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Xining Rocks! by Frank Beyer

Dear Juan! This is your friend that boring old fart Stan, coming to you from my new location – Xining, the biggest city on the Tibetan plateau – metropolis of the wonderful province of Qinghai.

Let me tell you I´m so happy to have left Hainan Island – things really didn’t work out for me there in the end with the university owing me money and threatening to cancel my visa (before I could make arrangements to get the fuck out of Dodge). On top of that I had a unhinged young woman knocking on my door with offerings of McDonalds hamburgers.

It has been reported to me that you have a rather short attention span (although I must say I never noticed this myself, in all of our lengthy drinking sessions you maintained an interested silence).  In light of this I´m going to keep my dispatch from on high (above sea level) concise.

I do miss Hainan, the tropical climate and beach. My diet of fruit and fish has been inadequately replaced by barbequed mutton. My beach front meetings with local girls have turned into rather unsatisfactory talks with drunken colleagues – but it´s for the best, even if this part of China – the Wild West is no plain sailing. I could be Thailand or the Philippines like many men my age, but thanks to a divorce and a period in the States when I pursued my own research without a sponsor, I must keep working and there are more opportunities here; nor do I want to be seen as a sex tourist, and I still have hope of making some kind of meaningful intellectual contact with the culture here.

Now the germane information pertaining to my flight from Hainan: well I had something of a spat with the administration over the nature of the examinations I set. I had been working very hard to stop my students memorizing everything for their exams. I had a new system in which for the oral exam each student would be given one of five topics randomly to talk about on the day of the exam itself. All the topics had been covered during the semester. Surely even they were not then going to memorize five different speeches each. Some degree of spontaneity would be achieved and I then it wouldn’t be too friggin boring listening to a bunch of prepared speeches. Unfortunately my class of 50 all memorized the same 5 speeches – and I had to then listen to each one ten times – you get it 5 topics 50 students! Put that beer down and concentrate, the math is simple.

It had a rather an effect on me, listening to those mechanically delivered talks. I had a catatonic incident. In fact it was quite interesting – I just shut down after about 38 speeches which in fact took us several classes to get through. Five minutes and nearly two speeches into what was to be the last session I just found myself stopping, shutting down. When the poor kid a chubby fellow, who mispronounced all the words of a speech that he understood zero of finished, I was supposed to give some kind of comment like I had with all the others – concentrate on pronunciation of TH or try and put some intonation in your voice. However I didn´t,  I just sat there with my mouth open and my eyes rolling around like marbles.

When I froze the class did too. I hoped they would just keep looking at me in silence for the remaining 45 minutes. But no, after 15 minutes of complete silence they took off to enjoy themselves elsewhere – seeing I had no intention of controlling them. The admin got wind of the situation. And you know you can do whatever in class – teach them how to pick their noses if you so choose, but letting them out early that´s a cardinal sin. Young people with free time on their hands would lead to the end of China as we know it!

Of course I explained fully the reasons for my distress and assured them I would not allow the grind of working in this kind of hellish rote educational system to get to me again. But from that day on I had the feeling I was a marked man.

I had a supporter however, one young woman majoring in engineering. She had more the personality of an art´s major. She came to see me after class not long after the catatonic incident and told me she loved what I was trying to do and that spontaneity was so important in language learning. I had never heard a Chinese person use the word spontaneity and I guess that made me fall for her instantly. She also asked me about Freud (She had been listening, she knew this was one of my interests!) and I was happy to explain to her some of his basic theories. From this educational bond, a stronger more emotional bond grew, one that certainly did not bear any relation to the older man and younger woman relationship of convenience you so often see.

I myself found no ethical problem with it – had I been trading grades for sex that would have been different, but I was not. By the way, the perception that a university professor holds sway over the student with his or her power to allocate grades is in some cases true, but at the same time students hold the power of the professor´s reputation to equal degree – although you might rightly argue that the because of a student´s age they do not realize the power they have.

I was open about the whole thing and felt like the king of the world riding the streets of Sanya with her, Li Na, on the back of my motorbike. She was a classical Chinese beauty; I bought her on a Qipao dress which really made her look like a girl from a 1930s poster from the old Shanghai. Aesthetic clichés aside we really got on well, and she showed no interest in my possessions or acquiring a green card. Some misogynist acquaintances of mine claim Chinese women keep their evil plans hidden for years, however I cannot believe this.

The school administration found out about the situation of course and still holding a grudge against me over the exam incident they hatched a quite simple malevolent plan. Although never done before and probably no longer in effect now, they requested all foreign teachers to sign an agreement saying they would have no social contact with students, the penalty if the agreement was broken would be instant dismissal. I tried to argue that this should have been in the original contract – but to no avail – I eventually signed.

I reasoned to myself that it was for the best anyway, that it had been great with Li Na, but that really it was not in her best interests to stay as a 22 year old undergrad with a 50 year old psychology professor come English teacher. I sadly realized that I would need to give up her young body for the barbershop brothels frequented by so many a lonely foreign English Teacher.

I explained to her carefully my decision, how much I cared for her, but that it was better we not see each other, and she seemed to accept it. However, the next night she turned up at my door (we both lived on campus, I in a modest apartment her in a squalid dormitory) with two Mcdonalds cheese burgers for me to eat. I don’t know where she got the idea that I liked Mcdonalds? I had never been there with her. However she probably believed that in the US this was in fact my daily diet.
I let her in and we watched a movie, I told her gently she could not come back. The next night she was back again, I did not let her in initially, through the spy-hole in my door I could see her, a forlorn figure in the same dress with two cheese burgers again. Distraught I let her in and tried to reason with her. The next night same again – I did not let her in. On and on it continued: she would wail outside the door, making offers to perform sexual acts never previously on the table in raised tones. I could smell cheeseburger and the stale sweat from that same Qipao dress.

With nowhere to turn for help (and indeed at a loss how to help her) I requested a holiday from the school and spent about a week in a hotel in Haikou. Putting some distance between us was the only way. Li Na did not show on my return to Sanya. However next pay day I was asked to step into the office of the Head of the English department who said that the University would be docking my pay for breach of contract. It had been reported to him that my relationship with a student had caused her to drop out of her course. I was lucky to keep my job he said.

That was enough for me. I resigned, and the university made haste to cancel my visa and did pay me a cent of my salary. Luckily I don’t have many possessions except for the rather heavy works Freud and was able to relocate to a hotel rather quickly.

I got straight onto Dave´s ESL café to look for a new gig. When I saw the job in Xining it immediately appealed as something different. Tibetan and Muslim minorities, a China away from the rash capitalism of the east coast perhaps. Mountains to climb in the summer – a return to the fitness of my youth. I flew to Hong Kong to get a new visa and after two days of enjoying western food there I moved on to my destiny in Xining.

Well so far the place seems to be a bit of a smokestack, and a cold one at that. The heating system in my new apartment is often broken. I lie awake at night in the cold and think what the hell am I doing, my foreign English teacher colleagues a bunch of 20 something year old drunks, my students 20 year old mutes. Other foreigners in town range from ridiculously fervent missionaries to that lot of foreign students, researching PHDs about local minorities, who know more about China than I can ever hope to. Well, I feel completely lost during those nights and when day comes I´m happy to go teach like an octogenarian receiving a visitor at an old person´s home. Happy someone will listen to me – a captive audience.

Then there are days in my long coat sitting eating mutton at a Muslim restaurant followed by beers at a bar – days where the hue of this ugly city still seems strange and fascinating enough to make me think I did the right thing to leave my native land – to which now financially and socially surely I can never go back.

It´s not all bad old friend – I have beer and my texts of Freud – not to mention the mutton and the thought of one day studying more about these minority cultures — the minorities that for in the main part just look rather poor. My taxi drive from the airport on my first day was rather a terrible start. The driver left me in traffic to go pee, forcing me in the end to tip him as I did not want to take change from his unwashed hand. A deliberate tactic?

Damn. Wish me luck, buddy!

Frank Beyer holds a degree in History from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Over the last decade he has worked in various jobs in China and South America, mainly in the field of education. Currently he is teaching English in São Paulo, Brazil.