"He who would travel happily must travel light."
- Antoine De Saint-Exupery
What am I doing here? This is a question that surfaces from time to time, as I sit in my room, walk to class, or relax with the other teachers from the university. Its words are the same, but the tone of voice is usually different. Sometimes its curious, other times angry, or despairing. Sometimes it's filled with wonder.
I was watching my friend, Daniel, today. It's his birthday, and I think he's going through what I was a few months ago when it was my birthday. I've spoken to my students on the subject of birthdays. In China, birthdays aren't the same as they are in the States. Birthdays are usually quiet days, when you can relax, days that didn't seem that important to my students. I wish I could speak Chinese so I could try and get a better understanding. There seemed to be something sad just beneath the surface.
To me, birthdays have never been about getting older. I will admit that they are sometimes about the presents. But more importantly, they're about friends and family. They're an excuse to get together and celebrate with people that mean something to you. They're also days that let you know you mean something to other people. I watched Dan mope about, poking at his lunch, normally smiling face passive, contemplative. I think Daniel is missing his friends today. I'm going to get some people and take him out later tonight. Birthdays in a foreign country are bad times to be alone.
For most of us, I think life is a bit of a blur, moving from one thing to the next, our heads down in the trenches. We rarely have the chance to stop long enough to straighten our backs and take a look at what's really going on around us. It takes something special to stir us up from our work, perhaps even our drudgery, and reflect on things as they really are.
I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately, and the cause of it was surprising to me: I've started writing a novel. The novel itself is not of that great of significance. In some ways it has been inevitable, something I've been intending to do for a long time. But writing is something that's becoming intertwined with my soul, something that's becoming apart of me in ways that are wonderful, enlivening, breathtaking. Sometimes when I think about putting words down onto the page I feel my blood vessels open up, and my heart beats a little faster. Possibility, sweet possibility, like the morning dew, like honey from the comb. Anything can slip from my fingers. On some level I think everyone wants to do something that MAKES A DIFFERENCE, and when I've got a keyboard under my hands I know that if I persevere, someday I'll be able to do things. Crazy awesome things.
But possibility is a double edged sword.
Traveling has one rather amazing quality, especially traveling for extended periods of time. It forces you to look up from the trenches far more often than you might like. I talk with my neighbor Ben, a fellow Eagle scout, about camping trips and when I find myself back in my room I miss my father. I think about the trips he's going on with kids from the States, and I realize that if I were there, I could be going with him. I watch a movie and want to phone some of my best friends, Mark, Chris, Drew, Steven (the list carries on) and tell them about the great thing I just saw. I want to share, but I realize I can't. They're out of reach.
I look at my life to this point from the vantage of Dan's day. No doubt he's thought at least once about the decisions that brought him here. What things might be like if he'd made others. I consider my choices. My relationships, and my future have been shaped by them. They form a tapestry, a web that defines my life. For a moment I feel trapped by them.
At lunch today, while I was considering all these things, Henry, another friend brought up a trip to southern China some of the guys have been planning for our upcoming break. He'd asked me to go a week or so ago, but I'd turned him down. Too much money, I'd told him. I need to save what I've got. What I really meant was that I was feeling so distracted by other things, thoughts of what could be, that I didn't feel up to going anywhere. I felt like sitting in my apartment and brooding. But as I was sitting there, listening to him talk about the trip, and what would be happening on it, I couldn't help myself but lean forward, and gape a little at him. We'll be heading to a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge on the 23rd of January and spend almost two weeks hiking through some of the most extraordinary scenery in China, chilly windswept mountains and lush green valleys, with clean crystalline water.
Isn't the choice obvious? Brood in my room or go hiking in a beautiful stretch of southern China shouldn't even require consideration. But neither should a lot of things.
Writing is a lot like flaying open your chest so the world can peak in and get a good look at your soul. Every word you write is a potential judgement of your ability, and unless a writer is particularly soulless, criticizing an author's writing is a lot like poking fun at a child to their parent, or making a joke out of somebody's brother, sister, or spouse. Except that you're the child and the parent all at the same time.
Traveling has taught me a lot of things. It's reminded me that life is short. That sometimes the hard things are worth doing. That you should always remember to pack your toothbrush, because if you don't your teeth are going to grow hair by the fourth day of your trip.
But what traveling has really taught me is that every choice is a potential sacrifice.
You can't have it all, and neither can I. I cannot fit both a gigantic barbeque sauce slathered steak and a large meat lover's pizza into my stomach at the same time. I can't get much out of the book I'm reading while watching a movie. I can't spend all my time hanging out with the other English teachers if I expect to get any writing done. I can't see the world and develop my relationships back home. And I can't write a novel without putting my very self out there on display, for passers by to do with as they please.
One of the first things you learn about traveling, for girls who may be reading this blog, is that you can't take with you everything that you own. It's better to take the essentials, and worry about the few missed baths later. Your back will thank you. Life is much the same way. Right now I could be in the army, or I could be in medical school, or a thousand other places, but I'm not. I'm right here, right now, and I need to drop all the things I've been carrying because my back is killing me. And I'm missing the view.
"He who would travel happily must travel light."
From time to time it becomes necessary to go shopping. I'll run out of laundry detergent, or need some supplies for class..... or whatever. There are several options for getting the essentials, but the easiest place to go is what the foreign teachers have dubbed JK. The Chinese character for the shopping mall resembles those two letters. We're a clever lot.
Just outside of the campus there are these golf cart looking things, little shuttle buses that run off nearly silent electric motors. The various carts run to different places in the nearby city, taking the back roads to avoid any real traffic, considering the cart can do maybe 15-20 miles per hour. I usually will take one to get to JK. On the way the cart passes through a poorer section of town, and it's when you're here that you get a look at what China is really like.
The first stop on the way to the mall is a huge open air food market that none of the Lao Wai are brave enough to shop at. I've stopped and looked around a few times, but I've never bought anything. Stretching though an open building that roughly resembles a giant hanger are vendors selling all types of food from meat, to fruits and vegetables. And they're fresh. Like really really fresh. The fish are still flopping around in a tank when you buy them. What's sorta creepy (yet admittedly fascinating in that eight year old boy sort of way) is watching the vendors gut an clean the fish after you've selected one. One of my favorite China moments so far came when I heard a chicken squawking in the distance in rising frenzy only to have the squawks suddenly cut off by a loud *KuThuck*.
What's really interesting is the various tidbits of land that line the road on the way to the mall. I kid you not, you know that two foot wide section of grass that lines the edge of the road in a lot of cities? Well, the industrious people of Wuhan have turned those little chunks of land into crop fields. Stretching through most of the back roads are fields of various types of vegetables, some of which, will no doubt go to be sold at the previously mentioned market.
I've seen a lot of things that have reminded me of how good I've got it. I drove through one section of Wuhan in a taxi, and during the drive we passed by a massive lumbar yard. What was amazing is about one of every three buildings looked like it housed a family on the lumber yard, rather than housing work space. Cloths hung out on lines and children ran and played amongst the lumber.
I could go on.
What's really interesting is that these parts of the city seem to me to be almost deliberately hidden from the eyes of people who travel through the city. The major throughways of the city always look "nice", but stray off the main roads too far... and its like walking into a whole 'nother city.
I think that's all for now. It's a nice Sunday night and my lesson plans are done. I recently got my xbox repaired, and I've discovered a source of nearly unlimited games to play. This may have had something to do with my recent absence. I've just finished the Best Short Stories of Issac Asimov, and I'll be going back to finish off Light soon. Catch you later.