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Pooping in China: Monthly reflections on living, teaching, and moving bowels abroad
By Brandon Jeune
Editor's Note: Brandon Jeune is a 25-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches English to children in China. He writes "Pooping in China" and distributes it to friends and family as an email more or less every month. He has given us permission to serialize the emails here. Because we just relaunched our website, we're hurrying to catch up and post all of the emails Brandon's sent over the past few months.
No, I haven’t converted to Islam in the past month. But my facial hair, which I’ve left untended since November, has made some major strides in that direction. These days, the sparse beard that once resembled a used brillo pad has reached devout-Muslim status.
That isn’t me stereotyping; I’m simply responding to the fact that recently, when I cross paths with those of Loudi’s Muslim population, I’m greeted with nods, gestures and Arabic greetings. Sometimes I clear up the confusion, but more often I just smile, nod, and momentarily revel in the camaraderie that exists between those of different cultural backgrounds when united by a common religion. Since I’m not walking around with a Quran in hand, it’s pretty obvious that the beard is what’s leading others to the assumption that I’m one of them.
And because me relating this story to my father earlier prompted some surprise, I want to treat you all to a brief educational moment: yes, Islam is alive and well here in China. While the country is officially basically atheist (barring an amorphous sort of ancestral reverence and prayers at the temples, which I wouldn’t count as directed to any particular god), it’s a HUGE country, and you’ll find pockets of everything throughout. And out to the northwest there’s Xinjiang province, where Islam has a major presence, which, when you look at the map, isn’t surprising; the province borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, etc.
Side note: the Xinjiang people here in Loudi stand out almost as much as us foreigners, and even if you fail to notice their clothing or the Arabic signage above their street carts, the facial hair should clue you in (it’s rare to see it among China’s ethnic majority, the Han) HanHaHHHHDS. While I may be a Mostly Atheist (I’m still waiting for that religion to get a more formal recognition), I still feel like their brother; not under Allah, of course, but under Beard.
I know what you’re thinking: Brandon, get off it already. Enough with the educational B.S., we came here for straight S; this is called ‘Pooping in China’ for a reason, so make with the goods!
Sorry, kids. Nothing new on that front (er, back) this month.
But there’s so much more discuss! Chiefly among which is the fact that I’m drunk. And all I can say is it’s awesome to have an excuse for typos and using words in the incorrect context, or spelling the word ‘segue’ as ‘segway’ and thus mistaking a focal transition for Gob Bluth’s motorized vehicle of choice, as I did in a previous entry (I discovered my mistake long after the fact). (And yes, that means I’m the sad, pathetic sort of person who goes back and rereads his sent letters).
THE SEMESTER IS OVER AN’ WE’RE GETTING’ BUCKWIIIILLLLD
And by that, I mean we had a small teachers’ dinner to celebrate finishing up with our final exams, and some baijiu was in attendance. And I may or may not have followed the baijiu up with a beer or two.
Truth be told: I may.
But I’m a little amazed that a cup of baijiu and a couple beers got me anywhere. The last time I celebrated an end of final exams, that certainly wouldn’t have been the case. That’s not to say I was the biggest drinker (though, considering I was a Liberal Arts major in an American university, perhaps that’s just self-deception), but to say what foreigners in China know all too well: Chinese beer is the pits. To recycle a joke I’ve used before (that I’m hopefully not recycling from this very series of letters), I could mistakenly swallow a bit of Listerine while washing my mouth out tonight, and tomorrow morning piss out a more alcoholic, and likely better tasting beer than what any of China’s breweries have to offer.
So my drunkenness must be due to the fact that I’ve only drank a handful of times since coming here in September, and thus that ol’ tolerance of mine has plunged faster than Mitt Romney’s political relevance (Sorry Mitt, had to get one last dig at ya). (Paul Ryan, don’t think you’re off the hook just yet).
Another truth be told: I just spilled my Dixie cup full of beer eeeverywherrrrre. Don’t drink and write, kids. Someone could get hurt. (I think Hemingway said that). (Or at least proved it).
Unless my clumsiness is directly correlated to the preceding Republican insult and Ayn Rand is simply cursing me from her gold-plated throne down in hell. Keep it up, Ayn; you’re only further entrenching me in Liberal ideals and the opinion that Howard Roark was a dirty rapist!
So what’s new? I think I promised a few particular stories at the end of my previous letter, so it’s about time I delivered.
First, I want you to think about your own personal workplace, and the personality types that inhabit it. There’s likely a few archetypes you’re familiar with: the office gossip; the self-absorbed prick in middle management; and that one dude who never has any clue what the fuck is going on around him.
Well, that’s me.
The last one, I mean. I’m sure there’s also a case to be made for the first two, excepting that I a) Don’t work in an office, and b) Haven’t made it to middle management yet.
It’s sort of my fault, as much as not being fluent in Chinese is my fault. Because the faculty meetings in Greenwell are all held in Chinese. Theoretically, it’s great practice for my listening ability; in actuality, it’s great practice for zoning out and being mis- or uninformed about the happenings at my school. My boss is pretty adamant about my attending every meeting in full, which is fine. But considering that, after the meeting begins, they all speak in rapid-fire Chinese and basically pretend I’m not there, it’s a little frustrating. All too often, I find myself following up after the dismissal with a meekly whispered “So…was there anything I needed to know in all that?”
Because if I don’t ask, they don’t tell me. The only attention I seem to get at any point during our weekly convening is the occasional “Ni ting de dong ma?” (Do you understand?), always accompanied by a wry smile, and complete disregard for my response of “Not really.” My inability to understand has become a bit of a joke around the school, but has yet to affect policy. So I sit there, week in and week out, staring blankly at the walls and counting the minutes until we adjourn. Nothing like watching the clock to put you in touch with your own mortality. Every tick of the second hand deals me physical pain, as I watch the wasted hours fly by. And yes, I mean HOURS. Some of our meetings are upwards of three.
Just imagine, for a moment, trying to stay interested for a three-hour discussion of school administrative workings. Not easy. Now imagine trying to stay interested for a three-hour discussion of school administrative workings in Chinese. Exponentially worse, yeah? So I let my brain drift. Instead of preparing actual relevant content to discuss with my coworkers, I merely put together a few ideas of things I can think about as the meeting drags on around me. Lately, I’ve been ranking my favorite anime series, and then making sub-rankings for my favorite story arcs within each series. My conclusions? Berserk is so fucking awesome it blows my mind to this day, and Dragonball Z’s Great Saiyaman Saga is severely underrated.
But if I’ve learned anything from my time here, it’s that you really need to prepare properly for every workplace meeting. Last week I went in thinking I could stick it out by testing myself on the evolutionary order of all 150 original Pokemon. Tougher than it sounds. I got stuck trying to remember the link between Venonat and Venomoth. Take a second. Do you know?
Trick question! Venonat evolves into Venomoth directly! There IS no transitional species! What the hell was I thinking? This is day one stuff!
Point is, the whole exercise fell apart and my brain just couldn’t salvage it after that. Since I had no back-up thinking subjects prepared, I got stuck counting floor tiles for the next hour and a half. There’s 147. And yes, that’s an accurate count. I had plenty of time to make sure.
But my listening ability is improving, slowly, and sometimes I pick things up. Two weeks ago, I overheard the others speaking about how our weekend classes were cancelled. Since no one forwarded the information to me, I decided to do an experiment and just see whether anyone would. The meeting adjourned, the day continued and eventually waned, and still nothing. So as we closed up for the evening, I mentioned off-hand, “So… do we have classes tomorrow?”
“Oh! No. No, we cancelled the classes.”
Right. Thanks for the heads-up.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder whether they’re purposely keeping me in the dark just to fuck with me, or if they just legitimately forget to consider my existence. It’s enough to make me want to scream, especially when I show up for an 8 a.m. class, only to find it’s been cancelled, and I could’ve showed up at 10. After a day like that, I really feel a need for some external de-stressors, but can’t decide between comfort-eating, cigarettes, or abusing hard drugs. So I compromise by smoking a chocolate bar and snorting a few lines of loose tobacco off my bathroom mirror.
As frustrating as it all might be, the Kindergarten I commute to in the afternoons is so much worse, and really puts things in perspective. The principle there is a real callous bitch of a woman, and if there’s any positive aspect to her lazily whiling away the days at her desk playing Fruit Ninja, it’s that I rarely have to deal with her. She has a whole assemblage of teachers to do her bidding for her, and it’s through them that I hear about goings-on at the Kindergarten. Mid-December, one such teacher approached me and Nick, and mentioned they’d be having a little pageant for the parents to celebrate the end of the term.
“Could you prepare some songs for the pageant?” She asked.
“Sure,” I said. “They already know ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ and ‘3 Little Monkeys,’ and the ‘Hokey Pokey.’ You think those will be okay?”
“That should be okay.”
Oh, if only it was. If only.
The pageant was on Saturday, December 29th. On Wednesday, December 26th, in a rare assuming of position, the principle greeted me at the school entrance to discuss the upcoming event.
“I’ve rented a 1000-person stadium at the Number 3 High School complex, so we’ll hold the pageant there. Do you have the students’ costumes ready?”
My confusion sparked wide-eyed, angry surprise. “No costumes!? What do you mean, no costumes!? You aren’t ready? Have you even prepared? I’m coming to your class.”
Now, as much as I’d like to paint myself as a wholesome educator victimized by a wrathful Dragonlady Megabitch, I’ll be honest with you: I hadn’t really prepared. Sure, we did the Hokey Pokey and danced to I’m a Little Teapot a few times a week, but I hadn’t really done much in the way of coordination. I was… getting to it. To be frank, I had imagined the pageant as a small assembly of parents dropping by to see their kids adorably stumble through a few English songs. I didn’t think it was all that big of a deal, and didn’t treat it as such.
So my class assembled, and the principal posted up in the back with a glare. “Begin.”
“Okay, kids,” I smiled. “You put your left hand in…”
And damned if it wasn’t a total mess. It’s sort of like my room during college. I didn’t think much of the old beer bottles, piles of dirty clothing, or half-eaten bowl of Life cereal molding under a copy of the Canterbury Tales, until another human being came into the space and failed to hide their revulsion. “You actually live like this?” There’s something about having that additional set of eyes that helps you see how shitty something really is. And having the principal there helped me see how shitty my class really was.
That isn’t an attack on the kids. They’re like that Life cereal: wholesome and good and full of potential. It’s only when a doofus like me improperly cares for them and leaves them untended for a few weeks that they begin to spoil. And I had spoiled my class. They tripped, fell, sang the wrong words, shook the wrong body parts. They finished the song at different times, and one by one, dropped back down in their seats.
I smiled. “Very good.” I looked back up at the principal and my smile immediately disappeared. “So…yeah? We’re finished...”
She was livid. She stormed up front, and, right there in front of my kids, went off on me. “THAT WAS TERRIBLE! NO. NO. NO WAY ARE YOU TAKING THEM OUT THERE LIKE THAT.” And so on.
Nick calmed her down and took her outside, and I went on with my class, all the while overhearing her ranting. I started to stress about just how unprepared we were.
Class adjourned, the principal stormed off, and Nick came back in. “She doesn’t want us to perform.”
I actually sighed a little. What relief! Nothing to worry about, thank god, because we definitely aren’t ready-
“But I convinced her to let us go on.”
God dammit, Nick. God dammit.
As he explained, it was cruel to tell a group of Kindergartens they’d be performing for their parents, only to crush that dream three days before they went onstage. And he was right. I was being selfish, and self-involved.
So…okay, then. Let’s polish this turd.
And polish we did. I bussed to the Kindergarten in the mornings. I left and taught my own classes. I bussed back. We stayed late. We drilled those kids on the Hokey Pokey so long, I eventually felt we were ethically compelled to stop, fearing we were verging on child abuse.
Friday afternoon rolled around, and they organized a dress rehearsal at the stadium. I showed up, beyond nervous, sweating and dreading the moment I’d take my kids onstage and show everyone the half-assed dances I was passing off as pageant material. But I was hopeful. It’s Kindergarten, after all. How much could they possibly expect? I’m sure all the classes are fairly clumsy. They’re five years old, after all. It’s to be expected.
In retrospect: oh, what naïveté. Brandon, you idiot. This is CHINA. Do you know how seriously they take public performances? Did you even watch the opening of the Beijing Olympics?
To which I say: No, I didn’t. I don’t like sports.
But god dammit, the other classes were so fucking good. The first one came out, all the kids dressed in full cowboy garb, and knocked out a perfectly-coordinated square dance. Next, a group of fairies pranced around to an impressive light show and timed release of glitter cannons. My face dropped, and continued dropping throughout each successive performance; first, John Kerry-level droop; next, Tex Avery’s eponymous Droopy Dog; by the end, I was the facial equivalent of one of Salvador Dali’s melting timepieces.
There was only one other class even remotely close to how abysmal my own was. The teacher down the hall staged a fashion show of sorts, where her kids walked along a runway in self-fashioned construction paper outfits, smiled, and walked back, all in time to the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life.” Yes, it was still better than my class. But not by much.
I thought: Oh, man, let me follow THAT. Maybe it won’t look so terrible!
But no such luck. They kept pushing me back. Back, back, after the Backstreet Boys, after the early learner’s bumblebee dance, past the OTHER English teacher’s class, which made things all the worse. She had put together a full rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, IN ENGLISH. Are you fucking kidding me?
Now, it wasn’t perfect. I don’t personally recall Little Red running into a group of frogs mid-journey through the forest, and being treated to the ballad of the woodland creatures. And the wolf’s famous lines were a bit distorted from the original. “Oh, Grandma, what big EYES you have.” “So I can see outside.” “Oh, Grandma, what big TEETH you have.” “So I can eat!” “Oh, Grandma, what big HANDS you have.” “I HAND you!” At which point the wolf grabbed her and swallowed her whole.
There was also a minor change to the ending. The hunter, upon finding the cabin, barged inside to find the wolf, sleeping contentedly. Realizing that he had eaten the cabin’s residents, the hunter cut his stomach open with a pair of scissors, and out popped Grams and Little Red! That part is pretty familiar. What happened next wasn’t. After escaping from inside, Red and her Grandmother took a needle and thread, and sewed the wolf back up. All better! For a moment, I thought the Chinese had instilled this classic fable with a greater moral of forgiveness.
But after they finished stitching him up, the hunter led the wolf outside, picked up a rifle, and shot him in the head.
All that aside, it was a play, an actual PLAY, with costumes and props and oh GOD I am such shitty teacher, please oh PLEASE don’t make me follow that-
And thankfully, they didn’t. Push, push, further and further back, past every single performance, even past the teachers’ collective traditional Chinese dance, to the VERY end of the ceremony.
When they finally called me up, I looked at my kids, and swallowed hard. It was difficult enough just to line them up to take them backstage. The other classes were all sitting quietly on their stools in front of the stage, watching the proceedings in orderly fashion. But mine? They were busying wrestling, or picking up their stools and pretending the legs were machine gun barrels as they gunned their classmates down, while Bob kept running off across to the basketball hoops lowered on either side of the court to dunk random items through the hoops.
I’m in way over my head on this one. And I could feel the collective gaze of the other teachers looking on my undisciplined charges, and agreeing wholeheartedly.
But we went up, stumbled through the songs, and, despite a terrible performance, walked off stage with our heads held high. And then I got yelled at again and my head dropped back down where it belonged. ‘That was terrible’, ‘you’re not going out there like that’, ‘you are an embarrassment’, etc.
And once again, Nick to the rescue, helping to argue for the kids’ right to perform. He won out. But with one stipulation.
“Fine!” The principal said, throwing up her hands. Then she focused on me. “But you’re going out there with them. You need to help them through it.”
In other words: you fucked this up. So now, you’re going to go out on stage in front of 1000 people, and show them all how badly you fucked this up.
And damned if that Friday night wasn’t the most nerve-wracking, sleepless night I’ve had in a long time. During the fleeting moments I managed to court ol’ Lady REM, I dreamed of the embarrassment that was to come, as I trotted out on stage to dance ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ in front of a full stadium. The dreams all ended with me getting fired.
But the day arrived, and it turned out it wasn’t quite 1000 people, but more like 600. Which is still completely fucking terrifying. The pageant ran its course, and as we prepared to go out, Nick and I unloaded stickers and candy on the kids. “Please,” I pleaded. “Please dance well.” And then we went out there, and I can at least say this: I gave those damn songs my all. I Hokey Pokey-ed and 3 Little Monkey-ed and I’m a Little Teapot-ed like there was no damn tomorrow. And when I left that stage, I couldn’t look a single other human being in the eye.
It actually wasn’t THAT bad. The kids did pretty well, at least considering where they had been three days prior, and I am so proud and thankful for that. But I still felt pretty damn low. So I escapade through a side entrance, and watched the final proceedings from a clandestine spot at the side of the hall.
As everyone made to leave, I grabbed my coat and made to walk out. A parent stopped me. “You’re my son’s teacher.”
Oh, fuck. Here it is. Alright, hit me with it. Tell me how much that sucked.
“Thank you.” An extended hand, for me to shake.
…What? Did you…did you even see that? You’re… pleased?
Next thing I knew, there was another parent, and then another. All thanking me, and shaking my hand. I couldn’t get my head around it. Did you see the square dancers? The fairy girls? Little Red Fucking Riding Hood? Are you actually shaking the hand of the man responsible for relegating your child to the Hokey Pokey?
Surely they must have seen it for the half-assed arrangement it was. They can’t have had any illusions about that. So the only conclusion I came to was this: a bizarre form of respect. In other words: Damn, dude. I can’t believe you just went on stage and did the I’m a Little Teapot dance in front of all of us. You know what? You’ve got some balls. You can teach my kid.
Which made me feel slightly better. But all in all, a pretty shitty week. Made worse by the fact that Greenwell was preparing for its own Winter Pageant, which we finally held last weekend. Which I should probably tell you about now. But, the buzz is waning, I’m getting sleepy, and I’m leaving for my vacation tomorrow. First, a doozy of a train ride to Beijing: 18 hours. I’m staying there for four days, and then another 12 hour train ride to Inner Mongolia, where I’ll be for the remainder. So I better get some sleep.
I promise to catch up next time. There’s still a wedding, a steak dinner, and the aforementioned Winter Pageant to discuss, and I’m sure I’ll have a thing or two to say about the trip. So I guess the relevant stories will keep getting pushed back further and further. It’s really not the best arrangement, as I’m essentially hyping up a story that boils down to “Yeah, I ate steak in China. It was pretty terrible. The end.” But maybe I’ll think of a way to dress it up a little better between now and next month. And regardless, I guess I can just sort of… fib a bit, when it comes to the timeline of things, to make it all seem more recent. Hey, for all you know, that Kindergarten pageant happened back in October, and I’m just now telling you about it.
My letters are kind of like making the decision to watch TV shows on Netflix instead of cable. While you’re waiting for them to become available, you know there are lots of things happening. You’re just not sure what they are exactly. And by the time you do, they’re old news.
Until next time!