Back in the Day...

My first trip to the other side of the world was in 2009 when I did a 4-month volunteer project with GVN teaching English in a little city called Nanshan in the east of China. Here's a rambling I wrote last year about my first few days of that experience.
In Asia I always travel alone, I always live alone so I'm pretty much set on how to deal with feeling alone on the other side of the world. And the movie Mean Girls was there for me from Day 2 in Asia, which was also my day 2 in China. Day 1 consisted of the big city (also known as Yantai, the bustling port city of 2 million, if you were wondering), a German boy, lots of bad drivers equivalent to the amount of times I prayed to the Great Buddha to spare my life, a Wal-Mart; surprisingly, pesto (also surprisingly, but I pointed to the character for "vegetarian" to the lady and that's what she gave me. The German mocked me). Then there was a hotel lobby, a little less sketchy looking than hotel #1, a VW knock-off, but maybe it was real, and the Chinese countryside, and my new home. Followed by my new grocery store. Then my new bed. 14 hours later came my Day 2. Day 2...In China. I woke up from a jet-lagged sleep and after exploring my new neighbourhood and googling some ideas for fun games to play with the kids (who were they? What grades would I be teaching? How many kids in each class? I had no idea! They didn't tell me anything!) I sat down in front of my new Chinese computer in my new Chinese apartment with my third cup of delicious tea and watched Mean Girls. In China. A new continent and a new life. And a new me. Not a new me like one of those "new and improved, moving forward and out of the dumps" kinda feelings, but an actual rebirth. I had no idea how I was going to react to everything around me and  I had little idea what the heck I was doing. Everything from the smoggy air from Nanshan's aluminium factories, to the food, to the toilet paper was new. But it was better than serving lattes at 6 in the morning. And I'd always wanted to travel. If it turned out that I in fact wasn't the travelin' kind, at least I could say I tried. Why was I talking about loneliness again?
Back in day 1, back to me being confused, overwhelmed, and trying to make friends with Harry, the German. The confused and overwhelmed part was referring to being in China for the first time, not Harry. Well, maybe a little. He talked way too much about the evils of capitalism and the zen that he received from Eckhart Tolle's "New Earth". My fellow booksellers, I apologize for mentioning that title. Seriously. It made me shudder just typing it for my personal use but, it's the truth. Harry the cute German really did talk about that book a lot. Unfortunately it didn't make him any less cute. I questioned my integrity a lot during my 3 month volunteer with him. I was sitting in a hotel lobby with Jack (intense local volunteer coordinator. My introduction of Jack deserves a post of it's own) and Harry the cute german apparently waiting for an English teacher from the Elementary school I was going to be volunteering at. This teacher apparently was assigned to pick me up and bring me to my new apartment and neighbourhood. I'm using "apparently"  because the Chinese people I encountered (I hate to stereotype) I soon learned were quite vague with their explanations. I didn't know if it was the language or the culture, maybe it was both, but I spent the next 3 months pretty much unaware of what was exactly going on and just followed the crowd. I didn't mind...isn't that what life's like anyways? Earlier with Harry, on a break between anti-capital pro-Tolle rambles (I shouldn't judge) he told me that he'd been teaching in China only a week and it'd been a lonely one. "The area is very provincial, you know?" The teachers ignored him and it was hard to leave the campus. He was out with me only because Jack was going to pick up Rupert, another volunteer later that day, and apparently Rupert was assigned to the same school as Harry. I, apparently, was going to be the only foreigner at my school. Harry was very excited to get acquainted with his foreign teacher buddy. After only 2 minutes of waiting Tina, the English teacher soon arrived with her husband and some dude who was driving them. Both didn't speak English but were very pleased to meet me. Tina I assumed, and hoped, was picked because of her English skills and not because of her social skills. They packed my luggage into their black VW (maybe it wasn't a knock-off) and we rushed off before I got the chance to say goodbye to Harry. We didn't have cell phones and I had no idea where his provincial neighbourhood was, I was barely able to process my whole being in China thing at that point. I needed friends! So the driver sped off and I was alone with my 3 new Chinese friends.
So I've told you about Mean Girls, day 1 and 2 in China. With day 1 and 2 complete, day 3 was inevitable. Day 3 was a Monday, my first day of school. It was September and it was at an elementary school with a big concrete yard in the front and fresh new faces with fresh new rosy cheeks from running around in the fresh new schoolyard in the fresh (well, not really) fall air. It genuinely felt like my first day of school ever. This post is getting pretty big but when it comes to China there's just too much to say. So big, so many people. So many politics. So many contradictions for just one big political party. My stories may seem little but the experience was big. AND SO WAS MY SCHOOL! From the front yard, the cafeterias, to the student body...IT WAS HUGE! Everything except the classrooms. They seemed to be about the same size as the classrooms I grew up in but they had to fit about double the kids.
Before leaving for China, I'd read some of the posts from previous volunteers on my volunteer organization's website as part of my minimalist, just-go-with-it attitude I had about moving abroad. One of them read, "If you want the urban Chinese teaching experience, I'd go with this project." So I thought the bustling port city of Yantai was my calling. With a population of 2 million and only a page and a half dedicated to it in my Lonely Planet it was no Beijing or Shanghai, but I assumed some late nights writing at a bustling internet cafe (I'd abandoned my laptop in Canada...just-go-with-it) and weekends drinking at bars and clubs with my new Chinese and European friends were in my Chinese future. I was given some obscure versions of this version that I had planned for myself by the Mainland. Versions much more fantastic and confusing than I could have ever allowed myself, and I thank China for that. Just-go-with-it.
BACK IN THE VW on Day 2....10 minutes into my drive with driver, Tina and husband, I noticed that the view was becoming less neon light/ high-rise/exhaust fume and more mountainous/pavement/evergreen. There it was! Space! In China! The highways (or freeways, sorry American friends) in China are wide and vacant compared to the congested, horn blaring chaos that is, amongst many other things, the Chinese city. I appreciated not having to pray for my life every two seconds and having to tell Tina, the husband, and the driver that I was from Canada over the earthshaking sound of the thousands of car/motorbike horns (the motorbike horns were worse. They were pitchier, and a little reminiscent of a clown nose sized for an elephant and being squeezed incessantly by the worst.children.ever). We were free of that but this also meant that we were leaving the "urban" environment that I had read about/planned for. My vague, just-go-with-it outline of my near future soon fizzled into the Chinese countryside and were lost almost instantaneously, just like any hope for creativity and expression after Chairman Mao took over pressed the restart button in 1949. The countryside was beautiful. But I was tired, and getting increasingly confused. About 15 minutes into the scenic drive I turned around and asked Tina, "where are we going?"
"We are going to Nanshan school."
"I thought the school was in Yantai."
"Nanshan is a little far from Yantai. Maybe 100 kilometers."
"What?" I tried not to sound too annoyed/loud.
The driver looked over at me and said something in Chinese.
"He says that Nanshan is smaller than Yantai. Yantai is very big city. Maybe you can go there once a month."
"Ok." I tried not to sound too annoyed while trying to stay awake. This was hard work already, in China. But the VW knock-off/real thing was a smooth ride. Or maybe I was used to all the potholes on Montreal roads.
Then there were lights again. And factories. We passed under a big red "Nanshan" sign and breezed by the school campus and turned onto my little street with my new little apartment. As fast as we got in the car back in Yantai, we got out and into the building and up the stairs and into my new digs. Mr. Driver dropped my suitcases in my new room for me and rushed off. "Bye?" I didn't know how to say goodbye yet in proper Mandarin.
"Come, we go to the Bo Shang now." Tina said as she rushed out of the apartment with her husband, gesturing for me to follow suit.
Walking up my new little street I asked "What's the Bo Shang?"
"It's your gro-ce-ry store. You can buy food there. You need to buy food. The school cafeteria will give you card and you can buy food with it on Monday. On weekends, you can buy food at the Bo Shang."
This Bo Shang felt exactly like a grocer at home except that it was completely different. It smelled like things I'd never smelled before, I saw fish and sauce and bread in forms I could only gaze at in awe before Tina gently pushed me forward to help me buy whatever I needed. Which, by the way, I had no idea of. What did I need to buy for my apartment? I had barely even seen it! But...what did I need? Well, what did the store have? After 15 minutes of what do you needs and a lot of stares by the other shoppers, I had spent my first 100 RMB (about 20 bucks) in China and I had 2 bags of stuff for my apartment: Rice, tofu (that's what they eat in China, right?), 2 pairs of chopsticks. One bag of tea. And one sharp knife.
We walked back and Tina and her husband carried my groceries and said that they liked my purse. Coming from China, that's a pretty big compliment. China knows their bags. I noticed that the little trash cans on the street were in the shape of panda bears. And all the apartment buildings looked the same.
Tina let me into my apartment, gave me the key and said they had to go and that I should go to school at 7:30 Monday morning.
"Ok bye thank you." The door slammed. Trying to shake off the sinister encounter I turned around and observed my new space. My new space, in China. My first time living alone, ever, I realized. The place was grey, a little dingy, the walls were thin, but it was mine. In China. So I cleaned up, unpacked, brewed some tea (IT WAS AWESOME!!!), sent an email to my parents, watched Mean Girls and passed out for 14 hours. In China.
Kids.

First picture. In China.
More kids.


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