Friday, October 03, 2008

A rainy morning stroll in Xi'ian

A Rainy Morning Stroll

I have travelled halfway around the globe, living and teaching in Xi’ian, China, yet my own personal space sometimes seems to have shrunken in inverse proportion to my travels. Inside my room, I have my computer and internet connection, CNN and HBO on the television, and my kitchen and Western bathroom. The CLC students are also just down the hallway (when they are not out and about), so I can usually find someone to talk to. Outside I feel that I am on display as an obvious foreigner, isolated by my lack of Chinese language skills, and I have not explored sufficiently to have a list of places to go for diversion. It is not because I have been made to feel unwelcome in any way; to the contrary, the local people have gone out of their way to overcome shy reticence, to smile, and exercise their English language skills. My room is my comfort zone. My private refuge. At times, my prison.
So, I have made up my mind to force myself out in various ways. One decision I have made is to eat at least one meal outside of my room every day, either at the foreigners’ restaurant two doors down, a local restaurant outside the University walls, or at one of the six campus cafeterias. Today I decided to go for a walk, take out some cash from one of the many ATM machines on campus, and then grab a couple of breakfast sandwiches from the cafeteria. It turned cool yesterday and rainy; so according to the local expatriates, autumn is here and winter is around the corner.
This is my favorite weather; overcast, maybe a bit drizzly, and cool. I put my camera in my pocket, pulled on my Gore-Tex jacket and baseball cap, and headed into the mist. I like walking in the rain because I have a sense of privacy, of wrapping into myself, even as others around me are wrapping into themselves. It is the best of both inner and outer worlds. My thinking becomes contemplative and not reactionary.
I needed a walk because my lifestyle here in China has been a bit sedentary (see isolation note above). Sometimes I walk to Vanguard, an everything store about three quarters of a mile away, do my shopping, and then carry my groceries home. This is very efficient because it gives me an upper body workout at the same time I am stretching my legs. Bottles of water and Pepsi (and the occasional Jameson) are helping to keep my pecs, biceps, and triceps in tone.
However, I had just gone to the store last night, and aside from forgetting to buy toilet paper (which may escalate into a crisis soon) I had all my marketing done. So I decided to do a couple of laps around the many campus buildings. This is an education in and of itself, since the foreign students’ residence hotel is isolated in one corner of the campus away from much of the university student life.
There were many students walking to classes even though it was Saturday. The National Holidays are the first, second, and third of October—Wednesday through Friday—and the University has decided (along with the rest of the country) to give everyone Monday and Tuesday off as well, since this is a residential campus and many of the students want to travel home for the week. Classes were being held Saturday and Sunday to make up for the days lost.
It was a good walk. Occasionally I heard, “Hello,” and it always takes me a second or two to register that they are, of course, talking to the American. I turned and said, “Ni hao,” or hello, in Chinese. Smiles all around, and then back to dodging and weaving through the sea of umbrellas, low cropped trees, and rushing students. Often I leave a wake of giggles since the sight of a foreigner is still a curiosity here in China.
I turned down a street, away from the classrooms, and walked in a quieter direction. I turned up my collar and pulled into myself some more. It was a good walk.
As I neared the front gate, I saw an older Chinese woman, probably one of the many workers who live on campus, struggling to carry a case of four gallon jugs of cooking oil. She had taken two of them out of the carton, was carrying those two in one hand, and still had two in the cardboard box, suspended from her other hand. She had the cracked, tanned hide look of someone who has lived and worked most of her life out in the sun.
I walked past and slowed down. I should offer to help. I had no place to be. She was struggling in the rain. Would she accept? Would it be a cultural faux pas? I was thinking of what hand gestures I would use to communicate my intentions. I had to be careful. I have found that if you communicate the wrong idea with hand gestures, it is hard to displace the initial impression and start over. I hurried to catch up.
She stopped and was reaching into the box for her umbrella. How did she expect to use the umbrella while carrying the jugs in both hands? I came around to the front of her.
“Ni hao.”
Surprise, and then response. “Ni hao.”
No more talk. I pointed to the jugs which were already resting on the ground, and made a gesture to indicate me picking them up and carrying them forward with her to her destination further up the street. She shook her head, smiling, and raised her hand in interjection, moving it from side to side in the universal “No” sign. I smiled back, picked up the two gallon jugs, and tilted my head to indicate that we should walk on. She laughed, picked up the carton with the two remaining jugs of cooking oil, and began to walk with me. Success. Communication.
She took one of the remaining jugs out of the box, and I could see that she was struggling with the awkwardness of it all. I reached over, took the third jug, signed for her to use her umbrella, and waited. She smiled, shook open the umbrella, took up the carton and the remaining jug, and we walked in the rain in silence.
Rain. I don’t know rain. Water. Shui. Water is Shui in Chinese. Hen hao is very good. Hao is good. I wanted her to know that I liked the rain so she wouldn’t be concerned about my having to walk with her in it.
“Shui hao.”
I said it twice more, gestured upward with my head, and nodded.
She smiled, nodded, and said… something, something, “Shui,” and something. She must have understood. Or at least was polite about my ignorance. Every once in a while, I would shift the odd jug from one hand to the other. She made some comment in Mandarin. I said, “It’s no trouble,” shaking my head, and we went on our way.
We both smiled and continued on in quiet. Every once in a while we would weave apart for students to pass, and I would hear and respond to the occasional, “Hello,” as we made our way across campus to one of the Chinese student dorms. These dorms are not like the foreign student rooms. We know it, they know it. But they do not begrudge us our Western comforts. They just understand it is our way. If we need these things to be happy, as good hosts, they will provide them. However, the Chinese student accommodations are Spartan at best. Picture an American dorm room with six or eight to a room.
We stopped at the corner of a dorm where the old woman put down the cardboard box, said something, and waited for me to excuse myself. I had gone this far, I couldn’t see her struggling again when we were obviously so close. She probably didn’t want to be embarrassed by her meager circumstances. I kept my burden, and tipped my head in the direction of the dorm. She continued to lead.
When we walked through the door, the woman said something to the guard and the man who I assumed was her husband, waiting there. They went up to a door just off the main entranceway, and I started to set down the containers of oil. He said something in Chinese, not relieving me of my load, unlocking the door, and gesturing for me to bring the oil in the room. At first I thought he just wanted me to put the jugs where they needed to go, and then I realized, of course, he wanted to offer hospitality to thank me.
The room was the same as the dorm rooms I had seen; it was small, desperately needed a coat of paint, and had a tiny bed in the corner with a thin mattress on a spring frame. There were some school desks around the edges of the room, some children’s wooden school chairs, and wooden poles stuck out of the corners of the bed to hold up a cord strung around the room. It looked like the room was used for storage of some excess school furniture. The kitchenette was through an opening at the far end of the room with the detritus of everyday eating and cooking. This was their home.
The husband motioned for me to put the jugs down on the floor, and to sit in a chair that he had pulled out from one of the desks. I sat down. He reached for a pack of cigarettes on the desk and offered me one. I raised my hand and moved it from side to side, shaking my head while mimicking smoking by putting my fingers to my lips. He then took out a cigar to offer to me, and I accepted so as not to offend him. I motioned for some way to make a hole in the end. He offered me a jar of toothpicks and raised his lighter.
We sat in their living space, me in my tall chair, he in a chair barely a foot off the ground, his wife on the edge of their bed. Then he got up to make me some green tea. He didn’t like the state of the hot water from their large thermos (a ubiquitous item among the Chinese) and his wife plugged in the electric kettle. Then the lights went out. I sat in the dim room, smoking a cigar, while the husband left, retrieved some fresh hot water, and got the electric turned back on.
We sat there in silence for quite some time. I smoked the cigar, nodding occasionally and saying, “Hen hao,” trying to indicate that I liked the cigar and tea. My host placed a plastic cup containing cigarette butts on the floor in between the two of us for our ashes. The old man had on the clothes which I have come to associate with people in any society who have had to live a hardscrabble life without climate control comfort. He had on a sweater, a waistcoat over that, a once proud but now threadbare suit coat, and a topcoat over everything. I was enjoying what was for them tremendous hospitality, and was wondering what I could give back. Conversation would only make us both uncomfortable. I had no gifts, and to give a gift would only increase their sense of obligation toward me.
Music. A song. Everywhere I’ve travelled, local people have valued songs, either sung in a group, or individually in turn. Maybe that was a way of common connection. I took a deep breath and sang, “The Parting Glass,” an Irish song usually sung at the end of the evening.

Of all the money that e'er I’ve had, I’ve spent it in good company,And all the harm that e'er I've done, alas, it was to none but me,And all I've done for want of wit, to memory now I can't recall,So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all.
Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had, they are sorry for my going away,And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had, they’d wish me one more day to stay,But since it falls unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not,I'll gently rise and softly call, good night and joy be with you all.

Yeah, I know. An American in China, and the only song I can think of to sing is an Irish drinking song. But I figured that the gesture would be universal. And I was hoping that maybe my Chinese host would respond in kind. Well, he appreciated the song if anything could be told by his nodding afterwards. But he did not sing, even though I would lay odds that he had sung his share in his lifetime. Once again, stillness filled the room. I puffed and sipped, looked at the ground, occasionally nodding, and he did the same.
When the cigar was half finished, I rose, put the cup of tea on the desk, nodded, and took his hands in mine as I said, “Xie xie,” or thank you. He said the same, I repeated the gesture with his wife, nodded, and left the room. He followed me to the door of the dorm where I turned and said, “Zai jian,” goodbye. Once again, he repeated what I said, and waved at me as I moved on down the stairs.
I continued my walk in the warmth of the gentle, simple hospitality which these poor people had shown me. The idea struck me that I should have asked to take their picture.
What is it with me, with others, that we obsessively need to take pictures of events to remember them by? Often we are so absorbed that we miss the moment itself. Isn’t it funny, this need to capture these moments, to retain talismans of the past which are never able to be completely ransomed?
Well, this moment would have to live only in memory. I stubbed the cigar out on the side of a trash receptacle, but held on to it. It was warm in my hand in the sleeve of my jacket. I went to the ATM, withdrew my money, and walked around to the entrance of the cafeteria. I stubbed the cigar again, making sure it was out before putting it into my pocket. I wanted to hold onto it for a while. Not a picture, but still a token.
I bought two egg sandwiches and was headed back to my room when I remembered the toilet paper. I put the sandwiches, which come in little plastic baggies, into my other pocket, went into a campus store, and bought what I needed. The rain had lessened. I walked back to my room, still high from my encounter. I had desperately needed a way to connect with the world again in a very personal way, and had found it. Or it found me.

1 comment:

Page said...

Very poignant, Michael. I even got a bit misty eyed at the end. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and reflections.