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IN FACULTY BLOCK NUMBER FIVE/Ju/z'e RoId MY NEIGHBORS WERE DRIVING me crazy with all their noise and gossip. The front doors of the rooms in our faculty block opened out onto one long, congenial balcony, like a motor lodge off an interstate, and my neighbors were forever hanging about and talking of the same things: the price of eggs, the state of their health and, especially , relatives who had gone south to Guangzhou and made a fortune selling ladies' rayonblouses. Only a good storm ever drove them inside. At night they woke me up calling to each other up and down the stairwells : "Ail Little Tiger! You asleep? Come play cards. Bring money!" For six months I'd been living with them in a squat, raw concrete building—officially Faculty Block Number Five—where the college work unit had assigned us all a place to live. To show their enthusiasm for the government's new policies of "opening and reform to the outside world," the college leaders had painted the exterior walls of every floor a different color, from top to bottom, blue, yellow and green. It was about as festive as a mass of concrete could get. My own rooms were on the yellow, middle floor, which my neighbors claimed was the best. Living on the blue made for a hard climb with a load of vegetables from the market; the rats got in too easily through the drains on the green. In ancient China the color yellow was reserved exclusively for the palaces of the emperor. I was the only foreign teacher in our work unit, the only one, actually, in the small town of Jingmen. It was many months before I was able to make out anything my neighbors said. When I first arrived, I spoke only a few set phrases of stilted, bookish Mandarin ("The smell of that dish is quite aromatic"), which sent my neighbors into hysterics, but for those first few months it was new to hear them laugh at me; everything was exotic and exciting. I would hear them jabbering away in the local dialect, and it was easy to assume that what they were talking about was also exotic and exciting. I confess it was hard not to be disappointed when I began to understand them. "Be patient," I often told myself. "It's not them—it's you. You don't understand enough." I was twenty-four, pretty, slightly inclined to think of myself as ardent. I was still waiting for a moment when the differences between my neighbors and me would fall away, or at least seem smaller. I longed for some intimate thing to pass between us— The Missouri Review · 19 something sacred, significant. I wanted just one of them to say something wise and for me to respond in perfect Mandarin, "Yes, yes! How true! I have often felt that way myself." But as I listened to my neighbors day in and day out, I couldn't help but have my doubts that this would happen. There were times when I was convinced they had spent their lives at nothing but cooking, gossiping and gambling for small stakes. Still, for the most part, I believed them to be kind. They worried a lot about what I ate and what I did with myself in the evenings. We wanted to like each other. Yang Lili, an art teacher at the college, lived on the green first floor of our faculty block with her husband, Gu, and their small daughter, Ya Ya. She was the same age as I, spoke decent English and was known throughout the college for her beautiful grassstyle calligraphy. Several years before Ya Ya was born, the leaders had sent Yang Lili to study in Xian at the Fine Arts Institute. She was proud of having once lived in the city and of her English, which was by far the best of all of my neighbors, and which she liked to practice by giving advice to me. "You have two new pimples!" she called to me late one afternoon. "That means too much fire in the belly. You should eat a bitter melon...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 19-29
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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