Our hero is John, who is wandering through life without purpose. This wandering led him to a humanities degree, then to unemployment, and finally, to the great refuge of unemployed humanities majors: ESL in China.
Though Wuhan later becomes an existential swamp for John, here at the beginning, everything is new and exciting.
This is John’s first day of teaching, where the incumbent dancing laowai, Keith, schools our hero in how to stay in rhythm and step effectively.
John had gotten Keith’s email about the teaching schedule the day he arrived. Attached was a badly formatted Excel spreadsheet but among the lines and half-lines and blocks of text and letters missing their most vital parts, John had caught three pieces of information: 9:50. JOHN and MELODY.
Keith had told him over the summer that they had a casual dress code. It was one of the many things that made teaching in China great. John had brought some formal clothes anyways, but he put on a T-shirt and jeans and headed out the door.
The smell of construction lurked everywhere and as he descended the stairs, he found out why: work crews were out in the little gravel patches between each stairwell, laying down hollow concrete blocks and planting trees. A few took the time to stare at John but the rest of them just went right on with their tasks as if nothing else existed but the work.
He was sweating by the time he reached the building. A mass of students was flowing in. Wuhan’s haze had parted today, and now the sun came on full-force. Some girls carried umbrellas. The boys didn’t. John moved in with them and made no eye contact with anyone as he stepped inside.
In the middle of the building were trees and grass and sunlight beamed down upon it like a solar garden. John leaned on a green rail with patches of rust.
A loan moan turned his head.
A fat old man with a white beard lumbered towards John, a tie slapping against his belly. He stopped, caught his breath, and said, “Hello.”
“Are you…” He glanced at his palm. “John?”
“I’m Keith.” He offered the same hand he’d looked at. John took it and when he pulled back, he saw little black smudges across his palm.
Keith was sweating. He wiped his forehead with one hand and steadied himself on the rail with the other.
“How’s that heat treating you?”
John lifted a sweat-stained part of his shirt.
“Yeah. I said Wuhan is one of China’s three furnaces.”
“Oh yeah? What are the other two?”
Curtains fell over his eyes for a moment. They went back up, his eyes wild and pokey. “I don’t really remember. Kunming and Qingbo. Hey, did you know I am publishing a book?”
“No.” He blinked. “Really?”
“Yes. I am still in the planning stage, but when I finish, I am going to take a trip to Random House. I have some good friends working there.”
John nodded. If there were a proper thing to say in response to this, he didn’t know it.
“Here,” Keith said, reaching into his wallet. “This is for you.”
Keith handed him a card.
“Show this to any taxi driver.”
There were Chinese characters on one side, smaller characters and their English translation on the other. Both sides shared something else: ‘Dr. Keith Dorgen, PhD’. Below this, ‘English Programme Coordinator’ and below this, scribbled in sloppy ink, ‘Doctor of Education’.
John reread that last part. Keith’s voice cut in.
“If you are ever lost, all you have to do is show that.” With a grunt, he stretched his arm and pointed with his middle finger. “And the driver will bring you right back here.” His arm retreated. “I cannot tell you how many times that card has saved my life.”
“Interesting,” John said, looking at the characters. Then Keith. “What’s this school’s Chinese name by the way?”
The curtains fell, rose.
“I…you can just show them that card I just gave you.”
“Yeah, but if I wanted to tell them the Chinese name.”
“Why do you want to do that?” Keith’s face had gone slack. “Just show them the card.”
John juggled sounds with his tongue. He organized them into, “In case I need to know. That’s all.”
“Well if you insist.” He jabbed with his middle finger. “It’s right there on the card.”
John returned to the characters. He was smiling several seconds before realizing it, right on the edge of a laugh. He snuffed out both.
Keith was staring at him. Hard.
“Cool,” John managed. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” He wheezed. He coughed. “Ready for your first day?”
“I think so. Yes.”
Keith chucked out some sort of laugh.
“We all get nervous the first time. You’ll do fine. We got you paired up with a Chinese teacher. Your job is to assist, so…there is no pressure.”
“Okay that’s good,” John said, trying to catch sight of the passing students. One girl went by, long black strands of hair reaching down to the small of her back and denim shorts and right under this her white legs, long and—
“There is this theory I have developed.”
Keith had his breathing under control now. He picked up his tie and flapped it against his tongue and John saw that it was decorated in grimacing sheep.
“I said, there is this classroom education theory I have developed.”
John waited. Keith stood hunched over, his legs white feathery things sticking out of cut-off jean shorts that looked like someone had done the job with a pair of scissors.
When Keith did not go on, John said, “What’s that?”
“Your education theory.”
Keith made a kissy face at John.
Keith didn’t notice. He kissed at John and said, “Kiss. K-I-S-S. Keep It Simple and Stupid.”
The bell rang.
“That’s us. Remember.” He kissed at John again. “Simple and stupid.”
Melody was a short Chinese girl with curled hair. She was saying something in Chinese while the students texted, but as soon as John came in, everything stopped. Melody went quiet. The students went quiet. Every eye in the room turned to him.
John stood near the door. A heat of different origin than that of the day was creeping over his face. He forced himself to look at Melody.
“Hello,” he said.
Some students laughed. The teacher flashed a smile.
“Hi. Please. Come in.”
John stepped in further. Some students ooohed and aaahed. One guy called out, “Where are you come from?”
“I’m from America,” John said in the direction of the voice, to a group of guys in the back.
“Excuse me please.” Melody came close. She thrust out her arms. “Please say hello to Tom from America.”
“Hello! Hello! Hi! How do you do?”
“I’m John,” he whispered to her. When she only looked at him blankly, he faced the students and that heat did a double-flare.
They were staring at him. Every fucking one.
A few nodded. The rest didn’t.
“Students!” Melody chirped. “I was just telling you some of the rules for this concentration camp. Please tell our new and handsome foreign teacher, Tom, please tell to him please.”
Nobody spoke. John tilted his head. Did she just say—?
“Okay. The first rule of this here concentration camp is please be on time. IF you are late, you must tell me why you are late. The number two rule of this here concentration camp…”
Concentration camp. John looked at her like he were hearing things. He had to be. Concentration camp?
“The number seven rule of this here concentration camp…”
But no, he heard her correctly. She read the rules directly from a piece of paper, then lowered it and smiled at John.
“Maybe our lovely…and so handsome foreign teacher would like to tell us a little about his hometown, maybe. Perhaps? Yes?”
“Oh. Okay.” He began. And stopped at the part about being a French major.
“So why are you in China?” a girl asked. She looked pissed. And she asked the question as if John’s mere presence here was a personal affront to her.
John thought it was a stupid question to ask. Stupid or not though, she was waiting for an answer. He said the first thing that came to mind.
“My plane crashed here.”
After a second or two, the class cracked up. Except for that girl. She had some tempered little grin on her face, her eyes filling up with something.
John’s first thought: it was contempt.
But he wasn’t too sure.
Once John’s bio was over, he took questions from the students. After several seconds of pressuring, including a harsh lecture in Chinese from the teacher, John got the following questions, in order:
– Do you like Chinese food?
– Do you like Wuhan food?
– Can you use chopsticks?
– What do you think of China?
– What do you think of Wuhan?
– How do you think of China?
– How do you think of Wuhan?
Melody asked these last two, the same as ‘What do you think of China/Wuhan?’ Q & A over, she began the day’s lesson. John asked what he could do to help.
“You can stand over there!” she said with a big smile. It was a friendly smile.
John went and stood over there.
She lectured directly from a powerpoint to a silent audience. John sweated. When the bell rang, both she and John stepped out into the hallway. The building, quiet seconds before, now filled with a deafening Mandarin din.
And near the window, a low English ting.
“Hello Tom!” Melody said, smiling. “How do you think of your first class?”
“It’s…it’s okay. It’s real hot in here.”
“Oh!” She drank from a thermos, the contents of which appeared to have…
“It’s so hot!” the teacher said as John studied her thermos.
“What’re you drinking?”
“Green tea. It’s very good.”
“Of course! It’s very good.” She tugged absently at her shirt. “Do you believe it’s hot inside here?”
“Oh yeah, it’s hotter than hell here.”
“You…can go home.”
She said it with such finality, but somehow, she was giving him another friendly smile.
“But aren’t I supposed to help?”
“It’s so hot. You can go home.”
The bell rang. The students filed in. The teacher recapped her thermos, put it back in her purse and said, “I will see you later!”
She hurried into the classroom as John said bye.