Good teacher, bad teacher. A short story

A Chinese English department grows ever more dependent on a foreign teacher found not to its liking

“How did you do that?”

“Watch again.”

Fifty students craned their necks—some standing on chairs—as the teacher passed three walnut shells around the surface of a desk.

“Now look,” he said, turning up each shell to show there was nothing underneath and putting them in a line with a pea sitting in front of the first shell. He placed the center shell over the pea and pushed it forward. He moved the shell on his left to the middle, while shifting the center shell over to where the left shell had been. He overturned the center shell, magically revealing the pea that should have been under the left shell. The students gasped.

Now he switched the positions of the two shells, the shell in the middle again covering the pea, and moved the latter in a circular motion over to the right of the right-hand shell. Yet instead of being under the just-moved shell, the pea was discovered to be under the one on the right. He then shifted the shell on the far right to the middle. When he overturned the shells to the left and right, they were empty.

“How did you do that?” the students reiterated, exasperated.

“Where’s the pea?” the teacher asked.

“Under the center shell,” said one.

He turned it over and it too was empty. None of the shells had the pea. “Oops!” he quipped, as the pea rolled out of his sleeve onto the desk. He captured it with the center shell and moved it around in figure-eight motions with one hand while moving the other shells with his other hand. “Where’s the pea now?” he asked.

The students gave conflicting answers. One by one he lifted each shell and none held a pea.

“You’re hiding the pea again,” a student said.

“Well, let me confirm your accusation.” Once more he upturned them, each now revealing a pea.

“You’re cheating! How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Put those three peas under the shells.”

“What peas?” He turned the shells over and the peas were gone again. He stood back and put his hands in his pockets.

“The peas are in his pockets!” a student yelled.

The teacher turned out his pockets and tugged at them; they were empty. He tugged harder. Something snapped and hundreds of peas rained onto the floor through his pants. “Oh, no!” he sighed sheepishly. The class burst out laughing.

Only a few minutes into the first day of Introduction to Western Thought and the foreign teacher was already a hit. Though not with the English Department’s hiring faculty. Things had gotten off to a bad start when John Cobalt was picked up at the Guangzhou airport. He was found to have a magnificent mane of blond hair reaching down to his buttocks, unlike the short hair he had sported on the job application photo (a friend with experience in China had advised him to hide his hair in a ponytail or he would never get hired and lent him a collared shirt for the occasion).

On top of that this strange six-foot-five American dressed in pajamas (actually tunics, dashikis, and hemp drawstring pants) and went barefoot both in class and out on the street. He was additionally reported to be seen mixing with Africans off campus, of which there were admittedly many in this huge Chinese metropolis, if largely confined to Little Africa or Chocolate City, as the area was dubbed in the Chinese press.

If that wasn’t bad enough, some students complained to the Department Head they could make out Cobalt’s penis against the flimsy fabric of his pants, in its flaccid state to be sure, yet they considered this to be highly improper nonetheless. It was not entirely evident whether he even wore underwear. They thought he should be informed of this and requested to wear normal pants. The Department was too embarrassed to raise the issue with Cobalt, after just having completed the signing of the contract for the yearlong post, preferring to assume such could not possibly be the case.

As for the rest of the students, the man was funny and endearing and very good at the shell game.

“Some of you just now accused me of cheating,” he said. “Okay, let’s play fair. I will only use one pea and it will always be under one of the shells. You should have at least a 33% chance of winning just by guessing.”

This time only one student at a time was allowed to play, and she (English majors in Chinese universities were overwhelmingly female) had to put down money. Four students played in turn and each lost. Others couldn’t help volunteering guesses, but the pea was always under the remaining shell.

How do you do that?” the students exclaimed, giving up.

“Okay, I’m going to do something a magician will never do, which is to reveal the trick. Watch closely.”

He slowed down until they could begin to see the pea shoot from one shell to another by the flicking of his fingers. Alternatively, he pulled the pea out from under the back of a shell and captured it in his fingers before inserting it into another shell. He sped up again until the students could again no longer follow the pea.

“You can never win because I can remove or insert the pea under any shell at will, and through long practice I can do this faster than the human eye can see. But I’m still playing fairly, because the pea is always under one of the shells. The reason you never guess right, even by chance, is that I am using the old technique of misdirection to deceive your eyes into following the wrong shell.”

Cobalt handed the four students their money back. “I know gambling in your country is illegal,” he winked. “You won’t be so lucky if you play this game on the street or in the subway in Western cities, with the con artists. They not only hide the pea in their hands so that it is never actually under any of the shells, they also employ shills—shills, not shells—people who pretend to be playing to encourage you to play. A shill will throw money down and win or lose stupidly, in either case showing how easily you could win. Yet you won’t win. Even if you happen to guess right and the operator is caught with the pea, he might suddenly fold everything up, grab your money and run, claiming he has spotted the police coming. And you don’t want to confront the shill, who may be carrying a knife.”

“What’s the point of all this?” a student asked.

The same question was put to the foreign teacher upon being summoned to the Department Head’s office on the insistence of the students who had complained about his penis.

Oh, but look, Cobalt said, as he produced a syllabus with a detailed agenda for each week. The course covered major intellectual ideas in Western thought, just as he had been expressly hired to do, including Socrates on the examined life, Aristotle on the ethical life, and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, which should have been familiar to any Chinese who had studied Marxism: the process whereby labor wakes the slave up to consciousness and awareness of his servitude, while the master, lacking such consciousness, grows ever more dependent on the slave. Next was Kierkegaard on the individual’s heroic struggle against the group, against conformity, against the false certitude that undergirds all conventional faiths. And following that was Berkeley’s dismantling of human perception, Nietzsche’s deconstruction of conventional language, and Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault and others.

What is all this focus on “ideology”? the Head wanted to know. The students couldn’t see what the word had to do with a course specifically on Western thought. Cobalt explained that it was Western philosophy that first articulated the term. It was moreover a crucial concept in the teaching of critical thinking. Ideology was very simple, responded the Head; it was the guidelines for adhering to the core socialist values of the motherland. Well, not exactly, replied Cobalt.

“Ideology,” he continued, once the students were back in their seats, “is a very important concept, but not an easy one. It’s going to take the rest of the class today to explain it. In fact it’s going to take the whole semester to fully grasp it. And by then you will have acquired the most important knowledge you’ve ever had in your entire education. Who can tell me what the word means?”

No one raised their hand. He knew this was a typical response to any question posed to a group of Chinese students. They might know the answer but were averse to showing off in front of their classmates. On the other hand they might not know the answer. He called on a bright-eyed female sitting in front. “Saisai, right?” he said, looking at the names written on the seating map he had passed around at the start of class. “I see you’re one of the few who has not adopted an English name. Good for you! You have a beautiful name and it perfectly suits you. Ha! Some of you are giggling. You see? Independence counts. Character counts. Now, tell me, what does ideology mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, you guys are senior English majors at a top-level university. Your reading vocabulary is not all that far behind native English speakers your age. And you’ve all had political courses on Marxism. Marx wrote a whole book on the word, The German Ideology. You must have heard of it. Or not?”

“Ideology is the political program of the ruling class,” said a male student sitting in the back and reading out from an electronic dictionary.

“Okay, let’s start with this notion that ideology is something the ruling class does for us or to us. Go back to the con artists out on the street again. Some people are suckered into the game for the first time. Many others have seen the game and know it’s a con yet insist on playing and losing. It’s just like those pyramid schemes you’ve all heard about where people invest money in something that doesn’t exist and the scammers at the top run off with the money as soon as the scheme collapses. That’s a shell game on a large scale. They flourish everywhere and there’s no shortage of newcomers willing to throw their money away. Why are people so easily taken in, again and again?”

No response.

“It’s trust. What an amazing thing trust is. We tend to trust people even more than we love them. We have a lot of trust to give, and we give it freely, like freshly baked cookies we need to get rid of while they’re still warm. Many of us are carefree, even careless with trust, handing it out to strangers and friends alike, while others are more cautious and trust only those close to them. But is it really wise not to trust people? Think of the consequences if everyone ceased to trust. Society would come to a halt. We couldn’t get on. You wouldn’t come to class because you wouldn’t trust me enough to come, and I wouldn’t trust you enough to come. You would never marry because you couldn’t trust your fiancé enough to show up to the wedding. From the start neither of you would trust each other enough to show up for the first date. The simplest transactions would fail. You couldn’t take a taxi, because the driver wouldn’t trust you to pay for the fare. Restaurants wouldn’t trust customers to pay for the food and customers wouldn’t trust the food. The economy would collapse. You might call trust the most important thing in the world. But because trust is so freely given, bad people take advantage of it. That’s the price we pay for living in a trusting society.”

Such was the level of trust Cobalt soon established with the students that some began to wonder if he might have nefarious designs and was capable of taking advantage of them. This became a cause of concern due to the growing number of females flocking to his office after class. Incredibly, he learned all their names—all 100 seniors—after only three classes. The Chinese faculty knew the strange foreigner was teaching the art of memory and could demonstrate it by calling on students by name at will. Still, there was much speculation as to how this was possible; rumors swirled of hypnotism, magic spells and mind control.

Yet here’s the thing—and the reason why he was nonetheless able, so far that is, to ride out the suspicion. He had informed the students they were not permitted to visit his office alone but had to come in groups of two or more, the rationale being he simply wouldn’t have the time to accommodate individuals. As soon as two students were present, others could freely pile in and benefit from the questions and help. His door was always kept open to facilitate this, and the office became a small classroom.

As there was no tradition of the office hour on Chinese campuses, male teachers were never suspected of working on or “grooming” female students in private: teachers were never in their office to begin with. Only the most aggressive students dared buttonhole a teacher with a question or request for help after class, and if lucky received a few precious minutes of his time on the way to his car. Local faculty considered the foreigners’ practice of holding regular office hours odd indeed when they could otherwise be using their spare time to supplement their meager wages moonlighting at another job. But as lore of the proverbial lecherous foreign male teacher circulated and concern arose at the potential for abuse, some schools grouped the foreigners together in a “Foreign Experts Office” as a safeguard.

Cobalt further maintained his reputation by not giving out his cellphone number and requiring the students to query him via the course intranet instead of private email. In all, he would have been deemed irreproachable for a foreign teacher, one of the few in the Chinese faculty’s memory, but for one mystifying and troubling item that would not go away. While sitting on his office chair pulled out in the center of the room with the students surrounding him, his huge penis was again reported to be plainly visible under his tautly stretched pants, even more obvious than it was while standing at the front of the class, indeed extending halfway down his thigh and clearly without underwear, as stark as a stick of dynamite.

After the office-hour session in the semester’s fourth week, one of the students present followed him outside the building as he left. The roar of cicadas in the dark lent a rural feel to the campus, with its paucity of outdoor lighting.

“Oh, Saisai, it’s you. You want to talk to me?”

“May I?”

“Certainly.”

She kept silent.

“What is it?”

“I admire your going braless.”

“Braless? What do you mean?”

She gestured to his groin.

“Oh, there.”

“I wish I had the guts, but I don’t dare. You know you should be aware that some students hate you.”

“Hate me? Really? It’s that bad?”

“They’re frightened seeing you like that and don’t come to class anymore.”

“Yes, I know who they are.”

“I wouldn’t recommend failing them. It could lead to trouble for you.”

“They can have whatever grade they want. My job is to impart knowledge. Only interested students should be in the class. That’s the important thing.”

“Why don’t you wear underwear?”

“I wasn’t brought up that way. I had very free parents. We made our own clothes. I can’t stand the feeling of underwear or regular pants. I’ve tried them and find them extremely uncomfortable.”

“Where are you from?”

“LA.”

“Everyone can see your penis.”

“I have nowhere else to put it.”

“You say we are all taken in by ideology. But some people aren’t. I can understand and agree with what you’re saying, but other students—they can’t accept you. So there are differences among us. If everyone is a slave of ideology, why are there differences of opinion? Why are some students terrified at the sight of your penis but I’m not?”

“But you are also wearing a bra like all the other female students. You seem smart but are still bound by the prevailing ideology. Your mind is wrapped in a bra. Ideology is the collective bra. The key question is not, why I don’t wear underwear, but why everyone else does. And why for that matter is anyone worried about it?”

She stopped and faced him. “I want to touch you.”

“No, Saisai. You need to graduate first. And then maybe we can reconnect in my advanced course.”

She withdrew her hand from his pants. “Your advanced course?”

“This course is only the first. I don’t need to say anything more for now. Anyway, you’re not ready. After you graduate, my advanced course will continue in my apartment. You won’t be the only student and there will be others.”

“I want to come.”

“Goodnight. See you next week.”

I’m sure all of you know what I want to say next: ideology is the big shell game. That’s correct. And you’re probably thinking, so what? What’s the problem? We’re doing fine. Nobody’s taking our money or cheating us. Life has been good to us. Well, let me ask you a question, said Cobalt. You male students in the class, why are you all sitting together in the back two rows, where you will continue to sit with absolute predictability in every class? Did the Department order you to sit there? Of course, not. Yet have you really chosen to sit there of your own free will? Let me guess, you’re close to the door and it’s easy to slip into class late without me seeming to notice, and you can be the first to leave as well. It’s cool to sit in the back where I can’t see you clearly—like wearing sunglasses. It’s easy to bury yourself in your cellphones and iPads. You’re used to it. You’re way outnumbered by the girls and embarrassed to take the stage closer to the front and try to compete with them.

It’s the only way we can compare the girls, said one, to general giggling.

Yes, you have a hundred logical reasons to sit in the back. Why not be more creative, sitting in a different place, along the far sides, for instance, or along the aisles, so the girls have to squeeze past you? Or why not regularly sit next to the most beautiful girls, as American college boys do? Why not choose a new girl to flatter each time and surround her in a tight square? It’s a large room with many empty seats. Why not arrange yourselves diagonal rows, like chess pieces? Something is causing you always to sit in the back unfailingly, like magic. What’s the trick behind the scenes that’s doing this?

The class was laughing by now.

The thing about ideology is that it’s sort of a con but there’s no conman. Recall that I never conned you or took your money when I showed you the shell game. The role I acted was that of the magician. The only money he takes is the entrance fee for his performance, and I didn’t even ask for that. Instead, I showed you the trick. It’s not a con because there’s no cheater, at least none you can point to or identify. The trick is the same in all three cases—whether I act the con artist, the magician, or the teacher and teach you its secret. Whether I play fairly or not it’s one and the same trick, requiring the same skill and dexterity. But even though it’s an honest trick, it’s still at your expense.

What’s happening is much more profound than merely being swindled out of your money. The big con is directing all of you to think and act alike. What is this trick that’s keeping the male students in the back, the most active females in the front, and the rest of you females in the middle, without being forced to sit there and regardless of where you might really want to sit, and with the same reliable outcome as a properly performed shell game? Think about this for our next class.

When the students faced ahead but gazed sideways, their minds spinning in thought like jackpot wheels, Cobalt had achieved his purpose for the day.

The following September, the Department Head’s own head was spinning. Unbelievable rumors had been swirling his way like the first few autumn leaves, rumors he did not want to hear, concerning the foreign teacher, who had been rehired and was about to start another school year. The phone call from the Foreign Affairs Office did nothing to dispel the rumors.

“Please don’t do this to us, I beg you, Director Li. . . . We can go over the details at the meeting. I promise you’ll see things differently when we get everything out on the table. All right, see you later.”

Hanging up the phone, he stared out the window. He had to admit whatever the truth of the matter, it was largely the Department’s own doing that had gotten them into this bind. If in retrospect he could see how the pieces came together, he and the rest of them had been too immersed in their ways to have foreseen or prevented it.

Chinese universities came in two varieties with regard to the attitude and treatment of their foreign teachers, “hands-on” and “hands-off,” the former hiring foreigners for positive and the latter for negative reasons. Positive reasons might include the teacher’s qualifications, teaching experience, academic knowledge and expertise, etc. Negative reasons might be summed up succinctly as the foreigner rubbish bin into which the most detested courses were swept, namely the writing courses.

Writing courses required teachers to spend time marking student compositions, ideally that is. Chinese faculty were accustomed to walking into class, plopping the textbook down on the lectern and reading from it verbatim; at the end of the semester they rushed through the grading of the final exams and that was it. They were loath to spend any more time on their courses. Junior faculty who were forced to teach writing refused to take on more than one section of fifty students per semester and scarcely glanced at the compositions they assigned (the students in turn plagiarized their work from the internet in the secure knowledge their teachers would never notice).

Foreign teachers, by contrast, were known to pore over their students’ papers week after week without ever seeming to mind the long hours and low pay. Thus it was like hitting the jackpot whenever a school latched onto one of these bizarrely dedicated foreigners happy to do the Department’s drudgework.

Cobalt’s school pushed the envelope of exploitation as far as they could. Once it was discovered how trusting and malleable foreign teachers were, a routine was worked out. The job was initially described as two sections each of fifty students of Writing and two sections each of 100 students of Introduction to Western Thought per week. When the new foreign hire arrived and the contract was signed, a “small change” was made to the teaching schedule, involving the doubling of the number of writing students per section. The total number students now jumped from 300 to 400. Mind you (reassured the Department Head), you don’t have to give the students a lot of writing to do; a paragraph every week or two is fine.

Now with 200 writing students on their hands, twice as many as had originally been advertised, a few new teachers felt trapped and objected. Too far in to get out and already set up in their new apartment and still jet-lagged, after an angry day or two they usually succumbed (the recalcitrant were reminded there was a 30,000-yuan penalty for breach of contract—equaling six months pay).

The hands-off approach did hold one advantage for the foreign teachers: they were left largely alone to do their own thing. As long as the students gave them passable evaluations, the Department had little interest in what or how they were teaching, indeed would just as soon not have to deal with them in person again.

In Cobalt’s case, being disregarded had another consequence. General lassitude had led to an unintentional communication breakdown between the Department and the Foreign Affairs Office, neither informing the Foreign Experts Guesthouse of their latest foreign hire. Empty suites tended to be turned over to business associates from the overflow at the university hotel. They had no choice but to find off-campus housing for Cobalt and swallow the extra expense that would involve. As soon as he was put up and conveniently out of the way, they forgot about him.

Until the rumors of the following summer. The Foreign Affairs Office became curious and nervous in equal measure. So they notified Cobalt of the “good news” that the nice apartment originally intended for him in the Foreign Guesthouse was available again and a van would be sent to pick up his things as soon as he was packed and ready.

What? Cobalt exclaimed. He was quite comfortable in his current apartment, thank you, and had no desire or intention to move out.

Perhaps there was a misunderstanding, they responded, for the university required Foreign Experts to reside on campus; his was an exceptional and temporary situation and it had now been resolved. The Chinese like to convey orders in a polite way and avoid open confrontation whenever they can. Cobalt thought they were backing down, when they would soon be tightening the screws.

But then the English Department inadvertently complicated things by conveying a surprising order of their own. The new female foreign teacher they had hired to teach writing to fifty juniors balked when this figure had mysteriously quadrupled upon her arrival and hopped right on a plane back home. They were desperate for someone to fill her place and Cobalt was the logical choice. If he could just take on 100 of those juniors, they said, Chinese faculty could handle the rest.

Springing on him 500 students for the new semester combined with the sudden ultimatum to leave his apartment was too much for Cobalt. This was a matter of principle. He gave them an ultimatum of his own or he was quitting: double his salary and let him stay in his apartment. This was most awkward news for the Foreign Affairs Office and things were stalemated for a week, until more rumors of strange goings-on at the foreigner’s flat flowed in and the meeting with the Department was convened.

Director Li of the Foreign Affairs Office went over the details of what they knew. “Some of Cobalt’s students from last semester have approached us claiming that a number of their classmates are attending weekly ‘naked yoga massage’ sessions at his place. It may be some kind of sexual cult.”

“What in the world is naked yoga massage?” said the Department Head.

“We don’t know exactly. The students informing us heard from others who were also not present. We haven’t been able to track down any eyewitness accounts. We’ve examined all of Cobalt’s private emails and gotten hold of his phone records from the cellphone provider but nothing turned up either. We agree that asking him point blank might backfire and he’d run or simply deny it. We want to send someone to his apartment during one of these sessions to see it firsthand. We thought about staking out his building to wait for a group of these girls to arrive and then knocking on his door, but that could also backfire if we mistimed it and nothing unusual was going on. Our cover would be blown.

“The best option, we feel, is to infiltrate his group. I already have an ex student of his in mind who would be willing to do this. Recall that since the Professor Ma affair in 2010, ‘group licentiousness’—three or more people having sex—is illegal. If anything illegal is going on, she could alert us by SMS and we could catch him in the act. I think you can agree this business is outrageous and could be disastrous for all of us and for the university if it got out: a foreign teacher brainwashing graduating students into a sex cult. If it came out that we had known about it all along and hushed it up, it would be in the news everywhere, a big scandal. We might all lose our job.”

“I agree it’s pretty serious and intolerable if the allegations are true,” replied the Head. “However, we have several problems here. First of all, it seems from what you are saying and what you told me earlier on the phone that it’s only his former students that are involved. All of them have now graduated and as of July no longer have any connection to the university. At the same time, none of this is happening on campus but in a privately rented flat. True, Cobalt is employed by us but what he happens to do in his residence with people over whom we no longer have authority is a private matter, as far as we are concerned. Even if illegal, we don’t know about it, never knew about it and don’t have to know about it. After all, they are just rumors. Our trying to collect any hard evidence itself might amount to illegal activity. It’s potentially only a matter between Cobalt and the police, not us.

“Secondly, as you also noted, not a single student of Cobalt’s has ever lodged a personal grievance. The only complaints are about his strange way of dressing, which some students consider obscene but which is not strictly speaking so but merely in bad taste. No student has complained of any sort of harassment or unwanted sexual attention, nor has he ever been seen in his office or anywhere on campus alone with a female student. His teaching is always relevant. He has never broached the topic of sex or anything else of an immoral or offensive nature. He has never brought up sensitive political topics or disparaged China. The course evaluations by the students are the highest ever received by any teacher that I can recall. Not only can his teaching not be faulted, you also know about his incredible achievement in significantly raising the average exam score of the Band 8 Test for English Majors, which no other teachers have been able to do. Do you know what an accomplishment that is and how it could raise the profile of our school? I’ve already been in discussion with interested partners who want to go into business with Cobalt in developing this art of memory of his. We could make a lot of money from it. No parents have complained but rather are all stunned at these improved exam scores.

“The other teachers in the English Department faculty are happy about Cobalt because they no longer have to teach Writing. He’s agreeing to take on 300 writing students! That’s superhuman. And he’s doing an amazing job at it. Some of them have shown me how their writing has improved and I was shocked. They used to write about silly, pointless things like their fondness for the red-brick buildings on campus, when none of the buildings on campus have red bricks! They regurgitate the same palaver year after year without even knowing what they’re writing and then this guy comes along and they’re doing these incredible learned comparisons between Chinese and Western philosophy.

“By the way, the rumors were obviously started by those ex-students of his who didn’t like him. You told me who they are and I know who they are. Those who went to you are the same ones who are staying on in the postgraduate program. One of them is also a Party member trying to curry favor with you people. They also happen to be the same students whose TEM-8 scores did not improve. Now, we don’t yet know this for a fact, but we can guess that the students whose TEM-8 scores were the highest got high scores because they were enthusiastic about his teaching and motivated by him. They are probably among those who are now going to his apartment. If that’s the case, what can we do? What kind of a case do we have? And why rock the boat when it’s a win-win situation for everyone anyhow?”

The Head’s arguments provisionally won out and it was agreed to sit on the problem until any accusations of a more blatant or egregious nature surfaced. Cobalt kept his job and his apartment. More rumors of an increasingly particular nature did spread among the students, yet their only effect was to draw more and more into his Western Thought classes (now combined into a single class in the university amphitheater to accommodate the 100 students and numerous student and teacher auditors), and thus into his orbit, and he soon became a campus legend.

The process of gaining entry to his “advanced course,” however, remained a mystery and a great source of frustration for many, though it did become known that having graduated and left the campus for good was the first requirement, and only then if you were lucky and deemed trustworthy, you got approached by a fellow graduate for an introduction.

Some rumors claimed only a handful of girls had the courage to attend and even then neither nudity nor any kind of sexual activity took place at the sessions, because preliminary training was required, beginning with lengthy sessions in the art of silence and meditation. Yoga, nudity, and massage were to be eased into later, separately at first and then in combination. Only when one stage was collectively mastered could initiates proceed to the next.

Other rumors circulated that simultaneous naked yoga massage was already in full swing, and the detailed nature of these rumors lent them weight. For instance, the purpose of this peculiar form of yoga was said to be a method of releasing and purging toxins from the system. Only by massaging oiled muscles in a tensed state while in a yoga posture could noxious energy be expelled or “exploded” from the body. There were rumors of padded walls and lots of yelling and laughing; so many attending that there wasn’t enough space and rotating groups had to come on different nights; and a waiting list of eager newcomers on top of that. Those who claimed to have encountered authentic participants barely recognized them, so transformed and open, so kaifang, had they become. It was said that no one was ever recruited to join but begged for an introduction after meeting these changed women.

But as for talking about what was going on, all were mum. You got in or didn’t, and Cobalt remained as mysterious years later as he had been at the start.

 *     *     *

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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