And it’s official – I just unplugged my fridge; this Zhangjiajie chapter of my life is fast coming to a close.
In two short hours, I’ll be leaving Zhangjiajie for one final trip to Sichuan to visit the famous Jiuzhagou and its unfathomably aquamarine pools, and Songpan (with the wonderous company of Gabriel and Cat), before making the trek by train to Hong Kong and finally commencing my month-long unplanned trip to the Philippines, and South East Asia. As of now, I have a one-way plane ticket from the beautiful Puerto Princesa to Cambodia and have purchased no others.
In spite of my excitement for the totally foreign (Zhangjiajie, itself, while being “foreign” in the sense that it was not a large city like Beijing, has always felt remarkably familiar to me), there is, as can be expected, pre-emptive nostalgia that is clouding my ability to see what lies before me.
If I am to reflect on this time, I can say that it has been good. As I bid farewell to friends one night this week, where three Americans, and two Chinese friends with excellent English, sat and played Jim Rummey at a 24 hour KFC (such is not surprising as “a night out on the town” in ZJJ), I don’t remember March through May. I feel like it was February last week and I was stepping off the plane, and muttering things under my breath as I prepared myself for what I thought might be one of the toughest five months of my life.
Using such extremes as ‘toughest’ is silly – challenging, it has been. But, as I look out the window, my panorama spilling with sunlight, at the mountain range that has become my silent neighbor, my Home Improvement Wilson, to whom I have nodded a daily ‘good day, sir’ since that first day in March when I discovered its existence, realizing it had quietly watched over me during Zhangjiajie’s misanthropic Winter like a safeguard, it is difficult to place myself back into the fragile state that I was in when I first arrived in February. I was frigid, lonely, a walled-in hermit crab hiding in her tiny shell. I was resistant, for longer than I would care to admit, to my surroundings, and in doing so, I did not fully embrace how fortunate my circumstance had been until my last month, or even, two weeks here. My sister used to tell me that during each chilling Ithaca Winter at Cornell, she thought that she would never return; but Springtime arrived, with only several weeks left of school, just in time to clear every bleary-eyed student of his or her memories of freezing desolation, and reaffirm why they had made the right choice in picking the most GORGES campus in the country.
Zhangjiajie’s claim to fame is it being home to the Hallelujah Avatar Mountains (and Tianmen Mountain). A week before leaving, my father found this mesmerizing video of Jeb Corliss windsuit skydiving as a part of a Red Bull Challenge (http://player.vimeo.com/video/31481531?autoplay=1). Inevitably, my delusions drove me to begin picturing myself squirreling through Zhangjiajie and her verdant mountains, and gliding through the air until docking on a cliff edge where, obviously, my comfortable home would be located. I never adequately pictured what this place would be like, which in hindsight, may have been the best thing for my experience – with no expectations, I could simply be in this new place, as best I could.
For the extent to which my scant knowledge of this city before arriving allowed me to prematurely and most ignorantly boast to my friends using said video to illustrate the nature of my new home, I should be ashamed. I only made it to the National Forest Park (塞林公园), and Tianmenshan （天门山） once. Although, if we’re being honest here, I have a history of rewarding myself with Haagen-dazs ice cream for running a mile – plus, (as I would justify to myself as I stuffed my face with fried rice and Mad Men/30 Rock/Game of Thrones episodes) why catalyze, even further, my already meteoric ascent to (strong, oh my!) thunder thigh-dom? I already have my seven-story apartment hike multiple times per day to give me the big push.
I have attempted to write this post almost every day this week, but the task has proven impossibly difficult. As I have begun to clear my walls of the “garments” they have worn for the past five months – the drawing of a three-headed lady with a “big ass” who is “devish (devilish)” that my 19 year old students made when learning body parts, the hooks that held the 14 scarves I seldom wore, the score cards from a birthday pub-golf tournament that few of us remember – I see what good has come of my short stint in Hunan.
It goes without saying that the pulse of a city is brought to the forefront by people – as though each person who I’ve met and formed the most minor of connections with has – and dear me, not to elicit such tired images of “angels leaving footprints on my heart” – in some way, tread on me, bringing a reddening flush to my skin, and allowed me to escape the numbness that is borne of loneliness. I say tread, I think, because it is often an exhausting labor of love to endure an obsequious Chinese person who knows nothing of the West, or to spend hours seemingly getting to know a person over an intimate meal and revealing conversation, to only have them not acknowledge you when you pass them the next day, or to wade through the frustration of determining whether you tingbudong(don’t understand), because the person is speaking Mandarin, Zhangjiajie hua, or because, quite frankly, you’re just not smart enough. At the core of this experience has been the people I have met.
Sheepishly, I will admit that it has taken quite some time to realize this. Much of my complaining was done when left in solitude – whether in the dark womb that is my bedroom, or wandering the streets of my city with a trusty iPod to keep me mentally stimulated, but emotionally void. I would leave my apartment some days to escape the monotony of low-lighting and TV shows, the characters of which had begun to feel like my friends, and feel minutely fulfilled by my ascetic peregrination through the dirty streets of Zhangjiajie, appreciating the slight high that a passerbys’ smile or a rambunctious 6 year old with a rat tail chasing after a questionably rabid cat would give me. But, ultimately, I returned to my apartment with a similar sense of dread for what felt like was an inadequate and unsustainable lifestyle. These days came and went; from what I hear, many other foreign teachers around Hunan felt similarly.
As I was advised before coming to Hunan, “how your day ends really depends on yourself a lot” – and that has never felt more true than during these past two weeks, where my impending departure has kept afloat a sense of urgency to do any and everything, lest I be consumed with regret. In the past two weeks, I have been a “judge” at an English talent show; I have spent the night playing ma-jiang with the no bull-shit old men in my apartment building; I have shared a meal with the entire extended family (including the boyfriend who they were meeting for the first time) of complete stranger, a woman who I met a month ago, while getting a massage, who took me into her twin sister’s home in the boonies of Zhangjiajie, the most enormous and beautiful house I have ever seen (her husband is government official = $$$) coaxed her drunken grandfather who remained at the table as the whole family went back to their television, and watched her brother-in-law, a government official, waive all expensive fees and restrictions with a simple smile and pat on the back, as I was treated to a live musical performance at the base of Tianmenshan; I have passed hours sitting with the owners of a Xinjiang restaurant, playing with their children, and exchanging Xinjiang hua (“Poosh!” means goodbye) for English (Ma Xiao Yan still calls me “Merte” even after hours of practicing “Morgane”). And I, with the two female owners, spent 3 hours on food alley, scrubbing the grime and filth off of their restaurant chairs with metal sponges and basins of soapy water; I have picked up ALL of my phone calls from unknown numbers, and actually gone on QQ (Chinese instant messenger) to speak with my students despite common exchanges tantamount to the following:
Me: “What are you doing today?
Mandy: “Yes, I don’t understand.”
These past two weeks, I have felt the rush of newness, the pressure and joy of perpetual yesman-dom, and the sweet ambrosia that life yields when you finally lift the veil of that ponderous, indiscriminate Fear that lays over the world just below your feet, that weighty cowardice that obscures the possibility and potential of everything that is before you.
I will miss how comfortable I feel in China, whether as a consequence of my upbringing in HK, or because while still an untamable force in the pasture, the wild beast that is Mandarin finally seems to have a lasso hooked around one of its horns. After leaving Beijing in 2009, an unfettered boldness had been engendered in me, and it has since returned. This boldness, I believe, is a universal phenomenon in speaking a foreign tongue because you simply cannot grasp how you are perceived and heard by a native – you only regurgitate the sounds and gurgles you know to be “Chinese” or “French” and hope that your message gets across. I will miss the way speaking Chinese allows me, for once, to get out of my own head, and stop being so crippling self-aware. You divorce yourself from your identity when you speak a foreign tongue, and it sometimes makes you never want to return to it.
In a way, I am fearful for what awaits me if I return to America – perhaps more of the same. Perhaps not. When I said goodbye to a number of European teachers several weeks ago, I wrote in my journal: “what begs me to stay in China is the promise of more expats – they are a certain breed, and amidst the often suffocating foray of crazy, a most excellent breed. Though what makes me yearn to stay here is already – if not now, very soon – gone. But, it also asks me to evaluate the option of staying abroad, accepting that I like feeling unique, different, special, someone who, even in her presumed normalcy brings something to the table, by virtue of her very being, background and country.”
Today, what begs me to stay is the prospect of getting lost in the local flavor of a city, of becoming an adoptive daughter in another Xinjiang restaurant family, or relying on Mandarin to pass the night with 8 crusty-eyebrowed Chinese men, whose sagging breasts make them appear almost maternal, as they laugh at my fumbling, 8-year old-level conversation.
What I can be sure of is staying in Zhangjiajie would not be right. I told someone off-handedly, that one should leave a place while still wanting more. I am doing that now. This city will, undoubtedly, forever be a special place to me, and it will stay pocketed in the recesses of my mind like a prized jewel that I could show to, but never share my intimate relationship with, the rest of the world. It is my own, and it has become a respite of sorts from everything that lays outside – the larger cities, the tiresome social obligations, the working world. I know, though, that it is a valley that does little more than protect me from the infinite Other – which is not a life; it is only a hiding spot. What comfort I have attached to this place, I know is derived primarily from the fact that what was once quite alien has evolved into the regular, the familiar, and is now secure and reassuringly unchanging.
I appreciate grand-sweeping life changes, yes, and I do hope that I have many more to look forward to – but, I am, nonetheless, also, a girl who values routine; someone who sees the reinvigoration and strength that comes with security through the seizing of brief moments of interruption to hold, and covet as fuel, for when life, inevitable, feels monotonous.
I know that this time will undeniably be idealized in my memory; I am certain that whatever follows this life of ease, and freedom will no doubt pale in comparison, but I will be happy to recognize that it will not be a baseless glorification of the past, for these five months have been good. They have been worthwhile, and they have been necessary.
I will leave you with this image of my final morning in Zhangjiajie:
I was awoken at 7:30 AM by a phonecall from Leslie with the message that I would need to call him again at 4:00 PM that day to meet. Why he felt it necessary to call me to remind me to call him is just one more reason why Leslie is who he is, and why Chinese and American definitions of preparation differ. Now awake, I browsed through the internet and replied to a text message from Nut that I had forgotten from the day before – I was giving her a newspaper that my father had sent me from Rye, NY, and told her I would meet her on campus that afternoon. 40 minutes later, I heard pounding on my door, and a yell from Nut. It was still 8:30 AM. She was there and insisted on staying at my apartment until she could escort me somewhere. Thus, I had no choice but to chug a coffee and go to the gym.
I was glad that I had come for a final run in the gym. In the World According to China, gyms have no air-conditioning, and readily encourage smoking from its employees. For the duration of my run, I was at peace, something which had only begun to occur when coming to China; apart from the excessive sweat that would spill off of me, the wisps of cigarette smoke creeping up my nose as I bounced to the beat of my song, I would stare out onto the building next door, whose towering wall of grey brick and (new, but built to look ancient) Chinese style roof and tiling often lulled me into a zen-like state when jogging – this was real China: old, new, and completely unaware of the omnipresent irony and contradictions that make this country one of a kind.