The night of New Year’s Eve was restless. I woke up every hour or so after midnight, staring at the ceiling and trying to diagnose myself with something. At 4am I decided it was the flu. I crawled out of my damp blankets and lay down on the floor, trying to lower my body temperature. At five-thirty I made a cup of tea and sat miserably on the sofa. I took some Tylenol.
At seven-forty I stepped gingerly out of my apartment. The concrete walls of my building breathed cold, refreshing air at me. James was on the sidewalk, coughing. James had approached me earlier in the week and asked if I would join him and another student in a trip to a village where members of the underground church volunteered at the elementary school. He had invited me to come give a special lesson about Christmas.
“Jabes,” I asked stuffily as he hacked into a Kleenex, “do you hab a cold?”
“Yes,” he said into his sleeve, “I hab been pretty sick.” As we climbed onto an ice-crusted city bus I offered him some Tylenol. He sneezed, and showed me an almost identical package of Chinese flu relief in his own bag. A few bus changes later, as the sun was rising, we met Eva. She was bundled into a light blue coat and pink scarf, and was also sniffling.
We moved from bus to bus, each one taking us farther out of the city and into the frozen countryside. I was beginning to feel numb. Somehow my down jacket with its magnificent furry hood, my wool gloves, wool socks, boots, and layers of clothing could not fend off the cold. The buses were drafty and without heat. Fortunately, they were also packed with people, which made patches of warmth. James had only a thin coat over an acrylic sweater, no gloves, and no hat.
“On Wednesday,” he said congestedly, “our church had an all-night prayer meeting. We were praying about today. I think I can feel those prayers.”
“And I emailed my church in America.” I said, “They will be praying for us today too.”
“Yes.” James’ voice was filled with hope. “Maybe I am feeling that too. Maybe it is prayer holding us up today.” His teeth chattered. “When we arrive, we can either go to the house of the headmaster of the school, or we can walk around the village.” I scraped some ice off the window next to me and watched the frozen yellow desert, ragged and ravined and mountainous, as it lurched past.
“I’d love to see the headmaster’s house.” It sounded like the warmer of the two options.
Gancao Dian was smaller than any village I had been to in China. Unlike many smaller municipalities, which have as many as 400,000 people in them, Gancao Dian actually warranted the name “village.” The school we were headed to had only fifty-five students. When we got off the bus there were so few houses around I wasn’t even sure we were in a town.
“Come on in.” James gestured towards a brick gateway. He lowered his voice, “And remember that this village is very poor.”
The headmaster, a youngish man wearing a thin imitation leather jacket and faded slacks, met us in the yard to welcome us. He introduced us to his father, a wrinkled man with scattered white whiskers, faded blue clothes, and eyelids so red and puffy they nearly swallowed his eyes entirely. The headmaster’s wife and son hovered in the background. The old man beamed at me. “Can you speak any Chinese?” He asked.
He chuckled delightedly and turned to his son, “She speaks Chinese! Young lady, it is very cold here,” his voice rattled like gravel in a plastic cup, “You should wear warmer clothes.”
“Sir, my clothes are much warmer than yours!” My gloved hand touched the thin cotton of his sleeve. He chuckled again and his rough, icy hand patted mine. At the threshold of their house I received the first indication of the real poverty around me. The house was clean, and even decently furnished, but there was no heat in it at all. The bare concrete walls surrounded the space of the room like the icy walls of a freezer and locked in the cold. Our breath puffed from us into the living room in great white clouds.
It was overwhelming. For three hours, since stepping out of my apartment, I had been getting colder and colder. We had journeyed farther and farther from the city, from the artificial warmth generated by the confluence of millions of people, and now we had arrived in a frozen village where the residents had no protection from the fierce reality of winter. I tried to imagine what it would be like to wake up every morning and feel that cold crouching beside my bed. I would dread lifting back the covers. Simple, every day chores are agonizing in bone-deep cold.
We did not stay long in the headmaster’s home. He took us for a walk around the village, which warmed my toes a little and made them ache. But my heart ached more as we plodded down streets and through a marketplace where goods were stacked in the weak sunshine outside of shops. We passed the school building, which was not a whole building so much as the second floor of one, and walked into an empty lot thick with dust where school kids would play at recess. At one end was a concrete slab with a line of bricks dividing it in half. Some little boys were playing ping pong on it—in weather that was below freezing.
There was only one classroom in the school big enough to hold all fifty-five students. They sat in their puffy little coats like closely packed marshmallows on plain wooden benches. Broken windows along one wall let in pale sunlight and sucked out the thin stream of warm air generated by a busy little coal-burning stove. A potted plant lived near the stove, springing from hard-packed soil and bushing out into a leafy top.
James assured me that these little second and third grade students had long attention spans, and he was right. For two hours and twenty minutes we held class with the same magnanimous condescension with which royals hold court. We played games, sang songs, and told stories. The children had prepared a short recital for me in which they sang their own adaptation of Jingle Bells (which went: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way! Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la!”) I told them the story of the first Christmas, and James translated.
James and Eva passed out card stock animals with ribbon loops on them. The children carefully wrote out their New Year’s wishes on them. Then James pushed the potted plant into the middle of the room and instructed the kids to hang their wishes on “the Christmas tree.” Very soberly the little ones crowded around and draped the plant with ribboned cards. I fingered one of them and wondered what it said; how does one write a whole year’s worth of wishes in one simple, large-print sentence?
After class we walked slowly back to the headmaster’s house. The icy wind still stabbed at us, but I did not notice it as much. The headmaster’s father was still beaming hospitably, pushing dusty nuts and expired candy towards me. As we were getting ready to leave the headmaster’s home, James turned to me and stated that he would take me back to Lanzhou.
“But James,” I said, surprised, “you said you were going to the—“ I glanced at the headmaster. He understood too much English for me to be talking about the underground church in front of him. “—to your ‘family’s house’ from here. Taking me all the way back to the university would be pretty far out of your way.”
“Well,” said James affably, “someone has to make sure you get home.”
“Let’s not be ridiculous,” I said, assuming my I am a teacher. I am very important voice. “It would take you at least two extra hours to take me home. If you take me all the way home and then come back to your family it will take you four extra hours. I am perfectly capable of getting myself home.” I exuded more confidence than I felt.
James hesitated. “Really?”
“Sure!” I swaggered. I was exaggerating. If James had any real idea of how hard it would be for me to get back to Lanzhou alone, he would never let me try it.
The headmaster turned sharply on James. “You are not going to see her home??”
“She says she will be fine.”
“I insist that she calls you when she arrives and that you call me at once.” James and I both smiled.
I was a bit unsettled. It only made sense that James, Eva, and I should travel together as far as the next meeting they were going to attend, and that I should travel the remaining two hours alone. But I did not even know which direction we had come from, and the cold sun would set long before I had finished changing from one bus to the many other buses I would need to get me back to the city.
When we had reached the fork in our pathways, James and Eva shuffled off the bus and notified the driver that I would be getting off at Tiancai Zhan. From there, James told me, I could take a number 4 bus to Luxia, and from there a number 7 bus to Xigu. From Xigu, either a number 12 or a number 18 would take me back to Anning district, and once I was there I could find my way home. I heard James remind the driver to tell me when we reached my stop, and watched them fade from view as the bus jerked on. Only about ten minutes later, the driver turned and hollered at me: “Foreigner! This is your stop!”
I bolted off the bus and watched it shudder down the road. I had no idea where I was. Dusk was beginning to settle over the frozen edge of the city. I stood for a moment blowing white puffs into the air. There were no green taxi cabs anywhere. Ahead there was a bus stop where buses 301, 46, and 12 were stopped. There was no number 4. I looked across the street, and saw another bus stop. A number 4 bus was pulling away from it, moving in a direction I thought was away from the city. I decided to wait.
About five feet from me was a young man munching a piece of bread and looking at his watch. He appeared to be waiting for a bus too. I tried to look casual and non-foreign, like a countryside local who waited on this corner every other evening. Several buses came and went, but no number 4. Finally, as I was about to cross the street to board the third number 4 bus I had seen bustling along on the other side, a large, green city bus with a 4 on the front squealed to a halt yards from where I stood. Dozens of people climbed off, and several dozen more were trying to climb on. The young man with the bread grabbed the railing by the door and used his arm to block several passengers who were trying to push ahead of me. He nodded at me to climb on in front of him. I was grateful, and found the last empty seat on the bus. I was so thankful to have a seat. I was exhausted and full of flu. My thoughts were fuzzy. Perhaps I had had too much Tylenol.
The lights of the city were mingling with the last glow of the sun as we bumped and heaved into town. I watched out the windows carefully, hoping to see some familiar landmark. It was a full hour before I saw anything I recognized. I didn’t know where I should get off the bus, and had completely forgotten which buses James had told me to take next. When we passed Red Square, the huge, unmistakable city center, I decided to take a chance. Flinging myself off the bus, I stopped in a lane of traffic and waved frantically at a taxi. He blared his horn, and tried to pull off the road. I pulled open the door as it rolled past and dived in. Another taxi barreled by, leaning on his horn and barely missing my legs as I tumbled into the back seat. I sat up.
“Pailie Guang Chang” I said. The driver blinked.
“Pailie Guang Chang?”
The taxi was filled with the stench of cigarettes. I peered out the window at the lights reflecting off the wide, steady current of the Yellow River while the driver took me home.
The interior of my apartment wrapped gentle warmth around me when I clicked open the door—the first warmth I had felt all day. I left the lights off and sat in the shimmering glow of my Christmas tree. It reminded me of the little potted sprout which was in that village in that dark, icy classroom, on which were hanging the hopes and dreams of fifty-five children, fifty-five children who would wake up the following morning to steamed bread, frost covered blankets, and cold fingers. It was good to know that they had heard the story of Christmas, that they could probably imagine better than I could what it is like to sleep in a stable, and that now they at least knew the name of the One who is the keeper of children’s hopes and dreams. In the comforting stuffiness of my room, my chest and head congested again quickly; I had had a whole day off from being sick, but I got back into it at once. I do not remember crawling into bed; I do remember the warmth closing in around me, my heart whispering to me that life is not fairly distributed, and a little ache inside me that had nothing to do with the flu.