Here’s a cover of KT Tunstall’s ‘Through the Dark.’ Enjoy! by Josephine Johnson
Phew, what a trip—I just returned from three days and two nights with twenty-five foreign teachers visiting the Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin Temple, White Horse Temple, and national Peony Festival in Hunan Province, China. Our university, XISU, provided the tour bus and planned the meals, over-night accommodations, itinerary, and guides. Pretty much all we had to do was show up each morning. It was good. And sometimes intense. Half the group was retired couples who are also Mormon while the rest of us were a ragtag collection of late 20 something-ers, early 30s folks, an outspoken Jewish man, and a law student from Australia. This range of age, experience, politics, and religious persuasions made for some heated conversations at times. Our bus garbage perhaps best conveys the potential for interpersonal meltdown—multiple cans Red Bull, empty Metamucil, one pair broken ipod ear buds, prunes (numerous pouches), one tube screamin’ pink mascara. Yeah, pink mascara. It’s baaack. (It was in the trash, though…)
I hung in the back while the Mormon couples and folks over 50 stayed to the front. In the back of the bus I
got the low down on places to pick up attractive, no–strings-attached-yet-not-prostitute-Chinese-girls; where to go for best-eats-for-real-cheap Muslim food; and why renewing your visa in Hong Kong is better than renewing in Beijing (see above discussion points).
But after a while I plugged in, tuned out, and sunk into ‘Lost on Planet China’, a travel narrative by J. Maarten Troost that accurately pegs contemporary, mainland China. Ah, the Chinese—loud, spitting, sometimes tacky and always occupied with making Yuan. I sound like a cultural bigot when I say this, but the author adeptly wraps this truth and ugliness in some fine humor and illustrative anecdote. I spent four of the six hours on the bus laughing out loud to Troost’s witty prose. It’s that real and on the mark. And very much backs up my experiences and thoughts on loogie hacking, squat toilets, and the general spiritual void in China. Check it out—Lost on Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost—It’s funny, honest, and more.
As much as I wanted to take Troost with me to lunch, I had to put him down when we stopped at the Chinese truck stop. Yes, our tour group dined at the Chinese equivalent of the Flying J but with cafeteria-style noodles, rice, veggies, and meat instead of buffet mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, baby back ribs, and pork chops. No slot machines, belt buckles, troll doll key chains, or greasy blueberry muffins either. This was an authentic Chinese experience.
The Chinese eat and rest from noon to 2:00 every day. That’s just how it’s done. So, of course, since our driver was Chinese, we stopped a little past noon just as all the truck drivers and traveling families were also pulling off the road and readying for noodles, joudza, rice, lo mien, and stir-fried whatever. The truck stop was packed. Enter, then, a load of foreigners, clearly encroaching and disrupting the routine of these working Chinese men’s good lunch break. They were not happy with us.
We lined up with our metal trays and waited patiently as the serving line inched forward. But Chinese, especially Chinese men,
are not keen to wait in line. Ever. According to some of my teacher friends who also worked on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some Chinese had to have special training in line queuing. Forming a line and waiting one’s turn is not a common cultural practice in China. What most westerners learned in kindergarten, many Chinese are now having to learn as adults, especially as China becomes a global business nexus. The men at the truck stop apparently hadn’t been at the Beijing Olympics special queuing classes.
So, there we were, twenty-five foreigners and some fifty, sixty Chinese truck drivers. They elbowed their way into our nice line, and some of the teachers elbowed right back. There was an explosion of angry Chinese, and two empty trays fell to the ground. Though I didn’t understand most of it I did catch ‘laowai’— Chinese for ‘outsider’—and this word was spat with much volume and vehemence.
After the serving line skirmish, we sat and ate the worst meal ever prepared in China. All that brawl and elbow defense for a meal too salty, oily, and soggy for consumption, albeit for westerners’ consumption. No one finished. Probably because all the teachers were too busy bitching about the food and “how base, rude, and ill-mannered they are”. Ok, if the Chinese are “rude” and “base,” then this is true, too—westerners are far too frequently elitist snobs expert at bitching— incessant bitching,—and pointless complaining (myself included). Nothing is ever good enough for westerners. Ever. Ever. And though I can hold my own and bitch with the best of them, sometimes I just can’t. And this was one of those times. So, I excused myself and went outside for a breather and to have a laugh at the all too real surrealism that was about to melt this Chinese truck stop.
And that’s when I saw the donkeys.
Here’s where this story takes a very different turn because I did not expect to go outside and see a hundred or more donkeys crammed into a livestock truck doubtless on their way to some one’s dinner plate (donkey is eaten here) via a barbarous Xi’an slaughter house. I just wanted to step outside, take a break, and have a laugh at the cultures duking it out back inside. I was not expecting to be called to minister as Mother Theresa to a truck load of sad, emaciated donkeys headed to the butcher. But that’s exactly what happened, or what I did, or who I was. Or something like that. I don’t know. But I do know that when I saw them, nothing else mattered, and I knew I had to go to them to talk, sing, and share happy thoughts with them because the donkeys were all too aware of where they were headed.
And I could feel that the best gift I could give at that moment was to be as kind and loving
as possible. To be the best, happiest, and most loving Josephine I could be for those donkeys. Really, I felt this. As much as I would have liked, I could not cry. And yeah, my heart hurt, but I remained strong and laughing and sucked it up. For them. Some with their noses pointed toward the outside rails lifted their weak heads, nostrils gently flaring, and took in my scent. They wanted me to touch them. And so I did. I climbed the railing and touched their muzzles, flanks, backs, and tails and told them nice things and laughed and sang. I whispered to them, in effect, that not all humans sucked, that though many had drained the life from them, these now-broken, depleted donkeys, not all humans are crass, cruel, careless, and unloving. I promise, I said. Then I sang a funky, upbeat, soulful Amazing Grace. And they loved me, and I them.
Allergies and a nasty spring head cold had conspired to make me simultaneously runny-nosed and congested. So, when I turned my head to sneeze (didn’t want to offend or infect the donkeys—dignity in their final hours) did I realize that some of my Mormon colleagues were watching and listening. For a moment I was aware of how kooky-granola-northern-California I must look clinging to the rails of the truck clad in pink paisley skirt and bright yellow Steelhead SpecialT-shirt—clearly, the antithesis of wholesome Mormon conviction and spirituality.
But without missing a beat, and with much purpose, I said, “I’m singing to them. I’m giving them my love right now.”
“We know.” And they continued standing, my Mormon friends, keeping vigil with me.
In a few moments, Mary, my boss, slowly approached and said softly in my ear, “Just wash your hands when you’re done. This is China.”
This is China, right? Birthplace of SARS and avian flu—point made, point taken. Thanks, Mary.
Surreal as it was, the whole situation proceeded as if it were the most natural thing for me to do—to go and comfort miserable animals as they headed toward death. I could feel the donkeys, and they could feel me, and most powerfully I could feel they needed the presence of something, someone, compassionate who could embrace the ugliness and still love them. And sing. That my colleagues—the Mormons—seemingly condoned all this was perhaps equally as surreal as my singing Amazing Grace through the rails of a vehicle laden with donkeys headed to a slaughter house in China.
It was all heart-breaking, gross, and so very modern China.
Well, if I haven’t completely creeped you out with all this donkey talking, death, and slaughter stuff, then perhaps…you’ll keep reading? I’ve more pictures below from this trip. I hope you enjoy, and please, go hug a donkey, sing to a tree, and love your neighbor. Don’t suck. ~Jos