New fiction from the China classroom - by Quincy Carroll
Ed: You might have heard of Quincy Carroll's foreign-teacher-in-China novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, which I've just finished reading and enjoyed a lot. We're delighted to share this exclusive extract of his new novel, a work-in-progress also set in China ...
The first time you had come to China had been over spring break in 2003, and you and your classmates had spent the week visiting places like the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall. Many of you had been lucky enough to have traveled outside of the U.S. before, but with the exception of another boy named Benjamin, you were the only one in your school who had ever been to Asia. Your mother and father had taken you and Abraham to Taiwan once in second grade to meet your father’s side of the family, but that had been so long ago and you had both been so young that it was no more than a memory—distant and hazy—by then.
You attended a prestigious all-boys high school located a few hours outside of the city in upstate New York that focused primarily on the Classics and had been doing so for years. Centuries, in fact. That they had decided to offer Mandarin that year had been met with considerable unease, but your father had been the one to spearhead the proposal and push the measure through. Perhaps this was because of some guilt he felt for having been such a negligent teacher at home, but most likely he saw it as a chance to assert his power as a newly elected member of the board. You hadn’t wanted to take the language initially and had fought him about it all summer. How would it look if my own son took Latin? he’d asked you. He hadn’t given you a choice.
Bo Laoshi, your teacher, had been attempting to chip away at your intransigence all year, and she had made it her personal goal to get you on board with her by the end of the trip. You had to admit that you rather liked her—she was always smiling and bending the rules, and most importantly, she didn’t see eye-to-eye with your father—but there was something about the way in which she homed in on you that put you on guard against her charms. She was a short and sylphlike woman who had left the country in ’89, and though you knew very little of what she had been through then, you’d always been able to tell that she was strong.
That week had been a turning point. You had fallen in love with the city at once. There were twenty of you who took Mandarin, and all twenty of you had spent the week in Beijing, free from your parents and grouped with your classmates in well-stocked hotel rooms with hard beds. You’d passed the fifteen hours over with one of your friends, eating candy and ice cream in your seats, and almost immediately upon arrival you had stepped off the airplane and blown chunks. This had caused your friend to vomit too, and soon you were both hunched over like a pair of landlubbers, clutching your sides, the other passengers walking past you on the jetway, covering their mouths, shaking their heads. Before you knew it, Bo Laoshi was there, having appeared out of nowhere, and she placed a handkerchief over the mess, then led you calmly up the ramp toward the restroom and never mentioned the incident again.
The school had rented you a tour bus for the week that had a bathroom in the rear stairwell and faded antimacassars on the seats, and as you hadn’t been accustomed to the fact that everybody had to carry their own toilet paper with them in China, your disgraces had only continued as you made your way into the city. For the first and only time in your life, you had thanked God for your all-boys schooling, and you had been the subject of off-color jokes and good-natured ribbing for the remainder of the trip. Your tour guide was a man named Henry who spoke in a very deep and relaxing voice, and on longer excursions to points of interest outside of the city, he’d often lull you to sleep. Bo Laoshi knew him from graduate school—Dongbei Shifan Daxue, in Changchun—and from time to time he would supplement his lectures with funny stories from their past.
The hotel had been incredible—much nicer than you had been expecting—and for your first few days in Beijing, the weather had been too. That weekend had coincided with the end of the 1st Plenary Session of the 10th National People’s Congress across the street, and as a result of the delegates’ being there, it had been nothing but blue skies. You’d had scrambled eggs and dragonfruit for breakfast every morning at the Western/Chinese-style buffet and made good use of the pool each night with your friends after being chauffeured around the city all day.
One time in the jacuzzi you’d met a middle-aged man from Gansu who’d asked you questions about your country and told you things you couldn’t make out due to your poor language skills at the time regarding his, but by the expression of awe on his face and the tone of voice that he used when he spoke, you’d been able to tell that until that evening, soaking there in the hot tub with you and your friends, he’d never interacted with a foreigner before. It hadn’t been until later, when he saw you in the lobby and said hello, that Bo Laoshi had stopped you and told you who he was: a mid-level deputy in the government—not especially famous, but known. That had been your first introduction to China. You’d felt exotic and wanted, yet also somehow strangely at home.
Although the week had been filled mainly with sightseeing, there’d been a visit to a local high school as well, during which you’d played with the students at soccer and volleyball on a false turf field beside the road. Both sides were standoffish at first—keeping together on opposite sides of the yard—until eventually a group of the Chinese students came over and challenged you to a game. They were better at volleyball than soccer and tackled you aggressively when you had the ball, and by the time you were finished, there was this sense of not-entirely-friendly competition between the two schools that was only encouraged by the fact that the match had drawn in a tie. You sat separately at lunch and taught some of your friends how to use their utensils, all twenty of you staring around the cafeteria at the Chinese characters on the walls, the girls. But of course you never talked to them.
After eating, you sat in on a few classes and listened to students give presentations about their family lives in English, and though most of your classmates made fun of their accents, you had to say that you were impressed. They had been studying the language for seven years, their teacher told you, and you were jealous of them for their early start. The speeches were all the same: strict parents, no siblings, not enough time for playing online games, the only distinctions—at least as far as they admitted—being their parents’ names and ages, their jobs.
You faded into and out of attentiveness, growing languorous with the coming of the afternoon, until suddenly you came to realize that the presentations were over and the focus of the room had shifted onto you. One of the girls you had been looking at before in the cafeteria had asked you something in Mandarin, but you did not know what it was, and under the pressure of all of those eyes, you’d simply nodded and sputtered Hao. The entire room erupted. After their teacher had quieted them down, another student raised his hand and asked you: Ni chi le ma? Have you eaten yet? Chi le, you replied proudly, having offered the proper response. But this time you’d failed to register his sarcasm, and once again the students—both Chinese and American—just looked at you and laughed.
That was when Bo Laoshi stepped in. Zhang Cai, she asked you. Ni zui xihuan chi shenme? What’s your favorite food? A question that came straight from your text. You eyed her and grinned. Wo zui xihuan chi niurou, zui xihuan he kele. It was part of a rhyme she had taught you, and you’d barely had to think before responding. My favorite food is beef, my favorite drink is Coke. You were amazed by how well the mnemonic had worked.
She asked you some kind of follow-up, which you didn’t completely understand, but you heard the words for today (jintian) and lunch (wucan), so you decided to take a guess. For a second you panicked since you were starting to stray away from the text, but then in a flash of reassurance, you realized that you knew the necessary words: chaomian, baicai, jidan, paigu. The students’ eyes widened when they heard your pronunciation, then they nodded at you supportively, reassessing your ability, and clapped.
You’d spent the rest of that week touring ruins, riding pedicabs through the streets, stopping at factories of jade and silk and pearl and attempting to bargain, but still getting fleeced. The smog had returned once the delegates had departed, and you had blown your nose about midway through the week, and glancing down at the tissue, you had realized just how poor the air quality was, for the tissue had been black. For some reason, you had thought that was cool.
Each night before curfew, you’d explore the neighborhood with your friends, eating fried insects on skewers, flirting with the whores outside Wangfujing, dialing the numbers on the cards their pimps would leave under your doorways and hanging up when they answered. At one point Bo Laoshi had caught wind of this. She had not been amused. You had laughed at the small children shitting and pissing in the streets and taken off your own pants and clutched them at your chest whenever you’d had to take a dump. You’d been very sensitive about hygiene back then and thought the squatters were absurd. You’d had no idea where life would take you. God, you were such a noob.
Quincy Carroll is a writer from Massachusetts. His debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, was published in November 2015 by Inkshares. He teaches at a high school in Oakland, CA. For more information, visit www.quincycarroll.com