It's the end of the semester, my classes are finished, all my grades turned in. This semester I taught two sophomore classes, 081 and 082, that I also had last semester, but will not have again in the fall. I took photos of them and collected some phone numbers. We'll see each other on campus; maybe I'll visit some of their homes. Eventually they will graduate and move on. So this is what it feels like to have kids grow up and leave. Frankly, I don't like it. But I have a plan: I'm going to invite them – all 40 of them - to come live with me.
In early June I went with my friend Chunmei and her family on a trip to Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. There we visited China's famous Bingmayong, the terracotta soldiers and horses. The Terracotta Army, discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well, was built in 210 B.C. by the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. Qin's Armies - over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, as well as officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians - were something like Qin's family; as Emperor he was their father. Qin had the many statues made to accompany him into the afterlife and help him rule another empire. A legend holds that all those buried were real soldiers.
On the evening of June 2nd Chunmei, her father, her mother, her 7-year old nephew and I took a night train from Beijing to Xi'an. We were not able to buy sleeper car tickets, so we spent a sleepless 11 hours on upholstered but hard seats. During the night we ate some of the sausages, fruit, and snacks we'd brought. There were many more people on the train than there were seats; going to the restroom meant stepping over sprawling, sleeping bodies. I think Chunmei's nephew, with his head on Chunmei's lap, was really the only one who slept. We arrived in Xi'an in the morning and went to Chunmei's uncle's house, where we stayed for our four-day visit.
Our first day was mostly spent outside of Xi'an. Chunmei's father, uncle, two aunts and I drove to a farm village called Lan Tian. There we visited the tomb of Chunmei's grandmother, who passed away last year. The tomb was on the side of a wooded hill that overlooked a wheat field. I stood nearby as the grandmother's sons and daughters burned paper money for her to use in the afterworld. As I waited I watched myriad white butterflies fluttering above the green wheat grass in the field below. Then I was surprised by I sound I didn't recognize at first and don't hear often: the younger of the two aunts started crying, and was soon sobbing loudly, calling out her mother's name. I knelt down, pulled up some blades of grass and watched the butterflies.
As we were returning to the village we heard some music - music that was neither cheerful nor sad - being played by a small band of mostly brass instruments. We watched a group of villagers, all dressed in white, descending the mountain on a dirt road. Within the larger group was a small band of musicians. I saw a trumpet, a trombone, a flute, an erhu, a drum, and some other instruments. Chunmei told me that they were returning from a funeral up on the mountain. We followed them into the village to a small square, where it looked as if most of the town had gathered for a meal. A man rolled up on a small puttering tractor; the cart he towed behind held a collapsed parade dragon. Leading a tethered cow, a bent-over old man walked by slowly. I talked with the musicians and learned the Chinese words for their instruments.
We next visited the home of the grandmother's brother. Some of the outer brick walls of the traditional farm house were plastered over with a tan colored mud-straw mixture. We first passed through the outer gate, startled some loitering chickens in the small courtyard, and then entered the house. The interior of the home was cool even though it was a hot day. I looked up and saw no ceiling, only the underside of the wooden roof. The village had several of these traditional homes, and I took a picture of two old brothers in front of theirs. Their little home was dwarfed by the modern home next to it, and on the edge of the village new apartment towers, that ubiquitous symbol of modern China, were going up, blocking out a view of the mountains.
There was plenty to see in and around Xi'an, and during the next few days Chunmei and I visited as many of the famous sights as time allowed: Zhonglou (Bell Tower), Gulou (Drum Tower), Beilin Bowuguan (Forest of Stelae Museum), Huaqing Chi (Huaqing Hot Springs), the huge Musical Fountain, (the largest musical fountain in Asia), the Dayan Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda), and, of course, Bingmayong, the underground terracotta army. The place was packed with people, tour groups, tour guides and hawkers. The main pit, full of terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots, is truly a unique and amazing sight.
On Sunday, our last day in Xi'an, we attended the wedding of Chunmei's cousin, Pang Run - Chunmei calls her jiejie (big sister), and Pang Run calls Chunmei meimei (little sister). Because we were staying at the home of the bride and her parents, I was able to see the preparations for the wedding on the day before. Saturday night I almost committed a faux pas. When Chunmei and I returned from a day of sightseeing I saw a bowl of delicious-looking apples on a small square table. Beside the bowl of apples were other plates of food, and behind all the food were two framed photographs of Chunmei's deceased grandparents. The food was for them, which, fortunately, Chunmei told me before I grabbed an apple.
On Sunday morning I was watching TV in the living room of a second floor apartment. The bride was in the bedroom getting dressed and having her face made-up. Suddenly there was a loud commotion coming from the stairwell outside the apartment: a group of men were shouting as they marched up the stairs. The bedroom door and the apartment door were quickly slammed shut just in time to lock out the intruders. The women inside the apartment started shouting back at the men outside, who were banging on the door and demanding to be let in. Someone clued me that it was the bridegroom, Chen Lei, coming for his bride.
After awhile they were allowed to enter, but there was still the bedroom door to breach. A couple of the guys put their shoulders to the door and I really thought they were going to break it down. There was a lot of shouting and laughing going on. The bride then tried a different strategy: offerings and bribes, including money in red envelopes and a bouquet of pink roses for the bride.
The door was finally opened and there was the bride sitting on the bed. With the bedroom packed full of people, the bridegroom knelt on the floor and asked her an important question: Which soccer team do you like? (I wasn't close enough to hear very well, and because it was said in Chinese that may not be accurate.)
A few more rituals had to happen before the bridegroom could claim his bride: he had to get her parents' permission, and he and the bride both had to eat some gray-colored and apparently bad-tasting soup – I saw Chen Lei grimace after tasting some of the stuff. I was told that this bad soup ritual was to symbolize facing life's trials and tribulations together – and perhaps, too, making all future difficulties seem easy in comparison to eating that soup.
Eventually the bridegroom lifted the bride in his arms and carried her out the door. We then all drove to have a look at their new home, a modern, furnished apartment in a tall apartment building. The bed in the single bedroom was covered with red rose petals.
The wedding was held in a large hall with several large round tables and a small stage at one end of the hall. The ceremony was mostly modern, concluding with the young couple both saying “Wo yuanyi” - “I do.” Pang Run then surprised Chunmei by giving her the bouquet of pick roses. They eventually found the wedding ring that the little ring bearer had dropped on his way up to the stage. And then everyone feasted. Many of the men also helped themselves to the cigarettes and baijiu - white spirits - that were in the center of each table like condiments.
Because I had to teach on Tuesday, Chunmei and I left Xi'an Sunday night, while her parents and nephew stayed for a few more days. On the return trip we had bunks in a sleeper car. We read a Lu Xun story together – easy to do with Chinese on the left-hand page and English on the facing page – and we eventually climbed into our bunks. I slept until the man who was pushing a cart down the aisle, calling out the names of the breakfast foods he had for sale, woke me up.
A week after our trip to Xi'an, Chunmei invited me to participate in a tuozhan xunlian - an expanded training - a leadership training event similar to Outward Bound. It started on Monday June 14th, the day before Duanwujie (Dragon Boat Festival). About 30 students from several Beijing universities assembled at a place in downtown Beijing. When our four leaders arrived I was a little surprised to see them wearing American military combat fatigues, including what looked like real Camp Pendleton shoulder patches. I asked the main leader about the patch, and he told me that it and all his gear were authentic U.S. military. He said they were easy to buy in China because China makes a lot of U.S. military uniforms and gear. He called over another one of the training leaders and asked me if I thought he looked like a Desert Storm soldier. The tan-brown-white camouflage pattern looked genuine to me, and the black-and-white keffiyeh around his neck was an exotic touch that brought three worlds strangely together - China, America, and the Middle-East.
The students were divided into two teams, and we spent half of the first day in downtown Beijing. The training leaders had given each team list of sights to locate, and when we found them the team leader took a photo of the team to prove we had reached our destination.
In the afternoon we took a bus to Miyun, north of Beijing, and then hired some vans to take us farther north to a place called Yunmengshan Forest Park - a beautiful place in the mountains, not far from the large Miyun Reservoir. We hiked alongside a mountain stream up to a farmhouse where we lit a campfire, ate dinner, and later crawled into tents to sleep. Although, in fact, few of us actually slept because the farmer's two dogs barked most of the night.
The next day each team was given a couple of "challenges". The first task was to try to pass team members through a fake electric net - it resembled a volley ball net but was lower to the ground and the holes were larger. The idea was to cooperate and figure out how to pass bodies through the net without touching the ropes. The team I was on managed to pass through only three out of fourteen people; the other team passed four.
Our second challenge involved working in groups of two. One partner was blindfolded and the other had to talk his partner through a “minefield” of bricks. The blindfolded person had to listen to the instructions, turn this way and that, move slowly, and walk through the course without touching a brick. I paired up with Ben, Li Wanyu, a freshmen student of mine whose English listening skill was pretty good. So I talked and Li Wanyu walked. We almost made it, but near the end I told him to pivot to the left 45 degrees when I should have said 30, and he touched land mine, which was fortunately just a brick.
Now I've got this vision in my mind of life as a vast brick minefield that takes years to pass through, and is crowded with soldiers, newlyweds, team members, students, teachers and everyone else - all taking baby steps, hand-in-hand, sometimes alone, blindfolded or blind, and needing to trust one another. Tell me which way to go. Tell me what to do. My life depends on your guidance.
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
“Viva La Vida”
(A dog just runs through the minefield, kicks over a brick or two, stops and looks back at you, wondering why you're not running through too.)
(A cat carefully selects a brick, climbs on top of it and takes a nap, superbly indifferent to danger.)
Emperor Qin wanted to take with him his army, his family, his loved ones. Qin thought he had the power to take his entire world along with him to the next one. But ultimately he didn't have enough power. The pits at Bingmayong are littered with the pieces of a lot of broken statues – the shards of a man's vanity. You can't take it with you. And if you try to hold onto what wants to go, you may end up taking someone you love to the grave with you.
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
“Viva La Vida”
I received a text message from a colleague the other night saying that she'd come by my apartment to see if I wanted to go for a walk. I told her I'd already gone for a walk and said thanks. She replied, “Why do you say thanks?” I said, “Just for being a friend,” and she said, “If we're friends then you don't need to say thanks.” I replied, “Americans like to thank their friends even though not needed.”
And occasionally we are prompted by an insight about how fragile things, such as pottery and life, can easily break and turn to back into dust, and we tell loved ones that we love them. I wanted to send my friend a message and say something about the terracotta shards in the pits at Bingmayong, but I think my meaning would have been a little obscure, and I didn't know how to say it in Chinese.
In China I often feel mute: thoughts and feelings pile up behind the closed door of my mouth. I hate this feeling and I'm thankful for it, because it helps me understand my students' struggles to learn English. When I leave my apartment I sometimes keep my head down to avoid seeing the faces staring at me, and when I'm feeling brave enough I chip a hole through the wall that separates us and speak to them. When I lack the courage to talk I just listen, walk and watch out for bricks. I'm grateful for the voice talking me through. I just wish I knew whose it was.
I suppose it won't work to have classes 081 and 082 come and live with me. Can you imagine the water bill? I'll just look at the photos - of my students, Chunmei and her family, my parents, my brothers and their families, my friends. Photographs are the modern equivalent of terracotta - with the advantage that they don't break easily, and no one gets buried alive.