Sunday, November 7, 2010

Foreigners! Foreigners EVERYWHERE!

As you may recall, whilst partaking of pizza in my search for Metro I met some foreigners. It seems there is a Canadian/International school called Maple Leaf somewhere in Wuhan, and they hire all kinds of Canadian people. Of course, the only two I met were Terran and Christy. But I am bolstered by the idea that I am not quite the only foreigner (besides Victor, my colleague) in this city.

What I haven’t disclosed to you is that Optic Valley was also full of foreigners. Well, not exactly FULL of foreigners, but there are more certainly foreigners running around in that corner of Wuhan than my corner. I have withheld that information from you for a reason, which I will soon divulge. But first, a little bit of background:

While living in America I worked what most people call the Swing shift – from 2:30 in the afternoon until 11:00 o’clock at night. This is a work schedule tailor-made for me, a night owl who likes to sleep in. And while I genuinely enjoyed spending time with my work mates and sometimes shared very deep conversations with several of them, the bottom line is we were work mates and after the clock struck that time they went their way and I went mine.

In essence this was not a bad arrangement. I, the painfully introverted one, had just enough contact with people during the week to carry me though the weekend and, come time to resume the work week I was again ready and eager to meet up with my crew. However, it niggled in the back of my mind that I essentially had no other life than work and solitary pursuits. Over time, that really started bothering me.

True enough I had friends outside of work. Wonderful, patient, understanding friends. But the stress and pressure and demands of my working life robbed me of any desire to be around friends during my free time. I needed both my days off just to regain my balance and recharge my batteries for the oncoming week’s demands. Bless my friends who are so understanding and for pretty much leaving me alone!

Alone. That is what I’ve been here. You see, I anticipated having fellow foreigner teachers and fellow English teachers here at the school to socialize a bit with. I was looking forward to occasionally inviting people over and playing Scrabble or other games, or going out for a meal, or having people to go sightseeing with. With the absence of intensity that my job in America brought, I felt I could handle a bit of socializing while still being my introverted self. And, if you remember from the Continuum III post a while back, that is one of the things I came here to find out: see if I was capable of being a bit social.

Instead, I’ve had a bevy of students with whom communication is sometimes a challenge. A point to contend with is that the students’ English is not at the level that one can have a solid, fulfilling conversation with. To say nothing about the fact that the students are about 25 years younger than I am and their focus and interests are decidedly different than mine, or of many grownups.

My other chance at socializing, besides my students or other teachers would be to learn Chinese really, REALLY quickly so that I could have conversation with Chinese people. Although it might have been possible, it hasn’t happened in the last 3 months I’ve been here.

I now see how it is possible for a person to go insane from lack of human contact and social interaction. Especially these past three months, when I’ve been essentially confined to my apartment unless I was fulfilling some school function. And even though I did venture out during this period and have been around people, there as been virtually no social contact.

If you’re interested in reading a case study of this topic written during the 1800’s, I urge you to read the essay titled The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which beautifully illustrates the concept of insanity, brought on by isolation. You can simply google either the title or the author and it will pop right up for you to read.

At this point, I pay tribute to everyone who has been faithfully corresponding with me, to everyone who has downloaded Skype and chatted with me, to everyone who has been following this blog and letting me know how they feel about these adventures of mine. Please let me take a moment to thank you for staying in touch, for putting up with my long, rambling emails and for wading through my even longer blog posts. You have been a lifeline of sanity for me in a world otherwise devoid of social contact. This is said with no facetiousness whatsoever: I am perfectly sincere in thanking you for keeping me sane.

Now I can tell you why meeting foreigners at Optic Valley was such a milestone. First: I found out many of them feel just as disoriented and disconnected as I do. Second: all of us ‘expats’ need this social contact, no matter how comfortable we feel amongst Chinese people or with the Chinese language. Third: we share a sense of kinship that is difficult to explain to someone who has never felt so disconnected.

Enter Carrie Ann, a lovely woman from Canada who has been teaching in various foreign countries for the past 8 years. She is very blasé about things as she flits around from country to country, free as a bird. She is younger than I am with no thoughts of retirement being just over the horizon… unlike me.

And then there is Becky, whom I met very briefly on the way to Optic Valley. Becky has lived in Wuhan for 6 years and says she loves it here… conclusively proving that I must indeed be missing something about this city. She seems a bit more down to earth than Carrie Ann.We exchanged contact information just as my bus got to its stop so we didn’t get to talk very much, but I intend to call her next weekend to see if she is free to meet for a meal.

Finally there is Wilfred and his wife who are from the Ivory Coast in Africa. They are both polyglots, speaking English, French and Chinese. They are both students at the Hubei Province University. I have to confess that Wilfred makes me a bit uncomfortable; he seems a bit more forward than I’m prepared to deal with – and more than his wife seems to like him to be. However, with them I do have the chance to practice my French skills. We’ll have to see what happens.

Does meeting all of these expats mean my devotion to my friends in America will lessen? Not one bit! There will still be rich emails flowing back and forth, genuine sentiment included. There will still be a blog for me to write and for you to read. I just hope that soon, some of those blog entries might include something along the lines of “I just got back from dinner with…”.

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