Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China

In my Chinese campus we have a few days off for International Labor Day, which is good, because it’s the time of year when I begin to count down.

Six more weeks until I go home. Three more weeks (or six more class meetings) until I bid my students goodbye. Two more weeks until my beloved husband, Michael, comes to visit. Many students have gone, and the canteen was almost empty at lunch. But the campus has also opened to the public on weekends for the first time since the pandemic began. This means that when I go to eat a meal, I see crowds of outsiders roaming the pavement near the village, admiring the fountain, the roses surrounding the Hai Club, the clock tower, the new statue in front of the library. Yesterday, a bevy of girls ran up to me, giggling and shouting, “Hello, hello!” I was disoriented.

Should I know these girls? Are they former students? But then I noticed how young they were, and all dressed in identical black and white windbreakers. It was a roving high school band. I smiled and said, “Hello! How are you?” and they all giggled and ran away. This happened a few times on my way to lunch, and I told some Chinese friends about it back at the office. They laughed, and Stephanie said, “You are like a rock star to them.”

I am getting braver. I have been a little embarrassed that I was too timid to go out to Juan Park by myself, even though it is just across the road from our South Gate, the grand entrance to our campus with the lighted archways that open onto the quad where my office stands.

I could see the flowers from across the moat when I take my afternoon bike rides around the campus. But after our Easter picnic (arranged by my friend, Caitraina) where we took the long walk around the campus, to a path that curves down under the busy road with a brick wall holding the lake back on either side of us. We go under the bridge—I’ll grant it’s hard to picture, and I’m not sure I’m explaining it well, but we can look out over the brick wall to see that the water is at about our waist level until we co uphill again—and come out inside the park to spread our picnic blankets on the grass and share a feast.

Easter Sunday was a nice day, the park full of families enjoying the weather. Here people like to pitch tents—not to sleep in, but to just hang out for the afternoon. These tents provide shade for napping children or a place to set up lawn chairs. Extended families stake out their picnic spot with these tents and then share food or fly kites or toss frisbees. We watched one family who seemed to be playing “red light-green light,” and we talked about childhood games played on lawns or streets in the dusk of the neighborhoods in our various cultures and nations.

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Two of us are Americans, even Midwesterners, though separated by a generation, and we talked about Red Rover (which our British friends called “British Bulldog” when we explained it.) and SPUD and Ghost in the Graveyard. At any rate, after a lovely afternoon in the sun, I felt brave enough to ride one of the city bikes out the gates and under the busy road and into the park.

I decided to circle the lake, which I suppose is small as lakes go, but is still much bigger than the lake we have on campus that reflects the lights of our high footbridge at night.

In the park are paths for walking or biking and I rode past our picnic grounds and past the boat launch where we could rent kayaks. At our picnic I had seen families riding double surrey bikes with a striped sunshade on top, and I passed the place where we can rent those when Michael comes to visit. I passed the sandy beach (but no swimming allowed), and a campground with crowed of tents, some on platforms, others just pitched in the grass. I think these ARE for overnight camping.

On the far side of the lake were a lot of kiosks like a carnival. It was too crowded to ride, so I got off my bike and walked through the families eating ice cream, playing games. My bike ride brought me so many new sights, and now I have a better idea of what to show Michael when he comes.

Bike in Beauty; Play in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in the News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small town newspaper. You can see photos of her travels on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.