I’ve been on a writing hiatus for a while now. The last month of school has essentially been a waiting game. Just wanted to finish out the semester without any hiccups. It’s been a lazy few weeks and I’ve done very little since the last time I posted. During the handful of occasions I left my room during that time, a few humorous things have happened.
I usually buy an iced green tea before lunch every day. In reality, it’s more of a room-temperature green tea. Convenience stores typically don’t have freezers around here. If they do, they’re almost always a mirage. Open the glass door, and the temperature doesn’t change. The plug is never in the outlet. It’s a double take every time. The freezer is a shelf, nothing more. In fact, finding a cold drink here is about as hard as finding a white person. I actually might be on the same rareness spectrum as a frosty diet coke. That is to say, exceptionally rare. In any event, I needed to get my luke-cold bottle of green tea. Had to have it. Chinese do not often drink with their meals. If they do, it’s a hot drink, which kind of defeats the whole operation anyways. Given, that the food is spicy and ricy, I just fail to understand this concept. The reasoning is generally something to do with digestion, which is strange, because Chinese food is pretty much a sure fire trip to diarrhea city, emphasis on the fire, so how an ice cold beverage make matters worse is beyond me. Don’t get it, won’t get it.
Anyways, I’m about to go get my tea, when I realize I only have 2 Yuan in my pocket. The tea costs 3. Now, I’m pretty tight with the proprietress at this point. Usually, I’d just owe the 1 Yuan and pay it later that night. But, I’d done that for about five days straight. The last time, she seemed a little perturbed. So, I hurriedly ask one of the local teachers middling about the courtyard pre-lunch. “Can you lend me one thousand Yuan?” He throws up his hands and looks a little confused and awkward. He turned his pockets inside out to show me he’s a few Yuan short.
“Sorry, I don’t have one thousand Yuan on me right now.”
“Oh, ok no problem.” Then I realize my misstep. I said, “Ni ke bu keyi jie wo yi qian kuai.” (“Can you lend me one thousand Yuan?”). The word qiān (1,000) and qián (money) are only tonally different. Of course, I meant to ask for 1 Yuan, but my tonal futility led to a vastly more awkward request. I had offhandedly implied I wanted him to lend me half a month’s salary, and I wanted it now. I cleared it up, got the money, and bought the green tea off the tab.
This week, students take their end-of-semester exams. Unlike in the US, there are no report cards in China. Success is determined by, and only by, the pre-holiday exams. There’s no 5% participation bullshit or extra credit for homework. There’s actually no incentive to do any of the yearly coursework, except to avoid a backhand to the face or a public shaming. During exam times, county schools participate in a proctor exchange. About half of our teachers go to schools in the surrounding area. They live at the school, eat at the school, and proctor student exams during the day. The official reason is to create a fairer exam process. If local teachers watch over all of their own students’ tests, it may bring about a conflict of interest. In a system where compensation is directly tied to exam scores, that’s pretty rational.
In practice, it’s an awesome opportunity for teachers to get together and see some new faces. The on-campus community is incredibly tight-knit. Local teachers spend all of their time together. By school decree, they all live on campus. They eat together, their kids play together, and many of them are married to each other. It’s actually quite difficult to have friends outside of school.
Last night, I was settling down for bed at about 9:30, approximately six hours earlier than my Thursday night bed time this time last year. My phone vibrates. It’s the principal. His alcoholic best friend, also our school’s former security guard, has just returned from a part time job in Kunming. He puts the guy on the phone. “Mr. Loeb, I’ve missed you so much. Come drink with me, come drink with ussss” he croons in falsetto. I’m a huge fan of this guy. He looks a lot like the Grinch, but drunker. One time he vociferously demanded that we exchange a one-dollar bill for a one hundred Yuan bill, a net $14 loss on his part. When I tried to explain it, he simply kept repeating, “There is no choice. It must be done!” We settled on taking shots instead. I’ve never seen, or heard, this dude sober.
I throw some shoes on and head for the teacher’s lounge, a cesspool of debauchery. The principal, his best-drunk friend/ex-security guard, and the new security guard are there. There’s a space heater in the middle of the room and one empty, one half empty bottle of baijiu on the table. The three drinking buddies are huddled around the space heater on stools. Two female teachers are knitting on one couch. They’re passively watching the news. It’s an expose about how America supports Japan, despite claiming neutrality, in the tense Diao yu island conflict. It’s a little awkward. Walk into the teacher’s lounge almost any night (many days) of the week and you will see this scene. Guys getting down and women knitting. Once in a blue moon a female teacher might take a small shot. No way in hell will you catch a dude with a thimble.
I sit down on the couch across from the female teachers. Next to me are two visiting teachers from a mountain school 30 minutes up the road. One is short, wearing a leather jacket and sporting a horrendous pedo-stache. Due to biology, facial hair is pretty rare in China, so I’ll give the guy the benefit of ignorance. The other guy is tall and lanky, with glasses and a bowl cut. They’re both incredibly friendly and genuinely interested in meeting me, and not in the rudely curious way I often see. The second I sit down I’m offered a cigarette. Despite what must be triple-digit rebuffs of cigarette offers by now, it comes as expected. There’s always some short-lived, half-assed prodding: “Just try it,” “Come on, study one time.” I’ll smoke a cigarette once in a while outside of school. But, I know the instant I take one puff inside the teacher’s lounge, the offers will shift from nicety to expectation. The refusals will be viewed as rude instead of American.
After the smoke comes the drink. That, I will accept. The Grinch is pouring and cheers-ing with great vigor tonight. I like it. He laughs, screams, points, jumps up and down, questions everyone’s manhood. He even gets the female teachers to take a shot out of the bottle cap. Much giggling ensues. He tells a seemingly endless story in the local Bai minority language. The rest of us are starting to get pretty drunk. The principal puts his arm around me and tells everyone how great I am, (a 100% certainty every time he drinks) even though I certifiably suck and will almost surely have the worst grades on tomorrow’s exams. The Grinch breaks out some rice crackers, some tofu paste, and a dubious hot dog. He tosses the crackers and the hot dog on top of the space heater. Munchies.
During the infinite story, I look over at the two guest teachers. They’re both staring at nothing in particular. Eyes wide, mouths agape. They haven’t accepted a drink. It hits me that this is not standard protocol at their school. I’d compare to a BYU student visiting his buddy at Florida State for the weekend. I believe it’s called “getting scandalized.” Complete deer in the headlights situation. Utter shock and awe. The principal is drinking on the eve of the most important test of the year. The former and present late-night watch squad is about to be fall-down drunk. To top it off, there’s a white guy and women drinking alcohol. So many things must have failed to compute for them. As the age-old party school adage goes: For us, it was just another Thursday night.