Asia, 1989. Part V: Miss Kassy and Teapot

April 19:  First order of business: to the Chinese consulate to pick up our new visas. Then, back at Kowloon, I once again fall prey to the people-eating credit card phone. I call Karen, who I haven’t spoken to since last summer, despite repeated attempts from Moscow. For 10 minutes or so, we scream at each other on the phone even though the connection is great; it’s just so exciting. We make incredibly vague plans to meet somewhere at sometime during the summer. It’s a great conversation.

Back at the “Mansions” I pack my things, then make my way to the railway station. After waiting in the wrong line for 40 minutes, I buy a ticket and board a train for Shenzhen, the eye-gouging capital of modern Malaysian folklore. There’s actually nothing sinister at all about the place, but I do steer clear of the public toilet.

I walk from the waiting room to the train, passing Chinese workers in straw hats using pitchforks to clear the tracks in the sweltering sun. It’s a scene far removed from the glass and marble and business suits of Hong Kong, and my first thought, completely involuntary and completely unexpected, startles me: Back to the real world. I’ll leave analysis of that reaction alone.

I’m on my way to see Kathy; Glenn is staying in Hong Kong a few more days. We have literally spent 24 hours a day together ever since Ulan Bator, and all is working out better than I could have hoped. We definitely have our disagreements, but respect each other’s views, and haven’t had any trouble compromising. He’s adventurous but sensible.  He and I can wear the same size clothes. He’s a great travel companion.

The train arrives in Guangzhou – or so I think. I don’t recognize any of the surroundings at the station. I hire a “taxi,” actually a pickup truck with loudly clanging aluminum sides, to take me to Yile Road, where Kathy lives.

“Yi-le-Lu!  Yi-le-Lu,” I say over and over again to puzzled looks. I say, “There’s a university there.  I can’t remember the name.”

“Medical College?” he asks. I shake my head. “Chongshen University?” Or something to that effect. I nod vigorously.

“I think that’s it! Do you know where it is?”

“Ah, yes – on Yile Lu.” Woe to the untrained ear. I still can’t figure out how I pronounced it wrong. We agree on the fare, however, with a minimum of linguistic difficulty. Eighty Hong Kong dollars. Saves me the trouble of changing them back.

I run into Kathy as she is leaving her apartment to teach; she succumbs to the lure of truancy and we catch up on each others’ lives in her living room. It’s exciting for me to visit with a college friend and reminisce. It’s exciting for Kathy to finally be able to speak English at a normal pace.

Her apartment is relatively spacious by US standards, palatial by Chinese. Bedroom, bathroom, small kitchen, and a living room perpetually strewn with newspapers, books, letters and lessons.

It is Kathy’s somewhat cavalier attitude toward neatness, perhaps coupled with the varying dingy shades of green paint on the walls and appliances that led her father to remark, while sitting on her vinyl couch, “What’s the incentive for living in such squalor?” Which is probably best translated as, “Why is my only daughter going off halfway around the world to live in a communist country?” A sentiment, of course, that I have encountered as well.

Dinner is of noodles and vegetables, conversation is of Ecuador, China and the USSR.  Kathy speaks in Chinese. The waitress understands. I am duly impressed.

Contrary to its benign appearance, Kathy’s apartment is actually a popular night spot. For mosquitoes, that is. Completely unheeding of the coil incense and mosquito net, they victimize me repeatedly. I sleep fitfully until the biting and itching become unbearable, then bury myself in the quilt and sleep fitfully until the heat becomes unbearable. And so on until either exhaustion or morning overtakes me.

April 20: We get up and set off in the morning to see about railway tickets to Beijing.  We get 2 hard-sleeper tickets for Sunday with no problem, contrary to the warnings of Lee the Loon in Hong Kong. By this time I’ve noticed that it’s been 10:40 for a number of hours now rather than for the customary 60 seconds. Time for a new watch battery.

It’s a beautiful day, the warmest yet. We kick hackeysack for a while, then go to the market for dinner ingredients. We manage to pass up the goat’s head in favor of various vegetables. Dinner has to wait, however, as we both have teaching commitments for tonight. I am to lead a class of advanced evening students in “free discussion;” Kathy has another class in another school.

I enter the classroom to find about 20 to 25 people of varying ages. Conversation starts slowly; I tell them a little about myself, then ask them questions, which they answer hesitantly, but with good English.

It doesn’t take them long to get over their shyness; a few of my garbled attempts at Chinese help break the ice. They are curious about the Soviet Union. They are amazed that I could live and travel in Europe so easily. We talk about cultural differences. We talk about holidays. Halloween is especially perplexing.

We talk about wedding rituals. Chinese get married in restaurants. Americans usually get married in churches, I say, but many go to restaurants afterward. “Do they go to Chinese restaurants?” a grinning student asks. We talk about George Bush. We talk about Hong Kong. We talk about mosquitoes. We talk a lot. I look at my watch. It still says 10:40.

After what seems like about an hour, we take a break, which means we move from the class to the hall, and continue talking. At a lull in the break conversation, we move back into the class for more lesson conversation. After about 20 more minutes or so, Kathy comes into the classroom. The lesson is scheduled from 8 to 10. I figure it’s about 9:30, but she comes in, talks with the students for a few minutes, and suggests we leave. Not until later do I realize it was actually nearly 10:30 when we left. I try to imagine a group of American students staying in class an extra half-hour. It’s hard.

Kathy woks some vegetables and I make an omelet for dinner. We tape ourselves telling China & USSR stories to send home, then deem it too silly to send after listening to part of the recording.

April 21: Kathy’s 23rd birthday. I sleep in, she gets up and fixes banana pancakes. Banancakes. We spend the day biking around Guangzhou, passing by Kathy’s favorite tourist spot: the Tomb of the King of the Southern Yue’ of the Western Han dynasty.How could anyone not be enticed to go, with such a glorious name? But we forgo it in favor of finding me a watch battery.

For her birthday, the school has decided to give Kathy a banquet on the 2nd floor restaurant of the cafeteria. Lots of food and lively, albeit slow-paced conversation with Miss O, Miss Chen, and a school dean who speaks no English.

Chinese banquets are no-nonsense. You eat and then leave. Or, as in our case, you eat, wait for Miss O to finish eating, and then leave.  Miss O, a very slender woman, has, nonetheless, a remarkable appetite. Walking back to the apartment, I comment on how nice the banquet had been. Kathy replies, “Yeah, but that Miss Chen is really two-faced,” a remark that will stick with me not so much for content as for aesthetic value.

Kathy’s students, who all live together in a dorm, call her apartment and insist she come over right away. We go to the dorm’s 5th floor, where we are met by students who lead us, barely able to conceal their excitement, into a room with a big birthday cake with candles. They all shout “Happy Birthday, Miss Kassy!” and give a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” They are as excited and sincere as children.

Their faces are eager as Kathy carefully unwraps the gift they have chosen for her – a lamp with a small wooden elf sculpture. They screw the bulb in and turn it on and everyone cheers and claps. The cake is cut and passed around, and Kathy blows up balloons from home that say “Happy Birthday Kathy” in big letters, winning everyone’s immediate approval.

Kathy has taught her class the words of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and suggests that I go get my little Russian guitar so they can sing it with accompaniment. Someone brings a lyric sheet in case anyone has trouble remembering all the words, and we are quite a sight, 20 Chinese crowded around a piece of paper, me with my little guitar trying to establish some sort of rhythm for the students, who are clearly more intent on the words than on musicality. And Kathy, surveying it all with the remnants of birthday cake and the elf lamp on the table, and a broad smile on her face. Efforts at other songs are passable, but nothing matches the intensity of Bob Dylan being sung by Chinese.

A man walks in and several students shout “Teapot!” He smiles and his heart-shaped face looks exactly like the grinch. The students say something to him in Chinese, and he leaves and returns quickly with a Chinese lute, a beautiful instrument. This is Teapot (or “Jeffrey”), class clown, musician. He is very skilled at the lute, and spends equal energy on miming. He mimes me playing guitar; he mimes me miming him playing the lute. And a bonus to his peculiar personality: he speaks Russian. The rest of the party is spent watching his antics and hearing him play.  Why is he called “Teapot?”  He likes to mimic the motions to “I’m a little teapot.”

At 11 p.m., we meet Kathy’s friend Liu, who takes us out for snails and conversation.  I indulge only in the latter.

April 22: Glenn arrives from Hong Kong in the morning, and we all sleep until noon. To wean him slowly from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, we go the the hustling, bustling Qingping Market, home of food bargains you’d rather not see and artifacts from ancient dynasties at cut-rate prices. We make our way through the food sellers’ alley first.

Chickens, goats, cats, every conceivable kind of fish dissected in inconceivable ways, frogs, crabs, snakes, innards, heads, feet, rabbits, birds. No dogs. They’re out of season. It is somewhat disturbing to my Western sensibilities to see kittens meowing in cages, waiting to be bought – and not as pets. Kathy says it’s difficult for Chinese to understand Westerners’ reticence to eat dog and cat, since they generally don’t keep house pets. In Guangzhou, as in other cities, it’s illegal.

In another section of the market, scores of Chinese offer jewelry, jade ornaments, ceramics, antique eyeglasses, and anything else they think they can sell. People sidle up to you from out of nowhere, and with furtive glances extract from pockets and sleeves remarkably nondescript ceramic bowls. They murmur “Hallo. Ancient bowl. Sung dynasty. Very cheap.”

“How much?”

“70 yuan.” Street value: US$13. For a 1000-year-old vase. Only in China. Only if you’re stupid.

“No thank you. But it’s a very kind offer.”

“Wait! Ancient vase! Very good.”

The sellers all have square pieces of cardboard on which the numbers 1-10 and up to 300 in increments of 10 are written. When asked how much, they quickly assess the estimated wealth and gullibility of the potential buyer, then point to an arbitrary, usually unnecessarily high number. The best response, I found, is to burst out with a disbelieving, scornful laugh, exclaim something in English they won’t understand – “Are you some kind of NUT?”- grab the card and point to a number that’s about 30%- 40% of theirs, and they’ll generally give it to you for that plus Y5, to save face. I get good deals on jade ornaments, paperweights, and a “Qing dynasty bracelet.”

The last section of the market is the spices/herbs alley. Every kind of spice you could want, various medicinal herbs, and dried insects for use in traditional cures.

Having pretty thoroughly perused the market, we bike to Shamian Island, backpacker hotel heaven, for lunch. We pick up a note Kathy had left at the Guangzhou Youth Hostel during the interim between what she termed “dubious identification of your photograph” by her students, who had managed to communicate to her that some sort of foreigner-looking types had come looking for her, and my subsequent arrival from Hong Kong.

Back at the apartment, we wait for Liu, who is taking us to the Tea House for some typical Chinese cuisine. Liu and his cousin and his English-speaking friend treat us to a couple of Chinese favorites: chicken feet and cow intestines. The chicken feet I can’t even fake enjoying, but I manage to indulge in the tripe, doused in soy sauce, with a minimum of reflexive grimace.

It’s difficult to capture in words everything that goes through one’s head when one is faced with such a culinary and cultural ordeal. Once it’s over, it’s easy to look back on such an experience and say “Oh, it wasn’t so bad.” But it’s a somewhat less comfortable experience sitting with a mouthful of tripe, looking across the table at expectant Chinese hosts, awaiting your verdict on their favorite snack.

April 23: We wake late and head for the basketball court, where we play a pickup game with three Chinese students.We play for a while, then mix up the teams and play more. The students exhibit great enthusiasm, if not skill, and we nickname the most outgoing, wildest shooter Bob. He, like the others, speaks no English, so when Glenn yells “Go for the hoop, Bob!” he stops in his tracks and throws Glenn the ball. “You’ve got me underneath, Bob!”; he launches a 30-footer that falls short, Glenn catches it and puts it in. “Great pass, Bob!” High fives. Bob gives the thumbs up sign.

Chinese walking by stop to watch. It’s hot as heck. We play until we’re about ready to drop, then kick the footbag for a while, a sport at which all 3 students are remarkably adept. We part ways, shouting “Thank you” and “bye bye” repeatedly, for lack of any other mutually understandable phrases.

We shower, pack, eat lunch, and head for the train station. At the station, we make tentative plans to meet Kathy in Xi’an next weekend, as she has some time off for the May 1st holiday. After initial confusion as to where our platform is, we board the train, unload our bags, and prepare for the 36-hour return trip to Beijing.

3 responses to “Asia, 1989. Part V: Miss Kassy and Teapot”

  1. J-Man says:

    Finally, a paragraph about icky food! I’ve been waiting a long time for that. Re: the conversation class, were you a guest teacher at Kathy’s school, or was this your purpose for going to China? I don’t recall reading about your having taught in any of the other posts.

  2. LP says:

    Yes, I knew you’d enjoy the chicken feet and tripe! Blech.

    I guest-taught at Kathy’s request, just that one class. My only purpose in going to China was to wander — I was leaving Moscow after this happened, and just not ready to go home yet.

  3. Dave says:

    Teapot sounds awesome. I love all the details about the students and the school.