The story of Cherry

I have mentioned Cherry in a few of my blog entries, but I never really explained the full story of how we met her or all of the miraculous things that have happened since we met her. So this is the story of how we met Cherry…

One evening, Justin and I were looking to eat something other than school cafeteria food, so we ventured out to what we affectionately call “the street of snacks,” but what many of the students call (translated into English) “rubbish street.” It’s a street full of merchants and tiny shoebox-sized restaurants in a little alley right outside our school gate.

It can be a bit sketchy, and when I first arrived in China I swore that I would never eat any food from those dirty street vendors, but I have since lowered my standards a bit and discovered that what doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger (and taste delicious!). We went to a little restaurant that William had taken us to once before, and sat down to try to decipher the menu and figure out what to order. As usual, there was a lot of staring and giggling from the other diners in the restaurant as we ordered, and even from the proprietor who only seemed to know how to say “hello” (as he kept repeating it loudly and excitedly), but we eventually received our food and tried to ignore them as we ate.

One student approached us as we were eating, and she seemed to be proficient beyond “hello,” so she began a conversation with us. She asked us the usual questions, such as “Where are you from?” and “How long are you staying in China?” and the ever popular “Do you like Chinese food?” We’ve been asked these questions so many times that we’ve gotten tired of answering them, so though it may have been a bit rude, I just continued to eat my food in silence and let Justin answer her questions. She introduced herself to us using her English name, Cherry. Justin discovered that she was not a student at our school, but rather at the larger, neighboring college, which we’ve heard people refer to as both “the teacher’s college” and “the normal college.”

The school where we teach is just a small, vocational/technical school, which explains why many of our students do not seem to be very academically-driven. China, like the United States, has a series of tests for high school students (comparable to the SATs and ACTs) to determine which schools students will be allowed to attend. The students with the high grades, like Cherry, are admitted to top colleges in their area (another strange Chinese rule–students are not usually permitted to travel across the country to attend the school of their choice. They must attend a local school that is within a certain kilometer radius of their residence. In other words, if a student dreams of one day attending the prestigious Peking University in Beijing, then his or her parents had better move the family to Beijing at some point during high school). Students with lower grades can usually gain admittance to a small college (similar to a community college), like the school where we teach, which is sometimes referred to as a “second-chance school.” If a student earns high grades and perhaps retakes the entry exam, he or she may be able to transfer to the larger college of choice.

So Cherry told us a bit about her school, and how she was majoring in Education, but actually hoped to perfect her English enough to become an interpreter instead. She also asked us about what our school was like and if we enjoyed teaching there. She told us she had a boyfriend (“who is not very smart,” she confided) who was a student at our school, HZVTC. Then she asked an interesting question, “How many foreign teachers teach at your school?” We replied that we were the only ones, and she seemed surprised. I finally became interested enough to put down my chopsticks and address her myself: “You don’t have foreign teachers at your school, do you?” “Of course,” she replied. Justin and I exchanged looks. “How many?” he asked. “Oh, I’m not sure of the total number. Maybe twelve or thirteen?” She guessed. I almost choked on my hot tea. There was no way we’ve been living right next door to twelve or thirteen foreigners and we had never happened to run into them before! We had been convinced for the last two months that we were the only foreigners in town. The restaurant owner called Cherry up to the cash register for a moment, and Justin and I wrestled with the realization of what she just told us. Justin said, “It can’t be true. Maybe she’s getting her English numbers confused, and she actually has two or three foreigners at her school.” “I won’t believe it until I see it,” I agreed. “Do you think she would introduce us to them?” Cherry came back to the table bearing a dish of what looked to be Chinese celery sliced and cooked in a creamy broth. “For you,” she said. “We didn’t order this,” Justin protested, “it must be for someone else.” The waitress at the cash register giggled with her hand over her mouth. “No,” Cherry said. “It is free, for you! Just have a try!” We finally understood that the restaurant proprietor had sent us a dish on the house (and incidentally, he has given us the same dish on the house every time we have returned since then). “Cherry….” Justin began, “Would you be able to introduce us to your foreign teachers sometime?” “Of course!” she said, excitedly. “We can go now! After you eat!”

I am still constantly surprised by how the Chinese people we meet seem to be up for anything at a moment’s notice. In America, a person would go rummaging through their bag to retrieve their pocket calendar, and say something like, “I can pencil you in for next Tuesday.” In China, people always reply with “right now!” or “let’s go tomorrow!” I couldn’t seem to finish my dinner fast enough after that; I was so eager to meet the other foreigners living in town. Justin just had one more question for Cherry: “What are these pieces floating in the soup we’re eating? Is it tofu, maybe?” “No,” replied Cherry, and she had to consult her pocket translator for a moment to find the correct term. “It is pig’s blood,” she said, and we suddenly both felt not very hungry anymore.

Moments later, we put on our jackets and left the restaurant, trying to ignore the light drizzle of rain as we had forgotten our umbrellas and were not the least bit tempted to go home to retrieve them. Cherry led us down “rubbish street,” and through the gate to her school, giving us a brief tour of the campus. Justin and I were both shocked by how large her campus was compared to ours, and we were even more shocked when she led us through a tunnel going under XueFu Lu (the major road in front of our school) to the other half of her school’s campus. The campus just seemed to never end–we didn’t even see half of it that night. We had always assumed that the Teacher’s College and the Normal College were two separate schools, but as Cherry showed us around, we realized that they were both the same school, connected by a tunnel.

Finally, Cherry got out her cell phone to call her “favorite” foreign teacher, a married woman with a child who was living with her family in an apartment on campus. “Where is she from?” Justin asked. “I cannot remember,” Cherry said, as she dialed the number. Her teacher apparently agreed to come down to the lobby for a few moments to meet us, so we started off in the direction of her apartment. I was feeling a bit nervous about what we would say to her. It’s ridiculously easy to make friends with a Chinese person (Cherry is an excellent example of that), but another foreigner might not be so thrilled to meet us.

It turned out that Cherry’s teacher was a woman in her thirties from the Philippines named Arlena (she told us to call her “Len”). She was extremely friendly and talkative, and seemed like she genuinely was glad to meet us, which put me at ease right away. She talked to us for quite awhile about her experiences in China. We discovered that she had been teaching in various locations around China for the past six years, though her first couple of years were not very good. She apparently got scammed by a private English school during her first year, a company that only intermittently paid her and waited until her visa had expired to renew it (making her an illegal immigrant). She even told us about a time when she almost got deported back to the Philippines! She was bound to them by contract for her entire first year of living in China, so she was not able to get a new job until the following year when her contract was finished. Now, during her sixth year, she said she finally has the perfect schedule: she is teaching only twelve periods each week and she’s getting paid a good amount of money–almost triple what she was making during her first year. As she talked to us, I realized that we achieved on our first visit what it took her six years to manage–a schedule of only twelve periods each week with decent pay. For all of his faults, we realized that we really owe a lot to Keith Curran, our travel agent/employment negotiator, for bargaining on our behalf with our school and getting us a great deal in our contract. Now that we’re here, it’s become apparent that anyone looking to live and work in China will most likely get scammed unless they have an experienced third party agent working with them–a strong warning for any of you who are considering coming here.

To our amazement, as we talked with Len, some foreigners walked through the lobby up to their rooms. We didn’t do more than wave hello to them, but Len listed them off as they walked past, “Those two are from the Ukraine, that one is from Austrailia, he is from Canada…” Eventually, we exchanged phone numbers with Len and bid her goodbye; she had a toddler upstairs waiting for his mommy to tuck him into bed. We also discovered that Cherry had snuck out at some point during our conversation with Len and borrowed a couple of umbrellas for us to use as we walked back to our school–how nice! She walked back with us all the way to rubbish street, and during our walk, she asked us another interesting question, “Is everyone in America a Christian?” We both gave her a resounding “No!” and she looked surprised again. But we did concede that Christianity is probably the top religion in America, and the religion that the country was historically founded on. We explained that there are a large amount of people in America who don’t believe there is any god and don’t belong to any religion, and of course there are groups of people who are Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, etc., just like in China. She asked, “Are you Christian?” and when we confirmed that we were, she finally looked pleased. She explained that one of her classes actually required her to purchase an English Bible and read it and complete assignments on it, and she feels very confused about many of the things that she reads. Now it was our turn to be surprised….a class that requires them to learn about Christianity? She explained that the class is all about relating to foreigners, a very important goal for someone who wishes to become an interpreter one day. Because Christianity is such a prevalent religion in foreign countries, they are required to learn all about Christians and their history for this class. “Maybe you can help explain to me what Christians believe?” she asked hopefully. If ever God dropped an undeniable opportunity directly into our laps, then this was it. “Of course!” Justin answered. Cherry explained further, “I tried going to church to help gain an understanding, but I still feel the Bible is very difficult and confusing.” Justin and I were shocked for what must have been the fourth or fifth time in one night. “There is a Christian church in Huzhou?” Justin asked. “Yes,” Cherry said, “There is only one, in the city center. I take the bus to get there.” “Do they speak English there?” I asked hopefully. “No,” she said, “Only Chinese.” That was disappointing, but I was still excited about the prospect of going to a Chinese Christian Church, especially if we went with Cherry, who could translate for us a bit of what they were teaching. “Can you take us to church with you sometime?” Justin asked. “Of course!” Cherry said, “This weekend we will go!”

I went to bed later that night feeling so lucky that we hadn’t decided to eat in the school cafeteria for dinner like we usually do. If we hadn’t decided to eat out on rubbish street, then we never would have met Cherry, and we never would have known about the other foreigners, and we never would have made plans to attend the Christian church in Huzhou. But actually, I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it.

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