A Series of Starts and Stops

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By Tasmin Swanson
Aug. 23, 2019

A New Year's Eve Hike to Remember

This piece was originally published on Rice Paper, an online magazine published by Peace Corps Volunteers serving in China. https://chinaricepaper.wordpress.com/

Everyone has their own pre-travel rituals. Some people make lists, others frantically pack in the last hour before departure. Me? I sew. There’s nothing like the immovable deadline of an 8:00 AM departure to spur on creativity.

On the night before New Year’s Eve, I found myself sitting on my couch hemming a new pair of hiking pants by hand, full of energy as I thought about the next day. Every so often my phone buzzed, carrying a directive to “Pack up and get some rest! We’ll get up early.” I sent back assurances that I would, then stayed up anyway to pack and repack, too excited to sleep.

Across campus, the sender of the texts engaged in a different sort of pre-travel ritual—cataloging tents and sundry supplies, checking off lists of all the things necessary for an overnight winter hike.

I first met Foresder in October. He stood out among the other English Corner attendees because of his height and the brightly colored hiking backpack that accompanied him everywhere. In college, I hiked enough to have invested in a good pair of shoes and a brightly colored backpack of my own, but that interest did not extend to other sports. Since moving to China, however, Peace Corps’ instruction to say yes to new experiences has landed me in a surprisingly active lifestyle, thanks in large part to Foresder’s unexpected friendship. When he heard through the campus grapevine that I was going to a weekly rock climbing class with my counterpart, he began inviting me along to try out other sports, and patiently coached me through one new activity after another.

As the semester progressed, I began to spend a lot of time with him, his girlfriend Lian Lian, and a group of their friends. We went out for dinner together, sang KTV, explored the ancient town of Luodai, and celebrated Dōngzhì. Their easy offer of friendship—which was sparked by an interest in practicing English and deepened by a genuine eagerness to introduce me to China—made me feel like I was starting to settle in. Most of all, I treasured the chance to cultivate true friendships based on shared interests, which was distinctly different from the friendly relationships—but not friendships—I had with many of the students that I taught. With other students, there was an unspoken knowledge that I would at some point have to give them a grade; with Foresder and Lian Lian, that hierarchical barrier was removed.

This trip grew out of a cryptic text about a plan “to organize an activity with English association,” featuring me as “the teacher of the activity.” When I first read Foresder’s message, I chuckled at the familiar English-with-Chinese-characteristics writing style, and agreed to hear more. One evening over tea, I listened to his pitch, nodding along as he showed me careful plans written in indecipherable hànzì (Chinese characters). He wanted to take a group of students on a weekend camping trip to nearby Zhao Gao Mountain, combining a fun and easy hike with ice breakers and team building activities entirely in English. Foresder had made a schedule and identified the camping site, necessary supplies, and transportation, and just needed someone to lead it—me. I agreed, more bemused than anything, and we set the date for New Year’s Eve weekend.

A few days before the trip, as we walked arm-and-arm through campus on the way to meet Foresder and a few others for dinner, Lian Lian told me with a laugh that the trip would be a complete failure. Between the prospect of snow and the now tangible shadow of exams, no eager English learners had signed up for the hike. Instead, I was delighted to hear that it would just be me, Foresder, Lian Lian, and a few of their close friends going on an adventure to ring in the new year.

At 8:00 AM, I set off from my apartment in the grey-filtered light of a Chengdu dawn, movement stiff from too many layers and inadequate sleep. I arrived at the meeting point first, and watched as the other five approached, moving slowly under the bulk of our supplies. We said little as we piled into a rented van, and dozed for long stretches of the four-hour drive to the mountain range.

The road at the starting point eventually became too steep to continue by car, so we unloaded the van a little before noon. On the side of the road, we stuffed newly purchased packs of instant noodles, water bottles, and assorted snacks into backpacks and started up the mountain, sticking to the roadside as cars with higher horsepower moved around us. We stopped for hot noodles at a restaurant packed with other hikers, and then passed through a colorful gate surrounded by trees to start our adventure.

In China, hiking trails are replaced by never-ending staircases, which bear little resemblance to the uneven dirt paths I’m used to in the United States. Step after plodding step, I struggled to find a sustainable rhythm. “Màn man lái, take it easy,” I thought to myself, a gentle reminder to take things slow and not dwell on the need for frequent stops. As we first began to climb, I mistook my labored breathing for effort needed to recalibrate to the park planner’s prescribed path. My friends mistook my slow pace for a sign that my backpack was too heavy, and kept removing items. Pretty soon, I carried a nearly empty bag.

On one stop, I looked around and blinked hard to force the trees on the edges of the path to settle back to their proper shapes. I breathed in deep gulps, trying to fill my lungs and diaphragm. The group had split in half by then, Lian Lian led two guys in a slow but steady climb, two others kept watch over my series of starts and stops.

I couldn’t get enough air. No matter how much I panted. Looking at the two guys I walked with, l tried to laugh off the discomfort, saying that at least it was only another three hours of this. I got a classic Chinese stare and headshake in response—we had seven hours to go.

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My first thought was that we had misunderstood one another, but when I asked again, one of them held up the Chinese finger sign for seven. When my eyebrows shot up in surprise, he confirmed the time in English.

I shook my head, and they both rushed to assure me that it would be fine, we could walk slowly and still reach the summit before sundown, we just had to keep moving. I hitched the backpack a bit higher, put my head down, and began to trudge on a step behind the group of now worried students.

But after another flight of stairs, I had to stop again.

As the reality of the even longer climb ahead began to set in, anxiety started to take over my body, constricting my already too tight throat and making it that much harder to get enough oxygen. When Lian Lian laughingly told me the week before that it would just be a few friends hiking together, I didn’t realize that the whole plan had changed. We were on a different trek than I had planned for, one made for true outdoors lovers, not English learners looking for a campsite in which to do ice breakers.

As the others regrouped around me, I struggled to find words to explain what I was feeling. A week and a half before, I had gone to see the Peace Corps Medical Office about a persistent cough that first took up residence in my chest not long after I first met Foresder. After listening to my chest and asking about childhood illness, the doctor gave me antibiotics, an inhaler, and the word “asthma” to think on. The pills and inhaler had minimal effect on my body, but the off-hand comment that wasn’t quite a diagnosis managed to claw its way into my head and take root, never more real than when I walked for long periods through heavy grey Chengdu air.

Before the hike, the word popped into my mind and wouldn’t stop bothering me; standing on the trail surrounded by people walking past in dress shoes, jeans, skirts, and all manner of other patently inappropriate winter hiking gear, and realizing that I was the only one struggling, the word gained a new meaning—something isolating and looming.

An incredibly long half hour later, we passed by a small rest stop where they once again tried to reshuffle the items in the backpack so that I would be carrying less weight, but by that point, there was almost nothing left to take. Lian Lian assured me that she was also having hard time, so the two of us could walk as slow as we needed to. I pulled out the inhaler and gathered enough mental strength to start the next leg of the seemingly insurmountable journey. After chatting with a couple people going in the opposite direction, we changed plans and decided to aim for the halfway point, a mere (ha!) three hours away. They dismissed my suggestion that I could turn around on my own and head back to the hotel near where we ate lunch.

Another half hour passed, and with every step I struggled to get enough air. At yet another stop, I tried again to explain that it wasn’t the weight, it wasn’t the physical climbing, and it wasn’t the altitude that was a problem. Lacking adequate common language, we settled on an understanding that breathing was the problem, but I couldn’t explain much more than that because I wasn’t even fully aware of the root cause and I didn’t even try to explain the anxiety that was settling in with a vice like grip.

Around that time, a conversation started, too quick for me to follow, and a decision was made that we would all turn around, and head back to a little rest stop half an hour back. There, we would reshuffle supplies, and break into two groups. One would turn and complete the climb, the other would stay at the rest stop for the night.

And so began the waiting. Which was so, so much worse than the climb. We parted ways at 4:00 PM, and guessed that we would be reunited by noon the next day.

Foresder, Lian Lian, and I were left at a small Buddhist shrine too close to the bottom of the trail to be anything more than a stopping point for most travelers. During the day, it was filled with people passing on information about trail conditions. But as darkness fell, hikers heading in either direction set off quickly to make it to their real destinations. Soon, only the nun who ran the shrine, three dogs, two cats, a duck, and the three of us remained.

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The nun—an older woman with rough, wrinkled hands, a heavy Sichuan accent that I couldn’t understand, and endless energy necessary to tackle the day-to-day tasks of solitary mountain life—was unaccustomed to company. She bustled in and out of the small side room where we had settled around a wood-burning stove, asking questions and laughing at the packaged instant noodles and homemade sausage that made up our dinner. As the hours between dusk and bedtime passed, and her own nightly tasks came to an end, she pulled up a stool next to us.

For long stretches, she and Lian Lian spoke in low voices while I listened to the hum of Sichuan dialect and watched the flames. Foresder, likewise enthralled by the fire, sat and fed it kindling.

Side by side, we barely spoke to one another. I wanted to apologize, but just as I had struggled to find a way to explain what was happening to my body as we hiked, I couldn’t find the words to explain the tangled thoughts in my head.

I had struggled to breathe while hiking, but I had no scar or injury, no physical mark to prove that I wasn’t making it up. And four hours later, sitting in the firelight, muscles barely sore from lack of use, the memory of extreme physical discomfort didn’t feel as intense. All I was left with was a sense of abject failure: failure in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered before. Rejection letters from colleges, abysmal scores on tests, disappointing emails after job interviews, relationships that ended…but unlike other instances, in this case I couldn’t shift the blame onto something tangible. Instead my body let me down, but I couldn’t tell myself or others how or why. Instead I was left feeling untethered, angry at myself, and suffused with worry that I had not only let myself down, but also the person who had done the most to make me feel at home in my new life.

Lian Lian nudged me out of my thoughts, translating an unheard question from the nun about American hiking culture. In reply, I dug out a bag of marshmallows from the depths of my backpack and introduced them all to the greatest American camping tradition of all time—smores. In return, they introduced me to a solstice tradition—soaking your feet in scalding water. Lian Lian and I held hands as we held our bare feet above the steaming water, while Foresder and the nun laughed at our shouts and scrunched up faces. Working up the courage to dip our feet in the water long enough to get accustomed to it was nearly unbearable, yet distinctly different from the pain earlier that day.

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Long before the true start of the new year, we gave into yawns and started making moves to turn in for the night. As we fed the last of the dinner debris into the flames and prepared to head to our tents, the nun dug out a surprise of her own to share. She had a handful of sparklers and offered that we could use them to celebrate the new year.

The four of us stood together on the front porch of the shrine and passed a candle around to light the flares. We could see cellphone lights guiding a late coming group down the mountain, drawn perhaps by the light of our candle. As we laughed at the way the sparklers kept sputtering out and shrieked when they caught light unexpectedly again, there was just enough light to make out the outline of valley and trees, mountain and low-hanging clouds that surrounded us. Even without stars, the feeling of being outside and surrounded by space was heady, and the unexpected pleasure of ringing in the new year in a shrine made the earlier day seem almost worth it.

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A couple days later, I went back to the Peace Corps Medical Officer, half resigned to a future with asthma, half on edge and dreading confirmation of what I’d already built a story around. After a quick check-up and run to the nearest hospital for an x-ray and blood work, I was almost disappointed to find out that the reason for my labored hike was as simple as a low-iron diet, treatable with a daily iron supplement. It made sense, the more I thought analytically about how tired I’ve been this first semester at site. This hike was the first time since getting to China that I had attempted something radically outside of my normal routine, which forced the realization that something was wrong.

The experience left me feeling let down by my body, but my larger concern was that my failure had radiated out from me, touching and changing the relationships I’ve only just begun to grow at site.

Relationships take time, which is something I remind myself whenever I begin to feel that I’m falling behind as others achieve “integration.” During quiet moments at home, or empty five minutes between classes, I invariably reach for my phone, scrolling through WeChat to see smiling group photos with a familiar American face in the middle. Carefully curated stories overheard at group gatherings craft an illusory metric with a finish line that never seems to get any closer when my I judge own experiences—the real ones, not the polished and practiced ones—against it. The evening before we left, excitement acted as a stimulate, keeping me awake long after I lied that I was turning in for the night. I interpreted this trip as a sign that I was making progress in the uphill and amorphous battle to integrate and build a community, and could already visualize the intentionally candid photos I would share to mark our triumphant return. But my expectations were turned upside down and instead of a fun story, I returned home worried that I had inadvertently ripped up the fragile roots of a friendship only recently begun.

In the weeks since, I’ve noticed improvements in my body as the iron supplements do their job, but as I wrapped up my first semester at site and transitioned from teaching, to training, to traveling, I felt trapped in a cycle of negative thoughts. The more trapped I became, the harder it seemed to reach out and mend. It wasn’t until one morning a month after the hike, as I sat on a high-speed train staring out the window at the passing Yunnan countryside, that I started to feel like I had begun to heal. A buzz from my phone drew my gaze away from blue skies, and I looked down to read, “Hi How have you been! !” –accompanied by Foresder’s familiar Wechat profile picture.

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