Jinhua as an Introvert

Every morning in Jinhua, I wake up around 5:30 to grey light, and a moan of buses on the highway.  My shoulders and hips ache on the rigid mattress, the ones the Chinese students call “too cushy,” but at least my back never hurts.  Chaise, my roommate, tries to keep sleeping while I hunt for my driest running clothes. I find my increasingly orange-dusted running shoes and take the stairs down from the seventh floor to the lobby, two at a time. Outside at 6:00 a.m., the air is like warm soup.

ZJNU's Campus
ZJNU’s Campus

At the first intersection, two people walk backwards in different directions. Several small groups of older people shuffle; one man runs fast, but the rest move slowly. The woman with her branch-broom sweeps off the brick sidewalk too uneven to use. I followed the arc of the road curving towards the dining hall, Commercial Street, more construction dust. A sign near a clump of trees reads, “Warning: Do not walk alone. Desolate woods.” An e-bike zips by. I am never really alone in China. If I run on the hill my students walk by in clumps of ten or fifteen; on the track middle-aged men jog and climb poles; middle-aged women walk and clap in time.  On my loops around the lake still older men practice Tai Chi. A lone photographer sets up a tripod. None seem to sweat. My hair and my tech shirt drip.

During and after my shower I keep sweating, especially when trying to drink up my warm lemon water (to stay healthy) or my Nescafe (to stay alert ten hours from now). On the twenty-minute walk to class, there are never enough trees, and always too much construction dust. At 8:15, my students chant the sports vocabulary from yesterday in the stifling classroom while sweat beads on my arms and legs. The water tank in the courtyard is almost empty and the air dulls the students’ voices to a drone.

During lunch, 300 people and I wait in snaking lines in ZNJU‘s cafeteria for bowls of rice, greens, mysterious soups of tofu, watermelon. In the afternoon I sweat in the supply room, eating dragon fruit a co-teacher has given me, and preparing for tomorrow’s lesson, which I have just learned is too advanced for my students. Suddenly I am told to hurry up and go downstairs for a photo; suddenly I am told to sit and wait. My students chase dragon flies and catch each other in trust falls while the photographer stages the groups in front of us.

20150709_154555Afterwards in paper-cutting class, all the instructions are in Chinese, so I write an email to my husband while waiting for the photos and demonstrations. The wifi cuts out before I can press send. My most eager female students will create and give me intricate red paper snowflakes and flowers while the boys cut theirs  into jagged pieces and tug my co-teacher’s hair. She bursts into tears and shouts at them. A typhoon is coming and our bodies take on the quality of the air–hot, wet, tense. Very pitta. In this heat, I drink water all day but don’t need to visit the acrid squatty potties. In this building the stall doors barely clear our torsos. “Did they really save that much money cutting the doors in half?” a girl on our team asks. No one knows. They’ll never ask.

At dinner, another line. My co-teacher, Sunny, helps me order a plate of porkless fried rice that I drink with a cup of cucumber juice. At lunch we might discuss Chinese and American wedding rings, or tomorrow’s lesson plans, but at dinner: silence. When I get up to leave, I’ll trip over the tiny ledge going from one room to another in the dining hall. “Don’t forget,” says Kot, our Cambodian-American cultural liason, “everything in this country is trying to kill you.”

Like the e-bike that whips by when I cross the road. Or the wet marble stairs to the cafeteria. Or the tree, recently gutted from the earth and swinging overhead from a crane as Chaise and I walk to the dorm, licking our pineapple ice cream bars.

Later, I spread out my thin travel yoga mat in the small space between our wardrobes and the window. Chaise sits head-phoned and cross-legged on her bed, planning how to teach Chinese middle school students about Mother’s Day, checking her watch. We have a team meeting soon but this is what we do; Chaise creates a bubble of music while I move through sun salutations and warrior poses. Even with the air conditioner on, my mat gets slicker in each down dog and my hands turned pruney from the puddles of sweat. But when I finally I lie flat on my back in a sweaty savasana, or corpse pose, I am entirely rinsed out. My body is limp, my hands open. I am hanging on to nothing.

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How to Summer (at the End of Summer)

Child’s pose. Down dog. Three to five sun salutations. A long uncomfortable hold in dolphin plank and I still haven’t quit picking lint off my mat or stress-checking the clock.

Summer is hard for me. I work eighty hour weeks from September to May and then suddenly I have almost no schedule, but lots of projects, for four months. I should be able to do everything. This summer, everything included planning a wedding in two weeks, getting married, moving from two households to one, cleaning out one of those houses, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, planting flowers and vegetables, researching, writing handbooks, working on a book, doing layout for a magazine, writing syllabi, thinking about reading, thinking about taking up piano again, teaching yoga, training for a marathon, making food from the randomness of the CSA, taking students to China, and collapsing sunburned in my bed at night and sleeping until mid-morning. Some of those things have been accomplished. Many of the ones I care about have not. Now at almost the end of August, I feel like I’ve done nothing. 

Because every summer, I struggle to get out of bed early even though running mileage and pulling weeds would be more enjoyable if I did. Every summer, I get to September and feel the urge to scream at myself when I feel like the summer evaporated while I clicked a few links on Facebook and made a blueberry pie. This summer, in the year of my Ayurvedic adventures, I’ve been trying to learn how to live with my pitta self, the self that tackles a long run or a patch of weeds—and the self that weeps and screams when she can’t master all things in a day.

I’ve been trying for the past week to write a blog about how I learned the art of being a pitta in the summer. It hasn’t felt right, which is probably because I haven’t really learned it yet. The summer closes and work emails trickle into my inbox. Earlier this week one of those emails put me into an angry anxiety attack even though the issue was a small, stupid one. I stomped off for a late night dog walk and afterwards sat in meditation for an extra five minutes, trying to remind myself of all the reasons I have for compassion and gratitude, and not all the reasons I wanted to punch someone’s face.

Sometimes though, I make good decisions. Exercise is one of the more important ones. I feel the worst any day of the year–anxious, foggy, unfocused, irritable–when I don’t exercise at all.  But too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing either. I only had to go for one long run at midmorning this summer and feel the heat on my head turn into irritation and exhaustion and cranky thoughts towards EVERYONE  to know that I need a plan for staying cool. I can endure heat, but the misery isn’t quite worth it.  Because I’m training for a marathon, I can’t always avoid heat, but when I can, I’m trying (trying!) to avoid running late in the morning because too much sun irritates what’s already hot and irritable inside.

Swimming is almost always a good choice for cooling my pitta dosha. It’s a strong workout, but low-impact and I don’t overheat. And no matter what exercise I do, adding a yoga session makes everything better, as I learned over and over again this week when I chose (or didn’t) to flop down on my yoga mat and let the online instructor on Poweryoga.com guide me towards a different place. Yoga is medicine, the instructor in the online video said as he put us in pigeon pose. For those of you who are really competitive, he said, this pigeon pose is your medicine, and we’re going to stay in it a little longer.

By then, after forty minutes of simple, repetitive, sweat-inducing postures, I’d stopped picking the lint off my mat. I’d stopped checking my phone (mostly) and I’d stopped pulling my shoulders towards my ears. My brain melted into my hands and mat and the sweat dripped off my hair and I didn’t want to punch anyone anymore, not even myself. There was no such thing as email or August or syllabus. There was just my body, my imperfect amazing body with its even more imperfect and amazing mind, letting the mat, the sweat, the yoga do its work.