Saturday, April 25, 2009

In Which I Consider Murdering the Art Teacher

Clinging to the side of barren Chinese mountain, feet churning Wile E. Coyote-style for traction, blesses one with a certain perspective on the Big Questions: Why am I here? How did I get here? And if I go down, can I take the art teacher with me?

More importantly, it inspires a religious fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and snake handling. "Please, Lord, make me a lichen. I'm not asking to be made an eagle, just a lichen. Because lichen's not going anywhere."

It was at this point in my devotional that the middle school art teacher helpfully told me to stay put.

In front of me was the cliff face to which I was plastered. Behind me was a 70-degree incline leading to a 50-foot drop onto jagged rocks. Yeah, thanks for the tip, Jimmy. I'll just go ahead and stay here.

His name isn't really Jimmy -- I'm ashamed to admit I can't remember his name -- but by that point in the hike I'd begun to think of him as Jimmy the Wonder Boy, part monkey, part mountain goat. The day before, he'd invited me to go hiking with him and some other teachers, and I enthusiastically accepted with a thrilled, "Yes! Thanks for including me!"

I figured there was nothing to worry about. I mean, this is the man I went to when I needed heartfelt drawings of fruit. He's very thin, deeply sensitive and always creatively attired. Surely he wouldn't lead us on anything too strenuous.

Oh, it is to laugh! Foolish Rachel. I humbly bow to books and their covers.

But in my defense, the hike was very easy at first. We got off the bus, the nine of us, and walked through the barren, Mad Max-like wasteland at the base of the mountains. I should point out that Korla is sandwiched between the vast Taklamakan Desert and the mighty Tienshan Mountains -- the dry side of the Tienshan. There is nothing on this side of the mountains -- no trees, no flowers, no grass. They are imposing, impossible slopes of razor-edged scree, between which run narrow, vein-like valleys littered with boulders and other detritus of geologic impermanence. They are 10,000 shades of brown and gray.

So, these are not friendly mountains. But they're definitely interesting. And Jimmy was interested in going up and over them. Blithely, we followed.

Now, I've always enjoyed a good, healthy upward scramble. But following directly behind Jimmy, I noticed that I actually was scrambling. There were no hand or toe holds, nothing for traction, only layers of small, sharp rocks and loose dirt. The slopes were treacherously steep and momentum was the only thing I had going for me. Well, that and false pride. I didn't want to look like a big, American sissy and, okay, fine, the fifth grade P.E. teacher was on the expedition, too. It's possible I could have been showing off a little for his benefit.

However, we'd get to the top of yet another slope and have to sidle along a pencil-thin ridgeline to reach the next impossible incline. My addled brain registered a warning, "Um..."

"Um," I said to Jimmy, gazing up the slope we were facing and what was at the top (a cliff) and what could possibly be beyond that (certain death). "Um. Wow. This is..."

"Hen hao (very good)!" he offered, flashing me a grinning thumbs up and loping up the slope with the ease of a mountain goat. In defiance of logic, I followed him. It was terrifying. At the top, I lunged for the cliff face and clung for dear life. No way was I climbing it. And we couldn't go around. And the thought of going back down that slope hardened my new resolve: I will live here.

Yes, I will stay attached to this cliff for the rest of my life. Perhaps I will attain guru status someday. I will dispense wisdom and love and...

"Stay here," Jimmy instructed, scuttling back down the slope like a monkey to help his other hapless victims ascend. He even pulled out the rope he'd brought along for that very purpose.

The three other women in our group were clearly scared, so I offered hearty encouragement as they climbed: "Yes! You can do it! Way to go! Hooray!" The other men were all bravado and false good cheer. Even when they slipped, it was with an implied "Ha ha! Almost went to be with Elvis there! Ha."

But then... great. We were huddled like refugees on the side of a mountain, art teacher bounding around like a rabbit, with rappelling down the other side of the slope as our best option for descent. The other women accepted this with a peaceful stoicism that I've come to admire in my Chinese friends. I accepted it with threats and a shameful amount of swearing.

"I'm going to strangle you when we get down!" I hissed at Jimmy. "Why didn't we just walk up the valley that's right below us?"

He was mystified by this question, a little disappointed that I'm not a disciple of the "because it's there" gospel. But true to his role as psychotic Boy Scout leader, he saw us all down and, inexplicably, up more slopes. Then, after we'd stopped for lunch in a narrow canyon, facing what would end up being our final, treacherous descent, he even pulled out a harmonica and insisted on a post-meal musicale.

This is how I ended up singing Rocky Top for an audience of eight.

Once were were again on level ground, shuffling back to the bus stop, art teacher shyly asked if I'd had fun. I had. A lot of it. I'd been terrified, yes, but all things are softened in the rosy glow of retrospect. I told him I was very, very happy. I thanked him again for inviting me.

"But," I added, patting a new tear in the seat of my jeans, "I still might strangle you."

Perhaps it's not obvious in the photo, but I'm here to tell you that slope was steep.

And the other side of that slope required a rope. That's the art teacher in the blue shirt.

Descending the final rocks, I pondered the feasibility of cramming my own camera down the art teacher's throat. I don't even know why he had it.

And now for two gratuitous photos of the 5th grade P.E. teacher, because I got home and discovered half my photos were of him. Which is kind of embarrassing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In Which I Would Happily Eat Mary's Little Lamb

At this exact moment, every third grader at Ba Zhou Petroleum No. 1 Middle School is in possession of a recorder. The children call them their "flutes," which is charming, but a recorder by any other name...

And in the past two weeks, I would estimate that I have been regaled with Mary Had a Little Lamb no less than 19,283,107 times. The children rush at me, thrusting their "flutes" forward with a proud, "Teacher! Teacher!"

What I think: "Noooooo..."

What I say: "Hooray! Play a song for me!"

This is when Mary's little lamb, from the sound of things, begins staggering around the barnyard, its fleece matted with mud and straw, suffering mightily with a raging case of coccidiosis. The happy news is that, with a final squawking, triumphant note, the lamb survives. Barely.

The children are so happy and proud when they finish that it's all I can do not to bawl with delight -- Joy of accomplishment! Joy of music! -- and relief. Instead, I mentally compose a correspondence:

Dear My Sister,

As I recall, I laughed unsympathetically every time your kids brought home a recorder. Wow, am I sorry.

Your loving sister,
In sackcloth,


Now, I'm left to dread the arrival of hot cross buns.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In Which Louder and Slower Make No Difference

Just over the Construction Bridge in downtown Korla, on the east side of the road, is a tiny cafe sardined between a place to get your hair cut and a place to buy faux American sneakers. This cafe is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of place, squat and windowless and seven feet wide. It serves the best bao-zi (steamed dumplings) in China.

So, I eat there a lot -- so often, in fact, that I don't have to order anymore. I sit down and one of the ladies who work there brings me a basket of vegetable bao-zi. Then we grin in understanding: She knows I can't read the menu, but she also knows that doesn't matter because I don't want soup or stir-fry or anything else. I come for the dumplings.

Today, like every other time I eat there, I finished, sighed contentedly and pulled three yuan from my pocket to give to the woman who owns the cafe. This time, though, she approached my table.

"Hao chi (delicious)!" I effused.

She said something I didn't understand, so I smiled and gave her my "Eh?" expression. She repeated herself, and I confessed I didn't understand. Third time, and I saw that human nature runs true. People are people, and our very essence transcends geography, culture and every other conceivable artifice.

The third time she repeated herself, she... slowed... waaaaaayyy... down... and PUMPED UP THE VOLUME, beaming all the while.

This made me think of all those "Things to Do Before You Die" lists I've read in magazines, pretentious things that insist I should swim with sharks or climb K2 or run for public office. They also generally advise living overseas, to broaden my horizons and expand my mind and be exposed to the Grand Panorama and blah blah blah.

Those are worthwhile reasons, I guess, but not entirely honest. The most startling thing living abroad has done is expose me to myself. It's been one giant, humbling mirror. Today, I vividly recalled every time I tried communicating with someone who doesn't speak English BY... TALKING... LIKE... THIS... LOUDER... AND... SLOWER. Surprisingly, this has never succeeded in making my message understood.

I was gratified to learn today that it's not just my bad habit, but a human constant. The lady at the cafe was trying her hardest to make me understand. And it turned out that all she wanted to do was give me a souvenir pair of chopsticks.

I may not have understood the words, but I recognized the kindness of her intent and, extremely touched, accepted them with a heartfelt thank-you and good-bye: "XIE... XIE... ZAI... JIAN."

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Which I Understand the Princess and the Pea

The good news is that through patience and perseverance, I walked again. It was dicey there for a while.

I was coming off three days in airplanes and airports, two luggage-less days in Urumqi and a 12-hour train ride to Korla. I wanted either a nap or to lapse into a coma. After being shown around my new apartment, I offered a grateful thank you and good-bye to the building manager, closing the door behind her. Then I staggered into the bedroom and fell with a "timberrrrrr..." onto my new bed. I didn't even catch myself with my arms; I just toppled.

And that's when I discovered that Chinese beds are not soft. Oh, no. They're not soft at all.

What they are is a thin, alleged "pad" on a sheet of plywood, deceptively disguised with a regular frame and headboard. And pampered, coddled, spoiled, babykins American here was not expecting that. Or to have my back say, "Pop" when I fell face-first onto my bed. I'd have done just as well collapsing onto the floor.

My back said, "Pop" and I said, "Engh." And then I spent several contemplative minutes in perfect stillness, collecting my thoughts. Perhaps this is part of the Communist master plan, I mused: get people up and out of bed and off to work.

It's a ploy that motivates me in the morning. My eyes pop open and I'm acutely aware of the tiniest wrinkle in my pajamas between my hip bone and the alleged "pad." It feels like I'm lying on a railroad tie, so I might as well get up.

Now, though, I'm used to it. Mostly. And grateful to have a bed. I'm comforted to know that it's not just my bed, but all of them throughout the land. As I gingerly sit on the edge of my bed each night -- as gingerly as if it were a bed of broken light bulbs -- and swing my legs up as though I'm accommodating a crippling case of rickets, I know I'm not alone.

Here, we fall asleep and greet the new day with a smile and a "Yeeeooowww!! What am I lying on? Irrigation pipe?"

The alleged "pad" on my bed. I will have no problem sleeping on the ground after this.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In Which the Chinese Dream Is Mine

In the 1950s, Chairman Mao declared that a watch, a sewing machine and a bicycle were all a person needed to get by in this world. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, expanded on that notion by defining prosperity as "a Flying Pigeon in every household" -- Flying Pigeon being the most common brand of bicycle in post-revolution China.

However I may differ in ideology from China's leaders, I do agree on the part about bicycles. Bliss is found in the seat of my own flying pigeon.

Yes! I now have a bike! And it only took three failed attempts at communication, two hasty retreats from bike shops and one amateur Kabuki theater performance to acquire.

I really wanted this bike. I'd dream about having one every time I gazed toward the horizon and considered what could be out there. Desert! Farms! Mountains! Donkey carts! Oh, I was filled with longing. It's been fun walking everywhere, of course, but as I discoverd when I walked to the Iron Gate Pass -- 10 miles round-trip -- I tend to be seized with ennui/nihilism by mile eight or nine: This whole stupid world looks the same and I will never get home so I might as well die right here. In Nowhereville, China.

So, a bike! Hooray!

But not so easy to come by with my caveman Chinese. I strode confidently into two different bike shops, only to be confronted with assistants who insisted on smiling and trying to help me. They'd say something and nod encouragingly, pointing to different bikes. Then they'd say something else, with more nodding. Meanwhile, I focused on sweating and panicking. Finally, I had to admit, "Wo bu dong (I don't understand)" before fleeing and calling over my shoulder, "I'll come back later!"

After a soothing basket of bao-zi -- these steamed dumplings I can't get enough of -- I tried one more shop. This time, I snuck in the side door so I could look at some bikes before I was discovered. I spotted one with a frame that looked big enough at about the time a shop assistant spied me. I cut him off before he could say anything.

"Wo yao (I want)," I said, pointing to the bike and moving my arms in a pedaling motion.

He said... well, I don't know what he said, but he wrangled the bike from the rack and took it outside. After he adjusted the seat and handlebars and topped off the air in the tires, I rode it around and liked it a lot. I probably should have ridden more bikes, but I didn't want to press my luck.

"How much?" I asked, knowing what was coming.

"750 (about $110)," he told me.

I knew I would be expected to barter. And I hate bartering. No. 1, it makes me feel like I'm taking advantage or being taken advantage of and No. 2, as I might have mentioned, my Chinese sucks. But I do know all the numbers -- up to 999, at least -- so onward with the negotiations.

He said 750 yuan and I clutched for the pearls I wasn't wearing. 750! I swooned a little, letting him know that I'd never heard such a thing in all my born days. Why, I could hardly catch my breath! I made to leave, to go find a nice fainting couch somewhere, when he told me 690 yuan (about $101).

This time, I hung my head. Oh, this was sad news. About the saddest I'd ever heard. I shook my head mournfully. What was this wicked world coming to when a girl -- a stranger to this country! -- couldn't even have her own flying pigeon? Tragic.

He went over to the shop manager, who was standing in the doorway watching the proceedings, and came back with the offer of 660 yuan (about $96.50) and, I was made to understand, a free bike lock.


I rode away from the shop with the wind in my hair, warmed by the spring sun and the glow of my success. I was the happiest flying pigeon on two wheels.

My new Precious. I call him The Chairman Mao.