The day was rare: deep blue heavens with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting on the breeze. For once Wuhan was not shrouded in dust or smog, or hunkering under an oppressive gunmetal sky that blocked out the sun. So fine was this day that I ventured out to a well frequented shopping center a ways from my usual haunts. I felt whimsical in my capris and Minnie Mouse tee-shirt, a souvenir from my trip to Disney Land with my family. In fact, so fine was the day that, after a bit of shopping and lunch, I treated myself to an ice cream cone.
Here I am, walking to the bus stop and enjoying my cone when I spy two foreigners with that 'new to Wuhan' look, contemplating the barbeque on some food vendor's cart. The taller one glanced my way and smiled.
Wouldn't you smile at a tall, curly-headed drink of water in a Minnie Mouse shirt, eating an ice cream cone on such a beautiful day?
I smiled back and reflected on my first year here, when I was new to Wuhan and everything was exotic, enticing, exhilarating and a bit terrifying. I felt so alone and isolated back then. No matter how many foreigners I saw, none would make eye contact with me, let alone smile. Those newbies at the vendor stand that glorious day, having yet to discover everything this city has to offer, perhaps anticipating the experience of a lifetime or maybe so homesick and wondering why they came here at all... they reminded me all of those feelings.
On the bus, I got to thinking: as hard as my first year in Wuhan was, I stuck it out. Makes me wonder... what could/would have driven me away?
Culture shock? Heavens no! I came here because of my deep love of China and her culture. I couldn't wait to plunge into everything China in general and Wuhan specifically had to offer. I daresay that, when I went back to the states after my first year here, that is when I experienced culture shock.
Loneliness? That was a tough hurdle. But then, I was alone in the states, too. One of the reasons I wanted to live in China is because the Chinese are so very social, a facet that my life thus far had lacked. Not that I didn't have friends in America, but I had kept them at arm's length out of long habit: why form deep friendships if I were just going to break those bonds in a few years because of my father/step father's military assignments? That became my way of life.
The warmth and kindness shown to me since my first day in Wuhan, especially by my students, my colleagues, and Sam and his family taught me how to open up to people, and not lock myself away. I was frightened at giving up my ways – hiding from friendship and feelings, but my gentle and patient teachers finally opened my heart. I'm still here, largely thanks to them and to my friends and family in the states. Were it not for their support, for them sitting at the computer for video chats, for their frquent emails, I believe I might have tucked my tail and scurried back to whence I came. I can't thank them enough.
Isolation? I was – and still am the lone foreigner in my neck of Wuhan. That neck is far removed from any excitement hubs. Just to shop at a department store involves an hour-long bus ride (or bike ride, now that I'm riding). It took me so long to learn my way around and to find stores that sell products I like. There was a lot of hit and miss in those early days, trying to figure out what food labels described because I didn't even know rudimentary Chinese. Learning the city while feeling physically terrible, as I did back then was a challenge. I overcame it and I'm still here.
Basic/brutal living conditions? The first winter I was here I thought I'd never get warm again. During that time I cursed myself vehemently for having given up my comfortable life in the states. But I always came back to my fundamental desire of living a bare bones existence – having only what I needed. And I had everything I needed. I had to learn to adapt to less comfort. All in all, it wasn't that hard.
Work? For months before coming here I had stress nightmares of being the planet's worst teacher. I don't think I was quite that bad but taking this job certainly showed me that I had a lot to learn. For the first 2 years, I had migraines before every class and worried about what to do with my students each session. I'm so fortunate that I only teach Oral English and have no textbooks or curriculum to follow. These days I appreciate the leeway I have in my classes but back then, inexperienced as I was and having no guidance or materials, I stressed over lesson plans and my effectiveness as a teacher. Sincerity carries a lot of weight in China and my students knew I was floundering. The fact that I didn't hide behind arrogance made all the difference. That, and their kindness. Especially their kindness.
Health issues? Heavens knows I've suffered my share of them since I've been here. I developed a violent allergy to all fruits and vegetables, and the dust doesn't help my breathing. I started having dizzy spells and fell down quite a few times. Once I even bashed my head open (see 'The Things I do for Research, posted Oct 2012). Lack of energy, stomach woes, racing heart and poor breathing, excessive weight gain because I simply had no desire to exercise and keep fit. At one point I thought that, if this were to be my life, I'd just as soon not live. In all, I felt punk to downright bad for about 3 years. I'm much better now, and I'm still here.
Some of my friends say: if those amorous rats, crawling on my legs while I slept were a permanent condition, I might have packed my bags (See The Rat Party entry, posted September 2011). To be perfectly honest, the rats promenading in my rooms were my fault. I did not clean my apartment upon my return from the states because I was due to move, nor did I set any traps when I saw evidence of rodents. I didn't even tell Sam I had such troubles until the trouble became immediate.
This school goes above and beyond to ensure my comfort and safety. If I so much as hint that I'm having difficulties, everyone from the campus CEO to our department dean, and the head engineer do everything they can to abate any issue I might have. When I postulated that my breathing difficulties were due to ever incroaching mold in the dank, sunless apartment I occupied they first year I was here, Dean Tu had maintenance scraping my walls and repainting the very next day. Upon moving into my brand new apartment the second year I was here, I got new furniture.
Perhaps still living in the girls' dorm building, on the ground floor where no sunshine kissed so much as a window sill? Where students felt no compunction at sliding my windows open and peering inside my home, regardless of what I might be doing... including getting dressed after a shower? I have to admit: that aspect of living there was decidedly unpleasant, but I don't think it would have caused me to leave. That dwelling was what I made of it. I didn't make much of it, seeing as I was feeling so poorly. One thing I did do was block my windows so that they could not be slid open. I was out of luck on those days when the weather permitted open windows, though.
Health scares, loneliness, professional incompetence, brutally hot summers and bone chilling winters: I suffered through them all and I'm still here, and still loving it.
Riding across campus towards home on another spectacular afternoon, I hear the rousing music that the freshmen learn to march to for their military training graduation ceremony next week. I will take my place on the dais with other school dignitaries to witness them passing in review, just as I have every year since I've been here. I find myself looking forward to that honor, with all its pomp and circumstance, and to the year ahead.
No, I don't think anything could have driven me away.