Short Mountains

I’m 5’1″ and I used to be cute, I mean cute as in young woman cute not cute as in old lady cute. I’m also very smart. I know this because it’s been measured numerous times and I really had no significant problems surmounting the hurdles of academic life even though I didn’t try very hard or like it very much. I’m also (here’s a nasty word) “creative.” I’m also very serious about what matters to me BUT I might laugh about it and enjoy it. In spite of being small, I was always, also, physically strong with good endurance and speed. I am also very independent, generally optimistic, like to laugh and have a comparatively “out there” (meaning irreverent) sense of humor. In short, I’m a formidable entity in a short body.

None of this is bragging. I look at it all as the result of a genetic soup that I had nothing whatever to do with. I only hope I did pretty OK with it because it was a nice gift. One of the most difficult parts of this, though, was (and is!) being taken seriously by other people. The men with whom I worked — those in my generation in particular —  could be very obnoxious. Because I am little and cute, many of them actually patted me on the head, stood too close, and often hit on me. Female co-workers disdained me because I was not as “serious” as I should be (hard to be “serious” when you spend every day of your life doing EXACTLY what you love to do) and they (unconsciously?) assumed that a petite, playful person who likes to laugh is not working, does not care, will not do well, is not paying attention. Somehow, on some level, I believe I came across as a child to my colleagues.

Over the years I’ve realized that small, happy people are often underestimated.

But, in South China, I was a pretty average height. It was great. Standing on a bus, I could easily reach the overhead railings. Riding the bus, my 6′ husband – for whom life was simple in the US – had to stand under the ceiling air vent and open it in order to stand up straight.

Still, in China, I got a lesson that showed me that I shared the bias against “short” things.

One afternoon, as I was lecturing in one of my writing classes, smiling and happy as usual, one of my students raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, why you smile all the time? You think we’re funny?”

“No. I don’t think you’re funny. I think you’re all great. I smile because I’m happy.”

“Why you happy?”

“I’m teaching, which I love and want to do, and I’m in China which is a dream come true for me.”

“You’re happy to be in CHINA?”

“Oh yes, very happy.”

“You like China?”

“I love it.” Suddenly LOTS of hands were raised.

“How you love China and love America, too?”

“How you love China? Life is very hard for you here compare to America.”

“Why you happy to be teaching?”

I explained everything to my class and watched their eyes widen and smiles grow.

“You think China beautiful?”

My heart was in my mouth. “Yes.”

“America is not beautiful?”

My heart rose to my eyes, thinking of the Rocky Mountains which I sorely missed.

“America is beautiful, too.” My heart spilled down my cheeks. My students saw it.

“You homesick, teacher?”

“No, but I miss the mountains. Let’s get back to our work, OK?”

They were then talking amongst themselves and the head of the class (every class had a “head” in China at that time) then stood up and said, “We want to invite you to see something, teacher. Will you come with us?”

“After school?”

“No. Now.”


We packed up our belongings and left the classroom. We walked past the village into an area that was being built into a park. At one point in the area a moon gate had been built. A moon gate (if you don’t already know) is a circular gate, an opening in a wall, that might be for going in and out and might just be there to frame a scene. This was to frame a scene. Above the arch were four characters, an actual Chinese poem. They were, “Wind, Sky, Water, Mountain.”

风 天 水 山

A pretty lame poem in English, but in Chinese characters it looks pretty and placed where it was, it exactly described the order in which people would naturally observe the scene beyond the moon gate. We stood in the wind, under the sky (Heaven), in front of the gate was a pond, above the pond the large hill behind the agricultural college; a mountain.


My students, understanding I missed the mountains, had brought me to see one. What a gift, one that took me half a lifetime to understand. At that point, I had not learned to respect a mountain under 10,000 feet. I underestimated them and called them hills, but in time I learned not to underestimate any mountain, even the short ones, or a poem that is only four words long.


Moon Gate, West Lake, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Asia

Not “my” moon gate, but a famous moon gate in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. You can see there is a “poem” over the arch. 🙂

16 thoughts on “Short Mountains

  1. A really beautiful, thought-provoking post, Martha. And I love your quote. I have that tattooed on me. I am only 5’4″ but I am told I am a very strong personality. Whatever that means. I just loved that quote, though, the first time I heard it. It fits me.

  2. Ah this was so cute. Pardon the pun if it is one. I bet you can close your eyes and still smell China. Your students seem to have been great and not like the ones you taught in southern California. Have any of the Chinese stayed in touch?

    • I still have contact with one friend from China, kind of my adopted brother (his mom adopted me), whom I helped immigrate and go to college in US. He suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution. Otherwise, no. But it’s OK. It was a time and a place. In recent years, I did teach Chinese students and that was really wonderful. Many of them now come to the US and for me that was great.

  3. I was 5’10” (before I shrank a bit) which was just as bad for the opposite reasons. Tall women are apparently intimidating, and if you’re tall and strong (which you have to be because everyone assumes you can look after yourself so no one ever offers to help) then your goose is really cooked. It’s obviously one area where average is ideal. How good it is to be old and no longer care!

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