A Box of Chocolates in China

I cling to the back of a motorcycle, my hair wild in the wind, arms clenched around the slim waist in front. I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

How did I end up here? I responded to an ad: Volunteer for a month teaching in China. From that point everything careened out of my control.

[blockquote align=right]I am flying through the night, lights winking as we buzz around bumper-to-bumper traffic in a Chinese city of three million. Have I lost my mind, never having been on a cycle in my life? Am I so immersed in the culture I just don’t give a damn? Or is it love, crazy love?

*     *     *

The orientation took place on a tree-covered campus in Virginia. Eleven of us sat through the spiel of The Chinese Lady Professor whose project we had become. She assigned the volunteers: four to elementary kids in summer English Camp, four as high school tutors, and two to a northern university near Russia.

I looked around, perplexed. “You haven’t assigned me.”

You will teach the teachers.”

What!? I wanted little kids, games with flash cards, like cat and dog. Fun. “I work with high school students,” I said, “and I was hoping for something different.” I didn’t say easier, but that’s what I meant. And she knew it.

The Lady Professor paused and looked over her list.

“But you filled out the questionnaire that you would work . . . let me see . . . wherever needed. I need you to teach the teachers. English teachers in China recertify just as you do, every few years. The government requires they be taught by a native speaker with a Masters in English. It’s you. Don’t worry, you’ll be great, trust me.”

Trust you! I should walk out and drive home. Well, I didn’t, but I sulked, and the snit lasted awhile. During break I had a talk with myself in the Ladies Room: Okay, put your money where your mouth is. You talk about teaching in a foreign country, your next great career. Quit talking, get off your ass, and do it.

I smiled at The Chinese Lady Professor. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m supposed to fill up four hours a day for a month, right? So, where’s the curriculum?”

“You’ll bring it,” she responded, with what looked like a smirk.

*     *     *

August, 2001. Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China.

I stand in front of my class with the first of my brilliant teaching strategies, The Quotation for the Day.

“Each day we’ll start with a quotation. I’ve brought dozens. We’ll talk about the quotation in English without worrying about grammar. Chat away. It would be fun if you’d bring quotations too. Something meaningful, maybe a family saying.”

No response. They smile.

Twenty-two faces look up at me, nodding. I am Teacher, what they call me on day one and every day afterwards. Not my last name, not my first name, not anything I suggest. Simply, Teacher. Twenty-two Chinese teachers will treat me like royalty, argue over who has lunch with me, who takes me shopping, who gets me for dinner.

Now, however, they just smile.

“In my country when we don’t know the origin of a saying, we claim it’s an Old Chinese Proverb. For instance, here’s my favorite.” I write it on the board: Give me a fish and I eat today. Teach me to fish and I eat for the rest of my life.

They smile. A timid voice from the back, “We don’t know that one. It’s not Chinese.”

“Oh, okay. Do you have one you’ll share?”

No takers.

“Come on. In my country we participate in class. I need a quotation.”

They smile. Silence. Finally a hand in the air. It’s Ivan, twenty-one, the youngest in my class. Ivan’s not his name, or course, but they insist on using the English names they chose in university—Ivan, Leaf, Stream, Moon. I call them whatever they want.

Ivan waves his hand. “I have one, my favorite.”

Everyone smiles, waiting.

‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.'”

Now no one’s smiling. They’re looking around, nodding, laughing, and the ice is broken. They agree it’s wonderful, and they all know it.

“From my favorite movie, Forrest Gump,” says Ivan. “Forrest’s mother says it. The movie is about surprising things in life, and I agree. Life is about surprises.”

From that moment, the first hour of my first day in a class in China, I find that almost everything I have assumed is wrong. The Chinese I meet are not shy conformists, not unassertive, not out of the global mainstream. They are not immune to capitalism, ignorant of world history, lousy foreign language speakers, or all afraid of their government. Not characters out of a Pearl Buck novel. Not much different from me.

For one month I am enchanted and battered by the kaleidoscope that is China. My students stun me with knowledge, embarrass me with personal questions, frighten me with insights, challenge me with assertions, and humble me with kindness.

*     *     *

A few days after my arrival I walk my neighborhood, forced outside to fight loneliness. The students leave me after lunch, and except for special invitations, I’m on my own until next morning pick-up. The other volunteer Americans live outside the city, teaching kids in English Camp. They have each other, but I’m alone, feeling sorry for myself.

Ridiculous. So you can’t speak the language or read the street signs, just go out and wander. I grab a hotel card with directions in Chinese, pay attention to landmarks, and meander through the neighborhood. I find the river, sit under newly planted trees, and read.

Every day going to the river, I pass an old woman, squatting on her haunches, hawking fruit, glaring at me. Intimidated, I walk across the street to avoid her. One day, though, I look the old woman directly in the eyes and call out, “Ni hao,” the one phrase I know in Chinese—hello.

She jerks around, taken aback. A grin spreads across her face, revealing toothless gums. “Hello,” the old woman shouts in English, cackling like a hen. “Hello, hello, hello.” Every day afterward she waves and calls as I pass.

After the old lady welcomes me to street life, wandering becomes part of my day. I scramble through back streets of the market, swatting flies, my nose assaulted by dried blood, foul water, rotten fruit, and urine. Pigs’ heads, chicken carcasses, ducks’ feet, and unrecognizable innards dangle on iron hooks, but I don’t ask what they are. I adore Chinese food and help myself to most everything on a buffet, but usually I don’t ask what I’m eating. One day with Ivan I had broken my rule. “This is delicious, like corned beef. What is it?”

“Donkey,” Ivan replied, “a specialty of this restaurant. Not cheap.” Since then I’ve not asked. The only thing I refuse is fried scorpion, which looks too much like what it is.

*     *     *

One day in class as we discuss American history—and my students know lots of it—I digress to McCarthyism and the ‘commie scare’ of the 50s. I end by commenting, “It was a dark chapter in American history.”

A few days later Laura, my oldest student, recounts her experiences in the Cultural Revolution. She’d grown up in a house full of books until the Revolution, when she read Western classics secretly from torn-out chapters hidden throughout the house. “I could never get the whole plot because we had only a chapter here and there. Now I read the whole book and say, ‘Oh, so that’s how it ended.’ . . . The Cultural Revolution was a dark chapter in Chinese history.”

I choke, hearing my words echoed verbatim. I am stunned, almost frightened, by the power I have in this classroom. In some ways, my students are sponges, and I wonder if I should be more careful what I say.

The class talks of religion, politics, books, AIDS, postpartum depression, teenagers, and even Falun Gong—which we were told during orientation not to discuss under any circumstances. “Are there forbidden subjects in China?” I finally ask.

My students are indignant. “There are no forbidden topics. What are you talking about?” There’s nothing they don’t want to know, so after a couple of days, I quit worrying, and talk about whatever they request.

One day someone asks me to sing the American national anthem, which I wouldn’t have done earlier. I joke that it’s too hard, I can’t sing, and I don’t know the words, all true. They insist. So instead of The Star Spangled Banner, I belt out, completely off key, My Country ‘Tis of Thee. At least I know all the words.

They love it. After a round of applause, they beg me to write every word on the board so they can copy it. Then suddenly the entire class is singing it with me. A few tears sneak down my cheeks while I sing like a kid about my country in a sterile classroom halfway around the world. I never really thought about the words before.

What’s happening? Something’s getting weird here.

*     *     *

“What do you want to discuss today?” I ask the next morning. No longer hesitant, my students fight to pick the Topic of the Day.

“The One Child policy,” someone answers, and a lively debate ensues with strong opinions on both sides.

“We must keep it. It is the backbone of our strong economy and our new place in the world.”

“No, it’s immoral and should be illegal. A government should not dictate such things. It’s a family decision.”

“The peasants are the problem. They get exemptions that no one else gets. That’s not fair.”

“If we want to increase the standard of living and feed everyone, we need it.”

“Soon there will be no one to take care of the elderly, too few young people, and too many old people.”

“But that wouldn’t happen if young people still had the old values of responsibility. They’re too busy moving to the cities, getting ahead in their jobs, making money, buying clothes, and going to clubs.”

“What happens if you have more than one child?” I interrupt.

“We lose our jobs,” a couple of my students respond simultaneously.

“My mother had an abortion two years after I was born,” says Ivan. “She was sad and didn’t want to have it, but she had to or lose her job. Sometimes I wonder what my sister would have been like.”

I’m excited now. Here’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore since the day I arrived. “During the weekend I went to Pingyao with the other Americans,” I say. A six hundred year old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pingyao is a village in the country, architecturally and historically significant. “We were walking down the main street when I saw a blackboard in the square with chalked numbers. Our guide thought it had something to do with numbers of children. Anybody know?”

“I know,” says Stream, the only one of my students who lives in the country. Principal of a rural elementary school, he rides his bicycle two hours round-trip each day to come to my class.

“Peasants are allowed more than one child,” explains Stream, “depending on circumstances. They can have two if they are elderly or disabled, or if the first child is a girl—they need boys in the country. But no more than two children are allowed. Sometimes, though, the peasants don’t care about the rules, and they’ll have three, four, or more. If they do, then the village committee fines them for each additional child. What you saw in Pingyao is the name of each peasant who owes a fine. His name will stay on the blackboard until he pays. The fine is huge, and the peasant is poor. Sometimes his name is there until he dies, and the family inherits the debt.”

At this point my students ask me what I think about the One Child policy. Each side wants me to support its conclusion.

“I came to China thinking it was a bad policy, but now I’m not sure. I’ve never seen so many people, and I can only imagine what it was like before the policy. I understand why the government thinks it’s necessary, but I also understand women like Ivan’s mother who grieves for her unborn child.”

I’m thankful not to have such a decision. Keep a child, lose a job; keep a job, lose a child.

*     *     *

We continue the exhausting One Child debate during lunch, and after my students finally leave, I head upstairs for a nap. Strains of The Wedding March waft down the hall next to the elevator—not music I expect in China. I peek around the corner and find a wedding in progress. The band stops, the bride and groom begin their toasts, and they spot me, embarrassed, spying on the gathering. The couple stops in mid-toast, and I prepare to flee. But they leave the table, come to the door, and pull me into their reception.

The bride wears the red dress of the traditional Chinese wedding. A formal ceremony, like this one—in a hotel, red dress, banquet, orchestra, cake, flowers, hundreds of guests—occurs months or even years after the civil ceremony. Couples wait until they, or their families, can afford the huge celebration, and sometimes it never happens. A number of my students have been married for years with no red dress yet.

The bride takes my hand and pulls me to the head table. Suddenly I am an honored guest, and the entire wedding party drinks a toast to me. Traditionally they drink three ‘neat’ cups of alcohol as a toast. I throw one down, and although they cheer, holding up two more fingers, I decline.

I escape as soon as I can, but the wedding makes my day. The entire incident takes place with none of us having the vaguest idea what the other is saying, smiles and gestures the international language we all understand.

I am never lonely again in China.

*     *     *

If I want to be lonely, or even alone, Cherry will not allow it. My most assertive, boisterous student, Cherry becomes my guide to life outside of class.

“Tomorrow we go to the Night Market,” she says one day. “We’ll eat and arrive when it opens at eight, stay a couple hours, not until midnight when it closes. No one comes to Taiyuan without visiting the Night Market. It’s one of the most important parts of our culture, and you won’t believe it.”

“Okay.” I don’t argue with Cherry. No one argues with Cherry.

Born into poverty, she grew up with a disabled widowed mother in a cold water flat on the top floor of a building with no elevators. As a child Cherry trudged to the basement every day, mixed water and coal to make ‘coal cake’ and hauled it up four flights of stairs. After supporting her mother and three younger siblings for years, she married late. Cherry is short, with a ragged, spiky haircut and crooked, brown teeth, but what she lacks in appearance, she makes up for in guts.

A feminist, Cherry takes no guff from men and considers most of them dependent and self-indulgent. “I will quit teaching, get a PhD in international relations, and go into government. If my husband doesn’t like it, I’ll divorce him, and he can stay here.” So much for the stereotype of submissive Chinese women.

I love this woman, but sometimes she’s a little scary. When she bargains, she turns into a harridan. A couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of telling Cherry I wanted silver zodiac charms, after which she bargained with a street vendor, and it got ugly. Bargaining is serious business in China, elevated to high art, and when Cherry swings into gear, I don’t want to be within an arm’s length of her. She’s formidable, even mean. Maybe it’s my American sensibility, but extreme bargaining embarrasses me, so that day I moved away and pretended not to be with her.

The charms were cheap, and I was willing to give the woman her asking price, but Cherry would not have it. “She’s cheating you because you’re a foreigner, and I won’t allow it.” I suspect her attitude was about more than that, but I said nothing. We stood at the stall for twenty minutes while the arm gestures increased, voices of the two women rose higher until they were shrieking, and a circle surrounded us, like spectators at a boxing match. This was high drama, even for China.

Cherry won, of course. She snatched the money from my wallet, threw it contemptuously on the table and smiled at me, her crooked, gold capped teeth gleaming. I was humiliated and felt like a cheap, unsympathetic foreigner. The woman who lost the duel gave us both a disgusted look, muttered under her breath, and spat on my shoe. An ugly scene.

*     *     *

I dread to think how many conflicts Cherry might instigate in an area as big as The Night Market, which is where she takes me now.

Sales start at eight, but vendors set up when they leave their day jobs. By the hundreds they migrate to their stalls, and the largest Night Market in Northern China unfolds. For blocks along both sides of the street, hawkers sell everything from toilet seats to trashcans, blouses to baby clothes, candy to vinegar, bicycle wheels, pirated CDs, fruit, jewelry, junk. And a unique meat on a stick—donkey penis.

You name it, someone’s got it, and if he doesn’t, he’ll go around the corner and get it. Men, women, and teenagers—everyone’s got something to sell. I’m flabbergasted by the conspicuous consumption, the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs, and the selection of wares. What’s going on? This doesn’t look like communism.

I ask Cherry, the political scientist, who sets me straight.

“In China we are communists in government, not in economics. We are as capitalistic as you Americans, and a person’s income in the marketplace is limited only by how hard he works. Everyone here has a regular salary, but they make a lot more at market than on the job. Someone’s always thinking of something new to sell. Everything in China changed after Mao’s death, when Deng Xiaoping declared a socialist market economy. ‘To make money is good,’ he said. He was a wonderful man. We missed him when he died. With him, we became a nation of entrepreneurs.”

At dinner a few nights before, Ivan had put it more poetically. “Deng Xiaoping said that whether you are a black cat or a white cat doesn’t matter. If you can catch a mouse, you are a good cat.” I had nodded as if I understood.

I don’t understand Deng Xiaoping’s cat, but I do understand that if what I witness here at The Night Market is duplicated in thousands of cities and villages throughout this country, China could become the world power of the twenty-first century.

*     *     *

A few days later Cherry continues to expand my understanding of The New China. “I’m taking you to The English Corner tonight.” She has become the self-appointed director of my social calendar.

“Every Friday night anyone who wants to practice English shows up in the square to chat for a couple of hours with hundreds of others who want to speak English. Everyone from kids to grandmothers. There are no rules, except we cannot speak anything but English the whole time. You’ll love it, you’ll be a big hit.”

And she’s right. I am mobbed like a movie idol, everyone pushing in to chat with me, even a press reporter who’s gotten wind of my presence. This might seem incomprehensible, but Taiyuan is not a city where foreigners drop in every day. I am a sensation. The reporter inundates me with questions, wanting my impression of his city: Do you think Taiyuan is pretty? Polluted? What do you like about the place? Dislike?

The city is horribly polluted, under a gray industrial haze so thick I never see the sun. Everyone knows this, and the reporter does too. I want to answer honestly, particularly about the environment, but I’ve become Chinese enough to put on a good face, so I don’t tell the entire truth. Instead of talking about the filthy air, I compliment the new trees by the river.

One mother elbows the reporter and pushes her son in front of me, commanding, “Speak to the foreigner.” And to me, “Speak to my son. He’s twelve and needs to practice.”

In perfect English, without an accent, the wide-eyed boy asks, “Do you have a Chinese Corner in your city where everyone comes to practice Chinese on Fridays?”

I am too humiliated to answer and pretend not to hear.

*     *     *

After the English Corner I lie awake, thinking about the global impact of language. I feel guilty not having learned any Mandarin. Typically I learn a little language when I travel and I carry a phrase book. Not this time. I had bought books and cassettes, but my attempt to speak lasted two days. Pronouncing ma with four different inflections did me in, to say nothing of thousands of indecipherable written characters.

“Don’t you hear the difference?” asked Li, the Chinese student I recruited to help me before I left home. “These are four different words, pronounced in distinct ways. If you don’t get it right, you could make a terrible mistake. There’s a rising tone, falling tone, even tone, and a lilting tone that combines a fall with a rise.” You’ve got to be kidding! After I called my mother a donkey, I called the whole thing off. My attempt to learn some Mandarin was depressing me to the point where I no longer looked forward to the journey.

The language thing makes me wonder about the role of our country in the twenty-first century. Do we suffer from complacency, arrogantly assuming everyone will speak English? Will we follow Great Britain into history books as the next ‘has been’? China has mandated that beginning in 2002 every first grader will study English. Already, privileged kids compete for spots in weekend and summer English camps, for which their parents pay steep prices. The government has put out an international call for native English speaking teachers for all areas of the country, offering special stipends in the far northwest autonomous region near Tibet.

“You should stay and teach in Urumqi,” urges Cherry. “Five hundred US dollars per month, a free apartment, and transportation costs. You could come to Taiyuan for holidays and visit me.”

Five hundred U.S. dollars a month is a fortune in China. I could live like a Hong Kong ex-pat, even hire a cook and a maid, and I think seriously about this for maybe two minutes. I have obligations at home—family and a full-time job. I’ve barely been able to carve out a month for this adventure, so staying is out of the question. I tuck the idea in the back of my mind and return my attention to my current students.

*     *     *

The month speeds by with invitations to homes and restaurants, and before I know it, I’m packing my bags with a mixture of excitement and despondency.

My last day in class, my last day in Taiyuan, almost my last day in China, I arrive to a class bustling with energy, too excited to keep a secret. “Surprise,” they call out. “We have a party for you.” What am I to do with my careful plans for the last day? I am, after all, American, and a teacher to the core—always evaluations.

“Oh, forget the evaluations,” I concede. “Let’s party.” They’ll never tell me the truth anyway—they like everything I do.

Out comes the food, the dishes I have come to love in this great sprawling buffet of a country. Laura has been up since four a.m., making me moon cakes, time-consuming holiday treats—sweetmeats wrapped in fragile bamboo leaves, tied with delicate ribbons of straw, works of art. I am touched almost beyond words.

“Why would you get up so early to make these?”

“Because,” she responds, “I love you.”

*     *     *

After the party Ivan asks me to go out that night to celebrate his twenty-second birthday in a dumpling restaurant. Not his mom, not his dad, not his friends. Me.

“I will pick you up on my motorcycle, and I swear I will drive as carefully as if you were my mother. I feel as if you are my godmother. So I will take great care.”

After three hours, three dozen dumplings, and a bottle of rice wine, before he takes me home, I extract a promise from Ivan. He will follow his dream, break out of the teaching he never wanted, return to university, and become the journalist he thinks he can be.

I sit on the back of the motorcycle, my hair blowing in the night wind, and chant my mantra: I am in love with this country, I am in love with these people, I will return, I will return.

*     *     *

AFTERWORD

Two weeks after I came home from China, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center came down. My college daughter sat on the roof of her dormitory at Columbia University and looked downtown as black smoke billowed into the sky. Emails poured in from my friends in China: Are you okay in Virginia? . . . Do you live close to the Pentagon? . . . Is your daughter safe in New York City? . . . Did you lose friends in the collapse? . . . We are sad for you, for your family, for your country . . . Our hearts are with you . . . China grieves for the U.S. . . . We love you.

In August, 2001, I walked on The Great Wall, marveled at The Forbidden City, wandered in the Temple of Heaven, gaped at the Terracotta Warriors, and cried on the stones of Tiananmen Square. I know this because I have photographs of me in those places; but when I think of China, I don’t visualize Beijing, Xian, or Shanghai. I see twenty-two faces filled with love and friendship in a gray classroom in a gray city that no one visits. When I hear complaints—everything’s made in China, the Chinese poison babies and dog food, China causes the crisis of the dollar, China instigates North Korea—I do not join in.

For me, China is no longer faceless.

Esther JohnsonEsther Whitman Johnson is a former high school counselor and English teacher from Southwest Virginia who now travels the globe doing volunteer gigs on five continents, often writing about her journeys. She has completed a dozen international builds with Habitat for Humanity, the last in Mongolia, the next in Bolivia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad River Review, Main St. Rag, Artemis, Dirty Chai, Colere, Earth’s Daughters, Virginia Literary Journal, among others. She was first runner-up for the 2014 Ron Rash Poetry Award and winner of 2014 Asheville Writers Memoir competition. “A Box of Chocolates in China” is the short version of a chapter in her travel memoir in progress.