The walking path circles the campus and the crowd parts as I run through – a one woman parade. In the heart of coal country China, Henan Polytechnic University students don’t see many white ladies, and I get the sense that seeing one run by, boobs bouncing in a jogging bra, draws even more attention. The attention slides off me like a trickle of sweat and my sunglasses let me pretend to be oblivious. I’m headed for the campus park for the first alone time I’ve had in two weeks.
I round the curve, and stop dead to avoid running through the center of a group of older women doing what looks like dancing tai ji. The tinny sound of Asian music bounces from their boom box and they dance with graceful karate chops and kicks and hip swivels. I watch and, unable to resist, ask a lady if I can try. (I ask in Chinese – either I looked really pitiful or she actually understood!!!) She welcomes me over and I watch her over my shoulder, mimicking her dances. The ladies pause to demonstrate the moves, correct my wrist flicks and hip twitches, nodding with affirmation when I get it right.
At the break, one little lady with a bowl cut hair-do comes over with a group of the old ladies following shyly behind her.
“Welcome! What country you from?”
I hear muttering, “May-gua-ren…May-gua-ren…”
“How old you!?”
“OH! … Teacher? Student?”
Each of my answers is quickly translated and inspires exclamations of surprise. What are they saying? Damn, this girl is 35 and still a student? She must be really slow!
Class starts again. A little lady next to me gives me more friendly pointers on my form.
“Your wrists touch here,” she says in Chinese. “Now you bow. Good. Good….” Her eyes sparkle.
Thank goodness for body language, because I only got the “good, good” part without it. The moves are slow and graceful. The ladies are dainty and express rhythm through the subtlest flicks and toe taps. After we finish, Bowl Cut marches over with her friends again.
“We OLLLLD ladies!,” she says. “We old ladies. I teach you Chinese. Wa sheewan Jongua.” I like China.
“Good! Good!” she says.
A skinny little lady with sparkles on her shirt comes over.
“Wa shi Tongggggggua.” She tells me that she is Chinese. I noticed.
In the meantime, Jeff the English teacher comes over, introduces himself, and before I know it I have joined his students sitting in the park for an oral English class. Jeff assures that I am the guest speaker for two back-to-back English classes! He tells me and the students how important it is for them to practice their English, and then spends most of their class talking to me in English instead of having them talk to me. The students stare and smile and hide their eyes shyly when I look at them.
When the students do get a few words, they ask, “Do you sing American song?”
I teach them This Land is Your Land and their smiles make my own cheeks hurt. In turn, they sing me a welcome to Beijing song.
I’m trapped inside myself! If only I could remember how to say Arizona, Grand Canyon – something! – in Chinese, but my brain is thick after a week in this new country. I feel like I am living in a bubble; I don’t understand street signs, Mandarin or even body language.
Despite my seeming isolation, the day leaves me with new friends. Dancing Lady #3 sees me later. Her baby is squatting on the side walk to pee from his crotchless pants, and she leans over, sweeps him up and plops him down nearby so he won’t dabble in his own puddle. She babbles something to me that I can’t even come close to understanding, and I get a glimpse of the most common mistake in speaking with someone who doesn’t speak your language.
When I say, “I don’t understand,” her eyes grow big, she moves in closer to me, and she says the same thing at FIVE TIMES THE VOLUME.
It gets us no where, but we depart each other saying nice things – whatever they are, smiling and warmed by our international exchange.