Sunday, May 16, 2010
Sometimes it's the simplest, most benign pretenses that can change everything. For me, it all started with a knock at my door. Max, a former student of mine, came over to my house one Saturday afternoon along with a man I had never met before. He looked to be a little older than me, stocky and not particularly handsome, with thick-rimmed glasses and a protruding stomach that practically begged to be rubbed. Max, to his credit, was none of those things—a slim, athletic build, who wore designer dress shirts, kept his hair in a fashionable pompadour, and was unmistakably a hit with the female undergrads. As they shuffled into my house—each putting out their cigarettes in the ashtray on my front porch—I realized that something felt different. As an English major—and a good one at that—Max had spoken with me before on many occasions outside of class. He always had a playful, jocular air about him when we talked or went out to eat together, occasionally transitioning to more controversial subjects when the mood dictated: his desire to leave China, his stance on the Middle East, or his strong dislike for the Communist Party. This time, however, his attitude was all business.
I had known about Max's background in entrepreneurship before I had even met Max himself. He had certainly made a name for himself on campus, at least in the foreign circle, for founding the first and only bar in town. Located in North Yard down a tiny alley catty-corner to some of our most-frequented restaurants, it has been a popular spot for the teachers, and the occasional graduate student, ever since its inception two years ago. Furnished with space-age chairs, silver-sequined wallpaper, and stocked with foreign alcohol purchased at the Walmart in Taiyuan, the admittedly shoe-box sized establishment gets the most mileage out of its limited real estate. In the time since last semester, Max sold the bar—which he had co-owned with a fellow undergraduate—in order to make back some money for his next enterprising venture. Despite his relative youth—he is one year younger than me—Max was the only person I knew in Taigu to have started his own business. That was until I was introduced to the portly fellow who had accompanied him to my house.
By way of introduction, the stouter man—whom I soon learned was named Han—extended a hand and a curt “nice to meet you” in his best English. Max was familiar with Han because of their mutual celebrity as young businessmen in Taigu—Max with his bar and Han with an electronics store that specialized in selling computer parts and accessories on campus. Since the business world in Taigu does not run particularly deep, it didn't take long for them to develop a mutual acquaintanceship. Han, like me, graduated from college last May, and has since transitioned to the working world. In addition to pursuing a full-time job in his hometown of Changzhi, he decided to pair up with a couple of other professionals for a new venture—starting an English-language school specializing in having foreign teachers. The only problem was procuring said teachers. But Han, ever-industrious, remembered his old buddy who was friends with the foreigners at his alma mater, and first tried to employ his guanxi with Max to recruit us for the school.
Once we were all seated in my living room, Han was content to let Max do most of the talking. Having had a limited knowledge of English, the best he could muster was the occasional nod or shrug after a translation from Max, or a follow-up comment or question directed at me in Chinese. As me and James tried to flesh out all of the details, Max and Han made it clear that we were the last group of foreigners they had talked to that day. After having traveled from Dave and Gerald's house to Anne and Nick's and finally on to ours, their bag of swag gradually got depleted, leaving small gifts of
friendship bribery in their wake: crates of expensive packaged milk, cured Pingyao beef (a Shanxi specialty), and a number of plug-in USB microphones—almost certainly holdovers from Han's last entrepreneurial venture. The details of the entire operation were still being worked out, but we were able to gather this much: the school was willing to pay for all of our transportation, lodging, and food for once-weekly weekend stays in Changzhi, in addition to a salary of 1000 yuan—effectively doubling our current monthly pay at SAU. The trade-off, of course, was having to teach four extra classes a week and effectively losing all of our weekends for the rest of the semester.
James and I in front of the old Changzhi city limits. A weekend spent as sole English speakers in a foreign place certainly brought us closer together and made for some interesting bonding experiences.
In a move that can either be chalked up to utter desperation or lucrative brilliance, James and I took them up on their offer, irrespective of the fact that all of the other foreign teachers had conclusively turned them down. Our interest effectively locked ourselves into a spoken-contract as teachers with the Changzhi school as soon as we got the green light that everything was up and running on their end. We both figured that though we would miss out on a good deal of R&R in Taigu, this would be a great opportunity to make a little extra money on the side to save up for unforeseen expenses. As a show of gratitude for our pledge to their endeavor, Han and Max took us out to celebrate at a fancy hot-pot restaurant in town a few weeks later. While there, we were introduced to the two other main players in our cast of characters: the headmistress of the school, a remarkably gorgeous and powerful older woman, and her husband, a cool, level-headed gentleman in his own right. It was then that they requested for us both to come to Changzhi the following weekend, not to work, but so that they could treat us to an all-expenses paid tour of the city where we'd be spending two days out of every week from then on.
We arrived on Friday night after a three-hour bus ride from Taigu, upon which we were immediately swooped up by our three protagonists—Han, the headmistress, and her husband—sans Max, who was taking a national exam that weekend back in Taigu. They arrived in a nearly impossibly garish Italian sports car that they would later use to chauffeur us around town at every available opportunity. Though I'm rarely taken with cars, even I had to admit that this one was nice—automatic-sliding seats, sleek leather interior, and shocks that made even the shoddiest Chinese streets feel smooth. As might be expected from a group of well-to-do professionals trying to entice their new clientele, we got the celebrity treatment. First stop was dinner, where we were treated to a lavish multi-course meal, complete with polite banter, insistent urgings for second helpings, and facts about some of Changzhi's points of interest. Next was the 4-star hotel where we would be staying. In all of my travelings in Asia up until that point, I had yet to stay in nearly as nice a place. James and I took our time admiring the big-screen TV, the real-life shower-head (boasting 5 jet streams), and the two gigantic queen-sized beds, not to mention all the free toiletries we could handle.
The ensemble cast of characters (from left to right): the “fun” friend, the headmistress' husband, the headmistress, and Han.
After we put our bags down, we were whisked off to a club for a continuation of the evening's festivities—just another in a long line of efforts the school's staff was making to whet our appetites for all of the fun opportunities we had waiting for us in Changzhi. Inside, we got our own private booth, and it wasn't long before cases of imported Heineken beer, two bottles of Red Label, and plates brimming with hors d'oeuvres began to fill the table. At the club, we were also introduced to two of Han's buddies, one a quiet, brooding man who had studied abroad in Australia, and the other, a wise-cracking twenty-something who was married with a wife and child at home. The “fun” friend and I hit it off right away, doing a couple of shots together before hitting the dance floor—a whiskey iced tea in one hand and a plate of banana chips in the other. Admittedly, though, the entire club scene did feel more than a bit awkward, first because James and I didn't know anybody our own age there, and second, because it felt like our new bosses were testing us. We felt more like performing monkeys than usual—dancing blithely in our carefully-tailored fun-house, but never truly safe from our bosses' ever-vigilant watch. We left the club, tired and bleary-eyed, and made a beeline back to the hotel for a rest.
The next day was slated for sightseeing. The only thing I knew about Changzhi before I arrived was that according to some tourism survey, it was rated as one of the top ten cities in Northern China—a pretty significant distinction, especially one that sets it out among cities and towns in Shanxi Province. After sleeping off the previous night, we helped ourselves to the hotel's complimentary buffet breakfast and were on our way. Though we hit a fair deal of what might rightfully be called “tourist attractions,” there was nothing especially spectacular to report. Many of the sights were regrettably things I had already been previously subjected to in China—a scenic mountaintop partially-demolished to accommodate an amusement park, crumbling old-style city walls and pagodas, heinously gaudy monuments with little actual substance. But despite the general lack of noteworthy displays, the staff certainly went out of its way to cater to our every need. All the meals were provided at fancy restaurants, we were escorted around in expensive foreign cars, and even the music was carefully selected to put us at ease—they played Lady Gaga on repeat, presumably the only Western music they owned. At one point we went to a store to buy snacks, and it seemed that anything we so much as looked at the wrong way, Han had already ordered a pound of to be bagged and purchased at the front register.
I would be crying too if the shining beacon of Changzhi's most highly-regarded ancient district was ensconced in animal droppings. The statue, nothing more than a glorified hollowed-out steel facade, empties out onto a small observatory overlooking an entire city cast in gray.
But all the while, there seemed to be a less-than-subtle turf war going on between Changzhi and Taigu, and our hosts made it very clear which they thought was better. Taigu was dirty, poor, underdeveloped, backwards—a place where the people and the students alike had few, if any, redeeming qualities. Changzhi, on the other hand, was just the opposite—the environment was cleaner, the food was better, and the people had a higher quality of life. In some ways, what they said was true. Changzhi is a thoroughly modern city by Chinese standards and Taigu is certainly not without its faults. But in many ways, it can't help its own shortcomings, and it's certainly not a fault of the people, many of whom—students included—I respect and admire greatly. It would be a gross understatement to say that our new bosses were trying to impress us with their wealth. While in America I would have hardly batted an eye at their excesses, having lived in Taigu for so long and been rarely exposed to such ostentation, I was definitely sold, and even found myself buying into it a little myself—adopting an air of carefree luxury and entitlement when it came to the money being spent on me and James. Money corrupts as absolutely as power, and, as I would soon learn, everything comes at a price.
At the end of dinner that night we toasted to our future success. Had the story ended there, there would have been little doubt about my future with the Changzhi school. Having just rounded out another thoroughly pampered day, I was excited to return for future weekend trips as a respite from the drudgery of Taigu. But neither I nor James were prepared for what would await us the following morning.