It’s hard to get back to this topic with China still so fresh in my mind. And, now I’ve been invited to go back in late December to a different area of the country and am prepping a show about my travels there for early August, but I really do want to also keep writing about my past journeys. So here goes …
We had made the decision to move back east and with my parents now living in upstate New York, that seemed like the most practical destination. We had a VW bus that we prepped for travel. I attached edges to the table in the back that stuck up above the surface to keep any crayons or other toys from rolling off. It was already set up with curtains and beds. I sewed pockets into the curtains to make drinks, snacks and other necessary items for my children easily accessible. There were still no seatbelts or car seats at that time, but I knew I didn’t want them running all over the bus. I had also learned by then what kinds of food traveled easily. I remember thinking that I should write a book on safe and reliable traveling with children because I had already done so much of it. I knew what kind of toys and art supplies were best and stocked up on those. When traveling with my kids, whether on short or long trips, I always made sure I had something new and exciting, something they'd never done before. Painting was definitely out, but they both loved it so I found paint with water books. I found a narrow necked bottle that attached to the curtains and filled it halfway with water - just enough for them to manage without it spilling everywhere. I also picked up a couple of those "magic" books with the special pen that looks invisible but reveals what's on the paper. Justin got a coloring one, and Jessie got one with puzzles and the like.
We were finally packed and ready for our exciting adventure. We hosted our final Open Mic and said a tearful goodbye to all of our wonderful friends. Just as I was getting into the bus, an artist friend handed me a jar of old barn nails saying, “You never know what you might need along the way.” That turned out to be a very prophetic statement. We left in late April and planned to travel for a week. We didn’t consider the fact that we were traveling in an older VW bus loaded down with all of our possessions, two children, two adults and a cat. We also thought we had plenty of money for the trip and planned on getting jobs when we arrived at our destination. We didn't realize at the time that we would break down in every state along the way. That ill-fated trip took us almost a month. The only time we stopped on purpose was to work on an herb farm as day laborers in Pennsylvania to make enough money to finish the last leg of our journey.
The first leg of our journey took us southeast toward Salt Lake City. We almost didn’t make it up the highest point we would have to climb when our bus just stopped. We could see the summit but couldn’t get there. We jumped out of the bus and went around to the back to look at the engine and see if we could figure out the problem. There it was, right in front of our eyes. The fly wheel was shifting back and forth and had widened the slot that held the two pieces together. We looked at it for a while when I remembered the jar of barn nails. We pounded a few of the largest ones in there, but it wasn’t quite enough. A year earlier, Paul had repaired the brakes on our Plymouth Valiant and had one small piece left over, he took them apart a few more times and still couldn’t figure out where it went, so he threw it in the toolbox, hoping for the best. That old brake part fit perfectly with the nails in the leftover space in the flywheel, and that repair took us all the way to Ohio … but not without many stops along the way.
Although we had made a temporary fix, the car now only ran during the daytime, so we slept the first night in the bus on the side of the road. It was important to stop frequently and let the kids run around. They were young, just 3 and almost 7 with lots of energy. And I did make them run – literally. At every stop, we ran circles around each other and the rest areas. We also let the cat out to do what she needed to do. My cats never had litter boxes. They always learned to let me know when they needed to go out. By the time we stopped running, everyone was happy to sit back down in the bus. The next day, we drove into Salt Lake City just as night was falling and, as the car died, we coasted into a motel right off the exit and went in to see if we could afford a room. The attendant took one look at us with our long hair, hippie van with curtains in the window, our kids trailing along behind us and our cat looking out the back window. He cautiously asked if we had any pot. At first, in our paranoia, we denied having any. He kept at it, insisting that we must have something and explaining that Salt Lake was the driest town in the US and please, please would we help him out. We finally took pity on him. He offered to trade us a room for a few joints then threw us the master keys, turned on the No Vacancy sign and asked us to keep an eye on the place while he was off partying with his friends. No problem! We got nice soft beds, showers, and the kids even got TV, a rare treat. This wasn’t going so badly after all. The young man came back the next morning looking a little bedraggled but with a big grin. We tipped him generously, in weed of course, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go.
Now that I’ve been home for two weeks, I’m beginning to think more about my trip – what was hard and what was inspiring. This will be my last China post. Next week, I'll return to my memoirs.
The adjustment this radically different culture was harder than I thought it would be in expected and unexpected ways. I was prepared for the squatting toilets and lack of paper products, including napkins, toilet paper and paper towels. Ironically, even though my arthritic knees protested strongly during the trip, it was totally manageable on my last day. You don’t really need to know any details of my struggles and adjustment, but it was interesting that being forced to really exercise my knees actually helped heal my normally protesting joints making me decide to add squats to my normal stretching routine.
I think the hardest adjustment for me was the hard beds and very thin pillows. The bed we slept on for most of our stay felt like a cross between a box spring and sleeping on the floor. I took to referring to it as my “plywood bed.” With my arthritis and very bony body, I finally layered all of my clothes as well as extra quilts that were in the room underneath myself, using my raincoat as a prop for my pillow and managed to mostly sleep through the night. After a good stretching session, most of the aches and pains that plagued me during the night were dispelled. If I go back, I am wrapping my dulcimer in memory foam. 😏
I had been told in advance that we might be stared at. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of those stares with a seriousness that bordered on aggressive scowling. It took me a little while to realize that it wasn’t aggressiveness or anger but just part of the culture. For example, during my teaching at both schools, many of the teachers, administrators and parents had that same look. At first, I worried that they were displeased with my work. It caused me to be more nervous than usual and falter slightly. Although it threw me at first, I’ve done enough performing in those types of situations where I’ve even been heckled during gigs that I was able to ignore it and just do my job. After each class or presentation, those same scowlers raved about how wonderful it was and how much they were learning, including the Board of Education members who visited one morning. I was able to apply that to the stares I got out on the streets as well.
I also had my picture taken more than any other time in my life. All of the teachers wanted photos with their classes, various administrators, the visiting teachers from around the region and Board of Education members, even random strangers on the street wanted photos taken with me. I inadvertently denied one man who asked for my photo only because I didn’t understand what he was saying. I shook my head saying, “I don’t understand.” He took it to mean that I was saying no to having my picture taken. After he disappeared, my friend explained what he was requesting.
Another thing that took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have, was the language difficulty. I was led to believe that most of the workers in the cafes, restaurants, stores and hotels in the city of Beijing would speak English and that most of the signage would be in both English and Chinese. The first issue was that I wasn’t staying in Beijing as I had originally been told. Secondly, although I have a translating app for my phone, it only translates one way. If the other person I was trying to communicate with didn’t also have access to translation, which was often the case, I couldn’t understand their reply. However, although a little cumbersome, it was very helpful for having conversations when they did have it. I also did a lot of nodding and smiling and used a lot of hand motions and facial expressions to get by. If it looks like I will be going back, I plan to take a class to be able to at least understand some simple but important phrases.
In addition to the sound of the language, Chinese has its own characters that look totally unfamiliar to me. When I visited Europe, even when I didn’t speak the language, the letters were familiar enough that I could often guess or at least get some kind of idea what the signs said. This was not true in China. It was even a little disconcerting when I returned home and, driving from Hartford, I noticed the signs in English and was taken aback for a moment. It was also odd hearing mostly English being spoken around me in Toronto and Hartford. I’d gotten used to seeing and hearing Chinese in only two short weeks.
One of two other things that I was ready for but didn’t encounter was a lot of pushing and shoving. I was told that because of the large population, the Chinese people don’t have the same concept of personal space. In my short two-week stay there, if someone bumped into me, they always excused themselves, or at least it sounded like that. I was also ready for a lot of talking that sounded like anger but didn’t hear that either. When my friend and I commented on the absence of emergency sirens, we were told that “the Chinese people like peacefulness.” It certainly seemed that way to me. The other thing I expected was a huge amount of pollution. I had bought myself a filtered mask and only used it once. When we saw water trucks on the roads spraying a fine mist, I thought at first that they must be spraying the trees with some kind of pesticide and was able to ask a new Chinese friend. It turns out that they spray water to keep the polluting particles from blowing around. It also kept things fresh on those very hot and dry days.
The traffic here took a little adjustment. At least away from the city, there are no stop signs and traffic lights only at the main intersections. The traffic weaves through everything with bicycles, scooters, cars and pedestrians all part of the same intricate tapestry. On our arrival, we were picked up at the airport by the school’s bus driver. It was during rush hour, and he and others sometimes created two lanes where the road was marked for one, drove on the shoulder to pass slower cars and even crossed the double yellow line, driving on the wrong side to pass. At first, I was very taken aback by this seemingly erratic driving until I realized that everyone else drove the same way. And, although I was told by one of the Chinese teachers that there were many accidents, I only saw one very minor fender-bender and one other rear end accident with no injuries. Both of these were on the highway during rush hour in Beijing. The other interesting thing about the traffic was the use of their horns to alert other vehicles and pedestrians of their presence. I didn’t hear them being used in anger the way we hear them at home, and it wasn’t blaring, just a short toot.
The pedestrians all follow the crosswalk lights religiously. I never saw anyone jaywalk, and both the crosswalks and the traffic lights have a lighted timer letting you know exactly how much time you have to make it across the street, through the light or how much time until the light changes. I never encountered anyone running red lights or racing across the road which I attributed that to those numbered lights. My experience was that of a very cooperative traffic and pedestrian flow.
The most inspiring thing I encountered was the overwhelming sense of respect everywhere I went. As a teacher and an elder, I was probably awarded more respect than some others, but I saw it everywhere. The Chinese people always made sure I had a seat, held my arm every time I got in or out of a vehicle and insisted on carrying everything for me. My first full day in China, I was taken to a children’s park and then the zoo. It was a Sunday afternoon (International Mother’s Day) and both places were filled with children and their adults, both parents and grandparents. I never saw a single adult raise their voice or talk harshly to a child. I also never saw a child misbehave. In the schools, there were a couple of kids who I could see were pretty spirited, but they did what they were asked to do without question. I’m sure there are many negatives to this too but, as a teacher, it was incredibly refreshing.
At first, I thought I’d had enough and wouldn’t necessarily want to return, though I did make friends there. Now, that the brutal plane travel is behind me, and I’m recovered from it all, I think that I would like to go again. One of the friends I made invited to go to her village in the southwestern part of the country to see the countryside. That was something I wasn’t able to do this trip, so that is very appealing. And, she is a musician offering to teach me one of their traditional instruments. How could I possibly say no to that? Anyway, I rarely say no to offered opportunities.
I also felt safe everywhere I went. There were cameras everywhere, security checks and gated communities with guards posted at the gates. I know that the government is very repressive and many of the people unhappy and dissatisfied. As a visitor though, it was a huge relief to never be worried no matter what time of the day or night I went out. No one locked up their bikes or scooters. If a crime is committed in China, there is an incredibly harsh punishment. I'm sure that fear as well as respect plays a part in my sense of safety but, as an older woman, it was a nice change for me.