Beauty is in the I

“I’d prefer to call it ‘creamy,’” I’d said one day on the elementary school bus.  “Like a marshmallow.” 

“Well, maybe you needed to be toasted longer,” the junior-high kid replied.

It’s no secret that I’m pale.  Every time my friends hold out their arms to compare skin tones, I get the shocked “I can see your veins” commentary.  “You’re so pale!” they say with the hint of a laugh.  They say I need to get out more.  But when I do, I go from marshmallow-pale to lobster-red and the comments shift to a different kind of pity. 

A “healthy tan,” it’s called.  In the United States, it’s what almost everyone I know wants on some level.  A person might not go to a tanning salon regularly, but deep down, I think there’s a certain shame for paleness.  At least, I’ve felt it every time summer rolls around and I’m debating whether or not I’ve earned the right to wear shorts.

In China, that’s not the case.

“You’re so pale,” my students say, always with deep admiration.  They tell me my skin is very beautiful, and when we hold out our arms, they sigh and say that they’re not quite white enough.  Cosmetic concerns are different here.  Skin products have whitening solutions in them.  Many of the girls here walk around with umbrellas to keep from getting too much sun.  When I ask them about it, they just furrow their eyebrows and say “Well, I don’t want to get skin cancer!” though I know there’s more to it than that.

I like telling them about the strange Americans, and the tanning machines that make their skin darker, or how some people go tanning before a vacation, just to be sure that they get properly darkened from the sun.  My students shake their heads and say “What a pity!”

I recently had them journal about beauty, using the Scandinavian saying “That which is loved is always beautiful.”  I wanted to know what they thought about this, and what, to them, was beautiful. 

Most responded with the usual “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” saying that if someone loves you enough, for what is inside, they will not care what you look like on the outside.  One of my students, Li Fei, summed it up: “I love something.  Perhaps I like one of the sides of it.  So, I will feel very happy when I hold it.  And I think that it is always beautiful in my heart.”

Many talked about family, and how they could always see past the bad and find the good.  Lynn, a student in my first Optional English Class, said “If you really love a person, you will tolerate everything about who you love, whether advantages or shortcomings.  What’s more, if you love a person, you will love his or her shortcoming.”

Others had more critical ways of looking at it.  Owen, a quiet student in my class, said that “In our daily life, everything can be beautiful if we have beautiful eyes and become good at finding beauty.” 

No matter what my students said, there was an undercurrent of faith in the power of inner beauty, in the platitudes of appearances not measuring one’s worth.   They said that they felt beautiful, because they all felt loved.  They told me with enthusiasm that if someone had a kind heart, they would surely be beautiful.

But I knew better.

I’ve seen fashion ads where the models wear blonde wigs.  Girls wear high-heels or platform shoes as they balance groceries.  Men wear well-tailored suits as they crouch by the side of the road to talk on their phones.  On the train to Zhenjiang, I saw a passenger use her ipad as a mirror before she got off for her stop.  If outer beauty doesn’t matter, then there are a lot of people in China just acting out of habit.

Beauty is a warped concept that has everything to do with context.  One of my more analytical students, Carl, said “It means that some things is completely worthless if nobody knew it.  In other words, the value of everything is depended on if we knew it.  It just like Van Gogh painting.  So we can say that we love it, so it is beautiful.” 

It all comes down to that word: beautiful.

I brought my violin into class and played a little for my students, asking them all to come up with a word to describe it other than beautiful.  I explained to them that it was so overused, it had lost its meaning.  A person can be beautiful, a painting can be beautiful, as can a rug, a lamp, and a concerto.  We don’t know what we’re saying anymore when we say something’s beautiful.  All we know is that it matters.  As Carl said, we know it, therefore it has worth to us.

It is worth exactly one word, one collection of three syllables that has somehow had the power to devastate as well as create. 

It’s a concept that soaks into our skins and causes us to see beauty as everything we lack.  As my Creative Writing teacher said “You look into the mirror and see what you’re not.”  In America, beauty is not being pale.  In China, beauty is not being tan, having black hair, or being short.  In other words, beauty is not being one’s self. 

When I gave my students a chance to think of other words, I asked them to share.  Some were the same flavor of words: lovely, wonderful, great.  But then, there were others: faraway, elegant, homesick, ethereal, dulcet.  I told them that these words said so much more than “beautiful,” and that it was their task as English Majors to think of other ways to describe around a concept, to make it more vivid.  I wanted them to get closer to the objects they were trying to describe, rather than paint over them with a word that morphs with whoever uses it. 

They all nodded dutifully, and we went on with class. 

I’m not naïve enough to think that I’ve solved the problem with the word.  It goes deeper than finding a new word, a new lens through which to see the world.  But I do know this: one word can be enough to devastate or create.  It all depends on who is using it and how.  And maybe one day, someone will use it to describe the look of one who actually believes they are beautiful.

So I will go on being pale here, they will continue to praise me for it, and we will circle and shift around this concept of beauty until it all blurs and we become the mirror to ourselves and see what we really are.

And it will be beautiful.

National Day– You Can’t Take it With You

When I told people I was going to Yiwu, the first thing they said was that “no matter what you need, you can find it there.”  Yiwu is well-known in China as the manufacturing center, where clothing markets stretched up over three stories and other markets went even higher.  Really anything—toys, trinkets, jewelry, kitchen appliances—they were all in Yiwu.

But for me, Yiwu was the home of one of my students, Zhang Yan, English name “Jenny,” then switched to “Penny,” then switched to “Bird” because it was closer to the meaning of her Chinese name, then reverted back to “Penny” upon my suggestion.  I call her Zhang Yan, so the rest doesn’t matter. 

Zhang Yan met me in the train station under her umbrella, waving at me to come over to find her father and younger brother, who she sometimes calls “Little Friend.”  On our way to the car, taxi-drivers shook their keys in front of us and we had to move with a constant shake of our heads to get them to go away.  Once we got into the car, her father rolled up the windows.

“The air in the downtown is not so good, so we have to wait until we get home to open them,” Zhang Yan explained as her father mimed choking in the front. 


We drove out of the city center and approached the foot of the mountains, where her home was.  As soon as the car stopped, her father jumped out to grab my suitcase and haul it up the staircase.  Her brother (hereafter referred to as Little Friend) raced ahead of us, and once I walked into their home, her mother motioned me to the table to eat some eggs. 

“It’s tradition for a guest to eat eggs,” Zhang Yan said as Little Friend piled various fruits onto my lap and returned with a painting he made for me.  We watched “Spongebob Squarepants” in Chinese as her mother prepared a feast for lunch.  Throughout the meal, her father asked me periodically whether or not America had some of the vegetables or dishes laid out.  I think there’s a certain amount of pride here when America doesn’t have something that China does, since it’s a very common concern when out eating with me.  Chinese culture is in every bite of a dish.    

Zhang Yan’s family is very animated—her father always smiling widely and miming actions for me as he spoke in Chinese.  Little Friend smiled a lot and always said “等一下!” before darting out of the room to get something.  In the evening, Little Friend and his father played badmitton in the living room with a home-made birdie, while his father said “好球!” whenever the birdie was successfully flying in the air.  They asked me to play, too, and I can tell you that he said “好球!” a lot less.  The mother didn’t speak any English, and our only interactions were her gesturing me to return to the table and to get me to eat more, or to ask me if I’d eaten enough, or to hand me some kind of snacks.  Zhang Yan asked me if I liked to climb mountains.  When I said yes, she smiled and said “Wow!”

The next morning, we got up early, and I found myself with Zhang Yan and Little Friend at the foot of a mountain to go see a temple on the top. 

The sky was overcast, which somehow made the climbing a little easier, though there were enough stairs to make even Gollum leave his precious and return home.  Little Friend dragged a rock around on a piece of string, losing it, grabbing another, losing it, then finding a discarded plastic toy which a dog stole from him.  He raced up the steps, waited while Zhang Yan and I caught up, and then ran up even further.  We’d hear him yelp, only to find him pointing to a bug on the side of the path.

At the halfway point, we rested by a lake, which was smoother than glass.  We’d managed to miss the tourists, who likely crowded this place days before.  Now, the path was a soft murmur of feet going by and huffed breaths.  It was as though we were walking into an old book, carefully threading through the faded print amidst the fog of pages fluttering in the wind.  We found an old temple, which marked the halfway point to the top.  Zhang Yan and Little Friend led me inside of the temple, handed me incense, and we bowed three times to the statue.  Then, we shook a cup that held several wooden strips with writing on them, taking the one that fell out to get our fortunes read.  A young monk greeted us and told Zhang Yan my fortune, which she then translated for me.  I said “Sorry that I don’t know more Chinese” in Chinese, and he got really excited, gesturing for me to come inside and drink some water.  On the walls were older paintings and a calendar marking the passing days.  He returned with a gigantic green vegetable, asking if they had these in America. 

“No, we don’t have those,” I told him.  He said something to Zhang Yan, who blushed and said he wanted to invite us to lunch, but that we still had a long ways to climb.  So we had to move on.  I was a little sad about that, but as we kept climbing, and saw the hills looming below us, I realized that Zhang Yan was very much right. 

When we got to the top, the wind had picked up a little, and there were several rooms with statues, incense, cups with wooden sticks to shake, palm readers, and monks deciphering fortunes.  Zhang Yan gave an offering so I could ring the giant bell in the temple, and then so I could hit a drum.  We wandered through the rooms, me transfixed by all of the bowing, the smoke, and the statues looking down.  We walked outside to where the temple stretched out to look over the hills and mountains.  By now, fog had crept its way in, so it was as though we were walking across clouds.  All along the walls were strings with red strips of cloth tied around them, floating in the wind.  Wishes, hopes, dreams, all clinging together in the hope of being read and realized someday.  Zhang Yan got me one, I wrote my name (both Chinese and Engish) on it, and tied it off.  I sort of wanted to take it with me, but the whole point is to leave it there.  We went to a Wishing Well, and all dropped yuan into it, holding our wishes to ourselves and leaving it behind.  I got my palm read, and listened to the fortune-teller speak to Zhang Yan about my life as his fingernail pressed into the lines of my hand. 

And then we made our ways back down.

When we got back to Zhang Yan’s house, she taught me how to fold dumplings, and I drew for a while with Little Friend. 

Yiwu is the place where you can buy just about anything.  It’s the place where things are made and then shipped to other parts of China.  But what I found myself doing more than buying was leaving things behind, or being given gifts for simply showing up and having in interest in Chinese culture.  Zhang Yan and I did eventually go to the markets in downtown, but I came away having bought nothing more than a potato to eat and 5 minutes on an inflatable dragon car. 

I guess it’s true: you can find just about anything in Yiwu, but the real question is what you do with it once you find it.  Me, I tied it onto a string and left it on a mountain top to flutter in the wind.

National Day–Fighting the Inner Tourist

I only knew them from QQ, an MSN-style instant-messaging system in China, and I was spending two nights in their home in Wuxi.  One was the father, who was quick to answer questions on Chinese culture that I’d ask him. His profile picture was of a Teddy Bear.  His son, the same age as me, had “Tale Writer” as his status and tantalized me with talk of moon cakes in conversations.  No matter how many times I tried to imprint their real names into my head, “Teddy Bear” and “Tale Writer” seemed to be the only ones that stuck.

Tale Writer met me at the train station.  I was on the phone with Yu Yang, who was translating for Jiu Jiu.  They were worried that Tale Writer wouldn’t find me, but as a blonde in China, I’m not exactly invisible.  I said goodbye to them, and faced the tall boy with a black t-shirt and a girl who I learned to be his sister waving for me to come over.  When I did, they sort of looked at each other with a flash of “now what do we do?” 

“Welcome to Wuxi…” Tale Writer said with a hesitant grin.  I just laughed and said I was very grateful that they invited me.  They smiled, and then Tale Writer prodded his sister and muttered something.  She grabbed my suitcase, and dragged it behind me.

“My sister, she wants to practice her English, if that’s okay?” Tale Writer asked.

“That’s perfectly fine,” I said as she beamed and then blushed as several Chinese people looked our direction, staring at the conspicuous blob of blonde hair. 

“Oh, that,” I said.  “Ehn, you get used to it.”

As we walked to the car and drove to a park in Wuxi to walk around, we made it a game—counting how people said “外国人” or “老外” to me.  The best was when I listened to people debate whether or not to talk to me with the English they learned, only for me to turn around and ask them how much English they knew in Chinese.     

Ma Ma had told Teddy Bear, who had consequently told Tale Writer, that I was very interested in Chinese culture.  They readily interpreted this as a challenge to show me as much from older Wuxi as they could in the two days I was there.  I admire them for their enthusiasm—wherever we went, it was famous for something, and it was as though we were climbing a “Discover Wuxi” checklist.  

Wuxi is a developed city that is still considered “not that big” by Chinese standards.  Temples stand in the middle of a shopping center erected to commemorate temples.  Buildings are traced in lights like an Etch-a-Sketch board.  And on the edge of Wuxi is Lake Taihu, which is a huge tourist site in Jiangsu Province, adorned with Weeping Willows, temples, and thousands of tourists crowding in to see the natural beauty while dropping potato chips into the lake.  Tale Writer took me to the center of Wuxi, to where there were lots of stores to buy things, and I confess that I felt dull, since I couldn’t get myself interested in shopping.  I asked him where he would go if he just wanted to hang out, but he just chuckled and took me to another famous place.  We went to the older canals, which had been reconstructed to look older and were adorned with bars for tourists.  He took me to another older city in Wuxi, and as we walked out of it, we were in an empty neighborhood that looked about one breath away from falling over. 

“These houses,” Tale Writer said, “will be…” (he made a demolition sound and then cocked his head and said “ehn?” to make sure I understood.)  “No one has lived here for a long time.”

“What will be here instead?” I asked.

“They will probably continue the old city.”

“But…if you build something new, then it isn’t old…right?”

“The old city is very…many many people like it,” he said, which confirmed that he probably didn’t know what I was talking about. 

We got up early to visit Lake Taihu, which was indeed beautiful.  Tale Writer waited for me outside of temples, not wanting to battle the crowds for something he’d seen before.  We watched as acrobats rode bikes across a tight-rope and I wondered what a show like that would be like if they used street bikes—rather than the ones that had a dip in the wheel to fit onto the tightrope.  We walked around the island, Tale Writer telling me about China.  Then, we were waiting on the bridge extending over Turtle Head Island, watching in horror as the line of tourists trying to get onto a boat off the island grew and grew.  On the horizon of the lake, an older ship bobbed in the water just as a high-speed boat buzzed past and tourists clambered onto the slower boat back to the other side of the inlet. 

Later that night, in the apartment that Tale Writer refers to as “the countryside of the city,” Teddy Bear, Tale Writer, his mother and I watched the news as it showed the volume of tourists packing into Beijing to see the Forbidden City. 

“So many people,” I said, once again showing my incredible knack for profundity when using Chinese.  “Too many!”

“National Day is always the time for travel,” Teddy Bear said.  “Lots of tourists.”

I was about to agree in an all-knowing way, when I realized that I wasn’t exactly an exception.  I’d come to Wuxi to have fun, to see people I could only refer to in terms of their internet identities, and I’d come for a short period of time.  I was a tourist. 

And yet, since settling in Xiasha and becoming a “regular” at certain noodle shops and parks, I haven’t felt like a visitor.  An outsider, yes.  Absolutely.  There are too many “对不起,我听不懂’s” to pretend otherwise.  (“Sorry, but I don’t understand.”)   At a restaurant, Tale Writer’s mother patiently taught me how to use chopsticks properly.  Teddy Bear told me about Chinese policies and explained things I didn’t understand.  If my visit to Yangzhou was a “sink or swim” with Chinese culture, the family in Wuxi was the moment when I paused to skim some parts of the instruction manual.   

It was at the train station leaving Wuxi that I realized something: tourist or no, I’m a part of China now.  Maybe one foot into the China Club.  Maybe as far in as I’ll ever get.  But a part nonetheless. 

“Let’s just hope it’s a good part,” I thought as I boarded the train, fingers clenched around my ticket, feet moving forward, heart tapping against my chest as opportunity responded with a knock.

National Day–Piecing the Puzzle

Here’s how puzzles work: snap the border together, scavenge for middle pieces, lament that they’ve all been tinted the same sky-blue, flip them all over, and keep plodding along until one patch connects with another and the holes get smaller.

That’s more or less what learning about another culture is like.  Start with the border: the basic things told from the outside, and fill in the gaps with every encounter from then on.

My third day in Yangzhou was to be spent in the downtown area, where the old town was maintained to imitate ancient times.  Old tea houses, workers dressed in long robes handing out maps, red lanterns dangling from the gnarled windows.  This is what I’d been taught about China prior to arriving—the ancient, mysterious scrawled characters that somehow represented millennia of history.

Jiu Jiu told me (as interpreted by Yu Yang) that “one has to move slowly to appreciate Yangzhou.”  So when we arrived, we walked along the river and admired the way the water reflected against the underside of the bridge.  I studied an 二胡 (erhu) up close enough to realize that the bow went in the middle of the strings, rather than on top like on the violin.  We meandered, examining the concrete maps depicting Marco Polo’s route, and then in the museum, I, Yu Yang, and her cousin hopped from place to place on the map, tracing his journey across China.

By the time we made it to the old city, many other tourists had wandered in, and we needed to link arms to stick together.  Yu Yang made sure that her cousin, who was very interested in twirling around in her ballerina skirt, clung tightly to her jacket.  When we entered, the first thing I noticed was the sign on a store that said something like “AUTHENTIC CHINA CLOTHES.”   I couldn’t help but wonder how authentic they were, really, but as we walked further into the old city, I got the sense that this was more about an idea than anything else.  The buildings were indeed old, the actors portraying older society as well as they could, but ultimately they were doing this as sort of a reminder of where modern Chinese society came from.

We stopped into a temple, where I got to light incense, bow three times, and receive a red sash that Yu Yang and I tied around a bell that we tolled three times.  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures there, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  The statues were impressive, reaching all the way to the ceiling, and I knew that I was seeing another piece of the border for the “China Puzzle.”

But there was something in the middle that I wasn’t quite getting.

Later that evening, we went to another jiu jiu’s home for dinner.  It was the one month anniversary of me coming to China, and it struck me that a lot can happen in one month and yet seem so far away, as I stared at a “reply” screen to an email that I couldn’t write because the computer was stuck in Chinese.  Ma Ma talked to her classmate in Wuxi, and then my student in Yiwu to figure out train tickets for me.  Yu Yang translated what other family members were saying, and I thought about how the only way to open the door for other people to come in, is to admit that helplessness isn’t a crime.

I thought the night was going to be a slow one for me, since it was a festival I didn’t know with family that wasn’t technically mine, but when Jiu Jiu found out and relayed to the others that I liked to go out dancing in the street with the older ladies, it became an event.  There had been a bit of 酒 going around by then, so the other jiu jiu kept swinging his arms and yelling “DANCING!” until we actually left to find it.

I danced for a while with the ladies as the family took pictures of me and “ooohed” and “ahhhhed” at my dancing.  Eventually, I wound up next to the other jiu jiu as he was teaching me partner dancing, and then he stepped back and said “YOU TEACH ME!” in his broken English.  I taught him the Charleston, which ended up with both of us flailing and stomping (while yelling “DANCING!” all the while).  Then, I taught him the Electric Slide, which he watched intently, trying to study the moves.  Yu Yang’s cousin jumped up and down in her ballerina skirt, smiling her gap-toothed grin up at me.  And when I came away from the evening, I felt warm for reasons I couldn’t articulate.

The next day, my last full day in Yangzhou, I started with a walk.  I was worried, for horribly literary reasons, that I would spoil a good ending with an unnecessary epilogue of hanging on for too long.  But Ma Ma came out with me to breathe in the fresh air while we could.

“How quickly time goes…” she said, squeezing my arm.

Yu Yang came out to join us, and we watched as her dog, “Baby” followed us along the narrow concrete roads.   We didn’t say much as we walked, enjoying the sway of the grasses in the wind, Yu Yang naming some of the plants for me, as I tried to remember.

That day, we visited another family member, who was adamant that Ma Ma stop by, since she was in the area and had already seen other family members.  We weren’t planning on a lunch there, but when we walked in, they emphatically told us that we MUST stay for lunch!  They were very eager to please us (save Ma Ma, who said that they wanted to punish her for not visiting the other night, except for the presence of guests like me).  They spooned food onto my plate, despite Jiu Jiu, Yu Yang and Ma Ma all protesting, saying “She can serve herself!”  I was sort of wavering on the outside of the conversation because of all the Chinese I didn’t know, and we were all a little tired when we left.  Ma Ma and Yu Yang took a nap.  I tried to say “I would like to go for a walk,” but all that came out was “I go jog now.”

Jiu Jiu came with, which was probably a good thing since I didn’t know the area, and after we got all the way out to the lake area, he asked if I wanted to jog.

“Oh, I was trying to say “walk.””

“We can jog now.”

“…do you actually want to do this?”
“With your longer legs, you should be able to outrun me.”

The next thing I knew, we were running down a dirt road, me yelling “Where?  Where?” as we got to forks in the road, me trying to prove my anatomy’s prowess by extending my legs, though never quite getting faster than Jiu Jiu.  We got to the house out of breath, and Ma Ma gave us weird looks before settling back on the couch.

When I tell people about my stay in Yangzhou, they always ask what I saw when I was there.  I try to explain that I like Chinese culture and explored it as much as I could, but sometimes in explaining or exploring, I never seem to get much past the puzzle border—the common ground areas that don’t quite fill in the holes, but provide a solid foundation to build from.

To say that you love Chinese culture when you only go to see the temples is only a section of the puzzle, rather than the entire thing.  The way I see it, the temples are only there because they matter to people.  I didn’t come away from Yangzhou having seen every last scrap of antiquity the city had to offer, but I did see something that mattered a lot more: I saw the people, the living culture.

And just like that, another puzzle piece.


National Day– Shut Up and Float.

Since coming to China, I’ve adopted the philosophy I coined for tubing down a river.  Rule number one: shut up and float.  Rule number two: why are you still talking?

Communicating with a family in choppy Chinese isn’t the same as floating down a river, but it seems like the only way to succeed in a foreign country is to just go with it.  To shut up and float, and keep floating even if you’re not sure where the river’s taking you.

So, on my second day in Yangzhou, I woke up having been told that we were going to a “special place” in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival.  I hopped on the back of Jiu Jiu’s e-bike, and we rode through the narrow streets, over an older bridge, past piles of fabric, until we were in the middle of a field, Jiu Jiu getting off the e-bike with a scythe to hack weeds away.

I would have missed the spot completely.  If I’d come to Yangzhou on my own, I would never have seen it hidden under the bramble.  (Especially since I probably wouldn’t go hacking around with a scythe in my spare time.)  As soon as the weeds were tossed into the low-hanging trees, the faded grave tablet became clearer, with faint Chinese characters weathered from years battling the elements.  Ma Ma and Jiu Jiu pulled out red paper boxes and filled them with what looked to be yellow paper boats, and placed fake paper money in front of them.  I thought maybe I ought to keep a respectable distance, but, as Yu Yang translated, they wanted me to take pictures.  Once the boxes faced the tablet, they pulled out another one for a smaller tablet I didn’t see hidden in the underbrush.  Then, they lit sticks of incense and bowed three times before lighting it all on fire.

“The…um…burning things…yes, they are going to join the dead people,” Yu Yang explained when I asked what was going on.

We all stood, watching the “burning things” diminish into a pile of ash as smoke trailed into the sky.  Then, we set off on the path again, crossing the bridge and returning to the e-bikes to go visit the many family members living in Yangzhou.

As far as I can understand Chinese, there are two things that apply to visitors: 坐!and 吃!(Sit! and Eat!).  Within two minutes of entering a home, I was sitting in some form of a chair, with either fruit, or nuts, or seeds, or tea, or hot water, or anything that happened to be nearby and edible.  Ma Ma and Jiu Jiu whipped out the mooncakes they brought for the family, and the family replied with an “Oh no, no, no, you’re too kind!” until they disappeared to put them in another place to eat later.  Every house was a combination of children wheeling around and shrieking when they saw the foreigner, plants growing in the cracks between fences, sizzling food, and low stools where women knelt to mend clothing.  I thought maybe I was intruding on the festivities, but every time, the families asked questions about where I came from and brightened when they found out that I knew enough Chinese to say that I only knew a LITTLE Chinese.  As I came to learn, even that little bit was enough to communicate to them that I really cared about their culture.

We stayed for lunch, which was another charming debacle of me trying to eat shrimp with chopsticks and Yu Yang patiently explaining methods.  The family repeatedly told me to please enjoy myself and eat as much as I liked.  All I really knew how to say was “Really tasty,” and “thank you!” which I hoped was enough.

We returned back to Jiu Jiu’s house to “休息一下” (relax a little), which ended up being Ma Ma grabbing an extra sweater.  I was under the impression that people were going to nap, and so started to jot down some notes from earlier that day.  They waited for me to finish, which, along with indulging in my habit of showering in the morning rather than at night, goes to show how much they were willing to put up with.

I was told that we were going to another special place, and I said “很好!” having long since decided that their definitions of “special places” were perfectly okay with me.

This time, we walked down the lane, going past another relative’s house as their mahjong tiles clacked together in the afternoon.  The sun was well into the sky, and as we climbed up the hill, I noticed that we were by a very large lake.

“We will go into the boat now,” Yu Yang told me, easily leaping into a small fishing boat docked between paddleboats and boats that doubled as homes.  She and Jiu Jiu walked around as if on land, but Ma Ma and I tottered to our places, admiring the green glint of the water as we wobbled.

“This water leads to the biggest water in China,” Yu Yang interpreted for me.  The boat putted into place and slowly drifted out of the dock, past giant boats that were restaurants, and mingling with the ducks and geese by the lily-pads.  When I looked around, it was as though we were crawling through a green jungle, though the sky stretched on for miles above us.  Since I’m not familiar with Mid-Autumn Day, the family had been very eager to explain things to me, but as the wind buffeted our skin, there wasn’t much that needed to be explained.  We were together, this patchwork family that sat under the sun and listened to the wind sift the grasses.  I wasn’t a blood relative to anyone in the boat, but somehow felt as though I belonged there as much as the waves lapping in the lake.  I stood up on the boat at one point with Yu Yang pretending to fly.  Because that’s what letting go felt like.

When we returned back to the house, we actually rested for a bit before the NEXT feast for the holiday, which Jiu Jiu was soon busy preparing.  He found out that I and Ma Ma were very fond of 狮子头, which is a sort of gigantic meatball of ungodly deliciousness, so there were several there.  Dinner was a collection of relatives nearby, some having come in from town, some children who were very shy around me, and many rounds of 酒 as we toasted each other.

No matter what was said, what pictures were taken, or where anyone had come from, we all congregated to admire the round moon in the sky—this recurring treasure that puzzled countless artists and scientists for centuries.  We puzzled together, and in the silence, it was as though we were all speaking the same language.

In the silence, we all floated together into the night.

National Day–Out in the sdfjsknds.

“Well, this is it,” I said to myself as I stepped off of the train in Zhenjiang. I’d successfully made it from Hangzhou to Zhenjiang with my suitcase and backpack intact, successfully unplugged every last appliance in my apartment, and successfully banished all thoughts of school from my head. The only thing left to successfully do was to meet the family I’d be staying with for the next three days.

When I try to explain who it is I visited, it’s always complicated. “I have a Chinese college friend, who is actually in America right now, whose uncle lives in Yangzhou, though they have never met, who invited me to come out for a few days.”

Her uncle, (who I was told to call “Jiu Jiu,” the familial term for uncle) and I talked on the phone a few times. And by talk, I mean him speaking veeerry slow Chinese and me frantically thumbing through my Chinese-English Dictionary, while his daughter Yu Yang tried to translate in her broken English.

I kept thinking about how nice it would be to surrender myself to the inevitability of the train track and just go where it took me, but this time, it took some steps of my own volition.

Greeting me at the train station was Jiu Jiu, who was pacing back and forth and jabbering with the security guard. He gestured for me to come over (since it doesn’t take much to find a foreigner in China) and within seconds he already had my luggage in hand, had made a quick call to someone in I-can’t-believe-Chinese-goes-that-fast, and had learned that, no, I had not eaten and was leading me to a nearby restaurant.

I wanted so much to say something intelligent, but mostly what came out was a series of mismatched phrases, prodded with the occasional 很好! and 谢谢!(“Great!” and “Thank you!”) I have ultimate respect for the fact that he did not start laughing at my warped phrases.

Soon, we met my friend’s mother at the train station and she rushed over to me, grabbing onto my arm saying how happy she was to see me again. (The last time we saw each other was when I was wavering on the edge of sanity at Commencement).

Then, we were driving out, out, and further out of the city. Jiu Jiu and the driver were speaking in you-must-have-gone-plaid Chinese and I kept looking out the window, at the buildings that shrank little by little until they were down to a respectable three-story structure, wondering at the life dissipating like fog behind me.

“Jiu Jiu lives in the sodfjsknds,” my friend’s mother said.

I asked her to repeat that a few times, and once I established that I still had no clue what she was talking about, I just nodded and again said 很好!She sort of chuckled, and said I would see when we got there. The roads got narrower and narrower, until they were about the size of a driveway, with women carrying straw on their backs, carts pulling harvest from the fields, piles of bricks in the ditch, and ducks waddling along. The sun glinted off of the tops of the grasses, and everything—save the driver—seemed to slow down. My friend’s mother (hereafter referred to as Ma Ma) gripped my hand as we rounded the corner to a collection of one-story houses by a large field with a chicken coop out front. Before I had a chance to ask if we were here, Jiu Jiu had already gotten out and begun to unload our things. Soon, he was in the kitchen to prepare for dinner, which ended up being a 16-dish FEAST.

Family crept in, all smiling (also not sure how much Chinese I could understand) and I was greeted by Yu Yang leading me into her room to put my things down.

“We will have dinner soon,” she said.


We gathered around the round table, which somehow appeared in the middle of the living room, and a glass circular table was put on top to revolve the food around and feed everyone. Already, I had been offered many different kinds of fruit, as well as water. On the table: shrimp, several different vegetable dishes, tofu (which is a form of art in China), and more meat dishes than I knew Chinese names for. Jiu Jiu came back out from the kitchen and soon wine was being poured and I was being toasted for doing nothing more than showing up. I eyed the shrimp, afraid of trying to grab it with chopsticks and have it land in my wine. When I asked Yu Yang how to eat it with chopsticks, she just said “Shhh…” and grabbed one with her hands.

It’s a different feeling altogether to be at a table with a family you don’t know. Everyone toasted me, handed me food, told me to eat more, asked questions about my life in China, and even invited me to come over for dinner. Another “jiu jiu” interjected his conversations just to say “VERY GOOD” and give me a thumbs-up. After dinner, everyone gathered for pictures. I thought they wouldn’t want me in the photo, since I’m not technically a family member, but somehow, I ended up in every one, with people leaning in and looking into the lens.

“How would you translate sodfjsknds?” Ma Ma asked Yu Yang when dinner was over and we were contemplating our things in the bedroom.

“Country,” she said.

So it was that I found myself in the countryside of Yangzhou for the next three days.