End of my (mis)adventures

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

I have been home for a week now. We left Hanoi on the morning of the 17th and walked into Mellisa's apartment in ZhuZhou on the morning of the 18th. Pretty remarkable, considering I had visions of us getting stranded in Nanning for days.

We walked across the border into China with not so much as a single baggage x-ray scan. The second we crossed the border, I knew right away we were back in China. We were immediately surrounded by money changers and taxi drivers. Of course, no one spoke a word of English, and once again I was forced to say repeatedly, "Wo bu hui shuo Zhongwen, wo shi Mei guoren." I don't speak Chinese, I am an American. Ahhh...so good to be back.

Who should we run into, strolling over the border just as we were about to pull away in a taxi, but Todd. So the three of us continued on together. Five hour car ride to Nanning, then a 12 hour train ride back to ZhuZhou. Being a foreigner generally sucks, but sometimes it has real advantages. In the train station, the security guard let us jump about 20 places in the line to buy tickets. For an extra 200 kuai each, we were able to upgrade our hard seat tickets to soft sleeper tickets. Between Todd's passable Mandarin and Mellisa's blonde hair, we had it made.

I feel a bit like I've gone back into exile. Back to Hunan, the land of white-tiled concrete box houses, piles of rubble and polluted air, hacking and spitting people, food drenched in oil, bureaucracy and frustrations. Oh yeah, and winter. Zhu Zhou was a balmy 35 degrees when we returned, and remember those boxes that I mailed from Kunming? Well, all of my winter stuff was in them, and somehow (as I should have expected) they had vanished into the black hole of the Chinese postal system.

My apartment was just as I had left it: cold. I had accidentally left a bag of fruit out on my kitchen table for the five weeks I had been gone, and it looked completely untouched. School started last Tuesday and the students are also just as I left them: extremely rowdy. The one good thing is that the electricity situation seems to have been fixed. Apparently it rained for 20 days straight after I left town, and the water levels in the river are back to normal.

I think my liaisons (Henry and Maggie) are quite relieved that I returned unscathed from Vietnam, bird flu and malaria-free. Henry had quite a few comments to make about my travels, including "Vietnam is a very poor, dirty country. And the people there are very different from Chinese people. They are all short and black." I found this an interesting statement coming from a 5 foot 4 man who has never left Hunan Province. And as far as I'm concerned, Vietnam may be a developing country, but it's ten thousand times cleaner than China. I saw one squat toilet the entire time I stayed in that country, and the sidewalks in every town were immaculate and spit-free.

But, as I've seen in many of the people I know here, their world views aren't based upon facts garnered from first-hand experience, they're based on half-truths passed from one person to another. Despite all this, I am very glad to see all of my friends here. I have a funny feeling that the next four months are going to fly by without my even realizing it, which is exactly what I'm hoping for.

There are (very) rare moments when I stop and look around me and think about the ridiculous, wonderful parts of life here. Friday night I went out for one of the usual KTV karaoke late nights. There was Olu (the Nigerian teacher) dancing enthusiastically to Britney Spears. There was Piet (the Irish guy) and Colin (the Canadian guy) singing a duet of "House of the Rising Sun." There was Jason, the American guy, in a corner drunkenly declaring his undying love to Vivian, the Mary Kay girl. There was Patrick, Jeff's liason, and Kogi, the Japanese teacher, doing shots of sake together. There were two random fireworks clients, big burly Italian men, who were taking it all in with bewildered expressions, listening to some of the guys describing certain back alley "services" and special "massage parlors" available to them. There were random Chinese people there: Success and Jennifer and Owen and Michael, all eating sunflower seeds and drinking orange juice and giggling when their favorite Chinese pop songs started playing. Sometimes, you just can't help but laugh.

Wednesday marked the end of Spring Festival and the city turned into a war zone of thunder and light. Twelve remarkable hours of non-stop pyrotechnics, which started at 3pm and ended around 3am. The air was so cloudy from smoke that I could barely see where I was walking, and the streets ran red with the tattered wrappers of exploded fireworks. This is what it's like to live in the city of Liuyang...really, really loud and really, really crazy.
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