Sunday, July 2, 2017

Goodbye and Thank You, China

Semester is over!
These past few hot and rainy weeks in Nanning, we've been preparing to leave. I have finished final exams, and most of our stuff--from lamps and cushions to blender and bikes--has new owners. Our friends will come to retrieve those things and say goodbye Friday morning before we head out to the airport.

Ten months we've been in China. It's the longest we've lived in one abode since launching our nomadic life 4 years ago. Life here has been charming and challenging. Sweet and soul-stretching. Exciting and unnerving.
campus lotus pond

If we were planning to stay here longer, I would embark on an immersion course in the language. The little bit of language study Dave and I did before coming wasn't nearly enough. At first it wasn't a problem. I am teaching in a university program that focuses on English, so we were surrounded by English-speaking Chinese people and ex-pats. Also, I made liberal use of my translation app.

You never know what you'll see when you're taking a stroll.
However, to be able to deeply connect to people--and to move around with ease--knowing more Chinese feels crucial. It got old relying on others to do some of the simplest things for us, like order take-out or buy a ticket to the movies.

Another challenge has been the food. While at first I fell in love with it, if I never see another dumpling, noodle or rice dish in my life I don't care! There is not enough variety in the diet for my taste. Well...there is variety if you're willing to eat mystery meat, duck feet, and organs. As Lee, Dave's 11-year-old tutee said, the Chinese eat everything.

Farmer's market butcher: you know it's fresh when...
We did enjoy our outings to the campus farmers market, a great place to buy fresh eggs, fruit and veggies at cheap prices. And we have found a few restaurants we like a lot...although our absolutely favorite one just closed down, perhaps a sign that our leave-taking is good timing.

The "egg lady" kindly posed for a picture.
Another sign may be the state of our apartment. It's a beautiful place with large rooms and bay windows (albeit barred) that look out over a lotus pond. And the ease of the 5-minute walk to class cannot be understated. However, Dave has named our bathroom "Little Shop of Horrors" because unidentified goop seeps from the ceiling down the walls. Sometimes we hear rats scurrying up there. And now when you run the water in the sink, it leaks onto the floor. Also, for months, water has been seeping through a wall in the office space. A maintenance crew came to look at it a few times, but apparently there is no remedy.
E-bike wackiness
This acceptance of things that my Western, middle-class culture might not endure has been part of the challenge and charm of China. There's a laid-back quality that's appealing. You even see it in the traffic. It might look chaotic, but generally people go quite slowly and weave around each other like a choreographed dance. That e-bike might be cutting off a bike or pedestrian, but everyone just sways one way or the other and doesn't change their pace. One move like that in California, and someone is likely to pull out a middle finger, if not a gun.
They take the afternoon siesta seriously here.
Today (Sunday) I was notified of a graduation ceremony Tuesday morning I'm required to attend. Two days notification of a major event would send many people I know into a tizzy. Here, two days is quite a bit of advance notice. I can't say I always go with the flow, but China has been teaching me to notice when I don't and what that says about me.

Popular in China!
Teaching in China has reached extremes of charm and challenge. The challenges have come with the bureaucratic minutia that I've alluded to in other entries and won't rehash here. Another challenge has been preparing lessons that build enough background knowledge of American culture so students can understand the material. In the course of teaching the book and film Wild, for example, I introduced the students to Adrienne Rich, Jerry Garcia, "therapist," Pacific Crest Trail, Minnesota, the term "beacon" as a light and a metaphor for a guidepost, and a few of Simon and Garfunkel's songs. There are always moments when I have to decide if I'm going to introduce a new term, drill down on one idea, or keep moving forward.

Whose name is whose?
For the most part, the students have been very patient with me! And I with them. We learn a lot from each other. And the notion that Chinese students are not "creative," I can now say with assurance, is bunk. They wrote some of the most wonderful poetry and memoir pieces. They created videos, sang songs, played music, and shared their visual art.

The student-created class magazine.
It's not that Chinese students aren't creative. It's that their middle school and high school years are drenched in study, with an eye to getting a good score on the gao kow, the 9-hour college entrance exam. Not many are encouraged in creative pursuits. But the human spirit being what it is, the students retain the impulse to create, to express their unique voices.
Students love these wacky phone apps!
Some admitted to me that they would like to pursue dancing, singing, acting and other arts but that their parents insisted they major in Economics or Engineering. I told these students that everyone has extra time: "Some play video games. Some play sports. You can use that time to write or dance or whatever it is you love." I gave the example of Khaled Hosseini who wrote The Kite Runner while working as a doctor, and William Carlos Williams who was also a doctor and a well-known poet.

One student last semester told me he wanted to be a filmmaker but his parents were making him become an accountant. After offering him the both/and spiel, I emphasized how lucky he is that today's technology makes filmmaking easier and cheaper than ever before. A few weeks ago, he sped up to me on his e-bike proclaiming, "Kate! Kate! I want to tell you, I'm making a movie! A full-length film. My friends and I wrote the screenplay." His eyes were alive with joy. If that's a mark I leave behind, what more could I ask?
Tina and me with smoothies, post-yoga.
China has left its mark on me, an impact that I probably won't fully process for a while. The biggest one has been my connection with Tina, our student assistant whom--as you know if you've been reading this blog--has become like a daughter to us. Leaving her is going to be rough. We have asked her to join us next month for a week in Bali. I'm praying her parents will allow it so we will squeeze out a bit more time together.

Dave and I would have loved to have traveled more in China while we were here. However, my breaks fell on Chinese holidays, which would mean traveling with crowds of millions. Also, there was the language issue as well as the fact that traveling in China is more expensive than traveling in S.E. Asia, which is deliriously cheap.

On my last break we slipped away for a few days to a resort in Malaysia.
Sepang, Malaysia
When we embarked on our experiment of living nomadically, I could not have foreseen all the incredible things we've experienced this year. Now we are headed for 2 months of travel in Indonesia and a month in Thailand, where I will run a writing retreat.

Thank you, China. I have a feeling we will return one day to explore more of what you have to offer.