This month, in honor of my imminent departure from China, I am doing a series of my favorite China moments over the past decade. These are in no particular order.
Imagine being in the dead of winter (a wet chilled-to-the-bones type of winter) and having no indoor heat. Sometimes I would sleep with my winter jacket and hat on. I wore gloves in the classroom when writing on the chalkboard. The cold concrete floors would seep through my shoes. I was one of the lucky ones because I could actually move around in the classroom and could get a bit warmer than my poor students. Imagine sitting for hours during the day on hard wooden benches huddled together for warmth while doing English exercises. And when you go back to your dorms it’s actually colder there than it is outside. It’s like camping- which is fun for a weekend, but not for months on end. I remember the sheer torture getting from my bedroom to the shower. It was like how fast can you possibly move between the time you shed your clothes to the time you can get hot water to touch your skin. Sometimes my space heater with the unit connected outside would encase itself in solid ice, which pushed cold air instead of hot air inside. I used to hang out my window and take a cleaver to hack the ice away from the air conditioning unit. Sleeping with a portable heater at your side is warm, but it isn’t exactly safe. Spring couldn’t get here fast enough, but even spring would bring on the rain. Real relief would come about May.
Now imagine you look at all the students and none of them are wearing mittens. Some of their fingers are turning purple. Many of them come from the countryside. Yet, none of them complain. And your heart goes out for them.
One year our team decided to raise money to purchase over 1000 pairs of mittens to give as Christmas gifts to each of our students in our classes. A simple gift, but we also really didn’t want the students feeling that we saw them as a charity case. Which we kind of did, but we also wanted to keep their dignity intact. So we called them “Christmas gifts from the foreign teachers” like handing out cookies and candy canes. But, we felt like the mittens was a huge felt need.
I remember going to the warehouse near the train station. These warehouses and markets would have stall after stall lined up selling all kinds of knickknacks and toys and paper items… If you can’t find it there, then you just can’t find it. Luckily I took a Chinese friend with me to the warehouse to purchase the mittens. My Chinese was okay, but when I said to the owner of the mittens stall that I wanted to purchase 1000 pairs of mittens he looked at me like, “obviously this dumb foreigner doesn’t know her numbers in Chinese because she wouldn’t have said she wanted 1000 pairs when she meant 10 pairs.” What’s a couple of zeros? No, really, 1000 pairs of mittens…and we think this qualifies for a discount. After convincing him that we were for real and that we weren’t going to start our own little side business of the mitten market and buy him out, we found the perfect mittens that have a flap over the fingers so that students can still write with them on. The guys got “manly” mittens. We paid the deposit and came back several days later when they arrived from the mitten factory.
Three HUGE boxes awaited us. How were we possibly supposed to get these mittens back to campus? We don’t exactly have a van, friends. Luckily I brought two Chinese friends this time. We stood on the curb and waited for a taxi to come. However, the boxes wouldn’t fit in the taxis, and most taxis upon seeing our parcels didn’t want to take us. Darn. However, three taxis later, with one box (and one friend) in each taxi we just placed them (the boxes, not the people) in the trunk with the lid hanging open. It was like a caravan of mittens. The road between the train station and the campus had more potholes than I’ve ever seen in any place ever- even the roads of Africa and India could not compare. Bumpity bumpity bump. With no rope to tie the boxes down we just hoped they wouldn’t go flying out the back of the taxi, cause a traffic accident, and kill someone. I can just see the headlines: “Death By Mittens.”
Later our team divided up all the mittens by classes and put them in sacks to carry to the classrooms. It was like being Santa for the day.
I never realized mittens would bring so much joy!