Zhou Jia turned out to be a small, handsome man when he met me at the ferry that ran between Hong Kong and mainland China. Handsome, but not warm and friendly. He only gave me an abrupt nod, then took my two-wheeled suitcases out of the building to a shiny new van parked in front.

China was just as hot and muggy as Hong Kong, but when I sat in the van, I shivered from the cold air that blasted through the vents. To make matters worse, every time Zhou Jia braked for traffic or turned a corner, I had to grab the door to keep from sliding across the smooth leather seat. I tried hard to be happy and excited: I was in China! But I was vastly disappointed by what I saw as he drove down the crowded highway. There were a few people on bicycles and motor scooters, but cars ruled the four-lane highway. We passed residential highrises, immense modern shopping centers, and a gazillion small shops with roll-up steel doors selling all sorts of things that looked badly made and unattractive. I counted three McDonald’s and the same number of KFCs.

I sighed deeply. “China’s not what I expected.”

“Shenzhen is new city.” Zhou Jia puffed out his chest and beamed. He looked like a robin in spring. “Twenty years old. Very developed. Best city in China. Very beautiful.”

After driving forty minutes, we passed a block of restaurants, then turned off the sun-beaten, sweltering asphalt highway and stopped in front of a low gate. A uniformed man came to Zhou Jia’s window, which silently slid down. The two men exchanged words, the gate opened, and we glided through into an arboretum. Driving under tall shade trees, we passed a small market and low residential buildings dappled with sun and shade. Zhou Jia drove slowly over a series of speed bumps, then stopped in front of a three-story building. It had balconies and flower boxes overflowing with radiant red and purple bougainvillea, green vines and white jasmine.

“This is Chao Xi Lou,” announced Zhou Jia. “Moon Tide Building. We are near the sea. It very old.” He looked at the building with great distaste. “Can you get use to it?” he asked, turning to me.

“It looks good,” I answered, wondering what kind of mansion he thought I had owned in America. I followed him out of the van, up the steps to the entrance, past planters of vines and ferns on the one side, wooden doors behind iron gates on the other until he stopped. He unlocked an iron gate, folded it open, unlocked the wooden door behind it.

“This your apartment,” he said, taking off his shoes and stepping inside. I removed my shoes in like fashion and entered a small hallway. I could see a bedroom, a sitting room, a kitchen and a bathroom, just as he had promised in his email. They were large and there was a balcony. The place was plain but clean, like a good apartment in a low-rent district at home. In the kitchen I found a one-burner gas stove, a full-size refrigerator, a microwave and a washing machine; the sitting room and bedroom both had window air conditioners, and the bathroom had a flushing, sit-down toilet and a hot water heater. There was furniture and there were screens on the windows. This was a good deal more than some of my neighbors had in America. I sat down on the vinyl couch, relieved. It was not going to be the kind of place that had sand in the rice.

The next day, Zhou Jia drove me in a different, shiny, new car to a small branch office of the Bank of China. These streets were narrow and crowded with cars, people, open markets and trash, more like the China I had imagined. In the bank, I made ready to deposit some dollars and exchange other dollars for Chinese renminbi, also called yuan. The exchange rate that day was 8.74 renminbi for one American dollar. Zhou Jia opened an account for me under a Chinese name he had assigned me. He wrote it in characters, laughing wickedly.

“You must learn to write your Chinese name or maybe they write for you when you come to bank,” he said.

I wondered why my name was going into the bank under an arbitrary name rather than my passport name, but I was too limp from the humidity to protest. It was China; I now had a Chinese name.

Back in the car, he slowly drove down the narrow street that was crowded with perfect, shiny cars and people crossing wherever they damn well pleased. We passed small businesses of all kinds: clothing and shoes, plumbing and housewares, furniture and restaurants. Then he pulled to the side and parked in a mash of rotten fruit, plastic bags and papers. We were across the street from a massive, two-story supermarket. In front, I saw men in African hats standing next to wheeled carts of raisins and nuts. They were tall Caucasians with prominent noses: outsiders like me. I got out of the car.

“Who are they?” I asked as Zhou Jia pointed his remote control to lock the car.

He squinted to look at them. “They are Wee Wers. They come from another part of China. Undeveloped. They are Muslims. Many pickpockets and thieves. They cannot help this, they come from poor part of China.”

Actually, they looked like street vendors.

Carrefours, a French store, was everything I had tried to leave behind in America, maybe more. It was like WalMart, only two stories and noisier. When I entered, Celine Dion was singing My Heart Will Go On, but she was almost drowned out by the pop music from Hong Kong and the electronic games. I stumbled through it all trying to look perky and savvy while I priced radios and CDs, moved into housewares and picked out towels and a few cooking utensils. There were clothes of all kinds in very small sizes and loads of children’s toys.

On the second floor, I found groceries. There were fresh fish in tanks and on ice and heaps of fruits and vegetables, including the malodorous duran fruit that an Indian friend had told me was banned from five-star hotels in India. It sat openly here, stinking like something rescued from a musty old closet in a long-abandoned house. On the next aisle were packages of noodles, and bags and barrels of rice. Jars of jams and jellies, boxes, bins and bottles of tea. There were bread and instant coffee and salt and milk and yogurt. I walked down a seven-foot-high aisle of twelve brands of Danish butter cookies and stumbled into a man and woman holding a toddler over a trash can. The little girl was peeing.

Then I saw a young woman pointing at snakes in a tank. A clerk netted half a dozen, dropped them into a plastic bag, knotted it closed, raised his arm and hurled the bag onto the floor. It hit with a muffled whack. The young woman leaned over, picked up the bag and put it in her shopping cart. Beside me, Zhou Jia was laughing again. “Don’t worry. Eels. Now they won’t get out of bag.”

I picked out a dead white fish wrapped in plastic and put it in my cart. I was rather happy; this was really different.

However, when Zhou Jia dropped me off at my apartment, I was alone again. I put away my food and then I had nothing to do. I turned on the TV and flipped channels. I found a couple channels in English but they were very boring. A lot of Chinese channels, also boring. What did I expect? I didn’t watch TV at home, either. I went through all the drawers and cupboards and found a number of Christian information bulletins and a magazine from Hong Kong that had a photo of Mr. Gay Hong Kong on the cover. The magazine was in English, but the story about Mr. Gay Hong Kong, was short and superficial. The other stories were about the tourist sites in Hong Kong. The religious tracts were simplistic and fundamentalist in tone. I was mildly surprised to find them.

I wanted and needed to be with people. I had expected a warm welcome from the university and other foreign teachers who would be eager to meet me, but I saw next to no one on campus. I was bored to death in China. This was the last feeling I had expected.

The next few days, I waited impatiently at Chao Xi Lou to hear from my department, but there was no welcoming tea, no greeting from my dean, no acknowledgement that I had arrived. I cooked the food from Carrefours and bought rice boxes from the restaurant next door. I was taking the trash out one morning when I spotted Zhou Jia installing a middle-aged foreign couple in another apartment. That is to say, a couple who looked like me. I was delighted; these people would be my new friends.

“Hi! When am I going to meet my dean?” I asked.

He looked surprised to see me. “Teachers not on campus. Holiday.”

“Your email said I had to arrive this week because school started next week.”

“Not next week.”


He looked up into the air. “No later than the twenty-seventh not before the twelfth.

The two foreigners looked at me nervously as though I was a task they didn’t have time for, then they hustled into their apartment and closed the door. Not even a nod.

Zhou Jia was impatient. “Everything okay in your apartment? TV work? Chao Xi Lou has antennae so you can watch TV from Hong Kong. Not legal, but everyone in Shenzhen has.” There was that wicked laugh again. “Many good shows from America. Very funny. Seinfeld. Friends. David Letterman.”

“Okay,” I said, my spirits plummeting. Satisfied, he turned and walked away. I stood there, sweating, as he slithered into his air conditioned van.

I went back to my apartment. I ate boiled dumplings, while I slid about on my vinyl sofa. What was the story with the couple I had just seen? They must be going to teach on campus, but they hadn’t even acknowledged me. And why wasn’t the university welcoming me? Here I was in China being told to watch David Letterman.

I stumbled out of the building and took a walk to a little pond I had spotted on campus. I was standing on the edge when a young Chinese man eagerly approached me. “Hello!” he said, stopping a few feet in front of me; he nodded slightly.

“Hello!” I said back; I smiled.

“Where are you from?” He was grinning.


“America is beautiful!” He shook his head enthusiastically.

“Yes, it’s great.” I grinned back.

Then he said, “I’m a Christian,” and he stood expectantly. I had no idea of what to reply. To me, the definition of Christian is complex and highly personal, and it is not a subject matter I will launch into with a stranger. Tongue-tied, I said nothing. The young man looked alarmed at my silence.<

“That’s all. Goodbye.” He quickly left. It was very confusing.

Still alone on Saturday night, I ventured out of my apartment and down the road. There must be something to do on a Saturday night in China. I thought I had noticed large restaurants just outside the campus.

Indeed, I had. As I walked through the campus gate, I saw the small service road to the side was crowded with people. Men and women, young and jubilant, strolled arm in arm, shouting at each other and gathering in groups. Everyone was with a lover or a best friend; I, alone, was abandoned in the sweltering evening.

I walked along, large and pale amongst these handsome, popular people. It was awful, but I couldn’t bear to go back to my empty apartment. Outside the restaurants were tanks and cages full of ducks, chickens, fish and worse; presumably the dinner fare.

I passed one restaurant and saw a fat, four-foot-long snake stretched on a counter. It was slit open lengthwise and a man was cleaning it. At the next restaurant, two men stood next to a tank of snakes, intensely discussing the creatures. At the third restaurant, four people held a large snake stretched across a table. I heard a command and everyone leaned forward, their weight on the snake. The man holding the snake’s head raised his free hand, a cleaver in it, and brought it down with frightening speed – BAM! Four sets of hands raised the snake’s body high. The tail at the top lashed to and fro, the body convulsed like a twisting rope. Blood drained from where the head wasn’t into a glass held below. When the flow stopped, the glass was topped off with what looked like liquor. A man carried the glass into the restaurant, while the three people set about preparing the snake to be cooked.

I was the only person fascinated by the snake. Everyone else was fascinated by me. Some women smiled shyly as they rushed past to greet friends; other people just stared. I couldn’t take it. I stumbled across the street into a shop, saw a lot of cheap batteries and bags of dried shrimp snacks and masses of individually wrapped condoms for sale and went back to my apartment. I showered and turned on the TV. Friends was on. They looked like me but better because they were younger. I flipped channels until I found a travelogue. It was all in Chinese; I could understand nothing, but I ate up the photos of rolling wheat plains, terraced gardens, mountains and bowers of grapes. This was the China I wanted.


© 2008 Reva Rasmussen
All rights reserved.

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