Oh, man! The first few months in China were chaotic, and therefore a rousing good time. (Those are ducks in the picture above, by the way.) My definition of a good time, mind you, is sheltered and quirky and rather skewed, and if you haven’t met me, now is probably the time to warn you that I am easily impressed and amused. Change was what I craved, and I got it in spades, so of course I was happy. I relished almost every non-glamorous minute of it. (No, there aren’t any glamorous bits, sorry. It was too humid for that.) In lieu of a coherent narrative of my 2018 summer, which would be impossible, here is a birds-eye style memory dump, the scattershot happenings of a bird out of the nest trying to fly with the other birds far from home.
On the plane, I ate the cup noodle ramen for breakfast while trying to explain that fabled but very real Southern dish – grits – to the recently graduated young woman returning to China from Canada. All this was done while ogling the Arctic (!!!) ice out the window, which was not an experience I was expecting. I had envisioned flying over the Pacific, but geographically it’s much shorter to fly, from North America, up over Alaska and down through Siberia. Needless to say, my mind was completely blown when I saw our location on the in-flight map. I was probably squirming in my seat with delight. The light reflected off the ice so much that it was almost blinding, and everyone else was trying to sleep (boring), so I had to give it up and close the screen. The jet itself impressed me – I’d never ridden on anything with two aisles instead of one before.
After getting picked up at Shanghai Pudong airport by the company driver, who was a man of very few words, I got my suitcases and followed him into the parking garage. The bright pink van (yes, that was my new company’s trademark brand of color) finally convinced me that he was on the up-and-up and I was not getting kidnapped after all. Jackie’s being his nice, brief, uncommunicative self finally convinced me that conversation was not happening after all either, so I stuck to gawking at the fleets of high-rise apartment buildings we kept passing. Seriously, I cannot begin to convey the scale of those housing blocks. It’s like an orchard of rectangles, 20 floors each. Grids upon grids of them. Even in Tokyo, which I visited earlier this year, I never saw anything like it. I did see similar areas of housing once we got to Suzhou, but nothing on the scale of Shanghai. They just sit there in the middle of fields outside the city, in meticulously laid out clusters.
Two hours later we made it to Suzhou. Jackie took me to the Ibis Hotel, which had a cute lobby and not a soul from the company there to meet me as promised. He spoke with the desk clerk for a while, paid for the room with his company card, said “No breakfast!” and left. Well! I didn’t even have a SIM card for my phone, so I had no way to communicate now that I was in mainland China. However, I held it together and decided to not be worried, for which feat I give myself way too many toughness points for, but hey, I can do what I want. Someone was going to have to come by and get me eventually, and admittedly it was a relief when the school director knocked on my door to check in later.
The room had a cool, tiny bathroom pod and big, flat toggle light switches that would only work if you put your room card in the slot by the door. It’s an energy saving device, I think, so that everything switches off when you leave your room. Because of COURSE you would remember to take that key card with you at all times. Yeah. Had to chat with the front desk about that little oopsie when I accidentally locked myself out that way. One night I asked the hotel bartender for something sweet, and he poured me a small glass of a pink liquid that must have been straight grenadine. I had to cut it with drinking water from the dispenser in the corner before I could get it down. That was my first experience at a hotel bar.
Family Mart became my go-to for easy snack food because the restaurants were illegible and confusing. It’s a convenience store chain ubiquitous in China (seriously they’re on every corner), with chips, bottled drinks, drinkable yogurt, bread filled with red bean paste, and weird sushi sandwiches with egg and breakfast meat filling. My new school had an amazing dumpling place near it. I’ve never had dumplings like that since, actually. Sigh.
After a week the company placed me in Rachel and Caitlin’s apartment, in a half-bedroom with a questionably sturdy wooden slat bed slapped together from Ikea. Rachel was British. I never had any British friends before coming to China. She was also very motherly and organized and helpful and overall I nearly bonded to her like a baby duckling. They had gotten one of those happy cat statues that constantly waves one arm and put it in front of the TV in the living room. There were roaches and I kept killing them. And there were ants in the kitchen, but they were hardly as threatening. Oh, and the elevator to the 11th floor where we lived was not air conditioned, and one day a little girl pressed every button. Deep sigh.
After observing others teachers’ classes for a week I was sent to Shanghai to re-take the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) exam, because we hadn’t been able to get my particular online certificate authenticated for the work visa. I remember getting lost, being even more hot and humid, excellent egg and veggie “pancake” street food, and the lovely sycamore trees lining and overhanging the streets in the French concession area where I was. I don’t remember much of the class, as it was a repeat, except for the fact that the instructor was nice and everyone collectively loathed one man who just would not shut up. There is such a thing as a dumb question. We all know this, don’t we? Goodness gracious.
At the end of the week one of the guys took it upon himself to create a chat group, sans Annoying McLoudymouth, and we met for drinks in a Mexican dive to celebrate. I nearly missed it due to cellular data on the fritz, but I managed to connect to the wi-fi of a hospital I passed. When I finally walked in, the kind of worldly, partying people I had never fit in with were all happy to see me. What a confidence booster! I was just a recovering former homeschool kid, a graduate of a small Christian college with zero drinking parties, but people were accepting me and even interested in me anyway. My own ice was breaking, and I was diving in at last.
There, with a vaguely Scottish accented Norwegian-American guy nicknamed Thor, a South African rugby player, and a Mexican-American army vet (and a Chinese-American Christian woman present, thankfully for my cautious peace of mind), at the tender age of 27, I took my first shot of tequila. Actually, I tried to sip it, but they caught me doing it and made sure I finished it quick. Then I drank my first margarita, a frozen one that had melted. I do not count the Angry Orchard hard apple ciders I drank while watching TV alone in my parents’ basement; that night was my baptism into the world. No one had been there to initiate me on my 21st birthday, so this was it. It still makes me smile, the memory of shedding that much more of my old skin.
By all rights that should be the end of this article. Shedding my old skin is the theme of all my travels, and my current mission. It’s a good ending to the story, Grace riding off to the train station, buzzed in a taxi, finally exploring the wider world. It’s a good note to stop on. But something else happened.
I met God one evening on the streets of Shanghai, earlier that week.
I typed and erased this next part of the story so many times and still won’t give any more detail. It’s too personal and emotional. But he did meet me, uninvited, and what he gave me was sacred. Ever since I was a child, I knew I could never could be spiritual enough to “achieve” his presence, and after so many years, had almost given up on ever having it. That night, as we walked along the sidewalk, he showed me what it felt like to relax as a child with him for the first time, to let go and trust that the bigger one holding my hand knew the way. It occurs to me tonight that in all my travels, I’ve never been afraid of being lost since.