Wide and Wider Still, Part 1


What comes after that breath? I still do not really know. I suppose the simple response would be another breath. If I got more complex, I’d say a step.

I stepped out of my room and towards my internship meeting. It came time to return to the flow. Sea of troubles, waves of worry, or rivers of raving, it did not matter. When I got there we all sat down and heard the head of the program talk. He explained that the American internship market worked like “free love”. Interns and business mingled like eager singles. Sometimes something worked out, maybe for a year, maybe for a ten, and other times it never got off the ground. The applicant and the business kept moving. In China internships work like arranged marriages. Usually Chinese firms can find people to hire. They do not need interns, and if they take them it is to cultivate a connection. Companies allow Peking University to give them interns to develop a positive relationship with the university. Naturally our performance at our internships would reflect on Peking. The pressure started to mount and I felt a little worried. He assured us that most people enjoyed their internships. At worst, interning would bore us. I felt a bit better about it.

I wondered just how I would get to my job and when I would start. After everyone had their questions answered, we filed down the hallway and waited outside of an office. We went in one by one and received a slip of paper with contact information. It affirmed me just to have a number in my hand that I could use to contact my employers. Now I would get the ball rolling. I could start my semester knowing what I would head into. I do not know the veracity of such a self-statement. You never know what you get yourself into. Not fully, anyways. Someone could tell you every little bit you’d see under the sun. You would forget half of what you heard by the time you got to where you needed to be. That’s what gives it a sense of beauty though. That clash of known and unknown. It is all that great black empty space that makes each star seem so bright. Who is to say all that black’s empty if it can illuminate like it does? When I look up the sky seems fuller than I could ever grasp, constantly brimming with something so light or so dark.

There’s a lot to be said about largeness, but in that moment I was not about talking. I got lunch with the kid I met from the airport and we had a merry enough time. Of course, I would end up talking with him little after that. We did not share classes or interests. But sometimes matters of friendship become as much chance as cherry picking. Maybe other men and women dig for gold. I’ll root for the potato’s my nature’s given me. After all they’re hardy! What’s more, potatoes won’t prove me the fool. Besides, gold’s just the standard. I don’t want my friends being sold over the TV. No, I’ve gone cherry picking before, and it’s never set me so right as the dirt beneath my feet.

The rest of the night I spent eating pizzas and drinking beer. Inebriation reduces the way your mind bristles at your skin, that’s for certain. But let me say, I’d take the biting cruelties of sobriety any day. I like to slip from the sensitive surface layers of my brain like any man. My mind manages its reprieves where it can, relapsing to more simple synapsing beneath waves of floating melodies or drifting smokescreens. The only problem’s that my stomach’s weak, and it can’t go flying off the handle like the head. It needs the earth above the sky, and I don’t begrudge it why. It helped my mind all the same to spend a day forgetting how wide the world would get.

The next morning we rode the subways and saw the mall area near the school. What a fascinating thing it is to devour food you cannot name in your native tongue. That’s when I started to marvel silently at the place I came to be. It is a funny thing, because everywhere’s bright, big, and wonderfully conjoined to the same massive pallet of dirt beneath our feet. I stood beneath the buildings spreading wide and far. In that moment the wide blue sky spread out over the endless city. At eye level posh Chinese teens wore T-shirts bloated with broken English, while homeless men and women lay collapsed around their tin cups. It all came out of a different world and it all felt shocking. We came in delivered on the same sort of planes. We poured off the same sort of underground railways. But once I got off the boat and onto the shore, I saw the ocean spread its long arms out. I saw how foreign the far off coast really was. It feels strange and has yet to leave me. I wonder, even going back and returning to the familiar, if I could ever shake it. At the time it seemed a bit overwhelming when heaped all over my worries and cares. I did not think too hard on it.

At the time, I had to start up all sorts of new classes, learn all sorts of new things, and encounter new brands of struggles. I did not really want to face the wideness of the world grinning at me. I would have had it put off another day. Though, it may never have come another day or in another place. It took really going far off from home in a place very different to comprehend how wide the world is. Seeing the vast blue sky turn into endless black space seems all the more illuminating now. There’s a great deal out there beyond me. Beyond even what I know, or may ever know in my short life. But wherever I go, I do feel certain about that now. I did earlier too. Perhaps now the certainty feels stronger. There’s something reassuring in that strength, though I cannot say what. Maybe it gives me something to hold on to while the river roars up to my ears.

During classes I did not have the same feeling. It all felt like a bit too much to grapple with. Luckily classes went pretty well at the start. My teachers all seemed interesting and earnest. The Chinese professors looked poised to try very hard to teach us the language. That was good. They would need the moxie. Learning a language is hard. Teaching it is even harder. It further reassured me to see other students who knew no Chinese. Maybe I was stupid for going to China unprepared. At least now I knew a company of fools just as unprepared as I. As a group you can devise excuses for why you ever made the mistake of it. Can a man in a crowd ever feel like irrational? Though I do not think any of us made a mistake going here. I do not think it was irrational either. We just hamstrung ourselves a bit.

The economics teacher has an extensive English vocabulary. She walks with tremendous posture. Despite being small, she almost seems tall. Something in her bearing seems royal. She lectures calmly and carefully, wondering a bit between each thought. It is not a perfectly clean or energetic lecture class. Still, something seems very interesting about it. I could not put my finger on it. Even from the first day it felt intense almost without energy. I had teachers like that before and still find it hard to explain the vibe precisely. Perhaps my own desire to get my China specific studies made it that way. I remember another kid felt much more bored by the whole affair than I. None of us knew how it would turn out by the end of the first day, anyways.

I would have my economics and multi-ethnic classes once a week. They were three hour long block classes. I disliked the format. I would prefer two classes a week in shorter segments. It would allow us to review more readings and break up the material. Besides that, any subject gets old after a good two and a half hours of sitting. I start to zone out. We would have five Chinese classes every week. We have two on Mondays and Wednesdays. A two hour long class would teach us general Chinese, and a fifty minute class would drill us on speaking. Every other Friday we would have a quiz over the material. If there was no quiz we would have class as normal. The main class had homework for us pretty much every day. I have learned a lot of Chinese. The class worked me harder than most others I can think of. I gradually came to understand how busy I would be.

The understanding became all the more real when I went to my internship. I emailed my boss and asked for directions. He gave me an amusingly convoluted path to follow. It featured a lot of visual association. When I woke up and made my way to my workplace for the first time, I really understood why. The subway was easy, but the streets were not. In a city so old, it becomes hard to lay out streets just how you would like. They get twisted and gnarled into weird paths. People set up in strange places along the way. Sometimes they end up blocking the path. In a city like Beijing, every bit of space mattered too. Endless amounts of tiny human innovations placed houses in all sorts of unsuspected alleys and corners. Parts of the city look brand new. Others look very old. They all mesh and fall into one great clump that is “Beijing”. Navigating that clump can really frustrate someone illiterate to the Chinese language. Literacy is quite the task too. Even the lowest level of letter-learned knows a minimum of 3,000 characters. I did not understand at first why my boss gave mostly visual instructions. Trying to navigate Beijing in my free time taught me why. Even if you could read, they lacked clean, easily accessible addresses. They lacked wide streets falling on a centrally designed grid. Beijing has its beauty. It has its ugly too. In both cases it is a clump. One sprawling, living, breathing behemoth of humongous human energy packed tight. I get a new story every time I try and navigate the vascular networks spindling across this Goliath. Soon I’ll tell you the first of many stories I’ll forget before long. Let’s shatter them and diffuse the bits through memory. Lets watch time tenderize them into something chewable. Let’s watch memory metamorphisize what happened. When we’ve turned into butterflies, let’s fly together and see what became of the cocoons.

 

~Austin R Ryan

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