My raincoat is missing. One kid too many wanted to be my friend.
I was sitting in the garden outside the Foreign Studies Building late Thursday afternoon, reading — my way of recuperating from the three classes I already taught that day and resting up for my Mandarin class that night. (The Chinese take naps at lunchtime, religiously.) That garden, while lovely, is fairly open and public. I would have preferred a more secluded spot, like the benches by the lake with the pavilion in the middle, but I hadn’t eaten much for lunch and wanted to stay closer to food. So I set up camp for a couple of hours on a bench in the garden, using my rolled-up raincoat as a cushion. I was five minutes away from leaving when the girl came and sat next to me and said hello. I braced for the inevitable.
“Ex-cuse me. Can I be your friend?”
I’m sure she was nice enough, but the fact is, the number of students who want to be my instant friend is simply overwhelming, especially on a day that stretches from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. To top it off, one of my lab students, Jane, had asked me to lunch that day – “forced reciprocation,” as my friend Leslie would say, for a 50-cent lunch I had bought her two weeks before. (In China students always expect to pay for their teachers, which simply doesn’t seem right to me. When did college students ever have any money?) She reminded me that I’d said she could treat “next time,” and apparently next time meant today. Jane is one of my best students and one I would like to get to know, but on Thursdays I really need some down time.
The girl on the bench was not one of my students, and clearly not an English major. Almost immediately, she asked for my cellphone number, as is common here; I gave her my e-mail address instead, which tends to cut down on the number of messages from total strangers. I stayed around for a few minutes, just long enough not to seem impolite, and told her she could come to my Friday night class if she wanted. Then I packed up my bag, said goodbye with a smile and fled for class.
Except that I forgot one thing: my raincoat. It’s at least 10 years old, and it wasn’t necessarily going home with me anyway, since I have a new one waiting for me there. Just that day, when Jane had told me how stylish it looked and how much she liked the bronze color, I laughed and told her, “There’s nothing wrong with it, but frankly, I’m tired of it.” But I’d have liked to make that decision later. I’m going to need a raincoat for the next three months, since it rains a lot here, and I won’t necessarily be able to find one in my size.
Even so, this question of instant intimacy is more disconcerting. I am not a terribly social person, or, to put it more bluntly, I do not make friends easily. Despite having three brothers (who were old enough to be my uncles), I grew up essentially as an only child, and so am comfortable in my own company. It’s still hard for me to open up to people on less than, say, 10 years’ acquaintance, and preferably after we’ve been properly introduced. I have enough friends at home, and thanks to the wonders of e-mail, I’m kept up to date on every detail of their lives even when I’m 8,000 miles away.
Now envision this solitary child plopped down in the middle of China, where the communal is the norm. My students travel in packs. Each class is a real class, taking all its courses together and in fact living together in the same dorm. Personal body space is different; the Chinese stand and walk much closer together than Westerners do comfortably, and female friends will walk together holding hands or linking arms. China is such a closely packed country that the concept of privacy is all but non-existent. (One public toilet I looked into had no stalls. I went elsewhere.) I’ve been asked more than once why I’m not married, which is not something I want to get into with a Chinese teenager I’ve just met, even if I have written about it in the New York Times. The Chinese think it odd that the foreign teachers don’t spend their free time together, and they surely thought it very odd that I went off for weekend in Changsha, an hour away, and spent money to stay in a hotel, all alone.
Whenever my own students see me in the garden, they come over to say hello at the very least (as two had done that afternoon on their way downtown to go shopping) and sometimes stay to talk, and talk. It’s not always that they want a free English lesson, as I often grumble, but that they’re genuinely concerned I might be lonely, when all I really want is a little time alone. So the girl on the bench had no idea she might be intruding on my private time.
I was already back in my apartment when I realized I had left my raincoat behind. Mandarin class had been canceled – the first text message I’ve received that wasn’t from a student asking to be my friend! – and I was too tired even to take the shuttle back to North Campus to look for it. Well, I’m back in the Foreign Studies Building for class tonight. Maybe the girl will come to class and bring it. Or maybe someone has turned it at the reception desk. Maybe Stephen can help me ask. Stephen is a very sweet freshman, a computer major who usually meets me in the garden around 6 on Fridays for a little conversation. We met a few weeks ago when I was sitting on a bench in the garden, looking through the pictures I had taken that afternoon. He was the second Stephen I had met that night, and he sat down beside me, a little too close, to look at the camera screen with me. He asked if he could be my friend. Now, every Friday night, he is.