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Rant #199
(published November 4, 2004)
Smokestack City (A PMjA Dispatch from Abroad)
by Max Montesino

O I have sailed the seas and come . . . to Zhuzhou . . . a 'small' town tied to a smokestack in Hunan Province.

Greetings once again, from lovely Zhuzhou!

The last you heard of me, I wrote from an internet cafe down the street from my apartment. Now I write to you from my apartment itself! I've had a computer in my room, but it took two weeks for a computer teacher from the school to come and 'fix' it (plug everything in and press the 'on' button). The Internet comes and goes, but whatever.

Ah, Zhuzhou. Z-Town, Ol' ZZ, Smokestack City. I live in a neighborhood called Tianxin, on the north side of town. Everything here is owned by the Jiufang corporation ('GoFront' is its English name...clearly there weren't any native English speakers present at that corporate decision meeting), the biggest train manufacturer in China. Southeast of where I live there's a huge confluence of railroad tracks, that paradoxically cut Tianxin off from the rest of the city. The bus route from my street to downtown passes through what I generously term "a Third World industrial wasteland." Imagine Cleveland in its 'Mistake by the Lake' era (though not its current, revitalized 'Maybe Not a Mistake After All' incarnation).

Past the tracks, on the way to downtown, is the 'Pink-Light District.' Yes, they're brothels; many of them, often next door to each other. On the 'other side' of the tracks, in a neighborhood I went to purely because the taxi driver had no idea where he was going, there are even more brothels, all with the same pink lights, women lounging around in the front room, maybe a TV on, maybe a group of men sitting there also, waiting. North Side, baby! Yeah!

My building is across the street from the main entrance to the factory, and in fact most of the people in my building are engineers who work there. The place is nice: big bedroom, big living room/kitchen/dining room, a balcony which is partially downwind from the factory (yay, soot!) and a big bathroom. Everything is Western-style, except the shower has no curtains or even curtain rods.

And the stinky tofu is to die for! So stinky, so succulent. Chinese tofu and soy milk are way better than the tasteless crap they sell in America. They often put meat into tofu dishes, which imparts a nice 'meat' flavor to the tofu. And the soy milk is sweet and smooth, not like thick, chalky Silk (although chocolate Silk does reach the lofty standards set by Chinese soy milk).

Zhuzhou is one of the most polluted cities in China, a country not known for 'strict' or even 'acceptable' emissions standards. On bad days even the cluster of apartment buildings ~50 yards from my balcony is noticeably hazy. On good days I can see part of a hill to the northwest; on bad days I can't. The sun sets an hour before it gets dark, it's that bad. I think my lungs are shrinking.

Before I even start teaching, in my first night in town, Amee and I are treated by the school principal (a boyish sort of man in his early 30s) to dinner with our liaison and two random teachers, of Chinese and math. The math teacher kept topping us off and toasting us, but other than that it was pretty low-key. At the end of the meal the principal (named Clark, "like Superman") asked us if we'd like a massage. "Um, sure," we replied. Our liaison (named Jane) left for home, and the rest of us headed to this massage parlor, where we had the option of either a 'foot' massage or a 'full-body' massage.

Amee and I chose the foot massage. After some haggling and giggling, the Chinese teacher and the math teacher leave the room. I ask "where are they going?", but Clark just turns to me without answering the question. The 'foot' massage has those quotes because it's not an accurate name; the massage ladies work both arms and both legs, at point applying pressure dangerously close to the "Sunni Triangle," if you will.

And the betel nut is to die for! Gives a headrush to the inexperienced (e.g. me), artificially sweetened and mintified...like a chewy, pulpy breathmint. With some piping-hot flower tea (no lie— freakin' flowers in the damn tea!), it's the perfect awkward-massage compliment. At the end of the session Clark informs us that the Chinese teacher and the math teacher opted for the 'full-body' treatment, which lasts a half-hour longer. We left without them.

The Monday before I started teaching my liaison took me and my co-volunteer Amee to a hospital in Changsha for some tests. The streets leading into the city center were blocked for some reason, so it took an extra hour to get to the place. Once there I: had an ultrasound (not pregnant), and had X-rays taken without a protective vest of any kind. I was dying of laughter with the ultrasound, not because I'm ticklish, but because of the sheer absurdity. I also met some Pakistani grad students who were helping a group of African grad students through their tests. One of them gave me his cell number; apparently there's a "large" community of foreigners studying in Changsha. Up to that point the only foreigners I'd seen were couples adopting kids, the Zimbabwean manager of the hottest club in Changsha, and his daughters who worked there.

Ah, my first day on the job was the following Tuesday. Chaotic. I ran out of money the weekend before, so I hadn't eaten anything at least 30 hours before 'kickoff.' The first class was total bedlam. One kid even flipped me off, though it was clear he had no idea what he was doing. Subsequent classes decreased in bedlam-ness. By the end of the week I had named everyone that didn't already have an English name. I did some tribute-naming, to be sure: I have an Ed, a Lynn, a Sasha, a Neil (Harding), at least one Deanna, a Seth, among others. I offered a lot of names of people I knew (even 'Theron' once, though it didn't take . . . sorry buddy). I didn't offer 'Venkat' or 'Sumon,' though— not red/white/blue enough, you understand.

The school is weird. It's the GoFront Middle School (Chinese education crash course to come later), like everything else owned by the train factory. I work in a special private junior school (grades 7-9), which is called the 'GoFront Bilingual Experimental School', and a part of the rest of the school even though it's private (and not really bilingual, and not at all experimental). The classrooms have computers at all the desks, and everyone has a handy-dandy Flash drive, even me, but the only printer in the whole school is in the dean's office, and I have to buy all my own classroom supplies. Weird.

They wanted me to teach four class-hours at the primary school, like everything else owned by the railroad. My contract and WorldTeach's contract is only for middle school, so I had to decline (and teach three hours at the senior school instead). Later on I would walk by the primary school during recess: little kids running and screaming at the top of their lungs, the PA system blaring a wordless, synthesized "Yankee Doodle" loud as hell, but still drowned out by the kids, and I'd say to myself, "Thank God."

The second day of school I had what I call my intitiation ceremony. During the day a teacher invited me to play basketball "at 8." Later I'd realize that he meant 8th period, not 8 o'clock. I said sure, and after classes I hurried home to change for the occasion. It was a 5-on-5, full court scrimmage between the male head teachers, with officiating by a computer teacher and some other teacher I didn't recognize. In ten minutes I was already gasping; the hot, humid, thick Zhuzhou air was already hard at work on my lungs. The atmosphere was intense; the court was lined on all sides with students, chanting and cheering on their favorite teachers. I couldn't make out what they were chantig exactly. It sounded like "X Laosi, RAH RAH!! X Laosi, RAH RAH!!" The game lasted an entire hour, sloppy from the get-go, me sweating like there's no tomorrow.

The next day a male teacher came up to me and said "you are one of us." By that I thought he meant that I was now in the spiritual brotherhood of male GoFront teachers, but that didn't turn out quite right. I am now a proud member of the Jiufang male teachers' basketball team. Last week they asked me for my uniform size (I'm 168 cm, which makes me "2XL" here) and my uniform number (15, my birthday and the number of Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe, hell's yeah), and just today I received my snazzy uniform. White with blue and gold trim, if you care to know.

By the way, not only does my co-volunteer Amee possess songs from Lagaan, she actually saw the movie when it was in theaters IN INDIA! Booyakasha!

"Be prepared to appreciate what you meet." -Dune

You'll think this is weird, but in Zhuzhou I've had three separate Christian visions.

The first is this bum who walks around the neighborhood, really skinny, with long hair and a beatific look on his face. I call him "Jesus."

The second: I usually teach with my sleeves rolled up, cuz it's crazy hot here. One day I get home from school, unroll my sleeves, and Lo! Behold! The pattern of sweat on my sleeves looks just like the face of Jesus! Not the neighborhood Jesus, the European conception of Jesus!

The third: while walking around in downtown Zhuzhou, grimly searching for a working payphone (a four-hour search that proved nightmarish and fruitless, especially since I wanted to reach a friend's cellphone and to do that you have to press zero before dialing the number, and I didn't know that, so I was wandering for four fucking hours before I gave up and went back home . . . I shall seek my revenge upon China Telecom before this is all through), I walk through a wet market (an open-air collection of produce-hawkers that briefly takes over a street) and a fish jumps out of the bowl it was in and lands right in front of my feet. Ichthys!

September 10 is Teacher's Day here, so we got the Friday 'off' (not really, though . . . we had to make it up on Sunday). That day all of the teachers from the school went to a little resort in teh countryside called "Taiwan Village," with horse-riding around a track, ping-pong (which I totally want to challenge the teachers to someday), darts, archery, and KARAOKE! At the WorldTeach orientation I blew my fellow volunteers away with my fearless renditions of 'Hey Jude' and 'You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling.' I was in the karaoke parlor for four hours, singing any English song Amee or I could find. Almost all of the teachers have magnificent, pop-star quality, belt-it-out singing voices, while us poor Americans were timid, and the tracks for the English songs were often slowed down (my version of "Glory Days" sounded like really bad country), so we sounded like dogshit for the most part. Although I did get a plastic flower for my rendition of "Sloop John B," and I brought down the house with my final offering: a dead-on "Bohemian Rhapsody." Hell yeah— all the voices, right tempo, as bombastic as the Chinese songs. "O Mamma Mia, Mamma Mia, MAMMA MIA LET ME GO, BEELZEBUB HAS A DEVIL SET ASIDE FOR ME... FOR ME-EE-EE... FOR MEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! "

I also had my first taste of baijiu, the local poison, at lunch in Taiwan Village. It smells and tastes like nail-polish remover— and it's the worst possible thing to drink after a mouthful of spicy food. After a toast, after which everyone is obligated to drink down what they got, I had to wipe tears from my eyes. Oh man, it's terrible. At an adjacent table someone poured out a whole cupful of the stuff and everyone at the table was daring each other to drink it. They turned to me at one point and I was like "Hell no, wasn't my idea." The guy who originally poured it out finally drank half of it, and that was that.

The very next day I sang more karaoke, another four hours, with some other WorldTeach people and their fellow teachers from another school. The day after that I was back in the classroom, making up for the 'day off,' and my voice didn't rest until Thursday (only one class that day).

And the fried rice is to die for! I've cooked four times since coming here...and I plan on cooking more. Each meal I make (with Amee's help) is "The Best Meal I've Ever Made."

Last week me and all the other Zhuzhou-based WorldTeach volunteers (six in all) went to the pagoda in town. Inside is a huge staute of Yandi, one of the two 'Fathers of the Chinese People" (don't ask me how that works), lookin' all buff and gold or something. There's huge statue of him in Yandi Square, in the west side of town. We all lit incense and candles in front of the statue, making Yandi the first non-vengeful entity I've ever worshipped. We climbed the pagoda, all done up with neon, and looked over the Zhuzhou skyline, all done up with neon, the smog and haze faintly yellow among all the lights. Todd, another volunteer, detected a faint line where the haze ended, so there is theoretically a part of Zhuzhou not enveloped in the smoggy mist (ah, the persistence of sterotype . . . the smog actually lends a 'mysterious Orient' air to the place). We tried looking out as far as we could, but the furthest thing we could see was two faint smokestacks, which looked absolutely massive (size and distance are hard to tell here), and beyond which we couldn't see anything. It looked like the world ended abruptly.

"The days run away like wild horses over the hills" - Charles Bukowski

Nowadays I've come to appreciate teaching, without the terror of two and three weeks ago. I still have a hard time planning lessons at any point other than the last minute, but I understand what the kids want: games, and the novelty of the foreign teacher. So I've brought my suitcase filled with random stuff, and I lead games of 'Where are my socks?' and 'What is in the suitcase?'; the students probably average a sentence of quasi-grammatical English every five minutes, but it's easier than beating it out of them in the same time span. Whatever works. This week I also had my first two Chinese lessons, with a dude who works in the factory, lives on the floor above me, and dates one of the cuter English teachers in the school (hey, I'm happy for him . . . all the English teachers are in my 'work unit' anyway, and it's bad form to date within your work unit). I don't speak much Chinese, mostly because I can't understand what people respond to me with. So that gap must yet be filled.

Truly, these could be days of wine and roses . . . or at the very least baijiu and plastic flowers.

And the weird English names are to die for! One of my Junior One kids is named "Joes," another "Pudding," another "Hunan Sister" (a guy, if you care to know). If they want those names, hey, who am I to judge? But just two days ago I heard a name that blew them all away. Like I said, I teach three class-hours of Senior One (i.e. 10th grade in the US). I actually teach six different classes, each class every other week. Two weeks ago I was still doing the 'Names/Intro' thing with the senior classes, wherein I give names and whatnot. This one kid, whose English isn't so good and who I could tell was a class-clown type, kept repeating this name I couldn't make out. He said it was the name of an 'F1' driver, which I figured out meant a Formula One race car driver. I thought to myself 'pretty cool,' and to him I said "If you can write it down for me, in two weeks I will ask you and I can give you the name."

So two weeks later I cycle back to the same class, and as a warmup I ask them for their names, one thing they like, and why they like it. I call on the dude, and he hands me a piece of paper with this written on it:


I was stunned. I had to write it on the board, and confirm with the kid that this was in fact the name he wanted.

Oh my God. This is the greatest name I've ever heard. Ever. No one else has a two-part name, much less a last name. It's not just funny; it's transcendingly, almost genius-level funny. All day I kept repeating it to myself. That night I told Amee about it, and then it occured to me to Google the name. It turns out it's the last names of two different Formula One race car drivers (neither one of them an English name, by the way), smushed together in what is either a run-of-the-mill random association or the funniest thing I've ever been personally involved with. It's like the puzzle of intelligent life— could it have come about through an aggregation of random turnouts, or is it the product of a higher intelligence?

Wow. Let's just stop there. China is making me crazy— or is this the greatest year of my life?

Tune in next week, as . . .

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