Matters of Consequence

I see him coming. He’s shifting along the dusty terrace that separates the courtyard from the living room. I’m reclining on the sofa, but edging forward as he rounds the corner. There’s a tall glass of baijiu in my hand and I wish there wasn’t. He enters the room, “schlap, schlap, and schlap.” I sit frozen and confused. A white man in the headlights. I kind of welcome it. Then he gets me across the face. The blind man, in the living room, with the flyswatter.

The blind man in question is the 72-year-old father of one of my local teachers. He wasn’t always blind, I presume, but he sure is now. The flyswatter is his version of the cane we often see in the US. And, frankly, I much prefer its lovetap to a crack across the head with a solid piece of plastic. The man sits down across from me. There are ten of us in the living room: Four local teachers, three Teach for China fellows, the high school daughter of the teacher who’s invited us, and his parents. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an actual house with an actual family. I don’t think I’ve set foot in a legitimate residence since I left the states. It was so comfortable, so warm and so friendly.

After the swatting, the grandfather and I exchange pleasantries. He’s sandwiched in between his son and his wife, who is probably around 70, but looks 150. Age catches up quickly here. He apologizes, but it’s immediately evident that everyone, he and myself included, had very little problem with the swatting. This man is a picture of joviality. He’s a caricature: Small, blind as a bat, and restless with energy. He successfully pours himself a glass of baijiu (the nose knows) and we toast over another laughpology. Fortunately, he speaks Mandarin, a bit of a rarity for someone of his age. I wonder to myself if he’s ever seen a foreigner before. It’s unlikely he has, especially if he’s been blind for long. Incredible that someone could go their entire life without laying eyes on a single person outside of their race. Surely not uncommon, though.

I treasure the infrequent chances I have to converse with China’s later generations. Infrequent because: many do not speak Mandarin, life expectancy is lower, and I simply do not have much daily contact with people over the age of 50. If you were born in China in 1940, today you live in a completely different universe than the one in which you’ve spent most of your life. Even in a rural village such as this, you’ve seen changes socially, politically, and economically that are almost entirely unrivaled anywhere else in the world. This time our conversation doesn’t progress much past the typical meet and greet. Mr. Liu is so clearly excited to have company that we basically just cheers a bunch and he scream-mutters incoherent minority language at me. He’s like a kid on Christmas and it brings an ear-to-ear smile to my face. We drink some more baijiu. I look forward to listening to him in the future, sitting over some shitty booze and talking about his life.

 

Today I took a trip to the doctor. As some of you may know, it was my second trip to the doctor in China. Sparing select details, this trip was made for similar reasons as the last. One of my local teachers, Mr. Yang, insisted on taking me this morning. The doctor’s office is immediately outside of our school’s campus. In fact, I often see the doctor about town. He’s in his late 40’s with a shockingly bad combover. It’s the kind of combover that when you see it, you know that if you ask this guy whether he is bald or not, he’ll look at you inquisitively and say, “What? Me? No, I’m only 45.” It’s a denial combover. Either way, the bald doctor is a good dude. I’ve never interacted with him professionally before and I’m frankly a little curious to see what the local health care scene has to offer. I’d surely be significantly less curious if my illness was of any serious concern. I’m only going to the doc because I’m being forced to and partly because I really don’t want to shit my pants in the middle of class.

We walk across campus and then no more than a minute to the office. The space is small. There are two rooms, one with a desk and a shelf full of needles and medical books. Many medical posters decorate the walls. I don’t read them, but the messages are pretty clear. Don’t drink, don’t smoke. Don’t do what everyone else around you is doing at all hours of the day. Might as well not eat rice either. The other room is decked with all different types of intriguing looking medicine that I would never be intrigued enough to use personally. The floor is cement, but smooth. As we enter, the doc is screaming vociferously into the right ear of an older gentleman wearing a newsboy. He’s screaming so loud, he’s up on his toes. It’s local dialect, so I can’t make it out. But I’m pretty sure he was just wishing him a nice afternoon. The old man nods, smiles at us, puts his new medicine in a bag accompanied by a carton of cigarettes, and walks out the door.  The doc promptly offers my colleague a cigarette. He takes it. He extends the offer to me. I refuse. He lights it up for himself.

Between puffs he asks me what the deal is. I give him the rundown. He’s got two solutions. Take a shot or drink some medicine. Shots are the universal method of feeling better here. In fact, if a student comes to class late from the doctor’s they will usually signal their arrival with a concise jabbing motion. That tells me where they’ve been. They weren’t out stabbing people; they were just feeling a little under the weather. I elect for the medicine. It’s the same medicine I had last time I was digestively incapacitated. It tastes like a damn hamster cage. It costs me 8 Yuan for a week’s worth. I consistently invoke the absurdly low cost of things on this blog, but that’s only because it never ceases to amaze me. That’s like a buck and a quarter. Not to mention, I can just walk right in without having to deal with an ornery receptionist. Not to mention, the doc offers me a cigarette for my troubles. NOT to mention, I have no insurance. What a deal. What a guy. “Doc, did you get a haircut? Looks fantastic.”

 

The word “落后(luohou)” is tossed around a lot by Heqing locals. Luohou means to fall behind, like a kid struggling with his grades.  It’s used here in contrary to “developed.” An area that has fallen behind is essentially an agrarian region. The infrastructure isn’t on par with the rest of the country. Things are coming along more slowly. It’s used negatively and it’s used very often. I’m consistently commended on my country’s development as though I had a great hand in it. Locals embarrassingly compare their home to the gigantic first world metropolises on China’s East coast. Funny, because they’ve never been there. They’ve only heard about those places or seen them on TV. The phrase “the grass is greener” is a beautiful contradiction in this case. Every time someone talks about how undeveloped, how behind, they are, I tell them what it’s like in Shanghai or Beijing and why they might not be right. “Everyone you pass on the street here is your friend or family, you grow plants that you eat, you live in a house with a courtyard and enough room for your parents and your children, you have a blue sky during the day and the stars at night.”

I am not a narrow-minded foreigner who sees only the good. I understand the struggles that come with living in a place like this. Farming is not an easy career. You certainly won’t make enough money teaching to travel much. When you are a part of this life, from birth til death, surely the point of view is a little different. But, there is a great deal to be said for the purity of life here. Things are as they seem. People are as they seem. Pretense doesn’t exist. Living is more important than appearing. It seems to me that as you develop you fall behind. You become overly disillusioned with what the Little Prince called “matters of consequence.” In reality, the matters of consequence are the things that you’ve developed out of: real food, a long meal with your family, and the beauty of an untouched sky.

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