Anchored to Good Earth
By Austin R Ryan
At times I don’t feel anchored to where I am or what I am doing. I don’t think it is a thoroughly unique sentiment - looking up and feeling like you are flying off or looking down and feeling like those feet beneath you might not stick to the ground - but I do think it is meaningful. Before I came to China that feeling would overwhelm me a lot and I’d feel oddly lost in job applications, casual work, and studies. It wasn’t the most unpleasant sensation but sometimes I’d chase it too far and end up somewhere deep in my own head. Disconnected, I would not properly notice the wonderful things I had around me.
In China it is hard to feel that same way and for me that’s a gigantic change. I live at the school where I work and when I step outside sometimes I’ll look up at the massive clouds drifting slowly over the skyline of similar buildings or down at my feet and see the rhythmic, quiet, continuous motion of my steps and drift deeply into that disconnection. Then I’ll hear a, “hello!” said in that way just slightly peculiar to some Chinese speakers. They break it up like it is not one word, but two characters: He Lo. The syllables arrive into the open air with a sweet and sing-song sound. I hear my students say it in their particular way and I don’t try to change it to something more native – there’s a charm to it that I’d hate to take away for sake of a small accuracy. When I hear that hello it wakes me up to the things I am involved in. It usually comes from one of my nine to ten year old students; an absolutely small person with a big smile.
When I hear an ecstatic “hello” or “Austin” or “Mr. Ryan” I’ve felt so keenly like I was back down, anchored to ground, that I’d think something around me actually, physically changed. There was something so visceral to waking up from some daydream - that I did not even know I was having - into the full Earth around me that I’d think I had been gone for long and something changed. Of course I’ve tried plenty hard to pin down just why a simple salutation does so much.
Sometimes I think it is a sense of responsibility shadowing each greeting. In at least some regard I am responsible for around 500 students who are too young to know a lot of what’s good for them. Ask me what I wanted to be when I was nine and I’d say veterinarian; give me a full year to study what I want and I’d read Magic Tree House books without ever worrying about how far away veterinary school was. It can be tempting to wave the whole task off as nothing, to say you really have no hand in directing any of these kids because they always seem to split off and do their own thing regardless. Fellow teachers might cancel your classes as if they aren’t serious. During testing season the spoken English class will likely lose one to two weeks of time to study periods. But there are few other English outlets for kids this young. Many of them don’t have much recourse but you and you are the nearest to native sound they may get for a while. They will not understand this; some adults will not even understand this; it is up to you to understand this. When I walk down the baby blue hallways sheltering my third graders it is filled up with art and crafts they’ve made. I know I am hardly even close to their biggest preoccupation but if they aren’t close to being mine than I feel maybe I have fallen too far deep into my own mind. I feel I’ve disappointed my colleagues and students who both work hard to realize something good. Sometimes I think that sense of responsibility is why those hellos wake me up to the world.
Energetic interaction could be another part of the intense feeling of community that pervades China. In America people smile all the time – more often than they could possibly be happy - and will regularly say “we should get together soon” – more often than they could possible meet up. I have never considered my culture or country false. People mean what they say, they just often over-commit to that meaning to make themselves and others feel a part of a community. Yet, despite the effort in the USA things are naturally transitory – people move regularly, people learn that the first step is to go after what you need and want, some cities lack good public transit, American cities are so spacious that people often live far apart – so communities often feel so light and informal that if you tried to fall into them you’d fall right through.
For me, Chinese community exists naturally and almost oppressively. There is less fear of falling through a community but so into one that it blankets you entirely enough that everything else is swaddled out. It amazes to see how regularly and almost seamlessly people get together in China. In the local KFC a group of old people – sometimes large enough to take up a third of the place – congregate and discuss the day. In near every park and plaza there are dance groups that come together for over an hour for coordinated square dances. Their ranks will shrink with bad weather but it has to get really bad for that dedicated core of dancers to disappear. Most fascinating to me are the Hui people and their restaurants. In Jiangsu there is no shortage of a special kind of restaurant where Chinese Muslims – called Hui people – sell a delicious and unique brand of noodles made by hand. Most of these restaurants are small mom and pop stops that can have astonishing popularity. Each restaurant tends to have an owning family which usually includes a kid that will help deliver orders if they are old enough. Becoming a regular at these places is seeing these children and their families grow. In one case it even meant seeing one couple have a child, return home, and without even closing the shop for a day hand over ownership to a new family. In the USA when I felt this sensation of falling inward it almost seemed as if the things around me respected the fall so much that I wanted even less to stop it. Here I wonder if those greetings are the community catching and bouncing me back up, asking me why I ought to be falling.
Other times I think it is just another part of the raw, constant stimulation that radiates from living abroad in China. It seems surreal at times to walk even to the grocery store. So many things can happen so starkly without disrupting the fabric of daily life. Fireworks shatter the sky with intense sound akin to gunshots but eyes do not drift even slightly from the path they are set on. On the street corners ambitious motorcyclists cut off full busses somehow without any resulting accident – just the furious, thunderous roar of a bus horn. That grinding pulse of enraged traffic sound sets a visible tension into my whole neck but when I look around most folk usually don’t seem even touched by it. Often when another pedestrian sees me they’ll glance at what I did, which I think is purely a compassionate acknowledgement of another’s discomfort. Given the density of everything there is always something wild happening and for the most part people don’t pay much mind to any of it. It is incredibly easy to understand why, as restaurants and malls seem to host public shows so often that you’d show up late to a lot of engagements if you got wrapped up in each one. On some days where I feel more a local a lot will slip right past me too – though I can never feel like a local for long. In America I might have flat out forgotten where I was after walking and commuting long enough in an environment I am so adjusted to. In China something always shakes me back into my present location and perhaps an endearing salutation is a similar strange tremor.
The truth is that sometimes that constant, immutable presence in things does not feel sweet. There is an uncanny sort of bliss in falling so quietly into your surroundings that you become an indiscernible part of them. The whole habitat becomes so natural that it is not a consideration and a commute can bubble up with thoughts, daydreams, imaginations, and all sorts of machinations that make you float off from ground. At times I’d love to feel keenly floating for a whole day, but I am not natural here and in my lifetime I probably never could be. No matter the time that passes, there will likely be a child that extends his or her full arm out to me and absolutely screams, “foreigner!” as if sounding an alarm to any soul not yet to set eyes all over me. Even if it became less obvious, there’d be stares, questions, insistent conversations, and even simple moments of strangeness that remind me of a certain separation with where I live that I cannot get rid of. If I said it never twisted me up I’d need to be a finer liar than I am.
In spite of all that, I can genuinely say I don’t want this anchoring thing gone. Over the course of teaching in China I feel like I have changed immensely but no change is as big as being so thoroughly and so often anchored. Escaping my own head lets me peer down the parted rows of skyscrapers gently blinking in unison back at me. Feeling deep responsibility makes me wonder if every nine year old in the city isn’t one of mine. Returning to see the wacky antics of my favorite Muslim toddlers makes me feel near as familiar to the street I live on as the one that grew me up. Even if the natural strangeness of a foreign land ruptures my peace sometimes it also makes my brain engage with the full distance I have come just to be here, inside the life that I own. Being present and full in an experience like this has given me fresh confidence in myself because in some ways it forced me to see I could enter the world without needing to retreat so often. The rich berth of experiences that arrive hardly with my asking made me consider things and grow in ways a younger me would never have fully foreseen. I do not know if that makes me want to stay a decade or ditch it all before it changes me too deeply. I just know that for me the biggest change I’ve felt is that in China I am anchored to good earth, even when it feels bad to be. It is something I am incredibly grateful for. I am as grateful for it as the sunny days and clear skies that bring light to the beautiful things and wonderful people that you can find anywhere if you look hard enough.