A shot to the arm

Technically, the vaccine was only available for children, but they got the special adult serum just for me.  A booster shot that I’d originally planned on getting after I came back to America, assuming that the shot would be hard to find in China.  But, well, plans change, and so I found myself waiting for a Chinese English teacher named Mary to meet me at the bus station and take me to the hospital.

I really thought that I’d have to make a trip to Shanghai to get this shot.  Professionals were dubious that there would be enough western-friendly medicine, and so I’d assured them that I wasn’t too far from big cities.  I was even warned by other travelers to stock up on preferred medicines, since there was no guarantee that China would have the things that I needed, and I took this to heart.

In the past year, I’ve learned a few things.  1) Hangzhou is a big city.  2)  China actually has a lot of things that America also has (and many things that America doesn’t!)  3)  Life in China does not need to be an Impossible Situation.

And yet, despite all of these things, I still thought I’d have to go to Shanghai.

Once Mary came to collect me at the bus stop, she led me down the street.  It’s a street I’m very familiar with—the one leading past the fruit stand I usually visit, past the park near my apartment, and perpendicular with another street where the best vegetable selection is  (aside from the vegetable market).

“Your apartment must not be far from here,” Mary said.

“No, it’s just back a ways,” I said.

And then we rounded the corner to the public bike racks across the street from my apartment complex, where every morning I’d take a bike and go to school.  Behind it, as it turns out, is a community hospital.

Mary had already called ahead so that we wouldn’t have to wait in line, the serum was ready, and after the paperwork and paying, the whole procedure took little more than a couple of inhales and exhales.

“That’s it?”  I asked when it was done.  The doctor nodded telling me to drink lots of water.  And then Mary helped me get other medicine—pills that my mother had been mailing to me for the past year.

All of this contorting I’d been doing to stay healthy…resolved in less than an hour.

Up until this summer, I went on autopilot when it came to what China did and didn’t have.  (Usually assuming China didn’t have something and then just making do without.)  In the year that I’ve been here, I’ve learned to ask for help and admit defeat without seeing it as chinks in my armor.  But that still doesn’t mean that I’ve figured it all out, or that I’ve at last ceased being stubborn in my preconceptions and world-views.  I mean, who knew that, had I simply asked for help eight months ago (when I was supposed to!) about this shot, I would have found it.

Right across the street, this whole time.

Absence makes the heart grow stupid

What is their profile picture?  What updates have they posted online?  Do they write complete sentences when they post?  When chatting with you online, how often do they say “lol”?

I went out to a club this past weekend (bad Hannah, I know…).  There, a friend of mine was texting a note to tell me that he liked a girl in our company, but didn’t know if she liked him.  I shouted to him over the thumping music “Maybe you should meet her somewhere other than a club!” and we went back to dancing (or, in his case dance-texting).

I didn’t say it trying to be snarky or judgmental, only to say that meeting people and getting to know them takes time, and is usually complicated.  I know myself—I’m sometimes more than willing to cart around a single image of what a person is, because it’s easier and less messy that way.  I’ll carry it on my heart and tell others the few features I remember, and in the space between when I see that someone again, I’ve already decided who they are, based off of intuition rather than encounter.

Hey, no one’s perfect.

We’re people, and we’re messy.

So it is that I’ve come to learn that absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder.  Sometimes it makes the heart grow stupid.  Because in the gap between meeting or encountering someone, we fill in the blanks with whatever other information we can hear.  Gossip, side-conversations, online profiles, texts, memories and details other friends recall.  We see this person from a distorted lens, from the eyes of everyone else around us.

And so I will say this for anyone like me who’s panicking about first encounters and the many meetings that stitch our lives together: Maybe you should meet people somewhere other than where you met them.  See them with your own two eyes.  Just see them.  And leave it at that.   

Mooncake Day

The moon was married tonight.  We saw it in the sky: a thin white film of clouds surrounding that pale orb so-loved in poetry and myth.  Who or what it was married to, I still don’t know.  But that’s beside the point.

It’s Mid-Autumn Festival here in China–the festival surrounding the moon like that ring in the sky.  Couples, families, or hopeless dreamers like me all gather where there’s open sky and gaze upward: a full, detailed, cookie-cutter moon so clear that watchers can catch the pockmarks along its cheeks.  This is our boon for coming out at night. 

We see it, our moon, leaping along waves in the river like a skipped rock, and we delight in it as we bite into our moon-cakes.  Sweet, dense, round–immediately filling, though not entirely satisfying.  But that, too, is beside the point.

Across continents, over oceans, lifetimes apart and together again.  The festival is a time to gather together; it’s also a time to recall what other past moons have shown.  Wild-throated nights in the prairie, different faces pausing in the pale beams to wonder at how they glow.  Family, friends, anybody who has not yet awoken to the moonrise just yet.  The harvest moon, orange and bloated as it staggers to its feet.    

I have always preferred the glow of the moon to the glare of the sun, if only because it’s only in the dark that I really seem to see things clearly.  And tonight, sipping a beer along the Qiantang River with new foreign friends I’d met merely a week ago, the diamond slices of the moon stretched over the dark expanse of water, I saw the surge of Chinese students coming out at night, munching on their own moon-cakes as we all took vigil with the night.  New faces worshipping the old tomes above.

Of Milkshakes and Dumplings

In many ways, my meal of four pork dumplings and a knock-off strawberry milkshake is emblematic of life in China: an intricate dance of the new and the old, the is and the is not.  Coming together in delightful (and sometimes confusing) situations.  The dumplings, served with the vinegar in little containers.  The milkshake in a paper cup.  It shouldn’t make sense, this confusion of flavors and traditions, but in a strange way it does.  Because none of it ever really ceases to be China, but instead joins the fray of an old culture weaving in with the new.  

What a perfect venue for transitioning into the modern world–endless chances to do with what we have, with as much enthusiasm as we can offer.  Not to talk to people, but to Talk to people!  Not to write emails, but to Write emails!  Not to slurp milkshakes, but to Slurp milkshakes!  And that way, in the fray, we can make sense of it all by not trying to make sense of it all.   

Because this is China, where people live in the sky. 

Mr. Yao and his slingshot

I was stooping along the dingy canals to watch the cranes before they glided away.  Not particularly dressed to be sneaky, in my bright yellow Chinglish shirt I’d purchased in an attempt to look more masculine while hitch-hiking, the birds didn’t last much longer than an impression in the water’s surface before fluttering away.  They escaped in opposite directions, thus ending our nice commune for the afternoon. 

Slightly disappointed but content all the same, I returned to the main path where a man was leaning against the concrete rails with a red slingshot.  I walked closer and then stood still to examine his efforts.

There was a dead fish on the concrete shore of the canal, which he was trying to hit to propel it back into the water.  Out with the slingshot, pulling back and then releasing with a THWACK!  Ordinarily, I would have continued walking, but since coming to China, I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily the rudest thing to stare if something interesting is happening.  THWACK!  THWACK!  and what I assumed to be rocks came down on the dead fish.  Luckily, after 5-6 tries, he got it back into the water to be buried properly. 

“Why was there a fish there?” I asked, not knowing how to say “slingshot” in Chinese.

“It died,” he said.

“I see.”

He fingered his slingshot for a while, as if debating whether or not there might be another fish to take care of, and then, before pocketing it, turned back to me.  “Where are you from?”


“Does America have these?” He gestured to the slingshot.  I nodded.  “Have you used one before?”  I shook my head.  At this, he was almost aghast, but then I’m not too surprised.  I was once asked if I’d fired a bazooka before, so you know.  You take the questions you get.

“Do you want to learn sometime?” he asked. 

“Uh…YEAH!”  I was already picturing me in full Dennis the Menace glory, shooting what I hoped would be paper targets.  He said we could figure out another time to do this and that I could talk to my school’s (indecipherable Chinese). 

“My school’s what?” I asked.  He repeated it.  I still didn’t get it.  We tried guessing for a while, but then I took out the cell phone.  I’d turned it off for the walk (one of my stipulations for my device that looks like the yellow Power Ranger is to turn it completely off from time to time and put it on silent).  We used the really nifty “write the Chinese character with your fingers” feature and it was one of those moments that could end up in a “bringing people together” cell phone ad.  Instead, he showed me pictures on his own phone of motorized kites that he flies around West Lake on the weekends.

“When do you fly them?”  I asked, pretty enchanted to meet both a slingshot and a kite guy in one go.

“Whenever there’s wind.”

“I see.”

“You can come sometime to fly them, too.”

And so we exchanged contact information, and I went on to stalk more cranes.  As I left, he went back to his slingshot, though what he hoped to shoot, I have no idea.  I just hoped it wasn’t going to be cranes.       

Impossible Situations

Two cars are driving down a narrow road and end up nose to nose.  There’s no room to go around, and they’re too close to maneuver aside from reversing.  It’s clear (to me, anyway) that one car will have to reverse so that the other one can proceed.  But, rather than doing this, the two cars honk at each other for the next 10 minutes, squabbling and cussing to whoever can hear. 

“You guys,” I think to myself.  “This is not an impossible situation.”

But I guess to the people inside of the cars, it is. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since coming back to Hangzhou.  Because now, rather than revving up for an adventure, I’m entering the continuation of a life I’d set aside to travel.  And on top of that, I’ve been re-reading the perceptions and “this is what China is like’s” that I’d scrawled down a year ago.  I came expecting the old, and lamenting modernity and the “evils” of technology as it erased meaningful connections.   Chinese culture seemed like a giant Impossible to my eyes, because everywhere I looked, I only saw the black tops of heads bent over cell phones, and heard the jarring conversations on buses. 

In the park, towering apartment complexes ripple in the pond.  So fragile, with individual rooms wavering in the water as if transitory, prone to destruction as soon as my back turns.  Down the walkway, a group of women rehearse a dance involving old drums, while a speaker plays dance music 100 meters away for another group.  A towering crane balances amid the skeleton of a new apartment complex being built.  Men play checkers.  Electric bikes whizz by.  Children wheel around dancing feet on glittering rollerblades.   

Sometimes I feel as though I’m caught between worlds–the old one without technology, and my own generation and the technological boons that come with it.  I want to connect, and yet that sometimes is a self-consuming creature.  To text people to connect is to disconnect from the world all around.  To connect to only those within walking distance is to disconnect in ways that are hard to do in the modern world.  Just like the drum-dancers and the hissing aftermath of their music played on a smart phone, it doesn’t go together as well as one might hope. 

But you guys, it’s not an impossible situation. 

I recently bought a smart phone (an upgrade from my indestructible Wishway that also was a flashlight), which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t actually that big of a deal.  But in a way, it was.  Because I’d long prided myself in the ability to disconnect, to leave the world behind for a while and burrow into a specific pocket of time as deeply as possible.  I was proud of being able to disappear.  To bring the world along in a thin metallic box just seemed wrong.  But I’d decided that if I wanted to invest in a longer stay in China, then I needed to do this–get a proper dictionary, join WeChat, be able to write characters without having to fruitlessly simplify language to the point of kindergarten.  Yet as I stood in the cell phone store with my friend examining the bright graphics, I felt a deep panic swelling inside of me.  I was destroying a part of myself, and there would be no way to get it back. 

I’m not sure that’s the way it has to be, though.  You can still disappear for a while–you just need to be more intentional about it.

Engaged in the modern world, updating things on Facebook, connecting with Skype, chatting with people on WeChat…they don’t have to be signs of the current generation destroying the world.  I see them more as a challenge.  A challenge for us to find those other doors, rather than stand still like I did one year ago on a bridge, frankly disgusted by tall buildings and how they dwarfed the willow trees all around–sure that this was all bad and nothing more complicated than that.  I now accept this challenge to love the modern world and still be connected to nature, to the people within nature, and to the parts that bridge the two. 

Besides, no one ever said you couldn’t just turn off a phone, unplug a computer and just go for a walk–right off of the technological grid. 


Brief note

Hello to anyone reading this!  

If you’ve been following my blog throughout the summer, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve tried to go through recently and fix up some of the more hastily-written entries (like the hitch-hiking ones that were all banged out in one afternoon in Hohhot), as well as ADD PICTURES!  So, feel free to schmooze through them, or not, and thank you for taking the time to read!