Where No Self-respecting American Would Go–Part 2

Quite coincidentally, it rained the night after I moved in, though not very hard: the ground was only dampened. A little bit of thunder, a little bit of lightning, a little breeze. I certainly miss Kansas thunder storms with their black, roiling clouds, Zeus-like lightning and Thor-given thunder; those in this area of China are pretty anemic. Though, while I was out east and a tad south south in Henan at Shangqiu 商丘 over the past weekend, there apparently was a huge storm here in Anyang, evidenced by downed branches and limbs (tree, not human). However, still rather puny compared to the winds in Kansas that would take down great limbs and uproot entire large girth trees. Although it was a relief to be away from such danger, it was also not nearly so exciting.

Opposite #7 sits a grandfather on his little stool holding a fly swatter. Every day. Sometimes he stands up and walks a little way down the street. He smiles and nods to my “Ni hao.”

The people in #6 gather outside their entrance tunnel to watch me pass and comment upon the foreigner. I understand nothing, not so much because they are speaking Chinese, at which I am not especially competent, but because they are speaking Anyanghua, the local dialect, of which I know one word: kebei, which kind of means “okay.” I am very familiar with the word for foreigner, laowai (老外). They do this every day, members of the group changing on occasion.

I’m fairly well inured to the stares of people but Yuki is not, as she commented on it and the “unfriendliness” of the inmates of my living area (the first and larger, more well-developed courtyard) because they became quiet and stared. She’ll get used to it when she goes overseas –well, perhaps not “used to it” but she’ll understand it and why I don’t react so much. Many foreigners, mostly Americans it seems, never get used to stares and forever comment loudly and unkindly about the rudeness of people. They, of course, are not rude. . .and Americans, at home, don’t stare at foreigners. Americans, the ubiquitous “ugly American,” seem to not be able to adjust to a foreign culture or life style, always putting up theirs as the pinnacle of civilization, the superior cultural medium. This is too bad; they miss much, they miss learning people, learning the whys and wherefores of living logic. Seeing the world in a different way, including the prejudicial which ought to teach them something but it doesn’t. When you’re right everyone else is wrong. They return to America the Great with stories of horror, of the unbelievable, of the snidely joking, stories of lies. Americans like fiction, though not the reading of it.

For the most part, the bricked-over first courtyard is intact. For the most part. Beaten, mossy earth abounds; there are a few trees and flowers. It’s a nice, homey area. One resident, an older auntie, was sitting outside in the shade of a tree making jiaozi (dumplings). I commented in passing and the next time I came through, she gave me a bowl for lunch. It was not bad. Not bad. She gave me kuaizi (chopsticks) and I fed Tiger and Tony in my house, like a good grandfather. Standing in the entry room, concrete over brick floor. Because there were not enough chairs.

Wooden door, pretty much square once, low framed and with four window panels–one missing and filled in with a piece of wood–is my front door. Similar to those old country farmhouse doors in the States that do not any more fit their frames. Green peeling paint. Bamboo curtain before the door that must be lifted to enter. When inside, I leave the door open for air and a modicum of light. It’s dark inside, like living in a cave. Years before, when living in basement apartments I’d get depressed. Same kind of darkness. High electric bill. But I get to go out and, when I lift the bamboo curtain I get light. I raise it when it rains–and pay: the floor gets muddy-ish from all the dirt of years “ground” into the floor.

The landlady says I can have this house because she rarely comes here–and it’s obvious, especially in the kitchen, which is kind of like a closet with gas top alcove. It’s built onto the main room and the joining of the two structures is pulling apart. I can see daylight through the cracks. Cracks, hell–crevices! When will it separate and fall off, I wonder. . .

The dishes she left–not using!–are coated with so much dirt and dust and whatever it is that falls from the ceiling that I’m sure they could come clean except at a car wash using steaming, furiously pounding water and hard brushes. The shelves are coated with the same fine signs of life making them unusable–if there were any space. There are only two below the cooktop. I brought over my remaining gas and my gas cooker; hers did not work. If it did, I doubt I’d have used it, it looked to be something out of a Poe or Lovecraft story and very well might have done something other than cook when it lit, if not blow up, at least some creature might emerge from the flames–not a genii.

The sink is a concrete square basin with bare pipe with faucet running into it from above, about chest high, which makes for nice places to hang things–and I cleaned it and do so. But, still, there’s lots around it that is disgusting. The walls flake off. I kept falling against them last night as I hurriedly worked and turned around having consumed considerable vodka. I stopped because it began tasting like hell. Perhaps because I made it cold; warm–room temperature in which you sweat while breathing–was good, smooth, though not nearly of the quality I had in Moscow in 2001.

There is one light bulb in this kitchen area: just inside the entryway, to the right in the cooking alcove; when cooking, your shadow falls over the gas range and food. Well, at least you know what you put in the guo, after washing it, of course. One cannot say it is bright, though it does enlighten the tunnelishness of the kitchen, something a large mole or Hobbit might find just right. The two-panel windows look out on the courtyard, hanging loosely on rusty hinges and supporting themselves, otherwise they would crash to the ground. There is screen in the window. The light it lets in is minimal. Not really enough to make shadows. The smaller one over the sink is pitiful–but there’s enough penetration of Mr. Sun that if I lay frozen meat on the sink rim it will thaw in more than enough time for dinner. Yes! There is a refrigerator with freezer! In the bedroom.

The ceiling is old; I think I can see the original thatching. Lots of. . .things fall from it. I’m afraid to look up for what might catch my eye. So, I went to the fabric shopping centre downtown–marvellous place!–and bought some light colored, printed material and hung it from beam to beam. I had seen this done in a student’s family’s home. In the eyes, in the hair, in the ears, in the mouth–all sorts of falling objects. But the end result was good. Good. Even Yuki thought that was a good idea. No more wondering what’s in my food other than what I put in it.

This front room is full of the landlady’s shit, hers and her daughter’s. On the north, door-facing wall is a bureau with old things on the top; a table that I’ve cleaned off and am using, lots of dusty baskets and boxes beneath; a dressing table loaded with things. My rice cooker is there. In front of this is a pile of round, holey charcoal with a round, folded down table before it, hiding it from view–but only if you stand directly in front of it. The dusty, rusting stove is in the large bedroom through the door on the east wall, a door similar to the front door and which I leave open. Just before the kitchen tunnel and next to the bedroom door is a tall bureau or maybe shiffarobe. Filled on the inside, piled high with dusty things. Behind the open front door, which opens inward, is a device for hanging clothes and towels and such; this also sports a shoe rack with lots of female shoes, virtually all out of fashion. I will wash the rags and towels hanging there, they might come in handy. Beside this, on the wall at the right height for me (short person), is a mirror that I’ve wiped down but is still vague. I’m able to use it because I’m so shiningly handsome that I can still see myself in its depths. There are nails and spikes sticking out of the walls hither and thither; some are usable by me, others are in use and I dare not look into the aged plastic bags; some are rustily bare.

To east (right) and west (left) are the other two rooms, bedrooms. The west room is smaller and concrete floored with white-washed walls. . .except for the west wall of the house which is covered in its middle from one end to the other with tacked up paper and cardboard where the plaster has fallen off and the underbrick is visible. Things fall from it onto the bed that’s there. This is the original single room of the house, the main room being built on and showing separation. The larger bedroom is also showing continental drift. I only use this room for storing my suitcases–one with clothes, one with books–and for the desk, where I sit typing this, looking, occasionally, out the screened window (two-paneled) onto the courtyard and the house across the way (the one with the broken door) and my clothes hanging on the wire “line.” I washed them in a basin in my kitchen sink this morning, about two hours ago.

There is no telling how clean or devoid of soap they are but they are wearable evidence of American handwashed clothing. I think my mother used to wash by hand, for I remember the washing board we ruined by making it an instrument; I know my grandmother, Grandma Secor, washed by hand. I remember our first wash tub, a great white thing with wringer at the back end. Mom would hook it up to the kitchen sink faucet and wash, wring the soapy clothes, drain and refill the tub and rinse the clothes–more than once. I used to like wringing the clothes, watching them come out the other side hard and flat.

Here, I wring by hand.

It’s kind of a muggy day; there’s no telling how long it will take the clothes to dry. It doesn’t matter. I’ve got all day. Tree branches occlude the sky somewhat. Although it’s somewhat cooler than it has been this past month, it’s still humid to the point that you could cut it with a knife. Thinking causes one to become dripping wet. Just riding downtown (to get my front tooth repaired) and back left my shorts and shirt so wet I could very well have climbed out of a swimming pool. Chinese dentistry is quite good–and far more affordable than America’s dentists who are nothing shy of greedy. You can almost see them drooling over what you’re going to give them: one leg, an arm, you next born. In China, everything is human-priced, affordable. And it’s all cash-and-carry. A cash economy is nice. The people at the bank have gotten to know me and have taught me to count in less stilted fashion. We can chat a bit. They love my name and, at this point, I can say it properly. But, then, they know me from before.

I like my Chinese name. It sounds nice. It has meaning. And it is a real Chinese name, not a sound-alike, which is what most foreigners get, if they decide to take one. Yes. It does sound like my name but it is also truly Chinese.  史可, Shĭ Kějiàn, the mirror of history. The jiàn is not your everyday character and I’ve gotten good at telling them how it is drawn. They are so amazed that I know it and know the meaning. I tell my students that my great-great-great grandfather (yéye de yéye de yéye de yéye [爷爷]) is Shi Kefa 史可法, Ming dynasty hero, standing tall before the invading Manchurians that we know as the Qing dynasty emperors.

Contrary to folk history and government propaganda, China has not been ruled by Chinese all these many years. They were invaded many times by the tribes to the north, on the north side of the Great Wall, which originally wasn’t so great or so long. Manchurians, Mongols, Jin, Qin and lots of civil war and minor “invasions” for many years after the Han Dynasty. Even the Uyghurs of Xinjiang got involved and many folktales exist for these people. There is evidence that the people of Xinjiang are descended from the Celts, as a mass grave of redheaded Caucasians has been found on the western border of the province. But, of course, the present government doesn’t want to hear this.

A dove just flew in and perched on the flat roof of the house to the west. This is the house my neighbor lives in. The broken-doored one she uses as her storage shed. Perhaps I should get some bird seed and put it out; I wonder what other denizens of the air would descend upon the little courtyard? I’d hate to see bird shit all over our clothes, mine and the other family’s (a mother and son). Actually, I’m thinking I might take a chair or little stool (called a bench here) and sit outside my house before the gathering darkness and read or just look around. I’d get to know my neighbor. I might very well learn some Chinese while here, though most of it will be Anyanghua, which I’m not interested in learning: it’s useless outside of Anyang.

I cover my computer and printer with a sheet, the self same sheet I used as a curtain in my old campus house. There is no sense in letting whatever-it-is that falls from my ceiling find its way into the rented computer and ruin it. I’d have to pay then. I cover my dishes, glasses, cups and silverware too, making sure, anyway, to turn things upside down (not the silverware which is kuaizi, but the spoons, yes). If I had the money or the inclination, I’d buy more material to hang on the ceiling beams. However, the main room ceiling is far too high for me to reach from a chair. A chair seat is not so high off the ground and nor are my raised arms. It would be nice, though, to not feel things falling on me–or see them falling on the furniture.

The East bedroom is the larger, including larger double bed. There are three cabinets, one a chiffarobe with a storage cabinet above; the aforementioned ancient charcoal stove with new pipe leading out one window, otherwise unusable I should think but, then, where else is the charcoal in the centre room supposed to go; two arm chairs and the refrigerator. The wall around the head of the bed is protected by a cloth, most probably to keep the wall from spilling its surface bits and contents onto the bed, into the sleeper’s mouth and hair, maybe even eyes. The floor is brick, well-worn. Nice. A small window is high up in the east wall looking out over a concrete wall and a bricked up doorway (or window-way, I can’t tell). But I can see sky and tree branches above the wall and the slight breeze is a minor aid to the stuffiness inside. The room is musty and mildewy smelling. Not good for my allergies. Perhaps with the house open much of the day, this will dissipate.

I put my little fan atop the fridge at night to cool me down. Last night I had to turn it off and fetch a blanket it got so cool. Odd for a mid-summer evening in Anyang. This morning was close but by nine or so it began to get comfortable. Now, at 4:30, it’s muggy hot and I’ve brought the fan in here, into the central room. Where else would I be writing this? It would be nice to sit outside and write but there’s no table. Not enough cord for the laptop to go. Clothes from this morning are dry; now my gym things are sending my sweaty odor wafting up over the roof tops, for the wind is blowing.

The ceilings of the rooms are covered with some kind of tar paper to keep the filler between the wood–and whatever else–from falling onto chicken little’s head. Except in the kitchen where the wood–sturdy tree branches spread between little tree trunks–and stuffing is exposed and dropping powder and lord knows what else onto the floor and whatever else may be in its way down. Like the pot. Which is why I want something to cover over the ceiling and into the cooking alcove.

It’s very quiet now. The woman and her son have not returned. A pair of her pants hangs from her line, so they were here over the noon break. The garden to that side is rampant, unattended, cluttered with bricks amidst the weeds. There were once houses here, too. The dog, dirty and not-so-friendly lies in the dirt. In the centre of our courtyard is a concrete slab. Actually, two blocks next to each other. To one side is a spot of concrete, looking like something construction workers left behind. Construction workers often do this, leave shit behind. The steps to our houses are stone blocks, mine more than one. The little boy pees on this central concrete block. Mom says nothing.

Why is it little boys the world over like to take their peters out in public and pee? Awhile ago, I saw, in the park, three boys standing on the edge of the greensward peeing, seeing how far they could make their streams go. I think I was the only one looking, watching.

The unkempt garden is full of weeds with an occasional baby tree, stray stones, jaggèd bricks in a big pile, huge pots and smaller pots, some with flowers, broken vast pots, a bicycle tire and a pile of debris of all sorts along the far east wall. There is a clothes line here; it gets little sun at one end. I think I’ll start using it so my clothes (on the other line) don’t interfere with her getting into her house, as I noticed was the case this evening. Sometimes I’m so fucking thoughtful it makes me sick.

I used the public toilet this morning. Walked up there, about ¼ mile. Inside, the entranceway shows a line-up of huge vats for pissing in; deeper inside the filthy structure are squat toilets, stainless steel, lined up along each wall. No dividers. No privacy–only really a problem for foreigners who can’t evacuate but alone and in silence. The flush mechanism–I was surprised to find one–is a button in the floor. As I learned, to the right of the toilet used. Obvious to me that there’s no light at night–and, to be quite frank, I wouldn’t want to stray in there in the dark anyway. Aside from the very real possibility of slipping in the muddy wetness or on the wet paper dribbled here and there there’s a great possibility that something might materialize out of the slop and filth and jump on me. Frankenturd! No sink to wash hands afterward. Highly unusual.

I was, of course, watched. I think I took a shit like everyone else. I hope my parts were exposed and large enough to be satisfactory, all Americans being big, you know. The guys did not watch from outside to see me go in and use their toilet. No. They came in and either pretended to piss or just stood there staring at me. No attempt to hide their curiosity. How many foreigners do they get to see semi-naked and taking a shit in their pot? This wasn’t the first time by any manner of means. The Japanese, who are just as curious having heard tales, are a tad more polite about checking the foreigner out.

I guess it’s not so far fetched as you might think, for white males are forever sneaking peeks, if they are polite, at black males’ penises which, as we all know, are horse-sized. We do this just to be sure, you know. And if we catch one who’s wanker is normal white-sized and appropriately thin, we’re sure they’re not so fucking superior sexually as we believe they are. If we see one/them well-endowed indeed, we gab about it with our male friends, like old women over the backyard clothes line gossiping, gossiping.

The condition of this toilet–and the entire train station waiting room and WC in Shangqiu 商丘 (very far east in Henan Province and the first capital of the Shang Dynasty which eventually made its home in Anyang, old name Yin or Yinyi 殷邑), which elicited an “It’s dirty” from Guo Lifang, who would not then use it–brought home again to me how filthy this country is. The people are fairly clean but the environment is a mess. Dirt, dust and trash everywhere; people spitting, even in restaurants and hospitals; men pissing against walls, in the bushes, in the showers (I see and smell this at the gym); children shitting and pissing wherever. The people in Hong Kong are most upset at mainlanders because they filthy up the city. The younger generation are complaining but no one is doing anything about it. Mostly, people do not use the trash bins on the streets or in the parks, just tossing their litter on the ground. I was somewhere yesterday where some guy had hawked a lugey in the middle of the entry carpet. I stop class and make a spitting student clean up is wad. He never does it again: acute embarrassment. The girls like this, for they don’t particularly like spitting boys. But spitting is so de rigueur that most all do. They’d get along well in a group of rednecks leaning on a fence stile.

Perhaps my frozen chicken, taken out just awhile ago, will thaw out so I can cook tonight. In any case, I must truck along Dongnanying jie and go to the marketplace at the next cross-roads, hand unwashed and itching for water; no veggies in my fridge. Not much of anything, actually. This turned out to be just another trip to familiarize myself to the neighborhood. Eventually, I’ll become a fixture of only passing worth–a good thing. Well, actually not. Being noticed and accepted and spoken to is comforting. My strangeness at least becomes acceptable. In the end, the old women on their stoops and I became easy speaking companions. I didn’t understand much they said, even though they learned quickly that I did not do Anyanghua, but we got along. I was able to joke some. I found this a welcome ability to have. Most foreigners, it seems to me, are not so easy. You know, we are so much better.

Loud AC/DC at 9:30 PM got the people around me upset. Must be louder outside than in. This house sucks up the sound. Didn’t complain, though, when it was different music. So. . .now I know.

Had a visit earlier this evening from my landlady, as I was fixing dinner. I didn’t turn down the music and only stopped preparation briefly. I detest this kind of thing and wonder if it will happen often. The son looks just like her; the daughter (15?) is beautiful and speaks quite good English after three years of study. The girl emptied my kitchen trash, so I still don’t know where to get rid of it. Forgot a third of the Chinese Yuki taught me yesterday to accomplish this.

Yuki came by last night and we sat in the bedroom talking for hours. I calmly drank half a bottle of vodka. Entertaining guests, as it were, in the bedroom, including sitting on the bed, is de rigueur. I found, later, the reason for this is that the bed was the only sitting/lying structure in the old houses. Always made up. The first time I came upon this, visiting a friend’s grandmother, she patted the bed beside her for me to sit. Kind of flustered and embarrassed I sat. In America, this would have had a different connotation than please sit. Bedrooms are so private in the West.

My girls–well, my students, when they came to my house checked out all the rooms, including my bedroom, which was a mess, as per usual. They just walked right in and looked around to see how the foreigner lived. I don’t know why I just let them. Most of my fellow foreign teachers did not. Indeed, they did not invite their students into their homes.

It turned out this and the time I spent chatting with them or eating in the cafeteria with them and taking an interest in their goings on around campus and elsewhere was a boon. All the students wanted was to be noticed and taken seriously for human and welcomed by the foreigners. Not that the Chinese teachers did any of this. They, the Chinese teachers, are not interested in their students as people, only as bodies sitting at desks sucking up (?) their teachings. Not so likely as Chinese students are prone to doing homework for some other class during other classes. Why bother to pay attention when everything is done not only by the book but in the book, including answers to the exercise questions.

My teaching style was very different and elicited much excitement and, at the same time, much irritation and complaining. In the end, they benefited and were happy when they saw their test scores. Did I teach for the test? No. I taught a skill that could be used–and not just for the English sections. But when it came to the tests, I gave them some tips on how to take tests. Regardless of whether they listened or not, they did better on their important nationally standardized tests.

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