His heart pounded faster inside his chest as he approached the university’s gate. Johan took this to mean two things; he was either making a huge mistake, or his boss had made a huge mistake. In either case, someone would regret later. Johan hoped that if the ball of regret ended up bouncing inside his court, at least, no one would say his disappointment was caused by inaction. It would be better, later, to wonder why he had done the wrong thing than why he never did the right thing. So, he quickened his steps up the hill, and the university’s main Iron Gate rose up before his eyes.
Chinese people were descending the hill, mostly parents and grandparents, clutching the tiny hands of little boys and girls who attended the nearby primary schools. A little boy, wearing a primary school uniform pointed at him, and yelled, “laowai” before darting behind his mother’s huge, dark skirt. She blushed and admonished her son, but she was looking straight at Johan, looking to see if he had noticed what a good education she was about to give her son.
“Don’t say laowai,” the woman said in English. “He is foreign uncle.”
Then she murmured, “Sorry” to Johan with a giggle of embarrassment which was supposed to be charming. Johan didn’t even glance at her.
The boy pouted and sucked at his thumb.
Johan turned away quickly, partly because he was still angry and partly because he had never really felt quite comfortable among primary school children in China. That’s why he had quit teaching them.
The pupils were sometimes so mischievous it felt like he was a nanny, instead of a teacher. But deep down in his heart Johan knew that they were just being kids when they screamed and chased each other around during his lessons like monkeys on drugs. Sometimes a child would run up suddenly and hide behind Johan while his classmate tried to catch him. Then they would start running around Johan in a wild, crazy, circular chase. This always made him feel dizzy and he sometimes ended up sitting down from the sheer exhaustion of watching this youthful excitement.
Then there were the children who would cry in the class for any reason, especially when they couldn’t provide the right answer to a question or when another team won in a learning game.
Johan could never forget how he had had to poke a boy’s head one day because the boy had spat in a girl’s face. Then he had made the boy apologize to the girl. The boy had cried after apologizing and for the rest of the lesson he had put down his head on his desk and continued sobbing. After the class Johan tried his best to console the boy and explain to him that spitting on his classmate was not ethical behavior and then he left and went to the office to rest for ten minutes before the next class started.
Imagine his shock when he was confronted in the corridor two hours later by an angry Chinese man and woman, (the boy’s parents), who claimed that Johan had beaten their son and that he was badly hurt. Try as he could to explain what happened, the parents wouldn’t listen. They called Johan a bad foreigner who didn’t have kids of his own and knew only how to hit other people’s kids and threatened to take action. The woman, who could speak some English, said she would report the matter to the Education Bureau and Johan would be deported from China. Her husband said what was the use of sending him away when he would still come back to beat other people’s children? In five minutes he could have a group of thugs waiting outside the school gate to beat this stupid foreigner to a pulp.
The Chinese English teacher finally got them to calm down by advising Johan to apologize to the boy who was still crying.
That was the last straw. Johan decided to quit teaching in the primary schools. It was only after he began working in the university that he found out a strange phenomenon.
Most of the reasons you give yourself for taking action are always about the actions of other people. What about your own fears? Aren’t they the reasons why you were bothered in the first place? For Johan it was the fear of growing any older than he already was.
Many of the children in primary school never called him, laoshi or teacher. They called him yeye, which means grandfather. He hated this name like an enemy. It wasn’t his fault that he was born a long time ago, was it?
If he had the energy of a man half his age, like Justin, his 35- year old African friend, perhaps things would be different. Justin always boasted to Johan about physically challenging games he played with his students in his classroom; how they would run, jump, sing and laugh during his lessons and to these stories Johan listened with envious impatience.
Johan was therefore contented to teach in the university despite the fact that the pay was almost like welfare checks, so small that he it could barely satisfy his vast appetite for nightlife in Dalian, a city where prices seemed to be climbing up an endless mountain as the days went by.
He was still thinking about all these when he passed through the main gate of the university and headed straight for the classrooms.
He was already half-way there when a man who was so short and round that from a distance he looked like a huge basketball, came out of the office and rolled towards him. The man must have seen Johan through the window.
“Johan,” he began in English, “I told you, don’t come school today.”
“Yes, but I met a student and he told me that we do have a class so I came any way,” Johan answered.
The man laughed, his face turning red. Johan felt something- that wasn’t an insect- creep on his skin. The Chinese man was avoiding Johan’s eyes. It dawned on him that this was the kind of laughter that is used as a shield, to cover up an embarrassing situation. It carried the same defensive tone he had heard when the woman on the hill had apologized that her son was calling Johan “laowai.”
“These students!” The man exclaimed. “Come to office. We’ll have tea.”
“No, Mr. Wong, its five minutes before the class starts and I want to wait for the students in class.”
“Come on Johan. Mr. Wong is what strangers call me. We are friends, why not use my English name?”
“I don’t remember your English name Mr. Wong,” Johan said.
Mr. Wong blushed again and said, “It is Cowboy.” Then he laughed and added, “But I tell you that today no class.”
“Then I’ll just sit in the classroom and rest.”
“The class cleaning now. Cleaning people want no one disturb their work. We’ll go drink tea in my office, okay?”
Mr. Wong’s hand was on Johan’s shoulder pulling him gently but firmly towards the office.
An alarm bell went off in Johan’s head.
Something was wrong.
Mr. Wong was acting strange.
The man had never invited him for tea in his office before. And there was nothing like cleaners don’t want people to come into the room when they’re working in China. Sometimes in some restaurants the cleaners preferred to do their jobs while people were still eating. You could be having your dinner and suddenly someone is sweeping the floor near your feet, completely ignorant of the fact that in some cultures if your feet are swept it reduces your chances of ever getting married (for singles).
Johan decided to make a silent plan. He would follow Mr. Wong to the office but while there, he would look for a way to slip out and go to the classroom without attracting his boss’s suspicions.
If Mr. Wong wants to keep playing this cat and mouse game, then two could play at it, he thought grimly. And I’ll eat shit first before I call him Cowboy!
The two men went into the office hand-in-hand.
If you had been watching them from a distance you would have thought they were two friends who had not seen each other in a long time. Appearances are very important in the game of friendship in China and sometimes you have to do or say things that you don’t really feel in order to give or receive face. The truth is always buried deep down in your heart, in a place where it can’t easily rise up to affect your words and actions.
That’s why you would never have guessed, from the way Johan and Mr. Wong were entering the office, that each man had a hidden agenda that was definitely not in the other man’s best interest, and that both men were simply stalling, waiting for the perfect opportunity, (when the other’s back would be turned) to strike.
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