A quick China memory: The African I found in Shangqiu

by Marcus Rosentrater on December 28th, 2011

Posted on behalf of Will Sanders.

Too damn long, too damn long.  Well, hell.  I am lazy I guess but still over here.  The news I got now is I am trying to get into a fancy grad school to study TESOL.  They wanted me to write a short story about a cultural experience and I found myself retelling an oldie from the China days.  When I finished it I looked it over and checked it for spelling (a habit I have picked up since the China days) and found it interesting in comparison.  The old one was written maybe a month or so after the event went down, now I have had five years to soak in the memory.  I can’t quite decide which one is closer, the details in the first one would have been fresher but I think that my time in Asia has given me insight into some things that have come out in the newer one, the essay.  Also, the essay goes into things I don’t usually mess with, things that college people want to know about, stuff like proving I am a culturally aware dude, which I am, and not some asshole with a lonely planet screaming at a guy in a rickshaw.  I felt obliged to include a little what have we learned bit at the end and for this version I have omitted the bits where I explain how I can be of some use to fellow students in a classroom, that was trying to get into grad school stuff.  But if you can forgive that I would say it is a tight little read so I thought I’d roll it out.

Really quick, if you wish to compare this one with the old one, the old one exists somewhere in willsanderschinaadventure.com and you just have to poke around there and find what you can, it’s in there someplace but I can’t recall exactly.  I myself had to do searches just to find it, maybe try doing that too.  It is a large heap of China with gems buried here and there.  Best of luck and happy hunting should you be so inclined.

Deep apologies for letting it go so long, if I still have blog believers I hope they have not stopped speaking to me.  Tomorrow my good buddies Seth and Adam are flying out here and I am sure I will have much to write about then.

Really sorry to Amy Bugg, Marcus, Mary Beth, Stussy, and all my other guys who read the shit I have pumped out here in Asia, hope you like this one.

A quick China memory:  The African I found in Shangqiu

The first thing I wish to explain is that I am writing this essay from Surabaya, Java, Indonesia.  It is 11 am and the sun has been blasting down since around 8.  The door to my room is open (I choose not to use air con) and a fan is literally inches from my head.  Soon, the music from the mosque’s call to prayer from the adjacent street will begin, somehow filling the world with sound and becoming background atmosphere at the same time.  In a few hours, the early afternoon rain will explode from a clear blue sky with no warning and dance on the tin roofs making snare drum music.  I know this, and must therefore start my walk to work soon.  My walk to work will take me first down tree lined streets with bicycle cabs (old men with seats built into the front of the bicycles) calling for business, each trying to call and clap louder than the others, each grinning from ear to ear.  It will take me through an outdoor market place with wooden stalls under tents, vegetables, fruits, and meats with flies circling, skinny cats patrolling for scraps and plastic washtubs filled with live fish splashing.  A couple of years ago when I was new to this scene an old woman called to me “You lost mister?” which was meet with whoops of laughter.  But they know me there now, and my passing rarely gets noticed these days, although they still insist on greeting and questioning me, as though it would be unfriendly of them otherwise.  And at some point in my walk, or maybe at some point in my day it will occur to me that I am utterly out of place, and that I must look like a strange creature walking alone through Indonesia.  A creature they have become accustomed to, but a strange creature nevertheless.  Whenever I find myself at a street stall eating noodles and happen to look up to find the whole place staring at me with jaws dropped, it reminds me again in a nagging voice that I don’t fit in, I am not the same, and no matter how long I stay here I never all the way will.  I will always be an intruder here, a party crasher, a real outsider and I try as best as I can to bring honor to that role.

This may be an odd way to start an academic essay, but it is by design.  I wish to demonstrate that by walking outside my door a few minutes from now, I will be having a profound cultural experience, and many cultural interactions will be sure to follow as they seem to each day as regular as the mosque music or the rain.  The question put to me for this essay was at first daunting, how can I go about pinpointing only one cultural interaction after having been in Asia for going on five years?  I have spent most of my time in China then Indonesia; most of my interactions during that time have had some cultural value, some more meaningful than others.  Each taxi ride, each apple I buy, and each time I step into a classroom has the potential to change my entire paradigm.  I like to think of myself as a student of these moments, each of them offering me insight into this new world, these wonderful people, and hopefully ways that I can be better at living as well.

The most powerful story I can think of happened when I lived in rural industrial China.  This was a daunting place for an American with (at the time) very little understanding of Mandarin.  I was one of sometimes four, at one point six foreigners of any kind in the greater area.  There was just no reason for any of us to have meandered so far off the beaten path.  In the seemingly unending vastness of China it must have been among the last places you would expect to see a foreigner.  I was living inside an apartment which had been converted from an old office on the fourth floor of the class room building of a middle and high school.  This meant around five thousand kids walked by my front door each day.  The sound of them as a herd at first bell was an almost deafening elephant stampede each morning and was repeated throughout the day when each class let out.  I was teaching around fifteen hundred kids a week in smallish classrooms cluttered with 70 to 100 kids each.  It should be noted also that I use the term ‘teaching’ as loosely as possible, this being my very first ESL job and having been provided with no material or suggestion of what to do.  ‘Just talk or sing a song for them or talk about your country and they can listen’ was the very first and possibly the very worst ESL teaching advice I have ever received.

This was a place where walking down the street meant being taunted at all times by a chorus of sing song mocking falsetto  calls of  “hellooooo” from delighted passersby.  Lingering anywhere for too long soon gathered a quickly growing crowd of spectators as though I was a street musician, my greatest frustration was not ever being able to sit outside on a sunny day and read a book in peace.  I was living life as a giant monster from outer space and the isolation was an amazing opportunity for self awareness but often difficult and at times nightmarish.  My greatest source of motivation for learning Mandarin come after I realized two months into it that I hadn’t had a single conversation with a fluent English speaker in all that time.  Life was a lonely slog for an outsider, and I searched endlessly to find more misfits from other places to relate too, and as I went I managed to track down foreigners here or there, but most of my friends were Chinese.  And the friendships I made were incredible, and there were moments of magic that it all hit me and I was so overtaken by the beauty and strangeness of being there that I wanted to cry, but the day to day slog and loneliness were, at times, almost impossible for me.

The specific cultural encounter  came the day I met Emanuel.  It was a Saturday or a Sunday I suppose, and I was returning to the school from one of my aimless walks around the city.  I saw him and realized immediately why I must be such a spectacle to everyone around.  Here was the first black man I had seen since leaving America, and set against an endless sea of Chinese his features were startling for no other reason than, like me, the sight of him was completely unexpected.   The two of us were like a picture of a million oranges with two apples in the middle.  Here was someone who knew how I felt, surely, and I eagerly approached the guy to find out his story.  He was handing out flyers for a language school, and when he saw me he almost immediately demanded to go somewhere with me so he could talk.  He seemed anxious and in a hurry to get away so I took him with me without asking questions.  The two of us rushed to my flat, him looking over his shoulder nervously all the while.  Back in my flat with the door closed he seemed suddenly relieved.  His accent was really difficult to understand, but I gathered that he was from Ghana and had somehow wound up studying in Moscow where someone had told him about a language school in China where he could work.  Emanuel got on a train and made his way to my city, (I am guessing that the ‘friend’ in Moscow was an agent for the school and paid his way there, this wasn’t the first time this had happened) the terms of the job were to be discussed on arrival.  Emanuel told me that it was not until his arrival that he learned he would be feed two meals a day, live on a classroom floor, teach as much classes as the owner of the school says, and no salary of any kind, and be followed everywhere he went by the owner of the school.  Over the following weeks I came to gather that the constant surveillance and no pay (aside from cheapskate reasons) were so he would have no means of escape, slavery for lack of a better word.  He begged me to help him find a job somewhere else, anything that paid he said.  I sympathized with his situation and told him I would certainly ask around and try to find something.  When we left my flat the owner of his school was waiting impatiently outside my door, he furiously demanded to know why Emanuel had strayed from his sight.  This was the owner of the school and architect of his imprisonment.

So, I started calling the few people in town I knew but each time it was the same:  I told them about this great new foreign teacher who was here in town and didn’t even need to be flown in which was music to their ears.  They then wanted to know where he was from, and when I told them they were no longer so interested.  The direct quote which I wrote down at the time and have just dug up is as follows: “I don’t think he could be a very good teacher because the children will be too afraid of his skin”.  My following attempts to help my new friend were all dismissed in a similar manner, instead of broadening the students minds to expose them to new people the prevailing attitude was that to hire such a man would be like asking them to hire Frankenstein’s monster and that further, the terror of such a thing on the part of the children should be expected and reinforced.  It was an awful and disturbing wake up call, these people were friends of mine, they were people I ate with, I knew their kids and parents and when in their house I was treated as family.  The revelation was sickening, and all attempts to dissuade them proved pointless.  They were from an isolated area and had certain ideas that were not going away, nothing I could ever say then or continue to say in the rare emails we share seems to have swayed them.  And in fairness based on his almost impossibly unintelligible accent I don’t think I would have hired him either as a teacher of English, but it would have made me feel much better about things had they rejected him on his merit, unfortunately they never even got that far.

That night I went to visit Emanuel at his school.  It was on the third floor of a building and when I walked up to the landing I found the entrance to the floor locked up tight behind a massive gate.  I rattled the bars and called for Emanuel who appeared on the other side moments later.  He told me he couldn’t let me in as he didn’t have the key; each night when the man who owned the school went home he was locked up in the school like a jail so he couldn’t get away.  On the wall I saw a cork bulletin board with photos of happy Chinese kids playing with Emanuel and at least three other men, each of whom looked as though they had also come from Africa.  It dawned on me that this was a long standing operation, my blood boiled.  We talked for a while from opposite sides of his prison bars.  I tried to be optimistic when telling him about what had happened that day, but I could see in his eyes that he knew his situation, stuck in a prison a long way from home with no money to escape.  So the next day I asked him to come and instead sleep on the floor of my tiny flat, which he did, resolving to never teach at his school again.  It wasn’t much, way too small for two almost too small for one, but I could feed him and the imposition was better than thinking of my friend behind those bars.  At nights I would buy beers and play music for him that he had never heard, some he liked and some he didn’t care for, the Clash isn’t for everyone I suppose.  He showed me photos of him helping AIDS patients, it was hard to gather the story from him (his English was barely at first year proficiency) but apparently he had served as a volunteer at an AIDS center back home.  Even though the language barrier was huge, we became close those nights and the two of us would stay up until late at night plotting what to do next.

My suggestion was a place in China called Guangzhou which is about four hours north of Hong Kong and a good 15 hours away from where we were by train.  I had been there on a trip that summer and witnessed what appeared to be a massive population of cell phone hawkers from Africa.  I can offer no explanation as to how this place in China seemed to have entire vast neighborhoods and market places consisting entirely of Africans, but when I told Emanuel his eyes lit up.  Emanuel instantly decided this must be the answer, he reasoned that if he could at least be around his countrymen then maybe he would have a shot.  Someone would surely take him in, and maybe let him in on the cell phone business.  I didn’t have anywhere near enough money to fly him home, couldn’t think of a single person or group in the world that would have gone out of their way for one African lost in China, but I could afford to put him on a train to Guangzhou if it was what he wanted, and he was immediately insistent that it was.

Before he left, I went to another friend of mine, Avros an Indian who had made good for himself in this city.  He had started a school from scratch with money he earned as a college professor, and along the way had learned how to interface with the Chinese local power structure, buying lavish meals for the families of the right political leaders and business men and thus had a massive network of contacts with power.  Emanuel and I went to him and told him the story, Avros suggested we take Emanuel to see some people in the local government and complain about the slavery in hopes of shutting down the school, or at the very least preventing the schools owner from doing the same thing again.  When Emanuel heard that he would have to go and talk to official people he immediately backed out.  He had such fear of the owner of this school and what the man would be capable of, maybe even tracking him down in Guangzhou.  Avros said that he couldn’t do anything about it without Emanuel’s help but Emanuel wasn’t interested for reasons of self preservation, and as much as I wanted to hurt the people who would do such a thing to a human being and my friend I had to respect his decision.  I have no knowledge of what became of the owner of the school or his school afterwards, shortly after this episode the school was gone.  My best guess is the guy heard that I was asking questions to people and pulled up stakes and took the show elsewhere.  I wish so much to report that I stopped tyranny in some way but I can’t, I didn’t.

In the end I got Emanuel a train ticket and bought shopping bags full of as many instant noodles I could afford.  Instant noodles not being the most nutritious or fun foods but I wanted all my money to go to as much food as possible, I figure I gave him enough for just over a two weeks which was the best I could do.  I didn’t have a chance to see him off to the train, (I was teaching the day he left) but I put him in a cab for the station, he thanked me we said quick goodbyes and off he went.  It was very bittersweet for me, I wondered if in Guangzhou Emanuel would be any better off at all.  I wondered and still wonder now what more I could have or should have done.  I like to hope he found the haven he was hoping for in Guangzhou, fellow Africans to help him and cope together with him.  It nags at me that he may have found himself in a similar or even worse predicament but that goodbye was the last I ever heard from him so I will never know.  He had my email and I had asked him to write when he found himself sorted out but it never happened and I suppose it never will.    He may have lost my email address along the way, I may have not mattered to him as he mattered to me, he may have died, and it is useless to speculate.

Emanuel and I were outsiders in a strange place.  I was a good place where I learned and adapted and grew.  It was a place full of strange food and wonderful people and things to see and adventures like no other adventures I have ever or will ever have.  But at times it could be a cruel place for an outsider.  Being an outsider in a foreign country comes with it challenges but it also comes with a responsibility.  Being so out of place also quite often means becoming the center of attention whether you like it or not.  To me, the imposition of a spotlight means I am held to a higher standard, we all are when we leave our country.  We can learn from people out here and if we are careful and patient teach as well.  When good friends of mine proved themselves to be racists, I tirelessly attempted to broaden their minds as I continue to do now, five years later by email.  And when I see another expat yelling at a local about a price or money or religion or acting as though they know everything based on not being from Asia, I feel I have to take the time to teach them as well.

My brief time with Emanuel taught me that when we get to a new place, it is up to us how to react and interface with a new culture in a positive way.  I learned how difficult it is for some people in the world and how lucky I am.  I learned that it feels good to do the right thing, even though I admit I am guilty of not going out of my way nearly enough, just as so many of us are.  Being in a new place means teaching and learning from those around me, it is up to me what to take from the lessons and what to impart to my new friends.

And now the afternoon rain is starting like clockwork, the Mosques call to prayer music ended a short while ago.  And as soon as I put on my shirt and tie (and an umbrella, man it is really coming down now) I will go for my walk to school, and along the way I will carry myself with a manner that credits who I am and who we all are whenever we find ourselves to be outsiders, looking forward to my day and looking forward to what new understanding it will bring me that I can take with me on my longer journey.

One Response to “A quick China memory: The African I found in Shangqiu”

  1. Great one Will - I had forgotten all about this. I hope that fancy school knows how lucky they would be to have you as their student. Good luck and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We love you and miss you!

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