When you receive a grant that is sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, you find that you become something of an intellectual commodity – a human resource, as it were – to be traded and shopped around more or less at the mercy of string-pullers who no doubt reap more complicated diplomatic benefits from your presence than mere education. I like my work, but probably don’t want to know how I figure into any sort of wheeling and dealing of international small favors. I am happy to be a part this esoteric political process only so long as I don’t have to kill anyone, swear allegiance, wear a lapel pin, or hand out propaganda materials to children. Besides, it’s fun to give talks, and the whole business fits well with my secret goal in life to win the Most Eclectic Resume award. So far I’m clocking in with: commercial salmon fisherman; corporate video producer; lighting-rig crew for Yes, Pantera, and Bob Dylan; short-order cook; B&B manager; artists’ model; waitress and bartender; Daimler-Chrysler escort; band photographer; and teacher. My job titles in China, alone, have stretched to include speech adjudicator, graduate linguistics lecturer, research expert, translator, and competition judge. Thanks to our friends at the U.S. Consulate (Chengdu), we got to take a little trip down to Chongqing a few weeks ago, where I added Traveling Educational Pep Rally Performer to the list.
A fancy government van wheeled to our gate early on a rainy Thursday morning, loaded with books on U.S. history and handy little bottles of water, and other small trademarks of “official business.” We were herded into the spacious back seat and then whisked off onto a near-empty highway heading southeast. Our driver was a quiet man, introduced as “Jack,” who drove efficiently and made blessed little use of the horn. Our escort/chaperone was a perky, chatty little woman of indeterminate middle age who started every sentence with “Actually,” and ended with a nervous cackle. Her name was Shen Kai, and she spoke a fluent but strange English full of colloquialisms that she picked up during a year abroad spent in Indiana a decade or so ago. She gave us fruit and made anxious, shallow small talk from the front seat for a constant 40 minutes before falling abruptly asleep in her seatbelt; we were all cruising on nerves and fumes from a week of sleepless nights and aftershocks following the earthquake. For some reason, it was easier to sleep in the van than in a shaking building, and so we all did, all but Jack, who drove silently on through the rain. I leaned against the window and watched the suburbs give way to a countryside that was lush and agricultural. Farms stretched away in the distance, their green domesticity blotted from view by a parade of billboards sprouting up every ten yards along the side of the road: ads for farm equipment, men’s underwear, instant noodles and baijiu (rice booze) flickering past in endless repetition; it was difficult to see between them. I drifted off trying to decipher character after Chinese character and dreamt of more rain and Edward Abbey.
I awoke as we spiraled into the concrete forest of Chongqing around noon. It was still pouring, so the sky was dense and low and the buildings were streaked and grubby-looking. Still, it felt good to be out of Chengdu, a city that had poisoned itself with panic and grief and was in an unsteady state of tent-dwelling and sleepwalking. By contrast, Chongqing felt richly present and busy, preoccupied with more than could be stilled by geological events in neighboring provinces.
It is an enormous city: 31 million people, including the suburban sprawl, a Manhattan-shaped metropolis wedged at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers. Due to its vertical topography, it is often called the “Mountain City,” and is known as one of China’s three “furnaces,” along with Wuhan and Nanjing, so called for their incredible summer temperatures (110 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon), thanks to pollution and other human effects on regional ecosystems. Already having importance in ancient China, Chongqing gained fame in the modern era as the wartime capital of the Guomindang (Kuomintang), as well as the headquarters of General Stilwell (and the original Flying Tiger volunteer air force) and the U.S. military’s collaboration with Chinese Communist forces against the Japanese in WWII.
Unlike Chengdu, which spreads out flat along the bottom of a plateau basin, Chongqing is tremendously hilly. Streets wend their serpentine ways up and down and around dozens of hills and through canyon-like architecture and very narrow streets. Highways ring the island (also like Manhattan) and make getting around much smoother and rapid than one would expect for a city of its size. Downtown goes up rather than out, and the sidewalks are shadowy and close, filled with both old-fashioned carts and street commerce, as well as glitzy touches of the rich and modern. Trees are everywhere, thick and green and in shapes unlike those in Sichuan – robust, wild foliage and huge spills of purple bougainvillea, other flowers, and palms. From the outer highways, it looks more like ruins than a commercial center, a concrete giant being slowly picked apart and devoured by tangling flora and a patient jungle.
We pulled into the Hilton, a vaulted and shining affair with its fountains gushing in the rain. Eager servants and bellhops and other smiling, uniformed attendants descended on the van, opening doors and picking up bags and ushering and greeting and otherwise making me very uncomfortable. The consulate had booked our room – “Actually, I hope this is okay,” said our escort, with a nervous laugh. I tried not to gape at the marble and gilded opulence, and felt ridiculous flip-flopping up to the counter in my travel jammies and hair clip. A man in a tuxedo materialized at my elbow and very clumsily forced me to refresh myself with a freezing cold towelette on a tray and a tiny glass cup of mystery fruit juice. I was juggling my bags with one hand and trying to find my debit card and sip my juice politely with the other, and he hovered and jostled my elbow, and three other people hustled to be of more irritating assistance.
We finally got settled in – a gorgeous room with a nice view of the city and part of the water. We flopped on the huge bed and sighed and just enjoyed the artificial presence of it all, the suspension in comfortable Nowheresville, surrounded by other people’s ideas of luxury.
Later, we went out to lunch with Shen Kai at a small place across the street that looked exactly like a cross between a New York deli and a frosted pink birthday cake. We asked for vegetables and fish, and the waiter brought the fish to the table alive and squirming in a black plastic bag. It was like okaying the wine by the label before the sommelier pulls the cork; Shen Kai peeked into the bag and nodded at the waiter, dismissing him to the kitchen with a wave of her hand. The fish reappeared later, hacked to bits and floating in a wonderfully fragrant broth of garlic and huajiao. I tried not to watch as our escort tore into the head with her chopsticks.
She chatted and laughed all the way through the meal with that habitual silence-killing that diplomatic types seem to cultivate. She made conversation that ranged from the friendly and patronizing (“Actually, do you know how to use chopsticks?” – this after our ninth month in China,) to the calculating and slightly sinister (“Actually, maybe you can finish your work at your university and then give more lectures next month in Yunnan. Actually, you should ask for more projects to do.”) We parried her moves as delicately as we could, and tried to get more information about the purpose of our trip. I was to deliver three talks: one to a high school, one to a foreign language institute, and one to a group of English teachers. The topics were all typically vague: “Actually, I guess maybe you will talk about how to learn English well.”
This is a common theme, and one I’m used to hearing by now. I’ve come up with a battery of ways to fend off the constant requests for such advice: everyone wants the magic pill, the magic words, the magic elixir/wand/technique/exercise/spell that will transform several million frustrated, overworked, obedient students who are crammed into overcrowded, under-resourced, isolated classrooms into fluent, cosmopolitan conversationalists who sound like Hollywood actors, ace TOEFL exams, and get every inside joke. It just ain’t gonna happen, folks – but being a native English speaker and a “foreign expert” means I am therefore endowed with linguistic superpowers. The transmission of this magic formula is the fundamental reason for my presence in this country, as perceived by my genial hosts.
I had spent the two weeks leading up to these talks engaging in short-circuited email communications with the various institutions where I was to speak. Just a hint, I begged them. What do you want me to focus on? “Learning English!” came the repeated and cheery reply. One school asked me to talk about “How to learn American history well,” but added the caveat “and no politics is appreciated thank you so much.” I reminded them that I am a language specialist, not an historian, and they said, “OK – then talk about how to study and learn U.S. history better.” Sigh. My favorite response was to the teachers’ workshop plan. Knowing they were all EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instructors, I asked for clarification as to exactly which aspect of ELT (English-language Teaching) they wanted to focus on, as the field is enormous, and our time very limited.
“You can focus on how to teach English,” came the reply.
“But you’re English teachers,” I pressed. “Perhaps we’d benefit from something more specific? I’d like to prepare materials.”
“Oh, yes – we will appreciate your materials very much. We are very excited to meet you. Please talk about English teaching.”
This is a bit like being asked to give a training session in “science,” or “music.” I hadn’t the first idea where to begin, but had a sense that their issues would be similar to those my colleagues in Chengdu have faced, and so politely assured them of my eagerness to arrive and called it good.
That first afternoon was the talk on “how to study English.” I had given them a title in advance, as I was told there would be posters to advertise the event: “Making English Matter – how to make language study more efficient and more fun.” Global economic pressures have made English learning practically mandatory for most Chinese youth, and so they don’t question it in their curriculum. What they do question is why they find it so mind-crushingly boring, difficult to master, and irrelevant. This is because, in a test-driven educational system serving millions upon millions of students, with a focus on rote memorization and a complete and utter lack of critical thinking or communication skills, language learning is exactly those things; boring, difficult, and irrelevant to their daily lives. Most have never spoken to a native English speaker, and have only heard the rare snippet of natural English speech in the odd foreign movie that isn’t dubbed in Chinese. They memorize grammatical rules and vocabulary lists, everything is decontextualized, and they never, ever speak. Their teachers are products of the same system, and so can’t speak well, either. No wonder it sucks. My mission in this talk was to change that; not the system – the iron-and-oak behemoth, the grinding and rusty and glacially slow, complex, bureaucratic monster itself – but the students’ conceptions of language: what it is and why we use it and how we can free ourselves from such systems and take charge of our own learning. This was my goal.
Nankai Middle School (“Middle” in the Chinese system is “high” in the American system) is a huge and beautiful complex of buildings, ponds, and bamboo groves. It serves the creme de la creme of the region’s young students – not the wealthy elite, but rather the intellectual elite. Alumni include award winners in the fields of science, mathematics, and the humanities, and even call Zhou Enlai one of their own.
We were met by an adorable young woman who, oddly, spoke no English, but who was charming and helpful and eager to please. My escort presented her with a gift of books (this is where the propaganda sneaks in; never, ever trust a government organization to do anything solely for the sake of being helpful, as there are always ulterior motives) ostensibly on my behalf, which I found unnerving and weird. Why not just say they came straight from the Consulate? I wanted to whisper a disclaimer to the girl about how I couldn’t personally vouch for any of the flag-spattered texts in the bag, but she seemed so thrilled and thanked me profusely, so I just nodded and smiled and hoped the lot of them would get lost in some further bureaucratic shuffle.
The lecture hall was enormous. There were seats for over 250 in the audience, plus a broad stage and a variety of impressive-looking flags. Tech hands were running around carrying back-up support: a huge projection screen, a digital OHP, a giant chalkboard, bottles of water, and, to my horror, a microphone. I have no fear of public speaking, normally – I like crowds, I enjoy acting and emoting and being loud – but put a microphone in my hand or otherwise amplify my voice so I can hear it while I’m talking, and I turn into a distracted, mousey nervous wreck. I tried to persuade them with something like, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” Then, I tried to demonstrate how powerful my lungs were without any mechanical assistance, but the techs just looked confused and explained that there would be over 300 people in attendance, and given the acoustics of the room, there was no way my voice could sustain that kind of projection for the scheduled hour and a half. I conceded, and was given a choice between handheld and lapel – the lapel mic was much less intimidating, although I had to wear a battery pack crammed into the waistband of my slacks along with it, and I felt like a Sunday morning TV host with my suit jacket and my wires and notes.
The crowd started to filter in, and I put on my happy face and tried to ignore the fact that I was wired for sound and feeling something approaching holy dread. Performance is a bit like channeling, or so I assume – it isn’t a conscious process like conversing or giving interviews. It’s more like going into a trance, wherein your everyday self, your boring, human, socks-wearing self – the self that blows its nose and has anxieties and body hair and dislikes certain foods and hates it when people confuse “its” and “it’s” and buys things like dish soap and deodorant – that self simply goes to sleep, and it its place steps a two-dimensional stranger, one that more or less looks like you but who has no emotions other than humor and charm, who remembers to smile and breathe naturally, who pauses for dramatic effect – and, who, thank god, apparently memorized the hour and a half of cheery, wise, scripted patter that you, in your unforgivable humanity, forgot even to write. It’s like being possessed by a caricature of yourself, a professional daemon that exists only to give presentations and do public speaking, and who lurks the rest of the time in a little cage in your brain, just waiting. Often you aren’t even aware this creature exists – you simply show up to a venue, sleepwalk through it, and then, suddenly, it’s over, and you snap back awake and wonder when you started sweating so much, why your throat is dry, and who the hell it was that’s been yammering on all this time.
My friends would have cracked up if they could have seen me – me of the torn jeans and black tank tops, the one with a dozen piercings and the once-tri-colored hair, the one who started fights in mosh pits – now in a pinstriped jacket, heeled boots and a French twist, pacing back and forth in front of 350 delighted, squirming Chinese teens, each of them transfixed by the crazy tall Westerner who was storming around between them in the aisles and working them up like a pedagogical cheerleader. I was a cross between a squealing, bouncing mascot and an infomercial self-help guru working her magic on a pyramid scheme for suckers. I told jokes and anecdotes, gave them statistics and advice, drew pictures and made voices and played games. I told them English wasn’t mine, it was theirs to do with what they will, and they erupted into spontaneous applause and cheering. It was shameless and unbelievably corny, and they lapped up every second of it and begged for more, staying behind when all was said and done to ask question after question and offer cheap flattery and engage in all the kind of star-struck twittering and cooing and flirting that (very) minor academic stars with blue eyes seem to warrant in this country. It’s the most ridiculous, unearned kind of celebrity imaginable.
The next day was less dramatic but just as bizarre. I did a teacher-training workshop at a foreign language institute, a session that was poorly organized by my hosts and way too short on time, but I enjoyed interacting with some peers, and hearing about the challenges and frustrations of the profession from their perspective is always eye-opening and instructive. I continue to be amazed at how poor many English teachers’ speaking skills are. There were even some of the faculty with whom I had to speak Chinese – which I’ve studied for a handful of months – and these are all professional English teachers. I think this discrepancy between the supposed experts, the expectations placed on the students by the curriculum, and the lack of practice or ability on the part of so many instructors perfectly illustrates many of the challenges currently facing the ELT educational establishment in China.
After an hour with the teachers, I was fed to a classroom of wolves, around 50 restless, wild teenagers crammed two to a chair into a tiny computer lab. Several teachers stuck around to listen in – this was to be the “history” lecture, which they changed at the last minute to “whatever you want.” I’m not great at inventing talks on the fly, but I pulled together some scraps from previous lectures, and managed to wing it with some jokes and some group work that really freaked them out (in a good way), and we did a little feedback session on “culture shock” for the better part of an hour. Several of these students had not only already been abroad, but had spent a year on exchange programs in the States – in Portland, Oregon, no less. Needless to say, we bonded.
What Chinese hospitality lacks in warmth, it makes up for in extravagance, so after ten thousand group photographs were taken in the gravel parking lot (the principal and me; four teachers and me; me with a student I’d never met; four students and the principal; Paul and me and three other teachers, and so forth), the next thing we knew, we were being presented with gifts of fine pu’er tea and herded downtown to the fanciest hotpot restaurant in the whole world. It was part Hong Kong gangster film, part Holodeck: private rooms with gauzy curtains, obsidian floors with tiny red lights running along the planes, neatly uniformed servers who silently appeared and disappeared with ninja efficiency, crimson satin, and mauve plush all around. Long mirrored tables held glistening bowls of chilied dipping sauces, and chefs stood at attention before pristine stainless steel pots. We were seated in the round, and each of us was given our own individual hotpot bubbling above a little sterno flame. The table groaned beneath the weight of a gorgeous display of things to cook: mounds of mysterious, earthy mushrooms; leafy piles of greens; splintered shards of bamboo and rooty water plants; glass noodles tied to themselves in tidy bundles; fish filleted to translucent-thin sheets; and most memorably, a bowl of fish heads bobbing in their own blood, and a little hill of shaved ice from which bristled dozens of sticks skewering still-live shrimp, their feelers and legs kicking furiously against the air. The principal held court, telling us stories of the history of Chongqing (in Chinese), and we all listened and chatted politely, while the driver tucked in like a man at his last meal, putting away pile after pile of food until the principal barked at him to knock it off and go get the car. The meal ended with characteristic abruptness; I was stuffed and wanted to take a nap.
These individual hotpots were very unusual, even for Chongqing, the birthplace of the dish. The principal’s pot caught fire in mid-meal and had to extinguished – it was quite the face-loss moment, albeit hilarious.
Instead, Paul and I were traded off to a new set of escorts: a kind and knowledgeable old man whose relationship to the school was unclear, and a young woman who, despite being a teacher, knew absolutely nothing of local culture and who had to nervously redirect all of our questions to the old man. We were taken on an exhausting parade of Chongqing sights, starting with the Stilwell museum. It was ringed with Marauder jeeps and a couple of tanks, and consisted mostly of a sweet but musty little collection of rooms full of WWII-era furniture and hundreds of incredible photographs taken during the war. The little old man was full of reverence for General Stilwell and his assistance against the Japanese, and he shared stories with us as we stood side by side in front of the pictures. I struggled to understand his Chinese, but just enjoyed his presence and his eagerness to share.
Next on the list was Ciqikou, one of the many rebuilt tourist-towns that each major Chinese city seems to have and be so proud of, a flimsy reconstruction of Qing and Tang dynasty architecture loaded with carnival-style snacks and games and endless open-air stores selling a variety of cheap crap, ranging from plastic wind-up frogs to slingshots, leather wallets, Che Guevara matchbooks, toffee, and knock-offs of minority crafts. To us it was a gaudy and tasteless Disney-fication of ancient culture, an unapologetic commercialization of what was destroyed so willfully during the Cultural Revolution. To them, it is a charming opportunity to buy souvenirs and see “culture.” They bought us peanuts for good luck, and sesame candies and other sweets. We were overwhelmed and overstimulated, but the little old man, in particular, was so excited for us to see these things, we managed to be grateful, and even to find some gifts for family back home, which pleased our guides no end.
The streets are packed, and the tourists are all Chinese – this is not a display for foreigners, but for the Chinese people themselves. The only analogy I can think of is the Lincoln home reenactments, or interpretive centers on the Oregon Trail, where employees wear prairie dresses and churn butter and spin wool.
These deep-fried twisted dough sticks are only barely sweet, and the smell is heavenly – like toasted flour and sesame and honey. The little old man bought us a bag, which we later tore through with some strong green tea.
And finally, we went to Chaotianmen, the broad plaza at the tip of the island, where the Jialing and Yangtze rivers meet. The waters are full of barges and cruise ships, and the plaza itself is crammed with fruit sellers and men with boards covered in balloons, which tourists can shoot at with a pellet gun for a small fee. The Jialing comes down blue and clear from the mountains to the west, while the Yangtze arrives brown and muddy with rain and sediment. Where they mingle at the confluence point, there are swirls of dark and light, then it grows murky as the Yangtze swallows the clear water and drags it eastward to the Three Gorges Dam and on to Shanghai.
Our last stop of the day took us to the heart of downtown, which could be mistaken for any western city: Seattle, Sydney, even parts of New York. Between the glitz and improbable wealth, and stores like Cartier and Gucci, lies a tiny little square with a small monument – a clock tower. On the clock tower are images of workers and a few phrases of revolutionary pride. “This is called the ‘Liberation Monument,’” said the little old man. “It used to be the tallest building around,” he added with a laugh. He looked thoughtfully up at the masses of skyscrapers jutting cloudward with their flashing billboards and gleaming ads for this and that, the half-naked western models and the Starbucks and the million-dollar watches. If he was struck by the irony of this, he didn’t show it. I imagine he had seen it all, pretty much, and he seemed proud of the direction his country is headed.
They tried to strong arm us into going out for dinner: “We can have hotpot!” the girl-teacher piped. Evidently, they hadn’t been briefed on our excessive luncheon hours before. We were exhausted and still full from the previous gestures of hospitality, and we hemmed and hawed in the little square for a very awkward several minutes as we tried desperately to escape, while our hosts read these pleas simply as attempts to be polite, which only made them more insistent on buying us a meal. Finally, we managed to convey that we really, really, really wouldn’t eat if they forced us to, and with many apologies on both sides, they took us back to the hotel. We spent a quiet evening in our room enjoying the multiple blessings of bathtubs, a very mini-bar, and HBO. The night was clear, and from our twenty-fourth storey floor, we watched the lights come out all over the city like a carnival burning slowly to life. The next morning we woke from a restful sleep unlike any to be had in Chengdu, and the consulate van took us home.
One of the tiny details that is hard for us to get used to here is the pants – specifically, the baby pants. In China, babies and toddlers don’t wear diapers. This is no doubt good news for land fills, but the way this particular waste management problem has been solved by Chinese society is that there is no taboo on baby poo. So, not only do babies not wear diapers, but their pants are split completely open up the ass – even in winter – and the youngsters are allowed, or encouraged, even, to relieve themselves in public more or less wherever and whenever they feel the urge. That’s number one and number two, by the way. It is not uncommon to see mom or dad holding junior up at arm’s length over a storm drain, trashcan, public fountain, highway median, parking strip, or even a supermarket floor, as the child answers nature’s call. Both parent and child seem blissfully unaware of the reaction this tends to provoke in foreign friends. No matter how many times I see it, I just can’t get used to the public displays of baby poo.
Yesterday, I was climbing an outdoor staircase leading to a series of funky little shops on the second floor of a building near our apartment. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and a breeze was taking the edge off the sweaty summer heat. I looked up to see a small boy sitting crouched on the top step before the landing. He looked very serious, glowering at me with that solemn way that only children have, grave and uncertain and somehow disapproving of my unfamiliar appearance.
He was small, but not an infant – maybe two and a half or three years old, with a shaved head and a happy yellow shirt. He hunkered there with his hands clasped before him in a patient manner that was strangely adult – yet his pants were completely split open to the thighs, so he was effectively nude from the waist down, and in that crouch his itty bitty baby junk was not only all hanging out, but pointing right at me in an accusing little finger between his legs. I felt both shocked and amused that I was shocked, given his age, and just as I was about to break his fierce little gaze and look away, he let loose an arcing stream of piss that curved up a yard and splashed down onto the staircase to my left. He was like a frowning little cherub fountain, only instead of water, this kid was actually peeing all over the place, puddling down the steps beside me. He continued to stare, and I wavered between laughing out loud and yelling at him to watch where he pointed that thing. He was totally unembarrassed. What do you do? I stepped carefully past and reminded myself for the thousandth time always to wash my hands after I take off my shoes.
I would be lying if I said that I knew China would be like this before I came: modern, plastic-wrapped, money-minded, slightly lost. I think most of my knowledge of Chinese history came from books like “Wild Swans” and Ha Jin’s novels, and revolved around Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, bits that are useful now only for context, but which are memories forcibly repressed by most of the public. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more of Mao’s writings than my students have. My impressions of Chinese culture came from, honestly, martial arts movies: honor, dedication, sweat, comfy-looking pants and cloth-soled shoes, respect for teachers, and a love of form. Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh – these were my guides. I didn’t even learn their real names until I came here (Li Xiaolong, Li Lianjie, and Yang Ziqiong, respectively; Chow Yun Fat is really Zhou Runfa, if you’re curious, Jackie Chan is Cheng Long, and Stephen Chow is Zhou Xingchi, although Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi are still Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi) but I devoured their films and with them the stereotype that most Westerners hold: Chinese people are good at martial arts.
I’ve been doing martial arts for years, and all of my schools, regardless of style, have held that same belief, a kind of breathless awe and hushed tones in reference to the mysterious land in the Far East – a place of ancient systems and long traditions and all kinds of secret teachings that let you do things like run up walls and kill people with a gesture of your palm. Even my boxing coaches had a thing for China. We imagined laboring up and down stone temple staircases with buckets of water on our shoulders; we dreamt of kicking trees and screaming under waterfalls and burning through hours of standing meditation while balancing on a single bamboo leaf. Even the “street” systems that emphasize so-called real-world applications and self-defense over elaborate and beautiful forms give a nod to the Chinese kung fu practitioners.
I’d like to clear up a common misconception. “Kung fu” does not mean “martial arts.” It also does not mean “ass-kicking” or “opponent-wasting” or “magically acquiring an impressive set of skills by going through a three-minute montage of pushups and rigorous training involving awkward stances and hitting things with sticks.” “Kung fu,” or more accurately gōngfū simply means a skill or achievement that is attained after a long period of sustained hard work and dedication. There are gōngfū tea ceremonies that demonstrate long practice in the art of tea preparation. One can be said to have gōngfū in her painting or cooking skills. Michael Jordan most definitely was one of the greatest gōngfū masters of basketball, ever; I’ve had a few teachers in my life who have attained gōngfū in their classrooms; my dad has achieved gōngfū in hunting wild turkeys – all through long, hard work and dedication.
“Martial arts” is better translated as wushu, which means “military skills or tactics.” Some people think that this term refers to a specific style of martial arts – Northern Shaolin Temple Long Fist, to be specific, but that’s only because that was a prevalent form used in Hong Kong action movies for a while, and so the names became intertwined. It’s like saying that “pizza” means Chicago-style deep dish; while my husband would argue that this is most certainly the case, there are those who prefer New York thin crust, and still others who dig the crappy versions slung out by franchise delivery joints, or the nouveau California styles that have things like goat cheese and sunflower seeds on them. The word can cover a lot of different things.
I’ve been studying martial arts for about six years, although you wouldn’t know it to watch me. I’m a beginner in all respects except intention – I can set a house on fire with my will – but learning subtler things takes me quite a while. I am content to learn slowly, mostly because the frustration teaches me far more than success ever has. I think all martial artists have some elaborate story of how they came to the practice; I hear a lot of guys, in particular, say that they had always been interested in it, had grown up with posters of Bruce Lee above their bed. These are the guys who used to bring the throwing-star catalogue to class in high school and brag about the nunchakus in their locker. I was friends with those guys, but that’s not why I started training. And unlike most women, my interest didn’t come from a fear of being mugged late at night on my way home from a party, either. I got interested in martial arts because of this single scene, the Night Fight, in one of my favorite movies of all time. Click here to watch.
Corny, yes. But aren’t they beautiful? The precision, the focus, the complete habitation of one’s body and the sense of being utterly present, of having one’s mind and arms and legs and back and chest and intentions and experience all moving in unison for a common purpose – this is what appealed to me. I am, by nature, a fragmentary person, shape-shifting and often fractured, and it was this sense of wholeness and discipline that drew me in, and has kept me ever since.
All martial artists will tell you: look around, try different styles. The differences exist for a lot of reasons, many of which are historical (e.g. the monks were fighting people who attacked on horseback; the farmers had only tilling implements as weapons; the princess had less muscle mass than her opponents), but often what works for one body or personality type won’t be as effective for another, so the trick is to find the school that works for you. Some people swear cult-like allegiance to their particular form, and waste unbelievable amounts of energy boasting about how their style kicks the ass of X’s, Y’s, and Z’s. Dude – if Z fought X in a dark alley, X would totally kill Z, man, seriously… or even better, No one’s ever won a UFC title doing Wing Chun, man, face it. This is a load of bullshit, and I have no patience for it. The prolonged and dedicated study of any form will lead to knowledge, discovery, and skill on the part of the practitioner. Anyone who is learning martial arts just to kick somebody’s ass has already missed the point. Most teachers will remind students that, ultimately, all form is abandoned; we must train, train, train until the principles become part of who we are, and then we must forget it all and be only in the present situation. Bruce Lee taught that one must take what one needs from different forms, and then leave the rest.
I began with Shaolin Long Fist, mainly because I was clinging to the fantasy of being an action star and wanted to do pretty kicks and fancy things with my fists. I loved the sweat of it, the uniformity of the students (in that we literally wore uniforms), and the tantalizing future goals evidenced by the truly awesome horizontal butterfly kicks of our teacher, whirling through the air six feet up, parallel to the floor. It soon became clear, though, that no actual sparring was going to take place – this was an exhibition form at best, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was hit things, hard.
This led me to muay thai. Muay thai is one of the hardest forms of martial arts, which means “hardest” in the “hard on your body,” “hard on your opponent,” and “hard” in the “unyielding” senses of the word. It comes from Thailand, and has produced some of the more spectacular fighters to make it on the global scene. (The current phenom is Tony Jaa – Panom Yeerum in Thai – who resembles Bruce Lee in many ways but adds a certain acrobatic flair to his already overwhelming physicality. Click here to check out a hokey but impressive little exhibition video.) Most muay thai fighters in Thailand are very young, due to the 100% injury rate – a body can only take and deliver that much abuse for so long.
I loved muay thai, even though the woman I most frequently sparred with got her leg shattered in a competition match and had to undergo several reconstructive surgeries. She can walk again, but her fighting days are over. My teachers were humble and brilliant and kind, and they made me feel safe knowing I had such friendly yet lethal friends around.
With muay thai, I learned to find power. It can be a startling experience, learning the biomechanics of one’s own body and discovering the destructive potential that lies therein. There is nothing quite like hand-to-hand combat to put you in touch with yourself: your energy, your fears, your sense of self-preservation, things that made you angry or sad years and years ago – it all comes out. At first I was afraid to get hit, an impulse that seems only natural, I think. I will never forget the day that my teacher taught me the true nature of this. I was standing on one side of the ring, taped up, gloves on, no pads on my legs. We had finished stretching and warming up, but were all milling about, waiting for class to really get going with some drills or something. My teacher strode right up to me and, without a pause, punched me right in the face – not so hard that he broke my nose, but hard enough to make my head spin and my eyes water. I was stunned. A tremendous surge of energy flooded my body, and my vision clicked open; it was as if I had never truly seen before, had never met my own senses. I was happy, energized, and totally, totally awake. My hands were up and I was hitting him back before I had time to think or analyze or get nervous. We chased each other around for a while, and he managed to land a few more right in my face before calling time out. He was grinning: “That wasn’t so bad, now, was it?” I’d never felt better.
At that school we also learned submission grappling, variously known as Brazilian jiujitsu, BJJ, or the Russian version, sombo. Deep down, grappling is my favorite: it’s basically rolling around on the floor trying either to strangle someone or break their bones. It has an immediate, geometric, and sometimes even playful quality that has taught me endless amounts about fear and relaxation, learning to breathe under pressure, and knowing one’s own body and the messages sent through the varieties of pain. Grappling is not like wrestling – pinning does not constitute a win, so the square-like, opponent-flattening mentality of Greco-Roman styles is detrimental rather than good. We call grappling “rolling,” because you have to learn to be a ball, to be flexible and changeable and always in motion. A win occurs when you get your opponent in a position where, unless they submit, they will either pass out from strangulation or risk a broken bone or joint. Submission is signaled by either physical or verbal “tapping” – basically, you cry uncle. This form is interesting because, somewhat counter-intuitively, technique will almost always triumph over strength. It was developed by a family of fighters in Brazil known as the Gracies, and gained international recognition and respect when the Gracies – all relatively small men – consistently won world championships against much larger and stronger opponents. One of my teachers liked to break in new students this way: big, beefy, cocky guys would come to the school thinking they were all that, and would often make a few comments about having a “chick” in class. Since I had trained longer than most of the other grapplers, the teacher would pick me to demonstrate a few techniques. The beefy guy would size me up, sneer, and come charging in, only to find himself two breaths away from a long nap and a hangover, or perhaps a dislocated shoulder, several seconds later. This introduction won over a lot of skeptics to the style, and I liked getting to hurt their chauvinistic pride.
The best lesson in grappling is relaxation. As a woman, when you have a man who weighs 240 pounds trying to smush you and break your leg in half, you have a certain amount of panic to deal with. There are also lessons to be learned in pain. The body produces different kinds of messages to communicate its situation to the brain: some say “If this doesn’t stop, we’re doing to die;” others say, “If this doesn’t stop, I’m going to break;” and still others say, “This totally sucks and I want you to know that, but no permanent damage will come of it, I don’t think.” It’s important to learn the difference between those sensations – even though all of them feel like “pain,” they mean very different things, and interact differently with things like pride and fear. I learned that sometimes the pain is there just to help you focus, and other times it’s there to let you know you have already lost, which is also good to recognize.
When my grappling and muay thai school closed for financial reasons, I felt a little lost. I imprint heavily on my coaches – I always have. If a trainer reaches out to me, I will leap tall buildings in single bounds and move mountains and sweat blood for them, I will cut off my hair and swim oceans, I will fast and meditate and hurt for them. I will do whatever they ask. With this kind of attachment, the end of a training relationship always feels like abandonment to me, even if there is no fault involved. I cast around for a while, training with them off and on in garages, home-made dojos, and in parks, but it was difficult for us all to find the time to make the kind of commitment I wanted without the infrastructure of a real school. And that’s when I found Mt. Tabor.
Mt. Tabor School of Martial Arts teaches kajukenbo: Tum Pai (“Central Way”) kajukenbo, to be exact. It’s an aggregate form created in the 1950’s in Hawaii by a dedicated group of bad-asses who wanted to develop a form to deal with the street violence that was harshing their mellow in those days and generally creating a dangerous and sketchy urban environment. They combined a number of ideas: Ka (from karate), Ju (from jujitsu), Ken (from kenpo), and Bo (from Chinese boxing) to form a new system that drew heavily from internal arts like taijiquan, but which proved effective in fighting both individuals and gangs in real-life situations. The original school was hardcore: classes didn’t end until someone was lying on the floor bleeding. Once the form made it to the mainland, it split into different groups ranging from those that followed the hardest style to those that favored yielding, redirection of force, and qi cultivation – like tum pai, the softest branch of the kajukenbo tree. Our school teaches a full range of engagement, from grappling to stand-up and weapons use, and the complete spectrum of distance, from full-contact to striking range, kicking range, hand-held weapons (sticks, staffs, knives, broken bottles, forks), thrown weapons (stars, rocks, high-heeled shoes, axes, television sets), and forced projectiles (bows and arrows, sling shots, guns). We train for one-on-one situations as well as those unfortunate circumstances when the guy picking a fight with you has a lot of drunken, angry friends. However, as it is a system of balance, we also practice taijiquan, the fundamental core of tum pai principles, as well as healing arts and herbal medicine at the advanced levels.
I am not very good at tum pai. I am, by nature, an aggressor as well as a care-taker. My first instinct is always to try to overwhelm a bad situation with energy: hit it harder, be fiercer, burn hotter, work more. As my shifu (“master”) has taught me, there will always be those who can hit harder than I can, who will be fiercer than I am, who will burn longer and wait for me to burn out. He has tried to teach me to be softer rather than harder, to learn how to listen and sense and yield rather than smash and crash and flame. My ambition and my pride push me to move quickly; his teachings ask me to slow down, to see. I have learned a lot from him, and from the other teachers at the school, as well. My main lesson there has been to swallow my pride, and to keep on track. Longevity and dedication are often the hardest things to learn, especially when we feel failure in all of our actions. There is a framed saying on the wall of the school:
The way of the warrior is long and hard. Sometimes mastery is simply a matter of staying on the path.
My greatest weakness in martial arts is this refusal to be soft. Of course, nothing in martial arts is unique to martial arts; our lives are merely reflected, and often, magnified, in the mirror the practice creates. Therefore, my greatest weakness in life is this refusal to be soft, the fear of failure and vulnerability, of “being a wuss.” This is an interesting thing to learn about one’s self – although the consciousness is only the first step. Letting go of the fear and giving in to vulnerability and yielding can take a very long time to master, I’m finding. My shifu asked me to study taijiquan and learn more about the ways of being quiet and like water, like a reed. This is one of the reasons I came to China.
Tàijíquán (太极拳, literally, “Grand Ultimate Fist” or “The Greatest Boxing Form Ever,”) is often regarded in the U.S. as an exercise form for the elderly, or as something practiced by annoying guys in bare feet and pony tails in the corner of the park. In reality, it is a beautiful and profound fighting system with a long and well-respected, if disputed, history. (Click here for a good summary. I had heard stories of hundreds upon hundreds of people doing taiji together in the parks in the early mornings; I was under the impression that everyone in China did taiji: “Chinese people are good at martial arts.”
It turns out that this is not the case. The only people who do this kind of early morning practice really are elderly, for the most part, with a few notable exceptions. There is a cute little flock of old ladies that gathers in a parking lot behind one of the classroom buildings here in campus every morning. They bring fans and swords and do relatively clunky versions of Yang style forms, with a backdrop of plinkety-plink traditional Chinese music warbling out of a tinny little tape deck. Much more common than taiji is a kind of mass line dancing that takes place in the evenings. Hundreds of people will gather in public places: plazas, arenas, parks, sidewalks, and do Jazzercise-style synchronized movements in their street clothes, after work. Taiji practice is more limited in scope, and taken more seriously.
The Chinese people have a different attitude toward skill than Americans do. If you are good at something, you are expected to prove it, or at the very least, show off a little. This was unexpected for me – I imagined them all to be full of humility yet secretly adept. Instead, if you tell a Chinese person that you study taijiquan, for example, or that you sing, or enjoy poetry, you will be asked to perform on the spot, wherever you are: in the library, in a parking lot, in an office. I am tremendously uncomfortable performing taiji even under the gaze of my teacher, let alone for the critical benefit of an expectant group of near-strangers; I have tried to explain that this practice violates certain cultural taboos for me. We are shy, I said. Having met a lot of Americans, they generally don’t buy this excuse. “Oh, you like Chinese poetry?” they’ll crow. “Recite something. Now.” It’s very unnerving. Yet they are happy to have the tables reversed: I’ve seen taiji performed in waiting rooms and basketball courts, just because the conversation turned to wushu. Apparently, the Chinese like to flaunt what they’ve got.
They are also convinced that no one not born and raised in China can ever truly experience qi, an integral part of internal arts, and an important aspect to Chinese medicine. I have tried to explain that most cultures have the concept of essential life force, and that most of us experience it in similar yet various ways. As a child, I formed qi balls with my hands and played with them without ever being taught what they were. Most of my Chinese friends remain skeptical, and will grill us on what it is we think we’re feeling. We use the common metaphors: magnets, electricity, heat, groundedness. They remain unconvinced and often haughty; silly Westerners, qi is for Chinese.
When we first got settled here in Chengdu, we found someone to teach us a new form – the 42-step competition form designed by Li Deyin, a Beijing taiji master who is known for training Westerners and who developed the 42-step as a way to showcase the variety of styles that exist traditionally, but in a sequence that can be performed in around six minutes. Our teacher was quiet and skillful, and who showed up to class every day in the same yellow silk outfit, a conceit I found both impressive and weird. His version of the form was awe-inspiring and snake-like, but his teaching style mostly involved telling us to be quiet and watch him again, and laughing at us when we made mistakes. I was not motivated, but enjoyed listening to him explain things: “Young people no like do taijiquan. They think it have no passion. No passion.” He was an amazing practitioner and had won multiple competitions and things, but as a teacher I found him dull, condescending, and confusing. He also expected us to learn too many moves at a time, and wouldn’t slow down even when we asked. We stopped training with him after the winter holiday, and spent a few frustrating months trying to learn the remainder of the form from an exhibition DVD.
In the past month, we have found a new teacher. Things come when you least expect it, it seems – if only we hadn’t expected it sooner. His name is Wang Chunlin. Chinese has so many overlaps between a sound and multiple meanings, that it can often be unclear which meaning is intended, especially without the benefit of seeing the character. Chinese speakers have developed an elegant and charming way of clarifying these sounds, especially in regard to their names. It’s a bit like the brevity code used in radio communications: rather than saying C-A-T, for example, brevity code would say “Charlie-Alpha-Tango,” which are sounds that cannot be confused with any other in the code over a potentially distorted frequency. When Wang Chunlin introduced himself to us, he said, “Wo xing Wang,” My family name is Wang (which means “King”). “Wo jiao Chun – chuntiande chun; Lin, shulinde lin.” My given name is Chun – as in “Chuntian,” (which means “Autumn,”) and Lin – as in “Shulin,” (or a “forest of trees.”) So, his name means, literally, Autumn Forest King. I love this about Chinese names. (My husband’s Chinese name translates literally to something like “Great Literary Mind Hu,” while mine means “Elegant Orchid.”)
Autumn Forest King has, in the space of two weeks, completely rearranged my experience of martial arts, my concept of my own practice, and my relationship to taijiquan. In the first ten minutes of our first private lesson, he had us doing some simple warm-up drills that, initially, had me rolling my eyes. Basic, basic, basic. Standing. Holding. Arms up. Arms out. Holding the ball. And then, suddenly, I was overwhelmed. I was no longer doing a simple breathing exercise, no longer standing and waiting for the drills to begin. I was holding a tremendous and terrifying energy between my hands; my feet were riveted to the ground, and in my arms was an awesome and entirely new experience of power. For the first time in all my years of practice, I felt like I understood why we polish ourselves down, why we must eliminate those aspects of ourselves that get in our own way and block this constant source of energy from flowing naturally and continuously through our bodies. It was so simple, so elemental, but I felt all my previous desire to attain and achieve and prove myself to my coaches and opponents and myself slip off of me like a heavy wet blanket. I had one concern and one concern only, and that was to learn how to properly allow this energy to move through me. It seemed that, once that was done, all other movements would become increasingly simple, increasingly soft – my task was to stay out of the way of this energy that would come on its own, and everything else was just flowing with and around it.
Over the course of four or five lessons, my taiji practice has been fundamentally altered. I am still not “good” at it, still thinking too much and getting in my own way with thoughts and lack of correct practice, but my idea of what it is has changed to the point where I know what I have to do to improve. I can now practice alone and know when it’s right and when it’s not. Autumn Forest King doesn’t speak English, so I am relearning the names of the movements and the concepts in Chinese, a task that makes things a little more difficult and more tiring, but there are keys inside the names for things, as well, and everything is instructive. I am simultaneously student and translator. I have to let go of everything: my memory of past instruction, my bad habits, my pride, my language. We practice in 100 degree weather in the middle of the afternoon. When we finish, my brain feels twisted and wrung out to dry; my knees feel shaky and weak. I’m drenched with sweat. He is kind and funny and makes us laugh; he works hard to help us understand, and we do. Slowly.
This is Wang Chunlin doing the 42-step form that I’m learning.
When I started studying martial arts, it was to be beautiful and fierce. Then, it became about the challenge, about besting my opponents and proving myself as a fighter and as a woman. Later, I learned to swallow my ambitions and try to empty myself out, to learn and stay dedicated and whole. Now, I am starting to grow softer and more open, and to understand more about what energy and longevity really mean. While it is easier to find a martial artist in the United States now than in China, there are still secrets to be found here. The cultural emphasis on repetition, on precision and memorization, on long-term commitment to a goal lends itself well to the practice of martial arts, and they take a well-deserved quiet pride in the length of their history and traditions. In America, I thought I could learn by force of will. Now, I understand that there is nothing but practice.
Ever since the earthquake, our lives here in China have slowly unraveled. Our school has practically disbanded, our friends have left town, and people are still sleeping outside in make-shift tents. It’s a slow, sympathetic disintegration, an infectious entropy, a quiet falling out of place in a miniature echo of the abrupt and catastrophic ends of lives and homes and families in the epicenter. Whatever they experience, we feel only a shudder of, enough to frighten and unnerve, but only a ghost of the original, scary and transparent. Their loss was endless; ours is a small exercise in dislocation and alarm.
Monday, May 19 was the one-week after mark. I walked up the staircase to my afternoon lecture, eyeing the streaks all over the walls where cracks had been hastily filled with white spackle. It was a small comfort, and only served to highlight the amount of damage the building had incurred, no matter how superficial. They looked like pale, painted-on scars. I was informed that our class was over. I faced my students; they looked confused and cheated – and they were. We made some quick goodbyes and threw together a plan for turning in final papers, and before I knew it, they were all gone and out the door, and the past term’s weeks of work and focus and all the patient struggle we had put into the course together seemed senseless, a waste. Fuck it, I thought, although I didn’t want to mean it. A student stayed behind to thank me for my time with them; he said it had changed his life. I wonder how often he says that to professors. He used to fall asleep in class.
I walked downstairs at 2:26 PM. A crowd was assembled in silent formation outside, facing the enormous statue of Confucius, and more importantly, the proud red Chinese flag whipping around its pole. A flank of policemen in paramilitary uniforms stood in front; they removed their helmets. It was sunny and hot, although the wind moved the trees back and forth and rustled the hair and skirts of the still watchers. I tiptoed across the street and joined a group gathered in the shade. I set my bags on the sidewalk, I crossed my hands behind me, I lowered my head. There were several hundred of us, one small collective in a much larger gesture of remembrance and unity, one that encompassed a nation already overwhelming in its numbers. All over China, millions of people, we stood, and were silent. It was quiet for some minutes, and then they let loose the sirens. It started as a thin moan, and then another added its voice, and another and another, until the air was beating with the huge, sad wail of them all, the sound both martial and eerily human, as if every heart around me had opened up and let out the pain it had been holding in for 7 days as the numbers, the dead, the fear rose higher and higher. For three minutes we stood like that; I saw shoulders shaking, and old men trembling. Women wiped their eyes and held their jaws in stony quiet. I forced myself to let the images come: the crush of the buildings, the dust and the noise, the screams, the children. It is hard to be so close to something and so powerless, so uninvolved. It is almost as if our own anxiety becomes unearned and guilty in the face of the loss those at the epicenter experienced. I wanted to remind myself of that, not to allow myself that passive protection our survivor minds put in play, the quick amnesia that lets us keep going, always still going, one day after the next after the next.
My final exams for my undergraduates involve little more than conversations. They talk, I listen. I love these exams – ironically, after a whole term of working together, it’s these moments when I really feel I get to know who these people are. Some took their exams before the earthquake; we talked about their childhoods, their dreams, their attitudes toward the West. Some took their exams after the earthquake; we talked about the earthquake. They were remarkably positive about the experience. They are so proud of their government, their soldiers. They told me that the soldiers were bringing their own food and refusing it from the government, so that the refugees would have more to eat. “I am so honored to be Chinese,” said one young woman. They all frame it in the same corny, optimistic terms they frame all challenges in life, in the language of struggle and success. “I know we will work together and defeat this disaster,” is a common theme. I wonder what that means, to defeat a disaster. With so many already dead, I can only guess at what success would look like now.
The response has been impressive. Wen Jiabao came to speak at the epicenter, and people were moved to tears. They love him. They say he is not like other politicians, who are by nature corrupt and love only power. They believe he cares for “the common people,” a strange phrase for an egalitarian system, but a prevalent one nonetheless. Many of my students want to volunteer, but the response has been so overwhelming, they have had to limit the amount of help they are willing to receive. Party members are selected first, and men. “Strong men,” say my students. Dozens of girls announced that they wanted to help, but that women are too weak both in mind and in body, and they would only make the relief effort harder. I think of the strength of women I have known and ask them if they are sure – “Are you sure women are not as strong?” “Oh yes,” they say. “When women see death or destruction, they cry and run away. They cannot help like men can.” I want to scream; instead, I offer quiet counter examples. They remain unconvinced. I suggest they go as translators for the foreign media and aid groups; they like that idea.
One of my students lost her home in the earthquake. Her English name is Diana. Her parents are alive, but as refugees. She wrote me an email detailing her experience. She ended it with the following:
“Together we can do it! We can rebuild Dujiangyan! Come on, China! Come on, Diana! We are together!”
All of my students agree that it is unlikely that any of the aftershocks will result in the collapse of our buildings, but many of them sleep outside, anyway. They know that fear breeds fear – they talk about how silly it all is, the tense and the panic, yet they cannot get rid of their nightmares. As one young woman put it, “Every morning I am full of hope, but at night I am desperate again.”
The Chinese people are often characterized as timid. They are cast as producers rather than inventors, as assembly line workers rather than innovative types. Even their art is considered in terms of tradition rather than creativity. Now, I live in China, and I agree that Chinese culture does favor placidity and stoicism over reckless abandon, to be sure. But, I am a firm believer in the potential for wildness in all people (hallelujah!), and I have certainly found it, even here: they express their passion in their food.
First of all, I am a wayward vegetarian. I eat fish so, technically, I am an omnivore. However, my “omni” does not include things that once had or still have feathers, fur, hooves, or antennae, and therefore my public eating adventures are often confined to the less exciting realms of steamed veggies and salad, no matter which continent I find myself on. I am not sure how most omnivores got the notion that vegetarians like things boring and bland; we eschew meat, not spices, and certainly not creativity. My own kitchen is a riot of flavors and ideas – I am frequently disappointed in chefs around the world who can’t think outside the box of “Buddha’s Delight” or “Pasta Primavera.” Gardenburgers. Yawn.
Happily, I live in Sichuan, and Sichuan is a province that doesn’t believe in “bland,” even if they don’t believe in vegetarianism, either. For them, a “vegetarian” dish means that the meat is minced, rather than sliced. Sichuan’s signature dish, the wonderfully spicy mapo tofu, is frequently ordered for those who don’t eat meat. In fact, mapo tofu is loaded with minced pork (and it quite tasty, I might add. I know, I know…call it a “cultural experience,”) but, as the pieces are quite small, it is not considered a “meat dish.” Nonetheless, there is a pantheon of veggie-only dishes here that have plenty of spunk: the water spinach sauteed with dried chilies, sweet-and-sour lotus root, sliced cucumbers in raw garlic and chili oil, and dried-fried string beans with pickled something-or-others are all to die for. This is not to mention my favorite, the fabulously named “tiger-skin green peppers,” spicy whole peppers blistered in a wok and then liberally doused with dark vinegar, sesame oil, and salt. The Sichuanese definitely know their way around a garden patch.
Other characteristics of Sichuanese food include liberal use of oils – sesame, chili, rapeseed – as sauces (acne is a common problem in this region, extending well beyond the teen years), and the flavor combination referred to as ma-la, or “numb-hot.” This is the result of pairing traditional red chilies with huajiao, or the dried berries of the prickly ash plant. Huajiao is a common spice here, and produces an unmistakable numbing sensation on the lips and tongue, which is in turn followed up by an earthy, pungent tang that complements the more mouth-forward heat of chilies and other typical Sichuanese spices. With all of these flavors to look forward to in a variety of meat and vegetable dishes, it is hard to imagine how one food could outshine them all. Yet, somehow, one does.
A visitor to Sichuan will always be greeted with the same two questions. First, ”Do you like Chinese culture?” (this is a doozy – I haven’t figured out a reasonable answer to that – is “Yes” enough?), and then, inevitably:
”Have you tried hotpot?”
Chongqing (aka Chungking), a huge municipality on the Yangtze river 4 hours to the southeast of Chengdu, takes credit for being the original home of hotpot, although all areas of Sichuan claim to have their own style. It began as a portside way to make butchery leftovers palatable: essentially, dipping offal into a broth so spicy and salty, the foul smell of the meat was overpowered. Since these humble origins, it has made its way from “peasant food” to a cultural icon of the region, served everywhere from shopping malls to fancy huoguo “boutiques.”
Hotpot (huoguo in Chinese, literally, “fire pot,”) is basically a boiling broth fondue with fireworks. The soup is a dense, raucous affair, opaque and dark, and flavored with a proprietary blend of whole spices: garlic, anise, large chunks of ginger, red chilies, and huajiao figure prominently, but each place has its own flavor focus. The spiciest use both dried huajiao and big clusters of the fresh berries as well, called tengjiao, literally, “branch pepper.” The effect can be overwhelming, and even borders on psychedelic in some cases. Even the grittiest pepper-belly will get the sweats from the hotter preparations, and the numbness only adds to the intense physicality of the experience. For those who want to avoid the full-body high, there is the white broth. The white broth has no chilies, and is flavored with ginger and little red gou qi, or “wolfberries.” It is tame, but also tasty.
A large part of hotpot’s appeal comes from its presentation. It is a communal food – even more communal than the typical Chinese banquet, where guests sit around a table and delicately dip into shared dishes with the same chopsticks they use to eat with. Hotpot is more intimate somehow, more collective, and lots, lots more fun.
Hotpot restaurants are chaotic affairs, without exception. They are loud, busy, and usually a total mess. Customers will wait for the better part of an hour to get a table at the really good establishments, so there is always a lot of elbowing and jostling and jockeying for position. The staff yell across the room and are consistently harried, racing around with great trays and bins and tubs and bottles as diners slosh oil on the floor and knock over beers, reaching through steam and smells for choice tidbits in the pot. People throw their napkins on the ground and blow their noses with their free hands. Everyone shouts to be heard.
When you are seated, you are taken to a table with the center cut out and fitted for a gas burner. There is a sub-shelf that rings the table, making it generally impossible to get one’s legs comfortably under the table itself, and so you usually sit splay-legged or side-saddle, or otherwise perched at an angle on your chair. If you take off your jacket, a server will materialize at your side to cover it and the back of your chair with what amounts to an enormous plastic bag printed with a beer ad, ostensibly an anti-theft device, but more usefully to protect it from wayward gushes of oil and bits of other diners’ meals.
Hotpot is no time for messing around. A small woman with a fierce and exhausted expression will be writing down the kind of pot you want before you even get comfortable in your seat. There are usually two kinds: two-color, which is an enormous bowl of the spicy red broth, with a smaller section of the milder white broth in the center; or just straight-up red for the true masochists. I usually go for the latter, but I appreciate the idea that some people might actually want to keep their tastebuds and go for the variety of the two.
The next step is to order things to go in the pot. The variety is mind-blowing, from thinly sliced raw meats, frozen packets of scary little cocktail sausages, stuffed fish balls, wads of hairy stomach-lining, and shining shreds of pork throat, to cubes of lettuce stalk, wedges of bitter melon, chunks of skinned cactus, a rainbow of tofu shapes and colors (yes, they all taste different), bouncy noodles made of yam starch, and every edible mushroom under the sun. This is where being a vegetarian comes in handy: I don’t have to explain why I’m not eating the stomach lining, and I don’t have to end up like some of our other foreigner friends, who have spent the long night following a hotpot extravaganza praying to a porcelain god. A waitress arrives with a clipboard and tries to hand it off: it’s like a horserace ticket, or a physics grid: hundreds of options listed out in tiny characters – check the box next to what you want. I always have to detain my server before she darts off to another table and explain apologetically that I don’t read Chinese well; “I say, you write, okay?”
This is what we typically order:
– ou pian, sliced lotus root
– bailuobo, daikon radish
– tudou, thin potato slices
– nian gao, literally “year cake,” a dense formed gluten that comes in a small block or sliced tube and acts like a flavor sponge
– anchun dan, hardboiled quail eggs
– xiang gu, shiitake mushrooms
– fen, any variety of noodles, often made of rice flour or yam starch
– dou pi, literally “bean skin,” one of my favorites: it’s essentially a wide, slippery noodle made of tofu cut into long, flexible strips
– cuipi doufu, dried tofu cubes; they are very porous and light, and become crumbly in the center as they cook
– ku gua, bitter melon – they aren’t kidding about the bitter part – but that bitter edge has a clean feeling to it that cuts through the oily stock base and acts as a nice complement to the richer-tasting starches
–mu er, “wood ear,” or black fungus – not pretty, but very tasty
–wandou jian, pea shoots: these are only available in season, and come in a tangled little pile; greens cook very quickly in the boiling soup
–zhusuntender young bamboo shoots
Each ingredient comes on a little dish and is stacked onto the small shelf that attends each table. Guests add things to the broth as they go, testing pieces for doneness and keeping a variety of things cooking at all times. Often a server will come by and offer to put things in for you; they use a special slotted spoon and gently ease the raw pieces into the boiling broth with a practiced wrist. First-time hotpot eaters have a tendency to splash, which is very annoying (and can be dangerous) for fellow diners.
After things have cooked for a while, you fish them out with your chopsticks and place them into your bowl to cool. This is the really great part: your bowl isn’t just a bowl – it’s a bowl full of pure toasted sesame oil, to which you’ve added a good two tablespoons of minced raw garlic and a liberal pinch of chopped cilantro. Each table comes ready with a little mountain of each on small plates, along with other, optional oil additives: salt, MSG crystals, dark vinegar, and oyster sauce are the most common. There is something both heavenly and diabolic about using pure sesame oil and raw garlic as a dipping sauce; it’s so unapologetic. In any given hotpot experience, you can expect to ingest half a cup or more of this sauce, and it’s wonderful – no regrets, although your skin does tend to look a little less pure the next day. These are the prices we happily pay.
As with any great dining adventure, what you drink is an important part of the experience. Tea is always brought at the beginning – it is China’s version of the ubiquitous glass of water in American diners – but is quickly abandoned for more flavorful and effective complements to the food. The tea cups are seldom refilled more than once over the course of the meal. Locals usually go for bottles of soy milk, or “bean milk,” as they call it, a phrase I find really unappetizing. The chalkiness damps down the heat somewhat, and is favored by women and children, in particular. The other option, and the one we tend towards, is beer: lots and lots of cheap, warm beer. Nothing settles the sting of ma-la de huoguo quite like a mouthful of one of the totally boring, locally-made 4% lagers, like Xuehua, or “Snow.”
A typical hotpot meal for two, plus a couple of beers, will cost around 65 yuan, less than ten U.S. dollars. But for students and others on tighter budgets, even cheaper versions are available. University districts commonly have one or more Chuanchuandian. Chuanchuan is just like hotpot, but instead of ordering whole plates of things to cook, customers browse through long buffets of goodies on trays. Everything is skewered on thin bamboo sticks: mushroom on a stick, dumpling on a stick, gross little gristly sausage on a stick. Patrons then are free to try only a few of whatever it is they would like, and put the sticks directly into the pot. Once an item cooks, you pry it off into your sesame oil, and drop the stick into a plastic bucket at your feet.
The best part about chuanchuan is that you can sample more flavors for considerably less money. Chuanchuan places tend to be even more casual than hotpot restaurants, as well, and it’s not uncommon for street performers to wander in with small amplifiers and electric guitars. They hand out laminated song lists of the titles they know, and for a couple of yuan will sing and play and otherwise entertain the huge tables of students who are well into their fourth round of Snows. They are rarely “good,” but the effect is certainly entertaining.
When you finish eating chuanchuan, you wave over one of the waitresses (for some reason, they’re always women), and they crouch next to your table and dump out your bucket of sticks. Different things have different values, and these values are measured in the number of sticks poked into the thing itself. A wedge of bitter melon, for example, may only be on one stick, but a quail egg, more expensive, would likely have three stuck into it. So, when it’s time for the check, the servers simply count out how many bamboo skewers you have in your bucket, and you pay by the stick. It’s generally about half as expensive as hotpot, and every bit as delicious, though the atmosphere tends to be less thoughtful. There are seldom any decorations, and the lighting is usually glaring fluorescents, giving the experience a waiting-room-at-the-end-of-the-universe feel, made even more surreal by the performers and the noise, the birthday party going on in the corner, the drunk young man vomiting into his stick bucket two tables over. (That really happened.)
Communal-pot eating is not unknown in American culinary culture. Fondue parties have had their moments in food fame, as has the Japanese version of hotpot, shabu-shabu, and the tabletop grilling of Korean barbecue. What I don’t understand is why every major city in the U.S. doesn’t have a hotpot restaurant. The spices, the smells, the plumes of steam, the friendly noise, the sharing of a meal – all of these things make for a beautiful food experience. Too often we Americans use food as an excuse or distraction from other things: for business, from heartache, for practicing self-restraint. Too seldom do we allow a meal to be an end and experience in itself, a practice and meditation on taste, a collective cooking and chewing and smiling together, of doing nothing more than just eating with family or friends. I would love to predict a new ethnic epicurial phenomenon in America, the Hotpot Craze, but I know that not all Americans like to dine with a gas tank between their legs. In any case, it has become our new comfort food: mac n cheese, popcorn, tacos, mashed potatoes, and hotpot.
Monday morning was fantastic. I was giving final exams to some of my sophomores, sitting around and talking with them in groups of three, and loving every minute of what they had to say. One of my favorite comments came from a young man who confessed a love for Western history. “Your heroes are so different,” he explained. “In China, a hero must be a great man, such as an emperor. But in the West, a hero can be anyone – heroes are thieves. Like Robin Hood!” I loved that observation – immediately, a flood of my own lawless champions came to mind.
I was still smiling a few hours later as I began my afternoon lecture to my graduate pragmatics class. Our room is on the fourth floor of a very old building: chalkboards and desks and rusty plumbing are all we get, but it has a full wall of windows that overlook a green area, and the breeze comes through when the weather is warm. The light is natural, which I like. We were talking about politeness strategies, status, and camaraderie; things were going well, the students were engaged, and things had the momentum that good sessions acquire, the rolling and clicking life of their own that feeds back and forth between teacher and class. I was drawing cartoons of kings and commoners on the board, and we were all laughing, and I turned to explain something about this point or that, and suddenly I felt strange, like I was having a head rush. I put a hand onto the lectern to steady myself. Seconds sped past, and the feeling grew stronger. My next thought was that a really big vehicle had just collided with the building downstairs, an unlikely bit of logic, but my brain was grasping at straws to understand why I couldn’t stand up. A rumbling sound began to rise up from the floor. For an instant, no one spoke or moved a muscle.
Everyone knows that time flies when you’re having fun. What we need is a phrase that describes the opposite: the in-breath before your car strikes another’s, the instant a ticking heart monitor flattens to a tone, the beat after the words fall from someone’s lips to break your heart. In moments of disaster or radical change, time doesn’t fly, nor does it stop. It simply dwells, suspending us fate-first over a great void of disbelief, a long, airless place where everything we take for granted is held up for a glance, revealed as clear and dark and impermanent, quiet and small. There is a strange hush that falls over the senses, as if only eyes remain, no more sounds, no more skin. We become floating vision, tunnels of eyes, stretching out to focus on a single, yellowing detail. What I saw were the faces of my students, each frozen in an identical question, each hoping that the panic they felt was their own, that the rest of us were still talking and laughing and all was fine in the physical world. Instead, they looked and saw only collective fear. It lasted seconds only, three long seconds, in which time stretched out like a great elastic band. Our synapses connected our bodies to our minds and the movement beneath us to a reality, a shaky, crazy, unbelievably earthquakey reality; and suddenly, time snapped back and shot us headlong into the frenzy of the inevitable present.
There was yelling. The entire building had begun to sway back and forth by several feet. “Sway” is not quite the right word; when big things move side to side, elephants, hips, trees, we say they “sway,” but that swaying is a slow, lazy movement, a voluptuous movement. This was a big thing moving side to side, but fast, in a way that big things aren’t supposed to move. The oscillation was like a metronome with the clicker pulled all the way down, tic-tic-tic-tic as fast as you can count, but each period was a seven-storey building heading several feet in either direction. We don’t have words for movements like this. It became very loud. The beautiful wall of windows was not just rattling, but each was flexing in its panes. A thunder of footsteps swelled above and below us as hundreds of students got to their feet in unison and began pounding their way into the cramped halls and flooding the narrow staircase, the only way out. Girls were screaming, and already cracks were splitting open the walls in places, and huge fissures were dislodging the doors from their jambs. A strange little tidbit from elementary school safety priming told me “Get in the doorway,” and one look at the rifts and the bits of plaster that had begun to sift down from above answered, “Fuck that. Get out.”
The floor felt soft beneath our feet. A voice said “GO!” and it might have been mine. I remember glancing at my bag on the lectern, and all of my things scattered about. I grabbed only my cell phone, knowing I would need it to find my husband, and made for the door, one look to be sure all my students were getting out, and then I was washed away in the tide of panic, trying to breathe and stay cool, while all around me small young women screamed and cried, and windows cracked, and dust and chunks of ceiling rained down on our shoulders.
A sea of frightened people can only move so quickly down four flights of stairs. The building was still flexing and groaning all around us, and the staircase bucked and twisted in unnatural ways. I became uncomfortably conscious of the weight of construction, of how heavy each floor above me was, of how totally dead I would be should the walls cave in. I remember thinking very clearly that I had no intention of dying in a collapsed school building in China. I had enough surreal space to wonder if that thought were somehow racist, as if I thought I were too special to die like others die all the time. I decided it was okay to will oneself to live, to refuse a crappy offer from Fate. I passed a few lost high heels on the stairs and wondered who was barefoot and breathed a word of gratitude that hopefully she’d move faster without them. Hands were all over my back and shoulders, urging me forward, as I pushed lightly on those in front of me, holding an arm over my head in some futile gesture of protection.
And then, just as suddenly, we were out. The sun was bright. Students were flooding the streets from every building, and little pieces started to come together in our minds: it wasn’t just one class, one building, one part of town. The earth was in action. The initial tremor went on and on for at least four minutes, an eternity not to have a safe place to stand. My class monitor, Zhang Tao, was immediately at my elbow: “Lara, are you okay? Please, come away from the tall building.” Several of us gathered on the corner, shielding our eyes and blinking like sheep up at the place from which we had just fled, all of us confused and totally expecting the entire thing to come crashing down any second. I started milling through the crowd, trying to herd my flock to a place where I could count them and be sure we had all escaped. By now, there were hundreds of us, thousands, filling the street and the green spaces and the plaza beside. Someone grabbed my arm and said, “We must go to the playground, it will be safer there.” I laughed out loud. One of my pet projects has been to try to cure them of their habit of calling adult soccer fields and race tracks “the playground.” I pictured 10,000 graduate students on a giant swing set, scared pissless and wanting recess to end.
And so, we went to the “playground.” There were already thousands there, and thousands more were arriving by the minute. A second and third aftershock set the nearby buildings shuddering, and immediately huge masses of people screamed and ran, even though there was essentially nowhere else to go. My students and I assembled at one end of the soccer field, near the goal posts, and started trading breathless, nonsensical phrases of wonder and relief and concern. We put hands on shoulders, we laughed, we made exaggerated exhales and said “Whew!” a lot. I kept saying things like, “Well, that was exciting,” while they kept shaking their heads and muttering, “Terrible, very terrible.” Several expressed worry over Paul, but I assured them that he had been practicing xingyiquan in Qingyang Gong, the Daoist temple downtown, and that it was very flat there, and they had undoubtedly been outside. I checked my heart-radar as well: I was certain he was fine. Cell phone service was down, either due to tower collapse or an overload on the system; no one could get through. There was nothing to do but sit and wait, and so we did.
Several other students of mine from different classes came by, mostly in hectic bunches of nervous girls, arms all interlaced and in various states of casual dress. Many had been napping in the dorms and had fled without any clothes on at all, and had returned to slip on pajamas once the main tremors had subsided. Others had been in class and were busy each relating their traumatic escapes. One couldn’t stop crying, and the others had stopped trying to comfort her. Her hysteria frightened them, and so they ignored it and laughed instead.
After an hour or so, things started to take on a weirdly festive vibe. The President of the university was giving occasional speeches over the PA system, and apparently the guy is quite a card, as he had them all laughing and at ease. I couldn’t understand the muffled Chinese, but my students translated for me: mostly requests that we stay outside, assurances that more information was coming, and finally, the beginning of the grim statistics of the damage in other areas. The first number we heard was that it had registered an 8.1 at the epicenter; my only real response was, holy shit.
A student was able to get through on her cell phone, and I used it to make contact with Paul, who had already made his way back to campus. We met up at the gate, already feeling like we had been very far away from one another. We sat around with my class in the strange rubbery Astroturf, and everyone made the best of the situation. Some made runs to the store and the dorms for blankets, snacks, and water. Someone had leapt into action with the loudspeakers, and was playing a bizarre collection of post-Communist folk ditties and some Irish jigs, ostensibly because they thought music would keep us calm. One of my students ventured back to the classroom to retrieve the things most of us had left behind. My wallet was missing, as was another’s cell phone. Opportunism knows no shame.
As the hours stretched on toward evening, people began to get hungry, and it was clear that the students were expected to sleep on the playground that night, for fear of aftershocks or compromised architectural integrity in the dormitories. It felt like a giant slumber party at first, with tens of thousands of guests. Someone had organized a relief effort for those who were hungry, and people worked in shifts carrying out bottles of water to the field, along with enormous wicker baskets full of mantou, or plain steamed buns. Paul and I went back to our apartment to get some things: books, a deck of cards, his laptop, something to drink.
Home was not a pretty sight, although it could have been much worse. The bookcases had wriggled away from the walls at strange angles; things had scattered all over the floor, and the cupboards were open. The lamp lay smashed on the floor. It looked more like a half-hearted burglary than a natural disaster. The kitchen was more or less trashed, with broken glass from bottles and herbs, and our coffee pot was broken, which was funny only because we had just received a care package of coffee a couple of days earlier. We didn’t have the heart to clean up, and being indoors still felt dangerous, so we crammed what we needed into our bags, and headed back out to the playground, which was looking more and more like a Chinese outdoor rock concert by the minute: card games, bottles of beer, happy dozing bodies strewn in casual dog piles on blankets and mats, people lounging and smoking and otherwise taking it easy. Paul sat down and watched a Cubs game that he’d downloaded onto his laptop; I tutored an overeager graduate student in some tricky grammar points. Everyone wanted to have their photos taken with us, and I was interviewed by a college TV station by a young woman with acne and great English. Strangely enough, a good time was had by all.
That night, we were asked to sleep in a hotel room with some other foreign teachers. The International Education compound has a hotel adjacent to our apartment and office building, so they asked that we all camp there, so that we’d be on the first floor, should another hasty exit be necessary. People milled about until all hours, checking for updates online and chewing fingernails and looking dazed, feeling hungry and nauseous and generally uncertain, but certain that we were lucky as the numbers began to roll in on the news: 3,000 dead; then, 5,000; then, unknown but rising. We felt like an accidental family, all of us standing together, chatting about nothing, listening to one another’s stories of “where we were when…”
It was a sleepless night, full of partially-dreamt nightmares and the constant shudder of aftershocks. The couple in the bed next to ours had their own ideas about how to pass the restless time, and were none too subtle about it. A single damn mosquito became the living embodiment of hell and pestered my already ringing ears. I killed it around 4 am and, triumphant, finally drifted off for an hour or two.
I caught myself marveling at the earth, its strength, its mass. As a child, I’d been fascinated with plate tectonics, and had spent hours poring over the beautiful color illustrations in my parents’ National Geographic atlas. We read somewhere that the earthquake had been triggered by India, once an island, pushing up into the Himalayas at a rate of two inches per year. Essentially, Tibet was being slammed into the rest of China, and the impact had shaken the Sichuan plateau, and was felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand. I felt a grim smile at the thought that the uneasy connection between China and Tibet was playing out in such physical analogies.
A little past midnight, it had begun to rain. The slumber party on the field turned into a soggy, grumpy mess, and the students slogged back in to their dorms, only to be scared back out again by aftershocks that felt nearly as strong as the original quake. They hunkered under what shelter they could find and feel safe with, and somehow made it through the night.
The next day, the festival feeling was gone, having been drained away by a soaking rain that showed no signs of letting up. The effort to create shelter outside of the dorms had transformed campus into a desperate scene of plastic sheeting and umbrellas, weak and miserable structures doing little to keep the elements off the frightened heads of the students. We took a walk around, to see if anyone needed help, and to survey what ended up being a general lack of structural damage to most of the buildings. It looked like a shanty town, a bitter village cobbled together out of trash and fear and what simple pieces of furniture and string and bags that could be rigged together. Garbage lay all over the streets. Things had taken on the real look of a disaster area, people sitting balled up under meager shelters and hugging their knees, bored, tired, listless.
On the playground itself, things seemed a little brighter. Students had banded together and were clearly putting a lot of effort into arranging some kind of workable housing for themselves. I was amazed at both their persistence and ingenuity, and also at the lack of help they seemed to receive from the administration. I’m not sure where most of the materials came from. Some groups had cozy-looking posh lean-tos made of enormous tarps and collections of blankets, while others had cramped inside micro-shelters of little more than umbrellas and ping-pong tables.
Paul and I went back to my classroom building, Teaching Building 4, to look for my wallet, in the unlikely event that it had simply rattled off the podium and hadn’t, in fact, been stolen in the uproar. I had no idea how shaken I’d been by the experience, no pun intended. Aftershocks had been continuing throughout the day, and each time one rumbled through, I nearly jumped out of my skin, my heart racing in my throat. Stepping into the building and climbing back up the stairs I’d fled down only the day before felt bad and clammy, and somehow haunted. A piece of wood was jammed into a hole where a window had been. Things seemed pretty secure, though, until I reached the fourth level, where my classroom was. Fissures cut up and down from floor to ceiling and side to side, and great cracks had opened up around some of the doorways and through the plaster walls. My handwriting was still on the board in two colors of chalk, a cheery ghost of the aborted lecture. There were paint chips on the ground. My wallet wasn’t there.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in our apartment, trying to be normal. The building trembled what seemed like every five minutes, and each time it did, I sprang from my chair or couch or sandals, once or twice even making it out the door and into the hallway before the shaking subsided. Paul seemed weirdly at ease, and tried to be playful, mocking my nerves. I was surprised at how unsettled I felt. It was like airplane turbulence, those sudden jolts that make you grab for your ginger ale and send your peanuts into your lap, those brief breathless instants when you’re certain the plane is plummeting out of control, and then just as suddenly, things are calm. The fasten-seatbelts-sign doesn’t even ping on. It felt just like that, only instead of an airplane seat, I was in a chair at the dining table, grabbing for my tea. We drank a couple of beers and watched “Jaws” and cheered when the shark blew up, but I left my shoes on, and had a bag packed by the door, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I felt very, very tired.
The instant that the news of the quake hit the U.S., we were inundated with emails checking to see if we were all right. We tried to get messages to our parents before they even knew what was happening, wanting to spare them any moments of dread before hearing the lucky news. Other friends had to wait a day or more for the mass emails and little flags waving from the wreckage that proved we were alive. The instant swell of support and concern was overwhelming and wonderful – I can’t tell you how grateful I have been for the well-wishes and love notes; thank you everyone who has been in touch.
As time wore on, we watched the news with an obsessive kind of blankness. The statistics are hard to comprehend. The numbers of dead reached 10,000 and rolled quickly past, threatening 12,000, then 20,000, and now likely more than twice that and still rising. The feelings of relief and strain and rightness (as in, “I knew I couldn’t die like this,”) gave way to a sick sense of wrong. There are tens of thousands of people who died: old women, young mothers, newlyweds, strong capable men, teachers, doctors, artists, and of course the horror stories of the children, so many children trapped in schools become tombs. I began thinking of each person who expressed concern for me and for Paul. I then thought of how each person who died had the same loving network, the same fearful community that was now in shock rather than relief. I thought of my own students, and how happy their parents are right now to know they are safe. Each of us is the center of our own universe, and has a sense of what can and cannot happen. I felt safe because I knew I could not die like that, refused to die like that. But each of those dead were also sure; 50,000 centers of the universe blinked out in a guiltless shudder of the earth. I can feel a great polarity rising up from the epicenter, like a tremendous magnet, a huge electrical field of grief and suffering, a hole that no one is going to fill again.
As if this scenario weren’t stressful enough, I had a job interview at 5:30 on Wednesday morning. It was for a full-time teaching position at Portland Community College, teaching reading and writing in the developmental education program at Sylvania campus. I really, really wanted this job; my application was outstanding, my resume full of fireworks, and my references solid and impressive. The only problem was, the interview was over the phone, and to a committee of six, and it began at 5:30 in the morning two days after I’d gone through an earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, my nerves were made of battery acid and live static, I hadn’t slept in three days, and we had endured over one thousand aftershocks. Did I mention I had to do a teaching demonstration?
I had prepared as best I could, trying to fill in the gaps by sending in elaborately-conceived and explicit lesson plans, practice activities, and a curricular context outline. I even emailed them handouts that were to function as replacements for what I would have written on the board, had I been there. But, honestly – it was just too weird. I tried to stay calm and keep my focus, but I was nerved-out and exhausted, and three aftershocks hit in mid-sentence as I answered the follow-up questions, and I just can’t help but think I was too free-associative, and couldn’t quite pull together the interview I know I’m capable of. Oh well. It was, shall we say, a challenge. I figure, if nothing else, I’ll get the “Most Memorable Candidate” award.
That whole day was an exercise in endurance. Being on edge for that long is exhausting, having your fight-or-flight mechanism turned way up for days on end. I had little fight left, and mostly just wanted to lie down. As soon as I would, though, the building would shudder, and I was tired of feeling like a mouse, all fluttery heart and wide, staring eyes.
We went downtown to buy groceries. The stores were mostly closed, and those whose doors were open were totally sold out of basic staples: bottled water, rice, yogurt, instant noodles, beer. We fought our way through Carrefour to stock up for a few days; apparently everyone else in Chengdu had had the same idea. The lines stretched nearly around the interior of the store, and whole aisles were completely bare.
What is that impulse that makes people prepare madly for a cataclysm that has already occurred? Having made it through the worst, people seemed intent on living in reverse, stocking supplies and building a home out of flexible plastic in twine, far from the possible crush of concrete. I wanted to smooth everyone’s brow and remind them that it had all already happened. The students were still sleeping outside.
That night, we fell into bed around 11:30 PM and didn’t wake up until 11:00 the following morning. It felt good to sleep. The aftershocks continued, but we had acquired a new sense of dullness about them. I forced myself to lie in bed as one shook the windows so hard they rattled, and the ceiling made creaking noises above where I lay. Paul kept reminding me that none of the buildings in Chengdu had collapsed; it was our own sense of ego, of having tricked Fate, that made us think we were in danger now. I learned to take deep breaths, and to feel irritated rather than afraid. Enough is enough.
We tried to get work done, to prepare for lessons, to work on final exams and things, but it was difficult to concentrate. We watched “A Fist Full of Dollars” and ate a normal kind of meal. I found the act of cooking very pacifying; it is always a meditation for me, and I felt a fierce kind of defiance, chopping away on my cutting board as yet another aftershock tried to rattle my cookplate off the counter. “No. I am making dinner. You rattle me not,” I said aloud. Paul busied himself with packing. If he was ready to leave last week, he’s twice as ready now. The act of putting things into boxes was also a good practice: orderly, positive, and with a homeward intention. We all deal with things in our own ways.
Food drives and organizations collecting aid for relief workers have sprung up all over the city. We packed up some clothes we don’t often wear, along with umbrellas, and some blankets, and then bought a few big bags of rice, some cooking oil, some soap, and a few packages of sanitary napkins (who ever thinks to bring those to a rescue site?) and hauled them to one of the pick-up stations, a French-run nightclub, of all places. Many of the bars are serving as food and supply drop-offs; a lot of effort has gone into clearing and maintaining the road leading to the areas with the greatest damage, and trucks run several times a day, carrying food and bedding to the survivors. At the current estimate, over 3 million homes were destroyed. Hundreds of dams have been compromised, and there is the possibility that a nuclear facility was also damaged, although there have been no clear reports yet. Many of my graduate students will not be finishing the semester, having enlisted in a volunteer interpreter corps that is providing translation services for the international media and aid groups that have come to the region. I wish them the best of luck. We send what we can: food, care, water, love, sadness. I feel like there is nothing that I can do here that will be enough; I have never felt more cared for here, nor more of an outsider. It is definitely time for us to come home.
I talked with a young woman, a Senior, who is about to graduate. She said she is from Shaanxi province; her parents are far away. When I asked her where she was during the quake, she said that she had been in a classroom, waiting for a student that she tutors. She had been afraid to run out, for fear she’d be in greater danger during a collapse, so she spent the entire first tremor huddled in a corner of her classroom, frightened half to death. Minutes after it was over, her student showed up, and so they decided to resume the lesson. They were found by security guards sometime later, and were ordered to get to safety.
“My parents,” she said, “they want me to come home, now. But I told them, ‘bad things can happen anywhere.’”
“You’re not going home, then?” I asked.
“No, I will stay here, and I will go to graduate school,” she answered. “My dreams are here.”