Today is my mother's birthday... or, would have been, had she lived. She died twenty-two years ago, at the relatively young age of fifty nine. In a mere five years, I will have lived longer than she did.
I think about my mother a lot, especially on her birthday, even though we were not close and she died so long ago. Thus I see it as apt that, on the day of her birth, I list my own 'beginning's.
My last semester as English teacher at this school began this week. What with everything else going on right now – planning my departure among other things, I can't say I am eagerly anticipating this last stretch in the classroom. Or the student-choked campus, or the noise around the housing area – which has already begun. Nightly the women gather to dance again, and their music is louder than ever. Each morning, I am roused by those clomping and stomping around, noisily ejecting the ravages of last night's cigarettes from their lungs as they thunder down the stairs. The cleaning women who roam around campus with their little twig brooms and their pushcarts, chirping to each other and clanking chains against their metal bins. The vendors who ride their scooters through the alleys, blaring their services in hopes of a customer.
I wonder what it's going to feel like, being in a quiet neighborhood.
I am beginning to wind down my social activities, not that I had that many to begin with. In order to make separation from friends easier five months from now, I am gently turning down invitations. Penny and Erica are the exception. Last night was Penny's birthday dinner and, even though we'd not seen each other but once during this month-long school break, we fell right back into our old patterns: Penny and I cobbling conversation together in my bit of Mandarin, and then Erica and I playing.
She will be seven years old in September. I came here the year of her birth. It is almost inconceivable that I won't be here for her first day of school, her graduation or her wedding.
It is also unbelievable that, soon I will be living in a place devoid of Chinese characters – both the written word and the people. I'm beginning to worry about what will happen to my hard-fought language skills once I am no longer immersed in it. How will I practice? How will I continue learning? Is there any point in continuing to study Chinese if I am no longer here, and will presumably not ever return?
One thing I am not wondering is how it will feel to go about unphotographed or talked about, as I am here. I am truly looking forward to relative anonymity.
I'm beginning to wonder what life will be like for me, wherever I land – a topic which is still undecided. I've not paid rent or utilities for seven years. I don't know how to go about securing an Internet connection or setting up mobile phone service. I look around this home that I've occupied since it was first built and wonder about the next tenant. What will be his/her thoughts upon first stepping foot inside these walls? These walls, bare of decorations that I bought, hung and will take with me when I go.
And I wonder about the new foreign teacher. Will s/he be a novice, as I was when I first started, or a seasoned veteran of the Chinese education system? Will s/he compromise on our students, giving only bare minimum, or, like me, give his/her absolute best no matter what the cost? And how will the school treat the incoming teacher(s)? Will there be a welcoming dinner, as there was for me and Victor, so long ago? Or will they be only tolerated?
I speculate on that because of tightening restrictions on foreign teachers in China that might cause so many hopefuls to choose another locale for their expat adventure (See Seven-Year Itch entry, posted September 2016). Those restrictions, coupled with the low pay this school offers – thousands of Yuan below average in China, makes me wonder if this institution will be successful in attracting any teachers at all. Or will they only have Nigerian teachers to choose from, who have recently been accepted as qualified English speakers by the Ministry of Education, albeit with a substantially lower salary cap than teachers from more desirable locations, such as Australia or America?
I'm beginning to wonder about food. Granted I shop at Metro and mostly cook my own food, but I wonder what it will feel like to have a full-sized stove, including an oven, to cook on/in? And, I enjoy the occasional batter cake or bowl of re gan mian (hot dry noodle, the Wuhan specialty) from vendor stalls. Just last night, Penny's birthday dinner at a hotpot restaurant: where will I find hotpot outside of China?
And those delicious little snack cakes that I enjoy so much. And cream puffs, incomparable to the ones I've eaten in the west. Sweet potato chips that you can buy from a bulk bag, that are so savory! And that delicious coffee I drink! True, it's instant but it is bold and flavorful. I'm beginning to wonder about my morning coffee elsewhere: will it be as satisfying?
I wonder what it's going to feel like to access websites that have been forbidden me for the last seven years: YouTube, Google and others, or to send email without restrictions. And what it will feel like to stream videos without pause or hiccup, as currently happens here. What will it be like, watching TV without Chinese subtitles?
How easily will I adapt to full-sized broom and mop handles? Or carpet under my feet? Or, for that matter, not having to wear house shoes? To baggies that are more than 2mil thick? To a range of cleaning products that make housekeeping a breeze? To sitting without my knees at chest height? To repairing my bike by myself, instead of invoking a repairman for the least little thing?
I'm beginning to daydream about long bike rides with friends, in clean air, where my lungs won't scream 'abuse!' and my legs will get all the oxygen they need to function properly. A place where I won't have to take allergy medicine twice per day or risk hyperventilating for lack of air. I wonder what it will feel like to not be able to see the air in front of me, or have a perpetual sheen of dust on everything I own.
To be able to talk with a doctor, a vendor or a repairman without anyone translating for me. To have a decent conversation, a full and fair exchange of views without being constrained (or shut out) by cultural norms or social mores. To be able to investigate in depth and learn everything there is to learn on a particular topic or subject without being stonewalled.
To be able to buy clothes and shoes that fit me.
On the day my mother's life began, I'm beginning to envision my life elsewhere. And, while she most likely did not have such speculations as an infant, at some point in her life, surely she wondered what her life would be like in different circumstances, seeing as she had (and led me on) a rocky path.
In her honor, I continue.