New Chinese Teacher
“We have a teacher for you,” Mrs. Murray said. “She is Chinese, and from a very prominent family here in Tsingtao. Her name is Mrs. Djung. I have told her all about you, and she is looking forward to meeting you. She has two very lovely daughters.”
It was several weeks before the Murrays left and I spent as much time with them as I could. Col. Roston agreed to my continuing with my studies and had Stevenson extend my gate pass. With Mrs. Djung’s address written in both English and Chinese characters I set out one day soon after the Murrays left to meet my new teacher. I wanted to take a rickshaw but none of the rickshaw boys could read so I walked. I knew the general location of the address, along the seawall that I had often walked after my Chinese classes.
Often on my long walks from the Murrays into town I wondered who lived in these grand stone houses that faced the sea. They had to be rich. Some of the houses had shiny black rickshaws parked in front. I soon found the house I was looking for, set back from the road behind a high stonewall. Like on most walls in Tsingtao, along the top, pieces of glass were embedded in the concrete. Stone steps led up to the doorway. I rang a bell and listened. I could hear it ring inside the house.
An amah in black-and-white dress opened the door. I said in my best Chinese that I would like to see the lady of the house. She put her hands to her mouth and chuckled. I was used to this by now. Chinese didn’t expect white men to speak their language, and if they did, they laughed. It was annoying. I was about to admonish her when Mrs. Djung appeared. She wasn’t anything like I expected. She was quite stunning, a very proper Mandarin Chinese lady.
She was, indeed, handsome, and very dignified. She was unusually tall, for a Chinese, standing about five-eight or nine. Her hair had strands of gray and was drawn back into a bun. She wore octagonal glasses, without rims. She reached out her hand and smiled. It was a frozen smile, like on a porcelain figurine.
“Mrs. Murray has had nothing but nice things to say about you,” she said. Her accent was very British. Her coldness vanished, and I found I was beginning to like her. As she led me into the house, still holding my hand, two young women appeared from another room. “These are my daughters, Mae and Rose,” Mrs. Djung said.
“Mother is very pleased that a foreign student is coming to spend time with us,” the girl named Mae said.
She was dressed in western clothes, a woolen plaid skirt and a heavy knit sweater. Like her sister Rose, who was dressed much the same, she was very pretty. I stumbled for words and didn’t quite know what to say. I could feel the palms of my hands grow wet, and I wished to drop Mrs. Djung’s hand.
“Mae is right,” Mrs. Djung said. “We are looking forward to having you with us. So come in and sit down and tell us about yourself.” I explained briefly about my studies with Mrs. Murray, and we conversed for a bit in Chinese. At first I was embarrassed, speaking Chinese, but that soon passed when neither she nor her daughters laughed. The conversation returned to English, and it was obvious they wanted to practice their English.
“We are having an early dinner,” Mrs. Djung said, “and we hope that you can stay. We can get better acquainted, and tomorrow we can begin our lessons.” I said I could stay. “Dr. Fenn will be here. He’s a professor at the University of Shanghai, visiting Tsingtao for a few days. You will like him.” “Maybe you will be more comfortable in the study,” Rose said. “We have to leave you alone while we get ready for dinner. Mother supervises the kitchen. We are having northern Chinese food. I hope you like Chinese food, do you?”
The study was paneled in dark mahogany with fine oriental rugs on the floor. Behind a glassed-in bookcase were rows of books. I glanced at the titles, some Chinese, a few French but mostly they were English. Several photograph albums sat on an oval table near the windows. “You can look at the albums if you wish,” Rose said and left. I was alone. I felt like I was ma museum.
I was curious about the albums. There were three, and I began looking at them starting with the largest one first. Captions under the photographs were in English. The shots were unlike any I had seen before. There was a beach scene, two people walking up a sandy beach, but you could not see their faces. The photograph was taken from the back and showed their footprints in the sand. Another was a silhouette of two people sitting on a wall, facing one another, but they were totally in the dark, and again you could not see their faces. The background revealed an open sea with a setting sun reflecting upon the water. Junks in the far distance left their wakes upon the still water. These were not like the photographs we Marines took-photographs of us standing posed in front of temples, sitting in rickshaws, clowning around at the beach, and with us always facing the camera. These were so different. Whoever it was, they took photographs of details rather than whole subjects. There was a close-up of the peeling bark on a tree. Another one was the crevasse between two rocks, with a blade of grass growing in the opening. They reminded me of pictures you see sometimes in LIFE magazine, when the photographer tries to be creative.
Dinner was a formal setting: napkins in silver holders, cutlery laid out in proper order next to the plates, two types of drinking glasses, both cut crystal. There was no revolving centerpiece like I had seen in most restaurants. When we were seated, with Mrs. Djung at one end of the table and Dr. Fenn at the other, the servants began to arrive with platters of food. Mrs. Djung explained each dish. They were delicious. I favored most, a dumpling called djow-dze. Mrs. Djung was very pleased when I had several servings.
Dr. Fenn was very polite. He spoke slowly, choosing each word carefully. He was a frail man. He was dressed in a long robe, like the Chinese gentlemen I had seen in cabarets, with wide sleeves in which he often slipped his hands when he wasn’t using them. His fingers were long and delicate, and his wrists so slender they appeared they might break if he picked up a weight. He didn’t talk directly to me but through someone else. “How does Mr. Stephens like Tsingtao?” he would ask Mrs. Djung, and the others at the table would all turn to me for my answer. I didn’t mind. Maybe it was the custom, I being the youngest one there. I found it rather amusing.
“Does Dr. Fenn live in Shanghai?” I asked Mrs. Djung, and everyone turned to Dr. Fenn. I could play the game too.
The conversation drifted from one thing to another, with occasional questions as to what my thoughts were about the matters they were discussing, and then it turned to literature. “Dr. Fenn and I were discussing an issue the other day,” Mrs. Djung said, “and maybe you can help. We have read so much about Western culture, and now we have a foreign student among us to explain it.” I smiled, and said I would be pleased to help in any way I could. I liked Mrs. Djung.
She continued. “Tell me,” she said. “Do you think the philosophy of Kierkegaard had much influence on Christianity or led to the philosophical existentialism movement?”
“Kierkegaard,” she repeated. “You know, Jean-Paul Sartre.” “Huh?”
Our conversation after that changed to other more mundane topics, like how much effort it takes to make a good djow dze. “You know, no two cooks make them the same way.” I said that was nice to know, and no one bothered to ask me any more questions.