My time teaching English at a university in Nanning in southern China from September 2014 to July 2015 was an adventure and challenge.
The hot and humid weather in Guangxi Province was nearly unbearable. I was soaked in sweat from the minute I walked out my door in the morning until I returned to my air-conditioned apartment. The air was always saturated, even in the winter months. The skies were nearly always hazy, whether from the moisture or pollution.
I could never learn Mandarin despite taking a class while there; the tonality was impossible for me to detect or reproduce. Communication, especially when traveling, was challenging. I depended utterly on a translation app and notes made in a small notebook by my students. My students took English names as there was no way I could have ever learned, remembered, or even pronounced 73 Chinese names.
Being on the move with 1.2 billion people was burdensome. It tested my patience. Posing for pictures constantly with random Chinese people wore me out. The late night shouting from the students’ required military exercises on campus made me uneasy. Swarms of motorbikes, much like what I’d seen in Hanoi, moved in synchronicity through the streets, and we crossed streets at our peril.
The meat was almost always gristly, and I resorted to a diet of dumplings, Korean bibimbap and pizza. I was constantly nauseous. Many toilets were utterly disgusting; I often contended with squat toilets or troughs separated by waist high walls, and water didn’t seem to flush away the waste. The smells of China assaulted from all directions.
Of course, there were positives: I never saw such hard-working people as the Chinese.
It seemed common practice for students to socialize with teachers, and I made a great many memories with them. I had the easiest commute I’d ever had: a 5 minute bicycle ride from my apartment to my classroom. I only worked till noon most days. Free time was in abundance until it wasn’t; when it was time to mark essays, I was caught up in a quagmire of badly constructed paragraphs and Google-translated sentences.
I traveled extensively: to the Longji Rice Terraces and to Yangshuo and the karsts along the Li River in Guangxi Province.
I saw the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, the beautiful Yunnan Province, the traditional village of Fenghuang, as well as big cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai. My son and my husband came separately to visit and I was able to travel with them around China. I spent a fabulous two weeks in Myanmar, one of my favorite Asian countries.
Escape was in the cards. It was visible on the horizon. I bought a ticket for July 15, 2015 from Nanning to Beijing, China then to Vancouver, then on to L.A. where I would visit my sister near L.A., California for about a week on my way home to Virginia. I had only a 1 1/2 hour layover in Vancouver, and I worried from the outset I might miss the connection, as planes are notoriously late taking off from airports in China.
I left my humble abode in Nanning, China, that Wednesday morning, locking the keys inside. I felt a little strange leaving the place I’d lived for the last year, knowing I would never see it again. Outside, a car arranged by the university was waiting to drive me to the airport. At the airport, I checked in without incident at Shenzhen Airlines for my 9:40 flight.
I had a 3-hour- 20-minute layover in Beijing and I would check in to Air Canada at the same terminal where I arrived. My plane surprisingly left Nanning on time. When I arrived in Beijing at 12:45 p.m., I picked up my bags from the baggage claim and made my way to Air Canada, where I had to stand in a long, slow-moving line to check my bags back in for the international flight.
Then, I hit a roadblock. The lines for Customs/Immigration were snaking queues with hundreds of people in them, and they were barely moving. I stood in that line for well over an hour. By then I was worried I would miss my plane from Beijing to Vancouver! After sending my bags and tennis shoes and every possession through security, I had only a half hour before we boarded. We boarded and were ready to take off on time; however, air traffic control told the pilot we would have a 30-minute delay, which worried me as I had that short layover in Vancouver.
I realized too late that I was booked into a middle seat, and it couldn’t be changed to an aisle seat because the flight was fully booked. Misery! I sat between two Chinese boys, one of whom spoke both fluent English and Chinese. He was from Los Angeles, but had spent his school years studying in China and would attend Berkeley in the fall. He chatted with me a long time about his plans to do a double major in mechanical engineering and economics. When he talked to the boy on the other side of me, they spoke over me in Chinese. He said, “I hope you don’t mind us talking over you.” I said, half-jokingly, “I don’t mind but I’d rather you switch seats with me!” After several hours, he luckily took me up on my request and gave me his aisle seat, which made my a 10-hour & 20-minute flight marginally more comfortable.
When we arrived in Vancouver at noon, the Chinese boy and I took off together toward our flight bound to L.A. and hit a bottleneck. About 25 people were standing in a slow-moving line. First, an Air Canada attendant asked us to identify our bags on a TV screen. One of my bags was visible on the screen, but the other wasn’t, so she told me to go sit in a room until I could verify both bags. I told her we had a very short connection, but she didn’t seem phased. The Chinese boy had to wait to identify his bags as well. When we finished, we were finally able to get into a slow-moving line through U.S. Customs, which had gotten longer while we were held up. I told one of the officials from the airline that we had a very short connection, but she said, “It’s U.S. Customs and I have nothing to do with that!” I commiserated with the Chinese boy, who was three people behind me, that we were never going to make our flight. Suddenly he pushed his way to the front of the line and I (who can’t stand people who cut in line, and would never do it myself under ordinary circumstances) followed him. He said, “I called my mother and she told me not to talk to the officials. She says I should depend on the kindness of strangers.” We begged the people at the front of the line to let us in so we wouldn’t miss our flight. Luckily, they kindly allowed us to pass, although the poor people behind them had no say in the matter.
At U.S. Customs, the officer asked me where I was staying, and where I lived. I told him and then mentioned that we had a very short connection. He said, in that way that people in positions such as these like to flex their power, “You can’t rush me, lady. I will take as long as I need to take.” I said, “Fine!” Then he asked a few more questions and released me. I won’t mention the name I called him when I was out of earshot.
At that point we saw our gate #83 was at the far end of a long hall, and over the loudspeaker, I heard my name among a list of names for “last call.” I panicked: “That’s us! We need to run!” The boy and I tore through the airport, and barely managed to board the plane. The airline stewardesses closed the door behind us and we took off as scheduled at 1:00 p.m.
I made it to LA right on time, by 4:00 p.m. My sister Stephanie was waiting to pick me up and we headed directly to dinner at a cozy sushi place. We celebrated by drinking hot sake followed by cold Sapporo. I was happy to be with my sister on American soil after one of the longest days of my life. It was still Wednesday, July 15 when I arrived in LA around 4:00 p.m., having left China at 6:30 a.m. that same morning. 🙂
A week later, I returned to our house in Virginia, which was a disaster. Our kitchen and deck badly needed replacing. We would embark on a major construction project in early 2016 to redo the kitchen, knocking down the wall between our family room and kitchen. We would also tear down the deck and replace it with a screened-in porch, and change our laundry room into a mudroom/pantry/laundry room.
While I was in China, I had set up an appointment with a gastroenterologist because I had been so sick in China all year. However, as soon as I got home, all my stomach problems mysteriously disappeared. The doctor was baffled as to why I had come in, and he told me to keep eating healthy and exercising and I would probably continue to feel fine.
The one thing I did most religiously once I returned home was to exercise, walking three miles each day. I gained 7 pounds in China, and I was already heavier than I would have liked BEFORE I left for China.
I went to a women’s mid-life retreat in Monterey, Virginia where I found after taking a quiz that these were my top five strengths:
- Curiosity and interest in the world
- Love of learning
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
- Fairness, Equity and Justice
- Humor and playfulness
Other than my constant exercising, household chores, de-cluttering, moving my kids out and onward, and attending the retreat, I also saw some interesting movies in theaters, including A Borrowed Identity, Trainwreck, Samba, The End of the Tour, Phoenix, Ricki and the Flash, and Mr. Holmes. I made up for the time I lost in China! I also watched the last season of Last Tango in Halifax and got involved in the Danish political series, Borgen.
I was surprised on Thursday, August 6, to get a text message from one of my Chinese students, Christine. She wrote that she was on a train from New York to Washington with her mother and they hoped to take me out to dinner in Washington. Mike and I trekked downtown and took Christine and her mother to the Lincoln Restaurant. Christine’s English wasn’t bad, and her mother could understand and speak limited English. When the server tried to explain the complex dishes, such a far stretch from Chinese dishes, Christine said immediately that all she wanted was meat. She ordered s plate of BBQ ribs, and we had to demonstrate how she should eat them. The plate was almost as big as she was. Neither she nor her mother had any interest in the small plates Mike and I ordered: Ricotta gnocchi, Shrimp & Grits, and the Pennsylvania Chicken Pot Pie. When the waitress put the Shishito Pepper Hush Puppies on the table, Christine asked tentatively: “Is that dog meat?” We were taken aback momentarily by her misunderstanding of the word “puppies,” and we got quite a laugh out of it. 🙂
Other than exercising, I worked on a 5-hour free grammar course (more like 10+ hours!) and a pre-task for the course I would beginning September 21 at Teaching House, which ran the University of Cambridge CELTA (the Certificate in English Language Teaching), the most widely accepted TESOL program in the world. It was a month-long highly intensive course.
As for reverse culture shock, I didn’t experience it as much this time as the first two times I returned home from abroad. The main reason was that I’d let go of all expectations. I didn’t expect any friends to contact me. I had found myself whittling down my list of friends each time I returned from abroad as I didn’t feel like bothering to contact people who never made any effort with me. There were people I loved and cared for: people who didn’t judge me and people who made me laugh and people with whom I had a shared history; those people would continue to be part of my life. The others would fall by the wayside, as is the case with friendships left to wither.
I was happy to have spent time in China, dipping myself into a culture that was so far from my American life that daily life lost its monotony, that was, until it became routine. China seems to be demonized by so many countries, but, as is most often the case, it’s difficult to demonize individuals. I enjoyed most of the Chinese folks I encountered, and I came away with an appreciation for the history and the modern day struggles of that teeming and chaotic society.
“ON RETURNING HOME” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about returning home from one particular destination or, alternately, from a long journey encompassing many stops. How do you linger over your wanderings and create something from them? How have you changed? Did the place live up to its hype, or was it disappointing? Feel free to address any aspect of your journey and how it influences you upon your return. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
For some ideas on this, you can check out the original post about this subject: on returning home.
Include the link in the comments below by Sunday, December 2 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Monday, December 3, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation on the first Monday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired! See below in the comments for any links. 🙂
Thanks to all of you who wrote posts about “on returning home.” 🙂