Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Brief Peek

An outlaw on the streets of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia

Getting friendly with some vines

Happy to have blue skies and sunshine at last!

Pit stop to get my flat repaired.

Chillin' with Ronald and some friends at his local hub.

Sunset of Yunyang, Chongqing

Starting to get an idea for the first day of school.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


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. 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.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Boat, a River, and Some Time to Think

The metal railing cooled my hands
while the eastern breeze massaged my face. It was the hum of the boat's motor and the voices of exhausted Chinese travelers that told me where I was. It was the bobbing noodle cup that told me when.

"So, this is the Yangtze?" I casually asked the young man to my left.

"Yes, the Yangtze. The weather is good today."

I agreed. "Hubei is beautiful."

An army of regal peaks and precipices stood at attention, saluting the majesty of the sparkling river below. It moved slowly under the setting sun, like an old man reminiscing about youth and greatness. At this hour, the hills dressed in gold. The advances of Man left them pockmarked on the lower slopes, but they stood with honor. I looked closer to see the pines mingling with broad-leafs, sharing thoughts of former times. Their stories are ageless and their language, pure. I leaned onto the railing and tried to listen.

My imagination stalled the motor and muted the voices. Where the noodle cup used to be, a large fish jumped, trying its luck at an insect bouncing playfully on the water's surface. The mountains looked full and alive. On the opposite side of the river, wrestless monkeys gossiped about the neighboring clan, only silenced by the howl of a wolf or the crackling of underbrush. Two wary deer tiptoed to the water's edge for a few quick sips, knowing all too well that a tiger could be lurking nearby. The waves kept hitting the shore like two good friends slapping five. Dusk was approaching, and the swallows were flying fast to observe curfew. They stopped on their way to offer a song to the forest and a melody for the trees. The wind picked up. In the last moments of visibility, I watched the air move through the treetops. The pines and broad-leafs were dancing, unashamed and understood.

The moment passed, and I was again standing in the golden glow of sunset. A lone shoe looked grossly out of place in the water. The waves on the shore sounded more like coughing now, and I was brought back to the incessant metallic chugging and cacophony of voices. Daylight was dimming, but on a distant hillside by a small home stood a mother in a long black dress, running her hands through her young son's hair and pointing at our boat with the other. The boy waved enthusiastically. No one on the boat reacted. Maybe they were preoccupied and couldn't see. After hesitating, I grinned and waved back.

"Do you know them?" The young man was still at my side.

"No." I didn't know them, and they didn't know me. A kind face and a friendly gesture would make a fine story to tell the next time an eastern breeze descends on the hillside. The pines and broad-leafs are probably less concerned about the changing of participants in their stories than they are about the changing of their frequency. I couldn't linger; but in passing, this was my song. Unlike the swallows, the melody was hidden. The trees nodded and waved with each new gust. An old-looking tree stood alone in a pensive posture. Where have the tigers gone, do you know? Its weathered branch stretched out and stretched far to point the way, but the directions were obscure. The frail limb struggled to hold still in the wind. Maybe it, too, didn't really know.

The boat rounded a bend, continuing on its course. "Yelu!" The young man grabbed my shoulder and pointed to a clearing, his eyes wide with delight. Could there really be wild deer like he was claiming? I hadn't yet seen any in China. I followed his finger and saw three animals in the distance. Their legs were a little short, I thought, and their movements were like those of grazing goats. The lighting was poor and the clearing was far. Masking any doubt, my eyes matched his in excitement, "Ah, Yelu!"