Perilous Adventures
line decor
line decor


sponsored by

Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


A Lesson in English Grammar

by Felicity Castagna

All I did was write about a bunch of kids from a socialist country who took a lot of drugs...Our minds were empty, but drugs couldn’t give us imagination. A lot of crazy things have happened.

[from Candy by Mian Mian]

Laisee EnvelopesElle seems like someone who will never be satisfied with the slow passage of time. Not that she appears to be going anywhere. She taps her fingers against the table, drinks coffee and lights the occasional cigarette. I smile at her from the other side of the food hall but she doesn’t see me, she narrows her eyes and focuses on something far off, perhaps as far as her imagination. I walk towards the balcony and hang my head over the railing. Shanghai stretches itself before me like a slow, aching moan. I rub my eyes and try to convince myself that it’s all real.

It is 1994: My second year of teaching English.

I still find it difficult to believe that I’m here.

At Shanghai Private the students spill out from every corner, the exaggerated sounds of their feet hitting the empty hallways. There are waves of brilliant bleached hair that used to be black, long thin bodies floating en masse. When they walk past me their eyes mark the shape of my body. I am enormous, they all look no older than 13, hiding their adultness underneath layers of baggy sweatshirts advertising American Universities.

The college is wedged between the financial district and the entertainment district.  It is a huge concrete block that reaches into the sky but fails to catch any breeze. The classrooms I teach in are as big as the local sports stadium back home. My voice echoes over the students heads as I fail to teach them about the tightly wound images of the literary greats. They shift uneasily, looking bored, and ask me questions about verbless clauses and irregular nouns. I reply with false promises to return to their questions sometime in the future. They nod and pass notes back and forth on Hello Kitty Stationary: I can feel them cutting my sentences up as they spill from my mouth with their imaginary grammatical blades.

Elle stayed behind after the first day of class: she has a mouth that is always slightly wrinkled, stick straight hair: a little too greasy, as though it needs a good wash. She wears T-shirts emblazoned with the names of British rock bands and ties her hair in a sharp ponytail at the top of her head. She has the look of an orphan about her, as though she is waiting for someone to adopt her.
That day, she picked up the copy of Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems from my lectern and held it before me. “What you like about this?” she said, her mouth full of wrinkles.

“It’s something beautiful,” I said, “The way he writes, the way he makes you think about why we exist, why we die.”

“I am interest,” she said, her body swaying in a breeze that didn’t exist. “I like to write too.”

“The other students aren’t interested though, are they?”

“No,” she says, shaking her head vehemently, as if to save me from the embarrassment of having to explain. “Poetry not so good for business. Maybe you can teach how to make better grammar?”

I watch her flick through the pages of the book, her eyes scanning quickly over the words as if she can suck them in through her skin.
“But you like to write.”

“Yes, I want to write like beautiful about Shanghai.”

“Why don’t you keep a journal? You can give it to me. I’ll read whatever you write.”

She stared at me wide-eyed. “Yes,” she said. “This is a good idea,” and left.


These are the things I am beginning to understand: That I became an English teacher, that an economic empire can be dragged out of the swampland of a Socialist country. That English can be synonymous with wealth, with prestige, with business. That poetry exists in other places. That my first and only real friendship with anyone in this country will develop from a diary being pushed underneath my office door.

20 September

Everyone move to Shanghai, young people, coming from everywhere CHINA. No parents, just us in apartments, listen to MTV, make a party. Sometimes singing karaoke. Everything very loud, amazing. We dance. I dance with Poh, she has boyfriend who plays guitar and make song for us dancing into the loud quick night. I am feeling like in a movie, free.Outside lots of beautiful women, everyone call chickens. Beautiful women stand between kebab mens and flower women. Sometimes cars drive slowly past. Sometimes stop, women climb inside. Sometimes dark car comes POLICE, everybody run everybody hide. We get nervous...

“What does this mean?” I ask the next day, pushing the journal towards her. “Why do they call women ‘chickens’?”

She cocks her head to one side and looks at me as though she is divulging a secret. “Not all women. Just women who go with men, get money.”

“Oh,” I say. The changing colours of a neon sign outside my window fall upon her face. She moves closer, waiting for more of a response. “I think this is good. You should keep writing about your Shanghai, the Shanghai you experience every day.”

“My Shanghai,” she repeats, “Yes.” Her eyes move to the book shelf behind me and then to the computer blinking at my desk. “Why you come to Shanghai?”

“It’s complicated. I don’t know. really.” I rub my hands together looking for an answer. “I finished an English degree. I wanted to go somewhere else, to have an experience. To write about it, maybe.”

“You don’t  know. Not sure.”

“Sometimes you have to wait for the reason, to find the purpose after a long time. You know what I mean?”

“Not sure,” she says. She pushes her diary casually off my desk and lets it fall to the floor.


Saturday afternoon: Elle wants to take me to her world. “If you see it, you can tell me how to better describe,” she says as we walk down her street past the lines of shops selling fake Armani handbags and Omega watches. She weaves in and out of it all so quickly that I have trouble keeping up. I ask her to slow down but she doesn’t hear me among the loud-speakers pumping out the wild electronic sounds of Chinese hip-hop. Even at this hour the karaoke pitch-men have started shouting out for customers and college students cram into bars. Older women and men wearing Communist Party sashes climb from the back of dark vans and hand out flyers for the Youth Morality Campaign. Elle takes one of the flyers with its pictures of well-groomed school children and laughs. She knows this district doesn’t play by the rules: it never has.

“This is the best,” she says, and guides me down a back alley where all the record stores are. There are rows of young men outside the shops with bundles of tapes and records that have small holes cut in them, as though someone had taken to all this merchandise with a hole-punch. I watch as Elle picks up a copy of The Doors.

“Where do these come from?”

“I don’t know,” she replies. “My friend says they are a gift from America to the young people of China.”

“You should write that down, write down everything. What people do in the back streets here. What young people are interested in.” I talk about it as if we are cultural anthropologists. “Document everything.”

But I am writing nothing. I had an idea that when I came here, I would write some kind of memoir. I imagined myself as someone like Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer. But I can’t think of anything I really want to say. If there is something to say I don’t know how to say it. Even my letters and postcards home have been sparse and infrequent. My letters read like a list of facts: I am keeping well. It is getting colder here now. My classes are enormous and not very interesting. If I died tomorrow the only evidence of my time here would be a bunch of bored students: that and Elle.

5th October

Tonight we went to a new nightclub. Not the old type, new one where everything is dark and Secret. Poh’s boyfriend plays in a heavy metal band, everyone wearing black and bobbing  their heads. NOT LEGAL. We drink whisky all night. it is my first time. It burns my throat like  fire but I am much liking. I can say anything, write anything. I talk to everyone. We start a revolution here underground.

Class on Monday. Elle sits in the front row, her eyes red-rimmed. She looks as though she has slept in her clothes. I have been assigned a teaching mentor, Dave, who has advised me to work something about basic English grammar into every lesson. Today, I am ending a lesson on the effects of metaphor in modern poetry with a refresher on the verb ‘to be’. “I am, we are, you are, they are...”

I ask the class to recite along with me and are amazed that they do. All except for Elle, who stares at me as though she is half dead. I wonder if she thinks that I am selling out.

Dave catches me in the hallway and says, “Better, much better.” He slaps me on the shoulder as though he is sure this must be a custom in my country. He smiles at me with his puddle eyes and straightens up his tie. He is the kind of person who respects rules, including grammatical ones. One of my colleagues told me once that he was born in a labour camp on the outskirts of Shanghai. His parents were apparently ‘artistic political criminals’. I would like to ask him what this means but I don’t think he’d share anything that personal with me.

He follows me down the hallway and asks how my other classes have gone this week. I say, “I don’t think they’re interested; I don’t really know how to motivate them.”

He nods and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, this is how it is. “The young in China. I don’t know if they care about anything anymore.”

I leave the door of my office open always but no one visits except for Elle. She sits in front of me and looks at all the red marks I have made on her latest diary entry. She squints down at my corrections and frowns. This is what I’m supposed to do, I think, I’m an English teacher. This is how I’m meant to do my job. She sits back on one of the recliners in my office and stretches herself like a cat.

“I think you should start at the beginning,” I say. “Why did you come to Shanghai? Start there.”

She strides across my office and over to the balcony, where she sits hunched forward on the stool I keep there and smokes. “Come here,” she says, “look.” The giant digital screen in front of the office buildings before us advertises computer parts in a language I don’t understand.

“This the beginning,” she says.

3 November

When my mother went I wanted to get out. My father say, no good girl without mother,  everyone think badly, so I go to Shanghai with other young people from my town. Watch Shanghai grow up around me. Everything fast and loud. Everyone trying to find their way.

I read, crouched over, sitting on the stool on my balcony.  Elle sits on my chair behind my desk, doodling on a piece of paper—she suddenly looks even younger, her small frame dwarfed by the rectangular frame of my chair. “This is great. You should explore this part of your story more.  You could write about your mother. Maybe that would be good for you.”

Elle comes over, closer to the balcony, and lights another cigarette. She is smoking too much these days. I resist the urge to be a parent, to tell her no. “Cannot write about mother,” she says.

“Why not?”

“Bad luck to write about ghosts.”


She furrows her brows and looks at me. “Chinese people, many superstitions. Too hard to explain in English.”

A week ago I dreamed I was a ghost floating over Shanghai. I circled around The Bund, the bright lights of the buildings there breaking like puzzle pieces across my skin. I flew close to the buildings and looked into the windows of offices and apartment blocks, watching people who couldn’t see me. I thought about all those complex and wonderful lives I would never get to access.

20th December

People are going the wrong way I would like to tie them down, to tie myself down. Poh is sick and grey looking. She takes lots of pills. No sleeping. AWAKE ALL NIGHT. I tell her we need to make some other way of living. Not fun anymore just sad. We listen to music, think about this.

In the margin Elle writes, tell me how to describe the feeling.

I write, I wish I knew.

She stays back after class. She has grown thinner. Her eyes look as though they have been pushed back further into her skull. I oscillate between thinking I have no right to intervene and wondering if it is my duty. This is a phase you go through, I tell myself, this is what it means to be young. She stands there looking at me. I imagine peeling back the barriers of language and culture and history that exist between us, like flipping to the end of the story in a frustrating book.

I hand her back her diary. She takes it and hugs it to her chest. “Perhaps there is someone else you can share your feelings with as well? Maybe someone you can talk to about the things you can’t tell me because I don’t understand Chinese?”

She furrows her eyebrows and says, “You don’t want to teach me anymore.”

I look down at my feet. “No, it’s not that. I just don’ know that I can teach you what you need because I’m not sure we are really communicating effectively. I’m not sure that I understand.”

When I look up at her again there are pools of tears forming in her eyes. “I write, you read, you understand.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“You understand, I write. You teacher,” she says as she makes her way out of the room.

3rd January

I take care of Poh. She cannot get up, cannot do anything. I cannot do anything. We are lost. I try to think about my own breathe, just try to think about that. BREATHE.

She has left a note on the front of her diary. Take this, it says, my gift for you, you write this story, you know how to. Better. She has not shown up to class in two weeks. I find Dave in the hallway and ask him what I should do. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “This happens.” I feel exhausted. Go back to Australia, the voice inside my head is saying, forget about it. But what right do I have to walk away?


So close to Chinese New Year, the streets surge with people. Teenagers play with firecrackers in the back alleyways. Their screams of joy are punctuated by the slow crackle and hum of things exploding.  The skyline above my head is broken by the red of New Year signs strung between buildings. Gong hei fat choi, small girls in pigtails call to me as they walk down the street holding their mother’s hands. I stop at a street stall to buy the red envelopes people place money in and hand to one another for good luck.

When I know I am close to her apartment block, I stop on the corner and take out the page I wrote in my own diary last night. It was a long time coming but it's something, better than nothing. I place it in a New Year's envelope and stick it in the pocket of my jeans.

Inside the apartment block all the doors are open. When I asked Dave about this last week, he said it was to let the last year out and the new one in. I smile at the thought of it being so simple, that we can start over again just by opening up our doors. As I walk through the maze of hallways, the scent of insense and boiled vegetables hits me from every direction. I take long breaths, breathe it in.

When I reach her door, it is the only one that’s shut. I knock once, stand back, knock again. I hear her call something in Chinese. I answer in English. Eventually, she comes to the door and opens it slowly until she reveals herself standing there, mascara smudged across her face, her long legs jutting out from a mini-skirt, hair like an unkempt birds nest, falling all over her face.

She slumps forward slightly and smiles. “Teacher. I knew I would see you again.” Her apartment is strewn with the refuse of too many nights of excess. Her mattress is on one side of the floor, her sheets on another, a CD player in the middle of  the room is surrounded by CDs, some in their cases, some not. She walks across to the kitchenette where there is a sink piled high with dirty cups and Jim Beam bottles lying at odd angles. She takes two champagne glasses from her cupboard and fills them from a bottle of Coke.

On her balcony we sit in silence, watch two boys kicking a soccer ball against the wall of another apartment block.  Elle pulls her shirtsleeve forward and uses it to wipe off the remnants of makeup on her cheeks. “Shanghai is fadanga,” she says.

“What does that mean?”

“It means over, finish, no good.”

I pass her the red envelope. She takes the piece of writing out and reads it slowly. I listen to the boys running, their soles skidding on concrete. I notice Elle’s shirt sleeve is torn, ragged. She narrows her eyes and looks off into the distance, into some world I’ll never be able to access.

15th January

Teacher says, sometimes it takes a long time to find out your purpose. Sometimes it takes a long time to work out why you’re HERE.

About the Author

Felicity Castagna is a Sydney based writer and teacher. "A Lesson in English Grammar" is part of her forthcoming collection of short stories about travelers in Asia (Transit Lounge, April 2011).


issue 10:02 | archives by category | archives by author

Site by Olvar Wood