by Marianne Peel Forman
I knight my Chinese student “William”,
after my father,
and tell him that there is a song about Billy Boy
and making classic American cherry pie.
We ritualize this tradition here,
giving each student
an English name.
There is no sword or crown –
only a fly swatter we use
to imprint these alien-to-tongue names,
a team race to the blackboard
to swat each English name
as it is bellowed out in class.
the students offer a Chinese name to me,
their foreigner, their teacher for the summer.
A chosen name after voting
thumbs up or thumbs down,
a remnant from yesterday’s lesson
on democracy and voting.
They baptize me with “Bai Ling”,
a rare Chinese bird with a beautiful song voice.
They tell me,
“We give this name to you
because you fly high and free and beautiful
and have a song
like this special bird.”
In mute thanks,
I enfold my wings around their open hearts,
and whisper a quivering love song
into the palms of their gracious hands…
China Interlude by Candlelight
For Jiang Xue/ William
They’ve been asking us for days
to play mahjong,
a traditional Chinese game
by beer, spirits, smoking, and money passed
from fist to fist.
Our student York,
named by his English teacher from York, England,
escorts us to the dormitory
six flights up
and we rattle out our umbrellas
into the hallway.
The whole floor of men has arrived,
gathered to watch these two foreign women
stumble their novice way
through the intricacies of stacked bricks.
They tell us to create
The Great Wall of China
with the tile-bricks.
The game, we discover ,is a disguise
for the true purpose –
to chat, to talk, to ferret out secrets.
They seek our advice
on how to “love” a woman,
wanting our western experience
to re-light their path.
York tells us someone, only one,
is in his heart,
and the twenty class sessions
here at Bijie University
are simply not enough time
to show his affection.
We are coached
by these teacher-men,
some of whom wash their feet
in the bucket on the balcony
before taking their place
around the tiles.
They huddle around us
whispering experience into our ears,
advising which brick to keep,
which brick to throw away.
And in Chinese,
they debate in the spaces between us,
nudging the proper move,
the most advantageous action,
for this particular set of circumstances.
Our faces are closer,
our eyes nearly touch,
in this crowded mahjong place.
We have journeyed kilometers from the classroom.
We reverse roles,
exchange our familiar places,
and they become our mentors.
My student William (Jiang Xue),
who speaks words between smiles,
gave me Bijie teas today,
grown in the fields
in this faraway place on the Guizhou map.
This place is mutely absent
from the Lonely Planet guidebook,
and we realize we are far removed
from where most foreigners
are willing to walk and work.
The thunder and lightning
zigzag across the sky
and we are crackled into darkness
by the collision of heat and light.
These men light the bricks
with cell phone illumination,
and Anthony runs to purchase candles.
“A romantic game with the candles, yes?”
and we build together
Great Wall of China.
A Sense of Purpose
“Every citizen has work, has a job to do,”
“Professor Tang tells me.” A sense of accomplishment. A sense of purpose.”
I. I watch the men
with the woven baskets
longer than a human torso
harnessed to their backs.
They appear in pairs, in trios.
They have come in from the farms,
from the China countryside,
from villages even more remote than Bijie.
They wield picks
capable of crushing rock
into fragments of fractured gray stone.
Their arms pulse at wrist and elbow,
sinewy and stretched,
like human flesh canvased over ancient bone.
The nails of their feet are black and cracked,
like stubborn Bijie mud after a thunder and lightning sky.
A replica of the encrusted lines below their eyes.
These are old eyes, cavernous eyes,
eyes that have absorbed the dust of the road,
the refuse of the pick,
the very earth itself.
II. And I watch the woman
with the alley marketplace straw broom
sashaying side to side
her whole body familiar close to the stick,
the broom handle stiff and wooden lover.
Her hands clutch the shoulders of the broom
and the dust dervishes round her shoes,
burying them in brown haze and smoke.
All around her the dust swirls
inside the weary wind,
and the dance goes on,
never exiting to stage right
or stage left.
III. And I watch the man with the pick axe
hacking away at a furrow in the road,
hollowing out a jagged line of concrete
where new road will be laid.
His woven triangular hat pushes the sun from his eyes
and the dust from his mouth.
His pounding is rhythmic,
his hands are metered machines.
He has been chiseling
this miniature trench
since I passed him at 7 a.m.
It is now almost sunset,
and he does not raise a chalky palm to wipe his forehead.
His work is below his eyes, fixed,
assured that time will never stop breathing
as long as his hands are in motion,
as long as the pick axe breaks ground.
They tell me
the Chinese don’t show everything at once.
This would be obscene.
masters of luring curiosity…
showing the head of the dragon,
but not the tail.
Here the four elements
of a Chinese Garden
in one small alcove
at a time.
architecture, and water
flowing in a yin yang harmony,
balancing space and time.
I slow down here,
move my feet carefully,
grace my Western self
through this balanced space.
I keep my voice close inside
like a whisper,
not wanting to startle this space
where even the limestone rocks
seem to breathe.
There is one
tiger lily plant
amidst this canvas.
A small fire
between earth and sky.
Two mandarin ducks
mated for life
move among the goldfish.
The lattice work sculptures
offer small visions into the next tableau
of green plants, gray rocks, and flowing water.
They are said to
lick the scenery
beyond this space.
offer larger visions
into the next alcove.
They are said to
frame the scenery
beyond this space.
to massage my eyes,
An inkblot test
fashioned in limestone
instead of ink.
There is a woman
hidden within this rock,
and she is turning away from me,
yet still offering her hand,
luring me back into Yu Gardens.
There is no hurry here, ever,
and I take her hand and seek
one more tiger lily,
one more fire for my eyes…