Your phone chirps just as you close the lid of your lap top. As your evening is free you have decided to take your lap top into downtown Qidong and design your lesson plans in the UBC café: a dark, cavernous, western-style, Taiwanese place near the mall. At this time of day, it is deserted aside from a few students in tracksuits, nibbling at fries or napping on the benches lining the tables. Kitsch piano tinkles on the air. Outside, well-padded people heave against the cold like Michelin men.
You glance at the screen and push Talk. “June,” you say.
“You are not in your apartment.” She is using her immigration officer voice. No smiles, just the facts, sir.
“Well-spotted,” you say.
“Where are you?”
“Shouldn’t that have been your first question?”
“I’m Chinese, I don’t think like you. I have discovered where you aren’t, now I want to know where you are.”
You take a sip of your Colombian coffee. “I’m in the café downtown. How can I help you, sweetie?”
Her voice switches to its smiley mode. You visualize the toothsome smile that accompanies it.
“You have to go home now.”
“It’s late, you have classes in the morning.”
It is eight thirty. If I go straight home and straight to bed it will be nine; the earliest I’ve gone to bed since I was five.
“And another thing, tomorrow is Hospitality Day, when we show kindness to the foreigner. I want to invite you to my home for dinner.”
“That’s very nice of you.”
“Not at all. Six o’clock, okay?”
“Perfect,” you say. “Text me the address in Chinese so I can show it to the taxi driver.”
“Okay. By the way…” You hear the Immigration Officer returning. “Why do you always call me sweetie, darling, flowerpot? Why don’t you just call me by my name?”
For a second you feel you are back in the UK, where such a slip could easily cause offence. Then you remember you are in China, talking to your boss, June. You see her face now, the Wonder Woman thick-framed spectacles, the stern features belying her sense of humour.
You say, “But which one’s your favourite?”
“Flowerpot,” she says, hanging up.
June is the Academic Director and Foreign Expert Co-ordinator at the Middle School where you teach the cutest kids you have ever seen. You are the only foreign teacher, the only one for her to direct. This involves her summoning you to her office to help her mark students’ papers. You like June and you think she likes you, but she is married. Once, when explaining the function of the 2nd Conditional, you said, “If you weren’t married, would you come out for dinner with me?”
“But I’m married,” she said.
“Yes, but if you weren’t?”
“But I am.”
“I’m asking you to hypothesise. That is the main function of the 2nd Conditional.”
“Why should I think about something that isn’t true?”
“But it might be true one day. We can use it to express desire.”
She held your gaze for a second, then said, “Just mark those papers.”
Married but not, you suspect, happily. You know nothing about June’s husband but you understand that things are not going well between them. You have witnessed tearful phone calls, seen June looking tired and haggard in the morning after a sleepless night. Once she placed her head on the desk and said, “I can’t take any more of this.” You placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. She flinched violently and said, “You mustn’t do that!” But you kept your hand there and eventually she covered it with hers.
June’s invitation to her house is an unusual turn of events. You have only ever attended big dinners with her and other teachers. Multiple dishes on lazy susans, glasses clinked repeatedly, cigarettes offered and stored in a small arsenal beside your plate. Dinners where the endless chatter abruptly crashed at seven, when people hurriedly left in order ‘to be with my family.’
Renmin Lu is a very long road but this is the only address that June has given you, along with a note in English, ‘Outside the noodle shop.’ The taxi driver keeps glancing back, waiting for you to give him the signal to stop. At the sixth noodle shop you say, “Hao da.” He promptly pulls in at the curb. You hit June’s number as you get out.
“Have you arrived?”
On the opposite side of the road are compound after compound of identical, grey, high-rise blocks of apartments. If you close your eyes to blur the Chinese characters on the shop fronts you could be anywhere.
“I’m standing outside one of many noodle shops.”
“What do the characters look like?”
What difference would that make? you think, craning your neck to read the shop sign. The characters do look different, however, not Chinese as you understand it.
“The characters are sort of flattened out on the top.”
“Is there a man inside wearing a little white hat?”
You raise my gaze. There is, indeed.
“He is a Muslim Chinese. You are standing outside the Xinjiang noodle shop.”
“You need to go East.”
You are suddenly back in the Scouts, yanking an ordinance Survey map out of your rucksack on a wind-blown moor somewhere. You place your compass on the map, distinguish True North from Magnetic North and then—
“The sun sets in the west.”
“I can’t see the sun. Too many high-rises in the way.”
“Wait there, I’ll come and get you.”
Next to the noodle shop is a beauty spa. Out on the pavement a young girl in jeans and trainers is watching a dancing video playing on a screen in the shop window, her long hair pinned back by numerous clips. Suddenly she bursts into a snaky sixties American dance, a little rattle of the fists followed by a two-handed wavy motion, her narrow hips swaying. Her performance is not very convincing. It is like she is programming herself, trying to incite a passion that just won’t come. But she keeps going.
On the opposite side of the road, you see June passing through a security gate. She is wearing an orange casual jacket and tight light-grey trousers made of a shiny material. Her hair is pulled back in a girlish pony tail. When you first met, you guessed her to be in her late twenties. You were surprised when you learned that she is forty-three and married with a child at boarding school. You soon managed to avoid making this kind of mistake when meeting others. You realized that if childhood lasts longer here than it does in the west, it follows that adolescence extends longer also so you never know how old anyone is.
As she crosses the road she says, “See? The sun sets in the west over there.”
“I get it,” you say, following her finger towards a row of shops.
You cross the road and pass through the security gate. You enter the first block and step into the lift. Away from the school, alone with you, you see a different side to her.
“How do you like my trousers?” she says, giving a little twirl. “I bought them this afternoon.”
“Very nice,” you say. “They really show off your—I can’t remember the English word.”
She fixes you with a mock serious glare. “My behind. That’s what you mean, isn’t it? My behind.”
I shrug. “Well, I didn’t want to say…”
“Bloody foreigner, bloody you.”
June’s apartment is as pristine as a show home, very western with uplighters and low lighters, carefully considered colour scheme and huge Yucca plants. On the walls are framed silk prints of classical Chinese rural scenes: swooping valleys and tall mountains, meandering rivers and pagodas. The only anomaly is the Chinese three-piece sofa made of brown moulded wood, designed to be observed rather than sat upon. One big thing absent, you note as you take in the surroundings, is the smell of cooking. In fact, it feels like no-one has ever cooked in the apartment. June comes out of her bedroom, waving a huge newspaper sheet, the kind that you recognize as containing English comprehension tests. You wonder if this is the unspoken reason for your presence.
“We’re not eating here, then?”
“What?” June spreads the newspaper sheet on the coffee table. “No, I don’t like the way the cooking smell stays in the air. My Mum is cooking downstairs. Before we go, I need you to help me with something. Did you bring your spectaculars?”
You let the moment hang.
“Spectacles! Oh my God…” Her hand flies to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
When a good speaker of English makes a mistake, it is always particularly funny, often with an unwitting sexual charge. Once you were discussing the world ‘stimulate.’ After you had gone through the range of possibilities—stimulating film, stimulating company—June suggested, “Can I say ‘my boyfriend stimulated me last night?’” You really didn’t see that one coming.
Like other Chinese teachers, June continually inflicts multi-choice gap-fill exercises on her pupils. You know that there is no evidence that they improve anyone’s language abilities. You think they know that too, but they are locked into this way of teaching.
You spend the next half an hour poring over the exercises, June occasionally holding up the sheet to her face to read the answers.
“Right, so blah blah, A, B, C or D?”
Having done these tests countless times, you know that often two answers are possible because the person who devised the tests is not a native speaker.
“But the answer key says C is the answer.”
“D is also possible. Trust me. Look, why are you asking me if you don’t believe me?”
“I’m going to say it’s C.” She gives a mischievous grin as she scribbles in the answer. “Isn’t it funny how I am the judge of what’s right in your language?”
“Very funny.” An idea pops into your head. “Still, now I know how a Tibetan feels.”
“How do you mean?”
“You come in, step all over my culture then ask me to be grateful.”
She gives a little grunt of annoyance. For a second you wonder if you have overstepped the mark.
“That’s not very funny.”
“I thought it was.”
She eyes you quickly, then turns back to the sheet.
“Anyway, I am happy to say that according to the rules that cat that hangs around your flat on the campus can be kept as a pet.”
“Great. I’ve already got a name for him.” She folds away the sheet and flashes a huge toothy smile.
“How sweet. What are you going to call him?”
She begins to laugh, bites her lip and quickly gets to her feet. “I think dinner should be ready now.”
You follow her out of the apartment, on to the corridor and into the lift. Out on the courtyard she leads you to a row of garages. She pauses at one of them and raps smartly on the double doors. You both step back as they are pushed open. A blast of warm air mingled with unfamiliar cooking smells escapes from inside. A woman in her sixties with boyish short hair peers out and smiles.
The small garage has been converted into a granny flat. Judging from the hanging plants and old furniture outside, all the other garages have too. The interior is simple but cosy. One room contains a curtained double bed, a kitchen table, a cooker and a small shelf for preparing food. It amazes you that two people can be comfortable in such a confined space, but then it occurs to you that her parents, from the tiny village where June was born, may not have known much else. The table is already laid out with steaming dishes of food.
“Please sit,” says June. “You are very fortunate. My Mum makes the most delicious Jiangsu food.”
June’s smiling father pours you a Tsing Tao beer. You take up your chop sticks and hold them aloft, aware that it is protocol to wait for the most senior member to begin eating. June’s Mom moves from cooker to table with more dishes, limping slightly. Neither parents speak any English and you speak little Mandarin so all communication with them will be via nods and smiles or June’s translation.
None of the dishes are familiar to you, apart from the small bowls of rice. June’s father tucks in, making yummy noises as he chews. June points a chop stick at one of the dishes.
“That is pig’s ear with peanuts. This one is minced jelly fish and that one is mutton stew.”
You go for the stew, though you have only ever read about mutton in Victorian novels.
Parents and daughter chat at length in Mandarin and a familiar feeling of isolation settles on you. You recall arriving at the bus station three months ago. You were standing on the pavement, bags at your feet, a slip of paper bearing the address of your school in my hand, unaware whether the school was north, south, east or west. Surely someone…, you thought, approaching a friendly-seeming young lady in shiny leather boots, “Excuse me, can you…” She rushed off before you could complete the sentence. Other passers-by did not give you the chance to speak; they moved off as though you were trying to sell them something. You ended up calling June to come and collect you.
When your anger finally subsided, June explained that even those who spoke English could not have helped as the fear of making a mistake and the subsequent ‘loss of face’ would have been unbearable.
“I think you like the mutton stew,” June suddenly says.
“Nice. Very tasty,” you say, and it is, surprisingly.
Thinking it is time for a little English conversation you mention the young kids you teach in the middle school.
“And I show them this picture of Uma Thurman and ask them what colour her hair is and they call out ‘yellow.’ So, I teach them ‘blond’ and have them repeat it. The following week we review the lesson. I show them the picture again and they call out ‘yellow’ again. I ask them why they say this when I’ve taught them blond and one kid says, ‘Our Chinese teacher says yellow.’ So, what do I know eh?”
You are hoping for an explanation but you don’t get one as June is too engrossed in her minced jellyfish. Then again, you don’t really need one. The job you have taken is called a McJob. You are the Foreigner status symbol, not really required to teach. It follows that you are not a ‘real’ teacher so your opinion about anything is irrelevant. You tell yourself you will know better next time. You also tell yourself that in future you will turn down any kind of invitation to dinner because it always ends like this. People say hello then switch to Chinese while you stare at the walls, smiling until your jaw aches, surreptitiously glancing at your watch.
You are wondering when this non-event of an evening is going to end when the garage doors burst open, bringing in a blast of cold air and the burly figure of Jie, June’s husband. Red-faced and bulging out of his overcoat he pulls the doors shut, fiddling ineptly with the catch and cursing in Mandarin. June puts down her chop sticks and clutches her forehead. With his mop of disheveled black hair and thick-framed spectacles he looks like a bank manager just back from the office party.
You note now that her parents are eyeing Jie warily as he slumps into a chair. As if suddenly remembering where he is, he looks up, swings his gaze towards you and smiles. You don’t know what to make of this smile. It seems warm and friendly, at odds with the dramatic change in the atmosphere that his presence has wrought. It is a smile that seems to say, “Whatever is going on, it doesn’t concern you.” But then, strictly speaking, you have no idea what is going on. He says something to you in Mandarin. June quickly chips in to silence him. He slips his hand into his jacket and takes out his mobile phone. He presses a button and shows you the screen. On it is a photo of a footballer.
“David Beck Ham,” he says, giving you the thumbs-up.
You match his thumbs-up with yours.
He returns to his phone, scanning other images he can use to communicate with. Before he can select one, June says something that makes him sigh and slam the phone on to the table. He closes his eyes for a second then lets fly with a torrent of Mandarin, the usually musical sound made harsh by his anger. June gets up, places her hands on the table and responds with equal force. Jie gets to his feet and rants some more, jabbing his finger in the air. As if remembering your presence, June turns to you and says calmly, “I’ll take you to the taxi rank.”
You get up and pull on your padded jacket. June edges past you and opens the doors. Jie follows you into the courtyard, the argument close behind. Finally, June glances at you then at Jie. Then, as if she is disposing of an unwanted object, she stuffs him back into the garage, slams the door and carefully latches it shut. You follow her to her electric bike.
June pulls out of the compound and on to the main road. The electric bike hums as you cruise along Renmin Lu. Nine o’clock and it’s already deserted, even the noodle shops are in darkness. The dancing girl is probably fast asleep, dreaming of the spontaneity she hopes will one day come. The evening unspools through your head like a movie. You know that tomorrow, June will make no reference to this evening. It will be consigned to a past that will never be revisited.
You put your arms around June and lean in close.
“That is not allowed,” she says in her immigration officer voice.
“Shall I stop?” you say.
The smiley, friendly voice returns. “No.”
You feel you have learned something, but you don’t quite know what it is.
Trevor Wadlow was born in the UK but currently lives in Shanghai, China, where he runs a small import business and occasionally teaches English. Wadlow was educated at the University of East Anglia where he studied English History and Literature. In 2002 his novel Touched was published by House of Stratus. His short fiction has appeared in Eclectica, London Magazine, Cargo Literary, Gemini, Prole and Litro.