From Sea to Shining Sea

I’m going to say that his name was Max.  Except that “Max” isn’t annoying enough, so from here on out, he will be called Maaaaaax. 

Maaaaaax sat down next to me in my office with a dopey grin on his face.  “I’m very lucky to meet you.  What are you doing on Friday?”

“Uhhh…”  I said.

“Students at another school will have a closing ceremony for their unit on America,” Maaaaaax continued.  “Will you come?”

Usually my knee-jerk reaction to invitations like these is to say “Sorry, I don’t have time!” because these things can end up as some carnival-like torment of Chinese people gaping at me and waiting for the foreign monkey to dance.  Sometimes I get lucky, like when a friend asked me to come see her son perform in a school play.  That was different, because a) I trust her, and b) all I needed to do was enjoy a performance, which was full of kids in period costumes making jokes, carrying props and being generally adorable. 

This, though.  Hmmm.

“I have Chinese class,” I said.

“First period?” Maaaaaax asked.

“No, third.”

“Perfect!  It starts at 8:20 and will last for an hour.”

“I’m busy…” I said weakly.  It was too late, and he knew it.  Maaaaaax…

“I’ll show you around the school.  Thank you so much!”

Goddamnit. It was going to be a spectacle.  They were going to set me up on a pedestal and have everyone gape at me.  I would be Quasimodo in the village square.  And I would be a dancing white monkey for all to see.

The next morning, I trudged over to the school, fully prepared to hate everything.  At the entrance, a group of six kids lined up and shouted “WELCOME COME THIS WAY THANK YOU!” as I entered, and despite myself, I had to laugh.  Inside were streamers, an American map set up for a game on the ground, areas decorated for the holidays, presidential pictures along the school walls.  And then the hordes of kids dressed up as princesses, Superman, Batman, Zorro, cheerleaders, Bart Simpson, cowboys, college graduates and more.  They were representing all 50 states and craned their necks to see me as I walked in.  A kid dressed up as Captain America asked me where I was from, and I pointed on the map in his little passport to the tiny dot labeled “Minneapolis” in a vast terrain he likely didn’t know was any different from Times Square.  I asked him which state he was supposed to be representing.  He looked at his flag and said “I don’t know.”

Then I was led to a seat that looked like part of a judging panel, next to another American who seemed to be enjoying himself with grotesque amusement and two Spanish exchange students.  The music “Country Road” started up, and all of the students entered.  Down the middle came the costumed masses with their flags and choreographed entrances.  A marching band played Sousa.  Each “state” bounded across the red carpet, posed, and then stood in line.  I kept waiting for the nasty surprise.  Were they going to make me dance?  Make a speech?  Take pictures with every single student until my eyeballs bled?  Time passed, and still nothing.  Instead, I got to see a teacher sing “Bad Romance” with her tiny students in cheerleader outfits.

“Thank you thank you!” the announcers said.  “And now, we will sing a song!  ‘America, the Beautiful!’” The crowd cheered.  I braced myself for something I morbidly hoped would be horrible.

Now, I’ve heard this song countless times, usually sung on autopilot as the choir director mouths the words to the verses.  But never have I heard it like this, with hundreds of children singing full voice, heads high.  It was like a bell ringing over the mountains, echoing all the way over to the silly American in China, sitting in her chair watching these students and thinking she lived so far away from it all.  I got goosebumps from the waves of sound, from the crystalline strength of people singing together.  And then, the American flag came out, fluttering above their heads like a giant parachute. 

I’ve been far-removed from my homeland, and from this vantage point, I’ve seen the perks and the pockmarks, a more honest take on what it means to be American.  But when it came down to it, I found myself swept up in the emotion of a simple song, suddenly reaching for the land I once called home.  America really is beautiful.  Not perfect.  But at least the parts that I knew with the people I love are beautiful. 

The ceremony ended after some speeches, and I was able to walk around and drink it all in before scampering away to my Chinese class.  And for the rest of the day, bleeding into an evening play with college seniors weeping goodbye at the curtain call, I was seeing faces from across the ocean.  The friends who, not one year ago, I’d clung to and said “goodbye” for what I hoped wouldn’t be the last time.  The family that scrunched together for skype conversations when the time magically aligned.  The mad rush of making music together with friends, and the release when it all came to an end.

I saw them all.  And they were beautiful, too.

The Weekly Weird–May 19-25

I made pancakes for a Chinese friend of mine, and it struck me that nothing could be weirder to her than eating buttery cakes right away in the morning and then dumping sugar on top.  And I thought “If she were to keep a weekly weird, this is probably something she’d include.”  Just goes to show you that we’re stranger than we think. Anyhow, here are some fun things from the past week.

Be loud and proud

I heard the chanting before I actually saw them.  A sort of rallying cry beginning with a count-off and then some Chinese words I didn’t understand.  Guttural, maybe a little intimidating, and when we got closer, it only got louder.  “Oh, god…” I thought as I, Cindy, and Mao-mao trudged onward through the heat.  Cindy turned to me with a grin.  Do you know what they’re saying?  I replied that I did not.  “They’re saying ‘One, two, three, four, I am perfect!”  I thought this had to be some kind of joke, but when we got closer, I saw a group of people in army shirts standing in a circle.  They weren’t having a pow-wow, a debriefing, or anything like that.  In fact, it looked like they were playing “pat-a-cake” or some kind of silly recess game.  One girl switched directions before everyone else did and was almost smacked in the face, which made them all laugh uproariously.  I wanted to ask why, but didn’t.  Because I already knew the answer: because China, that’s why.

Can you stand the heat?

As I mentioned in another post, it gets hot and it gets hot fast in Hangzhou.  In a sense, we’re almost a vampire city because most people only enjoy the great outdoors when the sun goes down and the temperature goes with it.  But for those with no choice but to be outside in the heat, there are remedies.   For girls, there’s the sun-umbrella, which keeps direct sun from scorching the skin.  For guys, there’s the tried and true shirt-removal maneuver.  I mean, I’ve seen this pulled by really attractive guys (or guys who think they fall into this category) to show off muscles back in the states.  But here, any guy is more than willing to undo his buttons and make a flag of his shirt.  Which isn’t too weird, until you’re in a car being driven back from school and see a really fat guy in the driver’s window–who looks completely naked.  He was driving along, happy with the breeze, all while I kept rubbing my eyes to try and stop imagining if he was or was not wearing pants.  I never found out, but then again, I’m not sure I want to.  All the same, I guess Nelly’s adage was true: “It’s getting’ hot in here, so take off all your clothes.”

Join the Club

Maybe it was the fact that I was in the company of a man I’d secretly given the nickname “Ladyface” to, because of his unsettlingly feminine cheeks.  Maybe it was the collection of young men dancing enthusiastically together on a tiny stage in the middle of the room.  Maybe it was the cross-dresser in a bright silvery-sequin dress with feathers being handed a watermelon onstage while trying to sing and dance.  Maybe it was the look on her face when she actually had to take the watermelon.  Maybe it was the women dancing on platforms in flight attendant outfits.  All I know is that when the flight attendant dancer perched at the edge of our table and stared expectantly at us, it was the weirdest thing throughout the entire night.  She had wide eyes, a lot of makeup on, and didn’t say anything as we stared back at her for some social cue.  It never came, and so my friend Charlotte and I were back to dealing with other matters, like the guy walking around with his name on business cards and a smarmy grin when a girl accepted them.  Call me maybe?  Hmmmm…

Kind of a mish-mash this week, but what do you expect?  It’s China, the country of mish-mash joys.  Until next week!

Into the Earth–Jinhua Caves

“Be careful!” Cindy said, her voice echoing on and on through the pathway that looked very much like a dungeon.  The steps were wet, our feet were tired, and when we tried to grab the handrail, it was ice-cold.  She grabbed my arm and we crept along together.  An opening emerged and we saw a gigantic void where water came down from who-knows-where, and tumbled into nowhere, accented by a bright pink party light dangling along the rocks to show us what we couldn’t see.  

We were in the “Double Dragon Cave Scenic Area” of Jinhua, Zhejiang, which was a place I decided to visit based off of two words I’d read in a travel guide: bizarre caves.  It’s everything I like about traveling: the “what the hell” factor.  I really hadn’t planned this trip at all, arriving at the train station at 7:30 to buy tickets that left at 8:16.  But I made it there, and I’d met the newlywed couple Cindy and Mao-mao (which means “cat” in Chinese) who were braving the darkness with me. 

The first cave, the actual Double Dragon Cave, began with us climbing into a raft and lying down to avoid the low-hanging rocks.   The raft, propelled by a series of pulleys, trolled under a sheath of rock mere exhales away from our skin.  I poked it as I went under and Cindy did the same.  And then, when the raft part was done, we scampered out into an area of stalactites and stalagmites lit up in pink, green, blue, and yellow lights–like some lighting test before a performance.  There were steps leading us to stalagmites dripping like candle-wax, and then steps disappearing into more colorful-light gloom.  We rounded the corner with all of the other tourists and, bam!  A waterfall.  

It was unique, but not what I would call “bizarre.”  So we moved on along a path crumping along in rocky teeth, getting lost in a bamboo thicket (“I have to tell you a joke,” Cindy said. “What’s a panda’s greatest wish?  To one day have a color photo!”), until we asked directions from a monk who told us in a voice droning like an endless mantra that he had no idea how to get to where we wanted to be.

And then, we got there, and I at last got my “bizarre.” 

Party lights everywhere, even a traffic light blinking on and off, rocks grizzling out in all directions like warped coral reefs, and then sections in which we were inching through crevices in a deranged push-up position to keep from hugging wet rock.  Lights directed us to strategically-placed pebbles, and all I could think was how if vampires ever wanted to host a rave, this would be the venue.  

Eventually, though, we had to climb back out, which was a series of steps and metal ladders, which led to groans as each seemingly-hopeful burst of light ended up being another goddamn party-light.

Once we made it out and began fanning ourselves in the re-emergence of summer heat, it hit me: maybe explorers are just as ordinary as us.  Maybe spelunking began on a hot summer day when the sun came out, and the people decided to go in.

And that, I think, would earn the word “bizarre” more than anything else.

Song of Debris

Silk is made from a silkworm’s effort to spin itself into solitude and die in the skin of its cage.  To make beautiful silk, something has to be left behind, in order for something else to be born.

Today I celebrate my 1-year anniversary with this blog.  And to be honest, it’s funny to look back on where I was when it all began–those speculations about life in China and silly stories from behind the curtain while I worked as a puppeteer.  Has a lot happened in a year?  Of course.  But that’s not why I’ll celebrate.

Why I will: because in a year, a lot of debris accumulates, and in some ways, this is precisely what drops us into the places we now find ourselves.  The giant force of an “I AM LIFE, HEAR ME ROAR!” whips through it all, and some things thrive, some disappear for good.

I want to celebrate the wreckage–the things that have been left behind to be spun into the skin of myself.  I want to celebrate the absolute train-wreck classes, the times when I’d stare out of a rattling windowpane to a shadow-world of too-late nights, the tears, and of course, I want to celebrate the fact that I didn’t want to celebrate any of that while it was happening because it would be uncouth and a little mad.

Let’s be a little mad.  Because it’s all a little mad–traipsing through life on nothing but a vague fever-dream of what comes next.  We don’t know where we’ll be in a year, but my god, do we know where we came from.

So, here’s to the madness of passing time and our ability to live with it.


The Very Hungry Silkworm

They warned me that one could spend hours staring at the bloated white bodies munching on mulberry leaves.  “I certainly do!” he said.  I scoffed at the time, thinking “I’m not so easily entertained!” accepting a cardboard tray of them to watch, take care of, and be amused by.


There’s something weirdly mesmerizing about silkworms.  There shouldn’t be, since all they really do is eat and poop, but there is.  Because they’re just on the border between being cute and a little creepy.  They nibble out pathways along the edges of leaves in rows.  Their teeth come down like a bulldozer’s metal jaws.  And when you lean in close enough, it’s a sea of crackling, smacking mouths.  Sort of like Rice Krispies when the milk goes into the bowl.  I keep dropping in more mulberry leaves and admiring the endless hunger emanating from the white bodies within.  Sometimes I even poke them (gently) and start back every time I’m reminded that they’re not rough or even slimy.

It’s weird, though.  Because now I feel vaguely responsible for their survival.  I’m planning on taking at least a day trip somewhere, but I still sort of cringe at leaving them alone without enough food.  What would happen to this insect society when they’re left with nothing but each other?  Is it going to be a Donner party fiasco?  What about the beautiful plant in my apartment?  Are these creatures secretly capable of leaping out of their malaise and eating flowers?  Would I return to an apartment full of chew-marks in the walls, spelling out “FEED ME”?  I can’t do the thing now where I disappear from the world and then go on remorseful cleaning binges or 10PM grocery runs because I simply forgot for the past week.  Living things now depend on me, so it’s my duty to not be a space cadet.

It’s kind of funny, I guess, because my family is enraptured with the newest addition–an actual human being, mind–and here I am trying to take care of worms, which require nothing more than dumping another pile of mulberry leaves into their pen.  No baptisms, no bedtime stories, no christenings…just a pile of mulberry leaves and the vow to keep ’em coming.  Something even I can manage.

The minute they start to spell out words, though, I’m out.

The Weekly Weird–May 12-18

Here’s another collection of odd and frankly awesome things spotted in the past week!


Attention, Please

Whenever I see the characters “通知” I usually ignore whatever comes next, because even though it’s an announcement, I have zero chance of fully understanding what it means.  This time, however, it caught my attention.  Perhaps it was the “diverse” animated characters with bright green, purple, and red hair.  Perhaps the woman in a nurse’s outfit with dis-proportionally thin legs grinning next to a sick Chinese man.  Or the happy man about to slap chickens with a red “x” marked over them.  Or the chicken in another panel with waterfall-tears sprinkling from its eyes.  Or the completely unrelated chicken either farting or pooping green onto a cutting board.  All in all, it was one of those serendipitous moments for me—seeing all of those chickens brooding in separate cartoon bubbles and the multi-colored humans trying to pantomime what was so desperate about their plight.  It was like seeing a rainbow, except instead of a pot of gold at the end, there was just a lot of confused faces. 


To Catch a Mosquito

If you want to kill insects in China, there’s no limit to the methods you can use.  There’s the Buddhist one, which is that you don’t kill them at all and pray as they buzz past.  There’s the more traditionally-favored coil that you light on fire at the end and let smoke for 4 days (which isn’t as dirty or smelly as it sounds).  There’s a more modern electrical plug-in with insect repellent released into the wild bedroom where it crouches for its finicky prey.  And then there’s a bug-whacker that looks more like a tennis-racket, except that it’s full of a light electrical current that instantly kills whatever insect gets caught in its web.  In terms of efficiency, I can’t really say.  But there was an 11-year old happily bouncing around a house with one of those electric-tennis-racket-bug-doomsday-devices, catching any and all pests in the air with a zap!  Anything around the kitchen table, any that could be trapped on the floor under the web, and then when there were no more to die in the house, he moved his hunt to the outdoors where there were plenty to attack.   

“Is this like your new superpower or something?  Are you Mosquito Man?”  I asked.

Zap!  Zap!  And he crouched in attack mode for the next wave of invaders.  Like the Dark Net–the hero our not-bitten skins deserve.

So you can be discreet with plug-ins or coils, or you can go for the drama with a zapper that sparks with whatever’s life it has taken.  The choice is up to you…just not the mosquito’s.


Sponge Bar Square Snack

For my WRT this week, I decided to try something ambiguously called “Sponge Bar” which is cylindrical and made of chocolate.  I had all of these mental images of a kitchen sponge dipped in chocolate, or of a series finale that never was for the porous cartoon down in Bikini Bottom.  What it ended up being was one giant cigar-shaped cocoa puff.  The bar was crispy and easy to bite, and in no way reminiscent of sponges.  I mean, I’ve never eaten a sponge before, so I don’t know what I ought to compare it to.  Maybe there’s a whole colony of crunchy sponges at the bottom of the ocean, which get water-logged so quickly, we’ve never gotten a chance to explore the taste.  I did enjoy making the obligatory Winston Churchill pose in front of my mirror before devouring the rest of the snack, which went down in a chalky haze.  But don’t worry: no Spongebobs were harmed in the process.  Only expectations. 

More weird stuff to come.  Have a happy week!


I followed the clink of the metal bowl in the billowing night.  Through tight trees, along the little valleys between trunks, past the rows of vegetables that he and his family didn’t know the English names for.  I ducked under leaves, peering into the gloom of branches entwining together for the tell-tale sign of a successful hunt before straddling muddy walkways between rows of more unfamiliar crop.  

“Do you know what this is called?” he asked, pointing to a collection of squat leaves.

“Uh…no, sorry.”

“Oh.  I don’t know what it is in English, either.”

But it didn’t matter, not really, as the metal bowl glinted the path toward his son saying “Here!  Here!” and our footsteps following, silent as those that walked hundreds of years ago, hunting, too.

With the roar of silkworms’ appetites for berry leaves, they’ve almost disappeared.  But not there, where his son reached into those coveted leaves to grab them by the handful.  Drenched, laden thick and heavy with them–the branches with those black berries bunched up “like itsy-bitsy grapes!” his son said.  They popped easily off, ker-plink, ker-plank, ker-plunk into the metal bowl and into our mouths and onto the ground when we weren’t quick enough.  He grabbed the branch and pulled it closer to all of us, and we strained to reach the thickest ones, hungry as thieves.  Ker-plink, ker-plank, ker-plunk, again and again as the dusk shifted into night and the berries disappeared into the shadows of stars.  

When we came back, our fingers were black, teeth stained from the harvest.  His son and I pretended we were zombies, lurching about in our near-death stupors as we proudly showed the bowl full of what we’d found to his wife and all of her relatives.  

And it was the magic of mulberries, caught in the hum of fading sun, snuggling together in the dip of silvery night.