A graceful, slim Chinese guy in a pinstripe suit greeted me at the Xi’an train station and guided me through through haze and honking cars to his van. From there, he drove me to my new teaching post at Xi’an Siyuan Jiatong University, a private college outside of town.
All I remember of the way there is identical grey buildings, streets filled with litter and rubble, and a long string of tyre shops, but I couldn’t see very far because of the smog. There were probably more interesting things to see that I missed because of my shock. I had thought Xi’an, as a university town and historical city, would be the Chinese version of Melbourne: a hip hotbed of literary and intellectual culture. I immediately realised how embarrassingly delusional and narrow this expectation had been.
The university was a gated compound of block apartments, perfectly tended grass, uniformed guards, and frequent PA announcements (incomprehensible to me, but seemingly in the nature of barked orders). Perhaps it was the cheap building materials but the whole thing felt a bit temporary, as if when you tried to return one day, it wouldn’t be there, and everyone you spoke to would deny knowledge of its existence. The students needed permission to leave the compound.
Xi’an, the nearest city, wasn’t far, but due to rutty roads, as well as ‘accidents’ and ‘special delays’, it could take up to an hour to get there. Siyuan was perched on a hill overlooking the city, but the view was almost always obscured by smog. Outside the school gates was a dirt street with restaurants, street food, a few hairdressers, an internet cafe, roller-skating rink and general store. We called it Commercial Street. Beyond that was countryside. Deep China.That phrase was coined by one of the other foreign teachers, a kooky Quebecker guy.
I’d often go for walks around Deep China. I felt intensely frustrated at Siyuan and walking was a way to blow off steam. Most villages were quite friendly, but in others, groups of people would gather at the side of the road staring at me as I passed and spitting on the ground. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not so unusual for China, but the vibe felt hostile; anti-foreigner. That said, I did grow quite paranoid in China, mainly because I was always being stared at and talked about.
Some of the foreign teachers came up with the idea of us hiring house out in the villages. It would be a good way to get away from the school on the weekends; it could get quite claustrophobic. So a few of us, including the Quebecker, went looking around and ended up at this really traditional-looking village in the hills: curved roofs, coloured doors decorated by Chinese characters. The Quebecker was like, ‘Woah, this is deep China, this is the China I came to see.’ We started taking photos, including of the villagers (in hindsight this seems extremely rude and objectifying. When I was 21 I thought it was OK to just stick my camera in people’s faces, or rather, people of a different culture. I don’t seem to be able to do that now).
Our Chinese friend (whom I’ll call Electric Hawke due to certain aspects of her unique and irresistible personality) told me the villagers were saying, ‘It’s not our culture to get our photo taken, we’re shy.’ The children were staring at us and then hiding their faces in each other’s arms. They started giggling controllably and Electric Hawke told me one of them had farted. Electric Hawke asked the villages if they had a house for rent and they went to fetch their landlord, who showed us a room. It was filled with dirt and a bit basic, but would have been OK once cleaned up. At some stage they invited us in for dinner. Electric Hawke was like, ‘I can’t believe it, they’re so friendly, I love China, I love myself!’
We waited for dinner in a room bare except for a mattress, a television, and a traditional Chinese painting on the walls. Electric Hawke couldn’t believe how poor they were. She kept exclaiming in English, ‘I can’t believe people live like this!’ They served us dumpling soup, then noodles. I’ve never tasted anything like those dumplings before: I still can’t identify the herbs. It was more food than we could eat. Then we played on bamboo pipes with the children, who were still very giggly.
The husband came home and took his wife off to speak with her in private. Then the woman spoke to the Electric Hawke in Chinese and I could tell by the Electric Hawke’s high pitched tone that things weren’t going well. Electric Hawke explained to us that the woman had asked us how much we were going to pay for our meal. She told the woman that we would pay when we came back to hire the room. But we didn’t want the room anymore. We trudged off, tails between our legs, and never returned.
Electric Hawke was appalled at their contravention of the laws of hospitality. ‘I can’t believe this!’ But the Quebecker was not surprised, and wanted to go back and give them some money. ‘We are rich Laowai (foreigners) and they see big green dollar signs on our back. We have everything and they only have a little, so why don’t we slip them sixty quai [10 Aussie dollars at the time]. I remember feeling really hurt, but I think the Quebecker was right. Even if you are friends with someone (which we weren’t, in that situation), if the monetary inequality is so great, how can you expect them not to want (and perhaps try and get) what you have?
Teaching English in China was hard. Most of the students, who were about the same age as me, didn’t speak much English. I couldn’t speak Chinese and had no experience teaching. There were no textbooks, only a blackboard and chalk. I exhausted my ideas fairly quickly. In the end my lessons consisted of excursions and teaching English songs, like the Carpenters song Yesterday Once More, which was huge in China at the time! I found that most of my students were not shy of singing, as long as they were singing together.
In general, most of the students seemed pretty disengaged. Sometimes they would fall asleep at their desks, or just leave the class. After about three months I fell into a bit of a rut of culture shock and loneliness and the difficulty of teaching, and found it hard to motivate myself to show up to class. One day I called in sick, speaking to the principal, whom I’ll call Zhang Deng. ‘You’re not sick,’ he said. ‘I think you will go to class,’ he said firmly.
Our favourite, or perhaps our least favourite, saying of Zhang Deng’s was ‘Right Right Right.’ This was usually delivered in response to one of our requests. At first I thought it was a promise, but soon found out it was mainly placation.
I remember sitting in Zhang Deng’s office with all the other teachers, his stubby little fingers resting on his huge black wooden desk. His office was the shape of the hallway, and we sat on black leather couches lining the sidewalls. He passed his packet of cigarettes around to us. It was about ten minutes before he even started speaking.
‘It’s very hard for me.’ He snickered, cigarette smoke puffing from his nose and mouth. ‘So I must cheat.’ His weasel face, small eyes and jagged teeth loomed unnaturally close in my vision. Zhang had organised a speech competition with the rival school in the area. The judging panel would consist of eight of us and a mere two teachers from the other school. Someone from the rival school must have been paid off.
‘Afterwards we will go for Peking Duck,’ he announced. ‘So, it is very important that we win,’ he says. ‘Right? Now I have something for you.’ Before we left, we were each presented with a packet of cigarettes with heart-shaped filters.
Predictably, we won the competition. Actually, Electric Hawke won it. After the victory, Zhang took us to a street stall where we feasted on cow stomach, intestines, ribs, and various other digestive organs.