Fear and Locusts in Sanzhuang

“No time to waste. The sunlight will go away. The season will end.”

Miss Wang held an empty water bottle high above her head. She was ready for the hunt. By her side, was her daughter and assistant, Little Yanzi, with a large plastic bag and a look of enthusiastic tenacity written across her eyes. A few other children, with similar expressions, followed. In back was a sickly looking white guy wearing sweatpants and a puffy windbreaker with a runny nose and a face full of discomfort.

It was a few minutes to six and crisp. We wound through the rocky mountain paths, passing under expansive webs lorded over by hand-sized spiders. Families noisily sat down for dinner under subtly swaying light bulbs. The pigs in the pen grunted and squealed, perhaps gleefully aware that tonight the family was eating chicken. Miss Wang and the three kids sang songs and skipped. I focused my nervous attention on the spider webs. Then we got to the fields, the same ones that had been sowed and reaped and sowed again for centuries—the perpetual lifeblood of the village. I saw some of my students and their families, squeezing the last moments out of the waning daylight, ready to head up the path and join each other under their own swaying light bulbs, to watch their tea leaves tortured and twisted at the bottom of a boiling kettle and drink a warm bowl of bitter melon soup.

But we weren’t here for that stuff. We were here for locusts. And as Miss Wang and the three girls began to search for their targets, I lingered behind, sniffling.

It’s not that hard to catch a locust. Find a particularly grassy spot, drag your feet across it and watch them jump. Follow their path and snatch them up when they land. Toss them in a sealed receptacle and repeat. Speed isn’t even much of a factor. The only caveat is, you actually have to be willing to make skin to locust contact, and that made things rather difficult for me. After a few minutes of feigning locust pursuit, I came upon Little Yanzi. Her bag must have had 20 grasshoppers in it already. Her hand alone, held three, squirming and flapping to no avail. She tossed the three in and closed the bag.

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“Mr. Luo, how many did you get?” She looks up at me, with inquisitive 10-year-old eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t seen very many.” It was impossible to look down without seeing at least 30.

“Really? But they are everywhere! How can you miss them?” She asked, genuinely shocked, in that exaggerated way that kids do when you present them with a blatant lie.

“I guess I just don’t have the eye for it.” Again, this excuse would only have been valid for the visually impaired.

“Look! I see some there. You can snatch it!”

“Ahh, shit.” I whispered under my breath. I felt like someone who exaggerates their Spanish abilities to an interviewer, to which the interviewer says, “What a coincidence! I’m from Buenos Aires. Let’s conduct the rest of the interview in Spanish, shall we?”

“Look, that’s a nice one! So big and fat!” Little Yanzi implored.

I twisted my head sideways and made the face of someone about to retrieve their Rolex from a pile of cow shit. I held out my thumb and index finger and made a pathetic quick, sharp grab for the fat little locust’s hind legs. I missed by a wide margin, and the locust flung itself into the sky.

“Green bastard.” I whispered through clenched teeth and furtively looked around to see if anyone had seen my miserable attempt. Little Yanzi was squatting next to me, looking me dead in the eyes. It was a look of confusion, sympathy, and possibly a faraway hint of disgust.

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“Man, that was quick one, eh Yanzi?” I said.

“No, I don’t think it was.” She attested. “It was very big. Usually, the big ones are slow and dumb.”

I wondered briefly if my 10-year-old student was mocking me.

“Look there are more! Quick, let’s get them!”

I plunged my fingers toward a brownish green grasshopper and this time snagged it by the wing and thrust it into Yanzi’s bag in moment of exhilarating terror, like when your tires clip a patch of ice. I stood up stiffly.

“Mr. Luo, we don’t want the dead ones.” She said, with a touch of compassion and reached carelessly into her bag of thirty or so jumping and flailing grasshoppers to grab and discard my proud catch.

I continued like this for a while; pretending to try to catch locusts, but knowing that that was the very thing I did not want to do. I would have had such an awful time as a biblical Egyptian, I thought. Miss Wang and the girls bounced around from paddy to paddy, snatching up and stashing the squirmy, flappy specimens with effortless ease. The sunlight was getting scarcer and I knew we would be heading back up the mountain before long. The locust season was coming to a close and there wouldn’t be another locust season for me at Sanzhuang. This time next year I’d be in the US, where people notify the authorities at the sight of a tiny green thing with bouncy legs.

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“Miss Wang, please give me the water bottle.” It was almost full, and I could hear the muffled tick tick of hundreds of frantic wings and legs scratching against the plastic. I turned to the paddy and set my sights on a small locust, reached down and scooped it up with my palm. It wriggled and batted its wings. I unscrewed the cap with the same hand and shoved it in before quickly sealing the bottle. I felt the exhilarating terror again, but it was accompanied by a great sense of fulfillment rather than a locust-induced sense of severe self-disappointment and utter hopelessness in my existence. Whether I would do it again or not, was moot. Very moot. It hath been done.

This is an insignificant and mildly pathetic story of a grown man held hostage by a field of tropical grasshoppers, but a real one nonetheless. It’s been a recurring theme for me in recent times, but it’s really just a recurring life theme. There’s something to be said for caution and reason, but no one ever felt that exhilarating terror of being alive whilst rolling over a speed bump. Scaring the shit out of yourself is good sometimes. In any event, the feeling of fear is usually worse than actually doing things that make us afraid—doing things that might be considered risks or strange.

We soon walked and skipped back up the path. The kids and Miss Wang were jolly, accomplished, and just so genuinely happy. It was past seven. I took a shower and washed my hands with special attention. I dressed and headed toward my room. As I neared the stairs I noticed an overwhelmingly enticing scent wafting out of Miss Wang’s first floor apartment. I put my toiletries down and walked in. A handful of teachers and their kids were huddling on stools around a still sizzling wok.

“Come in! We’re eating.” I looked down and saw the massive heap of locusts, tinged golden brown from vegetable oil.

“I’m good.”

“Here!” Little Yanzi placed a locust into my hand. I examined it. The legs and wings and menacing face. In turn, all the teachers examined me. It was happening all over again.

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No time to waste.

I popped it into my mouth and bit. Crunchy—not unlike a potato chip. I sat down and ate another one.

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The Bearable Lightness of Heqing

“What do you think?” Big Brother asked me.

He’d made a common error. I’m sure he meant to ask, “What are you thinking about?” But his intended question was lost to the nuanced flexibility of language. Anyways, I understood and took another sip of beer.

It was a radiant early Saturday afternoon. I stared out the second story window of the only bar in the fledgling municipality of Songgui. I had a good view. Directly below the window stood “The Intersection.” It’s “The Intersection” because there is only one in the fledgling municipality of Songgui, so “the” functions as both article and adjective. There’s a woman selling oil-drenched potatoes and dubious reddish cylindrical things on a stick that she insists on calling “sausage.” Across the small passage that makes up the lesser contribution to “The Intersection” is a tiny shop for cigarettes, chips, a gratuitous selection of alcoholic beverages that strike fear in all passing esophagi and livers, and other basic needs for the living of life. A group of elderly women play cards, drink hot tea, and squawk at each other in a way that suggests an imminent elderly woman brawl, but is really just passionate friendship.

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Across the big road, the one that chops the town in half and connects the touristic hellholes of Dali and Lijiang, is a bank—the only one for a long ways. There’s an old security guard in there that once told me that I couldn’t use the ATM until three minutes after the previous user, because the machine “needed to rest.” I sat confused on the chalky steps with my empty wallet for a while and watched as customers flagrantly disobeyed the three-minute rule and marched on ahead of me until I realized I was either lied to, misinformed, unable to understand, or a sucker. I can just barely make him out now. Across the little alley by the bank there’s a fruit stand where a sly old woman double-charged me for a kilo of bananas. When I told her I knew what she was up to, she laughed, denied it casually, and offered to sell me oranges and sweet potatoes at a discount.

I can see beyond the intersection too, down the big road a little ways toward Lijiang and its endless markets of fake everything and oversized visitors wrapped in cameras. Then there are the mountains that restrict the rest of my horizon and there’s nothing more to say. I guess, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was it. If I didn’t know that that dusty strip of concrete chewed you up and spit you out in the frenetic capital of kitsch, and that mountains have an up and a down, and that the money in the bank comes from somewhere past the road and over the cotton candy peaks, I’d have no reason to believe that I wasn’t looking at the entire world from where I sit.

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“I was thinking that I could live here for a long time. I really could do it.” I answered Big Brother, in Chinese. The words—even the thought—felt blasphemous. This has always been a two years and out deal.

“Do you mean like Walden. Did you ever read, Walden?” Big Brother has a Master’s degree in Literature.

“Yeah, in high school. But, I don’t mean like that. The general concept sure, but I don’t need to pick berries and collect firewood. I mean every thing someone needs or even wants is outside this window. What do you miss about Beijing?” We clinked glasses and I took another sip.

“My family, my girlfriend. I miss them very much.” He said in earnest.

“OK. That’s important and I’m with you. And that’s why this can only be hypothetical. But, you would miss them wherever they were. What do you miss about the place?”

“I guess I miss… I guess I don’t really know anymore.” He answered, genuinely balancing the scales.

“I don’t know either, anymore. I used to think I did, you know. I used to truly—passionately—miss cheeseburgers, Butterfingers, and shit, avocados. I guess I missed food.” I laugh.

“What about being at the center of everything? That’s something to miss. When you’re in the heart of the world and you can be anything, you can make any choice. Don’t you feel like you miss out here? Like you can’t be satisfied?”

I’m sure that missing out and dissatisfaction are modern humanity’s two biggest non-eight-legged fears. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Every minute is one less. Every year that goes by is full of things that weren’t. The clock ticks and we feel the squeeze. Maybe, by being in the center of things, we minimize our chances of missing out. Maybe we increase the possibility of avoiding dissatisfaction.

Maybe. But, I’m not convinced at all. Maybe we’re so focused on minimizing the potential of missing out that we don’t even know why we don’t want to miss out. Maybe we’re so focused on avoiding dissatisfaction, that we don’t even know what it means to be satisfied. That’s not just empty existential window dressing—I really believe it as I look out and happily listen to those women verbally bombard each other.

I continue. “It feels so authentic here. Enjoyment just comes so easily. I never have to go out of my way for it. Don’t you like it?”

“I do, very much. More and more.” He says.

I wonder if that’s good enough. Is it possible to convince ourselves that there’s nothing (better”) over the mountains? Is it possible to see the road and not be concerned with its direction? Is it possible that “The Intersection” is the center of it all?

Is it even possible to be satisfied? I reckon it is. But, you have to do the opposite of what you think it means. Because, we are at odds with satisfaction. We aren’t convinced we believe it when we see it. Satisfaction is always over the mountain, down the road, a couple clicks away. You know the clichés. The fact is, if you want to ascribe to the conventional meanings of “missing out” and “being satisfied” you’ll always miss out and you’ll never be satisfied. Maybe missing out is a good thing. Maybe it’s the only way to be satisfied.

Don’t drop everything and move to the wilderness. It will be difficult and you will surely get mauled by a wild beast and/or contract a life-ending disease. I’m certainly not saying that you’ve got to be in an empty bar in a fledgling municipality surrounded by mountains to discover satisfaction. Absolutely not. But, I’m just saying, you can find it there. Or perhaps, I’m just saying that you can find it. Period. Just stop looking so hard.

“Let’s go.” He said.

“Where?” We simultaneously drained the last drops from our glasses.

“I thought maybe we could climb the mountain today.”P1000365 Me, Bolin, Big Brother, and Jasmine

Bamboo: The Indispensability of Creativity

“What’s that? I told you to draw a forest. That’s not a forest.”

“Yes, it is. It’s bamboo.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s bamboo’?”

“It’s bamboo, teacher.”

I snatched the drawing and inspected it for a moment before returning it to the nervous little girl’s nervous little desk.

“It’s bamboo. It’s the forest. OK.” I said. And I felt like an idiot. I walked away to go look at another forest.

“Creativity” is the annoying little brother of education—and civilization. It’s a pest. It’s difficult. It’s unimportant. It’s impractical. Most of the time, we just can’t be bothered. The problem with this little brother is inherent in his very nature. Creativity, like the emotions it inspires—wonder, contemplation, stupefaction—is impossible to quantify. That’s why it’s such a bothersome vexation. Human beings are so irretrievably disposed to quantification that we become categorically pissed off when it eludes us. We need to quantify and reason to maintain control. Being subjected to creativity when we aren’t looking for it is disorienting and angering.

The problem with the antibiotic interplay between creativity and education doesn’t need to be discussed at length. Education—to an ever-increasing extent—relies on standardization. Standardization is a nauseating word. Standardization is practicality, ease, and know it when ya see it. Lately, we’ve unleashed it on society with a vengeance. Even creativity and self-expression must be confined to neatly packaged spaces like 140 characters or a Facebook profile. In education though, it’s way way worse.

I had a rare daylight epiphany the last week when I was grading the Grade 5 Unit 2 English exam—watch TV, read books, play football (that kind of stuff). Students cheated. That’s not the epiphany. I had that one when I was 4 or 5. I asked myself, though, why are students so locked in when it comes to cheating? Why, even when I stress with sermonizing vigor that the test means absolutely nothing, will they risk embarrassment and a visit from mama and baba? Why, even after being acutely aware that the test means absolutely nothing and cheating their asses off, are they still so profoundly pleased with themselves when they receive a 90%? I for one cannot remember a time when I felt too morally contradicted to sneak a peek across the aisle. The answer to these questions is this: the score matters more than the knowledge. Plain and simple. The score gets you into college. The score makes you academically eligible. The score is the only way to differentiate kid A from kid Z. The score! We’re in hot pursuit of the score. The score is our standard.

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The reason we love standardization (the score) is because it’s explicatory. It supposedly contains a great deal of information. The problem with standardization is that it inherently lends itself towards things that are measurable—in much the opposite way that creativity does. You can measure 1+7 to equal 8. You can measure a lot of other stuff that I don’t even know how to measure. Thus, in our epic pursuit to standardize everything, we are obviously going to marginalize that which is immeasurable. Thus, creativity becomes impractical. It’s been pushed out as a deterrent, an irritating little brother to our civilization’s goals. Because, even though we might kinda sorta know it when we see it, we can’t tell you what it is. And it’s very difficult to slap a grade on.

But, I know what it is. Creativity is fearlessness. It’s having the audacity to 1). Put yourself out there and 2). Question perceived reality. Essentially, you have to give few enough shits to have your personal eccentricities on display and beyond that, to have the effrontery to suggest that everyone else might be missing something. That takes some legitimate backbone. If you’re willing to do neither you will never create. But, that’s only the case because creativity is socialized out of us. We are told about yes and no pretty early on in the game. We are told that 2 + 3 = 5 and stuff like that. We are told that we are looking at a hat instead of an elephant inside of a snake.

I’m not going to argue against 2 + 3 = 5, because original thought should always be tempered with a hint of rationality. 2 + 3 = 6 isn’t fearless. It’s trolling. However, I’ll argue that it takes a prodigious amount of cojones to say, as The Little Prince did, that it’s an elephant inside of a snake and not a hat. Such a notion personally offends people. People will go so far as to fear it—be shaking-under-the-covers scared of it—because such a proposition questions their beliefs and the very foundations of society and puts a shiver in their steady control of the way of things. Impractical is the word they use for things that make them shake at night.

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You’ve got to be long on guts to question society and/or reality.

A few minutes before I told my second grade student that her forest wasn’t a forest, I had shown her a forest—a few forests actually. I gave them six or seven examples of pictures and paintings of “forests.” Each was some variation on a landscape, set at a fair distance, with many visible trees and a predictable streak of light streaming through. Perhaps there was a fox skirting across the dirt ground. I had neatly scored the forest. I never once said, “draw these pictures.” I said, draw a forest. And that’s what they did. And that’s where their mind will surely lead their colored pencils and dark green markers every time someone tells them to draw a forest—for the rest of their lives.Forest_ligh_DAP_Landscape

But not this one girl. She made me feel like a dope. She had the audacity to suggest that it might be ok to call a magnified drawing of a few intersecting sticks of bamboo a forest. Despite everything I’ve said above, I was disturbed by her disruption, her impracticality. It questioned my supposed authority on the matter of drawings of forests. There wasn’t even a predictable streak of light. That made me very uncomfortable.

It would be supremely easy to live in a world devoid of creativity; a world where numbers and quantification reign unilaterally. We would teach our kids everything we know and they’d do the same and on and on. But, it’s imperative to have people around who will stand up and say, “No, it actually may be an oblate spheroid,” or “I know you’re not gonna like this, but your great-great-great-great grandfather might have been a chimpanzee,” or You can make nice sounds if you pluck these six strings in different ways.” Those people were probably the same ones that said, “Yes, it is a forest. It’s bamboo,” once upon a time. We can’t lose those people. We can’t standardize them away. We can’t scare them. We need them more than we know.

IMG_0317 “Forest” by Zhang XueYing