For three days non-stop a good night’s sleep was a luxury which Johan couldn’t afford. How can you keep your eyes closed in a night club when your ears are glued directly to huge speakers that never stop blasting heart-thumping disco beats? That was what Johan told the cops any way.
But the truth was he had not left his bed during the day time in those three days. The music was coming from somewhere in the streets outside and if he had not insisted on leaving his windows open before going to bed he would have been sleeping like a log.
The cops smiled and told him he was alright by them. An American, teaching English in the university is someone they all respect. Haven’t we all been students at some point in our lives? They asked each other, grinning from ear to ear.
Johan chuckled privately. He was wondering if these cops would still be smiling if they knew the following two things:
First, that he had almost brought the Swiss Army knife to the confrontation.
Second, that teaching was just a cover he was using to stay in China. It was the sole means to obtaining a visa so that he could remain legally resident in this country to carry out his mission. He had told no one about this except Justin. He had only told him because Justin was in a better position to help.
Now, the only question the baffled policemen asked him was why he only liked to sleep during the day.
“Why don’t you sleep at night when there is no loud music?”
They probed him through a pimply-faced young man with a haircut like an umbrella, who had volunteered to translate.
Johan murmured an answer which the translator didn’t understand. But the translator didn’t want to lose face. He would eat his head before admitting that he had no about clue what the American had just said. So, he told the policemen that the foreigner had said he couldn’t sleep at night because he worked at night.
The policemen smiled in admiration. They began to speak loudly in Chinese but even Johan who understood only a few words of the language could guess by the way the cops slapped the young man’s back that they were praising the translator for his bilingual skills. Nonetheless, Johan was still surprised by what the cops did next.
They invited him into their car.
They drove around in the city for about an hour, bombarding Johan with questions which he didn’t understand. He answered in English which they didn’t understand as well.
The translator stumbled and stuttered, got lost in his job several times, but always bluffed his way out, saving face. At one point the translator poked his right forefinger deep inside his right nostril and pulled out something which he kneaded slowly between two fingers before rubbing it away on the car’s seat. Johan was relieved when they finally brought him back to the same spot.
He was especially happy to see that the crowd had dispersed.
The bright red stage had been cleared away. In fact, the place looked so bare; it seemed as if a stage was never there.
They had probably moved it to the other side of the city, near the shops that sold knock-offs the ones that had such brand names like Gacci, Addodos, Nika, Luis Vitta and even America! These shops were near the bookstore that sold foreign books and usually hosted English Corners.
Johan marched up to his apartment, feeling very important because of what had happened between him and that crowd of noisy people.
“I showed them who’s boss,” he thought, smiling.
At home he realized that he had left the house without taking his cell phone again. Johan was sick of his failing memory.
When he looked at his cell he noticed that someone had called him in his absence. It was his boss.
From experience, he knew that the man never called unless something was wrong. What do you do when you know that you’ll call someone back and only get bad news? Johan fought with himself over whether to call back or not to call back until a cloud of curiosity came down upon him and pushed him into the arms of action.
He picked up his cell and dialed. The phone rang several times but no one answered. Johan hung up and took a deep breath. He wasn’t surprised that he felt so relieved. It was almost as if he had half wished that his boss wouldn’t take his call. He decided to smoke a cigarette.
The cell rang before Johan could reach the pack of cigarettes on his table. He brought the device to his ear and heard his boss’s urgent voice telling him not to bother going to school in the afternoon.
The rest of their conversation was as brief as peck on the cheek.
“Classes cancelled again?” Johan asked.
“Yes,” said the voice in his ear.
“When do classes resume?”
The next thing Johan heard was a click and then the line went dead.
Johan wasn’t offended because his boss always ended phone calls in an abrupt manner. Sometimes you’ll be in the middle of a sentence and you’ll realize that you’re talking to yourself. Come to think of it the man had never ever said a proper goodbye to Johan on the phone.
By now, Johan knew exactly what the word “soon” meant. Since his arrival in Dalian he had learnt through bitter experience that when people in China say “soon,” they are referring to any length of time. It can take only two minutes or it can take up to two years. “Soon” was a word whose semantics was so elastic it could stretch just around any failure to keep promises.
What was more, this cat and mouse game was three weeks old now. It always went on like this: His boss would ring him up on Sunday morning and inform him that his classes for the week had been cancelled. Johan would then spend the entire week getting drunk every night and trying to do what he had really come to China to do in the first place, which had absolutely nothing to do with teaching English in the University.
After speaking with his boss on the phone Johan wanted to get in bed and sleep the rest of the day off. As a teacher, what do you do with yourself when your Monday lessons get cancelled and you’re suffering from a terrible hangover? His small bed with its white crumpled sheets looked inviting despite the fact that a large portion of the sheets were on the floor.
When he had left the house that morning only one thought had been on his mind. He had not even thought about making the bed. You would certainly be throwing your bed sheets all over the place if you had to rush out of your house to take care of an emergency.
Like most emergencies it was risky especially considering the size of the crowd but you had to admit, the bigger the danger the higher the adrenaline rush and the deeper your satisfaction in the end when you finally teach them a lesson.
He had showed them, for sure but he didn’t want a replica of that ugly scene. Staying at home and going to sleep harbored such risks.
What if they returned and started again? Then he would be forced to go out and then everything would start all over again. The policemen would come again and so on. God knows, at the age of 60, he was too old for this kind of excitement, let alone going through it twice a day.
He would not sleep.
Didn’t he just finish reading Questionnaire Island two days ago? Wasn’t he telling himself just last night before he left for the bar that he needed to start reading another novel? He would to go to the bookstore, instead and buy one but this time he would be careful to check all the pages because last time he had bought a book that had more than forty blank pages and had had to go back and return it for Questionnaire Island.
Talk of a blessing in disguise! The blank pages had turned out to be a good thing. Questionnaire Island was a novel that had given him a clearer idea about the paths he was following in his life, the choices he was making and his mission in China, his real mission.
The large crowd at the book store was not an unexpected phenomenon because an English Corner was going on. He avoided that particular area like it was the plague.
English Corners and their mind-numbing routines!
A circle of more than twenty Chinese people were standing around two foreigners, a blonde-haired woman and a tall, curly-haired man, who sat on stools in the middle like lambs ready to be sacrificed, answering curious questions.
As Johan watched, the blonde woman’s face suddenly turned red and she said, “I can’t tell you that!” Some of the spectators giggled nervously. The man who had just asked her the question blushed and said, “Sorry.”
Johan didn’t have to be told that the questioner had just crossed an important cultural line because he himself had been in an English corner once. He could swear that the man must have asked the blonde woman about her age or her salary.
Johan had promised himself after his first English Corner that it would be his last. So, he dodged behind some shelves, instead.
But he soon discovered that when you’re a teacher in China, you can’t ever stay invisible, no matter how hard you try.
A voice suddenly cried, “Hallo teacher!”
The boy who came up was thin and even though his voice was pleasant, his accent was so thick it sounded like he had just said, “Yallow tee-shirt!”
Johan stopped and forced a smile. What did the brat want and who was he?
“I’m Bill; this English name, you gave me last month, remember?”
Of course Johan couldn’t remember. When you’ve given English names to more than a thousand students already one out of the lot is impossible to recall.
Sometimes he ran out of names to give them and simply called them “Apple,” “Banana” or any other fruit which came into his mind. Strangely, the students seemed to like it. They claimed that unlike other English names like Bill, Bob and Robson, which meant nothing, these names of fruits actually meant something.
Johan looked at Bill and smiled carefully. The boy took this as an invitation to explain what he was doing at the bookstore.
“I want buy a book. After buy book I stop at the English corner. Later, I going to your class today,” he said.
“But there’s no class today,” Johan protested.
“Yes, there’s class.”
“Are you sure?”
“I very sure because my classmates all here, we go to class together.”
“Okay, see you in class,” Johan said with another smile, a real one this time.
How do you proceed when you suddenly stumble upon proof that your boss is lying to you? This question played in Johan’s head as his blood boiled with anger. His boss was definitely up to something and it was unquestionably something that he didn’t want Johan to find out.
It was like reverse psychology. The more he thought about it, the more determined he became to know what was going on. His mind was filling up with several possibilities of what could be happening and he could hardly concentrate on the spines of the books standing upright in the shelves.
In the end he abandoned the idea of buying a novel and exited the bookstore quickly.
There was a crowd outside, playing music that could have blown up your eardrums. They seemed to be promoting something which Johan couldn’t figure out. Passers by were very curious and excited about the promotion, probably because its organizers were offering free stuff.
He paused to look closer and realized that there was something very familiar about this performance. It reminded him of what happened between him and the other crowd.
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