One morning this weekend, as I looked at the growing list of things that need to be done before I say farewell to China, I decided that in lieu of work, packing, or cleaning the house I would instead go on a bike ride. The ride I decided to take was nothing special and having done it a dozen or so times all I needed was my bike, some water and I was out the door. I rode through town stopping at a small bicycle shop to put air in the tires before cutting through traffic, down the big hill at the edge of town and out into the countryside.
This last month has seemed like one in which I am forever saying goodbye. A few weeks ago all the Guizhou volunteers got together for our annual end-of-year Chinglish Party. We all bring shirts with the most outrageous English on them we can find and the winner is the person who brings the best shirt. This year’s winner was “No Rest For The Juicy”. The party, like all our parties, was wild but there was also a strong feeling of melancholy that clouded the weekend. This was our official last hurrah and in the end we all parted ways knowing that we would not see each other again on this side of the world.
The day had started out hazy but as time wore on the sun began to assert its authority in the sky and it was as if someone had turned up the brightness dial on the whole world. I rode past small villages, cornfields and rice paddies where farmers labored up to their knees in the soupy mud made by the erratic summer rains. There are more homes now than when I first road through two years ago. Many of the old stone farm houses have been demolished or slowly allowed to decay into piles of rubble and they are replaced by concrete or cinderblock structures which are whitewashed in the Bui style or tiled in a white, pink, and baby blue façade. Fast-disappearing are the old country homes built of rock and wood where the front door leads into the home and the side doors lead into the barn. It is a rarity to see the traditional gruesomely fanged masks that are placed above the doorway to frighten away bad fortune. Yet some things remain constant. Papers depicting the two door gods grace both traditional and modern dwellings while above nearly every entrance has been placed a small mirror in order to scare away ghosts with their own terrible visages. Even the newer homes have gardens and as I rode by I could see corn growing in every available square foot of land or watermelon vines climbing up a trellis built for grapes or bougainvillea. Nearly every piece of property abuts a small rice field all of which are like little ponds or swampy bogs in which the young rice stalks thrive.
By now the whole of the earth looked green to me in the way that green can only look when sunlight shines through leaves. I looked past the fields and farms at the mountains as they began to draw closer. The rugged Guizhou countryside is known for mountains like these that rise up from the ground as though they had been dropped from some great height and stuck into the ground at absurd angles. The sides of the mountains that are not covered in thick green flora are white, exposed cliffs where rock slabs have fallen away to reveal the true color of the karst stone beneath.
Looking at the mountains reminded me of my last camping trip with students. We snuck one in right on the edge of the rainy season. After May, any attempt to go camping is a roll of the dice. Last year I learned this lesson the hard way when I was forced to break camp in the middle of the night and head back early due to biblical levels of rainfall that poured over us making our tents useless and soaking everything that could possibly get wet. This last trip was lucky. We avoided any major rains and the students had a good time cooking and camping up above the towns and roads. Before we broke camp and left on the morning of the second day, I took my flute and walked away from the camp to a spot over looking a kind of large valley between the peaks. I sat down and reflected about my experiences in these mountains and when, if ever, I would see them again. I played a tune for the mountains and they played one back for me.
I passed a group of women on the side of the road selling corn-on-the-cob which they slowly roasted over coal-fed fires. Along with the corn, the old women also sold a kind of heavy bread made from cornmeal that strongly reminded me of polenta. I biked on into Ten Thousand Peaks and through the first village I came to. On other occasions, when I have been biking for exercise rather than for sightseeing, I rode so quickly that the villagers barely had a chance to do a double take before I was already around the next bend in the road. On this day, however, I felt the need to stop and appreciate my surroundings. I looked at the way the villages have transformed. One village in particular now has a small playground for children and the construction that abounded when we first arrived has now produced a series of uniform concrete structures, all white washed to preserve Bui ethnic identity (though many of the owners of these buildings are, in fact, Han Chinese). A new parking lot with freshly painted white lines sits outside the village where once there was only farmland. The busy stream of tourists demonstrates the merit of these projects and the village seems more prosperous than any place I have seen in the city. I thought about the various times Emma and I had come to this village over the last two years. About the times we visited the restaurant with a patio that sits in the shade of the colossal trees which grow along the riverbank.
These memories got me thinking about all the adventures I have had with my sitemate and all the things we have seen together both here in Xingyi, around China and Southeast Asia. Emma and I have traveled to Kunming, Gulin, Yangshuo, Chongqing, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Xi’an not to mention about a dozen trips up to Guiyang, many on the overnight ten-hour train. Aside from Karen, the other foreign teacher at Xingyi, Emma and I have spent twenty-two months as the only obvious foreigners in the city. In that time we have had our share of disagreements and shared lots of laughs but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not believe I would have been able to stick it out for two whole years if it had not been for my absolutely incomparable partner in crime. Our long talks on the seemingly endless bus and train rides and our ritual of eating fast-food chicken burgers at the Guiyang train station at five AM kept me sane and (relatively) level. Emma is thoughtful, perpetually upbeat, has an ability to sleep almost anywhere, and is probably the most forthright person I have ever met. She is optimistic beyond all reason. I cannot imagine a better person to have spent two years with.
Such were the thoughts running through my mind as I climbed the final hill at the far end of the park and looked down over a small valley on the edge of which is situated Ten Thousand Buddha Temple. I stopped long enough to drink some water and look out at the temple I had visited so many times before turning my bike around and heading back the way I had come. As I passed through village after village and past those unusual karst mountains covered in a thick layer of greenery and proving a backdrop for flocks of white birds flying overhead, I new this would be my last ride. Time grows short here and soon there will be more to do than are hours in the day. I will say goodbye to my students and exchange gifts with the other teachers. I will pack all my things, some to be shipped back to America while others will fly back with Emma for me to collect at her home in North Carolina when I pass through that way at the end of my trip through Italy and Spain. My life here will come to an end and an unknown future lies before me.
A few days ago, while passing through the town square of Xingyi with my friend Lulu, I stopped and indulged a desire I have had for some time. I asked Lulu to translate for me while I asked one of the many peasant fortunetellers that lounge in the city square to read me my fortune. Lulu was reluctant, holding to the younger generation’s engrained opinion of all forms of superstition as being “ridiculous”. But I insisted and the man had me pick several cards that variously described in the vaguest of terms things I had experienced and things that would happen in the future. Among the wonderful insights this man shared with me were the following: you are from far away, you will never have to worry about money, you have had some health problems in China, you will have a long and fortunate life, and (somewhat disturbing I thought) those you have tried to help do not appreciate your help and do not think well of you. Now not putting too much stock into this kind of thing but glad of the experience, I happily left the square with Lulu though his last premonition did give me some food for thought about how much I have really accomplished here.
I do not know how much I have impacted this community or if I have helped in any meaningful way and given the snail’s pace of progress, it is possible I will never really see the fruit of my labors. Nonetheless, I am happy that I have had this opportunity and I believe in the rightness of what we have done here. All I can do is look back on this experience and try to use the lessons I have learned as I move forward. I would not have traded this for anything.
““Our aim must be to learn as much as we teach. The corps offers an opportunity to bring home to the United States the problems of the world as well as an opportunity to meet urgent host country needs for trained manpower. It can promote international cooperation and good will towards this country. It can also contribute to the education of America and to more intelligent American participation in the world.”