[Continued from previous post…]
The fun didn’t end there. That was your basic, everyday long-distance-travel hell.
I met my guide in Xi’an and we took a taxi to the apartment. Bleary eyed, I followed her across the road, around the corner, up to the building. In China and Hong Kong, apartment buildings are called ‘mansions’. The mansion looked okay from outside, even though we’d passed through what looked like a red light district (most Chinese cities look like red light districts at night – because of all the red lights, natch). So far this part of the city, which I’d been warned was a little shady, seemed quite hostile. I put it down to the lack of sleep and onset of culture shock. The apartment building lobby echoed with coughing and footsteps on the hard floors. We waited for lift from the centre of a crowd of other tenants who were decidedly scruffy looking. What kind of a den was I walking into? I was reminded of Chungking Mansion, the notorious Kowloon “melting pot” which has been compared to the smugglers’ cantina in Star Wars…
On the 24th floor was my apartment. The door failed to open on the first few tries, but admitted us begrudgingly. Spacious but spartan, the one-room place did not fill me with a warm homely feeling. There was a metal rack against one wall, supposedly for hanging clothes but would have been better placed in a warehouse. A bed with a broken headboard jutted out from the cold tiled walls. Plastic lawn furniture comprised my dining area, with a small gas stove and fridge filling one corner opposite a top-loading washing machine. A filthy wetroom toilet with a shower head gave out a pungent aroma that presumably originated in the waste pipes of the 100 other apartments in the building, or else the sewer itself.
To many people in China this might be a half-decent place to live. To my pampered Western eye it looked like a bed in the middle of a kitchen. It had a drain in the middle of the floor, just in case I wanted to commit a bloody murder or slaughter a pig. There was a distressing amount of anti-rodent and -bug artillery around the place, kindly abandoned by the previous teacher.
The previous teacher. I still haven’t gotten his full story. He exists as a legend spoken of only in whispers. Some say he was Russian. Some say he took a Chinese wife. Papers found in a plastic wallet on the metal racking suggested he was an artist and perhaps a student of biology. He worked at the university for three years. He worked at the university for three months. He retired because he wanted to start a family. He was fired because he was emotionally unstable and immune to reason. The truth eludes me still. If he is still alive, I wish him well.
I had little time to admire the place that would be my home for the next year. The bed had no bedding, and so my guide offered to take me to the supermarket to pick up sheets and supplies.
We ventured out into the manic night-scene of the street. Side-stepped traffic and smokey roadside vendors. Crossed the road when a green light appeared, but dodged speeding cars and scooters that ignored the signals. “I don’t get how the crossings work,” my guide admitted. It’s because people cross even if the light isn’t green; it’s because traffic mows through pedestrians even if the light is red.
We caught a bus. The buses are crowded and have two doors. Get on by the driver, get off further down via the second door. Don’t expect passengers to make way for you as you try to get to that exit. Just shove, there’s no other way. The crazy people won’t mind.
The supermarket was in the basement of a shopping centre. Likewise hectic. My guide asked where she could find bedding; a kettle; bottled water. The shopping assistants were appalled that she should ask questions. They wished not to be disturbed. All the duvets were in different styles. Each style came in one colour only. One may have the style one prefers, or else the colour one prefers. I picked a duvet of adequate thickness (incidentally, pink). I found sheets and covers, and a pillow, and the other stuff. This came to RMB 400, about £40. We paid, carried everything by hand because bags are not provided.
Back on the bus. I sweated inside my coat. The water bottles were slipping from under my arm. The duvet, in a box with a wire handle, was weighing down and the handle cut into my fingers. My guide shoved to the exit door. I stood where I was. Every jolt of the bus made me half-fall. I dropped the bottles, picked them up. I had to relinquish my hold on the duvet box for a minute. I must have looked like a humour, hairy, toppling clown. I gathered everything as we approached my apartment. I had a giant box and other things and people would not move. I lifted them above my head and shoved. My guide alighted; the doors closed in front of me. My guide shrieked to the driver. Eventually the doors opened.
I got back to the apartment. We ran over basics, like paying for utilities (there is a small office in the lobby downstairs). Then she leaves, saying she will see me at 1pm tomorrow to show me the university. I am relieved to be alone. It’s 9pm and I haven’t slept for about 30 hours.
My new duvet covers are not a set. They are a single sheet. I put it on the bed. The pillow and duvet go uncovered for the night. I have a quick shower in the disgusting wetroom. I send a few quick messages to loved ones and then try to sleep.
Sleep does not come for four hours.
I wake up to banging. Someone is banging on my door. I check my phone – 13:20. I set three consecutive alarms and slept through them all. My guide is at the door, I apologise, she leaves as I quickly shower and dress. There is a meeting at 2pm with the assistant director. We catch the bus again. Things are a little easier in the daylight, after twelve hours of sleep. But the university campus is shabby, run into the ground. Most of the buildings seem empty and decrepit. My guide points to a clock tower. ‘Look, London! Not really…’
No, not really.
Is this really a university? The 13th rated university in all of China? Where are all the people?
We pass a few studenty-looking types. It’s several street-lengths to the building where I will teach. I’ve passed onto the AD, who smiles warmly and takes me somewhere else. The sports field. This is a sports meeting. What have I got to do with sports? I’m an English teacher.
No-one is there. The AD is perplexed. She goes to find someone and returns five minutes later with 20 kids and some local teachers. The other foreign teacher is not here, though he should be. I’m introduced to the students, who jokingly present me with a shuttlecock as a gift. I crack my first smile since arriving, but it’s short-lived. The AD take some photos of the students and I. I wonder if they’re going to be used as promotional material – Look, we have a white face! Aren’t we prestigious? I’m told it happens a lot. One teacher asks, in broken English, whether I’m the new computer teacher? My guide shushes him quiet.
They let me go home to sleep. I go back to the supermarket to get some supplies. There is a McDonalds here, which I take refuge in. Lovely, lovely familiarity. I haven’t stopped sweating, either because of the humidity or a stress response. Eventually, with enough iced Coke, I cool. I go to the bathroom. The cubicle seems locked, but the lock is green. Maybe it’s stuck? I push, breaking the lock, revealing a man squatting over the hole smoking a sneaky cigarette. He slams the door shut, I apologise, there is a tirade in Mandarin or Shaanxi dialect. I go to pee at home.
I know that I have to be up at 6:30am to go for a medical that the university has arranged, a necessity for my medical insurance. I put my head down at 8pm, but again sleep does not come. A lot of things don’t add up. The state of the university. My brief, truncated conversation with the local teacher. The apartment and living area are problems, but maybe fixable problems. I’m getting paid enough, maybe I can afford to rent somewhere and still make a living? Maybe the university will pay up for a living allowance instead of providing the abattoir apartment?
I decide that I’ll spend a few nights at a hostel for some comfort and company, and wait for my meeting tomorrow with the AD to talk about exactly what they want from me. If things don’t work out, I can always consider staying long enough to recoup my financial losses and then leave. Six weeks, maybe ten. Thinking of the situation as temporary, I realise a lot of things and feel much better.
Sleep does not come until 3:30pm.
[To be continued…]