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July 11th, 2014 - Mary Helen Stefaniak

I know exactly where I was on July 11, 2014, and I have the ticket stub to prove it. (See photo).


It was the second week of the first July we spent in China. My husband John explored Beijing by subway--mapping out places for us to see--while I taught a four-week fiction writing class at Renmin University. We would return in July the following year and four more years after that, which adds up to six months of July--2014 through 2019--in China.


I taught the class in English with the help of a Chinese teaching assistant. Many of the students signed up for the course in order to practice their English. Most struggled bravely in class and on the page. I often reminded them that they all had more English than their teacher had Chinese.


Not that I wasn't working on it. In July 2014, thanks to a pair of embarrassingly colorful spiral-bound books with accompanying CDs called "Speak in a Week! (Chinese)," I could intelligibly say: hello, good-bye, thank you, excuse me, pleased to meet you, where is the rest room? my name is, I don't understand, I would like coffee with milk and sugar please, and Old Wang wants to sell his boat.


I memorized words and sentences like these and could utter them on the spot, as the occasion warranted. I could even modify some of them as needed (where is the post office? where is the park? I would like a large beer please), having picked up basic sentence structure and vocabulary from the CDs the same way we learn as toddlers: by hearing people say things over and over and figuring out which of those rising and falling syllables means what. I did have an unfortunate tendency to mix up "thank you" and "excuse me." Once, when I swayed and stumbled into a fellow subway passenger, I promptly exclaimed, "Thank you!" She laughed and so did I.


The ticket was for a bullet train ride from Beijing West railway station to Xian North. We were going to see the ranks upon ranks of terracotta soldiers discovered in 1978, when a farmer who was digging a well found an emperor's tomb instead.


We got to Beijing West railway station early, our little pink tickets in hand, giving ourselves plenty of time to find the train to Xian--a blissfully simple two-character destination that even I could read. We were relieved (and a little proud of ourselves) to be standing in line on the right platform with time to spare. We did not expect the young woman in uniform who was examining tickets to shake her head when she got to ours and point to where we should stand, off to the side, instead of boarding the train. At least she handed the tickets back. In response to our no doubt anxious faces, she said something. Two of the syllables sounded familiar to me: “děng dào.” She repeated them and moved on.


We were worried, of course. We were the only non-Asian persons in sight--and the only ones who'd been pulled out of the line. Maybe this train was for local people only? I scrolled through the "Speak in a Week" sentences in my brain and found one that included “děng dào.” In pinyin, with tone markers, it goes: "Wǒ men bù xiǎng děng dào míng tiān." It means: "We don't want to wait until tomorrow." (The accompanying picture in the spiral-bound book, I recalled, was of two hungry faces looking at a cake.) I knew "we" and "don't" and "want" and "tomorrow." The unknown "děng dào must mean--


"Wait!" I translated. "She told us to wait!"


John was not reassured.


True, she might have said, "Wait here until the police come for you," but somehow being able to tell my husband that the young woman had asked us to wait was reassuring to me. We were fellow human beings, she and I, communicating the way our civilized species does. I understood that she wanted us to wait. We waited.


As the train began to move away without us, she returned. She pointed to the departure time on our tickets, then to my wristwatch. With a smile, she gestured us forward. Now we were first in line for the next train to Xian, which is the one we had tickets for.


I still wear that watch. I bought it on the fourth floor of a department store/supermarket near campus so I wouldn't miss breakfast at the hotel--a sumptuous Chinese buffet free to guests until 8:30. Most mornings I left the hotel much earlier than that and walked to the Park of Family Names, where I joined perhaps a dozen people gathered under the trees or, if it was muddy, on the plaza. A colleague had introduced me to slender white-haired Master Lu--still an octogenarian that first July--and when I returned the next July and the one after that, and so on, he and the group who met in the park took me in.


In baggy black pants and a white t-shirt, Master Lu led us through a series of exercises and then through the 24 positions of the tai chi form, accompanied by Chinese music from an mp3 player in the basket of his bicycle. Near the end of July, a fellow named Leo--the English-speaking member of the group--gave me a thumb drive of videos to copy so I could practice at home. Three years later, they made their own video and sent it to my phone: Master Lu and three others moving together like music on the plaza, an uncharacteristically blue sky above the highrises in the background, the shriek of cicadas louder than the mp3.


I may or may not return to Beijing one day, but I expect to practice tai chi and Chinese as long as I'm able. Already I can pronounce Zhou (that's Joe) dynasty and even feng shui, with confidence. Better still, I can recall the morning in 2019--my last July in China--when kind and graceful Sun Ru Xin showed up for tai chi with her long hair cut to chin length. I surprised and delighted both of us by exclaiming, with no hesitation or need for translation, from my heart and brain directly to hers, "Wǒ xǐ huan nǐ de tóu fa!" which means: "I like your hair!"



Since July 11, 2014, Mary Helen has produced her third novel, The World of Pondside, and her first book of nonfiction, The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life. She has also retired from full-time teaching at Creighton University in Omaha and helped her husband and their three grown children (and son-in-law and two grands) build a two-story garage from scratch, using only their bare hands and some power tools. These days, she teaches in the low-rez MFA Program in Writing at Pacific University in Oregon while she works on the fourth novel at home in Iowa City. She hopes you’ll consider supporting ALS Therapy Development Institute in their search for drug treatments effective against this relentless, incurable neuromuscular disease.


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