Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Harmony Corps

Dear Family and Friends,

It has been a long time since I have written, and for that I am sorry. But between work, my host family (the Gustafsons), and life in the exotic frontier town of Omaha, my rice bowl is pretty full these days.

The Gustafsons are nice enough people and I really enjoy teaching at Metro Community College. But everything is so different here. It is not at all like Our China. After two full months in the Harmony Corps, I still haven't gotten used to life in the United States of America.

There is too much space and not enough people. The other day, I went to a supermarket called "Hy-Vee" and there was nobody there. It was just me and my shopping cart. I could hear the fluorescent lights humming. There was this scary music playing softly in the background. Everything was bright and clean. The fish was all prepackaged. The vegetables looked seriously ill. I couldn't find the ku-gua or the hua-jiao or the jiang. I found an employee and tried to describe what I wanted with my hands. She gave me a bushel of black bananas and something called a diaphragm. My Chinese-English dictionary tells me it is the muscle underneath your ribcage, but that is not what it looks like to me.

It's too quiet here. I can never wake up on time because the construction doesn't start until 10 AM. I can't sleep at night because there are these strange American bugs making noises outside. I asked Mr. Gustafson what the bugs were but he couldn't hear what I was talking about.

Americans are friendly. They don't stare at me or shout at me the way that people used to stare and shout at Mr. Panda. (I will have to ask him about that when I return.) But they don't really notice me, either. I am invisible here. Everyone smiles at me when I talk to them. And they like to talk a lot, mostly about the weather. But they all seem to be trying their best to hide some sort of mental illness. And some of them don't really hide it all that well.

Let me introduce my host family. Mr. Gustafson is very fat, even fatter than Second Uncle Liu. He is the size of two Second Uncle Lius. I asked Mr. Gustafson what kind of work he did and he tried to explain it to me, but I didn't understand. So we looked up the words in the dictionary together. There were six or seven words in his job title, and I knew them, but when we put them all together I still had no idea what he did.

"To be honest," I said, "I still have no idea what you do."
"None of us do, darling," he said. "None of us do."

Unlike Mr. Gustafson, Mrs. Gustafson is very thin. And unlike most American women, I don't think she has a job. When Mr. Gustafson is home, she follows him around with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up his crumbs. She does not like doing this. She never talks to Mr. Gustafson and he never talks to her, except to argue. One time I asked Mrs. Gustafson if she loved Mr. Gustafson and she laughed for a long time. Then she looked sad for a moment. Then she patted me on the head like a child. In the afternoon, when Mr. Gustafson is at work, doing whatever it is that he does, Mrs. Gustafson sits in the living room watching television. She watches soap operas, but she calls them her "stories." She drinks wine, but she calls it her "medicine." She also likes to smoke cigarettes. I sometimes fear that my own host mother is a woman of ill repute.

The Gustafsons have a son. His name is Kyle. I cannot tell how old he is. My host dad tells me that Kyle still wets the bed, which is strange to me, because Kyle has more facial hair than Grandpa Wang. He has more facial hair than two Grandpa Wangs. Kyle likes to wear silk shirts with dragons on them. Or maybe it is just one silk shirt with a dragon on it that he wears every day. He is very fat like his father. One time I asked Kyle why he wasn't married and he looked at me in a funny way. So I tried again and asked him why he didn't live in his own apartment like most American adults. He didn't want to talk about it. He got angry. He went to his room and slammed the door behind him. But he came back out a couple minutes later and sat down at the edge of my bed, and he watched me study English for a very long time.

The Gustafsons have a dog. Mr. Gustafson told me that it was a type of dog called a "rottweiler." The dog's name is Rascal. Rascal doesn't like me. He doesn't seem to like anybody, not even Mr. Gustafson. Rascal especially does not like Kyle Gustafson. I asked Mr. Gustafson why they owned such an unfriendly dog and Mr. Gustafson said, "protection."

"But what about all those guns you have?" I asked. "The ones in the attic."
"Protection," he said.
"Protection from whom?"
"From the bad guys," he said.
"But this neighborhood feels very safe," I said.
"Not anymore it ain't," he said. "Don't get me wrong. You're welcome here. The Chinese are welcome here. We're business partners." He brightened a bit, then darkened again. "But some people just ... ain't welcome."
Then he got quiet and drank from a very small glass and looked out the window for a long time.

I am very happy to know that I am welcome here in America.

I teach Mandarin Chinese at Metro Community College. My students are not like Chinese students at all. Many of them remind me of Kyle Gustafson: very fat, with dragon shirts. They never do their homework. They are almost always late. Some of them have never shown up for class at all. They are just names to me. A few of them don't seem to know where they are when they do show up to class. They keep looking around the room like, where am I? They ask me questions about Bruce Lee, and a lot of questions about Chinese politics that make me uncomfortable. None of them are very good at memorizing new vocabulary words.

But the girls in my class are friendly. They invite me to go out with them on the weekends. They call me "girlfriend" when we go out together. They like teaching me new words and they laugh whenever I say them. Last Friday, they took me to a city called Council Bluffs. Council Bluffs is located in the province next to Nebraska, a place they call Iowa. It was my first time in Iowa, and I never want to go there ever again.

The American word for KTV is "karaoke." But karaoke is not the same as KTV. As we all know, in Our China, we sing KTV with our very best friends, in a cozy little room, and we can stay there in that room singing as many songs as we want to sing. But in America, there are "karaoke bars," where you have to sing for people you don't even know, and you only get to sing one song.

My girlfriends really wanted me to sing, so I did. I asked the DJ if he had Di Yi Ge Qing Chen and he looked at me funny. So I asked if he had Jie Bu Dao. He shook his head. So I asked if he had Na Nu Hai Dui Wo Shuo and he said, "Sorry honey, but you're gonna have to speak American."

So I decided to sing "Take Me Home Country Road" by John Denver, the only English song I know. I did a good job, I thought, but everyone laughed at me. Probably because my English is so poor. My girlfriends were laughing, too, but they clapped for me when I sat down. Then they made me drink something they called "Jaeger." It tasted the way Mrs. Gustafson's medicine smells. Then my girlfriends asked me if I wanted to smoke.

"I don't smoke," I said.
"No," they said. "Smoke."

We went outside to the parking lot. It was very cold out there. It was snowing, in fact. Britney, one of the girls, lit a cigarette and passed it to the girl on her left hand side. Eventually, it came around to me. I didn't want to smoke it, but everyone told me that I had better smoke it. So I did. Everyone laughed when I smoked it. I don't know why. And I don't really remember what happened after that. I remember I started laughing at everything, even things that I didn't understand. I must have been very drunk. My girlfriends made me say dirty words and that made them laugh until they could no longer breathe. Then I got really hungry. My girlfriends took me to a local restaurant called "Taco Bell," and even though I don't really like Iowa Province, I have to say that Taco Bell is a really wonderful place. Sorry, mother, but it was probably the best meal I have ever had in my life.

Then we went to Britney's boyfriend's house. He lives there all by himself, with three dogs that are even meaner than Rascal. My girlfriends all smoked homemade cigarettes with him. They offered me one, but I said no thanks this time. Britney's boyfriend is named Dwayne. My girlfriends laughed at everything he said, and I think I understood him, but he didn't seem all that funny. In fact, he was kind of scary. His eyes were yellow. He was talking really fast and twitching all over the whole time. Then he would get quiet and look at Britney and they would go into the bathroom together. They would come back out a few minutes later and Britney would be twitching while Dwayne looked almost normal. But then he would start twitching again. So they would go back into the bathroom. This went on for a while, until finally Britney said something that got Dwayne so angry that he started calling Britney a lot of the words that she makes me say to make her laugh. He kicked one of his dogs in the ribs and went to his room. I told Britney that I had English class in the morning and I had to go. She wanted to stay. I needed to get home. The Gustafsons were worried about me, I said. I told her that I would get a taxi. She gave me a strange look. Something shattered in Dwayne's room and a dog came running out. There are no taxis in Council Bluffs, she said.

Yesterday I made some new friends. Or I tried to, anyway. They came right up to the Gustafsons' house and rang the doorbell. They were two nice looking young men dressed in suits, and they had a lot of books with them. They were students, I guess. They introduced themselves as Elder Micah and Elder Levi, though they didn't look all that old to me. They wanted to come in so I let them in. They sat down in the living room and I went to get them some tea, but they said they couldn't drink tea. So I sat down on the sofa across from them.

They asked me how I was doing and I said fine, thank you, and you? They said "good" in a way that really made me believe that they were doing pretty good. Then they asked me if I had been saved. I told them that yes, I felt pretty safe in the Gustafson household. I told them about the bad guys outside and I told them about Rascal, who even then I could hear trying to rip the basement door off its hinges. I told them about all the guns that Mr. Gustafson kept in the attic. They laughed a little and said, no, not safe. Saved. What's the difference, I asked.

They wanted to know where I was from and I told them "Nanchong" and asked them if they had heard of my hometown. They told me that no, they had never heard of it. They wanted to know what country I was from, and I told them "China." They were very interested in China.

"Do you have churches where you live?" they asked.
"Yes," I said. And I told them about the monastery on the West Mountain, and The People's Catholic Church down the street from our house.
"Do you go to church?"
"No, I have never been to the church," I said. "Do you go to church?"
They laughed a little and said that yes, of course they went to church. They asked me if I believed in God.
"I believe in science," I told them, "and I believe in the heroes of the People."
They nodded. This seemed to make sense to them.
"We like science, too. As a matter of fact, Elder Micah over here majored in physics at Bi-Wai-Yu." They laughed, so I laughed too. "Which heroes of the People do you believe in?"
"I believe in Chairman Mao," I said, "and Deng Xiao Ping, who grew up in Guang-an, which is only 45 minutes by bus from my hometown!"

They were unimpressed. They were still smiling, but they were nervous smiles that they wore. I must have said something wrong. They gave me a big black book and told me to read the first page. I tried my best. The writing was like Shakespeare, but not as pretty. I told them that my English was poor and that I couldn't really understand the words. So they started telling me a story about a nice man named Joe who lived in America long, long ago - back when there used to be Indians. They told me all about this Joe and how he did all these nice things for me before I was even born. It was a strange story, but an interesting one, and I was just beginning to make sense out of it when Mrs. Gustafson came into the room.

"Lily," she said to me, "who the fuck are these people and why are they in our living room?"

I could tell she'd had her medicine. The two young men seemed to recognize her. They got up off the couch and started towards the door. She grabbed Elder Levi by the collar of his blazer.

"What did I tell you? What did I tell you about coming to my house?"

The young men were apologizing and backing away. Mrs. Gustafson seemed to be looking around for a weapon, but the guns were upstairs in the attic. Rascal started barking up a storm. Then, something in Mrs. Gustafson's eyes seemed to click. She went over to the basement door and threw it open.

Elders Micah and Levi ran squealing out into the street. The screen door slammed shut behind them just in time. Rascal smashed his face against the window and barked so hard that he fogged up the glass. Then, after he'd worn himself out, Mrs. Gustafson kneeled down, hugged Rascal around the neck, and scratched him behind the ears.

"Good boy," she said. "Gooood boy."
Rascal growled.
"Mrs. Gustafson," I said, "who were those young men? Were they the bad guys?"
"No, Lily," she said. "They're just Morons."
Which I guess is a kind of American religion.

As if I'm not busy enough, I have to do something called a "secondary project." So I have been volunteering at the Omaha Zoo. It's a nice zoo. Very big, with lots of animals. But they don't have any pandas. What a pity. (There are some American pandas that live on our back porch. Mr. Gustafson calls them "fucking coons." Fucking Coons are like pandas, but much smaller, much dirtier, and not as friendly. Fucking Coons eat garbage instead of bamboo. Mr. Gustafson catches them in traps he builds himself and I'm not sure what he does with the Fucking Coons after that.)

Anyway, volunteering at the zoo isn't as fun as it sounds. I told the people in the employment office that I wanted to volunteer and they said okay. I told them I wanted to work with animals. And in a way, I guess I do. I work at a concession stand.

Earlier I said that Americans are friendly. But really, they are only friendly when they are well-fed. The Americans I serve at the Sea Lion Concession Stand are even meaner than Third Uncle Zhang when he drinks. I never seem to do anything right. I can't seem to put enough cheese on anything. Everything is too hot, or too cold. Or it's too spicy. My English is so poor that nobody understands me and I don't understand them. One fat old man got so angry with me when I gave him a Mr. Pibb instead of a Dr. Pepper that I thought he would have a heart attack. Then he did have a heart attack. Now there is something called a "lawsuit" pending in court, but Mr. Gustafson's lawyer tells me I can plead "diplomatic immunity." Mr. Gustafson and I looked up the words in the dictionary together and I understood them both, but I still don't know what they mean put together.

Today, Kyle lifted up his shirt to show me his tattoo, which he called a "tatt." (Maybe this is local Nebraskan dialect. I will ask my students tomorrow.) Oddly enough, it was a Chinese tattoo. He asked if I knew what it meant and I said no. He told me that it meant "virility." I didn't tell him it meant "duck penis." Then he told me that he had some bad news. He started looking like he was about to cry. I asked him if he was okay and he said no. He told me that he was very sick.

"Do your mom and dad know?" I asked.
"Nobody knows," he said. "Except me. And now you, I guess."
"What's wrong?"
"I'm afraid it's – " He sniffled. "It's – yellow fever."
"Oh my God. Is it serious?" I asked.
He nodded.
"Oh, yes. Very serious."
"Are you dying?"
"Every day I die a little more," he said, and put his hand on his heart. And I noticed for the first time that his silk dragon shirt was unbuttoned halfway, and that unlike most American men (and some American women), Kyle had no chest hair.
"It is winter," I said. "You should wear more clothes."
He seemed embarrassed.
"Yeah, I guess I should."

He went back to his room and shut the door. I stayed up studying English, and the light under his door was on all night. I have no idea what he does in there all by himself. He is always in his room by himself, making little noises. Anyway, I'm worried about Kyle. I looked up yellow fever on Baidu, and it says that if he doesn't get medical help, he could die in as soon as three hours.

I should go. Mrs. Gustafson wants to have "Girl Talk" again, which is something we do every Tuesday afternoon. Girl Talk is usually just her talking and smoking a lot of cigarettes and taking a lot of medicine and crying a little at her stories and then crying a lot in my lap about things I don't understand. She is not a girl and I don't really get to talk. So why do we call it Girl Talk? I don't understand that, either. I guess it is just another part of American Culture. I have so much left to learn.

Happy Every Day,
- Li Li


alison said...

Does your counterpart or anybody read this stuff? I know some teachers in Gansu who would find it quite interesting, and entertaining.

Keith Petit said...

I don't know if my coworkers could read it! We're still working on "how are you?" ;D

M said...

Dude you're a genius...

Anonymous said...

i had to put my hand over my mouth to remind myself not to laugh out loud when reading the coon part.