August 28, 2000
Lara and I continue to live a full and happy life here in Jinzhou, Liaoning province, China. We've been here 18 months now. Originally, we planned to only stay in China for one year, but we were so quickly entranced and enchanted by life in China, that I quickly decided to extend our stay and tentatively planned our return date for the summer of 2001.
We spent our first year settling into Chinese life, and generally trying to figure things out and become adjusted. By the end of the first year, Lara was speaking Chinese fluently and nearly on age level. I was far behind in language ability, only able to handle the simplest of conversations, but I felt that I could almost grasp the essence of Chinese communication, and felt inspired to continue chipping away at it.
This spring, however, I decided to move up our return date to next January/February, 2001. Frankly, we're a bit homesick for our family, and I think it'll be easier to make the transition from northeast China to southeast Arizona in the winter than in the summer. (I hate hot weather!)
Almost immediately I was filled with the familiar exhilaration of upcoming change, but also some sad feelings about having to leave China. We're still six months away from packing up and flying back, but everything that we do, every decision that I make includes the acceptance of our impending return to America.
Sometime during the past six months, China became our home and complete reality. I can remember the United States, of course, but my 5 year old daughter, Lara, doesn't remember it at all, except for her family and a few cultural remnants we brought along with us, or see here in China. (Barney toothpaste and the occasional McDonalds restaurant.) Even for me, the United States seems very distant and far away, and I wonder how we'll be able to readjust to our own country.
Interestingly, our Chinese friends still see Lara as a very American child, culturally, fluent in English, and far more independent, outgoing, and self-sufficient than her peers. How often people have commented on her ability to take care of herself and self-assurance in dealing with others.
But I see that Lara has absorbed so much of Chinese culture. In all of her dealings with the people of our life, she handles herself in a very Chinese way, from her ability to call the various people by appropriate Chinese titles, to the way that she has automatically absorbed so many of the Chinese manners, mannerisms, and most importantly, values. So many little things, it's hard to describe and explain adequately, but I know that she and I both will feel a little strange when we go back home again.
We have just been joined by a new American teacher, Linda, and in the course of helping her settle in, I've had a chance to see our world through her eyes. As I watch her go through a frenzy of household shopping, I can remember how desperate I was to find high powered detergents and cleansers to try fruitlessly to scrub my bathroom to an American standard. I remember how lost I felt in a world where I had suddenly become a complete illiterate, trying to decipher product packaging by the pictures, and guess the contents of shops by peering into their dark innards. Often I was unable to distinguish auto parts shops from restaurants.
I don't know exactly when it happened, but I live happily now with my bathroom, comfortable that it's stained surfaces aren't going to rub off on me or give me any kind of unpleasant diseases. Although I guess that I can still only read on about a first grade level, it's good enough that I can usually decipher the purpose behind most building signs I see now. I can even follow simple conversations and sometimes even participate in them. But most importantly, Lara and I feel completely comfortable here. These people are our people. I'm often honestly surprised when my foreign face catches somebody's attention. I don't feel like a foreigner. Very often, and in many ways, I do feel Chinese, and I know that Lara does as well.
Last spring, we were frantically busy. I took on a large load of private students, in addition to my regular college classes, because I wanted to earn some additional money. By working about 10 extra hours a week, I was able to save nearly 10,000 yuan between March and June. That's over $1,000 U.S.. That may not seem like a lot of extra hours, but I felt that I was working at a frantic pace, and rarely had free time to spend with Lara or on my own private projects. So, I was really looking forward to the summer vacation.
Many of my students wanted me to teach English during the summer, but I was truly worn out and refused all work possibilities. As soon as the spring semester ended, at the end of June, Lara and I traveled to Beijing to visit friends and do some shopping. We returned about a week later, only long enough to do laundry, and then we set off again for the northeast. We visited some fellow teachers and e-friends in Changchun, Jilin province, then traveled on to Harbin for a few days.
Harbin is famous for its winter ice festival. I'm still hoping that Lara and I will be able to return next January to see that. But even in the summertime, it's an interesting city, with a strong Russian influence. Very commonly, people ask me if I am Russian, but in Harbin, for the first time, I actually did see some Russians. (Here in Liaoning province, I've never seen one.)
Lara and I traveled with one of my students, Lucy. She has family in the far northeast of Inner Mongolia, so we took the night train from Harbin, north to Jagdaqi, arriving the following morning, and spent 4 wonderful days with her relatives there. That town is very young, only created about 35 years ago, and is set in some beautiful, and nearly virgin woods.
While the town itself is dirty and uninteresting, we were able to travel outside the town and play in some wonderfully clean and unspoiled wooded areas, drinking clean water directly from springs and mountain rivers, and visiting with a family that lives in a small cabin built by their own hands, set against a small hill, facing a lovely open meadow filled with wild flowers and butterflies. It was just what my beauty starved soul needed at that time, and I will always treasure that short vacation trip to the far corner of China.
We got back to Jinzhou around the third week in July, just in time to meet an American woman on her way to help build a kindergarten for an orphanage in Hefei. She was very interested in the possibility of working in China as a teacher, so of course I hoped to encourage her to come here to Jinzhou. We had a great, but brief visit, before she left for her orphanage project.
Almost immediately, Lara and I left with a group of my favorite students to visit their families. We traveled to several of their families in Liaoning province and we, as usual, treated with enormous hospitality and friendliness. By the time we got back home to Jinzhou, it was nearly August, and our summer vacation was already half over.
I had planned to travel a lot more, but daily routine seems to get in the way of great adventures. Laundry, cleaning, errands, boiling water for drinking, shopping, cooking, studying Chinese, visiting with friends, and spending time with Lara all quickly filled the days, and August raced past.
We did get one more trip in, however. Last week, we took the train to Beijing to meet the new teacher, Linda. Again, it was a much briefer trip than I'd like, but we had a chance to do some more shopping and sightseeing, and generally enjoy being out. I took 4 of my students with me on the trip, but for the first time, I left Lara at home to stay with Chinese friends. I knew that I'd miss her, but I also knew that the trip wouldn't be much fun for her. (when Lara travels, she mostly likes to look for playgrounds to play in, and eat junk food)
The fall semester started today. It's Lara's first day of school. I begin teaching my classes tomorrow morning. I'm not ready for school to begin again, but like it or not, it's here. Despite my general unwillingness to give up the summer, I feel a bit of excitement about the change. I can't wait to see my students again, and face the challenge of inspiring them to improve their English.
The weather's cooling off, and I've started to knit Lara's winter long johns. My father and his friend will come for a visit next month, and so Lara and I will have a chance to do some more traveling and sightseeing before winter sets in. I'm still trying to make the hard decision about how many private students to take on. (I like the money, but want to enjoy my free time, too!)
But all in all, I feel sure that we are going to have a very good time here during our last six months in China!
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