When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high. Don’t worry: if you’re in China, it won’t get wet. Someone will be right beside you, holding an umbrella over your head.
It’s next to impossible to spend time alone here, even if you have an apartment all to yourself. (Students live six to eight in a dorm room. ) This week I’ve tried time and again to go for a walk, to stretch my legs and think my own private thoughts. Each time, I’ve failed.
Every Tuesday, Pam and I go downtown for spa day, and every week, Kang walks me to the bus stop. A graduate computer student who has finished his coursework and is down to his dissertation, Kang has no need to attend my postgraduate class; he has already passed it. But he wants to improve his English and comes religiously, not only to the Tuesday postgrads but often to sophomore classes as well, which he likes better because the students actually make an effort. Since he, too, lives on South Campus, he likes to ride home with me on the shuttle, or walk when I do — the whole two miles, 40 minutes.
On Tuesday morning, it began pouring rain the moment I left for class, so I had both my umbrella and my burgundy poncho with me. By the end of class the rain had slowed to a drop here and there, but I put on the poncho to avoid carrying it. Even though my bags and I were covered with waterproof plastic – if I ever move to Abu Dhabi, I can wear it as a burqa — Kang insisted on holding his umbrella over my head to entire 10-minute walk.
Since it was humid that day, I took off the poncho when he turned off and stood under North Gate to wait for the bus. Then I heard my name. It was my student Ellen, she of the text messages (and of the 95 on her oral final the day before). “Do you have an umbrella?” she asked solicitously, proffering her pretty dotted one.
“Yes, but I’m too lazy to hold it up.”
She looked puzzled; women here use their umbrellas rain or shine, the latter to avoid having one ray of sunlight touch their skin, which I find a lovely golden color, the kind I’d like to have as a tan, and they are desperate to lighten. (Avon here has an entire line of skin-whitening products. I’m half-afraid to use the No. 15 sunscreen I bought, for fear it will turn my natural “deathly pallor,” as a college friend once put it, even paler.) Mercifully, just then the bus came.
On the ride back, Pam scanned the passengers wondered if she might get home, just this once, without having student start a conversation. She did; I didn’t. It started raining again as I left the bus, and I pulled my poncho out of my bag and put it on. As I was adjusting the hood, an umbrella appeared overhead. It was a young woman I had never seen before, wanting to practice her English. She escorted me as far as the noodle cart, where I stopped for the next day’s brunch, holding her umbrella over me all the way.
Think about it. The Chinese think nothing of using toilets they don’t know are filthy, and expect us to do the same. (On Monday I noticed that the sinks in the Foreign Studies Building had been cleaned for the first time this semester, maybe longer – just the bowls, not the rims, which were still crusted brown. Well, it’s a start.) But not one drop of rainwater must be allowed to fall on me. What am I, the Wicked Witch of the West?
By Wednesday the weather had cleared, and I decided to walk home after class. “Ex-cuse me!” I heard when I had barely entered the garden. “Can I ask you two questions? They’re about pronunciation.” “Oh, good,” I thought, “at least this will be quick.” Wrong. The questions were, but the conversation wasn’t. Like Kang, Junior – I think I heard that right — walked me all the way to South Campus, two miles, 40 minutes. All that time, I had to keep up the conversation. “I’m sorry to take you so far out of your way,” I hinted. “Oh, no, it is my great honor!” he said. At least he was fluent; a freshman in a technical major, he will have no trouble with postgrad oral English when the time comes. He brought up Obama, and I seized the opportunity to fill him in on the Coup of 2000 and indulge in some Bush-bashing, so the time was put to good educational use. But until I managed to ditch him at the fruit stand, where I had urgent business, I thought he might follow me all the way to my door.
On Thursday, with time to kill after a round of oral finals ended early, I headed east toward the new section of campus that I hadn’t yet explored. I was barely on the road when I ran into seven students who had just come from my class. They wanted to treat me to ice cream in their canteen, and how could I say no? At least they asked to hear about my travels in China, especially Expo. About 10 feet on my way toward South Campus, I heard my name called behind me — Ellen again, this time on her way to the dentist. She offered to walk with me and gave me a choice of routes: the muddy unpaved shortcut through a construction zone that the students favor, or the long, roundabout paved road. In my open sandals, I chose the latter, and we walked together far more slowly than my normal pace, as if she assumed I couldn’t keep up. (Remember, she’s the one who said I was a little like her grandma.) I thought of asking her what time her dentist appointment was but realized that would have been a silly question. Even if she had an appointment – not likely – punctuality is meaningless here.
At dinner that night, Pam mentioned that she had gone with a student to the back-street restaurant with the good vegetables, where you point at your choices on the steam table. “Diane isn’t with you?” she was asked.
“You know her?”
“Diane eats here all the time,” she was told. I was floored. I do eat there all the time, including lunch that day, but I have never had any kind of verbal exchange with any of the workers, let alone told them my name. It reminded me of the day a few weeks ago when a total stranger told me he had heard I was “an outstanding teacher.” Being here is like living in a small town in Pennsylvania, only more so.
The Chinese simply have no boundaries, physical or social. They don’t understand the concept, and thus can’t read even our most overt signals. Only one, my student Lily, has asked me about Westerners’ different concept of personal space and privacy, and this while sitting in my living room on an evening when she and three others had invited themselves over. It was what we in the business call ”a teachable moment,” and I explained that sometimes Westerners just need to be alone. “On what occasion “ — and she was choosing her words very carefully – “do you wish not to be bothered?” she asked. “Thursdays!” I said, explaining that it’s a long, hard day and I really need to rest my voice at lunchtime, even if I’m in public. “But you,” I added, meaning my own students, “are always welcome.”
At the informal Monday lunch club of foreign teachers the other week, I mentioned how difficult I find the lack of privacy. “Well, I came here to teach the Chinese,” said one of my colleagues, a trifle smugly. So did I, and so I do – 200 of them, the 16 hours a week that I am paid to teach them in class. But not 39,000 of them on demand, and anyway, I’m not charging them 200 yuan ($30) an hour as private students, as I hear he is.
On Thursday night, someone did follow me home. It was after 10 p.m., and I was sitting in what passes for my pajamas these warm days, watching a DVD on my laptop. I heard a persistent banging, which could have been the decrepit metal awning over my porch threatening to tear away, but just possibly could have been someone, perhaps the Ukrainian dance teacher downstairs, knocking at my door. To my surprise, it was a middle-aged Chinese man I had never seen before. “Uh, oh,” I thought, “my speakers are too loud.” But no.
”Ex-cuse me, you are foreign teacher?”
“Yes . . “
“I am new teacher here. I live on first floor. I want make friend with you. But” – smiling apologetically – “it is late.”
“Yes, it is.” I stood on the other side of the half-screened metal door in my toothpaste-splattered T-shirt, underpants, slippers and nothing else. “Maybe this weekend?”
“No, tomorrow I have to plan my class. The weekend?”
“I have to go away. My wife and son in Changsha.”
“So next week?”
“Yes. Too late,” he kept repeating, but he made no move to go.
“This is not a good time,” I said as politely as I could, several times before he got the message and wished me goodnight. I have no idea if he’ll follow through. Being an adult, he might be someone I’d like to know, and yet, in my head, I can already hear my end of the conversation: “What . . . do . . . you . . . teach?” Now I’m inclined not to play music as I work, lest it be taken as an invitation.
I can hardly wait to get back to New York, where I can read on the subway undisturbed and nobody wants to be my friend. But now, it’s almost time to walk to class.
Update: Junior turned up at my class last night, and asked better questions than the registered students did.