I focus far too much on trying to write pieces that tie disparate stories together and have some sort of lesson learned or moment of realization at the end. Because of this I’ve been in a rut the past couple weeks working on various parts of six different posts for this blog (including the infamous food post I have been promising many friends and family members in emails for months). I often forget that the main reason people read this site is to hear stories from my time in China. With that in mind, the following is my story of two Fridays ago (11/6/2009).
While I ate my bowl of cocoa puffs (or something like cocoa puffs) and naively read articles on my computer about Notre Dame’s BCS bowl prospects I wondered how warm it would be for our hike that day. It had been pretty cold earlier in the week (and had even snowed on Halloween the previous Saturday) but the snow was melting and Weather.com told me that it was going to even get up into the low 60’s. It should be a great day for a hike, I thought.
Our school has a tradition where the third year students are led on a hike into the countryside towards the end of their final semester, and this was the day of the hike. A few days earlier, when we were told that we could miss our classes to go on the Friday hike, my roommate Gavin and I eagerly agreed to go thinking that it would be a fun and interesting day.
When we arrived at school that morning, the building and surrounding area were covered with one of the densest fogs I have ever experienced. Almost nothing could be seen out the window of our third floor office, and we could barely see the hills behind our school as the third year students lined up outside the front of the building. As I watched the students stand in rows and do something they claimed were stretches, Principal Paul (a religious that shouldn’t be confused with The Principal) came up to me with a big smile on his face and asked me if I was ready for the hike. It was pretty cold at this point and my light jacket and hoody probably weren’t sufficient, but I told him that I was ready for what was ahead.
Once the stretches were done, The Principal had given his speech, and another teacher had the students yell some Chinese phrases to pump them up, we set off down the long driveway from the school to the main road into the city. The English students were first to leave so Gavin, myself, and a couple other English teachers were at the front of the pack. It was 9:00 AM.
After walking down the driveway and out the front gate, we started walking down the side of the street into the city. Lambert, the head English teacher for the third year students, handed each of his students a small slip of paper that had things written on it in Chinese, Korean, and English. Taking one for myself I saw that it said, “I am Positive, I am Capability, I am Responsibility.” Of all the people we have met here in Yanji, Lambert probably has the best English—but he really should have asked us to proofread this for him.
He yells to the students to get them motivated: “I AM POSITIVE!!”
“I AM POSITIVE,” the students yell back in a call and response type fashion.
“I AM CAPBILITY,” they continue, “I AM RESPONSIBILITY,” I start to laugh at how absurd these phrases sound when Lambert yells, “I CAN DO IT!!!” Clearly excited by this means of motivation, we continue to walk down the side of a street with cars driving right past us in the reckless manner that defines the driving style of the Chinese. I feel lucky that nobody gets hurt.
We continue walking through the streets of our city for about an hour until we get to the point where the lanes turn into one and the cars become scarce. With crops, and cattle, and increasingly more sporadic rundown buildings on each side of the one lane road that we found ourselves walking down, we clearly had left the city and entered the countryside. It was 10:00 AM
At this point in the walk I came across one of the students, Dave, from my computer class. While I mainly teach English major students (3-4 sessions for each of the three years each week), I have to teach one 45 minute computer class each week. The computer class is the worst part of my week. The students can barely speak English, none of them want to be there, and they don’t get grades for the class. Basically, I spend those 45 minutes acting like a crazy person.
Dave, however, is different. He is the one student in the computer class that seemingly wants to learn something and will try to participate when I attempt to have the students do an activity. Dave and I started to talk.
We talk about what we are going to do this weekend. He has a weekend job with computers that he works, while I need to buy a scarf, and maybe even buy a new coat. He tells me that I shouldn’t go to the mall to buy things because they are more expensive and that I should go to the market (less than ten days later I will spend more than one month’s pay on a coat at the mall, thank you savings). We continue talking, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to understand exactly what he is saying. He is, remember, still a student from the computer class and can barely speak English.
At one point in our conversation he talks about how he wants something. Friends? I have a lot of trouble understanding what he is trying to tell me. Parents? After repeating one phrase for probably ten times I finally figure out that he is talking about Paris. He tells me that he wants to travel to Paris some day and that he wants to learn English so that he will be able to travel to Paris.
“They don’t really speak English in Paris,” I tell him, “they speak French.”
He explains to me how they speak English all over Europe and that if he learns English he will be able to travel there. Having been to Paris, I don’t really dispute what he tells me. Of course English isn’t the primary language in Paris, but there are certainly a lot more English speakers there than in Yanji, and you could probably travel around Paris pretty effortlessly by just speaking English.
After talking with him a little while longer the group stopped for a rest in a snow covered field on the side of the road. While some students used nearby outhouses or sat down for a rest; others started to throw snowballs at each other. I talked with Savio, one of the other English teachers (who is a religious from Korea), and ate some chocolate for energy. It is 11:00 AM.
We started walking again and I soon heard Lambert yell, “I AM POSITIVE . . .” and the students continued to repeat the call and response. At this point the line of hikers had broken up a bit and I found myself far behind the lead group of teachers while still significantly ahead of most of the students. With nobody really near me I decided to listen to my Meet the Press podcast.
After a nice hour listening to Tim Geithner spout bullshit, David Plouffe interestingly talk about last year’s Obama campaign, and an excellent discussion between Andrea Mitchell, Jim Miklaszewski (that took forever to spell correctly), and Jon Krakauer about foreign policy; it had become a very nice day. I stopped to take off my jacket AND sweatshirt and change hats (because those of you that know me wouldn’t be shocked to find out that I haven’t gotten a haircut since August). So I continued the hike up a country road in northern China proudly wearing my Saint Mary’s swimming and diving t-shirt and my favorite ND hat looking as if I was on my way to The Backer. It was 12:00, and we were cruising.
Realizing that the walking had gone much faster while I was listening to something interesting, I spun my iPod to the David Sedaris audiobook that I hadn’t given much thought to since I arrived in China. Earlier this summer, after I started listening to This American Life, I bought the audiobook Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is essentially a book of essays by Sedaris (who got his start on the aforementioned radio program). Remembering that I had used a healthy mix of MTP, Sedaris, and old 40’s at 4:00 playlists to power myself through a couple marathon drives during my solo east coast road trip last summer, I figured that the same would work well on what was turning out to be an equally long hike (long in terms of time, not distance).
So I started the audiobook where I had left off, which was on an essay entitled The Tapeworm Is In. This essay is from the part of the book where Sedaris describes his time living in France and his feeble attempts to learn French. In the essay he talks about how he bought a walkman so that he could listen to French lessons on cassette, but how once he got to France he listened to something else. He wrote/spoke (because Sedaris reads his own audiobooks):
“I started off my life in Paris by listening to American books on tape. I’d never been a big fan of the medium but welcomed them as an opportunity to bone up on my English. Often these were books I would never have sat down and read. Still though, even when they were dull, I enjoyed the disconcerting combination of French life and English narration. Here was Paris, wrongly dubbed for my listening pleasure,”
As I listened to these words come through my iPod headphones, it didn’t take long for the irony to sink in. Here I was in China listening to a book I probably never would have sat down and read where a guy is describing his experiences doing this exact same thing in France. While I too enjoyed the disconcerting combination of rural Chinese life and Sedaris’s lispy narration I yanked out my headphones in horror of irony.
Trudging along up the hilly road in the Chinese countryside I thought about ways that I could highlight the irony of the moment into a story about something greater. What would the twist be? What would the concluding realization be? How could I connect the end back to the beginning in a satisfying way that would help it all make sense? To what would the story of the 3rd Year Hike be leading?
It was 1:00 and we had made it to the intersection of three country roads on a slightly wooded ridge. There was nothing special about this place at all. No good views, no picnic benches, no outhouses, nothing. It was the midpoint of our hike and a couple vans came up the road from the school to give us our lunch. This was also the furthest point we would be going. After eating and resting we would turn around and walk the four hours back.
What was the point of all this?