Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shopping with John, a short story by me

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
Sylvia Plath


by Amy Margaret Derr - January 2005

Peter’s Cousin and I walk out from the restaurant and into the crisp, sunny day. Side by side, we trek the six blocks up Broad Street toward our destination—the Western Union. My left hand clutches a white envelope containing forty 100 dollar bills, and my right hand holds my driver’s license—the unexpired, verifiable proof of my American residency. My pockets are empty and I’ve left my purse at the restaurant with John.

The hot late-August wind blows around us as we pass the Ukrop’s grocery store, a VCU parking deck, and the school’s bookstore. On display are hooded sweatshirts, textbooks and collegiate paraphernalia, all of which catch Peter’s Cousin’s eye. He looks at the gear and almost runs into a student carrying a shopping bag. I pull him by close to me. Draped in a hand-me-down Sears sweater, Dockers slacks and black working shoes, Peter’s Cousin is a middle-aged Chinese man who stands a couple inches shorter than my 5’4” frame. Against the young student scene, Peter’s Cousin almost seems misplaced, yet he’s welcomed by the bustling city tempo.
Together, we walk briskly down the sidewalk past parked bikes, huddled teenagers and cars at stop signs. Some people call him his last name, “Chen,” but I never do. I call him Peter’s Cousin, even when talking to Peter. Ever since I met Peter’s Cousin, ever since he moved here from China to replace another Chinese worker, Ji, that’s what I’ve called him. He’s Peter’s Cousin.

Peter's Cousin at the restaurant
Today, as always, conversation is left out; we only point and say words. As we wait at the first traffic light for the red to turn green, I realize it is, once again, my calling to point and speak.
“Green,” I say animatedly, pointing at a forty-five degree angle toward the green light. He follows my finger into the glaring afternoon sunlight—not anywhere near the traffic light—and nods.
“OK!” Peter’s Cousin says, his ever-occurring response to anything I say to him in English. I smile, give him a thumbs up, and nod my head absently, certain that he does not understand that I am trying to teach him green. It’s not my first attempt trying to teach Peter’s Cousin colors. We cross the street and head west up Broad.

Ever since Peter, the owner of the restaurant, went back to China to visit his family, I have assumed other responsibilities around the restaurant besides waiting tables. Sending the money abroad illegally, however, is my own choice, but Peter said I could earn extra cash by driving his pick-up truck every Monday with John to go shopping for the restaurant’s food.

Two blocks away from the restaurant, we pass a small group of college students carrying back-packs and talking about where they want to eat lunch. Should it be the Subway or The Village Café? Peter Cousin’s eyes dart down to my left hand and then to my eyes. He nods at the envelope, his envelope, and extends his hand. I promptly hand him his money, but not without an eye- roll.
“Fine, here, take it.” He eagerly grabs the envelope without taking his eyes off the group. “Those students don’t want to steal from us din-pa,” I say, emphasis on “din-pa.”
Head shakes, loud sighs and eye-rolls can’t replace harsh words, and Peter’s Cousin knows it too, for I constantly hear long streams of Fuzhounese with a “din-pow” purposely tacked to the end, followed by what seems to be a highly exaggerated laugh, directly in my face. Yes, I know, Peter’s Cousin, I’m a crazy girl.
He folds the envelope and puts the wad of cash deep into his left pants pocket. He glares back at the students, who seem to still be debating about where to eat lunch. A girl in black leggings and a pink headband finally resigns that it doesn’t matter where they eat and that The Village is fine. She’s just not that picky.

There are also the names he has given me: Amy Bue-go (Cousin Amy) or Amy Aiyi (auntie Amy), and Amy shu shu (uncle Amy).

“Amy mama dimpoe,” he says, inches away from my face, shaking his fist and laughing hysterically. I can smell him. An old man truly set in his Fuzhounese ways, he’s never taken a shower and has never washed his clothes in a washing machine. John, who lives with him in Peter’s small apartment on Gray Street, tells me all about Peter’s Cousin’s at-home oddities.

When they both get to the apartment after work, Peter’s Cousin takes off his clothes and scrubs his underarms, face and genitals with a washrag. Although he isn’t old fashioned enough to use a washboard, he does actually clean his work clothes in the sink, even though John says he has offered to do his laundry in the washing machine for him.

Peter's Cousin and me being a dimpoe
“Peter Cousin mama dimpoe!” I respond, just as energetically, adding the shaking fist motion.
We approach the Western Union on a dingy corner on Broad Street. Peter’s Cousin steps closer to me when we pass another group of young people sitting in the parking lot. I smell his distinct odor and try not to recoil when his arm grazes mine. As I open the glass door to step inside, I see that they’re only listening to the music from someone’s car radio and talking to each other, in English. Peter’s Cousin looks paranoid and holds his hand over his left pocket.

At the counter, I grab a form with the Western Union logo at the top. It’s white and yellow with empty spaces asking for my name, the amount of money and the money’s destination, an all too familiar routine for me. I pick up a black Bic pen on the counter, and as I begin to write out Amy Derr, four-thousand dollars and China, I look up at Peter’s Cousin. I pause, holding the pen above a blank space on the form, and stare at him. Why am I doing this? This is illegal. Why do I want to help John and Peter’s Cousin’s Chinese families so badly? This is illegal. Just how did I inherit this job? Sending for Ji wasn’t that bad, but now I’m sending for both John and Peter’s Cousin?
Their families need it. And I sign away.

The Indian worker warns me, for what I think is the fourth time, that sending money abroad could cause suspicion by the United States government.
“It’s OK,” I say, mostly to myself. “This is only my fifth time sending.”

Peter’s Cousin nods at the man and says, “OK,” probably repeating after me. Together we walk outside into the afternoon heat. I put my driver’s license in my back pocket, and we walk east down Broad Street, back toward the restaurant. Peter’s Cousin puts his arm around me and says, “Thank you!” He grabs my hand with his other arm and tries to pull me toward him. He wants to arm wrestle, and so I tug my arm back and try to twist his around. I should have known better than to accept this invitation to arm-wrestle. Like an insect that just can’t get out of a spider’s web, I thrust back and forth, while Peter’s Cousin maintains a tight hold. While I’m used to wrestling with my little brother, I know my strength no where compares to Peter’s Cousin’s, who supposedly used to slaughter sheep when he lived in China.

“No, din-pa!” I finally resign, pulling back my arm.
“Amy, sou sou, din-pow.”
“Peter’s Cousin, stop!” And he finally does.
We walk on, and I listen closely to the sounds our feet make as they hit the pavement. I glance at his feet and notice his short steps are quicker, while mine are wider. I glance up and, for whatever reason, he’s smiling—almost laughing—and looking at me admiringly, proudly. I could swear that I’ve seen the same look before from my dad or a close family member. And the other day at the restaurant, when I got sick with a bad cough, I could have sworn I saw from Peter’s Cousin the same attention and concern my dad, a nurse, gives me when he tries to nurse me back to health. Only, Peter’s Cousin served me boiled water in a small Chinese bowl, while my dad usually just calls the doctor.

As we approach the first traffic light again, my phone rings. “Hello!” Peter’s Cousin says (more like yells) to no one in particular. The phone is still ringing—my home—and I almost don’t answer it because I think that Peter’s Cousin will be left bored with no one to talk to and just English to listen to.

“Hi Kevin, how are you? How is school? Are you learning anything?” I ask my little brother. My Mom and Dad asked me what they needed to and say that it’s my turn to talk to my brother since I “don’t have time for him anymore.”

Peter's Cousin at the restaurant
Peter’s Cousin leans close to the phone, repeating “Hello! hello!” Being with Peter’s Cousin and talking to my brother Kevin, I am reminded of Cousin Kevin from the rock opera Tommy. The way the character Kevin treats Tommy is very much the way I treated my little brother, only my brother isn’t deaf, dumb and blind. He just used to have a really bad stutter. I remember my brother’s tormented face 10 years ago, as I chased him around our living room and kitchen with a knife, pretending to be possessed by a demon. A Marilyn Manson music video was on MTV and had inspired something in me. Manson danced creepily in a dirty wedding dress and sung about what his dreams are made of. Kevin, at five, begged for the scary music to be turned off. " Help me Kevin! I’m possessed! And then I sung the lyrics as Kevin cried, “A-a-amy, s-s-stop it!”

As I talk to Kevin about his Sophomore year of high school, Peter’s Cousin continues trying to say “Hello” into my receiver. I fight him off me just as we get to the door of the restaurant.
“You know Kevin, I’m sure I was such a bitch to you when you were little,” I say apologetically. “And hey, tell Mom and Dad thanks for taking care of me.”

▫ ▫ ▫

I tell John that it’s time to go shopping when Peter’s Cousin and I get back to the restaurant. He’s in the kitchen cooking a General Tso’s chicken for our sole customer, a tall blond boy I’ve noticed before. I deliver my usual goodbye to Peter’s Cousin, today saying “Bush-aye” and waving, whereas yesterday it was, “Chum-bee!” Only to Peter’s Cousin and me do these departures have any meaning. John comes out of the kitchen, laughing at us, and then starts speaking Chinese with Peter’s Cousin. I ask John if they’re yelling at each other since they’re speaking so fast and forcefully. It’s a sort of joke I knew he wouldn’t understand.

And so I step outside to wait. The sunny day has turned cloudy, and it looks like it might rain. The truck sits behind a building across the street. I see John saying goodbye to Peter’s Cousin, the normal way, and he walks toward me with a cheerful grin on his face, a Marlboro Light hanging from his mouth. Am I ready to go shopping?

We stand eye-to-eye. He looks nice today. Wearing a plain black shirt and dark blue jeans, John is a younger Chinese immigrant who can speak and understand a lot of English, but cannot read it yet. His black hair is gelled back, making him look younger than he really is.

“In China, I twenty-eight, but here, I twenty-six,” he said to me one afternoon at a table in the restaurant. Not understanding, I asked him to explain. Are the years shorter in China? Am I twenty-two in China, even though I’m twenty here? He stumbled over words, attempting to tell me why people in China are always one or two years older than the rest of the world. I never really understood why. I just got that they are.
“But I want to understand,” I told him. I grabbed his electronic Chinese to English dictionary on a shelf in the restaurant.
“Here, do you understand?” he asked me, pointing to the screen at the word lunar. I sort of understood that their years are dictated by the cycles of the moon. He said the 2006 Chinese New Year was on January 29, the year of the dog, and he’s not sure when the 2007 New Year is.

He takes a drag from his Marlboro and hands me a folded up piece of paper. Everything is written in Chinese. What am I supposed to do with this? I can’t read Chinese. He tells me we need to go to Best Buy, Tan-A and “Dollar Family.”

“You mean Family Dollar? Okay, okay. Let’s go John!”
“We going to Wal-Mart today?” I ask him, purposely leaving out the verb “to be,” as he often does.
“No not today. We don’t need. We go to Best Buy?” He holds up his MP3 player. It’s small and silver, about the size of an egg. “Headphone broken.”
Best Buy is very good, John tells me, because there he can get anything he needs to buy for his Chinese family.
“My computer my wife.” I laugh. I like John’s sense of humor.

A few months ago, I took him to Belle Isle on his day off for a bike ride and swim. As we biked through the woods and swam that sunny day, he told me about his other jobs around the world. He said he worked in Turkey, Japan (his favorite) and a few places in Virginia. He told me he lives in America on an expired Visa but that he never wants to go back to China because of all the money he makes here.

John at work on some General Tso's
In the water, he got pulled downstream by the current and laughed the whole way down. “In China, the water is too stinky, but it’s good here.”

Sitting on rocks that day in the setting sun, Jon and I talked about nearly everything we could comparing his home country to my own. One thing he said which I will never forget is that he changed his name upon moving to America . It was easier that way he said, calling him John opposed to “Min Zhan.” It made perfect sense to me to Americanize his name. I could see John adhering to this name change, ever complacent and eager to fit in with Americans. Or maybe that’s just the way his English sounds to me, eager, sometimes hesitant. I listened to him speak his “simple English” about how he worked in Lynchburg before he moved to Richmond. Occasionally I would interrupt to correct a word or two. Every sentence seems to stick out in my mind, however, nothing like the verbose words and phrases of my friends from time to time.
I looked at John as he gazed into the “clean” James River. Kayakers rowed by, a girl squatted a few meters ahead of us taking pictures of the sunset with her Nikon. With John that day, I had felt in the moment and helpful.
“My name not John. It Min Zhan, but when I working at Lynchburg, someone say, ‘Hey, can I call you John?’ so I say, OK, OK.” How odd to have two names, two ages and two homes.

I start Peter’s truck, grinding the gears. I shift to reverse. Stall. Restart. John laughs and says, “This car hard to drive?” I nod, turn the wheel and drive.
I flip on the radio. Chinese music hums out of the cassette player, and I immediately eject it, hoping John won’t protest. I twist the knob until I reach a classic rock station. ACDC chants, “All night long, yeah you shook me!”
“You like?”
“Yes, good. American music.” He bangs his head to the rhythm, as I imagine he’s often seen Americans do to rock music.
“About sex,” I say, injecting my middle finger into the hole of my index finger and thumb over the steering wheel.
He laughs at both the motion of my fingers and the repetitive “All night long, yeah you shook meee!” More silence, and we drive on.

“I don’t understand American girl and American boy. Why won’t you go back to your boyfriend?”
“It’s too hard to explain. It just wasn’t working out,” I quickly say, hoping he senses my aversion to the subject. I know where this is headed. John insists that American boys and girls are always changing boyfriends and girlfriends over problems that don’t exist and don’t matter. John’s relationship problems have revolved around not being able to provide financially for his girlfriends. Once, a few years ago when he lived in China with his family, long before he moved to America to work, he had a beautiful, young girlfriend who broke up with him because he could not buy her things. The girl’s father knew other men who could pay for her, literally pay for her, hand in marriage, and so she left John. His version of her departure is, “Fuck you! You have no money! I leaving you!” But I can’t imagine someone being so cruel over lacking money.
“No, it’s OK. He come back with flowers and say ‘Amy, I love you. I miss you,’ and you can say okay okay!”

Our only two cooks at the restaurant, Peter's Cousin and John
“No, John,” I say and twist the radio to high volume. “Break ups happen all the time here.” Once, John asked me if a boy had even bought anything for me from L.L. Bean, which I found funny because I had never told John that I did any skiing or that I needed a new parka and ski-bibs. It was summer when John asked anyway, but I supposed he was entranced by an ad he got in the mail, the type I habitually throw away.

I pull the truck into Best Buy and are greeted by an eager employee at the entrance. Could we use his help today? John looks down, almost as though he does not hear the man. But I know he does. This is something John does when he’s around English-speaking people, to avoid saying, “I don’t understand,” and no matter how many times he asks, with some people, he never really understands. I’ve seen it numerous times at the restaurant. If I’m with him, he always looks to me to for help.
John goes straight to the cell phone section. A few weeks ago, he wanted to buy cell phones on eBay for his mother and sister in China, but he didn’t because I protested to the cost. “Too much, buy cheap, boring one.” He said he wanted nice ones for his family though. Maybe he’ll find one today, I think.

“Cell phone to buy?” he asks me, pointing to a high-tech pink one. “You have to buy plan?” he asks me. I look up and see an employee standing right beside us, trying to get in on the question. I tell John that it’s sixty dollars to start up the plan, and he says it’s too much.
After looking at more cell phones, Kelly Clarkson CDs (his favorite American musician), computers and everything else in the store, it seems, he finally picks up some headphones. I encourage the ten dollar Phillips brand, but he insists on Sony. Go figure. Just last week he bought another computer to send to China for his sister, and it couldn’t be the Compaq that I picked out. It had to be the Sony. “Sony is good. I don’t like American computer.”
We check out, with John leaving the cashier asking if he wants to sign up for their bonus card. He just looks down and gives no response.

We’re back in the car and the finale of “Layla” is playing. John flips through a Best Buy magazine, asking me if I’ve ever seen the products in there. Did I have an iPod? Was this a good computer?
“I don’t know, John. I don’t read those ads.” He continues flipping through. As much as I like to help John, I try to stay away from encouraging him to buy too many things. Maybe our luxuries are overwhelming for him, making him feel like he has to have the latest technology for himself and his family in China. He’s told me many times that his family in China is in trouble, but if he’s sending iPods and cell phones over, they couldn’t be in that much trouble, could they?
I ask John why he buys so many goods to send abroad. He closes his catalog and gives me a long and hard-to-understand explanation. He basically tells me that in China, the goods are much cheaper and more prone to falling apart. American goods are durable and long-lasting. He tells me that even though China’s emerging economy is growing and modernizing through its labor intensive industries as well as technological fields, the United States is still richer. The labor market is paid lower in China, with many jobs outsourced from both the United States and Japan.

That still didn’t answer one question: What kind of trouble is the family in?
“China family in trouble,” is all he ever says.
“Why?” He says he doesn’t know. He only knows that his mother calls him and says that the family is in trouble and to send more money. You don’t know why you’re sending thousands of dollars to your family? You don’t know what the trouble is at home? Do you even understand my questions?
Frustrated with our progress, I stop pursuing the question and sit in silence. My mind brings me back to the conversation I had with my brother only one hour ago. Even though Kevin and I are much older now, and I don’t pick on him as much, seeing Peter’s Cousin send money to his Chinese family and watching John buy his sister and mother a cell phone really made me want to be a better big sister. There were so many instances when I treated him badly when I could have shared with him.

The night of the same day we went to Burger King for free fries. Meredith and I played Super Mario World in my bedroom with my door closed. Kevin barged into my bedroom and asked to play on my Super Nintendo with us. I refused Larry Davis and pushed him out the door.
“M-m-m-mom says it’s mine too. L-l-l-let me play!” he begged, banging on the door.
“I’ll punch you in the jewels if you come in here again,” Meredith shouted. I laughed and listened to my brother’s light footsteps going down the stairs.

John scans the busy road and businesses that surround us as we drive down Broad Street. “Super King Buffet, haha. You ever eat there?”
“No, John. I’ve never even noticed it before.” We whiz by stores on both sides of the road.
“Ford cars. I want to drive one day. Maybe I get my green card I can drive. You been to Fords? So many cars.”
“No, John. They’re just cars. Look they’re everywhere. Too much,” I say, imitating his favorite phrase.

More buildings zoom by, none of which affect me, but John’s eyes are peeled.
On the left we pass a Hair Cuttery. On the sign is an outline of hair with scissors pointed at the tips.
“Oh Amy. You hair color real? You go there and get it color?” he says, fingering the ends of my pony tails. I twist the knob on the radio, turning up the last bit of Eric Clapton.
“You know, when I working in Japan, I had red hair,” he says with a chuckle. “You have nice hair. You, Emily with brown, Amanda with red. So nice. My hair black, not nice. Your hair blonde, red, brown and pink.”
“Pink? There’s no pink in my hair.” I nudge his shoulder playfully. “It’s just plain brown to me. You had red hair in Japan?”
“Yes, down to here,” he points at his shoulders. And, yes, he tells me, I do have a little pink in my hair.
“Very good life back then when I lived in Japan, but now, my life so different. Too much working in America. Every day I tired, but shit, China family in trouble.”

John and Peter's Cousin at the restaurant
While John spends his nights after work with his “wife,” downloading Chinese movies and music and emailing his Chinese friends, Peter’s Cousin goes straight to bed after work, of course after he scrubs under his armpits with a washcloth. He wakes up every morning at 5:30, and John says he does not even watch TV because the channels they get are in Mandarin. While Peter’s Cousin knows he wants to go back to China and doesn’t spend a dime in our country, John wants to stay in the United States and possibly work toward getting a green card. He says he’s only going to send money for his family for a few more years. John says that Peter’s Cousin wants to go back to China and be the rich man of the village, who shows off his wealth. When he told me this, he raised his arms the same way a wrestler would to show off arm strength. I guess that’s how Peter’s Cousin will feel when he goes back to China. Peter’s Cousin hates this country and doesn’t want to learn the language, John says.

I glance over at John. He’s looking out the window focusing on the moving traffic and the advertisements, stores and restaurants. He seems to absorb everything on the road. He stares East. Toward China, toward home. Does he miss his family?
We pull into Tan-A Supermarket, an Asian store stocked with goods from most any Eastern country. We go inside where there are stacks of colorful boxes, raw fish, fresh produce and enough rice to feed all of Richmond for a year. There seems to be no particular order to anything either. Boxes are labeled Product of Taiwan, Product of China, Product of Vietnam, and so on. A woman sings Chinese from the speakers.

The aisles are filled with products I’ve never even heard of. I pick up boxes of shredded squid, fish sauce, pickled radish, roasted green peas and sesame cookies. The supply is so abundant for such uncommon foods, but John tells me that the store owners make tons of money. “No other Asian store in Richmond. They sell things too much. Too expensive,” he says, picking up a package of pork and Chinese spinach dumplings. He tosses other necessities for the restaurant into the cart: tofu, edamame, fish sauce, udon noodles, eggplant, brown rice and tomatoes.

I pick up a dessert called “Moon Cake” and motion at John.
“What’s this?”
“Oh, this?” He nods at the box. “For Chinese holiday next month, you understand?”
“No, not really, actually. All your Chinese holidays and moon cycles only confuse me.” Sometimes I give quick responses that I know he won’t understand, just to break the monotony of not being able to say what I really want to.

I pick up some Chinese candy, pay for it and share some with John back in the car after he’s paid. In a colorful wrapper filled with Chinese or Japanese symbols, it’s green and chewy and tastes like any sugary American candy. “Alone” by Heart plays on the radio. John thumbs through another catalog.
“I like this music,” John says, pointing at the radio. He’s smiling and smoking another Marlboro Light. The highway darkens under the passing clouds. I’m anxious to get back home so I can continue my normal activities of homework, lounging and playing Frisbee.

When I first started working at the restaurant, I discovered it was unlike any place I’ve ever worked before or will ever work. Paperwork and W5s are non-existent. There is no way to clock out to end your day’s pay.
“Write down your wages on a piece of paper and tack it to the register,” the owner told me. Not a hint of insecurity lay in his voice. Just take the money out of the register. There is nothing to worry about.
Everyone who works at the restaurant is paid under the table. This amazes me. I don’t know how the owner gets by doing this.

John survives off the food at the restaurant, which serves only vegan food, a wide variety of mock meat, and he sometimes treats himself to a five-dollar “Hot-N-Ready” pizza from Little Caesars. And, of course, his carton of Marlboro Lights. Did I want one? No thanks.
He slips in the Chinese tape and exhales slowly, eyes fixed East.

“You know, Amy. I know I tell you my life very different in America. All I know is working. In China, I used to disco every night, so much fun, now too much working. My family in trouble.”
“Disco?” I laugh. An image of John with an afro comes into my mind. “I can see you in bell bottoms like John Travolta,” I say, not even minding that he won’t know a thing I’m saying.
“What? You don’t know disco?” he asks me, as he inserts a Chinese cassette.
“Yeah, I get it. You went to clubs.” I change the subject.
“What do these lyrics say?” I rephrase, realizing he probably doesn’t know the word ‘lyric.’ I point at the radio and say, “What it say?”
“It say,” he pauses, trying to find just the right words with his limited English vocabulary. “This sun, this day, this night. I’ll miss you. I’ll cry.”
“How lovely.”
“No, I don’t know how to transfer,” he says, meaning to say the word ‘translate.”
“It’s good. Do you miss China? You go back to China one day?”

John and me in the kitchen. Sorry, no pictures of Ji. Just memories.
 He exhales hard, blowing his smoke out the window. “I don’t know, Amy. I don’t know tomorrow. I only know today, and right now, I only know working.” My family in trouble. They owe someone money. My auntie call me and say,” (he raises his voice an octave higher) ‘We need money. We need money. We need money,’” he pauses, inhales. “Shit, Amy, life hard in America. America money good, but America not always good. I so tired. You don’t understand, Amy. You just a little girl.”

No, I’m not. I have a job, a car and help my parents out. I get my work done. But I don’t respond. I’ll never experience what he does. I panic if I work more than four days a week, feeling anxiety, stress, sleep deprivation. Whenever we’re together and someone speaks English to him and he looks at me with his confused eyes, a slight surge of sisterly affection always passes through me. I’m glad to help him send money to China. Sending money to his troubled family is what he works seven days a week for. The sun begins to fall behind the gray sky, and rain starts to dot on the windshield. I turn the headlights on and ease out of the parking lot, careful not to stall on reverse.

At Family Dollar we purchase sixty, indeed sixty, 2-liter bottles of Coke, filling two shopping carts. We clunk the bottles into the truck and head back to the restaurant. We’ve been out for about two hours, which is only ten dollars pay for me. He continues singing the Chinese song. I stare out the window at the traffic ahead and think about what John will be doing tomorrow and the day after that and so on. Working to support his Chinese family. I look over at him, and he’s fidgeting with his new headphones. What a treat. Twelve hours a day six days a week, and he buys some headphones, all the while worrying about colored cell phones to buy his family. There has to be something I can do.

“You know Super Mario?” I ask John, turning into the parking lot.
“Oh, Super Mario? I haven’t played since I was a little boy! You have?”
“Yeah, you should come over, on your day off, and play with me.” I’ll share it with you since I never shared it with my little brother.
“I don’t think so. Too much working.”
“But it’s your day off. Phil can cook,” I say, pushing in the emergency brake with my left foot. Should I leave it in neutral?
“I don’t know, Amy. Me and Peter’s Cousin, we worried about business. Will you help me send money to China next week? I need to work, you understand?”
“Yes.” But no. We walk towards the restaurant and say goodbye to each other. He goes inside to work, and I push off my bike toward my home.

▫ ▫ ▫

It’s a hot day for May--my first day on the job. Sunshine through the front window, filling the room and exposing infinite particles of dust. Just as I notice my face and armpits are sweaty, my eyes meet a glaring sign on the air conditioner: Do not turn on until end of June.
I turn and see Ji for the first time, holding a plate of food proudly in front of my face. He says what I learn later as “You want zuumthing?”

“What, no, thanks.” I close my magazine.
His eyebrows turn inward, and I realize he probably has no idea what I had just said. Of course Peter doesn’t hire Americans. We’re all paid illegally. This place is probably funded by the Chinese mob.
I notice the sweat beads surfacing on his forehead and above his lips. Holding the plate in my face, he looks me up and down. I smell garlic and vegetables. Steam pours out like smoke stacks, forming a cloud between our faces. I feel obligated to take his friendly gesture.
I look around the restaurant. No one. Ji’s dark brown eyes glare into mine. Even though he is an older male, I sense he once possessed an athletic figure. The sight of him even wearing it makes me laugh. I want to express this to him, but I can’t.
I want to say, “Oh how cute. He is wearing a shirt he can neither read nor say. How would he pronounce it?” It was cute, in a way, and since his eyes are focused on my confused face, he notices me staring at it.

And then he does something unexpected, and he says it—the name of the restaurant. My laugh takes me by surprise, and all at once we both start laughing.
“Good,” I say and nudge him on the shoulder. He smiles graciously.
I break eye contact with him and flip back open my magazine. Suddenly—a brilliant idea.
In the magazine I find exactly what I’m looking for: advertisements filled with colors and people and objects, or basically—a textbook for teaching English.

“Girl,” I say. I first point to myself and then to a brunette Target model. I flip the page and continue pointing and saying “girl.” I point to myself again –“girl.” Girl, Girl, Girl, Boy, Boy, Boy.
I will never forget the girl in the pink sweater Ji next points to. “Uh…Girl,” I say again, assuming he already forgot the one syllable word. He points again, and I think, maybe he wants to know the name for shirt, so I tell him that. Then he points at my actual breast. I laugh nervously and respond “boob.”
He pokes it again. Then a light squeeze. Okay, really, that’s enough.
I push him backward and slap him lightly across the face.

For the next few months, sitting down with Ji and going through the pre-school notebook became our routine. It was a slow summer at the restaurant with most of our student crowd at home. Those sluggish days were spent with Richard Scarry teaching him the numbers 1-10, the colors green, red, blue and yellow, and I even taught him a few useful verbs for around the restaurant, such as sweep, mop and cook. I even started making him homework assignments such as writing down words starting with each letter of the alphabet.

The day, the first day, I ever sent money through the Western Union, was two days before I celebrated my twentieth birthday on July 4. That day we worked on colors. Richard Scarry taught him that pumpkins are orange, that grass is green, and that the sky is blue. As we walked to the Western Union in Kroger together, Ji pointed to the sky and said, “blue.”

“Very good,” I said enthusiastically. I looked up and saw that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We walked on a sidewalk beside a building with a lawn. I pointed at the grass and said, “Which color?”
I waited as he thought really hard but could not find the answer. I answered for him, picking a blade of grass and repeating “green” over and over.
We practiced all the way to the Western Union. I was unsure and scared about what I was doing, but John told me I would be okay since I’m an American citizen. So we sent the money and went back to the restaurant to practice more English.

Amanda, my co-worker, told me that Ji was fired one summer evening. I was walking home from the library, carrying a Chinese language kit from the school’s library, when she called to me from across the street. I had already seen her—her curly, red locks are hard to miss, and so I was about to cross the street toward her apartment anyway. I waved and held up my language kit, complete with an introductory Chinese textbook and CD-ROM, showing her I was well on my way to helping Ji. When I approached her, instead of saying “hi,” she said, “Ji’s fired.”

“What happened?” I asked her, lowering my head to the ground. Her feet were bare, exposing pink toenail polish and a Newport hung between her fingers.
“I don’t know, Peter just came back from China with his Cousin, and, well, fired Ji for his family to take his place, I guess.”
“Did Ji know about this?”
“I don’t know, maybe. You know how they are.”

I thought I knew what she meant. She meant, even though John, Peter and Ji were our co-workers, there were bits and pieces of information that they felt had to be kept from us other American co-workers. There were rules they didn’t have to go by. I had always gotten that vibe, especially from John, when I would ask things like, “Why are we paid under the table?” He never knew.
We sat down on her front steps, and I eased the Newport from her fingers and took a long drag. It seemed appropriate. How could he just leave? How could he not say bye?
“I wanted to tell you first because, well, I know how close you were to him,” she said. She glanced at me and then at the passing traffic. “The only reason I know is because I stopped by this afternoon to look at the schedule.” There was silence. “Hey, you okay?”
“I’m fine.”

The next day work was slow. Ji was gone. I roamed the restaurant—shocked and distant. Ji was gone and I didn’t want to help John introduce Peter’s Cousin to the restaurant. Jiw as here before and could manage things just fine.

Meeting Peter’s Cousin—with a forced half nod—was uncomfortable. I didn’t like the looks of him. Something was off. While Ji maintained a kind unwavering smile, Peter’s Cousin…well, he just seemed to scowl and to grunt a lot. What now? There would be no teaching, no learning Mandarin, nothing to look forward to when coming to work! As John later told me, Peter’s cousin couldn’t even speak Mandarin and had never gone to school. Besides, he had already given me strange looks.
Instead of showing Peter’s Cousin the back room where we keep the to-go boxes, I walked around the restaurant, looking at the Chinese artwork on the walls. There was a picture of The Great Wall of China, palaces, caves and other sites. Ji and I had looked at these pictures together a few times on slow days. When I reached the final picture, a calm lake surrounded by luscious trees in inland China, I remembered that this was where I taught him the word “beautiful.” A customer came into the restaurant, and I rang him up for lo mein noodles without once making eye contact.
I started walking toward the storage room to stock more soy sauce when I noticed John was away from the kitchen and Peter’s cousin. He was smoking and on his new headset phone—the kind they make so you don’t have to hold the receiver up to your ear. Did I want to talk to Ji?
Could we really have a phone conversation?

This is the way it went:
Me: Hello
Ji: Hello, how are you?
Good. New York?
Yes. Ji go to New York. I miss you.
Wo xiang ni
Wo ai knee
I love you too, Ji! Beautiful?
New York beautiful. China beautiful.
Richmond beautiful?
--30 second silence---
Go back to China?
Yes, I go back to China.
--1 minute silence—

After hanging up, I sat very still with the receiver still pressed against my ear, a dramatic gesture I don’t hesitate to admit. The receiver was no longer a receiver, it was merely some strange object that had spoken out to me as if it were my long lost friend. Jon looked at me, his eyes scrunched together almost as though he could sense something was wrong. After what seemed like 30 seconds, I walked toward a table in the front of the restaurant, but I first turned to the bookshelf, to see if I could see what I thought I had. It wasn’t there. I did a double take. My Richard Scarry book wasn’t there, which was normally propped beside my World Almanac and Chinese to English Dictionary. He had taken it to New York with him.

I sat at the table, letting all the customers’ voices fade out around me. I thought about who would take my place and teach Ji from the book like I had. Would he work in Chinatown with another American waitress? Would he learn English? Go back to China? Continue sending money abroad?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How to Travel Around China

Are you thinking of making a trip to China soon?  This Asian country is great and convenient for travel.  Maybe you don’t speak Chinese, but that shouldn’t matter too much, although this should be the number one problem you encounter.
If you plan to travel around China, most likely you will be arriving in Beijing or Shanghai or another large city.  These are big international hubs, and if your flight doesn’t land here, you will at least have a transfer at one of these airports.  These cities are both easy and convenient for foreigners.  When you get off the airplane, you will see that everything is neatly marked in both Chinese characters and in English.  Follow the signs, and you can easily find your awaiting taxi, fast-train to town, or bus.
Next comes a more challenging part:  communicating where you  need to go, or figuring it out.  Luckily, big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are filled with English speakers, especially at airports.  Simply tell a clerk or fellow-traveler your destination, and he or she would be more than happy to write down the Chinese directions for you to show a taxi driver.  You can also take the subway.   Your subway stop will be marked in both Chinese characters and in Chinese pinyin (the English-version of the Chinese characters.  You can read the pinyin to communicate Chinese).
The Chinese have done a wonderful job creating a transportation system that is efficient, cheap and easy.  Because of the huge population of China (estimated at over 1.4 billion), trains frequently come and go from any train station.  Simply tell your taxi driver you want to go to the train station  (huo che zhan  火车站) and then find the English-speaking counter (if you are in a big city such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Shenzhen or Tianjin).  There you can tell the counter-worker the city you want to go to, and your ticket will be bought for you.  The counter-worker will tell you all needed information, and you are set. Most likely you will see that trains leave for your destination at multiple times throughout the day.  Sometimes you can even find that the train leaves within the hour or half-hour.  This is wonderfully convenient, but be careful, sometimes trains fill up easily, and you will need to reserve your seat a week in advance.  If you plan to go to Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) make sure you reserve your seat or bed well ahead of time, as this is a popular destination that is quickly booked. 
You will see that train travel in China is not difficult at all.  Don’t be afraid if you can’t speak Chinese, just show your ticket to a fellow passenger or worker, and he or she will be willing to help you out. They will see your destination and try to communicate with you as best they can when you will arrive.
Bus travel is always easy and convenient too, although it can be more expensive than the train.  Basically, travel by bus in China is the same as travel by train, only you might have better luck booking a bus ticket than train ticket.  Bus tickets have always been my second option, as I prefer taking a train for the cheaper price.  One good thing about the bus, however, is that the travel time is usually faster than train. 
You can take a plane to any big city in China for a fairly low price.  Flying in and out of Lhasa, Tibet is not recommended by me, however.  This is the one place I would recommend taking a train, simply because of the altitude adjustment.  Other than that, if you are in the Northern city Beijing going to Shanghai, take the plane, if you have the extra cash.  A train ride is 12 hours, and the plane will save you the time if you are in a hurry.  If you are going to Chengdu (capital of Sichuan) or Chongqing (a giant metropolis just south of Sichuan) going to Shanghai or Beijing, I would also recommend flying if you are don’t have long to travel.  A train can take up to 48 hours, depending on the available trains. 
No.  Travel in China is not dangerous and in fact perfectly safe.  Do be careful of pick-pockets and over-curious locals though.  Other than that, Chinese people are more friendly and helpful than even your American neighbor, mainly because they are curious about you as a foreigner.  You are welcomed in their country.  Do not be afraid of stares, and don’t be rude to the frequent “hello’s” or “Can I practice my English with you?” comments.  Chinese people welcome you, so show respect. 
Do you have any questions?  I am well-traveled throughout the country, and I am proficient in the language.  If you have any questions, drop me an email.  derr.amy@gmail  thanks and yi lu shun feng 一路顺风! (have a smooth journey!)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bill and Monica: Lasting Love

Today is the 15th of June and I am enjoying my 30th days off from work.  One month no work.  Very scary.  I feel like shit.  All I’ve done today is dwell on my immobility. I sit motionless in front of the TV, not taking in the World Cup and the skills of the players. How I wished I could be as energetic and in-the-moment as those African fans.  Anyway, today I ate:
banana, peach, zucchini and squash sandwich, 2 small pieces of fried chicken, potato salad, cheese and crackers, hummus with chips, then veggie sandwich.  no exercise.  will run 6 miles tomorrow.
Didn’t run 6 miles, that was a dirty lie.  I must get in tip-top shape in order to beat 40 minutes at that 8k.
Woke up and got on the computer.  Chatted online and researched Russell Brand, then went out with my Dad to buy tennis shoes from Foot RX in Arlington.  Unfortunately the store was closed.  It’s now 5:30 and the day is wasted. 
Watched Obama’s speech. I mostly really liked it.   He said we have been on the cause since day one, and the since of unity he instills is quite appealing.  But he still wasn’t very specific on a lot of things. He mostly skimmed over the true details of what is going on in the Gulf and went on into an idealistic approach to our future and what we should do.  He says we can face this challenge.  He then we on into talking about jumpstarting our clean energy industries “to fight for the America we want for our children.”  He talked about faith for the future and little else.  Yes, we are building wind turbines and more energy-efficient windows and of course all the new technologies that will led to new industries. 
Presidents are so silly.  That reminds me of a story I made up about our former President Bill Clinton. 
This is the story of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky after the infamous scandal that led to his Presidential impeachment 10 years ago. Now, 12 years after November 1998 when President Clinton admitted to the affair with young Lewinsky, the former President and his former intern Monica are still very much in love.  How have their kept their love surviving?  How have they kept it a secret?
The story is supposed to be a romantic comedy done in the cheesiest way possible.  But it is a spoof and is actually mocking the romantic comedy.   Mid-way through, this story turns into an action-adventure, with BIll and Monica pulling wild moves to escape the paparazzi, the government, the public, the media and every other critiquing eye, especially their spouses.  This is a testament to the true love of Bill and Monica.
The story starts out in a beautiful, remote European city, an unspecified location.   The camera zooms onto a crystal-clear body of water with large crags and a white sandy beach.  Bill and Monica are tanning on the beach, holding hands and talking quietly.  No one else is in site.
Monica, now 34 years old, has loved Bill Clinton since she was a 20-year-old White House intern.  For fourteen years, Bill has been an overwhelming object of desire.  (That and scoring partner at the Hobbs and Chimney Law Firm).  She has wanted nothing more than to share moments like these with the former-President and world figure-head, environmentalist and proponent of human rights.  To Monica, Bill Clinton is the most magnificent person in the world, and she admires him like a daughter her father.   All of Monica’s career ambitions have finally come true.  She has climbed the corporate ladder and has finally been granted partner.  Her struggles are over, and she is ready to settle down and have a family.  Things are settling down for Bill as well.  Things are very relaxed and wound down for the couple, and that is why they have many opportunities to meet in this obscure but beautiful European city, along the coast.  Not a care in the world

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Chinese Guys Versus Western Guys Part One

When I arrived in China 3 years ago (at the age 21), my first journal entry included the sentence:
“Chinese men are gentle, attractive and kind.  American men are rude pigs.”  Being with a Chinese man would be my ideal relationship.  I want to have a bi-lingual family, and I want to improve my Chinese to perfection.  Only I’ve had many problems with Chinese men in the dating department.  I have had countless "dates" with Chinese men, and none of them ever produced the desired outcome:  a strong, steady relationship.  Language and culture always came between us, and we parted.

The first Chinese male I dated was Ben Ben 苯苯.  We met outside a pool hall.  He and his friends were shooting snooker, and I was walking around taking pictures.  I stopped to pet a cat, but really I was just admiring Ben Ben’s game.  When I approached, they stopped playing to engage in small talk with me.  Where was I from?  What was I doing?  Did I like being a teacher? 
Yes, this is the small talk I am ever-so acquainted with.  I speak this sort of Chinese marvelously.  Later that night, I went out to eat with friends.  Ben Ben called wanting to meet me…for whatever reason he did not come to where we were eating, but instead, I met him outside my apartment, late at night, and we went walking along the river.  We talked about basketball, Kobe Bryant, the Lakers, his job, and my job as a teacher.  He probably asked me questions about the differences between America and China. This convo is typical -  nothing amazing and no witty jokes were exchanged…just the basics.  We saw each other the next day, and the day after that.  I was developing a big crush on Ben Ben.  But I made a fatal flaw.
He was in Chengdu (Sichuan’s capital), and in desperation I texted him “I think I really like you.”  I held my breath and hoped hoped HOPED  for a similar reply.  He texted me back, “You like me, but can you marry me?”  The Chinese for marry me is 嫁给我.  I had no idea what to think of this, and I got very excited, only the be utterly let down 5 minutes later.  “The problem is, I already have a girlfriend.”  I was beyond devastated.  Why hadn’t he told me before?  If he were an American boy, he would have mentioned it from the beginning?  I told him that I liked him and that he should break up with her. He countered this with “But we are really in love.”  Nevermind that, I still wanted a Chinese boyfriend.  I said goodbye to Ben Ben, deleted his phone number, and I have not spoken to him since.  I wish I could, but I imagine there are so many 苯苯'’s in this world.  Ben Ben are you out there?  Are you still with your Chinese girlfriend? 
My next date with a Chinese guy was my neighbor  Lei Bo 雷波.  We went to eat noodles, and then he took me for a cruise on his scooter.  Very romantic, but he spoke no English, and he was too self-conscious of his job and his poor lifestyle.  He always said that I could find a better man.  I didn’t care that he didn’t have much.

Then came (Xin Lei) 辛累, and I went on my very first blind date with him.  My masseur set us up.  I was getting a massage, and like so many Chinese girls, she asked me if I liked Chinese boys.  I told her yes but that he had to be tall and handsome.  She said she knew just the guy.  We went to eat shrimp, and we held hands as he walked me home.  We spent a lot of time together, too, including a trip to Chongqing.  He went out of town too often on business, and so we had to stop talking.  Before I knew it, he was out of my life. 

I have been asked out by the guy who sells fruit at a stand, by Beijing business-men and by a Beijing hipster who claimed to be in love with me upon seeing my face.  But nothing has ever happened.  Something always messes it up.  I think it’s because Chinese men are scared. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

How To Get an English-Teaching Job

It’s really easy for any American or native-English speaker to land an English-speaking job in China.  It’s as easy as going to China (any place you want), finding a school and then asking if you can be their English teacher.
It’s really that easy.  Where in China do you want to go?  It may be harder to get a job at a prestigious school, or one well-known for their English teachers.  But if you go to any run-of-the-mill school and show your stuff and American accent,  you should be able to land a job there with no difficulty.
Other than going there and risking it, a more-assured way might be:
  • doing online research.  go to and 
  • asking friends who taught there
  • making contacts
What You Should Know About Salary
  • In big cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Tianjin), you should make about 10,000 RMB a month
  • Middle cities (those of about 5 million)  6,000 – 7,000 RMB a month
  • Smaller cities (about one million)  5,000 RMB
  • Small cities (less than one million)  less than 5,000 RMB a month.
This salary only includes about 20 hours a week of teaching hours.  You can always earn more money by teaching on the side, although your school might not approve of this.  You should check with your school first about where you can teach when you are not teaching with them.

What Do I Need to Know about Going to Tibet?

What Do I Need to Go To Tibet from the Mainland?

Any foreign person trying to enter Tibet or Tibet’s capital Lhasa will face restrictions.  The Chinese government requires foreigners to obtain a special “visa” that allows them to go into Tibet.  Usually foreigners obtain these visas from whichever hostel or hotel they are staying at in the mainland. In most hostels, the front desk can provide information and/or visa for getting into Tibet.

Over the years it has become increasingly hard for Westerners to gain access to Tibet.  Three years ago it wasn’t as hard as last year, and now it is even more difficult.

How Do I Get Into Tibet?

From mainland China, most people fly to Lhasa (the capital city of Tibet) from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.  There is also the option of taking a 48-hour train-ride from either Chongqing (another huge city near Sichuan) or Chengdu. It is also possible to fly to Lhasa from Kunming, as well as a few other big cities.  Once again, ask your hostel for this information.  They can book your train or flight for you. 

Taking the train to Lhasa is highly recommended.  Why? I will explain later.

Outside of China, it is possible to get into Lhasa from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. 

What is this Visa? 

It is not very possible for foreigners to stay in Tibet without their “Visa.”  Getting to Tibet is possible, but once you are there, a foreigner cannot book a hotel by himself or herself.  Everything will be arranged by your Tibetan Guide.

Your Visa grants you a Tibetan guide, and this guide will stay with you throughout a lot of your stay in Tibet.  Once you get off the train or airplane, he or she will be there to meet you.  Then, you and your guide will go to a hotel together so he can book you a room.  It is not possible for you to book a room by yourself without your Tibetan guide.

What Kind of Visa Should I Get?

Before you leave for Tibet, you will be given the option of purchasing different sorts of Visas.  Some are for 4 days in Tibet, while others are for 10 days or 2 weeks, and so on.  The prices go up with the more time you spend in Tibet.  But this should be known, it is possible for you to only book the cheapest one, and then sort a deal out with your Tibetan tour-guide once you are in Lhasa.  You can tell your Tibetan guide that you want to stay longer, and he will arrange the visa for you.

What Can’t I Do While In Lhasa or Tibet?

Foreigners can pretty much behave as they would in mainland China.  Be aware that Tibet is:

  • more traditional (please, ladies, cover up.  It is not polite to wear sleeveless shirts that show your cleavage.  Be mindful of what people around you are wearing).
  • full of the Chinese army.  You are not allowed to take pictures of them.  Do not take pictures of them.  Your guide will tell you this.
  • modest but proud.  Please don’t start bashing the Chinese government to your Tibetan tour guide or to any Tibetans around you.  They are pro-Tibetan, but they do not want to talk about it.

In addition, try not to speak 普通话 (mandarin) when you are in Tibet.  Speak English or try to pick some basic Tibetan. Use your Lonely Planet Guide. 


我最近的生活和一年以前特别不一样。 我现在的生活和六个月以前也完全不一样。 对我来说,我现在的生活是有点理想的。 当然有很多方面我想变,但是我慢慢在注意到我心里真的想要的是什么样的生活。 难怪我在老家的时候我那么郁闷。 我那时郁闷的样子是因为我没有工作, 但是也是因为我那时对我...