In October 2009 I left the U.S. to fly to China, to some city that I probably couldn’t have pointed to on a map if you asked me. I left by car; actually my mom drove me from my parents’ house in New Hampshire the five hours down to JFK in the middle of the night; we arrived after midnight and waited outside a brightly lit airport restaurant for the check-in counter to open. After I checked in we moved to the second floor, because it seemed a little quieter, and sat by a big wall of windows –it was still night so the windows were black — and waited for the time when my plane would board.
When it came time to go board I didn’t feel like I was consciously walking and moving and talking anymore; I was swimming in a mixture of emotions, just fighting to keep moving. And then, of course, saying goodbye to my mom felt like saying goodbye to the last person I knew in the world; the idea that I was going someplace where no one knew me or was likely to know anything about people like me was not just in my brain but enveloping my whole brain with fog. I guess I’m a creature who generally shies away from change, even though I have managed to find it pretty consistently in life for the past ten years.
Hugging my mom and saying bye was the first time that I felt like maybe bagging the whole thing, the whole idea, and just saying nope, take me home: Not goin’. Can’t do it.
Of course I didn’t do that. I recently returned home for the first time after about 15 months in China teaching English and studying Chinese. At a certain point I decided to go, and, knowing that it would be a disaster to let fear or anxiety get in the way of that plan, and wanting very much to stay there and have an immersive experience, I stayed.
I think a lot of people would not have such a hard time leaving home to go live in another country like China for so long — some people are better at it than others. But that saying-goodbye moment was very difficult for me — maybe the toughest thing that I’ve done.
The good news was, as I discovered, that was also the hardest thing I would have to do. Before I left, a friend who knew somebody who had also taught in China recalled a quote about the initial going-away experience: “It’s like jumping off the end of a pier into dark water, and when you land realizing that the water is only a foot deep.” I wouldn’t say that arriving in China, adjusting to the culture, making friends and learning the language, was as easy as wading around in knee-deep water, but it was a lot easier than I imagined it to be when I was waiting in the U.S. to leave.
I spent 15 months there. I learned, more or less, how to be a decent ESL teacher (although I know I still have a lot to learn about being a teacher). I made Chinese friends who I’ll definitely remember forever and had experiences that have totally changed my worldview. I managed to become fairly conversant in Chinese, although I also have many more years’ work ahead of me on that front. But I made it through, and none of the bad stuff I imagined before I left happened, or if some of my fears turned out to be true (getting sick from the water or street food, for instance), they weren’t nearly as bad as I imagined they could be (getting sick from water or food was never a major inconvenience — it happens, but I certainly never had to go to the hospital for it, for example).
So in the end I would say that the maxim about going to China was half-true. Or maybe I would offer this modification: “It’s like jumping off the end of a pier into dark water and remembering, oh yeah, I can swim.” Life in China isn’t necessarily harder than life in the U.S. : it’s just different, in a thousand fascinating ways.
So I’m going back in a month to continue teaching, with the hopes of reaching a level with my Chinese so that I can be certified as proficient, which hopefully will help me go in new directions that I maybe haven’t even thought of yet. And I’m looking forward to going back. When I was in NYC last week and walked by a Chinese man playing an erhu and all the memories came flooding back to me, I knew I wanted to go back. So I’m gonna. Hopefully I can find some people who want to go to Sanming to teach, too, because that school needs good teachers.