Visualize The Guy – that nameless marijuana dealer of the hit web series High Maintenance (trailer below).
I was that Guy in Shanghai, but instead of weed my product was a tutoring service. And my clients were not colorful New Yorkers, but super rich expat kids who attended the most expensive international high schools in China. Below is a peek into the not-so-normal lives of my four students: Jessica, Cindy, Justin, and Caprice.
Jessica (and her mom)
Jessica was my 12 year-old math student and an accomplished linguist in French, Dutch, Chinese, and English – which is fairly typical of expat kids. Her mom was French, her dad was Dutch and she attended the Shanghai American School. Her mom was often present during our lessons. Even though she was a stingy employer, she was often hitting on me.
Believe it or not, she liked to garner my attention with a demonstration of her ability to do the splits. I was treated to her display for the first time in her living room floor, amongst her sad-looking poodle-cats (cats whose fur was shaved poodle-style). The second time it was in the door frame of the kitchen after preparing me a snack of dumplings. Standing completely upright she managed to do the splits against the door frame. This was not a private display but in front her daughter, Jessica, who responded with “Mom, cut it out!” in a tired tone, which suggested that she was accustomed to her mother’s antics.
On another occasion, I casually mentioned that I was going to attend my friend’s b-day party at Muse 2, a popular club in Shanghai. Her mom said that she was going to be there that night and that she loves to dance (and this was followed once again with a demonstration). She was about 10 years older than me at the time. I sympathized with her husband who was a genuinely nice guy, but obviously on the road too much to give his wife the attention she sorely needed.
Cindy was a stunningly beautiful 17 year-old Taiwan-American grade 12 student that I was tutoring in in calculus. We were covering questions that I remembered from my university courses – questions so challenging that I secretly bought a copy of her textbook. I had to do the questions beforehand in order to properly “teach” her.
Our tutoring sessions would often exceed the allotted 2-hr slot by several hours. We chatted about typical expat matters – East-West cultural differences, the treatment of half castes and how they confuse locals, futures plans, and various China-specific experiences. That’s one of the great things about living in China or any foreign land – there’s always something to talk about and it’s usually both stimulating and informative.
Weeks later, I bumped into her at a club on the Bund and we chatted over a couple of drinks. Unfortunately, her older bro was looming in the background, giving me the stink eye. He was inordinately protective, had an uneasy feeling about me, and forwarded his suspicions to their parents. All of our future lessons were subsequently cancelled and my monthly income decreased by $800 USD. Thanks older bro.
Justin was my Hong Kong-raised Malaysian student. His mom was CEO of IBM Asia Pacific and her dad was a doctor. You have probably seen pictures of Shanghai’s iconic Pearl Tower. It’s located in Lujiazui district, and is home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Due to its futuristic scenery and atmosphere, Lujiazui has appeared in hit movies, such as Her (2013), and Mission: Impossible III.
Justin lived just one block from there at an apartment complex located next to the Huaung Pu River – the main river that divides Shanghai into its eastern and western halves.
His family had the entire top floor – floor 36 – and enjoyed a 360-degree view of Shanghai. This is a view for which many tourists pay 20 or 30 dollars.
Justin always met in the lobby, because their private elevator needed to scan all five of his digits before we were allowed to ascend. Sometimes I waited 5-10 minutes because he was usually busy playing video games or checking his stocks on his iPhone. Meanwhile, the apartment complex lobby staff would ask me several times if I needed anything or if they could help me reach him. Like many places in China, they were overstaffed, bored, and desperate to break the monotony and talk to somebody. Eventually I learned to streamline the whole process – I called Justin as soon as I got off the subway and told him that I was already in the lobby.
Each week, his mom – the CEO of IBM Asia Pacific – left an envelope of cash – my fee – with Justin. It also included a nicely handwritten note saying “Thanks!” On the rare occasion, when she forgot, she would write another note apologizing for her tardiness. I met her a few times in person after Justin’s lesson. She was in early 40s and stunningly beautiful. In more youthful attire she could pass for late 20s. I’m often jealous how Asians age so gracefully.
Caprice (and Rodolfo, Jakob)
I taught grade 10 basic math to Caprice – the only one of my students that wasn’t in Pudong. She was from The Shanghai American School Puxi campus, which was full of delinquents. Caprice was a 17 year old Italian, and a bonafide pothead.
I vividly remember how she draped mosquito nets draped over her bed to thwart the Shanghai mosquitoes. Unlike our fat Canadian variety, the Shanghai mosquito was genetically altered to become a lightning fast dive bomber that evades all preventative measures. They make a good night’s rest a near-impossible goal.
Her Brazilian boyfriend, Rodolfo, sold large quantities of ecstasy pills. Chinese call ecstasy摇头丸Yáo tóu wán, which literally means “shake head pill.” If you remember the movie Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green, you are familiar with the facts. Ecstasy actually took New York City by storm in the early ‘80s. Move forward 20 years, and it was happening again, only now in Shanghai. It was everywhere and everybody loved it. I bumped into Rodolfo at the Armin van Buuren concert which was held annually at the old Muse 2 on Nanjing Rd. Rodolfo reportedly sold 3000 USD worth of his shake head pills that same night, which accounts for the more than usual amount of headshakerage that I witnessed.
I have since bumped into him at various venues – he was the guy with the huge table and full bottle service, looking pimp as ever. He was only 17. There is no drinking age in China – anyone of any age can walk into a convenience store and buy as much booze and cigarettes as they want. Sometime you see smaller Chinese kids buying beer, but it’s usually for their dad.
Then there was Jakob, another student from the Shanghai American School Puxi , and friends with Rod and Caprice. I don’t recall what his parents did, but they had the biggest house I’ve ever seen. The entire street was lined with ridiculously huge mansions and his was the biggest. His dad bought him a bright red Lamborghini for his 16th birthday. Taking advantage of his parents’ frequent absence, Jakob decided to throw a massive b-day bash. Now this was not a modest and discreet affair. He entertained no less than 80-100 people, including various well-paid “women of the night”. They had to, um, accompany the winner of their billiard tournament to a semi-secluded area where they would, uh, “play chess.” There was an abundance of party chemicals and brightly-colored straws that were placed in not-so-discreet locations for public consumption. He was 16 and already displayed signs of decadence which rivaled the licentious behavior of some of the great and ancient Roman Emperors.
Hidden beneath the surface of the mega city – Shanghai – is a multi-layered culture unknown to the casual traveler. It is here that wealthy expat families live amazing lives generally outside the realm of foreign teachers. However, when you become a tutor you enter their homes, interact with family members and slowly but surely become a part of their lives.
Tutors fill a niche that is totally different to that of the classroom teacher. He is a stranger – apart from their everyday lives – who becomes more of a pal from another land. They trust him, open up to him, and share their secrets like they might do with a psychologist.
Their students are from a world not even Hollywood could invent. It’s a world of super wealthy families sharing open-minded “Californian” attitudes, where laws and ethics have little application. Their behavior is uncensored, and often out of loneliness, they recklessly pursue their curiosities with both abandonment and a strange kind of innocence.
Shanghai seduces you and the changes it renders are indelible. When a foreigner takes up residence he is sucked into a culture that is seemingly without inhibition. China, itself, while totalitarian and communist, ironically gives you freedoms you have never before experienced. The atmosphere feels totally uninhibited, and you are able to explore your curiosities and desires without guilt or fears of disgrace. Regardless of your past, you are accepted and you thrive with confidence.