Chasing Ideas

When an idea’s strong enough, it’s stitched into the arteries, so that no matter how many heartbeats per moment, it’s there, circulating and resurfacing until the day the blood stops flowing altogether.  Some of these are like a distant hum, always there, but never quite solid enough to pinpoint.  Other times, it’s pressing against the roof of the mouth, threatening to spill out at any passing moment. 

I asked my English classes so far to write journal entries about their ideal places.  Nothing too complicated, I thought, but when I read over their journals, I saw an idea crashing through the pages, spilling out through the ink and into the world. 

Some wrote very little, saying something as simple as “Hangzhou is where my family is, so Hangzhou is my paradise.”  Others screamed through their broken English that their paradise was anywhere but here! 

One student wrote: “Facing the beautiful sunshine, kissing the green grass with our own skin, brushing the clear air, they’re such wonderful things that be in my brain.”

Another wrote: “I needn’t think too much that is not much related to me, so I won’t have much unhappy moment.”

Some dream places were extravagant, including a lover, a windswept mountain-top, and unimaginably beautiful scenery.  Most students wrote about locations in China they wanted to visit.  One thing was clear, though: not here.  Not here in Xiasha, where the blue sky is muffled behind smog, and where students are pressured with homework, and the buildings are so tall and huddled together that you wonder how much true sunlight you get, or if it is all reflection from the windows. 

Not here.

Then where?
I thought about this for a while, as I walked through the park by Yuyuan apartments, where I live in Xiasha.  Where is paradise?  The overwhelming idea is that if you can escape where you are right now, then you will find it.  But I got to thinking: do we ever really stop searching?

For me, paradise is a fairly attainable prospect: keep me thinking and happy, and that is all I need.  So, I sat there in the park, happily eating a steamed roll, thinking about how, really, I ought to be studying Chinese characters, admiring the way the buildings reflected into the ponds, as if modernity itself was searching for a way to connect with nature.

The distant hum of their idea was still there, though.  It was there as I sat in my office editing, while I was in my apartment doubting my capacity as a teacher, and there as the deep fragrance of Osmanthus flowers morphed into exhaust fumes from passing trucks. 

There’s an often-quoted phrase: “Above, there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.”  But maybe there needs to be another phrase added: “and we will not find it until we kiss the green grass with our own skin.”  We can’t look at pictures, talk about West Lake, and call it good.  We have to get outside. 

People ask me if I’m happy in China.  I’m happy when I don’t let myself stay inside for too long.  I’m happy when I can talk to ladies after dancing and figure out when they actually start.  I’m happy when the Osmanthus fragrance lingers and I can imagine for a moment that millions of other people across time have been just as spell-bound by it.  I’m unhappy when I look at the world through a slit in the curtains of my apartment.  Or, when I sit in my cubicle, bent over a ream of paper, watching students stroll to their next classes.  Or, when I’m rushing to Chinese class on a too-small bike, cussing under my breath for running late AGAIN, watching the blur of cars and trees streak past in an unmemorable wash of panic.          

The idea clenches our lungs—that whatever else there is out there, it’s better than here.  But maybe it can be as straight-forward as being where love is, or being where your pulse quickens with excitement, with new ideas springing forth. 

For me, that’s stepping outside.  The act of daring to breathe. 

 

Advertisements

Getting to Know You

I walked into my first class on the Xicheng Campus of 浙江理工大学 and the students applauded.  I mean, okay, I was thinking of the song “Sexyback,” because when that many people stare at you, you either start to feel like a freak, or a freaking SUPERMODEL.  (That day, I went with supermodel.)  But I thought applause was a little excessive.  Several girls pulled out cameras to take pictures of me, and I heard “漂亮”more than once, which means beautiful.  I decided I’d not dig too deeply into it and went on with the lesson.  I mean, I got asked to be interviewed for a local TV station because I was the only foreigner in the vicinity and they were talking about the Mid-Autumn Festival.  So, attention is to be expected.  I assume.

We learned about introductions, which involved me showing them a map of America to see if they could guess where “Minnesota” is.  (They always “ooo” and “ahhh” when the map comes out.  Likewise, when I brought out plastic bags for an activity.  So easy to impress.)  After we get done with intros, I like to give them a chance to ask me questions. 

I get the formula here: Where are you from/Why are you in China/Do you like the food/How long will you be in China/Do you like it here so far/What is your favorite food here so far?  I can basically answer them both in English in Chinese based almost completely on order. 

What I wasn’t prepared for: “Do you like Chinese boys?  Would you want to marry one?” from a Chinese MALE student.

Uhhh…

I mean, yeah I’ve thought about the boys here.  There’s an especially cute security guard outside of the school who wears bright neon blue tennis shoes with his official-looking uniform.  There’s the fantasy piano-playing-mechanic-physicist that I’m not actually looking for, but turn to whenever people ask me what kind of man I like.  Because, why not aim impossible if you’re just being pert?  And there are the random men in suits I see, because well-tailored suits are just about the sexiest article of clothing a man can wear.

But…marriage? 

“I think Chinese boys are like American boys, in that there are nice ones, and not-so-nice ones…” I began for my “this is totally a cop-out” answer.

This is going to be one hell of a semester. 

The Seed of Kindness

I’m in a dumpling restaurant with one of my students, Fay Yin.  She’s a fashion student who likes to make accessories and spends more time window-shopping than actual-shopping.  She never seems to be in a hurry, and always gives a thumbs-up whenever she says “good” in reference to anything from international relations to the taste of baozi.  On the very first day of class, she held her hand out to me and said “I would like to make friends with you” with the gravity of a marriage proposal.  The next week, she showed me some of her pictures from home and gave me a pin she made.

“I’m screwed,” I thought.  She wanted to spend time with me, she was being very nice, and was even giving me things.  I pictured myself mentally cornered as the end of the semester rolled around and she expected a higher grade, only to find out that she would be graded solely on her English.  “I should probably keep my distance.”

Yet here I am, sitting across from her in a dumpling restaurant in downtown Hangzhou, as she hands me tissues while I spill soy sauce on the table and generally fail to use chopsticks with grace.  She’s already shown me how to use the public bike transportation in Hangzhou, shown me around West Lake, and taken me to Leifeng Pagoda.  I’m still pretty oblivious to biking in a downtown setting, so she’s also very quick to pull me away from the road and say “be careful” as taxis zoom past.

“The clothes here are good,” she says, giving another thumb’s up, “but there is a night market in Hangzhou.  I get clothes like these for much cheaper.  We can go there someday?”

I say that would be nice, still sort of wondering why she’s being so helpful.  We leave the restaurant, going toward a mall, where she looks for a jacket.  I’ll never claim that I’m fashion-forward, but that’s what I like about China so far: the people are very practical.  So, if I make comments like “the color’s really great, but it clashes with your purse,” or “white looks good, but will need to be washed more often,” no one thinks twice about it.  Fay ends up getting a jacket, and as we walk through the store, she’s commenting on all the sorts of clothes I could wear.

“I’m too short, so I cannot to wear lots of nice clothes.  You could wear lots of dresses and high fashions, though.  Purple, I think.  It would be nice.”

We end up on Hefang Street, which is a street in Hangzhou designed to look like it’s from the Qing Dynasty, with old buildings, vendors in long robes, and things like puppets dangling from long strings, men yelling and banging mallets onto a lump of dough, and drums from deep within the hills.  We’re walking down the street, and Fay’s telling me about how much she wants to go to Italy someday to continue studying fashion.  Someday she wants to open her own store, but knows that she will have to work at a shop for a while before that happens.  It’s a gentle atmosphere—the lanterns bobbing in the evening breeze and other tourists crowding around the vendors grinding what may or may not be longjing tea.

Then, we’re in McDonalds to use their bathrooms, and my friend Xiao’s uncle calls and I’m struggling to wrangle enough Chinese to sound even four years old.  Then, Fay talks to him for me, translating to tell me that he and his family are very excited to meet me, even reading magazines and books on American culture to prepare.

“Everyone is so nice…” I say as we leave McDonalds and walk toward the bus station.

“It’s nothing,” she says (which I think is the Chinese way of saying “you’re welcome”).  “I guess we are thinking that if we were in a foreign country, we would like someone to help us, so it is good” (another thumb’s up) “to help foreigners over here.”

We walk back to the bus station in the dark, Fay telling me about how strange it is to have two huge department stores so close to each other.  She’s searching for good songs on her ipod for me to listen to, telling me more about the cheap night market, and saying that someday, she wants to take me to her home-town to meet her family, who are farmers-turned-factory-owners.

Maybe there isn’t a motive to kindness.  Maybe the motive is kindness itself, and planting the seed that we want to see grow somewhere else.  Maybe kindness only grows out of places that are willing to make room for it.

All I know is that I’m not as screwed as I thought.

 

On Re-Drafting a Life

I remember learning about “redrafting” in writing class.  Basically, it’s when you labor for a long time on something you love, and then decide to shove it aside and start from scratch.  You create an entirely new draft, and hope that it’s taken a draught of Skele-Gro and grown in places where it once was broken.  You hope, anyway.  But then, you remind yourself, there’s always the next draft, the next do-over.  And every do-over has exciting bits that sing so much clearer than before.  Of course, there’s also the slimy creatures mucking up what used to be exciting bits, but that’s what reaping from previous drafts is for.

Re-drafting is scary.  You’re in the midst of great company—words that took years to trust and fold around you.  They mold on the page differently, they roll off of your tongue in a very special way.  They are your friends.

And then, nothing.  Blank document.  Blinking curser flashing “HA HA HA!” as you fumble for a clever way to say it all over again.

Sure, there are still previous patterns, characters, and themes nudging their ways into otherwise blissful innocence.  There are the phrases that are kept in Word Document limbo as you can’t decide where you can stash them, because you will never think of anything as clever again. And there’s the thought of returning to other drafts and picking their carcasses clean when they’re not looking.

But it’s still more or less starting from scratch.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I walk around Hangzhou, like a needle through fabric: gliding through, though never connecting as much as in my previous life in the States.  This is my blank Word Document.  This is my re-draft.

Where are my words?

I’m trying to make connections, and it would be crazy to say that it’s easy.  Especially here, where a conversation can quickly become a negotiation if one’s not paying close enough attention.  An invitation to dinner can sometimes just be a platform for someone to ask a favor.  Asking if you’re an English teacher can sometimes be a way of trying to get you to work more.  Mentioning that you’re working on a book and then hearing someone respond “Oh, that’s very interesting, I’d love to read it!” recruits a volunteer to edit the entire damn thing.

But then, there are the people that say they want to get to know you, ask what days you have free, and talk about doing fun things like biking around West Lake or learning about bargaining.  Some of my students have expressed interest in getting to know me outside of class.  I also met a girl named Traci in a restaurant and walked around Xiasha with her.  Another foreign teacher, Kay, and I go for walks in the evening, and Tanya and I have walked around West Lake, too.  And the convenience store down the street has been asking more about my life than the usual “Where are you from?” and “Why are you in China?”

And one by one, words fill the page.  And the next draft begins, maybe a little more rickety than the one before it, but growing, morphing, exploring all the same.

Noticing China

When I tried to explain my impressions of China to one of my friends, I said something along the lines of China having the motto “Why? Because China, that’s why!”  Children zoom right under your feet with light-up rollerblades screaming to their friends and their moms.  Fountains play music while pumping colored water into the sky.  Silent e-bikes swish past, despite red lights telling them to stay put.  KFCs are fashionable, Pizza Huts nice places to go on a date. 

It’s a gigantic contradiction.  On the one hand, there are tons of rules and regulations to follow.  When setting up my bank account, my papers had to be stamped three times, run through a copier, and then stamped again for good measure.  You can’t really just do something for the heck of it—there usually has to be some kind of thought behind it, and if you run it through some kind of administration, this thought will take a long time to go through.  On the other hand, all of these rules exist, but many people don’t follow them anyway.  There was a man smoking right under a “No Smoking” sign, and taxis more or less drive whenever they want, no matter how many crosswalks they blaze through. Fireworks go off in the middle of the afternoon.  Fireworks just sort of go off anytime they want.

But I might have been hasty to say that China simply doesn’t care about the rules.  I think it does, very much so.  Maybe it’s more a case of which rules are more important to abide by.  In the U.S., we’ll hold someone to the dime if they shortchange us, but speeding?  Ehhnnnnn…we’ll let that one slide. 

Every country operates under its own priority system, and much of what would be considered of the utmost importance in America maybe isn’t as high of a concern here.  Personal space during rush hour on the bus?  Keeping phone conversations private?  Not pointing and staring at someone with blonde hair? 

Ehhnnnn…

It really makes me wonder what kinds of things in the U.S. seem weird to foreigners.  Or, more apt, what sorts of priorities seem skewed.  It all makes sense when you’re on the inside.  It’s when you’re on the outside feeling stupid for not knowing the password to open the door to get inside, that you notice it.  You notice the different nuances of door handles, or the direction the door swings when someone actually gets inside.    

You notice what it’s like to look around you with new eyes, and what it must be like to look through the old.  You notice how a walk can turn you inside-out if the weather’s that balance of perfect and golden.  You notice that, no matter the place in town, people will gather for dinner together and talk.  You notice that people alone walk quickly, but people together meander and pause whenever the mood touches them.  You notice faces.  You notice how many people there really are in the world, and how little we know about each other.   

You notice what it is to notice, and that’s when the door begins to budge.

 

Ms. American

“Hello, my name is Ms. Hannah Lund.  You can call me either Ms. Hannah or Ms. Lund.  I will respond to both.  Welcome to Oral English!”

You’d think with all of the staring that happens on the streets of Hangzhou, I’d be ready for a class of 30+ students in silent awe of the foreigner talking to them.  Like a tiger pacing in a cage went I around the front of the room, and they all followed me with their eyes.  They sat still in their seats, watching my mouth move.  They watched my gestures.  They watched the way I wrote on the board.  The girls giggled to each other when I said something to them, and the boys chuckled when I looked in their directions. 

I was reminded of my first day as a puppeteer, when the wind blew the curtain against my face as I talked with both hands, improvising for lack of being able to read the script.  The same panic, the same insistence on not letting them see my panic.  In that instance, I had no choice but to say “well, we’ll make it up to them next week, I guess…” and drive away to the next park.   Wouldn’t it be nice to put on a puppet and let the students judge the slab of felt?  Wouldn’t it be nice to hide behind a curtain and make faces when things didn’t go so great?

Instead, as a teacher, you find yourself in front, naked, as you present things you think might be true with false confidence to your students.  There was a lot of confusion and rapid Chinese as students tried to figure out what they were doing, and me talking more than necessary for an Oral English course.  I felt as though the lesson plan swatted me against the wall and improvised desperately about what students thought about America to fill up time.  They probably don’t care!  They probably think I’m an idiot!  I thought.   

But as I learned, my students are all really quite eager to learn, if only you give them a chance. 

I found out that they are very interested in America, and most of them want to either go there someday to visit, or live there.  Their impressions of America ended up being a lot of places, activities and products.  I then had them journal about it, because what else is a writing degree good for if not making other people write more?

Some responses: 

“Americans very nice, very strong.  They must think families are important, because the foreign teacher showed pictures of her family right away.”

“In my view, Americans like heroes a lot.  They have a lot of movies about heroes.  Too many hero movies.  Americans like heroes.”

“America has NBA which I like.  I like Kobe.  He is very interesting.”
“America is very fast-paced.  This is why they have fast food.  Because it is very fast in America.”

“Teacher Hannah, will you tell us more about your crazy college life?  I would like to know more about that, please.”

“America is very strong.  World leader.  Americans are very friendly and easy to make friends with.  I want to go to America.”

It’s like being a fish in a tank looking at the ocean.  I have my small world that I know, and am now looking at the broader picture, where thousands of other opinions float around.  I catch glimpses of a fin, an eye, a gill, and through these, I try to imagine what other fishes look like.  Through my students, I’ll be trying to learn about China, and through me, they will be trying to learn about America.  In the end, neither of us will really know what the other sees, since I am only one scale of the entire fish that is America.  Just as, from my students, I am learning about one area of China, one age group, once a week. 

But they are very intent on learning about me.  When I opened the floor for questions, they asked a lot, about 20+ minutes worth, and none of them seemed bored at all.  They wanted to know about my hometown, why I came to China, how long I was going to stay, what college was like, housing prices, who I’d vote for in the election, what I thought about China, what I thought about Chinese food, what fashion was like in America.  And they watched my responses, intently, trying to glimpse as much of me as they could in the currents of the ocean.  Trying to understand, desperate to know as much as possible about me.

Behind the curtain, I was flailing around, tripping over my notes, forgetting activities, talking too much, and generally thinking “I screwed!  How can I fix this???” But on the outside, maybe they just saw my blonde hair and my lips moving as I biffed my way through a bad lesson. 

And in that, they saw their first glimpse of an American, whatever that means.   

Baby’s First Steps

When I walk out of my apartment on the 6th floor, I see laundry hanging on the railings above doorways.  I don’t know yet how long it takes to dry the clothes, or if the humidity in Hangzhou makes it take longer, but clothes dangle in the air everywhere I go.  This is China, where people live in the sky—high rises, apartment complexes, and office buildings stretching higher than the hills in downtown Hangzhou, competing for a scrap of heaven.  The new dwarfs the old, but the old has foundations that won’t be broken.  So, they live together.  Neither perfect nor imperfect.  Just there.

The laundry soon fades into the fringes of my walk.  I still yet do not know where I’m going, but keep turning around corners, keep pushing myself to let the new world sink in.  No matter where I go, I am stared at—the white monkey in Xiasha.  I am very blonde, very strange, and even more baffling when I open my mouth and attempt to speak Chinese.  Some Chinese will stop and say “Hallooo!” as I go by, and to them I smile and say “你好” as the street-workers change the dried willow branches in their brooms and continue sweeping, unabashedly staring at the 外国人(foreigner) going by.  I see trees being uprooted to be placed elsewhere along the sidewalk, sidewalks torn up for more construction.  Just like in Minnesota, the summer is the time for ripping things up to build them all over again.

Chinese walk in groups, huddling together, clasping hands, leaning into each other to become one group of travelers.  Girls hold onto each other’s hands, boys ride together on the silent electric bikes going down the street.  All walk every direction at intersections, while cars, bikes, buses, and taxis honk as they cruise forward.  A fellow teacher from Australia, Tanya, summed it up nicely: “The honking seems to be a sort of polite thing over here.  Like, not to tell you to move, just to let you know that ‘I’m coming, I’m here!’”  Likewise, the safest thing to do is to keep walking in the direction that you’re going.  To move out of the way is to cause confusion.  Pedestrians, drivers, riders, everyone judges each other’s trajectories and moves accordingly in a silent ballet across the road.

But, Hangzhou is not silent.  People yell to each other, the cars honk, and vendors call people in to eat at their restaurants.  They wait on the steps outside of their places, watching people walk by as they watch me walk by. 

And still I walk.

I’m a 新来的 or a newcomer.  The language melts in the air around me before I get a chance to try and understand, so I’m walking through waves, it seems.  All the same, I walk.  Because walking is the way to get somewhere, to be somewhere, and to find people who are already there.  I like walking in the evenings. It’s cooler, less people notice me as readily, since it’s darker, and Hangzhou slows down.  At parks, older women get together to learn dance steps, bobbing up and down to the CD provided as the leader counts to 八(eight) to tell them which steps to take.  They do not dance to show how well they can dance.  They dance to move, to be somewhere, to be nowhere within that somewhere, to be together in the nowhere of a dance. 

The fact that I’m here for the long haul has not sunk in yet, at least I don’t think it has.  People have been very nice, helping me when I ask for it, offering to lend me things until I get more on my feet.  And once on my feet, I walk even more. 

I’m still very much a baby in China, still very unused to the way things are done here, but with every time I leave my apartment and every botched conversation trying to order a meal, there’s one mystical moment of the night that sticks with me.  Because, China is not waiting for me when I close my eyes and stay inside my apartment.  China is in the floorboards, in the concrete sidewalks, in the bridges and canals, and in every ligament and tendon connecting old and new along the road where we all walk together.