Dark day in Hengyang, small city in the middle of China. Five million small. Mao Zedong from a nearby city. The dishwater sky blending right into the slate-gray outline of the industrial city. Dismal to view from the little metal balcony, and even more disgusting to go forth into the leaden din. Last time I was in the country I swore I’d never teach English and least of all to middle-schoolers. But that’s what I was doing in this city where I saw a homeless man masturbate in front of an elementary school. Right outside the gate through which passed hundreds of pigtails and oversized backpacks on tiny bodies.
China’s full of gates and compounds. I lived in one on the fifth floor of a teachers’ building on the campus of Hengyang No.8 Middle School. Years later I’d be lying awake in bed and recalling all the directions toward which I’d ever slept. Hengyang was the only place in thirty years I didn’t know my bearings. Half the time I wouldn’t show up for class because I told myself the kids didn’t care. True, but even truer was I didn’t. A selfish age, blaming everything on something else.
I’d been sick with headaches all semester but they were most likely brought on by my doing: an unhealthy lifestyle of watching documentaries meant to provoke rage or disillusionment, living with a hash-smoking jerk ten years older than me who pissed off people everywhere we went, in a polluted city where they kept captured stray dogs in cages on the street for that night’s hot-pot meal. Sick of the attention my blonde hair drew, I had one of the back-alley hairdressers dye it blue-black and hated how it made it feel always so stiff and dirty. I had to alternate weeks teaching at two schools, one at the feeder school down the road for seventh and eighth graders and the following at the school where we lived, for tenth and eleventh graders. (Ninth graders were too busy with their quasi-military indoctrination, while twelfth graders were unceasingly studying for the modern-day civil service examinations: blow-off foreign-taught English class was a luxury not offered to these grades.) And every other week at the schools I would have a different set of classrooms, so I only saw the same class of students every fifth week. And each class had sixty-five kids, on average. I just couldn’t deal with the screaming classes—about six per day—brain cells exploding within my skull.
I poisoned our pancakes (was it mine or the Divine Hand?) one Sunday morning and died that day, the microwaves melting the whole world. I almost called up my mom to say farewell but went to my (death) bed before I could. (In that country, calling her would have meant leaving campus to find an international phone bar, and the sky was already waving peristaltic bye-bye by one in the afternoon, or midnight Colorado time.) I laid there as I cried without tears hating myself for being so far away. Would the waves reach the homeland and crowd out the oxygen there too? I was so scared to die in those final minutes. But in the last one I surrendered and listened to a voice instructing me how to go.
“Be still. Breathe.”
If I didn’t move I’d feel no pain at all. So I lied completely still as the skin melted off my bones and I breathed until there was nothing left. I had dissolved into Breath itself and it was all that existed. Not me or any other being. But still there was Breath! It was a death. It was a birth.
I spoke with my hands for what seemed like very long moments, though who knows in earth-time, hours perhaps? How could I understand what these hands were saying? Yet somehow I knew their language. And again, six years later I would spend hours teaching the baby with the communicable creatures of our fingers. All at once I believed in Jesus though I had never before, though in this language of signs and shapes and numbers I learned about the man-God initially by “8880,” the number of days I’d been alive. Like the Kafka story where the mouse is rushing rushing towards the end of his life, the corner of the maze, and now all he has to do is turn around and get gobbled up by the cat, we are heading from being air to being solid and with every new age feel the density of the times squeezing us into our final form. But it seemed like I had forever believed in him because I was forever part of him. Heaven is an extraordinary state and I can see how so many of the earth-bound forget about it, their eternal root. Going into adulthood so many of us shed every semblance of our true Homeland in order to make it as humans. Sweet Jesus, thank you, thank you, for the atomic reminder.
The waking up took a long, long time. In the following days of what felt like schizophrenic evangelism, I really believed I was an infant and laughed out loud to think that I was standing up in front of all these literally thousands of wise little Lao Tzu’s, in the mixed up scenario that I was actually supposed to teach them! Was it heaven, was it earth? Everything had turned upside down and I had no discernment. Two or three years later I’d be at a friend’s house in Aurora attempting oil painting. I’d look at all these subtle shades of maroon that I had mixed and was transfixed. But when my friend saw what captured my wonder he gave me a queer look and said, “There’s just one color.” Which one of us was colorblind? Who was the teacher, who was the student? Who is true, the one that loves God or the one that ignores God? That’s really what this gospel is: the coming back to God. It took over six years to write it, to be clear on what happened that November 23, 2008 in Hunan and what happened over two-thousand years before, on Calvary hill: a death, a birth. A conversion.
© 2014, Amaya Engleking