Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Scam Artistry

Yesterday I had the students brainstorm things they had seen, read, or heard around campus that were newsworthy. They then had to evaluate the credibility of the information (credibility being a recent vocabulary word they were still trying to get right in their mouths) and try to decide what the truth of the matter might be.

The stories ranged from the banal to the bizarre. The English Speech Competition will be held tonight in the Great Hall. A student film competition is being held, in which students create independent films that are then judged by a Hong Kong film director. A student in Dormitory D, according to his friends who posted a notice online, is obsessed with fecal matter, and has spread it all over his dorm walls.

The last one -- while stomach churning -- was sort of what I was looking for. If you wanted to find out if this was really true or not, what would you do? Silence.

"Follow the smell," one smart guy said. We all laughed. But no seriously, I said, what would you do. After much pulling and tugging they came out with it -- go to the dorms, look around, try to find the guy, try to talk to him, try to talk to other people...

I was about to put the activity to bed when one last student raised her hand.

"I want to tell a story of a freshman girl who was cheated 3000 kuai," she said.

One of my pet language peeves has become "cheat." The word is commonly used in Chinese, but the English translation, while not technically wrong, comes out odd a lot of the time. To their delight, I taught the students phrases like "She got scammed," and "scam artist" and "he ripped me off."

The student continued with a woeful and seemingly apocryphal tale I had heard before -- the young girl was approached by two "students" who had lost their money and their teacher. The girl helped them, and they were so grateful, they managed to get in touch with the "teacher." They all met up, but then the tale became more even more pitiful. They needed money for "research..."

It might have been the one time in my life I've held my tongue and was grateful that I did so. I was dying to interrupt with "How could this girl be so stupid?"-- but I managed not to. It was clear that the story was going to go on and on, so at a certain point I stopped the girl, and opened up the story to students' questions.

"Where did you read this news?" asked another student.

The girl who'd told the story mumbled something none of us could hear, and I asked her to repeat it.

"I know this news because the poor girl was me," she said, to audible gasps.

A story is just a story until it happens to someone you know. Suddenly, the kids were paying attention. My head was bursting with questions, but I left them to the students, who were suddenly like reporters at a press conference.

After a few minutes, the girl was getting so battered with questions that I intervened. I tried to put things in perspective -- I could feel class sentiment congealing into the kind that walks past a guy bleeding out on the road. I told them that it was good to try to help people, but you have to judge things carefully, and if you feel things are getting strange, you can always walk away.

I told them a story of a winter night in Beijing. A woman around my age came up to me on the street and asked if I could buy her food. She had the dress and appearance of a migrant laborer. Normally I wouldn't have stopped, but something in her demeanor demanded it. I told her I was going to the store and could buy her something there. In the store, she asked me if she could buy something -- I couldn't quite understand her question in Chinese, but thought I had caught something referred to medecine or hygiene. She came to the counter with a package of dinner rolls, several packets of instant noodles, and a package of maxi-pads. Jesus, I thought, there's no way she's a scam artist if this is what she's buying.

Out on the street, she began to launch into another sad tale of how she needed to get home, to another province...

"I'm sorry," I said. "I have helped you all I can." I turned my back and headed toward my building -- with a guilty feeling that she was probably telling the truth.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Little Brother

( Xiao di, little brother, is a common term of address in Chinese for a younger man in south China.)

Little Brother sits at the barbecue grill with black smoke streaming into his face. We walk up with calls of, “Ni hao, ni hao.” He responds with the only English he knows, “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD.” He finds amazing versatility in the phrase. With a variety of tones and inflections, he uses it to respond to everything from greetings to requests for more beer.

It is a raspy old man's voice for someone who looks about 12. In fact, Xiao Di is 17, but you'd never know it. He's got a crew cut and huge ears that are rotated forward, bat-like. One of his ears has a growth on it, an extra ledge that somehow grew out at right angles to his earlobe. He's not tall but looks tall. Thin in a way that looks like a pole grew bones, arms and legs, and started walking around. He is a natural actor and looks -- if it's possible to imagine this -- like a cross between a Chinese James Dean and a slightly affable and less-tortured Gollum.

Xiao Di is cook, bartender and waiter at a local barbecue stall outside the wall of the East Gate of the university. It's hard, given how long I've been here, to see the East Gate as it really is.

When I see it as it would appear to the foreign eye, it looks more like a refugee camp then a dining location. Dirty dogs tend to lie about under a scrubby tree. Broken concrete and gravel cover an empty lot that narrows into a dusty road. At night, stalls and food carts dot the dusty lot. There are a handful of restaurants along the road. In those ramshackle restaurants they make some of the best food I've ever eaten.

The barbecue stall that Xiao Di mans has Christmas-tree type lights strung up under the sky, and plastic, fake-wooden folding tables and chairs. On a white push cart sit items for grilling. Above the food whirs a fan with bits of plastic taped to its blades, spinning quietly to keep the flies away.

Chinese barbecue is not American barbecue. Everything is on a stick, and the portions are small. Beefballs, chicken legs, eggplant, tofu, -all are skewered and dipped in honey or pepper sauce. Xiao Di brings them out as they come up, grinning so wide his ears seem like they are moving out several inches from his head.

“Your – tofu,” he says, in a Chinese that is so non-standard and idiosyncratic that it seems like a private language. He rasps out the words and grins psychotically, rolls his eyes, and lopes off to bring beer.

One night he comes up and starts rubbing a friend's shoulders.

“One more beer?” he asks. He knows his job and is a good salesman.

“Not tonight,” my buddy answers.

“OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD,” Xiao Di says quietly, shaking his head in disapproval.

He then harangues my friend for a good ten minutes about how he is losing face because we are all drinking more, that if he were a real man, he'd have another beer.

One night he has a coughing fit and falls out of his seat at the barbecue. Another night he chases the boys working at a nearby restaurant. Another, he gets in a fight with the people he works for at the stall. For a couple of weeks in the winter, he appears in a dirty yellow suit jacket two sizes too big for him. We tell him how all the girls will be crazy over him. On another night, he's wildly throwing a butcher knife at the large rats that haunt the bushes behind the barbecue stalls.

Tonight I go down alone to the East Gate. I'm about to start my third year at the Chinese university. Few students and teachers are back yet, and the seats around the barbecue stalls are mostly empty.

For the first time, I sit down and have a real conversation with Xiao Di.

He is wearing a red sleeveless t-shirt with 23 on the back and a montage of hoop dreams on the front. He loves basketball. He plays in a nearby town and wants to know if I want to play there sometime. He has been smoking since age eight. He says contradictory things about whether he goes to school or not. He says he doesn't like working here -- in fact, has switched the stall he works at because they treated him badly at the other one. He wants to get a factory job.

In a country that encourages if does not require each family one child, he has four brothers and sisters. One brother looks just like him, he says. His sister is in Guangzhou. When I ask about his parents, he looks down and mumbles something that I don't understand. I don't press. If Xiao Di isn't an actual orphan, there is something about him that radiates isolation.

We talk. I eat, and he smokes. I have an English book. He picks it up and says he doesn't understand. I tell him he needs to study more. He tells me how much he would love to have a mobile phone. I tell him if he had one, he could call his girlfriend. He grunts and chuckles, says something in his private language, and begins rubbing his head.

After an hour or so, I pay and head home into the warm Chinese summer night. I glance back. Xiao Di is hunched over the barbecue, puffing the white smoke of his cigarette into the black smoke of the grill.