Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Avi Kramer

When I arrived in Chaling on a steamy afternoon last August, I had expected rutted dirt roads sidelined by weathered telephone poles, a central meat and vegetable market, and embankments leading down to farm land and rolling hills. I was correct about the fields, acres of square plots, soggy rice paddies and rows of vegetables, and the hills, just dark curves in the distant sky.

While the landscape conformed to what I had imagined, the city itself boasted much more. A city of only 60,000 people, microscopic by Chinese standards, it was like a miniature version of a much bigger city, as if it could fit as a small section of Zhuzhou or Changsha: two wide, busy streets converging at a central rotary with ten-story buildings and shiny billboards and zooming motorbikes and buses, food vendors cycling along their portable frying-stations and appliance stores blaring music from waist-high speakers.

After visiting the neighboring towns, I realized that what I had envisioned was more like Ma Jiang or Yao Shui, a spread-out village with brick homes, a single street of shops, and a simple school clustered between the homes and farm land. In American news, we always read about the great disparity between the booming cities on the eastern coast of China and the countryside towns, more inland, which are neglected in deference to furthering the growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Shanghai. But if my Chaling is any indication, then that development in China is making its way across this vast country. New skeleton buildings are everywhere.

The day that I arrived in Chaling had begun in Hunan’s capital city, Changsha. I came here on a teaching fellowship along with many others, all of us having come to China as stipend-supported volunteers. We had spent the previous three weeks in Changsha shaking off jet-lag and orienting ourselves. Which meant: we mostly spent our time sweating, breathing diesel fumes on the streets, being very confused, sticking out like sore thumbs, and adjusting to spicy Hunan food. Each morning, one of us pink-skinned Americans would appear in our plush hotel’s lobby, pale-faced with dark circles under his or her eyes, visibly five pounds lighter, having spent the night making a few too many trips to the bathroom.

The bulk of our three-week orientation was structured around a teaching practicum to prepare us for the school year. In addition, we also spent each morning taking Chinese classes and usually had the evenings free to explore the city. Now, the three weeks had come to an end, and all of the teachers met their school’s representatives to be shuffled off to their respective teaching sites. Most teachers were placed at schools in Changsha—this provincial capital of seven million had quite a few middle schools—so when their school liaisons arrived, they did not have a long trip back to their new homes. Others of us, however, were spread out around the province, in such cities as Yueyang, Huaihua, Ningyuan, and Chaling.

The representatives from Yunyang met me at the Ya Hua Hotel on Bayi Road in Changsha, and they came upstairs to help with my luggage. My floor, the ninth, was filled with us would-be educators as we finished packing up our belongings, our fidgeting liaisons with their eyes glued to their silver flip phones, and a hallway full of massive suitcases. We, the foreigners, would learn in the coming months that it is the height of inconvenience to travel in China with anything bigger than a lap-sized bag— learning such things is a process in a foreign country, and there’s nothing to do but prepare yourself for the discomfort that results from not knowing and then to figure out how to adapt.

The term “foreigner” quickly became our defining identity with the exception of the few Asian-Americans in the group who were saved from being so visibly foreign. There were two married couples, one from Kansas and one from North Carolina, whot looked as non-Chinese as is humanly possible. People in China are quick and eager to point and comment on the existence of a foreigner in their streets, and they can seemingly spot you from blocks away like they have some sort of foreigner-spotting tunnel vision. When they’ve zeroed in, they usually look left and right hoping to inform anyone in their vicinity that a “waiguo” (foreigner) is in existence on their streets.

At the hotel, the representatives from my school greeted me with shy smiles and limp handshakes. The two men—the first an English teacher and the other one of the higher-up administrators from the long hierarchy of school leaders employed at Yunyang—were really, really short and dressed in satiny, dark shirts and black slacks which they rolled up above their knees. Sharing the chore of carrying my luggage—it made me feel like some sort of V.I.P. to suddenly be flanked by such a dark-suited entourage—we made our way out of the hotel into the blanketing heat of mid-day Changsha.

The street, like every day of my three weeks here, was a zoo of traffic and its billowing exhaust, screeching brakes and rumbling engines. In the places I’ve been in China, driving on one side of the road really has little meaning—both sides are used equally to travel in either direction. This makes for an entertaining automobile experience as you see people driving like they’re skiing the giant slalom, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic. You learn to simply shrug when the vehicle you’re in appears to be on a head-on collision course with a huge blue truck filled with screeching pigs. Now, we loaded my bags into the trunk of a black Santana Volkswagen with tinted windows and piled into the cool interior. The distinguished V.I.P. feeling was gone and replaced by a hint of covert Mafioso. The driver, who gave me a wide grin, had a buzzed flat-top and his eyes squinted in his cigarette’s smoke. He wore linen pants and hi-top basketball shoes and had his T-shirt pulled up above a cute, brown pot belly.

It was lunch time, and they asked me if I wanted Chinese or Western food. After three weeks testing the waters of Changsha street food, I would have killed for a fresh salad, a hummus sandwich and some cookies-n-cream ice cream for dessert. But Western food in Changsha translates to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and plus I didn’t want to be a needy, high-maintenance foreigner so soon. I figured that would come in not too long, anyway. So I said Chinese, and a few minutes later the driver pulled into a plaza with a large “huo guo” restaurant. “Huo guo,” which translates as “fire pot,” is a specialty in Hunan, and most commonly eaten in the winter. It consists of a steaming pot of soup broth, perched on a burner in the middle of the table, flame underneath.

The waitresses bring raw meat (could be any body part of any animal, sea or land, mammal or amphibian), vegetables, tofu, and raw and hard-boiled eggs to dump in the oily broth which is seasoned with ginger, garlic, and a good-sized cup of hot red pepper flakes. Condensed pigs’ blood, which ironically for us vegetarian-minded people, looks sort of like reddish-brown tofu, is usually a key ingredient to any respectable “huo guo,” and the driver licked his lips around the sixty-first cigarette he was smoking since I met him as he used his chopsticks to slide the thick hunks of blood into the bubbling broth. I thought of the witches in Macbeth, “Double double toil and trouble,” as if they were stirring some sort of black magic soup. I filled up on rice and poked around for eggs and vegetables in the broth that was spicy enough to leave my virgin lips on fire.

After lunch, we hit the highway out of town, heading south to wherever I would be living, that mysterious place called Chaling. I felt both worry and excitement and that giddiness of flight and uncertainty for what it would be like. I was sleepy but kept myself awake for a few minutes worrying that the driver would dose off, too, but he was sipping short cans of Red Bull and nearing triple digits in cigarettes. I relaxed, the sweat from the middle of my back dried in the air-conditioning, and I slept.

Three hours later, they lit firecrackers when we approached the school gate. Fire is one of the cornerstones of all big events to any Chinese. Milestones like weddings are celebrated with firecrackers or fireworks, as are good grades in school or moving into a new home. The famous spring festival extravaganza, which honors the Chinese New Year, is punctuated by a week straight of fireworks: in the city streets, on the sidewalks, in the fields, everywhere, from dawn to dawn to dawn, day after day after day. You, as I did, would learn to loathe these “Smoke Flowers,” the translation of fireworks, with all your heart and soul.

Anyway, after the firecrackers and driving through their smoke, our flat-topped driver wove through the campus and came to a halt in front of a building that looked just like all the other school buildings: big, white, rectangular, dirty. On the side of the building, in large red characters, was painted “Foreign Teachers’ Building,” and the paint was old and chipped. Apparently, it had been a “Foreign Teachers’ Building” for many years although I was the first foreign teacher to ever live there. My liaison called over some students to carry my bags up to my third-floor apartment. I was impressed with the school grounds: the long, grand set of stairs and statues leading to the fountain and then up more concrete stairs to the central campus with four-story classroom buildings, an art and music building, a courtyard and a modern track. The trees and bushes were well-maintained, and the ground was more free of litter than most places I had seen.

When everything was hauled up to my room, a bunch of school leaders descended upon the apartment to get things fixed up. Pretty much nothing had been prepared before my arrival—no mattress on the bed, a non-functioning toilet, all surfaces covered in thick dust—and I learned very quickly that little is ever planned in my neck of the Chinese woods. I firmly believe that if the world community did not assume years of preparation, Beijing would start preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in about April of 2008. They would send two-hundred million workers to build the Olympic stadium in one month flat.

On that day, in my new apartment, things just started happening. (Keep in mind that I’m sitting down the whole time, sweating buckets, wide-eyed stupid, not understanding a damn thing that’s going on). Numbers were being punched into cell phones and multi-tasking was taking place at rates that would put the hippest L.A. ladies to shame. A cleaning crew arrived. Then a man who took a sledge hammer and bashed up the bathroom floor to replace the dysfunctional Western toilet which had simply been cemented into place on top of a squat toilet. Apparently the man who lived in the apartment before me had never used it because Western toilets were so foreign to him, so he went downstairs to use the squat trough W.C. Because he never used it, the school hadn’t known that the existing toilet was completely useless.

Then a man came to install floor-to-ceiling curtains in both the living room and my bedroom. He hacked at and drilled into the plaster wall that sent a shower of white flakes onto the recently-scrubbed floor. The efficiency of getting the room in shape was something to marvel at, but they didn’t always think about the order of doing things. I’m not sure they thought about much, it was simply do it as fast as you can and then onto the next thing.

Two people were dispatched for bedding, and twenty minutes later a mattress was hauled in along with a new set of sheets, comforter and pillows. These were all decorated with castles and flowers emerging from fluffy clouds, and “Love Story” was emblazoned across the sheets in curly script. The curtains were up in an hour but the bathroom guy—who was chugging beer while he worked, and, between hammer swings, yelling questions at me about how much money my parents earned—left the floor smashed to smithereens and the toilet cracked in half.

I have jumped ahead a bit to the interior the apartment. My living quarters, from the outside in, justify a bit more description. For future real estate purposes, here’s my rundown of the pad:
“This third-floor walkup, the stairs strewn with garbage and stained with coal (the boxes of coal for cooking or winter heat have become a sort of second dumpster for residents and children who like to urinate and blow their noses in the stairwell. The dried urine, it must be said, only adds to the rustic, homely smell permeating this open-air building. Sometimes this scent mingles with the burning trash coming from the real dumpster twenty meters or so from the building’s entrance, but don’t mind the proximity of the dumpster because such trash receptacles are rarely used, the ground is always much easier), boasts two beautiful stairwell windows on each landing between the first and second, and the second and third floors.

In this vicinity, the rustic aromas are accented by equally rustic sights that make this building really feel like home—there’s no artificial, sterile cleanliness going on here. Most of the windows’ glass has been blown out in the typhoon-like winds that are common to the region. Most everything else is broken in some way, thus creating the perfectly weathered, lived-in feel. Like when you buy jeans nowadays and they are so tattered and full of holes that you wonder who’s job it was in the factory, last on the assembly line, to beat up each pair. Same idea, but with a building instead of pants.

“Now, let’s get to the rice and dumplings of the apartment itself. First, if you’re not a fan of white plaster walls, then this place will not convert you to the white-plaster-walls-loving school of interior decoration. It’s also not so ideal on the outside as the monsoon rains often rip the plaster from the walls and leave the floor of the open-air hallway covered in an inch of white-plaster goo. However, these drawbacks aside, the walls are big. If you are nine feet tall, you could stand comfortably and even stretch your arms up when you get out of bed in the morning. An artist who works on a large scale could do wonders. Jackson Pollock would jump for joy.

So, the size—picture a squash court with a linoleum floor instead of smooth wood. These floors can be a bit of bummer when, in the winter, they assume the temperature of ice, but you can buy thick, fluffy slippers with big hearts all over them for less than a dollar to keep your feet toasty. The walls’ size can make cleaning a bit difficult, so you’ll need a long-handled broom to get the cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. These areas, incidentally, are also where cockroaches and salamander-like-lizard things enter through some rather large holes in the wall, but these are easily patched up with a strong piece of cardboard and some duct tape. One note of warning: the cockroaches can be rather big—some have been known to use chopsticks without straining a muscle.

Other than those few minor inconveniences and the fact that running water and electricity are usually out of commission for a good chunk of hours each day, this living space is truly ideal: a desk with lockable drawers, wooden sofa and a TV with all the Ming Dynasty soap-opera sagas and violent Hong Kong movies you could ever want. Cable and internet included.”

An afternoon and evening of crash-course apartment renovation went by, and I woke up the next morning at 5:35 AM to what I first thought was some sort of new-teacher hazing ritual: a few feet from my bedroom window a large speaker blasted an alarm that sounded like the call for the gates of hell. The most screeching, hideous-sounding electric alarm clock has nothing on the method of waking students at Yunyang Middle School. For the students who live on campus, two thousand are packed into six dormitories, ten students to a room the size of my living room, and they get them out of bed with whistles on every floor, Satan’s alarm, and a P.E. teacher grunting into a megaphone that tells them to hurry the hell up and stop being lazy because it’s time to hit the track for morning exercises.

I once had a girlfriend whose alarm clock sounded like the thumping heart of a thoroughbred on the home stretch. It was terrible. The alarm here is ten-times worse especially because the minutes of what I can only describe as a siren that shakes your bones is followed by equally blaring Chinese pop music. It doesn’t stop for twenty minutes when all of the students are mobilized at the track and the P.E. teacher continues to yell through the megaphone. That first morning, I got out of bed, so shaken and confused, and opened the curtain half expecting to be hit in the face with a pie and a “Welcome to Yunyang!” banner, but instead I was greeted by the sight of thousands of students streaming up the long concrete stairs towards the track.

* * * *

About the Author:

I graduated from college a year ago (from Stephanie Block’s alma mater, Vassar College), and now I’m in an isolated small city called Chaling, about four hours south of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in south-central China. I’m on a WorldTeach fellowship and all the WT volunteers teach at public middle/high schools in Hunan. Mine’s a school of 4000 students and most of my classes have 70-80 students each. I teach high school sophomores and juniors. Love it here you ask? Well, yeah, sometimes. It’s a challenge everyday but I’ve grown into it and it’s pretty cool to now be able to communicate in Chinese. Next year, I’ll probably settle in the Boston area, but in the future who knows?

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