Back in China 1: What’s a Nice Italian Girl from Canonsburg Doing in a Place Like This?

I wrote these a while back, posted them, removed them to clean them up a bit, and now they are back. There are 9 in the Back in China series.  My friend’s posting of the zebra crossing prompted me to dust them off and repost. If you don’t like long-winded storytelling-you might want to quit reading now. And no, I don’t know which one has the zebra crossing story-you’ll have to read them all.

Back in China 1

Recently my better half and I returned to China where we had lived for 9 years, and had raised our family. It was a very sentimental journey, and I wrote about each day’s activities mostly so I would not forget what we did each day.  Surprisingly, many asked me to share these and so here you are. Enjoy!

Back in China Day 1 Thursday, June 30, 2011

When my brother and sister-in-law returned to America after a ten year stint in France, they often were asked “How was France?”  At first they would mistake this question for an earnest desire to know more than a one sentence answer that would encompass their family of eight’s ten year stay.  Eventually the glazed eyes of their friends clued them into the need to come up with a short and sweet answer.  “France was fine” seemed to work.  Therefore in the interest of sparing my friends and family a long travelogue answer, “China’s fine”.  For those who enjoy knowing more details, read on.

When I was finishing my last year of graduate school (2011), in addition to spending hours doodling and daydreaming about my dissertation’s conceptual framework, I often took a journey of the mind and soul back to our family’s nine years in Tianjin, China.  When I would share these musings with my better half, he would caution me that perhaps part of my yearning to return to China was the fun we had as a family, and the joy from the many relationships we shared with both American and Chinese friends who became part of our family.  He maintained, quite reasonably so, that perhaps as an empty nester, (and a reluctant one at that), my return would not provide the happy sentimental journey that I was expecting. In addition to our kids’ growing up and getting on with their adult lives, many of our China friends had moved to other locations all over the world.  However life has taught me a few things; consider them my rules, much like the ones that Jedidiah Gibbes has (from the American TV show, NCIS).

Rule #1:  There are wonderful people everywhere.  I did not acquire this rule from my China trip, but from my life’s journey.  I had indeed met wonderful people in everyplace I had lived, and that includes my recent three year stint at the University of Georgia.  In fact I have not found a place where I did not meet someone who eventually was woven into my ever expanding circle of delightful friends.  Granted, some are only facebook friends now, but nevertheless they are people who make me smile whenever they come to mind. Therefore I returned knowing that I would reconnect with some of those wonderful people, and miss some others, and that’s ok.  I knew though, that I would meet some new delightful people on this trip. They would somehow have to make up for the dear ones that I would miss upon my return to my Chinese hometown.

The Flight

For those of you who know about my anxiety about a 30 hour door to door trip, you will be happy to know that this time things were much better. It turns out that I did not need my huge activity bag because our Air Canada plane came equipped with individual video screens that had a menu of programs that included old classic movies (strange to be watching Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine in the 1941 film Suspicion), to comedy and documentary. As a person who had not watched much TV or movies in the last three years, I was in hog heaven. No more straining to see a big screen of a movie I had no interest in (sorry Jackie Chan).  Joe could watch his action adventure/murder mysteries, and I could watch Nurse Jackie and all the Modern Family episodes again.  I hardly had time to work on Sudoku (yes, I finally finished one), or on my other ten projects. I didn’t even notice that I forgot about my Kindle until we landed.  My left foot, which usually swells up to twice its size, only did so to about half its usual amount (thank you Jazzercise).

Joe commented in his usual insightful and witty sarcasm, that Air Canada could probably lose the French translation of all the boring announcements.  As he put it, “What are the odds that someone on this plane is counting on the French translation of the lavatories are aft?” He had a point; the plane was full of Chinese and a few others. I know, some of the others may have been Canadians who only spoke French, (or Canadian) but… The three fold translation meant that they turned off our videos quite a lot at the beginning of the flight, and we worried that our individual screens that held so much promise would disappoint us due to a threefold announcement every ten minutes.  From my perspective the French was unnecessary, but I found myself looking forward to hearing it. Yes, I understand (in both English and Chinese) that an airsickness bag is provided for ill passengers, but can you say it in French?  Female friends, can I get a witness?  I guarantee that I would not have felt the same way had we been flying on Air Germany. (Sorry Uwe, but German sounds like someone is yelling at me.)

I had so been looking forward to the trip that I had forgotten some of the more unseemly aspects of traveling to and in China, namely, the bathrooms.  Although the Toronto airport bathroom was clean enough as a whole, once you got into the individual stalls (and I tried all of them) you were greeted with a seat and floor covered in urine, an aspect of the Chinese culture that I probably will never understand. I get their point about not wanting to sit where others had, and therefore squatting on the Western toilet (with shoes on of course) to maintain personal sanitation, in their words. What I don’t get, (and Chinese friends feel free to straighten me out) is leaving your own waste on the seat and floor for others to deal with.  I do understand shoe removal in their homes though.

We both noticed the differences of the Chinese group we were traveling with this time. In the past we saw mostly young thirty something couples, some with small children and grandparents, and a few businessmen and students.  This time we traveled with a huge group of Chinese students from both high school and college, who were returning home for the summer after studying in Canada. They told us that there were quite a lot of Chinese students who come there to study nowadays. (Nowadays is one of the most frequently used English words by Chinese nowadays.) We knew about the college students, (Canada is often called Chinada due to the influx of Chinese students and immigrants), but the high school student migration was new to us. We understood their desire to bypass the gao kao however, and wondered once again what this new fix to an old hurdle would do to the cultural, social, and economic values in China.  Is there ever a time when China will change their education system to better serve their students, or will they be content to keep sending younger and younger students abroad to get a good education?  It is a huge problem, and one that my Chinese friends often lament, but do not know how to fix.

Not only were the demographics different but the props and script seemed to have changed as well. This time we did not see the huge red, white and blue polyester zippered bags that could be airline luggage, or could be used to haul cabbage to the local market on one’s mule driven wagon.  Folks who live in China know what I am talking about. Instead there was newly purchased designer luggage, sans the cute Hello Kitty figures attached to the zipper pulls (for the most part).  The students were not dressed in the hand knitted sweaters as we often saw in the past on these flights; they had high fashion clothes, chic haircuts, and designer glasses. They were using their smart phones and Ipads during the trip, and talked in quiet, hushed tones.  Gone was the usual loud chatter that I had found at times annoying, amusing, or admirable, depending on my mood.  No one rushed the gate upon boarding, (a peculiar habit to us since airline seats are assigned), nor did they jump up before the plane stopped and open the storage cabinet to remove their luggage, (to be scolded by the flight attendants) as we had witnessed countless times in the past.  This was not their first rodeo.  These were young, savvy travelers who had lived in the West long enough to have adopted some of its culture, and who grew up with the Internet.

When we landed I could not tell if this time the customs inspection seemed different because the lines were short and much of it was assisted by technology, or because the agents were smiling a bit. In the past we usually encountered a stern, serious official who did not seem to thrilled to have all of us big noses or foreign devils entering their homeland (often with good reason).

Old Friends & Rule #2:  Good friends make anything better.

We were greeted at the airport by Xue Li, our old friend and our company’s driver for about twenty years. As we hugged him, we were reminded of the countless times he had picked up various members of our family, and of his patience and kindness to us.  Unlike most of our Chinese staff, he had never learned to speak English; it was us who had to learn Chinese if we wanted to talk to him (which is totally fair).  So in our awkward Mandarin, we talked of old times, and got caught up on all our news as we rode from Beijing to Tianjin.

My Irish grandfather, Dennis Haggerty Sr. was also a chauffeur, in Philadelphia, and had many wonderful stories to tell. My personal favorite was the rich folks who insisted that the drivers go out to the country and bring home farm fresh eggs, which they did (but the Help ate these and served the city eggs to the family.) Although not considered an educated man, he and his colleagues were keen observers of the mainline Philadelphians whom they served.  The long term service folks always have the skinny on who is a stand up person.  (Rule # 3:  Forget Human Resources; ask the Help).

Our Chinese driver, Xue Li had known so many foreigners and served them all well. However to paraphrase a well known chapter in I Corinthians, if you don’t have love, what’s the point?  Together we noted that foreigners who live in China, but do not understand and appreciate Chinese people are not really needed here. He paid us the highest compliment by saying that the Chinese knew that we loved them, and that therefore we should have stayed in China, or at least should consider coming back. Noted.

As we rode home sharing and laughing, I noticed that there were lots more trees along the highway, but sadly they all were the same type.  It was as if an order had gone down from on high (which is exactly how they roll here) that trees must be planted, and thousands were, but no one thought that maybe two or three kinds of trees might be more interesting than just the one. I’m just saying.

We settled in our apartment (where Joe’s nephew and family live) and noticed how pretty, clean, and nice it was, much nicer than where we lived back in the day.  Outside twenty or so young Chinese boys were playing soccer, the sky was its usual gray color with heavy smog, and bicycles were almost outnumbered by cars (a big change for us).  Xue Li, our good friend Zhang Jian, (a young female), and Joe & I ventured out to the market to find a place to eat and look around. As we walked past the fruit and vegetable vendors, I recalled all the times I would buy things from stands just like this near my home, and how much I missed that. I bought a mango from a vendor and refrained from bargaining and the usual tai gui le (too expensive!) rant.  The market had not really changed; it was dusty, dirty, smelly, and crowded with walkers, motorcycles, trash, and a few carts, but it was so lovely to me.  I cannot describe how comfortable it was to be walking in such a market again.  We settled on a yang rou tuar joint for dinner (I know I don’t use the word  joint much, but trust me, it applies). We ordered the sticks of grilled lamb with the cumin on it that is made by the Huiggar people (Muslims) in China, and sat at our sticky outdoor table and four mismatched plastic chairs, eating our bbq, sipping on warm cokes & beer, swatting flies, and enjoying each other’s company.  It was not Martha Stewart by a long shot, but it was heaven to me.  I thought of the regular Friday night yang rou feasts that my boys enjoyed all through high school, complete with a big bottle or two of Chinese beer, which is served to kids at the age of 14.  This was heaven to them.

Fu Kang Hua Yuan(r):  Our Old Apartment

After dinner we strolled through the crowded, dirty streets of Tianjin, dodging cars, bikes, and people. All this activity at 9 p.m. reminded me of why my Chinese friends joke that there are no people in America. I went ahead by myself while Joe and Zhang Jian went to buy a phone number for 30 yuan.  This was my old neighborhood, and I felt a bit sad that I could not ride my bike through it, as I had so many times.  We visited our old apartment building, 10-1-301, and I stood outside thinking about how our dear friend Yhi Hua had thrown a snowball up to the kitchen window one year, and made such an impression on all the men in our family. (Back then we had no idea that our son Jack would marry her daughter).  I stepped on the stump of the metal pole that was blown up with fireworks by Joe and Bill Gandy during a Chun Jie celebration and was surprised that it was still not repaired.  I found myself smiling thinking back to the days when we made our home there; there were many joys and sorrows, and tonight was a mini-reenactment.  One minute I would be smiling, and the next I would be fighting tears.   I know I cannot get back what we had, but I am so glad I came back to China.  I went to bed that night hoping to live here again, and felt sure that I would at least visit again. I know my home in America is cleaner, newer, more efficient, prettier, and my first culture.  We even have about twenty kinds of trees in our small yard, and they are not all the same height. But that doesn’t mean it is better, or that I am happier here.  Some of you know what I mean.  China, you are in my heart, and I will always love you.

About allthingslizard

I have done just about everything I have always wanted to do: worked as a campus minister, became a teacher, married a nice man named Joe (36 years now), adopted three wonderful kids and watched them reach adulthood, lived overseas, earned my Ph.D., and recently became an RN. However the only thing I have not yet done is to write about my life's journey, even though I have written a lot of personal poems, mom notes to my kids, academic papers, and thousands of letters. I have a lot to write about because all those things I have done were accomplished on smooth roads with beautiful vistas, as well as on scary, twisted, hurricane alleys. Maybe you will find something here that you can relate to. And yes, I know that a preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.
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2 Responses to Back in China 1: What’s a Nice Italian Girl from Canonsburg Doing in a Place Like This?

  1. thejazzywalk says:

    Liz, I’m in the middle of reading this and I just have to stop and tell you how much you make me SMILE. Your writing style is just as much fun as you are in person. Love this. Love you. What else do I need to say?

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