China in the eyes of an American teenager


  Twisting and turning and twisting along a dirt-paved mountain road, the silver bus drove towards Shaxi, China.

   The wheels jolted with every turn, rough foliage crunching beneath its weight.

  The bus was filled with suitcases and backpacks, Chinese candies and fruits, tacky tourist trinkets, and twelve heavy-eyed high schoolers from around the United States. We were embarking on a linguistic and cultural journey to explore the depths of rural Chinese life — an odyssey.

    As one hour passed to two and two passed to nine, we groaned of boredom, echoing louder and louder against the vibrating walls of the bus. Questions of “When will we be there?” were answered with silent uncertainty.

    The eleven-hour mark signaled a change. The bus stopped.

    My fellow high schoolers and I, “high” on Dramamine and Pepto Bismol, stumbled out of the narrow bus door into civilization. But, after our eyes adjusted to the harsh sunlight, our faces distorted into perplexion.

  Rice fields and wooden homes, designed in traditional Chinese architecture, stretched out before us.

    No neon signs.  No skyscrapers.

    No Starbucks.

  Small flies hummed in our ears as stenches of horses and manure wafted through the air. A sour taste filled our mouths.

    Was this a Dramamine-induced hallucination? A dehydration-induced mirage?

    To investigate. we dragged our legs forward. Smelling of sweet herbs and tangy spices, we found ancient tea houses and traditional Chinese medicine shops. Smelling of incense and sweet flowers, we stumbled upon Buddhist temples and ancient gardens.

    After returning from our investigation, we were directed towards the local hostel. Two miles of walking lead us to a crumbling building of white stone. Large Chinese lanterns, hung in the doorway, greeted us.

   That night, we dined on steamed pork buns, stir-fried cabbage, sticky white rice, fried vegetable dumplings, and pepper soup. With each bite, we thought, “We eat today for work tomorrow.”

   Cries of a chicken at dawn interrupted our rest. Eventually, we made our way to a breakfast of fried goat cheese in duck sauce and beef noodle soup.

    Following their breakfast, we promptly left for work — gathering tree leaves for a local farmer. We walked four miles along worn cobblestone and dirt paths towards the farm, which was in the center of several maze-like rice fields. Along the way, warm scents of pepper filled the air as fallen peppercorns crunched under tour Converse high tops.

  Upon reaching the farm, we were given brief instructions, in Mandarin, and immediately set to work. In the first few seconds, we believed the work to be easy, but, as seconds passed to minutes and minutes to hours, we began to feel the work’s effects.

    Our backs ached. Our arms and legs grew stiff, caked in dirt. Our clothes were soaked with sweat. We yearned for a break, but when we asked, the farmer replied, softly laughing in Mandarin.

   After working till dusk, we were granted release and allowed to make our way back to the hostel. We joked and we groaned for the four mile walk back “home.”

   This was, at least, up until one of them pointed out the sun falling beneath two symmetric mountain peaks. At this point, we ceased conversation and stopped waking.