Monthly Archives: May 2011

Busting Out to Teach

When one of my students comes to my class late, I always ask, “What’s your excuse?”  This is not only a valid question of judgement, but also an exercise in real world speaking.  The usual answers are:  I slept too long — I couldn’t find my bike — I was waiting for my roommate — or my personal favourite — I didn’t eat breakfast so I can’t walk good.  Then I ask the rest of the class if they think it’s a reasonable excuse.  Well, yesterday morning I got a taste of my own medicine, but I had the end-all excuse to put them all to rest.

That morning I woke up a little later than usual, 7:20, and I crawled out of bed to take a shower and get ready for my 8 o’clock class.  Next to my bedroom is my office, which has a door leading out to the main area of my apartment.  Last week there was a burglary in one of my foreign colleagues apartment, where, in the middle of the night, the robbers busted through some steel bars, which encase most windows here, and stole his laptop and some cash while he was sleeping.  Since then I’ve been sleeping with a knife and a clothing iron next to my bed, waiting for their return.  I’ve also been locking my office door for extra effort on their part. 

That morning, I unlocked my office door and turned the knob when…nothing.  The door didn’t budge.  I pushed and pulled while jiggling it with no success.  I was thinking — Shit.  Alright China, you got me again.  Now what.  And because of the steel bars over the windows, there was no way I could even crawl out.

I called my class monitor, Jimmy, to tell him I was going to be late and to keep the students from leaving.  I also asked him if he could call the security guards and see if they had a spare key or perhaps some ancient Chinese secret of opening my front door to try the jammed door from the other side.  He said he’d come to the teacher’s village to see what he could do.  I was a little irritated, but even more, I was just enjoying the moment because I reveled in the thought of what was going to happen next.

Jimmy showed up ten minutes later and I could hear them trying to open my front door.  No luck.  Well, at least the fact they couldn’t get that door open was a little comforting.  He came around to the back of the apartment block and was yelling at my second floor window. 

“Lance!  Lance!  They can’t open it,”  he said as I came to the window.  He was trying to contain his laughter.

“Alright.”  So, dreadfully, I had to do what I didn’t want to….call Mindy.  She’s the head of the Foreign Affairs Office and my boss.  Let’s put it this way, you don’t want to talk to her unless you absolutely have to because…well, she’s just, she’s like a Chinese version of Nurse Ratched in Keasey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  That said, I dialed her number and waited.

“Yes Lance.”  She never says hello.

“Hi Mindy.  How are you?”

“Mmm…mmm,” she murmured.  “What is it?”

“Well, uh, I’ve got a little problem with my door….,” I told her the jist of it.

“I’m busy right now.  I can’t help you until 11:30,” she replied irritably.

“But I’ve got class in ten minutes.  What should I do?”

“Just break out of your apartment.  I have to go.  Bye.”

I smiled.  I looked down at Jimmy and said, “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Ever since watching COPS as a kid, I’ve always wanted to kick a door in.  The feeling of busting down someone’s door and coming in like a badass, eyes wild like a madman.  Only here, the other side of the door was just my living room and I had no one to surprise.  But, I was barefoot and all of my shoes were out by my front door….then I remembered.  In the cabinet of my office bookshelf, I had stored my fancy dress shoes I never wear.  They were a $200 gift from my ex-Korean girlfriend and I’ve probably worn them two times in two years.  I pulled one of the dusty ones out and put it on, finally giving me a reason to wear it again.  Showtime.

I took a few steps back and booted the door square beside the knob thinking it would gloriously bust free on the first kick.  Not.  I must’ve kicked it 20 times, wood chips and paint flying everywhere, before the inside lock finally broke off. 

I quickly got dressed and met Jimmy downstairs.

“How did you get out?” he asked curiously.

“Ancient American secret,” I smiled.

I was 30 minutes late to class and most of the students were half asleep or texting on their phones. 

As I walked in they all asked in unison, “What’s your excuse?”

I didn’t have to lie.

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China’s Development Ghosts

It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes.  It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou.  Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls.  The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.

But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants?  The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005.  It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster.  As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.

Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate.  Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers.  They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part.  When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.

Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou.  It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others.  It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.

I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time.  We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look.  Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on.  Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills.  Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).

We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner.  When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full.  I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.”  But on a closer look, I was wrong.  At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home.  Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food.  The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come.  We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area.  All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt.  The three cooks  gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game.  As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment. 

At this point, I was laughing in disbelief.  What the hell is going on here?  I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them.  I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline. 

I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”

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