birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


In China, Ningbo University paid us in Chinese money called - Renminbi - the people's money. We were not paid in FEC, which was Foreign Exchange Currency.

FEC could be converted into dollars and at different places in China, we would hear black market people call to us "Change money, change money" or "FEC, FEC!"

But as teachers at Ningbo University we were paid in Renminbi - the people's money - and so none it could changed into dollars.

It all had to be spent in China.

We had agreed to the deal from Tennessee's International Department at the University because it was what most teachers made unless they were foreign experts.

Patrick, our colleague, was a foreign expert who spoke Chinese and studied Chinese economics.

I had an MFA in Playwriting, and Kiffen had a BA in Psychology.

We were not foreign experts.

At Ningbo University, I made 700 yuan a month, and Kiffen made 600 yuan a month, which was a lot of money, since our meals and room and board were taken care of and we used what we made to travel.

We were paid in cash. No banks. We did have some dwindling American Express Travelers Cheques.

So we saved our "people's money" - our Renminbi - and when it was time to leave China, we bought pieces of Chinese silk for our relatives. They were beautiful pieces of bright gold, crimson, lime green, purple, and indigo blue with dragons or phoenixes stitched into silk.

The plan was to buy tickets on Trans-Siberian Railroad, a ten day train ride in those days. We had teacher cards that showed we were paid in Renminbi, not FEC, but because we were foreign, clerks often wanted us to pay them in FEC anyway. It was more valuable.

This is what I remember before leaving China.

We had hiked Yellow Mountain and climbed the five peaks. And I got very sick. We stayed on top of the mountain one night and that was when the sickness hit - I'm sure it was the food. It was awful. We got down the mountain and Kiffen tried to buy train tickets to Shanghai.

One of our students, Lu Zhong Hai, was traveling with us as our guide. He had begged to come along from Ningbo, and we paid his way but we couldn't pay him a salary. He didn't care. He just wanted to be our translator and guide.

The ticket office at Yellow Mountain had plenty of tickets to Shanghai, but when Kiffen tried to pay for the tickets in Renminbi and not FEC, suddenly, there were no more tickets. I was feverish and so only mildly interested in this brewing exchange, which was growing heated and ugly.

Kiffen showed the clerks our teacher cards through a tiny window, but they would not be moved.

"Méiyǒu bu bu bu! Méiyǒu bu bu bu!"

Finally, he lost it - he flew into a white hot rage, and as I was watching him, I thought he is going to shrink himself into a tiny person and fly into that tiny ticket window to get justice. It was like he was trying to climb through the window.

"Méiyǒu bu bu bu! Méiyǒu bu bu bu!"

But right then the ticket window slammed shut and everything closed down. No more business today. The people gathered shrugged and walked away. We had to take a train to another town and I remember sleeping on a train bench, flies everywhere, and I didn't care.

I was on the other side of the world in China, so sick, and my young husband was bringing me water.

We eventually got to a hotel where we stayed a few days, and I recovered. I never went to a doctor. I just slept and slept. I remember Lu Zhong Hai, "our guide" would get a hold of the guide books in each place, like Yellow Mountain, and read them to us.

I remember he often said during the Yellow Mountain hike when we would reach the tops of the different peaks: "Look at the clouds. Very beautiful. Prepare for the miracle."

While I recovered in a dark hotel room, Lu Zhong Hai and Kiffen went off exploring. I read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and hoped that when we got to Beijing to catch the Trans-Siberian, the ticket takers wouldn't shut the windows in our faces or make us try to pay with American Express Travelers Cheques that were almost all gone anyway.

We made our way north with our pieces of silk, said good-bye to Lu Zhong Hai in Shanghai, and when we arrived in Beijing, Kiffen paid for the tickets in Renminbi by showing the clerks our teacher cards. At another tiny window, he handed over piles of cash - all the "people's money we had saved.

The clerks didn't bat an eye and gave us our tickets. We prepared for our journey across China, Russia, Poland, and Germany, which was still divided into the East and West back then in 1987.

I swapped my walkman for rubles in Russia so we could eat in the Russian dining car.

It was all such a long time ago.

Thinking Out Loud

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