Sometimes, the air smells like jasmine tea and other times, it smells like sweet olive/osmanthus. My forehead is dry and my ear still itches. At Xixi wetlands, the boys and girls take photos of each other, not the birds, plucking the grasses and flowers in huge handfuls to weave them around their heads like a nest. The older ladies fish for fresh young lily pads, laying them on the wood-planked walkway to dry, their roots stringy and brown. The birds call to each other, one very particular with a rising tone that almost seems to break the human ear like a whistle that gets louder and higher. Egrets walk amongst the clumps of grass rising above the swampy water. A huge bird, I don’t know what kind, wings heavily away. And in a wooden shelter, older men with cameras that rival the size of their faces, that one big eye that clicks and clicks. At least they appreciate the birds. I get lost past the misty village (this is its name) as I walk on wooden planks through a field of tall grass. It leads to small inlets and rivers, over tiny stone bridges. The maps do not show where you are and it is only the sun that tells you east from west as it sinks lower in the sky. There is a long cement bridge, not beautiful, and forbidden to cross but I do anyway; there is no one to see. But on the other side, just a continuation of a path and I think, I should head back, un-lose myself. On the way back, a bobbing bridge of faded colored rectangles and an archery range with no one around. I walk the long way back because the park is closed and you cannot take the shortcut through the wetlands, only walk by the side of the road. Where there were carts selling cold-skin noodles (is this how it is translated?) and baked 饼 made with dried vegetables on the inside (sweet, spicy, or salty), there is only my lone bicycle, locked to the fence.
There are snakes here in these mountains, the West Lake Museum tells me another day, and other animals too. But the snakes are what is most interesting and the model of West Lake and so many of the mountains surrounding it. Mountains upon mountains, range upon range—these are the words that are used and they are not joking. Looking at it, I think: Give up your earlier goals. You can’t climb all the mountains here. You cannot even count them.
D tells me it is fashionable to be a rebel monk these days because look at Jigong. Drunk and singing all the time, eating meat, doing whatever he wanted but hey, what I remember from the 80s tv show, is his power to make noodles out of nothing. Even monks in the folktales get to do what they want (although they are sometimes said to be crazy) like kidnap new brides and use blind boys as servants. A mother and daughter from Fujian tell us, as we’re looking at a magical well and the remaining pillars of Jigong’s hall and talking about Jigong: Alcohol and meat will leave the body, but the spirit of Buddha will remain.D and I go up to the bell tower and when the monk there isn’t paying attention, I ring the bell, for the ghosts that I owe for past sins, any harms I’ve done in former lives. Its voice is deep and I think about all the bells I have not rung. If only I were like T, ringing the bells of the carillon around the world; maybe she has fewer ghosts because of this.
When M comes home drunk, he speaks in English, drawing his words out and I speak to him in Mandarin. He sits on the cold tiles of our hallway and laughs and says how they all drank baijiu, two bottles for three people. He had walked home all the way from Meijiawu. His shoes are a bright white; he washes them every time they get dirty.
The next day, he shows me photos of his year teaching English in Hunan. A place high up in the mountains, with crystal clear streams that held giant salamanders. He said of that year, that things there had meaning. Here, in Hangzhou, he feels numb. But, I say, did you enjoy teaching more then? No, he says, you don’t feel as though what you were doing mattered, especially not to the boys because they were going to stay there, they were spoiled. This is a contradiction, remind me to ask again. But there, too, were tunnels filled with water that they would walk through every day, wearing rainboots; they did not want to walk over the mountains. One girl he taught walked up thousands of steps every day to and from school. She was so tired, he told me. Most of the other kids lived in dorms at the school, one long low building, about 3 floors.
Sometimes, what I want to ask most of people is: tell me your childhood. Tell me what it was like to have grown up here in China during the 80s, 90s, before. In the cities or in the countryside. What it is to believe in ghosts or not. Witch doctors or not. Tell me about roasting corn in secret fire pits in the fields, about your dog that disappeared. Tell me about how you first came to Hangzhou and lived out in Binjiang in an alley lined with brothels for 400 kuai a month. Tell me what ambitions you have. Tell me the things that you care about. Tell me what you believe and what you believe in. I am just trying to understand.