The apartment, the park and the job
Dad and Wister searched for an apartment in Wister’s neighborhood. It was a bit farther from city center and not yet on a subway line, but it was nearby a college, a nice area and had more affordable rent prices. By the time they called me at noon, they had found the perfect place for us to live and that location was to shape the entirety of my experiences in China.
Daddy called the hotel around noon to tell me to come meet him and Wister. I caught a cab and told them to bring me to the local park. It was a short cab ride that cost me only 16 kuai. At the time this seemed like such a deal, wow, only two bucks, I could take a taxi to center city every day it was so cheap. Little did I realize that later on I would view 16 kuai as four meals!
The driver dropped me off in front of the park entrance, which was dominated by a gigantic bronze statue of some quaint kitchen utensils. The place was a flurry of activity. There was dancing, music, small carts full of goods and food, people painting characters with water on the sidewalk and all manner of foreign things. I couldn’t absorb it all. The only thing I knew was that it looked fascinating and I wanted to join the throngs.
My father and Wister were waiting for me right at the corner. They led me on a walk that seemed to take forever. We passed so many interesting stores with stickers and toys and colorful clothing that I could barely calculate how far we had traveled. I’m a bit like a raven, I get distracted by brightly colored or shiny things and it was tough passing so many intriguing bits of merchandise without being allowed to stop to at least process what I was seeing.
First we looked at one last apartment in the long string of domiciles that Wister and Daddy had viewed. I thought it was nice, while Dad and Wister were unimpressed by it. Wister thought the dark, under furnished, shabby apartment’s only selling point of was that the two bedrooms were of equal size. It seemed worlds better than the place Pan and I had been so close to taking, but I had never even dreamed of the place where we would end up living.
Neither had Pan. If I was impressed by the hard wood floors, the bright cream walls with their marquisate designs and the gracious matching furniture, she was in awe of the spacious kitchen, full bath, walls of closets and floral curtains. The size was astounding to us both. There was a long main room segmented into dinning space, living space and office space. The office space was curtained off, while the living space had a large wrap around black leather couch facing a sizable TV. The dinning area had a small table with four chairs next to the decently sized kitchen that lead into a bathroom respectable enough for any western home. The master bedroom was smaller and had less light, but a bigger bed. The child’s bedroom was larger and brighter, but had the twin bed. I wanted the light, Pan wanted the more luxurious sleeping experience, so it was not hard to decide who was going to take what.
After surveying the apartment we went out for lunch. Wister is a huge fan of the culinary arts and an expert orderer. Not that I could appreciate at the time the intricacies of ordering in China, nor the breadth of his knowledge, all I knew was he got us an excellent looking repast. We had beer and spicy Sichuan food, most of which I could barely taste with my cold. I told Wister that his round face, large oval eyes and full lips reminded me of the people I had seen in Laos. His dark creamy skin colored and I gathered that he was less than pleased by the comment. In his soft musical voice he told me that he had been very sick the past year and was still suffering from the aftereffects. He wanted to go on a diet, but the medication, he indicated with a sweeping gesture encompassing the cornucopia of pills he had sitting on his plate, which he still had to take, made that pointless. Considering that Wister was far from a chubby fellow, it was hard for me to imagine him being thinner. I guess I’m not very imaginative in that way.
However I could imagine living in my new apartment quite vividly and I wanted to move in right away. Given the choice I would have done it that day, but the landlords had to ready the apartment for us and the banks would not be opening until after the fall holiday. It all made me rather anxious, but we figured we could buy what I would need for the apartment in the meantime. Not having to provide furniture was certainly a relief and the place was spacious enough that I would not need to fill it with plants like I had planned when I envisioned my cement rat hole.
Soon after we signed the rental contract Pan and I were comfortably ensconced in our new home, all we had left was to discuss was how we were going to split the bills and conduct daily life. I wanted us to eat together every night. My family had always shared our evening repast and in college I had made a point of eating every meal with a friend. I had planned that Pan would be my family away from home and everything she had said thus far indicated that she was willing to fill this role. Reality however is a creation of everyone’s desires and only coincides with dreams when all parties have acted upon the same wish. As we sat down to talk about how we would split the bills and I suggested we do the grocery shopping together, she informed me that she would often be home late and it would be best if we were to shop and subsequently eat separately. It was a bit of a shock to me. Mealtimes are when you share your life with the other person. It’s the time when you exchange thoughts, jokes, worries and all manner of important things. But Pan was not to eat with me and in the end I was barely to even see her at all.
On that first day when my father left I was actually relieved. He was gone and now I could get down to the business of living instead of the business of moving in. I was ready to experience China as an inhabitant rather than a tourist. Pan came to my room as soon as she awoke. She stood in the doorway, her small delicate frame almost dwarfed by the wide planks of the frame. Her long face was grave and her plucked brows puckered.
“Marjorie,” Pan said matter of factly. “It is ok to cry. I remember when I first went to America it was very hard for me. I cried almost every night the first week for my parents, so I understand that the adjustment is difficult, but I am here for you.”
I smiled and thanked her for her kind words, though I did not feel like crying at all. I wanted to go adventuring!
And that’s what I did bright and early the next morning. I got up early as I could, which happened to be 5:30, and headed for that park I had seen on my first arrival. According to Randal, my empty hand martial arts teacher back in the ‘states, and this book I read called Iron and silk, Chinese people all practiced their martial arts in the morning and that is exactly what I wanted to find. A park seemed like a good place to look for such a thing. I navigated the maze of alleys that led out of my apartment complex and made my way to the park. It was another warm morning, so I felt comfortable in my silk tank top and new extra large mid-calf length skirt purchased on Nanjing road. I didn’t see anyone else running around with dresses on, so my new clothes probably made me look even more the foreigner. I bought a 2 kuai ticket at the park entrance and proceeded into the hubbub. There was activity everywhere, but nothing much that caught my interest. I was looking for something Real, which for martial arts means something that looks practical. All I was seeing was taiji performed with flimsy tin swords and other forms of qigong that looked perfect for putting out my back. I followed a red brick path all the way to the very back of the park.
What I saw there was a fat man in a shiny white gongfu suit, the kind with seven buttons down the front and gathered sleeves with more buttons on the cuff. His shirt was held securely by a black and white belt strapped over the equator of his enormous belly. His skill was less than impressive. All he seemed to do was circle around a metal post posturing like he was in a parade. I wouldn’t have even stopped if it wasn’t for the array of practice weapons leaning against the whitewashed hut next to him. I figured maybe he could tell me where I could buy a bokuto, a Japanese wooden sword. I wanted to continue practicing iaido on my own in China and I figured since so much stuff was made there that I should be able to find a bokuto at some sort of martial arts supply outlet.
I walked up to the circling figure and cautiously said “nihao”. What he answered was practically indecipherable. Later on I was to realize that this wasn’t just a testament to the caliber of my Chinese. The man in question was from a mid-western province and his Mandarin was horrid. He barely spoke it at all and often lapsed into Shanghai hua or whatever dialect was spoken in his home town in Guangxi province. Mind you speaking a dialect or having a strong accent is no excuse for a foreigner not to communicate with a person, but I really felt that I deserved some brownie points for accomplishing this difficult feat.
Anyway, despite my first disastrous attempt at communication I decided to try again. I asked him where the teacher was. He puffed out his fleshy chest and made it understood that he was the teacher. Ok…so who was his teacher? He had no teacher. He WAS the teacher and he was 76 years old. Gosh, a real picture of modesty was he, but his unlined face looked about forty, so maybe his gongfu really was good. Where did he get the weapons? I could not understand the response, undeterred I decided to press on ahead and tell him I had been studying Japanese sword in the U.S. His response was to take out a Chinese sword and offer to teach me. I thanked him and said I was just looking today, but would come back tomorrow.
I set off through the park again. I didn’t find much more of interest except some really intimidating guy banging on a tree and doing some sort of empty hand form that looked like a stalking tiger. I wanted to speak to him, but he wasn’t friendly and he didn’t look like someone I could trust enough to learn from, so I moved on.
I can’t remember much about what I did that first day. I must have gone exploring in the neighborhood. There was so much mundane wonder to investigate. I do remember searching for jobs on the internet. My boxes from the U.S. hadn’t arrived, so I was living out of a suitcase and using my roommate’s computer for all my electronic needs. I had hoped to arrive in China with a job all lined up and all the comforts of home in place, but I had also hoped to have a 4.0 GPA in college and graduate with the major I had originally chosen and that didn’t happen either.
I didn’t want to teach English. I had heard you could make good money that way, but I hadn’t come to China to earn money. I had come to China to learn, it was my personal alternative to formal grad school. College had been such a bumpy experience that I had no desire to enter academia again, so I figured I would gain experience in Asia.
Pan had helped me find an internship. I’d met with the company representative once, when dad was still in town, and I thought it might work out. It was with a security company. I knew nothing about such things, but my interests are so varied I figured I would like it no matter what. However it was unpaid and they would not take care of my visa. A Chinese tourist visa only lasts a month and is renewable only for one time more. This would not work. The man I had met in a comfortable Starbucks, about the internship, had suggested that I teach English on the side to take care of my living expenses, so I was searching the internet for part time teaching jobs. Pan had introduced me to the ‘foreigner’s bible’ That’s Shanghai, an English language magazine, which also had a webpage. I had replied to job ads two days before my dad left and by that morning I found that already I had five requests for interviews. This did much to relieve my anxiety of living in a new place. I was determined to be self-sufficient.