I owe my colleagues an explanation for why I wasn’t at this year’s teachers’ sports meeting like I said I would.
Last Saturday afternoon my Chinese friend Becky and I were sitting on cheap plastic stools in the old Shangxia Jiu district drinking coke out of glass bottles and a cheap orange juice-like drink. We basked in the silence that had come after the tiredness from spending several hours walking around Guangzhou wore at our desire for small talk, and all of a sudden my phone buzzed with a text message in Chinese from my roommate and Princeton in Asia fellow, David (we’ve taken to texting in Chinese as a form of practice).
“What!?” I blurted. “What’s wrong?” Becky asked. “The sports meeting’s right now! They’re all wondering why we’re not there. My school never tells me anything!” I said.
The “teachers’ sports meeting,” as the teachers-only track-and-field day is called in Chinglish by my colleagues, is a once-a-year tradition where all the teachers compete in races and relays on the school track. Expectations were high for us, the foreign teachers, as our predecessor had carried the 800-meter run for two years in a row, which all of our colleagues haven’t forgotten to remind us of whenever the sports meeting comes up in conversation.
The events I had signed up for—the 400 and 800 meter races, the longest races to be held—were to begin in a matter of 20 minutes. Yet I was all the way across town, blithely enjoying a orangelike drink more than a twenty-minute cab ride away. I had missed the sports meeting.
Meanwhile across town, back in the apartment only 100 meters from the track, David, having just finished a large lunch of friend vegetables and egg, was enjoying a piece of wheat bread and had almost finished his box of milk when he received a text message from a fellow teacher upset that we were not at the sports meeting.
Throwing on his running clothes, David sprinted out to the track and won the 400 meter race with the taste of fried egg still on his breath making him want to vomit.
So why didn’t we know about the sports meeting?
China writers have long noted that China is a land of many secerets, and, as David and I have found, the extent of the secrecy extends to everyday affairs, though most of the time information is not so much withheld by secretive government offices but rather just not effectively disseminated.
As it turns out, we should have known that there is a blackboard in the Senior 2 office (where we haven’t been assigned a desk) where the class principle writes the events and information in chalk each week. We discovered this not at our half-hour orientation at the beginning of the year, but from the teacher who had told us we missed the sports meeting.
Information is hard to come by in all sorts of contexts in our school, as is the case with the dates of our vacations. We learned from a fellow teacher this month that the school officially spreads the schedule of vacation days on the school website “Sunday night or Monday morning” of the same week.
It seems that in reality most information is not gained through official channels, but rather through word of mouth from teacher to teacher or student to student. And, as foreign teachers, David and I are more socially isolated and therefore out of the information loop at our school.
If I decide to stay another year at The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University, I promise I’ll look at the chalk board in the Senior 2 teachers’ office and try my best to read the scribbled characters proclaiming each week’s events.
Dear colleagues: Please accept my apology for missing The Affiliated High School of South China Normal University 2007 Teachers’ Sports Meeting.