[img_assist|nid=914|title=Untitled by Nicole Koenitzer © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=120]Boarding to Siyang is called. It’s early morning, and the bus station is filled. I have to push through the crowd to reach the doorway where my bus is waiting. Everyone is carrying red plastic bags filled with food to give— fruit, peanuts, seeds. I am carrying my own plastic bag containing ten oranges and ten bananas. A middle-aged Chinese woman stressed the importance of bringing ten of each kind of fruit. I left ten pears at home, but the bag is still heavy. I hear a few passengers say, laowai, foreigner, as I walk down the aisle to my seat.
Four hours later, we pull into the bus station at Siyang.. This place is much smaller than Zhenjiang , where I have been living — more north and colder. Through the bus window I see my student smiling at me, and I wave. It’s the Spring Festival Holiday, the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and he has invited me to visit him. He and his father have come to receive me. His father has a wide smile and a cowlick in the back of his hair. My student walks ahead purposefully when I mention I need to buy a return ticket at the station. We stand in line, and he takes out a pink 100 yuan bill.
"I can pay," I weakly insist.
"Ivy, I’ll pay. Let me show you around."
That’s my student, Changjiang. His name means " Long River ” and refers to the Yangtze, the longest river in China . Changjiang will be seventeen next month. He’s tall and thin. He has wispy, wavy hair that falls into his face and an easy laugh. When he looks at me, his eyebrows arch over his glasses, and he grins.
To go to their house, we ride in a “bread car,” a small van. There are other passengers in the bread car, and we fly along the road together. The driver stops every so often and calls out for more passengers. More people get on with their bags of fruit.
The lane to their house is muddy—the van cannot go on that. It’s made of dirt, and has brick houses on either side. As we walk, I see bales of hay, goats, some cows, chickens, and a donkey. The mud clings to my sneakers. Changjiang has my book-bag on his shoulders, and his father carries the fruit. When we arrive at his house, his mother and grandmother come to the doorway and together we go to the concrete courtyard. His grandmother is stooped over, wears a blue apron.
"She can’t understand putong hua (standard Mandarin) so maybe you can’t speak to her," Chanjiang says.
I can’t tell if his grandmother can really see me. During my visit, she wanders in and out of rooms, putting a handful of candies next to us on the sofa, leaning over the table and tapping her foot, or standing behind her grandsons examining them,
"My grandmother often does things with no result,” Changjiang says.
We come to a room with a wooden table, a TV set, a DVD player and a sofa. Here we will spend most of our time. The ceiling is very high, and the walls have posters on them— famous Chinese TV and movie stars, blue and green tinted landscapes. There are two rooms off to either side, the room they all will sleep in, and the room I will sleep in, alone. It is cold outside, and the door to the courtyard remains open all day. We see our breath as we watch DVD’s putting our feet under a blanket as our toes slowly freeze.
We leave the room for meals. For dinner, we eat-corn porridge, bread and vegetables; for breakfast, dumplings and glutinous sweet dough balls in soup. We eat crabs, turtle, pork and vegetables for lunch. After meals we take in a mouthful of warm water from a shared cup, swish it around our mouths and spit it into the dirt off the courtyard.
If I rest for a few seconds between bites of food, his mother points to a bowl with her chopstick. "Ivy, chi, chi.”
"You can eat as you like," Changjiang says.
The first night, his mother introduces me to my room. There are two plastic basins on the floor filled with warm water and two towels. "This one is for washing your pigu (butt) and this one, your feet.” She leaves. I don’t touch the pigu basin, but I halfheartedly rub the other towel over my feet. She comes back, knows I haven’t washed properly. She kneels down, holds my feet, and washes them thoroughly rubbing between my toes.
The bed is covered with a thick blanket. When I wake up, I am warm. My head is entirely covered by the blanket and my coat, and a second blanket covers my feet. I don’t remember wrapping myself so warmly.
"Ivy?" It’s Changjiang, outside the door.
"Yes?" I say.
"Wake up,” he says.
It snows today. We pass the day watching TV or movies. Neighbors come by. The grandmother gives them handfuls of watermelon seeds. An old man in a Russian fur hat visits, sits on the narrow wooden bench by the doorway, and the grandmother sits next to him. The light falls on the creases in their faces. I want to take a picture of them, but I don’t. A young girl also visits. She leans against Changjiang, crowding him on a narrow bench. She brings a long, new firecracker into the house. He pulls it from her and throws it into the yard. The snow is coming down quickly. I laugh in surprise.
"Why did you do that?” I hit him lightly, and he laughs too. We light firecrackers on New Year’s Eve. We watch from the doorway as the father lights them in the yard and runs off. We watch them burn down and throw off light, banging the air, until one goes off improperly, and the sound is unbelievable. "Tai jinjang, too intense,” Changjiang says.
The next night, he borrows a pad and pen from his father. We talk about words in Chinese and English, draw crude pictures to show each other our meaning. Soon the page is covered with random drawings and words at all angles. "Art" his brother says His father tells a story, and Changjiang translates. "When I was young, the other children in my neighborhood wanted to steal some money. I just stood next to them and watched. I was afraid someone would say I was guilty too."
Changjiang looks at me and laughs. "Oh, that’s it." he says.
"I thought there was more."
Later I eat lunch with an all-male party—three young cousins, their father, Changjiang, his father and brother. They all have shots of baijiu, clear rice wine. I alone have grape wine. Everyone toasts each other. I am toasted several times and drink the weak wine. Changjiang sits beside me, worriedly telling me I only have to drink a little, only have to just touch my lips to the glass. He has had several shots of baijiu.. He is ripping small holes in the plastic table covering. After awhile he asks me if I’m full. I nod, and he tells me I can just have a seat on the sofa. The men stay at the table toasting each other, so I get a book to read. Later, he asks to see the book, holds it in his hands, and asks me what happens in the stories I read. He sits next to me on the couch and carefully reads each word aloud on the book jacket. Floating with the baijiu, he steadies himself by following the words with his finger. I get my camera and hold it up to the table scene. He takes it, frames his father in the camera screen and waits for him to laugh.
The day before I leave, I make a fortune-telling game out of a square piece of paper. I must think of several “fortunes” to hide under the folds. One that I write is, “You will marry someone ten years older or younger than yourself.” And I write nine more fortunes. When I am done, I tell Changjiang to pick a number. He chooses the marriage fortune. I wrote it as a silly joke, but when I read it out to him, we just look at each other. I am twenty-six years old. I put the paper down. Later, I see his grandmother crumple it in confusion and sweep it into the trash.
That night, Changjiang, his brother, and I watch "Total Recall". The room is dark, and their parents have gone to bed. When the movie is over, I go outside to brush my teeth and to use the outhouse. I am amazed at the stars, which are plentiful and twinkling. Changjiang and his brother come outside to look at them with me. We stand next to each other.
“I’ve never seen stars so clearly,” I say.
After I say that, Changjiang and I look at each other.
"Maybe you can take a picture,” his brother says. I get my camera, hold the screen up to the sky, but all I see is black. We also look at the airplanes. They are coming from different directions, their lights flashing.
"You can wave to me when I leave for America . Maybe you even saw me when I came to China ,” I say. I wonder if that could happen.
The next day, I walk with the brothers on the road to the main street. Their father stays behind but shouts several times with reminders. Tell Ivy to send a message when she returns, things like that. We walk awhile without speaking.
"Maybe we should talk," Changjiang says.
I tell him that sometimes "Silence is golden" like in a movie theater. He tells me this is also a saying in Chinese. When we get to the road, he tells his brother to go back home, and the two of us board a mini-bus. When we have to move over to make room for another man, my arm lands on Changjiang’s arm. For the rest of the ride, we don’t move, and we hardly talk. I experience something that I have experienced before, but rarely—I can actually feel heat along the entire right side of my body—from him. I don’t know if I’m imagining the heat.
“Are you okay?” he asks me.
The Siyang bus station has an extremely dirty bathroom. No one closes the doors to the toilets, and the toilets don’t flush. I squat down, face a child opposite me. Both of our doors are open. When I exit the bathroom, an attendant comes over, tells me the bus to Zhenjiang is boarding early. My student comes on the bus to wait with me. People rush to fill in the seats before the early departure. Chianjiang and I wait together in silence. Ivy Goldstein was born and raised in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. Three years ago she moved to China to teach, and is now living in Beijing, working and studying Chinese. She fondly misses her hometown.