When Your Feet Are Frozen, Learn to Dance

DSC00916 - Version 2If my journey to China was an arranged marriage, the honeymoon was over. A semester in China, four months of some of the most surreal, strange and wonderful things I had ever seen. I’d been swimming in the Li River, climbed the rice terraces of Dazi, looked out across the borders towards Tibet, nearly cried at the beauty of Jiujiagou, and become a familiar face to the local people on the route I walked to and from school. But somewhere along the way, the honeymoon had ended. China was China, was just the place on earth I happened to be. I referred to Nanjing as home. I knew where to buy shoes, the taxi drivers understood my directions. I found myself helping the random foreigner on the street. I’d become a veteran, with all the baggage and disillusionments. Someone had finally hit me with a bicycle; I’d been given a good Chinese welcome, the real China, as real as my white face would give me, and the perfect front, if it ever was there, was gone.

You won’t be here for Christmas, big sis. We’ve always been together for Christmas. 

I’m sorry, little brother, I have to stay. 

Please come home, (choking on tears), I, (hiccup) miss you…. The phone falls to the ground, I sit there listening to the silence on the other end of a phone that won’t hang up. 

You know the proverbial line between love and hate. Well, I had adored China. I still desired China. But like a dark creeping shadow, I realized, I hated China for what it was doing to me. The knowledge of my inner state clung to me like a guilty cloak. I had no right to hate this country, not after all the riches and wonders it had offered to me, if only I would accept.

Somewhere in the fog of burning fever and frozen showers, between tingxues (tests) and sleepless nights, my first budding love and fascination with the Middle Kingdom had curled up and died. It takes a different kind of strength to wake up after hallucinating into the frozen darkness, sick in body and mind, dreading another tests that can’t possible be aced and say, ‘I love what I’m doing and I’m not stopping’. You need a different kind of strength to know that if you complain, someone will loose face, everyone will loose face. And you’ve become Chinese enough to care deeply about loosing face but not enough to know how to say something politely that will get you what you need.

Puppy love dies under pressure like that. Those rose colored glasses you use, I’m sorry, the frost shattered those a long time ago and cut yours cheeks as the sparkling shards fell like crystal rain into the gutter.

I’m sorry, it doesn’t look like I’m going to have money to come visit you. I can’t find work, they aren’t hiring here. 

I know. I saw it on the news. It’s ok, we’ll make it, I promise, I’ll see you next summer.  

I love you. 

I know. 

You start to notice things you never saw before. The fan on your laptop will momentarily thaw the ache in your knuckles when you’re typing. You loose shirts for days at a time, only to find them when you finally undress to take a shower. Your nose bleeds so you stop blowing. Your lips bleed, so you stop licking them. Chinese men have finally stopped making comments on your well endowed female figure because no one can find it under the five layers of clothes you’re wearing. You decide that drinking beijui (strong Chinese alcohol) before taking your verbal koyu final is a good idea when everyone else does it. It tastes like gasoline. You sit in the hallway and drink it anyway. No wonder it’s not a big export.

Where did the love go?  This relationship between you and China is on the rocks. Like an elicit affair, you start to dream of going to Japan. You’ve heard they believe in heaters. It’s not like there’s anyone here you’ll miss.

Oh yea, and that incident from two weeks ago, still sitting like bitter medicine in your mouth. What was it that happened, oh yea, now you remember, like a noir movie in slow motion.

You don’t even know how high your fever is, food poisoning, again. You’ve got to study for finals. The house is freezing. Vision has long since blurred, a sign of hypothermia. GuGu (Auntie) is coming into the room, hot water bottle in her hands. 

Xie xie, GuGu. (Thank you, Auntie.)

Ni qu shuijiao? (You going to bed now?)

Dui, wo hen lei, ming tian ye you  yi ge kaoshi. (Yes, I’m very tired. Tomorrow I have a test.)

Hao de. (All right then.)

GuGu points to the bed, wanting you to get in. There’s still a few things you want to do, one of which is to take off your pants. And you don’t want to do that in front of her. GuGu smiles at your embarrassment, taking your half smile as a cute endearing gesture.

Ni shi xiao haizi. (You are a small child.)

Her face is about four inches from yours and she is still at least two inches taller than you, smiling as if you were some sort of cute puppy. In the fevered haze, you want to scream, to cry. Every problem that you’ve been having comes down to that one sentence. Everyone sees you as a child, as needing to learn the rules, as not quite getting it right, as needing a schedule, a curfew, not quite capable of handling things on your own, correcting everything you say. 

Wo bushi yigo xiao haizi! (I am not a small child!)

You use gentle words, you even smile as you say them. You’d never cross GuGu. Not in her house, not half undressed, not after she’s come into your room carrying a hot water bottle and fed you dinner. How could you be so ungrateful! You ungrateful spoiled brat. 

GuGu laughs. 

You’re not even old enough to be taken seriously. You hang your head, so you don’t have to see her smiling down at you. You get in bed, let her tuck the covers around you, obediently close your eyes and snuggle down. 

You just lost that battle, lost a part of yourself, your self respect, your confidence, your freedom. You can’t even hate her. She adores you, you’re grateful for everything she’s done for you. She means only the best. 

It’s small comfort. If you were an alcoholic, you’d take that beijiu you’re drinking right now, mixed with coke, straight and see if it erased the memory. The taste might be a distraction.

Ni shi xiao haizi. The words ring in your head. Judgment has been passed. Failure. Where did I go wrong?

I curl up in bed and cry, for everything I gave up to be here, for everything I’m missing, for everything I can’t be in this temporary adoptive home, this place I have aspired to understand and return and be ambassador for. What can a small child do? Cry, take the frowns of her teachers for badly done lessons, promise to try harder. Eat her supper like a good child and use her chopsticks properly. Yes, Auntie, I’ll be home for dinner, six o’clock, I promise. Oh I wear this mask well, down to the smile over my shoulder to meet GuGu’s face watching me leave, my thumbs looped through the straps on my backpack. The problem is, I really like GuGu. She really doesn’t deserve her solitude. I find myself going home, just because I can’t stand the thought of her sitting there alone, waiting for me in the cold dark apartment. Yea, I know, not my job, not my responsibility, but one part of myself I didn’t give up:  I can’t resist looking after people. Sorry, that’s the way it is, only myself to blame.

The cold deepened. The semester ended in a haze of alcohol at the official farewell party and a crowded bar afterwards. I packed my bags quickly one morning, smiling shyly at GuGu, unsure what was expected for leave taking, once again, not knowing the rules. I’d given her goodbye presents already, American tea and candy. I winced as I realized how easy it was too leave. After two and a half years of moving from dorm to apartment to hotel to my family’s living and back to dorms, I knew how to do it. Except for the wrinkled sheets, there was no proof I’d ever been there. I’d even swept the floor.

I moved into the dorms, curled up in the bed and slept for what seemed like days. At first, even hunger couldn’t force me from the warmest room I’d known in months.

What had I done wrong? Why was I so miserable? I’d worked my tail off to get to China, in the first place. I’d learned so much, come so far.

The answer appeared slowly as I relieved the blurriness of the past months in my mind.

It was all my fault. Mine and no one else’s. I was miserable because I’d been lying, to myself, to everyone. I’d come to China and tried to be whatever China wanted me to be. For GuGu, that meant I’d been a xiao haizi to fill her life and she was not the only one person that I’d tried to change myself to please.

Basically, I’d been desperately looking for approval, acting like the xiao haizi she had called me. I’d surrendered to these strange standards and lost all sense of proportion. I hadn’t yet figured how to measure myself in this new situation. I needed other people. I behaved like a child, begging for approval.

I hadn’t been honest to China. Any relationship that is going to last, it can’t be built on lies. And I had been lying. I’d been cute, I’d been malleable. I hadn’t put up any resistance. I’d been a mirror, a mime. Heck, I’d just pulled off the greatest act of my life.

The long days, lazy days of hanjia opened slowly as I crawled out of my cocoon of blankets and started taking off the mask. I set my text books in the drawer and took out my novel. Each page I wrote was a step towards reclaiming my identity. I took Fu Beini (the little girl that GuGu had known) and set her on the shelf. She was a good character, useful, somewhat funny, enjoyable to play with, but not someone I wanted to be long term. I wrote, I read, I contacted friends I hadn’t spoken to in months. Slowly I realized that going cold turkey, trying to force myself into full Chinese immersion may have done wonders for my language acquisition, but it hadn’t done much for my heart. I was lonely as hell. China for me had been a cold beautiful teacher, but not a friend.

Do you know Jay Chou? 

Magical words. My roommate was bouncing her feet in time to the music of some Chinese pop star. I’d seen enough of Chinese TV at GuGu’s. I didn’t think much of what I’d seen.

No, I don’t. What is he, some pop stat? 

What, you don’t know JAY!!!!!

No, who is he? 

I’ll show you.

A young Chinese man was singing and dancing on her computer screen. I had to grudgingly admit, he was good. Fifteen years of music lessons and twelve years of performance experience on my part made his raw talent glaringly obvious.

He’s good. 

So you like him. 


I retreated to the pages of my story but the music continued to play and it played every day after. I found myself moving to the beat. Slowly I realized my feet were starting to dance to the rhythm. A smile crossed my face for something other than the voices of my family on the other end of the line.

You want to catch dinner? 


I don’t know, some place this Chinese friend of mine knows. 


What are you doing for New Years? 


Want to go out. 


I don’t know, go out. 

Oh, ok, I guess. I’ve never gone before, what’s it like. 

It’s fun, I promise. 

New Years Eve at 1912 – the local clubbing district – some bar, nice tables, good music. I sit across the table from one of the Chinese roommates who I never really had a chance to get to know because I’d always rushed home to GuGu, good little xiao haizi that I was. There are eight other people at the table. He orders ice cream, so do I. He finishes first.

Ni hen kuai! 

Laughter erupts around the table. He turns a small shade of red, but laughs to. My roommate leans over and whispers in my ear. I’d just told him he was an early ejector. I turn red and try to apologize. The laughter gets louder. The xiao haizi in me wants to run but looking across the table in the man’s eyes, I realize he isn’t judging me. He’s having fun.

I should be having fun to. I smile timidly, then broadly and shrug. The tension has disappeared. Check one for something not to do again, ok, let’s move on. The conversation moves fluidly, English and Chinese bouncing across the table in an easy cadence. I end up leaning on the wall by the pool table, the heavy layers of cloths shed to a red tank top. I know the Chinese guys are watching, so what? I’m going to be myself. If they want to look, let them look. My boyfriend knows I’m not the cheating type.

What are you doing tonight? 

Nothing, but I want to do something. 

Want to go out. 

Sure, know any place we can see fireworks. 

IMG_0260 White Horse Park, 9:00 at night, first night of Chunjie (the Chinese New Year). The happiest battlefield on earth. Crouched behind a car, my rear stinging from a stray firework, my hands over my ears but my face turned up towards the brilliant sky, I fall in love with China all over again.

This is a fucking war! A fucking war, I’m telling you, Bethany!

I know, Alex, isn’t it awesome! Watch out, the taxi’s going to hit you!!! 

Fucking war! I’m telling you, this is what the video games sound like 

GET DOWN!!!! ……

You all right?

I didn’t know they made fireworks that freakin’ big! 

Those aren’t fireworks, those are fucking torpedoes!

Xin Nian Kuaile! 

IMG_0261I laugh. Lanterns rise slowly on the cold air, floating up like prayers for good fortune into the darkness, illuminated from above and below by the constant explosion of gunpowder and colored paper. This is no place for a small child alone. Drunken groups of people are wandering in the street; someone is leaning out of their apartment and dropping fireworks from twenty stories up. The entire city has taken leave of its senses in the best possible way. China, if you were trying to seduce me….

Your grandfather is dying. 

Cold water flows through my fingers. I feel as cold as the ice banks piled four feet high outside.

Should I come home? 

With a twinge of pain, I realize I do want to stay. I don’t want to go back, not before I finished this oath of a year in China that I swore to myself so many years ago. I do want to keep it. I do feel something more than curiosity for this land. But I don’t want to not be there for my grandfather. Torn in two, I listen to the silence between emails. No matter what happens, no matter who it is, I feel that I will always be this way, torn.

What you’re doing is too important, there’s no reason for you to come back. Grandpa would want you to keep following your dreams. 

Following my dreams. I stare out across the city, fourth day of Chunjie and feel the emptiness made by the lack of family as everyone in China battles their way through record low temperatures and snow fall to see their loved ones. My roommate and I watch the snow flakes and Jay videos and talk about politics, family, boyfriends, China, always China. I find something terribly attractive in the ties of family, everyone going home, even though my roommate and I are reduced to McDonalds for sustenance in the face of the closed restaurants and shops.

My roommate wakes up in pain in the middle of the night. She has frostnip from the cold. I boil water and pour it into to the large bowl I do laundry in and help her slowly thaw out the frozen tissue. It still hurts. I call the nurse on my health insurance, all the way back in the U.S.

You’re in China! Wow, that’s on the news! 

I just made one nurse’s day. I’m doing something she wouldn’t dream of, seeing things she’ll never see. Why did I ever feel sorry for myself?

What we are going through, is it worth it, Shirlene?  

We’re living our dreams, Bethany. 

You’re right, they wouldn’t be worth it, if it wasn’t a fight. 

No, it wouldn’t. 

Some people only exist, Shirlene. We’re really living, aren’t we? 

Ya, we are. Wouldn’t be exciting if there wasn’t a little bit of pain. 

Guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

We go buy fireworks and set them off. Alex’s girlfriend shows us how much fun it can be to throw the small ones under passing taxis. We slid home, numb fingers and noses, Alex and I burning our fingers with cheap lighters, laughing in three languages, turning a weird dance of sliding steps and quick jumps from exploding firecrackers in the nearly desolate landscape that makes up Nanjing during Chunjie when the people are gone and the winter has taken hold with its frozen grip. Alex’s girlfriend slaps Shirlene’s bottom and we blame it on Alex. The poor Korean doesn’t stand a chance. Poor boy, well, he torments the girls enough, the guy deserves it.

Grandpa might make it. He lived through the surgeries. 


He might not. 

I know. I’ll be ok. How are you doing?

The kids don’t know what to think. Littlest sis locked herself in the bathroom and screamed today, for thirty minutes. Mama is gone. We don’t know when she’ll come back. Dad needs to go on a business trip but Grandma needs Mama right now. I don’t know what do to, Big Sis. 

You can make it, little sis. I believe in you. 

Thank you. Please don’t worry about us. 

Of course I will worry. Big sis always worries, but there’s nothing I can do. Grandpa wouldn’t thank me for having a long face. I shake off the guilt and join my friends at Scarlet bar. The skinny Chinese guys dancing don’t tempt me in the least. They almost seem cute, not sexy. I smile, well, it’s not exactly fair to be judging other guys when I’m head over heels in love with a certain handsome man studying Japanese and archery in Tokyo, my own samurai waiting for me…some where… some day… when our paths cross again on this dance of following our dreams. Who says I have to adjust my standards about things like what’s hot. Come one, Bethany, be yourself. Just don’t be a snob! Ah, that’s a fine line.

Nin xiang tiaowu ?Let’s dance. Isn’t the music great?!


Come on! Tiaowu!!!!

Dance. I’m scared of dancing, of accidentally doing something that might be misinterpreted, as wrong or inappropriate. My friends, Chinese and American, grab my hands. My fear shudders one last time and surrenders to the seduction of the beat. I smile. Jay is singing. Yes, that wonderfully, amazingly talented handsome musician, superstar, composer, pianist, singer, marital artist, we’re on a first name basis now. I went to see his movie, without subtitles mind you, and had a blast, I even understood about 30 percent of what was said! His poster sits next to my bed. I lose myself in the music and my body reacts on it own. Instinctively, it knows how to move.

Ok, so yes, I probably do look pretty stupid. Oh and yes, I know my Chinese, well, it’s not great, but is has gotten pretty functional, now that I stopped trying too hard and let the words fall more naturally. I still don’t like certain things, spitting, yeah, the spitting sometimes gets to me and the long finger nails for personal grooming, that’s pretty annoying. But let’s be honest, China is China and I’m me and if we’re going to get anywhere, we’re going to have to comes to terms with that. That means looking stupid now and then. Such is life in a foreign country. And honesty it really is the basis of a good relationship.

I would like to practice my English with you. 

I look up from my table to the young lady in front of me, presenting me a small handwritten note with both hands. I fumble with the clumsy Western silverware badly enough that I end up taking it with only one and a half hands but I do bow my head, somewhat saving face for both of us. Chopsticks are so much more civilized and I’m not being sarcastic. I prefer Chinese styles of serving food.

Hao de! 

I’ve been burned twice by offers like this, but this one is different. She’s serious, she doesn’t see me as some fun loving American who wants to visit bars and look up hot Chinese guys. I realize with a start, that’s she’s actually seeing me, nearly the same me that I see. I smile back.

I’m going to Xian tomorrow. When I come back, I’ll give you a call. 

The smile on her face warms me inside and I realize another thing I’ve been missing. It’s time to stop relying on the familiar voices on the other end of the phone and put down some roots in China. Real friends, based on real presentations of myself. After all, I’m the one who’s been cheating China. I feel a warmth spread over my shoulders. I realize that I am excited, that I want to see how much more China has to show me, how much more I will show China.

I read through the booklet for the new semester and laugh. Andrew Lewis, good heavens, he knew how to bullshit. His travelogue has been published as an example of a good travelogue for the new students to measure theirs against as a self examination. The first time I read it, I thought it was gospel truth. I wanted to be what he said he became, no longer a traveler in China. Another example of me being a xiao haizi. He wrote the picture perfect idea of adapting to China, quick and easy if you’d only let it be. I laugh as I read out choice sentences to my roommate.

He’s full of crap. 

I agree, it’s not that easy, unless you’ve got blinkers on. 

But he sure knows how to say what everyone wants to hear. 

Ya, he does. 

The new program students strangle in, green, unsure of themselves or repulsively arrogant with their painfully familiar complaints and problems.

People here are crazy, the way they drive! 

Everyone’s starring at me!

Do we really have to speak Chinese? 

I smile and lean against the wall, watching them in the hall, ready to hand out instructions, suggest restaurants, laughing softly to myself at the xiao haizi that used to be me, so many months ago or was it years, it feels so far away. How long till the puppy love wears off for these new students, before the delusions fall away and the true wonder of China, the true China presents itself to them.

Xiexie, Laosheng

I pause at the address. Then I smile. I guess I am a laosheng, and I’ve got the marks to prove it, but I also have the trophies that say, it’s worth it, the scraping away of the delusions and masks, those about yourself and those about China, to find everything below, the ugly, the hilarious, the sad, the beautiful, the rich and colorful. It’s a journey I’ve only recently started. There’s no arrogance left that says I’ve got it all figured out. I’m a laosheng (experienced student), not a laoshi(teacher), but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rose colored glasses only let you see one color, so break them xinsheng (new student). You’re better off without them.

Laugh, xinsheng. Throw your head back and laugh while you dance. When your feet are cold and your heart is afraid, dance. Dance when you can’t remember the reason you’re here, dance until you remember why you came. Dance until everyone is dancing with you. Everyone wants to dance, xinsheng. Dance your fear away. That’s one thing every culture shares, they all dance. So be the dance, that language, that need, that everyone shares. The steps may change, shift, but the underlying idea, the sway of the body to a primal inner rhythm, that never changes. The first kiss, that first rush when you stepped off the plane, may have a thrill that you can never reclaim, but you can always dance. Dancing only gets better with time, long after the honeymoon is over.

Another four months. I want to dance. Yes, I’ll probably get food poisoning again, I’ll probably cry in frustration over some point of culture clash at some point but that will only make everything I find mean that much more. After all, I didn’t sign up to be a Spartan.

I want to dance, long after the honeymoon is over. Come on China, I know you’ve got a beat, let’s hear it. I want to dance. Seduce me, again.


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