Lunar Year wrap-up
Trip Start Aug 24, 2007
42Trip End Jul 04, 2008
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Sitting on the warm wooden porch in one of Chicago's smoky humid nights, you think of reasons not to leave while working through the stolen stockpile of challah from work. There are hugs and faces buried in necks to stifle the sadness. There are time periods and boxes to be packed and put away for later. There are long drives and frustrated phone calls; there is uncertainty about it all. There are piles of belongings placed in a haphazard order around bags and bottles of hand sanitizer. There are last talks on the swing porch and there are last meals underneath the ash tree's canopy before the 747 is finally boarded.
Stepping out of the Zhengzhou airport in a city with an unpronounceable name, air is sickly squeezed out of you as the hot sticky night presses in around you. You cannot pick up your luggage from the weight of the exhaustion and the strength of the invisible steamy blanket smothering you. You rest your elbows and hips with their bruises from hard Chinese beds on leather couches cooled by air conditioning as you sip barely alcoholic Chinese beer and watch television. Your emotions rise and fall, taking their cue from the piques and decrescendos of the music piping out of the speakers. An old man helps you cross the street because the constant and erratic stream of bicyclists, beng-bengs, buses, taxis, and cars never seem to slow down to create a safe passage across. Riding a beng-beng, one of just many from the army of motorized rickshaws patrolling your new city, you close your eyes every five seconds thinking "this is it, this is the time I'm going to die." You are tired and exhilarated. You have just lived the longest week of your life.
Starting your first day of teaching, you cannot decide if your stomach hates you because of nerves or because of the meat on a stick you ate last night off an old man's cart. You are met with a block of 43 pairs of eyes and faces sitting in silence as they are awed by you and what you mean to them. You represent progress, you represent success, you represent an opportunity to lift them out of China's poorest province and it's sprawling yellow fields and dirty rivers. They tell you they need to improve their English so they can make their parents' lives better; they tell you they need you so they can make money and leave. You awkwardly struggle underneath the weight of their expectations as you fumble and grasp for a place in this sprawling noisy country and for a sense of who you are.
As the heat begins to melt away, there is an adjustment as you walk along the dirty hutongs. Your disdain and concern for the layers of grim, grease and grit covering everything and everyone is wiped away and replaced by fierce love. You smile to the bicycle repairman squatting on the corner, his fingernails blackened with grease. You relish in the cracks on his sunburned face as he beams back while you cross the street. The woman with the red apron, no-nonsense ponytail, and floral sleeve protectors wipes down her grill and begins to make you an egg pancake as she sees you walking down the distance. As she hands you the piping hot food, an egg spread over a thin layer of batter wrapped over a piece of fried dough, pickled cabbage and two sauces you call 'the ubiquitous brown sauce' and 'spicy doom,' you smile to her as you bite into it, both of you knowing you'll be back tomorrow. The realization that you are capable of doing this is intoxicating.
You are called to drink in honor of all the "happy minorities, the bumper crops and the high populace of the province in 2007" and shuttled to drink with one government official to another. You feel awkward as Mr. Ma snaps another picture of you drinking foul-tasting baijou with Henan's governor and army commander. You grimace as you swallow the clear liquid and wonder how you got here, this place with these people in an establishment that is much too classy and refined for your middle-class Midwestern self. All sense of sophistication and propriety is soon cast off in a drunken taxi ride back to Kaifeng as Jackie and Mr. 66 join in chanting "P.R.C!" with you.
Then there are cramped rides on buses lurching from side to side as you climb up mountains. You sit near the window and every few seconds you see the bus veer dangerously close the side of the road, where the mountain plunges down below into a dried out riverbed. Sitting next to you is a man with his legs splayed wide apart. He is physically asserting his opinion that it's more important to air out his crotch than it is for you to stretch out your legs so you can regain feeling in them. Climbing past Crotch Man and out of the rickety bus, you begin to climb the mountain and into the small village of Guoliang, entering into a world of poverty, beauty, fog and hordes of vacationing Chinese people. For once you can feel the nip of a different season bite at your fingers as you carefully walk along the mountain side in fog. The fog is so thick you cannot see the ravine that drops to doom alongside the path. You climb, slip, walk, and sit on what feels like every step in the village as you explore the natural beauty of China that eluded you for the past three months. The parade of Chinese from rural China enthusiastically wave and say hello to you on the picturesque mountainside, wanting pictures, conversations, friendship. The tourists' friendliness combined with the vertical mountain exploring finally leaves you exhausted, tired and hurting. Cramped bus rides in reverse full of more smiles, awkward sitting positions and Chinese tourists. Gratitude washes over you as you finally shut the door to your apartment and collapse on your bed. For the first time, Kaifeng feels like home.
Struggling to teach during your most difficult class, you receive a text message from your teaching partner informing you that will teach a new class starting in two days. You cannot take the last minute messages and the lack of communication from the administration anymore as you text her back telling her you cannot, as your eyes blur from reading too many plagiarized research papers and a large unresponsive class. You feel what it is like to be exploited because of your nationality, your gender and your language. You wade through the murky waters of self-doubt, cultural confusion, and manipulation from a higher-level. Sifting through the layers of morality, your best interests and homesickness, you listen as the Dean explains why it is your duty to teach more when you already feel stretched thin. You move from hating your job and wanting to desperately go home to knowing you should stick it out. Home and everyone you know is calling out for you to come back, but you aren't sure. You can't decide if you should stay and put up with it, or go home. Sitting in the room with the carpet of an indistinguishable color, dirtied by years of grime and sparse cleaning, you hate yourself as you start crying in front of the Dean. You feel so weak as the weeks of exhaustion, stress and doubt tear your strength apart. You feel cheap as the man who is insulting you with his patronizing expression tries to comfort and manipulate you at the same time. You can feel it working as you start to rationalize how you can take on a larger workload in a job you are still learning and still unsure about, but in the end you remain strong. You will not do it. You win your first employer-employee battle, but you still despise them slightly for tainting your experience. You go to class the next day and as soon as you start talking to your students, you are glad you decided to stay.
Walking along unmarked hutongs, determined to create a new route to the city wall, you weave through the narrow passageways of everyday Chinese life. You pass under laundry of thickly padded clothing, long johns and dark, drab clothes hanging from ropes suspended by wires across the alley. You pass through doors with red and gold papers slapped onto the frames, warding off evil spirits and bringing good luck. Bicycles are propped up by wilted potted plants or electrical posts with wads of jumbled wires hoisted on it by a giant stake. The sense of fear and confusion you felt in the beginning about these narrow, dilapidated sources of Chinese life has been washed away. You walk with an air of comfort and assurance and know that you are safe and at home. Rounding a narrow corner, you see a small child, no more than two years old. The child's face is swollen, disfigured and discolored. The skin is stretched tight and folded in scar creases over its puffy cheeks and forehead, with small tufts of hair defiantly growing through the thick and damaged skin. Their right eyelid is peeled back in disfigurement. Thinking about the child, you feel lightheaded and like someone punched you in the stomach. Knowing that the Chinese regard any type of physical abnormality as a punishment and reason enough to ostracize someone, you know that the child will never grow up to be like your students. Chinese society, especially in poor and traditional Henan, will not allow the child to have a normal life. You think about how maybe the child reached up innocently to the stove like you did when you were a small child, and reached for the pot on top, not knowing what was inside. For you, it was a pot of hot caramel, burning your hand, but not badly enough to leave scars. This child isn't as lucky. You start to hate Chinese society for the burned child, who is too young to have developed any sense of rage.
You start to peel off the layers of homesickness and cultural exhaustion that have been piling on you for the past two months. The layers are peeled away by the sense of daily rhythm, by the sense of connection to what is going on around you. You realize you are living in a strange time that perfectly captures China at the moment. You are between two years. You are living in the new year of the modern world, the world China is trying to emulate, but you are also living in the old year of the Lunar calendar, living in China's past and awaiting its new year. You ask your student when her birthday is and she cannot tell you. She doesn't know what date she was born on in your calculation of time. She can only tell dates by the calendar of her ancestors. You are excited by this connection to China's history, something you feel like everyone you know is trying to escape. It makes you feel hopeful about the future of this culture you are coming to passionately love. You are excited about the prospect of a month-long sojourn into a part China you do not know. You are excited about coming back to your Chinese home, to start again. You are excited because you know this is where you are supposed to be.