The Strange Chinese Men Are Taking Away My Furniture

Joe Bookman
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I am fixing oatmeal when I hear a man clearing his throat outside of my apartment. As I pour boiling water over my oats, a waft of unwelcome tobacco smoke registers in my nostrils, and I hear knocking on my door.

I have not invited anyone here today. As an American teacher in the rural Hunan Province, I do not have many friends; however, living just one floor above my school’s dining hall, I regularly receive random visitors. Only yesterday, two men came and gave themselves a tour of my apartment. I stood by in mute bewilderment as they walked into my bedroom and stared at my unmade bed.

The person knocks again, louder this time, five thumps in quick succession. Though I do not feel like receiving any guests, I worry that the man outside already knows I’m home, and I’m ashamed to let the local people think that I shrink from the outside world, even if I sometimes do.

I immediately regret answering the door. Within moments, there are four Chinese men inside my apartment: the two strangers from yesterday, a maintenance worker I know from around the school, and a fourth man I have never seen before. Very soon, the reason for their visit becomes clear: They have come to repossess my furniture. Soon they are disassembling my bed and desk, carrying away my table and bed stand, and scattering personal items pell-mell across the floor. I consider blurting out the words bu hao (not good), but I’m not brave enough. Though the furniture belongs to the school, it seems unreasonable that they should recuperate it on such abrupt, mysterious terms. No one warned me that these men would be coming here today. I am not scheduled to move out for another four months. Why are these men here now?

The school where I teach tends to regard foreigners with a certain amount of distrust. A few months ago, I heard from a coworker that the school headmaster had warned the faculty against becoming “too close” with the foreign teachers. I do not know why the headmaster, a man I know and respect, would have issued this advisory, and I doubt that I ever will.

To be fair, most people in this part of China aren’t accustomed to foreigners. There is only one other American working with me at the school, and we are the only two foreigners for miles around. Even in the capital of Changsha, a city of over six million people, foreigners are a relatively rare sight.

That’s not to say that everyone keeps me at arm’s length: Students have gone out of their way to teach me about their culture, many families have welcomed me into their homes for meals, and the administrators at the school regularly invite me to dinner. There are just some things that no one bothers to tell me: for instance, why these strangers have barged into my home to take my furniture.

As I stew silently on the couch, one of the men sits down next to me and, to my surprise, begins speaking in English.

“My name is Bing Huang Hua,” he says. He writes his name on a piece of paper and repeats his name aloud several times. “Bing… Huang… Hua,” he says. “I am a teacher, too.”

I want to ask him about my furniture, where he is taking it, and why, but his English is clearly not very good. I shake his hand and tell him my name is Joe.

We go back and forth between English and Mandarin, trading the simplest of sentences, like two full-grown babies learning to speak for the first time.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“America,” I say.

“Ah, America is very beautiful!”

“China is beautiful, too,” I say.

Bing Huang Hua is wearing slacks and a sports coat and maintains a thin, carefully manicured mustache. I haven’t shaved in a few days, and I’m wearing mosquito-repellent sweatpants. Next to him, I look like a vacationing bohemian.

Bing Huang Hua points at me suddenly, and says, “We are best friends!”

As he says this, the other men carry away my bed and then disappear.

“You and I will have lunch together,” he says.

The thought of sharing a meal with this man, who may very well be cozying down on my mattress tonight, is not a pleasant one; however, a part of me is interested to see where the experience will go. I ask him to please wait while I put on some real pants. Then I follow him to a car waiting outside.

The restaurant is tucked back at the end of a long winding road. There are four of us—me, Bing Hua, and two men who mysteriously appeared from another car—and a waitress arrives with a single menu for us to share. One of Bing Huang Hua’s friends pours me a glass of baijiu, a potent rice alcohol, which I have no desire to drink but no energy to refuse. He offers a toast and we clink glasses. The liquor does not go down smoothly.

There is a saucer of sunflower seeds at the center of the table, and as I lean over to retrieve a handful, Bing Huang Hua touches me on the arm. He reaches into his sports coat and produces several bundles of 100-yuan notes, each more than an inch thick. On the table before me lies the equivalent of thousands of dollars. I am stupefied. Why is he showing me all this money? Though Bing Huang Hua is not quite smiling, it is clear that he is relishing this moment. Then he gathers the cash and tucks it back into his coat.

The men begin talking in Chinese, and I stare out at the falling rain in silence. I can feel the alcohol softening my mood. For the moment, I feel more amazed than upset. Pondering my present situation, I think: How did I wind up here? Since arriving in Hunan, this is a thought I have had many times.

Later that day, I take a walk into town. The air is warm. Streetlamps cast soft pink light over the street. Many people are out tonight: children playing, students eating street food, old couples sitting outside their homes. As always, people stare at me. From somewhere behind me, I hear a child shout the familiar words lao wai (foreigner). I am numb to these words and do not even consider turning around.

A few days later, Nigel, the other American teacher, tells me that he was also paid a visit by a group of mysterious repo men. We eventually learn through our liaisons that the school leaders decided to promote one of the school’s teachers to level of assistant headmaster. Evidently, his promotional package included our furniture.

I never do receive replacement furniture, so I learn to do without. My apartment is mostly empty space, and I sleep on a tiny bed. When I lie down, my ankles extend out over the edge of the mattress so that even when I wear thick socks to bed, I still wake up in the middle of the night with cold, dangling feet.

Months later, I run into Bing Huang Hua on the basketball court, where we are playing against each other in the faculty basketball tournament. (Our team comes away with a thumping victory, and goes on to win the championship.) But aside from Bing, I never see my other lunch companions again. Nor do I ever learn the story behind Bing’s mysterious stacks of cash.

It will only be a matter of time before the next misunderstanding, and maybe the next intrusion. Soon, I tell myself, I’ll be headed back to North Carolina. I know there are aspects of my life here that I will miss: talking to my students, eating five kuai mushroom noodles, answering crazy questions about life in the United States. But a part of me is very much looking forward to being home, where no one ever knocks, where my furniture is my own, and where life is rarely a surprise.


Posted on 2/11/2009 by

Dan Kallman

Dan Kallman

Joe, I've taught for 2 years in Shenzhen and I have to say my old school would never do that. In fact, if anything was every broken for my apartment, it was usually fixed or replaced in a day or two after I mentioned it. I'm not sure if there's someone at your school who you can talk to who can help you out. Where I was, the head of the English department had the job of helping me sort out whatever problems I had, and this would definitely qualify. I've also mentioned this issue to some Chinese friends, and they unanimously agreed that you're getting screwed with. It's not normal in China for someone to take your furniture, show you a wad of cash, and then go. My friends' opinions are that If you don't say anything, they'll continue to laugh at you. If you' stand up to them and demand replacement furniture they'll gain respect for you. Unfortunately, you do say mention months have gone by, so your statute of limitations for being outraged may have expired, but maybe you can think of some new circumstances to bring it up again, like frostbitten toes during winter. This is something I've seen before, although probably less in a city like Shenzhen, which has a well established foreign teacher network. Don't be afraid you'll tread on some cultural ground by saying, "hey, don't take my couch!" Otherwise you risk ending up like my friend who can't flush his toilet and showers with bottled water. Dan Kallman

Posted on 4/01/2009 by

Colin Jones

Colin Jones

I have taught for two and a half years in Chongqing, luckily for me I have been able to keep my home completely out of the reach of the two schools I have worked at. I was a little surprised to read that the people would just come and take the things without any notice but then again I have been here a total of nearly 6 years and nothing really surprises me anymore.

Posted on 8/26/2009 by

Brendan Harding

Brendan Harding

I've never taught in China, but it's a damn fine story. Well done!

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