I’m sitting casually on the steps to the speaking platform/flagpole at Sanzhuang. It’s a clear, bright blue day as always. On the step above me is Zhang Jin Wei, a sixth grader who I taught as a fifth grader. Zhang Jin Wei’s body’s too big for him, but he’s too young for his age. He has a lego-head-shaped-head—and a haircut that almost makes you think he might be balding, even though you know it’s biologically out of the question. He’s profoundly awkward—a characteristic alive and well in each and every sixth grader, past, present, and future. He talks in spurts, his speech moving not in step with neural synapses, but the rapid thump of his circulatory system. In short, he’s a kid. But, Zhang Jin Wei is also a profoundly smart kid. In a class dominated by intelligent and focused girls, he’s the only boy that even cracks the top ten.
He seems to search for an out of our conversation before it even begins.
“Zhang Jin Wei, did you have any problems with your research?” I’m asking about our CORE project. It’s his third year with the project.
For anyone who might not know, CORE is an uncertain acronym, but the generally accepted iteration is Community, Outreach, Rediscovery and Engagement. It’s a project started five years ago by Teach for China fellows in the Heqing region. The goal is to connect kids with their homes in new ways and try to lead them toward thinking about how to improve their villages without sacrificing the things they love about their villages. Over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of RMB and given winning teams a chance to go to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. This year, the theme is Old and New. Students were asked to go into their towns and compare old and new methods of doing things and think about what the development has meant. For example, a washboard vs. a washing machine or traditional Chinese medicine vs. modern “Western” medicine.
Zhang Jin Wei dances around my question.
“Well, there was, I mean, there was one, there was one time we couldn’t get information.”
“That’s normal. What happened? Maybe I can give you some resources.”
“Well it was during the interview. We had to interview people, right?”
“Yeah, you couldn’t find anyone? You can always find someone. They don’t have to be an expert.”
“No, not like that. We, we, found a guy. This old guy in the village who knew about Chinese medicine.”
“That’s a good one!”
“Well, not really.” He struggles through a laugh. “We went to his house, you know, on Sunday afternoon. And we knocked on the door and opened the gate. ‘What is it? Who are you?’ he said. And we told him that, you know, we were there to interview him like we planned the other day. He said OK, he remembered. He said that he just wanted to finish watching a history soap opera and he would come speak with us. He said he’d be done 马上 (ma shang).”
马上 (ma shang) is the most deceptively deployed word in Heqing, and I’m led to imagine other parts of China, too. The word literally means “On a horse’s back.” It apparently originates from the Warring States Periods of Ancient China. A messenger approached one kingdom’s general with news that one of its strongholds was under attack. The general, who had been doing training exercises with his troops, replied 马上 (ma shang), implying that he and his men would not leave their horses’ backs, but proceed immediately to battle. Or something like that. 马上 (ma shang), of course, implies immediacy. ‘I’m on the horse. Let’s do this thing.’ But, it’s usually used like this: ‘Sure, I’m on a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. I’m just going to hang out on the horse for a little while.’ The most flagrant abusers of 马上(ma shang), are, of course, 面包车 (mian bao che) drivers. These guys drive van cabs. 马上(ma shang) is their natural, knee-jerk reaction to the question, “When are we leaving?” or “Are we there yet?” or “Where are we going?”
Zhang Jin Wei continues, “Well. We waited like 30 minutes at his door and we went in to check if his show had finished.”
“Were you nervous?”
“A little, yeah. But, we waited 30 minutes. I thought he was probably sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the news. We asked if we could do the interview. He said 马上 (ma shang). He just wanted to finish watching the news and he would come find us. He told us to go outside. Then, like 15 minutes later we checked again—because he didn’t come out. This time he wasn’t even watching the news! He was watching a show about 象棋 (xiang chee—‘chess’)! And Zhang Run Jing asked him if he could do the interview and he said maybe now is not a good time. He was going to go take a nap and we should go away because he had to take a nap.”
“Wow! That’s difficult. Doesn’t sound like fun. What did you do?”
“Well. We decided that there are three places to get information: Old people, books, and computers. And Zhang Run Jing, he has a computer. So, we just looked up the answers online. We found them pretty 马上 (ma shang).”