6 months in China
So much has happened since we last spoke. I am in a world that has changed and is changing in a country that is changing fast in a city that is changing at an unimaginable pace in a time in my life that is a period of immense growth. Every day is its own new chapter, I have more to say than time to say it. I feel myself shooting up, a bamboo plant, a foot a day.
谢谢 ~ xiè xiè
I stopped on my way home today on the median of the road on my electric scooter to have a man selling phone screen protectors put a new screen on my phone for me (a sentence I never thought I’d say). I’d seen him plenty of times before and hesitated, feeling awkward, knowing I stick out as a foreigner and all my movements are watched with intent, but this time I decided to go for it. I had dropped my phone and scuffed the screen protector badly, and I felt the small thrill of happy coincidence finding him set up on the median again. I pulled over and asked him, 你有这样的吗？Do you have this kind, pointing at my phone. He just held up a thumb and forefinger in the universal Chinese gesture for 8. 8块 is hella cheap. I handed him my phone.
It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized he was deaf. He didn’t reply to any of what I said and used context to move through the interaction. I scanned his QR code to pay him and he held up his hand in an “all done” gesture. I held up my hand in a thumbs up and pressed my thumb on an imaginary button over and over, the one Chinese Sign Language word I know: 谢谢, thank you. As I backed my scooter out and left, I could see his face shift behind his mask, crinkled cheeks and narrowed eyes. A huge smile.
I smiled too and promised myself I’d learn some more CSL, I need to. I keep running into deaf people. It’s happened five or six times already, and I am ill-equipped. I tried using ASL with them but it’s entirely unintelligible, and it seems my gesture game is very much not on point.
我就是我 ～ wǒ jiù shì wǒ
抱着我，坐好. Hold on, sit tight. I could hear his nerves were getting to him as I weaved my scooter through traffic. 没事没事没事 I repeated, reassuring him. It was ten o’clock at night, we’d been hiking all day, and I needed that one bowl of beef soy sauce noodles from that one place near my house. Nothing else would do.
On the subway back from the hike we had made our opening parlays. Coy toe dips. A small game of chess, feeling each other out. I wanted to bring him home, take him to bed, but I held back, not wanting to pressure him, not wanting what doesn’t genuinely want me. Finally, slowly, we landed on a plan. We both agreed that the interest was there, but we should test it out with a kiss. Takeout and back to my place. Showers, noodles, kiss. I had work in the morning and knew I’d be tired, but after neglecting to go to my own birthday dinner after party and then having insomnia anyway, I landed on the side of YOLO.
After so many perfunctory performances and bad encounters in and out of the bedroom, I was pleasantly surprised. Here I am, seven years his senior, a fast hiker myself but lagging desperately behind him up the steep trail. I’d never been with anyone much younger than me. Perhaps I am getting to that point in my life where there are people of interest on both sides of the age spectrum from me now. I thought about a TV show I had seen where the thirty-something woman dates a man in his early twenties. He wears her out, staying up late and wanting to be constantly busy with activities and time together. Can I keep up with him? Will it keep me young or will it exhaust me, pull me off my center, distract me from my goals?
I think about my language growth, my personal growth, the friends I’ve made and lost in this short time. I think about the absolute joy of the gallop, the freedom of speed racing through life, chasing after a passionate pursuit. I think, too, about all those people who I spoke with, went on dates with, brought home, who knew me only when my Chinese was much worse than it is now. One day, in a few years, when I am highly conversant (fluent is a big and scary word), I will call them up to have a good chat.
We took it so beautifully slow. Exactly what I’d been waiting for. I asked him, where have you been this whole time? As it turns out he’d been living in several countries in Europe, being fluent in French and four other languages, two years of van life. A fellow traveler.
We held each other’s faces and I walked into the mirror world of his perspective. In his world I am beautiful, powerful, sweet, kind. I had never thought of myself as the essence of sweetness. I think of myself as brash, rough, crass, wielding my intelligence like a personal protection device. I took a breath and dove deep into this new world. I felt this sweet, childlike part of me relax. This part that had just been and appreciated so fully. I felt inspired to live up to this sweet, gentle Anna. It’s amazing how people’s perceptions of us influence our perceptions of ourselves.
We were up until 2am, then debated him staying or not. I knew it would be a bad idea, but I also wanted to try. I was very unfortunately right. I sleep better on my own. Though it felt very nice to be held, his facial hair was scratchy on my back, and the remnants of my own personal traumas that only come out in the small hours of the night when I am at my most defenseless came rearing their ugly heads. It only took a few moments of tossing and turning before he got up and left, saying he’d let me get some rest. I appreciated this deeply, kicking myself internally for not just asking him to leave sooner, and I finally got some (not much) sleep.
I am 34 now, a fully grown woman, and yet there’s still a part of me that is 17 years old, burning with the unprocessed trauma of my childhood, not knowing how to communicate my needs, forcing myself to cry in front of my girlfriend so that she would comfort me. I can still hear her saying “what’s wrong?” over and over, as her concern turned to exasperation, and my unregulated nervous system trampled the fresh green shoots of our relationship. She broke up with me, I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and here we are now, worlds better, unimaginably better, but there’s still a tiny part of me that wants to be seen in my pain and comforted in it rather than ignored, blamed, and punished.
Didn’t I just say I had my heart broken? Here I am talking about someone new. Things move fast. My Chinese lessons are almost entirely in Chinese now. The staff at my school now know my Chinese is getting better. My boss and I now have meetings entirely in Chinese. The last one was 45 minutes long, bless my tired brain. I can get around, field simple phone calls from delivery and taxi drivers, order food and pay for it in restaurants, go clothing shopping, go on a myriad of first dates.
I went to an archery range with someone recently, me a lifelong on-again-off-again archer, him not so much. I hate to brag, but I smoked him. Like, I haven’t heard from him since our date. I might have hurt his pride. I have no regrets.
Today is a six day work week. This is very normal in China — we make up for holidays by adding extra days of school and work so no important progress is lost. In France, I hear, they “build a bridge” by taking off extra days so that people can have more vacation time. Next week is a short vacation and I have signed up for a couple of trips. One hiking trip and a beach camping trip. Though I invited a few friends, and my date, to come hiking, I will go camping alone. Traveling alone is a sacred experience for me. I am free to meet other people, to interact with others, not to worry about my connection with my compatriot. I am learning to balance, slowly, the competing forces in my life.
Most importantly, to me, is staying balanced over my own center. My mediation as I move forward is, as always, to watch how far I am drifting and to return to center, again, and again, the rhythmic breath of my life, me taking my justified place at the center, strong, powerful, and, at least to one human, beautiful, sweet, and kind.