Thursday, July 22, 2010

And I'm always glad I came

I can't believe it, but I have only a week and a half left in Wuhan. It feels totally unreal. This city became my Chinese home. I look back to three years ago and I still marvel at how right it felt to be here, how sure I was from the beginning that this was where I belonged. I am equally sure now that this chapter has come to its end, but it doesn't change the surreal feeling that I get when I think of saying goodbye. The likelihood is that I will never come back to this city. I've moved plenty of times before, but always with a feeling that I'd probably see some of the people in my life again, or come back to visit, and that it wasn't a forever goodbye. But with Wuhan, I feel like melodramatically quoting Shakespeare as I walk around these days, "Eyes look your last, arms take your last embrace..."

Because the truth is, as with any place, you can't go back once you leave. This city has torn itself down and rebuilt itself already in so many places during the last three years; it's a totally different Wuhan than it was when I first came. It will go on transforming itself once I leave. So even if I do make it back to China and stop through, it will be another Wuhan. And that's life anywhere and everywhere, so I'm saying my goodbyes to this crazy hodgepodge place that has become so dear to me.

So on a positive note, I've been thinking a lot of the ways I've changed, or grown, during the past three years. Here are some of the main ones:

-I've become more sure of God's providence:

I could never have made it here and thrived here if He hadn't given me, from the moment I was born, the tools to do this. And every step of the way, He has been there...even when I ignored it, ready to guide me through this life over here step by step. He's taken me through the thrilling steps when I was learning so much and doing so much and through the more exhausting steps when I was tired of being here and felt ineffective. He's been there during the steps when I was selfish and just wanted to do my own thing without His interference just as much as the steps when I was so on fire and excited about being totally His. I've learned a certain balance in my relationship with Him where I don't beg for the high highs and don't sink into the low lows as quickly. He's held me when I felt sad and lonely from heartbreak and he's held me when I felt invincible and strong. I knew that He would when I came over here, but now I trust that He's going to take care of my next steps more than ever. I used to worry so much about being used by Him, afraid that I'd never get to serve Him in any big way...and now I only have thankfulness that He let me come over here and that He's going to keep using me where ever He leads me.

-I've become more sure of who I am:

I didn't come to China to find myself or anything like that, but what has happened is that living here has given me the opportunity to BE more of who I really am. I've gained confidence in myself and I've lived as the flawed, free-spirited person who I always have been. I used to hear stories of people who did crazy things like backpacking for months or climbing up ancient temples or jumping off of cliffs into water and it would light up a part of my soul, but I wasn't sure if I really had it in me to do it. Now I have proven to myself that I do. I left the security of America and came out here and have made a home, had adventures, made friends who have become family, and lived vibrantly. I've learned to speak about what is most important to me, to be more honest about who I am, to trust my instincts and to allow myself a flexible future that is not hemmed in by a traditional path. It's not the path that everyone is called to, but I am. And I trust that now.

-I got a second chance at youth and a greater comfort with imperfections (my own and others):

China gave me a chance to experience both youthful zeal and youthful folly. When I was in high school and college there was a lot of instability in my life, so my reaction was an overly firm conviction in the need to be perfect, successful and stable. I worked hard. From the time I was 16 until I was 22, I was employed, often by several jobs at once. There might have been a few weeks when I wasn't actually working and was in between a hometown job and a college job, but not a day went by from 16 to 22 when I wasn't on the payroll somewhere. This was a HUGE blessing during that time, and I still had a LOT of fun in both high school and college. But I had very black and white judgments on what the right kinds and wrong kinds of life were, and I wasn't the least bit forgiving of those who fell short of my version of the right kind of life. I was arrogant and busy for a large portion of my youth. And I didn't make mistakes.

Then when I got a job where I had to act like a 40 year old on a daily basis, I realized that I was missing out on something that was important to me. So when I lost that job and had to decide my next step, I knew that I wanted to do something that lit me up on the inside. And China was it.

Teaching in China has given me a chance to be lively and silly on a daily basis. I have had fun with my students (for the most part). I've laughed. And the job is honestly a part-time gig. I've never worked less in my life, even during this past year when I worked for a more "professional" company with more hours. And in all that free time, I've been YOUNG! I've gotten to live as a 20-something...with spending money. And it's been so fun. I've danced, I've had great friendships, I've laughed like crazy, I've traveled, I've dated, I've made all sorts of good and bad decisions, I've tried new things, I've been lazy and hard working, I've failed at times, I've thrived at times...etc. Overall, I feel that during the past three years I've had a chance to be my own age, and I'm so grateful for that.

-I appreciate international nuance more than ever

The world is a really cool, fascinating place, but it's also a mess. My worldview has grown, thank heavens, and I can't even come close to quantifying all the things that I've learned. I'm NO expert on China, but I understand it in a way that I would have never imagined. I know more about what questions to ask about so many different topics and I have a greater understanding of the way that my American background affects my view of things. It's been a field education in politics, sociology, anthropology and history and I've loved almost every bit of it.

-I am more comfortable with not knowing my future

I mentioned this earlier, but I think it deserves its own bullet. I have no clue where I will be five years from now, much less 20, and I like that. And I'm more thankful than ever for the people in my life who accept that about me.

-I'm more thankful for my family and my upbringing

I couldn't have done this without the independence, curiosity, and homemaking skills that I learned from my mom. I'm so thankful that I grew up in a home where my mom cooked dinner from scratch so often and could give me advice when I lived the first year without an oven to cook with. I've made my apartments so homey, and that's entirely because my mom taught me how by example. I've never felt more Southern than when I hang out with my coworkers, and I'm proud of that. Southerners are NICE, and polite, and a little tacky (ok, redneck is probably the better word for it). I like it. My family has been there for me in so many different ways and I've been so glad to have them there unfailingly on the other end of the Skype calls.

-I know more of what I need (or really really LIKE) in life to be comfortable

Hot showers, western style toilets (at least in my own apartment...I don't mind using the squatties around town, but in my house, I like to sit, not squat. It may be too much information, but it's a part of life here), cold diet cokes, and some access to potato dishes. Moderately fast internet. Heat in the winter. DVDs of American tv. Books. Coffee in the mornings. Everything else is GREAT, but those are the most important to me here. If I can have these things in a living situation, I'm a happy camper.

-I'm more comfortable with a lack of sanitation in food situations

One day as we were eating in a street restaurant, I pulled a long hair out of my food and we all laughed, remembering when that would have stopped us cold from eating another bite. China's just...different. One of the things I'll miss most is street food...which is nothing more than a table set up on the curb with a wok and open baskets of food to be thrown into it. You stand and have your food prepared for about 50 cents as cars drive by, birds fly overhead, babies pee on the corner, people spit as they walk past, dust flies in the air, etc. Who knows what goes on the greasy kitchens of the actual restaurants. My favorite restaurant has a case of rats. Big ones. But the food tastes good and we block out all of the many worries that once came to our minds. Yes, I've had plenty of food poisoning. I've even gone to the hospital for it. But, that's life and it's not that big of a deal.

-I've lost whatever small sense of fashion that I ever had

I've never really been able to judge how to match clothes college my best friend teased me that I bought outfits based on what the manikins were wearing and then never deviated from their fashion examples once I brought the outfits home. But now, with the crazy collections of clothes that are worn over here, I have absolutely NO IDEA of how to dress fashionably or what makes an outfit nice or not. I'm pretty simple myself and I like what I like, so I'm ok with it. But I really will be unable to give any fashion opinions once I get home...I have no clue.

In so many ways, China has changed my life. I know that it might actually be years from now when I finally grasp the full extent of how deeply it changed me, but I know for now that I'm eternally grateful for the life I've had here and will always treasure it. I'll be writing more as I get ready to leave, but this post is already too long and I'm getting overly emotional, so for now I'll say goodnight.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where Everybody Knows My Name

So much has changed over these past three years. When I first came, there were about 3 Western restaurants other than the ever present McD's, KFC, and Pizza Huts. Now, we can choose from 7 or 8 good Western places, plus sushi, Starbucks and Papa Johns. And the best of these is Helen's.

About 2 months ago, a friend and I were chatting in the elevator of our apartment when a Chinese girl tried to hand us a flyer. Nearly ignoring her, we said "bu yao" (don't want) and were about to continue our conversation when she began speaking pretty good English and told us that her aunt was opening a Western restaurant nearby. The flyer advertised macaroni and cheese, hamburgers and other good things. When they opened, we were some of their first customers.
Me and Susan, the girl who first told us about Helen's

I've mentioned many times that there are plenty of places that claim to have Western style food, and many Chinese people think that they are eating Western food...but for the foreigners, it's the equivalent of a "Chinese Mandarin chicken salad" from Wendy's...not quite Chinese. Not quite good. The "salads" come with mayonnaise as dressing. The "sandwiches" have Chinese "ham" and fried eggs on them w/cucumbers and carrot slices as toppings. The "chicken pasta" comes with bones.

But Helen's is real. Real hamburgers, real cheese, real nachos, real salad dressing. And it's at the base of my apartment. So for the past two months, it's been our clubhouse. Helen is one of the sweetest Chinese women I have met and I am now part of the family. I call her my auntie. We go so often that we often get free food and always get 10 percent discounts. I've had two big parties there so far and brought plenty of friends there to bring her business, so it's a good trade.

Helen and Ping (Ping is wearing a wig for my wig party!)

Now when I go in, they usually know what I'll order. The servers have become friends with all of us; a coworker is teaching two of them how to play guitar, we have met their children, they come to hang out with us after work. It's amazing. I feel so close to all of them that it's making it even harder to think about leaving.

It's funny how I feel so connected to China through food. When I first lived here, the man who I went to for fried rice learned my name. The little restaurant on campus where I would eat my Kung Pao Chicken and fried potatoes knew exactly what we liked and treated us like family. Now on my new street, I have a fried noodles lady who likes me to hold her baby girl and teach her English. They call me "The pretty American with emerald eyes"(at least that's what my Chinese friend told me) and they always add extra green onions and cabbage to my fried noodles. My market lady knows that I usually want 3 bananas, 4 carrots, several potatoes and 2 onions. She knows that I like eggplant and broccoli and don't like peas or soy beans. And the vendor on the corner knows that I'll always buy diet coke or coke zero from her whenever they have some.

It's these little things that I'll miss so deeply. Street food is amazing, but even more amazing are the connections with the people. They smile and praise me any time I learn more Chinese to use with them, they notice if I've done my hair differently, they tell me about their kids. There's nothing like it anywhere in the States, and I'm trying to savor every last moment of it. Who would have thought that on random streets in a random city in China, I'd feel so at home.