Language is a Virus #ningbochina

I have 96 pages of Vulcan and the revisions are going well, but here is a little chunk of the China memoir, Laurie Anderson in the Rice Fields, I’m still crafting slowly slowly. This is a scene from Ningbo, China circa 1987 when I was twenty-four and newly married. It was our first year of marriage in China. They called me Mrs. Kiffen.

“Language is a Virus”

This is the name of one of Laurie Anderson’s songs on her album, Home of the Brave. “Language is a Virus.” I was fumbling with language a lot in those early teaching months in Ningbo, China.

Ningbo University had no library yet, so the only book available was a worn paperback of Tolstoy’s RESURRECTION, and the books I’d brought from Atlanta like Isak Dineson’s letters, Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, and Maupassant’s short stories. The handful of movies at the University were bootlegged videotapes of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, AMADEUS and only three-quarters of MY BRILLIANT CAREER before the tape cut off.

We also had to watch the VHS movies in the electronics lab on campus. Oh yes, they had LOVE STORY, too, but it was dubbed in Japanese with Chinese subtitles. I stubbornly kept watching MY BRILLIANT CAREER, thinking/praying/pleading that the tape would not go fuzzy and quit at the scene when Sybylla is sent to be a governess for a wild pack of children to pay off her useless father’s debts, but it always did quit, so I never knew what happened. Did Mr. Frank Beecham return? Did he and Sybylla marry? I began to blame China. If we didn’t live in such an outback ourselves, I could watch MY BRILLIANT CAREER like a normal person, and what was my own career supposed to be anyway?

Would I be a female Eugene O’Neill, a playwright scribbling family dramas for the stage, upsetting my mother? Or was I to be some kind of governess myself in those rice fields, helping the students to start an English Language newspaper, English Corner, and a drama club? I had no clue. And this made me cranky, and I think it aged me, especially when the Chinese teachers would say to me, “Ah perhaps, your husband is so very young. Perhaps, he is much younger than you, I think, and so playful and happy. Very funny man is your husband, Mrs. Kiffen.”

These kinds of comments did not make me feel youthful, and if I replied, “We are both twenty-four,” which was a silly and useless retort, they would laugh, which made me grow more cross and haggard. I felt like Miss Minchin married to Og from Finian’s Rainbow, (characters we both had played in our pasts either in high school (Kiffen) or me acting out scenes from The Little Princess with my sister, Keely, playing the tortured Sarah Crewe on long Sunday afternoons in Pittsburgh while NFL football droned downstairs on the television.)

When I wasn’t walking in the rice fields with Laurie Anderson on my walkman, one of my jobs included teaching a class to the Chinese English teachers on sleepy Monday afternoons – a time when they were used to napping after lunch, not being forced to take another class. To jazz up the drowsy room of Chinese teachers of English, I attempted to direct them in scenes from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Blanche and Stanley, George and Martha) but they did NOT like doing American plays. They wanted lessons in grammar, not modern drama, and they were quite right to want this kind of class.

Besides, Stanley was “perhaps too brutal and too mean,” Blanche confused everyone, and Martha was “perhaps not so polite to George.” So we compromised and did poetry – Emily Dickinson, the Beatles – conversational English, I think, was what we called the class interspersed with the three films available: “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Amadeus,” and three-quarters of “My Brilliant Career.”

In the Emily Dickinson lesson we discussed being a “nobody” and being a “somebody.” The class conclusion? “It is perhaps best to be a nobody so as not to draw attention to yourself.” They memorized her poem, “I’m Nobody,” and we talked of bogs and banishment and being famous posthumously.

As for the Beatles, after we read a chapter called “Revolution,” I played them the song, “Revolution.” The Beatles sang on a boom box in our Chinese classroom overlooking the rice fields, the teachers of English swaying and smiling to the music. When the song ended, I told them, quite definitively, that revolutions were “passé.”

I hang my head in a deep bottomless pit shame every time I think of that memory, because I was so nervous and talking too fast and coming from Knoxville, Tennessee, I had no experience with revolutions, but Kiffen, who was sitting in the back of the room, tried to not laugh. He’d come along for moral support since the class was not going well, but he couldn’t help but smile at my summation of revolutions, and in that split second, I recalled a period in Chinese history that I’d only just learned about – what was it?

It was something bad – very bad. Oh yes, the CULTURAL REVOLUTION, which was not an art movement. It was a time of revolt in China led by Mao Zedong with violent class struggles necessary to enforce communism across the land. Slogans like “A Revolution is Not a Dinner Party,” “Smash the gang of four,” “In waking a tiger, use a long stick,” and “To read too many books is harmful,” were just some of the phrases repeated over and over during that chaotic decade. Chairman Mao’s teenaged Red Guards rampaged and ruled China from 1966-1976. Professors, no doubt like the very ones I was teaching, had been forced to quit school, while their parents donned humiliating placards to teach them a lesson, their homes looted and claimed by the government. Educated people were punished and sent to the rice fields to be re-educated. Books were burned, musical instruments pitched in the fire, too, condemned as bourgeois. I later learned the director of the Foreign Guest House had her piano confiscated for eighteen years and it had only recently been returned.

Patrick, our colleague, a Chinese scholar, gave me a crash course on the Chinese Revolution in the dining hall one evening, since I hadn’t bothered too much to read about where I’d be living other my Lonely Planet China Guide Book. Why? Because I had this naïve idea that would I learn about China my way, with no preconceived notions, which meant arriving knowing next to nothing, because I was busy reading American playwrights and Isak Dineson’s letters and trying to escape our temp jobs in Atlanta for a bigger adventure on the other side of the world. Patrick never judged my ignorance but patiently explained the horrors of Culture Revolution in broad strokes. I got the picture quickly.

As I gathered more understanding, I realized that I was facing a group of Chinese teachers who had been directly affected by the Cultural Revolution, and I had been assuring them that, revolutions, in general, were passé. I knew they understood me, but they too polite to revolt. Maybe because I backtracked the day and said something even more stupid like, “Revolutions in Tennessee are passé.” I began to babble, horrified, ashamed. They deserved so much better.

I retreated to the rice fields to listen to Laurie Anderson again.

* * *

One afternoon, after viewing, “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” a teacher, Ms Xing, with a knowing smile on her face, told me, “Perhaps, Mrs. Kiffen, you will get the divorce in five years like all the American women.” This bothered me, especially since she laughed like it would probably happen and so what if it did. No big deal her shrug seemed to imply. Then she spoke of her own husband, whom she’d left behind in Hangzhou, to teach in Ningbo, although they were still married. She said, “When I was nine months pregnant and went to into labor at a bus stop, instead of helping me get to the hospital, he began quoting Mao sayings to give me courage. Very silly man.”

Another teacher, Mr. Fang, did not like movies or discussions of childbirth, and said, “Perhaps, Mrs. Kiffen, I prefer to read the mystery novel instead of to watch the film about the Mozart or the American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kramer, who, in my opinion, have too many big problems I think. I prefer the exciting mysteries. They are very good. Don’t you agree? They are very interesting I think, the mysteries.”

So I struggled to figure out how to teach them and not be such a loser. I wrote long letters home everyday. I tried to write short stories. They were awful. I tried to be a writer. At first we just had one room, but then we asked for a second room, so we could have a sitting room and a bedroom. Every morning the girls who worked in the Foreign Guest House brought us long sticks of fried dough, a thermos of hot water for our Instant Maxwell House coffee, glass bottles of creamy milk, and bottles of beer for the evening.

To thank them, we practiced English with them.

But soon they began knocking on our door wanting to practice English all the time, and so did students and professors. People knocked day and night. I had just finished reading Eugene O’Neill’s biography and learned how he’d handled writing interruptions.

O’Neill had hung a sign on his door that said something like: “May wild dogs desecrate the grave of your grandmother should you disturb me.”

I thought O’Neill’s sign got right to the point in a humorous, if in a somewhat over the top way, but the sweet girls who brought our milk, fried bread, and beer everyday thought I was calling them “wild dogs.”

It was a scandal in the foreign guesthouse.

The American teacher, Mrs. Kiffen, called the hardworking young housekeepers ‘wild dogs.’

Once again I was mortified, imagining them happily reading the sign with a Chinese/English dictionary (laughing at the silly barking dogs I’d drawn) and coming to the word “dog,” and then the red, hot humiliation. To call someone a dog was one of the worst insults in China, and I didn’t mean that at all but everything was lost in translation and meaning.

Language is a virus.

I retreated to the rice fields to try to figure out how to apologize to these girls for being such a big American idiot.

When they came again the next day to bring our milk, fried dough, and beer, I broke down crying, apologizing, trying to explain too much about everything – about the American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, dark humor, trying to write stories and concentrate. It was no use. It was a fiasco that no words could fix. They started crying, too, but they let me hug them and give them western magazines and chocolates and US stamps as paltry offerings.

Kiffen smiled and talked to them in his early bits of Chinese, and maybe they understood a little and accepted our apology, but we were careful with each other after that.

They did not drop by to practice their English anymore.

And I spent more time in the rice fields listening to Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, wondering where home was.

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