It was 90 degrees at 9am this morning in Wuhan, China. I’m in a small coffee shop called Figaro on the East Campus Road of Wuhan University. We had rain for two days, and now the sun is out, and oh, is it hot. Across the street from me, two old Chinese men and an old Chinese woman are sitting on little stools fanning themselves on the sidewalk in front of a small shop. On a rack near the door are umbrellas and belts for sale, and on a ledge along the wall are stacked dozens of sandbags. It’s shady here–someone planted sycamore trees along almost every street in this part of the campus many years ago. It is beautiful.
Yesterday, I took a tour of campus with Miya, a Chinese graduate student who is volunteering with the WUSIEP program, a joint effort of Wuhan University and The Ohio State University to bring English to Chinese college students. Miya led us to the oldest part of campus, a hill lined with cherry trees that is famous, drawing tourists and sightseers from all around each year in April. This year marks the 120th anniversary of Wuhan University, so the vendors at the top of the stairs we climbed above the cherry trees were trying to sell us commemorative T-shirts and bookmarks. On our way back to our campus hotel, we got lost and wandered through the woods with another guide, Aleeza, until some friendly students showed us how to find our way back to a major road. This campus is so huge (50,000 students) that anyone could get lost. I keep a business card with the hotel address in my purse in case I get lost when I’m on my own.
Yesterday I was on my own for the first time for a meal. Minru, one of the directors of the WUSIEP program, showed me a dining court where I could order food, explaining the many different dishes to me. I opted for stretchy noodles with chicken. I watched as a young man rolled a cylinder of dough until it was quite thin, and then he stretched it, doubled it over, and stretched it again, several times in a row. The two strands turned to four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, until he had 256 strands (or more?), and then he threw them into a vat of boiling water. What came out looked exactly like curly ramen noodles. A young woman dished some chicken on top of the noodles, which of course included neck bones and gristle and skin. Anything that wasn’t too crunchy, I ate. I got a dish of cooked cucumbers with red peppers on the side. Yes, my mouth was on fire by the end, but oh, it was worth it. This morning, Calvin, an American teen who is attending camp here, took me to the local market to buy a tea-boiled egg and a banana. I went back to the food court on my own and figured out how to buy a cup of warm sweetened soymilk. Yum!
In Chinese pinyin, the word for China is Zhongguo. Zhong means middle or center, and guo means kingdom. Zhongguo is the middle of the world to the Chinese, the center of all things. Isn’t that the case for all of us, that where we live is the center of everything? My first few days in this middle kingdom were hard–the jet lag and the heat and disorientation of being around people who speak a different language and have a different sense of personal space took a toll on me in those first days. And the toilets, of course, are a challenge.Â Stainless steel or ceramic holes in the floor over which you are expected to squat. I still haven’t figured out which way to face when I’m squatting, but I’m not sure it matters. I’ve had two massages, which were excellent. I might get a foot washing today. There are great little pleasures tucked in amongst the challenges.
Some China moments: silent battery-operated scooters with rain ponchos that cover the driver and the bike all the way across the front light… old Chinese men and women sweeping sidewalks with brooms made of twigs… laundry hanging out to dry everywhere, even on the goal box of a soccer field at an elementary school… a pile of black hair near the doorway of a barbershop… washing my laundry by hand in the bathroom sink with a bar of laundry soap and hanging my clothes out to dry on a line in our hotel room… reminiscing about chocolate cake with Summer, one of the Chinese directors of the WUSIEP program, and realizing few people in China have an oven to bake a cake in… watching three dogs play lazily in the street as cars slowly drove around them, no one concerned or trying to get the dogs back on the sidewalk. Ah, China.