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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Strube

Still as Movement

When I get overwhelmed in foreign countries, I cut down to the barebones: my passport, my pen, and a local bus headed toward the mountains. The backpack on my back reminds me that I am but a traveler, a passerbyer through a foreign land, a nomad on a path. Surrounded by locals, I embrace the beauty of foreign travel — that I am the foreigner, the one that does not fully belong and still, time and time again, am offered a seat for the ride and maybe even a matching group hat for an extra 10 RMB. With ticket in hand, the motion of the bus calms me, in a way no seated meditation can or ever will. The velocity of the passing scenery meets the rhythm of my own speeding mind and, in that juncture, I find calm release.

In other words, if I need a good cry — the kind I feel building for weeks and the kind that will unblur my vision as soon as the clouds move past my eyelids —  I hop on a bus and within twenty minutes, I have my sunglasses out and am ready for some clearer sight.

Movement matches me.

I remember my first year school teaching back in New York City. I taught special ed Kindergarten in Spanish Harlem. We had every type of child in that classroom — a selected mute, a girl who tragically would not shut up, the token anger issues child, the token future rockstar, the token future schitzophrenic.  By this point in the year, with the humidity of summer hovering like Grandma’s thickly crocheted blanket, the students were not only off the wall but had seized control of my whole classroom fortress. The girl who would not shut up could not be stopped and, when I tried to silence her, she bit all her fingernails off. The future schitzophrenic was drawing his multiple personalities on the hallway walls with red crayons. The future rockstar came to school everyday, begging to show and tell his latest break-dance, which, upon close examination, was the exact same break-dance as yesterday but he had self-esteem issues, so I couldn’t tell him that. I had to praise his improvisational genius. Meanwhile, the mute got muter, the anger issues child started locking himself in the coat close and blaming me for it, and the girl who would not shut up started losing her braids in lue of her fingernails. “My braids fell out,” she screamed, swatting me with a waft of hair in her hand, as I scrambled to unlock little boy anger issues from his self-imposed coat closet isolation.

It was as loony as it gets.

And, for some reason, the principal deemed me as the appropriate role model for these darling crazies.

By the last few weeks of school, it took every blood vessel in my body not to start drawing my own multiple personalities in chalk, mainly on the floor, like a death scene from Law and Order. 

“What happened to that teacher?” the cops would have said.

“Oh, she just drew herself in chalk, and won’t budge off the floor. Tragic suicide, really, except she’s still breathing.”

Instead of scaring the children for life with my crime scene, I decided to use the chalk for friendlier purposes. With every positive act the children could muster — which, in desperate times, might be the small detail that they came to school with two shoes on — I took my crayon and wrote one letter of the work PARK on the board. If the students earned (ah hem) the entire word, we were off to the park to play. Inevitably, there was often a fight for the swing. One child Tatianna was a known biter, so she often won the swing fight, as her victims ran away from the chained plastic toy crying, teeth marks on their wrists. We all have our flaws, I guess. Tatianna just had good teeth, so she used them for her own swing-territory purposes. I didn’t blame her. I also wanted to bite the children by this point in the year. 

But there, on that swing, Tatianna — who could not focus enough to sit in her chair or put a coherent sentence together — sat. On a looped chair. Swinging. For hours. Not that I was teaching the children at the park for hours (ah hem), but if I were, she swung for hours. Back and forth. To and fro. The perpetual rocking movement calmed her. She could speak in full sentences. She told me all about the sharks on the Discovery Chanel. She laughed.

The movement met her. And, once met, she became an adorable non-biting girl again. She was calm. She was internally still.

She used the swings. I use the bus. Or a plane. Or a perpetual passport stamp.

Am I calling myself special ed? No, I’ll let you do that. But movement, for some of who ride the special bus, brings the greatest stillness there is.

Alas, I am not in New York. Instead, I came to China to teach. In China, I had no mutes or anger issues. I had musical Koreans whose only flaw was that they truly believed Michael Jackson was starting his next world tour. They wanted movement as well.

For me, it is almost time to move again. To pack up my bags and return home from foreign lands.  

Yet, wherever you go, as far away as you try to move or run — be it to the end of the street or the depths of interior China — you are not alone. Along the way, you will meet people who will go out of their way to help you, to reach out to you, to carry your bags for you, for no seeming benefit of their own. These are the people that will point you the right bus when they see you looking lost, like the kind man did this morning as I stepped out of the cab and into an abandoned parking lot at dawn. These are the friendly faces that will ask you your name or what you do.

Every foreign country has its own set of questions that it asks foreigners. In Central America, people ask about your brothers and sisters. In Indonesia, the passing question is where will you go today. In China, they ask “where are you from?” perhaps because there aren’t many blondes in these parts.   Sometimes I tell them California, as that is the place I pay rent. Sometimes, I  say New York, as that is the coast I grew up on. I will return home to Pennsylvania next week, but lately, I’ve been saying my home is Suzhou, the town I live in here in China. This often produces more questions than answers. The fact that I am a teacher helps assuage their puzzled grins. I work here. I live here. I sweat at a cheesy gym that blares cheesy Bon Jovi songs. I grab take-out form my favorite dive bar and enjoy it over wine on the couch of a close friend. I ride my e-bike down the tree lined streets and try to avoid the gardeners peeing into the street drain. And if pubic urination doesn’t fit the sentiment of this paragraph, its intentional. 

Home is a messy concept. 

Where you are from is a messy concept, and constant movement makes that concept even messier. But, as teaching far and near has taught me, in the movement, can be stillness. And in stillness, comes clarity. Clarity, for me, no longer means writing on the wall or writing on the bamboo, as it were — a clear cut “proceed down this next 40 years of your life.” I never get that kind of clarity; frankly, because they universe knows I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I take my future like I take my meals: in small, bite-sized portions. One year ago, if you were to tell me I’d be on a group tour in the mountains of Huangshan, I’d have laughed at you. And if a genie appeared to offer me a glimpse of my life a year from now, I’d kindly pass and ask for three other wishes.

Clarity simply means you know the one clear truth that will calm you: It’s all gonna be ok and it may just all work out even better than you imagined.

Because at the end of the day, that’s all we really want to hear, isn’t it? And when your vision is clear, its time to wipe your eyes and glare out the bus window, because there are mountains ahead of you and miles to go before you sleep.

Because if life ever turned out the way you planned, I’d ask for an immediate refund. It is the unplanned moments that arrive packaged in your arms, the kindnesses that fall out of nowhere, the people that appear out of thin air to love you, that make the trip worth journeying for.

So please, keep on moving. Run into the blur and get very very quiet.

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