Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 2: Airport People


In the Chicago airport I got very lucky. The pit stop in Chicago was unplanned to the point were we all had to recheck our bags. I was supposed to go straight to LaGuardia where I’d spend ten hours – basically the night – on layover before I got home. I had gone to the gate and mostly accepted my fate when I let my parents know I was in Chicago. We had lots of family and plenty of options to get home from here so I thought I’d see if they wanted to manage something else. My Dad urged me to take it up with American Airlines, since the unexpected stop put me so much closer to home.

I am not sure what American Airlines looks like or how I’d describe it. In my head it is probably some fusion of cramped seats and crowded check in lines with those pleasantly dim fluorescent lights hanging over the counters. It is kind of a distant thing – not really a stark image at all. But when I am there at the counter American Airlines is the man standing behind it, speaking with a slight Eastern European accent. That accent is an O’Hare familiarity I enjoy after coming back from China. The man is only half into my conflict, which is only fair because I am just two thirds there myself. He has a kind of neat and slightly too tight image like everything else in the airport. In conversation it comes undone some and he calls me “buddy.”

When he directs me back to the counter of my own flight I am despairing slightly because the line in front of it is full of patiently waiting people trying to nudge into any empty spaces the flight has. Like me they stand tight by their bags, fidgeting slightly. At that moment maybe AA looked like anyone in uniform so I clambered over my own baggage toward an unoccupied attendant standing at a kind of podium with an odd, antiquated looking computer in it. She clicked and clacked at it with some inquiring looks, like she wasn’t urgent about it or was even figuring it out herself. She was a middle aged woman a few inches smaller than me despite curly hair that rose up two or three inches. I explained my situation quickly and without expecting much because I was so last minute that my flight to LaGuardia would board in twenty minutes.

She calculated for a second in a quiet kind of concentration, but it did not actually take her long to decide to reroute me. “It makes no sense to go to New York when you are this close.” I agreed but felt pleasantly surprised to hear her completely take my side. It did not seem her hands were tied up in anything and she quickly began to bounce between a computer in the desk and the one at the podium. The time ticked down and with each minute I was worried my luck would run short and I’d go to LaGuardia. I’d half expected it even though she had told me straight that her work at the computers was to switch my ticket around and print me a new boarding pass. I’d expected some little administrative thing to trip it all up.

To be fair, it ran right down to the wire. The attendant next to the one helping me started to announce the boarding just before my passes to another flight printed. I thanked the attendant heftily and she deflected them mostly, saying it made sense and it was no problem. In truth it looked like a bit of a task for her, tabbing between two computers for a solid fifteen minutes right up to the start of the boarding process. It was hard to tell because of how steady she was and the quiet tone that she spoke in. She had just a small flicker in a voice as slight and resolute as the airport lighting. For a second I stood at the gate as though I still had something left to do there or like I’d left something behind.

Only two hours away from home I was smiling like the bright Midwestern sun while I sat by a wall charger to give my phone enough life to make contact with my parents. All the folks around passed with rhythmic steps and some looked down to better understand my squatting. I smiled at a few and the last hour felt filled with slight motions of politeness as efficient and measured as the low light flood of white airport light that felt pure to the point of sterility. But you know there are often moments – completely random and very small – that always break like a ray of real sun through the slick veneer of things. When that happens I never know how to react and sometimes I slide right back into the slickness of the veneer.

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan

Changzhou, Indianapolis, and Loving the Average


A while has passed and now I have lived near half a year in the city called Changzhou. I have travelled the nearby cities well enough to lose my camera while drunk. Would you like to see some stellar pictures of Hangzhou? Well, I can tell you some pretty swell things to Google. If you’ll give me a thousand words or so I’ll paint you an odd view of Changzhou.

Here is what you must understand about Changzhou: it is middling. It is the burning embodiment of average raised up on an Eastern heavenly mandate. I can hear you wiki’ing in the distance this city along the Yangtze and wondering aloud how four million folk in a place with three thousand years of history could ever be average. That is China for you. That density and age make for a notable place is an American notion I carried for probably pretty long and dropped maybe three months after living in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China. Density and history are near everywhere where I am now.

Jiangsu is a notable province in China. Look no further than Jiangsu for behemoth megacities, former capitals of long-lasting dynasties, mountains, rivers, and beautiful gardens all along banks and the slopes. When you look just don’t dig at exceptional in Changzhou. Just so you know the dynasty that sat capitol on Changzhou – metropolis formerly known as Wujin or Piling – only lasted around a year. There are rivers and canals in Changzhou, but they don’t compare to Suzhou – the Venice of Asia. There are woods and parks in Changzhou too but the city known for lakes and trees – Hangzhou – is two hours away in Zhejiang province. You will find plazas and historic streets in Changzhou but understand that in Nanjing the plazas memorialize massacres potent and lingering ugly on the sticky start of the 21st century and in Changzhou the plazas are right outside of amusement parks. The historic streets in slim little Wuxi stretch out for a while in devotion to old kingdoms enshrined in classical literature. Here I have to be fair because Changzhou has a historical boulevard sprung up from famous ancient literature too – only it is just one block of one street lined with some very high quality comb shops.

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Here is where I get brutal and desecrate my hasty made Chinese home like I am a dog with no shame. The unexceptional nature of Chanzhou is welded straight into its name. Chang (常) means ‘average’ or ‘common’ and Zhou (州) used to mean ‘prefecture.’ Zhou might just be the most common thing to fix to the end of a Chinese city name. If you got one solid character on deck to describe that riverside Chinese city you are building you just slap zhou on the other end and get business moving. What this means is that Changzhou was deliberately and consciously named Averageville potentially as early as near 600 AD. That name fits all five fingers and lines tight right around the wrist of this place.

This is where I tell you that I am not being mean, that I am actually being loving in my honesty. This is where I profess my love for the average over a long and slipshod drawn comparison of two average homes I have known. I have judged Changzhou for being boring, dull, and riding the median line. I have made my fair share of jokes, calling Changzhou “too chang” for the cool things other cities have, but the ugly truth is that my hometown has no room to talk. Let me confess – Indianapolis is the American Changzhou.

The linguistic lineup should strike immediate. Though Changzhou does directly translate to something like “Averageville,” indirectly it may as well translate indirectly to Indianapolis. American naming conventions are far too furiously erratic to name a place Averagevile, but Indianapolis comes close to that mark. Polis being the Greek part of city, Indianapolis is effectively Indiana City. Even at its historical root it would have meant Indian City which is impressively more generic than the current iteration.

One of the funny things that happen when I introduce myself to Chinese folk is most guess I live in Shanghai. I say I am not, and they say, “No! Maybe you are in Nanjing?” When it becomes clear where I really live they just ask why. What am I doing here? Why am I not somewhere else? It is funny to me because when I meet a curious sort of soul in Indianapolis – maybe an odd foreigner or just a transplant – I ask the exact same. Hey, why are you here? Nice to have you and all but Chicago is three hours up that way. Did you consider Memphis? Minneapolis? Both Changzhou and Indianapolis sit in the intersections of more interesting locations and leave you wondering whether folk are just wandering through. For me it does beat living in the far rural fringes where everything feels distant.

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Don’t get it too twisted. These two cities may lack in naturally interesting things but they have their ways of recuperating. Amusement parks are one prominent answer. Changzhou has three amusement parks right inside of it. The first and foremost is the actually renowned Dinosaur Park which combines exhibits of fossils with a small collection of rides and a massive assortment of intriguing dinosaur-based entertainment and scenery. It is hard to describe and you’ll have to see the pictures below, but the makers of Dinosaur Park must have feared that giant Jurassic lizards were not draw enough so they decided to couple it with an odd medieval theme. All the statues of dinosaurs wear fantastical armor or a kind of generic court clothing. Further into the park the aesthetic turns to gears and a color-saturated steam punk setting. The statues are all over the place and a deeply strange fusion that is just too curious to begrudge. By the end of the day I wanted all dinosaurs to wear armor. Dinosaur Park costs quite a lot and only has one really solid roller-coaster, but it is worth a visit to see the strange conglomeration of dino-themed water park, amusement park, museum, theater, strip mall, and children’s center. Never did I feel quite so strangely at home and detached from the face of the Earth as at Dino Park. The over priced gift shops and restaurants shacked up with rickety roller coasters and nearly fluorescent children’s attractions are in the Midwest as much as Florida. It is just that in the Midwest they are not near as famous.

Changzhou’s second park is a personal favorite and a bit underrated. For a notably cheaper ticket you can make it into a theme park centered on a history you won’t find in the US – though the commercialization of it may feel familiar. Called Yancheng Park, it actually has a proper park with some interesting history just alongside some pretty cool rides, and you can read my larger two part story on it here and here. The third and last is CC Joyland – a regular old theme park – that I have not visited and cannot guide you through. A cynical side of me screams that these quiet places have to twist up ugly plastic shapes to make fun.

Yet, there is a soft and sincere side of Indianapolis and Chanzhou dwelling inside the regular parks and it can soften any cynic no matter how pretentious. Hongmei is Changzhou’s biggest and most known park, with a massive reconstructed pagoda right alongside a small lake. It has a wonderful little viewing pond where flowers gather and shine underneath the sun. I found a dead turtle there and took several pictures. Outside of the water and the temple Hongmei did not strike me as having much but I have been spoiled because almost every Chinese city has at least three very good parks. In fact the reconstructed pagoda at Hongmei’s center is one of the largest in the world and deserves its own due. On top of it you can see the grey haze of rapid industrialization settle on the beige, brown, white, and light reddish identical apartment complexes spread out into the endless horizon.

Another park called Xintiandi sits right near me and has no famous attraction to speak of. Though people don’t know it, to me it feels much more artfully constructed and definitively more modern. Xintiandi opens with a large black obelisk that touches the sky and has a meaning that I have not pieced together yet. Little pools of water in between the main walkway after the obelisk lead up to a large pond or small lake that reflects the newly built malls, offices, and apartments of the Wujin district. To the side there’s a wide grassy plain where people sit and play with families. I have seen grandpas flying kites with grandkids, grandmas gathering in multiple groups in different sections of the park to dance together, parents and children seeing talent shows, and runners getting their daily exercise in at Xintiandi. When I come back up from the large white slab that is the Golden Eagle mall to the south of Xintiandi I walk across a bridge with translucent hard glass planks. Little kids stare down at the lazily moving water. I have seen more than one set of wedding pictures taken on that bridge.

The black obelisk at the entrance of Xintiandi reminds me of the Veterans Park in Indianapolis. It is just a small stretch of green maybe two blocks wide in front of the ever large public library but it opens with a black obelisk thinner than at Xintiandi but lined with gold. In that park I have also seen wedding pictures. Children have tried to sell me school drive candy and sometimes I accepted and hopefully pushed them another dollar closer to a prize toy. I have seen middle aged people practice tai chi together and had one man tell me how it helped him beat his cancer. I do not know much about science but I’ll believe that quiet and passionate spirit can triumph it.

I have ran up the clean marble steps of the World War II memorial in Indianapolis and looked outward at the slight bunches of traffic accumulating. Laced underneath my own breathing is the gentle hum of engines gently whirring in stillness as they sit at lights. The way the white noise picks up into a managed roar as green replaces red sounds like bubbling rapids. I have never known living in anything but city and for me the hum of distant cars feels like river water constantly overturning and lapping up against itself. When I am stepping steadily through Xintiandi or even just walking past the dancing old ladies on the way to my grocery store the noise of constant motion dimmed by distance slides subtly underneath the noises in the foreground.

Maybe you look at me like I am trying to escape the serene hum of small cities. I have never made it a secret that I’d love to live in the West Coast where the sun always shines or Chicago the sights are endless. In college I skipped the Midwest without two thoughts and settled into the stunning marble of D.C. In China I studied in the unbelievably immense urban sprawl of Beijing and when I sought work I aimed for Nanjing – the glorious former southern capitol of a few notable Chinese dynasties. I ended up here in Changzhou, my Chinese Indianapolis.

But I am not too aggrieved and I am not trying so hard to escape. I said facetiously to a dear friend that Indianapolis had prepared me for urban mediocrity. It was facetious but it was not false. Indy prepared me by making me love the average as it appears in the friendliness of neighbors and the slick sound of cars coming and going. Changzhou does not carry the art and culture of Shanghai and Indianapolis does not carry the art and culture of Chicago, but there’s plenty that feels great in the average and plenty that feels average in the great. The people in average places will drop what they carry to help you. Average places can pause and slow pace because nothing in their identity seems pressing. In smaller cities, communities will hold you tight because for all that ‘standard’ doesn’t do it also doesn’t ask that much of you. In NYC, DC, Beijing, and Nanjing life has slapped me in the face with strangeness but in Changzhou and Indianapolis I’ve squinted and found near as much of it. In Changzhou people try to know me and I try to know them too. In Beijing I was another unfamiliar face.

Well hell, screw the East and the West I was born in the middle and I’ll probably end up interred in the quiet dirt there too. Some days I may want a more glamorous metropolis but where I live will never change where I was raised. When a big city swallows me up none of my hometown identity will die. The churning pearly white skylines of modern metropolises can’t scrape the small city simplicity off me so I might as well learn how to find the bright spots in the dimly lit cities I have come to call home.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Reflections


I have never lived in a rainy city before, but now I am in a rainy province. So far it is mostly drizzly and each time I go out I am not much inconvenienced. It is deceptive, where if you disregard it the water really builds on your skin and then you are flooded.

I like to go out for a walk every day if I can because my apartment is all white plaster walls and white tile floors and it is a claustrophobic aesthetic that starts off empty and ends up dirty. There are art posters and all sorts of picture frames in my home though, because I had already known of China’s odd love of pale patterns. I’ve flecked it with color for a homier vibe.

Usually when I go out it’s not very far because for whatever complaints I have of it, my home has all my routines and my business inside of it. It is warm and has everything I need. That’s probably something worth mentioning too. When I go out on one of my evening strolls it is often to scavenge for a supplement to dinner, or some kind of thing I need for teaching or living, or both. During the weekend going out’s a bit more pointed. The school’s cafeteria closes down and there’s no work tomorrow so that’s when the long journeys into town for food, drink, and company happen.

Last routine weekday step-out I had bought a mop and a trash bin with a pop-up lid. Well, I think that was the last time I stepped out – actually reflecting on it the last time might have been when I went to KFC. I specifically wanted to order an intriguingly odd looking hamburger meal that came with what looked like a giant strawberry red pizza roll and some sort of hot drink. The pizza roll was actually a super sweet kind of jelly pie thing that tasted better than the burger. The burger itself had a layer of dried noodles on top of it and loads of sloppy applied sweet mayo. The hot drink was corn juice, which I guarantee tastes exactly the way you imagine it.

Anyways, the events blend. I can’t really remember the sequence, but there are a lot of small discrete motions that stick out from the continuous motion. The pity I had for the trash can I was buying sticks out like a wave in the humming sea of consistent motion. That trash bin had cost a surprising amount and I bought it explicitly as a used a toilet paper container. This was a premium trash can – I am telling you – and it must feel like it got a raw deal literally pocketing what my body wouldn’t! Its stainless steel exterior shines underneath the dim lightbulb in my bathroom right now and I still feel the pity I had for it the day of purchase. “Hey, sorry,” I’ve maybe even said aloud, “but you were the only thing with a lid, and honestly you are doing a swell job keeping the smell in.”

I am getting off track. In Changzhou it rains a lot and there a lot of reflective surfaces. This is probably my favorite thing about the city. The reflective tiles of the sidewalks are mostly that strange kind of grey with different tones and shades inside it, with some different colors patterned in here and there. All in between the grey there’re are thin lines of deep black tiles containing the smoothest reflections and in them I can see the glimpse of the grey and black Midwestern skyline designs of Chicago. When the rain really falls it is easy to get caught up in the city and its reflections. Sometimes when the night sky is really clear the outlines of the buildings become stark underneath the wide open. Then the rigid design of this rain slicked little city expands and if my eyes spiral inward, they are plain caught to it and beholden for a little while. Each upright slab sits equidistant from its neighboring building, and if the neighbors are a part of the same apartment complex then they’ll have the same facades too. The angles are equal and the balconies jut out in sequence like the arms of swimmers popping up from under drizzly rain curtains. For a while I was catching single swimmers out and watching their simple motions but with that kind of approach I was missing the way the whole show comes together.

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This last night I went out the sky was not too clear, I think, but even on the smoggy evenings all that’s up comes back down in reflections. The rain was going in the same light drizzle it has had for the last few weeks and all along the ground there was the slick veneer of water on smooth surfaces sticking face up and looking. What they saw is marked right there in the rain pooling on top of them and for some time I’d just stare at my feet stepping over puddles and catch a single heavy and stout piece of skyline quivering porous underneath me. After a while treading the same paths there were certain moments where I found that reflections convened with the images gazing into the watery mirror, like reality doubling up. It was probably a good number of patterned walks ago when I noticed how this long stretch of wide tile cut down the middle by three green reflecting pools ran up to a reflection that always catches me now. It comes along through this little back road a friend taught me to take to that is a bunch of passages that lead to a circular plaza where old ladies like to form up and do square or pair dances. The passage that leaks out to a main road goes on for a bit and about midway through its distance the flat, tall, and wide face of a white building with thin veins of multi-colored neon lights reaches out at first only in reflective rainwater pools. It pulls at my feet and as I follow it the long white thing slinks into a normal shape while the base of its reflection joins to reality and points straight up at the sky. The building and its mirror image both sit blinking multi-colored, probably wondering why I eyed them up top to base to base to top. If I was untoward to the tile and the concrete, I apologize.

On the main road all the reflections are still there and sometimes even clearer in they way they form buildings up into massive straight lines, all standing at attention in perfect rows that shoot to the sky and into the Earth. Wherever I go, KFC, Burger King, a restaurant, it is bright and warm and the servers somewhat know me. In each place I mostly want silence or to talk with a friend in English, but I’ll try to order and do the necessary interactions in Chinese. People will likely watch me eat and at this point I don’t even notice peering eyes much anymore. The days reflect each other like this. An experience at one nearby place reconstructs down from its top to its base to the base of another nearby place to that other place’s top. It is why it is so hard to pull the days apart and I stick to memorizing the things that send a brief ripple through the puddles over the steady fall of rain.

There’s no absence of those kind of ripples. Once I was deeply curious about the old ladies dancing in the plaza an how long they want on for, so I joined in on the whole duration. It was really long, maybe an hour and a half of aerobics set to Chinese “Cha-Cha Slide”-esque music. By the middle I was into it and by the end I was exhausted. “Are you tired?” asked an old man in Mandarin. “Very tired.” I replied back.

Another time maybe two or so weeks back I met a college age girl who spoke great English – or rather she met me. I had sat down at Burger King and she came over to me with such a genuine zeal I couldn’t let it go un-reflected, even though I wasn’t looking for a conversation. She had a very warm and low-lit buzz about her, like the café lighting of the Burger King (US brand fast food joints have nicer design in China). Apparently she had a foreign teacher at her university but had never found one roaming in the wild, feasting on its very own imported native fruits. She was in some kind of business management end of the textile industry and was thinking of going abroad so she plied me with fairly deep questions about how living away from home feels. I kind of liked that because it was unlike the average conversation where I’d say for the tenth time where I was from, what my work was, how much I was paid, and how long I had been here. In the end she got my WeChat (a poplar messaging app) and we sped off to separate places. I haven’t heard from her since, but that’s normal and it does not make me sad anymore. I don’t think it is just because I expect it, but because now that I have seen the first be the last so many times, I don’t think the lack of a sequence colors the one-time-things any worse.

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Then I’d go back home. Sometimes some drivers mulling about by their parked cars will stop me and talk for a while. They have some pretty fun banter and seem eager for me to find a girlfriend. Just this last time I stopped for a coke at a nearby convenience store and chatted with a middle aged couple who run the place. They have a black and white cat patterned so it has a thick mustache. I had met it before when it was a lot smaller, but it remembered me when I took my hood off and started playing with my hand like it had before. I spent a bit spinning my headphones around for it to paw at while I pet it, so of course the owners and I talked about cats and the pets I had back home. Then I waded back in through the crowd of parents looking to pick up kids and exchanged quick hellos with the gate guards.

Past the gate and in the courtyard there’s this massive, red, abstract star. When it rains water pools around its circular base and the star shines once up and once down at every angle. Then there’s a brief walk where the school buildings rise up to each side and things feel a bit more cluttered before everything falls to wide and open as the basketball courts come in on the right and the student cafeteria on the left. The basketball court’s a solid green surface that extends all the way to far outer wall of the school. Not too far off, there’s an apartment complex of similarly styled beige buildings with jutting strips. They stretch down and leak into the reflecting green surfaces of the basketball courts until the top of the reflections feel in reach and the summit of their tangible bodies feel out of touch.

Finally there’s the last few strides home. The dormitories are way in the back of the campus and they sharply cut off the wide open plain made by the expansive basketball courts. They are flat but for iron frames outside of windows where kids hang sheets and clothes. Two of them squeeze right up close to each other, maybe only fifteen feet apart, and fence off the teachers’ apartments where I live. Each building is about four or five stories and they make a thin mountain pass that the plains filter into – a dark little channel covered up top by a tin roof. Looming right behind them are the apartment complexes that reach up at least twenty floors, speckled on each level with intermittent light. Straight forward the road is gravelly and crooked, creating for imperfect reflections. The dorms and apartments lean into the water on the ground but rugged and rickety terrain turn their blocky bodies splotchy. As I near the pass the apartment complexes lean in closer, breathing over the neck of the dorms. The peaks of mountain ranges mark the instant end of the reflective plains as the darkness of the pass swallows me up and the pitter patter of rain drops clapping cold tin blend seamlessly with the hushed murmurs of students and the distant drone of cars. When I step out of the pass, the dorms circle up behind me and the humble hill of my apartment complex sits just beneath the twenty-something story apartment building and the speckled lights that it thrusts upward into the starless night sky.

It took me a while to realize it but much of the campus is designed to keep people out of the rain, with tin roofed corridors nearly always connection to overhangs and tunnels. There are corridors of wavy tin roofs that cover lanes leading to the area around my apartment – which has stone ping-pong tables, a parking area, and a small building for holding trash. I can rarely smell the garbage but it draws in all sorts of noise and excitement. In the nights the wild cats of the campus sustain themselves off this garbage and argue over it fiercely and in the mornings Chinese people also argue at least around it but for reasons I can’t discern. When I hear the cats I laugh, but when I hear the heated Mandarin something in me gets a bit angry too and I am not sure why.

Crossing past the garbage there are parked scooters and cars lined up neatly before the wall of the campus. At first it startled me to see security cameras and sharp glass shards lining the top of the wall near our apartments. Now I don’t even catch their reflections. I suppose that’s the sign of a good security measure – present to outsiders and subtle to insiders. It is interesting though,, that once I get close enough to see those glass shards I can also almost glimpse into that high-rise community sitting right behind me and looking straight over.

When I step into the narrow space that leads up to the door I can hear the sound of rain hitting tin now overwhelming everything. For a bit I listen for the scraping sound of dirt falling off my shoes and onto my red, improper English adorned doormat. Opening the door, the fluorescent lights are already bounding out off of white surfaces to greet me. Inside the blank sea swallows up everything and I am almost sleepy underneath the fluorescent lighting, the warm air, and the vibrating hum of the heater producing it.

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~Austin R Ryan

Do You Miss Home?


“你想家吗?Ni xiang jia ma?”
“Do you miss home?”
“Sometimes.” I’ll say the answer in Chinese but I hear it in English.

There are comforts everywhere you go, but there are more of them at home. The dogs in Changzhou aren’t so sociable. They stick leashless to their owners and don’t bound excitedly over – at least to this foreigner. I have gotten to a low level and given invitations, but never really an answer. Each time it makes me miss my mutts.

 
Weaving through food streets for search of something leaves me wanting the familiar. Chinese food tastes great most of the time and eating out at a good restaurant costs a lot less here. There are some new places along my road that have even become old favorites. A little Muslim restaurant with delicious, clean noodles often thick with seasoning and flavor sustains me through bad days. When I am really missing home, there’s always the Burger King and KFC. Still, there’s a lot of home’s food that can’t be bought here. The light lunch and morning things like snacks loaded with evenly sliced lunch meats, the cheap buckets of solid quality ice cream, the well cooked burger at a reasonable price are all luxury goods that don’t taste quite the same away from home.

 
The food mostly does me good, but when it gets me ill it is a kind of foreign sickness that makes me miss the shaky stomachs and running noses I got at home. The way I feel right now, it is like there are little tears on the lining of stomach nagging me to patch them over with pieces of the place I came from. I have been feeling slight stabs inciting cramps all week, and it almost makes me miss the regular churning of pains I am accustomed to. The way my head aches or my stomach quakes, it all speaks in a different language and I don’t like filling the meaning in anymore. Do I miss home? Well, sometimes I do. Of course I do. It is what I am used to.

 
Things feel heavier here, with kids that count on me to be a certain way and people that practice their English with me. Twisting tongues to new shapes is a daily thing – a kind of Peter Piper plotline to tug on. When I was home there were times I’d look up and feel a feetless upward floating sensation. It was like things were so light and empty up in the blue sky you could fall right out of the earth into the hole of air all around it. Here there are so many sorts of skies, often more full. I have seen some really giant clouds stretched across the horizon here. The way the sky shapes up it almost seems I can see it stretch over the Earth entirely. Even on the foggy haze days where grey encompasses every inch of the distance, the obscured air feels vast, deep, and enveloping. I don’t think I could pull the same slipping away here. My feet feel anchored and mostly it keeps me steady, but of course it feels daunting sometimes. Of course I miss the feathery lightness and the chances I had to slip away back home.

 

When I am sitting at my computer looking through Facebook photos for old Thanksgivings to show new people – you can guess what the feeling is. It is not entirely unpleasant. It is a bit wistful and endlessly sincere to long for a thing like that. There are no questions that need to be asked and hardly any words worth saying. Basking in those old photos feels very full and sociable because it is a conversation with a younger self and an aging moment. All the parts of it aren’t really gone either, they are just continuing on in a different way. I feel fluid in that moment and unified, but each sensation has a bitter side to it.

 
People say that it is homesickness, but it feels pretty healthy to me. I had enough trouble sorting out whether traveling was another way of running away that wanting to run right back seems like a good sign. It is on my shoulders and in my head and around my stomach like my body’s sorting something out. In that way it resembles illness.

 
Sometimes I think it is really the sensation of two houses battling it out. In all my recent dreams I have been living in my old neighborhood in Indianapolis but when I am running from the oddly cold weather here in Changzhou I am calling for a different kind of home. The white walls all have my posters on them and the white tile floors all have rugs that I chose too. My clothes are the ones in the cupboard and hanging on the drying line by the back window. Most of the time all the signs are here and I am with them, but of course sometimes my mind’s wandered back to old placed I laid my weight. There are times I can let it go, and there are times I have to drag it back to get my work done. It kind of reminds me of when my family watched a neighbor’s dog and accidentally let it run off. We found her on the steps of her owner’s home and when we came to pull her away she started barking like she would never get to go back . I can’t tell you how many places there are to go, but there are always enough that two locations can run tug of war on separate sides of a person’s mind.

Folks tell me I talk a lot about my old home, particularly family and friends, but I am happy to do right by the people I am proud of. The little moments I did wrong by them makes the times I rectified stick out that much more. All the funny things in between the good and bad still get me laughing occasionally. Those moments are sublime. Old joys from a shared joke or a strange instant spill back over into the present. When that fresh happiness comes up the original joy of it mixes with the nostalgia of its return and for a while everything feels brighter. There is a subtle sadness lingering in the transience of that joy. It is impossible to hold and one day it will bit by bit slip away, but I don’t mind too much seeing the good go. I feel sad knowing I’ll never return to it but the feeling of it occurring and reoccurring until it gradually fades is the thing that pushes me on to other memories. Old joy is proof of new ones, and old joy dying is the reminder to find the right moment to stand in for it.

 
That feeling of lingering longing for things going is what got me here, a thousand miles away from home and missing Thanksgiving dinners. It is the thing that got to me spend my Thanksgiving teaching native English tips to other teachers. That peculiar melancholy had me listening to a Chinese teacher I work and speak with deliver a poetic paragraph on the nature of joyous living and a real, hard, confession on the frustration of educating kids in impossible English grammar. And I can’t say my Thanksgiving dinner eating KFC mashed potatoes in the company of a new friend wasn’t just as meaningful. I can’t bemoan the feeling of missing, but I always will. It is the feeling of looking back and wanting that’s got me moving forward, but it’s what’s tripping me up too. Try to catch the past and you might miss the present moment floating in all the little things.

 

Do I miss home? Right now I miss it melodramatic, but I am just fine with my bit of missing and reaching back. I don’t always feel like this it is a sometimes thing and it is Thanksgiving here in China so of course sometimes should be right now.

~Austin R Ryan

A Day in Yancheng Park: Youth


Probably for the best, there are two sides to my time in Yancheng Park. Once I was done reflecting on little random things inside the ancient side of the park I traveled back the end of it fitted with modern rollercoasters. I had a few hours left and thought I ought to spend them with my colleagues and students. I appreciated coming out of the quiet contemplation of the old park and falling into the bustle of an amusement park full of kids on a field trip. In a lot of ways that’s how China functions – all slices of humanity formed up into a dish with a taste of everything. Crowded and loud yields to quiet and silent, distrust and scamming turns to friendships and handshakes. The double-sided day caught the way things blend here, and since I am a pretentious sucker for thematically encapsulating things I liked it all a lot.

Since the park consisted of three circles I exited by taking the semicircular routes I had missed when coming in and got to see everything pretty cleanly after only a few hours. In the second ring there was not much to see on the return, but it was a quiet and pleasant walk. Crossing the bridge back to the outermost and largest circle, I saw a bunch of photographers working with two people – a couple, models, actors, I am not sure – who were dressed up to the nines. The man had an old western style suit with long coat tails and the woman was dressed a bit like a southern belle. Naturally I shamelessly took my own photos and caught the fellow resting in the grass after he and a cameraman grappled for five minutes with the tall rubber boots that clung to his feet.

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After that I looped through the other side. Without much attractions or distractions the trail back was another slow and ponderous trot alongside the riverbank. The sun had really come up, the smog had cleared out and in the distance I could spy the tall buildings sprouting up all around the park. In a short while I came upon the wooden riverside platform that I had seen an old man walking along earlier. It was clear why he had chosen that path. Not a noise distracted from the wide and sprawling blue sky now populated with perfectly puffy white clouds. The Sun’s beams shot clarity into the river’s water and in its reflection the sky came down to meet the earth for a fine afternoon. The reflection allured the treetops into the river and sat them right beside the blue sky and all its pretty white clouds until everything blended underneath the subtle veneer of sunlight.

The bridge that I had crossed to get here crested in around the bend and before I knew it I was back in the park plaza. All along the way I had met various students from other schools and my own (though not the grade I teach) that said hi just to practice some English. As I walked into the amusement park entrance I found a group of my students who greeted me with a cheer of “Austin!” Hearing it is always a bit gratifying even if it doesn’t necessarily mean much. I recognized the majority but only knew the name of one. I try to hold names down, but I have never been good at remembering them and I have around 400 total students who sometimes tell me their English name and other times use their Chinese one so remembering is quite a task. They tell me they are from class 5 and are happy to have me travelling with them for a while. They ask me some questions and try to speak Chinese with me, but I struggle with a lot of it.

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Our walk is ending and as I am parting the kids start giving me gifts. One hands me a bird made of hardened clay and says, “niao!” He says it a few times until I’ve repeated it right – not a bad Chinese lesson! The character for bird is always one I’ve liked: 鸟. Look close and it really resembles a cute little bird. Gift giving overall is very common in China and students love to give to their teachers. I have a little section of my coffee table dedicated to the small tchotchkies I’ve been given. The gesture’s great, but I often try to deny them because I know the kids could really get more from a little Thor doll, a toy car, or legos than I could. It doesn’t work most time – they are insistent!

After class 5 and I say our goodbyes I cross a bridge and catch all sorts of strangeness I couldn’t really photograph well. Mostly, they were water attractions like paddleboats dipped in neon and striped in the brightest shades of primary colors. I was tempted by a big translucent plastic hamster ball that you could get inside and awkwardly roll across the lake but I didn’t want to bother with the line.

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Just a few steps later I found a few students from my class 9 in a dimly lit emperor’s palace playing dress up with a bunch of fancy old costumes. One of my favorite students had a wooden sword and was eager to show it off. Another had a multi-segmented plastic blade that extended with the click of a button. Others were posing for pictures in their fancy garments. Plenty had some questions or words for me, which I did my best to respond too. It felt a bit awkward trying to rumble with my second language as well as a role of teacher I was not sure how to play. The two things both felt as foreign to me as my setting, but there was a way it all felt kind of like settling in. I know so many of these kids and some of the chaperones too and I guess they know me too.

Crossing a bridge led me into the area where some of the biggest rides are, as well as some kind of fake mountain that has the faces of five ancient Chinese men carved into them. Apparently an entrance in the side of that odd Chinese Mount Rushmore leads into a haunted house. Just outside of it there’s a little hill with a flat landing that cuts its slope right in the middle. A bunch of students from my school were resting on it, so for a while I followed suit and sat down. But it’s tricky to rest around any of the kids. They’re curiosity takes hold and they question me about all sorts of things, most of which I only half understand and have to work to hard to answer properly. In the plaza nearby a few people sit in these open faced cylinders that play music and roll around. At first they stuck out to me, but by now I have seen them in every plaza by every mall.

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After I climb down the hill and wander toward the cafeteria the teachers were meeting at I run into a few fifth graders who attend a little English club I hold at the school. They are a bit of a breath of fresh air, them being able to speak a lot more of my own language. Then my class 2 – the students who I had boarded the bus with – come back into vision. I am happy to see them because we are actually trying to find the same person, another English teacher named Aillen, or Shi Lingling. Before we really get to searching the students have plenty of strange candies and toys to show me. Two students have bought a few masks and re-enact the Sichuan Opera in front of me. Just like in the Southwestern styled drama, two kids put on multiple masks and one by one dance around in stilted and jaunty steps. Once one of them comes to a sharp halt, they turn an about face and stare at me as they fling off one mask in the deftest motion they can manage and reveal the other underneath it. The first kid really impressed us all with a solid mimic, and the second made us laugh with the bubbly energy that tripped him up some.

Leading a troupe of 9-10 year olds into the cafeteria goes better than I expected in that I don’t lose anyone, but we are quickly shooed out because the place is closing up shop. Aillen shows up just a second later and talks with the kids in Chinese for a while. Aillen is the head teacher for my grade and one of the staff on campus that makes sure I am adjusting alright. After meeting up with her we head to the new teacher hang out. Once we get there no one really converses much, most of us just checking our phones or relaxing in some way. Aillen and another teacher quickly become engrossed in a historical TV drama playing on a tablet. The two of them sit at the edge of their seats with a headphone each. It is a bit of a humanizing thing to see the head teacher cheer for her favorite characters. For about an hour I lean back and browse my messaging apps on my phone while snacking on some food I got as gifts from students.

The only part of the park I have not seen yet is the entrance, so with an hour of time left to explore I head back to the front to see what I missed. First there are a few gift shops full of children’s toys and sweet stands – the most popular stand twisted orange syrup into wild patterns which then hardened into a kind of lollipop. The very start of park is a winding path through the history of philosophical and metaphysical thought during the Spring and Autumn period. The Spring and Autumn period is a hotbed of activity in Chinese history that led first to the Qin dynasty and then to the Han dynasty a bit later. For over two centuries feudal states in what is now China warred to establish their power over each other, sparking a number of great thinkers across all kingdoms to consider how to bring peace back to the country. Most all of the big names in traditional Chinese thought came from this period, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and plenty more.

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Every big and serious thinker and the camp of students that surrounded them earn their own statues and plaques in this park. Every statue aims to capture the thematic impression of each philosophical camp, so that the display far exceeds a bunch of boring depictions of robed old men. The philosopher sits at the center and all around him forms up a sort of garden of other things to complement him. Sometimes the surroundings don’t seem to fit, though. The “strategist school” philosophers are surrounded by caves and overhanging green when I would have assumed a more militant theme. Other themes fit quite well. The Legalist scholar that focused heavily on strict enforcement of the law stands in front of a giant, extended scroll of old characters – presumably a kind of decree. Another metaphysical school focused on Yin, Yang, and the traditional conception of Heaven has a plaza emblazoned with a giant Yin-Yang symbol and all of the hexagrams from an old mystical book called the I-Ching used to divine the will of Heaven. Unfortunately my favorite school – Daoism – was sectioned off for construction.

Yet if any of those statues and their surroundings sounded impressive and fitting, they paled in comparison to Confucius’s depiction. Standing as tall as the fake cliff he’s fused into, Confucius towers over the park with his hands crossed like an x. Beneath him a legion of scholars sit on a giant scroll, reading smaller scrolls in their hands. Each scholar has a different expression and engages with whatever they are reading in a different manner. Some are ecstatic, others look bored, plenty seem interested but among them some seem challenged and others relieved. It is not a far cry from my experience as a student or a teacher.

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This kind of grandeur in an amusement park focused on a seminal moment in China’s ancient past should be expected. What I did not expect was how deep the park would run with the theme, as it took on old stories and transformed them into 3D displays. An emperor’s hunting party came to life in a green garden with tall statues of generals on horseback aiming at stone deer. In another spot I found a troupe of musicians sitting and playing a woodwind instrument for a high lord. In their center one musician looked really into his performance as the player next to him gave him a hard side-eye. At first it seemed incidental, but the sculptures were telling a story of a man that snuck into the court of a high lord and pretended to be able to play instruments to get by. The side eye and the emphatic fake performance all made sense.

All of the children there loved the statues too. They liked to skip across the scrolls in front of Confucius and admire his height. Some of the kids fancied the generals in the hunting party and climbed up on the horses to get a closer look or just take a rest. A teenager used a gossiping court official’s scroll as a coaster for his coke bottle. My own students found the giant depiction of China’s old feudal political borders before I did. It was filled with tiny, light rocks that the kids used to throw at each other and giant totems and a wide tree they clung to for higher ground.

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For the last fifteen minutes I spent my time with them answering questions and taking some group pictures. Before I knew it the day was over and we all filed back on the bus to head to school again. Confucius saw us off as we headed home. From start to finish the energy was boundless. Swords were still held high, voices were still raised, and adventures were still being sought even as the park faded even from the rear view mirror. Aillen and I each fell far back into our cushy charter bus seats. Surrounded by the consistent chatter of little words and movements, we both let out a wide and long yawn at near exactly the same time. We had to laugh at that. The older things get the sleepier they seem, but it’s lively all the same.

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~Austin R Ryan

A Day in Yancheng Park: Ruins


The district of the city that I live in is a decent way south of downtown, near an ancient city center formed up in between three rings of water that seem a cross between moats and rivers. Right near that area there’s a Chinese history based theme park called Yancheng Park next to the city zoo.

Just outside of the wide plaza replete with waving Chinese flags that leads into Yangcheng Park and the zoo, there’s a swathe of the city filled with new buildings built to look traditional in style straddling the sides of canals. At the beginning of the canal walk, there’s a faux city gate (with no actual walls near it) that you can walk on top of and catch glimpses of the nearby theme park in form of tall rides cresting up above buildings.

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At the bottom of that gate and inside its crossing, there’s a little door that leads into a who’s-who museum filled with detailed statues of the famous people Changzhou has produced. Further along the canal walk there’s a stout and short museum somewhat resembling something a traditional Chinese palace building like the one’s you’d see in Tiananmen. Inside there are all sorts of old relics dug up from the city center and a large replica of what the old city looked like. I had loomed above the replica twice with other foreign teachers who came to visit – or just lived in – my part of town.

The replica depicted a living village of thatched huts that ran along the edges of the three rivers. In the very center there was a modest administrative building – a palace of sorts. None of the buildings stand very tall, and most of the circles in the diagram are sparse and speckled with more green grass than yellow straw houses. The colors of the diagram are dull and the lighting is low. The fairly humble village feels real. My curiosity’s sparked, and I make all too many notes about how we have to find a way into the middle of those rivers. What’s the modern reality inside all those circles?

Preservation is an incredibly tricky task for any country, but particularly for developing ones. Cities and businessmen want to find opportunities to get the money to keep pushing development along. Saving land is hard, because it is scarce and valuable. Naturally, famous land is even more scarce and valuable. Saving famous land from a factory or farmland might not be too hard, but preserving it’s reality in face of expectation is tasking.

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The exchange for holding up history is not just an abstract cultural reward, but tangible tourist income. In a place like China there’s a bit of interesting history near everywhere so making the history worth visiting can take glossing up – or so the people in charge of restitution and preservation often think. There are a decent amount of historicist horror stories where rare, hallowed Buddhist artwork or feudal instruments are ruined by incessant touch ups that turn them into gaudy over-approximations of a glory that cannot really be kept. To try and lure in customers some museums and cities will destructively lay on gloss until what was preserved in dirt is essentially lost to shine.

This does not necessarily happen everywhere, or even most places, but hearing about a theme park built right next to the old village filled me with a worry that it had happened here. It did not help that a lot of the instruments from the dig site looked so fine and intact (these are 2,500+ year old objects) that they didn’t seem entirely authentic. When the grade three head teacher told me there’d be a field trip to Yancheng Park, I was excited even in the face of having to wake up early because I wanted to see what happened to the ancient place.

At around 8 in the morning I met with one of the third grade classes I teach and boarded the bus with them. The bus ride went quickly and pretty soon we joined a massive stream of students and teachers piling in through the theme park turnstiles. As soon as we got there lines of impressively dressed dancers line up on a raised stage in front of the entrance. Dancers dressed as soldiers surround others dressed as court ladies, while strange shamans swing their arms in circles as an emperor inspects from the background.

I pull myself away pretty early on in the show to go with my students to the entrance of the park. Once we are there, the head teacher tells me I can go along with the students, hang out with the other teachers relaxing in a cafeteria, or just go wherever. Naturally I told her I’d head into that little circle right in the middle of the three rivers.

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The path starts on a sprawling bridge which spans the outermost and thickest river. The water’s got a greenish hue and reflects the sun nicely at the early part of the day. As time goes on and the sun climbs to the top of the sky, the reflection really rises until the sky’s almost right there in the water. The river bend curves off heavy as it moves, and all along its side a wooded platform runs. An old man plods along until the bent branches of willows cover him from my sight. This park seems a sort of walk that’s more a mozy.

Starting on the curve path, there’s three young women in front of me, one underneath an umbrella. White skin is a sign of beauty in China and has been for a while as far as I’ve been told, though that’s not to say most women avoid a tan. It’s just a few who dodge the sun, but the few who do, do a lot of work to. Initially I am not sure which side of the circle to take to the center, but eventually I decide on the one near the city wall so I can stop in for a look at it. The dirt path’s half blended with the grass and the day’s hotter than all the ones in the last week. Dressed in dark red and black, long sleeves and pant legs, I have made a small mistake and the sweat trickling along my skins a reminder of the minor error.

When I get to the wall, it’s not quite what I expect. There’s just a small plaque at the base of a vaguely wall-shaped elevated dirt ring that encompasses most of the outer river bank. The plaque tells me defenders would rebuff assailants here for years. Well, it is taller than me and it does have a rough slope even on the inside. To get on top I take a winding footpath not beaten into the dirt very heavily – still sidelined with high weeds that make me grateful for my stuffy pants. On top there’s a good view of the shiny green river and all the trees along it. It is deep and decently wide and plenty clean sitting underneath an array of tall buildings styled mostly the same. The buildings are grey, white, or beige usually.

There’s a small plot of flat land on top that’s actually tilled and planted with vegetables still growing their bright and shining green leaves. Right next to it there’s a moored boat that’s got a dirty white coat striped with faded primary color lines, mostly yellow. The shallow walls of the white boat are rusted and stained, but still intact and housing quiet life inside. The boat holds a small pool that’s not been emptied over several rains, and inside its murky, rusty green waters there’s algae percolating to the top and green of some sort sprouting from the sides. It’s an interesting thing to see on an elevated strip of land, next to a vegetable garden, surrounded by water and more interesting still to see some little living things blossom inside it.

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Once I have slid back down and walked around some, I have found there’s not much in the first outer ring, but it’s pleasant. The sun’s rays really start to come out and the grass is green in front of me, though some smog’s made the day less clear. The wide road winds on and I take my time to clear the first and largest ring. With no buildings around, the light blue sky looms wide over the circle of rivers and trees that fence the area in. After some time I stumble upon an old altar that looks like a rundown concrete thing from a few decades ago. Thatched roof guard towers cast long shadows and two women sit underneath chatting away from the sun. Over here the plain goes wide and a grandfather, his child, and her child mill about. The baby’s squawking short warnings causing the mom to pick it up and walk it back and forth, while the grandpa stretches out the string of a kite and circles it around in the sky some before it falls. He winds the string back up and starts again each time.

There’s not much other noise in the park outside from some quiet conversations and a playlist of traditional Chinese music echoing out over speakers on light poles. After a while my legs feel stretched and achy and I search out shady bench to sit on. It is across from a statue garden full of mythical creatures and right on a wharf with a great view of the water. The dragons’ in the statue garden have chipped faces, but they are still smiling at something. Maybe it’s just because the sun is shining so much on an October day. Everything really floats by while I sit on that bench munching away at a poorly packed peanut butter and jelly sandwich half crushed underneath my camera. The river curves off into nothing and the whole sky’s reflected in the water.

Past the second river, there’s some more meaty things to see but for a bit I take pictures of the sun crested above the trees caught in the water. I have got plenty of time.

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A Zen garden emerges just past the bridge, but it’s not got a lot of luster left to it. The rock garden itself seems a clump of discolored stones and across from that there’s some oblong paths leading to wooden benches underneath shady trees. Some folk would tell you that’s true Zen right there, but most others would tell you that telling you what true Zen is isn’t Zen at all. I and most folks I know have never fiddled with that kind of stuff much anyways. At least, never too sincerely.

Just a bit further along the same way there’s an old well with a thatched roof – a clearly favored style – that sits outside a small walkway on the water where two legendary lovers apparently first convened. It’s all straight lines out into water crowded with bright, almost sickly green lily pad like plants. If you’d believe it, walk along the left and you’ll find a reconstruction of Sun Tzu’s home. True enough, he lived in the Wu kingdom – modern Changzhou is in the area – but that’s all quite a long time ago to know anything as precise as a wooden shack right underneath a thumb tack on Google Maps. But who knows?

There’s a forest of trees right in between the place where all the famous people lived and thought on warring and loving. The trees don’t look quite real, knotted and made strange with stone insides visible through entryways carved at the base. But there are red lines of fabric for matchmaking that cling to them with characters written in faded ink that looks real in its own right. Crawl inside some of the tree doors and there’s graffiti looking plenty authentic. It is illuminated by slight sunlight of window and door holes. It looked like sometime ago they tried to build walkway atop the matchmaking trees but the endeavor collapsed and there’s only some iron chains and a rusting plankway left to show for it.

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The time’s finally come to cross the last river over the last bridge. The last river’s a small circle clogged up with all sorts of reeds and plants – a good few browning out for others to grow over. This last bridge is not a long walk. It leads straight to a gate kept open with an informative panel outside which figures that the palace, when it was around, probably looked pretty swell. Well, as far as I know how some histories go, I suppose that’s not an unfair thing to say.

But now there’s not much there at all. There’s just an old well off to the side with three old ladies standing in its shade gossiping about something while all that blue of the wide sky towers over a small patch of green grass growing unequal in color and height. Treading along the edges of the final circle I spy a twisted little footpath that I take into a crowded mess of thistly bushes. There’s no seeing any great vista through them, no catching anything but glints of the river outside. There’s some flushed, red-ish pink edged light blue berries growing along with a few tiny white flowers scattered in between green weeds and cobwebs.

When I step back out it is the same old abandoned plaza I’d seen before, though two other elderly friends had come along while I was gone. It’s then that I see I am standing on tiny white flowers. Vibrant orange Butterflies flock to them, but it’s not as nice a sight as you might think. It’s the ugly things that move with grace, and the pretty things that flutter quick and nervous. Vultures – with their fleshy pink necks, rough black feathers, and bent beaks – ride on wind with time to kill, waiting for other things to spoil properly. The colorful orange of the butterflies weave out erratic patterns in the air as they bounce between flowers to suck as much nectar as they can before wilting. I heard when I was young that –like vultures – butterflies came around dead things too. I was told they were attracted to ruin in particular. Looking around at nothing in particular, I believed what I heard a bit more. 2,000 plus years have passed and all that’s left are a few butterflies and some of us still circling slowly around for some spare morsels properly spoiled. I can’t say I left unsatisfied.

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Favorites


Favorites are my worst nightmares for being dreams come true in the classroom. I fear favorites because I’d see even good teachers make bad decisions based off them. Favorites are dangerous because they meet you in the middle when most kids need you to walk all the way over to them. Hanging with the best students feels like running 5k’s to prepare for marathons. Only the best educators in my memory could tear free from the burdens of favorites doing their unceasing best work.

Only a month in and I have got a few favorite students lurking up at the front of the class. Their hands are always raised. I can’t make the sounds to tell them that they crowd out other voices. In my head I am trying at the mandarin to manage them, make them feel successful enough not to need to prove proper pronunciation at every opportunity. Sometimes I’ve harangued the words together, but I have never landed it quite right.

I have one student whose English name fluctuates a bit in my head. Though I don’t always know if it is Mark or Joe, I still like the kid for how he appreciates the English language. In class he grasps new syllables quickly and yells out the phoneme fusions before the rest of the class can drum up how a vowel bridges several consonants. The quickness throws others off. Sometimes in his earnest efforts at success he digs into the beginning of a sentence I am only halfway through. If I were still a tutor I’d congratulate him, but there are 39 other kids in the class that couldn’t catch the end of the sentence because of his hurry. So I tell him to slow down during the drills, but I lack the language to separate some correction from discipline. He gets sore and whips out a book, starts reading instead of tangling with words he already knows. I have to stand near him to keep him on task and I am back paying attention to a kid who already has it down. There’s the wrath of a favorite scorned.

In his mind it is not the first time I have spurned him either. With big classes and incessant drilling on the importance of education, Chinese schools do not disdain elitism. In addition to my ten third grade classes I teach the top of the third grade and fifth grade classes in small English corner-esque clubs. For a few weeks I’d see that boy and he’d try to bring back the lessons I taught him in the club. When I taught opposites using “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles, he’d look at me each class for two weeks after and chant, “Hello Goodbye.” I think that he can’t really expect me to grind the whole class to a halt to run over something only the best kids can grasp. But then I remember he is no older than ten. Of course he can. So I ignored and even hushed the request and gradually he stopped. It did not feel victorious though, more like I had to end his magic impression that I was a section of school more geared toward fun than education.

In those moments I fear letting down a favorite, but over affection can make a brat and in a class of 40 kids or more a brat can really break things down. The favorite strikes a fear in me because for all the help that child can provide I have to simultaneously anchor them to the Earth and push them to chase flying colors. They are the ones that look to me for interaction past the class bell’s ring. They are also the ones the get less of my eye during drills and games because they already know how to work well. They seem to me a peculiar balancing act, a teeter totter that the wrong pressure could snap in half.

But for the fear I have of favorites, they still stick out to me and light up my classes. John and Jessie are my ideal students. They are quiet and cautious but their eyes never flinch from the English words I set on the screen. The interest in language shines through their pupils and bends their backs forward. Even seated they look lined up for a race and whenever I ask a question or set a challenge to the class, they see the flag drop. Almost always they know the right answer, but someone getting it wrong may help the class more than them getting it right. Even if I know it’s right it is an effort on my mind and a weight on my heart to defer them for the sake of others.

Both of them work hard. Jessie comes into class with the phrases trained. “Good morning Mr. Ryan” is spoken almost native. She has parsed out the distances in spaces and breaks between English words with a level only practice raises you to. I rarely hear her blurt anything out. John has another type of ethic crucial to learning language. He has no fear for the barrier language can be between people and he’ll jump it in an instant to practice. When he sees me he’ll follow at a distance until something comes up for him to say. It does not always work out right, but he finds a better feel for the sound of English during those failed attempts.

They should get rewarded for their work. They ought to earn something extra for it, but the truth is the classroom economy runs teacher attention as a currency and it can’t always be earned by straight labor. If it could than there’d be even more disillusioned students abandoning schools that ditched them first. I have to measure my class by the whether the worst can follow along, but it means moving away from the best that make things a breeze by meeting me halfway. It means pushing the people climbing a mountain instead of nudging someone going down a hill. For my own satisfaction I want to be an amalgam of the teachers my memory admires. Most of them never kept me going. I never needed it and if I wanted it I arrived at office hours to get it. Instead they spent that time and energy doing something for the struggling. I cherish the top of the class but if I cater to the best students then I stray from the image I have of the best teachers.

Even with all that justification, it is a constant battle not to fall to favoritism. They make my life easier meeting me halfway and they fill me with happiness for this job. That happiness is bitter because I don’t have the class time to reward the ones that create a lot of it. John, Jessie, Joe and the rest of my favorites help me greatly, but they tear me up with the reminder that I can’t get to everyone. They instill the serious necessity of impersonality when teaching ten classes of 40 each for forty minute periods just once a week. If I am lucky I have just the time to do decent by most kids in the class. If I am blessed I have the time to catch up the ones that lag. Only if I am foolish do I take the time to do great by favorites. Well, don’t tell anyone but sometimes I am mighty foolish.