Printed from WriteWords -

In Translation

by  LMJT

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2014
Word Count: 998
Summary: For this week's travel themed flash.

When I moved to Shanghai, I bought a bike for my short commute from the guest house to the sixth form where I would be teaching English.

In those first few weeks of September, as I adjusted to the time difference, I cycled around the busy streets to clear my mind before bed and familiarise myself with my surroundings.

The ride became a nightly routine and it was toward the end of my first term that I saw one of my better students – Ron – leaving a supermarket with his mother.

I slowed down and stepped off my bike, welcoming the distraction. I still didn’t really know anyone in the area and it was comforting to see Ron’s familiar face in a sea of strangers.

‘Hi Ron,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Sir.’

‘I’m Simon,’ I said to his mother. ‘One of Ron’s teachers.’

‘She doesn’t speak English,’ Ron said. ‘She can’t understand.’

He turned to his mother and they spoke in rapid Cantonese.

‘She’s saying you should give me extra lessons,’ he said. ‘If you can come to our house on Saturdays, she’s happy to pay you.’

This struck me as strange since Ron wasn’t in need of extra tuition, but the thought of additional income was instantly appealing. I was beginning to like Shanghai and hoped to stay beyond my placement, which meant making more money.

‘Well, if you think that would help,’ I replied.  

Ron smiled. ‘We can start next weekend, yes?’

‘No problem,’ I nodded, flattered that my newfound teaching skills seemed to be appreciated.

On Friday afternoon, as class cleared out and I packed away my books, Ron stayed behind.

‘You are still coming to my house tomorrow?’ he asked hesitantly, as if I’d have changed my mind.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘10am, wasn’t it? I’m pretty flexible at the moment though, so if you need to make it later-,’

‘10am is fine,’ he said, handing me a neatly folded piece of paper. ‘This is my address. And my cell number. Text me when you’re outside.’

Ron’s family’s house was in Pudong, an affluent area of Shanghai, and I followed him down a palatial hallway into a sleek, expansive kitchen where sunlight streamed through French windows and across sparkling marble worktops.

‘This house is incredible, Ron,’ I said. ‘Have you always lived here?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was my father’s project for years. Would you like tea?’

‘Please,’ I replied. ‘So, what does your father do?’

‘He’s a Chief Executive for HSBC. He works in Beijing now. We never see him.’

He handed me my tea, then gestured to a door at the side of the kitchen and led me into a study. The walls lined with shelves of books of all different genres, but all in English.

‘Have you read all of these?’ I asked.

‘Those I have read.’ He pointed to the first two shelves. ‘The others I will read sometime.’

I looked at him. ‘You know, your English is excellent, Ron. Surely you could find more enjoyable ways to spend your weekend than this.’

‘Actually, I don’t have a lot do at the weekend, Mr Harris.’

I flinched at his honesty, but laughed at the formality. At 22, I was just five years his senior and the idea of being an authoritative figure was ridiculous. 

‘Please, don’t call me Mr Harris outside the classroom. Simon is fine.’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Simon.  Yes, that’s better. Simon.’

He held my gaze as he repeated my name and, for the first time, I saw self-assurance in his eyes. Though his grades were consistently high, in class he was always subdued and, at lunchtimes, always alone in the library, never with friends.

I looked away, busying myself with textbooks.

‘I thought we could start by looking at the piece you wrote about the future,’ I said. ‘It’s strong. You just need to watch your use of tense in places.’

We spent the morning reviewing his essay on the journalistic career he aspired to, but – aside from a few typos and grammatical errors - I didn’t feel like I was teaching him anything new.

We hadn’t agreed a time to finish, so when it got to midday, I said, ‘Well, I think that’s enough.’

‘You can’t stay longer?’ Ron asked.

His neediness startled me. ‘I have some chores to get on with this afternoon,’ I lied.

‘But you’ll come again next week?’

‘Of course,’ I replied as he handed me 500 RMB. ‘If that’s what you want.’

‘That is what I want,’ Ron said. ‘Very much.’

These Saturday sessions carried on until the end of term when Ron told me his father had been sent to London for work and he, Ron, and his mother had been invited to spend Christmas in the UK.

When I cleared away my books, he gave me a bottle of wine and a card and said, ‘Please open this in private.’

I stopped in a café on the way back to my room and opened the card he had given me. On the front was a white fortune cat, and inside the card, in his neat script, he had written:

‘’Dear Simon,

Thank you for bettering my English. You have been patent and I appreciate your time.


Then, underneath, in the same printed writing:

‘’Nothing is more curious and awkward than the relationship of two people who only know each other with their eyes. Who meet and observe each other daily, even hourly and who keep up the impression of disinterest either because of morals or because of a mental abnormality.’
A Death in Venice, Thomas Mann.’’

I read the excerpt twice before really understanding its implication and, over the Christmas period, prepared what I would say to Ron when I saw him in the New Year.

But I needn’t have troubled myself because he didn’t return to school.

I never heard from him again and even now, 10 years on, I wonder what he’s doing.