Brian’s and Alice’s stories
In 1986, when Brian, his wife Alice and I were teaching at Xiamen University, he told me about a special lecture he gave as a part of his contract with the university. Later Alice shared a story about getting gifts shipped back home. Both stories are good illustrations of the how bizarre everyday life in China can be. The Bo Xue classroom building was a few blocks from The Number 2 Guesthouse where most of the foreigners were living.
Brian: I was giving a special lecture on Saturday afternoon, and I was told that it would be at Bo Xue, one of the classroom buildings on campus where I teach.
“Fine. What time do you want me to be there?”
“No no no no. We’ll send a car for you.”
“What do you mean send a car to get me? I can bike over there in two minutes.”
“Well, we’ll send a car.”
So they sent a car. It was one of the old cars, not one of the Toyota Crowns, one of these old Chinese cars. We got in—my minder, that is, the Chinese faculty member who looks after me, and myself and the driver. We rode along, but then instead of turning left at the gate in order to go down to Bo Xue, the driver made a right turn and left the university. I thought, Well, he could go down to the post office and come in the other gate down there past the administration building. He went down and made a turn down at the post office and turned into where the School of Economics is. My minder hollered at him, “Where are you going?” There was a discussion in Chinese, so I gather the driver was told, “This is not where we’re going. We’re going to Bo Xue.”
The driver backed out of there and went down the road and made a left turn to come in the university gate down by the printing factory. Only the gate keepers wouldn’t open the gate for him. The driver sat there, and he hollered at the gate keepers, and they hollered back at him, and pretty soon my keeper was hollering too. They wouldn’t open the gate even though this was a university car. When the gatekeepers saw the driver getting out of the car, all of a sudden they decided to open the gate. My minder turned to me and said, “A big mistake.”
We finally got down to Bo Xue, only the driver didn’t stop. He started driving back up toward the main road again. My minder hollered at him to stop. He stopped, and we got out and walked back down the road. I don’t know what the problem with the driver was, whether he didn’t know the names of the buildings or he only spoke local dialect or what, but he sure had a terrible time.
I had a bunch of overhead transparencies I was going to use. When we got into the lecture room, they said they couldn’t find a screen, so they were going to show them on the wall. The wall had all kinds of posters on it, so you couldn’t see much of anything. About eight guys ended up picking up this huge combination lectern and desk from the front of the room and hauling it across the room to put closer to the wall. In the meantime somebody had put the outline of my lecture up on the board in Chinese. My minder had been coming to see me for about two weeks. He had a copy of the complete published article that was the basis for the lecture, and he was going over it and asking me about each word. He was going to translate it. He had talked about whether he was going to translate it sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. We finally decided it would be better to do it paragraph by paragraph.
At the lecture, he introduced me to the audience, and he turned to me and said, “I sit down now.” He went and sat down. There I was with no translator. So I started talking, and I had just gotten a couple of sentences out when a couple of students showed up with a screen. They tried to figure out how to hook it up. The room had blackboards that slide up and down on vertical tracks. They hooked the screen on the top of one of the blackboards and shoved it up, and of course as soon as they got it up the blackboard and the screen came crashing down, and the screen fell on the floor. They hooked it on again and shoved it up, tried to get the blackboard to stay up, but it wouldn’t, it came loose and fell down again, and there was the screen on the floor. The third time they pushed it up they took an eraser and jammed it in the track to keep the blackboard up. That held. But now the screen covered up half of the blackboard where the lecture was outlined. Then I tried to put the overhead on the new screen, and you couldn’t see. I went back about five rows and couldn’t see a thing. This was an auditorium that must hold a hundred or a hundred and fifty people. I said, “Well, let’s forget about the projector. We can’t see it anyway.”
From there it was pretty uneventful. I used the outline in Chinese and I would point to the sections. It was a pretty detailed outline. So I think some of them were able to follow me as I was talking.
Alice: But they were reading it while you were giving the speech in English. They were reading it in Chinese.
Brian: They were reading it from the blackboard.
Alice: So why were you even there?
Brian: I don’t know. But I haven’t finished my story. I finished my speech, and there was a bunch of professors from my department on the front row asleep. The ones that were asleep didn’t understand any English at all. They were just sitting there. I found out later that it was either come to my lecture or go to a political meeting. They decided they’d rather come to my lecture and sleep than go to a political meeting and sleep. My minder said, “OK, now we go to the banquet.”
Fine. We started walking out to the door, only none of the other accounting professors came along. He kept hollering at them, “Come on. Come on. Let’s go.”
I started walking down the road with a couple of people from the computer science department who had some questions about my lecture, and my minder ran back and talked to the professors about why they weren’t coming, and he came back and told me that they all had bicycles and were going to ride over. They brought me over in a car, but when the lecture was over, I had to walk back. It’s a five minute walk—big deal—but it was funny. We got back to the guesthouse, I went to the room to get Alice, we waited for the other professors to show up, and then we went into the guesthouse dining room. There was no table set up for a banquet—no nothing.
My minder went into the kitchen with some other faculty members, and he came out and said, “A big mistake. They’re not expecting us. They have no banquet.”
They sat us down in the middle of the dining room—as you’re well aware, it’s a fairly large room—and got four chairs, and they had Alice and me sit in two chairs, and two Chinese professors sat in the two chairs facing us, and they brought some cokes. We talked. Everybody else disappeared. We didn’t know where they’d gone.
Alice: We had just found out that one of the professors, who was probably in his late sixties, spoke English and was educated in a Western-style university for very rich families.
Brian: His parents were landowners. He had a very classical education. He can sing Peking Opera. He knows about a lot of different areas, he’s much better educated than people today.
Alice: A Renaissance man. I think there are some young students who are very bright, very competent, especially some who spent a couple of years in the West. But boy, between them and the sixty-year-olds you’ve got a real vacuum.
Brian: We must have been there twenty or thirty minutes. Pretty soon my minder came back and said, “OK, the banquet’s ready. Follow me.”
Fine. We got up and followed him. There’s a little restaurant out there behind the Chinese guesthouse. They’d gone in there and ordered the banquet. So we went there, and we sat down, and somebody threw a plastic sack of those sweet hot dog buns on the table, and somebody else threw out a plastic sack of hamburger buns, I guess. Somebody had some wine. They had coke and beer. Then the restaurant started bringing out dishes.
As it turned out, it was about one of the nicest banquets we’ve had here, because the accounting people were very relaxed and very informal, and they jabbered away and had a great time. There were only a couple of people that spoke English. They had the professor sitting beside us and then my minder. The food was pretty good. It was kind of fun. But the whole afternoon seemed to be a comedy of errors.
At the end of the term, the university was preparing for a visit by very big potatoes from the Ministry of Education. So for about three weeks, from early morning until late at night, residents of the guesthouse had painting, repair work on plumbing and electricity, installation of color television sets, maintenance work of all sorts—all of which seemed to require incessant pounding and hoards of chain-smoking workmen charging into rooms without knocking. The hasty, last-minute repair of the guesthouse was underway when the Carters arrived for lunch in my partially repaired apartment. It was their last day at the university. Since the Carters were on a short-term contract, they had to bear the expense of shipping any freight themselves.
Alice: I don’t understand why those people at the waiban [foreign affairs] have absolutely no experience in shipping. I just cannot believe they know so little about it. The part that went smoothly was getting the box made. That they understood. They got a carpenter, they got the stuff measured, and they got the box. But then how to get it from here to the United States was just a complete mystery to them. The only thing they could think of was to take it to the post office and have it shipped by air.
I said, “That’s not possible. We can’t afford to do that.”
They were at a loss. Then they found out that there was a shipping company downtown. So they took me downtown to the shipping company, where the clerk said, “Well, if we take that box, they’ll get lost or broken.”
I thought, Why should I pay them to ship it if they say it’ll get lost or broken? The interpreter couldn’t quite get it through his head that we needed to leave. He kept arguing with them. I said, “Let’s go. We really don’t want to use this company. If there’s no other shipping company, then the post office must be able to do it.”
“No, no. The post office will only take a box weighing one kilo.”
“We’re downtown, let’s go to the downtown post office and ask since we’re here.”
“No, let’s ask at the university post office.”
We asked at the university post office. One kilo.
“You’ll have to ship it from Hong Kong then.”
All along the waiban was trying to get us to take it on the boat with us to Hong Kong and ship it from there so they wouldn’t have to deal with it.
My standard argument was, “Look, in Hong Kong we don’t have an interpreter, we don’t know the name of a shipping company, we don’t know where customs is, we don’t know how to do anything. Also, we don’t want to have to haul it to Hong Kong. We don’t want to have to carry it. It weighs close to 40 pounds.”
“Let’s go back to the waiban office and call. There has got to be a way to send it through the post office.”
“No no no.”
“Please. I insist that you call the main post office. Here’s a list. We need to know everything on this list. How much will they charge, what are the limitations on the size and weight of the box, will they insure it?”
He called. “Well, that’s good. They can ship it.”
“That’s wonderful. How much will it cost?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“What about the weight and the size?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call back and ask them.”
He returned. “It’s 130¥ [$43 at the time] for twenty kilos.”
“Wonderful. What about the size of the box? Can it be any size?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about insurance.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think they insure things.”
I said, “Well, we’ve got partial information. Let’s go with that.” We had been at this now for three hours, and I was exhausted. “I understand that you can get customs to come here and inspect this.”
They started to yap. “Customs will not come here for a little box. They would only do that if you have a lot of articles. We must go there.”
“OK. We’ll go there.”
So that’s what we did today. Not knowing what would happen in the last few days, I had my schedule well planned out with every item on every hour carefully thought out. This morning at nine o’clock I had the car from the university, I had the driver, I had the interpreter, I had the box to go to customs.
The monitor from one of my classes came to my door and said, “Here, you must full out all these grade books.”
I didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t have all the grade books, but he had ninety percent of them. Then I had another student come to present me with a gift. He came with his camera and he wanted to take pictures. Then I had all these workmen who were coming in the door. Someone interpreted for the workmen and said, “Your heater’s going to be out for three days. Do you mind?”
I had all of my possessions laid out all over the bed and the box and the suitcases and everything organized according to what goes where. The workmen came in and said, “You have to move all this stuff because we’re going to do this work here, and we might break something.”
About that time I wanted to throw them all out because I couldn’t deal with it. So I told them we are moving out tomorrow and they could have the whole room then.
Actually, the customs office was not as bad as I had feared it would be. We were just the box and me and this official going through the stuff. I expected mobs of people and no place to get stuff out, and that didn’t happen. So that part was good. They looked at everything. They asked me for the value, and it was 400¥ [$133]. I didn’t know what was going on. I finally asked the interpreter what was happening.
“Because the value of the gifts is so high, I have to take this piece of paper to the university and get the university to verify that these are legitimate gifts.” At least that’s what I understand from him, though I don’t trust his English.
“Will there be any difficulty with this?”
“Well, he’s trusting me to mail him this form with the university seal on it.”
Maybe the box is sitting there waiting for someone to stamp the paper. I don’t know. We just nailed it shut. Then we went to a special shipping post office downtown by the docks. It’s not the main post office, it’s not the university post office, but a special shipping post office. Once we got there, then it was awful. Then it was the mobs of people and no place to work and many forms to fill out and all of that. Now it’s not clear to me whether the box will actually go or whether they’re going to wait for some special notification. I could not get that out of the interpreter. He assured me that I was all done, and they would take care of it—no problem.
Carol Dussere was a professor of English from 1984-86 in Xiamen University, Fujian, China and from 1989-2006 at Dongguk University in Seoul. The interviews and photos on this page were collected as a result of her experience abroad. She currently lives in the beautiful town of Tagaytay, Philippines, where she is working on two book manuscripts. ("Dussere" rhymes with "blue hair," which she doesn't have yet.)