Sometimes I feel an urge to stand up, shout, and toss my porcelain glass of baijiu against the wall. It’s not for anger or drunkenness or some irritable combination of the two. It’s just that sometimes I get this feeling in my stomach, right below my chest, like a massive balloon is about to burst, but can’t. Whatever it is can barely be contained without some sort of cathartic explosion. Sometimes I’m just overcome by reality. I’m overcome by the realization that what I’m firmly planted within is not a dream, but is actually very real, and just improbably incompatible with my previous notions of reality. Think of it like this: Imagine going to a foreign planet. The things you would see there would make no sense to you, yet they would be real. They would conform to all laws of physics and chemistry of that particular place. How about going 100 years forward in time? The things you would see would simply not line up, but still, they’d be real, super-real. And, all you could do is stare and scramble for a method to the madness. Real, but relatively speaking, not so real.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to the nearby state of Chuxiong in search of new schools for Teach For China. The experience was eye opening, to say the least. Each school was unique, each had it’s set of problems, each had it’s needs. The most fascinating school, though, by a long shot, was Wanbi Middle School.
We left Guihua at noon. Before we departed, our local host warned us, “the road isn’t made yet.” We began to ascend the mountain around 12:30. We climbed higher and higher, a tiny speck inching up the side of an imposing cliff face. Our rickety manual Mitsubishi could barely exert enough force to wind around some of the more unnerving turns. Three thousand feet up, no pavement, barely enough room for one vehicle, 10 degree turns, no guard rails. I had to accept that my life was in the hands of the guy behind the wheel early on. I was happy to see that he wore a Buddha around his neck. We kept going higher and higher. The trees disappeared. Still, people lived there. The people up that high in the mountains seemed like ghosts in a way, heavenly beings. They were so utterly removed from the cities and towns on the ground. They lived in the clouds, really.
Around 3 pm we stopped on the side of the mountain. Our caravan included two Mitsubishis; one white, one green. We were nine total: Our team of five TFC staff, two local leaders, and our drivers. I hopped out of the car. In each direction was a slab of rock that looked like something out of The Odyssey. Flat-faced, gray with green patches, and almost straight up against the horizon. Even thousands of feet up, it gave you a feeling of uneasiness, a feeling of inescapability. I threw a rock down the face, which made me feel even uneasier. I went back to the car. Straight below, bounded on all sides, was the Yangtze River, which would terminate thousands of miles East in Shanghai. Here, the river is surrounded by natural monoliths, there by manmade ones.
At around 6 pm, we finally managed to find a smooth dirt road. The sun had begun it’s descent long before, but it was still hot and bright. Hot, the place was just really hot. The Mitsubishi climbed over one last little bump and before our eyes, in the middle of absolute nowhere, was a city. Wanbi was dusty and dry, and hot. I’d been told nothing about our destination before arrival. As I scanned the horizon, I realized something very peculiar about the place. Every single building was under construction. This was no village either. This was a large, dusty town in the middle of nowhere, and everywhere you looked something was being built. Not a single edifice was fully constructed. Makeshift eateries and convenience stores popped up all over the place. Shirtless guys with all manner of construction contraptions prowled the streets. The citizens had a makeshift vibe too. They didn’t feel right there. It was all very Truman Show.The eeriness was accentuated by the fact that, as I’ve made rather clear, there was literally nothing but rocks and shrubs for hundreds of miles and the sunlight was waning.
It took me a while to figure it out, but I wasn’t staring into the edge of the world. A massive Chinese company was under contract to dam the Yangtze. As a result, all the villagers had to be relocated uphill. The company was paying for every piece of destruction and construction. They were paying for a town to be created.
I’d like to point out something here: It’s very tempting to look at this scenario and vilify China as a heavy-handed violator of human rights, taking poor minority people from their homes and relocating them to a completely new life. First, as far as I could see, the project was necessary, from a developmental standpoint. Second, as far as I could see, the company is doing as right by the citizens as it can. Third, and most importantly, look around. Every big box strip mall, every highway, every Taco Bell, every dam that you see each day did not come without a cost. The land in which those conveniences reside was not blessed by god and set aside as special capitalist zones in year zero. We’ve got a gigantic manmade reservoir in Sherman, CT: Candlewood Lake, the biggest lake in Connecticut. When we’re out there in July on our boats, having a beer and shooting off fireworks, we often joke about the life that’s going on beneath the surface. We all know that thousands of acres of farmland were flooded to make the lake. It’s said that the ghosts of countless cows and pigs are still down there, living a slightly more watery existence. We see images in the news all the time of the one Chinese geriatric standing in front of a bulldozer that’s preparing to make dust of his home. If you think that same thing didn’t happen in your hometown, or all across America, you might be a little delusional. Capitalism has a price.
We step out of the Mitsubishi. I feel like it’s going to explode. We are greeted by the principal and two administrators. The principal: A rail thin middle-aged man wearing giant glasses. He is the spitting image, both in appearance and mannerism, of Dale from King of the Hill. Administrator one: Toad from Frog and Toad. Utterly and completely. Administrator two: A tall, buff guy, who looks like a big, jacked tadpole. He’s almost bald, but hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Wholly amphibious, with tight facial features.
We’re hungry. We head to a makeshift restaurant near the school. There are two round tables set up and a tiny cooking station in the back. It’s still incredibly hot. Toad looks like he’s about to go down for the count. He’s sweated through two layers. To make matters hotter, we’ve chosen a hot-pot restaurant. Two tables, about twenty people (two women). As the endless object of curiosity, I get to sit between the principal and the amphibious guy. If you’ve paid attention to this blog, you know that principals and administrators in this part of China tend to be prodigious in the art of getting incredibly drunk. Let’s party. The sun is pretty much gone by now. The waitress brings a pot of boiling soup to the table and places it on a hot plate. The town is too new, I gather, for a stove. Despite the impending darkness, it’s still seeringly hot. Toad has shed his button down. The hot-pot is a bubbling brew of chickens’ heads, pig’s liver, stomachs, bones, tiny fish, and stuff that I try to block out of my mind. It’s brutally spicy. Each bite brings me closer to dehydration. Naturally, there is nothing to wash it all down with, except 55% baijiu. Luckily, there’s a lot. Toad is going to die, I’m sure of it.
The principal gets going quickly. Soon, I’m ambushed from all angles. They’re pouring chicken guts and scalding soup into my bowl. They look at me and smile; “Here, take it. Here. Just try it once.” They’re coming at me with shot after shot of baijiu. Not just the principal and the jacked tadpole, but everyone. Even one of the women comes after me. They’re singing songs in strange dialect, my BAC is climbing, I swear I see Toad look me right in the eyes as he sinks his fangs into a still beating cow’s heart. It’s an overwhelming onslaught of hospitality and high-spirits. I stand up. I look around, like a tiny mouse in the middle of Times Square, and think to myself, “Where am I?” A cramped little room, high above the nearest anything. A fake town genuinely being built over my head. A bunch of the friendliest, strangest assortment of people I’ve ever met. Is it even real anymore? That’s when I get that feeling. I just want to smash my glass and scream, like a Jew on his wedding day. I’m overcome by the sheer existence of it all.
Five hundred years ago, you could go anywhere on earth and get this feeling. As things flatten out and foreign cultures meld together, this sensation is disappearing, there’s no doubt about it. The sensation at hand is discovery; the introduction of something so rare, strange, new and exciting that you can barely believe it. It comes about when you’re smacked in the face full force by a new reality. It pushes people to reconsider what they already know. It’s actually a quite scary feeling, a total release from the healthy confines of the “comfort zone.” But, it’s one of the most alive feelings a living person can have. Don’t be fooled by the compression of society or the complete coloring in of the world map, the sensation of discovery still exists, you just have to want to find it.