Campus Building Attendants

Just inside of each building on campus is a small room. This room is generally used as an apartment by the custodian of that building. In the English department, a husband, wife, and young child live in the room. If I study in the English building during the evening I can smell them cooking dinner. The husband and wife are in charge of cleaning the building (sweeping and mopping common areas), stocking coal, and keeping it locked up during the night. Typically I see the wife cleaning the building, though yesterday the husband was mopping the English office. They will refill the thermos station each day so that teachers have no end of hot water for their tea mugs. Once the wife went out of her way to help me light a fire in the stove during winter; I had piled too many chunks of coal inside the stove before letting the sticks burn long enough.

I often see the husband at the gate. He is in a pseudo-police officer's uniform making sure that only authorized vehicles enter the school grounds. Usually the small office next to the gate is staffed by 2-4 people who are chatting, drinking tea, and smoking cigarettes. When they talk to me I don't understand because their dialect is so thick that even "Where are you going?" sounds a bit like, "Wiya yoo goan."

The son goes to school during the day, but I often see him running around campus with a large stick or something else he has procured from the trash-filled pond. Sometimes he will enter a class when it's not in session and cause trouble. To practice my Chinese I try to have lengthy conversations with him, but usually I only discover that he has just eaten or that he does, indeed, like kites. The students in the building are his temporary family, and the culture expects that when the parents aren't in the immediate vicinity (maybe they're cleaning or on duty nearby) that the students will take a hand in watching the child.

If I'm studying in a classroom he will come over and look at my flashcards and Chinese book. He searches through my materials, digs through my bag until he finds what he is looking for: an orange. He gives it to me and waits, staring as I peel it. In America I would ask his mother or father first, but he is hungry, an orange is healthy, and, actually, I am his parent for the time being. I send him after a garbage can and he obliges, dragging it across the room despite the fact that it is very light. "Pick it up!" I say in a stern, forceful Chinese. He carries it over and begins putting the peels in the can as I divide the orange.

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