Keeping Bright Eyes by Ariel Fugate

I sit on the warm curb of a sticky sidewalk. It is Saturday night, 9 o’clock. In a small farming village in Southeast China, there is an unexpected liveliness. The locals are having a block party. Women twirl in synchronized motion – Chinese pop guiding old-time,traditional moves. Elders huddle – gossiping. Old men have their shirts rolled up to vent bellies, cigarettes streaming in hand. Children run – scattering, little butts visible through convenient slits in their trousers. Town dogs scan the ground for scraps from the day’s markets. Soon, our quiet presence is noticed. One of the elderly women breaks from the circle. Rushing over, she ushers us off the curb and into a vacant storefront. She offers little benches to the four of us. “Xie, xie,” we thank her. Mistaking the extent of our language skills, she begins speaking to us in rapid Mandarin. We smile, shrug and hope it is the universal sign for I don’t understand. After a few more attempts, she laughs wildly –understanding our lack thereof.As she reconvenes with her group, another woman, baby on hip, joins our overlook.She points to our bare arms and shorts, gesturing that we must be cold. We laugh, shrug. Others join her and us – marveling, talking and laughing. We share in the laughter – no room for self-consciousness. As the night goes on, the elderly lady invites us to dance, an invitation on which we politely pass. Later, the woman with the baby reaches out to me,motioning for me to take her little boy. I hold out my arms, welcoming his wrinkled handsand grinning face.

That night, walking back to our guesthouse, I think we are all wondering, just how did I get here? What has blessed me that I am able to share these moments with this vibrant community, halfway across the globe? What sets us apart from other travelers allowing us to have a connection such as that? The answer for me is something my mother has been telling me for years. I remember her hymn and it is in this I believe, “Keep bright eyes and the world will open up for you.”

I kept bright eyes and noticed the details. From the warmth of that sidewalk’s edge, I could feel the power of the sun long after it had set. I imagined how the friction from the day’s motorbikes, wagon wheels and tractor-trailers has exhausted it, this day and the days before that. I identified each stain and piece of rubbish from the vendors that post there daily. My gaze followed a crack leading from the sidewalk, into the alley and up the stone-wall of an ancient home. I took note of the happy feet of the women and children, the stances of the old men and the wagging tails of the roaming dogs.

I kept bright eyes to convey trust and good intentions. As four travelers, foreigners, the town had been cautioned with rumors of our presence for a few days. Yet upon mingling with the townspeople for the first time, we were greeted by a smile from the elderly woman’s face, the same one that has been greeting her neighbors, children and her children’s children for years. It was the one that had worn the lines around her eyes and along her cheekbones – laugh lines marking evidence of a happy life. She knew and understood we were not there to exploit her culture, but simply to observe and come to understand ourselves.

I kept bright eyes and drew a curiosity from others. Soon the differences, the shapes of our facial features, the color of our skin, our clothing, the things that attracted attention at first sight blended seamlessly into a realization of the humanity that we all share, a curiosity in itself. In those moments, I was present with the little boy, his mother, Lauren, Riley, Katrina and the community of Qinghua, China; I was not conscious with thoughts of the differences in our ways of life – what is harder, or who is luckier, more content. The moments were so natural and pure that they tore down barriers, exploitation, expectations and just simply were. I believe in keeping bright eyes.

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