China, Summer by Katie Karnehm-Esh

Travel Essay: Every morning in Jinhua, I wake up around 5:30 to grey light, and a moan of buses on the highway.  My shoulders and hips ache on the rigid mattress, the ones the Chinese students call “too cushy,” but at least my back never hurts.  Chaise, my roommate, tries to keep sleeping while I hunt for my driest running clothes. I find my increasingly orange-dusted running shoes and take the stairs down from the seventh floor to the lobby, two at a time. Outside at 6:00 a.m., the air is like warm soup.

At the first intersection, two people walk backwards in different directions. Several small groups of older people shuffle; one man runs fast, but the rest move slowly. The woman with her branch-broom sweeps off the brick sidewalk too uneven to use. I followed the arc of the road curving towards the dining hall, Commercial Street, more construction dust. A sign near a clump of trees reads, “Warning: Do not walk alone. Desolate woods.” An e-bike zips by. I am never really alone in China. If I run on the hill my students walk by in clumps of ten or fifteen; on the track middle-aged men jog and climb poles; middle-aged women walk and clap in time.  On my loops around the lake still older men practice Tai Chi. A lone photographer sets up a tripod. None seem to sweat. My hair and my tech shirt drip.

During and after my shower I keep sweating, especially when trying to drink up my warm lemon water (to stay healthy) or my Nescafe (to stay alert ten hours from now). On the twenty-minute walk to class, there are never enough trees, and always too much construction dust. At 8:15, my students chant the sports vocabulary from yesterday in the stifling classroom while sweat beads on my arms and legs. The water tank in the courtyard is almost empty and the air dulls the students’ voices to a drone.

During lunch, 300 people and I wait in snaking lines in ZNJU’s cafeteria for bowls of rice, greens, mysterious soups of tofu, watermelon. In the afternoon I sweat in the supply room, eating dragon fruit a co-teacher has given me, and preparing for tomorrow’s lesson, which I have just learned is too advanced for my students. Suddenly I am told to hurry up and go downstairs for a photo; suddenly I am told to sit and wait. My students chase dragon flies and catch each other in trust falls while the photographer stages the groups in front of us.

Afterwards in paper-cutting class, all the instructions are in Chinese, so I write an email to my husband while waiting for the photos and demonstrations. The wifi cuts out before I can press send. My most eager female students will create and give me intricate red paper snowflakes and flowers while the boys cut theirs into jagged pieces and tug my co-teacher’s hair. She bursts into tears and shouts at them. A typhoon is coming and our bodies take on the quality of the air–hot, wet, tense. In this heat, I drink water all day but don’t need to visit the acrid squatty potties where the stall doors barely clear our torsos. “Did they really save that much money cutting the doors in half?” a girl on our team asks. No one knows. They’ll never ask.

At dinner, another line. My co-teacher, Sunny, helps me order a plate of porkless fried rice that I drink with a cup of cucumber juice. At lunch we might discuss Chinese and American wedding rings, or tomorrow’s lesson plans, but at dinner: silence. When I get up to leave, I trip over the tiny ledge going from one room to another in the dining hall.

“Don’t forget,” says Kot, our Cambodian-American cultural liason, “everything in this country is trying to kill you.”

Like the e-bike that whips by when I cross the road. Or the wet marble stairs to the cafeteria. Or the tree, recently gutted from the earth and swinging overhead from a crane as Chaise and I walk to the dorm, licking our pineapple ice cream bars.

Later, I spread out my thin travel yoga mat in the small space between our wardrobes and the window. Chaise sits head-phoned and cross-legged on her bed, planning how to teach Chinese middle school students about Mother’s Day, checking her watch. We have a team meeting soon but this is what we do; Chaise creates a bubble of music while I move through sun salutations and warrior poses. Even with the air conditioner on, my mat gets slicker in each down dog and my hands turned pruney from the puddles of sweat. But when I finally I lie flat on my back in a sweaty savasana, or corpse pose, I am entirely rinsed.

My body is limp, my hands open. I am hanging on to nothing.


BIO: Katie says, “I studied creative nonfiction at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and now teach English at Indiana Wesleyan University. Some of my essays and poems have been published in Fourth Genre, The Windhover, Barren Magazine, The Other Journal, and Whale Road Review.”

Photo: Wikipedia

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