I came in from the rain and passing the fun house mirror in the lobby I fussed my hair into place and fixed my professorial collars. By the stairwell, a man in a blue blazer was kneeled over a mud-splashed poodle. "You're dirty," he said to the poodle. "Let me give you a bath." I was pleased with myself for understanding this little dialogue, and pleased that the man was going to bathe the poodle. He picked up the dog and lugged it into the teacher's lounge, where one of his colleagues chewed him out for carrying around such a filthy beast. He drew a bath in the sink.
I went upstairs and taught two hours of Oral English. Today's topic: Mission to Mars. Earth is going down the tubes; we are sending forth our best and brightest to colonize space, etc., etc. To my surprise, our Model U.N. selected the homosexual Canadian physicist, the manic-depressive Japanese astronaut, the lesbian doctor from Zimbabwe, and the alcoholic Russian biologist as the seeds of humanity on The Red Planet. Nobody voted for Song Min-Tao, the 63-year-old Chinese novelist.
I haven't written much about China because I haven't been able to settle into any sort of existential groove. My first two months were an exercise in communal living. I stayed with a host family and the Peace Corps kept me busy with a daily regimen of Nescafe, language classes, antidiarrheal seminars, and beer. Everything I wrote during that time reminded me of Ayn Rand's Anthem - we did this, we did that - so I wasn't inclined to post any of it.
Then, on the first of September, I was shipped out to Nanchong, Sichuan: my home for the next two years. I spent the first thirty days recovering from the shock of landing. It was easily the roughest month I have ever spent abroad, though I am unable to articulate why it was so. But I am gradually recovering from the denial that tends to hit me once I realize that I am stuck in a particular location for a particular length of time. I have found a good coffee hook-up and I have amassed a solid jazz library. The university has set me up with a Mandarin tutor and the street vendors all know me by name. This is what the Chinese call guanxi: connections. Guanxi isn't so hard to come by if you're a laowai living in China, particularly if you're a laowai who sports a ginger beard and a grin.
I am a teacher of Oral English at China West Normal University in Nanchong, an obscure city the size of Denver. Nanchong is home to three KFCs, a McDonald's, and eight laowais, of which I am one. (Most of those eight laowais are Mennonites. I am not a Mennonite.) My students are juniors majoring in English education. My apartment is on the fourth floor of a building that looks over the rubble of an unfinished student center whose architect seems to have had The Epcot Center in mind. Cuisine: the local specialty is a dish of spicy noodles served cold. Nightlife: nonexistent. Transportation: blood-curdling. Percentage of Nanchong college students who scream hello at the passing laowai: 63%. Hello, China. Hello.