Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Go Forth and Learn, My Child

I had a moment of clarity this evening. I can't explain why it happened and there are no clear words from a heavenly netherworld to bestow upon you either. It simply felt like clouds parted for moment and allowed me to see a few bright stars shimmering in the cold atmosphere above. I confess it brought a tear to my eye, but I sucked it back in so I could ask the waiter for the bill. I mean the pizza was good, but it wasn't that good.

Most of my day prior to this was actually a major case of Low Motivation. (Doc, it hurts when I do...anything!) I can't really tell you where the hours went. Sometimes days like this make me feel worthless, wasting precious time and all that. But today, I managed to not be too hard on myself, for once. So I didn't harp on the fact that no checks were marked down on the ol' To Do list, and simply went out to get some dinner and read a book.

This is something I have started doing a lot of lately. Actually, besides reading for school, I have consistently resisted reading on my own since childhood (and yes, I do realize that this is a mortal sin of English majors, so just lay off). Now, once in a while a book would get through and hook me, keeping me up until stupid hours of the night, but mostly, I just didn't feel the urge. Maybe it's because my mom is such a voracious reader (which probably explains a lot about why she can out spell me any day of the week, bless her knowledge-soaked brain). I mean, how am I supposed to live up to that? She actually got in trouble for reading, in school no less, because she was supposed to be outside at recess, but instead stayed in to read. I cannot even begin to compete with this sort of devotion!

So, inexplicably, since I have been in China, I have developed a hunger for books. I daresay, maybe even a lust. I suppose it started out as a case of "we want what we can't have," since bookstores with books that are in English are not exactly popping up like Starbucks. And all I brought with me from home were books on China and learning Chinese, because books are pretty heavy and I moved here with just two big suitcases and one carry on. The seventh Harry Potter just wasn't happening.

Then, some time in August, David and I found a foreign bookstore and bought a book by Peter Hessler, under the recommendation of our friends, Kellie and Gregg. They had recommended River Town, but all the bookstore had in stock was Oracle Bones. Both volumes are about China, as Hessler has lived in China almost a decade. So we went ahead and bought Oracle Bones. Now, this puppy is pretty big, around 450 pages of fairly small print, so it's quite a task to take on, especially for a commitment-phobe person like me (Think of all the time it will take to read!), but I was hungry for words I could understand and, for once, I undeniably had the time. So, I blasted through it. I highly recommend it if you are either interested in China already or if you find you don't know a darn thing about this crazy place. It's fascinating.

As fast as I was reading through it, I found myself nursing the last few chapters because I didn't have another book to dive into, and I wanted more. I truly realized the severity of my new addiction when I went to the bookstore to get books for my tutoring gig and wound up with four books for myself. (It would have been five at the time if they had had River Town in stock, the only book I had set out to find.) When I walked out of there, more than 100 bucks less to my name, I felt like a kid who had just ransacked the candy store. I think I even had a stupid grin on my face walking home.

But when I got home, I started to do something even more crazy: I cracked open not one, but two the same time! And this was before I had killed off the last of Oracle Bones! I felt like I was channeling my former roommate, Mandy, who being a true blue librarian, often had maxed out her check out allowance and no doubt had 4 to, heck I don't know, 20 books going at a time! What in the world had come over me? I thought. A week later David noticed too. "Reading? Again?"

I have had guilt about this life of leisure. I mean, it's great and all, reading books, but what am I doing with my life? Such a haunting question sometimes...

But this is where my quick glimpse of clarity comes back into my little story. I felt, all of a sudden, that maybe I am supposed to read while I am here. I have realized that I cannot know what my experience here is supposed to be or even what it has been so far. At least not yet. Maybe I am simply here to learn. Learn about the culture, the people, and of course the predictable part, myself. But I did not realize that maybe the growth I will do here is simply expanding my mind. Learning all I can. Giving myself time to be still and see which way I'm being pulled. I haven't figured it out. But tonight, I felt really good all of a sudden. The possibility of discovery is thrilling in itself.

During my frantic cram session on China back in March when I was trying to decide if I wanted to come, I read a small piece in a travel guide by a western lady who lived in China for quite a while. I cannot remember her name or which book her segment was in, but her general take on this place has stuck with me. Basically, she said, you do not come to China for a relaxing vacation. It's not like going to the Bahamas for the sunshine and breezes. And it's not like a breathtaking trip to Europe, where the place is just dripping in patinas and famous artists and historic architecture and quaint cafes. The point of coming to China is not to simply see China; it is to see how you are affected by China, how you react to it. And you will react to it, this much I know is true.

So tonight, I have a newfound dedication to keeping my mind open to this strange land and to see what happens. I do hope to learn a thing or two.

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