Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

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Over-Resourced: Why People are Always more Important than Things

The first time I realized teaching might be hard: Four of five minutes in to my first class. It was a beautiful September morning. I took my PE class down to the basketball court. I hadn’t intended to teach PE, but the school compelled me to. The night before, I decided I’d teach them how to play knockout—a favorite (and simple) childhood game. Sanzhuang had a pretty nice basketball court—which has since become an absurdly nice basketball court. We had basketballs. The weather was nice. What a perfect moment for throwing orange spheres into orange rings. But, by the time I’d assembled all of my students in a long, wending procession starting at the foul line, I became aware of a problem. I had no idea how to teach the game. Especially not in Mandarin. The students awkwardly rocketed balls off the backboard for about a minute before I told them to just do what they wished with the rest of PE class. Some of the boys continued tossing around basketballs, but most kids just sat on benches doing nothing.

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Basketball Court

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Assembling the basketball court

The school I work at is far from short on resources. Read that again. We may be located in one of the poorer parts of Asia, the students themselves may not come from propitious beginnings, nor is there any semblance of a service economy. Agriculture is still the unchallenged reality for most everyone. Those who do not ascribe to that reality will almost certainly leave. But, the school is different. We have a… deep breath, brand new basketball court—the nicest in the county. Deeper breath… there’s a just laid 100-meter strip, a PE room with all the stuff you’d expect to find in the American iteration, plus some swords and a lot more shuttlecocks, a room full of like, 30 computers, a to-the-touch whiteboard and speakers in each classroom, plenty of printers, a spotless and stocked cafeteria, a high-quality security system with 16 color cameras, a slew of drums and trumpets, a campus environment that looks more like a botanical hyper-Zen garden than a school, an art room with easels, Wi-Fi everywhere, a washer machine, and a fully outfitted experiment room—beakers, sinks, Bunsen burners.

Well, that last one is only hearsay. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it’s ever actually been open. Here’s the thing: Almost none of this means anything. If you sat Ben Franklin—widely considered intelligent by scholars—down in a room with a switched off laptop and a stable Internet connection and said go, what would happen? Probably not much. If you put 10-year-old LeBron on a court with a ball and said go, what would happen? If you threw a youthful Pierre and Marie into a room full of radioactive shit (shit: to be read as a synonym for things), beakers, and Bunsen burners, what would happen? Probably something less than ideal. If you put a bunch of super-intelligent, highly trained and motivated men in suits in a roomful of screens, tickers, and phones, what would happen? Well… never mind.

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Radioactive disaster

At first thought, one may be tempted to conceive their image of a rural school with an eye on things. Ruddy-faced kids wearing tattered up clothes. Scuffed chalkboards. Bowls full of nothing more than rice and watery broth. Maybe some roosters clucking somewhere. And, for some reason, always early morning fog. And, one wouldn’t be wrong. There are thousands of schools that fit that formula. And, I suppose that’s where paradigms are made. But, Sanzhuang isn’t one of them.

There are advantages to nice things. First, they look nice. They make for a comfortable environment and win approval from visitors. Second, they add to GDP. Sure, it’s true in a macro sense, but microeconomically speaking, local businesses are getting money and jobs are being created. And everybody loves jobs. I don’t mean that business thing in a cynical way here, but perhaps you can read between the lines and see how it might be a problem. Third, in many cases if you don’t have them—things, you can’t do stuff that you’d like to do. And, in most cases, they will at the very least “improve the experience” above things of less nice quality.

But, things don’t mean anything, especially to a school, if no one knows how to use them. This is not a gripe against my school. What Principal Yang has pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. The renovation undertook at Sanzhaung since I arrived in summer 2013 is stunning. What’s more, it’s not like Principal Yang or our administrators really have a choice. All these things are way, way, way easier to acquire than people who know how to use them. But, an Olympic swimming pool won’t do you much good if you don’t have a guy on the side telling the kids not to inhale under the surface.

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100-meter strip

The reason I think this might be hard to grasp, at first thought, is that the two notions tend to go hand in hand. MIT probably has really great things and really high-paid expert types. Your local CC probably doesn’t. And all the way down the line to preschool. Reasons for this: quality people are attracted to quality things and quality paychecks and in a weird way, vice-versa. People generally stay in or near the communities in which they were raised. But, now I find myself in a strange situation. We (really, truly) have everything we need and more. Education spending in Heqing County makes education spending in the States, in proportion, look like a sad joke. But, no one knows what to do with it all.

When I was a kid, our (public) school had an art teacher, a PE teacher, a music teacher, a separate guy for band, a computer teacher, a speech coach, a whole Special Ed staff, a teacher for “gifted” students, a school nurse, a science teacher, and a group of administrators whose job description certainly did not include time in front of a class. If you are a teacher at Sanzhuang, you are literally expected to be all of those things (plus surrogate parent). Yes, I have seen teachers help students administer IV drips.

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computers

Oh, and in addition to the above responsibilities, you’ll have to teach one or two of math, Chinese, and English. And those are the only classes that actually matter. But, still do your best with the music, and the Special Ed, and the needles. I mean, can you comprehend the burden that would be required to even remotely execute the wearing of all of those hats?

And this is the genesis of unfairness in education. It’s really not a tangible resource gap—although in some situations it truly might be—, the resource gap is demonstrably easier to bridge. It’s a people gap. Again, there are reasons for this. The school’s location might be part of it. It’s in a historically poor area. The teachers it recruits will likely be from the area and have limited education. Those who do make it out, will probably teach in the city somewhere. But, that’s a lame excuse, because I frankly do not see much difference in ability and motivation between the teachers at Sanzhuang and the ones in Sherman, CT. They are both excellent.

At the end of the day, it’s a lack of specialization, training, people, and all the stuff that goes into giving those people what they need to succeed—the intangible stuff, that is. There was a teacher at our school last year named (surprise, surprise) Mr. Yang. He was 28-years-old—the youngest local teacher. He was a talented singer and usually sang the national anthem at all of our school events. Mr. Yang was an incessant complainer. From the day he arrived, it seemed like he always had something to be pissed off about. His third-grade class did poorly—worst in the school. We were friends. One day, I was in the passenger’s seat of his car, driving to a wedding. He seemed typically peeved. I told him, seriously:

“Dude, you’re kind of a downer sometimes.”

“What? Me? Come on?” He chuckled, agreeing.

“Do you not like Sanzhuang?”

“Not so much.”

“Why? It’s a great school? Beautiful, comfortable.”

“They tricked me! That’s why.”

“Who?”

“The school. They didn’t say I was going to be a homeroom teacher teaching English and Chinese and all the other stuff. They said I was going to be a music teacher, specifically and only a music teacher.”

“Really? That’s what you thought you were going to be?”

“Yeah, of course! That’s what I’m trained to do. And now I’m a homeroom teacher and I get to sing the damn national anthem sometimes.”

This is not the school’s fault, mind you. They needed someone to teach Chinese and English to 35 nine-year-olds. Mr. Yang, for his part, is now at a different school—still teaching all the other stuff.

Nowhere is this people problem more glaring than in the discipline of English—a mandatory subject for all pupils in the People’s Republic. English learning begins at Grade 3 here. A majority of local English teachers teach the subject like this: They take a tape, put it in a tape recorder, let it play, and tell the kids to repeat after it. Whether you do this on a tape recorder, a CD player, or through an HD digital recording—that is to say, regardless of what things you have—the effect is, as it were, 差不多 (more or less). On the day I arrived in Sanzhuang, I had this exchange with the local English teacher.

“How are you?”

“Oh, sorry. My English is not good. We can use Mandarin, please.”

She was trained to be an English teacher, and though she is a vastly superior teacher to me, she cannot speak English. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to do long division without actually knowing how to do it yourself? Then, even if you did know it, not being trained to teach it—like me in my first PE class.

I reieterate. This is not our fault. There are only so many hats one can throw on before they start sliding off of each other. That teacher is now a Chinese teacher, by the way.

Recently, my Principal has been dropping some hints, saying things like “Don’t forget that this will always be your school,” or more blatantly, “When you get rich, you gonna hook us up or what?” or less optimistically for me, “How about that friend of yours, the boss, speak to him lately?” He asked about the boss so many times, that I finally fibbed,

“Yeah. I did. He said he had visited many schools in Heqing and there were many that need much more attention than ours. If anything, he said maybe he would give some cash for training.”

“Oh. Ok.” Said my Principal. “Maybe he could help out with the multipurpose room instead?”

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The locked experiment room… I admit, my investigative journalism ability is poor.

There is a point, and it occurs very early on, when the need for well-trained specialists outstrips the marginal need for things. This happens shortly after a school accumulates enough food, pencils, and paper (real problems for thousands of schools). What’s happened at my school is interesting. It’s gone from being superficially under-resourced to superficially over-resourced, yet ostensibly, nothing has changed. It’s given me the opportunity to witness the point firsthand. Math and Chinese scores are still very high. My English class still does fine. The Wi-Fi is nice. The block called “science” on the schedule is still generally regarded as a good chance to review Chinese vocabulary.

There is no solution contained in this ramble—sorry… But, my point is that the problem holding students back and ratcheting up education gaps will usually not be a resource problem—as attractive, comprehendible, and fixable with fat stacks of as that problem may seem. The problem will almost always be the people one—the one that is much, much harder to address. Perhaps we can see more recognition of that reality.

Noodles LLC

I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/ 302659

The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.

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“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”

“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”

She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”

“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.

“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”

“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.

“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.

“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”

“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.

“How much would the stall be?”

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“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”

“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.

“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”

“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”

“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”

“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”

No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.

“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.

“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”

“You’d be rich!”

She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.

“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground. 302659-1

“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.

I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.

All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.

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But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.

You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.

The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

“You’re insane. Completely oblivious to rules and regulations. Unreasonable!!”

“You’re breaking the rules.”

“Insane! You’re breaking the rules! You called me for five three-in-the-keys (three-second violations) in one half! And that was just me.”

“You went into the key.”

“I know I went into the key! You can’t call a three-in-the-key because I go into the key. I’ve got to be in there for three seconds. And, to be honest with you, no one calls three-in-the-key unless the guy is in there for at least four seconds!”

“It’s dangerous to spend so much time in the key.”

“That’s where the basket is!”

“Very dangerous, indeed.”

It’s halftime of Sanzhuang Elementary’s first game of the Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament. We’re playing against Songgui Elementary School tonight. I sit on a concrete ping-pong table, sipping a boiling paper cupful of tea, the official hydration method of the Songgui District Male Teacher Tea Drinking Basketball Exchange Tournament. Of course, boiling tea does little to quench thirst and replenish electrolytes, but does function effectively as a laxative agent—a fact that unsurprisingly slows gameplay as the second half begins.

I’m complaining to the ref, Mr. Li, who’s also the superintendent of Songgui Schools, the man in charge of my salary, and a not-so-infrequent drinking buddy. He’s taking desperate drags of a cigarette—a combination of referee-induced stress and heightened physical activity. He is not the only one. In fact, the other referee, Mr. Shi is smoking and has two cigarettes lodged behind as many ears in preparation for the second half. Besides the refs, almost all of the “teacher-athletes” are relishing their halftime smoke break, too.

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Mr. Li with a cigarette in his ear, preparing to call a three-second violation.

Mr. Li has gone rogue. He’s called an unprecedented 8 three-second violations in the first twenty minutes of the game—a number so preposterous, that were he a professional, would have gotten him suspended and fined large sums of money. But, Mr. Li is a man of power and means, and today he has chosen to wield his power in the form of baseless, reckless, and incessant three-second violations. He is feeling antsy right now, because the halftime break has made it impossible to call frivolous three-second violations. I can tell he is considering calling one, even though both teams are on the sidelines and the game is currently not being played.

“OK, I’ll lay off,” He says to my surprise. “But as you know, safety is our priority.”

“In that case, maybe you should consider calling a foul, Mr. Li.”

To his credit, Mr. Li only whistles two three-second calls in the entire second half. Sanzhuang wins 70-50.

This year marks my second annual Songgui District Male Teacher Chain-Smoking and Basketball Exchange Tournament. A more suitable name for our little tournament might be Songgui District Middle-Aged Men in Capris Beating Each Other Indiscriminately in Pursuit of Orange Ball Invitational.    

For two weeks in April, five or six teams of teachers, administrators, security guards, kitchen staff, and dubiously employed and suspiciously tall “staff members,” rise up from the valleys and peaks of the greater Songgui District to get together for a thing they call basketball. Schools are spread far apart in this corner of the world. Teachers drive miles and miles to show up for the contests, which take place on beautifully warm Tuesday through Friday nights at six o’clock. Hundreds of students, townspeople, and teachers come out. They cheer without reprieve as the chaos unfolds.

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Rebounds & Capris

I, for my part, am a phenomenon—a Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament anomaly. I am six-feet tall, relatively large, and have played basketball before. As a result of these three middling characteristics—that have come to define me for most people in the region—I am a basketball Jesus. On more than one occasion, I have been asked seriously about my NBA career. I can only say that it is yet to begin. I decline to divulge, out of the Chinese cultural norm of humility, that I was once the seventh or eighth best player on a slightly above-average middle school team.

The tournament is a spectacle. There are announcers, multiple referees, water girls and boys, and scorekeepers, all of whom know just enough about basketball to recognize my NBA-level talent for what it is. Each team buys a full uniform (shirt, capris, and sneakers) out of the school budget for the five-game tournament.

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A typical example of defense at the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

The gameplay is a spectacle. The typical possession begins with a wayward heave from one end of the court to the other that invariably results in either interception or ball-to-head contact. In the event that the ball is successfully moved up-court, there will be a mad rush at the dribbler, who will be defended as though he is a leg, and his pursuers, dogs in rabid heat. If he manages to evade the attack/homoerotic advance, he will more than likely frantically hurl the ball at the basket, where it will rocket off the backboard. Should someone on the offense be unlucky enough to snag a rebound, they will be physically violated by a mass of sweaty, pot-bellied brutes, many of which will likely be wearing the same jersey as he is. A foul will only be called if the play results in a crippling injury. If—if—the ball does make it through the hoop, the crowd of hundreds will roar crazily. And the wild rumpus will repeat.

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A pick is set during the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

Timeouts are a spectacle. The competitors will congregate on the sidelines. Cigarettes will be dispersed and smoked while guttural sighs and heaves of discomfort echo from each end of the bench—even from those who have not yet entered the game. The self-appointed coach (Principal Yang in Sanzhuang’s case), will offer seemingly erroneous, but contextually sage advice like, “Shoot toward the hoop,” and “Pass to the ones on your team.” The players will groan and nod, before flicking out their cigarettes and gradually returning to the court. Principal Yang, should he enter the game, with almost surely disregard his own advice.

I should note that, despite my relative skill, I am still (a lifelong struggle) one of the slowest in the game. I am at an utter loss as to how chain-smoking, middle-aged, fupa-packing men can constantly beat me up and down the court. It’s sick.

When the game ends, everyone congregates in the teachers lounge and gets shitfaced and talks about how much fun they had beating on each other for the last hour and a half.

Obviously, there is little rhyme and little reason to the events that go down on the court. It’s a crazy—albeit pretty fun—free for all. It’s not often that these teachers get to see each other. Most of them are stuck at school all week long. Few even get to see their family more than once a week, let alone friends, old classmates, and ex-colleagues—relationships that most of the teachers that play in the tournament share. The students get a rare chance to step out of the classroom and scream and yell for (at?) their teachers. There is no pretense—there is little to be pretentious about. No one complains about not having the time or not being good enough or being afraid of certain embarrassment. It’s endlessly hilarious, crazy, cigarette-filled, a little boozy, confusing, so damn genuine, and chock full of peculiarly arbitrary, yet harmless, abuses of power. It’s the only way a basketball tournament at Sanzhuang could ever be.

I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.

“24.”

“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.

Hesitate at the Crossroads

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A Chinese proverb goes like this: 彷徨歧途 (panghuang qitu), “Hesitate at the Crossroads.” It’s not a command or an instruction. It’s just a thing someone might do.

I’ve said this before: I live at-on-in a crossroad. The thing about these so-called crossroads though, in the big social, future sense, is that they don’t really exist. Why? Because, if you are at them you have come from somewhere else, and likely been consistently faced with them—various intersections, again and again and again. After a while you stop noticing. There is no singular crossroad, as we like to imagine it, just an endless series inevitably bypassed again and again and again. The crossroad I currently live at is the evaporating past and its foregone future. But, I reiterate: the crossroad has become a useless metaphor. It’s been replaced by a highway—the Highway of Time.

The funny thing about time, though, as I’ve come to find, is that it isn’t what we think it is. It’s got very little to do with ticks & tocks, waxes & wanes, and wrinkles & gravity. We can make it go. And this is our paradoxical obsession: to make time go as fast and as slow as we possibly can. To tame it. We want everything immediately, yet we want our time to move as slowly as possible—in short, to last.

Here—where I am right now—in this little, rapidly transforming county in the middle of this rapidly transforming country, at this supposed developmental crossroads, I see the desire to outwit, jump over, redefine, and move ahead of time on hyper-drive. It’s moving so fast, that you can literally see it. You can literally see the passage of time. What does it look like: wheelbarrows, shovels, straw hats, dust, rocks, cardboard boxes, burning trash, assembly lines, cranes. You can hear it too, of course. Slow time sounds like crickets under the moon, a plodding, ticking hand. But, time, when it moves this fast, is deafening: Cracks and hammers, shouts and drills, horns, turbines, whirrs. The louder, the faster. It does not plod away like the persistently predictable second hand. It doesn’t tick. It roars.

But, it didn’t always.

Why did we invent time? I suppose to challenge ourselves. Time is a measure of our own abilities. We are so obviously, viscerally constrained by it, that the only thing we can do is play against it. This has, I guess, emerged as the defining goal of people: to—realizing that we can’t stop time—go faster than it.

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And this, of course, is where the whirring turbines and crunching factories come in. Or in my life—the wheelbarrows full of rocks and the endless young men setting bricks on concrete, concrete on bricks, bricks on concrete. Because, some time ago, it became very clear that the only thing standing between the present of—shall we say, China, but really of anywhere—and the future, was, is time. Because, if time hadn’t existed—if we didn’t need to pass by noon to get from morning to midnight—the future, of course, would already be here. No, we’ve got to bring the future to us. Too bad. Funny, how that goes.

So, what you get is the largest, dustiest, loudest, fastest passage of time in human history. How do you measure time? It turns out not with clocks. You put together all of the time-busting methods and you decide how good they are, how good they have been, how good they will be: 0%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%!!!, 14%, 12%, 9%, 6%… and that’s how time moves. The faster we move, the better. Our success, our worth, our everything, judged on speed.

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It’s important, vital, crucial to make it go Fast, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Wait what? That’s not right! It’s the other way around! We should make it go slow, precisely because we can’t get it back. Sorry, no time to think about time.

And what about the hands that turn the clock? Millions, billions! of hands smashing and crushing and huffing, sliding, tumbling across the numbers as they fall and rise and fall again? They are there, speeding on the Highway of Time, incapable of stopping at, now utterly oblivious to, the crossroads. And they—the crossroads, the moments of hesitation—don’t exist, like the space between line and asymptote; they have become so insignificant that their value can only be zero.

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But the faster we move, the worse, because it gets harder and harder and harder to go faster, faster, Faster. But we can’t help ourselves; the desire to beat time becomes so powerful. We have forgotten whatever the goal is, and whatever it was has been replaced by that desire, to continue to set the pace ahead.

But.

A tragic—or perhaps encouraging—fact emerges. We can’t ever beat it. We can only beat it for a while. Because, it never ends. It renews itself over and over. The future, by its very nature, will never arrive. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we could make time tick to our tock.

And only by realizing it, only by realizing time’s steadfast power, can we make it powerless. Only by hesitating at the crossroads, can we even make the crossroads exist. Otherwise, we’re just racing to lose.

No. Wait. Look left, right, look back. Then go forward, if you please.

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Principal Yang’s Barbershop

Xiao Zhou is crying. Big tears. The kind of tears reserved for upside down goldfish, and rooms full of finger-wagging adults. Twelve-year-old Xiao (pronounced: She-Oww but like ‘e’ and ‘o’ are one vowel) Zhou (pronounced: Joe) is dripping with blubbering, mournful, sorrowful upside down goldfish tears. To his right is a line of boys, faces splashed with increasingly frightened looks. In front of Xiao Zhou is a courtyard full of students and teachers, all curiously eyeing the spectacle. The bell rings and the teachers and students disperse, saving the other boys—momentarily—from self-imposed humiliation. Xiao Zhou, of course was not so lucky. Behind him is the happiest face a human being can make, I’m sure of it. Under the auspices of this ear-to-ear grin, Xiao Zhou makes a half-hearted attempt to depart for class. Locks of black hair slide off his body-shrouding apron.

“Are you insane? I’m not through with you yet, Xiao Zhou.” Principal Yang beams and gives me a wink before setting his shears back to work.

It’s the end to the monthly ill-fated game of cat and mouse for Xiao Zhou and most of the sixth grade boys at Sanzhuang Elementary School. A game they play relentlessly, over and over again, despite the sure-fire result that their incipient hairstyles modeled after Korean pop stars and Taiwanese kung fu heroes will be destroyed. Their adversary: Sanzhuang’s resolute Principal Yang, who waits anxiously, clippers and shears at the ready, for the day when hair becomes long enough to violate school code. He trots out tiny wannabe Jay Chous, bangs falling far short of their goal of visual impairment, and slices and dices their lettuce until they’re returned fully to awkwardly clumsy adolescence. Each time they knock on the door of teenagehood, Principal Yang mows them down with delight. And each time, they lament their elusive privilege to resemble a human mop with a whole bunch of tears.

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Principal Yang, for his part, is not only a despotic beautician determined to crush the follicle aspirations of China’s youth. He says if he weren’t a principal, he’d open up his own barbershop. But, I can only imagine the present arrangement to fuse cold, hard discipline with haircuts is about as close to cloud nine as Principal Yang will ever be.

“OK. Let’s take a look.” He pulls out a mirror and gives Xiao Zhou an extended look at his new haircut, providing the student a chance to confirm that he hates his new haircut. “ Wa! How about that? In like a bum out like an emperor. The guy looks sharp.”

Xiao Zhou nods, defeated. Principal Yang removes the apron and instructs the student to return to class. I move into the barber’s chair: a rickety wooden bench. He shakes out the apron and fastens it around my neck.

“You sure do look like an idiot.”

“I’m usually more accurate.”

I’d tried to cut my own hair—something I’ve been doing for years after reasoning that barbershops and hair salons are full of cheats and thieves. But, I’d really fucked it up this time, and, according to Principal Yang, the back of head looks like a mutated leopard.

“Let’s see. I’m going to give you the number one, best head in China.” (It sounds better in Chinese).

“Alright. I trust you, Principal Yang.”

“A man should trust the barber over all others.” It’s a profound statement, and perhaps partly the reason for my suspicions of hairdressers. They can strike at any moment, after all. He goes to work, seeming to express mild surprise (discontent?) that his subject isn’t crying.

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It’s just he and I now, and the faint creek of his scissors against my mutated leopard head. The rest of the school is sitting in class. I look onto the courtyard and beyond it, the deep blue sky consumed by undulating mountain chains in each and every direction. Living in the constant midst of such hulking green-black barriers, it’s hard not to view them metaphorically. You’re perpetually in a world with no horizon. I don’t mean that necessarily in the bleak, hopeless way it can be construed. I just mean, you simply can’t ever see anything else from where you sit. Your view isn’t constricted by the limited capabilities of your eyes. No, it’s external, something you can’t control—something nearly impossible to blast away—and certainly, without a great deal of imagination, impossible to see through. It’s not as though some days, weather-permitting, you can see far, far, far. No, your perspective always screeches to a halt at the peak of a mountain and a few China Mobile cell towers. It’s hard to really make sense of a world that’s looking at the mountain’s opposing face. It’s hard to imagine looking at that opposing face. It’s hard not to feel frozen in space.

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“Cutting hair is a wonderful thing. You can talk to the people. You can make them happy,” (An unusual result for this particular barber) “you provide and create and, of course, you socialize.”

“If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you open your barbershop?”

“I can’t do that, now. Don’t you see, no one wants an old man for a barber. They want a sharp, young guy or a slick, pretty girl.”

“You’ve got style, Principal Yang. No doubt about that.”

“Yes, yes. That’s true. I do have style. Much more than these young boys. A fact. But, besides, there’s no money in the hair world.” He says, as though repeating something he heard someone else say once. He shakes his head in lament and whirls around to tackle the stray scraps hanging over my forehead. “Ahh, being a principal is so tiring at times. So troublesome. If there’s a problem who do they call? They call me. Everyday, something. Always something. A barber—when the kids smoke in the dorm, when the education bureau comes to town, when that kid fell in the damn toilet, do they call the barber? I doubt it. They call the barber when their hair is too long.”

“Barbers have no influence, Principal Yang. They have no place in society—not like principals. No money, no influence—like you said.”

“Wa! Money and influence. All that stuff. You know, Mr. Luo, those are things so many people always want.”

“I would say you have that. Don’t you think you have that?” Being a school principal here, he definitely has that.

“Those are things everyone always wants: Why? Because no one ever has them.”

“What do you mean?” He squinted and snipped at the top of my head.

“Well… you can measure those things—and things you can measure can always be more. You’ll never be able to have all of it. Those are the things you have to get somewhere else. The only way you’ll ever get it all is if you take it from everyone else. But, what about the things you can make by yourself, without doing anything but sitting and talking to your friend or looking at those beautiful flowers about to burst—happiness, pleasant times?”

He held my head fixed and I gazed at the courtyard and out to the mountain faces.

“That’s the good stuff.”

He put down the scissors and replaced my view with a mirror. I looked at myself and the new cut.

“Wa! How about that? Now, that’s how you give a haircut.” He said, beaming.