attitudes toward me. I'd been growing tired of the continual stares and comments from the Han.

Abert told each curious Han person who walked up that I was from a different country. Only he and I kept the secret of my nationality. We told some I was from XinJiang and of course half of them naively believed us. A weird parade of Han people came to stare. One sleazy gangster in gold chains and a 20's-style hat came and took a ring from my finger. I said I would trade it for his golden bracelet, and he said okay, if I went with him right away. I snatched my ring back from him.

It was a refreshing experience to make friends with another race. I hated to leave the spot on the riverside, and my new friends, but I decided to catch my train. Albet and I shook hands a long time and then I rode the bus back to the station.

The train was insanely crowded, and I had bought the cheapest ticket--"without seat"--thinking the train would be as empty on the seven-hour ride home as it had been on the journey up. The crowd of ill-mannered Han, acting every bit as barbarian and savage as any race they accuse of being so, were pushing me on all sides, so that I was carried in a wave of impolite, thick-headed peasants all the way to the restaurant car, where I asked about exchanging my ticket for a hard-sleeper. The man told me I had to go back through the hard-seat cars I'd just been spit out of. By now the train was already moving. I refused to go back. "Can't I just sit here in the restaurant all night?" I asked.

"No." Was the answer.

But then a lone man at a table behind called out for me to go sit with him. He knew the whole train crew, so the ticket exchange was performed straight away, no questions asked, as soon as I had transformed myself into a guest at his table. He poured me a beer, and we immediately entered into a long discussion, broken up only by drinking games, interjections from our audience of train workers, and his unfortunate trips to the toilet.

He bought me dinner and I learned some new words in the course of our conversation. When he began judging my character, he taught me "follow one's inclinations," (suixin suoyu) and "free from anxiety, sureness" (ta shi), going on and on about how rare and genuine a person he could tell I was.

I was a bit suspicious of him. He said he owned a business in East Beijing, near the Embassies, where people rented rooms per hour and indulged in "rest and relaxation". He said he lived there most of the time. He urged me to go visit him--gave me all his contact information. I gave him mine as well, feeling safe in the company of so many gawking train workers.

We drank and talked for five hours. He was afraid I'd get drunk, but it was he who had to go to the toilet twice to vomit. He was very drunk. I felt almost like I was a bad influence. The train crew kept telling me to stop accepting his drinks and go to bed. But the man had bought me dinner, and he kept the beers coming. I could tell he was a bit of a sleaze, but I didn't care, in the safety of the crowded train. At least kept me company.

Finally I went off to bed, to take advantage of my upgraded sleeper ticket for at least an hour before arriving in Bin Zhou. "Anytime, call me. I want to see you again," he told me when we said goodbye. Then just as I was drifting away at about midnight, he came to my side. He had found me! "I wanted to make sure you were okay." I told him to go to his own bed. He suddenly stole a couple of feels, as I lay helpless on my back. "I just wanted to see you one more time. Promise you won't forget me." It was all in a matter of seconds, with his final grope right between my legs. Before I had time to react, he was off down the hall.

About an hour later I debarked at the small station in Bin Zhou and took a taxi home. My four goldfish and the little snake Pang Yu Ting had given me (assuring me it only needed food once a month and was happiest in water, where it stayed totally still) were dead in the fishbowl. To the howling of the Spring winds, I flushed them down the toilet at two-thirty in the morning.

XII. Cabbie part two
One evening my cabbie friend called. He said he had guests from out of town and was sitting at their hotel room. He invited me and PYT, who was with me at the time, to go see them at the hotel. So we took a taxi and rode to the run-down, Chinese-only hotel.

When we stepped into the room, two men were reclined on the two beds in long underwear. (Later PYT told me how rude it was to be half-dressed in front of strangers, especially women). My cabbie friend convinced them to get up and the five of us took a cab downtown, where we went to a teahouse (many teahouses are actually fronts for prostitution. PYT described to me how only middle-aged men with money went to "drink tea" and have their feet and other parts of their body "washed" in the back rooms.)

We chatted over tea, late into the night. The two men were from southern China, and were involved in shipping and trucking businesses. One got riled up thinking about the recent plane crash and declared that if China were to go to war with America he would be the first volunteer fighter. The other man was calmer. The cabbie hardly said a word all night.

Later PYT told me she could sense my friend the cabbie had a "xin shi"--something weighing on his mind. The next week when I caught a ride with him he said he'd been ripped off. He didn't admit it was the two men from that night, but he explained how some people had sold him some goods. He had resold them quickly and made a profit, so he bought more from the same same source, to resell again.

But this time no one bought them, and he realized it had been a set-up-the people who had sold to him also bought the goods back the first time, but the second time kept the money and left him in the dust. Poor cabbie. Everyone in the north agrees that southerners are sly businessmen, not to be trusted. It is said they especially enjoy the easy prey of honest, naïve Shandong people.

XIII. Internet Bars
From the time I started living in Bin Zhou I was constantly going to the "wang ba" (internet bar). There was one around the block from my house, and the boss was especially nice to me. He was a tall, older man, who chain-smoked and played silly computer games between naps while he watched the store. He made me promise if anyone bullied me to tell him. He kept a Buddhist altar on a shelf, and sold me some of his own incense when I inquired as to where I could buy it.

The internet phenomenon had barely started when I lived in China the first time, but by two years later the country was covered with net bars. Even in small towns there were dozens. The most common businesses, it seemed to me, were beauty parlors and net bars. Both could be found on every practically block.

One day I noticed the "wang ba" near my house was closed up all day. I rode my bike around looking for another, having become addicted to e-mail. Surprisingly, every net bar I could find was closed! I asked around and found out the government had shut down all the net cafes in China. They said there was too much gambling and pornography going on, and had decided to do something about it.

XIV. Xi'an
I went to Xi'an for a few days in Spring. The Xi'an train station was surely one of the most hectic and grimy of them all, well-known for its high crime rate. Desperate people crowded around the station to leech off the travelers. I had been followed and harassed more than a few times there.

They were tearing down whole blocks of old buildings in Xi'an, and replacing them with new ones, but in Tang dynasty style! At least they weren't putting up the standard white tile, blue window blocks. They knew Xi'an, with its massive city wall and rank, stagnant moat was a tourist attraction.

They were also at work building the first McDonalds when I was there, right in the center of town. In a year and a half it would be bombed just months after opening, killing at least one and injuring several. It was suspected to have been an act of terrorism by some Muslim faction. My friend, a Xi'an native, told me he and most Chinese never went into the Muslim sector, which was one of the oldest parts of the city, with an ancient Mosque and a fully thriving Muslim minority. He said the non-Muslims believed the Muslims to be savagely cruel and full of hatred for them, liable to pull out a knife and kill someone at the slightest provocation

It was more apparent to me this time, having lived in Shandong, that Xi'an was indeed much "messier," as they say in Chinese, than most of the coastal cities. There were more beggars, and more idle workers in the streets with their little wooden plaques describing their skills: wood, water, electricity, painting... There were more agricultural workers flooding into the city in grimy busses from the countryside, hauling their belongings in huge sacks, piling out into the streets, bewildered, hoping to make some money.

Supposedly there were underground tunnels beneath Xi'an, built during the Mao era but now serving as the black society's domain, full of prostitutes, drugs and gambling. A couple of my classmates at our university in Xi'an had accidentally stumbled into one such tunnel and gotten into a drunken brawl a few years before.

I stayed at my old school, within the guarded walls of the campus, which was like a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle outside. I saw a Chinese friend of mine who worked there. Pathetic, some lives--like dogs on leashes. Marry, have a child, move to the city to work. Work for seven years and find you're just getting older and want to change but are afraid to... Wife and child in the home town, three hours away, few chances to see them ... Night shift and often day jobs also... Longing to be busy, but bored to tears. Longing for money, but out of its reach. Terrified more than anything of a recession: "My little bit of money will become littler and littler!" he said.

We laughed merrily about it, but in retrospect, it was depressing, such lack of money and inclination to strike out in a new direction. He said he bought lots of lottery tickets. "You can get 'em anywhere now--in the street, in the store... The government gained control of them, so they became legal." The papers were filled with stories about Bush and America. And about how China has never been afraid of anyone putting out negative propaganda about her, how she's self-confident and sure of her greatness. My friend said "the paper's worth a laugh but nothing more."

There are many seemingly disillusioned people. How disillusioned can one get?
Pessimistic as well. I used to think Chinese were so optimistic. There are all kinds though.
Pangs of yearning for material gain... Cell phones spinning out of ears, BMWs and Jaguars multiplying like beavers, buildings leaping up, frozen fountains of labor and dust...

XV. The End
Temperatures were rising, it was early May. On my trip away from the insular life I had been leading in Bin Zhou, I'd decided to leave it for good. Being there again only made clearer--I had to get out.

Most of the internet bars had opened up again in Xi'an since the government crack-down, but I returned to Shandong to find most of them still closed.

Many of the students in my "naughty" class were requesting jobs. They'd paid their dues and awaited their postings. James Bond got placed as a guard at a government bureau and came to visit us on his motorcycle occasionally, with sob stories about how he'd tried to kill himself over his girlfriend.

Once when he was crying on my sofa, with several other students and Pang Yu Ting sitting around, I muttered "serves you right, you're such a playboy," thinking he couldn't hear it; but he did, and he cried "you're right, I am, I deserve it!" Then he showed me the scratches on his wrists I explained how long-wise cuts were much more efficacious than cross-wise ones if suicide was the objective.

I was becoming more and more fed up with my boss. He seemed to believe that just because I was a white American, I could convince the headmaster of any major US university to hop over and visit our school in an instant, and write up an agreement of cooperation and exchange between the two institutions.

As he tried to convince me this was possible, I mentioned something about the size of the schools. Ours was small, and not even a real university yet--the US ones he wanted to ally himself with were huge and well-known by comparison.

He said "It doesn't matter, we can just take them to the Bin Zhou University (the biggest university in town) and tell them it is ours--they'll never know! You'll do all the translating for me. We'll say ALL of the Martial Arts schools in this area are ours, because I'M on the board of the government Martial Arts association. They'll be so honored to associate themselves with such a man as I!"

He was ruthless, in ways. Didn't mind being sly and crafty one bit. It was all a part of his game. I didn't trust him very well, and ever since my April Fool's day trick he was probably more wary of me also

I kept back the news of my imminent departure from my boss. I may have told PYT, and although she claimed not to have spoken with Mr. Lee in months, it's possible she told him. At any rate, one morning he called and wanted to speak with me about my future work at the school, as well as my future pay.

Pay had been one of my points of contention for a while, especially since I had met a young Irishman who didn't speak a word of Chinese, but nonetheless earned four times as much as I did, and was free to come and go as he pleased from the beginning.

"I want to give you 2,200 yuan per month in the future," Mr. Lee told me over the phone. (2,200=about $270, which I had recently discovered was the legal minimum wage for foreigners. I had been earning only $100/month). "I want you to focus more on PR than teaching, in the future. We're going to make a TV show, and you're going to travel around promoting our school and garnering favor with the right people..." he rambled on about his future plans.
I suddenly broke in, "I've decided to leave."

There was a silence. It was as if he had indeed seen it coming. And now he sounded so hopeless. He didn't try to convince me to stay. All he said was "don't you think I'll be broken-hearted if you leave?"

XVI. Qingdao
A week later, May 24, I sat on top of an apartment building in Qingdao. Qingdao, the "green island"--I had been taken with the place since before I set eyes on it. I knew once I visited the seaside city I could never be satisfied again with the grimy, coal-producing, inland city where I'd been living. This time I didn't plan to go back to Bin Zhou though, so I free of that dilemma.

The sky had been luminous since long before dawn. Now it was really brightening--the sun was pulsing through the coastal fog of the Pacific, soon to dispel it altogether.
Qingdao (or Tsingdao, as it is known to much of the world--home of Tsingdao beer), is enchantingly un-Chinese in many ways. The architecture is mostly modern and old-European style (colonial, much of it German-built). The air is fresh and the streets are clean and decorated with bright silver kegs in front of shops and restaurants. Vehicles are for the most part new and shiny, and public buses are rarely crowded. There are hills, and helicopters survey the coast. Airplanes fly overhead occasionally, and giant ships can be seen on the blue ocean horizon, accompanied by the deep sound of their monotone horns.

My first night there we had squid and fish and lamb on skewers at the outdoor seaside market, sitting on tiny stools at a fold-out table. PYT had accompanied me, and two other friends. We drank fresh beer poured into our cups from plastic bags, brought from a nearby keg. The lights from towering iridescent pink and blue buildings skipped across the slight waves. Merchants sat out until after midnight selling shells and crafts and cheap shoes and clothing. Voices and music mingled with the sound of the waves. The skyline sparkled and blinked, and wafts of sizzling seafood smells came in layers through the air.

We swam several times, and took numerous walks and bus rides through the tree-lined streets. The apartment we stayed at was large and new, on the sixth floor, with shiny wood floors and a big deck. A cool wind blew through the open windows--natural air-conditioning--while most of China sweltered in the early summer heat, under layers of dust and pollution. The apartment belonged to a man I had met at a provincial meeting of local business leaders, which Mr. Lee had taken me to. This man and I had corresponded a couple of times by e-mail, and he had offered to help me find a place to stay during my visit to Qingdao. He said his in-laws were supposed to be living in the apartment, but were too old to climb the five flights of stairs. PYT assumed he was lying and thought it was really where he kept his mistress.

More outlines of tall stately buildings were emerging from the morning mist as the sun got higher. Traffic was beginning to bustle--5AM--and the ferry horns were sounding. I was starting to get sleepy. I didn't want to leave China, but I knew it would would be there in a year when I returned.

Half a year after leaving, I returned to China for a visit. I spent New Year's Eve with Pang Yu Ting at a nightclub where she was working. She no longer ran the beauty parlor on the bottom floor of the fanciest "bath house" in town (the third floor of which contained mattresses, which are easier to hide than entire beds, and prostitutes, who were known by their numbers not their names).

She summoned me over toward the end of her shift, near midnight.
The building was out in the "new developed area," and the nightclub was in the basement. I walked down the red carpet stairs and down a hall, along which were private rooms with big TV Karaoke sets, and I met the girls, who were rented out by the hour (only as company, PYT assured me--to sing songs and drink and smoke with for an hour or three). PYT had started out as cashier at the bar, but had worked her way into the hourly escort service.

After the customers had all left and the money was counted, the twenty or so managers, boys and escort girls and I crowded into one of the private rooms, got drunk, smoked, ate snacks and sang karaoke until the room was a pit of seed shells, butts and broken glass. Then we all filed out around three-thirty in the morning.

PYT described her life since I had left. She had a boyfriend, but she hadn't seen her "qing ren" ("lover," not to be confused with boyfriend) for a long time, and was wondering a lot about him (or perhaps about the money she missed getting from him). In fact she found her boyfriend a bit young and stiff. She had long ago admitted to me her preference for "men like Mr. Lee" (whom she had also been involved with--hence his appointing her to the job of watching me), in their thirties or forties, with money and power.

Pang Yu Ting told me something horrible had happened to my old student Elvis. One day she'd been contacted by the police on her cell phone. They asked if she knew my student, and she did--she had given him a phone card the police had found among his belongings. He and his girlfriend, Bella, were dead.

For a while the specifics of the tragedy were not revealed, but prior to the execution of the murderer, word got out. Elvis and Bella had rented a small apartment together--a lovers' nest. Their landlord had apparently had eyes for Bella. He must have been jealous of the love between the two. He must have had a seriously demented mind, a twisted soul from experiences he'd had, and/or an attack of madness that night. He had been rustling through Elvis and Bella's apartment, stealing their credit cards, cell phones and wallets when Elvis had risen to confront him.

"Elvis was really smart," Pang Yu Ting related, "he just calmly told his landlord, 'big brother, it's okay, we don't need that stuff.'" But the landlord, who was extremely drunk, took a hammer to Elvis's head, smashing his brains out all over the room. Then he raped the girl in front of her dead lover and killed her in the same fashion.

I didn't see many of my students or acquaintances during my visit. One had joined the army, some had found jobs. I visited one of my old classes. The students looked more forlorn than ever, and had nothing really to say except that their lives were still monotonous and dreary inside the school. I stayed only a few days, and a leaden grief accompanied me when I departed.

Back in Beijing I met with friends, went to a Jazz club, met some people from Finland, and went shopping near Tiananmen Square. There I saw a man, sitting on a step with a child in his arms. He looked like he had nowhere to go. I went to dinner with a friend. Hours later, in the icy cold, I saw the same man, seated in the same place, with the little boy asleep on his lap. He said nothing. No one paid him any mind. He wasn't going anywhere. He was penniless, but he wasn't begging.