Three people sat at the table with me, watching as I ate a meal that had miraculously appeared along with my entrance. I say meal because it was a table laid out with many dishes of a wide variety, but, of the seated group, I was the only one eating. The others did not have plates, and as such I assumed that this meal had been cooked entirely with me in mind. I had already eaten a massive lunch, but out of a fear of offending my hosts told them that I had a good appetite, which proved to be a bit of a mistake. While I worked my way through the second bowl of rice, my host mother, Teacher Dong, observed my every bite, maintaining a substantial grin as she leaned closer to watch. The food was amazing and I told her so, at which point an already big smile turned into look of awe. With a bit of a laugh, she leaned over to hear nephew and whispered.
“We are so lucky to have him in our house”, she said, almost as if she felt I wouldn’t hear her. My host family consisted of two music teachers from the Leshan College, Dong and Zhang Laoshi, and their adorable one year old daughter. In addition, there were frequent visits from their Nephew, who would only go by his English name, Danny. As an English major, he was the only member of the family that spoke any English. I was able to get along reasonably well without his interpreting abilities, though there were plenty of times in which I could only wonder if my host parents and I were actually understanding one another.
After I had finished eating (feeling as though my stomach might explode), Danny stood up excitedly, announcing that we would be going to look at the local park and to see a store that the family owned. Though I did not feel ill, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with a strange feeling of fear. It was as though I was having euphoria to the point of hallucination, finding myself aware of where I was, but feeling that I was in a dream. For a little while I was afraid that I was having an allergic reaction to something in the food. I’ve never had a strong reaction to anything, but there was plenty of stuff in the meal that I had never even seen before. After about 20 minutes, the feeling leveled out and eventually dissipated into nothing. Looking back I suspect that it was just pure panic, the result of being in a very alien place and completely overwhelmed.
As it turned out, my host family was relatively well off in terms of financial standing. They owned not one, but two music shops, as well as a small music school. Despite what I interpreted to be a sizeable income, they were extremely modest, something which I grew to like over the time I spent with them. Once we had finished our walking tour of their immediate neighborhood, we got into my host fathers car and set out to get my student Id card. Not only did we receive a photo Id, but we were also issued a library card with full access to their collection, all for our one week stay.
While the nine of us waited outside of a store front to have our photos taken, a small crowd of students began to gather. At first they were a bit shy, but it quickly wore off and more joined by the minute. Most just watched and said hello, but there were a few who immediately started asking questions about the United States and trying to get us to make comparisons. A few girls came up told me that I was very handsome, followed by giggling and turning around to cover their faces. If a girl at home told me she thought I was handsome, I would be at a lack of words. In China, I simply had no idea what to do. I generally ended these encounters by saying something like, ‘oh, thank you, no, not really that handsome’, at which point the initiator would giggle even more and disappear. There is more to be written on the Handsome Boy saga, much more.
Once the photos were complete we were taken on a tour of the campus, led by an increasingly large group of students. Each one that I spoke with apologized for their school, saying that it was very small and hoping that it would be adequate. It may have been outdated, but small it was not. With 15,000 students, Leshan Teachers College is pretty darn large, though in Chinese standards 15,000 is nothing. Small villages have 15,000. The landscape was beautiful in a strange way. The school had only been built in the 70s, but it held a mysterious air of something much older. All around, the walkways and roads were colored green by moss and other growth, the result of a very humid climate. The campus climbed and twisted into itself, seemingly designed in many pieces at different times. Even after a week of navigating I still had trouble figuring out the location of one building in relation to another. Returning to our starting point at the main entrance, I realized that we had done a complete circle. My initial anxiety had vanished, at least for the time being, and as I met back up with my host father I found myself already loving every bit of Leshan.