Surprise Test

In our correspondence with the university before we left the States, they had hinted that in addition to Gauss, they would be hiring me, too—but they made no promises. I had experienced a lot of upheaval in the year before our departure: the death of a close friend, the loss of a job I loved at the Minnesota Geological Survey, and a car accident. I came to China ready for a fresh start, open to either teaching or not. I brought with me a map project I’d begun at the Survey, knowing that if I didn’t teach, I could finish it.

I hoped to work part-time, enough to bring structure to my life, but not so much that I would be exhausted. I had been working since age 15 and employed full-time since college graduation, and while I couldn’t imagine being unscheduled all day, every day, I was hoping my year in China would give me a chance to relax a little.

After nearly two weeks in Xi’an—asking almost daily when we would start working—Gauss and I were starting to get bored and restless. No matter who we queried at the foreign affairs office. or waiban, the reply was “Xiuxi”—rest. Then suddenly one evening, one of the university higher-ups stopped by our apartment.

“You are invited to a meeting with the university president tomorrow,” he told Gauss in Chinese, “Please have a test prepared by noon so you can screen your students.”

Huh? Couldn’t someone have said something a few days earlier when we bugged the waiban? This was how I learned that I would be teaching, and it was the first time that we heard that we’d be selecting our students as well as teaching them. Did they spring this on us with no notice intentionally, to keep us off balance? Or, like the poorly planned pickup at the airport, did this happen because nobody thought out how it should work?

Gauss and I didn’t know if we should be miffed or puzzled, but with his teaching experience and my writing ability, we stayed up late and managed to come up with a diagnostic test. Chris, our experienced downstairs neighbor, gave us a ditto master to type it on. The next morning we took it to the foreign language department where we literally cranked out 60 copies, the sweet-smelling purple ink damp on the pages as we turned the handle.

Despite the request to have the tests completed by noon, nobody asked us for them. Not quite sure what to do next, we carried the stack of tests to our meeting after siesta. Ushered into the official greeting-of-dignitaries reception room on campus, Edna, Margaret, Gauss and I sat next to each other growing bleary-eyed, listening to lengthy speeches in Chinese haltingly translated into English. The large space featured two facing rows of dark green velvet wing chairs with lace doilies on the backs, a terrazzo floor, a water-stained acoustical tile ceiling and large windows. White enameled spittoons were placed on the floor at regular intervals between the chairs. The lights flickered on and off throughout the formalities.

University personnel—the same retinue of department- and university cadres who met us at the airport—lined up on one side of the ten-foot-wide aisle, and we foreigners sat facing them across this gulf. They looked vaguely familiar, but conversation was difficult and stilted, so they remained a nameless pack to me. There was one woman among the Chinese whom I did not recognize. She was seated next to the university president.

Other aides and hangers-on, all men, hovered near the perimeter of the room. They served tea, nodded, got up to turn on the light that kept self-extinguishing, took pictures, or did nothing. From time to time, one of the dignitaries would discreetly bend toward a spittoon and use it.

Edna leaned over to me and whispered. “That woman next to the president is Hao Keqi.”

Hao Keqi interpreted, her head held high and a smirk on her face that I could only characterize as reptilian. Her voice had an even, measured quality, and each time she finished a sentence, she would assume a little close-lipped smile and nod slightly. She didn’t look so much happy or friendly as she did self-satisfied. She creeped me out.

After the top dignitaries gave clichéd welcoming speeches, we were given enameled “Xi’an Jiaotong University” pins, booklets about the university proclaiming its “glorious revolutionary history,” and colorful pamphlets showing plainly dressed, pink-cheeked coeds walking the campus byways. Then the floor was opened for discussion, but real discourse was not the point of the gathering.

Gauss said simply that we were happy to be there and looked forward to meeting our students. This was one occasion when I just smiled and let him do the talking.


One thought on “Surprise Test

  1. When I was in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in 1972, we received three months of cross-cultural training, and our assignments had been screened by Peace Corps personnel. Plus we were in a society in which westerners were not uncommon, and a large proportion of the people spoke English. In other words, my introduction to the Philippines was a piece of cake compared to your initial experience. As I read these installments, I’m always referring and comparing to my own experience.

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