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.                       

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