The Foreign Experts

Within a few days, I was feeling more settled. I hadn’t seen any more cockroaches since the night we moved in, although I remained suspicious, rapping on the door and turning on the lights for a minute before I stepped into the bathroom. If they were there when I wasn’t, I didn’t want to know about it.

Gauss and I were beginning to get restless and bored. When would we start preparing to teach? We still didn’t know who our students would be and who we would be reporting to. Gauss stopped by the Foreign Affairs office to ask when we were scheduled to start, but he got the standard put off: “Oh, you should take a rest. You must be very tired.”

The apartment was still bleak, but at least we were unpacked, and Margaret continued to brighten our days. She complained, however, about her boss, a woman named Hao Keqi, who Margaret described as “overbearing.” After listening to Margaret, we hoped we would be reporting to someone else.

“I should really like to buy a bicycle,” said Margaret in her lilting English accent, “since the car only goes downtown once a week. But Miss Hao is dead set against it. Every time she sees me, she tells me how unsafe it is to ride here. She even tells me I shouldn’t walk about the campus by myself!”

Margaret had such good manners that she capitulated. But Gauss and I couldn’t imagine being kept on a short tether for an entire year! We figured that once we get to know our way around town, we’d drag dear Maggie along, and the three of us could have a bit of fun.

We also met Chris, the Australian downstairs, and his Chinese wife, Xiao Lu. Smallish, with curly light-brown hair, Chris seemed to always be in motion. He talked fast, his warm Australian accent rising and falling as he gesticulated. Xiao Lu was his calm opposite, dark and taciturn, her sultry beauty evident even when she wore an army-green Mao jacket over her pregnant belly. Chris seemed to have an endless list of criticisms about China, even in front of Xiao Lu, whose English was excellent. She understood every word he said.

Gauss and Chris's wife, Xiao Lu, assemble her new sewing machine in Chris and Xiao Lu's living room

“I’ll be amazed if they get this semester started on time,” he warned us.

“Those blokes in the Foreign Affairs Office are so incompetent, they couldn’t get on a bus that was stopped in front of them.” His words were sharp, but his eyes twinkled.

Chris had already been in China for two years and said he planned to stay through at least the next year. I couldn’t reconcile his strong connections to the place with his running negative critique.

Our new Canadian colleague, Edna, who would be partnering with Margaret, arrived from Beijing with Liu Dawei, a helpful troubleshooter from the Foreign Affairs Office who seemed to counter Chris’s claims of incompetence. The Chinese consulate in Canada had misplaced Edna’s visa application and Liu Dawei (who used the name “David Liu”) managed to get her into China without an entry visa. David was definitely sharper than the sleepy fellow who had bumbled around Guangzhou with Gauss and me.

A little, round, fiftyish lady who spoke softly and deliberately, Edna had lived in Taiwan working at a church school. There was a sweetness and naiveté about her that baffled us. We fretted that Edna would be overwhelmed by the living conditions or steamrollered by Hao Keqi.

Edna proved thoughtful and considerate, but always about half a step off. Visiting with her was like talking with a child. I half expected her to say something like, “Some of my best friends are Negroes” without a touch of malice—and to be telling the truth. In spite of her years in Taiwan, her Chinese was only marginal, and she was squeamish about everything from the food to the cloth used to clean her apartment.

“When those ladies come in to clean, with that bucket of gray water and that filthy rag, I just cringe,” she remarked one day at lunch, as she picked at her food.

Edna skipped whole meals and tiptoed around the room to keep from touching the floor. Even weeks into her stay, she told us she hadn’t lowered her whole body into the bathtub because it looked so grimy. She had a point—things were pretty dirty, and I had freaked out the first time I had to bathe in my tub. But Gauss and I reasoned that we were there for an entire year; it was best get used to things and call upon our senses of humor to help us adjust.

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