Stand by Me in China
WorldTeach volunteer Ben tells recounts a Chinese adventure reminiscent of a classic American movie.
In my school it is said there is a mountain nearby you can climb. In fact, some teachers climb it every night, taking flashlights for the early winter nights. However, I had yet to climb it until today. Probably.
It was a clear, sunny day in Dayao town when I took off to find the mountain for myself. I had no guide, just a vague sense of “go that way.” It had recently been a bit chilly so I opted to wear both a light hoodie and a light jacket. I tucked my scarf into my jacket pocket – just in case it was windy and cool on the mountainside. While in the sun, I realized there was no need for a jacket so I carried it most of my afternoon and set off for the mountain. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, was in the opposite direction of my town. I had yet to venture out in this direction so I tried to not take too many turns. Fortunately there are only a few roads cutting the countryside of hills and farmland.
I started by taking the fork in the road that went up. I followed this past abandoned complexes and houses until I found a construction site and large firework factories. This ended the road, and left little opportunity for me to go any further. The real issue was the guarded gate that I didn’t seem to have permission to go past. I have just enough wanderlust and fool hearty stubbornness that I can wander just about wherever I please; counting on myself being a foreigner and not knowing any better to get me out of trouble. In this case, there was a guard. So I turned around and tried the other fork in the road.
This road led me to more houses, mostly inhabited, with many children running around calling me a foreigner in the local dialect. I have picked up a few words and phrases – “foreigner” being one of them. The spaces between the buildings opened up to grow food, the stems of last season’s rice hibernating in rows for the winter, and across the fields some boys were yelling at me. They yelled, “Hello!” and I responded in kind. Soon the road led me past their house and they cautiously moved forward. Every time I stopped to turn to them to say, “Hello,” they turned around, embarrassed. So I kept moving, seeing where the road would take me. But they followed. It wasn’t until one shouted, “What are you doing?” in the local dialect that I stopped again. This time they didn’t turn around. We had a short conversation where I told them I was going for a walk. The leader of the three boys asked if we could go together and I said, “OK.” All three of the boys were about 12 years old and soon we were wandering down the roads that they knew.
We joined together while passing under a new highway that has yet to be opened to the general public. Or, at least isn’t very used as I only saw two vehicles on it all day; one car and one scooter, both going the same direction but on different sides of the median. On the far side of the tunnel, the boys suggested we hang a left and go back under the highway in another tunnel. This brought us to the house of their friend, where we knocked on the window and told him we had a foreigner. He promptly sprang out, still wearing his slippers. When I say “slippers” I do mean in the sense that Americans use the word. Warm shoes you wear around the house and are great Christmas gifts for your mom. After we picked up the fourth boy, we went behind his house and stepped up onto the highway.
At this point in the adventure I was a little worried. Were we supposed to be here? Where are we even going? I can’t turn back now – I’d be leaving four boys on the highway with no adult supervision. Relying on the ace in my sleeve of being a foreigner, and mentally taking responsibility for these boys, I continued to follow them. I had small hopes that they were taking me to some secret spot where they poke a dead body with a stick. The kids seemed like the right age to be in Stand by Me, and who hasn’t wanted to live that adventure? As I walked with thoughts of this movie, I realized that I must stay with these kids – the boys in Stand by Me played “chicken” with a train. We are on a highway. The opportunities were too similar. Even if I’m sure these boys had never seen Stand by Me, we all know what antics kids can get into. As we walked the leader talked to me the most and said we were going to a Buddhist temple. There is a temple right by my school, but there are also supposed to be temples, or shrines, up the mountain I was hoping to climb.
We had been walking along the highway for about 100 yards when we needed to hop the median and get to the other side. At this point one of my new crew needed to go home. We waved good-bye and he took off the way we came. We hopped the median – I just stepped over it – and climbed down into some people’s yard. Light trespassing seems OK as this neighborhood was where my kids lived, and they’ve clearly done this before. In fact, the whole way up the mountain we ran into people the kids seemed to know and they would show me off as their new American friend. We went past more fields, houses, and farmers who kept to old ways – a piece of metal attached to wood to work the earth.
We climbed up a small hill to a paved road and continued up the mountain. There was a small truck parked on the road next to construction workers. However, the road was smaller than the truck, and not for the last time I had to walk a narrow path not much wider than my foot on the edge of a steep fall. The leader of the boys often reminded me to be careful and I realized that these kids might not need my adult supervision. One of them didn’t even need proper shoes as he was still running around in slippers. I followed the road until they stopped me; we had to climb up another steep incline. The red clay had rough steps knocked out of it, but it was still steep enough that I felt that I should put my jacket on – so I’d have two hands. At the top of the steps was a gravel road we continued on.
We eventually came to a white building with naturally occurring pools of water to the side of it. We stopped first at these pools to listen to the water flow in and out of them as it went down the mountain. I noticed small plastic cups on a rock, each of the cups had a rock inside of it as a weight. I figured these were for drinking the water as our leader crouched down and brought up a handful of the (hopefully) fresh water. He invited me to drink as well and I respectfully declined. I would be hesitant to drink water in the wilderness in America – let alone another country. I try to be brave in my adventures but the potential consequence of dysentery is too big of a deterrent. Except once: at the DMZ in South Korea there was water in a tunnel that had filtered through all of the earth and was OK to drink – the tour guide said so.
After our quick drink, we scampered from rock to rock and crossed three logs fastened together for a makeshift bridge to go a little further up. We came to an area that was a bit of a swamp, but the edge of the swamp was solid ground. The edge was a little wider than my food and acted as a boundary between the swamp and a cliff. The boys yelled at me to be careful and skipped along the edge like deer running back into the woods. Balling my jacket into my arms, I followed them in a less graceful manner, with only a little mud getting on my shoes. I still don’t know how the one boy did it in slippers.
What was behind the marshy land was a small cavern with a waterfall. It was a like a capsule. A place where you can stay and forget there are other places you need to go, things you need to do. This grotto was peaceful, quiet, and dark – a gem of the woods. I took a couple pictures and we left. I promised myself to return to this spot again.
We went back to the white building that we drank next to and went inside. It was the Buddhist temple! Well, perhaps it was a large shrine. The boys all put a Yuan in the offering box and bowed to the statues three times, hands in a posture of prayer. I stood a respectful distance back and tried not to be intrusive. I’ve been to many big and beautiful Buddhist temples and sites in my travels, but sometimes the country temples are the best. Sincere acts of devotion, no matter the size, have a beauty that no artist can capture.
The boys and I took one last look at our town down below the mountain and started the climb back down; all the while with the boys reminding me to be careful. So much for providing adult supervision.
-Ben Mahoney, WorldTeach China Hunan Year
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