Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


Hey, just so you know, these don’t run in sequence. You can read whichever little piece you want without having to know the other. Anyways, isn’t it oddly intimate and strangely contained sitting next to strangers for over ten hours?

On the Airplane I sat next to an old Chinese man from Wuxi and a woman from the Sichuan province. The old man was with his old miss who sat next to the lady from the Sichuan province. When they got to talking the Sichuan woman asked where they were from, because she couldn’t understand them. It was strange because I could catch most of what they said, but Wuxi is very close to Changzhou. Somehow I started talking with them and they were all very pleasant and as we small talked in that official Mandarin common tongue. The old man wore a Purdue shirt and I told him I was from Indiana and he told me he had a kid in university there. I wanted to show him the tickets I had from when I went on a day trip to Wuxi but for some reason I didn’t. The Sichuan lady talked to me on and off about things I can’t remember. It felt swell to be able to swap simple sentences though.

Once she even asked me what the dessert dish was – it was a chocolate mousse. I translated the word mousse to tell her but apparently it does not have a food meaning in Chinese so she first asked if it was edible and then corrected me to say jelly. Though I then felt this was incorrect, because as far as I am concerned if it is chocolate it can’t be jelly or jell-o. It had to be a pudding or a mousse or something else. Languages have so many gaps between them you are bound to fall in at some point so I did not press the issue any further after she corrected me.

In front of me there was a little mischievous boy with a perfectly circular face and big sideways poking ears making trouble masquerading as some small simian – maybe a little lemur – and pestering for attention. He had shot up from his chair a few times to give me ubiquitous stares which I met with waves and all sorts of faces. It didn’t faze him. When I let my long legs loose and pushed up poke toes out underneath his chair he smacked the edges of my feet. It didn’t faze me.

Little lemur child and I naturally developed a storied airplane history. He was stretching up at the reading light above him and his parents were too tired to stretch arms up for him. On his behalf I hailed a stewardess and pointed her toward him. She’d had enough of his monkey machinations and row running explorations already and curtly pointed to the little remotes in the seats that managed the lights. Guess I should have known that well enough. The little lemur child would not acknowledge the help of either of us anyways and as the polite Americans we were it of course made us both a little sore.

Children are tough entities to strike reason into or extract reason from. They do and you deal with it because they were compelled by some wrenching invisible force to do whatever they just did. I am not sure this one ever actually slept and I am not sure his parents were ever awake more than an hour. The boredom for him must have been a bit rigid so he popped up at me a few times and made perfectly neutral expressions pretty much no matter what I did so gradually I became mostly neutral to him.

I got up to the bathroom a lot that flight because I could not get much sleep either – an unpleasant surprise – and they kept refilling my jasmine tea – a pleasant surprise. Finally the old man whose slumber I kept disturbing arranged a seat swap with me and his wife. Once I settled into the aisle I saw the boy’s round head and satellite ears crop up. His eyes shot to me and for a second the neutrality had faded for a bit of disappointment. Some of my neutrality faded though I don’t know in favor of what. At the end of the flight I’d accidentally scuffle him with the edge of my backpack. He protested for a second and I apologized for a second and no one seemed to notice either way so we both stopped and set our eyes forward. When we landed it was like everyone felt too weary to do anything but get out quickly with eyes downward.

~Austin R Ryan

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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

The Very First Day of My New Job


The first day of teaching is sort of like the first time performing something. The previous day you spend composing everything you’ll teach, learning your lines, and thinking up some improv in case anything goes wrong. The performance itself depends on your confidence first and your audience second.

I made my way to the classroom a bit early and got in during the students’ break time. On seeing me they all rushed in and started screaming out their best hellos. I brought my large red backpack and had dressed up in my nice black slacks and a green button down short sleeve shirt so that I looked a little bit like mint chocolate chip ice cream. We had been taught not to be threatening, and what was less threatening than mint chocolate chip ice cream? Unfortunately it is not very sturdy either.

I had met the teacher there to help me but only briefly during an intense meeting. Initially I tried to handle the kids. A sea of tiny eyes poked back up at me from absolutely enthralled faces. There were so many hands that I could not process all the possessions of mine being touched. Two sides of my brain started grinding it out against each other as Chinese and English questions bounded in. Both were equally hard to understand at first. Just then the teacher there squeezes in a question about my plan and whether it involves powerpoint.

When I say that it does, she shoos away several children before opening up a compartment with the computer that links up to the projector. As I am plugging in the flash drive and booting up the program, a Chinese error message pops up. A student right underneath me pulls on a pant leg and looks dead at me with eyes twinkling. “Teacher, are you happy?” That question makes my face scrunch up for a second. It is absolutely surreal. The ends of my mouth wiggle as I try to make a big smile. My eyes are still wide with worry and wrapped up in the Chinese teacher’s efforts to fix whatever went wrong with the computer. “Yes, I am very happy.”

When the powerpoint loads up I see that three children pulling at my backpack, about to pull things out. The mandarin words for “please sit down” come rushing back to me and I tell the crowd to disperse for their seats and pull my backpack back to me. All contents still seem to be there. I have brought stickers and candy with me that I plan to use to bribe the children into good behavior.

When the class starts, I stand up and give the class a small hello and introduction in Chinese. It does not seem they understand a lot of what I say. There are blank stares and a fair share of laughter. There’s also a lot of smiles, but my stomach is rocking so hard I can’t tell what those tiny teeth want from me. All these stares from eyes more eager than I had ever seen… It feels like I am being devoured. I think I am being chewed up by kids half my age, but it is my own lack of confidence that really grinds me down to mush.

“Teacher, are you happy?” The boy says again. Why you are still asking? What in the world is happening right now? I look at him for a second. I swear there’s so much shaking energy in children that at times their eyes seem like fuses twinkling on the edge of the next thing they’ll explode into. That smile is still stretched onto each of my face, though my eyes are wide and can’t crease at all for fear of failing to register a single visual sensation. The room is so full of the colors children love piled on top of construction paper practically cut from my own youth. I look back at him and nod vigorously.

Then I start up the powerpoint. My heart is pounding at me to wrap everything up quickly and the words issue out in blurted burst far too fast for the kids to pick up. Heads tilt. 什么?什么?什么?shenme. Chinese for “what?” Whispered words that speak to failed communication. That shit sits ugly in my dreams during Chinese nights. So I start in with gestures.

But gestures are not always a universal language. It takes me several tries before the students understand what my wafting hands are signaling. The teacher steps into help. “来(lai)!” She yells out loud. It means something like “come here” but has a lot more uses. The kids are very slow to silence, even in spite of the teacher’s anger. I am in between her and my own powerpoint, shaking. I look over and feel nauseous at how crowded with words I made each slide.

The gestures start to come and the class goes on, but not so gracefully. I squeeze out a few activities, like getting them to write down some words they know and put their hands up if they have English names. Most do not. I am already notorious with names. I could not get a handle on all of my aunts’ names until I was a teen – it was funny, they used to quiz me on it. With Chinese names the task is twice as hard because there’s no context. English names line up with a cultural figure, an old friend, extended family, a character on TV, something. But with Chinese it isn’t so. Not every kid will be named after someone famous like Mo Yan or Liu Bang or even something close to a Chinese friend or teacher.

Every activity takes twice as long as I imagined, mostly from explaining the task to the teacher, having her quiet the class down, and then translating it for them. I just barely scratch along to the last thing – a dialogue – and it is way too hard for a lot of kids. The bell rings as they try to complete the task. Pleasant piano tunes trickle through the intercom system. All the kids rush me. Their little hands start tugging and grasping at my arms, my bag, and even my flash drive. I try to answer their barrage of questions. Before long I have to grab my red bag away from some kids and secure my flash drive. As I do, I realize I hadn’t used any of the rewards I brought with me to class.

“Teacher, are you happy?” Those words reverberate like echoes across a classroom crammed to the brim with sensation. It bounces off walls of stimulus. “Yes, I am happy.” But it feels like the Earth is quaking and I can’t do this. It feels like I am a mile out from being a real teacher, let alone the one I want to be. When I finally step outside the teacher, Angel, and I speak a little bit. She tells me that the class is a bit badly behaved normally, but I think it is just covering for me. The feeling of failing is so immense that it shrouds me in anxiety, so I just say I will do better next time and beat out a path to my next class. Kids line the hall to say hello to me. I try to respond without getting caught in conversation. It is easy to feel spiteful, like their energy sunk me. But I know better than that. My Father of four and Mother of a small business centered on kids taught me to be better than the bitter bite of my pride.

Another teacher stops me and tells me that there was a mix up; I don’t have to teach it right now. The paranoia bites me so deep that I think they all know how bad I did and don’t want me to teach until I can do better. This piercing feeling of regret at having failed children and adults alike pushes up an awkward apology. “It is like this for all of us the first week.” The teacher says, “It is okay.” But I hardly even believe it. I am stretching out every inch of my legs into a shambling stride back to my apartment on campus. The next hour or so is a lot of pacing and talking to myself. The hour after that is trying to learn what my fellow AYC teacher here did. Back to the drawing board. Let’s rehearse these lines until I’ve got every ounce of intoned intention down right.

~Austin R Ryan