My time in Nanshan is coming to an end. I’m running out of days to do the things I’ve always had plenty of time to do. I may not make it to the giant housewares compound (not a mall, more like a neighborhood of stores). I may not eat at A Yi Hotpot or Giant China Ox. For certain I will not go up to the driving range at the golf course, or out past the big intersection east of here. I am very glad to have finally gone to the disco under the Bo Shang.
Leaving also brings back all the unanswered questions about little things here in Nanshan. Was I asked on a date or not? Did I actually go on a date without knowing it (which depends on whether it’s normal to bring a friend as a third person on the the date)? Who lives in the dorm room in the back corridor of the Bo Shang? How could the teachers not know exactly when final exams are scheduled? What could the guy who cut my hair have possibly been thinking when he shaved it all off?
And then, the regularity of things suddenly becomes very precious. This morning I got up at 6:00 so I could be out on Little Wenhua Jie as the kids tramp down from the dorms to the school. Usually this procession is a murmuring shuffle, or a shuffling murmur, below my window as I slowly get up. Today, a Saturday, was a make-up day for one of the snow days we had at the beginning of the week, so the end of the day was also the end of the week, which means the kids all pack up their backpacks and go home for the weekend. Some get picked up by parents or grandparents, some take buses. Every week it’s the same—grown-ups gathered at the school gate flowing in at 4:00 when school lets out, kids chattering and finally free from school.
In hopes of grabbing a little of that very specific feeling of the end of the school week, I went down to the primary school building to watch the kids leave. This is the story of about twenty mintues this afternoon.
I was standing to the side of the steps to the primary school, hanging around with a few parents and grandparents before the first graders got let out. There were a few kids, older than primary school but not much older. One of them was this girl—
She was also waiting, but I couldn’t tell if she was a middle school student. She spoke no English, and most of the middle schoolers do. But she was wearing pants that looked like the blue sweatpants with a white side stripe that the middle schoolers wear. She was holding a brochure for the school that just came out (which notes that a semester’s tuition is 1500rmb and room & board is another 400rmb). I was taking a picture here and there and somehow—in a way that happens frequently in China and is hard to retell because it does not involve words and not even much gesture—she expressed an interest in my camera. I let her hold it and showed her where to look throught the viewfinder and tried to show her the zoom lens.
Somehow, more through what she wasn’t doing than anything she did do, I started to feel like there was something just a little odd about this girl. She said very few words, and what she did say she said quietly. This is unlike the Chinese children, especially when talking to me. She held the camera strangely, not delicately exactly, but not the way one holds a camera. I could not get her to hold it up to her eye to see through the viewfinder properly. But she was smiling and she seemed curious.
She had a funny way of asking me to take pictures of her, too. Unlike pretty much every kid in school, she did not plant herself in front of the lens and make a face or flash the V. She did not even point at the camera and then at herself. She just stood still and kind of waited. She had none of the insistence that kids have, no “look at me” attitude at all. Just, quiet. Maybe it was all just shyness. She held up the Nanshan brochure but it was always backwards and I couldn’t get her to turn it around and show me the front.
For this, she just went over by the door, about 15 feet away, and waited—
A couple of times she did hold up the V (below), but it was always wrong: sideways, backwards (knuckles facing out), or horizontal, which nobody does.
She had an armsling around her neck although the did not seem to need it, or at least she didn’t favor one arm over the other. At one point I pointed to the sling and she put her arm in for a moment, but again in her kind of indirect way, as if she weren’t showing me this particular thing.
After 15 minutes or so, the doors opened and out came the first graders. It turned out that she was waiting for this first-grade girl—
I don’t know her name, but she’s in one of my Friday morning classes. She’s one of the most adorable of them all, but there has always seemed to be something just a little off about her. In each first-grade classes, there’s one student who’s set apart from the group. A couple are hell-raising boys who roam away from their desks during class and don’t do the lessons and are never called on. Another is an overweight girl with a blank expression who’s very friendly but also never gets called on. (Save for another time what all this says about the Nanshan classrooms.) In the Friday class, it’s this girl. All the students except her have a partner for practicing their dialogues. The Chinese teacher will actually skip her when going around the room, which is 100% deliberate because the teachers are assiduous about checking every student. Since I’m an ignorant foreigner, I always call on her. Her English is far behind her classmates. When she does say the proper word, usually repeating what I’ve said, it’s not at all clear that she understands what the word is referring to. She’s the tiniest child in the whole first grade, a full head shorter than the average first grader (who are not very big in the first place)—
She is endlessly cheerful, always smiling her dimpled smile. She’s cheerful even in class, raising her hand when all the others do, in a way that makes me hope with all my heart that she’s just too young to feel any different from the others.
It turned out that the strange older girl and the little tiny one are sisters. The older one was picking up the younger one.
I took some more pictures and then evenutally, they left. The older one walked with her knees always a little bit bent, and pigeon-toed, on the balls of her feet. I’ll ever know their real story and I’m not equipped to speculate on what their behavior could mean. If my previous experience in China is any indication, about 75% of this entire story is erroneous speculation. The true reasons for so many things here are very literally unimaginable for me, for my imagination runs in ruts worn of my American familiarities.
Off they went, older sister with the quiet manner and younger sister with the unfailing smile, going home after school. I think this last one might be the saddest picture I’ve ever taken. Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean that there is a tragedy about them, and I absolutely don’t mean that there is a hopelessness or anything like that. I mean it’s sad for me. It’s impossible to know what to make of the whole episode, except that it unexpectedly ended up being terribly full of feeling. These girls will be on this planet every day for the next 60, 70, 80 years, but for me they will very soon be the memory of this afternoon and these few clumsy pictures.