Love from an real hotel room in Bangkok, courtesy of Fulbright. (I've taken a couple real showers and slept in a real bed and I'm the most clean/comfy I've been since America. For reals - jing jing.)
After 5 weeks in the jungle and almost 4 weeks in China, I'm free (ISARAK in Thai) from Chinese blog censors. I'm pretending the censors specifically targeted my blog because I believe in freedom.
There are loads more stories from the Khao Chong forest that I'm skipping for the sake of posting anything at all. When it comes to recounting heaven on earth, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I loved driving jeeps with my peeps through rivers (and getting stuck until 3 am in utter darkness), learning how to ride a motorcycle, marveling over the killing and consumption of weevils and monitor lizards, teaching long-haired jungle research dudes how to play Egyptian Ratscrew, swimming with all the little babies, and basking in God's mountains. "Crazy" and "Forest" sound the same in Thai (if you ignore tones, and I do mostly ignore tones) for good reason. Fulbright posted a tidbit I wrote on my life in the forest: "Lizard Eggs in my Luggage" (title is a rip-off from Gerald Durrell, who I love). Feel free to check it out on the Thai Fulbright site via the link.
Dear ones, China with Karen (the Chinese teacher from the 'Dit) reintroduced me to a nation that respects logic, a culture that is apparently down with PDA (?), and a people who like to YELL a lot. Also, forced chopstick use. In Thailand, men huddle and drink whiskey. In China, men huddle and play chess. I taught at Karen's old primary school for a couple days, and the kids LISTENED and the teachers respected me and everyone cared about learning. So beautiful. But as I headed back to Thailand on Sunday, all the peeps on my flight moshed me at the airport to marvel over my Thai (thank God, because I had to learn Chinese and was afraid of falling back in Thai). They kept making me cut in front of them in lines, giving me snacks, being so interested in me, and paying me extraordinary compliments; I felt IT IS GOOD TO GO HOME. And Thailand is home.
But this post is about China. So here are a million silly stories and a handful of pictures from the first few weeks in China. I wrote this while traveling. Karen says it's literary. I taught her that. On purpose. So she could use it wrong.
I’m not in real China. I’m standing next to Guangzhou’s famously imposing opera house, staring at the Canton Tower. I’m not sure where I am, maybe downtown Chicago. But I’m definitely not in China.
Karen and I tour the Guangzhou Museum, nodding at inkstones, posing with arms folded in front of ancient Chaozhou woodcarvings. We stop at the puppets, but we can’t be bothered to look too long. Just take a picture. This isn’t even China.
|Is this China, Karen?|
|at a real museum...wow this isn't the jungle and i need to ditch the t-shirts|
|Is this downtown Chicago + palm trees? Where is the third world??? And the billion people? I'm so confused.|
We meet a girl on the subway. She’s asking if we need help; I’m asking if she needs help. I mean, we’re the ones with the map.
She’s 18, fashionable, and studies in London. We’re going in the same direction, we walk, cruising bakeries, but she doesn’t leave us. She watches us eat. “Wow, you two eat so much.” She refuses a bite. We’re in the Xienhepu District where the rich people and foreigners once settled, way back in the day. She invites us to her friend’s house because her friend “lives in a villa so you don’t need to sightsee.” She doesn’t care if we tag along or not, but I think she does, because she waits for us in another bakery, watching her weight, watching us.
Her friend is 19 and silly and wears clunky orange pumps about a mile high. She tells us that her father is an architect. “But he’s an….amateur,” she says. “Wow,” she adds, pleased with herself, glancing at me, “I know so many words!”
She’s rich. We know that because she tells us. She says she’s kidding as she cocks her head and pets her dog, which is in fact a polar bear, in my opinion. But I don’t know dogs that well.
She likes it when I name in English the furniture in the room. Grandfather clock. They all like that. Because it’s an antique, like their grandfathers.
I look at our subway friend and our rich friend. They are only girls, but they hold their phones in such a way that they look all grown up, so busy, so bored. They are the Guangzhou elite, clad in what is probably modern Chinese fashion, looking the part.
You two are so chic, I tell them. “Yes, I used to dress so mature. My mom told me, ‘You dress so mature,’ so now I try to dress young,” answers the rich girl. And I wonder if she thinks ‘chic’ means young or that her orange pumps have child written all over them. Because the only thing those orange pumps have written all over them is ‘wow.’ Even subway girl thinks the pumps are too much. “I saw your shoes down the block when you came to meet us,” she whispers to her friend, “and I had to call you. I don’t understand.”
So chic, I repeat. The rich girl smiles and hands me her iPhone and brushes back her hair. “Can you take our picture?” They lean sensually on each other even before I take the iPhone. “It’s a good thing I look even better in real life than I do in pictures,” she laughs.
We tour the house and end up staring at her brother, sleeping in his room. She says his name and he opens his eyes. He sees a white girl standing over him. “You are in my dreams,” he whispers, lazily fumbling for his glasses, unsure whether he really wants to wake up.
“Mmm, I wanted you to meet him,” says his sister as we exit. “He likes the foreign girls.” Our meeting was very short. I’m wearing a t-shirt and haven’t seen my comb for two days (Karen stole it). I’m not a very good dream.
She wants to know if I will tell Harvard Business School about her.
Maybe you should apply to college first, I tell the rich girl who will study at Harvard Business School.
“Mmm, the Bachelor’s degree?” she responds distractedly. She has the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Karen has long left us, stealing away my camera and photographing the house. “This is real China, very traditional,” Karen whispers in English. It’s a European-style villa, built by Europeans for Europeans. But there’s a shrine, with grapes in front of it, and later, I reach for one. Karen swats me away. “They’re for the ancestors,” she hisses. I think I’m hungry, I signal with my eyes.
|I'M SO EXCITED TO SPEAK ENGLISH - CHINESE PEEPS ACTUALLY LIKE SPEAKING ENGLISH!!|
|Karen ditches me cuz I'm trying to talk China and politics. Secure the intellectual perimeter and whatnot.|
|the tea set|
Karen and I spend Easter at a seminary. I thought China didn’t have churches. We make some calls to see if the church checks passports. Sometimes only the foreigners can attend church. Karen won’t pretend she’s American: “I’m the Chinese.”
It’s a recurrent topic of conversation.
“Remember how I like to pretend I’m Thai in Thailand? I would give anything to actually be able to pass as Thai,” I persuade her. “It’s fun – see how people treat you. It’s an experiment. And you could actually pass as American; you should try.”
“I’m the Chinese,” Karen declares. She’s a little disgusted. I think, no fun at all. She thinks, why would I want to pretend to be something I’m not?
At seminary church, little girls dance around in white dresses preparing for the Mandarin service. The church serves Dole orange juice and banana bread. A list of silly rules are printed on the back of the bulletin:
Don’t be late or leave early without a reason.
Don’t wear revealing clothes.
Prepare yourself for worship.
If I didn’t already love Jesus, I wouldn’t come back.
The Easter service isn’t traditional.
“He is Risen,” proclaims the pastor.
“Truly, He is Risen,” God’s people respond.
For a moment, I long for home.
Easter in China isn’t really Easter. So Chris, my friend from Harvard who graciously hosts us in Guangzhou, decides we need to spend the night drinking (in celebration of the resurrection). I buy peach rum. Our friend Peter from Easter/Yale/Fulbright buys Guinness.
Peter flirts with Karen. But Karen thinks Chris is the bomb.com.
“He’s manly, very smart, very kind,” she evaluates the next day. “Hmm, I think very good.”
But affection can only distract us for so long. Karen orders me to watch my purse for the millionth time. “Everything is stealed.” Karen insists that China is the nation of theft.
Chris agrees. “The train is full of thieves,” he reminds us on the day we leave. “I usually sleep with my laptop under my shirt. And I tuck in my shirt. And get the top bunk. But don’t drop your stuff on the floor. Because once I dropped my iPad and I got really depressed because I thought it was stolen, but the conductor guy found it. But the train is fun. You can read if you bring a light, and you can sit on the bottom bunk and make friends. It’s not like the bus.”
Before we get on the train, Karen calls her mom. I’m sitting on my bag, watching girls walk by in beautiful shoes. Their high-heel waddles butcher their auras.
“My mom was robbered,” Karen announces when she hangs up.
The train is fun. You can sit on the bottom bunk and make friends. Karen plops right down on that bottom bunk. “Umm, should we sit on other people’s beds?” I ask. The American in me is thinking about property rights. Karen looks at me like I’m nuts. “Where else can we sit?” she aggressively counters. This is real China.
Karen and I have a competitive friendship. We’re masters at mercilessly correcting one other. When we get angry or exasperated, we conclude with “This is just a culture thing.” That catchphrase enables our friendship to smooth over the rockiest moments, but it also muddies our perceptions of each other’s cultures.
We sit on the train and play the card game speed. I joke, you are China and I am America. Who will win? America wins a couple rounds. But before our last round is finished, Karen throws in the towel and declares, “I guess we’ll never know.” And she’s probably right.
Though you can’t say I’m not trying to seal the fate of the rivalry. We lie in our adjacent top bunks and I lecture Karen about the interconnectedness of the Chinese and American economies.
“You know,” I conclude, after a good forty minutes of fair statements. “China is very poor. Your GDP is the size of Namibia’s.”
Sometimes I refer to Karen as China. Trying to relate Karen’s opinion about Cantonese speakers in Guangzhou, I begin, “China says–” before catching myself.
Part II. We train it up to Guilin. Guangxi Province - Karen's home.
I’ve acquired whiplash on the train by bumping my head. (China is for short people, even though Karen is the shortest Chinese person I’ve yet seen.) The rain starts as we enter the city. The train station is slippery and muddy. We walk down the stairs with my bag and I slip and fall, sliding down 4 or 5 steps. There’s a chorused gasp around me, but nobody helps me up or sees if I’m okay. This isn’t friendly Thailand. This is real China.
On the street, a young man with long hair and a mustache approaches us with an iPhone he had just pick-pocketed. He’s positioned so he’s facing away and holding the iPhone outstretched behind him; his neck is craning to look us temptingly in the eye. He’ll sell it for 2,000 yen. Karen gets the picture and walks on; I’ve lived in Thailand too long – I think he’s maybe asking for my number.
……Dear Karen is such a sweetheart and a picture of perseverance. Seeing her world and her home made me realize how completely incompatibly our lives have gone done. For us to end up in the 'Dit together is a love story. More on this thought in independent convos for those who are interested......
Leo, a 25-year old Chinese computer genius (I mean, let’s be real) helped us install new internet stuff. We temporarily leave with Leo to pick up a motorcycle (he drops us off in a lot and then goes to pick up some parts). Karen and I end up a bit stranded after we realize we forgot the motorcycle key. Karen freaks out about Leo not being able to get back into the apartment and about life in general. She pouts and I lecture her when I can’t stand it anymore (which takes approx. 4 minutes): find happiness in the moment, it’s not the end of life as we know it, Leo will understand, don’t pity yourself, etc. etc.
We get home and the door’s wide open because Leo borrowed the spare key from the neighbor. I mime to Leo that I think he did tae-kwon-do to get into the apartment. Leo tells Karen that I must be American because I think all Chinese can do kung fu. Actually Leo, I said tae-kwon-do and I don’t discriminate in favor of the Chinese – I think all Asians can do tae-kwon-do.
Leo leaves but the internet doesn’t work right away. Karen eats a kumquat and takes a nap. Before she lies down, she pours boiling water into a cup and hands it to me. I shake my head. She thrusts it at my chest and smirks, “This is China.”
And in China, as Karen has told me, people only care about themselves. In China, people are greedy. In China, people don’t smile. In China, people don’t like you unless you spend lots of money. In China, people drink hot water.
That’s what China says.
“Do you know the word ‘stereotype’?” I ask.
“No,” Karen replies.
“Okay. That’s okay.”
We visit her aunt and uncle in the afternoon
We flirt with Leo later that night. A storm hits and the internet goes back out. “Call him,” Karen commands. I call him and repeat the only phrases I remember: you’re super cute, hello, and his name. Then I toss Karen the phone.
She sneers when she hangs up. “Do you know what he said? He said, ‘I’m playing video games so I can’t talk to you too much.’ Crazy!!!! That’s why he’s poor,” Karen spits disgustedly.
She storms out and later wanders back in. I think she’s rescinding her harsh prediction of Leo’s fate. I’m wrong. “Let me say why I think he’ll be always poor. Two things: because he’s not smart, first, and then he’s lazy. He’s not like Chris. Now that’s a man I respect.”
We discover that my computer works with the ethernet cord while her computer doesn’t. “It’s my computer that’s the problem!” Karen gasps. “Wow, we shouldn’t have Leo come tomorrow. Because if he comes, we have to pay him 10 yen!” Let me clarify for the reader that 10 yen is approximately $1.60.
Leo will always be poor.
In Guilin (and, as we discover later, Beijing), people think I’m Russian. After the third random person inquires, Karen takes a good long stare at my face.
“I agree,” she evaluates scientifically. “You look Russian.” I tell her she only thinks that because she’s never seen a Russian. I’m right:
“What do Russians look like?” she subsequently asks.
“I don’t know…they have blue eyes,” I answer ambiguously, due to my lack of knowledge about Russians.
“All of them?” Karen asks, surprised.
To grandmother’s house we go on Saturday afternoon. She resides in “the village.” Said village never reveals its name.
We take a bus to the nearest main road and then retrieve Karen’s bicycle from a tiny roadside shop. The village is a fair 25 minutes away. Karen rides and I walk because I’m unconvinced by her claims that she can pedal the both of us + luggage. After trekking quite a distance, I cave and hop on. We make it about 200 meters before biffing it in the mud. We are laughing so hard at the ridiculousness of the mud and the cloudy sky and the abandoned road and our heavy bags and our delicate bicycle and our adventure to the village that I forget “I told you so.”
[picture – bike accident]
But I remember it on the morrow when I see the gigantic black spotted bruise that looks like death.
Grandmother’s home is brand new and the upper floor reminds me of a country lodge. It is a welcoming place tucked away in what may be the middle of nowhere. (But competition is steep – since coming to Asia, I’ve seen a lot of candidates for the middle of nowhere.) Grandmother is super touched by my visit. We’re in a room alone together and she hugs me like no tomorrow. Grandmother is smaller than Karen and wears the signs of age and labor. Her hands are bent and crinkled and wrinkled.
Four of Karen’s friends – two boys and two girls, all a couple years older than I am – will spend a night with us and are already preparing dinner when we arrive.
They think I’m just like a movie star because of my high nose. “Mmm, classy,” appraises one girl. “Yes, so high,” says another.
“But don’t you think all white people look like movie stars then?” I ask, eliciting a comment about my particular beauty.
“Yes, you all look like movies stars,” Karen’s friend replies, smashing my dreams of nasal uniqueness.
We kill a big spider – probably the biggest spider I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of big spiders because spiders are sometimes my hobby. I merely point out said spider crawling beside grandfather and one of the boys smashes it. He then tracks spider legs all over the room and doesn’t bother cleaning them up.
This is because in China, the floor is the trash can. I could say so much about this. But I’ll refrain.
I play cards with grandmother. We eat papaya. Everyone else has long abandoned us to sit on a bed and drink beer. Grandmother and I play ‘War’. We quit so grandmother can drink tea. No one wins.
In the morning, Karen wakes me up early (9:30) to traipse through the rice fields. The frogs croak hidden underneath the grasses. Frogs so loud that I keep scanning for ugly birds cooing ugly noises. A man plows his field underneath a cemetery sprouting up on the limestone mountain.
[picture – man and cows]
We visit her grandfather at the rock mine. He is the lone man working; the rest sit gambling at a small tea party-sized table. That is perhaps the best way to describe Chinese tables – they are the tables we used as children to sit our American girl dolls at while we pretended to be proper. We stuck our pinkies out. We ate unidentifiable morsels from our Easy Bake Ovens. The chairs are adorable.
The rock mine boss loses 1,000 yen.
Karen’s grandfather teaches me Kung Fu. He encouragingly bobs his head and gives me a thumbs-up. But he tells Karen in Chinese that I’m not sturdy or powerful.
He reads me like a book. So much so that later he spots a green tailed butterfly and calls me over. It is one of many humungous Lepidoptera perching on the building’s walls. They love it here, translates Karen, because at night, the lightbulbs are on. It seems to me a suspect reason, but the Lepidoptera are indeed perching beside the unlit lightbulbs.
[ picture – butterflies ]
Despite the unique butterflies, the wall carries a curse. Painted in Chinese characters: Whoever steals our dogs will die.
We head back to Karen’s village. Her village is like Damascus. Clay brick houses filled with sticks, many abandoned. Not that that’s my picture of Damascus. But it kind of is. I feel like I’m in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. Karen’s old school is one of the abandoned buildings filled with sticks. It is gorgeously dilapidated.
“I studied here when I was 5. I was very stupid. The teachers beat me every day. I went home but I could never remember the assignment. Nobody wanted to be my friend.” It is a fond memory.
In the afternoon, Karen and I walk to the vegetable garden on the mountain slope. Karen stops and grabs rice shoots from a village woman and tosses them into the wet field. I try too, though my shoot ends up on a lump of mud and the village woman says something that I don’t understand.
Karen tells me that it’s okay we left her friends behind because they don’t like to go outside. But two of them come up while Karen picks vegetables (and I take pictures). Karen teaches them American slang – ‘the third wheel’ – and I feel redundant, like my work here is finished.
On the way home, Karen comments that many of her friends study politics. “But I don’t like politics,” she laughs for the millionth time. “The Chinese news serves the government so we just hear, ‘Oh, this leader is visiting the poor people and this leader is talking with other countries.’ We only hear the good things.
This makes it difficult when I’d like to talk about Taiwan with a real live Chinese person. Before, Karen was frustrated when I brought up Taiwan somewhat incidentally in Uttaradit. After hearing that Chris and I have similar political views, she just says she doesn’t follow politics.
In the village, Karen served as translator while I conversed with a real live Chinese person – Karen’s 27-yr-old male friend who studied social science – about Taiwan and Facebook:
We see the world from different viewpoints. America cares about America. China cares about China. We have the same goal – keep our countries safe and secure. I ask about censorship. Once, he says, England censored a video about people blowing up buildings. China is just doing the same thing. I ask about the younger generation. Do they think the same things? What about the youth using software to access censored sites like Facebook? Should they be fined? I don’t know, he says. The government has a good purpose, and so do the people who use the software. Everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing. I ask him about the media. He says American media hides things as well. China’s media is just doing the same thing, only more officially.
He asks me who elected Obama, who donated to the campaign, telling me that politics are corrupt everywhere. I tell him he can find out online. He tells me there are terrible things about America that I don’t know. I tell him that the people who hate America the most live in America. And they tell everyone. Americans enjoy conflict, a good expose, revealing the dark side. We aren’t a country that covers stuff up. I believe this more and more the longer I live in Asia.
Should Taiwan be a part of China? Taiwan is a part of China; it will always be; we are one.
I don’t know what I want him to say. I probably wanted him to be slightly less predictable.
He hasn’t heard of Facebook.
Karen’s friends return to the city. As Karen says, “we should pick them,” which means that we should accompany them to the road where the bus will pick them up. Karen analyzes the two boys who spent the night.
“I like the fatter one. The one who smokes. I think not bad, huh? He’s more manly. The skinny one is not protective. The girls want to keep walking but he’s lazy and wants to go home. He should listen to them. That’s why I have the white fever.”
Karen has the white fever. I’m supposed to find her a boyfriend. I’ve found her 3. But one doesn’t swing that way, one is previously engaged, and one is Chinese. She wouldn’t even look at the Chinese boyfriend. Karen thinks white men are more protective.
We pass some chickens. I comment on their girth. “Mph,” Karen grunts. “Those chickens aren’t fat. They’re big and very tasty. In China, after the women give birth to a child, they eat chicken soup.
“But at my grandmother’s house, the chickens don’t give birth to eggs everyday. They give birth only some days.”
So we try to find eggs to buy. But we only find duck eggs. And they are furry. And I don’t like furry duck eggs.
On the muddy paths through the rice field back to the village, Karen lies down. She is beautiful.
Near her home, a woman plants her fields. We grab a sheet of seedlings and get to work. Karen deserts me after approximately 2 minutes. I stay for an hour throwing those shoots into the paddies. Children swarm in now and then to help me, though they swarm out nearly as quickly as they come. Eventually, the children steal me away to essentially beat me. And kick mud at me. Chinese children are violent.
An elderly man who watches me plant rice wobbles over to grandmother’s house to praise my work. The American girl plants the rice very well. One thousand Chinese farm points.
It is only 7 am and I’ve already sparked a vicious village soap opera. Grandmother, upon hearing that some of the village boys kicked mud at me and punched me the night before (all in good fun, perhaps; as Karen says, “Chinese children are shy and violent”), made a visit to a boy’s grandmother. One thing led to another and both grandmothers ended up back at our house yelling at each other so loudly that the whole neighborhood was on pins and needles. Apparently grandmother 2 wanted to wake me up to get the details before she punished her grandson. Grandmother would absolutely not disturb my sleep but thought that boy should be beat, beat, beat. A fight ensued. Yelling matches are common occurrences in China.
7:30 am is follow-the-leader time. Karen and I trek through villages and fields with the schoolchildren to the tiny primary school, Karen’s alma mater. About 120 students. I fall in love.
The babies get to school early and so do we. Karen and I are the only ‘adults’, and the teachers apparently come much later every morning. The babies follow me everywhere when I have my back turned toward them. If I turn around, they sprint away in every direction. This is of course my dream use of time. At one point, the students gather near the entrance, with some students leaning out the windows on the second floor. I stand 30 meters outside the entrance and dance.
It’s after 9 when the first teacher rolls in. They witness the mutiny.
Karen is responsible and finds the school director. I show the kids the bird call. The school director alerts other primary schools about my visit, and literally thirty teachers/directors and the superintendent come from around the region to observe me. They watch me teach all morning, sitting in the back of the room on little stools. I am a celebrity.
At lunch, 30 teachers head to the nearest actual town to eat. This is where I learn about the Chinese toast. At meals, they toast each other about every 20 seconds. Our table had about 15 people around it. We stand up, tap the paper cups on the big heated bowl on our table, and then bump our peanut milk or weird egg-tea-whiskey against all the other peanut milks and egg-tea-whiskies. Toasts happened, I kid you not, about 40 times during lunch.
“She has not adapted to our toasts,” a teacher says (a fact I only know due to Karen’s translation). Which is true. I generally eat sitting down if I’m at a table.
Back at school, I play in the school field before classes start. I make up a game that involves no explanation or behavior management. I sing Ring around the Rosie at the top of my lungs, fall down, stand up and then point at a kid, yell “You!” and chase said child all around the school yard. Repeat. 100 kids participate in utter rapture for 30 minutes.
By the end of the day, I’ve taught introductions, crocodile features + opposites (it’s nearly impossible for me to talk to a large group of people without mentioning crocodiles – it’s my comfort topic), and a few other things that guarantee fluency within 4-6 weeks to the 2-6th grades.
This is likely the best teaching experience I’ve ever had: children filled to the brim with happiness in the classroom, eagerly listening, eagerly repeating, eagerly participating. Thirsty for knowledge. Despite all the crazy things I hear about urban China, the median number of students per class is 20, with the third-grade class being only 16.
[picture – kids at school]
No uniforms, unlike Thailand. The teachers –practically all women – wear pants, even jeans or leggings. In Thailand, they dress far more prettily. The babies just wear their play clothes, often the same clothes everyday from what I gather, messy as heck, caked with dirt stains, shoes falling apart. In Uttaradit, I forget how poor the students are until I see them outside of school because they wear uniforms. Here, those ripped t-shirts are a constant reminder.
The best thing about this school is that the kids have to listen (unlike Thailand, where teachers don’t really give a ‘(Uttara)Dit). The worst thing about this school is that outside of class, the kids are actually wild. As in wild animals. As in uncivilized. As in vicious. As in the Lord of the Flies cast. This is all very well and safe if the children are captured and caged and you look in at them, but I’m not an observer – I’m the bestest toy these kids have ever seen. And I’ve fallen right into the lion’s den.
Luckily, the mosh pit that forms around me during class breaks and after school only results in one child crying. Two children master the bird call.
|they watched me teach|
|i promise i only teach the birdcall before and after class|
|teaching may be only for my personal benefit|
|this is the best bird i've ever drawn|
We walk home with our village’s kids. Kids push each other over drops into the fields. They chillax on the grass. They catch butterflies then lick their fingers.
We wash our clothes in the river. Well, Karen washes, and I talk about boys after complaining that there’s no way our clothes can get clean if we scrub them on the pavement by the river. Our clothes get clean.
Karen wades to the other bank of the river. She must make an appearance at her family’s field to show them that she “cares about planting rice.” What a diplomat.
I retrieve chicken eggs with grandmother in their old house-turned-chicken coup. I thank God I don’t live in the chicken coup.
I eat those eggs. Aroi mok, as the Thai say. How chur, as the Chinese say.
But I miss American water. And for a second, eating vegetables and rice like I’ve done for the past 7 months, I miss Trader Joe’s.
It’s drizzling. The rice planting means the fields are wet and muddy anyway, but this morning is especially slippery on the little raised mud paths that weave through the fields. On the way to school, Karen warns me “Be careful!” too late. I slide off the path into the muddy field. The muddy sinking sand. I can’t pull my feet out. So I eat reach my hand holding my egg cake thing around the umbrella I’m caring and take a bite. Karen is exasperated. Always too slow, she says. This is not the time to eat your breakfast. But we can’t stop laughing, which makes pulling me out a near impossible task. In fact, we almost call over some farmers to help. I think God helps us, because I finally retrieve both my feet and my sandals. I walk barefoot to the next village near the river.
I scrape off mud from my shoes and pants with sharp rocks in the river. Karen stands on a bridge disapprovingly. Always too slow, she says. Stuck in the mud. Eating your breakfast. Always too slow, always late, you are slower than the Thai.
My babies at school are the crown jewels of my heart. Oh how they listen, and oh how I love. A mere day ago, I think Chinese children are insane violent criminals. Today they are children.
We learn about crocodiles and birds, running and eating, worms and eggs, sleeping and WAKE UP!, hungry and yummy, happy and bored. Acting, singing, dancing, talking, talking, talking. Stick your tongue out – “TH”.
I eat dog. Chopsticks thrust into every which dish. In and out of that bowl of dog meat, I watch them maneuver to my vegetables, I watch the teachers stick those greasy chopsticks into my eggs. Sharing these bowls, sharing these germs, sharing that poor canine pet slaughtered, chopped up, and sold at the market. The teachers tell Karen they like me because I’m so carefree. I’m adapted to Chinese meals. But I’m not. I’m just left resourceless, languageless, know-how-less in a foreign dog-eating land.
When I was little, sometimes the neighborhood kids and I would discuss China. Usually in reference to Tikki Tikki Tembo or some other such story. Or nuclear weapons. Or fortune cookies. And a kid, usually an annoying boy with a sneer, would inevitably interject, “THEY EAT DOGS IN CHINA!”
And you know what? That annoying sneering boy was absolutely right. They eat dogs in China.
Besides making my physically ill, the teachers sit around debating about teaching philosophy. The teachers, who’ve sat in the back taking notes in every class I’ve taught, say they understand my teaching style. Karen translates, “They’ve learned they should praise the children more.”
|dog in a bowl|
We’re eating in what is essentially a small prison cell, complete with barred window, walls stained in weird ways, and a TV. And I think, hmmm, prison cell, China, and philosophy…Who can blame me for the thought associations of Karl Marx and communism?
Karen gets caught up in a heated debate about ping pong. Chinese villagers love to yell. You win the argument if you have the loudest voice. Karen most definitely lied to me by omission when she stayed silent in Uttaradit when I told her that Americans love to debate. Well, maybe the Chinese don’t love to debate, but they do love to yell at each other. “They have nothing else to do,” Karen laughs. I, on the other hand, am not willing to joke. I am afraid I will get shot by the yelling village grandmothers. Or plowed to death.
In class, I teach the kiddies to say that Karen is beautiful. This is my most unwittingly brilliant move. The boys run up to me after lunch and say, Rachel you are beautiful. Rachel you are very beautiful. Rachel you are beautiful. I hug them. They push their friends forward so they can tease each other when I chase them to hug them. Shrie die la, I reply. The one Chinese phrase I remember and pronounce correctly: you are super handsome.
Yesterday, two girls gave me candy. I kissed them on the forehead. Now they’ve told their friends about the kiss from Rachel. So they are becoming more and more brave, nudging each other forward, copying the boys, Rachel you are beautiful, testing me to see if I’ll bestow more kisses. Darling girls, I say, you are beautiful. And I kiss them.
I teach the 5th grade girls line dancing. Or what I call the line dance, which is a series of choppy movements I make up on the spot that includes a warped grape vine and a do-si-do.
The school director commands us to play ping pong. This is Chinese tradition – prove your worth through your ping pong game. It feels like a test. We stand our ground, each individually. The 5th grade watches intently. The school director apparently teaches physical education. He is one of three male teachers, and by far the youngest (about 50), constantly smiling.
I tell one of the teachers how happy/crazy the children are; she says it’s because I’m here and that before, there was no “fun teaching” so the kids weren’t so happy/crazy. The no-fun-teaching part might be true. But I doubt these kids are ever anything but happy/crazy.
Afternoon classes start late so the students can form a mosh pit around me and do the hokey pokey and interpretive dance. It’s like one great big mosh pit game of follow-the-leader. I raise my hand, they raise their hands. I jump like a rabbit, they jump like rabbits. I turn around while shaking violently, they turn around while shaking violently.
It. Is. Seriously. A. Glorious. Moment.
[picture – mosh pit]
And it makes my heart so full…it is worth coming all the way to China, all the way to Guangxi, all the way to a tiny village, all the way through the rice fields hidden behind limestone mountains, to this little school hidden behind a cemetery, just to meet these precious ones. Just to let them run away from the kisses I blow.
And I am good at blowing kisses, much thanks to a handful of Thai girls at the Uttaradit market. Toss kisses up like tennis balls and serve them to a child. Or like baseballs and bat them. Or like volleyballs. I have so many kisses to give. These children have so many kisses to receive.
I start to cry when we leave. Karen rolls her eyes. The children run after me. Bye bye Rachel you are beautiful.
Two days of 100+ children following me and copying everything I do. Two days of 100+ children shyly wanting my kisses. Two days of 100+ children listening to me like angels in the classroom. Two days of 100+ children calling Hello Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.
Two days of hearing my name, my real name, not my Thai name.
The only downsides of the day are the bathroom situation and the fact that I’m a terrible vegetarian because people stuck their doggy chopsticks into my food. A Thai woman had warned me not to come to China because the bathroom stall walls are waist-high so people watch each other do their business. It’s true that China has a greater percentage of squat toilets than Thailand (or perhaps not, maybe I’m just really good at avoiding squat toilets and being dehydrated). But today is the first time I encounter one of those low-wall stalls. And it was nearly a traumatic moment. If it were actually a traumatic moment, I wouldn’t write about it. I probably wouldn’t even be alive right now. Luckily, I could stem the torrent of massive cultural misunderstanding because it happened with Karen.
I tell Karen I need to go to the bathroom. She accompanies me so she can read the Chinese characters to identify the women’s bathroom. The school’s teacher bathroom has two low-walled stalls. I go in and am locking the main door when Karen nonchalantly pushes open the door and follows me. Yeah, no, that’s not gonna happen, I tell Karen. She is confused. But I need to go to the bathroom, she says. Yeah, not right now, I say. Why? There are two stalls, she points out. Ha, definitely not right now, I say. I am American. I am not Chinese.
I love you, but I am not peeing with you.
|Karen plays ping pong with the director|
|one of these bags is not like the other...|
|follow the leader and never go to class|
We go to the market and miss the little songteow that could take us home (see dead chicken picture above). Karen is stressed, stressed, stressed that we’ll miss it, and we do. “HA, what a joke,” exclaims Karen. “We’re always so slow.”
We walk home. Karen finds me a spot to pee next to the road. She thinks it’s adequately concealed. Seeing as I can see all the people driving past on their motorcycles, I firmly disagree. Karen, ever since I left America, people stare at me and watch my every move, I stand out like tie-dye, I’m not peeing next to the road. She says I’m crazy. I think she wants her village to watch me pee. She stands there laughing, under the limestone mountains, eating a peanut biscuit.
We meet a man on the way home who tells Karen that I’m beautiful. But there are gradients of beauty in conversational Chinese. He means that you’re about a 7, Karen translates. So is that a 6 or 7, or a 7 or 8? I ask. He could mean you’re an 8, actually, Karen acquiesces. Okay, let’s take 8. That’s pretty good.
[In Beijing, men say I’m about a 9 [that could mean 8]. Because I’m Russian.]
We pass a group of men huddling around two Chinese chess players. It’s the male pastime. The Chinese peeps always play intellectual games. The schoolchildren spend lots of free time at school in the library. Karen says the Chinese are a lot smarter than the Thai. I am from Uttaradit, so I really have to stay out of that.
I can, however, say that I am not considered particularly smart. At Karen’s aggressive request, I showed Nie Nie (Grandmother) and Yeah Yeah (Grandfather) a few songs from my teaching. It’s after dinner and we’re sitting in our little tea party chairs and I have to drag Yeah Yeah up to sing “I want to be your friend” with me. The song has some pretty sweet actions. Yeah Yeah is a good sport, but I’m about 95% sure that he thinks I’m utterly stupid. He leaves immediately afterward and later on the phone with his son, mocks the dance. “She didn’t do much while she was here,” he begins. “She can’t cook very well, and she didn’t work at the quarry, but she did dance for us. Like she was dancing with ghosts [shout out to Karen’s translation on everything],” Yeah Yeah relates.
Oh Yeah Yeah, if only you knew how popular that song is with 8-year-olds.
I prepare to leave the ancient Chinese farm village for Yanshuo. I almost think I don’t need to explore Guangxi any farther. I’m living under the limestone mountains in the rice fields in a miniscule village that looks like Damascus and has roaming roosters and children who’ve never seen foreigners and dogs being slaughtered and cows traipsing down the narrow dirt streets. I’ve planted rice and fallen in the mud and picked vegetables and eaten homecooked meals and washed my clothes in the river and fed the chickens with Nie Nie and learned Kung Fu from Yeah Yeah. I’ve slept early and woken early, warmed myself at the fire where we cook after dark, chased the children and heard the croaking frog choruses.
And now to stay in a hostel in Yanshuo? Maybe I will live with Nie Nie and Yeah Yeah forever. I don’t even know the name of this place, much less remember the names of all these children. In the village, people ignore the one-child policy. Nie Nie was concerned that people might think Karen and I are spies from the government when we wander through the other villages. In the village, people are more free, planting rice until dark, eating rice until midnight. Free to love children, give them life.
Karen leaves me early in the morning for the dentist in the city. We’ve been joined at the hip since I arrived at the Guangzhou airport, so I’m kinda hapless without her. I clean Nie Nie’s upstairs lodge area without asking Nie Nie to locate the cleaning supplies. So it takes me a freakishly long time, much like everything I do. My mopping is half-hearted because the midnight storm soaked the hallway and muddy shoes desecrated the entire house. Mommy says it’s not that I can’t mop well; it’s that I choose not to mop well. I agree.
Nie Nie walks me to the main road. This is quite the hike, and not a short one, so I’m much indebted and constantly trying to send her back. I say “wah” (“I”) and point onward and say “nee” (“you”) and point toward home. She refuses to leave me. Our journey is an arduous one: incredibly slow and full of Nie Nie lecturing me about something while simultaneously interjecting compliments about my character. Or at least that’s what I surmise…my Chinese is nonexistent at best. She’s holding her waist in a bit of agony; Karen’s told me countless times about her grandmother’s physical problems. Nie Nie is trying to persuade me to take her umbrella as it might rain. She doesn’t realize that the farther she gets from home, and the farther her journey back, the less likely it is that I’ll steal her umbrella. After all, I’ll be on a bus while she’s still slowly walking home.
I succeed at one point in sending her home when she knows I’ve seen her holding her waist. We hug, and she says my name, “Reshey” (I can’t spell her rendition…it sounds nothing like English, much less my name). Tears start piling up in her eyes.
I’m human, so I can’t help tears either – here’s tiny Nie Nie all hunched over and with those gnarly hands that look like stems holding my hand and petting my hair and forcing hard-boiled eggs from her chickens on me and walking me all the way across the fields and fields and fields and giving me a cute red paper packet with money as a blessing (Chinese tradition) and I am empty-handed and touched and so ridiculously late.
Karen joins me not too long after I arrive in Yangshuo and we spend the late afternoon biking around curvy roads along the Li River and through the limestone mountains. We of course don’t stop at any “sights” (except to take pictures from the road) due to our cheapness and lateness (mostly the former). But we find a glorious windy road tripping through the mountains, populated by [mountain?] lambs.
Dinner’s at the bakery. Never have we seen a bakery we haven’t entered. To Chris’ chagrin in Guangzhou. He didn’t know that he couldn’t politely appease our longing eyes resting on that streetcorner bakery when we were theoretically late to meeting someone by saying “I mean, I guess we have time.” That was all we needed, Chris. We’re going in.
Yangshuo is nice, but we just came from the farm village, which is likewise littered with limestone peaks. We’re jaded. We’re villagers.
Ghangxi’s limestone region reminds me of Perelandra. So ridiculously magical, hard to imagine scenery more gorgeous.
But you can count on us to try. We left Yangshuo before 24 hours passed for the Longji rice terraces and Tiantou village. The Yao ethnic minority group calls this spot home.
Tiantou – “The road to Music from Paradise”
It took us hours to hit up that terraced rice. After hopping off the bus in a ‘transfer’ village, we were pitied and coaxed onto a random bus to chase the correct bus, which was the very last bus of the day and had already left. Or so they say (which in this case was true). The buses stop early because it’s dangerous to drive up to the terraces in the dark. We successfully chased down the correct bus farther up the mountain, which was driven by an insane man. We almost died several times, jerking around the tightest turns. I’m standing next to a villager with two burlap sacks that are moving suspiciously. I figure out that it’s because the bags have animals inside when the bag starts crawling onto my feet. The man just smiles at me, and I think, “Um, is he gonna get his chickens off my feet anytime soon?” Answer: no.
We arrive at DaZhai and hike hike hike in the twilight to Tiantou. Gasping for breath and totally , we thank Jesus that a few village kids head up at the same time.
“Since I’ve met you, I’ve been really busy. You always want to go here and there, do this and that. Now I have to take a shower and do laundry…wow, so busy!” Karen tells me, making me wish we could’ve halted all our busy stayed longer in Tiantou, cuddling under the fluffy white comforters with our windows flung open and moths flying in and out with the cool breeze.
We could stay here forever. Here, we leave a bit of the tranquility of our hearts. The remainder of our time together is hardly so peaceful, so carefree, so lost in the thin air of the mountains, breathing deeply all for a mist.
The journey to Beijing is stressful, pulling strings to get Megan (my friend from Fulbright who joins us in China) on the full train. Luckily, Karen’s friend knows the conductor, and he gives Megan his bed. NBD. That’s how much Jesus loves us.
We love the Summer Palace, but not for the reasons we should. Not the history, or the architecture, or the buildings, or that feeling that we’re walking where out ancestors once walked. We love the Summer Palace because it’s spring. The wildflowers bloom, the lilacs blossom all around us, reminding Megan and I of home. The mockingbirds and their classic tails perch here and there, being so obvious that even we couldn’t miss them. Don’t walk on the grass, but we do. The lake-dividing bridge (aptly named because it divides two lakes, as the signs constantly remind us) populated by parallel rows of weeping willows and low, crooked dark trees with thick pink flowers.
The couple practicing their accordion and violin duets, who could set up a money case but don’t even try. Our favorite “where are they from?” game, which we master.
In the Garden of Harmony, we bask in the sunshine. I stare at the ripples’ reflections on the painted ceilings of the pavilions, Karen and Megan watch the “golden fish” dart to and fro. We stroll to a forgotten corner of the garden, and Karen stops, points, and exclaims, “These fish are happier! These fish are so happy!” And we are happy too, in that Garden of Harmony.
Karen leans back on me, but quickly straightens up and glares at me, “You’re good looking, but not good touching. Megan, you’re such good touching. But I’m good looking and good touching. Oh! (looking between Megan and I) I feel so sorry for you two!”
We leave the Summer Palace, whole sweet potatoes in hand, for the metro. We’re riding back home when we pass the Peking University East Gate stop. “Ooo, we could theoretically stop here and visit the university.” It’s a moment of perfect harmony, thanks to the harmony garden. Without confirming with each other, we all three spontaneously and independently jerk up and sprint off the train. Classy moment.
I think those train peeps respected us. Those passive looks didn't fool me.
Peking University…Soviet campus mixed with Ivy and those recurring pink flowers, how we wish we knew the name! The library. All these brilliant young Chinese students milling around us, doing tai chi, watching us watch them. Feeling like we’re back in college, eating nasty Chinese pancakes on dirty steps, buying drinks from the convenience store.
Great Wall in abandoned mountains. We're the only visitors. Totally abandoned spot. Surreal. (Tiantou and the Great Wall and Nie Nie and rice planting were easily the trip's highlights.)
Hiking up the mountains pre-Great Wall, I saw a goose stuck between 2 fences. To Megan's embarrassment, I tracked down the man who lived near those fences and communicated to him in Chinese about his stuck goose. Just kidding. I acted it out. NOBODY TAUGHT ME TO SAY "SIR, YOUR GOOSE IT STUCK" in Chinese. WHAT THE HECK. That's apparently more handy than "Hello" and "How much is this?" Gotta figure that out in Thai...
Finally get ourselves onto the VERY LONG MOUNTAIN WALL sans ladder (K and M heart-attack-ing) after several near death experiences. Answered my lifelong question about if/why the Great Mountain is effective. It is yo. Also, you climb up mountains to get on the wall and while you're on the wall. Makes sense now that we think about it. But we really didn't get the strenuous exercise memo in history class.
Killer mountain top experience and all that. You had to be there. Praised Jesus.
Slept in a woman's tiny freezing cold house with a natural gas leak.
We love the Great Wall. We claimed it for America. You're welcome, America. We figured you didn't have enough to deal with all the Chinese peeps seeking asylum in our embassies.
|just a classy Tienanmen square, China-knees-American democracy picture|
|apparently the faces we unthinkingly make outside the communist party building|
|these noodles beat us|
|just us and our wall|