Shu Shu and the Broom Take 2

[Note: I was going to just delete the first attempt at uploading this entry and pretend that it never happened, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair.  Who am I to pretend that I’m savvy? If you’ve been reading this blog, then you know that I more or less bumble my way around anyway. So how about another go?]

Brooms in China are weirdly fascinating.  They’re a single shaft of bamboo, usually cut down to a little stub, with a collection of dried willow branches or leaves clumped together for bristles.  They scritch-scratch along the streets, and despite looking like the most inefficient tool invented, clean the streets pretty effectively.  In a country as fast-developing as China, willow switches have resisted an upgrade.  Which, frankly, I’m glad about, because sometimes, if I don’t look close enough, it’s like the workers in their orange jumpsuits are flailing tree-branches around. 

I wasn’t looking very closely as I walked down a random street today, instead paying attention to the contradiction of yellow gingko leaves and shocking blue sky that served as a canopy.  Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed it right away.

There was a street worker who I will call Shu Shu (shoo shoo), the polite way to address older men which means “uncle.”  Shu Shu was in his orange vest sweeping the side of the road outside of a park.  But rather than swish over the concrete with the aforementioned willow, he was scraping it over and over with the butt of the bamboo handle. 

I was already several steps past him when I turned around to make sure I really saw what I thought I’d seen.  He scraped over and over, leaving bamboo skid marks in his wake, like he was trying to draw boundary lines between his feet.

“That’s not how you use a broom,” I thought, standing at a respectable distance to watch his progress.  I was prepared to just chalk it up to the TRC (Totally Random China, work with me) but this time I decided to backtrack and see what was up.  Because, why not?

“Shu Shu,” I said, “What does this mean?”  I gestured to his broom and tried to look charmingly confused, which may have ended up looking slightly demented, now that I think about it.

He held up his broom for me to see and said something along the lines of “The handle hurts my hands, so I need to make it smoother.”  In fact, when I looked closely, I could see that the butt of the handle was roughly hewn from the bamboo, riddled with splinters and general discomfort.  So he had been trying to sand down the broom handle by scraping it on a rough surface this whole time.  Go home, Scooby.  Mystery solved.

Except that I have a tendency to stick around slightly longer than the answer requires me to.  So mystery solved or no, I did not go home right away.

“Are you hurt?” I said.  He nodded, as if pleased that I understood the Chinese.

“Oh, I have a thing!”  I said, and promptly went into a pocket of my purse to pull out a Band-Aid to give him.  He looked at it for a second or two, so I said “You want it?” 

Then he started to laugh.  “No no, thank you, I won’t have it.”  And then he showed me his hands, which may have been a little scraped, but in absolutely no need of a Band-Aid.  Still, my mother always taught me to be ready in case of an emergency, and a guy with a broom is an emergency enough for me. 

“Are you sure?” I said.  He said he was and thanked me again.  I got the hint that it was time to keep walking.  So I waved goodbye and couldn’t help but wonder what, if anything, he would say to others about the demented foreigners walking around Xiasha.  Maybe he would say that all foreigners carry around Band-Aids, or that all foreigners were hopelessly nosy or that all foreigners liked to talk to street workers.  Maybe he thought I was funny, maybe he thought I was strange.  But I’ll bet he thought me at least a little demented, just as I sometimes think of my beloved TRC.

But then, maybe none of us are demented after all.  Because really, if I’d kept walking, I’d still be convinced that there were people in China (street cleaners, no less!) who didn’t know how brooms worked. 

Damnit, granite!

When I packed my bag to climb Yellow Mountain, I included several notebooks, my journal, and a book.  Food was an afterthought of dried goods that could pack small, and warm clothes just layers that could fit under my jacket.  Sensibility wasn’t the goal of this trip.

I recently turned 24, and it was a friend of mine that made the observation “We tend to think about life in years.  So, what do you want your 24th year to be?”  I couldn’t give her a straight answer.  Because I didn’t have any straight thoughts—instead, crooked meandering musings that didn’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.  And if I’m being honest, it freaked me out. 

So to begin my 24th year, I decided to do something physically grueling to toughen up—that is, Yellow Mountain.

There are several ways to “do” Yellow Mountain.  You can climb the entire thing from entrance to top.  You can take a bus to a point near the base and climb up.  You can take the chairlift up and hike around at the top.  There are even different paths going up and down the mountain.  The Eastern Steps, which are the most common ones to take up, though no less simple, and the Western Steps.  The Western Steps are said to lead to the most stunning parts of the mountain, though are the most strenuous and exhausting.

You can guess which option I went for. 

At the base of the Western Steps, it didn’t look so bad.  There were steps, steps, steps, but this is China.  Dirt trails are rare.  So I began the climb amid the autumn leaves, which dipped the air in gold and punched against the periwinkle-blue sky.

About half an hour in, I was already panting.

“What the hell was I thinking?” I gasped.  But of course, I already knew the answer: I wasn’t.    

Ahead on the steps, men with yokes laden with cases of water, metal basins, fruit, vegetables, and snacks, dragged their cargo up for the hotels and convenience stores at the summit.  My shoulders smarted with the weight of the book and water bottle, but after watching them drag their feet in front of the other like oxen, I had no right to complain. 

The steps kept coming.  What seemed like an innocent trail up a mountain quickly became a death-march.  I kept going.  Really, there isn’t any other choice.

I tried to take notes, write observances and witty thoughts along the trail, I really did, but after a while, physical exhaustion overrode thought.  There was no art, only brute strength dragging my legs onto each step.  At times, I was on my hands and knees crawling up practically vertical shafts of stairs.  At others marching.

Off the mountain, directions are hard, twisting and twining into each other until it’s just a jumbled mess of crossroads.  But when climbing, direction is easy.  You just keep going. 

You just go up.
You just go up.
At some point, the golden trees faded to be replaced by passionless granite.  At times, so bulbous and odd looking that I thought it was fake, even though it wasn’t.  The pine trees stuck out of the rocks like badly combed hair, and when I looked down to see the trees I’d already surpassed, they all looked like broccoli. 

I was at famous spots near the top, which was obvious by the sudden crowds of people and loudspeakers.  (These were the people that simply rode the chairlift up.)  Famous or not, it didn’t matter at this point.  I reached a summit and only had enough breath and energy to say “wow” and that was it.  Which at some point, is enough.  There doesn’t always need to be poetry. 

Sometimes the eyes say it better than the tongue.
Sometimes the eyes say it better than the tongue.

Wow.
Wow.
The final plod to the hotel I was staying at is pretty blurry in my mind.  There was a nice boulder and impressive cliffs.  I looked at them and thought nothing about it.  Only looked and said “wow.”  And after forcing myself to see the sun set, I went to bed.

The morning was spent prowling the scenic spots at the top.  A gorge carved out of the earth, a devastation of cliffs and overhanging stairs to reach them.  People shouting in whoops and hollers like morning cathedral bells echoing across the valley. 

But eventually, the long march down. 

I tried to savor the descent, I really did.  I’d spent so much time at the top, so much effort on the way up, that I wanted the way down to be just as memorable.  But I was like a rabid wolf.  My legs hit a rhythm and I was practically flying down the mountain. 

At some moments at the peak, I was disappointed that for the most part, my mind was empty.  I kept trying to force myself to really stop and think of something, or even to compare a rock precipice to a turtle, like the signs along the way were telling me.  But that’s what it takes to move.  No time for baggage, no time for anything other than what will get you from one place to another.  There’s just arriving and saying “wow” and leaving it at that.  Of course, I did, in the end, journal a bit nonetheless at the top.  (Because even if I was falling off of a cliff, I would still be thinking “oh, so this is how it feels!  I should write that down…”)  But the books?  The extra notebooks?  Untouched.  Instead, my muscles throbbed from the sheer effort of arriving–all 15 hours of climbing that it took. 

But arrive I did.  Not by thinking about it, but by moving.

And that, I think, is how my 24th year will be.

Kan Shu

One of the first Chinese phrases I learned was 看书 (kan shu) which literally translates as “to look at books.”  I know this because sometimes my students, when asked what they do in their free time, say “I will look at the book.”  It’s kind of a funny image, students cracking open the binding and staring at the pages.  Not reading, but definitely looking.

I mean, I hope they do more than just look at books.  But when I hear this, I’m reminded of students smiling as they recite something they found online, stricken when I ask them to tell me what it means.  They were looking, all right, but not digesting.

“Chinese students, we study harder than anybody,” a student said.  “But it’s others who has [sic] the ideas.”

In classes, students constantly surprise me with the things that come out of their mouths.  As a result, I’m buzzing.  I want to talk about creativity, even though it’s already been talked about and even though it’s more sensible to try and practice it rather than preach it.  Because what my students have taught me is that creativity is not something reserved for humanities majors, but something that everyone can participate in if only they have the opportunity.

There’s a lot I want to say about creativity (who’s surprised?) but I think my students actually say it better than I do.  I was their scribe as they talked and wrestled with the debate topic this week: Is creativity or knowledge more important in education?

“Creativity is putting knowledge into something alive,” an economics student said.  “Knowledge is static.  We need creativity to move.”

A student defending knowledge said “With knowledge, you can run.”  Another responded “With creativity, you can run, bike, take a train, take a plane…anything!”

Knowledge argued that there needed to be substance to ideas, or a foundation.  A student asked “How do you make ideas come true?” to which Creativity cried “You just do it!”

“We need to know things to be creative, so knowledge is more important.”

“Yes, but who wrote the book?”

I was floored by everything they were saying.  Because they were, in my eyes, fighting the criticism that Chinese students cannot think for themselves.  There’s a lot of “looking at books”, scraping the surface, mining them, and extracting whatever commodities are needed to pass over here.  Likewise, there’s a lot of copies and fakes, which I’ve seen in person.  It’s kan shu at its finest.  Nothing to digest, just consume.

But I’m not so easy to give up on people, especially my peers.  I believe that there are still ideas out there that cannot be faked, copied, or imitated.  We as the youth of today have the power to put our knowledge into something alive and let it move—by train, by bus, by car, by anything we can get our hands on. 

Because in the end, we can do so much more than kan shu.  We can instead enter the world shining and downright verbal.  All we need is the opportunity.

I seek the trees

I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I went into the woods because I wanted to catch the leaves changing colors before they all fell off the branches. 

See, the thing about autumn in Hangzhou is that leaves don’t change the same way as they do back home.  Back home, it’s like walking through falling embers.  Here, trees will either mess with you by never changing colors (here’s looking at you, palm and willow trees!) or there’ll be some reds, maybe some yellows peeking out from out of the branches, and then suddenly BAM!  There’s nothing.  Winter more or less bludgeons its way in. 

But not this year.  I was determined to know precisely when autumn decided to visit.  On bike rides to class, I kept a close look at the trees to make sure they didn’t try to sneak off and have love affairs with foliage.  I saw many pretending to be Christmas trees, with red leaves haphazardly sticking out of the green like little ornaments.  I saw lots of random brush-tips of red on top of the bushes.  But that didn’t stop me from looking. I would catch them red-leaved.  (Har har har)

Gotcha!
Gotcha!

Other expats in Hangzhou suggested I go to  长乐 (changle) which is described to be a tree farm near the Yuhang village on the outskirts of Hangzhou.  I say ‘described to be’ because I imagined something like a barnyard full of saplings or well-labeled specimen for all of us to ogle, which was definitely not what was there.  They said to go in November, because that’s when leaves actually change colors. 

So yesterday, I made my pilgrimage to Changle.  I took the bus downtown, where lights and horns and loudspeakers announcing upcoming discounts for “Single’s Day” on Monday blared.  Women swaying along the sidewalks with their phones, high-heels, and friends en masse.  Men walking wider, with their minds possibly on the women.  I waded through all of this until I found another bus, number 506, which I had to ride all the way to the end to Yuhang.  At Yuhang, there was yet another bus to take me to Changle.  As I got further away from the city, bus passengers slowly shifted to farmers with giant sacks of rice, yellowed eyes and toothless smiles.  We were only an hour and a half out of the city.  I didn’t understand a word of their dialect. 

But they understood me (mostly, though they still insisted that I must be Russian), and I at last found myself in Changle.

Well, it was not Old MacDonald’s farm for saplings.  Instead, it was a small gated community, with a middle school (and all of the students lined up outside to “march” though they really just kind of swarmed) and winding walking trails out back to farmlands.  I started on the concrete walkways along the middle school, but before long climbed up onto the dirt path coated in pine needles. 

It's a path pretty well taken, but pretty nonetheless.
It’s a path pretty well taken, but pretty nonetheless.

It’s a funny thing, because even though I could still hear car horns and occasional shouts from the middle school, it was as though I was in another world.  Certainly quieter than the downtown cityscape I’d been in a couple of hours before, and stunningly enough: deserted.  Only the occasional farmer on a bike or photographer pausing to drink in the solitude.

Deserted.  In China.  I cannot stress the rarity of this enough. 

Sister trees growing together.
Sister trees growing together.

Looks almost like it's dancing.
Looks almost like it’s dancing.

My clipped pace from crossing sidewalks slowed into more of a processional.  I walked along a brick wall, and over it, tea fields wrapped like coils around the hills.  Golden ginko trees shivered in the slight breeze, palm tree leaves split the crisp blue sky like daggers, pine trees fuzzy and orange plumed outward.  I relished the crunch of every leaf under my foot, releasing and pressing it down again with my toes.  Along the pine-tree lined pathway, with occasional bursts of red, I felt like I’d entered Chinese Narnia. 

Let’s not kid ourselves, the leaves were still stubbornly green and I had to scavenge to find the hues I wanted.  But they’re there if you look.  And what’s the point of autumn, if you’re not willing to look?

Heart of Flames

“Oh no, did someone die?” I said as we walked over the grass.  Our words had extra gravity in the night because we couldn’t see each other’s faces, and it was as though everything we said was haunted.

As we got closer to the clump of candles in the middle of the stadium’s thin-trimmed lawn, though, I saw that it wasn’t a memorial.  Instead, there was a line of candles shaped to form a heart.  Rose petals draped over each wick, fluttering into the middle, scattered on the edges.  A girl was leaning over the rose petals, apparently cleaning up what she had been working on. 

“Go on,” my friend said when I looked over at her.  She knows me too well.

“What does this mean?” I asked the owner of roses once I’d edged closer.  The yellowed light from the candles framed the tips of our faces, as though we had been dusted by light.  It had an eerie effect, as though we had all stepped into the same celestial gathering by accident.

“It’s for my boyfriend,” she said.  I noticed a tall man with a camera and asked if that was him.

“No, just a friend,” he said.  She gathered each rose petal carefully and put it back into a plastic bag.  Then she began to pick up each glass candle-holder and blow out the flames one by one. 

“My boyfriend doesn’t go to this school,” she said, setting down another candle-holder to pick up the next one in the line.  The heart was disintegrating before me.  It didn’t feel like loss exactly, but rather the final curtain of a good show dropping.  “He doesn’t go here, so I’m going to send him the pictures.  He’s too far away.”

We ooed and ahhed, complimenting her for being so cute.  She said thank you and continued blowing out the candles.  Even though our conversation was clearly over, I stood there, transfixed.  Something kept me waiting there, with each candle being blown out, one by one.  Half of the heart gone, then three-quarters.  All on a single puff of air. 

Maybe it’s because I was thinking about what my mom says about me being in China: to go where my heart is burning to go.  Maybe I slant the world too metaphorically and thought in horror that my flames were going out.  Or maybe it’s because it was night and because we’d been talking about Big Decisions in Life as we walked along the stadium track, my friend and I.  Whatever the reasons, I couldn’t stop watching as the flames licked out one by one and the girl packaged them neatly away in her plastic bag. 

It’s been over a year, and I’m still in China.  Something keeps me holding onto the strange and fascinating place that has become my home, despite all that I’ve left behind in America.  I can’t tell if it’s a tangible thing I can attain, or a piece of myself I’ve had to shed.  It’s like the candles–until they go out, I won’t know how deep the night is.  I won’t know what keeps me coming back until I leave China.  

I held my breath as the line of lit wicks lessened and lessened.  I don’t know what I was expecting, because soon, all of the candles were snuffed out and she was picking up all of the bags and trays and equipment that went into making romantic displays of affection.  Night continued uninterrupted, men along the field shouted encouragement to each other as they ran laps, friends sipping milk tea padded softly along the spongy track.

And I was still there with my friend, looking at the dark space where the heart of flames used to be. 

The Lost Boy

He was the product of a Lost Boy, holding his smart phone up in front of his face and following it as though it was a torch.  I thought it was curious, but not necessarily strange, given that most times I try to make it out the front door, I get my own brand of lost within minutes.  (I’ve gotten lazy when it comes to finding my way and have taken to just asking people on the street where to go next.  It’s more circuitous, but also more fun to weave through the crisscrossing web of misdirection.)

No, what struck me as strange was the moment this Chinese Lost Boy decided to approach me and ask for directions.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “Can you tell me how to get to Number Two Street?”

I had to pause for a moment to get my bearings.  You see, usually I’m the one asking for directions.  Foreigners are the lost ones.  The buffoons least likely to be sources of local information.  Chinese people are supposed to know their world.

I kept thinking about this twist of fate–how this man must be just desperate (or deranged) enough to ask a fellow Lost One how to get anywhere.  But then, once I’d properly adjusted my brain, I realized that I actually knew where we were.  In fact, we weren’t all that far from ZSTU, the school where I work, and from Huayuan movie complex, where I dart in to grab rice balls and other snacks.  This was rare.  Me knowing things.  I had to take advantage of this new role.

“We’re already on Number Two Street!  You see that?” I pointed toward a road sign.  He thought I was trying to tell him to turn on a road and began to walk in the wrong direction.  “No, no!  Look!  We’re already on Number Two Street!”

“Oh, okay.”  And without another word, he started to walk away.  It struck me as a bit queer, the Lost Boy wandering off in a random direction along the winding road. 

I took a couple of steps forward. “Where are you going?”

He scrolled through his phone for a while, and then pulled up a map of Xiasha.  I leaned forward to try and decipher the streets, to locate where in the Misty Mountains of towering apartment complexes he was trying to go. 

“Gongshan University?” I asked.  “You need to go in that direction.”  I was pointing the opposite way he had been walking. 

“Okay.”  And he started to walk away.

“It’s really far, though!” I said, uncertain why it was so urgent to lead him properly from being astray.  “It’s going to take you a long time to get there!” 

“That’s okay,” he said and continued walking down the sidewalk. 

As it so happened, I was heading in the same direction, though he was walking a little faster than me.  I was on my random moments of blackout where I enter the world and try to forget the digital footprints I’ve stomped all over myself.  Not to say that anything remarkable happens in these moments, only that I take pleasure in being away from a computer screen and look and listen and smell and touch (and probably feel, too) China all around.  But this guy left me feeling off-kilter.  Here I’d been in China for one year long, and it was me that was supposed to be a Lost Child.  I was the one who was wandering and wondering.  Since when was I supposed to know things?

I caught up to him at a crosswalk, the little neon red man solidly standing still to demonstrate the J-walking we weren’t supposed to do, but probably would anyway. 

I made one more appeal.  “You could take a bus.  Much faster.”

He looked at me a little strangely, then, still holding his phone in front like the lantern in the night.  “Yes,” he said.  “But then I’d just get lost, wouldn’t I?”

He had a point.