People Disappear

Reminiscing  ten years later about moving to Shanghai which would inform and impact my life from that time forward –

(Previously, I had just arrived in Shanghai, had been picked up at the airport by company officials and taken to the school I would be teaching for that first semester in Songjiang, which was on the outskirts of Shanghai. I saw my apartment and met the students in the private section of the school and met the teachers and headmistress as well. The executive assistant Logan was in the process of taking me to eat and to get supplies for my apartment)

Logan and I left the building and walked out the colossal gate. He then hailed a cab for us. The cab was much like the Volkswagen that Roy drove to pick me up at the airport. We both jumped into the back seat.

“What would you prefer to eat?” he asked once he had told the driver where to go.

“I would like to try a local dish,” I said.

“Okay, I think there will be something suitable next to the grocery shopping center.”

more construction workers going home

The taxi made its way through traffic. Sometimes that traffic included three grown men on one small 125cc motorbike.  For a kilometer or so, we drove along a park, which was next to a canal. Though the canal was somewhat narrow, I spied many barges carrying dirt or gravel. Some of them floated along empty. A few of them seemed to be family operations with a dad steering, a son in front on lookout and a mom in the back cooking, stirring a cauldron or hanging up wet laundry. Some of these family barges included a small dog.

After a short drive, the taxi pulled into a large shopping center, a place that looked new but old at the same time. There was something backward about it. The concrete seemed new but already stained by soot, the metal corroded. Most of the shops had none of the pleasing aesthetics associated with shopping. The parking lot, instead of cars, had rows and rows of scooters and bikes. The taxi drove down a narrow lane barely big enough to fit one car and stopped in front of what seemed to be a huge grocery store. Logan paid the driver as I got out of the car.

“We can get your supplies here,” he said pointing to the grocery store “but first we will eat.” I followed him across the small lane to a little hole in the wall cafe. The place did not seem to be open. We were the only customers and no one seemed to want to serve us when we sat down. Logan got a menu from the counter and opened it.

“Are you sure this place is open?”

“Yes, I believe it to be open. What would you like?” he asked as he pointed to the menu, which was printed entirely in Chinese characters.

“I will let you pick.”

After several minutes, a waitress came and took our order. Logan pointed to several items on the menu. Whether he was asking about the dishes or ordering them, I have no idea. The conversation between him and the server, of course, took place entirely in Chinese.

Although the food and cooking smells were obviously Chinese, the place somehow reminded me of a little roadside café in America. There were checkered tablecloths on the tables and little posters hawking various Chinese drinks.

The place, for some reason, reminded me of a story that my dad told me when I was very young, the story of the Bender Family. I was about eight or nine years old, and my dad and me were up near the Oklahoma – Kansas border, on one of those warm autumn days that we rode his Honda 550Four through back-roads in the countryside. Dad stopped by the side of the road to take a piss. He looked back at me and nodded toward a gravel section road ahead.

“Down that road, Spottie, used to be there was a restaurant,” he told me calling me by my nickname. “This is when I was a kid, probably no older than you are now.

“Travelers would come down this road in their old Model Ts or whatever they were drivin’ because there was a sign here that advertised the Bender restaurant. This was the only place to eat for miles.”

“Did you ever eat there, Dad?”

“No, oh, no, I never did, and it is a fortunate thing, because I might not be standin’ tellin’ this story now if I hadda ate there.”

“Why Dad?”

“Well see,” with this he zipped up his pants and turned around and faced me. “The Bender family would bludgeon diners on the head. Since these people were travelers, they were not missed for several weeks, not until they never showed up at the place that they were headin’. Things were different in those days.”

“Bludgeon them on the head?” I asked.

“Yep, bludgeon them on the head.  You see, there was a curtain drawn over the dining room doorway, and the Benders would seat their guest with his back to the curtain. That was so Old Man Bender could come from behind there and bludgeon the unsuspecting diner while he was eating. They’d take his valuables and bury the poor guy in the yard.”

I had not thought of this story in years, but for some reason, this Shanghai café reminded me of the Bender family story.

Fortunately, at this point, the dishes started arriving and neither Logan nor I had been bludgeoned yet. The server set a bowl of rice down first. After she sat down the rice, she sat down a dish of cooked lettuce leaves in a brown sauce. Logan told me to start eating.

“Are you eating?” I asked.

“I ate my lunch before. This is for you.”

Next came pieces of fish in tomato sauce, a dish I liked much better than the stewed lettuce in brown sauce. The next dish, steamed whisked eggs and clams, was interesting to say the least. Everything tasted quite bland but that was okay because I was feeling a bit bland and blah myself after not sleeping for 26 hours or so.

The grand finale of the meal was something called snake noodle soup.

“Is this snake?”  I asked queasily, thinking they could’ve named this the “Jabba the Hutt Special.”

“Like snake, but not snake,” Logan replied.


“Yes, uh, perhaps,” he vaguely confirmed.

After Logan paid the bill, we walked across the street to the two-story Chinese mega supermarket. Outside the supermarket were stands selling cooked chicken talons, stinky tofu, hard candied tomatoes, Chinese pizza and other Chinese snacks. That first semester I was there I ate Chinese pizza often, which is  thin like a crepe, chewy but crunchy on the bottom with a thin layer of egg on the top and tons of chives.

Once inside the supermarket, after I grabbed a basket, I took it all in. This was like a dream, as if I was dreaming about a Chinese supermarket with rows and rows of MSG, soy sauce, fish sauce, rice and noodles and with large displays of chicken feet, yes, chicken talons; and with tanks of living fish and sea creatures. An inclined two way moving sidewalk led up to the second floor to the clothes, toys, sports equipment, audio and video equipment and other non-food items.

chicken feet at the grocery store...a very popular item!
chicken feet at the grocery store…a very popular item!

There was something about the upstairs that was stuck in a time warp. It was if I was in a TG&Y in Middle America in 1977 – and, as if, that TG&Y was invaded by Asians. The other thing about it, which is much more abstract, thus much harder to explain, was there was innocence to the chatter, though I did not understand it, I could tell by the smiles and the laughter. There was no world-weariness, no government conspiracy paranoia, no inborn entitlement. Although, I was half a world away from my home; I felt secure; I felt as if I was at home.

This feeling became even stronger as time passed. The Chinese were more than perfect hosts they became brethren. Often, I felt like a long lost cousin, with my students I was often made to feel like the cool uncle. They wore their joy on their sleeves.

Needless to say, though Logan and I walked around the grocery for at least an hour; I could not concentrate on what I needed for the apartment. What do you buy for your new Chinese apartment when you are cruising on no sleep?

I bought a pan, a kettle, some tea, some frozen dumplings in bulk, some chopsticks, a wooden ladle, a few containers of yogurt, a couple of bowls and plates, a few glasses, a plastic wash basin, laundry and dish detergent. Logan paid for the supplies and then went to a special counter to get the official itemized receipt to turn into the company.

While he did this, I stood at the exit with the groceries. While I waited, a little guy ran up and squirted some sort of polish from a squeeze-tube on my white slip-on Prada shoes. He then gave my shoes an impromptu shine. After he finished the shine, which took less than a minute, he pointed to the price of the polish. I gave him the money, which was less than $2. Logan walked up as the shoe-pollish-selliing-shoeshine man walked away.

“Many people will take your money. You must be careful,” he told me as we walked out of the grocery store back to the lane where the taxi dropped us earlier to get another taxi back to the school.

Back at the school, Logan helped me carry the groceries back to my apartment and then he left. I put the groceries away and then started to unpack a bit when an overwhelming exhaustion overtook me. I decided to lie down for a few moments and then finish unpacking.

A knock woke me. By this time, the sun was down. The bedroom was dark.  I fumbled in the dark for a light switch. After I found the switch and turned on the light, I went to the door and opened it. Maureen (aka Bird Flu) stood there.

“Do you fancy going to the cafeteria and getting some supper?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I said. I was still a bit groggy. “Let me wash my face and I will be right out.”

Maureen and I walked across the campus to the cafeteria. As we walked, she told me that she had just arrived a week before. She and Jo had quickly become friends some of this was because they were both Australian. The other reason is because, as I would later find out, they were both famous gossips. Nevertheless, I found Maureen pleasant unobtrusive company so I didn’t mind her. Actually, I enjoyed being around her.

Later I would learn that when she arrived from Australia shortly before me, she was picked up at the airport and then taken to our company’s office and left there to sit for several hours where she was then ignored. She was not taken to Songjiang until late in the evening. She was not given the royal treatment as I had been given.

The cafeteria was a modern three-story building covered in white tiles. Each floor had different choices, though the choices all seemed to be the same. The choices usually consisted of pork fat in brown sauce, stewed cucumbers with scrambled eggs, stewed lettuce, tofu with pork, bamboo with tofu, stewed weeds, wontons, dumplings, and, of course, rice. The cafeteria workers served you these dishes from behind a window.

I watched how Maureen ordered her food and I did the same, which was basically just pointing and grunting. Neither of us knew any Chinese. After we got our trays of food, we found a place to sit.

Before she took a bite of her food, Maureen looked over in the distance. Later, as I got to know Maureen better, I learned she would often stop in the middle of what she was saying or interrupt you to point to something inconsequential that she noticed. She once interrupted the head mistress at a school meeting to point out that it was raining outside.

“Look at that! Can you believe it?”

“Look at what?” I, however, was still a little groggy and jet lagged and generally out of sorts, I didn’t notice anything.

“Over there!”

I squinted and looked in the direction she was pointing and still didn’t see anything. She was fuming. I was really not sure why. I squinted through the fog of my jet lag, but I still didn’t see anything.

“He’s smoking!”

Yes, there was someone smoking. I hadn’t noticed. A basketball court or so away from us, a cafeteria worker, a man was sitting at a table smoking. When I arrived in China, it was not unheard of to see teachers walking down the halls in the schools smoking. Nor was it odd to get pack upon pack of cigarettes at  company dinners because many Chinese men buy cartons of cigarettes to dispense pack upon pack at dinners. Furthermore, these men, would light cigarettes and pass them to their fellow diners during dinners, all through the dinners, from the time they sat down until they got up to leave, smoking, smoking, smoking. At one dinner, I had five cigarettes lit at one time and I am not even a smoker. Although the dinners were always filled with tar and nicotine, at the end of my tenure in China, the government changed the smoking rules to no smoking on campus so then teachers would have to sneak a smoke in the restroom or WC as they called it.

But I digress, at this point, Maureen launched into the fact that she had contracted pneumonia twice when she was studying Japanese in Tokyo. Anyone smoking – be it within ten feet or a football field away – irritated her now delicate asthmatic (Bird Flu) system.

Soon, however, she calmed down. As we ate, we both talked about our families and our lives in our respective countries. Maureen told me she was thrilled to be getting paid 6000 rmb a month with a complimentary flat. Her admission was more than a little uncomfortable for me because I was being paid 2000 rmb a month more than her. I seriously wished she had not divulged this information because it instantly made me uncomfortable. And as I said in my previous installment when she did learn that I was making more than her, she then decided to try her best to make me look inept which Jo helped to fuel.

My dear teacher friend Jennifer, who was my partner in crime that first year and a half, told me that another teacher told her that Jo told that teacher that she (Jennifer) and I would have been totally lost that first year if it had not been for Maureen. Jennifer had been much nicer to Maureen than I had. This was a horrible thing that Maureen did to Jennifer. I soon knew what kind of person Maureen was.

To Maureen’s credit, she  always came up with these elaborate lesson plans that she offered to share with Jennifer and me. However, I never took her up on it because the lesson plans were geared for children, not sophomores in high school. Maureen had come from a primary school background so she talked to 15 years olds as if they were nine years old, and drew up her lesson plans accordingly.

Now, none of this matters. Then, soon after, it didn’t matter either. The managers of my placement company were very good to me for many years – giving me several excellent opportunities and introducing me to some of Shanghai’s elite. Two and a half years after I moved to Shanghai, my company promoted me to Dean of Students of the International Department at Gezhi High School, a prestigious high school, in Downtown Shanghai.  Gezhi is where I would meet Haffijy when he was 15, the violin player that is now a huge part of my life. Thus, I have no complaints.

Later, regarding Bird Flu Maureen, I would learn that the salary scale had no rhyme or reason but was almost the luck of the draw. Granted, before I accepted the job, I did exhaustive research, especially concerning pay. While I thought this over and wondered if Maureen sensed my reserve, she broke the silence.

“Be cautious when emailing,” Maureen warned me dramatically as we discussed what I would expect in the coming weeks. Maureen I would learn, as time went on, was quite the dramatist.

“Oh, yeah?”

“My brother was kidnapped when he lived here,” she told me.

“Kidnapped?” This, of course, immediately unnerved me and brought on more visions of Bruce Lee fighting Chinese thugs.

“Yes, he told his wife to call the embassy and demand that he be released,”

“What happened?”

“She called the embassy. He was released. He was one of the lucky ones. Some never get a chance to talk to their families.”

“Wow, that is really scary.” I thought again of the Benders, the Chinese Benders. In my head, in a far off part of my head, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter shouts in a whisper – “Ariel Bender!” as he then launches into “Walking with a Mountain.”

But then back to the moment, sitting with Maureen at a table at a school cafeteria in a random Shanghai suburb, Maureen added, “People disappear here.”

To read the blogs I posted while living in China, go here:


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