Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Gone Caving

Expectations: We all have them. Sometimes we like to pretend that we don't. To admit to them can be like showing yourself too much; it can make you feel vulnerable. We have expectations for how our lives will be, for the people we love, for our jobs, and ourselves.

I have to admit that I have always felt uneasy with expectations and with my relation to them. You try on different hats as a young person when you don't know know 'who' you are, and one of mine was a sort of mid-western version of the manic-pixie-dream-girl: the easy-listening version. Girls are taught that it's attractive to be light, whimsical, easy-going, and a bit wild. I had (have) the whimsical part down really well; it was just a matter of pretending that my natural state was to float around and get wide-eyed once real people who I loved naturally formed (or already had) expectations for me as a friend, person, or partner. There's still a very irritating person in me who likes to pretend that they (I) believe in love without expectations and moment-to-moment life without expectations. If you'd like, I'll introduce you to her sometimes, or, better yet, she'll pop up to talk about meditation when you least want her to. Honestly, I have no idea what I'm saying, but I think I was intending to end this paragraph with a balanced, pleasing, and subtly irritating sentence that sort of convinces you that I'm somehow still a manic-pixie-dream-girl yet also a very thoughtful, stable person who honors commitment and expectation. Did I manage?

Anyway, expectations. I have them; actually, I have lots of them. Some of them are heavy and deep, like the Yangtze, which has recently joined the ranks of words that I'll never spell correctly (also on the list: rythmn and sqwauck). If you are reading this blog, I probably hold some sort of deep expectation for you. Probably, it's something like, "________ will be my friend and be nice to me, even if I'm an idiot sometimes." If you are my mom, it might include something like this, "You will tell me I did a good job after projectiley vomiting during a presentation," which is actually quite a helpful expectation to have. Some of my expectations are as shallow as Trump, yet still hold the possibility of catastrophe if ignored or unfulfilled.

These last few weeks, I have had fun, and not fun, with seeing what my expectations actually are, once I expose them to the harsh and unforgiving light of my brain, which generally is more of a soft, forgiving light actually.

A fun time was when Lizzie visited last weekend. We had a great time strolling around Wuhan. On her last night, we went to something called the "Han Show" which is only available to see in Wuhan. I think I was expecting the coolest thing to be a scene where people ran around dressed up like a dragon, which actually would have been super cool. I don't know why I imagined this but could probably trace it back to essentialist history lessons in 3rd grade if I wanted to really dig. Anyway, the show was something like a polyamorous relationship between "Survivor," that show where people rappel up cliffs using their teeth only ("Warrior ninja something"), the Olympics with a pro-doping policy, and the most vivid and bizarre dream you have ever had. Actually, I could barely handle the beauty and the intensity. Sometimes I secretly zone out at plays and think about cheezits and bunnies, but I really didn't this time. Also, the stage moved, and there was a large body of water in the stage area, just to give you an idea. This was a fun example of when I realized my expectation for something didn't at all match up to reality. No pictures of this, unfortunately.

Pictures: Fun with Lizzie


 The famous yellow crane tower in Wuhan:

 Walking around East Lake


 Lizzie enjoying Wuhan's most popular noodle dish: hot sesame noodles



This last weekend, Lauryn and I traveled with Simon (our host contact at the US consulate here in Wuhan; also loves backstreet boys) to Fenghuang with an unofficial primary goal of exhausting us and an official secondary goal of presenting things to some peeps. It was during this last weekend that I was able to really take note of some subcutaneous (I think I was going for 'subterranean' but I like this one better) expectations lurking beneath my thoughts. Let's take my presentations for example. I had to do two of them, one for secondary school teachers and one for junior high students. I was told approximately how many teachers, and I had a topic, and I imagined a certain atmosphere or situation. I definitely assumed a certain level of English. When I arrived, there were a ton more teachers than I had thought, in addition to about 50 children running around and hitting each other. Also, the room was a gigantic presentation hall with a projector screen the size of Trump's ego. I had to stand on a stage that put my ankles at everyone else's foreheads. It was like a Ted Talk but no one understood me and there were kids everywhere. As my presentation began and as it slowly dawned on me that most of my planned activities would not 'work', I could feel my expectations slithering out from under the fake rock where they hid.

Post Ted Talk: Dazed.



Three days later, I entered a classroom filled with 50 junior high school students who looked a mixture of terrified and ravenous. Ravenous as in hungry to eat me. It was a confusing way to begin, so I began in a confused manner. The English level was again much lower than I had assumed. During my lesson, random and loud bursts of music, bells, and talking erupted from the classroom speakers, at which point I had to stop completely and imagine the students eating me. 10 minutes before I was supposed to be finished, a bubbly song came on that prompted all the students to stop what they were doing, close their eyes, and do 'eye exercises' for the rest of class. During a break time, both Lauryn and I signed our autographs (autographs!) in 50 individual notebooks and gave hugs to students. I mean, it was adorable, but also confusing.

Picture: Teaching the junior high students various witchcraft


Signing autographs, like I'm someone who has an autograph.


I did both of my presentations and I think they went fine, but they weren't easy. They wouldn't have been easy even if I hadn't had certain expectations for them; however, I think it did make it even more of a slog. I do think that there's a difference between helpful and unhelpful expectations. I'm not sure how helpful it is to subconsciously or consciously expect how something like a presentation (or any work) will go and I wish I were able to better let things unfold the way that they do.

Between presentations this last weekend we had the chance to explore the area. Fenghuang reminds me a lot of Luang Prabang. It's a lovely, misty little town on a river, with a bunch of old houses on stilts. The entire area is surrounded by a fringe of soft mountains.






The day after my first presentation, Simon said he would take us on a tour of a local mountain and a cave. The mountain was a hill, which was nice for all of us. I like mountains and I want to climb them, but it's not usually a casual thing you do with a few spare hours and a pregnant woman. Lauryn is pregnant. Okay. Then, we headed off to the cave. My expectations, although nascent, included being able to return to the hotel soonish so that Lauryn and I could spend some well-needed time preparing stuff. As for the cave, I expected a cave, but I think possibly only the mouth of the cave, and a few minutes admiring it. I dunno, I don't spend much time around caves; I don't know any of the usual behavior or norms.

It soon became apparent that it was a bit more of an 'event'. We had to wait 20 minutes for a group to exit the cave before our tour group could enter the cave. That seemed like a serious thing. Then, we set into the cave in a noisy group of about 30 people. Our tour guide talked to us as we entered, in Chinese of course, so I made up the translation in my head. It started to register that we were walking quite a bit and getting very deep inside of the cave. This was a bit surprising and even more surprising was how bewitchingly beautiful it was. China always surprises me, as I've said in previous entries. You never know quite what you are in for. Apparently this is a thing in China, but the entire inside of the cave was illuminated by beautiful, multi-colored lights. It's as if Walt Disney and Gollum were business partners and decided to put Disney world into a cave. This cave had a river and the lights reflecting off the river and the reflection of the cave formations in the water was nothing short of magical and trippy.






Because I was under the spell of the cave, it was only after about an hour and about 15 flights of stairs when I realized that it had been an hour (!) and I asked Simon about it. He explained that it was a two hour walk and we had 6 more kilometers, which is quite a lot of kilometers in cave-distance. It was amazing to me that he had somehow had this knowledge all along and hadn't shared it with us. I feel like in the US, there would have been a mandatory 2 hour safety training before you could even enter the cave and then emergency exits every 50 feet, but in China, you are suddenly in the middle of a cave system and the tour guide has forgotten about you and is out of sight. Actually, to save energy, the lights would turn off in the different cave sections when there was less activity, and because our disheveled group of foreigners and foreigner-babysitter (Simon) was perpetually lagging behind, we kept on finding ourselves in the pitch black in the middle of a cave, which isn't necessarily my favorite situation to be in.

By the time we got out of the cave, the day was practically over, and we were all disoriented and exhausted.

Not to be outdone, the next day we went on another adventure, which Simon promised would be just a 'couple of hours.' We drove out to a Miao village, which is a minority group in China that shares the same roots as the Hmong. We looked at a museum, saw a performance, and then headed off to see a village.

Video: This is literally a woman eating charcoal. There was cultural dancing too but this was the most arresting to me.


Some wires got crossed and although I was expecting that our walk would entail a Miao traditional village, it actually began in another cave. This cave was astounding. Apparently, it is a very historical cave for the Miao people; it's where the king used to hang out with his troops and where young women and men gather to sing songs together. Physically, it was gorgeous. On the outside, the top soared high above us and there was a waterfall.

From the outside:



It was clearly a really special place. Then, we entered the cave through a tunnel:


At this point, things got weird. Things DO get weird when you've been told you are visiting a village and suddenly you are climbing into what appears to be the set of an Indiana Jones movie. When we entered the central part of the cave, it became apparent that we needed to ascend hundreds of feet on a rickety-ass staircase suspended in space.

Here's what this sight looked like from the bottom looking up:


So, we started climbing up. About half the way up, I turned around to take pictures of what was now behind me:


 Continuing to ascend into technicolor heaven:







It's impossible to capture what it was like to climb the inside of that cave-mountain. I can only say that it wasn't at all what I expected. It was uniquely terrifying to me, as someone who doesn't like heights. After we had all reached the top of the indiana jones-stairs, we had another tunnel until we reached the outside.


When we reached the top of the tunnel, we were suddenly in a Miao village overlooking a valley. Ta- Da! I guess.



Simon didn't seem to think anything strange had happened or that there was any mismatch between seeing a traditional hill village and rappelling up a multi-colored mountain like adrenaline-crazed hobbits. I realize that walking up steps isn't the same as rappelling (and that I've misused the word twice in this blog so far), but you'll just have to go with me here. By the time we were finished with the whole experience, the day was over, and I had a presentation early the next day.


What do you think? Do you think the most memorable days and moments are the ones when there's a garish mismatch between your expectations and reality? Or, does it just make you tired? I think I vacillate between the two. Obviously, it depends on the situation and whether the expectations are deep, human expectations, like relationshipping, or shallower ones that happen to occur in deep places (caves are deep! haha, SO FUNNY). And, I notice that the more that I CLING to my expectations even in the face of a mismatch with reality, the more friction I experience in the moment. Yeah, I dunno, I'm really tired.

I'm gong to leave ya'll with a real-life image of what it looks like to be a high school student in China (in China high school is often described as more stressful than college):





Oh, and also some adoooooooorable kids (they are the children of some lovely teachers we were spending time with)




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