Sunday, October 12, 2014

Lonely, But Not Sad

For starters, hello from China! I've arrived! I've only been here for a day and a half, and I already have so much to say, I don’t even know where to start.  Perhaps the very beginning:

       My flight from Austin (bye family!), to Houston was a grand total of 23 minutes in the air. It bordered on pathetic. The four hour layover in Houston was also kind of pathetic, but the isolation freed my mind from the mania of preparing to move (which clogs out all potential excitement within the business required).  Boarding the plane was the first moment—the one where my emotions started to catch up with my knowledge. I’m moving to another country. At the next airport, there might not be any English. Shit.

       51K. That was my seat number. How on earth could there possibly be 51 rows in one airplane? Anyone who has ever taken an international flight would have known that 51 isn't even halfway down the plane. I, however, am ignorant.  Everyone boarding the plane was Asian. Push, push, push. I've never felt quite so gawky and large.. quite so in the way. 51. 51. 51. K. Please be a window seat, dear baby Jesus, please! But it wasn't a window seat, it was the middle.

       And here, I’d like to give my first shout out to a man named Tony. Seated in the isle chair, “I think I’m next to you.” I pointed and he got up to let me in. Flying is always an adventure. Whether you are crammed between a mom and her child or next to that old man that falls asleep on you and snores constantly, there is always something to hold onto that makes landing just that little bit more awesome.

Sitting next to Tony was like sitting next to a best friend. First of all, this guy legitimately had my back (how many strangers can you say that about? Exactly!).  If it weren't for Tony, I would never have made it through customs --it may be the job of the stewardess to announce and hand out cards for entry into China, but if you sleep through that announcement, it sure as hell isn't her job to wake you up and tell you. Tony knew though. The second I was done drooling on myself he was all over that situation.  Ha, I would have blissfully gotten off the plane and been stuck, forever, at an airport in Beijing, not allowed to board my next plane, and with no way to contact anyone. Tony, you’re the man.

So, the airport at Beijing is huge.  And when I say huge, I mean, pick the biggest airport in American and then X4 that, at least. This place was gigantic. I was lost and white, with zero Mandarin skills and suffering minor fuzziness of the brain (bound to happen after 14 hours of sleep on the previous flight). This place was like visiting OZ-- with less glamour and no good witches.   When I made it through customs and back through security, I followed signs for my terminal. As I went up and down stairs, and through strange hallways, I observed as the airport transitioned from Cherry Creek to Five Points (what up Denver!). This was when I became mildly nervous about my school location (which, I might remind you, I chose). If departing flights to Guangzhou are given the “rustic” section of the airport, how does Beijing (and China for that matter) feel about Guangzhou?

The terminal was actually a waiting room for a bus. Which everyone crammed onto and took out onto the runway; much like an airport I once visited in California. None of this matters. Here is what I took away from the Beijing airport:

The air was moist, even inside, enough so that sweat was slowly forming drops and making beads that traced their way down the sides of my face and along the curves of my back. It wasn't warm though, it was cold sweat. People around me were wearing pants and t-shirts, and I was bundled in a baggy CINCINNATI sweater, confused by my body’s reaction to the weather. The loudspeaker kept ringing and a woman’s voice would trail off for several minutes in a dialect of Chinese I could not make out. After the announcement was finished in Chinese, it repeated again in English. The English version was given by the same speaker though, and was just as confusing as the Chinese. So I sat and waited for the boarding process to begin.

He shuffled one foot closer to me, and then paused. After inching his way from the opposing set of chairs, he had managed to diminish the distance between us considerably. He stood not even a foot away now; probably 8 or 9 years-old. His shirt read “convers” and his shoes were knock-off chucks.  His hands clasped behind his back, he swiveled side-to-side a few times. I smiled at him, making eye-contact for the first time; his eyes lit up. He smiled back, staring.  An uncomfortable amount of time passed by, all the while he just looking and smiling. I had to turn to do something, to break away from the intense excitement in his eyes.  He didn't stop staring though, his eyes remained locked even as he moved to the empty seat next to me and sat down.

The voice over the loudspeaker rang again, and the word, "Guangzhou" was clear. I stood with my things and looked at the boy still sitting and staring. “bye-bye” he said, and he waved at me. He just kept looking and kept smiling. There is something so incredibly rich about the gaze of a child. He was looking at me but he was observing and learning at the same time.  I wish I had something with me that I could have offered him to thank him for his time, and his enthusiasm. Thinking that way, however, only further displays the gap between my capacity to love and his. Why couldn't I stare back the whole time, smiling and shining with him? We lose that when we get older, the ability to look at something with so much avid enthusiasm, with our full, unashamed attention. When was the last time you looked at something and really took all angles of it in? I can’t even remember. But this boy inspired me, to give meaning with my eyes, and appreciation in my presence. I only wish I had asked his name.

Alright, so the flight to Beijing was uneventful. I had an entire row to myself, and enjoyed the meal that was provided on the flight – perhaps too enthusiastically for the modest travelers around me. I tend to slop food around when I eat—as in, I’m M.F. starving, and this S. needs to be in my mouth right now! This method of eating, however, can appear uncivilized, and certainly might be perceived as such by the well-mannered comrades on the plane.  

       Landing was lovely, but the airport presented complications. The P.R. of China, apparently doesn't approve of locked luggage. As you can see, they have their own methods for resolving such issues:

A picture is worth a million words, right? I guess I won’t be using this  piece of luggage on the flight home!

       Tom picked me up from the airport. Tom is another EF employee, who exhibits all the characteristics of a true NY native; one hand on his phone and one hand on the horn. In China, the horn is not meant as a warning, and it is not used sparingly. In fact, when drivers here honk, it is almost the equivalent of saying, “Hey bruh, what-up! I got a Ford too!” Horns are a sign of awareness, enthusiasm, verve for the road! This sounds like an easy thing to understand (now that I've laid it out so nicely for you), but when you are in a car with a total stranger, cutting across four lanes and honking at an empty street the whole way, life starts to look so grim. Darkness was everywhere, for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. And then we arrived at the Garden.

       In China, everything has a cush name. Apartment complexes aren't, "complexes" at all, they are, "gardens." Gardens are themed, decorated, and secure. My Garden has at least 24 buildings, each with at least 15 floors. All identical. This place is like a five star resort. Beautiful, spacious, well lit, well ventilated. I walked inside and my mouth dropped. White marble floors, ornate ceilings, detailed wood-work everywhere! Did I mention the ceilings are vaulted? A full patio, air-conditioners in every room, fully furnished! My bedroom has a G.D. bay window—it doesn't get more cush than that! I must be in some kind of heaven.

      And outside? Well, outside, everyone sweats. Walk and sweat, and walk and sweat. I've never been this thirsty in my entire life. I feel like a fish. And might look like one at this point. I also will likely never take a hot shower again. Why would anyone shower in hot water, ever? Silliest thing. In fact, I can’t believe I ever did it. Cold water is where it’s at.

       Night 1: I had hot-pot for dinner and went to a local dive with three other teachers. The teachers are each so unique in their personalities, but they are all united in how adventurous and kind they are. Everyone is young, everyone is out-going, everyone is beautiful. 

      Day 2: I explored the markets around my garden (which includes a Walmart), found some food places, and then had legit dim sum for lunch-- so delicious--, with two of the other teachers—don’t worry, I ate for both of , Sara.

       Moving to another country isn't a sudden shock, not like I might have anticipated based on stories. In fact, when I landed in Guangzhou, the humidity was familiar to me (hell, I just came from Texas). My mind instantly associated the air around me with home. The smell of cigarettes, even inside of the airport (they have designated smoking rooms), was also familiar; OK, Texas meets Vegas, this makes sense still. When I look around and everyone is staring at me, I don’t instantly think that they are looking because I’m a foreigner, after all, aren't I staring back? People are inherently curious.

       When I look around, everything is big. Buildings are tall, communities are built out; people are everywhere. The scenery is tropical; I hear birds screeching and children laughing, cars honking. My mind wants to trick me, as though someone stuffed me on a fake airplane, one that was stationary, for two days, and then released me into a part of American that I've simply never been to.  Same world, same people, same life.  When I feel far away from everyone, it isn't because of the distance; the distance doesn't exist in my mind. China, Denver, Austin, where-ever I am, I would always be far away from someone I care about.

I feel far away because I’m lonely. No, not the kind of lonely we think of at home, when you’re sad because you are alone in an environment where familiar people are easily accessible but not immediately present—it is easy to be sad when you want to be close to familiar loved ones. My lonely is different than that kind of lonely; it isn't sad-lonely. This is the lonely that is separation.  In a world of connection, where internet unites knowledge and people, therefore creating instant familiarity, I am in China. I currently have no internet, and no way to contact my friends at home to let them know that I am safe. I know that everyone is far away, and so distance does not play a role; I am not 18 hours from my parents and wishing I was closer. I am not 20 minutes from my sister wishing we were having lunch. My mind knows that these things are no longer feasible. I am in China. And because those things are not possible, I am alone. Here I am lonely, but not sad. 

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