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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