In my mind, I can still smell the hot breeze blowing the smell of fish up from the village to the school where I lived and worked in one of the towns surrounding Qingdao. When I looked out my apartment room window, I could see the bay where the fishermen docked their old, rattling boats. To me, it was a wonder any of those boats actually made it farther than a few hundred yards out into the ocean before splitting at the seams. The hills surrounding the bay towered over the little village and made the whole area feel as though it were in a realm all its own. The school I taught at was built on the side of a hill with the peak rising just behind our campus. I had always planned to climb it but just couldn’t summon the courage or energy.
When it was discovered that one of the younger students at the school had been molested by a foreign teacher, we all felt a crushing sense of shame. It felt the way it might when you find out that one of your relatives has been convicted for murder. It was true that none of us foreign English teachers had known Alistair very well and those that had known him hadn’t much cared for him. But we knew that many of the Chinese students and teachers lumped all of us foreigners in the same category to a certain degree. We felt sure that there would be a “guilt by association” mentality from their point of view. After all, when we saw a Chinese person spit in the street, cut in line, or speak very loudly in public, didn’t we shake our heads and mutter, “these Chinese people?”
The girl I was dating at the time was one of the native Chinese teachers at the school. She taught one of the third grade classes. A few weeks after everyone found out about it, we were taking a walk and I asked her about the situation and if it changed her opinion of me since I was also a foreigner. She thought for a minute.
“Of course I don’t think you are guilty along with that animal. I know that you would never do anything terrible like he did. But I think that some of the others may look at your group of foreigners a little differently now.”
Her voice had that northern accent which I found charming. I loved how she emphasized different words than a native English speaker would. I unconsciously listened for it, and in this case she emphasized “you,” “with,” and “differently,” in those sentences.
“What I hate the most about that man,” she paused for a moment and I could see that she was starting to get emotional. Her eyes began to water a little bit. “Is that it seems he came to China only because he knows that our country is weaker and that he can do this kind of crime here without being punished.”
“Hey, come on,” I said softly. “China isn’t weak. It’s one of the most powerful countries in the world. Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be punished.” It was a weak attempt at consolation and it sounded fake when the words left my mouth.
She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Many foreigners come here just to do things like that and are never punished. They can just go back home or go to another school. They are taking advantage of us.” She pronounced her words carefully and each syllable sounded like it had been preplanned. She swept her hair away from her face and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Her eye shadow smeared a little under her left eye. The tears were due to a sense of helplessness, I realized, and not only because she was sad for the molested student.
It was warm outside and the back of my shirt was starting to become a little damp. I patted her back gently and felt a little wetness seep through her shirt onto my hand also. I quickly pulled my hand away as we continued walking in silence for a while.
“Are you here for the same thing?” she asked me suddenly. I stopped abruptly and turned toward her. She faced me and looked a little defiant.
“Lucy, you know I would never do anything like that!” I protested. “I thought you just said you didn’t think that I was the same as Alistair!”
“No, I mean are you here to take advantage of us? I know you won’t do that kind of thing to the children but are you here only to date Chinese girls for fun and then return to America when you want to find a real wife?”
Shocked, my mouth worked but no words came out.
“Of course, not,” I finally managed to get out
“So you are taking me seriously then?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said weakly.
We finally started walking again and stopped at a juice bar where I got a strawberry and kiwi juice. She had pineapple and orange juice. We walked back toward our apartments when it started to get dark.
After we had broken up and I returned to America and found a “real” job in Seattle, I gradually forgot Lucy. My teaching years in China had been a fun experience but it wasn’t anything more than that, I thought. I sat in a coffee shop one night enjoying the jazz guitarist playing to the half full room. He stopped every once in a while to tell the story of the song he was about to play.
“My next song is a personal one,” the guitarist said into the microphone. “I actually wrote it after a girlfriend broke up with me. She was Australian, and I guess she just wanted some American boy to have fun with while she visited our fair city. She went back to kangaroo country because she said she didn’t like the rain here. But it’s all good because we don’t want people here who can’t handle a little rain. Am I right?”
The audience clapped and laughed as he began his song. As he strummed the first few chords, I remembered how after Lucy and I had started walking back to our apartments after having juice that one day, she apologized and said she didn’t mean what she had said earlier.
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied. “You were upset.” I smiled at her. Just then, it started to rain lightly. We had to hurry back before we got soaked to skin.