Dispatches from the Front: My Year in China

I posted recently about the year I lived in China and how it changed me. While preparing those posts, I reread the journal that I'd kept during that year and found it highly unsatisfactory, mostly because I used my journal for emotional dumping. If you were to read only that source, you would think that I spent the year having regular emotional breakdowns. 

I did blog sporadically on another site during that time, but those posts centered mostly on our apartment woes. We lived in a sixth-floor walk-up; the shower never worked properly; there was an open sewer right under our window; we didn't have much hot water; the walls weren't insulated; the heaters didn't really work; our neighbor across the street never wore pants; our door locks broke regularly, etc. etc.). On that blog, I also chronicled our many side trips around Asia. Those posts, written with a wry, self-effacing humor, lend a sort of zany, slapstick quality to the year. That's certainly not the whole story.

Fortunately, I also wrote weekly letters home. My sister Bethany saved a whole packet of them, which she dug up and dumped in my lap after a workout last week. With these letters, I finally have the third leg of my travel tripod. In them, I address the whole spectrum of the experience: culture shock, campus drama, friends, food, coffee, homesickness, travel, teammates, and teaching. 

In a last-ditch effort to offer a rounded view of my year, I've decided to post a snippet from each surviving letter. Enjoy.

[August: Arrive and settle in China. No letters available.]

September 1, 2004 - This week, we interview all of our students for class placement. Each student had to choose an English name at some point in primary or high school, so one of our first interview questions was "How did you choose your English name?" Some of the girls' names have been (and I am not making these up) Sterry, Evita, Apple, Dolphin, and Allan. And we have a boy called Hans. When we asked him why he chose that name, he explained that his Chinese name is Chen Han Han, and the plural of Han in English would have an s at the end. The boys' names as a general rule are not as strange, although one of the students we will interview tonight is recorded as Riddick. Cliff has already decided that we're going to make him call his class journal The Chronicles of Riddick. [Note: His English name turned out to be Roddick. He was great.]

September 13, 2004 - I should talk about something besides food, I suppose.

September 24, 2004 - I find it exhausting to never understand what people are saying, to lose my sense of direction in the subway and not be able to find an English map, to negotiate prices, etc. In short, nothing is easy. The good news is that I'm only exhausted (which is a normal reaction) as opposed to depressed (which is bad).

October 6, 2004 - Rice at every meal plugs me up.

October 14, 2004 - Here in China, every city has something it's famous for: a specialty, if you will. Every Chinese person knows that Beijing is famous for duck, Jungjo is famous for soy sauce, and so forth. Students often ask what my hometown in Florida is famous for. I always want to say pot.

October 18, 2004 - I've nearly finished the can of coffee you sent me, and it only took me, um, five days. I tried so hard to restrain myself.

October 31, 2004 - Yesterday [on the bus] I was sitting next to some girls who looked junior high aged. [Dreah] told me that when I sat down, they started saying "Oh! This foreigner smells so good! Smell her!" And then the girls behind me leaned forward and started sniffing my hair and neck. I never even noticed.

November 14, 2004 - After a year here, I really feel like I could live anywhere.

November 21, 2004 - By the time you get this, it might actually be December. That means I'll be home in eight months! [Wow. A countdown? Already?]

November 28, 2004 - Yesterday we arrived back from our Thanksgiving trip to Zhenjiang. The dinner was delicious, train ride was an adventure, but by far, the best part of the trip was seeing the former home of Pearl S. Buck! It was like a little slice of New England seemingly dropped in the middle of an otherwise dilapidated, old-style Chinese neighborhood. [My friend Cliff distracted the caretaker while I slipped behind a velvet rope and Lucy snapped a picture of me sitting behind Pearl Buck's desk. I do not mention this in the letter.]

December 26, 2004 - I sent you and Lisa letters last week, but unfortunately both of them were returned because I used tape on the postage stamps instead of glue. [Yes, the postage stamps in China at the time did not come with adhesive on them. I'd forgotten.]

[January: Bethany visits, celebrates Spring Festival with us, and gets spectacularly sick. No letters.]

February 16, 2005 - Only five more months until a real shower head will once again be part of my life. [As noted, I blogged at length about our shower situation at another site. Some of you have been around long enough to remember our many shower woes!]

February 23, 2005 - Tonight is supposed to be the Lantern Festival, so Lucy and I are going to have dinner at the favorite [restaurant] and then spy around the neighborhood for kids with lanterns. [A student] told me that it will be "very crowded." One thing I've learned: If a Chinese person says, "very crowded," then the Western equivalent is probably something like "mad house."

March 10, 2005 - Tomorrow's a Carrefour [shopping] day, so I've got to get myself psyched up to go wrestle with the crowds. Last week, there was no cheese. Can you imagine? 

March 17, 2005 - Today I saw three little boys picking the pockets of people on bicycles. They would run up behind a cyclist and reach easily into the pocket, slowing down as the person went on ahead. I've never seen anything like it. [Later in the trip, Cliff would have his pocket picked by someone using a set of kitchen tongs.]

March 31, 2005 - Any word on a condo/house/apartment? This is going to be awesome. How many years have we talked about getting our own place together?

April 11, 2005 - Sorry to start things off on a sour note: I guess this shows what's been dominating my thinking lately: [a certain person] and this whole huge drama that [this person] has stirred up. I haven't talked too much about it in e-mails, and perhaps I won't talk about it when I get home. I'd feel rather like a hobbit trying to explain the battles of Mordor to the ones who never left the Shire. [This month really was very hard, but still. Good gracious. Dramatic much?]

April 26, 2005 - We watched VHS tapes of the Cosby Show today during office hours. [Office hours were the bane of our existence, and we went to great lengths to fill them with some sort of activity. If we didn't take action, students who wanted to practice their English but had no idea what to talk about would congregate in our office and stare at us. I'm not even exaggerating. I loved my students, but office hours were hugely tedious.] 

May 7, 2005 - My comprehension of Chinese is just starting to get good. You know that a person can always understand more of the language than he can actually speak. [A friend] says that I'm amazingly good at catching a few words in each sentence and patching together the entire conversation.

May 15, 2005 - There's some sort of thingie in the auditorium tonight sponsored by the English and Japanese societies [on campus], and I have to go lead games. We're going to play Three-Headed Expert.

June 4, 2005 - I've started to tag everything in my room with little mental labels: Take Home, Leave Here, Trash. Lucy and I have made a pact not to start packing anything until Sunday, June 26. I'm glad we decided, because both of us are feeling so antsy that we could very well wind up packing tomorrow and just living out of our suitcases. [Although we didn't leave China until July, I found out recently that Lucy sneak-packed a duffel bag right after we made this "pact" and hid it in her wardrobe. Lol!]

[July: Arrive home and begin cultural readjustment.]


I hope you've enjoyed this short series. I don't foresee any more posts on this topic in the coming days, but I'd like to encourage you to take advantage of any opportunities you have to work, travel, or live overseas. The challenges are great, but so are the rewards. I have no regrets. 


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