The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It Was All a Dream...

Surreal…that’s how it felt about a year ago, when I stepped off the plane and entered the brave new world of the Middle Kingdom…a hundred thoughts racing through my mind, grasping desperately at any way to make it feel more like the home that I knew and resorting instead to ignorant jokes and gross generalizations about the country and its people…Now, one year later, I find myself in the same place…Feeling like it's all a dream…feeling…hoping…wishing I will wake up and find myself stepping into Dalian Airport rather than a terminal at Newark Liberty International…Once again, I’m desperately grasping for what I know… except this time it’s Dalian, China that I’ve known for the past year…And my mind is once again racing with a hundred thoughts…or rather a hundred faces…

The wide-eyed and not yet jaded faces of the bundles of preciousness at the Dalian Children’s Orphanage…The angelic smile of my quirky little six-year-old student as she reached up to kiss the pendant on my necklace and then my cheek when I said goodbye…The beautiful, brown face of my first Chinese teacher—a sharp, silly, straight-to-the-point, genuine friend…The thoughtful, dreamy look on the face of a coworker and confidante I’ve often referred to as the Fresh Princess of Jayland due to her funky-fresh brand of style…The bright China doll eyes and mouth of a more recent coworker who fast became one of my very close friends…and the toothy grin of her inquisitive and incredibly sweet boyfriend—an oddly perfect combination of confidence and sheepishness—whom I dubbed with an English name after my own brother…The exquisite, fair features and style of one of the very first Chinese teachers I ever co-taught with—a mix of wit, frankness and poise along with an incredibly extensive English vocabulary that probably surpasses most educated Americans…The peaceful and charming smile of a coworker and friend whose profound wisdom was initially kept hidden behind the wall of limited language but is now finally being realized by her American peers…The “sunshine smile” and sincerity of my second Chinese teacher and her refreshingly innocent, yet unintentionally humorous comments…The smart, perky yet no-nonsense countenance of a teacher I consider to be one of the very best at Jayland and who continually comes in each day and displays an unshakable resilience in the face of overwork, underpay and even less appreciation…The pensive expression of my coworker, officemate and fellow writer as he furrows his eyebrows while huddled over his computer…The calm blue eyes of my first roommate and fellow Christian who introduced me to a whole community of friendly and inviting Christian faces…The childlike glee that strikes without warning across the face of my surprisingly down-to-earth, incredibly smart doctorate-holding coworker when someone else in the office cracks a quirky joke…The gut-busting expression that my otherwise peaceful and admirably socially-conscious coworker displays nearly every time I make a quip about one of the absurdities of our school…The “so handsome” baby-face mug of the laid-back, wise-cracking, potty-mouthed, gold-hearted, hip-hop headed coworker I’ve come to call brother and am going to miss in ways I cannot even express in words…And then, there’s the face of one of the sweetest, kindest, adventurous and all-around beautiful souls I have ever had the immense blessing to know with a life story that seriously belongs in a novel (we’ve actually already devised a title for it :o)), and a persevering, positive attitude that has inspired me nearly every day. Hers is the face of constant compassion and care, even in the face of her own adversaries. It’s a face that readily invites new friendships. It’s the face of the woman I’ve come to call my very best friend here. And it’s the face among all faces that I will miss the absolute most.

There are so many more faces…So many more. I was being quite literal when I said hundreds…Hundreds of beautiful faces…that have given me hundreds of beautiful memories about this beautiful country.

I’m sorry if this post has a little too much sap for your taste and not enough of the usual snark, but at this point in time, I am far too overwhelmed to come up with anything witty to say. Even as I write this, I am literally, sitting on an American-bound plane, trying frantically in my head to figure out, how it is that I’ve gotten to this point. How is it that it is really all over? Didn’t I just arrive yesterday? Wasn’t I just reasoning through my outrageous decision to go to China in the first place…to leave my home and everyone I know for the great unknown? And now…as I sit on the other side of this journey, I realize that Dalian has become my home…and China has been one of the greatest experiences I have ever known.

I really don’t know quite how to end this, except to implore anyone reading this to explore—whether that means exploring new places, new cultures, new career paths or just new ideas. If God puts it inside you, it was meant to pursue. Don’t let your fear keep you from what might possibly be the greatest blessing of your life. You really just don’t know what lies on the other side. I didn’t. And honestly, I still don’t. But I’m okay with that. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know Who holds my future. And He hasn’t let me down yet. And with that being said (or written), I guess all that’s left to say is zaijian (which literally means “again see”)…until the next journey. :o)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Habits Die Hard

Over the last year, I’ve admittedly cracked a fair share of jokes about the daily interactions and reactions I’ve witnessed here in China that I’ve deemed peculiar, or just plain weird. Whether my wisecracks were bred out of my own cultural ignorance or justified bemusement remains to be seen. However, what has become very apparent to me is that I, myself, have picked up quite a few quirks and impulses, which—as I look toward my highly anticipated return home at the end of this week—might strike some of my fellow countrymen as well…weird.

Now, I’m not so audacious as to say that after just one year, I’ve somehow fully assimilated to China’s incredibly complex culture. But I will say that living here has definitely left me with a few new idiosyncrasies that might be hard to drop upon my return to the states. Here are a just a few of the reentrance, readjustment issues I imagine I’ll face:

1. “And I’m like ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’”— Ok, I’m not trying to sound conceited or anything, but I’m like kind of a big deal here. :o) I imagine life for me here has been somewhat comparable to that of a D-List celebrity. People stare and whisper when you walk by, children giggle with excitement when you wave at them, restaurants seat you in VIP rooms, businesses give you free stuff and VIP cards, everybody wants to take pictures of you or with you (I even once caught a guy snapping a picture of me behind a tree in a park—the China-razzi.) People are always going on about how cool you are and asking you things about your fabulous American life (and then, going back and telling their friends what a dumb, conceited, loser you are.) Anyway, it might be possible that I’ve developed a little bit of a complex here. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a shock to my inflated ego not to have people constantly staring and pointing at me anymore or asking to touch my magical hair. I imagine I will, in turn, end up doing most of the staring from now on, trying desperately to lock eyes with just one intrigued individual in order to once again validate my own self-importance (In the end, I’ll probably just gain the attention of some weird, creepy guy hanging out in a subway station.) 

2.  The Non-existent Language Barrier—One time, while shopping at a Western import store here, I saw an American woman that I recognized. As I passed her, I looked directly at her and said to my friend quite loudly, “You see that woman, right there, I know her, but I cannot remember her name.” Then, it immediately struck me: This woman speaks English…She can understand me right now. I even opened my mouth to share this divine revelation with my friend…and then, I realized that once again this woman would understand if I said that, too. That’s when it hit me…I’ve gotten so used to people having no idea what I’m saying, that it’s become habitual for me to voice whatever thought about them pops into my head—however, obnoxious—as I stare them right in the face. It’s actually kind of scary how accustomed I’ve become to it. I’m seriously afraid that when I get back to the states I’m going to see someone I know and just half-wittedly blurt out something like, “Wow, well she sure gained a lot of weight, now, didn’t she?”

3. “Are you gonna eat that?”—In most restaurants and during most meals in general here, food is served family-style, which means one big bowl for everyone to share. It is perfectly fine to continually pick food out of the communal dish or off your friends’ plates without asking, even after your chopsticks are covered in your own saliva. Sanitary concerns aside, I’ve actually come to really enjoy eating in this fashion. It emphasizes sharing and truly embracing the company you keep (and plus, at restaurants I was always that kid who wanted to try whatever everyone else was eating) Anyway, given my voracious affinity for any and all food, I could see myself, almost unconsciously, grabbing something from somebody else’s plate without so much as an “Are you gonna eat that?” Let me just preemptively apologize to all my friends for that now :o)

4. 15% PLUS Gratuity???—Tipping. Ugh! We’re back to that again? For a glorious 372 days now, I have not been obligated to leave a single extra cent for any service offered in the fine People’s Republic of China. In fact, I was told that offering a tip would actually insult most employees in the service sector here, including taxi drivers. It’s considered condescending. However, I honestly wasn’t all that interested in the reasons behind it as much as the savings behind it. I’m sure I must have literally saved thousands in RMB simply by not tipping. It’s such a beautiful thing! But alas, in a few short days, I will be back to a world where waiters, taxi drivers, cashiers, bellhops, bagboys and even people who just hand you a paper towel on your way out of the bathroom expect some sort of financial compensation for their mediocre service. I know, I sound like a stingy, insensitive elitist (and maybe I am), but seriously, you deal with New York customer service for three years, and then talk to me about freakin’ gratuity for a job half done. Sorry...thinking about this has obviously brought up some deep-seeded emotions.

5.  Full-contact Walking?—One thing I really don’t think I’ll be able to shake for a while is the constant urge to look over my shoulder when walking. No, not because I’m afraid of being followed. It’s because I’m afraid of being hit…by a car. In China (or Dalian, at least), cars drive on the sidewalk. They also drive on the wrong side of the road…in between lanes…through red lights…through buildings…Let me be clear, there are 101 stereotypes about Chinese people that are absolutely not true (they don’t all look alike by any stretch of the imagination, they aren’t all good at math, they definitely aren’t all short, the women are not docile and submissive…) BUT that one about the driving…Yeah, TOTALLY TRUE. I am so sorry to concede to this, but it is what it is.       

Then, there’s all the other miscellaneous habits…greeting everyone I see with an over-inflected “Hel-looo!”…staring at perfect strangers for uncomfortably long periods of time…haggling with salespeople…answering every question with “dui” (meaning “correct”) or “uh” (meaning everything else depending on your tone)…using mime-like hand motions when using nouns or verbs with more than one syllable.

Who really knows at this point if any of the above will even stick with me at all once I get off that plane. I might just be a product of my current environment. But if they do last and I find myself ostracized by an abundance of irritated and weirded-out American friends…well, there’s always room in Chinatown. :o)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Beginning of the End

I hate packing for a move…I feel like I do it far too often. But I suppose that is a common plight of us transient 20-somethings. I think it’s the whole notion of taking all these bits and pieces of life that have been so carefully and thoughtfully sorted out into a nice, neat, peaceful existence, and tossing them all back into a box to be jumbled up all over again. It almost makes the whole idea of unpacking in the first place—of transforming the place you stay into the place you live—pointless…meaningless. The more comfortable we make our stay, the more painful it feels when it’s time to leave. And for me, that time is just about here. This week, I reluctantly packed my first box of items to be shipped back to the states. In a few short weeks my time in China will come to an end, and what was once a part of my everyday existence—with all its adventures, misadventures, joys and frustrations—will become just a surreal memory.

I think my mind can’t yet grasp just how close it is to the end of my stay here because I still feel like I haven’t had enough time for the beginning…The questions I came here with… many still unresolved…the goals I set…many still unfulfilled. But then again, this isn’t some perfectly woven together script in which all the pieces convene in a harmonious cinematic ending…This is life. And in my life, this is just another chapter—a chapter filled with humorous cultural exchanges; mystical ancient cities; breath-taking landscapes; bustling, glistening metropolises; budding friendships; touching family reunions; chance meetings and romantic encounters (but I don’t kiss and tell :o)); singing, dancing and badly choreographed Kung Fu fight scenes; some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted (some of the worst, too); and some of the most beautiful, generous, inquisitive, kind-hearted people I’ve ever met (Hillary, Hanna, Linda, Agnes, Dawn, Betty, Sharon, Sophia, Jim, Michael, Lily, Sunny, Abby, Emma, Walker, Zoe, Jamie, Kelly, Spring, Olivia, Beva, Linda, Cam, Heidi, Mena…just to name a few).

And it was a chapter, of course, filled with writing…my sanity. I came…I saw…and I wrote. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and yes, that is absolutely true. But I think it’s also true that a word can hold a thousand images…a phrase can hold ten-thousand…and a sentence can unleash an endless stream of memories…at least, that’s my opinion. But then again, I am a writer. And I haven’t exactly completed this chapter just yet. Who knows what the next few weeks hold? In the meantime, I should probably get back to packing away more of my life back into boxes…yet again.

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