Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Little Feet

May 20, 2010

Buttressing the northern edge of the CTBU campus is a mountain called Nan Shan (Southern Mountain). I’m not entirely certain how it got it’s name, though I suspect that the frame of reference is a sharp bend of the Yangzi River that sits due north of Southern Mountain. CTBU is located in the Nan’an (“South shore”) district of Chongqing and the Yangzi wraps around this southern shore.

The CTBU campus is huge and hilly, and added to the cultural and linguistic adjustments our students need to make during their stay in Chongqing is the accommodation to a different sort of topography than most Pennsylvania residents are accustomed to. Many of our students have grown up in boroughs in the suburbs of Philadelphia, though a few are also from New Jersey and Maryland. I don’t think we have one student on this trip who has lived in a truly urban landscape where a commute to school or work might involve extensive walking. The Widener campus is quite small, so there isn’t a great deal of walking in their daily lives on campus. And those who commute generally do so with their own vehicles.

Chongqing is located in the country of bicycles, but Chongqing could probably be more aptly called the City of Legs. It is a mountainous city, devoid of bicycles, whose residents take pride in the long and shapely legs of female residents honed by their daily commutes. At CTBU everyone walks, and fairly long distances. The walk from the foreign student dormitory to the building where most of the cultural exchange classes are held is a good twenty minutes, past a cafeteria, student dormitories, and a vacant guard station, past the art building, then a climb to the right, past more dormitories and classroom buildings, basketball courts, ping pong tables, and up another winding hill before arriving at the Bozhi Building. Students must then climb fourteen flights of steps to arrive at their classroom on the seventh floor. I warned our students to pack good sneakers, and I wince protectively when I see the occasional renegade attempting this climb in flip-flops. Even our athletes are building new muscles.

From the Bozhi Building, one must climb another fifteen minutes or so to get the base of Nan Shan Mountain. There are good reasons to make this climb. In addition to the terrific hiking trails that lead to scenic ridges on the top of this mountain, there is also a beautiful coffee house near the trailhead run by the International Business School (I have had my best lattes in China at this coffee house, which also has free wireless). For the tea drinkers, there is a spectacular tea garden at the trailhead itself, complete with bridges, breezeways, pavilions, and a shrine to Confucius.

Two days ago I had my most intensive China walking day ever, and I don’t think I ventured more than a mile from campus. It began with a 7:00 am wakeup (my brain has finally made peace with the early birds, allowing me to sleep past 5:00). By 7:15 I was knocking on my friend Travis’s door, an ABD Widener social work grad student. By 7:40 we arrived at the main square of the campus, joined by John (Social Work faculty) and his wife, Anne, and together we began our ascent to the trailhead. It was a misty grey morning, but humid, and I soon regretted the decision to dress modestly in jeans, wishing I had braved the curious onlookers and worn my basketball shorts, despite my own set of seasonably white legs. There were many others on the mountain this morning: hikers clad as impractically as myself in slacks that surely drew sweat; ladies dressed in romantic floral skirts and heels, stepping lithely from stone to stone like mountain goats; men and women hooting and yelling from every lookout point, answering the calls of strangers across the ravine; and the occasional stray, mangy, but well-fed dog, scampering behind vendors lugging goods in wicker baskets. The trails all consist of stone stairs, narrow and rough, sized for smaller feet than my own, which were shod in hiking books.

The four of us picked our footing carefully and in relative silence, each of us huffing and sweating, lost in our own observations of the misty world that surrounded us. I made note of the litter that lined portions of this trail, remembering that my students were doing a “service project” here this afternoon as spelled out by the our hosts at CTBU who know that professors at American universities like their students to do “service learning.” Good hosts that they are, they were, in effect, performing a service for us by providing us with a service learning opportunity, marked clearly on today’s schedule from 2:00 to 4:00: “clean Nan Shan Mountain.” I hadn’t really thought through the details of this activity until on the trail, and I was a bit horrified to realize how much of the litter may have at once been in contact with human bodily fluids: I frequently spotted wadded tissues and toilet paper thrown in the bushes or simply dropped on the trail, and there were also many remnants of beverage containers and food wrappings. Perhaps I should find some latex gloves for all the participants to wear for this “service project”?

At the top of the mountain there was a bustling vegetable market, full of vendors and buyers. I know Sichuan to be a lush and fertile land, but I was still impressed with the color and variety of the vegetables: huge red radishes destined to be pickled or served raw with a tangy marinade; large bundles of bright green vegetables of every leafy variety, destined for sizzling woks; heavy round globes of pale green cabbage sure to be sliced in strips to be added to hot pot or pickled and served as a cool appetizer; mounds of small round potatoes that I fantasized would be grated, shaped into balls, fried and topped with red peppers and Sichuan pepper corns. The culinary views from this hilltop were magnificent.

None of us had eaten breakfast, and after the requisite tourist photo shoot up top, we descended carefully but rapidly to the IBS coffee house where we ordered our cappuccinos and lattes and nibbled on some cookie-like pastries and a pound-cake-like loaf of buttery goodness. Travis and I swapped stories of leading students through China. He was fresh off a trip with LaSalle students (his wife directs LaSalle’s overseas studies program), and he shared with me how his students had all followed his advice to bring iPods. What he routinely tells students is that there is so much sensory stimuli they will be confronted with when they arrive in China and that it might help them to maintain control in the one area they may have control: auditory stimulation. They can’t control what they smell or what they see, they can’t control the weather or the unfamiliar terrain. But they can titrate the sounds that enter their ears, and from Travis’s experience, for some students this can help immensely with the adjustment to a new cultural and linguistic world, which can at times be overwhelming and intimidating. I marveled at the freshness of this insight. I’ve often requested that my students remain “unplugged” at least their first couple of days in China, letting in all the sights and sounds, urging them to record and reflect on their own responses to these stimuli. I also tend to have a few grumpy students the first couple of days of my programs. But what Trevor described to me was a group of students who remained relatively calm and civil in their initial encounters with Chinese airports, buses, hotels and construction zones. He said that he often observed students, by the second or third day, pulling one earphone out and then gradually both, until they were ultimately plugged into their surroundings and not their own exclusive auditory worlds. I recalled the grounding effect my own music had on me during my bus ride to Chengdu and decided then and there to dispense with my dogmatic approach to the assumed benefits of a certain degree of rawness in these initial cultural encounters. Perhaps there are benefits to titration?

After a brief text message exchange with Paula, who had opted out of our morning hike, I realized my walking was not over. Poor Paula was sick with a fever, suffering from what appeared to be the start of an upper-respiratory infection. I told her I would return to her apartment with John and Anne and see what we could do to help her feel better.

The apartment is a good twenty minute walk downhill from the coffee house, and when I arrived Paula was sitting up in bed, a stack of tissues on her lap, looking apologetic and miserable. She had Tylenol and antibiotics on hand, but was concerned about this developing into pneumonia, and wondered if a good expectorant might be in order. I know of a good Chinese cough syrup that would do the trick, and I offered to head to a pharmacy off campus. Twenty minutes of walking later, which included exiting the campus, crossing a busy street utilizing an underpass, and emerging on the other side to witness the planting of trees with a huge crane (see pictures), I rounded a corner past street vendors selling spiced meats barbequed on skewers, and arrived at a small pharmacy. After a bit of back and forth with the pharmacist I located a Chinese cough syrup I was fairly certain was the one I was seeking. The pharmacist also talked me into purchasing two days worth of packages of two other kinds of Chinese medicine she said should be taken with the syrup: something to dissolve in water to help with fever and small pellets to be chewed and swallowed that would draw sweat. I paid her a whopping thirty-yuan for these three medications (less than $5 U.S.), but had doubts as soon as I exited the place. Is this really the medicine Jazz’s mom took when we lived in Beijing that helped so much with her cough? Perhaps I should see if the larger pharmacy has Robitussin just in case Paula would prefer to take something more familiar. Ten minutes and a few blocks later I was in the larger pharmacy, and after much discussion of the benefits of western versus Chinese medicine and some circumlocution to describe what I was looking for (I didn’t know how to say “Robitussin” in Chinese) I had purchased a bottle of Robitussin for 19 yuan and was on my way back to Paula’s place. Somewhere in this I also received a text message saying one of our students had a headache and high fever, so I made a brief detour to the market for bananas and water.

Forty-five minutes of walking later, I had dropped the meds off at Paula’s and returned to the dormitory, where students and faculty were running off to lunch, wanting to fuel up before climbing Nan Shan mountain and picking up litter. But oh no—the latex gloves! And I had visited two pharmacies where I might have purchased these. Might these be optional? But no, I could not stomach the idea of my students picking up germ-infested tissues. I pow-wowed with my faculty friends over a hasty lunch and made my decision: safety first, I’d go back to the pharmacy.

Back in my room I changed from my jeans to a skirt and from my hiking boots to sneakers. Before departing I remembered my earlier conversation with Travis and pulled out my emerald-green iPod nano and plugged in. Oh, the joy! I nearly skipped out the door to “Bamboo Banga,” the pulse of M.I.A.’s Kala carrying me on the first leg of my now-familiar journey. Pharmacist number one had the gloves I sought, but she couldn’t sell them to me because she didn’t know how to price them! That’s O.K., I thought, skipping out the door to the beat of “World Town”, and dashing over to the second pharmacy (no gloves there). I circled around the corner to a small household goods store and picked up twelve pairs of thick latex gloves, the kind the sensitive might wear to wash dishes, thinking the students could wear one glove each. Heading back to campus I smiled broadly listening to Michael Franti’s playful rhymes on Stay Human, avoiding all his distracting radio segments, but delighting in his homage to freaky people. I arrived at the dorm, so happy for my day in motion that I was considering applying for a job as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. The students were assembling outside. I was just in time for another hike up Nan Shan Mountain, this time to collect litter. Much to my dismay, the CTBU students were distributing plastic gloves to protect our students from germ-infested tissues.

The “service project” ensued, but this time a bus drove us all to the trailhead. We began the ascent, each of us with a plastic bag in one hand, a sweaty glove cloaking the other. I noticed most of the students picked up the food wrappers, but ignored the tissues. By the time we reached the top of Nan Shan, the vegetable vendors were gone, replaced by tables of mahjong players.

On the hike down, I stopped at the trailhead, eyeing the tea garden and the inviting pavilions. I invited some students and faculty in and before long we were clustered around tables, some of us sipping jasmine tea with green leaves floating near the surface of our cups, some of us drinking chrysanthemum tea, sweetened with rocks of sugar. I watched my students as their Chinese exchange partners taught them a Chinese version of rock-paper-scissors, so at ease with one another after a week of flirtation and friendship. The underpasses and construction zones felt far away, despite the fact that there was construction going on just outside the tea garden wall. I thought about the mahjong players at the top of the hill, who had made the climb and were now fanning themselves to the click of their tiles. As arduous as life can feel at times in China, there are also some amazing ways to unplug and relax. I set about making my evening plans: foot massage, anyone?

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