Star Anise, Congee and the Hidden Teacher

Today is Thursday and I’ll be back in the States in a week. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good thing because I miss my family very much and a bad thing because I’m going to miss the host family and the kids at school very much too.

Yesterday was almost uneventful at school.  It took me a while to find out why the kids  were so very quiet and reserved in the beginning.  It was as if I had become a fearsome authority figure overnight. Perhaps I was wearing some culturally frightening new piece of clothing?   Everybody sat straight in their seats and the usual din of repetition was more…military.    After about 15-20 minutes into the lesson I slid between the desks to the back of the room – just to keep everybody on their toes.  Noticed a new girl sitting way in the back.  Looked older than the rest.  Aha! It was their usual teacher, small but mighty.  She was not repeating after me, but she was watching every movement like a cat in a room of 47 mice. She left the classroom  in the last few minutes and the student’s relief was noticeable.

I arrived at the school early yesterday to find two black cars with tinted windows parked way down the muddy lane were cars usually don’t go.   Didn’t think much of it.  When I came into the courtyard, there were 4 or 5 relatively well dressed younger people (mid-20′s to mid-30′s) speaking with Director Wang.   One of the men came right up to me and asked in passable English, “Are you the foreign volunteer?”.  I said I was.  “I am a volunteer too”, he said.  “The children tell me they like you very much.”  I thanked him and asked if he would be working as a volunteer at the school too.  He said that he would not, but that the had wanted to meet me.  There was no further explanation.   By this time, my class was starting (the nice quiet one mentioned above) and I went in.  One of the other guys in the black car group took pictures of me in ‘friendly interaction’ with the kids though the  windows.  Then they were gone.    I found out today that these were people from the local Communist Party headquarters and that yesterday, they had promised to send volunteers to help at the school as well.   That’s a good thing.  The school has been there for a few years, I hear, and it is good that more local help is on it’s way.

Today, Director Wang as well as two grad students from the University of International Studies (am not sure if that is the official English title) took me to lunch.  Tomorrow is the last time I will see Director Wang as he is going home to Henan Province for the Qing Ming Festival next week.  Qing Ming is known in English as Grave Sweeping Day, which sounds pretty somber, but it’s not.  Think ‘Memorial Day’.  If I understood correctly, there was a death in Director Wang’s family in the not-too-distant past and he wanted to go home.   The lunch was down the street from the school, in the second floor of a newer brick building and was, if not ‘world class’, clean and nicely appointed.  We sat in a separee around  a table that was made for at least 10.  The menu came to me.  Great.  This is Chinese etiquette.  The guest gets to choose.  I pleaded ignorance.  I was told, “no problem – just look at the pictures”.  Well, the pictures all looked like Chinese food I had never seen before and unfortunately, the menu was not graced with pictures of happy chickens, cows and pigs like menus are in Kansas City so that you know what you are hopefully getting.  I can read enough Chinese for sure, but names of many dishes totally belie what they really are.  Example:  You order the “Garden Chicken” and you know what you will get?  For those of you who guessed bullfrog, you are correct.   So after much humble pleading on my part, Director Wang ordered…..and did he ever order.  Only question asked was, “can you eat spicy food?”   I definitely can.   In all, we had 8 dishes: tofu noodles (cold), chicken that looked curried, but was just really yellow, chicken with hot green peppers, a whole carp, chicken with potatoes and peppers in a red sauce over noodles, thinly sliced cold beef tongue, long, and dark dried mushrooms with peppers.  No rice, of course.  It was all exceedingly delicious.  Really.  So far, I feel just fine.  Well, except for a little headache.  We also enjoyed a (large) bottle of rather warm beer with the salty, spicy food.  It tasted good too,  even warm. After lots of food and several toasts, it was time to go and teach the class…oh boy…..one and a half hours of class….oh boy again.  I am sure that none of the kids noticed my beer breath.  The odor of the school room takes care of that.  But they did tell me that I looked tired and hot.  They were correct. I was really tired and already these small rooms bursting with bodies are very, very warm.  As I mentioned before, I have no clue how this must be in the hot Beijing summers.

My host family - particularly the grandmother of Ms Jin – has been feeding me as if I were a starved stray cat….which I am not…I’m actually trying to get my weight down a bit.  But nothing doing.  Every meal is prepared from scratch and nothing goes to waste ever.  I have not eaten one thing here that would not go into the ‘scrumptious’ category.  Mornings it’s flat sesame breads, steamed Chinese buns, tofu and mushroom soups, fermented red tofu (my absolute favorite), congee….the list goes on and on.  I have eaten nothing here that I have ever seen on a menu in a Chinese restaurant in the US.   I love wolfberry tea.  What is wolfberry?  Who the heck knows?!  They look like red raisins and you can put them in soup or make tea out of them and they are tart and yummy (and have medicinal value in Chinese-Medicine-World which I don’t really understand).  The Jin’s next door neighbor brought me two big boxes of them and I may have to smuggle them back home.  She also brought a huge bag of dried beef from Inner Mongolia I said I liked…I definitely can’t take that home.   Last night we had crepes which we rolled up with Boston lettuce, scrambled eggs, plum sauce, hot sauce and scallions. Delicious!!  Who would have guessed it?   Noticed this morning that the buttons on my shirt are sort of  ‘pulling’.

I will end here as the sizzling sound of frying something-or-other and the fragrance of a star anise are wafting in from the kitchen, calling me to my evening meal.

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