This was the week things started coming together and I began to feel I’m living something like a normal life. On Monday, there was broccoli rabe. On Tuesday, I went to the movies in China for the first time. On Wednesday, in a burst of lesson-planning, I discovered I had mapped out the rest of the semester for three of my courses and wasn’t missing much for the fourth. Thursday was, as always, my busy day, and at the end I crashed, just like the old days on the Weekend section. On Friday, someone else cleaned my apartment while I made travel arrangements for my Labor Day holiday weekend (that’s May 1 to 3 here) in Shanghai, where I’m to morph back into a journalist for a few days and cover Expo 2010 for The National in Abu Dhabi. And then, miracle of miracles, I went swimming.
Four of the foreign teachers who have classes in the same building on Monday mornings usually have lunch together. This week we tried a new back-street restaurant Pam had found, where you make your choices from a steam table (not a steam table as we know it; here the dishes are individual and freshly cooked, each replenished as soon as it runs out). Among them was a bright green vegetable, coarsely chopped, that called out to me. It turned out to be my beloved broccoli rabe, the first I’ve seen here — with hot red peppers, of course. Also on the table that day was Pam’s favorite, eggplant. We returned on Thursday with a graduate student who had asked us out to lunch. That day there was no broccoli rabe in sight, at least when we arrived; I did sight some later. The man at the next table whisked the thin, crinkly tofu I’ve come to like (and that’s one phrase I never expected to be writing) right out from under me. So we settled for something resembling snap peas, deliciously crisp and peppery; lightly browned cubes of egg custard; sliced potatoes and turnips; and pork belly over (I believe) fermented long beans, just the kind of dish Chairman Mao reportedly loved.
Tuesday was spa day, ritually followed by lunch at Pizza Hut. (I am now the proud holder of a Chinese frequent-diner card for Pizza Hut, which got us a hefty discount of about 15 percent this week. The pizza is surprisingly good – especially the one called Delicious Bacon, which means more pork belly.) Then I went to see Tim Burton’s 3D “Alice in Wonderland” at the Rive Gauche Cinema atop the Grand Ocean mall downtown, which Pam had shown me the week before. I rode the five escalators up to the mural of the Harry Potter kids (with a very mature-looking Hermione) and, after checking that “Alice” was still playing, went to the ticket counter. Buying the ticket took about 10 minutes because the staff, looking crisply professional in their uniforms, couldn’t stop giggling. Young Chinese women cannot do anything without giggling, especially speak in class, to the extent that giggling is going to cost them points on their oral midterm grades. It’s like that line from GiIbert & Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids From School ” — “Everything is a source of fun,” which is of course followed by giggles. These girls giggled, first, because a foreigner had walked into their theater; second, because the foreigner couldn’t speak Chinese; and third, because when one asked, ”Do you understand Chinese?” the foreigner said no and bought the ticket anyway. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that the movie might be dubbed instead of subtitled, but it’s “Alice in Wonderland” – how hard could it be? I was already late and lost another five minutes when the ticket-takers couldn’t agree which theater I was supposed to enter; the expression “a Chinese fire drill” exists for a reason. Finally I was handed my 3D glasses and found a seat – not the one I had been assigned, perhaps, but the suppertime show was empty enough that it didn’t matter. I settled back into stadium seating and marveled at how well Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter apparently speak Chinese. The 3D didn’t work as well as it did in “Avatar,” but being where I am, a movie is a movie. And it felt good to see familiar faces on the screen, among them that of the British actress Geraldine James, last sighted at the “Hamlet” table during the actors’ dinner one Wednesday at Sardi’s.
Friday was pool day. When I arrived in Xiangtan, one person after another told me, no, there was no indoor pool in town, which is one reason I checked into the Dolton Hotel in Changsha last month (Starry, starry nights, April 9). There is an outdoor pool quite near me on campus, which opens around mid-June; at the moment it looks cold, black and greatly in need of a cleaning. But Mindia, another of the foreign teachers, had found a new pool-and-gym complex way on the other side of town – “near the steel factory,” wherever that might be – and on Friday afternoon five of us piled into one taxi for the 30-minute, $6 ride. The taxi pulled up to a mammoth modern building where we could smell the chlorine the minute we walked in. Et voila! On the other side of the locker room, I found a sparkling 50-meter pool with a blue-tiled bottom, divided into lap lanes and not at all crowded when we arrived at opening time, 3 p.m., though it did fill up within the hour. I plunged into my customary workout – eight-tenths of a mile, which takes me 45 minutes at Riverbank State Park but nearly an hour here, where the warm water temperature slowed me down. Incense wafting in from the locker rooms made it a little hard to breathe, but who cares? Just as a movie is a movie, a pool is a pool, and this one more than met my expectations. One caveat: the Chinese swim the way they drive. Lane markers are mere suggestions, and swimmers constantly weave in and out, right, left or straight down the center line, making U-turns and stopping short at will.
Tomorrow is Saturday, and the foreign teachers are scheduled to make a shopping run to Changsha. I can already smell the cheese.
Postscript: Back from Changsha, laden with not only four hunks of cheese but also a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of Old El Paso salsa, which served nicely as lunch. To ensure a balanced diet, I also brought back four bags of toasted, candied walnuts and a bottle of sour plum juice.