Friday, September 15, 2006

You Begin at the Beginning and You End at the Ending

The worst thing about Good Times is that the Good Times all have to end. Such came true to my wandering around China. Such came true to my entire experience this time 'round in China.

From JiuZhaiGou I made that same twelve hour journey back to ChengDu, in reverse this time, and with my knees bent up upon my body as I booked passage on a sleeper bus (where they stacked us two high in three columns down the bus, each bed shorter than I am long, my space blockaded on either side by a vertical beam making it even more narrow than my fellow passengers'.). Back and forth up that same pass, then down; around the gorges; past the abandoned irrigation systems; suddenly back in the city. A ticket purchased to BeiJing for the next morning. A suite purchased (the most craptiatical suite I've seen) for a few hours rest before boarding.

The train ride is uneventful, as are most endings. I spend a lot of time staring out the window at the canola flowers that snake their way into each valley and as far up each mountain as the terrain allow. Any other time I dedicate to Karl Popper and his "Unending Quest." I send text messages to a high school friend I have recently learned is in BeiJing. We make plans to meet.

I meet my friend in BeiJing, after having bought a ticket leaving for Harbin that night. The situation with my high school friend is surreal: I had first traveled to China with her back in 1997; my Mandarin might now be on par with hers despite her upbringing in Hong Kong; I am introduced to other Americans (of Chinese descent) who are making it big in the new Chinese economy through their western education and eastern heritage; we find ourselves at a chic BeiJing eatery I would never have found through my habits of street-level exploration. I must leave festivities early to catch my train to Harbin.

As trains pull into Harbin from a southern approach, much of my China-life will pass by the window. My local super-store, that where I supplied myself with a hearty flow of Dewars. The island that housed the wonderous ice scupltures and snow wonderland of the winter. My school. My apartment building. My local KFC. Two more KFCs after that. And then we pull into the station.

The end is near. I feel triumphant, more so than this conquering hero haas ever felt before. I feel the need need to march. I strut with chin up down the final mile of this journey, blasting "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" the entire way.

"My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

I left Harbin over a month ago with a dear friend on a mission to obtain her chance to come the the US. I succeeeded.

"He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored!"

I met my parents in BeiJing and gave them a whirlwind tour of the east coast of China, hand over hand, and making an indelible mark upon their worldly experience.

"He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword!"

Left in Hong Kong, without manner of making it to my point of destination, I managed a political fiasco, a social barricade, and thousands of miles of geography while taking in stories and sceneries unimagined... the entire time ALONE."


Strutting down Harbin's TieLuJie (Literally "Iron Road Street," or better put, "Railroad Street") the smile wouldn't leave my face. The wind blew and the cold sunk to the bones, but the warmth of personal victory would never fade. I found myself enlightened by a delight that I would never soon forget. My sack pulled high on my back, my grin wide across my face, my fleece hugged close to my skin, I eventually reached the building housing my school and the elevator that would take me home.


The elevator doors open. I walk out into the lobby. Apple, the Chinese manager, is on the phone. She drops the receiver. I'm hugged. Apple is joined by Christine. Some new girl sits and stares, aghast that such intimacy exists between a foreign teacher and the Chinese staff. She doesn't understand. Questions are asked. I laugh: loud, boistrous, with all the soul and heart that I deserve to laugh these laughs with. The teachers and TAs will tell me later they heard my jubilee while giving their lessons down the hall and instantly knew that the origin was my own mouth and they knew I had returned from my sojourn. I am honored by such identification. I sit in with some of my old classes, at times stepping on the toes of the new teacher. I make time to travel cross-town to my warehouse store for a final bottle of Dewars. I start that bottle before the final class I need to say farewell to.

Dinner that night is at the ol' Chinese BBQ where I sloppily say goodbye to some of my favorite waitstaff with my fellow foreign teachers. The next night, throughly hungover, I say goodbye to my Chinese TAs over a meal of hotpot mixed with other treats. I wonder why no one else seems to bridge the gap between the two nights. I decide that it is not worth the end of my time pondering such a query.

The Day of departure arrives in a cloudy haze. I make a few quick runs to have breakfast at Hemamas (my coffee shop in Harbin, the one owned by my Papa New Guinea friend where I pick up my final cranberry cheesecake), grab a few last DVDs, and say goodbye to some of my neighborhood friends. Returning to the school (where I had been crashing in the dormitory) I learn that I'm going to be ripped off one last time by my employer, but at least I learn it from a bevy of friends wishing me a fond farewell. Cookies, cakes, and other treats for the travel (none of which will be allowed on the plane) find themselves heaped into my arms. My boss's wife (Boss can't be there, as he owes me mucho dinero for his shitfuckiero un visa) presents a medallion with tears. I climb into the sedan to head to the airport.


The airport is a mess. I won't comment. But I get to South Korea, where I purchase Steven King's "Salem's Lot" for the long haul home (I had donated my replacable books to a burgeoning library at my school). Vampires and DirecTC haunt the flight to LA, and again to Boston.

LA is not my home. LA is another world; unfamiliar. But landing in Boston there is an unmistakable quality of HOME. And I am there.

But there is still China, still Harbin. And even though I was only there a year out of my 25, it is now a home; just like DC, just like Andover, just like Byfield. I can't let it go, nor let it be forgotten.

I know one day I'll be back on the mainland. Why, I don't know. I'd guess that the first reason might be tourism in 2008, but I'd love to be back sooner for business. But I'll be back I got to replace that book I lost in KunMing. I need to check in with my friends in Harbin. My Mandarin always needs more practice.

I'm tied to that country in more ways than Lao Zi might count.

Stay tuned.



At 9:55 PM, Blogger rbshaw said...

Ah Bill,What a year.What an adventure.My hat is off to you for the way you stuck it out in a place that many could not.I do not share your fondness for the place we met and worked but I respect your attitude.


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