Some Kind of Love

When I was a young boy sometimes my mom might give me the last piece of cake or chocolate. Even if that cake was hers. Even if she hadn’t taken a bite and I’d already finished mine, she’d probably give it to me, even if I didn’t ask. This extended beyond the realm of food, I’m sure, but as a little fat kid these are where my memories were created and endure. I often thought about these acts, which—yes I will say again—extended far beyond chocolate. I always immediately accepted the offer. It just seemed like the only possible choice. And I would always think how much of a sucker my mom was and wonder what the hell was wrong with the woman. Chocolate—it’s good. Sometimes she would even claim that she didn’t like the cake or the French fries or the chocolate or whatever it was. She wasn’t going to eat it anyway. It really never made sense to me. I couldn’t fathom the lunacy of it. I certainly couldn’t fathom the real meaning of it.

Mr. Loeb,

          Thank you for teaching me English. You’ve taught me a lot besides English, like how to complain less and be more tolerant. It was a very happy time together, but you will be gone tomorrow. We might never see each other again, and there may never be another foreign teacher at Sanzhuang. Will you come back and bring your family? You are forever welcome. If you cannot come, I will come see you in America.  

        – Liu Hui Cui (Haley)

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The end of an era

The day I left Sanzhuang it wouldn’t stop raining. In fact, it hadn’t stopped for weeks. The cloud cover spread so deeply and densely silvery-gray that I couldn’t see beyond the bright pink school buildings that clung on our little mountain campus. I spent the day making decisions about what would and wouldn’t follow me into my new life. Kashmir sweater. Yeah. Toothbrush. Yeah. Punching bag. Yeah… no. The students mobbed me and seized anything they could get their hands on. I’m delighted when I remind myself that one of those London, Paris, Rome, Sherman, CT t-shirts is floating around rural Yunnan, China, being worn by someone five sizes too small. I wonder if they get the joke.

I left in late afternoon. The school—teachers, students, cafeteria women, and a few locals—broke off into two columns of about a hundred a side that snaked into campus. I walked through—getting the Mao treatment—as I rolled my suitcase behind me. Almost all students and some teachers were crying. I was crying too, of course. It was a beautiful moment, probably the most poignantly emotional of my young life. As I reached the school gate, the lines collapsed and many students came over to me, hugged me, and through varying degrees of tears told me to come visit them before middle school next year. I said, “I’ll try,” because saying more than two words risked taking me from sniffling to flat out bawling, and even though these were my last minutes here, I still felt like a teacher, and teachers can’t cry.

Mr. Loeb,

            Please be forever happy and healthy. Find a wife early. You are my best friend.            

            – Li Zhi Jie (Kobe)

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Mr. Loeb Artist: Xie Zi Xing (1st grade)

 

I left Sanzhuang and got onto a train bound for Shenzhen. 40 hours. It did feel like I was being blasted away (albeit on a sluggish Great Leap Forward era locomotive). The sheer length of the journey out of here—3 days and 7 different forms of transportation—makes the break that much sharper. It doesn’t simply feel as though I’m moving locations, I’m moving in time, too. Dimensions, really. Looking out the rain-stained window as the green-gray Chinese countryside dawdled by, I suddenly felt deeply moved by the events of the day and the years leading up to it.

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Peace

Mr. Loeb,  

            You’re leaving school soon and going home. We are sad because while you have been here we have given each other so much. You have wanted us all to be happy and care about school. I want to say thank you.

            These two years have been easygoing. You’re class is always calm and easygoing. In your class, even the students who never speak have the courage to speak. Like me. You make us feel courage in ourselves to speak.

            Before you were next to us everyday and it felt like it would always be that way. But, now we will part ways. It makes me, this happy student, very sad.

            So now, I just want to say thank you. I will miss you.

            -Duan Shun Jiang (Sally)

Some people might look at the tears and processional formation as some form of validation. I buy that way of thinking. The acts of kindness and gratitude signal that I have, in part, accomplished something worthy of appreciation. But, in those last moments and the last weeks, I really began to feel something new. For the better part of two years, I’ve been giving my cake and chocolate to my students. For the better part of two years, they’ve been taking it eagerly. This can be frustrating. But you give and give and give because that’s the only thing you can do. The thought of not giving is unfathomable.

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Roadside selfie

In many ways, it’s not that kids do not appreciate, but rather that they don’t know how to express their appreciation. It’s not like a client having a case of Moet mailed to your house at Christmas or a coach giving you the game ball. It’s much more subtle than that. In fact, sometimes their numerical success is the only testament to what you’ve done. That’s a fact increasingly true in education, and very unfortunate, but not a discussion for today. But, as I walked away that final day, I felt so full of love. And there was no doubt in my mind how real that love was. Here is a final word, from one of my most difficult students, a student suspended from school multiple times in my two years, a boy whose parents aren’t at home, who has said things to me that belong only in comment sections, who is brilliant, and who I know will forever be at odds with the system he is in. But, maybe, he’s changed a little.

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Me and the guys

Mr. Loeb,

             I know I am difficult, but you always forgive me. Sometimes people don’t forgive me. I feel grateful to you for that. These two years I’ve given you countless trouble, but you always forgave me. In all the time you taught me, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before. I’m going to add you on WeChat. Please accept my invitation. Above, I said I was really difficult, but don’t forget it’s not just me! Kobe, Jack, Jacob, and Jordan are all difficult too! Goodbye, Mr. Loeb. Wait for me to get big and grow up, maybe I will come see you in the US.

            Thank You. We Love You.

             -Li Hua Lin (Joe)

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Goodbye, Sanzhuang

Smoke & Testicles

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I stood at an existential crossroads.Turn left: I’d be in front of my computer, shrouded in clothes I bought on taobao and thinking terrible thoughts about taobao. Turn right: I could be sitting around an incompetent space heater with a bunch of middle-aged dudes insistent on shoving flammable liquid into my throat.

I eagerly turned right.

It was a solid crowd of 5 or 6—the familiars: The principal, the security guard, a couple of administrators, a local shop owner. They were watching local news and screaming at each other. I sat down and the security guard—the host—filled my glass. There is no such thing as “say when.” “When” is “when” pouring more means losing some. I noticed dozens of empty bottles of baijiu in the corner. Our security guard would not do well in Salt Lake City.

You can always tell what kind of a night it is based on sip to gulp ratio. This is something I learned in college. This Wednesday evening, as it were, was a gulp night. A cavalcade of cheersing ensued. After a few minutes, I was two glasses deep and starting to feel warm. On my left was Mr. Zhao, a new teacher at our school. Mr. Zhao spent the last six years at a 1-4 school in an isolated area thirty minutes off the main road. He was one of two teachers at that school. As an aside, this is only plausible because the village where he taught, Dongpo, sends its kids to school every two years. So, if there is a new 1st grade class in 2014, there will not be another one until 2016. For obvious reasons, Mr. Zhao was forced to teach English. Consequently, Mr. Zhao has a fluent command of the 3rd and 4th grade People’s Education Press curriculum.

“It’s cold.” He says.

“Yes.” I say.

“I’m old.” He says.

“Nah. Mr. Zhao. If you told me you were a day over 30 I simply wouldn’t believe it .” I say in Chinese.

“I am forty.” He says and then proceeds to state the age of each person in the room in rapid sequence. “He is fifty-two. He is fifty-nine. He is forty-three. You are twenty-four,” etc.

“That’s true, Mr. Zhao. Not bad.”

Mr. Zhao smiles.

After the collective BAC climbs to “ambitious,” the local shop owner (not drinking) suggests that we get some food. It’s 10 pm now. Food is twenty minutes and a lot more baijiu and cigarettes away. Another existential crossroads emerges. I have things to do, matters of consequence to attend to, goddamnit. I’m still at the level of inebriation that allows for—potentially enhances—work.

I go with them, naturally.

Mr. Zhao, who is long past the aforementioned level begins banging wildly on the doors of other, likely asleep, teachers. After minutes of persistence he manages to roust Mr. Duan—a tall, thin, quiet man—from slumber. The crowd lets out a raucous roar as Mr. Duan emerges grouchily from his room. They (we) begin chanting “Lit-tle Duan, Lit-tle Duan,” as we move toward the shop owner’s Ford.

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We pile into the car: Two in the passenger’s seat, four in the back. Seven total. Mr. Yang is on my knee, shouting orders at the driver. Mr. Duan is crammed in the corner, imbued with feelings opposite warmth, love, and affection. We arrive in town—Songgui—after twenty swervy minutes. The driver pounds the breaks and Mr. Yang hurls forward, letting out a roar of approval. We dodder into a shaokao (barbecue) spot. The place is flush with middle-aged males—the fast crowd in this pocket of the human universe.

After the obligatory volley of introductory head nods and “Ehs, ohs, and ughs” we sit down at our own table and the waiter produces two fresh bottles of baijiu and sparks the grill. The security guard takes initiative and fills everyone’s glass. Mr. Duan’s feeble attempts at refusal are met with collective guttural chortles of shaming disapproval.

The waiter brings out the food—not a vegetable in the house—at least not until Mr. Zhao powers through three or four more tall glasses of firewater. The shop owner tosses some livers and ligament-y looking things on the griddle. The fire roars and the smoke swats me in the face and we sit back and cheers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao drain their glasses with frightening impunity. They are small dudes and notorious lightweights. Cigarettes are passed out and smoked livers and ligaments are crisp. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Yang are screaming at each other in nearly unintelligible dialect. I think I can make out small bits.

“I clean the damn bathroom. Clean it with my own hands, Zhao.” Mr. Yang says.

Mr. Yang gestures from a hand with a cigarette and a re-filled glass of baijiu in it. The drank sloshes and falls onto the grill. I get a fresh sheet of meat and cigarette smoke in my eyes.

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OK. I’m sorry,” Mr. Zhao is speaking English again.

“Listen here, Zhao. I clean the damn bathroom. It’s my job.” He is so sure of it.

OK. I’m sorry. Meester Yang.” I suppose Mr. Zhao had disparaged the bathroom.

The waiter brings out some large, beanish looking things. The shop owner strategically places them on the grill, one by one. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao are shouting. The security guard appears to be asleep. Mr. Duan is pondering into his glass.

“What’s that?” I ask through the smoke.

“Oh, you know.” The shop owner says, smiling like a 10-year-old boy.

It is eggs! Pig eggs!” Mr. Zhao points emphatically, returning to the fray. Egg is the Chinese slang for that particular anatomical feature, as it were.

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The shop owner paints the testicles with oil (lol) and they flare up. I receive a thick cloud of testicle smoke to the eyes. I wonder what happens when a pig is tumescent, if you will, before meeting its fate. First of all, awful way to go. Second, well you know, what’s the flavor profile there?

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Eggs!” They all shout in English. Mr. Duan, an actual English teacher, drily repeats the word. We eat the eggs. They’re not bad. We finish one and a half bottles. I hide the remainder behind my stool. I fend off Mr. Yang when he discovers it. He relents. We drive back with a Styrofoam box full of testicles. Messrs Yang and Zhao, and the security guard rest peacefully on the seat.

When we arrive it’s just past 1 AM. Mr. Zhao has morning study hall in 6 hours. We approach the on-duty room, where a teacher, Yang Yan Han, is sleeping. They begin pounding on his door. I quickly make my escape. They pound and chant, “Give Yang Yan Han the testicles! Give Yang Yan Han the testicles!” I find out the next morning that they gave him the testicles. I return to my cold bed.

When I walked to the security guard’s room, and then when I piled into a car, and again when I was getting faced with fumo de cojones, I kept having this thought. I was thinking about the interplay between things we have to do, should do, want to do, need to do. The way you live your life boils down to what types of things you slot into each of those categories. I was thinking I should go “get shit done,” I should “do some work,” whatever that means. Everyone always wants to “get shit done.” Then I was thinking, I have to go down the hill and drink baijiu and smoke cigarettes with these guys. I have to. What could possibly be more important? Now, I recognize that that sounds like some sort of Nihilist excuse for debauchery. It very well could be. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe once in a while we should reprioritize our priorities.