Middle Grade Novel, ARE YOU THERE VULCAN? IT’S ME, MILLIE-GRACIELLA.
98 PAGES, 23, 000 WORDS
Inching forth in the world of panicky fantasy – there’s a little rhythm to that.
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As I finish up my last week in Los Angeles before heading back to Birmingham where my sabbatical will continue with Norah, I am also trying to fan the flames of remembering our time teaching English in China during our first year of marriage.
I’ve also reached that critical crunch time in California where it’s impossible to see everyone I want to see for one last walk or one last coffee, though I am trying.
Tonight I am going to pretend that the sands aren’t running down the hourglass, and so we’ll go to the movies and maybe to Vroman’s just to linger.
I want to see “The Lady in the Van” more than “The Revenant.”
Here is a little bit more of China…circa 1987
“The Killing of the Chicken in the Bathtub”
Besides teaching at Ningbo University on the East China Sea in 1987, we tried to connect to other parts of the campus that had nothing to do with academia. When Ningbo was built by a Hong Kong shipper who wanted to make good when Hong Kong became part of China in 1997, all the farmers/peasants became reassigned as workers at the University.
It’s odd – Chekhovian – to use the word “peasant” but that’s how it was described to us.
“The peasants used to work the land around Ningbo, fishing or farming, and now they work at the University. Perhaps, it is better for them.”
I can’t remember who told us this but we heard it over and over from some of the administrators when we first arrived as we tried to understand the layout of the land.
The word “perhaps” was used a lot. When I got my students writing and acting in plays they’d written themselves or writing the student newspaper I was told: “Perhaps you are too tired. Perhaps the students are too tired. Perhaps you should only be teaching intensive and extensive English. Not the plays or newspaper.”
I was not tired at all. I was anxious to get things accomplished. I didn’t want to only teach “The Kon Tiki,” which was required reading for my freshman students.
I wish I’d slowed down a little, but I didn’t know how.
Much of it was exciting though – to be walking across campus on the other side of the world. We rode our bikes everywhere to explore our new city we would live for the next year.
A cook, Ling Di, taught Kiffen how to kill a chicken, but the kitchen staff began not to like her when she became friends with us. Then it was rumored that we’d hired her as our private cook, which was not true – not ever – but I learned that certain friendships didn’t cross lines, and I wondered if Ling Di ever got into trouble because of her friendship with us. She was just someone who was kind and funny and didn’t care about us being western.
Ling Di never wanted to her practice her English with us because she didn’t know any and didn’t care to. She never asked for anything. She simply liked to visit for a cup of tea and look at our pictures, and we would try to mime out stories for her adding basic Chinese numbers and words.
Kiffen has seven sisters and five brothers. Kerry has two brothers and one sister. Kiffen’s father played the fiddle. Kerry’s father coached football. Kerry’s mother taught music. Kiffen’s mother had 13 children. Maybe we’ll have children one day and bring them back to China.
Kiffen took photographs of our students and our lives in Ningbo, and some of Li Ding, too, and he put them into frames he’d built to hang on our walls, using wood and discarded glass he’d found from the different construction sites on campus.
I painted the frames with swirling yellows, reds, purples and blue, stabbing little dots of colors into the swirls. We visited Ling Di at her home, which was a tiny dark cement room in a village deep in the rice fields away from the campus where the workers lived. We rode our bikes along the road, following Ling Di to her home where she gave us cups of hot green tea and Chinese cookies, which were thin crunchy wafers.
Her home had maybe one window and a lamp. On her side table sat jelly jars of ginseng, next to a single bed under an old picture of Mao that hung on the wall.
Her neighbor was one of the other cooks, Xiao Fan, who had a beautiful little boy dressed in layers of colorful clothes, making him resemble a buddah baby with rosy fat cheeks.
Kiffen took pictures of Xiao Fan and her son in a bright yellow field of mustard flowers near the village after she asked him to one day.
It was on days like those – visiting Ling Di – that I learned to slow down a little and breathe in China.
But I was so homesick.
Sometimes I pictured my parents’ sloping backyard in Georgia where I would imagine myself sinking to the earth to hug that red clay dirt.
It was so embarrassing to be homesick for the South – for Georgia or Tennessee – when I’d put all my energy into escaping meaningless temp jobs and the occasional Friday night with my parents for chicken wings and beer at Hooters – seriously – Hooters in Buckhead.
We did act in “The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thorton Wilder at the Performance Gallery in Atlanta before China, and we saw a young new band “the Indigo Girls” out of Athens, Georgia one night in Virginia Highlands, but I was already living in China in my mind, waiting to go – if only our visas would arrive.
And by the time I was in China, I was already envisioning New York or Los Angeles.
Kiffen did much better at living in the moment and he read to me at night so many stories or I’d read to him – there was no television except for Micky Mouse or Columbo in Chinese.
I was so lost and more than a little dumb – truly. So I read Isak Dineson. I couldn’t start a coffee farm, but I could try just to be in China without imagining the future too much.
The skinny men on the kitchen staff at Ningbo University used to cook meals and smoke at the same time. I’d watch and they’d laugh and wave with a cigarette in their fingers when we’d pass by the kitchen. I remember hot woks and burning cigarettes, long ashes tipped on the floor. They all lived in the village near Ling Di and Xiao Fan. They used shiny cleavers to chop chickens clean through the bone, because the bone was considered one of the best parts.
Nothing was ever deboned in the Ningbo kitchen.
I remember chewing chicken very carefully because of shards of bone and gristle and thinking now – how appropriate it is that gristle is spelled like thistle – because that was the texture in my mouth some evenings.
So the food was mostly bad, except when Ms. Li, the director of the Foreign Guest House, cooked, and she made the most amazing soups – soups made with such love and tenderness you felt like crying they were that delicious with sweet and sour spices and fresh vegetables and you wanted to re-enter the world again with hope and possibility because of Ms. Lee and her soup after a morning of teaching.
Ms. Lee spoke perfect English and was in charge of making sure everything ran smoothly. Her grand piano had been confiscated during the Cultural Revolution for seventeen years. She graciously invited us to dinner at her home where we met her husband and daughters.
Most entertaining was done in the homes of the Chinese where we could all “speak freely,” because what you did, where you went, whom you spoke to, how late you stayed out, and so on, was noticed and remarked upon later as “perhaps, very interesting.”
I learned the concept of “saving face” and “losing face.” It was very important to “save face” at all costs. I had “lost face” with the young girls in the Foreign Guest House with the Eugene O’Neill quote, but even worse, I had made them feel like they had “lost face.”
Ms. Li called it simply a “misunderstanding” and played Mozart on her grand piano for us.
We taught English with a gregarious Englishman, Patrick, who quoted Robert Burns, and taught us Chinese history and culture. He’d come prepared to live in China, but he also had a keen sense of humor, and we swapped novels and stories over beer at night.
We also taught with a cranky Canadian, David, who yelled if anyone got near his fancy ten-speed, which he’d shipped from Canada.
The first night we met David, he said, “You Americans know nothing about Canada. We know everything about you. Nice to meet you.”
Since most of the time, Ms. Li did not cook, we ate many awful meals with Patrick and David that included long slivers of eel with eggplant, greasy egg soup, chicken bone and chicken stirred fried with bits of green pepper, and rice – always plenty of rice – that we put into our tin bowls that we carried with us to meals, the words “Ningbo University” etched in red lettering on the side.
David always had a new complaint about either Americans or the Chinese. When I let my students choose English names from literature, David said, “I didn’t come here to learn their English names. Your students, who are my students, too, want me to call them by their English names. No way. I came here to learn Chinese. You Americans. You think it’s all about you.”
“But I can’t learn ninety Chinese names right away, but I can learn their English names. The students like picking names from books they’ve read or movies they like.”
“No thanks,” David said. “Not interested.”
I said, “But one named herself Helen after the brave girl in Jane Eyre.”
“Another named herself Jenny after the courageous girl in ‘Love Story.’”
He was not impressed. In fact, I could see I was boring him, and it made want to smack him.
He hated everything.
The thought of eating meal after meal with him filled me with dark despair in those early weeks at Ningbo.
I asked him finally, “David, do you even know their Chinese names?”
“I’m learning them,” he said.
Maybe to diffuse the tension, Patrick jumped in and said, “I have a terrible joke. It’s awful. But guess how Chinese parents named their babies? They drop silverware on the floor and whatever sound it makes – ling, ping, ding – and that’s how it’s done.”
Did we laugh at such a terrible and inappropriate joke?
Probably, uncomfortable laughter, I don’t remember. We were all shipwrecked together, so good taste was lost surviving the days in rural China.
As for the naming of his students, Kiffen, who taught the engineering and business majors, solved the matter by naming his students himself, giving them monikers like Washington and Lincoln, Roosevelt, Van Gogh and Picasso, Einstein and Elvis, and the names of his twelve brothers and sisters, and his parents and grandparents, Jim and Frances, John Blackwell and Emma Chauvin.
It was funny to see a family of Chinese Lunsfords all smiling to welcome me into the room. Kiffen smiled and said, ” Meet Beanie, Jimmy, Tomi, Nancy, Teresa, Celina, Joseph, Eppie, John, Chauvie, Sam, and Silas.” They all waved when I went to visit the conversational English class where we created K & K’s Cafe and practiced ordering hamburgers and cheeseburgers and pizza.
But to escape the torture of bad food and forced conversation in the dining hall, we began to cook for ourselves using a kind of Chinese Coleman stove with two burners. We’d shop for food on Saturdays in Ningbo, and buy enough to carry in our bike baskets the three-mile trip back to campus.
Once we bought a live chicken at the market that Kiffen killed in our bathroom the way Ling Di had taught him to do.
But I couldn’t stand it, hearing the slow death march of squawking hysteria and banging around in the bathtub, so I took Laurie Anderson to the rice fields and walked until it was over. Actually, I can’t remember if I played Laurie Anderson or the Beatles or Mozart thinking of Out of Africa and how Isak Dineson pulled it off for so many years.
But these were the soundtracks to our lives in Ningbo, China.
Images of Ningbo
Water buffalo and farmer
Xiao Fan and Ling Di
Xiao Fan and her little boy
Duck in a bag
Chicken killing time with Ling Di
I wish I could remember – I will have to ask Kiffen.
(I googled it and remembered.)
It’s in Hangzhou, a city that was four hours north of us in Ningbo by train in 1987, but now less than hour away by high speed rail. This attraction was called “Running Tiger Spring” and the legend goes that there had been a drought but a monk had a vision that two tigers would help him find a new source of water. The water still runs in this spring today (or it did in 1987) and Hangzhou is famous its delicious tea and spring water.
I remember now how we floated pennies on the water because we were told the water was so strong and vibrant that the pennies would float and they did.
(I also loved the West Lake of Hangzhou and the moon festival.)