The darkness of night disappeared and I woke up to the sound of music four stories below my temporary bedroom. The spring-like weather felt good on my skin, expanding out from the open window where I relaxed my elbows. A group of middle-aged men and women, most donning red and grasping fans, moved gracefully in unison in the park below.
China was what I imagined it would be, yet the people and countryside touched a deeper part of me, the part to which only Christ had access. The smells, a friend described as the “169 funks of China,” connected the country and the people. This collage of collectiveness grew on me slowly, so much so that when I returned home from my excursion I took extra trips to Chinese restaurants to catch a glimpse of the people and the culture I had grown so fond of.
The dust from thousands of years settled on the streets in China. It hung in the air and mingled with the paint on the doorposts. The narrow alleyways kicked the dust upward, causing it to collect on the wrinkled faces of the people in the village. The age-folds on their necks and foreheads acted as mantelpieces for the ancient remnants.
These same men and women gathered rice from the fields near the mountain and shopped the street markets in the center of the village. The past is so evident in the present, I thought. But isn’t the past always evidenced on our faces?
The city air dripped black with smog, laden with the same pollution that coated the sidewalks and roadways. Trash lined back alleyways and recently built structures rising from their foundations appeared dilapidated and in need of repair.
The sun had just risen and most sane travelers would have been sleeping. This is why I knew I had to leave the apartment and roam the streets.
“Do you want an arquai?” I asked my sister, poking my head in her room. She groaned as she rolled over on the top bunk of our host’s 3-year-old son’s bed. The sun was shining through the orange curtains and cast a warm glow over the space.
I pulled out ten yuen (enough to buy ten arquais) and walked down the stairway into the courtyard. The building owners seemed to have attempted to create a lawn in the space but the grass ended up as dirty as the rest of the city and tenant’s bikes, mopeds and shoes caused it to appear cluttered and chaotic.
The gate attendant nodded as I passed and I walked along the side street to the main road where the woman with the white apron served the peanut-sauce-covered dough. I bought the tasty treat and let her keep the change.
She was confused when I walked away without the nine yuen. Let her think I am a stupid American, I laughed to myself.
Of course, I carried my camera. One woman was focusing deeply on her breathing in the park and didn’t notice as I snapped a shot of her through the trees. Later my sister recalled that she looked like a turtle. The woman’s lips were wide and the apparent calm on her face loosened her muscles so she appeared to be frowning.
I imagined that most of China wakes up this way- focused and calm. I also imagined most of America waking up the next morning pumping coffee in their veins and yelling at other drivers caught in the same rush hour traffic.
I thought about my trip to Thailand as I explored. During the early morning hours the monks from nearby temples roamed the streets carrying a large plate. Devout Buddhists filled the plates with breakfast, sacrificing a portion of their hard earned food to the middle way. Each one sighed with relief that their duty for the day was done.
As I dodged the mass throngs of Chinese cyclists on the way to work, I felt small. Did the Chinese people in the park feel more important after they danced to dongs and cymbals? Did my Thai neighbors fulfill some need to be larger-than-my-own-life after they walked away from the red-robed monks?
Managing to find the apartment where I had departed from an hour earlier, I smiled at the gate attendant. I turned around once I arrived at the stairwell and caught her staring at my rear end. I had the urge to punch her in the face, but kept in mind that most Chinese women are a size -6 so my size (insert what you wish) rear is a once in a lifetime experience.
“Do you eat a lot of KFC?” one South African soccer player asked me in Beijing two weeks later. “No, as a matter of fact I don’t.” I assured myself that the only reason he asked me this question was because a few second earlier I told him that I was married. His flirtations had been thrown back in his face with this pronouncement and his embarrassment was evident on his face.
Now out of the site of the gate attendant, I walked up the stairs to meet our friends for a day of exploration, looking forward to learning more about this new old world.