Exhaustion has taken hold. I barely have enough time for myself anymore, much less a social life. I teach seven more classes this year than I did last year, which is a lot. It still amounts to 15 hours a week but it seems like more so I can’t complain too much.
Yesterday I spoke to my colleagues about smoking in China–where ever you go, smoke haze will follow.
A memory materialized in my mind when I thought back to my humble beginning after coming to China two years ago.
At first arrival in my city, I didn’t have an apartment yet. I was in the slummiest part of Longhua– my school put me up in a hotel to which I replied with tears. That first afternoon, I cried hysterically, wondering what I’d done with my life. My meltdown ended, tears dried themselves and I carried on.
I lived in a city called Longhua, one of the many districts of ShenZhen. More or less a factory district. I didn’t know it then but the infamous Foxconn was only a five block walk from my apartment. I had many friends who worked at this factory. I was supposed to go see it before I left Longhua though I never made time. At one point my friends and I met one of the few Apple employees who came to inspect conditions at Foxconn. We called him the, ‘evil American overlord.’ He said he hated to tell workers they built an iPod or iPhone wrong because the employee would have to go stand with his or her nose to the wall.
Besides Foxconn, Longhua is a slum village. It hasn’t changed much since the times I’ve returned. Except now it has a metro stretching all the way from Hong Kong.
I was thinking about what I did after school in Longhua.
These days I come home– watch Korean dramas, make noodles, read, relax and then sleep at least eight hours before I do it all over again.
Back two years ago, I thought teaching was impossible. I had over 800 students I would see for 40 minutes once a week. There’s no way someone is able to learn spoken English in that amount of time. Moreover my students were not graded and in the throes of puberty. They did not make teaching easy for me.
In order to cope: I smoked a ton of cigarettes and drank huge bottles of beer at night. I would sneak off in between classes to have cigarettes, ultra aware of my surroundings completely on edge because the last thing I wanted was to set a bad example for my students — even though male teachers could smoke all they wanted in our offices.
5:45 PM and it was finally the end of the day. I would walk the 2 kilometers back to my abode, stopping halfway at my favorite restaurant. This restaurant would provide a wooden bowl filled with rice and eggplant for 1.15 USD. This was dinner. I went so often they in turn gave me free beer. Soon a woman started coming up and trying to talk to me. She didn’t know any English but she still wanted to be friends and I wanted to practice Chinese.
She dragged me into the back alley. She was in charge of a hotel. After working at hotels for two years this was interesting to me. All the transactions happened on the curb while prostitutes and pimps waited for customers to go up to their respective rooms before making a move to offer ‘massage’ services. Customers were migrant workers from other cities/villages of China coming to Longhua to find a good factory job. If her or she were lucky they could work at Foxconn. They always came in looking bewildered, excited, nervous, and extremely surprised to see me smoking and drinking in that back alley.
I later named my new friend, ‘Chinese girlfriend.’ No other name stuck. One day she did show me a hotel room. Each floor had a communal bathroom and shower. Each floor was a haze of smoke. Each room had one or two ‘beds.’ Beds were boards lain on top of boards, some had gaping holes. Ashes dusted the floor, cigarette butts, and who knows what else. No air conditioning and a broken teevee. Sometimes Chinese girlfriend would cook me Chinese special foods in the communal kitchen that was for the employees. She would use old water, old spices, dirty utensils, bowls. All of these items, delicately balanced on a windowsill overlooking the alley.
Every day I sat outside laughing, trying to understand Chinese. I learned quite a bit of Chinese from these visits. We observed the prostitutes and laughed. Some of the only women who aren’t shy in China are prostitutes. Men would pinch their butt–prostitutes in turn would sit on mens’ laps. The Pimp kept watch over everything and played with children. One day he played too rough with one little boy when he put a stool on top of the little guy and sat on him! The baby wailed and finally the Pimp let him up. Whenever I was out of cigarettes, Chinese girlfriend would go grab some from the Pimp or prostitutes. I was never without.
Thinking back none of these people had much, Chinese girlfriend was probably just barely above the poverty line in China. I later found out she had a baby who lived in the village back home. She didn’t have a husband. These people had so little yet gave me so much and I’ll never forget what a difficult time this was and yet I made friends in the oddest of places. In the book, ‘The Man Who Quit Money,’ Suelo talks about how the less people have the more they give and the more people have the less they give. So many times in my life I have ‘depended on the kindness of strangers.’
I can’t even imagine doing those things now simply because, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’