Piecing the Puzzle扬州印象
Where Are the Middle Pieces?
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.