There are really two stories here. The first one is the travel log of one very lucky girl who, along with her Canadian and Continental Indian colleagues was treated like a rock star by her Chinese university fellows. This story canvasses the very long travel time, the effort to reach across a daunting language barrier, the busy conference schedule, the incredible generosity of her hosts, and perhaps the food--that she really REALLY tried to like, and struggled with a bit.
And that story's got some great moments in it, some funny scenes, and some pathos.
But it's one that might be told of many places.
The second story is about her impressions of CHINA--those so-hard-to-capture moments, the ones her pictures hint at but can't exhaust, those feelings, sensations, and experiences that, perhaps in the case of this travel experience more than any she has had to date, have changed something in her--have engraved something new on her sense-of-the-world, have infused her feel-of-things with a new color.
One story of a hundred: Thirty-one hours of travel, the sense that I need to wash, happy just to get off the plane, greeted by the smiling face of my excellent friend and colleague Ming Shao (who has nearly single-handedly made it possible for me to travel to Yibin at all), and being "gifted" with a personal assistant and translator--my new young friends Joanna and Shu--almost overwhelming. I kept trying to SEE everything I could take in on the way to the hotel--warm day, city smog, walls with flowers growing over them, license plates, Chevys, a distinctive smell (not food, not grease, not car-exhaust, not flowers--all of these), high rise apartment buildings, billboards with Chinese characters and Pepsi, Rickshaws, activity everywhere...so much color among things; so flat and grey the smoggy backdrop. Two hours to prepare for my first "lecture," now in scare quotes. What good will a lecture be--no matter how interesting the subject matter (how environmental deterioration disproportionately affects women and children in the developing world, and why we should care about this)--if I cannot reach my audience? A blown up color glossy full-sized poster announcing my visit greeted my in the courtyard just outside the lecture hall--confirming my responsibility to Reach My Audience. Chuck any prospect of reading. Think in terms of accessible language. Get out from behind the damnable lectern. Get off the stage. Walk. Talk. Go. Laugh. Gesticulate. Wave. Demand. Ask questions. REACH THEM. My audience was composed mostly of English language education students--200 of them. Attentive, interested, expectant. THIS was an opportunity like I might never have again. REACH THEM. THIS MATTERS. REACH THEM. REACH THEM. REACH THEM.
I don't know that I have ever "worked a room" harder in my life. I don't know that I have ever loved teaching more. Struggling to understand--to UNDERSTAND--not just words, but sensibilities, sentiments, cadences, fears. How do I capture this? We spoke to each other--across culture, age, ethnicity, class, language, sex, and education. Spoke. To. each other. They were as (or more) interested in the curiously tattooed middle aged white woman as in anything she had to say. Thing is, the curiously tattooed middle aged white women IS what she has to say. This IS the meaning of a philosophical life: trying to BE what one says. My tattooing disrupts stereotypes of my class, age, sex, and education. My refusal to be contained to a lectern disrupts what a "professor" is supposed to look like/be like. My "husbandlessness"--though I suspect scandalous by Chinese standards--was a magnate to many of the young women in this room. How odd, I kept thinking, I must seem to them. And not odd at all--human. From another place. An example of one human life. A moment of listening and reaching and holding-on to a present irreplaceable by any other. I am holding onto it right now.
However bedraggled and just wiped out (WIPED OUT) I might have been by the end of this night, this moment with these students in this place mattered. This was not a learning that could be tested, charted, "outcome-assessed" or any of the other now fashionable manifest bullshit that passes for education. No. No. No. This WAS education. THIS was unforgettable.
This was the beginning of my week in Yibin.