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RED HORSE LAKE (赤马湖), HUNAN PROVINCE (湖南省), CHAPTER TWO – THE PEOPLE
Now a brief description of the ecosystem of souls that inhabited RHL during my stay there. Now, I already know from a year in Wuhan that China attracts a strange breed of foreign teacher – nearly every foreigner you meet here is quirky in some way; believe me, you need to be. Normal people don’t really fit here (whatever constitutes a “normal” person…). However, in terms of a massively eclectic cross-section of bizarre people in one place, finding RHL is like bumping into a nest of eccentricity. And, because the place currently has a high turnover of foreigners, it’s like a magnet for transitory weirdasses (during my twenty-four days there, I saw nineteen staff come and go, with only ten of those present for the majority of that time). There’s many reasons for this, and I’ll try to get to them all.
Ok, the people (remember, names have been changed)…I’ll start with someone who ran screaming while I was there. Dean was a forty or fifty-something ex-army guy who I enjoyed talking to one-on-one (so long as I kept up with him)…but he had the social skills of a rhino. Sometimes his blunt comments surprised even me (I’m not known for being subtle). You know, blunt, antisocial, you-think-that-not-say-it kind of comments, such as telling a girl that she’s fat, ugly or dresses like shit, right to her face instead of behind her back – he was like that. Dean was one of the currently failed entrepreneurs due the warped political machinations of RHL…basically, he was brought in specifically to start, and run, a paintball range…now, I don’t know much about paintball, but I do know that you need paintball guns for it. They never emerged. So by the time Dean left, he’d been sitting on his ass for months, being paid the retainer, and being bored out of his skull.
So bye bye Dean. Next there’s Carol, of a similar age, and another one with the social finesse of a bull who’d just been slapped across the head. She was here to open and run a coffee shop that never opened. She was warm and intelligent when you had a decent talk with her, but, until she let her guard down, she had a tendency to bite your head off with little apparent reason…she’d also been sitting on her retainer, waiting in vain for the coffee shop to open, and, at time of writing, I’ve left her there.
Then there’s some guy called Bill, a twenty-something pissed paedophile who’d been kicked out of at least two other places for being, shall we say, too familiar with the pre-pubescent students (all this is hearsay)…I only met him a couple of times. RHL was pretty eager to get rid of him – they flew him all the way to Guangzhou to make sure he was gone. So bye bye Bill.
Then there’s Helen, G, and the Egyptian guy who I mentioned earlier…I was disappointed to hear they’d flown the coop. But, well, they did. So bye bye that lot.
There was also someone called Bill Part Two (I’m not using pseudonyms at all, am I?), who was apparently a secret agent of some sort, possibly CIA, who was, so he reckoned, at RHL between missions – he even had an assistant Chinese dwarf with him all the time (I kid you not), which reminded me of that flick Year of Living Dangerously. Enough said about that…but, in retrospect, God knows who or what this guy actually was. The probability of his story being bullshit was somewhere between zero and a hundred percent…it’s pretty hard to give a more accurate number in this place.
Now, onto some of the long-term population…let’s start with Burroughs. My God, I have no idea how to describe this guy…my usually flamboyant vocabulary just sits and stares at him. Well, ok, I’ll try…he’s forty or fifty something, he’s travelled a lot around China, he’s read a ton of philosophical/new age/meditation kind of stuff (perhaps too much) in both English and Chinese (maybe more), and he always carries around a big jar of “tea”, which is in inverted commas because I bet you a thousand kuai it ain’t just tea he’s drinking – he is totally off the planet. Whenever you see him walking around, he just stops, anywhere, and does some form of what looks like impromptu tai chi, seemingly oblivious to anyone around him while doing so. When he’s in a meeting, he’s often reading a book (often quietly mouthing the words) – he looks like he’s in his own little world, but, when you ask him a question, he’s got an answer of some sort.
Well…………of some sort. Let me give you some examples of what he regards as “answers”…one week, the teachers had a Q & A session every day with the students, and Burroughs’ answers were…uuuuummmm…uuuuuummmm… uuuummmmm…well, I still don’t know what to make of them. For instance, when a student asked him something innocent like “do you like being a teacher” or “why did you become a teacher”, he started going on about him not being a teacher at all, but instead being the wind and the sky and the trees and stuff. I remember listening to him in, how can I put this, the corner of my ear, and wondering what the hell the students were making of what this guy was saying. When a student asked him “do you like Chinese movies”, his answer ended up discussing the artistic and moral ramifications of censorship versus passion (the kid who asked was about twelve). I can’t really describe his answers much more, other than to say someone desperately needs to sample and loop this guy; they’d make a fortune. Adding to his sample and loopability was that about a third of his answers were in Chinese…and, while he’s out and about, he whistles more than talks.
I guess the biggest impression that Burroughs gave me is that maybe – just maybe – he’s actually the next link in the mental and spiritual evolution of the human race. Maybe we should all be worshipping him. Well, either that, or he’s just a stoned frootloop par none.
Then there’s Ron, the seventy-four-year-old American basketball player. Yep, seventy-four, and he’s still playing. He’s hearing’s shot, he forgets things on a pretty regular basis, but he’s good-natured, well read, and sharp for his age. His wife died I don’t know how long ago, and he’s in China now because it’s the only continent he hadn’t seen before. He’s had a pretty eventful life by the sounds of things, including being a part of the American UFO investigation squad. Because he teaches basketball, the kids adore him. They call him Grandad, but we call him Einstein because of the uncanny resemblance.
There’s also Jalal, a highly articulate Pom who’s in China to learn a martial art or two, and whose Chinese girlfriend/fiancée constantly reminded me of Bruce Willis’s girl in Pulp Fiction…he speaks fluent Chinese, so he taught me a few things, which was way cool.
There’s Nadia, an African girl studying to be a highway engineer, sporting a thick African accent (which caused some problems with the kids [Accents can be a big problem if you’re thinking of teaching over here. It’s good to be warned about this – if you have a thick accent, eg Scottish, Irish, Indian or African, you’re going to have problems. You need to remember that, in many parts of China, they’ve been raised on Hollywood, ie the American accent. That’s how many of them learn English. Thankfully, the popularity of the Harry Potter films, and BBC shows like Sherlock, are diversifying things, but not much]). She doesn’t say a huge amount, but is generally pretty warm and genuine when she does.
Then there’s Juliet, who’s wonderful. She’s a first-generation Chinese Australian, in China to learn Chinese and follow her bloodline I guess. She’s the coolest girl I’ve met in my year in China – an island of normality in an ocean of weirdness.
Who else…well, just quickly, my two main bosses are a) a UK/Australian ex-footballer turned businessman (I’ll just call him Tom Smith, haha), and David, who lives here with his Chinese wife. Tom and David are great – really cut the shit kind of people, very professional, but after hours they relax and have a bevy with everyone. I really like and respect that mix of traits, and so these are people I can really work with. If I don’t go back to RHL, I could still happily work with either or both of them again.
(Incidentally, one of Tom’s sons is a member of that hideous band Westlife – he played a DVD of the band to the students one day to point this out to them, and man, the girls just went gooey and screaming. Never in my most perverse nightmares did I ever think I’d be one degree of separation from Westlife, but well, there you go). [Hmmmmm, how can I put this…I’m writing this part quite a few years later…I’m saying this in a pretty humerous way, but many people in China are totally full of shit, and I now realise that Mr Smith was, as far as I can now guess, the first King of Bullshit that I met there (I’ve met a few, shall I say, foreigners and locals alike). Was he a soccer player? Maybe. Was he any relation to Westlife? Nope. Tom’s idea seemed to be this – since he was in the middle of nowhere, the kids would believe anything, since there was no way they could prove him wrong (a quick Google proved nothing either way)…and, of course, they all love Westlife. The result? All the kids were then in total awe of him. So why did he tell the kids this? Because he could].
There’s also a couple of more bosses/financers…they’ll be mentioned later. I also haven’t mentioned the Chinese bosses…I’ll mention them later, too. There’s so much cross-cultural politics in RHL, so much bordering on childish powerplays, and so much naked nepotism on the Chinese bosses’ part, that a novel could be written about this place. The only question is whether it’d be a tragedy or a comedy…
STAY TUNED FOR THE FINAL CHAPTER OF RED HORSE LAKE – THE STUFF MEMORIES ARE MADE OF
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