Passing the meat stand, I hold my breath to avoid the smell, averting my eyes from the pig remains. It is not one of my favorite places, but the stench is soon forgotten.
The tea stand girl smiles, looking at me expectantly and with an expression of wonder. “Green tea with bubbles?” She asks in Chinese. Sometimes I feel like ordering something wildly different, just to shock her. It’s a green tea day though; I’ll need the energy.
Popping a thick colorful straw into the cellophane lid, I head over to the rice place. It’s a workday so there isn’t much traffic; I can safely walk in the street today. While the cook prepares my order, an elderly man stares at me transfixedly from across the road, watching as I suck up another tapioca ball. I’ve yet to see another foreign woman in this city, so I accept that I’m an oddity here. I’ve actually had people do double takes, as if I’m a mirage.
With my bag of fried rice, I walk back the other direction and stop at a red light. A man in a motorized wheelchair rolls by and grins widely. “Hello!” He shouts in English. “How are you today?”
Green light. I scan the pavement, keeping on alert for cockroaches and spiders. This has become a habit ever since I saw a hand-sized spider run across the street near the flower stand. I watched hopefully as the scooter barreled towards it, but it narrowly escaped death that time.
As I turn the corner the guy who owns the car wash shouts his daily greeting, gawking from across the road. His employees do the same, jostling one another and laughing as I walk into the school. They turn up the rap music.
It’s 2 p.m. when I start teaching. My youngest students are also my favorites. They’re full of energy (hence the need for my green tea); their questions are endless, and their capacity to learn another language is amazing. I spend three hours teaching them how to read, how to pronounce words like a Meiguoren (American). We play bingo, sing, and dance. Occasionally they try to teach me a random Chinese word, excitedly waiting for my funny pronunciation. They erupt into a chorus of giggles as I say the word, some of them clapping.
My next two classes demand less physical energy and more mental as they are at an intermediate level of English speaking. Used to having their previous English teacher translate all grammar points in Chinese, these kids often look at me with puzzled expressions, though they’re so eager to learn. Today, like most days, one student says “Teacher, do you want a boyfriend? Teacher you have a boyfriend!” They seem to get a kick out of this and look at me with suspicion when I claim I’m happy and have no desire for a boyfriend. It seems everyone in their late twenties to early thirties has to want to get married.
We change the subject back to learning grammar until they start to whine “Teacher, we want to play a game!” I give in. The last ten minutes of class a dramatic and very competitive spelling game ensues, which actually makes me happy because they are showing such excitement at learning English.
At 9:10 p.m., I exit the school, tired and feeling haggard after a long day of teaching. I attempt to ignore the stares and chatter from across the street. It’s dark and I’m hungry. On some days I have my scooter but not tonight. I walk toward the night market. Music and laughter flow out from a neighborhood KTV bar while feral packs of street dogs begin their nightly routine of hunting for food and barking incessantly.
“Hello!” Some kids shout as I walk by. They turn to stare, fascinated by the waiguoren, foreigner.
I smile, wondering if they’ll stop to chat tonight as they sometimes do. They run off. Food vendors line both sides of the streets. The scent of stinky tofu and garlic fills the air. Cars pull over to the side of the road, lights flashing. People jump out of their vehicles, rushing ahead, loudly placing their orders. A young man sits on his scooter while his girlfriend stands next to him, flirting.
I walk around the corner to the back of the small night market. Approaching the noodle shop, I attempt to order in Chinese, requesting thick noodles in mushroom sauce. The cook and his wife grin at me, knowing full well what I’m going to order yet still waiting for me to say it properly, while their other customers watch with curiosity. I mull over the Chinese words in my head, wondering if I pronounced them correctly this time.
The woman hands me the bag and smiles, nodding her thanks. “Bye bye!” She says.
Walking home in the dark, I pass men and women sitting outside small shops, eating street food and sharing conversation that I can’t begin to understand. I wonder how many different stories they have to tell. Their eyes flick over me as I pass, but they say nothing. I’m a foreigner in their midst, a passing shadow. While polite, they keep their distance, knowing I will never permanently be part of their world.
I walk into my apartment building. The security guard and I nod at each other and I step into the elevator, hitting the button to the seventh floor.
Kicking off my shoes, I open the door to the sparse apartment.
From my balcony there is a lovely view of the stars and in the darkness I can see the faint peaks of the mountains surrounding Puli. The street dogs begin a chorus of barking from a cluster of trees somewhere below. There’s a slight chill in the air, but I know at home in Chicago it’s already much cooler. As the smell of Betelnut flowers drifts up through the breeze, I close my eyes. And breathe.
This article is part of Matador’s Day in the Life of an Expat narrative series. Check out the archives to read about expat life in cities around the world.
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