5/16/09  It’s Saturday evening and I’ve just returned from a short walk to get some dinner – a slice of pizza and some ice cream. There’s a spring rain falling and the air is warm. I decided to take a break from Chinese food because for lunch I’d eaten chòudòufu (stinky tofu), jiǎozi, (dumplings), and bāozi, (steamed stuffed buns), in downtown Wuxi with my friend Lisa and one of her former students. The friendly young man seemed as keen on learning English as I am on learning Chinese, and as we walked and shopped we passed back and forth the Chinese-English Minidictionary that I always carry with me. Now and then we had to yank each other out of the way of a speeding motorbike or car. Who knew that learning a new language could be dangerous?
I went for a walk in the rain also because I needed to take a break from reading my students’ writing journals and essays. As I walked I stopped at one point beside one of the many radio rocks and listened to some lyrical modern piano music that reminded me of Liz Story or William Ackerman. A perfect accompaniment for the rain.
Students passed me on their way to the cafeteria, probably wondering why I was just standing in the rain staring at a rock-speaker. Some were wearing only jeans, t-shirts and sandals. Some were running to get out of the rain, but most were walking leisurely and many of them seemed to not mind getting wet. They laughed and talked, the girls holding hands or walking arm-in-arm, and many of the boys with a hand on the shoulder of a buddy. These are handsome people. Their faces, their smiles, their slim bodies, their beautiful black hair, their tasteful clothing, and especially their laughter. One of my greatest joys about being here is listening, as I walk around campus, to the pleasant music of young conversation and laughter. And it’s also the greatest mystery for me.
A couple of weekends ago Lisa, Michael, Elaine, and I took the train to Shanghai. We had a two-bedroom suite in a nice hotel within walking distance of Old Town, the Shanghai Museum, People’s Square, The Bund, and the Foreign Languages Bookstore, (which I visited twice during the weekend.) We went shopping for “antiques” at the Dongtai Road Market, and had fun counting the Mao memorabilia: Mao watches, Mao ashtrays, Mao lighters, Mao hats, Mao playing cards, and even one life-size statue of “the Great Helmsman,” with the ever-present cigarette dangling from his fingers.
At booth No. 67 I almost bought something. It was half-buried beneath a fallen-over stack of Tin Tin paperbacks (Hergé’s cartoons with Chinese text), but the unmistakable color and luster of the thing caught my eye. I gingerly extracted and examined one of the largest pieces of amber I’ve ever seen. It was about 6 inches by 4 inches, flatish, mostly raw but polished on one side, a light yellow-orange color like a summer ale, riddled with circular fractures, and containing bits of grass and a couple of bees. Their heads were inclined toward each other, their antennas touching. Like students with clasped hands, the bees seemed to be dealing with their plight by drawing close together.
In an instant the lǎobǎn, (the boss, the proprietor), was beside me. I asked him how much, and when he told me he wanted 1500 yuán I uttered the obligatory, and in this case true, “Tài guì le!” (Too expensive!). He shoved a calculator in front of my nose and asked me to indicate how much I wanted to pay. But before I could answer he had dragged me into his shop, where he pulled out of a drawer an even larger and more beautiful piece. Trapped inside this mostly transparent chunk of fossilized pine tree resin were blades of grass, twigs, and a single large bee.
As well as a tiger. No, not really. But the Chinese character for amber contains the character for tiger:
Amber, hǔpò, 
Tiger, hǔ,
In his book,“A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought,” Wolfram Eberhard, a German Sinologist, has interesting entries for hǔpòand hǔ. “Amber symbolized ‘courage”,” he writes, “and its Chinese name hǔpò means ‘tiger soul’, the tiger being known as a courageous animal. In early times, it was believed that at death the tiger’s spirit entered the earth and became amber.”
The lǎobǎn and I couldn’t agree on a price. He wouldn’t accept my offer: “Liǎng bǎi kuài, zěnmeyàng?”, (how about 200 yuán?), and I wasn’t going to go over 500, but he never came down even close to that. As I walked away he was yelling at me: “Hey! Péngyou! Hey!” So maybe he was ready to deal, but I kept walking. Now I regret it. As Michael said to me afterwards, “If something really speaks to you, like that piece of amber spoke to you, you should just buy it.” I think he’s right. I seem to be always saving my money, and sometimes my life, for a rainy day. So, my friends, if you’re in Shanghai in the near future, stop by booth No. 67 in the Dongtai Road Market and buy that piece of amber for me – the larger one with the big bee in it, please. And I’ll be happy to pay your markup.
This evening, besides needing to get some dinner, I needed to take a break from reading student journals – they were starting to get to me. For several weeks my students have sat there in front of me, doing homework for other classes, texting stealthily on their mobile phones, wearing their designer clothing and designer glasses, (some of them have frames with no lenses – it’s another fashion expression to take advantage of.) For English they’re all set on Mute, but Garrulous and Loud for Chinese. They often appear bored, and when I call upon the bored ones, (or the sleeping ones, or the texting ones), they have shocked and hurt expressions on their faces, (Why me?), and they struggle to respond, looking at their peers for help, or reading aloud something from the day’s handout that may or may not have anything to do with my question. So, I found myself assuming that these Business and Accounting majors were just boring people. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.
Their writing journals, which I’m having them keep and turn in periodically, as well as some of the essays they write, are windows into their minds and their hearts. With spoken English they are mute bees trapped in amber, but with pen and paper they transform into beautiful, sad, happy individuals.
They talk about the burden of being a student – eight or nine classes per day, most of them involving numbers – and then having to bring their number-numbed brains to an English class to try and make it speak in yet another foreign language. They don’t get enough sleep, they’re stressed out over exams and parental expectations, they freeze in unheated classrooms in the winter and melt in the humid heat of summer, dorm life is militaristic, the showers are in a separate building, and the cafeteria food is oily and monotonous. All in all, these kids live rather Dickensian lives, subsisting on rice and unidentifiable meat rather than “gru. . .el!”
They’re writing is observant, thoughtful, eloquent, poetic, funny, and often very moving. One topic they could choose to write on this week was Time Machine: If you had a time machine, where would you go and what would you do?
If I had a time machine, I would like to go to the Tang Dynasty. Because I want to meet my idol – Li Bai – a great poet in Chinese history. And I also want to talk with him.
Li Bai had great achievement in poetry. But he don’t have a happy life. He ever experienced conviction, banishment, and he was old and feeble. Although he was innocent, he still suffered these unfair treatment. It is said that he fell down in a river uncarefully.
I want to go the river that Li Bai fell down in. Even though I can’t change the history, I still want to ask him: “Are you afraid of death?” As if I heard him to say: “Even if I died for more than one hundred, I was never afraid. Because my poetry will live instead of me forever.” When he had said these words he fell down in the river. I run to him where he fell down. Even though he was died, but he lived forever in my heart.
This recent batch of journals contains entries from last weekend through Wednesday, so it includes Mother’s Day and May 12th, the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. I’m to blame for the first thing about the journals that got to me. I’ve been so busy – teaching both essay writing and public speaking to 80 students – that I forgot Mother’s Day. I was reminded only after reading about it in my students’ journals – their trips home, dinners with Mom and Dad, a walk in a park, kite flying, etc.
Their reflections on the earthquake are so wise and poignant that it’s hard for me to connect them with the bored faces and quiet voices in my classroom.
Today I got up as usual. The weather made me so happy, because a few days ago the weather is very hot and today I feel cool so I have a good mood in the morning.
In the afternoon it had a big rain when we having classes, luckly when we went back to the apartment the rain stopped. But is sadly to me the weather become a little cold. And today is the first anniversary of Wenchuan earthquake Day. I think the rain maybe is the tears flow for the dead people in that earthquake.
Today is commemorate the first anniversary of Sichuan Earthquake. We lost a lot of Chinese at last year because the big disaster. But Chinese hand in hand quickly go through trouble. Now, we are happy for rebuilt Sichuan Province and have best wishes to survived people. In that emerge situation, we know people all around the world are kindheart, generous and solidarity.
We have to live with hope and know that our life is simply a reflection of our action. I am a happy girl that satisfied with my life.
I took a break to walk in the rain because I needed to get some dinner, but also because my eyes were filling with tears and it was getting hard to keep reading. These students, these people, bear the weight of China’s history, as if all the Mao memorabilia in the Dongtai Road Market were piled on their shoulders. They bear the weight of an educational system that’s centuries old, exam-centered, and slow-to-change. And they carry with them the memories of compatriots and loved ones lost. Yet they are walking, talking, and laughing in the rain. These happy people, these sleeping tigers.
As I returned to my apartment a pretty girl rode past me on her bicycle. She was drenched, she had no umbrella, and the rain was pelting her face, and she trying to shield her eyes with one hand as she steered her bike with the other. She was alone, not riding with anyone to chat with and make her laugh. And yet as she peddled past me she laughed. All alone in the rain she laughed. Why?
I have only English to teach you, but what you have to teach me, you happy girl, is much more valuable.