"Does anyone remember which author wrote Paradise Lost?" I say. Eighty eyes look at me, but not all of them meet mine. Some are checking out my shoes, others my hairy legs, still others the hair on my head.
I try to conduct class but quickly realize that I am the only subject my students are excited about. They are no more fascinated with me than other people are; they simply have more access to me. They can stare at every part of my face and body for two hours a day. When I walk down the street, the villagers greet me, meet my eyes and smile. But the minute I pass, they, too, stare at my shoes.
I ask my tutor Melody what this means. She says that this is a Chinese tradition. People check out each other's shoes to see what kind of person they are dealing with. Picture China in the 1970s, the era of the Cultural Revolution, the Age of Mao. Peasants and intellectuals alike wore matching blue suits and black slippers. Blue means 'common', which in China is positive, and everyone wore the same shoes. This was detrimental to people's curiosity; they had to have background on each other instead of relying on each other's shoes.
My shoes are different from those of my students. My students dress up in high-heeled sandals and pumps or dress down in flip-flops. As a teacher, I'm standing and walking a lot; I have to wear sturdy "teacher shoes" like Docs or Birks. But our clothes, mannerisms and body language are different, too. The shoes are only a symbol. The villagers think I am sturdy, dependable, and like to be comfortable, according to my shoes.
As for the leg hair, Chinese people in general barely have any body hair, so my arm and leg hair is fascinating. I am unusually hairy in China, especially because of the unwritten Peace Corps rule that states, "No female Peace Corps Volunteer shall shave her legs while doing her tour." Shaving my legs just isn't important anymore.
My head hair is naturally curly and most people think I have a perm; Chinese people can only get curly hair with perms, which are becoming more popular, so there is no Chinese word for naturally curly hair. It's either straight or permed. I understand now why my students want to stare at my curls.
In literature class, I meet Cathy's eyes and know that she will have the answer. I do not, however, want to call on her. She always knows the answer, and just like in the U.S., there are students who never want to speak in class. I force George to tear his gaze away from my Nikes. They hold much more interest for him, but if he can answer one Milton question this hour, I will let him relax.
"Can you tell me the main story, the plotline, of Paradise Lost, George?" As George begins to think, I look into his eyes, nod, and occasionally glance at his clothes, hair and shoes to give him a rest from my gaze. His answer comes slowly, which gives me a chance to look around casually and make sure the others are listening. I catch myself before I begin to stare (because I've been taught staring is rude), and concentrate on George. As long as I'm here, though, I'm going to try to capture each intense moment in China with my eyes, taking cues from my students and their curious eyes. George gives his answer shyly. I nod and praise him, ask another question, and we move on.