In which I learn old wives’ tales, old Mao tales and why young people are boring.
Pan liked to play movies when she got home. I sometimes caught an episode of Friends blaring on the TV set. I came to hate that show with all its talk of sex and people actually hopping in and out of bed with each other. This wasn’t the America I knew, but it was the America that China knew. Twice I had to run into the park to avoid leering men or ones that made a grab at my person in decidedly non-platonic ways. As the days wore on and the months approached winter, I was leaving the house at dawn and apparently it is a universal rule that creeps like the dark. I figured once I got to the amusement park grounds where we practiced stick and dadao I would be safe. No man in his right mind would attack me if I had a five foot long pole arm in my hand. Even if he was stupid enough, I was sure that Er Yang and the others would beat him up long before I even got the chance to do it myself. Why is it the most dangerous times I am ever out is when I’m going to a martial arts class? My empty hand class back at Bryn Mawr used to regularly end at midnight and I’d have to walk the ten minutes across campus to my solitary dorm and now I was getting up at dawn to train in China. However while my men troubles seemed to be peaking, my work problems were thankfully beginning to fade.
My friend Yang Ling helped me out. Yang Ling isn’t her real name. She’s from California, round eyed, high nosed and fair. I’d met her at the Jewish center during that first week in Shanghai. Dad, Pan and I had taken a taxi to the center, which was out in Gubei, foreigners central and very far from downtown. We had gone at rush hour and it had taken us an hour to get there. It was sukkot, so the Jewish center was crowded with throngs of people from all nations eating Jewish delicacies outside under the artificial tree bow hut. Yang Ling was by herself, much the same way that my father and I were strangers to the whole group. She was also a graduate from an all women’s school, had studied Chinese, was looking for a business position and, of course, Jewish. Dad thought we would become great friends because we had so much in common. While on paper we do, I never felt like our personalities really matched. I still enjoyed calling her up to talk to someone about things in English. She was having trouble finding the work she wanted and teaching English to keep her visa in the meantime. Right around the time that I was complaining that I had too little work, she was searching for someone to take over her weekend English job while she went back to the ‘states. The solution seemed so simple, I’d hold down the fort while she relaxed in the U.S. Not only would this fill up my days, but it would give me some much needed cash for the nearly two months of winter holiday when I would be unemployed.
My new work place was a bit of a hike. I would take a bus to the train station, from there catch the number one metro line to Southern Shanxi road and then walk twenty minutes to the office. It was a pretty walk though, right through the old French quarter. At night Maoming road was full of fancy ex-pat bars, but during the day it was sleepy and peaceful. The empty sidewalks were lined with tall sycamores that protected the road from the glaring sun with their wide leafy canopies. The buildings were all large and graceful with wrought iron gates and intricate stone carvings.
The company itself was on the third story of a nondescript new sky scraper with industrial carpeting and dull builder’s white walls. They wanted to check me out before agreeing to let me sub. They stuck me in front of a class of eight year olds. I had learned a lot since my first job interview and acquitted myself quite well. I asked them what animals they liked. Each child raised his or her hand and said something like this “I am a dog.” “I am a rabbit.” I explained to them the difference between liking and being using some choice Chinese words for emphasis. Then I made them repeat the drill. Once they were able to say what they liked, I had them go through it again saying what they were. I started by giving the example that I was a tiger, growling at them in mock ferocity and slashing a clawed hand so close to one little boy’s face that he ducked. We were just moving on to singing a rousing round of Old McDonald when the woman said that was enough and I was hired.
“You are a very good teacher, just what we are looking for. Do you have anymore free time? I would like to give you some more classes.”
I agreed readily and found myself with a full schedule for Sundays. Just days later she called me again wanting to add a Friday night class and a Saturday morning class. I agreed to those too, but only because she said she was desperate. Then she called again to say that their public school teacher had left and could I fill in for three mornings a week on Maoming road. I reluctantly said yes, I was so bad at saying no back then, but told her I wanted my Saturdays totally cleared. She gratefully agreed to my request and said she would reimburse my taxi ride to the subway for the Friday night class, since I didn’t like to walk alone in the dark. I rapidly went from being bored to having far too much to do. I was starting to grow so comfortable in the park.
The park was becoming a much more rewarding experience. People no longer turned away from me in disgust when I said ting bu dong and actually explained what they were trying to get me to understand. Lei Ping shifu had been bugging me since day one to get proper gongfu clothes. He had given me a black and white Chinese belt to wear, but I needed the matching suit. Having no idea where to buy it, his curious neighbor, who came a couple times to check me out, gave me one she had bought for herself, but was too big. I can’t say the legs were the right length on me either, but they were gathered, so it didn’t matter much.
They insisted I pull on those long loose leggings right there and yank the shirt on over the one I was wearing. Lei Ping shifu’s neighbor helped me close the two Chinese buttons on each blousy gathered sleeve and Er Yang did up a few of the ones in front. It was similar to a typical traditional Chinese shirt, except that there were seven buttons instead of five and the sleeves were cuffed. The ensemble was clinched with the black and white belt. I felt so stupid the first time I put it on. Few other people wore the full gongfu outfit aside from Lei Ping shifu and I felt like a Chinese wannabe freak. Besides it was shear white, I couldn’t run around in pants that showed off my underwear! Everyone one assured me that I didn’t look stupid at all, I looked quite good. It took a lot of convincing, but eventually I believed them.
I remember that neighbor well, the same way I remember my dog unexpectedly burping or when I dropped my brimming cereal bowl into my lap, because she asked me one day if I felt weak. I said I was a bit tired that day and she knowingly told me it was because I had my period. While I did have my period, I doubted this was the case. She told me I shouldn’t work hard when menstruating. I thanked her kindly and proceeded to totally ignore her advice.
When I next saw Pan I said to her
“You won’t believe what this crazy lady in the park said to me! She told me that I shouldn’t practice gongfu when I have my period, because I’ll be weak!”
Pan didn’t laugh. “That’s true. You will be weak, because of the bleeding.”
“What bleeding? Pan what kind of biology classes do they have around here? You’re not bleeding and if you were bleeding, it was two weeks ago at the height of your cycle.”
Pan seemed surprised by this. She told me other old wives tales about not eating spicy things or cold things, because they would give you cramps. I’ve never had cramps in my entire life. I pity those who do, but still, I remain suspicious that any of these dietary rules work.
I practiced Shaolin every day regardless of my teaching schedule, but my rock throwing got scraped down to Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. I felt bad about that and everyone else seemed to be upset about it too. There was a woman who stood near the bridge half way into the park who sang every morning in her wonderful opera voice. She also spoke some English and would assault me with her morning speech
“Good morning Beautiful Girl! Welcome to Shanghai! Welcome to China! Have you eaten your breakfast?”
Since the start of my manic working schedule she began to add “You must be very busy. Hurry! Hurry! Don’t be late!”
Teaching the classes at the new public school was fun. I had so many students that I couldn’t keep them straight, but it meant there was very little lesson preparation. We sang our songs, we practiced our vocab and then it was on to the next class. Well, on to the next class after I swam through the ocean of little children all demanding sweets that they didn’t earn. I felt satisfied after a full morning of teaching, too bad I still had my afternoon classes ahead.
The Monday/Wednesday afternoon class was tiring, but the kids were so good that it was hardly a burden. The Tuesday/Friday class was a bit different. We had gone with the easiest text book, because Lorne warned me that the parents would be angry if they had to buy textbooks that their children couldn’t read. This was fine for the third graders, but everyone else was bored stiff. There was nothing for me to teach. They knew it all. I tried photocopying pages from the more advanced readers, but then the third graders were confused and started acting badly.
The weekend classes were just all bad. Unlike my short .45-1.5 hour classes, these private lessons were a torturous three hours. The text book didn’t have enough material to cover the time and the games that worked so well in a big group were useless in a small one. I could focus on each student and we could have a less controlled environment, but no six year old can take that long a class. The toll on myself was great, as I no longer had any time to relax. I went to the park, worked, came home, checked my e-mail and crashed.