Happy two month anniversary, China. It’s been real. Real weird.
I recently turned twenty-five in China. I left my small city in Shandong Province and took the bus to Beijing alone for the first time. I walked from the bus station to the street, where a taxi driver offered to take me to my destination for 200RMB. No, thanks. I pulled a scrap of paper with hastily written, nearly illegible directions from my pocket and chose a direction. I stopped to ask for the subway station in broken Mandarin, probably sans the correct tone. I found the nearest subway station, looked at the map to figure out where to transfer lines, and clutched a wool bag with a woven llama motif. Just a few months ago I had still been in Peru, where I at least spoke the language and things made more sense to me.
I finally made it to the correct station and met another Smith alumna. We went to a Mexican restaurant. In China. This would never have been possible in my small city with very little Western influence. I was amazed at all the foreigners in Beijing. Our dinner companions were from the Netherlands, Brazil, and Switzerland. We went to a small bar after dinner, where we drank absinthe until four in the morning and stumbled home to my companion’s apartment. We hadn’t known each other at Smith, but we graduated together and once shared a class. Now we were sharing absinthe and she shared her small couch in her Beijing apartment. The next night she invited me to a dinner party at an apartment shared by students from Italy, Spain, and Australia. It was those Australians who convinced me I needed to read those Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. I just finished the last one; I thought I could trust the judgment of Australians who love Summer Heights High, but they just didn’t do it for me. I did learn that people in Sweden drink a lot of coffee and enjoy summer cabins/murdering people.
The bus back to my city took all day; I made sure to load my iPod with plenty of books, A Place in the Sun, Rachel Maddow podcasts, and the latest This American Life. The bus between Beijing and my city makes one stop, just long enough to stretch and smoke one cigarette. When we reached the bus terminal in my city, I chose the cab driver who could say “fifteen” instead of “twenty” in English and headed home. He could also say “I like Obama” and “You need Chinese husband.” Fair enough.
I am now back in my city for three more months. The weather is colder, but there are no trees with leaves to change color and let you know that it’s autumn. This will be the first year of my life that I don’t see the leaves change. This will be the first year of my life that I don’t come home for the holidays in the winter. It was also the first year of my life that my grandfather’s signature was missing from my birthday card; only my grandmother signs her name now. I’ve settled into a routine. I wake up, make coffee, teach my morning classes. I make peanut butter and banana sandwiches during lunch and curl up in my big, soft chair to read for a while before heading back to teach afternoon classes. I spend the evenings writing lesson plans, reading, and calling my grandmother. I call my father to talk about the November elections at home or what we’re reading. I play Scrabble with the other teachers. On the weekends we drink too much and I try not to wake up the security guard when I stumble around trying to put my key into the padlock on the other side of the gate.
I bought two birthday presents for myself to celebrate my new-found financial independence:
The first present is a white and black Pentax SLR digital camera. I never took any photographs of London or Paris when I studied abroad, and the only photographs I had of my time in Peru were on a Blackberry that was stolen on holiday in Qingdao. I have a digital camera, but I never remember to use it. So I bought this one, just because I can. I just turned twenty-five, I graduated from Smith, and I have a teaching job. In three months, Kristi and I leave for Spring Festival. We’re planning six weeks in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. At the end of the year, if my interview on Monday doesn’t go well, we’ll likely also go to Tibet and Nepal and then Spain and Morocco before heading home. This camera will probably be stolen before I ever make it home, but I bet it will be fantastic while it lasts.
The second present is a Nook. Aside from one bookstore with English classics in Qingdao and street carts selling Gone With the Wind and 1984 in Beijing, my reading opportunities are limited. Unless I somehow learn Mandarin beyond being able to say “thank you,” the days of the week, and “bird.” I thought I would hate reading from an electronic rectangle; I don’t love anything more than the way used books smell and reading the notes the previous owner wrote in the margins. I really like the Nook, though.