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The bitter-sweet barrier

He is staring as if from a void, which is what catches my attention as I stand at the blackboard. His eyes are pristine, tear-less, lit from without, not within. The Chinese gentleman leans on his broom like a Gandalf, watching me attentively through the classroom window. The Chinese children here in a poor “village”, Che Feng, on the outskirts of Suzhou, China, do not notice him, most of their eyes fixed on me and the song I am trying to teach them. Their eyes briefly stray in the direction of the apparition at the window, then back to me again, because I am looking at him, but for them he might as well not exist, a different, lower class to the children.

His eyes are kind. As I smile back at him, he nods back after a brief, thoughtful moment, slightly in surprise. Perhaps at being acknowledged in the school at all. For a moment his eyes appear lit from within. When I walk out the class at the bell, he is still standing nearby, perhaps pretending to sweep. He is staring at my pants and shirt, the streaks of what I imagine are — to him — white gold. A white, smeared gold that once was mysterious English words and sentences scrawled across the board for the children to copy. Humble chalk. I often look like I have been in a chalk factory after four or five lessons here at this school. He gapes at me and my clothing; he is somehow utterly serene.

Often I am stared at. I have been teaching at this school for about two months and have yet to see a single other “foreigner”, a non-Chinese, among the people who mill and squat on the pavements of Che Feng, this “village” where old homes are slowly being torn down to make way for God knows what kind of buildings: factories, warehouses, shops; one political system, communism, which has been disastrous for China to put it mildly, being replaced with blatant consumerism.

The school janitor never speaks to me. He knows I can speak some Mandarin but I am not sure if he can … many of these elderly folk, peasants who would have worked on farmlands with hoes and spades until “the new changes” shattered their livelihood and homes, cannot speak Mandarin at all. They have had little or no schooling and in many cases cannot read Chinese. I have watched them, these blue-collar workers, try to converse with white collars on buses. The latter shake their heads and say in Mandarin they have no idea as to what the fellow is talking about. I have thought I could get lonely, as I never see a fellow foreigner in this part of Suzhou, but as I watch these elderly peasants sit on a bus in their own country, unable to talk to most people around them? What they speak does not even sound like the local dialect, Suzhou-hua.

The janitor does speak to me very strongly through his eyes and his faintly bewildered face. His face is a map, browned and yellowed, almost scorched from a lifetime of sun and labour: a grooved parchment that has been folded up, creased, then opened; folded up, creased and opened, endless times over the decades. The janitor speaks to me every day, even when he is not around. In fact, I don’t recall ever having someone speak to me so much, resonate within me, who has never spoken a single word.