The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Friday, July 07, 2006

End It On This

I suppose this entry marks the end of an era, albeit a short one. I write this in Tokyo, having finished out my year at the Northeast Hope International School. Time to catch you up on what went down during my last few weeks there. This blog is in serious need of a capstone.

After a few "sports days" (think Beijing 2008 NHIS-style), all six of us laowai, along with Chinese friends Judy and Ada, took our last monthly holiday to the ancient city of Xi'an. We spent one day seeing the requisite tourist sites, including the terracotta warriors and a museum that resonated with me to such an extent that I can remember neither its name nor what it contained. So...yeah. Pretty groovy.

The next day, all of us save for Emma and Ben spent the day climbing Huashan, one of the 5 sacred peaks in China. I'm pretty proud of making it to the top, given my less-than-desirable physical condition, despite the fact that I work out regularly. Just goes to show that no amount of Firm Fanny Lifting can prepare you for a big mountain kicking your ass. It was worth every drop of sweat, however, as the views were more than rewarding. The scenery (and perfect, clear weather accompanying it) was some of the most spectacular I've seen in China.

The euphoria was not to last, however - that night's dinner assaulted me (and the others, though to a lesser extent) with a particularly disgusting case of food poisoning. I won't go into detail, but I spent that night going poo-poo every 45 minutes and then I threw up violently into a wastebasket by my bed the next morning. I don't recommend getting food poisoning when staying at a hostel; it's kinda rough having to go through all that mess atop a communal squatter as opposed to a private Western bathroom.

Needless to say, I wasn't at the top of my game the next day. I missed out on the last of our tourist adventures in favor of moaning in pain and sleeping when possible. And of course the 12-hour overnight train ride from Beijing to Tongliao was especially pleasant since there were only hard seat tickets and we sat upright the whole time.

Our innards a bit worse for wear, we arrived home in time for Penny's Wedding, part deux. This time, she was dressed in full Western-style white fluffiness, and only the closest friends and family members were in attendance (I'm not kidding when I say I'm kind of a big deal in China). We got to watch as she and her now-husband made the symbolic move from her parents' home into his parents' high-rise fancy-schmancy apartment. This all started at about 7 AM, so we were treated to the singular pleasure of enduring toasts of baijiu on shaky digestive systems before 9 AM, when we'd all moved to an event hall for the wedding feast. I was feeling more like a human Cuisinart than an honored guest, but along with my foreign colleagues, I managed to congratulate the happy couple (in CHINESE, on a MICROPHONE) and avoid the roasted rabbit going round and round on the lazy susan at our table, buck teeth still in place.

The last of our travels behind us, the two weeks of teaching that remained flew by in a blur of final exams, tears, and farewells. It was kind of an out-of-body experience; on one hand, the end had seemed such a long time coming, and on the other, it seemed to sneak up on me too soon. It's a very hard feeling to describe. In some ways, it was not unlike having to graduate from college and move on from the life you've made for yourself there (especially since I went through all this with 5 other kids in my same life-position, 2 others of whom attended BC). When I signed my contract to work at NHIS, I viewed it as somewhat of a cop-out, a time-buyer. I'd effectively delayed reality from descending upon me in all its responsible glory, though in what I consider a worthwhile manner. I knew that if I ever wanted to have this kind of experience, I had to jump on it immediately, before the bills, debt and wrinkles that will eventually find me, no matter how long I keep running. While I had no intention of doing a half-assed job in China, I think it's safe to admit to myself (and the Internet) that I was not going to take this position overly-seriously, in terms of a step along my career path. More like a red brick in my yellow brick road to Oz (Oz being, of course, where I'm rich, famous, and well-adjusted without the aid of prescription drugs).

So here I am on the other end of this year-long experience, having emerged a little stronger and wiser, just like a Christina Aguilera song. And I'm glad I did it for every reason. I began this year with expectations neither of myself nor of the school, thus securing the impossibility of disappointment. I did, however, doubt on various occasions my ability to really make a difference for my students. Those doubts evaporated when I saw the looks on their faces when I told them I was leaving. Some of them simply asked when I was coming back, so you can imagine my inner squirm when I had to say, "bu hui lai - I'm not coming back." The 4th graders were pretty cool with it, on the whole, being 11 years old, most of them - seasoned citizens of the school, clearly. Plus I'd only spent half the year as their teacher, though no doubt the better half, Clay being an obvious incompetent. The first and second graders were another story entirely; I had several from each class sobbing uncontrollably, and there was me in the middle of it all with no way to console them, whether they could understand it or not, and no means of distraction at my disposal. Some of them decided to sign their names and write "I love you" up and down my arms; others made me cards complete with their picture and phone number; and still others were clearly desperate just to give me something of theirs - I got picture books, pencil boxes, clipboards, origami...even a hard boiled egg. I couldn't take it all with me, but I kept what I could and took lots of pictures.

Obviously, not every child flourished under my tutelage. I could hardly expect that, having no training in teaching whatsoever, but the kids made it clear to me that I was important to them, and I don't think I could ask for much more. I was overwhelmed as well by my Chinese colleagues, who appeared to struggle with the fact of our leaving, likely never to return. So much so, in fact, that I found myself feeling as though I was wrong for leaving; that I must be a horrible person indeed for moving on after fulfilling my contractual responsibilities. It's a bit of a Mary Poppins scenario, though. The "wind changed," and even though I felt quite at home in Tongliao and even bonded in a way to the students and teachers, it's time for me to move on.

Clay, Emma and I were seen off at the airport by a handful of our closest friends in the middle of a thunderstorm. Tongliao was crying because we were leaving, they said. The three of us were so exhausted from the past week's events, and having to say so many goodbyes didn't make it any easier, so I'm sure we looked a pretty picture, awaiting our flight to Beijing slumped over our carry-ons, staring into space. We managed to have one last hurrah in Beijing, though, and had a great dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant in the city. One night in the airport hotel and we were waiting once more the next morning, this time in the arrivals Starbucks...and this time we wouldn't all be getting on the same flight. It was a little like MTV's The Real World: we'd been thrown together as practically strangers, and now we had to leave one by one, unable to imagine going back to life as it was before meeting each other. Clay was the first to go, then me, and finally Emma. It was sad, but bittersweet is a good word to describe this whole thing. We know we'll see each other again. I have a feeling our paths will cross again, like a Venn diagram (that's some middle school math for ya).

As I waited in line at passport control, just an hour away from my flight to Tokyo, an older American gentleman approached and caught my eye quite deliberately. I smiled back, too wrapped up in the drama of my recent life to give him the suspicious treatment, and he said, "Can I assume by that beautiful smile that you're going home?" I gave him a straight answer, and he didn't ask me anything more, but it made me stop and think. Good question, sir.


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