California travel writer Carla
King celebrated her 40th birthday by riding a motorcycle through China.
We are delighted that she has gifted us with exclusive excerpts from her journal written as she travelled.
T-shirt on, wet hair combed, I prepare to slip under the blanket of heavy cotton batting, but the door handle turns and the landlady enters followed by ten, no twenty, no... thirty or so people, the whole village. It is a tiny place, a western style dust bowl one-horse town and here they all are, the ones outside straining to see over the ones crammed into my room. Through the crowd, a woman is pushed to the front. She wears a long red velvet dress, beach sandals and her hair is a mess.
"Hello," she says, looking through thick glasses with heavy square frames that sit slightly askew on her face and mash her small Chinese nostrils. "How can I help you?"
I pull the bedsheet over my legs. I've become used to the lack of privacy in China by now, but this was too much.
"Thank you but I don't need any help," I say, as politely as I can. "My motorcycle is broken, the mechanic will help me repair it tomorrow and now I'm ready to sleep."
She translates for the crowd, who respond by talking all at once in loud voices. There is suddenly no air in the room. They push her closer to me. She snaps at them. They have obviously dragged her out of bed, she's grumpy, but they're not going to let her get away without satisfying some of their curiosity.
"They want to know... how old are you?" "They want to know... are you married?" "They want to know... what you are doing here?"
I don't answer. She looks at me and understands intuitively that today I am miserable.
"Tomorrow you stay at my house," she says and shoos everyone out of the room.
Her house is built of mud and straw and like most others in the village is contained in a five-foot high wall of mud and straw. We enter through a wooden doorway with a sagging roof of rotting black straw. The yard is mud and a bucket of slop sits next to the door by a rusty water pump.
Inside, a narrow hallway is floored with brick in a zigzag pattern, uncemented but settled well into the dirt. The whole house smells of dirt and mold and the sharp odor of soy sauce. On each side of the hallway are doors to the two main rooms and straight ahead is the kitchen. The top half of the door is covered with a tacked on piece of cloth which may have once been white. To the left is an anteroom holding a cabinet piled with a few clothes and jars and toothbrushes, and a bookcase filled with paperbacks all labeled in Chinese. She shows me her book collection. Many of the Chinese titles hold English books inside. There is Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck as well as collections of short stories and novellas. There are also many English lesson books.
Through this room is a larger room that holds a Mongolian sleeping platform with coal stove attached for warming the bed during cold winter nights. A plastic basin filled with dirty water sits on a rickety wire stand. A filthy rag and a radish lies on the floor next to it.
"Excuse me I am bad housewife," she says, picking up the radish and the dirty dishcloth. �And my house is very bad because my salary and my husband's salary is only 500 yuan a month each, so we get bad house."
Jin Zhi tells me she wants to start her own business, a kindergarten in town. Her job teaching college students at the agricultural school is frustrating.
"They say I am not a good teacher but I am a good teacher. Trouble is students don't want to learn,� she explains.
She cleans the dandelion greens while she's talking, and I look through her notebooks. Her written English is perfect. Better than mine, with neat handwriting and sentence diagramming and terminology. I tell her so. She looks up at me and smiles, showing her crooked teeth.
"If you stay three months more my speaking English will be very good, too."
I listen. I smile back at Jin Zhi. But I know that tomorrow I will get back on my bike heading for Lanzhou...
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