(Always might be an exaggeration, but this has happened three times. I call that a trend.)
The first time: It was the day before classes started. As usual, I went to the teachers' dining room for dinner. The dining room is two small rooms with an adjacent kitchen, where the teachers serve themselves. But that day the tables in each room were covered with about a dozen dishes -- bullfrog, duck, pork ribs.
One of the school directors waved me in the direction of the smaller room. Soldiers were seated at the table with school officials. The soldiers were at the school to train new students. Everyday I had woken up to military music blaring from the speakers. I took a seat between two of them, both stripped of their military jacket and wearing black undershirts. They were about 20 years old, tanned, cigarettes tucked behind their ears.
Before I could pick up my chopsticks, a man from the other room came to the doorway . He was in his forties, thin, hair disheveled and wearing a blazer that was probably two sizes too big.
"Li Zhao Li!" the man shouted. My Chinese name.
"We are family!" he said and waved me over. I had never seen him before.
"My family name is Lee too," he said. "You can call me big brother." Then he turned to everyone and announced, "I have found my little sister! She has come all the way from America!"
The man pointed to another man to his right and said, "He is Lee too. Call me Big Big Brother and call him Little Big Brother."
I sat between my two new brothers as they pointed to the dishes and said, "This is good. Try this."
They kept filling my shot glass with beer.
"Are you drunk?" my big big brother asked me.
I had had four shot glasses of beer. "No," I said.
I noticed that I was the only female teacher at the table and probably the only one under the age of 35. These teachers I now ate with I had not seen at the dining hall before. I assumed most were married and ate at home. I wondered if the younger, single teachers I normally ate with were told not to come tonight. I was not told to come or not to come.
The second time: After the Teacher's Day assembly, Big Big Brother Lee invited me out to dinner with some other teachers. A student was treating.
One of the teachers drove us into the city. We climbed a staircase and were led into a private room. Someone opened a bottle of baijiu and started pouring. Someone else opened bottle after bottle of beer.
"Can she drink?" one of them asked, referring to me.
"Yes, she can," Big Big Brother Lee answered for me, and a bottle of beer was placed in front of me.
The teachers started talking about the new headmaster, who had given a speech during the assembly. The headmaster's speech was completely incomprehensible to me, the Hunanese accent so thick that I couldn't even pick out individual words. The teachers I sat with spoke in the local dialect and sometimes switched into the standard Mandarin. I lost track of the conversation, only entering the conversation when they said, "Gan bei." Bottoms up.
Again, I looked around the table and realized I was the only female. Even the student, a girl, and her mother were not eating with us. They were eating in another room. I had unknowingly entered an all boys club, yet I was not pushed out nor did I want to leave. The food was delicious and the alcohol flowed. I felt full and satisfied and a little sleepy inhaling the cigarette smoke.
After the meal, the student's father passed out boxes of cigarettes to each of us. "I don't smoke," I said in Chinese when he came toward me, but he pushed the box into my hands. It was like an invitation to stay in the club.
The third time: Two days ago I ran into Big Big Brother Lee in the senior one office building between classes. He told me to go to the school gate at noon. We were going out to lunch.
At noon I went to the gate. A teacher was in his car with the passenger door open. Get in, Big Big Brother Lee said. A few other teachers got into the backseat. The driver, Mr. Wang, spoke English and asked what I thought of Lengshuijiang.
"It's a bit dirty," I said.
"Yes, it's very dirty," he said. "There is a factory in the city. Lengshuijiang is developing but at the cost of people's health."
We drove past giant concrete cylinders by the side of the road. As we entered the downtown area, the air became grittier. I looked out the open window and could only see brown dust.
At the restaurant we were again led into a private room. Some teachers were already waiting on the couch, smoking and eating sunflower seeds. A TV on the wall was tuned to a news channel but no one watched. I looked at the screen. A woman was being dragged out of a house.
As the first dishes arrived, everyone found a seat at the round table. One of the men, a teacher from another school in Lengshuijiang, said something about me in the local dialect. A teacher next to me translated.
"He says you are the highlight of the table."
I smiled and awkwardly sipped my water. Generally the men did not talk to me during the meal, only when they wanted me to drink. The teacher to my left -- a short, skinny fellow who looked 22 but was actually 40 -- kept my glass full.
"She can drink," I heard someone say about me as I downed another glass.
It was 1:30 p.m. when we got back to campus. I had eaten my fill of river fish and rice-covered pork ribs and duck. The teachers who ate at the dining hall would have had plain rice, pickled vegetables and maybe some soup.