by Hannah K
I rarely saw the sun in China, except behind a thick blanket of gray haze. The ocean, visible from the windows of our 10th-floor apartment, was a matching gravy-gray color, and lapped up against a gravel beach littered with plastic bags and bits of candy wrappers. But behind our apartment building, the lush greenery of a mountainside proved that the sun was still there, working her wonders behind the scenes.
Now that I was older—sixteen already—I had gained some new freedom. Once a week, my brother and I rode our bikes to the market to get groceries for the family, and twice a week we walked to a local Chinese church, where we sang hymns in the choir. The new independence was exhilarating. We tramped through the forest behind our apartments, rode up the coast to explore abandoned rocket bunkers leftover from the war with Taiwan, and created elaborate movies that we wrote and produced ourselves. When we passed by, locals stared so hard they sometimes tripped over the curb. We didn’t mind the attention—after nearly four years of living in China, we had come to embrace our celebrity status as foreigners.
One sultry August day, my older brother and I sallied forth on our bikes. We soon arrived at the post office, a modest partition of a storefront at the bottom of an apartment building. Stepping into the post office was a reminder of the contradictions of a modern communist country. Just inside the glass door, I greeted the old woman who was perpetually standing beside it with a bucket and squeegee. The mild air conditioning enveloped me, cooling the perspiration gathered on my forehead, and my tennis shoes squeaked on the white marble floor. A guard with a red armband, standing against the wall in a posture of semi-professional boredom, nodded and grinned at me. He was barely older than my brother, lanky and trim in his black uniform, his dark eyes sparkling with youthful enthusiasm. A ready smile crossed my face. This guy was my post-office crush.
The woman behind the counter was always a less alluring aspect of the post office visit. Her uniform was crumpled, her round face somehow sharp, her mouth drawn into an irritated scowl. She didn’t so much stamp forms as she stabbed them, and while other postal workers might help customers fix the paper stamps onto their letters, she shoved the sticky plastic tub of glue toward the person and made them step out of line and do it themselves. I had been the customer under this woman’s glare before, and I knew she certainly wasn’t going to do more than what was required of her.
After a wait of several minutes, it was our turn. My brother and I stepped forward. Without a glance at us, the woman pulled a battered laminated sign out from a drawer and slapped it onto the counter. Amidst the jumble of Chinese characters, I could see the numbers 12:00-14:00.
“Excuse me,” I attempted, whipping out my well-worn Mandarin phrases. “We want to put some money on our TaoBao account.”
“Can you read?” The woman jabbed a finger toward the sign, rolling her eyes.
Actually, I couldn’t—not Chinese. Eight to ten thousand unique characters still seemed a little intimidating.
“It’s naptime,” the woman said. Her voice rose and she began to enunciate her words, perhaps recalling that we were stupid foreigners. “Do you understand? It’s naptime.” She began gesturing to the sign again. “We’re closed until 14:00.”
I looked at the clock, the long hand creeping toward the twelve. “I understand, but it’s not 12:00 yet. Please, we have the money right here. It will be quick.”
The woman turned away, aloof. Her colleague handed her a plastic container of noodles and a set of chopsticks. The steam rose in a cloud as she opened it.
My brother sighed, turning away, but I was not ready to give up so easily. “It’s not even twelve yet,” I said to him, exasperated. “We rode all the way out here in the heat.” I turned back to the post office workers and repeated some version of the words in Chinese, gesturing at the clock.
Only now it was actually 12:00. The woman let out a barrage of angry words, shooing me away, and her colleague shrugged and pointed at the clock with his chopsticks.
When I learned Chinese, I had learned nice phrases: Hello, how are you? Long time no see! China is a beautiful country! I never learned how to say, Are you kidding me? You seriously won’t take two minutes to help me because of your little quote-unquote ‘naptime’? It was a good thing for the post office lady, and for my Christian testimony, that my vocabulary was limited to a range of polite expressions. But body language could speak as well as words, and I made sure to communicate my frustration in a large sigh and a roll of the eyes.
The guard came over to stick his grinning face into the discussion. “Hello,” he said to me, deferent, but proud of the one word he knew in English. “I’m sorry, they can’t help you. Come back at 14:00.” He held up two fingers and smiled. “Two o’clock, they will help you.”
My brother was already at the door, heading past the window washer into the sticky August heat. I managed a smile at the guard, and thanked him. He was, after all, the one person in this place being polite, and he was so very handsome.
At home, I ranted to my mom about the lazy post office lady, who wouldn’t take two minutes to help us after we had biked all the way there. “Be gracious,” my mom said. “Maybe she had a bad day.”
“Mama, she’s like that every time we see her.”
“Well maybe she doesn’t like her job, or she’s going through a divorce or something.”
It was just like my mom, the social worker turned international mother, to come up with hypothetical situations that gave people excuses for their bad behavior. But deep down I knew what she said was probably true.
“No matter how people act, God loves them,” she continued. “It’s our responsibility to show them that love.”
Feeling a little ashamed, I went out on the balcony and stared at the hazy sky, looking for the sun. I couldn’t find it. But the mountainside jungle was as lush as ever. My arms rested on the railing and my eyes dropped, down nine stories to the brick pavement below. A woman in a wide-brimmed hat swept a straw broom over the cobblestones, brushing mango leaves into a pile. She was humming to herself.
Moving somewhere new is like pulling out a fresh canvas and being handed a palette of wild and vibrant colors. But moving somewhere means leaving somewhere else. Someone walks in part-way through the painting, announcing that in two hours it must be put away, finished or unfinished, for a little while, or for forever. Moving means the loss of familiar sights, smells, sounds, voices, feelings. Something normal and everyday will be gone, fading into memories that might one day feel foreign, like forgotten friends.
We were leaving China. For days on end we talked about seeing our friends, jumping in the car to go camping in the mountains, hearing English spoken everywhere, spending hours hunting down books in the city library. We could almost taste the Cheerios, the ice cream, the cheddar cheese—things we hadn’t eaten for two years now. We were leaving China. No more biking to abandoned bunkers, cops and robbers in a bamboo forest, family outings to Burger King that involved riding a bus down the coast for an hour. No more fried rice from a food cart on the beach, no crispy dumplings dripping with soy sauce, no cold yogurt drinks sweating in my hand on a hot day. And all my crushes. Would any American boy ever be as cute as my gate guards, my traffic officers, my post office security guard?
The time was nearly up. The canvas was being torn from my hands, and it was still unfinished—there were misplaced streaks of color that begged to be turned into something beautiful. Sometime, in the last few months, over a few more trips to the post office, my mother’s words had touched my heart.
Except for twenty-one suitcases lined up neatly by the door, the apartment was empty. All that was left were three bicycles, still unsold. I found my mom in the kitchen, pulling the last of the food out of the fridge.
“Is it okay if I go to the post office? There’s something I need to do.”
My mom seemed to understand. “Sure,” she said. “Take the phone and be safe.”
It was October now, and the weather was a little cooler. The sun was still only a faint outline behind the haze of smog. As I biked out of the apartment complex, I fingered the little packet in my pocket and rehearsed Chinese words in my head. I knew I would never see the post office lady again, and that I might be the only Christian she ever came in contact with. I didn’t want to leave this brush stroke unfinished.
The old woman was there with her bucket and squeegee, and my crush was there grinning at me. Behind the counter, the woman sat scowling, even though there was no one in line—she was scowling at her phone.
“Hello.” My voice seemed to echo on the marble floor.
The woman looked up.
“I’m sorry.” The carefully-rehearsed words evaporated, and I stumbled over spontaneous ones. “I wasn’t kind…before. I’m sorry. This is for you.” I set my offering on the counter—a gospel tract and a bar of chocolate. “This is for you.”
Her scowl faded and her face morphed into shock. She looked down at the gift, and then it came—a shy smile spreading across her face. In all my trips to the post office, I had never seen a smile on her face before.
As I turned to go, I saw the smile reflected on the face of her colleague, on the face of the guard, and the window washer by the door. They were all shining, like someone had turned on the lights in a dark room.
Outside, a crack had broken in the midst of the haze, and I looked up, and saw the sun.
She was shining too.
Hannah K is a third culture kid still trying to figure out where she belongs. She studies child development and international service at Texas Christian University.