Paul left in June, and that August brought us Keith. Within a year he had transformed our university into his own private playhouse.
Keith was at first unassuming. From somewhere in the Midwest, he said he had done career counseling, and after an early retirement, had decided to come see China before returning home.
Later, long after his nose had gotten its first brown coat and he’d rid his precious little playhouse of anyone who might remind him of how inadequate he was, he proclaimed that rather than “die on a beach” he had come here to use his “doctorate” in education and “leadership” … and that although he was no Bible-thumper, he did believe that God had chosen him to be here.
He said this last bit with tears in his eyes.
Matt came the same time as Keith. Also American, from a well-off family, he had graduated in three and a half years with an Asian studies degree. Jeff came as well, and the two of them hung out a lot. They partied together, drank together, even got arrested once for setting off fireworks in the middle of a highway, and though I did not witness this myself, I’m pretty sure they spent some time in Hankou’s expensive clubs, visiting the old assassin of the youth.
The school took us on a trip to the Great Wall. It was our first school-sponsored trip, and can you believe it, it was also our last. All the foreign teachers came along, as well as the leadership from the International Office, including the Party Secretary himself.
A bus ride that was supposed to be four hours predictably turned into eight and Matt, in all the wisdom afforded rich nineteen-year-olds, decided that the best way of dealing with it was to complain rather loudly. When we arrived and got off the bus, Keith had a few things to say to him.
All the leaders were gathered around Keith, beside him the Director of the International Office, Miss Xia Yu herself, and all were looking on as Keith loudly told Matt that the kid was degrading Chinese people and insulting them and every other verb of humiliation his little bird brain could choke up.
The look on Keith’s face. That look. It was of an anger that I had not seen in many long years. Imagine an abused child, grown up and confronting the father who punched him or the uncle who’d locked him in the closet, and you will have some idea of what Keith looked like as he yelled at Matt. I don’t know of any other way to describe it, he just looked so vicious, so bitter … as if he weren’t even really angry at Matt.
As if the kid were a proxy for someone else.
We had dinner at a large restaurant. The Chinese leaders at one table, all the foreign teachers at another.
He was right there in between Xia Yu and the Party Secretary, while us laowai were tucked over in the corner.
As dinner progressed, Matt and Jack poked fun at what happened, tearing through cigarettes as they ate and laughed. Somewhere on the third pack or so, I got Matt’s attention and told him what I noticed.
Keith was over there talking, gesturing wildly as he’s prone to do. Only a few people were paying attention to him, but those few people included the Director Xia Yu and Vice-Director of our Foreign Affairs Office.
So I put it very simply to the kid: you need to do something to get back in their good graces if you have any hope of having a job come summer. While at the time I had never given Keith that much credit, it occurred to me later that it wasn’t Keith I should have been depriving of credit.
It was our administration.
Our university was run by miserable people, and none were more more than those running the Foreign Affairs Office. Stuck at an unwanted university, stuck babysitting an unwanted segment of another country’s population, you can imagine how they feel whenever someone blows smoke up their asses. Keith just happened to have a never-ending supply. Lucky him.
I imparted this on Matt as best I could. Outside after dinner, some other teachers and Keith got on the bus, Xia Yu and the others right behind him. Just as they were about to board, Matt stopped them.
He started breakdancing.
And my God if they didn’t just go right along with it! He taught them the electric slide, the chicken dance, and they loved it. They laughed and smiled and clapped, and since Matt spoke Chinese, he got to joke with them and we were all out there just having a great time.
Then I looked over at the bus.
There was Keith. Up in the bus. Watching. A different sort of look on his face, one I have also seen before. When my daughter was in kindergarten, she brought me in for career day and there was this boy who was trying real hard to get the teacher’s attention. So long as she gave it to him, things were fine, but the second she went on to another child, he called her name. She ignored him. She played with the other kid, and this boy, that look came upon his face. It stuck there as he went over and bashed the usurper right in the eye with a Lego block.
A black look grotesque enough on a five year old’s face, when seen on the face of a sixty-four year old man … I think Matt noticed too. Or maybe he was just hitting his stride. He took Xia Yu’s hands and started dancing with her.
He was fired a month later.
A week before he was fired, Matt received this e-mail from Keith:
I have witnessed all your disgusting behavior. You have no one to blame for your own problems but yourself. You are the typical young American, arrogant, take no responsibility for yourself or your actions. You never deserved to come here in the first place. I strongly suggest you resign immediately and move on to something else, whatever that may be. I am so disgusted by you.
Good thing Keith had no Lego blocks.
But on second thought, he did have Lego blocks — just of a different variety.
Our Foreign Affairs Office had it on “good authority” that Matt was sleeping with one of his students. Such good authority that they felt the need to terminate his contract and revoke his residence permit.
And within the year, Keith was in charge of recruiting new foreign teachers, and with this “promotion” came a revelation: he had friends.
In high places.
He claimed university presidents in America, but it was much more than that. He had Xia Yu’s powerful husband at his beck and call, not to mention the governor of Hubei himself. And although I must question how he managed to wrangle this together as a powerless outsider, I kept this to myself. It seemed wiser that way.
He also said he had been in recruiting for fifty years. I didn’t ask about that one either, but his new duties included sending an e-mail out to university e-mail lists; an e-mail with a skewed point of view, and giving any interested students our FAO’s e-mail address.
With Matt gone, Keith spent the rest of the semester bragging about the twenty new “real” teachers he was bringing in, that is when he wasn’t talking about the “weird” teacher he’d gotten on to for insulting Chinese people, the same “weird” teacher who’d gotten fired for sleeping with his students and couldn’t really teach worth a damn anyways and just didn’t deserve to be in China in the first place.
When questioned about it, Keith said that some student had seen Matt kissing another student outside his apartment one morning and so reported him to the proper authorities. When asked how he knew this, he said the office had told him. He insisted he had nothing to do with Matt’s firing. He had “gotten on” to Matt, this much he admitted, and then added that Matt was a poor teacher who didn’t deserve to be here … but he had nothing to do with Matt’s termination. Nothing.
Twenty new teachers though. Pretty impressive for an unranked school just ten years old.
September rolled around.
Three new teachers arrived.
And by the same time next year, not one of them remained.