Sometimes when I write I'm inspired by a place, or a person, or even a few words, and I have to hurry and jot everything down before the inspiration leaves me. Once passed, the words are gone. They settle in the same place forgotten dreams go; at first so vivid, but later only a vague fondness. I don't know where the place is, but it would be a jackpot for creativity, if discovered. I may have been on the path to finding that place until a mother holding her child walked in front of me, hocked up some phlegm, and launched it onto an unfortunate bush. The look on my face may have appeared to say, "That was the nastiest, most uncivilized behavior I've seen in at least the last hour and a half." But actually, I was thinking, "We have different cultures and folkways, you and I. Let's learn from each other!" And with her passing, so went my concentration.
Inspiration or no inspiration, I leave Dongguan in a matter of hours, not knowing if I will ever return. My time in China is quickly reaching its end, and so it's natural for me to reflect. The stories are many, and they're not all fruit stands and boat rides. Many can be shared, some will be retained, and a few, I'm sure, will lie buried between a dream and a fallen word.
I recall the places:
I've snorkeled the tropical waters of the South, and I've explored the vast grasslands of the North. I've ridden the mighty rivers and traversed the dusty roads. "Home" was more of an idea than a place; but if such a place existed, it was Xitou. At nights, one could find me playing center for the local basketball team or nibbling sunflower seeds while watching a movie on the public big screen. During the day, I'd walk around the shops or make my way down an unknown alley. The best places to go are often the places where no one expects you to be--and no one expected me to be in Xitou.
I recall the people:
He was an old man, and he was poor. Both were easily visible on his face. I shouldn't have been where I was. The train ticket in my hand allowed me the luxury of a hard seat for the 22-hour ride. I had meant to buy a sleeper ticket, which would give me more room and a bed. The mistake I had made irritated me more than the loud smokers across the aisle. Then I looked over and saw the man. He didn't have the luxury I did. He didn't have a lot of things I did. I watched him squatting in the crowded aisle beside my seat, since his ticket didn't even allow him a seat for the duration of the journey. His thin body was dark and sinewy from constant labor. His fingernails were filthy and his shoes were coming apart. He looked at me and spoke, anunciating the most standard Chinese that he could muster. I strained to understand, and managed to answer his questions about my home and family. Then he said, "Do you like China?" I replied, "I love China." I could see then that his smile was big, even bigger than my "mistake."
I recall the culture:
The red, plastic stools surrounded the wooden table, and the grandmother gave the call that dinner was ready. Yan Yan sat across from me, her legs not yet able to rest on the ground. She made a face at me, and I stuck my tongue out at her. Her pig tails shook when she giggled, and she made the same face back at me. The mother caught her in the act and turned in my direction. I shrugged and looked shocked. My friend, Zhen, sat next to me. She pointed to a dish and asked if I knew what it was. The bowl was full of contorted, fleshy strips. I admitted that I didn't know. "Pig ears." My mind began playing footage of my old dog stretched out on our front lawn, gnawing insatiously on disgusting pig ears. Yan Yan selected one from the bowl and brought it to her mouth. I wanted to reach over the table and backhand it out of the clutches of her wooden chopsticks, with a blood-curdling "Noooo!" I withheld and let culture persist. The more I thought, the more relative culture seemed. I was now envisioning one of them backhanding a grilled cheese sandwich or a pixie stick out of my hands. The vision ended just in time to hear their toddler mumble for a mushroom and some flounder.
When I reflect, sometimes I laugh and sometimes I just quietly. I replay the mistakes and the successes, the conversations and car rides. Together, they form the experience...my experience. I often wonder what comes next. I want to believe that I'm ready, but I seldom am. Maybe all I really know is that I'm young, I'm alive, and I'm living on prayers.