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The land of the scuttling crab 

One couple's mission becomes a tale of modern-day China

Culturally, China is somewhat inaccessible to the Western world. Sure, we joke about the omnipresent "made in China" stamp on everything we buy and quake when we hear reports of human rights violations, but how many of us will ever talk with a Chinese citizen? And for that matter, even if we did, to what extent would language barriers and negative cultural perceptions inhibit these attempts at communication?

One San Luis Obispo resident found plenty of opportunities for interaction while living and working in rural China, in a small village called Chuga. Given that the purpose behind Susan McKee's year-and-a-half long stay in China was to teach English to college students, she has plenty of firsthand experience with the trials, humor, and joy of cross-cultural communication. And she recorded these adventures in her book, Days Like Floating Water, released in January.

click to enlarge IMAGE COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE
  • IMAGE COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE

# When Susan and her husband Rob originally decided to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they had no idea where they would end up or what they would find themselves doing. The McKees specified that they were interested in performing their mission in China, but the decision wasn't ultimately theirs. And when they were assigned to live in China and teach at the Zhejiang Rural Teachers College, they weren't prepared for the harsh conditions that awaited them, both in their small apartment complex and in the classroom.

 


Almost immediately, the Chinese government threw a wrench in their plans: The McKees were forbidden from mentioning religion, a condition stipulated prior to their arrival in the faraway land. It's impossible to read Days Like Floating Water without acknowledging the irony of a couple on a religious mission being denied the opportunity to reference that religion. However, this impediment makes the book much more enjoyable for people who otherwise might become bogged down in divergent religious views. That an agnostic with a lowly opinion of organized religion can read and appreciate Susan's experiences as easily as can a Mormon is a rare and valuable quality. And Susan herself seems to recognize that not everyone has the same high opinion of religious missions when she states, "A part of me cringes at the prospect of suggesting my beliefs are better than anyone else's" in the chapter of her book, titled "Why a Mission."

click to enlarge DINNER IS SERVED :  Susan McKee's students cook dinner for her in her apartment in China. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE
  • DINNER IS SERVED : Susan McKee's students cook dinner for her in her apartment in China.

# Ultimately, Susan and Rob recognize that their purpose is to assist the college students who so desperately want to better their lives by learning to speak English. Armed with a mere six weeks of ESL and Mandarin training in Provo, Utah, and with bags packed with syringes--just in case they happened to fall ill while in China--they began their journey.

"Initially both sides were fearful," Susan said. "We were told that it was very likely that our apartment would be bugged and there would be students in the class who were supposed to report if they thought we said anything inappropriate. When we got there, we found out that they were probably more afraid of us than we were of them. It was probably the biggest lesson for all of us to learn, that people are the same the world over."

 

It's easy to fall in love with these students who, as Susan states in her book, "live and die by examinations and grades." Seeing, through their teacher's eyes, that they treasure every opportunity to learn and struggle to overcome the little command they have over their own lives and futures becomes a beautiful metaphor for the human condition. One student cries in frustration when she can't find the definition for "fee fi fo fum" when Rob reads a fairytale to his class. Others pour into the McKees' tiny apartment at night, eager for more precious time to learn English and pepper the couple with questions about life in America. Barbara, Lucy, and King Lake are people who are difficult to forget, all the more so because they aren't carefully constructed characters.

Sue's descriptions of her students' curiosity about what Americans eat sparks comical attempts to describe the contents of a sandwich to people who have never seen one. In this respect, Days Like Floating Water draws the reader into the cultural exchange. While dining at a seafood banquet near the conclusion of their stay, the McKees witness a crab marching across Rob's dish--it's a simple occurrence, but one that speaks volumes about cultural disparities.

Nearly every description and phrase in the book is elegant, making it easy to imagine Sue as an English instructor.

"In the cold rain, and it seems to rain often here, umbrellas bloom in colors," a newly arrived Sue says while describing China. Later, she expresses her shock at the state of vehicular travel, observing that "countless bicycles, with their own set of eye-contact rules, added to the confusion."

Much of what Susan writes in the book began as e-mails and letters to friends and family at home. Rob would collect the various bits of correspondence each week, unaware that they would eventually form the skeleton of Susan's book.

Artistic expression is a theme that reappears frequently throughout Susan's narrative, as the hardworking students demonstrate, again and again, their passion for music. When Rob purchases Susan a guitar for her birthday, he doesn't realize that the gift will make its appearance in the classroom on multiple occasions and inspire students to visit the McKee residence for guitar lessons in addition to practicing speaking English. The keyboard that Susan purchases later in their mission serves a similar function, attracting music-loving students who could never dream of owning an instrument of their own. Then, of course, there's the youths' enthusiastic approach to karaoke and, in fact, all opportunities to sing and dance in front of an audience. False modesty is no barrier for Chinese students who share their artistic gifts willingly and with very little prompting.

"Music is, of course, a language all its own and a direct conduit heart to heart," observes Susan after witnessing her students' enthusiastic approach to music.

When Susan was incapable of conveying a point in English, the lifelong artist found that she could draw cartoons and, more often than not, her students would capture the meaning. And after the McKees had concluded their year-and-a-half-long mission and returned to the United States, Susan found herself visually documenting her journey through a series of ink, oil, collage, acrylic, and watercolor images of such subjects as Rob selecting eggs in a Chinese market, Susan riding in a sampan, and a duck riding the bus. The overall impression is that no single language or art form could contain or express modern China and, more complicated still, a westerner's experience of this vast country. But Days Like Floating Water is a good place to begin the tentative reach across a very large ocean toward a people Americans can no longer afford to regard as other.

 

INFOBOX: Words that hasten across the page

Susan McKee's Days Like Floating Water is available at www.dayslikefloatingwater.com for $19.95. It's also available at several local bookstores, including Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay, The Novel Experience, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach thinks the Great Wall should be made of chocolate. Send marshmallow replicas of the Eiffel Tower to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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