Notes on Lanzhou
Like all of northern China, Lanzhou has central heating — the heat turns on for everyone on November 1, no matter the temperature. It’s October 28. The students wear their winter coats in the classroom.
Waiting for my turn, they call out numbers in a random order.
Lanzhou is dusty. A car left for a few hours will look like it’s been off-roading. There’s the sand, coming from the mountains and desert, suspended in the dry air. There’s the pollution, the dark clouds that rove across the country making some days hard to breathe. And then there’s the construction dust. Lanzhou, even after all these centuries, is in progress. Golden City, the jewel of the Yellow River.
At 12:15 the cafeteria is full. Some students talking, most listening. By 1:00 it is nearly empty, the students having gone to their rooms to sleep until their classes at 2:30.
Our college building, for example. They say it has been under construction for a year now. I used to think of dust as a sign of longstanding stillness. Now I’ve learned it can also be a sign of endless commotion. White powder on every railing, lining the edges of the floors, lightly coating the windows. The tiles are slippery with dust. Hoses and cords snake through the hallways. Between the students, wheel barrows full of rubble and supplies pass by. Here, somebody is crouched at an outlet, making sparks; there, somebody is tugging at a large box of plastic tubing. Yesterday they were painting in our office, making it impossible to breathe. Today they are assembling chairs in the hallway, blocking the stairwell. A woman comes into the classroom while I am lecturing and starts drilling holes in the wall by the door. One afternoon a lake is growing in the atrium, and the students step around it.
With an apartment full of land mines, I mostly keep to my bedroom. And because my desk is built for nobody, I work on my bed. And this, even despite knowing that working on your bed makes it harder to sleep at night.
The bathroom in our apartment is supposed to be a wet room, but the floor isn’t sloped properly. When you take a shower, the water just settles on the floor. There’s no divider, so it gets everywhere. You have to mop it into the hole by the toilet and then let the fan run.
The Yellow River cleaves Lanzhou with its strong, ancient current.
There’s a story about tiny fish made of gold in the Yellow River. The big fish always teased the little ones for being so small and weak. Discouraged, most of the small fish let themselves go and were carried away. But some never lost their spirit, and they fought on against the stream just as they resisted the big fish. A benevolent dragon, admiring their vigor, turned their scales into gold — heavy, strong, and beautiful. From then on they were the envy of all the other fish — and humans, too.
The students come to class tired. They look at me blankly when I ask questions. As soon as I say it’s time for a break, they lay their heads on their desks and shroud themselves in their coats.
On our second day in Lanzhou, the college staff invited us to a dinner where we were served, among other things, an enormous fish from the Yellow River.
Walking in the evenings, you’ll see students wearing flip flops and carrying baskets of toiletries. The bathhouse is separate from the dorms. I wonder if they forego showers more often in the winter.
By the end of my first week, it happened in a cafe. My skin hot and wet, my heart pounding. Two friends and I tallying everything that’s difficult about life, and my awareness thins. I wake up on the bathroom floor, my hip pounding, and I reach around for my glasses.
At the university, there are only squat toilets, and you have to bring your own toilet paper. There’s a small can in the corner of the stall, because you’re not supposed to flush it.
A twisty, leafy plant lives at the far end of the bathroom, by the windows in an old pear-flavored drink container. Men stand next to the plant when they want to smoke cigarettes, and they crush the butts on the outer sill. Some of the ash gets blown away, but some of it stays, caked on.
Women here often hold hands when they walk together.
There’s a great bas relief in the college atrium, filling a wall. Twenty feet wide, images of computers and circuits, symbols and documents. The white dust settles on top of it, emphasizing its contours, like the snow on the mountains you can see through the bathroom window, on days when the air is clear enough.
The cleaners sweep the streets from predawn to dusk. There’s not much litter, so mostly what they pick up is cigarette butts and dust, as well as the minnow-shaped golden leaves that flutter throughout Lanzhou in autumn. When I go for my walk around the block every morning, while it’s still dark, I hear the familiar sound in every direction: swip, fwip, swip, fwip, swip, fwip. The brooms have long bamboo handles with brushes made from leafy straw, or slender branches, or sometimes long, white, plastic strings that look like feathers.
The sidewalks and streets are so clean and smooth that I usually walk barefoot in the mornings. For my health, I count the things I can be grateful for here. I also try to envision my life three years from now, but most mornings all I can see is that I won’t be in China.
There’s a little white cat who I see around campus from time to time.
From the kitchen window while I’m making coffee, I see people walking in the street, flapping their arms like they’re trying to fly away.
On October 29, the heating pipes begin to wake up. They hiss and gurgle, the sounds snaking around our apartment.
Lanzhou, historically, was a major stop along the Silk Road, and an important point for crossing the Yellow River.
The hammer and sickle. Every time I see it I’m startled again. The gold on scarlet shocks me from the lapel of a nice lady, from a poster at the university, from a sign as I turn the corner.
On a rainy day, a hundred umbrellas sit open in the hall outside the classroom. And raindrops coming from the ceiling here and there.
Every public surface announces the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in long red banners. Celebration! A month after the holidays, some of the banners have gone away, but I still see more than I could count in a day. I’ve lost count of the security cameras, too.
Just like my desk, many of the tables here are built for nobody, with the chairs too high and the table too low, so that you can’t fit all the way underneath it. Even the Chinese people sit at the edges of their seats, knees nearly on the floor.
One time a greedy king ordered the river to be dredged so he could have all the little golden fish for himself, but they easily slipped through the holes in the nets. The big fish, on the other hand, were easily caught. The king had no golden fish, but he did have a feast. And to this day, the biggest and tastiest fish are retrieved from the Yellow River. Few people have seen the tiny, golden fish, but every so often, it’s said, they come up to the surface and wink.
Weeks later, looking for a place to read in that same cafe. In the wall I see chairs and tables, but for a while I can’t tell if it’s a window or a mirror.
On my morning walks, I never hear a single bird.
And every time I go to the grocery store it’s Chairman Mao smiling back at me from all my money.
When I come back inside, my feet are coated in a thin layer of white dust. It turns black on the bathroom floor.
But I wonder why they insist on sweeping away all the leaves.
At the Lanzhou Zoo, every cage has the same sign on it: Banned Feeding. And still at every cage people hold puffy white Cheetos in their fingertips, poking them through the wires. The cages are small and mostly barren concrete. Standing in front of the chimpanzee, I wonder what he is thinking. He looks like a human child. Suddenly he leaps onto the front wall of his cage, gathers his energy, and shakes the whole structure. It reverberates and rattles even the railing that I’m holding onto. Startled, I jump back.
The subway announces at every stop that you shouldn’t spit on the floor. The university radio station plays news on the loudspeakers during passing periods. And not a small number of people walk backwards on the running track.
For many years, Lanzhou was China’s most polluted city.
Along the walls, outside entrances, everywhere, people are poised like stones, squatting low, perfectly still, feet flat on the ground. It strikes me every time that maybe I should feel bad for thinking it, but they remind me of the monkeys at the zoo, how they sit. Their heads follow me as I pass by.
Many websites are blocked in China. And the internet connection is unreliable to begin with. At any given moment, it’s hard to say if a page isn’t loading because it’s blocked, or because the connection is unstable.
I watch the people as I walk, how they zig-zag on the path, eyes on their phones. Even watching videos as they walk. Sometimes they are staring at me, or at my feet. But whenever I pass a sewage drain, the smell pulls me away from whatever I was thinking about. The signs say nothing bad has happened in China since 1949.
You go in and out of every building through wide, plastic flaps. By November, some of the shops have replaced them with insulated flaps.
On the metro I saw a girl’s WeChat. She was sending hearts to everyone.
Walking outside the morning after it rains, the whole world is like our bathroom floor.
It’s been over a month and the numbers still come in a random order. If it is random, can we really call it an order?
On a run I pass a grove of trees with their canopies cut off, sawed flat, mid-branch, completely level.
On my walk the next morning, I find myself flapping my arms.
That night I come across a sidewalk that hasn’t been swept, little golden fish everywhere.