The pineapple has disappeared. I’m spending more time thinking about travel plans than class preparation. And yesterday, I ordered my breakfast bao zi in Polish.
It’s time to go home.
“You were ready to go home after two weeks,” Pam said as I reported the bao zi incident, when I asked for dwa steamed pork buns instead of er (two). Actually, Pam, I was ready to turn around and go home the day I first dragged my luggage up the three flights of concrete stairs, which showed no sign of having been cleaned since they were built, and saw my apartment. But, like Tom Wopat’s character in the musical “A Catered Affair” – the steadfast taxi driver who never ran out on his difficult wife and family responsibilities – I stayed.
Pam had warned me about the pineapple. Ever since I arrived in China, it’s been sold fresh on the street – a quarter-pineapple (they’re smaller here) on a stick, trimmed in that same spiral pattern I find so attractive at the Dominican carts in Hamilton Heights. All along, they’ve been a reliable, healthful and delicious snack on demand, at 15 to 30 cents each. But Pam said the season would come to an end, and last week, without warning, it did. Suddenly there is not a pineapple to be found. Instead, the same carts sell watermelon – sometimes in generous wedges, sometimes sliced in plastic cups – and hami melon on a stick; fresh lichees are piled everywhere. Yesterday, to tide me over at the spa until our ritual lunch at Pizza Hut, I opted for a skewer of half a dozen water chestnuts, which are incredibly sweet and peeled with a cleaver right in front of you. Water chestnuts here do not come out of a can. (Nor do bamboo shoots, which I’ve learned are not rectangular slices but slender yellow-white stalks that resemble asparagus.)
Six weeks before until I fly home, I’m already coasting. It’s only the 14th week of the 16-week Oral English classes, but I’ve already started final presentations. Why? Most of my classes are so big that it will take two sessions to give everyone even five minutes each. Then there’s the complication of the Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday in the 16th week. China being China and this university being what it is, it has not yet announced which of three possible days will be the holiday. ”These things have to be approved,” the Boss patiently explains whenever we foreign teachers try to pin down a date so that we can do something frivolous, like make travel plans. I point out that these things have to be approved in America, too, but it’s done a year in advance so an academic calendar can be published. So, rather than have finals at the logical time, my sophomores are taking them a week earlier. For any classes unaffected by the Dragon Boat Festival, the last week will consist of filler, a party or possibly a self-declared holiday.
Now that oral exams are in progress, I have almost no more work to do; all I have to do is sit back, listen and grade. The juniors start their final debates tomorrow, and I’ve just fabricated my last in-class exercise for them. Once Week 16 is over and the sophomores and juniors are finished, I’ll have two weeks with just one or two classes each, between which I intend to hit the road. Plan A: a friend comes from New York comes over if a free seat opens up on a flight, and I become her tour guide. Plan B: she does not, and I go on my merry way. Luckily, this is China; there’s no need to plan much in advance. On my wish list are Beijing, a sleepover on the Great Wall, a weekend in the “Avatar” mountains of western Hunan, a return visit to Sichuan, and Guangzhou by high-speed train. The six-day Yangtze cruise back to Shanghai is already booked and non-negotiable.
As the semester winds down, life here is starting to feel dangerously close to normal. I’m now used to not be able to read signs or order from menus. I no longer see the hordes of people on the streets of downtown Xiangtan as Chinese, just people, and some of my students barely look Chinese to me anymore. I’m no longer surprised, though still a little disconcerted, when someone I would swear I’ve never seen before greets me with “Hi, Diane! How are you?” (That’s normal, too. When I came out of a shop downtown yesterday, Pam was chatting amiably with a student. Afterward she turned to me and said, teeth clenched, “I have no idea who that was.”)
The Chinese I know best, my students, still do surprise me. For all their whining and wheedling about finals – “I have to go first? But we’re very busy that week! Can’t we do it another time?” – everyone so far has come prepared, and most have improved significantly since midterms. More than once now, out of the blue, I’ve received e-mail from a student I can’t quite identify in a class that seems to hate me, thanking me for coming here to teach. The other week, I called on Mack, a tall, chubby junior who often doesn’t come to debate class and falls into the class-clown role when he does, to speak up front, and he acquitted himself better than I had any reason to expect. For finals, he has landed by default on a team of high achievers, and it will be interesting to watch. Sally, a tall, ever-smiling sophomore whose main preoccupations in life seem to be love and fashion (like so many girls here, she favors pink), was visibly shaken after scoring only 80 on her midterm, in large part because she couldn’t stop giggling. She followed me to my shuttle bus that day begging for guidance on how she could improve, which I interpreted as meaning her score, not necessarily her efforts. This week her dignified, expressive final presentation, on whether it’s right to treat pets as family members, brought her grade up to 88. But that was nothing compared to her tour de force last week, when she volunteered to open a discussion of movies, took over my podium, and proceeded to outline the tangled sexual relationships in “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” complete with blackboard chart. She’ll get a few bonus points for that.
“There are things you’ll miss,” Pam warns, knowing how challenging I’ve found this environment. “Of course,” I answer. I already know what some of them are; I will, for example, never be able to eat at Ollie’s again. And I will certainly miss my students. There are some I’d love to continue teaching, in a properly equipped setting, like my university in Poland or at Columbia. None of that stopped me, though, from going online last night to order a new phone system from Best Buy and tell The New Yorker when to resume my subscription.
Update: The Dragon Boat holiday has been approved! Three days, Monday through Wednesday. Now, the catch: we have to make up the Monday and Tuesday classes — Wednesday’s will have an actual holiday — the weekend before. That means a seven-day workweek to get a three-day holiday. But who cares? I suspect no one will come to class, at least among the postgrads on Sunday, and I’ve booked three nights at the five-star White Swan in Guangzhou. Look for me poolside.