Atticus Lish
May 20, 2015 · 18 min read
Heading out to Mrs. Pan’s house. The road was wet and muddy, hence the plastic bags on my feet. The villagers wore rubber boots.

The day I realized we’d made a mistake by coming here occurred fairly soon. It was a Saturday morning, still cold and gray, and we hadn’t yet learned what to do to keep our morale up besides watching television in our apartment. I went out past the dormitories, the outhouses, the basketball court, and the administration building with its garden and stood at the gate of the school, looking out at our street. I don’t remember what I was doing there. Then it began to rain. It was one of those storms where something trips a trigger in the sky and all the water comes down. The rain instantly obliterated the boundary between the street and the flat, wide land. The few people I could see ran under the roofs of their stores and disappeared. I moved under a roof, a screen of water splattering down six inches from my face.

Fifty feet away, there was a statue of a leaping horse, which symbolized the school’s excellence, and I caught sight of a lone figure out in the downpour, standing under its hooves. Something was not normal. The rain bucketed down on the figure’s head, and he or she stood there and absorbed it. I thought of a patient who has been pushed into a shower in a sanatorium.

A seamstress ran out on her black-plastic high heels and gave the person a comforter.

“Are they okay?” I asked.

The seamstress looked at me and loped back to the shelter of her store.

I left the overhang and went out to the figure in the rain. They were shivering, the comforter dragging in the mud. Their gender was impossible to tell, but I thought the person was a she. She was holding a piece of cake that the rain was taking apart, and it was falling out of her fingers in little wet bits.

When I asked, “Are you okay?” she made a moaning sound, as if she were trying to talk but couldn’t get her lips apart. It sounded like a cry for help. I looked around. There was no one else in sight, so I led her back to the Foreign Affairs Building and up to our apartment. Beth and I sat her down and started putting food in front of her. I threw the filthy comforter downstairs in the trash pile. The girl ate everything we gave her: bananas, milk, oatmeal, sugar. Her dirty hands and face got covered in food. Gray rainwater was running out of her clothes and puddling on the tiled floor. Her short hair was plastered to her oddly shaped skull. We still didn’t know if she was a girl or not. I went into our bathroom and turned on the electric water heater so she could wash. Her clothes were blackened and filthy. She left milk and mashed banana on the tabletop when she got up.

The bathroom door came open when she was getting undressed, and I saw she was female. She had adult breasts and a heavily curved spine. I left Beth in charge and went downstairs and knocked on David’s door.

No one answered. I went back outside and looked for someone to ask for advice. It was close to 9:00. A few kids were walking around the campus now that the rain had tapered off. A young man in a white short-sleeve button-down shirt and steel-rimmed glasses told me to contact the director of foreign affairs. When I told him David wasn’t in, he said my other option was to ask school security for help.

The term he used, weixiaodui, can be translated as “school security detachment.” I went over to where the young man told me to go, a combination office-living quarters near the main gate. I could see inside and saw their hot plate and tea thermos and bunk beds in a compartment the size of a ship’s wheelhouse. Kids in uniforms rushed around inside, making their racks and sweeping with a whisk broom — a big bundle of branches like something a witch might beat you with in a fairy tale. These were the first uniformed personnel I’d seen in the countryside. They appeared to be students from the college. At least one was a female. I think security was an elective activity, something like joining the Communist Youth League.

They had a commander, an older man with nicotine-stained teeth, wearing a greatcoat. He was balding, and there was something depraved about him. When I approached, he didn’t want to talk to me. He gave a look, and one of his guards intercepted me. The guard was obviously the kid who was in charge of the other kids. He had rocky cheekbones, a lean, heavily acne-scarred face, and a crewcut. He didn’t ask me what I wanted; he just put himself in front of me.

I thought about what I was trying to say. I realized I didn’t know how to convey “social services” in the sense that I meant. If I used the only word I knew, fuli, it would sound as if I were talking about a welfare check. I couldn’t think of how to say shelter.

“I don’t know how anything works,” I said.

The corporal, as I thought of him, said he would come shortly. In the meantime, I went back. I found the girl dressed in clean clothes my wife had given her.

Something was nagging me. In the time we still had, I tried again to communicate with the girl. By now, I could tell she was speaking a rural dialect on top of a mental handicap that affected her speech. It was very hard to make sense of her. I asked her yes-or-no questions in putonghua (Mandarin, literally the “common language,” China’s lingua franca) and tried to decipher her answers.

“Did you run away from somewhere?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you?”

The more I questioned her, the more it sounded as if she was saying yes, that she had run away from some sort of abuse.

“This is bad,” I said.

We heard voices in the stairway. The doorbell rang, a jarring two-tone bell. I opened the door, and the commander in his greatcoat and four uniformed student-guards entered our apartment and saw the girl sitting in our chair.

The commander lit a cigarette and looked around our house, at the large TV, the refrigerator.

“I’m worried about her,” I said. “She was hungry and cold. I’d like to know what we can do to help her. I’m not asking her to leave. I just want your advice.”

One guard listened to me as I talked. The others fanned out around the apartment. Beth closed herself in the bedroom. The corporal came in last and slid by me. “Do not worry,” said the guard who was humoring me. He spoke with a kind of theatrical sympathy. I noticed someone trying the bedroom door.

“My wife’s in there.”

The corporal had picked the girl up on his back like a knapsack, and she was holding him around his neck, and now he and the others were moving out of the apartment. Someone noticed the pile of wet discarded clothes and reported them to the commander. “Are those hers?”

“Yes,” I said.

The commander pointed, “Take them.” Someone picked them up off the floor and took them away. Before they left, I wanted to take a picture of the girl. We would want to stay in touch.

“Can you tell us what happens with her?” I asked as they left.

The door banged shut.

It was around 9:30. We spent an hour or so doing nothing. The cigarette smell lingered. Beth straightened the apartment and put on makeup. I do not think we talked. Around midday, we ventured out, took the bus down the river road, got off halfway, and hiked up on the mile-long suspension bridge that went across the Yangtze. The water was far below us. It was gray and in some areas brown where the mud showed in the water. The rain began again, the wind whipping it in our faces. There was no point in going on, and we went back. We waited a long time on the roadside for a bus. The bus finally came, struggling along in the mud, weaving around mudholes filled with water. We got on and found seats in the back. Everyone looked at us as always, and we both stared out the window. When we got back to the apartment, Beth dried her hair and hung up her denim jacket, and we argued.

The cheerless scene around Mrs. Pan’s house.

The argument wasn’t over anything in particular. It was just one of those bad days between two people who are isolated together. We finally sat down and talked about it at the table where the girl had been eating earlier. “I think we’re both doing our best,” Beth said. “That’s all I’ll say.” It was around two in the afternoon.

We heard voices on the stairs again. We stopped talking and looked at the door, and then the doorbell rang.

“What the hell?” Beth asked. “Who is that?”

“I don’t know.”

We heard David call, “Atticus? Beth? Can you open the door?”

“What’s he want?”

“I don’t know. I’m not answering it.”

“Did he hear us?”

“No, he didn’t. We’re being quiet.”

We heard David conferring with someone in Chinese. I recognized the corporal’s voice. A fist pounded the door, then we heard them talking. I heard them going down the stairs.

“What was that about?”

“I don’t know. I really have no idea.”

A little while later, the phone rang. We didn’t answer it.

That night, we made pork and rice for dinner and watched HBO Asia in our sweaters. We had made up, as we always do, and had almost forgotten the foreign nation outside our apartment. We were watching Corrina, Corrina with Ray Liotta and Whoopi Goldberg.

At 10:00, the doorbell rang again. I hadn’t heard anyone coming. I muted the TV and asked who it was. It was David. I let him in, and he took the chair that I had been sitting in.

“I came to see you today, but you were not here.”

“We were out. We got caught in the rain.”

“Yes. I know. One of the students saw you. I left a message on your phone.”

“We didn’t check it yet.”

“I think you should be more attentive.”


“The person in your house today, I think maybe when she goes, she is like another person.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s like she change another person after you help her.”

“I still don’t get what you’re saying.”

“She change another person. Change a face, looks totally different. Like night and day.”

“You mean, did she look different after she got cleaned up?”


“Yeah, I guess she did.”

“And you take her picture.”

We had taken her picture, I admitted. David asked me why I had done this, and I started making an effort to explain my actions.

“You know,” he said, “the law is different in China. You cannot take this person and keep her by yourself.”

“Keep her?”

“The girl. You cannot keep her in your apartment.”

“I am telling you the law of China.”

“We weren’t going to keep anybody.”

“Why did you take her picture?”

“Do you believe this?” I asked Beth. “This doesn’t make sense.”

He said that it was believed that we had taken before-and-after pictures of the girl and put them on the Internet. He did not say who believed this, simply that it was believed. We had done this or were planning to do this in order to generate negative propaganda, to discredit the school, the city, our leaders, the nation of China.

I denied that we had done such a thing.

After I denied it, he said we could finish eating our dinner. He got up and left.

The movie had ended, and I turned the TV off and tried to engage Beth in listening while I got my anger off my chest. She went into the bedroom and lay down on the red Chinese quilt and said her night was over. “He insulted us,” I said. I stared out a window at the cavernous nightscape, the blacked-out campus, mud fields invisible in the blackness. The enormous soft noise of water dripping. A tang of coal smoke seeped in through the sash.

The next day, I got our contracts out and read them for the first time, both the Chinese and the English versions. “We should break these and just leave,” I argued. “I don’t want to be here. These people are not our friends.”

“No,” Beth said. “I don’t want to quit. I want us to stick out the full year.”

I waited for some kind of follow-up to this event, but there never was any. No one ever told us we were in trouble, no one ever absolved us, nor did anyone ever thank us for trying to do something decent or apologize to us for any misunderstanding. We never heard what happened to the girl. The whole thing faded into a mist like a Taoist painting.

The classroom buildings were numbered concrete rectangles. Building 51 sat directly across the courtyard from us, and we both had classes there. When you walked inside, you heard the echoing and smelled the sourness from the latrines that flanked the entrance. There was a turn in the wall to protect privacy, but, without wanting to, you could see past the angle as you went by. Kids came out tightening their jeans — males on one side, females on the other — and joined the flow of young people moving into the building, shuffling up the stairs. The thick, chalky two-tone white-over-green plaster walls damped and distorted sound. On some floors, you heard a tumult of voices echoing in the high ceilings, but the floor would be deserted. Just past the first-floor entrance was a stadium-style lecture hall fitted with antique wooden flip-down seats. You’d enter your classroom to find kids running back from the bathrooms with wet towels and wiping down their desks while a classmate pushed open the tall, double-leaved windows to let the air in so the wood would dry. You’d see this as an encouraging show of discipline and order, but it was deceptive. Our classes, which accommodated 40 or 50 students, could be difficult to control.

Part of the problem was that the students didn’t think they had to be quiet. They and I had different notions of how they should be acting. They expected to talk with each other, eat, read unrelated books, draw pictures, and sleep in class. This was consistent with the social behavior of people other than students in China. At school assemblies, audience members of all ages, many of them faculty members, would come and go, talk, eat, and take phone calls during the performance. In general, in Chinese group behavior, there seemed to be an accepted level of disorder. One might speculate that this pervasive disorder is fundamentally related to the sheer number of Chinese people and is an unchanging fact of Chinese life. However, it has also been argued that recent historical events, especially the Cultural Revolution, have created a society-wide climate of disrespect for authority, the impact of which can be seen in the classroom.

In turn, they taught in a manner that the students recognized and expected; both sides played along with each other, and the chaos, while never going away, didn’t prevent the class from functioning. (The strikingly well-behaved political dogma classes, as I mentioned, seemed to be an exception to this rule.) Chinese students, I found, were used to being asked to do certain things in class, such as sounding off as a group or silently writing in their books. If the teacher tried to instruct differently, especially by demanding a higher degree of individual student participation, he or she risked losing control.

I’m walking towards Mrs. Pan, taking her some plastic bottles. She’s the distant figure coming towards me along the track. She has been collecting empty drink bottles from the players on the basketball court.

I was trying to teach in a way that the Chinese did not like. I was teaching Yingyu Kouyu, “Oral English,” and I had fixed ideas, based on how I’d learned Chinese, about how things should run: I thought the teacher should call on students and engage them individually while the rest of the class maintained total silence, allowing the student’s performance to be judged cleanly and mistakes held up to scrutiny. Over the course of the hour, the teacher would work around the entire room like a nightclub performer, eventually getting to everyone, even the kids hiding in the back. I felt it was essential that the language learner speak for him- or herself.

But the students refused to play along with this. When called on individually, they clammed up. “You’ve got to talk if you want to learn,” I said, but they wouldn’t.

As we found out on online message boards, other foreign teachers working in China complained about the same unwillingness to be singled out. Once, at a student-teacher meeting I attended, the New Zealander told the kids they weren’t participating enough. The kids heard him out impassively. No one challenged him when he said, “Chinese people are shy people.”

This sounded to me like a too-sweeping generalization, but David agreed with it. Having heard about my trouble in class, he told me that what I should be doing was read out a phrase from the textbook and let the entire class chant it back to me as a group. This was how Chinese students learned, he said.

“Is that true?” I asked a student, who agreed it was.

“But why are you like that?”

For the first time, several kids put up their hands.

Yinwei meiyou ren xiang chutou.”

Chutou shi shenme yisi?”

“Put your head up. No one want to put his head up. To stand out.”

“Thinking like that will prevent you from getting better,” I told them.

I didn’t stop to wonder what might have been behind it. Apparently the students were more afraid of censure from their peers than of being failed. Their peers must have had the power to hurt them significantly. I can imagine how this worked: teasing, ostracism, the entire repertoire of social cruelty that all people share, plus pressures that might be unique to China. I hardly ever saw a kid getting picked on, but maybe it was happening and I just failed to recognize it. Their language, as much as I studied it, could be used to hide almost anything from me they didn’t want me to know. But there was one thing I could perceive: They watched each other just as they watched foreigners like me, they knew each other’s affairs, and they lived in very close contact with each other, all of which might have increased the group’s leverage to punish anyone who “put his head up.”

It was obviously a phenomenon too big to change, though this didn’t stop me from attempting to get my way. But my efforts backfired. Berating them did no good. Once or twice, I succeeded in making a girl in the front row cry, and the class would grind to a halt as I apologized. “I’m really sorry,” I said, “but I’m not that sorry. You’re stubborn.”

Once, I lost my temper in a night class and ended up making a fool of myself. There were only a handful of students, but they were all goofing off, and I struck the lectern in frustration. I was seized with contrition and on some manic impulse leaped down from the podium and kowtowed in front of them, getting on my knees and bowing until my head hit the floor. Kowtowing is an expression of abject wretchedness. The word comes into English via Cantonese. In Mandarin, it’s pronounced ketou. The character ke means “to knock against something hard,” and tou means “head.” The New Century Dictionary gives the phrase “kowtowing repeatedly like pounding garlic in a mortar,” which conjures an image of someone begging with such desperation that he is injuring himself. It is an act of self-abasement, of saying, “I will hurt myself for you, I’m worth nothing”; the kind of thing you do when you beg for a loved one’s life. It is such a forceful gesture, as I now appreciate, that it may put a much more powerful person on the spot, shaming them into granting mercy. It is a practice that could only thrive where people have raw power over each other, in a terrible hierarchy. It is a weapon developed by the weak.

When I kowtowed, the students gave a collective cry of horror, and some of them jumped to their feet and tried to pick me up. They were aghast, maybe a little outraged. A few stared at me with genuine concern, as if they thought I might be crazy. I tried to apologize for my mistake, but for once, they didn’t give me a pass for being a foreigner. They essentially told me, Don’t ever do that again. I did my best to control the most severe embarrassment I’ve ever felt and kept teaching.

In a daytime class that was being difficult, I announced a system whereby students would come up to the front one at a time to be quizzed and graded on the spot. Kids started gathering around me after they had been quizzed to see their grades. I waved them back behind a painted line on the floor and told them not to move. The next girl I called came right up and craned her neck to look at my grade book. “Get behind the line,” I told her.

“I’m tightening my control on all of you,” I declared. I made sure I knew all their names, took attendance carefully, and instructed them that I was going to grade each and every one of them on their classroom performance every single day. But there were a lot of kids, so after doing this, there was almost no time left for teaching.

I told a brooding young man named Cui Honglei that he was failing but that I didn’t want to fail him; all he had to do was give me a signal that he was trying. He didn’t send out any signal, so I gave him an F, as promised. On the stairs after class, a young woman intercepted me and said, “Do you know Cui Honglei?” I saw him standing behind her with his hands in his pockets and his eyes down. “He says you gave him an F,” she said. “You don’t have to fail him. Just give him a D.”

“Why’s she talking to me instead of you?” I asked him, but he remained silent. “I don’t know you,” I told her. “I shouldn’t be hearing from you. I should be hearing from him.”

As I walked away, they whispered together, and he glanced after me darkly.

The truth was that I understood almost nothing about how the school worked, and I still don’t. Some kids seemed to not care about their grades at all, as if they had made other arrangements; others cried if you failed them. I ended up giving Cui Honglei a D.

Three weeks into the semester, Mystical showed up in my night class.

“I thought you were in my wife’s class.”

“I am, but I wanted to see what your class is like,” she said as she touched up her makeup.

We were working on giving directions, a topic in our textbook, Oral Workshop. I was having them tell me how to get from here to the Wushang, and I was making everyone do it in precise detail, starting from where we were in this classroom at this moment: “Go out the door, turn left, go down the stairs, go outside, walk down the street, make another left, walk out the gate and down to the end of the street, catch the Number 1 bus, take it to the end of the line, transfer to the Number 3 bus, get off at the grocery store.” All the students were struggling through some version of this recitation. Many were having trouble with idiomatic expressions like “make another left,” which weren’t in the textbook, but I wanted them to learn how Americans actually talk. Most of the kids broke down about halfway to the goal, lost in grammar and left turns. I drew a map on the board to help them see it.

When it was Mystical’s turn, she compressed the entire exercise to, “I’d take the Number 11.” This was a physical pun: The “Number 11” meant walking, as she demonstrated by making her fingers walk. The two inverted fingers looked like the number 11.

At the end of the class, she asked me what we’d be doing next week. “We’ll be working on this lesson until we master it,” I said. She said that that didn’t sound interesting and didn’t come back.

Photography by Beth Lish

Read Part I, Part II, 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