The Doorbell Rang

Last week it was 70 and sunny for four days, Monday through Thursday. Then, after a massive thunderstorm, the temperature plummeted and it was back to turning blue in the archives. I was biking home Friday alongside another grad student, Cathy, who’s from England. She commented that she’s never seen weather this bizarre. I told her that it was just like spring in Minnesota, except that in my home state, the temperature drop would be accompanied by gratuitous snowfall. As soon as the word ‘snow’ escaped my lips, I regretted it. One should never tempt fate in this way in the springtime, and sure enough, seconds later something small, wet and chilly hit my nose. The light flurries soon turned into quite the snowy mess (though admittedly, it didn’t really accumulate much, falling as it was on the sun-warmed pavement), and I discovered that if there is anything worse than driving home through a Friday rush-hour snowstorm, it’s biking through one.

When not slaving away on the dissertation (er, right) over the last few weeks, I’ve been tutoring my neighbor’s daughter, Liwei. I met her after her mom showed up on my doorstep one night, explaining that she’d heard there was an American in the neighborhood and thought she’d come by to see if the rumors proved true. Liwei is 15 and, true to the pressure-cooker mentality that underlies most Asian educational systems, she has two important, life-determining exams coming up. I’m helping her prepare for an English exam on April 2.

She’s currently a student at Nanjing’s foreign language middle school, and in order to get into the foreign language high school, she needs to test in the top half of this exam. In other words, 600 of the best English students in this city take the exam, but only 300 of them pass. Then in June, she takes the high school entrance exam. Her mom tells me that only a third of all middle school graduates get into a regular high school (with attending hopes to someday go to college) – the rest end up in trade school, all academic dreams over at age 15.

As a result, being a Chinese student, whether in elementary, middle, or high school, is a rough existence. Most families only have one child (that’s, er, due to the infamous “one child policy”), and everything depends on how he or she does in school, with college being the ultimate goal. Each step along the way, however, narrows the field considerably. As anyone from your friends, to cab drivers, to average guy on the street will tell you if you stand still long enough to listen, China has too many people. There are too few places in universities, so the 12 years leading up to college turn into a cut-throat competition for academic success. Add to this the fact that some of the precious few open slots are taken by people who have the money or connections to get into any given school through back channels, and you have a miserable existence for the rest of the test-takers.

Liwei goes to school every day from 7 to 5, then comes home to a few hours of tutoring, and then studies until midnight or one. Her mom works all day and keeps her company at night – as she says, if her daughter had to stay up all alone and study while the rest of the family slept, she’d become bitter. Her mom is quite worried about the exams, but also wants to avoid giving her daughter too much pressure – one night she regaled me with horror stories of young students being overcome by the stress and attempting suicide – it happens around test time every year.

Liwei’s family situation – not to mention her stress level – are complicated by the fact that her dad has leukemia. He was diagnosed four years ago, but it has been slow to develop. His white count is quite high now, however, and this spring he’ll undergo a bone marrow transplant. He was lucky in that first, his brother was a match for his bone marrow, and second, that he has a government job that can pick up the cost of the procedure – otherwise, he’d never be able to do it. That Liwei and her mom show up on my doorstop cheerful and chattering every night – and asking what they can do to help me – is an extraordinarily humbling thing to witness.

Being a cream-of-the-crop foreign language student, Liwei speaks extraordinarily good English already, though her studies thus far have been a bit too focused on rote memorization and not enough on organic conversation. (I help make up for this by demonstrating a pre-teen level of interest in soap operas and Mandopop stars and having her fill in the gaps in my knowledge.) The one complication in what would be a perfect student-tutor relationship is that I won’t let them pay me, and this causes angst. There are a few reasons for this – one is that while I’m on fellowship I’m not supposed to take paid employment (and yes, no one would ever know, but I would), another is that I’m not a trained tutor – I just explain things the best that I can and sometimes that’s not all that well. Her mom finally accepted the situation with the suggestion that perhaps there are things they can do for me instead of just handing me cash.

When we first agreed on the tutoring arrangement, they presented me with an economy size box of cookies: the logic being, I gather, that if they can’t pay me, they can at least feed me. The cookies were advertised as being milk flavored, the perfect accompaniment for afternoon tea. There was nothing on the packaging to prepare me for the fact that each individual cookie was stamped over and over again with “Beijing! 2008!!! Beijing! 2008!!!” It seems they’re pro-Olympics, patriotic cookies. Sadly, they’re also terrible: like eating compressed sand, only sweeter. On the other had, I can’t help but think that they might not be half bad if accompanied by ice cream – Chinese nationalism, a la mode.

It did not stop with the cookies, however. Although I came up with a few things related to my research that they could do to help me out (mostly in the realm of deciphering difficult-to-read characters from my archives copies), they clearly decided that the best course of action was to bring more and more food my way. While tutoring Yitei at her house one afternoon, I was kept busy by not only the constant stream of questions from my student (“Why is New York called the Big Apple?” “Why are college students called freshmen and sophomores?” “What’s the difference between blond and blonde?” I spent some quality time with Google that night, working out some of the answers), but by the constant supply of snacks from her mom. Every time I took a sip of tea, I’d set it back on the table and her mom would sweep in, grab the cup, and refill my mouthful’s worth of hot water. She handed me an apple, but before I could finish it, she took it out of my hand and replaced it with a mango, which was in turn replaced with yogurt. Protests were futile, and I became slightly concerned about opening my mouth too wide lest she stick something in it.

A few nights later, my doorbell rang. I had just finished dinner – a little tired of Chinese food, I had found some Italian rotini and olive oil at the import store, and cooked up broccoli, eggplant and tomatoes in oil, garlic and basil and combined it with the noodles. I fully acknowledge that it was not a gourmet creation, but I enjoyed it. When the doorbell rang, I was just heading into the kitchen to clean up and store the leftovers. I let in my neighbor, who came bearing a few bags of vegetables. She asked me if I’d eaten dinner yet, and I indicated I had, pointing at my leftovers. She asked if she could taste my creation, and I gladly handed over a clean pair of chopsticks. She took one bite and made a face. “It’s awful!” she exclaimed. I tried to explain that it was Italian style, and therefore might not suit her tastes, but really I was quite satisfied. She did not accept this, and immediately went to work making me soup. I protested: I was quite full from dinner. She gave my leftovers a disdainful look. “You’re full from eating that?” “Yes,” I answered, almost apologetically, “Really.”

She thought about this while the soup was simmering, during which I earned further incredulous looks for not having any MSG on hand to add flavor to the soup. I’m sure she thought that was one reason my pasta was so terrible. Fortunately, she told me, she had anticipated that I might not know to buy MSG and keep it on hand, so she brought some along, which she kindly left with me for my future cooking efforts. By the time the soup was done, she had apparently decided that she did not accept my claims of being full. My previous dinner, she declared, did not count because it was so bad, so clearly I must eat dinner all over again. With this established, she sat me down at my table with a giant bowl of soup and the command to eat it all. Then she sat down next to me to watch.

While I slowly worked my way through the soup, we talked history and politics. I had noticed that any mention she made of the Japanese, in any context, came in the form of “those Japanese devils.” This being Nanjing, that sentiment is not all that unusual; the Japanese army’s infamous sweep through this city and the surrounding countryside is a veritable A to Z catalog of war crimes. The depth of feeling over World War II and even longer-standing historical resentments between China, Korea, and Japan are often somewhat enigmatic in the West; after all, we were in the same war, fought Germany and Japan, and if it is not forgotten, it is all at least forgiven. But anyone with an eye on, for example, the present dispute between Korean and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima mess can see the depth of feeling that continues to exist between the two countries.

Likewise with some Chinese – particularly Nanjingers – and the Japanese. That’s not to say that people don’t get along on an individual level, because of course they do; but liking a few Japanese people who live down the street and wholesale acceptance of their homeland and its past is pretty different. In the case of my neighbor, her anti-Japanese attitude is rooted in the fact that her mother spent four days hiding in a cupboard when the Japanese army came through her hometown (outside of Nanjing) in 1937.

From the war, we moved forward in time to the communist liberation and the Mao era, which my neighbor described as a time when one had to very careful about what they said and to whom they said it – now is much better, of course, though that didn’t stop my neighbor from asking that if I ever told anyone about our conversations, I please not mention her name. Still, she spoke both freely and disdainfully of Mao’s early policies that made cultivating even a small plot of vegetables for one’s own family an anti-revolutionary act, and then blasted the extremism that led to the Cultural Revolution, which ended her own high school education a few years early. “My generation has no culture,” she told me, “No schooling, no culture. Most never had a chance to do or be anything.” She was lucky, because she was young enough and smart enough to test into college when the schools reopened in the 1970s, and now she’s an accountant with a good job and a decent life. Understandably, she thinks of Deng Xiao-ping, that great transformer of China, as the greatest man who ever lived, never mind Tiananmen.

Saturday mid-morning, the doorbell rang. She must think I’m starving to death, honestly, for the amount of food she brought over. (Well, given her opinion of my cooking, she’s likely convinced that I am starving to death, not for lack of eating, but for lack of eating anything good.) She spent an hour and a half cooking up a storm in my kitchen (the warning bells went off in my head when she looked at my jug of vegetable oil and worried that the cup and a half left inside might not be enough), and in the end I had a huge pot of rice, three vegetable dishes, a large fish, nine hard boiled quail eggs, and one vat of turtle and tofu soup. She kindly walked me through that last one, perhaps thinking that this week I could pick up a turtle and whip up a batch myself.

I am not, however, so wild about turtle (which does not taste like chicken) that I want to run right out and do that, but it was kind of her anyway. What was amusing, however, was her determination that we couldn’t possibly have turtles in the US, because – wait for it – they live on the banks of rivers and we don’t have rivers in America. Huh. I assured her that we, too, have rivers and turtles galore, but the last time I was in close contact with a turtle, it was a friend’s pet, not the base of a soup.

I actually get these kinds of questions a lot – do we have bean sprouts in the US? Yogurt? Do we all eat hamburgers or pizza three meals a day? (Some of us would if we could, eh, dad?) Had I eaten rice before I came to China? What about tofu? Sometimes answering these questions requires diplomacy: does the coffee-flavored milk tea in China taste like it does in the US? Does the Kentucky Fried Chicken in the US serve cancer-causing toxins to American customers? (Er, no, the barbeque chicken with Sudan I sauce was apparently just for the Chinese market….)

When she was done cooking and this feast was laid out on the table, she took off her apron and said her goodbyes. I was confused; wasn’t she going to join me? Nope – she had to go home and cook for her family. How embarrassing. So there I was with enough food for a family of ten, all by myself at the table. Her parting words to me were to eat it all – or worst case, heat up the leftovers for dinner – but they won’t keep after Saturday, so eat up (and without stopping, apparently, for the rest of the day). I ignored her and ate the last of the leftovers just today (not to mention working on the candy and dried plums they brought over in between cooking adventures).

The sudden presence of a refrigerator full of leftovers was complicated by the fact that I left town for two days early Sunday morning. I had an appointment in Shanghai on Monday, so I decided to leave a day early and explore Suzhou, a city between Nanjing and Shanghai. A famous proverb once declared that there is paradise in heaven, and Suzhou and Hangzhou on earth (I’m not sure where exactly the proverb is from, other than every guidebook ever written in Chinese or English on either of the two cities). Suzhou is an ancient city, and its main attractions are its gardens – there are dozens of major gardens, and countless minor ones. A classical Chinese garden is not about flowers so much as a mixture of architecture, handcrafted rock, and carefully sculpted nature. The effect is beautiful, though for anyone going Chinese garden hopping in the near future, let me offer this bit of sage advice: four in one afternoon is too many.

After the first few, you start to look around and think, “rocks and water, bamboo and goldfish, yup, all here,” take a few (by this point) gratuitous photos, and then leave, with the gate people wondering why you just spent 20 kuai for a gallop through their garden. This sort of attitude must necessarily detract from the wonder one would otherwise feel at the realization that these rocks and water, not to mention bamboo and plants (but not the goldfish)(at least, not the same goldfish), have been thus arranged for hundreds of years, in spite of dynastic collapse, Western imperialism, the Taiping rebellion, the Japanese invasion, the communist take-over and the cultural revolution. Which is more than one can say for your average American rocks and water.

Some structures have been replaced, of course, but the oldest garden dates back 1200 years, and I climbed to the top of a 1005-year-old pagoda. Actually, this was almost the story of how I got wedged in a 1005-year-old pagoda – the staircase was so narrow, deteriorating to a sort of slightly angled ladder for the last two stories, that I got a bit stuck before it occurred to me to back down, take off my backpack, and try it again pushing the overly-stuffed bag ahead of me. Thank goodness I got myself out of that one quietly, though, because I do not want to know what kind of attention a foreigner wedged in a pagoda would attract in Suzhou. In some things, we are better off remaining ignorant.

I had such beautiful weather for my outing that late in the day I decided not to rush back to the train station, but to take my time and walk part of it, and then just grab a cab when the time started to get tight. This would have been a great plan if it were not for the fact that there were no empty cabs to be had on a Sunday evening (and flagging one down was further complicated by the bike lane separating the road with the taxis from the sidewalk with their would-be passengers). As it happened, I just kept walking. And walking. And walking. Finally, I started getting nervous – my train was leaving in 25 minutes, I had no idea how far I still had to go, and I’ve never been in a Chinese train station that was not complete and utter chaos (and therefore requiring some time to navigate). I caught sight of a bus number L4, which I thought I remembered seeing when I left the train station that morning. I waved it down, confirmed with the bus driver that his destination was, indeed, the station, and jumped aboard. I deposited my 1 kuai (I love that you can ride the bus for 12 cents here), lurched forward to an empty seat (the bus was turning a corner), sat, and looked out the window… at the train station. I had boarded the bus maybe 50 yards away from the station entrance. I take comfort in the fact that at least I caught my train. With, uh, time to spare.

I’d attach a few photos of Suzhou, but – alas – my camera ate them. I apparently give off some sort of bizarre anti-electronics vibe. We’ve long known this. I’ve had trouble with watches (including one with a new battery that would spontaneously reverse time and start to tick backwards), phones, stereos, and computers (well, on that last one, who hasn’t). At one point last fall every single piece of electronics in my apartment, from my electronic Chinese-English dictionary down to my toaster oven, was in some way inoperable. For no apparent reason, my digital camera decided to crash and take the flash memory card with it (so much for my back up), so I have nothing but fond memories and gate tickets to show for my day in Suzhou. Ah well, someday I’ll go back. On the bright side, somewhere in China there is a couple that has photographic evidence that I was there – I refer, of course, to the classic “take a picture with a foreigner” phenomenon.

I can’t say I really understand the impulse behind it. Pictures with celebrities or people in anthropomorphic animal suits, sure, who doesn’t enjoy that? But just a random person of the street who – gasp! – is not Chinese? Nope, don’t get it. And the thing is, the natural tendency to explain this away as being in a part of China with less exposure to foreigners doesn’t really work.

When Lancelot was in town, he and I posed with two military guys down at the Confucian temple and with two couples (taking turns, so everyone could be in a shot) in a restaurant. Granted, Nanjing is not exactly down in the countryside, far from the reaches of civilization, but there are not so many foreigners here that they aren’t a little unusual outside the universities, and there were two of us out at once. But the first time this ever happened to me was in Taiwan, and in January, it even happened in Hong Kong (while mountain climbing – we got to the top of the mountain and were surprised to see cows, some guys behind us got there and were surprised to see foreigners. When they asked for a picture, I reached for their camera to take one of them, but before I got there one of the guys had bounded to my side and slung an arm around my shoulders while the other snapped the picture). I guess this – like the shouts of “hello!!” from strangers when I bicycle by and marriage proposals in whatever form they take – is just my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a taste of celebrity.

On a side note, I’m currently reading the worst book on the overseas Chinese ever written. I grant that I have not read everything ever written on the Chinese diaspora, but this book is so bad that I’m still willing to make this claim. Naturally, it was an international best-seller, which is what happens when people other than historians write history books (though that is, perhaps, a topic for another time). So, what makes it so bad? Writing about the campaign that drove the Dutch from the isle of Formosa : “Victory on Taiwan was sweet and sour.” No, dearheart, victory on Taiwan may be bittersweet, but it is not sweet and sour, as if it was so much battered and deep-fried pork. What concerns me is that I’m sure he specifically selected this phrase for its “Chinese flair.”

Other bizarre examples of overly-vivid and astoundingly out-of-place imagery include the line, “virtue was kicked off like tight ballet shoes” (the context of that one is immaterial, as there should be no ballet shoes making appearances in this book for any reason) and perhaps my favorite, “Indonesians are like tiny plankton in a warm sea where the great whales bathe. They find it reassuring that the biggest whales – President Suharto’s family and friends – swallow nearly everything, after running it through their krill strainers.” Bonus points if you can determine what the “krill strainers” represent in that overly ambitious simile. It starts a chapter (suitably titled, “Where the Whales Play”), and nothing seems to follow it by way of explanation. Of course, what the book lacks in literary merit and historical accuracy (the author has annoying tendency to make some sort of broad generalization about life in ancient China and then state, “and the overseas Chinese are still like that today” at least twice a chapter) it more than makes up for in unintended laughs, so I continue to read on.

Best to all, Merry

Epilogue: Uff da. I was just about to send this when, you guessed it, the doorbell rang. My neighbor asked me what I had for dinner, and sensing her dissatisfaction as I started to explain the fried rice I’d made, I just kept talking until she was satisfied. Being satisfied, however, did not stop her from making me a bowl of sweet black sesame soup, cutting up a pineapple, and boiling a chopped lotus root for me to munch. She also brought candied dried plums, tea eggs, pea pods, and put a package of frozen won tons in my freezer. Lunch for tomorrow, she said. And for a few days after that, I daresay.

Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen


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