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Published: October 23rd 2011
So, if you're wondering about the title, "dui"; it most closely translates to "right" as in "Yes, that's right." You simply hear it everywhere, often several in one sentence, often several strung together as one word. I've felt like I can get through entire days just saying "dui," or "bú dui" (wrong). I've noticed it's often accompanied by an "aw" sound on the end, as in "dui-aww," depending on the context of the conversation and the intended emphasis. My understanding of Chinese slang continues.
So last time I posted I was bidding farewell to my French friends. Within my next five days in Beijing, I would read, write, meditate and play badminton extensively.
Regarding badminton: After a little bit of searching I found the Capital Training Center which boasted about 20 courts and several good players. It was here that I hit my first shuttlecock in China, a seminal moment so far as I was concerned. Unfortunately, this specialness was more or less deflated when my racket (yes the racket, not just the strings) broke in the first half hour of play. This was despite an extensive effort on the part of Dad and I to craft wooden structural support for the exact reason that it might come under potentially destructive tension during the flight. It was disappointing, but regular players there were nice enough to donate one of their "qiu pai's" until I could buy a cheap 200 RMB replacement. Needless to say, I got good language experience at the post office as I sent my broken but warrantied racket back to the States.
By the second day of play there, I managed to communicate the fact that I am an avid singles player, and they were only too happy to provide willing opponents. Eventually I was matched up with a young man I had been eyeing since the first day I played there. I was almost positive he was better than me. Probably the best out of their whole group. He had legs like tree trunks and a back-hand smash and I was sure our game would amount to no more than a genial consolation match.
So we played, and I immediately noticed he was not only trying hard but nervous. His coach was standing two feet from the court, arms crossed, barking things occasionally. Moreover, the young man didn't quite know what to expect of this tall American teenager. He was unfamiliar with my shot style and shot choices and ended up making far too many unforced errors. What can I say? He choked: I beat him in two straight sets. He cracked under the crowd pressure (we had drawn most of the some 25 people at the club to our court) and I played like I had nothing to lose.
I rewarded myself with baked yams afterward. Street-side sweet potatoes ended up being one of my favorite aspects of Beijing, food-wise. 4 RMB for a delicious, portable lunch--I hope I see them in Shanghai....
Anyway, badminton aside, probably the most fruitful (no pun intended) part of those five days was meeting and befriending an English teacher. His name is Chris. Chris is a Brit, maybe 30 years old. He had been teaching in Beijing for about 6 months.
What luck! What luck that I should strike up casual conversation with a fellow hosteler, and discover that he has first-hand experience with just the kind of job I was eager to find. He was very extensional with me too, happy to give me names, numbers, tips about teaching situation in China, advice for the classroom, help with my Mandarin, etc., etc. He was confident in my ability to get a job teaching at certain private schools (probably to a lower age group) or at the very least to find one on one tutoring positions. He helped me hammer out a CV, showing me which parts to emphasize, which parts schools wouldn't care about. I enthusiastically emailed it to teaching centers and tutoring programs in Shanghai, as Shanghai would be my city of choice for any several-month extended stay.
But when one and two days passed and I still had not received any replies whatsoever from the 7-8 schools I contacted, I began to worry. What if I come off as simply too young and inexperienced? What if I am too young an inexperienced? Should I be so quick to find a job (yes a job that evil word) when this this trip was intended to be about off-the-cuff learning and adventure? Would a classroom (if I could even get myself into one) choke or broaden my explorations? Should I really be loafing around Beijing waiting on the whim of schools who may not want or need me?
And I was getting too cozy in my neat little hostel. A warning to myself and others: it is all too easy to stay cooped up in a Western refuge like the hostel I was at where you can speak English with the receptionist and be served an American breakfast.
I felt restless, dependent and a little desperate.
So I hatched an idea.
And now, as a testament to this idea, I have several blisters, sores and newly discovered muscles.
I walked to Tianjin. Originally I had the lofty notion I would walk all the way to Shanghai, but now that I have a little bit more experience I know exactly how much energy and time that would take.
The distance from the southern most subway station Beijing to the northern most subway station in Tianjin is about 100km. Check it out on a map. I figure I walked about 75km of that distance in four full days, having accepted one free ride from generous strangers and one taxi ride when I needed a place to sleep at 12:30 in the morning.
I bought the appropriate shoes in Beijing and managed to trade backpacks with Chris, as his is far more suitable to actual hiking. I bought some back-up food and an atlas. I left Monday morning, having dined and received the good blessings from Chris the night before.
It was a strenuous and revealing experience. Walking almost 20 km a day offered a great variety of cityscape, rural plateaus and downtrodden areas to explore. While I was bound to the highway for a steady and reliable route, I tried to deviate my path as much as possible. I found rivers, farming hamlets and parks much more pleasurable than the consistent drone of main roads. Some parts were simply enchanting (like endless corn fields and vegetable gardens) others oppressive and depressing (like the trash strewn concrete jungle). I suppose I'll let the pictures do much of the talking--remember you can check them out at Flickr.com; just search for "Chris Stasse".
The highlight of the experience was of course the people. As soon as I left the large metropolis areas a few things happened. For one the amount of people who could speak English dropped to you-would-fall-to-ground-and-kiss-the-Earth-if-you-found-one kind of levels. I received the best kind Mandarin tutoring one could possibly find over those 4 days, where you either study and practice or welcome threats to your own survival.
The next big thing was the looks. My word, the looks. People would not hesitate to stare right at you with the sort of look that said "you are either very lost or very crazy." It is possible I was a little bit of both. I can't really blame them.
I say that now, of course. When I was actually there, I received these looks in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes I was frustrated and honestly annoyed (yea, I'm walking, I'm white and I got a big sac over my back: what's it to you?). Other times the attention inflated my ego, and I could stare right back at them. Most of the time, however, I simply tried to wear a look that said as benignly and earnestly as possible: "I am only here to learn".
People were often afraid and standoffish. I would approach someone to ask them a simple question and they would literally take two steps back. "I don't bite, really!" I wanted to say.
But any tentativeness and suspicion was balanced by a profound sense of hospitality, I found. I was on many occasions deeply impressed. There were of course the two gentlemen who offered me a ride for much of the way between Langfang and Wuqing and helped me chart my itinerary on a map I was carrying.
I remember one specific instance on the first day: I had overestimated the distance I could hike and still had 20km to walk at 3:00 in the afternoon. I was trying to make it to Langfang. I stopped by a fruit stand and asked the group of old ladies who ran it where the nearest hotel was. It took about 10 minutes of them laughing at my incompetence with Mandarin for me to figure out that I would have to walk a few more kilometers to Cai Yu, a "new town" too small to even be marked on the map. I thanked them and asked several more people for directions along the way (the town was, unfortunately, quite a ways to the left of the highway). After what seemed an incredible distance I was finally shown to a small hotel. But government edict forbade them to accommodate me--evidently hotels of too small a size are not allowed to accept foreigners. Let me emphasize though: the people who ran this place wanted badly to help me. And they, like many people I ran into, were overtly respectful of my endeavor, once I told them what I was trying to do. I learned that day the Chinese word "quinpei"--to admire and the gesture that accompanies it. So taken were they, and so in some sense shameful that they could not give me a room, they allowed me to sleep in a bed until 8:00pm and offered me food and drink--all free of charge. I managed to walk about 8 more kilometers to Langfang that night, until I conceded to a taxi who offered me a fair price for the remaining 10.
There were countless other small gestures of kindness. I could not possibly list them all. I was in such a mind that any token of attention or generosity went a long way. The last day I remember walking up a highway. It was in the afternoon and by that time of day my walk would resemble more of a hobble than anything. A girl cycled past me on a bike. She was maybe 35 years old, short. She looked back at me immediately and smiled. I smiled back. She began to laugh. I laughed back. She kept on looking at me until she rode over the hill and out of view. It wasn't of mockery or disbelief that look and laugh, but rather understanding. Across entirely separate continents, across wildly different cultures--this woman still managed to Get what I was doing and why. No words need have been exchanged--she simply knew.
By the time I got to Tianjin I realized a few things. I could handle the physical strain if I continued. I would progressively get used to it, even begin to like it. And I could get all the intellectual stimulation I wanted with fascinating audiobooks (we have much to talk about Kenny, Austin). What I couldn't stand was the social and emotional strain. The road can be a lonely place. If I did something similar to this another time I would bring someone with me, or at the very least bring a dog. Speaking of this I do miss all of you very much. I mean that. Especially you Lilla, if you're reading this. =)
It is interesting, to say the least, that I am writing this on a train that covers the distance I'd walk in a day in about 4 minutes. The view is breathtaking. I'll try and upload a video of it. But there is nothing like the intimacy of walking. I am immeasurably glad I thought of and exercised this endeavor. Hope you guys enjoy the pictures.
In Tianjin I found I received two positive replies from schools in Shanghai. It was enough for me to come down and crash on Mary's couch to explore the options.
At the very least, I know it's possible to get some sort of position with my kind of qualifications. Arranging things in an elegant and suitable manner--well, that is what I plan to do the next few days.
Hell, the next time I post, I may be Professor Stasse, or should I say:
Love all of you,
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