Friday, July 30, 2010

China to Alabama

Wanting to have a nice closure and to say goodbye to a person I have gotten to know and have gotten close to over the past years, I decided to help my sitemate carry her luggage to Chengdu and keep her company for her few last days in China. She is one of the last of our group to close her service (COS) which could make Chengdu quite lonely.

The luggage though! Whew! The water distiller was HEAVY, actually not heavy but the weight was distributed on two tiny cords which cut deeply into my fingers that turned white with the weight. Her rolling suitcase was much heavier, but people helped her carry the thing up and down the train station stairs. We both had huge backpacks.

Note to COSing volunteers, try to take ALL of your PC stuff back to Chengdu during the COS conference! Or else suffer the consequences of having to lug books, a water distiller, a medical kit, plus all your own stuff. In the pictures do we look lighter? Yeah because in these pictures we have dropped off all the Peace Corps stuff. Were we such good sitemates that we even owned the same backpack? Nah... We traded packs so that she could pack her southern China basket that she will use to carry her future children in. We'll trade back our packs in a couple of weeks.
We left Gansu at 7 am on Saturday to catch a 1 pm train which was delayed till 2 pm. The train ride usually takes about 16 hours, but this time it took 34. The rains have been causing mudslides and we had to wait for at least 10 hours for the tracks to be cleared.
Luckily we had some great cabin mates, a family of four. It was fun. It was like having a host family. They fed us apples and seeds. We understood a lot of their Chinese and they communicated using gestures which is really rare to find in China. We played some oral English games to help the high school and college aged boys with their English. We played the same games in Chinese to help our Chinese. The mother even finished the collar of the sweater I was knitting for C, a going away present to the best sitemate ever. The mother taught me a new bind off method using a tapestry needle. So the 34 hours imprisoned on a train wasn't torture. It was a nice way to say goodbye to China, the loops that China throws you mixed with the learned flexible attitude of "Don't get mad. It'll all work out. Find a way to enjoy what's happening around you."

Here is the finished Plain and Simple Pullover pattern by Veera Välimäki. You can download the free pattern at the free knitting community called Ravelry.

On Wednesday we both left for the USA sharing the cost of a 5:30 am taxi to the airport. C's flight to Beijing was first, leaving at 7:30. My flight was next leaving at 10 am except after climbing two flights of stairs to board the plane, we all had to turn around and be driven back to the terminal. I followed the four obvious looking foreigners who were led by a non-English speaking airline representative back to the check-in counters going not through an exit, but through security backwards. The flight had been cancelled due to mechanical problems and we had to get new tickets. The foreigners were NOT happy because they were going to miss their flights back to Europe. We stood around the counter for thirty minutes trying to get new tickets. Everyone was stressed at missing their connecting flights and we were using customers who spoke English to help translate what the airline workers were trying to tell us. Eventually I heard the Chinese phrase, "Airplane. Good." We were handed our original tickets, ran back to the original plane, boarded it and I made my connecting flight. The others, doubtful. I am betting they got stuck in Beijing.

So...15 hours on a luxurious method of transportation compared to buses in China, I made it back to Alabama. Chicago was a hassle with 1.5 hours of immigration and customs. The lines were long.

It is strange being back. I think the reverse culture shock is greater than my home leave from Africa to the USA. Humans are so flexible. Habits and expectations after 2 years change. Just like how China was a bit overwhelming when I first arrived, the US is now overwhelming. The USA seems to be the same except that I am different.

One big thing that doesn't seem to be the same from two years ago is the number of people who are occupied with their cell phones. You don't see people's eyes anymore, and the noise is people talking on their mobiles.

There were lots of moments of ding.... "Woah that is strange. Woah my habits aren't American anymore."


1. My seatmate commented, "Oh you don't want ice anymore?" My response was "Oh... there's ice?" I remember back in the day when I would drink every airline beverage with ice. After two years in China, I have forgotten about cold drinks and ice.

2. I was surprised that I could understand a lot of the Chinese announcements on the airlines and didn't mind if the airline workers spoke to me in Chinese first. I remember my first flight to China being super self-conscious about not being able to speak Chinese when everyone expected me to.

3. After four years of sleeping without a pillow, on a rope cot, and on a thin pad on plywood, I find the beds in America to be too soft.

4. Before I can remember to put the toilet paper into the toilet bowl, it is dropped into the trash can.

5. During my morning run, I knew that it was culturally appropriate to raise a finger in greeting to drivers coming your way, but it took me several cars before I felt brave enough to do it. It was like how living in Africa or China, I was sometimes too afraid to bargain even though I knew it was culturally appropriate. I find it funny that with a US custom I too would feel resistance to doing it.

6. Instead of dodging cars and people, during my run I saw only five cars, a frog, a turtle, a country mouse, kids and their goat moms and piglets and their moms.

7. Even though America has a huge car culture, Alabama seems empty compared to China. The streets are empty. The sidewalks are empty. Even the parking lots seem empty.

8. Waiting in the back room of the doctor's office felt extremely lonely. Unlike China, where at the doctors' you are always surrounded by people, always accompanied by friends and family, being isolated in a small room felt really awkward.

9. I am still Chinese in America. Because the doctor knew I was serving in Peace Corps China, I guess he assumed I was Chinese and asked, "So what part of China are you from?" It is the same question everyone in China asks me. I guess I will never escape that question.

10. I was surprised at how much information was given out by public announcements at the airport. "The plane is delayed because we are waiting for another plane to leave the terminal." I was surprised at how well people followed rules and would wait at yellow lines marked, "Wait here," instead of bunching around empty space. Or would stay seated with seat belts fastened until the sign was turned off.

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