I first learned that I would have to leave the mainland on my last day of classes for the semester, about three weeks ago. My liaison in the Foreign Affairs Office at the college, who was supposed to be taking care of all the visa issues, called to tell me that two packages had arrived, and after giving me the packages she said, “Also, there is something very important that I have to tell you about.”
She took out a piece of paper that she had showed me about two weeks prior, the working license that allowed me to legally work at the university (and which she said was the last thing we needed before I could get a working visa to stay at the college). She pointed to just below the header, where the letter directed the holder of the working license to report to the nearest Chinese embassy in the United States to get a working visa.
The last time she had showed me the license, I had not noticed that crucial detail. And after months of nail-biting, hair-pulling, ad politely trying to not be a nuisance but also still persistently question her about when I would finally be legal in the country…I was tired of thinking about it. I just wanted the school to take care of it. I did not understand one crucial thing about the situation I had found myself in, which was that they had told me what I had wanted to hear regarding the visa situation before I came to China, and I had let myself believe them. Everything that happened after that was white noise. For three months I had pestered the Foreign Affairs Office people about my visa, and for three months they had essentially avoided telling me what they knew all along — I would have to leave the country, on my own, to get the visa I would eventually need, and, as an added bonus, I would be expected to pay for that trip.
This revelation, on the last day of classes, deflated me and almost squashed me. I was angry, I was frustrated, I felt used, I felt stupid. But I quickly realized (after yelling about it to myself and discussing it over the phone with a couple of key people) that there was nothing I could do about the trip out of the country. I would have to do that, either way. The only thing I could really do anything about was determining who would pay for the trip.
So I spent a day negotiating with the college and eventually, with the help of a key person at the school, got an extra few hundred U.S. dollars out of them. They agreed that they would refund me for my actual travel ticket, that they would throw in a little extra money for accommodations, and I would go. That was the best I could get without outright threatening to leave the college, which, if I were a more stubborn or hard-nosed person, I would have done.
I booked a train ticket to Shenzhen. There is a train that passes through Sanming, Fujian and goes all the way to Shenzhen, which is almost directly north of Hong Kong and adjacent to it. I would take the train to Shenzhen the day before my tourist visa would run out, then I would cross customs in LuoHu, which is part of Shenzhen and actually in the same train terminal where I would be arriving, and then, if all went well, I would simply get on the Hong Kong MTA system and head into HK.
So, I waited. There were about two or three weeks between when I learned that I would be going to HK and when I actually left. Waiting was not the easiest thing I have ever done, because the entire time I was thinking about the fact that there was no guarantee at all that I would be able to return to the mainland. I was heading out of the country just as my tourist visa was expiring on the hope that I would be able to return on a working visa, finally, after being in the country for almost four months. I finished grades for all my students, begrudgingly since I felt that the school was seriously not doing its job in supporting me as a foreign teacher and therefore why should I do my job until they started doing theirs. But I did the grades anyway, submitted them to the college’s intranet and waited some more. Some teachers came by for a party at my place. We ate rat. It was actually a ton of fun. I felt less bad about the whole situation and the people involved. We all went out for karaoke. It was, again, a ton of fun. I felt a little less bad again. The dean in my department and others invited me to spend the Spring Festival with them in their hometowns when I returned from HK. I felt less bad again, and as the time for my leaving arrived I finally decided that whatever happened, whatever the reason was for why I was leaving with no guarantee that I would return, to wait in HK for some indeterminate amount of time for the Foreign Affairs Office to swap my paperwork so I could get the visa in HK — whatever happened, I was totally confident that there were people who really wanted me there, teaching, at the university. They did appreciate my presence, even if a behemoth bureaucratic system, and various slip-ups and textbook cases of miscommunication had seriously gotten in the way. I at least felt welcome, still, as I was leaving. Which helped.
So with classes and grades and everything else done I packed up almost all of my stuff, or at least everything that I could carry, into two huge backpacks and a messenger bag and set out at 1:30 a.m. to catch the train that would take me to Shenzhen. One of the teachers picked me up and he very kindly waited with me at the train station and helped me find the train car when it arrived. Which was very lucky for me, because there was a lot of running and shouting involved. Apparently the trains tend to only stop for a couple of minutes at each station. So if you have over 100 pounds of gear on you it is not so easy to navigate, read the signs of trains, and try to process train stewardesses speaking Chinese.
But it worked out. I got on the train, found my car, got into bed, and slept. I woke up at around 7 a.m. and looked out the window. The air outside was smoggy and the sun was up and the countryside looked almost as it had the day before, only a little flatter. We were moving away from the endless egg-crate-like mountains of Fujian, southwest, into Guangdong. There was still only one other passenger in the four-bed soft-sleeper room with me, a young woman, maybe about 23 or 24, with a pale, overwhelmed looking face and a soft voice. I had listened to her talk on the phone in a plaintive, almost whiney Chinese the night before. The only thing I had understood was “Wo hen kun, wo hen kun” — I’m very sleepy. I had been on the top bunk on the front end of the room, listening to Chinese lessons on my iPod as I fell asleep, while she was on the bottom bunk on the other side of the tiny room. I had also been able to smell the shampoo-scent of her hair, for some reason, whenever she moved. Probably because I already smelled like sweat and nerves. I don’t know why I was so worried about the whole thing, now, in retrospect. As I fell asleep, I was less worried than I had been at 11 p.m. earlier that night, waiting to get on the train.
After waking up at 7 a.m., I quickly fell back asleep and didn’t wake up again until 11 a.m. After an hour or so of reading I got up and moved around a bit, ate, read some more, and then finally decided to try to talk to the girl in the cab with me. Using Chinese, I managed to find out that we would be arriving at about 3:30 p.m., that she was also headed to Hong Kong via Shenzhen, that her parents lived in Hong Kong so she often went there, and that she was, amazingly, a secretary at the very college where I am a teacher. And that she had seen me around campus before. It occurred to me later, after she helped me find my way to customs and the subway to HK, that I never asked her for her name. But I’m hoping that next semester I will be able to find her and thank her. It was not easy for her, I’m sure, to communicate those very basic things to me in Chinese. And the last thing she told me, that once we got to the train station I would be able to tell where to go by the signs inside the station, I didn’t understand until after we actually got off the train and she pointed to a sign that said Hong Kong and she repeated the word — “biao1 zhi4″ that she had used so many times back in the train cabin, while I sat searching through my dictionary, befuddled — which word means “sign” (or as my dictionary defined it, to my confusion, “logo”), as in “YOU CAN JUST READ THE SIGNS”.
As a language teacher, I can totally and exhaustively sympathize with the frustration she must have felt trying to speak to me in Chinese, as I feel that frustration trying to speak to my students in English. But I also know from experience that speaking with someone of a different language takes practice, patience, and the ability to closely monitor your own words and simplify your sentences. Practice, that is, that you maybe only get if you’re a language learner or teacher.
So, the train got to Shenzhen, I got off, I followed the girl through the train station, and finally we had to split at customs, where Hong Kongers and Chinese people split with foreigners. We waved and I said thank you, and I went to the foreigners customs area.
The line for Hong Kongers and Chinese looked brutally long, but it took me about five minutes to pass through the foreigners line, and I walked straight down, again following the signs that said “Hong Kong”, to the LuoHu MTA station, used the ATM to get some HK Dollars, bought a subway ticket, and got on. This was when I finally started to get the surreal and exhilirating and confusing feeling that I was going back into something, essentially a kind of world that I had known before, for most of my life, but that I had been living very far away from, without realizing it, for quite some time.
That description of what I felt sucks. It’s hard to describe. First there’s the fact that I hadn’t seen, looked in the eyes of, shaken the hand of, a native English speaker in four months…it feels strange to mention it, but honestly I also hadn’t seen a caucasian person in four months, which had been a quiet point of interest in my mind. It doesn’t matter at all, but it has relevance purely because of the undeniable role that my caucasian-ness had played in my life in Fujian. As in, people staring, people shouting hello, people continuously turning and saying to their friends, “Ni kan, laowai” — “Look, a foreigner” — wherever I went, all the time. And because of the fact that I had begun to wear my own skin differently, but had not had time or opportunity to reflect on the meaning of that, to step outside the situation, to see it all how I would have seen it if it were someone else experiencing it, not me.
That’s what I started to think, standing on the subway, a few short miles from Hong Kong Island. I was suddenly very happy, for no one reason that I could pinpoint. I was smiling to myself, even as I realized that compared to all the clean, well-dressed, sophisticated Hong Kongers around me I looked decidedly shabby, my shoes were extremely dirty, and I did not exactly smell like something off a page of “Vanity Fair”. I was stinky, I had a huge load of bags with me on the subway, I was not sure exactly where my hostel was located and I was, despite the excessive sleep on the train, tired. But I was happy to be in Hong Kong.
I was glad I had made it.