The Chinese English Teacher
California travel writer
Carla King is celebrating her 40th birthday by riding a
motorcycle through China. We are delighted that she has
chosen to send us exclusive excerpts from her journal written
as she journeys.
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
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
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 to sleep."
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
"Tomorrow you stay
at my house," she says and shoos everyone out of the room.
She shows me her English
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 pump.
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 good teacher
"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
"They say I am not
a good teacher but I am a good teacher. Trouble is students
don't want to learn,� 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
"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 for Lanzhou...
has been stuck twice in Inner Mongolia with motorcycle mechanical
problems. However at the time of writing she has made it
to Yinchuan and is on the road to Lanzhou and Xian. From
there she will make her way back to Beijing.
Click here to read Carla's
female-friendly advice for travellers to China.
Want to know more? Further dispatches on Carla's progress
can be found at her China Road website: http://www.verbum.com/jaunt