Dirt seems to breath in sunshine and breath out dead leaves. If you hold it close enough, you can almost hear it exhaling. I liked the way it felt, the wet graininess that bubbled and burped and sank between my toes and fingers, or the dry stuff, even if it made my eyes hurt when I accidentally rubbed them with my dirty hands. I used to regret that I could not eat it, or if I did, suffer the ear drumming, gritty texture grinding between my teeth.
The summer before the millennia, 1999, my mom and dad were building their new home from scratch in the ex-corn fields of West Michigan. My aunts and uncles came for a family reunion to help build at one point, I think. All I remember is that dirt was everywhere. My cousin Meg got our van stuck in the long muddy driveway, I think it took about three uncles and my dad and thirty minutes to get her out.
Meg was pretty old, she could already drive, but our other cousins, Jake and Joe, were almost my age (just a couple years older). They both played baseball, not professionally of course, they weren't old enough yet, only about eleven and nine, but they played on a team all year, even during the summer. I guess they didn't get a lot of vacation time, so the fact that they were spending it with us was pretty special. Anyway, the black and gold dirt was everywhere that summer. When I looked at our yard, it reminded me of a marble cake or a desert wasteland with no weeds. Naturally, mud fights were the most exhilarating thing in the world. My two cousins and my older siblings and I scrambled across the packed, never-ending source of ammunition. I never really thought about how Jake and Joe were such good baseball players, and they could throw about ten times better than me on a bad day. I guess I just never bothered to make the connection. Although, one day in particular, I do remember hiding behind a dune half scared out of my mind. If I'm honest with you, sometimes the war became pretty serious and somehow everyone else knew what team they were on and I was just the little fifth one, chucking at whoever came close enough. Except Nate, I wouldn’t ever throw dirt at Nate. I stuck my head just over the tip of the dune.
“Danae, get down.” Nate whispered, chest flat on the ground, dirt in hand.
I turned to look, but it was too late. Smack. I tasted it before I felt it. The hardest piece of dirt in the whole world smeared me across my right cheek and exploded in my mouth. Now, I was not a baby, I knew that if I was going to get myself involved in a war, I was going to get hit. But no one considers how the biggest, baddest, rock-hard chunk of black dirt, bigger than your whole fist, might just nail you clear across your entire jawbone and shatter in a million tiny pieces halfway down your throat. I didn't understand what was happening as the impact threw me down. I felt my body being spun sideways as I skidded face first in dirt. Blood and drool and mud came out like vomit. I started howling like a hyena and holding the mess of red and black dirt in my hands and looking at my cousin like I was going to murder him.
There wasn’t any more mud wars after that.
That same summer my brother Nate and I would swim for hours in the pond that giant cranes had dug up behind our unfinished house. I think that’s where all the dirt came from, one single pond. Mom was somewhere else, I don’t remember where, maybe she was working, and dad was busy building. Nate and I didn’t think to bring our bathing suits, so we just took off all of our clothes except our underwear and slid down the mountains of sand piled around the little pond. We slid down the sand dunes until our underwear turned golden and we had sand stuck so far up our butt holes I was sure we’d be pooping dirt for weeks.
When we got tired of swimming, we buried each other under that pond dirt, all but the head, and then get up and laugh until our guts hurt at the soil clinging to our skin and hair. We made beds and chairs and tables and even ink. We wrote on dead leaves or the bottom of the windsurfer that dad picked up for us somewhere. That windsurfer was the most beautiful massive slate of hard white plastic I ever laid eyes on. It didn't have a sail anymore, so it looked like a big sad flat shark. I was terrified of it, partly because of its truly shark-likeness, and partly because it had a sharp little piece of metal sticking up at one end. When you swim in a pond for hours your skin becomes soft and noodly, so a tiny hook of metal like that drives in deep. It didn’t stop us for taking that board out to the middle of the little pond and running off it, though. Sometimes we jumped, but mostly we just ran off because our momentum and the weight of our bodies sent the board shooting in the opposite direction so whoever was still sitting there would get spun out pretty fast.
I lived for the moment right before I hit the water, when I catapulted myself in the air, arms and legs spread out like Tarzan, and I could see the water right beneath me. I hit it like a torpedo, smack, and the world closed up and I shut my eyes tight and let the darkness poor into me. I could only take it for two seconds, then I started feeling panicky and pulled my way upward. I could never tell just how soon the surface would hit, sometimes it took a while, but I’d burst through the darkness and spit out the pond water and wipe it from my eyes and spread the hair from my face. Before I set foot on the sleek white plastic, before I even knew where I had landed, I already wanted to jump in again.
Grandpa, you were probably wearing a dark blue jean collared shirt and light blue pants with a toothpick between your teeth when you told me you’d take me for a walk one evening to the big high school across the street.
On the way, I said we should race, you said no, and I meant it when I said you weren’t too old. It was warm then, I remember, but the leaves were falling. You made sure I was holding your hand when we crossed the road. That is one thing. Grandpa, I have always loved your hands. You have such strong hands. I loved the way they swallowed mine up when you took and held them. They felt so rough and warm.
Every time, before I’d go, you held my hands in yours. You’d squeeze them tightly, tucking your chin down just slightly, and earnestly look me in the eyes. “I love you.” You’d say. I’ll always recognize the tone of it, husky and deep. “It is so good to see you, come back again.” And in those words I sensed just a hint of a song, like you were singing the psalm of your soul, and the words came through to me so easily.
Dear Grandpa, thank you for holding my hands in yours. I didn’t know what it meant then, but now I swear to God, those strong hands make me want to believe in something, believe that there’s more than chaos and busy cars in this lonely world you’ve left.
We were staring at the traffic light, waiting for the color to change from red to green. We were silent as the city sounds spoke for us. I liked the presence of these strangers—with them I felt my absence. Like a mirror, I was a reflection of their human face. Mostly, they didn't know they saw me—only recognizing the busy traffic sights.
In the distance I could see the yellow screens of plastic as the lights in the floating lamps moved down. People were starting, slowing, stopping in the perpetual rhythm conducted by our law of light. And I wasn't alone. We were all waiting for the signal to turn. I looked at the man to my left. I imagined he was involved with important affairs—yet he could just as easily be falling into some great loss—it made no difference. To me this man was all but invisible. I'd forget him after the street was crossed.
Everyone was starting, slowing, stopping. The little lights moved down their metal frames. I supposed there was some sort of meaning, people truly believe in the traffic light. We believe in the unchanging change of three colors, this belief makes society better. I wondered if other beliefs could work like that. The man didn't notice I was staring. We were all impatiently waiting to return home, to eat, to be left in peace and forget about the invisible faces we saw.
One of my goals for this year was to read something by Tolstoy. Not wanting to dive into anything as long as War and Peace, I chose a much shorter, but no less heady excerpt: A Confession. Within these pages, Tolstoy explains his early life and his struggle for meaning and how he came to find it in his own way. I've highlighted some quotes that I think reveal the essence of this incredible little book, from beginning to end:
"Judgements on what is good and necessary must not be based on what other people say and do, or on progress, but on the instincts of my own soul" (13).
"It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience. It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?" (26).
"I can find nothing resembling an answer. This is not because, as in the case of the clear, experimental sciences, the answer does not relate to the question, but because despite all the intellectual effort directed at my question, there is no answer. And instead of an answer all one gets is the same question, only put in a more complicated form" (33).
"It appeared that mankind as a whole had some kind of comprehension of the meaning of life that I did not acknowledge and derided. It followed that rational knowledge does not provide the meaning of life, but excludes it; while the meaning given to life by the millions of people, by humanity as a whole, is founded on some sort of knowledge that is despised and considered false" (53).
"I realized that no matter how irrational and distorted the answers given by faith might be, they had the advantage of introducing to every answer a relationship between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution" (57).
"Whatever answers faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death" (58).
"If it were not so frightening it would be amusing to observe the pride and complacency with which we, like children, take apart the watch, pull out he spring and make a toy of it, and are then surprised with the watch stops working" (60).
"In contrast to what I saw happening in my own circle, where the whole of life is spent in idleness, amusement and dissatisfaction with life, I saw that these people who labored hard throughout their entire lives were less dissatisfied with life than the rich" (65).
"What happened was that the life of our class, the rich and learned, became not only distasteful to me, but lost all meaning. All our activities, our discussions, or science and our art struck me as sheer indulgence. I realized there was no meaning to be found there" (66).
"I had been blinded from the truth not so much through my mistaken thoughts as through my life itself, which had been spent in satisfying desire and in exclusive conditions of epicureanism [enjoying life]" (67).
"The thing that saved me was that I managed to tear myself away from my exclusive existence and see the true life of the simple working people, and realize that this alone is genuine life" (71).
"I realized that if I wanted to understand life and its meaning I had to live a genuine life and not that of a parasite; and having accepted the meaning that is given to life by that real section of humanity who have become part of that genuine life, I had to try it out" (71).
"I recalled the hundreds of occasions when life had died within me only to be reborn. I remembered that I only lived during those times when I believed in God. Then, as now, I said to myself: I have only to believe in God in order to live. I have only to disbelieve in Him, or forget Him, in order to die" (74).
"What are these deaths and rebirths? It is clear that I do not live when I lose belief in God's existence, and I should have killed myself long ago, were it not for a dim hope of finding Him" (74-75).
"What then is it that you are seeking? a voice exclaimed inside me. There He is! He, without whom it is impossible to live. To know God and to live are one and the same thing. God is life" (75).
I renounced the life of our class, having recognized that it is not life but only a semblance of life, and that the conditions of luxury in which we live deprive us of the possibility of understanding life" (78).
"Man's purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul he must live according to God. In order to live according to God one must renounce all the comforts of life, work, be humble, suffer and be merciful" (78). [Tolstoy's conclusion. However...]
"If it is to answer to people living in the most differing circumstances of life and of different education, and if there is only one answer to the eternal questions of life--why do I live? what is the purpose of my life?--this answer, although essentially always the same, must be endlessly varied in its manifestation" (80).
"Religious truth cannot be attained by one man alone, but only reveals itself to a union of all people, united through love" (81).
"As I rose early in the morning to go to church I knew that I was doing something good, if only in that I was sacrificing my bodily comforts in order to subdue my proud mind, for the sake of unity with my ancestors and contemporaries, and to find the meaning of life" (82).
"'Love one another in unity'" (82).
"The question that first presents itself is: why is the truth not to be found in Lutheranism, or Catholicism, but only in the Orthodox faith?...the Protestants and Catholics are equally convinced of the singular truth of their faiths" (90).
"Then I understood it all. While I am seeking faith, the force of life, they are seeking the best way of fulfilling, in the eyes of men, certain human obligations. And in fulfilling these human affairs they they perform them in a human fashion" (91). ["human fashion" = imperfectly]
"I...was fully convinced that not all the teachings of the faith I had joined were true. Whereas before I used to say that all religious teaching is a lie, I no longer found it possible to say this. There could be no doubt that the people as a whole had a knowledge of the truth, otherwise they would not be here" (93).
"I have no doubt that there is truth in the teachings, but I also have no doubt that there is falsehood in them too, and that I must discover what is true and what is false and separate one from the other" (94).
I'm settled into my new home on the east side of Michigan, and I think I finally have something to write about.
My writing desk...
This is a blog post, not an essay. I don't have a driving thesis here, I'm just confessing my thoughts, asking questions, and probably writing more than necessary.
My spiritual growth seems to come in sudden spurts that steadily build on variations of the same theme. My last growth spurt was in Asia, where the world suddenly expanded to shocking proportions and I realized the very small space I utilize in this enormous environment: I call it the "de-centering" effect.
Before I left for China/Thailand, I was involved at my church and campus community. I wanted to know everyone and pour myself into as many lives as I could. I signed up for volunteer programs, campus events, whatever I could manage. Post-China, I did nothing. Community outreach and fund raising seemed meaningless to me, even absurd.
This question haunted me: How could it ever possibly be enough?
I began to believe my lifestyle was insulting. I understood who I was, in a way. I was born into privilege, caught up in a highly Westernized Christian culture, attempting to reach down over my life-hedge to spread Christ's love. I saw this as ridiculous. I understood that even saving the whole country of China couldn't possibly satisfy God, that's not what He wanted from me. In this way, I grew. I set my mind to find joy in the monotony of life, being thankful for the small space and timeframe I occupied. Still, it hurt my heart to think about my purpose too deeply (or the lack thereof), so I stopped trying and pretended it didn't matter. In the mean time, I was drawn to other, less Westernized religions in search of a better way to live.
I stopped hearing the pastor's sermons. I'd listen and walk away wondering, "did he really believe any of that? Do I? Do any of these people?" I couldn't help thinking if we did, our lives would look different. I wanted to give up and, amidst my search for meaning, came to embrace a humanistic pursuit of pleasure and happiness. The pursuit of happiness in itself can be a great reward, and is enough for many people.
It wasn't that I had lost my faith, it was that my faith had lost its former meaning. I wanted to cling to what I had always believed, but the tighter I held on, the more it seemed to dissolve in my hands. Along with the disillusioning of myself, China had broken through the holes of my Christian lifestyle.
Now, I am living on my own and once again feeling growing pain. A dear friend has been challenging me to reevaluate my life and what I want--or rather, what the Christian Way looks like. What should I want? I don't want success if success means taking one step after another on the ladder of illusionary goals masquerading as a sensible means of purpose--an ideal career, money, material wealth, and/or a happy family. It's not that such a climb is wrong, but it easily can be. It has the potential to draw us away from our need for God and people. There can be beauty, Truth, and goodness in the mundane, ordinary things in life (even while climbing the ladder), I know, I've seen glimpses, but...
I have to believe there is something more. The de-centering showed me that it isn't about my individual works and good heart (i.e. trying to be a good Christian and save China). I alone shouldn't be the focus or center, that is a very individualistic, American way to understand Christianity. Christianity is a body of people centered around Christ, I am a part of the whole--the whole body of Christ. This is where it can get tricky, and a little too abstract.
People complain about the church, Christ's body, everyday, multiple times a day, so there's no need for me to add to the white noise. However, I know that I need people, God's people, who will challenge me and lovingly demand that I live rightly and give of myself. I need people further along in their own understanding of God and life, who can challenge my lifestyle and provide a clearer picture of what Christ looks like. Such people draw attention away from themselves and point instead to a better Way of living. Without mindlessly climbing or consuming, they are beings who are active in the body, allowing the body to move as a body should. They need the body to live as much as the body needs them.
Maybe these people aren't necessarily "reaching out" (or down) amidst their business to help the church or community. Instead, maybe these people are building their lives, their lifestyles, around the network of the body, so how they are living is directly connected to and reliant on everyone else rather than hedged in and fenced off and self-supporting. Together, as one body, we are stronger and able to reach and continue reaching beyond ourselves.
I suspect much of my thoughts revolve around idealistic notions, but I don't mind being an idealist. At least I have a clearer understanding of what I intend to run toward, evening if I never will completely arrive.
As I look for a new church to attend, I don't care about the institution. I'm looking for God's people, and I will know them by the way they live.
Some of my favorite quotes I've been hoarding over the past year:
I am under no obligation to make sense to you.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.
Let people feel the weight of who you are and let them deal with it.
If you don’t pray often, you won’t gain a love for praying. Prayer is work, and therefore it is not very appealing to our natural sensibilities. But the simple rule for prayer is this: Begin praying and your taste for prayer will increase. The more you pray, the more you will acquire the desire for prayer, the energy for prayer, and the sense of purpose in prayer.
But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.
I enjoy controlled loneliness. I like wandering around the city alone. I’m not afraid of coming back to an empty flat and lying down in an empty bed. I’m afraid of having no one to miss, of having no one to love.
Look, l may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but l am proud of what l am. I am a librarian.
My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.
Attract them by the way you live.
The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.
Thich Nhat Hanh
I also believe that introversion is my greatest strength. I have such a strong inner life that I’m never bored and only occasionally lonely. No matter what mayhem is happening around me, I know I can always turn inward.
Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.
Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.
Such a simplified lifestyle can be truly wonderful - you’ll finally have time for the things you really love, for relaxation, for outdoor activities, for exercise, for reading or finding peace and quiet, for the loved ones in your life, for the things you’re most passionate about. This is what it means to thrive - to live a life full of the things you want in them, and not more. To live a better quality of life without having to spend and buy and consume.
Leo Babauta, Thriving on Less: Simplifying in a Tough Economy
You have to dream, you have to have a vision, and you have to set a goal for yourself that might even scare you a little because sometimes that seems far beyond your reach. Then I think you have to develop a kind of resistance to rejection, and to the disappointments that are sure to come your way.
If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.
Blessed are the weird people - poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, troubadours - for they teach us to see the world through different eyes.
Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable.
It was being a runner that mattered, not how fast or how far I could run. The joy was in the act of running and in the journey, not in the destination. We have a better chance of seeing where we are when we stop trying to get somewhere else.
Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The most monstrous monster is the monster with noble feelings.
fyodor dostovevsky, the eternal husband
One day, a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.
Someone once asked me, “Why do you insist on taking the hard road?” I replied, “Why do you assume I see two roads?”
I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
But luxury has never appealed to me, I like simple things, books, being alone, or with somebody who understands.
Daphne du Maurier
I wish I could have the ability to write down the feelings I have now while I’m still little, because when I grow up I will know how to write, but I will have forgotten what being little feels like.
Sylvia Plath, age 8
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.
At twenty-something my world is new: new opportunities, new understanding, new standards. I have learned the exterior details of life are infinitely expandable. If I’m not suited for something, I can move on. I can find a better place to belong. Life is and will always be a terrifyingly honest representation of what I value most. I hope to choose wisely.
The plane had finally taken off. The familiar popping and buzzing in my head left me moving my jaw around in circles and digging my finger into my ear. I looked out the window, observing the strategically planted square fields, a thousand different variations of green. I noticed the slender ribbon-like roads, weaving in every direction, lined with tiny insect cars. The roofs of the houses were like long dull spikes, arranged side by side in dozens upon dozens of rows. Above the thin clouds were the perfectly clear blue sky and painfully white sun. It was god-like to me, seeing the earth and sky from such a view. I stared with melancholy approval.
"Such a small plane..."said the woman in the next seat, looking around and then over at me; she was expecting an affirming reply.
"It is tiny." I said.
"I've never flown in one so small. These things make it all the way to Michigan?"
"Yeah, I hope so." I looked over and smiled at the woman. She had grey hair and a round, tired face. She shrugged and didn't say anything more.
It's not surprising I associate the sky with God. My Christian tradition titles him, "our Heavenly Father." The name is fitting: the skies, or the heavens, are infinite and mysterious to us, they always have been, like God. The earth, although incredible in detail, is perhaps less unknown. We can see the earth: "Mother Earth." To me, when seen together, our Heavenly Father and Mother Earth could be argued as the arch-parents of humankind.
Humans. We're somewhere in between, a composition of both. Our physiological being is from the earth, our "mother," but our Father's essence runs through us as well, all of us. I think it is rooted in our ability to speak, words are so essential to our existence, yet they are not tangible, much like the thin air. John 1:14: "The Word became flesh" is the act of God becoming man, he became "flesh," a product of the earth. Language has the ability to create things we cannot see, it defines everything around us. Language gives us a means to distinguish one thing from another. "This is an apple, that is an orange," there's a difference and, given the name, we know which is which without either being in the room.
When we say "apple" repeatedly, it stops meaning "apple," as in the fruit that grows on a tree, and becomes a meaningless sound. Try saying "apple" for a minute straight. I believe God works in the same way. If we say his name, or even speak of him or hear him spoken of over and over, we forget, we stop hearing. He becomes just a noise to our ears and carries no meaning to our head. When language loses its meaning, we must come up with new ways to say things, new ways to state what has been said over and over for thousands of years so it can be heard again.
I knew what childhood smelled like. It smelled like wet, freshly turned soil, like the minerals, once concealed, drawn from the earth— a billion shards of the fossilized dead. Childhood was the smell of soft mud that looked and felt like chocolate syrup, whipped and stirred with just the right amount of water. It was course mud that could be packed and molded, rolled into a ball and chucked. And that whiff of the dark earth's dampness, nature's pollutant, stagnant in the humid summer air— that belonged to my childhood. It was not just the smell of the earth, it was the earth unturned, shifting onto its back, revealing the smothered underbelly of all things decomposed and brought into the open again. ..
“Sometimes when you pick up your child you can feel the map of your own bones beneath your hands, or smell the scent of your skin in the nape of his neck. This is the most extraordinary thing about motherhood - finding a piece of yourself separate and apart that all the same you could not live without.” ― Jodi Picoult, Perfect Match
“A child playing with its father screams louder, laughs harder, jumps more eagerly, puts more faith in everything.” ― Lydia Netzer
“Do you want to listen with me?” I asked Christina, handing her one of my earbuds.
“Thanks.” She said, sticking it into her ear.
On the train into the mountains, we stared silently out the window together. For me, traveling was like sliding into the murk of a dream. Every vehicle I rode brought me further away from any reality I ever knew. I loved listening to music when I could look out the window, headed somewhere fast. The melody flowed into the landscape passing by, the combination of music and scenery hit the electric synapses in my brain with startling clarity. I could be living in a movie; life seemed that perfect behind the glass, passing the world by at ninety miles per hour.
The sky was unnaturally blue, even to my American standards. Beijing, only hours before, had been one of the most highly polluted cities in the world; the pollution index recorded levels going off the charts.
“Wind must’ve took it.” Dr. Jay had commented absently about the pollution when we walked out of our hotel that morning, gasping at the clear sky. Apparently, this was something like his thirtieth semester teaching American students in China. He was completely over touring the Great Wall.
The rolling, mountainous greenery and the shrill, melancholic overtones of Bon Iver’s “Holocene” set me into a thoughtful trance. The train car was strangely spacious, two people could easily fit in my seat and I could barely touch the seat in front of me even with my legs fully extended. A tour guide had been erupting in long, harshly projected Chinese phrases for the past thirty minutes. I had tried to block her out with my music almost immediately. Mandarin was maddening; trying to learn it was like trying to fit my brain through a pin hole. I never thought I was ethnocentric until I left the country. Now, I suddenly loved everything Americans did, speaking in English especially. Through the window, the landscape seemed to eventually roll in on itself, repeating over and over again. My eyelids became heavy. I dozed off.
I could still remember the morning my plane was going to take off to Hong Kong, commencing my semester studying with the China Studies Program (CSP). I had laid in my bed, curled up in the fetal position, remaining motionless for a long time. My eyes were wide open, staring out the perfectly square window above me. I tried to hold onto the nostalgia of the familiar, weathered siding layering the back porch and the thin tree branches, waving in the breeze. I didn’t want to get up. Getting up commenced my journey to what was then only a concept--a design of my imagination. Everything felt so safe in that bed; it felt like my whole world.
Now, it seemed the past three months in China were leading up to this day. Finally we were going to see it. I liked the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, as well as the Summer Palace (it even snowed that day), and we all pretended to be interested in the Temple of Heaven and Forbidden Kingdom. In reality, however, they were the vegetables. The Great Wall was the dessert. I had laced up my Mizunos that morning. It wasn’t enough simply to walk along one of the greatest Medieval wonders of the world; I planned to run. I heard muffled excited noises behind me. We were getting closer. I opened my eyes in time to catch my first glimpse. The structure was falling apart in places, vines grew up between the cracks. The dull stone bricks were crumbly, like feta cheese. Christina had fallen asleep. I shook her and pointed out the window. We looked with our faces pressed against the glass like two little kids on Christmas day. When the train finally stopped, hundreds of people unloaded and started hiking up the road to buy tickets. The Wall continued snaking over the mountains into the horizon.
We had finished the first third of our classes. Now, we were in the middle of the history of China, literally. The course itself was crashing us into over two thousand years of Chinese development. Leading up to our travels into the cities of Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, we learned about the stages of culture shock. There are five:
As I walked up to one of the tourists’ entrances to the Great Wall, shooting off my camera like a machine gun, I thought perhaps I was still in the elation stage. Or, perhaps my fellow American classmates cushioned the brunt of culture shock for me, defusing the stages’ intensity. More than likely, I was still going through the counter-cultural frustrations. Earlier that week, I had gone to the Silk Market in Beijing with a group of several students from CSP. Walking up and down the isles of merchandise felt overwhelming. The building was like a Western mall, except more stimulating. Clothes and bags of every shape and color imaginable were strung all the way to the ceiling. Shoes were everywhere, encompassing entire sections of the floor. One complete level of the building was dedicated to electronics, another to jewelry. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, yet it seemed impossible to ignore the venders. I found their vigor and determination for a sale a bit unsettling.
“Hello, lady, want to buy this? Come take a look, low price for you.”
A little white and Blue dress had caught my attention at one of the booths; it looked just my niece's size. I made eye contact with the woman selling the dress. She seemed young, maybe just a little older than me.
“Duo xiao qian?” I asked, self-conscious of my poorly spoken Mandarin.
She spoke to me in English, “This? Nine hundred and ninety.”
I shook my head. It was a ridiculous price.
“My company is very prestigious company in China. You come feel the quality of my clothes, come, come, feel the quality...”
I ended up walking away. The interaction with the lady was not unlike several others I had in Xi’an. She talked rhythmically, even in her broken English. Her words flowed smoothly, as if reciting a work of poetry. Yet behind her eyes I sensed subdued hostility. Even though I was dressed like a scrub (worn jeans and a baggy sweatshirt) I was foreign and to her I equalled potential profit, nothing more. I didn’t like the Silk Market. The majority of the consumers there were foreigners. Tall, Western middle-aged men dressed in perfectly pressed black suit coats and pants with shiny black shoes sauntered around in small groups. Western women of all shapes and sizes lined the tables, trying on the jewelry, bargaining for the best price, annoyed by the loud, dogged temperament of the vendors. The vendors themselves were relentless, leaning over their tables of merchandise, beckoning me over with the same forced, poetic diction, the same subtle aversion. I didn’t know who the consumers were. I felt like we were all trying to consume each other.
We were now touring a section of the Wall in Badaling, just outside of Beijing. Taking in the clean air and the dragon-like structure twisting and oscillating through the mountain peaks, I had fallen in love with China again. From our crash course in Chinese history, I learned that this section was built during the Ming Dynasty. According to the information plack nailed to the entrance, it was the first section of the wall to open to tourists in 1957. Exhilarated by the crisp air, I left my coat and camera with the group and started running. The wall was more like a twenty-five foot high, five thousand five hundred mile-long erratic staircase. Even with the twenty foot breadth from one side of the wall to the other, I found it hard to navigate around people. The uneven layers of stairs eventually began messing with my head, particularly going downhill, as it was difficult to judge depth. Some of the tourists laughed and pointed as I passed them, my face flushed and lungs heaving. As I looked around me at the never-ending trail of bricks and mortar disappearing into the distance, and the panorama of green mountains bubbling up along the horizon like a wrinkled bed sheet, I felt an overwhelming feeling larger than life. I was a stranger in a strange place. I looked into the faces of the people as I passed them. I understood I was the strange one, not them. In the States I was a stranger among familiar people. I knew the strangers there; I knew their language and their culture. On a very basic level, we understand each other. Here, on the Wall, not only were the faces unfamiliar, but the people themselves. I was gripped by their mystery. I thought the people were beautiful, even as they glanced over at me, showing a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and annoyance.
I couldn’t know it then, but my feelings on the Wall of transcendence and benevolence toward humankind were underdeveloped. A couple weeks after touring Beijing, I did an internship with the local newspaper in Xiamen, the city where the university hosted the CSP students. Being forced to attend and write on campus and community events, I discovered more about life in Xiamen. The editor asked me to attended a Toastmasters meeting: a learning-by-doing workshop where participants make speeches to practice English. Later, while typing up the article, I learned the toastmasters enrollment was going 280,000 members strong and the individuals improve their English speaking and leadership skills by attending one of the 13,500 clubs in 116 countries that make up a global network of meeting locations. The goal of these meetings was primarily to becoming better English speakers. The weekly events encompassed impromptu talks and feedback afterwards on the quality of grammar use and pronunciation. I was welcomed into the group, and even asked to give a personal introduction. It was pointed out more than once how privileged I was to be a native English speaker. The Toastmaster or MC of the evening was Brian Huang: a dynamic, clean shaven, bald enthusiast in his mid-thirties. To begin the “warm up,” he bounced to the front of the room and wrote on the board: Heart Followers Create. He turned around dramatically and asked several participants in the group to stand and explain a positive experience when they created an opportunity by “following their heart,” including a twenty-something year-old girl, born outside the Fujian province, who confessed going against her parents’ will and moving to the city of Xiamen. Her confession was praised with nodding heads and vigorous clapping.
Eventually, Brian made eye-contact with me, “Please, you look like you have something to share with us, too.”
I stood up slowly. The eruption of clapping from the previous speech had died down so suddenly the room felt unnaturally quiet, especially considering the number of people present. “I followed my heart by…coming here…to China, to Xiamen.” I said, feeling childish. “I’ve been able to see and experience so many things, enjoying so many opportunities I never would’ve had in the States.” My statement was greeted with silence. I laughed nervously, pulling my thoughts together (I couldn’t imagine doing it in a second language), “I’ve met so many great people here, and although I was scared to leave at first, especially because I can’t speak Chinese, I’m glad I did. I’m just…really glad. Thanks.” I sat down quickly as the clapping began. I felt completely at a loss. I couldn’t express why I wanted to come to China.
A couple days before I left China for good, Brian invited me to dinner at a Western hotel. When I asked him what he meant by “Western,” He explained, “It’s a buffet style, with every kind of Western food.” I had been on a steady, four-month-long diet of fried broccoli and white rice with tofu. I couldn’t say no. Amanda, another newspaper intern, was invited too. Brian picked us up in one of the nicest, newest cars I had ever seen; it was a Rolls Royce I think. The inside was lined with black leather and smelled like wet chemicals straight from the assembly line. When we arrived at the hotel, I couldn’t find the door handle to let myself out.
“Where’s the...?” I trailed off, studying the car door and running my hands over its side in vain.
“It is underneath.” Brian indicated with his hand. I located the latch and laughed as I swung the door open, nearly ramming it into another 2013 Rolls Royce parked next to us.
I was tragically underdressed. Brian wore a cotton navy blue button-up with pressed black slacks and shiny black shoes. Amanda wore dress pants too, and an elegant off-white blouse. I hadn’t packed nice clothes and my budget didn’t permit much shopping. I wore my defaulted plain shirt and jeans. The lobby of the hotel looked like a royal ballroom, complete with a hanging crystal chandelier (at least twelve feet in diameter). We ascended the enormous spiral staircase to the food.
As we entered the restaurant, my senses were vanquished by the smells and the futuristic design of the food displayed literally everywhere. Going from the adventurous, hole-in-the-wall food escapades I had made in the past, I felt like I had just skipped ahead a century. I passed the salad bar and went straight to the meat. I found whole, twelve ounce slabs of sirloin steak, cooked medium rare, simmering in little pools of blood and A1 sauce, and grilled boneless chicken breasts sauteed in oily garlic marinade, sprinkled with italian seasoning. It was real A1 sauce. There was pizza, bread, and seafood of every shape and color imaginable displayed on clear plastic shelving units like pieces in a modern art exhibit. Brian seemed nervous. He pulled out the chair for me, and bowed his head just slightly. His courtesy made me uncomfortable; the Japanese bow, not the Chinese. When we all had our plates of food and sat at the table, Brian leaned in eagerly and asked more questions about America than I had answers. Somehow the whole night felt off, starting with the drive in the Rolls Royce, to walking into the incredible hotel with the best food I could remember tasting. He was successfully impressing me, but throughout the night I couldn’t help feeling saddened and confused by it. In the same way I viewed the people on the Great Wall as a grand, mysterious, Chinese ideal, Brian saw me through a Hollywood lense, an Americanized paragon. It seemed to me the Open Door Policy had admitted more than international trade. China was searching for something. I could see the pursuit in the attitudes of its people, in Brian’s face as he sat across from me at the table, even in his preference of a knife and fork over chopsticks. He was so eager to hear my thoughts and gain insight about my country. Perhaps rapid development and success had become China’s religion, I thought. Brian wasn’t the only one who seemed to cling to the hope of prosperity seen in the West. The American Dream was quickly becoming China’s.
After forty-five minutes of running up and down the Great Wall’s never-ending staircase, I was ready to stop. I rejoined the group at a section of the Wall. We laugh, smiled, and took so many pictures. We asked to have our picture taken with random strangers and other strangers asked to have their picture taken with us. Then, after a few hours, we were ready to leave. Just that quickly, the day was over. Sitting in the train packed with people (somehow there was more people on the way back) felt terribly anticlimactic. This was the place that, during its construction, was called “the longest cemetery on earth” because so many people died building it. At one time, family members of those who died working on the Great Wall would carry a coffin on top of which was a caged white rooster. The rooster's crowing was supposed to keep the spirit of the dead person awake until they crossed the Wall; otherwise, the family feared the spirit would escape and wander forever along the Wall. Reportedly, it cost the lives of more than one million people. It was common to hear that the mortar used to bind the stones was made from human bones and that men are buried within the Great Wall to make it stronger. Even though it was later proven the mortar was actually made from rice flour—and no bones, human or otherwise, have ever been found in the Wall—the fact that the rumor continues to spread is a detail worth acknowledging. There was so much history, so much death and suffering poured into the construction of the lengthy historical monument, and, within a few hour’s time, we were completely over it. We had consumed it, like any other marketable product the country had to offer, and were ready to move on to the next thing.
As the train steadily gained speed, I stared out the window again, catching the last glimpses of the crumbling bricks and mortar. I put my earphones back in and allowed the rolling landscape to mesmerize my senses into the melodies of my playlist again. It already felt like I was worlds away from the Great Wall. The feeling after leaving the ancient ruins wasn’t what I was expecting. I suddenly felt overwhelmingly small. Back in the States, I used to think I was complicated; I was just riddled with layers of finely woven mystery. In China, I felt none of that. In the train, everyone was tired and solitary, plugged up with their own thoughts and music devices. The view of the Great Wall eventually disappeared behind us. I continued staring out the window, along with everyone else.
In honor of the Best Semester crew of the China Studies Program, Spring 2013