Ya Hui, the gray-skinned bright-faced girl who thirsts for knowledge of English and the freedom it might provide, comes from the Szechuan region of China. Her name - as best as I can decipher - means "Second-best Grass." It seems like a term a drug-dealer would use.
The Chinese name of her province is "Sichuan", meaning "Four Rivers." The province is in south-central China, near to Burma and bordering Tibet. It's famous for the 2008 earthquake that killed 80,000 people including university dwellers, and for devilishly spicy food.
The night before I taught Ya Hui's class, I'd eaten in a "Sichuan-de" restaurant for the first time. My meal included: a soup made out of a blubbery white fruit whose juice is as sweet and pure as a glacier; ribbons of dry, shriveled beef I had to chew on for a long time; and tofu and bits of cajun peppers, in a red sauce like the lakes of hell.
That third dish was tough to eat, but so good it was tougher not to eat it. Alas, as an unfortunate consequence of the meal, I was in dire need of a toilet the whole time I was teaching Ya Hui's class. But, there were no toilets in our classroom buildings; there were only bathrooms with holes in the ground you could squat over. And, I'd forgotten to "B.Y.O.T.P." Thus, I sweated a lot as I taught, and exercised my intestinal muscles.
The most suspenseful moment came when Ya Hui's friend - a funny, short girl whose haircut made her resemble Toad from Super Mario Bros. - raised her hand and asked every Chinese student's favorite question: "Can you sing an English song for us?"
She may never know how close she came to having her foreign teacher, in a Hulk-like rage, pick her up and throw her out the fourth-story window.
But, I didn't do that. And so, I've been free to experience the other wonderful tastes of China. And I've saved the Szechuan meals for the weekends. I've enjoyed:
cooked pumpkin, orange and coated with sugar - a specialty of my city
clear gelatin in cubes, in a thick curry-mustard sauce - also a Yantai specialty
ribbons of fish, breaded and fried, in a honey-sweet sauce
soft, melt-in-your-mouth fish, dark-brown with some bones, submerged in a beefy broth
chunks of sweet potato, baked and then caramelized in hot sticky taffy
vertebrae of a duck's neck, encircled by tasty meat, in a black peppery "jerk" seasoning
flimsy slabs of beef, along with vegetables resembling green corn husks, in a fiery Szechuan scarlet-pepper soup
spicy red chicken, to be wrapped and eaten in large lettuce leaves - a Korean dish
But ... perhaps my most memorable meal came when I went on what I'd call my first Chinese date.
We were in a vast restaurant, with fine wooden floors and tables, fish swimming in tanks everywhere we looked, wall-sized bird paintings, eliptical red Chinese New Year balls hanging overhead, men roaring in relaxation with their friends, and waiters rushing bowls of rice to people.
A middle-school teacher named Saiyanni sat across from me. Thick tannish skin stretched across her wide face, covering much of her eyes. She had a giggling mouth and bright eyes. She laughed as if someone was squeezing her and she could only let in a bit of air at a time.
In front of us was a plate of garlicky, salty pea pods, drowned in a molasses-like sauce. Beside that was a plate on which mussels rested on a bed of green and red peppers. It felt clumsy to grab the mussels' upper shells with my chopsticks, and slurp the meat out of the bottom shells. Our third dish was a big white fish, with lots of miniscule bones. Saiyanni and I proudly ate it all, including two bowls of rice each.
And Saiyanni was present at the next big event in Yantai nightlife, too. With the help of a student club called "Awesome English", I tried to host a latin-dancing party at Ludong University.
120 people came, including Ya Hui, Ya Hui's short friend, a fat boy named Liu Xiaoyu, and Sophie the teacher. I introduced the short girl to Sophie, by saying something that shouldn't have surprised Sophie very much: "This girl asked me to sing a song in class." In her singing Kiwi accent, Sophie told her: "You're prohbably fohrtunate he deedn't sing a sohng for you. Ii don't theenk he can seeng very we-ull."
The students impressed me with how freely they danced. About 40 danced. Ya Hui, who looked young in a pink coat, danced with her short friend. She danced with me once or twice, and it was fun dipping her or spinning her around in the air.
My co-organizer, a freshman boy with the English name of Jeff, and with American mannerisms like wanting to be a leader and getting stressed out easily, asked Sophie to dance. But, the moment they got to the dance floor, he said, "Oh, shoot! I have to go do something," and left her there. Poor Sophie got ditched! She just laughed about it.
"Awesome English" kept interrupting the music, to play games or to try to force people to dance. Thus, the event didn't achieve the freedom nor success I'd envisioned for it, and the future of the "Friday Night Dance Party" looked bleak. And, in my debut as a dance instructor, I couldn't think of many moves to teach. And, at the end of the evening, Jeff wanted me to pick a king and queen of the event.
Among the finalists were:
- Gao Yuan, a cute and weightless bespectacled girl who'd played a mean game of basketball with me before ... and the thin, shaggy-haired, good-looking boy she danced with
- "Moon", a boy whose black, silver-zippered jacket would make an American rebel look tough, but whose fluffy hair and harmless eyes and courageous English made him angelic ... and the small girl he once dropped to the floor during a dip
- a quieter couple that had been eagerly trying to learn from me since the very beginning
- a baby-mouthed yet proud-eyed girl named Liu Di, who'd said during class, "If I had a boyfriend, I'd just travel with him everywhere and play with him all the time," and who - over lunch with me this very day - had said, "She's lucky," about my favorite (far-away) girl, and revealed that she still loved her ex-boyfriend who didn't love her ... and her partner
I wanted to crown the quieter couple "king and queen", since they seemed to be trying the hardest. But, Jeff said I should choose based purely upon the skill of the couples. Liu Di and her partner turned each other, and deftly switched between front-to-back salsa steps and side-to-side salsa. I awarded to Liu Di the queen's tiara, and to her partner the king's bouquet of flowers.
But the real winners of the night were everyone, because no one asked me to sing a song, and no one got thrown out the window.
peace, Modern Oddyseus