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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 every month. He has given us permission to serialize the emails here.
October 1st, 2012
Baby, it’s only been a few weeks since I moved to China, and already I miss ya like crazy. Your purple mountain majesties, your amber waves of grain, and of course that fox Lady Liberty. Sure wouldn’t mind her and I making a huddled mass of our own, if you catch my drift. Eh? Eh? I just can’t help but get all hot and bothered when I think about tangling myself up in her toga, and running my hands up her statuesque body, her smooth neck, her white, wispy beard- what the? Uncle Sam!? What the hell are you doing here? Well, I gotta say, you’re not exactly what I had in mind, but…alright, I can get into it. Just turn out the lights, and keep telling me how much you want me.
So yeah, I live in Loudi, China now. It’s a nice, cozy little city of about 4 million people, stuck right in the armpit of China’s Hunan province. By calling it an armpit, I do not in any way mean to denigrate this city. I call it such merely because a) If Hunan province were anthropomorphized and made to stand in profile, Loudi might be about where you could expect the cartographic armpit to be, and b) If Disney initiated the production of a new Honey I Shrunk the Kids sequel starring me, wherein I’m accidentally shrunk and end up in several wacky situations, one of which involving me getting mixed up in a laundry basket that turns out to belong to Justin Bieber (making an assuredly heavily-promoted cameo in the film), and I find myself trapped on the collar of his shirt as he slips it on and hops out to perform at some MTV Summer Break festival with twenty other terrible bands and Mario Lopez wiggling around in the background, and as he sings and dances frenetically on the stage his body begins to heat up and perspire, and soon enough I become trapped in a bead of Justin Bieber’s neck sweat and helplessly slide down, down, around, and into the sopping-wet, suffocating agony of imprisonment inside his hot, sweaty armpit, I imagine it would feel something like what summer in Loudi feels like.
Thankfully, I only had to deal with that hell for about a week before autumn swept in and delivered me from grace. So I’ve got a free pass until next summer, meaning that Justin Bieber armpit heat isn’t my problem for about 8 ½ more months. Suck it, Future Brandon! You’re always enjoying the fruits of Present Brandon’s hard work and planning, but it’s high time you started pulling your weight around here!
So what’s it like here? I’ll start with where I live. It’s an apartment on the ninth floor overlooking one of Loudi’s main drags. I have a kitchen, with a gas burner and a wok, which I used to make Xi Hong Shi Chao Ji Dan (a stir-fry tomato and egg dish) 1-2 times a day, because it’s the only Chinese dish I know how to cook (though my coworker Nick just taught me two new ones tonight…more about him later). The kitchen also has a sink, but, as was explained when I moved in, the maintenance man forgot to install the faucet, meaning it’s basically just a basin with which to dispose of fluids found elsewhere.
For that reason, I do most of my dishwashing in the bathroom. And about my bathroom: it’s a rectangular tiled area, with a sink, washing machine, toilet, and shower all crammed in together. Thankfully, the toilet doesn’t take up much space, as it’s a squatter (a.k.a. a hole in the floor). Neither does the shower, in that it’s a detachable head mounted on the wall above the toilet that you use to rinse off with while standing slightly to the toilet’s left. There is no tub or enclosed area to speak of, merely a floor built at a slight incline that theoretically funnels water towards a drain at the bathroom’s left-most side. I say theoretically, because likely this design was concocted by the same engineers that dreamed up my sink…in that the incline is not steep enough to make up for the amount of water that fills the bathroom floor whilst showering or doing laundry. Thus, cleaning oneself is a process best done quickly, or else allllll that shit’s going into the kitchen.
One note on the toilet: last time I was in this country, I tried to avoid these things whenever possible. And since my dorm had a Western-style commode, it was seldom I was forced to poop in a squatting position. But after doing so for the past two weeks, I can now say I see its merits. First merit: it turns what would be just another standard, humdrum bowel movement into a fun game of skill. Can you position yourself perfectly overtop of the toilet so that your poop falls directly down the hole and into the drain? Swish! 10 points. Did you chip the rim a bit? Bummer. 7 points. Full on collision with the main stretch of porcelain, followed by a slow downward slide towards the goal? 5. A dump that hits near the front and stays stationary, thus needing to be flushed down? A mere 2 points. Or did you have a momentary lapse of kinesthesia and miss the toilet completely? Well, shit (pun intended). I think ya just lost.
It’s only a matter of time until either Dave or Buster catches on to the untapped possibilities of fecal-based entertainment and develops a professional-level game along the same lines as mine, placing it in their arcades alongside similar favorites like Skee-Ball, or Pop-A-Shot. Only this game would be called…well, I think it goes without saying that you can anticipate the pun I’d be making with that one.
Just in case you didn’t: Poop-A-Shot. Get it!?
Second merit: As a coworker explained, by squatting instead of sitting fully upon a seat, you are elongating your torso and likewise, all your innards, meaning poop more naturally and easily passes out of you.
…You know, that made sense when I heard it, but now that I’ve typed it out and read it, I’m newly dubious of the science behind that claim. I’ll do some research and compile my findings for inclusion in a future letter. What I can say is this: I do seem to poop a lot faster these days. Though I acknowledge it might be because squatting and pooping is so effing uncomfortable that I just get it over and done with and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, whereas in the U.S. I sat back, relaxed, and whipped out the Huffington Post for a nice long session of number two. Why the Huffington Post? Because I could wipe my ass with that rag! Zing!
That’s actually hyperbolic. It doesn’t make for a good wipe at all, particularly because I read the Post on my touch-screen smartphone, and blindly wiping that thing around your butt can make for a lot of unintentional executions, like Googling steamy Twilight fanfiction (it’s for a friend!) or making online purchases.
Consequently, one of those purchases was for a bulk order of toilet paper, so maybe it worked out in the long run. On the negative side, my phone joined the 16.6% of phones contaminated with fecal matter (read the illuminating article here: http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2011/10/study-one-in-six-cell-phones-have-fecal-matter-on-them/).
In conclusion: anything longer than a minute’s-worth of pooping is akin to a strenuous session of squats in the gym. Since Hunan’s incredibly spicy food has been giving me frequent diarrhea for the past week, I now have legs that rival Lance Armstrong’s.
That’s actually hyperbolic. My legs are almost as weak as ever. In other words, they rival Lance Armstrong’s career.
But, back to the grand tour! Passing the bathroom and kitchen, you’ll find yourself in the spacious living area, complete with refrigerator, television, square table, round table, wardrobe, window, laundry-drying bar, and not one, but TWO beds: one wooden one, and another with a mattress that a human being might actually want to sleep on. I also have a bamboo mat that lays over the mattress on the good bed, which, by putting a breathable layer between you and said mattress, is an indispensable tool for staying cool on those stifling summer nights.
Now, I know I naturally have a sarcastic air about me in letters like this, and though I’m poking some fun at my living quarters, I by no means want to complain. Peculiarities aside, this place is pretty nice by any standards, and a palace compared to where the other teachers live. So, yes, I’m an entitled little shit who has no right to complain about anything, and if anyone I’ve met here ever got wind of this email’s contents it would shame me forever.
Which brings me to my school (now there’s a segway if ever there was one!): Greenwell English Education Training School. It’s the second floor of an old building tucked back in a convergence of alleyways, with five classrooms, a kitchen, two other teachers’ living quarters, and a set of bathrooms at the end. I have eleven different classes of students, that all meet about 3-4 times a week. These classes are spread out from Tuesday through Sunday, with the weekends being my busiest days. So for the next year my weekend is Monday through…er, Monday.
My first day was a bit daunting. Everything was going pretty well at first…I woke up, laid out my nice, fresh teaching duds, took a deep breath as a cool morning breeze drifted in through the window, walked to the bathroom, took a shower, thought over my plans for the day, shut off the water, dried, turned to open the door…ch-clink. Oh hell.
The doorknob just broke off.
And so, I spent about twenty extra minutes in the bathroom trying to MacGuyver my way out. My tools were limited, so I tried an ingenious combination of tweezers and fingernail clippers in an attempt to dismantle the clasp and pop the lock.
I say ingenious, but I shouldn’t. It didn’t work.
So I banged. I yelled. I contemplated utilizing my newly developed leg strength and kicking down the door. I tried. The door held and my toes still hurt. I had images of a rat trapped in a cage, futilely trying to claw its way out. I wondered what my students would think if they could only see me now, their new teacher, naked and swearing and trying to escape from a bathroom with the contents of his toiletries bag. Probably, at least one of them would think about reporting the event to the police, and I’d be arrested for revealing myself to minors. Finally, I managed to make a nail-clipper lever, wedge my fingers under the door, and pull with every ounce of strength in me. BANG! The frame splintered, the door flew open, and I went skidding bare-assed along the tile and into the toilet.
Five minutes later I was introducing myself to thirty children and attempting to command their respect.
Turned out I had the wrong books for one class, the wrong lesson plan for another. I went to the wrong room twice, or maybe more like five times, and about as many times, miscalculated time altogether and had my lesson cut short by the bell (bell at Greenwell= Nick stepping into the hallway and blowing a whistle). But I have awesome coworkers who have helped me every step of the way: Joyce, the principal of the school; Nick, a teacher from Inner Mongolia who honed his English by watching every episode of "Friends," and can make equally bad jokes in both of his languages; Tiny, who is aptly-named, as she is one of the tinier people I’ve ever met; and Luya, Merry, and Chanvy, three T.A.s who work part-time when they’re not in classes at a local college. Collectively, they are one of the most hospitable and generous groups of people I’ve ever known. Also, it’s really nice being around Chinese people, and thus the Chinese language, all day, as I can feel my grasp of it improving dramatically. I only hope my English doesn’t suffer a comparably-dramatic decline, because aside from some Skype calls and letter-writing to you, my only use of my mother tongue comes by way of engaging ten-year-olds in dialogues like “I am looking for a purple jacket. Where are the purple jackets?” or “The park is next to the library.”
Another problem is the sheer amount of kids I have to teach, and thus, the sheer number of names I have to remember. Doesn’t help that the previous teachers who christened these children with English names seem to be drawing from a relatively small pool, as there are several Dons, Bings, Emilys, Jims, and about ten different Tonys- 40% of whom have rat-tails. Also, said pool of names doesn’t seem to have been updated past 1945, and I can’t help but ask for clarification when I first meet an Edith or a Blanche. Or even just stop and stammer in a confused sort of pity when I encounter an “Iric,” or one poor boy named “Sell."
I’m getting the hang of it, though. Slowly. The first week, after the initial hiccups, was wonderful. The kids were great, and seemed genuinely engaged and interested in everything the new, exciting American teacher had to teach them! And then…familiarity set in, and as you’ve heard, familiarity breeds contempt.
Now, I just want to know which low-life is to blame for knocking up Familiarity and creating such awful offspring. Those bad genes had to come from someone. Discontentment? Petulance? Oh, Familiarity…*tsk tsk*. You’re better than that. I’ll admit you’re a bit of a Plain Jane, but that’s no reason to set your standards so low. Remember your good qualities! Without you, we’d all have no face-name recall, and I’d be even worse with directions (if that’s possible). You really deserve someone better…an Average, or Satisfactory, or at the very least, a Tolerable.
But as far as the kids go…different classes are different worlds. Kindergarten and some of the other lower-level English groups are a true joy. Walking in is akin to Frodo and his Fellowship entering Rivendell for the first time. A common purpose unites those therein, knowledge flows freely and is readily accepted by all, and the halls resound with the echoes of joyous song (usually it’s the ABC song). The kids give me candy, they hug me in the hallway. One class literally cheers my name and waves every time I walk in the door.
If Kindergarten is Rivendell, then walking to my middle school classes is basically Sam and Frodo stumbling down the mountains alone towards Mordor. The skies darken, the rumble of carnage in the distance grows louder with each step, and my heart sinks with uncertainty about what soul-crushing obstacle I’ll be facing today. Like I said, familiarity breeds contempt, and now that the novelty of me has worn off, the older kids have certainly grown contemptuous. They just keep fuckin’ around! All! The! Time! I turn to write something on the board, and they start fuckin’ around. I bend over by a student’s desk to help her clarify a vocabulary term, and they start fuckin’ around. I blink, they start fuckin’ around. On Saturday, my classroom reached a level of chaos previously reserved for the climax of the better Schwarzenegger movies. When a group of five started making those damn fart noises by jamming a palm up their armpit and pumping everytime I said something, I just lost it. I threw open the door, and just started yelling. “HEY! NEXT PERSON” (finger jab) “DOES THIS” (quick mimic of an arm pit fart) “IS LEAVING!!!” (finger snap, thumb jab to the door). SLAM! And man, that sure worked.
For about forty-five seconds. And then…they started fuckin’ around again. There’s just a certain point when I look around me, at armpit farts and boys smacking girls with books and a girl answering her damn cell phone in the middle of class and random kids popping in through the doorway to talk to their friends (none of the doors at Greenwell close fully, let alone lock), and I just think: What. The Fuck. Do I do now.
And then something truly terrible happens: a kid asks me something in Chinese, and I don’t understand. I ask him to repeat it, but I just don’t know the words he’s saying. I ask him to please talk to me after class, and he accepts it. But then a girl gets a look in her eye, and starts asking me something, and I don’t understand that either. And then more kids start getting that same look. And I just get this feeling…an Oh, shit, the levee’s about to break feeling.
Because they’ve just figured out that I actually don’t know Chinese very well.
After that it’s just a mass of incomprehensible noise. The sanctity of my English classroom has been not only compromised, but completely overrun with an invasive Chinese language. I try to maintain order, but my demands are met with patronizing bouts of “Ting bu dong! Ting bu dong!” (I don’t understand), and I can tell they write off my every word as completely inconsequential. I really have no way to respond.
And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity: I just understood something. It came from that boy in the front, the one I thought was nice and well-behaved. It’s a phrase I’ve heard before, but I don’t completely register it at first, because it’s not something I ever expected to hear from one of my students.
Because he just asked me if I’m mentally retarded.
I look at him, open-mouthed, trying to formulate a response, and before I can he asks again, and starts twirling his pointer finger about his temple and grinning. And the girl next to him looks incredulous for a second, but then I suppose does a quick internal cost-benefit analysis and decides it’s safe to join in. “Oh, ARE you retarded?” And before I know it, four kids are asking me if I’m retarded, and they know I understand, and yet seem to feel completely safe and shielded from any repercussions because they’re saying it in Chinese.
Next thing I know, the whistle is blowing, the class is gone, and I’m left standing there, dumbfounded and pissed off and unsure what the hell just happened.
And the story ends there, folks, because I haven’t had that class again yet. The sequel starts filming this week, in Teaching English 2: Judgment Day, so tune in next time to find out if the current plan I’m formulating succeeds or fails miserably.
Aside from work, I’ve been getting accustomed to daily life here, but certain things still remain a challenge for me. Chiefly among them is the tendency for people to just walk out into oncoming traffic when crossing the street. Hey, no big deal, those cars have steering wheels; they’ll turn! A painted lane-dividing line is apparently no different than a median, in that it’s a perfectly acceptable place to pause and wait for vehicles to whiz by. Now when I’m alone, I’m content merely waiting on the sidewalk for traffic to break and watching this amazing spectacle unfold, but when I’m walking about with the other teachers, I’m sort of compelled to follow in lockstep. “Let’s go, Brandon,” they casually suggest before stepping out in front of a speeding bus and pack of motorbikes that all blare their horns and swerve to keep from killing them. “Uh…no?” I whimper, before timidly hopping out behind them. I’m getting better, but I still can’t commit myself to the daring assumption that every driver is skillful enough to avoid running down seas of erratically moving pedestrians.
There are also some cultural sensibilities I’m not used to, particularly in coming from the progressive environment of an arts-centric university. Now I try not to make blanket generalizations about an entire populace based on a small sample group, as I wouldn’t want anyone to assume they know all Americans because they’ve seen "Jersey Shore," or any recent interview with Mitt Romney (there’s your dose of Brandon Jeune political ranting, you knew it was coming…and yes, I’m equating Mitt with the likes of The Situation, because a) They’re both completely full of shit and yet brilliantly adept at convincing themselves and a select group of others that they aren’t, b) Given Mitt’s recent decision to start tanning (or whatever it is he’s done to himself), they both have a starkly unnatural orangey-bronze glow, and c) Hopefully neither one will ever be your president. Come on America, pull it together!) That being said, there does seem to be a general inclination among those I’ve met here to ascribe to what, in the States, I’d call an extremely archaic conception of gender, and to really put it bluntly: outright sexism. Or to put it politically: Mitt Romney’s current stance on women’s issues (or maybe not-so-current? I haven’t checked the news whilst writing this, so I’m not sure whether he changed his mind again in the last five minutes. Okay…I’m done now). For instance: at dinner the other night, I mentioned that I call both my father and my mother weekly. Joyce asked me how long I usually talk to each, and I replied, “Oh, about an hour.” There was a collective “Wha-" at the table, followed by, “With your MOTHER? What do you talk about for an hour? Oh… maybe that, you, uh, didn’t make your bed? Ah? That you need to wash your socks? Eh?” And cue the raucous laughter. Yes, the idea of woman here seems to still be somewhat tied to that “angel of the home” conception, further evidenced by Nick’s example sentence whilst teaching me the word “xu yao,” meaning “need”: “If you don’t find a good wife who can cook, you XU YAO learn to make dinner yourself!”
Anyway America, it’s late. I know that means it’s early for you, and I sense that, over the next year, this relationship is going to be strained by that 12-hour difference. Somehow, though, we’re gonna make it work, baby. It’s only a year. And although I like China quite a bit, it’s nothing serious. She’s just not the kind of gal I could settle down with long term. I need a lady who speaks her mind. Plus, China’s breath is pretty rank. I think she’s been eating too much coal. But I suppose I’ll end things here. I thank you dearly for listening to the ramblings of this occasionally-lonely and homesick man.
I plan on sending these letters monthly, but I’ve been known to get tied-up, so if you don’t hear from me for awhile, just pretend I made a yearly commitment.