One day, after I returned to my neighborhood in Hu Po after teaching in Yong Hong Primary School, I met my old friend
Raymond who also lived in Hu Po at Mei Qing Ke and Gong Zha Feng’s restaurant. He was eating lunch and drinking with about
five of his friends at a table outdoor on the sidewalk underneath a tarp that was useful for keeping the sunlight and rain away
from customers. He invited me to join them and share the plates of food and large green bottles of beer with them. But before the
beer, Raymond offered to pour me a cup of
baijou. That stuff is not for people with low tolerance to alcohol. The military wouldn’t
use it as a tank degreaser if it was something that would go down easily. Raymond slowly poured the
baijou into my empty and
fragile plastic cup that was weak enough that it could be crumpled up by an infant, and everyone’s eyes got larger, including
Gong Zha Feng and Mei Qing Ke, who were busy cooking up peoples’ lunches on their skillet. They had never seen me drink any
alcohol out of all the times I went to their restaurant, so they started getting excited to see what I was about to do. After my cup
was full, I grabbed it in one hand, and looked around at everyone as I started to feel anxiety about drinking something so
powerful. They thought I was going to take it one gulp at a time, but I wanted to get it over with, so I pounded the entire cup, and
everyone got surprised, especially Gong who said, “Ohhhhhh!” as she started laughing and speaking something in Mandarin to
Mei. The
baijou by itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but I had much beer waiting for me after that as well as food and table-
mates that were eager to make a foreigner drink with them. Raymond introduced me to all of his friends, and told me to memorize
their names. None of them could speak any English. I had a hard enough time remembering Chinese names even when I was
sober, so drinking obviously wasn’t going to improve my skills. We drank several cups of beer together as they said the Chinese
word for cheers, “
Gambei!” And then Raymond asked me, “Do you remember their names? You can go through all of them one at
a time.” I got a couple of their names right, but then the others’ names escaped me, and Raymond said, “Now you must have a
drink. It is your punishment.” I shouldn’t have tried to act so brave by drinking all of the
baijou at once. I started feeling sick
because not only did I have to drink whenever I couldn’t remember their names, but they also said “
Gambei!” many times, and
that meant everyone had to drink. I told Raymond, “I need to slow down on the drinking. I feel like I’m going to throw up if I drink
this time.” He told his friends about my situation, and some of them gave Raymond a response. Raymond translated it for me.
“They said you can go over to the street and do what you need to do. So don’t worry, you can keep drinking.” They wanted me to
keep drinking with them, so I did everything I could not to let them down, and I managed to survive, barely.
    I had a nice rest that afternoon, but then it was time to go to the middle school and teach a couple of classes. I shouldn’t have
been so careless to get drunk before going to work. Even the rest I had did not take away the effect from drinking so much. But I
got into a taxi and traveled to the school like I would have any other day. I was worried that the students and other teachers
would notice that I was intoxicated and look down on me heavily, moments before the class would begin. I talked to one of the
classroom teachers named Ms. Jun (June), and she told me there would be no class that day because the students were going to
watch a video that afternoon. The one and only time I came to school in that condition was the one and only time that they
decided not to have class that day without telling me first. Saved!
    Our apartment was not serving its purpose because there were three of us, but only two rooms, so my boss David decided to
move us into a new apartment that was still in Hu Po a bit closer to Changjiang Road. Dushan, Spela, and I went to check it out
one day. It was on a street called Anqing Road on the side of a small bridge. The first floor of the building was on another street
below, the main street of Hu Po, but the entrance to the building was on the second floor across another small bridge from
Anqing Road that went into the building. It looked similar to what a castle with drawbridge extended over the moat would look
like. The only problem we had was that we didn’t know how we were going to move our old things into the new apartment. But
that problem was solved easily. One day as we were eating lunch at the old restaurant, Dushan and Spela, since they were
fluent in Mandarin, told Mei Qing Ke that we would be moving soon, and he offered the service of one of his friends to help us
move. On moving day, Mei called up his friend on his cell phone, and he came over shortly with his bicycle and cart. In only two
trips, we were able to move all of our things to the new place. It was much cheaper than any other way would have cost, so we
were very thankful that they helped us.
    My abilities as a native English speaker were drawing need for my services more than ever before. The eighth grade
classroom teacher named Ms. Zhen (Jun) invited me to her husband’s college to host an English corner. Ms. Zhen was
extremely kind and sincere, and she often gave me pieces of candy or special food eaten on traditional Chinese holidays. Her
husband’s college was called Anhui Vocational College of Law. In that place, students trained to become police officers and
lawyers.
    They picked me up by taxi one evening with her baby son, and directed the taxi driver to head out to the school. The school
was out past where I used to live in the hotel when I first came to the city. I always had a special affinity to that place because of
the circumstances I was involved in at the time when I lived there, and the people I knew at the time. The first thing we did was
go to the cafeteria, and Ms. Zhen ordered some vegetable dumplings for me. She said, “You should eat first before you speak to
the students so you can feel the energy when you are talking to them.” We waited patiently for another hour before it was time for
me to go in and see what I could share with the students. We went to a speech hall on the third floor of one of the buildings there,
and there were at least 80 students there sitting in rows of chairs, all wearing green army fatigues. They all welcomed me there
without leaving their seats, and someone handed me a microphone. I felt like I was at a concert. Most students seemed very
surprised and curious about me because many of them had never met a foreigner before. I introduced myself to them and told
them where I came from, and then tried to get the students to ask questions. The whole time Ms. Zhen played translator, and often
spoke something when the students had clueless looks on their faces, then they would say ”Ahhh!” because then they
understood together what I was talking about with assistance. The students were a bit shy at first, but a couple of them were
brave enough to raise their hands and ask me questions about myself and America. I tried to be as funny as possible to help
loosen them up and feel more comfortable. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes I could hear the crickets, but they were never
cold to me. I received so much warmth from them that it was hard to believe any group of people could be so friendly, especially
some people who were being trained to be police officers, not that being mean is a requirement to be one. They wanted me to
sing a song, so I sang the only song for them that I really knew the words to, and that they also would know. The song is called
“Take me to Your Heart”. It is a song I learned from the Anqing and Xuan Cheng summer camps that was played over and over
on a loudspeaker during resting time when students were playing around the school grounds in small clusters all over the place.
I learned the lyrics to the song because in Xuan Cheng, I was asked to perform with Nathan and several of the students. They
seemed to love it, and they gave me balloons with friendship messages on them, and someone drew my picture and gave it to
me. I think it was fair to say that most everyone had a great time that evening, and we ended it by taking some group photos
together, and I gave my e-mail address to all of them to keep in touch if they wanted.
    Another time I was asked to help was by Nina from Slovenia when she told me that her friend and coworker whom I had met
at the English corner at Anhui University several times named Cherry was looking for foreigners to go out into the countryside
about an hour and a half from Hefei. There was a middle school out there with a headmaster who was looking for foreign
teachers to give a demo class to students so that the parents would offer to pay extra money to have a foreign teacher to be
hired by the school. They asked for two people, so I agreed to be one of them. Early one morning, a driver and a businessman
came in a car to pick me up at the bus stop on the main road of Hu Po, very close to my new apartment. The businessman had a
big smile on his face and carried a bag with a shoulder strap attached to it, and seemed very good at convincing other people to
do business with him judging by his personality. Though it’s not always true, Chinese businessmen have a big reputation for
dishonesty in financial dealings, so I was going to be very careful of this man whom I didn’t know at all even though he looked
very friendly. I didn’t know if that reputation was well-deserved or not, but it was reason enough to be cautious. We made a stop
in another area of Hefei that I was not familiar with to pick up the other foreigner. Hefei was full of little corners and districts that
sometimes made me think that I didn’t know the city at all when I would discover the new areas. The foreigner we picked up was
named Ricky, and he was from South Africa. He had a low cut flattop haircut like many of the Chinese men I had seen around the
city, and he wore glasses. He was very friendly to me and seemed glad that we were foreign companions on the same unknown
mission into the countryside to hopefully get our promised salaries in return for our teaching services.
    The country along the way from Hefei to the small town that we were headed to reminded me of how the country in the United
States had an older and more traditional feel to it, but it was a different feel than what was back in America. It definitely had a
much older feel to it than the American countryside. It seemed that there was something mysterious lingering around in the
atmosphere from many generations of preserved culture that had been passed on for thousands of years. There were many old
and tattered buildings on the side of the country road in some places, and crowds of people walking along the side, some selling
crops, and others guiding animals like water buffalo and horses. It seemed as though there were a lot of children in the country.
Perhaps the one child per-family law did not apply to the people in the country the same as in the cities. The people who lived
outside of the city were usually very poor, so they needed many children to work and make enough money for the family. In some
small towns we passed through, there were roundabouts with a statue in the middle of some ancient warrior or of a modern
political figure. There was so much I did not understand about this place. Ricky kept saying to me ”This is how we live in a
foreign country,” as we sped past trees and drove around winding roads to reach our destination.
China Dispatch/Andrew Gramling

Learning situations