The Chinese English Teacher
California travel writer
Carla King celebrated her 40th birthday by riding a motorcycle
through China. We are delighted that she has gifted us with exclusive
excerpts from her journal written as she travelled.
It is a mean little place, this luguan in Inner Mongolia
with its cement floor and stucco walls, three rattly iron beds
and one window up high like a jail cell. But I am just grateful
for a bed and a shower after riding these dusty roads, sweating
under hot high-noon sun and tinkering with the motorcycle engine.
She wears a red velvet dress...
T-shirt on, wet hair combed,
I prepare to slip under the blanket of heavy cotton batting, but
the door handle turns and the landlady enters followed by ten,
no twenty, no... thirty or so people, the whole village. It is
a tiny place, a western style dust bowl one-horse town and here
they all are, the ones outside straining to see over the ones
crammed into my room. Through the crowd, a woman is pushed to
the front. She wears a long red velvet dress, beach sandals and
her hair is a mess.
"Hello," she says, looking
through thick glasses with heavy square frames that sit slightly
askew on her face and mash her small Chinese nostrils. "How can
I help you?"
She understands I'm miserable...
I pull the bedsheet over
my legs. I've become used to the lack of privacy in China by now,
but this was too much.
"Thank you but I don't need
any help," I say, as politely as I can. "My motorcycle is broken,
the mechanic will help me repair it tomorrow and now I'm ready
She translates for the crowd,
who respond by talking all at once in loud voices. There is suddenly
no air in the room. They push her closer to me. She snaps at them.
They have obviously dragged her out of bed, she's grumpy, but
they're not going to let her get away without satisfying some
of their curiosity.
"They want to know... how
old are you?" "They want to know... are you married?" "They want
to know... what you are doing here?"
I don't answer. She looks
at me and understands intuitively that today I am miserable.
"Tomorrow you stay at my
house," she says and shoos everyone out of the room.
She shows me her English book
Her house is built of mud
and straw and like most others in the village is contained in
a five-foot high wall of mud and straw. We enter through a wooden
doorway with a sagging roof of rotting black straw. The yard is
mud and a bucket of slop sits next to the door by a rusty water
Inside, a narrow hallway
is floored with brick in a zigzag pattern, uncemented but settled
well into the dirt. The whole house smells of dirt and mold and
the sharp odor of soy sauce. On each side of the hallway are doors
to the two main rooms and straight ahead is the kitchen. The top
half of the door is covered with a tacked on piece of cloth which
may have once been white. To the left is an anteroom holding a
cabinet piled with a few clothes and jars and toothbrushes, and
a bookcase filled with paperbacks all labeled in Chinese. She
shows me her book collection. Many of the Chinese titles hold
English books inside. There is Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck
as well as collections of short stories and novellas. There are
also many English lesson books.
Through this room is a larger
room that holds a Mongolian sleeping platform with coal stove
attached for warming the bed during cold winter nights. A plastic
basin filled with dirty water sits on a rickety wire stand. A
filthy rag and a radish lies on the floor next to it.
She'a a bad housewife - a
"Excuse me I am bad housewife,"
she says, picking up the radish and the dirty dishcloth. „And
my house is very bad because my salary and my husband's salary
is only 500 yuan a month each, so we get bad house."
Jin Zhi tells me she wants
to start her own business, a kindergarten in town. Her job teaching
college students at the agricultural school is frustrating.
"They say I am not a good
teacher but I am a good teacher. Trouble is students don't want
to learn,š she explains.
She cleans the dandelion
greens while she's talking, and I look through her notebooks.
Her written English is perfect. Better than mine, with neat handwriting
and sentence diagramming and terminology. I tell her so. She looks
up at me and smiles, showing her crooked teeth.
"If you stay three months
more my speaking English will be very good, too."
I listen. I smile back at
Jin Zhi. But I know that tomorrow I will get back on my bike heading