If I had to guess, I’d say that you’re surprised to be reading this post. I admit, I totally dropped the blogging ball. Once WordPress stopped working for whatever quirky reason the government had at the moment, I got out of the habit of writing and simply stopped altogether. Miraculously, it appears that a handful of people are still checking back here. Thank you! That’s wonderful. I’ll try to do much better in the future!
So much has happened over the past 5.5 months (I can’t believe I let the blog go for that long) that it’s difficult to know where to re-start. Last time I wrote, it was snowing outside. Now, the exterior temperature is around 90, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and much of the summer humidity has already returned. Perhaps an additional reason for my lapse in writing was simply that the winter was very difficult. Much more than I had expected. I’ve always liked winter, enjoyed the cold, the sweaters, hot beverages, and coziness. I usually look forward to each season as it rolls around, and winter was no exception. This year, for the first time, I hated it. Worst of all, I didn’t realize I hated it until it had ended, so I (along with Ryan) spent most of the winter wondering why I felt so miserable. It’s not that Hangzhou gets particularly cold, or that my workload increased, or any other such tangible reason. The dull and sad feelings that beset me were caused by things much more subtle, much more difficult to identify. For one thing, everything in Hangzhou turned grey. In wintertime, one expects a certain amount of leaden skies, drizzly days, and bleak-looking landscapes. And, as someone who spent the first 13 years of her life living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m no stranger to damp weather. But Hangzhou has something that doesn’t usually factor into the equation in a climate like this: dust. And not the yellow, gritty, desert dust you may be imagining. Hangzhou’s is a dirty, brownish-grey, disgusting, fine dust, one that sticks to everything and gets through the tiniest cracks in doors and windows making it impossible to keep anything clean. The dust is a result of the mind-boggling amount of construction going on in Hangzhou at the moment, so it’s mostly comprised of fine concrete. It coats all the trees, bushes, and grass in the wintertime so that all that should be green is instead a sad, dirty grey. So, in addition to the damp and rainy weather (which certainly abounds here in the winter), there was absolutely nothing in the landscape to relieve the monotony. Furthermore, I developed a cough that persisted throughout most of the winter. I’ve never had respiratory issues, and my colds usually play out cough-free. I can only attribute the presence of this nagging, hacking, nasty cough to all that dust combined with the damp weather. Of course, the same dust-levels are still present here today, but they stay off of the trees and flowers once the cold weather departs. And, although I have no idea what all this concrete is doing to my lungs, I haven’t been coughing since February.
So, it was cold, it was damp, it was grey. Because we live south of the Yangze river, heating is not standard in Hangzhou (Hangzhou’s winter weather is similar to that of DC – can you imagine a winter without heat in DC?). One of the best parts of winter – coming in from the cold to a toasty, warm, golden environment – was gone. At school, they’d turn on the heat only when temperatures went below 0*C, so from late-November until late February, I never removed my coat at school. They also never turn on the lights in the hallways, and the building is made almost completely of concrete, so it was all very cold and dark. Work was stressful – one cultural misunderstanding after another left me feeling undervalued and confused. I eventually had a meltdown that luckily coincided with a snowstorm, so I only had to take one sick day from work. In late January, my mom came down with a nasty case of pneumonia and spent 2 weeks in the hospital. Of course, this added another level of stress and worry. She was able to return home just before Ryan and I headed out for a 2-week trip to Japan, where we stayed and traveled with my long-lost friend Saya, who I met in Belgium way back in 2002. Japan was wonderful, it was a much-needed reprieve from some of the things that had been slowly but determinedly wearing on us since we arrived in China. Most Westerners traveling to Japan feel like they’ve entered an entirely new world – bright signs everywhere flashing characters, a sea of black hair everywhere you turn, fascinating cultural traditions and nuances, new tastes and smells coming from every direction, the sound of an unfamiliar language playing with your ears. We felt many of these things, too, but most of all being in Japan felt like we were a step closer to home. We were with a warm and welcoming family, everything was clean and orderly, Western foods and products were available in abundance (although, fear not, we ate Japanese food at every chance we got, which is to say constantly). People didn’t push in lines, everyone said please and thank you, the toilets were AMAZING (Japanese toilets are ridiculously high-tech), AND we had a translator with us wherever we went, thanks to Saya.
In short, Japan was fabulous. But our return to China probably marked our lowest point yet. The four-hour trip from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to our apartment in Hangzhou reminded us of all the reasons we felt unhappy here, starting with the bleak landscape visible from the above-ground metro outside of Pudong and ending with the jostling, overcrowded, loud bus in Hangzhou. Coming home from vacation is always difficult – no one likes that return to the everyday, mundane tasks of daily life, getting up and going to work, commuting, grocery shopping, etc. And it’s even harder when “home” doesn’t feel like home at all.
Where am I going with all of this? I’m not sure, exactly. I certainly didn’t intend to turn this post, the first in months, into a lament over Hangzhou winters. Nor do I want anyone to feel sorry for us. We came here totally voluntarily and, what’s more, I’m sure you’ve all had your share of trials and tribulations over the past few months. Plus, soon after we returned from Japan and overcame the impulse to simply pack our bags and leave in disgust, the weather got warmer and suddenly I realized winter was over. And, miraculously, I felt better. As I said before, I’ve never felt so profoundly affected by the weather. And daily life here is difficult, and sometimes I still want to leave the country on the next westbound plane. But things have improved, and next year I’ll be prepared for the winter.
Which brings me to my next topic: our plans for the year to come. After a long, painful, drawn-out decision-making process during which we changed our minds on a daily basis, Ryan and I decided to stay here in Hangzhou for another year. He’ll be remaining at his school, Greentown Yuhua Primary School, in the same capacity. I’ll continue to teach Kindergarten, but will leave my school in favor of my mother’s (Greentown Yuhua Kindergarten), which is much, much closer to home (a 10-minute bike-ride as opposed to a 1.25-hour bus ride). My mom is returning to Rhode Island. I don’t like to talk about this very much because the thought of living here without her makes me want to cry, but I am 100% sure that the decision is right for her and I’m glad that she made it.
Are we thrilled about staying for another year? No, not exactly. But for a variety of reasons too boring and complex to go into, it makes sense. And I am excited about the chance to improve my Mandarin (which, I have to admit, is not bad for only 10 months of study), to travel more within China and in other parts of Asia, and maybe to glean a little more understanding into exactly what China is at the moment.
This year has not been easy (and it’s not over yet). But there’s no denying that it’s been interesting. And we’ve learned a few valuable things that should help to make next year a little more fun and less…confusing, frustrating, bewildering, etc.
1. (this is a big one) We need to readjust our expectations. And that is a continuing process, one that has to occur almost daily. As I mentioned earlier, we came into this pretty much blind. We each knew a pitiful amount about China and Chinese culture, had no idea what to expect, and were consequentially consistently frustrated, angered, and bewildered by what we experienced. I’d like to say that I devoured as much literature as I could on Chinese culture one I realized the error of my ways, but that is not so. Besides, so much of that sort of knowledge comes from experience, from trial and error, rather than from a book. There is a lot more to say on this topic, and maybe I’ll devote a post to it sometime in the future. But for now, I’ll leave it here.
2. Winter sucks. Be prepared, buy a warmer coat and some boots, and travel everywhere with a supply of hot chocolate and Harry Potter books on tape.
3. Do more yoga, because living in China often makes me feel like I’m 7 again, and my little brother is sitting next to me in the car poking me ceaselessly and laughing maniacally as he does so. So I need to cultivate some inner peace. A happy place. Or something.
4. Splurging on weekends in Shanghai is totally worth it, because it’s possible to make yourself believe, for 2 blissful days, that you’re in America. Or Italy. Or, maybe, the rest of China 10 years from now.
5. Plan ahead as much as possible, because travel in China is, sorry, a bitch. More on that later.
6. Did I mention that Shanghai is awesome?
7. Remember that life here is all over the place, and that your best and worst days often come together, as one. So many times I’ve been cursing this place, wishing I could transport myself somewhere else, and then something small will happen to put a huge smile on my face. A nice lady will save a seat for me on the bus, an old man will let me go ahead of him in line, the man at the fruit store will help me pick out an extra-delicious pomello, a teenaged girl will see me pass on the street and say, “Ta zhende hen piaoliang!,” or one of my students will look at me adoringly, and I’ll remember that individual Chinese people are some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve met.
Those are just a few things. This post has been very long. I’d like to post some pictures, because I know that a long blog post broken up with some visual stimulation is a lot easier to handle. But I’m at school and don’t have any photos at the moment, so you’ll have to use your imaginations.
Oh, and on a practical and more exciting note, Ryan and I will be back on the East Coast from mid-July through mid-August, so we hope to see as many of you as possible then!