Some Kind of Love

When I was a young boy sometimes my mom might give me the last piece of cake or chocolate. Even if that cake was hers. Even if she hadn’t taken a bite and I’d already finished mine, she’d probably give it to me, even if I didn’t ask. This extended beyond the realm of food, I’m sure, but as a little fat kid these are where my memories were created and endure. I often thought about these acts, which—yes I will say again—extended far beyond chocolate. I always immediately accepted the offer. It just seemed like the only possible choice. And I would always think how much of a sucker my mom was and wonder what the hell was wrong with the woman. Chocolate—it’s good. Sometimes she would even claim that she didn’t like the cake or the French fries or the chocolate or whatever it was. She wasn’t going to eat it anyway. It really never made sense to me. I couldn’t fathom the lunacy of it. I certainly couldn’t fathom the real meaning of it.

Mr. Loeb,

          Thank you for teaching me English. You’ve taught me a lot besides English, like how to complain less and be more tolerant. It was a very happy time together, but you will be gone tomorrow. We might never see each other again, and there may never be another foreign teacher at Sanzhuang. Will you come back and bring your family? You are forever welcome. If you cannot come, I will come see you in America.  

        – Liu Hui Cui (Haley)

IMG_1411

The end of an era

The day I left Sanzhuang it wouldn’t stop raining. In fact, it hadn’t stopped for weeks. The cloud cover spread so deeply and densely silvery-gray that I couldn’t see beyond the bright pink school buildings that clung on our little mountain campus. I spent the day making decisions about what would and wouldn’t follow me into my new life. Kashmir sweater. Yeah. Toothbrush. Yeah. Punching bag. Yeah… no. The students mobbed me and seized anything they could get their hands on. I’m delighted when I remind myself that one of those London, Paris, Rome, Sherman, CT t-shirts is floating around rural Yunnan, China, being worn by someone five sizes too small. I wonder if they get the joke.

I left in late afternoon. The school—teachers, students, cafeteria women, and a few locals—broke off into two columns of about a hundred a side that snaked into campus. I walked through—getting the Mao treatment—as I rolled my suitcase behind me. Almost all students and some teachers were crying. I was crying too, of course. It was a beautiful moment, probably the most poignantly emotional of my young life. As I reached the school gate, the lines collapsed and many students came over to me, hugged me, and through varying degrees of tears told me to come visit them before middle school next year. I said, “I’ll try,” because saying more than two words risked taking me from sniffling to flat out bawling, and even though these were my last minutes here, I still felt like a teacher, and teachers can’t cry.

Mr. Loeb,

            Please be forever happy and healthy. Find a wife early. You are my best friend.            

            – Li Zhi Jie (Kobe)

IMG_1395

Mr. Loeb Artist: Xie Zi Xing (1st grade)

 

I left Sanzhuang and got onto a train bound for Shenzhen. 40 hours. It did feel like I was being blasted away (albeit on a sluggish Great Leap Forward era locomotive). The sheer length of the journey out of here—3 days and 7 different forms of transportation—makes the break that much sharper. It doesn’t simply feel as though I’m moving locations, I’m moving in time, too. Dimensions, really. Looking out the rain-stained window as the green-gray Chinese countryside dawdled by, I suddenly felt deeply moved by the events of the day and the years leading up to it.

IMG_1399

Peace

Mr. Loeb,  

            You’re leaving school soon and going home. We are sad because while you have been here we have given each other so much. You have wanted us all to be happy and care about school. I want to say thank you.

            These two years have been easygoing. You’re class is always calm and easygoing. In your class, even the students who never speak have the courage to speak. Like me. You make us feel courage in ourselves to speak.

            Before you were next to us everyday and it felt like it would always be that way. But, now we will part ways. It makes me, this happy student, very sad.

            So now, I just want to say thank you. I will miss you.

            -Duan Shun Jiang (Sally)

Some people might look at the tears and processional formation as some form of validation. I buy that way of thinking. The acts of kindness and gratitude signal that I have, in part, accomplished something worthy of appreciation. But, in those last moments and the last weeks, I really began to feel something new. For the better part of two years, I’ve been giving my cake and chocolate to my students. For the better part of two years, they’ve been taking it eagerly. This can be frustrating. But you give and give and give because that’s the only thing you can do. The thought of not giving is unfathomable.

IMG_1244

Roadside selfie

In many ways, it’s not that kids do not appreciate, but rather that they don’t know how to express their appreciation. It’s not like a client having a case of Moet mailed to your house at Christmas or a coach giving you the game ball. It’s much more subtle than that. In fact, sometimes their numerical success is the only testament to what you’ve done. That’s a fact increasingly true in education, and very unfortunate, but not a discussion for today. But, as I walked away that final day, I felt so full of love. And there was no doubt in my mind how real that love was. Here is a final word, from one of my most difficult students, a student suspended from school multiple times in my two years, a boy whose parents aren’t at home, who has said things to me that belong only in comment sections, who is brilliant, and who I know will forever be at odds with the system he is in. But, maybe, he’s changed a little.

IMG_1349

Me and the guys

Mr. Loeb,

             I know I am difficult, but you always forgive me. Sometimes people don’t forgive me. I feel grateful to you for that. These two years I’ve given you countless trouble, but you always forgave me. In all the time you taught me, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before. I’m going to add you on WeChat. Please accept my invitation. Above, I said I was really difficult, but don’t forget it’s not just me! Kobe, Jack, Jacob, and Jordan are all difficult too! Goodbye, Mr. Loeb. Wait for me to get big and grow up, maybe I will come see you in the US.

            Thank You. We Love You.

             -Li Hua Lin (Joe)

IMG_1283

Goodbye, Sanzhuang

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.

Reeses-Minis

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.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 6.07.27 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 6.16.34 PM

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?   

political-map-of-China

Old People and Young People

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.

P1000928

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).”

horse-chinese-red-vector-1733832

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?”

warring_states_period_403_bc_–_221_bcf8482d252ea4a7d1dcb5

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.”

George RR Martin

Naptime, bitches. 

“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).”

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.

Unknown

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.

P1000925

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.

P1000927

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.

P1000929

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.

P1000704

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.

P1000931

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.

P1000934

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.

P1000943

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.

IMG_0441

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.

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.

IMG_0370

“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?”

IMG_0371

“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.

IMG_0372

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.

IMG_0309

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.

IMG_0324

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.

5955-bad-dog-humping-a-businessmans-leg-clipart-picture-by-djart-at-wackystock

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.

basketball-brawl

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

The-High-Gorge-and-100-Miles-Long-Lake-Scenic-Zone-of-the-Lancang-Mekong-River-in-Lincang

“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.