Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and Zhejiang University in Haining, China. This morning, I woke to a fresh rain that washed our streets and our air.

I walked to the canteen under my umbrella and listened to the soft tic tic tic of raindrops, the gentle fragrance of osmanthus wafting past. For several days I’ve been wearing my mask against the smog that hung heavily over our campus, so I feel like I’ve been let out of quarantine.

I am widening my geographical circle here in Haining. Last week my young friend, Maria, and I biked to the old In Time mall, where I like to go to the Bravo for groceries. Last time I was in China, I used to take the bus to the Bravo, but I just knew I could get there by bike. They opened a new In Time mall very close to campus, but the supermarket in their basement is more of a mini market. I did find whipping cream for my coffee, and butter for my popcorn, but it was quite expensive.

At the Bravo, I can get baking supplies, flour, yeast, sugar, and other tasty things I like to eat for a better price. Since I haven’t cooked in six weeks, I need to practice for the Thanksgiving feast I am hosting for some other expats. Sadly, my table only has room for me and three guests, but I wanted to try to figure out my oven so I could practice baking bread for the feast. But more on that later.

Maria has an E bike, and I just grabbed one of the blue campus bikes with my city card. We can ride for an hour for free. My map program determined that it would be a 25-minute ride, and since my phone delivered the instructions directly to my hearing aids, Maria declared me the “captain” of our trip. I would tell her the directions as I got them. “Right on JingFang Road,” I would call out.

Although Haining is a small town (Only 800,000 people) the roads can sometimes be busy. Luckily, the bike lane is separated from the main road, protected by a curb, and sometimes even a line of trees, from the real traffic. It’s pleasant to bike in the shade of trees until we get to a major intersection, where we wait for the red bicycle shaped light to turn green.

We do need to be careful. The bike lane is wide enough for a car, and sometimes cars do drive down our bike line. I haven’t been able to figure out why. It happens more often in the city center, and I think the drivers just want to bypass the traffic on the busy road. Not only that, but sometimes the E bike drivers get a little impatient and will beep at us, and we move over so they can pass. But often Maria and I will ride side by side.

Maria takes good care of me, always checking to see if I’m getting tired, if I need to rest. I usually don’t, but I appreciate the respect she shows to my aged state. Now she asks me what my favorite song is. I don’t know that I have a favorite, but I answer with the first one that occurs to me, one that I often sing when I’m alone, “The Shaker Dance: Simple Gifts.” “Sing it!” she demands. And that’s how I came to be singing “tis a gift to be simple; tis a gift to be free” while biking through Haining.

I got through one verse before I got out of breath, but what a sight we must have been. An old white lady singing a hymn in English, a young Pakistani girl on an electric scooter, her hijab blowing behind her in the wind.

I found my baking supplies, and the next day I mixed up flour, yeast, and water and let it rise overnight in the fridge. I added sesame seeds and peanut oil (I wasn’t sure what kind of oil I was buying, and it turned out to have a lovely peanut scent) and let it rise. I had to ask my neighbor, Wen Juan for help to turn on the oven.

It has a convection option, and my bread rose light and fluffy and turned golden brown as it baked. It might be my best loaf ever. I don’t know if it was the peanut oil, the magic Chinese convection oven, or what. I sent a message to Wen Juan, Maria, and my American friend, Timothy. We all gathered at my table in the afternoon to break bread.

Bike in Beauty; Bake in Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and Zhejiang University in Haining, China. You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856.

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