Today is Sunday. This morning Mrs Jin, her mother and her son took me shopping so that I could buy some gifts for my family. As a typical guy, I have, of course, put this off pretty much to the end of the trip.
I am in the ocean transportation business. I have been since 1979. Not that many years ago, I remember saying with absolute conviction, “there is no way that the Chinese public is ever going to be able to afford western consumer products”. This statement was about as correct as “the world is flat”. Today we walked through some of the largest displays of Dior/Chanel/Longines/Cartier/etc I have ever seen in my life and the throngs of Chinese consumers were consuming as if there were no tomorrow. Ikea, H&M, Gucci, they are all here and they are booming in a way that US retailers can only dream of. Cheap? Think again. I was trying to find some clothing for my two older kids with a ‘hip’ Chinese motif. US$80 t-shirt anybody? Didn’t buy that one, but close enough. There were, however, young Chinese hipsters paying US$120 for just a sweat shirt that said something groovy in English like “Pretty Boy Car Love” (whatever the heck that means). After I made my purchases I felt like a jerk when I thought about the kids at the school who wear the same thing every day again and again and again (not out of choice).
After making our purchases, we weaved thru the crowd to a basement-level mega-food court. We ate a delicious North Chinese hot pot with paper-thin slices of lamb and fish, mounds of mushrooms, pork blood squares (no, I didn’t eat those), carrots, daikon, tofu. These are put into the boiling two-sided hot pot (one side very spicy other side not spicy at all) which is full of secret Chinese medicinal herbs (vide my last blog). After a couple of moments you fish them out and dip them into seasame sauce and burn your mouth. Yummy.
Hot pot behind us, they caught the subway home and I caught a cab out to the school. Yes, school on Sunday. When I got there, I realized that I was not just the only volunteer there, I was not just the only teacher there, I was the only adult there. 32 kids came to class. I felt somehow guilty that they were there appearantly just to listen to me scream interesting stuff like “Mr Brown likes Summer because it’s hot” over and over. Class started at 1:30 and was supposed to go until 4:00. I let them take rather long breaks and we stopped at 3:50. They were overjoyed. I was told that they they were supposed to stay until 5pm (no teacher? no administrators? no clue…). I told them that I would be going. My gig was done at 4pm and nobody ever told me I had stay longer. My entourage from school to the highway is growing. Today I had seven with me. One little girl held my hand all the way. She said, “Teacher, you are in our Chinese hearts and we will protect you”. What she meant was, that they would protect me from the gouging taxi drivers. They asked me a few days ago what the taxi would cost from school to the place I am living. I toned down the number, not wanting to be a big shot and told them 25 Yuan (it really costs about 40 Yuan or US$6). The reduced number of 25 Yuan left them in a fiduciary stupor. “That is too much, Laoshi(*)” they said, “the taxi drivers are taking advantage of you because you are a foreigner.” So every day for the past few days, they walk me down the road, past the fresh chicken shop (with the chopping block and pile of guts out front), the mule meat barbeque (I’m not making this up), the new and fresh looking public toilets with their personnel dressed in white (the kids point this out as a matter of neighborhood pride), the bike repair shop/tent, the guy who brings dozens of bowls of goldfish for sale on the back of his three wheeled bike every day, the pineapple seller who has a running mahjong game going and doesn’t actually ever seem to sell pineapples, the People’s Police station and the cigarette store. I have made it a rule that if anyone runs out into the street, they can’t walk with me anymore, so they all stay on the sidewalk and yell and the top of their lungs at the passing cabs. When one stops, they rush it, pull open the doors and tell the driver to take me home by the most direct route and that I am a foreigner…as if the driver couldn’t notice on his own. A couple think they know where I live and have given incorrect addresses to the driver. One guy believed the kids and I really had a hard time re-routing him to the correct destination.
I’m not sure who is going to be at school tomorrow since it is technically the official Qing Ming holiday and ‘normal’ schools are closed. The kids in the class today all told me they would be there. About another month here and I’d be understanding enough Chinese to actually figure out what is going on. Well, that’s not going to happen. A couple more days and this will all be a very lasting memory.
(*) Laoshi = teacher