Together We Shake
As a lucky girl growing up in Beijing, I have already forgotten the last time I had a reason to shake. What can make me shake? Trying to escape from a complete stranger in an endless corridor? Feeling myself negligible while striving to defend my integrity? Seeing dreams so beautiful that are even unable to imagine coming true? I cannot think of anything that can make me shake.
The silence was deafening in the windowless corridor as I followed Zhihong to his classroom.
I tried to break the ice.
“Thank you for walking me to your classroom.”
I walked a little bit faster, trying to let him see the sincerity on my face. He turned around, looked at me blankly without a word, his eyes evading my friendly smile. Then he turned back and again gave me his back. HE WAS SHAKING. My hands began to turn cold and my smile vanished. Maybe I should not have volunteered to come here, a poor high school in Hebei province, enclosed by towering mountains ring upon ring.
At the shabby door of his classroom, Zhihong gestured me in. And so I, a girl from Beijing, a place which the kids here only knew from the radio, bluntly stepped into their lives.
They always kept distance from me. When I was washing my clothes beside the small ditch in the school, they stood back, a few feet away, and waited quietly until I finished my business. When I turned around and opened my mouth to speak, they had already turned away and started to talk with each other. Their voices were shaking. When I helped Zhihong with his study work, he blushed terribly when our eyes met. His lips and eyelids were shaking. When we finished, he fled back to the classroom, saying nothing more— not even a “thank you.” I tried to reach into them, expecting to discover something deep and beautiful, but I could see nothing, nothing more than their blank eyes and shaking bodies. They made me hopeless.
The days passed quickly. I sat on the staircase in front of my dormitory and looked at the dark mighty mountains in the distance. I lay on my plank bed and counted the stars far away in the sky. I was lonely. For millions of times that I shouted to the silent world: how can I let the kids know that we were meant to be close to each other? There was no answer. The world here was as quiet as these children.
The great gorge between us did not close until I asked the girls if they were interested in any boys. They giggled and carefully kept their eyes away from mine,
“We don’t like boys. We only love pop stars!”
“I love Jay Chou!”
“He only pretends to be cool. Leehom Wang is really the coolest one!”
I told them that my favorite star was John Lennon. I said I loved him because he tried to bring equality and peace to the world by music and he succeeded.
Their eyes widened, heads lowered.
They began to look elsewhere.
They had never heard of that guy, whose name is in a language they could not understand at all.
And maybe, they never knew that somewhere in this huge world, there is a place called America.
At that very instant, I realized that I was wrong about them all the time. They were not easy and blank, not at all. But when I was standing up tall, confidently talking about my grand ideals, they crouched uneasily in the dimly lighted classroom, looked at the mighty mountains, which blocked away everything from them, and locked up their hearts with self-contempt. It was I[stress] who created the distance. I took out my iPhone and let it play Lennon’s song "Imagine."
Suddenly, they looked at me, straight in the eye, and oh God, I just could not move my eyes away from theirs. I saw so many things in them.
Somehow I knew, that when they were listening to the magical melody of Imagine, something was changing.
Very late that night, Yanli, the girl who liked Leehom Wang, called on me. When she slipped into my dormitory, she was breathing heavily. The students’ dormitories were separated from mine by a big and desolate barnyard. She had to run for a long time in the terrifying darkness.
“The song we listened to today was written in English, right?”
“So you understand English?”
“Yes, I do.”
She caught her breath. “Have you been to A... Ame…”
“Yes yes! America.”
“I have. Once.”
“What is it like?”
I tried my best to describe America to Yanli. She was lost in my colorful descriptions.
Suddenly she held my hands, “Feng Dan, can I ask you one thing?”
I smiled, “Yes, of course.”
“I want you to teach me English.”
I looked into her big watery eyes. They were filled with desperate hopes and extreme excitement, which I have never seen before. I nodded.
“I promise.” I held her in my arms. SHE WAS SHAKING.
When I told their head teacher that I wanted to teach them English, he said it was impossible. But to my surprise, when I asked them to brainstorm all words they knew that were related to “hope,” I saw a forest of raised hands.
To my surprise, the English books that I secretly put on the shelves appeared on their desks in the afternoon on the same day.
To my surprise, they proudly signed the English names I gave them at the end of their homework.
To my surprise, one morning, I was invited by Yanli to read English aloud in the cold and desolate barnyard with them. When I heard our voices echoing in the open sky, I knew the barnyard was and would be no longer desolate.
All at once, I realized how much I loved them and how much they loved me.
On the last day of my volunteering month, I went to say goodbye to them.
They asked me, “April, when will you come back and we can be together again?”
I lowered my head and began to look elsewhere.
This time, I don’t know the answer.
They ran into me and hugged me tightly. And finally, we were shaking together.