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.

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.   

Real China

I hear a lot of talk about finding “Real China.”  And I gotta say, I don’t think any of us know what we’re talking about.

For some, Real China is the same as poor China.  The dirty, dingy parts of cities that don’t make it onto brochures, or the wandering children like wraiths that stare at passerbys with wide, awestruck eyes.  The so-called “sketchy” noodle places that look like they might be full of diseases, but are actually rare culinary finds.  “This is Real China,” these people will say, glad to have found the places where “normal people” live.  

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the idea that Real China is old China.  The pagodas, the temples, the old instruments playing amid willow trees.  Perhaps fortress walls, guards standing at attention, traditional outfits, old tea houses all mixed together to exude an air of nostalgia.  But as much as traditions shape where we are today, I think we’d be remiss to say that Real China is a thing of the past.  Real China, I mean to say, exists in a way that doesn’t dismiss the current generation or the past 100 years of Chinese modernization.

Then there’s another concept of Real China, which is something I’ll call Scary China.  This is the sort of conspiracy side of China that those who have no desire to cooperate with China will ascribe to.  The guards around Tiananmen Square, and the cameras (“Big Brother,” some might say with a knowing grimace), and the censorship, and the idea that no one in China is happy anymore because they’re under the government’s heel and are stuck there until they either go back to the good old days or become more like us in the West.  True, there are many things that Chinese don’t know about their own histories, which is sad to hear.  But part of Real China today is finding out about this history and facing the identity other countries see.  Breaking apart another’s constructed identity to get at the truth as it surfaces in its original context.  As a student told me last year, “Learning about what happened at Tiananmen Square is this generation’s coming of age.”  If we are to understand Real China, then we must get over this fear of what we think it is.  Real China is not Scary China.  Scary China is just what many outsiders call China when they’re not close enough to understand.  This is, in part, a facet of the Chinese identity today–to have to break all of the “scary” rhetoric out there apart to find what Real China actually means.  

So here’s where you find Real China, in my opinion.  Not in brochures, not (exclusively) in the slums, not in foreign newspapers berating the menacing force they think is out there.  Real China is on the road, talking to Real Chinese people and hearing about their lives.  

You want to encounter the real thing?  Hop on a long-distance train.  Get on a bus.  Step away from translation and see it with your own eyes.  And you’ll see it, because it’s everywhere.  Every person, cracking sunflower seeds, studying for exams, hauling rice sacks, checking their faces in the reflection of smart phones, trying to keep babies from wailing the night away.  This is Real China, and it’s on the move.

The End of the World

According to the old Chinese empire, the beginning of nowhere is beyond the fortress walls in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province.  In the desert, with nothing but sand, harsh rocks, and the tightly pressed mountain walls of the Hexi Corridor on both sides, the fortress waits for something to come out of nowhere-lands.
Nowhere is a perilous land full of rocky plateaus clicking together from a distance, ruthless sand and unforgiving heat beating down like boxing gloves, one two, one two.  The wraiths and caravans rumbling along this road come from a faraway land, a land labeled as a lack-thereof or more succinctly, a question mark.
On this edge of Nowhere, I stood on the fortress walls, trying to embody the warriors waiting for something to materialize like a mirage and try to decimate the dream of the empire.  The clench of their fingers against stone.  The listless beg of sleep as their post as First Defense for the West felt less like glory and more like excommunication.  They were the guardians of Somewhere, keeping phantom dreams of barbarians and demons at bay.  

Today, Nowhere is marked by kids riding camels, families happily shooting tennis balls out of cannons, and couples wheeling through the men dressed up in thin tin armor marching along in formation with fake spears.  The fortress still has a drum that you can pay to smack.  Construction crisscrosses all over the walls. 

Loudspeakers hawk fake jade and overpriced sausages.  The trashcans are designed to look like treasure chests.

This is the nowhere, I kept thinking.  I am standing on the edge of what used to be absolutely nothing, save footprints of Silk Road travelers long ago.  That ought to mean something.  

I tried very hard to press my imagination beyond what modern travelers (myself included) have warped the past into.  But Nowhere is just about as barren as a beach on Labor Day.
So I got on my train to Dunhuang, another stop along the Silk Road.  The wind from the train pressed lightly against my arm.  The desert yawned all around, faint black rips of mountains in the distance.  
And it struck me how funny the whole fortress situation is, actually.  The nowhere-lands, full of what dark dreams may flit from eyelid to eyelid, suddenly interrupted by a structure informing you that you have now arrived at Somewhere.  The guards prodding you to see if you’re going to try and kill them.  You still in slack shock from having toiled in sand and scraping wind to find metal men and their metal lives telling you that You Have Entered the World.
What is the world of Somewhere, anyway?  To me, the dust-mote walls and fortified entryways are just as Nowhere as the places outside.  The only difference is that Somewhere decided to label the solitude.  
And in Nowhere, looking far into the stars cutting sharp into the black expanse of empty space, with the cool dribble of night-sand on skin, we’re nothing but advancing footsteps into whatever the demons out there have planned.

The Verb

I like to think that I could be Buddhist.  The ideas appeal to me, and there are certain phrases like “live in the moment” that strike a chord.  Do not kill, be kind to one another–these are things I agree with.  It could fit, right?
So when I go to temples or monasteries, I almost feel like I’m “in the know.”  Like, I’m aware of what they’re trying to say and could probably say it myself if given enough time and intelligence to think about it.
This morning, Maeva and I decided to join in the walk around the monastery.  It’s about 3km, and takes walkers past prayer wheels, monks-in-training, and all of the sights we’d later be seeing in an afternoon tour of the monastery.  I thought “yeah, symbolism, I get it” as we entered.  But as it turned out, I had no idea.
For one, prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
They’re like wooden spindles set up in rows, painted in faded red with designs on them.  Underneath are structures that resemble wooden plates and along the sides wooden bars.  As we walked, the we reached out and spun the wheels.  Touching them somewhere, keeping the energy going in our clockwise circumnavigation of the monastery.
“Damn!” I thought as my fingers rammed into the wooden handle of the prayer wheel.  I reached out for the plate on the bottom which slid past my fingers, hardly touching.  We’d go down the rows, then enter smaller rooms with more prayer wheels, Tibetans humming and chanting as they fingered the relics up close.
It wasn’t a walk for the Buddhist elite, either.  Old women, crippled men on crutches, children kowtowing every other step with fingers caked in chalk and scrapes, stringy men lying face-flat in the dirt to bow.  Followers bumping heads against the brick walls, near-invalids bent over along the path.  They touched as many prayer wheels as they could, with the creaking and squeaking that comes from constant use.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
We were walking, turning, pressing fingers into wood, going in circles.  In constant motion.  It didn’t matter what ideals I had, or how I interpreted certain pictures or not.  This was about Buddhism the verb, not Buddhism the noun.
As I walked, seeing the movement and the absolute sacrifice of body and soul that went into this sect of Buddhism, it got me thinking.  I’m not going to be a vegetarian.  I’m not as generous as I ought to be.  I’m not willing to give up earthly pleasures just yet.  I kill mosquitos.
I could stick with the Buddhism-the-noun ideas that I like and gloss over the rest.  I could say “close enough” and live in a half-world full of things I’ve specifically picked and chosen for myself.  But I have to be honest.  That’s not Buddhist.  Nor am I.
Because as I watched Buddhism-the-verb unfold, it struck me that perhaps religion isn’t meant to be convenient, or “whatever suits the life you currently live.”  There ought to be sacrifice.  There ought to be some kind of effort that goes into it.  There needs to be intent and sincerity.  There needs to be verb.  
So as we rounded the final bend of the walk, I felt an almost-release.  I am not many things.  All I am is someone turning my own wheels, thinking, and ready for the day that I’m ready to verb, whatever that means.

Life, measured in shoestrings

We begin without them.  Bare feet, toes wriggling in the hush of first air upon them.  But then they find us all the same, these feet-coverings that take us further and further away from home.  Tennis shoes to run.  Sparkly shoes to strut.  Cleats to tear the earth asunder.  Shiny black Mary-Janes to impress.  We walk through our lives in a series of shoes, endpoints of one journey to the next.  

To move is to slip from one pair into the next.  To go new places in old soles.

In my closet, a pair of moccasins.  Thick maroon down slippers.  Faded yellow shower shoes from the men’s section in Wumart.  Blue and white crocs from a family wishing to supply me with slippers.  Worn-down black teaching shoes.  A pair of black heels.  Hiking boots.  Tevas.

They can’t all come with, not when the journeys ahead are so far away. Or when the restless feet that beat them down, down, down, on the ground wear them away to stubs of themselves.  Only a few survive.  

I wore the maroon slippers upon returning from Spring Festival.  Hopping, waddling, skipping around the apartment like a child, my incentives for successful travels snug on my feet.  Now, in the drenched summer-heat of Hangzhou, they’re put to rest on top of my closet.  Waiting.  A cold day, warm feet. 

What wait for me, when I come home from summer vacation, are shoes of a very different sort.  Not meant purely for comfort, not something brought from home.  A pair of sporadically-colored converse-knockoffs that I painted with one of my students.  The colors make no sense.  Wild.  Sort of like a nebula-burst on all sides.  Where I’ll go in these shoes, how I walk will all be determined in the fall when I slip them on to wear at last.

Because it’s not until the fabric brushes along the skin, snug and tight, not until our feet bend with the first step and reach out for another, not until we even take a few paces along the ground that we know who we are.  Perhaps a jaunty step, perhaps a lithe one.  A dance.  A tepid stroll.  A tiptoe into the uncharted waters of where we’re meant to go.  

Shoes tell the story, we go along for the ride.

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.