Piec­ing the Puz­zle扬州印象

Where Are the Mid­dle Pieces?

That's China - - Contents - Text by / Hannah Lund

When I tell peo­ple about my stay in Yangzhou, or even China in gen­eral, they al­ways ask what I saw. I try to ex­plain that I saw and ex­pe­ri­enced Chi­nese cul­ture, but some­times I feel like I can never seem to get past the puz­zle bor­der. Sure, I have a ba­sic grasp of the place, but as for the rest? Bu zhi dao.

Some­times get­ting to know China is like try­ing to con­fig­ure a 10,000-piece puz­zle: you snap the bor­der to­gether for a ba­sic gen­er­al­iza­tion of the place, but when you try to fill it with any kind of sub­stance, it’s as if all the mid­dle pieces are sky-blue and you have no choice but to fit them to­gether, one at a time. I dis­cov­ered on my third day stay­ing in the coun­try­side of Yangzhou, that it’s not so much about puz­zle pieces in China, as it is about per­sonal en­coun­ters. I had been to the old town, which I thought would be more or less like the China of my imag­i­na­tion: old tea houses, work­ers dressed in long robes, red lanterns dan­gling from gnarled win­dows. In­stead, it was some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent. When we en­tered, the first thing I no­ticed was the sign on a store that said some­thing like “AU­THEN­TIC CHINA CLOTHES.” The build­ings were in­deed old, the ac­tors por­tray­ing older so­ci­ety as well as they could, but ul­ti­mately it was not the place I had imag­ined be­fore com­ing. Like any puz­zle, the more tem­ples and build­ings and cul­tural ar­ti­facts I saw, the more solid my bor­der be­came, the more cru­cial the mid­dle pieces were needed to flesh it out.

Later that even­ing, we went to a fam­ily mem­ber’s home for din­ner on the one-month an­niver­sary of my ar­rival in China. I’d seen a lot in that month, and yet it all seemed so far away, a thought that struck me as I stared at a “re­ply” screen to an email that I couldn’t write be­cause the key­board was stuck in Chi­nese. A fam­ily mem­ber helped me get train tick­ets. Con­ver­sa­tions were trans­lated and talked around me. It was as if, no mat­ter how ea­gerly I tried to en­gage, I just couldn’t be­come a part of a mo­ment.

Then, that night, my friend’s un­cle took me and some cousins to the square for some danc­ing. There had been a bit of drink­ing go­ing on by then, so the an­other un­cle kept swing­ing his arms and yelling “DANC­ING!” un­til we be­gan. As I danced for a while with the ayis and their mis­matched pants, the fam­ily took pic­tures of me, “ooohing” and “ah­h­h­hing” at my

danc­ing. The other un­cle tried to teach me the waltz, when he stopped in a sud­den jolt and said, “NO! YOU TEACH ME!” to gales of laugh­ter. I taught him the Charleston, which ended up with both of us flail­ing and stomp­ing (while yelling “DANC­ING!” all the while). Then, I taught him the Elec­tric Slide, which he watched in­tently, try­ing to study the moves. A cousin jumped up and down in her bal­le­rina skirt, smil­ing her gap-toothed grin up at me. So much of the even­ing was lost in trans­la­tion, and yet so lit­tle of the mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion mat­tered.

The next day, my last full day in Yangzhou, I de­cided to go for a walk. Some of the fam­ily mem­bers were tak­ing a nap af­ter lunch, so I saw my chance. Just then, my class­mate’s un­cle saw me head­ing out and asked where I was go­ing. I tried to say “I would like to go for a walk,” but all that came out was “I go jog now.”

He came with, which was prob­a­bly a good thing since I didn’t know the area, and af­ter we got all the way out to the lake area, he asked if I wanted to jog.

“Oh, I was try­ing to say walk.” I said. “We can jog now,” he said. “…do you ac­tu­ally want to do this?” “With your longer legs, you should be able to out­run me.”

The next thing I knew, we were run­ning down a dirt road. As he had pre­dicted, I ran faster than him, and so had to yell “Where? Where?”

when­ever I reached a fork in the road. “Left!” he would say, and then run right. I’d pump my legs to try and catch up with him. Ei­ther he was very fast for a chain-smoker, or I am a very poor ath­lete. Ei­ther way, we got to the house out of breath, my class­mate giv­ing us weird looks be­fore set­tling back on the couch. When I tell peo­ple about my stay in Yangzhou, or even China in gen­eral, they al­ways ask what I saw. I try to ex­plain that I saw and ex­pe­ri­enced Chi­nese cul­ture, but some­times I feel like I can never seem to get past the puz­zle bor­der. Sure, I have a ba­sic grasp of the place, but as for the rest? Bu zhi dao.

Some­times there is no suc­cinct way to por­tray a place, be­cause so much of it de­pends on the peo­ple within it. I didn’t come away from Yangzhou hav­ing seen ev­ery last scrap of an­tiq­uity the city had to of­fer, but I did see some­thing that mat­tered a lot more: I saw the crooked dirt path as my feet jogged along it, the look on ayis’ faces as I danced with them and taught the Elec­tric Slide to an­other, and the clink of chop­sticks as fam­ily came to­gether and let me join them.

And just like that, more puz­zle pieces.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.