There is a famous idiom in Chinese, “哭笑不得，ku xiao bu de.” The phrase literally translates to: “Not to know whether to laugh or cry.” It’s clearly transferable to any cultural context. We’ve all had those moments. Say you’ve got a final paper due at eight in the morning. You haven’t started. You stay up all night grinding. You finish it. Ten pages, single-spaced. You get to your teacher’s office at 7:58 only to realize that the paper isn’t due til next week. Living in a foreign place, especially one as foreign as rural China provides a daily supply of “ku xiao bu de” moments.
I teach class at 11:10 everyday during Summer Institute. The bell rings at 11:50. I take a tuk-tuk back for lunch. I eat. Lunch is followed by five hours of pedagogy training which consists of three segments of one hour and forty five minutes separated by 15 minute breaks. During these breaks you eat and you use the bathroom. You do the things you need to do because you won’t get to do them for another two hours. Lucky for me, I found a “secret bathroom” to the side of our teaching building. Now, I don’t have to walk the ten minutes back and forth to my dorm. There’s a makeshift fence of wooden boards separating the building from the property behind it. We can see the land outside our classroom windows. I can’t really tell what the people who live there do, but there are always a lot of farm animals hanging out.
Anyways, there is a small opening in the wooden board fence that leads to their property from campus. A few steps past, there is a little cement shack with the characters for man and woman crudely painted on the front. The bathroom (I’ve decided against including pictures) is kind of like the one from that famous scene in Slumdog Millionaire. Basically, it’s a pit with “stalls” delineated by wooden slats across the floor. There are certainly no vertical partitions. It’s intimate. The destination of goings-on in the secret bathroom is not the sewer system, it’s the ground below. Today, I went in my secret bathroom (my peaceful sanctuary) to do a 小便（little gift) as opposed to a 大便(big gift). Not 10 seconds in, I heard a piercing “bawk bawk” and a frantic ruffling of feathers. I jumped back, startled. My secret bathroom is a very quiet place where I am infrequently disturbed. I looked around… no one. I peered down through the openings between wooden slats (the toilet). There was a rather large chicken down there. I didn’t know what to feel. At first, I felt shocked. Shock turned to confusion. Confusion turned to sympathy. I settled somewhere on the emotional spectrum of “ku xiao bu de.” I just peed on a chicken.
In a few days, I will be going to a town significantly more rural than where I am now. But, even here it is amazing how frequently I see things that, not only have I never seen before, but I simply never ever could have even concocted in my imagination what these things would look like. Ninety-nine percent of the things I see/do are familiar/distantly connected in some way to some sort of past life experience. The vast majority of things fit into my mental schema of what is possible. When I see or experience things that I have never even pondered in my infinite stream of thoughts, it is a definitively surreal moment. It must be how a baby feels all day everyday. It must be how a Chinese villager feels when they see a tall, handsome white man for the first time. It’s like “woah… what?” It’s a really strange feeling that I haven’t experienced in a really long time. There’s a split second where sensory perception and cognitive processing don’t mesh right. Seeing the goat being slaughtered in the middle of the street was one of those moments. Peeing on a chicken’s head, though trailing in shock value, was also one of those moments. I have simply never even approached the possibility of accidentally urinating on a chicken.
The phrase “Who knows what tomorrow will bring,” is taken to a whole new level here. Usually, one has a solid list of possibilities of what tomorrow may bring. You walk down the same streets, you see the same people, you pee on the same chickens. I do not know, nor could I imagine what kind of new things I may see on a daily basis. Like I said, the vast majority of my experiences “fit” into my preconceived schema of what daily life looks like, even in remote China. Every once is a while, though, my definition of “daily life” and “impossibility” are slightly redefined.