Atticus Lish
May 18, 2015 · 17 min read
View from the village behind the school. The villagers fished in the ponds. See the net piled in the back of the bicycle.

During the winter, when we arrived, the hay was baled up. We drove in at night and saw the bundles in our headlights and the shadows on the concrete buildings with the corrugated gates pulled down. In the daylight, it stayed gray like Portland. The damp climate sent the cold right through your clothes. Everyone had to stay dressed in sweaters 24 hours a day, even indoors. We wore long underwear, scarves, socks, mittens, Tibetan woolen hats with earflaps — we have pictures of us dressed up like this sitting in front of the space heater in our foreign teacher’s apartment, waiting out the cold season.

We were about 70 kilometers to the east of Wuhan, one of China’s major cities. Its population was over 5 million at the time, but we were in the countryside in an isolated place. We had found our jobs on the Internet. The college where we had signed a one-year contract to teach English was located on a street that floated alone out in the middle of nowhere, detached from anything else, lost in the trees and fields. The small city whose name appeared in our mailing address was 13 kilometers away, down a road that had been semi-paved just before our arrival. Now there was a bus that you could ride into town for a yuan, the equivalent of 12 cents American. Along with students and country people, we took the bus out into the rural zone, past construction pits and peasants who husked their grain by leaving it out on blankets for the bus to drive over. When I asked a peasant in a conical straw hat where we were, she waved her hand at the land behind the school grounds and said, “Farms.”

Our area was known as one of the Three Ovens of China, in reference to the oppressive humid summer heat that made the crops grow.

Our handler was a 30-something man who taught English. He had named himself David. I took it that he was a member of the Communist Party. He picked us up at the airport and tried to take one of the two Ironman duffel bags I was carrying, but it was heavy for him, and I continued to carry it. We both walked out to the car like that, with the bag awkwardly between us, tripping up his thin legs. The driver ran over and grabbed the bag as well, and all three of us lifted it into the trunk together while Beth waited on the curb with her nylon shoulder bag, half asleep from the time difference and swaying with fatigue.

The highway was dead black for 50 miles. David and I spoke until he became tired. He was demonstrating his English, I my Chinese. When he got tired of turning around in the front seat, our conversation lapsed. The driver smoked. Beth slept against my shoulder. After 40 minutes, we went through a toll checkpoint manned by what looked like soldiers in olive green uniforms and white gloves in a bath of fluorescent light, beyond which there was emptiness. Farther on, I began to see the crops baled up in our headlights. We drove down a littered dirt road and under a bannered gateway. This was the campus, David said. Beth rubbed her eyes. The driver drove on the flagstone walkway past concrete dormitories, turning corners, going farther in. We stopped in a courtyard. David jumped out and hustled us into a cold building. There was the same struggling over the bags as before. He awoke a student who was sleeping in the office in all her clothes — jeans, sweater, down vest, and, as could be seen in the gap between her jeans and sweater, long underwear — and she let us into our apartment.

We lived in what the school called the Foreign Affairs Building. David’s office — the Office of Foreign Affairs — was downstairs. He shared the office with another party member named Gan, a short, older man who would have smoked cigars if this were Brooklyn. Instead, he smoked Hongjinlong (Red Gold Dragon) famous-brand cigarettes. (Various Chinese products designate themselves as mingpai, literally “famous brand,” meaning, of course, that they are well known.) Though Gan briefly indulged me — he had a gravelly laugh — it was not his job to talk to me. It was David’s, as the director of foreign affairs. “There are two routes you can go,” Gan once told me, and one of them was to talk to David. (And I’ve forgotten the other route, if there ever was one.)

Once, while waiting for David to speak with me, I read the placard behind his desk, which listed more than 25 rules for dealing with foreigners.

When we woke up the morning after we arrived, my wife was hungry, so I went to look for David. The sky was gray fog, and roosters crowed out in the wet field. He came to work in his suit and carrying a zippered leather carryall, hurried by me, and unlocked his metal door. I asked if there was anything we could eat. “Do you have any money?” he asked. The answer to that was no. I didn’t have Chinese currency. He stared at me with his glasses. Since I didn’t, he was willing to give me a loan. But first we would make out an IOU together. He would teach me the proper way that this was done. I drew lines on a slip of paper at his direction. He dictated to me, watching to see how well I wrote the Chinese characters. It was seven in the morning, local time, and I confused zhi (to pay) with ji (technical). The difference was the “hand” radical, the tishoupang, an ideogram that means “hand” and occurs in other Chinese characters. “So you still have something to learn,” he explained. After I fixed my mistakes, he had me sign my name in Chinese. “Very good,” he said, and gave me 10 yuan from his suit pocket.

The students lined up for compulsory morning exercises in the playing field outside our window at the Foreign Affairs Building.

We learned that many of the students at our school survived on one yuan a day. Much of their energy was devoted to keeping as clean as they could. Their laundry hung all over the concrete buildings. It cost money to bathe, so they didn’t bathe every day. School life was chores, airing out their quilts in the winter sun, taking turns sweeping the dorm. A portly woman in a white nurse’s hat sat at the door of the concrete bathhouse collecting fees in what looked like an ammo box with a coin slot on top. The outhouse on the other side was free. I went to use it before class and saw a male student I recognized with his acid-washed jeans down, squatting over the ceramic trough on his flexible haunches, holding a roll of toilet paper, shitting. “Hey,” I said. He looked away.

The sour smell of mud and feces was part of the atmosphere. Every floor was wet. We left black footprints everywhere. Throughout the country, women mopped floors — in apartments, classrooms, hallways, shopping centers, stores, restaurants, hotels, offices, outhouses, and bus stations — rubbing this black water around. They did not have mop wringers, and their mops were blackened, rancid. You smelled the mop everywhere. They stuck it on the deck to dry with their laundry, but nothing dried in the rice-growing climate.

The other smell was coal smoke. People squatted by their fires, feeding in the coal bricks. Coal was cheap, but I saw people collecting the half-burned bricks to use. And the peasants shared their homes with animals. At dawn, reddish-brown hens stepped softly around in the weeds on the edge of the field where the students lined up for exercises. Pigs fed on the trash pile next to the Blue Sky Internet Bar. In the paddy fields out behind the school grounds — the place called Farms — you were ankle-deep in mud and pig shit. The ponds were polluted, covered in green and orange algae of a neon intensity you would not expect to see in nature. People who lived out there survived by collecting recyclable plastic from the trash.

I took David’s money to the cafeteria, finding my way to the kitchen, a kind of stable, open to the gray sky. The men who worked there wore blacksmith’s aprons and rubber boots. “What do you want?” they asked.

“How about eggs?” I said. That was no problem, they said. Anything for their foreign friend. One man started cracking eggs into a blackened wok, one after the other, and flipping them out with his spatula, which the Chinese call a shovel, or chan. He cooked five or six eggs for me while the other men watched silently, sitting cross-legged, smoking cigarettes.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re a foreign friend, aren’t you?”

To pay, I had to go back into the main room and find a certain woman in a white smock, who had to fetch a special form and mark it with a red stamp before she could take David’s money. The fee was three yuan, and she gave me a stamped receipt. This done, I headed back to the apartment, balancing our eggs on plastic plates. But when I got upstairs, I realized the eggs were not cooked through. Because of bird flu, I told my wife we couldn’t eat them and threw them out.

Not long after we arrived — possibly the very first day, but I can’t recall — we went to our first banquet. David took us all out in a minibus to town. It was early February, and the small city looked Soviet in its grayness. Our party consisted of David, his wife, two other Chinese faculty members, and the foreigners. Beth and I weren’t the only foreigners. There was also a couple from New Zealand. David’s driver drove us down the streets of the small city to a deserted parking lot that had a Ferris wheel in it. The Office of Foreign Affairs covered all the fees. This was an entertainment that he had chosen for our benefit, David said. Then his wife jumped out of the minibus and pulled him out. All the Chinese people jumped out and led us to the bumper cars. David’s wife was avid about driving a bumper car, and she screamed as she drove into other people. We were the only customers. The man who ran the attraction smoked his cigarette until it was time to pull the breaker switch and shut the power off.

After this, we were driven to a hotel. On the top floor was a private dining room. It was the first time we did not see our breath condensing in the air. There must have been a space heater in the room. We took off our down coats. The Chinese men who arrived wore black leather jackets over turtleneck sweaters. We were told that they were very important people. These were David’s bosses, the leaders of the school, and it was clear that they were party members. We shook their hands.

“The conditions here are not the best,” they apologized. “Nevertheless, we must regard each other as equals and be willing to learn from each other.”

“Of course,” I said.

Then we all sat at a round table.

In a few days, the students came back for the beginning of the semester, and the campus went from desolate to lively. The street was filled with kids in jeans and parkas buying dumplings from vendors in blue smocks speaking the country dialect. The girls held each other’s hands. The shopkeepers pulled up the shutters of their stores — concrete squares that resembled self-storage units, built on a high curb above the roadway that would be inundated when it rained. We saw them squatting in the interior, arranging their goods. There were many different stores. We noted a hairdresser, a phone center, and a place to buy toilet paper, cigarettes, candy, and beer. In the midst of the hubbub, men on ladders strung up blue banners advertising the Xiaolingtong wireless phone system. It felt like a carnival. Plastic bowls and disposable chopsticks littered the tables and benches in front of a noodle counter. A woman was selling dumplings out of an ingenious cart that held stacks of baskets of different sizes. I bought six xiaolongbao for 1.50 yuan. They tasted good and full of gravy, but the meat was unidentifiable; I bit into a piece of strange bone.

“Try one,” I said to Beth. She did.

Kids talked to us. They gasped when they heard Chinese coming out of my mouth. Girls took Beth by the arm and held her. A tall academic boy with a bowl cut and a large head asked, Did we want to make friends with him? Did we use QQ, a type of instant messaging system? He said his name was Tony. I would see him again at English Corner. He was extremely glad that we were here.

We could not stop saying how excited we were as well, how grateful we were to be treated to such a welcome, to have traveled halfway around the world and found such perfect understanding. The two or three innocent children holding our hands nodded as if with inexpressible joy.

The working people pushed around them, heading farther into the street, sideways, into a second dimension of alleys and tents, behind the stage set of the stores. When you looked in deep enough, you might see where they lived — propane bottle, coal fire, wok, family, sleeping mat — way in back by the trash. The local men favored crew cuts, as if they were members of a formerly militarized society that had been disbanded. They drove motorcycles, three-wheelers, cars, trucks, buses, barges, anything they could. The women wore high heels, sweaters, slacks, and blazers, whether they were selling produce with their chapped hands or sweeping floors. At night, under the bare bulbs strung up overhead, they ate cheap food soaked in chili oil and drank tablefuls of beer. It was a raucous, gruff society, and they got screaming red-faced drunk and spit their fish bones on the floor. When it got hot, young males swaggered around with their shirts flapping open, showing off their abdominals, eating watermelon, and barking at girls. The drunks fell asleep at the outside tables.

Fish for sale on the street in the small city near our school. The city’s name, Huanggang, is visible in the red sign in the background: Huanggang City Center [illegible] Market.

We learned they passed through this place from everywhere — from as far away as Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Tibet. A young hairdresser in tight jeans who gave me a haircut told me, “Next month I’m going down to Guangzhou to try my way. My cousin has a job there, and maybe I can try to get on with him.” People migrated, believing in luck, hustled and disappeared — 18-year-olds with futuristic hairdos who worked province to province across the continent with tenuous links to their families or anything else. Everything was in flux. The state-owned shipyards along the river had been shut down, and the workers had started driving cabs. Dogs hunted in packs among the hovels in the fields. There were frequent power outages. When they occurred at night, the countryside was plunged into oceanic blackness. We heard rumors of riot, crime.

I have a picture of the river road taken in winter. Nothing is there but the converging lines of the road, the spare, widely spaced trees, and the distance. Muddy, gray, dilapidated, it is the bleakest scene imaginable. The river had flooded not long ago, leaving a five-foot-high waterline in our classrooms nearly a mile from its banks. Since then, the berm had been emplaced, but I sensed an absence of legitimate authority or control. There were no police, just the huge red Communist billboards warning against female infanticide.

In the small city, beggars, often with ghastly deformities, lay on the pavement, appealing to everyone who went by. Some, who lacked hands, had trained themselves to write calligraphy with their feet. They would write out an extended passage in beautiful seal script calligraphy directly on the sidewalk.

Our jobs were very good by ordinary Chinese standards. All we had to do to get them was be willing to leave America and come claim them; there was no other real requirement besides our being foreign. Had we wanted to teach in our own country, we would have needed teaching certificates. Beth had served briefly as a public school teacher in the Bronx several years previously, but her license wasn’t current, and I had no formal teaching credentials or experience at all. However, as soon as we arrived in China, we became “foreign experts,” an official title, and we were each issued a Foreign Experts Certificate, a booklet that resembles a passport, by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.

Under our contracts, we each received salaries of 3,500 yuan a month, along with free housing. Our apartment came with a television, electric water heater, shower, washing machine, air conditioner, refrigerator, space heater, and Western-style toilet — one where you sat on a stool instead of squatting on your haunches — as well as a hot plate, rice cooker, and microwave. The television came with free cable (one channel, HBO Asia). We also had a desktop computer, which a student would fix for us for free when it went on the fritz.

We learned that local teachers did not make as much as we did, nor did they receive the same level of housing or the aforementioned appliances. I don’t know what the local teachers made. As a benchmark, an ordinary worker in that part of the country might hope to make 1,200 yuan a month. But local teachers had almost certainly gone through a genuine training and selection process and carried bigger course loads.

We were responsible for teaching 16 hours a week; participating in English Corner, a kind of open-gym session for English students, for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings; judging English speaking and singing competitions; and joining in various other school assemblies and activities at David’s request. The banquets were one such activity. Attendance was required, but it was more natural to think of them as a privilege than an obligation.

Apart from the first banquet, which took place at a hotel in the city, the others were held in a cafeteria about a quarter mile from our apartment, down a long, wide concrete concourse, past the library, the trees, and a girl’s dormitory, an octagonal tower around a central courtyard filled with laundry. The first floor of the cafeteria served mantou, a steamed white-flour bun, for 0.50 yuan. Frugal students lived on mantou. We heard a news story that mantou were being made with paper pulp instead of flour. The cafeteria was unlighted and unheated and felt like a gray barn. A TV bolted high on the wall was tuned to the official news, delivering factory production statistics. The cafeteria workers wore mittens.

A staircase led up to a private, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled dining room containing two large round tables with lazy Susans in the center. The servers were young females in pink uniforms. The word pingmin means “common people.” By itself, ping means “flat, level, or fair,” and occurs in gongping, or “justice,” a notion that gets a lot of play in official proclamations. Pingdeng means “equality,” while dengji refers to hierarchical gradations, such as those between people of different social ranks. Certainly the servers were common people, probably rural. Some could have been students.

The banquets generally had about 15 guests. There was a rough correlation between order of arrival and status. Foreign teachers were expected to arrive first, along with drivers and Chinese teachers. Then the leaders in black suits would start showing up. The party secretary would show up last, and everyone would greet him like George Bush entering Congress.

The eating began with snacks, like boiled peanuts and peeled dragon eyes, and moved on to more substantial dishes — some cold, like the jellied beef collagen, and some hot, like the hot pot soups, which are popular in Hubei. Before long, at the leaders’ direction, the girls would bring out the baijiu (clear liquor), and the drinking and toasting would start.

The men would come unsteadily around the table and toast you. To keep things fair and equal, you’d go back around the table and toast them back. The drinking was vigorous. They exchanged cigarettes and sometimes passed each other red envelopes, probably containing cash.

They instructed us in certain subtleties. When you clicked your glass with someone else, the relative heights of your glasses mattered. The person who held his glass below yours was expressing deference. Toasters would compete with each other to be the one to hold their glass lower. It was like bowing deeper than the other party or insisting that he go through a doorway ahead of you. Ritual demonstrations of modesty (qianxu), like turning away compliments — something Beth and I do naturally — met with approval. Like many people, we don’t feel comfortable being praised, but in China our knee-jerk modesty elicited further plaudits: “Oh, you’re humble, just like a Chinese!”

But ritual self-abasement has a reverse function: It makes you the bigger man, even if that’s not your intention, and if you overdo it, you’ll annoy people. When I deflected a compliment from Ms. Gan, a straight-backed faculty administrator who wore her hair tight to her head as if she had canceled its right to grow, she pursed her lips and said, “It’s fine to act humble, but don’t act too humble,” proving that this was all an elaborate system for establishing where everyone stood (or sat) relative to everyone else. Where you sat meant something too. The closer you sat to the principal, the more important you were. Sometimes the principal would insist that a low-status person, such as a driver, sit next to him. It was a display of largesse.

Mrs. Pan, who survived by collecting recycling, invited us to her home for dinner. Here I am eating at her table.

I developed a routine for feeding us. I would take the Ironman duffel bag and go into one of the grocery stores in the city. The students told me where to go: a store called the Wushang Liangfan, a chain headquartered in Wuhan whose name is a word borrowed from Japanese, originally meaning “wholesale.” It was a combination grocery-department store where you could buy space heaters, long underwear, and mittens as well as food.

I would see students from the school gazing at the digital watches, CD players, and cigarette lighters. Not buying anything, just looking. Some of them aspired to work there. One of the workers in orange smocks who watched me while I filled my basket told me that he had graduated from the school where I now taught.

The Wushang’s principal customers were Chinese locals, and they had enough buying power to move a lot of merchandise. I saw crates of eggs (which were not refrigerated), freezer cases full of frozen dumplings, pyramids of cooking oil in see-through plastic bottles, pallet loads of rice. Whole aisles were devoted to soy sauce. In fact, there were three other similar department stores in the city, all carrying the same kinds of goods — and a lot of them. Meanwhile, there were only five or six foreign teachers scattered among different schools in the area, so foreigners could have accounted for only a small part of the local economy.

In this context, you would think that my grocery shopping wouldn’t have been remarkable to anyone. I went to the store roughly once a week and spent 30 or 40 yuan each time, or about five dollars American, buying things like Bright brand milk, Nestlé instant coffee, red sugar, eggs, oats, rice, tofu, pork loin, greens, and apples. I packed everything into the duffel bag, hiked to the bus stop, and rode back with the farmers. I didn’t think I was living extravagantly. But every time I bought food in that city, a store employee would look at what I was getting and exclaim,

Photography by Beth Lish
Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V


Wish you were there

Atticus Lish

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The novel Preparation for the Next Life is in stores now. Published by Tyrant Books (@nytyrant). (This account is run by @nytyrant.)



Wish you were there