"We will have to be sneaky," Brian told us when we went to visit him in Lanzhou, Gansu, the next province to the west of ours. "I don't want my boss to find out that you came."
Sometimes it's hard for us to completely grasp the ethical issues Chinese people face dealing with foreigners. Usually a Chinese person would be glad to parade around a foreigner in a town that is rarely, if ever, visited by foreigners. They would gain a lot of face for being the person responsible for bringing a white face into town. But, our relationship runs deep enough that exploiting us wasn't on Brian's mind.
But still, it's complicated.
Last Spring, just after he had started the job teaching English at a small tutoring school in a tiny three-street town outside of Lanzhou called Hai Shi Wan, he asked his boss if he could have a day off so he could come to visit his foreign teacher if I came to visit. It would be my first chance to see him since leaving Tonghua more than two years ago. His boss said he would give him the time on one condition: he wanted to either photograph us and use us to advertise for his school or he wanted us to do a lecture for his students. Since our company prohibits us from doing outside work, I was hesitant. Before I could reply, Brian said, "I told him that I don't think you can do it." His boss didn't understand why we would say no. After all, the nature of guangxi in China means going out of your way to help friends and colleagues. His boss thought that if Brian has a strong relationship with some foreigners, he should be both willing and able to leverage that relationship to help his new relationship with his boss. "I would rather not do those things," I told him. "But I will do whatever you need me to do. If it helps you with your new job, I understand."
Unfortunately issues with getting a visa renewed (it took more than a month) meant that we had to postpone our trip until this fall. In the ensuing months, Brian decided that he doesn't want to work there for much longer (another story, which I'll try to get to soon).
So when we came, he made a difficult decision: he lied to his boss, saying that he needed the day off so he could go into Lanzhou to attend a friend's wedding. That meant we would have to lay low in the town. "If my boss finds out, he will be very angry."
As we checked into our hotel for the night, I was doubtful that it would be possible to keep quiet the arrival of "Wai guo ren" (the word for foreigners is literally "outside people"). The receptionist seemed genuinely shocked when we arrived. Even though the 2-star hotel, owned by the State Grid Corporation of China (the national power company), is the only one in town approved to the government to house foreigners, apparently they haven't had many. She nervously smiled and called her manager to ask for the proper procedures for checking us in. Since they didn't have a copy machine on hand, they took our passports so they could make photocopies, promising to return them before we left the next morning. I wondered when, or, more specifically, if foreigners have stayed at the hotel before.
So when we walked through the small town, which has maybe 20 or 30,000 people and covers about five blocks on three main streets, we took a small back road. Keeping news of foreigners coming to town quiet was going to be difficult. The key was going out of the way to make sure if his boss did get wind of foreigners coming, nobody would connect us to Brian.
Everywhere we went in town, people stared intently at us. Most welcomingly shouted "hello," but many others had suspicion plastered on their faces.
When we got to our hotel room, the door was open. I figured a cleaning lady was getting it ready for us. Instead, a young girl was sitting in the room watching TV, shocked to be disturbed by foreigners. Undoubtedly, she was the daughter of someone working at the hotel who had picked a free room to watch some TV. It wasn't difficult to see why the hotel had two stars. It smelled like a mixture of cigarette smoke and standing water and there was a large water stain on the carpet next to the bathroom. The bathroom door was so ajar that it didn't come close to closing. The bed was also only slightly softer than a piece of plywood. Ruth curled the blanket underneath her to provide a semblance of padding. After sleeping horribly on the noisy, smoke-filled train the night before, we slept like babies for about 11 hours while Brian went to work Friday night and Saturday morning.
When his boss unexpectedly called for a meeting with parents that afternoon, we hid out in the small bachelor's pad Brian shares with two other teachers, who were also sworn to secrecy. We watched our first game of snooker (a billiards-like game) on CCTV 5 and marveled at the sparse decor. They had four beds, a few seats, a coffeetable and a TV stand holding a small TV, but that was about the extent of the furniture. No mattresses on the beds. Although two of them were softened by half-inch mattress pads, the only padding on the third bed was a layer of cardboard.
The closest we got to the "Frontier Study School" was when we drove past it in the city's peculiar three-wheeled taxis, which Brian mocked as "Huge Road Mice." Brian couldn't risk us getting any closer.
When we left, Brian escorted us onto our train and we said our goodbyes. We got situated and noticed that the train was slowly beginning to creep forward. Brian hurried toward the exit, certain that he would be able to leave. I looked out the window hoping to wave goodbye one last time. But he didn't materialize. Then suddenly, laughing, Brian plopped down into the seat across from me. "The conductor wouldn't let me get off."
He pulled the printed train schedule from his pocket and searched to see if there would be a train he could take him back that night or early enough the next morning that he could teach his class. No. Laughing, he began calling his boss and coworkers to try and reschedule his class, telling them that he'd gotten stuck on a train seeing off some "friends." "I am embarrassed," he said. "Now whenever you think of your trip here, you will think about this. At least I will have a funny story to tell my students."
I tried to slip some money into his pocket to pay for his unexpected expenses, but he swatted my hand away.
The bright side was we got a few more hours with him, since we had an hour to wait in Lanzhou before catching our overnight train back to Weinan. Throughout the train ride, an exuberant woman attempted to sell us a variety of toys. When she realized that our Chinese was limited, she asked Brian if he would help her translate.
Brian again lied to protect us. "I don't know them," he said.
She didn't believe him.
"I saw you talking to them in English," she said. "Just help me translate into English."
"I don't speak English," he said.
"I won't leave until I sell something to the foreigners," she told him in Chinese, occasionally throwing out the few English phrases she could remember: "Hello." "Pleased to meet you."
After a good 10 minutes of bantering, during which a car full of passengers watched, she finally walked away.
When she approached again later, she again attempted to get us to buy something. Sitting down, she asked another man to teach her what to say in English so she could make the sale.
She hid out in a seat near us, waiting to catch Brian speaking to us in English so she could convince him to help her make the sale.
Finally, as we were exiting the train, Brian told us to make sure we had all our things. As we were walking away, he turned around while I forced some money into his pocket to pay for his unexpected expenses.
"I knew it," she said. "They were together."
We couldn't stop laughing. Brian said, "Now I have two stories to tell my students."