The Great Post: Lo and The Giant Bottled Water

“加油!” A chorus of jia1yo2u (you can do it!) rang out as D and I lunged a particularly tricky three-foot-something-inch stair to reach a checkpoint at the Great Wall of China.

Stopping to catch my breath and wipe the sweat off my face (the Wall sweltered at 105 degrees), I glanced at the checkpoint sign. The section of the wall we had just climbed had been named cruelly: “It’s Easy.”

‘Scuse me? Hmph. I straightened to guzzle a monster-sized water bottle and propped a screaming calf muscle on the Wall for a stretch. It was then – swaying on one leg, gulping water and silently pep-talking myself – that I saw all of China. The view was so clear that it could only be surreal. It was if I could follow all 13,000 miles of the Great Wall, curving through the green mountains and plunging into the oblivion of the blue sky. A man-made snake winding endlessly through the Chinese landscape. It shed its clay skin in several locations, so weathered as to make certain sections of the Wall entirely impassable.

Our section wasn’t impassable, per se, it was just unforgivable. No two steps were the same height – every stair was therefore a trap stair. I pictured Han Dynasty intruders banging knee caps while maneuvering the steps I now climbed. A middle-aged man stood proudly at the checkpoint in present day, hands braced on his lower back: “I survived the Great Wall of China,” his shirt proudly declared. I ducked into the checkpoint structure and squinted to read the words etched into the mortar. Declarations of love mingled with claims of nationality: “The Vikings were here,” one of them read. It was so peculiar – if I focused my gaze, I could imagine myself performing guard duty on a 3rd century Great Wall. But then I was snapped into the present by the flash of a camera or the chorus of a song foreigners played as wall-climbing motivation (guilty!). Our designated DJ selected “Another Brick in the Wall.”

The surrounding landscape, however, seemed completely unaffected by the passage of time. It grew over and around the crumbling sections of the Wall and carried on in its infinite reign over the land, the eternal dynasty. Meanwhile, I was busy being affected by the Wall. The calves that climbed up found a trickier task in descending. A colleague in our climbing group played “Stairway to Heaven” from his phone. Fanning herself with a brochure, another colleague suggested “Highway to Hell.”

Soundtrack aside, I couldn’t get over the beauty of the landscape. We had decided to visit the water section of the Wall, so our steps mimicked the path of a river far below in the mountain valley. Heat waves gave the panorama a mirage-like feel, but as we descended, a rare breeze would carry the sweet smell of native flowers along the river bank and roasted chestnuts from a local vendor – it solidified the authenticity of the natural spectacle before us.

It was over in three large water bottles. I lost track of time, so water bottles were the only palpable way I could figure to represent the passage of time on the Wall. Still in awe, we fell into our bus’s bucket seats and proceeded to snooze our way through the two-hour return trip to Beijing. About four water bottles later, I sat in the apartment and reflected on my experience that evening, still massaging stubborn muscles.

It would be so easy to go for the low-hanging fruit metaphor and present a message about always climbing toward your goals and reaching for your dreams, etc. True, but overdone! Instead, my mind arrived at a rather unconventional conclusion: it’s okay to admit when something is difficult.

The Wall tried to convince me otherwise ­– “It’s Easy,” it told me, as I hurdled a missing section of the Wall. Nope. It sure was not. But we climbed it anyway. 加油!, we heard, while huffing and puffing up a section that should have been named, “Sheer Cliff.”

Chinese NGOs, like OPO, are climbing their own wall. And, unlike my climb, their climb doesn’t feature even a pretense of easiness. Their work is difficult. OPO isn’t only trying to overcome a wall of societal stigma and discrimination – they seek to disassemble it entirely. Stone by stone, person by person. The work can be grueling, frustrating, and/or distressing. Reading about the sexual assault of women with disabilities, denial of elementary education to blind children, or forced sterilization of mothers with disabilities is not easy. More than once, I’ve had to step away from my desk to distance myself from the shock of text or images on a computer screen. It is often hard to accept the stories Peony shares about herself, her friends, or her coworkers. It is difficult.

But difficulty is not finality. ”加油!” OPO is energized by a spirit of 加油 throughout the office. A poster peeks up above my desk: “Change – It’s not just up to me!“ it says. Paper butterflies adorn the windows, and felt hot air balloons suspend from the ceiling. A genial summer breeze flutters the wings of the butterflies, and spurs the flight of the balloons. 加油, it seems to encourage. It is difficult, but OPO is tireless. Peony and I complete a funding application and plan for a symposium on the issues of women with disabilities. Another brick loosens and tumbles from the wall.

Until next week, 再见 and 加油!

Side note: apologies for the nonexistent photos. Uploading pictures is like playing pinball with my internet service. I’m rotten at pinball. I do promise a mass scrapbook upload upon my return to the States.