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Life in Yangshuo

Every single thing in Yangshuo weeps. Water drips steadily from every ornate lamppost, each rooftop, each windowsill and tree branch, spreading lazily through the glistening streets on a slow, liquescent quest to join forces with the puddles, the streams and the creeks and the canals. The sky is so completely saturated with water that laundry takes half a week to dry. The temperature always seems to hover somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees fahrenheit, and the air is somehow chilly and balmy all at once. Every other night or so, the permacloud coalesces into rain that falls in vast, cascading curtains, whirling like the liquid skirts of atmospheric dancers, billowing in exuberant tribute to the symphony of thunder and the pageantry of lightning, the spectacle of water and light.

Last night I was held captive with my colleagues Phoebe and Lucy on the rooftop bar at Monkey Jane’s. We remained detained until 2:30 in the morning by a thunderstorm as mighty as any that ever beset the great plains of Texas in all the wrath of spring. Lucy is one of the classroom teachers at the English school where Phoebe and I volunteer. She is Chinese, tough, petite, bespectacled, and fond of wearing pink. She is also privy to the whereabouts of hidden local dives like Dongli Bar, where the air is full of smoke, the beer is dirt cheap, and the karaoke is horrific. Phoebe is English, unpretentiously clever and wickedly, disarmingly funny. She is amazingly easy to talk to about life and she happens to speak fluent Mandarin, a useful trick she studied at Manchester University. I adore her and I hope we'll stay in touch. She teaches me essential Chinese phrases such as “bu yao” (I don’t want it) and “tsao” (that’s the f-word), along with unfamiliar British terms like niggle and faff, and we have endless fun poking each other in the vocabulary—pavement vs. sidewalk, torch vs. flashlight, zebra crossing vs. crosswalk, trousers vs. pants (pants are underwear in British English; watch out how you wield that word). Everyone calls me Laynie here, because it’s easier for the students to pronounce (the Chinese are really very vowely creatures; they can't do the stop on the N). I have reading practice with my Level 0 student, June, every week-morning and again on three evenings. She has no formal education whatsoever, but she's mischievous and eager to learn. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights we have English Tea from 6-7, which is just conversational English practice over tea and laughter and games. Wednesday evening is English Corner, a rowdy ruckus of a schoolwide gathering at which the volunteers lead interactive ESL games, the feistier the better. Thursday night, after English Tea, one of us gives an hour-long presentation about whatever topic we fancy.

It’s all heaps of fun and the students are lovely, very smart, and very keen to help. We eat together every day at noon for lunch and again at 5:30 for dinner. It feels very much like a family here and I am sad to be leaving next month. Monday through Friday, the college feeds us well, but our weekends are entirely free and therefore we have to buy our own meals then, so I'm having fun hunting for foodstuffs. The school is in a very Chinese part of town but there is tourism in other parts of Yangshuo, so a 20-minute walk will bring me to West Street, the land of lattes and cocktails. I found myself a waffle on my breakfast mission and a wood-fired pizza this evening. Most of the food is pretty darn good and I can hardly spend 6 bucks per meal. I’ve actually adapted amazingly quickly to the rock-hard Chinese mattress, to the general ubiquity of the squat toilet (tricky), to the smells of stinky tofu and squid on a stick. I am quite enjoying life outside of my comfort zone; it's a challenge but it's endlessly intriguing. When I lay down at night and my thoughts wander out toward the mystery, toward the eternal, I have found that my prayers are not pleas anymore. What I say to the Universe is, “Thank you so much. A thousand times thank you, my friend.”


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