In China I have a dear friend who moved her daughter to a different school because of a hat. An American would assume the hat sported a crude phrase, a gang symbol, or most offensive of all, some indication that mother and daughter might possibly be conservative. However, this was a Chinese school, and the affronting object was an unassuming, cotton, wide-brimmed topper intended to keep the sun off her daughter’s head during P.E. Tragically, to be acceptable, every single mother in the school had to be persuaded to buy the exact same hat. Therein lay the rub.
Uniformity reigned in Chinese school cafeterias as well, where brownbag lunches could mean a fight with the administration. I knew one Taiwanese mother living in mainland China who sidestepped the whole ordeal by claiming all her kids had food allergies. Even so, it all got to be a bit much and she transferred her brood to an international school. As a blonde westerner, my own daughter, Abby, was continually stared at and photographed. Consequently, she preferred to eat with her friends, rather than make herself even more conspicuous by dragging American food into her Chinese school, until the day she happened to dig a fish eyeball from her rice. “You’re lucky,” her friend said gleefully, though Abby was a little scarred, and considered herself rather the opposite.
Chinese lefties have worse luck than blonde girls with fish eyeballs. In China it’s bad luck to be left-handed, so a Chinese mother will consciously force her lefty child to use his or her right hand, and once school starts, the teachers get into the act. Abby had a lefty friend who had grown up with a string of teachers rapping her left hand with a ruler whenever she accidentally tried to use it. It’s the P.E. sunhat all over again, but this time all the mothers agreed to buy the right-handed model.
The same lunchroom that produced the fish eyeball served as the scene of a rather more sinister event. All the elementary students were called into the cafeteria to find that the tables had been pushed aside to make room for people in lab coats and 1950s nurses caps. “We have to check for infectious diseases,” they said.
I should point out that I was never informed or asked for my consent, which I would not have given. Chinese culture is different; I once kept my boys home because of sickness, and the liaison called very frustrated, “If they’re sick, they should come to school and go to the nurse,” to which I replied a very smooth and polite version of “UP YOURS!” But the lunchroom was a sneak attack, and in the Chinese point of view, if one child is going to get blood drawn, they must all do it. However, I have my doubts about their intentions. Maybe it was because Porter was an unlucky lefty, but he was only nine, and they took so much blood that he doesn’t remember what happened after, waking up alone in a dark anteroom full of beakers and test tubes, not so different from an alien abduction. Either they were testing for every known infectious disease, or they were testing a little and selling the rest. I know of enough incidence of various schools’ corruption, that I genuinely do not know.
However, it didn’t take nine-year-old Porter long to figure out how to beat them at their own game. Every day at lunch, they handed each child a small bag of milk. Did you see the word “bag?” This was not the lovely carton of cold milk with the laughing cow and Missing Person kids receive in an American lunchroom. This was a thin plastic bag of highly cooked, shelf-stable milk that will keep for ages in the cupboard. Porter HATES milk, even cold with the laughing cow and the Missing Person. This was super-cooked warm stuff just pulled from a cardboard box. He’d rather drink lava.
It looked easy at first, just don’t take it.
Next, he casually tossed it into the trash, only to be handed another.
Of course, there’s the old standby of sticking it in your pocket, then surreptitiously hiding it in an outer garbage. No luck! The teachers watched like hawks, maybe because he’s left-handed, and if they pulled out their rulers, his mother would have charged in with a pitchfork.
Then his nine-year-old brain hit on an idea, a wonderful, terrible idea. All he needed was the appearance of conformity, then he was home free.
In the lunchroom, he dutifully received his bag of milk and pierced the plastic with the little straw. Then he sat chewing on the straw as he talked to his friends, giving every appearance of drinking, but remaining ever vigilant that none of the vile liquid should actually travel to his tongue. As an American lefty, perhaps he had a bit of luck, because no one ever checked the volume. Afterwards, he carried the whole production all the way to his locker where he placed the bag, straw and all, in the corner.
This went on the entire term.
Did I mention he pierced the bag? He didn’t actually pierce all of them, but as weeks passed, and the locker filled, his brother, Chase, and his friends figured they’d use a few of the fragile bags of milk to play keep away, creating more holes, then haphazardly shoving the leaking packages back into the locker. Under the best of circumstances, slick plastic bags of liquid are not going to stack well, and a school locker is rarely the best of circumstances.
As long as it remains sealed, bagged milk is shelf-stable, but once the air gets in, it does eventually go the way of compost heaps and decaying corpses. In time Porter had a putrefying soup that announced its presence far and wide, which he tried to mitigate by adding the occasional orange peel. Still, all the students knew, and apparently sympathized.
One day Porter trotted jauntily down the hall, probably toting his backpack in his left hand, when a classmate popped up, eyes wide, English broken. “They found locker, run!” Porter streaked off, figuring himself a dead man. He picked an obscure bathroom, and hid for the rest of the day.
I didn’t hear a whisper of this until a couple of years later when Chase and Porter finally spilled the beans. The school never said a word. In fact, Porter expected to be raked over the coals, but the mess was cleaned up, and they let everything slide. By this time the teachers had completely stopped caring about the milk, and had decided vegetables were their new reason for existing, which suited Porter fine. Even as a small boy, he’d eat a plateful, smacking his lips with delight, so he never did have much use for his locker for the rest of the year.
After that we moved the kids to a British school for Chinese students, so their social life was in Chinese, but the school administration was British, and the teachers were from all over the world. The lunchroom situation improved somewhat, though Porter often asked me to make him a brownbag lunch. This year he graduated from high school here in the United States, and on his Covid-19 virtual graduation slide he wrote the immortal words, “I thought I would feel older, but I’m still just normal. Overall 8/10. School lunches were honestly pretty good.”
I’m sure his American classmates were mystified, but we laughed until we cried because we knew exactly where he was coming from. I think he’s a lucky lefty, even if he didn’t get a fish eyeball in his rice.