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

Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 2: Airport People


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

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

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

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

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

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

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


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

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

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

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

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

~Austin R Ryan

Do You Miss Home?


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

~Austin R Ryan

A Day in Yancheng Park: Youth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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~Austin R Ryan

A Day in Yancheng Park: Ruins


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favorites


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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