Trundling along on a pair of four-wheeled roller skates, I barely noticed the oppressive heat. Chinese electro-pop issued from the speakers suspended from the ceiling as Jishou natives zoomed by, glancing at the sweat-soaked foreigner wobbling through the roller rink.
The rink was a typical amusement in Jishou, a small city in China’s southeastern Hunan Province and the unlikely destination of our small delegation of American students, there to teach an English summer program. The city’s main attraction was the Qianzhou “Ancient” City, a local tourist destination constructed in 2008. Even newer was the glittering BBG Mall, a white monolith rising high above the city’s soot-stained sprawl. On the street, taxis and mopeds played chicken in an intersection by the Dong River. Young people sporting T-shirts and tight jeans walked briskly though the city, absorbed in their smartphones. They skirted local farmers in traditional dǒulì straw hats and piles of watermelons and peppers arraigned on the cracked tile sidewalk. At a tiny restaurant nearby, college students ate plates of fried rice as the proprietors scraped woks over coal stoves in the street. In the river park, the elderly kept an eye on their grandchildren while playing mahjong or quietly singing songs of romance.
Just outside the city center, the squat, Cultural Revolution-era buildings of The Normal College of Jishou University overlooked the crowded streets. I spent most days at the school, explaining verb conjugations and struggling through Ray Bradbury and William Stafford to an eager college class of twenty or so aspiring English teachers. The Normal College primarily dealt in teacher training, drawing mostly from the ranks of the millions of mid-to-low scorers on the Gaokao, China’s country-wide college entrance exam. For many, this school had been their only option. Still, there were exceptions. Mindy, a daughter of migrant factory workers, woke up at five o’clock every morning to practice English on her own, mostly by reading novels. She was not much for The Great Gatsby, but she had cried reading The Little Prince. She once told me about getting kicked out of her middle school for drinking and fighting. That night, she had lain on her bed silently, listening to huge rats scuttling on the floor beneath her. In her next school, she was top of her class.
After a couple of weeks of summer classes, I agreed to join Mindy and a few of the other students for an afternoon trip to the local roller rink. The rink itself was located on the roof of a mostly abandoned shopping mall. The street-level shops were open, but the next six levels up were gutted, bare concrete left exposed to the elements. The mall had recently been part of the Jishou’s commercial center. But, with the construction of the BBG Mall two years earlier, business had dried up. Only twenty years old, the building had outlived its usefulness, discarded by the growing city.
Walking up the flights of stairs, the empty floors were silent, strangely removed from the hectic streets just yards away. Already, the building was showing signs of decay. On some of the upper floors, young couples sat side-by-side, come for a few minutes of solitude. They stared at us as we climbed past: a couple sweaty foreigners surrounded by a dozen laughing college girls.
Beneath the rink’s sweltering aluminum canopy, I strapped on a pair of hard-worn skates and cruised the floor in wobbling circles, shouting with my students over electronic dance tracks. Conversation was almost impossible, and I began watching the rink’s other patrons, mostly teenagers, who seemed more at home at the rink than the college students who had come with me. Loudest were the younger girls. They wore high-waisted jean shorts and shirts with nonsensical English expressions. Four or five at a time would link arms and circle the rink, shrieking over the thumping music.
The boys were quieter. They were middle schoolers perhaps, and wore tight-fitted T-shirts and long skinny shorts. Sure of their routine, they ducked and hurtled backwards across the pitted wooden floor. Their trips to the roller rink were not an excursion, but a ritual.
Based on the composition of my students, I had inferred that Jishou was experiencing a major shortage of young men. There were about ten female students for every one male at the college. The girls called them “pandas” for their rarity. Of course, this trend had more to do with the mandate of the Normal College then the demographics of Jishou itself. Primary school teaching was a profession still delegated almost exclusively to women in China. Still, it was better than the alternative. Mindy once told me about her previous summer working at the same factory as her parents. “I did the same thing every single day,” she said, “I don’t remember much from that time.”
I stopped to try to talk with Mindy as she inched her way along the outside of the rink, clutching the railing with both hands.
“I got it!” the tiny twenty-year-old shouted, waving me away, “Go away, I’m getting it! Don’t worry about me!” I obliged her, leaving her to eye the next section of railing with apprehension.
I looked over at the younger boys again. A group of them were performing tricks for each other, jumping in the air or sliding in contorted positions. As I watched, three of the boys made a circle. They linked arms and pushed off, spinning faster and faster until the centrifugal force hurled one from the group. He slid along the floor for a few feet and stood up grinning. The tallest member of the group laughed and flicked his half-finished cigarette, arcing it ten feet through the air. The third was already looking down at an alert on his phone.
I am still unsure of what it is to come of age in Jishou. Lewis, one of my more contemplative students, is twenty-one years old. He has a girlfriend whom he will probably marry and his favorite television show is an American program called “Good Luck Charlie.” He says that he knows that it’s for kids, but that he likes it anyway.
Leaning on the railing, I glanced again at the middle-school boys cutting arcs across the wooden floor. They might have been the bad boys of their school. Their mothers probably didn’t know they smoked cigarettes on weekends. I couldn’t help but imagine what they might be thinking. Perhaps they dreamed of reaching the world they saw on TV. Or maybe they were happy to just live for this hot summer day.
In my last weeks in China, Mindy, Lewis, and others told me they would not be happy to live out their lives as schoolteachers in Xiangxi Autonomous Prefecture. Their circumstances had placed them in a vocational school, but others had broken the mold before. A former Normal College student had been accepted to a prestigious graduate school. He was writing an anthropology dissertation on minority ethnic groups in Hunan Province. Mindy told me that she would find a way to get a Masters degree in psychology. Others wanted to set out for Shanghai or Guangzhou and land a well-paid job in one of the big businesses: import-export, finance, electronics. They wanted to make a life where they could afford to see the world, to visit America and Europe. Perfect English was the first prerequisite to land those dream jobs. For them, this summer was the chance to learn English from Americans whose language was not a product of hours of memorization, but a birthright. I began to see why some students hung on to every word in class and demanded explanation for every red line on their papers. This opportunity could change their lives.
Still, some weren’t so obsessed with defying the odds. Most students at the Normal College had not enrolled in the English summer program. One student dropped out in July for a summer job selling beauty products. In the months after I returned to the United States, many of my former students would graduate and take elementary school teaching positions throughout Hunan. For every student like Mindy at The Normal College, there were dozens of less ambitious ones for whom the life of a country schoolteacher would be enough. The children were a handful, they would tell me, but the job was not so bad.
As I was leaving the rink on that day, I turned back, spotting the same middle-school boys from before. They were spinning circles again, their grins marked by the lit ends of their cheap cigarettes.