An old beggar woman thrust her basket between me and The New Yorker. And that’s when I lost it.
It was near the end of a long day and a long week, when I taught two more classes than usual to make up for a sick day (bad McDonald’s.) I had about three hours between observing a Chinese teacher and teaching my own rather stressful Friday night class. It was a rare warm, sunny, day, and I like to spend those outdoors reading. I decided on the pavilion in the lake, which is out of the line of traffic and takes a little effort to get to. There, I thought, I could enjoy an hour or two of peace. Once again, I was wrong.
Adam Dorward, an English missionary to Hunan in the 1880s, wrote of “the impossibility of obtaining quiet and privacy — the very desire for which is misunderstood by the Chinese” (“Pioneer Work in Hunan,” a free e-book from Barnes & Noble that is in residence on my Nook). China has undergone changes that Dorward could never have imagined, but this is not one of them. On the streets of New York, you can count on an certain anonymity, a certain invisibility; you can act out and no one will notice. In China, being in public implies an open invitation; people feel they have a right to my time, though I’m not if it’s because I’m a teacher or that amazing curiosity, a foreigner. Twice this week, when I took refuge in empty classrooms for an hour of downtime at lunch, a student came in and immediately launched into conversation. The first was my student Ellen, the second a complete stranger who said, “Oh! I’m sorry! I just came in for a little nap.” I told her to go right ahead, but instead she sat down next to me, started talking and, before I knew it, had my magazine in her hands. Just for the record, I don’t go into students’ dorms and interrupt their naps.
It’s not that I’m completely anti-social, but the fact is, even a casual conversation with these students amounts to teaching, and teaching is work. (“Teaching seems like an easy job,” at least one student here has told me, and indeed, that’s the attitude of many people who’ve never done it. They’re wrong.) You can’t speak normally: you have to speak slow-ly and dis-tinct-ly, constantly judging the other party’s comprehension and adapting to it. If they don’t understand a word you use, you have to find a synonym they will understand. You are constantly called upon to explain things, not to mention represent your country. That’s what I do 16 hours a week in the classroom. When the foreign English teachers here speak to one another, we often have to be reminded that we’re talking to native speakers and it’s OK to speed up a bit.
Within half an hour at the pavilion, I heard the familiar words behind me. “Ex-cuse me! Can I practice my English with you?” There were two girls, and two boys who hung back. The one who wanted to practice was dressed in a sunny yellow. I sighed and put down my magazine. “Maybe for a few minutes,” I said. “But I’m trying to take a rest between classes.”
The girl sat down. She is a student at Xiangtan University, the better-off one across town, where Chairman Mao went to school. Her friend is an art student here. I answered the same questions for the hundredth time: I’m from New York; yes, I’m a teacher here; no, I don’t speak Chinese, but I’m studying it with the other foreign teachers and can say a few words; yes, I love Chinese food; yes, it’s spicy in Hunan, and I like it. Yes, you can take a picture with me. Before I knew it, my magazine was in her hands. Every few minutes, she would ask, “Do you have enough time?” “Yes, but I’m trying to rest,” I would try to explain. “Oh! You are so outgoing!” she said. No, actually, I’m not. She simply could not, or would not, read my signals.
After they left, the pavilion grew noisy; students ran up and down the stairs, and two sitting not far from me started reading aloud. (Students here do that all the time to practice pronunciation, one of them in the front row of my classroom until the very moment the bell rings.) I moved to what seemed to be a quieter spot on the pavilion and went back to my reading. That’s where the beggar found me.
Beggars here are every persistent, and very in-your-face. (As are many people; remember the different concept of personal body space. Last Monday morning, as I sat in the campus shuttle, an older woman startled me by walking up and, just inches away from my face, made a remark, probably something like “You’re a foreigner!”) They’re not as menacing as some of their colleagues in New York, but they don’t give up without a fight, and essentially you pay them to go away. This time, though, I had had enough. “Stay away from me!” I yelled, jumping up and rushing off the island. Faces that glanced up said, “What’s the matter with her? Crazy foreigner!” I found a bench a little distance away, then fled again when I saw the beggar heading off the pavilion bridge. I went to the cherry tree park, where I found a stone table with little matching stools, sat down on one that happened to be off balance, and immediately tumbled back onto the ground. I moved to a nearby bench to work in peace for five or ten minutes until I heard the same beggar’s cane hitting the stone path.
I walked toward the Foreign Studies Building a good half-hour before I had planned. A student of mine, one I barely know, walked up and started asking me where I was going, what I had been doing that afternoon; “hiding,” I answered. She looked puzzled. I know I was abrupt with her, and hope I was not rude. I continued walking past the classroom building and decided to explore the back street, where I had never been at a time it wasn’t muddy. “Where are you going?” asked a student I half-recognized. I told him and went on my way.
Now it was close to the time I usually meet Stephen, my Friday-night freshman date, in the garden back at Foreign Studies. I was still on edge, and a T-shirt, offered for sale on a clothesline strung between two trees, set me off. It bore an obscene phrase in English that the cute teenage girl for whom it was sized would be likely to wear without having the slightest idea what it meant.
“Excuse me!” I called to the boy staffing the clothesline. “Do you speak English?”
Deer-in-the-headlights look. “A little.”
“Do you know what this means?” I demanded, slowly and clearly, pointing to the shirt. He shrugged.
“This says something very bad. You shouldn’t be selling it.” I stalked off.
Stephen wasn’t in the garden, but within minutes his friend came up, with another friend. “Are you waiting for Stephen? He said he’s a little late tonight.” The boys – electrical information systems majors — sat down next to me and started practicing their English. Where am I from? Am I a teacher? Do I speak Chinese? Do I like Chinese food?
One more student came running toward me. After a silent groan, I brightened to see it was Andrea, the student editor who had asked me to write a short piece for the campus magazine. In her hands were two copies – my clips! So what if I was identified as Diane Dnottle – my unpronounceable e-mail name? I’m always glad to see Andrea and invited her, along with the boys, to join the evening’s class.
That night, I had trouble dropping off to sleep. A row of Chinese characters on a white page kept morphing into black-haired young women and dancing across my mind, one after another after another. It felt suspiciously like the oral midterms I’m giving next week.
Weekend update: On Saturday morning the student who cleans for me was here. I told her I might go to the Mao museum in Shaoshan, but by the time she left, I decided I was too tired. Later in the day she called to ask if her two roommates could come and visit me that night. I said I was still too tired, maybe tomorrow, maybe another time. Two minutes later, she texted me to say that they were planning to cook me dumplings, presumably in my kitchen. But no one ever thought of asking if I wanted any dumplings, or company; they just assumed it would be fine. Meanwhile, the girl who cost me my raincoat e-mailed, inviting me to an undergraduate party — just what a 55-year-old wants to do on a Saturday night.