Over the last week the kids had started school at the Yew Chung International School of Shanghai while Ming and I continued scouring Pudong for the right place to live. We had kept Cindy on as our agent mainly to see if, with our counseling, her lying would improve.
It was a Monday morning and Ming and I were accompanying the kids to their classrooms so we could see what they had been up to and to get a minute’s face time with their teachers.
Little Leo dropped the four of us off on the street in front of the school. We walked the 20 feet or so to the outer-gates where we were met by a Chinese guard who smiled and gave me an enthusiastic nihao or “hello.” He squirted some sanitizing liquid into my hand, then pointed a gun-like device at my forehead and pulled the trigger. On our visit a week earlier, this had unnerved me. I didn’t know if he was trying to incapacitate me or was looking for a bar code. This time I didn’t duck or throw a punch since I knew he was merely checking for fever. The gun beeped, and I was allowed to pass. This process was repeated for Ming, Mayla and Ike. I wasn’t sure what the fever check really meant. Were they just being cautious or was there some serious illnesses circulating?
We made our way in the rain across the puddle-laden outer courtyard, which consisted of a running track, sports field and jungle gym. After a hundred yards we arrived at an empty drop off circle for cars just in front of the school. Curious, I thought. Weren’t drop-off circles for dropping off the kids? The road leading up to it looked in good shape, so why make us walk so far? I wrote it off as one of the many small mysteries that is part of life in China and went inside.
A tall, smiling guy with an Australian accent introduced himself as “Mr. Hair.” It was an ironic name, as he had no hair at all. However, unlike bald men in American movies, he did not seem the least bit evil. In fact he was behaving in an extremely friendly and helpful manner.
Mr. Hair brought us to the classrooms, which were decorated in colorful posters, banners and signs. Each classroom also had an LCD projector with a touchable “smart screen” driven by the teacher’s Mac. Things were looking promising.
As a bilingual school, Yew Chung had a co-teaching arrangement. Each classroom was staffed by two teachers, one western and one Chinese. Mr. Hair made the introductions, and we chatted a little with each of them before class. The Chinese teachers could speak English, but not vice versa. They were friendly, seemed competent and told me that Ike and Mayla were good students and were getting along well in their new environment. Compared with the rest of my experience thus far in China, the school felt like a real Oasis.
“Mayla, we’re leaving now,” I said.
She ignored me as she chatted with her new friends.
“Mayla?” I said.
I waved my hand past her face. Still nothing.
“Mayla, Mommy and Daddy are leaving now,” I said.
She diverted her gaze just enough to give me an almost imperceptible “bye.”
Her meaning was clear: I’m talking to my friends and you’re embarrassing me. This was good news – what else was could be a better indicator that she had adjusted to her new school?
Over in Ike’s classroom there was also evidence of adaptation. He was playing monsters with the other kids.
“Daddy, do you want to be a monster?” Ike asked.
“I’d love to but I have other commitments,” I answered.
With the kids seemingly well settled, we picked up a copy of our tuition invoice at the school office. The amount, in RMB, was an impossibly large number. I converted it to dollars in my head and realized that the school offered another benefit: I would learn what it felt like to have two kids in college.
On our way out, I noticed that while the classrooms and office were toasty warm, the hallways were freezing. It was a cold November day, yet a good number of the hallway windows were open to the outside. Growing up in America, this was a no-no. If anyone left a window or door open in the winter, someone – usually my dad – would yell, “Are you crazy? That heat is expensive. You think money grows on trees or something?”
But I’d seen this sort of behavior before in China.
Several years earlier, after Ming and I were married, but before we had kids, I was in China for some meetings. Ming’s parents suggested I stay with them in Shanghai for the weekend. Wanting to know my in-laws a little better – or possibly because I figured it would score me a few points back home – I gladly agreed.
It was March and still winter outside. Ming’s parents lived in an apartment near the Huangpu River in Shanghai. It was wonderful: Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a beautiful living room and a terrace with amazing views of the river and the Shanghai skyline. But there was a problem: It was 2 degrees C (36 F) in the apartment! While this was a near perfect temperature to go ice fishing in, it was not one that I generally associated with indoor living. In fact, I believe it was temperatures like this that led human beings to come up with the very concept of “indoors” in the first place.
“Would you like a left-handed calendar?” my mother-in-law asked in Chinese.
I knew her to be sane, so I figured the problem was with my Chinese.
She tried again, but all I deciphered was, “Can I buy a vowel?” I was pretty sure she wasn’t trying to play Wheel of Fortune.
When she pointed at the thermostat in the guestroom, I worked out that she was actually saying, “Would you like the heat on?”
Somehow they had sensed that I was not a polar bear. I eagerly agreed, cranked up the heat to a toasty 24 C (75 F), made some idle – and largely incomprehensible – chit chat, then retired into a deep, jet lag assisted sleep.
At 5 am, my bladder awakened me. The bathroom was on the other side of the apartment, the part with the heat turned off. I got fully dressed, put on my parka and hat, and ventured toward my destination. I was certain that it was now below freezing in the living room. The bathroom was no better. I wondered why the pipes hadn’t frozen.
On the way back, I realized that the door to the outside terrace was open, as was the kitchen window. I closed them both and went back to bed.
When I emerged from my slumber a few hours later, they were both open again.
“Very cold. Window open,” I said in my highly insufficient Chinese.
After the usual two or three misfires, I worked their response out to be, “Yes, good. The air is very fresh.”
I wished that my dad were here and that he knew enough Chinese to say, “Are you crazy? You’re throwing money out the window!” Then again maybe they weren’t throwing money out the window. Apart from my room, the heat wasn’t just set to low in the apartment, but rather was completely off so far as I could tell.
I imagined him saying it nonetheless. And in my mind, I had him add, “And the air is not fresh here at all. It’s filthy, disgusting and polluted! So close the friggin’ windows!”
When I related this arctic-like adventure to Ming, she told me that when she was a child in Shanghai, one winter was so cold that she got frostbite on her fingers while sleeping. I replied that when I was a child in New York, one winter was so cold that we closed the windows.
I closed the hall window in the school as we left. We walked through the empty drop-off circle again and out into the rain, which was coming down harder now. Little Leo was waiting diligently on the far side of the sports field.
“You know, Little Leo seems to be a pretty decent driver,” I said to Ming.
“Oh, I’m glad you think so too,” she said, taking the bait.
“So why the heck didn’t he drop us off right here in the drop off circle?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know about it.”
“Hmmm,” I said as I scratched my chin and wondered why other cars weren’t using the circle either.
As Ming and I got back into the Buick, she pointed out the window from the front seat and said, “Honey, what’s that over there?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, “but it looks like a nice housing complex. And it’s in walking distance to the school.”
“Hey, Little Leo, can you drive us into this compound so we can take a look around?” Ming said.
Technically, in order to get past the guard gate at the entrance to one of these compounds, you either had to live there or be invited. That didn’t faze Little Leo. He drove up to the guard booth and, with a confident look on his face that said, “I drive a Buick minivan and I have important foreigners in the back,” the guard saluted and the gate went up. I wasn’t sure if this meant that I had a great driver, or was touring a housing complex with lax security.
The compound was called Regency Park. I was used to the absurdity of the names by now. I didn’t even chuckle as we passed the street signs for Park Avenue, Mont Blanc Road and Giverny Drive. The houses didn’t look particularly Asian, let alone Chinese, but those things didn’t matter anymore to me. It was close to the school, and – I hoped – not next to a factory.
It was curious that Cindy hadn’t suggested this place. Perhaps there was something wrong with it. Maybe Jiang Zhemin’s son didn’t like the mailboxes. I had to find out.
I gave Cindy a call.