There are two ways to find a school in which to teach in China. One is to do it yourself. The other is to have an agent who will do the looking for you.
I’m a professional actor. I had won a role on a television movie and acquired some newfound wealth, so I decided to teach overseas.
I took the course on how to teach English and did quite well. My boyfriend Jim and I had just broken up and I needed to escape. So I chose to run away and teach in China.
I found an agent and, after a week of searching, she found me a job in a school just outside of Hong Kong.
“No,” I said, “it’s too expensive to live there.”
I wanted to save money.
The agent immediately got irritated and dumped me off onto her contact in China, Maggie. They weren’t used to finicky students.
With a lot of gentle persuasion, I got Maggie to start again.
She said choose another country.
I said no.
I said no.
I said no.
Find me something in Shanghai or Beijing, I insisted.
She said, “Impossible. I get back to you.”
The search was on.
I kept focusing on Shanghai. I had decided on Shanghai. I wanted Shanghai. Please find me a school in Shanghai. There must be one… at least.
A couple of days later my cell phone bounced in my pocket.
Just outside of Shanghai.
Kid Castle. It’s part of a chain.
I would be teaching six to 12-year-olds. Six days a week.
This was not in the brochure.
I wanted older students. Not screechers.
A couple of days later my phone woke me at 1:30 am.
Two voices talked in tandem. One, Chinese, hushed and slightly pushy, whispered in the background. The other, a young English teacher, acted as interpreter.
Andrea, the English teacher, sounded exhausted.
At one point in the conversation, I asked her if she liked working there.
I heard her ragged voice drop to a whisper and say, “I only have three months left.”
Not thrilled to hear that.
The Chinese voice, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, told me I had to work six days a week. We haggled over email for the next few days.
Then she began to get personal.
“Do you have girlfriends?” she typed.
“Oh yes, many. But just friends,” I replied.
She asked for my picture.
I sent her my actor’s headshot.
She replied, “You good looking. I too chubby. You in good shape, you not make fun of me.”
Another email: “I yell a lot, you not get angry at me.”
Then: “We okay now. You buy ticket, we give money back when you here.”
I got a good price. Roundtrip: $1,300.
It took me three days to get my three-month visa. I was supposed to land, wait five days, then they would fly me to Hong Kong where I would get my new work visa, then I would return to school and begin work.
Sounded good to me.
I was ready to go.
And then I asked about plugs.
“What plugs?” she asked.
Adaptors… for my fan and alarm clock, I explained.
“Fan? What fan?”
I bring my own fan whenever I travel (try explaining white noise over email and a language barrier).
“Whirrrrrr?!” she asked.
The next day I got a very terse, professionally written letter from her mother saying, “Thank you for your time but you seem to want special treatment. We suggest you look elsewhere for employment. Goodbye.”
I can’t explain how I felt.
I read the email over and over.
I tried emailing them back, over and over.
It was over.
I contacted my agent and asked her to please begin the search again.
As I slowly closed my computer I suddenly resolved to go anyway. I had my ticket and my visa. What’s the worst that could happen?
I was in motion. Propelled. Compelled.
The last night before I was to leave, I was invited out to an Easter dinner with friends. We joked about it being my ‘last supper’ of North American fare. They thought I was insane to fly off to China without a job. “Where will you stay, where will you work?” they asked again and again.
Suddenly, my pants danced. My cell phone went off.
It was my agent, Maggie.
“Dane, so sorry to keep you waiting. I have ‘nother school. Director want talk to you.”
A 10-minute conference call ensued on the spot. I spoke calmly and answered and asked all the right questions, never once mentioning plugs.
I got the job.
i arrived in Shanghai on a Tuesday at 9 pm.
I cleared customs and took a lunge forward. And then a step backward.
I looked for a sign.
Bill, Mr Arthur, Proctor…
No one was there to pick my up.
I had one scraggly piece of paper with a long contact phone number in case anything went wrong.
A taxi driver waved his cell phone and kindly called the 14-digit number.
I held my breath. The woman I was supposed to replace had decided to stay! I stammered but there was nothing I could do.
I thanked the taxi driver and moped off into a corner to have a ‘think’ like Pooh Bear.
I looked down the hallway and chose the quietest, meekest-looking taxi driver. We haggled. I told him to take me to a cheap, nice hotel. Perhaps a hostel. I chose my words carefully and used a lot of pantomime.
I asked him about his home life and in broken English we bonded in his cab. He was 23, two children and a wife to support. He liked his job. Liked the foreigners.
He asked me about my life. I didn’t hesitate. “I have a boyfriend,” I said.
He turned and looked back at me for as long as possible while driving. “Ah, ah, I understand, I understand.”
Would he now take me to a chandeliered, crinoline-draped, over-priced, fancy schmancy, bordello-like hotel? Or a dandy, nancy-bar for ‘just passing through’ sailors?
We arrived after about an hour. It was right out of the movie Blade Runner. The neighbourhood looked dirty and rundown. The hotel was fading-fancy. Ten floors of dull chrome and dusty glass. The staff wore frayed grey uniforms with little red ties. Everyone stood at attention when we approached the front desk.
The driver spoke to a young man who then turned to me and smiled. He gave me one price. I gave a lower price. Down and down we went until I ended up paying the equivalent of about $30 a night.
They led me up to my room.
One bed with a mattress that was wafer-thin.
Red carpet. Red drapes.
I sat down on the bed and cried softly. Cursed myself…
“Nancy’s got a job to do,” I finally reminded myself and got up to run a bath.
My tears mixed with the murky water as I pulled the plug.
I needed to go to an internet café and email my agent.
At the front desk I mimed the sign of a keyboard.
They all pointed down the street.
I stepped out into the teeming street life.
Everywhere there were scooters and cars and bicycles and people humming every which-way.
People and drivers disobeyed the traffic lights. Scooters drove on the sidewalks.
People stared at me and pointed. Smiling.
I looked down. Was my fly open?
No, I was the only Caucasian face around.
It was hot and muggy. I was on a street named Zhongshang Rd in an older section of Shanghai.
The smog was godawful.
I could feel my lungs berating me.
I found the internet café. It was full to bursting. The smoke of 100 cigarettes hovered above the terminals like a mushroom cloud.
“Dane, I’m so sorry,” reads the email from my agent, who already knows. She promises to find me another job. She tells me to stay put in Shanghai for a day or two.
The next morning, I brave the bustling crowds and head for an open market. Live poultry squawk in metal and bamboo cages. Lots of meats sizzle in woks and frying pans. Buckets teem with eels, crickets and frogs. I see a dove get decapitated and bagged.
I buy a banana.
There is a man sitting on a chair on the sidewalk being shaved by a barber with a straight- razor. Beside him, a game of checkers that passerby are betting on. Others stop to just watch and gossip and share a smoke.
It’s very lively and the people are curious about me. Whenever I stop to poke my nose into a scenario, a crowd gathers and pokes me.
I smile politely and tell them where I’m from.
I scratch a map with a pebble onto the sidewalk.
Lots of nodding heads and broken-toothed brown smiles.
“Ahhh, Shanada…” they all say.
I leave the market and head up the street where I turn a corner and see a dilapidated school. Fading paint and sad, peeling off letters announce the presence of Kid Castle.
I continue on my walk and enter a series of very narrow alleyways. So narrow in fact that one neighbour above is able to pass a bowl of rice to her neighbour across the way. Very Dickensian.
I notice in some of the doorways women and a couple of men are leaning rather provocatively. I’m in a red light district.
I stop at one apartment and chat with a rather cute young man who obviously is a hustler. I ask him if I can just take a peek at his… apartment. He smiles broadly and sweeps me in with his welcoming palm.
Inside is just a bed and table. A small fridge and a hot plate.
He’s 20, from outside the city. He’s been here for two years. “I wish for you to stay,” he says. He’s rehearsed his line.
I shake my head, smile and politely thank him.
I head downtown and am wowed by the major sights like the Bund. Turn-of-the-century, monolithic buildings juxtaposed by modern science fiction-like towers on the other side of the snaking Huangpu River.
Soon I find that it’s suppertime, so I head back to my hotel by scooter. I’ve discovered that the scooter-taxis are much faster and cheaper than the car taxis. The scooter taxi driver finds the pulse of the traffic and we whip in and out of car and pedestrian traffic. Me helmetless and hair-whipped.
I wash and change and head to my first gay club.
It’s up in the posh section of the downtown core, near Hui Hui Rd. And it’s connected to a hotel, I discover upon arrival. A gay hotel.
The hotel is much nicer than the one I’m in – not to mention 50 yuan cheaper! I rush back to the old place, grab my bags and check out.
I’m back in the club by 10:30 pm, ready to meet the locals.
It’s dazzling – a mirrored maze with lasers.
The place is packed. No women. Men from about 18 to 70. Most very cute with flat chests and stomachs.
I am immediately hailed over to a table of five young men drinking shooters. The table’s sole English speaker is ushered in next to me.
He tells his friends that I am an actor, here to teach English. They applaud. I smile and shrug. They smile. We all smile some more. They drink. We dance. There’s much smiling, applauding and shrugging on my part.
By midnight, the jet lag is really creeping up on me. I beg off. They all want to come to my room. But I have to be up early the next morning, so I reluctantly decline and back out, bowing and waving.
I duck into the hotel. Shaing, the table’s interpreter, finds me. Drapes himself over me.
“I use your room toilet, okay?” he asks.
He is very cute. 24.
We go to my room and he enters the bathroom.
When he emerges, I duck into the bathroom for a quick shower.
There’s a knock at the door. Shaing steps into the shower. The rumour that all Chinese men are hung like light switches? A myth.
We spend the night together. No translation required.
My agent finds me a new school the next day. This time, the director seems determined to hire me.
“You come. Now. Please!” she says.
I say yes.
I find the bus station and get on a bus bound for Changzhou, about an hour and a half south of Shanghai.
It looks like the Paris suburbs, but dirtier. Narrow tree-lined streets. Messy, colourful and lively. Canals wend their inky way in and out of the city.
I have an inkling that all is not well with the job when I arrive at the bus depot and no one is there to greet me.
I phone the school’s number and the woman on the other end says to take a taxi.
The taxi arrives a moment later and we drive for 10 minutes in the wildest ride I’ve ever had. Wilder than Shanghai. We scoot and shoot, narrowly missing pedestrians. People wander into the street, get honked at and missed by a fraction of an inch.
We get to the school and the secretary meets me at the front door.
But she doesn’t budge.
In fact, she stays put and yawns. She barely manages a wave.
I grab my bags and trundle my way towards her.
I’m told to sit in a chair outside the director’s office. A moment later I’m waved inside.
I’m face to face with a modern schoolmarm.
Dressed entirely in grey. Lips pursed. Hair in a tight casserole-like bun.
The secretary whispers the introductions and clumsily backs out into me, then the chair, then the front door of the office, all the while saying, “Escuse, escuse.”
The director frowns.
We both sit.
She tidies her desk which is immaculate and brushes off invisible dust.
She coughs once and barely mouths the words, “Excuse me, please.”
There seems to be an awful lot of whispering here.
Should my first word be in a whisper?
She moves a sheet of paper in front of her.
“Tell me about yourself,” she says.
My voice booms. “Sorry,” I hear myself say.
Her left eyelid quivers.
I refer to my resume and expound on various points.
After about five minutes, she points to the room behind me and ever so quietly says, “Please. Your class await you.”
I wasn’t expecting this.
There are four eager young women sitting at their desks, pens poised, all smiling, eyes blinking… at me. Ready.
The secretary sits behind them, pen hovering over her clipboard, ready to record and grade the historic moment.
I look back to the director and ask haltingly, “Er, may I take a moment just to change, would you mind?”
She mouths, “Of course not, please.”
I race out to the adjacent office where I’ve stashed my luggage and like a frenetic professional model in a fashion show, I whip on my most fashionable wardrobe. Out of well travelled, accordion-creased jeans into professional school-teaching attire.
The director is, I think, slightly impressed. Her mouth tweaks upward one centimetre.
The secretary smiles and hands me a textbook.
And we talk about fish.
The secretary scribbles madly on her clipboard.
I mime. I gesture.
The students laugh and then laugh again.
Even the secretary momentarily chuckles, catches herself and then plunges her pen onto her clipboard.
I have them repeat words.
I have them talk about their lives.
The secretary nods off.
I’m a real teacher!
And just like that I’m back to sitting before the director.
“We feel you are appropriate,” she calmly says.
I think she’s smiling.
She asks more questions. Her English is quite good. She has studied for a few months in London. She then tells me where I will be living and I hear myself say, “Oh and I’m gay, by the way, and my boyfriend Jim may join me later.”
Her pursed lips part for air. “Boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I smile.
“Jim?” her heads cocks… like a trigger.
She excuses herself.
Within four minutes she returns, sits and says, “Mmm, you did very well. But we have a problem.”
Right then I knew.
“I am sorry but we feel you are not appropriate.”
I feel awful. Awestruck. Aw Jeezzzuss.
I had been naive enough to believe that I should be honest and open.
Wrong. You’re not in Kansas anymore, TaTa.
“Your being,” she faltered ever so slightly on the word, “gay is something we cannot accept.”
“Because we feel the students must not know.”
I grapple for words. “Well, they won’t know. It’s my business,” I say.
“Oh, but we know, don’t we?” her mouth flatlines.
I hadn’t felt hatred like this since the ’80s when asking a New Orleans policeman where a certain gay bar was and in his deep southern drawl said, “I wouldn’t know that, I’m not a fag.”
I felt drained.
Until I slunk down the hall and into a rainbow-peopled room.
One of the teachers closed the door after me. There were three women and one man.
“Are you all right?” one of them asked me.
I told them right out.
They all stopped what they were doing and came up to me.
Then one of them came out to me.
“Well, Dane, they still don’t know but I’m a lesbian,” Cathy told me.
The others all grinned, nodded, patted my back. Offered to take me out to dinner. Invited me to crash at their places until I could find another job.
First I got online and emailed my agent.
She already knew!
The director had phoned her right away, even before she had fired me.
“Dane! You can’t say that in China outside of the big cities. This is not Canada!” my agent lectured me.
And then, what I wanted to hear. “I find you ‘nother job. You stay!”
The four teachers and I trooped out to a small restaurant where they schooled me in the ways of some of the Chinese.
“You don’t come out here,” Cathy told me. “You must be discreet.”
“Oh, you mean we can’t be real,” I snapped.
She was very patient.
She gently told me that many men are effeminate. Many men are in the closet. But all Chinese men must marry and have a family.
“But how do the men cope if they’re…” I trailed off.
They visit the cities on ‘business’ and then return to their families, she said.
But more and more are not returning to their families, she added. It’s becoming easier to be gay.
Away from the school the next day I strolled around the city and met wonderful, delightful people who had no idea that I was gay.
“Wife?” they would ask.
I would just smile.
I wanted to wear a rainbow shirt.
Wanted to say ‘gay’ in a sentence.
Two days later, my agent found me another job.
It was half an hour outside of Hong Kong – the very place I’d tried to avoid!
But the pay was better so I accepted.
Before leaving town, I returned to the school to say goodbye to my new friends and seek out the director who had refused to hire me.
When I saw the grey lady in the hallway, I made sure to stop, smile broadly and blurt out, “My agent has found me a new job. And it’s better than yours!”
With all the teachers watching from their offices, noses pressed to the glass, I grabbed the director by the hand and shook it vigorously. And then… I hugged her.
“Thank you so much for letting me use your internet access,” I told her.
I’m sure she showered 10 times that day.
The teachers went into hysterics. Muffled laughter bounced around the rooms.
The director’s face, ironically, turned a rainbow of colours.
She sputtered, turned on her heel and shrank down the grey hallway.
Cathy burst from the room, hugged me and whispered, “Oh, Dane, she never has physical contact with anyone! Oh my! We’ll never forget her face! That was fantastic!”
The others, bent over with laughter, gave me the thumbs up.
And that night, we went out to celebrate my coming out in China.