My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James
For all the time they stole from me…
~Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Today it was a temple built into the mountainside west of West Lake. Mr. Toe drove us out there. In most ways I just follow Rob and Dave on their side adventures. They seemed to have read the guidebooks, figured out a reason to go. And then we go. Sometimes Arvin or Sherry tell us where we should go, and if we agree (which we always do) we are led, tutored, fed and returned home with rarely a finger touching a wallet. With meals of endless courses, strange foods, many toasts. Nothing ever to regret.
Tomorrow Dave and Rob are heading to Shanghai. I had/have no real interest in going. I fear it would put my head in a death spiral of confusion. Hangzhou itself has already left me dizzy and unsure of my step. It is fun, however, to listen to them plot and plan like it is some navy seal mission that must be completed in an eight hour time frame—and it does. They are groping for China in every real and palpable way they can. The day after tomorrow is our next to last day teaching at the Wahaha School. And then we head home. Our bellies filled by different feasts from roadside stalls.
It seems so long that we have been here. Maybe because we have been working every day and have been busy every day (except for the day of the great typhoon—which did not end up being so great) but at least a day off. I miss Denise and the kids and wonder how/why so many people I know can just leave homes with an alacrity and insouciance of stoic acceptance of fate. I know it is always obligation and not desire, but I wonder if they feel that same knot—that same unsettled feeling. Or maybe we are just not used to being apart, like swans bound by common strands of DNA. We have had the same wallet for close to twenty years. Our doors have no locks. Our keys are always in the cars. Our town is more than small. It is like a single carat sliced from the larger gem of humanity. We cannot walk a hundred yards without stopping to speak to someone we know. Our lives enmeshed like strands in a warp of dense twine–Pithy. Strong. Immutable.
Every night here I sit on a sixth floor balcony of a thirty story luxury apartment building maybe smoke a bad Chinese cigar, read, write, and think—all the while in awe of the cityscape spread in front of me. My time here is pretty much uninterrupted time. It has given me time with few concerns or obligations, and so I have been experimenting with my writing by heading down what may seem—at first blush—a pretty strange path. In my first China entry, I tried to elevate the level of a of a journal entry simply by using a more elevated, slightly maddened poetic voice:—calculated images, a healthy dose of double dashes, an inner voice that was/is as weak and reflective as I was and am: jet-lagged, isolated, searching for meaning and reality beyond the obvious.
In my second piece, I let it all hell break loose. In a calculated way I tried to recreate my head with all of its diasporas, phobias, and non-sequiturs intact. An astute or simply intuitive reader might take me to task for borrowing from James Joyce/Walt Whitman in Ullysses and Leaves of Grass. Another might think it pure self-indulgent blather; while another might just think it strange, pointless and illogical. The irony for me is that it is as deliberately crafted a piece that I have written in a long while. I am strangely protective of the words as if those words are dull and imperfect children—loved because they are the progeny of my spirit.
Whether heaven or hell, I write out of habit and a conscious choice to recklessly probe the edges of what is true and unfettered writing of self. I am acutely aware of the limitations of my intellectual depth and breadth, so I am constantly searching for what is real in the moment, for no one can rob me or question the validity of who or what I am. I can never capture this present experience of returning to China in a traditional narrative (like this). My head is to atwhirl in a broth of synaptic sensing. This entry is not mine—it is yours: a dumb-downed story that is genuine, but incredibly lacking in totality—a counterbalance to the excesses of completely letting go. It is a making of sense, not a recreation of actual experience because the “actual” is a disparate flotsam of immediacy. In any given moment I am here and there leaping forward and back through the incongruous totality of everything I am and was and long to be. Every word typed to this page immediately places these words into a distant inviolable past, though physically counted only in milliseconds.
This then is my apology, not my anthem. Please accept these travelogues as such. I am not trying to be vague or cloy or trying to wrap myself in mystery. It just is, as Thoreau once wrote, indivisible from its essence. I am not obsessed, but I am convinced that the only test of words lies not in the sowing, but in the reaping. If somehow you—my rare reader—will linger a bit longer in my fields because you sense a greater bounty coming, then I have succeeded.
My temptation is to talk about the people here—the ones who have embraced us with utter and complete magnanimity—as somehow representing the people of China. That would be so easy and convenient for me, but, really, all of us are just slices off the roast of life. The awkward politeness and sculpted awarenesses of our first days here has evolved through Darwinian mutations into something that is not cultural, but rather true friendships honed by the wheel of hospitality, but sourced out of the well of humanity.
Tomorrow night, Arvin—a forty-something science teacher who has made it a life mission for us to appreciate the antiquity of China (and not to measure it by polluted, overgrown, chaos of everyday life China)—has invited us to his house tomorrow night to have dinner with his parents. He wants us to see a China that is not toasting us in city restaurants, bars or classrooms, but rather in a home in a small village—a single stretch of family eager to welcome us through the over-sized door of hospitality.
My fear is that he will spend more than he has and that he will micro-criticise every action he makes and every natural imperfection that is the reality of anything called “home.” He is a man who is impossible not to love, who is insecure in any given moment that his goodness is misplaced or misunderstood; though, to me, it is never misguided. He is a man whose young eight year old boy is everything—as in every thing—to him, which snares both the magnificence and myopia of China.
The one child policy. [Although now they will allow two children, but few it seems are making that leap.]Everyone here gets, accepts, lives, and accepts the logic of the one child policy, but the manifestations implies an approach to cultural norms that has never in the history of earth been put into continual practice and decreed by law upon untold millions of people. All of my students here are “only children,” and in varying degrees they act like only children, but more so their parents are acutely aware that their child is their only child. There one shot at legacy; hence, there is little room for error. As Shakespeare wrote: “That’s the rub.” We—parents of the world—are constantly measuring our success as parents through the success of our children. I do it all the time! but here it is being taken into an uncharted sea whose shoals are dredged by the unyielding claws of a proud and ancient culture lorded over by the insensate paws of massive government.
My rambling asides over (at least for now) I am over-joyed to be invited to Arvin’s home. So much of my time in in China in 1981-1982 was spent in people’s homes—mostly just squares of mud, brick, clay, and tin set in sprawled alleyways; common latrines, and a single pots and pans set on small coal stoves to prepare the feast. I miss that simplicity. When I returned home, I spent close to ten years in an equally small log cabin with an outhouse and a kitchen with only one pot and one pan, though I could have scavenged an entire kitchen from the swap shop at the town dump. Arvin’s home may well be the face of the new China: the China that is reinventing the yardstick; the China that is emerging and sometimes bursting out of a generation resting under leaves like the cicadas now chattering in maddened choruses in every grove of trees.
I am speechless and stunned by the skyline of the city. I really can’t comprehend the reality. I drive the streets and crane my head in disbelief and can only wait for time to give context and some infantile understanding that justify the claustrophobia of words cluttered and pressed together. These are the new temples swathed in carbon haze that will be gone long before time has recycled them into something new, not the truly ancient temples carved out of the hillsides along West Lake—not the homes of godly emperors served by scores of eunuchs, peasant farmers, concubines and foot soldiers. I do not feel as if I am embedded in a new dynasty. I only sense the impermanence of something inherently unsustainable. The skyscrapers seem more like Towers of Babel that pale in comparison to the mud homes of my memory.
I am exhausting myself. My head right now is only one of many on the Hydra of my self. In a few short hours I need to be in front of my students who only need to know that I care about verb tenses and sentence structure. Any success I have as a teacher is how well I have learned to wear the proper head at the proper time, so my students will never sense or fear the fulness of the monster in front of them. My teacher head is only a toothless rag of fur and broken appendages that they can stuff in their backpacks and carry through life—if only to shape dreams that help them sleep at night. Dreams stretched in every horizon.
If teacher is not also a dream, he or she is no better than a book carried, shuffled across hard desks, a vague remebrance— as listless as beach sand.