There are four foreign teachers at the Jilin Institute of Architecture and Civil Engineering including myself. There are also four members of the Foreign Affairs and Cooperation department. This is the office I’m supposed to go to if I require assistance with any problems. Anything from legal documents to Jesus shit on my walls. One member has been marginally helpful to me, putting forth the least amount of effort required to make sure I don’t get deported. The name of that member is not Allen. Allen is pictured below.
Allen was the first person I met in Changchun, along with a student named Black Stallion, at Changchun Airport. Allen’s face looks like a pancake. During the ride to our apartments, Allen repeatedly informed Andrew and me that we would not be paid the amount stipulated in our contract for the first month. He also told us that the internet connection we were promised in our contract wasn’t working because the bill wasn’t paid yet and wouldn’t be until the real manager of the foreign teachers who he was filling in for returned from Australia. And that sweemeeng is a favorite hobby of his. I didn’t really care for Allen at this juncture.
When we arrived at my apartment Allen showed me around and flaunted his English skills by using his index finger and words like “kitchen,” “toilet,” “bed,” and “TV.” If the tour lasted two minutes, I wouldn’t have minded. Unfortunately Allen kept it going for ten minutes, naming every object in my apartment and, when his vocabulary would permit, describing the basic functions of the objects. He giggled when I expressed disapproval of the bible passages on the walls and when I lifted up the blanket on my bed to reveal a damp towel. Before leaving he told me we would have a meeting the next day at noon. He later cancelled that meeting because picking us up from the airport had driven him to exhaustion and he would rather spend the day napping or remaining otherwise motionless instead.
Allen struggles with the concept of scheduling. If he tells me on a Tuesday that we will meet Wednesday at 8 in the morning, I can expect to be woken up by a phone call from Allen at least an hour earlier instructing me to come downstairs because he’s waiting in his car. Sometimes I don’t get an advanced notice but merely a call that goes “Hello Paul? Are you beesy?” He had a knack for calling at times when the chance that I’d be beesy were slim to none, such as 7 in the morning.
Allen kept bringing up a visit we would have to make to the playstation. I eventually figured out that he was trying to say police station and the visit was a mandatory registration for foreigners who planned on not getting kicked out of the country. Although he was supposed to help us do this within 48 hours of our arrival, Allen put it off for about a week and a half. He called one day and told me he was waiting for me at the playstation. I explained that I had no idea how to get there as I’d only been in the city for a week. Allen told me to hail a cab and give the driver the phone, then he would direct the driver to the police station. Thankfully he only pulled that shit the one time. He asked if I had any photos of myself. I replied that I did not. He said “that’s okay” and hung up. When I got to the police station I met Allen, Black Stallion and my landlord, a woman named Betty. Allen asked me to present my photos. I told him I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t have any. Allen didn’t express the surprise one would expect to come from such a miscommunication, which led me to believe that he understood perfectly well when I told him the first time. He said “that’s okay” again. We got into his car and left. I thought we were going home but we made another stop at a combination hair salon/image editing studio.
It’s popular in China for people to have photos of themselves “professionally” photoshopped. Naturally, some hair stylists figured out that by offering their clients the option to look like they’ve been dipped in a vat of hot wax right after their haircut they could pull a slightly nicer income. The photoshop department of this particular hair salon was on the second floor, consisting of two computers from the mid-90s and a bored chain-smoking Chinese man with anime hair. Allen asked me to download some digital photos of myself. I didn’t think he’d respond well to a lecture about oppressive firewalls and suppression of information so instead of delivering one I tried to access facebook and feigned surprise when it didn’t work. Allen said that perhaps he had some. He checked his e-mail and clicked on an old message sent from Journey East, the company I got my job through, and opened an attached file that contained a dozen headshots I sent to them months ago, presumably so they could pass them on to Allen so that when the time came for him to help me register with the police, he’d have the pictures he needed. Then he asked me for 10 yuan to pay for the printing. He told me he would pay me back, which he has not yet done to this day.
Instead of driving back to the police station, Allen took me home. I asked why we weren’t going back to the police station. Allen said we couldn’t register that day because the man who processes the foreigner registration papers wasn’t there.
“So when you asked me to take out my pictures while we were there, we wouldn’t have been able to use them anyway?” I asked.
“Yeah.” replied Allen.
Also of note, he had Black Stallion and Betty both put aside any plans they had for the day so they could join us on this expedition that was ultimately doomed to end in a studio of Chinese yuppie glamor shots. Black Stallion would accompany Allen and I on several other trips for the sole purpose of holding Allen’s wallet and pulling out huge wads of cash when instructed. A few days after our arrival Andrew complained to Journey East about the apartment he was originally located in, an hour drive away from the school and unfit for human occupancy. In fact, we were specifically told that if one of us was placed in that area, there was a problem and they needed to be contacted. Allen’s job was threatened and he had Black Stallion run around my apartment complex looking for a vacant place they could rent for Andrew.
During the first week of school Allen would often call me into his office for “meetings.” I’d arrive and Allen would be sitting at his desk, staring at his computer, his boss Arnold doing the same on the other side of the room. Allen would then ask me to take a seat on the couch, which has a clear view of his computer monitor. I’d watch him dick around on QQ (the Chinese equivalent of AIM or MSN) for about ten minutes or so before mentioning to him that I was hoping to do anything else at some point in the day. He’d offer me tea, cigarettes or whatever other consumables he might have to try to keep my mind off of the fact that I was in the office for a meeting that he called me there for and instead of having that meeting, he was being a lazy, inconsiderate, worthless dickhead. Eventually, whether Allen actually got around to having me fill out some paperwork or not, Arnold would get up and walk out of the office without saying a word. Seconds later Allen would tell me that “I must eat lunch now because my superior wants to You can go home, we do this other time.” Arnold has never said more than ten words to me but I like him a lot more than Allen.
The first of these meetings was the first day of school, a Monday. I arrived at Allen’s office with Andrew at 8, when the first class of the day starts. After the introductory couch and concessions buffer, Allen printed out a schedule and began going over it with me. He pointed to my first class. A class at 8 AM on Mondays. I asked if I was expected to attend this class today. He thought for a second, then said I was. I mentioned that it was 8:15. He said “yes, I show you.” So then, without any preparation whatsoever, I arrived twenty minutes late to my first class. I asked Allen if I could see my schedule. He pulled it out and stared at it. I extended my hand but he didn’t give it to me. I asked again but Allen didn’t respond. I moved my hand a little closer but Allen pulled the schedule away. I asked again if I could see my schedule and he finally handed it to me. Allen would do the same exact thing during later encounters whenever he was holding something of mine, such as my passport and contract. When I looked at the schedule, I noticed the characters “影视,” meaning “film and television.” I asked Allen if I was expected to show a movie.
“Do you have movie?” he responded.
“No. No one told me I would be teaching a film class. No one told me I would be teaching anything today.”
“That’s okay. You bring movie to next class.”
Then he left. I returned to his office after an uninspired icebreaker class and lunch with some of my students who were so enthralled by the presence of a foreigner that they insisted on buying me food. Only one of the four students has attended my class more than once since and that one student has yet to stay awake for or otherwise contribute anything of worth to the class discussions but that’s unrelated. I returned to Allen’s office to see Andrew sitting in the exact same spot on the couch as when I left. He whispered to me about how he’d been there the whole time and Allen was just dicking around on QQ and giving him tea. Then the meeting was over because he didn’t have Andrew’s textbook.
The last of these meetings happened on a day when I had no class and was woken up by an unexpected Allen call. He asked me to come in so I could sign my contract. A red flag immediately went up in my head because I had signed a contract with Journey East and then received a contract from them by e-mail that I was told was my official contract with the school. I figured it couldn’t hurt as long as nothing had changed between contracts so I grabbed the copy I printed out in case something like this happened and went off to meet Allen.
He made me wait on the couch. After several minutes, I reminded him that I was there. He grabbed two small booklets and sat down next to me. He repeated what he said on the phone about it being the official contract and that I should sign. He also suggested I sign Andrew’s copy. I pulled out my copy of the contract and told him I was just going to compare them to make sure it was all the same and as far as signing Andrew’s, I wouldn’t do that without his permission. Allen said “okay.”
I began reading my contract. For five seconds or so, it seemed like Allen understood me when I said I was going to compare the contracts. But then I caught him jolt out of the corner of my eye, like something clicked in his head. He started laughing and waving his hands in front of me saying “oh no no, it’s okay you don’t have to read can just sign. Same contract.” I said I understood but wanted to read it just in case. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
“Hahahaha, no it’s same contract you see? We are very honest department you can trust us hahahahaha. You can sign it, it’s official government contract.”
He pointed to the cover to indicate that the contract was a generic form regulated by the government that doesn’t vary from school to school. I tried to explain that I wasn’t reading it because I assumed he was trying to cheat me, although I did think he was, but that in America we like to read contracts we are going to sign. I called it a tradition. He said “Ah, tradition. I know tradition.” He continued to laugh nervously and repeat the same phrases about honesty and the government until he got the point that I was going to sit there and read the whole thing. He didn’t leave my side once while I was reading. He tried one more time to convince me to stop reading when I was almost at the end. And after all the fuss he made, the contracts were just about identical. The only difference was some of the wording.
I think the reason Allen got so nervous and defensive was because of face. Some people might say that face is a concept like prestige or honor, deeply rooted in Chinese culture, a longstanding tradition and impossible to translate. As far as I can tell face is people getting away with lying, avoiding accountability for mistakes and wrongdoings and a superficial image a person wants others to accept. The very fact that I wanted to read my contract made Allen feel uncomfortable because it indicated to him that I don’t trust him enough to sign anything he asks me to without checking it first. The fact that he’s tried to screw us over in other ways probably made him feel even more uncomfortable.
I signed my contract and then Allen handed me Andrew’s. I told him I would call Andrew and ask if it was okay. I could see Allen struggling to remain silent. I told Andrew about the contract and how they were both the same but he said he wanted to read it himself to be completely satisfied. I relayed the message to Allen who, instead of continuing with his giggling and nagging, sighed and said okay like a spoiled middle schooler asked to make his bed. Before stowing away the contracts in his desk drawer, he tried one more time to get me to sign Andrew’s. He turned around and confided in me.
“It’s okay, you can sign this one look.” He paused and opened Andrew’s to a page where a signature was clearly scribbled out. “I already sign it to send to government for foreign expert. I do to yours too. It’s okay, I already sign it.”
I don’t know why Allen was so worried about me causing him to lose face when he does a pretty damn good job of losing it himself. He never ended up calling Andrew to have him sign the contract either.
|Take 2, Allen wasn’t satisfied with Take 1. Look at his hands|
I took this picture of Allen on the school bus. I was the first to board that evening and he was the second. We were waiting to be taken home. Allen doesn’t normally ride the bus. Something was wrong that day. I feared he was trying to find me for some reason. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. Take a look at that picture. Take a look at that fucking pancake face. That’s the pancake face of the man that has been the cause of almost every problem I’ve encountered since arriving in China. And his face does look like a pancake if you stare long enough. It’s one of those things where you relax your eyes and look for the picture hidden in the blurry stuff.
|Left, Commander William T. Riker looking how I felt when I first saw Allen board the bus. Right, an Ornaran looking how I felt after conversing with Allen for over sixty seconds|
Allen had been in a car accident. I asked if his car was badly damaged and how long he thought he might be riding the bus. He, having poor English listening comprehension skills and falsely assuming I expressed concern for his well-being, responded that neither he nor the other car’s occupants were injured. I said I was glad to hear that and repeated my question. He frowned a bit as he nodded his head. The car was not doing too well. How’d the accident happen? Allen explained that “the traffic light was red but I didn’t see” and just sort of drove through.
Allen asked me what bus stop I get off at. I said Lin He Jie, the street I live on. He insisted that there was a better bus stop that he would “introduce” me to. He asked what I like to eat. I started listing some stuff. He asked if I like chicken. I said yes. He told me he would “introduce” me to the best chicken restaurant in Changchun several times for the next minute. By this, I don’t mean he droned on describing the restaurant or anything. I mean he repeated the sentence “I introduce to you a new restaurant with best chicken,” varied slightly each time, for about a minute. Andrew got on the bus and made his way toward us. I noticed despair in his eyes when he saw Allen. Allen told Andrew we’d been talking about a superior bus stop and a great chicken restaurant that he would introduce us to. I asked Andrew how his classes were that day.
Allen stared ahead as Andrew began describing how difficult his freshmen have been. After about a minute Allen interrupted him.
“Yeah, they put the chicken in the pot with some vegetable.”
He continued to explain how the pot sat on an open flame to let the chicken and vegetables cook as the bus pulled away. Aside from that, he didn’t have much to say for the rest of the ride. He told us to get off the bus when we reached the stop around the corner from the one we usually get off at. It took us longer to walk back. When we got to a nondescript intersection that I can’t remember, Allen pointed into the distance and said “the restaurant is that way.” Then he left.
Luckily Allen has not played a very large role in my life as of late. When I have to deal with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation I generally speak with Summer, a woman who is slightly more pleasant than Allen. A toast of “Fuck Allen” will generally be made at some point during a night of drinking. One night Nick, Andrew and I decided the toast should be followed by subsequent toasts made to how we would kill Allen that involves him cheating us in some way.
Allen calls me and says something like “Hello Paul? Are you beesy? I have you money you come to my house and pick up.” I arrive at his home and ask for my salary. He says “Oh yeah I leave it at office I go to get it now. Look, I get new sweemeeng pool. Maybe you feel it up while I get you the money I pay you one hundred yuan more.” After Allen leaves I go around clearing out every nearby store of their ammonia products. I fill up his pool with the ammonia and rinse out a bucket so it looks like I’ve been using it to make trips from the sink to the pool. Allen pays me, neglecting the 100 yuan he promised for filling the pool. I tell him it’s no problem, I was glad I could help. Over the course of the next two years he, his wife and child soak in the ammonia whenever they wade in its poisonous waters. Allen never drains the pool because it takes too much work. And no one ever accuses anyone because then people would start losing face. But this is all just hypothetical and I would never do such a thing. I’d just bitch about it on the internet instead. Fuck Allen.