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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. Read the first installments here and here.
Hi. Remember when I was complaining about the heat here in Loudi? Man, what I would give to travel back in time about a month and warn Past Brandon to enjoy it while it lasts. Probably, once I got there, I’d bask in the sudden warmth and decide, you know what? Fuck winter, I think I’ll just stay here for awhile. Additionally, I imagine Past Brandon and I would hit it off pretty well. “No way. You’re telling me we like ALL the same things and have ALL the same opinions on everything? What are the odds!”
Whatever the case, it’s cold. A sharp, humid cold that seeps into your bones and chills you from the inside out. Doesn’t help that there is no central heating infrastructure in the south of China. The high energy demands this time of year require a rerouting of available energy to the north, where people generally need the heat a bit more. Down here in the South, we just tough it out. Or buy space heaters. I’m trying to avoid the latter because said heaters are like 200 yuan or more, whereas suffering is free. Really though, I think I’ve just ignorantly convinced myself that I’m building up some sort of Loudi street cred, so as of now, I’m gonna double up on long underwear and hope for the best.
But it does make certain activities difficult. I’m looking longingly across the room at my guitar, but feeling a rusty stiffness in my fingers that makes them about as precise as a garden rake. Even typing is a bit more arduous, meaning I’m reluctant to expend the energy required to draft my usual exhausting run-ons. Thus, this month, expect a much more concise letter. Hemingway-esque, if you will. Or perhaps more accurately, Introductory Reading Books for Early Learners-esque.
See Spot type.
Still in China. Things are well. Got food poisoning week before last. Shit everywhere. Local market not stocking much fruit, on account of it’s winter. Tomatoes pretty gross lately. Always too orange, moldy, or dripping juice from multiple puncture wounds. Often all three. I’ve been buying the orange ones. Taste terrible. General lack of fiber in diet. Getting constipated. No shit anywhere. Keep dreaming about pie. Pumpkin mostly, but apple too, and I think there might be some peach cobbler involved. Hard to say. We usually meet in the dark, and things tend to get messy.
Until next month,
And by that, I mean I shoved my hands down my pants for a couple minutes to soak up all that underutilized heat down there. That’s right, this next segment is brought to you through the power of Butt Hands™.
So I guess that second wind is more like broken wind...zing...
Last we spoke, Halloween was right around the corner. Hope you all had a great one, because I sure did. We held a Halloween party at Greenwell, and I must say, did a pretty badass job decorating with fairly limited supplies. You’d be surprised just how much you can fashion out of trash bags. I also carved a few pumpkins, which was troublesome, as the pumpkins here are awkward, elongated things that defy all attempts to display them upright. Yet I prevailed against gravity, with a combination of nails, cardboard, and a water pitcher. The contraption was cheap, precarious, and highly flammable, and thus fit right in line with the design of most holiday decorations.
The kids all bought costumes through an online retailer and had them delivered to the school, and us teachers threw together some outfits grab-bag style, using a random assortment of extras that came with the bulk order. I painted my face into a skull, threw on a black cape, and… that’s it. So there was one very tall, very awkward caped skeleton in an argyle sweater and khakis at the party, and if there had been any seasoned Halloween celebrators in attendance, they might have wondered what I was going for. As it was, no one seemed to bat an eye. Or maybe I just couldn’t tell because most of them were wearing masks. The important thing is, with a mixture of stealthy maneuvering and finding some really excellent hiding spots, I still scared the SHIT outta those kids, despite looking like an undead LARPing librarian.
We kicked the night off with some academic awards (it was a school party, after all), and a short history of Halloween, told by yours truly. Even with the help of a translator, the kids didn’t seem to listen to a single word. They were much too busy trading masks and smacking each other with wands and fake plastic knives. Halfway through, I wondered whether I should’ve just thrown together a more interesting fake history of the holiday, with alien invasions, government conspiracies, and Satan releasing a Pandora’s Box assortment of horrors upon the Earth to spice it up. Because Pagan harvest celebrations certainly weren’t cutting it.
After that, the students lined up and moved to the next room, as Lady Gaga began surging from the stereo speakers. One by one, they reappeared, strutted down a makeshift runway and stopped at its end to pose for the legions of awaiting parents. There were the expected peace signs and kung fu stances, and a few admirable attempts at replicating Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The kids and parents both had a blast, and the whole event made me wonder if we could learn a thing or two back in the U.S. Those costume contests I remember from my youth, with the contestants arranged in a line up front and largely motionless, lacked showmanship! The costume is certainly important, but what about style points? Okay, sure, the student who meticulously handcrafted an Optimus Prime costume might, at first, seem to be more deserving of recognition than the one who unraveled a roll of toilet paper on himself and came as a mummy. But just wait a second before you name a winner. We still need to see how well they can strut their stuff. Something tells me a clunky, lumbering Transformer might not be all that graceful on the dance floor.
Next we played games. Earlier that day, Nick and I had hung some apples from the ceiling. We randomly selected eight students, and brought them up to the ring of dangling fruit. The object of the game was to take a bite out of the apple without using their hands. If successful, they could pull the apple off and enjoy it at their leisure. It was an attempt to recreate bobbing for apples without filling a tub full of China’s tainted tap water and asking students to gulp down all the impurities therein. It failed miserably.
And it was our fault. When hanging the apples, we just eyeballed it and figured, ‘Oh, this is about how tall a kid is, yeah?” Nah. All the apples were just slightly too high, meaning try as they might, the kids could not get a hold of those things. And not for lack of trying. They got on tiptoe and leapt at them, again and again, snapping their jaws with an audible intensity not unlike that of a bear trap. All to no avail. At first, the audience was in hysterics. The kids screamed both encouragement and criticism; the parents snapped pictures and caught video of the ordeal. But one by one, there was a collective calming. Smiles dissipated. Feet shifted. I found myself guiltily looking away from the proceedings, not sure whether to call the match off prematurely, or let the participants’ enthusiasm run its course. Eventually, I had to intervene. Because no matter what tactics the kids employed, those apples were always just out of reach, and there was nothing they could do to change that. By the end of it, I was in a more somber and existentially troubled mood than I ever imagined I’d be during a Halloween party. If one of those parents with the video cameras happened to set theirs to black and white, it’s really only a matter of time until this footage resurfaces as an art film about the human condition.
The initial game was followed by many others, all with varying levels of success. One had a line of students recline in chairs as we placed a small round wafer on their forehead. Using their facial muscles, and only their facial muscles, they had to move the wafer from their forehead to their mouth. And...GO! They shuddered, they blinked wildly. Their mouths waggled and eyes bulged like a Tex Avery wolf goggling babes. If, instead of the wafer game, we had organized a shouting match between epileptics and sufferers of Tourette’s, we would’ve been watching a group with more facial stability. Some students succeeded; most others simply contributed their wafers to a pile on the floor. Again, I had trouble watching the children; their frantically twisting expressions suggested a vulnerability that no one should have to endure in public, and I had to frequently check to make sure I wasn’t making a face myself.
The final game was a relay race, wherein students had to carry ping-pong balls with chopsticks, balance plates on their heads, things like that. The final leg of said race culminated in two students racing to blow up a balloon to its bursting point first. This is a game that I am sincerely glad to have not participated in. Firstly, I am no fan of balloons blowing up in my face. Hell, who is? And the uncomfortable anticipation that comes with purposely doing so would inspire a certain level of reticence naturally at odds with the game’s objective. Which is the challenge, I guess. But I think, given that many of the night’s events were barely winnable if at all, our students deserved a little less challenge and a little more fun. The balloon segment was NOT fun. Because, like the apples, the kids had trouble with the main objective.
Try as they might, these balloons just would not fucking burst. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. I had, earlier that afternoon, blown up about fifty of the damn things, and jumped out of my skin time and time again as about a third of them periodically popped for no discernable reason. Now it was the opposite problem. I started to wonder if Chinese balloons were sentient, and on top of that, spiteful of their own existence, as well as of the detestable humans exploiting that existence for their own amusement. “Oh, you wanna blow me up? Well, fuck you. POP! Oh, now you wanna pop me? Yeah, well fuck you too. I’m stronger than I look, kid!” The race’s final leg turned out to be disproportionately longer than the others, and we all waited with bated breath, many plugging their ears, as these exhausted children forced ever more air into those balloons. Often, one kid would have to take a break, and while attempting to catch their breath, let up on the opening just a liiittle too much.
PFFFPPPTPTPPFFFLLLTPPPPPPPHHHHHT. The air would go sputtering back out of the balloon as it collapsed, and the student’s face would just drop. Somewhere in that gust of air, I imagined I heard a distant “Fuuuck yooooooouuuuuu-” By the end of each round, I looked pityingly at the kids, unsure of whether they were about to vomit or hyperventilate. If you judged from their facial expressions alone, it was virtually impossible to tell the winners from the losers.
Aside from the games, we gave out some toys, and some candy, and around 9:30 p.m., just as the students’ bodies were processing a massive influx of refined sugar, we sent them back home with their parents. Happy Halloween! Good luck getting that one to bed anytime soon.
Aside from the occasional hard partyin’, things at the school have been relatively normal, though I occasionally experience moments of hilarity/surreality that I feel warrant a mentioning here. Take, for instance, my kindergarteners. During a given week, I’ll pitch about four to six new vocabulary words. When teaching and reviewing said words, I use a collection of handmade cardboard squares with the words illustrated thereon (for instance, the grandma card displays a smiling cartoon grandmother above the word).
The banana card follows this formula, featuring an anthropomorphized, waving fruit, that apparently, the male children find attractive. Because for some reason, when I break this one out and make the rounds, they insist on kissing it. It started with a small, quiet boy on the end. When I approached, he hopped up, snatched the card away, and planted a big wet one right in the middle of the banana’s torso. I took me a moment to process what was happening, before wrenching the card out of his hands, awkwardly laughing the whole thing off, and moving down the line. Two girls next, and nothing out of the ordinary. Then, another boy.
“Ba-na-na,” I said, exaggerating each syllable.
“Fa-may-na,” he repeated.
I smiled and shook my head. “Ba-NA-na.”
“Ba-na-na,” he repeated.
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Very goo-”
And before I could finish, the boy had my card in his hands and was locked in a passionate embrace with the fruit in question. I tsk-ed and took back the square, because it was the first response that came to mind, and continued down the line. Five more times, I found myself breaking up a serious child-on-fruit make out session, as the boys all puckered up and made for that poor banana.
I don’t know if this action was merely a strange anomaly pioneered by that boy on the end and subsequently taken up by his classmates for… whatever reason they might have, or if there is a deeper issue here. Perhaps something in the collective unconscious of young Chinese males impels them, upon glimpsing a cartoon banana, to just start smooching all over the damn thing. Whatever the case, it was definitely one of the more surreal and uncomfortable things I’ve witnessed. And it started a trend that has continued, sporadically, all month. Some words just seem to get these boys’ blood boiling, and I’ve learned to anticipate them and act accordingly. I have to hold certain squares a bit out of reach, so when those grabby hands make for it, they come up short. Banana is still the favorite among them, though I’ve learned the hard way that illustrations of shoes, a tomato, and the state of being hungry are all equally kissable.
The girls just look on and giggle. Maybe they find the whole situation as ludicrous as I do. Or maybe I just haven’t yet brought in any inanimate objects that suit their fancy.
The other noteworthy things related to teaching kindergarten are those which, I’d imagine, are more common across the profession. For some reason, these kids just have the damndest time staying vertical. We play Red light, Green light, we circle up for the Hokey Pokey, we sing I’m a Little Teapot… and without fail, throughout the activity every kid is going to be on the floor at least once. They topple with the frequency of a Jenga tower left inside a Moonbounce. And as animated as they are while sliding and rolling across the floor, you’d think they did it purposely. But if you stand in their immediate vicinity, you’ll find that they usually don’t. Because, as their stance falters, they tend to try to stabilize themselves and keep from falling by grabbing the nearest thing they can. In the close quarters of a heated round of Hokey Pokey, this means me.
Given the general height of a kindergartener, their hand is going to grasp anywhere from my knee up to my hip, so often they’ll grab a hold of my pants, find their footing, and keep on rockin’. But occasionally, they’ll go for an area that, at least in my case, is at the exact height of a five year old’s outstretched arm.
Now I just want to reaffirm that my penis is put away in my pants, right where it should be, when this occurs. The way I phrased that, it almost makes it sound as if it isn’t. But I tried replacing it with “My crotch,” “my package,” etc., and none of those euphemisms seemed to have the necessary punch. So penis it is.
It always happens when I least expect it. Although, since I’m not a pedophile, the entire time I’m at a kindergarten is the time I least expect to have my penis grabbed. But hey, I’m trying to keep tabs on thirteen children at once, in addition to directing them all on where to position their hands, feet, etc., how to shake them, and imparting the wisdom of what “It’s really all about.” So there are going to be times I miss things. Like when little Bob trips on his shoelaces, lunges forward, and grabs a handful of my manhood with all the strength he can muster. “…and you shake it all about, you do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself arouAIIIIIIIGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!” My shriek of pain doesn’t even phase the rest of the class. They keep singing and dancing and tripping over one another, thinking it’s just another one of Brandon’s goofy antics. And Bob is back up and twirling around, with no idea of the immense pain he just caused me. You know that expression ‘balls in a vice?’ I can now say I’ve had the great misfortune to experience it both figuratively, and literally. My dedication to teaching other people’s children might have destroyed my chances of someday having my own.
In other news, as I mentioned earlier, I got food poisoning this month. From bad eggs. Go figure. Whilst living in China, I’ve eaten chicken lungs, pig feet, coagulated blood, pigeons, a starfish sitting out in the sun on the filthy table of a beachside vendor… and no major problems. Even the chicken lungs debacle was no sweat, comparably. But a few eggs- chicken eggs at that, really nothing fancy- had me practically living overtop of my toilet for about four days. It. Was. Awful. Consider how unenjoyable the experience might be on a normal, Western toilet, and now imagine having to add a struggling squat stance to the equation. There’s a certain level of diarrhea that, no matter what you do, gets a little messy. Let me tell you… when it isn’t contained beneath a seat, it’s truly disgusting. Every trip to the toilet had to be followed by a shower. As I was going to the toilet about fifteen times a day, this meant a lot of showers. Because the water from my shower has to be manually heated in a separate tank for about an hour before using it, this meant a lot of COLD showers. The whole debacle was a real pain in the ass. And not just because my ass got a little raw from wiping so much.
There was also a particularly low moment, on night one, when I actually threw up and pooped at the exact same time. Now that might be pushing it over the boundary as far as too much information goes, though I’d argue we passed that point way back in the first letter. Really, I merely want to offer it as evidence that, contrary to what all those tired stand-up comedy routines would have you believe, men really can multi-task.
And also to make it clear that I was really, really fucking sick. And I still went to work. Because there are no substitutes at Greenwell. If I don’t show up, the kids don’t have class. So I went in, half-delirious and ready to vomit all over the whiteboard at any given moment. For the most part, aside from mixing up some names and forgetting which class I was in mid-lesson, I held it together alright. But mid-day, there came a mighty surge down below, and… well, let’s face it: even the strongest, most resolute dams have their breaking point. There was nothing I could do. For a family-friendly explanation of what exactly happened, just sing a few stanzas of that old blues classic, “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” But, instead of using the traditional lyrics, convert the song’s tense into Past Simple. Because that Levee done broke.
In other words, I pooped my pants.
Just a little bit. But when you’re 25 years old, any amount of poo in your pants is just unacceptable. I have nothing to say for myself, other than that I’m just a man, with all the failings you’d expect. At least I banked some good one-upping ammunition. Because if ever I’m in a room full of teachers, listening to them go on about the sacrifices they’ve made for their students (“Oh, I often work 60-hour weeks, when you factor in my lesson planning…” “Well, I use my OWN money for classroom supplies…”), I’ll just sit back, bide my time, and, when the moment is right, lean forward and casually inquire, “That’s all well and good, but tell me: have you ever SHIT YOUR OWN PANTS for your students?”
The poisoning has since left my system, but one problem remains. See, I’m no fan of wasting time. Since I was in the bathroom for the better part of four days, I saw no reason to just stare blankly at the tiled wall while my digestive system went through the motions. I took along my phone, fired up my Game Boy emulator, and passed the time with Pokemon Blue.
It is a problem. When I was suffering from food poisoning I had a good excuse to be whiling away the hours on it. But what about now? I’m still spending way too much damn time on this thing. It isn’t even cool by Pokemon fan standards. Pokemon Blue? That’s sooo 1996. It’s all about Black 2 now, duh! And besides, I’m supposed to be going out, experiencing a different culture, and, you know… LIVING, man! At this rate, when I come home next year and people ask me, “So what sorts of things did you do in China?” I’ll have stare down at the floor and meekly respond, “Well, I… completed my Pokedex.”
And see, that isn’t even a possibility. When you’re a 25-year-old man playing Pokemon Blue in 2012 with no link cable and no friends, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can catch all 150 Pokemon. They’re just not there! You gotta have that Red Version!
It has tinged my gaming experience with a certain level of sad futility. Sure, I can level up my active roster to 99, and I can pound the Elite Four into submission, along with that insufferable Gary, but I’ll never obtain all three Eevees. I’ll never get to bring both the Helix and the Dome fossil to life. I’ll never really beat Pokemon Blue like it deserves to be beaten.
Some days, though, you just gotta find a way to wind down. I’ve heard of many ex-pats falling into alcoholism, by way of a combination of homesickness, loneliness, and job stress. The more of them I meet, the more I realize that last component might be due to the fact that most of the people who seem to teach abroad don’t actually have a degree in education. They’re just some idealistic twenty-something with an English degree and a three-week training course under their belt, and they think that’s gonna cut it. And hey, I should know. I’m one of them.
So I’m thankful that the only spirits I’ve turned to thus far are Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar. Some evenings, if it’s been one of those particularly shit-in-your-pants rough kind of days, I might also need a cup of tea and The Gentle Side of Coltrane to put me back at ease. But I can see how this profession might drive some teachers to the harder stuff… you know, like black coffee and Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.
Other than that, November was fairly uneventful. I met up with some foreign teachers and we made a Thanksgiving dinner, which was a beautiful way to cap off the month. Half of those in attendance I hadn’t met before, but it didn’t take long for us to hit it off. Something about finding fellow countrymen abroad tends to make relationships that much easier to forge. It was nice being back among familiar language and topics of conversation, and perhaps even nicer to actually get some stuffing in China, something I had never anticipated happening, thanks to a wonderful teacher from Georgia named Haley. And our hostess, Kelsey, assembled a pretty badass dinner playlist. Lots of Nujabes. Can’t go wrong there. The food, wine, company, and blazing space heater all combined to create an atmosphere of warmth I won’t soon forget. It’s been my second Thanksgiving spent in China. Both have been expectedly untraditional, but both will rank among the more cherished holidays I’ve experienced in my life, because both embodied its very principles. It connected people through an act of kindness and sharing, and on the other side of the planet, no less.
Ughh, I think my food poisoning is returning… no, wait, that’s just nausea from the melodrama. So I’ll cut it there. I hope the beginning of this new month finds you all well, and just know that, as the holidays come and go, you’ll all be in my thoughts. And if I believed in god I’d put you in some prayers too. Alas, you gotta settle for thoughts.
Love, Peace, Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and if Mike Williams is right about the world ending this coming month, Goodbye forever,
P.P.S. I attached a few photos of my class and the Halloween party. They’re mostly meant for a few select people on the list, but by all means...enjoy.