The beauty of befuddlement and many fond farewells

10 May 2014

The heat has come to Yangshuo. It is thick and steaming and heavy, like a blanket whose down was spun from dew. It rains in rushes and hushes, little outbursts of liquid applause rippling through the theater of the sky, thunderhead climax and cloudscape denouement shot through with blinding interludes of sunbeam.    

Precipitation or perspiration—I'll be dripping one way or another. Today I choose the rain. I stroll at a leisurely pace, my face turned up to the clouds, welcoming the hail of cool kisses they lavish on the sweltering terrain of my skin. It makes the locals stare harder than usual, peering out from under their armory of umbrellas, poker faces tainted with bemusement. 

My month in China is drawing to a close and I am steeped in bittersweet gratitude. There are so many souls I don't want to disconnect with and yet so much world still unseen. Gary the Global Adventure Guide with his jubilant eyes and auburn beard who gives feisty high fives and works summers leading sea kayaking expeditions in Washington. Dan the tawny-haired Israeli expat who jumped ship for Vancouver, Canada and who came here to teach rock climbing for a spell. 

Brooke the traveling business consultant who grew up on the plains of Indiana but fell in love with Thailand and never looked back. Mila the Malaysian with a soul full of laughter and Monty the poodle always bouncing at her heels. Stone the sprightly headmaster, aspiring etymologist, dispenser of grins. Ellie the soft-spoken teenage sage, vibrant bundle of wit and red curls. 

Phoebe the unrivaled linguistic wizard whose sense of humor had me at hello and who'll be road-tripping France this summer with her eco-builder poet of a mate. Paul the tall and dimpled and bespectacled who vacated Cambridge three years ago, who's difficult to crack and delightful when you do, however fleeting the moment. Ifor the Welsh guy and Adam the Englishman, most hospitable barmen in town. 

And the students, whose dogged persistence is humbling, ever-curious and eager to help. June the five-foot firecracker, diligent, exuberant, and kind. Three weeks ago, she repeated the passages I read to her with spirit but without comprehension. Yesterday she read me twenty pages of our lesson book, acting out the sentences to show she understood. I nearly cried for how proud I was of her—her determination, her drive. 

 

China is bewildering and militant and beautiful. China is exhausting and deafening and strange. China is chaos and China is zen. China stinks. China shouts; it throws temper tantrums. And despite these things, or maybe because of them all, China built a home inside my heart. 

There is something inexplicably transcendent about living on the brink of unadulterated bafflement. A walk across town is an adventure. Crossing the street is an act of God. Navigating the gauntlet of touts and offal vendors without cringing is a feat of pure willpower. 

And somewhere in that vortex of disorientation, you find a place to stand and you are strong. You surprise yourself with what you can contend with, you amaze yourself with what you can accept. You find trust in other forms of humanity, no matter how distinct or how bizarre. You relinquish your stability and your ego, you let go of everything you know. You take a leap of faith like no other leap and wings you never knew you had will unfold.

“This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First, to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.” — Rumi

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