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

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A Day in Yancheng Park: Youth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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~Austin R Ryan

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

The Very First Day of My New Job


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Austin R Ryan

Orienting


I’ll lay it out straight. Orientations tend to suck. Orientations are often ice breaker banquets where the surface is still chilly after countless camp counselor style warmers. That’s not to say every orientation is that way, but there’s a certain art to situating someone for something. The bigger that something is the harder it is to situate someone to it. For those four year undergrad programs there’s only so much placing a program can manage and the unexpected ends are so vast that designing something that sticks past the start is hard.

Ameson Year in China (the program we had all enrolled in) located us pretty well. Maybe Ameson had it a little easier, but I think teaching ten months in a developing nation unfamiliar in custom and language still had a murkiness that would make anyone a bit uncertain. Most of us were uncertain of a lot of things. Most of us had no idea what our cities and schools looked like, let alone our apartments. Now before you go thinking I went off unprepared I’ll have you know I gave my city and my school a good google – half past cursory in quality at least!

But even with that knowledge, even with pictures of apartments and word of policies, the reality of any event does not hit until you are right there in it. Many of us felt uncertain, and rightfully so. Near none of us had taught English for this long – if at all – or been to China for such a stretch of time. We had all had learned how to teach over the internet, but that had been over a month ago and that task still felt daunting.

The first day we had all been up early. New friends and acquaintances reported having woken up early as 5 AM. I had managed to sleep in until 6 AM and for the first time I had the odd problem of waking up too early. Last night my roommate and I had both tried to tough it out until 10 PM to battle off jetlag. I turned on a movie on my laptop at eight and he turned on the TV. In less than ten minutes he fell asleep over the covers with the remote still in hand and in less than thirty I fell asleep in front of my screen and awoke only briefly enough to turn off my computer and get under the covers.

In the morning everyone admirably beat their eyes open across several dense lectures from important Chinese academics. For a while I thought this might be the pace I’d have to run the whole way, and I quickly bought myself some caffeine to keep me going. Fortunately the lectures subsided some and the teaching training began in earnest. After a few days I dropped the jetlag, too. The feeling of getting into a new timezone is akin to shedding old and heavy skin for a fresh and light new layer.
Before long everything started to pick up. People were going and sampling the night life, some even venturing into two hours away central Shanghai in small groups. English as foreign language teachers started to refresh us in old material we had learned online. More importantly, they demonstrated much of what they taught on us so we could see how the parts form into a whole. Each instructor radiated the word “teacher” in such a way that they made me envious how they owned a function so thoroughly. The mastery they had over one thing was fascinating and deeply encouraging. I had the feeling that even without owning an ounce of what they had, I could tap into it and make something come together the way I liked.

It was overwhelming, but in China so is everything. Look outside and everything is moving towards so many ends that there’s no tying it together. All that movement occurs in different dialects of a language that has no root with a western one and a culture nurtured in Confucianism and Communism. Try to capture each memorable moment in your mind and you’ll have it racing. Try to capture it all on film or paper and you’ll race your mind right off a cliff. So in a way absorbing all the knowledge of wise elders felt par for the course.

Each day we were booked solid so I hardly even noticed the time fly by. Towards the end things got a bit hectic and wild. Our organizers arranged an impromptu trip to downtown Shanghai where we all performed the Macarena in a flash mob. We had about ten minutes to prepare it and that showed somewhat but it went well enough. By the time we were done a ring of Chinese people had enclosed us with flashing cameras and the little lights of phones.

After that everyone went to an immensely crowded section of Shanghai where we all took pictures with the city skyline. A few Chinese people joined us. I was crouched across the way from two Chinese women taking pictures on their camera phones. Using the large and goofy facial features of mine I cheesed enough to get them to notice me and laugh a little. I felt proud of that. It felt like a little honest connection. I tried to give them a pleasant emotion and they received it just fine. In a way, it felt more communicative than a conversation would have. In butchering every Mandarin phrase I know over and over, sometimes it seems frustratingly like I am only read with delight at doing something right or awkwardness at missing another thing. The frustration of language is making words pack the right punch and biting down on a second tongue doubles all that up.

By the end of the night I had to turn in a photo essay for a competition and by the next morning I needed to be ready to do a teaching demo and take a test. Somehow it all fell into order. Everything came together hastily and felt like it could fall apart from a slight push, but it all held up. The demo lesson went well and the test even better. The end came fast and whacked me on my ass. Not much past an hour of taking the test, the results were in and I was sitting in a closing ceremony watching awards get doled out. Of course I was an entrant into a competition myself and eager to hear the winners. In the whole of my mind I was sure I wasn’t one of them and bracing myself for the defeat. At that moment I could see all the overwrought tendencies of my fake-deep, faux-philosophical writing coming up to shame me for trying at this thing.

These days I am more determined not to take my own abuse. This time some thoughts fought back and told me to stand by the decision. How was I supposed to grow by shutting my writings in? Embarrassing is a word you live until failures turn to successes. Red cheeks and cringes are what build up creative muscle. Screw not trying. I ought to try hard every day even if it means I die embarrassed.

It was all melodrama anyways. I was one of the winners of the contest I entered into. Hearing my name called genuinely shocked me. A tall wave of harsh self criticism crashed against the reality of winning the award. Happiness crept up on me, but it was so cautious I could hardly feel it. Much of the growth I made had been done alone, reliant on stabbing open words and tearing apart pieces to see what was worthwhile in each. The happiness of a warm reception was and still is a fair weather friend that knew it ought to walk gingerly over even unjustified self-criticisms. That happiness owed much of its existence to that self-criticism in the first place. Flitting happiness had no right to unseat the beast that bit at my heels until I got things done – the beast that, when I appease, gives me true confidence. Feeling all those negative emotions try to rebound into something positive felt really odd. Maybe I did feel good about winning, but maybe the errors I scrounged up while scared in my chair ought to haunt me some.

I gave myself a break anyways and thanked anyone who congratulated me. Who knows what all of it really means? I liked the other winners’ pieces more than my own and think they showed most of the entrants did well. The sharp and willful people that had come here to teach all seemed up to the task of beating me at writing something so maybe I should be proud, but maybe hardly anyone took the time. In the end it’s all questions that don’t need answers. I was happy enough with what I made.

The liaison at our school told us right after the ceremony that the school driver was ready to take a fellow teacher and I to our new home in Changzhou. Before I could unpack anything, I repacked everything and said sharp goodbyes to the people I met. I had not time to track down many I wanted to see off, fearing that I’d make a bad impression by having my host school wait on me any longer. Before I knew it, I was oriented. Though I still did not really know where I was headed and I still have no idea what it will mean.

~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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