Once I returned from China's Vegetable Capital, to coastal Yantai, on April 28th, a springtime snowfall fell.
From seven a.m. to eleven, powdery balls floated to the earth. I was ecstatic. Between my university classes, I photographed round-faced students (most of whom weren't ecstatic), the pastelle mushrooms they held for shelter (which were festive), the gray air (which was gloomy), and the white grassy parts (which were bright). Actually, most of the students were happy when I took their pictures.
And they were even happier to have five days off from classes for May 1st, the International Day of the Worker. After the snow had melted, on April 29th and 30th, my school held a sports meet, with students competing in track and field events.
At the stadium, I watched long enough to see the women's 100-meter sprint. The sun was warm, and one of the runners - a long-bodied, fragile one - stumbled to the finish line and collapsed. People carried her to the grass, and ran to attend to her. For five minutes, she didn't move. My eyes and heart were frozen with terror. Beside me, the students in the crowd - wearing fashionable Ludong University sports outfits: navy windpants, and white-and-red wind-jackets that read "SPORTS" - just kept playing cards and didn't seem to care.
After ten minutes, the girl got up. Thank the stars, she was alive! I wanted to clap and hug her and give her flowers - even though she'd finished dead-last.
But, the boy next to me turned and said, "It's normal. When they will run the 5000 meters, most of the girls will fall." Oh, my.
I couldn't take any more of that. On April 30th, I traveled long and far to get to China's Northeast, to visit my brother's best friend. This young man has known my family for twenty-three years.
As a little boy of Polish ancestry, he looked a bit Chinese, with a shy round face, inky black hair, and healthy cheekbones that obstructed harmless eyes. In those days, he lived alone with his progressive-thinking and humble and very loving mother. So, he used to come over to our house to make fun of my father - usually for being bald. My poor father.
But, during this boy's scrawny teenage years, my father, my brother, and I got our revenge by defeating him countless times on our ping pong table. He also played on the high school tennis and soccer teams with me, and I felt that - because he didn't have an older brother - it was my duty to pick on him. Oops, I'm sorry I did that!
As an adult, he moved to Montana to go hiking and study history. He started shaving his head and working out, and, on a whim, he attempted amateur boxing, calling himself "The Polish Falcon". He also enjoyed reading all the books a well-known person should read; he loved Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". Philosophically, he didn't believe the world was necessarily meaningful nor harmonious. His personality was introverted and unaffectionate.
Since he used to look Chinese, it didn't surprise us when he moved to China five years ago. With perky eyebrows, he taught in universities. With an adventure-seeking smile, he learned Chinese and traveled to every Chinese province except for two, writing wise newsletters he called "China Times". With the ability to grow hair on his head now gone, he philosophized and worked on perfecting himself. And he always sent postcards to my parents, his mother, my brother, even me.
His "Chinese name" is Pai Ke. But, we Breens know him as Pat.
So, I went to Shenyang in the Northeast - a gray city of eight million, in which Pat is able to get to his two jobs by foot. And I stayed in a spacious, 27th-floor apartment with Pat and his girlfriend Tian Ye.
Pat's light-as-paper girlfriend was both adorable and clever, and also athletic, and she was making Pat into a much-better ping pong player. In Shenyang, he won every game of ping pong I played with him.
Tian Ye, meanwhile, hunched her little body over the ball, and calmly twisted her paddle underneath the ball to serve. Her style appeared unintimidating, but her ping pong coach had taught her to be a very mean player.
We also went to a park to play basketball and hackey-sac. Thousands of people - enjoying the Day of the Worker - watched bamboo boats carry people across a lake-in-the-city, or rode amusement park rides, or relaxed by a rock garden. Since he has long been an adorer of the sun, poor Pat was skeptical to believe my theory: "Ample sunlight prevents baldness."
My dad might laugh about that.
Pat had to work the next afternoon in a language institute. (He has been working very hard lately to save money, in case he and his girlfriend want to go to the States to continue their studies.)
So, Tian Ye kept me company. She whooped me in Chinese checkers. ... "Okay, no more Chinese games! I'm teaching you to play poker!"
In contrast to Pat's quiet nature (which became even quieter after long days of speaking English for pay), Tian Ye was talkative. Chinese girls seem to feel very happy and confident when they have boyfriends. And everything Tian Ye, a.k.a. "Taylor", said was interesting.
One of the best things I can say about someone's conversational abilities is that he makes me appreciate things I hadn't appreciated before. At first, I assumed Taylor's work as a pHd. student, in the field of pharmaceuticals, would be boring.
But, she said excitedly, "The laboratories in American schools are heaven! They have all the machines you could want! Here, the students have to go to private companies, and pay money, if they want certain machines."
Of her pHd. work in China, she said, "I make tiny particles, to fight cancer. I have to use an electroscope to see them - not even a microscope, they're so tiny. I can't believe I can make such a thing! I'll show you a picture." She showed me a magnified picture of the particles, which looked like dusty white balls with gooey spikes.
That evening, she and Pat had some American teachers over for a dinner party. Taylor put her hair in pigtails, and her good little face squeezed in on itself as she smiled so happily. Pat was quiet, and very happy.
The next day, I traveled by train and by ferry and returned to Shandong Province. (Along with "Tibet" - which you need a permit to enter - it's the only province Pat hasn't been to.)
My university campus was pretty these days, too. But, it wasn't because of any snow. Instead, the plants and trees of my campus were bursting with flowers. Of red, yellow, and so on. It has only been recently that I've begun to appreciate my sense of smell.
A bush of pink flowers reminded me of powdery make-up my mom used to keep in the bathroom.
One bush's flowers smelled like grape "Otter Pop" popsicles.
One tree's flowers appeared white from afar but purple-striped up close, and they smelled like an orange-flavored powder my family used to make a tart summer drink with.
A crowd of purple tulips, growing low to the ground, smelled like big, sugary, purple jellybeans.
And the white flowers on a tree smelled sometimes like yellow mustard flowers fried-for-eating, and sometimes like vanilla ice cream from a roadside ice-cream shop.
It's kind of strange, but all of the flowers' smells reminded me of my childhood.
- a smile,
Much thanks to Pat & Tian Ye for inviting me to visit!