Sunday, November 10, 2013

As Tears Rolled Down His Face…

The year was 1978. The place: Berlin, Germany. I am one of 2 English speaking students in the entire school, the other being my best friend, Marjorie. As a part of the fallout from our parents’ divorces, we were no longer entitled to attend DOD schools, so we were conditionally accepted into an “Oberstufenzentrum” – a German intermediate school geared to prepare students for apprenticeships or the Abitur, the major exam gateway to higher education. Marjorie, fluent in German thanks to her mother, quickly established social connections and had no trouble keeping up with lessons. As for me, barely having mastered ‘Danke Schoen’, I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to learn at least the rudiments of that language by the end of the first 6 week marking period in order to keep my eligibility for attendance.

The classes rotated much the way they do here in China: once established into a ‘class’, that group of students attend all classes together. Also, rather than the students prowling the halls between classes, the students stay in their homeroom and the teachers go from class to class. Marjorie and I were in ‘A’ class, along with two Bettinas, two Michaels, and one each of Ingo, Astrid, Nadja… and so on. Our homeroom teacher was Herr DeBoer, spelled just like the Boers of South Africa.

He was an odd man, as I remember, but a very engaging teacher. I towered over him – by age 14 I was already a skinny, lanky, long thing, having reached my lifelong height of 1.83m (6’). He had red hair… what was left of it, and a rich, well groomed mustache and goatee. He was rather paunchy and his shoulders hunched forward, as though under some great weight. Probably his most memorable feature was his eyes, glittering hazel from under the pronounced shelf of his brow.

At times I thought of him as ape-like in stature, but there was no mistaking the intelligence, depth and sensitivity of this man. He took great pains to include Marjorie and I in the lessons, calling on us, in the back of the room, in his peculiar way: feet firmly planted, right arm arcing around in counterclockwise motion, ending the gesture by pointing at one or the other of us and saying: “Marjorie (or my name), what do you think?”

In those days I was so shy I would literally turn red and tear up when called on. That was a long time ago.

Herr DeBoer was thirty eight years old at the time Marjorie and I graced his classroom. He was young enough to have lived through the last days of WWII. In fact, it is his recounting of one of his most precious memories that I wish to share with you.

His earliest memories are of war-torn Germany in the final days of the Third Reich. While he never specifically indicated whether his parents took good care of him or even whether he had a life of relative privilege during that dark period in history, he did make it clear he had witnessed immeasurable horror. Indeed, as he recounted that time in his life, his eyes seemed to sink further into his skull. He would sit on the corner of his desk, his body folding upon itself as though to shield himself from great pain. Or maybe he was reliving hunger cramps. His lips would quiver while relating how people scrounged through sewage and garbage for something to eat.  

And then came that glorious day: Spring 1945, when American troops marched into town, liberating those citizens from the shroud of Nazism. Herr DeBoer’s tone grew light and a smile crinkled his face as he told of standing on the edge of the crowd lining the streets. There he is, a small boy, perhaps hungry and definitely wary of air raid sirens and the pain of hunger. He is curious of these great men, marching in their green clothes, singing and smiling. Joy was a rare commodity in those days; he is not sure what those expressions portend.

As the column marches past, a wave of euphoria infects the crowd. Fearful of being trampled, or maybe just wanting a better look, this 4-year old boy steps further out, into the path of those smiling, green-clad men. Suddenly, one of them breaks rank, reaches into his pack and stoops to offer the child a chocolate. After the boy takes it, that soldier pats him on the head and, smiling, rejoins the ranks.

As Herr DeBoer talks, his countenance shifts between jubilance and sorrow. So impactful is this memory that, toward the end of his recounting, he could not bear to look at anyone. His every effort goes to controlling his voice so that it does not break. His hands, gripped tightly in front of him show white from the power of his clench. He quavers: “To this day, that is the sweetest chocolate I have ever eaten.” He sighed, heaved himself off the corner of his desk and surreptitiously wiped his eyes as he turned to face the blackboard.

Throughout the room, not a sound. You could have heard a pin drop.

I don’t know what my classmates felt or thought, but to this day I remember the impact Herr DeBoer’s story had on me. As an American, I was fiercely proud that my countrymen brought that child a treat, thus forming one of his most powerful memories. As a student I was part horrified and part fascinated by this adult who displayed such deep emotion. I felt like a voyeur.

By definition, a ‘veteran’ is a person who has had long experience in a particular field. While we Americans tend to think of veterans only as those grizzled folk who stumbled home from Viet Nam in body but not necessarily in soul, or those who served in the Korean War or in any antagonistic theater, we should also include spouses and children, parents and loved ones as veterans. They too endured hardship and loss, even though theirs was of a different magnitude than those in combat experienced.   

I am appalled these days to read of a growing body of people who believe The Holocaust was a hoax and that Germans were never oppressed, fearful or starving. I think of those servicemen who entered those camps and were horrified to find living cadavers, people in trenches whose feverish eyes glittered with the last of the life in them. I recall the countless tales of soldiers, nurses, doctors, priests who visited and ministered to camp survivors. All those movies about Omaha Beach, Normandy, fears of Sarin and Soman and mustard gas, ack-acks firing in the mist and potato mashers flung into columns of marching men.

Our Veterans deserve better than this incredulity. Not just the ones that went to fight but the ones who stayed at home, the ones who tended to the weak, the sick, the lame and the halt behind enemy lines and on friendly soil.

Time is running thin. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American WWI Veteran passed on in 2011. By natural attrition we are losing our eyewitnesses to history, while the ranks of skeptics and outright disbelievers grow ever more populous. Public school history books are now so genteel that only a mention of WWII and its atrocities is made. On news panels and chat forums dealing with the topic people are commenting: “It happened a long time ago: get over it!” Already it is believed the Holocaust was at least greatly exaggerated, if not an outright fabrication. Even more frightful is that some espouse the idea that wanton killing of such magnitude was a great idea, and should be going on today.

Let us not forget, today and every day, why we honor our Veterans: not just for the service they rendered, by why they were called into service (or felt compelled to join). Let us never forget what they saw, endured and lived through. Let us include in that number those who waited in vain for their loved ones to come home, those who lived through warring periods without it impacting their life in any direct way, and those who, as civilians witnessed unspeakable horror but could do nothing but live with the massive guilt of preserving their own life while all around, others perished.   

That includes Herr DeBoer and his ilk: those who experienced war at a tender age, who, even thirty four years later can taste the sweet chocolate melting in his mouth.





Sunday, November 3, 2013

My New Friend Gus

So many times, when out and about I see foreigners… who won’t make eye contact or greet me. I had read somewhere that many expats do not wish to ‘ruin their authentic Chinese experience’. They tend to not mingle with people of their own race or ethnicity unless they are somehow connected: colleagues maybe, or perhaps their husbands work together. Possibly they even came here together, best friends wanting to share an overseas adventure.  

And then there was that one time, while enjoying an afternoon out at a café I saw 3 young ‘foreigner’ moms chatting away, one whose baby had toddled closer to me. Not within grabbing reach – as if I would grab anyone’s child! The little cutie was certainly curious enough to stare long and hard across the aisle. 

Baby flirting is so fun! You smile, the baby smiles. You wave, the baby waves. You play peek-a-boo, and the baby gives that puzzled look, as if wondering whether the peek-a-booing adult actually thinks he/she is invisible behind his/her hands.

The aforementioned baby and I had gotten to the ‘peek-a-boo’ stage when his mother noticed a stranger engaging her child. She threw me a baleful look while scooping her charge up, and admonished him not to wander away again. (See Babies entry, posted May 2012)

As if I’d hurt any baby!!!

I’ve gotten used to what I call ‘the foreigner effect’. When I see a non-Chinese, I will glance his/her way and, if he/she doesn’t make eye contact or send a greeting, I won’t either. Far be it from me to ruin anyone’s authentic Chinese experience. So imagine my surprise yesterday, while out and about, upon espying a trim young man in a green tee-shirt munching down on a steamed bun, not just making eye contact but maintaining it!

I wrote a while back that Wuhan has 3 subway lines: Line 1 is blue, Line 2 is pink and Line 4 is yellow. Not sure what happened to Line 3. I also confided that I was a bit leery of navigating the city via subway because I mostly rely on visual clues to know when to get off the bus. Since then, after learning names of streets and stops, I have practiced riding the subway until I became as proficient riding trains as I am riding buses. Besides, riding the train is much more convenient: no traffic! 

On what could be the last day of fine weather before winter winds howl down I decided to venture into a part of town I had only glanced at from a train window. On the agenda: lunch at Burger King, train to this as yet unexplored area, perhaps a nice tea in some shop in that neighborhood and then home to eat a take-out dinner.

Apparently this green-shirted man had gotten off the same train I did. We were walking the same direction, he far enough ahead of me that I did not immediately notice him. He had crossed the street before I did, and then turned around. His eyes locked on mine and when I came upon him, he spoke! He must be one of those rare foreigners who do not mind sharing their wonder and awe of China.

As it turns out, he had just gotten here a few weeks ago and was starved for companionship, a feeling I remember well from my first months here.

Gus is very friendly, and very open about what he’s been subjected to so far. We spent nearly a half hour, standing on the sidewalk outside a Starbucks, talking. He confessed he was on his way into the shopping center to buy cookware and asked where I was headed. I offered to treat him to a coffee, which he declined. Mineral water became an acceptable compromise. It was while enjoying that bottle of water that he told me his tale of horror.

He had been contracted by a private school to teach little children oral English. Upon arrival in Wuhan, no one met him at the airport. He had to find his way into town and to his school by himself. Once he arrived he was instructed to report for class the very next day, and given a paper with a course outline and a list of words he was expected to teach each day. He was offered no materials, no textbooks and no support of any kind.

Still jet lagged, he was led to his apartment… that being an exceedingly generous term for the living quarters his school provides. Less than fifty square meters of unfurnished living space, most of the walls covered in mold. He showed me pictures and told me he scrubbed his place for 3 days before feeling confident enough to unpack anything. As bad as I thought my place was when I first got here, it was nowhere near as bad as the quarters Gus was given.

The first night he had no electricity or water. He had to scrounge for food on his own. While out buying something to eat he bought several bottles of water, making do with that until he could get more settled, and maybe more help navigating the immediate needs of life from some friendly colleague or school staff member.

I have Sam, my 24/7 liaison person who takes exceptionally good care of me and over time has become my friend. Gus was supposed to have Tiffany, who told him she was not his babysitter or his mother. Basically, he was left to sink or swim as best he could on his own.

Gus earns 7,000Yuan each month to teach 6 hours per day, but has to pay the school 1,000Yuan each month for the privilege of teaching. He also has to pay rent and utilities on his school-provided apartment. Virtually nothing is given him or provided to or for him, and he certainly gets no support from the school staff. Even his passport is still in their custody, ostensibly to obtain the working visa required by the government. The contract he had signed prior to coming to China had been revised and he was required to sign a new contract, vastly different from the one he signed before his arrival. He had to resort to threatening the school officials with legal action, and only then did they relent and at least go through the motions of doing for him.

The more he talked the more I gaped in disbelief. I had read such horror stories as his online, posted by foreign teachers whose experiences were nowhere near what I had been treated to. The more Gus talked, the more I mentally compared his situation to mine. I concluded he must be a man of fortitude to suffer all that he has endured so far and not throw in the towel, as I no doubt would have.

And, the more he talked the more I recalled my early days here: the loneliness, the deprivation, the confusion and fear, and longing for my loved ones.

After sitting in the café for over 2 hours we were both ready to move on, but I sensed Gus was not ready to let go of a friendly face. We went shopping together. His goal was to purchase something to cook on so that he can make an omelet for dinner. While shopping he talked of a friend he has in the city who he never gets to see because his schedule is so tight. She works many hours as well: ten hours per day, 6 days per week. Again I sensed his isolation, his need to connect.  

Gus selected a low end – read: cheap – electronic hotplate. Besides a kettle, it is the only cooking appliance in his kitchen. We then went to the grocery section, where he bought eggs, mushrooms and apples for his dinner. His eyes agleam, he talked of the omelet he anticipated enjoying for dinner that night. Shortly after paying for his purchases, we parted company. But not before I caught and enjoyed the aura of triumph he sported. We exchanged contact information and then went our separate ways.   

Meeting Gus, spending that afternoon with him and sharing his glee at doing for himself recalled all those times I returned home, exultant over some small feat. Even now, embarking on my 4th year here I manage a coup or two that I get giddy about. Surely the win is not as savage or as great as any of the ones when I first came here, but they are sweet, nonetheless. I think that, from here on out, when I do something new I’ll most likely think of Gus, and his joy over a simple omelet.  

And Sam!!! Thank all my lucky stars for Sam!! Matter of fact, thinking back on all Gus told me I decided Sam deserves a huge ‘thank you’. With the homeward bound bus stuck in hopelessly snarled traffic, I whipped out my phone and sent my friend a ‘thank you’ message in 4 different languages. I did not tell him why I was thanking him. Silly Sam! He responded with every self-effacing phrase existent in Chinese! I roared with laughter, mindless of the other passengers gaping at me.

I hope Gus will soon find a friend like Sam.                       

Evil Laugh

This being the first Halloween I’ve felt worth a flip pretty much since I got here, I decided to ‘do it’ in a big way. Fortunately this coincided with the fact that China is just now catching on to the spirit of Halloween – no pun intended, and Metro had a selection of costumes, makeup and decorations in the festival’s traditional black and orange.

Not a large selection, mind you. Like with Christmas, the Chinese have caught on to the idea that Halloween is big fun in the States, but they shy away from the meaning and history of the tradition.

Fundamentally this culture is terrified of ghosts, goblins, ghouls and gremlins. Yet these manifestations hold a morbid fascination for them. My students love to watch horror movies, but when confronted with a real live materialization of someone (me!) dressed up and/or painted, they will cringe, scream, shy away… or, more likely, run away. Such was the case 2 years ago, when Dash and I prowled the campus on Halloween night, giving away candy. All I had done in the way of costuming was to put on a blond wig, draw age lines on my face with eyeliner and walk around stooped and limping. Really didn’t have to fake being an old woman because I certainly felt bad enough to be one.    

Now, for the first time there are cool Halloween things at Metro, like: fake fingernails and witch’s hats, face paint and vampire teeth, capes and costumes and, and, and…. I bought a little bit of everything with the intent of freaking my kids out.

Here’s how it worked: for the first part of the class I was Ms. Normal Foreign Teacher, who had prepared a PowerPoint show with pictures of demons, vampires and zombies with a bulleted list describing each. The students learned how to say ‘ghoul’, ‘witch’ and ‘goblin’, among others. I taught them the evil laugh: MU-HAHAHAHA! While hunching forward and rubbing their hands together. I had to remind them they will not be scary if they intone that laugh while grinning ear to ear. How I wish you could have seen them: they were priceless!!!

For the presentation’s ‘tombstone’ slide I showed pictures of tombstones, and made it a point to inform them that there is a city in Arizona called Tombstone. With the picture of Tombstone, Arizona projecting, I demonstrated how two fighting factions duel, even falling to the floor when my volunteer student ‘shot’ me.

The kids loved it!!

Of course, they do tend to have short attention spans, so I didn’t drag the presentation out too much. I did get a big kick out of seeing them write down words like ‘zombie’, ‘ghoul’, ‘witch’… as though this were a serious lesson and they were learning valuable vocabulary that they could use every day.

Just prior to their break time I unwrapped the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had brought for them. I firmly believe that studying culture is essential to language learning, and what could be more iconic than PB&J? Besides, these kids are eating machines, as I’ve disclosed more than once in this blog.

For them it was a delightful treat. For me it meant 8 loaves of bread, 2 big jars of peanut butter and 3 jars of jelly, to say nothing of the time spent producing this bounty and the logistics of transportation. Monday and Tuesday classes were not difficult, but my Friday groups are in 2 different buildings, across the campus from each other, and I only have 20 minutes between classes. Somehow I had to figure out how to get sixty four sandwiches from my house to the kids’ mouths without going stale, getting crushed or smearing all over the place. I ended up filling 2 plastic totes, along with stacking remaining prepared sandwiches on the cutting board and saran wrapping the whole lot.

While they munched away I cued the movie: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!. No subtitles, but quintessentially American. Palates appeased, they settled in to watch Lucy, Linus, Sally and Charlie cavort.

Meanwhile I repaired to the back of the room, where my backpack awaits. I whipped out my little mirror, the paint, the wig, the fake nails and teeth, ‘uglied’ myself up and bided my time. Come the end of the cartoon, when Charlie Brown and Linus talk about The Great Pumpkin’s supposed existence, I crept forward.

Sneaking up from behind, I slunk around, grazing this student’s hair or that student’s neck, growling: “I VA-hnt to DRRRink your BLOOD!!!” and then, of course, the evil laugh: “MUHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Here is what I don’t get: these kids had to know it was me. I didn’t look that radically different. Besides, how many people are as tall/big as me in China, and more specifically: on our campus? Yet upon approaching one or the other, especially the girls, there was genuine fear in their eyes. They leaned away and even hid their faces. Only a few truly enjoyed the prank; one or two even wanted my fake fingernails and my witch’s hat.

Naturally I did not carry on with the charade. In deference to their feelings, I quickly returned to my old, jovial self, even with my painted face (I did remove the wig because it was just so darn hot!) We went on to play word games, like hangman and anagrams. All’s well that ended well and regular class resumes next week.

It seems many people here believe All Hallow’s Eve is a holiday, with the same import as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years. For that matter, they believe the same thing about St. Valentine’s Day. While eager to partake of the celebration in grand western fashion, they are essentially ignorant of the significance and tradition the observance is founded on.

There are times to not be a teacher. I don’t want to deny these kids their fun. I enjoyed treating them to a taste of American food. They enjoyed sending me “Happy Halloween” messages and wishing me a nice holiday. They thought they were doing a great thing, remembering a foreigner holiday and paying tribute to their teacher. How precious!

In part because of Halloween, it’s been a busy week for me, socially speaking. On Sunday afternoon I rode home from Metro with Red, one of my freshman students. She didn’t know that in my shopping cart lurked the makings of a treat she and her classmates would partake of, as well as the materials to make her cower. Tony stopped by on Monday evening, presumably to catch up but also to ask what my holiday plans are. All week, walking across campus to my classes, current and former students of mine have been very generous with their greetings. Students that are not in any of my classes have cheerfully hailed from all four corners of the campus. On Wednesday, Tristan, my friend from Shen Zhen, and Cindy came to dinner. I prepared meatloaf, pasta and a nice vegetable soup, and then we finished the evening by singing our favorite songs, using bananas for microphones. While we were singing, Stephen texted an invitation to dinner on behalf of his friends/classmates. The 8 of us enjoyed dinner together on Friday.

On Thursday evening, Halloween night itself, I had to teach. This class is a constant bone of contention between Victor and me. We are both scheduled to teach on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but seldom are there ever enough students to fill one classroom, let alone two. He and I have it worked out now: he will teach on Tuesday night and I will cover Thursday. 

I had about fifty kids in class on Halloween night. They were all treated to the PowerPoint presentation I gave my English Majors students but they did not get any sandwiches, nor did I do the makeup and movie portion of the lesson. We did play word games, though. They must really have enjoyed the class; they did not want to leave! The week rounded out with a visit from Sam on Friday, right after morning classes. He’s been busy moving into a new apartment, so we haven’t had time to catch up. Between lunch and chatting, 3 hours flew by!

So what if my friends and students, and for that matter all of China see Halloween as a reverent holiday? With the fun times we had this week, who am I to dissuade them?