Thursday, November 1

Easy Come, Easy Glo

A few days ago, when I woke up from the fog built of travel, jet-lag, 24-hour shifts and one extremely vomit-laden and wail-ridden L.A. lay-over (during which I discovered--after riding all over town in the company of a jovially misogynist Eritrean taxi driver--that when I tell my patients that it should be easy to go out and fill the midnight prescription I just wrote them, they are one hundred percent correct in their assumption, which I have gleaned from the daggers flying silently out of their eyes in my general direction, that I am a lying con-artist of the very worst pants-flaming stripe), it was to the Princess telling me a story.

It was a true story, and requires only this background: That day they had gone on a field trip.  There are two, and exactly two, field trips each year.  One in Fall and one in Spring.  They are called Fall Trip and Spring Trip, and are so much a part of Shanghai school life that on that same day, when I told my driver (who was born in Shanghai but banished to the countryside for twenty years during the mess surrounding the Cultural Revolution, and since then has been busy building a car-service empire) that “TODAY KIDS LEAVE SCHOOL AND GO SOMEWHERE TOGETHER.  VERY FUN!” He responded immediately with “啊!秋游!” the forgotten words for fall trip. 

As I had to admit to the taxi-driver, I didn’t actually know where the kids were going, but, judging from last year’s experience, I figured it would have an amusement level approaching the debauched.  Last Spring, as you may recall, they went to something called the Shanghai Animation and Comic Museum, where the Princess spent a fair amount of time and money attempting to coax a prize out of one of those carnie claw-grab games.  Unsure at the time whose money it was, since I had not provided any, I let it ride, but I worried that maybe they were the only kids who didn’t bring their own, and had been floated by another kid or, worse, by the teachers.  So, just in case it was the done thing, I tucked twenty RMB, or about three dollars, into each girl’s bag before this trip.

All had gone well for the first part of the day.  The girls got on the luxury coach-liners the school procures for such trips (which will have forever spoiled them for the green-benched yellow cans they are doomed to if and when we return to the U.S.), and when they alit, the Princess recounted, they found themselves in an amusement park.  The group was just sitting down to enjoy a performance there, when along came a woman hawking glo-sticks. 

The Princess, having just had an extended pleading session with MTH wherein he resolutely declined the opportunity (provided daily by the holiday swag-stand they’ve set up in our compound’s clubhouse) to purchase just such a glo-stick, and with the money burning a hole in her Barbie mini-messenger bag, seized the moment and flagged the woman down.  She fished out her twenty kuai and bought one for herself.

At that point her best friend, the Little Martinet--who I can personally attest is no slouch at the pleading game--began a session of her own, whereat the Princess, lacking her father’s iron will but in full possession of her mother’s pecuniary heedlessness, immediately offered to procure one for her.  The Little Martinet, who, (the Rooster informs me with heartbreaking envy) routinely gets the highest score on their math tests, had no trouble figuring out which was the best value glo-stick for her, and requested that the Princess buy her the largest one. 

The Princess agreed to this plan, while simultaneously becoming jealous, since the one she was buying for the Little Martinet was larger than the one she, forced to weigh glo-stick size against the amount of her own personal outlay, had chosen to buy for herself. 

I am proud to report that rather than tell the Little Martinet that perhaps she should be satisfied with a smaller stick, it being free and all, the Princess elected to buy two of the larger ones, and pawned the smaller one off on The Rooster, who was initially thrilled at the unexpected windfall, since it would never in one million years have occurred to her to independently make such a purchase.

Then, apparently, several things happened simultaneously.  The Rooster noted the size differential between her stick and those acquired by the Princess and the Little Martinet, and the other kids all noticed the glo-sticks.  In rapid succession, the Rooster had given away the smaller glo-stick, pulled her money out of her little Adidas backpack and purchased a larger one, given that one away, and then she and the Princess spent all the rest of their money providing glo-sticks to what had, naturally, turned into a scrum of their classmates.  The Rooster had just realized, to her dismay, that she had neglected to retain a single glo-stick for herself, when this scrum attracted the attention of Wang laoshi, who, in the Princess’ retelling, swooped down upon them with great vengeance and furious anger, or at least with a very clear containment strategy, and confiscated all the glo-sticks. 

“Wang laoshi told us we should not have so much money,” the Princess told me, which, in retrospect, is quite clear.

The following school day, apparently, the teacher asked everyone in the class who had purchased a glo-stick to stand up.  All the guilty parties stood, including the poor Rooster, caught up in a scandal larger than herself.  The children then had to troop, one by one, up to the desk, where they had one of the cherished stamps in their xiao benzi, redeemable in aggregate for stickers, which are in turn periodically redeemable in aggregate for cartoon-spangled school supplies, slashed out. 

Whether it’s because I’m a foreigner or the belief in personal responsibility is so strong here, no one--not the teacher, not another kid, nor another parent--has contacted me regarding this incident.  The Princess told my mom that one of the girls in the class asked her, marveling at the whole episode, “Since when did you become a bank?”

The Princess’ telling was off-hand, and she seemed at peace with the whole event, sad only that her period of blissful glo-stick ownership had been so brief.  The Rooster, now, she lays low.  I have tried to probe, but have mainly gotten unanswerable questions in return: “Why does Wang laoshi think the stamps are SOOOO important?”  “Why didn’t she TELL us we weren’t allowed to do that?”  “Even though you tell me the stamps are not very important, I just can’t help feeling like they are.” 

Which last is not really a question, except that when it’s said with the patented Rooster lip-quiver and voice-quaver, the combination just begs you for a way to resolve this paradox.  She did give me one straight answer, when I tried to gently probe her reasons for giving away all her money, as part of the groundwork for a careful discussion I planned but never did have about the extraordinarily fine--and possibly mythical--line between generosity and stupidity.

“Why,” I asked the Rooster, “did you keep on buying glo-sticks for the other kids even when you didn’t have one for yourself?” 

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know.  They just seemed so EAGER for them.”