Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Air Freshener

I wrote this back in December and I'm not sure why I never posted it, but its been in my drafts folder since then. It's a bit long, but if you can get through it, I guarantee it will make you laugh!

An old friend of mine recently posted some pictures that I took when we were in China together during the summer of 2002. I haven't looked at these pictures in a few years and one in particular brought back a very vivid memory.

I went to China in July of 2002 to teach English at a Chinese middle school for 6 weeks. I flew from New York, to Chicago, to Tokyo, and then finally to Shanghai. It took over 30 hours. After spending a few days in Shanghai seeing the sights, the group I was with took a 3 hour bus ride into the country side to a small town named Changxing. The school we were teaching at put us up in the hotel next door. It was called the Party School Hotel, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn't, to our disappointment, a happening place. It didn't have a disco in the basement or even a bar. We couldn't drink the water and the beds were hard, but every morning at 8:00 AM, there were people streaming up the stairs to the big open meeting room on the 4th floor. This hotel hosted meetings for the local chapter of the communist party complete with sickle and hammer paintings on the walls.

The school also provided all of our meals. Some of the students went home at the end of the day, but some also stayed in the same hotel we lived in. During the first week of classes, we discovered that "breakfast" consisted of soupy rice, something similar to porridge, and meat filled dumplings. Our group consisted of ten college kids, most of whom, like myself, didn't usually eat breakfast at all. After the first week, we all stopped attending breakfast in exchange for another fifteen minutes of sleep. Well, the principal of the school, who was determined to take good care of us, found out we weren't eating and demanded to know what kind of food he could get for us that we would actually eat. We insisted that we didn't need to eat in the morning but he wouldn't hear it. We finally broke down and told him that some fruit would be nice to have in the morning. The next day, a 50 pound sack of watermelons was delivered to our hotel.

None of us knew what to do with them, had a knife to cut them, or really wanted them, so our group leader, Glen, put them in the closet in his hotel room and they were soon forgotten. Fast forward to six weeks later. It was our last day of teaching. We had all prepared skits and musical numbers (all in English) with our individual classes to perform at the end of the summer all school recital and had just returned after to the hotel after a long day of performance that were fun but exhausting. It was late and most of us were heading right to bed. Well Glen entered his room and threw open the door to his room a little to enthusiastically and it hit the door to the closet. This caused the closet door to pop open and 50 pounds of rotten watermelons to spill onto the floor.

I don't know if you've ever smelled rotten watermelon before, but it is really foul. Before long, the whole hall smelled. Being that my room was right next to Glen's at the end of the hall, we had to suffer the worst of it. Everyone else closed their doors to keep out the smell and went to bed. We were suffering, however, and finally at around midnight, Glen declared that he couldn't take it anymore and was going out to find some air freshener to at least try to mask the odor.

Now, running out for some air freshener might not seem like a big deal. But let me paint you a picture of the city we were living in and you'll begin to understand why this was not an easy endeavor. Changxing is a small city in Chinese standards. There are still around a million people living there, but this is still relatively small. Up until about 10 months before we arrived in Changxing, it had been completely closed off to foreigners. The first night we arrived, we decided to take a stroll around, all 10 of us white, college aged kids from America, to get our bearings of the city and see what was there. We started walking through the main town square, that was the size of about 4 football fields, and within about 10 minutes, we had a group of a few hundred people surrounding us, pointing, and staring. From then on, as soon as we left the school yard, we had to deal with crowds following us. I began to feel a bit like a celebrity, and I have to say, it was not fun.

We were told that many people who lived there had probably never traveled far from home their entire lives and had therefore never seen a white person. Growing up in a diverse country like we have, it was hard to imagine this, but it helped us understand why these people would stop and stare.

So here we were, leaving the hotel at midnight in search of air freshener in a town in China that didn't even have McDonalds or KFC (which every other town we visited did!). After exiting the school gaits, there was a row of small stores that sold all sorts of things, like fruit, water, various nuts and candies. We often stopped there for bottled water when we were out since we couldn't drink the tap water. Since it was so late, all but two were already closed. Inside the first store were four men sitting in a circle playing cards. We had no idea how to say "air freshener" in Mandarin and these men didn't speak English, so we mimed spraying air freshener with our hands while making a "ssssshhhhh" noise. It took a couple tried, but they finally got it. We asked them if they had any, which we did know how to say, and they of course said no.

Moving on to the next store. We did the same skit for the woman in that store and again got the same response. No air freshener. As we were leaving the store, I almost stepped on a rat the size of one of our rabbits. After screaming and demanding to go back to the hotel, Glen gave in and we started walking back. We were about to pass the first store we went in when one of the men came out and started gesturing for us to follow him. He took us past the school and around the corner to the local hospital. This hospital was gated, like most buildings in the town, with an outdoor courtyard and then the hospital entrance was inside the gate. Now I know you're imagining a hospital you've been in anywhere in this country, but it was nothing like that. It was basically one small building with only a couple rooms with some gurneys set up. There was one woman lying on a gurney moaning and she was hooked up to an IV coming out of a glass bottle. It was like something out of a movie. We stood in the entrance while the man from the store found the doctor and brought him out to us.

We tired to explain that we didn't need a doctor when he stared speaking to us in broken English. He asked us what was the matter and we went through our skit again, miming air freshener and making the sounds. After a few minutes, he understood, and wrote down "air freshener" in Chinese characters on a piece of paper. We were finally getting somewhere! We asked him where we could find some and he said he would be right back, and left the room. We stood watching the woman on the gurney moaning in pain, not really knowing what to do. The doctor returned after a few minutes and said, "I have called the police. They will come. They will help you." Panic immediately set in. This doctor had just called the police and told them who knows what and now they were coming here! My mind was screaming run! You don't want to be here when the Chinese police arrive and find out that you don't have an emergency and this doctor called them for nothing!

The doctor, sensing our panic, offered us drinks and cigarettes, and started asking us questions about where we were from, what we were doing in Changxing. We sat, still in shock, when a couple minutes later, a small van with 5 Chinese police officers came tearing into the courtyard with their lights going and sirens blazing. This was it, I thought. I'm going to end up in Chinese prison and no one will ever know what happened to me. I didn't even have my passport with me! It was back in the hotel! I had no way to prove that I was in their country legally!

The van screeched to a stop and the five police officers piled out of the van one after another like they had been practicing for this their whole lives. They ran up the stairs into the room with the woman on the gurney, still moaning in pain, and lined up in front of us as if to say, here we are! What do you require? Not knowing what else to do, I held out the piece of paper in my hand that said "air freshener" in Chinese. The police officer that seemed to be in charge took it from me, looked at it, nodded, handed it back to me, barked something in Chinese and they all turned around and piled back into the van, turned the lights and sirens back on, and tore out of the courtyard. Glen and I stood there for a moment, stunned. Had that really just happened. Glen turned to the doctor and asked where they went. Very simply, he said, "They will go. Get air freshener. Bring it here."

Five Chinese police officers were going to get us air freshener? Surely he must be mistaken. I wanted to run away. I wasn't convinced that they were going to buy us air freshener, but whatever they were doing, I knew I didn't want to be there when they got back. The doctor coaxed us back into his office and we talked some more and I began to realize there was no polite way to get out of there.

About five minutes later, the police came tearing back into the courtyard, lights and sirens blazing. All five of them piled out of the van in formation, ran back into the hospital and handed us two bottles of air freshener. They ran right back out, piled into the van and sped away. Glen and I stood there, not able to comprehend what had just happened. Had five Chinese police officers really just ran an errand for us? We didn't even have a chance to pay them back for the air freshener!

We walked back to our hotel and woke up some of our fellow teachers. This was just too good of a story to keep to ourselves. We had to share it immediately, and document our proof!

Here it is... Me, Glen and our air freshener!


YowlYY said...

Incredible but true...Chinese take hospitality very seriously as your story tells us :)

RoadBunner said...

OMG! That is a GREAT story! So did the air freshener take care of the smell?

d. moll, l.ac. said...

Hilarious!!!!!! and I believe every word of it.

bunnygirl said...

Too, too funny! But...did it help?

Erin said...

No, the air freshener didn't help at all:) Glen ended up sleeping on the floor in my room for a few days while the smell cleared!

Anonymous said...

LOL! That's a good story!! The police really went all out for the both of you. Too bad it didn't help with the smell. I can't say I've smelled rotten watermelons before, but from your story, I don't think I want to hahahaha

Rabbits' Guy said...

You made that up. Wait .. nobody could make that up!

How amusing for those of us not there!

Grace said...

One of the best stories ever, and I remember when you were sick of telling it because you already had 342987 times. But now it is documented for posterity on your blog so you may never have to tell it in person again!!!