Into the mountains

A day with no plans can be the sweetest treat or the most restless anguish. Today was wall to wall sweet, with a candy coating of relaxation and an inner crunch core of thrill. I woke up absolutely elated at a blank agenda, setting about puttering in my apartment. A morning workout, a shower, breakfast, meal prep. Chopping vegetables with Chinese learning podcasts playing in the background. Moving slow and drinking cup after cup of a bitter herb tea you can find in any supermarket here. Sunlight streaming in through the windows. Peace.

After lunch I sat down to study. I flipped through my flashcards forward and backward, quizzing myself with the character first, then looking only at the English word and seeing if I could conjure the Chinese equivalent from memory. I stopped after each card to use each word in a full sentence, solidifying it in my memory. Then I set about copying my notes from my last two Chinese lessons, one with my online tutor, Tian laoshi, and one with my in-person tutor, Chen laoshi. First I write everything in my notebook, then I pick out the words and phrases I want to make flashcards out of and write them again, copying the characters carefully so I don’t memorize the wrong thing.

After some time, my head grew heavy, and I knew I needed a break. I turned my attention to a project I’ve been putting off for some time — sending my friends back in the US care packages. A simple task back home, but here it feels so daunting that I’ve put it off for months. Where do I get boxes? Where is the post office? Do I use a special shipping company? Do I go there or use a courier? Is there an app with information and a profile I have to fill out ahead of time? Do I have to fill out a customs form? How do I do that? What kinds of things am I allowed to ship? And, through every step of the way, a language I can barely navigate, with thousands of characters I have yet to learn to read.

Nevertheless, I decided to get started on the project. I put on my favorite new sweatshirt I just bought that says “the only way out is through” on it in big bold lettering, a new comfortable pair of jeans (despite being a S in America, I’m an XL or XXL here — a head trip, and too much to unpack for a parenthetical), and hopped on my scooter.

First I went to a snack shop. I weaved around kids and families shopping for reasonable amounts of snacks as I filled up an entire grocery basket full, feeling everyone’s eyes on me, the foreigner, acting strangely and buying huge quantities of snacks in this shop.

As I approached the cashier I pulled out my phone to quickly check the word for “box”. I saw that it was “he”, the same word I had previously learned for “takeout container”, or “da bao he”. A spark of connection lit through my brain. I love these moments of language connection.

I asked for a box and was corrected in context. “He zi”, she said. Yes, right, I remembered, you add “zi” to make something a noun. She brought out a large box and weighed out my snacks, pouring them into the box as they filled the bucket on the scale.

I heard gasps around me. It struck me as a familiar scene. I remembered the audience I had at the doctor’s office. A collectivist culture, with no pretense of not being in each other’s business. I turned to the crowd and explained, “I’m buying these for my friends in America. I’m not going to eat all this.” They laughed. I relaxed at the understanding.

I went home and unloaded the box, then back down to my scooter. My coworker had been able to send a package to Australia through DHL, so I typed “DHL” into Amap on my Chinese phone, and watched as a few red pins pop up around me. The closest one was just a few hundred meters away.

When I reached the destination on the map, I saw a closed gate with a series of large industrial buildings with no public-facing entrances. This might have been a DHL distribution center, but it certainly was not a DHL shipping office.

I looked up from my phone and saw it. The mountains. The same ones I see on my commute every day, from the roof of my building, and from every block in Fuyong. We are in a valley surrounded by hills. I have dreamed of and longed for these mountains since I first arrived. They are what make living in Fuyong — a place known for factories, the densest factory area in Shenzhen, which is itself the silicone valley production center of China — dreamy. They remind me of the grand scale of nature ever present in China. The National Geographic version of this country that I am still dying to see.

So, I hit the throttle, and motored forward into unknown territory. The mountains got closer and closer until I reached a highway with no passage. I rode alongside it until finally I saw a pedestrian overpass with stairs and the telltale middle strip of ramp. These ramps are meant for bikes, suitcases, and motorbikes, and are notoriously narrow and steep. I didn’t dare try to ride my moped up. I got off and walked my scooter up, trying to stay light on the throttle, just enough to get us both up safely. My first go at this was not perfect, and I scared myself a few times, but I made it.

Then, I realized, I have to make it back down. I rode across on a beautiful but too-short flat surface then sized up the angle of the ramp. Steep beyond imagining. I got off my scooter and tried to walk it down, but the weight dragged at me, putting me off center. I weighted the risks of getting on it versus walking it. I decided to get on it and use my feet as brakes as well as the hand brakes. A good idea in theory, but the ramp was so slippery and smooth that my feet gained no purchase, and I went down a bit faster than I expected. Still, it was done.

I rode the path paralleling the mountains, huge industrial complexes with walls and gates, looking for a path in. Finally I found one. A wide road, going all the way to the foothills. I turned right and headed up, passing apartment buildings with laundry hanging to dry and people eating at plastic tables and chairs set out in front of restaurants, themselves set in between convenience stores. The same scenes of life replicated at each location. Big city living.

The road turned sharply to the right, where the elevation started. A man on a road bike in professional cycling clothes sped past me going down, the first I’ve seen in China. This brought a smile to my face. I see countless bikes here but they are all thick-tired, built to contend with potholed streets. I thought about my own feather-light road bike back in the states, neon green and silver, clipless pedals, resting silently in my friend’s basement.

I wound my way up and up until I reached a dirt path with a small sign that read “Fuyong Forest”. I turned in, maneuvering my moped into a green tunnel, navigating the dusty path studded with bricks, rocks, and packaging waste and debris. I passed a large metal gate with an electric scooter parked outside. Someone’s house. People live up here. I kept going for a bit, then, as the path got more rugged, I pulled over and parked, opting to go on foot.

The path was beautiful. Green and lush with trees with huge palm-like leaves. I passed two people carrying buckets on their backs tied off to a stick. I felt out of place, a sight-seeing city-slicker hiker on a rural farm tract. Then I was alone. Being in nature after living in a dense city is such respite. I stopped and marveled at the trees, their giant leaves.

Then a familiar shape caught my eye. I whooped as I saw it. Bananas! Green bunches of bananas growing in the trees. I had stumbled into someone’s farm, these people up in the hills cultivating bananas. Of course, I realized, this is a tropical climate. This isn’t North America where bananas are imported from far flung places. Bananas grow here. On trees. On these trees.

I walked further along the path. I caught a glimpse of a man carrying something before he ducked off the path, leaving the two dogs following him still on the path ahead of me. One white, one brown, no collars. When they saw me, they started barking. Not a friendly bark, either. Low pitched and high frequency, an alert tone. Intruder. My heart caught in my chest. I remembered the hospital after my broken toe, passing a room labeled “dog bite clinic” in English. I decided it was time to leave.

I turned and walked quickly back, the dogs barking at me the whole way. I let out a sigh of relief when they didn’t follow me or approach, and exhaled fully once I got back to my moped and started down the hill. One more overpass to negotiate, then I’m home.

Until next time, xia ci jian. ❤

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