Monday, June 30, 2014

Episode 19: On Leaving China

Saying Goodbye

I’m lousy at saying goodbye. I just hate it. Even at parties and other social gatherings, I am more likely to slip out the side door than have to go through the ritual of saying goodbye to people. It is a personal psychosis. Just don’t make me say goodbye.

Z's hand embroidered thank you card
that he made for his teacher.
Leaving China, therefore, is nerve-wracking. I have cringed every time someone suggested a last dinner, a last lunch, a last hurrah. It meant saying “goodbye.” And one is never enough. Everyone wants “one last goodbye.”

Add to that the gift-giving culture of China and it quickly becomes overwhelming and exhausting for me, an introvert to my last cell. I am the type of person who always gets embarrassed about gifts. I hate the attention. I always, always feel I don’t deserve gifts and am awkward and socially inept at accepting them. I hate Christmas for this reason. I cringe whenever someone presents me with a gaily wrapped present. I don’t want any part of it. No gifts, PLEASE.

Imagine my state of mind, then, when the last three weeks have been nothing but goodbyes and accepting gifts that I seriously do not deserve.

Third-Year English majors. Last day of class.
It was a hard day looking out over my last class, third-year students who I first met last August and who have done so much good work for me this year. They have worked harder than they ever thought they could, churning out papers and reading and discussing texts they never imagined they could do – in English. I stood in front of them for the last time and said, “Well. Here we are.” I couldn’t think about “the last class” too much because I couldn’t stand – can’t stand -- the idea of not seeing them again. I thought, “This is the last time I will look out into a classroom and see only Chinese faces.” It made my throat hot and lumpy. Not good.

The students gave me gifts and flowers. I was laden down with love notes, photos, video clips, small Chinese statues, scarves, books, fans with hand-painted calligraphy, journals, photo albums and a white jade necklace that probably cost more than I even want to think about. As the last of them filed out of the classroom that final, hot June morning, I gave each a big American hug (Chinese don’t hug, so this is always an awkward social proposition; they don’t know where to put their hands or head) and said, “I will miss you. Remember what you learned. I will see you in the U.S.” The reality is, however, I will see few – if any of them – again. And this is the agony of leaving.

A clutch of students, my favorite women who I ate lunch with every Wednesday and a few of the “best boys,” wanted to come over to the apartment to say a final goodbye. We played UNO, spoons, and charades (all new American games to them), ate ice cream and popsicles, talked and laughed a lot. I can’t stand the idea of never seeing them again. Can’t stand it.

"The Favorites" last visit
Z said goodbye to his school chums and teacher last week. They all wrote him endearing, tender notes (in Chinese, of course – but Z can read them; his Chinese is amazing). They wrote things like, “I hope you come back soon because you are my friend” and “Thank you for being in our class. Have a wonderful and safe journey to America.” One sweetie pie wrote, “Before you came to our school, I dreamed of having a foreign friend. Then you came to our class. I feel very lucky, indeed. You made my dream come true.” Upon returning home with his haul of missives, Z said, “I need to come back to China. I need to see my friends again. Maybe in two years. I can do one year in Missouri and then one year in China. Like that.” A far cry from his attitude on day 1 of Chinese public education back in September where he bolted inexplicably from the room after 10 minutes, he was so overwhelmed with the unfamiliarity of it all.
Tiantian wanted to take us on “one last field trip,” to the tombs (massive human-mountains filled with Tang and Han Dynasty treasures that can only be guessed at), a car trip outside the city. It was a lovely outing and Tiantian insisted on paying for everything and I just felt guilty and in denial. “No. This can’t be the last time I spend a day with Tiantian.” Stop paying for everything. The women of “Girls Night” organized an outing to the countryside (fishing, hiking, eating). Tiantian said, “There will be gifts.” Noooo! Please! No gifts. I already feel bad enough about leaving. What are you trying to do, kill me?
Final field trip; in the village we visited,
Z got to weave some cotton fabric and
spin cotton into thread.
The Foreign Language Department and the Foreign Exchange Center organized a lunch. Everyone told me how great I am; what a wonderful teacher I am; how much they appreciate me. More gifts. Emails from people back home say things like, “Can’t wait to see you!” “Call me when you get back!” “When does your plane get here?” “I bet you are anxious to get home.” But they don’t understand. I don’t want to leave. I am not excited to return. I am not looking forward to being back in the U.S. I have no desire to return to “normal” after a year of “amazing.”

I am expecting to be depressed. I am expecting to be crabby and not good company. And if anyone asks me, “So, how was it, living in China for a year?” I will likely snarl, “Are you kidding me? You want me to – what? – distill an entire year into a sentence or two? What kind of cretin are you, anyway?”

Z and his amazing teacher, Du Laoshi.
She worked really hard to help him this year.
If anyone says to me, “Wow! A year in China. I bet it feels good to be back home.” I will likely spit and then say, “Yeah. Right. To fat white people who sit around and watch television/play phone games in their free time, eat fast food in their cars, and vote Republican or – worse yet – don’t vote at all? Yup. It feels great.”

Final Blog

For many reasons, leaving China after a year feels too, too soon. I have come to know the city of Xi’an, the bus routes, the parks, the subway, the best restaurants for Indian food, the best stalls for boazi and fry bread filled with cabbage and herbs, the times the monks chant and pray at the local temples, the most opportune time to bike the wall, when to meander through the Muslim Quarter, or what times to avoid when hopping on the double-decker bus. I will miss the feeling of walking around in an exciting and interesting culture so different from my own. Every day I step outside into a new adventure; every moment I look around I see something new, interesting, puzzling or flabbergasting. I will miss struggling to figure out a way to say what I want to say in a way people can understand, a linguistic puzzle of tones and words. I will miss the sounds, smells, and people that this corner of the world has generously offered to me as a home for the past year.
Z and some of his school chums:
Z's last day, saying goodbye outside the
school gate
Right now, outside my open windows, I can hear the electronic plinking of “Oh Tannenbaum.” It is the street cleaning truck. After China, I will forever associate that classic carol with wet cement. I know, also, that it is exactly 10:15 a.m. when I hear the Souza marches out my back window; the morning constitution of a young woman who works in the building next door has begun: Tai Chi to Souza. An odd combination, but she is as regular as clockwork and it is something that I count on, a morning comfort. Everything is right in the world today. She is out there doing her Souza Tai Chi.

Of course there are things I will not miss about China. A few:

-          Being able to locate the bathroom in any building by following the stench. Flush the squat after you go, people!

-          The perpetual interruptions of strangers stopping us, smiling and friendly, to ask if they can take a photo. It gets tiresome after the first 100 or so.

-          Cats tied to trees. Cats aren’t dogs, folks. Stop tying them up. It is against a cat’s nature to be tethered to anything or anyone.

-          Old men spitting big, gross, wet loogies at my feet.

-          Children pulling down their pants and peeing and pooing wherever they feel like it; babies and toddlers being held, bare-bottomed and knees to chest, over grates or at the corner of some green space to relieve themselves.

-          Pea, red bean, and corn-flavored popsicles. That’s just weird.

-          Not being able to read more than 10% of any sign or billboard.

-          The hot, stinky school bus that takes us to new campus to teach (windows don’t open).

-          Blocked and so-freaking-slow internet that some days I wonder what is the point of even trying to email or look for something online.

-          Having to sleep inside a mosquito net.

-          The insane number of people and negotiating my day to avoid crowds (often failing).

-          Pollution grey/brown haze.

Z's goodbye note to his teacher.
He wrote it himself.
What I will miss deeply:

-          The evening group dancing on the plaza; the morning Tai Chi in the gardens: swords, fans, scarves, all moving in gentle swoops and arcs.

-          People walking around belting out a tune at the top of their lungs. Karaoke without the dark bar and artificial, recorded music.

-          The kindness of people, who are willing to go out of the way, several different directions and for long hours to make sure we have what we need and find where we want to go.

-          Hearing Zephaniah chatter on with old women, shop keepers, and school chums in Chinese; hearing him say things like, “See the radical in that character? It means ‘animal,’ but the other part of the character means ‘fur.” So why does that character mean ‘insect’? Insects aren’t animals. Or furry.”

-          People on scooters waiting around on the corners and near the bus stops to take you where you want to go for 10 RMB (about $1.50).

-          Peddling around the city of 6 million with Z on the back of the bike.

-          The street sellers with baskets hanging off their bikes or little carts, hawking anything from the fruit of the day (whatever is in season) to socks to ear buds and phone covers to houseplants.

-          LiLiang’s sesame cookies. And her smile, every time she sees Zephaniah coming.

-          Hoping on a bus, quickly and easily, and getting anywhere I need to go in a matter of minutes.

Traditional Chinese Medicine office
-          Warm “baozi” dumplings bought on any given block, steamy, savory, and delicious.

-          Classrooms full of eager, polite Chinese young people and not a single angry, hostile, bloated by fast food and farm chemicals white boy among them.

-          Sunday morning runs, followed by a quick shower, and then off into the city for a double-decker bus ride to take Z to calligraphy class where he learns to paint beautiful Chinese characters in thick, dramatic, black ink.

-          Living in one spacious apartment instead of driving back and forth between two houses that always need yard work or homeowner repairs.

-          Hearing the gentle sweeping scratch of the gardener’s straw broom as he sweeps the gutters at 6 a.m.

-          Young men carrying the colorful knock-off bags of their female sweethearts (it’s a thing).

-          Women and girls walking hand-in-hand.

-          Exiting the campus gate onto the back street and buying everything I need or want on Guan Hua Lu: fresh lilies and roses ($10 for a huge bunch that lasts a week); housewares, yummy fruit and fresh vegetables; every kind of tofu you could imagine in big, homemade blocks; fresh roasted nuts in any combination or variety; baked goods and fried things; noodle soups; school supplies and art supplies; underwear, sox, and shoes.

-          Babies toddling around in split pants, no matter what the weather; it could be below freezing and they are bundled up like eskimos, but their privates are hanging out.

-          Having a tailor (Song Le) who will make any costume or funky outfit you want for under $40, as long as you can draw it on a piece of paper.

-          A clothes drying room that is sunny and dries clothes almost as fast as a machine without the waste of energy.

Woman spinning cotton into thread
What Will Be Good to Get Back To

-          Public libraries and librarians who know exactly what you need because you are a regular patron; checking out arm-breaking stacks of books as often as we want.

-          Having cats in the house.

-          Friends and family, of course.

-          Summer events and creative, fun camps for kids that keep us hopping every day.

-          Not having to carry toilet paper wherever we go.

-          Not having the government decide when I need heat.

-          Drinking water straight from the tap.

This will be my final blog post on this year’s adventure of teaching in Xi’an, China. We won’t arrive back home for some time, but we won’t be here. Since we are on this side of the world, we are traveling our way back home. We will see you all in a few weeks. Expect me to be a bit depressed at being back in “normal.”

Chi protectors for sale; they are tied on babies to cover
their chest/belly to protect the baby from evil spirits and illness.
Everyone should take the opportunity to do this, pack up your life, cram everything you can’t live without into two suitcases, update your passport, and go live someplace else for a year. Forget worrying about whether you can afford it. Forget worrying about how scary you think it might be. Forget telling yourself your life is too complicated to do something like this. You will reach and grow and learn in ways that are unfathomable to you --  in ways that are unavailable to you in your own culture, in the comfort of the familiar. Traveling as a tourist to a country is not the same as living there. Living there means making friends, struggling through setting up house and learning a community, and calling that new, foreign, complicated, frustrating, beautiful place “home.”  

Zai Jian, Zhong Guo. Xie Xie Ni.



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