Six years ago, when I first moved into my little apartment overlooking the Yangtze River, I was too busy settling in to bother much with the outside balcony. The security bars that jut outward to protect me from thieves remained bare. Even though there was plenty of room for potted plants, I had more important things to deal with than worrying about my apartment’s outside appearances. Besides, most Chinese don’t bother beautifying their balcony areas with living things. The few who do leave their potted wards to fend for themselves. They never water, trim, or fertilize. Most plants just gather layers of dust blown up from the roads, caking their green leaves with sticky muck. Eventually, they wilt or die. The hardier survive, trying to catch what little rainwater they can or sizzling under wicked summer sun with little shade.
Yes, I’d have to say balcony plants in China have it rough.
I had no plans of a balcony garden until I began to notice the campus. For special occasions during the year, the school gardeners began to line the walkways with potted flowers. As we walked to and from classes, yellow chrysanthemums, red amaryllis, white lilies, and colorful petunias greeted with their colorful, rippling waves. It made me yearn to have some plants of my own.
That first year, I kept planning to get to the downtown Luzhou city park where the flower market was located. The weekends brought out crowds of interested gardening folk who would pick through all the potted plants sellers had to offer. Many preferred leafy, green varieties rather than flowering ones. Maybe it was because they were easier to care for or lasted all year instead of having one particular blooming season. In any case, I meant to go but never got around to it.
I believe it was my last month of teaching that first year when I spotted a broken pot on the campus sidewalk. Rows of other pots remained but this one obviously had had an accident. The amaryllis it held had not yet bloomed. The bulb lay in a spilled pile of dirt with the tall stem flopped on the cement. It looked so pitiful lying there that I decided to take it home with me. With any luck, I thought I could replant it and maybe it would thrive.
The only dirt I could find on hand was a sandy mixture used by the construction workers next to my building. They were using it to mix with concrete. I pitched in half mud and half sand to create a home which I hoped the amaryllis would like. After placing it in a new pot, onto the balcony it went.
It looked a bit lonely up there but seemed happy. Every day, I returned from my classes and peered overhead to see how it was doing. Sure enough, a few days later it bloomed. Its brilliant red petals looked so pretty from a distance. Even my neighbors, their balcony security bars empty or filled with discarded junk, commented on how lovely my one amaryllis looked.
That pretty much got me started on the plant scene. I picked up several flowering pots from the flower market. A few of them died due to insects or poor soil but some lived. My amaryllis was one of them, always managing to keep its leafy extensions upright in any weather and any climate Luzhou threw at it.
And every year, my amaryllis would bloom. One year, it had two!
When it was finally time to leave for Chengdu last year, I debated bringing it with me but thought that rather silly.
“It’s just a plant,” I told myself although I did have quite a sentimental attachment to it after 5 years. Besides, maybe the new foreign teacher would want something green around when he or she arrives.
As it turned out, our school couldn’t find a foreign teacher last year.
My apartment remained empty. A couple of rats moved in. The balcony filled with dust. My outside flower pots dried up, betraying a vacant home.
A week ago, the moving truck pulled up to my apartment building, and I hopped out eager to see my familiar balcony after over a year. I had no hope of anything living up there until I glimpsed it — the leafy, green blades of my amaryllis shooting upward from its pot still staunchly standing on the security bars.
After all this time, it had managed to survive our winter freezes, having little water, the burning summer sunshine and thriving in undesirable soil.
I had a lot of moving moments that first day back on my campus. There were the people greeting me on walks throughout the school, my neighbors warmly clasping my hands in salutations, and the smiling faces of my colleagues when I entered the departmental office.
But I’d have to say what touched me the most was looking up at my balcony where my faithful amaryllis, bending gently in the breeze, waved to welcome me home.
From Luzhou, I wish you all "Ping An" (Peace)