The Trouble with Me in China, and Why I’m Returning

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It has been about two months that I have been back in the U.S. If things work out I will be back in China by February. I have all the necessary trepidations collected and percolating in my brain preparing for all the appropriate anxieties of “what ifs” and the “I don’t knows”. I feel quite prepared in that capacity. Some people, my friends who know me well, may wonder why I’m returning to China when I had expressed such a deep hatred for the place. The public, like my youtube channel and this blog space or even my Facebook, didn’t know I had such a hatred for the place, but I’m laying it all-out-on the line here people; I hated it. I think it is difficult to be truly honest about your feelings on social media and in a public forum because there is/can be so much backlash to everything you write. Honestly, I think it is okay to hate a place. The important part is to understand why you hate it and then to figure out if it is a fair reason to hate it, and if it is really something about yourself and your preconceived ideas that make you hate it, and again, is that a fair assessment. You know the: “It’s not the place it’s you,” effect. ETC…

I didn’t feel the need to express my true feelings to the great big world because it was too early. It took me a full year away from China to appreciate China, but while I was there it was difficult. It was difficult because I had culture shock. Part of the shock had to do with the experience of being, to sound cliche, the stranger in a strange land or to be more succinct, “the other”. It was difficult because I wasn’t used to being the only one that looked like me. I grew up in a white town with white people. America is a society that caters to white people even though America doesn’t want to admit it, it’s true. White people are everywhere; in the movies; in the magazines; on the news; everywhere. It’s so white when you’re white you don’t even know what it feels like to not belong even when you’re a misfit and you don’t belong- that is if you live in a white society. I also spent 13 years in Portland, Oregon, and Portland during the time I was there was voted one of the whitest cities in the United States. My point is, is that when you are the majority you don’t notice it even when you feel lonely and out of place, and yes, even when you feel cheated and misrepresented. You might think you don’t get any of the benefits of the majority because you are on the bottom of the heap of the majority, but you still pass as the majority and that passing is bigger than you think. Bascially, you don’t have to think about being white you just are a person (that by the way is part of what people mean by privilege: you are a person not a person with a skin color other than white). I had never thought of myself in the sense of “otherness.” Often I had felt like I didn’t always connect or fit-in with white America or even the American Dream because of what I felt internally (sometimes based on my experiences as a woman and as being raised poor and on welfare), but that is not the same as being “the other”. Then I moved to a place where I was the minority. Then I knew. No, to know is too strong a verb, you don’t know, I became sensitive to it; to skin color, to color and to race.

I’m not going to get into the conversation of racism in China versus racism in America or express some kind of kindred “I understand discrimination” because woes me I was a poor lonely white woman in China. Being white in China is exponentially different from being black (or latino, or native American…) in America, for one thing, a black person in America is an American (which I think some people have seemed to have gotten confused) while a white person in China is an American too (even when you are not) but you are also 100% not Chinese and nor will you ever be Chinese. The experience of white male versus the white female are different too and I’m not writing here to expose the great secret of the white man’s success with Chinese women, as well as there are many different nationalities and races of people who live in China and experience their own kind of foreigner experience. My point is to express the feeling of being a minority when you come from a world where you were the majority (even if not in actual numbers, but in power of a social system) and what that felt like to me and how it contributed to my experience of culture shock. My heightened sense of sensitivity and growing awareness and openness to listening to the words of American people of color (and new immigrants) is just a positive (I think positive) by-product of my experience, but it can never compare to what it feels like to grow up feeling like “the other” in a country that is supposed to be your home. When I use the word minority as applied to me in China I mean a minority by the definition of small in numbers: As in smaller less seen, and therefore standing out; not invisible; and a bit like a zoo animal. In my ignorance I had thought I would like the attention. As if I’d be like a movie star. But, I didn’t like the attention, and the attention wasn’t like being a movie star it was more like being a freak. Now, I’m just writing about the negative culture shock moments to build toward the positive ending in this post so hold your possible anger and go along with it…

The stares, Jim! The stares!

It was disconcerting. At first I tried to smile at people who stared hard at me, and occasionally someone would smile back, but most often a smile would only make the stare harder. I, of course, didn’t and couldn’t know what people were really thinking, but to me it was that I did not belong there. Not that people were going to push me out, but just that I was not a part of the community, and I could not blend in. I was noticeable everywhere I went. Some people wanted to take my picture, some people just wanted to stare at me, and children pointed and screamed. They didn’t scream in terror, I mean they screamed in delight, It was like: “MOMMY! LOOK AT THE CLOWN, MOMMY!” And, that was what got to me. Of course it was charming when a large group of school girls walked by and yelled out in english, “I love you!” But it wasn’t charming when a group of men would circle me and examined me like I was something to purchase, and yes that happened too. I will hands down admit I was not good at handling the attention, but I am also grateful because for the first time it made me feel, really feel (minus the violence) what it is to be a minority, and to be looked at for your skin, your eyes, your hair. Even though people thought I was beautiful or exotic it still made me uncomfortable because I was being examined. I have a rather extreme example of what I mean by examined: Once, I had to pee in a public restroom at the train station, and this bathroom was like a trough. It was open stalls where you would squat over this narrow little trench with the piss and shit running like two little rivers as if you were a giant straddling the land and defecating into the canyon below. I felt uncomfortable, not only because I sucked at the squat and because all this human feces was so close to me, but because there were no stalls, and I knew, I just knew someone was going to try to look at my vagina as I peed. How did I know this? because I had already been examined in a public shower before, not by everyone of course, but it only takes one person feeling completely fine examining you to make you feel awkward; but I had to pee. Most women walked by not caring, but then it happened. She saw me squatting, and she slowed down and tried to take a peek, but my attempt to gracelessly hide myself while simultaneously not pee on my feet or slip into the river of stench did register to her that she was violating my privacy, and dropped her head and quickly walked away, but the very fact that she would have felt okay trying to do it in the first place is what I mean about being examined.

At the school where I taught, huge groups of new potential students were touring the classrooms. There were hundreds of students. It was near the end of my year in China and I had already been accustomed to people being excited or surprised to see my skin and my hair, and my very American looking face. As I saw the large group of students walking towards the windows of my classroom where I was teaching, I could see some of the eyes of the kids light up as they saw me, and I knew it would be a matter of minutes till the cameras came out. I moved down off the podium as I was talking and into the thick of my class, as I did so the cameras began flashing. Many of the visiting students had pressed themselves up against the window to get a good shot. My own students, who looked at me like I was old news, and had had plenty of exposure to foreigners, gasped at the disruption, and a couple of the girls screamed in that very teenaged annoyed way, “Oh MY GOD!” And, some Chinese expletives were yelled as well. A few of them ran to the windows to lower the blinds.

“It’s like they think we’re animals in a zoo!” One of my students yelled.

I loved my students, even the students that would frustrate me. I wish I could have given them more. One day some of my students were telling me that if I went to a certain historical place, on a public holiday, I would be mobbed by the crowed because I was a foreigner, and a lot of villagers go there, and they may never have seen a white person or any foreigner before. So I said, “I’ll wear a hat and cover my hair”. My student shook her head, no. “I’ll wear a hat and sunglasses to cover my eyes”. My student shook her head, no. “I’ll wear a hat, and glasses, and a scarf around my face, and I’ll wear long sleeves and gloves to cover my skin”. “No,” my student said, “You’ll never be able to hide that nose.” (For those of you who don’t know Chinese people think foreigners have big noses. Some do.) It was difficult to be the only one who looked like me, but then there was the language too. Not only couldn’t I blend in because of my physical appearance, I also couldn’t communicate. I was surrounded by millions (literally millions) of people, and I was isolated. This was hard for me. This was just the beginning of the culture shock, then there was the actual culture- so different yet sometimes eerily familiar to my own; and then the pollution which was like the apocalypse (no joke); and the construction; and the population; and how education is conducted; and business is run; and the the shitty hierarchy of the work place for Chinese people; and so many nuanced things. And then, there was my mother’s death.

I sometimes think if my mom had not died, suddenly while I was in China, that I may have gotten past the culture shock phase, but because she did die, I was thrown into a despair that I couldn’t grasp, and with no close friends to turn to, friends who knew my relationship with my mother, and I felt lost. I felt an isolation I had never experienced before, an isolation that changed me, permanently. There were other things too: stress at school, and friendship loneliness, and just basic life stresses. When I was about to leave China I couldn’t get away fast enough. I thought to myself I fucking hate this country and I’ll never return, but I was lying to myself. I just didn’t know it.

It took me almost a full year away from China to finally appreciate it, and that appreciation first came through food and e-mails from a friend. I missed Chinese food. You can’t get Chinese food anywhere in the world other than China. That food you’re eating that you think is Chinese is nothing; it’s crap. Go to China, eat the food, you’ll find the food gods. It’s that good. Sure there’s crazy stuff like bird heads and tongues and testicles and yes some places still eat dogs and cats, and you’ll probably eat a rat thinking it’s chicken, but you don’t have to eat those things (if you know what you’re eating), there is so much to choose from so many amazing noodles, and spices, and broths, and vegetables…food ecstasy. The spices! Oh, the spices! Then there were my friends. The Chinese friends I had made who missed me and sent me e-mails hoping to not lose touch, and hoping that I would return to visit them again one day. And my foreign friends that stayed or returned and still sent messages and shared stories “of crazy life in China”. In all that isolation and loneliness and cultural shock I had made friends. Foreigner friends and Chinese friends. Good friends. I missed my students (who I will most likely never see again). Then there was Xi’an.

I lived in Zhengzhou. I can say, still, today as I write this, I didn’t like Zhengzhou. It wasn’t my kind of city, and the pollution was too much, and the construction was too much, and it wasn’t culturally interesting to me. I think maybe you have to be Chinese to appreciate the city, or maybe not, I don’t know why foreigners like it there, you’d have to ask them, it wasn’t the right place for me. If I had only spent my time in Zhengzhou which is where I spent most of my time, I may not have ever wanted to return to China, but I went to Kaifeng, Luoyang, and to Xi’an. All those places were just as polluted as Zhengzhou (don’t underestimate this pollution. It’s bad the world should care) but the beauty of the other cities and their cultural heritage helped me to overlook the pollution (to an extent). They were filled with history and were so exciting for me to visit. Then there was Xi’an. I had wanted to go to Xi’an since I was a little girl. Xi’an was one of my “before I die” places. I loved the city, and it was my last impression of China. China that is so huge and vast that I merely stuck my toe in the ocean of it. This last impression reminded me that I had wanted to visit China for a long time and there was so much to see and experience.

I am returning to China. This time to Beijing, and this time for the job not just China. My strongest interest is in the job. I’m not going to try to conquer China, to go back and say: “Yes! This time I made it!” I’m going because there is an opportunity for me, and also because there is so much more to see in China than Zhengzhou. I will be on the coast. In a new province. In the city of the last Dynasty. And, I’ve been to China, and I have a better idea of what to expect. It may be more difficult. I don’t know, but I’m not blinded by magazine articles and illusions of ‘What is China.” I find a humor now in the things that caused me stress. Not that I’m into people examining me peeing, but I also know that is not an everyday occurrence, and I’m mentally prepared unlike I was before. Plus, being able to tell a story about someone trying to watch you pee because you know they’re wondering if a white woman’s pee or vagina is the same as their own can be a pretty funny story to tell— afterwards, long afterwards. Beijing will be more crowded, and more polluted, but I won’t be arriving this time like a wide eyed idiot with the innocent thinking, “oh, it’ll be like I’m a movie star.” That was just a stupid thing to think. There are just somethings you can not know without experiencing them. I’ve experienced China once in one small part. This time I hope to do better. To feel better. To leave thinking, “Oh, I could visit again.”

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Two years and Nine Countries.

It’s been quite some time since I have posted here. There’s no point in apologizing or promising to be more dedicated in my postings because I’ve done that before, and these are only promises to myself. Truth of it, the reason I haven’t posted photos or poems or updates is because I haven’t had the desire. In the past two year’s I barely have even journaled. I hadn’t thought much about it or even missed it, but after I returned to the states and opened my boxes, that had been stored at a friends house  while I was gone, I found at least 50 to 75 journals. I had written in these journals over the course of the past 26 years, and it occurred to me that I actually did write. I imagine there was some reason inside me that I’ve decided to remain quiet. Perhaps it has to do with my mom’s death and absorbing all of those feelings, and existential crises that I still am unable to grasp to a level of applying words. No matter. They’ll come if they want to. I did get the writer bug back again. Thank god. I did miss it. I said I didn’t, but obviously, I was lying. I missed having a project and a drive. I don’t feel like sharing my ideas here because I find that it is just a form of procrastination that I have created. I talk about what I’m going to write, and then that’s where all of the energy goes. This time I’ll just keep it to the actual project.

As for a recap of 2013-2015 it goes a bit like this- in a timeline:

July 2013, leave Portland Oregon; visit mom in Chico, visit Paradise, then San Francisco for visa, and Fremont to see dad; August 25th, 2013: Arrive in Zhengzhou, China and become a literature teacher; Go to Shaolin Temple; Jan-Feb, 2014: holiday- it’s vacation time, Go to Vietnam, Go to Australia, return to Zhengzhou and four days letter get a message that my mother is dead. Mother’s time of death; Feb, 19, 2014 two weeks after her 64th birthday, six days before my 41st; fly to California: Chico, Paradise, Trinidad, Eureka, San Francisco-all to carry her ashes. Return to Zhengzhou for work. May, 2014 finally get the death certificate and report: mother died from a methamphetamine overdose. July: Kaifeng, Xi’an. August 25th 2014, leave China and spend one day in Seoul; August 26 arrive in Prague. Begin TEFL program in September; Trip to Switzerland. October; Ceske Budejovice, Cesky Krumluv, back to Prague to work for a visa; Berlin to apply, Berlin to pick up; work in Brno, Czech Republic, then to Warsaw for a day and volunteer in Zabuze, Poland; return to Prague; work in Malacky, Slovakia, work in Tercianske Stankovce, Slovakia, work in Surany, Slovakia, work in Bratislava, Slovakia, work in Bratislava again- all small country towns and small villages. Christmas in Poland. New Year’s in Prague. January 2015 work in Prague all over the city; work in Beroun, Czech Republic; visit to Jablonce, Czech Republic; back to Warsaw, to Zawidowice, Poland; Wisniew, Poland- all for volunteer; to Olomouce, Czech Republic, to Vyskov, Czech Republic (for work), and the visa is over and to Brno to begin travels. Robbed in Brno return to Prague; Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, one last weekend in the Czech mountains, Rokytnice; to Poland one last time: Warsaw, and Zabuze, and Ostrów Mazowiecka, then Krakow, and Auschwitz, then to Prague. September 22nd, fly to Germany, fly to Portland, Or. October 2nd, 2015 one week in California to pick up the last of my mother’s things. The last of her life in two small boxes. To Ashland, Redding, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, The Russian River, to Portland. Already a lifetime ago.

Here now, back in Portland, and it is a full month and 3 days that I have been in the states, and it all ready feels like forever, and it feels like forever since I’ve had a job, and Prague life seems year’s ago, and China feels as if it never happened, and I’m still waiting for my mom to call. We had always talked on Sundays.

And, that’s it for the past two years. I never went to Kunta Hora. Damn.

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While on the Bus to Warsaw

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I woke to the sound of the bus as it slowed to pull into the gas station. I had fallen asleep for a few minutes during the ten hour bus ride from Prague to Warsaw. It wasn’t really sleep so much as that floating space in between being awake and sleeping. When your eyes are resting, and to some extent your mind is quiet because it is too tried to think, but still, you are not asleep, you are not resting, you’re just floating. I slipped in and out of this sleep/wake phase for nearly the entire trip. I’ve done this bus ride before back in November and in December, but both times I had taken the overnight bus, and the darkness had allowed me to easily fall into the necessary sleep that I needed to be able to fully function for the following days. This was my first time traveling the full ten hours during the waking hours. I was going to be very tired for the upcoming week. I could feel it.

I’ve found the the favorite part of my journeys have been the actual physical process of transportation. I don’t know why; when for many people this is the most exhausting part. It is in the decision making process, the planning part, where I think most people find joy, and where I have the most stress. I fill with anxiety over the what-ifs of the process, as if there is just too much on the internet to sift through, and I am not capable of doing it. I find it confounding that I can not seem to do the simplest part of the journey which is to plan ahead. I wonder how a person can carry so much worry, so much anxiety and still manage to cross the ocean and visit other places. I often think I am doing it all wrong. As if there is some kind of rule book to this whole life thing and I never got the book and I especially didn’t read the chapter, “The Accidental Vagabond: How to travel the world and not worry about it.”

“What do you do in your real life?” Asked a man on the bus who was sitting beside me. I paused a second in my response and then shrugged. “This.” I said.

I was on my way to Poland to a place called Zawidowice, three hours outside of Warsaw. I was volunteering with a program called Angloville. I had done it before in November. It is an English immersion program where Polish participants pay to stay a week in an isolated spa or hotel with native English speakers in order to converse for nearly ten hours a day all in english. It is a really interesting program and you can meet some very interesting people and it also does help to improve their english skills, but all this interesting was not my main motivation for signing up again. I did enjoy the program the last time, and I made some friends with the Polish participants, all of whom were adults with adult lives and serious careers and families, but, this time my motivation was about finding shelter.

I’d been living in Prague for nearly a year- give or take a few excursions to other countries for volunteer work or paid work. My time there was coming to an end. My work visa expired, and now I am back to the allotted 90 day tourist visa. Originally, I had intended to return to Portland in August in order to get prepared to move back to China, but I couldn’t find a flight back to the states that I could afford so I had to wait until I was able to find a price within my meager range. My return date is set for September 22nd, but my visa was up at the very end of July which put me in a bit of a predicament. I had no place to live, no visa to legally find work, and I had to make what little money I had made stretch for almost another two months. In my fantasies I took this time to just back-pack and travel around, but in truth I was worried that I didn’t have the money to actually do this, not with the cost of travel, and accommodations being so high at the height of summer.  I had a friend that was letting me share his room, but I knew his generosity would become strained, and that eventually I would outwear my welcome so I needed to find a way to have shelter and food, but to spend as little money as possible while having these necessary things. Angloville is a volunteer program, but if you are the “teacher”, but they put you up in a room and they feed you. They feed you quite well. I eat far better while I am at Angloville than I do on my own. I decided to sign up for two weeks meaning two programs.

My visits to Warsaw have been brief. I have a moment to check into a hostel, then wander around the city, but in a state of ignorance, not knowing what I am looking at or where I am going. This time I had even less time to visit. I just checked in; met up with a friend of a friend; had a couple of beers; went back to the hostel,  went to sleep, and then was woken by the other travelers who were leaving early. I got up. I grabbed my pack. I checked out. Lastly, I searched for the bus that would take me to the Angloville site. There were another three hours on the bus to go.

Although, I have done this before it won’t be the same because it is the people who create the environment whether they know it or not. The Polish participants will be taking a break from their lives to work on their english, their motivations ranging from the need to speak english for work, to improving for school or for personal growth. The English coaches come in different groups of intentions: Twenty-somethings on break from school or extending their travels their last summer freedoms before entering the work market. One or two people in the 30’s to 40’s range the rare group that is difficult to find because they are already in the work market or the family world, and the retired mostly former teachers. These are only the surface groupings, but over the course of six days the individual lives are exposed and then suddenly we say good-bye and return to the separate seas from where we came. Most of us will never cross paths again, but we will always remember each other because we communicated. Really communicated- and this for me is the beauty of traveling. It is difficult to allow fear to create a hate in your heart for a nation when you have communicated with a person from that place. When people speak of war against a place- you no longer think of some unknown place from far away, you see the face and the smile of that person you sat across from at the table; the one who you shared bread and the one with who you communicated.

I grew up comparing my life to others. “Oh their life is so much more interesting than mine.” Comparison only breeds envy and envy breeds discontent and discontent equals a pretty low perception of life. After awhile you can no longer see what is special or unique about yourself you can only focus on what others do and how they do it better than you. This comparing (that I have no idea where it came from) has sometimes attached itself to my life abroad; Facebook doesn’t help. Everyone’s life looks amazing on Facebook. This is something I’m working on this comparison crap. It is not healthy, and it’s ridiculous. Where it comes in is when I think my travels are not exciting enough or I don’t have anything interesting or worth writing down on this here blog. Ridiculous. This must change. There is no need for an exciting story there are plenty of exciting stories out there.  My stories are mostly about the people I meet, passing and greeting strangers in deep and thoughtful ways and then like the tide we pull apart and I find myself on another shore, or mixed in the silt of the ocean floor or in the belly of a seal. In many ways it is a very normal life. It feels like my daily life, but at times I am in a new country. Perhaps that is why I like the actual travel part and not the planning because it reminds me that I am going somewhere that I am indeed traveling which is not a daily activity. There’s no comparison to explain all the unique moments I have with people because every moment is different and this is enough. All this is enough, I’m grateful to have this much.

I’m curious as too how different this Angloville will be compared to the last. The only proper what to make a comparison. Will I make a good a close friend or will a do a lot of reading on my down time. Either is okay. I will find out very, very soon- as soon as the bus arrives.