So Fashion!


Let me tell you I was gonna post up my usual kind of god damned high art imitation BS blog post about the black mold in my home and some of the hard times I’ve been having here in China but that’s not the piping hot helping I want in my bowl right now. No sir, I’ll tell you what I really wanna talk about is fashion! I don’t wanna talk about American fashion and you can run and tell that to every single young adult male wearing salmon tone boating shorts. When it comes to fashion, the cargo shorts, the slacks, even the best bought band shirts of the USA have nothing on the glee that Chinese style brings to me. To say that Chinese fashion is off the rails doesn’t even do it justice because there are no rails in Chinese fashion at all and everyone indulges recklessly in free-form fashion every day with not a single fashion task force out to get them.

For example, once I found a man wearing a baby blue sports coat over a baby blue plaid pattern shirt over baby blue khakis just sitting in a chair in the middle of the wide sidewalk outside of a large commercial center. It was like a color of the rainbow came down to Earth. Before I came to China, I didn’t know that I wanted to see men douse their bodies in clothes of one single primary color and now not only do I know that I want that but that I’ll probably get it. Sometimes I don’t even look and when I pull on my red jacket while I have my red slacks on I’ve found I’ve become the red guy. I am happy to be the red guy; I embrace this role; I embrace representing this primary color at the clothes congress. Where in America this man may receive verbal beating from abusive fashionistas, here he is safe to shine in beautiful baby blue glory.

American fashion is boring, cowed cowardice compared to Chinese fashion. In America a woman likely fears leaving the home looking like a witch. In China many women leave home looking like terrible witches with faces as pale as the moon and long, flowing coats and dusters as black as the awful magic they use to reap vengeance on those that dare jock their soup. It is a wonderful thing to me to see a young woman enter the KFC with a black massively brimmed hat that’s round and cutting as lumber mill buzz-saws over a long flowing black coat that flicks in the wind behind her. Her dark-as-night boots and pants round out a sci-fi FBI agent image she punches into the world like a typewriter punches ink onto a page. This woman has no fear of her look both because it is semi-regular (there are many witches here) and because few others have judgment of it.

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When I go to America no doubt hair dyes and beards and flannels and everything else will feel like a warm blanket of a much missed home. Yet if you asked me would I miss the witches, I would almost indignantly tell you that of course I would miss the witches; I would miss them maybe more than I would be happy to see face piercings again. If you asked me if I would like for everyone to be witches I would say – definitely indignantly – that no, I do not want that; that clearly goes too far. But 50% witches is agreeable to me, though I would say 30% is ideal as I have a healthy fear of the dark arts.

Furthermore, the witches are just one great and terrible dark cavern on the strange fantasy-scape that is Chinese fashion. The women just one accessory away from wearing an actual princess outfit must be admired too for all their frills. There is nothing ironic about literal frills in China. So many blouses have frills like you wouldn’t believe – flagrant frills layered on pinkest of pink patterns . I have a coworker who regularly comes in with what I speculate are literal Lisa Frank patterns printed (and often bedazzled) on giant pink and purple shirts that reach to her knees. I have seen her wear unicorns, I have seen her wear bedazzled pink sports jerseys, but I have never seen anyone bat an eye. If you think that sounds anything less than victorious than my friend you just have to shatter that American judgment calling you to plain protestant styles.

Besides, the plain and sleek styles have their representatives too. Most people go for subtle and regular patterns of button-up shirts and jeans (though khakis and slacks are much more common). Some people have simple dresses and once I even saw a woman in a pants suit come out of a Pizza Hut (this was a vividly joyous moment for me). Muted earth tones do exist here and people do wear them. However, many normal ensembles incorporate an item of clothing – shirts, jackets, the seat of the pants, the legs of the pants, the entire pants – that say something that is absolutely absurd English or just pure alphabet soup gibberish. My personal favorite is a jacket that says, “This ain’t no real bustard” on it. I have seen these “this ain’t no real bustard” jackets several times and I have so many questions. Did they mean to write bustard – which is a type of bird – at all? Were they going for bastard or for mustard? In either case why is the authenticity of the bastard/mustard on display? I am bad with multiple negatives, so I also NEED someone to tell me if this is or isn’t the real bustard. And is this is a meme? Is this what memes look like in China? Do people wear memes here? I don’t know about how all celestial forces feel, but I am 80% sure the Abrahamic God considers wearing memes a sin and will flood-genocide (drownicide) us again if we start to wear memes en masse, so I hope it’s not a meme.

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There are of course many other ridiculous things written on shirts but sometimes the message is not so much ridiculous as surprising. I have a bag – where I store my many soup cans – that says, “seven days away, I think I thought I heard you say.” The odd quote is indicative of an outright genre of clothes and accessories that say something correct but still kind of baffling. Clothing in the US tends to carry a pretty light message and words on clothes often just share some easy laugh factory material. Chinese t-shirts aren’t usually chuckle buckets, opting to spread weirdly serious messages instead. I once waited in line for soup behind a little boy in a jean jacket that read “ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE WHO ELSE BUT ME.” On the topic of children, every trend here applies to them because their parents dress them like tiny adults. This is as absolutely adorable, strange, and fantastic as you are imagining it to be.

Anyways, I have started to accumulate shirts with wonky words, but some are oddly expensive. I had my eye on a shirt that just said “sample text” but it cost over 100 RMB (15-ish USD), which can pay for 3-5 meals out and much soup. I have managed to find some cheap items such as a shirt with the beloved Nintendo character Yoshi over a plain red background with a word bubble that says “Happy!” underneath giant black letters that say “I love family,” a shirt with a picture of a hat just above a random paragraph attempting to describe the idea of fashion, and a hat that says “If.”

People here also borrow from other countries – particularly Korea. Many people wear Korean hats with a lot of extra space at the top where one could hide a trinket or a can of soup. It is not often but occasionally I see pretty boys wearing long jackets with weird words or patterns, some sweet ass kicks, a colorful hairdo that must have taken a lot of hair spray to maintain, and impossibly tight jeans that must take a lot of work to squeeze into.

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On pants, nothing makes me think quite as deeply as the difference between the pants of American and Chinese men. In China men rarely wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and on it easily looks much better than the frequent style young American men adopt, where the pants are wide enough around the legs to contain a terrible and endlessly discontent void. Yet, there is a drawback as many Chinese men must have a man bag to make these tight jeans work practically, or even to make well fitting pants look good. Tight pants effectively have no storage and well-fitting pants look as chunky as a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag when their pockets hold a wallet, a phone, spare change, an mp3 player, and a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag. Many man bags look pretty good but some don’t quite hit the mark, which makes man bag selection another clothing piece to pour soup worry into. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that in the US the assault on masculinity the murse can resemble might cause a frothy broth of rage to boil up in more traditional men and also men who believe your soup belongs in a sandwich bag in your pocket. Indeed, it took me a while to come to terms with the man bag and accept that, yes all men are still carrying soup even if I cannot see the vague shape of the sweet nutrient juice bulging against the edges of jean pockets.

With this topic I could go on endlessly, but ultimately what I love of Chinese fashion is simply the lack of concern it has for a single standard. With so much influx of global products and styles, fashion here is a saloon in the Wild West where there are no rules and you wear what you want so long as you can shoot from the hip and store a steaming can of chunky dinner-cereal emptied into a sandwich bag somewhere on your person. You can do literally anything and there are literally no rules about clothes in China! [Correction: After the time of publication I was informed by my editor that there are in fact “laws” about “clothes” and “public indecency” in China and I was apparently “lucky” not to be “arrested” when I went to the store in the buff.] Here in China even the word fashion is as free flowing and unrestrained as soup and often used as an adjective. “It’s so fashion,” is in my mind not so much Chinglish as it is a modification our language needs. When I leave China I’ll miss the bold and wild fashion it has; I will miss the colors; I will miss the witches; I will miss the serious and confusing gibberish; I will miss inhaling the rich stew of intermingling global trends.

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~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

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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The Very First Week of My New Job


For as bitter as failure tastes it is a quick acting medicine. I never wanted to step up there unprepared again. I never wanted to feel deep fear for the people I was helping and end up paralyzed. There will always be room for mistakes in my life but only so long as I fix the ones that arise.

I re-forged the powerpoint until each slide became less dense with random words and only the necessities were left. I straightened out animations and visuals to as clear a point as I could get them. With a bit of recollection I remembered some disciplinary methods I could implement as well. More important than anything I had fallen back on the old tricks I had learned years ago to get some confidence back. Sometimes it felt silly to say to myself that I could do something but materializing the words meant that I could cling to them like water wings until I could tread water. It also helped tremendously to see in a group chat that many of my fellow foreign teachers experienced the same dilemmas. Many of us had overestimated what the kids knew or what we could do in the first couple days.

Back from scratch and heading into the next two classes with some more confidence, the plan straightened out into something closer to what I had imagined. Standing before an energetic class of eager third graders who had never seen a foreigner did not shock as bad as when it was an entirely novel experience. The crooked teeth of ten year olds could not cannibalize me. The dynamite eyes of explosively energetic children could blow down the mountains in the class’s way as much as it could tear us all apart. It was up to me harness that energy.

A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.
A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.

Much was up to me and that became clear with every minor correction and addition. An ounce of effort from me could mean a pound from them. When I smiled half of them would too. When I got into a song it could sway the back of the class and when I was too tired I’d have to circle like a shark for anyone not trying. In that way less effort in one area meant more in a few others. There were classes that were battles no matter what. But you fight out those battles until you strike quick and targeted. Stickers and treats as rewards helped many students snap into the work.

Bribing the children with stickers and cookies made them eager to speak at every opportunity, but it had a serious side effect. I’d stand in between the rows of desks scanning for a kid that hadn’t had the opportunity to talk. Quietly at first, I’d hear the exertion of kids trying to stretch their arms out of their sockets and up to the sun. How it would build. How the noise would swell until I’d hear “teacher” nearly screamed in English as well as Chinese and see a sea of arms reaching out for those stickers. I could not even imagine the days when stickers had that magic – an affirmation you needed to possess. The subtle understanding of a cookie as something ten times bigger than a little sweet had completely left me even at this shallow stage of adulthood I am at.

After each class I’d come out panting and demanding water, but my eyes would be wide and I’d find the teacher that helped me after class just so I could run my mouth off a bit just to lose some excess energy. At times I’d even strike gold and get advice. It was always to change the simplest things, but more than a few times the simplest things made a world of difference. Dialogues do not work in bullet points, they work in A’s and B’s or Jacks and Jills. Vowel sounds ought to come before the words featuring them. Their mouths have to churn conscious to chew up every word. Only one person in the room could subconsciously devour whole English sentences, unhinged snake jaw style, and that was me.

Sometimes the other Teachers taught me unintentionally. A bit of close listening and I’d learned some Chinese instructions to stumble over with ugly Mandarin side of my brain. When a teacher told me how she was pleasantly surprised not to have to translate my instructions the entire class I started to feel like I could actually do this. I still need to learn the Mandarin phrases to keep the kids in line and cannot manage a class entirely on my own, but I can wait to reach that point. Right now baby steps feel like lunges, so I’ll hold out until I find a good stride.

The abstract star that is something like my school's logo.
The abstract star that is something like my school’s logo.

In between classes I managed some English interest classes with the help of one of the third grade teachers. I talked about the basketball game H.O.R.S.E. and played basketball with a few of the kids. Around the same time I sat in with the teachers and had a collaborative lesson planning session with the teachers. We shared some snacks and I taught them the word “raisin.” It made me realize that it was a bit of an anomaly. Why not just call it a dried grape like every other fruit? Then I realized raisins deserved a little more. Dried banana slices could not step to the raisin box on a shelf in every kid’s house. Raisins justified bran based cereal, something dried apple could never claim.

After I told them my lesson plan and they had serious skepticism about me teaching the pronunciation of two vowels over one class. In my mind I could not fathom stretching out a vowel over forty minutes. We all agreed to try it out and if it did not work I’d retreat to a vowel a week. Honestly it felt strange to teach by vowel anyways, but most methods seem arbitrary in some way. I’d have a chance to prove my plan just once this week. One class had gotten a lecture ahead. It was the one class that I had taught on my very first day, class 9.

This time I stepped in with a lesson plan that had the backing of some experience, even if it was fledgling stuff. More than that, the fear and paranoia that riddled me once had abated now. Teeth were just teeth, eyes were just eyes, energy was just energy, and the kids were just kids. The boy that asked me if I was happy earlier had been in my interest class and was one of the best English speakers in the grade. I had played basketball with him. This time he did not feel the need to ask that question. The rest of the class was still raucous but I realized it was not out of derision. They had a raw interest in the strange words they heard me say, and the odd way that I carried them. They were invested in the way they were supposed to be to the point that they’d repeat any word I’d said. After leading them in a chant, I’d say “very good!” and they’d say it back to me in a chorus. It threw me off a bit at first, but I could not help but laugh it off after a while.

Maybe more illuminating than anything, the kids of class 9 managed my review section perfectly. They knew almost everything of the class I thought I had botched beyond repair. The nervousness that I had was toxic. Drinking it in I’d think that I couldn’t do anything, and drinking those thoughts in I’d inch closer to the point where I actually couldn’t. Introspection matters, but never to the point that it should fog up the outer world. I would keep trying to improve, but that improvement could only come with confidence. When I said my goodbye, the teacher expressed remorse over the wildness of the class and her not bringing them in line. I felt confident enough to say that was false modesty. The class went well. So had the week.

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~Austin R Ryan

Airport Sorrows and Solid Ground Smiles


I have made the grave mistake of promising some folks back home a travel blog as I go to Changzhou, China to teach English. If you travel abroad, this is something you should avoid doing. You might think I am just being misanthropic, but if you don’t heed my warning you’ll have the task of adequately recording the sentimental memories clinging to you all the way from one international flight to another. But I am here, and I want to bring a bit of it back home for some relatives, so this starts my second Chinese travel blog.

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Plenty of trips start with a nearly crying mother, I think. That’s where mine really begins. It is the fine point where my mind cordons off old home from roaming. While I am weighing my baggage my mind is far off. Most people look up when they think about things, and my eyes are trained on the massive swooping ceiling of O’Hare. It looms grey and full endless empty space like an international airport ought to do.

My mother’s making anxious conversation with the clerk at the desk passing me easily through the process. I am hearing the words, registering them. But it is hard to respond right.

“He’s my last one.”

She says of me, the fourth to live outside of state and the second to live out of country.

“He’s the baby.”

And that one I’ve heard so often that I can hardly be embarrassed anymore.

“Oh, this is really the hardest one.”

That one slips out, and it’s really different from what I know.

“Oh, I’ll miss you guys a lot. That’ll be the worst part about being so far away.” I say. The O’Hare ceiling curves into endless up and open. The words are token in some way, but you do your best – especially with goodbyes.

Together we haul my two massive bags off to the side to get scanned and tagged. Then I step into the security line and hug my Mother. I had gone fast enough that my Dad did not need to come in, but I hugged him earlier. When my oldest sister Britt left to live in Cyprus with her husband I remember her looking back at us. She was waving, with beautiful thin drips of cinematic tears coming from the corners of each eye. As the line moved and Mom did too, I wondered if I should cry like my sister had. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. But seeing her standing there in Indianapolis International security is so vividly beautiful in my memory. When she stepped over that threshold I swear it was so singular and dramatic that even near a decade later my head can set the scene in detail. In recollected strokes I’d painted it out so well I can still see the whole airport materialize around her.

Sometimes stomaching forward movement is a forced process, and glancing back seems like it’ll suck you into hell with Orpheus. I respected the way she looked back, brimming up. It seemed courageous to roll up all that past and future into the present and let it wash outward in overload. I am not sure if my heart could even manage it. But I believe you are in part the strength of your family. The O’Hare airport swelters up with the hot talk of time consumed passengers. Everyone’s steamed words boils up to the top of the building and I am with it watching it shift and lurch along in line. I am looking up. Maybe I was thinking about how I wasn’t alone. Most likely it wasn’t so pretty, just something pithy about the trip in front of me.

But I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of TSA checkpoints and layovers and try to highlight what good and interesting I found in it. Chicago goes to LA and LA to Taipei. In between I am feeding myself caffeine and rough sleep to keep upward. My body’s a twisted ball of anxiety, I can tell you that for sure. No matter how bad my memory is, if it is a long trip then I am sweating it. Believe me, I have done it before in several separate forms. Far flung as Spain and close as D.C. and San Francisco I go hours early to airports for meeting eventualities that have rarely struck me.

At the LA airport I am six hours early for my flight and ask an attendant for the gate number. There’s a school group heading back to Hong Kong swimming all around me. On the flight I am packed tight to not touch a Chinese teenager on one side and a woman on the other. For some reason, I am constantly stealing glances. Is this the time to practice Mandarin? I stayed silent since the thoughts in my head sounded too loud.
At Taipei the airport is Orientalized tackily. It has a calligraphy station for anyone interested in dabbling in that during their layover and random Asian topography splattered over linoleum floors. There are people from the States, clearly from my program but I have million other things twisted up in my stomach so I can’t fill up on conversation. Intriguingly, I see early my later roommate standing a few chairs away from me.

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Then there’s Shanghai Pudong, my final destination. The halls here stretch on endlessly. If looking up at O’Hare was something then looking up here was something more. The glass arteries pour us out across at least ten of those flat escalators that carry you and your luggage across terminals. The big red camping backpack saddling me bites on the shoulders some. Normally I am shaking at the baggage claims for fear of losing something dear. This time my heart is really racing. But it can’t even beat for long before the big black bags come pounding out on the conveyor belt. Funny how things work out, someone I’d come to talk to quite a bit at orientation was across the way, speaking on his own anxious waiting.

My baggage is quite a bit. I have to stay for eight months, so there’s a lot to bring along. I have to place a smaller suitcase haphazard on another and roll both away. Hearing so much huffing and puffing, a friendly Chinese man offers to help, but I decline. It’s fine for now. I am on solid ground and I couldn’t care less how much I was carrying.

AYC coordinators meet up with us and in no time I am carrying on conversation. All of our faces are marked with the mixed feelings of eagerness and anxiety. Coming together, I think we all feel a little less alone. I know I do.

On the bus the Shanghai suburbs spin outward and I really feel back. It is a weird sensation, but in some way I feel a simultaneous sense of familiar and far, home and hotel. I had been in this place once before and for some reason it felt incredibly fitting to be back. The sun starts to settle behind rows of buildings constructed to look the exact same. Some stand half-constructed underneath the dying sun, while others sparkle with bits of light while all of them tower over small, squat housing areas with green lawns that sometimes turn to dirt fields. It is not vibrant foliage, not tiered rice paddies, not ancient terraced roofs of palaces. It is only a grey freeway that sprawls out into a suburban nowhere that has rapidly reached out to everywhere. It is a place where people live, will come to live, and will move away from.

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It is China. Lots of journeys start with crying mothers, but most don’t end that way. Most journeys don’t stay in what was given away from an old home, but live in the process of making a new one. Maybe I can manage this. Maybe I can teach like I mean it, make meaningful connections like I speak the language, and live here like I’d like to. I’d be happy to just get close to those expectations. That tight ball of anxiety and nerves in my stomach bit by bit untangles and I feel an easy smile creeping up on me.

~Austin R Ryan

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Tibet: Kumbum Monastery Part 2


At last we entered the final area, a little square enclosed by different buildings. Each one was somewhat squat, no more than one or two stories tall, with grey shingles. Everything looked almost stylized to the imagination of an Eastern temple. Out there in the cold near all the monks in red, it all felt very real regardless. The monks eyed us and we them, standing as strangers barred by language from a straight connection. Even if we had the tongue to tie our two groups together it would have been an entirely higher level of courage to break the ice. It was nothing particular about Tibetan monks. In the majority of temples we went to the monks did their own thing and let everyone else do theirs.

The tour guide told us to sheath our cameras at this point. In a certain area we could take pictures of monks, buildings, whatever else. Inside buildings and deeper within the monastery, they disallowed photography. I felt somewhat glad for it. Pictures help with capturing and keeping a moment but not necessarily for enjoying it. It is a tricky tradeoff where I remember less of what I could not take a camera to, but absorbed more of it at the time. At this point we entered the Grand Golden Tile Hall. Here and in the Potala Palace we got cut off from our cameras and it made the dimly light and sublimely colored Tibetan tapestries come alive.

You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.
You can see the gold tiles of the hall we would soon enter.

The bright and glaring sunlight made its exit and only gentle lamplight wore on our eyes now. The intricacy of the tapestries and the cloth covering the hallways was so intense that it felt overwhelming to try and take it all in at once. All the complex interweaving patterns created a sense of what the world’s cosmological phenomenon might look like. Pockets of well-organized tomes stood not far off either, sparking off endless thoughts on what they contained. Wild parts of my mind flirted with ill formed ideas of tantric secrets, but it was more likely the scrolls contained sutras and religious history.

Eventually we came to the large golden statue of Tsongkhapa himself, the man whose spiritual deeds sparked such grandeur. The golden statue itself was beautiful and awe inspiring in its own right, but the atmosphere meant everything here. A church inspires with ceilings that stretch on endlessly high, and cavernous expanses allowing all a seat. Kumbum felt small, but personal. The hallways were spacious enough, but crowded with so many banners and colors showered in dark light that in some way it felt packed and expansive at the same time. In this area we saw more monks and visitors giving offerings and sitting before the statue of Tsongkhapa. The holiness of the area radiated in a way I can only imagine Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel or the Hagia Sophia might.

A dear friend I had made on the trip remarked to me how incredible the experience felt to him. He called it one of the most intense experiences he had. I had to agree, and felt good doing so since I heavily pumped up Kumbum to him while we explored Xining. I try to keep a healthy balance between cynicism and romanticism, to not to get swept up into breaking things down into nothing or building them up so they become everything.

Never forget to look up!
Never forget to look up!

Yet, Kumbum deserved respect and absolutely should radiate holiness and awe even by objective standards. Kumbum is one of the oldest religious institutions in Tibet and second in importance only to Lhasa. It should inspire in the way Notre Dame might. Centuries of tribute and donation from a mostly poor peoples, centuries of elite support, centuries of a good section of many people’s resources funneled into this site.

The result was sublime. As we loaded back on the bus, I felt enlightened by an understanding of how so many people could give so much of what little they had to a venture that never paid them back materially. Grandeur and awe incite such a flood of emotions that they become a payment all their own. As I reflect, it is not so unlike the sky scraping buildings of New York or the terrifying obelisk we dedicate to George Washington.

Nation means nothing on its own, and neither does Capitalism, but seeing all that steel and all that marble help me admonish these ideas. The abstraction springs to life in form of the finest construction people can manage. Incredible skylines remind us of how far we have come. Named after businesses, they make remarks on what might have got us there, or at least paid for the construction. Marble monuments that seat Lincoln like Zeus in a hallowed hall solidifies America into a material realm. In Tibet the grandeur of golden Tsongkhapa does not seem so different, bringing to life an abstract idea of this man become sacred symbol.

The thought makes me feel so close to so many far places but so grounded in my home. I could understand the motives and sentiments of almost any monument, but the true meaning is different. My fingers might grasp at the meaning of monuments, but I wondered how much I could ever close in on it without living in the society that made them. I still wonder if I can only properly feel the full cultural pull of the National Mall.

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Tibet: Visting Kumbum Monastery Part 1


Before boarding the train to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper, we had to see Kumbum Monastery. Kumbum provided the first real glimpse into the traditional Tibetan culture and religion that all of us had heard so much about.

Few places matter more to the Yellow Hat or Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism than Kumbum Monastery. Voices in media often speak of Tibet as one entity held tight by one faith. The reality has a few more grits to sort through. Tibet once had heavier pagan or shamanistic beliefs but these seriously started to lose prominence when one of Tibet’s great dynastic kings, Songtsen Ghampo took over. Songtsen was no small talent, quickly taking control of much of the Tibetan plateau and patronizing the region’s early Buddhism. Eventually he would even rout the forces of the Tang Dynasty.

Later on the Bon faith would arise in contrast of Buddhism, though it could never get quite as hard a hold. Tibetan Buddhists themselves could not quite agree on everything and splintered into several sects that rose and fall. The Dalai Lamas and the Gelug School now iconic across all the world started up in the 14th century with Tsongkhapa and a small town outside Xining that would become Kumbum Monastery.

Standing outside Kumbum
Standing outside Kumbum

Our bus wheeled up to the outer wall of Kumbum early in the day, just as it opened. We had all layered up but the cold winter morning could cut through any number of layers. The whole place was quiet except for us shivering and chattering. For a while everyone just stood outside, waiting for a signal from our guide to head in.

An eager salesman with a plucky grin spotted us. He had the reigns of a shaggy white pony in his hands and offered rides for anyone willing to pay. None of us were much pliable to the offer, though. As tourists we likely disappointed, not buying from the stands of handcrafted goods outside or opting in on pony rides. Most of us were saving up for Lhasa, a place bubbling with commerce and worship.

Doing business
Doing business

Aside from our group Kumbum did not have so wide an audience this early in the morning. A Tibetan woman and her kid came walking in with us and there were a few other folks scattered about. I do not doubt that, come a little later time, the place would get a bit more active. Still, Kumbum was a monastery slightly removed from the really big population center, so it may never have had so many worshipers as monks.

The sparseness of the monastery added to it anyways, at least for a visitor from far off. Generic holiness as I knew it always had this idea of solitude surrounding it. Generic holiness shows itself in form of a person alone in a church atoning, like in the movies. Yet if there was anything that the Yonghegong monastery in Beijing and my sometimes unstable routine of bible study taught me, it’s that faith and religion come alive when people come together underneath it. The people make the faith as much faith makes the people. That dialogue with an idea of something holy or unworldly good was always what gripped me.

Two people headed in to the monastery
Two people headed in to the monastery

Still, Kumbum easily shined through the biting morning cold and everything else that kept attendance away did not mean much. The monastery gradually wove upward into the side of slightly sloping mountain. The sharp red, gold and greens burst to life in the sunlight and from that moment I could feel myself romanticizing everything. I fought against that urge. I love the romantic but it can really run against you if you really want to grip something.

Red arches welcomed us into the monastic compound. Our long linger in the cold came to an end with a row of white stupas topped with colorful spirals at their tops and intricate colored patterns at the bottom. Each stupa represented a different part of the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings. The sun shined down and the tour guide led us further in. First we visited a few rooms on the outside of the complex, shrines to various religious figures. We could not take pictures inside and unfortunately my memory cannot hold all the specific images. Still, the colors in all the temples, the deep reds and oranges stitched into so much incredible quilt work, and the glimmering gold of mighty statues has not left me. Rather, the colors just bleed into a mess of mixed images that won’t separate for all my pulling at them.

neatly lined up stupas
neatly lined up stupas
A closer look at the stupas
A closer look at the stupas

We walked through the thick and brilliantly colored cloth that covered the thresholds of some of the shrines and dropped small donations as we went. Sometimes we got shawls in payment for a donation. They feel thin to the hand and would not combat the cold, but they have beautiful color and decoration. They came with a meaning too, red for passion and love, orange for prosperity, and so on. Even with the meaning attached the shawls reminded me that I was as strange as a person could be to this place, separated by layers of culture thicker than a thousand of these shawls.

The tour guide showed us complex statues made from Yak butter, and important offer given to Tibetan temples and monasteries, before we walked off the beaten path to somewhere deeper in. Along the route we ran across some monks making their way into the main complex where we would soon be. They worse Nikes and eagerly eyed their smart phones.

So much color!
So much color!

It might seem a sharp contrast, but Buddhism and Capitalism do not often clash so much. Even before capitalism ever came about, any religious order needed money and resource to stay alive. Often those resources had to come from the surrounding towns, the monks and abbots too busy with holy scripture, prayer or meditation to manage all on their own. So monks in many places lived as a privileged class funded through heavy donation.

My father never pushed Buddhism very hard on any of us, but he had demystified it for me. Buddha does not wipe away the little terrors people feel. Even monks stay human, eating human food, finding human shelter, at least until the accounts say they burst into clouds of lotus flowers. Like any religion Buddhism could coexist alongside anything from something as small as smartphones or as sinister as fanatical violence. I was glad to see monks in Nike’s as another reminder to not fetishize faith.

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Tibet: Starting Off in Xining


Nothing gets people so riled up as a chance to see Tibet. That plateau has been talked up higher than it lies above sea level. Our group of exchange students hardly proved exempt from the pull of the mystical plateau. Beijing University offered us a few travel lines, but so many opted for the line with Tibet in it that all but two of the lines had to be cancelled for lack of travelers. Most of my peers desired to see Tibet above all else, and signed up without knowing much of the other sites along the way. I could not blame them, the chance to see Tibet proper does not present itself often.

In the end we all piled into the Tibet travel line anyways, heading off to learn about Buddhism. I like to say that even if it did not include Tibet I would have picked it to explore one of the religions I was raised with. To this day I am not sure if I was speaking true or trying to diminish my shallowness. Either way, it did not matter. Almost every site on the list I knew and wanted to see, from the old capitals of Luoyang and Xian to the temples on the Tibetan plateau to the sacred peaks and historical cities of Sichuan.

Our first glimpse of Tibetan Buddhism came after we landed in a small city called Xining, the capital of a far off province called Qinghai. At first glance it did not seem Tibetan but it no doubt was a part of the plateau and influenced by a mesh of cultures, including Tibetan and Han Chinese. Trade between Han, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan empires allowed Xining to flourish. It rose up right on the edge of what the Chinese call Qinghai and the Tibetans call Amdo, two names for a similarly assigned space. However, we came to Xining for a nearby monastery more than the city itself.

Still, the city had a significance worth exploring. At the intersection of several cultures, Xining’s probably seen a lot of every sort of people. Mongolians, Tibetans, Muslims and Chinese all played a part in its history. Now it stands as the largest city on the Tibetan plateau. None of that translates into its skyline or across its urban sprawl.

Landing in the Xining airport.
Landing in the Xining airport.

Large though it may be for the plateau it is a small city on China’s scales. Of all the places I had been in China none felt as empty and spacious as Xining. To be fair to Xining, we did not stay there for very long and only went exploring on one quiet night.

Besides, Xining had a very special charm all its own. Few places felt quite as honestly human as Xining. This is a city with more work than pomp. The city lacked the grand skyline of China’s megacities and it could not sprawl out endlessly like Beijing does. Rather, it exists and only ever existed as the simple and practical version of itself, not reaching out to be a Big Apple or even a Second City. Xining did not feel dressed up, a rarity for a country rediscovering the clothing of State Capitalism and Confucianism.

Despite my all too natural reluctance to go out, I ended up heading out after dark to explore the town with a group of friends. We struck a path along a street next to an empty canal and walked a short while before stopping at corner store. A young man stood half asleep at a slightly dilapidated chrome counter. He welcomed us in and bade us to buy whatever we liked, though he spent much more energy welcoming in a white cat. I could not blame him; the cat seemed much more interesting.

A large part of China’s spirit – as I saw it – manifested in bottles of water and cats. The people there could not do without either. The tap water in China is undrinkable even for the iron-stomached, making bottled water a constant. Office places had several 32 packs of plastic water bottles stacked atop coolers. Campus stores sold big bottles with handles. On the street a vendor stood at the ready with one as well. Restaurants served steaming hot water in part to ensure customers of its secure quality, and partly out of traditions I only half understand that call for hot drinks

The cats paint a cheerier picture. Stray cats are a fixture along the streets of Beijing and Xining. People leave little piles of kibble for the cats to eat and let the felines come and go. The small office where we met at Beijing University even had a cat all its own, affectionately named Xiao Bai (小白) meaning “Little White.” It came in for food but sometimes stuck around for company.

It had little legs so I called it lil' legs
A stray cat I met in Lhasa.

We got our bottles of water and had the man up front ring us up. He was fairly friendly and pretty tired. He tossed up three fingers to indicate the price, then dropped a word I did not know. Spotting the confusion, he smiled and cut back to the Beijing dialect, common speech. China’s tongues do not just divide at Cantonese and Mandarin but at the boundaries of every province. Dialects can differ right down to the county line, sometimes so steeply separate that they could be languages all their own. All across the country most people can speak Beijing dialect at least like a second language.

After that we ambled onward for a while, realizing that few places outside of that corner store and some McDonald’s were still open. We thought everyone was asleep until we came upon a super poppy tune emanating from a distant plaza. A bunch of senior citizens had gathered at a nice and open place to do some nighttime group dancing. They quickly invited us over, curving hands and mouthing “Lai 来! Lai 来! Lai 来!” So for a while we did a little group dancing in a foreign plaza. Some older women helped show me the ropes and by the end I was deep in the formation trying hard to stay in step. My compatriots pulled me out of the group and we went on walking.

Past that point we did not have so much to see. Before we knew it we had stumbled upon another plaza, this one even more massive and filled with some strange sculptures we did not understand. After some loitering a nearby McDonald’s called our name, mostly by merit of being open when everything else was closed.

The magic of marketing has made McDonald’s and other fast food brands a middle and upper class treat in China. The menus feature American style foods often with a Chinese twist, featuring fried chicken with a Sichuan sauce and a curry chicken plate served with fries. One of the biggest culture clashes I have ever had was over a pizza hut in Chengdu, where I ate a freshly made pan pizza underneath glinting chandeliers while watching well-dressed businessmen chat at a nearby table. Though this McDonald’s proved pretty interesting too.

I got another bottle of water to have when I woke up next morning and sat at a table a slight way away from a middle aged Chinese woman sowing something nice and colorful. At first nothing seemed amiss. Gradually a tragedy etched into her expressions and she started to sob and heave quietly in the corner. There we were, foreigners in one of the furthest parts of a strange land all alone on the second floor of a McDonald’s save some workers and a woman crying into a quilt.

The moment struck me as I felt simultaneously very far and incredibly close to her. My language skills could not grapple with her troubles and my social skills would not have been up to the task either. Still, I was one of the few witnesses to a breakdown, one of the warm bodies nearest to some unfortunate thing that had brooded until it spilled over. No travel guide in the universe could have explained to me how to handle the situation.

Stories started to swirl around in my mind, trying to understand what might have happened. A friend of mine and I started to speak carefully in English. We wondered openly what to do, but also what this woman’s tale was. Had she lost a child recently, went for a night time walk and ended up knitting and sobbing? Was she just distressed at things at home or homeless entirely? There was no way to know even though we tried to figure it out. The most respectable thing to do may have been to stay silent or talk about other things. Perhaps we should have lent a hand despite language barriers. We should have tried to do better by her. We should not have given into curiosity, but if we were not weak to exploratory impulses we may never have ended up in China.

After that we just walked back and relaxed at the hotel. It was a very human city and it gave me plenty to think about even if not much happened while I was there. The bell would call for us very early next morning and we’d end up hastily eating a bare-bones breakfast before going to Kumbum Monastery. The tale will continue next week with the monastery. I will leave a few photos as a bit of a teaser.

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~Austin R Ryan