Lesser Pandas

by Carrie Sanders

I had the best intentions when I applied to teach English in China.  I envisioned rapt students, heartfelt cultural exchange, making a difference. But, as with most things in my life, I was just too damn earnest.  I am a person that believes infomercials and PowerPoint presentations.  I am a person that thinks the best will happen, and because of this I am always early, overdressed, and embarrassingly eager.

Lacey had no such motivation.  The China program was just one of many she had lined up.  She was an International Studies Major at Georgetown, and her schedule for the last 2 years was just one foreign exchange program after another.  After the summer in China, she was going straight to Cairo for a semester.  She had spent her senior year in France, and last summer in a program in Guatemala.  Though she had traveled the world, Lacey seemed to have never learned much from her adventures.  It all seemed to be just scenery for her own international booze cruise. She brought a photo album from home as a teaching tool, and page after page was Lacey in a foreign bar, Budweiser in one hand, her other flashing a meaningless “V” of peace.

Her clothes always looked like they were stretched at the seams.  She flowed over tank tops and her skirts hitched up her thighs.  The thin elastic “T” of her thong always rose up over her waistband.  Even her face was hyper-sexualized and inflated- the set of her thick lips, heavily lidded eyes framed by dense and dirty blonde hair.  She reminded me of a real life Jessica Rabbit—she wasn’t bad, she was just built that way.  She caused accidents here—men and women alike crashed their bikes, struck dumb by this vision of American sexual decadence.

As a roommate, she was wild but predictable.  Every night after dinner, we would go down to the market with Ricky and Bob and pick up a couple green glass liters of warm Hans beer.  We would come back to our room and drink and play gin rummy, the Chinese variety hour blaring from the TV.  Inevitably, after her first liter of beer, Lacey would heckle the variety show’s studio audience.  “Look at ‘em!  This country doesn’t rock and roll!  These people don’t know how to party”

If Ricky and Bob were in the United States, their paths would never have crossed.  Ricky was a 19-year-old from Texas, feminine, slight, and away from his conservative Catholic family for the first time in his life. This was a pivotal experience for him, and it was fascinating to watch him parroting his parent’s political and religious views and then soak up all the new ideas and old arguments we sent back his way.  I would watch him mentally filing away all the information and imagine him trying out his new, grown up persona at his parent’s dinner table.  It was my opinion that he was gearing up to step out of the closet, though he did take great pains to incorporate his girlfriend into the conversation, and expound on his utter respect for her virtue.

Bob was a cool guy from Chicago, big and slow. He had the heavy man smell of poop and dryer sheets.  He was mysterious—and the rest of us suspected he was on the run from a criminal charge.  He kept extending his contract, even though he complained constantly about the low pay and lack of “chicks that bounce.”  If that was his only criteria, I wondered why Lacey hadn’t blipped his radar, but they could barely stand each other.  Most of us would have few commonalities on which to base a friendship in the real world, but we just had each other here.

The night would deteriorate as Lacey changed to shots of Chinese grain alcohol that gave the rest of us splitting headaches.   If she drank too much, she would become completely belligerent and crass.  We christened this side of Lacey “Stepsister Crystal”.  Lacey’s Stepsister Crystal was a one trick pony.  The set of her jaw hardened, and she said shit a lot—but she had a way of saying shit that was almost a whistle—a fast and sharp exhalation.  “C’mere ya little shit,” she hissed, her messy handfuls of flesh smothering Ricky, “Ya like tits?  I’ll give ya tits.”   She grabbed his head and rubbed him into her chest, and he giggled in absolute joy.

In the mornings, Lacey never had hangovers.  She woke up happy and hungry every morning, even when the rest of us were sour bellied and swearing off the Hans and heaving at the sight of eggs boiled in tea and fishy noodle soup that constitutes a Chinese breakfast.

I hated to be ill-prepared for class, and spent every morning before school creating lesson plans.  In the beginning, I tried to incorporate the suggestions in my informational packet.  I focused on seasons, adjectives, and holidays.  But I had been unaware that my students would be in the third grade, with no English experience.  I ended up singing the alphabet and nursery rhymes day after day.  Lacey had older students and she took a different approach.  I took my students Christmas Caroling to her classroom, interrupting what seemed to be a lesson on how to order a cold beer, the words “Budweiser”, “bottle cap”, “ice”, “ashtray”, and strangely, “infected” written on the board in her bubbled and backhanded writing.  Bob by far had the biggest challenge.  His students were the most advanced, and his first day was spent answering the question posed by one of his students, “Why are you so fat?”

In the classroom, I quickly found that most of the language gaps were simply too wide to bridge.  Much like my inability to master the subtleties of the tonal Mandarin language, the Chinese had a puzzling approach to English.  It was as though every tourist attraction and hotel in the country had used the same turn of the century slang dictionary to translate signs into English.  In Shanghai, we were warned against “rabble-rousing and sexy service.”  We were advised to avoid “fetishes and speculation” in the Forbidden City.  Even the English language school when we were teaching had signs on the grounds stating, “To appreciate grass, lay off the greens.” These errors alone seemed impossible to explain, but complicating the matter was the current trend of English language on every piece of clothing.  Where do even begin when the eight-year-old girl in the front row is sporting a “Spoony” t-shirt on which Charlie Brown exclaims “I break wind and make fast runs!  Experience it”

We were in the town of Keqiao, a small town by Chinese standards—only 7 million people.  Even in a city of this size, it was rare to see a foreigner.  It was a town known for its textile industry, and there were no attractions to draw tourists.  For most of the residents, we were the first white people they had ever seen up close.  A trip to buy food would become a mob scene, as the four of us would draw a crowd of curious onlookers watching as we made our selections.  They would quietly murmur as they watched us, and I imagined something like the hushed commentary of a golf game; “It looks like the blonde is having difficulty in this aisle.  She’s sizing up her options, and she’s going for the Nestlé hot chocolate.  Let’s take a look at the big guy who looks puzzled by the produce.  This could be a pivotal moment and a departure from his signature ramen and shrimp crisps combination.”

Our schedule was predictable—just teaching, napping, warm beer and Stepsister Crystal nights in the ratty hotel rooms provided by the school.  Every three weeks the agency would send out a representative from the Hanford office.  It was usually an older man, sent out to bow and shake hands with the local officials in the never-ending ceremonial photo ops.  These arrivals were covered by the local TV stations.  The bigwig from Hanford was always interviewed, and we teachers were videotaped walking around the campus, interacting with Chinese children that didn’t even attend the school.  The point was not to inform, but entertain with our American bodies and culture.  Lacey did this by just being herself, and endless footage was shot of her eating, posing in front of the school gate, and signing student’s autograph books.  The rest of us they felt the need to direct.  I was asked to “America crazy dance” by a news reporter.  Ricky and Bob were photographed with a basketball even though the thought of them playing one on one was beyond ridiculous.  I guess for the Chinese it was like going to the zoo when all the animals are asleep—the desire to be entertained was so strong it compelled one to poke the monkeys with a stick and throw rocks at the bears.

Helen was the first woman representative I had seen yet.  She was in her thirties, with a poof of blonde hair and lots of little accessories that revealed her hippy sensibilities.  She was covered with many tiny little mirrors and bells that marked her entrance like a tinkling cat collar.  Her appearance made me hopeful.  I hoped she could advise me in regard to classroom techniques and educational theories, but she taught something called landscape art.  She specialized in “facilitating organic sound in wild spaces without the use of equipment,” a topic I had neglected to read up on before coming to China.  I was also put off by her unnerving habit of opening her eyes and mouth wider and wider in reaction as she listened, so by the end of any conversation she looked like a demented skeleton.

The day she arrived, the school planned a ceremonial dinner in her honor.  I didn’t look forward to these things because they usually ended badly.  Last month Lacey had gotten so drunk she had confused the words Meiguo (America) and Pijou (beer), words that sound nothing alike but probably accounted for most of her Chinese vocabulary.  She spent a good part of the evening baffling waiters as she urgently cried out to them, “America!  America!  Very cold America!”

The dinners were always at the fanciest restaurant in town and usually lasted all night.  Platters of food were presented by our Chinese hosts.  Something I quickly learned in China was to leave flavor expectations at the door.  Things were always foreign, even the seemingly recognizable.  Tonight, peanuts were an appetizer, and I popped one into my mouth the Chinese way, with shell and all, only to realize they had been boiled with what tasted like an old sock.  Broccoli and garlic seemed a safe bet until I took a bite and realized that it is a dish served cold here.  The corned beef was great, but then a long and torturous game of bilingual telephone revealed that it was in fact dog meat.  The Chinese hosts tried to reassure us when the message was finally translated and five sets of chopsticks dropped in unison, “Not friend dog.  Dog farm dog.  All ok!”  After that we all stuck with beer.

By the end of the night, Lacey was as drunk as I had ever seen her.  To my amusement, she was trying to play her little game with Ricky.  “C’mere ya little tit,” she slurred, “Ya like shits?”  The Chinese officials sat in stunned delight as she crushed a protesting Ricky into her breasts.  Helen abruptly stopped explaining the different resonance frequencies of bird call and hustled us out.  Our Chinese hosts loudly protested our departure.  Finally, this was the America they had been waiting for!

Helen and Ricky went directly back to the hotel, while Lacey and I went in search of a street vendor for some fried dumplings to help sober us up. Bob went out on his own.  He was known to wander at night for hours, and we could only speculate how he spent his nights.  It was possible that he took advantage of the massage parlors that were as common as convenience stores.  There was even one in our hotel whose masseuses actually called all the guest rooms at 8 pm to offer “massagie massagie!”  Ricky made a game of answering these calls with phrases he found in his conversation guidebook.  “Does that come with pork? I love you!  Which way to the Great Panda?”

The two of us split a warm Hans and a plate of dumplings as we sat at a white plastic table across from the city park.  Two young girls in pigtails serenaded us with a hauntingly sad song.  They stood silently before us until we gave them a handful of coins.  Lacey asked me to take her picture as she stood between them and flashed a peace sign.

We shared a Pedi cab back to the hotel, and I pitied the panting teenager pedaling with all his strength to move us past the Mah Jong players perched on crates.  Lacey took my hand in hers as she slumped against me on the tiny bench. We slowly made our way past the empty lot where the night market sprang up after dark every night, the giant woks crackling oil and bare light bulbs swinging over a thousand tables stacked with clothing and house wares.  I watched as we passed a group of people crowded around a television set, a child urinating on the street, a man kneeling on the sidewalk with a sign hanging from his neck, his head bowed in shame.  I watched everything, and understood none of it.  Lacey began to snore softly on my shoulder as we slowly made our way through the streets, her intoxicated dreams just as incomprehensible.  In my mind, all the things I didn’t know collected and converged into a heap in that was staggering in its size.  Insurmountable, really.