The Wedding Invitation: A Curious Letter Comes to Town

I’ve been checking the post office every week or so. I take a van 15 minutes into town, do some errands, and pop my head in.

“Anything from America?”

“Nothing from America.” The bored woman tossing some bulky, beat up box labeled “FRAGILE” onto a scale tells me, without looking up.

I look at the stack of packages piled in the corner. Mostly TaoBao, probably.

“You sure? Nothing from someplace that isn’t in China?”

“Well, we do have something from Beijing.” She flings the “FRAGILE” box at the pile of packages.

“Yeah, but that’s in China.”

Yeah, but it’s pretty far away.”

“Nothing from USA!” A pudgy young guy comes in the back door, zipping up his pants zipper. He says the last three letters in English, of course.

            I’ve been waiting for something. I don’t know exactly what. My cousin asked me for my address and my address is this post office. It’s been about a month since he asked. I’m just hoping the thing, whatever it is, is a bunch of Reeses Cups and/or Reeses Pieces. That would be chill. Sometimes days go by when Reeses are all I think about. Rarely do my fantasies—sexual or otherwise—not feature some kind of interaction with chocolate.

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Fantasies

I keep checking the post office every time I go into town. But, nothing from America, nothing from Beijing. No chocolate.

“I’ve got something for you.” I open the WeChat message. It’s Brandon, one of my TFC colleagues who works in the town with the post office. Brandon and I are the only white foreigners for quite a ways.

Oh really?”

            A few minutes go by and a new message comes through.

“This came to me. For you. I think.” It’s a picture of my cousin Jake, and his fiancée, Lauren—dressed up all fancy. There’s a big bold, Baskerville-styled date on it and on the flip, some information in English regarding a wedding. A save the date card. No promise of Reeses included in the invitation. Fuck. Nonetheless, I’m happy for my cousin.

“So, are you gonna go?” I ask him.

Now, I don’t know exactly what transpired here. There are a few possibilities, some more exciting than others. But, this is what I’d like to believe happened: Sometime after my last check-in at the post office—an approximate five weeks since the save the date card left a mailbox in a little town in Upstate New York, USA—it arrives at the little town of Songgui, in Up-Province Yunnan, China. Once there, the bored woman sifting through and tossing into the dusty corner a bunch of TaoBao packages and Communist Party notices, chances to find the save the date invitation for my cousin Jake and Lauren’s wedding. At that point, she lets out a yelp, sending a package full of priceless Ming Dynasty-era ceramics crashing to the concrete floor. Upon hearing her scream, the pudgy guy, returning from the toilet, rushes into the room.

“Da. Fuck. Is. This?” She says, holding the invitation far away from her face.

Then the guy, who hasn’t zipped his pants yet, snatches the invitation from her.

“It appears to be a picture of two white people. They look to be of some importance, judging by the dress. Perhaps an advertisement for a diplomatic convention? Yes, that’s it. I can tell. And what’s this on the back? It’s English. My God!” He roars. “It’s all English.”

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Confusion

“Can’t you read it? Didn’t you tell me you could speak English? Didn’t you speak English to that foreigner last time? Didn’t you say USA to him?”

The pudgy guy zips up his pants and coughs, “Yes, of course, I can speak English. Come to think of it, this letter is written in French. I cannot read it. Anyway, no matter. It must be for that white guy. Let’s go deliver it to him.”

“But, who will watch the office?”

“No. Don’t you see? This letter—post card, matters of international consequence are surely riding on it. Time is a luxury we might not have. Close the shop.”

“But, wait! Aren’t there two white guys?”

“Absolutely not. There is the one at the elementary school in town. The teacher. He always comes in with strange questions about chocolate.”

“Well, OK. If you say so. But I thought one of them wore glasses.”

“No, he only wears glasses sometimes—come to think of it, I’ve noticed his Chinese is better when he’s wearing glasses. Funny how that works. Anyways, let’s move out.

                 The pudgy guy and the bored woman walk to Brandon’s school—five minutes from the post office—at a brisk pace.

“Where is the foreign teacher?” The woman poses the question, exasperated, to the security guard.

The guard lets out a formidable puff of smoke and takes his feet off of his desk, “No clue. Probably in class. What’s the deal?”

“We have this letter, umm, post-card. It regards international matters. Please see that it arrives to him immediately.”

“Yeah, alright.” The guard says, accepting the card. “I’ll find the foreigner.” He ashes his cigarette on the front side of the letter. The post office employees shudder and head back to the shop.

A few days go by. The security guard catches Brandon on his way off campus.

“Hey, Mr. USA. I got this letter for you. Supposed to be urgent. Something about international problems or something.”

Brandon freezes and goes white(r). Is it about my visa? Will I be deported? Will I spend the last 50 years of my life in the Gulag or whatever they do here?

            “Here.” The guard hands him the ashy letter, which now smells of grain liquor and has 3 or 4 cigarette burns across its face.

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Brandon and the security guard

Brandon regains color. Save the date. Loeb. And he looks at the picture and looks confused—wait a second. There are other white people?   

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Why am I writing this??

Breathe out… I’ve been in Sanzhuang for almost a full school year now. Needless to say, 2013-2014 has been unlike any of my previous 18 school years. For one, this year was spent on the “other side of the desk,” as teachers often ominously say. But, perhaps even more importantly than that, I’ve spent it in a different language, a different country, and a completely different system. Let’s be real. The teaching part isn’t the most intriguing angle of this escapade. Teaching is different, but kind of the same wherever you are. Plus, the idiosyncrasies between a classroom in Heqing and one in Connecticut aren’t, I can promise you, probably very fascinating to anyone outside of the teaching profession. That’s why, from the get go, I didn’t want to make this blog about teaching.

Living, though. That is something that, generally speaking, all human beings have to do from time to time. That’s where the good stuff’s at. If you’ve never written a lesson plan or confiscated a love note, you’re probably not super piqued by how that stuff goes down in a Chinese context. But, everybody eats, everybody relaxes, and everybody… poops. Writing worth reading, I’ve found, is relatable writing with a twist. Only linguists with a Scandinavian persuasion want to read Practical Norwegian Grammar by Rolf Strandskogen. That said, one can only read the local news so many times before they’ve heard enough about the new zoning restrictions in Sleepy Hollow Park. Relatable, but enlightening, is how it should be. I’m not a writer. I’m a finance major who has a skewed view about how interested WordPress readers are in my bowel movements. If you’ve never read any of my previous posts, I recognize that that last line might be a bit disagreeable. I apologize.

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I chose to write because I wanted to give people a small window into China. But not China. Not what you see on the front page of the New York Times or on The Daily Show or on Fox Five, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not out to write the news. I’m trying to humanize China, specifically Yunnan, in a way that abstract newspaper features about impenetrable smog can’t do. China is so foreign, yet so inextricably important to everyone across the world. If you disagree, check the tag on any piece of clothing you’ve got on. Chances are…

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I’m not trying to do hard-hitting investigative exposés. I’m just trying to make the handful of people who read this thing laugh, learn, and most importantly, think about China. Because like or not, you’re going to have to. And when you think about China, I hope, instead of just smog and 1989 and Nikes—because those things are important too—you think about me suppressing my vomit after going bottoms up on a shot of baijiu. And think about the people sitting around the table with me, drinking that baijiu, who couldn’t give a shit about the smog in Beijing, because the only time they don’t see blue sky is during the rainy season. And think about the woman who collects my 1 Yuan toilet fee. Currencies are the last type of “floating object” she’s got on her mind. And think about the students. No, really think about them, because one day they might be making your Nikes or buying your real estate or shaking your hand at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or, if we really mess it up, invading your shores. Frankly, one day your kids might be making their Nikes. Gasp!

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It’s painfully obvious to say that China, or anywhere on the earth is at its core about people and relationships. But, it’s painfully easy to forget that fact when we see the same things over and over again on the news. Foreign visions about any place are molded by information, not experience. Not everyone can drop everything and move to the other side of the world, so information is the next best thing. As such, our views on China and vice-versa have literally been created by secondhand accounts. Entire policies, attitudes, and cold-hard convictions have been forged by indirect contact. That is CRAZY. I’m not the news, but I’m something. My intention in the next year is to keep reminding people that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I should rephrase that. There’s a lot less going on here than meets the eye. It’s not complicated. It’s just life. If you want to think about China in a geopolitical sense, it’s easy, if not expected. It’s pretty much the only option we’re given. But, do your best to see it in a human sense and future generations will thank you, I promise.