I began to look out for Mrs. Pan whenever she came around to get at our trash. This was usually in the early morning, at noon during my break from class, or in the evening around dinnertime. She would call up to me, “Mr. Guo,” and when I heard her, I’d go out on the deck where the laundry was drying and tell her I was coming down, and then I’d go down and chew the fat with her.
Because I spoke only standard Mandarin, the so-called common language (putonghua), and she spoke a rural dialect (I’m not sure which one; dialect can differ from village to village, and she hailed from another province), we faced a communication barrier, which we did our best to overcome. She tried to use the most standardized pronunciation and phrasing she could. If I didn’t understand her, I’d try to guess what she meant and ask her to confirm or deny my guess: “Are you saying…?” She never showed the slightest impatience with my repeated questions and may have been gratified that someone was taking the time to find out what she meant.
We communicated well enough when we were just saying hi and asking after each other’s well-being, but as her revelations grew more personal and startling, they also became more unclear to me, like battlefield transmissions at a moment of crisis. As a result, with some of her more remarkable stories, I lost or confused the details and have just held onto a general picture.
Mrs. Pan was not from Hubei Province. She might have been from the neighboring province of Henan. I know she had several sisters and that they were all peasants and had grown up farming. She said she was in her late 50s, or nearly as old as the People’s Republic of China, whose historic upheavals she had experienced firsthand. As is common with people who have suffered trauma, she talked around the subject of the Great Leap Forward, a period during which she would have been starved and lost loved ones to famine. At one point, she wiped her eyes, and I realized she had been weeping. She was usually so plucky and cheerful that I hadn’t noticed her distress.
She had been married in the past. Her previous husband had been crazy and violent. He had imprisoned her, tying her up with ropes and wire, but she had escaped. I didn’t trust my ears when she told me this and asked, “Did you say he tied you up with rope (shengzi) and wire (tiesheng)?”
“And you escaped?”
She told me a further story of a family drama, the details of which I couldn’t quite follow, that somehow involved her sisters, who lived in another province. They had either failed to help protect her from her husband, or he had harassed and threatened them after her escape.
This husband had since died, I learned. “Good,” I said.
“Yes,” she agreed. Thereafter, I learned, she had come to this area. She was now married to another man, surnamed Song, who was younger than she was, and she had a daughter with him, named Song Lin.
The word she used to describe herself was shoupolande, or “trash collector.”
“How do people treat you around here?” I asked.
“Some are good, some are very bad.”
“Tell me about that,” I said.
Out on the street, when people found out which Western nation we were from, they said, “Oh, America! Fuyu guojia — wealthy country!” Then they looked at us in a sharp-eyed way, as if they knew more about us than we knew about ourselves. Moto-taxi guys lounging on their motorcycles would say to me, “The women are very open in America, aren’t they? Aren’t they?” They’d lift up their chins, trying to get me to admit it, using the same word, kaifang, for “open,” that brings to mind Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic reforms and political opening, which has led to the current economic boom and its disparities in wealth. One of them, a guy with a dead nerve in his eyelid, drove his motorcycle at me, swerving at the last moment.
The manager of a fast food restaurant where I enjoyed the deep-fried chicken sandwich engaged me in a grandstanding public debate, which attracted an audience.
“Tell me why,” he demanded, “does the United States interfere in the internal affairs of other countries?”
I had no ready answer to this double question. I hadn’t even known I was in the middle of a debate.
“America,” somebody tsked behind me. “World cop.”
While they were quick to attack the United States, the Chinese were careful to avoid criticizing their own government. Once I asked a class what they thought about the forced relocation of their fellow citizens due to the Three Gorges Dam Project. A student told me that all those who had been relocated had been well compensated. “Are you sure about that?” I asked. I began speculating aloud that not all politicians were honest. The young man cut me off.
“I think our leaders are doing a good job,” he stated.
It was an unsettling moment, and even more unsettling when I thought about it later. I realized I had done something stupid by bringing up politics in a Chinese classroom. In China, it is against the law to do anything that “undermines” the power of the Communist Party — a vague prohibition that can be interpreted broadly.
It is also illegal for a Chinese citizen to “give away state secrets.” This could refer to simply talking to a foreigner about something the government finds embarrassing, such as the existence of extremely poor people who have no social safety net. Chinese who reveal unflattering aspects of their society to foreigners are taking a risk. Exchanges with foreigners may attract attention because citizens are monitoring each other to make sure no one reveals anything too negative. In talking to me, Mrs. Pan was showing the kind of defiance that you see from disenfranchised people in the United States, the ones who wise off to the judge because they know they’re going to jail anyway.
English Corner was held along the concourse midway between the cafeteria and our apartment, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dusk would turn to full night, and the green lights would come on inside the classrooms in Building 51 while we were talking. The sessions were open to anyone. Students in other classes came to talk with us. Once a man showed up who had followed me there. He said he had seen me on the street, and I realized he was crazy.
The point of English Corner was to create a deliberately informal situation where Chinese students would feel more comfortable speaking up than they did in the classroom. The Chinese designed it to circumvent the reticence that beset them in groups. The darkness and the fact that not everyone knew each other helped.
Another approach they were trying was called Crazy English, a study program that involved shouting, yelling out English phrases at top volume as fast as you could in an effort to get the words out of your mouth before your internal censor called them back in. One morning, we witnessed a thin young man pacing back and forth in front of the Foreign Affairs Building, yelling over and over, “It’s not a matter of time. It’s a matter of money!” This was Crazy English in action.
At English Corner, a crowd would gather around us. Someone asked me what was my secret, how had I learned Chinese so well? I said I had spent five hours every night in the language lab during my first year of study. My first teacher was an American named Ronald Speirs, who told me that the secret to learning the language was mastering the tones; you had to be able to hear them and reproduce them. After going to the language lab religiously on his orders, I found I could talk with Chinese people, which opened up the language for me; I started talking to everyone.
I didn’t explain that I’d had difficulty bonding with my peers as a young man and that the Chinese language had been a path into an alternate universe, one where I could be more successful at making contact with people.
The mention of martial arts brought on a brief debate about our favorite movie stars. I liked — actually idolized — Jackie Chan, because he was funny, creative, and did his own stunts at great personal risk. They preferred Jet Li, on the grounds that he knew “real traditional Chinese wushu.” Chan’s kung fu they dismissed as “made up.” I’d heard this objection before and suspected that nationalism was behind it. Jet Li is a mainland Chinese performer, while Jackie Chan is from Hong Kong.
“What about your wife?”
“What about her?”
“Who does she like?”
“Neither. She doesn’t like martial arts movies.”
“Is she Chinese?”
“No, she’s Korean.”
“Do you speak Korean too?”
“No. I don’t speak Korean. She doesn’t speak Korean either. She was adopted by an American family when she was six months old. She was raised American. She speaks English. She’s every bit as American as me.”
“She looks like Chinese.”
“She is very beautiful.”
“Thank you. She is.”
“Chinese and Korean looks alike.”
“They’re not exactly the same,” I said.
“You cannot tell apart.”
“Anyone from East Asia all looks like Chinese.”
“A lot of Korean people actually is the Chinese people.”
“That’s what they say in Texas,” I quipped, referring to the clichéd tendency of bigoted Americans to assume that all East Asians are indistinguishably Chinese. I may have been unfairly picking on Texans. What struck me as remarkable was that the Chinese themselves, out of a sense of their historical and cultural importance in East Asia, held the same distinction-blurring view.
“Never mind.” But if I’d wanted to get more personal — if I’d thought there was any hope of my being understood — I might have added, “There are differences between people, and sometimes they matter, especially when you’re the minority. One of the reasons I know Beth is here is because she grew up in an all-white town. I think it means something to her to be around Asian people for the first time in her life. To turn on the TV and see people who look like her.”
Yangnu means “adopted girl,” and I heard someone say it in the crowd. Yang means “to raise, foster, give shelter to, or keep.” I now think that this was the sense in which David had spoken of keeping the girl.
Beth tells me that foreign adoption of abandoned girls has caused national embarrassment in Korea.
Since the episode of the girl, I had grown resentful of our hosts and was eager to learn something unfavorable about them. Eventually, Mrs. Pan satisfied this desire.
She told me her husband Song had a che, or “cart,” which, after she described it more fully, I understood was the type of toolbox that cobblers use, containing a sewing machine and other tools for fixing shoes, belts, bags, and bicycle tires and sharpening knives. These kinds of rigs can be seen all over China and in American Chinatowns as well. Song used to work out on Nanhu Street, and when the day was done, he’d leave his cart there at night.
Then, Mrs. Pan said, someone warned him not to do this.
“Who warned him?”
“What young people?”
“From the school.”
Maybe. I couldn’t follow her answer. She pointed to the gate of the school, near the statue of a leaping horse. The young people threatened Song, said they would punish him if he continued. He would have to pay a fine or maybe get beaten up. But the cart was heavy and awkward to take back to the fields where the road was bad. Song left it out again one night, and they destroyed it.
“Was it the weixiaodui (the school security detachment)?”
“There,” she nodded — I thought she was saying yes. She pointed in the direction of their barracks.
The cart cost 250 yuan. Mrs. Pan said she had gone to the school administration building, where the leaders were waiting for their chauffeured rides, and appealed for help. The leaders — David’s cronies, the people we dined with — gave her 30 yuan and told her to get lost.
Each month, Beth and I received a combined salary of 7,000 yuan, or roughly $875. In the beginning, we saved most of it out of caution, but after we saw how far it went, we began to relax and spend it. We started taking bus trips into Wuhan to go to a Carrefour to buy groceries. I loaded up the Ironman bag with 30 pounds of butter, cheese, spaghetti, peanut butter, red wine, boxes of Petite Ecolier cookies. I began to feel the unique power that money has in China.
In July, when we had our summer break, we traveled 2,000 miles to Xinjiang Province and rode a zip line down from the Great Wall. I paid for everything in cash. We rented an apartment in Beijing. The real estate office gave us a two-week lease, tailored to fit our vacation schedule. The transaction took an hour. There was no red tape; all I needed was money, and I had it. The Chinese would sell us whatever we wanted. We walked into a deluxe clinic on the upper floors of a Beijing high-rise without an appointment or prescription and bought birth control pills for Beth as if they were a pack of chewing gum.
Strange women called our hotel rooms, asking if I wanted company. I said, “Don’t you know my wife is here? What’s the meaning of this?” But they kept calling, with dogged persistence: “Ni xuyao you ren zuo pei ma?” Literally, they were asking if I needed someone to accompany me.
I needed no such thing. We had far more than we needed in every respect.
I drew our pay in cash each month at the school’s administration building, which had a row of columns in front. Men associated with the running of the school hung around on the front steps, shouting on their cellphones and spitting in the street. They shouted at their drivers, Wai!, summoning them with a palm-down wave, as if calling a dog to heel. I walked past them into the white interior, which resembled the lobby of a theater, and upstairs to the finance office. The clerk knew why I was there without my having to say anything. I started to talk, but she told me, “You’re here for your pay. There it is.” She opened the green metal lunchbox and started pulling out cash.
People in China take money-counting classes, I had learned. They hold competitions. Some can count extremely fast. Once, David took us to the bank in Wuhan to change money, and I tried to count what the teller gave me. He took it out of my hands and counted it for me in seconds flat. In the school’s finance office, the clerk counted my pay in the same manner, and then told me to count it. I was embarrassed because there was another customer getting service, and the money was proof of our wealth, but so be it, I thought, and I counted it and signed the receipt the woman gave me. She took the money and put it in a brown envelope that opened at one end instead of along the top as envelopes do in America and gave it back to me. I put it in my pocket and tucked my shirt over it and walked outside. An older man in a dark suit who knew me by sight smiled at me as we passed each other on the building’s grand steps. I walked back to our apartment and put the money in a drawer next to our bed.
I regret that I didn’t find out more about the concrete economic details of Mrs. Pan’s life. It was clear enough that she lived a life of constant toil and deprivation. She was the type of person who has done nothing but work since early childhood; you could not imagine her relaxing. But how did she get by?
I learned she kept chickens, which were a source of both food and income. Since his shoe-repair cart had been destroyed, Song had been picking up work as a laborer, occasionally going out in the schistosomiasis-infected ponds to haul out fish. But this was day labor, a form of seasonal work, and he was underemployed, I gathered. Did their daughter, Song Lin, work? Possibly. This leaves Mrs. Pan’s recycling collection as the only other source of income that I know about.
As in the United States, in China, one can recycle paper, plastic, glass, and metal, all of which were present in our trash. Mrs. Pan probably sold the recyclables she collected to a redemption center located at the end of Nanhu Street. I believe (but don’t know) that payment was given by weight rather than piece/bottle/can.
The most plentiful, and least valuable, materials were paper and plastic. Paper occurred in various forms as wrappers, packaging, and labels. The most common form in which plastic occurred was the beverage container. The campus and the street were littered in plastic beverage containers, especially after May, when the weather turned stultifyingly hot. Common beverage types were water, soft drinks, and iced tea, in either red or green tea flavors. For instance, I drank a lot of the Kang Shifu (“Master Kong”) brand of iced red tea. On average, a standard 500-milliliter beverage probably cost about two yuan, or 25 cents, in 2005. What was the empty plastic bottle worth?
The redemption center was itself a business, I gathered. After it acquired materials from collectors like Mrs. Pan, it shipped them out to be sold downstream, so it wouldn’t have given her the full value for recyclables. So what fraction of the empty plastic bottle’s worth did she receive? How many bottles did she have to collect a day to make one yuan, the amount it was said that our poorest students lived on?
The redemption center was an unsigned horizontal cement warehouse set back from the street. Its doors were generally closed. I didn’t recognize it for what it was until one day when I saw it in operation as I was getting off the bus at the end of our street. This time, there was a five-ton truck parked out front being loaded in a tumult of activity. Men with rags tied over their mouths crawled over the load, lashing it down with a tarp. I stopped to watch. The load consisted of bales of paper, thousands of pounds of it. The engine was already running, and the driver was shouting, and the men were shouting, and someone came out of the warehouse and shouted at the driver. In the street, I saw masses of peasants running with bags of recyclables toward the warehouse to have their materials weighed. I thought of Mrs. Pan and looked for her. I didn’t see her. The load was hastily lashed down. The truck began moving while men were still jumping off it amid much shouting. The engine roared, and the truck started picking up speed and bouncing as it turned onto the river road and gunned away, trailing bits of trash like chicken feathers off a poultry truck. The warehouse doors were open, and in the sunlight and shadow I could see a mountain of paper up to the ceiling and paper dust, the material Mrs. Pan lived on, swirling up in the air like flour.
Mrs. Pan began bringing me gifts of eggs in a reused two-handled shopping bag. The eggs came straight from her chickens; mud and hay were stuck to them. She would not let me refuse them. To my horror, she brought me a lot of them — the parcels were heavy, containing 30 or 40 brown eggs — and she started doing this every week.
“You’ve got to stop,” I said.
“You and your wife don’t have anyone looking out for you,” she said and kept bringing them.
I tried eating one, but it was yolky and blood-flecked and fishy-smelling, and I didn’t want it. I ate none of the others. I continued to buy eggs at the Wushang in town. I put her gift bags in the refrigerator, and when I got around to it, I disposed of them — thousands of calories of fat and protein.
I took them into the city and dumped them. I found a hole somewhere and dropped them down it. Once, I had a cabdriver pull over and shoved the eggs into a sewer drain.
Over time, this level of diplomacy seemed excessive. I started taking the eggs no farther than the trash pile at the intersection of Nanhu Street and the river road, a 15-minute walk from our apartment. There was a chance that this might be one of the trash piles on her route, in which case she might find the eggs.
“Aren’t you worried about that?” Beth asked.
“No,” I said. “She’s got to be a tough lady after everything she’s been through. I don’t think she’ll mind. She’ll get over it. I’ll pay her.”
I tried to give Mrs. Pan 100 yuan — a pink bill with Chairman Mao’s face on it — the equivalent of a little over $12. I had to fight to make her take it. She threw it on the ground and ran away. I picked it up and chased after her on the playing field. I had to try this repeatedly. Weeks later, she finally relented. It was almost a model of a courtship. Once the gift was consummated, she took to calling us enren, her benefactors.
“I owe you for the eggs.”
“You’ve overpaid me,” she insisted. Now she had to give me more eggs. More than that, she said, she’d give me a chicken.
The next time she came with eggs, she had another bag for me as well. It turned out to be a live hen in a shopping bag. I was so caught up in my moment of cross-cultural exchange that my responses were slowed. I took the bag and walked upstairs and into the apartment.
“Is it?” Beth said.
I went into kitchen and opened the bag. The hen was in there trembling.
“Yeah, it’s alive. Is she still out there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me see if I can catch her.”
I ran outside and caught Mrs. Pan as she was going across the courtyard. When I told her I had to give her the chicken back, she didn’t protest. Was this because it represented a bigger sacrifice for her than the eggs? She was living below the global poverty line. She should not have been giving away food to me. At any rate, she accepted my excuse that we didn’t know how to kill and gut it.
In that case, she said, she would invite us to her house and cook a chicken for us.
School remained in session through the end of June. Then the students left, and the campus changed its character again, from teeming with people to desolate. We stayed on for another 10 days, teaching a short course for teachers. David began the sessions by introducing us formally: “Now, the foreign experts will give the lecture.” No one minded this except me.
“How’s everybody doing?” I searched the room, looking for somebody to engage. The teachers weren’t expecting an interactive class any more than the students were. They were looking down at digital pocket dictionaries. A few stared at me, waiting for me to go on talking. A woman plucked at her floral-print rayon top and fanned herself with a sheaf of papers she was grading. You could see the leaves of trees and facing classrooms through the open window. The sun was turning this scene into a blur of green and white. The heat seemed to be acquiring mass. The class continued into the afternoon.
After we had been released, the teachers went off as fast as they could. Beth and I went home. Beth took hand towels that she had soaked in water and frozen in the icebox and put them on our heads in our apartment. There was no one playing basketball outside our window, because the kids were gone. I climbed a chair and made sure the air conditioner was turned up all the way. It was early afternoon, the building was silent, and we could do anything now that our contractual obligations had been fulfilled. Beth brought in our stiffened laundry, which was hot from drying outside, and began to pack our bags. I took the empty bus into the quiet city and bought train tickets from a woman who got up from her siesta to help me.
The next day, I stuck a note under David’s door. We didn’t see Mrs. Pan, so we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her. We took a taxi to Wuhan, this time traveling a different route, over the bridge to the Ezhou side. We were the only vehicle on the highway, which made everything seem even freer and more of an adventure. When we got to the train station, I found I’d forgotten our train tickets. We ran back to the taxi and told the driver of our emergency. We had a little over an hour and a half before the train left. Get in, he said. The open road allowed him to drive very fast, and when we saw the bridge again, I checked the time and thought we were going to make it. I directed him through the campus, down the pathways, into the courtyard, jumped out and ran upstairs and found the tickets in the drawer where I kept our money. I ran back down, jumped in the idling car, told Beth, “We’re good,” and the driver took off. “We’ve got 40 minutes,” I said. He acted determined to help us make our train.
At the bridge where the highway began, he floored it, and the scenery ahead of us started bending around our heads like wraparound sunglasses. It wasn’t a good idea to distract him at this speed, so I just watched the highway, but I almost thanked him. A figure of a woman in a straw hat appeared, standing in a tuft of tall grass. She looked at us and began stepping onto the blacktop. Suddenly he was swerving and the horn was blowing. We didn’t hit her, but it was close. He cursed her in an ugly way — fuck your mother, and so on — though nothing she would have heard at that speed, and it was nothing next to getting hit. I think we were doing 90, enough to knock her straw hat off. We made our train thanks to him.